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He could always tell when he hadn't had enough to drink. It always showed up in his...well. His nightmares, he supposed, though he never remembered them later. It showed in the way he woke up, the burn in his throat that meant he'd been screaming. The sweat soaking through his skin, stinking him up worse than he was when he went to sleep. The echoes of sounds, voices that he hadn't heard in years. The way the other blokes sleeping rough near him would grumble, throw things once he was awake. They knew better than to wake him up by now – he lashed out, he'd hurt a few people – but that didn't stop them grousing once he was awake.

They were sporadic, the dreams. He never remembered them, but the things he thought about a lot in the days following told him what he'd dreamed about. And they only came when he didn't manage to numb himself up enough.

Numbness came from drink.

Greg Lestrade wasn't a total sot, but for days following his dreams he came bloody close to it.

He wasn't a bum, either, despite the names that got called at him when he walked down a street. He had a place, a council flat in a building full of busted-up old vets like him. Most of the time he didn't use it, but he had it. He had a real address and a pension from the government and to hell with anyone who pretended to know who he was just by watching him heave his duffel on his back after catching a few hours sleep in the park of an afternoon.

Wasn't much of a life, maybe. Wasn't what he imagined for himself a thousand years ago when he joined up and put on his uniform and went out to fight for queen and country. But it was his life, and fuck anyone who tried to make him feel like nothing for it.

He had nightmares, and maybe a bit of a drinking problem, and filthy clothes and dried sweat on his skin, but he also had pride. God and country had thrown him away, but he wasn't trash. He simply wanted nothing to do with god or crown or country. Not anymore.


 

It was two days since the shadow of another nightmare fell on him, and that meant he was pretty well soused when he saw the the cab. Whatever, it was no business of his. He had a dry corner on a quiet street away from tourists and bastard chavs with their laughing curses and their kicking feet. He was set up for the night – cardboard on the ground to stop the chill, sleeping bag on top of the cardboard, and a few bags of garbage hauled into his corner from the bins along the street. The trash would block some of the chill, and it might keep him private if people did start coming by. All the houses around there were boarded up, and though it was quiet when he lay down it wouldn't be quiet all night.

It was late in the afternoon and he was halfway through a half of crap whiskey when the cab stopped across the street. He squinted out from his warm bags of trash and checked to make sure it wasn't a load of kids come to fuck around in one of the buildings near him. Not that he'd've been able to do anything about it, but if he wasn't going to get any sleep he wanted to know it.

When he saw it was a cab he laid back on his folded-up jacket. A taxi was a weird thing to spot in that part of town at that time of night, though, so after a few seconds he hitched up on an elbow and shifted one of the bags to see what was going on.

Pink. All he saw was pink, this insane neon coat and shoes getting out from the taxi. Nobody who wore that colour belonged there in that neighbourhood, that was certain. Greg watched the woman, blonde, young. She got out of the cab and stood there, on his side of the car. The front door by the pavement opened, and the cabbie himself stepped out.

Greg squinted out at them. The cabbie spoke to the woman, his voice just a murmur from where Greg sat, and the woman said something in return. A bit louder, a bit unsteady. She sounded scared.

The cabbie came around the car and took hold of her arm. Greg almost sat up, but then the grip didn't seem all that violent. Just insistent. He spoke again, his voice a soothing low drone, and after a moment the woman let her lead him around the car and to a boarded-up old hotel a few buildings down from where he was parked. She seemed to be dragging her feet a bit, but from what Greg could tell the bloke wasn't forcing her to move.

Bit weird, all that.

He settled back down after a few ticks, taking a swallow from the plastic flask of whiskey.

None of his business. That was the rule on the street. Greg wasn't homeless (technically), wasn't a sot (usually), but he knew the rules all the same. He was out there enough. You minded your own business, or it came back on you hard. Simple as that. It wasn't how Greg would've done things once upon a time, but life was what it was.

Besides, he'd seen worse things. For all he knew they were a married couple wanting to get their kicks on the scum side of the city. Maybe they were married to other people and having it off in secret. None of his business. He had a half of whiskey to finish before he went to sleep.


 

He didn't see the cabbie leave. What woke him up was the sirens.

 


  

“Christ.”

Sally Donovan nodded her agreement as she stepped out of the way so the CSOs could get a picture of the empty pill bottle she'd just pointed them towards. “Guess that's it, then.”

John Watson grimaced in answer, rubbing his temple with gloved fingers. He was already ready for this night to be over, and now it was never going to end.

Fourth one. Christ, and it was only a week since the third one had been found. The press was going to be an utter nightmare...and it only proved how bolloxed up this case was that his first thought was to the press reaction. Dead woman laying in front of him clad in a horrid shade of pink and he was worried about the papers.

It was the absolute worst part of the job, getting somewhere too late. John had gone into the police out of a desire to help people, but too many times since he moved to CID he never got a chance. They called him when it was too late, when the deed was done. It worse him down, and on high-profile cases like this it was already too easy to forget why he ever wanted to do this job.

He was meant to be a doctor. That's what he thought most of his life, glued to medical films and episodes of Casualty on BBC One. He wanted to save people, to stride into a room all confident and scrubbed-up and walk out again a hero. He liked the idea of it, and liked even more that his parents thought it was brilliant. Right around the time his sister Harry started messing about with alcohol and other girls, John was talking about medical school and finally becoming the one his parents looked at in pride.

He was only a few months into his first year in medicine when Harry got hurt. A whole pack of pissed chavs from an estate near her flat had jumped her and her girlfriend as they walked home from a bar. They hurt them both, badly, and John learned two very important things that night. One, that Harry being with girls wasn't some rebellion to lash out at their parents. It was real, it was who Harry was, and it was dangerous, especially back then.

And two, that the doctors who patched Harry and Clara up had been good people, but healing their bodies wasn't even half the battle. The people who did Harry the most good, the ones who led to her being able to sleep through a night again, where the coppers who showed up at the hospital, and then at her flat, and finally in court. They hunted the bastards who hurt her, they caught them, and they made sure they went to prison for it.

It was the coppers who John couldn't stop thinking about. They helped Harry and Clara, and they helped every other person who might've been injured by those gang-banger gits if they hadn't been caught. That was being a hero, and that was what John Watson wanted.

But it was hard to remember those early days now. Ever since moving up to DI, half his days had become paperwork and politics with the DCI and Chief Super, talking to reporters, negotiating with his team about bureaucratic rubbish. Everything but getting out there and catching criminals. When they did take calls, they were murders more often than not. Even when he caught the killer – and they did, more often than not, he was good and his team was great – there was no one to save. No one whose life he could make better.

Now he had a bloody serial killer on his hands. Serial suicide, the Press Officer kept saying. Call them suicides, avoid an uproar. And he did, on camera, but he knew better. No such thing as serial suicide, was there. There were trends, fads, but nothing this similar, and for these disparate kinds of victims.

“Got a wallet,” one of the CSOs called out, standing off away from the body near where the pill bottle was found.

John nodded Donovan over to it, keeping his eyes on the first thing about the scene that had caught their attention (well, the second thing after all that bloody pink):

RACHE.

A note, or close enough to one. Something new, something off. Maybe the pill hadn't kicked in fast enough. Maybe whoever gave her that pill had left the scene too fast and didn't watch to make sure she died calmly.

Number four. Christ in heaven.

“Jennifer Wilson,” Donovan read as she headed over, bringing the already-photographed wallet around the body towards John. “Cash and credit cards, no ID. Same as the rest.”

John frowned at her, at that bright pink wallet in her gloved hands. He looked back at the body, unmoved on her back, her hand splayed out by the last letter she had managed to carve into the floor with broken pink fingernails.

“D'you think there's something to it?”

John glanced back at Sally.

She was looking at the floor, at the RACHE. “Rachel, maybe? D'you think that's who did her? It might actually be a woman doing this.”

John said the only thing he was feeling at all certain about: “I'm going to have to call him.”

Sally looked over. “Call...” Her face fell, her eyes darkened. “No. No, no. No, John, come on, we're doing fine.”

He shot her a look, eyebrows raised. They were not doing fine. They were doing their job and doing it well, but barring a miracle of physical evidence they also had nothing to go on. Four bodies, no clues, a press mad for a headline and a city that loved to fear a killer.

When he had no time to waste and no clues to go on, that meant it was time to make a very, very reluctant phone call.

John sighed and turned to go down the stairs of that dilapidated old building, somewhere where he could beg for help without an audience.

Sally's last desperate, “Come on, we can find this guy on our own!” went all but unheard.

Something else did get his attention, though, even as he pulled out his mobile and thought about how he wanted to tackle the phone call.

“Oi, somebody shout for the inspector! Got something he might want to...keep still, you!”

John hurried down, stuffing his phone back in his pocket as he past the scurry of uniformed constables working on the scene downstairs. He went through the door, out into the siren-coloured lights of the street outside.

A constable he didn't know was waving towards him. He had a tight grasp on the arm of a man, dirty and unkempt. Squatter in one of the houses, maybe.

John approached quickly, disapproving silently of the way the constable's fingers dug into the poor bloke's arm. Man looked like he was ready to fall over as it was. “What's going on here, then?” he asked, his eyes on the squatter.

“He says he seen something. I says he smells like a pub floor after the League Cup. Wouldn't be surprised if he thinks he spotted Jesus the Christ Himself.”

The man, squatter or homeless, was an older chap with filthy greying hair and bleary eyes. He did look a bit in the wind, but his eyes went to the constable in sharp anger. He had his wits, then, though John couldn't argue with the assessment of how he smelled.

John just sighed. A good witness was too much to hope for: a drunk homeless wouldn't last a minute in a court, but he was out of options.

Well. Almost out of options. But he really didn't want to make that phone call.

“Let's have it.”

The homeless man yanked his arm away from the constable, who flashed a toothy look that was more snarl than smile. A warning, like he was just hoping to end his night putting some sad old drunk in the back of a wagon.

The eyes that turned on John were dark brown, red-rimmed from drink but clear and intelligent. “A woman,” he said, his voice a rough growl with touches of some village off east in it. “She went in with a bloke, a cabbie.”

“A cabbie,” the constable snorted. “How d'you know he was--”

“Because they came in a cab,” the man answered through his teeth, eyes not leaving John.

“And tell the Detective Inspector when this happened,” the constable answered, grin in his voice.

At that the man's eyes wavered. “Not sure. Just getting dark out, anyway. I was...I fell asleep.”

“Passed out from drink, didn't you? Wasting our time, miserable sot. You think a cabbie's going to make a stop in this neighbourhood? Your mind's pickled, you need to go--”

“You smirky little shit,” the man snarled suddenly, turning on the constable. “You don't know the first thing about me!”

“All right, all right.” John stepped up to them, placating, his hands up and his voice low.

His phone decided to take that very moment to ring. John tugged it out of his pocket and his mouth twitched unconsciously at the name on the display. Should have known.

“All right, constable, easy does it now. Just hold on a tick and we'll take a formal statement from the gentleman, and--”

The word 'gentleman' caused an unpleasant snort from the constable. John frowned at him, but turned his back before he had to witness any more bickering.

He answered the call. “I take it you've seen--”

You have a fourth,” came that low, precise voice instantly.

John sighed. “Yeah, and a few details are off. I was going to call you.”

Of course you were. You should have done sooner.”

He had to stop himself from bristling. He knew Mycroft Holmes better than anyone else at the Yard, but sometimes he wanted to punch the man just as badly as any of his team. That smug drawling voice didn't help matters much.

“Can you come down here?” he asked, knowing he was wasting his breath.

Don't be absurd. You may come here when you're done. Anthea will know to expect you.”

John was really having to fight to contain a migraine. “Mycroft. I'm going to be stuck out here all bloody night as it is, I can't--”

“--fucking smart-arsed boy, do you know what I was doing when you were still in your bloody nappies?”

John turned fast. “Hang on, Mycroft.” He shot over to the constable and the possible witness, getting between them just as the constable started to raise an arm. “Right, I said easy does it, constable. You call this--”

“He bloody well passed out on his feet! Got his stink all over my bloody uniform!”

“To hell with you,” the man snarled, shoving away from both of them and staggering a bit as he went to the curb. “Didn't have to say anything, did I? Could've stayed back and watched you shits wasting your time with the fucking pink lady, couldn't I?”

Watson? Is that a witness? What sort of circus are you running over there?”

“Oi, wait!” John glared at the constable as he passed, heading after the drunk as he stumbled off the curb. “Did you say pink lady?”

“Hell with you,” the man answered, moving forward.

Is that relevant?” Mycroft asked in John's ear. “Pink?”

“Yes,” John hissed into the phone as he reached out and grasped the man's shoulder. “Hold on, you!”

Give the phone to him,” Mycroft commanded sharply.

John hesitated even as the man shrugged off his hand and trudged on. “What?”

Mycroft sighed into the phone. “Hand your telephone to the witness, Watson.”

Christ, he'd lost control of his crime scene. If he ever had it: tough call when Mycroft was involved. John quickly caught up to the man, moving around in front of him instead of grabbing him again.

The man slowed to a stop and glared.

John held out his phone and tried not to feel like a tit.

The man blinked owlish eyes at him, looking down at the phone. He reached out with a shaking hand and took it, bringing it to his ear as if he expected it to explode.

John could hear Mycroft, the precise clip of his voice, though he couldn't make out any words. The homeless man listened for a moment, his temple developing a deep furrow, and then he blinked and looked down at the phone. He held it out again.

John took it, seeing with a repressed scream that Mycroft had hung up.

“The hell was that?” the man asked.

John nodded. That was the general reaction to Mycroft Holmes. He shoved his phone in his pocket and met the man's eyes. “Look, I'm sorry if the constable was being a little disrespectful. Would you make a statement about what you saw? We really could use the help, sir.” He stuck out his hand. “Detective Inspector John Watson.”

The man eyed him warily. “Lestrade. Greg.”

“Mr. Lestrade, then.” John smiled, trying for warm though as irritated as he felt there was no telling how sincere it looked. “Just come over here and give your story to a constable – a different constable,” he added fast when Lestrade's eyes darkened. “I'll slip you a few quid for your trouble, yeah?”

Lestrade's chin lifted and his mouth pressed together tight, but he didn't brush off the offer. He locked eyes on John for a moment, and John had the odd sense that he was being tested.

But those dark eyes lowered after a moment, and Greg looked down at himself, the stained, ill-fitted clothes and jacket that had a bottle sticking out of the pocket. “I'm not just this, you know.” His voice was proud, though his gaze had lowered.

John nodded, clapping him on the arm lightly even as he promised himself he'd make some serious trouble for that bloody constable. “Nobody is. We're the ones who need your help, Mr. Lestrade. I'm asking.”

After a moment Greg shuffled around, heading back towards the bustle of coppers. John couldn't help a small sigh of relief as he followed.


 

Greg slumped against a police car, hunching in on himself the more the crowd seemed to grow around him. Coppers everywhere, but unlike a lot of blokes he met on the street Greg didn't have anything against coppers. Except the arseholes, of which there were many. There were also a few spectators gathering off to the side, and Greg ducked down to hide his face as much as he could. Didn't want to get some reputation for helping the fuzz, no matter his own opinions about them.

That shit young constable had gone into the building, and the DI who talked him into coming back had come in and out a few times. Statement, he said, but there Greg was left by the cop car, no one asking him anything.

When he saw a dark car pull up outside the lines of police cars he straightened a bit, wondering.

That strange bloke on the phone told Greg he was sending a car to collect him. In fact, that was all he said. Greg figured the guy must be the fuzz, since that DI was the one talking to him. Maybe the car was to take him somewhere to give his statement.

Whatever. Disorganised chaos, people standing without orders. Never would've happened in the army. No one was paying Greg any attention, and the faces peering from the shadows were looking at him more and more, and finally he budged up off the cop car and headed back to the crowd of people, and to the dark car beyond.

Fancy wheels, some sort of town car with black windows. Never seen coppers driving around in something so posh, but as Greg approached the back door opened and a woman got out, peering at him dubiously. Familiar up-and-down sweep of the eyes and wrinkling of the nose. Greg got it all the time. Shame, too, she was a good-looking bird.

“You here to collect me?” he asked as he came up, shrugging his jacket higher up on his shoulders.

The woman contained some kind of reaction – he could imagine it easily enough anyway – and simply held the door open for him.

Greg was starting to get a weird feeling about all this, but what the hell. Might be his only chance to ride around in a fancy car for a while. Besides, no one sent town cars to murder down-on-their-luck army vets.

When the lady got back into the car it started moving without anyone saying anything.

Greg peered out the darkened window as they left the lights and sirens behind. He spotted that DI, Watson, back over at the car Greg had been standing at, looking around like he was worried. Looking for Greg, maybe, a bit too late. He couldn't bring himself to worry about it – the inside of the car was warm enough to seep into his bones, and that was what he wanted to focus on.

As the police cars' lights faded back Greg relaxed, sitting against the leather seat and scoping out the inside of the car. He glanced over at the woman, but she was tapping away on her phone and paying no attention.

It was easier to smell himself inside the closed back seat of the car, and Greg grimaced at the idea. Maybe it was time to head back to the flat for a shower and a change of clothes. Sometimes he let it go too long. Hard to keep track, especially during bad patches when the nightmares came and the drink called to him.

“So where are we going?” he asked into the silence.

She looked over at him, gave something like a smile, and turned back to her phone silently.

It was like that, then. Greg sat back and looked out towards the street again, resisting the urge to pull out his bottle and drown out the feeling of uncertainty.


 

They didn't drive as far as he thought they might. Didn't even seem to leave Lambeth, though where they stopped was a world away from that dingy Brixton street. They were within spitting distance of the Thames, the Eye twinkling from about as close up as Greg had ever bothered to see it. Somewhere on the South Bank, then, on a gentrified street crowded with fancy shops and cafés.

It only confirmed that wherever he was going had nothing to do with the coppers.

The car pulled to the side and the woman beside Greg simply lowered the phone she'd been tapping away at for ten minutes and opened the door, climbing out and standing there.

Greg scooted over towards the open door but hesitated. He wasn't sure what time it was; the streets weren't crowded, but he hated these kinds of neighbourhoods. He was always too bloody aware of himself in nice places.

“Come along,” the woman said, her tone brisk.

Greg grimaced but climbed out of the car, bidding a fond farewell to leather seats and warmth. He followed as the woman headed down the path only a few feet, then turned and moved to the doorway of a building that stood between two fancy little shops that probably sold gourmet rubbish for a thousand quid a go. The woman paused there by the door to the unmarked, plain stone building.

Movement caught his eye and he looked up to see a security camera overhead. As he watched it tilted down to the woman and then up, seeming to stop right on Greg himself. He was caught between wanting to flush and straighten himself out a bit and wanting to pull a stupid face. He felt seriously out of his depth, though, so he didn't do either.

After a moment there was a click, and the woman pushed the door open. She held it for Greg, who scowled at her on principle more than anything else. He passed her, and she raised her phone back up to her face and tapped away again as soon as they were inside.

“Upstairs,” she said, barely nodding towards a narrow staircase. Eyes on her phone, she moved past the staircase and down a dark hall. He could barely hear the sound of a door opening and shutting.

Greg stood there for a moment, left apparently to his own devices. He shoved his hands in his jacket pockets, feeling the comforting cool plastic of the mostly empty whiskey bottle. Would've been a mistake to take a drink, probably, but just remembering it was there made him feel better.

He moved up the stairs. They were dark, polished wood, and the lighting was shit but the walls were also some dark colour, maybe maroon. No art on the walls or anything, but the railing of the staircase was carved wood, more ornate than practical, and he didn't even want to touch it. He followed the stairs up and around, and at the top of the staircase was another door, with another camera moving about overhead.

Paranoid lot, this. Greg peered up at the camera, which whirred as it moved to see him, and then sat still for a few seconds as if in judgement. Finally came a soft click, and a voice overhead spoke coolly from some invisible speaker.

“Don't touch anything.”

Greg's spine stiffened but he moved through the door, already set to resent whoever the hell was leading him through all this ridiculous secretive rubbish.

The room inside was surprising. It was...well, just a flat, basically, though a nicer one than any Greg'd ever lived in. It was a wide open space, a bit sterile, and so large that he figured it had to extend over the shops alongside it down the row.

There was a kitchen set out in the corner without walls separating it, though the floor went from that dark wood to a grey tile that was probably marble. Nice furniture, or so he guessed. Couch, armchairs, fireplace, bookcases, a little bar in the corner. It all had that stiff and unusable look that might've been from a magazine. Posh and pointless.

There was a door standing open past the couch and the fireplace, and a voice called out from there. “Hurry up, you. And don't touch anything.”

“Heard you the first time.” Greg frowned and shuffled forward, looking down reflexively to see if his shoes were tracking in anything. Luckily London had been dry for a couple of days, and he didn't seem to be corrupting the wood with his filth or whatever.

He moved through the doorway, looking around in vague interest.

“Stop! Stop there. God, you would have to be disgusting, wouldn't you?”

Any other time he might have bristled and aimed a few profanities at the speaker, but he was too busy being startled by the room itself. It seemed to be an oversized office, a large dark desk overlooking a wall of what seemed to be television screens, or computer monitors. There were two computers on the desk and a laptop set between them, and every screen was showing something different. Some of them seemed to be on websites or search pages, and some were flashing images like recordings, some grainy and black and white, some in colour.

At the desk sat a man, the one barking orders at him. He was thin, seemed tall the way he sat there all stiff-spined, wearing a fancy suit as if he were in an office and not in...well, whatever this place was, whatever hour it was at. Thin ginger hair, stern set to his features. Bit of a beak on him. Prim and cold looking.

Greg was torn between trying to figure out what was moving across those screens and returning the bloke's stare. He finally told himself to focus, meeting the man's gaze. Blue eyes, which fit the coldness.

The man swept his eyes up and down Greg, once and again, but whatever he saw he didn't seem to react to. Didn't have to, really: call Greg disgusting once and he got the point.

“Tell me what you saw,” the man said finally, sitting back in what appeared to be a banker's chair, leather and plush and shiny.

Greg frowned, but the last time he'd been anybody he'd been a soldier, and he was used to making reports. “Like I was trying to tell the coppers, this lady pulled up in a cab and got out with the cabbie. I thought--”

“Cabbie. Of course, should have guessed. How very obvious. No wonder he can move about in all sides of town and never be spotted.” The man turned to one of his fancy computers and started typing. “What sort of cab?”

“Wha...I dunno, didn't get the bloody tag number. It was black, just looked like one of the big company ones.”

“But could be privately owned, perhaps. Maybe a working cabbie, maybe he simply fixed up his own car to...no, he wouldn't risk a police search, he'd be licensed.” The bloke's thin, pale fingers were rattling over the keyboard faster than Greg could keep up with. He glanced over as some of the screens on the opposite wall started changing. Maps, it looked like. London streets, four different screens. Another screen was on a search page, going through cab companies in London.

“Even if licensed, he might or might not actually be working a shift. Have to get every employee of every company with cars that might fit. Too many names. What did he look like?”

It took Greg a moment to hear the question in the mumblings. “Er, didn't get a good look.”

The man's hands stilled and his eyes swept over to Greg. He lofted thin eyebrows and simply looked at him.

Greg found himself getting warm under that look, embarrassed. He wanted to mutter about doing the coppers' jobs for them, but instead he found himself thinking back, trying to remember.

“He was kinda dumpy, I guess. Shorter than her. Caught the light funny, maybe wearing glasses? And he had one of those hats on, one of those...you know. Cabbie hats.”

The man's lips pressed together but he pressed a few buttons on the keyboard. “A flat cap.” He glanced towards his wall of screens.

Greg looked over and saw a whole screen filled with pictures of those hats. He shrugged. “Yeah, like that.”

“Better.” The man's focus went back to the screen, typing madly.

Greg stood there, resisting the urge to grab his bottle, or scratch at his neck, or fidget around. Wasn't like he was scared of some scarecrow git in a room full of screens...but he wasn't all that eager to earn another one of those looks, either.

“I need to get a look at the body,” the man said suddenly, and then his hands were still and his eyes were back on Greg.

Greg just snorted. “Don't look at me, mate, they don't let blokes like me hang around crime scenes. Not without arresting us.”

“Blokes like you,” the man repeated, his precise voice clipping the first word oddly. “And what sort of bloke are you.”

It didn't see to be a question. Greg stood there, shoulders squared, fighting the urge to fidget.

The man nodded after a moment, as if he'd made a full assessment somehow. “You're going back to the crime scene. I need to get a look and Watson is being an idiot. You don't have a phone, of course. Here.” A slim hand slipped into a desk drawer and tossed something straight at Greg.

Greg caught it, scowling at the smooth black screen of a fancy smart phone. “Right, look, I don't know who you--”

“I need to see the body, and the street outside. I need to see the view from where you were when you spotted them, and I need to see the floor underneath the body. Understood?”

Greg's jaw tightened. “That's your fancy car out front? I guess you need to get off your arse and go down there yourself. They won't let me—”

“They will when you give them my name. Watson is stubborn but he's also desperate.” The man hesitated for a moment, his gaze sweeping up and down Greg again. “Homeless. No, wait. Not homeless. But you don't sleep there. Why not?”

It was too much. Greg just stood there, shaking his head, holding that phone out like he expected someone to come along and pluck it out of his hand. “Christ, mate, I can't follow a bloody word you're saying.”

The man sighed, small and contained. “You have a flat, probably a council flat, or at least a room in a hostel. But you don't sleep there. Why not?”

Greg frowned. “How d'you know all that, then?”

“Why not?” he asked again.

“The hell business is it of yours?”

Silence. Those cool blue eyes regarded him without moving. It was as if he were a robot, and until Greg delivered the proper password he was stuck waiting for a command.

Greg still didn't fidget. He lifted his chin a bit. “Council won't give rooms to people who need them more than I do. Illegals, or people new kicked out of their homes. Families, sometimes.”

“You sleep on the pavement and let others stay in your assigned room.” His head tilted. “Why?”

Greg shrugged. “Right thing to do.”

A puff of air came out of the man. “Nonsense. The right thing is not the done thing.”

“Not always, maybe.”

“Not ever. Or so rarely that it's not worth mentioning. Do you charge them?”

Greg's eyes narrowed. “If they had money they wouldn't need the room, would they? And I'm dying to know what it's got to do with you.”

“If you're to stay here I need to know your mettle, don't I?” the man answered calmly. He studied Greg as if instantly re-evaluating his own words. “Yes. You'll do. After a bath, at any rate. I'd say we should burn your clothes but god knows what sort of toxins that would put into the air. They'll simply have to be replaced. Talk to Anthea on the way out.”

“Stay...right, this is mad.” Greg marched up to the desk, ignoring the dramatic way His Highness reared back and covered his nose as Greg approached. “Take your phone, take your stupid questions, and bugger off.”

“You need the phone,” he answered from behind his hand. “Otherwise you can't show me the crime scene.”

“You go to the bloody crime scene yourself!” Greg slapped the phone on the desk and turned, marching back towards the door.

“I can't.”

“Why not?” he sent back over his shoulder.

There was a pause.

Greg reached the doorway again, but hesitated. He looked back at the bloke.

The man's eyes were back on his screens. He pressed a few buttons on the keyboard and the hats vanished off the screen. “I prefer not to be out there,” he said after a moment, his voice calm though the lengthy pause rather gave him away.

There was something in the way he wouldn't look at Greg, in the slight slump of those proud shoulders, that almost seemed familiar to Greg. Like the flickers of shame that Greg himself felt at times but would be damned if he'd give away to the people causing it.

The man looked over at him, and in a flash the tinge of embarrassment had shifted into imperiousness. “I don't do legwork. It's tedious and dirty, and I can do much more from right here than I can out there. That's why you're going to go for me. And why you'll continue to go for me as long as Watson keeps up this ridiculous game of trying to make me come to him instead of bringing the details here to me.”

Greg turned back to him, arms folding over his chest. It was stupid, no doubt, but that one moment of vulnerability had struck something in him and he couldn't help but consider the mad ideas the bloke was spouting out.

“You want to, what, hire me?”

“Is that how we need to proceed?”

Greg shook his head, baffled by the whole bloody night. “That's not how things work, mate. A posh bloke like you in a fancy place like this doesn't bring a stranger who looks like me into his house. I was a witness, fine, but I told you what you wanted and now we're done, okay?”

“It has to be a stranger,” came the answer, spoken fast but quiet. “That's the only way I know you haven't been corrupted yet. Besides, I know more than enough about you to make a beginning.”

“Corrupted?” Greg studied him. “Are you mental? Seriously?”

The man straightened, his cool eyes going ice cold. “No.”

Sore spot. Well, given his weird 1984 room of screens and his talk, Greg wasn't surprised other people thought he was mad.

“You still don't know anything about me.”

A pause, a sweep of those cool eyes. A sigh of air. “You grew up split between Essex and Somerset. Not a brilliant student, you barely tolerated school and joined the British Army as early as possible. Sixteen, if you could talk your parents into it. No, orphaned, hence the move to Essex as a boy. Eighteen, then. You served in Iraq, reached a position of some authority, and fell into some kind of disaster. Men were killed. You were injured. Your arm. Shoulder. Drummed out of the service after your injury, given a pension. Had a wife: she deserted you while you were still serving, you discovered it upon your return. A troubling bout of post-traumatic stress disorder, which you still suffer from, exacerbated by am unstable life on the street and a reliance on alcohol.”

Greg's mouth had dropped open somewhere after 'Somerset', and he felt himself getting short of breath the more the man went on. Cold seeped up the back of him, tracing his spine and setting his shoulders back. He swallowed, so torn between confusion and rage that he was stuck feeling blank.

“How do you even know who I am?” he asked through his teeth.

The man waved a graceful hand. “I have no idea who you are. I only know what you are. It's written all over you.”

“How?”

“This is wasting time, you realise.”

Greg met his eyes, fisting his hands to keep from marching over there and hauling the git up by his starched collar. “How?" 

The man sat back. “Your origins are in your accent, the west and the east combined, with some allowances for Army years and London muddling things up. Ridiculously easy, a fool could guess it. You were a mediocre student because, frankly, you aren't particularly bright, and your lack of intellectual curiosity about your current surroundings is astounding. The Army history is all over your body, the way you stood almost at attention while telling me your account of the evening. The way you stand even now, thumbs lined up against the seams of your...well, I suppose they were once slacks. An Army hero returning home to sleep on the streets obviously has no family to return to. Were they alive in some other location you might still be in a council flat, but you would be sleeping in it yourself out of guilt for their worrying and your not being with them. You've a strong moral sensibility, allowing others a roof that you yourself need, so you're not on the street out of spite, you simply have no one to go to. No siblings, no parents, no extended family. Your matrimonial history shows on your finger. You wore the ring in the desert as you served, but you haven't worn it in the last few years. The English sun isn't filling up the tan line fast enough, so it's still patently obvious. Her cheating is perhaps not the only possible explanation for the divorce, but it's the most likely one. You left her in the end, and it would have had to have been for drastic reasons. She made the decision yours, because even a woman who would cheat on a husband in service would be hesitant to leave him when he's home injured and suffering the loss of friends. Or so I'm lead to believe. Morals are such funny things, don't you think?”

He went on without waiting for an answer. “You are still young enough and fit enough to work, with at least some sense of integrity, but you're living off a pension in a council flat. You don't have a job, then, because you can't. Or couldn't at one point, and have since given up the idea entirely. That points to some lasting disorder, and PTSD is the most likely. You don't sleep regularly, you don't eat regularly. You drink – the evidence of that is hanging out of your pocket, it was hardly a leap – but you will not drink yourself to death. You have hollow eyes but you lack the anaemia of a true alcoholic. No, you drink in spells, to forget your past when it comes close enough to haunt you.”

Greg's hands were shaking at his sides, though he wasn't sure if it was anger, the drink, or just how tightly he was clenching his fists together.

The man smiled, small and cool. “You will help me, because what you need more than drink or even a good night's rest is a purpose. I can give you that.”

He wanted to argue. He wanted to slam the door in the man's face and spend the last of the month's money on another bottle of whiskey to forget about this whole wretched evening.

But Greg for all his bad qualities was not deluded, and though he wanted to rage at the man, he had to admit that everything he said was dead on. The man shouldn't have known those things, and he shouldn't have rubbed them in Greg's face either way, but that didn't mean they were wrong.

He realised he was still standing almost at attention. Trying to loosen his shoulders, he swallowed past a lump in his throat. “I have tried to look for work.” Not hard, though. And not often.

The man smiled, formal and distant, as if he heard the thoughts as loud as the words. “And now you've found it. Well done.”

He frowned. “What d'you expect me to do, exactly?”

“I expect you to go where I tell you and do as I ask.”

“Bit vague, thanks. And what do I get in exchange? Can't feed myself with 'purpose', can I?”

A faint smile seemed to touch the man's mouth, but it was gone again fast. He wasn't a man who smiled a lot, Greg was willing to bet. But hell, neither was Greg those days.

“You will stay here. I'll need to use your services at odd hours, no doubt, so you will have to be available to me. Food will be provided – there are people who do my shopping, they will also provide you with attire that doesn't appear to have been taken from the reject pile of a charity shop.”

“Oi,” Greg said.

The man shot him a look, one eyebrow cocked high.

Greg looked down at himself, then back up. “Okay, fair enough. Keep going.”

Another almost-smile. “I shall pay all expenses while you're working on errands for me. A salary can be arranged that is at least the equal of your pittance of a pension. Anything else can be negotiated when it comes up. Now we truly are wasting valuable time, so if we can call that settled...?”

He seemed to be serious. That was the damnedest part of the whole business. This man with his cool demeanour and his fancy voice and his ginger hair and thousand monitors and screens seemed to actually be saying that thanks to a random coincidence spotting a cab driver Greg was suddenly going to move in to a fancy South Bank flat and earn a living following the whims of a crazy person.

Something occurred to him then, and he studied the man. “Is there supposed to be sex included in all this?”

Instantly the man's cool, icy demeanour seemed to desert him. His pale, freckled skin went bright red all at once, and his mouth opened and shut as his eyes darted away from Greg entirely. “Pardon me?”

Greg wanted to laugh. And, what the hell, the evening was some kind of surrealist rubbish, so fine, he went ahead and laughed. “You heard me. Hiring a bloke to stay at your home and do anything you ask him to...it's got to be asked.”

“It most certainly does not have to be asked! I have no intention...there is nothing...for god's sake, sir!”

Greg couldn't help himself – he laughed at that, that prissy, ineloquent answer, harder than he'd laughed at anything in ages. Maybe the absurdity of the night was getting to him. Maybe having his entire life picked apart under the cool gaze of a man whose name he didn't even know had loosened some of the screws in his head.

Maybe the man being so sincerely flustered simply made him more human, less scary. A man who couldn't handle a forthright yes or no question about sex was hardly a dangerous man, chances said.

He decided quickly that he rather liked being able to throw this strange man in his strange room off his balance. He grinned, and it felt strange on his face. “Too bad, really. I used to go for you posh types back when I was still a person.”

The man's fluster died down and his head tilted to the side. His face lost a little of the fierce red, though not all of it. “Well, what are you now if not a person?”

Greg shrugged. “If you haven't been there, it's impossible to explain.”

The man's eyes locked on him then, narrowing in that same searching way he'd swept Greg with right before spouting out details about his past as if they'd been pen-pals since they were lads. He nodded after a moment. “Perhaps I do...” He waved a hand suddenly. “Enough, there is a corpse cooling in Brixton and I need information.” He reached over and picked up the phone, holding it out. “Yes or no, Mister...?”

Greg snorted but moved back to the desk, taking the phone. “Can't tell my name from my trainers or what? Greg Lestrade.”

Those blue eyes narrowed for a brief moment, as if there was additional knowledge that came from just Greg's name. He stood up behind his desk. “A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Lestrade. I am Mycroft Holmes. Perhaps when the errands of the day are done and you have had a chance to bathe yourself I might extend a hand to shake.”

Greg shook his head, somehow unable to lose his smirk. “I'll be breathless with anticipation until then, Mr. Holmes. Now, what exactly is it that you want me to do?”


 

“You are not going to believe this,” Sally said as she led John downstairs and out to the street. It was the only warning he got.

For a moment he was relieved – he thought Lestrade had run off, got impatient or had second thoughts. But there he was, hanging around on the outside of the police tape, waiting. He was holding something in his hand.

John's phone rang even as he approached, and he slowed as he saw Mycroft on the display. “Mycroft. Are you coming out-”

Your people are wasting my time, Watson. Let my man through or I shall lose all interest in this entire matter.”

“Your man? Who exactly is your...” John trailed off, looking at Lestrade. Lestrade, who had spoken to Mycroft via phone and then vanished for an hour. Who now stood there in his rags aiming a fancy smart phone around at the scene. “Oh God. What is this now?”

It's quite simple. Since you don't want to bring the crimes to me, I had to find a way to get the information. You provided the means yourself. Should he prove to be a useful employee I'll even thank you for it.”

“You'll forgive me if I don't hold my breath.” John reached the police tape and pulled it up, nodding at Lestrade to come through but grabbing his arm and steering him off to the side instantly. “I can not allow this, Mycroft. The few times I let you onto a scene was bad enough. Bringing evidence and photos to your flat was almost worse. But this...”

Simply the next logical progression. Do us all a favour and accept it quickly, before your inept crime scene officers ruin whatever clues there are to be gained from that corpse upstairs.”

John shook his head, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. When he looked up again he saw that Lestrade had the phone aimed right at him. He had to fight to resist throwing up a two-fingered salute, knowing Mycroft was on the other side of the video feed.

Lestrade flashed a wry smile, seeming to understand his reaction. And if the poor man had just had an in-person meeting with Mycroft Holmes for the first time, no doubt he fully understood.

It's very simple, Inspector: either you need my help or you don't.”

John lowered the phone for a moment, breathing deep to calm himself. The worst part was that there was a very easy answer to that. Of course they needed Mycroft. He saw things, fast, things no one else could see. That was what John had to have. Fast answers so that no one else would die.

That was the heart of working with Mycroft Holmes. Priorities. Sally Donovan and Anderson and the whole lot of officers who hated dealing with Mycroft, they resented his input even when it was always right. When they caught a killer they weren't happy, because they themselves hadn't pointed the way to catching him.

John had a clearer sense of the world than that. Catching them was his job, was the part of the job that mattered. Who caught them, or how they found them, those were minor details. Unimportant comparatively. A crime solved with Mycroft's help was a crime solved, end of discussion.

Four bodies, a city beginning to panic. This crime needed solved, and needed it now.

He hung up the call with Mycroft, knowing the mad bastard's eyes would still be on him either way. Someday this was going to cost John his career. He knew it, he was confident in that. But until then there was a killer to catch.

He locked eyes with Lestrade and sighed his surrender. “Come on, then.”


 

Watson explained some rules – don't touch anything, don't step anywhere important, don't get in anybody's way, and wear a ruddy plastic space suit – and led Greg up stairs, looking determined as all hell. Probably so people wouldn't stop and ask who Greg was or why he was trying to catch everything on an overpriced camera phone.

Greg felt a hint of something dark stir in him when he got his first glance in past a bunch of uniformed officers in their own plastic space suits and saw a flash of bright pink on the floor.

He'd seen her, and wasn't that a kick in the bollocks to remember now? He'd been laying on his drunk arse watching while some lunatic led her into the building and then killed her. Greg Lestrade was the last person on earth who saw her alive, barring the killer.

The tromp of people filing out cleared up, and Greg moved in.

Good god, is that truly an acceptable colour for clothing?” Mycroft's voice drifted out through the phone's speaker.

Greg remembered his job and aimed the phone closer at the woman. She was flat on her face, and by her hand was--

Lestrade, her hand. The floor. Now.”

He was already moving, frowning at the floor at the same time he pointed the phone's camera at it. RACHE. It was grim, made his stomach turn knots, the way her fingernails were painted up all pink and then cracked and broken so she could scratch out those letters.

Now her shoes.”

He blinked, which was apparently too much of a delay for Mycroft. “Her shoes! Her legs. Keep up, Lestrade.”

Greg flushed to see the few remaining officers watching him with various amused expressions, but he edged around the body and aimed the phone where he was directed.

Of course. Is there a mobile?”

Greg blinked. “How the hell should--”

Watson! Her phone!”

John stepped forward, glaring at the phone until Greg aimed it towards him. “We didn't find one. We got a wallet, credit cards, cash.”

Name.”

“Jennifer Wilson.”

And who is Rachel?”

“We don't know yet. We're looking.”

Of course you are.”

Greg had to hand it to Mycroft, he was just as cool and disdainful over the phone as he was in person. Greg shrugged as John glared over at him.

“Just the messenger, mate,” he muttered, turning the phone back towards the body.

So there was no purse, no suitcase. Nothing but a wallet?”

“Right, as far as we know. Wait...suitcase?”

Lestrade! Get me off this ridiculous speaker.”

Greg heaved an annoyed breath but stared at the phone, trying to remember how Mycroft had told him to turn the damn speaker on in the first place. He found it more or less accidentally, and brought the phone to his ear.

Thank you. I don't expect there's much more to find there. If I thought it was worth it I'd send you to look for the suitcase. It's in a skip approximately three blocks from you, and judging by your appearance I'd say skip-diving doesn't particularly scare you.”

Greg frowned. John's eyes were on him, narrow. He turned away, but that left him looking at the dead woman he might've been able to save earlier. “What suitcase? What're you talking about?”

It doesn't matter. I don't think much would come of it. I'm going to find a phone number, and we are going to send a text.”

Greg waited, eyebrows rising. “Right. Any reason I need to stay here to do that? I don't think the fuzz appreciates me walking around in their footsteps.”

They'll get used to it. Return here directly.”

“Right.” Greg hung the phone up (after a moment staring at the display to sort out how). He turned to Watson, who was watching expectantly. “Er. Guess I'm off, then. Thanks for...whatever the hell this was.”

Watson heaved a sigh. “Remind him that if he comes across evidence he is required to turn it over to me immediately.”

He didn't speak with much hope, and Greg found himself smiling, small and tight. “He's for real, then, is he? This whole mad act of his, it's something he does a lot?”

“Unfortunately. Mycroft is...” Watson sighed. He gestured Greg to follow him and left the dead woman behind, moving to the stairs and going down. “I suppose I know him as well as anyone can, but I still know next to nothing. And what I do know...” He glanced back at Greg, brow furrowed. “What's your part in all this, anyway, Mister...Lestrade, right?”

“Yeah. And damned if I know. I'm just going along with this until I pass out, I figure.” He shrugged.

“Mm.” Watson looked him over as they moved down the ratty staircase, tromping on crunching bits of plaster and paint. “Well, it's a new thing for Mycroft, taking on a helper. Wish I would warn you what to expect, but after all this time even I don't know what the man's going to do.” He flashed an exhausted-looking smile and clapped Greg on the shoulder. “See yourself out, then, I've got to get back up there.”

Greg left the building behind, looking around at the madness of crowds of officers, a bigger cluster of spectators than before. Big white vans for crime scene evidence or whatever, and the coppers had set up bright lamps around the edges of their taped-off scene. There were even a few cameras out, big jobs, from the telly. Madness, and chaos, and normally he'd've been scurrying on the edges of it looking for the quickest way away.

“Oi, you.”

He hesitated when a woman broke away from a cluster of uniformed officers. Good looking lady, if a bit sour-faced. She was in street clothes, like Watson, wrapped tight in a grey jacket.

Greg slowed, clutching the phone in his hand like he might be able to call that mad bastard Mycroft for help if she decided to try to toss him in the back of a wagon after all.

Her eyes searched him up and down, but she didn't show the contempt that that git constable had done earlier. “You really helping the Spook?”

“Who?”

“The Spook. Holmes.”

Greg almost smirked at that. Not a bad nickname, given the monitors and that creepy office and all. “I suppose.”

“Have you actually seen him?” She flashed a smirk of her own, though it was hard. “Most of us haven't, none but the Inspector.”

Greg shrugged. “Met him, yeah.”

“What's he like? All those cameras, all that stuff he sees. Is he one of those fat sad old bastards who can't get off his computer? Did he actually talk to you in person, or did you have to email him through a wall or something? Only you can never tell with shut-ins, and we've got a betting pool going.” She grinned, like they were in on some joke together. “My money's on 'thirty stone loser with a keyboard instead of a willie'. Am I close?”

“Right.” Greg stared at her for a moment, but shook his head and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Piss off.”

“Excuse me?”

He ignored her, moving around her and heading down the pavement towards where he left Mycroft's car and driver behind.

Fucking lot of judgemental pricks in the police force, apparently, and fuck them all. He didn't want to hear it when they were talking about him, and he wasn't going to stand around while they were talking about the lunatic who was apparently hiring him on.

The car wasn't in sight as Greg ducked under the police tape and trudged down the path. Maybe the coppers had moved it on and it was circling around. Whatever, the flat wasn't that far a walk anyway. One thing about sleeping rough in London: a man got his exercise.

Insane sort of day, really, but Greg had a little bit of life in his step as he moved down the street. Mycroft Holmes might've been a posh ginger prick but he was trying to help the police solve a murder, and that was something most people couldn't say. No idea why the police were talking to some man operating out of the strangest flat Greg had ever seen, but then...

But then judging by the way Mycroft had read into Greg like his life was written in words on his skin, maybe it wasn't such a mystery. The man was brilliant, by all appearances. He saw things, and might've seen them just as well over a phone or through a computer screen. If he was a bit odd, well. Who wasn't?

The posh black town car pulled up against the curb suddenly, moving a bit fast. Greg hesitated before approaching – one posh ride looked like any other to him, and he'd likely get arrested if he tried opening the door on someone else's car – but the back door opened and stood waiting for him. He climbed in, heaving a sigh as the warmth of the interior soaked through his bones, and the leather sank under him.

“What have you to do with Mycroft Holmes?”

He jerked, looking over. It wasn't the quiet, phone-tapping bird sitting beside him, but a man. Dressed in a long black coat, dark scarf pulled around his neck, black hair and pale skin. His eyes were vivid blue, sharp, and they were taking Greg in like he was a bug that the man couldn't manage to scrape off his shoe.

Greg blinked, looking around. It was the right car – a bit of mud was still on the floor from when he'd ridden there earlier. The driver seemed the same, but it was hard to tell through the glass divider. “Who the hell are you?” he blurted, looking back at the snake-eyed stranger. “What is this?”

“What have you to do with Mycroft Holmes?” the man asked again, his voice low enough to vibrate.

Christ, just when he thought the day might settle down around him. Greg reached into his pocket for the phone.

“Call him if you like, but you will answer my question. Here and now, or in an environment much less friendly.”

Greg's eyes jerked over to the stranger, and something slithered up his spine. Whoever he was, he spoke like he meant it. There was no question in his voice, no emotion at all really. Just a cold, calm certainty. This was a man who spoke and then watched as his commands happened around him. The best commanders in the army had tried to come across the way this man did without even trying.

Greg's jaw tightened, but he kept the phone in his lap, giving his fingers something to toy with. “I've got nothing to do with Mycroft bloody Holmes, do I?”

“This is his car, his driver, there to pick you up from the latest victim of a serial killer and return you to Mycroft's home. He has sent a message to people who work for him, ordering a selection of clothes in your size and asking that the guest room in his flat be readied. He has offered to pay you to work for him in some capacity, and you have, seemingly, accepted.”

“Christ, what in the hell is going on tonight?” Greg almost wanted to laugh. Bloody mysterious strangers everywhere, knowing too much about everything. “If you already know all this then what're you asking me for?”

The man twisted in his seat, facing Greg with a withering gaze. “Who are you that Mycroft Holmes should take an interest in you? He has had no one new in that flat in a very long time, why you?”

“You might do better asking him why,” Greg answered evenly. “And it's none of your business who I am.”

“Gregory Lestrade, born in Essex in 1963, pathetically average in every way imaginable until you decided to become a soldier. Assigned to the 5th Battalion Rifles, you reached the rank of Corporal and then stopped, having no real interest in advancement. Sent to Iraq, assigned to Basra, where in late 2007 you and the eight men at your command fell under attack. A roadside bomb took out three of those men before you knew what was going on, and then small arms fire kept the rest of you pinned down until another two had died. You took a bullet in the shoulder, but returned fire and led the surviving men under your command to safety. Discharged due to your injuries, you returned home and chose to celebrate your survival by becoming a vagrant.”

It was worse than when Mycroft had sat there and torn his life apart. Worse because he knew, he must have read somehow. Files, history, background. This man knew Greg for certain, not guessing. He knew about the men Greg had lost, read about them in cold black and white.

His hands were shaking, the phone squeezed between his fingers but not enough to stop the memories, the flood of shouts, the blast of that first unexpected bomb taking out the jeep behind his. His boys. His failure.

“Who are you?” he asked, his voice a croak.

“You have a paltry flat in a council estate in Hackney, currently occupied by a family of illegal Sudanese immigrants as well as a young mother and child from High Wycombe who fled an abusive home. You have various undiagnosed psychological disorders caused by your time in service, you choose to self-medicate with whatever brand of whiskey your pension will pay for. And now you are being given a room in Mycroft Holmes' flat. Why?”

“Pull this fucking car over,” Greg called out, leaning to wrap on the glass divider with his fist. “Now!”

“Let me save you a lot of time, Mr. Lestrade. Mycroft is a dangerous man, and if you have any sense of self-preservation you will walk away from this and not look back. Continue on with your sad life slowly pickling your liver, it's bound to end better than any association with--”

“Damn it all, pull this fucking car over!” Greg reached for the door handle, but the damn thing was locked and there was no way to unlock it that he could see.

There was a sigh from beside him, and Greg had to about crush that phone in his first to keep from launching over there and socking the bastard in his smug face.

“Don't waste your breath. I am giving you advice, Mr. Lestrade, you'd be advised to listen.”

“Piss off.”

There was a moment of silence. Greg fired a glare at the strange man, and nearly had to look away when the full power of slashing blue eyes fell on him.

“No, I suppose it's too late, isn't it?” he drawled, low and calm. “I wonder why. Years of apathy and drinking, why should you choose now to invest interest in someone like...” His eyes scanned Greg, his mouth twisted. “Ahh. I see.”

“You don't see a fucking thing, you pompous shit.”

“It's not the idea of danger, is it?” the man went on as if Greg hadn't spoken. “It's not some return to the uniform and the war. It's the simple fact that he needs your help.”

Greg's eyes jerked away from him, his skin heating. “Piss off.”

“You don't have nightmares about death, about explosions and gunfire. You have nightmares about faces. The men who died, the ones you led into their graves. The ones who relied on you for instruction. You don't want to relive the battle. No, you want to be relied upon again. You want to know that someone who needs you might actually be able to survive your help.”

“God damn it...” His voice was thick and weak. Greg slumped back against soft leather, turning his face away from the bastard stranger.

“Mycroft Holmes does not need help. His prison is one that he built around him, all on his own. He doesn't need to be saved. And he will never rely on you, because he is incapable of relying on anyone. He doesn't feel things, Mr. Lestrade. He will never see you as more than a tool. He will never need you more than he needs a phone or a computer.” That cold voice had softened, becoming almost gentle. “Your salvation does not lie in that flat.”

Greg wanted to tell him to fuck off again, but he didn't trust his voice. He slumped in the seat, glaring out the window, ignoring the prickling of his eyes, the memories of coffins and sobbing mothers and wives and newly fatherless children, and the constant, suffocating sense of failure, of culpability, that he had felt since November of 2007.

The man beside him fell quiet. The car pulled up and stopped, and Greg's eyes caught on the fancy shops surrounding the plain doorway of Mycroft's flat.

“Get out of this, Mr. Lestrade. It is more difficult than you could ever imagine, associating with a man like Mycroft Holmes. You have never met a man like him, you can't begin to know what he's capable of. Leave, now. Before you can't.”

Greg didn't look over at him. Couldn't. Not if he wanted to leave a living man in the back seat of that car. When he heard the soft click of the locks disengaging he shoved his way out of the car and onto the pavement without a pause.

The car slipped back onto the road silently.

His hands were shaking so badly he dropped the mobile. Took him two tries to pick it up, and as he shoved it into his pocket he felt the solid cool plastic of the whiskey he'd been carting around all night. Faster than he could think he pulled it out, but his hands couldn't seem to still enough to unscrew the top.

With a shout he couldn't bite back, rage and old grief and a thousand other things bubbling up until he couldn't stop it from coming out, Greg hurled the plastic bottle against the grey cement wall of Mycroft's building. It hit with a solid thunk but didn't break, thudding to the ground and sitting there.

Another bloody failure.


 

Some minutes later, as Greg leaned back against the side of Mycroft's building, staring down at the fallen bottle and trying not to think, the front door beside him opened.

Mycroft himself appeared, tightening a long, heavy coat around him as he stepped out onto the path. He looked over at Greg, apparently unsurprised to see him there. “Dinner, Gregory. Come.”

The car pulled up – same fucking posh black car – and Mycroft strode over to it. He opened the back door and Greg could see that it was empty. No woman on her phone, no mysterious stranger. No sign he'd ever been there.

Mycroft slid into the car and looked out at Greg. “This evening, if you please.”

Greg straightened from his slouch, shaking his head. His hands were still trembling a bit as he reached up and scratched at his limp hair. “I can't...”

“Is our association at its end?” Mycroft asked from the idling car, his voice terse, his eyes steady on Greg.

Greg opened his mouth and shut it. He looked out at the car, feeling as wretched as he ever had. Frozen. Utterly fucking frozen.

Mycroft looked out at him calmly. His eyes slid down to the bottle at Greg's feet, and up again, and something in his expression shifted.

Greg wasn't at the top of his game, not by a long shot, but he watched that slight tilt of Mycroft's mouth, the crease that appeared at his brow and then smoothed out again, and he thought he understood it. There was resignation in it, maybe.

The camera over the door. Greg glanced up at it, and suddenly had no doubt that Mycroft knew exactly what had happened. At least he knew about the stranger being in his car, and he seemed to know why that stranger was there. He knew, Greg could tell, that the stranger had won. Whatever the battle was between that man and Mycroft, Mycroft was used to losing his end.

Well, bugger that.

Greg drew in a breath and let it out, fisting his hands and shaking them loose to try to calm the trembling. “Not exactly dressed for dinner, am I?”

Mycroft regarded him impassively. “I have a private room at an establishment.”

“Christ, an 'establishment'.” Greg flashed a grin, tight and insincere but it was the principle of the thing, damn it. “That bath you mentioned earlier was just a tease, wasn't it?” He headed for the car, stiff but determined.

Some show of surprise flitted over Mycroft's face, his mouth thinning and then relaxing. He slid over as Greg approached. “We have no time at the present, unfortunately. When our business this evening is done.”


  

Mycroft grabbed Greg's phone during the ride over and sent off some text before handing it back to Greg, and other than that everything was quiet and calm, and it gave Greg a chance to get some of himself back.

The 'establishment' they pulled up at was just that, some private-looking posh bistro or whatever the hell they were called. No dress code, apparently, since Greg didn't get more than a raised eyebrow and a glance at Mycroft before they let him in. But all eyes were on him as he slouched his way after Mycroft, and expressions shifted in distaste.

Greg didn't bother getting all tense about it. Couldn't really blame people for not wanting his unwashed self stinking the air up while they ate, but he wasn't going to apologise for himself either.

They went through a small door in the back, into the private room Mycroft mentioned. It was small, but two of the walls had huge, deep windows so it didn't feel cramped. They were overlooking a side street through one of the windows, and in the back was a view of the Thames if he squinted through some trees.

Menus were set in front of them. Greg looked at one and just snorted. French. Of course. “Just get me what you're having, mate.”

“I drink mineral water,” Mycroft answered smoothly. “I expect you should like something stronger.”

Greg started nodding his agreement, but hesitated. He'd need it before he went to sleep: that git who'd ambushed him in Mycroft's car had brought too much back. So fucking casual about it, too. But for now, maybe he was all right.

“Water's fine.”

Mycroft regarded him, then nodded once.

A waiter came and went, a pinch-mouthed bloke in fancier clothes than Greg had probably ever worn. His eyes stayed on Mycroft the whole time, but Greg didn't let himself get annoyed.

Once he was gone, Mycroft sat back, hands folded on the table elegantly. “Given our surroundings this should be painfully obvious, yet I feel the need to state it directly: I am not a shut-in.”

Greg just nodded, thinking about that slag copper as he was leaving the crime scene earlier. “Don't have to tell me, mate, I can't begin to imagine what you actually are.”

Mycroft smiled, small and polite. “No one can, though most try anyway.” He went quiet again, long enough for the waiter to come back with two glasses of fizzing water and some lemon slices on a small plate. He came and went silently, and Mycroft simply reached for his glass as if it had been there the entire time.

“My brother,” he said after taking a sip of the water.

Greg reached for his glass, but for the moment just toyed with it between his hands. “What?”

“The man who hijacked my car. He is my brother, Sherlock.”

Greg's throat worked as he was forced to think about the git. “Wait, that was your brother? He talked like he hates you.”

“I expect he does.” It didn't seem like something worth emoting over, given the placid look on Mycroft's face. “I have always been a source of embarrassment for my family. Now that Sherlock and I are all that is left, he feels he has a responsibility to keep his eye on me. To make sure that I don't destroy his aspirations somehow.”

“Aspirations, huh? He seemed like some sort of stuffy government shit.”

Mycroft nodded. “He is the single most powerful man in the United Kingdom, perhaps in most of Europe.”

Greg snorted, but when Mycroft's expression didn't change his contempt melted down into something solid, something that sat in his gut like a rock. “You're serious?”

“Very. You have never heard his name, and if not for me you never would have. There is no title for what he is, because he created his position on his own, out of a need to become both indispensable and powerful. He has achieved his ends, far younger than even he anticipated.”

Greg had no trouble believing it, once he thought about it. The man – Sherlock – spoke every last word as if he was the source of truth in the world. Like even if he didn't speak truth, whatever he spoke would somehow become true simply because he was the one saying it.

And there Greg was out at dinner with his nutter brother, for the sole reason of fuck that guy anyway.

Mycroft smiled faintly, as if reading his thoughts. “I am an embarrassment to him, but he is my brother. He wouldn't bring harm to me, and he won't to you. He simply needs to be in control of me at all times. My driver works for him. Anthea works for him, as do the people who should currently be in my home, preparing your room. I am constantly monitored. I expect that if he can't scare you away, he will attempt to bring you into his service. You might consider it. He pays better than I could, and I don't expect he would find out more through you than he already could in some other way.”

“Then why bother paying me?”

“Because he must be in control.” Mycroft shrugged, and it was a graceful lift and fall of his shoulders that in a million years Greg couldn't have imitated. “Don't misunderstand me, I see him very rarely. He rarely takes any active interest in my life. Tonight is the first time in quite a while, as a matter of fact. He watches me, but he does little. He knows of my hobbies, my work with the police. He approves as long as it remains anonymous. The name of Holmes is a great deal more important to him than my goings-on, and my life now is much less potentially damaging to him than it has been at times in the past.”

“Sounds like a right prat,” Greg said. “And he can keep his money.”

“It might be a good deal of money,” Mycroft answered.

Greg shrugged. “That's the thing about being skint: I know how to do without it. Wouldn't know how to spend it if I had it. Anyway, fuck him. I don't like how he talked.”

Mycroft raised his eyebrows, looking almost amused. “Was it very different than how I talk?”

Greg thought about it, and after a minute he nodded. “Yeah. It was.” Not very, maybe, not obviously. They'd both taken a lot of pleasure out of hammering Greg's life out between them like he was nobody. But Mycroft had looked Greg up and down and told him what he was and what he did. Sherlock had read some rubbish in some government file or whatever and used it to try to tell Greg who he was.

Very different. Subtle, but Greg picked up on it. Maybe Sherlock wasn't so bad, maybe he was just used to using files as shorthand for people. He obviously didn't give a toss what Greg thought about him. Maybe by the time he got to Greg, Greg was already scraped open and raw from everything else that had gone on that evening. Whatever it was, Greg had been given a choice and he chose, and it wasn't all that difficult.

The door to the little back room opened and the waiter appeared with steaming plates. Some kind of pasta, some seafood still in its shells and bits and pieces mixed in that Greg didn't recognise. The smell of it hit his nose and his stomach made a loud enough noise that the waiter jumped a bit.

Mycroft just dismissed him with a flicker of graceful fingers, though there was amusement in his eyes.

Just a few bites in Mycroft spoke again, his voice as calm and considered as ever. “I have access to a great deal of information through Sherlock. He indulges me that access in return for my...good behaviour.” He smiled faintly, but his gaze travelled to Greg across the table. “Everything he knows about you I know as well.”

Greg's spine straightened. He set his fork down, despite his body yelling at him to inhale every bite of that food. “All right,” he said slowly, waiting for the dissection to begin.

Mycroft regarded him. He went on eating, prim and proper, using spoon and fork and knife somehow to get through that pasta without so much as an errant drop of sauce landing outside his mouth.

Greg sat there, his stomach working, waiting.

“I enjoy assisting the police,” Mycroft said suddenly, and it seemed like a change of subject. “I spent a good many years learning everything about my own sort of people, the ones I suppose you would refer to as 'posh'. I understand too much about them, they have become utterly boring to me. When they commit crimes they are all about money and power, and it's dreadfully tedious. But people like you. The dirty and the poor, the classless criminal. They are an entirely new breed to me, and, at least for now, I am fascinated.”

“I'm no criminal,” Greg said, his tension coming through in his voice.

Mycroft's hand waved, graceful. “Yes, yes. I suppose it's impolite to group you all together that way. Still. For many years I assisted my brother, picking apart his rivals in government and dissecting every law they ever broke.” He smiled thinly. “Men like Sherlock can wave a hand and watch a nation crumble. I find it far more interesting when a man who has nothing risks everything he is and has in the name of breaking laws. There is a raggedness behind it that I don't understand, and I am trying.”

“That's why you help the coppers, then? Trying to understand how the scum of the earth do things?” Greg relaxed a bit, thinking just maybe Mycroft wasn't going to rub Iraq in his face after all.

“In a sense. I suppose there's some small part of me that simply wants to help. Something benevolent.” He smiled, seemingly more amused by that idea than anything else they'd talked about so far. “But there are limitations that I suffer, choosing this work over my former diversions. You met Detective Inspector Watson. He is the very best that New Scotland Yard can offer, and the only one willing to work with me. But...” He paused.

Greg raised his eyebrows, grabbing his fork and diving into the pasta again. “But what?”

Mycroft sighed. “My brother has one weakness, and it is him.”

“Him? Watson?” Greg blinked, swallowing a bite as his eyes went round in his head. “Wait a minute. That pompous arse and Watson?”

“Sadly. My own fault, too. They met in a very similar way as you and Sherlock met earlier, and for the same purpose. To scare the Inspector away from working with me, or else to get close enough to control him. I can't begin to imagine how, but the Inspector apparently managed to access some part of Sherlock that is still human. It's horrid to think about, really. And though the Inspector won't let himself be bought and owned by Sherlock, they have influenced each other in small ways. Watson listens to Sherlock about me. He's begun to get more confining about what he will share, making me jump through all sorts of hoops to get to the information. He actually expects me to travel to the scenes of crimes personally.” His face crinkled in distaste.

Greg couldn't stop a laugh from rumbling up. “What an utter bastard.”

“Quite so.” Mycroft flashed a thin smile, but his eyes went serious again. “I am not a shut-in, nor am I insane, at least not under strict definitions. I am simply more comfortable – only comfortable – on my own. I loathe people. Almost all of them. Sherlock does as well, but he is able to hide it better. Our parents, I believe, noticed my...oddness...early on, and took steps to insure that Sherlock would grow up more functional. But no matter. I don't deal with people well, and when I have ventured into the world to mingle with the sort of people Watson deals with, it has been an utter failure. You, Gregory. You are my solution for that.”

“Me.” Greg scraped his fork over the bottom of the bowl to collect leftover sauce, grinning at Mycroft's answering wince. He sucked the fork in his mouth and cleaned it up proper, and pushed the empty bowl away with a sigh. “Me, then. How am I your solution? You want me to keep showing up at crimes and flashing that phone around so you can see everything?”

Mycroft nodded. “For a start. And I expect you might have a more successful time cultivating relationships with the police. You will be able to talk to witnesses, suspects, the sort of people I simply can't relate to.”

“You want me to be some sort of normal-person interpreter, then?”

“Well, yes. You are incredibly normal.”

“Why don't I think that's a compliment?” Greg grinned, grabbing his water and draining it. “I think you're a bit daft, honestly, but I could probably do that.” He hesitated then. “One question, though.”

Mycroft sighed, long-suffering. “Ask.”

Greg sat back, studying him. “Why me? I'm not anybody, I'm some drunk shit who saw a lady in pink and a cabbie. Why bring me into this? Your brother said...”

Mycroft's mouth thinned. “I can imagine what my brother said. At first I simply wanted to know what you saw, and didn't trust Watson to bring me a copy of your statement. You were stupid enough to come when I sent a car, that's all.”

“Cheers.” Greg waited.

“I made the decision as we talked.” Mycroft studied him. “I asked why you let others stay in your flat, and you said it was the right thing to do.”

Greg blinked. “Yeah?”

“I believed you.”

“That it's the right thing to do? That should be bloody-well obvious, shouldn't--”

“That you believe it's the right thing to do, and for that reason you do it, at your own considerable inconvenience. People, in my experience, are not that way. It also helps that you were a soldier, that the idea of risk will not scare you. And though I have no concrete proof of this yet, you might even have a functioning brain in your head. I'd find that a benefit.”

Greg waited, but Mycroft turned his focus back on his pasta, apparently done with his full answer.

He laughed suddenly. “Your brother was right about one thing, I'll give him that.”

It was Mycroft's turn to tense. His thin shoulders set stiffly, and his fork stopped halfway to his mouth and lowered back to the bowl. His eyes stayed on it. “What's that?”

Greg grinned. “I have never met anybody like you before.”

Mycroft looked up. He seemed, for a moment, truly startled. He'd been braced for a blow and fully expected it to land.

It lit up something in Greg's gut, the same thing that lit up at their first meeting, when Mycroft confessed that he couldn't go out to that crime scene. When he got so flustered at Greg bringing up sex.

He was odd, Mycroft was. Rude, unsocialised, pretentious as all hell. But Greg almost thought he liked him.

Mycroft cleared his throat after a moment. “Allow me a digression. Here is a fact that might interest you...”

Greg smiled. “Go on, then.”

Mycroft nodded to the window at Greg's right. “You see the taxi that pulled up a moment ago?”

Greg glanced over, and squinted out at the familiar black form of a taxi. “What about it?”

“Jennifer Wilson's killer is driving it.”

Greg blinked, looking over at Mycroft and then back out the window. “What? Are you serious? How the hell d'you know that?”

“Because I texted him to come.” Mycroft sat back, taking up his glass of water in utter unconcern. “Our victim's telephone was obviously in his possession. A simple matter to find her phone number and send a misleading text. 'Did you leave me in Brixton? What's happened? Please meet me, I left my things in your cab.' And the address across the road.”

Greg gaped at him, and out the window at the cab. Might well have been the same one, they all looked alike to him. “What...are you mad? What are we going to do?”

“Send the tag number to Inspector Watson now that we have it.” Mycroft shrugged as if bored with it, the successful hunt of a killer with nothing more than a text and a posh French meal. “I try not to get involved.”

Greg sat up, watching the cab. Something was flooding through him, adrenaline or something, making him eager. “No. No, don't do that. You said Watson's in your brother's pocket. He's being stingy about sharing with you, right?”

Mycroft frowned, but gestured for him to go on.

Greg grinned. “So let's get him. Let's grab the bastard ourselves. He can't ignore you if you're handing over his killer directly.”

Mycroft laughed, quiet and polite. “Don't be ridiculous, Gregory. I've no urge to go racing through the street chasing some--”

“Well, that's what I'm for, isn't it?” Greg stood up, tossing his napkin on the table. “Legwork, yeah?” He headed for the door out to the rest of the restaurant.

“Gregory, honestly, that's utterly abs--”

But Greg wasn't listening. Greg's heart was beating hard and his mind was on the way that shit had dragged his victim into the building. Somehow she didn't fight him, but she didn't want to go and Greg saw that and he didn't do a bloody thing about it.

She died because he was a drunk fuck-up who gave up on things. Least he could do was grab her killer.

He headed through the restaurant as fast as he could without jogging, figuring he got enough attention as it was. He reached the front door and barely heard Mycroft, sounding hurried, calling his name behind him.

He jogged around to the side of the restaurant and spotted the cab sitting there. He pounded down the walk, saw the brake lights come on as he got close. The guy must've spotted him, but didn't know what to make of some bum jogging up to his cab.

He peered in and saw the bloke – dumpy, glasses, that cabbie hat or whatever it was called. That was his man all right.

Greg knocked on the window. “Oi! You on duty?”

The window rolled down halfway. “Piss off, I'm working.”

“You're a cabbie, ain't you? I'm trying to give you work.”

“I've got a fare. Get off the car, piss off.”

“You gonna kill this one too?” Greg asked, flashing a grin that felt a bit wild.

The cabbie looked out at him, and a second later his eyes got big and he reached to start the engine.

Greg lunged, shoving his arm through the half-opened window and grabbed at his wrist to stop him. He batted at the cabbie's hand until the keys came dislodged and fell down at his feet. “Come on, you, I know some blokes who want to talk to you.”

“Let me--” The cabbie tried to roll up the window, shoving at Greg's arm. He gave up, sliding to the other side of the car and throwing the passenger open, taking off into the road.

Greg tugged his arm free of the window and tore around the man.

“What in the world.”

He flashed a grin at Mycroft, standing frozen as the cabbie took off past him. “Come on, he wants a chase!”

“This is--”

Greg didn't stay to listen. He took off down the walk, flying past the shops crowding the streets by that restaurant. He didn't know the neighbourhood, but hopefully the killer didn't either. So far he was sticking to the pavement, darting past the few people around them, shoving and cursing as he tried to keep ahead of Greg.

Around one block, and the next, through a lane darkened by overhanging trees. Maybe Greg was a sot who'd done nothing but trudge his arse around for the last few years, but the cabbie was short and already winded, losing ground to him fast.

“Gregory!”

The shout made Greg glance back, and he grinned to see Mycroft had actually followed him, looking utterly horrified at himself as his long legs worked in a sort of double-time jog.

By the time Greg turned back around, just an instant later, the killer was gone.

He slowed, cursing, and followed the trail of grouchy-looking people who'd been pushed out of his way. The streets were nicely done-up, lit but crowded with groomed trees and bits of greenery. The shops were spaced further apart, dark alleyways between each, and Greg cursed to think that the shut could be down any one of them. He slowed to a jog and peered into each as he passed, but the street lamps didn't illuminate more than a few feet in.

“Fuck me,” he muttered, the adrenaline-fueled thrill of the run simmering down into anger. Fuck, he'd lost the guy, just like that.

“What in the...” Mycroft caught up to him, slowing to a stop and grabbing Greg's arm to stop him as well. “That was the...this is completely...”

Greg turned back to him, grinning at the red of Mycroft's cheeks and the way he was puffing out air. “Don't get a lot of cardio, eh?”

“I have never in my life...” Mycroft stooped, huffing in air, still gripping Gregory's arm. “That was madness.”

“Wouldn't've been if I hadn't lost him. But we've got the cab, yeah? And you can still get the tag to Watson so he can grab the bastard up.”

Mycroft straightened, blowing out a loud breath into the cold air. “My god.”

Greg grinned. “Legwork.”

“Madness.” But Mycroft looked at him, and his mouth quirked helplessly. A moment later he was laughing, the sound pinched and high enough to almost be called a giggle. “My god,” he said again, hand on his chest.

Greg couldn't help echoing the laugh, a bit dazzled by Mycroft's fit. “Oi, stop that, we can't laugh when the bastard got away.”

“I don't think you need to worry about that,” Mycroft said, hand going to his mouth as if he could shove the laughter back in. His eyes were bright with amusement, warm under the street lamps. “I certainly hope Sherlock isn't monitoring the CCTV footage this evening. He'll have me committed.”

Greg slung an arm around Mycroft's shoulder. “Nah, this is good for ya. Get you out, get your heart going, risk your life chasing a lunatic. This should be your new Friday night thing, yeah?”

“Oh, I don't think so.” Mycroft seemed to catch his breath finally, but when he realized Greg's arm was over him he tensed, his laughter melting away.

Greg flushed, taking his arm back fast. “Right, sorry, I forgot. Still disgusting.” He made a lame attempt at wiping off Mycroft's coat, in case his own filthy sleeve left any dirt behind.

Mycroft's mouth opened, but shut again silently. He looked around them after a moment, his cheeks still pink but otherwise pretty much back to being put together. “Now where in the world...ahh.”

Greg followed his gaze and saw Mycroft's black towncar turning onto the little lane they stood by. “Handy, that, do they have GPS on you or something?”

“They are simply very attentive.” Mycroft headed for the car, straightening his jacket on his shoulders and brushing at the unruffled front and sides of the long coat. “Come, Gregory, the evening doesn't appear to be quite over.”

“Mmm, guess not.” Greg shot a look back behind them, but no killer stuck his face out or waved for attention, so he followed Mycroft.

“Home,” Mycroft said as he climbed into the back. “But do take your time.”

No answer from the driver, but the car slid into motion as soon as Greg shut the door. They headed slowly down the lane.

“Hey, we didn't stiff the place for dinner, did we?”

“I have an account,” Mycroft answered, though his mouth slid into a grin a moment later. “Whether they will let me back in or not is another matter.”

“Guess it's not really proper to drag a homeless lump into their fancy private room and then take off chasing killers before coffee.” Greg glanced out the window. “Why're we going slow again?”

“Because we're being followed, and I don't want to make it too hard on the poor man. He's on foot after all.”

“On foot...you mean the killer?” Greg spun in his seat, trying to peer out the darkened rear window. “Where is he? We can still--”

“Gregory. Patience.” Mycroft sat back, perfectly content. “He's coming to us, I much prefer that to chasing after him.”

Greg turned back reluctantly and slumped in his seat. “You gonna call Watson?”

Mycroft flashed another small, unreadable smile, looking nothing at all like the red-faced man laughing so helplessly after his impromptu jog. “That won't be necessary.”


 

And it wasn't. The door to the flat was open when the car pulled up, and Mycroft strode in and up the stairs and with no surprise in his eyes he greeted a waiting John Watson standing outside the door at the landing. “Did you bring the entire pack?”

“Just me,” Watson said, eyes going behind Mycroft to Greg, widening a bit.

Surprise. Expected him to be gone by then. Greg grinned at him but stayed quiet, letting Mycroft handle things.

“And how is my brother this evening?” Mycroft unlocked the door into that broad, sparse front room.

Greg watched, a bit amused, as Watson's cheeks went red.

“Why should I know how your brother is?”

Mycroft nodded, short and terse, and a small smile curled his mouth. He shrugged out of his jacket and hung it neatly on a solid, heavy coat rack by the door. “Very well, then why have you come?”

“You know why. I let you send your...” Watson glanced at Greg. “...messenger...into my crime scene. What have you got for me?”

Mycroft met Watson's gaze calmly. “Not much at all,” he said.

Greg's eyebrows shot up.

Mycroft moved between he and Watson, sending Greg a short look. He moved to the large, stiff sofa that looked like no one had ever touched it, and he sat. His long legs crossed primly, and he gazed up at Watson.

Watson sighed. “Christ, just my luck. What's 'not much', then? Give me whatever it is.” He moved to an armchair across from Mycroft and dropped into it heavily. He tugged out a small notebook and pen.

Greg moved back behind the couch, feeling a bit like a guard dog or something as he stood over Mycroft and watched Watson.

Mycroft spun a long tale, all of it brand new to Greg. A story about the victim, the pink lady, where she had come from and why she was there. He read the woman the way he'd read Greg earlier, talking about an unhappy marriage and a string of affairs, a public career and ambition to make up for a low-class upbringing. It was fascinating, and all of it was brand-new to Greg. Apparently Mycroft worked all of it out during that brief period when Greg was aiming his camera phone at the dead woman. All Greg saw was legs and hands, broken fingernails and pink and RACHE, but then Mycroft was a different sort of bloke.

Watson took a bunch of notes, looking pleased by the 'not much' that Mycroft was supplying. Mycroft went into detail about the killer being a cab driver – which wasn't news to Watson if he believed Greg earlier – and his theory about hiding in plain sight, finding victims on the busiest streets without a single person looking at him twice.

What he didn't say was anything at all about a short chase through posh streets, or a tag number for the very cab the man drove. Nothing concrete, nothing that might've sent Watson running right out to make an arrest.

Greg didn't speak up – he wasn't an idiot, there was more going on with all this than he knew so he'd mind his business and let Mycroft run things. He gave Watson the same description of the cabbie he gave Mycroft earlier that evening when he asked, and by the time Watson stood to leave he looked less troubled.

“I'll take your idea of 'not much' anytime, Mycroft. This is good. This is brilliant. We've got some work ahead, but I think it's quite enough to help us catch the guy.” He held out a hand to Mycroft. “Thank you. Really. Once again, I'm going to owe you.”

“Nonsense.” Mycroft accepted his hand, shaking politely, but stayed seated as Watson headed for the door. “Good luck, Inspector.”

“Yeah, ta.” Watson vanished through the door, pounding down the stairs.

Only then did Greg move around the couch and look at Mycroft in question.

“Because you were right at dinner,” Mycroft answered as if he'd asked out loud. “He has gotten worse, and my brother has gotten worse, and perhaps it's time I assert myself a bit.”

Greg grinned. “Good one. So what happens now? You figure he followed us all the way here? Think he's lurking outside?”

Mycroft seemed unconcerned. “I imagine he took note of the address and will return. Tomorrow, I should think. As for now...I believe I've teased you about bathing long enough.”

Greg looked down at himself and flushed a bit, remembering the awkward moment on the street. “Yeah, guess it's overdue.”

Mycroft sent him a lofted eyebrow. “Quite.”

Greg laughed. “Hey, you pluck a bloke from the pavement you take what you get.”

Mycroft stood, looking amused. “The tour, then, and we'll see what they've done with your room.”


 

The biggest thing Greg took from the tour was that Mycroft was apparently every bit as rich as his manner suggested. He explained how he'd bought the grey brownstone in the middle of the street of shops, and then systematically bought the top floors of the attached shops around him, most of which were being rented out as flats anyway. He had walls knocked down until his 'home' stretched out halfway down the block. Downstairs he had rooms for his staff (Sherlock's staff, his expression corrected as he talked, and Greg remembered what he'd said about everyone being in his brother's pocket). Upstairs was the wide, fancy front room, unused except for the times when Mycroft had to entertain visitors. On the far side of the living room was the door that led to that immense Orwellian office of Mycroft's, and through a door opposite that were bedrooms and the rest. He had three bedrooms in the place, though he apparently never had guests over longer than he had to.

Mycroft's bedroom was the last in line, furthest from the front, which Greg thought said a little something about him. Then again with Sherlock as a brother paranoia was probably inevitable. The room he set Greg up in was the first one in line, and so an empty room sat between them. Again, if Greg were all that interested in psychology he figured he could make something of that.

But Greg wasn't interested in analysing anyone. Particularly not when Mycroft led him into the first bedroom and took in how his staff had freshened up the place.

It was as big as his council flat twice over. Same wood floors as the rest of the place, a ridiculous bed that about five of Greg could've slept on. Dressers and armchair and a bookshelf standing empty (as if Greg would fill it, as if he had a load of books in his duffel). The place had its own fireplace, of all things, and a deep closet (already half full of strange clothes that had apparently been purchased for Greg), and a large en suite with a separate bath and shower.

It was...well, nice. Not the kind of posh that made him feel like he'd break something, not like that repressive front room. But nice. Too nice.

It was while he was poking about in the en suite, looking at the fancy brand new soaps and shampoos and all, that reality caught up with him hard.

Mycroft had remained in the bedroom itself, and was frowning his disapproval at the empty shelves of the bookcase when Greg reappeared.

“I thought I'd enjoy the madness for a bit longer than this,” Greg said with a tight smile as he came out.

Mycroft turned to him, eyebrows raising.

“Look, Mr. Holmes. Mycroft. This is ridiculous. You don't pick somebody up off the street and offer them this. Not the room, not the clothes. That fancy dinner was bad enough, but the rest...it isn't reality.”

Mycroft shrugged, unconcerned. “My idea of reality never fitted up against other people's very well.”

“You don't offer a complete stranger a job and a phone and a wardrobe, and access to your fancy car and driver, I don't care how rich you are. You don't offer a room in your home.”

“You do.”

Greg blinked. “What?”

“You offer total strangers your own home, do you not?”

“That's different.”

Mycroft looked around the room dispassionately. “I'm worth millions of pounds that I've not worked for. Inheritance, then investments. My mind lends itself well to making money grow; it's hardly enough to occupy a few minutes a day. My brother is worth even more thanks to his career, and despite how it may seem he would give me anything I asked for beyond what I already have. What I offer you is no loss to me. It's less than meaningless, because it's only money, and I have too much to mind about losing any of it.”

“It's never only money.” Greg spoke grimly, despite the burn in his chest that wanted to believe what he was saying, that none of this actually meant all that much of anything. “Try not having any: you learn fast that money is everything.”

“My experience has been different.” Mycroft sent one of those regal, careless waves through the air between them. “I care nothing for normality, for what the done thing might be in any situation. Perhaps you're right, perhaps this is ridiculous. But my life is ridiculous. I am ridiculous. And so it fits.”

“And what about you, then?” Greg couldn't take his eyes off Mycroft, couldn't let himself hesitate thanks to the luxury around him and how fucking easy it would be to accept it.

“What about me?”

“You loathe people, you said. You're only comfortable alone, you said. Maybe money means nothing to you, but bringing a total stranger into your own solitary place, that means something, doesn't it?”

Mycroft hesitated at that. His brow furrowed, as if he hadn't actually thought about that aspect. He looked around again, maybe seeing all the differences between the freshened-up room and however it looked when it was unoccupied.

Greg folded his arms across his chest, pushing down at his own evil feelings of hope. He didn't need a roof, he didn't need new clothes or a fancy mobile or anything of the sort. He was fine with his few things, his cardboard and sleeping bag and the duffel that was hopefully still back under a pile of rubbish across the street from a crime scene. It was only cold, only hunger, only occasional flare-ups of terror. He'd done it for years.

Mycroft faced him suddenly, an odd expression in his eyes. He regarded Greg, a piercing sweep of eyes that no doubt saw everything in the world, the way they had that very first time. “You could work for me regardless, I expect. You could hold on to the phone, I could send the car to collect you when I need you. I would still put you on salary, and that would improve your station a bit.”

Greg nodded once, sharp. “It's more than I'm used to, it's fine that way.”

“So it is.” Mycroft gestured at the room. “But you'll stay here anyway.”

Greg frowned. “Why? Give me a reason why you're doing this.”

Mycroft offered a thin smile, tight but from what Greg could tell sincere. “I suppose it feels like the right thing to do.”


 

Greg had no idea who ran the water utilities in London or how much they had in reserves. No clue what sort of water tanks or heating system Mycroft had rigged into his fancy flat. All he knew was that he was going to push all of them to their limits.

He took showers, of course, now and then. He'd go by his flat during the days sometimes and duck into the community showers down the end of the hall for a quick scrub. But it was nothing like the shower in Mycroft's place. No, the bathroom itself was sparkling clean, the shower had a fantastic broad showerhead that poured water out like rain, and it was hot and steaming and utterly magical. And the best part – Greg had all the time in the world to enjoy it.

He thought to take a bath, since a hot soak was a luxury he hadn't had really ever. He could count the baths he'd had in his life on two hands, and they were always stayovers in hotels whilst travelling or on leave from the service. He'd never had a tub of his own right there for him to soak in. But he knew better than to put his dirty arse in a tub of standing water right off the street like he was, and judging from the way the shower water sloughed off him in browns and black and tinted the tile floor of the shower, he'd made the right call.

He scrubbed his hair, shampooing and rinsing three separate times. He scrubbed his face, his stubble halfway to beard and feeling gritty. He soaped up every square inch of himself, rinsed it all sparkling, and did it again.

By the time he decided to call it quits, the bathroom was so steamed with water it looked like proper old-timey London fog. He had to swipe the mirror with his hand every ten seconds to be able to look at himself, and it was utterly brilliant.

Definitely had a bit of a beard on him, and Christ, he'd got so old the last decade that it was more grey than brown. Lucky for him whoever stocked the place up thought to get razors and shaving lotion, and he could get rid of it entirely. His hair was too long, nothing like how he used to wear it, but at least it was clean and combed.

And there he was. Silver-haired old man with sun darkened skin and eyes that looked a thousand years old. Was almost worth getting depressed about, but then it felt so good to be clean that he couldn't really manage proper sadness. So he was older. Seeing as that was currently his biggest problem, he was doing better than he had in ages.

Well, there was a serial killer looking for him and his new...friend? Patron? That might qualify as a problem. Hard to see it that way when looking through the humid fog of a balmy bathroom, though.

Greg left the bathroom behind reluctantly, wishing it a fond farewell and hoping against common sense that he'd see it again, that his luck wouldn't do another one-eighty in the next twelve hours.

He rummaged through the new clothes that filled up the closet, snorting over most of the choices. If Mycroft wanted him there to be a representative among the common herd he'd have to buy a few more pairs of denims. Most of what was in the closet could only have been called casual if Greg usually dressed like Mycroft.

He settled on a pair of dark grey chinos and thin black socks and a pale blue polo shirt, and he still felt like he was trying to con someone. There were a few pairs of shoes there, showy black and brown and shiny and wing-tipped, but he ended up sliding his dirty trainers on. The clothes he could experiment with. Shoes had to be reliable.

He checked himself out in the bathroom again once he was dressed, and couldn't help a chuckle at the baby-faced gent looking back at him.

Feeling like a new man, if one he wasn't entirely sure about, he left the bedroom behind to see if his...if Mycroft was about.

The gun was a surprise.

It seemed remarkably big from across the entire wide front room, considering that it wasn't even aimed his way, but then Greg's vision tended to tunnel when someone was armed. A leftover from the service, probably.

“There he is now. Remember me?”

Greg looked from the smiling cabbie to Mycroft, sitting calmly in one of those stiff, rarely used armchairs. “Your security system has a few blind spots, then?”

Mycroft took Greg in with a lofted eyebrow. Maybe approval, maybe amusement. “Of course not. I simply saw no need to wait until morning, so I went to fetch the gentleman.”

Greg edged in, though there was still a good thirty feet between him and the killer. “As long as you're not doing anything rash.”

“Me? Never, I assure you.”

“Well, this is all very pleasant, innit? Now why don't you two gents pay attention to the man with the gun?”

Mycroft's eyes flickered to the killer. “I've sorted you out already, I'm through being interested in you.”

“S'that right?” The man shifted where he stood, but the gun never wavered. It stayed locked on Mycroft.

The idiot had his finger on the trigger, Greg saw, which was a bad sign for Mycroft. Either the killer watched too many bad movies and didn't have enough basic experience with guns to know that you don't touch the trigger until you're absolutely ready to fire, or he was about to kill someone.

“Would you be so bored with me if I said I knew all about you, Mr. Holmes?”

Mycroft's face brightened a bit at that. “Really? That's worth a few moments of my time, perhaps. How?”

“Mutual friend, you might say. Though he's a friend you haven't met yet. Told me all about you. You and Sherlock.”

Mycroft's smile froze.

“The Brothers Holmes. The most brilliant, dangerous men I'd ever meet. That's what I heard, anyway. Imagine my surprise when the older brother himself and his bit of rough came chasing after me earlier.”

“And who was it that told you this?” Mycroft's voice had an edge to it, though his face was all placid politeness.

“Never you mind who. A brillianter man than you or your brother, I'd wager. Now it's your turn, Mr. Holmes. Tell me what you've worked out about me, since you've got me all sorted.”

Greg edged in a few more steps while the two men were talking. He still had a good ways to go before he could get at that gun and not worry about the cabbie getting a shot out, but he knew better than to rush.

“What's to work out? You're a killer like any other. You've got a bit of a gimmick, I suppose, but nothing worth my attention. Poison's too ancient a weapon to be all that interesting.”

“D'you want to know why they take it? I don't make them, you know. I talk to them, that's all. They do everything else themselves.”

“I doubt that's true. I doubt it very much. I think that you give them an ultimatum and swallowing the poison seems like their only option. There's nothing clever in that. It's cowardice. It's murder you want credit for but don't have the courage to deal out. You make your victims their own murder weapons because you haven't the stomach for it.”

“Really now? Is that what you think?” The gun came up, the cabbie moved closer to the chair. His damned finger was still pressed against the trigger, and it made Greg hold his breath as he moved. “What about this, then? What about me shooting you right in your own home?”

“You won't.”

Greg edged around the second armchair, taking advantage of the cabbie moving closer to Mycroft, skirting at the edge of his peripheral vision. So he hoped.

“And why won't I?”

“Because you think you're clever.” Mycroft's words were a sigh, and he honest to god did sound utterly bored. “Worse, you want me to think you're clever. Shooting me is an admission that your scheme wasn't good enough when put up against a superior intellect.”

“Is that it, then? You want to play the game instead. You want to know what I tell them, don't you? How I make them swallow the pill.”

Greg glanced at Mycroft as he slid his feet another few inches. He almost smirked at Mycroft's expression – the man obviously wanted nothing less than to hear the killer out. Whatever the bloke's plan was, Mycroft didn't seem to give a toss.

“Well, it's a bit crowded in here for my usual routine. Besides, staying here's probably a mistake, seeing as your brother's got the whole place wired up.” The killer glanced over at Greg, seemingly unconcerned with how close he was coming. “Tell you what. Why don't you tell your mutt here to heel, and I'll take you 'round to my part of town where we can play the game properly.”

“I've got a better idea,” Greg answered before Mycroft could. “Why don't I beat the shit out of you and we throw you in prison to live a long, miserable life?”

“Short life, actually,” Mycroft said, regarding the killer with that gaze of his, that sharp up and down sweep that missed nothing. “He's dying.”

“Very good, Mr. Holmes. I expect you want me to ask how you know something like that.”

Mycroft smiled, thin and disdainful. “We come to a core difference between you and I, sir.”

“And what's that, d'you imagine?”

“True cleverness doesn't have to seek an audience.”

The killer moved in another step, his hand tightening around the gun. His face was going an unpleasant shade of red.

Greg frowned, edging forward. He spoke up fast, his voice sharp. “Oi, wait a minute. I'm glad the geniuses here all know what's going on, but I'm a bit in the dark. Someone want to explain this whole poison thing to me?”

The killer's gaze went to Greg. His mouth was set, thinned and angry, but he seemed indecisive. He did want an audience, Greg decided. He wanted Mycroft to be that audience, but maybe he'd settle for Mycroft's mutt if it meant he got to show off his smarts.

Meanwhile his finger was still pressed tight around the trigger of the gun. Stupid, Greg knew. Untrained, didn't know the first thing about firing a hand gun in the real world. The worst kind of person to be aiming a gun at someone.

Or...

He frowned, squinting at the gun. “Come on, then. I want to know what the hell we're running around after you for,” he said, trying to get a better look. Christ, maybe he needed glasses now, too. Falling apart in his old age.

The cabbie turned to him, sweeping the gun to Greg as he turned. Greg tensed, though he felt a little more easy without that thing pointed at Mycroft.

And it gave him the perfect view right down the barrel as the cabbie pointed it at him. The too narrow, too shallow barrel.

Greg let out a breath instantly, the tension vanishing from him. He straightened up, glancing at Mycroft. Whether Mycroft knew the whole time or was just preternaturally calm when threatened, he wasn't sure.

“You know, on second thought, guess I really don't give a shit either.” Greg strode forward, closing the space between them fast.

The cabbie backed up before he caught himself. “That's far enough, unless you want--”

“Fuck you.” The tension that had coiled in Greg's gut had sparked into something hot, something that made his hands roll into fists.

The last time he'd faced down a gun was in Iraq, in a war, with good men dying at his feet, and this cocky piece of filth was going to threaten them with a fake. Try to instil that old fear in Greg without even being ready to pull a trigger.

He hated guns. He hated the power they gave any one person, more power than anyone should have over anyone else. Too much damage done far too easily. Good men died, a lot of good men, because some irresponsible, bloodthirsty bastards got their hands on guns.

Before he knew it he had the cabbie's wrist in his hand, squeezing and twisting until the too-light fake fucking gun clattered onto the wood floor. He raised a fist, and the killer never stood a chance.

His vision went red at the edges, hazy. He could smell gunpowder from the bomb that took out the second jeep. Gasoline, the sharp smell of smoke. The scream of one of his corporals, the driver, wedged behind the wheel and burning to death after somehow surviving the initial blast.

Greg felt the heat of the desert sun burning the back of his neck as his fist struck flesh and the dumpy little man fell backwards. He could hear the terse staccato fire of automatic weapons in bursts in his ears, louder now than they'd been at the time when his ears had been ringing so badly after the bomb blast.

Death wasn't pretty, or noble, or graceful. It was blunt and ugly and stupid. Killing someone wasn't artistic or clever. It wasn't a game, or a scheme, or a plan to prove how smart a man was. It was foul, and the men who would treat it as a game were the only men who really deserved to fall victim to it.

He could hear shouts in the distance as he struck out, again and again, tearing apart the bastard who'd thought to treat death as his game. He heard the yells of his boys as they tried to find safe cover from the fire, and his own name was being called somewhere back beyond that.

He felt hands on him, pulling him back. To safety, maybe: he remembered being shot. He remembered hardly noticing. It felt like a punch in the arm, and then he'd kept moving, kept covering so his boys could get to a safe spot. The few who survived.

“Greg! Lestrade! Christ, man, don't make me have to belt you.”

It came between blinks. One second his eyes were filled with smoke and dust and the burn of the sun, the next there was a crowd of people around him, pulling at him, and John Watson stood at his chest, pushing him back away from something. He was fighting, trying to get through them, but the moment after he recognised his surroundings he couldn't remember why he was fighting.

He sagged backwards, and a couple of uniformed coppers sagged with him.

Watson moved up close, checking his eyes, hands still pressed against Greg's chest. “You with us now? Are you here?”

“Yeah.” Greg blinked around, wondering what the hell was going on. “I'm here.” His arm ached, and when he lifted his hand there was blood on his knuckles.

He blinked out past John – the DI was assertive and strong but he was still quite a bit shorter than Greg and easy to see around. His memory started coming back when he saw the bloody face of a man crumpled on the wood floor. A stubby man with a flat cap on.

He was groaning, surrounded by coppers, bleeding from the mouth and temple and a gash was torn down his cheek. Greg blinked from the killer to his own hand and let out a shaky breath.

Right. Killer, fake gun, threatening him and Mycroft.

He looked around again fast, and wasn't all that surprised to see that Mycroft was still sitting in that stiff armchair, though he looked a good bit paler than he had. His eyes were on Greg when Greg looked over.

“All right?” Greg called out.

Mycroft's eyebrows lofted. Any other time it might've looked like he was offended at Greg even having to ask, at the implication that he might be ruffled by something as petty as violence. But as pale as he was and as wide as his eyes were he couldn't quite pull it off.

Still, answer enough. Greg relaxed then, letting Watson lead him over to the couch as his troupe of coppers moved around the big, impersonal front room.


 

Sherlock sent Watson over, it turned out. He did have a constant watch on his brother's home, it seemed, and Mycroft seemed resigned when the man himself eventually showed up, swooping around in his long black coat getting up in everyone's business.

Greg gave his statement, leaving out the part where he figured out the gun was fake. Seemed like the kind of thing that might hurt a self-defence claim if he mentioned it. Luckily John didn't seem to have much interest in locking him up for taking the bastard down.

They found all the evidence they needed right in the bloke's pockets. Two bottles, two pills, and Watson had no doubt they'd match whatever poison was found in the systems of all the murder victims. Watson was pretty much ecstatic that he had a live killer to parade around in front of the press. He'd take some heat for calling them suicides up until now, but even as he mentioned that he didn't seem all that bothered.

“You sure you're all right, then?” Watson asked Greg as the coppers were hauling the killer out of the flat finally. “Didn't break any fingers, don't need any...any other help?”

Greg knew what he meant, and it was a question worth asking. No mistaking that he'd been in the middle of some kind of...something, some haze, when Watson showed up and pulled him off the bastard.

But Greg felt pretty solid at that moment. Maybe more solid than he'd felt in a long time. Despite the gun and the memories, he didn't think he'd worry about falling asleep sober. And if the nightmares did come...well, he was in a pretty good place to deal with them.

“Yeah,” he answered easily enough. “I'm good. I'm fine.”

He managed a smirk as he watched John leave, watched him skirting around Sherlock's hovering presence while they both tried so hard not to acknowledge each other that it looked like they might be hurting themselves.

Once Watson left after his team, though, there was just the three of them. Greg Lestrade and the Brothers Holmes. He sat there on the couch and tried not to be too noticed as Sherlock finally approached his brother.

“This is unacceptable,” Sherlock said, his voice as low and cold as it had been in the car.

Mycroft, perfectly positioned, legs crossed and hands folded together on his lap, simply regarded his brother. “I don't remember calling the Yard.”

“I suppose you would have preferred hauling the man's corpse out to a skip yourself,” Sherlock answered in a snap.

“I think we could've managed it.”

Sherlock heaved a sigh. “That's it, then? This madness wasn't enough to talk you out of this ridiculous hobby of yours and into something more practical?”

“Just when things are getting interesting? Really. Sherlock, it's like you don't know me at all.” Mycroft sounded sad.

Greg grinned.

Unfortunately that was enough to put Sherlock's winter-blue eyes on Greg. The younger Holmes frowned at him in utter disapproval. “And you. I see you aren't intelligent enough to take decent advice when it's offered.”

Greg shrugged. “God knows how I put my trousers on in the mornings. All on my own and everything.”

Mycroft's mouth quirked upward, which was enough to make Greg feel like he'd just won a ten round bout.

Sherlock glowered at them each in turn like they were recalcitrant school children, not a good ten years older than him. “I can't decide which of you will be more toxic for the other. This will end in chaos.”

Mycroft sat patiently, as if waiting for his brother to get to some kind of point. Greg just grinned.

Sherlock's breath puffed out of him. He wheeled around and stalked to the door, muttering under his breath, his dramatic jacket flared out behind him. Like a stuffy government Batman, Greg couldn't help but think.

“Sherlock.” Mycroft spoke as Sherlock opened the door. “One thing.”

“Hurry up, you've taken me from important business as it is.”

“There's someone speaking out of turn about us,” Mycroft answered, and Greg remembered the cabbie's little hints about knowing all about the Holmes brothers. Some kind of mutual friend Mycroft hadn't met yet.

Sherlock glanced back, but only nodded once. “I heard. I've got an idea about that, rumblings I've been hearing from a certain circle. If it becomes something concerning, I'll let you know.”

Mycroft hummed an answering sound. “My regards to the Inspector.”

Sherlock tensed at that, but stormed out and shut the door behind him without answering.

Greg chuckled, relaxing when it was finally just the two of them in the flat. “He's not so bad the second time 'round.”

“He's not an enemy you want to have,” Mycroft answered. “But no harm in some gentle teasing. He'd have far too big a head without it.”

“Sounds fair.” Greg stood up, his body launching several loud complaints about the action. Out the window the sun was starting to come up, and it was utterly mad to realise that when the sun first set he had no idea who Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes or John Watson were.

He stretched, feeling every bit the old man he'd seen in the mirror earlier. “I'm done in. D'you mind if I try to get some sleep?”

Mycroft seemed surprised. “Certainly. I might follow your lead, after I check on a few things.”

“Cheers.” Greg headed for the door that led back to the bedrooms. A few hours sleep would help him prepare for the utter oddness of waking up in a plush flat with someone around who was planning to issue him weird orders.

“Gregory.”

He glanced back. “Mm?”

Mycroft stood, tugging at his waistcoat though from what Greg could tell he hadn't developed so much as a wrinkle in the last twelve hours. “I'm not very familiar with firearms. Until this evening it hadn't seemed an important subject to learn about. I was not aware that his weapon was fake, not until the police were examining the scene.”

Greg wasn't all that surprised. Guns were a different world from this flat and those computers of his. “You don't want me to teach you, do you? Because frankly I hate the bloody things.”

“No, no. Nothing like that.” Mycroft's brow creased and his mouth pursed as he thought. “It was extraordinarily brave, what you did.”

Greg blinked. “Not really. I did see it was a fake, at the end there before I...” He shrugged.

“Still. You took steps to get the weapon away from me, even before you realised that it wouldn't harm you.” Mycroft frowned, looking displeased with himself. “I...I simply want to say that I appreciate it. That you would do that.”

Greg relaxed at that, sending him a grin. “Don't mention it. I was a soldier. Still feel like one sometimes. We'll call that part of my job description, yeah?”

“No.” That at least was vehement. Mycroft's hesitancy vanished. “No, we very much won't.”

Something about that made Greg's face heat, but he wasn't sure why. He cleared his throat and amended his words. “Let's just plan not to end any more nights in stand-offs with killers, then.”

Mycroft gave a thin smile at that, and a terse nod. “Much more agreeable. Sleep well, Gregory.”

Greg returned the smile and headed down the hall.

Funny, his parents hadn't even called him Gregory back before they died. No one had ever called him that, but he hardly noticed that Mycroft had been. Sounded right coming from him, anyway. That precise voice lent itself to full names.

He reached his fancy new bedroom and went in, shutting the door behind him.

Maybe Sherlock was right, and he was hanging around through the madness because he thought Mycroft needed him to, and he wanted to be relied on again. There was something terribly sad about Mycroft, after all. Shut up in this big fancy flat, so comfortable with himself that he never learned to be comfortable with anyone else. But he invited Greg to stay anyway, and that had to mean something.

Sherlock said something before he left, said he didn't know which of the two of them was going to be worse for the other. In Greg's mind that went very differently: Greg wasn't sure which of the two of them needed the other one more.

But that was a hell of a thing to think about after knowing a man for twelve hours or so, so Greg didn't bother digging any deeper into the thought. Couldn't have if he'd wanted to, really, because the second he sprawled out on top of that big fancy bed, his world went black and he slept like a dead thing.