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If on a Winter's Night

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The rail trip to Manchester usually relaxed him. Two hours with nothing to do but sit in a comfortable seat and stare out the window watching things go by was a rare luxury. Today, though, Greg only felt more and more tense as the train streamed north and London’s smoggy haze receded into the distance. It wasn’t the talk he’d be giving at the conference that had him wound up; he knew the material perfectly well, and his audience would be friendly at best, inattentive and eager to get back to the hotel bar at worst. He’d take this over a press conference or court deposition any day.

No, it was the thing with Sherlock getting under his skin again, of course. It hadn’t been a fight. They didn’t do fights, him and Sherlock; that would be too...whatever. Couple-y. Which they weren’t. They fucked, now and then, that was all, and Greg was fine with that. More than fine--he preferred it that way. Who in their right mind would want to have a committed relationship, of any kind, with Sherlock Holmes? Well, John, of course, in the platonic sense of relationship, but John wasn’t exactly in his right mind, was he?

It was fine. It was just irritating, now and then, being condescended to in public, in front of his junior officers, by a man who had been begging for his cock only hours before.

So he’d been a bit short with Sherlock, a bit shirty, before he left, that was all. Probably Sherlock hadn’t even noticed. Except that he noticed everything, the bastard, so now he was undoubtedly smugly thinking that...oh, who knew. It all gave him a headache sometimes, to the point where Greg was pretty sure he’d be better off giving it up entirely.

Except that the sex was occasionally amazing.

And it wasn’t as if he wanted anything more. Truly. He only wanted a bit of respect. Just a tiny modicum, even, for decency’s sake, enough to enable him to hold his head up when he thought about it. Was that so very much to ask? Perhaps it was. Apparently it was. Anything was too much to ask, where Sherlock was concerned--you were just supposed to accept him like a bloody miracle dropping from the sky wherever and whenever it chose, and never think of expecting a single thing more.

Well, fuck that. Thank god he was getting out of town for a few days, as a matter of fact. Get away from it for a bit, get some distance, some perspective. Have a few drinks with his colleagues, enjoy their applause at his words, cursory and insincere as it might be-- Damn it, there was the thing. After watching Sherlock work, listening to a few of his deductions, who could be content with the faint praise of the masses? But it was as much as he deserved, probably. There was nothing of brilliance in what Greg did. He had just enough wit to recognise the extraordinary when he saw it, and to not turn away from it. That was as much as he could hope for.

Oh, it was a right mess and no mistake. Distance. Alcohol. Best solutions for everything, he thought bitterly; he’d become a copper through and through, all right.

*

The opening evening reception was in full swing by the time Greg showed up for a look-in. He’d thought about skipping it, but drinking alone in his stiff little generic hotel room felt too pathetic for his current mood, and he ought to put in an appearance, probably.

Not that anyone would have noticed either way, he realised when he arrived. He’d been to any number of law enforcement conferences during his career, some lofty and academic, others small and businesslike, and some that seemed nothing more than a thin excuse for junior officers to get together and blow off steam. This was decidedly one of the latter. He would hardly have been invited to speak at one of the other kind--a lowly DI with no academic qualifications to flaunt, NSY pedigree or no. Most of the attendees looked painfully young to his eyes, bunched together in raucous guffawing groups or clustered three deep around the bar. He nearly turned at the door and walked out again.

Then he heard a sound that sent a splinter of ice straight down his spine. A ringing burst of laughter: Sherlock’s laugh. No, not Sherlock’s actual laugh, not the dry sarcastic chuckle or the surprised bark of genuine amusement. But it was a sound he’d heard Sherlock make before, when he was impersonating someone or other, a ridiculous sort of high-pitched whinny. Surely, he told himself, surely he was being paranoid. He’d been thinking about Sherlock far too much on the trip up, so his mind was now latching onto vague resemblances--any number of people in the world might have a similar-sounding laugh. But he edged in closer to the source of the sound just the same, looking round carefully, just in case.

Buggering fuck. It was him. He was there, tall in the midst of a laughing group, hair slicked down and parted, wearing a shabby, ill-fitting suit Greg had never seen before. What on Earth? He edged closer to the knot of people, circling round behind Sherlock's back, hoping to overhear their conversation. He was still having trouble believing his eyes.

“...and he was still wearing it when we went round to arrest him,” Sherlock was saying, in a nasal accent not his own. “But that’s not the worst of it--it was the only thing he had on. There’s an image I’ll never be rid of.” The fellows around him chuckled appreciatively, and one of them launched into their own stupid-crims-I-have-taken-in story.

Greg wasn’t sure what outraged him the most: his presence, his ridiculous false accent, or the fact that it was his own bloody story Sherlock had just repeated. He backed casually closer to the group, trying to angle himself so that he could see if Sherlock were wearing a conference badge--he’d have to be, surely, or they’d never have let him into the hall.

Sherlock turned round at that moment and looked straight at him, gave him a quizzical once-over and a politely vague smile, and turned away again. You’d have sworn he’d never seen Lestrade before in his life. Greg was left feeling slightly alarmed and guilty, as if he were the one intruding on Sherlock’s patch rather than the obvious reverse. He was wearing a badge, he’d managed to observe in the midst of his shock at being confronted. DS Brian Miller, Nottinghamshire Police.

It was incredibly difficult not to seize him by the elbow and demand to know what he was playing at, but Greg collected himself, after a moment, and drifted over to the bar.

A few minutes later, Sherlock squeezed in next to him, signalled vainly to one of the perspiring bartenders, glanced over at Greg with another tight smile and nod--the exact sort of look you’d give to a stranger standing in front of you in a bus queue in the rain--and then faced front again.

“DS Miller, is it?” Greg said.

“That’s me.” Sherlock didn’t look at him. “Rumour had it I was down with flu and wouldn’t make it to the goings-on, but lucky for me I perked up again in time.” He gave an ostentatious look to Greg’s own name badge. “Ah, Detective Inspector. I’m looking forward to your panel tomorrow--begging your pardon, what was the topic again?”

“Are you...you’re not here on a case, are you?” Greg couldn’t help asking.

Sherlock shot him a quick puzzled glance. “Not at all, just here for the experience, Sir, as they say.”

Christ. You’d think he had a long-lost twin brother from Nottingham. It was uncanny.

Greg glanced around him, then leaned in closer and muttered, “Just...mind you stay clear of the London folks, whatever it is you’re up to. Someone’s going to recognise you.”

“Oh, I hardly think so, Detective Inspector,” Sherlock said, still in character, the bastard. “Very few of you London boys up here tonight anyway, no? Ah, yes--scotch and soda, please,” he called out to the bartender as he veered over in their direction. “Heavy on the soda.” He gave Greg another tight, polite little smile and nod and then turned his back without the smallest sign of recognition or of wanting to continue the conversation.

“Same, please,” Greg called out. “But make mine heavy on the scotch. All scotch, in fact.”

He got his drink and took it off to nurse it in the quietest corner he could find. He ought to down it and leave, he told himself, and deny Sherlock the satisfaction of his audience--whatever it was that Sherlock was trying to accomplish here, Greg was clearly meant to be witnessing it.

And yet he couldn’t bring himself to quit watching, half in fascination and half dread, waiting to see what sort of unspeakable havoc might be about to burst forth from the direction of the so-called DS Miller. What in God’s name could Sherlock be up to?

*

An hour later and with two more drinks under his belt, Greg was still waiting, making small talk with a few vague acquaintances and growing increasingly annoyed. This was supposed to be a getaway of sorts for him, a brief respite from all things Sherlock, and instead Sherlock--in the character of this poor sod Miller--was stealing the limelight as usual, apparently the life and soul of the little group of drunken cronies who’d gathered around him to roar at his anecdotes. Most of them Greg’s anecdotes, from what he’d managed to overhear.

His head was swimming--not merely from the scotch, but from trying to form theories about why Sherlock was here, why he was acting out this bizarre little scenario. HIs list ranged from Really is on a case and doesn’t want to blow cover to Bored and Wants to torture me??? It could be all of the above.

A text message buzzed in his pocket, and Greg excused himself to the Gents’ to read it:

the DI from Leeds in the green suit is having an affair with her commissioner. SH

“Jesus Christ,” Greg muttered, and texted back, I’ll alert the media. The hell are you doing here anyway?

The reply came seconds later: she is flirting with me to make him jealous. may need rescuing. SH

Or you could just leave? Greg suggested.

No response. He went back out to the reception proper and tried to avoid glancing in the direction of Sherlock, who indeed had a dark-haired woman in a lime-green suit practically clinging to his arm. Good. Maybe she’d manage to chase him off. The longer Sherlock hung around here making a spectacle of himself, the greater the odds that someone would eventually realise he was an impostor, and if it were to come out that he was actually an associate of Lestrade’s…

He shuddered. It didn’t bear thinking about.

It was nearly eight p.m. now, the hour at which the reception was officially supposed to wrap up, and the head of the planning committee got up onto the stage at one end of the room and began to make a welcoming speech. He had atrocious timing; half the crowd had already dispersed and gone off to dinner or to hook up in their hotel rooms, and the other half was more than three sheets to the wind. By the slur in his voice, though, the fellow on stage had had a few himself, and plowed gamely through his introductory remarks without appearing to notice that hardly any of his audience was actually listening.

Greg got another text. Wrong.

Which bit? he texted back.

All of it. Is this typical? Next 2 days should be amusing. SH

In spite of the fact that this wasn’t far off what Greg had just been thinking himself, the message brought his blood to the boiling point. He jammed his mobile back into his pocket, tried to restrain himself for the next thirty seconds or so, then thought, No. Just no, and walked right up to Sherlock and tapped his shoulder.

“A word with you, Sergeant...Miller, is it?” He jerked his head toward the door. “Outside?”

Sherlock disentangled himself from his lime-green limpet, murmured his apologies, and followed Greg wordlessly out into the courtyard. “About bloody time,” he burst out, after looking around to ascertain that they were alone. “That woman would have propositioned me outright in another two minutes.”

“What are you doing here?” Greg demanded, folding his arms so he wouldn’t reach out and give Sherlock an angry shake.

Sherlock smirked. “Nothing in particular, just a bit of fun. Can you believe this crowd? And I thought the London force was bad. One can only assume the local criminals must be equally devoid of intelligence, or--”

“Stop. No. You’re not doing this. Get out of here, go home.”

Sherlock gave a short laugh of disbelief. “You’re not serious.”

Greg waited.

“Oh, what? All you’ve done for the past week is moan about what a ridiculous waste of time and resources these events are and how much you dreaded being here. Quite rightly, as it turned out. I had to see for myself. You don’t care for my disguise? I thought you’d be amused.”

“Amused,” Greg said. “Right. At watching you mock my colleagues, my profession, me? Because it’s not bad enough having you disrespect me to my face on the job at home, no, you had to follow me all the way up here so you could have a laugh at the expense of a lot of strangers whose lives you know nothing about. That’s lovely, that is. Very amusing, yeah.”

Sherlock looked almost comically taken aback. It was satisfying, for a brief moment, until his expression turned shrewd again. “You’re intoxicated,” he observed. “Come on, I’ll take you back to your hotel.”

“Not nearly intoxicated enough,” Greg told him. “You can fuck right off. I mean it, Sherlock. Go home.”

He turned and left, then, praying Sherlock didn’t follow after him, because people were beginning to stream out of the exits now and it would probably cause a stir if Greg punched him in the middle of a crowd.

The taxi stand outside the conference centre was swamped. Better to walk, he decided, despite the cold.

Halfway to his hotel he ran out of righteous anger and sank down on a park bench, holding his throbbing head in his hands. So that was it. He’d just blown up at Sherlock. He’d done it before, of course, but not like this. He’d been oversensitive, heartfelt, accusatory--all the things Sherlock couldn’t abide. This was, in all probability, the end.

Which was good. Right? He couldn’t go on pretending he didn’t mind that the bloke he was sleeping with was so often an utter arsehole.

Sherlock would never apologise, either, even in the unlikely event he did realise he was in the wrong. The next time they spoke, if they did speak again, he’d surely only say something completely caustic, like--

“You forgot your coat, you idiot.”

Greg turned to find Sherlock scowling at him from the pavement a few metres away, hands tucked into his armpits, blowing out a puff of frozen breath.

He looked away. “Not cold,” he said shortly.

“You should be.” Sherlock sounded irritated. “It’s minus five. All that alcohol you consumed is making you think you’re warm enough when you’re actually on the verge of hypothermic shock. Come on, get up and keep walking.”

Greg did, mainly because he knew if he didn’t then Sherlock would stand there and continue railing at him. “ ’M not drunk,” he muttered, although he couldn’t help thinking of all the winos he’d herded into the cells over the years, their lips and fingers blue, stubbornly insisting the exact same thing.

“Well you’re not sober,” Sherlock said, swiftly shedding his coat and draping it over Greg’s shoulders. Greg registered the warm weight of it with surprise and instinctively drew it close around him before he really realised what it was.

“Thanks,” he said grudgingly, after a bit, and they continued on in silence, save for the sound of their footsteps ringing loud on the pavement in the freezing air.

When they reached Greg’s hotel there was an awkward pause in which they didn’t quite look at each other.

“You constantly complain about your profession,” Sherlock said crossly. “And your colleagues too, for that matter.”

“It’s different when it’s me saying it!”

“I don’t see how.”

“No, you wouldn’t, would you?” Greg knew he sounded petulant, but it was true. “And I don’t make fun of people to their faces, or...or...look, it was out of line, that’s all I’m saying. Not to mention the trouble you could get into if you got caught at it, the trouble I could get into, if-- And for what? A bit of fun?” His voice was turning heated again. “You really needed to go to such lengths to demonstrate yet again how little you think of what I do?”

“That’s not--” Sherlock said sharply, then checked himself. “Believe what you like, you’re clearly determined on it. May I have my coat back, please?”

He had forgotten he was still clutching the garment ridiculously around his shoulders. He passed it over to Sherlock, who slipped it on and turned to leave in one swooping motion that somehow managed to convey the utmost theatrical scorn.

Greg rolled his eyes. “Oh, so that’s it, is it? Vanishing into the night from whence you came?” Perhaps he was a bit drunk.

“Go inside,” Sherlock said, turning back to scowl at him. “You need to warm up.”

“No. Say it. ‘That’s not’ what? What were you going to say?”

Sherlock stood looking at him for a moment, clearly furious and wanting to bolt. Then he strode forward swiftly, cupped Greg’s face in his gloved hands, and kissed him full on the mouth, angrily at first and then melting into something softer, biting gently at his lower lip.

“Well,” Greg said, a bit breathlessly. “All right. That’s not what I expected.”

“I like watching you at work,” Sherlock said, resting his forehead against Greg’s in a gesture of exhausted resignation. “Is that not painfully obvious to you, after all these years?”

“Not...well, no. Actually. Not at all. You don’t exactly… No.”

“Then you’re even more dense than I’d imagined.” Sherlock head-butted him lightly and then kissed him again.

Greg sighed. It was typical Sherlock, offhand abuse mixed with the sudden shock of occasional tenderness; he liked it this way, to a point, but it did get terribly confusing sometimes.

“So you followed me up here...why?”

“Work it out,” Sherlock murmured. “Indoors. You’re frozen.”

“F-fuck off,” Greg said, through chattering teeth. “Where were you planning on staying the night, anyway?”

“With you, obviously, if you’re done being tiresome. Care for a bit of role-playing with DS Miller? I’m sure he’d be properly worshipful of your bureaucratic brand of brilliance.” Sherlock made his eyes go round and wide and slightly vacant. “Oh, Detective Inspector,” he moaned breathily, and Greg gave a deep shudder that had nothing to do with the cold.

“Not exactly my style,” he admitted, and gave a wary glance toward the hotel entrance, where taxis were still dropping off tipsy conference-goers. “Wait out here for two or three minutes, then come up to room 306. It’d better be you who shows up at my door, though. DS Miller can stay out here and freeze his bollocks off.” He turned and walked quickly away before he had to watch Sherlock smirk with satisfaction again.

The Sherlock who requested admittance to Greg’s hotel room a few minutes later wasn’t exactly a penitent one, but that was all right; one of his favourite things about Sherlock, Greg remembered suddenly, was the fact that it was terribly easy and incredibly satisfying to make him shut up, under the proper circumstances.

And he warmed the bed up very nicely indeed.

*

Greg didn’t dare look too closely at the audience during his presentation the next day. Sherlock had vanished again, and it was a fair bet that he was lurking about somewhere doing his Sergeant Clueless impersonation. He dreaded the question-and-answer portion of the event.

The impertinent challenging voice he was expecting didn’t speak up in the first few minutes, though, and Greg began to relax despite himself. Perhaps Sherlock had decided, against all odds, not to show up and attempt to throw him off or embarrass him during his moment in the spotlight?

It seemed too good to be true--but apparently it was. The Q&A was coming to a close; a wave of applause went up; it was over. Greg looked up in time to see a swoosh of black coat disappearing out one of the back exits, and smiled.

He accepted the warm congratulations of his co-presenters and shook a lot of hands, then made his apologies and excused himself to send a brief text message.

So? You liked it?

Sherlock’s reply was an even briefer, X. --SH

X for Wrong, Greg wondered, or X for… No. It was Sherlock. Surely not.

Maybe, though. Just maybe. Greg decided in the end not to ask, and to leave the possibility open for either, or both.