Friendship is a sheltering tree.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 'Youth and Age'
It started, as things so often did, with Sherlock.
Greg carried him from the drug den in Lambeth himself - half-dead, drugged out of his skull, as filthy as the rats that infested the place. Sherlock was lucky he'd only got one stab wound. Greg would never forget that night.
He had to pull Mycroft's number from Sherlock's phone, then rang him awkwardly from the hospital to say he'd better get here quick. Mycroft made it there so fast he must have broken several traffic laws. He spent the night in a chair at Sherlock's side, while Greg spent it at home, barely sleeping, waking every hour to read the text updates that Mycroft was good enough to send. At six AM, Greg went in to take over, so that Mycroft could go home for a shower and some food.
Over the next few days, they exchanged updates on the patient by text. It opened into short stretches of chat - enquiring after each other; gratitude for support; absolute rejection of any need whatsoever for gratitude. Greg fussed a bit that Mycroft wasn't sleeping. Mycroft fussed that Greg didn't eat.
Then after ten days, Sherlock discharged himself from hospital without either of them knowing. They arrived that night to find his room cleared, his bed made, no sign that he was ever there. He'd returned to Baker Street without a backwards glance, and nothing more was said of the matter.
Greg had felt uneasy with him for it, for a while.
But then, he supposed, Sherlock hadn't seen his brother pale and hunched as he slept in a hospital chair - tie loosened, cuffs rolled, handmade brogues slipped off and discarded without thought beneath the bed, too exhausted and worried to care what happened to them. He hadn't seen the look on Mycroft's face when Greg first brought him a decent coffee from the shop down the road. He hadn't been there to witness Mycroft hearing medical reports from consultants, asking every question that could possibly be asked, demanding the best for his brother, settling for nothing less.
Greg had tried to tell him. He felt like Sherlock needed to know - but Sherlock just didn't seem to hear it.
"Is he paying you to spy on me?" Sherlock asked with a quizzical frown, the third time Greg tried to bring the subject up.
They were standing in the entrance hall of The Natural History Museum, examining a body that the staff swore had not been there when they locked up. They'd come in to find the unknown man sprawled halfway up a staircase, and one of the stegosaurus skeletons was missing. The whole thing gone, not a bone left - vanished in the night. Sherlock was having far too much fun with this one already.
"Is he - ... " Greg said. "Are you serious? No, Sherlock... of course Mycroft's not paying me to spy on you."
"Has he offered?"
Greg stared at him in astonishment. "Does he usually offer?"
"Yes," Sherlock said, as if this were obvious. His brow twitched with confusion. "I wonder why he hasn't offered you…" Answers supplied themselves to his brain at once. "Too noble. Police officer... unlikely to accept, and I'd be inclined to conceal immoral practice from you with some diligence anyway… you're not worth his time."
His grey eyes shuttered - case closed - and he whirled off to investigate how easily an intruder could have scaled the nearby mammoth skeleton to reach the skylight.
Greg liked Sherlock. He was a bloody miracle, sometimes.
He could be pretty bloody stupid too.
Because since he'd discharged himself from hospital, his brother had continued to text Greg - every day, in fact.
Most days, several times.
And Greg was texting him back.
Nearly a month had passed, and they'd been meeting for coffee twice a week - just to talk. At first, it had been to talk about Sherlock - but now the weeks were going by, and it was rare that they mentioned him much anymore. They were too busy talking about everything else. Tomorrow, Greg was going for lunch at The Diogenes.
He was definitely worth Mycroft's time.
Although it had started in January, it was spring before they realised.
By that point, 'Mycroft Lunch' had become a frequent feature of Greg's calendar. He liked Mycroft's company. He liked his take on the world, and he liked his bone-dry sense of humour, and he liked spending time with someone who was nothing whatsoever to do with work. They talked about work, of course - they talked about everything - but Mycroft wasn't another weary Scotland Yarder, chatting just to get through until five. He was Greg's friend. He wasn't here because he was paid for it.
They now texted back and forth most of the day, at a pace that led several people to ask Greg if he'd got himself a lady. Nobody seemed to believe him when he said it was just a mate.
He spent most of his evenings lying on the sofa with the TV on in the background, texting Mycroft - films, travel destinations, food. There didn't seem to be a country in the world that Mycroft hadn't visited. Greg found it amazing.
March rolled round. One day they met for coffee, and Mycroft was startled to see Greg in jeans and a jumper - he hadn't realised it was his week off. Greg had come in specially. "Why wouldn't I?" Greg said. "It's good to see you." They shared a piece of carrot cake along with coffee, and Greg walked him back to his office at three PM, talking all the way about the new Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe. Greg wondered if a four-cylinder diesel engine would be too noisy; but Mycroft informed him that the V8 engine on the C63 S model would clearly deliver the sort of breathtaking performance that would leave one deaf to all sound in the universe, and furthermore that Greg would want one as soon as he laid eyes on Mycroft's.
Soon, April had arrived. The evenings were longer; the air was cleaner. They started meeting in bars after work, just to talk. Greg discovered that Mycroft was a billiards demon, and Mycroft was appalled that Greg had never experienced live chamber music. They went one night to Wigmore Hall. As it started, all the hair rose up on the back of Greg's neck. He glanced across after a wide-eyed and enraptured half hour to find Mycroft watching him in wonder, his eyes full of something Greg couldn't quite describe.
Greg had a stack of CDs now.
They calmed him down after work; they reminded him of Mycroft.
He didn't know if other men listened to music that reminded them of their friends. In a way, he didn't care. Other people could do whatever the hell they wanted.
He liked Mycroft.
He liked him a lot. They were both busy professionals, and they worked hard, and it was fine. Greg had spent too much of his life with girlfriends and an ex-wife who never had much to talk to him about; who didn't understand or care much about the intricacies of his job, and what a pain in the arse it all was for him; who just thought Sherlock was a weirdo, and that Greg was a bit of a weirdo for putting up with him.
Mycroft didn't seem to think anything of the sort.
Greg was too busy enjoying it all to try and work out what it was. It was a good seven years since Greg's run of girlfriends had been broken by a boyfriend - but he and Mycroft never touched - let alone kissed.
He didn't know if this was a strangely romantic friendship or a sexless romance. He didn't know if Mycroft even operated within normal categories of human relationships. Sherlock certainly didn't - God knew John had suffered for it over the years - so why should his brother be any different?
He and Mycroft were happy, Greg thought. That was good enough for him.
The day it all came out was an ordinary one in early May. They'd arranged to meet for lunch near Scotland Yard - a little bistro with a good menu and a reputation for top class coffee. They got there at twelve, took a table in the window and ordered food.
Before the food had even arrived, Greg had realised something was wrong.
His usual conversation seemed to be going nowhere. Mycroft's answers were short, evasive and oddly factual. He was supplying requested information, but no more. He was shifty about something - unhappy - he was pale and he didn't look like he'd slept, even though he assured Greg he was fine, simply busy at work.
If he'd been facing Greg across an interview room, Greg would have advised him to go call his bloody lawyer. He was hiding something, and it wasn't anything good. Greg knew that look. He'd seen it before.
He found himself gazing miserably at those clever grey eyes, usually so quick to seek out and settle in his own.
Today, he watched them flick to everything in the world rather than him. Dully they scanned the menu, even after the order had been taken. They twitched to the street outside, narrowed at other patrons and watched waiters carrying drinks.
They didn't seem to want Greg anymore.
Food, when it arrived, was a tasteless relief - an excuse to sit in silence. Greg ate quickly, provided his half of the bill and tried not to remember with miserable embarrassment the morning he'd spent looking forward to this - looking forward to Mycroft. Good lunch, good conversation, good company. Those bright grey eyes.
He didn't know what had changed, but something had.
The two of them weren't close enough for him to ask - but close enough for it to hurt.
They said a short and emotionless goodbye just outside. Greg watched Mycroft walk away along the street, his coat collar turned up, shoulders hunched.
Greg had the distinct feeling he was watching someone walk out of his life.
It hurt like hell.
But what could he do? Run after Mycroft, and beg him not to end… this? Whatever 'this' even was. Greg watched him go, his chest caving right there on the street, trying to scrap together what he could even possibly say. "Please don't end maybe starting to fancy me." But this wasn't a romantic comedy. This was real life, and sometimes people just got bored and changed their minds. Had it even been more than a friendship for Mycroft? He might not even be gay.
And Greg realised far too late, as he watched Mycroft walk away, that it had been more than a friendship for him.
A romance? Never any hard evidence for that - but a pre-romance, maybe. A quiet and patient bond. It was too formless and too fragile for him to race after Mycroft down the street. It had only nearly been - and now it was gone.
It was over, and there was nothing Greg could say. There was nothing he could do.
He could only watch as Mycroft walked away, and do his best to wish the guy some happiness in life.
Greg sat quietly at his desk for the rest of the afternoon, trying to fill the time.
He got a lot of paperwork done.
It was the irony of the situation that when he was distressed, he usually texted Mycroft for company. Instead, his mobile sat morose and silent all day.
Suddenly it was no longer a phone, full of conversation - it was now just an uncommunicative lump of plastic with the time on the screen, whose only purpose was to remind Greg every ten minutes that he had no new messages.
At six PM, his phone buzzed quietly where he'd left it by the fridge. Greg finished chopping carrots for tonight's dinner before he checked it.
May I ask you something?
It is awkward. I wouldn't ask
if it weren't important. M.
Greg stared at the message, wishing his heart hadn't lodged immediately in his throat.
He knew this shouldn't be affecting him like it was. They were just… coffee-friends, after all - friends who texted each other all the time - and met for lunch twice a week, and sometimes wandered round the park together... and reached for each other when they were distressed...
Sure... do you want me to ring?
I'm just at home
No. This will be easier for
me to say in text. M.
Greg held his breath, watching the typing bubble continue to bob. The message, when it came, speared him to the heart.
What do you want from me? M.
What do I… WANT from you?
I don't understand. I get the
feeling I've messed up somewhere.
I'm sorry, whatever I did.
Honestly. I never meant to
piss you off
What underlies your interest in me?
I don't understand why you are kind to
me. I need to know what drives it.
I can't apologise for my bluntness. I need
to know what you're expecting from me.
Or I cannot see you any more. M.
"Christ," Greg managed in a breath. He sank down into a chair at the kitchen table, trying to piece together a reply in his head.
Erm. Maybe not helpful but… what
do YOU want? Have I been too much?
I was just kinda enjoying things...
I like your company. I suppose
TODAY I wanted to have lunch
You wish to be my friend, then. M.
Greg read the text five times.
It was simple enough - but he kept reading it, hoping with each new pass of his eyes that he'd be able to read the other words he thought he could maybe see behind them.
Okay you said "awkward"...
let's make this awkward...
What else is there that I could
be? Just so I know the options
I am 45 years of age. If I was
25 perhaps I'd have the strength
or patience for verbal games. Not
anymore. Tell me what you want
from me now or I cannot cope. M.
Okay… well… I'm 45 too. And
you're being as evasive as I am.
You started this, so how about
we both cut the verbal games.
Ask what you were really asking.
And I'll tell you what I'm thinking.
Greg's half-prepared food had been abandoned on the counter top. He didn't want to eat it anymore. He sat at the table and waited, staring at his phone, willing each minute to pass faster until it finally coughed up a reply.
You’re interested in
me. Sexually. M.
It was blunt, Greg thought.
But there it was.
It was a little scary to see it voiced.
It was more astonishing to realise that Mycroft Holmes spent his life traversing the stormy waters of international politics, and handled it all with the same deft and controlled cool that he put on a pair of cufflinks - but had now been reduced to sledgehammer negotiations. Words, stuttered out by text so he didn’t have to cope with the look on Greg’s face.
That’s not a question. And
there’s a difference between
“sexually” and “romantically”.
What is the difference? M.
It took Greg a few minutes to construct a reply. He didn't want to get this wrong.
Romance comes first I
guess. It's about company.
Then when it leads to sex
its not just physical. Its
emotional. It means
something. And it matters
much more in the end.
Are you interested in
me romantically? M.
Greg bit very hard into his lip as he typed. Hitting send caused him almost physical pain - but he couldn't not send it. He couldn't sit here for the rest of his days at the kitchen table, a pan of water still boiling behind him, carrots shrivelling to nothing as the mince turned into grey dust.
How much will it mess
things up if I say yes?
There was another painful gap before Mycroft finally sent a reply.
What would change
between us? M.
Greg had a feeling he was being asked to submit a formal proposal.
He took the time to make it good, realising with each new word he typed how much he wanted it to be accepted. Christ, he thought, they'd only been meeting for lunch... now it was all coming out. This had been building since he'd first worked Sherlock's phone out of his filthy pocket, wiped the blood off it and scrolled through his contacts looking for 'M'.
Nothing at first… we'd go on
texting and talking. Meet for
coffee and lunch and maybe
move onto dinner if you wanted.
Look out for each other. Think
about each other during the day.
Just... share time together.
This... sounds entirely
like what happens now.
What would change? M.
Greg's heart drummed in every corner of his body as he tapped in a response.
Well, there… would be touching,
if you wanted that… kissing.
Spend time at each other's flats.
Watch films and hug on the sofa,
cook together. And we'd put Xs
at the end when we're texting.
That's about it.
Would there be sex? M.
This was strange, Greg thought.
He wanted it so much it hurt.
Well… not suddenly no. In
time, if you wanted me...
there could be. Can I ask?
Are you a virgin?
No. A number of incidents
when I was at university. M.
Holy shit "incidents"?
Eventualities. Occurrences. I
didn't mean to suggest trauma
was involved. Just a great deal of
disappointment, bewilderment and
unfathomable awkwardness… M.
Okay. Don't use that word to a
policeman again will you? my
heart nearly fucking stopped.
So it's been a while for you...
Yes. It wasn't anything
worth remembering. M.
Okay… well… it's never
enjoyable when you're young.
Nobody knows what they
want or how to ask for it. Or
how to give it. especially if
you're gay. That comes later
Do you expect romance
always to lead to sex? M.
It was a loaded question, Greg thought. Nobody wanted to sign up to a life of celibacy by text message - but all the same, he didn't want to dish out demands either. He didn't want to wreck this, whatever it was. Whatever it could be.
I guess every relationship is different.
you don't know where it'll go until you
try it. Look I don't "expect" anything
from you?… I just like spending time
with you that's all. I get the feeling
youre not sure about sex. that's fine.
Wasn't intending to have sex with
you today in the bistro… don't intend
to have sex with you the next time
we get coffee. In fact won't be
having any kind of sex with you
unless you look me in the eye
and tell me that you want that.
What if that day is
some time away? M.
It's fine... its not a problem.
Honestly I just like being with
you. that's enough right now.
What if that day is soon? M.
Greg's eyebrow quirked. Unexpected. He typed his response with unease.
Erm. How soon? I don't want
to rush things… been a while for
me too. I'd rather take our time.
Okay so I'm being a soft bastard.
But I like you like you are.
No, that's… fine.
are you okay?
I think so. Strangely calm. M.
Is this why you were weird
today at lunch? :( Worried
you're getting bored of me
I'm sorry. Perhaps I don't handle
these things like other people do.
I am not at all bored of you. M.
that's fine… we're all different.
So long as you're okay
Are YOU okay? M.
Yeah I'm fine. Honestly I'm
glad you said something. I
kinda spent the day worrying...
I feel a bit excited maybe.
Is it alright that I feel that?
Yes. That is alright. M x
Okay. good. x
What happens now? M x
we'll just keep things quiet… just
you and me. See where it goes?
do you want to try lunch again
I would like that. Both of those
things. Where shall we meet? M x
Cellarium maybe? You liked the tuna
steak there. how does 12 sound? x
Can we call it one PM? I can
stay for longer then. M x
Cool. 1pm. Meet you at
the abbey doors :) x
What are you doing now? M x
just ordering chinese food… starving.
Hey how did the thing go this aft?
With the steel company finance
guy? Did you win? x
Oh. God, it was hellish.
I did win, but barely. M x
Tell me. Been looking
forward to this… x
Very well. I must first ask you
to imagine that someone put an
ambitious hairpiece on a walrus,
dressed it up like David Mellor,
gave it halitosis and a binder full
of doctored figures, and sent it on
its way towards my office... M x