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“Sorry it’s just takeaway again.” Stephanie opens the Styrofoam containers full of curry. “I’d cook, but I never know when you’re going to be home.”

Greg’s jaw tenses. They’ve had this argument three times this week already.

“Curry’s fine,” he says. He sniffs the box contents. It smells of cumin and cardamom.

“I just …. I feel like I never see you.”

“We’ve got the Oldacre case coming up. Lots of work, getting ready for trial, getting the i’s dotted and t’s crossed.”

“I know. I get that you’re busy--I just want to take some time for ourselves.”

“When?” It comes out harsher than he expected.

“I don’t know, maybe for Christmas?”

“There’s always more homicides around the holidays.”

“I know, but … Couldn’t you put in for annual leave?

He sighs.

“I was thinking we could go to Dorset.”

“Isn’t that more of a summer destination?”

“It’ll be less crowded in wintertime. We can go fossil hunting on the beach. Go to the craft markets.” She smiles, and for a moment she looks girlish and hopeful, and he knows he’s been cold to her since he took her back--and that was fair, but he can’t drag it out forever and--

“Sure,” he says. Greg isn’t really one for craft markets, but the idea of a hot mulled wine and a walk has its appeal. “Why not? It’ll be better than meeting your parents, anyway.”

She frowns. “I still want to see them after New Year. But I was thinking we could do Christmas just the two of us.”

“Dorset, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“You’ll make the bookings?”

She nods.

“Okay, then.”

She spoons curry onto two plates and hands him one.

Greg opens the foil packet of naan. It’s steaming hot and smells of garlic. He hands her a piece first, then takes one for himself.

“I don’t mean to nag, you know. About you getting in so late. I just… miss you.”

“I know.” He forces a smile. “I miss you, too.”

 


 

 

“I wasn’t expecting to see you,” says Molly, as Greg hands her a glass of wine. “I thought you were gonna be in Dorset for Christmas.”

“That’s first thing in the morning, me and the wife. We’re back together. It’s all sorted.”

Sherlock glances up from his laptop. “No, she’s sleeping with a PE teacher.”

Greg is gobsmacked by the casualness of Sherlock’s deduction. He should have gone straight home after work instead of stopping by Baker Street. But no, he had to go in and say hello to Sherlock and John and wish them a happy Christmas, and now--of all the accusations Sherlock might have--Steph wasn’t even into jock types. This was another one of Sherlock’s bloody guesses--

“And John, I hear you’re off to your sister’s, is that right?” Molly tries to smooth things over. Bless her.

“Yeah,” says John.

“Sherlock was complaining--”

He shoots her a dirty look.

“--saying.”

“First time ever, she’s cleaned up her act,” says John. “She’s off the booze.”

“Nope.”

“Shut up, Sherlock.”

Except … Stephanie bought him a new cologne last week. Told him it was an “early Christmas present.” Champion Davidoff. Came in a little bottle shaped like a dumbell. Not to Greg’s taste at all, but he’d put it down to Steph liking it and not taking his preferences into consideration. Now he’s wondering if it might be a cologne a PE teacher might wear, if Stephanie might have bought it for him so he wouldn’t notice it on her. But that’s … crazy. Sherlock is taking the piss. That’s all.

“I see you’ve got a new boyfriend, Molly,” says Sherlock, “and you’re serious about him.”

“Sorry, what?”

“In fact, you’re seeing him this very night and giving him a gift.”

“Take a day off,” John mutters.

Greg slides a glass of wine across the table to him. “Shut up and have a drink.”

Sherlock, of course, doesn’t shut up. He keeps making deductions about the gift in Molly’s bag, and Greg is no Sherlock Holmes, but it’s obvious there’s no boyfriend; Molly’s crush on Sherlock is visible from space and of course the present is for him and she’s crushed and humiliated and Sherlock actually looks halfway sorry for once.

“You always say such horrible things. Every time. Always. Always.” There are tears in her eyes.

“I am sorry,” says Sherlock. “Forgive me.” He leans forward and kisses her on the cheek. “Merry Christmas, Molly Hooper.”

Molly moans.

“No!” she exclaims. “That wasn’t … I--I didn’t!”

“No, it was me,” says Sherlock.

Greg boggles. “My God, really?”

“My phone,” says Sherlock.

And now things are really getting weird.

Sherlock walks over to the mantlepiece and retrieves a wrapped gift, then steals away with it to his room, brushing John off when he tries to ask about it. That seems to be the signal that the party’s over.

“Don’t mind him,” he tells Molly. “He just doesn’t know when to stop.” He stands up and gathers his coat.

“Going so soon?” asks Mrs Hudson.

“‘Fraid so,” he says. “I’ve got an early start in the morning.”

Except, he’s not sure if he’s going to Dorset anymore.

 


 

 

‘Adeste Fideles’ is playing on the stereo when he opens his front door. He hangs his coat, stuffing his gloves in the pockets, and makes his way toward the living room. Stephanie has lit up everything with fairy lights and decorated the tree in silver baubles and cut crystal. She’s curled up on the sofa with a book.

“Greg!” She lays the book on her chest and reaches for him with both arms.

He steps forward slowly.

“Happy Christmas. How’s the boffin detective?”

“He’s an arsehole, as usual.”

“What’d he do this time?”

No, she’s sleeping with a PE teacher.

“Just said some things he shouldn’t.” He sits on the edge of the sofa.

Steph draws her legs up to make space for him, then places them in his lap.

He sets a hand on top of her calf. “Steph--”

“Is something wrong?”

“I just … I just have to know.”

“What?”

“Since we got back together. You haven’t ….”

She lifts her book, closes it, and places it on the coffee table. “You’re serious? This again?”

“Look, I’m sorry, but it’s going to take a while for me to trust you again.”

“So you’re going to interrogate me all the time?”

“No! Just …. I just need some reassurance, is all.”

“Of what?”

“That you’re not …. That we’re exclusive.”

She sighed. “Did Sherlock say something?”

Fuck it. “You know what? Yeah, he did.”

“And that’s all it takes. He just makes an offhand comment and suddenly you’re accusing me of all sorts of things--”

“Well it’s not like it hasn’t happened before!”

“I know. I know it has, and I’m sorry, I just ….”

“Why’d you buy me that cologne?”

“What?”

“That sports cologne. You said it was an ‘early Christmas present.’”

“I thought you would like it.”

“It isn’t because that’s what he wears?”

“He?”

“The PE teacher!”

“What are you talking about?”

“Sherlock said you’re sleeping with a PE teacher.”

She threw her hands up in the air. “Well, I’m not!”

“Okay, then!” Greg mirrored her. “Forget I said anything.”

“I can’t.”

“Yeah, well I can’t forget what you did either.”

“And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? You can’t ever really forgive me. You asked me to come home. You said we could move past this, but you’ll always be suspicious and it’ll never get better and you’ll never look at me the way you used to ….” She wipes tears from her eyes.

“Look, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to seem … jealous, or controlling or whatever, I’m just insecure, okay? You really hurt me this last time.”

“I know,” it comes out as a whisper. “I’m sorry. I keep hurting you. I don’t mean to, I’m just bad at this whole …. I just get so lonely sometimes and I feel so much better when someone wants me ….”

“I still want you, Steph.”

“No you don’t. You never touch me. You hardly even look at me. You hate me.”

Greg’s breath catches. “I don’t hate you. I’m not even angry. I just … don’t feel safe around you. I still love you but I don’t trust you like I used to and that makes it hard. To be intimate. You have to be patient with me.”

“For how long? It’s been months. Months of reaching out to you and getting rebuffed, again and again. I can’t wait forever, Greg. I feel like I’m in limbo, just … waiting. For you to let me in. And it’s hard, especially this time of year, you’re so cold and I just …. I need you to be warm. I need you to love me.”

“I do.”

“I don’t feel it.”

“Come here.” Greg opens his arms.

Steph draws her feet up under her and then crawls into his lap, laying her head on his chest. Greg strokes her hair. The dark brown waves are soft in his fingers. He kisses the top of her head. Her hair smells faintly of Champion Davidoff. He pauses, sniffing.

“You smell like it.”

“What?”

“The cologne you bought me. That I haven’t opened yet.”

Steph stiffens against him. Then she starts to cry. “I’m sorry. Greg, I’m so sorry.”

“So Sherlock was right.”

She sits up slowly, buries her face in her hands. “I’m sorry. I just …. I got tired of waiting. I was so starved for affection and then all of the sudden there was someone who smiled at me, paid attention to me. And it felt so good.”

“Jesus, Steph. What about Dorset? You were acting like we should make a go of it, making plans ….”

“I wanted it to work. I did. I wanted that kind of attention from you, not him. I thought maybe if we went on holiday together we could rekindle that.”

“How the hell was that supposed to happen when you were sleeping with someone else!”

She dries her tears. “I’m sorry. You deserve so much better, and maybe that’s part of the reason why. I knew that you’d never move on, that we wouldn’t work, and maybe … maybe part of me just wanted you to be free. To find someone else.”

Greg scrubs his hands through his hair. “Wow.”

“I know.” She sniffs. “I know. I never meant to hurt you.”

“Well, you did.” He stands up, knees creaking. “I’m going to go for a walk.”

“Don’t stay out too late. Please. I’ll worry. I’ll sleep on the sofa.”

Greg doesn’t answer. He makes his way back out to the front hall and gathers his coat and gloves again. He opens the door. Snow is falling; the flakes catch the gleam of the fairy lights outside. Greg shrugs into his coat and buttons it up to his chin. Then he steps out into the cold.

 


 

 

He hasn’t walked more than three blocks when his phone rings. He checks the number. Mycroft Holmes. What would Mycroft want from him at ten thirty on Christmas Eve?

“Lestrade here.”

“Inspector, thank you for answering. I apologize for the lateness of the hour.”

“What’s Sherlock done this time?”

“Nothing yet, and I hope it remains that way.”

“Oh.”

“It’s a danger night.”

“Do you want me to go back to Baker Street?”

“That won’t be necessary. John has agreed to stay with Sherlock. But I was hoping that over the next few days and possibly weeks …. If you’ve any cases you think Sherlock might find stimulating ….”

“Yeah, I’ll see what I can do.”

“I appreciate it.”

A large lorry rumbles by, splashing slush and salt up onto the pavement.

“Shit! Sorry.”

“You’re out on the streets?”

“Just going for a walk.”

“In this weather? At this hour?”

“Needed to clear my head.”

“I see.” Mycroft pauses. “The holidays can be trying times for couples.”

“Yeah. That’s putting it mildly.”

“I hope you won’t think I’m intruding, but … you really oughtn’t be wandering outside alone on Christmas Eve. My home isn’t exactly full of holiday cheer, but if you want a drink and a fire, I can provide.”

“I don’t want to impose.”

“You wouldn’t be.”

“I …” Mycroft’s offer is suddenly tempting. Why should he wander miserably in the cold while Stephanie sits in their warm house with lights and music? “You know what, that sounds nice.”

“I’ll send a car. Text me your location.”

“Thanks.”

 


 

 

Mycroft does have a roaring fire, but no holiday decorations. Greg hadn’t thought Mycroft would be the type for fairy lights, but he’d imagined holly and ivy, a wreath on the door and bannisters trimmed with garland and red velvet bows. There’s none of that, not even candles on the mantel. But the fire is warm, and the chairs in front of it are comfortable, and the scotch is good, so he’s not going to complain.

Mycroft is wearing a beige three piece suit with a light blue tie. Greg is surprised he dresses so formally at home, but then again, he’s never seen Mycroft in anything else. Or maybe he’d just returned to the house when Greg called.

“So what’s happened to Sherlock?”

“Someone died tonight. Of whom he was … fond.”

“Fond? Sherlock?”

“There was a woman. With whom he shared a mutual infatuation.”

“Wow. I guess …. I just thought Sherlock didn’t do … relationships.”

“It was hardly a relationship.”

“Still. What was her name?”

Mycroft takes a sip of scotch, and Greg thinks for a moment he’s going to tell him it’s classified. “Irene Adler.”

“The woman who drugged him and stole his coat?” He recorded John leading a staggering and babbling Sherlock up the stairs of 221b. It was hilarious.

Mycroft’s lip quirks. “The very same.”

“Huh. So that’s Sherlock’s idea of flirting.”

“Apparently.”

“How’d she die?”

“She was murdered.”

“Shit. I’m sorry.” He assumes he hasn’t heard anything about the case because Mycroft’s people have taken it over.

“As am I. I’m afraid my brother will handle it poorly.”

“I’ll do my best to find him some cold cases or something. Mostly my team’s preparing for trial at the moment.”

“Jonas Oldacre. I recall. Faked his own death to evade his debts.”

“Not well enough to fool Sherlock. Admit I was chasing down the wrong path for a bit, but he was right in the end. He usually is.” He sighs. “Sometimes I wish he wasn’t.”

Mycroft licks his lips. “Did Sherlock … is he the source of your troubles this evening?”

“Yeah. Announced to the whole bloody group that my wife is cheating on me with a PE teacher.”

“He’s not a PE teacher; he’s a foreman who coaches a boy’s rugby team on weekends.”

Greg nearly chokes on his scotch. “Sorry, what? How could you possibly know that?”

Mycroft’s cheeks pink. “In this case it’s just old-fashioned spying. I’ve kept an eye on you since your association with Sherlock--for your own protection, mostly, in case you were to ever become the target of some criminal or other out for revenge.”

“And you just happened to catch my wife cheating with some construction foreman?”

“His name is Darren Bradshaw,” Mycroft offers.

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“I didn’t want to meddle.” Mycroft pauses. “Should I have said something?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know.”

“You see my dilemma.”

“Yeah. I just …. I guess I’m glad I know. But I wish …. Why’d he have to say it in front of everyone?”

“Regrettably, my brother has never learned discretion or tact.”

“You can say that again.”

Mycroft leans back in his chair, crossing his legs. “When Sherlock was seven, he deduced our father was having an affair. Announced it to our mother and didn’t understand why she cried.”

“Jesus. That must have been awkward.”

“She knew already, of course. But she chose not to think about it. That was her strategy for a great many things.”

“I’m sorry.”

“She’s a brilliant woman. She was a maths professor before she quit her job to raise me, and later Sherlock. Our father is of quite ordinary intellect. He worshiped her, but I think in so doing he put her on a pedestal he was afraid to touch. And so he looked for someone ….”

“Touchable.” Greg winces. “Sorry. That was crass.”

“No, you have the right of it, I think.”

“Stephanie says she cheated this time because I haven’t forgiven her for last time. She says my resentment makes her feel unwanted.”

“That’s the poorest excuse I can imagine.”

“You may be right, but I still feel like this is somehow my fault. She’s right. I haven’t forgiven her, and maybe it was a mistake, asking her to come back, if I hadn’t. I was still angry with her, and I wasn’t always …. I’ve been short with her. Withheld affection.”

“She should have anticipated that it would take some time to earn back your trust. Instead of working towards that, she broke faith with you again.”

“She did, yeah. And now I really …. I’d feel like a fool if I went back. But I still … we’ve been together thirty-two years. Since we were kids. I don’t know how to just throw away all that history.”

“Whatever you decide, you are not a fool, Gregory.”

“Greg. Please.”

Mycroft nods.

Greg takes another sip of scotch. “I still love her. I think. I mean, I care for her. Worry about her. She’s been by my side so long she’s like an extension of me. But I’m not sure that she loves me. She claims to. Says she never meant to hurt me. Or maybe she loves me but she just doesn’t respect me anymore. I don’t know.”

Mycroft rubs the side of his glass with his thumb. “Matters of the heart are hardly my area of expertise. But I think respect is paramount in any kind of partnership.”

“What if I were just to accept that this is who she is? Agree to an open relationship?”

Mycroft’s brows knit. “Would that be acceptable to you?”

“I don’t know. I know it’s cliche, but it’s not her having sex with other people that bothers me, it’s the lying. Maybe if it were all above board ….”

“And what about you? Would you see other women?”

It was natural for Mycroft to assume they’d be women. When the truth was, if he were to play the field, it would almost certainly be a bloke. He hasn’t been with a man since his uni days, and there is a part of him that misses it. But who is he kidding?

“Me? No. I barely have time to spend with Stephanie. Which is a big part of the problem. I’m never home. She gets lonely.”

“Surely there are other pastimes with which she could distract herself.”

“I know. I don’t know why I keep making excuses for her. It’s just …. She’s not a bad person, you know? But there’s been this … distance between us for a long time. And I think she needs that feeling of closeness. Maybe more than I do. Not that I don’t miss it, too. But ….” He rubs his forehead. “I’m sorry to be blabbering on like this. I hope I haven’t made you uncomfortable.”

“Hardly. I only wish I could be of more use. I’ve no experience with romantic entanglements.”

Greg raises an eyebrow. “Really? There’s never been … anyone?” He’d long suspected Sherlock was asexual, though tonight’s revelations had made him rethink that. But Mycroft …. Well, Greg had assumed he was gay. But now he was wondering.

“I don’t mean I’ve never--I’ve had partners. A few of those have been long-standing arrangements. But they’re just that. No one has any expectations of romance. Or fidelity.”

“I don’t think I could do that. I mean, in theory it sounds so much less messy. No strings. No attachments. But I think I’d miss the intimacy. Plus it’s nice, you know, having someone to come home to.”

Mycroft glances down at his drink. “I wouldn’t know.”

“Sorry. You just said you’ve never--and I ….”

“There’s no need to apologize.”

“Have you ever wanted to? Sorry, you don’t have to answer that.”

“Truly I don’t mind being alone. My work takes up the majority of my time. And my hobbies, such as they are, are solitary. Reading. Running.”

Greg nods. “Maybe I should try that. Just be alone. Not subject anyone to a policeman’s schedule.”

Mycroft looks up at him. “Or maybe you need to find a companion who understands the demands of your vocation.”

“Is that how it is with your companions? They understand?”

“Most of them have been in the security services, yes.”

“‘Have been?’ You don’t have an arrangement with anybody now?”

“I haven’t in some time.”

Greg takes another sip of his scotch. The warmth has spread pleasantly to his extremities. “I find that difficult to believe.”

“Why?”

“You’re an attractive man. Not to mention rich and powerful. You could have anyone you wanted.”

Mycroft blinks and raises both eyebrows. “You’ve seriously overestimated my ability to procure partners. It may be true that there are often people interested in me for my position, but those aren’t the kind of people I'm interested in.”

“What kind of people interest you, Mycroft?”

Mycroft sips his scotch. “Men. As I’m sure you’ve already suspected. Unattached, discrete, sufficiently advanced in their careers that they don’t view me as a stepping stone.”

“Men like you, then.”

Mycroft’s lips thin into a tight line. “You make me sound like a narcissist.”

“Not at all. Like attracts like. Me, I tend to go for opposites. Maybe that’s my problem. Stephanie’s posh, like you. I was her bit of rough. A way to rebel against her parents.”

“Her parents must have been truly snobbish, to disapprove of you.”

“They were. But I was also a lot less respectable back then. I had a motorcycle and a leather jacket.”

“I’d have liked to have seen that. I confess a younger me had a thing for East End boys in leather jackets.”

“Did you, now?” Greg smirks. “Pity I didn’t meet you back then.”

“Why?”

“Because I had a thing for Oxbridge boys. Especially the quiet ones.” His heart beats slightly faster. Mycroft is gay, but it still makes him nervous, outing himself so casually like this, and flirting a bit with Mycroft, too. He’s kept it quiet at the Met. Sherlock has had the decency not to deduce it in front of the yard.

“I … see.” There’s a hitch in Mycroft’s voice, and something sharpens in his expression. “Forgive me. I made an assumption.”

“Most people do.”

“You’re bisexual?”

“Yeah.”

“Does your wife know?”

“She does. It’s largely abstract to her, though. It’s been decades since I’ve been with a bloke. Not since before we were together.”

“You’ve never strayed from her.”

“No. I mean, I haven’t. You’re confusing me with your double negatives.”

“Apologies.”

Greg smiles.

A few moments pass in quiet. The fire snaps and sparks fly up into the chimney. Mycroft fetches a decanter from the bar cart and refreshes their drinks. He doesn’t look Greg in the eyes when he says, “Forgive me for asking, but … being bisexual and in a monogamous relationship with a woman … didn’t you ever feel … deprived?”

Greg swirls his glass, watching the whisky slosh around the large spherical ice cube at the bottom. “I know I’m supposed to say, ‘no more deprived than a monogamous straight or gay person,’ but that’s not quite true. I feel like there’s a part of me that I closed off. Back when I got married, I was glad to do that. The eighties were a scary time to be gay. But as I’ve gotten older, sometimes I wonder who I would’ve become, if I hadn’t married Steph. If I might’ve been happier, if I’d settled with a man. Someone who didn’t expect me to play house.”

“Someone career driven. Like you.”

“Or like you.”

“Like me,” Mycroft agrees. He holds Greg’s gaze, and his own is so frank, so bold, that Greg’s mouth goes dry. He’s on dangerous ground, now. Mycroft is interested in him. He could have Mycroft, if he wanted. For tonight, anyway. Mycroft does ‘arrangements,’ not relationships. Greg has no illusions about a future with him. But it feels fucking amazing, being wanted. Is this how Stephanie feels, when she’s with Darren fucking Bradshaw? Because Greg sees the appeal of cheating right about now. Why shouldn’t he? Steph has already made a mockery of their marriage. It’s not like she could hold it against him.

Mycroft is watching him. Waiting for him to make a move. To say something flirty and clever. Maybe to stand up, cross the parlor, and slide into Mycroft’s lap. And Greg wants, oh he wants, to do just that. It’d mean the end of his marriage, but maybe he wants that too. Sleep with Mycroft, tell Stephanie, and just let it all be over.

“It’s getting late,” Greg says.

Mycroft looks down at his scotch, breaking the tension between them. “Shall I call you a car?”

“That might be a good idea, yeah.”

Mycroft draws his phone out of his suit jacket pocket and sends a text, waits for a reply. “A driver will be here in fifteen minutes.”

Greg doesn’t know what to say. Finally he asks, “Are you taking any time off before the new year?”

Mycroft grimaces. “My superiors have demanded I take three days of annual leave.”

Greg laughs. “Demanded.”

“I would prefer to get things done. But I suppose my assistant is grateful for the time off. What about you?”

“Steph and I were supposed to leave for Dorset tomorrow. I guess that’s cancelled.”

“What will you do instead?”

“Have a proper domestic, probably, then spend the next few days ignoring each other. It’ll be awful.”

“Perhaps you should check in to a hotel.”

Easy for someone with Mycroft’s kind of money to say. “Good idea. Not tonight, though. Steph has said she’ll worry, if I don’t come home.”

The thread of tension between them is still there, but it’s clear that neither of them is going to pull it. They sit quietly, watching the fire, which has burned down to coals. Greg watches their orange reflection on Mycroft’s face. His expression is unreadable. If he’s disappointed, it doesn’t show.

A bright electronic chime breaks the silence. “Car’s here,” says Mycroft.

Greg stands up. “Thank you for the company tonight. I needed it.”

Mycroft stands as well, buttoning his suit jacket as he does so. “You’re welcome anytime. Let me see you out.”

Greg follows Mycroft out of the parlor and down the hall to the foyer.

Mycroft retrieves Greg’s coat from the cupboard and removes it from a wooden hanger. He puts the hanger back and hands the coat to Greg.

Greg shrugs into the coat, doing up the buttons. He puts on his gloves, then reaches out and shakes Mycroft’s hand. Even through the leather, there’s a zing at the touch. The very air around them is charged. And he knows that he could just step in and kiss Mycroft on the mouth. Mycroft would let him. He’s watching Greg with dilated eyes. He’d let Greg press their lips together, would let him run his fingers under Mycroft’s jacket, up over his waistcoat, down over the firm curves of his arse. He’d lead Greg by the hand to his bedroom, would let Greg peel off those layers of clothing one by one. He’d lie down and let Greg lie on top of him, would let Greg caress his pale white skin and touch his freckles with his tongue. All he has to do is take that kiss. But it feels too easy, to just fall into bed with Mycroft, to goad Stephanie into leaving him instead of sucking it up and leaving her. And it doesn’t seem fair, to use Mycroft like that.

“Goodnight, Mycroft. Merry Christmas.”

Mycroft inclines his head, a little stiffly. “And to you, Greg.”

Greg lets Mycroft’s hand go. Mycroft steps in front of him and opens the front door. The snow is falling heavily now. The black car is just visible through the veil of white flakes. Greg walks out to it, snow crunching under his feet. The driver opens the door for him. Greg climbs inside. He looks back towards the house, sees Mycroft standing in the doorway, silhouetted by the interior lights. Then Mycroft closes the door, and the entryway goes dark.