Chapter 1: Introduction
The fox slithered down the steep slope and landed in the middle of the cave-like underground space that had seemed so much more interesting when peered into from his safe hiding spot under the thick bushes above ground. For a moment he lay still, dazed with embarrassment more than anything else, flicking his large ears back and forth in the attempt to catch each and every noise, but the only sounds he heard were a steady drip and the soft rustle of the leaves he had landed in. With a sneeze and a grunt he got up, shook the mouldy leaves out of his fur and started sniffing around.
::Brilliant,:: he muttered. ::Abso-fucking-lutely brilliant. Been here dozens of times before, done all kinds of shit, but noooo,:: he sneezed again, ::lose balance like an idiot and land belly first in this dump.:: He sniffed a corner and backed off in disgust. ::Ah, gross. Some potheads taking a piss here. This is just wonderful. Where are the bloody… ah.::
Stairs. Just as he remembered. Narrow and covered with damp moss, but his thickly padded feet didn’t slip once. Thin rays of moonlight shone through the cracks of the old door that was… securely locked.
::What the –:: He barked and jumped up against the wooden planks, his small body creating no more than a soft thump. The door’s old, sturdy hinges didn’t even creak. ::What the bloody buggering fucking FUCK is that?:: He barked and jumped against the unyielding wood some more. ::I don’t bloody believe it.::
He sat back on his haunches and eyed the now impenetrable wall. If this door was truly locked, then he was truly screwed. The metal bars holding the door in place wouldn’t move, no matter how often he would throw himself against it, and there was little to no chance he would be able to climb up that slippery passage he had slid down. He remembered hearing this… room, cave, whatever, had been designed as the medieval equivalent of a detention cell centuries ago and there was no way out except for the tiny window, but that was out of his reach.
His sole chance lay in somebody hearing him. While it was already dark outside, it was a lovely summer night and perhaps there were some late wanderers still about, or maybe a romantic couple looking for a quiet hideaway spot. He sat back on his haunches and started barking. Bark-howling. Crying. Anything in his vocal repertoire that was loud enough to attract attention.
::Good God, how much noise can you make?:: The sharp voice cut through his barking, making him start and yelp in surprise. ::Which part of shut up have you missed?:: the voice snapped.
The fox pressed himself close to the ground. ::Who are you? And… where are you?::
A barely suppressed sigh was the answer to that. ::Noisy as a banshee and blind as a bat. Amazing. Look up.::
He obeyed and searched the ceiling. Nothing. His gaze travelled along the opposite wall and to the window where something moved out of the shadows it had been hiding in. A large figure perched on the ledge, now illuminated by the silvery moonlight.
::An owl.:: It came out disappointed, and the owl clicked his beak in annoyance.
::Can you see anything from up there?::
::Like… people?:: the fox offered, rolling his eyes as well as a fox could. ::Like… help?::
The owl glared at him out of huge orange eyes. ::Sorry to disappoint again, but it seems we’re on our own.::
They sat in resigned silence.
::Should I bark some more? Maybe somebody will hear us.::
::Please don’t. If anything, it will drive people away.::
::No but,:: the owl said sharply. ::If I have to listen to any more of your screeching, my ears will start to bleed.::
::Then what do you suggest?::
::Fine. You do that. I’ll see if there’s another way out of here.::
The owl swivelled his head and stared out of the window while the fox inspected the small room some more but other than the window, there was indeed no way out. Trapped. Bloody hell.
::Why don’t you try and squeeze through and get help?:: he finally suggested. ::There should be enough space for you between the bars. Most birds are more feather than bird, and I bet you can make yourself really small.::
::What an ingenious idea. And how do you think I should do that? Without arms or an extra set of legs? What if I get stuck? Then what? It’s not like I can spread my wings and haul myself through there.::
The owl made an exasperated sound. ::That’s right. Oh. I wonder how you lot ever gained a reputation of being cunning.::
::Oh yeah? What about wise owls? If you’re that smart, how come you got stuck here, eh?:: the fox shot back, but when he wasn’t graced with a reply, he made his way into the corner that was farthest away from the annoying bird and flopped down gracelessly.
::Well, let’s get comfy then. Looks like we’ll be here all night.::
After a heartfelt and extensive yawn, he curled up into a neat little ball and closed his eyes, but a soft whoosh made him look up again. The owl had left his spot by the window and was eyeing him from up close.
::I was wondering if you could weasel your way through the bars.::
::I bet I could,:: the fox said dismissively, ::but unless I sprout a pair of wings I don’t see how I can get up there.::
::How much do you weigh?::
::Noisy, blind and deaf?::
Damn that bird. The fox snapped his jaws at the owl who didn’t move as much as a feather, clearly unimpressed. Orange eyes bore into his without blinking, and the fox sighed.
::About one point two stone. Why?::
::Are you sure? You don’t look that heavy.::
::All sinew and muscle, fluffy.::
::I thought maybe I could carry you up.::
::What? No way you’re digging your claws into my hide. I like it as it is, thank you.::
::You’re too heavy anyway. Unless…:: The owl hopped back and tilted his head as if to measure something.
::How far from floor to window? What do you think?::
::Uhm,:: the fox narrowed his eyes and squinted up. ::Seven-two, seven-four, maybe?::
::That’s what I thought,:: the owl agreed in a satisfied voice and looked at the fox who flattened his ears in suspicion.
::I said,:: he repeated, ::stay the hell away from me. No claws.::
::Do you trust me?::
::Not one bit.::
::Fair enough. What if I promise I won't hurt you?::
::Why doesn’t this make me feel any better?::
::Listen,:: the owl said impatiently, ::I want to get out, you want to get out. I have an idea but you must promise me not to lose your nerve.::
::Or else what?::
::Or else we’ll be stuck here until somebody unlocks the door.::
::And that might take a while.::
::Exactly. So. Ready?::
::Whatever, fluffy.:: He sighed when another piercing glare was bestowed on him. ::I promise I won’t faint.::
::What do you think I am? A girl?::
::Guess I’ll never find out.::
The owl stepped back some more and suddenly the fox’ vision blurred. He blinked a couple of times and shook his head with his eyes closed. When he opened them again, the owl was gone.
A pale shape sat crouched where the owl had been moments ago. The fox let out a surprised bark.
::What the –:: he started but was cut off immediately.
“Shhh. I told you, no barking.”
::No, you said, no screaming.::
“Same thing.” The shape straightened into the form of a tall young man who looked down at the small fox. “Well?”
“Are you alright?”
::Do you see me quiver?::
“No,” the man said slowly, “I don’t.” He cocked his head, then cleared his throat. “Will you let me touch you?”
“I think I can reach the ledge if I get on my toes. I could lift you up and if you can squeeze through, you can get help. What do you think?”
::This is not a bad idea,:: the fox said in reluctant agreement.
“It’s our best shot.”
::I’m afraid you’re right.:: He steeled himself. ::Okay then, you may lift me up. No cuddling,:: he said warningly when the man bent down to reach for him. ::I am no pet, alright?::
He was picked up, carefully, and carried across the room to the window. The young man lifted him high above his head and, stretching up as far as he could, pushed the fox onto the ledge with a grunt.
“Are you alright up there? Can I let go or will you fall down?”
::Everything’s fine, thank you.::
He eyed the barred window. It would be a very tight squeeze but he just might make it. He took a deep breath and exhaled just as deeply, making himself as thin and small as possible, and started worming through the tight opening. Head and shoulders went through easily enough but suddenly he got stuck and experienced a surge of panic while his paws were scratching frantically for something to hold on to, hindlegs pushing with all the strength he could muster.
Pain shot through him and he yelped when something sharp connected with his flank. He wriggled about some more and finally, with one last push of his strong hindlegs, shot through the opening and sat still for a moment, panting heavily.
“Everything okay with you?” The voice sounded worried, and he turned to peer through the bars.
::All good. I think I left some of my fur behind but I’m fine.::
“Oh, I’m glad to hear it.” The man looked relieved. “Will you go and find help?”
::I can do better than that.::
::Give me a few minutes. Be right back.::
The fox ran around the dilapidated remains of what must once have been a watchtower until he came to stand before a small door. He looked around and strained his ears. No signs of humans nearby and no sounds other than what was expected during a summer night. Crickets chirping, some restless birds practising their tunes, nothing that required his immediate attention, and so he sat down on his haunches, closed his eyes and concentrated. He shook his head to clear off the short but intense dizziness that always accompanied… this and rose from his crouching position to inspect the metal bars.
His heart sank when he saw the sturdy padlock but his fear was unfounded. It wasn’t locked after all and so he removed the bars, pushed the door open and peered inside.
“Hello? You there?”
When there was no reply, he stepped away from the door, crouched down once more and resumed the shape of a fox.
::Air’s clear, you can come outside,:: he tried again and this time, there was a soft thump on the other side of the door and the owl’s large eyes looked at him from behind it.
::Are you sure? I thought I saw somebody standing there.::
::All good. It was… nothing.::
::May I have your word on that?::
::Upon my honour, fluffy.::
::Somebody with a tail as bushy as yours shouldn’t prance about calling others fluffy,:: the owl haughtily said but ventured around the door and into the open nevertheless. He swivelled his head as if to make sure he had been told the truth, then turned to look at the fox.
::Thank you,:: he said and this time, there was no trace of arrogance or mockery in his voice. ::I’ve been in there since yesterday and was getting desperate. I am sorry you got hurt and I hope it’s not too bad.::
::Ah, just a scratch. And I’m the one who has to say thanks. I wouldn’t have made it out of here by myself.::
::Then I guess we’re even.::
::I guess we are.:: He watched the owl take a few steps away from the building, apparently looking for a spot to launch himself up and into the air. ::My name’s Greg, by the way.::
They locked eyes for a few heartbeats and the fox felt a tingling sensation where the young man had touched him. He thought he saw the owl’s eyes intensify in colour but it was gone just as quickly. The bird blinked, then dipped his head in acknowledgment, turned and took to the air with a few powerful beats of his massive wings. ::Good-bye, Greg.::
::Wait!:: the fox called after him. ::What’s your name?::
He watched the majestic silhouette disappear and sat down, disappointed. Out of the corners of his eyes he noticed something floating through the air, brushing his nose on the descent, landing before his paws. A feather, and a thought, like a breath against his ears.
::Mike. My name is Mike.::
“Dear me, Greg Lestrade, where have you been?”
Susan Young put her hands on her hips and glared at her nephew who shrugged apologetically and pulled his t-shirt back down and over the makeshift bandage covering his wound.
“You know me, there’s no wall I won’t jump over. And sometimes, I get stuck.”
“This looks like you got stuck on a rusty nail, young man. Your uncle needs to see this.”
“Aunt Susan, I don’t think –” He was cut off in mid-sentence.
“You never think, do you? Grow up, please, Greg. And don’t you be giving me that smile of yours. One of these days, your smile just won’t do.”
Greg reached for one of her hands and cocked his head. “I know it won’t. But will it get me one of the scones you’ve made? The smell is making my mouth water.”
His aunt sighed and ruffled his hair. “Of course, love. Just promise you’ll let Thomas treat this properly, yes?”
“I promise.” Another angelic smile, and he was gone. She looked after him, shaking her head, and asked herself – not for the first time – if her decision all these years ago had been the right one. And not for the first time, there was only one answer. Of course it had been.
When Thomas Young inspected the cut later that morning, he, too, shook his head.
“It’s not as bad as your aunt made it sound but you were lucky indeed. Stuff like that tends to get ugly more often than not.”
“Does it need stitching?” Greg asked nervously.
“Hm.” Thomas pursed his lips. “No more than two or three stitches. When did you say this happened?”
“It looks older than that.”
“Last night, I swear. I haven’t been running around with a cut like that for days.”
“Interesting. You’ve always healed quickly but this is a new record.”
“I don’t have time to play sick. I bruise, I heal, I cut myself, I heal. You know it’s always been like that. One of the girls I work with takes forever. She bruises like a peach and even the tiniest scratch stays red for weeks. Do I need to lie down?”
“Do I need to lie down so you can stitch me up?”
“Yes, please do.”
“But you won’t put me to sleep?”
“No. A mild local anaesthetic will do.”
“Good to have a doctor in the family.”
“In your case,” Thomas turned around and opened the small cabinet, “good indeed.”
The castle ruins came into view quickly and he jumped off his bicycle when he reached the wooden fence. He carefully chained the bike to one of the sturdy posts and vaulted across the fence, ignoring his wound's protest. He buried his hands in his pockets and strolled along the narrow path leading towards the remains of the watchtower at the back of the castle, ignoring the still intact front tower. He wasn’t here for the sights. He was here for something else.
An opening in the thick bushes revealed a small barred window. A young man was squatting before it, carefully examining the bars. Upon hearing Greg’s steps, he looked up and turned around.
“Hello,” he said politely.
Greg stopped dead in his tracks. That voice. He shook his head, sure he was imagining things.
“Can I help you?” The other man rose from his crouching position and Greg took an involuntary step back. His gaze dropped to the dark grey tuft of fur the man was holding in his hand.
“I… uh…,” he stammered and immediately gave himself a sharp mental slap. “What are you doing here?” It came out harsher than intended and the other man narrowed his eyes.
“Who wants to know?”
“Erm… uh…” Stammering again. Why was that? “I do. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound rude. It’s just that I didn’t expect to see anybody here. Not yet, at least. It’s Wednesday, you know.”
“Farmers’ market’s on Wednesday. Major attraction. Tourists flock the market first and then come up here.” He checked his watch. “Well, in about an hour or so.”
“I see.” The man’s mouth twitched and Greg pulled himself up to stand a bit straighter.
“Let’s do this properly, shall we?” He held out his hand. “I’m Greg.”
“I know.” The moment their palms touched, something electric sizzled through Greg’s veins. The other had to have felt it, too, because his eyes widened and his pupils dilated slightly. “Pleased to meet you, Greg. I’m Mike, and I believe this is yours?”
Greg stared at the grey tuft that was offered to him.
“I believe it is,” he slowly said and reached for the inside pocket of his denim jacket. “And I guess it’s safe to assume that this is yours?” He held up an intricately patterned feather.
Their eyes met and locked, just as they had the night before, only now Mike’s eyes weren’t orange but blue-and-grey. But just like then, Greg’s sides tingled with the memory of having been touched and lifted up.
“We should talk about this,” Mike said and Greg nodded.
“We should. Let’s go somewhere less popular. Or do you have other plans?”
“No, I’m free all day. I wanted to get some writing done but there’s no rush.”
“You’re a writer?”
“No, I’m a student. Where are we going? Should I get my bicycle?”
“Yes, that would be better. Where did you leave it?”
“Over there.” Mike indicated towards a small group of trees.
“Go get it then. Mine’s that way,” he pointed, “and that’s the direction we need to go. I’ll wait here.”
Mike nodded and put the grey tuft into the front pocket of his light jacket, then turned and strolled off to get his bike. Greg followed him with his eyes, admiring the careless elegance in the lanky young man’s walk. He brought the feather to his lips and smiled. Not bad at all.
When Mike returned, he put the feather back into his inside pocket and briskly turned to lead the way.
“So, what do you study, then?” he asked after they had walked a few yards.
“I read mathematics in my first year but decided to take up politics, philosophy and economy instead because I don’t see myself as a full-time mathematician. Next year I’ll finally be able to drop philosophy, and then I’ll take up informatics. As a minor,” he added. “Just for fun, really.”
“Just for fun,” Greg repeated. “You don’t need a lot of sleep then?”
“I’m a quick learner.”
“Wow,” Greg said, impressed and embarrassed at the same time. “I barely managed my O-levels.”
“There’s no shame in not pursuing an academic career. What do you do for a living, Greg?”
“I’m a circus clown.”
Mike stopped dead in his tracks and stared at Greg. Greg stopped, too, and felt heat creep up his neck.
“What?” he said defensively. “It’s a job. With a long and honourable tradition.”
“Yes, it certainly is, but Greg, really? A clown?”
“Why not? What’s wrong about making people laugh?”
“It’s… no, you’re right. I apologise.”
Greg glared at him but decided to let it go, and they walked in silence until they reached the low fence. Greg vaulted across once more and held out his hands.
“Give me your bike.”
Mike obeyed, then swung his long legs over the fence and waited for Greg to unlock his bike before straddling his.
“Where are we going?” he asked again. “Is it far?”
“Nah, maybe an hour or so.” He laughed when Mike made a face. “Problem, ginger?”
“I’m not ginger,” Mike said, a little stiffly.
“Bollocks. Of course you are. Your hair’s all copper in the sun. I like it.”
Mike snorted. “I hate it. It was worse when I was a kid. I’m glad it’s darkened since then, and I hope it will darken some more. You have no idea how many stupid redhead jokes there are.”
“Yeah,” Greg said, grinning. “I can think of one or two. Kids can be shit.”
“Let’s go then.”
They rode across narrow lanes and bumpy paths, chatting about this and that and avoiding the subject at hand. Greg learnt that Mike studied in Oxford and his family lived in Surrey, that his father taught history and his mother was a mathematician, and that he had a younger brother. And Greg, in return, told Mike about the plane crash that had claimed his parents and his older sister when he was fourteen and that his mother’s sister had taken him in.
“I grew up in a shithole near Bristol and was actually glad to leave. Although, if I’d had a choice, I would have liked to move to Cornwall or maybe Devon, but Aunt Susan’s married to a Scot and so I ended up here. It’s not too bad, really, there’s hardly a nicer playground for a fox than the Trossachs.”
“So do you… mhm… change often?”
“Whenever I can,” Greg blithely said. “How about you?”
“I try but it’s not that easy.”
“Why? Not enough privacy?”
“Yes and no. I have a roommate at Oxford, so there’s that. When I’m at home, I have my own room and it’s a relatively quiet area, but I also have this little brother.”
“Nosy little brat, eh?”
“I wouldn’t say nosy, no. He’s very sharp, and there isn’t an awful lot he doesn’t see.”
“So your family doesn’t know?”
“They most certainly don’t!” Mike sounded horrified at the notion. “Does yours?”
“No, of course not. My uncle’s a doctor and I don’t want to nudge his scientific curiosity. He’s already all over me because I heal so quickly. He thinks it’s odd and I bet he’d like to poke around. He’s not a bad person or a mad scientist,” he hastened to add, “but he’s fascinated with everything that’s outside his medical books and journals.”
“He must never meet my brother,” Mike said with a lopsided grin. “They’d be no good for each other.”
They fell silent once more and Greg stole a sideways glance at Mike who looked straight ahead, lost in his thoughts. Seen in profile, he had an arrogant beak of a nose, but his mouth was straight and generous and looked as if it liked to laugh which softened the nose’s arrogance, and now that they rode along a more shadowy path, his hair had lost all traces of ginger and indeed appeared brownish rather than copper. Greg suppressed a sigh. Shame, that. There was a faint dusting of freckles across forehead and nose and Greg briefly wondered if there were freckles on his arms and shoulders, too. He shook his head. Best not go there.
The path took a sharp turn and Greg signalled for them to stop.
“Here we are.” He jumped off his bike and bowed with a flourishing gesture. “How about this?”
A small lake had come into view, blue as the sky above and framed by all shades of green and pink and yellow. Sunlight danced across the surface, making it gleam and turning the tiny ripples into silvery highlights. The water’s gentle murmuring called out to them with a soft and hypnotic voice, and it felt as if the world had somehow stopped turning. It was quiet, and it was peaceful.
Mike shielded his eyes.
“This is lovely,” he said in a hushed voice.
“It is,” Greg replied. “And chances are good nobody will bother us here.”
“Except for the owners of that transporter over there.” Mike pointed to where a white vehicle was parked in the shadow of the trees.
“That’s mine. My campervan.”
“Well, it’s actually a Volkswagen transporter but I converted it into a campervan with the help from one of the boys.”
“No, stage-hand and mechanic.” Greg scowled at Mike. “Don’t be like that.”
“So… looking down on me.”
“I’m not looking down on you.”
“You sure sound like it.”
“I’m sorry, Greg. I didn’t mean to.”
Greg huffed, leant his bike against a tree and walked over to the transporter, patting its flat nose.
“Erwin, meet Mike. Mike, this is Erwin.”
Mike got off his bike, leant it against Greg’s and came closer.
“Erwin?” There was laughter in his voice.
“Well, it’s a German car and therefore has a German name.”
“I see. Of course.”
“Want to take a look?”
“By all means.”
Greg shot him a sharp glance but Mike looked genuinely interested, so he fumbled in his pockets for the car keys and unlocked Erwin’s door. Mike peered inside.
“Not bad,” he said approvingly. “It’s a lot more comfortable than I thought. Tidier, too.”
Greg beamed with pride. “It’s where I sleep when I’m on the road. It has a small refrigerator, a gas cook top, a gas oven, there’s pots and pans and cutlery and some crockery,” he pointed, “and the sofa pulls out to a bed big enough for two.” He flashed Mike a grin. “Definitely big enough for two.”
“Thanks. No need to elaborate. I get it.”
“I’m not sure you do.”
He turned, stretched and clapped his hands together.
“What do we do now? Do you want to change and go play? Or is it too bright for your owl eyes?”
“No, it’s perfectly fine. Owls aren’t strictly nocturnal.” He looked around dubiously. “Do you think it’s safe to change here?”
“’Course it is,” Greg blithely said. “It’s one of my favourite spots. I always leave Erwin’s door open by a crack so when I come back, I can change and sneak back inside to get dressed without anyone seeing a naked madman running around.”
Mike still looked a bit sceptical, but after a brief internal struggle he shrugged.
“Why not. Let’s change.”
“Good!” Greg climbed into the van, shrugged out of his jacket and started pulling his t-shirt up, but stopped himself to look at Mike. “Uhm, do you want to change first? I’ll turn around, too, so you have some privacy.”
“Nonsense. You don’t share a room and remain squeamish about nakedness. You go ahead, I’ll take care of Erwin’s door.”
Greg stripped quickly with his back to Mike. A sharp hiss made him turn around.
“What is it?”
“You’re wounded. Can you change like that?”
“Oh, that.” Greg made a dismissive gesture and removed the chain he was wearing around his neck. A golden ring dangled from it, and he placed it carefully on the small wooden table next to his sofa. “Let me take the bandage off and see how bad it is.”
He fumbled with the wound’s dressing, then yanked at it with an impatient noise and cursed when the tape came off with a vicious sound. Mike winced sympathetically.
“I can’t really see it. Would you have a look? Is it very bad?”
Mike stepped closer and inspected the cut.
“It looks almost healed,” he said, amazed. “One of the stitches has already come off.”
He traced the cut with a finger, and again, the physical contact made something inside Greg sizzle. He felt his body respond in a most unwelcome manner and hastily crouched down to change. He concentrated, waited for the dizziness to ebb and jumped out of the van.
Mike looked down at him and smiled.
“Patience is not your biggest virtue, I take it.”
::Bah. Patience is overrated. Get into your wings. I want to pull your tailfeathers.::
“I should like to see you try.”
Mike removed his jacket and shed his clothes. The fox watched with detached interest and barked impatiently when Mike folded his shirt and trousers and put them on the couch with exaggerated care.
::In your own time, fluffy.::
Mike raised an arrogant eyebrow, climbed out of the van and shut the door with a bang.
::What the… you idiot!:: the fox barked angrily, but Mike let the car keys dangle from his hand.
“Do you think it’s a smart idea to leave the car open with the keys inside?” He squatted down to peer underneath the car, then placed the keys somewhere by the front tyre. “The inside of the rim’s a good spot.”
The air around him whirred and large orange eyes stared at the fox.
::Happy, bushy tails?::
The fox lowered his upper body, tail swooshing across the ground, ready to pounce. The owl gave him a haughty look and launched himself up in the air.
::Catch me if you can!::
The fox jumped up as if propelled by a spring, but although the owl’s tempo was not that of a hawk, he was already out of reach.
Greg barked excitedly and dashed after Mike, his strong legs picking up speed. Mike flew in the direction of the lake.
::You’re cheating! That’s not fair!:: Greg yelled when he realised what Mike was about to do.
Mike laughed and circled above the lake.
::Fair wasn’t specified in the rules.::
::You feathered shit!::
The fox stopped by the water’s edge and screeched his annoyance at the owl who replied with some screeching of his own. With a frustrated grunt, Greg jumped on the small jetty and ran to its end where he stopped, barking some more. Mike swooped down at him and touched his wingtips to the fox’ large ears. Greg jumped up and came back down at an angle that made him lose balance, and he fell into the lake with a splash and a yelp.
Muttering obscenities about cheating birds and orange-eyed traitors, he dog-paddled to the shore where he shook himself vigorously. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Mike land beside him, and he shook himself some more, Mike’s indignant shriek music to his ears.
::Watch it, you oaf,:: Mike snapped and stepped out of the danger zone.
::Oh, fluffy doesn’t enjoy getting wet? Shame.:: He finished shaking and flopped down. ::The water’s warmer than I thought. Too bad owls can’t swim.::
::We can if we must.:: Mike fluffed his feathers. ::It’s not our first choice, obviously.::
::Obviously.:: Greg stretched and yawned.
Mike cocked his head at an impossible angle, as if positioning a particularly difficult thought, and finally asked, ::Since when have you been, uhm, doing… this?::
::Since my fifteenth birthday,:: Greg replied without hesitation and Mike clicked his beak in surprise.
::Hm,:: Greg hummed. ::I remember dreaming about foxes a lot before my birthday, and about running around in the woods.::
::The dreams started about a month before my birthday,:: Mike confirmed. ::I dreamt about being able to fly, and I developed a sudden interest in owls. I had never really thought about owls before.::
::Nor me about foxes. I always thought wolves were cool, but foxes?::
::Did you notice anything else?::
::Physical changes. My night vision increased, and considerably so. As did my hearing.::
::Oh that. Yeah, I developed a really strong sense of smell and my hearing must have multiplied tenfold or something.::
::I had the most horrible headaches in the beginning.::
::So did I, but it got better over the following months.::
::I’ve learnt to filter the sensations –::
::– block the noises and the smells –::
::– and adjust.::
They looked at each other.
::Have you ever heard of anything like this?:: Greg asked. ::Outside of films and cheap horror stories?::
::No. I tried to research the subject but didn’t get very far. Every single lead that looked promising took me to a dead end. Classified.:: He made a clucking sound. ::I hate not being granted access to data.::
Greg jumped up. ::Care to go for a swim?:: he suggested. ::While the sun is still out?::
Mike looked up to the sky where clouds had begun to gather. They were still white and harmless, but Scottish summers were unpredictable at best, and chances were good for a spell of heavy rain to remind them of just that.
::I didn’t bring my trunks,:: he said, a little primly.
::Neither did I,:: Greg cheerfully replied. ::Don’t be silly. What do you think is gonna happen?::
::What if somebody comes by?::
::And? They’ll see two blokes swim in a lake. Nobody will see we’re not decent. The water’s clear but not that clear.::
::Is it safe?::
::No it isn’t. Haven’t you heard? There's Kelpies here.:: He flicked his ears in canine amusement. ::Of course it’s safe. I come here a lot, didn’t I tell you?::
::Of course. I forget. You’re half local. Alright then, lead the way, bushy tails.::
Greg turned and ran back to the jetty. He changed when he reached the wooden planks, took a running start and somersaulted into the lake.
“Whoa!” he shouted. “It’s colder without the fur but it’s okay. Come on, Mike, don’t be such a girl!”
He watched Mike change and come to a standing position. Mike peered down as if to calculate the lake’s depth, raised his arms high above his head and got on his toes. For a moment he just stood there, and Greg almost forgot to paddle. Mike was rangy, yes, but there was nothing gangly or awkward about him. Long arms and legs, broad shoulders and slim hips, slender rather than skinny. ‘Add some muscle and he will be gorgeous,’ Greg thought. ‘As graceful as a dancer.’ And all well in proportion, too. His own body agreed most enthusiastically and he put more effort into his water-treading in the hope of redirecting some of that blood.
Mike pushed himself off the edge and dove headfirst into the water at a perfect angle. Greg saw his pale shape shoot towards him and surface at arm’s length.
“It’s cold,” Mike panted, “but it’s beautiful.”
He let himself be carried by the water, then moved away with a few powerful breaststrokes.
“Come on then,” he called over his shoulder. “Let’s see if you’re better at catching me now!”
“What, you change into a fish, too?” Greg called back and flung himself into his best crawl, and soon they were swimming side by side. Suddenly Mike stopped, took a deep breath and dove down. Greg felt the water swirl when he snaked around him, like a creature from an old saga, and he forgot all about rainclouds and pretty much everything else as he watched the slow, lazy movements of Mike’s long limbs. He reached for him and hauled him up by his shoulders. For a moment, they hovered opposite each other, treading water, then Mike reached out and brushed one of Greg’s strands of hair out of his face, unruly even when wet. The sunlight danced across the water and Greg noticed that Mike’s shoulders were indeed dusted with freckles, just as he had fantasized. He bit his lips and tried to ignore his blood roaring through his veins, but when Mike’s eyes dropped to his lips, dropped lower, Greg became painfully aware than the water was really very clear, and heat crept up his neck. Mike raised his eyes and searched Greg’s face. His expression was inscrutable.
Greg cleared his throat and indicated towards the shore.
“Back to the car? I could make some tea, and I have eggs and toast, too.”
“Sounds good,” Mike agreed and without a word turned around and started crawling towards the jetty. He heaved himself up and waited for Greg to catch up with him. Only when Greg stood on the wooden planks before him did he change back into an owl and pushed himself up in the air, heading for the campervan. The fox followed him, running from the raindrops that started falling and towards his trusted shelter.
The owl perched on Erwin’s roof when he arrived.
::Is it safe to change?:: he asked, and Mike swivelled his head around.
::All clear,:: he confirmed, and Greg changed. He blindly fumbled for the car keys that Mike had placed on the inside rim and breathed with relief when his hand closed around them. With clammy fingers he opened the door and slipped inside.
“Come down here, Mike, you can change inside,” he called. “Don’t get any wetter!”
He wrapped his t-shirt around his arm and leant out of the sliding door, arm outstretched.
“Jump!” he commanded, and Mike obeyed. Greg pulled him inside and closed the door. The moment Mike’s feet touched the floor, he changed but remained huddled where he was.
“Bloody hell, I am freezing,” he complained. Greg took the t-shirt from his arm and stretched to open a small hatch in the car’s roof.
“Storage,” he explained, then pulled up a stool, stepped up and fished for something. “Ah, here.”
A woollen blanket landed on Mike who gratefully wrapped it around himself and sat down on the sofa with a sigh.
“Tea?” Greg offered, stepping into his boxers and pulling the t-shirt over his head.
“Yes, please,” Mike said, and Greg started rummaging around his tiny kitchen area. He filled his water kettle with water from a tank that sat on a sturdy construction, got the cook top going and produced two mugs and an assortment of tea bags. He picked one and offered the plastic box to Mike who chose an Assam blend.
When the water was boiling, he filled the mugs and turned to place them on his small table. Mike had pulled his legs up, crossed arms resting on his knees, looking pensively at Greg who laughed.
“Do you always perch like that, even when you’re out of your feathers?”
Mike immediately put his legs down and rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously. “Habit. I never know where to put my legs.”
“But why? Are you trying to make yourself smaller?”
“I guess, in a way.” The tips of Mike’s ears turned pink which Greg found oddly endearing.
“Don’t,” he said in a firm voice. “Never make yourself smaller. Tall lad like you. Nothing to hide, and I mean nothing.”
He put extra emphasis on the last word and Mike’s ears turned bright red.
“No need to blush. If you only ever looked up from your books, you’d find the Oxford girls queuing up to discuss their homework with you.”
“I doubt it. And I don’t… have time for girls.”
The tiny pause was not lost on Greg who shot him a sharp glance.
“I see,” he said.
Mike stared straight ahead and pulled the blanket a little tighter around him.
“Mike? Will you look at me? Please?”
Very slowly, Mike turned his head but didn’t meet Greg’s eyes.
“There’s no shame in being a late bloomer,” Greg said in a gentle voice. “Sometimes it’s just not right, and it takes a lot of strength to acknowledge it.”
“Oh, it’s not that. It’s not that I haven’t, uhm, been with a girl yet,” Mike started plucking at a loose thread.
“I, well –,” the loose thread came off and Mike rolled it into a little knot between his fingers. “Like you said, it wasn’t… right.” It came out as a whisper, barely audible over the rain drumming against the car’s roof, but Mike finally raised his eyes to meet Greg’s.
“I see,” Greg said again, and this time, he did see, or rather: permitted himself to see. Saw the blush that crept up Mike’s neck, saw his eyes turn dark, saw him pull his lower lip between his teeth, and saw his gaze drop to Greg’s mouth.
For a few heartbeats, neither of them spoke. Greg held his breath. Mike turned his head away and reached for his tea mug with a hand that wasn’t quite steady, and the spell seemed broken. Greg exhaled, very slowly, pushed the mug out of the way and covered Mike’s hand with his. Mike sat very still. Just when Greg thought he had made a gigantic mistake, Mike’s hand turned in his and he twined his fingers with Greg’s.
No words were needed. Their lips met, and Greg’s whole body tingled from the contact. He cupped Mike’s face with his hands to deepen the kiss, and Mike’s lips parted invitingly. What started as a careful exploration quickly turned into something more heated and soon had them rubbing frantically against each other in a mad tangle of arms and legs, hands searching and finding and grabbing. Mike had not put his clothes back on after changing and Greg intended to take full advantage of that, but much to his delight, Mike reached for the hem of Greg's t-shirt, yanked it over his head and pushed his boxers down with an impatience that matched Greg’s, eager to explore. Greg laughed and twisted to remove the annoying piece of clothing, only to find that his sofa was too small for two grown men and they landed on the floor with a thump. Mike groaned when his shoulder connected with the table and only Greg’s lightning quick reflexes saved the tea mugs from tumbling over and spilling their still steaming contents over naked skin.
“Damn!” Greg jumped up, laughing. “Move over, Mike, we need to pull out the bed.”
Mike scrambled to his feet, picked the woollen blanket up and pushed the table out of the way.
“Anything I can do?” he offered.
“Yeah, lock the doors and close the curtains. It’s still raining and I doubt there’ll be lots of folks wandering about, but –” his eyes travelled shamelessly along Mike’s tall frame, “I intend to take my time with you and I don’t want an audience for that.” He pointed at a floral atrocity behind the driver’s seat. “And don’t forget that one.”
Pulling out the bed and covering it with a sheet was a matter of moments and Greg flopped down on it, beckoning to Mike with a crooked finger. “Come here, you,” he said with a grin and Mike hurried to obey.
The bed was indeed big enough for two, and soon Mike was writhing in Greg’s arms, begging for a release that was refused to him with devilish finesse. The degree to which Mike responded to his touches stunned Greg to no small extent, and he brought him to the brink again and again, only to pull away at the last moment, leaving Mike panting and desperate and cursing. He kissed and nibbled and licked his way across warm, pale skin that was freckled everywhere – well, almost everywhere and that’s where he finally focussed his attention, finally taking pity. Mike came apart with a shout, and he came apart beautifully, exploding all over Greg’s hands, his body taut as a bowstring.
Greg watched him shiver through the aftershocks and traced the creamy white lines with his fingers.
“Say, Mike, have you been saving yourself? That was quite impressive.”
Mike chuckled weakly in reply and covered his face with his forearms.
“I’m sorry,” he managed, and Greg pulled his arms down and off his face.
“What for? That was hot as hell. I almost came just from looking at you. By the way,” he glanced down his own body, then gave Mike a pointed look. “Care to lend a hand here?”
It turned out that Mike was every inch the quick learner he had claimed to be, and he put his newfound knowledge to devastating use. Greg was quickly reduced to incoherencies, pressing his fists to his mouth in a fruitless attempt not to become too noisy, and his muffled cries and barely suppressed moans brought a smug smile to Mike’s face. Strong hands roamed his body, putting long fingers to good use, and Mike’s clever tongue made Greg sob with lust. He came just as violently as Mike had despite the fact that he had most definitely not been saving himself.
When his heartbeat had slowed down, he pulled Mike up and kissed him, lingering, savouring every moment.
“I’m so glad we met,” he whispered.
“So am I,” Mike whispered back.
“You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
“I am not,” Mike protested, ears turning pink again.
“Shut up. Of course you are. You have better skin than any girl, your freckles are delicious, I love that fluttering thing you do with your lashes, and your cock, aaahh –,” he gently stroked across it with his knuckles and laughed softly when it twitched with renewed interest. “Definitely a thing of beauty.”
He kissed the pulsing hollow of Mike’s throat and watched him stretch languorously, like a giant cat.
“I strongly refuse having my skin compared to that of a girl’s,” Mike said. “Next you’ll be saying I smell nice.”
“But you do. But not like a girl.” He brought his nose to Mike’s neck and sniffed. “Not like a girl at all.” Mike laughed and squirmed out of the way.
“So, do you like it? Being with girls?” he asked after a while.
Greg rubbed his face against Mike’s chest. “It’s alright. It can be quite nice, actually, if the girl’s a good one.”
“A good one?”
“You know, fun and not prissy. A good mate.”
“What? You didn’t like it? Not a bit?”
“Not all that much,” Mike confessed. “And I was mortally afraid about possible consequences.”
“Ah, but there’s protection against that,” Greg pointed out. “And don’t you be giving me lame excuses. Yeah, pulling a condom on takes some of the fun away, but what’s a few seconds of discomfort in comparison to a child you don’t want?”
“I know that. But I was still uncomfortable.”
“I am not uncomfortable now. Far from it.” He smiled, and Greg immediately slid up to kiss that smile.
“Do you need to be anywhere tonight?” he finally asked and Mike cocked an inquisitive eyebrow.
“Will anybody miss you?”
“Not before tomorrow evening. One of my father’s friends lets me use his holiday flat, and I’m there all by myself.”
“Taking time off from your roommate?”
“And my little brother,” Mike said, grinning. “But I must catch the night train back south tomorrow. Why are you asking?”
“Can’t you guess?” Greg wiggled his eyebrows and while Mike tried his best to appear innocent, he couldn’t keep a straight face for very long, and it was settled.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in blissful ignorance of the sun that came out again. The trees provided enough shade to prevent the small campervan from getting too hot, but being sweaty only added to the sensuality of a game that seemed invented just for them, their bodies undulating and writhing with and around each other, strong hands grabbing on to freckled shoulders, long fingers burying themselves in a shock of unruly hair, lips and tongues exploring, kissing, sucking, licking, teasing. The van’s small cabin reeked of sweat and musk and sex, and they tore away from each other only to open two windows.
When they had to grudgingly acknowledge that something like ‘spent’ actually existed and “oh God, that smell”, they agreed to leave the van after all. Taking a sneak peek to check if the air was clear, they changed and made for the lake once more, key safely deposited in its hiding place. The odds were in their favour and not a single wanderer had chosen the scenic route that would lead him towards the little lake, and they flung themselves into the water, splashing and laughing. Mike demonstrated more of his high diving abilities and admitted to having joined the university’s swimming team, and Greg showed off some of his clown acrobatics. There was fun to be had in the lake as well, but their growling stomachs eventually reminded them of other bodily needs, and they reluctantly changed into their clothes and rode their bikes to the nearest village where a well-frequented pub offered good food at reasonable prices. Greg was no stranger to the pub owner’s wife and charmed her into assembling a picnic basket for himself and his new friend.
“Why did you leave school after O-levels?” Mike asked on the way home.
Greg shrugged. “I hated school. I hated my teachers. Or rather, my science teacher. ‘Greg’ry’,” he said in a nasal voice, “‘there’s a reason you have hands like a butcher. You’re butchering the beauty of chemistry.’ God, I despised him. Made me hate the sound of my own name.” He huffed, still hurt after all the years.
“What an idiot,” Mike said with disgust. “He’s the one who should go and find something to slaughter, something other than his students. And you don’t have hands like a butcher,” he added.
“Yes I do. Look at them,” he held one hand up. “As elegant as frying pan. Especially in comparison to yours.”
“Nonsense. Remember telling me not to make myself smaller? Goes for you, too. You are not stupid, and your hands are perfectly fine.”
He reached out and took Greg’s hand into his own. “I love your hands,” he said in a firm voice. “They’re strong, and they do wonderful things. And I quite like the sound of your name.”
Greg squeezed his hand. “Thanks.” A sigh. “I was named after my Grandpa, and I never thought it was an odd name until Mr Franklin started to make fun of it.”
“It is not an odd name. You have no idea.”
“Well, I guess Michael's never made you a laughing stock.”
“Mike is not short for Michael.” He let go of Greg’s hand when he hit a bumpy patch. “I’ll tell you if you promise not to laugh.”
“I won’t laugh,” Greg promised.
“Mike is short for Mycroft.”
Greg did not laugh. He snorted. “Mycroft? What kind of a name is that? I don’t think I’ve ever heard that one before.”
“Told you. Worse than Gregory, right? I think my parents invented it.”
“Mycroft. Mike. Mycroft.” Greg tried both versions. “You know what? I like it. It suits you. Mycroft.” He nodded. “Yep, suits you. Mycroft it is. If you don’t mind,” he added.
Mycroft shot him a sinister look. “Are you making fun of me, Gregory?”
“No, I’m not. Sorry for laughing. But I do like the sound of your name. It’s unusual. Just like you.”
“Fine. You may call me Mycroft if that is your wish.”
“It is my wish.” He flashed him a mischievous grin. “And it is my most heartfelt wish that you take me to bed again, Mycroft.”
“Oh, I will, Gregory. Make no mistake about that.”
“It’s Greg, please. I’d much prefer it if you called me Greg.”
They rode in silence for a while, then Mycroft asked, “Have you always wanted to become a circus clown?”
“Seriously?” He looked at Mycroft. “My company must never find out, but I’ve always wanted to be a copper.”
“A policeman?” Mycroft looked at him, surprised. “And why didn’t you?”
“With my shitty marks? They would never accept me.”
“I don’t think an academic degree is a prerequisite when joining the police force. You’re an intelligent man, Greg, you could work your way up the ranks.”
“You really think so?”
“I really think so,” Mycroft confirmed. “Where would you like to work if you had to pick a place?”
“New Scotland Yard.” It was delivered quick as a shot. “London’s Metropolitan police. Man, that would be something.”
“Why don’t you give it a try?”
“They’d never take me.”
“Won’t hurt to try. And if you think your grades are a problem, why don’t you go to evening school and take your A-levels?”
“I’m not sure,” Greg said, doubt in his voice. “I really don’t think I’m smart enough.”
“Please.” Mycroft made a derisive noise. “I could name at least a dozen people who made their A-levels on a lot less intelligence.”
“Evening school, huh.”
“With other grown-ups. Another Trevor experience is highly unlikely as you will be paying for school. In other words, you’ll be paying your teachers. I’m sure they’d think twice before making fun of their students.”
“Mhm.” Greg worried his lower lip. “I need to think about this.”
“Please do. Yes, circus clown is a profession with a tradition, but just think of what you could do as a policeman.”
They reached the campervan and chained their bicycles to the car’s sturdy bumper-bar. Greg took their picnic basket from his bike’s rack, unlocked the sliding door and hauled Mycroft in by the lapels of his jacket.
“Inside, Mycroft. I have a craving for a very special kind of sweet.”
Mycroft didn’t object to that and soon good old Erwin was rocking to their interpretation of what a proper dessert should be.
“How far to your holiday flat?” Greg asked the next afternoon, lazily playing with a strand of Mycroft’s hair.
“About two hours by bike,” came the absent-minded reply.
“What? Do you want me to take you there?”
“No,” Mycroft turned his head to look at Greg. “It’s alright. It will help me clear my head.”
“Remove all memories of impurity from your academic brain?”
“Don’t be daft, Greg. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“There’s others who might respectfully disagree. Disrespectfully, too.”
Mycroft harrumphed to that. “I don’t care about others. But I’d still prefer to ride my bike.”
“Do you think you can ride that distance?”
“Because your delightful bottom might be a bit, uhm, sore?”
“Oh.” Mycroft blushed furiously. “I didn’t think of that.”
“See? I’ll drive you.”
“Thanks, Greg, but I will take my bike.”
“You’re a stubborn one, right?”
“I have my moments.”
When it was time to say good-bye, Mycroft pulled Greg into a fierce embrace and held him as if he never wanted to let him go. Greg held him just as tightly, blinking rapidly. When they let go, Mycroft’s eyes were suspiciously bright but he smiled at Greg.
“Thank you. For everything.”
Greg merely nodded, not trusting his voice. He watched as Mycroft straddled his bike and made for the narrow road, and ran after him.
“Wait!” he shouted. Mycroft stopped and turned to look at Greg.
“I want to give you something so you won’t forget me.”
“I’ll never forget you, Greg,” Mycroft softly said.
“Still.” Greg fumbled for the chain he was wearing and pulled it over his head. “Here,” he said. “It’s my Grandpa’s wedding band and I always figured I’d give it to a very special person.”
Mycroft took it. “Are you sure?”
Greg nodded emphatically. “Absolutely.”
Mycroft removed the ring from the chain and tried it on. It was a perfect fit for his right ring finger.
Then he was gone, and Greg started cleaning up his car.
For the first time since secondary school, Mycroft returned from his holidays with his thesis only half written. Of course he still finished it in time, and of course he received stellar marks for it.
But Mycroft Holmes returned to Oxford a changed man.
Greg respectfully declined his company’s offer to renew his engagement for the following. Instead, he took a part-time job and signed up for evening school to take his A-levels.
For the first time in his life, Greg Lestrade was setting career objectives.
- A 'Kelpie' is a mythical Scottish water horse creature.
- I borrowed two things from Rupert Graves' actual biography. One's not so important, but the other one's too good to pass up. Spotted it?
“Well done, Greg, very well done indeed!” Thomas studied the sheet his nephew had slid across the table. Patrick, his eldest, leaned over his father’s shoulder to steal a glance.
“Look at that. All B’s and C’s. Not bad.”
Greg crossed his hands behind his head. “Who would have thought, eh? Guess that finally makes me a respectable member of society.”
“Well,” Patrick grinned, “I wouldn’t say respectable. But it’s a start.” He ducked when a balled-up napkin flew his way.
“Boys, please,” Susan chided, but her smile ruined the effect. “I am so proud of you, Greg. Passed your A-levels! Imagine that. And with such good grades, too! I wish your parents could have seen this. Helen would be over the moon.”
For a moment, neither of them said a word. Then Thomas cleared his throat. “Let’s celebrate. This calls for a night out at the pub. What do you say?”
“Sounds good,” Patrick and Greg said in unison, and Greg added, “My treat.”
“You most certainly won’t,” his uncle protested but Greg held up a hand.
“I most certainly will. Listen, you let me stay for another two years, well, almost three years –” he grinned sheepishly, referring to his initial difficulties at evening school, “and I owe you. I just want to say thank you. I can do that, can’t I?”
“That is very sweet of you, and we accept,” Susan said in a firm voice, shooting her husband a stern look. “Should I ring them up and make a reservation for Friday?”
“Yeah, Friday’s good.” Greg nodded. “Uncle Thomas?”
“Friday’s good,” Thomas confirmed.
“Will Rhon come, too?” Greg looked at Patrick who shrugged.
“No idea. If you manage to unglue her from the phone for a sec, you may possibly get a reply. Maybe even a favourable one if you give her one of your smiles.” The latter was delivered with a hint of disapproval and Greg immediately spread his hands in a gesture of defence.
“I didn’t do anything, and you know that.” His younger cousin had developed a teenage crush on him, much to her brother’s dislike. “I’m not encouraging her. At all.”
“I’m sure it’s just a phase,” Susan cut in, correctly interpreting her husband’s frown. Thomas did not appreciate the idea of his little girl growing up and developing interests away from doll houses and horse-riding. “Greg doesn’t behave in any way that’s inappropriate. It’s not his fault he’s such a pretty boy.”
“Aunt Susan!” Greg protested. “I’m twenty-five. Not exactly a boy anymore.”
His aunt tousled his hair before he could duck away. It was beginning to annoy him, this fascination with his wild hair, and he made a mental note to pay the hairdresser a visit. ‘Pretty boy’ indeed. His good looks had been helpful in and out of the circus ring but being ‘pretty’ would not help him get where he wanted to be.
“Can’t you talk to Rhon?” he turned to his aunt for help. “I’d like her to come with us. I have something to tell you. All of you.”
“Oh?” Susan looked at him sharply but he merely lifted an eyebrow.
“It’s still a secret,” he stage-whispered and she sighed.
“Alright, I will try and speak to my teenage daughter. Your secret better be worth it.”
“Oh but it is. If anything, it will restore the family peace.”
“You have accepted an engagement in Las Vegas,” Patrick suggested but Greg shook his head, pressing his lips together. “The Chinese National Circus? Or will you join the Flying Romanoffs in Moscow?”
Greg kept shaking his head, laughing. “Nope. All wrong. My clowning days are over.”
“Found yourself a respectable job then?” Patrick wouldn’t give up.
“Not another word.” With that, he took a flourishing bow and left the room. Let his family chew on that for a while. He was itching to change and run.
It was still warm but autumn was on its way. The air had a different quality to it as did the wind that ruffled his fur as he sat down on the small jetty, tail curled neatly around himself. His large ears twitched and he watched the waves ripple and dance, making splashing sounds against the wooden stilts. Soon the trees surrounding the lake would turn into all shades of red and golden, and he wouldn’t be here to see it. He lay down, put his snout on his forearms and sighed. He would miss this, his favourite spot. His little loch, and the beautiful landscape it was embedded in. The colours. The smells. The… memories.
Wonder what Mycroft is doing.
Did he sometimes look out of the window of his Oxford room and think of him, as he thought of Mycroft? Had he found somebody he could change with? Had he found anybody who could change at all? Greg hadn’t. Well, that was not precisely true. He had met an old woman, had stumbled across her quite by accident as she was in the process of changing into a rabbit, but after she had sat frozen to the spot for a few seconds, she had ran off into the shrubbery and out of his sight before he could even call after her.
The distant hoot of an owl made him raise his head, straining his ears. No, wrong bird. He wouldn’t forget the sound of Mycroft’s voice. Not of his distinct Owl voice, and certainly not of his human voice that had felt like velvet in his ears, both his Fox ears and his human ears. He remembered each nuance – haughty when Greg had said something especially silly, calm and self-confident whenever the subject of studies or anything intellectual had come up, playful when challenging him… but his favourite nuance was the breathless begging and pleading, the sighs and soft moans. If he had to choose one acoustic memory to stay with him for the rest of his life, it would have to be the sound of Mycroft breathing his name. Gregory. It had been the first time his name had sounded like a caress.
He stood up and shook himself. No use dwelling in the past. He hadn’t heard from Mycroft in all of this time, and how could he? They hadn’t even exchanged family names and although Greg had briefly toyed with the idea of driving all the way down to Oxford – somebody at the university would certainly remember a student with such an unusual name –, he had decided against it, not sure if such an intrusion would have been welcome.
He cast another glance across the loch, then turned around and ran back to where good old Erwin stood waiting for him.
Mycroft regarded the short bespectacled man in front of him with a cool gaze.
“I am absolutely sure about this, Professor Richmond,” he said. “I’ve been offered to continue my studies at the University of Hong Kong and it’s a chance I would not want to miss.”
“But Holmes, Hong Kong will soon be a part of the Republic of China,” Richmond said, with a touch of desperation in his voice.
“With all due respect, sir, we’re talking 1997 while we’re still in 1988. I see absolutely no reason why I should refuse such an offer.”
“Your future lies with Oxford, don’t you see? You could build a glorious career for yourself.”
Mycroft stubbornly lifted his chin and looked down at the dean from his superior height. “I am not entirely certain whether a career that’s been built on viewing the world from the confinement of a study can ever truly be called glorious.”
The dean opened his mouth and closed it again. The conversation had been going on for well over thirty minutes and nothing he had said had achieved its goal. He looked at the young man standing before him and sighed.
“Very well, Holmes, if that is what you want…” He paused and sighed again. “And your parents approve of that plan of yours?”
“I am twenty-two, sir. I don’t need my parents’ approval. Besides, you may be aware that my father studied Japanese history and language at Kyoto University.”
“And look at where he is now,” Richmond pointed out and Mycroft raised his chin a bit more.
“Unless there has been a profound misunderstanding I believe it isn’t my father’s life choices that are under discussion but mine.”
“Have it your way,” the dean said with an air of irritated frustration and resumed his seat behind his desk. “You will grant me permission to express my regrets about seeing you leave.”
“And I thank you for your concern, Professor Richmond,” Mycroft politely said. “But my mind is made up.”
When he left the dean’s office ten minutes later with two sets of signed papers in his hands, he gave a curt nod to the man who had been patiently waiting outside.
“I have the requested signatures, sir.” He held out one set and the man rose, smoothed a waistcoat that didn’t need smoothing and accepted the sheets. “Pleased to hear it, Mr Holmes.” He cast a glance over the documents, then folded them and put them into his inside pockets. “Welcome on board.” He extended his hand.
“Thank you.” Mycroft took the offered hand with a firm clasp. “I look forward to working with you.”
“Likewise.” They headed for the exit, Mycroft leading the way along the corridors that had seemed an endless maze to him when he had first entered the building.
“We will start processing the paperwork immediately. You should hear from us within the next three weeks. Will that give you enough time to make all necessary arrangements?”
“In how far have you informed your family?”
“In so far as I will work on my master’s degree at the University of Hong Kong. In addition, I will intensify my studies of information technology.”
“No questions asked?”
“No questions asked,” Mycroft confirmed. “My mother strongly supports an academic education, and my father strongly supports going abroad.”
“To look beyond your own nose?”
“Something of the kind.”
“Not everybody’s parents are that supportive. Consider yourself lucky, Mr Holmes.”
Mycroft made a non-committal noise and chose not to reply.
“Well,” they had reached the entrance to the small parking lot, “enjoy your last weeks at Oxford, Mr Holmes. Hong Kong is nowhere near as peaceful and scenic.”
“I hope not, Mr Robson.”
“Careful what you wish for.” Robson opened the door to his sleek limousine. “Made any plans?”
“A holiday before you’re off, perhaps?”
“Oh. I was thinking of spending a few days up in Scotland.”
“Got friends there?”
“I wouldn’t say friends.” Mycroft hoped that for once, he would be spared the embarrassment of pink ears. “More of an acquaintance.”
“I see.” Robson gave him a knowing smirk and there it was. Heat crept up his neck and he grit his teeth. Robson’s smirk deepened. “Well, give her a proper good-bye then. You’ll be gone for at least two years, and she can’t come and visit.”
“I am aware of that.”
“Make sure to phone in and leave a number where we can reach you while you’re frolicking about in bonny Scotland.”
“And drop the sir. It’s Tony from now on.”
“Very well. Tony.”
“See you soon, Mycroft.” Robson got into the car. Mycroft stepped back and watched him pull out of the narrow parking spot. As the car vanished out of sight, Mycroft felt a sudden wave of dizziness wash over him and he reached for the parking meter to steady himself.
He had done it. He had really done it.
The Owl sat on his favourite tree in Blenheim Palace Park, overlooking the lake that was pleasantly peaceful at night. Some frogs croaked in the hope of a late summer love, and the waning moon cast a weak silvery light over the water. It would soon be autumn, and an indistinct feeling of premature homesickness rose in his chest. He would miss this park, and this tree.
A swift movement to his left caught his eye and he swivelled his head. A red fox stood in a few yards’ distance, large ears flicking back and forth. Wrong colour, red. Uninteresting. Mycroft turned his head to gaze across the lake some more.
Although he had – to a certain extent – caught up on his romantic backlog, he could still felt Greg’s hands on his skin whenever he closed his eyes. His strong, calloused hands, no doubt roughened by manual labour around the circus ring. And he remembered his smooth, warm skin and his dark eyes and the feeling of the fox’ soft fur under his hands, and remembered how the overwhelming urge to touch and stroke the grey plushness had swept over him, despite the fox’ stern warning. There had been something between them, something other than pure physical attraction and it had nothing to do with the infatuation of a brief summer fling, either. Not one of the lovers he had taken since then had made him feel the way Greg had. Greg. Did he ever look across that scenic little loch, thinking about their time together, brief though it had been? Or had he moved on, found a new engagement, breaking hearts wherever he went? Or had he taken their conversations to heart and left the circus in pursuit of his dream? I wonder if he still drives Erwin the campervan.
He had talked his father’s friend into letting him use his holiday flat one last time although he wasn’t sure what he hoped to achieve by going up to Scotland. They hadn’t exchanged any personal information that would facilitate a search and he had nothing to go by other than the meagre facts that Greg’s uncle was a doctor and Greg was a circus clown. He didn’t even know the name of the village he lived in. But his mind was made up. Before going to Hong Kong he would go to Scotland, if only to revisit the castle ruins or take one last swim in the lake. Provided the water wasn’t already too cold.
In the distance, a clock struck two. Time to return before his roommate got back from wherever he was. Mycroft had politely declined the invitation to join him and had turned a deaf ear to yet another speech about being no fun and a bookworm, mumbling something about an early training session the next day. The excuse was grudgingly accepted because being on the Oxford swimming team was regarded an honour, and the team’s coach had quite a reputation when it came to the athletes’ discipline.
He pushed himself off the branch and headed back in the direction of the halls of residence, hoping Sean was either sound asleep or still gone.
His news had the desired impact and Greg grinned as he looked into the stunned faces of his family. “That’s right. I’m going to be a copper.”
Susan was the first to find her speech again. “So that’s why you went to London.”
“Yes. I had to take a few tests to see whether I’m fit enough to be a policeman.”
“Greg!” Patrick gaped at his cousin. “When did that happen? You? A copper?”
Greg shrugged and reached for his pint. “Can’t be a clown forever.”
“Yeah, but a copper?”
“Stop saying it like it’s something bad.” He smiled at the waitress who had appeared with two plates. “Thanks, love. This one’s for her,” he pointed at Susan, “and that one’s mine.”
“That’s fantastic news!” His uncle reached for his pint, too. “When will you get the results back?”
“I already have them. They arrived in the post on Tuesday. I snatched the letter right out of the postman's hands so nobody could see the sender.” He winked at his aunt who huffed in mock outrage.
“And?” Thomas insisted.
“I’ve been accepted, of course.” He took a swig. “Do you think I’d be telling you about it if I had failed?”
“But Greg, London?” Susan asked, looking not very happy about the prospect of her nephew seeking his fortune in Britain’s capital.
“Come on, Aunt Susan, you never flinched once when I travelled all over the country with the circus. Please don’t say you worry about me.”
“I always worry about you, you silly boy.”
“Were the tests very difficult?” Patrick asked. “What did you have to do?”
“I had to take a written test first. That one was a bit tricky. The fitness test was rather lame, and the medical came back clean. They were a bit off about the clowning thing but since I’ve been a model citizen all of my life,” he raised his glass, “they couldn’t hold it against me. I mean, it’s not like I’ve been selling drugs or anything. I had proper contracts with good companies. Besides, background check’s come back all good and clean, too.”
“What about that tattoo of yours?”
“Neither visible nor offensive.”
“You have a tattoo?” The revelation yanked Rhon out of the brief state of shock Greg’s news had inflicted on her.
“Only a small one.”
“Where is it?”
“Where no-one will ever see it. Unless I give explicit permission.”
The waitress re-appeared with the remaining plates and Rhon waited until she was gone again.
“What is it?”
“What?” Greg pretended not to understand the question.
“Your tattoo. What did you get? Not a clown, I hope.”
“No, not a clown.”
“A skull? Or playing cards?”
“I’m not saying. It’s personal.”
She made a face. He reached across the table and pulled at one of her chestnut strands.
“Come now, Rhon. Grant me my little secret, eh? I promise I’ll send you a photo of me in uniform.”
“Promise. Now eat. I’m paying, and you’re not throwing my food away.”
She pouted prettily but gave in to the temptation of her chicken tikka masala, shooting her cousin tragic looks from under thick lashes in between bites.
“Where will you stay?” Patrick reached for the pepper. “London’s pretty expensive from what I’ve heard.”
“It is,” Greg confirmed, “and I have no idea yet. Maybe I can find a flat share or something.”
“I have a better idea.” Thomas lowered his fork and pursed his lips. “My uncle Randolph lives in London.”
“That the banker?”
“Exactly. He’s in his seventies now and he’s kept the house after Aunt Vera died. It’s pretty central, I think, Ladbroke Grove or something. North West London.”
Greg whistled. “That sounds expensive.”
“Yeah well, old money plus banker. He’s not exactly stinking rich but he’s well off. He’s in good shape, too, so you don’t have to worry about being expected to look after him. Want me to ring him?”
“Do you think he’d let me stay with him until I’ve found something on my own? I’ve only met him once.”
“I can’t see why not. You’re family. And it won’t exactly be forever, right? I’m sure he has a spare bedroom you could use until you get settled in.”
“That would be great. Tell him I’m good with my hands. If he needs something fixed around the house, I can help.”
“He has a small garden. I’m sure he’d appreciate your help there.”
“No problem. Thanks so much. That’ll make it so much easier.”
“Alright then. I’ll ring him up tomorrow.”
With one less topic to worry about, Greg started chatting cheerfully about the tests he had taken and delivered a spot-on imitation of the police officer who had interviewed him. He had the sergeant’s thick accent down to a tee which had Rhon in giggles, and the family dinner turned into something that soon had the neighbouring tables join in. The Youngs and their clown nephew were well known and liked, and there was not a single soul in the pub that night that had not been to Dr Young’s medical practice at some point in their lives. The news of Greg’s plans spread like wildfire and soon he was in the centre of attention, receiving numerous slaps on his back and twice the number of jokes at his expense. He responded with easy banter and on his third pint was warmed up to a point where he had gathered a large group around himself, keeping them entertained and in stitches.
He froze in mid-movement and mid-sentence.
“Greg? What’s the matter?” Somebody touched his arm and he started. “Are you seeing green elephants or something?”
“I, uh, it’s nothing.” His eyes fell on a tall frame leaning against the counter and his heart started thumping madly in his chest. “I need another pint.” He bestowed an absent-minded smile on the young blonde. “Be right back.”
Weaving his way through the small crowd he had attracted he made his way to the bar, placed one foot on the rung and nodded at the pub owner.
“Pete,” he said and carefully avoided staring at Mycroft or – Heaven forbid! – touching him, “may I have another one?”
He watched Pete fill up another glass and turned to face Mycroft.
“Hello,” he casually said. “I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. What brings you to this part of the world?”
::You do.:: Mycroft smiled politely and tilted his head. “I needed to clear my head so I decided to treat myself to a long weekend in Scotland. It’s lovely up here and this seems a nice pub.”
“Great choice. You’re not from around here, I gather?” ::Where are you staying?::
::Holiday flat. Same as last time.:: “No, I’m from Surrey which is where I’ll return early next week.”
“Will you do some hillwalking, or are you more the golfer type?”
“Oh, I was planning to do some wildlife watching. Maybe climb one or two hills, too.”
“You do that. Make sure you take your time on the way up to the peak.”
“That’s the plan. Then climb down and head straight for the next one.”
“Excellent strategy.” ::Remember where the campervan was parked?::
::As soon as I can get out of here that’s where I’m going.::
::You’re in no condition to drive.:: “That’s what I thought. I plan to take it slow so I can enjoy the view.”
“Best thing to do if you’re untrained.” ::I am far from drunk, and this is not exactly Glasgow. I’ll wait for you.::
“I am not exactly untrained. I’ve done it before, and I try to stay in shape.”
::And what a fine shape it is. I can’t wait to remove all these layers so I can give it my full attention.:: “Well, enjoy your long weekend then. You’ve come to the right place.”
“Thank you. I was hoping you’d say that. Have a pleasant evening.” Mycroft emptied his glass of what looked like cider, put it on the well-worn and smooth counter and strolled outside with the same elegance of movement that Greg had so admired when they had first met.
“You know him?” Pete asked, reaching for Mycroft’s glass.
Greg shrugged one shoulder. “He looks familiar but I can’t place him. Maybe I’ve seen him around the castle. He looks like one of these university types.”
Pete snorted in response. “Trying to get in touch with his medieval self.”
“Something like that. Although he doesn’t look like history buff to me.” He looks like the perfect midnight snack. “More like a future banker.”
“Banker wanker.” Pete made a derisive sound and turned to the elderly man who was waiting patiently. “Aye, what’ll it be?”
Mycroft entered the pub with mixed feelings, caught between hope and sinking spirits. Yesterday’s train ride had been a nightmare with massive delays, and being surrounded by an especially noisy group of German tourists during the final leg of the journey had done nothing to improve his mood. Whatever had happened to the land of poets and thinkers if it brought forth such annoying individuals?
The next unwanted surprise had come in the shape of Mrs MacLoughlin, the flat owner’s wife. She had greeted him with a stream of words the moment he had walked through the door and wouldn’t stop talking until he finally agreed that yes, he would be very pleased to have dinner with Mr MacLoughlin and herself. During the course of the evening, however, he had been pleasantly surprised when Mrs MacLoughlin had offered to let him use her car during his stay which he had gratefully accepted.
Sadly, there had been no sight of either Greg or his campervan anywhere near the small lake so he had spent the better part of the day lying on the jetty, enjoying the late summer sun and daydreaming about what could possibly expect him in Hong Kong and what had happened the last time he had been here. He had contemplated a swim but decided against it and had finally driven up to the castle ruins only to experience more disappointment. No Greg there, either, and the door to the underground cell had been firmly locked and bolted.
On the way back to the flat he stopped by a petrol station to fill up the car and buy a newspaper. While paying he asked for a reasonably priced pub and received directions to the Leaping Buck with high recommendations. As it was located along the way, he decided to grab a bite there instead of trying his luck in the kitchen.
The small building looked familiar and as he pulled into the parking lot, he realised with a jolt that this was the pub where Greg had taken him. They had arrived from the back, having taken their bicycles and chosen a different route, but it was the same pub nevertheless. He didn’t dare get his hopes up but it was worth trying, and he was hungry, too.
The moment he stepped inside he was greeted with a roar of laughter that came from one of the tables in the back area. He had to shout at the bearded man behind the bar to order his drink and ask for the menu, and when his eyes followed the finger pointing at the main menu, the small crowd that had gathered around the table shifted and he caught sight of a young man juggling two empty pint glasses and what looked like a bread basket. One of the glasses fell to the ground and shattered into many pieces, causing more laughter.
Suddenly there was a swarm of butterflies in his stomach, fluttering around madly, and there was a humming inside of him, too. Greg. There was no mistaking the carefree laughter. He would recognise it anywhere – each nuance of Greg’s voice was firmly imprinted on his acoustic memory, as was each detail of his athletic body. His stonewash jeans had a pleasantly snug fit as did the yellow t-shirt that sat tight around shoulders and biceps, speaking of strength and agility that came from working in a profession that required full physical commitment. Greg had gained a little weight but it was favourably distributed and sat right where it belonged.
Mycroft swallowed. In an attempt to appear the casual bystander he turned to the bartender.
“Oh,” the man shook his head, laughing. “That’s Greg Lestrade, one of the local boys. Well, not really local himself but his aunt and uncle are, and he’s lived with them for over ten years. We’ve adopted him. He’s a good lad.”
“Are they celebrating something?”
“I have no idea. Something about him moving to London.”
“I see.” He reached for his cider and took a careful sip to test its quality. It was surprisingly good and he made an appreciative noise.
“What did you want to eat?” the bartender asked Mycroft who shook his head.
“I’m not really hungry.” In fact he still was, but what he now craved, and very much so, was not on the menu. He watched Greg do something silly and clownish while the wheels in his mind were spinning to come up with a strategy to approach him without attracting unwanted attention.
Oh. Of course. There was one way of doing it. Simple, really.
The sound of an approaching car made Greg jump up from his sofa bed and peep through one of the side windows. That was not what he had expected. The last thing he needed was a moonstruck couple seeking out the quiet lakeside for a late summer rendezvous. Not tonight, at least. Not while a late summer rendezvous was the very thing he was hoping for himself. A car door slammed shut and light steps approached his campervan. Something inside him started humming and his face split into a wide grin.
He opened Erwin’s sliding door and beamed at Mycroft who stood with his hand raised as if to knock.
“Are you expecting anybody?” Mycroft asked, smiling.
“As a matter of fact, yes I am.” Greg moved away from the door and made an inviting gesture. “Care to keep me company in the meantime?”
“With pleasure.” Mycroft ducked his head and stepped inside, closing the door behind himself.
For a moment, they just stood there, looking at each other. Greg let his gaze travel along Mycroft’s tall frame, then snatched his right hand when something golden flashed in the subdued light of the small reading lamp next to the sofa-bed.
“You’re wearing it?”
“Of course I am.” Mycroft spread the fingers of his right hand.
Greg touched the golden ring and swallowed. “I didn’t think you would.”
“I’m not even taking it off for competitions, or training.” He curled his long fingers around Greg’s hand. “I only take it off when I’m changing, for obvious reasons.” They fingers interlaced. “It stays on when I’m sleeping, when I’m taking a shower, when I’m swimming. It’s with me all the time.”
The humming inside Greg’s chest intensified and he wet his lips. He saw Mycroft’s eyes drop to his mouth and pulled his lower lips between his teeth, nervous all of a sudden and not understanding why. There was something unreal about finally having Mycroft with him when he had so longed for him ever since he had made up his mind to try his luck with the Metropolitan Police.
Both stepped forward at the same time and their noses bumped painfully together.
They started laughing, rubbing their noses, and whatever traces of nervousness or hesitation might have plagued them since agreeing on this midnight date evaporated into oblivion. Mycroft cupped Greg’s face and claimed his mouth without further ado, and Greg tilted his head for a better angle, grabbing the lapels of Mycroft’s jacket to pull him close. Mycroft’s lips felt exactly as he remembered them but there was a new quality to his kiss. It was more experienced, more refined, and the body that pressed itself close had somehow changed, too. Greg let his hands slide underneath the jacket to push it off Mycroft’s shoulders and he felt sinew and muscle where there had been mostly skin and bone three years ago. Mycroft shrugged out of his jacket and Greg stepped back to look at him.
“What is it?” Mycroft asked, confused.
“You,” Greg swallowed. “You’ve changed.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’ve put on some muscle.”
“Is that bad?”
“Quite the contrary.” He reached for the hem of Mycroft’s polo shirt and Mycroft lifted his arms obligingly. Greg pulled the shirt over his head, dropped it carelessly to the floor and whistled. “It’s hot as fuck. Look at you!”
There was nothing rangy about Mycroft anymore; he had become lean and lithe, with the taut, streamlined muscles of a dancer. Or swimmer, in his case. He would never be beefy or bulky and would always appear loose-limbed and lanky when fully dressed, but anyone with eyes in their heads would see beyond that. Or those lucky enough to get to see him out of his clothes.
Mycroft self-consciously hugged his arms around himself, looking utterly uncomfortable. “You’re joking.”
“What?” Greg pulled Mycroft’s arms down and away from his chest. “Have you ever, and I mean recently, checked a mirror?”
He yanked his own shirt over his head and sank to his knees.
“Come here at once. If I don’t have you naked in thirty seconds I’m gonna cry.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mycroft said, half laughing, half embarrassed but did as he was told.
“Try me.” Greg opened belt buckle, button and zipper with swift hands, then lightly slapped against Mycroft’s left calf. “Foot,” he commanded and Mycroft lifted first his left leg, then his right so Greg could remove shoes and socks. “And now for the fun part.” He grinned up at Mycroft who swallowed audibly. He hooked his fingers into the waistband of Mycroft’s dark blue trousers and pulled them down along with the briefs, inch by agonising inch, revealing pale skin and thighs that, too, had gained muscle.
“What in the world is that?”
Greg sat back on his heels and stared at Mycroft’s slim hips where next to the right hipbone sat the stylised image of a fox. It was small, less than two inches by two inches, and it was expertly inked into the area’s sensitive skin. Greg touched his fingers to the delicately outlined shape and felt heat flood his system.
“Do you like it?” Mycroft asked, sounding almost shy.
Greg looked up into Mycroft’s face and nodded, not trusting his voice. Instead, he leaned forward and touched the fox with his lips. Mycroft drew a hissing breath and Greg wrapped his arms around his hips, caressing the patch of skin with lips and tongue until Mycroft buried a hand in Greg’s hair and made a whimpering, needy sound. Greg smiled against his skin and transferred his attention to the part of Mycroft that needed it most, swallowing him whole, arms still wrapped around his hips, his eyes not leaving Mycroft’s face. Mycroft widened his stance and let his head fall back, reaching blindly for something to steady him as Greg started a devastating game of suck and let go, of lick and tease.
Mycroft didn’t last long and tried to push Greg away at the very last instant but Greg stubbornly held on to his hips, taking it all and even lapped up the last drops from the still twitching prick. Mycroft sagged back against the tiny kitchenette and managed a weak laugh.
“I must say, that was quite a welcome.”
“Thanks for coming,” Greg said, grinning, and licked the corners of his mouth. “That was exquisite.”
He let himself be hauled up and into Mycroft’s arms and tilted his head up for another kiss. Mycroft’s hands landed on his bum cheeks and pulled him closer.
“You’re still wearing your jeans,” he said accusingly and Greg laughed.
“Want me to do something about it?”
Mycroft nodded wordlessly and Greg turned them around to push him onto the sofa bed. Mycroft leaned back on his elbows and looked at Greg from under half-lidded eyes. Greg chuckled.
“Now that’s a come-hither look if ever I’ve seen one.”
One auburn eyebrow arched up and Mycroft spread his long legs.
“Watch,” Greg said and stepped back. He made a show of popping the buttons of his fly open one by one and palmed his rapidly hardening length through the V-shaped opening, teasing himself through the cotton of his boxer briefs. Mycroft looked, transfixed, mirroring the movement, and Greg wriggled out of his jeans with maddeningly slow motions, ridding himself of shoes and socks, too. He straightened, hooked his thumbs into the waistband of his briefs and looked at Mycroft.
“Ready?” he asked and Mycroft nodded, pulling his lower lips between his teeth. Greg pushed his pants down his hips, let them fall to the floor and grinned when Mycroft’s eyes dropped to a spot next to the left hipbone where a small eagle owl sat on an equally small branch.
“Oh Greg,” Mycroft whispered and held out his hand. Greg took it and moved forward to straddle Mycroft’s legs, and they sat there, forehead to forehead, neither saying a word. Greg’s heart was beating so loudly he was almost certain Mycroft heard it, too, and when their lips touched, the strange humming inside him intensified.
Mycroft let himself fall back on the sofa, pulling Greg with him, and soon they were caught up in the game they both liked so well and in which they found themselves to be in perfect synchronicity with each other. Sighs turned into throaty moans, their rubbing and pushing became more and more frantic and Greg feared that Mycroft would return from his weekend in Scotland looking as if he had been assaulted. His long limbs were strong and beautifully flexible (“Have you taken up ballet?” – “No, but I make sure to stretch before running.” – “Good lad.”) but his skin bruised laughably easily. He didn’t seem to mind, though, and responded by digging his long fingers into Greg’s flesh just as forcefully.
“Please,” he finally pleaded in a breathless voice, “please Greg, fuck me.”
Greg had to clamp down on the base of his cock to stop himself from coming right there and then, without even having been inside Mycroft, and after a few controlled breaths twisted out of the way to reach underneath the sofa. When he turned over to face Mycroft again, he held a plastic bottle and a box of condoms in his hands.
“These,” he held up the box and dropped the bottle on the sofa, “have unfortunately become a necessity.”
Mycroft nodded. “I know. I’ve done quite some research on Aids.”
“My uncle says they’re still running tests and pulling together data to find out all about it but he strongly advises using protection, no matter what the newspapers say.”
With a sigh he pulled one of the small packages out of the box. “They’re okay when you’re with a girl, you know. For obvious reasons. But with a bloke? Takes the fun out of things.”
“Not necessarily.” Mycroft held out a hand and Greg dropped the condom into his palm. “Let me show you something.”
He ripped the package open and with the naughtiest smirk Greg had seen in a long while took the condom between his teeth. Before Greg knew what was happening he had sheathed Greg’s cock with his mouth and dropped back with a smug smile.
“How did you do that?” Greg asked, stunned.
“I take it that’s a trick you don’t get to use in the circus ring?” He turned around and lifted his hips invitingly. “I will teach you. Until then –” he reached for the lube bottle and pushed it into Greg’s direction, “lube up, Greg. I’ve been waiting three years for this and I will not wait any longer.”
Greg clicked the bottle open and hurried to oblige. When he was sure he had applied enough lubrication both on himself and on Mycroft, he pulled Mycroft’s firm bum cheeks apart and watched as he slowly but relentlessly slid inside. By the time he was seated balls deep, they were both panting and Mycroft was fisting the bed sheet. Greg bent forward and kissed the strong back that was stretched out before him. Mycroft pushed himself up on his elbows and arched his back, making the shoulder muscles flex with his movements and Greg let his hands roam along the entire length, thinking he had never seen anything so beautiful before. Then he bracketed Mycroft’s hips with his hands because he, too, had waited three years for this.
“So, Greg, what have you been doing with yourself for the last three years?” Mycroft asked when their breathing had calmed down and they were lying next to each other. Greg had his head on Mycroft’s chest, eyes closed, enjoying the feeling of Mycroft’s fingers playing with his hair. Strange how he hated having his locks tousled by every other human being but didn’t mind at all when it was Mycroft’s hands playing with his unruly mop. “Learned new acrobatics? Travelled the world? Taken on elephants?”
“Mhm.” He blinked his eyes open. “You have no idea.”
“I’ve taken my A-levels and have just passed the Met’s qualifying exam. I am going to be a copper with the London Metropolitan Police.” He shifted so he could look into Mycroft’s face. “What do you say?”
Mycroft didn’t say anything for a few heartbeats, then he tightened his arm around Greg. “That is wonderful. I am so, so happy.” He pressed a kiss to the top of Greg’s head.
“But it took me more than two years,” Greg admitted. “I had such difficulties in the beginning.”
“But you struggled through. Did you go to college?”
“No, I went to evening school. I worked as a supply teacher and shop assistant during the days and went to school in the evenings.”
“A teacher? What did you teach?”
“Physical education, and it was only six hours per week. Plus thirty hours at Spar’s.”
“Thirty-six hours per week.” Mycroft whistled through his teeth. “That’s a full-time job. And you still managed to finish school. Congratulations, Greg, that’s fantastic!”
“Do you want to see my diploma?” Greg asked, hopeful.
“By all means.”
Greg rolled off the sofa bed, reached for a folder and removed a sheet.
“Promise you won’t laugh,” he said before handing it to Mycroft.
“Why would I laugh?”
“Because I’ve taken my A-levels at twenty-five and you’re studying at Oxford.”
“Don’t be daft, Greg,” Mycroft said dismissively and reached for the diploma. He studied it and hummed. “But that’s very good! For someone who used to hate going to school, you’ve done amazingly well.” He handed it back. “Do you plan to continue?”
“Well,” Greg put the valuable document back into the folder, “depending on how things go at the Met, I was thinking of maybe trying for a law degree.”
“What?” Mycroft’s eyebrows shot up. “Law? Have you tasted blood?”
“You were right, you know,” Greg said as he stretched out next to Mycroft again. “Studying as a grown-up is different. I know why I’m doing it, and that’s a whole different motivation.” He came to lie on his side. “How about you? What made you do that, for instance?” He touched the fox tattoo.
Mycroft rolled over to lie on his stomach and propped his chin up on a hand. “I wanted something to remind me of what happiness looks like.” Light pink dusted his ears. “Something that was all mine.” He twirled the ring with thumb and little finger. “Something that could not be taken away.”
“It’s beautiful. Where did you have it done?”
“Oxford. I sketched it myself.”
“Well, I wouldn’t call it painting. I sketch things, you know, with graphite pencils. No canvas or oil paint.”
“Damn, Myc. Is there anything you can’t do?”
“I can’t juggle pint glasses.” He grinned, and Greg grinned back.
“Neither can I. Well, mine was painted for me by one of the circus boys but I only had it inked after I’d started school. For pretty much the same reasons, I guess.” He reached for Mycroft’s hand and kissed the knuckles. “What else? How’s Oxford?”
“I’m done with Oxford.”
“Well, I’ve obtained a bachelor’s degree in PPE and IT.” He fell silent and after what seemed a brief internal debate he said, “You see, I’ve received an offer to study at the University of Hong Kong.”
“Hong Kong?” Greg echoed. “Why?”
“It’s linked to a future position within the Government.” He pressed his lips together the moment the words were out and Greg could tell he hadn’t meant to speak them.
“I see,” he said, trying to ease the tension before it manifested. “You’re going to undermine the Chinese government so Hong Kong remains in the British Empire.” To his surprise, Mycroft blushed violently and averted his eyes. “Come on, Myc, I was only teasing,” he said and rubbed between Mycroft’s shoulder blades. “I didn’t mean to make fun of you. You’re not the spy type. You’re going to be a diplomat or something, yeah? That’s a cool job.”
Mycroft made a non-committal noise and Greg decided to drop it, not wanting to ruin their precious time together.
“So, for how long are you going to be away?”
“Two years, maybe three.”
“Three years? Damn. I was hoping –” he caught himself just in time before blurting something out he might come to regret, then cleared his throat. “What does your family have to say to that?”
“Oh, my parents are perfectly supportive. It’s my brother I’m worried about.” Mycroft took a deep breath and then the words started tumbling out of his mouth. Greg listened, occasionally making soothing sounds, realising this was something Mycroft didn’t share very often, if at all. Apparently the relationship between the brothers had continuously worsened since Mycroft had taken up studying at Oxford and the announcement of going to Hong Kong had been the final straw. The brother’s school performances went downhill, regular meals were refused, he had started smoking and their parents were getting nowhere with their youngest.
“I worry about him constantly,” Mycroft finally said. “I even thought about refusing the offer. Stay at Oxford, you know, where at least I could keep an eye on him. Drive home during the weekends and the holidays.” He made a helpless gesture. “Sherlock can be so difficult.”
Sherlock? Greg tried not to laugh. The boys’ parents had quite an extraordinary taste where names were concerned. Fortunately Mycroft hadn’t noticed that Greg regarded his brother’s name as a source of amusement, and Greg reached for him.
“You can’t be around forever, Mycroft. Sooner or later your brother needs to grow up and learn to stand on his own two feet. Don’t throw such a chance away. I mean, Hong Kong. Imagine what you will see and learn!”
Mycroft sighed but let himself be persuaded to steer the focus away from future employments and difficult little brothers and found that Greg had an extraordinarly keen perception when it came to picking up new skills, and he quickly mastered the art of sheathing an erect penis in latex. Mycroft, on the other hand, proved to be a patient teacher and an enthusiastic volunteer.
They said their good-byes after three days of changing, running, swimming, flying and thoroughly exploring each other, re-learning the landscape of their bodies and the entire kaleidoscope of reactions, from blushing to sweating, from sighing to shouting, the whole variety of moans and whimpering, of begging and swearing. In short, when Mycroft and Greg stood before Erwin’s flat snout to bid each other farewell, they were both blissfully shagged out and deeply regretful.
“Until next time, Greg,” Mycroft said, reaching for Greg’s hand.
“Will there be a next time?”
“Why, of course there will be a next time. What makes you say that?”
“I don’t even know your family name. How will I find you?”
“I will find you. I will always find you. Don’t you ever doubt it.”
“Well, let’s hope luck is on our side.”
Mycroft placed a finger on Greg’s lips. “There’s no such thing as luck, Greg. The universe is rarely so lazy.”
They kissed one last time, clinging to each other in a desperate attempt to pour everything into that kiss which hadn’t been said and had yet been communicated with each touch.
Then it was time. Greg got behind the wheel of his faithful campervan, and Mycroft folded his tall frame into the small car he had been allowed to use.
Six weeks later, Mycroft Holmes boarded a plane to Hong Kong and Police Constable Gregory Lestrade reported for duty.
Mycroft Holmes left the old office building with a feeling of deep personal satisfaction, having established the contact that was so sorely needed to ensure further negotiations. Not bad for a junior team member in his second year. The fact that he had soaked up the language like a sponge and already spoke fluent Mandarin had been of immense help.
He shouldered the canvas bag that held his workout clothes and slung his practice sword across his back. The shabby building where he practised t’ai chi ch’uan was located within twenty minutes walking distance, and Mycroft had come to enjoy the walk that took him along a busy street lined with colourful shops selling all kinds of articles, some of an unspeakable nature, and past a small park, an oasis of serenity in the middle of Hong Kong’s hustle and bustle that had taken him quite by surprise when he had first passed it. Whenever he had a few minutes to spare before training he sat down on one of the wooden benches, took out his newspaper and his notebook and dictionary and practised his letters, the hanzi. He had already mastered over fifteen hundred characters and was now able to grasp the meaning of everyday writing.
His watch told him there was no time to indulge in such luxuries today and he hurried towards the wu kwan, the training hall, arriving just in time to change into his loose-fitting trousers and shirt. His taijijian instructor did not tolerate late arrivals and those who intended to join his classes had better made sure they were on time. Otherwise they were refused admittance. Such were the rules, and his pupils obeyed.
Two sweaty hours later – t’ai chi ch’uan with all of its slow movements was a form of martial arts after all – he stood in the changing room, carefully stowing his practice sword into its leather sheath when white-hot pain shot through him. He gasped, dropped the sword and clutched his left flank. Another jolt of pain of the same excruciating intensity made him sink to his knees and the last thing he saw before he lost consciousness was Liang, his training partner, reaching out for him.
“Mycroft? Can you hear me?”
Mycroft slowly blinked his eyes open, disoriented, and tried to sit up. Steady hands held him down and Liang’s worried face came into view.
“It’s alright, little brother, you’re with Uncle Shoushan. Don’t move, he’s put some needles in you.”
Another face appeared and a man of indeterminable age smiled down at him. He felt warm fingers circle his wrist, pressing down on the pulse points. “Your pulse is getting stronger,” the man – Uncle Shoushan? – murmured. “Good, very good. Do you remember what happened?”
“I was getting ready to leave,” Mycroft said weakly, cleared his throat and continued in a steadier voice, “when there was this pain attack.” He knit his brows together as he tried to remember. “It came from out of nowhere. It felt as if something inside of me exploded.” He lifted his head to examine his left side but saw nothing and couldn’t feel anything amiss, either, and he looked at Uncle Shoushan. “I don’t understand,” he said.
Shoushan gave him a scrutinising look. “There’s nothing wrong with your body but the flow of your qi has been severely disrupted.”
Mycroft gave him a blank stare. Shoushan’s hands moved swiftly over his body, removing the needles he had placed and when there were none left, he nodded to Liang who offered Mycroft a hand to help him sit up. Mycroft gratefully accepted and winced when he came to a sitting position, only now realising he had been stripped down to his underpants. Something in his right groin area started throbbing painfully and he frowned, puzzled. Shoushan immediately placed a hand on his shoulder and scanned his face.
“What’s the matter?”
Mycroft shook his head. “It hurts here,” he put his hand on his hip bone.
“May I?” Shoushan asked and when Mycroft nodded and stood up, pulled his briefs down and drew a hissing breath. Mycroft looked down and felt something icy clutch at his heart.
The skin around his tattoo had turned fiery red and small drops of blood started emerging from the black lines.
“I don’t understand,” he repeated. Shoushan looked at him, pity in his eyes, and that’s when realisation came to him.
Half a world away, somewhere in eastern London, Police Constable Lestrade was being placed on a stretcher, his mind slipping in and out of consciousness. He saw the flickering blue lights of ambulance and police cars without recognising their significance and he heard voices drift by without understanding what they were saying.
The last conscious thought before his world faded to black was a name.
“Quick, get dressed,” Shoushan said in an urgent tone. “You mustn’t waste any time.” He turned to Liang. “Take him to Guangli at once, nephew.”
Liang’s eyes went huge and round, and he nodded. Shoushan scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to Liang while Mycroft put his clothes back on with shaking hands. Liang reached for Mycroft’s canvas bag and sword and motioned to follow him. Mycroft nodded his thanks to Shoushan, promised to return the next day and followed Liang outside where they hailed a cycle rickshaw.
They rode in silence. Mycroft stared blindly ahead, ignorant of the goings-on in the lively quarter they were crossing. His mind was in turmoil and he felt as if his blood had been replaced with ice water.
Please be alright, Greg. Oh God, please don’t let anything happen to him.
Images flashed before him in a mad whirl until they all came together to a pair of dark brown eyes full of laughter. Mycroft swallowed. His chest felt constricted and he was finding it hard to breathe.
Please Greg, please don’t be hurt.
“We’re here.” A hand was placed on his arm and he started. Liang indicated towards what looked like a small temple, huddled between two business houses that had seen better days, their colourful shop signs half eroded, most of the plasterwork and paint coming off the walls, revealing crude brickwork. Mycroft nodded, numbly, climbed out and watched as Liang paid the rickshaw driver. He followed Liang into the temple where he was ushered into a quiet corner.
“Wait here while I send for Guangli, little brother. As soon as I have found him I will leave for this must remain between him and you. Will you be alright?”
There was concern in Liang’s eyes and Mycroft, trying to appear a lot more confident than he felt, managed a smile.
“Don’t worry. I will be fine. Really,” he said in as firm a voice as he could muster, “I’ll be alright. I don’t have to work tomorrow, and I promise I will rest.”
“And see Uncle Shoushan,” Liang said.
“And see Uncle Shoushan,” Mycroft confirmed. “Please write down his address for me, will you?”
Liang reached into his breast pocket and produced a creased business card. “Here it is. Now sit down and wait.”
He dropped Mycroft’s bag to the floor, handed him the sword and gestured towards a narrow wooden bench. Only when Mycroft had obediently sat down did he hurry off in search of the mysterious Guangli.
Mycroft placed his sword across his thighs and forced himself to breathe in and out in regular intervals. Inhale-two-three exhale-two-three. His eyes focussed on the Qilin statue sitting in the corner. The colourful creature had its oxtail curled around its hooves and the large eyes in its dragon head stared straight ahead, right at Mycroft who looked back and slowly let his eyes unfocus.
::Greg? Greg, can you hear me?::
He had never tried contacting Greg before, had never tried to find out if this way of communication worked across longer distances, too, and was beginning to hate himself for not finding out more about it. It had all seemed so natural and easy while they were together, but then this whole new world with its exotic culture and habits, along with his new tasks and assignments and a foreign language he was determined to master as quickly as possible, had taken over all of his focus so completely that it had never crossed his mind that this particular ability of theirs might come in useful when they were apart.
Nothing. He noticed, absent-minded at first but with growing alarm, that the pleasant humming inside of him that occurred whenever he thought of Greg or whenever they were close had dulled to a faint buzzing. To anyone passing him he looked perfectly calm and in quiet contemplation, sitting with his hands folded in his lap and his eyes fixed on the Qilin, but anyone paying closer attention would have noticed white knuckles and a fine sheen of sweat on his face.
The soft rustling of a robe and light steps approaching him made him turn his head. A man of slight build and medium height had come to stand before him. He was dressed in a scarlet gown with white edging, the traditional attire of a Daoist monk, and was smiling at him.
“Greetings,” he said, “Cousin Shoushan sends you with a matter of some urgency.” His English was fluent with only a trace of an accent.
Mycroft placed his sword on the bench, rose and bowed politely. “Master Guangli?” he asked and the monk chuckled.
“I am no master, little brother. Around here, they call me Fan Dao Zhang, but you may call me Guangli for we are of the same family.” He took a step back. “Follow me. We cannot talk here.”
Guangli waited for Mycroft to pick up his bag and sword and led the way through the temple until they reached a back door. He opened it, slipped through and gestured for Mycroft to follow him. The low-ceilinged corridors had clearly not been constructed for men of his height and Mycroft had to duck his head a few times. He was beginning to feel slightly claustrophobic when they finally stepped through a heavy wooden door that led into a garden that was more generous than the confined temple space had led to expect, and for a brief moment Mycroft forgot all about his current grief, looking around the deceptively simply designed garden with admiration and appreciation, taking in the lake in the centre, the trees, the flowers, and wishing he had been brought here under happier circumstances. He followed the monk into a small pavilion overlooking the rock garden to the south. A young novice scurried by them, having prepared a tea tray that sat on a low table in the middle of the room and Guangli closed the door behind him.
Without further ado he turned to Mycroft.
“May I see, please?”
Mycroft looked around him uncertainly but when Guangli nodded with an encouraging smile, undid his trousers and bared his right hipbone. Guangli removed the bandage with gentle hands. His eyes widened slightly.
“Huli jing,” he said, surprise in his voice. “Fox spirit. I had not expected this.” He studied the tattoo and the dried blood, placed cool fingertips to the skin that was still fiery red and closed his eyes in concentration. He put the bandage back in place and straightened. “Thank you. I have seen enough.”
Mycroft zipped up and sat down cross-legged at the low table opposite the monk who poured tea for both of them and waited for him to speak, fighting an urge to fidget and press on. Hong Kong might belong to Britain in a political sense but it was Chinese at heart, and time had a different meaning here. Western impatience and brisk efficiency would get him nowhere, and so he forced himself to remain calm, if only on the outside.
Taking a careful sip from his cup, Guangli finally raised his eyes to Mycroft and said in his soft voice, “You are a Shifter, little brother. Do you know what that means?”
Mycroft shrugged one shoulder. “I can change into an owl.”
“An owl?” For the second time, Guangli’s eyes widened.
“I know,” Mycroft gave a wry smile. “They don’t have a good reputation here.”
“They are considered bad luck and are feared by some.” Guangli took another sip. “But they stand for xiao as well – bravery –, for people who dare do things in unusual places at certain hours that most people would never be brave enough to do.”
“Well, that’s something.”
“But you’re not Chinese and therefore don’t have to worry about our superstitious beliefs.”
“I don’t worry about anybody’s superstitious beliefs.” Mycroft brought his teacup to his lips and took an experimental sip. The mild top note ending on a spicy base note made him hum appreciatively. “But I respect them for superstition can be a powerful enemy. The owl’s reputation in Chinese mythology was one of the first things I researched before changing over here.” Another wry smile. “I would hate to end up as owl stew.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Guangli laughed softly. “Do you Shift into anything else but an owl?”
“There are two kinds of Shifters. Those who can take only one animal form and those who can Shift into any animal they have ever touched. Your huli jing, does she Shift into anything else?”
“He,” Mycroft corrected. “He’s a man. And he can only change into a fox, nothing else.”
Guangli lowered his cup. “A male Fox? That is very unusual.” He swirled the tea slowly in his cup. “Is he very beautiful? Fox spirits usually are powerful seductresses of exquisite beauty.”
Mycroft thought of Greg’s strong, athletic body and smiled. “He is beautiful but in a very masculine way. There is nothing remotely feminine about him. He’s all male.”
The monk pointed to Mycroft’s hip. “Has he touched the tattoo?”
“He has,” Mycroft calmly said. “He has kissed it.”
“You’re lovers, then.”
“We are.” Strange how confessing such intimate details didn’t make him feel uneasy at all. But there was no judgment in the narrow eyes, and Guangli nodded thoughtfully.
“Does he have a tattoo as well?”
“A small eagle owl, yes.”
“And have you kissed it, too?”
“Mhm.” Guangli pursed his lips. “Have you noticed anything since then?”
“Do you feel anything when you think of him? When you’re close to him?”
“Emotionally, you mean? Or physically?” Mycroft furrowed his brow, thinking. “There’s this humming inside of me that wasn’t there before I met him and,” he swallowed, “it’s now faded to a buzz in the background.”
Guangli put his cup on the table and looked at Mycroft. The expression in his eyes was hard to read.
“Most unusual.” He narrowed his eyes until they were little more than slits in his face. “It seems you have formed a wild Bond.”
“A wild Bond.” More tea was poured, and Guangli blew over the steaming liquid. “With your permission, I will keep this short and to the point because there’s a more urgent matter to be tended to.”
Mycroft accepted another cup.
“There are those who Shift into animal shapes,” the monk began, “and they’re called shifters or animal spirits. Some Shift into only one shape, others can take on multiple shapes. And then there’s what we call Anchors. Humans with strong Mindspeech abilities and an even stronger inner balance. Anchors cannot Shift.”
“The ability to communicate without speaking aloud. Telepathy, if you will, but Mindspeech is more precise.”
“Anchors and Shifters ideally form Links or Bonds with one another. A Link is the weaker version of a Bond, it’s something like a working partnership on friendly terms that can be ended anytime without either coming to harm. A Bond is a powerful thing for it binds two beings together in mind and spirit. A Bond cannot be broken without causing serious harm, and it usually ends only if one of the partners dies.”
“What happens to the survivor?”
“He or she will suffer severe trauma. Some will never recover and will slowly fade away, some will rather take their own lives than being without their Bonded. Some will come through the pain even stronger, maybe even form a new Bond at a later point in life. One never knows. Sometimes it’s the weakest man that comes out the strongest hero.”
Mycroft listened with growing fascination as Guangli outlined a world that was more exotic and even stranger than anything he had ever seen or heard of. He would have waved it off into the land of myths and fairy-tales if not… well, if not for the simple fact that he himself had spent a considerable amount of time in feathers since his fifteenth birthday and had seen Greg change, no, Shift into a fox with his own eyes.
“What does an Anchor do?”
“An Anchor keeps the Shifter balanced. If a Shifter spends too much time in his or her animal shape, they run the risk of losing touch with the human part of their personalities and will never be able to Shift back. Their Anchor keeps them grounded.”
“How is a Bond formed? Or a Link?”
“Well,” Guangli shifted and rearranged his gown. “Links tend to be entered into as one would set up a business relationship, if you will. Anchor and Shifter agree to form a Link with the use of certain phrases which may vary from region to region but is always along the lines of the Anchor offering safety and a haven, and the Shifter accepting and offering protection and loyalty in return. In some cases a Bond will arise from a Link, in other cases the Link remains what it is.”
“And a Bond?”
“Bonds are usually formed during moments of a very intimate nature, when yin and yang come together.”
“Male and female?”
“Not necessarily. As the Anchor is the one offering something, he or she is yang by definition. The Shifter is the receiving part and thus is yin. It has nothing to do with gender.”
“And what is a wild Bond, then?”
“It is very unusual for two Shifters to form a Bond because how can they anchor each other when they’re both Shifting? One of them has to have an unusually strong personality, deeply grounded within himself. You’re an Owl and your Bonded is a Fox, which makes you a creature of air and him a creature of earth, and that just might explain it. What’s he like?”
Mycroft smiled. “He’s a policeman now but he used to be a circus clown. He loves to make people laugh, you see, and there’s also a very protective streak in him. He wasn’t very good at school but he’s not stupid, or slow, either. He has taken his A-levels since then and is even thinking about obtaining a law degree.”
“So he’s a gentle and caring person.”
“He is.” Mycroft started blinking rapidly. “And he’s everything to me, Brother Guangli. What can I do to keep him safe? I’m half a world away and I can’t just leave my post.”
“You must Reach out to him and Send strength and courage through your Link.”
“I don’t know how to do that,” Mycroft said in a constricted voice. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
“Will you allow me to Reach inside and show you?”
“Do whatever you need to do. Just please, show me how to help him. I cannot lose him.”
Guangli nodded, placed his teacup on the table, took Mycroft’s from him and set it next to his. Then he pushed back the wide sleeves of his robe and held out his bare forearms to Mycroft who rolled up his sleeves, too. They clasped each other’s arms and the monk’s dark eyes bore into Mycroft’s.
“Do I have your permission to Touch your mind and teach you how to Reach your Bonded?”
“You do,” Mycroft replied.
“Close your eyes, little brother, and let me show you.”
Mycroft’s eyes fluttered close and suddenly there was a second presence in his mind. It felt strange, but it was gentle, and Mycroft controlled his breath until the initial feeling of unease subsided. Guangli showed him how to open his Channel, how to Reach out, how to Send and Project, and then he Reached further and put something else in place, something that felt like a Shield, and taught Mycroft how to protect himself from unwanted intrusion.
When Mycroft opened his eyes again, he felt dizzy and nauseous with a strong headache coming on. But he had understood, and when Guangli motioned for them to leave, he scrambled to his feet without the usual fluid grace but with a lot less panic in his chest.
Guangli reached into his embroidered belt and produced a small leather pouch.
“Make a tea from this and drink it before you lie down. It will make the nausea go away and will reduce the headache to a tolerable level.”
Mycroft accepted the pouch, opened it and took a careful sniff. Guangli laughed when he made a face.
“It smells unpleasant, yes. It needs to brew for thirty minutes and will taste a lot worse than it smells. Do not sweeten it,” he warned. “It will not go down easily, but it will help.”
“I trust you.” Mycroft bowed deeply. “And I thank you.”
“Come back when you can. And if you wish, I will teach you more.”
“I would be most grateful.”
The monk nodded his head in acknowledgment and led the way back to the main entrance where Mycroft bowed one last time and stepped back outside and into Hong Kong’s bustling activity that had not died down despite the late hour.
When he reached his tiny apartment, he prepared the brew as instructed and took a quick shower. The skin around his tattoo was still fiery red and he winced when the water ran across it, making it burn and throb even more.
The tea tasted foul and bitter, like something straight from a nightmare, but he forced it down with grim determination and lay down on his narrow bed. Sure enough, the nausea disappeared and the drilling headache subsided to something dull and less painful.
He closed his eyes, slipped his right hand underneath his pyjama bottoms and placed it above his tattoo. With a deep breath he opened his Channel, just as Guangli had taught him, and Reached out. Their Bond lay before his inner eye like a stream of a dulled orange that was pulsing weakly.
::Greg. If you can hear me, I want to you to know that you are not alone.::
As his breathing became more and more even, he slipped into a trancelike state and started Sending thoughts along the Channel on each exhale. Thoughts of strength and comfort, of courage and hope, of companionship and… love.
He woke the next morning feeling exhausted, but he woke to a faint humming inside of him and when he pushed his pyjama bottoms down over his hips, he saw the angry red around his tattoo had faded to a light pink, and touching it didn’t hurt anymore. He Looked inside, and what had appeared dull and almost lifeless last night was now glowing in a soft amber. He touched the small fox that was inked into his skin.
Something drifted across his mind, hardly more than a whisper, and it was gone in a mere blink of an eye. But he caught it nevertheless, and it filled him with joy.
::Thank you, Myc.::
He lay motionless for a while and filed the precious little snippet away. Then he pushed the sheet off and all but jumped out of bed. There was research to be done and things to be learnt. No time to waste lying around.
“How are you feeling today, Mr Lestrade?”
Dr Morgan reached for the clipboard that held Greg’s data sheet and scanned the entries. Greg managed a weak smile.
“Like shit, if I may be so frank.”
“You may.” She removed the blanket to check his wound. “Your guardian angel has put in for a week off, so try and don’t do anything reckless for the next few days.”
“I don’t think I could, even if I wanted to.” He winced when he caught sight of the ugly bruises that surrounded his injury. “Trying to get into a sitting position is about the only adventure I can handle right now.”
“And it’s about all you should do,” she sternly said and motioned for the nurse to replace the wound’s dressing. “You were in a critical condition and for a moment we thought we were going to lose you.” She scribbled down her notes on the data sheet while the nurse took care of the wound.
“Ah,” he said and pulled up the blanket when the nurse was done and winked at her. The young woman smiled and left the room at Dr Morgan’s nod. “I’m not quite ready to walk towards the white light yet.”
“That’s good to hear.” She gave him a faint smile and turned to leave.
“Besides,” he added, as if on second thought, “there was this glowing life-line holding me in place.”
“Faith can be a very strong motivator,” she said, glancing back at him over her shoulder.
“It wasn’t faith. I was anchored in place.”
She froze and turned around very slowly. “What did you just say?”
“I said,” he repeated, puzzled by the expression on her face, “I was anchored in place. It was as if somebody had thrown me a life-line.”
Her expression was unfathomable and for a crazy moment he thought something had touched his mind. It was gone before he could place it, and Dr Morgan gave him a curt nod.
“Try to get some sleep, Mr Lestrade. The nurse will bring your medication along with the afternoon tea. I will check up on you again in the morning.”
“Thank you, Doctor.” With his right hand he adjusted the pillow to his liking and closed his eyes when the door was pulled shut behind his surgeon.
Greg blinked his eyes open to the sound of a chair being carefully moved across the floor. The dimmed light outlined a slim shape sitting by the visitors’ table. He cleared his throat.
“Who are you?”
The shape moved and he recognised Dr Morgan.
“Doctor,” he said, his voice still thick, and he reached for his glass of water. “What are you doing here in the middle of the night?”
She made a small amused sound. “It’s nine p.m. which hardly qualifies as the middle of the night.”
“Oh,” he said, taking a greedy gulp. “I’ve lost all track of time in here.” He put the glass back and struggled to sit up. She immediately rose to assist and when he was comfortably seated, pulled the chair up to sit by his side, meeting his questioning eyes with a calm gaze of her own. Her eyes were of an unusually intense green, he noticed absent-mindedly.
“I had planned to hold this conversation a little later but I’ve come to believe this is as good a time as any.”
“Tell me about that life-line you mentioned this afternoon,” she urged him and he narrowed his eyes.
“What’s it to you?”
“Please, Mr Lestrade, I assure you I am not making fun of you, and this is not a psych eval in disguise, either.” She sighed when he pressed his lips together. “Alright then. Let me try this. You have an owl tattoo next to your left hip, correct?”
“Yes,” he slowly said, not understanding what she was getting at. “And?”
“Your heart stopped beating while we were operating on you and during the following activities the surgical covers shifted a little. Just as we were getting ready to shock you, your tattoo began glowing orange and your heart started beating again.” She crossed her legs. “I pulled the cover back where it belonged and hoped that no-one but me had noticed. Mind telling me what that was all about?”
Greg let his head sink against the pillows. “I, uh –” he was groping for words but her encouraging nod made him continue, “I don’t remember much of what happened after I got shot. To be honest, I don’t remember much at all,” he frowned in concentration, “only that it was all black around me and then there was this one signal. A beacon of sorts. It was glowing amber and it felt warm and it seemed to call out to me. And then it was like hand to wrist, you know? I held on to it and I felt protected and, well, yeah, anchored in place, like I said.”
“Do you have an idea where it might have come from?”
“Yes,” he said. “I know exactly where it came from.”
“Well,” Dr Morgan sat back and studied him with her hands folded in her lap. “What do you know about Shifters, Mr Lestrade?”
Mycroft stepped out of the private jet and onto the gangway, shielding his eyes against the sun. It was May, and London greeted him with blue skies and sunshine.
Two black limousines stood waiting for them, and he respectfully waited until his senior officers had taken their seats before he climbed in behind Tony Robson.
“God, it’s good to be home.” Tony sighed happily and stretched his legs. “Only one more thing to do, and then it’s ten days off.” He yawned. “Are you okay with stepping in for Paul, Mycroft?”
“Certainly. Paul has a family and I don’t. Besides, I speak Hakka, Yuè and Wú. Paul only speaks Mandarin.”
“And I still have no idea how you did it. I mean, Taiwanese, Cantonese and Shanghainese in addition to Mandarin? In less than four years?”
“You need to figure out the tonal system. That’s the trickiest part. The rest is vocabulary training and understanding the cultural subtleties.”
Mycroft shrugged and Tony exchanged a look with Andrew who sat opposite him. “Right. And you picked up an audio course in Spanish, too?”
“Something to occupy myself with during the flight, yes.”
“Apart from studying the outline of your next assignment.”
“That is correct.”
Tony shook his head. “And have you decided whether you will teach yourself Castilian or will you rather lean towards the Americas?”
“Are you making fun of me, Tony?” It had taken him a while but Mycroft had eventually understood that Tony was never really mocking him. Rather, he would tease him in a good-natured way about his bookishness that still came out once in a while and quickly found ways to put Mycroft’s remarkable intellect to good use. The four of them had become a tightly knit team in Hong Kong, with Tony being the most senior officer and in charge, and Andrew, Paul and Mycroft in various stages of their careers.
“We can always use a protocol droid,” Paul said and Andrew gave an R2-D2 whistle.
“Oh no, Master Paul, we’re doomed,” Mycroft retorted in his best C-3PO voice, and they laughed.
It was indeed good to be home again, and he was looking forward to seeing his family. Although he had exchanged letters with his parents and his brother and had spoken to them on the phone as well, they hadn’t seen each other in all of the time he had been gone. When his assignment in Hong Kong had ended, he had been sent to Shanghai, and from there, to Tokyo, and before he had realised it, almost four years had gone by. Sherlock had stopped writing about a year ago and the brothers had spoken on the phone only twice, with Sherlock ending both conversations rather abruptly.
“Made any plans yet?” Paul asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. Spend time with the parents, I assume,” Mycroft said evasively.
“How about a trip to Scotland?” Tony grinned. “I remember something like an acquaintance up there, yes?”
Mycroft didn’t flinch, didn’t even blush. His everyday tasks and assignments had taken care of that, and Guangli’s teachings had done the rest. Four years hadn’t quite hardened him, but he had learnt a great deal about body language and non-verbal communication, and he had learnt to snap his shields shut in the blink of an eye.
“A bonny Highland lass?” Andrew nudged his knee. “Or a strapping Highland lad?”
An auburn eyebrow went up. “Interested, Andrew?”
“Hell no. I’ve made arrangements to see Sheila tonight. Or maybe Tanya.”
“Or maybe both,” Tony said drily. “Just make sure you’re on post tomorrow at oh-eight-hundred.”
Andrew groaned. “Show some mercy. I’m yearning for a true English rose.”
Paul and Mycroft snorted in unison. If left to his own devices, Andrew would happily work his way from English rose to blushing daisy, picking up shy violets and intoxicating lilies on the way.
Tony cleared his throat. “Lads, may I have your attention for a moment?”
They fell silent at once and listened as he outlined the upcoming agenda. Paul, although excused on the grounds that he was a family man and was already officially on leave, listened just as carefully in case something went wrong and he would be called back nevertheless.
“We will be assisted by the Metropolitan Police,” Tony concluded. “A few police officers will be present for back-up, some of them in uniform for visibility, others in plain clothes.”
“Uniforms,” Andrew rolled his eyes. “Is that really necessary?”
“It is, if only for public appearance’s sakes. We don’t want another embassy siege with the SAS boys storming in. A couple of uniforms placed here and there might help keep spontaneous outbursts at bay.”
Mycroft pretended studying the file Tony had produced from his briefcase but he stared blindly at the photos, his mind spurting out crazy what-if scenarios with each beat of his heart. What if Greg was one of the officers? He had intended to contact him as soon as he was off duty and it was safe to lower his shield, but what if they ran into each other the next day? What then? Mycroft hadn’t dared initiate contact after the incident that had introduced him to Guangli and this whole new world of Shifters and all it entailed, not while he was still in training and not sure enough of his shielding abilities. What if Greg had moved on since then, tired of waiting? And what if he still wanted Mycroft as badly as Mycroft wanted him?
A sudden longing surged through him, so strong that he closed his eyes for a moment.
“Anything the matter, Mycroft?”
He opened his eyes and met Tony’s quizzical gaze.
“Memorising the faces,” he calmly said and Tony nodded.
“Feeding them into that memory of yours, yes?”
They went through the schedule again and again until all questions had been answered, and finally were released into their individual hotel rooms.
Greg critically checked his reflection in the body-length mirror, brushed off non-existents specks of dust from his uniform sleeve and adjusted his Custodian Helmet. He was not looking forward to being a uniformed wall decoration which was not his idea of fruitful police work but such were the orders. He sighed. Detective Sergeant Lestrade sounded so much better than Police Constable Lestrade, and if he didn’t want to endanger his promotion or his transfer into the Crime Unit, he’d better keep his temper in check and his mouth shut for once.
He turned and made his way to his assigned post with brisk steps, nodding his greetings to the other officers who looked just as enthusiastic about the prospect of adorning the walls of the Chinese Embassy as he felt himself. Schooling his features into an impassive mask, he took his spot and started scanning the people filing in, diplomats and politicians, military, businessmen and -women. He opened his Shield by the merest fraction and Scanned on that level, too.
A whole new world had opened up to him when Dr Morgan – Penelope – had come to pay him her nightly visit back at the hospital. She had told him about Shifters and Weres, and had taught him how to use his Gift in the weeks and months that followed. He had absorbed it all, eager to learn and infinitely relieved to find out there were others like himself and Mycroft, even within the Met, and he had soon formed friendships. Had taken lovers, too, but had kept all these… arrangements on a non-committal level, pleasant enough as they were.
I will always find you. Mycroft’s words had imprinted themselves on his memory, and he had no doubt Mycroft would keep his word. Although they hadn’t contacted each other since the day he got shot, whatever it was that had bound them together had never stopped humming inside of him. It had become as familiar as the beating of his heart and when it intensified from time to time, he knew Mycroft was thinking of him, too, and that was all he needed.
As it did right now. He felt his heartbeat quicken and he closed his eyes for a moment, permitting himself the luxury of a mad daydream. What if Mycroft was back in England? What if that mysterious job of his had had anything to do with Hong Kong being returned to the People’s Republic of China? What if…
A wave of yearning swept across his mind and he snapped his eyes open. He scanned the room again until his gaze landed on a tall young man, impeccably dressed in a dark suit with shoes polished to shine, his dark auburn hair neatly trimmed with the exception of a cowlick that had managed to resist all grooming efforts. The man stood with his back towards him, towering over a group of rapidly talking Chinese but it was impossible to mistake him. He would recognise that effortless elegance of posture anywhere.
There was no visible reaction but he Felt Mycroft Reach for him, and it was as gentle a caress as any physical touch.
He shifted on his feet, the desire to leave his post overwhelming, but he remained where he was, waiting patiently.
Finally Mycroft turned around and crossed the room with his easy stride, stopping along his way to bow here, drop a few sentences there and accept a drink from one of the pretty waitresses until he reached the pillar next to where Greg was standing. He leant against it and lazily swirled the drink in his glass, for all the world appearing like a guest taking a breather before mingling with the crowd again.
::When are you off duty?::
::My shift ends at eight thirty p.m.::
::I’ll be done here at nine. Do you have any plans for later?::
::I have one now.:: Greg couldn’t suppress his smile, and one side of Mycroft’s mouth lifted as well.
::Can you come to my flat?:: He supplied the address.
::Do you want me to Shift and fly to you? Might be more discreet.::
::No. You come as you are. I need to peel you out of this sinful suit of yours. With my teeth.::
The tips of Mycroft’s ears tinted pink and Greg bit the inside of his cheeks to stop himself from grinning.
::You do that, and then you will take me against the wall with your uniform still on. Make me scream your name, Constable Lestrade.::
With that, Mycroft sauntered off and Greg experienced the discomfort of his suddenly very tight uniform trousers.
When a knock announced his visitor, Greg all but jumped out of his skin. He clumsily rose from the armchair he had slumped into, smoothed his uniform jacket and rushed to open the door. Mycroft was still in his dark suit, a light coat draped over his arm and an overnight bag slung across his shoulder. They stood there for a few seconds, just looking at each other, then Greg stepped aside.
“Please come in.”
“Thank you,” Mycroft said politely.
“You may put your bag here,” Greg pointed, “and give me your coat.” He reached for a hanger and held out his hand. Mycroft dropped his bag and handed his overcoat to Greg as requested.
Greg led the way into his living room and there they stood again, neither man uttering as much as a syllable. Then Greg dropped his Shield and let all of his joy and hope flood his Channel, and was met with such a surge of raw want that he felt almost dizzy for a moment.
They stepped into the circle of each other’s arms, the time gap of almost four years wiped away by their bodies’ instant recognition of one another.
Greg did take Mycroft against the wall with his uniform still on, and Mycroft did scream Greg’s name. Twice. Loudly.
Later, Mycroft took his revenge, exquisitely torturing Greg until he begged for mercy. Repeatedly. Sobbing Mycroft's name.
Greg limped to work the next morning, his body sore, each muscle protesting. But he limped to work with a grin, whistling to himself until his senior officer threatened to have him divert traffic if he didn’t stop at once. The threat miserably failed to deliver the desired effect.
Mycroft had his suitcases delivered to Greg’s flat and boarded the train to his parents’ house with an overnight bag that held enough clothes for two nights. If his mother noticed his slightly stiff body posture and the purple bruise showing just above his shirt collar, she didn’t say anything but embraced her eldest in a gesture of warm welcome.
Sherlock, however, stormed out of the room with an air of utter disgust and disappointment.
Mycroft woke up to something tickling his nose. He sneezed and blinked from sleep into consciousness, trying to identify what had woken him.
He reached for Greg and his hand landed on soft fur instead of warm skin. The Fox was sleeping peacefully, curled up into a ball, bushy tail loosely arranged around his small frame. Mycroft watched the white tip twitch, smiled and carefully touched it with his fingertips, unable to resist the temptation.
Greg stirred awake and opened his eyes. His pupils, slit like a cat’s in daylight, were fully dilated in the near darkness of the bedroom.
::Hey, Myc,:: he said sleepily. ::Anything the matter?::
“No, it’s all fine. I woke up to a giant paintbrush tickling my nose.”
::A giant… oh.:: Greg pulled his tail closer. ::Sorry about that.::
“Please, don’t be. No harm done. I just hadn’t expected it.” He held out his hand, let it hover over the Fox’ body. “May I?”
Greg uncurled, stretched, yawned and lay down next to Mycroft who propped his head up on his right hand, waiting to be granted permission to touch.
::Help yourself,:: the Fox said encouragingly and Mycroft touched his back, tentative at first, but quickly lost himself in the luscious plushness that awaited him. He buried his fingers in thick underfur that was shorter than the outer hair, surrounding the Fox’s body even to the tail, softer and finer than anything he had ever touched. There were more silver streaks in the dark fur than he remembered, highlighted by the moonlight filtering in through the blinds, and he wondered if Greg’s hair would one day turn silver, too. He tried to conjure up images of a greyed Greg Lestrade but couldn’t picture him with anything but his dark shock of hair that had been trimmed to look less unruly but was still anything but tame.
For now, he was happy to be allowed to touch and stroke to his heart’s content and he explored the different texture on different parts of the Fox’s body, fine and plush on the underbelly, a little coarser and woollier on the tail. On forehead and limbs, the fur was the shortest and while the large black ears did not have any long hairs at all, they, too, were thickly clothed with fur. They flicked when Mycroft played with them, indicating canine amusement and just a hint of impatience, but no complaint was made.
When his curiosity had been sufficiently satisfied, Mycroft came to a half-sitting position with his shoulders on the pillow and his head against the headboard, and Greg draped himself over his chest and stomach, his eyes closing in bliss when Mycroft’s hands started caressing him with slow, regular strokes.
“What happened to your no cuddle policy?”
Greg cracked one eye open. ::My what?::
“’No cuddling, I’m no pet’,” Mycroft quoted. “When I lifted you up in that cell?”
::Oh that,:: the Fox said dismissively. ::That was ages ago and before all of this.::
“All of this?” He took a forepaw in his hand and rubbed across the sole with his thumb. Unlike a dog’s, the Fox’s feet were thickly covered with woolly hair and the pads weren’t callous.
::You and me. This. Us.::
The air between them blurred and Greg’s naked body stretched out across him. He slid down until only his chest and head rested on Mycroft’s upper body.
“If you want the whole truth, I was starved for your touch,” he confessed. “Four years, Mycroft. That’s one hell of a long time.”
“I know. I had not expected to be gone for longer than two years.” Mycroft resumed his caresses and Greg sighed, his dark eyes fluttering close. “But with any luck I won’t be away for that long again.”
“Where are you going next?”
“Oh, here and there,” he said evasively.
“You’d have to kill me if you told me?”
“Not quite that drastic.”
“But?” Greg opened his eyes and looked up into Mycroft’s face. “What are you doing anyway? You’re no diplomat, that’s for sure.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I don’t think a diplomat has to be all mysterious about his next assignment. And,” he slid up a little and put his chin on Mycroft’s sternum, “you were carrying.”
“I’m a policeman, Myc, I see things. Diplomats don’t carry. At least not to my knowledge, and not at receptions like that one. So, what are you? Secret Service or something?”
Mycroft went very still and Greg’s eyes widened.
“You’re kidding me,” he said and Mycroft groaned.
“You weren’t supposed to find out.” He covered his eyes with this arms. “What do I do now?”
“It’s the Bond,” Greg pointed out. “You can omit the truth but you can’t actively lie. Well, not to me, obviously.” He pulled Mycroft’s arms off his face. “You don’t do anything, silly. Do you think I’ll have a t-shirt printed?”
“Spies do it secretly.” Mycroft made a noise between a sigh and laughter, and Greg snorted.
“Mycroft Holmes. The spy who shagged me.”
They looked at each other, and Mycroft started giggling. The sound, so unlike anything Greg had ever heard coming from him, threw Greg into a mad giggling fit of his own, and so they lay next to each other, spy and policeman, producing sounds that would have done two teenage girls proud.
The giggles eventually turned into moans and panting as Mycroft wasted no time making Greg forget all about having t-shirts printed and when he finally flopped back, sweaty, panting and spent, it was with a much lighter heart for the idea of keeping something from Greg had gnawed at him. He would not be able to share details of his assignments, of course not, but a future homicide officer would know better than to press on.
There was just one more thing.
“I would like to list you as my next of kin in case of an emergency.”
“What?” Greg raised his head and stared at Mycroft. “But… your family?”
“Well, my parents’ names and address are obviously in my file, as is my brother’s.” He smoothed Greg’s dark strands. “It would mean a lot to me. You mean a lot to me,” he added and reached for one of Greg’s hands to kiss his knuckles.
“Would you allow me to do the same? I mean, would it be okay if I gave your name away?”
“I would be honoured. It’s just that I don’t have an address of my own yet. I’m still officially living with my parents.”
Greg pulled his lower lip between his teeth, obviously mulling something over. “You can always move in with me,” he finally suggested. “I mean, this flat is big enough for two, and you’ll be gone a lot, right? I promise I won’t open your mail or anything.”
“Are you serious?”
“Of course I am. I’ve been serious since you first kissed me,” he said matter-of-factly and the simplicity of that statement took Mycroft’s breath away. He blinked a couple of times.
“But haven’t you found –” he began but Greg placed a finger on his lips, silencing him.
“No, I haven’t found anyone else. Yeah, I’ve not exactly been chaste. But I haven’t lied to anyone and I haven’t committed to anything. Four years,” he said again, “I’m not a monk, you know.”
Mycroft laughed softly. “No, you’re not.”
“How about you?”
“Not a monk either.”
“Good. Guess that makes me less of a slut then.”
“You’re not a slut. You didn’t know whether I’d come back.”
“Of course I did. You promised.”
“You said you’d always find me. And you did.”
“Indeed.” He reached for one of the pillows and turned over so he came to lie on his left side, facing Greg. “There’s something you need to be aware of, however.”
“If I move in with you and if I give your name as primary contact, you will have to undergo a full security check. It’s standard procedure.”
“Unfortunately, yes. Your flat will need to be checked as well.”
“Oh God.” Greg reached for the sheet and pulled it up, covering both of them. “Will it need to be bugged?”
“No. I’m not that important. But the alarm needs to be upgraded.” He snaked one of his legs between Greg’s. “Now tell me how you found a flat that size in Notting Hill. Not exactly a modest corner of London, and I don’t think a constable’s salary is all that much, right?”
“Hell no, it isn’t. You see, Uncle Thomas arranged for me to stay with his uncle Randolph when I first came to London…”
And they finally updated each other on what had happened during the past four years. Greg told Mycroft about the shooting and about Penelope Morgan who had been the first one to tell him about Shifters and who had undertaken his initial training, and Mycroft told Greg about Guangli and how he had practised his abilities under the Daoist monk’s supervision, sharpening his Senses and polishing his Gifts. He told Greg as much about his professional training as he could without giving delicate information away, and Greg talked about his career and his upcoming promotion, and how Uncle Randolph had decided to sign his Notting Hill flat over to Greg the moment he found out about Greg being a Shifter.
“I had no idea,” Greg said, “I mean, I’d been living with him for two years and I had no idea he was an Anchor.”
“You were untrained when you came to London,” Mycroft pointed out and Greg nodded.
“You’re probably right. He must have noticed immediately but he didn’t say a word until I got home from hospital. He took care of all of the bills, you know. I was mortified when I found out but he just waved it away. I mean, I didn’t realise I received first class treatment. I’d never been to hospital so I didn’t know any better and I’m surprised Uncle Thomas didn’t say a word when he came to visit. Anyway,” he started drawing lazy circles on Mycroft’s arm and shoulder, “we had a long conversation one day. I learnt so much from him,” he shook his head, “you wouldn’t believe it. He knows so much more than even Pen, and she’s a very smart woman.”
Mycroft craned his neck to look at the alarm clock. “When do you need to be at work, Greg? It’s almost five.”
“I have taken today off. It’s my birthday, you know.”
“Yes. Nineteenth of May. My birthday. I’m twenty-nine. Just imagine, next year I’ll be thirty.”
“Ancient,” Mycroft said, grinning. “Happy birthday, old man. I’m sorry I didn’t bring a present.”
“You can buy a new box of condoms.” Greg looked down between them. “How much time until you have to leave?”
“Make it two. And bring lube. Four years, Mycroft. We have a lot of catching up to do.”
“We do,” Mycroft confirmed.
“And wherever you go next, you’ll go there with me all over your system.”
“Is that a challenge?”
Mycroft raised a haughty eyebrow. “Problem?”
“Not thirty yet, Fluffy.”
They met before the Red Twig where Greg’s uncle Randolph had invited them for a lunch to celebrate Greg’s birthday. Upon entering the restaurant they were led to a table in one of the restaurant‘s quiet corners where an elderly gentleman sat waiting for them. He rose when they approached and greeted Greg with an air of easy familiarity. Mycroft stood frozen to the spot and watched as the two men embraced, watched as Greg laughed and kissed the older man’s cheek.
Randolph Daniels was Uncle Randolph? Randolph Daniels, whom he had never met in person but whose name was whispered respectfully, almost reverently throughout the organisation? Hadn’t Greg said he was a banker? He searched his memory but was certain he hadn’t missed any information with regards to the mysterious Uncle Randolph. Former banker, comfortably situated if not rich, had paid Greg’s hospitals bills and signed over his Notting Hill flat to his great-nephew upon discovering his Shifter nature. No, that was all the information he had.
He had his features under control just in time and didn’t flinch when a pair of sharp blue eyes swept over him as if performing a full-body scan with one glance. He met Randolph’s eyes with outward calm, doing some scrutinising of his own.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Mycroft,” Randolph said and held out his hand. Mycroft shook hands with him and took his seat next to Greg as indicated.
“Likewise,” he replied politely. “Although I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage.”
“Well, it’s about time we change that, isn’t it.”
He gestured for the waiter to bring the menus. Greg and Mycroft studied the selection and when they had decided, chatted commonplaces until the waiter had taken their orders.
“Greg tells me you’ve just returned from Hong Kong, Mycroft,” Randolph said, “and that you have a Master’s in PPE.”
“And a Bachelor in informatics and mathematics,” Greg chipped in, as proudly as if Mycroft’s academic achievements were his to flaunt.
“Really?” Randolph asked with raised eyebrows and Mycroft found himself subject to another scrutinising stare.
He cleared his throat, uncomfortable. “It’s applied mathematics and informatics and yes, I’ve obtained a Bachelor’s degree in both. I’m interested in computers,” he explained. “They offer such a wealth of possibilities. Just imagine what a network of linked computers could do to support police work.”
“What, enter a few words and out comes a list of possible suspects?” Greg snorted. “That’s not honest police work. You can’t solve a case by sitting at your desk like an accountant.”
“Of course not. But think of a database where you can pull facts from previous cases and compare them with what you’re working on, instead of spending hours leafing through yellowed reports with faded typing.”
When the waiter brought their drinks, Randolph raised his glass. “A toast to the birthday boy,” he said, smiling at Greg.
“To the birthday boy,” Mycroft echoed and gave Greg’s hand a quick squeeze.
“Any particular wish?”
“Apart from world peace, you mean?” Greg swirled his red wine. “Believe it or not, but right now, I’m perfectly happy.” He brushed his fingers lightly across Mycroft’s knuckles. ::Stay. That would be my biggest wish::
“Then keep that perfect moment close to your heart,” Randolph said, suddenly serious. “Stow it safely away so you may revisit it in times of need.”
“Uncle Randolph,” Greg protested. “You’re making me nervous. Anything I should know?”
“No, everything is just fine. Forgive an old man’s whims.”
“Please. Old man indeed. You’re seventy-four. And the way you’re holding up, you’ll stay around a little while longer.”
“Thanks, Gregory,” Randolph meekly said. “I appreciate your optimism. You will allow me to refrain from running this year’s London Marathon, I hope.”
“Ah,” Greg made a grand gesture, “that’s quite alright. There’s always the British Open to look forward to.”
“You play golf?” Mycroft asked and Greg snorted.
“He’s a killer on the golf course. You don’t want to cross irons with him.”
“What, Greg, you play, too?”
“Hell no I don’t. But I sometimes pick him up and you wouldn’t believe the elaborate insults those elderly gentlemen throw at each other.”
“Greg, please.” Randolph pretended to be embarrassed but his pale blue eyes sparkled with amusement.
“It’s true! What’s the name of that round-faced fellow? Jenkins? Jarvis?”
“I believe you’re thinking of Mr Jaslin.”
“Yeah, Jaslin, that’s him. Last time I picked you up I overheard him expressing the heartfelt wish to just swing his eight iron the wrong way.”
“If you need a bodyguard, I’m here until Sunday,” Mycroft offered.
“Do you play?”
“No, at least not yet. I am afraid there will be no way around tees and drivers at some point in the future.”
“Go with Uncle Randolph when you’re here. He’ll teach you.” He grinned at Mycroft over the rim of his wineglass. “All I know about golf is that clubs come in various sizes and they have a head and a shaft. I think I have sufficient proficiency to handle heads, shafts and balls without wandering about in search of holes.”
Randolph started coughing and Mycroft felt heat creep up his neck. Greg’s grin widened and he emptied his wineglass, clearly enjoying himself.
By the time their food was served, Mycroft and Randolph were on the best of terms and talked amicably about Hong Kong where Randolph, too, had spent three years during his forties.
“I didn’t know you worked abroad,” Greg said. “Uncle Thomas never mentioned it.”
“That’s because not very many people know, and I prefer to keep it that way.”
Greg narrowed his eyes. “I don’t understand.”
“Let’s just say that for a certain amount of time I worked for the same employer as young Mycroft here.”
“How did you –” Mycroft noticed he was gaping and closed his mouth.
“No way!” Greg leaned back, stunned. “But I thought –” he noticed he had raised his voice and quickly got himself back under control. “I thought you were a banker?”
“And so I was. In a manner of speaking. At least from my sixty-fifth birthday until the day I retired. As for your question,” he directed his gaze towards Mycroft, “there’s no mystery attached. I saw you this morning. Simple as that.”
“Ah,” Mycroft said, relieved. “You had me worried for a moment.”
“I’m not omniscient. Sadly. I’ve tried all of my life. An eidetic memory would have helped but alas, I’m not among the chosen ones.”
“I shall strive for omniscience then, Mr Daniels. With your permission.”
“Permission granted. And it’s Randolph, please.”
“Thank you. Randolph.”
When Greg asked to briefly excuse him between the main course and dessert, Randolph dabbed the corners of his mouth with the linen napkin.
“You will hurt him, you know,” he said in a conversational tone, neatly folded the napkin and placed it on the table.
“I do not –” Mycroft began but the older man raised his hand.
“You will not want to but you must. Partly because you won’t know any better and partly because your job will demand it. If your career is heading where I think it is headed, there’ll be no way around it.”
“And what makes you so sure?”
“Because I know about these things. Listen,” he leaned forward, “there’s not much time. When the moment comes, there’s two things you must do. You must be certain whether you want your Bond to remain intact –”
“I don’t see –” Again, Mycroft was stopped mid-sentence.
“– and you must go to your Mentor at once. You have a Mentor, haven’t you?”
Mycroft nodded stiffly. “A Daoist monk.”
“Anchor or Shifter?”
“Brilliant. Even if you forget everything you’ve learnt, do remember to seek his advice and guidance. I will tell Greg to do the same.” Randolph’s eyes held Mycroft’s, adamantly, until Mycroft lowered his gaze and nodded. “Good lad.” He reached for the wine list and studied it with apparent interest while Mycroft fought to regain his composure.
He had been to Century House before meeting Greg at the Red Twig, and his information regarding his new London address and the request to add Greg’s name to his list of emergency contacts had been met with raised eyebrows.
“Surely this is only temporary?” the middle-aged woman had asked. “Moving in with one of your Oxford chums?”
“Mr Lestrade is not one of my Oxford chums,” Mycroft had replied, somewhat stiffly. “He’s my friend.”
“Well,” a sheet of paper was slid across her desk, “you sign here,” she pointed, “and here.” He scribbled his name where indicated and slid the paper back. She checked his signature and nodded. “Thank you. Now if you take a seat over there I’ll see if Mr Sefton can see you now.”
If his assistant had raised her eyebrows, Sefton knit his together closely enough to create a unibrow impression.
“What’s that supposed to mean, request permission to enter into a relationship with –” he checked the slim plastic folder, “– Gregory Lestrade? Does Robson know you’re a poof?”
“If you’re asking if he is aware of my personal preferences, sir, yes, he is.”
“And he doesn’t mind?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“And your team?”
“My private life was never subject to discussion where work was concerned.”
The conversation had continued for a while with an unpleasant undertone and Mycroft had left Sefton’s office in a state of barely suppressed indignation but unaware of the nasty seed that had just been planted.
He was yanked out of his gloomy musings when Greg returned and took his seat beside him once more, not without letting his hand rest between Mycroft’s shoulder blades for a little longer than was strictly necessary. The small patch of warmth caused a pleasant tingle along his spine and his spirits lifted, and he let himself be persuaded to order a small chocolate cake for dessert for which the Red Twig was said to be famous. When it was served, he looked dubiously down at his plate, thinking longingly of the menu’s fruit section. There had been vanilla-roasted peaches with strawberry. Baked apples with cinnamon cream. Raspberry Trifle. This… cake the size of an average camembert was topped with, or rather soaked in a luscious, thick chocolate sauce. It was glossy. It made his pancreas cringe.
Greg shot him a glance and grinned. “Try it,” he urged. “It is so much better than it looks.”
He gave a polite smile, put the tiniest of nips on the fork and sniffed it before he put it in his mouth. The chocolate had a rich, warm smell to it and it tasted –
“Oh!” he said, surprised. The texture was light and airy, not at all heavy or chocolate-greasy. It was delicious, and his next bite was not a tiny one. He closed his eyes to savour the taste, turning the fork in his mouth, tempted to lick it. Images of that rich, dark chocolate sauce dripping onto tanned skin flooded his mind and a wave of lust washed over him. He opened his eyes again to find Greg’s gaze fixed on him, his dark irises glowing softly with an amber undertone. He was aware of his trousers becoming uncomfortable tight and of Randolph pointedly concentrating on his watermelon salad. He saw the older man’s mouth twitch and experienced a moment of mortification at the idea of either his or Greg’s Shield slipping, or them being so obvious that it didn’t take much deduction skills to notice what was going on. Probably a combination of both. He watched Greg’s tongue dart out to wet his lower lip, and images of that pink tip licking up chocolate drops off his pale skin almost made him squirm.
“If it’s alright with you I’ll ask for the bill,” Randolph said in a conversational tone. “I have taken up quite enough of your time. Young men shouldn’t be stuck with a retiree if there’s a birthday to celebrate.”
“Uncle Randolph!” Greg protested. “We’re not stuck with you!”
“Maybe you aren’t,” he raised his hand to signal the waiter, “and I thank you for saying so. But you will not deny you have other things on your mind right now than making polite conversation over a cup of coffee.”
Greg didn’t deny it. Instead, he bestowed one of his sunny smiles on Randolph.
“Thanks. And you’re not angry?”
“Not at all.”
The waiter arrived and Randolph asked for the bill. When the young man nodded and turned to fetch it, Randolph added, as if on second thought, “May I trouble you with something else?”
“Certainly, sir. What can I do for you?”
“Forgive an old man for wishing to indulge a whim, but would you kindly ask Charles if I might take some of his wonderful chocolate sauce home?” He gave an apologetic smile. “I was trying to be reasonable and stick with a fruit dessert but I would dearly love some chocolate with my afternoon tea and scone.”
“No problem at all, Mr Daniels. I’m sure Charles will be happy to oblige. I’ll go to the kitchen immediately.”
“Thank you, Toby.”
When Toby had vanished, Randolph leaned back in his chair, placed his napkin on the table and smoothed it.
“So, Mycroft, do you already know what to do with yourself during the days? Greg will have to work, right, Greg?”
Greg nodded. “I don’t think I can take the rest of the week off. But I’ll try not to be too late in the evenings.”
Mycroft shrugged a shoulder. “I must tell my parents about my new accommodation,” he smiled, “and I will need to arrange for my things to be picked up.”
“We can go together,” Greg offered. “We could rent a van or something. Do you have a lot of furniture?”
“Thanks, Greg, but I couldn’t possibly –”
“Bollocks,” Greg blithely said. “Of course you could. I’d be glad to help.”
“You wouldn’t mind?”
“’course not, silly. And I would get to meet your parents and that little brother of yours.”
Mycroft winced. “If you do that, you might have to reconsider your offer to let me move in with you.”
“What?” Greg laughed. “Is your family that scary?”
“Oh, my parents aren’t. Well, Mummy can be if she chooses to, but I’m sure she’ll like you well enough. But Sherlock,” he sighed, “let’s just say he isn’t easy.”
“But he never was, right?” Greg gave Mycroft’s arm a reassuring squeeze. “Better get it over and done with. Besides, he’s not moving in with me. You are.”
Toby approached their table with a small silver tray that held the bill. Randolph cast a swift glance over it and reached for the pen in his inside pocket. He scribbled something on the bill and placed his credit card on the tray.
“Thank you,” he said, and Toby gave a little bow.
“Thank you, sir.” He made a brisk turn on his heels and headed for the cashier’s to process the payment.
Randolph put the pen back and produced a slim wallet. He pulled a business card out and slid it across the table towards Mycroft.
“Maybe you have time for an afternoon tea while you’re here, Mycroft.”
Mycroft took the card. “I’d be delighted,” he said and tucked it safely into his wallet after studying it carefully. “Thank you.”
Greg raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “What’s that? Are you going to tell him embarrassing stories about me, Uncle Randolph?”
“I had planned to quiz Mycroft about Hong Kong and exchange impressions but now that you mention it, I’m sure I can persuade Susan to send me a few family memorabilia to share with your friend.”
“Oh please,” Greg made a pained face and Randolph laughed.
“Don’t worry, Greg. My motives are entirely selfish. I quite enjoyed my time in Hong Kong and I’m interested to hear what Mycroft has to say.”
After Toby had returned the credit card along with the receipt, Charles had brought a small bottle of his trademark chocolate sauce to the table himself and exchanged a few pleasantries with one of the Red Twig’s patrons. Randolph had thanked him for making his visit yet another pleasant experience, and they were bowed out of the restaurant by a beaming chef.
While they waited for Randolph’s car to pull up, Randolph turned to Greg and Mycroft and presented them with his bottle.
“A little birthday present, Greg,” he said with a sly smile. “I believe you’ll put it to better use than I ever could.”
Mycroft felt his ears grow hot and Greg blushed, too.
“Uhm –,” he began but Randolph cut him off.
“Monday morning at precisely nine-fifteen, my boy. Your Shield work was abysmal. Dr Morgan apparently has not put you through a proper stress test or else she would have noticed.”
Greg hung his head, embarrassed but grinning nevertheless.
“You, on the other hand,” Randolph directed one of his sharp laser gazes towards Mycroft, “I should very much like to find out about you. I believe there’s a lot more to you than meets the eye.”
Mycroft held Randolph’s pale blue eyes without flinching and felt something Touch him.
“Impressive,” the older man murmured, then shook hands with them once more and got into his car.
They waited until the sleek black limousine pulled back into traffic, then turned to go.
“What a remarkable man,” Mycroft said. “I’m very glad you invited me to join you for lunch. I think there’s a lot I can learn from him.”
“Yeah, Uncle Randolph sure is full of surprises. I had no idea he was in your, uh, line of work.” He took the lid off the small bottle, sniffed and grinned. “Let’s go home, Mycroft. I have this sudden yearning for a second helping of chocolate.” He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively and Mycroft laughed.
“Nothing wrong with that.”
He didn’t protest when Greg linked arms with him, and Greg didn’t protest when they stopped at a chemist’s shop along the way. They needed stocking up on certain supplies, after all.
True to his word, Greg organised a van to pick up Mycroft’s meagre belongings from his parents’ house. Much to his disappointment, neither Mycroft’s formidable mother nor his brother were at home but Mycroft’s father greeted him with a friendly smile and an excellent tea. Greg developed an instant liking towards the quiet, unassuming man and was quickly on the easiest of terms with him. They settled into the family’s sitting room and chatted about Greg’s past employment as a circus clown and Mr Holmes’s passion for dahlias, and Greg charmed him by saying, yes, he would love to see the garden. He listened patiently to Mr Holmes’s botanical excursions and even managed to interject a few sentences that earned him approving hums. He had picked up some things while staying with Uncle Randolph who was an avid rose grower and was putting his knowledge to the best of use.
Mycroft met them outside when he was finished packing.
“Greg, I’m afraid I need your help to haul my reading chair downstairs,” he said in an apologetic tone. “It’s too bulky to carry it all by myself.”
“You’re not emptying your entire room, are you?” his father asked, slightly alarmed.
“No, Dad, just the most important books and journals. My sketchbooks, too, and my pens and pencils, and my CDs. And some of my clothes, of course.”
His father sighed. “Your mother will be devastated she’s missed you.”
“When will she be back, do you know?” Greg asked, remembering how emotional Aunt Susan had been when he had packed his things to move to London.
Mr Holmes checked his watch. “She should be back in about two hours. She’s taken Sherlock to Southampton.”
Greg nodded as if he understood the meaning of this and Mycroft rolled his eyes.
“What for? He’s never going to study with Professor Hills. Besides, don’t you think it would be wiser if he found a professor at Cambridge?”
“You know your mother,” Mr Holmes spread his hands in a helpless gesture and Mycroft huffed.
“What’s he studying?” Greg asked, curious.
“My brother plays the violin,” Mycroft said. “He’s actually very good. My mother thinks he should study full-time and become a musician.”
“And what about Cambridge?”
“He’s reading chemistry.” He gave a wry smile. “One of these days he’s going to blow up the house while conducting one of his experiments.”
“Violin, huh.” He eyed Mycroft from the side. “Do you play an instrument, too?”
Mr Holmes uttered something that sounded suspiciously like a laugh and Mycroft glared at him.
“I don’t,” he said stiffly.
“My oldest does not have one musical bone in his body,” Mr Holmes chuckled and Mycroft glared some more. “We tried to get him interested in the piano when he was little but we were secretly grateful when he stopped playing at the age of ten.”
“Dad,” Mycroft said in a tormented voice.
“But he dances.”
“Really?” Greg shot Mycroft a surprised look. “Didn’t you say you’re a swimmer?”
“I am. And I’ve taken up t’ai chi when I was in Hong Kong. And some Aikido and Iaido when I was in Tokyo. But I like the t’ai chi and Shaolin sword forms better so I dropped Iaido after a while.”
“Dancing, Mycroft,” Greg wouldn’t let go and Mycroft sighed.
“I took ballet lessons when I was growing up because I was all arms and legs and thought it would help me look less awkward.”
“And did it?”
Mycroft shrugged. “I guess so. And I quite enjoyed the training. Nothing like ballet lessons to give you full body control. I never danced on stage,” he hastened to add.
“Do you still dance?”
“Of course not. I don’t have the time. But I still do the stretching before I do anything else.”
Greg swallowed, the thought of Mycroft stretching and bending at impossible angles doing him no favour.
“Why don’t you boys take a walk,” Mr Holmes suggested, in blissful ignorance of Greg’s suddenly distracted state and Mycroft’s wicked smirk. “Mycroft can show you around town and by the time you get back, you can meet my wife and our youngest, and you can all say your proper good-byes then.”
The plan agreed with them and after they had put Mycroft’s reading chair into the van that was still laughably empty, Mycroft followed his father’s suggestion and climbed in behind the steering wheel with the intention of showing Greg the area where he had grown up. Greg, however, had other things in mind and directed Mycroft to a narrow country lane far off the road. Mycroft didn’t take very long to catch on and he parked the van next to an abandoned farm building.
Although the rented vehicle was nowhere near as comfortable as Erwin, Greg’s old campervan, it served its purpose – if a little diverted from its intended use – well enough and Mycroft lost no time demonstrating just how flexible he really was. Greg, on the other hand, was grateful for the summer fling he had enjoyed with one of his company’s contortionists, a delightfully unashamed blond named Robbie who had taught him what to do with legs that could spread impossibly wide.
When they returned to Mycroft’s home, his brother still was nowhere in sight but Mrs Holmes more than made up for it. She was indeed a formidable woman, intimidating at first, but she, too, quickly warmed up to Greg’s charms and when it was time for Mycroft and Greg to leave, they parted on the best of terms.
Greg and Mycroft said their good-byes on Monday morning, Greg being on the late shift and summoned to meet Uncle Randolph at nine-fifteen, and Mycroft expected at Century House at ten sharp. This time, however, they said their good-byes with hearts that were much lighter than the previous times.
Greg knew Mycroft would come home to him.
Mycroft knew he had Greg to come home to.
But the snake sat lurking in the grass.
The day Mycroft moved out, Greg walked the scene of a supposedly gang-related shooting with his new DI. Part of the discounter’s parking place had already been sealed off and uniformed police officers had their hands full holding onlookers at a distance.
He Felt the moment Mycroft closed the door of their flat, turning his back on what they had shared and leaving Greg behind, just like he had before. Only this time, it felt a hell of a lot more real.
He doubled over as if punched in the stomach.
“Lestrade, what is it? Can’t stomach the sight of a dead person?”
“It’s nothing.” He straightened and took a deep breath. It didn’t help much. “I’m fine, sir.”
“You’re as white as a sheet, man.”
“Nothing to worry about. I have a bit of a headache, is all.”
It was more of a searing, white-hot pain where his heart sat but his heart as an organ wasn’t what caused the pain. Of that he was certain. It felt as if his chest was being pried open and his very soul torn from him. But it wasn’t something you shared with your boss, and so he aimed at what he hoped was an apologetic grin.
“No more black and tan for me, sir, I promise. Mixing an ale and a dry stout is a horrible idea.”
His boss made a sympathetic sound.
“It’s an abomination. But it’s nothing an aspirin can’t fix, eh?”
“All taken care of. It’ll be gone in no time.”
But it didn’t go away, and certainly not in no time. When Greg got home to his flat and took in the sight of the neatly arranged sofa cushions, he had to reach for the door frame to steady himself and it was all he could do to not scream with pain. The bloody cushions sat fluffed and arranged by size, without even a hint of what had happened on that very sofa only yesterday. Mycroft hadn’t just left, no, he’d taken the time to painstakingly clean every reminder of his existence away.
The bedroom was pristine, the bed impeccably made, neater and tidier than it had ever been. Not a single crease in the rather old-fashioned throw that Mycroft had always made fun of but Greg couldn’t part with. He lifted a corner of the throw. Underneath the floral patches, he found the linen had been changed, smelling fresh and crisp.
A dry sob escaped his throat. No way would he stay here tonight, and with shaking hands he dialled Uncle Randolph’s number. The call connected after four rings.
“This is Greg, Uncle Randolph. I was ringing to ask if I could possibly stay at your house for a night or two, if it’s not too much of a bother.”
“You are always welcome to stay,” Randolph said without hesitation. “Why, is anything the matter?”
Not trusting his voice, Greg nodded, then remembered that Randolph had no way of seeing him and choked out, “Please?”
“Of course. Come here at once.”
Greg rang off and stumbled over to his now half empty wardrobe, took down his old leather holdall and blindly filled it with a set of shirt, trousers, socks and underwear. Then he fled his flat and all the loneliness it held.
It felt like the longest cab ride Greg had ever taken, with images and memories tumbling through his mind and out of his reach while he tried to put them together.
What had he missed? Where had he gone wrong? Which sign had he not taken seriously? Had he done or said anything that had added to Mycroft’s decision? Was he, a lowly Detective Constable with a circus clown background, not good enough? He certainly was no match for Mycroft’s intelligence, and his ambition where police work was concerned was nothing compared to what Mycroft had set his mind at. Or was the need to bow to society’s rules stronger than what they had found in each other?
By the time the cab reached Uncle Randolph’s townhouse, Greg knew he was the one to blame. He was simply unworthy of a man like Mycroft, that was all.
He barely managed to pay for his ride and all but fell into the outstretched arms of Uncle Randolph who stood waiting for him by the short flight of stairs.
“Now now,” the older man murmured, holding him close. “Let’s go inside, shall we? Let’s not make a spectacle for an interested audience.” He waved at someone Greg couldn’t see and bent down to pick up the bag that sat by their feet. “Come with me.”
Inside the tastefully furnished living room, Randolph pulled him down to sit next to him on the settee and reached for his hands.
“He’s gone, isn’t he,” he softly said, and it was the understanding in his voice that finally made Greg’s tears fall freely. He nodded, unable to speak, and let himself be pulled against Randolph’s shoulder where he sobbed uncontrollably into the exquisitely tailored jacket. “My poor, dear boy.”
“I should have known,” Greg said when his tears finally stopped. It came out clogged and muffled and he gratefully reached for the offered handkerchief. “Thank you.”
“How do you mean? What should you have known?”
“When I left for work this morning, he kissed my cheek and said, ‘good-bye’ and ‘be safe’. He never kisses my cheek when I leave and he never ever good-byes me.” He snivelled and blew his nose. “But he was strange these past days, now that I think of it.”
“Distant. Quiet. I didn’t think much of it because that’s how he often is when he’s preparing for an assignment. But he closed himself off from me and that, he hardly ever does. I should have paid more attention to him, I should have—”
“Stop right there.” Randolph held up a hand. “There was nothing you could have done, Greg. And what’s more, none of this is remotely your fault.”
“Don’t go there. Not for one moment. I was afraid this was going to happen one day but I’d hoped that times have changed.” He let out a huff. “Such an old fool am I. I should have known better. There’s places where time stands still.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Mycroft works in a line of business where conventions and rules are everything. It’s what keeps them together, those who do what needs doing to keep this country safe. I’m not belittling your work, Greg, I hope you know that, but Mycroft works on a much larger scale and needs to blend in a lot more seamlessly than you do. Relationships are not encouraged, even less so if they don’t meet the agency’s sadly outdated moral code. It’s a world of hush-hush and whispered innuendos and a well-placed word can do more harm than a bullet.”
“Tony never seemed to care.”
“Tony Robson no longer is Mycroft’s superior and while his attitude is commendable, his opinion weighs near to nothing when those in charge choose to disagree. He is a very capable field agent but his forgiving nature is what keeps him from rising through the ranks as Mycroft undoubtedly will.”
“You really think so?”
“Oh, I have no doubt about that. Mycroft is an exceptional young man and I’ve not seen anyone like him in, oh, well over forty years.”
“Really?” Despite all, Greg’s chest swelled with pride.
“He will make it to the very top if that’s what he wants. But there are lessons he will need to learn and I’m afraid what you are going through is one of them.”
“Ditch those who love him?”
“Has he really ditched you?” Randolph asked in lieu of an answer.
“Sure looks like it.” Greg’s throat tightened and he angrily blinked his tears away. “Feels like it, too. The place looks like he’s never lived there. There wasn’t even a note. He just…left.”
“Has he severed your Bond?”
“Your Bond. Is it still there? Look inside,” urged Randolph. “Tell me what you see.”
Greg frowned, then closed his eyes and did as told, winced when he got where he needed to be. Where there had been the soft humming of the connection he had shared with Mycroft, there now was pain. Loneliness. A void.
“It’s still there, Uncle Randolph,” he whispered. “It’s thin and I can hardly See it but it’s still there. It’s like a very thin gossamer strand.”
“Does it have a colour?”
“Yes. It’s a pale, yellowish orange.”
“Good. That’s very good.”
“Why is that good? It’s hardly there.”
“He hasn’t cut the connection with you. He may be gone for now but I doubt he’ll be gone forever.”
“And that means what?” Greg rubbed his hands across his face. “Am I supposed to sit around and wait for him?”
“That is for you to decide.”
Randolph reached for the carafe that sat on the narrow coffee table, filled up a glass and offered it to Greg who shook his head, not fond of his uncle’s ‘refreshing’ water creations. Randolph took a sip of what looked like lemonade-meets-green-tea and leaned back.
“I should tell you to move on and not look back but—” he swirled the greenish liquid and studied the spiralling leaves, “—this frankly is a load of rubbish. You should move on, by all means, but you must look back. Look at what made—makes—the bond between you so special, remember how it makes you feel, being with him on all levels. Make sure you don’t end up remembering only the pain. Remember the joy. The together-ness. Take time to heal. When you can look upon your happiness and not feel crippled any longer, then you move on.”
“I don’t think I can do that. Not for a long while”
“Oh, but you can. And you must. As will he.”
“He’s probably already on the move.”
“I doubt that very much. His job will keep his mind busy but I am certain his heart aches just as much as yours.”
“Then why did he do it? Why did he never sit down with me and, you know, talk things through? Maybe we could have figured something out together. And why didn’t I pick up on all of this? I mean, we were connected all the time. Lying should be impossible, shouldn’t it?”
“It is. But Shielding isn’t.”
“Are you saying he was hiding things from me?”
“He probably was.”
“But how could he say he loves me and then turn around and play games behind my back? Am I that insignificant to him? Is his high and mighty job so much more important than what we had?”
Randolph put down his glass and placed a hand on Greg’s shoulder.
“Shhh,” he said. “Don’t work yourself into a rage. While I never trained Mycroft as I have trained you, he did seek me out on a few occasions to ask my advice on certain agency-related issues. I took the liberty of asking a question here and there about the training he’s received from his mentor and much to my surprise, he chose to share a few details with me. In doing so, he gave me more insight than he was aware of. He loves you with all of his heart, Greg, he truly, deeply does, and he’d sooner give up his Shifter nature than hurt you.”
“But he’s also very young and very ambitious. He has not yet reached a status where he can afford to ignore the whisperings of his elders and he still lacks the ability to differentiate between necessity and option. He will get there eventually but he’s not there yet. But know that as long as your Bond is still intact he has neither given in nor has he given up. It’s up to you to decide on how you want to proceed.”
“What do you suggest I should do, Uncle Randolph?” Greg’s voice sounded very small in his ears but for once, he didn’t care. “I’m feeling lost. All I want to do is curl into a ball and sleep and wake up and he’s back.”
“If only it were that easy.” Randolph sighed. “Why don’t you stay with me for few weeks, not just for a night or two, and we’ll figure it out together. Besides, it would be a pleasure to have you around again and not only because the roses need trimming.”
He winked and Greg managed a weak smile.
“If it’s not too much of a bother? I don’t think I can bear to be alone right now.”
“You’re not alone. I will always be there for you for as long as I live. You know that, don’t you? And you have your friend Penelope.”
“But Pen isn’t as strong as you are. And she’s been through hard times since she’s lost her—” He stopped as something occurred to him.
“Pen lost her Shifter partner to cancer last year,” Greg slowly said. “I remember how I picked her up from the hospital. She was…it almost destroyed her.”
“But it didn’t?”
“No, it didn’t.” Greg toed off his shoes and pulled his legs up. “I must think about this,” he said. “Only, I can’t right now.”
“Nobody expects you to. I certainly don’t.”
With the exception of one very hurried visit to pick up some more clothes and toiletries, it took Greg three weeks to set foot in his flat again, and when he did, the gaping wound that was his heart tore open all over. He cried himself to sleep that night, hugging what had been Mycroft’s pillow to his chest.
But when he rose the next morning, he was done crying. Uncle Randolph was right.
It was time to move on.
He first caught sight of the tall young man lingering by the far end of a suspected arsonist site. He strolled over to meet him.
“Like what you see?”
“Not particularly, no,” the young man said in a rich baritone voice that belied his youthful appearance. “The fire brigade have made a mess out of a perfectly good crime scene.”
“You do realise their first and foremost job is to put out a fire to prevent it from spreading all over the place, yes?”
“Well yes, I guess that’s true. Sadly, in doing so they destroy all evidence one might have found.”
“And how would you know what evidence to look for?”
“I’ve been to similar sites.”
“Have you now?”
Greg narrowed his eyes and looked the man up and down. He appeared to be in his early twenties, maybe a little younger. Dark, barely tamed hair. Eyes like laser beams. Ridiculously high cheekbones. Dressed in a dark suit that looked fitted to his slim frame. And despite the fact that Greg had never seen him before, there was something familiar about him. Only…what?
“Yes,” the man said. “Have you never wondered how it’s always the same team that’s first on the scene?”
“And how they never really need to look for the hydrants? Or what the cause of the fire was and where to find what started it?”
The young man shrugged.
“Of course you haven’t.” He turned to leave. “Good luck with your investigation, Detective Constable.”
“Wait!” Greg lifted the police line and followed him. “You do realise you’re looking a tad suspicious here, don’t you. Why don’t you come with me so I can take your statement?”
“What you need to do is examine the crime scene. What you need to do is create a profile. Here, let me help you get started.”
Greg opened his mouth to repeat his request but the man continued, ignoring him.
“You’re looking for a police force reject with a fancy for expensive stationery. Check the evidence for arson sites at Brixton Hill, Milkwood Road and the supermarket near Greendale. You will find the exact same fire brigade team has arrived at the scene first.”
“How do you know all that?”
“I observe. And I listen. You should give it a try one day. You may find it immensely helpful.”
“Nothing. What about the stationery?”
“Pieces of notebook paper were found at the Greendale site. One piece had the word ‘bright’ written in brown ink on it.”
The man tilted his head to the side, studying Greg out of his strange eyes. “You really haven’t noticed, have you? Of course you haven’t. The pieces were found next to the closest hydrant. See if one of the firemen has literary ambitions. See if one of them likes to scribble into Moleskin notebooks. Blank sheets, neither ruled nor squared. Uses a fountain pen with a fine nib.”
Greg scribbled everything down into his notepad. “Literary ambitions, eh? Write an ode to the beauty of fire?”
“Possibly. That’s for you to find out. You’re police, yes?”
“You got that right. And I still need your statement. Let’s start with your name.” He looked at the man expectantly.
“The name’s Holmes. Sherlock Holmes. I believe you are acquainted with my brother.”
It was quiet in Hyde Park’s Rose Garden at 2 a.m. Gone was the hustle and bustle of the endless stream of people crowding the park’s walks, strolling, running, chatting, making noise. At this time of the day, there was only the chirp of birds nestling in the branches, the susurrus of leaves moving with the nightly breeze and the faint buzzing of insect wings. The promise of rain hung in the air but no drop had fallen yet.
The air hardly stirred when the Owl swooped down from above, catching the grey wolf unaware. It yelped when the bird’s claws closed around its scruff.
::What do you think you’re doing here?:: the Owl Mind-hissed at the protesting creature. ::Haven’t I given explicit orders that you and your kind stay away from this area?::
::You sure did,:: the Wolf hissed back, shaking herself furiously. The Owl let go and hopped on to a bench. ::But I’m not sure you’re in a position to give orders.::
::I beg to differ. Had you been present during the last general assembly you would know that the Hound has put me in charge of the Royal Parks. The assignment will pass to the Cat during my upcoming absence but I’m still here, am I not.::
::What’s the big deal? I was passing through, is all. Who should see me in the middle of the night?::
::I did,:: the Owl pointed out. ::You know very well there is not mere passing through where you are concerned. It’s for your own safety, Tasha, you know that. Humans tend to frown at wolves, and hysteria spreads fast.::
Tasha huffed, her ears twitching.
::All right, all right, big bird,:: she said. ::Much as I hate to admit it, you’re probably right. I’ll take the long way home then.::
::Thank you. I appreciate your cooperation.::
She let out a hoarse laugh-bark. ::You may want to cut down on that pompous nonsense, Myc. You finish growing into your feathers and the community will accept you just the same.::
::I shall strive to meet your approval,:: Mycroft said and Tasha huffed some more.
::You have a long road before you, my little owlet,:: she said, dipped her head in salute and sauntered off.
Mycroft swivelled his head to look after her and when she was out of sight, pushed himself off the bench and into the air, gliding soundlessly across the flower beds until he reached his favourite chestnut tree that offered a beautiful view over the park. He made a point of finding a favourite tree in all of the parks he visited, just as he had in Blenheim Park, back when he was still a student and life had been so carefree. Well, mostly carefree. He’d had his struggles during his uni years but looking back at them now, they seemed insignificant compared to what he was going through now.
Leaving Greg had been the single most painful thing he had ever had to do. It had felt like tearing his own heart out but for now, it was the only thing to do. ‘Caring is not an advantage’, his new senior officer had told him again and again, and ‘all hearts are broken’. And he had already seen the truth in that statement, despite the fact that he’d only served so little years in the agency. Better leave now while there was still a chance for both of them to carry on and move forward.
Only their Bond…he’d not been able to cut their Bond. He had muted their connection, had dimmed it to the lowest possible level, just like Guangli had showed him when he had turned to him for advice. His mentor had looked at him out of eyes that seemed to bore into his very soul.
“Pain is coming to you so soon, little brother,” he had said. “I had hoped for a longer period of happiness for you and your fox. But I will teach you what you need to know so you may have a second chance when this period of pain comes to an end.”
And so Mycroft had kissed Greg good-bye that most horrible of mornings, cleared out all of his belongings and cleaned up their flat, closed the door on their life and moved into a small and spartan apartment near Century House. Tony had given him a quizzical look but his deputy head had nodded his approval and lost no time assigning Mycroft to another team tasked with even more challenging missions. A major operation in Argentina dangled before him and its successful completion would catapult him up the ranks. It was exactly what he wanted, it was why he had signed up for this job, a job that wasn’t a mere job to him. It was what he was meant to do, he felt it in his bones, and he was good at it and getting better by the day. If only…
Something rustled underneath him and he froze, snapping his Shield shut in a heartbeat and sat as immobile as only an owl could, eyes half closed but not missing a single thing.
A silver fox appeared from underneath the nearby bushes, tail flicking and ears twitching as he took in his surroundings. No Bond was needed to recognise that particular fox. Mycroft was as familiar with him as he was with his own body and he held on to his Shield with all his might so as not to betray himself.
When the Fox had convinced himself the air was clear, he came to the chestnut tree, sniffed the trunk and disappeared into a small cave-like hollow where two thick roots had dug through the ground. Mycroft knew it well; he had rested there, too. Oh, how tempting it was to join Greg there for a few stolen moments while they were both in their animal form—but it wouldn’t do, and so he sat and strained his ears for the sound of Greg’s breathing. What he heard was a subdued snuffle and a small whimper, and it pierced his heart like no blade ever could.
Finally, silence and the sounds of regular breathing, impossible to hear for any other ears than an owl’s, and Mycroft glided down from his high branch to sit vigil over his Fox's sleep.
::Greg, my love, I will find you. I will always find you.::
“Holmes, meet your new partner.”
Mycroft eyed the skinny young woman standing before him. She was slightly above medium height, consisted mainly of arms, legs and hair and appeared to be no older than sixteen, seventeen, but when he turned to his squad leader to remark on it she beat him to it.
“I am nineteen,” she said. “In case you were wondering. I have a driver’s license and I’m fluent in English, Spanish, German and Arabic. I’ve picked up some Mandarin, too, although I’m afraid it’s not for use in a formal setting. And I’m a licensed falconer.”
“A what?” Mycroft asked, momentarily distracted.
“A falconer. I train and fly birds of prey.”
“Do you now.”
“That’s not why she’s here, Holmes. I have no intention of building a bird squad,” Saunders said. “Ms Hamilton has a knack for computer technology and her knowledge of the local area is impressive. We are lucky to have been able to contract her for this project.”
“I see. Well, in that case I suggest we get started. There’ll be enough time for personal background information once we’ve covered the basics of the situation at hand.”
Saunders raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything, and Mycroft was glad for it. He didn’t normally dispense with formalities, especially not when meeting a new team member, let alone a new partner, but something about this Ms Hamilton felt strangely familiar. It almost felt like…no, that couldn’t be. Impossible. And yet, something about how she looked at him bore a strong resemblance to what he had only ever felt around Greg. Just—no, out of the question. He couldn’t dwell on musings and speculation, not now. Better push it aside before any small talk had taken place. It wouldn't do to obtain bits and pieces of information under the scrutiny of his boss and toss them back and forth in his head.
Discussing how to bypass the Secretaría de Inteligencia while at the same time nudging some much needed information their way did not allow for distractions, and he turned his full attention to what his section leader presented to them. Hamilton took the spot opposite from him, listening to what was being said without uttering a syllable but it looked as though not a single word escaped her attention.
“Hamilton is no field agent,” Saunders said in reply to Mycroft’s suggestion of how to best split up. “You will remain partnered with Channings.”
“I don’t understand,” Mycroft said, exchanging a look with Channings who shrugged his massive shoulders. “What about Hamilton then? In what capacity is she here?”
“Consider her to be a cross between your personal quartermaster and a homing beacon.”
“Our…quartermaster? What’s wrong with Lewis?”
“Nothing is wrong with Lewis. And it’s your quartermaster, Holmes, singular. You will continue working with Channings but your responsibilities will be split up.”
“In how far?”
“Channings will be the muscle. You will be the brain.”
“And why is that?”
“Because you’re the smart one, Croft,” Channings said with a wide grin. “Come on, you know he’s right. You’re doing all right in hand to hand combat and you’re deadly with a sword but you’re shit in a brawl, and nobody really uses swords anymore. Besides, your Spanish is much better than mine and you look a lot sharper in a suit than I ever will.”
“I still don’t understand. What do you mean, my homing beacon?”
“I will provide you with all background information needed,” Hamilton said. “I have taken a prototype wristwatch that already has a homing chip and the ability to receive and send messages and I have upgraded it to link into an existing computer network.”
“That is very sharp,” Mycroft said, impressed. “How did you do it? Would you talk me through it when you have a minute?”
“What, the device itself or the process of upgrading it?”
“It’s very technical.”
“I have a degree in informatics. I’m fairly confident I’ll be able to follow.”
“Thank God. I am so tired of seeing blank faces when I try to explain something. See, this here—” she reached into her trouser pocket and pulled out a key fob, “this is connected to the lock of my car. Now, if anybody tries to—”
“Oh dear God,” Channings groaned. “There’s two of them now? I'm afraid have to go. With your permission, sir,” he added in Saunders’ direction. “I believe my part has been fully outlined and I would like Lewis to have a look at the magazine release of my Walther. He’s all over me to replace her with a Browning but I’m not quite there yet.”
“Certainly,” Saunders nodded. “Off you go. I think we’ve covered the most crucial points so now is a good time as any for you two—” he indicated towards Mycroft and Hamilton, “—to get to know each other a little. I’ll be in my office if you need me.”
“Understood. Care to join me for a cuppa?” The question was directed at Hamilton who nodded.
“I’m ready to commit a crime for a good coffee.”
“That would depend on your definition of ‘good’.”
“The coffee here is actually quite decent. I was pleasantly surprised when I got here this morning.”
“Where were you before, if I may ask?”
“Before I got here or as in, what have I done before?”
“I spent the last two weeks with my aunt and uncle. They run a small vineyard near Cordoba and my cousin’s falconry is nearby. I go there whenever I can. Other than that, I mostly live in Buenos Aires. I share a small flat with my sister.”
“You ‘mostly’ live in Buenos Aires?”
She didn’t seem inclined to share more details and so Mycroft didn’t press on. They had reached the compound’s cafeteria, joined the short queue and secured an outside table after they’d placed their orders.
“My first name’s Patricia, by the way,” she said as they sat down. “I noticed most of you are on a first name basis so you may call me Patricia, if you want. Just don’t shorten it to Pat or Patsy, please. I don’t particularly like my name and trying to cute it down makes it even worse.”
“Noted. My name’s Mycroft and I really hate being called Myc or Croft.”
“Dave Channings called you Croft.”
“That’s because he’s got a death wish. Patricia’s not a bad name, though. What would you rather be called?”
“Anthea,” she said without hesitation. “I’ve always loved the sound of it. It sounds so classy, don’t you think?”
“You could always use it as your code name,” he suggested. “Most of us use code names when we’re out there.”
“Really? What’s yours?”
“Croft,” he said and she laughed.
“I thought you hated that name?”
“I do. Need I point out whose grand idea that was?”
“Ah,” she nodded wisely. “Death wish.”
Their coffee order arrived and they fell silent for a moment, busying themselves with their beverages and snacks. Patricia had ordered a sandwich and Mycroft watched her open it, remove the unwanted ingredients and re-arrange those that remained, then cut them into bite-sized pieces. When she noticed him watching her, she gave a self-conscious laugh.
“It’s a game my sister and I sometimes play,” she said, her cheeks turning pink. “We pick a random bird species and decide on the size of morsels to cut. She whose morsels are the neatest is the winner.”
“I see.” He eyed the sandwich pieces. “Well, I’d say you were thinking of something between a burrowing owl and a Harris’s hawk.”
“Or a barn owl. But they are great mouse hunters and these here might be too small for them.”
“I’m sure they could be persuaded to give it a try. Remove the bread, replace it with meat and you’ll have a happy owl. Have you ever flown one? An owl?”
“Once. A screech owl. My uncle took me to an owl sanctuary once and they let me fly one. They’re amazing,” she said, chewing on one of her morsels. “I love falcons, I really do, but owls are the most beautiful birds. Have you ever touched one? Their feathers,” she sighed, “once you’ve touched an owl your hands will never forget the softness of their feathers.”
“Would you like to fly an owl again?”
“I would give a year of my life to fly an owl again,” she said emphatically and he laughed.
“Let’s hope it won’t come to that.” He made a neat package from a big green lettuce leaf, speared it with his fork and added a baked mushroom. “I can arrange for you to fly an eagle-owl. If you want.”
“An…” her fork and knife fell from her hands and she jumped up from her chair, shot around their small table and flung her arms around Mycroft’s neck. “If you can really do that I will guard you with my life from now on.”
“Come, come,” he patted her back, half embarrassed, half amused. “You’ve not seen him yet. You may not even like him. Please,” he said, freeing himself from her arms, “do sit back down. You’re hugging me to death. Please.”
“I’m sorry,” she said and returned to her seat but didn’t look sorry at all. “Behaviour like that doesn’t go with the name of Anthea, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t.” He tried for a stern look but laughed when he saw her sheepish smile. “That was decidedly un-Anthea and very much Patsy.”
She made a face. “I know. I really should learn to keep my temper in check, shouldn’t I. I don’t want to embarrass you.”
“It takes more than that to embarrass me.” He picked up his fork again and put the lettuce-mushroom construction into his mouth. “Is your sister a falconer, too?”
“No, but she loves to sketch birds. She’s studying architecture at the University of Buenos Aires and you will hardly ever see her without her sketchbook and her pencils. Do you have brothers and sisters?”
“A younger brother. Last I heard he’s reading Chemistry.”
“Last you heard?”
“We have a complicated relationship.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be. We’ll live. And who knows, one day we may even start talking again.”
“What’s he like?”
“No.” She removed a piece of tomato from one of her morsels. “The owl. You said I may not like him. Which I don’t believe. I mean, eagle-owl, yes? Beautiful. Do you know him well? Is he used to flying with a falconer?”
“I know him fairly well, if one can say one knows an owl. He weighs about six point three pounds, maybe six point five which is rather unusual for a male. He’s not flown with a professionally trained falconer but I think he’ll give it a try if he likes you.”
“What’s his wingspan?”
“I—uh, I don’t really know. Six three, six four maybe?”
“Wow.” She added some more sugar to her coffee and stirred. “How will I know if he likes me?”
“You’ll find out.”
“Will he bite me if he doesn’t?”
“He most certainly won’t,” Mycroft said, indignant. “He’ll probably just fly away. So you’re interested, yes?”
“Yes. A hundred times yes. I’m interested. When?”
“Give me three days. In the meantime, you can fly me, in a manner of speaking. The first search of the premises is planned for tomorrow, remember? Have your equipment ready and meet me tomorrow at oh-seven-hundred so we can go through the schedule together and see which one of your gadgets can be used.”
“Where are you staying?”
“I have a room in—” she pulled a sheet from her back pocket and squinted at it, “building two-oh-four. I think it’s the girls’ building.”
“It is. I’m in building seven-forty-eight. I’ll meet you before the north entrance, then.”
“Understood.” She sipped from her coffee. “Uhm, where is the north entrance?”
“That’s for you to find out,” he grinned. “Hint: look north.”
Mycroft parked next to an abandoned tool shed, got out of the car to remove his track suit and place it under the passenger seat, locked the car and put the key on the inside rim of the front wheel. That was the trickiest part about being a solitary Were: find a spot that was remote enough to not attract unwanted attention and to make sure at the same time it was not too remote to attract unwanted attention. Shifting where one might be seen was just as undesirable as returning to the spot where one had left the car with the car gone. Or taken apart.
This spot here was relatively safe, however. The shed was mostly used as a love nest by locals and visitors alike, and a car parked before it meant it was in use. People respected that, a classical case of ‘don’t look, don’t tell’, and that made it a good spot to Shift.
Mycroft took off into the air.
He had instructed Patricia to meet him in a secluded area in the Ecological Reserve, the green heart of Buenos Aires that had grown from land-filling and debris dumping and chances were good a professional falconer flying a bird wouldn’t cause alarm. If bad came to worse, they would draw an audience because European eagle-owls weren’t common in that corner of the world but hopefully there weren’t too many knowledgeable birdwatchers there.
“Who’s flying him now?” she had asked when he had given her the coordinates and a time. “I mean, surely an eagle-owl doesn’t manage his own schedule.”
“I’m not so sure about him,” Mycroft had said with a wink. “He’s a special owl and has a mind of his own. I believe he picks his own partners.”
“Is that so.” She hadn’t said more but something inside Mycroft had started humming and he was certain his suspicions about his new partner would prove right.
She already stood waiting for him although she was looking in the other direction, clearly not expecting a solitary owl to come seek her out. She had braided her long hair into a no-nonsense braid and was wearing a long-sleeved shirt under a weathered outdoor vest, along with a pair of cargo trousers and sturdy boots. The falconer’s glove that stuck out of one of the trouser pockets looked as if it had already made the acquaintance of various sharp claws. In short: Patricia looked as if she meant business, and Mycroft liked what he saw.
He landed on a tree stump near the shrubbery and gave a soft hoot. She turned around and frowned, puzzled. Then she spotted him and smiled.
“Hey there,” she said, reached for her glove and slowly put it over her left hand. “So you’ve come alone. You really are special, are you not?”
She approached him, cautious, reached into another trouser pocket and pulled out a plastic box. In it she carried some morsels—of the bird-kind, not of those she had cut her sandwich into—one of which she now offered to him. Mycroft liked that, too, and carefully took it from her. When she held out her gloved hand to him, he hopped on without hesitating.
“Whoever has trained you did an excellent job,” she approved. “Why don’t we walk away from the main path and find somewhere a little more private. I’d like to get to know you a bit and I’d rather have no audience for our first flight together.”
Mycroft tilted his head to the side, indicating his approval, and she walked in the direction of a small clearing. He’d been there before, to meet with the local Were council, and he had liked the spot. It was far enough from the popular walking paths but not so far as to be considered potentially dangerous. Well, if bad came to worse, he’d call upon the help of a pack of dogs that liked to roam nearby. They’d already welcomed him into their circle and promised they’d be there for him if need be.
Patricia walked for at least ten minutes with him sitting on her gloved hand, showing no signs of getting tired which was impressive because Mycroft was not a small owl. When they reached the rim of the clearing she lifted her arm and only then he noticed the smallest of tremor running through her muscles.
“You’re wearing neither anklet nor jesses and I’m not all that sure if you have someone who trains with you on a regular basis. Mind showing me what you can do?”
She thrust her arm up as if to jump-start him and he pushed himself up and into the air, circled above her once, twice, then perched on a nearby tree and waited for her next move. She lost no time and soon had a pair of rabbits running from the shrubs. He was on their tails in the blink of an eye, followed them as they ran through grass and bushes, hoping they wouldn’t disappear in a rabbit-hole. He could do things an ordinary owl could not but a rabbit-hole was a rabbit-hole. Lucky for him, those two didn’t have any hiding places nearby and he swooped down, his strong claws closing around the shrieking rabbit.
It didn’t take Patricia long to find him and she crouched down, holding out another bite to bribe him into letting his prey go. He had no intention of doing anything with the rabbit but he put on a little show of reluctance for her, eventually accepted the piece of meat from her hand and backed off.
She visibly started when the rabbit twitched under her hand.
“You haven’t killed it,” she said, surprised.
::I didn’t see the necessity.::
“But you had your claws around it. I saw—” She blinked. Then, softly, “Oh.”
::Yes.:: He turned his head towards the rabbit. ::Why don’t you let the poor chap go before his heart gives out,:: he suggested. ::He’s had enough fright for today. His lady-friend is waiting for him over there.::
She let go of the rabbit. It jerked up from its lying position and was gone in the blink of an eye. She looked in the direction in which it had vanished, then looked back to Mycroft and sat down with her legs crossed.
“I had a notion when we first met but you're very good at Shielding. Do Channings and Saunders know?”
::Channings does. Saunders, no.::
“Is Channings your Anchor?”
::Good God, no. He’s a Were, too. A Rottweiler.::
She laughed. “Doesn’t really come as a surprise.”
::It doesn’t, does it. But we’re a good team.::
“So I’ve noticed. He makes all these jokes about him being the muscle and you the brains but he isn’t exactly stupid, either.”
::Of course he isn’t. I couldn’t bear to work with a stupid person. Especially not in a job like ours. I trust him.::
“So you anchors you, Mycroft?”
And he was beginning to feel it, too. It didn’t show in his performance, not yet, but over the past couple of months he had noticed a certain reluctance to Shift back into his human form. It worried him greatly.
“That is not a good thing.” It seemed to worry her, too.
She made a humming sound and turned her head to the left, as if something had caught her attention. Her eyes began to glow a soft blue and she stared into the distance, worrying her lower lip. Mycroft hardly dared move, sensing she was consulting with someone. When she turned her attention back to him, she smiled.
“It is not a good thing for a Were to not have an Anchor,” she said again. “Therefore, if you will have me, I offer my services although we’ve known each other for less than a week. Something tells me you and I are meant for each other. Figuratively speaking.” She held out her ungloved hand to him and he hopped onto her forearm, careful not to hurt her with his claws. “I cannot Bond with you, Mycroft.”
::Nor I with you.::
“I will explain in due time.”
::As will I.::
They looked at each other and when their Link clicked into place, Mycroft felt a shadow lift from his heart as Patricia offered him what only an Anchor had to offer.
“Let’s go tango, Mycroft.” Anthea said on the plane back to Buenos Aires. “What’s your favourite milonga?”
He looked up from his notes and frowned. “I don’t tango and I don’t know any milongas.”
Her eyes widened. “Are you seriously telling me that you’ve been in Argentina for over a year and have never set foot in a milonga? Not once?”
“That is precisely what I am telling you. I'm not interested in dance halls.”
“Mycroft!” She looked at him with genuine shock in her eyes. “Six months we’ve been a team and I feel like I don’t even know you. How could I have missed something so important?”
“Because there was little time between Uruguay, Hong Kong and Venezuela?” he offered. “Because our focus lay elsewhere?”
It was true. They’d grown into a tightly-knit team, the Link between them strong and steady, and they’d become the go-to pairing when things got hairy. ‘Go and fetch Ancroft,’ Saunders had yelled one day in despair, and ‘Ancroft’ had become their combined codename - Anthea and Mycroft. Mycroft hadn’t called her by her real name in months; she’d become ‘Anthea’ to him and she was growing into the name nicely.
At the moment she was still looking at him as if he’d just confessed to puppy-kicking to her.
“We will go tango tonight. We have tonight and tomorrow morning off and you will learn.”
“But I have a report—”
“Al diablo con eso,” she rudely said. “You can draft the bloody report on the plane and type it up tomorrow. Or tonight before we go out. You type faster than the boss’ secretary so don’t give me that.”
“But I don’t—”
“Shirt, slacks, Oxfords with leather soles and you’re good to go.”
Her voice did not invite for discussion and he sighed, knowing that he’d be fighting a lost cause if he continued to argue. He knew that tone well.
“Fine then. I take it you know how to tango?”
“Cariño, must I remind you that I am half Argentinian? You bet I can tango.”
“So you plan to take the lead?”
“I always take the lead, Croft. Without me, you’d be running around in circles.”
Behind them, Channings sniggered.
“Shut up, Dave,” Mycroft said, but without venom. “If I didn’t have you on a tight leash, you’d be running around in circles with me.” He closed his notebook and turned to Anthea. “Very well. We’ll go. Will you be staying at your quarters tonight or should I pick you up somewhere?”
“I’m staying with a friend for the next couple of days. You may pick me up there, I’ll text you the address. Oh, one more thing.”
“I’ll be wearing a dress. Just so you know.”
When he arrived at the address she had given him, he let out a low whistle. He’d recognised the street as one in a wealthier part of the city but he hadn’t expected Anthea's directions to lead him to one of Buenos Aires’ most prestigious hotels. Whoever that friend was certainly did not have to economise.
He pulled up into the driveway and got out of his car.
“I’m picking somebody up,” he told the liveried man who was eyeing him suspiciously and offered him a folded banknote. “I won’t be staying long.”
If he had been surprised at the address Anthea had given him, it was nothing compared to the surprise that awaited him in the hotel lobby. The woman waiting for him in the reception area bore no resemblance to his trusted partner and steadfast Anchor and he had to call upon all of his self discipline to not stare at her with his mouth hanging open. ‘Wearing a dress’ indeed. That wasn’t a dress. It was a…creation in red of a deceptively simple cut and although Mycroft knew next to nothing about ladies’ fashion, he knew enough that a dress that clung to its wearer like this without making her look shady—or something even less desirable—was nothing one would find in a shop around the corner. She’d done up her hair and the only jewellery she was wearing was a pair of pearl earrings and the simple gold band on her right ring-finger he’d never seen her without.
She was beautiful, looking every inch the woman she would one day become. Luckily, she still Felt the same and her smile was the same, too, as she walked up to him.
“Mycroft,” she greeted him. “Exactly on time.”
He caught her right hand with his own and bowed to sketch a kiss to it.
“It wouldn’t do to leave a lady waiting,” he said. “If I had known what to expect I would have fussed a lot more over what to wear.”
“Nonsense,” she said. “You’re looking very elegant.”
“I’m wearing black trousers, a black shirt and black shoes,” he shrugged. “Can’t do much wrong with that.”
“On the contrary. You can do a lot wrong with it. Let’s go, shall we?”
He offered her his arm and she accepted it, and as they walked to his car together, he felt the eyes of every man in the lobby on them and he squared his shoulders a bit more and raised his chin a little higher. Maybe this was going to be a lot more enjoyable than he’d thought.
Well, it wasn’t. At least not for the first hour. How long ago had his dance lessons been? He’d not felt so much like an oaf in ages and whatever he’d been taught about the basics of tango seemed long gone.
“Do I have to do all this fancy nonsense with my legs, too?” he asked Anthea when she granted him a short pause and nodded towards a couple who made it all look so damnably easy.
She laughed. “Not in a long while. For once, you’ll be my anchor and I’ll do enough fancy nonsense for the both of us. I’ll make you look fantastic enough for every girl to want to dance with you.” She took his empty glass from him, set it on the counter and winked. “Don’t worry. You won’t have to dance with anybody but me until you feel comfortable enough.”
“Thank you,” he said, grateful. “I used to think I’m a fairly decent dancer but I wasn’t prepared for any of this.”
“Ah, but tango is not just another dance.” She put her arm around his neck and leaned in so their chests touched. “It’s more than the usual game between man and woman. It’s all about finding your eje, your axis, and to do that, you must connect with the floor. Feel the energy from the ground beneath you, let it earth and centre you and it will not matter whether you’re turning, pivoting, doing fancy nonsense with your legs.” She did something with her leg and leaned into him fully. “Your axis will hold you in place.” Her eyes glowed softly. “Open your Channels to our Link and I will show you.”
He hesitated. They had not yet Linked on an emotional basis. A Link was nothing like a Bond where everything about oneself lay open to the other unless consciously closed down. It was a ‘working partnership on a friendly basis’, as Guangli had phrased it when he had first explained it to Mycroft, and that’s exactly what he’d found with Anthea. She had become his homing beacon in more senses than what Saunders had had in mind; she grounded him and held him in place. He trusted her with his life, trusted her more than he trusted Channings. But could he risk opening up to her on yet another level?
Yes. It was time.
“Thank you,” she whispered as she extended her arm for him to trace and caress. “Follow me.”
And he did. And he understood.
“You already are Bonded,” he said on another turn that was so much smoother than before.
“Yes. But we cannot be seen together in public. Not yet. Not like we want to.”
“Is she married? If I may ask?”
“You may, and yes, she’s married. Her husband doesn’t know what she is, and he mustn’t find out. In the eyes of the world, I’m a friend.”
“The one staying at the hotel?”
He tried something fancy with his leg and it worked.
“Beautiful,” she approved and reached up to trace her fingers along his jawline. “Tell me about your Bonded. I can sense him in your system.”
“His name is Greg. I left him because I thought it was the right thing to do but now I know how stupid that was. It broke my heart and don’t think I’ll ever be able to fix it. ”
“Don’t lose hope.” She dropped backwards and he caught her in his arms. “Don’t lose heart.”
From that day on, they went dancing whenever they found the time, and Mycroft became a much sought after tango partner. But it was with Anthea alone that his eje, his axis, was the most stable, and her body became an extension of his own as their Link tightened. She became the closest thing to a lover he would allow himself to have but the intimacy they shared was not of a physical nature, and neither of them intended to change that.
Each night, on the threshold to sleep, he Reached for the Bond and lightly Touched it, very softly, like one would brush across a very delicate surface with one’s fingertips.
‘Don’t lose hope’, he repeated her words to himself. ‘Don’t lose heart.’
“Hello Greg,” Krish Sampath greeted Greg when he returned to his desk. “We have a visitor in interview room three who requests to speak with you.”
“Hi,” Greg replied absent-mindedly and switched his computer on. “What’s that you’re saying?”
“Paul and Lenny hauled a junkie in some time this morning and now that he’s slept off most of his daze he’s ready to be interviewed. Only, he won’t speak to anybody but you.”
Krish shrugged. “No idea. He seriously pissed off everybody else so we’ve all been waiting for you to return.”
“Pissed off—oh no.” Greg looked up. “Young bloke?”
“Hard to say.”
“How do you mean?”
“The state he’s in? Anything in between early to late twenties, I’d say. Needs a shower, badly, and a shave. Loud voice, I mean, really loud voice. Eyes like an alien. Dark, curly hair.”
Greg closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. “I’ll go see him. Room three?”
“Yes. Do you know who he is?”
“I have an idea. Just so I know what I’ll be facing: what exactly has he done?”
“Nothing, really, just went a bit wild and insulted some poor deli shop owner. Paul and Lenny were about to pick up coffee when it happened. He started calling them names, too, and so they escorted him here. All we need are his details and a statement and he’s free to go.”
With a sigh, Greg got up from his chair.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“You’re a doll, Gregs,” Krish said with obvious relief and Greg laughed despite himself.
“Don’t let people hear you call me a doll. It’ll give them funny ideas.”
“Ah well. It’s not like we get to laugh an awful lot these days, right?”
Krish certainly had that right. With a triple homicide on their hands and the daughter of an influential patron gone missing their days weren’t precisely filled with joy. And Greg suspected his day was not going to get any better.
The moment he opened the door to interview room three, he said good-bye to his evening plans that up to this instant had consisted of takeaway Thai food, a beer or two and whatever was on TV.
Sherlock Holmes looked at him out of bloodshot eyes.
“Good afternoon, Sergeant,” he drawled. “How good of you to come.”
“I was working, Sherlock,” Greg said mildly, pulled up a chair and sat down. “I understand you’re about to give a statement? Let’s hear it.”
“I’ve told everything that’s happened to that horse-faced policewoman.”
“That’s not what I heard. And besides, I thank you for not insulting Sergeant Harrison.”
“Ha! So you agree.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Then why else did you know who I was talking about? Immediately, if I may say so.”
“Ha!” Sherlock said again and sat up a bit straighter. “She does look like a horse.”
“I’ve not come here to discuss Harrison’s looks with you.” He reached for the recording device, switched it on and pulled it up to stand between them. “Detective Sergeant Greg Lestrade, the time is sixteen-fifty-five, also present is—” He signalled for Sherlock to speak into the microphone.
Sherlock frowned but complied.
“Sherlock Holmes,” he said with exaggerated enunciation.
“Thank you. Now, Mr Holmes, please describe in your own words what exactly has happened.”
“I was bored.”
“I left my flat at eight twenty-five to meet somebody. She was late and so I went in search of her. She was not in her usual spot but a group of three was. Upon my arrival they scattered and I followed the one who had seemed to be in the lead. I lost his track somewhere along the way—”
What followed was a rather absurd story that involved a cab and a poodle and an elderly lady with a green-and-white polka-dot umbrella and it ended in said deli shop where,
“I’m afraid a lost my temper a little and may have accidentally offended your uniformed colleagues for which I apologise. Profusely so.”
“Noted. Thank you, Mr Holmes.” Greg switched the recorder off.
“So, can I go now?”
“For the time being, yes. We have no reason to hold you any longer.”
Sherlock rose from his chair but Greg held up his hand.
“You will need to come again some time tomorrow to sign your statement. You know that, yeah?”
“I do, yes.”
“Just checking.” Greg rose, too. “I’ll see you out myself.”
“That’s hardly necessary. I know the way.”
“I know you do but I’d like to make sure, in case you get side-tracked. We don’t want you to end up in the evidence room again, do we.”
Sherlock shrugged one shoulder. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Well, not today. Let’s go, lad.”
Greg steered Sherlock towards the main entrance, taking the shortest possible way. They met Sergeant Harrison and Sherlock made a sound that sounded suspiciously like a snort.
“Quiet,” Greg hissed and grabbed him by his upper arm to drag him along.
Sherlock sniggered but refrained from further comments.
“You may let go of me now,” he said when they reached the doors. “I am quite able to step outside without your guidance.”
“Go home, Sherlock,” Greg said. “Sleep it off, whatever it is you’ve taken. And take a shower. You reek.”
Sherlock nodded and turned to go, mumbling something Greg didn’t catch.
“What was that?”
“I said,” Sherlock said, turning around to face Greg, “I hope my stuff will still be there.”
“What I said: I hope my stuff will still be where I left it.”
“Haven’t you locked your flat?”
“I don’t precisely have a flat at the moment.”
“Well, what can I say. I’m looking for a new place but it’s not exactly easy.”
“Are you telling me you’re living on the streets?”
“That’s one way of putting it.”
“What other way is there?”
“I prefer calling it a bohemian lifestyle.”
“Didn’t you tell me you graduated from uni and had found a place to stay?”
“That was three months ago. Yes, I have graduated and until two weeks ago I did have a room.”
Greg took an involuntary step back and looked at the young man. Really looked at him, and he didn’t like what he saw. Sherlock was wearing one of his dark suits but now that Greg paid more attention, he noticed the rumpled state both suit and shirt were in. He noticed the hollow cheeks and the fact that Sherlock hadn’t shaved in a while. His fingernails were dirty, too, and that was more proof than anything. Whatever the younger Holmes’ faults, a lack of personal hygiene and ignorance towards his wardrobe wasn’t it. Greg had seen him dishevelled but never untidy.
“But Sherlock, that’s awful!”
“It’s nowhere near as bad as you may think. I have found a fairly decent spot—”
“You stop it right there. You’re coming with me tonight.”
“Really, Lestrade,” Sherlock protested, “that’s hardly necessary.”
“Oh, but it is. No, not another word, Sherlock, you’re staying with me. And that’s the end to it.”
“Right,” Greg said when they arrived at his flat. “You go take a shower while I put your clothes into the washing machine.”
“You can’t—” started Sherlock but Greg shook his head.
“I can, and I will. My car stinks of your bags and I’ll be damned before I’ll have that dirty shit lying around here. You may remove everything I’m not supposed to see, you know, personal stuff and such, but your clothes go into the washer.”
“Not my suits!”
“Not your suits,” Greg agreed. “We’ll take your suits to the dry cleaner’s tomorrow morning. How many are there?”
“Three. The one I’m wearing and two more. What should I wear while you go all parental on me?”
“I’ll get you sweatpants, shirt, undies and socks. Don’t worry, all freshly washed. Fresh towels are on the shelf above the door.”
“I’m not going to wear your clothes. I’ll look ridiculous. I’m taller than you and not so…broad.”
“You’re not that much taller, but if you’d rather prance about wrapped in a towel, suit yourself.”
Sherlock’s eyes bore into Greg’s but for once, it was Greg who won the staring contest.
“All right then,” Sherlock agreed with visible reluctance. “I’ll try your stuff on.”
Greg nodded, toed off his shoes and put them down by the door in the hallway, hung up his coat and disappeared into his bedroom to fetch a couple of fresh clothes for his guest. When he returned, he found Sherlock stripped down to his underwear, crouching next to one of his bags and rummaging around in it.
“I put my violin on the armchair,” he said. “And my personal belongings are in the duffel bag. You may handle the rest as you see fit.”
“Is that all you own?” Greg asked, eyeing the smallish suitcase and the not much larger trolley.
“Of course not. The rest of my stuff is at my parents’ house. I didn’t bring all that much to London, not knowing what to expect and how I’d like the job I’d landed. I hated it, the salary stopped coming in and I was asked to move out.” He rose from his crouch and held up a toiletry bag. “My razor and toothbrush,” he said. “I’m not using your stuff to shave and brush my teeth.”
“And thank you for that. We’ll talk about the rest when you’re done. Are you OK with Thai food? I’m going to order in.”
“Not hungry, thank you.”
“We’ll see about that. Bathroom’s that way.”
Greg pointed and watched Sherlock shut the bathroom door behind him. When he heard the shower being turned on, he carried bag and trolley into his kitchen where washing machine and dryer stood in a corner and sorted through Sherlock’s clothes. He didn’t find them to be in a too desolate state but they did smell rather horrible and he didn’t bother sorting by colour. Most of Sherlock’s things were dark anyway. He put the suits into a plastic bag to be taken to the dry cleaner’s and the shoes went into the hallway, next to his, as did bag and trolley.
By the time he had placed his order with his favourite Thai delivery service, changed into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and set the table, Sherlock re-appeared from the bathroom, freshly showered and shaved, his hair damp and curly. He looked rather skinny in Greg’s clothes, in fact he looked so much like Mycroft had looked when they had first met, all arms and legs, that Greg drew a sharp breath and closed his eyes for a moment.
“Oh come on, Lestrade,” Sherlock said. “It’s not that bad, is it. I told you I would look ridiculous.”
“It’s not that. It’s just that you’re so…thin. When is the last time you have eaten?”
Sherlock frowned. “Yesterday morning, I think. I was rather busy.”
“That’s it. Food should be here in ten, fifteen minutes. You will eat.”
“You will eat,” Greg repeated firmly. “What do you want to drink?”
“Whatever you have. No beer. Not on an empty stomach.”
“Tea? Orange juice?”
“Tea. And sugar.”
Sherlock followed him into the kitchen and watched him set up the kettle.
“You don’t have to do that, you know,” he said.
“Look after me like that.”
“And why not?” asked Greg, dipping a tea bag into a mug and helping himself to a glass of orange juice.
“Just because you shagged my brother doesn’t mean you have to feel responsible for me. I’m not him.”
Greg lowered his glass. “No, you’re not. And your brother has nothing to do with it.”
“I didn’t mean to offend,” Sherlock said in a rare display of tact. “I know there was something…special going on between the two of you.”
“You didn’t offend me, Sherlock. Just…please leave Mycroft out of it, yeah?”
“Of course. So, why?”
“Don’t know,” Greg said and shrugged a shoulder. “I like you. You’re smart, you’re witty if you choose to be and you’ve been a great help on more than one occasion. I won’t presume to understand all that’s going on in that remarkable brain of yours but I can’t look away when you’re going through a bad patch. There’s plenty of room in here for both of us until you’ve found a new place to stay. And a new job.”
Sherlock made a face. “So mundane.”
“Well, can’t be helped unless you can afford to live off your personal funds or something.”
“I will not come into my funds before my twenty-fifth birthday.”
“Did Mycroft never tell you? We’ve both inherited a pretty little sum from some uncle from our father’s side but it’s locked away until completion of our twenty-fourth year.”
“He never said.”
“Of course he wouldn’t.” The kettle clicked and Sherlock poured water into his mug. “Mycroft would get a coronary if he saw me doing this,” he said with a grin. “He’s always so very fussy about his little tea ceremony. No boiling water on your tea and such.”
“Anyway,” he blew over his steaming tea, “I bet he’s got his portion smartly invested until the time is ripe to settle down and buy himself a townhouse or something.”
“Mhm. What do you plan to do with your share?”
“Not sure. Maybe start a business?”
“A business?” Greg asked, incredulous. “Forgive me, Sherlock, but I can’t picture you as a businessman.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of freelance detective work or something. You just told me I’ve been of great help to you. Maybe find a job as part-time lab technician until business takes off and then, who knows. Maybe consult with the Met?”
The chime of his doorbell announced the arrival of their food and when Greg spread the cardboard containers out on the small kitchen table, Sherlock’s stomach gave a loud rumble. Greg grinned.
“Thought so. Sit down, lad, and dig in.”
They ate in silence until—
“What’s that?” Greg asked sharply when Sherlock reached for the fried rice.
“This.” He grabbed Sherlock’s arm and turned it to inspect the bend of his elbow. “What’s these?”
“I—uh, I’ve been to the doctor,” Sherlock said, avoiding Greg’s eyes. “Health check.”
“Bullshit you been.” Greg let go of his arm. “You’ve been using.”
“I have not.”
“Don’t you bloody lie to me. I should have seen it right away when I came to interview you. I’ve seen it before. Just didn’t expect to see it on you.” He sat back. “Look at me, Sherlock.”
Sherlock raised his eyes to meet Greg’s. Uncertainty flickered in them and that told Greg more than anything else might. A sober Sherlock was never uncertain.
“Why did you do that?”
“It was an experiment.”
“I wanted to find out how it feels.”
“And how did it feel?”
“Brilliant. Easy. Happy.”
“Yes, happy. It’s not like being drunk. I’ve not lost a week of memories. I felt like I always did. Just…happier.”
“Are you unhappy when you’re clean?”
Sherlock let out a huff.
“I’ve been better. With my father almost dying and Mommy stonewalling about it and Mycroft gone, well. It’s not been so great.”
“I understand. But still,” Greg pinched the bridge of his nose. “You know that shit’s dangerous, yes?”
“I’m not exactly stupid, Lestrade.”
“Sure sound like it, Sherlock. How often?”
“How often what?”
“How often have you helped yourself to an extra dose of happy?”
“What!” Greg thundered and slammed his hand on the table.
Sherlock flinched but raised his chin in defiance.
“I can always stop, you know.”
“Oh, can you.”
“Yes. It’s a matter of will-power and self-discipline.”
“Is it. Well, we’ll see about that. You’re staying here until I say otherwise.”
“You can’t hold me against my will, Lestrade,” Sherlock pointed out. “I'm not your ward and you have no legal power over me.”
Realising he’d gone too far, Greg held up his hands. “That’s not what I meant to say and I’m sorry. But, Sherlock, please understand this is nothing to be trifled with. You’re right, I can’t lock you away but I’m asking you, please, stay here for a while. I’ll give you a set of spare keys so you can come and go as you wish. But please, clean up and look for a place to stay. Maybe a nice flatshare—”
“—a room in a boarding house of sorts, a wee apartment…”
“A ‘wee’ apartment? What are you, Scottish?”
“Used to live there for a while. A small apartment then. Will you do that?”
“Who’s checking on me while you’re at work?” Sherlock asked. “How will you know I won’t be shooting up again while you’re gone?”
“I won’t. I guess I’ll have to place my trust in your superior intellect and your not-so-superior common sense.”
“Are you serious?”
“I am. You’re a grown-up and, as you kindly pointed out, I hold no legal power over you. I’m merely asking you to reconsider your bohemian lifestyle.”
Sherlock looked down on his plate and pushed a greenish slice aside.
“Very well,” he said. “I agree.”
Greg sagged against the back of his chair, relieved.
“Thank you,” he said. Then something else occurred to him. “Would you, uh, agree to see a physician?” he cautiously asked. “I’m not talking about a full check-up,” he added when Sherlock looked up from his plate. “And not a rehab clinic, either. Just an easy check to see if everything’s all right with you.”
“Are you going to ask me to piss into a cup next?”
“No. Of course not. It’s just that you’re so thin and I’m worried. What if you collapse while you’re here?”
Sherlock sighed. “I assure you I am quite healthy, Lestrade. But if it makes you happy then yes, I will see a doctor. Did you have anyone particular in mind?”
“No. Not yet. Wait, I have an idea.” He pursed his lips, thinking. Would Pen agree to see Sherlock? She was a surgeon, not a…whoever specialised in dealing with drug addicts. But she should be able to see if Sherlock’s overall condition was stable enough. “A friend of mine’s a doctor. I’ll ring her up later.”
“Fine. Now, can I have the prawns or do you want them?”
It was raining when Greg pulled up next to Pen’s apartment building. He’d managed to get off work a little earlier and it was her day off, and she had invited him to drop by for a coffee when he had phoned in to say hello.
“You look tired,” she observed, pouring him a cup. “Sherlock’s been with you for two weeks now and please forgive me for saying so, but I think it’s becoming a bit much.”
“I know, and you’re right. But he’s signed a lease on a flat yesterday and he’s even asked me to come along.”
“I was surprised, too, but he’s really trying, Pen. I’m not an expert and I certainly don’t check him for injection marks but he seems to be doing really well. I may be wrong, of course, but I don't think he’s been using again.”
“It is.” He added some milk to his coffee and stirred. “He can move into his new flat the weekend after next. It’s a tiny apartment with just enough room for a bed, a small couch and a desk but it’s in a fairly decent neighbourhood. Now all he needs is a job.”
“I think I may be able to help with that.”
“He’s a graduate chemist, right?”
“As far as I know, yes.”
She tapped her lower lip with her index finger.
“One of my colleagues mentioned two openings in his faculty. One’s for an analytical chemist, the other’s for a forensics scientist. Think that would interest him?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never discussed his academic background with him. But it might be worth a try. May I give him your number so he can get in touch if he’s interested?”
“Of course. I can’t promise anything, the decision is with Tobias. But I think if I push a CV his way, he’d be willing to take a look.”
“That would be great. Thanks so much.”
She smiled and nodded, and their conversation moved to lighter subjects. They chatted the latest film releases, agreed on seeing From Dusk till Dawn, and then,
“When was the last time you Shifted, Greg?” Pen asked when he yawned.
“I’m not sure,” he said, rubbing his face. “Maybe six, eight weeks ago?”
She inhaled sharply. “That’s too long!”
“I know. It’s just that I—I don’t quite know how to say it. It’s getting harder and harder to Shift back from fox to human and it scares the hell out of me. I don’t know what to do. I know I need to Shift soon but what if I can’t Shift back?”
“Have you spoken about this with your uncle?”
Greg shook his head.
“Uncle Randolph’s still recovering from his heart attack. He’s doing very well, thank God, but he’s still a bit fragile. I thought it best not to bother him with that.”
She nodded, then moved her gaze from his face to a point somewhere across from where they sat, stood up and went to stand before a shelf mounted to the wall. Greg watched her reach for a silver frame that he knew contained a photo of her late husband. She touched her fingertips to the glass and stood like that for a few moments, let her hand sink with a sigh and returned to the sofa. Her eyes were a little bright but she held out both her hands, palms up.
“Link with me, Greg,” she said. “You need an Anchor.”
“But Pen—” he started but lowered his eyes. She was right. He did need an Anchor, and desperately so. The Bond between him and Mycroft was a Wild Bond, he knew that now, something that didn’t happen very often because two Shifters couldn’t really Anchor each other but it had somehow worked between them. However, with Mycroft gone and their Bond no longer active, Greg felt lost and fidgety and it had grown worse over the last year.
He looked at her. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I am, yes. You’ve become a good friend and Ian liked you. I know he’d approve.” She looked at her outstretched hands. “We can’t Bond, you and I. I am not ready and you are not free. But I can offer you this and I gladly do.”
“And I accept,” he said and clasped her wrists with his hands.
When their Link clicked into place, a wave of relief washed over Greg, so strong it made tears well up in his eyes. He bent over their joined hands and kissed Pen’s knuckles.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “Thank you.”
She pressed his hands lightly and smiled, a little shakily. “It was long overdue. I’ve noticed for a while you’ve not been too well and I suspected the reason but I couldn’t…I’m sorry, Greg. I’m sorry for not offering this sooner.”
“Don’t be. I understand, I really do. I would never have asked this of you.”
“I know that. Now,” she pulled her hands free, “off you go. Go check on Sherlock and come pick me up at eight tonight. I feel like taking a long walk.”
“How would you feel about walking a silver fox? I promise he’ll walk to heel. No leash needed but you may bring one, for appearance’s sake.”
“I would love to walk a silver fox, and I will bring a very pretty leash. I will not snap it on, don’t worry.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
“Maybe the collar. Just for show.”
“I will not wear pink.”
“Don’t you dare.”
They laughed, and Pen accompanied him to the door.
“See you tonight, Greg.” She hugged him, and he hugged her back.
“See you tonight.”
It felt so good being in fox shape again.
Pen stood with her back to Greg when he shed his clothes and Shifted, clearly used to the routine, and she laughed when the fox bounced around the couch and nudged her knee.
“Well, hello there!” She bent down to scratch between his ears. “Aren’t you a pretty one.”
It was said without hidden meaning, all human desires—conscious and unconscious—lying dormant in both parties of a Bond, or a Link, when the Were was in his or her animal shape, a protection mechanism to prevent all inappropriate impulses, and so Greg leaned into her scratching, enjoying the caress.
“Now, where did I put the—ah.” She found what she’d been looking for on the small sideboard next to the door and held up a simple blue leash and collar. “I hope that’s agreeable.”
Greg eyed both items. He didn’t like either but he understood the necessity. Roaming the parks at night with an owl or by himself was different from ‘walking’ with a human at a more civilised hour and so he dipped his head.
“Thank you. Now, if you’ll allow me?” She knelt down and carefully put the collar around his neck. “Is that too tight?”
::No, it’s all right. Let’s go.::
It quickly became a much loved ritual for both of them. Pen took up running again and Greg ran with her. Sometimes in his human shape but most of the time, Pen ran along the well-kept paths of Regent’s Park with a greyish-silver fox by her side. She bought a nicer collar for him and as the Link between them grew stronger, Greg trusted her enough to let her click the leash on whenever they passed through a more crowded area, or when there were children around. She always removed the leash as soon as she could, and she always took the collar off as soon as they were alone.
Whenever someone remarked on her dog’s unusual appearance, she shrugged and smiled and said, “I believe one of his ancestors enjoyed a summer fling with a fox”, and no-one ever disputed that.
And there was one thing she started doing that Greg liked above all, and that was grooming the fox’ fur. She bought a good, sturdy pair of brushes and Greg shamelessly leaned into the regular strokes with which she went through his fur. He needed physical contact as much as he needed Shifting and so he didn’t hesitate much when she patted the sofa one day.
“Come on, hop on,” she invited. “Not sure if you’re interested in the videos I rented but you don’t have to sit on the floor.”
Greg inspected the pale floral fabric.
::Are you sure?::
“Of course I am. You’re not a dog, are you?”
::I most certainly am not.::
He jumped on the sofa and curled up next to her.
“There you go.”
She started scratching his back, rubbed his paws and played with his ears while the videos were playing.
And that was even better than being groomed.
“You’re a horrible dancer.”
Greg grinned and winked.
“I know. But I look very sharp in a suit, yes?”
“You do,” Pen agreed. “But one more dance with you and I’ll have to wear sandals to work for the rest of the week. How anyone with your acrobatic background can be so clumsy on the dance-floor is beyond me.”
“Being a smooth dancer is no prerequisite for a career as a clown.”
“So it would seem. Let’s get something to drink.”
They went to the bar. Greg ordered a glass of wine for Pen and a Virgin Daiquiri for himself.
“Team meeting at eight tomorrow morning,” he explained when she raised her eyebrows. “I’ve been put in charge and I don’t want to show up to the first meeting with a hangover.”
“You’ve had three glasses of wine. Is that enough to make you hungover?”
“No, it’s not. But I’m not as young as I used to be.”
“You’re thirty-three. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Thirty-four next week.”
“I’m forty-one. You don’t see me going for a lemonade.”
“I bet you would if you had a surgery scheduled first thing in the morning, but you have tomorrow morning off, right? And I believe this is only your second glass, so no harm done.”
Their drinks arrived and they toasted each other.
“Thanks for being my plus one, Greg, I really appreciate it.”
“You’re very welcome. I quite enjoy wearing a suit now and then, and you look stunning.”
And she did. She had dressed up for tonight’s charity event her mother had asked her to attend, and the dark green of her dress contrasted beautifully with her red hair. Greg had felt countless eyes on them as he had walked in with her on his arm, and it had both amused him and made him feel strangely proud at the same time.
“I bet the tongue-wagging’s been set in motion,” she said. “I hardly ever show up at Mommy’s events and I’ve never brought a partner since Ian died.”
“Thank you for choosing me,” he said, caught her hand and lightly pressed it. “I know it’s difficult for you.”
“Not as difficult as it used to be. It’s been almost four years and although I still miss him, and probably will for the rest of my life, I don’t feel crippled any longer. No small thanks to you.” She pressed his hand back. “And the fact that I’ve given the bored society ladies something to gossip about is well worth the effort. I almost pity my mother for having to face them.”
“‘Say, Mrs O’Leary, who is that devilishly handsome young man your daughter was showing off last night?’” he said in his best imitation of an upper class accent. “‘Is he for hire? He’d make a lovely accessory for my June garden party.’”
“Stop it,” she laughed. “You’re horrible. They’re not quite that bad.”
“Oh they’re not? Look at that very pale blonde one over there in the tomato-red abomination. She’s been taxing me for well over three minutes now. I wonder if I should take off my shirt and trousers so she may inspect my goods.”
She peered over his shoulder and giggled.
“That’s Mrs Blairwood, and you just may be right. She loves her men young and handsome.”
“And she’s coming our way. Save me, Pen, and I will be forever in your debt.”
“There’s only one thing to do.” She put her glass down on the cocktail table and took Greg’s from him. “Kiss me.”
“Kiss me, quickly. She’s always on the hunt but she knows when she’s been beaten to her prey.”
She had stepped up and now stood so close they almost touched. He searched her face but her eyes smiled up at him, and her lips parted invitingly. And so he bent down to kiss her, and something inside him whispered, ‘yes’.
And “Yes,” she whispered when he kissed her again as they stood before the door to her flat. “Please.”
She opened the door and he followed her inside.
“Are you sure?” he asked, feeling strangely and unexpectedly uncertain.
But she kicked off her high heels and reached for his hands.
“I am. It’s been so long, and I want it to be you.”
God, it had been so long for him, too. It wasn’t only the fox that had been starving for physical contact but the man as well, and so he let her steer him into her bedroom.
The touch of another human being felt so good on his skin. It was nowhere near as intense as it had been with Mycroft but with her, it still felt right. He hadn’t lied when he had told Mycroft it could be good with a girl, all those years ago in his old camper-van, and with a woman like Pen it was even better than with any girl he remembered. She was soft in his arms, but strong, too, her lithe, graceful body writhing underneath him, and when he finally entered her, she gasped and it was the sweetest sound he’d heard in such a very long time.
She wrapped her legs around his hips to pull him even deeper inside and her breasts bounced in rhythm with his thrusts. He bent his head to catch a rosy nipple between his lips and lightly sucked on it, teasing it to full attention with his tongue and she cried out, arching up against him. He kept up a steady beat for as long as he could and they rocked together, her hips surging up to meet his, her moist heat gripping him like a glove until he felt his self-control slip and he started thrusting faster and harder.
“Touch me, Greg,” she whimpered and he hoisted himself up to a different angle and slid his hand down and between them. She guided him and he pressed down against her nub, massaged it in time with his thrusts, forcing himself back into a more steady rhythm.
“Like that, yes, exactly like that, that’s it.” She reached for his hand and pressed down harder. “Like that, please. Don’t stop. God, that’s good.”
Her moans became more urgent and throaty and her skin started to glisten with sweat. Greg looked down to where they were connected, watched himself slide in and out of her slick, swollen cleft and gave a hoarse growl, desperate for his release but unwilling to let go just yet. But then she bucked up, crying his name, and it took Greg no more than a couple of deep, hard thrusts and he came inside her, panting, his face pressed into the curve of her neck, his heart beating wildly.
Some seven thousand miles away, a pencil snapped and Mycroft buried his face in his hands.
It had to happen eventually. It had been three years since Mycroft had moved out without so much as a word of explanation, without ever getting in touch other than carefully checking on their Bond. He knew that physical intimacy had always been much more important to Greg than to himself—not that he had ever objected to having sex with Greg. Far from it. But where Mycroft tended to live inside his head, Greg lived very much inside his body. His beautiful, strong body.
Have heart, he told himself. Have hope.
It was a perfect October day. Outside, the setting sun set the coloured leaves ablaze, the air was crisp enough to justify lighting a cosy fire but not yet cold enough to make you shiver without it. The small barn-turned-cottage in the West Sussex region was the ideal hideaway spot for a romantic weekend, and Greg was extremely pleased with himself for having found it.
He was not so pleased with the silence that met his question. It had taken him quite some courage and even more internal debates to finally ask it, and when the silence stretched too long, he gently nudged Pen’s knee.
“Well?” he asked. “What do you think?”
She looked up from her coffee mug and sighed.
“I think it’s a horrible idea.”
Greg lowered his own mug and stared at her.
“Horrible?” he repeated, not sure he had heard correctly. “Pen, I just proposed to you. What’s so horrible about that?”
Pen put her coffee on the table and took his from him, too. Then she moved closer so their knees touched and reached for his hands.
“Forgive me, Greg, that came out very wrong. It’s not at all what I meant.”
“I sure hope not.”
She kissed his knuckles.
“What I meant to say is that it wouldn’t be right for us to get married.”
“But why not? We’re such a good team, you and I. What’s not right about us getting married?”
“There’s nothing wrong about it per se and yes, we are a good team. And that’s the thing: we are a team, not a couple. Not really.”
“But we’ve been together, like. Right? Over three years now.”
“’Together like’”, she repeated. “There you have it. Together like. You know, I love the Fox and I really, really like the man. You’re fun, you have a good heart, you’re insanely attractive—”
He huffed, embarrassed, but she pressed his hands.
“You are. You have no idea how envious my friends are and you better never find out what my nurses think of your, and I quote, squeezable arse. Should they ever find out you’re not only good-looking but one hell of a lover as well, there’d be hordes of screaming females flocking the main entrance of Scotland Yard.”
That made him laugh but he shook his head.
“You’re just saying that to soften the blow.”
“I’m not. Sex with you is just…brilliant. It really is. And above all, you brought me back to life. I was on the brink of sliding into a clinical depression after Ian died and I had neither the strength nor the wish to stop the downward spiral. I felt dead inside, as if I had died with him. But then you showed up one day, looking worn out and tired, and I thought that no matter how little I cared for my own well-being, I wouldn’t let a friend down. And then you took me to bed and I remembered life can be pretty damn wonderful, despite all.”
“Same here. I thought I was losing my grip on, well, everything, with Mycroft gone and no-one there to hold me in place. And I really like being with you, Pen. You’re smart and lovely and you just made consultant surgeon. I mean, that’s, wow. I’m so proud of you.”
“Says you. Remind me, who made DI only recently?”
“And who helped me study, eh? See, we’re good together. Why not do it right? Tie the knot and all?”
“Because it would be wrong. I care for you, Greg, I really do. And I know that you care for me, too. Our Link has become so strong—”
“It has, hasn’t it.”
“Yes, but do you ever wonder why it doesn’t shift from a mere Link to a Bond?”
She looked at him expectantly and he opened his mouth and closed it again. She had a point. Why didn’t it? Shift from Link to Bond?
“You’re right,” he slowly said. “I never thought of that.”
“I think it’s because I’m not ready for another Bond, and you were never free to begin with.”
“He’s still with you, just as you are with him.”
“He’s with the Secret Service, isn’t he?”
He cleared his throat and she chuckled.
“Don’t answer that, I know you must not speak of it. I know we've been through this before but I want you to think about this, again: what if he was ordered to leave and he thought it best to just leave and not tell you? What if he thought it would be better to put you through pain instead of putting you in danger? Stupid, I know, but what if that’s what he thought would be best at the time?”
“I know we've already spoken about this and believe me, I’ve thought about it a lot. And you know what? I honestly think that’s the most likely answer. It would be so very like him.”
“Well, maybe you’ll be able to ask him some day.” She reached for her mug and took a sip. “And that day may come sooner than you think. Like I said, our Link has become unusually strong and sometimes, your Shield slips and you Project images. Also, you talk in your sleep.”
“I do not,” he protested.
“Ah but you do.”
“Mycroft never said I did.”
“Maybe you didn’t when you were with him,” she shrugged, “but you do now. Not all the time, but when you do, I can feel the strength of the connection you have with him. Whatever his reasons for leaving you the way he did, he still loves you very deeply and you feel the same way.” She reached out and touched his cheek. “I know what a Bond feels like and if we were to get married, one of us will end up heartbroken. I reckon that would be me and I can't say I like the idea.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Well, I don’t know for certain, obviously. But what if he comes back? What will you do then?”
“What if he doesn’t? And what if he comes back and decides he no longer wants the Bond?”
“Then I will be here to catch you,” she said. “But I honestly don’t think that’s what’s going to happen.”
“What if you’re right? What will you do when he comes back?”
She smiled and nudged his knee with hers.
“When he comes back? Not if?”
“See? I’m right.”
“Ah bugger.” Greg covered his face with his hands and groaned. “What do I do? Tell me what to do, Pen. I’m fucked.”
“You’re not. You’ll know what to do when the time comes. But if you really want my advice—” She pulled down the zipper of her sweat-jacket and Greg followed the movement of her hand, already distracted.
“Let’s not waste a perfect afternoon. How often does a woman my age get to ravish a handsome young man before such a cheerfully crackling fire?”
“Why, Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me,” he said, grinning.
“Oh my. Tell me, inspector, what’s the sentence for that?” She shrugged out of her jacket and held out her hands. “Will I need to be handcuffed?”
He circled her wrists with his fingers. “I don’t believe putting you in restraints will be a necessity.”
“I am entirely at your mercy.”
“I’m afraid you are.” With a swift move, he shifted so she came to lie underneath him. “You should have thought about the consequences before you got cheeky with an officer of the law.”
“Punish me as you see fit,” she said and wrapped her legs around his hips. “I will put up no resistance.”
“I don’t believe in punishment.” He nibbled the side of her neck and she sighed. “I believe in the power of persuasion.”
As it turned out, not an awful lot of persuasion was needed. And it wasn’t her who ended up begging for mercy.
Afterwards, as they lay entwined on the couch, he twirled a strand of her long hair around his finger.
“You know,” he said, “I think you’re right.”
“Mhm?” She turned her head to look at him. “Right about what?”
“About how getting married would be a stupid thing to do.”
“I didn’t say it would be stupid.”
“No,” he lightly pulled at the red strand. “You said it was a horrible idea.”
“I’m sorry for my choice of words.”
“But you’re right.” He sighed. “I should have known. We spend a lot of time at each other’s flats, but neither of us has given up his own place to move in with the other. I toyed with the idea once or twice but you always found a way to distract me from it.”
“You’re easily distracted,” she said and kissed his chin.
“And we never introduced the other as girlfriend or boyfriend, or as significant other. We always say, ‘this is my partner’, and ‘partner’ means just about everything. It’s always been right there, before my very nose. And yet, I pop the question. How blind am I? You must think me very stupid.”
“You’re far from stupid, Greg. You have a good heart and you want things to be right. It’s just sometimes, your emotions tend to get in the way and you fail to connect the dots.”
He groaned. “Bloody hell, Pen, you sound just like Sherlock. Are you two meeting behind my back?”
“Dear God, no. Why would I want to meet Sherlock?”
“Don’t know. Play deduction or something?”
“Certainly not. How is he, by the way?”
“He’s doing surprisingly well. It took him a while to accept the fact that it was high time he sought professional help but he’s settling in nicely, I think. I flew over to Dublin last weekend to see him, didn’t I tell you?”
“You didn’t. But I was on twenty-four hour duty anyway. Dublin? Did he check into an Irish rehab facility?”
“He did, and the place doesn’t look as if you could hand in the bills with your local NHS office.”
She whistled. “Is he at Whitleigh Rock?”
“He is. You know it?”
“Not personally, no, but one of our associate specialists used to work there. She’s a fantastic neurologist. If the rest of the staff are half as good as she is, Sherlock is in the best of hands.”
“He looks a lot better already, and it’s only been two weeks.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
They fell silent, listening to the fire.
“What are we going to do when Mycroft comes back?”
“How do you mean?”
“Will we still be friends?”
“I sure hope so.” She turned to lie on her stomach and propped herself up on her elbows. “I can’t see why not. It’ll probably be difficult at first and God, I will miss the sex, but I will gladly sacrifice the sex if it means I get to keep your friendship.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“Oh, but it won’t be, not for me and not for you, either. Make no mistake about that. You’re worth it, though, and I’ll have my hands full anyway.”
“That’s right, consultant surgeon.” He stretched and yawned. “I’ll have to consider myself lucky if you can squeeze in an hour for me here and there.”
“Don’t be daft. I will always make time for you.” She squinted at the fire. “How about putting another log on?”
“Are you asking me to get up from my very comfortable spot?”
“You’re deducing skills are vastly improving,” she said with a wink. “Please do. It’ll give me a chance to look at your squeezable arse while it’s still mine.”
He lay awake long after Pen had fallen asleep and after staring into the semi-darkness of their bedroom for what seemed hours, he slid out of bed and quietly made his way downstairs to the living room, opened the terrace door, Shifted and ran outside. There he sat in the middle of the lawn, tail curled around himself, and looked up to the moon.
::I miss you so very much, Mycroft. Please come home to me.::
There was only the soft sound of a light autumn wind rustling leaves and branches, and then,
::I miss you too, Greg. I’ll be home soon.::
“Congratulations, Holmes. I don’t think we’ve ever had a department head your age.”
“Thank you, sir. I shall strive to not disappoint you.”
“I’m confident you won’t. You come highly recommended.” Director Mulroney, Mycroft’s new boss, gestured towards the leather chair. “Please, sit. This is yours now.”
Mycroft hesitated, then walked around the desk and sat down. Mulroney gave him an encouraging nod and took a seat in one of the visitors’ chairs, dropping a stack of files on the seat next to him.
“Have you already decided on who will be your right-hand man?”
“I have indeed, sir. But with your permission, it will be a right-hand woman. I have appointed Ms Hamilton to work by my side.”
“Ms…Hamilton?” Mulroney asked, incredulous. “But Holmes, is that wise? She’s not formally trained and doesn’t even have a university degree. That would be a very bold move, to say the least.”
“She holds a Bachelor’s degree in informatics, but you are certainly right, it is an unconventional choice. However, I place my absolute trust in Ms Hamilton’s abilities and I personally vouch for her integrity. I understand this division will need thorough re-organisation and streamlining and to do that, I will need an assistant by my side who understands how I work.”
“Ah, she’s to be your secretary, then.” Mulroney pursed his lips. “You had me worried for a moment.”
“No, sir, Ms Hamilton is not to be my secretary. I see no point in removing Ms Parks from her position. She’s been here for, what, eighteen years? I’d be most grateful to work with somebody so experienced. Unless she wishes for a change within the organisation, that is.”
“I don’t think she does. But wouldn’t Ms Hamilton—”
“Ms Hamilton is to be my ‘assistant’ as in ‘assistant to department head’. She has proven her worth time and again and there’s no-one into whose hands I’d sooner place matters of even the utmost confidentiality. Or myself and my personal safety. Senior Agent Saunders will gladly vouch for her, too.”
“Saunders, eh. Very well, Holmes, so be it. Just be sure to not start a scandal.”
“Hamilton is very pretty, and you both are very young. There will be situations where things may get a little intense—”
“I beg your pardon,” Mycroft coolly interrupted him. “I am certain you’ve had a chance to study my file before the decision was taken to entrust this department into my hands. In it you will have found a note detailing my relationship with a Detective Sergeant Gregory Lestrade of the Metropolitan police force.” He raised an eyebrow. “My preferences haven’t changed and there will be no scandal. In either direction.”
Mulroney narrowed his eyes.
“That so, Holmes?”
“That so, sir,” Mycroft replied in a firm voice. “Feel free to run an additional background check on me but I will no longer lie about my, uh, orientation. I will not flaunt it about, either. My private life is my own business and shall remain private.”
Mulroney’s expression was impossible to read and Mycroft had to force himself to keep a steady eye contact and to continue breathing. He had faltered in the face of disapproval before and it had eventually cost him his relationship with Greg. He would not falter again and even more, this was to be the last discussion of his private life. Once and for all.
To his surprise, Mulroney leaned back, folded his hands across his stomach and chuckled.
“You know what, Holmes? I honestly don’t care a fig about what you do when you’re off duty as long as it doesn’t interfere with your job. Don’t look, don’t tell, eh. And if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from your file, apart from you being a poof, it’s that you’re a man of exceptional talents and that’s why you’re here. Although, why you would choose a policeman over the very lovely Ms Hamilton is beyond me.” He reached for the documents sitting on the chair next to him and placed them on Mycroft’s desk. “Let’s get to business, shall we. Here’s the budget overview plus the five year assumptions, this is the staffing schedule, here’s the current org chart…”
He went on to explain the documents in more detail and Mycroft listened, took notes, absorbed the facts, made mental notes about how to start best, and where. He filled page after page of his pocket-size notebook and in his head started outlining a first strategy draft.
When Mulroney left, Mycroft swivelled his chair around to stare out of the window. Not that there was much to see; his window faced a greyish brick wall, but it was a window nevertheless which would give him a chance to Shift and come and go as he saw fit. Convenient.
His first office. He grinned. What a step up. And what a chance to prove himself, too. This division, his division, was to liaise with the Defence Intelligence Service and dealings had been less than optimal in the most recent past. ‘Streamlining’ was euphemistic for cutting through the weed, for getting rid of sibling rivalry amongst departments and agencies, and his main task was to ensure a smooth and efficient flow of information and intelligence to where it was needed most.
He would need to sit down with each of the intelligence analysts, starting with the senior staff, and that would require tact and no small amount of diplomacy because he would be dealing with agents who had served for much longer than he had and there would be those who would not take well to a new boss who was in his mid-thirties.
A knock on the door made him swivel around.
“Come,” he said and sat up a little straighter.
The door opened and Anthea peered around it.
“There you are,” she said and came in, closing the door behind her. “What a horrible little hole this is,” she observed. “At least you have a window and a door you can close. I’m to sit in one of the cubicles with four other analysts. What a cheerful honeycomb this is going to be. Buzz buzz go the worker bees.”
She sat down in one of the chairs opposite him.
“I chatted with Ms Parks outside. Are you planning to keep her? Please do. She knows everything and everyone and is more than a little worried that the young boss will not want to work with a plump secretary in her early fifties.”
“Of course I want her to stay, and I already told Mulroney as much. I will speak to her as soon as I can.”
“Meaning, as soon as I’m gone?” She made a face and he laughed.
“I wouldn’t dare kick you out. In fact, I’d like to do a little brainstorming with you.”
“Excellent. I love brainstorming.”
“I know you do. Well, here’s what I’ve learnt so far—”
“Wait.” She held up an envelope. “Ms Parks gave me this. She says it’s an invitation to a New Year’s party you better not miss.”
Mycroft groaned. “Is that a ball? Please tell me it’s not some horrid charity event.”
Anthea opened the envelope.
“New Year’s Reception,” she read, “The Dorchester, January 27—that’s a bit late for a New Year’s party, isn’t it. Ah well. Cocktails at five thirty, dinner and dancing to follow, dress code is black tie, RSVP by January 11. You missed the deadline.”
“Pity,” Mycroft said, not bothering to hide his relief.
“Ah, I’m sure Ms Parks will get you signed in anyway. It says here, plus one. May I be your plus one? Please?”
“I was just warned to not start a scandal that involves the lovely Ms Hamilton.”
“What?” She looked up from the invitation and frowned. “Says who?”
“Says Director Mulroney.”
“Pffft.” She made a derisive sound and he clicked his tongue.
“My dear Patricia, you make that noise again and I’m not taking you. Your very pretty new dress will have to wait its turn, I’m afraid.”
“Don’t be cruel, cariño. I promise I will be on my very best behaviour.”
“I have no doubt you will be.” He sighed. “All right, I’m going and you will be my plus one. Who’s inviting, anyway?”
“The London Society for Mathematics and Technology.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad. At least it’s not a flock of charity folks. I wonder why they would invite me.”
She made a vague gesture, including him, the office and possibly the entire corridor.
“Intelligence analysis,” she suggested. “To throw their most hopeful offspring at your feet?”
“You’re probably right.” He sighed again. “I guess that’ll be part of my new job, eh. Wonderful.”
“Mingling. Networking.” She smirked. “You’ll hate it. But you’ll be very good at it because you have such good manners.”
“As you wish, Croft.” She crossed her legs. “Before we dive in, tell me about your week with your family. We’ve barely spoken since we’ve arrived. How is everybody, and how is your little brother? Did you see him?”
“My parents are doing very well, thank God. My father has fully recovered and his doctors are carefully optimistic the cancer won’t come back. Mommy is back to her bossy self and even Sherlock graced us with his presence.”
“How is he?”
“He seems well enough. He’s taken up assisting the police as some sort of freelancer.”
“Didn’t you say he’s a graduate chemist?”
“He is, yes. But he loves a riddle more than he loves being stuck inside a laboratory all day. I think it agrees with him. He looked a lot healthier than he did the last time we met.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I know you worry about him.”
“Well, now that you’re back, it’ll be easier for you to look after him.”
“I’m not sure he’ll appreciate being looked after. Especially not by me.”
“You’re his big brother. It’s your job to look after him. Family is all that matters, Mycroft.” She uncrossed her legs and pulled her chair up, opened her slim briefcase and pulled out her PowerBook. “But let’s get to business, shall we? I’ve not been exactly idle and I’d like to share my findings with you.”
That was one of the reasons he wanted her by his side. Her analytical mind was sharp enough to follow him and while she didn’t possess an eidetic memory, her ability to connect seemingly unconnected bits and pieces together never ceased to amaze him. She’d come a long way from being his field partner. She knew his heart, and she understood his brain. She was his most trusted confidante.
And she knew what the hardest task was that lay before him. It was something he longed to do with all of his heart and yet, and it was something he feared more than, well, anything. And this once, she’d refused to advise him on how to approach it but she’d given him to understand she’d be there for him, no matter the outcome.
“Have heart,” she’d told him. “You’ll know what to do when the time comes.”
And it was coming closer.
But not as quickly as he both feared and hoped because his new position left him with barely enough time to shave, shower, change. Most of his personal belongings still stood unpacked in his new flat, neither his TV nor his fridge were plugged in.
In addition to his new post in the Service he resumed his position within the Were and Shifter community, only to find out the Southern Warden was about to retire and how would he, the Owl, feel about taking over? In all honesty, the Owl didn’t feel too much like taking over, not at this point at least, but after an intense—if not heated—discussion with the senior Council members he gave in and accepted. Accepted on condition that a transition period of no less than six months was allowed, given the duties he’d been tasked with in his human form. His request was granted, if a little grudgingly on the part of the soon-to-be-retiree, but granted it was.
So when he stood next to Anthea in the Dorchester’s exquisitely decorated ballroom, he was tired to the bones but not entirely displeased with himself. Less than a month back in London and already in two positions of significant importance. It was more than he’d hoped for.
“Leches!” Anthea muttered. “Is that what you English consider dancing? It’s like being on set of a Jane Austen film. Is waltzing still forbidden over here?”
“What?” Mycroft frowned, torn from his musings. “Oh. Of course not. I thought you liked dancing. And must I remind you that you’re half English?”
“This,” she huffed, “this isn’t dancing. This is a disgrace. And don’t bring my father into this.”
“Come now, it’s not that bad.” He held out his hand to her. “Will you do me the honour, Ms Hamilton?”
“Let me speak with the conductor first.”
“Let’s show these people how to tango, yes?”
“I don’t think he’s taking requests. This is not a milonga, you know.”
“Just you wait. Stay right here. Don’t go away.”
She pulled back her shoulders, flashed him a smouldering glance and made her way towards the small orchestra. Mycroft watched, fascinated, as the disapproving frown on the conductor’s face turned into a sympathetic expression and when he finally nodded, he was rewarded with a beaming smile and a kiss brushed lightly against his cheek.
Anthea returned to Mycroft, holding both thumbs up.
“There,” she said. “Give him ten minutes to finish this set and then we’ll show them how it’s done.”
When the first notes of a tango melody danced through the ballroom, she pulled Mycroft to the centre of the dance-floor, melted against his chest, just as she’d done countless times and he smiled down into her blue eyes.
“How did you get him to play this song?”
“I told him I was homesick and my heart longed to dance.”
He caressed her outstretched arm, just as he’d done countless times, and they moved across the dance-floor, not one step, not one gesture out of place, and her body felt like an extension of his. She’d given him back his eje, his axis, and he could no longer imagine his life without her in it, so close was she to him. And he to her, for it worked both ways, this connection they had. Her Bond was no less complicated than his own and while she was his Anchor, he had held her in his arms more than once when sadness caught up with her, too.
The song ended, and with the last fading notes she let her hand travel along his jaw and neck down to the silk lapels of his black dinner jacket. He caught it and brought it to his lips.
“Thank you,” he whispered, and she let him lead her away from the dance-floor, followed by murmured compliments and admiring looks, and Mycroft was certain that no matter what he had told Mulroney, dancing like this with Anthea had not helped convince anybody theirs was a working relationship only.
Then, without warning and without his doing, his felt his Bond flare open and his body started tingling all over. There could be only one reason for this and he was not prepared, he had not expected it so soon, what was he going to do what was he going to say oh dear God he couldn’t handle this he was sure of it there was nothing he could say not after what he’d done—
::Stop it.:: Anthea’s calm Mindvoice stopped him mid-fall.
::I know,:: she said. ::I have your back.::
Mycroft turned around, slowly, slowly, and it was as if the world around him had come to a standstill, like it did in films when something earth-shattering happened to the protagonist. Well, the earth didn’t shatter. Instead, his heart started beating madly, wildly, so loudly he was sure everyone around him could hear it.
“Hello Mycroft,” Greg said.
Hello Greg. How have you been doing? You look fantastic. Is your career going well? I am so sorry for what I have done to you. Will you ever forgive me? God you look delicious. May I kiss you? Leaving you was the single most stupid thing I have ever done in my entire life. I do not know where to begin to ask for your forgiveness. Will you please fuck me?
All of this tumbled through Mycroft’s head in less than a second. What came out was,
“You’re looking well, Mycroft.”
Greg turned to the beautiful woman by his side whose green eyes scanned Mycroft in a way he found mildly disconcerting.
“Pen, this is Mycroft Holmes. Mycroft, meet Dr Penelope Morgan, my partner.”
“Pleasure,” Mycroft murmured and lightly pressed Dr Morgan’s hand. Partner. “Allow me to introduce Anthea—”
“Patricia Hamilton,” Anthea cut in with a smile and held out her hand. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Mr Lestrade. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Greg took her hand.
“You’ve heard about me?” he asked, careful.
“Of course I have.” She turned to Dr Morgan. “And Dr Morgan, I believe this is the most stunning dress I’ve seen in a long while.”
“Thank you, Ms Hamilton. Allow me to return the compliment. This is a delightfully unusual colour.”
“It is, isn’t it. I can’t make up my mind whether it should be called blue-green or ocean-blue. Or something else, maybe?”
“I believe the word you are looking for is teal.”
“Is it? What do you say, gentlemen? Teal?”
“Uhm, I’m not—uh,” Mycroft stammered and Greg, at the same time,
“I don’t even know what teal is.”
“It’s the colour of Ms Hamilton’s dress, dear,” Dr Morgan said. “Will you join me for a refreshment, Ms Hamilton? I’ve been sending all kinds of signals to my most ignorant companion but you know how men are. Unless you shout at them, they will not understand what you’re so desperately trying to tell them.”
“I know exactly what you mean and I dearly need a drink.” She looked from Mycroft to Greg. “Would you like us to get you something?”
“Ah—” Greg began and,
“I, uh—” Mycroft finished.
“I believe that means no,” Dr Morgan observed. “Let’s leave the boys to themselves for a moment, Ms Hamilton. I’m sure they have some catching up to do anyway.”
“I think so, too. Please call me Patricia.”
“Gladly. I’m Pen. Why did Mr Holmes call you Anthea?”
“I’ll tell you in a minute.”
Mycroft blinked and watched them disappear, chatting amicably like life-long friends. Then he stole a glance at Greg.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” he said and Greg nodded.
“Understatement of the year. It took them how long to connect?”
“Thirty seconds. If at all.”
“Lord have mercy on our souls.”
Greg’s face held a look of such comic despair that Mycroft started laughing. Greg frowned, then joined him.
“Of all the scenarios I thought of,” he finally said, “this is not how I thought this would go.”
“Not at all,” Mycroft agreed. He looked down at his polished Oxfords, then back up into Greg’s face.
“Dr Morgan,” he ventured. “Is she your—ah—”
“No. She’s my Anchor and my best friend. And until recently, she was my lover.”
“Until recently? Not anymore?”
“Not anymore, no. How about you and Ms Hamilton?”
“No. Never. Lovers, I mean.” Mycroft cleared his throat and tried to slap his thoughts back into order. Which seemed near impossible with Greg being so close and looking so bloody gorgeous in his suit. “She’s my right-hand woman. Uh, I mean, my work partner. Assistant. And my Anchor.”
“Sure looked a lot more out there on the dance-floor. I had no idea you could dance like that.”
“I can’t. Well, I’m an overall decent dancer, I believe. But like that? Only with her. She makes me find my eje whenever I’m about to slip.”
“My, uh, axis. My centre. She pulls me back into place.”
They looked at each other. Mycroft swallowed. Greg’s eyes slowly travelled along his body, from his face to his bowtie all the way down to his shoes and back up, lingered on his mouth, then came up to meet his eyes again.
Mycroft wet his lips, nervous.
“Outside,” Greg said in a low voice. “At once.”
They both turned and headed for the ballroom’s exit. On the way out, Greg addressed the young man by the main doors.
“Is there a room where we might have some privacy?” he asked.
The man’s eyebrows went up by a mere fraction. Greg reached for his inside pocket, held up his badge and Mycroft flashed his ID at the same time.
“Not that kind of room,” Greg said, his voice cold.
“Our meeting rooms are located on the mezzanine floor,” the attendant said, clearly embarrassed by his momentary lapse of professionalism. “The Business Suite is currently closed for renovation but I can have the Boardroom or the Study unlocked for you.”
“The Study will suffice,” Mycroft said. He didn’t know any of the rooms but he wasn’t interested in a tour. Neither was Greg, judging from the look in his eyes.
“Very well. If you’ll allow for a moment, I’ll send for one of my colleagues. You will be picked up instantly.”
In less than three minutes they were picked up by an impeccably liveried hotel employee, but those three minutes seemed to stretch endlessly. Mycroft found it hard not to fidget and he noticed out of the corner of his eye that Greg’s finger drummed against the velvet outer seam of his trousers. They all but sprinted up the stairs and had to wait for the liveried woman to catch up.
“This way, gentlemen,” she panted and gestured for them to follow her.
She opened a door at the far right and handed the keycard to Greg. “When you’re done, just pull the door close behind you, it will lock automatically. Leave the key with Pete downstairs. If you need anything, dial three twenty-five,” she pointed to a telephone, “and the concierge will see to it immediately.”
“That will not be necessary,” Greg said. “We won’t be long. Thank you.”
They waited for her to leave, then stood there, at arm’s length from each other, not speaking a word. The air conditioning system hummed and the room smelled of freshly cleaned carpet and worn leather. And Greg stood so close to Mycroft, so very close. All he needed to do was to reach out and touch him, but he couldn’t. He didn’t dare. He’d lost that right when he sneaked out like a thief all these years ago. But there was tension between them, it was undeniable, and the signals Mycroft picked up from Greg weren’t signals of rejection.
Could it be…was it possible that Greg…
“Greg, I—” he began but Greg cut him off.
“God damn you, Mycroft,” he said in a hoarse voice, pointing his finger at Mycroft. “God bloody damn you.”
And before Mycroft had the chance to utter another syllable, Greg grabbed the lapels of his expensive jacket and slammed him into the wall. Mycroft’s head connected with an audible thud but Greg’s mouth was on his before the pain registered. It wasn’t a soft kiss, and it wasn’t a loving kiss. It was angry and desperate and when Greg’s tongue demanded entrance into Mycroft’s mouth, there was a brief metallic twang to it, but Mycroft neither cared nor worried about if blood had been drawn, or whose. All he cared about was the feeling of Greg’s lips on his and, oh God, the feeling of Greg’s powerful body against his. It was the proverbial wake-up call after his self-imposed celibacy and he wondered how on earth he’d managed to function without the touch of another human being on his skin.
With a sound that wasn’t too far removed from a whine, he buried his fingers in Greg’s hair and pulled him closer, if that was at all possible, and poured all of his remorse, his shame and his regret into the kiss, dropped his Shield and invited Greg in, flooded their Bond with his sorrow and his love and his desperate, humble hope for forgiveness.
And Greg responded in kind, flung his hurt, his mourning and his loneliness at Mycroft, showed him the gaping wound his leaving had caused, and still he kissed him, closed his hands around Mycroft’s arms in a steel grip and kissed him some more.
They had to let go of each other eventually, if only to gasp for air, but they remained plastered against one other and Mycroft felt Greg’s heartbeat against his chest, and what’s more: he felt Greg’s impressive erection against his own, and he grinned despite all.
Greg brought their foreheads together and brought his hands up to frame Mycroft’s face.
“Seven years,” he whispered, “seven fucking years,” and Mycroft felt rather than see him smile. “And yet, my damn cock jumps to attention.”
This time, it was Mycroft who pulled him in, and this time, their kiss was soft and slow, careful and tender, and a small voice inside Mycroft’s brain whispered, and you traded this in for some stupid post in the British Government? What were you thinking?
“Tomorrow night at nine thirty,” Greg finally said, took a step back and straightened his jacket and smoothed his trousers. “Remember my favourite sleeping spot in the Rose Garden?”
“Of course I do.”
“Be there. In your Owl shape.”
“My Owl shape? Why?”
“Because,” Greg said and looked at him out of his dark, dark eyes and Mycroft could not for the life of him understand how he had survived seven years without seeing Greg’s eyes smile at him like they did now. “Because if you come to me looking like that, I won’t be able to maintain a single clear thought in my head.”
“Of course I won’t. It’s starting already, you know, my brain clouding over. All I want to do is get you out of your bloody suit and fuck that tango out of your system, and I can’t let that happen. Not now. Not yet.”
“What does the tango have to do with it?”
“Because I am your eje, Mycroft, and you damn well know it. Seven years,” he said again. “You have a lot to answer for.”
“I know, and I will. But Greg, I’m not sure I can make tomorrow—”
“Nine. Thirty. Tomorrow. I don’t care if you’re scheduled to meet with Her Royal Majesty. I will wait no more than five minutes. We need to talk, you and I, and I refuse to meet you in any other shape than Owl and Fox before we’ve talked things through. The sex thing must not get in the way.”
They stared at each other, then Mycroft lowered his gaze and nodded.
“I’ll be there.”
“You better be. Now get your clothes back in order. You look as if you’ve been had against the wall.”
Mycroft pushed himself off the wall and straightened his bowtie.
“I’ve been had against the wall,” he said. “And about bloody time, too. Where are the bathrooms around here?”
“I have no idea. You go first. I’ll follow in three minutes.”
Mycroft opened the door, peered outside and when he found the air to be clear, left the room and crossed the conference area’s lobby. The facilities where discreetly but noticeably enough signposted and when he slipped inside the men’s room, he almost laughed out loud at the picture he presented. ‘Had against the wall’ indeed. He hastily straightened and smoothed his suit and with his fingers combed his hair back into place, but there was only so much he could do about his flushed cheeks and the cut in his lower lip.
He splashed cool water on his face, checked his overall appearance in the floor-length mirror opposite the sinks and when he had made himself presentable again, headed for the staircase where Greg stood waiting for him.
“Don’t you want to check how you look?” Mycroft asked but Greg shook his head.
“Don’t have to,” he said. “There’s a small sink and mirror next to the kitchenette and besides, I don’t look like I’ve been bitten.”
“No, you don’t.”
And he didn’t. Greg looked as if nothing had happened but then, his skin had always been a lot less sensitive than Mycroft’s. No freckles, no sunburns, no blushing. Unless one looked closely, like Mycroft did right now. Then one would see a softness to Greg’s face that hadn’t been there before and a glow in his eyes, and Mycroft’s heart beat a little faster because he saw the change, and it gave him hope.
They walked into the ballroom together, Greg having dropped off the keycard with Pete, and found Anthea and Dr Morgan at one of the round cocktail tables, deep in conversation and sipping on colourful drinks. Anthea caught sight of them first, nudged Dr Morgan’s arm and pointed with her chin, a wide grin on her face.
“Will you look at this, Pen,” she said. “I believe the catching up went well.”
Dr Morgan turned around, took one look at them and raised an elegant eyebrow.
“I’m inclined to agree with you.” She cocked her head. “They’re playing one of my favourite melodies,” she said. “I so love to waltz. Will you dance with me, Mr Holmes?”
Mycroft exchanged a glance with Anthea, then looked at Greg. “Would you mind if I stole Dr Morgan from you?”
“Not at all. You’re a much better dancer than I ever will be.”
“He certainly is,” Dr Morgan agreed.
“Really?” Anthea asked. “I find that hard to believe. I was just thinking—”
“Don’t,” Greg said with a rueful smile. “I’m a horrible dancer. I’d ruin your shoes.”
“Ah well,” she shrugged. “Off you go then, you two. We’ll watch.”
And so Mycroft took Dr Morgan to the dance-floor. She was an elegant dancer and followed him gracefully. They chatted friendly commonplaces such as, when had Mycroft returned to London, for how long had he and Anthea been working together, did he anticipate his current assignment to be a lasting one, until,
“You hurt Greg very deeply,” she said on a turn. “It took him years to heal. Fifteen minutes with you and he looks happier than I’ve seen him a very, very long time. You better make sure you will not hurt him again.”
“I won’t,” he promised. “I will never again exclude him from my decision-making.”
“That’s good to hear.” She smiled at him. “You seem a decent man and I like you.”
“Thank you. I will strive to become the man he deserves.”
::Hear my warning, Mycroft Holmes. You break his heart again and I will ruin your name in society. Inner and outer. Forever and eternity. I swear upon my honour.::
It was a good thing the waltz ended right there and then because Mycroft stopped abruptly, stood rooted to the spot as if a plug had been pulled from him and stared at her.
“How…uhm…what,” he stammered but she gave him another smile and linked arms with him.
“Let’s not keep our friends waiting, shall we.”
Greg and Anthea were laughing at something when Mycroft and Dr Morgan returned to the small table. Anthea frowned and looked from Dr Morgan to Mycroft but he shook his head and she didn’t say anything until Greg and Dr Morgan said their good-byes.
When they were gone, Anthea turned to Mycroft with an expectant look on her face.
“Well?” she demanded. “When you returned from wherever you were with Greg, you looked pretty much well shagged. But when you returned from your dance with Pen, you looked like you’d just seen a ghost. Mind telling me what happened, cariño?”
“She…spoke to me.”
“Yeah, so? You spoke to her, too.”
“No. I mean, she Spoke to me.” He put extra emphasis on ‘spoke’. ::Like this.::
“What?” It was her turn to look thunderstruck. “How is that even possible?”
“I have no idea. Do me a favour, darling, and run an extensive background check on Dr Penelope Morgan first thing tomorrow morning. I believe there’s a lot more to her than meets the eye.”
When Greg arrived at the appointed spot, Mycroft already sat waiting for him in one of the overhead branches and swooped down as soon as Greg sat down.
::You’re early,:: Greg observed.
::So are you,:: Mycroft replied and landed on the grass, facing Greg and tilted his head by ninety degrees, like only an owl could.. ::You’re a lot more silver than the last time we met.::
::Are you saying I look old?::
::No. I’m merely saying you’re a more silver than before. I like it. Soon you’ll be a silver fox for real.::
::Thank you, I guess.:: He jerked his snout towards the little cave the roots had created. ::Let’s sit in there,:: he suggested. ::It’ll be dark soon but there’s still people walking about and I don’t want to attract attention.::
Mycroft agreed and they nestled into the small hole. Greg had not lied; it was indeed his favourite sleeping spot in Hyde Park. It was far enough from the main paths to grant him rest and what’s more, it was looked after by a group of four Rabbits he had befriended and who made sure it was never littered, or worse.
::So,:: he said. ::Tell me all.::
Mycroft made a sound Greg interpreted as the owlish equivalent to a sigh.
::Where should I start?::
::How about the beginning? When exactly did you decide it was a good idea to leave me, and why?::
Mycroft sighed again, then fluffed up his plumage.
::It all began the day I requested permission to enter into a relationship with you.::
::You need to ask for permission to start a relationship? Are you serious?::
::We do, yes. It’s to do with our job, you see. The integrity of our prospective partners must not be doubted and you wouldn’t believe the extent to which the background check on them is carried out.::
::Shut up. Really?::
::Sadly, yes. Anyway, I had requested a meeting with the department head...::
What followed was a story full of innuendos, seemingly harmless jokes, snide remarks and ‘good’ advice along the lines of ‘no attachments’, ‘caring is not an advantage’, ‘ready at the snap of a finger’, ‘for the good of our country’, and so forth.
Are you sure you’re up to this, Holmes?
Does your boyfriend know you’re out here?
That’s a lot of chest hair you have. I thought your kind was not into that.
You’re not going to cry now, are you?
Will you have to ring in and tell him you’ll be late?
Who’s the man in that relationship of yours?
Do you take it up the arse or does he?
Don’t drink that, it’ll make your sperm smell funny. Your lady may not approve. Your lad, I mean. Oops. Haha.
::Did it never occur to you to talk to me about all of this?:: Greg asked when Mycroft ended.
::I tried, in the beginning, but—::
::You laughed it away.::
::You did. You said it was just words and I shouldn’t let it trouble me.::
::It was just words, Mycroft. Who cares what a bunch of ignorant arseholes say when they got nothing else to talk about. Do you think it was any better for me at the Met? A gay copper?::
::I’m not saying it was easier for you than it was for me. But you and I have different pain thresholds. It wasn’t just words to me, Greg. It felt like venom in my heart, eating me up inside out. And then at some point I started to doubt myself, thinking maybe I was becoming the fairy they teased me to be.::
::That’s absurd. You didn’t seriously think—::
::I did. And one day, I couldn’t take it anymore. It was either take it out on you, or take it out on myself. So I left.::
Greg fell silent. It all sounded beyond foolish to him and yet, it corresponded with what Uncle Randolph had told him back then, when Greg had come to him heartbroken and crying his heart out. Moreover, if he was being entirely honest, it was not hard to see how all of this nonsense had eventually poisoned Mycroft who had always been a lot more concerned about appearances than Greg. Mycroft, who with his hyperactive brain tended to overthink, who questioned even the most harmless of remarks and who read between the lines where there was nothing to read, even if there were no lines to fit anything in between to begin with.
It didn’t undo the pain Greg had endured and it didn’t make it all go away, but hearing it spoken aloud—sort of—did help. Just...
::I don’t understand how you kept the extent of that…damage from me,:: he said. ::I get you were hurt and I understand all of this was gnawing at you, but it never filtered through. I thought we were Bonded, you and I. How come I never Felt how much you were hurting?::
Mycroft closed his eyes, visibly struggling with himself.
::I’ve learnt how to close certain areas off,:: he finally admitted. ::It’s a rather specialised form of Shielding and it requires extensive training.::
::What?:: Greg barked, shot up and hit his head on one of the roots. He yelped and sat back down. ::And you didn’t think to tell me?::
::That’s the whole point of it.::
::A shit, I know. Welcome to my world.::
::You’re worse than a shit. You’re fungus.::
::Who taught you that?::
::That Chinese bloke?::
::The very same.::
::I really need to meet him. I think it’s about time you introduced us.::
::I gladly will. He mentioned it, too, the last time we spoke.::
::But that still doesn’t explain why you just packed up and left. I mean, you could have at least left a note.::
::Would that have changed anything?::
::It would have given me something.:: He hung his head. ::Something to hold on to. Something to brood over and maybe understand your decision one day.::
::I was given to understand it would be best to cut all ties.::
::What, to not compromise my safety?::
::Something like that, yes.::
::That’s a load of shite and you know it.:: He noticed he was swooshing his tail back and forth and curled it around himself, trying to calm down again. ::I’m not your little wife with two helpless toddlers at my feet. I’m a trained policeman, Myc, and I’ve put my life on the line on more than one occasion. I can handle a little risk.::
::No but. Believe me when I tell you that a London-based bullet fired from a boring domestic gun can do just as much harm as a fancy projectile fired from some tailored rifle. The partner of an annoying homicide DI is just as interesting to a London mobster as the partner of a Secret Service agent to some international terrorist.::
::I guess that makes sense,:: Mycroft slowly said.
::’course it does. Really, Myc, that you of all people would be so stupid. And here I thought you were the smart one.::
::Not so smart after all, eh.::
They looked at each other. Mycroft did not once blink his huge orange eyes but fluffed his feathers miserably and Greg sighed. He flopped down from his sitting position.
::Come here,:: he said. ::You’re still fungus, but you’re my fungus. Lean in, like you used to, and we’ll take it from there. There’s so much more we need to talk about but right now, I want my Owl to lean into me.::
Mycroft hesitated, but when Greg yawned and put his nose on his forearms, he walk-hopped into the semi-circle of Greg’s body and slowly, carefully, leaned into Greg’s thick fur. Greg curled up around him.
::There,:: he said. ::I missed that. Let’s catch some sleep and then you’ll tell me how you met Pat. She’s sweet. I like her.::
::Pat?:: Mycroft echoed. ::She lets you call her Pat?::
::She does, yeah. Why, is that something special?::
::You have no idea. It’s a privilege.::
Greg yawned again. ::Whatever. Sleep now, my little owlet. We’ll talk more later.::
And they slept. And they talked. Asked questions and provided answers, or if not answers, then explanations, or if not explanations, then attempts at explanations. There was not a shred of a doubt that Mycroft truly, deeply regretted the lone decision he had taken and Greg accepted his apologies. After all, what’s done was done and he saw no point in going on and on about it.
There was only one topic they had not touched when they finally parted, and that was Sherlock. Greg had deliberately avoided the subject because while he was not a selfish man and hardly ever shoved his interests to the forefront, the brothers’ difficult relationship did not top his priority list when it came to Mycroft Holmes. Setting things straight with his Bonded did, however, and tonight, they had begun to lay a foundation to something new; were beginning to pave a path for both of them. There would be time to bring Sherlock’s development to Mycroft’s attention. Or not. Greg had not made his mind up just yet.
But he had made up his mind about something else.
::Care to meet for lunch some time this week?:: he asked, trying to keep his Mindvoice casual.
Mycroft, who had been about to launch himself up and into the air, folded his wings again and turned his head.
::Didn’t you say you didn’t want to meet me unless it was in our animal shape?:: he asked, surprised.
::I know I did. But a lunch at a civilised time in a public place will not get either of us into trouble. You may bring Pat, if you want. As a chaperone.::
::I most certainly won’t.:: Mycroft tilted his head to the side to indicate his agreement. ::I’m free for lunch the day after tomorrow. You?::
::I think so. I’m meeting my new sergeant the day after tomorrow. It’ll depend on how the briefing goes.::
::I understand. Well, if you allow, I’ll meet you at one before the Met building.::
::What, you’ll pick me up?::
::The least I can do.::
::Will you be picking up the check, too?::
::Of course. My treat.::
::Good lad,:: approved Greg. ::I’ll see you in two days.::
Mycroft stood waiting for him at a not very discreet distance, meaning: he stood waiting right next to the Met’s main entrance and Greg felt a wide smile spread across his face. Scolding himself for being way too forgiving was of no use, however, not with Mycroft standing right there in an elegant overcoat, looking sharp and lean, and certainly not with Mycroft’s face lighting up the way Greg knew his own was.
“Hello Mycroft,” he cheerfully said. “Have you been waiting for long?” Don’t sound too pleased, he reminded himself. He’s yet to earn it.
“Not for too long.”
“Good. That’s good.” Not. Too. Pleased.
“I came here a bit early.”
“About twenty minutes ago.”
“What? Why? We said one thirty, right?”
“We did,” confirmed Mycroft. “But I, uh, I wanted to be on time. You never know with the tube.”
“The tube?” Greg echoed. “I thought you folks travelled by limo, driver and all.”
“Working on it,” Mycroft smiled and Greg’s heart—spineless and forgiving thing—did a little flip. Mycroft did have a lovely smile. “Two more steps up the career ladder and I’ll pull up in a sleek black car. Things being as they are, however, the use of company vehicles still has to be signed off.”
“Shame. Let’s go then, shall we?”
They fell into step next to each other until,
“Where exactly are we going?” Mycroft asked and Greg shrugged.
“I’ve not made a reservation anywhere. I thought we’d stop at the first eatery that looks decent.”
“Eatery?” Mycroft made a face.
“Don’t get nervous, Myc. I’m not going to drag you into some burger chain, if that’s what you’re afraid of. I remember how much you hate them. I was thinking along the lines of The Frosty Crow, a good, decent pub with good, decent food.”
“The Frosty Crow? That is an interesting name.”
“It’s a nice place. It opened some four, five years ago.”
They walked the ten-minute distance mostly in silence with their Bond—as forgiving as Greg’s heart, it would seem—humming in content between them. Mycroft’s fingers brushed Greg’s at one point and it was like an electric shock through Greg, but he managed to keep himself in check and not reach for Mycroft’s hand to twine their fingers together as he used to, way back when. Way back before Mycroft’s disappearing act.
But he was oh so tempted.
“How was the meeting with your new sergeant?” Mycroft asked. “Do you think you’ll work well with him?”
“Her,” Greg corrected. “Harrington. And it’s constable, not sergeant. A rather young thing. Seems a tad ambitious. Not that ambition is bad,” he added, “don’t get me wrong, but…well. I honestly don’t know yet. I was called into a post-case briefing some forty-five minutes after we were introduced and when I got out, she’d left for an early lunch. We’ll have to try again this afternoon.”
Mycroft gave an understanding hum and they fell silent again until the Frosty Crow came into view.
“Here we are,” Greg said and pushed open the door. “If we’re lucky, we’ll find—oh.”
They weren’t lucky. The place was packed, and Greg frowned.
“I’m sorry about that,” he said. “I had no idea. We’re usually three or four for lunch and we never have problems finding a table.”
“Should we go somewhere else?” Mycroft suggested.
“Not too many options around here, except a small deli and two fast food places you’d hate. Then again—there may be hope yet.” He raised a hand in greeting.
One of the waitresses returned his greeting and walked up to them, smiling.
“You looking for a table, lads?”
He smiled back. “That’s right, Mona. Looks like we’re out of luck, eh?”
“I’ve no idea what’s going on today. Heard rumours the Drum had to close and Tony’s walked over to find out. There’s a table over there,” she pointed with her chin, “but it’s a bit cosy.”
“We’ll manage. Better than eating at the bar.”
“All right then. You get settled and I’ll be right back with the menus.”
The table she had pointed out sat in a narrow nook at the far end of the pub, and ‘cosy’ proved to be the understatement of the month. They folded their coats and pulled up a stool to place them somewhere, then squeezed into their little corner. It was impossible to find a sitting position without either their knees or their thighs connecting, and they ended up arranging their legs in a fashion that had their knees and lower legs snugly together. It wasn’t exactly what Greg would have chosen and yet, it was exactly what he’d been craving for so long: physical contact with Mycroft, in their human form. He wasn’t going to complain and he hoped Mycroft wouldn’t, either.
Mona came with their menus and wiped the table.
“Want me to find you another table?” she asked. “I think the lot over there is about to leave. It looks a bit uncomfortable, what with your legs all tangled up and such.”
“We’re fine,” they both said at the same time. Mona gave an understanding smile and nodded but didn’t say anything. They ordered—the lunch selection wasn’t big—and she left.
“Well,” Greg said and Mycroft, “Thank you”, and they both gave an awkward laugh.
“You first,” Greg said.
“I was going to thank you for agreeing to see me in human form,” Mycroft said. “I’d not expected that. You made your position very clear.”
“I know I did,” Greg replied. “But the human heart is a fickle thing, isn’t it. I know I should be angry with you and in a way, I still am. But I’m not. Not really. Go figure.”
“You know I’m deeply sorry but I’m not going to apologise again. I said all I had to say.”
“And I heard you. And I think I now understand where it all come from. But Myc, you know that the tongue-wagging and the eye-rolling won’t stop, right? Unless you plan not to be seen with me?”
Getting those last words out felt wrong. After all, hadn’t Mycroft picked him up for lunch, in bright daylight, for all the world to see? But picking someone up for lunch was not exactly the same as being seen…
“And why would I not want to be seen with you?” Mycroft looked genuinely puzzled.
“I was merely offering a back door out.”
“Really, Greg, that’s being nonsensical and you know it. I’m right here, with you, in public, am I not? And unless I’m mistaken, our knees are all but glued together underneath this very small table. If I wanted to keep a distance I would have taken Mona up on her offer and insisted on a different table.”
“Just saying,” Greg mumbled, to no-one in particular.
“To be perfectly clear: I have no intention to not be seen with you but I think there are a few things we need to discuss.”
“And what would that be?” Greg asked, narrowing his eyes.
“First of all, I still have you listed as my emergency contact.”
“You do? Why?”
Mycroft spread his hands. “Inconsistent, isn’t it.”
“It sure is. I took you off mine.”
Mycroft blinked but nodded.
“Of course you did. I take it Dr Morgan now is your emergency contact.”
“She is. I’d like to list your name again, though, if you’ll allow me to give your phone number to the Met.”
“I will. Thanks. But tell me, why would you steal away and not delete me from your contact list?”
“I honestly don’t know. Maybe because deep down in my heart I knew that leaving you was the single most stupid thing I have ever done?”
Greg snorted and Mycroft gave a wry smile.
“Yes. Well. In any case, that’s how it is and I wonder if that is still all right with you and if so, if your address and phone number are still the same.”
“Yes, they are and yes, of course it’s all right. But I now have a mobile number, too.”
“You don’t say,” murmured Mycroft and Greg nudged Mycroft’s knee under the table.
“Quiet, Bond,” he said. “Unlike you, I have no Q to provide me with futuristic gimmicks.”
“I have no Q,” Mycroft replied, one eyebrow quirking up. “Nor do I have an Aston, sadly. But I have Anthea.”
“And that’s better?”
“Shame about the Aston, but Q would beg Anthea to take him on as an apprentice.”
“She’s that good, eh.”
“The best. I trust her with my life.”
“And with state secrets?”
“Did you honestly never think of—no, you didn’t. You already said as much.” He cleared his throat, feeling like a fool.
Now it was Mycroft’s turn to nudge his knee. “Don’t do that.”
“Not ask what you want to know. Just, please, don’t ask me about work because where my job and all of its obligations are concerned I won’t be able to be entirely open with you.”
“That’s all right, Myc. I understand that. I really do, and—”
Mycroft held up a hand. “I know you do and I imagine there’s things you won’t be able to share, either. On-going investigations and such.”
Greg nodded, and Mycroft continued. “I can’t make many promises to you, Greg, but I will promise you this: where we are concerned, that is you and I—” he made a gesture that indicated the two of them, “—I will never, ever lie to you again when it comes to us. No matter where you’re willing to take this and to what extent you will allow me back into your life, but I will not withhold the truth from you. Not in the outer world, not in the inner. You have my word.”
He moved as if to reach out to Greg but withdrew his hand at the last minute, as if uncertain whether his touch would be welcome. Greg hastily reached for him, caught his hand and lightly pressed it.
“And you don’t do that, please,” he said. “You’ve been so…meek around me and it’s utterly unlike you. I heard your promise and I will hold you to it. And I will promise you something in return and that is, from now on I will just blurt out whatever question I have. It’ll be up to you to answer or not but you’ll know what’s on my mind. I’ll not hold back because I think it’ll make me look stupid. Because I sometimes feel that way around you, stupid.”
“But you’re not,” Mycroft replied and pressed Greg’s hand in return. “You’re anything but. You’re smart in ways that I can never hope to achieve.”
Mona arrived with their drinks and they reluctantly let go of one another.
“Food will take a couple more minutes, lads,” she said with an apologetic smile. “Jim and Rafa have their hands full.”
“That’s all right,” Greg smiled back. “We have a lot to talk about anyway.”
“Thanks, Gregs.” She nodded at Mycroft. “Whatever you two have to talk about, he’s a good one, Greg is. I hope you know that.”
“I do,” Mycroft said, a little stiffly. “But thank you for reminding me of it.”
“Good.” She gave a firm nod and headed for the next table.
Mycroft sat back. “What exactly is your super power, Gregory?”
“My what?” Greg laughed. “I wish I had one.”
“But you do,” Mycroft said with a faint smile. “Seems every woman around you has made it her mission to protect you. From me, at least.”
“How do you mean?”
“Dr Morgan. Mona. And pretty soon that young constable of yours will hover about like a menacing shadow, I’m sure of it.” He reached for his glass and took a gulp. “Anyway, back to your question. No, I’ve never thought of bedding Anthea. And not only because she’s not available, so to speak. I’m just not interested. I’ve not been interested in anyone since you. Simple as that.”
“But…when you were younger, I mean, after we’d first met…you were pretty active then, right?”
“Well, I was younger then, wasn’t I. And I wanted to learn so I wouldn’t look like a fool next to you.”
“That’s how you think I’m smart? That’s my super power? Can’t wait to see this turned into a film. Supershag. Ha. Wonder what the print on my jumpsuit would look like.” Greg grinned and winked. “Don’t look so dismayed, Myc. But just so you know, just because I like sex doesn’t mean I sleep with everyone who seems reasonably nice. I’m not a slut, yeah?”
“That’s not what I meant,” Mycroft bristled but stopped when he noticed Greg’s wide grin. “But fact is that I am a lot less sexual than you are. There was someone, briefly, after I, uh, moved out, but it didn’t feel right and as my assignments grew more and more complex, I didn’t think about embarking on amorous adventures whatsoever.”
“Did you think about me every now and then?”
Mycroft held Greg’s gaze and his pupils grew a little wider than they already were, given the semi-darkness of their little corner. The corners of his mouth curved up a little and the tip of his tongue darted out to wet his lips, either in a nervous gesture or in thought of something he liked.
Greg swallowed. Mycroft’s smile deepened.
“I did. More often than I’d like to admit.”
Greg shifted in his chair and stretched his legs a little, seeking physical contact that included more than their kneecaps and shins, and Mycroft didn’t pull away.
“I know,” Greg almost whispered. “I Felt you. It’s what gave me hope.”
“Greg, I—” Mycroft began but Greg held up a finger.
“Shhh. Not another word on that subject. Not now. What are you doing this weekend?”
“This…uh. I don’t know. Working, I guess.”
“Seriously? Are you always on duty?”
“We don’t keep to regular working hours. Do you?”
“Well, not really. Not anymore, that is. But I have the weekend off. I made sure of that.”
“I was hoping to be able to spend it with you.”
“That’s what I said. Which part of ‘with you’ was misleading?”
“But didn’t you say you didn’t want to meet in human form because the—how did you put it? Ah, yes, the ‘sex thing’ would get in the way?”
“I did say that, didn’t I. Well,” he huffed out a laugh, “it’s all I’ve been thinking about ever since I kissed you against that hotel wall. Of course I’m hoping to get you out of your suit. Against better knowledge. But I’m a slut, remember?”
“You are not—” Mycroft began but interrupted himself, shaking his head. “You’re incorrigible. What else did you have in mind?”
“What else is there?” Greg wiggled his eyebrows and Mycroft laughed, his nose crinkling the way Greg liked because it was a sure indicator of Mycroft being himself, and not the polished persona he liked to show the outside world. “Well, to be honest, I was actually hoping to get out and about with you, you know, flying you for a while and later Change into the fox and play catch, like we used to. I missed that too, you know.”
“Well, Anthea’s been flying me.”
Disappointment welled up in Greg but he forced himself to give a non-committal nod. “Of course she has. She’s your Anchor, after all.”
Mycroft nudged his knee. “I wasn’t finished. Yes, Anthea’s been flying me but I’d much rather fly with you. She’s doing a fantastic job, as with everything she does, but she’s not you. So yes, please, I would very much like to spend the weekend with you. With whatever you’d like to do.”
“With whatever, eh?”
“Whatever,” Mycroft confirmed. “I was perfectly fine with my self-imposed celibacy until you kissed me.”
“And then you weren’t?”
“Not anymore, no.”
“Good. Because I swear to God I will not have you around and not try to shag all of your silly notions out of that ginger head of yours.”
“I’m not ginger anymore. It’s all darkened very nicely, exactly as I’d hoped it would.”
“Auburn, then. But the ginger you once were remains inside, and besides, you’ve not got rid of your freckles.”
“I know,” Mycroft said with a sigh. “I’ve been thinking of touching them up. I mean, just imagine I’m trying to interrogate someone and all he thinks about is playing connect the dots on my nose.”
Greg had just taken a big gulp from his glass. He managed to swallow and not inhale his beverage but only barely, and started coughing and laughing at the same time. He was still wheezing when Mona arrived with their food.
“You all right, Gregs?” she asked, putting their plates down.
“Everything’s just fine,” he coughed. “We were discussing freckles and make-up.”
“Were you really?” She squinted at them. “Don’t go there, either of you. You’re both such handsome men. And your freckles are just lovely. Gingers are so hot.”
Greg snorted with laughter and Mycroft glared at him.
“I am not ginger,” he repeated, this time directed at Mona who tut-tutted.
“Of course you are, dear. You’ve the complexion of a ginger and don’t you try and deny it. Now eat before it gets cold.”
“Yes, Mona,” Greg said with his most winning smile. “And thank you for bringing our food so quickly.”
“My pleasure. Enjoy.”
“Thanks,” Greg and Mycroft said, at the same time.
The food was good. It wouldn’t make it on any tourist guide’s must-eat list, not fancy enough, but it was freshly cooked (or looked like it was) and filled a hungry copper’s stomach without rendering him immobile for the rest of the day. Mycroft seemed to like his pasta dish, too, judging by the way he didn’t push his food around on the plate.
Their legs touched from their knees down to their ankles but neither of them thought to change that. Greg certainly didn’t. It was not an awful lot of physical contact but it was physical contact nevertheless and he wanted much, much more, and never mind his brain yelling at him to remain adamant, to not be such a sentimental fool, to not let Mycroft back into his life just like that. Greg had spent too much time missing Mycroft, and he ached for his touch, no matter what logic and brain had to say about that. They shouldn’t have mentioned his freckles because—
“May I ask you something?” Mycroft asked into his musings.
Greg looked up from his plate, feeling caught red-handed. Had Mycroft eavesdropped into his thoughts?
“Yes?” he said cautiously.
“It’s about Dr Morgan.”
“What about her?”
“It’s something she said to me.”
“What was it?”
Mycroft cleared his throat and—there it was—started pushing the rest of his food around.
“What did she say, Mycroft?” Greg put his fork and knife down and looked at him. “Did she threaten to break your thumbs or anything? She does that sometimes if she thinks someone is being unkind. She’s very protective, you know.”
“She is indeed.” Mycroft stopped pushing his food around, speared one of the fussili and carefully put it into his mouth, chewed and swallowed. “She said that if I broke your heart again, she’d ruin me in society both inner and outer. And she didn’t say it out loud. She spoke to me here,” he tapped lightly against his temple. “How can she communicate with me via Mindspeech, Greg? We’re not linked, she and I. And what did she mean, she’d ruin me? It sounded a bit dramatic.”
Greg leaned back. “She said that, huh.”
“Damn.” He gave a low whistle. “I must treat her to dinner sometime soon. I don’t think she’s ever approached anyone on that level before. At least not where I’m concerned. You must have impressed her.”
“Care to explain?”
“She really could, you know. Ruin you.”
“Is that so.”
“It is so. See, her mother is Mrs O’Leary, eldest daughter of Lord Summersby and the late Sir Percival’s widow. But I’m sure you know that by now.”
“I do, yes,” Mycroft said without hesitation. “I had her background checked.” He met Greg’s raised eyebrows with a one-sided shrug. “It’s what I do, Greg. I…find out…things about people. In any case, I’m not afraid of titles and wealth.”
“Ah, but you should be afraid of Mrs O’Leary and Dr Morgan,” Greg mildly said. “To say Pen floats about in the highest circles would be the understatement of the year. Her mother is one of the sweetest, most easy-going persons I’ve ever met, not snobbish at all, and for some reason, she really really likes me. She was heartbroken when Pen and I broke up.”
“That I don’t find hard to believe.” A smile shot across Mycroft’s face and Greg smiled back.
“Thanks. She’s still a bit protective of me, Mrs O’Leary is, despite all, and I believe that if someone caused me pain of whatever nature, it would not sit well with her.”
“Huh.” Mycroft chose another bit of pasta. “What about that other thing?” he asked, chewing. “How can she do that? I’ve not been able to find anything on that but with the situation in—well, never mind. Suffice to say I had to interrupt my investigation of Dr Morgan. So, why is she able to communicate with me on that level?”
“Oh, that.” Now Greg pushed some of his food around. Well, what remained of his food. Like, a piece of blackened pie crust and a slice of onion too thick for his liking.
“Won’t you tell me?”
Greg looked up and gave a reluctant grin.
“Pen’s First Warden of Britain’s Anchors. She’s the Master’s principal deputy and reports only to him.”
“What.” Mycroft let his cutlery sink and stared at him, incredulous.
Greg shrugged. “Like I said, she moves in the highest of circles.”
“And you didn’t think to tell me?”
“It didn’t occur to me. Besides, what’s it to you?”
“I’m—” he began, then gave a sigh and nodded. “You’re right. Forgive me. You owe me no explanation.”
“You’re doing it again,” Greg said with an exaggerated frown. “I want meek Mycroft to go away. Be the top-lofty Mycroft I so enjoy slapping around.”
Mycroft huffed out a laugh.
“I honestly didn’t think about telling you,” Greg said. “She’s my Anchor, just as Pat is yours. And unless you’re planning for double dates in the future, I doubt you’ll run into her an awful lot.”
“Ah, but you just may be wrong here.” Mycroft pushed his plate to the side and dabbed at his mouth with his napkin. “I wanted to tell you later but I might as well do it now. I’ve recently been appointed to succeed the Southern Warden.”
“What?” Greg felt his jaw drop. Literally drop. “Isn’t that a bit sudden? You were gone for so long. ”
“That doesn’t mean I’ve been idle,” Mycroft mildly pointed out. “Quite the contrary. I’ve managed to build up a rather useful network, and it would seem my efforts were noticed. So, there will be a transition phase during which the current Warden will train me and make all necessary introductions and in about six months’ time I will take over from him.”
“And then you and Pen will meet professionally,” Greg continued. “And she outranks you.”
“It would seem so.”
Greg covered his face with his hands, his shoulders shaking with barely suppressed laughter.
“What have I done.”
“What have you done indeed, you little minx.”
“Little minx,” Mycroft repeated in a firm voice. “Flirtatious, seductive, alluring creature. That really is your super power, and don’t you try and deny it, Greg Lestrade.”
Mona walked over when their laughter subsided.
“Everything all right with you, lads?” she asked. “Anything you need?”
“The bill, please,” Mycroft said, his voice still a little shaky. “I’m afraid lunchbreak’s over.”
“Shame,” she said with a smile. “It sure looked like you were having a good time.”
“We were,” Greg winked at her. “Thanks for finding this table for us. We couldn’t have had this conversation at your bar.”
“Probably not,” she agreed. “Be right back.”
Greg followed her with his eyes, then reached for Mycroft’s hands and covered them with his.
“Please let’s go somewhere this weekend,” he begged. “Just you and I. I want you all for myself for a little while.”
“I would like that, too,” Mycroft said, turning his hands in Greg’s and entwining their fingers. “Let’s go up to Scotland. I’ll book the flights. Do you still have your campervan?”
Greg shook his head. “I had to let poor old Erwin go.”
“I’m sorry to hear it. I have such good memories.”
They smiled at each other, both knowing what memories Mycroft was hinting at.
“Then again,” Mycroft mused, “it’s not exactly the best time of the year to spend a weekend in Scotland in a campervan.”
“Dear God, no, too bloody cold. It’s settled then. You take care of the flights and I’ll find us a wee cottage. But just so we’re clear: one bedroom only.”
“No worries,” Mycroft said with a grin. “I’ll sleep on the couch.”
Greg withdrew his hands, balled up his napkin and threw it at Mycroft. “Hell no, you won’t.”
Mycroft plucked the napkin away.
“What are you, seven? I was joking, Gregory. I have no intention to sleep on the couch. I shall succumb entirely to your super power, and am looking forward to it.”
Mona returned with their bill. Mycroft paid and generously tipped her, earning himself a wide smile and a friendly nod.
They stood outside the pub for a few moments longer than necessary, bouncing meaningless nothings back and forth, reluctant to part, and when they finally ran out of pointless things to say, Mycroft cast a quick glance over his and Greg’s shoulders, leaned in and lightly kissed Greg’s cheek.
“I’ll text you the flight details,” he said. “Don’t be too hard on your new constable, Greg.”
“And you don’t start a war or anything.”
“I’ll try not to.”
Mycroft raised his hand, turned with a smile and sauntered off.
Greg followed him with his eyes until he was out of sight, then he, too, turned and walked back to work. Walked back with a decided spring in his step because it all felt so much better with a Holmes to look forward to. A Holmes all to himself. He would make sure he’d pick a weekend hideaway with no mobile reception. And no landline. He would ring Aunt Susan tonight to find out about that cosy little hut by the loch he and Mycroft used to swim in and wondered if it was still up for rent. He could—
“Enjoying an afternoon walk, Lestrade?”
Greg sighed and turned in the direction where the voice had come from.
“Hello, Sherlock. Why are you lurking in the shadows? Bored?”
“You have no idea.” The younger Holmes pushed himself off the wall against which he’d been leaning. “I half thought you two would make mooncalf eyes at each other for the rest of the afternoon. Why you’re so smitten with my boring big brother is beyond me.”
“I’m not smitten, and we didn’t make mooncalf eyes at each other.”
“You are, and you did.”
“Don’t you have a job to go to?”
“They made me take last year’s holidays. I tried to talk them into giving me the money instead but they wouldn’t have it. It was either taking the days or losing them. And I thought maybe you need my help with something?”
Sherlock looked so much like a pleading puppy that Greg almost laughed out loud.
“You got nothing else to do?”
“All right then,” Greg said with a mock frown. “Come with me. As a matter of fact, I have a missing teenager case that may be to your liking.”
“Yes?” Sherlock’s eyes lit up.
“Yes. The case was closed late last year when the boy’s body was found. Or so we had thought. But the sister now keeps receiving text messages that contain things that only her brother could know and it would seem we will have to re-open the files.”
“Ooooh, sounds good!” Sherlock all but bounced on his feet. “What are we waiting for, Lestrade? My brother’s on his way back to his very important job, no need to stare at where you said your mooncalf good-byes. A missing teenage boy is waiting to be found, and I intend to find him.”
“Off you go, Sherlock. Lead the way.”
“You know, we could go to Arran one day,” Greg said as they drove along the A737.
Mycroft looked up from his mobile phone. He’d left detailed instructions before leaving for the airport—unusually early for a mere Friday—but it couldn’t hurt to check his messages.
“I said,” Greg repeated, “we could to the Isle of Arran.”
“Because it’s nice. I spent a week with Rhon and Patrick there, two or three years ago, and it was really lovely. There’s a couple of beautiful walks, just right for a long weekend.”
“And why did you come up with that just now?”
“Because Ardrossan was signposted a few minutes back.”
Greg sighed. “That’s where the ferry to Arran leaves.”
“Ah. But that’s not where we’re going now, is it?”
“No, it’s not where we’re going now. Look up from your phone, Myc, and look outside. Any idea where we are?”
“It’s dark outside, Greg.”
“Well, it’s a quarter to nine already and it’s February. Of course it’s dark outside. But there’s the odd motorway sign along the way, you know, those big thingies, some blue, some green? With names of towns and cities printed on them?”
Mycroft made a face at Greg.
“I’ve heard of those.”
“Good. I’m relieved. But you really have no idea where we are?” Greg set the blinker to pass a lorry. “Hint: I just missed our exit, thanks to your shocking display of ignorance, but that’s all right because I’ll just get off at Dalry and hit the B780 instead.”
He put extra emphasis on Dalry and B780. Mycroft frowned, digging in his memory, and then he said, “Oh.” And again, more softly, “oh.”
“Exactly,” Greg smiled at him. “That’s where we’re going.”
“How did you—I don’t recall ever seeing a B&B or anything of the sort around there. At least not around the loch.”
“There isn’t, or rather, there wasn’t. But do you remember, there was a patch of land opposite from where we used to go swimming that was closed off the last two or three times we were there.”
“Mhm. Now that you mention it I do remember.” He switched off his mobile phone and put it in his trouser pocket. “I also seem to remember that neither the humble fence nor the ‘do not trespass’ signs stopped a certain silver fox from exploring the premises.”
Greg’s smile widened.
“It takes more than a wooden fence to stop me. And correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t a large owl hovering nearby?”
“There’s no fences in the air, Greg,” Mycroft said. “And no trespassing signs. Therefore, I wasn’t trespassing. I was merely observing.”
“Letting me do the dirty work.”
“If you hadn’t chosen to roll around in the mud it wouldn’t have been dirty work. Get in, get the job done, get out.”
“Where’s the fun in that?”
“Cosplaying as the Swamp Thing is not everybody’s idea of fun.”
“Why, Mycroft, I had no idea you were familiar with the concept of cosplay! Anything you want to tell me?”
They passed the rest of the ride in cheerful—and nonsensical—banter during which Mycroft told Greg about his colleague Dave he’d worked with in Argentina and his regrettable tendency to boldly go where no man has gone before against the fact that mankind’s future clearly lay in a galaxy far, far away (“but Mycroft, Jar Jar Binks, really?” “I’m prepared to forgive you for bringing up this name”) and Greg introduced Mycroft to Pen’s firm belief that one day there would be a female Doctor (“as long as she doesn’t choose to wear a ridiculous scarf I don’t see why this is an absurd notion, Greg”).
By the time they pulled up before the small cottage sitting by the loch, Mycroft had thrown off most of his initial nervousness and let Greg’s cheerful mood rub off on him. This was neither going to be a weekend of tricky negotiations nor was it in any way uncertain where it was headed. Greg had not only accepted Mycroft’s apologies; he had left no doubt he was more than willing to give them a second chance. It was a lot more than Mycroft had dared hope for and he intended to follow Greg’s lead. Well, this weekend he would. To a certain extent.
“This looks really nice,” Greg said when he got out of the car.
“In the moonlight it certainly does,” Mycroft agreed. “And yet, a functioning lantern or two would be helpful.”
“Ah well,” Greg went to fetch their bags from the boot. “As long as electricity works inside I’m good.”
Everything worked just as it should and there were even some provisions in the fridge (“Aunt Susan is the best”), and after they dropped their bags off they quickly agreed they would Shift and take it from there. Whatever ‘it’ entailed.
Greg Shifted first and shot through the back door. Mycroft closed the door behind him, went upstairs, opened the window facing the loch, Shifted and flew outside to meet Greg who waited by the back door.
::There you are,:: he greeted Mycroft. ::You forget how to Change or what took you so long?::
::Quiet, bushytails.:: Mycroft swooped down, claws outstretched. Greg yelped and ducked out of the way just in time. ::Look who’s talking. Pen walk you in slow motion or what?::
Greg leapt up and missed Mycroft’s tail feathers by a whisker.
::I’ll give you slow!::
And they ran off, and it was just as it used to be. Mycroft in his human shape might still be nervous around Greg in his human shape; Mycroft the Owl had no such qualms around Greg the Fox, and he hooted in triumph each time his claws touched one of Greg’s big ears or his tail. But Greg scored more than one mock hit at Mycroft’s wings, too, and when they returned to the cottage they agreed that while they respective Anchor had done admirable jobs flying and running them, it was not quite the same.
Then it was time to go to sleep, and Mycroft’s nervousness returned in a flash. The cottage had only one bedroom, plus the sleep couch in the living-room. Despite Greg’s hints and eyebrow-wiggling, Mycroft wasn’t sure whether or not sharing a bed was a natural given. He yearned for Greg’s body, longed for his touch more than he could put into words, but most of all he longed to feel his presence by his side. Just to lie next to Greg and listen to the sound of his regular breathing—and the occasional snore when he came to lie on his back—if that was to be all he would get this weekend, he’d take it. And gladly, too. But if—
“You’re not going to sleep on the couch, are you?” Greg asked. “You’ve got that overthinking look on your face.”
“That look you get when you start to overthink things. Like, what would happen if I did this instead of that, and how would reaction C change the outcome of envisaged scenario B.”
Greg laughed. “Come now, Myc, you’ve not changed all that much. There is only one thing that will happen if you choose to sleep on the couch: I will join you. What will happen if you choose to sleep in the bed? It will be much more comfortable for both of us, and I will in all likelihood end up glued to your back. What will not happen? I will not sleep-hump you.” He gave a look of comic despair. “Believe it or not but I’m knackered. It’s been a long day and we did quite a lot of running around just now. I’ll be forty soon—”
“Quiet, owlet,” Greg sternly said. “You’re four years younger. Anyway, much as I want you, I’m not going to spoil our first time after seven years by falling asleep on the third thrust.”
Mycroft swallowed involuntarily and Greg smirked.
“What? Scared? You bet I’ll be the one doing the fucking because your—what was that word? Eche?”
“Eje,” Mycroft croaked, cleared his throat and repeated, “The word is eje. Which means axis.”
“Right. Eje. Your eje is all off and while Pat did a good job keeping you sane and in working order, she doesn’t know shit of keeping you balanced. Because to keep you truly balanced, Mycroft Holmes, one needs to get you out of your head and into that very fine body of yours. And I intend to take my sweet time with you and your body but I’m too tired to truly appreciate you tonight and thus—” He took a deep breath and spread his hands. “The legover I had planned for tonight will translate into me throwing an arm around you. So please, don’t sleep on the couch, Myc. Sleep with me. In the bed.”
“Please,” Greg said and held out his hand.
Mycroft took it and nodded.
“Yes,” he said.
And that was exactly what they did: sleep together, with Greg glued to Mycroft’s back just as he had predicted; a solid presence guarding Mycroft’s sleep. Or so it felt because Mycroft slept as soundly as he hadn’t in…well, since he moved out of their flat. No need to try and deny that.
When he woke up, he lay still for a while, thankful to feel the weight of Greg’s arm around his waist and the light rasp of stubble between his shoulder blades, softened by the fabric of his shirt but noticeable nevertheless. He closed his eyes, concentrated on Greg’s breathing and dozed off for a few more minutes.
His bladder eventually urged him to get up and so he carefully unglued himself from Greg, slid out of bed and tiptoed to the bathroom where he did what needed doing, hoping the sound of the flush wouldn’t wake Greg, and quickly brushed his teeth, too.
He slipped back into bed and lay down facing Greg who was still fast asleep. Mycroft smiled. Greg slept like the proverbial log whereas Mycroft had always been a light sleeper. And Greg had a knack of falling asleep on the spot whenever he had a chance, claiming it came from his circus days where every minute had counted.
Mycroft watched Greg sleep, looked at him to his heart’s content. He was beginning to grey, silver highlights showing here and there, but it only made him more attractive—if that was at all possible. He would be a real silver fox soon, one that would draw everybody’s eye. He looked very young, one corner of his mouth curved up as if caught in a pleasant dream, and the lines around his eyes were less pronounced. He slept without a shirt, as always—that, too, hadn’t changed—and his skin was tanned, looking warm to the touch. Mycroft reached out and carefully traced the outline of Greg’s bicep with a finger, then ran his fingertips along Greg’s forearm and back up, touched his knuckles to Greg’s cheekbone. Greg mumbled something in his sleep and Mycroft stilled his hand, sensing his touch had registered with Greg and he would wake any moment now.
Then Greg stirred, yawned, stretched.
“Morning, Myc,” he rasped in a sleep-thick voice. “Sleep well?”
“Very well. You?”
“Like a dead man.”
“You certainly did. You smell like one, too.”
Greg covered his mouth with both hands and rolled over to lie on his back, a look of comic despair in his eyes.
“Don’t be daft,” Mycroft reached for him, laughing. “Come back here at once.”
But Greg squirmed out of the way and rolled out of bed.
“Ah-ah,” he held up a finger. “I can tell you have already brushed your teeth and therefore I will not insult your nose with my stench. Besides, I need to piss.”
“Fine.” Mycroft flopped back. “Do what you must but come back to me quickly.”
“Better?” Greg asked a few minutes later and breathed at Mycroft. He smelled of toothpaste and mouthwash and Mycroft pulled him close.
“Much improved,” he smiled. “May I kiss you now or will you wiggle away again?”
“I wasn’t wiggling,” Greg protested. “I was removing myself from smelling distance. And yes, you may kiss me. And do it quickly because I’m starving for it.”
Mycroft touched a finger to Greg’s lips, then reached for his head, burying his fingers in Greg’s hair, and pulled him in for a kiss. Greg’s lips parted invitingly and Mycroft helped himself to Greg’s mouth, slid his tongue inside without much finesse because he, too, was starving. Greg made a surprised sound but then kissed him back and Mycroft’s world stopped moving. Nothing mattered but the feeling of Greg’s mouth on his, Greg’s hands roaming Mycroft’s body, and they broke their kiss only to pull Mycroft’s shirt over his head.
Greg’s eyes travelled along Mycroft’s body.
“Lovely,” he whispered. “My beautiful, amazing love.” He pressed a kiss to the hollow of Mycroft’s throat. “I missed you so fucking much.”
Slowly his hands moved downward and he followed with his lips, kissing and touching until Mycroft’s body felt on fire and he lay open before Greg, arms flung to the side, pyjama bottoms gone, legs spread, Shield down, offering himself in every way he could think of and still Greg wouldn’t give what he so desperately wanted. He flicked his tongue across Mycroft’s small tattoo of a fox, pressed a wet, hot kiss to it. Mycroft made a high-pitched, keening noise and instantly covered his face with his hands, embarrassed. Smooth, Holmes. But Greg’s low, pleased chuckle told him Greg had liked the noise he just made; his laughter vibrated against Mycroft's overheated skin and he felt his prick twitch helplessly.
“Please,” he begged. “Please, Greg.”
Greg nodded, stretched to the side and reached down, and Mycroft heard him rummage around in a plastic bag. With a triumphant “ha” he held up a bottle and a box of condoms.
“Say again,” he commanded. “I’m not sure I heard you right.”
“You heard me just fine,” Mycroft said, aiming for a strict tone but failed. “You heard me,” he repeated. Better.
Greg’s grin widened.
“Ah, but it’s my turn first,” he said. “On your belly, Holmes.”
Mycroft mock-scowled but turned around obediently.
“Good lad,” Greg approved, and Mycroft heard the rustle of a condom packet being ripped open, heard Greg sheathe himself in latex and click open the lube bottle.
“On your knees,” he commanded and again, Mycroft obeyed.
He felt his buttocks being spread open and protested when cool gel dribbled down his heated skin.
“Quiet,” Greg said and lightly slapped him. “I don’t remember you ever complaining about a couple of droplets down your arse.”
“It’s been a while.”
“Then let’s not waste any more time, eh.”
Mycroft felt Greg get into position behind him and his hole clenched in anticipation when he heard Greg lube up.
“My beautiful love,” Greg said again, pulling Mycroft’s cheeks apart. “So ripe for it.” He traced Mycroft’s cleft with a finger and Mycroft shuddered. “So in need of a good fuck.”
“Brace yourself,” Greg warned and bracketed Mycroft’s hip with his hands. “This may sting a little.”
Mycroft braced himself and Greg pushed inside, slowly but steadily, pausing only briefly to give Mycroft’s body time to adjust.
It didn’t sting. It hurt. And it burnt. It had been such a long time and Mycroft’s body was so out of practice, but it remembered quickly enough, recognised Greg and welcomed him, inner muscles loosening faster and easier than expected, and the initial burn turned into a pleasant sort of pain. Mycroft let go of the pillow he had involuntarily clutched and shifted so his weight was more evenly distributed on his knees and elbows.
Behind him, Greg let out a long, stuttering breath and Mycroft realised he’d been waiting for Mycroft to signal his approval or disapproval, despite his earlier words, and it was all Mycroft needed to truly relax and accept Greg’s body into his. He arched his back, spread his legs a bit more and looked over his shoulder.
“Are you going to fuck me or what?”
“Is that a challenge?” Greg traced the bumps of Mycroft’s vertebrae with his thumbs, making Mycroft shiver.
“Are you up for it?”
“Careful what you wish for.”
And then Greg gave Mycroft the fucking he had promised him, and it was exactly the kind of fucking Mycroft had hoped for. Greg pounded into him relentlessly and Mycroft had to steady himself against the headboard, but he pushed back forcefully to meet Greg’s thrusts, urging him on with throaty moans and broken-off syllables, turned on by the sound of flesh slapping against flesh. He desperately wanted to touch his own straining prick but didn’t dare try to balance himself on one arm alone, too powerful was Greg’s onslaught, too strong his own pushing.
And so he held on, each brush over his sweet spot like an electric jolt straight to his cock but he willed himself to stay put, to not come just like that, and then Greg cried out behind him, shouted Mycroft’s name in a voice that was hoarse with lust, thrust one last time and collapsed above him. Mycroft lost his balance and they both fell to the side, Greg glued to Mycroft’s back, just like he had been during the night, only this time, he had his cock buried balls deep in Mycroft’s arse.
He puffed a couple of hot, wet breaths against Mycroft’s back, then slowly and carefully pulled out, removed the condom with an audible snap, flung an arm around Mycroft’s waist and kissed the nape of his neck.
“God, I missed your arse,” he said, sounding sleepy.
“My arse missed you, too,” Mycroft replied. “Don’t you dare fall asleep now, Gregory Lestrade.”
“What was that?” The words were mumbled around a heartfelt yawn.
“For fuck’s sake, Gregory, please. Wank me, suck me, do as you please but do something. I’m hurting.”
Greg made a muffled sound. “Let me see.”
Mycroft turned around and Greg gave a low whistle.
“Yes, that looks painful,” he agreed. “You know, you could do something about that yourself.”
“I will if you insist on falling asleep on me like an arsehole.”
“Language, Mr Holmes, language.”
Mycroft narrowed his eyes and reached for his cock but Greg swatted his hand away.
“Oh no, you won’t,” he warned, fished for the lube bottle and squeezed a couple of drops into his palm. “This is mine.”
“Well, then—ah, fuck!” Greg’s hand closed around Mycroft’s cock and Mycroft fell back into the sheets. “God, yes, Greg, like that. Just like that.”
The combination of Greg’s warm fingers and the cool lube made Mycroft rock his hips and moan loudly. Greg had him exactly how he liked it, how he needed it. His grip was firm and his rhythm just right. Up in a single motion, down with a small twist. Mycroft flung his arms up and above his head in a gesture of helpless abandon and Greg licked and nibbled along the sensitive skin just above Mycroft’s armpit, where arm met shoulder, sucking hard enough to leave a mark, and his hand never stopped pumping Mycroft.
“So beautiful,” he murmured against Mycroft’s skin, “so desperate, and so close.”
He gave a vicious tug and Mycroft cried out.
“Come for me, my love,” Greg urged him, tightened his grip and gave a low laugh. “God, if your cock were a laser gun I swear it’d be humming by now. Let go, Myc. Show me.”
He closed his fingers in a milking motion and twisted, roughly, and to Mycroft it felt as if a trigger had been pulled. He jerked up, once, twice, thrust into Greg’s fist, and his mouth opened on a soundless cry, just as if all of his strength was focussed on his release, shutting off everything else. He squeezed his eyes shut and gave himself over to bliss.
“Gorgeous,” he heard Greg say but his voice sounded far, far away. “Yes, that’s it. That’s the sexiest fucking thing ever. Yes, Myc, give me all.”
The grip around Mycroft’s cock changed, as if Greg’s hand was replaced by something hot and wet and Mycroft struggled to blink his eyes open, lifted his head with some difficulty and a broken moan escaped his lips. Greg had slid down and had his lips around Mycroft’s still twitching cock, sucking the rest of his come straight from the source. Mycroft whimpered and Greg looked up, let go and licked his lips.
“I forgot the exquisite taste of you,” he said, smiling like a cat that was about to steal from the proverbial cream pot. Only, this wasn’t proverbial. It was real. And an embarrassing amount, too. “Allow me.”
And then he didn’t say anything else for a while, licking Mycroft clean as if he’d just been presented with his favourite treat, and Mycroft couldn’t turn his eyes away.
“I love you so much,” he said in a hoarse whisper and reached for him. “Come up here at once. I must kiss you.”
Greg slid up and claimed Mycroft’s mouth in a deep, wet kiss that tasted of come and lube and love and Greg and toothpaste, and Mycroft clung to him like a drowning man, kissing him back and not wanting to let go, ever.
“I love you, too, Mycroft,” Greg breathed against Mycroft’s lips, kissed his eyelids, his nose, his chin. “So very, very much.” Then he yawned. “And I’m so, so tired.”
Mycroft yawned with him. “So am I.”
And they slept. Later, they had breakfast. And another fuck. They Shifted, ran outside and played by the loch. Ran back to the cottage for some more fucking. And kissing. And dinner. And cuddling on the couch. And murmured words of love and hopes and dreams.
Between them, their Bond hummed with renewed strength.
Sunday afternoon came too quickly and it was time to leave for the airport.
“I really like this place,” Mycroft said, steering their car onto the narrow road. “I’d love to come here more often.”
“Yes, me too.” Greg fastened his seatbelt. “Not sure if we can.”
“Aunt Susan said the owner is—oh.” He turned in his seat and grinned at Mycroft. “Something has just occurred to me.”
“If I remember correctly she said the owner was thinking of selling the cottage. Too remote or something. Not renting as well as he’d hoped.”
“Selling the cottage?”
“I think so.”
They grinned at each other.
“Would be a shame to let this pretty cottage fall into hands who can’t appreciate it.” Greg turned his head to catch a last look at the cottage. “Let me ring her tomorrow. Maybe she can find out more. I mean, it’s not as cosy as my dear old campervan…”
“…but it’ll do,” Mycroft completed the sentence for him. “Yes, please do call your aunt. I have such good memories of this place.”
“As do I.” Greg reached for Mycroft’s hand and kissed it. “Let’s make a few more.”
Mycroft pressed Greg’s hand. “I’d love to.”
The phone call came as they were heading for the Gatwick Express.
Greg fumbled in his pocket for his phone.
“Hello?” he said and frowned as the call connected. “Yes, this is Gregory Lestrade. Who am I speaking to?” He listened, dropped his bag and blindly reached out as if he needed to steady himself. Mycroft was by his side in an instant and Greg grasped his arm so tightly that Mycroft saw the white of his knuckles. “I understand.—Yes, of course. I’m at Gatwick airport but I will come immediately. Is he stable for now?—I understand. Thank you, Dr, uh, Singh Wells, yes?—Thank you.”
He disconnected and let his hand sink.
“What is it?” Mycroft asked, alarmed. “Greg?”
Greg blinked. “That was the London Bridge Hospital,” he said in a flat voice. “It’s Uncle Randolph, Myc. He’s had another heart attack this morning and they think he’s not going to make it this time.”
“What.” Mycroft reached for Greg’s bag. “Let’s go at once. I’ll ask Anthea to meet us at Victoria Station. She’ll take you to the hospital and I’ll take our bags to—oh.” He fell silent. ‘To our flat’ was what he’d meant to say but of course there was no such thing as ‘their flat’ anymore. They had reconnected so thoroughly in Scotland that this tiny detail had slipped his mind.
“No,” Greg said. “Please come with me, Myc. I don’t think I can do this alone. Please.”
Mycroft hesitated, then nodded. “Of course. I’ll come with you.”
They hurried for the train station and found the train delayed. Greg stood stock-still, his face a stony mask, all liveliness vanished from his features. Mycroft refrained from uttering meaningless words of comfort, knowing they wouldn’t register and besides, he was greatly worried, too. Uncle Randolph had to be in his mid- to late eighties by now and although Greg had told Mycroft about his heart attack on their flight to Glasgow, he had also told him his uncle had been stable the last time he had spoken to him, cheerful even upon hearing Mycroft had returned and they were headed for Scotland.
“He wants us to come by for tea as soon as we’re back,” Greg had said, his eyes sparkling with amusement. “And he mentioned something about having a bone to pick with a certain young agent.”
“Oh dear,” Mycroft had laughed but he had been a trifle worried. Randolph Daniels was no-one with whom one wanted to fall out of favour. Not within the agency and not within the Shifter community, too weighty was his name still.
To think of him dying did not feel right. Impossible, really. There was so much Mycroft wanted to learn from him, so much he still didn’t know. But his worries surely were nothing compared to what Greg would be losing. Randolph had welcomed him to London all these years back, had been his mentor, his family and safe place—and it had probably been Randolph’s doing that Greg had not worked himself into hating Mycroft; Randolph who intimately knew the mechanics of the trade Mycroft had chosen and from whose vast experience Mycroft had benefitted.
And so they sat side by side on the train to Victoria station where Anthea stood waiting for them, and Mycroft held Greg’s hand for the entire ride.
London Bridge Hospital was a world-class hospital that left nothing to be desired, and yet, there was only so much even the best and most attentive staff could do for a dying patient. Randolph’s room was as comfortable as could be, but the frail old man they found upon their arrival did not look as if he was enjoying its cushy armchairs or the tasteful curtains. He looked nothing like the elegant elderly gentleman Mycroft had known all these years ago.
Randolph’s skin looked like thin parchment stretched over a set of delicate bones, there were blueish shadows under his eyes and his breathing was light and shallow. The lines on the monitor next to his bed were dangerously close to flat, the humps and bumps hardly noticeable.
“Oh God,” Greg said, helpless. “Uncle Randolph. Oh God.”
The spikes on the monitor grew somewhat more pronounced, and Randolph’s near translucent eyelids fluttered open.
“Greg,” he whispered. “My dear boy, I am so glad you came.”
Greg rushed to his side, carefully took one of his uncle’s hands and kissed it.
“Of course I’m here,” he said, his voice shaky. “I came as quickly as I could.”
Randolph gave a weak chuckle and moved his head as if to look around Greg.
“Is that Mycroft with you?”
“It is, sir,” Mycroft confirmed and came closer.
“So you came back.”
“I did indeed, and I intend to stay.”
The old man nodded.
“Good. That’s very good. I’m sorry we didn’t have more time together. There is so much I wanted to tell you.”
“I’m sorry, too. You have so much more to teach me.”
“There is one more thing I can do for you.” Randolph gestured for Mycroft to step up to his bed. “Sit down, son, and give me your hands.”
Mycroft looked at Greg, uncertain, but Greg nodded encouragingly and stepped aside so Mycroft could sit down. He held his hands out to Randolph who took them, his fingers closing around Mycroft’s wrist in a clasp that was barely noticeable.
::Open your Channels to me, Mycroft Holmes, for this can be done only once.::
Mycroft started, for Randolph’s Mindvoice was as clear as ever, if a little lower. He took a deep breath and did as he was told.
::I have this to give to you. Pay attention.::
He nodded, closed his eyes and willed his own mind to fall silent.
What followed now was nothing he had expected, hadn’t even known to be possible, and it would leave him with the most horrible headache he’d had since Guangli had speed-taught him how to Shield and Mindreach all those years ago.
Randolph flooded their connection with every bit of knowledge Mycroft would ever need to know about how the Secret Service worked, every relationship, every connection, every nook and cranny, whom to get in touch with, whom to avoid, whom to keep an eye on. And if that alone wasn’t enough, he did the same with the Shifters’ structure.
Then their contact broke off, just like that, and Randolph sagged back into his pillows, his skin a deathly pallor, his cheekbones even more pronounced.
“Why?” Mycroft’s voice was hardly more than a whisper but it was all he could manage. His head was pounding and he was fighting the urge to throw up.
::Because you’ll need it.::
::I know I will, but why me?::
::Because your brain is the finest I’ve seen since my Bonded passed away, and because I need a successor.::
::I don’t understand.::
::You will. In time.::
Randolph shifted his gaze from Mycroft to Greg.
“Don’t you leave his side, Greg. He needs you more than he will ever admit.”
“I know. I won’t. If he lets me.”
Greg held out his hand to Mycroft and he took it.
“I’m not leaving you again, Greg. Not ever.”
Randolph looked from one to the other, smiling faintly.
“That’s what I wanted to hear,” he managed, barely audible. “Now make room for Greg.”
“Of course.” Mycroft stood up, slowly, hoping his stomach would hold.
Randolph reached for Greg, too, and Mycroft watched Greg’s hands close around his uncle’s bony wrists, watched their eyes lock and saw Greg’s eyes fill with tears. They held each other’s gaze for what felt like a small eternity, then Randolph took one last breath and his eyes closed.
Greg leaned forward and pressed his forehead to his uncle’s.
“Good-bye, Uncle Randolph.”
“Happy New Year, Greg,” Pen greeted him. “I can still say that, yes? It’s only the tenth of January.”
“Hello Pen,” Greg replied and stepped aside so she could pass him. “And Happy New year to you, too. Of course you can still say it, we’ve not seen each other yet.”
He took her coat and hung it up while she placed her umbrella in the umbrella stand, then watched her take off her boots.
“Did you bring that horrible weather from Ireland?” Greg asked.
“I most certainly didn’t. I thought it was your fault. Weren’t you two up in Scotland for New Year’s?”
“We were, yes, and we had brilliant sunshine and only one afternoon of light drizzle, thank you very much.” He motioned for her to follow him. “Care for some tea? Or coffee?”
“I’d much rather have some of that wonderful spiced wine they serve in Germany,” she replied. “Have you ever been to a German Christmas market?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“Shame. You would like it. So much great food, and that wine? Gluhwine or something? It’s hot and it’s spiced and it goes right to your head if you don’t pay attention.”
“Speaking from experience?”
“I’m not answering that,” she said with a grin. “Tea, please.”
She stifled a snort when he opened the cupboard that held their tea assortment.
“What?” he asked, looking for the tea he knew she liked best.
“I take it you didn’t live out your, uh, sorting fetish?” She pointed at the cupboard. “Please tell me that wasn’t you.”
“Dear God, no,” he laughed. “That’s Mycroft’s doing. He likes certain things just so.”
“Well, lots of things. Not everything,” he added quickly. “Don’t give me that look. It’s not like you’ve not been here before, right? He likes to sort his books in alphabetical order and he’s got his clothes arranged by colour and fabric but he doesn’t sanitise the bathroom before he, well, you get it. And anyway,” he filled up the kettle with water and switched it on, “you should see Sherlock’s sock index. That’s a lot worse than Mycroft’s tea collection.”
“His sock index. Don’t ask. They’re not so very different from each other, Mycroft and Sherlock. But don’t tell ‘em I said that.”
“Cross my heart,” Pen solemnly said. “Is he still staying with you?”
“Not right now, no. He makes a point of not showing up when Mycroft is around but at least there’s no slamming doors anymore when Mycroft comes home earlier than expected.”
“Slamming doors? Seriously? Isn’t that a bit juvenile?”
Greg heaved a sigh. “You have no idea. Like they’re still five and twelve. It helped a little when I pointed out that this is technically my house and I wouldn’t tolerate my property being vandalised just because of some unresolved childhood grudges. Hand me that tray over there, will you? Thanks.”
He placed a set of cups on the tray, added spoons, sugar and some biscuits and heated some milk in the microwave.
“Look at you,” she said, smiling. “All domesticated.”
“You trained me well,” he smiled back. “But you’ve not come here to discuss the Holmeses, have you?”
He waited for the microwave to ping and the kettle to finish and carried their tray into the living room.
“Well, no. And also, yes. At least one of them.” She sank down into the cushions next to him and gratefully reached for the cup he handed her. “Thanks. And exactly how I like it. You’re a darling, Gregs.”
“Only when I choose to be. So, out with it. What is it, Pen?”
“I’ve been meaning to tell you for a while now but then I was gone and when I returned, you were up in Scotland and besides, the paperwork’s only just come through.”
“What paperwork? Are you getting married?” He narrowed his eyes. “Anything I should know about?”
“Don’t be daft. I’m not getting married. I don’t have time for that.” She took a sip. “I was offered a position as specialist surgeon at St Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver and after a lot of thinking…well, I accepted.”
“Vancouver?” Greg lowered his cup and stared at her in disbelief. “But Pen, that’s in Canada!”
“Indeed it is, and that’s why it took me a while to make that decision. But it’s a really attractive position in their General Surgery Clinic and it comes with an even more attractive benefits package. And I could get into teaching more, and you know how much I’d love that.”
“But…Canada?” Greg asked. “You’d be so far away. And what about the community? Have you discussed this with the Master? Who will step in for you?”
“Of course I’ve discussed it with the Master. Thing is, Greg, he’s preparing to retire. He’s getting old, and his Bonded is very ill. He’s got his eye on a potential successor and has been sort of grooming him for a while now. I think he’s ready to take over, and I think you know exactly of whom I speak.”
“Mycroft?” Greg asked, incredulous.
Pen nodded, and Greg sat back, stunned. True, it didn’t come as a huge surprise and he had expected it to happen one day, given Mycroft’s meteoric rise through the ranks both in the agency and in the Shifter community. But to rise to the rank of Master that quickly, that was exceptional, even for Mycroft.
“Do you think he’s ready?”
“Absolutely. It’s scary sometimes, the way he seems to know everything about everybody. I have no idea how he came by all this knowledge. And he catches on so quickly and puts things together in a way that I would never think of.”
“He does, doesn’t he. Sherlock’s brilliant like that, too, but Mycroft’s even better.”
“Does he do the x-ray thing with his eyes on you, too?”
“The x-ray thing?” he repeated, amused. “Oh, like when he stares at you and you think you’re being scanned?”
“Well, he does sometimes but I usually blank out and block him and then he blinks and goes back to normal.”
“You know how to block him? Within your Bond?”
“That’s quite extraordinary.”
“I had a good teacher.”
“And don’t you find that scary, the staring thing?”
“Quite the contrary. I think it’s sexy when he uses his super power.”
She sighed and pulled her feet up.
“He’s a lucky man.”
Greg narrowed his eyes.
“You’re not leaving because of him, are you?”
She blew over her tea, mulling over his question.
“No, I am not,” she finally said. “I was jealous of him at first, determined not to like him, but you know that. We talked about it after he came back and slipped back into your life as if…well, as if he’d never been away. I didn’t trust him at first, not after how he’d treated you, but I trusted Anthea the moment we met. And it feels right, seeing you with him, it really does.” She reached out to touch his cheek. “I’m not saying this to make things easy for you, Greg. I am happy for you.”
“So if you’re not jealous, why are you leaving? Don’t you want to work with him?”
“It’s time for a change of power. I’ve worked with the Master for years and I think I’m developing tunnel vision, you know, all set in a certain way. Just last night Mycroft pointed something out, something that’s been going on under our very noses and although it’s blatantly obvious, I never noticed. And that makes me angry at myself and makes me doubt my own abilities.”
Greg chuckled. “You see, but you do not observe.”
“It’s what Sherlock keeps telling me. He usually adds some smart-arsed remark about balancing the probabilities and choosing the most likely, blah blah, you know. He’s annoying like that and he’s usually right. Which annoys me even more.”
“I know what you mean. Mycroft is too well behaved to be a smart-arse around me but I don’t doubt he could if he wanted to. Anyway, when the Master asked my opinion about appointing Mycroft to succeed him, I suggested making Anthea First Anchor while he’s at it. This way, I could step down along with the Master, making room for an all new team. Then the OK from Vancouver came through and it all came together nicely. I think the official announcement will be made during the March equinox gathering.”
“Will you give up your work entirely? As an Anchor, I mean.”
“No. The last time I was in Vancouver, I met with the Master of British Columbia and she didn’t seem disinclined to take me on. Her First Anchor passed away last year and there’s no suitable candidate yet. Those who show potential are still too inexperienced.”
“Oh man, Pen.” Greg sagged back into the cushions, miserable. “It all makes sense and you’re perfectly right and I get it, but, God, I will miss you like crazy.”
He reached out as if to stroke her hair but let his hand sink, not sure if the gesture would be welcome. She caught his hand, put down her tea cup and twined their fingers together.
“I will miss you, too, Greg, but deep down inside we both knew this had to end one day. If things had been different between us…well.”
She pressed his hand and he bent his head to kiss her wrist, like he had done so many times. She smiled and he smiled back, and when she leaned closer, he didn’t pull back. Their lips touched and he closed his eyes, reached for her shoulders and pulled her against him. She followed willingly, her soft lips opening for him and his tongue slipped inside. The kiss tasted of regret and of good-bye, of what was and of what might have been, and he felt something wet roll down his cheek.
“Am I interrupting something?”
The voice was loud and deep and booming, dripping with disapproval.
Greg pulled back but left his hands on Pen’s shoulders and turned to face the intruder, not bothering to wipe away the tear trickling down his cheek.
“What do you want, Sherlock?”
Mycroft’s brother leaned against the doorframe, eyeing them with a mixture of disgust and curiosity.
“I stopped by to share my findings and to help you get back on track with the case.”
“Murder? Tattoos? Wilting lilies left behind?”
“Oh, that case.”
“Yes, Lestrade, that case. The one that got your poor little brain cells huddle in a corner of your skull and cry.”
“I’m working on three different cases at the moment,” Greg pointed out, let go of Pen and then wiped the tear off his cheek. “And while I appreciate your help I wonder what gives you the right to waltz in here unannounced.”
Sherlock held up his left hand. A key dangled from a chain.
“You gave me a key to this house, remember?”
“I did, yes. But as you’re currently not staying over as our guest it would have been the proper thing to ring ahead and announce your visit.”
“The proper thing, eh?” Sherlock pocketed the key and narrowed his eyes. “As proper as what you were doing when I came in?”
“What I do with one of my best friends in my own house is none of your business.”
“Well, the fact that you’re in a relationship with my brother does make it my business, to a certain extent.” He ambled closer, cocking his head. “Or do you make it a habit to snog all of your best friends?”
“That’s enough, Sherlock,” Greg said warningly. “What’s between Pen and me is her business and mine. And Mycroft’s, to a certain extent,” he added, clipping his consonants exactly as Sherlock had. “But just so you may rest easily, you did not interrupt anything improper, nor would you have caught us in a compromising position had you arrived a couple of minutes later.”
Sherlock raised his eyebrows and opened his mouth but Greg fixed him with a cold, hard stare and Sherlock closed his mouth again. Greg turned to Pen.
“Pen, will you excuse us for a moment? I believe there’s something Sherlock would like to share with me.”
“Of course. Would you like me to leave?”
“By no means. Please stay. I’ll be back in a moment.” He stood up. “Into my study, Sherlock.”
He brushed past Sherlock on his way into his study, the brief contact making the younger man stagger back half a step. Greg was not a large, heavily muscled man but he outweighed lanky Sherlock by at least 2 stones.
His ‘study’ was a smallish room with a round window, much like a ship’s porthole. Uncle Randolph had kept his safe and his spyglass collection in there and had used a bigger upstairs room as his study. He had left the townhouse and all of its contents to Greg and it had taken Greg months to go through Randolph’s belongings. When Mycroft and Greg had decided to make the house their home, Greg had offered the bigger study to Mycroft. The small room was good enough for him, and it contained Randolph’s minimalist desk, a chair, two narrow shelves and the spyglass collection.
Sherlock ogled one of the telescopes, an 18th century piece, its barrel covered with Morocco leather, the visible brass components polished to shine.
“Is that still in working order?”
“Of course it is,” Greg said. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Because the brass tubing may be corroded?”
“Nonsense. Randolph was quite fond of his collection and when I first got here, he made sure I not only learnt all about his beloved roses but about his beloved telescopes, too. And I thank you for putting it down, Sherlock. You will not use it for one of your experiments, you hear me?”
Sherlock made a face but obeyed.
“What was it you wanted to tell me?”
“The lilies found by the bodies are of the species lilium bulbiferum, or ‘orange lily’, as they are more commonly known. They prefer calcareous soils but also grow on slightly acid soils.”
“And how does that help me?”
“The bulbs are edible and can be used as a substitute to potato.”
“Have the victims’ stomach contents analysed. If you find traces of lilium bulbiferum, go have a chat with Paul Desvarres.”
“The first victim’s widower?”
“And the owner of the Golden Violet. If you’ve done your research—and I’m sure you have, Lestrade—you’ll find the restaurant specialises in edible flower dishes.”
“And all of the victims have the Chinese sign for lily tattooed on their shoulder blades.” Greg tapped his lips with his index finger. “Interesting.”
“So you’ve noticed the tattoos, eh.”
“Yes, I have. I may not see all but I see some.”
“And how did you know about the meaning?”
Greg grinned. “You’re not the only Holmes in my life. Mycroft—”
“Of course. Mycroft. Well, why don’t you have him assist you on your cases?”
“Don’t be daft, Sherlock. Why would I do that?”
“He seems to have the answers to your most pressing questions.”
“The meaning of a Chinese tattoo on a murder victim’s shoulder is not my most pressing question,” Greg said. “Although it is important.”
“What is, then? Your most pressing question?”
“As of now, I wonder why you still treat your brother like he’s your worst enemy. That would interest me greatly.”
“None of your business, Lestrade.”
“I beg to differ. It makes him unhappy and that makes it my business.”
“Unhappy, eh? Well, that’s too bad. Maybe he should spare a thought here and there on the happiness of others before he wallows in self-pity before his lover,” Sherlock spat, putting an extra layer of sneer on ‘happiness’.
Greg narrowed his eyes. “Maybe you should spare a thought here and there that people can change over the years. I cannot and will not comment on what has happened between the two of you when you were children but you are grown men now and the tantrums you throw whenever your brother’s name comes up are unworthy of a grown man.”
“I’m not throwing a tantrum,” Sherlock retorted, his booming voice loud enough to be heard in the next room.
“Ah, but you’re about to,” Greg pointed out. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a guest waiting. Come by for dinner on Saturday, Sherlock, won’t you? Mycroft would be delighted to have you.”
“I doubt it.”
“I’m sure of it. Just, please, don’t drop in unannounced. I’ll text you the time.”
“It’s going to be a formal occasion, then? Am I expected to wear a tie?”
“No to both. Consider it a precaution.”
“Really, Sherlock,” Greg said and opened the door. “For someone priding himself of his all-seeing intellect you can be frightfully thick. You caught me kissing Pen when you waltzed in as if this were your home. What do you think you may find when I have your brother all to myself?”
Sherlock’s eyes widened. Greg grinned.
“Exactly. As often as I can. Ah, the things we’ve done in the kitchen…you wouldn’t believe half of it.”
“Shut up, Lestrade, you’re breaking my brain.”
“Good. Saturday it is, then. And remember: ring the doorbell. Or else…”
Greg didn’t finish. He didn’t have to.
Sherlock Holmes, so quick to dish out insults to those not able to follow, gave him one last disgusted look, turned on his heels and fled the house without so much as another syllable.
Greg doubled over, laughing.
“What on earth was that all about?”
He looked up and met Pen’s startled eyes.
“The Holmes brothers,” he managed, took a deep breath and straightened. “One day, when I’m old and retired, I’ll sit down and write down the Story of Two Brothers.” The latter was delivered in his best stage voice. “I’m very fond of Sherlock, I am, Pen, but sometimes I want to slap him.”
“Slapping him would be less harsh than hinting at things done in the kitchen,” she dryly said. “It made me want to curl into a ball in some far away corner.”
“Oh God, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“Relax, Greg, it takes a lot more than that to offend me. But I don’t envy poor Sherlock for the mental images you put into his brain.”
Greg Shifted and ran to the training area, a smallish, relatively secluded clearing where his group of charges already sat waiting for him. Or rather: were put through a warm-up session by a lean, muscular hare named Arrow.
::Greetings, Greg,:: he said in his precise Mindspeech, without interrupting what he was doing. ::I took the liberty of getting them started before they changed their minds.::
::Thanks, Arrow.:: Greg replied, sat down before a couple of chopped down trees, neatly stacked and secured for transport, and curled his tail around his legs. ::Carry on. Let me see if they’ve done their homework.::
Much to his surprise, the red squirrel quartet whose main contribution to their weekly training session was chirps and chattering worked the hardest, their bushy tails bushier than ever, tufted ears pricked up in concentration. Their grey counterparts, not the most committed bunch at the best of times, seemed to take the reds’ determination personal and tried to outshine them before Greg. The young hare twins had gone through a growth spurt since last week’s session and seemed to have problems coordinating their hindlegs, a fact that cheered the rabbit group up to no end. The dogs regarded the warm-up as great fun, as always, and the cats did what they always did, which was going through a seemingly lazy stretching routine. Something was off with the rats, however. There were only five of them instead of six, and their coats, usually sleek and shiny, appeared dull, almost scruffy. No focus whatsoever.
Greg narrowed his eyes and cocked his head. Most unusual. His team of rats were among the sharpest and most reliable of his Guardians, his most important link between the Shifter community and the Commoners, as the regular animals were referred to.
::Right,:: he barked when Arrow had them line up before him. ::That was less embarrassing than I had expected after last week’s near disaster.:: Laughter rippled through the panting animals. The cats yawned. ::Let me take you through the basic moves of self-defence before our winged colleagues join us.::
Working with the Guardians and shaping them into a team had become one of the things to look forward to. It had started with the rabbits with whom he shared his favourite sleeping place at Rose Garden. When he had first shown up, they had been less than pleased about the idea of bunking with a fox of all species but had soon found out this particular fox was no ordinary fox, and they had been quick to lay their sorrows at his paws. Greg had listened carefully, had taken the subject up with Pen and it was agreed upon, Council approval and all, to start a pilot project to train Guardians to watch over and communicate with the Commoners, as had been the custom, in years past.
Teaching self-defence was more of an attitude adjustment than anything else. Strictly speaking, a squirrel had not much of a fighting chance when caught by an owl, nor would a rabbit be able to escape a Rottweiler’s jaws. Greg tried to teach them how to think ahead, how not to freeze, how to make the best of their abilities, and the larger and stronger Guardians helped as best they could, rabbits teaching squirrels how to fling themselves around in mid air, hares teaching rabbits how to box and kick, cats teaching rats how to sit utterly still.
Greg called to the leader of the rats, asking her about the bad state her group was in.
::Toxic bait,:: she said. ::And I understand why they’re doing it. The harassing of humans and stealing their food must stop. It’s a disgrace and it brings shame on all of us! But the bait gets placed in all the wrong spots, doing more harm than good. I’ve been trying to—oh holy crap!:: she interrupted herself, sat up on her haunches, whiskers quivering, and stared.
::What?:: Greg asked.
A fluttering of wings had announced the arrival of their winged training partners, but instead of the usual exchange of mock-insults that usually followed, a hush fell over the group.
::The Owl!:: the rat all but whispered. ::He’s come himself to oversee our training. And we’re so badly out of shape, what will he think of us?::
She began to clean herself, getting her coat in order with frantic movements.
Greg turned around and there he was: Mycroft, in all of his feathered glory, landing gracefully and soundlessly on one of the chopped down trees, spreading his wings to display their impressive span width and snapping them shut with practiced ease – show-off, Greg thought, typical Holmes drama, but he, too, admired the elegant lines of Mycroft’s wings and the smooth movement with which he folded them against his body.
The Owl. With a capital O.
Greg wondered if he was the Fox. With a capital F.
Probably not. He was Greg, or Lestrade to most of his colleagues, and didn’t care much about pips on his shoulders or a capital F. But his heart swelled with pride at the sight of his beautiful Bonded. Him, he cared about a lot.
::Greetings,:: Mycroft said and tipped his head by the merest of fractions. ::Please, don’t be alarmed. This is neither an official inspection nor do I wish to interfere with tonight’s routine. I’m here out of sheer curiosity and because I needed to speak with your instructor.::
He swivelled his head and fixed his orange eyes on Greg.
::Greg, care to sit with me?::
::Certainly.:: He turned to the rat. ::Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Lux. I’ll have Ron look into the matter. Will you please excuse me?::
::Of course, sir. I’ll join the training.::
::You will not. After what you have just told me, you and your team deserve some rest. You know the kiosk by the Botanical Garden?::
::I do, yes.::
::It’s run by a friend of mine, a Weredog. She should still be there, doing her weekly inventory check. She’s rat-friendly and if you give her my regards, she’ll treat you to an excellent snack.::
::But sir, the Owl—::
::You heard him. He does not wish to interfere, nor will he challenge the way I handle my teams. Now off you go.::
Lux scurried off, closely followed by her team. Greg looked after them until they were out of sight, then strolled over to hop up the trees and sit by Mycroft.
::Something the matter with the rats?:: asked Mycroft and Greg nodded.
::Rat poison,:: he said. ::I’ll have it checked. What gives me the pleasure of seeing you here?::
::I missed you,:: Mycroft replied. ::I meant to be back by yesterday but I had to take a detour and check in with the Saudis.::
::I know. You told me.::
::Yes. Well. Anyway, when I got back you were gone and since it’s Thursday, I reckoned you’d be here.::
Mycroft blinked his round eyes.
::I was offered the position of Master,:: he said without further ado. ::And I plan to accept. If you agree.::
::You hardly need my approval, Mycroft.::
::I wasn’t asking for your approval. I am asking for you to agree.::
::What if I disagree?::
::Then I won’t do it.::
Greg shot Mycroft a surprised look and Mycroft blinked again, once, twice.
::Seriously,:: he said, his Mindvoice grave.
::You would turn an offer like that down?::
::I would. For you, I would.::
::It would break your heart!::
::It would sting, yes. But making you unhappy, that would break my heart. I’ve learnt my lesson, Greg. I’m not going behind your back again.::
They locked eyes, and their Bond hummed between them. No Mindspeech needed to understand Mycroft was serious. Greg inched closer to him and to his delight, Mycroft allowed it. Mycroft wasn’t fond of public displays of affection, especially not in his owl shape, but this time, he even moved towards Greg on his own accord, and they sat close to one another, soft fur against smooth feathers.
::Master,:: Greg said. ::I am so proud of you, Mycroft. What an achievement!::
::You really think so?:: It sounded surprised.
::Of course I do. I’ve expected this to happen, just not so soon.::
He briefly debated with himself whether he should tell Mycroft that Pen had already told him but decided against it. Why spoil Mycroft’s suprise?
::Will you be by my side, then?::
Greg flicked one of his ears, then turned towards the training group.
::I see you, Mickey!:: he barked. ::You’re lazing out again! Move those paws! White, you’re not working him hard enough. Make him earn his greens!:: He turned his attention back to Mycroft. ::By your side?:: he asked. ::In what capacity? Your muscle?::
::Certainly not,:: came the prompt reply. ::You’re a small silver fox. Hardly intimidating.::
::Hey,:: protested Greg and Mycroft clicked his beak, amused.
::I’ll have two Rottweilers on the ground and four ravens in the air. I already have my eye on suitable candidates.::
::I like to be prepared. You know that. No, I’d like you by my side to do what you’re doing here.::
::What, train the squirrels to kick and scratch?::
::Train the youngsters. Teach them how to be a team. Show them how to work with their Bonded. Oversee the crowd when there is a gathering. Tell me what I’m missing.::
::What you’re missing? Are you kidding me?::
::You see things that I don’t. Your brain works differently from mine. I observe, pull facts and data together and weigh possibilities against each other. But you, you understand why. Your circus background has taught you to measure a crowd, and your police training has taught you to identify trouble.::
::You’re making it sound like I’m smart.::
::You are. Don’t let my brother tell you otherwise. Just because you suck at deductions—::
::Hey,:: Greg protested again, but his protest was mixed with laughter.
::—you suck at deductions,:: Mycroft continued, ::doesn’t mean your brain isn’t working properly.::
::Now I feel a lot better.::
::Good. So. What say you?::
::Does it really need saying?::
::I need to hear it.::
::I have your back, Mycroft. Always. Yes, I will be by your side.::
::Oh, good.:: Mycroft’s relief was almost palpable, and for a moment he leaned into Greg. ::I’m so, so glad to hear it, Greg.::
::You really want this? All this extra work, all the extra responsibilities?::
::I do, yes.::
::Then by all means, do it. I’m not cancelling our Provence trip, though.::
::That’s in May.::
::And you will be in work up to your very pretty ear tufts by then. One proper holiday per year, Mycroft. Non-negotiable.::
::Deal. By the way, Sherlock’s coming for dinner on Saturday.::
Mycroft swivelled his head to the side so quickly that Greg feared for his cervical vertrebra.
::I made him promise.::
::How did you do that?::
::I have my ways.::
::I don’t doubt it. Oh, that is excellent news indeed. I’m so happy to hear it. I hope he’ll be in an agreeable mood.::
::He will be. I promise. And now, oh Master-to-be, care to join the training?::
::Why not. Let’s see what I remember.::
Turned out Mycroft remembered quite a bit, and soon the big eagle owl teamed up with the red squirrels to fight off the hissing cats.
“One thing’s for sure,” Greg remarked later, pulling Mycroft against him and kissing his collarbone. “The squirrels will worship the ground you walk on.”
“They seemed to enjoy winning against the cats.”
“They sure did. And as for a fox not being intimidating enough,” he nibbled his way up Mycroft’s neck, “let me see what I can do to impress you.”
“I’m sure you’ll come up with something.”
Oh, and Greg did. Come up with something. And some more.
And Mycroft was impressed. And delighted. And quite, quite out of breath.
Mycroft closed his office door and, walking up to his desk, pulled out mobile phone and pocket watch and sat down, flicking his watch open.
His phone started buzzing. He let it buzz for a few seconds, then picked it up and hit the green button to accept the call.
He made himself sound as if the phone call had yanked him out of some in-depth planning—not breathless, but slightly distracted.
“Mister Holmes, thank you for taking my call, and apologies for calling you on that number.” There was a muffled exchange of words, then the distinct click of a door being closed.
“No need to apologize, Your Excellency. I understand your situation.” Mycroft let a touch of professional warmth creep into his voice. “Am I correct in assuming you are alone?”
“I am indeed, and we are on a secure line.”
“Good. Have you read the proposal?”
“I have, and not only that.”
“His Majesty has granted me the authorisation to discuss the terms of annex five, section b slash three on his behalf.”
After forty-five minutes of serious negotiating, it was agreed that three sets of notarized and executed sales and purchase agreements would be delivered into His Excellency’s hands by Mycroft himself no later than noon the following day, to be presented to His Majesty before dinner.
When the call was ended, Mycroft reached for his desk phone to set the organisational details in motion but a scratch on the door made him put the receiver back with a smile. Only one person scratched instead of knocking and she was the very person he needed.
“Come,” he called, got up from his chair and stretched, making his shoulders plop and his back crack.
“That sounded unhealthy,” Anthea remarked as she closed the door behind her. “Want me to call the chiropractor?”
“Quiet,” he sternly said. “There’s no time for that. I just got off the phone with our friend in Helsinki.”
“Helsinki?” She frowned but caught on quickly. “Oh. Of course. His Quiet Excellency who prefers snow over sun?”
“The very one. I believe we’ve come to a mutually agreeable compromise, with some of the more sensitive subjects now leaning towards our position.”
“Like the points of transfer?”
“Thank you. I’m quite chuffed about it myself, if I may say so. I thought the negotiations would never come to a close. But you know what that means, yes?”
“I’ll get the legal team right to it.”
He held up his hand. “Not the entire team. Have Mabel, Phil and Jeremy come to me and have Lucy prepare the Riverside room, catering and all. It will be a very long night for all of us.”
“Got it. By when will you need the plane ready?”
“Tomorrow morning, eight-thirty at the very latest if we want the package to be delivered in time.” He gave a lop-sided grin. “And if it all works out well, I will also make the flight to Vancouver. Greg will be so pleased.”
“Have you packed? Or will you need my help with anything?”
Mycroft shook his head. “Greg personally supervised the packing process. He’s adamant about the one holiday rule.”
“Good man,” Anthea approved and when Mycroft sighed, she laughed. “It’s only two weeks.”
“Exactly. Two weeks. Who knows what will happen while I’m gone.”
“Don’t be absurd, cariño,” Anthea said. “It’ll do you the world of good. Besides, I’ll keep you posted at all times, as will Timothy, and I’m certain Greg has not picked a route that will take you offline for too long.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Mycroft said, a bit sourly, but when she raised her eyebrows, he gave a low huff. “You’re probably right. All right then, let’s get to it. I mustn’t miss my flight.”
“There’s a good lad,” Anthea said with a grin. “Come now, Mycroft, British Columbia is lovely in spring.”
“You’re probably right.”
“I am. I’ve been there. Now, stop frowning and let me fetch the legal team and alert Lucy.” She paused on her way out and asked, over her shoulder, “Mycroft?”
“Hm?” He was already typing the first of undoubtedly many messages still to be sent.
“Does the name Moriarty ring a bell? Jim Moriarty?”
“No.” He looked up from his BlackBerry. “Should I know him?”
And without further explanation, she was gone.
Mycroft looked at the closed door, pursed his lips and frowned. He was well familiar with Anthea’s facial expressions and the pitch of her voice. She had sounded a bit too casual.
He made a mental note of that name—to be looked into some other time.
British Columbia was every bit as nice as Anthea had said and when Mycroft returned to his office two weeks later, neither the United Kingdom nor the world had ceased to exist despite his absence. He went through his mail and most urgent to-dos during the very early hours of the morning, and when he opened the team meeting at ten a.m., he felt sufficiently updated and made a point of thanking Timothy and Anthea for their work.
(“Don’t forget to say thank you, Myc.”
“Your team bent over backwards to make sure you’re both kept in the loop and also able to enjoy some time off. They gave you no worries. You trained them well. Tell them thank you and that you appreciate their hard work.”)
It earned him grateful smiles and even more surprised looks.
Interesting. So it did pay off to listen to Greg when people skills were concerned. No reason to deny Greg outperformed Mycroft by far when it came to reading people.
It was towards the end of the meeting that he felt it, a short, sharp pain, much like a stab. He broke off mid-sentence and involuntarily gasped for air.
The reply came at once.
::What the hell, Myc? I’m in the middle of a briefing.::
He blinked and managed a non-committal smile for his colleagues.
“My apologies. I forgot to set my personal phone to silent. The buzz startled me.” ::Sorry about that, Greg. I’ll explain later.::
He pulled his mobile from his pocket and clicked a few buttons, as if adjusting the settings. Unnecessary, of course, as his phone was already muted, but it never hurt to follow up on one’s words. If only for show.
His eyes fell on Anthea. She had turned as pale as a sheet, her eyes wide open and fixed on a distant point.
She turned towards him. The expression in her eyes, or rather the lack thereof, alarmed him.
“Anthea, kindly fetch the Varvel files for me and meet me in my office. I need to discuss some of the handover details with you. We’ll be finished here shortly. Thank you.” ::Do as I say, I beg you.::
She nodded and got to her feet, slowly, stiffly, like an automaton, and gathered her documents. They fell from her hands, as if all strength had left her. Timothy got out of his seat at once to fetch them for her. She didn’t scold him for it the way she normally did, and it didn’t pass unnoticed.
“What’s got into you?” he said with his easy smile. “Was the coffee not good?”
She looked at him as if he was a stranger and shook her head. Not a word came from her lips as she stuffed the documents into her briefcase and she left the room with her spine ramrod straight, walking as if on stilts. Timothy looked after her and shook his head, then focussed on the papers before him.
“As I was saying, sir—” he picked up where he had left off and Mycroft listened to him summarise the on-going dilemma with one of their deal partners, but his attention was not wholly focussed on the topic any longer. The signals he picked up from Anthea—shock, disbelief and pain, such deep, deep pain—were most disturbing, but as long as she didn’t cut off their Link, the situation could certainly be dealt with.
Mycroft finished the meeting as quickly as he could, keeping the final assessments and projections unusually short, and made for his office with long strides.
Anthea sat in a corner of his office. On the floor. Clutching her briefcase to her chest as if it contained her most precious possessions.
He slammed the door shut and crouched down before her.
“Patsy,” he softly said, using the pet name he had sometimes used at the beginning of their working relationship. It usually made her glare at him. Not now. “Patsy,” he repeated, reached for her briefcase and gently pulled it away from her. “What is the matter, mi corazón?”
Her hands were like ice, cold and stiff, her eyes unfocussed. She didn’t reply.
“She’s gone, Mycroft,” came a whisper.
“Who’s gone, my love?”
“Irene.” It was barely audible.
“Irene.” She looked up. “She broke the Bond, Mycroft. She cut me off.”
He pulled out his mobile and dialled. The call connected after the first ring.
“Isandro, this is Mycroft Holmes. I need immediate transport from the office to my home address. Two passengers. It’s an emergency.—No, I’m quite well. Can you arrange that?—Oh, excellent. No luggage.—Yes, the usual exit. Thank you.”
He rang off and pocketed the phone.
“Patricia,” he said. “Patricia, listen to me. We’re leaving at once. You will stay with me and Greg for a couple of days, do you hear me?”
When she didn’t respond, he placed a finger under her chin and gently lifted her face.
“Do you hear me?”
She blinked and nodded.
“Good,” he said. “Can you walk?”
“Please try. I would carry you outside but I’m afraid it would give a horribly wrong impression. Isandro will be at the garden exit shortly. Is there anyone I can call? Someone who could pack a small suitcase for you?”
“In my office,” she said shakily. “There’s a travel bag in my office.”
“Good girl,” he praised and stood up. “I will ask Lucy to bring it.”
He walked over to his desk to dial his assistant’s number.
“Lucy, may I ask you to dash over to Anthea’s office and fetch her overnight bag? I’m afraid we’ll have to leave at once.—No, there’s nothing I need from you. It’s all been arranged, thank you.—Yes, my office. Thank you.”
Anthea was struggling to get up but it was as if all strength had left her, and Mycroft immediately knelt down, put her arm around his shoulders and his around her waist and helped her to her feet.
“Now listen to me, mi corazón, Lucy will be here in a moment. I will need to reach inside your head now, just for a split second, to tighten our connection. You need to be able to walk out of here as if nothing is wrong. As soon as you are safely inside the car, I will withdraw at once. Do you understand?”
“Please say it,” he urged her. “You know I will not manipulate our Link without your consent.”
“I allow it,” she whispered. “Please help me.”
“I will,” he promised and lightly touched his fingers to her temples.
When Lucy arrived with Anthea’s bag a few minutes later, Anthea stood next to Mycroft, her briefcase in her hand.
“Thank you, Lucy,” she said. “It’s much appreciated.”
If Lucy noticed Anthea’s voice wasn’t quite steady, she didn’t show it. She, too, was highly professional. Mycroft had hand-picked his team, both agents and administrative staff, and he had stolen Lucy from under the then Director’s nose.
He left a few instructions and left the building through the garden exit, talking to Anthea in a low, urgent voice, as if briefing her. She nodded and gave monosyllabic replies, and not a single person noticed Anthea’s strained expression. Or so Mycroft hoped.
He texted Greg on their way home, informing him what had happened and that Anthea would be staying with them for a few days, and when Isandro pulled up before their front door, Greg already stood waiting for them and all but yanked the car’s door open as soon as Isandro had stopped the engine and unlocked the doors.
His eyes widened when he saw the state Anthea was in, and he held out his hands to her to help her get out of the car. She staggered, and he lifted her up into his arms without further ado.
“My poor, sweet Pat,” he said, his voice soft and low. “It’s all right now, my love, it’s all right. I’ll bring you to your room now, and don’t you worry about a single thing.”
He had to have anticipated something like this and must have already unlocked the front-door for he shouldered it open and vanished inside with Anthea in his arms.
Mycroft got out and took Anthea’s bag and briefcase from Isandro.
“Not a word about this,” he said, knowing it was unnecessary.
Isandro gave a curt nod.
“Understood, sir.” ::Upon my honour.::
“Thank you. I won’t be needing you tonight. Please pick me up tomorrow at nine a.m. Yes, I know, not my usual time and traffic will be awful but it can’t be helped.”
“Nothing I can’t handle, sir.”
They exchanged a nod, then Isandro climbed back into the car and pulled back into the street, and Mycroft followed Greg inside.
Greg had sat Anthea down on the settee of their guest bedroom—the room Sherlock occasionally occupied was in the attic and it was nothing Mycroft would ever offer to an actual guest but if Sherlock liked it up there, so be it—and was removing her shoes when Mycroft entered. She was still ghostly pale but she managed to thank Greg in a hoarse voice that sounded nothing like her usual self. When Mycroft Reached out to touch her mind, it felt like an open wound, raw and bleeding. He quickly withdrew.
“Try to rest, cariña,” he softly said. “You know where everything is so if anything’s missing, take whatever you need and like Greg said, don’t you worry about a single thing, understood? If you need either of us, give us a shout and we’ll come to you. Yes?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Good. I will leave your door slightly ajar. If it bothers you, you may of course close it. We will leave our bedroom door open so we will hear you, or rather: I will hear you. Greg usually sleeps like a log.”
“Hey,” protested Greg but he grinned. “He’s right, of course. Nothing short of a siren will wake me up when I finally make it home and into my own bed.”
“My poor, overworked copper.”
Their short banter was entirely lost on Anthea who had withdrawn into herself once more. Greg and Mycroft exchanged a worried look, wordlessly agreed there was nothing more they could do at this moment and quietly left the room, leaving the door open by a crack.
“What on earth was Irene thinking?” Greg fumed, opening a bottle of beer and tossing the crown cap into the sink. “Was there something you could have seen?”
Mycroft picked it up and threw it into the bin underneath the sink.
“I wish I knew,” he said and leaned against the kitchen counter with a sigh. “Anthea never said a word. I knew their relationship was a bit rocky, even after all these years, but she never gave a sign of it being endangered. I remember Irene being married when Anthea first mentioned her, but as far as I know, the husband died a while back and Irene came into some money.”
“You don’t seem to know an awful lot about your partner’s…partner,” Greg remarked, taking a swig from his bottle.
“I don’t,” Mycroft agreed. “We’re not Bonded, Anthea and I, we’re Linked. If she chooses not to share something with me, she won’t. And I won’t press her for it. That’s not how a Link works, Greg, you should know that.”
Greg nodded, but didn’t reply.
“The first time I really noticed she seemed to be worried was when I returned from Russia a few months ago.” Mycroft frowned, searching his memory. “No, Poland it was. When I returned from Poland. She mentioned Irene had met someone she thought wasn’t good for her but she never gave me the name—wait. Come to think of it, she did drop a name once.” He looked at Greg, then to his left where his cognac stood, untouched. “James,” he slowly said. “His name was James. And just before we left for Vancouver, she asked whether I knew someone by the name of Jim Moriarty. I’ve not checked the name yet but I think I should.”
“James, Jim,” Greg mused. “Think it’s the same bloke?”
“I’m not sure. Could be.”
“Want me to look him up in our files?”
“That would be helpful, yes.”
“Want me to put Sherlock to it?”
Mycroft shook his head. “Good God, no. Leave him out of this. I don’t want my little brother sticking his nose into things that are not his business. He’s not to be involved in dealings of the Shifter community.”
“Are you really sure he doesn’t know about you? I mean, he sees practically everything. And if he doesn’t actually see it, he puts pieces together and deduces, and he’s usually spot on.”
“No, I am not sure he doesn’t know. He’s a Holmes, Greg. Not much remains hidden from us.”
“It is what it is,” Mycroft mildly said. “In any case, he’s not approached me about it and to be honest, I don’t care if he knows or doesn’t know. We may be at odds here and there—”
Greg snorted again. With feeling.
“—at odds here and there,” Mycroft repeated, “but when it comes down to it, we’re brothers. Deep down inside I know I can trust him, whatever he knows or knows not. Still, I’d like to keep him out of this. Speaking of knowing things, have you met a certain Dr Hooper? I believe she’s a specialist registrar at—”
“St Bart’s,” Greg finished for him. “I know. She’s a lovely young thing. Why are you asking?”
“Sherlock’s mentioned her once or twice and I wondered whether, well, I think he has a soft spot for her.”
“He does? I don’t think so. I’m fairly certain she has a massive crush on him, poor girl.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I think he’s playing her. Well, not playing her as in, leading her on. But I think he’s using her crush to his advantage. I have my eyes on him, though,” he said with a determined nod, “and if I find out he’s hurting her, I will kick his arse. She’s a very sweet young woman and a smart one, too. She doesn’t deserve being played.”
“Shame,” Mycroft said. “For a moment I was hoping he had taken a liking for another human being.”
They fell silent for a moment.
“I know he’s been using again,” Mycroft said into the silence. “And I know that you know, too.”
Greg looked up.
“How do you know?”
“You’re a rotten liar and he’s my little brother. I know I’ve not always been there when he needed me and like I said, we may not have the best of brotherly relationships, but I know when he’s not well.”
“He’s taking counselling sessions,” Greg said. “One of Pen’s doctor friends who’s helped out before.”
“I see,” murmured Mycroft. It had come as quite a blow to find out Sherlock had checked into a rehabilitation clinic while he was abroad and that Greg had taken on duties that he, Mycroft, should have shouldered. It had stung, had stung quite horribly, but who was he to point a finger? After all, he’d been gone for years, leaving his brother and his Bonded to themselves. And when it came down to it, he was grateful that Sherlock had chosen to confide in Greg and Greg—bless his soft heart and forgiving soul—had not blamed Mycroft for his little brother’s doings.
“Don’t,” Greg now said, sharply. “I know that look. You’re not being a rubbish big brother. Sherlock is very good at hiding things from other people.”
“He’s not hiding things from you, it would seem,” Mycroft said matter-of-factly.
“Nonsense. He’s been trying like crazy to not tell me. He keeps forgetting that while I may not solve a crime by sniffing on a suspect’s left sleeve, I’m used to dealing with addicts of all sorts. It’s not my division but I’ve seen my share. Plus, I used to be in a relationship with a doctor. You pick up a few things.”
“Penelope is a surgeon,” Mycroft pointed out but Greg made an impatient gesture.
“She used to work at A&E,” he reminded him. “And it’s beside the point right now. Sherlock’s been using, he’s not using anymore, he’s attending his sessions and I only wish he’d find a permanent place to stay.”
“And make a friend or two,” Mycroft agreed. “His self-imposed solitude is not doing him any good.”
“I tried telling him to find a flat-share the other day but he gave me one of his looks, you know, like I was the wrong kind of insect.”
“I know that look,” Mycroft said.
“I know you do,” Greg nodded. “You do it well, too. Anyway, he wouldn’t listen to me about such nonsense but I’ve not given up. I quite like the idea, you know, him sharing a nice flat somewhere…decent. Not mouldy.”
“Let’s pray for a miracle, then.”
“Indeed.” Greg finished his beer and put the empty bottle on the kitchen table. “About Pat. What are we going to do about her?”
“I want her to stay here for as long as it takes,” Mycroft said. “I’ll re-arrange my schedule so I work from home, at least for a couple of hours each day, and I will ask Isandro to keep an eye on her when I can’t.”
“I’ll help, too,” Greg said. “I’m afraid I can’t agree to a regular schedule but I can review files from here, too, you know, bring home my paperwork and stuff that needs signing. I don’t want her to be alone.”
“Neither do I. Thank you, Greg. It means a lot to me.”
“Shush.” Greg reached for Mycroft’s hand and squeezed it. “You know I like Pat, and she’ll need all the help she can get. I remember all too well what it did to Pen, when her Bond broke, and it’s nothing you want to handle all by yourself. And tomorrow, I’ll run a search on that Moriarty bloke you mentioned. Let’s see if we have anything on him.”
It turned out there was nothing on James Moriarty in the Met’s files, and Mycroft’s search produced zero results, too. But the name was now flagged and if somewhere on Earth’s surface someone named Moriarty would cross a red traffic light, Mycroft Holmes would find out.
Anthea gradually recovered but lost much of her liveliness along the way. She hardly ever went dancing anymore and when she did agree to tango with Mycroft, it turned out their balance had shifted and he now became her eje, and not the other way round.
In Newcastle upon Tyne, Captain John Hamish Watson was discharged from military service—honourably discharged, that is—after being wounded in Afghanistan and thus no longer fit for service.
“Yeah, but that was years ago. Why would she still be upset?”
For a split-second, everyone in the flat stopped what they were doing and Greg closed his eyes.
“Not good?” Sherlock asked, not catching on.
Dear God please help me for I want to slap him right now, Greg thought. If only—
“Bit not good, yeah.”
The slap was delivered in a low voice but hit its mark nevertheless. Sherlock glanced at his short companion and Greg eyed the man with curiosity. Seemed there was a lot more to this Dr Watson than met the eye. Small wonder Mycroft had taken an interest.
(“But Myc, kidnap the bloke? Isn’t that a bit drastic?”
“It was hardly kidnapping. I invited him to step into the car. He could have walked away. There’s no reason to snort, Greg, I hate it when you make that sound.”)
“Yeah, but if you were dying,” Sherlock said, addressing Watson, “if you’d been murdered—in your very last few seconds, what would you say?”
“Please, God, let me live,” Watson replied without thinking, and now Greg’s focus fully zoomed in on him. Watson sounded like someone who knew what he was talking about.
Sherlock, apparently, was of another opinion.
“Oh, use your imagination!”
“I don’t have to,” Watson said, pain ghosting across his face. Sherlock blinked a couple of times and shuffled his feet in what looked like a non-verbal apology.
“Yeah, but if you were clever, really clever,” Sherlock picked up his train of thought where he had left it and from there, it went exactly like Greg had seen countless times before. Sherlock raced through his deductions, throwing bits and pieces around, accused all of them of being stupid (“Oh, look at you lot. You’re all so vacant.”) and finally stormed off.
“You sure you’re all right?” Watson called after him.
“I’m fine,” Sherlock called back and was gone.
Watson frowned, puzzled and turned to Greg, as if expecting an explanation.
“Better get used to it,” Greg said and shrugged one shoulder. “This is how his brain works. I’ve known him for a long while now and I still can’t follow.” He turned to his team. “Guys, clean up and get out. We’re done here for now.”
“But sir—” Donovan protested but Greg held up his hand.
“We’re done for now,” he repeated. “Pack up, everybody.”
Anderson motioned as if to protest but Greg silenced him with a look. Anderson was a good forensics technician, but his dislike of Sherlock was bordering on obsessive. Everybody was entitled to their own opinion, but while Sherlock didn’t try very hard to make himself likeable at the best of times, it simply didn’t do to put one’s hostility on such open display. Greg didn’t approve of Anderson’s—and Donovan’s—behaviour and he had told them repeatedly. Sherlock was a lot of things, but he was neither a sociopath nor a psychopath.
Greg glanced at Watson who was still looking at the door, a somewhat puzzled expression on his face. He seemed a good one, this short, intent man whose eyes looked like they belonged to someone much older, someone who had seen things no-one should ever live to see, and Greg wondered what his exact background was. Oh, Mycroft had given him a summary – former army doctor, honourable discharge after taking a bullet in Afghanistan, treated for a trauma that wasn’t existent (in Mycroft’s opinion), but Mycroft being Mycroft, he hadn’t given any useful information about the man himself. Who was this Dr Watson? What kind of person was he? Did he have a family? A significant other? What did he like? What did he do?
One thing was sure, however: he needed to be made aware of Sherlock’s… past, and so Greg reached into the inside pocket of his jacket, fished out one of his cards, patted his pockets for a pen and then scribbled his mobile number on the back of the card.
“Listen,” he said in a low enough voice not to be overheard and offered the card to Watson, “you have certainly noticed this, uh, game was only partly a game.”
Watson slowly nodded and took Greg’s card without really looking at it. Instead, he narrowed his eyes.
“What you said about this flat not being entirely clean—” he began but interrupted himself, looking at the police officers still rummaging around.
Greg shook his head.
“It’s not my story to tell,” he said and gave a rueful grin when Watson frowned at him. “Yes, you’re right, I half told it by arranging this little show. I honestly believe there’s nothing to worry about right now but if there ever is, please don’t hesitate to call me, all right?”
Watson’s frown deepened.
“I’m not asking you to spy on him,” Greg said and grinned when Watson’s eyebrows shot up. “Yes, I know things, too, even though Sherlock thinks I’m—what did he call us?”
“Vacant,” Watson supplied.
“That’s right. Vacant. That was a new one. Usually it’s just ‘stupid’. Anyway, I wouldn’t want you to spy on him and report back to me. Or anyone else,” he added, putting extra weight on the words. “You understand me?”
Watson nodded again.
“But I think you should know that there are times during which Sherlock tends to become a little, well, let’s call it unstable.”
“What triggers it?”
“Boredom,” Greg said. “Be very careful when Sherlock gets bored. It’s not funny. All right,” he said in a booming voice, “there’s nothing of interest here for us today. Let’s get going, lads and lasses. There’s a phone to find and a murderer to catch, remember?”
And without another word to Watson, he shooed his team out of the flat and chased them down the flight of stairs.
There wasn’t much time to think about Dr Watson or Sherlock. The search for the missing mobile phone and the murder suspect kept Greg and his team busy. Nothing went as he anticipated, but then, hardly anything ever did when Sherlock was involved.
And so, at the end of a very long day, Greg found himself standing outside Roland Kerr College, with Sherlock sitting on the back steps of an ambulance and arguing with a paramedic about whether or not he was in need of a blanket.
“Why have I got this blanket?” Sherlock finally asked Greg, visibly annoyed. “They keep putting this blanket on me.”
“Yeah, it’s for shock.”
“I’m not in shock,” Sherlock protested.
“Yeah, but some of the guys want to take photographs,” Greg pointed out, grinning.
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “So, the shooter. No sign?”
“Cleared off before we got here,” Greg said. In fact, he didn’t have a clue where to look for the shooter but like hell he would admit that to Sherlock. “But a guy like that would have had enemies, I suppose. One of them could have been following him but,” he shrugged, “got nothing to go on.”
Sherlock looked at him with one of his crooked half-smirks that told Greg he was about to be deliver one of Sherlock’s deduction speeches that usually left him baffled.
“I wouldn’t say that.”
Now it was Greg who rolled his eyes. “Okay, gimme.”
“The bullet they just dug out of the wall’s from a hand gun,” Sherlock said, standing up. “Kill shot over that distance from that kind of a weapon – that’s a crack shot you’re looking for, but not just a marksman; a fighter. His hands couldn’t have shaken at all, so clearly he’s acclimatised to violence. He didn’t fire until I was in immediate danger, though, so strong moral principle. You’re looking for a man probably with a history of military service...” He was scanning the area while he was speaking, then he fixed his eyes on something or someone at a distance. “And nerves of steel,” he continued but stopped, apparently mid-thought.
Greg turned to see what Sherlock was looking at. He thought he spotted Watson standing by the police line. What on earth was Watson doing here? Who had told him where to find them?
Sherlock turned his attention back to Greg before he had the chance to remark on Watson’s presence.
“Actually, do you know what?” Sherlock said, interrupting Greg’s train of thought. “Ignore me.”
“Sorry?” Greg asked, not sure he’d heard right.
“Ignore all of that,” Sherlock repeated. “It’s just the, uh, the shock talking.”
He started to make his way towards Watson.
“Where’re you going?”
“I just need to talk about the…the rent.”
What the hell? This was getting more absurd by the minute.
“But I’ve still got questions for you.”
“Oh, what now?” Sherlock snapped, turning back towards him. “I’m in shock! Look, I’ve got a blanket!”
“And I just caught you a serial killer ... more or less.”
Greg narrowed his eyes, giving Sherlock a long, thoughtful stare. This—all of this—was unlike anything Sherlock ever said or did at a crime scene. Something was not quite right. Just, what was it?
“Okay,” Greg said. “We’ll bring you in tomorrow. Off you go.”
Sherlock walked away, heading straight for Watson as if pulled in by a gossamer strand. Greg looked after him, then smiled as an idea formed itself in his head. Interesting, that. Very interesting. Could it be that Sherlock actually…liked the man? As in, one human being taking a liking towards another human being?
He was about to get into proper DI mode when a humming of his Bond signalled the presence of a human being that he, Greg, liked above all. He looked up and saw Sherlock standing by a sleek black limousine, engaged in a heated discussion with said human being. Watson was standing next to him with a puzzled look on his face, Patricia was typing away on her BlackBerry, for all the world appearing as if she couldn’t care less.
“I’ll get back to you,” Greg said to the officer taking notes. “There’s something else I need to look into first. You coordinate the forensic team and have the witnesses interviewed. I’ll catch up with you later.”
“On it, sir,” the young officer said.
Greg nodded at him and ambled over to where Mycroft stood.
“Sir, shall we go?” Patricia was saying but Mycroft ignored her.
“Interesting, that soldier fellow,” he mused. “He could be the making of my brother – or make him worse than ever. Either way, we’d better upgrade their surveillance status. Grade Three Active.”
Patricia looked up from her phone.
“Sorry, sir. Whose status?”
Mycroft still had his eyes on his brother and his brother’s flatmate.
“Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson,” he said. “Hello Greg. What do you think of my brother’s latest fancy?”
“That’s what you think he is?” Greg asked, amused. “Sherlock’s fancy?”
“I’m not yet sure what he is,” Mycroft replied, pursing his lips. “He seems rather unremarkable at first glance but I think there’s a lot more to him than he lets on.”
“There is,” Greg agreed. “This quiet little fellow is anything but unremarkable, and from what I’ve seen of him so far, I think he’ll be the making of Sherlock.” He added,::And don’t you look dapper tonight. I can’t wait to get you out of that very respectable suit.::
Mycroft blinked rapidly, the way he did when yanked into a direction he had not foreseen and it tended to be Greg who did the yanking (with Sherlock, it was a different kind of blinking. Greg had learnt to tell the difference.).
Patricia made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a giggle, and she hastily covered her mouth.
Mycroft glared at her.
“Did you eavesdrop?”
“I did not,” she said. “You know very well I can only hear Greg when he chooses to address me directly. But you looked positively gobsmacked there and that usually means only one thing.”
“Oh yeah?” asked Greg, interested. “And what would that be, dearest Pat?”
“I shall refrain from making assumptions,” she replied. “There’s civilians around.”
“Thank you for remembering,” Mycroft sternly said. “And now it’s back to the office. I hope it hasn’t slipped your mind there’s the Pale Moon incident to look into.”
“The what?” Greg asked, trying very hard not to laugh.
“Pale Moon,” Mycroft repeated. He managed to keep a straight face but the corners of his mouth twitched. “Yes, it’s an unfortunate name and you may rest assured that I didn’t choose it.”
“I was worried there for a moment. So, when can I expect you to come home?”
Mycroft and Patricia exchanged a look. Patricia inclined her head by the merest of fractions.
“Not much after midnight,” Mycroft said. “And I won’t be expected back before 7am.”
Greg gave a low whistle. “That’s a whole seven hours. Are you sure your team can handle that long an absence?”
“I’ll be on call.”
::Oh no you won’t. You’ll be on your back.:: Greg winked at Mycroft. “That’s good to hear. I’ll see you then.”
“I—uh—well.” Mycroft cleared his throat. “Carry on, Gregory. There’s a shooter on the run, yes?”
“I believe there is.” Greg straightened and nodded at Patricia. “Enjoy the nightly session, Pat. And make sure he gets home on time.”
“Will do,” she said, absent-mindedly. “Happy hunting, Greg.”
Later, much later that night, as Greg lay comfortably in bed with his arms around Mycroft who had his head on Greg’s stomach, he remembered something Sherlock had said to him.
Mycroft turned a little so he could look up at Greg. His hair was tousled, his cheeks were still a little flushed from their lovemaking and a smile curved his lips. He looked well shagged and to Greg, he was the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen and he said as much.
“You’re being ridiculous,” Mycroft said, his cheeks turning a shade darker. “I’m a lot of things but beautiful, I am not.”
“You are to me,” Greg said and combed his fingers through Mycroft’s hair. “If I were to die tonight, this is the picture I’d take with me. You, in my arms, looking at me like that.”
“Don’t say things like that!” Mycroft slid up so their eyes were at the same level. “It’s not funny!”
“I wasn’t joking.” Greg kissed the tip of Mycroft’s nose. “I mean, I don’t intend to die just now—”
“—but every now and then it strikes me how lucky I am to have you around.”
“You are?” It sounded dubious.
“Well, you’re a Holmes and as such, it’s challenging sometimes—hey!”
Mycroft gave him an innocent look.
“You pinched me.”
“I did not.”
“Did not. You were saying?”
“I was—yes. So. This Watson bloke. What exactly did you find out about his background, other than him being an ex-army doctor?”
“He obtained his medical degree at King’s Collage and was trained at St Bart’s,” he started, no doubt pulling up an internal file on his brother’s flatmate. “He held the rank of a captain in the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers and was shot in the shoulder in Afghanistan, Helmand, most likely. He was, or still is, in therapy for a limp that I believe is psychosomatic and his appearance at the crime scene tonight without his cane is evidence to that theory.”
“That’s right,” Greg said. “Now that you mention it, I remember him using a cane when Sherlock dragged him to the scene where we investigated the death of the pink lady. But you already told me most of the facts. Have you got anything else on him?”
“The pink lady?” Mycroft echoed. “You think that’s better than the pale moon?”
“Not really,” Greg laughed softly. “And it’s inappropriate, too. But as it’s an on-going investigation—”
“I know. You cannot give the victim’s name away.”
“You probably already know everything anyway.”
“Believe it or not but this time, I really don’t. I’m up to my neck in diplomatic entanglements, trying to figure out who’s not talking to whom and why, and whom to address in case A takes offense at something B whispered to C which D may or not may not have overheard.”
Greg nudged him. “Come on, you like that sort of thing.”
“I do, yes,” Mycroft admitted without hesitation. “It’s fascinating to unravel the mess and to watch who will take which part in the game that is to take place.”
“With you discreetly pointing out which route to take.”
“If I can, yes, absolutely.”
Mycroft reached for his mobile.
“It’s past two,” he said. “With your permission, I’d like to catch some sleep before I must drag myself back into the office.”
“Shame,” Greg said, reaching for the blanket and pulling it across the two of them. “There was something I wanted to discuss with you, something other than Watson, I mean.”
Mycroft, who had turned to sleep on his preferred side, gave a soft grunt.
“Really, Greg?” he asked, sounding sleepy already. “Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”
“Of course it can. But just so you know, it involves a weekend in Scotland.”
“Scotland?” Mycroft turned around to face him. “I’m not sure I can make myself free for an entire weekend any time soon.”
“Ah, but you really should,” Greg said, smiling. “I have something of a proposal to make, and I’d like to put some distance between us and all of this.” He made a gesture that indicated their flat, or London, or work—all of it, really. “Ah, don’t look at me like that. It’s nothing to be scared of, I think. I hope. It’s just that I’d like some privacy.”
“Mhm.” Mycroft blinked and Greg bent forward to kiss his forehead.
“Sleep now, love. We’ll talk Scotland and Watson tomorrow.”
“I hope one doesn’t involve the other.”
“No,” Greg said in a determined voice. “Absolutely not.”
It took them longer than expected to finally get to Scotland because Mycroft needed more time than expected to unravel the diplomatic mess and Greg got himself into a situation that included Sherlock Holmes, Dr John Watson and three raisins. No, five orange pips.
But he kept his mouth firmly shut about what it was he needed to discuss with Mycroft, and why it had to be in Scotland. There was no rush.
::I can’t believe I’m doing this,:: Mycroft muttered and when Greg didn’t reply, he repeated in a louder Mindvoice: ::Why am I doing this?::
::Because you love me,:: came the cheerful reply. ::No need to yell at me, you big grumpy fluff. I heard you just fine.::
::You heard, but you didn’t listen,:: he sourly said and hopped through the door that stood open just wide enough to allow for a small fox and an eagle owl to slip through. ::If this door slams shut behind me and I’m stuck here with you again, I will make it my personal mission to rip out your fur tuft by tuft. And if it’s the last thing I do,:: he added with what he hoped was a menacing undertone.
::No need to get violent, Myc. We got out back then, we will get out today.:: The Fox appeared from the dark corner into which he had vanished. ::For heaven’s sakes, just come down here. I have a pair of red Foxes stand by. If the door slams shut and the lock miraculously snaps, they’ll have all necessary hardware nearby to get us out.::
Sighing was not in an owl’s vocal repertoire and so Mycroft clicked his beak and awkwardly hopped down the stairs, not entirely convinced.
::You know,:: observed Greg when Mycroft arrived at the bottom of the stairs, ::I will never understand why you birds don’t just fly all the time. Whenever I see a crow cross a street on foot I wonder, why on earth does he do that? And now you’re walking down the stairs instead of just, you know, spread your wings. Why is that?::
::Because sometimes we choose to walk. Is that a picknick basket in the middle of this, uh, chamber?::
::And is that a holdall sitting next to it?:: Mycroft swivelled his head around to take in the surroundings. ::Correct me if I’m wrong but this place looks a lot cleaner than I recall. There is hardly any debris and there appears to be straw on the floor. Very medieval.::
::The eyes of an eagle.::
Greg’s grin was audible in the Fox’ Mindvoice and Mycroft cocked his head to the side to look at him sharply.
::May I ask what this is about?::
The air around Greg started to blur which indicated the Shifting process. He rose from his crouching position and walked, barefoot and naked, to the holdall and pulled out a pair of boxers, socks, jeans, t-shirt and hoodie and a pair of trainers. Mycroft watched him get dressed, puzzled and not catching on.
::What are you doing?::
Greg fished out a second set of clothes.
“Here, put these on. I have a surprise for you.”
Mycroft, still puzzled, did as he was told. By the time he slipped into his shoes, Greg had spread out a blanket, set a couple of dishes on it and was now distributing a couple of candles.
“Please tell me these aren’t real candles,” Mycroft said, alarmed.
Greg looked up.
“Are you insane? With all that straw on the floor? I didn’t drag you here so we could burn together. No, my love, these are battery-operated. Look.” There was a soft ‘click’ as he switched the first candle on. “They even flicker. Pretty, huh.”
“Mhm. What’s in the dishes?”
“Not sure. Moira threw something together.”
“Don’t let her hear that or she will hurt you.”
Greg laughed. “Please don’t tell her I said that.”
Moira Grafton and her husband Philip looked after Greg’s and Mycroft’s Scottish holiday home and Moira never ‘threw’ anything together, or if she did, it sure didn’t taste ‘thrown together’.
Mycroft peered into the holdall and pulled out two flat picknick cushions, threw them on the ground and knelt down on one of them to inspect the dishes’ contents while Greg arranged the candles. The light they gave off was subdued at best, but thanks to his Owl persona, Mycroft had superior night vision even in human shape, as did Greg.
“How did you manage to put all of this into the basket and the bag?” Mycroft asked, setting up their makeshift table.
“It’s a magic Mary Poppins bag.”
“Where’s the wine? Don’t tell me she forgot the wine.” Greg pulled the picknick basket closer and looked inside. “Of course she didn’t,” he said, relieved, took out a bottle and opener and two wine glasses and sat down cross-legged on the second cushion.
“Allow me,” Mycroft said and held out his hand. He was better and quicker at opening wine and champagne bottles than Greg, poured each of them half a glass and offered one to Greg. “Would you now tell me what this is all about? And why on earth you took me here?”
Greg raised his glass in salute.
“It’s not exactly our anniversary but this here,” he made a gesture indicating the chamber, “is where we met twenty-five years ago. Remember?”
Mycroft smiled. “How could I forget? I’d already been stuck in here for a whole day and I was so angry at myself for misjudging the situation, and then you came and started making the most horrible noise I’d ever heard.”
“I did bark a little, didn’t I.”
“‘Bark a little’ is putting it mildly. I thought I was going deaf.” He chuckled. “Twenty-five years,” he softly said. “Who would have thought.”
“And look at us now.”
Mycroft set his glass down and took Greg’s glass from his hands, too, grabbed a fistful of Greg’s hoodie and pulled him closer.
“Look at us indeed,” he said and kissed Greg’s smiling lips. Greg tasted of wine and warmth and of everything good Mycroft could think of, and he closed his eyes and thanked whoever was willing to listen that all these years ago, a young eagle owl and a young silver fox had ended up being trapped together in an underground chamber of a Scottish castle ruin.
Their lips parted and Mycroft let go of Greg’s hoodie, trying to smooth the wrinkles he had caused. Greg caught Mycroft’s hand in his and brushed a kiss over his knuckles.
“I don’t regret a single day,” he said and pressed Mycroft’s hand.
“Not a single day? Really?” The usual wave of guilt washed over Mycroft, the way it always did when his Big Mistake (he thought of it capitalised) floated to the surface, even though Greg had long since forgiven him.
“Hush,” Greg said, as if he had heard Mycroft’s thoughts. “Not a single day. You came back to me and that’s all that matters. Listen, Mycroft, I wondered—” he began, then broke off and shook his head.
“What is it?”
“Not now. I’m starving. Let’s see what Moira has prepared for us.”
The food was good and the wine was, too, and they chatted all topics that came to mind—except for why they were here of all places. It didn’t take deductive abilities to tell that something was on Greg’s mind and something big, as far as Mycroft could tell, but Greg had carefully shrouded the topic in his mind and Mycroft wouldn’t pry. Greg would tell him when the time was right, he was sure of it. And so he joined Greg in reminiscing about some of the things they’d done together, and some things they’d done while apart, and it was cheerful and comfortable.
Finally their food was eaten, their wine was gone and all dishes, plates, glassware and silverware were back in the basket. Mycroft picked up the holdall, Greg had the basket and they walked up the stairs in silence, Greg’s mystery topic hanging between them, unsaid.
The door was still open, as Greg had promised, and when they stepped through, Greg closed it and snapped the padlock shut.
“Do I want to know how you managed to arrange all this?” Mycroft asked.
“No, you don’t. You’d lie awake for the next three nights, going through all kinds of what if-scenarios when in reality it all worked just fine.”
Mycroft pffft at that but Greg merely grinned at him, then gave a low whistle. A soft rustle from among the nearby shrubs indicated their two guards had just withdrawn from watch duty.
“And now?” Mycroft asked.
“Now we go home.”
“What, all the way to the cottage? Isn’t that a bit far for a nightly walk?”
“Not all the way to the cottage. Just across that clearing over there and some five more minutes until we reach the path. Our car’s waiting for us there.”
“You really thought all of this through, didn’t you?”
“I did, yeah.”
“Why? Just to take me to a midnight picknick? You could have just told me, you know.”
“It wouldn’t have been a surprise if I had told you.”
“Yes, but Greg—”
Greg turned around and headed towards the clearing. Mycroft looked after him and shook his head. What on earth was going on here? He hurried to catch up and fell into step with Greg.
“Greg—” he began again but Greg took the bag from him and lay a finger across Mycroft’s lips.
“Shhh,” he said, sat bag and basket on the ground and took Mycroft’s hands in his. “The reason I asked you to come here with me tonight—” he began, looked down and nervously shuffled his feet.
Mycroft narrowed his eyes.
Greg cleared his throat.
“Look, Mycroft,” he said, his voice a little unsteady, “you’re already wearing my ring and I thought—” he dropped down on one knee, Mycroft’s hands still in his.
“Greg, what are you doing?” Mycroft asked, suddenly nervous.
But he knew what was to come. He knew it deep down in his heart. His stomach plummeted to his knees but his knees, oh dear Lord, what was wrong with his knees? All wobbly. Like a child’s on Christmas Day. How undignified.
“Don’t interrupt me, Myc,” Greg said. “This is taking a lot of nerves.” He took a deep breath. “You’ve probably already deduced what’s coming next, me on one knee before you and all.”
Mycroft remained silent. If his knees weren’t steady, he wouldn’t trust his voice to comply.
“Will you marry me, Myc?”
The sky didn’t fall and the ground didn’t open but to Mycroft, they did. It felt as if the universe had stopped moving, only to eavesdrop what he, Mycroft Holmes, was about to say next.
“We can’t get married, Greg,” he croaked. Of course he would croak in a moment like this. “There is no such thing as marriage for gay couples.”
Greg’s grip on Mycroft’s hands tightened.
“Allow me to rephrase. Will you enter into a civil partnership with me?”
“Get up,” Mycroft said, his voice still shaky, and pulled. “Don’t kneel before me like a peasant.”
Greg got up and came to stand directly before Mycroft, their hands caught between them. The waning moon cast silvery highlights into Greg’s greying hair and his dark eyes appeared almost black. Mycroft thought that in all of his life he’d never seen a more beautiful human being, and he swallowed, his throat tightening again.
“Is that a yes or a no, Myc?”
Uncertainty ghosted across Greg’s face and he moved as if to step back.
Mycroft entwined their fingers, wouldn’t let him pull away.
“Of course I will marry you, you beautiful idiot,” he said. “If only to give Sherlock the shock of a lifetime.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Greg replied hoarsely. “He’s probably deduced it from the way I held my pen when we last met and is already busy folding napkins into cranes or something.”
“Not unlikely. He’s always enjoyed looking at origami pieces. Now, will you please kiss me or do I have to beg for it?”
And so, twenty-five years after Mycroft Holmes and Greg Lestrade got stuck in a castle ruin together, they signed their names on a document that granted them the same rights and responsibilities as a civil marriage. It was another four years before they were able to convert their civil partnership into a marriage, and it was at Mycroft’s insistence that they did. Greg would have been happy to keep it a civil partnership.
It turned out that Sherlock was neither particularly shocked nor had he folded napkins into cranes or any other shape. He looked his brother and his new brother-in-law up and down, gave a curt nod, pulled out his mobile phone to speed-dial a number and turned to leave without a word when the call connected.
“The dog, John,” he said in an urgent voice. “Why did the dog not do anything in the night-time?”