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The Scramble

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Greg Lestrade decided that the tall bloke in the suit would be his last shot.

Feeling extremely conspicuous and more than a little silly, Greg palmed his drink and walked purposefully to the bar, where the man in his sights had his back to him.

Greg could tell at a glance that he probably wasn't his bloke. The hair wasn't right, for starters. It was dark with russet overtones, and fairly straight, though that could have been product-induced. The bloke Greg was after had blondish curls arranged in what looked to be something of a fuzzy halo, not these neatly tamed waves.

Also, the face shape was wrong – too oval. Or maybe it was too square. Or both. Or something. Greg couldn't be completely sure, of course – which was sort of the point.

But Greg was past giving a fuck about the point. Actually, he'd given up on finding any point or any person or anything whatsoever after getting nowhere with the first three men he'd approached.

He couldn't let it go, though. He was a bloody Scotland Yard detective sergeant and this was a bloody mystery. If he was worth his stripes at all, he'd get to the bottom of it.

When he was abreast of his target, the man turned his head slightly. Not enough to make eye contact, but enough to indicate that he'd sensed someone's approach and that he wanted that someone to know he'd sensed him coming.

Greg hesitated, uncertain of his next move. Maybe he should just finish the rest of his flavorless, overpriced drink and leave. He was sure this wasn't the man he was supposed to meet. His bloke had likely gotten cold feet and had decided not to show. Or maybe he had been there, strategically positioned near an exit just in case he wasn't keen on what he saw, and –

He nearly choked when the suited man suddenly turned on his stool to look directly at him. Greg's glass nearly slipped from his fingers as he was raked from top to toe by a gaze that had icicles in it.

The man appeared younger than his attire might have indicated. He had blueish-grey eyes and an unlined face that seemed to place him in his early 30s. He was handsome in a slightly fussy way. Aside from the tamed hair, there was the impeccable three-piece suit, the glint of a gold chain that no doubt attached to one of those old-fashioned watch fobs, and at his feet, a brolly with a highly polished wooden handle that Greg suspected might have been custom-made. It looked as if the man were drinking very good scotch.

Greg fancied that he wasn't the sort of patron the pub normally attracted. Perhaps he was just stopping in for a quick one before getting the train out to the suburbs. There was, of course, the possibility that he was in the market for something less pedestrian than a drink and a quiet conversation with the barkeep. The place wasn't exactly a gay pub, per se, but it did have something of a "reputation." Could be the suit was in the mood for a bit of rough to go with his neat single-malt beverage. This place likely saw plenty of that sort of thing.

Greg snapped out of his slight reverie when he noticed those cool eyes weren't letting up. This wasn't one of those glance-and-dismiss things. The man was waiting for him to say something. But what he had to say was moot – close up, he could just tell this was not the bloke.

Still, the words burst out of him before he could stop them.

“You're not Stephen, are you?”

There was a hint of a smile on the thin lips, but the eyes were guarded.

“No. I'm afraid I'm not Stephen.”

Greg's head jerked forward in acknowledgement. “Right. Right, well sorry to have disturbed you. I –”

“Moreover,” said the man, his smile growing by degrees, “you knew that even before you approached me, didn't you?”

Greg stared at him. There was a thaw coming into the eyes, rendering them more blue and less remote. The voice was upper-class, curious and casually amused, and Greg was suddenly reminded of his sixth-form English teacher. If Mr. Towne-Smyth had been as fit as the man in front of him, Greg reckoned he would've paid closer attention in class.

“Yeah, I figured you weren't, but I wanted to be sure.” He shrugged weakly. “This is a bit out of my way, and I didn't want to just leave if … anyway, sorry again for disturbing you.”

“Not at all,” the other man replied. “I'm sorry that you traveled so far out of your way for nothing. If there's any justice, your would-be 'date' will be caught out on his lies someday. I would suggest, however, that you expose him now so that others won't be caught up in his deceitful game.”

Greg gaped. “I … what?”

“Online dating doubtless has its attractions – convenience being among them,” said the man gently. “But I've always believed that anything that requires so much trust to be put into a veritable stranger often becomes fraught with difficulties.”

Greg kept staring. The man was speaking English – painfully correct English, at that – and yet he couldn't fully grasp what he saying.

Well, no. That wasn't true. He could, but Greg couldn't understand how this strange man he'd never clapped eyes on could have any idea

“What makes you think I know anything about –” Greg trailed off with a sickly little smirk. “Oh. Oh. Right. I come up to you and ask you if you're so-and-so, which I wouldn't've done if we'd met before.”

The smile broadened even further. “Precisely. And as we're in a pub and not an office setting, I wouldn't think you were approaching a potential employer or business partner. But actually, I knew why you were here even before you opened your mouth.”

"Yeah?” Greg tipped an eyebrow at the man. “How?”

“Two things told me: Your mobile and your drink.”

“My mobile?” Greg's forehead wrinkled. “And my drink? But – wait, what about my drink?”

“It isn't what you usually have,” said the man with an offhanded shrug, taking a measured sip of his own. “And this is a pub in which you've never been.”

“How d'you ...”

But Greg stopped himself. He gave the bloke a once-over again. No, he'd never seen him before, not at the Yard or anywhere else. Greg reckoned he could've been someone he'd met knocking around uni, but the slightly priggish accent – to say nothing of the suit and all the trappings – said Oxbridge rather than Plymouth University.

Greg took a breath, squinted at the man, then grinned.

“All right. I do favor a pint of Guinness over this fancy bilge. How'd you know?”

“Quite simple,” said the man, putting down his glass. “The prices in this pub are rather steep, both for the location and the quality of its liquor. However, I suppose in an attempt to make patrons feel as if they are getting what they pay for, they put more alcohol into the mixed drinks than is usual.”

Greg's eyes darted to his glass. It was a quarter gone, if that. He remembered the first sip and how much he had been caught a bit off guard by the kick it'd had.

The man saw the movement of his eyes and smiled. “Yes. Quite potent, I'd imagine. If this were your local pub, you would have known that and ordered something different.”

“Well …” Greg thought it over. “All right. Maybe that tells you I've never been here before, but I still can't reckon out how you know this wasn't my usual and that maybe I just wasn't used to it being so strong. Or that I'm on a date – well, sort of – let alone an online one.”

“Oh, I see. Well, it would follow that after a sip of that, you would have gone to a drink more to your taste,” said the taller man. “That you didn't indicates that you ordered this drink precisely because it wasn't something you generally like, and therefore could toss back in a trice. You did not come here to get … pissed. You wanted to be sociable, and moreover, to make a good impression. So you purposely selected something at which you could just sip and, as such, would be in little danger of overindulging.”

Greg looked down into his glass and then back up at the man in mute astonishment. He got another grin and the laconic voice continued:

“But the drink was stronger than you anticipated and you allowed it to become watered down – rather a waste of money in ordinary circumstances, especially at these prices. But you wanted it to lose some of its potency, and as you only planned on buying one, I suppose it didn't matter. It seems logical, then, that the only reason you'd want to be lucid and charming in a pub is to … er, attract pleasant company. You'd likely be at the bar if you'd come in without the expectation of meeting someone.”

The icy gaze narrowed. “And that brings me to your mobile. Rather a more telling piece of evidence than your drink, I admit.”

“W-What about my mobile?” Greg felt the back of his neck prickle. It wasn't entirely an unpleasant sensation, but still …

“I have rather keen peripheral vision,” he said. “I noted you upon your approach. But before you reached me, you stopped, took out your mobile, glanced at it, then at me, and then back at your mobile.”

“That peripheral vision of yours must be damned keen.”

The man almost laughed. “It is. In my line of work it serves me well.”

“Yeah? You and I might be about in the same business.” Greg smiled a little.

The man gave him another searching glance, one a great deal more friendly than the first. So much so, that Greg found himself blushing slightly.

 “I shouldn't wonder,” the man said musingly. “At any rate, it was clear that you were comparing me to something you were viewing on your mobile. It couldn't be a text – that would have been nonsensical. It could only, then, be a photograph. You were looking at a picture and trying to see if there was a likeness. You subtly shook your head – maybe you weren't even aware of it – but it was a 'tell,' if you will. You knew I was not the man in the photograph. Yet, you approached me anyway. I do admit I was a bit surprised that you decided to act as if you didn't know I was not your … date. I might have been very concerned that someone was trying to pass themselves off as me, but then I recalled that there are no pictures of myself on the Internet.”

Greg grinned at that. “You sure about that? They say that everybody's got a picture on the Internet, whether they know it or not.”

“Not everyone. Believe me.” The man's voice was light. “Well then, am I correct? I know that I may have missed, or misinterpreted, some details, but –”

“Spot on,” said Greg, shaking his head. “You've pretty much gotten all of it. For first dates, I like a bit of something to take the edge off my nerves. I hate gin, but I didn't want to toss back pints until I couldn't stand up. This is shit, though. How's yours?”

“Tolerable. I've had much better.”

Greg grimaced. He sat his sweating glass on the counter and pushed it away.

“I was supposed to meet a bloke here named Stephen," Greg said. "I've been here nearly 45 minutes. I figured you were a long shot, but … I dunno, I thought maybe with a change of hair or … something, that maybe … I mean, I don't really have a great idea of what he looks like.”

The man looked confused. “What do you mean? You do have his picture, don't you? You were looking at it on your mobile.”

“Well … I was and I wasn't.”

A long crease appeared in the middle of the smooth forehead. "I don't understand. Do you or do you not have this man's photograph?"

Greg took out his mobile and after keying in the access code, scrolled through until he found what he was looking for.

This is what I have.”

He held out his mobile toward the man and watched elegant brows arch upward as his new friend took in the contents of the screen.

“I … see. Or perhaps, I don't see.”

“Yeah. That's sort of how it works.” Greg grimaced down at his phone, which was displaying a mass of jumbled tiles. “I'm, er, on a Crazy Blind Date.”

“A … Crazy Blind Date,” repeated the man in a slow, cautious voice that suggested he hoped Greg didn't make any sudden moves.

“That's what it's called. Really.” Greg raked a hand through his hair. “I am trying the online dating thing. A friend of work suggested it. She'd met a few nice blokes that way, and, well, nothing else was working too well for me … uh, I mean ...”

Right, Greg. Good job sounding like a complete loser.

He took a second to reset himself before going on. “Well, anyway, I have a profile on a dating site. Nothing fancy, and the site's a free one, so you get all sorts.”

“I can imagine. And it's not going as you've hoped?”

“Well, I've been on some dates, but nothing's clicked very well so far,” said Greg. “So when I heard about this –”

“– Crazy Blind Date?” The man's lips were trembling slightly.

“I swear to you, that's what it's called.” Greg shifted uneasily. “You can Google it. It's all in capital letters and everything. Must be trademarked.”

“Yes. Undoubtedly.” The man nodded once. “And this was a service offered by the site to which you have a membership?

“Yeah, but this uh, Crazy Blind Date thing was the newest trick. 'For the Adventurous,' it says. How it works is you download the app to your phone. Then you get to pick a photo from your profile, and the app puts it through something called The Scramble. It does that to the picture, you know, cuts it up and scrambles it about. If it looks too much like a dog's dinner, you can rearrange things a bit so that you're more recognizable.”

“But wouldn't that be somewhat beside the point?”

“In a manner of speaking, yeah,” said Greg. “I mean, if the point is to go on more or less a blind date. It's cheating in a way, I guess, but I suppose some people have limits to how 'adventurous' they want to be.”

“True. And so this person ...” he waved toward Greg's mobile “is your date? How did you come to pick him? Hadn't you seen his unadulterated picture before now?”

“It doesn't exactly work that way, where you just choose out someone of an identity parade and hope for the best,” said Greg with a small grin.

The man's eyes lit up briefly, and Greg thought he was going to say something, but he remained quiet and inclined his head at Greg as if to say continue.

“Once you send a picture of your own through The Scramble, you then put in your age, gender, er, and your sexual orientation. Then you put in when and where you can meet – the more flexible you are, the better chance of finding someone who's looking for what you're looking for and can meet at the time and place you picked out,” Greg said. “Once you get a match and accept, you get a message confirming the place and time. Then about 40 or so minutes before the start of the date, you get an anonymous chat window opened on your mobile so that you can communicate with the person you're meeting.”

“And so you picked this evening and this place, and a match was found. You were sent that ... image, and I suppose he was sent a comparable one of you.”

"Exactly. And we were supposed to meet here at 7 sharp."

The man looked thoughtful and he glanced briefly around the quiet pub. “Yet, you can't seem to find him?”

“No.” Greg sounded rueful. “There was a bit of a situation at work. I thought I might be late, so when the chat window popped up, I told the bloke I might be held up, but that it shouldn't be more than a few minutes. He said it was fine; he'd just grab a table and to let him know if I'd be longer. I got a bit lucky and was able to grab a cab straight from the Lambeth Bridge roundabout and got here about the time we'd agreed on. I looked round and saw a few blokes I thought might fit the picture if it were unscrambled, but none of them was him. So I thought maybe he was held up on the Tube or something and I settled in to wait. Got a drink, saw another couple of blokes come in, but they were joined by women a few minutes after they got here. So I thought maybe something else was going on with this guy ...”

“Stephen, correct?”

“Right. Stephen,” Greg muttered. “Anyway, I sent a few messages to him through the chat window. Didn't hear back. I asked one other bloke, and he looked like he wanted to chin me for even speaking to him. I reckoned at that point that I'd been stood up, but I decided to give it one last go.”

“And that was the point at which I entered the narrative.” The suited man was still looking thoughtful. “But even with this picture tossed about as it is, you had to realize fairly quickly that I looked nothing like this man.”

“Yeah, well … I've been on a few dates where the person I met could've been Jeremy bleeding Kyle for all they looked like the pictures on the profile.”

“Bringing me back to my point about having to having to put a good deal of unwarranted trust in a stranger.”

“I suppose, but you have to take a chance sometimes." Greg shrugged. "Otherwise, you don't get very far – in life or anywhere else.”

“I suppose there is something to be said for that,” murmured the other man, rubbing his chin. “Tell me … you are single?”

“Of course.” Greg was mildly surprised at the question. “Why else would I be doing this?”

“Hmm.” The man seemed to gloss over that statement. “And you're … I would guess … mid-30s? Perhaps a little younger?”

“I'll be thirty-five in July.” Greg got that prickly feeling at the nape of his neck again. “But what does that –”

“I would have guessed younger, but for your hair.”

“ – Oh.”

A bit self-consciously, Greg combed his fingers through his hair, knowing that the silver strands interwoven among the dark ones were becoming more numerous by the year.

“Yeah. I get that a lot.”

“Have you ever considered coloring it?

“Nah.” Greg shook his head. “Wouldn't do much good. It's how it goes for the blokes in my family, and it beats going bald, I suppose.”

“I'm glad.”

“– Sorry?” Greg tilted his head. “Glad about …?”

“That you won't color your hair.” The man's eyes drifted upward and he smiled. “I think it makes you look even more striking.”

Greg's mind went unaccountably blank. Er … what?

He swallowed hard. Was this man … flirting with him? There didn't seem any other way to parse that statement. After a few more seconds of thought, Greg was conscious that if it was flirting, he didn't mind very much. At all.

But then again, he didn't want to be someone's charity case. If this one was chatting him up to make him feel better about having wasted his time, well thanks but no thanks …

“You know, this … Crazy Blind Date program seems to be one that would appeal to a very certain demographic,” the man said in a very changed tone of voice.

Greg looked at him again. The tall man's eyes had narrowed into slashes of cool steel and he was looking again out into the milling crowd.

“How's that?”

“Well, you download this app to your mobile: a device to which only one person – the owner, usually – has access. You are allowed to conceal your identity to a degree that it is an even chance that you'll be spotted unless you own up to who you are,” the man said, turning his head slowly. “You don't exchange names or phone numbers and your communications are completely anonymous.”

“Well, yeah, that's how it works. What's your point?”

The cool eyes found Greg's. “It's a fine tool for adulterers, don't you think?”

Greg opened his mouth, then shut it so quickly, his teeth rattled. He felt a sudden chill at the base of his spine.

“Oh … shit … you don't think –”

“Tell me – are any of the men you approached earlier in your search for Stephen still here?”

“Uh ...” Greg blinked, wishing he had a drink – a real one. But he got himself together, and glanced around.

“Yeah. A few of them are. The first one I went to is the bloke at the table in the middle. The one on his laptop. I went up to him and asked him if he were Stephen,” said Greg, indicating a nondescript gentleman who looked to be around 40, dressed casually with his attention riveted to the computer screen.

“He was friendly enough. Told me he wasn't, and asked if I had the right pub.”

“Hmm. And the others?”

“Bloke over there by himself looking at his mobile,” said Greg. “In the black jumper.”

They both glanced at a weedy man with a mop of blondish-brown hair who was nursing a pint while scrolling through his phone with a pained expression.

“He just said 'No' when I asked him, and I went about my business.”

“Interesting. Anyone else?”

“Just the bloke who seemed keen for a punch-up,” Greg said sourly. “He's at that table near the men's bog.”

Said individual, an attractive man with hair of an indeterminate color wearing part of a Tottenham kit, was talking loudly with a few other men who were similarly unremarkable.

“His mates weren't there when I talked to him. He's in a better mood, looks like. But then, Tottenham's been on a run lately.”

Greg turned interested eyes to his companion. “So you reckon this Stephen bloke is married, wanted a bit of fun, but thought better of it and just decided not to show?”

“That he's married is almost a certainty,” said the man. “But he did show. And moreover, he's still here.”

What?” Greg started. “You mean all this time, I went round to the wrong blokes and he –”

“Not at all. You went to the right one. The first time.”

“I … him?” Greg didn't look round, but he could see the suited man's gaze fixed firmly on the center of the room. “The bloke with the laptop?”

 “Unquestionably. I only glanced at the scrambled photo for a few moments, but there are certain physical features that this man has in common. He made it almost laughably easy by choosing a picture that displays him from the shoulders up that was taken at very close range. He has the same complexion as the man in this picture. The same slightly twisted lip – a scar, I would suppose, from a burn he suffered as a child. His hair is shorter now than it is the picture, so the curls are less apparent, but it is the same color. And it appears he's wearing the same shirt as in that photograph.”

Greg looked at the “picture” on his mobile, and then as casually as he could manage, took a look around the pub as if he were just checking out the crowd. But his eyes rested for more than a moment on the bloke in the middle of the pub.

The tall man was right – the purple polo was at least the same color and basic shape as what was in the picture. The man had been wearing his jacket when Greg had first approached him, but it was off now, and so Greg had a better basis for comparison. The hair that seemed dark in the shadowy pub did have a significant blond tint to it when viewed under the track lighting that had been turned on overhead, and longer strands around the man's ears curled in on themselves. Greg remembered thinking that there was something off about the man's face, and he realized now it was the scarred lip, which manifested itself as a dark smear on one of the scrambled tiles.

“Bloody hell. I knew it,” Greg said softly. “I knew it. I thought that his hair was about the same, and he looked as if he'd been waiting there awhile. In one of his messages, he said not to be fussed about being later because he'd be coming from work, too. I thought maybe he brought his computer along to catch up on assignments. Says he writes articles about race cars.”

Greg's shoulders sagged. “So he didn't fancy me, then, and tried to get out of it by saying he wasn't the man I was looking for. Or he grew a conscience at the last minute ...”

Or it was his misfortune to choose a pub for his liaison at which acquaintances of his wife were meeting.”

Greg lifted his head. “Sorry?”

“Take a look at the group at the table directly adjacent his – toward the windows.”

Greg did. There was a small gathering of people, mainly women, who were chatting and having drinks. A bit tame for a hen's night, Greg thought, and they were all dressed as if they'd just come from the office. Coworkers enjoying the pub's extended happy hour, probably.

“Okay, what am I supposed to be seeing?”

“Trouble,” said the man lightly. “At least for Stephen – if that is his real name. Though it likely is. He doesn't seem bright enough to think up a pseudonym. I noticed one of the women – the dark-blonde in the blue – looking over at him repeatedly. Not out of any romantic interest. She's clearly trying to remember where she's seen him before. He, on the other hand,recognized the woman straight off. Likely she's a former coworker of his wife's – one he met at a boring picnic or at the annual Christmas 'do.”

"I still don't get how you work out he's married."

The man gave him a sharp look. "He's worrying the ring finger of his left hand. He's used to having something there, obviously. Possibly he fiddles with his wedding band when he is nervous and his subconscious has not made the connection of its absence. He also may be reminding himself that he will have to put it back on when he leaves here."

Greg considered that a moment. “Couldn't it just be that in seeing me, he decided he wasn't keen and wanted to ease out of it?”

“Not at all. Quite the opposite, actually. If he weren't keen, why stay here? There's every chance that you would put it together and realize that he was the man you sought and perhaps start a row,” was the response. “Also, you said the other two men that you approached that are still here were rather brusque with you?”

“Yeah ...”

“That would stand to reason,” he said. “They did not know you, they were not the man you were looking for, and they wanted no further discourse. The third man probably does know a Stephen and dislikes him utterly, hence his belligerence when you asked if he were him.”

The man took another sip of his drink, pulled a distressed face, and set it aside.

“But the first man … you said he was 'friendly enough' and that he even enquired as to whether you had the right place.” The man's eyes pinned Greg to the spot. “Why would he be so friendly? For what cause? All you asked him was if he were a man named Stephen. For all he knew, you might have been told that he was the man who attacked your sister or robbed your mother or pushed your cousin into the Thames. You could have been there to serve him with a lawsuit or to argue about gambling debts, or pull out a revolver and blow his brains out.”

Greg shuddered. He'd been at the scene of a murder-suicide the day before. Not a pretty sight.

“His response to you was rather inappropriate to the question,” the tall bloke said. “And it was because he quite liked what he saw rather than the reverse. He wanted to be kind in order to lay the groundwork for what would come later.”

“But … I mean … what would've been the harm of me just sitting down? How would that have been suspicious?” Greg looked bewildered. “We're two blokes. Things've gotten better for queer couples lately, but it's not gotten to the point where folks see two people of the same sex and assume they're a couple. To the lady at the other table and anyone else, we might've just been mates from work come down for a swift half before getting the Tube home.”

“Yes … and that would have been the problem. Stephen wasn't worried about what she would think. He was worried about what you might discover. If the woman had put two and two together and recognized him, the next step would have been to come over and say hello. Imagine it: 'Oh, hello Stephen! I thought that was you! My goodness, did you change your hair? It's been awhile, hasn't it? How are Cecilia and the children –'”

“What, he's got a kid, too?”

Kids. I don't suppose that Bear Behaving Badly sticker on the corner of his laptop is standard-issue. Nor is that Jedward banner. They suggest at least two children of vastly different ages and tastes.” The man studied him. “Of course you see Stephen's 'problem.' You would know immediately that he had lied to you, and was a married man prowling for a bit of … playtime. He couldn't risk that you'd keep your mouth shut around this woman and not tell her exactly why you were there with him. So instead he tells you that you have the wrong man and sends you on your way.”

“Bloody hell ...” Greg groaned. “Worst almost-date ever.”

“Yes. My guess is that it's not over yet.”

“Like fuck it isn't!” Greg's eyes flashed. “I've a mind to go over there and give him a fist of five and tell that bird in blue what he's been up to so that she can let his wife know.”

“I only meant that it isn't over as far as he is concerned.” The man waved off the barkeep who had been skulking round looking disgruntled. “I think he'd hoped you leave rather quickly after getting so many negative answers. Is that 'anonymous' chat window still open?”

Greg nodded, and the other man smirked.

“Right. So you leave here, and within seconds, you would have received a message. He would have been very contrite and self-deprecating. He would have admitted to deceiving you – but only about his identity. He would have spun some tale about being intimidated by your good looks and fearing that you'd be disappointed that he was so plain … so he opted to say he was not the man you were looking for. He would have pleaded for another chance … in another pub – one that didn't contain acquaintances of his wife.”

Greg frowned. “And what if I'd told him to piss off?”

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” The man said with a wave of his hand. “He would have continued to use this service, which, as I said, is admirably suited to those who want to play around behind their partners' backs, and hope for better luck the next time.”

Greg sighed softly, feeling very tired suddenly. It had been a long day. The only thing that had kept him from wanting to tear his hair out was the idea that he might be meeting someone special later that night. And now that had been rubbished.

“Well, sod this for a lark. Guess I'll go home.” He grinned wearily at his newfound, insightful friend. “That's pretty incredible how you ferreted him out. Is that part of your job, too?”

“Not at all. Just a … hobby.”

“Well it's impressive, I'll tell you that. I would've gone on all this time thinking he never showed and I went around making a bloody arse of myself. So I guess I should thank you, er … God. I've been talking your ear off and I don't even know your name. I'm Greg.”

“Very nice to meet you, Greg.” He held out a hand. “I'm Mycroft.”

Mycroft. One of those old-fashioned names that somehow managed to not sound ridiculous when said in such a sinuous voice.

Greg tried it out as a silent echo in his head. Mycroft. He rather liked it.

“Mycroft, good talking to you.” He shook the proffered hand firmly. “Sorry to have taken up so much of your time with this –”

“Not at all. It was a very intriguing puzzle.”

“Well, I don't know if I'd say all that, but … well ...” Greg cleared his throat. “Er, can I buy you a drink maybe? A good one? Somewhere else?”

The words surprised Greg as much as they had Mycroft, if the man's suddenly wide eyes were any indication. The whole debacle had taken some of the wind out of his sails, though Greg did find Mycroft attractive and interesting. But he felt a drink was something he could manage, and maybe he could even salvage the night with a bit more conversation with a decidedly dishy bloke, even if it wasn't a proper date.

Mycroft started to respond, but then began to snigger softly.

“Er … I say something funny?” Greg found himself on the defensive. Maybe I should just sod the bloody lot and stick to birds … blokes are too much fucking work.

“No, I'm sorry. I was not laughing at you,” said Mycroft, getting hold of himself. “It's just that over the course of our conversation, I've noticed your friend Stephen looking over at us periodically. He had expected you to be gone by now and saw that we were in conversation. He apparently believed that we had been acquainted before since we'd been chatting for so long. But he saw us shake hands just now, and he's reconsidering that supposition. You should see the scowl he has on his face!”

Greg smiled in spite of himself. “Serves the little liar right. Well, he said he wasn't Stephen. For all I know, maybe I did find him, and he's you.”

Mycroft regarded Greg with a small grin.

“What an interesting thought! Tell me, Greg, how are you at playacting?”

Greg was somewhat taken aback. “Uh … well … I was a tulip in a school play once.”

“Good enough. Do you care for another turn on the stage - in a vastly different role, of course.”

Mycroft was leaning close to him now. Greg could see a saddle of freckles across his nose and more dotting his cheeks. It made an interesting contrast with the sculpted face and the serious eyes. An interesting contrast … and, Greg had to admit, a rather sexy one.

“What did you have in mind?”

“A bit of lesson for our dear Stephen,” Mycroft murmured. “I will take you up on the offer of that drink – provided we have it here. And provided that you ...

The rest of the conversation was held at a level below the din of the pub. Greg had to lean even closer to hear him until Mycroft's mouth was almost touching his ear. The soft breath tickled his lobe, and he grinned slightly and tried not to squirm.

And as Greg listened to Mycroft's whispered instructions, his smile grew with every word.

Chapter Text

“You can't be serious! The bloke was completely starkers? Then where the hell could he have been hiding that gun?”

“Well, that is exactly why he had to be rushed to the nearest A&E rather than to a holding cell ...”

Greg snorted with laughter, and across the table from him, Mycroft rumbled with soft chuckles. At Greg's back came the rising sound of a strangely persistent cough and heavy hands hammering away on a computer keyboard.

That made Greg laugh even harder.

“Cor … and I thought my job had hazards. You're something else, Stephen.”

Mycroft smiled modestly. “I do try, Gregory.”

The volume of the banging increased, and Greg and Mycroft traded conspiratorial grins.

Greg took a pull on his pint, marveling at the success of their little scheme, and not more than a little proud that he was keeping his end up.

He and Mycroft had worked out the plan while waiting for their drinks. Since the real Stephen didn't seem to want to own up to his identity, Mycroft proposed that he step in. The cover story they worked out was that when Greg approached him and asked if he were the Stephen he was waiting for, Mycroft – sensing an opportunity – had said yes, and that was why they'd fallen into such deep conversation.

They then carried on the charade right under Stephen's nose. Luckily, the pub was emptying out, and there was a table right in front of the one at which Stephen was sitting. The noise had died down considerably and they could speak in a conversational tone and be assured that the man behind him could hear every word.

Mycroft surmised that Stephen would not be best pleased to have his identity usurped by a complete stranger. But what could he do? To approach Greg and assert that he, in fact, was the “real” Stephen would have made him look like a fool and possibly complete the task of jogging the memory the woman at the table next to him. So he was left to impotently watch and listen to Greg flirt with Mycroft, with no outlet for his frustration but his poor keyboard.

“Another pint, Gregory?”

Greg looked into his glass and blushed. Generally, being called “Gregory” reminded him of being read off in maths class. But Mycroft's voice had a little purr in it when he said it, which made it sound like the sexiest fucking word in the English language.

“I think I'm good for right, now, Stephen, thanks.”

Greg steepled his fingers over his mug and rested his chin on them, giving Mycroft his sultriest look. “You know, I'm really glad I did the Crazy Blind Date. I almost didn't.”

“Really? You had … reservations?”

“A fair few. I mean, thinking on it, it's dicey, innit? The Scramble makes being able to find a person a near thing, and then it's so mysterious. Seems like a great way for someone to step out on their partner if they were of a mind.”

There was a sudden coughing jag directly behind Greg that sounded like a person trying to dislodge an ice cube from his windpipe.

Without taking his eyes of Greg's face, Mycroft affected a look of surprise.

“Really? I never thought of that! Only a very dishonest and despicable sort of person would ever think of doing something so underhanded and crude.”

The coughing abruptly ceased.

Satisfaction flickered across Mycroft's face, but he merely tilted his head at Greg as he asked, “Did you think I might be deceiving you?”

“Well, I was a bit worried when I couldn't spot you right off. Thought you might've had second thoughts – or a better offer.”

“I was somewhat skeptical that this could work. I've never done online dating before. It seems highly risky. You never know what sort you'll meet. But ...” Mycroft ran a finger round the rim of his wineglass, one corner of his mouth curled upward. “I couldn't resist. And I'm glad I went ahead with it.”

“Me, too.” Greg watched the long, elegant finger complete its circuit, and he swallowed hard, feeling his face heat up. “You're even better-looking than I thought you'd be – just going by what The Scramble did to your picture. In fact, I was almost sure you couldn't be who I was looking for.”

The coughing started up again, accompanied by some rather painful-sounding throat clearing. Greg winced; hopefully the bloke wasn't going to have to do any sort of sustained speaking for the next day or so.

“Ah, yes, it was an, er, older picture. I thought darker, shorter hair would suit me better.”

Behind them came the sound of something solid hitting the floor – Stephen's laptop case, if Greg had to guess. Neither he nor Mycroft appeared to take notice of the noise.

“Well it does. Suits you down to the ground, in fact.”

Mycroft's face lit up at the praise, and Greg smiled. He'd meant it sincerely, and it was rather nice to see him “break character” a bit in accepting the compliment.

“Thank you very much – are you sure you don't want a top-off?”

“Well ...”

Greg licked his bottom lip. It was time to go for broke and really stick it to the lying wanker sitting behind him.

“I could do with another drink, but maybe some place with a bit more privacy. I've a nice bottle of wine on my kitchen counter. Fancy coming back to mine and trying it with me?”

The slight widening of the grey eyes tipped Greg that he'd thrown Mycroft slightly off balance with that one. He recovered well enough, however, pursing his lips in thought.

“Ah, might I ask … red or white?”

Greg shrugged. “You know, I couldn't say. But does it really matter?”

Mycroft grinned suddenly and Greg felt his stomach flutter. He had a very nice smile. Made his face seem less guarded and wary and warmed up those chilly eyes.

“Not in the slightest. I'll just pay for these, shall I? And then we can go.”

 Greg nodded as the man stood and went to settle accounts. He didn't try to hide his ogling of Mycroft's arse as he made his way to the bar. If that's what a custom-made suit could do for a bloke's physique, Greg resolved to start saving some of his pay.

Behind him came the sharp snap of a laptop being shut with a fraction more force than was likely recommended by the manufacturer, and the sound of chair legs scraping back.

Greg heard the voice even before the shadow fell across the table.

“Excuse me?”

He looked casually toward the voice. Standing at the side of the table was a man of middling height, pale, whose light-brown hair curled in wayward strands around his ears and was going a bit thin on top. His mild eyes seemed almost washed out by the dark-purple jumper he wore.

 Greg was conscious that if he'd landed on Stephen's regular dating profile, he would have likely passed him by. He wasn't unattractive, but he was just like any other bloke he passed on the Tube every day and dismissed without a second thought.

“Yeah?”

“Er ...”

Stephen's eyes darted toward the table toward the window. The gathering was breaking up at last, and the ladies were getting into their coats. The blonde woman in blue was looking at Stephen speculatively, tapping her index finger on her chin.

Flushing, Stephen stared down at Greg.

“Yes, I … was … um …?”

Greg had to force himself to look disinterested and a smidgen annoyed, rather than let the fury that bubbled inside him at the sight of this brazen twat reflect itself in his expression. But for Mycroft, he might've actually given this pillock the time of day and aided and abetted – unknowingly, but still – in a bloke's playing around on his likely unsuspecting spouse.

“Yeah? There something you need?” Greg asked as he stood and shrugged into his jacket. “This table'll free in a minute, if you were waiting ...”

“No.” Stephen swallowed hard. “It's just that I thought I ...”

“Gregory?”

Greg looked over to see Mycroft had returned. He stood watching Stephen, one eyebrow raised. Stephen glared back at him, his thin lips knotted in a tense grimace.

“Ready to go then?”

“Ready.” Greg glanced at Stephen and indicated the table. “It's all yours.”

“But –” Stephen held up a hand, his face reddening. “That's not what I wanted!”

Greg stared, but Mycroft interposed himself between them, smiling blandly.

“Oh? What is it that you wanted, sir?”

Stephen glowered at Mycroft in undisguised loathing, and Greg tensed. Stephen's body language was bothering him. He looked as if he were winding up to take a swing at the taller man.

But the sound of footsteps caught their attention, and they all turned to see the woman in the blue dress smiling brightly, headed their way.

Stephen went pale as milk and almost knocked over a chair jumping away from them.

“Nothing … er, was just wondering the time. No watch, you see, and I just powered down my computer.”

“Ah. The time.” Mycroft's smile was entirely false and faintly terrifying. “Late, I believe. Quite late. Well after eight, I think.”

“What? Fuck – oh. I mean, right.”

Stephen's eyes darted to the side again. The woman was steps away.

“Right. Sorry to have bothered you.”

He scurried back to his table, and Greg and Mycroft shrugged in unison and walked on. As they moved toward the door, they heard a delighted female voice at their back warble:

“Steve? I thought that was you! Lost weight, didn't you? How is Deirdre? We do miss her down at the office ...”

(*)

They didn't stop laughing until they got nearly three blocks from the pub.

Leaning against a lamppost, the two men tried to calm themselves, hanging on to the post for balance.

“D-Did you see his face?” Greg gasped, residual chuckles making him stutter a bit. “It was like someone stuck ice down his y-fronts!”

He may do that himself later,” said Mycroft, breathing heavily. “This was definitely not how he anticipated spending the rest of his evening.”

“I reckon not,” Greg said as they continued up the block. “He could have another go at the Crazy Blind Date and reel in another fish.”

“Perhaps. But I think it might be on the later side for that. He is expected home soon, after all.”

“Good point.” Greg took a deep breath. “I almost wish we'd stayed a bit longer to watch him squirm it out. But that would've given the game away, yeah?”

“Mmmm. I'm not so sure. I think it would have held up. You were very convincing in your role,” answered Mycroft, smirking. “You must have been a very good tulip.”

“The best.” Greg held his head up with pride. “Could've made a career out of it.”

Mycroft laughed beneath his breath. “Tulips are my favorite flowers.”

Greg looked at Mycroft in surprise. “Really?”

“Yes. They seem so unobtrusive – little scent to speak of, the buds are often tightly closed, thick, somewhat clumsy leaves … but if you've ever seen a tulip that has matured, you notice it opens itself completely when in the sunlight – turns itself almost inside out, exposing its very heart. It's rather beautiful to see.”

Greg listened to Mycroft speak, noting the proper voice get softer as he talked until at the end, it was almost a hush. He looked over at the other man and was somewhat startled to see that his face looked different.

It could have been the glare of the lamplights, but there was almost a dreamy quality to those stoic features now, and he looked almost absurdly young. It was as Mycroft were in the grip of some memory – a pleasant one. Greg wondered if it had to do with a lover who'd sent him tulips or something as a gift, and he felt a sudden stab of jealousy.

Greg shrugged, muttering, “Never really noticed, to be honest. I've never really been one for flowers.”

“Hmmm.” There was a short pause. “My mother kept a rather extensive garden. Tulips were her favorite flowers, as well. We always had them. She raised them from bulbs in a small greenhouse out of season.”

“Oh.” Greg felt like an utter tit. “My mum had a little garden in the backyard. No flowers, though. Mostly tomatoes.”

“Much more practical.”

“Maybe. But not as beautiful, I guess.”

Mycroft made a small, dismissive noise. “Sometimes practicality trumps beauty. Or at least, it should do. All too often, it's the reverse. But … my mother's garden pleased her a great deal.”

“And that was the important thing, yeah?”

“Yes. She had not much in life that made her happy, but her garden did. It wasn't nearly enough, but it was something ...”

Greg looked at him. “Are you two still close, you and your mum?”

“I don't know that we were ever actually close. We had a mutual sympathy for each other for vastly different reasons” The softness had bled from Mycroft's expression and his voice. “She died last year. It was … difficult.”

Greg looked awkwardly down at the ground. “I'm sorry. One of my best mates lost his mum a few months ago. I can imagine how tough that must be. Hard to shake the memories, but you let yourself get weighed down by them, and then you can't get on with it.”

“That's very perceptive of you,” said Mycroft, nodding. “Especially considering that your parents are still alive. But you're not very close to them. Something very bad must have happened between you that you view your estrangement almost in the same light as death.”

 They had reached a zebra crossing, but they stood on the curb, just looking at each other. Greg shook his head quickly and huffed out a laugh.

“I know we've not met before tonight. But it's like you know everything about my life.” He gazed up at Mycroft. “How? How are you able to do that? How did you reckon out Stephen so well?”

Mycroft shrugged. “It's easy.”

Easy?”

“Yes. At least, for me, it is.”

Greg laughed again. “Oh, of course!”

“I'm not trying to be boastful,” said Mycroft, “it's simply fact. I observe. I listen. Through my observations and the data I am able to glean, I come to reasonable conclusions. From the moment you approached me, I was able to form a reasonable conclusion about your presence in the pub. After hearing your story, I was able to form a reasonable conclusion about Stephen. Listening to you now, I could form a reasonable conclusion about the state of your relationship with your parents. It's all very simple.”

Greg exhaled loudly. “Wow. Okay. Any other reasonable conclusions you've reached about me?”

Mycroft briefly chewed his bottom lip. “Ah. You mean conclusions other than knowing that you are a police sergeant who works at New Scotland Yard, you've just recently moved into your own flat after having rather unsatisfying flatsharing experience, and that you've not been … involved … with a man since your uni days?”

He turned his head, gaping open-mouthed at Mycroft.

“How the bloody hell could you have known any of that?”

“As I told you, I observe –”

“There's no way you could just observe something about my job … or my flat … or my sex life!”

Greg felt a sudden chill. Could this bloke have been checking up on him? Following him? Was he under investigation? Had Gregson really gone off the deep end about not getting promoted before he did? Only he would have that sort information –

Mycroft was frowning as he glanced around. “This may not be an optimal area in which to get a taxi. Maybe the next street over.”

“What?”

“I'm assuming our evening is at an end.” Mycroft looked nonchalant, but Greg thought he could hear a somewhat dejected note. “If I could give one last piece of advice, I'd avoid online encounters in the future. There are much easier paths to companionship. There always are for men like you.”

Greg raised his eyebrows. “Men like me? What's that supposed to mean?”

“Men who are attractive and engaging,” said Mycroft. “Eager to please, yet strong-willed ...”

“Oi! Not that damned eager,” Greg muttered.

That got a faint smile out of Mycroft, which made Greg feel unaccountably pleased. It didn't make sense. This man knew things about him that he really shouldn't, and yet since the initial shock of it had passed, Greg was genuinely curious.

And Mycroft fancied him, he could tell. Attractive? Engaging? Strong-willed? Greg wasn't a betting man by nature, but he would've laid a tenner that Mycroft usually wasn't so free-handed with his compliments.

Still, considering that he'd nearly been taken in that night, Greg couldn't suppress his natural wariness or his copper's instinct to be on the alert.

“How do you know so much about me?” he persisted. “Got a file on me? A … whatsit … a dossier?”

“Not at all.” Mycroft sounded tired, as if he heard this question quite a bit. Greg wasn't sure if that should reassure him or make him even more suspicious. “As I said, I observe and I listen. If I do not get data from one method, the other fills in the missing pieces. Everything I've gleaned about you, I've observed, or you've told me yourself.”

Told you? I've never mentioned a word about my job! Or my flat!” Greg paused. “I guess if you want to say that I've not been with a bloke in awhile because I'm trawling the Web, all right, I guess, but the rest of it? I never said a word.”

“Yes, you did, Gregory,” said Mycroft. “You said several words. Perhaps not the exact words 'I work for the Met' or 'I had a horrible flatmate and thank god he finally took the hint and left,' but what you did say, to me was as good as if you'd told me directly. Better, even. Ah – I think there's a taxi now.”

Headlights washed over the street, and Mycroft brought up his arm. Almost without thinking, Greg tugged it down again, and Mycroft stared stonily at him before shifting his eyes to where Greg had the sleeve of his pricey overcoat bunched in his fist.

The cabbie slowed, but Greg dismissed him with a curt wave. When the taxi had rounded a corner, Greg let go of Mycroft's sleeve.

“Explain it to me, then. Like you did in the pub, with Stephen.” Greg swallowed thickly. “You understand why I might be a bit freaked, don't you? I can believe you – if you explain it like you did before.”

“That would take some time.” Mycroft was smoothing out the wrinkles in the material of his suit jacket. “I assumed you'd want to get back to rest of your evening.”

Greg almost scoffed. Now that the date had gone to bust, the rest of his evening would consist of crap takeaway and equally crap telly. He was confused and a bit irritated by Mycroft, but he was also intrigued and maybe more than a bit aroused. The last might have been down to not having gotten laid in awhile, but Greg was conscious that there might be a little more to it than that.

“Are you hungry?”

It was Mycroft's turn to look confused and slightly suspicious.

“What?”

“Have you eaten anything tonight?” Greg shifted from one foot to the other. “I could use a curry or something to sop up some of this Guinness.”

He smiled a little at Mycroft's skeptical expression. “It would be on me. You bought the drinks, after all.”

Mycroft studied Greg's face. “You think that I might be spying on you or have otherwise illicitly obtained information about you – and now you're asking me to dinner?”

Greg hesitated, then raised his shoulders. “It's been that kind of night.”

Mycroft laughed softly, briefly shanking his head. “I see. Well. The people who were sitting next to me shortly before you came by were talking about an Indian restaurant a few blocks from here. They mentioned it was very authentic, so perhaps not an ideal choice if you're not a fan of spice.”

“Eh, I usually like it toned down, but I think I can live dangerously for a night.” Greg bristled somewhat at Mycroft's skeptical look. “What? You don't think I can handle it?”

“The thought never crossed my mind,” said Mycroft solemnly. "I have utter faith in your ability to perservere in the face of coriander and chili powder. Shall we, then?"

Greg rolled his eyes. The bloke was damned lucky he was so fucking fit. Otherwise, Greg was sure he would've belted Mycroft right in that sexy mouth of his ages ago.

Chapter Text

They were sniggering again by the time they reached the small restaurant. On the way, Greg's mobile had pinged incessantly. It had taken him a moment to realize he'd not shut down the chat window and Stephen had been sending him messages.

The first was a rather straightforward bit of panic: That bloke u left with was NOT ME!!!!

Capslock and punctuation abuse didn't endear him to Greg, nor did the increasingly hysterical messages that pleaded with Greg to come back to the pub, tried to explain his earlier denials, sent a link to his actual online profile as “proof” that he was who he said he was.

When none of that elicited response, Stephen seemed to concede defeat, ending when an ominous: Fine. U'll be on telly tmw when they find u with ur head smashed in.

A moment later came the parting shot:

Shame becuz u were rather fit.

“Persistent bugger, isn't he?” murmured Greg, shutting down the program. “It'd be flattering if it weren't so fucking sad.”

“I'd classify him as remorseful rather than persistent,” countered Mycroft. “He now realizes just how unlucky he was. He heard you ask 'Stephen' back to yours for a nightcap, and he now he figures that he missed out on an opportunity for a night of fun.”

“Eh, not really. He wasn't my type,” said Greg as they stepped into fragrant warmth. “I wouldn't've responded to him if he'd just pinged my profile the normal way, so I guess it's not really a loss, come to that.”

The restaurant was clean, brightly lit, a little cramped and filled with delicious aromas. It was fairly packed, which Greg took as a good sign. It was obviously the neighborhood curry house because most of the people were dressed quite casually. Greg thought that among the jumpers and torn jeans, Mycroft looked amusingly overdressed – and so did he, come to that.

His stomach rumbled in a reminder that he'd only had two bags of crisps and a lukewarm cup of coffee for lunch, and he was eager for something more substantial. A harried-looking waiter tried to guide them to a table near the kitchen, but Mycroft had a short, low-voiced conversation with the man and seconds later, they were settling into a narrow table near a picture window.

“Cozy,” said Greg as they took their seats. He had to maneuver somewhat cautiously to avoid hitting the chair in back of him. “Now this is a spot with ambience, not tucked away in a corner. Nice one.”

“Mmmm.” Mycroft was already studying the sheet of daily specials that they were handed. “I enjoy being placed next to windows, especially in tight spaces. Being able to see outside fools the brain into believing you have much more space.”



“Yeah? I don't think I ever noticed that.”

“It's very much a trick of the subconscious,” said Mycroft, frowning at an item on the menu. “Your shoulders are relaxed now. They were drawing up when we were being guided to that table in the back. While we would have had more space as far as surface area, the table was in a dark, cramped spot which would have made it seem much smaller than in reality – and your body reacted to that.”

Greg smirked at the bent head. “Good job then, noticing how my body was reacting.”

Mycroft didn't look up, but Greg saw his lips curve into a grin.

“Hungry?”

“Starving. I'm paying, remember, so don't think about stinting yourself. I want the whole lot – starters, big meal, dessert.” Greg's gave the menu a long glance. “Any suggestions?”

“I always judge a curry house on the quality of its Lamb Vindaloo.”

“Lamb? You are an adventurous sort, aren't you?” Greg laughed softly. “Last time I had lamb, well, let's just say my body reacted in a way that I didn't fancy much.”

“It was undercooked, I suppose.” Mycroft's eyes flicked up briefly. “What are your feelings on goat?”

“Um … I like seeing them in my niece's picture books. On my plate? Not very keen.” Greg squinted at the printed sheet. “You won't think I'm too much of a nesh git if I go with the prawns, will you? Not that I'm trying to rubbish your suggestions –”

“Not at all.” Mycroft looked up at him. “In the event that a meal I recommended wasn't to your liking, I wouldn't want you to associate me with the onset of any sort of … bodily distress.”

Greg bit his lips to hold in the laugh, but he wasn't quite successful. He was relatively sure Mycroft wasn't talking about any ruddy goat or lamb or food at all, and a rush of heat warmed the area between his chin and his toes. It had been a good while since he'd been flirted with so subtly, and by a man as fanciable as this one. It made him feel good. Very.

“Somehow I don't think that'd be worry.” Greg tapped his bottom lip with his tongue. “I think you've pretty well proved that if a bloke gets in good with you, he's in good hands.”

“Well, I don't at all mind extending a helping hand to my fellow man when the need arises.”

Mycroft's eyes were glowing, his pupils dark and large, the irises compressed into thin rings of grey.

“Well done, you. I thought I spotted you as a humanitarian right off.”

Greg hoped his own eyes were reflecting how much he was enjoying the turn their conversation was taking. If Mycroft's grin was any indication, they were doing a workable job.

The waiter's appearance put things on the back burner just briefly. Mycroft rattled off a list of appetizers and breads to precede their main courses that Greg only barely followed. He was too busy watching Mycroft speak and imagining those lips making the same motions around his cock.

He was, as a result, only a bit caught off guard when the waiter turned to take his order. Greg was more than a little surprised when instead of lamb – or goat for that matter – Mycroft opted for a fairly adventurous chicken dish that was on the specials list.

“Chicken Madras?” Greg's eyebrows were high. “No Lamb Vindaloo after such a talk-up?”

“I'm not especially in the mood for lamb, truth be told.” Mycroft gave him a friendly leer as the waiter moved away. “Disappointed? You look as if you want to put your tongue out at me.”

“Now there's a nice idea.” Greg watched in delight as Mycroft's face pinkened. “ Maybe later.”

“Well, it's good to see we've gotten over that mild unpleasantness from earlier,” Mycroft said lightly. “I was afraid this meal would be rather awkward.”

“What are you on about?” Greg looked puzzled. “Are you talking about Stephen then? Or the messages he was sending? Or … oh, bloody hell, you don't think he'd be daft enough to call the police, do you? He'd have a fair bit of explaining to do about his role in things if he did.”

“No, no. I meant us.” Mycroft was studying him. “You seemed less than pleased that I knew so much about you. I was remarking that you seem to have decided to … trust me.”

“Well, I can be pretty forgiving when I'm peckish,” Greg said with a grin. “Besides, I figured that if you wanted to try something, you had plenty of opportunity on the way over. You could've shoved an ice pick in the back of my neck, and in this neighborhood, no one would bat an eye.”

It was meant to be a flippant remark. Hackney was one of those marginal areas that was undergoing rapid gentrification, with the bookshops and gourmet coffee houses and fusion restaurants to match, but it still had a bit of a reputation, and many of the residents were not of the moneyed class, as exemplified by the patrons of the curry house.

But the joke fell as flat as Mycroft's expression. His eyes dropped to his water glass, and he shifted uneasily in his chair.

“Yes.” Mycroft sounded tense. “I suppose you're right.”

Fuck. Greg wasn't sure how, but it was clear from Mycroft's face that he'd stepped in it. The light, flirtatious atmosphere had dissipated, and they both found elsewhere to look for a time.

Greg stared unhappily out of the windows, noting that it had started to rain. A clump of unlucky people caught unawares scurried for cover, some of them ineffectually. Greg noticed a couple – a man and a woman who looked to be just a bit past uni age – huddling under the awning of the shop next door to the curry house. They clung to each other as the man labored to get a small umbrella open – a process that would have gone more smoothly, Greg thought, if the man could have managed to stop snogging his companion. When the bloke finally managed it, the woman pulled away for a second and then threw her arms around him as if he'd just lifted a boulder out of her path. They kissed again and went off in the downpour with their hands in each other's back pockets.

Frowning a bit, Greg turned back to Mycroft just as a waiter dropped off a plate of crisp flatbreads accompanied by a selection of dipping sauces. Mycroft thanked the man and eyed the platter appreciatively, giving Greg a small smile as he broke off a piece and swirled it in a green sauce.

“I know we've ordered a spread of appetizers, but I can't resist a good poppadom.” Mycroft popped the morsel into his mouth and closed his eyes as he chewed, making a soft noise that spurred Greg to lick his lips.

“House-made,” said Mycroft, opening his eyes. “The chutneys, too. Delicious. Try some.”

Greg looked down. Generally when he went for a curry, it was pretty straightforward – no frills. He wasn't even sure he'd had anything like this before. Maybe he'd just been going to shitty curry houses. Still, when in Rome … or Hackney. Whatever.

Shrugging, he broke off a piece and tried the same sauce Mycroft did. It was spicy, which made the flatbread seem even crispier. The sauce had a slow burn to it, which didn't hit Greg until he'd downed more of the stuff. Eyes watering as he tried not to cough bits of food everywhere, Greg grabbed for his water and downed half of it, understanding now why there was a carafe of cold water brought to every table after the orders had been placed.

“I should have suggested you start with the tamarind,” said Mycroft when Greg finished wiping his eyes. “Though this is quite a bit spicier than in other places I've been. Apologies. Are you all right?”

“Yeah m'okay ...” rasped Greg, as he got himself under control. “I like spice, it just took me off guard, and I've been gasping for something to eat. You're right though, this is good. Which is the, er, tamarind?”

Mycroft indicated a deep-red sauce. Breaking off a smaller piece of the poppadom, Greg approached it a little more cautiously and tested it on the tip of his tongue, just in case. It was sweet with a bit of tartness, and much less spice. Smiling, Greg nodded and broke off a bigger piece and went for another go, crunching happily.

“I like this one, thanks.” He eyed the container in the middle, which seemed to hold chopped up vegetables mixed in with spices. “Which one is that?”

“Onion salad,” said Mycroft, in the midst of taking another bite. “Spicy as well, but not quite such a kick as the green raita. And that on the end,” he said, indicating a golden paste, “is mango chutney. It's a bit cloyingly sweet, even for my taste, but if you enjoy the tamarind, you may enjoy that, as well.”

“I feel like I've been eating at the wrong takeaway shops,” said Greg as they decimated the pile. “They never give these out. I need to start asking for them. Better than crisps and probably healthier.”

“I think poppadom is a strictly eat-in phenomenon,” said Mycroft, wiping his mouth. “I could be wrong. As much as I love Indian cuisine, I've never had the desire to go to every curry house in London. I don't think I'd have any stomach lining left if I tried.”

Greg shook his head, smiling. “You have a way with words, did anyone tell you that?”

“Yes.” Mycroft grinned briefly. “But those who have usually weren't so polite about it.”

Greg chuckled, happy that the cloud of awkwardness that had descended upon them earlier seemed to be lifting. More food was brought to the table and they had to make room for the spread. Much of it Greg recognized and the few things he did not, Mycroft was able to expand upon. He knew his cuisine. Greg wondered if he was some sort food reviewer of maybe a chef. Greg tried to picture Mycroft in chefs whites and couldn't quite pull it off, but that didn't mean much. Every day he came across people who didn't seem as if they should be who or what they appeared to be. It was part of a copper's life.

It occurred to Greg, however, that he didn't know what Mycroft did for a living, though Mycroft seemed to know plenty about him. Greg was about to press that particular point in hopes of getting a good conversation going again when the door to the shop flew open and a couple stepped in. Greg's eyes widened when he recognized them as the loved-up couple that had been chewing each others faces off in the rain under the awning next door. They were dripping wet and had red faces and sly grins that seemed to indicate that they'd decided to head off somewhere for a quick toss and had worked up an appetite.

Greg eyed them warily when they passed the table, watching them settle in and beam up at the waiter before turning their full focus to each other. Something twisted in his gut, and he was sure it wasn't the poppadom He didn't think it was jealousy, either. Not really. They were just like any other young couple besotted with each other and sappily in love. Every couple seemed to start that way … but ending that way seemed to be the challenge.

“Gregory?”

Startled, Greg looked over at Mycroft, who was staring at him with raised eyebrows. A flush crept up Greg's neck and he cursed himself silently. He must've looked a right picture staring off into space with his mouth open.

“Sorry, were you saying something?” Greg quickly wiped his mouth. “I … shit. Sorry.”

“No, it's just that you looked somewhat … off-color. I thought it might have been the pakoras. They're a bit greasy. Still quite good, though.”

Mycroft glanced to the side where the couple Greg had been watching was sitting, holding hands across the table. “Do you know them?”

“What? Oh. No.” Greg shook his head. “I saw them a minute ago. They'd gotten caught in the rain. They were just next door so I guess I was wondering what made them decide to circle back here.”

Mycroft looked at them again, very briefly. “This was their original destination,” he said. “The young woman wanted to walk through London Fields, and I suppose they decided dinner could wait.”

“In the rain?”

“Why not?” Mycroft shrugged. “It would have been deserted and is just up the block, which suited their needs perfectly.”

“Uh … their needs?”

“Needs … desires, whatever.” Mycroft said with a lifted brow. “Surely you noticed the stains at the knees of the young man's jeans? They are grass stains. And I can tell you that he didn't get them looking for a contact lens.

“I … oh.” Greg looked over at them again. He couldn't see the man's trousers but he took Mycroft at his word. “That must've … uh … been sort of a rough position. For the lady, I mean. If you're saying what I think you're saying.”

“No. He was quite chivalrous.” Mycroft was taking the last bit of his samosa. “I noticed that the outside of his jacket was quite a bit less damp than the inner lining. He obviously placed his jacket, lining-side up for her to … rest upon. So it got rained on quite a bit more than the outer layer.”

“Christ. I knew they'd shagged, but …” Greg had to stop himself from looking over again. “There're benches there, you know. He could've just bent her over one of them and ...”

He stopped that train of thought before it could get farther down the line, but he saw the corners of Mycroft's mouth twitching. “Never mind.”

“A very good suggestion,” said Mycroft in a mild voice. “It might have occurred to him if the matter hadn't been rather … urgent, I suppose. How did you work out that they'd been together if you didn't see the state of his clothing?”

“Well, it was more how they were acting toward each other. Body language and all.” Greg looked at Mycroft in admiration. “I didn't reckon out all the rest – the stains and the jacket and such. I feel a bit outclassed.”

Mycroft smiled. “Don't. I am impressed by your ability to read body language so accurately and so quickly. That can be much more useful than physical clues, which can often be lacking or incomplete. I'm not certain if you honed your skills in your profession or if it's the reverse – that you were drawn to the constabulary because you already possessed this ability.”

Greg thought it over. “Could it be both? I always sort of noticed whenever something funny seemed to be going on, but on the beat you learn to spot things … patterns of behavior, routines and that. I suppose I've been decent enough at being able to tell a thing or two about a person, once I've chatted with him awhile or observed him for a bit.”

“Oh?” Mycroft planted his chin on steepled fingers and leaned a little closer. “You've spoken to me for quite awhile tonight, and have observed me. What can you … deduce?”

The tone Mycroft used for the last word was delivered in felt like a slow hand working its way up his inner thigh, stopping just short of … yeah. Greg shivered a bit.

“Er … well ...” He marshaled whatever brain cells hadn't been scrambled at that moment. “You, ah … you have a sweet tooth.”

Mycroft blinked. “Oh?”

“Sure. You said earlier that the, ah, the mango sauce was too sweet even for you,” said Greg, wishing he had the excuse of the green raita to explain why he was suddenly sweating. “So I reckon you like sweet things a lot, but you have a limit.”

“Well-spotted.” Mycroft smiled at him. “I do try to limit my indulgences since I'm at a desk much of the time, but I do enjoy sweet things. Boiled sweets, especially. They last longer. Any other observations?”

Greg kept silent a moment, assimilating this new information. Sits at a desk. Likes things that last. Banker, maybe? He could see a banker dressed up the way Mycroft was, down to the watch fob. Still, that didn't seem to fit. Some sort of businessman, perhaps, but maybe not banking.

“Hmm … you're not much for ale,” said Greg. “I got that at the pub. You like wines. Your eyes lit up when I mentioned that when we were playacting for Stephen, and you actually wanted to know what sort of wine it was.”

Mycroft nodded. “Quite a number of years ago, my family had a vineyard in Surrey. It has long since been sold, but the subsequent generations have been brought up to be connoisseurs to a certain degree. Actually, I prefer a good cognac, though a nice Pisco never hurt anything.”

Greg gnawed his bottom lip. Likes the good stuff. Comes from money if his family had a vineyard once. Pisco's some foreign sort of brandy. Travels a lot.

“And … let's see.” Greg thought for a moment. “You've been here before. To this restaurant, I mean.”

Mycroft's eyes widened slightly. “What makes you think that? If I recall, I mentioned that the persons sitting next to me spoke of this place at length and said it was a nice restaurant to try.”

“Yeah, but that doesn't mean you hadn't been here before.” Greg tried not to grin at Mycroft's expression. He supposed that was about as 'surprised' as the man ever became, but still he enjoyed taking him off guard a little. “I saw you talking to the bloke who wanted to sit us way in the back. Unless you're one of those illusionist blokes, I didn't see any sort of money change hands. You just said something to him and he gave us a top-shelf seat. As fit a bloke as you are, I figure he was doing it not to be nice, but because you're a repeat – and good – customer. The place is packed. He could've told us to like it or lump it as far as seating arrangements went.”

Mycroft's eyes narrowed just a little. It made him look slightly dangerous, which Greg was mildly shocked to discover turned him on quite a bit.

“Go on.”

“You said you judge a curry house by its Lamb Vindaloo,” said Greg, focusing on those glimmering eyes. “But you didn't order it. In fact, you didn't even order off the menu. You ordered one of the specials, so it seemed pretty reasonable to assume you've had most of the things on the menu – or at least enough of them that made you want to branch out into something different.”

“I see.” Mycroft's voice was polite. “Anything else?”

Greg canted his head, watching Mycroft watch him.

You fancy me.

Mycroft's left eyebrow jumped so sharply that Greg momentarily thought he'd spoken aloud. After a few seconds of panic, he knew that it had just been the barest whisper in his private thoughts. He gave Mycroft a searching glance. The bloke was insightful and all, but it was highly doubtful that he could read minds.

After a second, the eyebrow came down. “You were going to say something else, I believe?”

“Ah ...” Greg swallowed. “Yes. I … was gonna say that maybe I can come up with a bit more after we finish eating. I think our main courses are coming out.”

Mycroft looked around and saw their waiter bustling toward them, carefully balancing a tray with two covered platters and two uncovered bowls of what looked to be rice.

Greg's eyes traveled the length of Mycroft's neck. It was a fine, graceful neck with a line of freckles marching right up to his left ear, as if painstakingly placed by hand. A good, noble profile. The type you saw cast in marble. In museums. In Greece or someplace ancient and mysterious and mystical like that.

Greg smothered a sigh with his water glass, nodding genially at the waiter as he set down their plates. Mycroft was speaking to the man and gesturing, mentioning something about more bread. Greg was barely listening, barely paying attention to the admittedly delicious-looking food that he would've stabbed a man for an hour earlier in favor of shooting glances at his companion over his glass.

You fancy me … and bloody hell, I fancy you, too. And I'm going to have you. Tonight.