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In the weeks after that unorthodox New Year’s visit to Whitehall, John occasionally wondered whether he’d dreamed the whole thing. He’d emerged from Mycroft’s offices, blinking in the sunlight, and automatically headed towards Tesco to buy some cheese and biscuits and a bottle of wine. When he’d returned to the flat Sherlock was back from Barts, and shortly to discover a half-naked Irene Adler in his bed. And soon after that, things had suddenly got very complicated. Something about stolen emails, a terrorist plot, a bomb on a plane, and Irene’s predatory gaze fixed on Sherlock as though she were about to bend him backwards over the desk and straddle him then and there. That had been a little awkward, to say the least. Irene’s fantasies about having a Holmes at her mercy had inevitably stirred up John’s memories of the real thing, but thankfully Sherlock and Irene had been too wrapped up in themselves to notice John shifting uncomfortably in his chair. Sherlock would probably have put his flushed face down to embarrassment, anyway.

After a bit John had excused himself to go drop by on Harry – a tradition stemming from the time a typical New Year involved pulling her out of a pool of her own vomit – and left them to it. In his absence, he half-wondered whether Irene might get her way with Sherlock after all. But he only returned to an empty flat, and Mrs Hudson informing him that Sherlock and Irene had been called away separately, at Mycroft’s request. John had not been invited to the party. He suspected Mycroft was reluctant to see him again quite so soon.

When Sherlock finally returned, he’d told John a thoroughly improbable – not to mention classified – tale about Irene Adler’s phone and a plane full of dead people. Irene’s attraction to Sherlock had apparently led to her downfall, which hadn’t come as that much of a surprise. John had seen for himself the way Sherlock’s icy exterior represented of a challenge for some women, as well as the occasional man. Of course, they didn’t know him quite the way John did. The disgusting experiments, extended bouts of whining and monumental sulks were enough to take the edge off any mystique Sherlock might have otherwise held for him.

But Mycroft was an entirely different matter. From the moment John had encountered him in that empty warehouse he’d been more than a little intrigued by Mycroft’s dramatics. Annoyed, too, but that came with the territory. In the weeks following the closure of Irene’s case, John wished now that he’d taken a little more time with Mycroft while he’d had the chance. It had been a mad impulse on both their parts, and Mycroft had no doubt quickly come to his senses. The next time John saw him it would probably be just as though nothing had happened. Still, sometimes he made good use of the memory, lying on top of the sheets with his hand curled around his cock, remembering Mycroft on his knees, the ferocious heat of his mouth.

It was a surprise, then, to receive a text a few months later. John felt the repeated buzzing of his phone in his pocket, although he ignored it in favour of advising a ruddy-faced Mr Lehrman to exercise a lot more and cut down on the kebabs. Only after ushering him out the door did John move to check his messages. The text was blunt and brief: Meet me at Speedy’s, 5.30pm – MH

There was a second one, almost like an afterthought: It concerns Sherlock.

Of course it did. John shook his head at the implied tone of summons. Really, there were times a “please” wouldn’t go astray. But his appointment schedule showed that barring a last-minute emergency he could probably make it back on the tube by then. And he was curious to see Mycroft again. To see how things stood between them, nothing more.

***

John left the surgery at a little after five, and immediately realised that he’d forgotten his umbrella. The rain was a morose drizzle that chilled the air and would make the trip home an obstacle course of puddles and pedestrians. He zipped up his jacket and made a run for it. Although he reached the tube station relatively unscathed, the rain quickly intensified into a downpour, and by the time he reached Speedy’s he was dripping and disgruntled. In contrast, Mycroft was parked sedately under his ever-present umbrella in the middle of the pavement, forcing lesser beings to scurry past. He was smoking.

John’s eyebrows rose. Surely not a deliberate reminder, nothing quite so vulgar as that, but it was still a compelling sight as Mycroft took one huddled drag after another, seemingly unaware of John’s approach. John’s tongue flicked out to moisten his lips.

“You don’t smoke,” he blurted. He remembered their previous encounter quite vividly, and there had been no hint of cigarette smoke on Mycroft’s breath. Yet the way in which Mycroft handled the cigarette implied long, loving familiarity. Just like Sherlock, then, forever trying to quit, never quite succeeding.

Mycroft gave him a disdainful look. “I also don’t frequent cafes.” He ground the butt of his cigarette into the pavement, collapsed his umbrella, and swept into Speedy’s. John trailed him damply and headed for a table up the back, while Mycroft paused to order for them both. Then he hooked his umbrella over the counter and took the seat across from John, smelling of smoke with an undertone of expensive cologne. Their knees brushed under the tiny wooden table before Mycroft shifted slightly backwards in his chair, reaching for his briefcase. John pretended not to notice.

“So,” John said. “You wanted to talk about Sherlock? Who is fine, by the way.”

Their drinks came, and John took a tentative sip of his white coffee. It was terrible, as always, but warming. Mycroft ignored his own tea – John suspected he wouldn't deign to drink from a cup that so clearly lacked its corresponding saucer – which steamed unchecked into the air.

“In a manner of speaking.” Mycroft placed a clear plastic folder on the table, its top edged in blue. Inside were a sheaf of papers and a familiar-looking mobile phone.

“That’s the file on Irene Adler?” This time John’s observation was met with a close-mouthed smile.

“Closed forever.” Mycroft outlined the story of Irene’s transfer into a witness protection program, and her relocation to America. He looked pale and troubled, but his manner was convincing. For a moment John felt only sympathy for him. The mention of Sherlock’s childhood had made him aware of what it must be like for Mycroft, bearing the burden of responsibility for his little brother in addition to his country. Sometimes the weight of the former must surely seem to outweigh even the latter. John had his own problems with Harry, but had never tried to protect her from herself. Instead he’d distanced himself for his own self-protection.

“He’ll be all right with this witness protection, never seeing her again. He’ll be fine, ”John assured him.

“I agree,” Mycroft continued. “That’s why I decided to tell him that.”

“Instead of what?”

The glimmer of sympathy faded slightly when it became clear that Mycroft had just spun him a story, testing it for plausibility and strength. Irene wasn’t tucked away in witness protection. She was dead.

“So…” Mycroft rested his chin on his interlocked fingers, and regarded John with an uncharacteristically imploring expression. “What shall we tell Sherlock?”

John realised with surprise that he was genuinely being asked for input. In some twisted fashion, he had become some kind of emotional expert on Sherlock. Or perhaps on emotions in general. This was a consultation.

“The truth,” John said firmly.

Mycroft’s eyebrows rose. “Really?”

“You’re not doing him any favours by lying to him. If he really does care about Irene, he deserves to know what really happened to her.”

“But you saw his reaction when he thought she was dead.”

“You might not have noticed, but he’s a big boy now, Mycroft. You can’t protect him from the world forever. Not even you.”

It was clearly not the response Mycroft had been anticipating. Although he had already pushed the plastic folder forward, he rested his hand on it again, as though to stop John from running off with it. “So you think the truth matters more than the potential consequences?”

John shrugged. “If you want to tell him the witness protection story, I won’t stop you.” He jerked his chin forward. “What does it say in the file?”

“Nothing on Irene’s location past January. And her phone number’s been deactivated.”

“So in that case, you’ll probably get away with it.”

“But he won’t believe me. He never does.”

“Can’t say I blame him. Which I suppose is why you want me to tell him.” John’s smile was thin and tight. “Isn’t that why we’re here?”

“I simply wanted your advice.”

“And now you’ve got it. Tell him the truth,” John snapped, then relented. “He’ll be all right, Mycroft. I’ll keep an eye on him.”

Mycroft stared at him a moment longer, contemplating, then pushed the file decisively across. “All right, then. Whatever you think best. Excuse me.” The last part was in reference to the buzzing of his phone, which he retrieved from his jacket pocket. “Yes?” His manner suggested John had been entirely dismissed from his consciousness.

John grimaced at him, unacknowledged, and took the file.

***

When he returned to Speedy’s, he was mildly surprised to find Mycroft still there, eyeing the inside of his cup with an expression of disbelief. He’d actually got round to tasting the tea, then. John set the documents back in front of him.

“So how did he take the news?” Mycroft asked. “And where is Irene’s phone?”

“He said he wanted to hang onto it. I said he he couldn’t, because it was the government’s, but he insisted. Sorry. If you want it back you’ll have to talk to him yourself.”

“You mean he wanted it as a remembrance? In memoriam, so to speak.”

“Um, yeah, not exactly.” John cleared his throat, and held Mycroft’s gaze with only a little difficulty. “I… might have told him she was in witness protection after all.” He held up a warning hand. “Yes, I know. Don’t say it.”

“I scarcely think I need to. And what was it, might I ask, that led to this abrupt reversal of sentiment?”

“You were right, it would only have upset him. And I suppose Sherlock doesn’t need to know absolutely everything about everything all the bloody time.”

“Yes. Yes, my thoughts exactly.” Mycroft smiled, and for once, it actually looked genuine. “Now, having established that as a general principle – would you care to join me for dinner next week? Thursday night would perhaps be best.”

John blinked, then shook his head in an attempt to clear it. “I’m sorry – what did you just say?”

“Dinner. Surely you haven’t acquired Sherlock’s distaste for regular meals.”

“But… you were just talking about Sherlock and Irene Adler.”

“And now I’m not.”

John felt the sense of creeping bewilderment that often preceded a sarcastic remark from Sherlock, but Mycroft only sat patiently and waited for him to collect his thoughts.

“Wait, was that… was that meant to be some kind of test? To see whether I’d be willing to lie to Sherlock? Under the right circumstances.”

“Of course not,” Mycroft said. “That information was merely a bonus.”

“Right. You couldn’t just have said, ‘Look, do you mind not telling Sherlock about…'” John paused, waving a hand in frustration “…whatever this is.”

“It’s dinner. Next Thursday. If you’re amenable.”

“I’m not having dinner with anyone who seriously uses the word amenable.”

The corners of Mycroft’s mouth edged upwards. “Agreeable, then.”

“Look, I never said a word about… New Year’s Day, did I?”

“Presumably because Sherlock didn’t realise that you’d been anywhere out of the ordinary. Too distracted by finding a woman in his bed, no doubt. But since I’ll be sending a car around to collect you, it probably won’t evade his notice this time.”

“Hang on, I haven’t even said yes, yet.”

“I should very much like to see you again, John.” Mycroft dropped his gaze, then glanced at him from beneath his eyelashes. It was a subtle gesture, but no less a reminder. “Please.”

John’s face flushed at the mental image of Mycroft on his knees, his mouth slick and hot and wet. He licked at his own lips, which suddenly felt very dry. “Oh, all right, then,” he said. “Thursday.”

***

“But why?” Sherlock said. He was seated at the kitchen table holding a piece of wood over a Bunsen burner. As John watched, he cautiously dabbed ash on his finger, then tasted it. God only knew what he was up to this time.

The mysterious smell of burning had drawn John from his room a full five minutes before he’d intended to come downstairs, and Sherlock had in turn immediately noticed his appearance. John had put off telling Sherlock about his dinner plans until the last possible moment – partly because there was always the chance something urgent would come up and he wouldn’t be able to go, but also in an attempt to keep the interrogation as short as possible. He’d only get another bout when he got back, anyway.

“Why what?” John moved away to stand by the open window, keeping an eye on the street below.

“Why on earth would Mycroft ask you to dinner? He doesn’t go in for socialising.” Sherlock managed to make the word sound like an expletive. “This is his new way of spying on me, isn’t it? Maybe I should just come along and tell him whatever he wants to know.”

John briefly contemplated the prospect of trying to eat while being trapped between duelling Holmeses. “In that case, I’m not going.”

“Good, that’s settled then.” Sherlock reached for another piece of wood from the small piles arrayed on the table and held it over the flame.

“I meant that exactly one of us is going tonight. I don’t care who it is.”

“Fine,” Sherlock sniffed. “Run along to dinner, then, and set his mind at ease.”

“Not everything is about you, you know.”

“Of course it is. Other than your connection to me, you couldn’t possibly be of the slightest interest to someone of my brother’s intellect.”

“Charming.”

Sherlock flicked his gaze up from the microscope, managing to look mildly contrite. “You know what I meant.”

The arrival of the car saved John the effort of a reply.

***

When Mycroft had said “dinner”, John had envisaged some posh restaurant, probably one where he could barely afford to even look at the menu. Since a suit would have invited even more comment from Sherlock, he’d simply chosen a decent striped shirt with a blazer and hoped it would be enough. However, when the car pulled up, it was in front of an elegant, but entirely nondescript white building. If it were a restaurant, it was clearly exclusive enough to not need street signage. He threw the driver a dubious glance, but got out of the car anyway.

At the top of the stairs, a tasteful brass plaque informed him he had reached “The Diogenes Club”, a name that left John none the wiser. It did, however, seem the kind of old-world establishment in which Mycroft would feel quite at home. The heavy wooden door revealed a smallish foyer with a curved oak counter in a corner towards the back. To John’s right was a bank of lifts, and beyond them a wooden sign on a stand pointed the way up the stairs towards the oddly labelled “Strangers’ Room”. The nearer one was shut, and marked with a discreet brass plate: Members Only. A solemn young clerk nodded at John from behind the counter, but made no attempt to engage him in conversation.

“Uh, hello…” John said, and his voice seemed horribly loud in the general hush. There was something forbidding about the tone of the place; he felt as though he were in a church. “I’m here to see Mycroft Holmes.”

The man only nodded again – was he mute? – and produced a small piece of printed card stock, handing it to John. It looked like a floor plan, with one room circled in black marker. John stared at it, frowning, but before he could ask, the clerk had emerged from behind the counter, carrying a keycard. John was ushered into a lift, where the clerk swiped the card through the reader, then pressed the button for the third floor and stepped back. John was left to contemplate his floor plan as the doors closed.

“Well, this is… weird,” he said, just to disrupt the silence. The lift came to a gliding stop, and the doors slid open into a deserted corridor decorated in just a little too much gilt. John passed between two pot plants standing at attention, his feet sinking into rich burgundy carpet with each step. When he pressed the buzzer to the marked room – 306 – a light flashed, but there was no chime, or at least nothing that could be heard from outside. It suddenly occurred to John that such extensive soundproofing could come in handy for quite a lot of things, not all of them necessarily safe or legal.

The thought amused him, and he was still smiling when Mycroft opened the door. Mycroft gave him a single speculative glance before ushering him inside into another foyer area, small and bare. A side doorway led to what looked like a living area beyond.

“Do you really live here? It’s like a tomb.”

“It’s very… peaceful,” Mycroft said, one side of his mouth twisted in a half-smile. Compared to John’s previous encounters, Mycroft looked shockingly underdressed in a light blue shirt, sans tie, and trousers. His top button was undone, and John found himself unreasonably distracted by the triangle of pale, freckled skin exposed at his throat.

“And no,” Mycroft continued. “I reside elsewhere. But keeping these rooms often saves me a long and tiresome commute. Here, let me.” The last was in reference to John’s blazer, which he shrugged off obediently in response. Rather than slinging it onto a hook, Mycroft placed it carefully on a hanger, as though it were an expensive suit jacket, and tucked it away a closet.

John trailed him into the main living area, where there was a set of Chesterfield sofas around a coffee table, long wooden built-ins forming both sideboards and storage, and a taller bureau which likely concealed a television behind its doors. Long, moss-green drapes had been drawn over the windows, adding to the general sense of seclusion. Around a corner to the left was a dining table large enough for eight, but currently only set for two. Given the starched white tablecloth, silver flatware, and miniature green-and-white floral centerpiece, it was as posh as any restaurant John had ever been to. He took a seat at Mycroft’s invitation while Mycroft continued to hover.

“Would you care for a drink? I do have… beer, if you want it.” John grinned at the hint of distaste in his tone.

“No, it’s fine. Whatever you’re having.”

“Good. The Arneis, then.” Mycroft reached for the bottle sitting in a bucket on the sideboard behind him, condensation glistening on its surface.

“I don’t actually know what that is, but all right.”

“It’s made from a Piedmontese grape variety that almost went extinct because of how difficult it is to grow. Fortunately, it was revived by winemakers just in time.”

John sipped cautiously at the glass Mycroft handed him, which tasted like an ordinary glass of white wine. It was pleasant enough – fruity and dry – but nothing to get excited over. “I see. Fond of difficult things, are you?”

“It’s a pity so few of them are this rewarding,” Mycroft said, taking his seat opposite John with his own glass in hand.

 “It’s an odd sort of name for a club, isn’t it?” John said, aiming in the general direction of conversation. “I mean, I’m not exactly an expert on ancient Greeks, but it doesn’t look like you’re hoarding rubbish and living in squalor.”

“Diogenes syndrome is a misnomer. Diogenes himself had little use for possessions and reportedly lived in a wine barrel in the marketplace.”

“This is a few steps up from a wine barrel.”

“Well, we have higher standards nowadays.”

Mycroft appeared to be joking, but it was difficult to be sure. John ventured a cautious half-smile as the silence began to seep in from the walls, heavy and stifling. John began to wonder what on earth he was doing here, drinking a wine he’d never heard of with a man he barely knew.

“Well, shall we?” Mycroft said, and stood up abruptly, leaving his glass on the table. He moved towards a large silver trolley that stood against the wall, and rolled back the lid. Retrieving two plates of what looked like salad with pale shreds of chicken, he set them down on the table, then opened a metal box beneath the trolley to extract a basket of small bread rolls, coated with sesame seeds. They were warm to the touch.

“It’s all from the downstairs restaurant, I’m afraid,” Mycroft said, taking his seat again. “I so rarely have time to cook nowadays. But I find their culinary skills to be quite acceptable.”

“Yes, I’m sure they are,” John said. Well, this wasn’t awkward at all. His appetite had mostly deserted him, but he emulated Mycroft grimly, breaking off a piece of his roll and buttering it before popping it into his mouth. The bread really was very good, as was the salad, but John was too uncomfortable to enjoy either of them. In hindsight, he should really have insisted on going to Angelo’s, or even to one of the posh restaurants Mycroft undoubtedly preferred. It would have felt more like neutral ground. Last time John had intruded onto Mycroft’s territory, he’d come armed. Now, more than ever, he understood why.

“So, what has my dear brother been up to?” Mycroft said, after another lengthy silence. He had been eating in small, calm bites, his face set in a diplomatic mask. “When you left, he was evidently in the midst of burning something.”

“Yeah, well done.” John was past being surprised by the observation. It was still too warm to justify a fire, but the smell of charred wood obviously lingered on his clothing. “I hope I’ll have a flat to go back to.”

“Not too soon, I hope.” The blandness of Mycroft’s expression softened in what John could only take to be a deliberate act.

“S’pose that depends, doesn’t it? Sherlock’s fine, by the way.” He started in on a small recap of their past week’s cases, while Mycroft nodded attentively. But all the while, Sherlock’s words nagged at him. Other than your connection to me, you couldn’t possibly be of interest to someone of my brother’s intellect. Sherlock had only been being his usual tactless self, but John was forced to concede he had a habit of being right. Again, he wondered exactly what he was doing here. However, Mycroft was showing none of his brother’s condescension – if anything, he was trying a little too hard to look interested in Sherlock’s deductions. No doubt he’d already worked the whole thing out by the time John had finished outlining the case.

By the time Mycroft extracted their main courses from the warmer – a dish of what looked like a rich beef stew, studded with carrots and potatoes – John had had enough of trying to pretend they were just two people having a nice, normal dinner together. Nothing about this situation was normal. Might as well go with it.

“I wasn’t quite sure what you’d like,” Mycroft said. He looked as unflappable as ever, but a certain tension was showing in the line of his jaw.

John made a thoughtful noise that could have meant anything, and set down his fork. “I think what I’d like,” he said, “is for you to take off all your clothes. Now.”

It was worth it just to see Mycroft’s startled blink. A lesser man might have asked John to repeat himself, but it was clear Mycroft had heard him perfectly well. It was simply comprehension he was struggling with.

“Why?” Mycroft said at last.

“I just think we’d both enjoy this meal a lot more if you did.”

“You’re serious.”

“’course I am. Wouldn’t be much point in saying so, otherwise.” John smiled. “Or do you only respond to threats? Pity I left the Sig at home this time.”

“Yes.” Mycroft was still eyeing him incredulously. “Pity.”

“Well, then?”

It was fascinating to see Mycroft actually thinking, like a hummingbird’s wings in slow motion. After another moment, he set down his knife and fork, then pushed back from the table. One hand went to his throat and stopped, resting on the top button of his shirt.

“Would you like some help with that?” John asked, all innocence. Yes, this was much more fun.

“No, thank you. I can manage.”

John nodded graciously and sat back to observe, well pleased. It was the first time he’d paid much attention to Mycroft’s hands, which were surprisingly delicate in comparison to Sherlock’s. They worked their way down Mycroft’s shirt, exposing a sliver of pale skin and a light fuzz of hair. Mycroft’s cuffs were held together by heavy gold cufflinks instead of buttons, and he undid first his left, then his right, before placing them in front of him on the table. The skin of his wrists looked almost translucent, and John knew that if he pressed his lips just there he would feel the beating of Mycroft’s heart. The thought unfurled delicate tendrils of warmth within him.

Mycroft still retained an air of composure, but his cheeks were flushed, even though he had exposed little more than a narrow line down his chest and an inch of his wrists. His hands touched his shirt again, and stopped.

“Go on,” John said pleasantly, and watched as Mycroft finally peeled the shirt from his shoulders. Unlike Sherlock, he was surprisingly hairy. Somehow John had expected his chest to be as smooth and polished as the rest of him, but it was a pleasant surprise to learn otherwise. It gave Mycroft a slightly unkempt air that made him seem softer, more human. Mycroft turned to drape his shirt over the back of the chair beside him, then turned back to John with an almost defiant air, his spine stiff and straight.

“And the rest.”

It was clear Mycroft was already having second thoughts. “And if I simply… refuse?”

“I would say thank you very much for a lovely dinner.” John put down his napkin, and stood, his main course still largely untouched. It wasn’t even a bluff; things were progressing so nicely, and leaving would be preferable to enduring another half hour of careful chewing and awkward silences.

After another moment of calculation and a wry grimace, Mycroft bent down to take off his shoes and socks, placing them beneath the chair. He waited for John to return to his seat before his hands finally went to the button of his trousers. However, he sat back down to complete the somewhat awkward manoeuvre of taking them off, depriving John entirely of the view. By the time he was finished, a flush stained his cheeks, but he straightened up to meet John’s eyes square-on.

“And how are things at the surgery?” Mycroft said, as though they had merely been briefly interrupted. He resettled the starched white napkin upon his lap and ate another bite of stew, following up with a sip of wine. John was torn between amusement and admiration at Mycroft’s ability to wear his dignity in place of a three-piece suit.

“Oh, you know, the usual.” John grinned. “Not nearly as exciting as running around London with Sherlock, but it pays the bills. And when was your last health check, Mycroft? At your time of life, you would probably benefit from a yearly physical.”

“I am in excellent health, thank you.”

“I think I should be the judge of that, don’t you? Why don’t you come over here and let me take a better look.”

“A little later, perhaps.” Mycroft cast a pointed glance at his nearly-full plate. “After dinner.”

“No, right now, please.” John didn’t bother repeating his threat to leave – he counted on Mycroft’s memory being sufficient to recall it without prompting. He sat back a little in his chair, arms folded.

Mycroft made a half-hearted effort to stare him down, but John only smiled at him, waiting. Another long pause, and then Mycroft placed both hands on the table and rose to his feet with glacial slowness, fixing his gaze on a point slightly above and beyond John’s right ear. His napkin slid, unattended, to the floor. As he came around the table into full view John gave a long, low whistle of appreciation, and Mycroft’s flush deepened, extending down his neck and chest. He hesitated, just out of reach, and John leaned forward to pull him in closer. He rested his hand on Mycroft’s waist, then ran it caressingly over the plump, pale curve of his arse.

“Well, I s’pose I have to agree with your assessment. You do seem to be in fine form.”

“And that’s your professional medical opinion, is it, Doctor Watson?” Mycroft said, a slight breathlessness finally creeping into his tone.

“Oh, no, for that I’d have to do a far more thorough examination.” John smiled up at him. “But first...”

He rose abruptly and made his way back to the living area, aware of Mycroft’s gaze boring into his back. He plucked an oversized olive-green cushion from the corner of the Chesterfield, and returned to place it on the carpet beside his chair.

“Down you go,” he said cheerfully, turning his chair to face the cushion before resuming his seat. Mycroft’s expression was a thing of beauty.

“John?”

“I thought you wanted to finish dinner first.”

“Yes, but…”

“On your knees, Mycroft.”

Mycroft threw John one more disbelieving look, and then sank slowly to his knees before sitting back to rest on his haunches. He made an exquisite sight – straight-backed, his thighs slightly apart, and his cock tucked neatly between them. His pale, lightly freckled skin was nicely offset by the deep-hued velvet of the cushion. There, John told an imaginary Sherlock. Do you think this is interesting enough for him? At the very least, Mycroft didn’t appear to be bored with John’s company just yet.

“Good boy.” John said, and reached across the table to draw Mycroft’s plate of stew towards him. He speared a chunk of potato with his fork, shook off a few wayward drips, and brought it to Mycroft’s lips. Obediently, Mycroft opened his mouth to receive it, chewed and swallowed. John helped himself to a bite of carrot in the meantime. A few minutes ago, it had tasted like cardboard, but now the flavours of herbs and stock were rich and fragrant on his tongue.

“You’re right, this really is rather good.” John fed Mycroft a chunk of beef, and then took one for himself. “What do you think?” He held the next forkful of potato a little away from Mycroft’s mouth, awaiting his answer.

“I would… have to agree,” Mycroft said, and accepted another bite as his reward. The doubt in his eyes had receded a little, but he still looked uncomfortable. This time, when Mycroft had finished swallowing, John leaned forward to kiss him. Tonight Mycroft smelled of neither smoke nor cologne, just himself, and the food and wine he had consumed. John took his time about it, pushing his tongue deep into Mycroft’s mouth, tasting him, his thumb caressing the line of Mycroft’s jaw. Yes, dinner was turning out quite well indeed. When he pulled away, Mycroft sighed, and dipped his head, looking a little more relaxed.

John continued feeding both of them in turn, interspersed with more kissing whenever he felt the need. Mycroft was now soft and pliant under his hands, accepting whatever John chose to give him without complaint or question. If this sort of thing were something he truly enjoyed, it was little wonder he was so anxious to keep it hidden, even from Sherlock. Maybe especially from Sherlock.

At last both plates were empty, and John sat back with a sigh of satisfaction. The portions had been delicate rather than hearty, but he was pleasantly full, as well as more than a little aroused. Judging from the slight swell of Mycroft’s belly and the more pronounced swell of his cock, the feeling was mutual.

“Time for dessert, I think,” John said with a smile.

During the meal he’d shifted forwards so that Mycroft was now kneeling directly between his legs. Mycroft looked up at him, his mouth quirking at the corners, and his hands obediently slid up towards the buckle of John’s belt. However, John stopped them with his own, tugging gently to indicate that Mycroft should stand up instead.

“But…”

“Shhh,” John said.

He reached out to stroke Mycroft’s cock gently with one hand, watching it twitch and swell beneath his fingers. Mycroft made what sounded almost like a whimper, bitten back before it could fully emerge. Bending forward, John made a loose circle with his hand around his shaft while bringing his mouth down over the tip. It had been a good while since he’d sucked anyone off – newly returned from Afghanistan, he’d longed for the soft, clean, welcoming bodies of women, but he’d missed it, and intended to make the most of the opportunity. Mycroft gasped and jerked as John teased him with long, lazy sweeps of his tongue, working his hand up and down the shaft. He suspected it might have been a while since anyone had done this for Mycroft as well.

John sped up his pace a little, drawing a fresh round of appreciative sighs from Mycroft, whose thighs were trembling, clearly restraining himself from thrusting too far down John’s throat. John could taste him, salt and musk, on his tongue. Not content with the effect he was having, John slid his free hand between Mycroft’s legs and along his perineum, pressing firmly inwards on the skin just above the prostate. It was a technique he was quite proud of – in his experience, all those hours spent studying anatomy continued to pay off in unexpected ways.

“Ah,” Mycroft sighed softly, and then with an edge of alarm, “John.”

John pressed in a little harder with his fingers, speeding up his other hand. Mycroft’s grip on his shoulders tightened painfully, and then he was trembling, groaning, coming hard into John’s mouth. John swallowed, waited for Mycroft’s breathing to slow, and then pulled off in a long, slick glide. When Mycroft’s eyes fluttered open, he looked thoroughly wrecked, and John stood up to kiss him, pulling Mycroft into his arms. One of Mycroft’s hands moved down to tug feebly at John’s belt buckle.

“I should…”

“It’s all right,” John said, moving it gently away. He was still hard, but not urgently so, and for once it felt oddly satisfying to have given pleasure without taking it. Mycroft wasn’t even his type, really – John’s tastes had always tended towards men nearer his own build, stocky and well-muscled, preferably broad. But a great deal had changed in his life since returning home to London, and it wasn’t nearly the strangest thing that had happened to him in the past year or two. It was definitely a little awkward, though. He turned Mycroft about, pushing him down gently into the chair.

Although the room was moderately warm, Mycroft appeared to be shivering slightly, whether from the cooling sweat on his skin, or the same bout of awkwardness John was currently suffering. He briefly considered handing Mycroft back his shirt, but instead ducked into the adjoining room, which appeared to be a bedroom, for further options. He found a light blue dressing gown on a wooden stand beside the door, and brought it back out, handing it off to Mycroft without a word.

As Mycroft slipped it on, John went over to investigate the remaining contents of the silver trolley. In a separate compartment to the left, cool to the touch, there were two small plates bearing wobbly milk-white domes sitting in a pool of bright red sauce, each garnished with mixed berries and a sprig of mint. He extracted them, collected dessert spoons from the table, and took the lot around to the coffee table in the living area. Mycroft trailed him, tying the sash firmly around his waist, but hung back until John had seated himself and patted the space beside him. Mycroft sat down willingly enough, but something of the uneasy tension between them had returned.

Once again, John felt at something of a loss. He wanted to say something light and teasing, but something in the solemn look on Mycroft’s face stopped him. John had never really known anything like… whatever this was. The men he’d slept with in the past had either been good mates – nothing wrong with a bit of stress relief, and back to business as usual in the morning – or quick pick-ups consummated in a car, a toilet stall, or at a pinch, an alleyway out the back. With those ones, half the time they didn’t even bother exchanging names. This thing with Mycroft felt a bit like boarding the 139 to West Hampstead on a rainy Wednesday morning and ending up somewhere on Mars.

He cleared his throat to break the silence, and handed Mycroft one of the plates. “So, is this…? I mean, um, it looks like…”

“It’s vanilla panna cotta,” Mycroft said. “In a raspberry reduction.”

“Right, yeah. Lovely.” John took a spoonful to stop himself from uttering further inanities. Panna cotta wasn’t his favourite thing in the world, bearing a little too much resemblance to nursery food, but it was smooth and sweet and oddly comforting, its blandness compensated for by the acid tang of the berries.

They ate in silence for a while, with John sticking strictly to his own portion this time. He was very aware of Mycroft’s warm, solid presence only inches away, and the way he managed to make eating a wobbly gelatin dessert while clad only in a dressing gown look almost regal. It was all in the straightness of the spine and the ability to look down one’s nose, John concluded, sneaking the occasional sideways glance. He only wished that he could tell what Mycroft was thinking – whether John had perhaps pushed him a little too far this time, or perhaps proven something of a disappointment.

When he’d finished the last spoonful, John set the plate down on the table and stood. “Well, that was all very, um, nice,” he said. “Thank you. But I’d best get back. Sherlock will be, uh, wondering.”

“Yes, I’m sure he will be.” Mycroft set aside his own plate and rose abruptly to join him. He didn’t look uncertain, exactly, but was somewhat lacking his usual air of smugness. He met John’s gaze, and then bent to kiss him carefully, almost as though it might be a presumption. In fact, it was something of a relief. It hadn’t gone too badly, then.

John kissed him back gently, then with a little more force behind it, making his way on instinct. He cupped Mycroft’s face in his hands, pressing forwards, hearing Mycroft’s soft sounds of appreciation, feeling him melt under his touch. Before long, Mycroft sank back onto the settee, pulling John down with him, and his hand went once more to the front of John’s trousers.

“Please,” Mycroft murmured, and suddenly John’s neglected arousal returned in full force, leaving him weak-kneed and slightly dizzy.

He pulled himself together with some effort, spread his legs apart and guided Mycroft to his rightful place on the floor between them. “I suppose it’s the least you could do.”

“Yes, John,” Mycroft said, and from the curve of his mouth and the hint of smugness in his expression John knew he was taking the piss, but he didn’t care. He undid his belt and trousers, rearranging himself a little, and nodded.

“Well, get on with it, then.”

Despite the earlier hint of mockery, there was no doubt that Mycroft took his task very seriously. He reached almost reverently for John’s cock, stroking it back into full hardness with slender fingers, and John bit back a moan as Mycroft brought his mouth down upon it. While Mycroft had only done this once before, it quickly became clear that he’d learned a great deal from the experience. This time he unerringly used his hands and tongue to send shock after shock of pleasure up John’s spine, quickly bringing him to the limits of his self-control. However, John was not prepared to let him have it all his own way. He ran a hand through Mycroft’s hair, and then tugged just hard enough to disrupt Mycroft’s rhythm.

“Oi, steady on,” John said, and then added, “On second thoughts, why don’t you just hold it right there.”

Sitting forward on the sofa, he moved to grip Mycroft’s head firmly between his hands, and then began moving his hips in short, sharp thrusts, pushing into Mycroft’s mouth. Mycroft offered no resistance; in fact, John felt the deliberate relaxation of the surrounding muscles, encouraging him to thrust even deeper. Oh, fuck. John held himself in check with some difficulty, although some small, savage part of him wanted to do exactly that – ram himself down Mycroft’s throat as hard and fast as humanly possible.

“Fuck, I’m close,” he warned, but Mycroft only made a low humming sound of approval, the vibration adding to the barrage of stimulation. Two more thrusts, rather harder than he’d intended, and he was coming down Mycroft’s throat in shuddering pulses. His hands clutched at Mycroft’s shoulders as he curled over him, breathing hard, shaking with the effort to bring himself back under control.

When he opened his eyes, Mycroft was gazing up at him, his mouth still wrapped around John’s cock. John pulled out regretfully, tucked himself away, and sighed as the heavy, oddly familiar weight of Mycroft’s head came to rest against his thigh. Mycroft gazed up at him with that soft expression John remembered far too well. He ran a fond hand through Mycroft’s hair as the silence settled around them – not awkward this time, but peaceful.

“Thank you, John,” Mycroft said at last. He got up slowly, retightening the sash of his dressing gown, and resumed his seat on the sofa. John pulled him in to kiss him, aware of the almost tangible ebb and flow of warmth between them. He still didn’t quite know what was going on, but he knew he wanted it to continue.

“Yeah, that was… good,” John said. “Very good. Um, Mycroft…”

“Yes?”

John looked away briefly. He knew he really shouldn’t be bringing it up, and especially not now, but the thought kept on intruding, niggling away at him like a rotten tooth. “When I left the flat… uh, Sherlock said something to the effect that someone as smart as you couldn’t possibly be interested in having anything to do with the likes of me. Except as far as it concerned Sherlock’s welfare, of course. So I was wondering... ‘s that true, then?"

Mycroft frowned. “Despite your high estimation of his abilities, Sherlock is freqently mistaken in his conclusions. This is one of those times.” He looked sincere enough, but John was aware he’d probably had a great deal of practice in the art.

“But it’s sort of true, isn’t it? I mean, it was practically the first thing you asked me about when I got here.”

“I am indeed concerned about my brother’s well-being. That does not preclude a… genuine interest. John, why are you here?”

“Um, because you asked me to dinner?”

“No, I mean – what is it that you really wanted from me this evening? Money? Advancement? A personal favour? An introduction to a person of influence, perhaps?”

“Don’t be silly. I think it’s pretty obvious what I wanted.” John ran his hand lightly over Mycroft’s thigh.

“The truth of which I would believe from very few indeed, and precisely why I wanted to see you again.”

“Oh.”

“Also, in the limited time I’ve known you, you’ve proven to have many admirable qualities. You're loyal, capable, and refreshingly difficult to intimidate.”

“Too stupid, I believe you said.”

Mycroft did manage to look mildly embarrassed, but it was a near thing. “I’m further given to understand that you’ve saved Sherlock’s life at least twice over the past year, for which I am grateful, even if he isn’t. Even more astonishingly, you’ve managed to share a flat with him for roughly the same period of time, and not only survived, but flourished. In short, Sherlock is quite misguided if he believes you to be anything but extraordinary. As a matter of fact…"

"Yeah, fine, all right, that’s quite enough of that," John said, his cheeks burning. “I’m sorry I asked.”

“And what about you, John?” Mycroft hesitated, then abruptly stood, as though to put a safe distance between them. “I assure you that I would not appreciate being seen as… an inadequate substitute for my little brother.”

“What, you mean Sherlock?”

“Obviously. I’m well aware that as his flatmate you may have developed certain… feelings towards him. It is not, I understand, uncommon.” Mycroft grimaced slightly, although whether at the thought of Sherlock or feelings or the distasteful commonality of human behaviour it was difficult to say.

“Seriously. Sherlock.”

“I believe we’ve already established that particular point.”

John had to repress a grin, if only because Sherlock would probably have said exactly the same thing, but been far ruder about it.

“Look, Mycroft, Sherlock is… well, he’s like no one I’ve ever met before. All right, almost no one. Because yeah, you two do have a lot in common. You’re both brilliant, mad, egotistical, and more than a little vain –" here Mycroft had the gall to look mildly affronted, “but you’re not interchangeable. And it’s just the slightest bit insulting that you'd think I’d see you that way.”

“But…”

“God knows Sherlock’s pranced around the flat half-naked often enough. And we’ve, you know, spent the occasional night together – usually huddled in a laneway spying on some low-life, but still. He’s my best mate, and I’d trust him with my life. But it’s just not… I s’pose he’s more like a brother to me. You’d know what that’s like.”

“Exasperating.”

“Yeah, pretty much. But I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I do care about him, Mycroft. Just not in the way you might be thinking. And to be honest, I’m not sure he cares about sex at all – he always acts like that sort of thing’s beneath him.”

“That doesn’t stop people falling for him on a regular basis. Like that Hooper woman at St Bart’s.”

“I don’t really think that’s any of my business, do you? Or yours, for that matter.” John stood up and closed the gap between them. “So if you could just stop the gears turning in that gigantic brain of yours, we’d probably both be better off.”

Before Mycroft could reply, John pulled him forward by the lapels of his dressing gown and kissed him. It was an odd feeling, having to tilt his head so far up to kiss someone. Still, it wasn’t unpleasant, just a little unsettling, and perhaps another reminder of just how strange his acquaintanceship with Mycroft was turning out to be. Mycroft sighed softly into his mouth, and his hand tugged at John’s shirtfront, fingers working deftly at a button, but John stopped him before he could go further.

“I really had best be getting back. Maybe… next time,” John said. It was not quite a statement, not quite a question. Mycroft’s solemn expression lifted for a moment, and his mouth quirked at a corner.

“I would like that very much, John.”

“You mean you’d be amenable.”

This time Mycroft did smile, and once again John caught a glimpse of a younger, more innocent Mycroft, a man he once might have thought entirely fictional. He kissed Mycroft again, more gently this time.

After John had retrieved and put on his blazer, he stood patiently by the door while Mycroft checked him over. Mycroft plucked stray hairs from his trousers, straightened his shirt collar, and brushed some apparently tell-tale smudges from his cheeks and the corner of his mouth before giving his approval. He also reminded John to keep as much distance between himself and Sherlock as possible, without arousing suspicion.

“Four glasses, I think,” Mycroft said. “And I fancy it must have been the ‘nduja.”

“The what?”

“I expect you’ll find out shortly.”

The smugness in Mycroft’s expression was back, but for once it didn’t make John want to punch him. God help him, he might even be starting to find it endearing. John shook Mycroft’s hand in a curiously formal farewell, and then found himself out in the still, silent hallway.

***

“You had a nice time, then.” Sherlock lay outstretched on the settee, staring at the ceiling, his open laptop balanced precariously on a stack of books on the coffee table. All the windows had been opened, but the flat still smelled faintly of smoke. “Judging from the two and a half hours you were gone. Give Mycroft full value for money then, did you?”

“We barely talked about you, Sherlock. Really.” John headed towards the kitchen table, inspecting the piles of ash heaped in mismatched dishes upon it. He shook his head. “And I’m surprised no one called the fire brigade.”

Sherlock waved a negligent hand in the air. “Mrs Hudson threatened to. At least I imagine that’s what she said, I only listened to her general changes in pitch.” He finally deigned to turn his head towards John, scrutinising him in a long sweep from head to foot, seeming to pay particular attention to his face, the creases of his trousers, and his shoelaces. “So, four glasses of wine, was it?”

In fact he’d only had the single glass, but obviously still looked flushed and dishevelled, something Mycroft had also inevitably noticed. Still, something in John resented being reduced to the object of fraternal one-upmanship. Normal people didn’t have to put up with this. “It was three, actually.”

“Oh, I think just a little more, John. You really do have to pay attention when Mycroft is pouring.”

John narrowly restrained himself from rolling his eyes. “If you say so, Sherlock.”

"Also, from the slightly swollen state of your lips you appear to have ingested something containing capsaicin, but not a curry of any description since the smell of the spices involved in its preparation would still be apparent, besides which, I happen to know that Mycroft prefers French or Italian for his meal-based interrogations. So most likely something Sicilian or Calabrian, such as – "

"'Nduja," John said hastily, eager to forestall any further speculation on the appearance of his lips. "Or at least that's what Mycroft said. I don't even know what that is." None of which was, technically, untrue.

"Ah, I thought so. A particularly spicy Calabrian salami. So, torture as well as interrogation. He really meant business."

"Whatever you say, Sherlock."

"So in that case, what did you talk about?"

"Hmm?"

"You claim not to have spent a great deal of time discussing me, but Mycroft clearly had some ulterior motive concerning your visit, so what was it? Surely he didn't want your opinion on the general election. Although I suppose you do represent the opinion of the greater public, the man in the street, the sentiments of the profoundly ordinary..."

"Shut up, Sherlock. Yes, yes, fine, we actually spent the entire meal discussing your eating, sleeping, and grooming habits, as well as analysing your behaviour during each of your recent cases. He was particularly concerned about your reaction to Irene's exile. I can see it’s pointless trying to hide anything from you, since you’ve been right about absolutely everything so far. Happy?"

Sherlock smirked. "Well, at least you got a meal out of it. I'd ask for cash next time."

John briefly contemplated the idea of charging Mycroft for the pleasure of sucking him off, or perhaps vice-versa, and smiled wryly. "Maybe I will. Now if you're done with your interrogation, I'm going to bed."

"Goodnight, John."

John climbed the stairs slowly to his room, grateful to have escaped. It was clear that the Holmes' talent for deception extended both ways, but even so, he doubted he could maintain it for long if he were to go on seeing Mycroft. And he did want to. While there was something undeniably appealing about having the most dangerous man in London on his knees, it was more than that. What intrigued John most was the Mycroft he'd only caught glimpses of in passing, a man he'd really only just met. Also, given that John had begun the whole thing by threatening to shoot him in the head, things could probably only get better.

He had just shut the door to his room when his phone buzzed. Even if he hadn’t programmed Mycroft’s number in last week, he would still have known exactly who it was.

I trust that all went well?

Well enough, John replied. But he's going to catch on sooner or later.

Will there be a later?

It might easily have been interpreted as a demand, but under the circumstances just sounded a little plaintive.

I already said, didn't I? John hit send, then relented and sent a follow-up. So, when was the last time you had fish and chips?

I had grilled salmon with potatoes dauphinoise last Friday.

Really not the same thing. I’ll have to take you down to our local. Cod and chips. Lots of vinegar. Mushy peas.

Is this a threat?

John smiled and sat down on the bed, imagining Mycroft dressed in a three-piece suit, eating greasy chips from a takeaway foam container. With his fingers. It might take a little gentle persuasion, but would be well worth it. As worldly and experienced as Mycroft seemed, he had shown himself open to a range of possibilities, after all, and John had begun to hope there might just be a few more interesting things he could show him.

It’s a promise.