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Love, Actually, is All Around

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It was the new recording studio today – the one with the mixer who liked to scowl and roll his eyes a lot. Sherlock had already been dreading this session, but the sight of him there in his stupid red baseball cap was putting Sherlock off almost as much as the peppy backup singers to his right doing their awful swaying dance, or the synth-heavy opening to the track playing in his ears.

“I feel it in my fingers,” he sang, with as much feeling as he could muster. “I feel it in my toes.”

The backups echoed him – a droning “feel it in my to-o-oes”. It wasn’t so much a dance that they were doing, really, as just gyrating in place. It was all so unnecessary.

“Love is all around me.”

All around me.”

“And so the feeling –”

A sudden shriek of feedback rang in his ear, snapping him out of the song. The track stopped, and Sherlock looked toward John leaning against the panel on the other side of the glass.

“I’m afraid you did it again, Sherlock,” he said.

John didn’t sound frustrated, or upset, but there was a sort of tired quality about his understanding smile. His blue eyes weren’t sparkling like they normally were. Not that Sherlock could blame him.

Sherlock sagged a bit into his stool, sighing.

“It’s just, I know the old version so well,” he said, lamely.

“Well, we all do,” John replied. “That’s why we’re making the new version.”

He was trying to sound excited, but Sherlock didn’t buy it for a second. Both of them knew exactly why they were doing this, and Sherlock hated the way it heaped itself on John’s shoulders, almost physically weighing him down.

John, Sherlock was sure, had had lofty hopes of resurrecting Sherlock’s career from the flaming mess he’d driven it to, when he’d signed on to be his manager five years ago. But it was a foolish effort – gone were Sherlock’s days of dynamic, exciting tunes and lavish tours, and there just wasn’t much to be sold in what was left. It was pathetic, really, sitting here with his grey-streaked hair and creaky joints and his bright shirt that might have been fashionable back in his heyday, hoping at long last for that elusive comeback. But still, John had lasted longer than any other manager Sherlock had ever had, and part of him, Sherlock knew, still believed in him. Sherlock was grateful for that.

“Right, let’s go again,” Sherlock said. John nodded back and retreated away from the glass, and the track started up again.

“I feel it in my fingers.”

In my fingers.”

“I feel it in my toes.”

“Feel it in my to-oes, yeah.”

Come on, Sherlock.

“Love is all ar- oh, fuck-wank-bugger-shitting-arse-head-and-hole.”

He buried his face in his hands, rubbing hard at his temples.

The backup singers were starting to look annoyed. The mixer was scowling. Sherlock sucked in a deep breath, looking towards John, who had a hand covering his face, though Sherlock though he saw him trying to stifle a grin.

The sight buoyed him up somewhat, and he adjusted his headphones. “Start again.”

The track began to play. Christmas, Sherlock thought to himself. Christmas. You can do it.

“I feel it in my fingers.” The words were starting to make him feel ill. “I feel it in my toes.”

“Feel it in my to-o-oes”.

Come on, don’t fuck it up.

“Christmas is all around me–”

John’s face lit up with a wide, bright grin, and he gave Sherlock an exuberant double thumbs-up.

“And so the feeling grows.”

Sherlock tried to reign in his own smile as he looked back at John.

“It’s written in the wind,” he carried on. “It’s everywhere I go.”

“Everywhere I go-o-ooo.”

Sherlock braced himself for the next line.

“So if you really love Christmas –”

Love Christmas.”

“Come on and let it snow.”

Oh, dear God.

“Come on and let it sno-o-ow”.

They were swaying more and more deeply with every awful warbling line. Sherlock stared straight ahead at John.

“This is shit, isn’t it?”

John leaned back over the console, his smile seeming a bit less forced this time.

“Yep,” he answered brightly. “Solid gold shit, maestro!”

Despite himself, Sherlock smirked back.

***

“That was the Christmas effort from the once great Sherlock Holmes. Oh, dear me, how are the mighty fallen! I can safely put my hand up my arse and say that is the worst record I’ve heard this century!... oh, and coincidentally, I believe Sherlock will be a guest on Mike’s show in a few minute’s time.”

“Ignore it, ignore it,” John said lowly, because Sherlock had begun to bristle at his side.

“Bastards,” Sherlock whispered, with a venom in his voice that surprised even him. “Couldn’t even wait till I came on, I suppose?”

“It’s fine.” John’s hand was clenched around Sherlock’s forearm, as though he was afraid Sherlock might leap up and storm off to fight the host whose show was being piped though the station’s overhead speakers. “Just try to laugh about it. It shows you’re a good sport.”

The show was wrapping up now with a few closing messages, and Sherlock, with some effort, relaxed the scowl off his face. He peered through the glass of the booth at the host, all young and cynical and pretentious.

“He’s right though, isn’t he?” Sherlock mumbled.

John looked sideways at him, eyes wide. “Sherlock, don’t listen –”

“It’s a terrible song, John.” Sherlock was still staring straight ahead. “This is never going to work.”

“You don’t know that,” John said firmly. He leaned forward to force Sherlock to turn towards him, and Sherlock obeyed. “I told you; it’s a feel-good song, it’s nostalgic, and people love that kind of stuff during Christmas. I won’t say it’s not a long shot –” Sherlock gave a little scoff, “–but it’s possible, alright?”

His voice had grown firmer, and the lines of his face had smoothed out into something quite intense. Sherlock found himself staring for a second, enraptured.

“Alright,” he said at last, quiet. “I’ll try.”

John smiled, and Sherlock couldn’t help but mirror him a bit. It always felt like a gift when he pushed out of their burnout enough to smile at him like that.

“Good,” John said, and he released Sherlock’s arm. “Go on, then.”

Sherlock nodded and stood up to move toward the door. There was some kind of tingling energy racing across the skin above his wrist.

“So, Sherlock,” barked the show’s host, Mike, a few minutes later, when Sherlock had settled himself in the chair behind the microphone. “Welcome back to the airwaves! You’ve got a new Christmas single, a cover of ‘Love is all Around.’”

“Yes, except we’ve changed the word ‘love’ to ‘Christmas’”. Sherlock eyed Mike up and down, wondering if he needed to be on his guard with this one.

“Is that an important message to you?” Mike asked.

“Not really, Mike.” Sherlock’s voice was a still a bit stiff. “Christmas is a time for those with someone they love in their lives.”

“And that’s not you?”

“That’s not me. When I was young and successful, I was foolish and constantly on my guard. And now here I am, still with no one, wrinkled and alone.”

He’d tried to say it with a modicum of a smile in his voice, a little self-deprecating humour, but Mike was looking shocked.

“Wow,” he said, less brightly. “Thanks for that, Sherlock.”

Fuck. He wasn’t laughing it off, like Sherlock had expected. “For what?”

“For actually giving a real answer to a question. It doesn’t often happen here at Radio Watford, I can tell you.”

Sherlock leaned in his chair to look towards John through the glass, only to feel his stomach drop when he saw him hunched over in his seat, looking anxious. Sherlock bit his lip; he’d been trying to play along with Mike’s inevitable jibes and criticisms, but clearly John thought he shouldn’t have said that.

“Ask me anything, I’ll tell you the truth.” Sherlock said, looking back at Mike. He could still get this back on track.

“Best shag you ever had?” Mike asked, looking hopeful.

Sherlock thought quickly - his eyes darted around the studio, finally landing on a poster out in the foyer. “Sam Smith.”

Mike’s mouth fell open. “Wow.”

“Only kidding.” Sherlock said with a chuckle. “He was rubbish.”

Mike laughed, and Sherlock joined in, even as he made a mental note to apologize to John for the angry email he was about to get from Sam Smith’s reps.

“Alright, let’s carry on,” said Mike. “How do you think the new record compares to your classic stuff?”

“Oh, come on, Mike, you know as well as I do the record’s crap.”

He hadn’t meant to say it, and Mike’s eyes widened again with uncontained shock, but Sherlock truly couldn’t see any other way around this that wouldn’t sound horribly forced and ridiculous. There was no way he could go on pushing this song seriously, no matter what John thought, but they were in it now and if he had to put his own neck on the block, that’s just what he would do.

“But wouldn’t it be great,” Sherlock went on, resting his chin on his steepled fingers next to the microphone. “If the number one song this Christmas wasn’t some smug teenager, but an old ex-cocaine addict searching for a comeback at any price? Come Christmas, those young popsters will be half naked throwing back tequila shooters, and I’ll be sitting in some flat with my manager, John,” he nodded towards the door of the booth, “fucking miserable because our fucking gamble didn’t pay off.”

John was staring, gape-mouthed. Mike looked elated.

“So, if you believe in Father Christmas, children.” Sherlock leaned into the microphone and began to speak in an exaggerated, patronizing voice. “Like your Uncle Sherlock does: buy my festering turd of a record.”

Mike turned away from his own microphone to muffle a chortle.

“And particularly enjoy the incredible crassness of the moment we try to squeeze an extra syllable into the fourth line.”

“I think you’re referring to… ‘If you really love Christmas…’?”

“‘Come on and let it snow,’” Sherlock finished for him, face twisting. “Just awful.”

“Well, here it is one more time,” said Mike, now fiddling with the dials on his setup. “The dark horse for this year’s Christmas number one, Christmas is all around. Thank you, Sherlock.”

He rattled off something about the news story coming up afterwards, and Sherlock turned back towards John outside, hoping to share in the laughter with him. But John’s head was hanging down between his shoulders, shaking back and forth.

Sherlock’s smile dropped off his face, replaced by a heavy, unpleasant rush of guilt that swept over him. In the background he heard the song playing out of Mike’s headphones. It made his stomach churn even more.

This really, really, needed to be worth it in the end, and Sherlock knew that he’d have to make sure it was, for both their sakes.

***

Sherlock stood staring into the glaring lights and monitors, with his back to a large, excited crowd.

“Hi there, and welcome back!” said one of the identical hosts next to him, the one in the ugly striped jumper. God help him, Sherlock couldn’t be arsed to remember which one he was – they both had stupid names anyway. “So, three weeks till Christmas, looks like the main competition is gonna be Blue Carbuncle.”

“Yes,” Sherlock said, smirking. A large framed poster of the young, four-man group was standing beside him, as well as their recent platinum record, almost like a challenge. “I saw them on the show last week – they weren’t very nice about my record.”

He gave a side eye to the second host, whose eyes shifted awkwardly beneath his very artificially spiked hair.

“No,” he said, giving a bit of a nervous laugh. “Little scamps.”

“But,” Sherlock turned towards the camera and put on his best charismatic face. “Very, very talented musicians.”

He had to admit he was starting to enjoy this a little. No one ever knew quite how to react around him anymore, and it was satisfying in a way he couldn’t explain, breaking the rules like this. Even as John’s words from the previous night still ran around in his head.

“This could backfire on you really badly, you know that,” he’d said as they’d sat in the dark in John’s Baker Street flat, watching Sherlock’s Graham Norton spot.

“Then let it,” Sherlock had said in an unaffected voice, making John turn towards him with a sharp crease in his brow. “At least I won’t go down grovelling. Besides, this is the only way we have a chance in hell, and you know it.”

John had blinked, and a moment passed before he sagged against the cushions. “Probably.” And he sounded a bit sad, in a way that Sherlock didn’t like. “They do seem to be getting caught up in it.”

On the screen, Sherlock was telling some raucous, wildly fabricated story about a concert he’d given that summer, and Graham and the other guests were roaring with laughter.

“I guess it’s some ironic industry rebellion or something,” John said.

“I like to think it’s my exceptional good looks and charm.”

John’s face broke into a chuckle, and Sherlock instantly felt better. “That, too,” John admitted. He turned to look towards Sherlock again. “Just don’t go too far, okay?”

“Of course not,” Sherlock had smirked, and John had thumped his head against the back of the sofa, but he was smiling.

“Yeah,” the host with the striped jumper now said, awkwardly. “Sherlock, I understand you’ve got a prize for our competition winners?”

“I have, indeed.” Sherlock grinned, and he pulled a large marker with a scribbled signature on it out of the pocket of his suit jacket. “It’s a personalized felt-tip pen.”

“Oh,” said Ugly Jumper, clearly let down. “That’s great.”

“It’s brilliant,” Sherlock said animatedly. “It’ll write on anything, even glass. So, say, for example,” he turned towards the poster on his left. “You’ve got a framed picture, like this one of Blue Carbuncle, you can write directly on it! Look.”

He pressed the pen down onto the glass over the lead singer’s head and drew a large, four-tipped speech bubble, pointing at the mouths of each of the members of Blue Carbuncle. The studio quietened suddenly as they waited for Sherlock to write in it, and Sherlock almost couldn’t contain his laughter as we scribbled in, W-E-’-V-E G-O-T L-I-T-T-L-E P-R-I-

“Uh, lots of kids watching this show, Sherlock!” said Spiky Hair behind him in a desperate rush.

“Oh, of course,” Sherlock said, finishing off C-K-S, then spinning around with a flourish.

“Hey, kids,” he said, softer than before. “Here’s an important message, from Sherlock Holmes, to you.” He paused, schooled his face into something very serious, then said, quite deliberately. “Don’t…buy…drugs.”

Ugly Jumper and Spiky Hair were looking apprehensive, but quietly exhaled in relief.

Sherlock leaned towards the camera, just a little. “Become a pop star, and they give you them for free.”

“And, I do believe that’s a commercial break!” shouted Ugly Jumper. “We’ll see you soon, bye!”

The audience was cued to applaud, and did so quickly, and Sherlock snuck in a quick wink at the camera zooming out on him, the one that John was standing behind.

John’s lips were set in a firm line, but the look he was giving Sherlock was knowing and sardonic.

Sherlock returned it. John could lecture him about “going too far” after the show, but then again, it had been John’s newspaper that Sherlock had seen this morning with the advertisement for Blue Carbuncle’s album marked up in angry black ink with the same crude speech bubble.

***

“Well, this must be a very exciting moment for you, fighting for the Christmas number one!” said Jonathan Ross, a week later. “How’s it looking so far?”

“Very bad indeed,” Sherlock said nonchalantly, as he lounged on the sofa with his hands folded behind his head. “Blue Carbuncle are outselling me five to one, but I’m hoping for a late surge.”

He gave a little chuckle; Jonathan and a few people in the studio audience copied him.

And,” Sherlock went on. “If I reach number one,” he turned his head out towards the cameras with a mischievous grin. “I promise to sing a song, stark naked, on TV on Christmas Eve.”

The laughter doubled. Jonathan was looking dubiously amused.

“You mean that?”

“Well, of course I mean it, Jonathan,” Sherlock said. “Do you want a preview? You old flirt.”

Sherlock stood up, and the audience roared louder than ever before. He stepped in front of Jonathan’s desk, obscuring the camera’s view, and mimed unbuckling his trousers.

There were several whoops of approval. Sherlock hitched his jacket up a bit and gyrated his hips a few inches, putting on a bit of a show, and the crowd cheered louder. He thought he heard a familiar voice in amongst the appreciative shouts, but it was quickly obscured by applause.

Jonathan sniggered again, then angled himself in his chair to peek out around Sherlock and look into the camera. “That’ll never make number one.”

***

There was a light dusting of snow outside that was slowly melting, and lights of all colours were sprinkling a festive glow all along the street. Traffic inched along, last minute shoppers scrambled up the sidewalks, but inside the large, bare sitting room in Sherlock’s 10th floor suite, everything was quiet.

“It’s a rainy Christmas Eve all over the UK” came the voice from the radio. “And the big question is, who is number one on the Radio One chartshow tonight?”

Sherlock was trying not to give away how much his heart was pounding. The room was packed with people. Everyone had turned up; producers, agents, the marketing team, even a gaggle of old roadies had squeezed themselves inside to listen to the announcement, and Sherlock knew the whole place was about to erupt in just a few seconds, one way or another.

“Is it Blue Carbuncle? Or the unexpected Christmas sensation from Sherlock Holmes?”

Through the crowd, Sherlock spotted John hanging out near the back; his eyes were glued to the radio like everyone else’s, the wrinkled skin under his eyes growing more pronounced with anticipation as the seconds ticked by.

“Well, you might have guessed it, although you may not believe it…”

John’s eyes suddenly flickered up and locked with Sherlock’s.

“…it’s Sherlock Holmes!”

The room exploded with cheers. Applause rang out, champagne glasses were raised and swiftly guzzled, everyone alight and punching the air. Sherlock joined them, raised both his fists, and stepped onto a nearby table to look over them all as the roadies howled and chanted.

“You did it!” and the voice was unmistakeably John’s, and Sherlock found him again looking absolutely euphoric and something hot and incredible bubbled up in his chest at shining joy emanating from John’s eyes.

Someone had chucked a mobile phone at him, and someone else had barked out a loud “shh!”. Sherlock brought the phone to his ear.

“Hi, Sherlock,” said the same host’s voice, now coming from the receiver.

“Hello.”

“We’re live across the nation, and you’re number one.”

Sherlock couldn’t help it – he let out a deep, satisfied laugh.

“How will you be celebrating?” asked the voice in his ear.

“I don’t know,” Sherlock replied, still smirking. “I suppose, either I could behave like a real rock-and-roll loser, and get drunk alone with my manager…”

A few chuckles followed this. Sherlock glanced towards John, whose smile was fading slightly.

“Uh…” he said, thrown slightly. He composed himself, turned back. “Or, when I hang up, I’ll be flooded with invitations to quite a few glamorous parties.”

“Let’s hope it’s the latter!” said the host, as a few people let out cheers. “And now, here it is, number one, from Sherlock Holmes –”

Sherlock cringed away from the phone involuntarily.

“It’s ‘Christmas is All Around’!”

“Oh, Jesus, not that crap again!” Sherlock yelled into the receiver. More laughter and cheers greeted this, but Sherlock hung up the phone before he could hear more than the opening notes of that wretched song.

Not two seconds after he’d hit the end button, and another call was coming through. He answered it. “Hello? ...Elton!”

There were a few whispers, and an awed hush descended on the room as Sherlock listened.

“Well, of course,” he said after a moment, grinning again. “Send an embarrassingly large car, and I’ll be there. See you.”

He hung up, and beamed over the expectant crowd.

“It’s going to be a very good Christmas.”

They cheered again, raised their glasses again. Sherlock hopped down from the table and several people patted him on the shoulder, some barking words of congratulations. He shook a few hands, smiled genially at a few others, then picked his way through them all as they started to mingle and celebrate amongst themselves, heading for the door.

John was there, swinging his dark winter jacket over his shoulders.

“Not that one.” Sherlock sifted through the coat rack and picked out one of his own, a rather bright blue one with sequins adorning the lapels. He tossed it at John. “Here. Obviously Elton will show us up, but if we don’t even try –”

“Oh, um,” John muttered. He was staring down at the jacket in his hands, as if he was trying to figure out what it was. “I – I don’t think I’ll come.”

Sherlock paused, his own dark red velvet suit jacket halfway up his shoulders.

“What?”

“Yeah,” John said. He wasn’t looking at Sherlock. “I’m tired, you know? Been a busy month.”

Sherlock blinked, slowly. “Yes, but…” It was as if his brain couldn’t quite catch up to what John was saying. “It’s Elton John’s party, John.”

“I know.” And John’s voice was a low, exhausted sigh. He finally looked up, and Sherlock almost started at how worn he looked, at how deep the creases of his brow were. His shoulders were sagging, and there was no trace of that sparkle in his eyes.

Sherlock’s mind whirled. Surely John hadn’t been working himself that hard, surely this whole thing couldn’t have beaten him down that much. Could it?

“Just…go on and have a good time, alright?” John was trying to smile, but there was no life in it; it only etched the lines around his mouth darker than before. “I’ll see you later.”

He handed Sherlock’s jacket back to him, and stepped out the door with a nod, leaving Sherlock blank, baffled, and with a strange sort of tugging sensation in his chest.

***

Maybe it had been inevitable. Maybe he’d been a colossal idiot for not predicting this weeks ago – hell, even years ago. And still, Sherlock felt more than a little disorientated as he rang the doorbell at Baker Street not two hours later.

Normally, he’d have just walked in. He had a key. He stayed there often enough, when his own luxurious flat got too big and too empty for him. But not this time. It wouldn’t have been right. He owed John that much – it was Christmas, after all.

The moments stretched on and on as he stood outside the door, and he wondered for an awful second if John might not answer, but eventually he heard footsteps on the stairs inside, heavier than normal, and the door sung open.

He looked as tired as he had done back at the celebration, though he’d changed into a pair of sweatpants and his blue Christmas jumper with the red patterning along the collar. The bags under his eyes were still dark, but the lines of his brow were at least obscured as he knitted them together in confusion.

“I thought you were at Elton John’s?”

Even in this state, even after he’d rushed over here from the party, Sherlock was momentarily at a loss for what to say.

“Well, I was there for a minute or two,” he said, and he was surprised at how quiet and unsure his own voice sounded. “But then…I had an epiphany.”

It was a bizarre way to put it, and John was clearly left even more befuddled, his searching eyes darting from Sherlock’s face to the bottle of champagne clutched in his hand, which Sherlock had snagged from Elton’s bar on his way out.

“Alright,” John said after a moment, clearly at just as much of a loss. “Come in, then.”

Sherlock let John close the door behind him, then followed him up the stairs into the flat.

John came to a halt near the window and looked back, but Sherlock hovered in the doorway. He was looking all around the sitting room, at the antique wallpaper and the dated furniture and the old posters of himself from back when he sang songs that didn’t make him want to vomit, hung up all over the walls – the weight of how much this all was hitting him square in the chest all of a sudden.

“So,” John said, hesitating slightly. “What was this epiphany?”

“Um.” Sherlock began, then stopped. He looked at John, then cast his eyes downward and bent down awkwardly to set the champagne on the coffee table. “It was…about Christmas.”

To Sherlock’s surprise, John cocked his head a bit and smiled.

“You realized it was all around?”

“No,” Sherlock replied, trying to suppress a grin in spite of himself as he straightened up. “No, I realized that…that Christmas is the time,” he swallowed, hard, “to be with the people you love.”

John’s smile dropped. Suddenly the flat seemed unnaturally silent.

“Yeah…” he said, so softly it was a moment before Sherlock realized he had spoken.

“And…” Sherlock finally drummed up the courage to look John directly in the eyes. “I realized that…it might be that, the people I love, is, in fact –”

He faltered, John’s gaze was locked on his, and there was no air left in Sherlock’s lungs.

“…you.”

John blinked.

The only sound was the faint swish of tires on the rainy street outside.

Sherlock let the words hang in the air between them, waiting for John to speak. He was sure John must hear his heart hammering against his ribcage, even from across the room.

At last, John opened his mouth – his lips were trembling a little – and let out a shaky laugh.

“Jesus,” he breathed. “Ten minutes at Elton John’s and you’re gayer than you’ve been in years.”

“I’m serious, John.”

He said it in a low, constricted voice, so much so that John’s mouth immediately snapped shut again, all traces of humour wiped from his face.

“You…”

“I left Elton’s so I could come here and tell you –” And now Sherlock’s eyes had snapped shut, and he drew a deep breath in through his nose, trying to stem the tide that he knew was about to break loose from him.

Through the silence, he heard John take a step forward.

“…Sherlock?”

And Sherlock opened his eyes to find John’s, a deep, sparkling blue, wide and beautiful as a summer sea, and in an instant, everything became clear and calm.

He gave a little nod, and took a step towards John, then another when John showed no sign of moving away.

“Years ago, I’d have said this was a terrible mistake.” The gap between them closed, Sherlock stopping less than a foot away from him. “But…”

Not quite managing to stop his hands from trembling, he lifted one and slid it, so, so slowly, into John’s where it rested against his side.

A just-barely-audible intake of breath sounded from John’s parted lips. He stared down at Sherlock’s hand in his like he couldn’t believe it.

“You turned out to be the fucking love of my life,” Sherlock finished, softly.

A second that seemed to stretch on for an hour or more, and then John looked up at him.

Their faces were inches apart. John’s fathomless, unbelieving eyes were raking up and down Sherlock’s face. Sherlock could have counted every line and wrinkle that straggled across his skin, wanting to reach out and run a gentle finger over each one of them…

And then John let out a quiet, desperate sigh, and he was leaning forward, and Sherlock angled himself down to meet him.

Their lips brushed once over each other, unsure, then after a moment’s hesitation, pressed lightly together. Sherlock’s other hand came up to cradle John’s skull, threading through the fine strands of greying hair at his nape, and a second later he felt the small weight of John’s palm sliding across his shoulder and coming to rest at the centre of his back.

He felt John gasp a bit, and they were swaying slightly together, moving into each other without quite knowing how, but feeling their way forward with unpracticed lips and long-untouched hands, closer and closer towards something unfamiliar, but instinctive, and bone-deep comforting in how right is all was in this moment.

They broke apart long moments later to find that their hands had unclasped and they were holding each other closer, not moving away. Their bodies might always have known, in every cell, that they would find their way here one day, and know exactly what to do.

Slowly, Sherlock blinked open his eyes, and the John that appeared looked younger than Sherlock had ever known him – lines smoothed out, lips upturned and parted, eyes sparkling with joy and wonder that made the breath leave Sherlock’s lungs in a low rush.

“All this time,” John whispered. “Every moment, since the day we met…but I never thought –”

“Well,” Sherlock murmured back, casting his eyes down sheepishly. “You know what they say about fame breeding idiocy.”

John let out a laugh that was more like a gasp, and brought his hand up to Sherlock’s face, swept a thumb along his cheek.

“But, despite that…” Sherlock gave John a little smile as his skin tingled under his tender caress. “We have had a wonderful life, haven’t we?”

John’s eyes shone bright enough to light the whole of the dark street outside.

“It’s been incredible.” He was pressing himself closer now, so much that Sherlock could feel his breath across his lips. “And I really am so proud of you, you know that?”

Sherlock didn’t reply, but dipped his head to kiss him again, eagerly drawing him as close as he could. John’s mouth opened underneath his and he let out a little sigh, and the tugging sensation in Sherlock’s heart burst open into a bright-burning flame, pouring out of his chest and streaking across his nerves and firing up at where John was pulling him close by his shoulder blades, where his chest was pressing up against Sherlock’s, where his lips were moving so sweetly and lovingly against his own.

He wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that, but it was long enough for Sherlock to be breathing a bit heavier than normal when they broke apart. John seemed to be as well, breath coming deep and even as he smiled rapturously up at Sherlock.

“So,” Sherlock said, his voice sounding a bit unsure again.

John quirked an eyebrow upwards. “So?”

“Well,” Sherlock murmured, and shrugged a fraction of an inch. “We could just…get pissed and watch the Christmas specials…”

A split-second of confusion crossed John’s face, before it passed into bright, grinning understanding. His hands smoothed their way down Sherlock’s arms and landed on the lapels of his jacket.

“Oh, I think we can do a little better than that.”

Sherlock’s lips quirked upward. “I think so too.” And he leaned in for another kiss.

***

“You know I love Christmas, I always will. My mind’s made up, the way that I feel. There’s no beginning, there’ll be no end. ‘Cause on Christmas, you can depend!”

The shrieking, synthesized solo kicked in, and Sherlock let go of the neck of the guitar that he didn’t look remotely like he was playing, turned around and dramatically swept the jacket off his shoulders. He paused for a moment, his bare back to the audience, letting the camera get in for a flattering close-up of his arse, then spun around and ripped off his tearaway trousers too.

The crowd roared with appreciation as he stood there, stark naked but for his high silver boots and the skin-coloured pants the studio required him to wear behind the guitar, beaming up at them all. Maybe this was the stupidest, most ridiculous thing he’d ever done in a career of stupid, ridiculous things, but he didn’t care. In that moment, as he bent his legs suggestively and mimed strumming at the guitar, he felt young, and wild, and blissfully exhilarated.

As the solo quietened down to the last riff, Sherlock looked over at John, leaning against the monitor to the left of the audience. His arms were crossed, his shoulders relaxed, and he didn’t look remotely stressed or tired.

“It’s written in the wind,” Sherlock sang out, his voice breathy. “It’s everywhere I go.”

John’s smile widened, which deepened the lines around his mouth, but somehow, only made him look more youthful.

“So if you really love me.” Sherlock tried to keep his own smile from being audible in the song. “Come on and let it show.”

Come on and let it sno-o-oww.

The audience cheered on. No one seemed to care that he was singing the wrong words. Not even John.

“Come on and let it show.”

John raised a hand and pressed his lips to it, then pressed it to his heart.

Sherlock riffed the last line once, twice, three times, ending on a long, drawn out “sho-o-o-o-ow” as the final chord played out, and drifted upwards. The crowd was on its feet, screaming with applause, and Sherlock, careful to keep the guitar in position, gave them a shallow bow.

John wasn’t applauding with them, but had his eyes fixed on Sherlock, bright and brimming with what could only be described as adoration. He glowed in the studio lights, and opened his lips to mouth an unmistakeable I love you.

Sherlock, face flushed with adrenaline and dance and emotion, could have been on top of the world.

I love you too, he mouthed back.

Chapter Text

John had never worked on a set quite like this.

It was hugely elaborate, for one thing. Tall ceilings supported by marble pillars. Gold gilding on the patterned walls. On the far wall was a massive set of floor-to-ceiling windows, flanked by sheer, fluttering curtains. One end of the set was taken up by a huge, canopied bed with a lush mattress and white sheets; on the other end, a claw-footed chair of green velvet, with a fur throw blanket draped over the side. Scattered here and there were carved end tables, where ornate vases filled with bright flowers sat, or else pieces of carved stone artwork.

It could have been a room straight out of Buckingham palace, and yet they were going to be using it, as far as John could tell, to shoot a single sex scene over the next five weeks.

He wasn’t quite sure why, though there had been nothing dodgy in his contract to make him worry. John guessed this was either the world’s most expensive porno, or else a strange experimental art film. He wasn’t too bothered either way, though, in the end. It wouldn’t be his first time in either genre, and a job was a job.

And anyway, he was getting to work alongside a very handsome co-stand-in.

John was currently holding the man by the hips against the pillar at the front of the set, pretending to thrust into him from behind. He was taller than John, and quite lean, with an impressive set of muscles evident underneath his tight button-up. He had sleek, dark hair that curled in tight ringlets around his head like a crown, and – John couldn’t help noticing as his fingers settled at a respectful distance from it – a lovely, round arse which was shown off nicely as he bent forward.

He was looking rather bored, leaning against the pillar. John understood – he supposed this was going to be rather a long shot. His eyes glanced around the set, taking in all the cameras and people, as the man in front of him checked his watch.

“Okay, you can stop there, thanks.” The director finally called out.

John took a step back as the man straightened up. The lighting people began puttering around, making adjustments, and the director called for some new camera positions and some extra supplies.

John and his colleague glanced at each other, and John gave him a friendly smile as the crew bustled into their next position.

“Sorry, I don’t think I got your first name, earlier?” John asked.

“Oh – Sherlock,” the man replied. He had a beautiful, baritone voice, smooth as velvet. He extended his hand to John. “Sherlock Holmes.”

“Sherlock,” John repeated, shaking it. “Good to meet you. That’s a nice name.”

“I’ve always liked it,” Sherlock replied, smiling. “And you’re – John, right?”

“Ah – yep. Just John.” John sent a little grin back at him.

“Great, Just John.”

They chuckled together. John felt a twinge of heat rising in his cheeks, and he cast his eyes downward, a little awkwardly.

“Any idea what we’re working on, by the way?” Sherlock said in a low voice. He spoke out of the corner of his mouth, looking over the sea of crew members working at least three cameras.

“No, no clue.” John muttered back. “But, just go with it, do you reckon?”

“Probably.” Sherlock’s mouth was twitching, amused. John noticed suddenly how full his lips were.

“Alright, let’s go again!” called the director.

John and Sherlock smiled at each other once more, then Sherlock turned back to face the pillar.

***

They were starting early that day. John picked his way through the crew, bleary eyed, as huge lights were wheeled in behind the windows to simulate late afternoon sun. Someone was up on a ladder, wiping down the glass, and the associate director was striding through the crowd with a large clipboard, shouting “bit of quiet while we finish the lighting, guys!”

John saw Sherlock and smiled at him, moving towards the front where the main camera was set up.

“Morning,” he said, and swiftly turned his face away to stifle a yawn.

“Morning,” Sherlock said. He looked tired as well, but his eyes were smiling. “You too?”

“Yeah. Had to rush right out this morning, didn’t even have time to get coffee.”

“Awful, isn’t it?”

John gave a sympathetic chuckle. Sherlock had his hands in his pockets, the remnants of sleep lining his eyes making him look soft and warm.

“Sherlock.” The assistant director was making his way over to them. “Could you take your shirt off this time? Lighting and camera need to know when we’re going to see the nipples, and when we’re not.”

“Yes, alright.” Sherlock nodded. The director disappeared back into the mess of crew.

“Well, at least it’s nice and warm in here,” Sherlock said to John.

John laughed, maybe a little too brightly, and Sherlock flashed him a rather radiant smile as he joined in.

“Yeah, not always the case, is it?” John had crossed his arms over his chest now, unsure of what to do with them. “I was um, standing in for Chris Pine once, on Into the Woods...”

“Yes,” Sherlock nodded his recognition.

“Bloody freezing.”

He felt his face flush again. It was a bit transparent, showing off like this, but then, Sherlock’s eyebrows were raised with interest, and he looked happy for a chat…

“Sorry, guys.” The AD had burst back onto the set. “Time’s pretty tight, and we have to get the actors in.”

“Fine,” Sherlock said. He moved off towards the bed to unbutton his shirt.

“I promise I won’t look,” John said, turning away. Sherlock smirked.

The director moved to stand behind the camera, and everyone else faded into position. The man on the ladder stepped down and moved it out of sight.

Sherlock returned, bare-chested, and John stepped in behind him and took hold of his hips again. They held still, Sherlock leaning forward, and someone came by to mark their position.

“And, Jerry says, if you could just put your hands on his chest?” the AD said, from just out of the way.

“Oh, right, okay.” John replied, a little thrown. He turned back to Sherlock. “Is that alright?”

“Yes, fine,” Sherlock said, sounding supremely unbothered. John relaxed a bit.

John huffed a sharp breath into his hands, and rubbed them together quickly.

“I’ll warm them up,” he said, lamely, but Sherlock smiled anyway.

John reached around and covered Sherlock’s nipples with his hands. He started his little thrusting movements again.

“And, if you could rub the nipples a bit, please?” came the AD’s voice again.

John gave him a little nod, and began to press in lightly with his fingertips, moving them in slow circles.

There was silence for a few moments while the AD went back to check the cameras. John sniffed a bit, continued his thrusting. Sherlock was staring off to the side, his eyes glazed over with boredom and fatigue.

“Have you tried the coffee from that place just round the corner?” John asked him.

Yes, the other day,” Sherlock said in a knowing voice. “Nearly choked on it.”

“God, isn’t it terrible?

Sherlock chuckled his agreement.

***

“Raise the lamp a bit!”

Sherlock kept up the quick, bouncing movement, as John raised his head up off the mattress in time with him. They were both naked today, John stretched out horizontally on the bed while Sherlock pretended to ride him. John had always prided himself on being completely professional in situations like this, but he couldn’t deny that the feeling of Sherlock’s strong thighs bracketing his hips did feel rather nice.

“So, what do you think about our new prime minister?” John asked Sherlock.

“Oh, he seems alright.” Sherlock shrugged. “I’m not really much for politics, honestly.”

“No, nor am I.” John said with a wry smile. “But still, at least this one’s good-looking.”

“He is, isn’t he?” Sherlock’s eyes were roving casually around the back wall, lost in thought. “I can’t understand why he’s not married.”

“Well, you know the type. Married to the job.”

Sherlock looked back down at him, humming in agreement.

“Excuse me, Sherlock.” The assistant director came out from behind the camera, gesturing towards them. “If you could lean down over him, please, and stay a bit to the left?”

“Sure.” Sherlock nodded, and the AD retreated.

Sherlock leaned forward, settling his arms on either side of John’s head, rather closer than before.

John felt his heart kick up a notch. Their chests were parallel now, they would be touching if Sherlock leaned down a couple more inches. John could count the little freckles dotting Sherlock’s long neck. He had to remind himself, once again, that he was at work.

Still, the sudden proximity, the increased warmth emanating from Sherlock’s body, seemed to give John a burst of courage. Before it could fade from him, he made himself speak.

“I – I have to say, Sherlock,” John stammered, as Sherlock’s eyes seemed to pierce him. “This is a real pleasure. It’s – I mean, it’s really nice to find someone I can actually chat to.”

He could feel his face flush hot as the words left his mouth. He’d wanted to say them for a week, but they sounded so silly and smitten when he heard them out loud. John swallowed heavily, and was fighting the urge to turn underneath Sherlock and hide his face in the mattress, when Sherlock’s face split into a wide smile.

It was soft, and genuine. Not bright with laughter, but warm and crinkling the corners of his eyes. It was a bit crooked on one side, like he hadn’t shown anyone this kind of real pleasure in a long time, and was out of practice. It was gorgeous.

“Oh,” he said, quietly – a small, almost surprised sound. “Well, I – thank you.”

There was a pink flush creeping up his long, beautiful neck. John had to tear his gaze away from it and fix it on Sherlock’s unsure eyes, because it was making him think decidedly unprofessional thoughts.

“Well, you know,” John muttered, embarrassed.

“And –” Sherlock hesitated, then said, in a low rush “– for me as well.”

John’s heart skipped several beats.

“Thank you.”

“The move again, please, boys!”

The AD’s voice calling out to them brought them back to their surroundings.

John gave an awkward little laugh, and Sherlock coughed, his face arranging itself back into coolness.

Sherlock rocked forward, and John raised his head up, but he was still rather flustered, and his forehead collided with Sherlock’s chest.

“Oh God, sorry!” he said in a rush.

“Sorry, sorry.” Sherlock was saying above him.

“You alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

Sherlock was grinning, a bit breathless, and John sank back into the mattress.

This job might be a bit more complicated than he’d planned on.

***

John had never looked forward to going to work as much as he did these days, and he knew exactly why that was. It wasn’t because of the film, obviously, with it’s directors’ short fuses and endless incredibly specific needs for every shot. No, it was because talking with Sherlock had become the highlight of every day for him.

It was just so easy. He’d never been this comfortable with anyone he’d ever worked with. They talked about anything and everything, down to the most mundane things that no one else would have ever wanted to listen to. But Sherlock seemed to hang off John’s every word, like he was enjoying himself just as much. And Sherlock himself was fascinating. He seemed to know absolutely everything about subjects that interested him, and he saw the world in ways John had never even considered. He was unique, and he was unfairly beautiful, and John grew more entranced with each day.

Christmas was approaching fast, and the shoot would wrap soon, and John had made up his mind that he would have to ask Sherlock out before it did. He didn’t know if he’d say yes – Sherlock did seem to mirror his interest, but John couldn’t be sure – but he knew he’d regret it if he didn’t even try.

John just didn’t know why he was suddenly so nervous about doing it.

Each time they got on set – sometimes with them pressing each other against the ornate, gilded wall, or with John sat in the velvet chair and Sherlock straddling his lap – John would mentally work himself up to it. Just ask him, he’d think, you can do this. Just get it out, ask him if he wants to go somewhere after work. But then they’d start chatting, light and comfortable together as if they’d known each other for years, and John’s will would falter and the request would die in his throat. It would all just seem too much all of a sudden. So impossible.

But he was running out of time. Christmas Eve, and their last shooting day, was coming quickly, and John didn’t know what he’d do if they finished and he couldn’t pluck up the courage to ask him. What would happen – they’d just say goodbye, and never see each other again? No, that wasn’t on. John couldn’t have that at all.

“Perfect, alright, keep that going!” The director was shouting out. The set was bustling today, all hands on deck to get everything done on time.

John was standing upright in the middle of the room. Sherlock was on his knees in front of him, bobbing his head back and forth in a routine motion. It was a stupid shot, John knew, not in the least because if Sherlock was actually doing what he was simulating there was no way John would have been able to stand at all, but the film was the farthest thing from his mind right now.

He’d just have to do it. He’d just have to spit it out.

“Look, um –” he stammered a little. His heart was pounding. “Sorry for, um, being a bit forward, and all that…”

Sherlock was looking up at him with those bright, piercing eyes that always made John lose his train of thought. John swore they had entire galaxies in them.

“But – you –” John took a deep breath. then plowed straight on through. “You don’t fancy going for a Christmas drink, do you?”

Sherlock’s movements slowed a bit, his lips parted slightly in surprise.

“I mean – nothing implied,” John said quickly, raising his hands. “We could just, maybe, go see something Christmassy, or – something…”

Oh, God, he was bollocksing this up. Sherlock was going to say no. John tried to backtrack.

“Obviously, um, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to,” he went on. He looked sheepishly away from those eyes, still wide and staring up at him. “I was just, um – I’m rambling now, sorry…”

He raised a hand to cover his face, rubbing hard at his eyes. He was sure he was a pleasant shade of scarlet by now.

But after a few long, flustered seconds, Sherlock said, in a soft voice, “That would be great.”

John looked back down, and his insides fluttered when he saw that Sherlock was smiling up at him. That bright, genuine smile, flushed with shyness, but still evidently delighted.

“Oh,” John muttered. “Well – great.”

He felt elation bubbling up in his chest, and he bit back the grin that was trying to creep across his face, reigning it into something more sensible. He was sure that the small smile he sent back at Sherlock didn’t fool him, but he didn’t care. There was a thrill of excitement running through him that he’d never felt before.

They were uncharacteristically quiet the rest of the scene. John was afraid his feelings would burst out of him if he tried to chat, and ruin everything before it had even begun. He kept catching Sherlock’s eye and then looking away nervously, and he knew he was behaving like a besotted schoolboy but he just couldn’t help it. He’d done it! He was going to go out with Sherlock Holmes!

The last shot of the day was on the bed again. Sherlock was pretending to fuck John’s face. John’s mind was reeling like mad and everything on the set was a bit chaotic all around him, but his excitement couldn’t be contained anymore. He had to say something to him.

“This is really great,” he said in a rush. “Normally, I’m not so shy about these things, but – I don’t know, it just took me a while to get the courage up. So, thank you.”

Sherlock grinned, more slyly than usual, as he looked down at him. He was bouncing rather quickly now.

“You’re cute when you’re sucking my cock,” he snickered.

All the blood in John’s body seemed to rush to his cheeks, and he turned his face to the side.

“Shut up,” he murmured, biting his lip, and Sherlock’s laughter filled the room.

***

It was still early in the evening on the 24th when the director called the wrap, but it was already dark outside, and a light rain was sprinkling the windows. John waited by the door for Sherlock, and they left together, nervously looking down at their feet as they made their way to the pub.

It was a lovely evening. They shared a cheese platter and laughed over glasses of warm mulled wine. They talked about previous jobs they’d done, where they’d gone to school, their families; John told a story about a prank he’d pulled on his sister as a child that had Sherlock giggling adorably into his hands for minutes afterwards. Later, Sherlock ordered them two bright red cocktails which were bubbling like champagne and had cherries piled at the bottom.

“Something Christmassy,” he said with a grin, and clinked his glass with John’s.

John sipped it, smiling. It was sweet and festive, and everything felt so perfectly right in that moment.

He walked Sherlock home afterwards, trying his best to be a proper gentleman but finding it harder and harder to resist taking hold of Sherlock’s hand when they brushed against each other as they walked. Finally, they arrived at his flat, and Sherlock paused at the door.

“Well,” he said, sounding unsure. His cheeks were pink from the cold.

“Right,” John said.

The nerves had flown back at him in full force. He wasn’t sure where to look.

“I’d – better be getting inside,” Sherlock went on.

“Of course, yeah.” John nodded. “It’s getting a bit cold.”

Their eyes met. John felt breathless, like the air had pressed in on his lungs and frozen them in place.

Should he kiss him?

“Well.” John swallowed. “Goodnight.”

Sherlock smiled, nervously. “Goodnight.”

Neither of them moved. They stared at each other, their breath billowing in front of them.

Should he kiss him goodnight? He wanted to – God, John really wanted to kiss him. But, what if…

Sherlock’s eyes were flickering infinitesimally, searching John’s face but not daring to move. John thought he saw a slight twitch in his lips.

John’s heart was beating harder than it ever had before.

He moved forward, just a fraction of an inch, opening his mouth as if to say something, waiting for a cue –

And then he closed it again, mentally retreating.

No. Not tonight.

Disappointment flooded him, but he forced it down. It was alright. There’d be other chances.

“Um…” He was stammering again. He’d better go. “Okay.”

He gave Sherlock a little nod, then drew back, turning to leave.

But before he could, Sherlock let out a small sigh, and –

He’d reached out and taken hold of John’s jacket, just under the collar, and he leaned in and kissed him.

Just a gentle touch, but purposeful. John closed his eyes. Sherlock’s lips were soft, and full, and they sent tiny sparks racing up John’s spine.

Sherlock held himself there for a moment, then pulled back. John looked up at him. His eyes were sparkling in the lamplight.

And he was smiling again, and John knew it could light up the entire street.

“Goodnight,” Sherlock whispered.

“Goodnight,” John said again.

With a final glint of joy, Sherlock pushed the door open and stepped through it, flashing a final shy look at John as it closed behind him.

John waited until he heard it click shut, then leapt out onto the sidewalk.

“Yes!” he shouted, punching the air.

He straightened up just as quickly, looking around the street to see if anyone was around, but it was empty. He cleared his throat, took one last look at the door and, grinning broadly in a way no one else needed to see, set off.

***

But the night wasn’t over. John hadn’t even made it all the way home when Sherlock called him. He was a bit frantic, but there was a current of excitement in his voice as he told John about the party that his mother had spontaneously decided to throw at her Wandsworth flat, and would John like to come along?

John had blurted out a yes before Sherlock had even gotten the question out, and soon he found himself squashed into a tiny sitting room surrounded by merry celebrators on all sides, with his arm around Sherlock’s back like they’d been together all their lives, and it couldn’t have felt more perfect.

“Sherlock’s been very mysterious,” said Mrs. Holmes exuberantly as everyone’s wine glasses were refilled for the third or fourth time. “Where did you two meet?”

Sherlock and John both froze, glancing at each other out of the corners of their eyes.

“Um…”

“Um…”

In the cab ride home later, Sherlock gave directions back to his flat, and didn’t invite John to do the same. Nor did John ask the cabbie to stop when they drove through his neighbourhood. Both of them knew exactly where they were going.

They were barely through Sherlock’s front door when they collided, falling against the wall of the entryway and hands scrabbling for anywhere they could reach. Sherlock’s mouth was everywhere, on John’s lips, his jaw, down his neck, and John clumsily shucked Sherlock’s coat off his shoulders, breathing hard and fast.

“Might get a shag at last, then?” John gasped, as Sherlock fumbled for the buttons of his shirt.

“Naughty,” Sherlock crooned, his breath warm in John’s ear.

Chapter Text

The gates parted, and the motorcade sailed smoothly through them. Outside, a small but boisterous crowd had amassed on the opposite side of the street, held out of the way by a dozen or so guards, and cameras and microphones were jostling for position, flashing through the tinted windows, searching for their first glimpse.

The car slowed, then stopped. Someone outside hurried around to open the door for him. Sherlock stepped out.

The small crowd rose up with cheers. Flashbulbs went off in every direction, reporters waving and screaming behind them.

Sherlock buttoned his suit jacket and gave them his best Humble-and-Professional smile, worked to perfection to convey a deepest sense of duty and patriotism. He lifted his hand and gave them a brief wave, sweeping the crowd side to side once. That should satisfy them well enough. He turned away, ignoring their desperate shouts of “over here, Prime Minister!”

He moved quickly around the car, gave another polite nod to the guards positioned along the wall, then walked slowly up to the door – savoring the moment, just a little.

The bright, brass number 10 gleamed out at him, elegant against the shining black door.

Sherlock turned once more, gave the press another quick wave, then turned and walked through it.

The hall beyond was filled with gleaming whitewashed tile and grand oil paintings of long-haired, long-robed men lining the walls. Half a dozen well-dressed officials stood stiff and straight, like soldiers at attention. And in the middle of them, wearing his usual three-piece suit and satisfied half-smirk, was Mycroft.

“Welcome, Prime Minister,” he said.

He was looking immensely pleased, but it wasn’t quite his usual brand of smugness that flowed underneath his words. Only Sherlock would ever be able to detect the difference, but there was a tiny twitch of his eyebrow that gave him away – an almost entirely hidden trace of pride.

Sherlock gave him a small indulgent smirk back, and extended his hand.

“How are you, Mr. Holmes?” he asked.

They grasped each others’ wrists, and held on for a moment. Sherlock took in Mycroft’s expression, how it was trying desperately not to smile. A rare rush of affection for him bloomed in Sherlock’s chest.

“How do you feel?” Mycroft asked.

Sherlock considered for a moment, then answered. “Powerful.”

Mycroft seemed to clear his throat suddenly and harshly, and Sherlock knew he was biting back a chortle.

“Well then.” Mycroft dropped his hand, and schooled his features back into professional stoicism. Away from being Sherlock’s brother for now, and back into being his chief advisor. “Would you like to meet your household staff?”

“Yes, I would like that very much.” Sherlock said. “Anything to put off actually running the country.”

Mycroft’s face didn’t change as he turned and led Sherlock down the hall, but Sherlock swore he saw one of the suited men roll his eyes.

Sherlock followed him into the next room – more brightly lit than the hall, with light carpeting and two large windows with silk hangings. Three people were lined up, waiting to meet him. The first two looked relaxed, were smiling, but the one on the end – a man about Sherlock’s age with sandy blond hair – was as straight-backed and still as the guards outside.

“This is Greg Lestrade, he’s in charge.” Mycroft said, indicating the first man in the line. This one was middle-aged with slightly greying hair, and an easy expression on his face.

“Good morning, sir,” he said.

“Pleased to meet you, Graham.” Sherlock replied, shaking his hand.

It took a moment for him to take this in, and for his smile to fade slightly. “It’s Greg, sir.”

“Right.” Sherlock shook his head, his cheeks flaming. Goddammit. “Well, pleased to meet you, Lestrade.”

There. That would do. Now he wouldn’t have to remember it. Lestrade gave him a little nod, and Sherlock moved on.

“This is Martha Hudson,” Mycroft said next, indicating the older woman next to Lestrade. She had a very sweet and motherly quality about her, and Sherlock liked her instantly.

“Hello, Mrs. Hudson,” he said, shaking her hand. This one, he thought, should be addressed by her last name. It was only polite.

“Good morning, sir,” she said. “I’m the housekeeper.”

There was something in the way she said it, something proud and determined, as if her job were the most important one in the British government. And somehow Sherlock knew she was right.

“Excellent,” he replied, smiling back. “Well, I should be easier than the last lot, anyway. No late-night tirades. No storming out of the Union in a huff.”

She laughed, properly and without shame. Mycroft looked uncomfortable and directed Sherlock to the last person in the line.

“And this is John,” he said. “He’s new, like you.”

John’s expression was of aloof civility, not unlike Mycroft’s. But very much unlike Mycroft’s was his handsome sharp jawline and light blue eyes, with long eyelashes that a shade lighter than the soft blond fringe they sat under. He wore a light blue button-down underneath a grey jacket, with his hands clasped behind his back, seemingly ready for orders.

“Hello, John,” Sherlock said, surprised to hear himself speaking more softly now. He offered his hand, and John shook it, once.

“Hello, Sherlock.” John said, with a brief smile and a nod. Then he realized what he’d just said and his eyes widened. “I mean – sir” he stammered out.

Sherlock couldn’t help it. He giggled.

“Shit,” John said, sighing and shaking his head. “Can’t believe I just said that. And now –” he went on, but he was rolling his eyes, as if he was more amused than anything else. “– I’ve gone and said ‘shit’. Twice.” He shook his head again, something like mirth in the thin line of his lips. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Oh, it’s alright,” Sherlock chuckled. “You could have said ‘fuck’, and then we’d have been in real trouble.”

John’s eyes lit up brighter. “Thank you, sir. I did have an awful feeling I was going to fuck up on the first day.”

Sherlock burst into laughter again, and John’s eyes glinted.

“Oh, piss it,” he said, but didn’t look embarrassed at all.

“Right,” Mycroft finally chimed in, once Sherlock was able to get his giggles under control. “Well, I’ll get my things, and then let’s fix the country, shall we?”

Sherlock heard him, but it was if at a great distance. He was still looking at John, into those bright laughing eyes.

“Yes,” Sherlock said back, finally. “I can’t see why not.”

Mycroft nodded, and turned away. Sherlock lingered a second, two, just long enough for him to school himself back into composure and give John a polite nod, then followed his brother.

He went off down the long, polished hallway, where a lot more besuited men were waiting in front of his new office. But before he reached them, Sherlock stopped, halfway down, and looked back.

John was still standing soldier-straight, looking straight ahead, but his chest expanded with a deep breath, then blew it out again. His smile was gone. He looked almost stunned.

Sherlock swallowed, then turned away and went off through the next set of doors.

Mycroft had already gone off down the adjoining hall to collect his things from his office. Sherlock gave quick hellos to everyone standing ready, then went right on through the door across the way.

The Prime Minister’s office: wood-panelled, dignified, and comfortable, with ancient furnishings and paintings, and a beautiful stone fireplace on one end. The place every English politician dreamed of being every moment of their professional lives. The place Sherlock had been planning on non-stop for months.

He closed the door behind him, leaning on the handle.

“Oh, no,” he murmured, letting his eyes fall closed. John’s face swam before them, handsome and smiling. “That is so inconvenient.”

***

“Alright, what’s next?” Sherlock asked irritably.

The suits on either side of him rustled around a bit. Sherlock ran an exhausted hand through his hair. This meeting had gone on for about a week now. At least it felt like it.

“The President’s visit,” came Alex’s voice from the other side of the table.

“Ah, right, yes.” Sherlock sighed. He’d been putting off discussing this, but there was no getting around it forever. “I feel this is going to be a difficult one to play.”

A few ministers on either side of him gave little grunts of agreement. Some people were scowling, or shifting in their seats.

“There’s a very strong feeling in the party that we must make it clear that we won’t allow anything like the disrespect we received from their last administration,” Alex said.

“Hear, hear,” came a voice from down the table, but Sherlock gave a little laugh under his breath.

“As if they would try,” he murmured, too quiet for anyone to hear.

“This is our first really important test,” said Jeremy, to Sherlock’s right. “Let’s take a stand, and come out strong.”

“Right, right, yes,” Sherlock raised his voice over a few more “hear, hear!”s that had risen up along the table. “I understand that, but I have decided…not to.”

All talk in the room died out instantly, leaving silence. Every head was turned toward Sherlock. Some looked disappointed, others baffled.

“Not this time,” Sherlock clarified. “We’ll have plenty of time for that later, of course, but…” he scanned the room, looking more firmly into the most affronted faces, “if respect is our primary goal, we really must meet them on equal ground. Let’s not forget that our own government has some atoning to do, as well.”

A wave of profound disgruntlement washed over everyone at this speech. Some people shifted their eyes away uncomfortably, some others grumbled a little and turned back to their papers. Even the most sympathetic-looking ones seemed anxious to voice their support.

Sherlock shook his head, as if that could clear away the bad feeling in the room. “Now, who do you have to screw around here to get a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit?”

A few deep voices laughed on either side of them. Sherlock let himself smile.

Then a faint rattling sound came from beyond the door at the end of the room, and it swung open to reveal…John, pushing a rolling cart laden with cups and teapots.

He stopped it at the end of the table, with a glance up and a smile. His eyes roved around everyone present, and stopped on Sherlock, lingering.

Sherlock swallowed. A hot flush of shame was flooding up into his face, probably colouring his cheeks.

“Right,” he said, softly.

The feeling didn’t leave him throughout the rest of the meeting, even after John had handed out all the cups and left. The room felt unbearably hot as they wrapped up discussions of forthcoming bills and appearances, and even followed him into his office when it was all finally over.

He sat behind his desk, signing through a stack of something – he was barely seeing whatever it was, his mind still on the gentle softness of John’s smile, the way the little lines deepened around his cerulean eyes.

A knock sounded at the door.

“Yes, come in,” Sherlock called, shuffling one of the papers aside.

The door opened, and Sherlock looked up.

It was John again, carrying a tray this time, and coming into the office slowly, like he was unsure if he was allowed.

Sherlock felt his heart kick up in his chest. He should say something, just a greeting, or an apology for that joke earlier – had John heard it? – but all speech suddenly seemed to elude him.

“These have just come through from the treasury,” John said, placing a bulging file on the corner of his desk. “And these are for you.”

He placed the cup of tea and the plate laden with a few chocolate biscuits on Sherlock’s other side, away from his paperwork.

“Excellent,” Sherlock said, too quietly. He cleared his throat. “Thank you.”

John straightened up, and gave Sherlock that smile again.

“I was hoping you’d win,” he said.

Sherlock’s heart gave a little flutter.

“Not that I wouldn’t have been nice to the other bloke, too,” John went on with a little shrug. “Just, always given him the boring biscuits with no chocolate.”

Sherlock laughed, a pathetic little guffaw, really, more than anything. But there was just something so genuine about the way John was looking at him. It made it impossible to contain himself.

“Thank you very much,” he replied. At least he managed to keep his voice even there.

John nodded, and turned to leave.

“Thanks…John.”

John flashed a final grinning look over his shoulder as he closed the door behind him.

As soon as it clicked shut, Sherlock flung his face forward onto the desk. His forehead landed on his stack of papers with a painful thump.

“Come on, get a grip,” he murmured sourly as he straightened back up. “You’re the Prime Minister, for God’s sake.”

He rubbed a hand against his throbbing forehead. It wasn’t going to help.

***

For some reason, concern about the President’s upcoming visit seemed to be the main thread of conversation at Downing Street as the weeks wore on. Sherlock couldn’t understand why for the life of him. It wasn’t as if he’d have to deal with that last one. The newly-elected President Magnussen seemed a reasonable enough man. He even had staunchly international interests, having mostly grown up in Denmark despite being American-born. Why did everyone feel like his first move when dealing with Sherlock would be to try to bully him from pillar to post?

“Just try to spread some reassuring feeling around, alright?” Sherlock said, moving toward the door of his office. “You can do that, can’t you?”

“Very well.” Mycroft gave an exasperated sigh. “Just remember what I said.”

“Yes, alright, bye now,” Sherlock said quickly and opened the door for him.

Mycroft gave him a hard stare, but didn’t say anything else as he walked out of it.

Sherlock moved to close it again, but someone else had arrived – John, bearing some files. Sherlock ducked his head quickly and motioned for him to come in, watched him deposit his pile and collect the finished one from the desk while his mouth worked uselessly, trying to say something, anything.

“John,” he managed to get out, rather loudly, just as John was about to leave.

He turned in the doorway. “Sir?”

Sherlock blinked for a moment. His hands twitched at his sides; he settled them onto his hips.

“Um…” he began, then swallowed, and went on, nervously. “I’m…starting to feel a little uncomfortable about us working in such close proximity every day, and – me knowing so little about you.”

Sherlock tried to smile. John was looking politely confused.

“It seems…elitist, and wrong,” Sherlock added, weakly.

John gave a little shrug of one shoulder. “Well, there isn’t much to know.”

Sherlock cocked his head the tiniest bit. He couldn’t believe that.

“Well,” he said, gesturing for John to sit down. “Where do you live, for instance?”

“Um, Wandsworth.” John moved to stand in front of the desk as Sherlock sat behind it, but didn’t take the proffered chair. “The dodgy end.”

“Ah, right.” Sherlock nodded. “My brother lives in Wandsworth.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.” Sherlock paused, folding his hands. “Which end is the dodgy end?”

John’s smile broadened a bit with amusement. “Right at the end of the high street – Harris street – near the Queen’s Head?”

“Ah,” Sherlock said lowly. He remembered once, an unfortunate cab ride he had taken that way after leaving an impromptu meeting at Mycroft’s house. “Yes, that is dodgy.”

John gave a little nod, but his expression slipped a bit. He looked unsure of what to say next.

“And –” Sherlock hurried on, desperate for something else, for him to stay just a little longer. “You live with your – wife?”

Dread suddenly boiled in the pit of Sherlock’s stomach, and he wished he hadn’t asked.

“Girlfriend?” he said, quickly, as if that could change the answer. “Three illegitimate but charming children?”

But John just laughed, softly, and somehow it made relief swell through him.

“No.” John shook his head. “I’ve just split up with my girlfriend, actually, so I’m staying with my sister for a while.”

The dread evaporated from Sherlock instantly, and he felt a little guilty for how light he suddenly felt. But then again, John didn’t look especially upset about it, either.

“I’m sorry,” Sherlock attempted to say in a regretful tone.

“No, it’s fine,” John said. “I’m well shot of her.”

He shifted the files under his arm slightly, and his smile pressed into an dry sort of grimace.

“She said I wasn’t smart enough for her.”

Sherlock’s eyes widened. “I beg your pardon?”

“Yeah.” John chuckled again, but there was a forced quality about it now. Too dark. Too hollow. “She said no one was gonna fancy a guy who was dumb as a brick wall.”

He was staring down at Sherlock’s desk. Then he cleared his throat, and shifted the files again.

“Not a very nice girl, really, in the end,” he said.

Sherlock stared back, lost for words again. What could he say to that? Any reassurance he could make would sound so massively inappropriate.

John looked just as unsure, and after a second of uncomfortable silence, turned to leave again.

But no, no – Sherlock couldn’t let him leave with even the slightest possibility that he might believe that, or deserve that. He had to say something. It was his duty as the country’s leader to help people, wasn’t it?

“You know…” Sherlock called out to him, as John paused in the doorframe and turned round. “Being Prime Minister, I could just have her murdered.”

John’s face broke into beautiful, earnest laugh, and all the tension vanished from the office in an instant. Sherlock exhaled a deep breath, feeling like a large weight had just lifted off him.

“Thank you, sir,” John smirked. “I’ll think about it.”

“Do.” Sherlock beamed back. “The SAS are absolutely charming. Ruthless trained killers, just a phone call away.”

John giggled again – a high-pitched, almost musical sound. He gave a deep, thankful nod, then ducked out of the office, closing the door behind him.

Sherlock leaned back in his chair and ran his hand back through his curls. “Oh, God,” he murmured.

Waves of confusion, of desire and caution crashed against each other in his mind. He felt disoriented and lost. How the hell had this happened so quickly?

He turned to his left to look at the painting of Margaret Thatcher that hung in the corner.

“Did you ever have this problem?” Sherlock asked her.

The painting stared back, and Sherlock’s mouth twisted into an amused sneer at the idea of what she would say if she could see him now.

“Of course you did,” Sherlock answered himself, shaking his head. “You old bitch.”

***

The day had been long and unforgiving. Sherlock examined himself in the wardrobe mirror as he pulled off his tie. How long would his hair stay black, he wondered? Prime Ministers always went gray in office, if they weren’t already.

He sighed, then moved to stand at the window. The radio beside the bed was tuned to an oldies’ station, and a slow disco beat was starting up. Sherlock gazed out into the darkness, rolling his shoulders back a little.

Hold me…

Tomorrow was another cabinet meeting; he groaned internally at the thought. They’d have to talk about that new stimulus bill…

I’ll give you all that you need…

Had he mentioned to Mycroft about the Japanese ambassador? Maybe he should give him a call before it got too late.

Wrap your love around me…

Actually, probably best just to check in with everyone once the meeting was over. Sherlock began to sway his hips a little to the synth track.

…you’re so excited, I can feel you getting hotter…

It wasn’t a bad song, actually. Sherlock swung his arms back and forth in time.

I’ll take you down, I’ll take you down…where no one’s ever gone before.

Well, phone calls could wait. Sherlock danced backwards, out through the hall, down to the stairs. The song played in his head louder and clearer than the warbling radio.

More, more mo-o-ore!...Jump!

Sherlock jumped down to the landing.

For my love, jump in and feel my touch.

He danced down the stairs, his hips gyrating ludicrously as he went. He didn’t care.

He spun around at the foot of the stairs and shuffled sideways through a couple of doorways, his legs bent wide, his arms pumping by his sides. So this was the point of this stupidly big and elaborate residence.

Through a sitting room, another ornate hallway. He spread his arms, raised them above his head, shook his head back and forth with abandon. He swayed his way into the second-floor ballroom, and gracefully sidestepped past pillars and danced around a claw-footed chair.

I’ll take you down, I’ll take you down…

Sherlock was mouthing the words as he reached outward and pointed his finger straight ahead, his other hand on his hip and rotating slowly, like a perfect disco legend.

Where no one’s ever gone before –

He rotated all the way around to see Lestrade, who was in charge, standing in the doorway.

“Yyyeah,” Sherlock said, dropping his arm and clapping his hands together. “Gavin –”

“Greg, sir.”

“Greg.” Sherlock leaned casually against the nearest chair, as if this were all perfectly ordinary. “I’ve been thinking, can we move the Japanese ambassador to four o’clock tomorrow?”

Lestrade’s face didn’t change, though Sherlock was sure it wasn’t without effort. “Certainly, sir.”

“Terrific.” Sherlock nodded. “Thanks so much.”

Lestrade turned to leave, and Sherlock made for the side door he’d come in through.

***

The day arrived – finally – with increasingly erratic nerves from the party. The President’s motorcade pulled up in front of Number 10 to throngs of screaming press. Sherlock was there at the door as he stepped out of the car – President Charles Magnussen, looking smart and stoic; a political veteran finally awarded his due. He waved to the cheering crowd and crossed to shake Sherlock’s hand, and they both paused to let the cameras to get their shots.

Sherlock led him inside, through the grand halls and sitting rooms to shake hands with everyone, then finally they set off side by side in the direction of the boardroom.

“I’m sorry your wife couldn’t make it,” Sherlock said, grateful for the quiet at last.

“So was she,” Magnussen replied, in that gravelly Danish accent he’d never quite managed to lose. “Although, she would have been kind of lonely, I’m sure.”

Sherlock recognized the jab, but restrained himself from scowling. This was all part of it, he reminded himself.

“Yes, well.” He led him round a corner and up a staircase to the first floor. “I suppose I’ve never found that politics and relationships really go together.”

“Really?” Magnussen’s eyebrows raised slightly behind his circular glasses. “I’ve never found that.”

Sherlock swallowed, pinching his lips a little. There was something about the way Magnussen said it that he didn’t like.

“Well, I suppose you’ve figured out the tricks of the trade.” Sherlock tried to shake it off. “I’m very jealous of your plane, by the way.”

“Oh, thank you,” Magnussen replied exuberantly. “We love that thing, let me tell you.”

But Sherlock had suddenly stopped listening, because coming down the next flight of stairs was John, wearing a navy blue suit – a gorgeous navy blue suit, fitted perfectly to his slim frame and bringing out the deeper tones in his dazzling eyes.

“John, hello,” he said, maybe a bit too excitedly.

“Morning, sir,” John said, smiling as he passed by them on the landing. He nodded once at Magnussen. “Mr. President.”

“Good morning,” Magnussen replied. He was smiling at him, his eyes trailing on him as he moved down the stairs. “How is your day so far?”

John didn’t reply, just gave a little nod over his shoulder, and Sherlock’s stomach had twisted itself up before he’d fully computed what had happened.

He gave a harsh clear of his throat, and indicated that Magnussen should follow him down the next hallway. The President complied, a knowing sort of smirk stretching his thin mouth.

“You’ve got a very nice staff here,” he said.

Sherlock blinked a few times, looking back at him.

“Yes,” he said slowly. “We have.”

But the unsettling quality had gone from Magnussen’s face now, and he was back to his Charming-Politics-Smile. Sherlock shook the feeling away. He’d probably imagined it. First big moment as Prime Minister, and everything.

“Well.” He gestured Magnussen into the boardroom. “Shall we?”

***

The meeting went terribly. Magnussen and his party refused to consult on nearly everything Sherlock brought up. Supposedly, they were just “being consistent with the last administration’s policies”, but Sherlock had less and less patience with everything they shot down. He found himself dropping subjects he’d promised his ministers he’d settle, and forcing them all to just move along. But it was just too risky to rise to Magnussen’s level. At least this first time.

“Well, that was…an interesting day,” Sherlock said, once the two of them had retired to the sitting room just down the hall from his office.

“It was,” Magnussen replied, inclining his head a little as he lounged on the sofa opposite Sherlock. Sherlock felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

“I’m sorry if our line was firm, but there’s no point tiptoeing around today and then just disappointing you for the next four years.”

His smile twitched up, subtly. “I have plans, and I intend to see them through.”

Sherlock felt like he was standing on a tightrope high above the ground. Any move in any direction could send him plummeting.

Still, they had covered a lot of ground today, and that meant a chance for progress somewhere down the line. Sherlock was sure of it. He was alright with taking small, cautious steps, as long as they were in the right direction.

“Absolutely.” Sherlock smiled genially back, and stood up. “There is one final thing I think we should look at, something very close to my heart.”

He’d had this saved as a contingency, in case things didn’t go well. It was some fluff proposal for student grants funded by both governments, something they could easily find common ground on, and at the same time make for some decent PR.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Sherlock said, turning towards the door.

“I can give you anything you ask for,” came Magnussen’s voice behind him. Sherlock turned around, his hand on the doorknob.

“As long as it’s not something I can’t part with.”

Magnussen’s eyes gave a strange glint behind his glasses.

A chill seemed to have filled the room, suddenly.

Sherlock gave Magnussen a little nod, then stepped out through the door.

John was coming through the opposite door, bearing a tray with two glasses and a decanter of scotch. He flashed Sherlock that winning smile.

“H-hi,” Sherlock said, as he passed. It came out as stammering, strangled sound.

He closed his eyes as soon as John had gone into the room and was out of earshot.

“Pathetic,” he murmured.

He sighed, and shook himself out of it. He moved away to the undersecretary’s desk where the proposal was sitting, and sifted through the stack to find the relevant sheets.

But when he moved back toward the door to the sitting room, left the tiniest bit ajar, he heard a low voice trickle out of it.

“Sir, we can’t do this here…

Sherlock froze, his hand hovering in midair. Magnussen was whispering something back, which he could only hear snatches of.

“Not to worry, you know I’m a patient man. I’m happy to wait till tonight –”

Suddenly, movement seized him, and Sherlock was pushing the door open.

John jumped backwards at the sound, his face snapping toward Sherlock. He pulled his hand away, from where Magnussen had been holding him by the wrist.

His eyes were downcast – he didn’t seem to be able to look at Sherlock or Magnussen. Magnussen, however, was staring evenly at Sherlock, still with that same smile on his face. Pleased, and almost triumphant.

Sherlock’s mind was buzzing, whirling in all possible directions, but that look made one emotion fight its way to the forefront and overpower everything else – cold fury.

“I’ll be going,” came John’s voice, and it shocked Sherlock with how quiet it was.

John moved to leave, quietly slipping by Sherlock without glancing up at him, but Magnussen called out before he got the chance.

“John?”

John paused in the doorway, then, with seemingly enormous effort, looked back.

“I hope to see more of you,” Magnussen said slowly, “as our countries work toward a better future.”

Sherlock stared at Magnussen, wanting to stride forward and punch that suggestively smug expression off his face.

“Thank you, sir,” John said, beside him.

Sherlock turned, but John had already flown through the door and was walking away quickly, his hands clenched at his sides.

He turned back to Magnussen, whose face barely changed. He merely stared down Sherlock’s look, and quirked an eyebrow upward, as if with curiosity. But Sherlock knew exactly what it meant.

Magnussen sat down, and poured himself a glass of the amber liquid.

“It’s good scotch,” he said, casually.

The fury in Sherlock’s chest swelled tenfold.

***

Prime Minister Holmes and President Magnussen stepped into the room, to flashbulbs and reporters and a crowd of eager listeners, microphones and notepads at the ready.

Sherlock stepped in front of his podium, next to the large Union Jack positioned beside it, and gestured graciously for Magnussen to join him at the one beside him.

“Yes,” Sherlock said, pointing out the first reporter he saw raising his hand.

The young man stood up. “Mr. President, has it been a good visit?”

“Very satisfactory indeed,” Magnussen replied.

Sherlock glanced sideways at him, saw that his Charming-the-Public smile was tinged with the barest hint of satisfaction. It made Sherlock’s skin crawl.

“We got what we came for,” Magnussen carried on, “and our special relationship is still very special.”

Sherlock’s vision went white at the edges, the fury threatening to overtake him.

“And, Prime Minister?” the same reporter said in Sherlock’s direction.

Sherlock took a deep breath, then turned away from Magnussen and back to the crowd.

“I love that word, 'relationship',” he said, evenly. “Covers all manner of sins, doesn’t it?”

The small rustlings and shifting of the reporters quietened a little. A few of them had stopped writing, to look up at him in surprise.

“I fear,” Sherlock said, the words coming to his mind milliseconds before he heard himself say them. “That this has become a bad relationship.”

Silence fell over the crowd.

“A relationship based solely on the President asserting what he wants, without a care for the disrespect he’s shown to…”

He’d found John’s face way at the back of the crowd. His blue eyes were wide with an emotion Sherlock couldn’t read. There was too much in the way.

“…Britain.” Sherlock finished, awkwardly.

Piercing blue, and fixed on him. Indecipherable.

Sherlock tore his gaze away, and rallied.

“We may be a small country,” he said out to the crowd. “But we’re a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter!”

Some people laughed. Others looked shocked. Sherlock felt it all buoying him up, making it all real.

“David Beckham’s right foot!” he carried on, then paused. “David Beckham’s left foot, come to that…”

The crowd was roaring with exhilarated laughter now. Sherlock levelled his gaze over the field, knowing that what he was about to say would be quoted back to him for years.

“A friend who bullies us, is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward, I will be prepared to be much stronger.”

Sherlock turned to Magnussen.

“And the President,” he finished, stoically, “should be prepared for that.”

The room erupted around them. Reporters jumped to their feet, howling with questions, the cameras flashing over and over. People pushed their microphones closer, shouting for responses, for further comments, but Sherlock had none to give. He’d said all he needed to say.

He stared down Magnussen and didn’t flinch, and Magnussen looked back at him with a steely edge in his eyes.

The President turned toward a reporter shoving a microphone in his face, and Sherlock looked back over the crowd again – but there was too much flurry of movement, and he couldn’t see John anymore.

***

The office had barely quieted down, ministers and secretaries bustling all over, retelling the incident with every combination of exhilaration and anxiety possible.

Mycroft had pushed his way through the crowd to stand in front of Sherlock, looking harassed.

“It’s Mummy on line four,” he said, almost raggedly, “and you’re taking it.”

There was no room in his voice for argument, but Sherlock actually didn’t feel much like arguing anyway. He was still riding the wave of the past hour.

He picked up the nearest phone, and hit four.

“Yes, I’m very busy and important, how can I help you?”

“Have you gone completely insane?” came Mummy’s voice. Sherlock couldn’t tell if she was about to scream or laugh.

“Well, you can’t be sensible all the time,” he replied, shrugging.

“You can if you’re Prime Minister!” she shot back.

Sherlock just rolled his eyes, fondly. “Oh dear, it’s the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the other line.”

“No, it isn’t!”

“I’ll call you back.”

“No you won’t –!”

But Sherlock had already disconnected. It wasn’t time for explanations, yet.

***

It was very late by the time he was able to drag himself up to his bedroom. He toed off his shoes and tugged off his tie and jacket, feeling weary down to his bones.

“It’s almost enough to make you feel patriotic, isn’t it?”

He shut his eyes against the radio’s chatter. He didn’t want to hear it.

It had been a rough crash from the euphoria of the evening, as he’d finally been able to take in all that had happened in the past couple days. That moment in the sitting room that first day, what Magnussen had said and done.

That awful look on John’s face.

“So here’s one for our arse-kicking Prime Minister, I think he’ll like this…”

Sherlock leaned over and switched off the radio, then collapsed lengthwise onto the bed.

He couldn’t stand hearing about how valiantly he was serving his country, when he couldn’t even stop what had gone on in his own home, right under his nose. How could he make it better, even with what he’d said at the press conference, when there was no way to undo what Magnussen had done?

Sherlock’s stomach twisted into a violent knot of revulsion as the thought of John, alone in that room with the President, probably with no option but to let him do or say whatever he pleased…and then having Sherlock burst in on them, and seeing him frightened and humiliated…

And then the knot twisted tighter at an even worse thought – that maybe Magnussen’s attentions hadn’t been unwanted – that maybe it had been John who’d begun it, who’d wanted to be alone with him…

Sherlock shook his head, trying to rid himself of that possibility. No, he’d seen John’s face, he’d seen how desperate he’d been to get out of that room. He’d seen what Magnussen was like.

But then, Sherlock hadn’t been the most objective observer, had he?

Sherlock turned himself on his side, gazing out the open window into the darkness. This whole thing seemed so much more than he’d bargained for. No amount of studying or politics could have ever prepared him for this.

A barrage of dreadful thoughts chased each other around his head, until he finally fell into a fitful sleep.

***

Bright and early the next morning, Sherlock was striding into the office space with a purposeful step. Somewhere in his restless unconsciousness, he’d realized that he needed to set things straight. He needed to ask John what had happened, and find out exactly what lines Magnussen had crossed so he could offer to help in any way John needed. And if John didn’t want help, or really had been interested in Magnussen, then…well, at least Sherlock would know where he stood.

He made a beeline for his office and found Mycroft in there, collecting some files from his desk. Perfect.

“Those need to go straight to Defense,” Sherlock gestured to the folder Mycroft was holding. “And can you find John for me?”

Mycroft straightened up, papers clasped tightly under his arm. “No, he’ll be gone by now, but I can get Greg to bring you your –”

Gone?” Sherlock barked out, eyes wide. “What do you mean? Where is he?”

Mycroft raised an inquisitive brow. “He requested a transfer. I think he’s at Carlton Gardens now.”

Sherlock stood, rooted to the spot, the words barely making sense in his whirling mind. No, he couldn’t have – not now –

“Why?” Mycroft asked. His voice betrayed just the barest amount of suspicion. “Did you want him, specifically?”

Sherlock blinked, his gaze shifting out of focus. The room, his desk, Mycroft, all blurred into indistinct shapes, none of them seeming real.

“No,” he said, finally, his tone incredibly weak. “Send for George, then.”

Mycroft was silent for a few seconds – no doubt scanning Sherlock for what was really going on – but then said nothing but a brief, “certainly.”

He passed Sherlock and closed the door behind him, leaving Sherlock alone in the office.

Dazed, Sherlock made his way around his desk and lowered himself into his chair. Slowly, in his fog-filled mind, things were starting to take shape.

John had left – no, John had asked to leave.

And it wasn’t because of anything else. Sherlock knew that instinctively. It was because of what Sherlock had seen between him and Magnussen, there was no way around it.

And whatever it had been, whether Magnussen had been harassing John or John had been flirting back, whatever it was…John didn’t want anything to do with Sherlock anymore.

Sherlock leaned his elbows on the desk and pressed his forehead into his hands.

Well. He supposed that was it, then.

It was stupid. Utterly moronic. They’d been colleagues. That was it. Really, there had been no reason to believe that John had felt anything for him at all. He was just showing respect for his boss, for his Prime Minister.

But those smiles, those little moments of sincerity came flashing through Sherlock’s mind like those godawful press cameras. His face came to him, over and over again, cheerful and grinning and with that pure unguarded humour that he’d so looked forward to seeing, every day. He had made his world so much brighter, his impossible job a little less daunting. He’d been so utterly himself, when Sherlock saw nothing but facades everywhere he looked. Even sometimes in his own face.

Sherlock sighed, pushing the images away. No good to think about that now. He was gone. He’d be Sherlock’s shining moment in an overcast career, the one true thing he could remember when the bills stopped passing and the polls turned against him – because they would. They always did.

Sherlock cleared his throat and sat up straight to attack the nearest pile. He had a country to run.

***

The days leading up to Christmas were drizzly and gloomy. Sherlock took to spending evenings in the biggest sitting rooms downstairs, the curtains on the huge windows pulled wide on the off chance that the tiniest bit of light might find its way through. It never did, and the incessant rain battering itself against the glass just made him sink further into melancholy. Fitting, really, he supposed. It wasn’t as if there was a way to stop it.

He signed his name, over and over. Papers were sprawled out all over the table, the stack still to be signed piled up on the next chair over. It never seemed to end.

Someone knocked sharply at the door.

Yes?” Sherlock called out.

He heard it creaking open, and he gave just the briefest of glances to see who it was – Mrs. Hudson, the housekeeper, bearing the tray.

“Prime Minister,” she said, setting it down next to him.

“Thank you so much.” He tried to smile as he said it, but he probably just sounded tired. He spent most of his time tired, these days.

She gave him a little smile in return, and laid a brief hand on his shoulder as she passed. It was a gesture he wouldn’t have allowed from anyone else, but Mrs. Hudson just seemed to have the intuition for things like that. It was nice, sort of.

She closed the door behind her, and Sherlock sighed, letting it fill the silence. He looked down at the tray. She’d brought him the plain biscuits.

He took hold of the steaming cup of tea, and sipped at it.

***

The house was quiet on Christmas Eve. Just a bare-bones staff on tonight, the rest were at home with their families. Even Mycroft hadn’t been able to escape dinner with Mum and Dad, though they’d graciously let Sherlock off to do his duty to his country. Sherlock imagined he wouldn’t be hearing the end of that from his brother any time soon.

He’d been hoping at least to get some of the boring stuff done before turning in, but it really wasn’t looking very promising. His mind didn’t seem to be able to focus on any one thing, and he was spending most of his energy trying not to think about why that was.

After a few more fruitless passes over a page so filled with jargon he could have drowned in it, Sherlock dropped his pen on the coffee table and rubbed at his temple. Maybe he should just call it a night. Get one of his secretaries to give him a Cliffsnotes version of it on Boxing Day.

He reached for the stack of the sample of cards someone had dropped off for him a couple hours ago. Maybe it would make him feel better.

The first one was a generic Christmas tree cover. On the inside, below the pre-printed text, was written “Have another prosperous year, Prime Minister!”.

He tossed that one aside. The next one was one of those Victorian scenes of a snow-covered street and an old post office, or something. The sender hadn’t written anything inside but a signature.

Sherlock rolled his eyes and chucked that one away too. The next one was smaller, and less glossy, and had a rather cute cartoonish picture of a snowman in a scarf on the front.

Sherlock opened it, and was greeted with a wall of scrawled text.

Dear sir, the sender had begun, the crossed it out and written: Dear Sherlock,

Merry Christmas, and I hope you have a very happy New Year.

I’m very sorry about the thing that happened. It was a very odd moment, and I feel like a prize idiot. And I’m especially sorry that I left without saying anything to you, because (if you can’t say it at Christmas, then when can you, eh?), I’m actually yours.

With love,

xxx your John

Sherlock read the words slowly. When he finished, he read them again, certain he must not have seen it right the first time.

But they were the same, and he really had said it, and the signature was really John’s.

Sherlock closed the card and put it down on the table, and stared at the snowman on the front. As if maybe the little cartoon could explain it all to him, and tell him it was real.

The room was totally silent. Time seemed to have stopped.

Sherlock was barely breathing as he opened the card again, reading over the last words.

I’m actually yours.

With love,

xxx your John

Sherlock dropped the card and sprang to life, seizing the nearest phone.

“Greg?” He barked into it. “I need a car. Right now.”

***

The drive seemed to take an age. Were there really that many hours on Christmas Eve?

Wandsworth, he’d told the driver. The dodgy end.

Had it always been this far away? Surely it didn’t need to be. He could probably do something about that. That was his job, wasn’t it?

Sherlock stared out of the tinted windows, his heart hammering in his chest. The enormity of what he was running towards hadn’t quite hit him yet, and that was probably for the best. Better to operate under semi-sound mind, before thoughts of John overwhelmed all his faculties entirely.

At long, long last, the driver finally pulled up onto a street that stretched straight on out, seemingly forever.

“Here we are, Harris Street,” he said, jovially. “What number, sir?”

“Oh, God,” Sherlock groaned, quietly. “It’s the longest street in the world, and I have absolutely no idea.”

He stared down at the miles of parked cars and streetlamps. Every house looked identical.

Well, there was nothing else for it, was there?

Sherlock let himself out of the car and strode off towards the house with a brass number 1 on the door. The driver got out and followed him.

He rang, and at least a full minute passed before someone opened the door; an elderly, angry-looking woman, whose scowl faded as she looked up at him.

“Hello,” Sherlock said, without preamble. “Does John live here?”

She looked stunned, as she shook her head no.

“Right, fine, thank you.” Well, that wasn’t unexpected. “Sorry to disturb.”

“Wait!” She called out after him, and he turned back around.

“Aren’t…” she seemed to be screwing up her eyes to try to see him better. “Aren’t you the Prime Minister?”

Sherlock blinked. This, he should have expected.

“Er, yes, in fact, I am,” he said, casually, putting on his most genial smile. “Merry Christmas.”

The woman’s jaw dropped. “Oh,” she said, sounding awed.

“Part of the service now,” Sherlock went on. “Trying to get round to everyone by New Year’s Eve.”

The woman nodded, baffled, and Sherlock took his chance to disappear from the doorway.

Alright. One down. How many left to go?

The next few houses gave him a few more elderly people. Then some teenagers who didn’t recognize him. Then one man who apparently hadn’t voted for him, and shouted some very rude things as he hurried away.

The door of number fifty-six swung open to reveal, seemingly, no one, until Sherlock looked down and saw three young children, probably no older than eight.

“Hello,” Sherlock said, in the voice he’d perfected by now. “Does John live here?”

“No, he doesn’t,” the girl in front said. She was wearing a plastic silver tiara.

“Oh, God,” Sherlock sighed. “Alright.”

“Are you singing carols?” the girl shouted before he could leave.

“Uh –” Sherlock stammered out. “No, I’m not.”

“Please, sir, please!” The other little girl cried out.

“Please!” The boy beside her added his imploring voice.

Oh, Christ. This was absolutely not what he needed right now, but they were all looking so hopeful.

He sighed. “Well, I suppose I could…”

“Please!” they all chorused again.

“Alright,” he said, a little too sharply, and they all cheered.

He cast his mind back to all the carols he knew, and landed on the first one he could think of.

“Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen…”

“When the snow lay round about,” the driver had joined in behind him, making Sherlock jump. He had a perfect operatic basso.

“Deep and crisp and even.” Sherlock sang with him, thrown and casting around for the right words. “Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel…”

The kids were all dancing, ignoring the pace and the lyrics.

When they were finally satisfied, Sherlock turned away as quickly as he could manage, and knocked his way through several other families. Some were pleased to see him, others less so, but each had the same answer for him: No, John doesn’t live here.

He’d reached number 100, and was staring to lose hope. Did John really even live in Wandsworth? Had he moved since he’d last seen him? Had he seen Sherlock coming from the window and told his family to say he wasn’t home?

A young woman opened the hundredth door, and Sherlock gave her his smile, grown weary.

“Hello, sorry to disturb, does John live here?”

The woman shook her head. “No.”

Sherlock’s heart sank even further, and he gave her a nod before turning back to the street.

“He lives next door.”

Sherlock whipped his head around, staring, then casting his eyes to the next house on the left. Number 102.

“Ah,” he said, quietly. “Brilliant, thank you.”

She was craning her neck forward, looking excited. “You’re not who I think you are, are you?”

“Yes,” Sherlock replied. “And I’m sorry about all the cock-ups. Not my fault, my cabinet are absolute crap. We hope to do better next year. Merry Christmas to you.”

He nodded, and turned away again, and after a moment he heard her close the door.

Sherlock waved his driver away to wait in the car. Slowly, his eyes raked up and down number 102, from the garden path to the chimney and back again.

John was in there.

And suddenly the full force of what he was doing, what it all meant, slammed into him like a speeding car.

The breath seemed to leave his lungs, and he ran a trembling hand back through his hair.

This was it. It wasn’t over yet. This was it.

He swallowed, with great difficulty, then walked up to the door and rang the bell.

It opened almost instantly, with a slew of people apparently about to flood out of it. A middle-aged couple with three children in front of them, and two younger women pulling on their coats, all saw him and stopped in their tracks.

“H-hello,” Sherlock stammered out. “Is…John in?”

He scanned the faces, trying to see behind the crowd, but couldn’t make out anyone else, any familiar strand of hair or glint of an eye.

“Where the fuck is my fucking coat?”

Sherlock’s eyes darted to the staircase, at the feet descending it, at the voice that Sherlock would recognize anywhere in the world.

John stopped, halfway down, and froze in place.

“Oh,” he said, softly.

It was the first time Sherlock had seen him not wearing a suit – he had on jeans, a light plaid button-down, and a maroon cardigan. And he had never looked more beautiful.

The ends of his lips twitched up, surprised, but genuine.

“Hi.” It was almost a whisper.

Sherlock gave a little nod back.

“Hello.”

Suddenly, he had absolutely no idea what to do. Oh God, what was he supposed to say?

“Um…” John was stammering now, too. “This is – my sister, Harry,” he indicated one of the women at the back, “and – Clara, and my cousins, Tony and Julie…”

Each of them nodded as he introduced them, looking dazed and unsure.

“And –” John went on, his face flushing. “This is Prime Minister Holmes.”

The woman called Julie chuckled a bit. “Yes, we can see that.”

John hadn’t taken his eyes off Sherlock, and now they clouded over with concern – or possibly guilt. Sherlock hated not being able to tell.

“And, unfortunately, we’re very late.” John said, apologetically.

“It’s the school Christmas concert, you see, Sherlock,” said Clara, from behind Tony’s shoulder.

“Alright, Clara,” John said, but she was still talking.

“And it’s the first time all the local schools have joined together, even Saint Basil’s which is most –”

“Too much detail, Clara,” John piped up, louder this time.

“Anyway,” Julie chimed in. “How can we help, sir?”

“Um –” Sherlock said, and froze. He was acutely aware of all of them looking at him.

But John’s eyes were still on him, softer now. Looking curious. And maybe, if Sherlock wasn’t imagining it, hopeful?

“Well,” he went on, haltingly. “I just – needed John…”

John blinked. There was something desperate and vulnerable in his face now.

Sherlock couldn’t look away. He wondered if his face looked exactly the same.

“…on some – state business,” he finished, because everyone else was waiting in silence, and it stretched on, even afterwards. No one seemed to dare break it.

“Oh,” said the man called Tony. His hands were resting on the shoulders of the young girl in front of him. “Well, maybe you should come on later, John.”

“Oh, I – don’t want to make you late for your concert,” Sherlock said, quickly. Oh, no. He was about to cock things up for John’s entire family now.

“N-no, it’s nothing really,” John piped up, shaking his head.

“Keith will be very disappointed,” Julie said again, placing her hand on the head of the young boy in front of her, presumably her son.

“No, really, it doesn’t matter,” John said through his teeth.

“The octopus costume’s taken me months,” said Julie. “Eight is a lot of legs, Sherlock.”

Sherlock’s brow furrowed in surprise. He looked up at John who was shooting him a very exasperated “don’t ask” sort of look.

“Right.” Sherlock gave his head a shake, deciding that was probably best. “Well, listen, why don’t I give you a lift?” He stared up at John, shooting him what was probably a pathetically imploring expression. But he had come this far. “And we can talk about this state business…business…in the car.”

John stared back, silent. And then, slowly, beautifully, a bright, wide smile spread out across his face.

“Okay,” he said. He sounded breathless. Sherlock felt exactly the same.

He watched, still unable to look anywhere else, as John plodded down the rest of the stairs and pushed his way through his family. He snagged his coat from Clara’s hands as he passed her, and swung it on as he stepped over the threshold.

He was looking up at Sherlock, his light blue eyes deep and swimming with emotion, but Sherlock finally had to tear himself away. He couldn’t do this here. Not in front of all these people.

He nodded in the direction of the car, and John seemed to understand. He moved off. The driver had gotten out to open the door, and John clambered in to the far side. Sherlock slid in after him.

“We’re going to the school,” Sherlock told the driver as he started the engine. “It’s – um…” He looked at John.

“Belleville,” John finished for him. “It’s just around the corner.”

“Very good, sir,” the driver said, and set off.

They sat in silence, each on opposite ends of the backseat. Sherlock was afraid to look up now, afraid of what he might see. It might be too much, and make him go into a full-blown panic.

“Well,” he said, finally. “I just – wanted to say…” Something stuck in his throat. He had to swallow it down painfully before he continued. “…thank you for the Christmas card.”

The words settled over them like a stale air. Sherlock swore he could hear John’s breathing.

“You’re welcome,” he said. “Look, I’m so sorry about that day.”

His voice was suddenly quick and desperate, and Sherlock couldn’t take it anymore. He looked up into John’s eyes, and nearly flinched at how flayed open he looked.

“I came in with the scotch,” John said in a rush, “and he just sort of slinked towards me and grabbed onto my hand and started talking, and he’s the President of the United States, and I just didn’t know what to do –”

“Oh, John…” Sherlock whispered.

“– and then you came in and I wasn’t sure what you thought you’d seen, and nothing happened, I promise –”

A flood of relief rushed in through Sherlock’s chest.

“– and I just felt like such an idiot, because…because I think about you all the time, actually.”

The air in the car seemed to have vanished completely now.

“And I think you might be the man that I really –”

“We’re here, sir,” the driver’s booming voice came from the front seat.

A rush of noise came from outside the windows, cars and children’s voices, and John deflated beside him.

“…love.

Sherlock looked back at him, mouth open. It had barely been a sound, he wasn’t sure John had even said it, or if his ears were just playing tricks on him because of the sudden influx of voices outside, but, if he had, if he really had said that…

Beside him, the door opened. The driver stood expectantly beside it.

“Oh, well,” Sherlock murmured. “That really was just around the corner.”

John was staring down at his hands now. He seemed to have thought he’d said too much, too quickly, or maybe he was just waiting nervously for Sherlock to reply, and was afraid of what he might say…

The thought sent a dreadful pang through Sherlock’s chest.

He shook himself out of the moment. He could come back to what he might have heard later. Right now, there was more pressing business.

“Can you give us a moment, please?” Sherlock said to the driver, still waiting.

He raised his eyebrows, a little surprised, but replied: “Of course, sir,” and closed the door again, standing protectively outside it.

Sherlock turned back to John, whose head snapped up to meet his gaze. His hands were clenching in his lap.

Now it was a whole other torrent of emotions rushing through Sherlock’s mind – sorrow, compassion, and most prominently, guilt.

“I’m sorry,” he said, nearly in a whisper. He shook his head, slowly. “I should have done something.”

To his surprise, John let out a breathless laugh.

“You did,” he said, a little smile twisting his lips. “Didn’t you declare war on America or something?”

Sherlock chuckled, just a little, but there was no humour behind it. His smile pressed itself into a flat line, trying to keep from twisting it into a grimace.

“I should have done more,” he murmured, finally.

But John didn’t look upset at all; in fact, his brows knitted together with what looked like sympathy. For Sherlock.

“There was nothing you could have done,” he said. “And I’m fine, nothing happened, really. He just said some,” John’s face contorted strangely, for a second or two, “…things…”

A hot spark of fury went off behind Sherlock’s temple.

“You don’t deserve that,” he said, and it came out sharp and bitter.

“No,” John shook his head in agreement. “But really, it wasn’t that bad. I’ve barely thought about it since.” Then he paused, looking unsure again. “I just – you know…”

“You left,” Sherlock said quietly, and he was hoping it didn’t sound prying or accusatory, because that wasn’t at all what he felt. He just needed to know…

But John smiled, a bit sadly now, and huffed out another humorless laugh.

“I was embarrassed,” he said, nearly whispering now, too. “I didn’t know how much you’d seen, or what you would think…”

And now shame was coursing through Sherlock where the guilt had just seconds ago washed away, remembering how he had wondered if John had reciprocated Magnussen’s disgusting interest. The idea made him want to be sick, now.

“And I – just sort of panicked, I guess,” John said with a little shrug. His gaze still hadn’t left Sherlock’s, less desperate now, and more – hopeful?

“But I’m really glad to see you now,” he whispered.

Sherlock’s heart seemed to lurch to one side. He felt off-balance, disoriented, not quite sure what to feel or what to think.

But John was smiling at him, that sincere, genuine smile, and Sherlock knew how much he meant it. Every word.

The realization made his stomach sink, as he looked outside at the families crowding into the school.

“Well,” he said, sadly. “I think I’d better not come in.”

John’s eyes widened, anxious again.

“No – please come,” he said, his smile wavering a bit now. “It’ll be great.”

“No, I’d – I’d better not.” Sherlock sagged into his seat. It was useless. “The last thing anyone wants is some sleazy politician stealing the kids’ thunder.”

John shook his head, slowly, and Sherlock stared down at the seat between them.

“But…” he said, his words deliberate. “I will be very sorry to drive away from you.”

He took a deep breath in, and expelled it, resigning himself. It was alright. He’d said what he’d needed to say, heard what he’d so desperately wanted to hear. They’d find some other, less magical night, to carry on from now.

But when he finally looked back up at John, he was smiling again, and his eyes were sparkling with mischief.

“Just give me one second,” he said. “Okay?”

Sherlock was taken aback by the sudden change, but felt himself nodding, and John was grinning even more broadly in Sherlock’s direction, and then he was throwing open the door and jumping out of the car.

Sherlock watched him, as he ran toward the school doors and disappeared through the crowd, watched the black coat and blond head until he couldn’t see him anymore. He took a deep breath, his mind reeling for what he could possibly have in mind, but if it meant the smallest chance that he wouldn’t have to leave him, well. Sherlock would never have been able to pass that up.

He waited maybe five minutes, watching out through the dim window, before he saw him running back. Sherlock scooted over the seat to the window, and rolled it down.

“Come on,” John gasped out, still grinning. “We can watch from backstage.”

“Really?” Sherlock asked, and John nodded.

“Alright,” Sherlock said, and John opened the door. “I won’t be long,” he called to the driver as he stepped out.

“You’re sure about this?” he said to John.

“Yeah,” John said, and his eyes were glinting even brighter than before. “Don’t you trust me?”

Something jolted just beneath Sherlock’s stomach at the sly little look he was giving him, and he had to force it aside.

“Okay,” Sherlock nodded. “But this has to be a very secret visit, alright?”

“Don’t worry,” John said, and he reached out and took Sherlock’s hand. “This was my school, I know my way around.”

But Sherlock barely heard him, because every neuron in his brain was reserved for the feeling of John’s palm against his, his strong fingers clasping Sherlock’s.

John turned and tugged on Sherlock’s hand, and Sherlock let himself be pulled along in his wake.

The ran together along the back gate, down past one of the smaller buildings, then finally came to what seemed to be the back entrance of the auditorium. John looked back at him, his eyes glowing with adrenaline, and let Sherlock through the heavy door and up a creaky set of stairs, until they emerged in what was clearly the backstage area, just behind the curtain.

“This way,” John whispered, and Sherlock followed him along, having to swallow down his giddy laughter – here he was, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, sneaking into a school concert from backstage like a teenager, holding a cute boy’s hand.

John found them a little nook just on the side where they could see everything from an angle. John’s cousin Keith was standing on the end of a row of what was presumably the choir, and John stood in front of Sherlock, beaming outward.

A few minutes passed, and the lights lowered. It was starting.

The choir struck up a slow, a capella rendering of the beginning of “All I Want for Christmas” – then a drummer kicked in, and it sped up, the kids all began some choreographed movements, dancing and swaying.

Sherlock tried to watch – the kids weren’t bad, after all – but quickly found himself distracted by how close he was to John. He’d let go of his hand, but he couldn’t have been more than a few inches from him, and he could feel the warmth radiating from his body. His golden hair was close enough to his face for him to smell his shampoo – some sort of spice and pine.

John felt it too, Sherlock could tell. He glanced backward at Sherlock, and looked like he was breathing a bit more heavily than normal. Sherlock certainly was.

John swallowed – Sherlock saw his Adam’s apple bob in his throat – and looked like he might have been about to whisper something, but then suddenly there were footsteps approaching behind them.

Sherlock didn’t think twice. He grabbed John’s hand and pulled them through the back curtain, away from the stage hand who had just walked through their hiding place. He pulled him along the back of the stage, right along a large carboard painting of a sleigh, before he felt they were safe again.

His heart was pounding, not with fear now but with excitement, with thrilled nerves, with slowly mounting need. John had stopped close to him, his hand still in his, his other hand holding onto Sherlock’s forearm to keep his balance.

He didn’t move away, and neither did Sherlock. Behind them, the kids were still singing, exuberant and oblivious.

“I just want you for my own, more than you will ever know…”

John was so close now. His face was inches from Sherlock’s. He could feel his breath on his cheek.

Sherlock’s eyes fell nearly closed. His senses were overloading, John was everywhere.

Inch by inch, he was moving closer. He could almost feel the soft brush of skin against skin, the ghost of it, hovering just millimetres away.

John let out something like a gasp, silent and startled, as they finally touched – just the barest brush, the tiniest inhale, Sherlock’s lips trembling, waiting, waiting…

“Make my wish come true…all I want for Christmas is you…”

And then they were kissing.

Deep, grasping, profoundly visceral. It was the time they had lost and everything that they had gained. Sherlock reached up to lay his hands on John’s cheeks, and John wrapped his arms around Sherlock’s back, holding on like a lifeline. They were both drowning, and Sherlock didn’t think he’d ever need to come up for air.

Sherlock kissed him, and kissed him, and John kissed him back, delving his tongue in to taste the depths of Sherlock’s emotion, Sherlock offering whatever he had freely. It was dazzling, and Sherlock’s mind was spinning faster than ever even as everything felt suddenly still and calm. The world was alight, and he was here with John, and nothing in all of Britain, in the entire world could be bigger or more important or more wonderful than this.

Distantly, creeping in through some lone unidentified sense that somehow wasn’t occupied by John, Sherlock heard that the crowd had fallen silent.

He opened his eyes, saw a blinding light shining in his face. He broke off from John reluctantly, and stared outward – at the entire auditorium, staring back at him.

The curtain had opened, and they were in the centre of the stage.

John was looking out too, wide-eyed and stunned in the lights.

For some reason, Sherlock felt the sudden urge to burst out laughing.

“Right,” he said, out of the corner of his mouth. “So…maybe not quite as secret as we’d hoped.”

“What do we do now?” John whispered back.

“Smile,” Sherlock said, his long-perfected instincts kicking in. “Take a bow.”

He reached for John’s hand, and they bowed together.

The audience, whether out of shock or amusement or genuine happiness, began to cheer. Sherlock’s smile brightened.

“And wave,” he whispered to John.

John obediently raised his hand to mirror Sherlock’s, and he looked absolutely radiant.

A few more seconds, Sherlock acknowledged the populace with a few more waves, then he wrapped his arm around John’s shoulder and pulled him off the stage.

“I guess I’ll have to get used to that,” John gasped, as soon as they were safely out of sight.

“You’ll do fine,” Sherlock beamed back at him. “It’s all bollocks, really.”

John’s grin split wide across his face, and he tried to lean in to kiss Sherlock again, but they were both laughing too hard to manage it.

Chapter Text

“Sarah and I had a lot of time to prepare for this moment,” John said.

He projected his voice out over the sea of people in black. He sort of hated the way he sounded. Prepared. Artificial.

“Some of her requests,” John went on. The church was echoing his words back to him. “For instance, that I should bring Benedict Cumberbatch as my date to the funeral, I was sure she expected me to ignore.”

One or two people laughed – harsh, mortified sounds that sliced through the silence.

“But – others, she was pretty damn clear about.”

Sam’s eyes were downcast, avoiding John. Avoiding everyone. John felt a pang that was more shame than grief, and the guilt that flooded in in its wake didn’t surprise him one bit.

“When she first mentioned what’s about to happen,” John’s voice was starting to waver. “I said ‘over my dead body.’ And she said, ‘no, John, over mine.’ And, as usual…she was right.”

He clenched his fists behind the cover of the lectern.

“So, Sarah’s going to say her final farewell to you, not through me…” He paused, fighting the urge to shake his head at the unreality of it all. “But through the immortal genius of the Bay City Rollers.”

John stepped back, and the speakers began blaring.

“Bye, bye baby, baby goodbye…”

John moved off quietly to the side. It didn’t matter, no one was looking at him anymore. All eyes were fixed on the images flashing on the projector screen. Sarah, young and wide-eyed. Next, slightly less saturated, her in a wedding dress next to a man with long hair. Soon after, visibly pregnant and smiling, the next, holding the newborn Sam. They flickered on, getting brighter all the time, Sam aging rapidly through them like a time-lapse camera, until the Sarah in the photos started looking thinner and more tired, and finally ended on the photo of her and John at City Hall, just last summer. She was as pale as her dress.

The song played on, brash and inappropriate. Maybe that’s what she’d wanted. John had never really understood why – but then, he’d never understood a lot of things. He moved off towards the casket, and took his position.

They hoisted it onto their shoulders, him and the five other pallbearers, and moved off down the aisle. John was in the front, and set his jaw firm, marching onward, steady and straight-backed. The last thing he could try to do properly for her. This was one he couldn’t fail.

***

John wandered around the kitchen, looking for nothing in particular.

Harry had just left. She’d come to give some emotional support, or her version of it, anyway. The best she could really do was bring by some biscuits, pat his shoulder a bit and say, “it was always going to be a totally shit time”.

“Thanks. Helpful.” John had said, breaking a gingernut in half.

She’d had no idea what to do about Sam, and John looked around at the empty room now, hoping the answer might magically come to him from somewhere unexpected, but there was nothing yet. He sighed, moving to the sink and staring out the window above it.

There was just so much now that he’d never had to consider. Sam, now shutting himself in his room most of the time (“he could be injecting heroin into his eyeballs, or something, for all I know” he’d said to Harry, spiralling), or the crush he had on a girl from school who didn’t seem to even know who he was. It had always been Sarah who had talked to him about things like that, but now that she was gone, here he was, and this stepfather thing mattered like it never had before.

He felt the familiar rumble of guilt through him as he thought of Sarah. He was almost getting used to it by now, and wondered if it would ever go away. He’d tried so hard for her, tried so hard to be what she needed. But it had been so quick and confusing, and then she’d gotten sicker and sicker and John hadn’t even realized how much he’d fallen short until it had been too late. And now, if he was going to do that for her son, as well…

But he couldn’t. He’d promised her. And even through whatever else, he’d always kept his promises.

A door above him suddenly slammed, and John jumped. Sam was coming down the steps, slowly, like he was dragging his feet. John stood still against the sink as he came in the kitchen, suddenly flooded with anxiety.

“Did Harry leave these?” Sam asked, picking up the biscuit package from the counter.

“Yeah, help yourself.”

John watched the boy pick through the package, looking for the ones he liked.

“How’s Joanna?” He asked. It was probably the wrong thing to say, but he was grasping here.

Sam’s face darkened, but only a little bit. “Same as usual,” he said.

“Has she noticed you yet?”

“Not yet.” But he shrugged, looking disaffected. “But then, there’s always the end-of-term concert for that, isn’t there?

John nodded. Sam had told him a few days ago about his plan to confess his feelings for her at the concert, when she would perform. John had been the one to encourage him along. It felt almost bizarre for something like this to be so important to John at this time in his life, but it was nice, too. It felt good to know that innocent love existed so close to him. Freeing, almost.

“And how about you?” John asked. “Are you doing alright? With – everything?”

Oh God, John could hear how awkward he sounded even as the words left his mouth. Sometimes he was so stiff at this parenting thing. It had always irritated Sarah, when it wasn’t amusing the hell out of Sam.

Sure enough, Sam looked up, a dubious smile on his momentarily-not-gloomy face.

“Yeah, I’m great,” he said. There was a mischievous glint in his eye. “Want some heroin?”

John started so violently he had to duck his head and suck in a steadying breath. “Sam…” he said, too breathless to sound admonishing.

“It’s best if you can inject it directly into your eyeballs.” Sam grinned up at him. “High like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Alright, smartarse.” John said. He forced himself not to laugh, despite himself. “Keep talking and I’ll tell Harry to stop bringing those.”

Sam bit into a biscuit with a toothy smile.

***

“Hold on. Keep your eyes closed.”

Kate obeyed, stretching her arms out on the bow of the ship.

“Do you trust me?” Leo asked.

“I trust you.”

“Do you trust me?” John asked. He was standing behind Sam, who was perched on the coffee table, arms stretched out in imitation of the couple on the screen.

“I trust you,” said Sam.

“Fool!” John launched forward and dug his fingers into Sam’s sides.

Sam shrieked with laughter, squirming and howling. “Get off, you big bully!”

They flopped backwards onto the sofa, and Sam wormed his way out of John’s grip, gasping and sniggering.

John let him go, then grabbed the remote from the table and paused the film.

“You know, Sammy,” John said, slowly. He was still looking at the frozen image on the telly. “I’m sure your girl’s wonderful and everything, but general wisdom is, there isn’t just one person for each of us.”

Sam looked sideways at him.

He didn’t look angry or upset, but there was something knowing in his expression all the same. John’s stomach flipped at the sight of it. Sam had always been perceptive, understanding the things John didn’t say as much as the things he did.

But as quickly as the look had appeared, it softened again, and he nodded toward the screen.

“There was for Kate and Leo,” he said, with conviction. “And there is for me.”

John gave him a small, sad smile.

“She’s the one, John.” Sam said.

He looked so sure of himself. John stared at him, wondering what it was like to be that sure of anyone.

“Fair enough,” he said back.

Sam’s eyes crinkled, and he sank back into the cushions, looking slightly dreamy. Maybe he was thinking about her. Hell, maybe he was even right about her.

If Sam was right, and there really was one perfect person for everyone, clearly the boy had found his. She’d been his entire focus since his mother died, his source of joy and of pain, and the thing that made him trust John more than he ever had before.

But if there was someone like that out there for John, too, they’d probably want nothing to do with him as he was now. Who in their right mind would be looking for a mess like him, blindly stumbling through stepfatherhood and with all the baggage of being freshly widowed from a woman he hadn’t loved enough?

Still. It’s not that it wouldn’t be nice to have them around, maybe. Even just to try.

***

“How was rehearsal?” John asked, as he turned the chicken over in the pan.

“It was great,” Sam said from behind him. He pulled off his jacket, and it dripped water over the floor as he tramped over to hang it up. “Joanna sounds amazing. Wait till you hear her, you won’t believe it.”

“Talk to her any?” He turned round, watching Sam beaming all the way to the sitting room as he dropped happily into a chair.

“I played in her direction.” Sam said, dismissively. “That counts.”

John chuckled, but decided against further comment. If playing in the band really was the way to impress this girl, Sam was certainly on the right track. John had been woken up yet again this morning at an unholy hour, and staggered to the bathroom past Sam’s room rubbing his forehead against the cacophonous booms and crashes of his drumming.

“By the way, I feel bad,” came Sam’s voice again. It was a bit louder now, and more focused. “I never ask you how your love life is going.”

John froze for a moment, his hand still on the knob. But – no, it wasn’t accusation. Just banter. Just having a laugh.

He relaxed. Best play along. Keep things light to pass over his moment of abashment.

“You know that was a done deal long ago,” he said towards the window. “Unless, of course, Benedict Cumberbatch calls…”

“Oh?” Sam said. John heard him sit up.

“…in which case, I want you out of the house straight away, you motherless mongrel.”

“Hey!” Sam shouted, laughter undermining his indignation.

“No, no, we’ll want to have sex in every room, including yours.” John grinned.

Sam blew a loud raspberry in his direction, and John’s shoulders relaxed.

***

John stood in the corridor, scanning the crowd for Sam.

It had been quite the end-of-term concert. Sam’s girl, Joanna, had absolutely stolen the show – she had a voice far beyond what anyone expected to come out of an eleven-year-old, and had stunned everyone in the audience. She’d walked off from her wild applause with the rest of the band, and if Sam’s plan turned out right, he’d have told her how he felt soon afterwards. Hell, maybe John should just go wait outside for a while, and let the boy get a good snog in before he took him home.

It was warm outside, for Christmas Eve, and the light snow that had begun to fall before the show had mellowed into a mist. Beads of it flecked onto the widows, fogged up with the heat of the school building and muting all the bodies going past outside.

Maybe Sam was still waiting by the theatre. John began to pick his way forward through clusters of parents gleefully meeting their children, shouting bright congratulations across the corridor. John politely excused himself past a pair of parents picking up their two laughing sons, and turned the corner to where the auditorium entrance was.

A couple older kids stood there in a corner chatting there, but Sam wasn’t among them. John sighed and decided to go check outside, but just as he turned around, a body appeared out of nowhere and collided with him, roughly.

John let out a little oof as he took a step back. It was a man’s body, a tall man, who’d just come round the corner.

“Ah, sorry,” John said, pulling back his shoulder that the man had run into.

“Sorry,” the man echoed, and he stepped back too, looking up at John.

And all of a sudden, the word around John seemed to lurch to a halt.

The man was tall and slim, dressed dapperly in a black suit, though without a tie, the neck of his shirt left open a few buttons. His face was fair, but his hair was a deep black, framing his face in tight, sweeping curls. His eyes were a shocking bright blue, flecked with what looked like patches of green and gold, though John could hardly be sure as they seemed to dazzle in every colour imaginable. His lips were full, and his cheekbones cut sharply out of his face like they had been carved from ivory. A few freckles dotted his long neck.

John stood there, blinking, barely noticing that his mouth was hanging open stupidly, or that people were still shuffling by them in either direction. The apparition in front of him had seemed, in that moment, to make everything else vanish.

Eventually, John realized dimly that he’d just been staring at this devastatingly handsome man without saying anything for several seconds, and forced himself back into the present, clearing his throat.

“That – that’s alright,” he said. It came out unusually quietly. “My fault.”

“No, no, really, it wasn’t.” The man shook his head, those gorgeous lips quirking up a bit with a smile.

And there was something about it – about the gentle ray of happiness shining out of him – that made John’s heart lurch in his chest. It was more powerful than anything he’d ever felt. Too powerful.

“You’re Sam’s dad, aren’t you?” the man asked.

It took a minute for the question to register in John’s mind, and he started a little.

“Yeah,” he said, shaking his head the tiniest bit to clear it. “Stepdad, actually.”

He looked the man up and down, took in his entire gorgeous form, then slowly extended his hand.

“John,” he said. His own voice sounded strangely distant to him.

“I’m Sherlock.” The man reached back and shook John’s hand once. A jolt of electricity raced up from John’s fingers all the way up his arm at the contact. “Sherlock Holmes – I’m Sam’s music teacher.”

John blinked. “Right,” he said.

Sherlock was staring, too – he looked just as breathless as John, his eyes roving over him just as uncertainly.

He felt it too, then. Felt what had just struck John with the force of a high-speed train. It was indescribable – so intense he thought it might sweep him away before he even realized what it was.

This was…this was something new, entirely.

“John, I’m back!” A voice at John’s elbow piped up suddenly. Sherlock released John’s hand with a start.

“Hey, Mr. Holmes,” Sam said. He had his drumsticks clutched in his hand.

“Hey, Sam,” Sherlock smiled down at him. “You played really well tonight.”

“Thanks.” Sam turned back to John. “Let’s go.”

There was an impish grin on his face; clearly he was bursting to tell him what had just happened with Joanna.

“Alright,” John agreed, though his heart was sinking slightly. He turned back to Sherlock.

“Well…” he said, and halted. He felt suddenly tongue-tied. Everything he could possibly say felt like too much and yet still inadequate – but he couldn’t just leave without something, anything…

“…I hope we’ll meet again, Sherlock,” he finished, finally.

Something shifted in Sherlock’s expression. His face settled into a subdued, crooked smile, with a knowing – no, a promising twitch pulling at the edge.

He understood. John knew, without knowing how he knew, that Sherlock understood him perfectly.

“I’ll make sure we do,” Sherlock said back.

“Yeah?” John said, without thinking – though he could feel his cheeks reddening at how bright and hopeful he sounded. “Good.”

Sherlock’s smile broadened, and a low chuckle rang out of his throat – deep and smooth like silk. John could have melted into it.

He gave him a little nod, then stepped aside, his hand on Sam’s shoulders as he guided him towards the door. Behind them, a second or two of silence, before John heard Sherlock’s footsteps fading away back towards the theatre.

He smiled to himself, and the world felt brighter and more inviting to him than it ever had.

“Tell him,” said Sam, abruptly, smirking up at John.

“What?” John rolled his eyes with a sigh.

“You know.” Sam was sounding unbearably smug. He made kissing noises with his lips, and John grabbed him around the shoulders.

“Don’t be such an arse.”

He pulled him in, and gave a fond little chuckle as Sam burst into giggles.

Chapter Text

It was a beautiful day, the crisp early winter sunlight illuminating the last golden leaves of autumn, and Sherlock hated it.

John stood facing the altar, staring straight ahead. His vest and tailcoat looked stunning on him. Not that he needed the help. Sherlock was standing next him, his suit identical, staring in the same direction, trying not to look at how John’s hair caught the light shining through the stained-glass window.

It all felt like a cruel joke.

“You doing okay?” John asked him out of the corner of his mouth.

No.

“I’m fine.” Sherlock said back, lowly.

He wanted to look at him. He so badly wanted to look at him. But he knew it would only make everything worse.

“Thank you for all your help, Sherlock. Really.” There was a soft, genuine quality to his voice. It made Sherlock want to collapse. “Just a bit longer, and this will all be over.”

Sherlock had the sudden urge to laugh. If John only knew what those words sounded like to him. What this all felt like to him. Maybe it would be over for John, but for Sherlock?

He’d known for a long time that it never would be.

He gave a stiff little nod, and felt a grateful rush as the organ music began.

“Good luck,” Sherlock whispered sideways to him.

He glanced aside just enough to see John’s glimmer of a smile.

The doors behind them flung open, and they both turned around. Mary stood framed there, her white gown filling the space, her yellow hair desaturated by the veil draped over her face. She was walking slowly, staring around at the pews full of guests and beaming a satisfied little smile.

Sherlock thought she looked immensely pleased with herself, and felt an annoyed twinge in his gut at the sight of her striding up the aisle. But then, he supposed he wasn’t exactly the most impartial onlooker here.

John, after all, seemed to think she looked beautiful. He was gazing at her a sort of stunned look; his mouth was twitched up at the corners, just a little, like he was reigning in his happiness. Sherlock was grateful for it. John’s brow was knitted with emotion, and Sherlock would have bet anything that his own face was wearing a similar expression as he stared at him. No one noticed, since everyone’s focus was glued to the bride, but he imagined he was giving himself away rather obviously at that moment.

Fumbling a bit, Sherlock pulled the little video camera out from the inside pocket of his jacket. It had been a last-minute inspiration: Mary had been against it, saying it would look stupid for him to be standing up there filming, but Sherlock had overruled her with some reassurances about multiple angles for the wedding tape, and it had shut her up. She didn’t have to know that Sherlock’s footage would never go near the wedding tape being filmed by the professional videographer down in the aisle. She would never see Sherlock’s shots, nor did she need to know why he was so desperate to get them.

He turned it on and held it up at chest height, so that it could record without obstructing his view. The recording was for later: his own, uninterrupted gaze was for right now. He focused both on John, standing at the centre of the altar with that look of subdued love in his eyes.

Sherlock would save that look. He knew already that he would be watching it over and over again. It was his only time he’d ever see that look in this place, and he was going to keep it – even if it was aimed toward someone else.

***

He should have left after his speech. He wished he had done. But Mary’s patronizing words from weeks ago were still ringing in his ears, making sure he knew that his Best Man duties extended to “taking care” of the guests during the reception – whatever that was supposed to mean. Sherlock supposed it included monitoring everyone’s alcohol intake and having the same “Isn’t-it-just-wonderful-don’t-they-look-lovely-together” conversation with anyone who happened to come near him. And, well, if that’s what John wanted him to do, he’d stay until the last guest had stumbled off, and John and Mary had disappeared to –

He shoved the thought away before it had a chance to form and adjusted the camera again.

Sherlock thought he’d at least make use of the time by getting some decent shots in. It was dark out now, and the roving blue and purple lights were throwing the video quality off a little, but John’s face was still visible over his new wife’s shoulder – eyes closed, leaning in, swaying with her much too slowly for the beat of the song that was playing – Fleetwood Mac’s "Go Your Own Way" (Sherlock had told them that the DJ they’d picked was rubbish).

He kept staring, even as the sight of them made the ache in his chest steadily more painful. It was dangerously easy to imagine, once they had turned so that John was obscuring her from view, that it could be an entirely different scene he was watching, in another life, maybe. He was already half imagining that he would see that scene when he watched the footage later – that what he was seeing with his own eyes was just a projection of his tortured heart, and that he would see the truth once he got it on video. Somehow, everything would be right then.

Sherlock kept the camera steady as he ran his other hand through his hair. His hunched shoulders were beginning to ache, but he didn’t have the energy to sit up straight. All his faculties right now were reserved for John.

Dimly, he heard a chair scraping the floor as it was pushed up beside his, and a figure in a lilac dress dropped down into it. He didn’t have to look to recognize her as Janine, the maid of honour. They’d only introduced themselves briefly after the ceremony, but she’d been the only bridesmaid to bother with him, and she’d taken to him rather…strongly, to say the least.

Now though, she didn’t show any sign of repeating her earlier advances. She just stared straight ahead, looking through the dancing couples and landing on John and Mary in the middle of the floor.

“Do you love him?”

She’d delivered the question so suddenly and unaffectedly that it took a second for her words to register in Sherlock’s brain.

When he realized what she had asked, he started so violently that he nearly dropped the camera.

“Uh–” he stammered, his eyes darting from his fumbling hands to her inquisitive face. “What?”

“No, I just thought I’d ask the blunt question, in case it was the right one.” Her eyebrows were raised, as if scanning him, but it was an understanding sort of curiosity – kind, not malicious. “And you needed someone to talk to about it, and no one had ever asked you, so you’d never been able to talk about it, even though you might have wanted to…"

“No, no,” Sherlock said quickly. Probably too quickly. “No, is the answer. Absolutely not.”

He turned back to the dance floor, trying to ignore the way Janine’s eyes were still trained on his face, probably seeing what he’d been doing a very bad job of hiding all evening.

“So that’s a no, then?” she asked, facetiously.

Sherlock gave her an indulgent smirk. “Yes.”

Janine smiled back at him. There was a knowing look in it that wasn’t doing anything for his still-startled nerves. He cast around for something to divert the conversation, eventually landing on the DJ’s station on the other side of the room.

“This DJ.” Sherlock gestured vaguely at him. “What do you think? The worst in history?”

Janine stared over at him too, looking amused. “Probably. I think it all hangs on the next song.”

They watched him together as the track faded out and the DJ pulled his microphone close to his mouth.

“Now here’s one for the lovers,” he crooned into it. His voice was breathy, and very much failing at smooth and sexy quality he was clearly aiming for. “There’s quite a few of you out there tonight, I shouldn’t be surprised.”

Sherlock’s eyes crinkled with confusion at the overwrought lead-in from the next song, then closed entirely when the lyrics kicked in.

Just give me a reason, just a little bit's enough…

“He’s done it,” Sherlock muttered. “It’s official.”

“Worst DJ in the world,” Janine agreed.

There was a note of defeat in her voice. Sherlock looked up to see her looking disgustedly at the DJ, who seemed to be getting quite emotional, bobbing his head to the whining tones of singer almost sobbing with melodrama.

They sat together a while longer. Janine said nothing as Sherlock started his recording again, didn’t even give the impression that she noticed. Relieved, he gave some subdued laughs to her further abuses of the DJ and various wedding guests, then, when he could tell she was getting bored, pointed her in the direction of a young man who’d be keen to dance with her.

He didn’t look up at her as she thanked him and left. He just stared straight ahead at the dance floor and at John, caught between the desire to leave right now, and wishing that this would never end.

***

The two of them left for their honeymoon that same night, and Sherlock didn’t hear from John for two weeks. He was relieved – he really had no idea what they could have talked about, after all – but if anyone had asked, Sherlock wouldn’t have been able to deny just how lonely the silence made him. It wasn’t just the flat that was too quiet now; even the Yard seemed to have lost its usual bustling quality, and criminals he chased down seemed to come in without any fight or protest. It was as if the world was picking off anything that might distract him from the pain. All he could do was sit alone, in the quiet, staring it straight in the face.

It was in one of these horrible, suffocating moments – he was in the back of a cab, staring out at the buildings as they passed by without seeing any of them – that his phone buzzed with a call for the first time since the wedding.

He pulled it out of his pocket. It was John. His heart kicked up, and he couldn’t tell whether it was from excitement or fear.

Sherlock seriously considered not answering it, but when had he ever been able to ignore John, even when it hadn’t been weeks since he’d seen him? He sighed, hesitated until the last possible second, then hit the talk button.

“Hello?”

“Sherlock?”

John’s voice was bright and smiling. Sherlock had to shut his eyes underneath the weight of it, pressing down on his chest.

“Hi,” he muttered. His own voice sounded dull, lifeless. “How was the honeymoon?”

“Hm? Oh, it was great,” John replied. “Really great. How’ve you been?”

Sherlock was glad John didn’t elaborate. He really didn’t want to know anything about the honeymoon at all.

“Oh, you know, fine.” Sherlock tried to sound sincere as he said it, as if the lie wasn’t costing him almost everything he still had. “Same as always. Cases. Saving the world.”

He sounded horribly unconvincing, he knew, but John chuckled anyway.

“Sounds fantastic,” John grinned. “Listen, do you think you can do me a favour?”

Sherlock’s heart sank. He’d been rather overtaxed with doing favours for John over the last month of wedding planning. He didn’t know if he had the strength for any more. But of course, John didn’t know that.

“Of course,” Sherlock said. “What is it?”

“I’ve just tried the wedding video, and it’s a complete disaster,” John went on. “It’s come out all blue and wobbly.”

Damn. Sherlock had even checked that videographer, to make sure his work was up to scratch. “I’m sorry.”

“And I remember you filming a lot on the day,” John was saying now. “And I just wondered if I could look at your stuff.”

A huge fist suddenly wrapped around Sherlock’s lungs and squeezed all the air out of them with a painful jerk.

“Oh – no,” he said, stammering desperately. “Honestly, I didn’t really –”

“Please?”

Sherlock stopped, mid-sentence. His mouth hung open, unable to form more words.

“All Mary wants is one shot of us that isn’t bright turquoise.”

Sherlock’s mind was spinning. He held the phone away from his mouth for a moment, casting his gaze out the window, as if the right thing to say was written in a shop display somewhere.

He took a few deep, steadying breaths, and tried to speak calmly.

“Okay, I’ll have a look.” His words were coming out far too quickly, tripping over each other. “But honestly, I think I deleted it, so don’t get any hopes up. Must go.”

He ended the call before John had the chance to reply, and slouched against the seatback.

He’d text him in a couple days, he supposed, and tell him he’d wiped all the footage, so sorry but nothing to be done now. Mary would be upset, but what did it matter, honestly? They had pictures. That should be good enough.

Sherlock fiddled with the phone in his hands, going over his footage in his mind again. He’d probably replay it tonight, watching that look on John’s face. That smile. His eyes closed as he danced.

Sherlock closed his own eyes, and allowed himself one moment to give over to his own agonizing imagination. It was still a few minutes to Baker Street.

***

“And coming up later this morning, the bad granddad of rock n’ roll, here at 10:30. Do not switch off.”

Sherlock immediately switched the telly off. He hated that song.

He got up out of his chair and went to the kitchen to rinse out his mug. What would he do for the rest of the day, he wondered vaguely. There were no cases to solve, and Mrs. Hudson had gone to brunch with her sister. The silence in the flat was becoming so dense it could smother him.

Sherlock jumped at the sudden knock at the door. He hesitated for a moment, then strode to open it. A client? But no one had rung the bell…

He pulled open the door to see John standing on the other side.

Sherlock stood there stupidly, stunned into silence. John gave a cheeky little grin, then held up a greasy paper bag.

“Fish and chips?” he asked, brightly.

Sherlock started.

“Um, sure,” he said, stepping aside. He was still trying to figure out why John had knocked, when clearly he had let himself in through the front door.

“Thank God,” John said, stepping in and drawing out two takeout containers. He passed one to Sherlock. “You’d have broken my heart if you’d made me eat this alone.”

Sherlock gave an unconvincing breath of laughter, and flipped open the container, plucking a few chips from the tray with his fingers.

John, however, moved to the table and set his own tray down on it. “So, I thought maybe we might check that video thing out?”

Sherlock froze, a midway through chewing.

“I thought I might be able swap it for the chips?” There was a playful grin on John’s face now, and Sherlock couldn’t look at him directly.

He swallowed, brushing his hands on his trousers as he set his tray down on the coffee table.

“Actually, I was being serious when I said I didn’t know where it was.” Sherlock was fighting to keep his voice even. Why hadn’t he just told him he’d deleted it in the first place? “I can have a look round tonight, but –”

“Sherlock, can I say something?”

Sherlock finally looked at John straight on. His arms were crossed over his chest, but his lips were pursed in an unsure…almost nervous way.

Panic was bubbling up in Sherlock’s throat, and he answered quietly so it wouldn’t explode out of him.

“Yes.”

John sighed, rocking back and forth on his heels.

“I know…you weren’t so keen on me getting married. And,” he paused. He looked like he was searching for something in Sherlock’s face. “I don’t know whether it was because you never warmed up to Mary, or because you thought I was – abandoning you, or something – no, don’t – don’t argue…”

He raised a timid hand to silence Sherlock, who bit back what he’d been about to say with a sigh.

“And I just want you to know, it’s gonna be just the same as it was before.” John’s eyes were bright now, with something Sherlock couldn’t quite place. An invitation? A plea? Sherlock was afraid to guess, knowing his judgement was clouded.

“We’ll still do all the things we always do,” John went on, sort of breathless now, and speaking quickly. “It’s just…Mary will be there, sometimes.”

Sherlock would have wanted to say something snide, but…John was looking so hopeful. He just couldn’t bring himself to crush that.

“Fine. Okay.” Sherlock twisted his face into something he hoped was acceptable. It felt like a grimace. “Absolutely.”

John beamed up at him. Sherlock thought his heart might seize up and die.

“Doesn’t mean we’ll be able to find the video, though.” Sherlock broke their gaze and ran an anxious hand through his hair. “I searched around when you first called…”

John moved off towards the shelves underneath the telly, scanning the DVDs stacked haphazardly there.

Sherlock’s heart was starting to race now. John shouldn’t be looking there. He needed to get him away. “But I couldn’t find any trace of it, so…”

He’d surged forward, hoping to edge John away from the shelf, but froze when he saw what John had in his hand as he straightened up.

“Well, here’s one that says, ‘John and Mary’s Wedding’, do you think we might be on the right track?”

He had the DVD speared on his index finger, caseless, those dark, clear words that Sherlock had stupidly scrawled on it leaping out at him.

“Uh, yeah, well,” he stammered. “That – that could be it…”

John shot him a sardonic grin.

“Well, let’s see it then.” He turned on the DVD player and placed it in the slot.

Panic seized Sherlock’s insides again. No, no, he couldn’t let this happen –

“I’ve probably recorded over it,” he almost shouted. He went to seize the DVD, the player, anything, as John found the remote and moved away to drop down onto his chair.

“Almost everything is just old digitized case files, now –”

Do not let him see this tape, he can’t see this tape, he can’t –

“Oi, shut up, I want to see it,” John said, laughing. “Out of the way, come on.”

Sherlock stopped.

All the fight seemed to have drained out of him in one fell swoop.

Even if he had been able to refuse John’s request, so joyfully, obliviously delivered, he’d only have to fend off his questions. And, sooner or later, he’d have to give in. He’d have to either show him, or tell him why he couldn’t.

And the thought of that latter option stopped all breath in his throat.

No, it might as well be now. It might as well be done with.

Without a word, Sherlock moved away from the telly and stood behind John’s chair.

John’s face was brightly expectant as he hit the play button. Sherlock scrubbed a hand down his own face, holding his bent elbow across his chest like a shield.

The first shot – of John smiling, his back to the altar – popped up on the screen. Sherlock had seen it so many times now, but it still took his breath away; John in that beautiful, dark suit, his bright blue eyes standing out in piercing contrast.

“Oh, bingo,” John said, softly. “That looks fantastic.”

Mary had joined him at the altar now, and they were turning around to face the front of the church. She was mostly obscured – John’s face was taking up a fair bit of the frame.

“Oh, excellent.”

John almost breathed out the words. He was smiling lightly, leaning forward a bit in his chair.

“This is exactly what we were hoping for, Sherlock, thank you.”

On screen, the camera was zooming in on John’s eyes. He was looking straight ahead, not seeing the camera, but they glinted with muted sunlight anyway.

The screen cut to a later shot, of John outside the church. He was laughing, the corners of his eyes crinkling, as he watched the confetti come down upon them.

There was a childlike brilliance in his expression, and it tugged at Sherlock’s chest. It always did.

“I look sort of handsome, don’t I?”

John was rapt as he watched himself on the screen. Sherlock definitely couldn’t breathe now. Sort of?

Now another shot, of them still outside. John saying something to Mary, but only a sliver of her could be seen. John’s face was filling up the shot.

The scene changed again. In the reception hall now, John in the middle of a group of well wishers. Sherlock watched, with dread swelling larger ever second that ticked by, as the camera slowly zoomed in on John’s eyes again.

John gave a little chuckle, glancing at Sherlock over his shoulder. “You’ve stayed rather close, haven’t you?”

Sherlock’s eyes fell closed, and he dropped his face into his hand.

He didn’t have to see the next ones to know what they were. A close-up shot of John, with a champagne glass appearing at the corner of the screen for a second. A close-up shot of John, wiping icing from his lips – that one always made Sherlock shiver, and he couldn’t watch it in front of him. A close-up shot of John, dancing in a circle of work friends, his head bobbing along to the soundless beat.

Sherlock opened his eyes to look at the real John sitting in the chair before him.

He opened his mouth, and for a moment looked like he was about to turn around and say something else, but paused before the words could come out.

He was staring at the screen. Sherlock looked back up at it, too.

The shot of John, and only John, with his head over Mary’s shoulder as they swayed in a slow circle. The camera followed his movements, blocking Mary out of the shot, and focusing in on John’s closed eyes, the gentle smile on his mouth.

The shot dragged on, and on; it was the longest one Sherlock had gotten. The John on screen rotated slowly, the camera catching every inch of him it could. Everything Sherlock couldn’t bear to lose.

John’s mouth fell slowly closed as he watched the shot. He seemed to be exhaling a long, silent breath.

“They’re all of me,” he murmured.

The dread in Sherlock’s chest trickled outward, weighing down his every limb with a dull ache.

He knew.

On screen, the video cut to the last shot – of John waving out at the crowd of remaining guests as he got into the car that would take him and Mary to the airport.

“Yeah,” Sherlock muttered back, resigned. “Yes.”

The shot zoomed forward, cutting out Mary, and followed John’s smiling face as the car began to move, tracking him as far as it could until he was out of sight.

The screen went black, and the silence in the flat was absolute.

John sat, apparently paralyzed, staring at the blank telly, his mouth hanging slack.

Sherlock stood, rooted to the spot with his arms crossed tightly over his chest.

He thought about running. If he could just get away now, maybe none of this would be real. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened, and he would never have to look at John’s face when he turned around or hear whatever he might say – but he couldn’t move. He couldn’t be the one to break this cacophonous silence, to acknowledge what John had seen. What was now hanging in every staggering breath, every thunderous heartbeat.

John gave a slow, almost imperceptible shake of the head.

“You don’t do relationships,” he finally said in a hoarse voice.

He turned as he said it, his whole body swivelling in his chair to look at Sherlock. The complete and overwhelming expression of astonishment on his face eclipsed all other emotion.

“You said, the day after we met, that you were married to your work.”

Sherlock’s head felt suddenly very light. He thought he really might be suffocating now.

“You think love is a weakness.”

Sherlock drew in a quick, sharp gasp, like a drowning man.

“I hope it’s useful,” he said, lowly.

He tore his eyes away from John, looked back at the blank screen.

“Don’t…don’t show it around too much.” His voice sounded even, but it was so mechanical it may well have been someone else speaking. “It needs a bit of – editing…”

He made a vague gesture toward the screen, then dropped his hand.

“Look, I’ve got to go. I’ve got to…” he stammered a bit, scanning through his mind. “…see a client. Case. Very important.” He turned away, his eyes downcast. “You can let yourself out, can’t you?”

He stepped quickly toward the door, grabbing his coat. All thoughts except get out, get out, get out had flown out of his head. He needed to leave, and right now, before John saw – before he –

Sherlock could feel John’s eyes boring into his back, still.

He paused in the doorway, then slowly, with every ounce of will left to him, turned around.

John sat immobile in his chair, his eyes staring up at Sherlock, wide with shock.

“It’s a…” Sherlock said, lamely. “It’s a self-preservation thing, you see.”

John seemed to sag a little in his chair, his eyes unfocusing, but Sherlock was already out the door.

He flew down the stairs and out onto the street, his coat billowing out behind him.

He made it exactly five steps away from the front door, before he paused, turned around and took two steps back toward it – then stopped again, strode away, then back, then finally, staring at the brass knocker underneath the gleaming 221B and drawing in painful breaths of sharp winter air – whipped around and hurried away from it again.

Sherlock pulled the collar of his coat tight around him. He darted off through a side street to avoid the main road, and weaved through a couple people milling about on the sidewalk.

He pressed his palms to his forehead – everything ached, his head, his chest, every inch of him down to the tips of his fingers, numb from the cold. There was no stopping it. It was all going to pour out of him in a moment, and he’d just have to let it happen.

There was no going back now. It was over.

John knew, and Sherlock had lost.

A rough, harsh scream ripped itself from Sherlock’s throat, and he slammed his fist into the concrete wall nearest to him. It hurt. He didn’t care. His knees gave out, crumpling him to the ground. A man laden with shopping bags behind him started backwards in alarm. Sherlock barely saw him. He could barely see anything.

The only images left to flicker behind his eyelids were of John’s face – close-ups of those smiling pools of blue. The strands of golden hair wisping over his forehead. The laugh lines framing his mouth. Bright. Happy. In love.

It was over.

Sherlock stood up and fled further off down the street without looking back.

***

It wasn’t a beautiful Christmas Eve; it had rained earlier, and would probably drizzle on and off all night. It felt appropriate, in a way, but still disappointing. He’d been hoping this would at least feel like a special moment.

Even if it was only one, and then it would be gone for good.

Sherlock’s hand didn’t shake as it reached out and pressed down on John’s doorbell. In fact, he the nervousness he’d expected to feel had just sort of melted away on his way over.

Resignation had taken over everything else, filling him with a strange, empty calmness. If this was all he could do, he’d take it, and be grateful.

He held the cards against his chest, blank side facing outward. They were too big to carry without some awkwardness, but they were ready. He held the CD player with his other hand, ready to go as well. As far as he could tell, the plan would go off smoothly, as long as Mary didn’t answer the door.

Which Sherlock was sure she wouldn’t. Why would she? Unless Sherlock had made a mistake and miscalculated something –

The door swung open, and John stood there, framed in the entranceway.

His eyes widened with surprise – Sherlock couldn’t help but feel a pang at the way it brightened up his entire face – and he opened his mouth to speak, but Sherlock quickly put a finger to his own lips, signalling for quiet.

John faltered, but bit back his words. From the sitting room, around the corner and obscured from view, Mary’s voice called out.

“Who is it?”

Sherlock was ready. He turned around his cards, displaying the text of the first one in his neat, looping handwriting.

Say it’s carol singers.

John’s brow crinkled – another pang shot through Sherlock’s chest – but he opened his mouth hesitantly and yelled back: “It’s carol singers!”

“Well, give them a quid and tell them to bugger off!” Mary shouted back. Sherlock heard some indiscriminate voices filtering though the walls. She’d turned on the telly. Perfect.

Sherlock set the CD player down on the ground and pressed play. A gentle chorus of women’s voices filled the chilly air.

“Silent night, holy night…”

Sherlock straightened up again. John was looking at him with bewildered confusion, and something else. Sherlock recognized it – it was that look he got when he knew Sherlock was about to say something brilliant, but wasn’t sure what yet.

Well. This would just have to do for now.

He pulled the first card away and dropped it near the CD player, revealing the next one.

With any luck, by next year

John’s eyes scanned the card. Sherlock pulled away the next one.

We’ll be able to forget about all of this

John’s expression was suddenly filled with something like trepidation.

And things can just go back to normal.

The caroler’s voices warbled on sweetly from the player at their feet.

“Round yon virgin mother and child…”

But for now, just let me say,

John was looking from Sherlock to the cards, but otherwise not moving a muscle.

Without hope or agenda,

“Holy infant…”

Just because it’s Christmas –

“…So tender and mild…”

(And at Christmas you tell the truth)

Sherlock’s eyes were locked with John’s now.

He took a deep breath in, and pulled the card away.

To me, you are perfect.

John stared down at the card.

Something had changed in his expression – the lines of his brow had turned hard, and his lips were pursed in a thin line.

Sherlock kept his gaze even, not searching for anything, just taking it all in. To remember.

And my wasted heart will love you

John looked at up him.

The moment stretched on into an age. Sherlock allowed it to, their eyes locked. The unsaid words were louder than anything he could have ever spoken aloud.

Until you look like this

Sherlock pulled the card aside, revealing a grey, decaying corpse.

John’s laughter broke the moment, ringing out in the quiet. Sherlock had known it would. He’d picked the photo from a cold case file, knowing it would make John laugh.

The carolers’ voices harmonized, blending inadequately with the beautiful sound.

“Glories stream from heaven afar…”

Sherlock held the last card alone in his hands.

Merry Christmas.

John’s eyes were unbearably deep, swimming with a thousand emotions. Sherlock let himself stare into them for a bit longer, knowing he could only stand so much before he’d have to tear himself away.

“Merry Christmas,” John mouthed back at him. His lips made only the smallest of movements.

Sherlock gave him a faint smile, and felt something glow in his aching chest.

He bent to pick up his cards and the CD player, gave John a small nod as he straightened up, then turned away from the door.

Enough. Enough now.

Sherlock hunched his shoulders against the breeze. He tucked the cards more securely under his left arm, the CD player dangling from his hand below them. He walked slowly down the street, away from John’s flat. He was in no hurry to get home, and besides, he felt better now than he would be there. Almost…lighter. Not exactly at peace, he would never be that, but at least his mind had stopped spinning and was content to stay still for a while. He could be thankful for that.

And yet, not a second later, he was shaken out of the stillness by the sound of heavy footsteps hurrying after him.

Sherlock turned, but John had already caught up with him. He placed a tentative hand on Sherlock’s shoulder, pulled him to face him. John came right up close, then paused, panting. There couldn’t have been more than a foot of space between them

And before Sherlock knew what was happening, John had pulled him in by two gentle hands on his face, and was kissing him.

Sherlock’s eyes fell closed, but he didn’t move any other muscle. He didn’t dare. The moment he moved was the moment this stopped, the moment he woke up and John’s lips would stop pressing so sweet and warm against his, his tongue would stop pushing hesitantly inward to meet Sherlock’s, his hands would stop curling around Sherlock’s cheeks like something rare and precious. If Sherlock moved, John would vanish into a puff of smoke, and Sherlock’s heart would shatter again, into a million smaller fragments.

He couldn’t…he shouldn’t be letting this happen. It would only be even more unbearable once John ran back into that flat, to his wife…

But the thought was swiftly silenced as John moved against him with a little gasp, and Sherlock let the sensations wash over him. Maybe this would kill him, but he’d let it. He’d have died over and over again, for this one perfect kiss.

John pulled back, and Sherlock released the breath he’d been holding. John’s breath was warm against his skin, little bursts of life in the chill.

Sherlock kept his eyes closed. If there was one thing he knew he couldn’t do, it was watch John walk away again. Not now.

“Sherlock…” John whispered. It was barely a sound.

“You should go back inside,” Sherlock breathed back. His head sagged a little on his shoulders. He didn’t bother to lift it. “Mary will be waiting.”

“I don’t want to.”

Sherlock could feel little vibrations of motion carrying across the space between them – a shake of the head, maybe, or – a trembling of the lips?

Sherlock blinked his eyes open, but kept his head down. Something wasn’t right.

“John,” he whispered. He hated the way his voice broke on the sound. “It’s alright –”

“No – Sherlock…

John’s fingers had tilted Sherlock’s chin up, but Sherlock’s eyes were already boring deep into John’s.

Sherlock sucked in a small gasp. John’s eyes were wet with tears.

Sherlock opened his mouth to speak again, but no sound escaped him. But John – more words were already tumbling out of his mouth.

“I love you, too.”

John’s lips were trembling. His whole body was trembling, actually. He wasn’t wearing a coat.

Sherlock’s mind had gone completely silent. He couldn’t think a single thing. How could he, when his ears were playing some sort of cruel trick – or had he really just heard –

“You what?”

Sherlock’s words were so quiet, he wasn’t even sure John had heard them.

“I love you, Sherlock.” John whispered again.

Sherlock saw a single tear slip from John’s pooling eyes, and tumble down his left cheek.

Something inside Sherlock snapped at the sight of it. His mind raced into overdrive, his heart pounded through his ribs.

“John…” he gasped out.

“I’m so sorry, Sherlock, I didn’t know.” John’s voice was coming out in a desperate whisper now. His fingers were pushing themselves into Sherlock’s curls, as if trying to ground himself. “I would never have gotten married if I’d known, I’m so –”

“You love me.” Sherlock cut across him in a whisper. It was a question and not a question all at once. Could this really be real? Could John really –

“I love you,” John said again, another tear sliding down his face. “I’ve loved you for so long, Sherlock.”

“Since that first night,” Sherlock whispered.

John’s eyes widened. The look of shock was back.

“That first night – our first case.” Sherlock could feel his own eyes filling now. “I’ve loved you ever since.”

John stood there stunned, for a second or two, his eyes roving over Sherlock’s wrecked face.

“Oh my God…”

He was kissing him again, and this time Sherlock sank into it. The CD player fell to the ground with a crash as Sherlock raised his arms and pulled John closer by his shoulders. He parted his lips with a soft gasp that made John moan as he slipped his tongue past them, and Sherlock was falling, falling into sensation, into warmth, into the feeling of John, everywhere, on all sides, where Sherlock never thought he could be, never thought John would be pressing himself into him like this, loving him too…

They broke apart with a strangled sob-like sound bursting from Sherlock’s lungs. Sherlock’s face was wet, whether from John’s tears or his own he didn’t know, but he kept close, still breathing in his air. He didn’t loosen his grip across John’s shoulders. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to.

John’s breath was coming in ragged, sharp gasps of emotion. Sherlock felt like he was breathing for the first time in weeks.

“What are we going to do?” Sherlock whispered, hoarsely.

He’d opened his eyes, to see John’s just inches from his face, as bright and beautiful as they’d ever been, even red-rimmed and glistening. As Sherlock spoke, a powerful sort of determination passed through them, followed by a soft, gentle look that seemed to make Sherlock’s heart leap back to life out of the dust.

“Whatever we do,” John said, in a deliberate tone. “We’re going to do it together.”

Sherlock swallowed back a fresh wave of tears.

Always, from now on. Together.” John said, fierce and adoring all at once. “Understand?”

Yes,” Sherlock choked out. “Oh, God, yes.”

John let out a rough sound of his own, but his mouth turned up at the corners into something beautiful and genuine, and he kissed Sherlock once more underneath the blurry Christmas Eve sky.

Chapter Text

John came into the office late that day, coffee clenched between his chilled hands. He adjusted his grip on it, trying to warm them up, but trying to do that while also hurrying to his desk before Sarah saw him scrambling in was a hopeless endeavour, and he ended up burning one of his palms on the bottom of it as he set it down on his desk along with his coat and his bag.

He shook the pain away, peering around the office as he did, and saw with dismay that Sarah was standing by her secretary’s desk, looking straight at him.

John tried to smile apologetically, but she straightened up before he could sit down and pretend to be busy.

“Come on, John, let’s have a word,” she called out to him.

For a moment John stood, rooted to the spot, then sighed and slumped his shoulders. Well, might as well get it over with. Again.

He crossed the floor over to her glass-panelled office, and she closed the door behind him. She had a look of mild amusement on her face.

“I’m sorry,” he said, following her with his eyes as she moved towards her desk and pulled out two chairs. “I just got held up this morning, it won’t happen again.”

“It’s alright, John, I don’t need to hear promises we both know you won’t keep.”

She sat down, and gestured for him to do the same.

“Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.”

John hesitated a moment, then slowly lowered himself into the second chair, perching himself nervously on its edge.

“Why don’t you shut off your mobile phone,” Sarah went on, and paused for a second while John fumbled in his pocket to obey, “and tell me exactly how long you’ve been working here?”

John looked back up at her, thrown.

“Um.” He glanced up at the calendar hanging on the back wall, and did some quick mental maths. “Two years, seven months, three days and…I suppose, what, two hours?”

She gave a little nod, but her face didn’t change.

“And, how long have you been in love with Sherlock, our enigmatic chief designer?”

John’s mouth dropped open, his heart stilling in his chest.

“Um…” he spluttered out, his mind racing through denials, through excuses, through angry outbursts. But they all died in his throat. There was no mistaking that knowing quality in her face. She wouldn’t be thrown off.

John sighed, resigned. “Two years, seven months, three days, and, I guess,” he swallowed, painfully, “an hour and thirty minutes.”

There was no inkling of surprise in Sarah’s expression. She gave a little nod. “Thought as much.”

The twinge of annoyance in John’s chest was snuffed out under the gloom that settled over him like a dark cloud.

“Do you think everyone knows?” he asked, lowly.

“Yes.” Sarah’s tone was impressively disinterested.

Suddenly, a flash of panic screamed to life inside him.

“Do you think Sherlock knows?” he blurted out.

“Probably,” Sarah shrugged.

John gaped, his breath coming shallow as his fear ebbed away and left a blank expanse of despair in its wake.

“Oh, God,” he murmured. He cast his eyes down to the floor.

Sarah leaned forward in her seat.

“Well, I just thought,” she said, looking quite serious. “That maybe the time had come to do something about it?”

Before he could stop it, a coarse, humourless laugh had burst from John’s throat.

“Like what?”

Sarah raised an eyebrow. “Invite him out for a drink, then, after about twenty minutes, casually drop into the conversation the fact that you’d like to marry him and have lots and lots of sex?”

John jumped to his feet, his mouth flapping uselessly.

“…you know that?” he finally asked, when everything else had slipped his mind.

Yes,” Sarah said, and now she was looking annoyed. She got to her feet stared at him evenly, eye to eye. “And I think Sherlock does, too.”

John tried to glare at her, but it was no use. His dejection was spreading through his entire body, robbing him of all his fight. His shoulders sagged in defeat.

“Think about it, for all our sakes,” Sarah said, a bit kinder now. “It’s Christmas.”

She stepped past him, back towards the door, and John knew that the conversation was over.

“Great, excellent,” he sighed. He gave himself a moment to collect his thoughts, then turned around. “Thanks, Sarah.”

She opened the door for him, but as John stepped forward to leave, Sherlock appeared on the other side.

He was wearing one of his impeccable suits, with a deep red shirt underneath. His dark hair was catching the sunlight beaming through the office windows, making his eyes look even deeper and bluer than usual. John’s heart gave a little spasm at the sight of him.

“Oh, hello John,” he said, sounding surprised, but pleasantly so. He had a stack of papers under his arm.

“Hey, Sherlock,” John replied, startled and a bit high-pitched.

Sherlock flashed him a small smile, then turned to Sarah. John slipped out the door behind him.

As it clicked shut, John clenched his teeth and screwed up his face. Goddammit. He’d probably sounded like a frightened child.

This was what Sarah didn’t understand. He was already in too deep to display any semblance of charm around Sherlock. Just seeing him smashed down all of John’s defenses. How was he supposed to do anything about it when he got weak in the knees whenever they were in a room together?

And it wasn’t as if it mattered. Sherlock wasn’t interested. He’d told John, in one of the first conversations they’d ever had, that he was married to his work. John had never seen him with anyone else in all the two years, seven months, three days, and ninety minutes that he’d known him. He and Sherlock were friends, certainly, but Sherlock would never want anything more than that. And certainly not with John.

John fiddled absently with his phone in his pocket, and it buzzed with a call as soon as he’d turned it back on. He pulled it out, seeing the familiar number across the screen.

The usual, disheartening feeling settled over him, pushing away his musings. They were all pointless, anyway.

He answered, and lifted the phone to his ear. “Hey, Harry,” he said, forcing a smile into his voice. “Go on, I’m listening.”

***

The office was dark. Everyone else had gone home, with just a few scattered lights left on here and there, including the one shining above John’s desk. Another one was alight in Sherlock’s office, throwing his profile into sharp relief.

John loved nights like this, when he was in no hurry to go anywhere and could just enjoy the view, and the quiet. There was a glass door dividing them, but it was still just the two of them alone. The only time they ever were, here. It was almost intimate, John thought, pain swelling in his chest as he stole glances up at him through the shadows. Almost.

There was a curl falling over his forehead that he occasionally had to brush away as he sat with his shoulders hunched. The fingers of his left hand were drumming at the desk while his other hand sketched – long, slender, and graceful. He’d taken off his suit jacket, which was now hanging over the back of his chair, and the lines of his muscled arms could be seen underneath the soft fabric of his shirt.

John tore his eyes away again, fixing them back on the screen in front of him. It was getting harder, every time, to stop himself from staring too long.

The clock ticked by slowly on the wall next to him, and John tapped unhurriedly at his keyboard. He wasn’t really working on anything. In his office, Sherlock had straightened his back, stretching his shoulders upward. John drank the sight in through greedy snatches, wishing there wasn’t so much empty space between them. Wishing he could reach out.

The minutes stretched on, and eventually Sherlock stood up, shrugging his jacket back on, then his long coat. John’s gaze darted back to his computer and he pretended to be concentrating hard. Sherlock slung his bag over his shoulder, then flicked his light off, dimming him to just an outline in the shadow. He stepped out.

“Burning the midnight oil again?” he said in John’s direction, and John’s heart gave a sudden lurch of surprise.

“Yeah, well –” he tried to smile, gesturing feebly. “Look who’s talking.”

Sherlock gave him an amused smile, which reached his eyes and brightened his whole face. “Fair enough,” he said. “It’ll be worth it, though. I think you’ll like some of the holiday designs.”

“Oh – yeah?” John’s eyebrows raised in surprise, but he managed to reign in the eagerness in his voice. “Can I see?”

“Not yet,” Sherlock said, a bit of a glint in his gorgeous eyes. “But I should have some of them done by the Christmas party.”

John nodded, feeling dazed. “Yeah,” he said faintly. “I’m sure they’ll be great.”

Sherlock’s smile broadened a bit, and he reached out to flick off a lamp on a nearby shelf.

“Goodnight, John,” he said, low and warm.

“Goodnight, Sherlock,” John echoed. All the breath seemed to have gone out of him, suddenly.

Sherlock gave a little nod, then turned and headed for the door. As soon as it closed behind him, John gave a great exhale and clenched his hand into a fist on top of his desk.

That had gone well, hadn’t it? Sherlock wanted to talk to him, wanted to know what he thought of his work…

But the bubble of hope only had a couple of seconds to swell before John’s mobile vibrated loudly against his desktop.

John’s eyes fell closed. He gave himself a moment – just one moment – to enjoy the remains of the feeling as they floated away, leaving him empty again.

He reached for the phone, letting his forehead fall into his other hand as he answered. “Hey,” he said, quietly, then paused to listen. “Mhm, absolutely. Free as a bird, fire away.”

He listened to her ramble, on and on, not looking even once at the darkened office just beyond him.

***

The air outside was getting colder, which only made the office feel stuffy and crowded. People had been bustling in and out all day, in various stages of stress trying to get their designs in for increasingly demanding clients. Sherlock was with one in his office right now, apparently having a very frustrating conversation, seeing as he kept pacing back and forth and running his hands through his hair.

John let himself watch for a bit. Sherlock was absorbed, after all, and there was no one around to bother with him looking – especially if they all knew anyway, according to Sarah. He grimaced a bit at the thought, but kept his eyes fixed on him, entranced by the way his lips pursed in irritation then relaxed with a sigh, speaking with continuous words John couldn’t hear.

A sudden creaking noise on his left made him start, and he snapped out of his reverie. It was Sarah; she had perched herself on the edge of his desk, and had her arms folded across her chest.

“Any progress with our matchmaking plans?” she asked. She nodded towards Sherlock, who was gesturing towards a large sheet of paper propped up against the wall.

John looked back at him, wistfully.

“No,” he said. “I’ve done fuck-all.”

He watched him, beautiful and lithe and completely focused on his task at hand, apparently no room for anything else.

“And I never will, because he’s too good for me,” John added under his breath.

Saying it out loud felt like dropping from great height and crumpling on landing, but it was true. When Sherlock was so brilliant and put-together and confident, flawless in every way imaginable, and John felt like the absolute opposite, how could it be any different?

“Too true,” came Sarah’s voice from beside him.

John turned back to her, scowling. She wasn’t supposed to hear that. He picked up a file folder from his desk and thwacked her on the arm with it. She batted him back with the leaflet she was holding.

Then John’s phone buzzed, and Sarah rolled her eyes.

“And of course,” she sighed, raising her hands in defeat and sliding off the desk. “Your mobile goes.”

John shot a dirty look her way, but was already reaching to answer it.

“You really shouldn’t be taking personal calls at work, you know,” she went on, peering over her shoulder as she walked away. “Maybe I should make it an official policy.”

He clenched his jaw, but the shake of his head was slow and weary. “Don’t, Sarah, just…” he raised the phone to his ear. “Just don’t.”

She titled her chin up with authority as she looked back at him, but after a few seconds turned away without another word.

***

This year, the office Christmas party was being held in the ballroom of an upscale hotel in Chelsea. They had done it up rather nicely, too, with a tall Christmas tree in the corner and the lights dimmed into low reds and blues which shone off the tinsel strung around all the tables. John had been wary of coming – he had his mobile in the inside breast pocket of his jacket, so he would definitely feel it if it went off – but he’d been so desperate for a night out he’d just thrown caution to the wind. His suit was older than he’d have liked, but it was the best one he owned, and the champagne clasped in his hand was making him feel much less self-conscious about it.

Here and there, people were still trickling in. From the corner where he stood near one of the food tables, John saw Sarah and her husband over on the opposite wall, chatting to a group of people from Marketing. In the middle of the room, the dance floor was looking pretty thin; John guessed the alcohol hadn’t been flowing for long enough yet.

“Crostini?” said a deep voice behind him, making him jump.

“Oh – yeah, thanks,” he said weakly. He took the napkin Sherlock was holding out to him, which held a few brittle crostini with what looked like salmon laid on top of them.

“I’d advise you to avoid the spring rolls, though,” Sherlock said. His curls were looking particularly beautiful tonight, falling around his face like a halo. His suit was sleek and flattering, and John ducked his head to hide the way his cheeks were flushing.

“Thanks, I’ll make a note,” he said, trying to smile. He popped one of the crackers into his mouth to put off saying anything else.

Sherlock was silent for a while, smiling as he observed the people milling around with mild interest. The way the cool light in the ballroom shone down at him made his pale skin look almost ethereal.

John’s heart was thumping hard. He had to say something. He cast his mind around, far away from Sherlock’s gorgeous lips, his eyes twinkling, his perfect cheekbones unfairly highlighted…

“Did you finish those projects you were talking about?” John asked, maybe a bit too jerkily.

But Sherlock just smiled even more broadly. “Yes!” he said, and dropped the napkin he was holding onto the table behind them. He pulled his phone out from his pocket and began swiping though it.

“Here, have a look at these,” he said.

John took the phone from Sherlock’s outstretched hand. On the screen was a drawing of the London skyline at night, with the river in the foreground, white as snow.

“Wow,” John breathed. It was almost lifelike, the way the tiny snowflakes seemed to flutter around the buildings and into the waves. He swiped right on the screen; the next one was a massive Christmas tree, with lights of all colours shining from every branch. The next, a whimsical cartoonish piece featuring Father Christmas and his reindeer. Then a dark outline of a couple kissing on a snowy hilltop, with stars twinkling all around them.

“These are amazing,” John said with fervour. Only once the words were out of his mouth did he realize how smitten they sounded, but Sherlock looked pleased to hear them.

“Thank you,” he said quietly. His eyes were cast down a little as he took the phone back, and – was it John’s imagination, or was there a twinge of pink tinting his cheeks?

“There’s quite a lot to work with, this time of year,” Sherlock went on. “It inspires.”

“Yeah,” John said, quietly. He was still thinking about Sherlock’s last picture, with the pair of lovers under the night sky. “I know what you mean.”

Sherlock hummed, turning toward him with interest. “What have you been working on?” he asked.

But before John could answer, a young woman appeared at Sherlock’s elbow.

“I was wondering if you’d like to dance?” she asked, very quickly.

John vaguely recognized her – she was one of the digital artists who worked on the floor above them; her name was Molly, John was fairly sure. And at that moment, in his mind, he was shouting at the top of his voice for her to go away.

Sherlock turned to John with a beleaguered sort of look. “Excuse me,” he said.

He took her by the arm and walked with her towards the dance floor. Molly looked absolutely delighted, and John scowled after her. He did notice, though, that Sherlock kept a respectful distance between them even as she tried to edge closer and closer, and it lifted his spirits somewhat.

John reluctantly turned away and began to make small talk; he listened to people’s dull stories about their families, half tuning them out most of the time. He consented to dance with a couple of the junior designers, and did one with Sarah too, who took the chance to badger him about Sherlock again. He ignored her. He caught Sherlock’s eye a couple times from across the room, but didn’t approach him again. It was starting to be quite a decent night; he didn’t want to ruin it by doing something stupid.

Even Harry only called him once. He stepped out onto the street to chat, and was able to talk her down in less than five minutes. He felt lighter than he had in months as he went back into the party, snagged another glass of champagne and moved over to chat football with Sarah’s husband. Things were going well tonight. Really, really well.

“…reckon he’ll be traded by the end of the season, don’t you?” John was asking. But Mr. Sawyer was suddenly giving a strange jerk of his head. John blinked, then realized he was trying – and failing – to subtly indicate something behind John.

John spun around, and found himself face-to-face with Sherlock. His stomach gave a powerful lurch, and all the blood seemed to drain out of him.

“Just one dance?” Sherlock asked, with a shy, crooked smile. “Before we run out of chances?”

Everything in the room seemed to go silent.

“With – me?” John asked, breathless.

Sherlock’s face fell, slightly “Unless, you’d rather…”

No, no!” John blurted out. His heart was hammering in his ears. “I mean, yes¸ yeah – good.”

He fumbled a bit with the champagne glass he was still clutching at awkwardly, but in a second Sarah’s husband had snatched it away and was indicating that he should go now.

John gave him a brief nod of thanks, then followed Sherlock out to the dance floor in a daze. Half of his brain still wasn’t sure this was happening, the other was inching its way towards a frenzy of excitement and panic.

The bass was pounding; everyone around them was swaying their arms, writhing their hips. Sherlock reached the centre of the crowd, then turned around, and began to move – easily, and gracefully, like this cheap pop number from the early noughties was something cool and sensual, like it was inhabiting him.

John joined in, really just moving his hips a little as he stepped awkwardly from side to side. He’d never been a good dancer, but he was too focused on Sherlock to care. He looked so free and uninhibited, and it was lovely.

They swayed in place, facing each other without making direct eye contact, and then the song stopped without warning.

John stood there, eyes darting around as silence settled for a second, and then a much slower song began to play over the speakers. A single, soft piano, playing a familiar chord.

Oh, my love, my darling…”

A few people walked off the floor, uninterested, but Sherlock didn’t move. His eyes fell upon John, with an embarrassed smile on his face. He ran a hand through his perfectly styled hair.

John gave a nervous little chuckle in return, casting his gaze around, trying both to look at Sherlock and not look at him.

“…I’ve hungered for your touch…”

Sherlock’s hands fidgeted a little by his side as he took a tentative step towards John. John gave a curt nod and stepped inward, too. With awkward, unsure movements, they slotted into each other’s space, and Sherlock curled his fingers around John’s right hand.

“…a long, lonely time…”

Hardly daring to breathe, John moved in close and settled his arm around Sherlock’s back. Sherlock copied him. His fingers felt like they were burning where they rested against John’s shoulder blade.

They began to sway together, in a slow circle; there was a few feet of space around them on all sides, between them and the other couples.

“And time goes by…so slowly…”

Sherlock’s chest was broad and strong. His arms and shoulders were pleasantly muscled. He was more solid than John had imagined him being, more broad planes and hard lines, but somehow softer, too. There was a gentleness to his movements, to his breath and the warm feeling of his palm against John’s, that no amount of imagining could have prepared him for.

“And time can do so much…are you…still mine?”

There was a pleasant tingle against the back of John’s neck; Sherlock had smoothed his other hand upward, and was now threading his fingers through John’s hair at his nape.

The sensation made a heavy weight rise up in John’s throat; it was everything he could do to swallow it back down again.

He closed his eyes.

He could feel everything. Sherlock’s hand in his hair, stroking gently. His other hand holding John’s, steady and sure. The smell of him at the crook of his neck where John was resting – a hint of lavender, maybe, or vanilla. His porcelain skin, warmer than John’s by far.

Everything was Sherlock, and Sherlock was everything.

They kept swaying together, unhurried; the song might have gone on for hours. John wished it had. He wished it could have gone on forever, and he’d never have to leave this place – this place where he finally felt whole.

The piano played on beneath the fraught vocals, and all too soon it was playing them out. A sustained high note, trembling a little, silence again.

With more reluctance than he could bear, John slowly pulled back from Sherlock. But Sherlock didn’t let go – he kept his hands on John’s shoulders, kept the distance between them short. John could count the freckles on his long, beautiful neck.

That lopsided smile was back on his face. John’s heart flipped over in his chest.

“Do you want to, um…” Sherlock’s voice was a low murmur.

“Uh – yeah,” John heard himself mutter back. His mind was spinning again. “We could –”

“I mean, if you wouldn’t rather –”

“Yeah, that would be – if you want…”

John trailed off. He blinked his eyes downward again.

Sherlock let out a small sigh, and nodded, once.

“Can I drive you home?” he asked.

His voice was deeper than John had ever heard it. It sent a shock tingling down behind his belly.

“I’d like that,” John replied, finally.

Sherlock nodded again, his mouth twitching up at the corners.

Neither of them spoke the entire way there. Sherlock wove in and out of traffic with ease, his eyes focused straight ahead. John only dared glance at him out of the corner of his eye once or twice, thinking this might all dissolve around him if he contemplated it too long.

They ascended the stairs to John’s flat in silence, stopping as John fumbled to unlock his door.

“Well,” Sherlock said, finally.

His voice sounded hoarse. John turned to him as the door swung open.

“I’d better go,” Sherlock went on, lowly.

“Alright.” John nodded.

His heart was all but vibrating against his ribs.

Sherlock gave a weak smile. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” John echoed.

He didn’t move. He waited, breath stopped.

Sherlock gave another shallow little nod. Then, hesitantly, he leaned in and kissed John on the cheek.

It was gentle and innocent, and he pulled back quickly. John’s skin immediately felt cold again. But Sherlock wasn’t moving away, and John couldn’t help that his eyes had fallen closed, and that he was being drawn in…

And then they were kissing, fully and properly. John’s tongue pushed greedily past Sherlock’s lips as Sherlock’s hands bracketed John’s face, exhaling a long low sigh as he opened his mouth to invite John in. John’s hands had come up to seize Sherlock by the shoulders, pushing himself into his embrace, and all at once the world seemed to slip out from under him because this was unlike anything he’d ever felt, Sherlock’s hands, his lips, his breath…

They broke off, both gasping. John’s mind was overloaded with sensation, his whole body on fire. He could barely open his eyes to look at Sherlock again.

“Actually,” Sherlock whispered, slowly. “I don’t have to go…”

“Right,” John gasped out, managing to nod. “Good.”

With a monstrous effort, he pulled open his eyes. Sherlock’s were looking back at him, dark and deep, pupils blown wide. They made John feel almost dizzy.

“I – um –,” Sherlock was stammering out.

“That’s – that’s good. It’s very good.” John said hurriedly, needing to assuage the uncertainty looking back at him. He needed Sherlock to know how much John wanted this. Needed him to stay.

“Just – um,” John spluttered a bit over the words. This was all so much. “Can you excuse me – for just one second?”

Sherlock blinked. He looked dazed.

“Just one second,” John repeated, a bit steadier this time. And to prove he meant it, he found Sherlock’s hand still clasped on his collar and pressed his keys into it.

Sherlock still looked puzzled, but nodded, gently. John gave him a shy smile, then took a step back and moved around the corner.

As soon as he was out of sight from the door, he clenched his fists and punched the air in triumph.

This was happening. It was really happening. Sherlock was here, and he wanted John, and it was really truly happening.

It was both more profound and more unreal than John could have ever imagined. The feeling of Sherlock’s body on his was still everywhere – on his lips, his cheeks, his hands, against his chest, but it was tingling like a phantom sort of energy that was too warm and perfect to be believed. He needed more. Right now.

John hurried back around the corner to where Sherlock was standing, looking a bit startled.

“Um – alright,” John said awkwardly. “That’s done.”

Sherlock’s eyebrow gave a little twitch, but he didn’t ask any questions. Maybe he, like John, was too overwhelmed to say much of anything. His heart seemed to swell a little at the thought.

“Um.”

John reached tentatively forward and clasped Sherlock’s hand, still holding John’s keys.

“Why don’t you come upstairs in about ten seconds?” John murmured.

Sherlock’s brow smoothed out a little bit. Some of the uncertainty had left his eyes.

“Ten seconds,” he said, with a little twitch of a nervous smile.

“Ten seconds,” John repeated, and he gave Sherlock’s hand a little squeeze for good measure.

He tore himself away with some reluctance, and hurried up the stairs to the bedroom. He could feel Sherlock’s eyes watching him all the way up.

John burst through the door to his bedroom and raced around it in a mad scramble. He seized the clothes tossed carelessly onto the bed and shoved them into the wardrobe. He grabbed the old magazine from the nightstand and stuffed it into the drawer. He cast his gaze around, looking for anything else – it seemed okay. Nothing out of place. Appropriate, and inviting. John placed his phone on the nightstand, then tugged his coat off and tossed it over a chair.

Then Sherlock was there, framed in the doorway.

John stood completely still, watching him take a tentative step inside. He still had on that same, unsure smile, like was as shocked by this as John was. Like he couldn’t believe how lucky he suddenly found himself.

Slowly, not taking his eyes off John’s, Sherlock shrugged himself out of his coat. He took another step into the room, and dropped it on the chair, on top of John’s.

There was silence, just for a second. A heartbeat. And then, like a rubber band pulled taut and snapped, they surged toward each other.

They collided with a kiss, deeper and more passionate than the first. John’s arms were wrapped tightly around Sherlock’s back before he was even aware of moving them, and one Sherlock’s hands was sliding up to John’s nape, the other firmly anchored around his waist. There was no preamble; Sherlock’s tongue plunged itself into John’s mouth, and John pulled him in, desperate and hungry, tasting him everywhere, feeling him like a burst of white hot flame. He was flooding in through John’s every pore, and John wanted to sink into this moment and never re-emerge. He wanted to get lost in Sherlock.

Trembling, John’s hands slid to the front of Sherlock’s jacket and pushed it off his shoulders. Sherlock shrugged himself out of it, then joined John’s hands working the buttons of his shirt. That tumbled to the floor too, and then Sherlock was bare-chested before him and John’s hands were roving over him like a man trying to find his way in the dark – they travelled over ever ripple of muscle, every smooth expanse, tingling with electricity at the feeling. It was too much and not enough, all at once.

It was a moment before John realized Sherlock was trying to divest him of his shirt, too, and he quickly scrambled to help. He stripped off his old suit jacket, then tore at the buttons of his shirt until he could press his own bare chest to Sherlock’s, and the warmth that seeped through him made a soft moan escape his lips into Sherlock’s mouth. It only made Sherlock kiss him harder, pull him closer.

In an instant Sherlock had unbuckled his belt and stepped out of his trousers, and John hurried to copy him. Now it was just them, bare skin but for their pants, every point of contact branding itself into John’s flesh. He would see it there later, John was sure, see all the places Sherlock had touched him as a physical memory, carried with him, always.

His knees were starting to give out, but Sherlock was backing him closer to the bed, so he let him. When his legs hit the mattress, he swivelled them around so Sherlock sat back onto it, and John could swing a leg over and straddle both of his, never once letting go of the tight hold he had on Sherlock’s torso.

John deepened the kiss even further, so intense now it could have blinded him. Sherlock’s hands roamed up his back, over his shoulders, up his neck to cradle his face. He began to pull back, gentling the kiss with softer, lighter ones, until John finally relaxed his hold on him a bit and allowed him to break off, just a little. Their noses brushed, their breath mingling – John’s lips still tingled with the contact.

He pulled in a few staggering breaths, trying to centre himself again. He felt wild and dizzy, every nerve blazing.

After a few seconds, John opened his eyes. Sherlock’s were just inches away, blazing with something deep and visceral, fierce and silent.

He stroked the thumb of one hand up John’s cheek – the barest, tenderest of gestures – and it made something dense and heavy press against the roof of John’s mouth.

“You’re beautiful,” Sherlock breathed. It was barely a sound.

It pierced right through John’s chest.

I love you, his mind whispered back.

He kissed him again to stop himself from saying it.

Sherlock’s hands curled around his cheeks, warm and solid. He was smiling a little, an unsure quirk of joy that bloomed into the kiss, blossoming bright in John’s chest.

John kissed him deeper, pulled him in tighter. He was about to give himself over entirely, and he’d never been more ready.

Sherlock drifted his touch downward, smoothing over John’s shoulders, down his back. His long fingers sent currents of heat flickering down John’s spine, warming him to the core and jolting down towards his abdomen. He gave a little moan and lurched forward, grinding into Sherlock’s hip as the hand reached the waistband of his pants. Sherlock circled a fingertip around the hem for a moment, paused, then dipped beneath it, fingers sliding underneath and down John’s arse.

Then a loud buzzing sound erupted from the direction from the nightstand.

John started violently. Sherlock did too, his hand retreating. John had broken the kiss, and was breathing heavily, trying to get his bearings.

There, on the table, his phone was vibrating in even pulses.

Oh, no. John’s heart dropped like a stone out of his chest and onto the floor. Not now.

Sherlock was looking up at him, uncertainty creasing his brow.

“I –” John said, lowly. He had to force the words out; his body was screaming at him to shut his mouth, to just ignore it.

“– I’d better answer that,” he whispered, finally.

He pursed his lips together, apologetically, then leaned over Sherlock and grabbed the phone from the nightstand.

“Hello?” His voice sounded raspy and heavy; he swallowed, and tried to imbue it with some levity. “Hi. Yes. How are you?”

John leaned back on his ankles, and Sherlock dropped his hands from John’s body. He was still straddling his lap, and Sherlock was looking all around the room, uncomfortably.

“No, I’m –” A pit of dread was swelling larger and larger in John’s stomach. He glanced guiltily at Sherlock, then looked away. “I’m not busy.”

Sherlock’s gaze darted back to him, eyes wide.

John couldn’t bear how he was looking at him, with a mixture of shock, incomprehension, and hurt in his face. He had to move away.

“Right. Yes,” he was muttering into the phone. A wave of mortification was crashing over him, making his ears burn hot. “I’m – Listen, I’m sure they’re not trying to make it taste like rubbish, that’s just sort of how it is…”

He trailed off. Harry was already talking again. Doing his best not to look at Sherlock, John shuffled off of his lap and swung his legs over the side of the bed, facing away from him.

“Yeah, yeah, well I’m sure it is worthless without vodka,” he agreed, lowly.

He wanted to flee. He couldn’t bear Sherlock seeing him like this, hearing this conversation. It was so pathetic.

“Right.” John nodded, absently. “Well, I’m not sure how it would work with the taper-off plan you’re on, but I’ll look into it, okay?”

He heard her sigh loudly on the other end, but after a few more reassurances, got her to admit defeat.

“Okay.” Relief siphoned away some of the dread bottled in his chest, but it still loomed darkly over him. “I’ll talk to you later. Bye.”

He ended the call, and slowly set the phone back on the nightstand.

The silence that stretched over the room felt stifling.

“Sorry about that,” John muttered weakly over his shoulder.

He heard Sherlock shift a little on the mattress. “It’s alright,” came his soft reply.

The pit in John’s stomach seemed to engulf him. It might have expanded out from his body entirely, consuming the bright happiness that had infected him just moments ago.

“It’s my sister,” John said, lamely. A miserable explanation, but Sherlock deserved to hear it.

“She’s in rehab.” John stared down at his hands as he spoke. “It’s…not the first time.”

He sighed; Sherlock’s eyes boring into his back were all that was keeping him from dropping his head in shame.

“She calls a lot.”

Sherlock shifted again, though whether he was moving closer to John or farther away, John couldn’t tell.

“I’m sorry,” Sherlock said in a soft voice.

John shook his head. “No, it’s fine. It’s fine. Well, I mean, it’s not really fine, it’s just, you know –”

He turned himself enough to look back at Sherlock, whose eyes were bright with sympathetic understanding.

“– since our parents have been gone, well, it’s sort of been my job to look after her.” John said in a rush. “Well, not my job, obviously,” he clenched his teeth. “I’m happy to do it, it’s just…”

He hadn’t meant for it all to come spilling out like that, but it had, and somehow it hadn’t felt as massive as he thought it would. The way Sherlock was looking back at him – there was something in it that said he’d have listened to anything John needed to say.

And John hadn’t realized, until that breath, how much he’d needed to say it.

Sherlock’s eyebrow gave a little twitch, his expression warm and compassionate.

“I was in rehab, once,” he said.

The words took a second to penetrate the fog swirling around John’s brain, and when they did, every one of his nerves seemed to fall silent.

“You were?” he breathed.

Sherlock gave a humorless smile, and nodded. “A few years ago.” He paused, his mouth wavering a bit before he said, “Not for drinking.”

Another second, and then understanding clicked into place in him with a jolt.

Now John couldn’t look away again. He stared at Sherlock, who looked calmly back at him like he hadn’t just placed something so fragile in John’s hands and trusted him to take care of it.

“Oh,” John let out, under his breath.

Sherlock’s eyes softened even more.

“It was hardest on my family,” he said. And then he reached forward and, ever so slowly, slid his fingers over top of John’s where they were balled in a fist on his bare thigh.

John let his hand slacken, turned his palm upward to fit against Sherlock’s and held onto it. Sherlock’s eyes met his evenly, filled with a depth of emotion so genuine and vulnerable it robbed John of his remaining breath.

“She’s incredibly lucky, to have someone like you,” Sherlock murmured.

Every emotion in John’s brain seemed to flood to the surface in the same instant. He pressed his lips together, to prevent them from spilling out all at once.

And then, with such a sudden burst of relief it surprised even him, a smile was pulling at his lips. A shining reprieve that washed everything else away, and brought him back, carried him home.

Sherlock was smiling tenderly back at him, and John’s heart leapt back to life. His skin was itching with need again, desperate for contact – but it was different this time. More profound. More absolute.

Sherlock leaned forward, and John titled his head to meet his kiss with eager lips. Sherlock delved in with just as much enthusiasm as before, and John dipped his tongue back in, picking up his exploration where he left off. Everything else was falling away again, and there was nothing but the feeling of Sherlock, here and now. They might have never stopped.

Sherlock turned himself so that he was hovering on his hands and knees, and John’s hands reached up to curl around his back. At his gentle urging, John scooted himself up the mattress – his head fell back against the pillow, his legs stretched out, and Sherlock followed him down, his weight pressing into him, a solid comforting presence. It was like a jigsaw piece, falling into place.

John let his hands roam up and down Sherlock’s back, pulling him in and deepening the kiss, letting his weight above him wash through all of his senses. He was so warm, and so soft and gentle in his movements; he was touching John with something like reverence, his hands drifting down his sides to his hips like he was made of precious stone.

John’s heart was hammering almost painfully, so full he thought it might explode. How could he have waited so long for this? For something so real, and so perfect? Being here, feeling Sherlock against him like this, was like a warm shelter in the middle of a freezing storm, and John never wanted to leave.

His hands explored the strong planes of his back, down to the dip at the base of his spine, his smooth skin like silk against John’s fingers, his breath warm and sweet against John’s lips, the curve of his arse deliciously firm as John let his touch drift down towards it –

The phone buzzed again, screaming out and shattering the quiet.

John stilled his movements, his eyes screwed shut. Above him, Sherlock’s lips slowed and pulled back, barely an inch. His breath was coming in full-body drags that pressed his chest into John’s.

“Will it make her better, tonight?” Sherlock breathed against John’s lips.

John turned his head to stare at the phone, which was inching forward on the table with every vibration.

“No,” he muttered, and he seemed to deflate a little as he said it.

“Then, maybe…” Sherlock whispered. He tilted his head to try to catch John’s eye. “Don’t answer.”

John swallowed, hard. The thought sank through him, slowly, and he let it give him a second or two of respite as it passed by.

Then he let out a heavy sigh, and reached out to grab the phone again.

“Hey.” He moved out from underneath Sherlock as he spoke into it. He couldn’t look at him. “How are you doing?”

Sherlock moved just enough to let John scoot out and perch himself at the edge of the bed again. Otherwise, he stayed completely immobile. John knew he was staring at him, stunned into stillness.

“Right, right,” he was saying absently into the phone. He forced himself not to look round at him, and focused on what Harry was saying. “Wait – what are you –?”

Something was wrong. John could barely understand her. Her voice was shrill and high-pitched, and she sounded like she might have been –

“Oh, no,” he said, as the void in his chest swallowed him up again. “Oh, please, Harry, don’t…”

He hugged the arm not holding the phone tightly across his chest, as if he could shrink into himself.

“Please, between the two of us we’ll find the answer, and it won’t hurt anymore,” he said, desperately.

But he knew that it wouldn’t work. This was one of those times when nothing would. And the higher and more pained her voice got, the heavier the defeat seemed to weigh in John’s chest.

“No, no,” he said, placatingly. “I’m not busy.”

He scooted himself all the way off the bed and onto the floor, hating himself.

Behind him, he could hear Sherlock moving at last, swinging his legs over to sit on the other side of the bed with his back to John.

“I…yes,” John said heavily into the phone. “Of course, if you want me to come over, then I will.”

There was no sound in the room – not even a breath. John couldn’t even feel his own heartbeat anymore.

“Okay. Yeah,” John agreed. “Be right there.”

He hit the end button, then held the phone like a stone in both hands.

John swallowed painfully, and let his head hang heavy between his shoulders. He kept his lips firmly shut, knowing that if he opened his mouth, he would lose control completely.

Behind him, staring at the opposite wall, Sherlock said nothing.

***

Harry sat on the low sofa in the lounge, arms crossed over her chest. She was in her pyjamas. A couple other people were shambling around in the hallways beyond, but not many. It was late.

John was sitting in an old armchair across from her. The sterile feeling of the white walls and shining floors made her look even paler than usual. She wasn’t smiling. There were lines around her mouth, like she’d been holding that resentful face for days without moving.

“Have you been reading anything?” John asked her, tentatively.

She gave a small jerk of her head, like she was trying to shake off a fly.

“Yeah,” she said, after a moment. “They don’t like me watching telly, so I’ve started going through Harry Potter again.”

John nodded, trying to look excited by this. “Good,” he said.

Well, at least she was reading something. The fact that it wasn’t something new wasn’t the best sign, but it was better for her than just absorbing mindless stuff from the television screen. This was good. This was okay.

He fidgeted with his hands a little, clenched in his lap. They were still itching, burning with lost feeling.

Harry glanced down at them, then looked back into his face, her eyebrows pinched. “What’s going on with you?”

John swallowed. “Nothing.”

Her lip twitched a little at the corner, like a tiny spasm. “You look distracted.” She said it evenly, but there was an undercurrent of accusation that flowed through it.

“I’m fine,” John said. He clenched his hands tight together and didn’t move them any more.

Harry blinked at him a few times, then sank back into the sofa cushions. Her head swivelled around, eying the woman behind the desk, the man keeping watch at the entrance.

“One of the nurses is trying to kill me,” she said in an undertone, her eyes flashing to John.

John’s jaw clenched, involuntarily. Please, not this again.

“No one’s trying to kill you, Harry,” he said.

“She is.” Harry whipped around, her hair flying around her face. “She’s giving me less than I’m supposed to have, I know it. Probably thinks she can get me sober and out of here quicker, and who cares if it’s too much and I just snuff it –”

“Harry, stop,” John pleaded.

“I won’t!” And her voice was shrill now, loud and harsh, her eyes manic. “It’ll kill me, and you don’t even fucking care, do you, you don’t even want to be here –!”

The man by the entrance had raced over to where she sat.

Harry sagged backwards again. “Don’t touch me, I’m fine,” she said, sounding instantly calm and annoyed as she pushed his hand away.

“We’re fine,” John said quickly. The orderly turned to him, and he gave what he hoped was a reassuring nod. “It’s alright, thank you.”

The man looked between them suspiciously, but eventually retreated back to the hallway doors, though John noticed he kept a sharper focus in Harry’s direction now.

John looked back at her. She’d turned her face away from him, staring into nothing.

“Don’t do that,” he nearly whispered. “Please.”

She didn’t move, but her jaw was set into a hard line.

“What were you doing when I called?” she asked.

All the air flowed out of John’s lungs in a silent rush. His heart stood still and heavy, crushing them.

“Nothing,” he muttered.

John closed his eyes and pressed his lips together, the memory of Sherlock still etched impermeably into them.

***

John dreaded going to work now. Every time he walked into the office, he was the first thing he saw – hunched over his desk, immaculately gorgeous as ever, and never looking up.

The worst times where when they passed each other, in the lift, or the copy room, or even just crossing the office. Every time, there would be nothing but a stiff nod, and silence. No eye contact. John couldn’t have stood it.

He worked slowly these days – his hands seemed heavier than usual at his computer. He only ever stole glances up into the office in front of him a couple times a day now – any more, and he wouldn’t have been able to get anything done at all – but even so, he felt like he was constantly staring into empty space. It was unbearably quiet, and cold, and even his lonely flat seemed like a better alternative now, though he could barely sleep in that room any more, could barely move in it at all without remembering everything in vivid detail, in every cell of his body. And it ached like nothing else before.

The days crawled on past into weeks, horrifically slowly. It was almost a relief when Christmas Eve finally trudged in, and the prospect of a few days off lightened the weight in John’s chest a little. But only a little, because he knew he’d be spending most of them at the centre with Harry, and the rest of the time shut up in his flat, trying not to feel anything.

The clock neared on five, and people left the office with well-wishes toward each other. John didn’t know why he stayed, even as the space became emptier and emptier. Lately he’d been leaving as soon as he could but…well. He supposed his dread of Christmas Eve with Harry was enough to keep him here. Even as the door slammed shut behind the final merry workers, and John was left alone, with the lone figure in the far office remaining behind.

The sky darkened, and still Sherlock stayed, leaning over his desk, sketching slowly, eyes fixed and unwavering. John had given up trying to do any work, and looked up as much as he dared. Every glance made the ache flare up a little bit more, but there was nothing else for it: he watched, and ached, and knew that he would keep doing this every day for as long as his heart could stand it, because it was the only thing he could do. The rest was impossible, like he’d always known it was, but this…this could be his, still.

Time passed in silence, and finally, Sherlock stood. He seemed to stretch himself arduously, then packed up his things and slid on his coat. John turned back to his computer with a blank stare, and didn’t look up as Sherlock flicked off the lights and stepped out through his door.

He heard his footsteps moved along the carpet, and realized with a lurch of his stomach that they were moving towards him. He took a moment, steeled himself, then looked up.

Sherlock stood, face reigned into a cool, polite smile. Only a small crease between his brows betrayed any hint of emotion.

“Goodnight, John,” he said, softly.

John blinked, then tried to smile in return.

“Goodnight, Sherlock.”

Sherlock’s lips pressed together for a moment, and John tried not to stare at them, tried not to think.

“I, uh…”

Sherlock’s eyes fell closed, and he swallowed.

A sudden prickling sensation crept up behind John’s eyes. His throat was blocked.

Sherlock exhaled a low sigh, then opened his eyes, looking back at John with a resigned twitch of his mouth.

“Merry Christmas,” he said, finally.

“Merry Christmas,” John echoed.

His voice sounded horribly defeated and sad, but he meant it. He hoped Sherlock knew that.

Sherlock nodded once, a stiff jerk of the head, then slowly turned to leave.

John watched him, his lean, dark figure getting smaller and smaller, before he disappeared out the office door, which swung shut behind him with a quiet click.

Now he was alone, the office seemed vast. John felt like he was adrift in the open ocean, no signs of life for miles, no end to anything in sight.

He dropped his face into his hands, and tried to hold it all back.

Stop it, he told himself. You knew this would happen.

And he had; he’d known it for years, had been face-to-face with it every moment for weeks. But still, it was too much. He couldn’t do it. Not now, after everything. And especially not today, not on Christmas.

His phone buzzed.

He picked it up without thinking. “Hey,” he said. He sounded choked and harsh. “How’s it going?”

But he couldn’t even listen to her; he lifted his head, and stared at the door where Sherlock had left through, his body too full of misery to take in anything else.

She kept talking, on and on, and her words slipped through John’s brain, leaving no trace. He stared, and stared, and the thoughts bouncing around his head were becoming sharper and more painful, and he couldn’t do this, he couldn’t do this, he couldn’t just carry on like this, like everything was the same as it had always been –

And before he knew what he was doing, he’d stood up. His legs were stiff from sitting, and they trembled a little.

“Harry, can I call you back?” he rasped out.

“What?” she demanded.

“Just – give me a little bit, yeah?” he said, desperate. “I’ll call you back, I promise – and then I’ll come over there.”

She was silent on the other end, only the faint sound of her breathing coming through. John braced himself for the explosion.

“Alright,” she said, finally.

“Great,” John burst out in relief. “See you soon.”

He ended the call, dropped the phone on his desk and raced around it, hurtling towards the door.

But no sooner had he flung it open, he jumped back in surprise – Sherlock was there on the other side of it.

He stumbled to a halt, only just avoiding crashing into John. He was out of breath.

“John,” he gasped out in surprise.

John stood, mouth hanging open. Everything he’d wanted to say had been shocked out of him by Sherlock’s reappearance.

Sherlock had run back for him.

“Listen,” John said, haltingly. “I –”

And then they had both burst into speech.

“John, I have to tell you something –”

“– I know this is bloody selfish, but –”

“– can’t just let you be alone in this –”

“– hell, she’s got people there for her all the time –”

“– it’s not too much for me, I know –

“– and that night meant everything to me, Sherlock, you have to know –”

“– it doesn’t have to be like this, John, you –”

“– and I can’t do it like this, I just can’t, I can’t go back to this, Sherlock, please, I need…I need…”

John trailed off, his breath coming in shallow gasps, and it was all too much, and Sherlock was staring at him silently now, his brow pinched in desperation, and he knew and he had come back and it was a whole big mess but he was part of it now and he hadn’t wanted to leave –

“John.”

Sherlock voice was clear and firm. He reached up, and took John’s face in his hands.

John’s panic halted in its tracks, and he sucked in a large breath of air.

He held Sherlock’s gaze steady, even as he still felt he might burst open at any moment, and he reached up to hang onto one of Sherlock’s hands laid gently on his cheek.

Sherlock’s eyes were swimming with as many emotions as were clouding through John’s head. John saw everything inside him reflected back in those gorgeous pools of blue, more brilliant and enchanting than he’d ever seen them.

He stroked up John’s cheek with his thumb, sweeping tenderly over John’s fingers where they held on.

“You deserve a life, too,” Sherlock whispered.

An awful sob-like sound burst out of John’s lungs.

He fell forward into Sherlock’s chest, enfolding himself there without thinking. He needed to, so he did it. Sherlock’s arm folded itself around John’s shoulders in an instant. Holding him.

John inhaled deep, pulling in the smell and warmth of him into his lungs, and felt his own trembling limbs steady somewhat.

“It’s not like I can’t still help her, right?" he said weakly into the crook of Sherlock’s neck.

“Of course you can,” Sherlock whispered back, gently.

“Even if I just – turn my phone off sometimes?” John’s voice was still shaking, muffled by the collar of Sherlock’s coat. “Or if I say I won’t be around to answer some nights?”

Yes,” Sherlock said. His breath was close to John’s ear – he’d tucked his face into John’s hair.

“John,” he murmured, gently. “You are so unbelievably brave, and generous, and you’re a wonderful brother –”

John made a sound into Sherlock’s shoulder that was halfway between a laugh and a sob

“…but you’re not going to be any help to her, if it’s making you unhappy.”

John’s body stilled.

He sucked a deep, tremulous breath in, and expelled it, slowly. Everything felt unreal all of a sudden, like those words had flipped the world on its axis, and now he was dangling off from his old life and about to fall away into the unknown.

But Sherlock was right.

John swallowed painfully, and pulled back to look him square in the face, searching for some uncertainty, some doubt, some revulsion at this whole awful affair.

There was none; Sherlock’s eyes were deep and genuine, and he was looking down at John like he was really seeing him, and understanding everything there was to understand.

And with all that, still, he wanted to stay.

“And…” Sherlock began, his eyes searching John’s, desperate and hopeful.

“You don’t have to be alone.”

John gasped, quiet and painful, his lower lip quivering.

“It’s a huge fucking mess,” he breathed. “It’s been a mess for years, and it’s so exhausting sometimes, Christ, you know how awful it is…”

“I do.” Sherlock nodded. His hands were settled on John’s shoulders, a firm and comforting grip. “But I also know that it’s worth it.”

His eyes softened, and for the first time that night, his lips wavered.

“I want to be with you, John,” he whispered.

Wetness prickled behind John’s eyes, and he didn’t make any effort to hold it back.

“I want to be with you, too,” he murmured back.

Sherlock breathed out a sharp huff of air, and his lips twitched upward the tiniest bit.

“So let me be there.” His hands slid up to cradle John’s skull. “Let me –”

He broke off abruptly, but the words hung in the air between them, fragile, untouched.

Love you.

Somehow, John knew that he couldn’t have been about to say anything else.

Slowly, that same fire was crackling up in his chest again, pushing away the darkness and the pain, and ushering in the light that Sherlock carried with him, filling John up to the brim of his soul.

“You mean that?” John asked. It still felt too unreal, too unbearably perfect, even though he could see it in Sherlock’s eyes.

Sherlock stared at him a second longer, then nodded.

“Yes,” he said, simply.

Everything in John seemed to come alive at once, beaming out of him in a watery smile that contorted his face with emotion.

“John –”

But the last bit of restraint in him snapped at the sound – the sound of his name in that beloved voice, simple and earnest. John surged forward, seizing Sherlock with both hands by the nape of his neck, and kissed him.

Sherlock’s mouth opened under his without hesitation, and he pulled him in tighter by his shoulders. He angled his face, inviting John in deeper; and John clung onto him fast, sinking into him, swaying lightly with him on the spot as they slotted into each other, matching their rough edges and smoothing them out into something beautiful.

This time, John wasn’t letting go.

***

There were a few people in the lounge tonight – families in groups of armchairs, benches, exchanging gifts and tentative laughter. The space had been strung up with lights, and it looked at little less lifeless than it had done the last time.

Sherlock gave John’s hand a gentle squeeze, and they walked in together.

“And who’s this?” Harry asked, standing up when she saw them. She had a curious expression on her face – not scowling, but still sharp.

“Sherlock Holmes,” Sherlock said genially as he extended a hand.

Harry looked suspiciously from him over to John.

“He’s with me,” John said, as firm as he dared.

Harry’s eyebrows raised, and for a moment John thought she was going to lash out again – but she just turned back to Sherlock and shook his hand with a cold smile.

“Pleasure,” she said, clearly not meaning it. But John’s heart was soaring.

They sat together on the sofa, Sherlock in an armchair opposite. He smiled at John, then bent over to rummage in his bag to avoid intruding on them while they exchanged their gifts. Harry seemed satisfied, and unwrapped hers with a pleased smirk.

“It’s a bit long,” she said. The scarf unrolled from her hands all the way to the floor.

“You’ll make do,” John said, grinning back at her.

She side-eyed him, then picked it up and wrapped it around her neck, tossing the longest end around John’s shoulder.

“I guess I will,” she said, looping it around him, and John burst out into laughter that seemed to stretch his face out wide. He must not have done that in a while.

When she’d been ushered out reluctantly to go to bed, John sat down next to Sherlock, who had pulled his sketchpad out and was bent over it.

He cast around desperately for something to say that would be enough, that would encompass all his gratitude and his awe and his adoration in a few feeble words, but Sherlock saved him the trouble by pushing his sketchpad over to him.

“What do you think?” he asked.

Staring up at John from the paper was his own face, wrapped up in Harry’s overlong scarf and smiling. The likeness was better than perfect – he looked younger, and happier, and somehow the coarse pencil markings carried the love he’d been casting in Sherlock’s direction all evening.

His throat seemed to seize up at the drawing, and he couldn’t speak, couldn’t tell Sherlock anything about how wonderful he was – but Sherlock, once more, seemed to understand, and the way he looked at John told him he didn’t need to say anything at all.

John leaned in to rest his cheek on Sherlock’s shoulder, and Sherlock kissed the crown of his head. He reached out a hand and stroked through the hair at the base of his neck, tender, and familiar.

Chapter Text

It was one of those evenings when everything just seemed to be perfect.

There was a heavy snowfall coming down outside, piling up against the windows where fairy lights twinkled in slowly flashing reds and greens and blues. But the inside of the flat was filled with an enveloping warmth; a soft red glow emanated from the crackling fire in the grate, and a few candles were littered here and there along the tables, giving off a sweet gingerbread scent. Soft violin music was playing from the stereo, and the hearth and bookshelves were strung up with tinsel and some smaller lights, bright and festive.

Sherlock was laying against John’s chest, their legs stretched out on the sofa and facing the window to watch the snow come down. Sherlock had a blanket tugged up to his waist and a cup of tea cooling in his hands. John had a well-worn book propped open between the cushion and Sherlock’s shoulder, and he was occasionally reading out his favorite lines from it. Sherlock was sort of listening, but mostly just enjoying the feeling of John’s voice rumbling through his chest and into Sherlock’s ears. It was so soothing Sherlock could have fallen asleep if he hadn’t been feeling so peacefully happy.

“He’s a bit like you, isn’t he?” Sherlock murmured, blissfully.

“What do you mean?”

“The oldest brother,” Sherlock explained. “Peter. The upright, gallant one who always dreamed of saving the world?”

“Oh, ha ha.” John said back, though his other arm tightened around Sherlock’s chest affectionately.

“Don’t be like that, he’s obviously going to be the biggest hero,” Sherlock grinned.

“Fair enough.” John turned the page of his book. “And I guess that makes Harry that awful Susan, even though she’s younger.”

Sherlock’s brow furrowed. “What’s awful about Susan?”

“Nothing yet, she gets awful later.” There was a clear amused smile in John’s voice.

“Harry will be delighted.”

“Oi, don’t you go telling her I said that,” John said sternly, and Sherlock chuckled and sipped at his tea. Then John sighed a bit, and added “or, hell, maybe do tell her when we go over there on Christmas Eve. We’ll need something to liven the night up, after all.”

“Yeah? Not counting on her and Di to be exciting hosts?”

“Not unless they decide to use the occasion to split up, no.”

Sherlock smirked a bit, thinking about it. Harry and her newest girlfriend Diane had only been together for a few months, but Sherlock and John had agreed from the very beginning that it wouldn’t last. Harry just wasn’t making much of secret of the fact that she was so much less invested in the relationship than Diane was. Their rows, frequent even by Harry’s standards, were grating on them both too; just a couple weeks ago, John had had to spend at least an hour coaxing Harry down from a towering rage after she’d discovered the expensive new phone Di had been planning to give her as a birthday present, and demanded to know why Di was trying to make things so serious so quickly. After this episode, John and Sherlock had shortened their estimate of their relationship to lasting just into the new year – just long enough for themselves to be obligated to have a terrible Christmas Eve dinner with them, as Harry hadn’t taken no for an answer.

“What is this we’re listening to?” John asked. His head was no longer bent over his book, but looking curiously towards the stereo.

“Itzhak Perlman playing Brahms,” Sherlock answered, warming his hands on his mug.

“Itzhak Perlman…” John repeated, slowly. “Isn’t that the one you had a poster of in your room when you were fourteen?”

There was a teasing note in his voice, but Sherlock chuckled, unabashed.

“I love him,” he said simply. “And true love lasts a lifetime.”

John let out a quiet exhale of laughter; Sherlock felt his smile against his hair.

“You know, Itzhak Perlman was among the first to teach your cold, English husband how to feel.” Sherlock turned his head a bit as he said it, so he could see John out of the corner of his eye.

“Did he really?” John said softly against his temple. “Well, I’ll have to write to him sometime and say thanks.”

He bent forward and dropped a gentle kiss to Sherlock’s cheek. Sherlock closed his eyes and leaned into it, humming.

The music was gliding over them, soft and familiar, and it made the room feel warmer, the fire brighter, John’s lips sweeter. Or, maybe that was just John. Probably it was. All their years married, and Sherlock had yet to find a single beautiful thing that John couldn’t make better by being there to share it with him.

His voice struck up again, deep and gorgeous, as he started on the next section of his book. It was sort of a fun story, what with the evil witch and the strange creatures and the childlike wonder of a magical world, but it wouldn’t have been half as interesting in anyone else’s voice, wouldn’t have swept though him like a warm, glittering tide, filling him with the gentle flicker of sheltered bliss that he loved about this time of year.

Sherlock let John finish the chapter, sipping his tea until he got down to the dark dregs at the bottom. When John sighed happily and put the book down again, marking his page, Sherlock threw the blanket off himself and got up, extending his hand.

“Come on,” he murmured.

John took it, and let himself be pulled onto his feet and into the middle of the sitting room, where he wrapped his arms around Sherlock’s waist and nestled himself into the crook of his neck. Sherlock settled one of his arms around John’s shoulders and rested the other on the small of John’s back. He began to sway them slightly, back and forth, to the sweeping melody of the concerto, revolving in slow circles. Note to note, movement to movement. He could feel John smiling into his collarbone, and pressed his own lips to the crown of John’s head, humming along softly. Eventually Sherlock closed his eyes and tuned it all out, the lights and the snow and the glowing fire, everything but the melody in his ears and John in his arms – all the Christmas cheer he needed.

***

The weekend passed, and the snow melted down to a slush before Lestrade called them on Tuesday morning with a promising eight. Sherlock and John spent the next several days hunting down leads, culminating in quite an exciting chase along the muddy banks of the Thames in the chilly December draft, but they were both smiling triumphantly in Lestrade’s office by the end of the week, windswept and muddy though they were, as John slammed a rusty old revolver in an evidence bag down on his desk.

“We need a warrant to search Curtis’s flat.” John said firmly.

Lestrade’s face was admirably unimpressed as he looked up from the file he was going over with the new office assistant, Mia.

“Is this the same Curtis who’s been in a coma for the past three weeks?”

Supposedly,” Sherlock corrected him with some bitterness. “And also the same Curtis who we just chased half a mile down the South Bank.”

“You saw it was him?” Lestrade asked, looking bemused.

“We saw enough,” John cut across him. “Greg, there’s no way it’s the neighbour, it’s got Curtis’s fingerprints all over it – not literally,” he added quickly, as Lestrade had looked momentarily hopeful. “But we know it’s him, Sherlock figured it out days ago.”

“It has to be,” Sherlock added, and began to speak very quickly. “It’s the only possible explanation for the victim’s shirt being starched with –”

“Alright, alright,” Lestrade groaned, hunching his shoulders and pressing his hands hard into his face. “If I get you the warrant, will you spare me the explanation?”

Sherlock had opened his mouth in indignation, but John spoke quickly before Sherlock had the chance. “Fine.” He was giving Lestrade a satisfied grin. “Quickly now, we need to get there before dusk.”

Lestrade lifted his head and gave them both an irritated scowl. John just smiled back innocently, and Sherlock felt his own lips quirk upward in spite of himself.

Sighing, heavily, Lestrade got to his feet. “Mia, you can finish this for me, right?”

“Yes, sir,” Mia replied. She had a subdued sort of voice that matched her dark bangs and heavily shadowed eyes. They followed Lestrade out of the office, then turned towards John.

“Stressful time of year?” she asked.

“Yeah.” John’s voice was lighter now. “He gets like this before every Christmas – I think it’s all the Father Christmas-related cons going around.”

Mia gave a low, rough laugh, and kept it going for far longer than the joke merited. Rolling his eyes, Sherlock moved toward the office door to send a text to one of his contacts in forensics.

“You settling in fine, then?” John asked her, genially. “Learning who to avoid?”

“Absolutely,” Mia said, straightening up with Lestrade’s files in her arms. “Donovan’s already given me a crash course, of sorts.”

“Oh, don’t believe everything you hear from her,” John chuckled.

There was a strange note in his laughter that made Sherlock look up from his phone. Mia had circled round the desk to perch herself on the edge of it directly in front of John, and John was smiling at her with a gleaming sort of energy. Quite friendly, of course, but apparently not finding it odd in the slightest that she was looking at him like she’d completely forgotten Sherlock was there.

“I bet she told you all sorts of terrible things about us, didn’t she?” John went on.

“Not terrible, no” She was giving him a subtle sort of smile, like they were sharing a secret. “But things I’m sure weren’t true, all the same. After all, it seems like the work you’re doing is very important.”

John chuckled again, and it stirred something dark in Sherlock’s chest that made him duck his head down to his phone again, but still keep them both in the corner of his vision.

“Well, we hope so,” was his answer.

“Is it thrilling, going after criminals like that?” She asked, her eyes brightening. “I bet it’s wonderful.” John just shrugged at this, so she pressed on. “Chases along the river, hunting people down in places full of…dark corners. For doing…dark deeds…”

The dark mass in Sherlock’s chest gave a flash of irritation, and his head snapped up, but before he could say anything, Lestrade appeared at his side again.

“Here,” he huffed, holding out a folded piece of paper.

Sherlock took it, grateful to him for breaking the tension in the room, and slipped it into his inside pocket.

“And please, for the love of God, bring me back a murderer, and not someone catatonic?” There was a note of exhausted desperation in Lestrade’s voice now.

“Of course,” John said, turning away from Mia at last and making his way towards Sherlock. “And all the paperwork that’ll come with it.”

“Bugger off,” Lestrade grumbled. His hand was already on the door frame, waiting to shut it after them.

John just smirked. “See you later,” he threw over his shoulder at Mia, who smiled that secretive smile again.

“Alright,” John said excitedly once they were out in the corridor, reaching down to squeeze Sherlock’s hand. “Ready to play the game?”

Sherlock gave him a grin in return. His head was whirling a bit faster than, by all accounts, it should have been – but he shook it away and fell easily into step beside John.

***

It turned out Curtis’s flat was only the tip of the iceberg – they did find a stash of weapons there, crammed in under a loose floorboard, but also half a pound of heroin and a password-protected laptop full of emails to minor government officials, and the case swelled into a full-fledged crackdown on a whole network of people involved in what had seemed to just be an isolated murder. Sherlock and John split up on the fourth day to shake down some separate alibis, which led to Sherlock following a rich trail towards a dodgy legal firm, where he was able to intimidate the secretary into giving him all the files from Curtis’s time spent working there.

“John, I’ve got it!” He shouted as he burst through the door of Baker Street that evening. He pulled off his coat and shook the moisture from it – the roads were still running with melted snow – and bounded up the stairs to the sitting room, where he tore open the first file and began pinning sheets to the Crime Wall, which was growing rather rapidly over the sofa.

“There’s already a link here,” he was saying, breathlessly. “At least three of the emails from Home Office were from people who had hired lawyers out of this firm when Curtis was there. They would have met, probably several times, even if he hadn’t been hired by them directly they might have consulted with him – John?”

He’d stepped back to get a better view of the Wall, and had only just noticed that John wasn’t in the room with him. Sherlock blinked around, puzzled – John’s coat was by the door and he’d texted just an hour ago to say he was back home – but a second or two later and Sherlock heard familiar footsteps coming down the stairs from the second floor.

“Hey, sorry,” John said as he came in. He was shoving his mobile phone into the pocket of his jeans. “You got it? What did you find?”

Sherlock blinked at him, his brow furrowing as John came to stare at the Wall beside Sherlock.

“What were you doing up there?” he asked. They hardly used the upstairs bedroom anymore, only ever dusting it out when Sherlock’s parents came to stay, or Harry needed a place to crash after another domestic.

“Nothing,” John said. “Just clearing up a bit.”

“You were on the phone,” Sherlock pressed, and he didn’t mean to sound accusatory, but he thought there might have been an undercurrent of it despite his best efforts.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, can’t a man have any secrets?”

John’s eyes were glinting up at Sherlock, the shadow of a smirk pulling at his lips.

Sherlock stared at him for a second, before a wave of comprehension washed over him.

Ah.

Sherlock felt his own lips twitching upward of their own accord.

“Very well,” he said. “So listen…”

He filled John in on everything he’d found out that afternoon, trying to keep the knowing simper out of his voice. He’d find out what John was up to soon enough. Christmas was coming up rather quickly, after all.

***

“You’d think using a fake name would mean there was less of a paper trail.”

“Liars always have detail, John.”

John grimaced, clearly trying to smile but too frustrated and worn out to do it properly. Sherlock wasn’t about to ask, but he’d have bet John was regretting taunting Lestrade with end-of-case paperwork now that such a huge chunk of it had fallen into their laps, as they’d been the ones to bring about the arrest.

Sherlock, though, was cheerful, or as cheerful as he could be with the mountain of papers teetering in front of him on this desk they’d commandeered. It had been an excellent case, and quite a brilliant solve, as John had told him very thoroughly in the cab on the way back to the yard. The post-chase adrenaline was still coursing in his veins, and he was sated with bone-deep satisfaction that filled him at the close all the best cases, just inviting Sherlock to spend the next week or so basking in it. He’d even told Lestrade on the way in that he didn’t have to get him a Christmas present now – this had been more than enough.

“More coffee?” Sherlock asked, nodding toward John’s nearly empty mug.

“Yeah, thanks, love.” John did manage a small smile this time as he pushed it towards Sherlock. Sherlock got up, leaned forward to kiss the crown of John’s head, then grabbed both their empty mugs and swept from the office.

He lingered a bit, stirring sugar and milk into their respective cups, eavesdropping on Donovan griping to Hopkins a few cubicles away about Sherlock solving another case on seemingly impossible odds. A lot of not-so-nice words floated over into his ears, followed by her bitterly spitting out “can’t ever give us a break, apparently”, but they only seemed to buoy up his good mood, and he deliberately passed by her on his way back and gave her a cheeky smile, which made her shut up quite quickly.

As he approached the office again though, he slowed down, then stopped at the end of the row of cubicles. Through the glass paneling he could see John at the desk, and Mia standing there next to him. Her bright red nails were clasped around a stack of files, but her other hand was resting on the back of John’s chair. Actually, not resting so much as…stroking. It looked like a large spider, waiting to strike.

Their backs were turned to Sherlock, so he moved a little closer, and was able to catch their conversation floating out through the open door.

“You’re coming to the Christmas party, right?” John was asking.

“Yes, I think so,” she replied, and her voice was low and dark in a way that suddenly seemed unbearably irritating. “Just a basic kind of thing? Wives and family and stuff?”

“Yeah, more or less.” John was twirling a pen in his hand, the papers in front of him forgotten. “Have you got a boyfriend you’ll be bringing?”

Even in profile, Sherlock could see the cool smile settling on her rouged lips, and it made that chilly darkness swell up in his chest again.

“No,” she purred, her dark eyes widening. “I’ll just be hanging around under the mistletoe. Hoping to be kissed.”

Sherlock had the sudden urge to hurl the coffees through the glass at her.

She dragged her hand along the top of John’s chair as she turned away, and sauntered slowly out the door, passing by Sherlock without even glancing at him.

Sherlock was breathing as heavily as he had been after chasing down the fake Curtis. All traces of his post-case euphoria were forgotten, and it took him several moments to remember what he had been doing in the first place before he stopped to listen. He stepped back inside and sat down at the desk.

“Thanks,” John said, taking his coffee and pushing a few sheets toward Sherlock. “Here – you need to sign these.”

“Hm?” Sherlock’s mind was still spinning, disoriented. “Oh – yes.” He said at last, and pulled the papers toward him.

“You okay?”

His head snapped up. John was looking at him quizzically, clearly having noted the sudden change in his mood.

And suddenly, Sherlock felt all his anger drain out of him. It was as if someone had wiped the fog away from the glass, and he realized he’d only been seeing a shadow. Stupid, really, all of this. He was being an idiot for thinking about it at all.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Sherlock said, and he meant it. He smiled up at John as he took a sip from his mug, and was rewarded with John returning it in that brilliant, familiar way.

They spent the next couple hours exchanging bits of paperwork, and Sherlock was able to put Mia out of his mind. She didn’t matter. It didn’t matter what she said or what she did. All that mattered was John, and John would never behave anything like how Mia did. He was his husband. Sherlock knew him.

***

Sherlock had never exactly looked forward to Scotland Yard’s annual Christmas party, but John always liked to stop in on it for a few hours, and Sherlock supposed it was nice to catch up with Dimmock and Hopkins and the rest. In any case, the food was usually good and the champagne flowed freely, and sometimes they even got lucky enough to hire a half-decent DJ and make for a mildly pleasant evening, if not exactly fun.

This year it was being held in some sort of modern art gallery – at least, that’s what Sherlock guessed it was, given the mostly bare grey walls, save for a few scattered pictures of naked people and corporate logos. But they’d all been mostly covered by tinsel, and everyone was too busy either picking through hors d’oeuvres or awkwardly swaying on the makeshift dance floor to some synth-heavy popular tune to pay them much attention. Sherlock and John were clustered in a corner next to a large canvas featuring four bare male bottoms, and John was deep in conversation with Dimmock about the new prime minister.

“Of course it was a mistake!” Dimmock was saying, impassioned. “You think America’s gonna want to deal with us now?”

“But that’s what’s brilliant about it, isn’t it?” John was much calmer, though there was a fierceness in his face that none but Sherlock would ever catch onto. “They’ve no idea how to respond to that – no one’s ever said it to them before.”

Dimmock soon gave up and sulked away to try to chat up an officer Sherlock recognized from the regular night shift. Meanwhile Sherlock was scanning the room and halting on some other familiar faces; a few DI’s, a chief inspector, some of the forensics team, the chief superintendent – none of whom Sherlock was especially keen to make small talk with.

“Well, I suppose I’d better do the duty round,” John said at his side.

Sherlock let out a sigh of relief. “You’re a saint.”

Not only did John making the necessary rounds mean that Sherlock wouldn’t have to do it, it also meant that they probably wouldn’t stay too long after that. That was good – it meant they would leave before either of them stopped enjoying themselves.

John placed a gentle hand on Sherlock’s forearm and stretched up to give him a kiss on the cheek, then turned and made his way towards the forensics team who were chatting in a tight group.

John liked to remind Sherlock that events like these were good opportunities to repair some of the bitterness towards them that went around the Yard because of their notoriety and virtual free reign over any case Lestrade gave them – but he was also smart enough to know that it was probably best not to make Sherlock do it himself. In fact, John was charming enough to wipe out any bad feelings in one conversation or less, so it may be worth it to hang around a bit longer. For the sake of next year’s cases, anyway.

Sherlock let his gaze roam over the room some more. This artwork really was terrible, he thought. He’d just noticed one of the naked men was wearing a Santa hat, and he couldn’t tell whether it was a party decoration or actually part of the picture. He looked down towards the dance floor next, crammed with young people rotating their hips while phenomenally off-rhythm; none of the older officers or married couples liked to dance at these things. On the other side of the room and eyeing the crowd in distaste, Sherlock spotted Donovan, who looked like she’d rather be anywhere else.

And then a sparkle of red caught his eye, flashing light at him, and Sherlock’s eyes snapped to the woman clad in a sheer red backless dress, and – Sherlock had to blink before he was sure he’d really seen it – an Alice band with two sequined red horns stuck to it. He supposed it was supposed to be charming, or sexy, but Sherlock felt that same roar of irrational anger in him at the sight of it. Who would wear a stupid thing like that to a Christmas party? For police officers? He stared daggers into Mia’s back as she picked her way through the throng of dancers and towards the cluster of people at the edge of it, felt his mind clouding at the edges as she zeroed in on her target. She tapped on John’s shoulder.

But when John seemed to nod at her, and then followed her out onto the dance floor, Sherlock felt the fiery rage flickering up his chest and into his throat suddenly turn into ice. The gallery, he thought, must really be at the top of a building in a powerful wind, or at the bottom of the freezing river, because surely that could be the only reason all the breath had drained from his lungs, why the air around him seemed to bite into his skin like an impermeable frost?

No, no, Sherlock thought, shaking his head. This was stupid. He was being stupid. It was just a dance. They were only dancing together, to a song that was an uncommonly slow one in the DJ’s otherwise bass-pounding playlist. It was just a friendly dance, between colleagues – just as he might have danced with Lestrade, or his sister – and she was only swaying her hips provocatively beneath where John’s hand was rested, he was only holding her by the hand as she moved closer and closer, she was only leaning and pitching herself forward, near enough to whisper in his ear –

Sherlock shut his eyes and grabbed the edge of a table for support.

He breathed in for a few seconds, held it, then exhaled. Again, in and out, trying to calm his racing heart. This was better – at least now he couldn’t see them, didn’t have to watch them swaying back and forth together, the image burning itself into his retinas –

He shook his head forcefully. Keep control, Sherlock. You’re at still a party.

“Hey, Sherlock.”

The familiar voice made his eyes snap open, and he turned his head to see Lestrade, who was looking much less grouchy tonight – though he did have a nearly-empty glass of wine in his hand.

“Hey,” he was able to reply, hoping his voice didn’t sound too hoarse.

“Not a bad one this year, is it?” Lestrade leaned against the table next to Sherlock, and tipped a good quantity of the remaining wine into his mouth. “Where’s John?”

Sherlock pushed the icy feeling down from his throat. “Dancing,” he said, trying not to look over but unable to help it – they were still locked together, swaying less and less, mostly just staring at each other now.

“Nice.” Lestrade said. He’d found them in the crowd too, and was watching them. “I suppose it’s his job to dance with everyone, isn’t it?”

There was some semblance of a joke in Lestrade’s voice, but Sherlock didn’t find it remotely funny.

“Some more than others,” he muttered.

Lestrade looked over at him for a second, then gave a little shrug and drained his glass. Sherlock couldn’t look anywhere but straight ahead, at the little space that had cleared around the spot where his husband was dancing with a young, beautiful woman, who was staring at him with a sultry smile.

It’s just a dance, Sherlock repeated to himself, yet again. It’s just a dance.

***

“That was a good night,” Sherlock said evenly, as he undressed in their bedroom, later.

He’d had a chance to calm down a little after John had stopped dancing and returned to Sherlock’s side, and then even more during the cab ride home. John seemed to realize something was off, but chalked it up to just the party wearing on him, and they decided to call it a night about half an hour later.

“Yeah, it wasn’t bad,” replied John. He was already in bed, propped against the pillows and reading some more of his book.

“Though that artwork was pretty awful.” Sherlock unbuttoned his cuffs and slipped his shirt off his shoulders, then undid his flies

“What, the naked Santas?” John smirked. “Yeah, that was a bit shit. They could have at least picked some better-looking models.”

Sherlock huffed out what he hoped sounded like an amused breath, but his heart had slowed to a crawl. Very slowly, he stooped to pick his trousers up off the floor.

“Mia’s very pretty,” he said, quietly.

He was focusing quite intently on folding his trousers, but out of the corner of his eye he could see John glance up at him.

“Is she?”

Sherlock turned to him, and this time he actually could feel a wary half-smile creep up onto his face. John was trying, unsuccessfully, to smooth over his startled expression.

“You know she is, darling.” Sherlock’s words were slow and deliberate. “Be careful, there.”

He turned away again, and took longer than was strictly necessary to place his clothes in the laundry.

John was silent for a moment behind him – then, just as Sherlock’s heart was about to beat soundly through his ribs, he gave a small chuckle.

“Alright, sure,” he said, sardonically. Sherlock heard him shift a bit, then throw one side of the covers back. “Come to bed, you big idiot.”

Sherlock hesitated. His insides still felt cold, but…

He turned around, there was John smiling up at him; face tired but bright, and with his eyes glinting in that familiar, beautiful way –

And suddenly Sherlock’s heart was beating at the right tempo again.

His mind was still whirling with unease, but he crossed back over to the bed, and slipped in under the covers next to John. He was still just in his pants, which was probably a mistake since it would be cold tonight, but at that moment there was nothing he wanted to do more than feel his bare skin up against John’s, to wrap himself around him and let his warmth seep into his body. So he did – he shuffled inward until he could press his chest to John’s side, throw an arm across his chest and, for good measure, tangle his legs around one of John’s.

John gave a little contented sigh and adjusted his grip on the book so he could bring one hand down to press against Sherlock’s back. Sherlock knew that soon he would start drawing little patterns there, on his bare skin – little spontaneous designs or words that came to him as he got lost in his book. And that when he fell asleep, that hand would circle down to rest on his hips, to draw Sherlock closer, even during unconsciousness.

Sherlock burrowed as tightly as he could into John’s side and listened to his heart thumping against his ear – it soothed him a bit, but not as much as it usually did. Try though he might to relax, there was still that sensation from earlier holding him alert; that feeling that, when he fell asleep, he would be forced awake far too early.

***

Christmas shopping was never an easy or a pleasant task, but this year especially there seemed to be far too many screaming babies, aggressive charity barkers, and incensed women yelling at harassed-looking store clerk for the sanity of anyone with half a brain. Sherlock was doing his best to get them through it as quickly as they could so they could retreat back home sooner, but it was a difficult task when both the stores and the chaos seemed to be so endless.

“You’d think they’d lose their voices after a while” John said, following as they ducked into a department store, past a man having a shouting match with a security guard.

“Certainly it’d be worth it for – what’s the sale right now?” Sherlock looked around at the mass of gold-emblazoned advertisements surrounding the entrance. “Getting the best deal on the new line of jumpers.”

“Tell you what, I would scream at a guard for that, though,” said John, and Sherlock laughed.

“Go on then, and I’ll go get you one.” He glanced at a nearby stand overflowing with bright red jumpers with green sleeves – they were hideous even for John’s vast array of taste.

They passed by the jumpers and started to pick their way through the maze-like jewellery section. It was less crowded here, but all the salespeople were looking expectant, and Sherlock wasn’t keen for their advances just now. All the same, he paused for a second in front of the Cartier counter to look down at the pocket watches in the display. He never could resist a glance at them, especially the one with that silver webbing design along the casing – clearly Victorian-inspired, a style he’d always had a fondness for.

“Come on, you old dandy,” John chuckled, pushing Sherlock forward. Sherlock gave an exaggerated huff of annoyance, but obeyed. They still had their massive list to get through, after all.

“Alright,” he acquiesced, stopping them at the end of the rows of glass cases. “Keep yourself occupied for ten minutes, and I’ll go do the boring stuff for Mummy.” He felt dread stir in him at the thought. The women’s department was going to be brutal.

“Okay,” John said. “I’ll be around here.”

Sherlock smiled, bent to kiss him on the cheek, then set off.

It was an age before he could navigate though the packed shelves to find the pair of gloves he was looking for, and then even longer to stand in line while the sales clerks pitched offers to the dozen or so shoppers in front of him. Finally, after an excruciating one-sided conversation with the much-too-cheerful girl behind the counter, he left the department with a box under his arm and picked his way towards the jewellery section, but when he got there, a sight greeted him that made him stop short behind a rack of scarves.

John wasn’t where he’d left him, or even wandering around browsing the displays; he was at the Cartier counter, being handed a small square box by the salesperson.

Sherlock nearly gasped out loud – his heart was thudding in his chest, hopeful but not quite believing it – but there he was, standing right over the pocket watch display, sandwiched between the cufflinks and the women’s necklaces, and stuffing the package into his inside coat pocket as quickly as he could.

It was everything Sherlock could do to tamp down the smile that was threatening to reach all the way to his ears.

John Watson, you incorrigible romantic.

He reigned in his face as best as he could, then waited for John to move away from the counter and look as though nothing had just happened, before he emerged from behind the scarves.

“Got them,” Sherlock said, holding up the gloves, and trying his absolute best not to betray what he’d just seen in his expression. “Now, what are we getting for Harry?”

“How about a t-shirt that says, ‘ditch your girlfriend’?” John asked.

Sherlock chortled. “And you say I’m the tactless one.”

“Fine,” John sighed, giving a dramatic roll of his eyes. “Candles?”

“Sure – we can get some for Mrs. Hudson there, too.”

He couldn’t help himself – his smile was bursting out of him, tugging at his lips and crinkling the corners of his eyes.

“What’s so funny?” John asked, his brow furrowed.

“Nothing.” Sherlock turned away. “Let’s go.”

He led the way, John following at his heels, and gave himself a minute while John couldn’t see his face to bask in it – to indulge in the glorious rush of affection for his wonderful, thoughtful, incredible husband.

***

“Sherlock, we’ve gotta get going!”

“Just a moment!”

He stood in front of the mirror, brushing down the front of his jacket with his hands. Everything was perfect – he had on his burgundy silk shirt, one of John’s favorites on him, and he’d run some product through his hair so that it curled just so. If all went according to plan, it was about to be a very good evening, even with the awful time they were about to have at Harry’s.

Sherlock looked himself up and down one more, gave a quick little nod, then grabbed the large wrapped package from the chair beside the wardrobe and swept from the room.

It was drizzling outside the windows – not the most festive Christmas Eve weather, but Sherlock didn’t care just now. He made his way into the sitting room, where John was standing there looking gorgeous in a grey button-up and dark jacket.

“Come on, they’re expecting us at seven,” John said – his tone was trying to be urgent, but his face gave away how dreadfully unexcited he was.

“They can wait, they won’t split up in five extra minutes,” Sherlock said, waving a hand dismissively. “And anyway, first things first.”

He held out the package in his hand, and John burst into a low, throaty chuckle.

“I knew it,” he said, shaking his head slightly. “You can’t ever wait till it’s actually Christmas, can you?”

“And what would be the point of that?

John laughed louder, and stepped forward to take the package from him.

“Thank you, love,” he said softly, stretching up to kiss him, quick but gentle. Then he looked down at what was in his hand. “Well, what have we got here? Feels like a book…”

He untied the ribbon and tore off the green wrapping paper. It was a book – John turned it over – a dark brown, leather-bound volume, with embossed gold lettering emblazoned on the front: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

John’s eyes clouded over with surprise and emotion as he blinked down at it. “Oh, Sherlock…” He flipped open the cover; the spine creaked pleasantly, the heavy parchment pages fluttering under his thumb. “It’s beautiful.

“Merry Christmas,” Sherlock replied, softly, gazing down at him with fondness pouring out of him like the sun.

“Thank you,” John said, just a whisper now; he kissed him again, longer this time, and deeper, and he was smiling into it. Sherlock couldn’t help but smile back.

“Here,” he said as he broke off. He stepped back to set the book almost reverently on the side table next to his chair, then dug inside his jacket for a moment before withdrawing a small, square box, wrapped in gold paper.

Sherlock’s heart kicked up. Even though he’d been expecting it, planned for it even, the excitement that swelled up in him at the sight of the little box was sudden and exhilarating.

“I have bought the usual teas and chocolates and everything,” John said, as he fiddled nervously with it. “But this is my slightly special, personal one.”

His cheeks were tinged an adorable shade of pink. Sherlock laid a hand over John’s where it clutched at the box, then bent low for another kiss.

It was the longest one yet. Sherlock cradled John’s skull with his other hand and poured everything he was feeling into it, knowing that John could understand him perfectly.

“Thank you,” Sherlock whispered between them. John’s eyes were bright with joy.

“Well, go on then.” He pulled back and nodded downward.

Sherlock’s gaze leapt to the box again. His fingers actually tingled in anticipation. Taking a deep, silent breath, he grabbed the edge of the gold paper and tore it apart with excitement, peeling off the tape to reveal…

It wasn’t a box. Sherlock turned it over.

Itzhak Perlman, read the cover in sweeping white letters. Selected Romantic Works.

Below it, Perlman’s face peered out at him overtop of his violin.

“To continue your emotional education,” John said with a smile in his voice.

But Sherlock barely heard him. He stared down at the CD set in his hands, everything else blurring around the edges.

He’d been so sure…

But he hadn't been, had he? He hadn’t seen what was in the box John had put in his pocket at the store. He’d just assumed because there was no way John could have been buying anything else, no way John could have wanted anything from the jewellery department that wasn’t for Sherlock, no way he could have really been buying from the display of necklaces right next to the watches –

But Sherlock hadn’t even considered it. Because he couldn’t. Because it was too much to face what he already knew.

“Yes,” he said, breathless. “That’s – that’s great.”

There was a cold, dark chasm in the centre of his chest. Sherlock though his heart must have stopped beating because he couldn’t feel anything there. Nothing but blank shock, and a mounting obstruction in his throat.

“My brilliant husband,” John was saying now. It was like listening to a voice he’d never heard before.

“Yes,” Sherlock said back, only partially hearing what was coming out of his mouth. “Actually, do you mind if I just…absent myself for a second? I think…the wine…”

“Are you okay?” John asked, laying hand on his forearm. It felt like a burning ember, but Sherlock managed not to throw it off.

“I’m fine,” he said, stepping back. “I’ll just take a moment. Can you go get us a cab?”

“Sure,” John nodded. He looked concerned, and watched him as Sherlock turned around and walked briskly back down the hallway, the CD still clutched in his hand.

Behind him, he closed the bedroom door halfway, and stood completely still until he heard John tramp down the stairs. Then he sucked in a huge breath, shaking on the exhale and feeling his entire body tremble.

He hardly knew what to think or feel – his mind was cycling though so many emotions, they couldn’t land on any one longer than a couple seconds. All of a sudden, nothing seemed real, the happiness that had been flooding through him not five minutes ago gone like a trace of smoke that had billowed out the open window. Now he just felt – hollow.

Unbidden, an image of Mia swam before his vision. With her dark hair and hooded, sultry eyes. Wearing a diamond-encrusted gold necklace.

The though twisted his insides around with a violent jerk. He though he might vomit; he took a few more staggering breaths, desperately trying not to think beyond that, knowing that if he thought of anything else – if he wondered what had happened when he gave it to her, or any time since then, or even before – he would lose it completely.

He looked down at the CD set, and his stomach churned some more. At any other time, this would have been such a thoughtful gift. Sherlock would have loved it. But now…

Sherlock stepped further into the room, circled the bed, and stopped in front of the portable music station on top of the chest of drawers. He popped the first CD out of it’s case, fed it into the slot, and hit play.

The violin began very quietly – it gently climbed the scale and fell back down again. Mendelssohn’s sonata in F minor. One of Sherlock’s favorites.

Perlman’s notes flowed though him, washed over him. It was beautiful, and masterful, and Sherlock felt it fill some of that dreadful, hollow cavity within his chest. But it was too quiet and too slow. It wasn’t enough. There was too much empty space all around him.

He felt tears stinging his eyes, and didn’t bother to wipe them away. What did it matter? John couldn’t see. Wouldn’t have wanted to see. Sherlock found himself looking all around their room, and his eyes were landing on the pictures scattered about. Their wedding photo, mounted on the wall beside the wardrobe. The looked so happy there, both ignoring the cameraman completely, so they could gaze at each other. On the dresser beside the CD player, a photo of them from last summer, on a beach in the south of France. On John’s bedside table, a more recent photo, of Sherlock beaming while John planted a kiss on his temple. That one had just been spontaneous, while they were sitting together on a park bench when out for a walk one day, but John had liked it so much he’d printed it off and framed it.

Sherlock turned away from it, sharply. He didn’t want to look at it now, didn’t want to remember. He hated seeing it, hated seeing the eyes from all these photos – happy, smiling, carefree eyes staring down at him and reminding him of what a fool he was. Reminding him how foolish the life he’d lived had been, too.

The music pulled the tears out of him, dripping down his chin, and he let them fall.

He thought about that night, that perfect night, weeks ago. That night so much like this one and yet so far away, with Perlman playing and John’s arms holding him close. It had been so wonderful. It still was. It seemed stupid to think so now, but Sherlock still knew – whatever else had happened since then – on that night at least, John had loved him. There was no burying that.

And for some reason, it made it hurt even more.

Sherlock drew in a deep gasp, wiped at his cheeks; he tilted his head back to stop the rest of the tears. It took a couple of shaking breaths, but eventually he managed it. His eyes were dry.

He hit stop on the CD player. Perlman vanished.

Sherlock looked in the mirror. He still looked fine. He rubbed at his cheeks a bit more to force some colour back into them. Then he straightened his lapels, expelled the last of the tightness in his throat, then took just one more moment to steel himself before he left the bedroom.

He swung his coat over his shoulders as he stepped outside into the drizzle, not looking at John.

“Come on, we’re horribly late,” he said with a brusque note in his voice. He stepped out to the very edge of the curb and flagged down a black cab.

“How did you –?” John asked in bewilderment, dropping his own hand. Clearly he’d been standing here for the past several minutes with no luck at all.

“Let’s go,” Sherlock cut across him. He held open the door for John to climb in first. “They’re waiting for us.”

John shook his head, exasperated, but stepped inside. Sherlock followed him and barked out the address.

Sherlock was astonishingly glad to arrive at Harry’s flat. He returned her hug with enthusiasm, even gave one to Di as well. He surprised even himself by how cheerfully he acted throughout the evening; he laughed at Di’s painfully unfunny jokes over dinner, gave some enthusiastic work anecdotes, and was the first on his feet after pudding, insisting that he clear up while the others went through to the sitting room to chat.

John might have noticed his unusual behavior, but Sherlock knew he was mostly just grateful that the evening wasn’t horrendously uncomfortable and didn’t feature Harry and Di sniping at each other. He would thank Sherlock later for trying so hard to make it bearable for them.

Sherlock couldn’t bear to think about that, the grateful, oblivious expression that would settle on his face. He scrubbed harder at the baked-on grease in the turkey pan and tried to block out everything else.

“Couple more,” said Harry’s voice behind him. She stepped into the kitchen and laid a stack of dirty plates next to the sink. “Listen, Sherlock, you really don’t have to, I can –”

No, no, I insist,” he barked out.

It was a little too harsh to be innocent, and Harry heard it too.

“Is everything okay?” she asked. Her brows knitted together in a way that was so like John.

Sherlock dropped the pan into the soapy water, breathing in heavily through his nose. In the next room, Di had put on music, and a woman’s breathy, warbling voice was trickling into the kitchen – deep and mournful.

Tears, and fears, and feeling proud…to say ‘I love you’ right out loud…

He shook his head, hard, and clenched his hands against the sides of the sink.

“I’m fine,” he breathed. “Everything’s fine.”

Harry hesitated a moment, but then nodded slowly and turned back in the direction of the sitting room.

As soon as she was gone, Sherlock pressed his hands hard underneath his eyes, holding back the tide.

***

They didn’t talk at all during the cab ride home. John was sated and a bit drowsy from all the food, but Sherlock barely took any notice of anything. Time slipped by like water he was holding cupped in his hands; every time he tried to grab hold of it, it spilled away faster, out of his reach.

The rain had stopped when they got back to Baker Street, and Sherlock shook the last of the dampness from his shoes as he followed John upstairs. John slipped out of his coat and sighed happily as he wandered into the sitting room, perfectly at ease. Sherlock felt completely empty.

He pulled off his coat slowly, finally mustering up the courage to break the silence.

“Tell me, if you were in my position, what would you do?”

His voice was quiet, but he was surprised at how even it was. His hands weren’t even shaking as he hung his coat up on the rack.

“What position is that?” John asked over his shoulder. He was rolling it in slow circles, stretching it out.

“Imagine…” Sherlock tried, and the words stuck in his throat. He cleared them away. “Imagine your husband bought a necklace, and, come Christmas, gave it to somebody else…”

John whipped around to face Sherlock, his eyes wide.

“Would you wait around to find out if it was just a necklace –” he said towards the coat rack. “Or, if it’s sex and a necklace – or, if, worst of all –” he turned at last to look at John, “– it’s a necklace, and – love?”

John stared, shocked into stillness. Sherlock wasn’t even sure if he was breathing.

“Would you stay?” Sherlock asked, quiet and desperate now. “Knowing life would always be a little bit worse?”

His voice cracked, and he could feel the tears bubbling up again.

“Or would you cut and run?”

John blinked; his brow was creased, his eyes boring into Sherlock’s, searching.

“Sherlock…” he said, just above a whisper. “You…oh my God…”

Something like comprehension dawned on his face.

“You think…Mia?

“John, don’t –” Sherlock flinched, and his eyes squeezed shut. He couldn’t do this. He could barely face what was happening right this moment, but if John started pretending, he was sure it would kill him. “Please, just…tell me what we’re supposed to do now, because I truly have no –”

“No, Sherlock –”

He heard John take a step forward, and his eyes snapped open again. John stopped.

“Please, you – you don’t – God, I’m such an idiot…”

He pinched the bridge of his nose and bowed his head, inhaling heavily.

“I’m so sorry,” he murmured. “I never meant…oh, Sherlock…”

“So am I,” Sherlock said. His voice was barely a sound.

“No, listen.” John dropped his hand and looked imploringly back up at Sherlock. “Sherlock, that necklace wasn’t for Mia.”

Sherlock was about to open his mouth to beg him not to deny it, but as the words floated, one by one, into his shell of a brain, he stopped.

There was a look in John’s eyes that was desperate and horrible – but it wasn’t guilty, or bargaining, or deflecting. There wasn’t any measure of deceit in them at all. They were…pleading. Shaken. Completely earnest, and – Sherlock realized with a jolt in his stomach – absolutely terrified by what Sherlock had just said.

Sherlock’s breath began to come in quick, silent bursts.

“What?” he breathed.

“It wasn’t for Mia, Sherlock. It wasn’t remotely for Mia, no, God, no.” John was shaking his head almost frantically now, his lips trembling. “It was for Harry.”

Sherlock’s whirling thoughts grinded to a halt.

“For Harry?” he asked, bewildered.

Yes,” John let out, breathless. “It was a gift for Harry, from Diane.” John took another cautious step towards Sherlock. “She asked me to pick it up and hold onto it for her, so Harry couldn’t go snooping around again and find it.”

“She –” Sherlock was stammering now. He couldn’t believe this. Hope was slowly trickling back into his heart, which was beating so slowly, as if it tried to work any harder it would shatter again. Could it really be…? Was it possible…?

“She did?”

Yes,” John said again, and now he was stepping forward quickly to close the gap between them.

“I gave it to her tonight, when Harry was in the bathroom. You were still doing the washing-up. She gave it to her after we left, look – Harry sent me this a few minutes ago.”

John’s hand fumbled in his jacket pocket, and he extracted his phone. He fumbled at the screen with shaking fingers for a few seconds, then thrust it into Sherlock’s hand.

It was open to his text thread with Harry. The last message received was a picture of her in her bathroom mirror, wearing a begrudging smirk. Around her neck, there was a heavy, gold, heart-shaped necklace, with a single ruby set in near the bottom. Underneath, there was a caption that read Merry Christmas, you sly bastard.

Sherlock stared down at the picture, hardly daring to hope, to realize.

“Why…” He shook his head slowly, dazed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

John cast his gaze downward as he took the phone back: now he did look guilty.

“Because…” he sighed, then paused. He seemed to be searching for the right words. “Because…then you would have asked me why I was bothering, when obviously a necklace isn’t going to fix anything between them. And…”

The way he was speaking, so slow and deliberate, made Sherlock’s brow furrow with confusion.

“…then I would have had to lie to you about the favour she was doing for me, in return.”

Slowly, he reached into his jacket again – the inside pocket this time, where he had pulled the CD from earlier that night – and pulled out small, white envelope, which he handed to Sherlock.

John said nothing, but indicated that Sherlock should open it. Sherlock stared at him for a heartbeat, two, three, before complying. He pulled open the flap and pulled out two long strips of cardstock.

The tickets read Itzhak Perlman at the Royal Albert Hall, 30th of December.

Sherlock gasped out loud. His knees were about to give out. John noticed and took the opportunity to grab him by the shoulders and hold him steady.

“How did you get these?” Sherlock breathed out in a rush.

“Di’s brother works there, she called in a favour.” John was close enough now that Sherlock could see the emotion swimming in his eyes. “I’m sorry, I should have just told you, I know, but – I never thought you would think –”

“No, no, of course not.” Sherlock’s voice broke again as shook he his head, his eyes falling closed. A hot wave of shame was flooding through his chest now where the emptiness had been. “I know you, I –” The tears were welling up beneath his lids. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, love…”

Sherlock surged forward at the harsh, desperate sound that was John’s voice, at his gentle tugging at his shoulders. He let the tickets fall to the ground as he threw his arms around John, clutching tight to his back, his shoulders, whatever he could reach. He buried his face in John’s shoulder and let out a single, earth-shattering sob, letting himself expel his tears, tears of embarrassment, of joy, of heart-crushing relief that was spreading through him like a warm flame, chasing away the darkness.

“I would never, ever –” And John’s voice was breaking too, even as he stroked his hands down Sherlock’s back in a slow, soothing pattern. “I would never, Sherlock, not ever. You know that. You know there could never be anyone else, my love. Not for me.”

“I know,” Sherlock gasped out. He sucked in a few more shuddering breaths and raised his head. “I know that, I do. Of course I do.”

John pulled back to face him again and wiped away the tears rolling down Sherlock’s cheeks with his thumbs. It looked like his eyes were filling, too.

“I’m sorry,” Sherlock whispered, a rough, wrecked sound. “I’ve been such a fool.”

“No,” John breathed, shaking his head. Sherlock could feel it across his skin, through his entire body.

“It was just –” Sherlock was still reeling, his eyes downcast, and he wheezed out a single, humourless laugh. “She seemed so keen on you.”

John’s eyes clouded with confusion for a second, before he realized who Sherlock was talking about.

“Oh,” he said, and his lips quavered into a tentative half-smile. “Well, she was. She wasn’t making a big secret out of that. But she hasn’t spoken to me since the Christmas party, when I told her to back off.”

“You did?” Sherlock raised his eyes to meet John’s.

“Yeah,” John said, a breathless humour in his voice. “She tried to come onto me while we were dancing – you remember – and I told her she was wasting her time, and that I was married.”

In spite of himself, Sherlock’s eyebrows shot up in disbelief. John sighed.

“Okay, yeah, that didn’t actually seem to bother her at first.” John grimaced slightly at the memory. “But I kept telling her that nothing was gonna happen, and if she kept trying to make it happen I could easily get Lestrade to fire her. That seemed to set her straight – although I might get Lestrade to fire her anyway, now that I think about it.”

Sherlock tried to laugh, but it was so sudden and harsh that it sounded more like a sob. More tears were slipping out from underneath his screwed-up eyes, so overwhelmed with this respite, with this reaffirmation, with knowing that things were going to be alright after all – it was all so much for his fragile, newly-restored heart.

“Oh, Sherlock.

Sherlock could hear the tears rising up in John’s voice, but he couldn’t open his eyes to see them. He could only pull him in for a deep, breathless kiss – a kiss so powerful it hurt, so full of every emotion Sherlock had been carrying for the past hours, for weeks. It all burst open inside him, flooding though his every cell and out through the little sobs he was gasping into John’s mouth, but John understood. John, who was holding him tight by his grip across Sherlock’s back, John who was meeting his lips with desperate little moans and just as much bone-deep feeling; John, who was still his, who had never stopped being his, who would always be his. The intensity of knowing that again was like an electric shock to the heart.

Sherlock broke them off with a heavy gasp, and rested his forehead against John’s.

“I love you,” he whispered.

“I love you,” John breathed back. “Only you.”

Sherlock gave another sob that was halfway to a laugh, and kissed him again.

He didn’t know how long they stayed there; hours, maybe, or days. Maybe it was next Christmas Eve by the time they finally broke apart again. All he knew was that the chasm in his chest had long gone now, and the tears had dried on his face by the time he drew back with a wavering smile.

“Give me one second?” he asked.

John nodded, and Sherlock hurried towards the bedroom. His fingers were still shaking as he stabbed the eject button and took hold of the CD, but he was breathing easily again by the time he’d returned to the sitting room and fed it into the stereo on the shelf.

He turned around, about to ask, but John was already there, ready to take him by the hand and lead him into the centre of the room.

The next sonata struck up, slow and jubilant, and John drew Sherlock close into him, pressing them together from chest to ankle. Sherlock tucked his head in next to John’s cheek and swayed with him, slowly, back and forth, to Perlman’s gliding, swooping melody. They rotated in a slow circle, not really dancing but just holding each other – holding each other to the rhythm of this romance, this deep, wordless, love song. Just feeling each other, and knowing, as Sherlock knew they both did at that moment, that this was a place without uncertainty, without doubt. Everything here was whole and true, and always would be.

John drew backward a little, dragging his cheek along Sherlock’s and hovering at his lips, almost touching. Then he leaned in, and Sherlock met him, kissed him slow, and sweet, and tender.

Perfect moments really weren’t that difficult to come by, he thought.

Chapter Text

“Delicious delicacy?” John asked.

“Um, no thank you,” the woman said, and turned away.

John’s painted-on charming smile faltered a little, and he wandered off. The place was packed – one of the largest weddings he’d ever done. This couple must be rich beyond belief. Either that or they’d skimped to hell on the food, which, looking down at the moldering piles of pâté on the tray he was carrying, didn’t seem all that unlikely.

He spotted a pretty blonde woman leaning against the frame of the door that led out to the patio, and moved toward her.

“Taste explosion?” He offered her the tray.

She turned to him, just enough to see that she was on the phone. She shook her head, looking annoyed.

John stepped back and began weaving his way through the crowd again. He was scowling now. Just having this job while he was trying to wrestle his way through Uni was bad enough, but what was even the point if he couldn’t at least use the chance to meet girls?

Not that there was much luck on that front, even outside of work. John had been wildly off his game lately. He couldn’t figure out what was the matter with him. Did slumps like this happen to other blokes?

He scanned the crowd, and finally spotted a woman standing by herself in the corner. She was pretty, but looked bored, and unimpressed with the whole affair. Maybe John could go cheer her up.

He pulled his tray out from beneath a couple who were reaching for the pâté, and set off towards her. He sidled up beside her, tray first, and put on his best flirtatious smile.

“Food?” he said, simply.

She didn’t laugh. She looked from the hors d’oeuvres to him, then shook her head sharply. “No, thanks.”

John gave a winsome little chuckle. “Yeah, it’s a bit dodgy isn’t it? Looks like a finger from a corpse.”

She looked back at him, with a guarded expression. John picked up a lump of the pâté and popped it into his mouth.

“Ugh, tastes like it, too.” John choked out, swallowing it down with difficulty. It was like forcing down bile.

She still didn’t even crack a smile. Alright, different sense of humour, John thought, his confidence ebbing slightly. Time for a new approach.

“I’m John,” he said, re-centering his smile.

“I’m Nancy,” she replied. There was a hard edge to her brow.

“What do you do, Nancy?” John asked. Good, here we go.

“I’m a cook.”

John nodded his interest. “Do you ever do weddings?”

“Yes, I do,” she said, stiffly.

“They should have asked you to do this one,” John chuckled, excitement prickling in him. He waited for her to smile back.

She didn’t. Her eyes flashed at him, bright with malice. “They did.”

John’s stomach plummeted. His fingers clenched on the tray, and his laughter petering out uncomfortably.

“God, I wish you hadn’t turned it down,” he said with an awkward smile. No, what are you doing?! He shouted, inwardly. You’re just digging yourself deeper!

Nancy’s smile was brittle and furious. “I didn’t.”

She turned on her heel and walked away without another word.

John looked after her, not particularly sorry, but frustrated all the same. What on earth had he gone and said that for? That had been an even bigger disaster than the girl he’d tried to sweet talk in the lift at school the other day.

John sighed, and began circulating the food again, lost in his own thoughts. He should have been able to charm that girl in his sleep, but instead he’d been so amateur it made him want to cringe. What was happening? He’d never stuck his own foot in his mouth that hard before.

But maybe the problem wasn’t him. Maybe it was with the girls. Everyone here was so dressed-up and stoic, John thought, as a group of ladies came over to him to investigate his tray. They had their chins tilted up with confidence, and were so engrossed in their conversation that it would have felt mad to try to talk to one of them. They just felt so closed-off, and uninviting.

But then, all English girls were like that, weren’t they? English men, too. No one in this bloody country was game to chat up a stranger.

He huffed out a small laugh as he moved back through the crowd toward the kitchen with his empty tray. Maybe he should just go to America. He could pull there in a heartbeat, surely.

John let the amusing thought cheer him up a bit as he pushed his way through the line cooks at their stoves and wound his way to the break area. Sherlock was sitting at a table by himself, scrolling through his phone, his white uniform unbuttoned slightly to expose the collar of a dark t-shirt.

“You on a break already?” John asked, sitting down next to him.

“Who cares, the food’s awful anyway,” Sherlock replied without looking up. “All the guests hate it.”

John scoffed. “Don’t tell Nancy.”

“Who’s Nancy?”

“The cook. She just shot me down,” John replied, bitterly.

Sherlock’s head was still bent over his phone, but John could still see him rolling his eyes.

“Well, thank goodness I get to hear about your increasingly pathetic attempts to find true love, otherwise I might never get through the day.”

Sherlock’s voice was laden with irony, and John felt hot indignation flush his face crimson.

“Hey, maybe it’s not my fault,” he said, affronted. “Maybe it’s the problem with English girls!”

Now Sherlock looked up. His eyebrows were pinched together, half dubious, half amused.

“Oh, really?” Sherlock replied, sardonically.

“Yeah.” John felt massively thrown off balance. But he’d put himself on the defensive, now, and he had to stick with it. “They’re…stuck up.”

All of them?” Sherlock was clearly biting back a laugh now.

“Yeah.” John nodded. He felt the grounds of this argument settle a bit more solidly under his feet. “I probably need to go for girls who are cooler, you know.” He straightened up defiantly, looking Sherlock up and down. “Game for a laugh. Like American girls!”

Sherlock couldn’t contain himself anymore. He let out a snigger, turning his face away.

“It’s true!” John said, more strongly. He didn’t know why he was suddenly so eager to prove this. “I’d get a girlfriend instantly in America.”

“That’s ridiculous, John.” Sherlock peered back at him out of the corner of his eye.

“No, it’s not. American girls would want me with my cute British accent.”

Sherlock’s lips were set into a thin line.

“Your ‘cute British accent’?” he said, slowly.

“Yeah. That’s what they’d think, over there.” John grip tightened on the edge of the table, and he leaned forward a bit, hoping Sherlock was understanding, finally.

But Sherlock was rolling his eyes again, and all the amusement had gone out of his face. Now he just looked irritated.

“John, you’re a lonely, idiotic romantic,” he said, with a dismissive air. “Accept it.”

“Never,” John shot back, and a satisfied grin was creeping up onto his face. “I’m John Watson, God of Sex! I’m just on the wrong continent, that’s all.”

Sherlock scanned his face with unconcealed bewilderment, and John smiled toothily back at him.

He didn’t know where all this had come from, but the desire to prove Sherlock wrong was mounting in him higher and higher. He’d make him see just how many people would fall over themselves to be with him, under the right circumstances. And if doing that involved sticking to this mad idea he’d pulled out of his arse which had taken hold of him without warning, so be it.

***

“Hey, I’ve got exciting news,” John said, looking over at Sherlock in the back of the cab they were sharing.

Sherlock didn’t answer right away. John knew he was still thinking about the exam from this morning, and waited patiently. After a moment or two, Sherlock turned slowly away from the window where he was watching the city pass by, and fixed him with a bored sort of look.

“What?” he asked.

John was practically vibrating with insane, reckless energy. He’d been holding it back all morning, waiting for a moment to tell him.

“I’ve bought a ticket to the States!” It practically exploded out of him, lighting up his face with enthusiasm. “I’m off in three weeks.”

“What?” Sherlock’s brow furrowed in confusion.

“I did it. I’m going. To some place called ‘Wisconsin’.”

He was buzzing in his seat. He pulled his legs up under him and perched himself sideways on the bench, so he was looking at Sherlock full-on.

Sherlock scanned him, looking absolutely lost, until comprehension washed over him, widening his eyes into stunned grey pools.

“You’re not serious,” he said, sounding appalled. “Because of that thing about English girls?”

“Exactly,” John said, thrilled he’d got it. “Those Wisconsin girls won’t know what’s coming for them.”

He grinned, maybe a big smugly, into Sherlock’s shocked face. Sherlock’s hand was still propped up on the windowsill, curled into a fist where he’d been resting his chin on it.

“You’re mad,” he said, finally.

“I’m not,” John said, nearly giggling.

“You are.” Sherlock shaking his head, slowly. “You’re really going to go all the way to America just for the chance at some casual sex? John, that’s ludicrous.

“It’s not, it’s brilliant!” John said adamantly, though he knew he was lying.

Of course it had been ludicrous – John had known it last night as he’d stared at the flight page, wondering if he was really going to go through with this. What was he even thinking, wanting to try this out? Was it really just to prove a point? Or was it because the idea had infected him so much it suddenly seemed like the only way he was ever going to have a shot at being with anyone ever again? He didn’t know what the future held, or what he wanted out of his life, but the more he thought about it the more the prospect of a completely carefree, no-strings-attached excursion halfway around the world for someone, anyone, seemed more tempting by the minute. Who cared if it was stupid, or ridiculous? He was young, and stuck halfway through Uni with no one by his side, and he was itching for some adventure. And who knows, maybe he’d actually be right about the American girls. Maybe this was what he’d been missing the whole time.

“John,” Sherlock said, slowly. He’d turned toward him now, and was rubbing hard at his temples. “Listen, I’m sure there are some lovely women in America –”

John smirked at him, feeling triumphant.

“– but is this really the next logical step, after failing to chat up a couple people at work?”

“Does it matter?” John asked, shrugging. “What’s the point of going through things logically, when in America, any bar could contain ten girls more beautiful, and more likely to have sex with me than the whole of the United Kingdom?”

He was doing it again – saying things that were totally unlike him, but with such conviction it sounded as if he’d been saying them for years. He laughed a bit, feeling wild and elated, but Sherlock just rolled his eyes and turned back to the window.

“That’s absolute bollocks, John,” he said, lowly. “You’ve actually gone mad.”

“No, I’m wise,” John grinned. He leaned back against the seat, his arms behind his head. “Stateside, I’m Prince Harry – without the weird family.”

He waited, but Sherlock didn’t turn around for another retort. He just stared out the passing cars, not looking at him. John’s smile faltered a bit.

“Well, clearly this ‘love’ thing is your area,” Sherlock said. His voice was dripping with a bitter sort of irony, quiet and grim. He might not have been speaking to John at all. “But surely it can’t be as complicated as an idiot might think.”

The words made something stir in John’s chest. Something dark, rife with disappointment, or frustration. Why couldn’t Sherlock just understand?

“You’ll see,” he said, simply. “I’ll come back with a throng of models with me. Then you won’t be laughing.”

He turned away and looked straight ahead, out at the street. Sherlock said nothing, didn’t even give a shake of his head, and John didn’t say anything for the rest of the ride, either.

***

December raced by, John couldn’t believe how quickly. He’d expected to be counting down the days until he left with desperate impatience, but time sped along so rapidly that he almost couldn’t believe it when he saw that his flight left in less than 24 hours. The excitement simmered over inside him, and all too soon he was throwing clothes into a bag and stepping outside into the pouring rain, rushing for the tube.

It was another one of his whims, and he decided to just go along with it. Anyway, he’d barely seen Sherlock at all in the last couple weeks, and it only seemed right that he should before he set off. He spent the tube journey twisting his hands impatiently – he couldn’t wait to see the look on his face.

He hurried from the Baker Street station up the street, and let himself through the front door to Sherlock’s flat. He bounded up the stairs, beaming, and knocked twice on the door to the sitting room to announce his presence before pushing it open.

Sherlock was sitting in his chair, the fire crackling behind him in the grate. He had his laptop opened on his crossed legs, and he was looking up at John in surprise.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. He wasn’t smiling.

“Oh, you know, just being ridiculous,” John quipped. He stepped into the room and shook the rain out of his hair. “Can I stay here tonight?”

“What’s wrong with your flat?” Sherlock asked, shortly.

He sounded annoyed, and for a moment John faltered where he stood in the doorway. Sherlock had always been happy to have John stay in the spare bedroom before.

“Had to rent it out for a few days to pay for my ticket,” he lied. His ticket had been ridiculously cheap, given that he’d be landing in some empty, freezing state.

Sherlock blinked at him a few times, and his face sank into an impassive expression.

“So you’re actually going ahead with this genuinely stupid plan?”

“Yep,” John said, and he plastered his grin back on his face. “Wisconsin, here I come.”

And with that, he tossed his bag on the sofa and headed for the kitchen to make tea.

Sherlock was quiet behind him, though John could feel his stare prickling the back of his neck. He didn’t turn around, and waited with his breath coming in shallow bursts as he rummaged around the cabinet.

“This is insane,” Sherlock said at last.

“We’ll see,” John said, as he pulled down two mugs and set them on the counter.

“John, you haven’t thought this through.”

“I bloody well have,” John said, and he turned just enough to flash Sherlock a winning grin. “Every last detail, down to my bag packed entirely full of condoms.”

Sherlock’s eyes snapped to the bag lying on the sofa, mouth open as if it had personally offended him.

John held the kettle under the sink, shaking with laughter.

***

The plane wasn’t full – apparently, very few people were keen to head to Milwaukee when it was ten degrees below. John stretched out in his aisle seat, enjoying the extra space.

He slept most of the way there, wanting to be alert for when he arrived wherever he was going. It all seemed a bit unreal, still. He could hardly imagine what he’d find when he arrived. Could he really be right? Would he really find someone in America as amazing as the concept he’d built up inside his mind?

John kept glancing up at the map on the screen in front of his seat, watching the little dot get closer and closer to his destination, and tried not to think about Sherlock’s parting words as he’d left his flat that morning.

“You’ll come back a broken man,” he said from the sitting room table, barely glancing up from his newspaper.

“Yeah, backbroken,” John had retorted. “From too much sex.”

“You’re on the road to disaster,” Sherlock said, lowly.

And John had had a reply on his lips, but something had made him hold it back. There was something in Sherlock’s face, an expression almost like…defeat.

It didn’t make sense. John’s mind had spun as he pulled on his jacket, trying to fathom a reason for it. It was just a holiday to the States, what could go so wrong? But still, whatever it was, it had silenced him, and he’d found no desire to needle Sherlock about it anymore.

It didn’t matter, John decided, as he tried to put Sherlock out of his mind again. He was just going to have a good time. Whatever happened would happen, and he’d have a great story to tell, in any case.

A few hours later, he burst through the door of the tiny airport, into the freezing night. Christ. He’d known it was going to be cold, but this was unlike anything he’d ever felt. The ground was completely covered in snow, including the road where the cabs were lined up. Just before him, on a little patch of grass which the cars were circling around, a sign displayed General Mitchell International. There must have been a full six inches on snow piled on top of it.

John pulled his coat tighter around him, and made a beeline for the nearest cab. His breath was coming out in thick, opaque clouds. He fumbled with the handle with his rapidly numbing fingers, and slid himself into the warmth of the backseat with a grateful sigh.

“Take me to a bar,” he said to the driver.

“What kind of bar?”

“Any bar,” John said, shucking off his bag and leaning forward in the seat. “Just your average American bar.”

The driver shrugged and set off. John’s heart thrummed in his chest. This was it.

Not five minutes away, they pulled into a large car park outside a wood-paneled building. There didn’t seem to be any other buildings around, except for a couple houses down the road surrounded by wide expanses of grass. The roof, like the sign at the airport, was piled high with snow.

John paid the driver and hurried inside. The bell clinked as the door swung open, and he planted himself at the nearest barstool, dropping his bag beside him.

The place was decorated with symbols of various local sports teams, and strands of tinsel had been hung up all around the walls. A pool table sat in the corner, with a few people clustered around it.

A bartender spotted John, and stepped over to him. “Can I help you?”

“Yeah, uh –” John started, then stopped. They probably didn’t have any of his usual beers here. He scanned the taps. No, they didn’t. He picked the first one he saw. “I’ll have a Budweiser, please.”

“Bud, coming up,” the bartender said, and bent down for a glass.

“Oh my God,” said a lilting voice from his left.

John turned. A stunningly beautiful girl sat at the other end of the bar. A few strands of brown hair framed her face where it peeked out from the fur-lined hood of her winter coat.

She smiled. Her lips were red and pouting. “Are you from England?” she asked.

John nodded, still reeling at the sight of her. “Yes.”

She sighed, and with long, slender fingers, pushed her hood back. “That is so. Cute.”

She leaned forward, stretching her arm out in front of her along the bar. “Hi, I’m Stacey.”

John took her hand and shook it, smiling, but his mind was racing with surprise and confusion.

“Jeannie?” Stacey called out. Her American accent sounded almost alien to John’s ears.

Over near the far wall, next to a retro-style jukebox, another girl turned around. She was blonde and pale, wearing a fur wrap, and just as beautiful as Stacey.

“Yeah?” she called back, eying John from under her lashes.

“This is…” Stacey began as Jeannie came over. John sat there, frozen for a second, before he recognized his cue to speak.

“John,” he said, shaking Jeannie’s proffered hand. “Watson.”

The feeling of excitement that had been bubbling in his chest for weeks now seemed to have congealed into a solid mass. His mind was still stuck on confusion, unable to process anything that was happening.

“Cute name,” said Jeannie, her pink lips twitching.

“Jeannie,” Stacey said. Her face was resting in her hands, smiling enticingly. “He’s from England.”

“Yeah,” John replied. He struck out for something else to say, anything else, and came up with nothing. “Kensington,” he finally spat out, lamely.

Both girl’s mouths opened into a surprised oh, as if this were the most fascinating thing they’d ever heard.

The mass in John’s chest was expanding, pressing up against his ribs. Something was wrong.

Wait till Carol-Anne gets here,” Jeannie said, sharing a conspiratorial smile with Stacey. “She’s crazy about English guys.”

Stacey hummed in agreement. John nodded, dazed, and tried to look interested.

He fumbled in front of him and raised the glass of beer to his lips. He nearly choked on it, and only just avoided spitting it out. It was dreadful.

From behind him, the bell on the door clinked again, and John felt dread rise up in his throat as he turned around and saw yet another gorgeous girl – another blonde, but with shorter hair and blue earrings that dangled all the way down to the fur coat wrapped tightly around herself.

No, no, this was all wrong. What was he doing here? This was insane.

“Hey girls,” said the newcomer, and her voice was laden with just as much sensual emphasis as her friends’.

“Carol-Anne,” said Jeannie, not taking her eyes off John. “Come meet John. He’s from England.”

She placed the nail of her thumb between her teeth, and John’s heart started racing towards a full-blown panic.

By the door, Carol-Anne brushed her hair out of her eyes with a deliberate sweeping gesture.

“Well, step aside, ladies,” she crooned. “This one’s on me.”

She tilted her head and swaggered towards them, then leaned sideways on the bar, barely a foot from John.

John tried to look anywhere but at her, tried to feel anything but that awful darkening dismay that was crashing into him with every sultry blink she sent in his direction.

“Hey, gorgeous,” Carol-Anne said, quiet and low.

An invisible fist squeezed around John’s throat.

This was mental. Mental. Here he was, in a bar with the three most beautiful girls he’d ever seen, and all he wanted was for them to leave him alone. He couldn’t stand this girl being so close to him, or her two friends staring at him from behind like they wanted to jump him right then and there. All those weeks of planning and anticipation, and now that he was here it was awful and all he could think of was –

John’s breath stopped in his chest.

The revelation had smashed into him like a club to the back of the skull.

He blinked, his eyes slowly swimming back into focus. Carol-Anne was leaning in closer now, her full lips parted and inviting.

“Um,” John stammered, drawing back. She looked a bit startled, but her eyes were quick to narrow again, seductively.

John, however, was already scrambling to his feet.

“…I have to go, actually,” he said, in a quiet voice.

Carol-Anne’s face fell in displeasure.

“But you just got here!” Stacey said, from behind him, as Jeannie let out a disappointed whine.

“I know,” John said. He wasn’t looking at any of them, fumbling in his pocket for what little American money he had. He threw a couple bills down on the table. “Sorry, ladies. Have a Merry Christmas.”

He turned around to the other two, who looked crestfallen, and gave them a little nod. Carol-Anne was still leaning against the bar looking stunned, and her eyes followed him as he bent to retrieve his bag by her feet, then fled back through the door.

John raced through the car park without looking back. The cab he’d taken here was parked at the edge near the street, the driver slumped in his seat with a magazine propped open on the steering wheel. John rapped on the window, and he jumped, then turned around and unlocked the door to let him scramble in.

“What the hell –?” he began, but John cut across him.

“I need to go back to the airport,” he said in a rush.

“Already?” The driver looked astonished. “You were in there all of five minutes!”

“Just go – and quickly.” John barked at him.

The driver stared for a second longer, then gave up and turned back around, starting the car again.

John stared at the blankets of snow as they whipped by in the dark, counting the seconds until they arrived.

***

John raised a tremulous hand, and rang the doorbell of 221B.

It was already dark out. Getting in had been easy enough, but getting a flight back to London on Christmas Eve had been near impossible, even in the early hours of the morning when he’d left. He’d had to come directly from the airport, and he was shivering slightly with the cold, his body feeling exhausted even though his mind had never been more awake.

Moments ticked by, dragging on for hours, it seemed, until finally John heard the familiar footsteps coming down the stairs from inside. His heart stilled in his chest. The street behind him had gone quiet

A click of the lock, and the door swung open. There stood Sherlock, wearing his blue dressing gown over his button-up, his hair slightly mussed and his cheeks turning pink as the air rushed in through the entrance.

Sherlock stared down at him, his face completely blank. He looked like no emotion had touched his face since John had seen it last – not one line around his lips or across his forehead to betray anything behind those stone-set eyes.

“What happened to the American girls?” he said, sounding profoundly disinterested in the answer.

John could only offer him a sheepish attempt at a smile in return.

“Would you believe they were just as stuck up as English girls?” he asked, tentatively.

Sherlock’s eyebrows raised, and John exhaled in relief. Finally, something. Something to give away what he was thinking, even the slightest bit.

“All of them?” he asked. Sarcastic, but not quite as biting as before.

“Yeah, probably.” John said, encouraged. “Most of them. Well, at least some. From what I saw, anyway.”

He gave a half-hearted little laugh, and, to his immense relief, Sherlock’s face relaxed into the smallest of smiles. He looked weary beyond belief, and it send a sharp spike through John’s chest, but it was still a smile. Still Sherlock.

“What are you doing here, John?” Sherlock asked, and there was an unbearable current of sadness in his voice. He sounded utterly devoid of spirit, and all at once flashes burst in John’s mind of all the things he’d said, all the ways he’d tried to stop John from leaving. And all the ways John had shot him down with crudities he didn’t believe, letting himself just be swept along in the joke.

Well, he wasn’t joking anymore.

Still shaking, though he was sure it wasn’t from the cold, John pulled his other hand out from behind his back. Grasped in it was a large bouquet of flowers.

Sherlock gasped, barely audible. He stared down at the arrangement of dark red roses, flecked on all sides by mistletoe berries and sweeping green leaves. His eyes flicked from John to the bouquet and back again, his mouth hanging agape as though he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“Finding what I’ve been looking for,” John said, quietly.

Sherlock’s eyes bored into his – the depths of emotion that had suddenly flooded back into them nearly knocked John off his feet.

He couldn’t look away. He didn’t want to look away, ever. He held himself in Sherlock’s fathomless gaze, and gave a small shrug of one shoulder.

“Apparently,” he went on, softly, “it’s a lot easier than an idiot might think.”

Sherlock blinked down at him once, twice, and the moment stretched on until John felt like he could have gotten lost in it, could have frozen to the spot where he stood –

And then, Sherlock’s face split wide into a bright, shining grin.

He was laughing, and John laughed with him, feeling lighter than air, feeling warmer than the summer sunshine. Sherlock’s deep chuckle rang out through the deserted street, and there was no one but them in the world, laughing together as it all, finally, slotted into place.

Sherlock reached out and took the flowers, and then leaned in as John stepped forward to close the gap between them. Their lips met, and it was soft and uncoordinated because they were still smiling too wide, and that only made them laugh harder as they tried again, and again, until at last they sank into each other, not feeling the chill trickling in through the open door. Sherlock flung his arms around John’s shoulders, the bouquet clutched against John’s back, and John pulled him closer with one arm snaking around his waist and the other clutching at the fabric of his dressing gown, feeling the warmth of his body chase out the darkness, the last vestiges of doubt.

They kissed softly, framed in the doorway of Baker Street, lips moving gently and tongues dipping in to explore – to discover each other, familiarity winding itself into the newness of it all, exhilaration flooding into John’s heart at the point where Sherlock’s was beating against his chest.

Chapter Text

Sherlock and his father were sitting on a bench by the river.

It was a nice day. The sky was cloudless, the sun shining on the water. A few boats were floating lazily by, propelled by the crisp November breeze.

Sherlock knew his dad wanted to talk. He was doing that thing where he kept clearing his throat for too long, and a lot louder than he normally did. Dad didn’t know he did this, because Sherlock hadn’t told him. Like Mycroft had said, people were very strange about the things they didn’t want to know about themselves.

He’d heard Dad talking to Mrs. Hudson when she’d come over yesterday. She was coming over a lot more these days, but Sherlock had been up in his room again and hadn’t seen her this time. It was all a bit too much for him, the soft words, the pitying looks. He’d left her to comfort Dad instead.

“And then sometimes when he does come out of his room, it’s obvious he’s been crying,” he’d heard Dad’s voice say, muffled through the floor. “I just don’t know…it was such a waste, and if it’s going to ruin Sherlock’s life as well…”

Then he’d been unable to hear anything but Mrs. Hudson making soft shushing noises, and he knew Dad had started to cry.

He’d wanted to go downstairs and apologize, for making everything so much harder than it already was, but what could he say? They were both already so lost. And how could he tell Dad about the other thing that was making him shut himself up in his room, without Dad thinking he didn’t care about Mummy?

It was an awful thought. Sherlock missed her so much¸ but it didn’t make his other feelings go away. And he liked to think that if she were here, she’d have been happy about it…

But then, who knew what was right anymore? With her gone, and Mycroft off at Uni, and with just his Dad left, who Sherlock wasn’t sure had the answer, he just didn’t know how to think about anything.

Dad finally took a deep breath, and looked sideways at him.

“So.” He said. He sounded stiff and unsure. “What’s the problem, Sherlock?”

Sherlock looked up at him.

“Is it just Mum, or…is it something else?”

Sherlock said nothing.

His Dad looked concerned, his lined forehead creasing. “Maybe school?” he asked. “Are you being bullied?”

Sherlock said nothing. He hated how worried he looked, but could he really tell him?

“Or is it – something worse?” Dad asked, his face grim now. “Can you give me any clues at all?”

Sherlock looked out toward the water for a moment, made up his mind, then looked back.

“You really want to know?” he asked him. His voice rasped a little. It had been a while since he’d spoken last.

Dad turned sideways on the bench, an elbow resting on the back of it. “I really want to know.”

“Even though you won’t be able to do anything to help?” Sherlock asked.

“Even if that’s the case, yes.”

Sherlock scanned his face. He was serious. He really did just want to make sure Sherlock was alright.

“Okay…” Sherlock said. “Well, the truth is, actually…I’m in love.”

Dad’s eyes widened in surprise. Clearly this had been the last thing he’d expected to hear.

“Sorry?”

“I know I should be thinking about Mummy all the time, and I am,” Sherlock said, quickly. “But the truth is, I’m in love. I was before she died, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

He said all this in one rush of breath, before he could lose his nerve. But he felt strangely light after he did. It felt…a bit of a relief, just to finally have someone else know.

His Dad gave a sudden burst of breathless laughter. “Aren’t you a bit young to be in love?”

Sherlock stared at him.

“No,” he said, confused.

Dad’s laughter died away in an instant, his face schooled into seriousness once again. “Ah, right. Okay.”

But he reached out and ruffled Sherlock’s hair, then gave his shoulder an affectionate squeeze.

“Well, I’m a little relieved,” he said, and he sounded it. Sherlock thought he must have been preparing for this conversation for days, running through it over and over in his mind.

“Why?” Sherlock asked.

“Because, I thought it would be something worse.” Dad said, with a subdued exuberant quality in his voice.

Sherlock stared back at him in disbelief.

“Worse than the total agony of being in love?” he said. Dad just didn’t understand; Sherlock couldn’t imagine anything worse.

Dad did look disarmed, though. “Oh,” he said. The smile dropped off his face again, and he turned to stare back out at the river.

“No, you’re right,” he said, quietly. “Total agony.”

Sherlock felt instantly worse. No, Dad did understand. Obviously.

He turned back out to where Dad was looking, at a little sailboat flitting between the barges and ferries.

Mummy had always liked being out here, along the river. Sherlock wondered if John did, too.

***

He hadn’t planned on this when he’d told him, however.

“Let’s go.” His dad said, clapping his hands together. “We can definitely crack this! Remember, I was a kid once, too!”

He began to pace quickly back and forth in front of the sofa. Sherlock rolled his eyes.

“So, come on,” Dad pressed on. He looked determined. “It’s someone at school, right?”

“Yeah,” replied Sherlock, half-heartedly.

“Right, good. Good,” said Dad. “And, what does…” he hesitated a moment, “…she…?”

Sherlock raised his eyebrows, affronted.

He,” Dad amended, nodding once, “feel about you?”

Sherlock sighed, uncrossing his arms from his chest.

He doesn’t even know my name.” He looked down at his lap. “And even if he did, he’d despise me.”

Dad had stopped pacing, and was staring down at him.

“He’s the coolest boy in school, and everyone worships him because he’s heaven,” Sherlock finished, in a defeated tone.

Dad nodded in understanding. “Good, good.”

He stepped around the coffee table and sat next to Sherlock on the sofa. He folded his hands in his lap.

“Well, basically you’re fucked, aren’t you?”

His face split into a grin, and he began to laugh lowly. Sherlock shoved him in the arm.

“Mummy hated you saying that word,” he said, petulantly. He didn’t feel like laughing at all.

“She did, yeah,” Dad chuckled. “But she also would have hated you thinking that this boy would despise you.”

“Yeah, well.” Sherlock looked back down at his knees, his back hunched. “She’d have liked John, though. It’s not his fault.”

Dad’s laughter petered out, and he placed a gentle hand on Sherlock’s shoulder.

“That’s his name?”

“Yeah.” Sherlock said. He felt strangely tired all of a sudden.

Dad said nothing for a moment, just letting Sherlock sit in his thoughts. That was alright. It felt better sitting here than sitting alone in his room, anyway.

Then, Dad hunched over a little bit more to catch Sherlock’s eye, and Sherlock turned to face him.

“Do you want to tell me about him?” Dad asked.

Sherlock blinked, and then, to his surprise, a smile spread across his face like it hadn’t done in weeks.

“He’s in my classes,” Sherlock said excitedly, sitting up straight on his knees and facing his dad. “He’s got blond hair and he’s really smart, and he plays on the rugby team and he’s the best, plus he has a really nice singing voice…”

He went on, and Dad listened, smiling faintly all the time.

***

Sherlock lay on his side in the darkness, unable to sleep.

His brain wouldn’t shut off. He couldn’t stop seeing John, projected on the insides of his eyelids, and feeling the wave of hopelessness sweep over him again. Sherlock had seen him this afternoon, standing by a bank of lockers surrounded by his throng of friends and a few doe-eyed girls, too, and he was laughing as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Sherlock had slunk past them, unseen, and felt like he’d been submerged in icy water from which he couldn’t surface.

He tossed around in his covers for a while longer, then gave up. He got up and pulled his dressing gown over his pajamas. Dad would still be awake.

Sherlock didn’t bother muffling his footsteps as he headed downstairs. He made his way towards the sliver of light shining out of the just-barely cracked door to the office. Sherlock knocked softly, and pushed it open.

Dad swivelled around in his chair. He hadn’t even dressed for bed yet; he was wearing an old beige cardigan, and his glasses were perched on his nose, the chain attached to them running along his collar.

“Hey, Sherlock,” he said, looking surprised. “Can’t sleep?”

Sherlock shook his head. “I got some terrible news today.”

A crease appeared between Dad’s brows, and he inched his chair a little bit forward. “Let’s hear it.”

Sherlock wandered into the room and plopped down onto the pouf at the foot of Dad’s leather armchair. He felt his shoulders sag pitifully.

“John’s going to America.”

“Your boy’s American?” Dad asked. Sherlock heard his chair creak as he leaned back in it.

“He’s not mine,” Sherlock muttered, bitterly. “And no, he’s English, but his dad’s got a new job so he’s moving there, and that’s the end of my life as I know it.”

Dad sighed, a sympathetic “oh” sound that made Sherlock feel even more disheartened.

“That is bad news,” Dad said. Sherlock looked up at him. There were bags underneath his eyes, but the lines around them were creased with understanding. He was running a hand through his greying hair. Sherlock knew it hadn’t been so white last year, or even a few months ago.

“Well, tell you what,” he went on. “We need Robin, and we need Cary. And we need them now.”

He got up, and strode toward the office door.

“Come on!” he called back to Sherlock.

Sherlock paused for a moment before comprehension hit him, and he got up and followed his dad out of the room.

Forty-five minutes later, and Sherlock was sprawled out half-upside down over the sofa, focusing sharply. On the television screen, Westley was leaning over Buttercup, saying the familiar lines.

“Death cannot stop true love,” he crooned, softly. “All it can do is delay it for a while.”

“I will never doubt again,” said Buttercup.

“There will never be a need,” Sherlock muttered along with Westley. The film was one of his favourites. Dad’s, too.

The pair on the screen began to kiss, and suddenly Dad’s hands had seized Sherlock by the sides and were tickling him.

“Hello!” He shouted, as Sherlock squirmed and squealed with laughter. “My name is Inigo Montoya!”

“Get off, you big bully!” Sherlock shouted, and he tried to pry the fingers away from him as he flopped around. They were too strong, but Dad relented, releasing him and letting him drop back onto the sofa.

Sherlock caught his breath, still giggling. Dad reached out for the remote and paused the film.

“You know, Sherlock…” Dad was speaking slowly, stretching his legs out lengthwise on the sofa. “I’m sure he’s unique and extraordinary…”

Sherlock nodded, and Dad’s smile became tempered and sad.

“But, general wisdom is that, in the end, there’s not just one person for each of us, son.”

Sherlock looked at him for a second. He considered this for a moment, but knew immediately that it couldn’t be true. No, if Dad really believed that, then he had to be wrong at least about one thing. Because Sherlock knew – it had been the only thing he’d known for certain since this whole ordeal began. There was no one else in the world like John Watson, and there never would be.

“There was for Westley and Buttercup,” he said, quietly.

Dad just looked at him. The lines in his face seemed to be deepening.

“There was for you,” Sherlock went on. He knew that, too. Dad’s mouth twitched microscopically in agreement. “And there is for me.”

Sherlock held up his index finger. “He’s the one.”

Dad sighed, and though he looked defeated, he seemed to smile a little brighter.

“Fair enough,” he muttered.

Sherlock thought about his father when he’d been very young – he remembered him as sandy-haired and full-bellied, always keen to take Sherlock, Mycroft and Redbeard on adventures. Pretending to be the monster when Sherlock was a pirate on the high seas, or his second-in-command when he’d been flying above the highest mountains. He’d been the one to patch him up when Sherlock had come home dirty and bruised, and the one to sneak the boys extra portions of dessert under the table, with a mischievous gleam in his eye and a gentle laugh. Dad was thinner now, and had aged so much, but Sherlock wondered if he could still laugh like that.

He thought of John again, laughing in the school hallway with that breathtaking, careless joy, and a different sort of longing filled his chest – a bright ray of hope that could chase away all the darkness, if he’d let it.

***

Sherlock had been keeping eyes to the ground for a week before he suddenly realized what he had to do.

It had hit him after he’d rushed past John and his friends after class before he could be seen – he’d been shouted at by the teacher for arguing with her about the material again, and his face was still red with anger and embarrassment. He didn’t want that image to be probably the only memory John had of him.

But as he fled down the corridor, he caught snippets of conversation from another circle of students who had their heads together over a magazine.

“No way – Danny’s definitely the cutest!”

“Oh, come off it, are you even looking at Zach? Look at his eyes!”

Sherlock froze just out of sight down the next corridor, his mind piecing it all together.

He knew who they were talking about – one of the new boy bands whose pictures Sherlock had seen lining the lockers of some of the kids in his class. They’d only been around for a year or so, but still people couldn’t stop talking about how talented, how cool and how handsome they all were – people were falling all over themselves to see them in concert, just to catch a glimpse of them even as they went about their business around the city –

And suddenly it crashed into Sherlock like a thunderbolt.

He hurried to grab his bag from his locker and raced from the school building. He ran through side streets, dodged around people’s legs on the sidewalk. He knew what he had to do now. It was so obvious, he couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of it before.

He raced in through the front door and towards the office.

“Dad!” Sherlock shouted, bursting in and making his father jump in his chair. “I have a plan!”

Dad turned around, a hand to his chest, but looking pleased. “Thank the Lord! Tell me.”

Sherlock dropped his bag near the door, beaming as he approached him.

“Well, boys love musicians, don’t they?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Dad nodded. He pulled his glasses off and let them hang around his neck.

“Even the weird ones get boyfriends, don’t they?” Sherlock’s voice was trembling with excitement.

“That’s right,” Dad said, nodding. “George Michael definitely got laid at least once. For God’s sake, Freddie Mercury could have had the whole world if he wanted to!”

Sherlock blinked at his father for a second, then shook his head. “Whatever. There’s this big Christmas concert at the end of term, and John’s in it. And I thought, if I was in the band, and played absolutely superbly, there’s a chance he might actually fall in love with me.”

Sherlock paused, breathing hard. He was still out of breath from his run.

“What do you think?” he asked, almost vibrating with eagerness now.

“I think it’s brilliant, son, I think it’s stellar.” Dad exclaimed spreading his arms and punctuating his words with enthusiastic gestures. Sherlock felt his heart kick up in his chest. This could work. This could really, really work!

“Apart from one, tiny, baby little hiccup,” Dad said, clenching one of his hands into a fist.

Sherlock cocked his head. “That they probably don’t have a violin part in the band?”

Dad nodded, looking relieved that Sherlock had already thought of this. “Yes, sir.”

Sherlock grinned, and gave a little wave of his hand. “A tiny, insignificant detail.”

The next day, Sherlock marched into the music teacher’s classroom with his violin and the sheet music already printed out, sat down, and started playing as soon as she opened her mouth to protest.

***

Sherlock had the song memorized in about ten minutes – it was comically easy compared to what he normally played – but he practiced for hours upon hours anyway. All his free time was devoted to going over those notes, again and again, until they were muscle memory, until he could have played them in his sleep. Until Dad started groaning every time he started up playing it again, so loudly that Sherlock could hear him wherever he was in the house.

“Sherlock, time for dinner!” Dad yelled through the door to his bedroom one night when he was on one of his practicing sprees.

“I’m not hungry!” Sherlock shouted back, and kept right on playing.

“Sherlock, I’ve done chicken kebabs!”

Sherlock sighed. “Look at the sign on the door!”

He heard Dad pull back, and groan again as he read the message scrawled on the sign tacked to the wood – I said I’m not hungry. Sherlock snickered.

Dad walked away, and Sherlock played through the chords again. G. B7. E minor. C minor. G…And again, and again. It had to be perfect. It was going to be perfect.

He played through the song until it was saturated so thoroughly in his mind that he couldn’t think straight anymore. The sun had long gone down, the winter darkness settling in early. Sherlock suddenly realized that he was, in fact, starving. He put his violin away, wondering if Dad had saved any of those chicken kebabs.

Sure enough, down on the kitchen table was a plate of food covered in foil and still warm, and Dad was smiling at him from the sitting room where he was reading a newspaper.

“Has he noticed you yet?” Dad asked, a knowing glint in his eye.

“No,” Sherlock shrugged, without any pang in his chest as he said it. “But that’s the thing about romances – people only get together at the very end.”

He grabbed a kebab from the plate and bit into it. Dad turned the page of his newspaper, looking fond.

***

Christmas Eve, and the school car park was packed. Parents, children, extended families were flooding into the auditorium for the end-of-term concert, some of them carrying instruments, others homemade costumes for the nativity play. Sherlock was thrumming with nerves, his heart pounding so loudly he was sure everyone around his could hear it. His eyes darted around the slow-moving crowd, searching for a shock of blond hair…

Dad reached out and tried once more to slick Sherlock’s hair back to lie flatter. Sherlock jumped backwards.

“No!” he shouted in a whisper. He whirled around, scanning the other kids around him to make sure no one had seen.

Dad just chuckled. “Alright, alright.” He gave Sherlock’s shoulder a squeeze. “Knock ‘em dead, kiddo.”

Sherlock flashed him a quick, nervous smile, then shrugged his hand away and dashed off toward the auditorium doors, his violin case clutched to his chest.

Backstage, people were crowded into groups and chatting in excited whispers, but Sherlock moved off to stand alone by the wall. He was too nervous to try to talk. There was too much at stake.

He made himself turn away from them all so he wouldn’t look for John, and listened; time slipped by quickly, as if someone had pressed fast-forward on the telly, and before Sherlock could even get his bearings the theatre had become silent, and there was a teacher on stage announcing the first performance.

Slowly, the backstage space emptied out as children went on stage and joined their parents in the audience afterward. The younger kids went on to stumble their way through a few carols. Groups of terrified-looking boys and girls went out clutching little bells and woodblocks to play along. Sherlock barely wrapped his thoughts around any of the performances before they were ushered offstage, and in absolutely no time at all the class doing the nativity play was carrying off the manger, and it was time for them to go on.

Sherlock took a few deep breaths. He could do this. This was what he’d been practicing for. A few girls around them were muttering to each other about stage fright as they started to take their places behind the curtain, but Sherlock tuned them out. His nerves weren’t about performing. He’d played in front of people lots of times before. No, this was when everything was either going to slot into place, or it wasn’t. It was his last chance. He had to make it count.

Silence fell over the stage. Sherlock stood next to the bass player, his bow perched on top of the violin strings. Beside them, on two rows of bleachers, stood the choir, all seemingly holding their breath.

“…by popular request, here they are, singing ‘All I Want for Christmas’!”

The teacher’s voice rang out, and the auditorium rumbled with cheers. The curtain parted slowly, and Sherlock looked out at the black chasm beyond the blinding lights.

Everything was still. Sherlock’s world narrowed to the stage under his feet and the violin resting under his chin.

Then, just off to his right, the drummer clacked his sticks together. One. Two. One, two, three four.

Sherlock’s bow flew across the strings, leading them in as the drums and bass struck up their galloping tempo.

“I don’t want a lot for Christmas, there’s just one thing I need…”

The choir chimed in all together, bodies swaying in time with their simple choreographed movements.

“I don’t care about the presents underneath the Christmas tree. I just want you for my own, more than you could ever know…”

They sounded fairly good, Sherlock thought, as his fingers leapt back and forth across the neck of his instrument. They’d finally gotten their harmonies right in the last couple rehearsals, and the theatre amplified them nicely along with the drumbeat and the guitar and Sherlock’s riffing. This was just a preamble to the main attraction, though. Sherlock’s mind was already racing far ahead of what his fingers were playing.

“Make my wish come true, all I want for Christmas is you.”

The audience applauded, and the choir began swaying even more enthusiastically, snapping their fingers in time. A girl stepped out from their ranks and up to the microphone for the first solo.

“Oh, all the lights are shining, so brightly everywhere…”

She was still with terror – Sherlock could see even from his position behind her – but her voice rang loud through the space. She sang the entire bridge of the song, the choir interjecting “oohs” and “oh-oh-ohs” along with her. But Sherlock wasn’t watching, was barely listening to the sounds his fingers were pulling from his own instrument, because his eyes were fixed on the second microphone, no one behind it yet, but there would be soon, just a few seconds, a few more bars, and Sherlock’s heart was hammering behind his ribs, loud enough to throw him off count if the notes hadn’t been so ingrained in his fingers, and it was coming up now, just now, as the girl finished the verse and rushed back to the bleachers –

And then the second soloist stepped up, a confident stride and a shock of blond hair, its owner standing in front of the microphone looking completely at home there.

“I don’t want a lot for Christmas, this is all I’m asking for.”

John’s voice was clear and bright, filled with joy and adrenaline.

“I just wanna see my baby standing right outside my door.”

“Outside my door.” The choir intoned behind him. They were all beaming. John’s energy was infectious.

“I just want you for my own.” John pulled the microphone off the stand and swaggered over to centre stage. “More than you will ever know.”

Sherlock’s eyes were locked onto him. The way the lights were shining down on him made his outline glow, like he was the one throwing off light into the darkness around him.

“Make my wish come true,” John sang. “All I want for Christmas…”

John held the note, even and perfect. Sherlock gave a little vibrato to the note he was sustaining, letting John’s voice ring out in gorgeous harmony.

And suddenly, John whirled around.

“Is you-ou.” He sang.

Sherlock’s heart stopped.

John was pointing at him.

There was no mistaking it – there was no one behind Sherlock, or close enough beside him, John was pointing at him as he held the high note, his light and lovely voice shining out from him and that expression of barely-contained excitement on his face.

Their eyes locked, and for a second time seemed to stand still. John’s eyes were seeing him, really seeing him, as they sparkled with cheer and with song and they were directed at Sherlock and no one else – there was no one but them on stage anymore, this moment was just for the two of them and there no one else anywhere

But then, just as suddenly, John let go of the note and spun to the side to point at the drummer.

“And you,” John sang. He spun again, pointing at one of the girls in the choir. “And you.”

Sherlock’s insides had turned to ice. He couldn’t even feel his fingers on the strings anymore.

“And you, and you, and you and you…” John’s finger was bouncing all around the audience now. People were cheering, some were already on their feet, thrilled by the performance.

Sherlock felt as though all the lights had fallen from the rafters and crashed down on all their heads. Distantly, he heard the drummer play out a loud riff, and the choir belt out their last note.

“All I want for Christma-as,” John riffed over it, and then the crowd erupted.

John bowed low, beaming down at his admirers all around the hall. The choir joined hands and bowed too, the musicians standing up to join them.

Sherlock didn’t move. He didn’t even put his violin down from where it was still wedged tightly under his chin.

How could he have been so stupid?

He’d really thought, for one amazing, wild moment, that John was singing to him – that somehow, against all the odds, John had secretly been carrying a torch for him too, and he was going to use this song as his chance to finally tell him –

No. What a stupid idea. Only an idiot could have ever believed something like that would happen, that just because Sherlock had showed up to play in the band, the most wonderful boy in the world would somehow fall in love with him.

Only an idiot like Sherlock.

He stood, rooted to the stage and staring without seeing, until the teachers had made their announcements and the choir began filing off in straight lines. Sherlock followed them, not really sure where he was going or what anyone was saying, but somehow he found his violin case among the mass of people and then was pushing his way out, out toward the school corridors and away from all this.

Sherlock pushed open a door to where a few parents and kids were milling about, and suddenly heard someone shout his name.

“Sherlock!”

Dad was pushing his way towards him through the crowd, looking as though he’d just won the lottery.

Fantastic show!” He shouted, spreading his arms wide. “Classic playing, son!”

“Thanks,” Sherlock said, lowly. He tried to smile, tried not to let Dad see his disappointment, but he knew it was no use. “Plan didn’t work, though.”

Dad gave a little shake of his head, without missing a beat. “Tell him, then.”

Sherlock started. “Tell him what?”

“Tell him that you love him.” Dad’s mouth was open slightly with surprise, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world.

But the thought made a shock of horror shoot down into Sherlock’s already-churning stomach.

“No way,” he said, shaking his head rapidly. “Anyway, they fly tonight.”

Dad gave a little disbelieving laugh.

“Even better,” he said. His arms were spread wider now, as if in supplication. “Sherlock, you’ve got nothing to lose, and you’ll always regret it if you don’t.”

In an instant, he was crouching down so that he was eye level with Sherlock, his hands grasping his shoulders.

“I never told your mother enough,” Dad said quietly.

Sherlock felt as though a weight had dropped onto his chest. Dad’s eyes were bright and earnest – he wasn’t wearing his glasses – full of a depth of emotion that Sherlock hadn’t seen on him in months.

“I should have told her every day,” Dad muttered. “Because she was perfect every day.”

His lips twitched upward at the corners, and for a moment his lined face looked smoother. Brighter.

“You’ve seen the films, kiddo,” he said, something low and fierce in his words now. “It ain’t over till it’s over!”

Sherlock blinked, eyes flicking up and down while his mind raced.

This was insane. Surely, if the concert idea had been ridiculous, then this

But he stared into his father’s earnest face, and knew he was right.

This was the chance he had to take, and he couldn’t let it pass by. He needed to tell John. John needed to know, before he was gone and there would be no more last chances.

Sherlock sucked in a breath, gathering every ounce of courage he had, and smiled.

“Okay, Dad,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

Dad’s grin split wide across his face.

“Let’s go get the shit kicked out of us by love!” Sherlock declared.

“Yes!”

Dad held his hand up, and Sherlock slapped his smaller one into it, grasping it tightly.

“Let’s go!” Dad said, getting back to his feet.

Sherlock whirled around and they set off down the corridor together, out towards the car park.

“Where is he?” Dad asked as they stepped out the door. Sherlock was already scanning the crowd.

“There!” he blurted out, and his heart skipped several beats as he saw that familiar blond head standing by a car door –

– and then he was getting inside. The door closed, and the car began to drive away.

“Oh no,” Sherlock breathed out. No, no, this couldn’t be happening. After everything tonight, just after he’d finally decided, and now he’d just missed him and John was slipping away –

“It’s okay, we’ll go to the airport,” Dad said quickly at his side. He slung his arm around Sherlock’s shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. “Come on, I’ll drive really quickly!”

He tugged at Sherlock’s shoulder, and they raced off to the car.

Sherlock flung himself into the passenger seat, almost throwing his violin into the backseat as his dad started the car. They had long lost sight of the car John had been in by the time they got out of the car park, but Dad pressed the pedal to the floor and began weaving in and out of the traffic, flying off to Heathrow at a breakneck pace.

Sherlock sat at the edge of his seat the whole way, his heart whirring as fast as the car, that final, high note of that song echoing over and over in his ears.

They burst through the doors at international departures, Dad leading the way as they hurried through the crowd. Sherlock ran along behind him, craning his neck to try to catch any glimpse, even an inkling of where John might have gone.

“Wait,” Dad said, stopping suddenly.

Sherlock looked up, following where his father was looking. On the screen high above them under the words Flight VS003, 21:45, New York (JFK), Gate 36 was a flashing line reading Final Call.

“Oh, no,” Dad muttered, setting off again, this time towards the entrance to security

“Boarding pass, sir?” asked the man behind the counter. Signs above him read Passenger Restricted Area.

“Look, we’re not actually flying.” Dad was panting a little as he slowed down before the attendant. Sherlock caught up a second later, heart in his throat.

The attendant looked a mixture of surprised and offended at this. “You can’t come in without a boarding pass.”

“Not even,” Dad said, beseechingly, “to let the boy say goodbye to the love of his life?”

Sherlock stared up at the attendant. He knew how stricken he must look, and hoped maybe that could persuade him.

The attendant stared down at him for a moment, then looked back up at Sherlock’s dad.

“No,” he said, irritably.

Dad sighed, and sidled out of the way to let the people in line go by.

“I’m sorry, Sherlock,” he said, barely a breath.

“Boarding pass, madam?” the attendant asked the next customer.

“Unless…” Dad stooped down, looking between Sherlock and the door behind the counter.

“What?” Sherlock whispered.

Dad smiled at him in a conspiratorial sort of way.

“Do you want to make a run for it?”

Sherlock glanced up – the woman at the counter was taking her time, searching her bag for her boarding pass.

“Do you think I should?”

“Yes.” Dad whispered back, emphatically.

Sherlock paused for a second. He was listening hard. The woman at the counter was now apologizing as she emptied her pockets out onto the counter.

He made up his mind in a heartbeat.

“Okay,” he breathed back, then whipped around and ran through the door. The attendant didn’t notice a thing.

Sherlock rounded the corner. He was at the end of the security line. Straight in front of him, the gate stood tall, a guard framed in it as he passed his wand over a traveller he was checking.

Sherlock had once shot. He waited, watching the guard’s movements…

– and the second he bent down to check the passenger’s shoes, Sherlock ran forward, leaping through the gate over the guard’s head.

“Hey!” shouted another voice from his left side. Another guard. Sherlock didn’t slow down. The guard seized the collar of Sherlock’s coat, and Sherlock slipped his arms out of it and kept running.

He sprinted along, past all the shops, the straggling travellers, rows and rows of seats. He heard voices behind him shouting for him to stop, but he didn’t have time to turn around and see how many were chasing him. He turned down a long hallway, following the signs, Gate 26-50, Gate 31-39…

Sherlock ran straight on through a sudden thick crowd, flowing out from one of the side passages. He weaved through legs, dodging suitcases, flinging himself around pillars. The guards would have to slow down to push their way through people. That was good. Sure enough, he’d just burst through the other side of the crowd when he heard them yelling at people to move out of the way, and he suddenly couldn’t stop smiling. He pushed his way through a heavy door without looking back.

He was in a glass-walled passage. On the other side stood a desk, and a slow-moving line of people. Gate 36 gleamed down on it from a sign. He was here.

And through the glass, Sherlock saw him. The small, blond boy, dressed in a blue winter coat, and handing his ticket over to the attendant.

“John!” Sherlock called out. He pressed a hand to the glass, as if he could reach out.

But of course, John couldn’t hear him. The glass was sound-proof, obviously. Come on, think, think, think…

He moved to the end of the passage, slower now. There was a sliding glass door between him and the gate, and there were two attendants at the desk, each taking the last of the boarding passes.

Sherlock waited, his heart racing. A couple more seconds, just a couple more, and then

The attendants turned towards the television screens to their left. Something was up there that had caught there attention. It looked like a breaking news story, Sherlock thought, or possibly a surprise guest on a chat show, but he didn’t have time to see for certain.

Now.

He slid open the door, hurried forward, and vaulted over the railing beside the desk.

This was it. This was it.

He took the final few steps forward, stopping just before the door through which John and his parents were about to disappear.

“John.”

Sherlock’s breath was coming in sharp and fast.

John turned around, stared for a moment, and then his bright blue eyes widened with surprise.

“Sherlock?” he said.

His mouth was hanging open like he couldn’t believe it, but – Sherlock’s heart constricted with delight – there was a smile in there, too.

Sherlock sucked in a small breath, blinking at him.

“I thought you didn’t know my name.” His mind was whirling, excitement and amazement tumbling over each other.

John stepped forward, standing just feet from Sherlock now. “Of course I know your name,” he said, brightly.

Sherlock, so suddenly it surprised even him, beamed back.

But then, a cluster of voices stepped up from behind him, and he looked over his shoulder.

“Oh, Jesus.” The guards were there. Four of them, and they did not look pleased.

He turned back to John. “I’ve got to go,” he said, apologetically.

But he saw John’s smile before two of the guards grabbed him by the shoulders and marched him around. It was unlike anything Sherlock had ever seen before – it lit up his whole face, it made his eyes bluer and his hair more golden.

It was magnificent.

And as the guards herded Sherlock back through the airport, he knew.

He’d done it. John had seen him, and John had known.

And, even better, Sherlock knew John loved him back.

There was no mistaking that look.

The guards shoved Sherlock’s coat back onto him and walked him through the door, back out into the airport’s main atrium where his father was leaning on a pillar, waiting for him.

Dad stood up straight when he saw him, looking expectant, but Sherlock just grinned back at him. He extended his index finger out, pointing towards the sky.

He’s the one.

Dad nodded, his eyes fixed at something over Sherlock’s shoulder.

Sherlock lowered his hand slowly, realization sinking into him inch by inch.

Then, he felt a tap on his shoulder, and he turned around again.

John stood there, still smiling, but with a tempered sort of quality. Subdued with – was it shyness?

Sherlock stood, transfixed. He didn’t dare speak.

John looked at him, and, without a word, leaned in and kissed Sherlock softly on the cheek.

Sherlock couldn’t contain his gasp this time. His entire body was on fire, burning where John’s lips had brushed his skin, just for a second and yet had branded him with the most precious of marks, a mark Sherlock would feel there as long as he lived. For all time.

John’s face was bright pink as he pulled back. His eyes flickered up at Sherlock, looking at him from under his long blond eyelashes, and it was absolutely adorable and Sherlock never wanted to look away.

His hands shaking a bit, John reached into the pocket of his coat and drew out a small, folded slip of paper, which he pressed into Sherlock’s hand.

“That’s my address in New York,” John said in a breathy rush. His eyes were staring into Sherlock’s eagerly now. “Write to me?”

Sherlock nodded vigorously. He still couldn’t speak.

But John didn’t seem to be able to, either. He just looked at him for a few more moments, then, very quickly, reached down to squeeze Sherlock’s hand, then spun around, still beaming, and disappeared through the door again.

Sherlock stared after him. He wondered for a moment if it had really happened, but the slip of paper was solid in his hands, and his cheek was still burning where John had kissed him.

John had kissed him.

Sherlock turned around to see Dad watching him. He was grinning from ear to ear, letting out a low, gentle chuckle that was escaping him like he couldn’t contain it.

Sherlock raced toward him, his arms spread out. Dad met him, lifting him up and spinning him around, laughing elatedly, and unable to stop.

Sherlock kept his arms stretched out, reaching out behind Dad and holding them steady in triumph. He was flying.

Chapter Text

“So, clearly you understand my concerns, Mrs. Williams?”

“Absolutely.” The woman nodded fiercely, staring daggers down at her son. “I assure you he’ll be grounded for some time, after this one.”

“But Mum –!” The boy started to protest, but snapped is mouth shut at the dangerous look in his mother’s face.

“And Bernie?” John said, now turning to face him. He folded his hands on his desk. “You’ll write a new essay?”

The boy nodded, not looking up at him. “Yes, Mr. Watson,” he said, quietly.

“Thank you,” John said. “That will be all.”

The woman stood up and grabbed the boy by the hand, marching him out of John’s office perhaps a bit too quickly to be dignified. There seemed to be some undercurrent of fear in her frantic movements, too.

The door clicked shut, and John let his shoulders sag, the perfectly tailored scowl dropping off his face.

He was getting too old for this, surely. Before, the kids and their stupid antics had been fun, even charming, in their way. But now they were barely enough for a distraction.

John turned to the window, the glass before the gray overcast sky reflecting back his even grayer face. Maybe he should just retire. He was well past the age where he was entitled to it. But it wasn’t the first time he’d considered it, and the same reservations crowded up inside his mind again, unable to be ignored. The thought of staying home all day in that flat when…after it had happened, just too much to bear.

He sighed, rubbed at his temples a little, then stood up. He’d better go and have that word with Mrs. Turner about her class’s behavior during third period today. Then when school was over he could cut out right away and do the shopping before he went home.

John stepped out of his office, straightened his back, and set off down the hallway. There was a bit of commotion around the corner where the older classes were, so he detoured in the direction of it, following the sound.

“Oi!” he barked out, when he found the culprits – two year six boys, charging down the hall on their way back from the loo. “No running in the halls!”

The ground to a halt immediately, whipping around to stare at him with terrified expressions.

“And don’t let me catch you again, or I’ll put you both in detention,” John went on sternly as he passed by them. “You wouldn’t want another session mopping up the gym floors, would you, Alex?”

“No, sir.” The first boy shook his head rapidly.

“Sorry, sir,” his friend chimed in.

“Back to class, then,” John said, and they hurried off as fast as they could without running.

John set off again without a second look at them. It didn’t bother him much anymore, the fact that they were all intimidated by him. Even though for so long it had been his goal to teach through understanding and care, and he’d mostly succeeded up until the last term or two. He just didn’t have the patience, these days. There just wasn’t room.

He reached Mrs. Turner’s classroom, and found it empty. Ah, right, he’d forgotten it was her class’ music period, and she’d have gone to fetch them from it. No matter. She’d be back in a couple minutes.

In the meantime, John made for the nearest door, and stepped outside into the grim chill. Further down the field, one of the older classes was playing football, and their indiscriminate shouts and cheers floated over towards him on the breeze.

He dug in his pocket for his mobile phone, and pressed the usual number.

“Hey, love,” he said in a much softer voice. “How are you?”

***

With his arms laden with shopping bags, John had to fumble a bit with his key before the front door of 221B swung open.

“Hello!” he shouted up the stairs as he stepped inside.

“You’re late!” came Sherlock’s teasing reply.

“I know, one second!” John shouted back as he shrugged off his coat. He readjusted the bags, then slowly climbed the stairs up to the flat.

He paused for a split second as he swung open the door. He was never quite prepared for what he saw on the other side, though he’d had plenty of time to get used to it. But still, there was Sherlock, so much paler and thinner than he had any right to be, perched on the sofa with a book and running a hand through his stringy curls. John supposed he should be glad that the radiation hadn’t taken them away altogether.

John quickly rearranged his face into a warm smile as he set the bags down on the floor and stepped towards him.

“How was today?” he asked.

“Oh, not bad,” Sherlock smiled back, tilting his head up to receive John’s affectionate kiss. “It comes in waves.”

He budged up a bit on the cushion to let John sit close. John sank down beside him with a phenomenal lack of grace, but he didn’t care much. He was tired, and Sherlock was warm.

“How was school?” Sherlock asked. He’d dropped his book and laid a slender arm around John’s shoulders.

“The usual,” John replied, shrugging. “Oh – but I did have a really bizarre meeting with a parent about her kid’s essay.”

“Oh?” Sherlock’s eyebrows raised, and he looked both interested and amused. “What did you say to the poor woman?”

Nothing,” John let out, indignantly, but it only made Sherlock burst out into giggles. “Just a stern talking-to about her kid. That wasn’t the odd part.”

Sherlock sucked in a wheezing breath, then sighed it out, expelling his laughter. “Then what was it?”

“The essay,” John said, but he was starting to feel a chuckle bubbling up in his own throat too. “It was about his ‘Christmas wish’ or whatever. And I had to tell this mother, with a straight face, how concerned I was that her son had written about how his Christmas wish was to be able to see people’s farts.”

Sherlock just stared at him, silently, with a strange expression on his face. Then, after a second, he threw back his head with a rumbling, full-bellied laugh.

John sniggered along with him, unable to help himself. It did seem sort of funny, now he thought about it.

“Oh, God,” Sherlock said, breathlessly, shaking his head. “Brilliant. That’s my Christmas wish, too.”

A rough chortle burst its way out of John’s chest, and he felt a wonderful second or two of light-headed-joy – but it vanished just as quickly when Sherlock’s laughter petered out into a groan.

The room seemed to go cold as Sherlock pressed a frail hand to his ribs, a strangled low noise coming from his throat while his face twisted in pain.

John’s heart felt like lead in his chest, as he reached his hand out to curl over Sherlock’s.

“Are you alright, my love?” he whispered.

Sherlock’s jaw hardened as he sucked in another breath – a horrible, stifled sound that made John’s insides twist. But he sighed a bit, and the tension in his body seemed to relax a little and he pushed a smile up onto his face as he opened his eyes.

“Yes,” he said, and his voice was rough and low, but steady.

John could see that the sparkle from a moment before had left his eyes.

“Are you sure?” he asked, quietly. “Do you need me to –”

“No.” Sherlock turned his palm up and laced his fingers with John’s. “I’m fine tonight. I promise.”

John’s reply died in his throat. He didn’t look fine, but there was an edge of determination in his voice that John couldn’t argue with. Almost as if by saying it, Sherlock could make it true.

And John so wanted to believe he could.

“Now,” Sherlock said. His tone was suddenly businesslike. “Did you get the green curry?”

Relief trickled through John, and he let himself sink into it. The tense moment had passed, vanished like a faint memory.

“Yes.” He even managed a faint smile as he said it. “And the satay, as requested.”

“Excellent,” Sherlock grinned, and he released John’s hand. “Go on, then, I’m starving.”

John shook his head, an exasperated chuckle escaping him as he stood up. “I’ll just get it all ready, shall I?”

“Yes, come on, quick as you like.” He stooped to pick up his book again, and used it to give John a playful swat on the arse.

“My domestic god,” Sherlock added, fondly, as John yelped and shook with suppressed giggles.

***

That night, John lay on his back, staring up at the darkened ceiling.

He couldn’t tell what time it was, or how long he’d been awake. Time seemed callously unreal at this hour, discarding each precious second behind it like so much dirt.

His body ached with exhaustion, but he couldn’t close his eyes. He couldn’t just turn his back on this right now, this moment that might end up mattering someday, that might be one of the few he could cling onto when there were no more left. Because Sherlock was breathing easy beside him, his thin outline rising and falling with each shallow inhale, and John could feel him and watch him and reach out for him, and in however many months or years John knew he would gladly give everything he had for that meager privilege. For this, right now, this tiny nothing that by all accounts he should be sleeping through.

It took everything he had not to think about what the doctor had last said – what they’d both been desperate to know, and then desperate not to. It had been insulting. Hardly anything. An instant. It was a period of time long enough for an insect, or a terrible West End show, and giving it to the brilliant, wonderful, extraordinary Sherlock Holmes was nothing short of offensive. But still John held fast onto it, wide awake and watching, as both his sentence and his parole slowly slipped by forever.

From beside him, a great wheezing cough wracked Sherlock’s sleeping frame. Then another, and another, until his body was trembling and shaking with the awful hacking sounds whose only mercy was to let him sleep on through them.

John turned on his side and slid his arm around Sherlock’s chest, holding him close as he shuddered. He squeezed him as tightly as he dared, pressing his entire body into his back through every available point of contact, and tucked his own bleak face into the crook of Sherlock’s neck.

***

Christmas was approaching quickly. A bit too quickly for John’s taste. He could remind himself to be grateful all he wanted, but it just wasn’t going to happen when that came with the realization that he’d have to go through it knowing it was likely to be their last Christmas. At least the alternative meant he’d have been unaware, but the thought of that just made want to break down wherever he was standing when it hit him. There was no winning this one.

He became shorter with the students, less and less interested in their end-of-term excitement. Even the teachers seemed to know to stay out of his way. But rather than give him any kind of peace, it just made a lonely sort of silence settle on him, wherever he went in the school. He wondered, vaguely, whether he’d have anyone to talk to at all once the break was over.

“For God’s sake, would you stop fussing about?” Sherlock asked him, on an unusually sunny Saturday afternoon. “You’d think the Christmas holidays would let you relax just a little.”

“Well, call me an old man who can’t break habits.” John sent back, as he scrubbed down the kitchen counter.

He’d tried to keep his voice light as he said it, but it came out oddly constricted, and John wasn’t surprised in the least when Sherlock stepped up beside him.

“I’d rather not,” he said, laying his hand over John’s and stopping his frantic movements. He gently took away the sponge, and turned him by the shoulders to face him.

There was an amused crease to his brow, but his eyes were deep with emotion. Not sadness, exactly, but – understanding. Patience.

It disarmed John slightly, left him reeling for words.

“You don’t need to do this all the time, John,” Sherlock said quietly. He found John’s other hand too, and threaded his fingers through it. “I told you, I’m feeling better today.”

John sighed. His gaze wandered down Sherlock’s frame, lingering on the way his shoulders jutted out beneath his dressing gown.

“That’s what worries me,” he breathed.

“I know.” Sherlock said, and his brow smoothed out a little. He brought one of John’s hands up to his lips, kissed the back of it gently.

John fought to keep the lump that had appeared in his throat from spilling out.

“Just…let go for a while, alright?” Sherlock whispered against John’s skin. “For me?”

It was an impossible request, and they both knew it, but John couldn’t bear to wipe away that twinge of hope on Sherlock’s lips.

He nodded, and Sherlock broke into a grin. It made him look so heartbreakingly young and carefree that John thought he might collapse.

“Come sit with me,” Sherlock said gently, pulling John by the hands and into the sitting room. John followed, obediently. He always did.

The fire was still burning bright and warm from when John had last stoked it. Outside, the sun was setting, tinging the sky a dull orange colour.

Sherlock sat himself down on the floor in front of his chair, with surprisingly little difficulty. John grabbed the blanket that was slung over the back of it and sat down beside him, throwing it over both their legs.

Slowly, warmth seemed to trickle up through his body – from the fire it travelled up his legs, into his chest, and from Sherlock’s arm around him it fumbled its way up his shoulder, through each of his nerves individually. Inch by inch, like gentle breaths of life, it surrounded him, siphoning away his swirling thoughts, his dark, desperate dread. It felt right, it felt familiar. Just sitting here, together, by the fire, like they did all the time. Like the feeling of Sherlock smiling into his temple, the scent of him settling around John like a warm embrace, was completely ordinary, and fine. Like it could all, somehow, be fine.

John closed his eyes, and unbearably gently, shifted down a little and rested his head on Sherlock’s shoulder.

***

They made love that night. Or rather, Sherlock made love to John: hovering over him on shaking arms, touching him gently, kissing him hard, stroking him in all the places that made him gasp and shiver and moan – and all the while John could only cling on tightly, trying not to break open.

Afterwards, Sherlock fell asleep tucked into John’s side with his arm slung across his chest, as he so often did. He wasn’t wheezing tonight either, no coughing, no pain of any kind to interrupt the evening. He was breathing deep, and silent, and to any untrained ear, perfectly normally.

John, however, felt like his chest was caving in.

With small, slow movements, so as not to wake him, John dislodged himself from under Sherlock’s arm and shuffled up out of the bed. He fumbled for a moment in the dark, found Sherlock’s dressing gown, and tied it around himself before opening the door as quietly as possible and slipping through it.

The sitting room was bathed in silver half-light from the moon. A few stars twinkled out against the black night.

John sat himself in the low leather armchair, facing away from them.

The street outside was almost silent – no cars driving by, no straggling pubgoers on their way home, no rustling from the trees in the park. It was as if someone had switched off the city.

Nice of them, John thought dimly. Maybe they could do the entire world next. Stop it from spinning. Just stop all of it.

He waited, not breathing, wondering if it would happen. As if he wished hard enough, somehow, something would hear him, and make all of it stop. If they could just hear him, if they could hear him and understand that this was all wrong, that this was all so dreadfully terribly excruciatingly wrong, they could right it, somehow. They could set it back to normal. They could give him back his darling.

He waited.

Nothing happened. From the kitchen, John could hear the clock ticking faintly on.

In the grate, there were still a few embers left of the fire from earlier – just little fragments of warmth, of light, flickering gently in the stale air.

And all at once, a harsh, painful sob ripped its way out of John’s lungs. He let it fall, let it ring out in the silence, unheard, and unobstructed.

John pressed his face into his hand, sobbing out into the empty room, tears flowing freely down his cheeks and landing on the sleeves of Sherlock’s dressing gown.

***

For Christmas Eve at the surgery, it was surprisingly busy. Everywhere, children with colds, harassed looking young adults, people not much older than themselves leaning on canes and complaining about various aches. John didn’t envy the doctors on call tonight – it was going to be endless.

“Ah, Mr. Holmes,” the secretary said as soon as Sherlock came up to the desk. She was wearing a disconcertingly pleasant smile.

“Why don’t you and your husband head right into the office?” She said brightly, nodding towards the open door away from the exam rooms. “Dr. Moore will see you as soon as he’s done with his patient.”

John’s heart dropped all the way to his feet.

He and Sherlock looked at each other, and John saw everything he was thinking reflected back in his face.

Meeting in the office. Doctor priority.

Bad news.

They sat themselves in the chairs facing the desk, holding hands across the gap. John’s eyes were closed. He had to hold back, hold back, please, just for now, hold it back…

“You okay?”

Sherlock’s voice was strangled and small.

With great effort, John was able to open his eyes and give him a tiny nod.

“I love you,” he breathed, so low he could barely hear it himself.

Sherlock looked horribly stricken, but he managed to squeeze his hand weakly.

“I love you,” he murmured back.

John was sure he was about to break down sobbing again, but it was only a couple more seconds before the doctor swung open the door behind them, and he was able to reign it in.

“Mr. Holmes,” said Dr. Moore, in his usual, curiously inscrutable voice. “And Mr. Watson. Good to see you again.”

“Likewise.” John gave him a stiff nod as he came round to sit behind the desk. In his hands he was carrying a file folder, with the tab marked Holmes, William Sherlock S.

“You have news for us, I take it?” Sherlock said, his voice admirably even. But it made the dread welling up inside John mount higher and higher, and he wished, just this once, that Sherlock would beat around the bush a little.

“Yes.” Dr. Moore flipped open the file and began scanning through it. “We received the results from your last x-ray, and it showed something rather interesting.”

“Oh, God,” John breathed, but it was too low for either of them to hear.

His heart in his throat, the moment seemed to stretch on forever – Sherlock’s hand tightening in his was the only thing keeping him grounded, the only real thing in the world, when everything else, the office and the ticking clock and the doctor rummaging through the file about to explode with the rest of reality –

But then, the doctor was looking up, and his impassive face was wavering with the hint of a smile.

“The tumor is shrinking,” he said.

Everything went quiet.

Time seemed to have stopped. John’s blood was roaring in his ears in the silence. Beside him, he swore he could hear Sherlock blinking.

“What?” came Sherlock’s voice, finally.

“The tumor has shrunk since the previous x-ray – quite a bit, actually.” And now Dr. Moore had pulled out a dark translucent sheet and was looking over it, like he might look over an interesting curio at an auction. “And it looks like the ongoing treatment is going to make it keep shrinking.”

The disaffected quality of his voice made John want to scream with rage, but – no, he shouldn’t be, he was telling them good news, right? But he couldn’t be, surely, because that didn’t make sense…

“But…” Sherlock was shaking his head, slowly. “But – they said I likely wouldn’t respond to the radiation.”

Dr. Moore’s face twisted into a smirk.

“Well,” he said slowly, “you are.” He handed him the sheet across the desk. “Take a look.”

Sherlock took the x-ray with trembling hands, and John leaned in, his body moving seemingly of its own accord. And surely enough, there it was, that dark mass in the middle of the outline that was Sherlock’s torso, still there but definitely smaller, definitely much smaller than the last time when it had seemed to take up the entire page

And John’s breath had left his body in one fell swoop, the irrational anger at Dr. Moore blown entirely away by something horribly painful and desperate.

Beside him, Sherlock was breathing in quick, shallow gasps. “I don’t understand,” he was saying.

Dr. Moore took the x-ray back, looking unsure of himself for the first time.

“I wish I knew what to tell you,” he said. “Sometimes, even the surest cases can respond unpredictably to certain treatments.” He shook his head, seeming dazed. “I suppose you just have phenomenal odds.”

John couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak, could barely see – any moment now, it was all going to burst out from him and drown them both.

“So –” Sherlock didn’t seem to be able to get words out, swallowing and stammering every time he opened his mouth. “What – what does that mean for me?”

“Well.” The doctor closed the file now. “I’d like to run a couple more tests just to make sure, and I won’t say anything for certain until then, but –” he stood up, buttoning his coat, “– I think we can safely expect to see you around for next Christmas, at least.”

John clapped his free hand to his mouth, physically holding back the tide.

“I’ll give you a moment,” Dr. Moore said, nodding, and swept out of the room, closing the door behind him.

The second it clicked shut, John erupted – rough, painful sobs, clawing up out of his throat and hurling themselves out of his trembling lips, his entire body shuddering violently, unable to hold back anymore.

“John,” Sherlock croaked.

And he was in front of him, kneeling before his chair with his arms thrown around John’s shoulders. John buried his face in Sherlock’s neck and let it all out, those horrible, painful sounds of desperate relief, of his shattered life beginning to sew its tattered edges back together again.

Sherlock was quaking too, even harder than John, tears dripping with abandon onto the collar of John’s jumper. John could do nothing but clutch him tighter, deeper, drink him in greedily and let him trickle in to fill in the cracks.

“Sherlock,” he sobbed into his shoulder.

“I know.”

They wept. They trembled. They held each other, grasping at the shining new beacon of hope presented to them and holding tight with shaking, reverent hands. They breathed together, in and out, deep and strong until the masses dwindled from their throats, until their heartbeats beat out a steady tempo together, tapping out the rhythm of their second chance.

An age later, John, lightheaded with cathartic joy, felt Sherlock pull back, just a bit. He managed to open his eyes to see his tear-streaked face, shining and blurry through the moisture in his own eyes.

But still, there was never any way to mistake that wavering, radiant smile.

“Merry Christmas, John,” he breathed out, jerkily, and John felt another wave of breathless tears rise up in his chest.

“Merry Christmas, my love.”

And he even managed a watery smile of his own, as they pulled each other in for a kiss.

Chapter Text

John was frantically pulling drawers open, searching – nothing seemed to be where he’d left it last night, his gloves, his keys, his wallet…

“God, I’m so late,” he muttered.

“It’s just round the corner, you’ll make it,” Mary said from the bed, arms wrapped around her legs.

Her nose was a bright red and her eyes watery, but other than that she didn’t look too bad. She’d probably get over her cold in a few more days. It was just really bad timing, honestly, that the worst of it had hit her on the day of Mike Stamford’s wedding.

John pulled his coat from the wardrobe and shrugged it on, relieved at feeling his gloves in the left pocket.

“You’re sure you don’t mind me going without you?” he asked again, moving toward her to grab his wallet from the nightstand.

“No, really, it’s fine,” she said, giving him a tight-lipped smile. “I’m just feeling so rotten.”

John’s shoulders slumped a little. He didn’t really cherish the idea of being there alone.

“Okay,” he said, finally. He leaned in to give her a quick kiss on the forehead. “Get some rest.”

“I will,” she nodded.

“Make sure you eat something. And drink lots of fluids, so that –”

“I know,” she said, playfully pushing him away. “Now go, or you will actually miss it!”

“Right,” John said, disarmed slightly. But a quick glance at his watch told him she was right.

He squeezed her shoulder reassuringly, and darted out of the room. He gave a sigh of relief as he spotted his keys on the kitchen counter.

John stepped towards the door, then stopped. He should probably remind her to take another paracetamol in an hour or so. He popped his head back in the bedroom.

“Make sure you –”

I know!” She’d slumped further into the pillows and was scrolling through her mobile phone. “Get out, loser,” she smirked up at him.

John chuckled, but couldn’t help but notice that there was a harder, less cheeky edge to her voice than normal. She must really be feeling terrible.

He gave her another little nod, and left. Maybe he’d better pop back in before the reception, just to check on her. She’d like that. Probably.

***

The wedding really was lovely. Stamford had been delighted to see John again, and he looked quite good even with the weight he’d put on. John hurried back along the street after the pictures were over, keen to tell Mary all about the surprise live band Mike had arranged for his new wife – at the end of the service when audience members had popped out of their seats with instruments to play along to “All You Need is Love”.

He pushed the front door open, and a familiar face spun around to greet him. It was David, their next-door neighbour, stood in the kitchen.

“Hey.” John smiled genially at him. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh –” David looked a bit startled at John’s sudden appearance. “I just came by to borrow some CDs.”

John nodded, and pulled off his coat. “Mary let you in, did she?”

“Y-yeah.”

John paused. There something off in the way he said it – almost nervously.

“Obliging girl,” John said.

David nodded, his posture stiffening a little.

“I just thought I’d pop back in and see if she was better.” John tossed his coat on a nearby chair.

“Yeah,” David said again. It looked like he was clenching his hands in his pockets.

John levelled his curious gaze at him.

“Everything alright?” John asked, slowly. “You look a bit –”

“Hurry up, big boy!” came Mary’s voice from inside the bedroom. “I’m naked and I want you at least twice before John gets home!”

John froze.

David stared back at him for a moment, then ducked his head and looked away, like a coward.

“Well,” John said, projecting his voice loud enough for Mary to hear him. “Don’t let me interrupt you, then.”

He grabbed his coat again and slammed the door behind him.

***

John opened the old windows, and let the sunlight come streaming in.

He’d been here before, once. Last year, when the dull ache of London life had finally grown too stifling and repetitive. So he’d found this place, this lovely, secluded little villa in the rolling hills just outside of Marseilles, where he’d have space to collect his thoughts.

The second window creaked as he pushed it open. It was a fairly old place, rustic in its design and hardly updated, in order to preserve its nostalgic air. The walls were faded brick, with clay shingles on the roof, and the interior was full of handmade oak furniture, probably crafted from the trees outside. The old woven carpets and sunken armchairs had a layer of dust covering them, and John hoped the warm breeze would clear it out a little, air out the musty feeling of being shut up too long.

John moved to the other side of the room, unlatched the French doors that led to the acreage out back, and pushed them wide. Sunlight flooded the shadowed room. From here, John could see all the wide space laid out before him – the narrow porch, the path down to the little pond, the trees dotting the surrounding grassy field and growing thicker to form the woods beyond.

He sighed a little, and dropped his arms. There was no sound but for the fluttering of the curtains in the sitting room, and a few birds chirping in the distance. It was completely serene. If there was ever a place to finally finish his book, it was here. He’d even dug out his mother’s old typewriter, so he wouldn’t have to bring his laptop with him. No distractions at all.

But the thought made him feel less than content. He stepped back and sat at the wooden desk, which looked directly out the doors and into the beautiful grounds. Perfectly inspiring.

Somehow, though, it just made him think of how far away the nearest person – anyone at all – was from him.

John sighed. His hands twisted in his lap.

“Alone again,” he muttered to himself. “Naturally.”

But then, even so, even in this total isolation…it was better than having Mary here with him.

He gave a little nod to himself, then bent to pull the typewriter out of its case.

***

It was a few days before the landlady came by. John was surprised – last year she’d come right away to introduce herself, quite enthusiastically too. She was an Englishwoman, but she’d lived in France so long she had a unique pseudo-accent that lilted her voice with unusual tone patterns, and nothing seemed to give her greater pleasure than to have someone staying in her villa, at last.

“Bonjour, Madame Hudson,” John said, when he opened the door to find her standing on the other side with a welcoming grin.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Watson,” she replied, brightly. “Welcome back. And this year, you’ve brought a lady along with you?”

“Er – no,” John replied, with a little shake of his head. “There’s been a change of situation. It’s just me.”

“Ah.” Mrs. Hudson nodded, apparently understanding perfectly. “Am I sorry about that, or not?”

John scanned her once over. “I think you’re not surprised.”

Despite himself, he gave a little smirk at the knowing glint in her eye. There was really no getting anything past her.

“And you’ll stay until Christmas?” she asked.

“Yeah, yeah,” John replied, absently. He’d only just noticed the second person getting out of her car, parked at the end of the drive.

“Good.” Mrs. Hudson turned around. “Well, I’ve found you a perfect housekeeper for your stay. This is Sherlock.”

The man slammed the driver door shut and turned around, and John’s throat went dry.

He might have been the most beautiful man John had ever seen. Bright eyes, ebony hair curled in tight, flowing waves, sharp cheekbones and a strong jawline that gave him the impressive yet delicate look of some Byronic hero. He was tall, and wearing a long coat which only accentuated this, but it was unbuttoned and beneath it John could see a broad, strong chest and a slim waist clad in a sleek button-down shirt. John’s eyes raked his frame up and down, from his shoes to his gorgeous lips to the little mole on his neck, and his every faculty seemed to shut off in an instant, overtaken by Sherlock’s handsome figure. It was a good few seconds before he even realized he hadn’t yet spoken.

“Uh, bonjour, Sherlock,” he sputtered out, finally. He took a few steps down the drive toward him and extended his hand. “Je suis – John.”

“Bonjour, John.” Sherlock gave him an uncertain smile as he shook his hand. The way his accent curled around John’s name made a shiver run up his spine.

“Um,” John stammered a little, casting back for his pitiful French. “Je suis, uh, très heureux de – de vous avoir ici…”

It sounded terrible, even to his own ears, and Mrs. Hudson must have thought so too, because she was giggling lightly.

“Unfortunately,” she said, stepping to his side. “He doesn’t speak French. Just like you.”

John bit his tongue, deciding to ignore that.

“He’s Portuguese.”

Sherlock nodded slightly, apparently recognizing the name of his language. But John’s heart sank. He was going to have to be around this gorgeous man all the time, and couldn’t even speak to him?

“Right,” he said. “Uh – buongiorno…” he made a wild gesture with his hand, unsure of what he was even trying to communicate. “Molto bueno…”

Beside him, Mrs. Hudson only laughed harder.

“Well, I suppose speaking gibberish might help. But neither of you can speak Italian or Spanish, so maybe just keep it simple?”

“Right.” John could feel his cheeks reddening a little. “Well, anyway, it’s nice to meet you, Sherlock.”

Sherlock nodded again, but didn’t offer anything else. John ushered him in the direction of the house.

“And perhaps you can drive him home after work?” Mrs. Hudson piped up again.

“Oh, yeah, of course.” John looked from her to Sherlock. “Con – con grande pl-pleasura…”

“And what was that?” Mrs. Hudson chuckled again. “Turkish?”

John’s face flushed hotter, but Sherlock just nodded again and went into the house, without a word.

John let out a disappointed sigh. Maybe he had the right idea.

***

True to his word, John drove Sherlock home in his rented car after he’d finished tidying up. He didn’t think he’d heard Sherlock say a word all day. Come to think of it, he didn’t think he himself had said anything since that morning either.

The radio in the car was broken, so they drove in total silence. But it was a different silence then back at the villa. This felt emptier. Like they should be talking. John so desperately wanted to say something to break the quiet, but how could he, when he didn’t know a word Sherlock could understand?

“Bello,” he said, haltingly, indicating the view through the window. “Uh – bella, er, montagno –”

Sherlock had turned to look at him, his bewilderment obvious.

“…arbore…” John trailed off. Whatever language that was, he guessed it wasn’t Portuguese.

“Right,” John muttered, defeated. “Silence, then, I guess.”

Sherlock waited, John guessed to see whether he would say something else stupid, then turned back to face the front again.

John took a left, pulled onto the autoroute.

“Probably best, anyway,” he muttered. “It’s what I came here for. That, and to get away from my ex-girlfriend.”

John kept his eyes on the road, but he thought he could see Sherlock looking at him again, out of the corner of his eye. Well, he might as well hear it, hadn’t he? It wasn’t as if he knew what John was talking about.

“The odd thing is, I don’t even miss her all that much,” John sighed. He tensed up a bit as he passed a large lorry, then relaxed again. “I mean, I knew I probably wasn’t gonna marry her, but…I don’t know. I guess I was less attached than I thought. After I found out and the shock had worn off, I just sort of felt – relieved.”

John glanced at Sherlock, whose brow was furrowed. John gave a breathy chuckle.

“You probably think I’m pathetic.” He turned back to the road. “Well, you’re not wrong. Hell, I doubt you’d ever have a problem keeping someone around.”

He didn’t know why he was saying this, but it felt…strangely liberating, somehow. He could say whatever he wanted, really. The worst Sherlock could think of him was that he just loved the sound of his own voice too much.

“It’s not gonna be exactly fun, though. Being up there alone.” He sighed again. “Never really been good at that.”

The static from the radio swelled a little in volume, and Sherlock reached forward to switch it off.

“Just like that song,” John mumbled. “That old one…”

He hummed a few bars of it. He had no idea how the words went, even in the chorus – now it chills me to the bone…?

“Oh, shut up,” he muttered to himself, cutting off his own high-pitched whining sound. He felt his face reddening again.

Beside him, Sherlock had turned away, and was laughing quietly in the direction of the window.

John pursed his lips; despite himself, he had the sudden urge to giggle along with him.

Suddenly, Sherlock turned to him, and spoke in a shockingly low and smooth voice.

“Você já pensou em uma carreira de cantor?” he said, with a charming smirk.

John didn’t understand a word, but he recognized its tone as a lighthearted jab. He smirked back, shaking his head slowly as he hurried along through the traffic.

***

John tapped away at his keyboard, listening to the sounds of Sherlock puttering around the sitting room.

It was comforting, in its way, just hearing him there. Even doing something so mundane as sweeping, or dusting the shelves, or clearing away John’s endless mugs of tea. Just to know that there was another life in the house, someone who moved and breathed and whose heart beat under the same roof. Someone he could talk to.

Because they did talk, funnily enough. Sometimes John would begin it, sometimes Sherlock would, his voice trickling in from wherever he was working. When he did, he seemed to be talking to himself as much as to John, but that was alright. John interjected with whatever thoughts were crossing his mind at the moment, and the rest of the time, just listened. He knew how nice it felt just to have someone listen; Sherlock was excellent at it.

“I started this thing years ago, you know?” John said, vaguely in Sherlock’s direction as he pulled the newest sheet from the typewriter and set it on the stack. “But then I didn’t really have time for it when I was in the army, and I was a mess when I got back.” He stabbed at the keyboard again, writing mostly by muscle memory. “And I just kept putting it off.”

From where he was standing, wiping down the glass paneling in the French doors, Sherlock was bathed in golden sunlight, and he looked like an angel.

“Tenho outro emprego na cidade, como garçom” he said, mildly. “Mas eu prefiro sair aqui.”

John nodded, looking him up and down where he stood.

“It was just really hard to pick it back up again after I’d stopped for so long,” he went on. He gestured half-heartedly out towards the space outside, the pond and the trees. “It’s easier here. It’s…inspiring, I guess.”

But he was hardly looking at the view outside. His gaze was fixed on Sherlock, how the ripples of fabric on his shirt smoothed out as he straightened up.

Sherlock leaned on the doorway, staring out into the grounds.

“Marsehla…” he trailed off a bit. He seemed a bit distracted. “É pequeno demais, às vezes.” His arms were folded, his fingers tapping out an agitated rhythm against his forearm. “Às vezes eu só preciso sentir que o mundo é maior. Como aqui.”

He sighed, heavily.

John didn’t know what was going on, but he didn’t like seeing him like this. He bit his lip, cast his mind around for something, but sure enough came up empty. After all, what could he possibly say?

Thankfully, Sherlock seemed to snap back to himself after a moment, and smiled at John as he circled the desk. He began loading his arms up with the mugs John had carelessly pushed to the side as the tea left in them grew cold.

“Thank you,” John said. Then inspiration struck, and he seized the plate carrying his last croissant.

“Do you want the last one?” he asked, offering it.

Sherlock flashed him a grateful look, but shook his head. “Muito obrigado, mas não.”

John’s heart sank with disappointment. He picked it off the plate for himself.

“Se você viu meu irmão, você entenderia o porquê,” he went on, smirking.

John felt a regretful twinge in his chest. He wished he could laugh along with him.

“That’s alright, more for me.” He pushed a grin up onto his face, and took a bite. “Thank God I’ve got one of those constitutions where I never put on weight, or this French food would be killing me.”

Sherlock gave a little chuckle, as he balanced a third mug on top of two others.

“Não vá comendo tudo você mesmo, você está ficando cada vez maior a cada dia,” he said.

For some reason, John had the distinct impression that he was teasing him. He could feel his cheeks burning hot.

Suddenly, a loud buzzing sound snapped him out of his trance, and he sucked in a steadying breath.

He looked around – he had no idea where his phone had gone. There were dozens of sheets scattered about, books open here and there.

John flipped over a couple sheets and found nothing. The phone buzzed again, somewhere. Beside him, Sherlock had set the mugs down and was rifling around too.

Nothing. Shit. It was probably Harry, calling to make sure he’d still be back in time for her massive Christmas Eve party. He turned to his left – and promptly collided with Sherlock’s arm.

“Sorry, sorry,” John stammered quickly, pulling back. Sherlock must have crossed behind him without him noticing.

“Desculpo,” Sherlock muttered. The phone buzzed again.

It was coming from underneath the Oxford dictionary that lay spine up on the corner. John lunged for it, but Sherlock beat him to it. Their hands collided, and Sherlock’s long fingers pulled the book away, grabbed the phone, and placed it into John’s hand.

“Thank you,” John muttered. It felt like the wind had been knocked out of him, all of a sudden.

Sherlock nodded, then turned away to grab the mugs again.

John shook his head, then hurried to answer Harry. “Hello?”

But he was barely listening – he was watching Sherlock as he left the room, and his hands were still burning – just the gentlest brush of contact, and it had set all his nerve endings alight.

***

He started telling Sherlock things he’d never told anyone else. Things about his parents, and Harry, about Afghanistan. About the book, and his fears that no one would ever read it. It was best when he drove him home, when Sherlock wasn’t busy with something else, and could listen and respond without interruption. John couldn’t be sure, but he had a feeling Sherlock was doing some unburdening of his own. And a sharp ache swelled up inside him every time that thought crossed his mind, because it only made him more desperate to understand him.

John mulled this over the next day, as he tapped slowly at his typewriter. Surely, if he went and found a book in town, he could try to learn some Portuguese? At least passable enough to communicate vaguely, for the time he had left there? But then, some nagging doubt at the back of his mind told him that that was exactly what Sherlock didn’t want. That the only reason he spoke to John at all was because it was nice to have someone listen without understanding. That Sherlock didn’t want John to know anything about him, and didn’t care to know anything about John, either. And that would make sense, too, wouldn’t it? After all, John was just the man he was cleaning up after. Why should Sherlock feel anything for him, one way or another?

His shoulder sagged a little, and he shivered. He was working outside today, on the little table out by the pond. But although the sun was out, there was a chilly breeze, and John’s jumper wasn’t warding it off. Still, it was a good place to write – he’d done quite a lot today. Or maybe his troubling thoughts were just good creative fuel.

He heard footsteps coming up along the path behind him, and John felt his heart give a little spasm of excitement. He looked around to find Sherlock at his side, holding a fresh mug of tea.

“Oh,” John let out, surprised. He felt his face split into a wide grin. “Thank you.”

Sherlock grinned back, and set the mug down in front of him. He grabbed John’s last mug, nothing but dregs left in it now.

But the second he lifted it, the sheets of paper it had been resting on flew out from underneath it.

“Não!” Sherlock yelped.

“Oh, shit!”

They were throwing themselves off the pile, one by one, on the breeze that was carrying them out towards the pond.

“Eu peco imenso desculpo!” Sherlock shouted.

He’d abandoned the mug and was following the pages, hurrying down towards the pond.

“Oh, God, it’s half the book,” John groaned, watching them being carried forward on the wind. Most of them had already landed in the water.

But then his eyes snapped back to Sherlock who had run out onto the dock.

“Oh – no!” he shouted. “Just leave them, please! They’re not important!”

He hurried round the table and down to the bank.

“They’re not worth it!” he yelled as he stumbled forward, stopping before the dock. “Just –!”

But Sherlock was unbuttoning his shirt, and sliding it off his shoulders.

Something seemed to have seized up in John’s throat, stopping all airflow.

“Don’t – no, stop!” he croaked around it weakly. “It’s all just rubbish…”

And now Sherlock had toed off his shoes and unbuckled his trousers. He straightened up, bare but for his tight-fitting boxer briefs.

Time seemed to grind to a halt as he stood there, bathed in sunlight, his back muscles rippling, his strong arms stretching out. John’s eyes travelled slowly up that long neck, to the errant curl at his nape, to his crown of black hair catching each beam of light. His face was set with determination, his perfect lips quirked up, his eyes reflecting back the green and gold pond and making it shine brighter. More magnificent.

If John hadn’t seen him run out there and shed his clothes, he wouldn’t have believed he was real. He looked like an apparition straight from a fairy tale – a beautiful spirit sent to capture the heart of the lonely traveller.

Then Sherlock raised his hands above his head, and dove into the pond.

“Oh, God, he’s in.” John blurted out.

Sherlock’s head broke the surface, and he shook the water out of his eyes.

John shook his head, running onto the dock.

“And now he’ll think I’m a massive twat if I don’t go in, too…”

He tugged off his jumper, and hopped gracelessly around as he tried to pull off his shoes.

“Foda, é frio!” Sherlock yelled, reaching forward.

John managed to get his shoes off, dropped his trousers, and leapt in before he could change his mind.

“Fuck, it’s freezing!” John shrieked as he surfaced. The water was like tiny icy daggers, piercing him all over his skin. “Fuck!”

“Isto é melhor ser bom.”

Sherlock had grabbed onto a couple soggy pages, holding them out of the water.

“It’s not worth it, you know,” John shouted back, shaking the water out of his ears. “It isn’t bloody Shakespeare.”

“Eu não quero me afogar com merda salvadora que minha avó poderia ter escrito.” Sherlock muttered.

John swam over to a couple sheets that had landed together, and pushed them toward the dock.

“I really should do copies,” he said, and struck out again.

Sherlock was almost laughing now, swimming towards John and snagging papers as he went. “Que tipo de idiota não copia?”

John gasped out a chuckle, too. Some water trickled into his mouth, and he spat it out.

“Oh, God, there better not be eels in here.” John suddenly froze, the very notion of it making him afraid to move.

“Tente não perturbar as enguias.” Sherlock turned toward John sharply, his eyes wide.

John suddenly was very aware of how close they were. Sherlock had swum towards him, making his way back to the dock, and had stopped within a foot of him, where pages were floating all around.

Then something brushed past John’s foot, and he jumped.

“Oh, God, what the bloody hell is that?” he screamed.

He thrashed and squirmed, trying to get his feet out of the way of whatever that slimy thing was, but before him, Sherlock was just laughing.

“John, está bem,” he sniggered.

John twisted some more, propelling himself right into Sherlock.

Sherlock grabbed his shoulders to steady him.

“Se acalme,” he said, low and grinning.

John’s hands grasped onto Sherlock’s forearms, holding himself upright.

And then, finally, he broke into laughter. Sherlock joined him, ringing out beyond the water and into the grounds beyond.

In a dirty pond, half-naked and holding onto a Portuguese Adonis, while his book lay soaked all around him, there was nothing he could do but laugh.

Eventually, they were able to round up most of the sheets, and without getting bitten by any eels, too. Some of them were balled up and useless, but most of them would still be salvageable when laid out to dry. He’d only have to rewrite half a dozen pages or so.

They went inside, sopping wet, and John found them towels and fresh clothes. He gave Sherlock his white cable-knit jumper, and the sleeves were a bit too short for his long arms but it only made him look softer and more endearing. He had to tear his gaze away quickly, and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on.

“Thank you,” he said to him, once he’d returned to the sitting room. He handed Sherlock one of the mugs, and sat down in the chair opposite. “Thank you so much.”

Sherlock smiled at him, cradling the mug in both his hands to warm them.

“I know – I’ll name one of the characters after you,” John said, warmly.

Sherlock smiled brighter, and nodded. “Talvez você possa nomear um dos personagens depois de mim.”

He blew on his tea once, and sipped it.

“Ou me dê cinquenta por cento dos lucros.”

John didn’t bother to drink his. He gazed in unashamed wonder, unable to look away.

“Or, I could give you five percent of the profits,” he suggested, shrugging.

Sherlock smiled over the rim of his mug, and set it down on the table.

“Que tipo de livro é esse?”

He gestured toward the desk, where John’s typewriter lay next to the rest of the manuscript.

“Oh.” John was momentarily struck dumb with understanding. “It’s – um –”

“Tipo…” Sherlock was saying. “Erm…”

He mimed wiping tears away from his eyes. “Ou…” He let out a few bursts of fake laughter.

John watched his every movement, as if he could memorize it.

“Ou…” Sherlock pressed his hand to his chest. “Romance?”

John blinked. “Yes! Yes, um, romance, that’s – yeah, it is.”

He leaned forward and set his mug down, too.

“And, uh…”

He raised his fist up, and mimed a stabbing motion, then held an imaginary magnifying glass up to his eye and looked around.

Sherlock nodded vigorously. “Crime...Mistério…?”

“Yes! Yes, si. Mystery.” He was almost vibrating with excitement now. “Mystery, and – and romance.”

Sherlock was looking extremely pleased.

“Assustador?” He asked, and gave a dramatic gasp.

“Scary?” John raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, sometimes scary. Si – er, sim.”

Sherlock was beaming at him now.

“And, er, sometimes not.” John added on, lamely. “Mainly scary how bad the writing is.”

He gave a half-hearted chuckle, but Sherlock obviously didn’t join him. He nodded, and sipped at his tea again.

John couldn’t look away. The sight of him, wearing John’s jumper and cheeks still tinged pink from the cold, was overwhelming every other thought in his head.

It was just a for moment, though, before Sherlock sighed, and stood up.

“Devo voltar ao trabalho,” he said, lowly.

“Oh.” John could hear the dejection in his voice. He forced his face into a neutral position, and stood up, too. “Right.”

“E depois, você vai me levar para casa?”

Sherlock brought his hands up, mimed clutching a steering wheel.

“Yeah.” John nodded. “Of course.”

They stood for a moment, unmoving. Sherlock was meeting his eyes, evenly. He didn’t seem keen to leave.

“It’s my favourite time of day,” John said, no higher than a murmur. “Driving you.”

Sherlock gave a sad little smile, tugging at the sleeve of John’s jumper.

“É a parte mais triste do meu dia,” he replied, lowly. “deixando você.”

John couldn’t say why, but something bright and warm seemed to flow into his chest, at those words.

Sherlock turned, and headed towards the kitchen. John stood still a moment, staring at the wall, then turned around for a final glance, but he was already out of sight.

For once, they didn’t speak when John drove him home later. John kept stealing little looks at Sherlock out of the corner of his eye, but the silence felt unusually fragile, and sacred. He didn’t dare break it.

He dropped Sherlock at his house on the narrow, cobblestoned street, and watched him until he’d slipped inside. As soon as he was gone, the sun seemed to set all at once – the area became darker and colder, the long lonely night reaching out to swallow him.

As John drove back to the villa, the only thing he could see was that vision of Sherlock on the dock, bare and determined, ready to leap.

***

John's fingers moved over the keyboard, slowly. Sherlock was out on the porch, clipping low-hanging branches from the nearest trees.

There was an unexpected problem.

The book was almost entirely finished. John hadn’t even realized how much he’d been churning out over the past weeks until this morning, when he’d stared straight at what was looking to be the story’s conclusion, and a stack of pages several hundred thick beside the typewriter. But he couldn’t be finished, surely. Because if he was – there would be no reason to stay.

He knew he’d promised Harry to be back for Christmas, but…in the back of his mind he’d half hoped he could skive her off, and claim he needed more time here to get the book done. But now that it was practically finished, just needed a few more scenes to wrap up the loose threads…

He looked out through the French doors. Sherlock was wearing his usual posh attire, except he also had on massive gardening gloves and had his shirt open a few extra buttons. John had done his best not to make his staring too obvious, but Sherlock seemed to be completely focused on the task at hand and wouldn’t have noticed either way.

Watching him as he worked, so precisely, so deliberately, made a pool of misery well up in his stomach. All he had to do was type out a few more pages, and then he’d leave. Sherlock would go back to Marseilles, and he’d never see him again, never have a proper conversation with him at all.

But what else was there to do? John had known him for less than a month. They couldn’t even speak the same language.

John sighed, tapped out a few, slow words, then stopped. His eyes followed Sherlock as he moved to the next tree, his eyes blue today and shining with the cobalt sky.

“Maybe I should move out here,” John said, his voice raised loud enough for Sherlock to hear. “Just live off my army pension and write terrible books for a living.”

He craned his neck, to try to see Sherlock’s expression. He was a bit too far away to make out if any understanding had made it through.

“What do you think?” he asked him. “Could I be a proper Frenchman?”

John waited. He knew Sherlock had heard him, but whether he had anything to say himself was another matter. Maybe John would have to wait until later.

But then his mouth contorted somewhat, and he did speak, but it was so quiet that John couldn’t hear him at all.

***

The day came. Sherlock came with John as far as the airport, where John would return the car, and Sherlock would get the train the rest of the way.

John pulled into the rental car park with a pit of misery in his chest so profound he thought it must be spilling out of him. His entire body felt like it was made of stone.

They both got out of the car and circled around it, standing in front.

“Well,” John said. His voice was tight and painful. “Goodbye.”

He extended his hand. The motion felt wrong, cruelly inadequate. But Sherlock reached out and grasped it all the same.

“Obrigado,” he said, quietly.

John held on too long. When Sherlock finally released his grip, John’s hand felt like it was about to freeze completely.

John sighed, trying to smile, but he was sure his face just looked pitiful and sad.

“It’s been…um…”

He cast his eyes downward, at a complete loss.

What good were words now, anyway?

Sherlock’s hands were buried in his pockets, his body still. But he gave a miniscule huff of his own, and it made John look back up at him.

The smile Sherlock was wearing made John’s heart lodge itself in his throat. By any definition it was a smile, but it was tempered with so much melancholy lining his brow it might as well have not been one.

“Vou sentir saudades,” he murmured.

John swallowed, painfully. Sherlock raised his hands, mimed typing at a keyboard.

“E tua digitação muito lento,” he said.

A strange humourless chortle huffed out of John’s lips.

Sherlock mimed grasping a steering wheel. “E tua condução muito ruim.”

John’s smile widened slightly. The barest fraction of his despair had ebbed away slightly, even though he was sure Sherlock had just insulted both his writing and his driving.

He said nothing – just looked at him, taking in their last moment, and let whatever was written on his face be seen there.

Sherlock’s coat fluttered slightly in the breeze. He was staring back, making no move to leave, looking so desperately wistful that John wished he could pull him close and wipe that look away.

And then, with just the barest shift his eyes, Sherlock leaned forward and kissed him.

Just a simple kiss – chaste, close-lipped and fleeting – but a kiss all the same, and John closed his eyes and took it all in – the bare, ephemeral feeling of Sherlock’s lips, his fingers brushing John’s cheek.

And then it was over, and Sherlock pulled back. He gazed at him just long enough for his expression to shift again into undisguised longing, and before John could even open his mouth to speak, he turned away.

John stared after him, lips hanging open and trembling, and he watched Sherlock walk away. His coat billowed out behind him, his footfalls echoing on the pavement, and he gave a little shake of his head but didn’t look back.

John watched, and watched, until Sherlock had rounded the corner towards the station and had disappeared from his view.

Inside him, the dam had burst open, and he had to clench his teeth to keep it from spilling out. He reached out and braced himself against the hood of the car, and stared off, beyond the space where Sherlock had disappeared, beyond where his last and greatest salvation had walked away from him, and he’d let him go without a word.

***

Somehow, his London flat seemed quieter than the isolated countryside, even with all the bustle of the street just outside his window.

“I’ve got a terrible stomach ache,” John repeated in a monotone. “It must have been the prawns.”

He rolled his eyes. He’d never once said that in all his life in English. But he’d just said it in Portuguese, and just like the example voice, too, so he supposed that was a victory.

He scrolled through the rest of the example sentences in the lesson. They looked to be all about the same. He scowled a bit, but moved on through them obediently. Maybe the next section would be less seafood-based.

“My goodness!” He parroted back, taking his time around the longer, Latin-esque vowels. “This is a very big fish! It tastes delicious!”

***

John trudged up the street, his arms laden with gifts.

Harry’s Christmas Eve party was going to be a nightmare, like it always was. There would be hordes of people John didn’t know, prodding him about his love life and asking him all sorts of questions that would just make him want to shrivel up and die. They didn’t know it, obviously. But that didn’t help.

He rang the doorbell, and only had to wait a second or two before Harry had hurled it open.

“John!” she yelled, pulling him exuberantly over the threshold. “Everyone, John’s here!”

As if conjured out of thin air, a crowd of people spilled out of the sitting room and into the hall, all shouting and cheering and raising teetering glasses of champagne.

“John!” clamored a throng of voices he didn’t recognize. “John, good to see you!”

“Yes, yes,” he said, absently shaking hands, and receiving enthusiastic thumps on the back.

All of it was shockingly, wretchedly unbearable.

“Good to see you all,” he said, casting around. “And, um…”

John paused, blinking, in the middle of greeting one of Harry’s co-workers.

He’d just come to a stunning realization.

“…I’m off, actually.”

Of course. How hadn’t he thought of it before? It was so obvious, so simple.

Mad, of course. Utterly mad. But simple.

“But – John!” Harry was staring at him, perplexed.

“Sorry.” John looked over the crowd, dazed, hardly seeing them. “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”

It probably wouldn’t work. Every ounce of logic said he’d be back home tomorrow, same as he’d always been.

But then, he wouldn’t be, would he? Even if it did fail? Because at the very least, he’d know.

At the very least, he would have tried.

He set the gift bags down on the floor, turned on his heel and walked straight back out the door.

“Aw, John, come on!” came one of the raucous voices.

“Who invited him anyway? Prat!” came another.

John ignored all of them, and hurried back down toward the high street, barreling towards the first cab he saw.

“Heathrow,” he huffed as he slid into the backseat. “As fast as you can.”

***

The cab turned along the familiar cobblestoned street. John couldn’t believe it had been just over a week since he’d been here last. Everything felt so different. Even the street looked different, with scattered starlight above and people bustling along it on either side, laughing out their Christmas cheer.

John paid the cabbie and, for the first time, stepped up to the door and knocked.

It was only a few moments before the door swung open, and a plump, grey-haired man with a kind face stood on the other side of it.

John’s heart thundered against his ribs. This was it. This was the moment, finally. His moment.

“Boa noite,” he said, trying to keep his voice from shaking. “Senhor Holmes?”

The man was looking confused, but nodded, genially. “Sim.”

John sucked in a long shaking breath, then cast around for his broken Portuguese.

“I am here to ask your son,” he said, stumbling over a few consonants, “for his hands in marriage.”

He knew it probably wasn’t entirely correct, but he hoped desperately that it was good enough. It was absolutely crucial that he get this right.

Sure enough, Mr. Holmes' face lit up with surprise.

“You want to marry my son?” he asked.

“Yes,” John said. His voice was absolutely steady over that one.

Mr. Holmes looked him up and down a moment, and then he broke into an elated smile.

“Mycroft!” he shouted over his shoulder. “Come here, there’s a man at the door. He wants to marry you!”

John’s brow furrowed, wondering if he had just heard that right and if Mycroft was any word he had learned – and then another, younger man stepped out from the doorway at the end of the hall.

He was tall, with a high brow line like Sherlock’s, but there was a haughty air in his face and his hair lay flat.

Understanding swelled darkly in John’s mind. This had to be Sherlock’s brother.

He stood framed in the hall, a Christmas biscuit in one hand, and was surveying John with something that looked like disgust.

“I’ve never seen this man before in my life,” Mycroft said, bitingly, to his father.

Mr. Holmes looked sympathetically at John, then turned back to Mycroft.

“Well, he seems nice,” he said, kindly. “Why don’t you come and say hello?

Say hello?” Mycroft yelped, sounding almost offended. “And then what, marry this stranger?

“Oh come on, Mycroft, if you never give anyone a chance –”

“Uh, pardon me,” John interjected, quickly, desperate to stop this before it got out of hand. “I am – I am meaning your other son. Sherlock.”

Mr. Holmes turned back to him, and he let out a small, understanding “ah.”

“He’s not here. He’s at work.” Mr. Holmes grabbed his coat from its hook next to the door. “Come on, I’ll take you.”

A spark of adrenaline shot through every cell in John’s body.

“Oh, for God’s sake!” Mycroft stepped forward too and grabbed his own coat. “Mummy, come on!”

A smiling grey-haired woman emerged from the sitting room and followed Mycroft toward the door, but John was already hurrying after Mr. Holmes down the street.

John’s breath was coming in sharp bursts. He walked along with a confident stride, stepping over the cobblestones and through narrow side-streets, but his heart was hammering harder than it ever had before.

Mycroft and Mrs. Holmes had caught up and were keeping even step behind them. Every so often, they passed someone they seemed to know, and after a quick explanation, the newcomer would join them.

“Father is about to sell Sherlock to this Englishman,” Mycroft said to a large group sitting at the table outside a café, and the entire throng of them stood up to fall in step beside them.

“Mycroft, don’t say that,” John heard Mrs. Holmes admonish him, but it was too late – the crowd was getting larger and larger, and buzzing.

“They say he’s an English duke!”

“He’s going to burn down the restaurant!”

“Apparently he’s on his way to kill Sherlock!”

“Cool!”

John shook his head, but didn’t have time to dwell on it. It seemed like the entire Portuguese quarter was following them now, and Mr. Holmes had turned onto the next wide road.

They rounded a corner, and then stopped. They’d reached the restaurant, with a wood sign hanging over the door and holly leaves painted on the windows.

Mr. Holmes stepped back to let him enter first. John squared himself in the doorway, took in one last, steadying breath, and stepped inside.

The restaurant had an old-world feel to it – it was two levels, with rounded arches forming the base of the landing and a narrow staircase leading up to the second level in the middle of the floor.

The crowd flooded in behind John. He cast his gaze around, across the diners, the bartender on his left, the few people puttering around – but there was no sign of him.

“Where is Sherlock?” came Mr. Holmes’ voice beside him.

The bartender turned around – he was an older man, with his long hair tied back in a low ponytail.

“What do you want with him?” the man asked – his voice was gruffer than Mr. Holmes’, and he looked a bit surprised to have the entire neighbourhood in his restaurant all of a sudden.

“This man wants to marry him,” Mr. Holmes explained.

The bartender rolled his eyes, looking annoyed.

“He can’t do that – he’s our best waiter.”

But the room had fallen silent – or it might as well have. The crowd behind him was shushing each other, the diners had abandoned their food and were looking around in quiet awe.

The reason, though, that John could no longer hear anything, was that Sherlock was up on the second-floor landing, laying down plates in front of two patrons.

He was wearing a black button-down, and had a white apron tied around his waist. His curls were tumbling errantly over his brow as he served the diners their meals.

He suddenly seemed to notice the hush that had fallen over the room, and straightened up, his eyes darting around until they landed on John – and froze.

John’s heart seized up in his chest. Sherlock was looking directly at him, his expression a mix of shock, confusion, and apprehension. Clearly, this possibility had never crossed his mind, and he was stunned beyond all measure.

John was, too. Sherlock looked, if possible, even more beautiful than when he had seen him last.

“Boa noite, Sherlock,” John said, his throat rasping.

Sherlock blinked, looking almost somber. “Boa noite, John.”

He abandoned the couple at the table and moved toward the railing, looking down at the crowd on the first floor.

John stepped forward too. The entire restaurant was silent now, every eye focused on the two of them.

This was it. The moment had come, and suddenly John’s mind had quieted down into calmness, too.

“Brilliant Sherlock,” he began, haltingly.

Sherlock gazed down at him, eyes piercingly blue.

“I have come here,” John stumbled a bit over the words, but his voice was clear and certain. “With a view to asking you…to marriage me.”

Sherlock’s eyes widened. His hands were clenched on the railing.

“I know – I seems an insane person,” John went on, breathlessly. “Because I hardly knows you.”

The barest ripple of noise spread across the restaurant, then died out. Even the bartender was staring at him expectantly.

“But sometimes, things are so transparency…they don’t need evidential proof.”

John barely saw any of it. His gaze was reserved for Sherlock alone – brilliant, beautiful, stunned Sherlock, who was looking at him like he thought he might be in a dream.

“And I will inhabit here with you – or, you can inhabit with me in England –”

“Oh, definitely go to England, Sherlock,” came Mycroft’s voice from John’s left. “Please, do me a favour – ow!”

He fell silent, abruptly. His father had elbowed him in the ribs.

“Of course,” John went on. “I don’t expecting you to be as foolish as me. And of course I prediction you say no…”

Sherlock’s lips parted in a tiny gasp. His hands tightened on the railing.

“…but it’s Christmas, and I just wanted to…” John trailed off, giving a weak sort of shrug. “…check.”

Everyone in the place now turned to stare up at Sherlock. But they might as well have been the only two people in the room. Sherlock didn’t even seem to notice anyone else was there, anymore.

The silence drew on. John’s heart was stopped in his throat, waiting…

“Oh, God – say yes, Sherlock!” Mrs. Holmes’ voice piped up.

But she was quickly shushed again, and Sherlock didn’t seem to have heard her at all. He didn’t break eye contact with John, his gaze so unbearably sharp and brimming with emotion, John though it might pierce his heart open entirely.

He would let it, though, obviously. It would be worth it.

Sherlock stared, and John stared back, waiting, not breathing, desperately hoping – but afraid to move at all for fear of shattering the moment.

And then, inch by inch, the corners of Sherlock’s lips turned up – and his face lit up with a wide, brilliant smile.

“Thank you,” he said, in English.

John gasped out loud.

“That will be wonderful,” he went on, warmly.

John’s mouth hung open, turned up at the corners, his mind reeling with wonder and joy.

“Yes, is being my answer.”

Sherlock’s smile was eclipsing everything else in the world – it was brighter than the sun, brighter than the entire universe.

Sherlock gave a breathless chuckle, and a little shrug of one shoulder.

“Easy question.”

John’s heart burst open in triumph.

Mrs. Holmes’ voice suddenly barked out in Portuguese: “What did you say?”

Sherlock gave a small, elated giggle. “Sim, claro,” he said. Yes, of course.

And the restaurant erupted.

The crowd behind John cheered and whooped. Diners stood up, their meals forgotten. The entire place began to applaud, shrieking and hollering with well-wishes and congratulations.

John, however, paid them no attention, because Sherlock was coming toward him, stepping slowly down the stairs and brimming with joy so profound that John couldn’t see anything else.

Sherlock stepped down onto the lower floor, and John stepped forward. They were inches from each other, alight and beaming, the rest of the world forgotten.

“You learned English?” John murmured, in the space between them.

Sherlock’s smile softened, adoration shining out of every pore.

“Just in cases,” he whispered back.

Something heavy and powerful rose up in John’s throat.

John raised his hand to Sherlock’s face. He slid his thumb along that gorgeous cheekbone, the way he’d wanted to for so long.

Sherlock reached up to take John’s face in both of his, steady and sure.

And John leaned in, and Sherlock met him, and the kiss was deep and slow and perfect.

John sank into him, his other arm wrapping around Sherlock’s shoulders. Sherlock’s tongue pushed past John’s lips, which opened for him, gladly, and they explored each other, seeking each other out with soft touches and tender movements.

It was magnificent, and transcendent, and it was everything John could have dreamed of and more. Sherlock was warm, and smiling, and he was holding him close and delicate, like the moment was wholly sublime.

And he was. Sherlock really was.

Suddenly, John was pulled backwards by a hand on his shoulder, forcing him to break the kiss. His mind reeled, very put out at being interrupted, and he saw Sherlock’s father there beaming jovially at him.

Then Mr. Holmes planted both his hands on John’s shoulders, and kissed him firmly on the lips.

It was quick and friendly, but John still jumped back in surprise. Sherlock burst into laughter beside him.

Then Mycroft had sidled up, and with a crooked smirk, bent to give John a kiss too before he knew what was happening. Then Sherlock’s mother appeared on John’s other side, and laid quite an enthusiastic one on him before she pulled back and began to speak rapidly in Portuguese, tearing up joyfully as she did.

John retreated instinctively into Sherlock’s side, who had wrapped an arm around his waist and was shaking with breathless giggles.