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a vein of frost

Chapter Text

Sometimes, Sherlock barely notices the cold. 

It’s a side-effect of getting lost in his own mind, he supposes – when he’s winding through the corridors of his Mind Palace, the cold outside might register as a shiver down his spine or a numbness in his fingertips.  Lost in thought, Sherlock could quite easily ignore plummeting temperatures as they wreak havoc, nibbling away at his energy until he can barely move.  Once, when he was a child, he spent two hours in the dead of winter crouched beside the pond behind their family home, captivated by the flowering whorls of frost at the water’s edge.  Mycroft had found him shivering and stiff, blue to the lips.  Mummy had thrown a fit.

Now, using an eyedropper to administer Coumadin to blood in a petri dish, Sherlock barely registers the sound of the door to 221B opening and the footsteps shuffling into the sitting room. 

“What in God’s name—Sherlock?  You in here?”

Sherlock does register that, tensing momentarily before exhaling, banishing his reaction with the ease of long practice.  It’s John.  It’s only John.

Only, he thinks, firmly.

“Kitchen,” he calls.

The footsteps grow steadily louder.  “You do realize it’s bloody freezing in here, right?”

John appears at the doorway of the kitchen moments later, amused smile vanishing as he sees the figure perched on the stool at Sherlock’s side.  “Ah.”

“Language, John,” says Sherlock, not taking his eyes from the microscope.  Cells drift apart and the field of vision fades from scarlet to pink. 

“Daddy swore,” Rosie says in a stage whisper.  She’s been a model helper, unobtrusive and eager.  Sherlock could do the experiment by himself, of course – has done countless others that way, many of them far more dangerous – but Rosie likes helping and hates idleness. 

John sighs.  “Yes, darling, I did.  That was bad of me.”  He walks to Rosie’s side and bends to kiss the top of her head.  Sherlock, seeing this from the corner of his eye, turns his gaze back to the microscope and feels his fingers tighten around the focus dial. 

“Must be the heating,” says John.  “Aren’t you cold?” 

Sherlock grunts vaguely.  “Hadn’t noticed.”

“Hadn’t noticed,” Rosie parrots. 

John mock-scowls at Sherlock.  “You’re the cause of this, you realize.”

“Of the cold?” Sherlock says, looking away from the microscope with a little smile.  “I know you idolize me, John, but even I cannot control the weather.”

Huffing out a laugh, John turns his attention to Rosie.  He twines one of her dishwater-blonde curls around his fingers and gives an affectionate tug.  “Come on, darling.  Let’s get your coat.”

Rosie blinks, looks from her father to Sherlock and back again.  A little furrow forms on her brow.  “Are we going?”

“No,” says John, “but I don’t want you to freeze because His Nibs is too lazy to put on his coat.”

“Whose nibs?”

“Never you mind.  Now, up you get.”

Rosie slides off the stool and goes to John’s side, slipping her small hand into his.  At five years old, she still worships her father, though there is the occasional moment when Sherlock sees a spark of rebellion.  Given time, it will kindle and grow into a healthy flame.  It’s to be expected.  With an ex-army doctor-turned-adrenaline junkie for a father and an assassin for a mother, Rosie could turn out to be far worse than rebellious. 

Sherlock turns his focus back to the microscope, but keeps one ear on the sitting room, where John is gathering Rosie’s coat, hat, and mittens.  His voice is soft and low.  “Arms out, darling.  Yes, like that.”

With methodical precision, Sherlock squeezes another drop of resuspended Coumadin onto the petri dish.  His other hand is strained, knuckles white, around the focus dial.  Keeping himself in check. 

It’s not fair, a mutinous part of his mind insists.  Sherlock silences the thought as easily as he might pluck lint off his trouser leg.  He’s had a long time to become adept at it – coming up on a decade, actually.  It’s a bit pathetic, but he’s resigned himself to it.  He’s luckier than he has any right to be, with John and Rosie living at 221B when they could have very well stayed in the house in Chiswick.  John would have been completely justified in cutting Sherlock out of his life on more than one occasion, but for some reason—well. 

Sherlock adjusts the dial, watches red discs slide into focus, fuzz at the edges, and sharpen once more as he turns back a few notches.  Things can be so clear one instant and muddled the next.

Sherlock’s mobile chimes, snapping him out of his reverie.  Rolling a crick out of his neck, he plucks his mobile off the tabletop and glances at the screen.  Lestrade.

“This had better be important,” he says imperiously by way of greeting.  “I have a highly sensitive experiment in progress.”  A total lie – even a monkey could infer the effects of Coumadin on hemophiliac blood.  But Sherlock isn’t about to let Lestrade know how bored he is.  He’ll start thinking cases can be rationed, a currency with which to make Sherlock behave. 

Lestrade sighs over the line.  “We’ve found a body in Lambeth.  Interested?”

“Perhaps,” says Sherlock, turning the lenses of the microscope absentmindedly.  “What’s special about this one?  You wouldn’t call me if it was business as usual.”

“The circumstances of the murder are… odd,” says Lestrade.  “Honestly?  It’s just bloody weird.  But if you aren’t interested, I can have a go solving it myself.  Just thought you’d want to see what murder-by-candy cane looks like.”

Sherlock stills.  All thoughts of thinning blood and John kissing Rosie’s head – soft pressure against his temple, a breath as he inhales the scent of his hair, a warm puff as he exhales, smiling, against his ear – all those thoughts are wiped away, leaving a clean slate.  The template for a new case, a new distraction. 

“Really?” he breathes.

“Yeah.”  Lestrade’s tone is disbelieving and a trifle smug.  “Thought that’d get your attention.  Will you come?”

“Give me the address.”

Lestrade gives him the location and Sherlock rings off without a word, fairly vibrating with excitement.  Murder by candy cane!  It’s just ridiculous enough to be intriguing. 

A weight settles over Sherlock’s shoulders, startling him from his reverie.  He knows the heft and drape of the Belstaff without having to look, just as he knows who would bother to see that he’s kept warm.  It isn’t a long list. 

“All right?” asks John.  “You’ve gone tense.”

“I’m fine.”  With a force of will, Sherlock uncoils his spine, sitting up straight and relaxing his shoulders.  “Lestrade has a case.  Apparently, someone’s been murdered with a candy cane.”

“What, seriously?”

“Utterly.”  As the ease of their age-old exchange moves between them, Sherlock feels his composure return.  He can never have John, it’s true – never have him the way he wants him, has known and battled that knowing for the last ten years – but at least they have the Work.  They will always have the Work. 

John grins, boyishly intrigued.  The sight makes Sherlock’s heart limp, limp, gallop.  “’Course I’ll come.  Just let me call someone for the heating, and then we can drop Rosie off with Molly, if she’s amenable.”

“She will be,” says Sherlock.  “She’s besotted with Watson.”

“All the same,” John chuckles, “it’s not on to leave children with their godparents without a little warning.”

Sherlock shrugs.  “I don’t mind.”

A pause.  When John speaks, his voice is neutral, his words chosen with care.  “Well.  You’re different, I suppose.”

“Hmm.”  Sherlock turns back to the microscope, sparing his blood cells a final glance before flipping the switch to shut off the lamp.  The field of vision fades to black.

And then:  John’s hand at his shoulder, the touch so light Sherlock might have mistaken it for the brush of the Belstaff.  His hand lingers, presses, and Sherlock can feel the imprint of his palm mold against the bump of his clavicle, perilously close to the nape of his neck.  Sherlock’s nerves spark like a wire stripped to the core.  He feels John’s fingers pressing through wool, through his silk shirt, down to hot skin. 

John’s hand drops away and Sherlock’s arms spasm, catching the slipping coat and hugging it close before it can fall to the floor. 

“Right,” says John.  His tone is perfectly ordinary.  He turns to the sitting room.  “Rosie?  Darling, you ready to go?”

As he walks out, Sherlock sits a moment longer, willing his treacherous heart to slow.  His mind races to hoard the feeling of John’s hand on him, molding and pressing and then gone, leaving behind an empty hollow like a criminal leaves footprints. 

Sherlock eases out a long breath, watches it plume in the air.  Is it cold?  He can’t tell.  His face is flushed.

 

Chapter Text

“Stabbed through the eye with a sharpened candy cane,” pronounces John.  “Christ.”

Sherlock purses his lips and raises his eyebrows, unimpressed.  “Really, John?  With your wealth of medical knowledge, that’s all you can say?”

“In my expert medical opinion,” says John, dryly, “he was stabbed through the eye with a sharpened candy cane.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes, but he can’t muster any malice for the gesture.  “Excellent deduction.  Truly incisive.”

John pushes his hands against his knees, levering himself up from his squatting position beside the body.  Shakes his head with a huff.  “Don’t see why you need me for this one.  I’d say the cause of death is fairly obvious.”

Sherlock looks up from the corpse of Mr. Charles Porter, shopping center security guard and closeted sex-addict.  His thoughts cut quickly from the angle of penetration into the left eye suggests the left frontal and temporal lobes were to I always need you here, you daft man.  He clamps his teeth down on the words and assumes a mask of nonchalance.

“I apologize if murder by candy cane isn’t interesting enough for you,” he says briskly.  “If you have a more interesting crime to attend to, I can probably manage without you.”

“Not a crime,” says John, smiling.  “A date.”

Sherlock stills, hand half-way into his pocket in a search for his magnifier.  He feels as if a rope has been lashed around his ribs, squeezing them painfully against his heart.  With no small effort, he feigns indifference.  “I see.”

“Yeah.”  The corners of John’s smile twitch down as he meets Sherlock’s gaze.  Dropping his eyes to the corpse, he rubs his nose with the heel of his hand and nods.  “Thought I’d get back into, er, the game, I suppose.”

Not all games are fun, thinks Sherlock.  The tightness in his chest makes him think of an old woman’s voice over the line, withered and rasping.  A thunderous explosion as a building topples.  The reek of chlorine.  The look in John’s eyes as he peels back the coat, revealing Semtex and roving red lights. 

“Dull,” says Sherlock.  He digs out his magnifier and crouches beside the corpse.

“Yeah,” John says.  Is it Sherlock’s imagination, or does he sound… tired?  “I thought you’d say that.”

“What you do with your time makes no difference to me.”

“Actually, it does,” says John, a trifle testily.  Sherlock glances up at him and John sighs, schooling his scowl into serenity.  “I was hoping you’d look after Rosie that night.”  Then, too quickly, “I would ask Mrs. Hudson, but she’s on holiday, obviously, and Molly is—”

“I’ll look after Watson,” says Sherlock.

“Oh.”  John blinks once, twice.  He’s been caught off his guard, getting what he wants so easily.  “Um.  You’re sure?”

“Ye-es,” Sherlock drawls, and oh, there’s the malice he was missing earlier:  scantily-clad in sarcasm.  “It would be ridiculous to make her leave Baker Street just because you’re gone.  She does live there, after all.”

“Right.”  John drops his eyes to his feet, mouth twisting.  “I’m… I didn’t want to overstep.”

“You’ve both lived there for years,” says Sherlock, his voice like chipped ice.  “Have you forgotten?”

John is silent for a long moment.  Then, a muscle twitching in his jaw, he nods again.  “Right, well.  Thanks.” 

He turns and stalks off without another word.  Sherlock watches as John finds Lestrade and the two fall into amicable chatter – no doubt commiserating about what a miserable bastard he can be to work with.  To live with.  It’s a song and dance Sherlock knows all too well.

Sliding the magnifier open, Sherlock turns his attention to the corpse, leaning as close as he can without losing his balance and mucking up the evidence.  Charles Porter has been dead for hours; the elements have sapped all the heat from his body, rendering him an icy slab. 

Two consistent lovers, Sherlock notes, studying the corpse’s pale hands.  The fingernails are neatly-trimmed.  An occasional third, but never the same person twice.  And then, intruding into his deductions with all the grace of a rampaging rhinoceros:  Why are you surprised?  John used to date all the time.  ‘Three Continents Watson,’ wasn’t that the nickname? 

Snicking the magnifier shut, Sherlock stands.  He shouldn’t be surprised that John wants to date again.  If anything, he should be surprised that John has waited almost four years.  Ever since Mary… well.  Perhaps Sherlock is mistaken.  Perhaps four years isn’t so long a time when you’re a widower. 

Sherlock breathes out a sigh as he sweeps his gaze over the corpse one last time, reviewing clues and deductions.  There’s nothing left for him here.

A date.

Sherlock is suddenly and acutely aware of the cold.

 

-

 

The following evening finds Sherlock at his microscope once again, testing a second blood sample with the Coumadin.  If he’s right – as usual – the owner of this sample was quite cleverly murdered by her mother-in-law by what most would consider a papercut. 

“Watson,” Sherlock calls, “bring me the P200.”

“Daddy says you need to use the magic word,” Rosie replies.

Sherlock bites the inside of his cheek.  “Quite right.  Watson, please bring me the P200.”

The pipette is pressed into his waiting hand a moment later, and Sherlock fits on a plastic tip without taking his focus away from the scope.  Rosie learned the differences between the pipettes ages ago.  Unscrewing the cap of a tube, Sherlock dips in the pipette, draws up the drug, and adds it to the blood cells.  He sits back, rolling out a crick in his neck. 

“What now?” asks Rosie.

“Now,” says Sherlock, “we wait.”

“Oh.”  Rosie looks crestfallen.  Then, brightening, she says, “I know!”

She darts out of the kitchen and up the stairs before Sherlock can utter a sound.  Seconds later, she stumbles back down with a sheet of paper half-crumpled in one hand and a pencil in the other.  Sherlock considers telling her not to run with sharp objects, dismisses the notion as inane. 

Rosie slaps the piece of paper on the kitchen table and clambers into her designated stool.  When John at last allowed her to watch Sherlock experiment, she claimed the stool as her own and announced that no-one else – save her stuffed tiger, Sullivan – could sit on it.  Sherlock made the grave mistake of using it once.  The results were catastrophic. 

Perched on her stool, Rosie jabs the pencil at Sherlock.  “Help me!”

Sherlock looks at the sheet of paper, which is wreathed at the edges with cartoonish garlands and mistletoe.  The text at the top says ‘My Wish List.’

“What is this,” says Sherlock. 

“Homework.”  Rosie’s nose scrunches at the word. 

Sherlock glowers at the sheet of paper.  “Make your father do it.”

“I don’t wanna,” Rosie protests.  “I want you to!”

Sherlock rolls his eyes but picks up the pencil.  The last time he got into an argument with Rosie, she threatened to hold her breath until she got her way.  Sherlock had laughed in her face, then felt his humor instantly dissipate as seconds passed, her cheeks puffed out, and her complexion changed from pink to blue. 

John swears this is a phase and it will pass.  Sherlock sincerely hopes he’s right.  If Rosie threatens to asphyxiate herself every time she wants something, she’s going to grow into a very entitled woman. 

Twiddling the pencil, Sherlock considers the empty Wish List.  “Well, what do you want for Christmas, Watson?”

“A Jasmine Barbie,” says Rosie promptly.  “For Sullivan.”

Sherlock cocks an eyebrow at her, but dutifully writes down ‘Jasmine Barbie for Sullivan the tiger.’  “What else.”

“No,” says Rosie, “it’s your turn now.”

“What?”

“Write what you want!”

“Fine,” Sherlock snipes, and writes ‘a very clever serial killer’ in the second line.

“What did you write?” Rosie asks when the pencil stops. 

“’A new scarf.’  Now it’s your turn.”

They continue in this vein, adding the token ‘pony’ (Rosie), ‘nicotine patches’ (Sherlock), and ‘a puppy’ (Rosie and Sherlock).  One line stands empty at the bottom of the list. 

“It’s your homework,” says Sherlock.  “You choose.”

Rosie’s brow furrows, but she doesn’t fault Sherlock’s logic.  She stares at the sheet for a few seconds, blue gaze turned inward, and says, very softly, “A mum.”

The pencil falters in Sherlock’s hand.  Guilt, slick and oily, begins churning in the pit of his gut.  Flicking his eyes warily at Rosie, he sees that she hasn’t noticed his lapse; her hands are folded on the table, her expression distant.  She chews absentmindedly on her lower lip.

“Watson,” Sherlock says.  Startling, she looks back at him, but she makes no attempt to hide the thoughts playing across her face.  She’s too young and too candid for that kind of deception.  “I don’t think Father Christmas brings mums down the chimney.”

Rosie laughs, and guilt washes up Sherlock’s throat like bile.  “Prob’ly can’t fit.”

“Precisely.”  Sherlock twirls the pencil between his fingers.  “Perhaps he can bring you a pair of walkie-talkies.”

Later, as Rosie dozes on the sofa with Sullivan standing guard at her side, Sherlock unearths a packet of cigarettes from a loose-leaf tea canister and goes to the loo.  The tile is cool under his bare feet and the night air raises gooseflesh along his arms and neck as he opens the window, lights a match, and takes a long drag.  Smoke smolders in his lungs.

I am sorry, Mary, he thinks. 

Chapter Text

 

“Sherlock?” John’s voice floats through the flat.  “Sherlock, could you come here for a minute?”

Something in his tone sinks into Sherlock like a fishhook, snagging and dragging him from his musings.  He sets his violin carefully into its case and closes the lid, fingers fumbling, almost numb against the clasps.  How long has he been playing, floating along the chaotic lilt of music? 

As Sherlock walks toward the stairwell, he glances out the window.  Lamplight daubs the glass with splashes of orange and yellow.  Beyond, the lights of buildings and cars whisking down the street fend off the encroaching dark.  Sherlock climbs the stairs with notes spinning through his mind, echoing hollowly without his playing to bring them to rich, sorrowful life. 

Massenet, he thinks, annoyed with himself.  How very maudlin of you.

(Sherlock consoles himself with the fact that he wasn’t playing Tchaikovsky, at the very least.  If he ever catches himself playing Swan Lake whilst languishing for lack of John’s love, he will snap his bow in half.) 

He reaches the landing and raps his knuckles against the door, uncertain of what to expect.  When John bids him come in, it is with both curiosity and apprehension that Sherlock turns the knob and enters. 

Standing in the center of the room, John turns from his study of the mirror and offers a tentative smile.  Clad in dark trousers and a button-up in royal blue with his hair swept into an artful curve, he cuts a sleek figure.  All he’s missing is his shoes; there’s something oddly intimate about seeing his sock-clad feet, toes curling against the carpet.  Sherlock drags his focus back to John’s face.  Tries to ignore the smooth, jewel-tone sheen of the shirt. 

“Well?”  John looks at him expectantly.  “What, um.  What do you think?”

Sherlock blinks.  He’s genuinely caught off-guard.  “What?”

John exhales in a rush, ducking his head and spreading his arms in a helpless gesture.  “I’m going out again.  Got some new clothes.  Do you—well, what do you think?”

Sherlock blinks again, his mind tripping as it races to process the question.  He swallows convulsively, feels his throat close around his pulse.  He thinks, You look—

“You’ve never asked for my opinion on…”  He waves at John, encompassing the trousers, the jewel-tone shirt, the hair. 

“I haven’t?”  John mouth quirks into a little half-smile.  “Huh.  Guess I hadn’t realized.  But I—I suppose you’re right.  You don’t need to… just.  Don’t bother.  Forget I asked.”

He looks away, cheeks pink, but Sherlock’s brain rushes ahead, unfettered, plucking deductions from the grooves on John’s brow, the bags under his eyes.  The clean, silvery sweep of his hair—oh. 

“You’re self-conscious about your age.”  The deduction is as clear as crystal to Sherlock, uttered without a thought.  John’s smile falters and regret twists in Sherlock’s chest. 

“I’m not…”  John trails off and hitches the smile back up, rueful and forced.  “I guess I…  I might be.  A little.”

“Why?”

John barks out a laugh, but it’s all wrong, edged with self-deprecation.  “Honestly?  I’m pushing fifty, Sherlock.”

“You’re forty-six.”  Sherlock has a copy of John’s birth certificate hanging behind glass in his Mind Palace.  Sometimes, he’s tempted to phone the hospital where John was born and see if they have more exact records – the hour, the minute, the second.  It’s a long shot, but if they did have it—

He’s getting off-track.  John is watching Sherlock with a small smile, head cocked ever so slightly.  Sherlock lifts his chin and looks down his nose at him.  “You’ve nothing to be worried about.”

John shrugs, halfheartedly accepting the offering of comfort.  “I suppose part of it is, um… the shirt?  How does it…?”

It takes Sherlock a damning five seconds to take John’s meaning.  He rushes to fill the void of silence gathering between them.  “It’s fine.  It’s, ah… good.  Yes.”

John’s smile is more relieved now, and he leans forward.  Sherlock’s heart thumps in a bid to crack the confines of his ribcage.  “You think so?”

“Of course,” says Sherlock.  He tries to sound testy – John knows he hates repeating himself – but it’s a pitiful effort.  “It looks very… nice.”

‘Fine,’ he thinks disdainfully.  Marvelous vocabulary, you utter tit.  ‘Fine,’ ‘good,’ ‘nice’…

“Really?” asks John.  “You don’t think it’s a bit…?”

“A bit what?”

“Well.  Much?”

Sherlock frowns.  He senses the shape of the idea John is trying to frame and he doesn’t care for it.  “What do you mean, ‘much?’”

John turns back to the mirror, eyes roving over his reflection.  “Nothing.”

 “I take it your new girlfriend is younger than you,” Sherlock says.  He doesn’t mean for it to sound cutting, but it slices through the air like shards of glass. 

Hurt flickers through John’s eyes; it’s quickly masked, but Sherlock hates himself for causing it nonetheless.  Mouth twisting, John hesitates.  Nods.  “She’s eight years younger, yeah.”

Sherlock wants to say something spiteful – he wants to cut this nameless, faceless woman down in John’s eyes, reduce her.  But he takes the urge and buries it deep, deep down.  After all that happened with Mary, whatever rights Sherlock had to interfere with John’s love life have been revoked. 

Sherlock could laugh at himself.  He never had a right to interfere in the first place – that would imply that he stood a chance.  That John might want him, too.

“What’s her name?” he forces out.  If he’s truly done meddling, he’ll let this woman have a name and a face. 

John looks at him, clearly suspicious.  “Sherlock…”

“I’ll find out on my own if you don’t tell me,” says Sherlock. 

John rolls his eyes.  “I don’t doubt that for a second.  Fine.  Her name is Elise.”

“I see.”  A lovely name, like the clear ring of a bell.  Elise.  A lovely name for a lovely woman. Flicking his eyes over John, Sherlock makes another deduction.  “She doesn’t work at the clinic.”

John’s expression sobers.  “No.  No, I think I’m done with office romances.”

“She’s in the art business.  A curator?”

“Yes, she’s a museum curator,” John chuckles.  “Now, leave off.  She’s great and I don’t want you harassing her.”

John turns back to the mirror, fiddling with his fringe, tucking away unruly strands.  Seeing his cue to leave, Sherlock turns and walks toward the stairs.  Stops at the threshold of the bedroom. 

He turns back to John, heart in his throat.  “If she cares one whit about your age, she’s a fool.  And…”  He tries to bite back the words, but they slip free, wriggling out of his grasp like slick, thrashing fish.  “And that shirt suits you very well.  It brings out the blue in your eyes.”

John stiffens, and before he can react, before Sherlock can catch the look reflected in the mirror, he whirls around and stumbles down the stairs.

 

-

 

“I’m off,” says John.  “Don’t wait up, yeah?”

Sherlock hums vaguely and runs the bow over the violin’s strings, eking out a plaintive wail. 

“Rosie’s at Molly’s for the night, so you’ve got the place to yourself.  You can play beautifully or terribly to your heart’s content.”

Sherlock’s only response is to grate down on the strings, producing a shrill squeal.  A shadow moves on the stairwell and John emerges, a suit jacket tossed over the royal blue shirt.  Their eyes meet across the room, John’s gaze sways – and he freezes. 

Perplexed, Sherlock follows his line of sight.  He looks down to his own shoulder, which is bare; the t-shirt he wears is old, the fabric threadbare, the neckline loose.  With his arm lowered to manipulate the bow, his sleeve has ridden low on his bicep.  The flat, basking in the luxury of fixed heating, is a few degrees warmer than usual.  There is no need for a dressing gown. 

Sherlock stares down at the pale expanse of his own skin, the knob of bone and mounds of muscle tucked beneath.  It’s his shoulder.  It’s only his (bare) shoulder. 

Mouth dry, he says, “John?”

John startles and tears his gaze from Sherlock.  “Right.  I’ll just—be back later.  Goodnight.”

He’s gone before Sherlock can reply, the door snapping shut behind him.  Sherlock stares at the closed door, listening as silence drums in his ears.    

After several minutes – feeling as though his hands are moving of their own accord – he lifts the bow, settles his chin on the rest, and begins to play.  Notes unspool from the strings, growing more manic and muddled and mournful by the second. 

Violin Concerto in D Major – Tchaikovsky, yes, but still not Swan Lake. 

Chapter Text

Sherlock has the petri dish of the final blood sample sitting on the microscope stage when his mobile begins to ring. 

Normally, he would let the call go to voicemail; he’s closing in on the answer like a tiger stalking its prey, crouched amidst the blood cells and waiting as the final piece of the puzzle wanders into the open.  Later, trying to recall what, precisely, made him pick up the phone, he will draw a blank. 

He picks up the phone.  John’s name flashes across the screen.

Thumbing the “answer” icon, Sherlock lifts the phone to his ear, excitement and trepidation twisting inside him.  He can’t forget the way John looked at him yesterday, can’t quite categorize it.  He wants to preserve the memory in his Mind Palace with a descriptive placard:  John Watson, expression of…

“John,” he answers.

“Sherlock.”  John’s voice is strained over the line.  “Look, I’m sorry, but I need a favor.”

What did it mean, the way you looked at me yesterday? Sherlock wants to ask.

He says, “Anything.”

 

-

 

The halls of Honeycomb Primary School are bright and swollen with a tide of children racing every which way, a din of chattering and squealing that puts Sherlock’s teeth on edge.  A few children shoot him wary looks as he stalks past, chin up, affecting nonchalance.  His gloves stick and chafe against his clammy palms.

Sherlock doesn’t hate children, actually.  He finds their perceptiveness and candor refreshing in the face of adults’ tendencies to lie, to omit, to smooth over anything that might be considered dirty or crude.  A child will happily sit and chat about maggots and eyeballs and maggots in eyeballs for several minutes, given the chance.  Adults, on the other hand, tend to look worried when the subject arises. 

But this—this torrential flood of children is unnerving.  Sherlock is keenly aware that he’s a childless adult, a total alien in this place.  He’s a godparent, not a proper parent.  The revelation feels like poking a fresh bruise. 

A sign comes into view and, relieved, Sherlock bolts toward it.  He narrowly avoids knocking a pair of girls flat on their faces, winds around a throng of boys, and dives through a doorway.  Inside, a young, wire-thin woman is sitting at a desk, jotting something down on a notepad.  The name plate in front of her pronounces: Ms. Beatrice Carvel.  She raises her head and frowns at him. 

“Can I help you?” Ms. Carvel says, her tone a little chilly.  Evidently she can sense Sherlock’s non-parenthood, too. 

Sherlock lowers his eyelids and looks down his nose at her, summoning all his disdain for the state schooling system and transmuting it into a sneer.  “I’m to meet with the teacher.  I’m Wat—Rosamund Mary Watson’s godfather.”

Ms. Carvel’s lip curls.  “We phoned her father to come.”

“And he no doubt told you he’s busy at the clinic.  He is a doctor, you know.”  Not a lowly clerk, he wants to add, but holds his tongue.  Rosie’s gotten herself into enough trouble without him making mischief on her behalf.

Ms. Carvel huffs, looking ready to launch into a sharp scolding, but the door behind her swings open and a young woman emerges.  Her light brown hair is tied back in a neat bun and her eyes are guileless behind a thick pair of spectacles. 

“Ms. Carvel, is that Mr. Holmes?” she asks.

“Yes, it is,” Sherlock answers, raising his voice over Ms. Carvel’s grumbling.

The young woman walks forward, offering her hand for a brisk shake.  “I’m Charlotte Helens, Rosie’s teacher. You may call me Ms. Helens.”  As they walk into the back room, she adds in an undertone, “The principal and vice principal are busy, you see, and I thought we could get this sorted without making a fuss.  Rosie is usually so well-behaved.”

She closes the door behind them and takes a seat behind a desk of her own.  Opposite the desk, four chairs are lined up, backs facing the door.  Sherlock can see two figures huddled on opposite sides of the row, leaning away from each other to maximize the distance between.  As he crosses the room, Sherlock sees that one of the figures is Rosie.  She’s bent double in her seat, elbows resting on her knees, dark blonde hair hiding her face.  On the other side of the row, a girl with her dark hair tied back in braids glowers. 

Sherlock takes the chair beside Rosie without comment.  Across from them, Ms. Helens rests her clasped hands on the desk. 

“I’ll get straight to the point,” she says.  “Rosie and Samantha here got into a snowball fight in the schoolyard during break.”

From the corner of his eye, Sherlock sees Rosie’s shoulders hunch as she curls into herself.  Anger prickles across the back of his neck.  “I don’t see why this is necessary.  Forgive me if I sound ignorant, but aren’t snowball fights quite common among children?”

“They are,” says Ms. Helens, “but Rosie—”

“She hurt me!” Samantha exclaims.  As she turns to glare at them, Sherlock sees a fresh red bruise welling on her jawline.  “She put ice in her snowball!”

“Usually,” Ms. Helens says, “we would have the children apologize to each other and be done with it.  This shouldn’t warrant having… family come in.”  Her large, innocent eyes latch on Sherlock, dart down to her hands.  “But Rosie refuses to apologize.”

Sherlock looks at Rosie.  “Watson.  Is this true?”

Rosie says nothing, but swipes her hand over her face, pushing away the curtain of her hair.  Her brow is furrowed, her eyes bright and unblinking.  Sherlock is struck, just then, by how like John she is; small and unassuming, but fierce and implacable. 

“Yes,” says Rosie.

“Why?”

Rosie makes no response, save for chewing on her lip.  She’s staring straight ahead, at a point over Ms. Helens’ shoulder.  A flush rises to her cheeks. 

“Rosie,” says Ms. Helens, “you know you oughtn’t have done that, right?  You could have really hurt Samantha.”

Again Rosie says nothing.  Sherlock can see not a shred of remorse in her eyes when she glances at Samantha, glances at Ms. Helens, and dips her head.  It’s like watching a statue crumble. 

“Maybe you can try now,” says Ms. Helens.  “Try to apologize, Rosie.”

“No.”  Rosie lifts her face.  She and Samantha’s eyes meet, hold.  After a moment of silence, Samantha looks down at her feet.  Rosie turns back to Ms. Helens.  “I’m not sorry.”

Sighing, Ms. Helens pinches the bridge of her nose, kneading the flesh there with thumb and forefinger.  She looks imploringly at Sherlock.  “Mr. Holmes, you understand we’ll have to discipline Rosie.”

“Then you should deal the same punishment to little Samantha,” says Sherlock coolly.  Samantha tenses in her seat, dark eyes flicking to Sherlock, wide with the terror of a child who has wandered into an adult’s headlights.  “Clearly she instigated whatever squabble they had.”

“Nevertheless,” Ms. Helens says, “we cannot abide violence at Honeycomb Primary School.  If you can’t apologize, Rosie, I will have no choice but to tell the principal.  Your father will have to come in for a meeting, no matter how busy he is.”

“Well.”  Sherlock stands and reaches for Rosie’s hand.  She takes it obediently, sliding out of her chair.  Her expression is stony as she regards Samantha; the other girl averts her gaze.  “While you’re working out how to discipline her, I think I’ll take Watson home.”

“Yes,” sighs Ms. Helens.  “Yes, I think that’s the best we can do for now.  Rosie, you and I will have a talk tomorrow.”

Rosie nods, sober expression belied by a trembling lip.  Sherlock steers her out of the office, past Ms. Carvel, and into the hallway teeming with students.  They don’t speak a word until they’re out of the building.  As they stand on the curb, snow crunching and soaking into their shoes, Sherlock exhales in a feathery gust and says, “Tell me what happened.”

Rosie is silent for a long moment.  Then she blinks, blinks again.  Tears well in her eyes and slide down her cheeks.  Voice wobbling, she says, “Sh-she made fun of me.”

“Why?” Sherlock presses.

“’Cause I don’t have a mum.” 

Fury surges in Sherlock, black and boiling – at Samantha, at himself.  He’d forgotten that children can tip so easily from candor into cruelty.  He hasn’t forgotten that Mary’s absence is – at least in part – his fault.

“Well done,” he says.  Rosie tilts her head, confused, and he elaborates.  “The ice.  That was clever of you.”

Rosie gives a watery smile.  “Was it?”

“Yes.”

Chapter Text

 

Sherlock draws his bow along the strings, coaxing out the sweet, languid notes of Silent Night and spinning them into the haze of chatter, laughing, and tinkling wine glasses.  John and Mrs. Hudson have gone all-out for this year’s Christmas party.  Sherlock would much rather be cloistered away in his bedroom while Mrs. Hudson drinks too much sherry and Lestrade and Molly are less-than-discreet making merry, but something compels him to stay. 

Something, he thinks bitterly. Can’t even think it.  Bloody coward.

His fingers trip and notes grate out, testifying to his inner turmoil.  Across the room, Sherlock sees John turn and shoot him a questioning look.  He’s wearing a jumper, cable-knit and of a deep burgundy hue; his skin looks pale, inviting.  Clenching his teeth, Sherlock summons self-control and relaxes his grip on the bow.  The notes melt – if honey had a sound, this would be it.  John turns his attention back to the woman at his side.

Elise. 

Over the years, Sherlock has come to realize that John doesn’t have a specific type.  Tall or short, slim or curvaceous, dark or light – John’s predilections don’t follow a predictable pattern.  Elise, in her turn, is lovely but strikingly different from her predecessor.  Tall and slim with pale skin and long, silky dark hair, she cuts an imposing figure at John’s side. 

Sherlock’s fingers tighten around the bow and another note screeches out.  Cursing inwardly, he turns away as John and Elise stop talking to look at him.  Sets the bow down and pretends to fiddle with a tuning peg. 

“Sherlock?” Mrs. Hudson’s voice, concerned and slurring, makes him jump.  “Dear, are you feeling well?”

“Quite well,” Sherlock says tightly.  “A fair sight better than you, at least.”

Mrs. Hudson swats his arm without rancor.  “Bad manners.  You’ve got bad manners.”

“And you’ve got a blood alcohol level of roughly point one percent.”

“Really, dear.”  Mrs. Hudson’s voice drops into a stage whisper.  If it weren’t for the general merriment pervading the air, she would be perfectly audible clear across the room.  “John never does learn, does he?”

Sherlock stares at her.  Mrs. Hudson’s returning gaze is muddled, but as she processes his shock, her mouth pulls into a pitying frown.  “Oh, Sherlock.”

She pats his cheek tenderly and moves on before Sherlock can fathom a response.  A pocket of silence cloaks him, suffocating and alone. 

“Well, would you look at that!”  Donovan’s voice, jarring in the stillness.  Sherlock comes back to himself with quaking force.  Across the room, Donovan is grinning, face flushed with drink.  Sherlock follows her line of sight to a sprig of mistletoe dangling from one of the bison’s horns – Mrs. Hudson’s touch, no doubt. 

John and Elise stand beneath it.

They glance at Donovan, sweep their gazes around the room, and exchange a thrilled and embarrassed look.  A rising tide of enthusiasm permeates the room, cresting into cheers as John settles his hands on Elise’s waist and draws her down for a kiss.  The room erupts in drunken whoops and whistles. 

Sherlock lifts the violin, lays the bow to the strings – and lowers them.  He feels like a weight has settled on his chest. 

An hour and a half later, as the party is winding into a soothing spirit of lassitude, Elise bids them farewell.  “…got another party to get to,” Sherlock hears her say as she plucks her coat from its hook and tugs the sleeves over her arms.  “I had a great time, really.  Only I’ve promised to be at Catherine’s and she’s been planning this for ages…”

“It’s fine,” John says.  “We’re on for tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah.”  Elise leans down for another kiss, sweet and lingering.  Sherlock can’t tear his gaze away; a traitorous part of him wants to see, to preserve the image of John kissing—

(me)

—someone.  It’s cruel and a little bit obscene, but inescapable.  With a parting smile, Elise is gone. 

John turns around, expression blank.  His eyes find Sherlock’s as if magnetized, and for an instant, Sherlock is trapped.  The instant stretches into a handful of seconds, each one a needle burrowing beneath his ribs.  He looks away.

John gives Sherlock a wide berth for the rest of the party.  Orbiting the room, he smiles and chats amicably with anyone who strays into his path.  Sherlock watches, fingers moving mechanically over the strings.  Lestrade and Molly grin and glance at each other, faces pink, as they trade banal remarks with John to the tune of O Come, All Ye Faithful.  You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch flounces and jounces as John pauses to parry quips with Sally Donovan.  Jingle Bells accompanies a conversation with Mrs. Hudson; Sherlock is secretly pleased when the notes to ‘laughing all the way’ ring through the air and Mrs. Hudson obliges with a raucous giggle.  As her laughter dies down, Sherlock thinks he sees John glance at him, stifling a smirk.  But the look is fleeting, gone in an instant. 

So Sherlock plays and plays, dipping into a seemingly infinite well of holiday songs.  Bit not good, that; he suspects he could store much more useful information if frivolous songs weren’t taking up so much space.  At least playing keeps him removed from most of the party-goers.  He has a sneaking suspicion that Anderson’s hero-worship could evolve into something weird if enough alcohol is involved.

“Sherlock?”

His hands still; the music vanishes in a squeak of strings.  Sherlock blinks rapidly, aware that his eyes had drifted shut.  John stands before him, head cocked, a wary smile curving his mouth.  But for them, the room is empty. 

“Oh,” says Sherlock.

“Off in your own mind, were you?” John asks.  “I just made sure Mrs. Hudson got down her stairs all right.  She’s utterly pissed.  From sherry.” 

Sherlock can’t stop the giggle that bursts from him, jumping out of his chest with a spasm.  The laugh spreads to John and back to him, rising between them in a positive feedback loop.  As they finally regain their composure, Sherlock lowers his violin and bow, casting about for the case.  His fingers are numb, his arms sore. 

“You played… well, it was.  Nice.”  John smiles briefly, tightly.  “Thanks for that.  I know parties aren’t usually your thing, but I… appreciate it.”

Annoyance gnaws at Sherlock.  Is that all he is – entertainment, a songbird for John to parade in front of his girlfriends?

He finds the case at last: it’s sitting on the table by the windows, laying open amidst bottles of wine and vodka.  Sherlock strides to the table, setting bottles aside to clear the way.  His hands shake as he sets the violin inside the case and closes the lid, fumbling with the clasps. 

“Sherlock?”  John’s voice is close, too close.  “You all right?  Did I—”

Sherlock rounds on him.  “It’s nothing—”

They freeze as one, gazes catching, latching, and roving skyward in the space of a breath.  The sprig of mistletoe dangles from the bison’s horn directly above their heads. 

It should be ridiculous.  Laughable.  They’re grown men, not a pair of blushing teenagers.  But Sherlock can’t muster a laugh; his chest is too tight, tight with dread.  John will step away, embarrassed.  John will laugh and play it off as Mrs. Hudson’s meddling.  John will find a way to proclaim that he isn’t gay.

Or… John will see.  He’ll see the pain and fear in Sherlock’s eyes and understand.

And then… what?

“Mistletoe,” John murmurs.

“Yes.”  Sherlock’s voice is scarcely louder than a breath. 

He drags his stare from the treacherous little sprig, finds himself looking into John’s eyes.  John’s expression is unreadable and unflinching.  His lips move, as if trying to form words, but he doesn’t make a sound.  And slowly, slowly, he steps into Sherlock’s space. 

Sherlock is paralyzed.  Powerless to tear his gaze away, he watches as John draws near, determination written into every line of his form.  A distant part of Sherlock’s mind is relieved he put down the violin.  His entire body is trembling.

John reaches for him.  He draws an unsteady breath.  “Sherlock—”

The shrill chime of Sherlock’s mobile interrupts him.  They wait, suspended on a beat of silence.  A second chime sounds, and just like that, the spell is broken.  John ducks his head and takes a step back, mouth flattening into a thin line.  Sherlock’s hand slides into his pocket, relying on reflex.  A good thing, that – his mind is spinning too much to coherently command his body. 

“Lestrade,” he says by way of greeting.  His voice is remarkably calm.  “Did you forget something?  A packet of rubbers, perhaps?”

“Har har,” Lestrade drawls, slurring a little.  “Don’t be a tit.  Only got the call ‘cause of the other case.” 

“What other case?”

“The candy cane stabbing.  There’s been another… ‘nother bloody holiday themed murder.  We might have a serial killer on our hands.”

Chapter Text

 

Sherlock’s breath plumes in the icy air as he follows Lestrade down a cobbled lane with John in tow.  Fairy lights festoon the stalls around them, glowing like so many threads of starlight.  The ripe smell of the river is diluted by the scents of spices, ciders, and sugared pastries steaming from the fryers.  People – police officers, mostly – natter incessantly, creating a pleasant buzz of white noise.

The festive atmosphere and the promise of a truly curious case conspire to lift Sherlock’s spirits.  He feels a grin tug at his mouth.

The victim was found seated neatly in a cider stand at Christmas by the River.  A pair of young women had demanded their drinks from her three times before realizing she wasn’t simply being churlish. 

(In their defense, the girls had visited three other such cider stands before finding the victim’s.  Their wits had been significantly duller than the standard of dull Sherlock is used to.)   

With the entire market closed off as a crime scene – much to the proprietors’ chagrin – Sherlock finds himself wrong-footed.  Under normal circumstances, such a place would be choked with foot-traffic: tourists seeking the London Holiday Experience, enterprising vendors, and customers searching for artisanal stocking fillers. 

“Bunch of tossers,” Lestrade mutters as they pass a stand touting Tibetan-inspired scarves, shawls, and silks.  “Never liked this place, myself.  Seemed a bit up its own arse.”

“It’s not so bad,” says John, eyes lingering on an imperial purple wool scarf.  A potential gift for Elise, surely. 

Lestrade grunts noncommittally and waves at a figure amidst the milling officers and forensics team.  DI Dimmock waves back, eyes alight as they skim past Lestrade to focus on Sherlock and John.  Insinuating himself through the crowd, the DI approaches with hands clasped beseechingly before him. 

“Lestrade,” he says, shaking the proffered hand.  He positively beams as Sherlock steps forward, looking somewhat like an eager puppy.  “Mr. Holmes.  A pleasure, as always.”

“DI Dimmock.”  Sherlock offers a hand to shake, which Dimmock clasps with decidedly more fervor than Lestrade’s. 

John clears his throat.  “We were told there was a body?”

“Oh!”  Dimmock drops Sherlock’s hand as though burned.  “Yes, of course, Mr. Watson.  This way.”

As Dimmock turns to lead them toward the body, Sherlock hears John mutter, “It’s doctor,” under his breath. 

As with the candy cane murder, the cause of death is apparent at a glance. The victim – middle-aged woman, burly with a short, matted cap of hair and a position as assistant manager at a pet shop – wasn’t murdered here, in a market with Tower Bridge and the Tower of London looming overhead, glittering against the night sky.  She was killed elsewhere and placed in the stand like a doll at a child’s tea party table.

Sherlock slides open his magnifier and draws close to the body.  “Forensics has done their work?”

“Yes,” says Dimmock promptly.  He musters a toothy grin.  “You can, er, touch to your heart’s content.”  And, though the statement is odder than it is amusing, he chuckles.

“Is something funny, Detective Inspector?  We are at a crime scene.”  John’s voice is stern; Sherlock can hear a ghost of Captain Watson in that tone, ordering rowdy underlings into submission.  He shivers, puts it down to the cold.    

Dimmock averts his gaze.  “Er, yes.  Yes, of course.  Well, I’ll let you… get on with it.” 

Nodding stiffly, he spins on his heel and flees.  Sherlock slides the magnifier shut and casts John a puzzled look.  “So, it’s only acceptable for you and me to giggle at crime scenes?”

John’s teeth flash in something akin to both smile and sneer.  “Maybe.”

Perplexed, Sherlock tries to put John from his mind as he turns back to the body.  A futile effort:  he might as well try to banish his heart’s impulse to beat or his eyes’ need for a light by which to see.  The glow of fairy lights and the glare of the NSY vehicle lights make for patchy visibility. 

A new light blooms in Sherlock’s field of vision, sudden and steady; he looks over his shoulder and sees John holding his mobile with the torchlight on.  “Better?”

“Mm.”  Sherlock turns back to the body, keenly aware of John’s closeness.  The memory of John stepping close as they stood beneath the mistletoe, less than an hour ago, has photographic vividness in his Mind Palace.  “Thank you.”

Sherlock turns back to the corpse, determined to glean something useful.  John may be his conductor of light, but he also has an uncanny knack for robbing Sherlock of his senses at most inopportune times. 

Focus.

The woman is smeared grey and black with coal dust from head to foot.  Her hair, which might be a russet shade, is clumped and streaked with filth.  Her pale complexion is made waxen by dust and death.  Even her clothes, even her chipped, broken fingernails are clotted with coal. 

Children who misbehave get coal in their stockings.  It’s the punchline of a hideous joke. 

“We’ve got an ID,” Lestrade announces, coming to John’s side.  “Theresa Goodwin.  Assistant manager at a shopping center ‘Fins & Friends.’  We don’t know when she went missing, exactly, but she only missed one shift and that was this morning…” 

Sherlock tunes him out, intent on the body of Theresa Goodwin.  She’s disfigured – difficult to see under all the dust, but her face is concave in places, tacky with dried blood.  All at once, the ragged fingernails make sense. 

“Buried alive,” Sherlock pronounces.  “Her killer piled coal on top of her; not all at once, of course, seeing as she struggled.”  He points to the corpse’s hands, resting placidly on her lap.  “The killer added more and more coal until she was crushed.”

“Christ,” Lestrade mutters.  “Why’ve people got to do fucked-up things during the holidays?  Whatever happened to ‘peace on Earth’ and all that lark?”

“Crime rates generally rise during the holiday season,” Sherlock informs him with a grin.  “Increased alcohol consumption leads to greater impulsivity and antisocial—”

“Yes, thank you for the lecture, but I am a police officer,” Lestrade grouses.  “I know how crime trends work.”

“Then stop boring me with your moaning and see about having Ms. Goodwin transported to Bart’s morgue.  I can’t gather all the data I need out here.”

Lestrade glowers but does as he’s told, departing with a sigh of resignation.  Sherlock resumes his study of the corpse, but even with John’s torchlight, he has trouble seeing all the details.  The cold doesn’t help.  Even in his gloves, his fingertips have gone numb around the magnifier. 

“Sherlock,” John begins, then falters.  A beat of silence passes and he forges onward.  “I—I know the timing is shit, but I’ve.  I’ve got to say something about…”

Ice fills Sherlock’s veins.  John’s tone speaks volumes: hesitation and purpose intertwined, opposing elements sharpening into a single piercing weapon.  John doesn’t want to hurt Sherlock’s feelings; John needs to be clear that whatever happened under the mistletoe – didn’t happen, might have happened – was a mistake.  John is going to be kind but firm. 

After almost a decade of bearing such love for John, Sherlock isn’t strong enough to take a kind rejection.

“You are correct,” he says, stiff and robotic.  “Your timing is unfortunate.”

John says nothing for a moment.  Then, “Sherlock, I know you don’t…”

But Sherlock is no longer listening; his gaze has caught on something on the banks of the Thames, a dark silhouette against the lights glinting off the churning, murky water.  A police vehicle flashes its lights, illuminating a ridiculous, garish sight:  a red suit and hat, black boots.  A long, white beard. 

And a terrible face, the eyes sunken pits, a macabre grin splitting the face like a scar in a withered apple.  The figure raises one hand and waves.

Sherlock bolts upright and tears across the cobbled lane, but the figure is swift, bounding down the river walkway with the nimble speed of a greyhound.  Hampered by police officers, cordoning tape, and cars, Sherlock watches the distance yawn between them as the figure shrinks to a red dot in the distance.  He’s aware that John is calling after him, shouting at him to wait, wait for me, but if he waits an instant longer, the—the Father Christmas murderer will escape.  Winding past the throng of the forensics team and diving under the police tape, he rounds a car and finds clear pavement on the other side. 

He runs.  Freezing air lashes his face, blows back his coat, dragging at him like desperate fingers.  He’s sprinting, pulse pounding and breath rushing in, out, in, out, hurry!

As the Christmas by the River market fades into the distance, the red dot slowly but surely regains the shape of a human being.  Sherlock pushes himself harder, faster, exhilarated.  The distance between them is closing.  He may catch the killer yet.

A warehouse rears into view.  Beyond it, a factory belches smoke into the air from twin chimneys.  Father Christmas tears past the warehouse and makes a hard turn into an alleyway squeezed between the buildings. 

With his heart slamming and face stinging with the cold, Sherlock races toward the alleyway.  Blackness swallows him as he runs inside, smoking out all traces of starlight.  For a single moment, he is utterly blind.

That moment is all the killer needs.  Sherlock is aware of a presence at his back—and then the blow falls, striking his head and sending him spiraling into the cold, cold darkness. 

Chapter Text

Sherlock wakes shivering. 

He comes to with a choking gasp, lungs raw as he drags in breath after breath of icy air.  He’s lying on a cold, hard surface, a glaze of frost clinging to his cheek.  The darkness surrounding him is as deep and impenetrable as an abyss.  Not even the merest sliver of light can be seen. 

Sherlock takes a trembling moment to assess himself.  His head throbs where it was struck, but otherwise he feels no pain.  His arms and legs, though stiff with cold, are unbound.  He can barely feel his fingers or toes.  The darkness presses around him, suffocating and cold.  Silence hums in his ears. 

Grimacing, Sherlock creaks into motion, pushing himself into a sitting position.  He can feel his pulse drumming through his head like a hammer striking an anvil.  Nausea rises in his throat; he grits his teeth, breathes shallowly through his nose.  It passes.  Arms aching, he searches his coat pockets with a guttering flicker of hope.  His mobile is gone. 

Sherlock shakes and shakes.  The darkness is arctic, as quiet as a tomb.

“H-hello,” he rasps.  Even his voice shivers.  The cold steals through his mouth and crawls down his throat with skittering, itchy claws.  His chest rattles with a brittle cough.  “Hello?  Is anyone there?”

No answer.  Sherlock draws his arms to his chest, hugging himself.  The shivering is a good sign, he tells himself.  It means your body still has the energy to warm you up.

When he has a semblance of sensation back in his fingers, Sherlock raises one hand above his head, reaching as far as he can and waving.  His fingers meet no resistance and he slowly unfolds his legs, tries to stand.

His legs immediately threaten to buckle.  Frantic, Sherlock reaches into the darkness at his right, praying for some support to cling to.  The heels of his hands strike a hard, metallic edge and he seizes it – a shelf, he thinks.  Leaning against it, he waits while his circulation pumps sluggish blood into his legs and prays the shelf won’t topple.

And then: a scuffling sound, magnified in the freezing air.  Sherlock stiffens, squinting, but the darkness is utterly complete.  He settles for straining his ears and holding his breath, and there: a faint, whistling wheeze. 

“I kn-know you’re there,” Sherlock says, bold words belied by a tremor.  “H-hiding will do you no good.”  Striving for bravado, he pushes realities from his mind: that the pounding in his head is gradually blotting out his senses, that the cold is nibbling away at the sensation in his limbs.  Wherever he is, he can’t wait much longer. 

Where is John?  Frantic, needing.  Had John followed him from the market?  Is John searching for him now?  Or has he gone back to Baker Street, resigned to wait for Sherlock’s return?

Does he care that I’m gone?

Gritting his teeth, Sherlock banishes that thought to the back of his mind.  Now is not the time for self-pity; now is the time to be brilliant.  He has to make the killer talk, make him gloat.  The clever ones always gloat. 

“Are you going to kill me?” he says into the gloom.  “Is that why you brought me here?”

For a second, he thinks he can hear the whistling breathing hitch.  It’s a withered sound, like frozen branches clattering together in a gale.  Brittle laughter.

Light erupts, piercing the black void and throwing shadows into corners.  The laughter swells and reverberates through the room, amplified and multiplied like the joined voices of a murder of crows.  Slitting his eyes open, Sherlock glares in the direction of the light. 

The figure in the Father Christmas costume stands before him.  Black shadows chased by torchlight dance across a wrinkled, wasted face and pool in the deep pits of his eyes.  It’s a mask, sickly and immobile in spite of the rotting turnip-grin, as lifelike as a scrap of burlap.  The Father Christmas’ form is swaddled in the ridiculous coat and boots, gathered close by shadows.  Sherlock’s vision tilts and blurs with every blink.  Difficult to tell if the figure before him is massive or small – a giant or an elf. 

Sherlock rubs the bridge of his nose and winces as the pain in his head migrates to that single point of contact.  “What, nothing to say?”  He tries to make the question a jeer, but his voice sounds fragile to his own ears.  “If you’ve got some villainous plan, do get on with it.  I’ve got a splitting headache.”

You must keep talking if he won’t, he thinks to himself.  Keep him occupied until help comes.

Help.  The cold climbs up his limbs, deadening them bit by bit.  How long can he wait for help?

Still Father Christmas says nothing – only stares, unmoved, the beam of his torch steady on Sherlock’s face.  After a long, charged moment, the beam sweeps up toward the ceiling.  Sherlock raises his head and follows the glow. 

It takes him a second to realize what he’s seeing – shadowy fractals dance in the torchlight as the objects suspended above them sway and twist as if caught in a gentle breeze.  Squares hanging from strings – glass?  No.  Torchlight slides over one of the squares as it turns on its corner in a slow pirouette.  The surface is glossy, a picture coming into view: a photograph.

Sherlock’s pulse trips with shock.  Or perhaps that is the cold, spreading inexorably through his organs to calcify in his lungs, freeze his heart. 

Charles Porter – the candy cane stabbing victim – smiles back at Sherlock.  He looks a different man with both eyes intact. 

The beam of the torch sweeps to another photograph, and Sherlock is already sick with certainty when it alights on the face of Theresa Goodwin.  She wears a blue knit cap over her short hair and stares into the camera with a shy grin.  Sherlock remembers her ragged, coal-caked fingernails. 

There are other photographs, too:  strangers, and Sherlock plucks deductions from their faces like he might pluck ripe apples from a tree.  Salesman.  Newly-emigrated from Pakistan.  Just turned sixteen.  Single father.  Defending her MPhil soon.  Countless others hover in the gloom, barely visible.  Each one an empty grave waiting to be filled. 

Father Christmas sweeps the torchlight around the room, illuminating empty shelves and, at the far end, a huge steel door with a latch.  Sherlock’s suspicions congeal with sickening weight in the pit of his belly.  They are in a freezer. 

Prying his hands off the shelf, Sherlock lurches toward Father Christmas, thinking to overpower him and escape.  But the killer is swift and strangely graceful despite the bulk of coat and boots.  Stepping back from his clumsy advance, Father Christmas holds up one hand, forefinger raised as if to say, Hush.

Sherlock slumps to his knees, feeling his gorge rise.  Gasping, he glares at the killer, but his vision is spinning—Father Christmas spirals in a distorted tilt-a-whirl before him.  He might be laughing in that high, whistling way, but Sherlock can’t tell – can’t hear over the drum of his pulse in his ears.  His stomach clenches and he doubles onto hands and knees, retching on the freezing floor.  He can do nothing but curl into himself and seek a kind of base, fetal reprieve. 

Distantly, he’s aware of light pooling around him as the door creaks open.  It’s gone with a slam; he hears the latch engage, locking him inside.  He draws his knees to his chest and loops his arms around them, trying to conserve warmth.  Sleep, sleep… he needs to sleep, to recover.  But if he falls asleep, he may very well never wake up. 

Minutes – perhaps hours – pass.  He can feel the cold leeching the life from him.

 

-

 

Voices.  A clamor.  Something thumping against the steel door, resounding and hollow.  Sherlock startles, eyes flying open.  His lashes are oddly heavy. 

“…is he!  Must be…”

Lestrade, a sleepy corner of his mind supplies.

“Sherlock?”  And oh, that voice.  A comforting voice, like worn leather and old parchment, rasping under his fingers.  Smoke smoldering in his lungs, the scent of gunpowder.  Beloved.  “Sherlock!”

The thumping at the door stops.  Sherlock tries to open his mouth, to cry out for help.  The hinge of his jaw feels frozen. 

“…other rooms we haven’t searched.  Let’s go.”

No, no.  Don’t leave me here.

“Help,” he whispers.  Gathering a scaldingly cold lungful of air, he rattles, “H-help.”

Silence.  Then, John gasps.  “Oh, God.”

There is a commotion, a shout, and a cry of relief.  Bradstreet’s voice.  “Found it!”

The sound of a key clattering against a lock, gears scraping as it turns.  The latch is disengaged, the door squeals open.  Light floods the room. 

“Oh, my God,” John is saying, over and over and over.  “Oh, God.  Sherlock.  Sherlock, can you hear me?”

Sherlock cracks his eyes open – when had they closed? – and sees John, haloed by light, face haggard but impossibly beautiful.  Kneeling beside him, John peels off his gloves and presses two fingers to the juncture of Sherlock’s throat.  The touch burns his skin, burns bright behind his ribs. 

“Alive,” John gasps, almost to himself.  Then, “Call an ambulance!  Now!

Sherlock smiles.  His eyes skate past John to Lestrade, Bradstreet, and the others.  They wander to a pool of light painting the wall beside the open door and halt.  His smile slips.  Words have been etched into the frost, like a child’s scrawl on a rain-fogged window. 

A message.

They were gifts, it says, for you.

Chapter Text

Sherlock is still shaking when they leave hospital. 

John helps him climb the stairs to 221B, one arm tight around his waist with his other hand on the bannister.  He is warm and strong, and Sherlock cannot tear his focus away from the juncture where their bodies press together:  it could almost be an embrace. 

Lost in thought, Sherlock stumbles over his own stiff feet.  John halts, his arm tightening around Sherlock, fingers gripping the bannister.  When the moment of imbalance passes, they continue their trek.  Sherlock hates how frail he is, but he has no choice but to cling and be carried.  His hands are still numb, fingers clumsy and frostnipped. 

Mrs. Hudson dithers at the top of the stairwell.  Her eyes are huge in her pinched, pale face.  “Oh, Sherlock, I am glad you weren’t killed, but really, do you have to keep putting yourself in such dangerous situations?  If you carry on like this, it will catch up with you…”

She continues to natter as Sherlock and John mount the last stair and holds open the door as they shuffle inside.  Wordlessly, John leads Sherlock to the sofa and deposits him onto the cushions with care.  He watches Sherlock for a moment, lips pursed, eyes hard.  Then he turns and stalks down the corridor toward Sherlock’s bedroom without a word.

“I’ll put the kettle on,” Mrs. Hudson announces, and bustles into the kitchen. 

“D-d-decaf!” Sherlock calls after her. 

He is answered by the slosh of water in the kettle and the tinkle of cups and saucers.  Sherlock sags back against the sofa as bone-deep weariness settles over him like a heavy blanket.  Aided by ibuprofen – he would take nothing stronger – his pounding headache has subsided to a dull twinge.  Given the circumstances, he could have come off far worse. 

After doctors and nurses fussed over him with blankets, a CT scan, and bandages for his fingers, Sherlock was released from hospital with diagnoses of moderate hypothermia and mild concussion.

Now, prescribed with rest and warmth, Sherlock wants nothing to do with either.  He’s just come face-to-face with a serial killer; he wants to forge onward, to follow the trail while it is still fresh.  But every attempt to make deductions dribbles from his mind like water in cupped hands.  A side-effect of the concussion, no doubt.  Sherlock mentally curses the frailty of his transport, but that, too, slips away, leaving him drained. 

John emerges from the corridor with two fleece blankets in hand.  “Budge up,” he says, and Sherlock obliges.  His stomach flutters as John wraps one blanket around him, then the other.  Not nausea from the concussion, but a sickness of another kind. 

John stands up straight and surveys his work with the blankets.  The intensity of his focus only adds to the shivers coursing through Sherlock’s frame. 

“Sherlock,” he begins.

“Kettle’s heating,” says Mrs. Hudson, bustling back into the sitting room with no consideration for the tense atmosphere.  Her eyes land on Sherlock, flick to John and back.  Understanding dawns far too late.  “Have I—”

“W-Watson?” Sherlock prompts, desperate to shut her up.  “Where is sh-she?”

Mrs. Hudson narrows her eyes but doesn’t object.  “Asleep.  It is half-five.  In the morning.

Sherlock takes this in, a little dazed.  A rough timeline begins scratching itself out in his head, but there are gaps he can’t account for – how long he was unconscious, when he was moved to the freezer, when he was rescued.  The time it takes to freeze or asphyxiate in a walk-in freezer is alarmingly little.  Something niggles at him, but he can’t quite put his finger on it. 

“Thank you for looking after her,” John says to Mrs. Hudson.  “Bit… last minute, I know.”

Mrs. Hudson waves a hand.  “I don’t mind, dear.  Anyway, you saved our Sherlock.”

John is quiet, mouth pulling into a thin line.  He nods once, tersely.  “’Course.  I usually do, don’t I?”

Mrs. Hudson beams at him.  Sherlock can’t tell if she’s seriously misjudging the hard look on John’s face or if she simply doesn’t care.  In the kitchen, the kettle begins whistling and she leaves to attend to it. 

“You’re c-cross with me,” Sherlock notes.

“Brilliant deduction, yeah,” says John, but he sits beside Sherlock and raises a hand to his forehead, so he must not be really angry.  There is a glimmer of concern in his eyes as he draws back.  “Still cold?”

“Yes.”

“Well, considering how long you were in that freezer, it’s a wonder you’ve got all your fingers and toes.”  John’s eyes drop to Sherlock’s hands, resting limply at his sides.  The fingers were raw and red, but thankfully not frostbitten.  Now, dressed in bandages, they look like the hands of a mummy.  John exhales and says, softly, “I wish you would take better care of your hands.”

Sherlock raises his head a little too quickly; his vision tilts and he slumps back against the sofa.  John leans forward, the hard look softening into concern.  “All right?  Do you think you’re going to be sick?”

“No.”

“Right, well.  Let me know if you do.  And try not to move your head too much.”

Sherlock responds with a slow, cautious nod.  The tenderness in John’s tone has caught him off-guard.  He’s never given much thought to his hands, aside from their role as essential tools to the Work.  Why should John cares how he treats them?

Time distorts around that question, passing but barely brushing the surface of Sherlock’s mind.  Mrs. Hudson brings them tea – Belgian mint, a blend John bought once on a whim and kept buying when Sherlock showed a marked preference for it – and leaves, assuring John that she can look after Rosie or a few more hours.  The tea is soothing, but does little to lessen the shaking.  Sherlock feels like the cold is trapped inside him, not warded off by clothes or blankets but hemmed in. 

“I think it’d be best for you to get some rest,” John says when their teacups sit empty on the table before them.  “I’ll come in to check on you every few hours.  Ask you your name, who the Prime Minister is, et cetera.”

“I c-can oblige you on the first,” Sherlock says, “but not the s-s-second.  Waste of space.”

John’s brow furrows, not at Sherlock’s patchy knowledge of the British government but at the stammer.  “Is the cold really that bad?”

There seems little point in denying it.  “Yes.”

“Has it got any better?  The blankets, the tea?”

“W-well,” says Sherlock, “I’m no longer in danger of losing my fingers…”

A smile twitches at the corners of John’s mouth and he shakes his head.  It banishes the exhaustion and shadows, that smile.  “Right.”

John stands and walks back down the corridor leading to Sherlock’s room, but before Sherlock can question him, he hears the bathroom door open and sees light bloom as John flips the switch.  The sound of water splashing from the spout tells him all he needs to know—and oh, there’s that flutter again. 

Maddening. 

“We’ll try a warm bath instead,” says John by way of explanation, striding back into the sitting room.  Sherlock curls forward, helpless as his treacherous mind conjoins the words we and bath.  For God’s sake, he is a wreck. 

“Come on, up you get,” says John.  Bending forward, he winds one arm under Sherlock’s and around his shoulders, helping him stand.  Sherlock has little choice but to shuffle along, down the corridor and into the bathroom.  The sound of running water does little to sooth his nerves.  “Think you can manage your, er, clothes?  With your hands?”

“Yes, John,” Sherlock intones, using every ounce of his willpower to keep his voice steady.  “I’m not an invalid.”

John helps him sit on the edge of the bathtub, waiting until he’s completely steady before drawing his hands away.  The loss of contact adds a fresh, bitter gasp to Sherlock’s shivers.  “You’re shaking.”

“I’m c-cold.”  Obvious, obvious.  What an idiotic thing to say.

The shadow has returned to John’s face.  “Mrs. Hudson had the right of it, you know.”

Sherlock’s fingers curl over the porcelain enamel lip of the tub.  “About you saving me?  I certainly won’t disagree.”

“No,” says John, “not that.  I’m talking about when she said your risk-taking would catch up with you.  She was right.”

Sherlock dips the end of his forefinger in the water, careful not to get his bandages wet.  The water is warm – not too hot, but to his chilled skin, everything feels a shade more scorching than usual.  He thinks of Father Christmas with his withered face, of photographs turning slowly in the air. 

What does he have, if not the Work?  Expenses aside, John and Rosie have no reason to stay at Baker Street.  They could just as easily find another home – one without a mad flatmate, one where Rosie might have the mum she so desperately wants.  If (when) John meets the right woman (oh, God, it could be Elise, he could have already found her) he and Rosie will leave.  It’s only a matter of time.

Sherlock needs the Work.  He needs to be distracted.

“Can we discuss this later?” he asks, still staring at the churning water of the bath.  “I’m very tired.”

John is silent for a moment.  Then, sighing, he says, “Yeah.  Me, too.  I’ll—I’ll check on you, in a bit.  Make sure you aren’t asleep in the bath.”

Sherlock hums and stands on shaking legs.  Still averting his gaze, he drops the fleece blankets to the floor and sets to work on his shirt buttons.  A choked sound reaches his ears and he looks up: a kneejerk reaction. 

John is staring at him, eyes dark, lips parted.  Their gazes lock and John transforms the sound into a ragged cough, covering his mouth with his closed fist.  “Sorry, sorry.  I’ll just…” 

He turns and fairly bolts out of the bathroom, snapping the door shut behind him.  Sherlock stares at the space where John stood only seconds ago, his mind a muddle of exhaustion and confusion.  Behind him, water burbles merrily, filling the tub. 

Slowly and carefully, Sherlock undresses and lowers himself into the bath.  The water is heavenly, chasing away the shivers as it enfolds him in a warm embrace.  Resting his hands on either side of the tub, he leans back and props his head against the porcelain edge.  He’s almost too exhausted to think.

Closing his eyes, Sherlock recalls the feeling of John’s arm tight around his waist.  For a moment – a fleeting, wishful moment – realities and impossibilities are banished, and he lets his mind wander.  Lets himself be warm. 

 

Chapter Text

A hollow knocking rings through the bathroom door, but to Sherlock, the sound could be miles away.  He lies prone in the hot bathwater, drifting in and out of slumber, unmoored on a sea of half-dreams. 

And what a capricious sea it is: a tempest with towering waves, astounding joy at the foaming peaks and terror in the slumps of the valleys.  He is a pirate crew of one – captain, first mate, lookout.  He revels in the high points and weathers the low.

Sherlock crests a great wave.  In his mind’s eye, John is kneeling beside the bath, an easy smile creasing his face as he dips his fingers into steaming water.  The pads of his fingers brush Sherlock’s bare knee, as quick and delicate as moth wings.  The fingers meander upward, drifting to Sherlock’s inner thigh.  Sherlock shudders, sighs; John’s smile widens.

The sea dips beneath Sherlock and he lurches forward, into the abyss of the valley below.  He’s back in the freezer and he’s so, so cold, he can barely breathe for the cold.  Father Christmas stares down at him with his withered face and sunken eyes, his gruesome slash of a grin.  He points, and Sherlock is powerless to refuse the silent command.  Looking up, he beholds the hanging photographs – concussed or not, those faces are burned into his mind like a brand.  Only this time, something is different—something is wrong—

One of the photographs spins slowly into focus and Sherlock stills, cold in spite of the warm water lapping at his skin.  Rosie beams down at him, all golden insolence and charm.  Sherlock looks down at his hands, unable to bear the site.  His fingernails are ripped and caked with coal. 

“I wish you would take better care of your hands,” says John, and Sherlock is back in the bath with John kneeling beside him.  John’s own hands retreat from the water, leaving Sherlock bereft – until he clasps Sherlock’s fingers, unbandaged, unblemished.  “You have such beautiful hands.”

The knocking is louder, more insistent. 

Sherlock looks sadly at John.  “She took you.  Away from me, I mean.”

“Sherlock?”  The voice is jarring, intruding on his fiction. 

The John kneeling beside him cocks his head.  “Who took me?”

Elise.  Mary.  Jeanette, the tedious procession leading back to Sarah Sawyer.  “All of them.”

“Sherlock, you okay?  Can you hear me?”

John’s fingers squeeze around his, water sluicing warm and wet down their wrists.  “I’m right here, Sherlock.  I’m not going anywhere.”

Sherlock can feel the wave ebbing beneath him, readying itself to hurl him once more into the depths of the valley.  The pleasant haze of his dream has vanished, leaving a brine of tears in his mouth.  He shifts sluggishly out of the stupor of half-sleep. 

“Right.”  John’s voice – the real John, not the one who had caressed his naked leg, held his hand with such tenderness – carries through the closed door with a sharp note.  “I don’t know if you can hear me, Sherlock, but I’m coming in.”

Sherlock is jolted back to his senses, crying “Don’t!” just as the door creaks open.  It halts mid-swing, John’s fingers tight on the knob.  Worry is written into every line of the bones in his hand and wrist.

“I’m fine,” he manages, voice a trifle higher than usual.  “I—must have dozed off.  No need to worry.”

“I shouldn’t have left you on your own,” John says through the slim gap.  “I think we’d better get you to bed.  D’you mind if I…?”

He lets the question hang; it takes a moment for Sherlock to process his meaning, and his mouth says, “Yes,” quite without his brain’s consent. 

The gap widens and John comes in, eyes flicking toward Sherlock and away in the space of a breath.  He reaches to the hanger opposite the bath and selects a towel, drops it on the toilet seat.  Lips pressed into a firm line, he nears the tub and holds out his hands to help Sherlock stand.  Though John’s eyes are rooted on the tile floor, Sherlock can’t help but feel intensely vulnerable as he grips John’s forearms, levers himself slowly to his feet.  His knees shake as he climbs out, coltish with nerves. 

John grabs the towel and offers it to Sherlock without a word – practically shoves it at him.  Face burning with shame, Sherlock accepts the towel and scrubs off the dripping bathwater.  The chilly air raises his skin in gooseflesh.

“Remember, I’ll check on you every few hours,” John says as they shuffle to Sherlock’s bedroom.  Naked and damp, Sherlock lifts the duvet and slips underneath, grateful for concealment.  The room is lit with a pale, rosy light from the city beyond the window drapes.  London is just beginning to rouse, but Sherlock can’t imagine staying awake another minute.  As John leaves, he closes his eyes.  Sleep claims him.

 

-

 

He dreams, but not of John or the Father Christmas Killer.  This time, an old phantom haunts him.

“He’s coming after me,” says Mary, fingers of one hand sliding over the knuckles of the other, pantomiming snapping back the barrel of a gun.  Her face is waxen, eyes dull and shadowed. 

Sherlock wants to say, He already killed you.  He’s moldering in an unmarked grave somewhere, but he still got you, in the end. 

But this is a dream, and Sherlock is confined to the nonsensical laws of dreams.  He says, “He might be, but I’ll put a stop to him.”

Mary chuckles bleakly.  “He killed himself and he’s still got people after me.  D’you know how many times I’ve looked over my shoulder the past few days, how much sleep I’ve had?  Too many and not even close to enough.  Sorry, Sherlock, but even you can’t help me now.  I think…”  Her voice dwindles to a whisper, making her sound small, childlike.  “…I think I’m going to die.”

You will, thinks Sherlock. 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says, feigning annoyance.  A gleam of amusement flickers through Mary’s eyes, there and gone in an instant.  She’s rarely amused by his wit these days, and if she is, it’s a fleeting phenomenon.  “I told you I would always be there for you, didn’t I?  If you could do me the courtesy of a little faith, I would appreciate it.”

“I wonder who it will be,” Mary murmurs.  Her grey gaze is distant, as if looking ahead, seeing her own death on the horizon.  “I trod on a lot of people to get where I got.  I didn’t care who I left behind broken or… or worse.  I only wanted to get to the top, and now that I’m close…”

“It’s a long way to fall.”  Memories bloom in his mind.  Standing on the edge of a rooftop with London laid out before him and the pavement below.  Feeling the wind lash him as he spiraled, arms pinwheeling, toward his two-year death. 

“You know what’s funny?” Mary says with an arid sort of laugh.  She looks at Sherlock then, a ghost of her old, cheeky humor flitting across her face.  “I’m not sorry.  Not for any of it.  Not the people I trod on, the jobs I took…”  Her eyes drift to the center of Sherlock’s chest, where his shirt covers the bullet scar she gave him.  “…I’m not sorry for any of it.”

I am.  I am sorry, Mary.  I should have protected you, if not for you, then for John and Watson.

The scene changes; he and Mary are standing beside a warehouse on the banks of the Thames, the night oily-black and clinging all around them.  Waves break against the walkway barricade with the rhythmic slosh of gouting arteries.   

Mary’s lips move, forming words but making no sound.  Sherlock remembers what she says.  He doesn’t think he’ll ever forget.

And then:  a reptilian hiss of a suppressor muffling a gunshot.  Mary flinches as if she’s been slapped.  Then her knees buckle and her head slumps sideways, a scarlet hole stamped into her left temple.  She falls to the pavement in a lifeless heap, a puppet with its strings cut. 

Sherlock remembers how this ends.  It ends like this:  with Mary Watson a corpse gone dank by the Thames; with John Watson a widower and single father to a one-year-old; with Sherlock failing to keep his vow, failing to protect Mary from his dead archenemy and her former employer.  It will take another year for John to speak to him.  A year after that, he and Rosie move into Baker Street. 

Four years after Mary dies, Sherlock lies in his bed, blinking blearily as John knocks at the door yet again.  When it opens, John is preceded by a tiny, feral blonde girl who races across the room and launches herself onto Sherlock’s bed. 

“Mind his head,” John warns.

“Sherlock!” Rosie crows.  “I missed you!”

In a daze, Sherlock pats Rosie’s head and submits to John’s ridiculous questions about the British government to assure him he still has his wits.  John and Rosie may leave one day – they may leave soon – but in the meantime, Sherlock will be greedy.  He will keep them close. 

Chapter Text

 

Sherlock wakes in the early afternoon, the sun slanting warm and golden through the curtains and pooling on his bed.  Grimacing, he lifts a hand to shield his eyes.  A dull chorus of pain ricochets through his skull, nowhere near as sharp as before.  Slowly, Sherlock rises to a sitting position and braces his back against the headboard.  His shoulders pop as he stretches long and lean, yawning hugely. 

Beyond the window, London is a bustling mayhem.  Car engines rumble and rattle past, buses hiss and belch exhaust, and a cacophony of voices rise from the multitudes into a fog that cloaks the city.  London:  the cesspit of criminality and vice.  It’s a part of him – entwined in his DNA, in his blood and bones and breath. 

It used to be enough.

Twitching back the duvet, Sherlock swings his legs over the side of the bed and stands. He shambles to the wardrobe, pulls open the doors, and tugs a dressing gown off its hanger. 

A knock comes at the door as he tugs his arms through the sleeves.  “Sherlock?” John calls.  “You awake?”

“Yes,” says Sherlock.

A moment of hesitation.  Then, “Can I come in?”

Sherlock cinches the belt of the dressing gown, tugging the knot tight.  Fully armored, he repeats, “Yes.”

The door creaks open and John comes in, a steaming cup of tea in each hand.  He meets Sherlock’s eye with a weary smile.  “You look… energized.”

“And you look wrecked,” says Sherlock.  John looks exhausted.  Shadows linger under his eyes, and there’s a glassy quality to his stare that suggests he isn’t fully awake.  His shoulders are slouched and, as he walks across the room, he favors his right leg.  It’s a slight change – one that only emerges when John is utterly exhausted – and all but imperceptible to those who don’t know where to look.  Sherlock is always looking. 

John hands Sherlock a cup and rubs his eyes.  “Ta for that.  I’d look a fair sight better if I hadn’t been up all morning checking on you.”

Sherlock stares into his cup, shamefaced.  “I didn’t mean…”

“Don’t bother, I know.”  John blinks and widens his eyes in a bid to stay alert.  “Lestrade phoned an hour ago.”

Sherlock’s train of thought suddenly judders off the tracks.  “What—what did he say?”

“They’ve made a connection between Charles Porter and Theresa Goodwin.”  John pauses with an expectant look.

The answer comes to Sherlock in an instant.  Frankly, he’s embarrassed that the NSY got to it first, but they had a dozen men to do the work, and none, presumably, with head injuries.  It still rankles him.

“The shopping center,” he mutters.  “Both victims worked there.”

John smirks.  “Knew you’d get it.  It’s called Paget Shopping Center.”

“Don’t think this means the Yard is catching up with me.  That was an exceptionally simple deduction.  And I have a concussion.”

John tosses his head back and laughs, delighted and manic with exhaustion.  “Of course.  I never doubted your superiority for a minute.”

Sherlock mock-glowers at him.  “I’m in earnest, John.  If Gerald gets the notion that he can do his job as well as I do it for him—well.”

“Madness,” says John, returning Sherlock’s feigned indignation with feigned sobriety. 

“London would be in chaos.”

They catch each other’s eyes, grinning like a pair of schoolboys—and then.  And then it’s no longer boyish, it’s a look Sherlock can’t (won’t) place, charging the atmosphere between them with the humid expectation of lightning before a thunderclap.  It brings to mind the intensity of John’s eyes as he reached for Sherlock under the mistletoe.

The look lasts less than a second, though Sherlock feels the contact stretch between them like a rubber band reaching the breaking point.  John is the first to look away; the band snaps, stings Sherlock with the recoil.  He drops his gaze back to the murk of his tea. 

“The killer,” John says, a little shakily, “he, um.  He left you a note.”

Sherlock nods, dazed.  “Yes.  On the freezer wall.  He said they – the victims – were gifts.  For me.”

“That’s… incredibly fucked up,” John concedes.  “So, this killer is using Paget Shopping Center – where Porter and Goodwin worked – as a hunting ground.  That narrows down our search, at least.”

“The photographs,” says Sherlock.

“Hmm?  What?”

“There were… photographs.  In the freezer.  Porter, Goodwin, and… others.”

“Oh, right,” says John.  “Lestrade mentioned them.  He and the rest of the Yard are following up on the rest, but so far, all the photographs have been of living people.”

“They all have a connection with Paget Shopping Center,” Sherlock concludes. 

“Yep.  Not all of them are currently at work, though; some are off on holiday, others ill, and so forth.”

“Have the Yard found any other connections between the victims and the killer?  Was there a motive?”

John shakes his head.  “If there is, I haven’t heard of it.  But it’s early yet.  Lestrade might have more when we regroup.”

“Which is when, precisely?” Sherlock prompts.

John shrugs, expression glazed.  He smothers a yawn with the back of his hand, jaw creaking.  “Dunno.  You need more rest, and when we do go, you have to take it easy.  If you feel up to casework, fine, but no running off after murderers by yourself.  Understood?”

Sherlock scowls but privately agrees with John.  His headaches and balance may be improving, but an instinct he never knew he possessed curbs his every movement, wary of harming his precious brain.  Now isn’t the time to be risking bodily harm. 

(Besides, he doesn’t mind John’s commanding tone.) 

He crosses his arms.  “Fine.”

John rolls his eyes fondly.  “Thank you.  I may be getting old, but I can keep up with you for a while yet.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.  You aren’t old.

A soft sadness settles over John’s features, though they are no less fond than they were seconds ago.  “Seriously, Sherlock.  You’ll try?”

“Try what?”

“To keep yourself safe,” says John, and the frank concern in his tone catches Sherlock by surprise.  He’s used to dancing around emotional subjects, but this is a different dance entirely.  He’s wrong-footed. 

Sherlock takes a sip of tea, licks his lips and savors the sweetness of it.  “I will try.”

John smiles.  “Thank you.  Really.”  Cupping his teacup between both palms, he nods in the direction of the bedroom door.  “Well, I should really… really get some sleep.  If I look half as tired as I feel, I look pretty bloody awful.  Completely fagged out.”

Sherlock wants to protest, to explain that tired and awful are two distinct looks for John.  Tired is lines grooving his eyes, softening his mouth – the sense of languid contentment when a case is solved and the villains have been vanquished.  Awful is the haggard, wild look in John’s eyes when he is dragged from a nightmare of sand and blood, his mind straddling the border between dreams and reality. 

As always, the words stick in Sherlock’s throat.  He can’t afford to show his hand.  If John gets so much as a whiff of Sherlock’s true feelings, he’ll flee.  He’ll leave Baker Street with Rosie and Sherlock won’t see them, he’ll never see them again—

The conclusion jams in Sherlock’s mind like a grain of sand in the gears of an intricate clock.  It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.  Sherlock had data – had years of John protesting every insinuation that they were a couple, years of John dating women and shagging women and marrying a woman.  Sherlock had been resigned to his conclusion.  But had he let that conclusion stand like a monument, unchanging as it weathered data after contradictory data?  Had he blinded himself to the truth?

What is the truth?

Sherlock sips his tea, watches John through a feathering of steam.  The memory of John nearing him beneath the mistletoe rises to the surface of his mind, unfurls with crystal clarity.  John had been determined.  John had reached for him, had tried to say something before they were interrupted. 

What were you going to say?

“John—”

“I’ll just—”

They slip into a hush, each looking at the other with wide-eyed expectancy.  At last, Sherlock says, “You first.”

John smiles nervously, rubs the back of his neck.  “I’ll just call Elise.  We had plans for tonight, but honestly, I don’t think I’ll be able to get out of bed once I settle in.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah,” says John.  “I’m sure she’ll understand when I explain myself.  ‘Sorry, my mad flatmate got himself trapped in a walk-in freezer.’  Not a bad excuse.”

Sherlock’s mouth is bone-dry.  “I see.”

John nods.  “I’m going to sleep, but if you start to feel any serious pain or nausea, wake me up.  Yeah?”

“Yes.”

“Right, then.  Goodnight.  Or afternoon, I suppose.  You’ll be fine looking after Rosie for a few hours?”

“Yes.”  Sherlock feels like an automaton. 

“Ta.  Right, well.  I’ll just…”  He pats his jeans pocket, where his mobile bulges from the denim, and heads for the door.  “We’ll talk later, yeah?  When Lestrade calls.”

“Yes,” Sherlock says a third time.  It feels like sealing a magical curse, more potent and powerful than any oath he’s ever made.  “Get some rest, John.”

With a nod, John disappears through the door.  Moments later, Sherlock hears the stairs creak as he ascends to the bedroom he shares with Rosie.  The door snicks shut, and then: silence.

Sherlock lowers his gaze to the teacup in his hands, bereft.  He raises the cup and takes a sip.  The tea has gone cold. 

Chapter Text

John takes Elise out on a date the following evening. 

Sequestered in 221B, Sherlock sits on the sofa with John’s laptop and taps out an email to Lestrade.  He’s completed the Coumadin blood experiment and verified that the mother-in-law was, indeed, the murderer.  He signs off, sends the report, and… nothing.  The usual sense of triumph – always buoying him to exhilarating heights as he solves a case – has abandoned him.  Halfheartedly, he locates his mobile phone wedged between two sofa cushions and composes a text to Lestrade.

Finished the hemophiliac case, his thumbs say.  Mother-in-law was the killer.  Sent you the blood test report.

Sherlock sends the text, deliberates, and writes a second.  Send me something else.  Even a cold case will do.  He presses ‘send’ before he can rethink it; now is not a time to be choosy with cases.  Even the dimwitted work the Yarders can solve will do, so long as it distracts him from thoughts of John.

John on a date with Elise.  John having dinner with her, eyes bright and smile wide as he offers her a bite from his fork and suggests a glass of wine.  John later, his hands gentle but strong as he peels off her clothes, lays her down, fingers tracing over pale skin—

Sherlock’s stomach flutters, though he can’t be certain if that is due to disgust or excitement or both.  Gritting his teeth, he closes the laptop and tosses it onto the sofa cushions.  He stands and staggers to his bedroom in search of his violin – he needs the distraction.

But when Sherlock takes his customary place by the window, violin in hand, he cannot summon a scrap of song.  Not a single note.  His once-endless fount of musical inspiration seems to have run dry.  

Not to be deterred, Sherlock props his chin on the violin’s chinrest and curls his fingers around the neck.  He sets the bow to the strings and draws out a single, syrupy note, hoping for inspiration to guide him.  Nothing.

Sherlock lowers violin and bow with a heroic effort not to hurl them across the room.  Is this how he is going to be from now on?  A worthless fool, incapable of scrounging together the motivation to enjoy the Work or play his violin?  What does he have, if not science or music?  It’s not as if anyone is attracted to his charming personality. 

Sherlock’s fingers tighten around the neck of the violin.  It isn’t fair that John should have this effect on him – limping into his life, a chaos of contradictions dressed in cozy jumpers and a wry smile, stealing past Sherlock’s defenses so he might wander through the garden of his life, plucking the best pieces from the boughs and tossing them on the ground to rot.  Alone, Sherlock was… well, not content, not since his definition of contentment had been rewritten when John appeared and an emptiness inside Sherlock was discovered and filled in a single stroke.  No, he had been a sad, lonely creature when John walked into Bart’s lab that day.  But at least he had been functional.

“Sherlock?” a small voice pipes up.  “What’cha doing?”

Sherlock turns his head, finds Rosie standing in the doorway leading to the stairwell.  He cocks his head and she mimics the motion, birdlike, blue eyes inquisitive. 

“Playing,” trying to play, “the violin.  Obviously.”

The barb glances off Rosie – she’s fluent in Sherlock’s language of snark – and she shuffles into the kitchen.  Sherlock tries to resume playing, but nothing will come to him.  In the kitchen, he hears the refrigerator open, shut.  The tinkle of glassware.  The scent of toasting bread drifts through the air.  After an efficient three minutes, Rosie emerges with a plate of buttered toast and a glass of milk clasped in her small hands.  She wanders to the sofa, sets down her bounty, and climbs onto the cushions. 

“Your father doesn’t want you eating in here,” Sherlock admonishes.

“He’s not here,” Rosie says, as if that solves everything.  She lifts a piece of toast and takes a messy bite, scattering crumbs. 

Sherlock blinks at her.  God, but things happen fast with children.  Already Rosie has clued into the fact that her father is not, after all, omnipotent.  She hasn’t worked out that she’s leaving a literal trail of breadcrumbs for John to follow, but she’ll get there in no time. 

“D’you know,” begins Rosie.

Do you know,” Sherlock says, with cut-glass clarity. 

“What?”

“Don’t just… mash your words together like a common animal.”

Rosie furrows her brow, looking both affronted and confused, but ultimately decides it isn’t worth the effort.  “Do you know,” she says, slowly, “that Father Christmas isn’t real?”

Again, Sherlock blinks.  He has the sudden sense that he has wandered onto a minefield with no perception of where to set his feet.  He thinks all that Father Christmas rot is ridiculous, of course.  But John has notions about happy childhood, of which Father Christmas is a linchpin. 

“Really,” he says, wary. 

“Yeah.”  Rosie crams the remaining first slice of toast into her mouth, fingers buttery and flaked with crumbs.  Sherlock checks an urge to reprimand her again.  He’s not her father.  Swallowing, Rosie continues, “Sammy told me.”

“Who—”  Then Sherlock remembers, and frowns.  “What, that girl who…”  He pauses for a split second to skirt around the issue of Rosie not having a mum.  “…That girl you threw the ice ball at?”

“Uh-huh.” 

“I thought you hated her.”

“Well, not anymore.”  Rosie shrugs, takes an unbothered swig from her glass of milk.  “I saw some boys making fun of her at break time ‘cause—”

Because.”  Damn it.  It’s practically instinctual.  “Go on.”

“Because her brother died in a traffic coll… a traffic colli… a car crash,” says Rosie. 

Sherlock thinks of the sullen, dark-haired girl sitting on the opposite end of the row, glowering at Rosie.  The mental image does little to lessen the stab of pity he feels.  He frequently fantasizes about cooking Mycroft like a pig on a spit, but he would never actually want harm to come to his brother, no matter how infuriatingly condescending he can be.  In a way, siblings are your first allies in the world.

“That’s despicable,” he says. 

“What’s ‘de-spick-able?’” Rosie asks.

“Evil.”

“Oh.”

Silence descends over them.  Then, desperate to lighten the mood, Sherlock prompts, “So, you and… Samantha… are friends now?”

“Yep.”  Rosie grins.  “I threw an ice ball at one of the boys’ heads and they ran away.  Now Sammy and me are best mates.”

Sherlock fights a smile.  He shouldn’t find violence as a means of making friends so amusing, but there’s nothing to be done about it.  Besides, he and John became friends in much the same way.  He makes a mental note to keep Rosie away from guns as long as possible, because there’s a distinct chance she will shoot someone to protect Sammy, if she’s anything like her father. 

“And she told you Father Christmas doesn’t exist.”

“Right.”  Rosie nods, eager to show off her knowledge.  “She’s Jewish, so she knows.”

“I see.”  Then, remembering John’s notions, he adds, “Don’t tell your father.  He’s quite keen on Christmas.”

Rosie looks dubious.  “Does he think Father Christmas is real?”

“Yes.  He’ll be heartbroken if you tell him the truth.”

Her eyes widen.  Solemnly, she nods.  “I won’t tell.”

“Good girl.” 

They sit in companionable silence for a few minutes, Sherlock testing notes on the violin and Rosie gulping her milk down to the dregs.  Just when Sherlock is about to give up and commence a sulk of epic proportions, Rosie says, “Can I hold your violin?”

Sherlock rounds on her, holding the Stradivarius protectively to his chest.  “Absolutely not.”

Rosie’s expression darkens from curiosity to fury in an instant.  Parents, Sherlock thinks, love to boast about their progeny inheriting their best attributes.  While this is almost certainly true for Rosie, Sherlock knows she also inherited some of John and Mary’s worst qualities.  John’s temper is a fearsome thing to behold in an uninhibited five-year-old.

“Why not?” she demands.

“Because your fine motor skills aren’t fully developed,” Sherlock says curtly.  “You’ll drop it.”

“I would not!” Rosie protests.

“You could.  This violin is a family heirloom.  It’s worth millions of pounds.”

“I’ve got a million pounds,” says Rosie.  Her complete conviction is unnerving.

“You’re a liar.”

“I am not!”

“Listen,” says Sherlock, striving for an even tone, “why don’t I play you some songs from those awful films you love so much?”

Rosie is instantly mollified.  “Can you do Frozen?”

The following hour is spent in this vein:  Rosie proposes a film or a specific song, and Sherlock (who has seen them more times than he cares to admit), recreates the score from memory, spinning the music through bow and strings into the evening air.  After exhausting the soundtracks of Frozen, Moana, Tangled, and Beauty and the Beast, Sherlock shifts gears, playing the most recognizable works of Tchaikovsky.  It is criminal to play “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” without the celesta, but Sherlock bears it for Rosie’s sake.  He similarly barbarizes “Waltz of the Flowers” and continues seamlessly into “The Spell: 6. Valse” from Sleeping Beauty. 

And as he plays… as he plays, his mind drifts, unmoored as his fingers move without conscious dictation.  He thinks of John, always within reach but never seeing him.  John, willfully stolen away, leaving him alone. 

His bow scrapes across the strings as if in shock.  He pauses, realizing with a sick twist in his stomach that he’s been playing Swan Lake.

“Bloody hell,” he hisses, and lowers the violin, swishing the bow like a sabre. 

Rosie is quiet for a few seconds.  Then, “That’s the prettiest thing I ever heard.”  Sherlock is too angry with himself to speak, so he settles for a noncommittal grunt.  Rosie is undeterred.  “Will you teach me?”

Sherlock looks at her askance.  “It’s a lot of work.”

“I can learn,” Rosie insists.

“You would get bored.”

“No!” Rosie says, more forcefully.  Sherlock turns to fully regard her and sees, to his surprise, that her eyes are brimming with tears.  “No, I can learn!  I promise!”

“Why do you want to play?” Sherlock asks, genuinely curious.  “You have me to play for you.”

Rosie lowers her gaze to her clenched fists in her lap.  “I wanna—”

Want to…”

“…learn how to play,” says Rosie, scowling, and at least it’s an improvement to tears, “because Daddy says your violin makes the most beautiful sounds in the world.  So… I want to play, too.”

It’s pathetic, how swiftly Sherlock crumbles under the assault of those words.  From the rubble of his refusal, excuses grow like insidious weeds:  John is dating again, which means he and Rosie will inevitably leave Sherlock to make a new life for themselves with a new wife, a new mother.  If John really does love Sherlock’s music, what harm is there in giving it to Rosie?  A parting gift, something to bind them together when they’ve gone. 

Sherlock’s lips move against his better judgement.  “If I find you a training violin, will you promise me to try?  Try to learn, even when you get bored and tired?”

“Yes,” Rosie says eagerly. 

“Right.”  Sherlock walks back to the sofa and sits beside Rosie.  “Go wash your hands, and I will let you hold – only hold – my violin.  I don’t want you getting crumbs on it.”

Chapter Text

“So,” says John, “Rosie tells me you’re teaching her to play the violin.”

Sherlock lowers his mobile, where he’s been studying the pictures and footnotes of the people captured in the Father Christmas photographs.  Lestrade has made a right old meal out of it, adding information Sherlock could glean at a glance and leaving out pertinent facts.  No matter – when they get to the nursery and meet Edmund Brown, Paget Shopping Center’s foremost Christmas Tree supplier, Sherlock will learn everything he needs to know. 

Including whether or not Brown is the murderer. 

The NSY is a sorry lot, but even they can reach the obvious conclusion:  there’s a sound chance that the Father Christmas Killer is an employee at the shopping center.  What better way to gain your future victims’ trust than to spend eight hours a day with them, griping about the same shite manager and snickering at the same inside jokes?  That the burly Charles Porter – security guard and sex-addict – had been killed with little sign of a struggle suggested he knew the killer.  Had trusted him, even. 

“Sherlock.”  John’s voice nudges at him.  A smile quirks his (thin, pliable) lips. 

“John.”  How can something as simple as a name threaten to make his voice tremble?

“Got lost up there, did you?” John chuckles. 

“I… yes.”

“Rosie?” John presses.  “Violin lessons?  Our impending deafness?”

Sherlock scoffs.  “And you call me dramatic.”

“I’m serious.  Haven’t you heard Rosie when she’s in a mood?  And you think giving her a violin to screech with will improve that?”

“Watson is less dim than most children her age,” Sherlock hedges.  “Frankly, she’s less dim than several adults I’ve had the misfortune to meet.  If she’s really keen on the violin, she will master it.”

John is quiet for a moment.  Then, with a wondering sort of smile, he says, “Yes.  Yes, I suppose she will.”

 They disembark at Crews Hill and emerge from the platform into a snowcapped, twilit neighborhood, preternaturally quiet and still.  London, like the rest of the United Kingdom, cannot function with a glaze of frost on the streets (aside from the north, and Sherlock, like any self-respecting Southerner, never counts the north).  Terraced houses and high rises sprawl up and down the lanes, draped with thick swathes of snow.  Perhaps the snow is the cause of Enfield’s silence – only the most intrepid will venture outside. 

It takes only a few minutes for Sherlock and John to find their destination:  Carbuncle Gardens, the thriving Christmas tree nursery of Edmund Brown.  The nursery is enclosed by fences, and a cheery sign painted around the edges with holly and wreathed in fairy lights presides over the coming and going of customers.

As soon as they pass the nursery entrance, Sherlock and John are immersed in the bustling discord of the holiday season; people dressed in thick coats and hats trundle along, flattened snow crunching beneath their boots.  Families toddle past with parents foisting small Norway spruces over their shoulders and trudging onward, children trailing in their shadows.  Couples hold hands, point at their choice trees, grin at each other with faces flushed from the cold outside, the warmth they make themselves.  Sherlock’s fingers twitch; he shoves his hands into his pockets. 

“John?”  A bell-like voice rings through the din; Sherlock turns, sees Elise standing amidst the throng.  Her eyes shine with recognition and she strides forward.  “Didn’t think I’d see you here.  Shopping for a tree, are you?”

“Elise,” John says, surprised.  His gloved fingers close around hers and she steps forward, tipping his chin up for a chaste kiss.  Sherlock feels his chest tighten.  When John and Elise part, John flicks his eyes to Sherlock, too quickly—and Sherlock looks down at his shoes.  To Elise, John says, “Actually, ah, no.  We’re here for work.”

“Oh!” Elise exclaims.  She looks at Sherlock.  “Are you here for a case?”

Sherlock nods stiffly.  “Yes.”  Even he can hear the coldness in his tone. 

Confusion flits through Elise’s dark eyes, but she only smiles.  “It’s just as well, really.  I’m here with Catherine.” 

Elise gestures, and another woman steps out of the crowd.  She has long, brunette hair and a nervous smile that reminds Sherlock of Molly in the first few years of their acquaintance. 

“Oh, my God,” she blurts, and covers her mouth with a hand, mortified.  “I’m sorry, I only—you’re them, right?  Sherlock Holmes and John Watson?”

John answers for them.  “Er, yeah.  Nice to meet you, Catherine.  Elise’s told me loads about you.”

“I’m sorry if I seem a little… mad,” Catherine says with a wince.  “It’s just… I’ve read your blog.  I’m a tremendous fan of it.”

John’s false smile shades into the edges of reality.  “Oh.  Well, thank you.”

Catherine nods earnestly.  “And, honestly, I’d love to stay and chat, but my brother…”  She turns to Elise with a meaningful look. 

Elise looks a little put out.  “Your sister couldn’t make it?”

“Of course not,” says Catherine, rolling her eyes.  “Lottie miraculously always has prior commitments when I ask her.  Well…”  She trails off, smiling a little sadly at Sherlock and John.  “It was lovely to meet you both.”  She extends a hand, which John shakes.  She offers her hand to Sherlock, who stares, envy coiling inside him like black bile.  He wants nothing to do with Elise or her friends. 

Catherine’s brow furrows and she begins to draw her hand back, glancing at Elise. 

“Well.  I’ll just…”

“You’re a saint,” says Elise, and pecks her on the cheek.  “I’ll see you later, yeah?”

Catherine nods and, with a last look at Sherlock, sets off toward the exit.  When she is out of sight, John turns to Elise.  “Her brother…?”

“Mentally ill,” Sherlock states.  “Severe schizophrenia.  Completely dependent on her.  At least she’s a primary school teacher specializing in special education, so it isn’t completely outside her sphere.”

John and Elise stare at him with wide eyes for a beat.  Then Elise grins.  “God, that’s very clever, isn’t it?  John told me you were brilliant, but I thought that was just a bit of a crush.”

“Yes, thank you,” mutters John.  “There is a difference between admiration and a… a crush.”

“Whatever you say, John,” Elise smirks. 

Sherlock’s heart kicks into a gallop as he watches their exchange.  For God’s sake, he really is in trouble.  He almost misses the old days, when even the tawdriest insinuations about himself and John would not have merited a blink.  Far better than getting breathless at an innocent remark. 

“Well,” says John, scuffing his boot against the packed snow, “I expect we’ve got to get back to the case.  Sherlock?”

“Y-yes,” Sherlock stammers, and stalks past them without a word of farewell. 

John catches up with him a minute later.  “Sherlock.”  A single word, full of admonishment. 

“Hmm?”

“That wasn’t on, the way you treated Elise and Catherine.”

“If I stopped to exchange pleasantries with all your girlfriends, John, I would never accomplish anything.”  The words feel like glass shards in his throat as he adds, “Think of it this way.  If she truly loves you, she’ll put up with me.”

“She’s not…”  John trails off with a sigh. 

“Not what?”

“Nothing.  Forget I said anything.”

Relieved that the conversation has come to a close, Sherlock keeps walking.  At the north end of the enclosure, the fence opens into a path cloaked in footprint-pocked snow.  The length and breadth of the area is a few acres at least.  Orderly rows of spruce, fir, and pine trees stand in the distance like the sentinels of the nursery. The first glimmers of moonlight angle through breaks in the trees, painting the snow blue.    

Sherlock is bitterly cold.

“Look,” says John, with the tone of someone shoring up their strength, “there’s something I have to talk to you about.”

Sherlock doesn’t take his eyes away from the rows and rows of trees.  If he looks at John, he’s afraid of what John will see.  He imagines armor encasing his heart and says, “Yes?”

“It’s… it’s about me and Elise,” John says.  Hesitates.  “And you.”

Sherlock stiffens – not from John’s words, but from something he’s spied amidst the trees.  A large figure in a red suit and black boots with a long, lank beard hanging down to the belly.  The figure raises a hand and waves.

“It’s him!” Sherlock cries.  He bolts toward the Father Christmas Killer, trusting that John will be close at his heels.  But Father Christmas is easily a hundred yards away, and he turns and melts into the dark trees like a shadow.  Sherlock races after him, but with every step hampered by snow and slick with ice, it’s slow going.  His gasps trail like clouds in his wake; his heart hammers, not with the thrill of the chase, but with a sickening certainty that he will fail. 

Sherlock bursts through the trees where Father Christmas vanished, finding himself between two rows of spruce.  He spins on his heel, swiveling his gaze up and down the path.  There – a flicker of movement very far off, like the wriggling of an ant.  Sherlock charges after him. 

“Sherlock!” John’s voice rings through the cold air. 

“Hurry, John!” he cries, and continues running.  As he sprints down the row, a chain-link fence comes into view, miniscule for its distance.  The antlike form of Father Christmas clambers toward it, begins climbing.  “No!”

Distantly, Sherlock is aware of a scream somewhere off in the enclosure.  He pays it no mind – the Father Christmas Killer is still within sight, he can still catch him, he can—

Sherlock’s heel strikes a patch of ice and turns, spiking pain up his shin, and he pitches to the ground with a yelp.  The snow rushes up to meet him, and a second jolt of pain flashes through his head, followed by the sour taste of bile and fear.  His head.  His concussed head.

“Sherlock!”  John’s voice is closer now, sharp with fear.  Sherlock lifts himself slowly as his footsteps approach, crunching in the snow.  Kneeling, John reaches for him.  “Are you—”

“Fine,” Sherlock croaks, though he isn’t entirely sure.  His gaze searches the fence, confirming what he suspected: Father Christmas has escaped.  Again. 

“Let me see your head,” John insists.

“I’m fine,” Sherlock snaps.  “Leave it.”

John withdraws his hands, looking hurt.  Shamefaced, Sherlock drops his gaze to the snow, curling his hands into fists. 

The screaming sounds again, drawing Sherlock’s attention: a commotion not far off, cries and sobs and shouts clamoring over each other in the night air.  Sherlock and John exchange a look and John stands, dusting snow off his knees.  Sherlock follows suit, swaying as moonlit trees and snow spin before his eyes.  When his vision clears, they move toward the cries. 

A crowd has gathered a few rows over, clustering around a mighty pine.  People point, sob, stare with shocked, vacant eyes.  Sherlock cranes his neck, eyes scanning the dark, bristling branches. 

“Jesus Christ,” John mutters, and then Sherlock sees.  Edmund Brown is hanging from a thick branch, lifeless feet dangling above the crowd.  His body turns in a slow pirouette, like the photograph in the freezer that bore his image. 

Or, Sherlock thinks, like a Christmas ornament. 

Chapter Text

 

John phones Lestrade, adamant that the Yard investigate the crime scene immediately.  He is also adamant that Sherlock not be a part of said investigation. 

“Why the hell not?” Sherlock demands.  Pain throbs from his head and ankle as if in mute response, but he doesn’t let it show.  He glowers at John, determined and defiant. 

John is unmoved.  “Because you’ve hit your recently concussed head.  You need rest, not to go haring off after a serial killer.  And I want to check your ankle – see if you only wrenched it or if it’s actually sprained.”

Sherlock is in no mood to be coddled.  Narrowing his eyes, he says, “I’m staying right here.  Lestrade needs my help, or he’ll be chasing his own detectives’ footprints around in the snow until daybreak.”

Several feet away, Sherlock sees Lestrade raise his head from a hushed conversation with Donovan.  “Hey, Sherlock?”

“Yes?”

“Stop being an insufferable cunt and go home, yeah?”  His cutting words are belied by an easy tone.  “Your doctor says you need rest.”  Then, to Donovan:  “Sorry.”

Donovan raises her eyebrows, leveling a smug side-eye at Sherlock.  “We were all thinking it.”

Sherlock, accustomed to Lestrade’s predilection for all things unimaginative and coarse, rallies quickly.  “I’ll get the evidence I need from Molly.”

“Oh, will you?”  Lestrade grins.  “Not if you make yourself a nuisance, you won’t.”

“Molly loves me.”

“Well,” says Lestrade, mock-considering, “I’m her fiancé, so I think she might love me more.  Just a hunch, though.  Used all my skills as detective inspector to work that one out.”

“I’ll bet you did,” Sherlock grumbles, but before he can really throw down the gauntlet, John slips a hand into the crook of his arm.  The contact is as hot and startling as a brand, and the fight in him smolders down to embers. 

“Sherlock,” says John, gentle but firm, “Let’s go.  You need to be monitored to make sure you haven’t suffered any brain damage.”  He lowers his voice.  “Let Lestrade sort out this mess.  Tomorrow, we’ll focus on the killer.”

“Lestrade might catch him,” Sherlock says with more contrariness than conviction. 

John knows this, and purses his lips to hide a smile.  “If he does, try not to be too gutted about it.  But somehow I doubt he will.”

Thwarted on all sides, Sherlock agrees to leave on the condition that he be allowed to see the body.  Lestrade leads them back to the scene, hastily cordoned off by police tape.  Forensics has taken all the evidence they need and cut Edmund Brown down from his branch.  His corpse lays on a gurney, already stiff with cold.  His skin is fishbelly-pale and his tongue protrudes from between his lips. 

“The killer caught him by surprise,” chimes in Anderson.  Sherlock sees the evidence, watches Edmund Brown’s murder play out in his mind’s eye.  A bruise on the top of his balding head suggests that he was struck from behind – a fierce, downward blow with a blunt instrument, dazing him long enough to get the rope around his neck.  Said rope had already been slung over the tree branch, so it was simply a matter of pulling on the trailing end to hang Brown. 

“The killer had considerable strength,” he mutters to himself.  “Lifting a fully-grown man off the ground with a pulley…”

“Brown was lifted, probably still conscious, and the rope was tied to the base of the tree trunk,” Anderson adds, nodding at the immense pine.  “He didn’t die of a broken neck.  He was strangled.”

“Jesus,” John murmurs.  “At least a broken neck is quick.  Asphyxiation is…”

“Not.”  Sherlock clips the single word, finding his gaze drawn to Brown’s blue lips, his swollen tongue.  A long, painful death, and humiliating besides. 

Sherlock and John spend a few more minutes with the body.  Aside from the fact that the killer is almost certainly male, and powerful with it, there is little useful information.  Brown seems, by all appearances, to have lived an especially dull life. 

Finally, sensing John’s growing impatience, Sherlock concedes that there’s nothing else he can do.  At John’s request, Lestrade grants them the use of a patrol car to get back to Baker Street. 

Nestled in the back of a patrol car speeding southward, Sherlock and John lapse into exhausted silence.  There’s a weight in the air between them, as if something has been left unsaid – stifling and heady, like woodsmoke filling a flue.  As the world outside grows louder, the streets brighter and busier, the pavement bloated with people strolling beneath winking fairy lights, the atmosphere in the car grows… heavier.  Quieter. 

Sherlock feels words crowd on his tongue, but he doesn’t know their shape, doesn’t trust himself to speak without betraying his secrets.  His mind is stretched between the case and John, unable to focus on either.  

The patrol car turns onto Baker Street and grinds to a halt.  John tersely thanks the officer at the wheel and opens the door, sliding out with a rush of cold air.  Sherlock follows and they hobble up the front steps and inside. 

“Can you manage the stairs?” John asks.

“Yes.” 

“How’s your balance?  Any lightheadedness, nausea?”  John’s eyes are intent in the dim light of the corridor.  It’s potent, being looked at like that.  Dizzying.

“I’m fine,” Sherlock says, his voice a thread of sound.

“Right.”  John’s face tells Sherlock he doesn’t believe him.  He slips his fingers around Sherlock’s arm and leads him up the stairs.  Sherlock can only follow, mute with shock, certain that to speak will be to crush the fragile hope fluttering in his breast.  He doesn’t want John to stop touching him. 

They climb to the landing and John opens the door to 221B, ushering Sherlock inside and across the sitting room.  His hands are steady as he helps Sherlock sit, holding him by the elbows as he gets comfortable.  Wordlessly, John leaves to fetch his supplies.  Sherlock stretches his leg, wiggles his toes experimentally.  A drumbeat of pain throbs through his ankle. 

John emerges from the kitchen with his medical kit and an ice pack in hand.  “Right.  Let me take a look at your head.”

“No pain there,” Sherlock grits out.  It’s not entirely true – but he needs a moment to compose himself, and he can’t do that with John’s face inches from his own.  Not with that intent, dizzying look.  Wincing, he adds, “My foot hurts like the blazes.”

John sets the kit on the sofa, kneels at Sherlock’s feet, and slowly unties his shoes.  He grimaces with sympathy as Sherlock’s wrenched ankle is revealed, mottled and red, but not very swollen.  Gently, he prods the flesh, kneading around knobs of bone.

“Just a minor sprain,” John declares, propping hands on knees and rising to his feet.  He sits beside Sherlock and flips open the clasps on his medical kit.  “Ice and rest, that’s what you need.  Now,” wielding an alcohol wipe and a penlight, “hold still.”

Sherlock closes his eyes, stone-still, as John brushes his hair aside and dabs at the scrape on his forehead.  The alcohol stings with a clean, burning twinge.  Hidden in the dark behind closed eyes, Sherlock’s fantasies begin spinning once more.  He imagines John lowering the wipe and penlight, cupping Sherlock’s face in his hands, coming close to kiss his hurt, his lips.  A flush rises to his cheeks. 

“…your eyes.  Sherlock?  Are you listening?”

Sherlock comes back to himself with a start, eyes flying open.  “What?”

“I need to check your pupils,” John says.  A smile quirks at his lips; it makes him look boyishly rumpled.  “Keep your eyes open, yeah?”

“Right,” Sherlock breathes.  Feather-light, John places his fingers on Sherlock’s brow and shines the penlight in each eye.  Halos sear into his vision. 

Sherlock is well-versed in the inner workings of eyeballs.  He knows how light passes through the pupils, bends along the corneas, strikes the retinas.  He knows how nerve cells convert light – images – into electrical impulses, feeding the brain with information. 

He also knows the ability of the iris to open or close, controlling the size of the pupil.  And he’s certain his pupils are huge now, ink-dark, drinking in every particle of light reflecting off of John Watson. 

John stares back, unblinking.  He’s so, so close.  Raising a hand, he brushes his fingers through Sherlock’s curls. 

“You’ve,” he says, stops.  His voice is a little hoarse.  “You’ve got pine needles in your hair.  It smells—”

Sherlock doesn’t hear what his hair smells like, because John leans forward, dropping the penlight into his lap and reaching for Sherlock.  John’s hands are on his shoulder, in his hair, thumb brushing the arch of his cheekbone.  And then John is drawing him forward and kissing him, mouth sweet and fever-hot. 

For an instant, Sherlock is too stunned to react.  He’s too stunned to think.  But when John begins to move away, draws a breath to speak, Sherlock reacts on instinct alone.  Seizing John’s shoulders, he drags him back in, overzealous; their teeth clack; the burst of pain is bright on his lips and John angles his head with a groan, slotting their mouths together.  Sherlock’s hands slide down his arms and clasp his waist, fingers digging into the fabric.  He pulls, unsure of himself, frantic and needing, and John is cursing and gasping and straddling Sherlock’s hips in a single clumsy motion. 

“Oh, God,” he gasps, pulling away to stare down at Sherlock, eyes dark and lips reddened.  “Oh, my God.  Sherlock, do you—do you really want—”

“Yes,” Sherlock gasps, uncertain what John is asking, certain the answer is always yes.  John surges forward, kisses him hungrily.  Sherlock’s heart races faster, faster, he can barely breathe—

John pulls away, and it’s like he’s stealing the last wisp of breath from Sherlock’s lungs as he does so.  His face is flushed, chest rising and falling as he pants. 

“I’m—I’m sorry,” he croaks, and slips off Sherlock’s lap, nearly stumbling in his haste.  Sherlock reaches out to steady him, but John takes a step back, pressing his hands flat against his thighs.  “I… Sherlock, I need…”

I need, thinks Sherlock, bereft.

“I need to… to think,” John says.  “Please understand.  I’m sorry.”

He turns on his heel and staggers out of the sitting room.  His feet thump against the stairs as he climbs up to his bedroom; the door creaks open, snaps shut.  Sherlock is alone.

Chapter Text

The transport is staging a riot. 

As he crouches beside Father Christmas’ latest victim – a young woman kitted out in a green felt dress, red and white striped stockings, and plastic, pointed ears – Sherlock can’t summon a scrap of focus to devote to the case.  Every time he tries to make a deduction, the transport interferes.

It’s all John’s fault, of course.

The victim’s image through the magnifier blurs as Sherlock’s hands shake, recalling the feel of John’s ribs expanding and contracting as he gasped and panted.  His every step is stilted and tense, knees quaking with the remembered weight of John’s thighs straddled over them.  In fact, Sherlock has been beset by countless little onslaughts.  His heart hammers.  His chest tightens.  His mouth dries.  It makes the Work nigh on impossible.

Even worse is his brain’s complicity.  The sensations evoked by simple, case-related tasks are snatched up and transplanted into fantasies like scraps of cloth woven into an elaborate quilt.  John’s hand pressing his neck becomes John’s hand pressing his thighThe pad of John’s thumb sweeping over his cheekbone shifts into John’s thumb pressing at the seam of his lips.

Lestrade is – as always – oblivious.  He wouldn’t notice Sherlock’s predicament if it was stamped across his forehead for the world to read.  ‘I’m in love with John Watson, he tried it on for a lark, and then he rejected me.’  The words sit sour on his tongue, a tang of bile. 

“Have you got anything?” Lestrade asks, striding over to Sherlock’s side. 

Resigned, Sherlock flicks shut the magnifier and stands.  Beyond the ordinary – student finishing uni with a biology degree, worked part-time at the coffee shop to make ends meet, debated going abroad after graduating – he can glean nothing. 

Aside from the necessity of simply moving, he had never thought the transport crucial to the Work.  Now – with his fingers itching to thread through short, silvery hair, his arms to entwine, his lips to press and taste and explore – Sherlock realizes that he is utterly crippled without it. 

“Nothing much,” he mutters, stripping off the nitrile gloves with a wince.  His bandages came off just this morning, and his fingers are still as pink and tender as a babe’s.  “Nothing important, anyway.”

“Can’t believe the killer was able to do this so quickly,” Lestrade mutters.  “Forensics places time of death early this morning, long before the shopping center opened.  Couldn’t’ve been more than twelve hours after murdering Brown.”

“He’s becoming ambitious,” Sherlock says.  His gaze drops regretfully to the dead girl.  She was found by the coffee shop manager, unmarked but for her cleanly-broken neck.  Yet another testament to the killer’s physical strength, but nothing beyond that.  “She was attacked leaving a party,” he adds.  “Going by the state of her shoes, she was heavily inebriated.”

“I don’t doubt that,” Lestrade sighs.  “If there’s anything else to be discovered in the autopsy, Molly will find it.  But I doubt it – this death is as clean as the others.”

Sherlock thinks of Charles Porter with his eye put out by a sharpened candy cane.  He thinks of Theresa Goodwin, face pulverized and fingernails ragged from being buried in coal.  Edmund Brown, skin the blue of a robin’s egg and tongue poking out between his lips.  None of these deaths have been clean.  They’ve been ridiculous. 

“He’s toying with me,” Sherlock muses aloud.

“What’s that?”

“The Father Christmas Killer,” says Sherlock, turning away from the body.  “This is a game for me.  The message in the freezer… this is all a game, or, or a Christmas gift.  For me.”

“Well,” says Lestrade, churlish, “I hope you’re having a delightful time, because nobody else is.”

Sherlock turns his head a fraction, scanning the surrounding crime scene.  John hovers at the police tape.  Their eyes meet, cling – and John looks away. 

Sherlock stares at his feet.  He feels all enthusiasm for the case drain out of him.  “I’m really not.”

 

-

 

Sherlock and John return to Baker Street, shrouded in a tense silence.  As they climb the stairs to the flat, Sherlock hears John’s tread go still.  Despite his better judgment, he turns. 

John is stock-still, head down.  The fingers of his left hand curl and uncurl at his side.  Sherlock is seized by a sudden urge to turn and flee up the stairs, to seek refuge in his bedroom.  Better to wait in uncertain limbo than to shatter when John delivers the final blow:  We made a mistake.  I don’t want to be with you.  I’m not gay.

“Sherlock,” John begins.

“I,” Sherlock interjects, desperate to fill the space meant for John’s rejection.  “I need to tend to an experiment.  Very time-sensitive, you see.  I have cells being treated with—with alemtuzumab.  Lymphocytes.  The time-points are critical.”

John’s eyes narrow.  “See, I know that’s a lie because I check every drug you bring into the flat.  Side-effect of having a five-year-old, you see.  I don’t want anything dodgy within her reach.  You’ve not got any alemtuzumab in the flat, least not as of this morning.”

Sherlock purses his lips, foiled.  It had been stupid of him, assuming John wouldn’t keep an eye on the drugs he brings to the flat.  “Well, what is it?” he asks waspishly. 

John presses his lips together and glances from side to side, as if marshaling invisible forces to back what he is about to say.  Lifting his chin, he draws a steady breath and says, “We need to talk about… about what happened.”

“I thought you needed time to think,” says Sherlock coolly. 

“I did, and I have,” John replies. 

“Came to your conclusion quickly, did you?”

“Yes.”  John’s voice is firm, but his eyes are soft.  “It wasn’t difficult.  I’ve been sure about this for a long time.”

Sherlock hesitates.  There it is again: hope, treacherous and tenacious, fluttering like a battered moth beneath his ribs.  He stares down at John, too afraid to venture the question, needing the answer. 

“Well?” he asks.

John climbs the few stairs between them, stops on the step just below Sherlock’s.  He’s a small man, made smaller standing on unequal ground.  But somehow, he fills Sherlock’s field of vision, saps the air from the room with that single, steadying breath.  Sherlock is lightheaded.  He grips the bannister to steady himself.

John reaches for Sherlock’s hand on the bannister.  His fingers brush the bones of his wrist, curl around to clasp it.  His eyes are dark with intent.

“I want you,” he says simply.  “I’ve—I’ve wanted you for a long, long time, Sherlock.”

Sherlock stares at him, the words dying on his tongue.  He had feared rejection—he had feared pity—he hadn’t known to fear the warmth of John’s hands, the softness in his eyes as he offered everything Sherlock wants in a dark, quiet stairwell. But fear thrums through him, or something very like fear, for it makes his heart race and his body tremble as John’s hand drifts to the pale underside of his wrist and circles it in a strong grip.  His other hand finds Sherlock’s clavicle, his shoulder, and tugs him down. 

Their kiss the night before was clumsy, frantic with impulse and need.  This kiss is nothing like its predecessor – gentle and chaste, slow and lingering, it is a different act entirely.  Even the fire stoking inside Sherlock is changed – a steady, smoldering rise compared to the blaze of the night before.  It crackles in Sherlock’s veins, warming him from within.

John shifts, breaking the kiss to climb onto the step beside Sherlock with one foot.  Sherlock turns and they both balance, one foot on the stairs and the other off, a pair of birds readying to take flight.  Panting a little, John presses his hands to Sherlock’s chest and pins him to the wall, wordlessly demanding.  Sherlock dips his head; John groans into the next kiss, and there’s an edge of something desperate this time.  Sherlock’s mouth falls open on a whimper and John crowds closer, as if to steal the sound from his mouth, hoard it for himself.  Sherlock is instantly aware of a hardness pressing at his thigh, and the kindling embers within him roar into a hungry flame.  Gasping, he grasps John’s hips and drags him forward, feeling his own cock thicken as John thrusts fully-clothed against him. 

“Fuck,” John groans.  “Oh, fuck, Sherlock— you’ve no idea, do you, how much I’ve thought—how much I’ve wanted—”

“John,” Sherlock grits out.  He’s fully hard now, and surging against John in a rhythm both new and instinctual to him.  John response in kind, and their quiet gasps and curses fill the air, echoing in the dim light of the stairwell. 

A creak.  A small, sleep-slurred voice.  “Daddy?”

Sherlock and John freeze.  Stiffly, Sherlock turns his head, stares up to the landing.  The door to 221B is ajar, the room beyond unlit.  Rosie is a small shadow peering out through the bar of open door.  Sherlock feels John move away from him, shifting furtively to conceal his state. 

“Rosie?” John calls, his voice betrayed by a faint rasp.  “Darling, it’s only us.  Me and Sherlock.”

“Oh.”  As Sherlock’s senses adjust to the dim light, he sees Rosie rub the heel of her hand over her eyes.  “Had a bad dream,” she mumbles.

“Well.”  John shoots Sherlock an apologetic look and climbs the stairs to the landing.  Sherlock, heart still sprinting, draws a shaky breath to compose himself and follows.  John takes Rosie’s hand in his and leads her into the flat.  “It is a weekend, after all.  You can go back to sleep if you like.”

“’Kay,” Rosie mumbles.  If she’s seen anything, it wasn’t enough to rattle her. 

As John leads Rosie to the stairwell up to their room, Sherlock dithers in the sitting room, his entire body humming with unspent energy.  The transport is rioting in full force, and the mortification of nearly scarring his goddaughter has done little to lessen the insurgence.  He paces, breathing slowly to calm himself, not daring to shed his Belstaff. 

The buzzer rings.  Sherlock pays it no mind.  Minutes pass in silence and it slips from his thoughts entirely, leaving not so much as a footprint. 

“Well, that’s her sorted,” says John, shoulders slouched as he walks out of the corridor.  “Sorry about that.  Er.”  His face colors and he smiles.  Sherlock’s heart skips at the sight.  “Where were we?”

Sherlock reaches for him—and stops as another voice chimes through the air, as clear and crystalline as a bell.  “Hullo?  John?”

Sherlock tenses, hands falling to his sides.  He turns, staring, thoughts a tumult of confusion and hurt. 

Elise stands in the doorway, smiling politely.  She cocks her head to the side.  “Have I come at a bad time?”

Chapter Text

 

The cold air lashes Sherlock’s face as he stalks through Regent’s Park, his every breath dragging out behind him like a snapping banner.  Snowflakes arrow through the air and prick his face, but he presses on, determined to create more distance between himself and Baker Street. 

Between himself and John. 

Memories of the last quarter hour rise, as stinging as the snowflakes.  Elise, standing in the doorway with her polite smile and expectant eyes.  John, tensing as a grim expression settled over his face.  And Sherlock, propelled by compulsion, striding to the doorway, weaving around the perplexed Elise, and storming down the stairs, deaf to John’s calls.  He had walked, not to reach a precise destination, but to simply be away.  Far away. 

Now, tramping down the pavement beside the boating lake, Sherlock’s rational mind finally catches up with him.  Perhaps he was too hasty.  Perhaps John has every intention of ending it with Elise – a clean break, a new start.  An empty slate for them to write their own story. 

Or perhaps… perhaps John will lose his nerve.  Perhaps, presented with the option of keeping a nice, safe woman, he will see the folly of the path he has started and retrace his steps. 

Sherlock keeps walking.

He walks as the wind dies down and the snow falls thick and languid from a slate-grey sky.  He walks as it gathers over the bare skeletons of willow trees and the ice-feathered edges of the boating lake.  He walks until his fingers and toes go numb.  A dribble of snot collects on his upper lip; he sniffs, but he can barely feel his face.  Overhead, the sky darkens with gibbous clouds.  More snow on the way.

Sherlock’s mobile buzzes in his pocket.  Fingers clumsy, he pulls it out and looks at the screen.  John.  He watches the name flash, feels the buzz reverberate through his numb hand.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  But when Sherlock musters his courage and strips off his glove to hit the “answer” button, the call is disconnected.  The screen goes dark. 

Sherlock keeps walking.

He turns left onto York Bridge and follows the footpath to the Inner Circle.  He passes a few people on the way; most Londoners have retreated from the snowfall, but these intrepid few are out to see the spectacle, bundled up so thickly in coats and scarves and hats and mittens that they are scarcely recognizable as humans.  They pay him no mind, too preoccupied to notice the famous detective in their midst. 

Until one does.

“Mr. Holmes?” a familiar voice calls. 

Sherlock turns, bemused, and sees a woman with long brown hair trundling toward him.  It’s Elise’s friend from the tree nursery – Catherine, his mind supplies.  He considers feigning politeness, finds he hasn’t the energy for it.

“It is you,” says Catherine, stopping beside him.  Her breath fogs the air before the wind catches it, carrying it away like a fleeing ghost.  “Thought so.  You’ve got a very recognizable profile, you know.”

Sherlock grunts by way of reply.  “What do you want?”

Catherine’s smile wavers, but she rallies and brings it back with full force.  “Just a chat, I suppose.  I was walking with Elise earlier, but she said she had to meet with John, so…”  She shrugs, eloquently.  “Here we are.”

“I take my walks alone,” says Sherlock coldly.  By mentioning her association with Elise, Catherine couldn’t have presented a better reason for him to despise her if she tried.  Without so much as a nod, Sherlock says, “Afternoon,” and stalks past her. 

“Mr. Holmes!” she cries at his retreating form.  He keeps walking, but much to his chagrin, he hears her voice grow nearer.  “Mr. Holmes, wait!”

Sherlock rounds on her with a scowl.  He considers weaving deductions into cutting words – your schizophrenic brother needs to be tended to, you shouldn’t be running in the snow in those three-year-old George trainers, perhaps your sister is estranged because you annoy her – but something inside him recoils at the idea.  Sighing in a plume of breath, he curbs his temper.  “Yes?”

“I’m sorry if I offended you,” says Catherine, and she does seem genuinely sorry.  She’s got nothing to be sorry for, he thinks, in a voice that sounds suspiciously like John’s.  You’re the one being an arse.

“There’s… no need for apology,” he says.  “I was rude.  Forgive me.”

Catherine’s eyes widen in surprise.  She shifts from foot to foot, snow crunching under her trainers. 

“Would you care to take a walk?” she asks.  “My toes are going numb.”

Sherlock hesitates, then concedes with a nod.  Between walking with Catherine and returning to Baker Street, the former is preferable by a slim margin.  “Fine.  Let’s… walk.”

Catherine beams, and they set off at a leisurely pace, circling the snowcapped promenade.  The footpath brings them beside the Japanese Garden Island.  Stripped of foliage, the trees and shrubbery are austere in their veils of snow and ice. 

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Catherine asks.  “I love winter.  Especially when we get proper snow.”

Sherlock hums but otherwise makes no comment.  He despises banal conversation, and the weather is the most banal topic one can conceive.  His mobile buzzes again, and he fishes it out to glance at the screen.  A text from John.  He shoves the mobile back into his pocket.

“Is that Dr. Watson?” Catherine asks.  Sherlock tenses and she instantly looks contrite.  “Sorry.  I’m a bit nosy by nature – can’t help it.  Only, if you’re out alone in this weather…”

“John has no say over my comings and goings,” Sherlock says tersely. 

“Are you hiding from him?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

Catherine is unfazed by his acid tone.  “My brother and sister… when we were little, we had a playhouse.  It wasn’t much, but we called it the Winter Palace.  We loved to go out there at Christmastime and play hide-and-seek with our father.”

Sherlock, indignation waning, huffs his response.  His thoughts have drifted to Rosie and the practice violin he plans to give her for Christmas. 

“Got you!” Catherine says suddenly, chuckling, and Sherlock startles.  “You’re smiling.  I knew you weren’t as cold as the blog makes you out to be.”

“I… suppose so.” 

They continue walking for several minutes, but it soon becomes clear that they will have to leave the park soon.  The snowfall has grown even thicker, sheets of white cascading down from the sky, and the wind is picking up again.  Catherine shivers and stamps her sodden feet on the pavement. 

“I should go,” she says, “or I might actually freeze to death.”

Sherlock nods, his mind already flying back to Baker Street.  While a part of him wants to avoid discovering who John has chosen, another part – that tenacious flutter of hope – beckons him to return. 

Sherlock and Catherine turn around and walk back toward the entrance to the Inner Circle.  The path is completely deserted, the few brave Londoners having retired to their warm homes.  If there is anyone else present, Sherlock can’t see them; the snow is so thick, he can scarcely see ten feet in front of him. 

And so, as they pass the river running alongside the Japanese Garden Island, Sherlock is completely unprepared.  A shadowy figure peels away from the trees skirting the riverbank, so massive and hulking he might have masqueraded as a tree himself, and strikes his right shoulder with a mighty swing.  Sherlock falls, the air rushing out of his chest as he hits the ground.  Catherine screams. 

With his shoulder a throbbing point of agony, Sherlock clambers upright, certain that another blow will fall.  But he can see nothing; snow flies into his eyes, veils every twitch and shadow.  He can’t see Catherine, but he hears her screaming—hears her begging, “No, no, please, don’t—” and understanding jolts through him like an electric current.

“Catherine!” he bellows into the howling wind.  “Catherine, where are you?”

“Here!” she screams.  The snow parts like a curtain, giving him a glimpse into the distance beyond.  The Father Christmas Killer has Catherine clamped against his side and is dragging her down the pavement.  In one hand, he carries a baseball bat. 

Sherlock ignores the pain and races after her, reaching for his mobile.  The police, he has to call the police.  If he can subdue the killer long enough, reinforcements will arrive.  He draws an icy breath and shouts, “Stop!

The killer is implacable, but Sherlock sees Catherine dig in her heels.  Pitiful effort though it may be, it slows their progress long enough for Sherlock to catch up.  Squaring his stance and clasping his injured arm to his chest, mobile in hand, he whips out a vicious left jab.  The blow strikes the killer’s ribs and rings up Sherlock’s arm with the impact.  He may as well have punched a brick wall. 

The Father Christmas Killer halts and turns.  Under the hideous concealment of his withered, pit-eyed mask, Sherlock feels a gaze as vacant and unfeeling as a corpse’s settle on him.  Then, as though brushing off a fly, the killer raises the bat and swings. 

He may be powerful, but Sherlock is fast, injury or no.  He ducks, feeling the arc of the bat whistle inches above his head.  Dancing in close, he delivers two more jabs and darts away before the killer can retaliate.  The fingers of his right hand fumble with his mobile, unlocking the screen and phoning the Yard. 

The killer throws Catherine to the ground and her head bounces against the pavement.  Sherlock lunges toward her, but with a lumbering step, Father Christmas blocks his way and raises the baseball bat above his head.  Sherlock raises his arm to block and the strike explodes through his bones.   Clouds fill his vision and he doubles over on his knees. 

“No,” he hears Catherine groan.

Massive hands close over Sherlock’s shoulders, lifting him to his feet, lifting him off his feet.  He struggles violently, but the killer is huge, gusting rank, warm breath through the mask into Sherlock’s face as he brings him eye to eye. 

“Goodbye,” the Father Christmas Killer says. 

And then Sherlock’s vision is spinning because he’s been thrown, literally thrown like a discarded doll.  His vision tilts and pinwheels, white spinning over white, and Catherine screams as gravity seizes him and drags him down, down, down into the glacial lake water.  The breath is punched from his lungs.  His mind flashes back to being trapped in the freezer – and then his head strikes something hard, extinguishing the world like a candle being blown out. 

Chapter Text

John is livid. 

“You could have died!” he snarls for roughly the thousandth time since Sherlock woke in hospital.  “You could have had permanent brain damage!  I know you act like you don’t care about your body, but you do realize your brain is a part of your body, yes?  That damaging it will ruin you?”

Sherlock, huddled in a nest of blankets, watches John pace his room like a restless tiger.  The medication muddles his mind.  “You’re making my head spin.”

John halts and rounds on Sherlock as if he’s just insulted his mother.  His eyes narrow and he storms over to Sherlock’s bedside.  “Oh, I’m the cause of your problems?  Is that it?”

“Didn’t say that,” Sherlock protests feebly. 

“I think,” says John, “that the cause of your spinning head might be because you hit it with a bloody rock!  Even better, you got thrown onto said rock by a murdering giant!  And then, because Sherlock Holmes never does anything by halves, you decided to take a dip in a freezing lake!  Have I got it right?”

“No,” Sherlock grumbles.  “I hit my head after I was thrown in the lake.”

“Oh, forgive me!” John hollers.  “I can’t believe I got such a crucial detail wrong!  I’m sorry, Sherlock, I’m completely overreacting!”

“That’s the first correct thing you’ve said all evening,” Sherlock snipes back.

“Don’t be a tit.  You know you were being reckless.”

“I,” Sherlock grits out, emphasizing each syllable the way he used to when speaking with an infant Rosie, “was on a walk.  There is nothing inherently dangerous about that.”

John glowers at him.  “Don’t use that tone.”

“What tone?” Sherlock inquires, all innocence.

John chuckles darkly.  “Oh, you know what tone.  That ‘I’m talking to a half-wit, woe is me’ tone.  I.  Am not.  In.  The mood.”

“Well,” says Sherlock, “I was using it because you are, despite being a perfectly adequate conductor of light, a complete moron.  Only an idiot would forget he still has a girlfriend when—well.  He would forget he has a girlfriend.”  He spits out the last word like a string of bile.  John opens his mouth to protest and Sherlock adds, “The alternative, of course, being that you’re a liar.”

 “Sherlock—”

“And you might like to know that I didn’t go looking for the killer – he found me!  I was simply defending myself!”

And Catherine, he thinks with a twinge of sorrow. 

John’s fury wanes, his expression softening as he hears the words unspoken.  Scrubbing a hand over his brow, he mutters a curse and stops pacing.  With a sigh, he trudges to Sherlock’s bedside and sits on the edge. 

“I’m so angry with you,” John says, his tone bone-weary.  “Jesus, Sherlock, do you know how terrified I was?  When I got the call from Greg saying you’d been found half-frozen in Regent’s Park?”

Sherlock thinks back to the events of the past day.  Twenty minutes after being thrown in the lake, the Yard – summoned when Sherlock phoned – arrived on the scene with an ambulance in tow.  According to them, he had been lying on the shore, sodden and crusted with frost, but fortunately undrowned.  He was promptly whisked to hospital, where he was diagnosed yet again with hypothermia and treated accordingly.  His brain was miraculously unscathed, though the doctors insisted on monitoring him for several hours.  John, having arrived shortly after Sherlock, presided over his care in stony silence.  Only later, cloistered in the privacy of 221B – later being, of course, now – did John’s temper reach the end of its fuse. 

“And then I hear that you’ve sustained another head injury.  Your brain, Sherlock—your brain is everything to you.  You can’t keep treating your body like it’s some cast-off thing, like it doesn’t matter.  You understand that, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Sherlock says, a little grudgingly.  John’s voice is soft, but his questions sting like barbs.  “I know.”

“This isn’t just about you or me.  I have a child, Sherlock.  Her safety comes first.”

“I know,” Sherlock repeats, while his traitorous thoughts whisper, What has that got to do with me?

“Right.”  John’s shoulders sag.  He is facing away from Sherlock, but somehow he seems very far away – an island, remote and forbidding.  Sherlock almost thinks he prefers John pacing.  This is too… too quiet, too uncertain.  As if John is weighing his options on a knife edge. 

At last, John turns to him, expression solemn.  “Sherlock.”

Sherlock’s teeth sink into his lower lip.  This is it – the moment John ends what hasn’t yet happened between them, a great potential crushed before it can come to fruition.  Bracing himself, he asks, “Yes?”

“I need you to do something for me.”

Sherlock is taken aback.  “What is it?”

“I need you to make a deduction,” says John.  Standing, he steps to Sherlock’s side and holds out his hands.

“John, why do I…”  He trails off, hesitant. 

“Just… humor me?”

Sherlock humors him.  Flicking his gaze up and down John’s form, he gathers data on the person he knows most and least in all the world.  Because every time he thinks he’s got John Watson figured out, John reveals a yet-undiscovered piece of himself.  He is an elegant chemical compound breaking down and down and down again.  Sherlock can get down to the very atoms only to find them breaking again.  His greatest unsolved mystery. 

Worried, stressed, the creases in John’s brow say. 

Angry at me, the divots in his palms say. 

Called and texted far more than usual today, says his thumb and the space between forefinger and middle finger.

Kissed me today, his thin, colorless lips say.

Wait.

Sherlock looks closer, frowns.  Looks closer still.  His mind flits back to Elise in the doorway of 221B, her expectant smile – lips a violent shade of crimson.  If she had given John so much as a peck, it would have left a mark as damning as any footprint or fingerprint.

“You ended it with her,” he hears himself pronounce.  “With… your girlfriend.”

John smiles.  “You’re mostly right.  See, Elise was never actually my girlfriend.”

Sherlock stares, stupefied, as he attempts to process John’s words.  “What?”

John averts his gaze.  “We… we were never actually, um.  A couple.” 

“But you said—”

I never said she was my girlfriend,” John points out.  “You assumed she was.  I just didn’t correct you.”

“That—that’s still misleading!” Sherlock argues.

“No more misleading than you were whenever someone thought we were together,” John counters. 

“I…”  The words stick in Sherlock’s throat.  “W-well, what were you, then?”

John colors and shifts from foot to foot, evasive.  “We were… friends with benefits, I suppose.”

Sherlock grimaces.  Friends with benefits is preferable to a committed relationship, but only just.  “But you brought her to the Christmas party.”

“Ye-es,” John sighs, “because Mrs. Hudson caught me texting her and wouldn’t let the bloody matter drop.  Like a dog with a bone.” 

“She was meddling,” Sherlock says, understanding dawning. 

“Yes, I see that now,” John chuckles.  “That woman will be the death of us.”

They lapse into silence for a moment.  Then, still a little baffled, Sherlock ventures, “So… friends with benefits.”

John shakes his head and pinches the bridge of his nose.  “Look, I know it’s a bit silly.  Man of my age and all.  But… I couldn’t make another emotional connection after…”

Sherlock understands.  “After Mary.”

John looks genuinely startled.  “What?”

“You’re still mourning Mary,” Sherlock elaborates.  He very nearly chokes on the words:  “I understand.”

“Sherlock,” John says, aggrieved, “I’m talking about you, you berk.”

Once again, Sherlock is caught off-guard.  It’s maddening, being so disconcerted.  Is this how normal people feel – constantly astounded and confused?  It’s no wonder Lestrade and his lot never get anything done.  And, because he has reached Lestrade-levels of astounded and confused, all he can utter is a stupid, “Oh?”

“How did you not work that out?” John asks.  “Thought I was being fairly obvious.”

“I… seem to have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to you,” Sherlock concedes. 

John’s answering smile is fleeting.  “And for the record, my feelings about Mary are… complicated, but I’m.  I’m not mourning her.”  John’s lips thin, gaze turning inward. 

Sherlock thinks of the night Mary died and feels a weight of guilt slump over his shoulders.  It’s been four years, but she still inhabits 221B in glimpses and glints, a ghost hovering on the periphery of vision.  Try to look at her directly, and she evaporates. 

“Have you got it, then?” John asks, a touch nervously. 

“Hmm?  What?”

“I said I wanted you,” says John, “and I meant it.  I mean it.  If…”  He hesitates, licks his lips.  “If you’ll have me, that is.”

Sherlock says, “Come here.”

It’s John’s turn to blink.  A slow smile breaks across his face.  “Yeah?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes in exasperation.  “Yes.

John grips the edge of the headboard and leans down, cupping Sherlock’s jaw with his free hand and drawing him in to kiss his smiling mouth.  Sherlock goes willingly – keenly – twining his hands through the coarse, silvery hair at John’s temples, eager to ruffle the sleek sweep he’s taken to wearing.  John huffs a laugh against Sherlock’s mouth and Sherlock presses closer, tasting joy and hunger both. 

Encouraged, Sherlock drops his hands to John’s elbows, entreating him onto the bed not with words, but with his body and a hitched staccato of inhale-gasp, exhale-gasp that speaks more eloquently than words ever could.  But John is resolute, yielding only to lean closer, dropping his hand to the mattress to brace himself as his mouth leaves Sherlock’s to journey down his neck.  A rasp of teeth, and Sherlock gasps, shudders. 

John.” 

John draws away, looking terribly pleased with himself.  “Liked that, did you?”

“Y-yes.  Get over here, for God’s sake.”

John dips his head for another kiss, but as Sherlock tilts his head, his injuries make themselves known.  He winces, breaking the kiss, and John’s eyes fly open in alarm. 

“Sherlock?  You all right?”

“I—I think so.  I’m fine.”

John studies him, abashed.  “Probably shouldn’t be exerting you too much.  I’m sorry.  It was irresponsible.”

“Don’t be daft,” Sherlock snaps, frantic.  “Get back here and kiss me.”

“Gosh,” says John, “How could I resist?  You’re so charming.”

“You can’t—you can’t work me into this state and stop!”

John looks at him with a mixture of pity and cruel amusement.  “It’s not as if I want to, Sherlock.  I just don’t want to give you brain damage.”

“All I need right now is my mouth,” Sherlock states.  And a few other things, he thinks, but doesn’t dare say. 

“Hmm, nope,” says John.  He’s entirely too cheery for the situation at hand.  “Glass of water and pain meds, that’s what you need.  And rest.  Loads and loads of rest.”

“You’re a monster,” Sherlock whines.  “A villain.  A cad.

“Ooh, a cad,” muses John.  “I quite like that.”

Standing, John slips out the door, leaving Sherlock in such a state of despair and arousal he thinks he might actually expire on the spot.  John returns with the promised glass and pills in hand.  His cheerful malice brooks no argument, and Sherlock chases the medicine with a gulp of water.  He sets the glass aside and crosses his arms with the most vicious glare he can muster.

“Don’t look at me like that,” says John.  “You’re in this predicament because you were careless.  Think of it this way – you have incentive to rest and let yourself heal.”

Sherlock says nothing, but continues to glare in staunch silence.  Sighing wistfully, John moves to his side, tips up his chin, and kisses the sulking line of his mouth.  Sherlock springs into action, latching onto him like a barnacle, but John only draws away with a chuckle.  “You’re going to be trouble, aren’t you.”

“Yes.”  Sherlock is fierce.  “I’m going to plague you.”

“Christ, but I’m sure you will.”  Drawing back, John shakes his head.  “Right.  I’ve—I’ve got to go check on Rosie.” 

And, brushing his fingers tenderly through Sherlock’s fringe, John turns and hastens for the door.  Left to stew in his own muddled arousal, Sherlock slumps back against the pillows.  He’s dazed, and trembling like a leaf. 

Chapter Text

Three days after kissing John for the second time, Sherlock is still in a daze.  He tries to put it down to head trauma, but knows it’s a feeble lie at best.  He can’t bring himself to care.  John had kissed him.  John wants him.

Three days Sherlock has been confined to the flat, browbeaten by John’s stern orders and gentle hands.  John is determined that Sherlock rest and recover before he can do himself further harm.  Sherlock, hungry for John’s touch – feeling his brow, cautiously peeling back the bandages to check his scratches, lightly prodding his bruises – obeys with uncharacteristic docility.  His natural inclination to rebel is muffled by the daze. 

The daze is of mixed wonderment and disbelief, like a mingling fog of two strong scents:  the sweetness of cinnamon and burnt sugar paired with fetid swamp water.  And still, days after being submerged in it, Sherlock is no closer to wandering out than he was at the start.  He bumbles from amazement to confusion to doubt to terror and circles back again. 

John said he wants me.

Why does he want me?

He couldn’t really want me.

The terror, incoherent but visceral, is the worst part.  It slides through Sherlock’s veins like shards of ice, chilling him from within and gliding with quiet, rending purpose toward his heart.  If John decides he no longer wants Sherlock – or realizes he never wanted him – the cold will have him instead. 

“Sherlock?” Rosie’s voice is soft at his side.  “Wanna biscuit?”

Sherlock blinks, disentangling himself from his thoughts to look down at the child.  With John at the clinic, Rosie’s care has once again fallen to him.  She has a sleeve of chocolate digestives, the top ripped open.  Crumbs cling to her lips and chin. 

“Yes,” says Sherlock.  Then, remembering John’s fondness for ‘magic words,’ he adds, “Please.”

Rosie digs a biscuit out of the sleeve and hands it to Sherlock.  When he takes it, she tosses the entire sleeve on the sofa beside him and clambers up, palms smearing chocolate crumbs on the upholstery. 

“Mrs. Hudson won’t be pleased if you make a mess,” he informs her. 

Rosie tenses and studies the crumbs.  Diligently, she wipes her hand on her shirt, then brushes off the sofa.  “Better.”

“Hmm.”  Sherlock flicks a remaining crumb to the floor.  “If she catches you, you’ll never hear the end of it.  She’s been lecturing me about my messes for years.”

Rosie shrugs; her attention has been diverted to the telly, where felt animals cavort across the screen.  A green frog with a striped scarf and a top hat in hand marches along with a smaller frog on his back, both singing merrily.  A memory shifts, casting off dust in a far-off corridor of Sherlock’s Mind Palace.

“Kermit the Frog,” he realizes.

“Yep.”  Rosie takes another bite of her biscuit, chewing noisily.  Her eyes are still fixed on the screen.  “The Muppets.”

“Chri—goodness.  I haven’t watched The Muppets since I was a child.”

“It’s the best,” says Rosie emphatically. 

“I always did like Kermit,” Sherlock confides.

They sit in companionable silence for a spell, watching the miserly Scrooge learn about Tiny Tim’s fate.  Rosie goes very still when The Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come arrives, cloak billowing and face in shadow.  Sherlock crooks an eyebrow at her.  “Are you frightened?”

Rosie’s eyes dart from the telly to Sherlock and back, as if making sure the ghost hasn’t escaped from the screen to terrorize her.  “What?”

“Are you afraid?  Of the ghost?”

“No!” Rosie exclaims, affronted.  “I’m not.”

“Of course.”

They lapse into silence again as the film plays on.  Scrooge learns the error of his ways and reforms, claiming the whole of humanity as his family and sharing his wealth with all.  It all strikes Sherlock as very trite and simplistic, but then, he never had much of a head for literature.   John would adore this nonsense. 

And, perhaps because she’s inherited her father’s penchant for romanticism, Rosie pays very close attention to the finale as the credits roll.  Her nose scrunches.  “What does that mean?”

Too late, Sherlock tunes into the song: something about carrying love.  “What?”

“Wait,” Rosie commands, and when the words the love we found pass, she exclaims, “That!”

“Ah.”  Sherlock picks at a nonexistent crumb on the sofa.  He wishes John were here to explain love to Rosie – it’s an untrodden path to him, loose footboards on a fraying rope bridge.  “Well.  I suppose it means love comes from unexpected places.”

Rosie frowns.  “Un-ex…”

“Unexpected,” Sherlock repeats.  “It means… well, it means you didn’t expect it.  You didn’t know it was coming.”

Pensively, Rosie nods.  She says nothing for a few moments, watching the credits scroll past.  Then, just when Sherlock thinks she’s done asking questions, she says, “Do you love Daddy?”

Sherlock stills, the question disarming him as neatly as a riposte.  Raising his gaze from the upholstery, he meets Rosie’s large, blue eyes.  Not a hint of guile lurks in those eyes.  Rosie is occasionally a terror, but she isn’t cruel or manipulative.

“You think you deserve them,” Mary’s voice calls to him from a dank dockside, river water misting the air and night as black as pitch around them.  “You said you would always be there for me, but that isn’t right at all, is it?”

“Yes,” says Sherlock.  His own voice sounds faraway, muffled by the rhythmic churning of the Thames.  “Yes, I do love your father.”

“You don’t want to help me.”  Mary’s eyes, wide in the tepid light of the lampposts.  Even then – thinking herself trapped like a rat, knowing her heartbeats were numbered – Sherlock had seen cruelty in her eyes, a knife-edge keen to cut into every foe.  And Sherlock had become her foe. 

“Do you love me?” asks Rosie.  The question snags at Sherlock’s heart like a hook, at once tender and sharp.  He isn’t Rosie’s father but an outsider, a freak transplanted into her life in place of a mother. 

Before the bullet found its mark:  “You want to replace me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Sherlock sneers.  Hurt flashes through Rosie’s eyes and he adds, “Yes, I do.  Obviously.”

He expects her to be mollified, but Rosie’s frown only deepens.  “Does that mean…”  She trails off, struggling to articulate a concept her mind can barely grasp.  Sherlock has a sense of what she’s trying to say, but he shies away from uttering it.  At last, she sighs, releasing the thought like a trapped bird.  She mutters, “Never mind.”

“I didn’t expect your father,” says Sherlock.

“What?”

“Nothing.  Forget I said it.”

Pursing her lips, Rosie lets the matter drop.  Sherlock, eager to distract her, picks up the remote and changes the channel.  A Doctor Who Christmas special fills the screen. 

“Good Lord,” Sherlock mutters.  “This never ends, does it?”

Outside, the sun vanishes beyond the horizon in a golden nimbus as the sky darkens from deep violet to black.  Exhaustion steals over Rosie slowly; she blinks more and more as her gaze slides in and out of focus.  Her head lists forward until she reaches an invisible precipice and draws back with a start. 

“You should go to bed,” Sherlock advises.

“Don’t wanna,” Rosie grumbles.  “Wanna… I want to wait for Daddy.”

Sherlock harrumphs and turns back to the telly.  He hopes John won’t be cross with him for not putting Rosie to bed.  If John is cross, John might keep the stern doctoring and withhold the gentle touches. 

Minutes later, Rosie falls asleep slumped against Sherlock’s side.  The sleeve of digestives, half-empty, threatens to roll from her inert fingers.  Sherlock extricates it with great care and sets it on the table.  Sitting back, he finds the remote and lowers the volume to a muted hum.  Pictures flash across the screen, but they mean nothing to him – his focus is on the child at his side. 

What is love?  

The thought niggles at him, disconcerting.  If Sherlock had asked himself the same question a decade ago – perhaps even five years ago – he would have scoffed at his own stupidity and fallen back on his usual chemical defect in the losing side reply.  A mantra learned by rote as a child, one that withstood the test of time until… until. 

Sherlock turns, staring blankly at the television, and thinks, What is love?  Is it a desire of hands to hold, of limbs to entwine?  Is it a compulsion to protect and never count the cost?  Is it a constant knife of guilt between the ribs for ripping away something cherished, even by mistake?  Or is it, as Sherlock always maintained, a phenomenon born of hormones and chemicals and the bursts of synapses? 

Perhaps love is all of those things.  If so, Sherlock loves.  Sherlock is in love.

The deduction is not a novel one.  Sherlock has suspected as much for years.  But with the new revelations about John, with the kiss in the stairwell and John surging hard and gasping against him, with John’s teeth at his throat and I want you, new data have come to light.  But the picture is still murky, the mystery unsolved.  Sherlock is in love with John, yes.  Sherlock is incandescently in love with John.

The unanswered question:  Is John in love with Sherlock?

Disquieted, Sherlock sits with Rosie nestled against his side, her warm, steady breathing a soothing contrast to the jangling nerves within him.  He loves John and Rosie.  Before, keeping them had been only a fantasy – an indulgence, an escape, as likely to come true as a paper airplane would be to carry him away. 

Now, though.  Now a chance is in sight.  John wants Sherlock; perhaps he can love him.  If Sherlock sets his feet right, he might navigate the path to earn John’s love. 

If he doesn’t…

Sherlock sits stone-still, heart fluttering in his throat.  He is in love with John.  He is petrified with love for John. 

Chapter Text

When Sherlock floats from the depths of slumber, his first coherent thought is, quite simply:  Warm.

He blinks with heavy, slow lids.  A cocoon of heat encases him, coaxing him back towards sleep like a sigh.  He shifts to make himself more comfortable and feels something slip from his shoulders to puddle in his lap.  A blanket.  Ah, yes – he had fallen asleep sitting on the sofa, Rosie nestled close.  Her absence is a pocket of cold air at his side.

“Watson?” he mumbles. 

“Ssh.”  

John’s voice is a susurrus of breath.  Sherlock lifts his bleary gaze.  The lights are turned down in the sitting room and the telly has been shut off, but a bright beam lances in from the entryway, pooling golden on the floor.  John stands limned by the front door, Rosie cradled against his shoulder.  Her back rises and falls with deep, steady breaths, and her hair fans across her face, mussed with sleep.  Mouthing, be right back, John turns and carries her to the stairwell leading to their room. 

Sherlock, lulled by the warmth, slips back into a doze as silence resumes.  The passage of time unspools into a twisting, tangled yarn, so he cannot tell if it’s seconds or minutes or hours later when he wakes to a hand on his shoulder. 

“Let’s get you to bed,” John says. 

He takes Sherlock’s hands and helps him stand.  The blanket falls to the floor with a whisper.  Feeling shrouded in a dream, Sherlock follows John, fingers entwined, down the corridor to his bedroom.  As they reach the door, John’s footsteps falter for an instant – then he draws Sherlock inside.  At the window, the curtains are drawn back to permit lamplight winking off the snow, all silver and blue.

Letting his hand slip from Sherlock’s, John pulls back the duvet in silent offering.  Something about his movements is… careful, almost reverential, like he is preparing a resting place for a god or a king.  Something cold and remote.

Sherlock doesn’t want to be cold or remote.

“Stay,” he murmurs.

John halts, looks at Sherlock.  The light from outside renders his pale skin icy and blue.  Sherlock’s hands itch to touch, to caress, to seek beyond that cool façade. 

“Sherlock,” John breathes.  “I don’t know if…” 

Sherlock searches for the right thing to say.  The warmth of minutes ago has abandoned him; his hands are shaking. 

He says, “I’m cold.”

The reserve on John’s face slowly melts into understanding.  His mouth softens, and oh, Sherlock wants to kiss that mouth, and half-steeped in dreams as he is, it seems the simplest thing in the world to reach out and draw John to him.  John lifts his chin, lips parting, and Sherlock kisses him with the earnest abandon of a dreamer. 

He’s overeager, and John huffs a laugh, flattening his hands to Sherlock’s chest and pushing him back.  “Wait—wait.  First things first.  How’s your head?”

“Sod my head,” Sherlock mutters, running his hands up John’s neck, twining his fingers in silver-blond hair.  “Kiss me.”

“Ridiculous,” John chuckles, but he obliges, plying Sherlock’s lips with a deft swipe of his tongue and delving in deep.  Sherlock gasps and feels John’s hands on his waist, turning him, walking him backwards.  The edge of his bed meets the backs of his knees and they buckle, bringing him to a seat on the mattress.  John follows until he’s standing between Sherlock’s thighs.  His hands trail across the expanse of Sherlock’s chest, brushing the edges of his dressing gown.

“Sherlock,” John says, a ragged edge to his voice, “do you want…”

Sherlock says nothing, but wraps his hand around John’s elbow and draws him in.  John goes with a little sigh, and with a shuffle, momentarily awkward, he slips laughing into Sherlock’s lap.  Sherlock sets his teeth to John’s throat and feels the jouncing rhythm of that laughter transform into a gasp, and then a groan. 

“God,” John says, strangled, as Sherlock applies himself to his task.  “You—you’re a quick study.”

Sherlock draws back a scant few millimeters, breathing words against his neck:  “I’m a genius.”

“You are,” John agrees.  Sherlock scrapes his teeth against the reddened skin and John shudders.  “Y-you really are.  Jesus.

They say little in the passing minutes, abandoning words for an older language, a language of questing hands and hungry mouths and arching spines.  Sherlock is very nearly overwhelmed by the sheer amount to explore; his mouth moves from the thrum of John’s jugular to taste the hollow of his throat, the edge of his shoulder.  Fingers shaking, John unbuttons his shirt and shrugs it off.  The old wound on his shoulder emerges in a violent sunburst of scar tissue.  Sherlock feathers his fingers over the taut, shining flesh. 

“Amazing,” he murmurs.

John makes a sound of disbelief.  “Right.”

“John.”  The sincerity in his tone banishes John’s self-deprecating grin.  “You are amazing.

A convulsion of something like pain crosses John’s face, gone before Sherlock can study it – and then John is clasping Sherlock’s face and pulling him close to kiss him, hard, on the mouth.  Sherlock falls back, dragging John onto the bed with him.  John breaks the kiss to shift his weight, his cock a hard line in his trousers.  Feeling it skirt his thigh, Sherlock grips John’s hips and they realign, finding a tempo and chasing it, rutting against each other almost fully-clothed. 

“Sherlock,” says John through gritted teeth, “Sherlock, I need—”

“Yes,” Sherlock pants.  “Yes, John…

They pause to dispense with clothing.  Stopping to watch Sherlock wrestle out of his trousers and pants, John hesitates as his eyes skate over the scar in the center of Sherlock’s chest.  “Do you really… maybe we should wait.”

Sherlock stops, cold fear creeping through him.  “Why?”

“Because this—this is all going a bit fast.”

Words climb the back of Sherlock’s throat; he swallows them back, supplants them.  “You said you wanted me.”

“I do, of course I do.”  John looks away from the scar.  “I only—I don’t want to ruin this before.  Before it’s properly begun.”

“John.”  I love you.  “I want you.  Now please, for the love of God, get over here and finish what you started.”

The attempt at levity works; a laugh is startled out of John.  Shaking his head, he crawls across the bed, cock hanging thick and ruddy between his legs.  He loops his forefingers under the waistband of Sherlock’s pants.  “Let me help you with that.”

Sherlock lifts his hips obligingly, wincing as his prick springs free.  It’s almost ridiculous, how eager he is.  But John is nothing like amused.  His eyes are intent as he tosses the pants aside and lowers his body to cover Sherlock’s.  They move together, slipping once more into that rhythm with the ease of breathing. 

“Oh, my God,” John groans.  “God, Sherlock, you’re—amazing, incredible, fuck, fuck—

Panting, Sherlock winds his arms around John, fingers digging into the muscles of his back.  The warmth sparks through his nerves and simmers in his blood, curling low in his pelvis like licks of flame.  He’s tipping over the edge, he realizes with a gut-punch of dismay – and he’s clamping his teeth around a shout as he comes and comes, spurting between them.  John utters a soft oath.  Shadows and silver-blue light conspire to make his eyes as blue as a summer sky, and they watch Sherlock, unblinking and keen. 

“Beautiful,” he rasps as Sherlock comes down, spent and shaking.  Sherlock has scarcely a moment to be self-conscious – too quick, not enough, never enough – before John is thrusting again, grimacing, needing friction. 

“I want you to fuck me,” Sherlock says, startling himself with the sincerity and obscenity of it.  John’s eyes fly wide open and his hips stutter; encouraged, Sherlock lowers his voice to a rumble.  “Fuck me, John.”

“Jesus Christ,” John hisses.  “No, we h-have—we have to wait on that.  Sorry.  Just ended it with Eli—… I need to be tested again.”

“You’re careful,” Sherlock says, already reaching for his bedside table, for the tube in the top drawer.  “You used condoms every time, and I know I’m clean.”

“Sherlock.”  John’s hand comes down on his wrist, stopping its progress.  A shiver runs down Sherlock’s spine at the jarring harshness of being pinned.  John’s expression is regretful but resolved.  “Another time, yeah?”

It’s the simplicity of it that makes Sherlock’s breath catch – the way John says another time like there could be another time, ten other times, a hundred other times.  A sudden surge of affection blooms in his chest, buoying him to even greater heights.  John.

A burst of inspiration:  Sherlock presses his thighs together, still slick with sweat and his own come.  “Like this, then.”

John stares at him in wonderment.  Then, nodding frantically, he shifts and thrusts into the slick, tight space between Sherlock’s thighs with a groan.  Prying one hand away from the bedclothes, John digs his fingers into Sherlock’s hip and fucks him desperately, powerfully, and he’s so glorious that it takes Sherlock a moment to realize he’s coming, shuddering and swearing as he spills between his thighs. 

Shifting onto his side, Sherlock makes room for John to collapse beside him.  Their breathing mingles in the still air.  Sherlock reaches for John, unthinking, and curbs the urge at the last moment – he doesn’t want to seem needy.  But John sees and, brow furrowed, draws Sherlock toward him so they lie chest to chest.  The slowing ba-bump of John’s heartbeat flutters against Sherlock’s, twinning them like the steady ticking of a metronome. 

After several minutes, John makes a half-hearted effort to pull away; Sherlock’s arms tighten around him. 

“Sherlock,” says John, “we need to clean up or this will be a nightmare come morning.”

Grunting, Sherlock disentangles one arm from John and casts about for the nearest article of clothing.  It’s his own button-up, and he gladly sacrifices it for the sake of keeping John in his bed.  With a perfunctory mop-up, he throws the shirt in the general direction of the hamper. 

“I take it that’s going to need dry-cleaning,” John muses.

“Mm.  Of course.” 

He feels John shaking with ill-suppressed laughter.  “Mad, you are.  And brilliant.”

“Stay here tonight.”  The words fly from his mouth entirely without his consent.  Well.  In for a penny, in for a pound.  “You don’t want to disturb Watson.”

John says nothing for a beat.  Then, with a put-upon sigh, he nestles close and rests his face at the crook of Sherlock’s neck.  “Fine, but if you kick me in the night, I will make you regret it.”

A bone-deep lassitude envelops Sherlock, making him too weary to rise to the bait.  With a vague hum, he lets his eyes slip shut.  He feels John relax against him, feels his breathing even out – and then the darkness and warmth carry him into slumber, as gentle and relentless as the rocking of a ship at sea. 

Chapter Text

When Sherlock wakes, he does not open his eyes. 

He won’t allow it – won’t take the risk and find himself alone in his bed, bereft with the understanding that last night was a dream.  A figment concocted by his cruel, brilliant mind.  He wakes with fear crouching over him like a demon perched on his chest, slowly crushing the air from him as it waits for him to open his eyes so it might strike. 

Fortunately, the fear is short-lived.  As Sherlock wakens, he becomes fully aware and berates himself for a fool.  Theorizing without all the data – a monumental mistake.  He opens his eyes.

Pale, gray morning light streams through the window, bathing Sherlock’s bedroom with an ethereal glow.  It slants across his wrist, rendering pale skin as colorless as marble.  He thinks of John’s fingers wrapped around that wrist, pinning it to the bed, and feels a sluggish throb of arousal roll through him. 

He must have shifted in the night, for though John is nowhere to be seen, he is certainly felt – and Sherlock’s cheeks flame as the realization sinks into his addled mind, for he can feel far more than the warm arms encircling his waist, the bare chest pressed to his naked back.  In his sleep, John hums and shifts closer, his warm breath puffing against Sherlock’s ear and his prick jutting in a friendly manner at the small of Sherlock’s back. 

Sherlock doesn’t think – doesn’t let himself think – but obeys pure instinct, biting down on his lower lip and pushing his hips back.  John’s sigh unravels into a sleepy groan and his arms tighten as his own hips bow forward, pressing his cock to the cleft of Sherlock’s arse.  Sherlock fists the fingers of one hand in the bedclothes.  The other hand fumbles downward to grip himself, painfully hard and leaking with excitement.  A soft whine escapes him. 

Instantly John’s hand finds his mouth, clamping his palm over it to stifle the cry.  John’s voice is low and ragged when he says, “Ssh.  Still early.  We don’t want to wake Rosie, do we?”

Biting back a whimper, Sherlock nods.  John’s hand falls away from his mouth and roams down Sherlock’s neck, past his chest, and over his stomach before stopping just shy of his aching prick. 

Sherlock does whimper then, quietly.  John chuckles.  “Think you can manage it?  Keep quiet long enough for me to get you off?”

Clamping his teeth together, Sherlock gives another frantic nod.  John’s hand moves down, curling around Sherlock’s hand curled around his cock.  Sherlock bucks into their joined grip.  He wants to move fast, wants to sprint headlong into this, but John’s hand on his is torturously slow.  As they move together, every passing second threatens to drag a new sound from Sherlock:  a gasp, a cry, a moan, a plea.  But Sherlock is nothing if not stubborn, and with a mighty force of will, he barely makes a sound.

“Have you got lube?” John asks. 

Sherlock nods, pries his hand from the sheets to drag open the drawer on the nightstand.  He hurriedly passes the tube back to John, shivering as he hears the cap click open.  John’s hand leaves his cock and Sherlock all but keens, but it’s back seconds later, slick and cool.  Sherlock is too far-gone to care; he wraps his fingers around John’s and pushes into their joined grip, chasing his release. 

He does cry out, in the end.  Just when he thinks he’s reclaimed control over the transport, Sherlock feels John lose patience as his hand pushes Sherlock’s aside and takes the lead.  Sherlock shudders and presses his closed fist to his mouth, determined to keep silent, but he knows it’s a losing battle.  John works him with sure strokes, thumb darting out to rub the tip of his prick, catching the bead of precome there and spreading it over the sensitive head.  Finally, finally, when Sherlock is drawn as tense as a bowstring, John insinuates his other hand under Sherlock, curving around the cage of his ribs and pinching one of his nipples, hard.  Sherlock comes with a sob, shaking and shaking as his orgasm spins out in waves.

“Gorgeous,” John says, smearing a kiss against Sherlock’s neck.  “God, you’re so beautiful.  I could watch you like that and—and never get tired of it, fuck…

Sherlock throws one arm back, grappling clumsily for John’s hip.  He hisses, “Harder.”

John wraps his hand around Sherlock’s thigh and thrusts urgently.  He’s too eager to bother with finesse and his prick presses between Sherlock’s cheeks, so close but not enough.    

“I can’t wait for you to fuck me,” Sherlock gasps.  A pained sound is punched out of John as he thrusts harder, harder.  “Can’t wait until there’s nothing between us and you—you can fuck me so hard, John, you’re fantastic, and I’ll be sore for days…”

With a muttered curse, John tears his hand away from Sherlock and grips his own cock, hand still slick with lube.  Sherlock can feel him surging into the tunnel of his fist, can feel the tip of his cock nudging at his crack.  John tenses, then convulses, moaning loudly as he comes.  Still clutching his hip, Sherlock closes his eyes and revels in the feeling of being marked by John Watson.

When John finishes, he plasters himself against Sherlock’s back with a spent sigh.  “Jesus Christ.  You’re going to be the death of me.” 

Again, Sherlock feels those small, terrible words clambering on the tip of his tongue.  Swallowing them back, he says, “Well, you’re not to die until I’ve had my fill, John Watson.”

John chuckles weakly against his neck.  “Yeah?  And when d’you think that will be?”

“Never.”  A pang of worry; his answer was meant to be cheeky, not an oath. 

John doesn’t seem to notice.  Kissing Sherlock’s neck, he says, “Right.  I can work with that.”

 

-

 

Later, Sherlock will blame himself.

Later, when the ordeal is over, Sherlock will curse himself for a bloody fool.  A careless, simpering idiot so caught up in having John Watson in his bed that he hadn’t seen the clues, hadn’t anticipated the obvious chain of events about to occur.  Caught up in the rapturous daze of John wanting him—well.  Sherlock’s usually vast foresight shrinks to a pinprick, and so he is caught by surprise when it happens. 

Later that morning – after they’ve washed off the dried sweat and the come, after they’ve brushed their teeth and Sherlock has pressed John to the porcelain lip of the sink to taste the minty grit of toothpaste clinging to John’s mouth – John leaves, pleading work.  Marvelous though he may be, he puts far too much stock in this doctoring lark. 

“Don’t pout,” John says, exasperated but fond.  He and Sherlock stand at the entryway to the flat, John tugging his jacket on while Rosie dawdles upstairs.  “I have got a job, after all.  A job that lets me pay bills and feed my daughter and my—my mad flatmate.”

The descriptor rankles Sherlock; suddenly it seems insufficient.  Masking one kind of displeasure with another, he glowers at John.  “I am a grown man, John.  I do not pout.”

“You do,” John assures him.  “You’re doing it right now.  You get this cute little furrow on your brow—ah, see?  There it is.”

“Ridiculous,” Sherlock grumbles.  He doesn’t know what to make of any part of him being referred to as ‘cute.’

“Think of it this way,” says John, stepping closer and rising onto his toes as if to whisper a secret in Sherlock’s ear.  Despite himself, Sherlock leans forward, curiosity piqued.  John’s breath fans warmly against his ear.  “I have a job so I can afford vital things like condoms, lube… all sorts of fun things.”

“You could also use your position as a doctor to get a quick STI test,” Sherlock says, mimicking the seductive tone.  “And to get the results as soon as possible.  Then we can dispense with your ridiculous safety precautions.”

John draws back with a grimace.  “That… should not be remotely as sexy as you make it sound, you know.”

Sherlock is very nearly affronted.  “I find the prospect of you fucking me without a condom to be very stimulating, John.”

John flushes and ducks his head, pinching the bridge of his nose.  “Oh, God.”

“Daddy, I’m ready,” Rosie announces, clomping down the stairs and looking terribly pleased with herself.  Another one of John’s larks Sherlock can’t condone with a clear conscience assails his eyes:  Rosie has been allowed to choose her own outfit for Honeycomb Primary School’s ‘Holiday Jamboree.’  Consequently, she is dressed in a garish hodgepodge of Christmas patterns on every imaginable shade of red.  It is more than offensive – it is painful to behold.

“You look beautiful, darling,” says John indulgently. 

Rosie lifts her chin with a look of supreme condescension.  “Thank you.”

Her blue gaze swivels to Sherlock and, sensing his input is required, he adds, “You look very… Christmas-y, Watson.  Truly a sight to behold.”

Seeming satisfied with this verdict, Rosie puts on her coat and boots, gathers her bag, and waves goodbye to Sherlock as John leads her out the door.  The look John throws over his shoulder as they walk down the stairs is somehow both roguish and uncomplicatedly content.  The door to 221B snicks shut behind them.

Left to his own devices for the day, Sherlock does something previously unheard of:  he ignores a perfectly good case, his thoughts tangled up in memories of John.  John, eyes clamped shut as they move together with the flawless fulfilment of a violin bow meeting the strings.  John, groaning as his hips drive forward, plunging his cock between Sherlock’s thighs.  John, fingers tweaking Sherlock’s nipple, coaxing the flames curling low in Sherlock’s belly to a roaring conflagration. 

John, John, John.

Later, Sherlock will berate himself for being negligent.  He doesn’t spare so much as a thought for the Father Christmas Killer, for the victims-to-be in the photographs, for the unfortunate Catherine and the harrowing circumstances of her death.  They’ve yet to find her body, but Sherlock would bet a tenner that she’s dead by now – another puppet in Father Christmas’ morbid show.

No, Sherlock doesn’t think of these things.  And for that, he will blame himself.

Because hours later, with the sun long-since sunk in the west and the darkness outside as black as ink, Sherlock is still daydreaming when he hears Mrs. Hudson’s light tread on the stairs.

“Sherlock,” she calls, “there’s a letter for you.”

“Leave it,” Sherlock calls back. 

It’s another hour – an entire, damnable hour – before Sherlock finds the wherewithal to open it.  He can’t say what compels him.  Perhaps it’s the plain, unadorned surface of the envelope, blank but for the name Sherlock Holmes in the center.  Perhaps it’s the oppressive quiet that has descended over the flat.  Baker Street has become many things since John and Rosie moved in to 221B, but quiet is not one of them.  It feels… wrong.  Obscene.

 Whatever the reason, Sherlock slides his finger under the flap of the envelope, tears it open.  Feels his heart stutter as the edge of a photograph is revealed.  With shaking hands, he fumbles the picture out of the envelope.  He feels as though his very blood has turned to ice.

Rosamund Mary Watson scowls petulantly at him from her photograph.  Sherlock turns over the picture and finds a message written on the other side.

‘The game,’ it says, ‘is far from over.’

Chapter Text

Occasionally, when he finds the courage to look back on it, Sherlock wonders if he truly meant to kill Mary or not.

 

-

 

“You want to replace me,” Mary said.

Had he?

 

-

 

The first threat arrived in the form of a letter – simple and nondescript, it fluttered through the mail slot along with the post.  Mary, hardened ex-assassin that she was, had never expected the portent of her doom to come neatly-folded and sealed in an envelope.  With a baby scarcely a year old to care for, she paid attention to little beyond the immediate:  the next feeding, the next nappy, the next short, fitful reprieve. 

(Sherlock could see from the start that marriage and motherhood were not Mary’s callings.  Watching her adapt to it was like watching a wild creature resign itself to the metal trap clamped over its leg.  Sherlock was no hunter, but he had survived his share of scrapes.  He knew the mad, base desperation that takes over when all seems lost.  Mary would lash out – it was only a matter of time.)

It was John who found the letter, sorting through the post when Mary was out for a shift at the clinic.  He had read it, folded it back up, slipped it into its envelope, and tucked it into his jacket pocket.  Then he collected Rosie and went to Baker Street.

To Sherlock.

“She told me she was done,” he said, pacing the sitting room of 221B as if determined to wear a footpath through the carpet.  A baby monitor had been placed on the table under the cow skull, attesting that Rosie still slumbered soundly in her cot upstairs. 

Sherlock stood by the window, staring out onto the bustling street below as his mind whirred.  Where was Mary’s pursuer now – hidden amidst the throng?  Stalking the suburbs for their quarry?  Or were they far away still, content to sow fear until they saw fit to strike?

“She may very well be,” said Sherlock.  “This could be a… colleague from the old days.”

John stopped pacing and looked at Sherlock, eyes hard.  “She said there was no way she could be found.  She said we were safe.  Does Mary seem like the kind of person who underestimates her enemies?”

Sometimes, thought Sherlock, but he held his tongue.  The oval scar at the base of his sternum gave a twinge of pain.  She underestimated me.

“You haven’t spoken to her about this,” he remarked.  “Why not?”

John began pacing again.  It was a few turns of the room before he replied, his tone resolute.  “I don’t trust her.”

Hope fluttered in Sherlock’s breast, traitorous and selfish.  He quashed it with the ease of long practice and repeated, “Why not?”

John uttered a harsh bark of laughter.  “You know damn well why not.”

Sherlock had theories, but he didn’t trust himself to be impartial.  And, seeing that John was in no mood to elaborate, he let the matter drop. 

“In any case,” he said, plucking the opened letter off the tabletop and waving it like a banner, “whoever wrote this is clearly overconfident.  If they had waited, kept the element of surprise, they might have succeeded.  But they’ve made a critical mistake, John – they’ve given us a warning.  And they’ve given me clues.”

They decided – despite John’s reservations – to wait.  Clues Sherlock had, but they were scant at best, and a foe who proclaimed to be Mary’s equal in killing was not to be trifled with.  For her part, Mary did not seem ruffled by the first letter, but Sherlock knew better.  When he and John told her of the danger, a gleam came into her eyes – the look, Sherlock thought, of the wild creature sensing that its trap has loosened.  That escape may be possible. 

They waited as a week passed with no sign of Mary’s pursuer.  Minutes bled into hours and coagulated into days with the ponderous pace of rain rivulets merging on a windowpane.  Sherlock was certain that the enemy would emerge in time, but he grew restless as time drew on and his boldness shaded into uncertainty.  He began jumping at shadows, seeing monsters lying in wait around every corner.

It was worse for Mary.  Her bravado melted away as time wore on – it was almost as if the letter had come from a ghost, a phantasm from her past come to wreak havoc.  Meeting the Watsons daily – though rarely together – painted a telling tale of the toll waiting took on Mary.  First, her smirk vanished.  Her sleep soon followed, leaving bags the color of bruises under her eyes.  Her composure was the last to go. 

“What do you mean, you don’t know?” she snarled, pacing the sitting room of 221B like a prowling tiger.  It struck Sherlock, then, that there were similarities between her and John:  habits, frail but unmistakable, binding them like fraying threads.  The realization made his gut churn. 

“There isn’t much to go off of,” he said coolly.  “Whoever wrote that letter was careful.”

“You were so sure,” Mary sneered.  “Sherlock Holmes, the great detective.  Can’t solve the case of the bloody return address.”

“You haven’t exactly been forthcoming about your side of the story,” Sherlock snapped, bridling at the insult.  “If you told me more about your past, I could—”

“I’m not telling you because I’m hiding something,” Mary said.  “I’m not telling you because I’ve done so much, I honestly can’t imagine who it could be.  There, are you satisfied?  I worked with James-bloody-Moriarty so long and made so many enemies I could write you a list.  It wouldn’t exactly narrow down the search.”

 

-

 

“I wonder who it will be.  I trod on a lot of people to get where I got.  I didn’t care who I left behind broken or… or worse.  I only wanted to get to the top, and now that I’m close…”

“It’s a long way to fall.”

 

-

 

The search, as it happened, would narrow down on its own.  Not three days after their conversation, Mary found a note tucked into Rosie’s carrier, right next to the baby’s sleeping body.   She had stormed into 221B, furious that her pursuer had obliquely threatened Rosie and terrified that she hadn’t spotted it. 

But this time, their quarry had been careless.  A smudge of dirt had been left on the corner of the note, as telling as a signpost:  Here I am!  It was the work of a few hours in Bart’s lab for Sherlock to locate the origin of the dirt – a spit of shoreline in Dagenham near a power station.  Their quarry’s hideout found, Sherlock and John began planning an ambush to apprehend the suspect alive. 

But Mary—Mary. 

Perhaps she wanted to end the threat to herself and Rosie, compelled by a mother’s instincts or sheer possessiveness or both.  Perhaps she saw her pursuer’s brazenness as a slight.  Whatever her reason, she went to Dagenham alone.  Sherlock and John discovered her plans by luck, having decided to return to the house in the suburbs for a moment’s reprieve. 

They found Mary gone, and Rosie wailing piteously in her crib, miserable with neglect.

And Sherlock, watching John gather his infant daughter into his arms, was struck simultaneously by a deduction and a pang of love so keen that the two were instantly, inextricably conjoined. 

He knew, with a sick twist in his gut, where Mary was.  And he knew that he had made a grave mistake.

He also knew that to drag John into the fray would be to endanger both of Rosie’s parents in a single stroke.

“Mary’s pursuer could be in Dagenham,” he said, as they entrusted a squalling Rosie into Mrs. Hudson’s care and bolted down the stairs.  As they waited on the pavement for a cab, he elaborated, “Or they could be on the opposite bank.  There’s a sewage treatment plant, and John, I didn’t realize—”

“It’s fine,” John said, though his face was grim.  “We… we’ll have to split up, track Mary down.  D’you think she’s in Dagenham?  Or did she work it out, too?”

And Sherlock, because he loved John – loved him wholly, selfishly, and fearfully – did something he knew he would regret. 

He lied.

“Mary will have solved it,” he said.  “She’s quite clever – comes with the territory of being a super-agent, I suspect.  She’s at the sewage treatment center.”

“Then you’ll go to Dagenham,” said John.  A cab drew up to the curb and they climbed in, Sherlock barking a terse order to the cabbie.  As the city sped past, John said, “I’m more suited for a fight, after all.  You can check the Dagenham warehouse, make sure it’s clear.  Then meet us later.”

“Right.”  Guilt rose in Sherlock’s throat like bile; he swallowed it back with a grimace.  I’m sorry, John.  “I’ll meet you later.”

 

-

 

“You want to replace me.”

The hiss of the bullet slicing through the slosh and chug of the roiling Thames.  Mary flinching as though struck, then collapsing like a broken doll.  Her wide, unseeing eyes staring at Sherlock as blood trickled down her temple. 

The mist clinging to Sherlock’s clothes and skin, chilling him to the bone. 

 

-

 

John’s face is drawn and pale, his shoulders rising and falling with ill-contained panic as the cab rattles toward Dartford.  His hands are shaking in his lap; Sherlock wants to reach across the seats, to take John’s hands in his, but he quells the urge.  This is his fault.  If he hadn’t let himself lose sight of the case, the Father Christmas Killer wouldn’t have Rosie now. 

As the cab speeds eastward on the A2016, Crossness Sewage Treatment Works looms into view.  Four years ago, Sherlock lured John to that plant under the pretext of saving Mary.  Blindsided by the danger they faced and desperate to keep John out of harm’s way, Sherlock had gone to Dagenham himself, found Mary, and—and failed them both. 

The treatment center drifts out of view as council buildings and high rises cut into its monolithic silhouette, eating it away in pieces.  Then the cab rounds a bend and the center disappears altogether.  Sherlock glances at John, finds John staring back with haunted eyes. 

“Rosie,” he says, strangled. 

Sherlock gives in and covers John’s hands with his own, thumbs kneading over taut knuckles.  He can find nothing to say.  His own fear is cavernous within him, making a morsel of his composure. 

The cab halts outside a second sewage treatment system, this one all but a twin to the first.  The similarities prod at Sherlock like a tongue worrying a loose tooth – the missive in the post, the banks of the Thames, the warehouses. 

This can’t be like last time, he thinks.

Bidding the cabbie to wait and heedless of Lestrade and his officers rushing across the city to help, Sherlock and John race to the treatment plant.  There is a door at the front of the building, hidden under an eave gravid with long, jutting icicles.  The door stands open – they’ve been invited, after all.  Darkness huddles within, shrouding the distant corridors from view.  Sherlock moves toward the door, but John stops him with an outstretched hand.

“Watch out for those,” he says, nodding toward the icicles.  Soft-footed but quick, he steps over the threshold.

And then: a thin cry.

John bolts into the dark corridor with Sherlock at his heels, heart slamming in his chest, an answering scream building in his throat.  Watson, Watson.  Oh, God, I was too late. 

Without a word between them, they sprint through the hall toward the sound – and stop when it falls abruptly silent.  John stands, chest heaving, breath ragged.  A sob wells in his throat and he raises one fist to his mouth, bites down. 

Sherlock can hardly think for his terror, but a part of him takes control – a cold, removed part, forged and honed from years of loneliness.  Setting his hand on John’s arm, he murmurs, “This way.” 

Sherlock leads John down the corridor, ink-dark and bitterly cold.  Concrete walls press in on them, so tight that when they give way, the contrast is startling: they are out in the open, as exposed as prey in an empty field. 

A quavering wail answers their arrival, and Sherlock feels more than sees John tense beside him.  Seconds pass, and his eyes adjust to the gloom.  They are standing in an empty room, wide with a high ceiling.  Everything is the dark gray of granite, and a musty scent is thick in the air, clogging in Sherlock’s lungs like grit.  A pair of figures stand on the far end of the room, one grown and one a child. 

Rosie, and…

“Catherine?” John cries.  “What—what the hell are you—”

By way of response, Catherine cinches her arm tightly around Rosie’s throat, choking off the girl’s cry.  John winces, the fingers of his free hand flexing at his side.  In his other hand, the Sig is held in a white-knuckled grip. 

Sherlock stares at Catherine, dumbfounded.  He’d thought her dead.  He certainly hadn’t thought her a potential suspect in the case.  It makes no sense.  The killer…

“The killer was bigger than you,” he says, fear trembling through his words.  “You can’t…  How…?”

Catherine chuckles, readjusts her hold.  Something metallic glints in her hand, perilously close to Rosie’s throat.  “It was all for you, Sherlock.  All of it.”

Sherlock shakes his head, feeling sick.  “I didn’t want this.”

“It’s okay,” Catherine croons.  Rosie sobs and the knife flashes closer, closer to her cheek.  “Sshh, pet.  Don’t want to cut up your pretty little face.”

“Daddy,” Rosie cries. 

“Let her go,” John snarls. 

“Drop the gun,” says Catherine, sounding bored, “and I might consider it.”

John hesitates, eyes rooted on his daughter.  Seconds pass and, rolling her eyes, Catherine lifts the knife and drags it along Rosie’s cheek.  A fine line of crimson blooms over the skin.  Sherlock’s heart kicks, convulsively, against his ribcage.  The color drains from John’s face and he drops the gun. 

The knife moves away.  “Kick it over there.”

John obeys.  The gun rattles at it skitters across the concrete floor. 

Catherine’s gaze swivels from John to Sherlock.  There is nothing of the friendly, nervous woman in those eyes – flat and blank, they look more like chips of glass than anything alive.

“I knew you were bored,” she says, “and I was the only one who could help you.  Did you like it?  The artistry of it?  Wasn’t it all so delightfully ridiculous?”

“You had an accomplice,” Sherlock says, thinking, frantically, distract her, entertain her.  “Where is he?“

“Clever man,” says Catherine.  Then, raising her voice to a shout:  “You can come out now!”

Sherlock barely has time to react before a massive shape disengages from the shadows and barrels toward them with the relentless, hulking destruction of a runaway train.  John pivots, eyes wide, and the huge figure raises a fist above its head, bringing it down in a hammer strike.  John trips aside, avoiding having his head caved in, but the blow meets his shoulder and knocks him down with a bitten-off cry of pain.  The massive figure looms over him.

“Daddy!” Rosie shrieks. 

“Finish him, Peter!” Catherine barks.

And Sherlock understands, then, far too late: it’s been the pair of them all along, Catherine manipulating her schizophrenic brother, Peter, as deftly as a puppeteer guiding the strings.  Alone, Catherine is too small and weak to have killed Charles Porter and strung up Edmund Brown. 

But Peter is huge, tall and broad with it, corded with muscle and stripped of fat.  Sherlock estimates that the man is several inches taller than himself, and would outweigh him by fifty, perhaps sixty pounds.  A formidable foe, and a man who could easily dispatch of his sister’s chosen victims. 

All of these thoughts flash through Sherlock’s mind in the space of a blink, because he realizes with a jolt that John will be the next victim dispatched.  With an incoherent shout, he rushes at Peter, slamming bodily into the bulky man.  Peter takes a swing at him, but though he is huge, Sherlock is swift, and he ducks under the blow.  Peter raises his other arm, something dark and long clasped in his hand.  Sherlock throws up his wrists at the last moment, crossing them and absorbing the bone-jarring force of the attack.  His training in Baritsu and boxing smoldering through his muscles, Sherlock twists his wrists, disarming Peter and snatching his weapon in a single, fluid motion.  His hands, expecting the wooden grain of a baseball bat, almost slip as they grasp smooth plastic.  He fumbles along the heft, finds a button.  Torchlight blooms in the darkness, sweeping its beam in a spiraling path across the ceiling.

“Sherlock, don’t move!” John bellows, and Sherlock freezes, heedless of Peter’s nearness.  John’s voice is farther away than he guessed – John has crawled away from them in the midst of the fight, reclaimed his gun – and a deafening roar of thunder fills the musty air. 

Icy fear claws at Sherlock as he pivots, mind scrambling to make sense of what has happened.  The beam of the torch cuts a glowing swathe across the ceiling, pooling on the wall near an open window.  And inside that window, clinging to the ceiling, are three long, jagged icicles. 

Many things happen at once.  Rosie stamps on Catherine’s foot and Catherine gasps, more in surprise than pain.  The knife drifts away from Rosie’s face and the girl twists, wriggling free of her captor’s arms.  Rosie bolts out of Catherine’s reach, the knife dragging a deep line across her arm in Catherine’s futile struggle to snatch her back.  Behind Sherlock, Peter howls like a wounded animal, as if sensing what will happen next. 

Far above Catherine, where Sherlock’s torch painted a beacon, one of the icicles – scored by John’s bullet – comes free with a clean, cold snap.

Chapter Text

Rosie sniffles, tears welling in her eyes as John dabs an antiseptic wipe over her cheek. 

“There we are, darling,” he says.  “There we are.  No need to cry, see?”

Releasing her injured arm, Rosie wipes her nose with the back of her hand and swallows back tears.  Voice thick, she mumbles, “Hurts.”

“I know, but you’re doing so well,” says John.  He draws the wipe back, inspecting the cut.  “You were very brave, you know.”

Rosie nods, and Sherlock sees a glimmer of John in the set of her chin, the squaring of her shoulders.  He wants to wrap one arm around John and the other around Rosie, gather them close, keep them safe.  The bustle of Yard officers around them suddenly feels oppressive.  Sherlock wants to get out of this warehouse, to flee the musty air and the mess of Catherine’s impaled corpse.  He wants to go back to Baker Street.

“Oi, Sherlock!”

Lestrade strides out of the milling throng of officers.  A mixture of triumph and sorrow plays across his features as his gaze settles on Sherlock, John, and Rosie. 

“Greg,” says John.

“Look, mate,” Lestrade begins, suddenly contrite, “you’ve got to give a statement, of course, but…”

“I’ve got to take care of my daughter.”  John’s tone brooks no argument.  “Sherlock, too.”

“Right—right.”  Lestrade presses his lips together and ducks his head.  “I can hold off that part of the investigation for a while.  There’s still the brother, after all.”

Sherlock’s hands curl into fists, fingernails biting into his palms. Peter escaped in the chaos following his sister’s death.  Skewered by the fallen icicle, Catherine had died swiftly – a better death than she deserved.  The same courtesy hadn’t been afforded to Theresa Goodwin, crushed to death beneath a pile of coal.  It hadn’t been afforded to Edmund Brown, strung up in a mockery of decorating a Christmas tree. 

Did you appreciate the ‘ridiculous artistry’ of it, Catherine? Sherlock thinks acidly.

Because, really, that John could predict the trajectory of a falling icicle is as ridiculous as it is incredible.  Down to the look of surprise frozen on Catherine’s face in death, it’s purely ridiculous. 

Sherlock’s memories are a tangled welter after the icicle fell:  Rosie, stumbling across the room with tears and blood streaming down her face as John lowered his gun and sprinted toward her; Peter wailing, screaming his sister’s name; Sherlock bolting toward John and Rosie like a man breaking free of a tomb of ice – frozen and then free and frantic, heart thundering as he staggered after John.  He had forgotten Peter.  Of course he had.

And now, Peter is gone.  One half of the Father Christmas Killer still roams free.

Sherlock cannot bring himself to care.  Far from wanting to hunt down Peter, he wants only to return to Baker Street.  Rosie’s brush with death has jarred something loose within him; he needs time to piece himself back together. 

“Sherlock?”  Lestrade’s voice is wary.  “You all right?”

“Fine,” Sherlock says.  “Really, Lestrade, I should think you’ve all the evidence you need by just looking at the crime scene.  Furthermore…”  He draws out the photograph of Rosie, upon which Catherine’s missive is scrawled, and offers it to the Detective Inspector.  “The fingerprints on the lower right corner – you see that ink smudge?  It should at least be a partial match for Catherine’s.”

“Sherlock,” Lestrade begins.

“A fairly elementary analysis of the handwriting on this photograph will show it matches Catherine’s.  Can your lot manage to scrounge up a sample of her handwriting for comparison, or must I gift-wrap that for you, too?”

“Sherlock,” Lestrade says, and there’s a steel edge to his tone that gives Sherlock pause.  “We already checked the CCTV footage outside Honeycomb Primary School.  We verified it was Catherine who took Rosie.  On top of that, we have a relative of Catherine’s willing to testify to her… erratic behavior.”

“A relative?”

“A sister.  One of the teachers, actually.”

“Ms. Helens,” Rosie mumbles.  Sherlock and Lestrade glance at her and she burrows into John’s embrace, hiding her face in the bulk of his jacket.  The name niggles at Sherlock, and then he remembers: light brown hair, thick glasses, guileless eyes.  Rosie’s teacher, Charlotte Helens. 

“Lottie,” he breathes.

“Yeah, her,” says Lestrade.  “’Spect she’ll be helpful tracking down the brother.  But you lot can go.”  He nods meaningfully at Rosie, still hiding in her father’s jacket.  “Get her sorted.”

John musters a weary smile and runs his fingers through Rosie’s silk-fine hair.  “Thanks, Greg.”

“’Course.”  Greg nods at Rosie.  “Good night, Rosie.  You were very brave.”

At that, Rosie pries herself away from her father, face red.  She is all but trembling with exhaustion, but she says, “I know.”

Lestrade chuckles.  “Gets her humility from Sherlock, eh?”

The instant after the words are out, Lestrade stiffens, eyes darting between Sherlock and John.  Then, clearing his throat, he turns and fairly sprints back to the officers working the scene, stammering out orders as he goes.  Sherlock feels as if he’s been knocked over by a wave and dragged into a riptide.  Unmoored. 

He glances at John, catches his eye.  John drops his gaze to the floor.  “Let’s—let’s go,” he mutters. 

Stooping, he lifts Rosie in his arms.  Having inherited little in the way of height from either parent, Rosie is small for her age, and John manages her weight well enough.  She tips half-way into slumber as they leave that dreaded warehouse.  A patrol car waits outside, ready to take them home. 

 

-

 

Rosie is too tired even to wince when John helps her out of her coat and jumper, peeling the sleeve away from her injured arm with extreme care.  The cut on her arm is deeper than that on her face, but after studying it, John promises she won’t need stitches.  He cleans and dresses the wound, then guides Rosie to the loo to help her wash off. 

Sherlock dithers in the sitting room, at once exhausted and possessed by nervous energy.  The image of Catherine pressing the knife to Rosie’s face haunts him, twisting his stomach into knots.  If John’s aim had been even a hair off—if Rosie hadn’t taken the risk and torn free of Catherine’s grip at just the right moment—

Too close, too close.

Sherlock paces the room, restless, the residue of terror clinging like a clammy sweat.  He had thought he’d known terror when he saw John laden with Semtex, John kneeling with the muzzle of a gun pressed to the nape of his neck, John buried in a bonfire as the flames climbed high.  He had thought he had only one chink in his armor, one fatal weakness. 

Wrong.  Wrong wrong wrong—

“Sherlock?”

He startles, pivoting and coming face-to-face with John. 

John’s eyes widen.  “Sherlock, are you okay?”

“I can’t,” Sherlock blurts out.

John stills for the space of a heartbeat, face blank.  Then his lips thin and he furrows his brow.  “You can’t what.”

“I can’t—I was careless.  Distracted.  If I hadn’t lost my focus, Watson wouldn’t have…”

“Sherlock,” John says, reaching between them to grip Sherlock’s shaking hands, “Rosie is fine.  It wasn’t your fault, it—”

“Catherine killed those people because of me,” Sherlock interjects.  “She took Watson because of me.  Tell me, John, if I wasn’t a part of your life, would she have been in danger?”

“Don’t,” John says sharply, and Sherlock shuts his mouth with a click.  John’s expression softens.  Squeezing Sherlock’s hands, he interlaces their fingers, drawing close and lowering his voice.  “Don’t talk like that.  Please.”

“I hurt her,” Sherlock says. 

“That woman hurt her,” John says, his tone like ice.  His fingers curl tightly, almost painfully, around Sherlock’s.  “Not you.  Understand?  Sherlock, you—this is important to me.”

Sherlock looks down at their joined hands.  “Aren’t you worried?  About Watson?”

“Of course I am,” says John.  “But I know you worry about her, too.  You… you love her, and you’ve helped me raise her over the past four years.  You deserve to be a part of your life, if…”  He trails off, suddenly unsure.  “If you want.”

“I want to,” Sherlock says quickly.  He forges on before he can second-guess himself, let fear stifle the words.  “I want to be a part of Watson’s life.”

Yours, too, he thinks. 

A cautious smile breaks over John’s face.  “Good, that’s… good.”

Silence falls over them, but it’s a warm, companionable silence – a new dimension of the space between them, tenuously explored.  Sherlock clings to John’s hands, anchoring himself as his nerves settle.  John understands.

But after a few minutes, he draws back, fingers slipping away from Sherlock’s.  “I’m sorry,” he says, a rueful smile curving his mouth.  “I had something pretty bloody fantastic planned for tonight, but it will have to wait.  I’ve got to look after Rosie.”

Sherlock flushes.  He understands John’s point and agrees, but that doesn’t stop the frustrated pangs of a missed opportunity.  “Right.”

His hands twitch.  Without John’s touch, he feels as though every impulse is short-circuited.  John watches intently, then says, “Would—would you come up, too?  She’s had a shock.  I think seeing both of us will help her rest.”

“Oh,” Sherlock says.  “I—yes, of course.”

He retreats to his bedroom to change into sweatpants, a t-shirt, and a navy-blue dressing gown.  As he emerges into the sitting room, his violin case – resting on the table below the cow skull – catches his eye.  Flipping through sheet music in his Mind Palace, he strides across the room, collects the case, and backtracks to the stairwell. 

“Got something I think will help,” he announces by way of greeting.  From John’s bed, Rosie peeks blearily over the covers.  Her own bed stands vacant on the other side of the room.  Between the two of them, it must be a challenge to walk. 

John notes the violin and smiles.  “Come to play us a song?” 

Sherlock nods with a hum.  “Now, Watson.  What would you like to hear?”

 

-

 

Sherlock finishes the song – something from that film about the girl with the hair – and slips effortlessly into a different vein, adapting Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade: The Young Prince and the Young Princess to the violin as much as he is able.  The song is long but as nimble and graceful as dancers’ feet.  As the final note strums through the air, Sherlock lowers his violin.  Rosie is fast asleep. 

“That was beautiful,” says John quietly.

Sherlock bites his lip.  “Thank you.”

Gingerly, John stands, mattress creaking as his weight leaves.  It’s an old bed – over a decade, at least.  Sherlock knows, from a handful of ill-advised nights after John was married and moved out, that the mattress is lumpy and stiff. 

These thoughts are cast aside as John settles his hands on Sherlock’s waist and draws him down for a chaste, lingering kiss.  It’s a little awkward when Sherlock hastens to lower violin and bow, but John only laughs quietly as he sets them on a chair and returns to the kiss with fervor.  Sherlock flicks his tongue along the seam of John’s lips and John pulls back, wistful.

“Sorry,” he mumbles.  “I’m—I’m exhausted, honestly, and Rosie—”

“I know,” says Sherlock.

“Another time, yeah?  There’s so much I want to…”

“Yes.”  Sherlock can’t believe John actually wants him – that he hasn’t come to his senses and run away screaming.  Sherlock will wait as long as John bids if it means John won’t leave.

“Would you… stay for a minute?  I’d ask you to sleep up here, with us, but the bed is going to be crowded enough.”  He doesn’t even mention Rosie’s spare bed, which is suitable for a five-year-old but absurd for a grown man. 

“Yes, of course.”

Sherlock picks up his violin and bow, tucking them safely into their case while John situates himself beside Rosie on the bed.  Sherlock brings the chair to the bedside, not content but resigned to watch over them – and then John’s hand reaches out, clasps his.  Sherlock feels warmth radiating from the touch down to the tips of his toes.  He smiles, and John smiles back.

They sit like that for a time, holding hands and watching over their sleeping charge, and Sherlock thinks, with a twinge of longing, that he wants this night to simply… pause, so he can preserve and treasure it like a delicate creature in amber.  He wants this night, this moment, to last forever: just him, John, and Rosie, safe and warm with hands clasped at 221B Baker Street.

Chapter Text

Sherlock sips his beer and grimaces, wondering for the umpteenth time if attending the Yard’s holiday party was a mistake.  They should be focusing on the case – on finding Peter Helens and wiping London’s streets free of one more killer. 

But the holiday party is, admittedly, a welcome reprieve.  Low, crimson-tinted lights render he room’s occupants macabre ghosts, dancing and carousing on the improvised dance floor.  They are in one of New Scotland Yard’s office spaces, and desks and tables have been pushed aside to free space for party-goers.  Fairy lights are strung from the ceiling, sprigs of mistletoe hang over every door, and garish Christmas trees stand at every corner like sentinels bearing silent witness to the revelry.  Guests are bedecked in ugly Christmas jumpers that put John’s wardrobe to shame. 

A glance at both the soused party-goers and the refreshments table leads Sherlock to the most obvious deduction he has ever made:  the bulk of the party budget went to drinks.  Bottles crowd the table, making a mockery of the plates of nibbles left almost as an afterthought. 

Standing on the edge of the dance floor, Sherlock studies the dancers.  Anderson is making his limbs and joints robotic, sloppy with drink; Donovan cackles as he topples into her, saved from pitching them both to the floor by the crush of bodies.  On the other side of the crowd, Molly is plastered against Lestrade – with ardor or a need for balance, Sherlock cannot say.  Nearby, Bradstreet twirls Hopkins like a precariously-balanced top. 

Sherlock watches them with a familiar sense of being apart, different – and then a short figure disengages from the crowd, lurching over tripping feet.  John stumbles toward Sherlock, face flushed from dancing and drinking. 

Well, mostly drinking.

“Hello, gorgeous,” John murmurs as he slips close, not quite touching.  The sweep of his hair is mussed; Sherlock’s fingers itch to tidy it, but he doesn’t dare. 

“Hello,” he says, too quietly for anyone else to hear over the din.  “Having fun, are you?”

“Oh, I suppose,” says John.  “Rather be having fun with you, though.”

Something in the inflection of those words – between the cadence of fun and you – sets Sherlock’s heart to pounding and his blood rushing to his groin.  He shifts from foot to foot, wishing for the concealment of his coat.  He isn’t hard, not yet, but if John keeps using that voice, he will be soon.

John notices, of course.  Smirking, he rises on tip-toe and says into Sherlock’s ear, “Do you know how many times we’ve come here and I’ve thought about dragging you into a broom cupboard or an empty office?”

“John,” Sherlock hisses. 

But John is merciless and just shy of drunk, unimpeded by decorum.  “I’d think about getting on my knees for you in the broom cupboard, mostly.  Not a lot of room in there, so your back would be pressed against the shelves while I sucked you off.”

Sherlock tries to admonish him, but the words curdle in his throat.  They hadn’t discussed how they would present themselves at the party, but he had assumed they would act as if nothing changed.  What they have is yet undefined and fragile; it needs time to bud and flourish.  Sherlock fears that revealing it to others will expose it to the elements before it is strong enough to withstand them.

John seems to suffer no such fears.  “If it was an office… I would spread you out on a desk, open you with my fingers, maybe my mouth.  Tease you until you’re sobbing for me to fuck you.  Then I’d have you right there, on that desk, ‘til you came screaming.”

Sherlock opens his mouth, finds it as arid as a desert.  His cock twitches, thickening in his trousers.  He tips back his head for a hefty swig of beer.  Wincing, he rasps, “God, John.”

A mischievous glint flickers in John’s eyes, doused an instant later as a familiar voice encroaches in their space.  “Oi, Sherlock!  John!”

Sherlock smothers a groan as Lestrade staggers toward them, Molly hanging off his arm like a kite in a dying breeze.  His bleary gaze moves between the two of them; Sherlock can practically hear the gears turning in his mind, sticky with the gin and tequila he and Molly have been quaffing for the past hour and a half.  “What’re you two up to, then?”

“Oh, not much,” says John.  “Just talking about how much fun we’re having.”

Lestrade is drunk, but not so much that he doesn’t note the flush that rises to Sherlock’s face.  “Really.”

“’Course,” says John.

“How is the search for Peter Helens going, Detective Inspector?” says Sherlock, desperate to change the subject.

Lestrade purses his lips and looks away.  “Not s’well as it should.  Bloke’s completely dis… disap… gone.”  Pressing his knuckles to his mouth, he utters a nasal giggle.  “Christ, but I’m arseholed.”

“Fitting, considering you are one,” Sherlock says under his breath. 

“What?”

“Nothing.”  Downing the dregs of his beer, Sherlock sets down the bottle.  “John, I believe I require your assistance handling something quite delicate.  If you’ll just—”

John’s hand closes around his upper arm, and, with an excuse any sober man would consider paltry, drags him away from the refreshments table.  Lestrade boos and Molly squeals with laughter as John leads him out of the office space.  The glare of red lights and the sounds of holiday music and merriment fade as they escape. 

They turn a corner and careen into an adjoining corridor, stumbling in their haste.  Doors emblazoned with name plates stand to their left, and John tries the handle of the first, jiggling it with a fruitless clank of the lock.  Swearing under his breath, he pulls Sherlock along to the second. 

“Hurry, John,” Sherlock gasps. 

“I am,” John says, frustrated, as the second door proves impassable.  “Haven’t you got a lock-pick set stowed somewhere on your person?”

“If I’d known you were going to bugger me on an office desk, I would.”

“Shit,” John mutters, face red.  “Well, from now on, keep it on you at all times.  Best to be prepared.”

Sherlock is still digesting that statement, light-headed, when John pulls him to the next door down.  This one, unadorned, yields under John’s hand and he hurries Sherlock inside.  Sherlock glimpses shelves, spray bottles, a mop – and John’s words come back to him, shooting a bolt of lust down his spine to smolder in his belly.  If someone had told him a quarter of an hour ago that he would be sexually aroused at the sight of a broom cupboard, he would have laughed in their face. 

Sherlock laughs now, with a touch of hysteria, as John closes the door behind them.  Darkness strips away sight, but their hands make up for the lack, roving over shoulders and backs and waists as lips meet and tongues delve, frantic and hungry.  Sherlock winces as shelves dig into his shoulder blades and lower back.  “John.”

“Wanted this,” John gasps, pulling away from the kiss, “so much, Sherlock.  This—this is a fucking fantasy, being here with you—”

“Please, John, you said…”

His words are lost in a moan as John drops to his knees and unbuttons Sherlock’s trousers with dexterous fingers.  Gripping one of the shelves behind him, Sherlock shoves his free hand against his mouth, smothering a whimper as John pushes down his trousers and pants.  The first brush of fingers against his cock sets his nerves aflame. 

“Beautiful,” John murmurs, and brackets the stiff jut of Sherlock’s prick with thumb and forefinger.  Eyes adjusting to the gloom, Sherlock glimpses his wicked grin.  “Now, be quiet.  Don’t want us getting caught, do you?”

Sherlock moans into his knuckles as John squeezes the base of his cock, leans in, and laves his tongue over the tip.  Sherlock jumps as if jolted by an electric shock.  It’s so much, too much.

“Please, John,” he begs. 

“Keep still,” John says, voice hard, and oh, that only makes Sherlock’s heart beat faster. His mouth closes over the head of Sherlock’s cock and he sucks, bobbing his head in time with Sherlock’s hitching gasps.  With one hand stroking him and the other reaching around to press bruises into his arse, Sherlock watches, enraptured, as his cock pushes deeper into John’s sweet, soft mouth. 

John twists his wrist and pulls Sherlock in until he swears he can feel his tip brush the back of John’s throat.  The thought startles a keening cry from him.  Still John sucks, bobbing his head, twisting his wrist, kneading Sherlock’s arse.  Sparks dance through Sherlock’s nerves, coalescing in a radiant burst low in his groin, heat and pressure building fast. 

“John,” he croaks, “John, I—”

John pulls back for an instant; before Sherlock can protest, he says, “Fuck my mouth.”

“What?” Sherlock manages, strangled.

“You heard me.  Hard as you can.  I won’t break, I swear.”  His hand leaves Sherlock’s arse to palm his own prick, still clothed but valiantly tenting his trousers.  With a little gasp hissing between his teeth, he says, “Yeah?”

“Y-yes,” Sherlock says. 

John wastes no time, swallowing Sherlock down like a parched man presented with an oasis.  Sherlock’s fingers curl around the shelves behind him, finding leverage.  John’s hand returns to his arse, encouraging him to thrust, and thrust he does.  Little hitching movements of his hips, cautious, but as John moans around his cock, Sherlock grows bolder.  He adds heft and strength to his thrusts, exhilarated as John’s moans grow louder, louder.  The slick whisper of spit-wet lips on flesh winds tightly around the base of Sherlock’s spine.  A spasm, a convulsive kick – and Sherlock comes with a sob, pulsing down John’s throat. John swallows, swallows, and finally pulls away, pressing a kiss to the inside of Sherlock's thigh as he goes. 

“Oh, God,” he whispers as Sherlock shakes and shakes.  “God, that was the fucking hottest thing I’ve ever—you were so loud—”

Sherlock scoops his hands under John’s arms as he stands and drags him into a kiss.  John’s mouth is hot and wet, bitter salt.  Sherlock fumbles at his flies with shaking fingers.  Clumsy but determined, he steals his hand inside, gripping John’s prick.  John jumps with a muttered oath, then cants his hips as Sherlock’s hand makes a tunnel for him, slick with sweat.  It takes only a handful of thrusts for him to come, cursing and shuddering and clinging to Sherlock’s shoulders. 

“God,” John says, rueful, “that didn’t take long at all.”

Sherlock kisses him again, savoring his reddened lips, his bitter taste.  His breathing is ragged when they break apart.  John rests his forehead against Sherlock’s with a long exhalation.

“I’m mad for you, you know,” he says.  “Just so we’re clear.”

Sherlock stares at him, unsure how to interpret this.  Is madness simple wanting, or is it love?

Drawing back, he threads his fingers through John’s hair, tidying the artful sweep:  perfect.  “I’ll have my lock-picks on hand next time.  We can christen Garrett’s desk, if you like.”

John laughs, and kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him. 

Chapter Text

The following day, Mrs. Hudson brings the Father Christmas Killer’s sister to the flat.

“Yoo-hoo!” she calls, tapping on the door and poking her head inside.  Sherlock and John, each seated in their respective chair, look up in unison.  “Boys, you’ve got a visitor.”

“Client?” Sherlock asks.

“Please be a client,” says John under his breath. 

Sherlock shoots him a scowl.  “What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means,” says John, “that you’re wearing me out.”

Sherlock’s scowl darkens into a glare, but John is unfazed.  Nonchalantly, he raises one hand from the perusal of a medical article – Batten disease, irrelevant – and scratches the side of his neck, just above his shirt collar.  A red mark peeks over the crisp, white edge, flowering into what Sherlock hopes will bloom a violent rose and wither damson.  Something flurries in his belly, as delicate and lovely as dragonfly wings.  He feels his glower fade into a small smile.

“John Watson,” says Mrs. Hudson, “whatever could that be?  A bug bite?”

John drops his hand and angles his face away, shrugging to hide the mark.  “No.”

“Are you quite sure?” Mrs. Hudson says, all malicious glee.  “Should I call an exterminator?”

John clears his throat and forces a smile.  “You said we had a visitor?”

“Oh, yes, I almost forgot,” Mrs. Hudson says, lips pulled into a little smirk as she stands aside to allow the visitor entrance.  “I’m sorry, dear, would you come in?”

A young woman walks through the door – a woman with light brown hair, thick glasses, and guileless eyes.  Charlotte Helens.

“I hope you don’t mind,” says Charlotte, “that I came to call.  The Detective Inspector said it would be all right.”

“Ms. Helens,” John says, eyes wide.

“Lottie,” Sherlock says.

A spasm twists Ms. Helens’ mouth, swiftly restrained.  “I… I really don’t care for that pet name, if it’s all the same to you, Mr. Holmes.  Just ‘Ms. Helens’ will suffice, or ‘Charlotte,’ if you like.”

John glances at Sherlock, the question plain on his face.  Sherlock flicks his gaze over Ms. Helens, collecting data, searching for evidence of a threat.  None is forthcoming, but Sherlock does see things he might have noticed before, if he hadn’t been so preoccupied with Rosie and dismissive of everything else. 

Youngest of three children, born a significant time after the elders. 

Currently seeing a therapist to address recurring claustrophobia and depression.

Abusive family history inflicted by the… father?  May require more data. 

“Hello, Ms. Helens,” he says, choosing the formal moniker.  Tension slumps out of Ms. Helens’ shoulders and her expression grows less guarded. 

Meanwhile, John levers himself out of his chair, crosses the room, and picks up the stool standing beside the dining table.  He places it between the two armchairs and regards their guest, wary but polite.  The invitation he issues is more command than question:  “Why don’t you sit.”

Ms. Helens acquiesces, taking off her grey knit hat and placing it in her lap as she does.  Everything about her is designed to be overlooked, Sherlock notes:  the quiet way she holds herself, the grey coat, navy skirt, and penny loafers.  Even the thick-lensed glasses perched on the end of her pert nose resemble a shield, playing to the moronic fable that spectacles conceal beauty.  Everything about this woman is muted, downplayed. 

“You came to tell us about your brother,” Sherlock surmises.

Ms. Helens nods.  “Yes.  I already gave my statement to the Detective Inspector, but he insisted I see you, too.”

“Even Lestrade has his little bursts of brilliance,” says Sherlock.  “Though clearly it ended with recommending my counsel, because he’s failed to find your brother so far.”

Ms. Helens scrutinizes Sherlock like she might a tiger in the zoo – intrigued, but all-too aware of the claws beyond the glass.  “He wanted to know where my brother worked and where he received care.  He had trouble keeping a job, but I told the Detective Inspector the most recent places he’d worked.  And Catherine looks…”  She trails off as her fingers curl tightly in the knit cap.  “…Catherine looked after him.”

“You were estranged from your siblings,” Sherlock says.  He doesn’t feel sorry for Catherine’s death, not in the least.  Not after she threatened Rosie.  “Children of an abusive parent should band together – it helps them cope, gives them an ally.  Why didn’t you?”

Ms. Helens stiffens.  In his peripheral vision, Sherlock sees John tense, jaw clenching as if to bite back a rebuke.  Years’ worth of little deductions flood back to Sherlock like a wave of bile; John’s own family life was tainted by abuse, though he’s never been open about it.  Swallowing past the guilt, Sherlock stares intently at Ms. Helens, awaiting her answer.

“You… you certainly cut to the chase, Mr. Holmes,” she says.  “DI Lestrade didn’t ask about my childhood.”

“Nor would he,” says Sherlock.  “But I am.”

Ms. Helens is silent for a few moments, staring down at her small, clenched fists.  Her fingers loosen around the knit cap and pluck at wayward strands of yarn.  “Catherine was the oldest.  Then there was Peter.  I came ten years later – I was a mistake.  At least, Cathy—Catherine told me that.  She told me that all the time.”

“Your sister was a party to the abuse,” Sherlock realizes, leaning forward and steepling his hands under his chin, elbows on knees.  “That’s why you were estranged.”

“Our father was the start of it,” Ms. Helens says.  “But he had a long time to work on Catherine and Peter.  By the time I came along, he was very ill – too weak to do to me what he’d done to them, but he had… other ways.”

“Emotional abuse.”

She nods.  As she speaks, the reticence clouding her features slowly dissipates, giving way to a kind of robotic aspect that suggests she’s said it before – to her therapist, no doubt.  “He was very intelligent, so he knew to keep a friendly face most of the time.  Outside the house, he was sweet, affable.  Cheeky.  Everyone liked him.  But with us, it was like he removed a mask.  He could say the most cutting, hateful things and make them sound offhand, like all the little hurts didn’t matter.  And… and it wasn’t consistent, either.  For weeks at a time, he would be the man he showed the rest of the world – the good one.  Then, just when we started to hope he’d changed, he would revert back to his old self.  His true self.”  Ms. Helens’ gaze is turned inward, blank.  “I knew that was how he really was, but at the same time, it was like I didn’t know him at all.  Like I was living with a complete stranger.”

John makes a small, pained sound.  Sherlock glances at him and he shakes his head, lips flattened into a hard line.  Sherlock looks back at Ms. Helens.  “Your sister mentioned playing hide-and-seek with your father.  She said you had a playhouse called—”

“The Winter Palace,” Ms. Helens says.  “I remember.”  She shifts in her seat.  “It wasn’t really hide-and-seek.  When they were small, Catherine and Peter would hide out there from Father.  And once… once, when they were out of the house, Father started… saying things.  To me.  Making threats.  Anyway, it was the dead of winter, but I remembered what Catherine said about the Winter Palace, so I went to hide out there.  Father was very ill then – lung cancer, quite advanced – but he managed to follow me out to the playhouse.  He locked me inside.”

“Jesus,” John mutters.

Ms. Helens continues as if she hasn’t heard him.  “He left me there for hours.  It was only when Peter got back from football practice that I got out; he realized I was missing and put two and two together.  He saved me.  I was lucky I didn’t lose any fingers or toes.”

Sherlock remembers lying on the cold, hard floor of the freezer, feeling each sensation ebb as the chill nibbled into flesh and bone.  A phantom shiver skates down his spine.  Had Peter made the connection, watching Sherlock slowly freeze and remembering his young sister?  “Your brother’s condition was less severe, back then.”

“I was about six, then.  Peter’s illness started maybe a year later – when he was getting ready to go to uni.  He started having dreams that people were coming into his room at night, putting masks on his face.”  Lowering her gaze, she shakes her head to uproot the nightmare before it can haunt her, too.  “He’d wanted to get away from Father for years.  Mum was gone, and Catherine… she was just like Father.  I don’t know if she was born that way, or if he twisted her into his likeness.”

“But she eventually assumed care for Peter,” says John.

“Not by his choice,” says Catherine.  “He was managing his illness really well, actually, before she got to him.  I… I don’t know the extent of it, but I’m sure she manipulated him, maybe even took his medications from him.  It wouldn’t have been a leap for her.”  Her jaw sets, and a strident note cuts into the robotic tone.  “The Peter I remember was kind and brave.  It breaks my heart to hear what he’s come to.”

“I’ll find him,” Sherlock says, surprised by the force of his own conviction.  “I’ll see he comes to no harm and has proper care.”

Charlotte Helens stares at him; he can see a quavering hope flicker to life in her eyes, as wispy and frail as a tongue of flame.  She says, “Thank you, Mr. Holmes.”

Before she leaves, Ms. Helens says to John, “And I’m truly sorry for the danger my sister put Rosie in, Dr. Watson.  I should have been more attentive.  Maybe I could have protected her.”

“It’s fine,” says John, a bit gruffly.

“Is she…?”

John musters a grim smile.  “She’s fine.  They’re resilient at that age.”

Later, after Ms. Helens has left, John beckons Sherlock to sit in his armchair.  Scooting his own chair forward several inches, John lays his hands upon Sherlock’s knees, thumbs kneading the knobs of bone.  His gaze is distant, his expression the shadow of a thundercloud.

“That was good of you,” he says.  The words are at odds with his grim tone.  “Really.”

“I’m sorry,” says Sherlock.  “I should have told you—I should have told you a long time ago, but.  I am sorry about Mary.”

John leans forward and brushes a kiss to the corner of Sherlock’s mouth – soft, warm.  Loving.  “I never blamed you for that, and I’m not about to start now.”

“If I’d let you go after her,” Sherlock says, and it’s like a door has opened inside him, giving liberty to the gnawing, ravaging fears, “she might have—”

“I told you, I’m not mourning Mary.  She made her choices,” says John.  “Our marriage… it was a wreck, Sherlock.  Rosie was the only thing we had in common.  We both loved her and we both wanted to protect her at all costs.”

“I did the wrong thing,” Sherlock says, voice thick.  He bends forward and presses his forehead to the crook of John’s neck.  “I took Rosie’s mother from her.”

“Oh, love,” John murmurs.  Sherlock’s heart stammers at the endearment.  John’s hands come to rest on his neck, on his back, so strong and sure.  “Oh, love.”

Chapter Text

 

Sherlock is jolted awake by the realization that he hasn’t bought any Christmas gifts.

This would be a perfectly reasonable arrangement if not for three things.  The first is that, by some wizardly yet unknown to him, he has become John Watson’s lover – and if he wants to remain that way, which he very much does, he needs to start charming John outside the bedroom (or the broom cupboard, if you prefer).  Flowers, chocolates, all that rot.

The second is that, despite himself, Sherlock has grown rather fond of Rosie.  If he gets John a gift, he has to get one for Rosie as well.  It’s only fair.  Children are notoriously obsessed with fairness. 

Lastly, today is Christmas Eve. 

He blusters out of the flat with an excuse about meeting Molly at the morgue.  John, knackered from a day of dealing with influenza patients and their assorted spewings at the clinic, nods with a vague noise of assent and waves Sherlock goodbye.  Huddled deep in his armchair with a mystery novel in hand, cheeks rosy from the warmth eddying from the fireplace and face weary-soft, he presents a tantalizing tableau.  Sherlock is momentarily diverted by the impulse to cross the room, slip slinky and sinuous into John’s lap, and see if he can be more entertaining than Agatha Christie. 

Focus, he tells himself.  Your other charms, remember?

“I’ll-just-be-going-then.”  Garbled in his haste, the words emerge a snarled string.  John looks up from his book, confusion stamped across his face, and Sherlock wheels around and bolts for the stairwell before his grip on self-control slips.

As he barrels through the foyer and toward the door, Sherlock is waylaid by Mrs. Hudson.  “Ooh, Sherlock, dear, could you spare a moment?”

“What,” Sherlock demands. 

Mrs. Hudson merely smiles at his exasperation.  Setting a frail hand on his cheek, she says, “I am so happy for you, you know.  I know you’ve loved him for such a long time.”

“I—I don’t know what you’re on about,” Sherlock stammers. 

Mrs. Hudson’s smile doesn’t waver.  “Oh, Sherlock.  We know each other too well for all that nonsense, don’t we?  You’ve lived here over ten years.  I should think I deserve a little more honesty than that, yes?”

Sherlock’s face flames and he stares at his shoes.  He is surprised to hear himself admit, “I don’t know what we are.  It’s all so…”

Mrs. Hudson tugs him down into an embrace.  Her arms are thin and reedy around him, fragile and so, so strong.  “John will take care of you.”

Sherlock draws back with a jerky nod.  “I… certainly hope so, yes.”

Mrs. Hudson pats his cheek and her smile twists with feigned reproach.  “And please, if you’re going to continue canoodling, try to keep it down.  I am happy for you, my dear, but you can be so loud—”

Sherlock whirls around and flees before she can finish her admonishment, but the sound of her laughter follows him onto the pavement.  He curses the nosiness of landladies the world over and stalks to the curb, arm outstretched to hail a cab. 

 

-

 

Sherlock, having little experience of Christmas shopping, is momentarily at a loss for where to shop, much less what for.  But when the cabbie asks, “Where to?” and pins him with a vacant stare in the rearview mirror, Sherlock names the first place that comes to mind. 

“Oxford Street.”

The cabbie stares at him a moment longer, then sighs and shifts the car into gear.  As brick facades and snow-dusted awnings drift past, a lead weight of apprehension settles over Sherlock.  When did he last shop for Christmas gifts?  Not in years, surely.  Even in the last four years of John and Rosie’s residency at Baker Street, Sherlock has evaded holiday gift-giving, certain that giving John anything would reveal his true feelings. 

Now, though… now John knows, more or less.  Surely gifts are acceptable?

The cab trundles to a halt, pitching Sherlock out of his thoughts and into the mayhem of Oxford Street on Christmas Eve.  He opens the door and steps into clamor and chaos.  Frantic, last-minute shoppers clog the pavement like a writhing current, chattering and shouting and full of holiday madness.  Lights are strung overhead, unlit beneath the midday sun but promising a wondrous show by starlight:  here an umbrella, there an angel, there a cluster of orbs, each a moon in miniature. 

Sherlock stands amidst the tumult, feeling suddenly dizzy.  He pivots, reaching for the cab door – and his fingers close on empty air.  The cab has deserted him. 

A pair of German tourists shoulder past him, tugging Sherlock into the current.  He spins and dives in; best to get this over with, and quickly.  Discomfort prickles at the back of his neck as he squeezes through the throng.  Bodies all around radiate the sweaty stink of close confinement.  Sherlock is no stranger to crowds – he lives in London, after all – but there is a reason he spends exorbitant fees on cabs.

Clenching and unclenching his fists, Sherlock scans the shopfronts.  A square arch looms into view, inside which a familiar brand name is emblazoned in fluorescent cursive.  Sherlock grits his teeth and strides toward it. 

The uproar outside is dampened within, though the tinny throb of musical numbers lends a new flavor of insanity to the atmosphere.  Parents shove past, corralling children and shouting at each other.  Walls and shelves are crammed with dolls, mice in trousers, and mugs.  So many mugs.  Sherlock wanders toward a display adorned with that one character, the annoying snowman.  He snatches a reindeer plush toy off the shelf and makes for the checkout queue.  Hopefully Rosie will be amenable to Sullivan the tiger having an herbivore friend. 

Two hours pass in this fashion:  Sherlock finds a likely shop and fights through the crowds to claim his bounty.  He collects a set of walkie-talkies to go along with the reindeer for Rosie.  For Mrs. Hudson, he finds a fine bone China teapot decorated with violets and hibiscus flowers.  Nosey or not, the woman makes a bloody good cuppa. 

And then, quite unexpectedly, Sherlock’s search for John’s gift casts a wider net than intended.  For Molly, he buys a pink jumper with an embroidered cat on the front.  Lestrade gets a matching jumper with a dog.  In a sweetshop, he finds a box of chocolate and caramel goldfish for Mycroft.  A low blow, perhaps, but it will inform his brother that Sherlock is perfectly aware of the barrister he’s been carrying on with.  Lastly – and only a little grudgingly – he buys mugs for Anderson and Donovan.  Anderson’s is plain on the outside but says ‘You’ve been poisoned’ on the bottom inside.  Donovan’s is covered with cartoon cacti. 

Sherlock, arms shaking with the weight of his burdens, is gobsmacked.  He never expected to have so many friends in need of gifts.  He never expected to have so many friends.

But for all his efforts, he cannot find a gift for John.  Nothing seems to fit – nothing strikes him with the sense of rightness that has accompanied the others.  He peruses shelves of scotch and Irish whisky, staring into amber glasses and finding his own confusion reflected back at him.  He studies Swiss watches and leather shoes and silk ties and knows, with a keen sting of love, that John deserves them all but that none of them are right. 

Finally, while studying the accessories in a high-end clothing shop, Sherlock’s eyes come to rest on a pair of topstitched leather gloves.

John’s voice echoes in his mind like a signal flare of inspiration.  “I wish you would take better care of your hands.”

Hands: a masterpiece of evolution, intricately-wrought and dexterous.  Made to grasp, to hold, to manipulate.  Humankind’s greatest tool, distilled in a delicate framework of muscle and tendon and bone.  Brushing aside physical and emotional boundaries with a touch, fitting two people together with the spaces between fingers. 

John’s hands are so much more.  They are as much of a contradiction as the man himself, blessed with both a doctor’s deftness and a soldier’s strength.  Sherlock looks down at his own hands, eyes tracing the faint scars of chemical burns and countless fights. 

John wants him to take care of his hands.  Very well; he will, provided John does the same.

With the gloves purchased, Sherlock leaves the shop, light-headed with relief.  Good Lord.  That was exhausting

Sherlock is stalking down the street, searching for a cab, when he comes across a familiar shopfront.  Gaudily inscribed with neon-light lettering, the shop stands like a tranquil island amidst the raging sea of people.  Memory niggles at him; he’s been here before.  Ah, yes.  His first visit was for a case, putting together a thoroughly accurate disguise. 

His subsequent visits had been because he liked it. 

Sherlock looks up and down the street before going inside.  He glances up at the sign above the front window and feels a smile quirk his lips.  Bright and incarnadine, the script proclaims: Agent Provocateur. 

If Sherlock is giving gifts, he may as well get something for himself.  And, if his deductions about John are correct, he won’t be the only one to reap the benefits.

Chapter Text

“Wait,” John hisses.  “Wait, Sherlock, I think I hear—”

Sherlock twines his arm around John’s waist, anchoring himself as he digs his heels into the mattress and arches up, against.  John eyes slip closed and his hips cant forward.  Falling back, Sherlock curls two fingers over the waistband of John’s boxers and tugs, eager and insistent. 

God, he wants. 

Then John’s eyes flash open and he pries one hand from the bedclothes to seize Sherlock’s wrist, pin it to the mattress above his head.  Sherlock whines, thwarted, and John tightens his grip.  Pleasure spikes hot and electric down Sherlock’s spine.  He feels a plea build in his chest, climb up his throat – and John kisses him, hard, swallowing the sound. 

“Shut up,” he gasps.  “Just, just shut up for a second, I think I hear—”

Sherlock rolls his eyes, but there is a note of urgency in John’s voice that makes him pause and listen.  And there:  the slap of bare feet descending stairs.  The distant creak of hinges as a door is thrown open and the thunderclap slam as it shuts.  Footsteps again, each louder than the last.  Coming down the corridor.

“Shit,” John mutters, disentangling himself from Sherlock.  “Shit, shit, shit!”

He tries to vault off the bed, but tangles his legs in the duvet and topples to the floor.  The thud and searing curse of his landing are muffled by a thick cushion of polyester.  Sherlock scrambles into a seating position, drags a stray pillow over his lap, and combs his fingers through his wayward curls. 

The door flies open and Rosie rushes inside.  “Sherlock, it’s Chri—Daddy?”

John kicks the duvet away and clambers upright with a wince.  He holds the duvet in front of him:  a censoring screen.  “H-hullo, darling.”

Rosie frowns.  “Did you fall down?”

“I… I did, yes.”

“Are you alright?”

“Yes.”  John makes a show of folding the duvet, careful to keep it strategically-situated.  Sherlock doubts it’s necessary; Rosie has no notion of erections, and even if she did, it would be quite a feat to find John’s after this little debaucle.  Forcing a smile, John says, “Why don’t you go to the sitting room?  We’ll be right out.”

Rosie’s eyes narrow.  “Why are you in Sherlock’s room?”

“He was helping me,” Sherlock cuts in.  He is mightily relieved to hear his voice emerge cool and controlled.

“Helping you how?”

Sherlock rummages through his arsenal for a lie.  “There was something in my bed.”

Rosie’s eyes widen.  “What?”

“Yes, there…”  Sherlock glances at John, glimpses amused mortification beyond a thin veneer of composure.  “I thought there was a snake in my bed.”

“A snake?”  Fear darts across Rosie’s face and she edges back a step.  “Where?”

“No need to fear,” says Sherlock.  “It’s gone now.”

“Where did it go?”

Your father has it, Sherlock thinks.  “I shouted and your father came to help me, but it was only a nightmare.  There is no snake.”

“Rosie,” says John, “why don’t you go to the sitting room?  I think Father Christmas left some gifts in your stocking.”

Rosie’s interest in the snake evaporates and she nods, tossing Sherlock a knowing look and racing back out the door.  Ah, yes, Sherlock recalls.  Sammy, Rosie’s best mate and knowledgeable Jewish girl, has informed her Father Christmas doesn’t exist.

John lowers the folded duvet and claps one hand to his brow.  “Christ.  Thought she was going to get a traumatizing eyeful for a second.”

“She doesn’t know enough to be traumatized,” says Sherlock.  Lifting the pillow, he considers his cock – mostly gone soft, but still… “Come back to bed.”

John turns away from the open door and considers Sherlock.  Pale morning light seeps through the window and leaches away his color, leaving him cool, sharp-edged.  Spectral.  Sherlock wants to draw him back, wants to stoke the fire between them. 

But John only chuckles and tosses the duvet at him.  “Get up, you madman.  Her Majesty will be back in a minute.  She needs an audience to watch her open gifts.”

Sherlock shoves the duvet aside and slumps back in the bed, throwing his arms over his head and tilting his chin just-so.  Trapezius, scalenes, sternocleidomastoid.  All wrapped in creamy, morning-pale skin.  “I think the snake might still be here,” he says.

John chuckles and goes to his bedside, bracing both palms on the bed beside Sherlock.  “No, it’s gone.  Might come back later.”

Sherlock lowers one arm to wind his fingers around John’s wrist.  Brushing his thumb over John’s pulse-point, he says, “I think I can convince it to come back.”

“No.”  A laugh.  “No, you nutter.”

“Please, John.  Put your nightmare snake in me.”

John snorts at that.  Still shaking with laughter, he leans down to kiss the pouting line of Sherlock’s mouth.  “You have no right to make something so ridiculous sound so… so.”

 

-

 

Minutes later, John leads Sherlock down the corridor toward the sitting room.  What little pretense is necessary to fool a five-year-old has been achieved:  Sherlock’s curls are neat, John wears sweatpants over his boxers – conveniently left on the floor during his last sojourn to Sherlock’s room – and if their lips are kiss-reddened, Rosie won’t notice. 

They find her sitting cross-legged on the floor, having taken her stocking from its nail above the fireplace.  The disgorged stocking lays limply at Rosie’s side as she tears open a bag of Maltesers and dumps the candies into her palm. 

“Not too many, mind,” says John.  “You don’t want to make yourself ill.”

Rosie crams the first handful into her mouth and grins, teeth and lips smudged with chocolate.  “Yes, Daddy.”

John says nothing.  After a moment, Rosie sets the Maltesers bag aside, looking chastened.  John smiles.  “Right.  Let’s see to those presents, yeah?”

He passes Rosie to sit in his armchair.  When his back is turned, Sherlock sees the girl throw him a mutinous glare, but it vanishes the moment she glances Sherlock’s way and catches him watching her.  Face scarlet, she darts to the Christmas tree.  A small pile of gifts awaits, each gleaming in shiny wrapping and adorned with crimped ribbons and confetti bows.  She chooses the largest from the pile, painstakingly reads out her name, and looks at John.  “Can I?”

“’Course, darling,” says John.  Rosie sets upon the gift with animal ferocity, tearing away crimped ribbons and confetti bows and gleaming paper.  She squeals as the brand of a toy company peeps through the ripped paper.  A toy castle of some sort.

Rosie bounds to John’s side, plants a sticky, chocolate-smeared kiss on his cheek, and races back to the box.  Sherlock catches John’s eye with an inquisitive look. 

“One of her princesses,” says John.  “I can’t keep them straight.  Anyway, it’s a castle from the film.”

“Ah.”  Sherlock flicks his eyes to Rosie, who is gazing adoringly at the picture on the box, running her hands over towers, ramparts, parapets.  A palace in miniature.  Cold seeps through his veins and he raises his voice, calling, “Watson.  I think you’ll appreciate the gift in gold wrapping – with the red ribbon.  Yes, that one.”

Time drifts past.  Rosie darts to the tree, selects a present to be opened, and shrieks and screeches with endless delight as each one is revealed.  The stuffed reindeer is placed beside the castle, immense beside the little dolls that inhabit it.  The walkie-talkies are crowed over, then crowed into, searing Sherlock’s eardrum as he is made to stand on one end of the room while Rosie, standing on the other end, howls into the receiver. 

“This is Rosie, over!” she bellows.

“Rosie,” John says, waspish, “do not shout in the flat.”

But Rosie is riding some kind of Christmas high, and yells into her walkie talkie: “Daddy is a grump, over!”

“Rosamund Mary.”  This time John’s voice is quiet, but as hard as steel.  Rosie tenses, beset by instinctual fear at the sound of her full name.  “I said no shouting.”

Rosie’s lip wobbles, but before she can work herself into a proper tantrum, the front door creaks open.  Mrs. Hudson bustles in, arms full of new gifts.  Delighted, Rosie runs to her side, hopping up and down and chirping demands. 

“God,” John mutters.  “She can be so maddening.  I know being excited on Christmas is normal, but this…”

Sherlock reaches across the space between them and touches John’s hand.  “You’re a good father to her.”

“What is it?” Rosie demands, bouncing around Mrs. Hudson.  “What is it?  What is it?”

John rises from his chair to help the hapless landlady.  “Sorry, Mrs. Hudson… Why don’t you sit?”

Rosie sets up her castle while the adults open their gifts.  Mrs. Hudson beams at the teapot and giggles when she opens John’s gifts to find a kit of tea caddies.  She kisses each of them on the cheek and pronounces, “You two are nauseating.  Already getting couples’ gifts, bless you.”

Sherlock feels a blush creep up his neck.  Clearing his throat, he stands and strides over to the tree.  He gathers the remaining gifts – one for John, one for himself, and a last one for Rosie – and brings them back to the fireplace.  Wordlessly, he hands John his box and sits.  John quirks a brow and tugs at the ribbon. 

“Oh, Sherlock,” he says.  “They—these are perfect.  Thank you, love.”

Sherlock ducks his head to hide a smile while Mrs. Hudson makes a sound that resembles a shih tzu on helium.  Hands fluttering, she rises and totters from the room.  “I’ll just… make a cuppa.”

“You don’t have to,” John calls after her, but she’s already gone.  Chuckling, he shakes his head and glances at Rosie.  She is completely immersed in what appears to be a reenactment of the Siege of Leningrad.  Furtively, John leans forward and presses a kiss to Sherlock’s cheek.  “Thank you.  It’s a wonderful gift.”

Sherlock unwraps his gift.  Plucking away tissue paper, he beholds a new scarf: imperial purple wool.  The same scarf John had eyed at the Christmas by the River market.  The scarf Sherlock had thought would go to Elise.

“John,” he says.

John smiles.  “Merry Christmas, Sherlock.”

Sherlock shifts in his seat, leans forward – and stops, feeling Rosie’s last gift jostle on his lap.  He stands with an apologetic smile and crosses the room, offering the box to her. 

“You’ve forgotten one, Watson.”

Rosie bolts upright, castle forgotten.  As she reaches for the box, Sherlock draws it back, his expression stern.  “You must be very careful with it.  It’s old and fragile.”

Eyes wide, Rosie takes the box with exaggerated care.  She sits, box on her knees, and opens it with utter reverence.  She startles.  Looks up at Sherlock.  “Is it okay?”

“If you’re careful,” he says.

Rosie reaches into the box and pulls out a violin case.  Her arms tense under the weight, but she sets it down with the utmost care and flips open the clasps.  Her fingers brush over the velvet casing, the delicate scroll.  It’s as if all her excitement has been distilled.  Purified into a moment of wonder.

“You will have to practice if you want to be proficient,” says Sherlock. 

“I will,” says Rosie.

“It will be difficult.”

Rosie’s chest puffs out.  “I can do it.”

“See that you do.”

Later, as Rosie terrorizes her princess castle with a giant stuffed reindeer, John pulls Sherlock into the kitchen.  Mrs. Hudson has since vacated it, leaving steaming cups of tea in her wake. 

John grips the lapels of Sherlock’s dressing gown and drags him into a kiss.  Drawing back, he smiles.  “I feel the same, you know.”

Sherlock blinks.  “About what?”

“You said I was a good father to Rosie,” says John.  “And I… well.  I feel the same about you.”

 

Chapter Text

On the day after Christmas, Sherlock finds the charcoal Merino wool socks askew. 

The rest of his sock index is, of course, immaculate.  It always is.  But the charcoal Merino wool socks are askew.  Sherlock’s heart thumps as the implication of that fact hits him like a slap of cold water. 

His Christmas gifts to himself – purchased at Agent Provocatuer – had been hidden under the sock index.  Every silky, lacy, sheer one. 

Sherlock pushes the tell-tale Merinos aside and a scarlet, scalloped trim of lace peeks through the gap.  He can see from a glance that it has been moved and carefully – but not perfectly – tucked back into place.  Deductions flick through his mind like cards in a shuffling deck:  the socks were tampered with searching for a pair to borrow; still needs to do the wash; saw the… the lingerie, panicked; tried to put everything back in order, but hands were shaking, disturbing the socks. 

Askew.

There is no question of who stumbled upon Sherlock’s secret trove.  Mrs. Hudson knows to stay well away from the sock index.  The last time she invaded with Sherlock’s wardrobe, she blundered into an incubating E. coli culture and ruined his entire experiment.  The row had been catastrophic. 

Rosie can’t even reach the top shelf of Sherlock’s drawer, much less root around for lace knickers.  If she had, she wouldn’t have the sense or skill to conceal it.  She would be parading around the flat with a bloody thong on her head. 

No, John found it.  John found it and left it alone.

Why?

A scenario unspools before him like a film reel:  John, rifling through the index, searching for a suitable pair to borrow – because that is something Sherlock will accommodate, even if the notion of anyone tampering with the dogmatic order of his wardrobe sparks a skitter of nervousness down his spine – and stopping.  Eyes widening as he sees the flash of scarlet, the whorls of lace flowers.  Hooking his index finger around the delicate trim and tugging it out.  Seeing the diamond-shaped slit in the back. 

Here, though – here, Sherlock’s mind draws a blank.  A week ago, he would have envisioned disgust twisting John’s features as he hurled the knickers back in the drawer and slammed it shut.  But the parameters of their relationship have shifted, muddying waters that were once so clear.  Sherlock has begun to wonder if he misunderstood the very foundation they stand upon.

Maybe… maybe John would have never been disgusted.  It certainly wouldn’t be the first time he caught Sherlock off his guard. 

Dazed, Sherlock tucks the knickers back into place.  He tidies the charcoal Merino wool socks and selects the navy Egyptian cotton socks.  It is Saturday, after all. His thoughts drift while his hands take the lead, opening his wardrobe and gathering the Spencer Hart suit jacket, a Dolce & Gabbana shirt.  Plain briefs, the trousers that add a lissome edge to his frame.

Look at me, John.

“Into battle,” he mutters, and leaves his bedroom. 

He finds John in the kitchen, standing over the hob while Rosie tweaks the dials of Sherlock’s microscope at the kitchen table.  John holds a frying pan by the handle and wields a whisk as if to decimate a foe.  The air is thick with the scent of frying eggs and sausage and a medley of sizzling, popping grease. 

“Good morning, Sherlock,” John calls, not taking his eyes off the hob.  “Care for some brekkie?”

His voice is relaxed and affable, completely lacking in guilt.  Sherlock studies him.  It’s difficult to read his expression with his face turned away.  “Yes.”

“Yes…?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes.  “Yes, please.”

John turns away from the hob to glance at Sherlock, one corner of his mouth quirking. “Hear that, Rosie?  If Sherlock uses his manners, so can you.”

Rosie hums vaguely and peers into the microscope.  There’s nothing on the stage, of course, but she seems content to fiddle with the focus and aperture dials. 

“Sherlock will get a lovely surprise later, if he keeps it up,” says John with levity.  “Manners are very important.  Right, Sherlock?”

“Y-yes.”  Sherlock clears his throat and says, “Yes, they certainly are.”

Smiling, John turns back to his task, whisking eggs with a nimble turn of the wrist.  Sherlock searches for hints of guilt, shame, discomfort – the footprint at the crime scene.  There is nothing of the kind.

“Are you just going to stand around watching me?” John says. 

“I had intended to, yes,” says Sherlock.

“Well, don’t.  Make yourself useful and set out some plates, will you?”

Sherlock’s eyes track John as he passes him, opens cupboards, and gathers plates and cutlery.  John keeps his focus on he scrambled eggs, but the smile playing at the corners of his mouth tells Sherlock he knows he’s being watched.  He drops the whisk, picks up a spatula, and ladles portions onto each plate.  The sausages are next, still steaming and dripping with grease.  Lastly, he adds buttered slices of toast to each plate. 

“You’re dressed,” John remarks.

“Obviously, John.  One cannot wander about naked when a child is present.”

Rosie, engrossed in the microscope, pays them no mind.  John raises his eyebrows.  “I mean you’re dressed to go out, you berk.”

His roving gaze gives lie to the exasperation in his tone.  Sherlock fights an impulse to reach for him, to give what is so clearly being appreciated.  They can’t, of course.  They haven’t outright discussed it, but have forged a wordless agreement to keep Rosie in the dark for a while yet.  Affection out in the flat is intimate but chaste and John’s visits to Sherlock’s bedroom are furtive, quick.  Always over too soon. 

“Sherlock?”  John cocks his head, a furrow deepening in his brow.  “You okay?”

“Yes,” Sherlock says.  “I was going to go to the Yard – see if Lestrade has anything new on Peter Helens.  They still haven’t found him.”

“It’s Saturday after Christmas, Sherlock.”

“And?”

“And,” says John, “I would like you to spend it with me.  With us.”  His eyes flick to Rosie, watchful, but she only stares through the eyepiece of the microscope and mumbles to herself. 

“But Peter…”

“Is well in hand.  I know Greg and his lot are leagues behind you, but they aren’t hopeless.  Didn’t they go to the family home, the one with… what did Charlotte call it?  The Winter Palace?”

“Yes.”  It had been the most obvious hideout.  Lestrade had taken his officers to the dilapidated estate in Dover, enlisting the local police, but had found nothing.  According to Lestrade, the famed Winter Palace is now little more than a broken, rotting husk of plywood boards and chipped paint.  If Peter has any pleasant memories of that place, they aren’t enough to persuade him to hide there. 

John sets aside the spatula and turns off the hob.  “There can’t be many more places for him to hide.  Lestrade will find him soon.  And anyway, have there been any more deaths?”

“Not that we know of,” Sherlock concedes. 

“Maybe he isn’t a danger without his sister to manipulate him.”

“Maybe,” Sherlock hedges. 

John’s eyes meet his, shadowed with worry.  “If you think it’s truly necessary, we’ll both of us go.  Mrs. Hudson can look after Rosie.”

“No.”  John’s reasoning is sound; without Catherine’s will to sway him, Peter is likely harmless.  If he does claim a new victim, he won’t have his sister to help him escape.  No, Sherlock doubts Peter is a natural-born killer.  He is a puppet, and now his strings have been cut. 

Besides, the mystery of the askew sock index is too intriguing to ignore.

“Right.”  Plates in hand, John walks out of the kitchen and to the table by the windows.  “You too, Rosie.”

Huffing, Rosie slides down the stool and patters into the sitting room to join her father.  Sherlock follows suit.  The sitting room is a disaster, littered with discarded toys, crushed bows, stray ribbons, and shredded wrapping paper.

“We’ll have to clean up today,” John remarks, in the casual, no-nonsense tone of a man who will abide no indolence.  Sherlock remembers the worth of manners and stuffs a forkful of scrambled eggs into his mouth with a nod. 

Outside, the sun rises in an opal-blue sky.  Sherlock and John finish their breakfast and set to work clearing away the debris of Christmas.  They bin wrapping paper and bows, strip down the tree and fold the stockings.  All the while, Sherlock’s thoughts drift to his sock index, to John rifling through it.  Warmth suffuses him, but there is nothing acrid in it, nothing shameful or afraid. 

Meanwhile, Rosie putters about the flat.  She peers through Sherlock’s microscope, plays with her castle, props one walkie-talkie between Sullivan and the reindeer and babbles into the other.  Later, seated beside the windows with one elbow propped on the table, she lists with heavy eyes. 

“Come on, darling,” says John.  He takes her hand.  “Let’s go upstairs and you can have a kip.”

“Don’t wanna,” Rosie mumbles.  “’M’not a baby.”

“’Course not,” says John.  “Adults like napping too, you know.”

“Really?” 

“Yes.  They absolutely love it.  Now, up you get.”

Rosie totters up the stairs behind John, Sullivan and the reindeer bundled under her arm.  Sherlock fiddles with the ties on a trash bag, cinches them tight.  His spine stiffens at the light but steady sound of John’s feet descending the stairs.  Arms slip around his waist, warm and sure; a chest molds against his back; a breath puffs in his ear. 

“Come with me,” says John.

Sherlock turns, entwines his fingers with John’s.  Follows John through the sitting room, down the corridor, into Sherlock’s bedroom.  The door clicks shut behind them.  John looks at him, and there – the clue Sherlock has been searching for.  A gleam of mischief dances in those deep, blue eyes. 

“Have you solved it?” John asks.  His fingers climb the buttons of Sherlock’s shirt, brush the collar of the suit jacket.  “God, I love you in this.  You know that?  Gorgeous.”

“I… I haven’t.  Solved what?”

John’s answering grin is wicked.  “The sock index.  I know you noticed.  You always do.”

“You saw them,” Sherlock says, a little breathless.  “The…”

“Know you hate me messing with your socks,” John says, and draws him down for a hot, hungry kiss.  His voice is hoarse when they break apart.  “But—God, Sherlock, do you—do you wear them?  Tell me you wear them.”

“I do.”  Sherlock is emboldened.  “I like them.”

“Fuck.”  John pulls him in for another kiss.  Tongues meet, twine, taste.  “I bet you do.  Bet you love that, the feeling of smooth silk cradling your bollocks.  Yeah?”

“Yes,” Sherlock whimpers. 

John shifts from foot to foot, a flush creeping over his face.  “And your cock—your cock is constantly being caressed.  It’s like a hand on you all the time.  It’s maddening…”

And Sherlock realizes what he’s missed.  It’s a bolt of clarity.  It scorches through him. 

“You’re wearing them.”  Because John never fails to surprise Sherlock.  Because Sherlock hadn’t thought to look through the rest of his trove, because he had been afraid. 

He had been such a bloody fool.

“Let me see them,” he gasps, dropping to his knees.  John chuckles and his fingers thread through Sherlock’s curls.  A tug:  an encouragement, a plea. 

“I—I almost felt ridiculous,” he confides.  “Thought I might be getting too—”

“If you say ‘old,’” Sherlock warns, “I won’t lay a finger on you.”

It’s an empty threat, and the worry clouding John’s face dissipates.  He says only, “Hurry.”

 

-

 

 Hours later, the sitting room is immaculate.  Sherlock’s sock index is a disaster.

Lying beside John on the bed, sweaty and panting with the memory of silk under his fingers, Sherlock cannot bring himself to care.    

Chapter Text

 

In the end, it is Rosie who helps Sherlock solve the case.  She may be a child, but she is John’s child.  She is a conductor of light in her own right.

The sun dawns murky and tepid over London two days after Christmas.  Silvery light floods through the window and pools in the sitting room, bathing everything it touches in a pale gleam.  Rosie is on her knees beside the castle.  The light falling over her saps her of color, but not vigor; she chatters and darts about like an exuberant ghost.  She mimes a battle on the ramparts, terrorizing dolls with Sullivan the tiger. 

“’Oh, no!’” she cries in a sham voice.  One doll topples from the castle while the other watches with a melodramatic wail.  A spike of guilt, a phantom fluttering of weightlessness, gravity dragging you downno.  Sherlock takes the memory and buries it down deep.

“Watson,” he says by way of greeting.  He crosses the room and slumps into his armchair with a sigh. 

“Hullo,” says Rosie.  “Wanna play?”

“I think I’ll leave you to it,” says Sherlock.  “I’m certain your father didn’t anticipate you murdering dolls when he bought you that.”

Rosie cocks her head.  “But you and Daddy talk about murder all the time.”

She returns to her game as Sherlock stares, disconcerted.  She is simultaneously too clever for her age and completely oblivious to that fact.  She mimes Sullivan gobbling up the hapless doll while the others retreat behind the walls with tinny screams. 

“’My sister!’” cries one doll.

“’Leave her!’” another – with a deeper voice, presumably male – answers.  “’The monster is coming to get us!’”

Sherlock watches her and a picture coalesces like pieces slotting into a puzzle.  The silver-smoke image of Rosie is transmuted into another child:  a six-year-old Charlotte Helens, hiding from her abusive father in the freezing darkness of the Winter Palace.  An illusion, created and fed by three desperate children who had nothing to protect them but plywood walls and a rotting door.  To them, that pitiful shack was more than a palace: it was a dream.  It was safety. 

Sherlock’s thoughts stall in the space after an indrawn breath.  The picture is complete, and he has taken a step back to view it in full:  the truth.  He understands. 

He knows where Peter Helens is. 

John is out shopping, presumably for tea and lasagna ingredients and condoms and those chocolate biscuits Rosie and Sherlock favor.  Sherlock pulls his mobile phone from his pocket.  Come back to Baker Street.  Now.  SH

John’s response is immediate; he’s in the queue.  Tapping his foot and chewing on his impatience as a woman fumbles with her chip-and-PIN card because he refuses to grapple with the self-checkout machines.  Hang on.  Back soon.

I know where Peter is, Sherlock texts. 

A long pause.  And then his phone chimes with the answer:

On my way.

 

-

 

In the dead of winter, the White Cliffs of Dover are grand and imposing.  An iconic staple of holiday postcards, the cliffs now loom above the strait, their chalky faces crusted with bands of ice.  Footpaths ribbon along the slopes and skirt the cliffs’ edges.  In the distance, the shores of Calais are hidden beyond a thick mist that hunches over slate-gray waters. 

Sherlock shivers in his Belstaff.  The mist is clinging, seeping through clothes and skin to settle in the marrow of his bones.  Ahead, John stands on an overlook, staring past the quiescent port to the distant cliffs.  A salt breeze ruffles his hair.  Sherlock wants, suddenly, for it to be summer:  for it to be a perfect, unlikely day, with the sun blazing overhead and the sky and sea melding into boundless azure.  He wants to walk with John along the cliffs hand-in-hand, stopping to marvel at the hazy, remote shores.  He wants to clamber up steep footpaths and rest beside John on the jutting ridges, laughing because they’re both too old for such stunts.  He wants to be old with John.

“So,” says John, turning to face Sherlock, “you’ve been very mysterious, but it’s time you told me why we’re here.”

“I told you,” Sherlock says, “I know where Peter is.”

“Yes,” says John, “but the Yard already searched the Helens’ family estate.  He wasn’t there.”

Sherlock takes John’s hand and draws him away from the outcropping, back toward the sleepy, snow-dusted town.  “Let me be mysterious a while longer.”

John sighs and rolls his eyes in feigned exasperation.  His gloved fingers squeeze Sherlock’s and they fall into step side-by-side.

They call a cab to take them up the hill, along a winding, tree-enclosed road.  John’s lips thin when Sherlock tells the cabbie their intended location, but he makes no comment.  He only stares out the window and watches skeletal trees drift past.  A hush settles, and though their hands remain linked, Sherlock can feel a chasm yawn wide between them. 

“John,” he says.

John looks at him.  He seems suddenly haggard.  Then his gaze sweeps up, up toward the castle perched atop the hill. 

The cab bypasses the deserted check-in booth and takes them up to a car park at the foot of the castle.  Sherlock, having called Lestrade and the local police, is not surprised to find a retinue of officers awaiting them.  Anticipation is palpable in their ranks and their eyes are alight with the thrill of a hunt.

“I will go up first,” Sherlock says to Lestrade. 

“Now, wait a minute—”

“If we all move in at once, Peter may react… poorly.  He’s a big man and he may be off his meds; if we want to avoid hurting anyone, it would be best to present a peaceful solution before resorting to violence.  Besides, Peter knows me.”

“He tried to drown you,” John says between gritted teeth.

Sherlock shakes his head.  “I was knocked unconscious when I went in the water, but I woke on the banks.  Whether that was Peter’s doing alone or on his sister’s orders, he did save me.”

“Well,” John mutters, “we know your notion of being saved is quite skewed, don’t we?”

The scar at the center of Sherlock’s chest twinges at the slight, but he forges onward.  “You’ll come with me, of course.”

John blinks, surprised at being so willingly recruited.  Sherlock supposes that’s fair; he does have a history of running into danger without backup.  Thinking of Peter’s powerful immensity, of where he is likely to be hiding, he adds, “You will stay out of sight unless Peter puts up a struggle.  Then you can help restrain him.”

Biting the inside of his cheek, John nods.  He doesn’t look pleased with that aspect of the plan, but he knows time is short.  “Right.  Let’s go.”

“We won’t be far behind,” Lestrade says.  “You two can meet Peter alone, but we’ll be close by in case things go tits up.”

“Don’t make a bloody parade of it,” Sherlock says sharply.  “He’s in the Great Tower, if I’m right.  And I’m always right.  He’ll see us coming from a mile off.”

Lestrade scowls and finally concedes, “Fine.  We’ll wait below.  But if one of you gets pitched off the tower, don’t blame me.”

The words reverberate through Sherlock like a rolling wave, pitching him off-balance, unmooring him.  As Lestrade stalks back to the phalanx of officers, Sherlock glances at John – but John is turned away, hands clenched into fists at his sides. 

Oh.

“Come on, John,” he says.  “Let’s solve this.”

John nods mutely, and they set off for the Great Tower.  It’s a long walk from the car park to the curtain walls.  They pass the time in silence, save for the soft crunch of snow underfoot and the whistle of wind careening over the hilltop.  Closed for the season, the castle grounds are eerily still and devoid of life.  Small wonder Peter chose to hide here:  there are no visitors to torment him, no fathers to beat him and scream abuse.  His only company can be that of ghosts – whether they haunt his mind or his past, Sherlock cannot say. 

Both, perhaps.

“So,” John says quietly, “Dover Castle.”

“Yes.”  The Great Tower rears high above them, old and grand.  “The Helens were children when they invented the idea of the Winter Palace – no doubt inspired by the castle that overshadowed their lives.  If Charlotte was correct in assuming that Peter has been off his meds for a long time, it would make sense for him to supplant one castle for another.”

“Amazing,” John murmurs.

“Watson helped me,” Sherlock admits.

John shakes his head.  “Even more amazing, then.”

They arrive at the Great Tower and find a door unbolted – Peter’s doing, no doubt.  A hollow creak precedes them as they cross the threshold and find the nearest flight of stairs.  The stairwells, in typical castle fashion, are tight and spiraling, each step narrow and sloped in the middle from the thousands and thousands of feet that have trod the same path.  Bars of sunlight and icy gasps of wind gutter through arrow slits in the stonework.  A rope slumps along the wall in place of a hand railing.  Their steps fall into a quiet, methodical rhythm as they climb. 

“Sherlock,” John says suddenly, his voice frantic.  “Sherlock, please, you have to be careful.”

Sherlock stops on the steps and turns carefully, gripping John’s hand in his.  “I will.”

“If you—I can’t, I can’t do it again—”

“John.”  Still clutching the rope in one hand, Sherlock bends low and brushes a chill kiss to John’s mouth.  “It’s you and me this time.  From now on, there will always be two of us.”

The terror ebbs from John’s eyes.  He squares his jaw and nods.  They keep climbing.

And then: the walls fall away, revealing the bleak sky and the high scream of wind.  In the distance, the town of Dover and its port look little more than a doll city.  Sherlock holds out a hand, bidding John stop in the doorway.  Then he steps out onto the rooftop.

There is an instant of terror that freezes him to the spot; a memory of a different rooftop, a different man awaiting him.  Gravity’s claws sinking into him as he plummets, arms pinwheeling, pavement rushing up to meet him.  A cold gust of wind slaps him, tossing back his hair, and jolts him back to the present. 

On the opposite corner of the rooftop, Peter Helens is huddled, shivering, in the shadow of a merlon.  For all he is a big man, he seems small now.  Diminished.

“Peter,” Sherlock calls.  He takes a step forward.

Peter raises his face and regards Sherlock with empty eyes.  He wears a coat, hat, and gloves, but the weather has clearly taken its toll on him.  Purple bruises hang below his eyes and his skin is red and raw from the wind and cold.  His cracked lips part and the words shudder out of him:  “I-is he g-gone?”

Sherlock understands.  “Yes.  He’s gone.”

“I’m s-s-safe?”

“Yes.  Lottie is waiting for you.  Come with me; I’ll take you to her.”

Sherlock closes the distance between them in slow, measured steps.  He reaches out a gloved hand and Peter takes it.  Sherlock can feel trembles coursing up the big man’s arm. 

“O-o-okay,” Peter says, and lets himself be led out of the Winter Palace. 

Chapter Text

 

In Sherlock’s humble opinion, Rosie is something of a prodigy among her peers.  Sharp and independent, she is bound to grow into a woman to be reckoned with – a woman who will know what she wants, and who will have few scruples getting it.  Having an adrenaline-addicted doctor for a father, a psychopathic ex-assassin for a mother, and a sociopathic genius for a godfather will do that to you. 

That being said, Rosie is genuinely terrible at the violin.

“I hate this!” she bellows.  After wringing squeaks and squeals from the strings akin to the meticulous butchering of a pig, her shouting is the loveliest sound to grace the flat in half an hour. 

Sherlock, relieved that he had the foresight to take her practice violin, glowers at her.  “Don’t be daft.  You haven’t played long enough to properly hate it.”

“I am not daft!” Rosie snaps.  Her glare is belied by a wobbling lip.

“You’re just beginning, Watson.  That’s why your playing is so awful.  If you practice diligently, I know…”  Sherlock trails off, because the wobbling lip is wobbling even more now.  Tears fill Rosie’s eyes.

“I hate this!” she sobs.  “And I hate you!”

John, reading a medical article at the dining table, looks up sharply.  Reproach hardens his tone like iron.  “Rosamund Mary Watson.  Apologize.”

But Rosie only glares at her father through red-rimmed eyes.  She hurls down the violin bow; it arcs to the floor like a javelin, bouncing off one end and wobbling to a landing.  Blinking back tears, she spins around and races for the stairwell leading to her and John’s room.  Her footsteps fade as she retreats up the stairs, followed by a bang as the door is slammed shut.

John sets down his journal article and pinches the bridge of his nose.  “Jesus Christ.”

“I…”  Sherlock can think of nothing to say.  He is reeling from the unexpected sting of Rosie’s words, carried like a slap.

“I’ll talk to her,” says John.

“I pushed her too hard,” Sherlock blurts out.  “I hurt her feelings.  It’s my—”

“No,” John says, firmly.  “No, she threw a tantrum and that’s not on.  I won’t have her talking to you like that.”

“I was careless,” Sherlock says.  Guilt sours the back of his throat. 

“A little,” John says.  “But there’s a fine line between hurting someone accidentally and intentionally, and she’s gone and vaulted right over it.”  He taps the journal article against the tabletop, neatening the sheaf.  “Don’t take it personally.  She’s just stroppy because she’s been cooped up at home for the past few days and we wouldn’t take her to Dover.”

“Right,” Sherlock says.  He isn’t convinced.

John flashes an apologetic smile before heading toward the stairwell.  As the sounds of his footsteps retreat, Sherlock bends to pick up the discarded bow.  Though it is only a practice instrument – not really valuable, not by a long shot – something in Sherlock’s chest hurts when he finds a hairline crack spidering through the wooden grain near the tip.  He drifts toward the dining table, sets down the bow, and sits in John’s vacated chair. 

His thoughts drift, too – a dense, amorphous fog that wearies the mind and threatens to congeal into a dark mood.  He can feel it seeping at the corners of his subconscious, ready to submerge him in its black, oily depths.  The conclusion of the Father Christmas Killer case was less satisfying than he had hoped.  The usual high of solving a case is absent, and despondency is creeping forth to fill the hollow. 

Peter Helens awaits his trial in police custody.  With Charlotte’s help, Sherlock is certain he will return to a proper treatment regimen.  He will have a measure of clarity, if not freedom.  Lestrade speculated that Peter’s lawyers may claim he was insane or had diminished responsibility at the time of the murders, so his verdict may hang on a jury’s sympathy. None of that matters.  Even in the best-case scenario, it’s not as if Peter can return to any semblance of normalcy.  He will always be the puppet who murdered on his sister’s behalf.

“Sherlock?”

He looks up, realizing, with the action, that he had braced his elbows on the table and rested his face in his hands.  John stands beside him.  “You okay?”

“Yes,” Sherlock says.  “I was only thinking about…”

John takes the seat across from him and rests his own elbows on the table, mirroring Sherlock’s posture.  “You can’t fix everything, you know.”

“I know.”  John’s tone is all kindness and understanding, but it rankles nonetheless.  So few times before has he felt powerless in the aftermath of a case. 

“You did a good thing for Peter,” says John.  “Sometimes that’s all you can do.”

“Yes, thank you,” Sherlock snaps.  “That’s all very illuminating.”

John looks at him.  Feeling his anger crumble into shame, Sherlock drops his eyes to the tabletop.  “I’m… sorry.”

“S’fine.  I understand,” John says.  He reaches across the table and curls his fingers around the knob of Sherlock’s elbow.  “I talked to Rosie.  She’ll be in a mood for a while longer, but she will apologize later.”  Then, gently, “She doesn’t hate you.”

Sherlock drops one hand to clasp John’s.  “Thank you.”

 

-

 

Later that evening – while John is making lasagna in the kitchen and Sherlock is standing by the sitting room window, plucking notes from his violin and stringing them in the air like so many fairy lights – Rosie emerges from her bedroom.  She skulks down the stairs and peers through the doorway, eyes darting like a wary rabbit’s.  She sees Sherlock, sees that he sees her.  Drawing up to her unimpressive height, she marches into the room.

“Sorry,” she says.

Something in her air of soldierly resolution charms Sherlock – it is so very much like John’s.  He fights back a smile and nods gravely.  “Don’t bother.”

Deflating with relief, Rosie darts forward, flings her arms around his legs in an approximation of a hug, and darts away before Sherlock can process what has just occurred.  He blinks several times and watches her settle beside her castle, rummaging through the miniature rooms for their inhabitants.  Sullivan the tiger sits at her side, ever-vigilant. 

Sherlock senses he is being watched.  He turns to find John in the kitchen doorway, leaning against the frame with arms crossed.  He catches Sherlock’s eye and smiles, then calls, “Right, it’s time for dinner.  Come on.”

They sit at the kitchen table, Sherlock having cleared away his microscope and sterilized the area with bleach and ethanol.  This is another one of John’s notions – that they get into the practice of eating “a proper dinner” together when he has the wherewithal to cook.  This is more often than it used to be.  Another side-effect of being a single parent, no doubt. 

Sherlock isn’t complaining.  Over the last few years, his bare-bones diet has reshaped under John’s watchful eye, gained heft and softness.  It doesn’t help that John knows about Sherlock’s secret sweet tooth, and keeps the pantry stocked with biscuits. 

Sherlock cuts off a morsel of lasagna with the side of his fork and brings it to his lips.  Delicious, if sparing – more parmesan and less mozzarella and ricotta, for Sherlock’s benefit.

“Don’t just play with it, Rosie,” says John. 

Rosie pushes a tomato gobbet around her plate with one hand and hugs Sullivan to her side with the other.  Her expression is petulant, and John’s eyes narrow.  “Eat your dinner, or there will be no more toys at the table.” 

Rosie’s eyes widen and she spears the tomato on her fork for a hasty bite.  She swallows and glances at Sherlock.  A question flits into her eyes, driving away the portents of another tantrum.  “Sherlock?”

“Yes, Watson?”

“I got loads of toys for Christmas.”

“Yes,” Sherlock says.  “I did notice.”

Rosie cocks her head.  “How come grown-ups don’t get toys?”

And – because Sherlock is a frank man by nature, because he despises treating children like idiots, and maybe because John made lasagna and John chose low-lactose cheeses without asking, for Sherlock’s benefit, and that makes Sherlock insidiously, deliriously happy – Sherlock slips up and says, “I have toys.”

And freezes.  A clatter:  John has dropped his fork, and the ring of metal on ceramic is jarring in the still air of the kitchen.  He retrieves the cutlery with a shaking hand.  His eyes are wide.

“Really?” Rosie asks.  “You’ve got toys?”

It’s too late for Sherlock to backpedal, so he decides to lie—until he glances at John again.  A blush is creeping over John’s face, and the look in his eyes has shifted from mortification to… something else.  Something like hunger.

“I do,” says Sherlock.

“What kind?”

“Grown-up toys.” 

Rosie leans forward, her meal forgotten.  “Can I play with them?”

John coughs explosively, punches the center of his chest.  Sherlock uses all of his not-inconsiderable willpower to maintain a mask of composure.  “Certainly not.  They’re grown-up toys.  Terribly boring.  You’d hate them.”

Rosie looks at him mistrustfully.  “I would?”

“Of course.”  Sherlock flicks his gaze to John.  The doctor is staring at him, mouth ajar, knuckles white around his fork.  Warming to the challenge, Sherlock continues.  “Adult games are infinitely more complex and… rigorous than children’s.  I myself often find them very hard to grasp.”  The emphasis he places on the last four words is delicate, but judging from John’s face, it has not gone unnoticed. 

“Oh,” says Rosie in a tone of feigned understanding.  “Well, that’s all right, then.”

“Hmm.”  Sherlock stabs another noodle, chews, and licks tomato paste from the pad of his thumb with a lascivious side-eye at John.  John looks like he’s about to burst into laughter or spontaneously combust.  It could go either way.  “It is rather a… deep subject, to be sure.  Very difficult to penetrate.”

“Not that difficult,” says John under his breath. 

Sherlock smirks at him.  “Not for a skilled sportsman, no.”

“Athleticism does help,” says John.  “Good equipment, too.”

“Yes, of course.”  Sherlock lifts his glass of water and drains it in a few heavy gulps.  He is suddenly parched.  “Only the best tool will do.”

They stare at each other, unable to tear their gazes away.  Silence settles over the table, heady and thick – and then the pair dissolves into a wheezing, helpless bout of laughter.  Rosie’s stare swivels between her father and godfather, utterly perplexed.

 

-

 

Hours later – after an interminable wait for Rosie to tire, to fall asleep – John comes into the sitting room.  His eyes meet Sherlock’s and he stalks across the room to catch Sherlock up in his arms, pull him down into a crashing, searing kiss.  Sherlock is light-headed when they break apart. 

“You madman,” John says.  “Do you really—?”

Sherlock attempts to give him a flat look, though he suspects the effect is ruined by the grin stretching his mouth.  “John.  I own several pairs of high-end knickers.  Do you really think I wouldn’t own sex toys?”

John kisses him again, warm puffs of laughter mingling in their shared breath.  “Fucking hell, Sherlock.  Hearing that posh mouth of yours say things like that…”

“I can say filthier things,” Sherlock says, lowering his voice to a feline rumble.  John’s hands find his waist, snake around to the small of his back, the curve of his arse.  “I can say anything you like.”

“I like,” John says, “this.”

And he squeezes Sherlock, startling a gasp out of him and gasping in turn as their hips slot together, hardening pricks rubbing and rutting through layers of clothes.  Sherlock’s gasp unfurls into a low chuckle; it’s infectious, and soon John is laughing, too, and they’re giggling and covering each other’s mouths with warm palms and warmer kisses.

“We can’t giggle,” John admonishes, “we’re in our sitting room.”

The joke snags on a fantasy Sherlock has long held, but rarely indulged; it had always felt too familiar, the clinging remnants of a lovely dream, leaving him bereft when he came fully awake.  But John is real and John is holding him and giggling with him and kissing him, and so Sherlock grips John’s shoulders and steers him backward toward their armchairs.  John’s knees buckle as they meet his chair.  He falls into it with a little oomph of surprise. 

“Sherlock?”

Sherlock kneels before John, between his spread thighs.  “John.”

“Oh, Christ, Sherlock…”

The denim of John’s jeans is rough against Sherlock’s hands as they run over his knees, up his thighs.  He can feel the muscles of John’s legs tense as he splays his fingers over the jut of his cock, toying with his zip.  The staccato of John’s hitched breaths forms an intoxicating rhythm.  “Yes?”

“O-only if you want,” John says, hips stuttering, pressing his cock against Sherlock’s palm. 

“I do,” says Sherlock.  “I want very much.”

“Oh.”  John’s voice is strained.  “Well.  Off you go, then.”

Sherlock’s fingers are swift and nimble, tugging down John’s zipper and undoing the button.  With a bit of a shuffle and a wince from John, they pull down trousers and pants far enough to free his prick.  It bobs, ruddy and thick, and Sherlock presses his nose to the coarse hair at the base, inhaling the scent of sweat and musk and John.

“Sherlock,” John rasps.  “Sherlock, please—”

Sherlock licks his lips and takes the tip of John’s cock in his mouth, feeling it brush his soft palate and nudge the back of his throat.  He covers what he cannot take with his hand.  John’s fingers twine through his hair, not pulling but firm.  Mooring.

Sherlock bobs his head in time with his strokes, memorizing every taste and twitch and texture, greedy for more.  Above him, John is trying to keep quiet, but his reticence only encourages Sherlock to wring out every stifled gasp and whimper and moan.  He reaches with his free hand to fondle John’s bollocks as he tightens and speeds his strokes.  He draws back, licks spit-slick lips, and looks his fill.  John is slumped in his chair, head thrown back, lower lip caught between his teeth.  His face is scarlet from the muggy heat of the fireplace and the fire they’ve kindled between them. 

“John,” says Sherlock.

John opens his eyes with an expression almost like pain.  “Yes?”

“Pull my hair.”

“Oh.”  John’s fingers tighten in Sherlock’s curls, sending pain skittering along his scalp.  Arousal pulses thick and syrupy in Sherlock’s veins.  Leaning forward, he swallows down John’s cock, choking off a groan as John pulls his hair, sharp and painful with his own desperation.  His hips twitch, a restrained thrust, a moan: and then John is coming, pulsing and bitter, filling Sherlock’s mouth.  Sherlock swallows, swallows again.  When John’s bitten-off cries have ceased, Sherlock lets his prick slip from his lips.  He kisses the inside of John’s thigh.  John’s fingertips glide over his scalp, sparking nerves in their wake. 

“You, now,” John says hoarsely.  Sherlock stumbles upright on shaking knees, folds himself lithe and pliant into John’s lap.  John kisses him as one hand finds the small of his back and another tugs loose the drawstring of his sweatpants.  Sherlock clings to John’s shoulders as John works his flagging erection to full hardness and the hand on his back wanders low, one finger dipping between his crack to circle the ring of muscle there.  Smiling against Sherlock’s mouth, John twists his wrist and presses the tip of his finger to Sherlock’s hole, not in but there, and a sob is startled out of Sherlock as he comes, shuddering, over John’s fist. 

John shakes with suppressed mirth as he wipes his palm on Sherlock’s sweatpants; Sherlock can’t find it in himself to be annoyed.  “Got a little loud there, love.”

Sherlock frowns.  “I was not.” 

“You were,” John says.  “Only a little.  Don’t think it woke Rosie, so…”

“Sleep in my room tonight,” says Sherlock.  John blinks at the non-sequitur.  Uncertainty clots in Sherlock’s chest, but he forges onward.  “Your mattress is ancient; you’ve been having trouble sleeping on it for the last year, at least.  Honestly, John, you really should sleep in my bed every night.”

John blinks again, and Sherlock wonders if he’s gone too far.  But John only smiles, smiles like sunlight, and nods.  “Right.  That’s—right.  I don’t mind.”

They retreat to Sherlock’s room to settle in for the night.  As Sherlock turns, delighting in the warm press of John snugged up behind him, realization strikes.  “You let me—you finished in my—”

“Ah.”  To his credit, John only sounds a bit sheepish.  “Got my test results back, yeah.  All clear.”

“Obviously,” says Sherlock.  “Well, that’s good.  Now you can fuck me without a condom.”

“God, Sherlock.”

“John, it’s become clear to me that your priorities need to be altered.  You could have fucked me tonight.”  A thought occurs to him.  “You still could.”

“Er, no.  Not tonight.”  Affronted, Sherlock twists around to scowl at John.  John’s face is doing something that looks like a peculiar hybrid between a smile and a grimace.  “Not after you’ve had lasagna.  You know how your tum gets.  Probably shouldn’t try anything adventurous until you’re a little less… dyspeptic.”

Groaning, Sherlock turns back around and clamps his eyes shut.  “Well, I won’t be trying anything else tonight.  Not after you’ve thoroughly murdered my libido.”

John laughs and presses a kiss to the nape of Sherlock’s neck.  “Good night, Sherlock.”

Chapter Text

 

It starts as simple boredom. 

Few things fail to bore Sherlock, given time and repetition.  Boredom is anathema.  It drives him to stalk serial killers and shoot walls as his mind judders and splinters apart like an intricate clockwork with a pebble caught in the gears.  A stoppered cannon with a lit fuse and a belly full of ammunition.  A sparker failing to ignite as propane billows from the canister. 

Boredom is a destructive experience for Sherlock.  His stagnating mind seeks out the greatest danger, determined to spark back to incendiary life. 

Boredom is terrible in its own right, but it has nothing on the black moods.  If boredom is rending, the black moods are suffocating.  Smothering.  A thick mist settling over him, congealing into a heavy, viscous blanket.  It steals through his pores, through mouth, nose, eyes, ears.  It worms into his brain with deadening black bile.  It clots every sense, rendering him deaf and dumb.  It changes the landscape of his vision into a gray waste. 

Sometimes I don’t talk for days on end.  Would that bother you?

 

-

 

This is how it happens:  the dark moods creep over him, masquerading as boredom.  With the Father Christmas Killer case concluded and the days lingering in a state of post-holiday suspension, indolent and slow, it is easy to dismiss the first numbing wave as ennui.  By the time Sherlock recognizes the signs of a black mood, it’s too far advanced to do anything but wait out the storm. 

On the day Rosie proclaimed her hatred for the violin and Sherlock, he knew his symptoms could no longer be chalked up to boredom.  John had unwittingly helped him stave off the first assault of the black mood, but even he could not keep it at bay indefinitely. 

The day after, Sherlock wakes with John pressed to his back.  The black mood has settled, stretched languorously on a settee in his Mind Palace, and decided it’s quite comfortable here, thank you very much.  His hands are splayed before him.  He stares at the upturned crescents of his fingertips, pale in the dark. 

John shifts against him.  “Mm.  Morning.”  He smears a lazy, openmouthed kiss to Sherlock’s shoulder, where one scar tapers into a sliver.  He is warm and sleep-soft against Sherlock, flush skin-to-skin.  “You ‘wake?”

Sherlock nods.

John snakes one arm around him and rests his palm over Sherlock’s heart.  “Hmm.  Wish we could do a lie-in.  Got to be at the clinic today.”

But for the deadening weight of the black mood wrapping around him like a second skin, Sherlock might have coaxed John to stay.  Call in sick to the clinic.  Call Mrs. Hudson to collect Rosie.  Steal a precious handful of hours to explore each other, languid and longing, as the pallid sun climbs over the horizon and scales the sky.  Leave the bed only if absolutely necessary – food and the loo, and maybe a few cups of tea, sweet and milky on their tongues. 

Sherlock wants all those things, but suddenly they seem so distant.  And he is so tired. 

 “Rosie is going to be with Samantha’s family today,” says John.  “Sleep-over.”

Sherlock makes a questioning sound – not a proper word, but clear enough.

“Yeah.”  John’s mouth moves back to Sherlock’s shoulder.  The brush of his lips should make Sherlock shiver.  It should short-circuit the damaged nerves under the puckered scar tissue, spark a tremble down his spine. 

Sherlock scarcely reacts – his senses are swaddled in steel wool.  Everything is muffled and chafed.  He remembers the night John saw his bare shoulder.  How he stared. 

They lie in the quiet morning for a few more minutes, their twinned breathing the only sound in the room.  Soon the city will wake and the teeming bustle of humanity will swell to a roar.  Sherlock wants to huddle under the blankets.  Make a den for himself to wait out the relentless parade of noise and people and life outside. 

He closes his eyes.  Breathe.

Eventually, John climbs out of bed.  “If I make breakfast, will you eat?  I’d like for you to eat something.”

Sherlock nods.

John makes eggy bread.  Sherlock, still cloistered in his bedroom, can smell the faint sulfur stink as eggs fry on the hob.  The smell swirls into grease and char, designed to tug at even the most recalcitrant appetite.  Sherlock tugs the duvet over his head and breathes in the musty air underneath. 

“Sherlock?”  John’s voice at the door.  Sherlock draws down the duvet and peers at him.  John is dressed for work.  “I’ve got to go.  I left some eggy bread on the table for you – try to eat before it gets cold, yeah?”

Sherlock nods.  John’s brow furrows, worry shadowing his gaze.  “You okay?”

Another nod.  Sherlock tries to muster a soothing word, but his throat is sandpaper, his tongue leather. 

John cocks his head and studies him for a moment.  Then, chewing on his lip, he says, “I’ve really got to go.  Don’t while away the whole day in bed, all right?  Not without me.”  A cheeky smirk.  Sherlock utters a breathy chuckle, and John appears relieved.  With a parting smile, he turns, closing the door behind him.  His footsteps fade into the distance, heralding his call to Rosie.  A scuffle of coats being zipped and boots being laced. 

Silence. 

Sherlock slips into a doze.  When he wakes, the sun is high in the sky, its glow murky beyond a veil of grey cloud cover.  He gets out of bed and pads into the kitchen.  The plate of eggy bread sits beside his microscope, accompanied by a glass of water and a bottle of syrup. 

Numbly, Sherlock carries the glass to the sink and pours its contents down the drain.  He puts the bottle of syrup back in the cupboard – a feat John would be amazed to witness, no doubt.  Then he carries the eggy bread to the bin, steps on the latch to pop open the lid, and tips the plate.  Watches the cold food unfasten and slide off to join the rubbish.

The next few hours are spent in a fog:  for all he is fully aware of his surroundings, Sherlock can’t shake the sense that he is wandering about without aim or meaning.  He studies a new set of slides from the morgue, but his mind won’t latch onto the images, won’t process data.  He abandons his experiments to pluck at his violin, but the music won’t come.  His arms are leaden.  His fingers are clumsy.  Placing the violin back in its case, he considers checking his email or John’s blog.  Perhaps there is a new case.

Too tired.  The thought emerges from the black mood like a whisper.  Too tired.

Sherlock goes back to bed.

He is pulled from the muddle between sleep and waking by the sound of the front door opening.  John’s voice rushes in to fill the space.  “Sherlock?  You in here?”

A thought pierces the black mood like an icy spear.  John is not prepared to deal with this, not in the new roles they’ve assumed.  Not on a romantic level.  As a platonic flatmate, John might hover on the periphery if he or Mycroft deemed it a danger night.  But on the whole, he avoided Sherlock when the black moods had him.  Perfectly understandable: at such times, Sherlock is churlish and uncommunicative at best.  At worst…

Sherlock recoils from the thought, but the conclusion is cold crystal, searing past his numbed senses.  John needs to see the best of me.  He deserves that.

If John has to deal with Sherlock in this state, their new relationship – tender, fragile still – will be blasted in the bud.  Sherlock creaks into motion.  Drags himself upright.  Swings his legs over the side of the bed.  The floor is cold beneath his bare feet.

The door opens and John steps across the threshold.  As his eyes alight on Sherlock, the bemused smile playing about his lips falls as though cut off.  Worry shadows his face.  He crosses the room and lays a hand on the bedclothes, fingers barely brushing Sherlock’s. 

“Something is wrong,” says John.

Sherlock nods.

“You aren’t—you aren’t hurt, are you?  Physically, I mean.”

Sherlock shakes his head.

John scrutinizes him for a moment.  “And you haven’t…”  He coughs, amends.  “You don’t think this is a… danger night.”

The suggestion that Sherlock would seek the needle makes needles prick behind his eyes.  Blinking, he shakes his head again.  He hasn’t touched morphine or cocaine for years – not since before John and Rosie left the house in Chiswick and moved to Baker Street.  John had made it clear in no uncertain terms what would happen if he found Sherlock high or with drugs in his possession.  Even if Sherlock hadn’t been determined to protect Rosie, he would have known better than to test John’s resolve.

John watches him in silence.  Sherlock shakes his head.  The tension winding John’s muscles tight uncoils a fraction.  His shoulders fall.  “This is one of your low moods, is it?”

The way he says it – without a trace of condescension – sends a flutter of hope beating gauzy wings along Sherlock’s ribcage.  He nods.

“Right.”  John raises his chin as if readying to fight off an enemy.  “Budge over.”

Sherlock blinks at him.  He wants to ask what, but his words have gone away.  John peels off his jacket and drapes it over the back of a chair.  The mattress dips as he climbs into bed and curls against Sherlock’s side.  One of his hands quests across Sherlock’s chest, fingers starfishing at the spot above the bullet scar. 

“Can you tell me?” John asks.  “What is it?”

Sherlock shakes his head and clasps John’s wrist with both hands.  He looks at him, pleading.  Confusion lines the crease of John’s brow and the furrows around his mouth, but his eyes are understanding.  With his other hand, he threads his fingers through Sherlock’s hair, fingernails scoring his scalp with just enough pressure to register through the steel wool cloaking his senses.  Sherlock tilts his head.  Leans into the touch.

“Are you okay?” asks John in a murmur.  “Are you—will you be okay?”

Sherlock nods, more to reassure him than out of any true certainty.  John’s mouth pulls down at the corners, but he only says, “Can I kiss you?”

Again, a nod.  John’s mouth is so, so gentle, feathering at his neck, the corner of his mouth, his nose, his lips.  It is all very chaste – without a trace of their usual hunger – but Sherlock is still trembling when John pulls away.  “Can I stay?”

Sherlock nods, fingers tightening around his wrist.  He knows he should send John away, but at the moment, he cannot muster the willpower. 

John stays.  They spend the rest of the day in bed unless absolutely necessary – food, the loo, milky tea – and the sun roves through the sky to slump across the western horizon and vanish over the cusp of the world.  John is always at Sherlock’s side, the rhythm of his heart pressed to Sherlock’s ribs, the susurrus of his breath fanning against his neck. 

When the words come back, Sherlock says, “You don’t have to stay.  If… if you’d rather not.”

“’Course I do, love,” John mumbles.  “Want to be here.”

Hours later, in the dark, Sherlock kisses John’s sleeping brow and murmurs, “Thank you.”

Chapter Text

Sherlock wakes to the first filmy, dawning beams of morning light slanting through his bedroom window.  The black mood has fled, and everything has come back into focus.  As simple as turning the dial on his microscope.  Odd, how such a crushing weight can so swiftly dissipate.      

Sherlock blinks to clear his sleep-muddled vision.  The room is awash with a pale grey glow that chases shadows into corners.  John is a warm, solid weight at his back, one arm slung loosely over his side, fingertips brushing the bedclothes.  Sherlock reaches down to slot his fingers through the spaces between John’s.  A muffled sigh brushes the nape of his neck. 

“Time is it,” John mumbles.  Then he answers his own question.  “Early.  Too bloody early.”

Sherlock is tempted to close his eyes and let sleep claim him, but something about John’s solidity behind him gives him pause.  No – it isn’t the solidity itself, but the absence of it in a particular place.  Sherlock pushes his hips back, investigating.  He is rewarded by a sharp gasp from John as his arse meets the rigid line of John’s cock. 

“We don’t have to,” says John, but his hand slips under Sherlock’s t-shirt to flatten against his stomach.  A terrible restraint thrums through his body.  “If—if you aren’t up to it.”

Sherlock’s answering push back is eloquent beyond words.  With a strained laugh, John moves his hand to brush the pad of his thumb against Sherlock’s nipple.  Sherlock’s whimper turns into a soft gasp as the brush becomes a pinch.  John’s mouth is hot and humid at the back of his neck, pressing kisses to his hairline and following the path of vertebrae to his shirt collar. 

“All right?” he asks, but Sherlock is already grabbing the hem of his t-shirt, affronted by its presence.  They manage to tug it over his head with a bit of a shuffle.  Sherlock balls it up in one hand and tosses it into a shadowed corner.  Twists around to catch John up in a kiss, stale but eager. 

John pulls away with a grimace.  “Lovely.”

Undeterred, Sherlock sets nimble fingers to the buttons of John’s shirt.  It’s ridiculous, really – no man should go to bed in his work clothes.  But John had, because Sherlock had needed him and there was no time to change.  The thought makes Sherlock’s heart stutter. 

Between the two of them, they divest each other of shirts and trousers and threadbare sweatpants.  Sherlock hadn’t bothered with pants the day before, but he takes pleasure in hooking his thumbs over the band of John’s, tugging them down.  John’s cock is flushed and hard, and it twitches under Sherlock’s scrutiny.  Sherlock skims his fingers from root to tip, feather-light, and John inhales shakily. 

“Sherlock,” he says.  “Can you get…”

Nodding, Sherlock rolls over and reaches for the nightstand drawer.  The tube is cool against his fingers, but when he turns back around, John plucks it from his hand and snaps the cap open.  He hesitates, eyes intent on Sherlock.  Dark and hungry, infinitely deep.

“Please say something,” he says.  “I know you said you were better, but—”

“Want you,” Sherlock says.  His voice is soft, but before it, John’s misgivings scatter like chaff in a gale.  “I want you inside me, John.”

John’s pupils widen, black blotting out stormcloud blue.  “Yeah.  God, I—yeah.  Right.  Okay.”

John budges over so Sherlock can roll onto his back.  His heart slams a frantic tempo against his ribs as he kicks the duvet aside.  His legs are suddenly too gangly, too clumsy.  Tremors skitter through body.  His breath comes in hitching gulps. 

“Sherlock?”  John is staring down at him with worry etched into his brow.  “You okay?”

“Of course.” 

“We don’t have to do this if you aren’t ready,” says John.

“I am ready.”  Sherlock hears the petulance in his own voice, hates that the transport has seen fit to betray him at the worst possible moment.  For God’s sake, it isn’t as if he’s some blushing virgin.  His experience may be scant, but it must count for something. 

John’s hand skates over his ribs to the base of his sternum, fingertips ghosting across the silvery scar tissue there.  “Sherlock, I won’t hurt you.”  I have hurt you too many times.

Sherlock draws a shuddering breath.  Tries to find the words, to give shape to the terror clawing at his insides.  “I—I want it to be good.  For you.”

Understanding dawns.  John opens his mouth, closes it.  Opens.  “Oh, Sherlock.”

“I have—that is, I’m not…”

“Sherlock.”  John drops a kiss into his curls.  Shifting lower, he noses the hinge of Sherlock’s jaw and murmurs, “Being with you will be good.  Do you understand?  When it’s wild and exciting and we’ve both got adrenaline shooting out of our ears, it will be good.  When we’re knackered or just waking up, half-asleep, it will be good.  Even when it’s, it’s dull and frankly we’re just doing it because we’re bored and there’s nothing good on the telly, it will be good.”  He draws back and smiles down at Sherlock, cheeky and fond and incandescently happy.  “It will always be good because it’ll be you.”

“Us,” Sherlock corrects.

John’s smile widens.  “Us.  Exactly.”

He kisses Sherlock then, full on the mouth and damn the morning breath.  Sherlock loops his arms around John’s neck and returns the kiss with probably a little too much enthusiasm, because John breaks away with a laugh.  “Let me try something, yeah?  Might help.  If you still aren’t comfortable after, we’ll stop.”

Sherlock nods.  He is determined to keep going no matter how he feels, but John needn’t know that. 

John pulls back and shimmies across the bed until he is seated between Sherlock’s legs, arms bracketing his waist.  “I’d like to do it like this,” he says.  “I want to see you.  Watch your face when I’m inside you, see your expression when you come.”  His voice tapers into a kiss, daubed on the column of Sherlock’s throat.  Sherlock shivers and John draws back, breathing the words, “This mole, right here?  Drives me mad.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to bite it.  Bit of a fixation, really.”

Sherlock squirms.  “John.”

Chuckling, John moves lower.  His next target is Sherlock’s collarbones, kissing and nipping and licking, taking mercy only when Sherlock shudders, impatient, and pushes down on John’s shoulders.  But John won’t be deterred; his pace is deliberate, agonizingly slow, taking time and taking apart.  There is something exploratory in this, as if John is determined to learn every line of him, every inch and atom.  Sherlock’s past experience has done nothing to prepare him for this.  He might have been wanted, but never before has he felt worshipped.  His body is hallowed ground, and John its sole wanderer. 

John takes his time in the wandering.  When he is satisfied with his work on Sherlock’s collarbones, he drifts lower, sealing his mouth over a nipple and teasing the nubbed flesh with teeth and tongue.  Sherlock can do little else but shake and shake, grasping John’s shoulders.  The starburst of John’s scar is rough against his fingers.  John moves from one nipple to the other, paying each their due attention.  When he is done, he pauses at the bullet scar.

  “I hate this.”  He says it like a confession.  The kiss is shockingly chaste, there and gone.

As John moves lower, anticipation coils in the base of Sherlock’s pelvis; his cock grows achingly hard.  His whirring thoughts slow to a hum of white noise.  His pulse is a rhythmic drumbeat in his ears. 

John kisses one hipbone, then the other.  Kisses Sherlock’s stomach.  As his kisses travel lower, lower, he rifles around for the tube.  He pauses over the jut of Sherlock’s prick.  “Okay?”

“Yes,” Sherlock rasps.  “F-for God’s sake, yes—”

His words fragment into a whimper as John’s lips close over the head of his cock.  John bobs his head, taking Sherlock deeper, engulfing him in heat and wet.  His lube-slick hand encircles the base of Sherlock’s prick, stroking as he licks and sucks. 

“John,” Sherlock gasps.  Too much, too soon.  “John, I can’t—”

John pulls off.  His mouth is already obscenely red.  Licking his swollen lips, he says, “I—I want to put my fingers in you.  Can I?”

Sherlock nods, not trusting his voice.  John slicks his fingers.  The first is slow, infinitely cautious, circling the ring of muscle before pressing inside.  Sherlock’s body clamps down, but John waits, stroking his hip.  “Relax, love.  You need to relax.”

Sherlock draws a steadying breath and tries to relax.  In time, the discomfort passes and his body loosens around the intrusion.  John crooks his finger, seeking, and Sherlock gasps and trembles as sparks of sensation crackle through him.  When his vision clears, he finds John grinning down at him.

“Smug,” he accuses.

“Yep,” says John, and does it again. 

John takes his time, tuning Sherlock like a well-loved instrument, stretching and stroking until he is ready for a second finger.  A third.  Sherlock strains beneath him, body as taut as a bowstring. 

“Now, now,” he gasps.  “John, I need—need it now.”

“Yeah.”  John’s voice is frayed.  “Yeah, me too.”

His fingers slip out of Sherlock, leaving him bereft, but his cockhead is there moments later, blunt and insistent.  Sherlock winces as John breaches him.  Despite the shaking in his arms and the sweat beading on his brow, John moves slowly, carefully.  So very carefully. 

“Faster, John,” Sherlock begs.

“Give us a minute,” John manages, sounding strangled.  “Jesus, you’re so tight.  Fuck.”

  He inches forward until he is fully seated in the cradle of Sherlock’s hips, fingers digging into his waist.  He feels huge inside Sherlock, toeing the line between pain and pleasure – both exquisite.  Heady like the first breath of a strong wine, potent like ripe fruit on Sherlock’s tongue. 

“Sherlock?”  John sounds concerned.  “You all right?”

“Yes.  Come on, John.  Faster.”

Huffing a laugh, John draws out almost as slowly as he pushed in.  Sherlock is about to voice a loud complaint when John thrusts in deep.  Sherlock voices something loudly, but it scarcely resembles human speech.  One of his hands flies to John’s side while the other grips the headboard behind him for leverage.  John grits his teeth and thrusts faster, harder, and he is magnificent to behold, strong and lithe and silver and gold in the morning sunlight.  A lock of hair falls over his brow, jouncing with each jerk of his hips. 

“John,” Sherlock says.  Possibly shouts.  Definitely shouts.  “John, John, John…”

John pauses on a deep thrust to brace on one arm while the other snakes under Sherlock’s thigh, pulling it up until his heel rests on the small of John’s back.  His next thrust glances over Sherlock’s prostate, startling a cry from him.  John leans over, his stomach grazing the tip of Sherlock’s cock, and smears his mouth over Sherlock’s heaving chest, over his heart. 

It’s that gesture – the sentiment – that undoes Sherlock.  Pressure coalesces and flies apart in the space of a blink, shattering him, and he comes in long, wracking pulses.  John groans and his hips stutter again, again, burying deep.  His fingers are pinpoints of pain along Sherlock’s ribs as he comes. 

After, they lie side-by-side, panting and sweaty and dazed.  John turns so he is flush against Sherlock.  His fingers stroke through the sparse hair on Sherlock’s chest.

“All right?” he mumbles. 

Sherlock turns his head and kisses John just above the ear.  His hair is damp and tastes of salt. 

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes,’” says John.

“Mmm.  Indeed.”

They are quiet for a time.  Sherlock mirrors John and turns onto his side so they lie with their chests pressed together.  He can feel John’s heartbeat this way, feel it fall into time with his own. 

“I love you, you know,” says John.  Sherlock stares at him and he chews on his lip, abashed.  “Er.  I know saying that sort of thing right after sex is… unreliable, but.  I mean it.”

“You love me,” Sherlock says.  The words feel strange on his tongue, like a foreign language.

“Yeah, I.  I really do.”  John smiles helplessly.  “Have for years, honestly.” 

Sherlock looks at John, and looks at John, and realizes, with a start, that he believes him.  Without his knowledge, his doubts about John’s feelings had packed their bags and vacated the Mind Palace before they could be forcibly evicted.  “John, I…”

John hastens to fill the space.  “I know we’ve only been doing this for a couple of weeks, but it still feels like… like we’ve wasted time.  So.  I’d like to stop doing that.”  He pushes back the hair on Sherlock’s brow.  “I’d like to just… love you.  If you’re amenable, that is.”

Sherlock dips his head to press his lips to John’s, tasting himself and the sour tang of sleep.  He nudges his big feet and knobby knees against John’s until they lie with legs intertwined.  “I may be amenable.”

“And?”  John’s eyes gleam. 

Sherlock rolls his eyes with mock affront.  “And I… love you.  I’ve loved you for years, John.”  Now the words are pouring from him like water shouldering out of a broken dam.  “I love you, I have loved you, so much.  So much, John.  I think I might have loved you on that very first day, when Mike Stamford brought you to Bart’s—”

John drags him into another kiss, and they say little after that.  They say little late into the morning, until time forces them to rise and clean themselves and dress.  When they leave 221B that day, it is as they always were – Sherlock Holmes and John Watson – but they are more, now.  They are as they were always meant to be. 

Chapter Text

On the last day of the year, as they wait outside Sammy’s family flat, Sherlock says to John, “We should tell Watson.”

John says nothing, but stares resolutely at the chipped black paint on the door.  The tarnished knocker stands at eye level with him.  When he speaks, his voice is thoughtful.  “About us.”

“Yes.”  Sherlock checks the urge to shift from foot to foot.  Shoves his gloved hands into the pockets of his Belstaff, telling himself it’s because of the cold.  “It’s only fair.  I’m a significant part of her life and…”

“God, they’re taking their time,” mutters John.  He frowns at the row of call buttons beside the locked door.  If he hadn’t rung the flat moments ago and got a hasty, unfamiliar “Just a mo’!” by way of reply, he might be tempted to ring again. 

“John,” says Sherlock. 

John looks at Sherlock, the lines around his mouth and eyes soft.  He nods.  “Right.  You’re absolutely right.  Sorry, I…”  He breaks off, regroups.  “Of course I want to tell her.  It’s only…”

Sherlock understands then.  “She wants a mother.”

“Yeah.”  John sighs.  “She really does.”

Sherlock tries to affect a wry tone.  “Bit of a predicament.  I quite like my parts the way they are.”

John smiles.  “I quite like them, too.”  He lapses into silence.  Chews on the inside of his cheek.  Nearby, the sounds of bustling road traffic – cars whirring past, buses belching gas and wheezing as they squat and rise between stops – hums like white noise between them.  “Just—just remember, Sherlock.  Rosie does love you.  She can just be… volatile.  She is five, after all.”

And she’s your daughter, thinks Sherlock.  Yours and Mary’s. 

His fears about John reciprocating his feelings may have fled, but the fears regarding Rosie – namely, that she will reject him as a parental figure – are still lounging about in the Mind Palace, content to while away their time gnawing at Sherlock from within.  If Rosie is half as implacable as either of her parents, she will refuse Sherlock out of sheer stubbornness.  She will cling to a mother she has never known rather than accept him.

The buzzer rings and John opens the door.  They take the lift to the third floor, where Rosie is waiting in the corridor with Sammy and an older woman.  Sammy’s mother, obviously.  Though she can’t be past her mid-thirties, her dark face is lined with the stress of minding two little girls for a day and a night. 

“Dr. Watson,” she says, shaking John’s hand.  “Mr. Holmes.”

“Mrs. Wexler,” says John.  “Thank you for looking after Rosie.  Can’t have been easy.”

“Oh, it was no trouble,” says Mrs. Wexler.  “Honestly, it felt nice to…”  She trails off, biting her lip.  “Well.  Rosie is welcome anytime.”

“Thank you,” John repeats, and squeezes her hand.

As John, Sherlock, and Rosie walk down the street, Rosie chatters on and on about the wonders of Sammy’s flat.  “They haven’t got a skull or a microscope, but they have got a dog!  His name is Reginald.  He’s a mutt.”  She beams at Sherlock, knowing full-well his affection for dogs.  “He can do tricks, too.  He can sit and lie down and roll over and…”

She natters cheerfully about Reginald the mutt until they reach the stop for Clapham High Street, then diverts to other, less wonderful wonders.  “And they’ve got a part of the door, on the wood, where they make marks to tell how tall Sammy is.  It goes back until she was a baby!  Her brother’s got a set, too.  His stopped almost at the top of the door!”

A queasy weight of secondhand sorrow sits heavy in Sherlock’s belly.  Sammy’s brother, he recalls, died in a traffic collision.  His eyes flick over Rosie’s head to meet John’s.  John nods in wordless confirmation. 

“You must have had a lot of fun, darling,” he says to Rosie.

She nods.  “Her mum made ham and eggs and beans.  And popcorns!”

“Popcorn,” corrects John.  “That all sounds delicious.”

Rosie nods again, disinterested in semantics.  “She’s so nice.  I wish she was my mum.”

John glances back at Sherlock, who drops his gaze to his clasped hands.  The rumble of an approaching bus encroaches on their bubble of conversation.  They climb aboard and find seats in a rear corner.  Sherlock sits beside the window with John at his side.  Rosie sits at the end of their little line and continues to rattle off the fantastic details of Sammy’s flat.  As she talks, John slips his hand between himself and Sherlock, nudging his thigh with an inquisitive knuckle.  Sherlock shifts and lowers his hand to clasp John’s. 

 

-

 

The bow wobbles in Rosie’s grip, steadies:  a full, syrupy note swells from the strings, cut short by a squeak.  Sherlock smiles.

“That was well played,” he says.

Rosie’s brow furrows.  “But it was wrong.”

“Not all wrong.”

“It squeaked.”

“It’s better than before, so it’s progress,” says Sherlock, solemnly.  “Progress is something to be celebrated.”

Rosie smiles and sets the bow back to the strings.  She is just as skilled as any other novice child violinist.  Which is to say, she has no skill to speak of.  Sherlock won’t flatter her with notions of grandeur, but he knows the importance of encouragement.  A kind word here, an approving nod there – these will nourish Rosie’s passion until the allure of the violin fades.  Perhaps even after. 

He hopes she’ll keep on with it. 

They stop practice when John announces that dinner is ready.  Rosie, who is of the age where she will only eat macaroni and chicken fingers, scarfs down a hearty helping of buttered fettucine and picks lethargically at her braised beef and mixed greens. 

“Can I stay up for the New Year?” she asks.

“If you eat your greens, yes,” says John.

Rosie makes a face, then stabs her fork through a clod of greens and chokes them down.  John rolls his eyes as she gags. 

“Honestly,” he mumbles to Sherlock, “I think she got your penchant for drama.”

Sherlock tries to look affronted, but to quell the smile tugging at his mouth is no small feat.  He settles for a shrug.  “You’re a doctor.  Feeding people up comes naturally to you.”

John spears a piece of braised beef and raises it to his lips.  Chews, contemplative.  “Mm.  Not just ‘people.’”

Sherlock wants to take John’s face in his hands and kiss him.  Instead, he lets the persistent smile have its way.  He chases a crouton onto vinegar-glazed spinach leaves and eats the lot with relish.  John watches as his throat bobs with the movement of swallowing. 

Rosie crusades through her greens and even deigns to eat a sliver of the beef, making a face as she sets down her fork.  She looks at John, who nods, magnanimous.  The legs of her chair scrape against the tile as she scoots out and darts from the kitchen. 

“She’s a good child.”  Sherlock doesn’t know what prompts him to say it – maybe the beleaguered roll of John’s eyes, maybe the grin Rosie flicks at Sherlock as she bolts into the sitting room.  But he means it.

John’s smile is weary.  “She’s all right.”

Without Rosie in the room, the temptation to reach across the table and lay his hand over John’s is too powerful to ignore.  John’s palm is small and warm beneath his, fingers compact and strong.  They thread between Sherlock’s, hang on tight.

“We can tell her now,” says John.  His expression is composed, belied only by a gleam of uncertainty in his eyes.  “Do you want to tell her?”

“Yes,” Sherlock says.  Then, “No.”

John raises his eyebrows.  “Which is it?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“We can wait if you want.  S’not like we’ll be telling her the gory details, anyway.  Let her figure that out when she’s a teenager.”

The idea of Rosie as a teenager – with John’s confidence and wry wit, with Mary’s cunning and innate skill, with Sherlock’s… and there, his mind draws a blank.  The jagged edges of Rosie’s reality scrape against him. 

“I don’t fit in the picture,” he says.

John cocks his head to one side, brow creasing.  “What?”

“Watson wants a mother.”  The word is sandpaper on his tongue.  “Not—not…”

John’s puzzlement vanishes, replaced by sad understanding.  “Sherlock.”  He covers their joined hands with the other, cradling Sherlock like he would a fragile creature.  “Rosie has known you all her life.  You’re more of a parent to her than Mary ever was.”

“Because I—”

“Because,” says John, firmly, “Mary gambled with her life.  She gambled with all our lives, and she lost.  I told you, Sherlock, I don’t blame you for her death.”  He raises Sherlock’s hand and presses a kiss to the back of it.  Firm, uncompromising.  “If we’re going to work in the long run, you have to stop blaming yourself.  Can you try to do that?”

Sherlock sets his jaw and nods.  It seems an impossible task, but he will try.  For John.

“Thank you, love.”  John lowers their joined hands.  “Now.  Do you want to tell her?”

“Yes.”

“Right.”  Raising his voice, John calls, “Rosie!  Could you come here, darling?”

Rosie appears in the doorway moments later, looking wary.  Probably she suspects John wants her to try the braised beef again.  “Daddy?”

“Sit down,” says John, nodding at her seat.  “We have to talk about something.”

Cautiously, Rosie crosses the kitchen floor and climbs into her seat.  The stuffed reindeer is wedged in the crook of her arm, usurping Sullivan the tiger for the place of honor.  “Talk about what?”

Mary’s voice plummets into Sherlock’s mind with the freezing jolt of a fallen icicle.  “You want to replace me.” 

“John,” he says.

John glances at him, and something in his gaze snatches Sherlock’s slipped moorings.  The fear rising in his chest sinks back down.  Biting his lip, he nods.  John turns back to Rosie.  Her eyes wander from John’s face to his and Sherlock’s joined hands on the tabletop. 

“Rosie,” says John, “how do you feel about Sherlock?”

Rosie glances at Sherlock, confused.  “I love him.”

“Do you?”

“’Course,” says Rosie.  “He’s Sherlock.”

John chuckles.  “That he is.”

“Daddy?” Rosie begins, eyes drawn back to their clasped hands.  “Why are you holding hands?”

Sherlock’s heart thunders in his chest.  He remembers, suddenly, the first time Rosie said his name; how she couldn’t string the syllables together, how the cadence of Sher-lock evaded her newfound speech.  She had toddled around the flat with her chubby, uncoordinated legs, calling, “Sher, Sher, Sher.”

“Well,” says John, “it’s because I love Sherlock, too.  I love him very much.”

“Oh.”  But the confusion hasn’t left Rosie’s face.  “Okay.”  She looks at Sherlock.  “Do you love Daddy?”

Sherlock needs a moment to find his voice.  “Yes.”  Clearing his throat, he continues, “So much.  And I—I love you too, Watson.”

To her credit, Rosie looks a bit discomfited at the sudden outpouring of love.  Even five-year-old Britons know too much sentiment can never be a good thing.  She studies them in silence for a while, face screwed up like she’s trying to divine a reading from murky tea leaves. 

Then, shockingly, she says, “One of my classmates, Timmy, has two mums.”

John is the first to recover from the spark of her intuition.  “Oh?”

“Yeah.”  Rosie’s hand moves absently to the reindeer’s ear, toying with the felt.  “And Sammy says her brother had a boyfriend.  Before he died.”

“I see,” says John, his tone expectant.

“Do you…”  She pauses, chews on her lip.  “Do you love Sherlock like that?”  She looks at Sherlock.  “Do you love Daddy like that?”

“Yes,” they say in unison.  They share a glance, smother mirrored smiles. 

“Oh.”  Rosie’s voice is small. 

“Rosie?” John ventures.  “If you have any questions, you can ask.  Anything at all.”

Rosie says nothing for several seconds.  A shadow of something Sherlock cannot identify slides over her face:  sorrow, confusion, realization.  She hugs the reindeer tightly to her side. 

“Rosie?  Do you have anything you’d like to say?” asks John.

By way of response, Rosie slips from her chair and patters to the doorway of the kitchen.  She pauses, turning to study them.  Her face is inscrutable.  Then she walks through the sitting room, into the entryway, and up the stairs to her bedroom.  The door shuts with a quiet click behind her. 

As evening draws into night, Mrs. Hudson arrives at the flat with a plate of nibbles and sherry.  “To a very Happy New Year,” she warbles, and tips back glass after glass.  If she sees any hint of their disquiet, she says nothing about it.  Rosie has not emerged from her room in hours.

John brings out the good whisky and pours two fingers apiece for himself and Sherlock.  The drink burns down Sherlock’s throat, melts his veins into warm honey.  They put on the telly and sit, trading nibbles and sips.  Sherlock leans flush against John’s side, head on his shoulder.  The scent at the crook of John’s neck is comforting in a warm, base way.  Mrs. Hudson, giddy with drink, steals glances at them and titters as though shocked and ecstatic every time. 

It is nearly midnight when the door to Rosie’s bedroom snicks open, followed by her light but resolute tread descending the stairs.  The three adults turn to regard her in surprise when she emerges in the sitting room, chin held high.  She still has the reindeer under her arm – the one Sherlock gave her. 

“I’ll just,” says Mrs. Hudson, and rises to weave precariously into the kitchen with no effort to complete her pretense. 

Lifting his head from John’s shoulder, Sherlock regards the little girl standing in the doorway.  Even at five, she radiates a commanding presence.  She strides across the room – inasmuch a child can stride – and stops before John and Sherlock. 

“Rosie?” John murmurs.

Rosie looks at Sherlock.  “When that lady… when she tried to hurt me, you and Daddy…”

Sherlock swallows around the remembered terror of that day, come back to haunt him like a poisoned morsel of meat.  “We…”

“Protected you,” John finishes.

“Yeah,” says Rosie.  She looks down at her feet.  The socks she wears are plush and woolen, scalloped with a Fair Isle pattern.  Sherlock bought them for her months ago, when autumn first gave way to the bite of winter.  She looks back at Sherlock.  “You and Daddy saved me.”

Sherlock wants to look to John, wants John to say the perfect thing.  Despite John’s presence at his side, he is cut adrift, unsure how to navigate the waters between himself and this child.  This child, who has come to share his heart with her father. 

“I would do anything for you, Watson,” he says.  “You and John.” 

Rosie regards him with a steady stare.  Then, as if coming to a decision, she nods.  She holds the reindeer to Sherlock in a wordless command; he takes it, and she clambers onto the sofa to sit between them.  Her stockinged feet swing over the edge as she settles back against the cushions with an imperious sigh.  “When will the fireworks start?”

As minutes sliver into seconds and midnight arrives, the little family watches fireworks burst across the telly screen.  Rosie races to the window and pushes aside the curtains to squint at the night sky, searching for blooms of fiery brilliance.  John takes advantage of the moment to drag Sherlock into a kiss, quick but deep, just filthy enough to promise later, later.  The spectacle makes Mrs. Hudson shriek with delight. 

“Happy New Year, love,” John says against his lips.

Sherlock beams.  His doubts and fears have been scorched away, leaving him burnished bright and new, incandescent with a joy he never dreamed he might have.  He is under no illusions that everything will be perfect.  He and John will argue from time to time.  Rosie will occasionally balk at him as a father figure, will wonder what it is to have a mother.  Mrs. Hudson will stick her nose where it doesn’t belong.  Greg and Molly will be infuriating and annoying and then they will be married infuriating and annoying, which is a great deal worse.  Donovan and Anderson will be as snide and worshipful as they’ve ever been.

None of that matters.  Sherlock has his family; the rest will fall into place.

“Happy New Year, John,” he says.

John kisses him again, and in that moment, Sherlock cannot fathom having ever been cold.  His new life stretches before him like a beam of light, and John is the conductor.  A path, beckoning.

Sherlock inhales deeply and takes the first step.  In the light, he is positively aglow.   

 

THE END