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“How long will you be away then?”

Martha blinks into her cup where the last distortions of her stirred tea slowly settle and resolve. Taking a moment to think, she pushes away the bitter taste of dread that lingers, covering her hesitation with a tiny sip and a sigh of appreciation.

“Sorry, dear? I missed that.”

“I was just wondering when you’d be back,” John asks with a patient smile.

“Oh, I don’t stay for too long. She’s lovely, Cathy, but she can barely boil an egg, and that husband of hers, once he’s into the sherry…” She trails off with a grimace. “But how about you boys? Sherlock tells me you’re leaving tomorrow. You haven’t been to his parent’s house before, have you?”

“No, I’m still a bit stunned that he accepted their invitation. He’s not usually given to family get-togethers or festive cheer.” John pauses and takes a good slurp of his tea before putting it aside, shoring himself up for the next part of this conversation it seems, and Martha feels the flicker of recognition whisper icy breath across her neck.

“Actually, I’ll be moving out again in the New Year. Mary is coming down to join us at the Holmes’s over Christmas.” John looks away, a habit he has when he’s uncomfortable or unhappy. “Hopefully we’ll be able to get some things sorted out and Sherlock is recovering really well so he doesn’t need me here, getting under his feet any more.”

“Well, we both know that’s not true,” Martha scoffs and John blinks, startled. She’s learned that the older she gets the more blunt she can be without getting called out for it. John is a good man, and more importantly he’s good for Sherlock, but he does need a kick up the arse every now and again. They both do.

“How do you mean?” John asks, his polite smile becoming more strained than ever.

“He’s not himself without you, John - without someone there to chase him out of his dark moods and to remind him to come home when he’s caught up in one of his cases. He’ll never admit it, but he’s much more content when you’re here at Baker Street, where you belong. He’s not happy when you’re not here. He wants you to stay. And so do you.”

For a moment Martha thinks that she’s pushed too far and that John will get that hard, tense look about the eyes and make his excuses. But he bites at his lip and looks at her intently, rubbing his knuckles over his thigh.

“Well, there’s more to think of than what I want,” he says eventually, with rare candour. “We need to give this marriage another chance for the baby’s sake. Mary’s due in a month. We can hardly all move in here, what with…” John stops abruptly and rolls his neck a little bit, releasing knots of stress that Martha can practically hear popping. No one has told her about the shooting, but even without her skill she has eyes in her head and it doesn’t take much to put together the tension whenever they speak of Mary and the fact that John’s been living here for four months. Martha vividly recalls the shouting and rumpus from the night they had to whisk Sherlock back into hospital, the ambulance’s blue lights casting a deathly hue over his already marble skin.

That had been a very long night in a month of long nights.

“Mary wants to try again and I suppose I… Sherlock says…”

“Sherlock would say anything if he thought that was what you wanted, dear,” Martha says, softly now.

“It’s not that simple,” John says with a quick sniff, drains his cup and stares into its emptiness.

“It could be.”

John’s eyes meet hers again, slightly quizzical, watching her for signs that her advancing years have dulled her mind perhaps. She gazes right back at him, as bright and sharp as she can. He smiles wistfully and shakes his head slightly. He looks like a man who believes himself to be out of options, Martha thinks.

“Thanks for the tea. We’ll pop in before we leave,” John says, standing up suddenly. He forces a more cheerful smile, and his stance and the set of his jaw make it clear that his candour is at an end.

“All right, dear,” she agrees. “Better make it this evening. The taxi is coming early in the morning. I’ll get some nibbles in – maybe make some mince pies; he likes those.”

John nods and surprises her by stepping in for a kiss on her cheek before he lets himself out with a quick, grateful nod.

Silly man – he’s as bad as Sherlock. For all their cleverness and experience, they cannot see what is under their very noses. It’s a wonder they can find their own arses with two hands, she thinks. It’s as plain as day that they are devoted to each other but if she stands by and says nothing, does nothing, she has seen that their relationship will be tested beyond its capacity to recover. There’s darkness ahead, hurt beyond that which they have known – as impossible as that sounds. They have been through so much already, each trying to do the right thing, to put the other first, inadvertently making things worse and worse. But this is the crux, this is when it happens, tonight, tomorrow, the day after, so many threads coming together, becoming fouled, knotted and ugly. Enough to ruin everything. Enough to break an honourable man. Enough to kill a fragile one.

Martha had sat by last time, unprepared for the skill with which Moriarty had been able to mask his actions, his malevolence and craft coming as a sickening surprise. She had watched those boys harm themselves, hurt each other and suffer, and here they are, not even a year since Sherlock’s return, with nothing resolved, more complications than ever and a cliff edge before them with no way of telling how far the fall might be this time.

She picks up their cups and carries them to the sink to wash later. For now she puts on her coat and scarf, fetches her handbag and makes a mental list of what she will need for this evening.

Singing under her breath as she checks her Oyster card and snaps her purse shut, Martha closes her front door behind her. She has shopping to do.

%%%

Finding it increasingly difficult to contain his low mood, Sherlock comforts himself by standing too close to John when he knocks on Mrs Hudson’s door that evening, berating himself for his weakness even as he relishes the brush of John’s shoulder against his own. The last four months have been a similar sweet torment, having John back at 221B, sharing space again without the complication of the wife to be placated or considered.

His injuries are mostly healed and his strength and stamina are improving day by day. John has been as invaluable as always during the course of his recovery, driven, Sherlock suspects, by guilt that it was his wife who put him in the hospital in the first place. His guilt is misplaced of course. Sherlock had been too distracted by Mrs Watson to follow his perplexing observations through to their logical conclusion but even the most cynical would not have suspected that John would have allied himself with a mercenary assassin in his absence.

Sherlock has hoarded the memories of these weeks together, watching their number dwindle as the sun set earlier and earlier each evening. Sometimes he could even forget that this wasn’t their future, when the fire burned low in the grate as they talked late into the night or made each other their breakfast tea and toast.

Tomorrow is the day that he has to restart reality and trigger a sequence of events that will see John have a conversation with his wife where they will come to some arrangement for John’s return to their family home. John is tight-lipped about it, saying only that this is the way it should be and Sherlock hasn’t the wherewithal to argue – he never has when it comes to Mary. He will keep his mouth shut and in doing so, keep the friendship of the man who has come to redefine how he sees himself.

Yet Sherlock dreads returning to Baker Street alone in just a few short days (assuming, of course, that his plans unfold as he predicts at Appledore). The hollowness of ‘doing the right thing’ is at odds with the satisfaction he is given to understand he should be feeling to see John happy and settled. Already Sherlock knows he won’t bother to light the fire just for himself and he won’t eat toast in the mornings or make sure there is milk. He realises that he is well enough that John can’t pretend that he isn’t any more. He is free to go and return to their suburban flat to raise their child. Sherlock will become the occasional guest, the oddball friend, and little by little become a memory as his visits and interactions dwindle to nothing. Better for John this way – he’s still not reconciled to Mary’s role in Sherlock’s injuries, no matter what he says and staying at 221B with Sherlock seems to remind him of that guilt on an hourly basis. He betrays himself each time her name is spoken when they have discussed any subject that touches on her.

The smell of baking, which has been distracting him all afternoon with hints of sweetness and spice is stronger here outside Hudders’ door, but still not overwhelming – strange, as it’s been creeping into the very furthest corners of their flat. For a former exotic dancer and a daytime television aficionado, Mrs Hudson does know her way around a kitchen, Great British Bake-Off not withstanding.

The sense of smell is that most closely linked with memory according to several studies, a fact Sherlock recalls when the door opens. A warm gust of scented air brings him back to childhood holidays in Paris with his Grandmère who always made certain that there were fresh Pain au Raisin for him, sticky and warm from the oven. Recalling the burst of sweetness on his tongue and the way the raisins would hold their heat for longer than the pastry is surprisingly visceral. It’s such a simple and deeply buried memory, but one that leaves him wrong-footed as John carries their armful of gaudily-wrapped presents over the threshold, all smiles and greetings and festive bonhomie.

The downstairs flat has undergone something of a sudden transformation and it appears that no festive cliché has been left untapped. There’s a real tree, small but carefully decorated, in pride of place and adding to the evocative scents. Holly and ivy creep from behind every picture frame and knick-knack, and candles are lit against December’s early evening gloom in groups of twos and threes. Quiet instrumental music plays in the background – a melody he can’t quite pin down before he is requested to help by John who wants him to unload their gifts to join the small collection already beneath the tree (a book, an item of clothing, another book, a CD, something in a gift box providing too little data to predict…) In short it is unashamedly festive in a way most uncharacteristic of a person who is leaving to spend Christmas in Northamptonshire in the morning.

“Oh boys, you shouldn’t have!” Mrs Hudson coos, her hands grasped together as she beams at John rearranging Sherlock’s efforts at present placement.

“Seasonal and societal obligation,” Sherlock mutters.

“And our pleasure,” John adds quickly. “No more than you deserve!” He sends him a long-suffering but fond glare that he breaks off quickly when Sherlock meets his gaze with a roll of his eyes and a small smile.

Of course. Sherlock blinks and reminds himself to guard his expressions around John. Their friendship (miraculously) endures, but the warm familiarity they once shared isn’t for him anymore. John is married, and tomorrow they will travel to Dorset where he will return to domestic bliss with his clever, pretty, pregnant wife and he will share his grins and his sarcasm and his quirks with her.

Sherlock settles on the sofa beside John, allowing himself to sprawl into his space one more time, just to watch the way John accommodates him without complaint.

Hudders and John discuss banalities; Christmas movies and family traditions. Sherlock accepts the offer of a glass of red wine (an excellent Saint-Émilion, at the perfect temperature) and listens with half an ear, relishing the warmth of John pressed all down his side, the fullness of his laughter and the way he unconsciously angles himself to fill the spaces that Sherlock has left between them until they overlap and the boundaries between them blur.

%%%

The candles are a nice touch, John thinks as Mrs Hudson disappears into the kitchen to answer a ringing kitchen timer. The flames are steady and only flicker when someone passes, leaving bright gold echoes in his peripheral vision. The ones closest to him are subtly scented - beeswax, honey, bergamot and a woody, natural note that reminds him of Sherlock’s aftershave that somehow manages to never seem overpowering nor absent - like its part of the scent of Sherlock himself. He remembers seeing the bottle in their bathroom for the first time, not recognising the name of the brand or the scent, and only knowing what it was when he breathed in a lungful of Sherlock, warm and exciting and addictive. If he were given to fancy, he might even recognise that buried in the folds of his shirt collar the scent of it lingers where months of co-habiting have rendered the difference between their scents negligible – the flat smells like them  when it doesn’t smell like takeaway or Sherlock’s latest experiment.

“Mmm,” Sherlock hums softly, sipping from his glass. The dark red wine tints his lips for a second before his tongue delicately wipes away any trace of it.

John clears his throat. “So, do I need to bring a dinner jacket and bowtie tomorrow? Do your family dress for dinner?”

Sherlock gives him a withering glance.

“What? Could be some huge stately pile with peacocks in the gardens and a full complement of footmen for all I know!”

“Peacocks?” Sherlock mutters, affronted and John shrugs. “No, John, no peacocks, although some of Mycroft’s waistcoats are almost as garish.”

“So, no dressing up then?”

“You’re fine as you are,” Sherlock confirms, half a smile quirking his mouth up which John returns until he realises they are staring at each other again.

He needs to get this under control. It’s one of the reasons that he has agreed to the set-up this weekend. If he’s honest, he can admit that Sherlock hasn’t needed him here for weeks now. The man seems to have more lives than the proverbial cat, and although he’ll always have the scar and some decreased cardiac capacity, he’s made a good recovery. But John has resisted getting in touch with Mary other than terse text messages, knowing deep down that his motives are more to do with his feelings for Sherlock than his feelings for Mary.

He’s too tired to keep lying to himself – Sherlock Holmes has fascinated him since day one. At first it was a kind of wonder that such a person should exist, all brilliance and cheekbones and social maladjustment, but it was soon clear to John that, gay or not, he cared more deeply for Sherlock than he had ever experienced for another person before. The attraction had been there from the start, but rather than some abstract, intangible recognition of it, as he had experienced with other men on occasion, this one had the time and space to grow until John woke up one morning and understood that this was the defining relationship of his life so far – not infatuation, not desire or attraction or fondness but some amalgam of all of them plus admiration, friendship and a feeling of permanence.

Even in the jewellers picking out a ring for Mary, he was under no illusion that she was and would always be his second choice. In a world where Sherlock lived, John would never have even noticed her. But then Sherlock had returned and liked her, and John had felt so confused, angry and betrayed that he’d carried on with their marriage plans.

Even now he has no idea how he made it through that day. Seeing Mary walk down the aisle towards him while Sherlock was already a warm, constant presence at his side had made him ache. Responding to guest’s congratulations, he barely understood now how hollow they had left him. And Sherlock’s speech had almost broken him.

And then came the baby news and Sherlock’s relationship with Janine and then the shooting…

Life has a way of getting away from you, John thinks. It seems that if he’d stopped to think, at the Landmark, at the hospital, at Leinster Gardens, then he would have stopped events from snowballing, called time on the farce his life had become.

So now, with the baby due soon and with Sherlock’s quiet support, he is going to have to forgive his lying wife and go back to their tidy, neutral little flat and be a husband and a father, pretending that he had chosen any of it while in possession of the full facts. Pretending that they are happy.

Pretending that he wouldn’t rather that time just stop and allow him to be with his best friend.

%%%

The wine really is very good indeed and Sherlock uncharacteristically accepts a second glass when Mrs Hudson presents them with plates of antipasti nibbles, adding garlic, oregano and basil to the already heady mix of scents. Combined with the fruit bouquet of the red it is beginning to smell like the best kind of Italian restaurant in the little sitting room.

“Mmm. Reminds me of Angelo’s,” John says, making Sherlock blink as the very same thought flashes across his mind.

“Who’s that?” Mrs Hudson asks.

“It’s a what, not a who,” Sherlock explains, letting John pick up the thread.

“It’s an Italian restaurant we sometimes used to go to. Sherlock’s favourite place.”

“Ohhh, did it shut down? The economy has been so…”

“No… not as far as I know,” John interrupts, his confusion evident in his hesitation and head tilt.

“Poor dear,” she coos, turning her attention to Sherlock. “Of course - you haven’t felt up to it lately.”

He makes an ambiguous sound, trying not to notice that John has looked quickly away to fiddle with the pile of napkins. They don’t go out together anymore unless it is related to the work. Married men, as a rule, don’t frequent intimate restaurants of an evening with a friend. Not even with friends who they are currently living with and nursing back to health.

Mrs Hudson must have picked up on the sudden quiet, and she changes topic, turning to John. “Did you find something for Sherlock’s parents, dear? I know you were looking.”

John has popped a crostini in his mouth and mimes his answer while he wipes his slightly oily fingers. Sherlock can’t interpret it - something to do with rolling his eyes and shrugging his shoulders.

“I’ve only met them a couple of times – and then only for a few minutes, and asking Sherlock was pointless…”

“I told you – they don’t expect presents. Besides you’ll make my lack of a gift look even less admirable,” Sherlock repeats.

“… so I had to go with the tried and tested bottle of good Port and a Stilton. I don’t want them to think that I’m without social graces,” John finishes, selecting another titbit from the plate and placing it neatly in his mouth.

He has missed some of the oil. It glistens a little in the candlelight, caught in the crease at the side of his lips. From the faint colour of it, it’s herb infused and Sherlock wonders if he would be able to discern which herb if he leaned in and touched his tongue to the smear on his skin.

“Why would you care what my parents think of you?” Sherlock asks, dragging his thoughts back to the current conversation.

John has turned away again, eyes cast down, causing Sherlock to quickly review his last sentences and struggle to understand why he would react like that.

“I wouldn’t want them to think that their son had been living with some ill-bred idiot,” John admits.

Sherlock wants to laugh at how erroneous that is. “John, you have it entirely the wrong way around. My parents have grasped every opportunity to warn me about being polite and thoughtful towards you. They think you have been nothing but a positive influence on my uncouth behaviours. I rather got the impression that I won’t be half as welcome if I am not accompanied by you.”

A pleased but surprised look steals across John’s face. He is not normally given to being concerned about impressing people, or having them like him, and Sherlock is intrigued to find it in this case. John is polite and friendly in social situations but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly and makes no bones about letting people know when they have pissed him off. Of course when he used to date, he would have a vested interest in the women he had his sights on enjoying his company as it would dictate his chances of intercourse later in the relationship, but to his knowledge John has nothing to gain from making a good impression on Mummy and Dad.

He needs to think further on this, but John’s genuine pleasure is warming to see. “And you are an idiot,” Sherlock adds, because he can.

John laughs, high and unforced. “But I’m not uncouth!”

“Just so.”

%%%

He needs to stop drinking. He feels lighter than he thought possible, sitting here in Mrs Hudson’s cosy sitting room, a fire in the grate, laughing with Sherlock who is turned towards him in the corner of the sofa they are sharing.

Tomorrow, he reminds himself; tomorrow he will be travelling down to Dorset to await the arrival of his wife where they will talk for the first time in weeks. He’s going to tell her that they can put what’s happened behind them and try again. He’s going to tell her that he’s going to move back in to their marital home. He’s going to leave Baker Street, leave Sherlock and somehow turn himself into the kind of man who forgives things like shooting his best friend. He’s going to be a father to their child. Because it’s the right thing to do, not because he wants to.

But what if he didn’t?

What if, instead of living a half-life with Mary, for appearance’s sake, what if he just stayed here?

He glances back at his lanky sofa-mate. Sherlock’s hair is dishevelled and his sleeves are rolled up. Only John sees that Sherlock is being more careful than usual – his scar may be clean and healthy, but it takes time for the twinges of pain to tail off. He covers a lot of it, but John saw him at his worst and he knows what that kind of pain does to someone.

Sherlock’s talking with his hands and his whole face – animated in a way people rarely get to see. His affection for Mrs Hudson is usually well concealed under insults and teasing, but if you know where to look, Sherlock is endlessly gentle with his landlady and very protective of her. John knows that there are very few people Sherlock genuinely cares about, and he also know that he is one of those lucky few.

Sherlock would welcome John’s continued residence at Baker Street surely. He’s said often enough that he’d be lost without John. What if John stayed and told Mary that their short, sham of a marriage was over? Would he be able to support Mary and the baby financially? 

Would Sherlock think less of him?

Sherlock seems quite engaged by the idea of Christmas with his parents and the Watsons. He knows that Sherlock believes that the estrangement between them is about fear – fear of what John might find on the AGRA files, fear that Mary’s past will catch up with her. He always has thought that John is a much better man than he actually is.

John hasn’t rushed back to his wife’s side mainly because she lies without a flicker of conscience or remorse. She has never apologised to Sherlock for her choice to put a bullet in him rather than accept his offer of help. The truth is that John has no feelings left for Mary – he’s not even angry with her anymore. If it weren’t for the baby, he’d have told her already that their marriage has been over since the second she pointed a gun at his best friend.

These are thoughts that have been rolling over and over in John’s mind, sickly and dark, and increasing in frequency since Sherlock mooted his ideas about meeting Mary at his parent’s home.

And here he is, warm and relaxed with a feeling that he used to be familiar with.

Home.

The exhilaration of being with Sherlock with his quirks and oddities is making him more attractive to John, not less. He’s laughing, mostly because Sherlock is grinning that grin, he doesn’t even know what the joke was, but tomorrow feels like a long way off right now.

%%%

This is a surprisingly jolly gathering, Sherlock thinks. Even John, who has been increasingly taciturn as December has relentlessly forged on, is relaxed and smiling more than he has all week. He had theorised that John was nervous about reconciling with Mary – and he still thinks he’s correct on that but he may have made a miscalculation as to why.

After Mary’s words of devotion after the shooting and the lengths that she was prepared to go to keep John, Sherlock realises that he has heard no such language from John. Magnussen has been surprisingly quiet since Mary’s unexpected visit, but Sherlock knows he is biding his time, letting doubt and fear take hold before he picks the perfect moment to strike. If Sherlock has, as he believes, found a way to neutralise the threat from the newspaper magnate, then he has given Mary and John a new start without the threat of exposure hanging over John’s wife. He thought that was what John wanted. But now doubts come crowding, and he doesn’t know what has changed.

He recalls glances they shared at the wedding reception. He recalls the look in John’s eyes when Sherlock deduced Mary’s pregnancy – like he had received an unexpected gift that he had now to thank someone for without having time to consider whether it was something he wanted or not. He can think of dozens of instances in the last few months where John has given every indication of being happy – they always have been rather good at making compromises for each other. But he cannot think of a single instance where he has mentioned missing his wife, or any discussion of their future plans. He’s been perfectly content to let Baker Street welcome him back as if he’d never been away.

Equally, of course, he hasn’t made any mention of wishing to stay or having had a change of heart about his marriage despite their difficulties in the aftermath of the Leinster Gardens revelations.

This is why Sherlock doesn’t ‘do’ people. Without the addition of criminal intent their motivations are hideously difficult to decode.

Mrs Hudson stirs up the fire, adds more fuel and then announces that it’s time for presents. She selects a few from under the tree and hands them out.

“But it’s not Christmas yet!” John objects.

Sherlock, however, has already ripped off the snowman wrapping paper and is admiring a rather nice scarf.

“I noticed you’d lost your other one,” Mrs Hudson explains.

“Not lost; burned. Slight miscalculation with the strength of an acid I was testing. It was the closest thing to stop it from dripping onto the floor,” Sherlock admits.

Hudders looks a little alarmed, but she’s used to Sherlock’s idiosyncrasies by now. “Oh, Sherlock. Well, whatever happened to it, I saw that one and thought it was such a beautiful shade of blue.”

It is indeed a lovely blue, not cornflower or sky, but something more complex. It’s the blue of something that Sherlock can’t put his finger on until John leans over to test the fabric.

It’s the blue of John’s eyes.

John says something and smiles up at Sherlock, which he finds himself returning despite having no idea what he said. John’s eyes are like summer, clear and warm and relaxing, and Sherlock finds himself wondering if the colour was an unconscious choice or a coincidence on Mrs Hudson’s part.

“Thank you,” Sherlock says, clearing his throat quickly. “It’s perfect.”

Mrs Hudson clucks but Sherlock’s attention has been drawn to the gift that John is currently unwrapping (or more precisely, John’s reaction to it.) It’s a book with a plain, dark cover that John runs his hand over, almost caressing the thing.

“Wow, this is gorgeous,” John marvels. He opens the book and runs his fingers over the thick, ivory-coloured paper, providing a striking contrast with the peached, black cover. Moleskin or suede Sherlock theorises from the obvious pleasure that John is deriving from its texture.

“I know you like to write, so I thought that might inspire you,” Mrs Hudson explains.

“It’s lovely. Thank you, Mrs Hudson,” John says quietly, leaning over to squeeze her hand.

While Hudders opens a present from them, which seems to meet with her approval, Sherlock is surreptitiously watching John. For some reason he seems quite moved by the journal. His eyes keep straying to it and his fingers idly stroke the cover, over and over. There’s something he’s missing about this gift, but he can’t quite see what.

A blank journal – inviting the recording of thoughts and events, more personal than an online blog, perhaps inciting the writer to share more than they might when safe in the knowledge that it is for their eyes only; secrets, confessions, things that cannot be said aloud. Or is he totally off-track here and it’s the intrinsic aesthetics of the journal that John is reacting to? What would be significant about the soft, shadow-black against the heavy cream pages, a contrast not as severe as black and white, but gentler on the eye?

Frustrated at the lack of data, Sherlock turns his attention to the second present that Mrs H has deposited in his lap. It’s a tin of some description, with something dry and loose inside it, going by the weight distribution. He is pleased to find a large tin of Fortnum and Mason’s Royal Blend tea – one of their favourites due to its intense flavour and strong honey aftertaste.

John in the meantime has unwrapped a CD, a recording of Mendelsohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. It’s one that Sherlock plays quite regularly as he knows that it is one of John’s…

Sherlock turns a sharp look at their landlady, who seems to have a very good grasp of their likes and dislikes for an elderly woman with a daytime TV habit and a sweet if scatty demeanour. She seems oblivious to his scrutiny, twittering on about oven gloves and… something dull. Sherlock tunes her out. Either she is much more observant than she lets on, she snoops when he and John are out or she has coincidentally scored two direct hits on the private minutiae of Sherlock and John’s life together.

Or maybe he’s just being oversensitive and John’s last night at 221B is playing on his mind to the extent that it is making him doubt the selfless generosity of his kindly, thick-skinned, elderly landlady.

%%%

Everything this evening seems to be conspiring to make it unthinkable for John to leave Baker Street. He’s entertaining thoughts that he’s been forcing down for months, things that he hasn’t even acknowledged as wants or desires simply because they were so far outside the realms of the possible.

Tonight he feels like he could reach for them and they would be right there.

He doesn’t want to go back to his wife – he never did. In fact it has been a source of some guilt that he was glad to have been given this time with Sherlock, despite the abhorrent reasons for it. John likes his life here. He likes the person he is when he’s with Sherlock. He likes a knife in the mantelpiece, buffalo skulls with headphones on the wall, snatched meals in dodgy cafés, late night concerts courtesy of insomniac flatmates and experiments in progress while he’s making his breakfast toast. He likes Sherlock. He can’t get away from it; he loves him, as dreadfully confusing and utterly simple as that is.

John had thought Mary was safety. After Sherlock died, John wanted nothing more to do with the life they had built together. He’d craved normality and boredom if it meant that he’d never again have to endure the heart crushing grief of losing his friend.

Now he knows that he’d simply swapped one danger for another, and he feels like a fool. With Sherlock back in his life, he’s remembered why no one else could ever compare.

He doesn’t love Mary.

God! He doesn’t even like her!

He doesn’t want to go back to her.

He doesn’t want to be her husband even if she is the mother of his child.

Baker Street or no Baker Street, he wouldn’t want that life for himself anymore – and he can’t remember a single reason why he thought that she could replace what he has here.

As distracted by this as he is, he is unaccountably happy to spend time in Mrs Hudson’s slightly shabby sitting room and watch the Seventies fairy lights settle in the strands of Sherlock’s curls with pinks and greens and oranges. The reminiscences take them and have them laughing and teasing with good-natured digs at each other until nine o'clock rolls around and they all agree that tomorrow is an early start and Mrs Hudson brushes off their offer to help with the washing up and tidying.

John finds himself at the door, his presents and Sherlock’s safely in a carrier bag to take upstairs. Mrs Hudson indicates the mistletoe pinned above the threshold to her flat since he was in here earlier and pointedly presents her cheek for a kiss, which John is happy to oblige her with.

Sherlock joins them from the kitchen where he’s been depositing the empty wine glasses. Mrs Hudson goads Sherlock into a kiss with a minimum of argument, which is the strongest indicator so far of just how very mellow everyone is feeling.

They begin to say their final goodnights and exchange wishes for a joyful holiday season when Mrs Hudson suddenly squawks and asks them to wait while she finds the card she has written for Sherlock’s parents and she disappears into the kitchen with a flap of hands and a muttered, “now where did I put it?”

Sherlock seems to realise that they are stood beneath the mistletoe at exactly that same moment that John does. They both look up, then at each other.

“Ah,” Sherlock says.

“Better take a step back there,” John says with a teasing grin, ignoring the way his heart leaps in his chest. “Unless you want to give people something more to talk about.”

The corners of Sherlock’s lips twitch and his eyes shine a little. “As I have asserted before, they do little else. And why do I have to step back? You should step back.”

Flirting? Is that…flirting? Either John has had something more than red wine in his glass or Sherlock Holmes is getting playful with him – not that he probably realises that’s what he’s doing. The usual rules of human interaction don’t apply to Sherlock – they never have. And that’s made John’s life exponentially more complicated  - it’s confused him more than once, and he’s lost track of the number of times he’s had to clarify when one of his friend’s comments or actions has raised eyebrows.

But this evening feels different - the edges are blurred and his love for this impossible, infuriating man is bleeding into everything they say and do.

And it is love.

He’s spent so long without naming what he feels for Sherlock. To name it would have been to make it real and to make it real meant he would have had to address it. It was much easier to hide behind all the other emotions Sherlock instils in him – exasperation, pride, frustration, admiration, grief, fury, lust, and tenderness. God knows Sherlock has treated him to these and a great deal more.

John has one more night at 221B – the reprieve is over and his wife and his future await him. But tonight there is still time – to pretend, to forget and, yes, to play Sherlock at his own silly game and flirt.

“Because I was here first. Last warning, Sherlock - step back or I will not be held responsible for the consequences.”

%%%

John has his head tipped to the side, a challenging smile playing around his eyes. He’s daring Sherlock, seeing how far he will go before he ultimately backs-down. John’s error is that, this time, Sherlock isn’t going to back down. He knows he gets away with a lot that John might not let others get away with. He’s become aware over the years of their association that other people don’t stand as close as Sherlock stands to John, nor do they maintain eye contact for as long and he’s never seen anyone else, married, partnered or otherwise related move with such synchronicity as they do – it’s always been there but time has honed and enhanced it - not even Sherlock’s eighteen month absence has lessened it.

John’s smile becomes smug, anticipating victory but Sherlock puts paid to that with a raised eyebrow in response and a distinct lack of retreat.

“Oh, that’s how it’s going to be is it?” John asks, then grabs Sherlock’s shirt to pull his head down so they are face to face, only centimetres apart, breathing the same air and with one last glance between Sherlock’s mouth and his eyes, he presses their lips together.

It begins boisterously, shoving and jockeying for supremacy but within seconds it is something else entirely. John’s shoulders drop, and his mouth softens, fitting their lips together as a tiny involuntary noise sighs from John’s mouth to Sherlock’s.

He’s kissed people before, of both sexes, but this is undoubtedly more than Sherlock has ever experienced before. He wonders if the others were doing it wrong. There is an exciting flood of unexpressed emotion here that they have tapped into. Without his express instruction, Sherlock’s hands have come up to bracket John’s jaw and slide back into his hair (short and soft), while John’s grip on Sherlock’s shirt shows no sign of easing, he's dropped the bag and his other arm is curling around his waist. Pulling them closer together still.

John’s lips are warm and sweet from the wine, softer and more expressive than he had imagined. Sherlock varies the pressure and angle of their kisses, not out of dissatisfaction, but greedily trying to force several years worth of ideas into this opportunity. He finds he needs to voice his appreciation, in the same way that one might groan when sliding into a hot bath at the end of a cold day or moan when a greatly anticipated forkful of food is particularly delicious. John must agree because his hands tug more tightly and the slick brush of his tongue glances across Sherlock’s bottom lip, making him positively unsteady on his feet.

John is solid against him, strong and certain. Sherlock tries not to, but he cannot help but note that John is becoming aroused by their closeness, the hot thickness of him burning through the fabric of their clothing to brand Sherlock’s thigh. He smells so good that Sherlock’s mouth waters and he dives in deep when John’s lips part, trusting that he will catch him.

It can only be seconds, but it feels like hours before Mrs Hudson walks back into the room with a triumphant, “Found it!”

They step apart hurriedly, neither catching the other’s eye. John has brought the back of his hand to his mouth and Sherlock wishes he could do the same without drawing further attention to their activities. His lips retain the lingering warmth and taste of John Watson, something he has idly considered so many times before firmly pushing such fantasies aside.

Clearing his throat, Sherlock steps forward a little unsteadily and accepts the envelope Mrs Hudson hands to him.

They exchange one more round of Merry Christmas wishes and by the time the door clicks shut behind him, Mrs Hudson singing something indistinct from within, John is already half way up the stairs to their flat making Sherlock hurry to catch up. The ache in his groin is sweet and low and not at all unpleasant. John’s behaviour though is perplexing and it is with some trepidation that he follows him up to their flat.

John opens their door and lets Sherlock enter before him, pulling it closed behind them and checking the lock with a subtle twist of his wrist before he begins his evening routine of checking the windows, the kitchen and the fire before he goes up to bed. It’s something that Sherlock remembers his dad used to do. Hours after his official bedtime, Sherlock would still be awake reading or making notes, recording observations but when he heard his parents begin to lock doors, the metal clank of the fireguard in the fireplace and the snick of the key turning in the mechanism of the mantel clock, he knew he had to at least pretend to be asleep. It wasn’t something he was aware of listening for, but hearing the similar routine from John, Sherlock realises that it gives him the same sense of peace and security he used to experience. It’s ridiculous really. He’s a grown man. He’s been taking care of himself for more than twenty years now (with admittedly varying degrees of success). Yet that fleeting sensation of completeness, of the day being done and everyone he cared about being home and safe was obviously more powerful than he had realised.

It’s irrational of course, as well. Sherlock knows better than anyone the statistics about burglaries and people coming to sticky ends in their own homes but he cannot deny that he listens for John’s nightly routine. It was one of the things he would reconstruct in his mind while he was a captive. Like a touchstone, it was a promise to himself that as long as he remembered it, it would be there for him again one day. Superstitious nonsense or unconscious distraction strategy – either way he had found it comforting then, and he does now – even with this new variable hanging between them.

Instead of finishing his checks and saying his usual goodnight (sometimes with a hand on Sherlock’s shoulder and once, when he thought he was asleep, gentle fingers slowly carded through his hair) John returns to the sitting room with two glasses and a bottle of whiskey.

“Night cap?” he asks.

Sherlock takes a glass and watches as John splashes a short measure into both. He still won’t meet Sherlock’s eye, but there is an undoubted sense of purpose in what he’s doing. The kiss might have been a surprise, but Sherlock knows in this act John is stalling for the time he needs to order his thoughts and he is more than happy to play along if the alternative is pretending it never happened.

“As your doctor, I should be discouraging excess alcohol – it puts extra strain on your heart. But as your friend, I think we could both do with a drink right about now.”

John does that thing with his facial muscles where the intention is presumably to approximate a relaxed smile, when clearly his true state is anything but. He drops into his armchair and cradles the whiskey to his chest. Sherlock takes his place opposite and contemplates the fire burning low and quiet.

John has kicked off his shoes somewhere and sits without his usual easy familiarity. Sherlock matches him, which doesn’t go unnoticed and John’s posture deliberately becomes a little less stiff.

“What are we drinking to?” Sherlock asks when John doesn’t speak.

“I don’t know,” John says with a gravity that seems too great for the simple phrase.

“End of an era?”

“No, not that,” he says immediately and Sherlock cannot help the swell of hope that rises up in his chest as John finally looks him in the eye, his gaze direct and unwavering. And Sherlock should be getting this. He should know why John looks like this and sounds like he does. He’s been observing John Watson for years and still the man confounds him with his inconsistencies and his unpredictable choices.

“How about friendship?” John offers.

Sherlock nods and they raise their glasses in salute, muttering the words in accordance with the ancient tradition.

Sherlock should be reviewing his plans for Magnussen again, devising responses to the myriad variables – he has few cards left to play and he must be certain that he reveals them in the correct order and only when necessary. But he finds that their pre-arranged meeting is not sufficient to escape the pull of this moment, and John in this mood.

Rolling the scant sip he takes across his tongue before swallowing, John takes a breath.

“I’ve been thinking about tomorrow,” he begins.

It’s not what Sherlock was expecting to hear and he gives himself a mental shake, reordering his thoughts and chiding himself for assumptions. He tries to stop the lurching dive his stomach takes, thinking perhaps he misread the mistletoe incident. He’d been so certain that John’s reactions were along the lines of his own, to whit, “Finally!” But maybe that unexpected act was all the reassurance John had needed to know that his return to his wife was long overdue.

 “I can’t forgive her,” he admits and Sherlock is surprised by the vehemence and certainty of John’s voice.

“She was out of options. She couldn’t think of another route out of that room that wouldn’t implicate her or you.”

“You could have. You did.”

“Yes, but I am widely acknowledged to be a genius. I don’t think you can blame her for being a little slow. Most people are.” The joke falls flat although John acknowledges the effort with a sad lift to the corner of his mouth.

“I can’t forgive her, I don’t think I can even pretend to. And I’m not sure that I want to.”

Sentiment is making a fool of him. He is at the mercy of John’s words, this strange evening and his own long-ignored attraction. He fights for some semblance of control as John continues.

“I did love her, once. In a way. I was… I’m not saying this to get at you, but I was not good for a while there. I was functioning – at the time that seemed like a good option. I worked and slept and watched TV and ate - that was about all. She was kind, persistently so, even when I didn’t deserve it. I suppose in a way we were both looking for a different life to the one we had been living.”

He takes another sip of his whiskey. “She was trying to adjust to a new path and a new name, and I was adjusting to a world without the man I loved.”

The shock Sherlock can feel register on his face is reflected in John’s reaction. His features crumple for a moment.

“John…”

But he shakes Sherlock’s response off and holds up a finger, asking for a moment that Sherlock doesn’t want to grant, but knows he must.

John’s eyes stray to the cooling fireplace and he breathes through his nose. He lifts his glass to his lips and tosses down the last of his drink.

“It took me a while to admit it to myself and I don’t know if I’d ever have admitted it to you had you stayed. But it wasn’t until you were gone that I understood how deeply it had run, and it wasn’t until you came back that I knew it was forever.”

His eyes come back to meet Sherlock’s. “She knew that – there’s not much that gets past Mary. She wasn’t out of options. She chose to shoot you – that you survived was not her intention, it was simple luck.

“So you see, I cannot forgive her. I don’t love her. I will do what I can for the baby, whatever Mary will allow, but I want a divorce and nothing more to do with her as far as is possible.”

The mantel clock ticks out ninety interminable seconds of quiet and Sherlock concludes that John’s piece is said.

“Why did you wait until now to say this?”

“Because I’ve said goodbye to you too many times, Sherlock. And every time I have regretted not having let you know what you mean to me. After tonight’s demonstration, I think it’s unlikely that you can have any doubt how I feel about you. So the only question left to ask is…”

“Yes,” Sherlock blurts, not even slightly embarrassed by his haste.

John blinks at him, a small, fond smile breaking across his face. “Er… you don’t know what the question is yet.”

“Doesn’t matter – the answer is the same. Yes, I believe I know of your feelings for me. Yes, we should have discussed this earlier. Yes, you should divorce Mary and yes, you should stay here, with me, at Baker Street.”

John’s eyebrows rise as Sherlock’s list expands and he relaxes back into his armchair as he has done a hundred times before and will continue to do so if Sherlock has any say in the matter.

“Yes, you should text Mary and tell her not to come to my parents’ house. Yes, we can still go if you wish.”

John waits for a few seconds, then tips his head. “And?”

“Yes, John, I miscalculated – I didn’t recognise the reason for your hesitation and for my own part I thought I was ready to say goodbye to you. I thought I would be happy to see you happy, back with your wife. Now I know that you would be happier here, it seems it is my turn to tell you that yes…I… would greatly prefer that too.”

%%%

Sherlock waits a few beats, his eyes sliding from left and right when John doesn’t leap in to fill the conversational gap.

John licks his lips and feels a thrill of delight when Sherlock’s eyes are helplessly drawn to follow the path of his tongue. His friend sits up a little straighter, appearing ready to leap from his seat at a moment’s notice or a nod from John.

But he is not getting away with that. John has laid his heart out for Sherlock’s examination and he wants no less from him, or an excellent reason why not.

“And…?” John prompts him again with a lift of his eyebrows.

“Hmm?” Sherlock blinks and seems genuinely lost for an answer.

“And…” John gestures, his voice quiet and patient, “… this is the part where you tell me you love me.”

“Oh!” Sherlock breathes delightedly, then stops and wrinkles his nose. “Why do I have to say it first? Isn’t it thoroughly implied by this point in the evening?”

John shakes his head and is quietly horrified by the swell of affection that swamps him as this impossible berk tries to worm his way out of admitting that he is feeling sentimental. That rule has never applied to John and they both know it.

“I have said it.”

“No, what you said what that you were adjusting to a world without the man you loved!”

“Sherlock,” John warns, propping an elbow on the arm of his chair and resting his jaw on his fist.

“And although I am, with ninety-eight per cent certainty, the man you were referring to, that is not the same as directing a declaration…”

“Sherlock!”

“Fine!” Sherlock rolls his eyes and takes a deep breath, looking like a man who is confessing to a terrible crime. “In the interests of appeasing your bruised and clearly needy ego, I… am utterly devoted to you. My life is immeasurably better in every way since you arrived. I had no idea I was even capable of the kind of sentiment I seem to experience whenever you are near me and it is down to your presence that I…”

“Kiss me,” John interrupts.

Sherlock is up, out of his chair and in John’s lap in an instant.

%%%

At last the song is done and Martha watches as the last phrases of it dissipate, trickling away like sparks along the ceiling, fading into the shadows of the corners of her sitting room and sinking trills into the floorboards, leaving an echo singing down through her skin and into her bones, warm and comforting. It wasn’t a summoning she’d sung before and it had taken very easily, which probably had more to do with the two idiots who lived upstairs than with the complexity of the charm. Half of it had been common sense, with hardly a hint of craft to it. Put any other two people who had shared so much and who obviously loved each other as deeply as John and Sherlock did and she wouldn’t have needed to do anything – they would have sorted it out for themselves. But if there was a way of making his fate difficult, then her Sherlock could find it. She’d expected better things of John Watson though – he’d seemed such a practical chap. But they’d both turned out to be woefully dim in this case.

All it had taken in the end was some happy memories, some hints of their connection, a little wine and a little intimacy. John had seemed especially receptive, and the journal had been very effective with its cream pages the colour of Sherlock’s skin and the tactile cover the colour of his hair – John had always had a thing for Sherlock’s curls.

Sherlock’s had been more subtle – the tea with the honey aftertaste. Martha knew that Sherlock hoped to raise bees once he retired from the work and a nod toward John joining him in that future hadn’t been difficult.

Of course, the fact that it was the winter solstice had been in their favour.

And the mistletoe hadn’t hurt, either.

Oldest trick in the book.

She steps into the kitchen to get some water and the wine glasses are still resonating with the traces of the song, humming quietly to themselves, unwilling to let the charm go completely. She decides that the washing up can wait until the morning and switches off the light, smiling at the sweet notes ringing just on the edge of hearing.

Upstairs the light in Sherlock’s bedroom goes out too, plunging the little back garden into darkness. She hasn’t scried to see further, but the oppressive feeling of the last few weeks is gone and Martha knows that whatever critical point they were approaching has been averted, putting a new path in front of them. Who knows where that will take them? But they are safe for now and Martha is satisfied with that. Just a nudge in the right direction is all it took.

And now she’s for bed. She decides to indulge in one of her herbal soothers and possibly leaving the radio on overnight. Knowing the noise they can make on a normal day, she’s pretty sure she isn’t going to be wanting to overhear whatever it is they get up to tonight.

Watching over Sherlock Holmes is enough to test anyone’s patience and although the job description is very similar, Martha has never embraced the notion of being a Fairy Godmother for a number of reasons - in particular the travesty that Disney made of the role. (Wings,  for goodness sake!) But he’s a good boy underneath all of the bluff and bluster and he deserves to be happy – and that means John Watson.

There’s a thud from upstairs and it sounds like John’s voice sounding quite urgent, imploring Sherlock to…

Oh, well really! That’s… quite direct.

As she shuts her bedroom door, she thinks that maybe when she’s back from Cathy’s, she will look into some soundproofing – and she doesn’t need any skill at all to know that will be quite a good investment.

 

Fin.