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~*~

“Oi! Budge up, you,” John mock-growled, shattering the silent tranquility of 221b with stomping feet as he came in from outside with the daily post. The order was emphasized by John aiming a cheerful swat at the bottom of Sherlock’s feet with the cluster of envelopes he held in one hand.

Without opening his eyes, Sherlock pulled his feet back, freeing up a space for John to join him on the sofa where he was currently reclining, but the moment John was seated, Sherlock stretched his legs back out, settling his feet back firmly in John’s lap.

“Berk,” John laughed, the insult belayed by the way he immediately gave Sherlock’s right foot an affectionate rub with his free hand. “Brrr! You should be wearing socks, you idiot. Your feet are like ice cubes!”

“Mmmm,” Sherlock hummed without opening his eyes. It was one of those dreary, stereotypically soggy, cold, London days, with dampness pervading everything with its bitter chill and the very clouds appearing to huddle near the earth. He wouldn’t have even bothered to get out of their warm bed, much less don his pajamas and dressing gown if John hadn’t insisted on getting up that morning and starting a fire in the fireplace. James’ school had finished for the term. They weren’t leaving for Sussex until the day after tomorrow, and London’s criminal class had resumed its predictable pre-holiday lassitude. Maybe next year, he could convince John to accompany him to the Americas. Busting a smuggling ring for plastic, superhero themed ovens and plush dolls that giggled when tickled, or, alternately, investigating a cartel responsible for stealing ten thousand barrels of maple syrup would be far preferable to boredom.

Though he seemed to be the only one holding such an opinion. James seemed perfectly content to relax.

His son was currently wrapped in one of Mrs. Hudson’s knitted throws and had ensconced himself in John’s armchair with a mug of hot chocolate, a plate of oatmeal biscuits, and a textbook on the essentials of medical terminology that he’d borrowed from Molly. John, meanwhile, had been dividing his time between accomplishing the odd domestic task before they left town, (the laundry piled up with alarming regularity despite Sherlock sending the majority of his clothes out for dry cleaning), and revising some of his old blog posts for possible future publication in a book.

“Do you want me to fetch you a pair of socks?” John asked, interrupting Sherlock’s private ruminations. "Or rather, would you wear them if I brought them to you?"

At that, Sherlock slitted one eye open. “Touch my sock index again, and I will use your favorite mug for my upcoming moss experiment,” he threatened, earning a snicker from James.

“Stubborn idiot.”

“So you've said before. Repeatedly. I don't know why you persist in doing so. You know I prefer being barefoot when relaxing at home. Why should I bother wearing socks to keep my feet warm when it is so much more enjoyable and efficient to make use of your excess body heat?” Sherlock pointed out reasonably, opening his other eye to meet John’s bemused gaze. He wiggled his toes for emphasis and would have managed to slide his feet under John’s jumper to rest against John’s delightfully warm belly, had John not forestalled him by clamping both arms protectively against his stomach.

“Nope! I’m already chilled through from my trip to the shops. The last thing I want is a case of frostbite on top of that...and spare me the lecture about how frostbite is unlikely to occur based on ambient temperatures and all that rot. You know what I mean.”

Sherlock harrumphed again, closing his eyes and resuming his thinking pose. He heard John helping himself to Sherlock’s tea—courtesy of James—and then felt the sofa cushions shift slightly as John settled back to sort the mail he'd brought up.

“Right,” John muttered, more to himself than anybody else. There was a rustle of paper, followed by tearing sounds as John began opening envelopes. “Bill...bill...thank you card from a grateful client...a check for a finished case I'll deposit later...a plain envelope with no return address...based on the clearly disguised handwriting of somebody deliberately writing with their non-dominant hand it's probably some sort of a threat. I’ll save that for Lestrade to open later, preferably with gloves...or better yet, just give it to Mycroft...”

Sherlock’s lips quirked in a small smile. It delighted him to hear John demonstrating the deductive and observation techniques he’d learned at Sherlock’s side. As a reward, he gave John’s belly an affectionate rub with one foot, and received a quick squeeze to his ankle in return.

“Another bill...and huh. It looks like this package is for you, James, rather than yet more chemistry equipment for His Nibs.”

Sherlock’s eyes snapped open, observing the paper-wrapped parcel even as John extended an arm to hand it to its intended recipient.

Sturdy box, thick, waxed paper to keep the contents dry, size indicative of probable contents being either clothing or books, though the latter was more likely, knowing James’ interests. International postal markings on exterior. Conclusion: a gift, perhaps two, from Angela. Most likely a Christmas gift and a birthday gift since this was the first opportunity that she'd been able to provide James with either.

He watched as James ripped off the outer paper and opened the box itself. As anticipated, James pulled out two, brightly wrapped items that were clearly identifiable as books, a dark blue card envelope, (birthday card) a red card envelope, (Christmas card), and a thick, cream-coloured stationery envelope labeled 'Open me first'. The gifts and cards were set to one side before James slit the cream-coloured envelope open, per the written instructions. It contained several, handwritten pieces of folded stationery (the ink had bled through to the back) revealing elegant, slanted handwriting. A teacher’s handwriting. Several photographs were apparently tucked inside, because they fell out when James unfolded the letter. James glanced at them, before likewise tucking them off to the side. James met Sherlock’s curious gaze for a brief moment before turning his attention to the handwritten pages.

Sherlock found himself holding his breath as he watched the different micro expressions flickering over James’ features while James read: resignation, disappointment, a quick flicker of a smile, a grimace, followed by an eye roll. John remained seated beside Sherlock on the couch, still ostentatiously sorting through the mail, though the tension in his posture gave him away, meaning that John had clearly managed to deduce the sender as well.

After a few minutes, James set the pages down in his lap and sighed with visible disappointment .

“Bad news?” John asked mildly, not looking up from the bill he was pretending to read.

“It’s a letter from Mum,” James informed him with a wan smile, answering Sherlock's unasked question. “But I know you both already know that.” He reread a few sentences and grimaced again. “She says she misses me and wants to know how I’m doing...but it’s clear she still hasn’t accepted either of you as my dads.”

“How so?” John asked, once again giving voice to Sherlock’s own thoughts. He looked up and raised an eyebrow.

“Here, see for yourself,” James replied, offering the letter to John, resulting in a second raised eyebrow. The photographs he kept to himself.

“Are you sure?” Sherlock asked, abandoning all pretense of not being curious. “You don't have to show us. You’re entitled to your privacy, after all. More importantly, you're growing up and we trust you to not keep dangerous secrets from us.”

“I’m sure,” James reassured them both. “I’m not sure if I should even respond, since I told her the last time that I spoke with her, I told her she needed to quit treating you both as abominations...and she hasn't. Go ahead and read it. I want to hear what you think.”

John's lips twitched, but he accepted the pages. Sherlock, meanwhile, sat up and shifted so he could lean against John’s side. To his private gratitude, John’s left arm immediately slid around his waist, providing a warm, comforting weight. “Can you see alright?” John asked, unfolding the pages with a snap of his wrist and holding them up for Sherlock's scrutiny.

Sherlock nodded, his eyes already tracking over the paper and automatically noticing irregularities in the thickness of the ink and the odd spot of water damage from tears.

15 December 20—

Dear James,

I am writing to you from sunny Crete. I decided that I needed a change of pace from Switzerland this year. I know we parted on a less-than-pleasant note, but I’m hoping that enough time has passed that you can think better of me.

I am doing well, though I miss you terribly. It’s been several months, after all. I worry about you, and I hope that you are still safe, and healthy, and happy. This is not meant as a slight to Mr. Holmes or Doctor Watson; this is simply a mother’s natural prerogative for the wellbeing of her only child. I wonder about how tall you must be now, and whether you’re still suffering from panic attacks. I am curious to know if you are still cooking the meals I taught you how to prepare, and whether you are still taking riding lessons.

I’ve enclosed your Christmas gift and your birthday present. I hope you like them both. I can’t believe that you are already going to be fourteen, a true young adult. It seems like only yesterday that I was was feeling you kick inside of me as I played pieces by Girolamo Frescobaldi and Domenico Scarlatti for you, followed by cradling you in my arms as a newborn while we listened to performances by Clara Haskill, Rachmaninoff, and Vladimir Horowitz. I don’t know if you have any pictures from that time, so I’ve included copies of the ones I have. I’ve also included pictures of my parents—your grandparents—our home, and one of you and I from just before you died were taken away from me.

Are you still practicing piano? Have you given any thought to continuing your piano lessons in University? I hope you are. You are so talented, I’m sure you would be a wonderful concert pianist if you decided to pursue it. I’ve enclosed a recording of some of the pieces I’ve been practicing recently. I would love it if you would send me an updated picture if to so that I could see how you are growing up, or at least a letter telling me how you are faring in London. I do miss our times together, after all.

The school continues to flourish as far as enrollments and student achievements. Music continues to remain our most popular therapeutic element for developing and improving fine motor control, but I am looking into adding a therapeutic ballet course in the future. One of the physical therapists at the school recently attended a conference and learned about how ballet can help students develop greater strength and gross motor skills. I am also considering the purchase of a small church organ to supplement the piano in the school’s music room since it requires that musicians be able to play with their hands and their feet. I have never mastered the organ myself, but I think it might present an interesting challenge.

As always, I love you very much and you continue to reside in my heart and prayers.

Love,

‘Mum’

“So, Dad...what do you think?” James asked Sherlock when John folded the pages and handed them back. James' voice was level, containing no overt emotion, but Sherlock could still read the traces of apprehension in his eyes.

Sherlock looked up to meet John’s eyes. John’s lips were pursed and the way he was resting his clenched hand against his knee was telling. Angela's one reference to them had been damning with faint praise, without even the courtesy to acknowledge John and him as James' parents. He knew that John hadn’t forgiven Angela for her past insinuations—not that Sherlock blamed him. His own sentiments were identical to John’s in that respect. At the same time, he knew that James still loved his mother—despite her flaws and the relative stranger she still was. He'd always been careful not badmouth Angela in James' presence. He wasn't foolish enough to try and divide James' loyalties by trying to cast Angela as the villain the way so many other parents did when they parted from a child’s other parent on less-than-acrimonious terms.

The fact that he and Angela had never been and would never be married was irrelevant.

Aware that James was still waiting for an answer, Sherlock took a few more moments to formulate a hopefully-acceptable, neutral response. “She’s your mother,” Sherlock began slowly, meeting James’ gaze steadily. “I—we—” he amended, glancing up at John, a correction that earned him a reassuring squeeze around the waist, “—have said from the beginning that it was your decision as far as how much time you wished to spend with her and the amount of contact you felt comfortable with. She’s flawed, just like the rest of us are, but she loves you very much. That much is clear.”

“That’s not really an answer,” James pointed out with an exasperated eye roll. “Dad?” he asked again, the direction of his gaze making it clear that this time he was addressing John, not Sherlock.

John blinked, his surprise evident. Sherlock did too, a sudden warmth blooming in his chest. It wasn’t the first time James had called John 'dad', but calling John by his given name was still more common than not. It gave Sherlock a private thrill every time he did hear James voluntarily bestow the title. 'Dad' was a simple-enough word: two identical consonants and a single vowel arranged in a palindrome, but it signified so much. It spoke of James' trust and acceptance of John as a parent, and it reaffirmed their existence as a family unit, regardless of whether or not he and John ever formalized their union.

To his credit, John recovered almost immediately. The only indicator of John's feelings was the slight tremor in the hand resting on Sherlock's hip. Sherlock shifted slightly so he could wrap a long arm around John’s shoulders to provide reciprocal comfort. The gesture earned him a soft smile from John that spoke volumes about his love before John turned back to face James with a grim expression stamped on his features.

“I’ll be honest,” John began, meeting James’ gaze squarely. “I don’t like Angela. She may have apologized, but that doesn’t mean I’ve forgiven her for assuming the worst about your dad and me. Nor have I forgotten the underhanded ways she tried to force the decision about where you would live without bothering to find out what you wanted. I am also not happy that she’s initiated contact with you, despite you expressing your opinions about her prejudices and what she needed to change before you would consider visiting her again.” John paused to steal his own sideways glance at Sherlock before turning back to James. He grimaced. “That being said, your dad’s right. She is your mother and as long as she’s not actively endangering your health, safety, or wellbeing—or anybody else's in this family—it really should be up to you and what you feel comfortable with.”

James blew out a frustrated breath. “That’s still not telling me what I should do. I'm asking because I don’t know how I should respond...or if I even should. I don’t want to make things worse than they already are.”

“Be that as it may, it’s still ultimately your decision James,” Sherlock said quietly.

“Welcome to the many joys of growing up,” John added with a wry smile.

James leaned back in his chair, his face creased in thought. Sherlock watched him silently. It was easy enough to follow the logic chains James was undoubtedly exploring: say nothing and damage his relationship with his mother even further, say nothing and reinforce Angela’s mistaken assumption that Sherlock was the one keeping James away, even though James himself had told his mother he would stop seeing her and why. Respond and...what? Open up a fresh can of worms? Even though Angela had learned the truth in August, was she still convinced that James would carry out his threat? The fact that she’d sent James an unsolicited letter indicated not. On the other hand, Sherlock could all-too-easily recall the minutes/days/hours he’d spent staring at his mobile after his return, willing it to light up with a text message from John, any text message from John, or better yet a call from John saying he was on his way over.

To his surprise, Sherlock found himself opening his mouth to a few words in Angela's favor, not unlike Mary had done for him so long ago, despite knowing how Sherlock felt about her then-fiancé. A unexpected and perhaps undeserved gift that he would forever treasure.

Perhaps it was time to pass the gesture on to another undeserving fool.

“I’ve done some things that could easily have been considered unforgivable—" Sherlock admitted under John and James' suddenly rapt gazes. "Far worse than being prejudiced against someone for their sexual orientation. I did them for love. I did them because I couldn't stand the thought of those I'd decided to protect being hurt, or tortured, or killed because I wasn't clever enough, or brave enough, or observant enough, or too arrogant to keep them safe. In a sense, it worked: none of the people I Fell for died...but that didn't mean they didn't get hurt and suffer as a result of my own stupidity." Sherlock paused to swallow hard, thinking of what Lestrade had said about having to take away John's gun. If Lestrade hadn't, then all of Sherlock's efforts to protect the man he loved would have been for naught. "To my eternal gratitude, Molly, Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade and—most importantly, John—all saw fit to give me another chance despite my incredible folly. It's been almost five months since you've last seen Angela. I will not force you to see her. You don't even have to accept anything from her if you don't want to. But...speaking from the past experience of someone who was once convinced that the person I cared for most in the world hated me and that I had destroyed my chances of ever having any sort of relationship with them as a consequence of my own stupidity...even the tiniest olive branch can serve as a ray of hope and a motivator to do better." Sherlock met James' eyes and he knew James was remembering the countless times he'd caught Sherlock staring at his silent phone, or watching John and Mary together. "Speaking as your dad," Sherlock continued, "I know that if you had decided that you preferred to live elsewhere instead of Baker Street, I too would have worried for your happiness and safety regardless of any reports your Uncle Mycroft supplied me with to reassure me of same. I also know I would have welcomed any and all letters, cards, or texts that you decided to send me. I do so already," he added with a crooked smile, thinking of some of their more lively text exchanges.

James smiled at that, but then looked down and his lap, his fingers fidgeting nervously under the fabric of the throw. “Maybe...but I still feel guilty that I didn’t stand up to her earlier to defend you—”

“It’s not your job to defend us,” Sherlock interrupted, his comment seconded by John's firm nod. “As we’ve told you before, we can take care of ourselves. It is our job as your dads to defend and protect you.”

“—and part of me is still mad at her because she hasn't changed," James continued as if Sherlock hadn’t spoken, causing Sherlock to sigh mentally. He thought they’d settled the matter over who was responsible for protecting whom after the whole mess with Moriarity Sr., but apparently not. He would have to make sure that he and John readdressed the issue with James at some later point.

"But you're right, she is my mum and I do care about her. I don't want her to be sad or afraid. I still don't want to talk to her yet, but a text doesn’t seem right,” James concluded. He continued to stare down at his lap as he worried at his bottom lip. Eventually James looked up with a pleading look on his face. “I’m...stuck, and I don’t know what to do. You're my dads. Help me?”

John's eyes met Sherlock's, silently communicating John's reluctance and apprehension about voicing his suggestion. Sherlock shook his head and gave John another reassuring squeeze. Sentiment was making it hard for him to think, but John wasn't his conductor of light for no reason. He'd lost track of the number of times that John's insightful suggestions had resulted in a muddied situation suddenly becoming clear. He had utter confidence that John would do so again.

“Well, in that case, maybe you should write her a letter back,” John offered, turning back to face James. He shrugged one shoulder. “It doesn’t have to be a long one, just a note reassuring her that you’re fine and perhaps one or two things about what you’ve been up to recently. I know the parents I was deployed with always enjoyed getting letters from home. More than a few bunks had drawings of space aliens and family pets surreptitiously taped to the underside of the beds above.”

“Dad?” James asked, addressing Sherlock this time.

Sherlock nodded. John’s suggestion was brilliant, as always. “Your dad’s idea is sound. It would also give you time formulate your response.”

“Okay,” James agreed. “I’ll do that.” He paused. “Do you think I should send her a Christmas gift since she’s sent me one?”

“Once again, that’s up to you.”

“I'm not saying I'm going to, but if I did get her gift, what do you think she’d like?”

“She did ask for a current photo of you,” Sherlock pointed out. “It would be easy enough to find a nice frame in the shops that would suit one of your school pictures. If you wanted, we could purchase it before we head to Sussex, or even afterwards, if you want more time to think on it.”

James nodded. “Okay. I think I will. Wait I mean,” he clarified, looking a bit more relaxed at the prospect of not having to reply immediately. "I'll worry about the letters and pictures after we get back."

“That’s settled then,” John said, releasing Sherlock and pushing himself to his feet. “I’m gonna make myself a cuppa and a fresh one for Sherlock.” He leaned forward and helped himself to an oatmeal biscuit. “Bless Mrs. Hudson," he mumbled as he took a bite. "Do you want anything James?” John asked, turning to place another biscuit in the impetuous hand that Sherlock was holding out

“No, I'm good, but could you put these under the tree for me, please?” James replied, holding up the gifts and indicating the small tree that he’d insisted on decorating standing in the corner. "It's not time to unwrap them yet."

“Sure thing,” John agreed, crossing the room to set the presents down beside a handful of other gifts, before vanishing into the kitchen in pursuit of hot caffeine.

~*~

9th January 20—

Dear Mum,

Happy New Year. I’m glad to hear you’re doing well. I am too. The school term’s over and I’m sure you’d be proud of me since I finished first class in all of my courses. I appreciate the book of obscure piano sonatas you sent me for my birthday. Some of them are proving to be a real challenge, which is perfect since Grand-mère arranged for me to take a piano master class at the Royal Academy of Music in London for my birthday present. I’m also enjoying the Italian cookbook you gave me for Christmas. Mrs. Hudson is helping me learn to cook more things. I made a tiramisu from scratch for Dad’s birthday that everybody agreed was as good, if not better than the one from our favorite Italian restaurant!

I hope you like the pictures I’ve sent. Dad really wanted to include the skull in our family portrait, but my other dad talked him out of it. The one of Laure and me was taken at our school’s winter ball. Every time you look at them, you'll see that I'm fine, so you don't have to worry anymore.

Love,

‘James’