Actions

Work Header

On the Table (Eventually John Watson's Favorite Christmas Story)

Work Text:

In retrospect, he really should have seen it coming. Not that he was going to complain. Not much, anyway.

1 December

It was nearly midnight when John Watson turned his key in the lock and opened the street door of 221B. The building was quiet -- Mrs. Hudson had gone to bed long ago -- and he was careful to tread lightly on the stairs. She was still unused to the odd hours he worked. So was he, though he would never admit as much to anyone. He needed the money and the occupation of time, and it gave him something better to think about.

Well, mostly better.

He let himself into the flat and flicked on the lights before pulling off his coat and hanging it on the rack by the door. He unwound the scarf from his neck and hung it there as well, and then crossed the room to turn on the television. He flicked through the channels until he found one with 24-hour news and parked it there before heading to the kitchen. He put the kettle on, pulled a cup from the cupboard, and opened the canister he kept the tea bags in.

He turned to lean back against the counter and sighed, willing the tension to drain from his shoulders. Coming off a twelve-hour shift was never easy, and tonight he'd barely had a break. It was fulfilling work, though, and he knew he was good at it. He'd always had a calming bedside manner, and tonight it had been put to the test half a dozen times as multiple car accident victims had been brought in. He couldn't think about anything other than the work on days like this, and that was a good thing. He needed the distraction.

Coming back to the flat was a relief in some ways, the quiet wrapping itself around him and pulling him back down to reality. The television, rarely used for background noise until the last few months, was a comforting presence. He tried to focus on the news anchor's voice across the room, reading the day's headlines, most of which seemed to center around the Duchess of Cambridge's pregnancy.

That was when he saw it. He wondered how he'd missed it for the full two minutes he'd been in the flat; his observational skills had clearly slipped in the last few months. Stress and sleep deprivation did that to a person. Sherlock would be – would have been – disappointed.

He crossed to the kitchen table and examined the clear plastic box that sat on the far edge. The mouse encased inside stared back at him with nervous black eyes, its nose twitching. It was almost cute.

"So you're the one who's been getting into the pantry, are you?" John tapped the plastic trap with a finger and the mouse startled. It scurried back and forth in its tiny cage for a moment before settling down again and watching him warily.

Mrs. Hudson must have set the trap after he mentioned the mouse last week. How like her to use one of the humane ones. He'd have to work out what to do with it, though. He supposed he could set it loose in Regent's Park in the morning, let nature take its course. He couldn't remember if he'd seen any raptors there, but at least it would have a hard time finding its way back to his flat.

The kettle clicked off, drawing his attention. He poured the cup and settled on the sofa, leaving the mouse in limbo for now. He'd take care of it tomorrow after a good night's sleep.

Well – after some sleep, anyway. Good no longer covered it.

*****

2 December

The mouse had been easy enough to release. It scurried away into the hedges the moment he opened the tiny door, vanishing from sight before he'd even registered it had leapt from the trap.

He had lunch at a local Indian spot, one he'd been avoiding for sentimental reasons. The server was new and didn't know him at all, didn't know who he was or what had happened to him. There was no sympathetic smile or knowing pats on the arm, nor any furtive glances from the other patrons. He was simultaneously grateful and annoyed.

It wasn't as if he wanted to be treated like a grieving widow, after all – it hadn't been like that, no matter what everyone seemed to think. But the story had vanished far more quickly than John had anticipated, and he couldn't help but feel a pang of sorrow that Sherlock's star had faded so quickly. It was as if John was the only one who remembered him.

He pushed the food around on his plate for a while before giving up and paying the bill.

He'd volunteered to cover someone on the night shift, so he headed home and forced himself to lie down for a few hours. He dozed and might have slept – it was hard to tell when his dreams were about lying there awake – and finally roused himself a few hours before midnight to take a shower and eat a sandwich.

At first, the large brown envelope on the kitchen table didn't catch his attention. He walked past it at least twice before he realized he couldn't remember seeing it earlier. He picked it up and unfastened the clasp, but it was empty. He turned it over and examined it, but there were no markings of any kind.

He shrugged and dropped it onto a pile of unopened post on the counter, then pulled on his coat and headed downstairs.

*****

3 December

He slept most of the day after arriving home midmorning. The sun had already set before he forced himself awake. It was relatively early, but at this rate his sleep cycle would be completely fucked. The night shift hadn't been a complete wash, though; he'd had a chance to chat up one of the other new doctors, a woman named Sylvia with a lovely smile and bright green eyes. He hadn't asked her out just yet, but she seemed like she might be agreeable to the idea.

His next shift was the following morning, so he needed to have a decent meal and try to get back to sleep by midnight. He turned the television on again and frowned at the selection. So many channels, yet nothing to watch. Was he up for Eastenders tonight? Perhaps not.

He headed to the kitchen to put the kettle on and stopped in the doorway. There was a coil of rope placed neatly on the edge of the table, the soft cotton kind that he'd used to practice tying knots on the occasional weekends his uncle had taken him and Harry boating when they were kids. He picked it up from the table and unfurled it: it was at least two yards long.

He frowned. It must be Mrs. Hudson's, though he couldn't for the life of him think of what she might use it for. The kettle clicked off; he re-coiled the rope and set it back on the table.

*****

4 December

It was late when he climbed the stairs after his shift. A cold front had come through and brought freezing rain with it, and the walk home from the Tube stop was fairly miserable. John switched on the lights and crossed to the kitchen to set the bag of Chinese takeaway on the table.

The bag promptly fell over onto its side, and he swore under his breath as he plucked it from the table to right it again. He'd set it right on the coil of rope.

He frowned. He'd taken the rope downstairs with him that morning before he left. Mrs. Hudson hadn't answered when he knocked, so he'd left it on the foyer table, hoping she'd see it. Apparently she had done and had brought it straight back up. Did she think it was his? His forehead furrowed even more: was it his? He couldn't remember buying a length of rope in the last year or so. It was typical of the odd sort of thing Sherlock would have had lying around, though the flat had been scoured of everything of Sherlock's in the months following his death.

John swallowed and traced the coil of rope with his fingers. Maybe it was Sherlock's and Mrs. Hudson had found it in her flat. Perhaps she was returning it. His fingers tightened around the rope for a moment and he closed his eyes.

Shit.

These small moments of grief never ceased to surprise him. He thought he was fine, that he was done with it all, that he'd moved on, and then something as innocuous as a fucking piece of rope would appear and shatter the illusion of healing. He knew what the books said, that it took up to a year to emerge from the depths of bereavement when mourning the loss of a… He still didn't know what label applied.

He coiled the rope more tightly and shoved it into a drawer in the kitchen, out of sight.

*****

5 December

"Mrs. Hudson?"

She'd always said to come right in if the door was unlocked, but he still didn't feel comfortable with that level of informality. He remained awkwardly in the doorway and listened.

"Do come in, dear. I'll be right there."

He closed the door behind him and stood near the kitchen table. This flat hadn't changed a bit in the last six months. It was a bit like stepping back in time, to a time when his life was… different. He'd cleaned out his own flat, rearranged furniture, stripped away all traces of Sherlock. He didn't want to be reminded on a daily basis. It was the only way he'd been able to stay there.

Mrs. Hudson came into view at last, apron tied around her waist and hair all frizzy. She beamed at him and gestured to a chair. "Sit down, dear. I'll put the kettle on."

John hesitated, but he had no good reason to refuse. He shrugged after a moment and sat while she busied herself with the kettle.

"It's lovely of you to stop by, John. I don't see much of you these days."

He smiled. "I'm working a lot of odd hours. I enjoy it, though."

She set two cups on the table along with the sugar bowl and settled in the chair opposite him. "You do seem to be getting on well."

He smiled and looked down at his hands. "Do I?"

"You always did like a bit of excitement, didn't you? I suppose a heart attack victim isn't as thrilling as a serial killer, but it's something."

John grinned. "I suppose so."

The kettle clicked off and she stood and crossed to it. He watched her pour hot water into the pot and waited until she was seated again before he pulled a small ball of purple yarn from his pocket and placed it on the table between them. "I believe this is yours."

"Oh, goodness, so it is." She picked it up and examined it. "I'm doing a bit of knitting for Christmas, you know. I must have dropped it in the foyer."

"Actually, you left it upstairs, in the flat."

"Did I? Goodness, I'm scattered lately. I don't recall taking it upstairs." She frowned at the yarn.

John smiled. "It's quite all right. I don't mind. Besides, it gave me a reason to come down for tea, didn't it?"

Mrs. Hudson set the yarn aside and beamed at him. She lifted the lid of the teapot and glanced inside before pouring him a cup. "Well then, tell me all about A&E. Is it as exciting as it looks on telly? Life and death decisions, blood spurting about, that sort of thing?"

John laughed. "Sometimes. But without all the romance, unfortunately."

She spooned a lump of sugar into her tea and winked at him. "Well, if you're looking to meet another nice doctor, I suppose you're in the right spot, aren't you?"

He laughed, a bit half-heartedly. "I suppose so."

*****

7 December

He hadn't looked at the table when he got home from his shift. He'd gone straight to the shower, then changed clothes, and had really only glanced into the kitchen on his way out the door.

There had been nothing on the table the day before, no random object left there for him to puzzle over, and so he'd reckoned he was correct, that it had been Mrs. Hudson leaving things on the table for him the last few days.

But tonight there was something new waiting for him there: a box of condoms. Condoms, really? He picked up the box and frowned. He hadn't told Mrs. Hudson that he had a date tonight, and even if he had, he couldn't quite wrap his brain around the idea of her picking up condoms along with the shopping and leaving them discreetly on the kitchen table for him to find.

He'd mentioned it to a few people, though – to Greg, for one, in response to a text asking if he wanted to meet at Greg's local that evening for a pint or three. He'd texted back that he had a date, and Greg had responded with a rather naughty and off-color remark that roughly translated to good luck, mate.

John grinned. Greg must have sent the condoms as a joke, and it was just a coincidence that they were placed on the table in the same spot as the things Mrs. Hudson had left behind. If Mrs. Hudson had brought them up, it even made sense.

He opened the box and pulled out one foil packet, turning it over in his fingers. It was just a first date. He liked Sylvia, and she seemed to like him, but it wasn't as if he really expected the evening to end that way. Not that he would complain if it did – he hadn't got a leg over in an embarrassingly long time – but he supposed it didn't hurt to be prepared. He stuck the condom in his back pocket and headed down the stairs.

*****

"And it was such a lovely cottage, really, right by the seashore, and the weather was perfect the entire time. I don't suppose you've been?"

John forced a smile. "No, we didn't – I haven't been on a proper holiday in… God, I don't know how long."

Sylvia's gaze bore into him for a moment before she looked away. "You're not ready for this, are you?"

"What do you mean?"

"Have you any idea how many times you've said we in the last hour? I won't pretend to know what it's like, to have lost someone like that, but I have a friend from uni whose husband died of cancer a few months ago. It's been so hard for her."

"No, no, it's not – I mean, I'm fine, I am." He didn't bother protesting it anymore. Everyone thought they'd been a couple, and he'd come to terms with the fact that they actually were a couple in a way, even if not in the traditional sense. He'd long ago stopped trying to correct everyone's assumptions about what else might have happened between them.

"You don't have to explain."

"I know I don't. I just…" He shrugged. "I need to get on with my life, you know? This is me trying. To move on."

She sighed and set her wine glass down next to her empty plate. "I do like you, John."

Oh God, here it was, then. "But."

There was a pained expression on her face. "But I'm not up for this. My life is complicated enough with Noah and I can't start anything that I'm not reasonably confident is going to work out. He's just five years old, and it's not fair to him to have men coming in and out of his life like that." She paused and shook her head. "As if looking for a friend and lover weren't enough, I have to consider him as well."

"I can imagine."

She pulled her phone from her handbag and tapped at the screen for a moment before handing it to him. The photo on the screen was of a small boy, smiling impishly from under a mop of ginger curls. There was a dusting of freckles across his tiny upturned nose, and his green eyes sparkled as he looked up at the camera.

John felt an inexplicable wave of sadness. "He's adorable. Is his father around? In his life, I mean." He handed the phone back to her.

Sylvia's expression hardened slightly, something he might not have noticed before spending a year and a half with Sherlock. "Yes, but it's still… We try to minimize the amount of time we see each other. Noah's with him this weekend." She tucked the phone back into her purse. "It's strange to be alone in the house. It's so quiet.

"I know what you mean." John pursed his lips. "I don't suppose you'd like to…" He stopped himself and looked away. "No, I'm sorry, that was… forget it."

She laughed. "Probably not a good idea. Or possibly a brilliant one, and I won't realize it until I'm lying in my bed alone tonight. But… no, I don't think so."

They talked another twenty minutes, and it was easy and relaxed now that they both knew it would be nothing more than this. She even laughed good-naturedly when the condom fell out of his wallet and landed in the middle of the table when he went to pay the check.

She shook his hand outside and said she'd see him at the hospital, and they took separate cabs home.

*****

8 December

He was glad it had been an early night, in retrospect. His shift the next day was rough, and though the time flew by, it left him emotionally drained and physically exhausted. He stripped off his coat the moment he closed the door of the flat and headed to the kitchen for a beer. He popped off the cap on the counter and then downed half of it in one go.

He sighed and turned around. There was something sitting on the table in the usual spot. He crossed to pick it up.

It was a tube of hand lotion, a generic brand from Boots, nothing special. Underneath it was a slip of folded paper on which were printed the words, Since your date didn't work out, this might come in useful.

John's eyebrows shot up. He briefly contemplated shooting off a fuck you text to his favorite detective inspector, but of course, he didn't know for certain that it was Greg's doing. He hadn't said a word to anyone about how his date had gone, so how would Greg even know? Perhaps he'd assumed.

John settled on the sofa with the lotion in one hand and the beer in the other and sighed. God, he was tired. Too tired to wank, even. He dug his phone from his pocket and tapped out a text.

Still want to meet for a pint sometime?

The reply came before he finished his beer.

You off tomorrow night?

Yes

It's a date then. My local @ 8:00.

John's lips twisted into a smile. See you then.

*****

9 December

John had the entire day off and he slept through much of it. It was early afternoon when he finally roused himself, and he scrounged up some lunch and settled in his favorite chair with a cup of tea and yesterday's paper.

The tube of lotion was still on the sofa table, and he eyed it for a moment. Greg's "date" comment had been rattling about in his mind, and after a very colorful dream he'd had last night involving Greg and a pair of handcuffs, he was starting to wonder if there was more going on here than he'd initially thought.

He'd got off with a bloke before – blokes, plural, to be completely honest. Most of those occasions were a bit blurry, as he'd been spectacularly pissed at the time, but it wasn't as if he was opposed to the idea in theory. And he had to admit that the idea of a friends-with-benefits sort of thing with a man was rather appealing. No messy emotions or relationship expectations, just the occasional shag, when convenient.

He had no idea if Greg would be up for that sort of thing, but it was worth a shot.

Greg embraced him outside the door of the pub, grinning from ear to ear. "No offense, mate, but you look like you could use a night out."

"Absolutely." John clapped him on the shoulder and grinned back. "Let me get the first round."

Three rounds in, Greg's cheeks were flushed and he laughed easily, and John had to admit the idea of something beyond friendship was growing more and more appealing.

"Still think you'll get back together?"

Greg made a pained face. "No, I think it's really over. I'm just done with it, with all of it. If she wants to fuck around, fine. But I'm not waiting for her to decide she wants me at the end of the day, you know?"

John sighed. "I'm sorry."

"Me too. But enough about my shitty love life. Let's talk about yours. Your date didn't go well, I take it?"

John snorted and shook his head. "No. Apparently I didn't impress her very much." He paused and looked up at Greg. "So how'd you know?"

Greg shrugged. "You wouldn't have asked me to meet you out if you had something better to do. Or someone better to do."

John bumped his shoulder against Greg's. "Not true. You know I'm fond of you."

Greg smiled. "Yeah. But you're not shagging me, are you?"

John's cheeks flushed and he hesitated a moment too long. "No, I suppose I'm not."

Greg's eyes widened and he looked away. "John—"

Shit. "No, don't say it. Just leave it."

Greg shook his head. "You know how much I like you. But I'm not gay."

"Neither am I," John retorted. As if that meant anything anymore.

"I'm not bi, then, whatever. I do like you, but not… like that."

John pressed his forehead against the bar. "Oh God. Greg—"

"Don't take it personally, okay? It's not an issue." One hand slid up John's back and squeezed his shoulder, and Greg leaned in close enough to whisper, "And just between us, if I did swing that way, you'd be the first bloke I'd want to shag."

John burst out laughing, unable to help himself. "Okay, fantastic. Can we please change the subject now?"

"Right," Greg said, and gave him a friendly shove. "You watching the Heineken Cup?"

"You know I rely on you for rugby news." He gestured with his almost empty pint glass. "Go on then, make me feel like an idiot. It brings back good memories."

Greg's face fell and John winced.

"Sorry. You know what I mean."

Greg seemed to force a smile. "I'll get another round. The same?"

John sighed. "Yeah."

Jesus, could he fuck up any more tonight? Probably.

*****

It was past midnight when he finally stumbled in. Fucking key sticks every time. Fucking door. So fucking many stairs.

He opened the door to the flat and switched on the light and winced. Fucking bright. Why were light bulbs so fucking bright? What the fuck?

He untangled himself from his coat and dropped it to the floor, then crossed to the kitchen. Water. He was thirsty and it would help with the hangover. He poured a glass and drank the whole thing, then poured another. He exhaled and stepped forward, and leaned against the table.

There was a small object sitting on the other side, in the same spot where the condoms and the lotion had been. He squinted at it for a moment before reaching across the table to pick it up.

It was a rubber, grey and oblong, the sort he hadn't used since he was in school. Seriously, why the fuck was there a rubber on the table? He wasn't even sure he owned a pencil. He'd written with bloody Biros for more than two decades. Eh, whatever. He tossed it in the general direction of the desk and walked around the corner to the bathroom.

He pissed, brushed his teeth, and stripped out of his clothes. He left them on the bathroom floor and, after a moment's thought, crossed to the living room to retrieve the lotion before sliding into bed.

He'd started sleeping in Sherlock's room not long after he'd died. It was for comfort at first, and when John finally decided to keep the flat, it made sense to sleep in the larger room. More convenient, closer to the bathroom, and the sheets were nice, he had to admit. Soft, high thread count, fucking glorious against his naked skin.

His hand slid down and wrapped around his cock, and he exhaled. He wasn't going to think; he was just going to toss off and keep his mind blank and that was it. No fucking thinking, especially not about certain police officers or… or anyone else. No. Just the slide of the sheets and the warmth of his hand on soft-hard skin and unnngh yes, that was nice, long slow strokes with a tight circle of forefinger and thumb, twisting at the head.

He fumbled for the lotion on the bedside table. He usually wanked in the shower and hadn't used lube in ages, but the idea was interesting enough. He squeezed a generous amount into his hand and slathered it onto his dick without thinking to warm it first. He yelped at the sensation, but that wasn't bad either, really. It was interesting and different, and now it was warming up and the slick slide of his hand, oh yeah. There was a squelching sound and he grinned, and then his mouth fell open because that, that was fucking good, and fuck if he wasn't a damn good shag all on his own.

Greg didn't know what he was missing. He could have pulled Greg off and Greg could've closed his eyes and he wouldn't have known the difference. Or maybe he would have let John suck him off, and Jesus, the idea of that sent a shiver through him. He could picture himself on his knees, on the floor in the sitting room of this flat, Greg on the sofa, maybe.

He pressed two fingers into his mouth and tried to imagine it: Greg would tangle a hand in his hair and groan appreciatively, and John would suck and use his tongue and it would be fucking amazing. His hand moved faster and he let his mind go, let the fantasy spin.

He hadn't given head to a man in years. He hadn't ever really been able to take his time with it, so he let his mind wander now, let himself think about what he would do with a hard cock in front of him. He'd use his tongue, swirling it around the head in the way he liked it done to him, and then work the shaft into his mouth as far as he could, stroking with one hand and using the other to – well, right now to wank himself, and maybe he'd finger himself too. Just a bit more lotion and – yes, that was good, that was – he couldn't quite get his finger in as deep as he wanted it, but it was fine for now. Maybe two fingers, and long slow strokes; he wanted to enjoy this a bit longer.

He turned his mind back to the fantasy, back to the idea of being on his knees between a strong pair of thighs and that hand at the back of his head and a voice saying, "God, John, like that, just like that."

It wasn't Greg's voice in his head, though; it was another voice altogether, one that popped up into these fantasies often enough that he'd stopped masturbating in this bed, had restricted himself to the shower in the mornings, when his mind was clear and he could avoid thinking about—

"John, your mouth. It's perfect, so good."

He almost laughed at that; it might be Sherlock's voice in his head, but he couldn't imagine those words coming from Sherlock's mouth. He's say something sarcastic, or perhaps nothing at all, but no, there wouldn't be praise. Not that John knew for certain. It had never been like that between them, not even a tiny bit. John hadn't even realized he'd wanted that until it was too late, until things were spinning out of control and Sherlock was in the depths of obsession with Moriarty and John had wanted to strangle him on a near-hourly basis. Not until then had he understood that his strong emotions might be coming from another place altogether. And then it was too late and—

"John, don't. Focus on me, only me."

"Yes," John said, his eyes squeezed tightly shut and his hand flying, small tight strokes just at the head now, two fingers pressed into his own arse, so close, so close.

In his fantasy he opened his eyes and looked up, and Sherlock was watching him, his eyes dark and wide, and his hair wilder than it had ever been in life, and wearing an expression of want John had never seen on his face.

John groaned and came over his hand, and his eyes flew open. Just like that, the fantasy was gone, and his orgasm faded, and he was alone. He stared up at the ceiling and sighed.

*****

10 December

The hangover was far less horrible than what he deserved, considering he had to work a shift starting in late afternoon. It was technically Tuesday when he got back to the flat, but he had a feeling the small cream-colored envelope waiting for him on the edge of the kitchen table had been there since well before midnight. He considered waiting until morning to open it; he was exhausted and badly needed a shower before bed. Curiosity got the better of him, though, and he carefully peeled the envelope open.

Dr. Watson,

The pleasure of your company is requested for tea on Wednesday, the eleventh of December. A car will pick you up at four o'clock.

Regards,
K. Miller for M. Holmes

John groaned. "Shit."

11 December

It was nearly 4:00 when he returned to the flat after a brisk walk in Regent's Park. The idea of sitting around and waiting to be fetched by Mycroft's secretary hadn't appealed in the slightest. He'd reckoned that if he didn't make it back in time, he'd be found anyway.

The damp, cold air had done him good, had cleared his head enough that he could stomach the idea of seeing Mycroft without descending into rage. He climbed the stairs and poured himself a glass of water from the tap in the kitchen, and tried to keep that sense of peace he'd found amongst the trees and winding pathways.

That peace was quickly shattered by the sight of a small flat box on the table. He finished his water before crossing to pick it up, and warily lifted the lid. The box contained a wool scarf, smartly folded, in a stunning shade of forest green. He ran his fingers across it: cashmere, probably – expensive, definitely. He removed it from the box and couldn't help but smile at the way it slid through his fingers. There was no card, no indication of where it had come from.

He frowned. Was it Mycroft, then? The condoms and the lotion weren't exactly his style, but Mycroft was the only person he could think of who'd know that level of detail about John's life, and who would go to the trouble of breaking into the flat (or more likely, sending someone else to do it) and leaving odd little objects for John to find.

And John knew exactly why he might be doing it, unfortunately. He heard the sound of a car pulling up to the kerb outside, and he didn't bother crossing to the window to check. He wound the scarf around his neck and headed down the stairs.

Anthea didn't even look up as he slid across the seat and closed the door behind him. The driver pulled away, and John steeled himself.

"This is the last time," he said after a moment.

"Mmmm." She was focused on her phone, as always.

"I mean it. I'm done. My answer isn't going to change. I want nothing to do with any of this." He glanced over at her, but she showed no sign of having heard him. "There is no way I'll cooperate, no matter what."

She giggled, apparently at something on her Twitter feed.

"I won't set foot in this car again, not even if you offer me a blow job. I'm fucking serious."

"Hmmm."

John rolled his eyes and turned to look out the window.

A tea service had been set up on a small table in Mycroft's office. Mycroft, of course, was nowhere to be seen. John settled into one of the antique chairs and swallowed down his annoyance. Eight minutes later, he helped himself to a cup of tea and a scone.

Mycroft finally appeared, smiling apologetically as he unfastened the buttons on his coat and sat across from John.

"I do hope you haven't been waiting long. I'm afraid the Prime Minister keeps his own schedule."

"No."

Mycroft frowned. "Sorry?"

"Whatever you're going to offer this time, my answer is still no. It was no four months ago, and it was no three months ago, and it was no two months ago, and it was no five weeks ago, and it remains no. So thank you for the tea, but there's no point in either of us wasting our time." He picked up his tea cup and gave Mycroft his fakest smile.

A muscle twitched in Mycroft's cheek. "We need you, John. Your country needs you."

"No, it doesn't. And that doesn't work on me, not anymore."

"Then I need you," Mycroft said, a hint of desperation in his voice now.

John snorted. "No, you don't. You have all the resources of the British government to help you track down Moriarty, and then some. I've no idea what makes you think I could do anything, if Sherlock couldn't…" John paused, something twisting inside him. He looked away.

"That's not exactly what we have in mind."

"Oh wait, I know. You want to use me as bait, don't you? Sorry, but no. I don't give a fuck about Moriarty, not anymore. That's all on you now."

Mycroft sank in the chair, his eyes focused on his teacup. "Moriarty is dead."

It was a moment before the words sank in, before John could process what he'd just heard. "He's… what?"

"Dead. Has been for months."

John blinked and shook his head, incredulous. "When were you going to tell me this?"

"I just told you."

"Fuck you, Mycroft." John made no move to leave, though. He deserved an explanation, and he was going to wait until he damn well got one.

"If you'd agreed to come on board when I first approached you in August, I could have told you sooner. There are other things you should know, John, things that—"

"No," John said with a shake of his head. "I'm not going to be drawn into this madness. I'm done." He set his teacup on the table and slid forward in the chair. "I'm doing my very best to move on and put it all behind me."

"What about Sherlock, everything he worked for? Did it all mean nothing to you?"

John shook his head and only just managed not to erupt in anger. "Don't you dare. You know what it meant to me. But he's dead, and that part of my life is over."

"What if it isn't over?"

John huffed out something like a laugh. "Are you telling me I'm still a target? I thought Sherlock's death was supposed to protect me." He swallowed hard and looked away. He didn't let himself think about it anymore, had spent far too much time thinking about it and not-telling his therapist about any of the regrets and feelings that revelation had stirred up within him. And of course, he still suspected that Mycroft had made it up – emotional blackmail to draw John into this web he wanted no part of.

"Not a target. A resource. We need you."

"And I need to move on, Mycroft." He paused and closed his eyes. "Let me move on. Please." He exhaled, calmed his roiling emotions, and looked up again. Mycroft's expression was one of sympathy for a half-second before the placid mask was back in place.

Mycroft's eyes flicked down to the scarf draped around John's neck. "Oliver Spencer, isn't it? A gift?"

"Yes."

Mycroft's face was unreadable. "From an admirer, I take it?"

"That's none of your business."

"Not the color I would have chosen, but the style suits you." He set his teacup on the table and folded his hands in his lap. "Very well, John. If you change your mind—"

"I won't."

"—you know how to contact me."

John nodded and stood, and as an afterthought, held out his hand. Mycroft stood and took it, gave it a single firm squeeze before releasing it again. John turned to go.

"I can arrange for a car to take you home, if you like. Though Anthea told me to tell you she has no intention of giving you a—"

"I'll take the Tube, thanks." John walked out before the flush on his cheeks was blatantly obvious. He heard Mycroft chuckle behind him, and he ignored it.

With any luck, that part of his life was finally over.

He stepped out onto the street and wrapped the scarf more tightly about his neck. He still didn't know who had given it to him, though he was relieved it didn't seem to have been a gift from Mycroft. Of course, that still left quite a few things unexplained, things he wasn't comfortable examining too closely.

Perhaps it was simply a Christmas gift, something that had been delivered without a card, and Mrs. Hudson had brought up for him, just as she had the rope a week or so ago.

Perhaps the condoms were from Greg after all – he hadn't exactly got around to asking at the pub that night. John descended the stairs into the Tube station and tried very hard to think about something else.

*****

12 December

The purple tin of Palace Earl Grey was the first thing he saw when he opened the door of the flat. He stared at it for a long moment before trusting himself to pick it up and open the lid. There was no note, no explanation, just a tin of his very favorite tea, something he hadn't bought for himself in months. A handful of people at most would know about it; it was far too specific to be a coincidence.

Did he have a stalker? Or was there someone he wasn't considering? Harry, perhaps. The condoms and lotion were her style. Not the scarf, certainly – she was more the Burberry type — but the tea, maybe. It was an uncharacteristically thoughtful gesture for her, but it seemed the most likely possibility. He glanced at the time on his phone. It was a bit late to call now; he'd have to do it in the morning.

He put the lid back on the tin of tea and set it on the counter. He'd make a pot in the morning, first thing, and call her to say thank you.

*****

13 December

His supervisor at the hospital called at 5:00 in the morning to tell him he was needed to cover a shift, so it wasn't until late afternoon that he was finally able to make that pot of tea. He'd spent a good part of the day thinking about it, and now he held the warm mug between his cupped palms and inhaled the floral steam that wafted upwards. God, that was glorious. Perfect. He didn't even want sugar in it; it was perfect as it was.

He had two cups before he pulled the phone from his pocket and rang Harry.

No answer. He clicked it off before it went to voicemail and decided to text her instead.

Do I have you to thank for the surprises around the flat? If so, thank you. It means a lot.

It was half an hour before she replied.

No idea what you're on about. I've been in Brighton the last week. You okay?

He stared at the phone for a long moment before texting back, I'm fine. See you at Christmas?

He dropped the phone onto the sofa table and pressed a hand to his temple. "Shit."

He was running out of ideas. Did he have a stalker? It was a good thing Mycroft had told him Moriarty was dead – the possibility of that lunatic fucking with his mind this way was difficult to contemplate. Mycroft had called him in yesterday for a reason and he'd given up surprisingly quickly. Was he trying to warn John?

There'd been nothing today, though. He'd expected there to be something waiting on the kitchen table when he came home, but there wasn't. Maybe he was making too much of it. Perhaps it was just a series of unrelated incidents, coincidences. He hadn't seen Mrs. Hudson in a week; his shifts were causing him to keep mad hours. He ought to go down and knock on the door and ask her if she knew what was going on.

But he wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer. If she said no, what then?

There was a siren outside; the lights flashed through the window and against the wall, and he glanced up at the play of red against the ceiling. His mouth fell open.

Hanging over the window, suspended from a piece of string, was a sprig of mistletoe.

He crossed the room and stood under it. It hung several feet above his head, high enough that he couldn't quite reach it with an outstretched arm. How long had it been there? He hadn't noticed it before now, so it could have been there for days. It looked rather fresh though, so it couldn't have been there for very long.

Was Mrs. Hudson responsible for this? He couldn't imagine why she'd hang mistletoe here – in the downstairs foyer, perhaps, in a location where two people might actually stand together, but no one visited him here. Not anymore.

He stared at it a moment more, then sat down again and lifted his tea cup to his lips. There was certainly a pattern to his stalker's intentions.

*****

14 December

He returned from his afternoon walk to find the advertising supplement from the newspaper sitting on the kitchen table. He frowned at it for a moment. He'd read the paper that morning. Had he left it there? He usually ignored the adverts; he had very few people to buy Christmas gifts for, and he was hardly a shopper. The rest of the paper was on the sofa table, where he'd left it.

He turned back to the kitchen, to the cleared countertops and stack of clean dishes drying in the sink. He exhaled: Mrs. Hudson had come up to tidy – feeling sorry for him again, though still not his housekeeper – and had probably picked it up and glanced through it before leaving it on the kitchen table. Where she'd probably left many of the other things that had appeared over the last two weeks.

He smiled, almost laughed. Yes, that was it. It had probably been Mrs. Hudson all along. His imagination was getting away from him.

15 December

"Mrs. Hudson?"

"Come in, dear." She lifted a wooden spoon to her lips and tasted what appeared to be soup before making a face and returning the spoon to the pot. "Oh, I never was much of a cook, I'm afraid. You're welcome to stay for supper, if you like."

He raised an eyebrow at that ringing endorsement of her cooking. "Thanks, but I've got a shift."

She wiped her hands on a tea towel and shook her head. "It's just as well. I think I'll have a sandwich instead. Would you like one to take with you?"

"Ah, no, no thanks. I was actually wondering if you were responsible for this?" He held up a colorful tin of individually wrapped sweets.

"Goodness, no. I've got something for you, but you'll have to wait until Christmas." She winked and patted him on the arm.

"Do you know where they came from?"

"Tesco, I imagine."

"No, I mean, do you know who brought them? They were on my kitchen table when I got home this afternoon. I thought maybe you'd taken them up, thinking they were mine."

"I can't go running up the stairs every time you get a parcel. I've got a hip, you know." She turned back to her pot and switched off the flame.

John paused and licked his lips. "So you didn't bring them up?"

"No, dear."

"This is going to sound a bit mad, but have you seen any strange people going in and out of my flat?"

She turned to look at him. "Goodness, has there been a break-in? You should call your policeman friend, the handsome one." She looked around the kitchen, clearly flustered. "I haven't noticed anything missing."

"No, nothing's missing; it's not like that." He hadn't meant to worry her unnecessarily. "It's more that… someone's coming into the flat and leaving things for me to find. Gifts, sort of." He frowned even as the words left his mouth. It sounded ridiculous when he said it out loud.

Her expression changed to one of sympathy. "Are you sure you're all right, dear?"

John sighed and clutched the tin of sweets to his chest. "Yes, I'm fine, really. It's probably just… nothing. I'm sorry to have bothered you."

"It's no bother. Here, why don't you sit? I'll put the kettle on."

"I've got to get ready for work, actually. Thanks, though."

He let her tut over him a minute more before he backed out the door and headed upstairs. He set the tin of sweets on the desk and frowned.

A year ago he'd returned from Tesco one afternoon with half a dozen tins identical to this one. Sherlock had simply stared at him as he unpacked them from the sacks and lined them up on the kitchen table.

"Is this another Christmas tradition I've missed?"

John had laughed: the evening before, Sherlock had burst into the flat with a large lipstick print on his cheek, the end result of him lingering a bit too long under a sprig of mistletoe at a book shop he frequented, and utterly irate about the entire incident.

"Well you see, there's this one where we give gifts to friends and family."

"Those are gifts?" Sherlock had wrinkled his nose. "But I don't like sweets."

"Good thing they're not for you then."

Sherlock's eyes had narrowed. "You said friends and family. Am I not included in your friends and family?"

John's smile had widened a bit. "Don't worry. You're getting something better than a tin of sweets from me."

John opened the tin and peered inside. The sweets were still encased in their cellophane packet. The expiration date on the tin was March 2014, so he doubted they were left from the previous year. It seemed an odd coincidence that someone would give him this exact brand of sweets. He'd given them to a handful of people, including Molly and Greg. And then he'd emptied one of the tins and put Sherlock's actual Christmas gift – an original 1939 copy of Gaines' Cryptanalysis – inside. The expression on his face when he'd opened it on Christmas morning was priceless.

He set the tin down again. He hadn't spoken to Molly yet, but he'd ruled out nearly everyone else. Everyone except—

He shook his head and forced the thought away. No, he was not going to torment himself like that.

Whoever was behind this, whoever had brought the condoms and the lotion and the tea and the scarf, and now this – they knew far more about his life than he liked. They also seemed to know his comings and goings, and how to get into the flat unseen. It was more than a little creepy, and he'd just about had enough of it.

He opened his laptop and waited for it to boot. If this stalker of his was watching him that closely, he – or she – would be watching the blog as well.

He opened the browser and navigated to the blog, then typed up a quick post:

Whoever you are, STOP. Leave me alone.

He hesitated a moment more before selecting the "disable comments" option and clicking "post". He closed the lid and exhaled slowly through pursed lips. Now he'd find out if this person was a friend or not, at the very least.

*****

18 December

John glared at the laptop and drummed his fingers on his thighs. This was mad. All of it was mad, and he should just forget about it, let it go.

It was likely that whoever was doing this meant him no harm. And they'd stopped when he asked: three days with no gifts (as he'd started to think of them) on his table, indicating that either his stalker was listening or that this entire thing was just a product of his imagination.

He scrubbed a hand against his forehead. It was probably just a coincidence. It meant nothing. And why would he have a stalker anyway? It made no sense.

Then again, what if this was what Mycroft had tried to warn him about?

Maybe it had been Mycroft all along. Maybe he'd been trying to frighten John into cooperating. But why would he have continued several days after John told him no this last time?

John clenched his eyes shut and groaned. This was exactly the sort of thing Sherlock would have worked out in seconds. He would have looked at the wording of the note that came with the condoms and would have known who wrote it, their fucking height and eye color, and probably where they went to school as well. And all of this proved – if it proved anything at all – that John was no Sherlock Holmes.

And of course, it was still a possibility that this whole thing was some sort of imagined conspiracy and was actually a series of coincidences. It was the holidays, after all. People sent gifts and such. He opened his eyes and looked at the laptop again. There was only one way to find out.

He opened the browser and typed out a new post.

I take it back. Don't stop. But tell me who you are this time, please?

He waited ten minutes before pressing "post" and he almost deleted it eight times during the next hour. At last, he went to bed.

*****

19 December

The package was waiting for him when he returned from shopping. It was a flat box, wrapped in shiny red paper and tied with a green bow. He picked it up and shook it: an item of clothing, definitely. He held it a moment more before tugging at the end of the bow. He pulled the paper off carefully and lifted the lid of the box.

There was a small card sitting atop a carefully folded jumper.

To: John
From: Molly
Happy Christmas!

He stared at the card for a moment. Did that mean it had been Molly all along? He frowned – that didn't feel right, somehow. It wasn't like her to have done something like this.

He set the card aside and lifted the jumper from the box. It was lovely, a deep navy blue with a subtle cabled pattern all over. The wool was a blend, the sort of thing he'd buy for himself – inexpensive, easy to wash. It was a lovely jumper, but he couldn't imagine it was purchased by the same person who'd bought him the scarf.

But he'd asked his stalker to tell him who he – or she; John wasn't sure why he was so certain the person was a man – was, and the very next gift had been clearly labeled From: Molly. It had to have been her.

He dug his phone out of a pocket and thumbed through his contacts until he found her number. There was no answer when he dialed, so he left her a voicemail.

"Molly, this is John. I just want to thank you for the jumper. Happy Christmas to you as well. And I was wondering if I could buy you a coffee or a drink, to say thanks in person. I've got shifts the next couple of evenings, but maybe after that, Friday, if you're available? Let me know. Thanks again."

He pocketed his phone and crossed to stand by the window. The streets were busy at this hour, people heading home from work, out for drinks, off to finish Christmas shopping. The streetlights were bright and the people were bundled into coats and scarves as they walked down Baker Street. A couple walked past on the opposite side of the street, arms linked together. They paused just in front of the window and kissed before going their separate ways.

John stepped back and looked up at the mistletoe hanging over his head, and sighed.

*****

20 December

"Hi John. This is Molly. I'm glad you liked the jumper. I'd love to meet for a drink, if you'd still like to. I mean, if something better hasn't come up. Not that anything is going to do, or anything. I just mean, if you'd still like a drink, I'd be happy to meet you on Friday, maybe around six? Text me, okay? Okay. Bye. This was Molly, by the way. Well, you probably knew that. Well. Bye!"

*****

That afternoon, there was a small silver star lying on the table. It had a red ribbon threaded through a hole in one of the points, tied in a bow. John held it up by the ribbon and watched it rotate slowly, suspended in the air. It was a Christmas tree ornament. He hadn't put up a tree in years, and hadn't planned to start this year.

Perhaps it was from Molly as well. He'd never had any inkling that she felt anything other than a distant sort of friendliness for him, and the idea that it might be something more was a bit disconcerting. Did he like her that way? He honestly wasn't sure.

*****

21 December

He hung the wreath of holly in the window and tied the silver star ornament to it so that it dangled in the center. It was a lovely, if prickly, gift. He couldn't imagine Mrs. Hudson carrying it up the stairs; she'd have needed gardening gloves. Pine boughs were certainly more traditional, but he wasn't about to complain.

*****

Molly was waiting at the bar for him, dressed simply in jeans and a jumper. Her hair was loose around her face, but otherwise she looked the same as he remembered from the hours he'd spent in the morgue with Sherlock. She smiled brightly at him and waved when she saw him, and he kissed her on the cheek.

"Nice jumper," she said, and he grinned.

"Thanks. You've got good taste."

She looked even more flustered than usual. "I had a bit of help picking it out, I must admit."

"Well, I love it, so cheers."

She ducked her head and smiled. "It's good to see you. I hope you're doing well?"

"I'm fine, really. Let me get you a drink."

"Oh, thanks. I'll have a lager."

He returned a few minutes later with pint glasses in hand. "Here you are. Cheers."

She took the glass and downed a surprisingly large gulp before making eye contact with him again. "So you've been working at the surgery again?"

"No, A&E at St Thomas, actually. The hours are mad, but it's a relief to be busy."

"Oh, yeah. The holidays and all." Her eyes widened and she looked like she was chastising herself. "Oh God, sorry."

"No, it's fine. You're right, actually."

She took another sip from her glass. "The first Christmas after my dad died was the worst. I couldn't stop thinking about all of our holiday traditions and how much he'd always loved Christmas." She frowned. "Well, I suppose none of that applies to Sherlock, does it?"

John smiled, almost laughed. "No, it doesn't." He looked up to see her watching him, almost studying him. "I do love the jumper. And I got you something." He pulled a small box from his coat pocket and handed it to her.

Her expression was one of incredulity, as if she hadn't expected this at all. He felt a twinge of guilt at that, that she'd think so little of him. She opened the box and smiled, then held up the small silver cat ornament it contained. Her smile was radiant – how was it that he'd never noticed before? He supposed he'd always seen her when Sherlock was around, and she'd only had eyes for him. She'd never spared John so much as a glance. Not that he'd done as much for her.

"It made me think of you," he said, and she laughed.

"I do like cats. I've got two, you know."

"I didn't know. I've never been around them much, honestly."

"My cats would love you." She tucked the ornament back into its box and placed it in her bag.

"I'd like to meet them sometime." He punctuated the statement with a clink of his glass against her own and she laughed again. She looked up at him and they stared at each other for a long moment. "Molly—"

"So what are your plans for Christmas, then?" She took a very large drink and sloshed a bit of lager on the table when she set her glass onto it again.

"Nothing much. I'm working Christmas Eve." At her sympathetic wince, he shrugged. "It's fine, really. It frees up those who want to spend the evening with friends and family."

Her expression changed to one of mild horror. "John, if you need a place to—"

"No, it's fine, really. I don't want to think about Christmases past, or any of that. I'd rather it all be done with, to be honest. On to a new year." He raised his glass in a half-salute that she didn't return. He took a long drink of ale and watched her for a moment. "So I have to ask: how did you get into the flat to deliver the jumper?"

"Into the flat? Oh, I didn't. I stopped by and you weren't there, so Mrs. Hudson said she'd take it up for you."

"Oh. And the others?"

"What others?" She looked genuinely perplexed.

John frowned. "Did you give me a scarf as well, by any chance?"

"No, I didn't."

"Ah. Right." He frowned.

"Is everything all right?"

"Yes, fine." He opened his mouth to change the subject, but his mind wouldn't quite shift gears. "Actually, no. It's not fine. Someone's been giving me gifts, but I don't know who."

Her eyebrows rose. "What do you mean, gifts?"

"Well, some of them are gifts. Others are just random objects. I thought it was Mrs. Hudson, but…" He laughed and shook his head. "It's probably just a coincidence."

"Getting strange gifts every day doesn't sound like a coincidence."

"And they aren't from you, I take it."

"No." A strange expression flitted over her face. "How many gifts?"

"Oh, I don't know. A dozen or so, I suppose." He listed as many as he could remember (leaving out mention of the condoms; no need to be quite so indelicate at this point), along with the fact that they'd stopped when he asked, and then restarted with her gift a few days before.

"And there was no other indication of who they're from?"

"Yours was the first with a name attached." John groaned. "I seem to have a stalker. Fuck."

"Not a stalker," Molly said, and took a long drink from her pint glass.

John looked up at her. "What?"

"I don't… I mean, I think it's probably not a stalker. Like you said, maybe just a series of coincidences."

John shook his head. "Coincidences? But you just said—"

"I know, but I…" Molly's cheeks flushed. "Never mind, all right?"

"Do you know something?" John's eyes narrowed. "You do, don't you? You know something about this."

"No, I really don't." She set her glass on the bar and slid off her stool. "Oh, is that the time? I've a date tonight and I really should get going."

"A date?" It had slipped out before he could stop himself, and now he winced and looked away.

"Yes, with one of the blokes from… Oh!" She looked positively mortified, and he felt like a complete idiot. "John, I'm so sorry, I—"

"No, no, please just leave it. Don't say anything." He felt heat rising to his cheeks and couldn't quite meet her eyes. "I shouldn't have presumed."

She stared at him a moment longer and then flung herself at him, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck. "John, please don't think any less of me. Please, you've no idea how much I would regret that."

He hugged her tightly and nearly reeled at the sensation of another body pressed against his own. It had been a shockingly long time since he'd had this much physical contact with another person, and he'd forgotten how good it felt. "No, of course not."

"And please, please—" Her voice lowered to a whisper now, her lips against his ear. "—hang on just a bit longer, okay? I promise, everything will be all right."

He felt her lips press against his cheek and then she stepped away, taking the solid warmth of her body with her. He felt something inside him crumple.

"Yes, I know it will." He didn't mean a word of it, and there was no way she could have missed that.

"Well… goodnight. Thanks for the drink. And I'll… I'll see you around, yeah?"

He forced himself to look at her, and he knew the smile on his face was far from genuine. "Yeah. Of course. Good luck with your date."

She looked stricken for a moment before she nodded and walked away.

He finished his ale, paid the tab, and went home. Alone.

*****

22 December

His mobile rang shortly after midnight, and yes, he'd said, he could come in. He'd gone to bed early that night, so he'd had a few hours of sleep, at least. A quick shower and a few cups of coffee and he was good. He was working the night shift the next couple of nights anyway, so it was just as well.

The shift was mad: four cases of alcohol poisoning, half a dozen alcohol-related car accidents, and countless slips and spills – par for the course for a Saturday night full of Christmas parties and stupid people doing stupid things.

The streets were quiet when he made his way home in the morning. The morning light was soft, casting grey shadows as he walked down Baker Street. He popped into the local Pret for a takeaway breakfast sandwich and a coffee, and then headed for home. He set his food down on the table next to the morning paper and pulled up a chair. He rifled through the paper while eating, but barely read a word. He finally crumpled the sandwich wrapping and tossed it across the room to the bin, and reached for his coffee. He should probably forgo the caffeine, to be honest. He needed to sleep.

Something fluttered to the floor, catching his attention. He thought it was part of the newspaper at first, but no – it was a folded sheet of white A4, and something was printed on it. He leaned over to pick it up and shook it to unfold it.

Haven't you worked it out yet? Honestly, John, I'm disappointed.

He set the coffee down and stared at the paper. He lost track of how long he sat there and held it with slightly trembling hands, his fingers tracing over the printed words.

His stalker was still watching, it seemed. Molly had said no, there wasn't a stalker, but he didn't know what to think about that. The rejection still stung, and he hadn't let his mind wander in that direction since he'd left the bar. The shift had helped; it was difficult to think of anything but the work on busy nights. Still, she seemed to know more than she was willing to say, and he was beyond frustrated that he was back to square one again. He'd ruled out everyone he could think of, everyone who would have the means and resources to do this, to leave him little gifts and odd random objects every day for nearly a month now.

He frowned: had it been every day? He honestly wasn't sure. When had it started?

He dug out a pad of paper and a pen, and pulled up the calendar on his phone. The first thing he remembered seeing on the table was the rope. No, wait, that wasn't correct, before that was the empty envelope, and the day before that—

Oh God. Had he missed it, all along? Had it been staring him in the face the entire time, waiting for him to look beyond the things he was seeing and really notice?

He wrote down all the gifts, everything he could think of, going back to fill items in occasionally and move them around until he finally felt like he had a complete list.


1/12: Mouse (in a humane trap)
2/12: Envelope (empty)
3/12: Rope (coiled)
4/12: Rope (again)
5/12: Yarn (Mrs. Hudson's)
6/12: Nothing
7/12: Condoms
8/12: Hand lotion (with note)
9/12: Rubber (Wrong about Greg?)
10/12: Invitation to tea with Mycroft
11/12: Scarf (expensive)
12/12: Tea (Palace Earl Grey, in a tin)
13/12: Mistletoe (not on the table, hanging by the window)
14/12: Advert supplement from the paper
15/12: Sweets
16/12: Nothing
17/12: Nothing
18/12: Nothing
19/12: Jumper (from Molly)
20/12: Ornament
21/12: Holly wreath
22/12: Note

He stared at it, willing it to make sense. He didn't see a pattern though, nothing to suggest that there was something more there. It was just random noise, nothing meaningful other than a handful of things that seemed to correspond to events in John's life.

He read the list aloud again, and was five items in when he saw it. The first letter of each word, which he'd happened to capitalize – excluding the days when there was nothing – stood out to him now, plainly spelling out a phrase.

MERRY CHRISTMAS JOHN

How he'd missed it until now, he had no idea. God, Sherlock would have seen it right away, would have known from the beginning, would have—

John closed his eyes. He'd eliminated every other possibility. It wasn't Mrs. Hudson, and it wasn't Mycroft, or Greg, or even Molly. But Molly clearly knew something, and possibly Mycroft did as well. And what – or rather, who – did the two of them have in common? They had no other ties between them other than John and Sherlock. And both of them had acted rather odd at the mention of the mysterious gifts, as if they knew, or at least suspected, who they might be from.

John opened his eyes and was unsurprised to find them wet. He didn't need to think about this, shouldn't let himself go down this road. If this was a practical joke, it was horribly cruel. But it had stopped when he'd asked, and had started again when he'd changed his mind. And Molly and Mycroft – they had both contributed something on exactly the right day to help deliver the message, so they must be involved on some level.

It was the one thing he'd wished for, the single fucking thing he would have prayed for, if he believed in a higher power. More than anything, he wanted it to be true.

But how could Molly and Mycroft know if he didn't?

*****

23 December

There was no gift waiting for him when he returned from his afternoon outing. The table was as bare as it had been when he'd left. He wasn't surprised, though. If the message – and he could only think of it as a message now – were to continue, it would probably follow the previous pattern of providing space between words. And considering the context of the message, he assumed he was going to find out something more on Christmas Eve.

Or perhaps this was it? He'd considered that possibility as well, that it was just that simple message and he'd never find out who it was really from – or why.

He wasn't sure which option he preferred. If he never learned who was responsible, he could imagine it was the person he wanted it to be. If he'd guessed wrong and then found out the truth – he wasn't sure he could bear it.

*****

24 December

"Dr. Watson?"

He looked up from the cup of tea he'd been contemplating. Patricia, one of the nurses who worked the front desk, was standing in the doorway. "Yes?"

"Are you all right?" Her dark eyes were sympathetic behind the purple frames she wore. Clearly, she knew why he'd volunteered to be here tonight. They all seemed to know. He'd have to leave London to get away from it. And of course, he knew why she was here as well. She'd lost her husband a few years back. No kids. She didn't get on with her sister. Christmas was easier, she'd said, if she told her remaining family that she had to work and would see them in a few days.

"I'm fine." He smiled at her, lips pressed tightly together. "You?"

"The patient in three needs something more for pain. He's stable otherwise."

He nodded. "Do it then. I'll check in on him in a few minutes."

She gave him a small nod and walked away. It was a moment before he realized she hadn't answered his question.

He downed the too-cool tea and rinsed the cup in the sink, and headed back out to start his rounds. His phone buzzed in his pocket. He paused a moment before fishing it out. He didn't usually look at it while on shift – it was generally frowned upon – but he had been hoping to get a text or something from Harry. They'd planned to get together the following evening, but he hadn't heard from her in a while, and that usually wasn't a good sign.

There was indeed a text alert on the screen, but it wasn't from Harry. The number was blocked. He unlocked the phone and stared at the screen for a moment.

Merry Christmas, John. Look outside.

He swallowed and closed his eyes. Oh, God.

He walked as slowly as he could manage down the corridor, across the fairly empty waiting room and toward the front doors. They swept open as he approached and he stepped through. He stopped just outside under the awning and looked around. It was nearly midnight and the streets were quiet, and he saw nothing. There was no one standing in the shadows, no message written anywhere that he could see. There was just the dark sky and the unusually quiet city, and snow falling lightly all around him.

It was beautiful, he had to admit. Snow on Christmas Eve: he couldn't remember when that had happened last. It was far too warm for it to stick; it melted away the moment the flakes touched the asphalt, erasing evidence that it had existed at all. He stepped out further and looked up, and smiled when the flakes touched his face.

But what was he meant to see here? Had he missed it, or was it still there, waiting for him to notice? He looked again, staring at every shadow, every lit window, every street sign, but there was nothing unusual.

He looked down at his phone again and traced the words on the screen. He tapped out a reply with his thumbs, but paused with his finger hovering over the "send" button.

Merry Christmas, Sherlock.

If he was wrong, he would never forgive himself. If he was right, he'd probably find out soon, wouldn't he?

He backspaced until the message was gone, and then typed, "It's beautiful."

He pressed send and walked back inside to start his rounds. His phone remained silent.

*****

25 December

It had cooled off enough overnight that there was still a dusting of snow on the ground as John walked home from the Baker Street tube station. It melted beneath his feet, leaving a trail of dark prints behind him. The sun was just coming up and the streets were still quiet, though he knew that inside the buildings he passed, families were celebrating Christmas. Children had risen hours ago to see what Father Christmas had brought, and their parents were probably poking at the remains of breakfast, relishing a day of forced relaxation.

And then there was John Watson, heading back to his empty flat, heart pounding at the thought that there might be another clue waiting for him on the kitchen table. This morning, of all mornings, if there was something there, it would have to be important, wouldn't it? He picked up the pace.

The warmth of the entryway would have caught him off-guard if it weren't for the combined scents of coffee and bacon that enveloped him almost immediately. Mrs. Hudson must not have gone to her sister's after all. He looked up the stairs, up towards the door to the flat, and his stomach lurched a bit.

He'd spent a good part of the night fantasizing about what might be waiting for him. A photograph, perhaps, or a letter, or something tangible, something that would make it clear once and for all that Sherlock had been behind it all, that he was actually alive and well, and still a part of John's life. And if there was nothing… He swallowed down a sudden wave of anxiety. It was time to find out.

The moment his foot touched the first step up to the flat, a familiar sound filled the air. It was nearly a second before he could process what he was hearing, what it meant: the long sustained notes, the gentle vibrato, the light touch on a well-known melody. Bach played on a violin, the way he'd only ever heard one person play it.

He froze, hand clenching the railing, uncertain what to do. He suddenly wasn't ready for this, wasn't ready to find out if he had been right or wrong. He waited, listened, let the moment spin itself out. His stomach was wound up in knots, his mind was spinning, and it was just so fucking surreal – everything that had happened in the last month, all the little clues he'd so willfully ignored, not wanting to let himself think about this possibility, wanting so much to protect himself, to protect his heart. Even now, he could barely let himself entertain the thought, to let it blossom into reality.

He took a deep breath and listened, let the music flow over him. It might still be something else, someone else. He wasn't sure he could bear that, but he had to prepare himself for the possibility. But of course, if this was true, he wanted to know. He needed to know.

He let go of the rail and climbed the stairs slowly, a knot rising in his throat, tight and hot. When he finally reached the top, he hesitated with his hand on the doorknob and closed his eyes. The violin piece was nearing the end of the first movement, and he found himself not wanting to interrupt, as if the moment he opened the door it would all fade away like a dream.

He waited another three seconds before turning the knob and opening the door.

Morning light flooded the sitting room, casting stark shadows against the furniture, and made the sight before John that much more dramatic. Sherlock stood by the window playing the violin that had been tucked onto a top shelf for the last six months. It was the one thing of Sherlock's that John hadn't been able to bring himself to part with.

John closed the door and leaned back against it, and Sherlock continued to play. He surely knew John was standing there, but as always, nothing interrupted the music. He played on for several interminable minutes and John watched, taking in the sight of him, trying to reconcile his presence with everything he'd seen and been told.

He looked fine. He looked completely, utterly fine, not at all like someone who'd leapt off a building and suffered multiple skull fractures and punctured organs. This was not the person Molly had said she'd autopsied herself, unable to look John in the eyes as she described his injuries. This was Sherlock, his Sherlock, alive and well and whole and standing there as if he'd never been gone.

The piece came to an end and Sherlock lowered the bow, placed the violin on the stand that had been pulled out from the corner John pushed it into months ago, and stared out the window.

"Merry Christmas," John said at last.

Sherlock turned to look at him, and John inhaled sharply. Jesus, he hadn't changed a bit. Even his hair was the same. Sherlock stared back at him, his expression almost apprehensive. "Merry Christmas."

John opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He swallowed, blinked, and tried again. "What the fuck are you doing here?"

Sherlock's eyebrows rose. "Is that really the first thing you want to ask me?"

"Yes. No. I don't know."

John looked away for a moment, his thoughts whirling. What did he want to say? He hadn't let himself think about this moment, that it could actually happen. He was completely unprepared. He pushed off the door and started towards Sherlock, slowly, but stopped when he saw the muscles in Sherlock's shoulders tense.

He shoved his hands in his pockets. "Why now?"

Sherlock pursed his lips. "You were being a stubborn twat and refused to come to me. So I had to come to you."

"I was being a stubborn—?" Oh. Oh. Oh, God. He clenched his jaw, feeling anger pressing in at the edges. Jesus, it had been another fucking puzzle, all of it, the last six fucking months of his life. He exhaled slowly before letting himself speak. "Did it ever occur to either of you simply to tell me what was going on?"

"I did tell you. I told you when I was standing on the roof of Bart's, that it was a magic trick and that you should talk to Molly and she'd explain everything."

"No, that is not what you said." Anger bubbled to the surface now, raw and hot. "You knew I believed it all this time, and you never did anything to change it."

"I did, I—"

"And Molly's known, all along? I get Mycroft, but—" John had to turn away, to look somewhere else. Little things were falling into place in his mind now, things he should have noticed and pieced together if he weren't so utterly stupid.

But no, it wasn't his fault. This wasn't his own making. As always, Sherlock valued being clever above everything else. Above anyone else.

He half-laughed, shook his head. "You've been cruel to me before, but I never would have thought—"

"John, please." Sherlock's voice was rough, just enough that John knew the emotion was genuine. "I didn't mean for it to happen this way. I didn't think it would go on this long."

"And what was all of this about, sneaking in to leave me bits of a message every day, just enough to freak me out but not enough for it to make any fucking sense?"

"I thought you'd like it."

John turned back to him at that, but the sight of Sherlock's face made him bite back the sarcastic retort on the tip of his tongue. Sherlock looked stricken, truly surprised by John's anger. He meant that, John realized. He really did think that this was the best way to reveal himself to John, and he'd clearly put a great deal of thought and planning into it. When one considered the source, it was almost sweet, in a twisted sort of way. John inhaled, exhaled, and finally shrugged. There was really nothing else for it. It was Sherlock, for fuck's sake.

"I would have liked it if you'd shown up in the sitting room on the first of December."

"That wasn't possible."

"This isn't possible. You here, now." He crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head. He could feel his anger was melting away as quickly as it had risen. The emotion left in its wake was difficult to process. He closed his eyes. "Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why now? Why like this?" He looked up again, forced himself to make eye contact.

"It's Christmas." Sherlock shrugged, as if that should explain everything. "After all the insipid things you've written for your girlfriends, I had expected you to appreciate the sentiment. Or at least to enjoy the process of uncovering the message."

"Enjoy it?" John snorted, and then paused as a strange thought occurred to him. "Wait… You were trying to be romantic?"

"I…" Sherlock paused and to John's amazement, blushed.

John couldn't stop himself from smirking. "Are you asking me to be your girlfriend?"

"No! I just… thought you'd like it."

Sherlock looked embarrassed and lost, and John felt something warm blossom in his chest. "I suppose I did, to an extent."

Sherlock exhaled. "Good."

"When I wasn't considering having the flat put under surveillance by the police."

Sherlock stared back at him and swallowed visibly as John took a step closer. Something more was going on here, something John hadn't really let himself consider until now. He bit his lower lip and took a fortifying breath. If he was wrong about this, he supposed it couldn't get much worse. But if he was right…

"That doesn't explain why you're standing under the mistletoe, though." Mistletoe that Sherlock had placed there himself, and was now very pointedly positioned beneath. He'd apparently planned this moment for several weeks.

Sherlock looked slightly uncomfortable. "It's a Christmas tradition. You like Christmas traditions."

"Did you really expect me to kiss you?"

Sherlock's cheeks tinted once again. "I thought it would provide an alternative to punching me in the face."

"The day is young. And I have rather a lot of reasons to punch you in the face."

"Perhaps. But you've wanted to kiss me for almost two years now." Sherlock straightened his shoulders.

John allowed himself to smile; there was no point in denying it now. "And what about you? What do you want?"

Sherlock stared back at him with bright, clear eyes. "I want to come home."

"You are home, you're—" It came together in his mind then: last night it was Snow and this morning it was Home, and John felt it all crash over him, the reality of Sherlock here, now, standing right in front of him, very much alive. "Oh, God, Sherlock."

He took the last two steps forward, grasped Sherlock by the shoulders, and pulled him roughly into a kiss. Sherlock made a sound not unlike a whimper, but he didn't pull away; in fact, he leaned into the kiss. His hands settled hesitantly on John's waist and his tongue brushed against John's lips, and John melted against him.

It wasn't the best kiss John had ever experienced: it was sloppy and overly-enthusiastic, but it didn't matter. It was warm and hot and lips and tongue and it was Sherlock and yes, it was real and he was alive and here and home.

"Oh, God," John whispered against Sherlock's lips, mortified to feel wetness in the corners of his eyes because this, this was happy and wonderful, and it should have been an occasion for joy, but instead he found himself nearly overwhelmed. He pulled out of the kiss and pressed his face against Sherlock's shoulder, and clung to his thin frame for dear life.

"Still planning to punch me?"

"Not if you keep kissing me like that."

"Kissing you like what?"

"Like you mean it."

Sherlock's arms tightened around him. "I do, you know."

John huffed against his shirt. "Do I detect a bit of sentiment?"

"It's a weakness," Sherlock muttered. "Mycroft would be horrified."

John leaned back and looked up at him. "Take a photo and we'll send it to him with a Merry fucking Christmas."

Sherlock smiled and John leaned in to kiss him again, more slowly this time, and with rather more finesse. Sherlock's enthusiastic tongue followed his lead and John felt a haze of arousal begin to settle over him. He was half-hard now and Sherlock couldn't possibly miss it, as closely as they were pressed together. Sherlock shifted slightly and, oh, John wasn't the only one in that state.

It was fast, though, too fast, and there were still so many questions and things to consider and discuss. As much as John would have liked to fall into bed (or to his knees, for that matter), someone had to be the responsible adult here.

He pulled out of the kiss and stepped back to put some space between them. "So, you made breakfast?"

Sherlock had a gloriously dazed expression. "How can you possibly think of food right now?"

John grinned. "I'm tired and hungry, and neither of us has slept much in the last twenty-four hours, I imagine." Sherlock shrugged noncommittally and John kissed him again, lingering until it threatened to become heated once more. "I'm suggesting we eat something and talk, and then I'd like a shower, and then maybe we can take this to the bedroom. To sleep," he added at the sudden widening of Sherlock's eyes. "Or whatever. We'll see, all right?"

He had no idea, honestly. Sherlock had never shown a bit of interest in sex in the eighteen months John had known him, and though the erection pressing against John's thigh suggested he might want something more than a hearty snog, John certainly didn't want to presume. Even now, Sherlock looked utterly discomfited.

There would be time for that, for all of it. They had nothing but time now.

Oh, God. He'd been given a second chance. All of the regrets, all the things he wished he'd said and done – he could still do all of those things. And judging by the way Sherlock was looking at him right now, John guessed he was thinking something very similar.

"Breakfast," John said, taking his hand and pulling it to the kitchen. "And you can tell me all about what you've been doing the last six months, and try to convince me not to punch you after all."

There was a sharp tug on his hand and he turned back to see Sherlock staring at him, his eyes full of something John could only call emotion.

"Thank you," Sherlock said.

John stepped toward him and pressed his lips against Sherlock's, briefly this time. "Thank you for coming back."

He squeezed Sherlock's hand, and Sherlock released him to lean against the entryway of the kitchen and watch John set the table.

John set the platter of extremely crispy bacon on the table. "I didn't know you knew how to cook bacon."

"Of course I do," Sherlock said with an indignant sniff. "Put it in the microwave until it starts to smell like it's burning. Simple."

John laughed. "I'll get the coffee." He pulled two mugs from the cabinet and turned back to see Sherlock pulling out a chair and settling into it. He poured coffee into each and set them on the table, and then pushed the sugar bowl in Sherlock's direction.

"You've got some explaining to do, and you'd probably best start now, while I'm still happy to see you."

Sherlock sat across from him, an expression of amusement on his face. "Where would you like me to begin?"

John smiled and plucked a piece of bacon from the plate between them. "At the beginning, of course."

*****

Epilogue: 31 December

"More champagne?" John set two empty fluted glasses on the countertop and opened the refrigerator. "There's at least one more bottle chilling in here, I think. Aha, yes."

Greg leaned back against the counter and tipped his own glass up to empty it into his mouth. "I'm not nearly as drunk as I'd hoped to be tonight."

John grinned and untwisted the wire cap on the champagne bottle. "Surely he's not that bad already?"

"What? Oh, no, I don't mean Sherlock." Greg watched as John levered the cork out with his thumbs. "The newness of it, him being alive – it's going to take some time to wear off. Don't tell him this, but he's going to have a good month-long grace period with me."

John raised his eyebrows. "Yeah, that's what I thought. That grace period lasted about four days."

Greg's lips quirked into a smile. "You're happy, though. Happier than I've seen since… well, since before he left."

They both looked over to where Sherlock was frowning at the screen of his laptop, completely ignoring the party going on around him. He'd done well for the first two hours, but now that it was finally nearing midnight, he seemed well shot of the entire idea.

"I'll have some more, thanks."

John blinked and turned back to Greg, who was still holding his empty glass before him. "Oh, yes. Sorry."

It was Greg's turn to raise his eyebrows. "So, are you happy? Or are you better than happy?"

John smiled and refilled Greg's glass. "I'm very happy."

Greg smirked at him. "And I assume Sherlock is happy as well? And by happy I mean well-shagged, of course." Mercifully, he'd pitched his voice low enough that no one else would have heard him.

"Oh God, is it that obvious?"

"No, I was just curious. I reckoned you'd confess if I just asked."

John raised his glass and took a sip to cover his embarrassment. "We're trying to keep it quiet for now. I mean, he's only just starting to tell people he's back. It's going to be hard enough when the press gets wind of everything, without an added layer of..." He waved a hand in front of him vaguely.

"If I can help, let me know. I want to help."

"I know, and I appreciate it. Thanks."

Greg glanced over at Sherlock again. "God, it's so strange to see him sitting there, like none of it happened. It must have been a shock for you to see him again."

John nodded. "It was. I'm still getting used to it, to be honest."

"And you really had no idea?"

John shook his head. "I had suspicions, but I didn't let myself think about that, you know? Looking back now, it seems so obvious, but no, until he was standing in front of me, I didn't really believe it."

Greg paused and fingered the stem of his glass. "So it's good, then? I mean, you're really happy?"

John smiled. "Yeah, I think I am."

Molly and Mrs. Hudson burst into laughter across the room, drawing their attention.

"Speaking of happy, I haven't seen Molly in a while. Is she–?"

"Twenty years younger than you, yes," John said, taking a sip of champagne.

Greg frowned. "More like fifteen."

"Eighteen."

"Seventeen, at the most."

"You're old enough to be her father."

"Fuck you, I am not." Greg nudged him with an elbow. "So is she single, then?"

"Just split up with the bloke she was dating." John paused and pressed his lips together. "Look, she's special, all right? Don't even think about this lightly, because if you aren't serious—"

"You know I'm not the type to fuck around." Greg tore his gaze away from Molly to look at John again. "She's nice and smart and funny, and I could use someone like that in my life after the last few years."

"I know. I just—" John shrugged. "You're both fantastic people. I want to see you both happy, of course. But you know how it is. Sherlock doesn't have enough friends for them to go and fuck things up with each other and have it not affect us."

Greg glanced over to where Sherlock was staring at his laptop with the sort of intensity he usually reserved for crime scenes, and then back to John. "Trust me, I know."

John sighed. "I suppose you do. Go on then, maybe you can kiss her at midnight."

Greg clapped John on the shoulder and then crossed the room to where Molly and Mrs. Hudson were chatting.

John poured another glass of champagne and settled on the sofa next to Sherlock. "It's almost midnight."

"Dull."

"It's New Year's Eve, Sherlock."

"These arbitrary time designations are pointless."

"Not to me. Last year fucking sucked. I'm looking forward to another year. A new beginning." He held out the glass; Sherlock took it and downed half of it. John leaned closer to whisper in his ear, "And to you fucking me on this very sofa after everyone goes home tonight."

Sherlock coughed; apparently some champagne had gone down the wrong way. He closed the laptop and set it aside. "How long until midnight?" he managed after a moment, not quite looking at John.

John pulled his phone from his pocket, suppressing a grin. "Five minutes."

He spent the remainder of 2012 refilling everyone's glasses, and by the time the countdown began, Sherlock had grudgingly left the sofa to join everyone else.

At the stroke of midnight they cheered and clinked their glasses together, and everyone exchanged kisses and hugs. Greg let his lips linger on Molly's cheek a moment more than was technically appropriate, and the resulting flush on her face spoke volumes.

"Happy New Year, Sherlock," Mrs. Hudson said as Sherlock pressed a kiss against her temple. He smiled at John and John smiled back, and then Mrs. Hudson stepped away.

They'd discussed it earlier and had agreed to keep quiet about their whatever-it-was-that-they-were-doing. It was early yet and things were going to be complicated as it was, and the fact that they were now actually shagging (after nearly two years of speculation about their relationship by everyone in the universe) was hardly anyone else's business anyway. John stepped forward, intending to give Sherlock a friendly sort of hug, but before he quite knew what had happened, Sherlock's arm was around his waist and Sherlock's lips were pressed against his, and the room had gone very quiet.

So much for keeping it a secret.

John leaned out of the kiss and smiled up at him, suddenly not caring what anyone else thought. These were their closest friends, after all, the people Sherlock had wanted to know he was alive and well before the news was released to the press next week. Mycroft and Harry had both made other plans for the night, but the people here were their family of choice, the people they wanted around them.

Greg already knew, and likely Molly did as well. John turned to look and saw three faces smiling at him. He smiled back and leaned into Sherlock, and slid an arm around his waist.

Sherlock raised his glass. "There, it's the New Year. So if you're all done ringing it in, I'd like to shag John on the sofa. Please leave."

John felt the blood drain from his face. "Sherlock!"

"At least the sofa's not right above my bedroom," Mrs. Hudson said. "I've had to sleep with a pillow over my head these last few nights."

Greg and Molly burst out laughing, and John buried his face in his hands. "Oh God, I'm so sorry."

"No need to apologize, dear. I'll just turn the telly up a bit next time. Good night, all."

"We'll walk down with you," Greg said, and turned to Molly. "We could share a taxi, if you like."

"Yes," Molly said, and John could see the stars in her eyes already. "That'd be lovely, yes."

Good nights were said all around and coats were gathered, and the moment John closed the door, he found himself pressed against it face-first.

"Finally." Sherlock's lips moved across the back of John's neck and one hand slid down to squeeze his arse.

"Does the term too much information mean anything to you?"

"They would have stayed another hour otherwise."

"And you couldn't wait that—oh God." Sherlock's hand had snaked around to stroke John's cock through his jeans, and John found his annoyance dissipating rapidly.

"I want you naked, bent over the arm of the sofa." Sherlock's voice was nearly gravelly in his ear, and his erection pressed against John's arse.

John pushed backwards, grinding into him. "Do you, now?"

Sherlock inhaled sharply at the contact. "Yes. I want…"

"Say it. Come on, I want to hear it."

Sherlock released him and stepped back. "I'll get… be right back." John turned around in time to see him disappearing into the bedroom. John grinned. Despite his massive intellect, Sherlock seemed to lack the proper vocabulary for any sort of discussion about sex.

John ducked into the bathroom for a moment – considering what was on the agenda, a good wipedown with a flannel seemed in order – and opened the door again to find Sherlock standing by the window, staring out.

John stripped off his jumper and shirt, and crossed to wrap his arms around him from behind. "Naked, as requested."

Sherlock turned in his arms and kissed him. "So you are."

He slipped his fingers into the waistband of Sherlock's trousers and tugged him toward the sofa. Sherlock stared back at him, and John hesitated. "Is something wrong?"

"You're not angry that I told them about us." It wasn't a question.

John shrugged. "You could have been a bit more delicate about it, I suppose, but no. It's fine."

"I didn't plan to kiss you then. I just… I wanted to." He looked surprised by his own admission. John had been surprised as well – Sherlock generally scorned public displays of affection. Perhaps he'd changed his mind about that in the months they'd been apart. Or at least, he hadn't worried about it in that moment, which spoke volumes.

"I know. I'm glad you did." That earned John a rare genuine smile. "And I believe you wanted me bent over the sofa?" He took two more steps backward and leaned across the arm of the sofa, and grinned up at Sherlock.

Sherlock's expression changed from hesitant to heated in a heartbeat. He moved closer and pushed John's torso down until his face was pressed against the sofa cushion, then moved to stand behind him.

John felt his face heat after several seconds of silence. It was strange to be on display like this, with his arse up in the air and his cock hanging heavy between his thighs. Sherlock's hands smoothed over his bare back and then lower, spreading him open. He was kneeling on the floor now, John, realized. Jesus, that was—

Breath ghosted against his skin and John whimpered before he could stop himself. He felt a brush of lips against his bottom, then again, steadily moving downward until there was hot breath against his arsehole and oh God, they hadn't done this yet. Hell, he couldn't remember the last time someone had done that to him and oh, the tip of Sherlock's tongue flicked just there, infuriatingly light across sensitive skin. His thumbs pressed into John's arse on either side, spreading him wide, exposing him completely, and he licked again, circling John's arsehole with the tip of his tongue until John was writhing against the arm of the sofa.

"That's fucking amazing, keep doing that," he managed, and then groaned when that tongue finally pressed into him in a hot, slick point. He wasn't quite sure how far in it was going, but it seemed further than he would have thought possible, and fuck, he needed more of that. He felt lips press around his hole and that tongue pressed in just a bit further, and if Sherlock had touched John's cock at that point, it would have been over very quickly. The tongue retreated to flick against his hole again, alternating between light barely-there brushes and wide swipes of flat tongue, then pressing into him again, God, fucking into him for another minute before Sherlock's mouth moved down further to pay attention to his balls.

Two lube-slicked fingers pressed into his arse at the same moment that Sherlock took one of John's balls into his mouth, and John's fingers clenched the sofa cushion.

"Oh, God, that's—" The fingers slid out slowly, twisting 90 degrees before pushing in again, and John laughed, inexplicably. "I really want you to fuck me, right now."

There was a brush of cool air against his balls as Sherlock moved away, and the fingers withdrew. John heard a rustle of fabric behind him, and then the sound of a foil being torn open. It was ironic that these were the very condoms Sherlock had set out for him for his ill-fated date with Sylvia. He never would have imagined at the time that they'd be used like this. He kept his face pressed against the sofa and waited, though he couldn't help squirming a bit. Not being able to see what was happening behind him was a bit unnerving.

A moment more and then there was a warm hand on his hip and he felt the blunt head of Sherlock's cock pressed against him, into him. He gritted his teeth against the stretch – not his favorite part, though once his body adjusted, the sensation of being filled that way was absolutely his favorite part. Sherlock had been surprised by John's enthusiasm for bottoming, and it was hard to explain exactly why he liked it so much.

Well, other than the fact that being fucked felt really good.

"Go on, then," John said, and a moment later he felt Sherlock's hands grasp his hips. The first slide out was gorgeous, just to the point where he could feel his hole being stretched open by the head of Sherlock's cock.

"How do you want me to…?"

"Harder and angle down like… yeah, like that, God, perfect."

John had been pleasantly surprised to find Sherlock was fantastic in bed. He didn't have a great deal of experience, it turned out, but as with everything else he was a quick and enthusiastic learner. His famously keen observation skills were just as useful in evaluating sexual response as they were at picking out clues at a crime scene; he applied the same level of intensity to learning how to make John fall apart that he did to pursuing serial killers. It had only been a week, and already it had been some of the best sex of John's life.

"Like that?" Sherlock's breathing was ragged now.

"Oh God, harder, like… yes, there, fuck."

He wasn't going to be able to touch himself in this position, and he just needed a bit more, and God, he was so close.

"Could you--?"

One of Sherlock's hands moved under him to stroke his cock, and John saw stars.

"Oh God, that's it, I'm going to…" His tongue stopped cooperating after that and he pressed his open mouth against the cushion beneath him. His cock pulsed and everything condensed to their points of connection, and even though he pressed up onto his toes as much as he could, he had no control over it, couldn't do much more than lie there and let it wash over him.

He whimpered. His toes were numb. He turned his head, pressed his cheek into the now-damp spot he'd just drooled on.

"Oh, fuck, that was good."

"All right?" Sherlock's voice sounded strained, and John grinned.

"Your turn."

Sherlock began to press into him with quick, shallow strokes, his fingertips digging into John's hips almost to the point of pain. John already had small bruises all over his hips from the last few times they'd done this. He loved them.

A minute later the rhythm became erratic. Sherlock pressed in deeper once, twice, again, and finally stilled against John with a groan. He was always quiet when he came -- it was something John secretly wanted to work on, despite Mrs. Hudson's complaint.

John hummed against the sofa cushion. "That was fucking amazing."

Sherlock planted a soft kiss on John's shoulder and withdrew a bit gingerly. John slid to the floor, glad to have his weight off of his abdomen. Sherlock headed to the kitchen to dispose of the condom and John stepped into the bathroom to clean himself up a bit (and fetch another flannel to wipe off the now-defiled furniture). Five minutes later they were snuggled on the sofa. John had commandeered one of Sherlock's dressing gowns, and Sherlock was naked from the waist down, his perfectly tailored shirt now a bit wrinkled. They were silent for a while.

"Think you'll sleep tonight?" John let his head fall back against the sofa cushion and closed his eyes. His fingers stroked Sherlock's chest, playing with the smooth fabric there.

"For a bit." Sherlock had turned out to be more of a cuddler than John would have expected. Never for long, though. John sensed him growing restless even now.

John yawned. "I've got a shift tomorrow, so I need to get to bed. Want to join me?"

"Later. I've some research to do."

John leaned down to kiss him once more before he lost him to the work. It was only because he knew Sherlock so well that he didn't take it personally. Sherlock slid a hand around the back of John's head and held him there for a moment, open mouths pressed together, the soft slide of tongues somehow connecting them more intimately than they'd been just a few minutes ago. John closed his eyes against the emotion welling in his chest.

"I'm sorry about last year," Sherlock said when they finally parted.

John smiled and sat back. He entwined his fingers with Sherlock's. "I know. But it's over, thank God."

"I don't know what's coming next. It could be even worse."

"I love starting out the New Year with such a sense of optimism."

Sherlock snorted. "I didn't say we wouldn't enjoy it."

John squeezed his hand and released it. "No, of course not. Good night, Sherlock."

Sherlock sat forward enough to let him stand, and then stretched out on the sofa. He stared up at the ceiling, already shifting into what John liked to think of as processing mode. Sherlock probably wouldn't come to bed tonight at all; it was likely that John would wake up alone and would find him in this exact position again in the morning. Still bare-arsed, probably. But it was fine. He was home, and John couldn't imagine having him any other way.

"Happy New Year," he said. Sherlock's lips twitched briefly into a smile of acknowledgement, and John felt an unexpected flutter in his chest.

It would indeed be a Happy New Year, he had no doubt. In another week Sherlock's survival would be public knowledge, and their lives would be mad for a bit. But it would settle down again, and there would be cases – because who wouldn't want the help of a detective who'd so convincingly faked his death before an entire nation? – and Greg would find a way to involve Sherlock at Scotland Yard again, and Mycroft would scheme to get them both involved in the security services, which they would continue to resist, and John would blog about it all, and everything would be as it was before.

Well, with one rather significant difference, anyway. John walked to the bedroom – their bedroom – and smiled.

*****

~ fin ~