Work Header

Ghost Stories

Work Text:

John followed Mr Holmes inside the house, his duffle bag in one hand. Sherlock had detoured as soon as they arrived, ostensibly to the loo, but John knew he was really going to sneak out back and have a cigarette. He always did when they came up, although usually he didn't feel the need quite so soon. He might have developed a habit again. John couldn't say for sure as he'd picked up a job at a private practise covering for a doctor recovering from back surgery for six weeks, and hadn't been around their flat all that much. The practise was closed for the three-day holiday weekend, though, and Sherlock's parents had invited them up.

'Usually' was a bit broad, speaking of their visits; they'd actually only been twice since the last Christmas: once in the summer for a combined birthday lunch for the two Holmes parents -- their birthdays were coincidentally just two weeks apart -- and then last month, when John had volunteered to help Mr Holmes clean the gutters. Sherlock's father took pride in having always done it himself rather than hiring a service, but Mrs Holmes had dropped hints to Mycroft about it not being sensible anymore for him to be climbing ladders at his age. Most likely she'd been hoping for her eldest to swoop in and arrange something behind Mr Holmes' back, presenting him with a fait accompli, but wind of the thing had found its way to John, who had promptly said he'd come help out one weekend. He'd managed to go about it in such a way that he did all the ladder-climbing, without Mr Holmes feeling that he wasn't the one in charge.

John had a feeling Mr Holmes had actually been relieved and grateful over the face-saving arrangement. He was showing his age more and more these days, his movements slower and his clothes hanging looser, although his voice was just as full and warm as ever. John liked Mr Holmes -- liked both the Holmes parents -- a great deal, and was more than grateful that they'd accepted him, both with and without Mary, as virtually part of the family.

As they passed the living room, memories surged to the forefront of John's mind. Memories of last Christmas, Mary sitting there with her belly huge, the hug in front of the fireplace. John's stomach twisted uncomfortably, and he had to give himself a bit of a mental shake. He hadn't had a reaction like that on their previous visits. Maybe it was the Christmas decorations and smells of baking that had triggered it. He pushed it aside. All that unpleasantness was over and done with. He was living in the flat on Baker Street with Sherlock again, and things were more or less back to the way they'd been before the whole mess with the Moriarty conspiracy.

More or less.

Sherlock had changed during his time away, and John supposed he had too. They were both less impulsive and more cautious; not only with the cases they took but with each other too. Maybe just older and wiser. John had had to take a good hard look at his life before returning to the flat. He knew they couldn't go back entirely to the way things had been. Too much water under the bridge for that. He couldn't view their living arrangement as something temporary this time, a stop-gap measure on the way to a steady job and family. He'd realised those weren't things he wanted anymore. Or rather: those were things he already had, with Sherlock. They'd never discussed it, so John wasn't entirely sure how Sherlock saw it, but he'd been back for six months now and things were good.

Very good.

They spent more evenings in now than they had in the past, although there had still been some heart-pumping adventures sprinkled here and there. But John found just as much satisfaction verbally sparring with Sherlock over some ridiculous story in the newspaper, settling in together to watch a classic movie Sherlock had come across while channel-hopping, or simply sitting in his chair reading a book while Sherlock fiddled with his blog, checked the progress of his tissue cross-typing experiment, scratched out some vaguely musical sounds on his violin, and generally hovered until John had pity and took him out for dinner and a brisk walk along the river.

And then later, when John had gone up to his room for the night, hearing Sherlock return to his violin and turn those scratches into something lovely and wistful and somehow both so sad and so quietly joyful it made John's heart squeeze. It was in those moments -- and only then -- that John allowed himself to unpack the little secret stash of emotions he guarded so closely, to mourn a little, for all the things they had lost. For the things they'd never had. For what might have been, if only. He knew Sherlock loved him, and God help him, he loved Sherlock right back, just as fiercely. But this was what they were. How they were. Maybe all that either of them was capable of. Flatmates. Two men who shared rooms. Who shared a life. But that was all. There were simply certain physical and emotional lines which were neither crossed nor even acknowledged.

Up the stairs, Mr Holmes turned right instead of the left John had expected, and walked through a door halfway down the hall. John made a little sound of surprise as he stopped short in the doorway, adjusting his grip on his bag. He'd thought Mr Holmes was leading him to the guest room he and Mary had been assigned (but never actually ended up staying in) a year ago, but now an entirely new possibility, one he hadn't even remotely considered, occurred to him.

"This is um. This is Sherlock's room," John said, nonplussed.

If the anatomical drawings -- some clearly professional, others in an unpractised but not unskilled hand -- and framed botanical specimens on the walls hadn't been a strong enough hint, the half-size violin and bow mounted on the wall were a rather dead giveaway. The room was no shrine: it was tidy and uncluttered with the general air of a guest room, but enough personal effects had been left to give it at least some sense of homeliness. The double bed was overlaid with a crocheted throw that looked more like something Mrs Hudson would have chosen than Sherlock. The space smelled as if it had been recently aired, the crisp tang of winter hovering just out of reach.

Mr Holmes went in ahead of him, looking around fondly at the furnishings and mementos. "Oh yes. The bed's big enough though. Sherlock came into his height so quickly we went ahead and put in a double on his twelfth birthday. The mattress has been replaced since then of course. Did you not come in here last year? I guess not, with your wife here." He turned to John with a sudden, stricken look. "I am sorry, John. I'm a bit pants at this kind of thing. You just tell me if I put my foot in it, will you?"

"It's fine. Over and done with," he said, only half aware of his own words. He was silently, madly, trying to keep up with what Mr Holmes was saying. Or rather, what he wasn't saying, what the assumptions were underneath his words. Because to John, it sounded a hell of a lot like Mr Holmes thought both Sherlock and John would be sleeping in this room for the next two nights. Together. In the same bed. Which. Was not something John would necessarily have a problem with, except. He almost burst out laughing at how ridiculous this was. There was no way Sherlock would have told his parents anything like this. Had they simply assumed? Should he set things straight? Straight. Ha! Would it make things unbearably awkward if he spoke up, pointed out the error? It would be awkward either way. No, it would be better to let Sherlock do it. He wouldn't have any qualms about correcting his parents' (or only Mr Holmes'?) incredible leap of logic.

"Mal wanted to redo it all," Mr Holmes was saying, oblivious to John's miniature crisis, "turn it into an indoor workroom. She worries, you know, me all the way out in the shed. Especially in winter." Mr Holmes went to the window and looked down into the garden. It was late afternoon, dusk closing in, but the large toolshed-cum-workshop was still well visible at the back of the property. "But the light's all wrong in here, as you can see, and it's too small." He gestured around the room and confided with a twinkle in his eye, "Anyway, a man has to have his cave to retreat to. When all the genius gets to be too much."

John raised his eyebrows. That he could relate to. "Oh yeah. I usually pop round to the pub, me." Which didn't sound like that bad an idea at the moment.

"I've never been much of a pub man myself, but maybe the two of us can sneak out later on."

"I'd like that."


Clomping footsteps on the hardwood floor in the hall heralded Sherlock's arrival. "Here you are," he said when he saw John. He'd divested himself of his outerwear, yet still appeared oddly out of place in his suit jacket, standing in the midst of so much homeliness. It looked like he was about to say something else but stopped when he saw his father was there too. A quick darted glance between the two men that John couldn't quite make sense of. Irritated? Nervous? John tried to send Sherlock a questioning look without letting Mr Holmes see, but wasn't sure it succeeded.

"Just getting John settled," Mr Holmes said, unfrazzled. Then to John: "You'll find fresh towels in the bath."

"Great, thanks." John stepped aside to let Mr Holmes pass through to the hall, staring hard at Sherlock, willing him to say something. Did he not understand the situation?

"I imagine I'll go see about getting the turkey up from the freezer before Mummy gets back," Mr Holmes said cheerfully and wandered off.

"Sherlock," John hissed, jerking his head in the direction of Mr Holmes' retreating figure.

Sherlock glanced at John then sighed and called after his father, "Don't try bringing it up yourself, Dad. I'll be down in a minute."

"Not that," John insisted, still keeping his voice low. "Although thanks. But if I've understood correctly, your father thinks we'll be sharing a bed tonight. Here." He pointed at the bed behind him.

Sherlock gave John an inscrutable look then went to stand at the window, much as his father had done a few minutes earlier. The resemblance between the two men struck John particularly at that moment: the profile, the tilt of the head, the long, lean curve of the body, the delicate fingers holding back the curtain to get a clear view of the garden. John tried superimposing the image of Mr Holmes on Sherlock, imagining him thirty or forty years on. Hair gone grey, lines around his eyes, still wearing that suit jacket, although it would hang more loosely on his thinning frame.

Would he be living in London, or would he have moved someplace like this, out in the country? Perhaps even to this very house, presuming he inherited it. Would he turn his father's workshop out in the shed into a laboratory? He could keep all his noxious fumes and body parts out there, and John would finally be able to enjoy a cup of tea without wondering whether the kettle had been used to store pig placentas.

John caught himself right there. The uncrossed line. Bad luck to even think about things like that. Especially in the context of sharing this room, sleeping beside each other, spending Christmas together like a real family.

"If it's going to be a problem for you," Sherlock said, his clipped tone cutting right to the quick of John's daydream, "I suppose one of us could go out to the shed. There's a space heater, it should be bearable."

John forced himself back to the present. He must be missing something, but... "Did something happen to the guest room?" he asked.

"Mummy needs a white noise machine to fall asleep. It keeps my father awake, so he sleeps in the guest room." And then, in answer to John's unasked question, he explained: "Mary was here with you last year, and pregnant. He wanted to. This time we're here for two nights, and I suppose he thought we wouldn't mind sharing."

"What about Mycroft's room?"

Sherlock dropped the curtain and smirked at John. "If you'd rather sleep with him when he arrives tomorrow, by all means."

John grinned back, glad this seemed to be rather a non-issue for Sherlock. "No, it's fine. All right. It'll be like a sleepover. Bed's big enough. Your father made a point of that. So he doesn't think we're actually. You know."

"You'll have to ask him," Sherlock said, steadily holding John's gaze. Challenging? No, just neutral.

"Yeah, no," John said. It didn't really matter. Things were what they were. People had always made assumptions, and that hadn't changed things between them.

"Really, John, if this is going to be a problem--" This time more concern than irritation.

"Nope, no problem," John assured him firmly. "Just wasn't expecting it is all. It's fine." He cleared his throat expectantly. "Was there... You were looking for me just now?"

Sherlock shrugged noncommitally. "Just wondering where you'd got to."

"Making sure your dad wasn't showing me your baby pictures, you mean," John teased.

"Do give him a bit of credit, he's not that tactless."

"Oh come on, they can't be that embarrassing."

"It's not that." Sherlock's eyes flicked over John's face, then looked away. "Never mind."

It took John a few seconds to catch up. "Oh, you mean..." Baby pictures. Not embarrassing to Sherlock, but to... "Oh. No, it's okay. I wouldn't have made the connection, I don't think. Course, now I have." John tried for a chuckle in an attempt to keep things lighthearted. Didn't quite succeed.

"Sorry," Sherlock muttered.

"Look, shut up, all right? You've nothing to be sorry about. Let's just... " John cast about desperately for a distraction, and lit upon the violin on the wall. "So this was yours?" John went over to it, ostensibly to get a better look but really to avoid having to look at Sherlock. He never knew how to react when Sherlock was uncharacteristically mindful of John's feelings.

"I'm fairly certain they regretted giving in and getting that for the first few years," Sherlock said, wandering closer as well.

John made a soft sound of amusement. "Could you still play it now? A small one like that?"

"Technically, but this is in no condition to be played. It would need to be completely re-stringed. The bow too." Sherlock reached around John to take the violin off the wall. Close enough that John could smell his aftershave and the breath mint covering the lingering aftertaste of cigarettes. He breathed in deeply before he could stop himself. Sherlock ran his hands over the instrument, blew some dust off, and plucked lightly at a string. It made a dull, plonging sound. John's heart jumped.

"Pity," John said, his voice coming out rawer than he would have liked. "It would have been nice."

"What, hearing me play on a child's instrument?"

"No, just. Hearing you play. I liked it when you played on Christmas. The last one we had in London, I mean. That Christmas party at the flat?" He looked up at Sherlock, who hadn't moved away. Again that perusal of John's face, the feeling that there was something John was missing. John's heart ratcheted up a beat.

"You'd be sorely mistaken if you think I'd play Christmas carols for my parents," Sherlock said, his voice warm and intimate, with a touch of amusement.

John giggled, and this time it was genuine. "No, I guess not. For me though, maybe?" he said, before he'd thought through the way that might sound. "I mean, no, not just for me," he tried to explain, his heart now skittering wildly at the closeness, the gentle waft of Sherlock's mint-and-cigarette-tinged breath, his intense, unnerving expression. "But I hear you play all the time. Not for me. Just, you playing. Doesn't matter what." John decided he'd do better to shut up before he dug himself any deeper into his current hole.

The silence only made it worse, though, magnified by the hold Sherlock's eyes had on his. John licked his lips before he could stop himself; a nervous tic, exacerbated by the dry winter air. Sherlock's gaze followed before snapping back to meet John's. A hitch of breath. Sherlock's and John's. Sherlock about to say something. John on the verge of panic.

"Um. I think I'll see if I can help your dad with that turkey," he all but blurted. John had to fairly extricate himself from between the wall and Sherlock, ducking his head and exiting the room quickly before... he didn't know what, before something happened that he couldn't go back on. Behind him, he heard another tinny plong sound from the violin.

By the time Mrs Holmes bustled in a little while later, the turkey had been deposited in the refrigerator to thaw, Sherlock had helped himself to some of the goodies already prepared on the sideboard, and John and Mr Holmes were chatting over a cup of tea at the kitchen table.

John and Mr Holmes both stood up when she came in, red-cheeked from the cold and patting down her staticky hair.

"How did the tutoring go?" Mr Holmes asked after exchanging a quick peck with his wife.

"Bunch of morons," Mrs Holmes said briskly. "I don't know how they're going to manage. Hello, John, come give me a proper welcome as it looks like my son is too busy fattening himself up before Christmas dinner." She held out her arms and John obediently came round the table to greet her.

Sherlock gave her a cheeky smile around a mouthful of lemon pie from where he sat at the far end of the table. "Hello, Mummy."

"You'll whip them into shape, dear," Mr Holmes answered placidly, his hands in his pockets. "You always do."

John kissed Sherlock's mother on the cheek, receiving a sturdy hug in return. "Sorry, tutoring?" John asked, looking from her to Mr Holmes.

"Mummy does tutoring at the local grammar school," Sherlock reported, licking a jammy smear off his thumb.

"That's great, I'm sure the kids love you," John said dutifully, although he was privately somewhat skeptical about the moron comment and 'whipping them into shape'.

Sherlock and his parents exchanged a look, then all three burst out laughing.

John smiled slowly, not understanding what he'd said. "What was it?"

"Oh my goodness, no, John, can you picture me with children?" Mrs Holmes said, her eyes flashing with mirth.

At John's raised eyebrows and significant look in Sherlock's direction, she sobered a bit. "Well, any children who aren't as clever as my boys. I'd have them in tears within seconds. No patience at all."

"Mummy tutors the maths and physics teachers," Sherlock explained. "Seminars on the latest research and publications, helps them understand the stuff enough to adapt it for their classes."

"I swear I don't know how they managed to pass their certification." She sat down at the table while Mr Holmes set about preparing a cup of tea for her.

"Remember, that was thirty years ago for some of them," he said from over by the cupboards. "They haven't all kept up. That's what you're there for." He gave her a knowing, affectionate look.

"You're right," she preened, before turning her attention to Sherlock and John. "Never mind that now. How are you boys?"

Once she'd been caught up on the latest from London, Mrs Holmes shooed everyone out of the kitchen so she could make dinner, refusing all of John's offers to help. Sherlock skulked off for another cigarette, not fooling anyone, and John accompanied Mr Holmes out to his workshop.

The much vaunted light was gone by now, the early winter night having already settled in. The shed had originally been conceived to double as a greenhouse or winter garden, so one wall was almost entirely enclosed in glass. It would really be a fantastic space for an artist's studio, John thought, although Mr Holmes used it for practical carpentry rather than decorative pieces. He showed John some of the finished pieces he hadn't yet found homes for: a sturdy little chess table, a lamp stand, several planter boxes of rough-hewn timbers a neighbour hadn't known what to do with. His current project was a birdhouse, which he unclamped from the vise for John to inspect. "Cliche, but people do love their birds round here and it's the season," he commented.

"These are lovely," John said, his eye catching on some smaller objects, woodcarvings sitting on the back of a shelf higher up. Mostly nature motifs, simple shapes: a turtle, a seashell, a cat sitting with its tail curled around itself.

"Oh that was just me trying things out," Mr Holmes said modestly. "Not sure I'll be doing any more. I haven't the dexterity for it, you see."

John reached up to take one down for a closer look. It was a cow, a little smaller than John's hand. He ran his fingers over the smooth wood. Viewed up close, John could see the lines weren't exactly even, the proportions not quite right in places. The face had been painted on, just dots for eyes and nostrils, and a curved line for a mouth that made it look like the cow was smirking knowingly. It was playful and sturdy, and John was struck by the thought that a child might enjoy playing with it. And closely on the heels of that thought came another, less welcome one: why had Sherlock's father branched out into the carvings? They were covered in a fine layer of dust (eloquent, that), which indicated they'd been left to sit for quite a while. A year was certainly possible. Likely. They were a bit naive to appeal to the sorts of adults who collected knick-knacks. But a child... the obvious connection wasn't easy to dismiss. Had the Holmeses ever wanted grandchildren? There seemed no chance of that now. Not that John's child would have been their grandchild.

Except... except.

John fought the unexpected lump that threatened to lodge in his throat. He put the cow back carefully, sniffed in the earthy aromas of sawdust and metal, had to clear his throat before speaking. "They're lovely," he said again. "You should keep at it."

Mr Holmes stood in front of the workbench that ran the length of the glass-fronted wall, gazing out at the darkened vista that lay beyond. He didn't seem to have heard John. "Sherlock used to have designs on this place as a boy," he said.

John chuckled wryly, glad for a distraction and thinking of his own imagining earlier, back in Sherlock's room. "Wanted to turn it into a secret laboratory, did he?"

"Oh no, a pirate ship." Mr Holmes gestured at the workbench. "This was the bridge, out there the seven seas. He never told us as much, it was all terribly secret, but I would sometimes find his spyglass and compass stuffed under here." He put his hands in his pockets and stared out into the shadowy garden, as if looking somewhere beyond what was really there. "He was always so closed off, especially about things that were important to him. I'm afraid he thought we would find his games and notions silly. There was Mal with her equations all over, me with my briefcase full of paperwork, and of course Mycroft, whom he idolised, who has been a stuffy, dour diplomat since he could talk. And I say that with all of a father's love," Mr Holmes added with a half smile and a sidelong wink at John. He turned back to the window, which now showed little more than his own and John's reflection. "Then along came Sherlock. I dare say none of us quite knew what to make of him. We tried to encourage him, but somewhere along the way we must have gone wrong. He was so unhappy for so long."

John didn't know much about that period in Sherlock's life, just bits and pieces. He'd dropped out of university, lived on the streets for a while. An overdose that just missed being classified as a suicide attempt. Rehab. There were times when John wished he'd been around then, when he imagined he might have helped Sherlock. But then there were other, more sobering times when he took a good, hard look at his relationship with Harry and knew deep down that he wouldn't have stuck it out with Sherlock either. Not if Sherlock hadn't wanted to change. But he had wanted it, and he'd done it himself, and that couldn't be dismissed. Maybe it was something he'd needed to do himself, before he could save John. They had met when both were at a crossroads, both ready (or forced) to change direction. For better or worse. For gunshots and archenemies, for death and adventure and something he suspected was larger than either of them.

"I'd say you must have done some things right too," John said to Mr Holmes. "He is the most incredible person I've ever met. I'm not saying that lightly. I've been around a bit."

Mr Holmes was silent for a good long while. John let him.

"I am so very grateful, you know," Mr Holmes finally said, his voice soft but firm, "that he has you. We both are." He slowly turned his head to look at John, a warm smile on his face.

John exhaled slowly. He knew what Mr Holmes was saying. What he was implying. Did he really believe that? That Sherlock and John were in a committed relationship, however that might be defined? On the other hand, was it not true? John had felt something along those lines for a while now. Now that he was settled back in the flat on Baker Street, John couldn't imagine ever leaving again. Not without Sherlock.

"Me too, yeah," John agreed finally, because it was true. He was grateful to have Sherlock. To have been allowed back into his life.

Mr Holmes looked apologetic. "I'm sorry, John, you must stop me when I get too personal. It's the age, it makes one sentimental. Thinking about one's mortality. One's legacy."

"Perfectly all right."

Out the window, a light flashed from the direction of the house.

"Looks like Mal has dinner ready," Mr Holmes said.

Dinner was a simple affair: parsnip soup and fresh bread which Mrs Holmes had picked up from the local bakery when she was out, with clotted cream to pass around. 'The fast before the feast' is how she termed it, although to judge by the amount of pie Sherlock had already consumed, it was more like the feast before the other feast.

After they were done eating, John shanghaied Sherlock into doing the dishes with him, which resulted in one thoroughly wet shirt front, one case of suds in the eye, and one near-catastrophe when Sherlock executed a point turn while transferring a stack of plates from the table to the sink and nearly fell flat on his back due to a rather large puddle on the floor. The situation was saved only by John's lightning reflexes, as his arm shot out to grab Sherlock around the waist to steady him.

Sherlock's body was warm and solid under his shirt -- he'd removed his jacket for the washing-up -- and John found his hand lingering longer than strictly necessary. Sliding across his back rather than a clean breaking of contact. Sherlock's eyes on his, a moment poised in time, before he said a quick thanks and stepped away to deposit the dishes in the sink. John clenched his hand, berating himself for the slip-up yet unable to regret it entirely.

When John came back downstairs with a dry shirt, he found himself agreeing to a game of Parcheesi despite less than positive experiences in the past with Sherlock and board games. He figured at least this was mostly down to the luck of the dice, so Sherlock wouldn't be able to argue his way to an advantage.

He was wrong.

It turned out the Holmes house rules were Byzantine and unexpected, involving things like semi-permeable blockades, three strikes and you're out, and die rolls not necessarily being worth their face value but rather the basis for a mathematical equation to determine how many spaces you could advance your pieces. Sherlock was out for blood, but Mrs Holmes and John formed an alliance which was able to keep Sherlock in check long enough for Mr Holmes to somehow sneak past all of them into the safe zone and victory.

Sherlock sulked at the unfairness of it all, and fetched his computer from his bag so he could fling himself into the big green armchair in front of the fire and bury himself behind the screen. Mrs Holmes went to get them all some mulled cider while Mr Holmes challenged John to a few rounds of Battleship. Once she'd settled everyone with their drinks, Mrs Holmes busied herself with the jigsaw puzzle spread across the big table by the garden windows, and the four of them chatted across the room while pursuing their various individual activities. There was Christmas music playing in the background -- not the usual light fare of Deck the Halls and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, but more meaty pieces like Bach's Christmas Oratorio, Schoenberg's Weihnachtsmusik, and Britten's Ceremony of Carols. Not that John would have recognised any of them, but between Sherlock's and his parents' commentary, he was kept well informed.

As the clock advanced past ten, Sherlock's parents gracefully excused themselves for the night, with a reminder to Sherlock and John to bank the fire before turning in. The next day was Christmas Eve, and would be largely filled with last-minute preparations and of course Mycroft's arrival. In the evening, Sherlock's parents intended to attend the carol service at church, and John said he would join them. Sherlock was noncommittal, although he suggested that if Mycroft went, he wouldn't and vice versa. John was half tempted to send Mycroft a text asking him to beg off. It was dangerous, this domesticity. He knew that. Allowing himself to become so wrapped up in this family. Letting them treat him like another son. Or a son-in-law? The bed, the cow, the private discussions. Were those things a father would share with any old friend of their son's? Even his best friend?

In the end, it didn't matter what Sherlock's parents thought, of course. Or the press, or the officers at the Yard, or their clients, or Mrs Hudson. It only mattered what John thought. What Sherlock thought. And there was the problem: who knew what Sherlock thought? John remembered what Mr Holmes had said out in the shed: that Sherlock had always been closed-off and secretive when it came to things that were important to him. That wasn't quite true; Sherlock couldn't get enough of talking about some things he was deeply invested in: his cases, his experiments. His sock index, John thought with fond amusement. But there were other things he never talked about. His music, for instance. Oh, he talked about music, certainly, but not his music. Not what he played late at night, when he knew John was upstairs listening. Not the pages he filled with his own notes and filed carefully away. He never talked about his drug use. Which, John hoped, was all in the past now. Maybe it was a good thing he was smoking, as it meant he didn't need to resort to anything more potent. And most of all, he never talked about himself and John. Not to other people, and not to John. They'd never talked about what had happened with Mary. Never even really talked about John moving back. They had just kind of slid into it. Did that mean John was important to him? More important than the cases? The drugs?

Once the Holmes parents had gone upstairs, John turned off the main light and went over to sit on the floor by the hearth, in front of Sherlock's chair. The fire had almost died, but the last log still glowed red behind the fireplace screen. The last music track had ended a while ago, and the only sounds were Sherlock's typing and the occasional pop or hiss of one last air pocket or drop of moisture being released from the wood. This wasn't really much different than an evening in back in London, looked at objectively. And yet there some something much more intimate about it, something that caused that small, carefully guarded bundle deep inside him to stir and glow. He would never sit like this at home; in fact, he wasn't sure now what had made him take up this position at Sherlock's feet when there was another perfectly serviceable armchair just opposite. The empty spot on the carpet had just seemed to be waiting for him, in the semi-circle of red light from the hearth.

"Hey," John said softly, bumping Sherlock's leg with his shoulder. "What are you looking at? Anything good?"

Behind him, Sherlock shifted in his chair, his low voice melding smoothly with the shadows and warmth of the room. "Misplaced jewelry, stalker, mistaken identity, runaway, car theft ring. I've made us £1200 while you were floundering around trying to find my father's patrol boat. He always puts it on the opposite side of the board from the aircraft carrier, remember for next time. Sent the details on the car thieves over to the Met. Might be a reward coming for that too, depends if they end up prosecuting or if there's a plea bargain."

"What really?" John leaned back on his hands and twisted his head to beam at Sherlock. "Good on you. Happy early Christmas." Us, he'd said, even though John hadn't contributed so much as a 'brilliant' to the effort. Us. As if they were a unit.

Sherlock grunted, but seemed pleased. John wanted to say something else, but didn't know what. Wanted to lean his head against Sherlock's knee. Give his foot a squeeze. Kiss him until they were both breathless and gasping. God. John ran a hand over his face, which was suddenly hot and not from the screened-off embers. This was getting out of control. Was it this place? Had Sherlock drugged the cider? He should probably put himself out of temptation's way.

John got to his feet, stretching his back. "Think I'll hit the hay too," he said, although his mind and body were buzzing. He wouldn't be falling asleep anytime soon. Especially not if Sherlock joined him in the bed. "Are you coming too, or do you want me to leave a light on for you?"

Sherlock glanced at John, his gaze hitting John's midriff where his shirt was stretched taut before rising to his face. "No, you go ahead. I have some more emails to catch up on." His eyes were limpid and hooded in the blue glow from his computer screen. Dark. Beautiful.

John lowered his arms. "I know you're going to have a smoke," he said, pursing his lips.

"Mycroft's coming tomorrow, I'm entitled," Sherlock muttered.

John knew better than to push it. "I'd like to have you around for a while yet is all," he said lightly. "I still need you to pay your half of the rent."

Sherlock waved his long fingers vaguely in John's direction, his attention firmly on his computer screen. "You'd find another flatmate in no time. Top location."

"Yeah, but the thing is I don't want another flatmate." He put his hand on Sherlock's shoulder and leaned in to say in his ear: "You've pretty much spoiled me for anyone else." Definitely something in the cider. Sherlock looked up at him. Startled. Those damn eyes. What was going on behind them? His hair, his mouth. God, he needed to go to bed. Eyes shut and brain off. He squeezed Sherlock's shoulder and walked away before he could say or do anything else. It was going to be an interesting night.

John was drifting at the edge of sleep when he heard the door open and Sherlock came in, lighting his way with his phone.

"Hey," John said softly, rousing himself. "Everything all right?"

"I didn't mean to wake you." Sherlock sat down on the edge of the bed. In the faint light, John could see he'd already changed into his pyjama trousers and a t-shirt. He must have snuck in earlier to get his things out of his roller case. John hadn't even heard him. Had he really been asleep already? What time was it?

"Wasn't sleeping," John said, even though it might not be entirely true. He scooted back to make more room for Sherlock. He'd somehow gravitated toward the middle of the bed. Not used to sleeping with someone anymore.

Sherlock turned off his phone and set it on the bedside table, then got under the covers. There was a bit of an awkward back-and-forth as they both tried to adjust the comforter so they were both covered without actually touching each other. They ended up lying on their backs, John with his arms under the blanket and Sherlock with his on top. John could smell the cold air and cigarette smoke lingering on him.

"You're sure this is all right for you?" Sherlock asked.

"Yeah, it's fine." It was fine. He was going to go insane, not get a wink of sleep, but that was absolutely more than fine.

They both lay there silently for a bit. John heard Sherlock inhale a couple of times, quickly, as if he were about to say something. John's heart thudded wildly, banging against his ribs so hard he'd have been surprised if Sherlock couldn't feel it through the mattress.

Finally, Sherlock blurted: "I've never shared a bed with anyone before."

"Okay," John said carefully, unwilling to jump to any sort of conclusion at that rather provocative opening. No, he was not even going to speculate.

Sherlock took another sharp breath. "I mean I don't know what the protocol is for this. Do we simply say goodnight and ignore each other until the morning?"

John relaxed a fraction, amusement tinged with something more complex breaking through his receding anxiety. "Could do."

A beat of silence, and then Sherlock said: "All right. Good night."

"Or we could talk," John offered, the words tumbling out almost before Sherlock had finished speaking.


"Yeah. Erm. Know any good ghost stories?"


"You know, scary stories. When you have a sleepover, it's traditional to try to scare the crap out of each other."


"It's just what you do. Look, I'll start," he said, as an idea came to him. It was a classic he'd heard many times as a kid, but with a bit of a twist. "So," he said, turning onto his side and propping his head up on his hand, "there was this fellow who just moved in with his new flatmate. The flatmate's kind of an oddball but the rent's manageable and the location's perfect. Plus, the guy's just back from overseas and the flat comes furnished so he can move in right away. You with me?"

Sherlock folded his hands over his chest. "Yes, go on."

"All right. So the first night, he goes up to his room to go to bed. He didn't really look at the room closely before, he was just happy to have a place, but now he notices there's this mannequin propped up in the far corner, dressed like one of those old-fashioned clowns, you know with the frilly collar and the big red nose. The guy doesn't think he'll be able to sleep knowing that thing is standing there watching him but he doesn't want to move it without asking his flatmate first so he goes back downstairs."

"This story doesn't make sense. A mannequin can't watch you. Is this like those angels from Doctor Who?"

"Shut up, just listen." John kicked Sherlock gently under the blanket, the ball of his foot against Sherlock's calf. His trousers had hitched up, and John hit skin. Warm and taut. Triceps surae. Compact, powerful. Sherlock didn't move away. Neither did John. His heart hit two beats in quick succession. "Anyway," John said, at least half of his mind now firmly lodged under the covers, "he goes downstairs and his flatmate is sitting in the kitchen frying eyeballs."

"He was probably bored." Sherlock moved his leg, pressing just slightly into John's foot. A signal for John to back off? John flexed his toes. No reaction.

John left his foot where it was and continued. "Yeah, you're probably right. The guy explains to the flatmate about the clown and asks if they can put it somewhere else. The flatmate drops the eyeball into his tea in alarm and tells him to get his gun."

"And it turns out," Sherlock interjected, turning his head toward John, "that the clown wasn't a mannequin at all but a deranged serial killer. The two flatmates run upstairs, capture him, and the flatmate's brother makes sure the story stays out of the papers. The end. That was pathetic, John. Not scary at all."

John chuckled. "Yeah, you're right. I just thought of it because of that clown you've got standing over there in the corner. It's kind of freaking me out the way it's leering at us."

Sherlock started to turn his head to look behind him but caught himself halfway.

"Ah, I got you," John said gleefully.

"You didn't."

John pushed Sherlock's leg under the blanket again. "I got you a little, admit it."

Sherlock huffed and turned onto his side as well, facing John. "Not at all, I was just adjusting my neck. These pillows are awful." He made a show of fluffing and pounding his pillow, and when he resettled, one leg somehow ended up on top of John's. To stop him from kicking anymore?

"There's a moral to the story too, you know," John pointed out. "Being respectful of your flatmate's belongings might just save your life one day."

Sherlock scoffed. "You'd have been able to handle a serial killer dressed as a clown on your own, I've no doubt."

John grinned. Sherlock's leg was right on top of his ankle bone. It was uncomfortable and was probably going to make his foot fall asleep in a minute or so. What the hell were they doing? Was Sherlock even aware? Were they playing footsie or just asserting territorial claims? Two alpha males or a courting pair? Both? Maybe it was the late hour, the darkness, the otherworldly quality of the entire situation, removed from their everyday life. Mr Holmes' words. The fact that Sherlock was here. He could have slept in the shed. Or downstairs on the couch. It was much more comfortable than the one in their flat, which Sherlock had slept on many times. He could have not even come to bed at all, for that matter. It wasn't only on nights when they had a case that he stayed up all night. An experiment, a composition, an argument on an internet forum that he couldn't let go of, they all had exerted their thrall over him at one time or another such that when John would come down for breakfast, he'd find Sherlock hunched over the table staring into his microscope or his phone, bleary-eyed, unshaven, and completely unaware of his surroundings. But he was here, tucked under the covers beside John on Christmas Eve -- it must be after midnight -- their feet entangled, pillow talking.

John pulled his leg out from underneath and dropped it on top of Sherlock's, drawing it closer. Unambiguous. Reckless. "All right, your turn," he said. Sherlock's move.

"Fine, but first I forgot to tell you Mycroft is going to bring a date with him tomorrow."

John's eyes grew wide in the dark. "Holy shit, are you kidding?" Mycroft and romance? There had to be something else to it. A cover for a secret mission. Some foreign dignitary he needed to keep an eye on.

But Sherlock laughed, making the mattress shake. "Got you."

John started laughing too. He should really have known better. "You arse." He shoved Sherlock in the shoulder, leaning into him. Sherlock grabbed him by the wrist and pushed back, still laughing. A half playful, half earnest grappling match ensued that ended only when John felt his arse hit the edge of the bed and yelped. He grabbed onto Sherlock to catch himself before he fell, even as Sherlock hauled him back into the middle of the mattress. They ended up lying pressed together from shoulder to thigh, Sherlock on his back and John on his front, both gasping and laughing, with Sherlock's arm under John grasping his waist and John's arm stretched across Sherlock's chest, still holding fast to his other wrist.

"Shh, sh, we're going to wake your parents," John said, trying to whisper through his giggles. He felt as if he should be about thirty years younger to deliver that line.

"White noise machine," Sherlock reminded him, which for some reason they both found incredibly funny and set off a fresh round of laughter. Or maybe it was the physical exertion which had allowed the release of whatever tension they'd both been feeling through the day. It hadn't been unpleasant or anxious, but definitely palpable. A pressure, from both inside and out. To meet expectations, not to disappoint. Not to be disappointed. Not to cross the invisible line. Had they crossed it now? John thought they had. They must have done. Sherlock's heart thumping under John's arm. His breath still smelling faintly of toothpaste, puffing against John's face. All John would have to do was tilt his head up a couple of centimetres. It was darker here at night than it was in their flat on Baker Street, but he could still see the gleam of Sherlock's eyes, the pale shape of his face, the darker smear of his lips. So close.

Their laughter faded away, leaving a portentous silence. Charged.

Sherlock's voice rolled into it, low and silky, sending a thrill down John's spine. "Do I win?"

It would have been easy. Sherlock wanted to. John could feel it. Wanted him to. John wanted to also. So much. So much he could taste it. He already knew what Sherlock would taste like. Not the toothpaste or the traces of nicotine, but Sherlock himself. He had his breath in his nostrils, in his mouth, already. It was as familiar as water. As necessary. It was so hard not to give in. But he needed to see him. Needed to look into his eyes and know this was real, not a twilight phantom that only existed in the witching hour, something that would dissolve with daylight, ignored or denied.

Had Sherlock won? John hoped they both had. That they both would. And that the prize would glitter and beckon just as brightly in the morning. Brighter. And so he said, "Yeah, I guess you do," and turned onto his side, slowly, trying to let Sherlock know this wasn't a rejection. He held onto Sherlock's wrist, pulled it with him as he settled back onto his pillow. Sherlock slid his arm out from underneath John and turned onto his side as well, so they were facing each other, John with his hand now resting loosely on top of Sherlock's on the mattress between them. It was too dark for John to make out anything of Sherlock's expression. Whether he was disappointed or happy or confused or relieved. Whether he understood.

"Tell me about the missing jewelry and the car thieves," John said. He squeezed Sherlock's hand. Sherlock started talking, and John let his voice wash over him, let himself just be, let them be how they were, together.

"Good morning." Sherlock's voice cut through the remnants of John's sleep haze. He was barely awake, but Sherlock must have been waiting for him to stir beside him and pounced on the first sign of life. John cracked his eyes open. The thin, winter light in the room told him the morning was well advanced.

"Morning," John slurred, his speech sleep-rough. He turned his head to blink blearily at his bedmate. Sherlock lay on his side, just as they'd fallen asleep the night before. Well, as he'd been when John fell asleep, listening to him monologue on blue gems and creepy bicyclists, silver roadsters and an illegitimate son. Mostly, anyway. They were no longer touching, John's hands neatly folded over his chest and Sherlock's tucked under his pillow. Sherlock's chin was stubbly and his hair was pressed flat, and his eyes were a little bloodshot, as if he'd slept about as well as John, which was: not very. John thought he was the most fantastic thing he'd ever seen, and his heart skipped a happy beat.

"Sleep well?" John asked.

"Not really, no." Sherlock's lips quirked up into a self-conscious smile. Under the covers, John felt Sherlock's foot move against his. A question, or maybe an answer. The reason for his unsettled rest.

John felt his own face breaking into a grin and turned onto his side to see Sherlock better. "Me either."

"This whole bed-sharing thing," Sherlock said. "Not quite as simple as I imagined."

"No," John agreed. There was something about sleeping with someone -- just sleeping -- that was even more intimate than sex, in a way. It involved trust, knowing the other person could do anything to you, but wouldn't. Waking during the night to hear someone else breathing next to you. Being able to reach over and touch them, knowing they trusted you just as much. Just being close. Sex was usually over so fast, but lying in the same bed for several hours was.... more, somehow. At least it could be, in John's experience. When the other person was important. When the relationship was important. When there were feelings involved that it was really much too early in the morning to be thinking about.

"Not so bad though," John said, his voice pitched halfway between a statement and a question.

"No," Sherlock said, his voice pitched low. Confidential. "No, it's... quite good, actually."

"Yeah." They lay there grinning goofily at each other. John felt giddy. More than quite good.

"Is this where we get up?" Sherlock asked, more amusement than uncertainty in his expression.

"Erm," John hedged. He had the impression Sherlock wasn't in any great hurry to vacate the bed. "If you want," he said, his stomach doing flip-flops and his hormones undergoing a general scramble. It came out more than halfway sounding like an offer to do the opposite, which hadn't been his intention. Not strictly speaking.

John tried to keep his expression neutral as Sherlock searched his face, maybe looking for John's own answer, maybe trying to decide whether John was really the person he wanted this with. If he wanted it with anyone. John wasn't sure himself what he wanted Sherlock to say. A huge part of him wanted Sherlock to say yes, to say he wanted it all, part and parcel, that sex was on the table. John had never been in an exclusive relationship -- a romantic relationship, if they were at a point where they could call it that -- without sex before, but he'd pretty much been resigned to that being what he and Sherlock had. Whether because Sherlock was asexual or because their friendship was already so fragile after all that had happened, that trying to add that dimension to it might break it. Or just because they were satisfied with the way things were.

Only John had to admit that for him, it would make a lot of things easier. He was wired to express love physically, it was that simple. It didn't have to be sexual, necessarily. He was just becoming more and more frustrated at having to hold back; not feeling free to hug Sherlock when he came home from work, or put his hand on his leg when they rode in a cab together, or to just kiss him on the top of his head when he passed by him in the kitchen.

But yes, there was also a selfish part of him that wasn't exactly looking forward to spending the next forty or so years without having sex. He believed he would have managed it; he didn't think he'd ever have gone elsewhere for sex, not even if he and Sherlock never formally defined what they had, because it still would have felt like cheating. But he didn't know, couldn't know how he might feel two or five or ten years on. Would he become resentful? Would there always be a divide between the two of them, never closing, perhaps even widening with time? So definitely, a relationship according to the pattern John was used to would be easier for him to navigate. Even if he didn't have any illusions that sex would magically make everything work.

Plus, John had had sex with several people he didn't love, and two he did, and the latter were as far removed from the former as Sherlock's methods were from Philip Anderson's. The one was nice, adequate, but the other went deeper, opened paths he'd never known existed. He understood why it was sometimes termed mind-blowing. John supposed at some level it was all just down to which chemicals got released in which quantities, but that didn't mean it was any less desirable or meaningful. He wanted that with Sherlock. Wanted it for Sherlock. But not if it came at the cost of anything else. Not if it meant Sherlock -- or he -- were compromising, trying to squeeze into some kind of norm that left both of them bent out of shape and hurting.

The doorbell rang downstairs; footsteps and voices followed. Mycroft? Sherlock's eyes peeled away from John's as he looked over his shoulder toward the door. "All things considered, probably the best course of action," he said cryptically and swung himself around to get out of bed. "You can take the hall bathroom, I'll use my parents'," he said. He went to his suitcase and gathered a few items, which he held in a bundle in front of him as he slipped out the door, keeping his back to John.

John's first, devastating thought was that Sherlock had smuggled drugs in with his underwear. His second: maybe it wasn't what was in the bundle that Sherlock was trying to hide, but what was underneath. John's own cock twitched at the image. He had to forcefully remind himself where they were, and that Sherlock had fled the bed. The bed which was still warm next to him, where Sherlock had lain beside him for hours. Too many mixed signals. John gave himself a wistful squeeze that did nothing to console him, and got up.

It was an odd kind of walk of shame when John entered the kitchen some time later. Sherlock wasn't down yet, but Mr and Mrs Holmes were there, lingering over their mid-morning tea. Although neither of them said anything that could in any way be construed as suggestive, John got the distinct impression from the looks on their faces that they thought he and Sherlock had been having a lie-in for more indelicate reasons than simply having stayed up late talking the night before. Or maybe it was just the fact that they very nearly had. Or the furtive wank he'd had in the shower. Which was not the kind of thing he should be thinking about when sitting down with his... with his friend's parents for breakfast. God, of course they could read it all over his face. He was an open book, as Sherlock had so often told him, and they were Holmeses. He was done for.

The visitor earlier had apparently not been Mycroft, who had still not arrived, but a friend dropping off a Christmas fruitcake. Mrs Holmes was about to leave shortly for her own gift delivery rounds and last-minute errands while Mr Holmes stayed home to keep an eye on the Christmas pudding that was already in the steamer. John secretly took it to be a kind excuse; Mr Holmes was no longer able to keep up on foot with his wife, who always gave the impression of being on urgent business. He also had a bit of a tummyache, he said, from sampling the batter -- and most likely some of everything else, John thought privately: the sideboard with the baked goods looked decidedly less populated than it had the previous night. John could certainly see where Sherlock got his sweet tooth from.

When Sherlock finally came down a quarter of an hour later, John was halfway through his second cup of tea and had arranged to go with Mrs Holmes into town. He'd debated staying home with Mr Holmes so he didn't feel that everyone was abandoning him, but decided that Sherlock's father seemed to rather enjoy his "cave" out back and probably preferred to be on his own for a bit.

Sherlock was dressed in his suit from the previous day with a fresh shirt, his hair still damp and his skin smooth and clear. He certainly looked sharper than he had just woken up next to John in bed but John honestly thought he preferred the latter, softer version. The one hardly anyone else knew. He said he'd never shared a bed with anyone before. It stood to reason that meant he'd never woken up with anyone before. Never said good morning across the pillow, never shared the quiet intimacy of sheets warmed by several hours of body heat. He caught himself gazing dreamily only when Sherlock gave him a half querying, half indignant look. John shook himself and stared down into his cup, feeling his face burning.

"Good morning, darling," Mrs Holmes said, offering a cheek for Sherlock to kiss dutifully. "John here's going into town with me in a bit. Do you want to come?"

"John's not going to town with you," Sherlock said. He came over to stand next to John and spooned some sugar into what was left of John's tea. Before he could even muster a protest, Sherlock had picked the cup up for himself. Which... didn't bother him half as much as it ought.

"Whyever not?" Mrs Holmes asked.

"We have business at the dockyard," Sherlock said briskly, grimacing slightly as he drank the lukewarm tea.

This was news to John. "We do?" he asked, his senses prickling as he looked up at Sherlock.

Mrs Holmes' eyes lit up triumphantly. "I knew it. Didn't I tell you, Bill?"

"Sorry, what's going on?" John said, looking from Sherlock to Mrs Holmes and back. Had there been a discussion of plans that he'd missed?

Mr Holmes leaned on his elbow toward John and explained, "She said he'd never have agreed to come so readily if he didn't have some business up this way."

Of course, John thought. That figured. He'd thought Sherlock had been awfully quick to accept the invitation, especially for more than the single afternoon that would have been sufficient to discharge the obligatory Christmas visit with family. The car had seemed an unnecessary expense as well, but if they were on an expense account and needed a quick means of getting around, it made more sense.

"Mind you don't drug us this time," Mrs Holmes said. "Your father was sick for two days last year."

"There's a case?" John asked, already standing.

"I'll tell you on the way," Sherlock said. "Have you eaten?"

"Just the tea," John said, nodding at his now-empty cup in Sherlock's hand. The cup they'd shared. The bed they'd shared. The flat, the life they shared. All the lines in his life were blurring.

"Take some of the fruitcake," Mrs Holmes said, pushing the plastic wrap-covered gift toward John. "I think it's the only thing Dad hasn't got into."

"I'd go for the lemon pie if I were you," Sherlock advised, taking a piece for himself. "Margaret McFee doesn't bake anything less than 50 proof," he said around a mouthful.

"One of each then," John said gamely, peeling away the plastic wrap so he could cut a generous slice of the fruitcake while Mrs Holmes took out some Tupperware.

"Dinner will be at seven," she said. "If you're not back by then I shall let Myc have all the profiteroles. The ones from Trifton's," she added with a pointed look at Sherlock.

"There aren't any profiteroles from Trifton's," Sherlock scoffed. "I'd have found them, and the shop's closed today so you can't be buying them fresh."

"You haven't discovered all of my hiding places, not by a long shot," his mother said. "Now off you go, and for goodness' sake don't get shot again. Either of you," she said firmly, pulling John in by the shoulders to give him the same stern look she directed toward her son. "I shall be very cross if I have to spend Christmas Eve at the hospital."

"What's the case? Is it one of the ones you were looking at last night?" John asked once they were on their way with Sherlock behind the wheel of the hired car.

"No." The brief response spoke volumes: Sherlock was hiding something. And if he was hiding something, whatever it was it meant he knew John wasn't going to be pleased about it, because Lord knew Sherlock wouldn't have held back if there were any chance of exciting John over the prospect of an adventure.

John knew Sherlock still thought that was the only reason he had come back -- or at least the main reason, the practicality of the location and low rent being the others. Sherlock took at least one case a week, usually conveniently scheduled for days or evenings when John was free, even cases that weren't really up to Sherlock's calibre, in John's opinion. Sherlock would either try to play up the mystery and complexity or say he was just taking it on "to keep his hand in", but John wasn't that stupid.

Still, what harm did it do? People were helped, Sherlock was kept away from other temptations, and John felt more or less useful. He hadn't really thought it important to make it clear he'd have come back even if Sherlock shut down his consulting business and went into beekeeping or professional internet forum lurking. After all, what did it matter why he was there? He enjoyed going out with Sherlock, exploring seedy locales and posh residences, bluffing their way past security guards and fusty librarians, grabbing a sandwich from a stand as they passed by, or debriefing over coffee and a pastry in an all-night cafe. Going home together, still buzzing with caffeine and adrenaline and maybe some other more incriminating hormones, shushing each other on the stairs so as not to wake Mrs Hudson, lingering in the living room, finding excuses not to go up to bed quite yet.

It would be nice, maybe, to do what they'd done last night. Crawl under the covers together. Talk in the dark. Have one more laugh. A brush of the foot, a squeeze of the hand. Once in a while. Or every time. John wasn't fussed.

He watched Sherlock shift gears. His hand close to John's knee. Then back on the steering wheel. John closed his eyes, the sense memory of Sherlock's hand last night in bed under his rising to the forefront of his mind. The prominent knuckles, the long fingers. Warm and strong. He hadn't moved away. He'd put his leg over John's. Held him close, against his body, his heart pounding. Both their hearts pounding. John couldn't imagine doing something like that now, putting his hand on Sherlock's. Or Sherlock reaching over to pat John's leg. Where was the line? What had blurred it beyond all recognition last night, only to re-draw it so straight and clear today?

The other line that was clear was the fact that Sherlock was still keeping secrets. John had thought they were doing better in that regard. Not that John didn't have a thing or two he hadn't told Sherlock. But this concerned 'the Work'. John had made it clear in no uncertain terms, the day he'd moved back, that he wasn't going to be involved in anything he didn't have full knowledge of. No more rooftop rendezvous arranged behind his back. No more drugging the tea with known or unknown compounds. No more tricking him into bringing his gun along so Sherlock could use it to shoot inconvenient media moguls. Well, the last one was impossible anyway, since John's gun had, for obvious reasons, never been returned. And while he was sure Sherlock wouldn't have a problem getting his hands on a replacement -- perhaps even officially sanctioned via Mycroft -- John felt he'd had rather enough of guns for the time being.

John bristled now at Sherlock's reticence. "Sherlock, we've been over this. You either tell me what's going on or I'm out." He wasn't sure he'd actually make good on the threat. He wouldn't knowingly let Sherlock go off on his own into a situation that might turn out to be dangerous. And Sherlock had never forced his hand. Not yet anyway.

"We're going to the dockyard," Sherlock said, as if that explained everything.

"Yes, and what are you hoping to find there?" John asked testily.

A slow smile crept onto Sherlock's face. "A pirate ship."

It turned out not to be so much a pirate ship as a ship that had once been used to chase down pirates. It was authentic, though, an original from the 18th century, and it certainly looked the part. It was enormous, its intricately carved bow towering several stories over the pier, boldly painted in gold and royal blue. It was topped by three masts with a veritable spider's web of rigging, standing defiantly against the dull grey sky.

There were other historic ships anchored there too: a Victorian warship, the first ever built with an iron hull, bristling with cannons; a 16th-century galleon that had been submerged for 400 years before being salvaged in the 1980s; a low-slung, understated WWI relic that would have looked more like a fishing boat than a wartime vessel, were it not for the pair of 6-inch guns gracing its deck; a sleek, shark-nosed submarine looming over the boardwalk from its dry berth.

But the "pirate ship" was the one Sherlock was interested in, and he made a beeline for it as soon as they'd paid their admission fee and passed through the turnstile of what looked to be something more akin to an adventure park than a working dock, with food and souvenir stands alongside prominent signs indicating the way to the laser tag arena, indoor climbing tower, motion simulator, and 4D cinema. It wasn't too crowded, which John attributed to the biting wind and threat of precipitation, but the walkways were still well enough populated, mostly with families and gaggles of teenagers.

Sherlock spouted dates, names, and places as they approached and walked up the long gangplank to view the section of the first-rate ship royal -- as Sherlock informed him it was classified -- that was accessible to the public. John wasn't sure if he should be taking notes, still in the dark on what they were looking for. He rather pettily decided that if Sherlock wasn't going to let him know what they were doing here, he wasn't going to be responsible for keeping track of whatever it was. Sherlock clearly had all the details down anyway, playing a veritable tour guide as they made their way through the state room, captain's and crew's quarters, cannon deck, and navigation cabin.

John was soon distracted from any thoughts of cases or Sherlock's lack of transparency. Instead, he was drawn in, as usual (and not entirely unwillingly), by Sherlock's enthusiasm and charisma. He listened, and looked, and found himself fascinated not only by the history and meticulous restoration work that had been done, but by the vivid picture Sherlock painted of how he imagined life on board would have been. The dichotomy of the solitude of the sea and the close quarters below decks; the smell of sulphur, tar and unwashed men; the intrigues and power plays, bargaining and tests of strength over scarce resources. Nooks and crannies where secret stashes could have been squirreled away, prime spots for inserting peep holes, shadowy corners where the acoustics would have allowed listening in a deck away. Several novels' worth of drama on a single voyage.

When they finally emerged once again topside into a stiff breeze, John experienced a moment of disorientation upon finding himself back in the 21st century. Sherlock led him up a metal staircase, a modern addition, that brought them to the uppermost aft deck. John stepped aside to let a couple and their two children through, then joined Sherlock at the railing. From here, they could look down on the entire dockyard, down the river to the estuary, and even over most of the surrounding neighbourhood.

Sherlock stood tall and straight with both hands on the rail, gazing into the distance. The wind lifted his hair, pushing it back from his face. John could well imagine him here in his element, exploring the vast unknown, beholden to no master other than the sea and his heart. His eyes crinkled at the corners as he squinted into the wind. Lines that hadn't been there before he left. John had some too. They'd both been weathered, by storms, erosion, and forces both natural and unnatural. There would be more. Things seemed to have settled somewhat for the time being, but the way his life had gone so far, he knew this was only a lull, a moment of calm before the next upheaval. What would it be? He didn't dare to speculate. All he knew was, he wanted Sherlock there with him.

Sherlock closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, as if catching a scent on the wind. The three girls next to them finished taking selfies and moved away, leaving them alone at the railing. John leaned forward, resting his elbows on it.

"Does this have to do with an old case?" he asked. "Like that Ricoletti thing?"

Sherlock hesitated just a moment too long before answering. "Yes, that's right," he said, opening his eyes and looking down at John. "A mutiny, a lost treasure. Just a thing I was reading about. Thought it might be fun to have a look." He sounded dismissive, almost apologetic. A quick, insincere smile. Holding John's eye just briefly before looking out at the panorama again.

John was about to get his back up over Sherlock continuing to play hide-and-seek with the truth when all of a sudden, the penny dropped. Sherlock's spyglass and compass stowed under the workbench; the pirate ship; the 1980s. There was no case. Sherlock had brought John here to see one of his boyhood memories. There wouldn't have been any laser tag or 4D cinema back then, probably just the ships, maybe not even all of them. He would have come here some weekend or holiday with his parents and Mycroft, maybe even Christmas Eve one year, seen this ship and promptly spun himself a fantasy of pirate gold and the high seas, poisonings in the mess and swordfights up and down the rigging.

Sherlock had been worried John would make fun of him, of this. That's why he hadn't told him what they were doing. He never talked about things that were truly important to him and yet: he'd brought John here, and he'd done nothing but talk about the ship and its stories. His stories. This was his ghost story. The thing he was perhaps most scared of: exposing his heart, making it vulnerable. His foot touching John's under the covers. In a way, this was even more daring. His move.

Now it was John's turn. He could accept the offering, tuck it away in his own personal treasure trove, take it out in quiet moments. Maybe that's all that Sherlock intended. All that he expected. But it wasn't what John wanted. Not anymore. He'd had a taste of what it could be like. What their life could be like. Their partnership openly acknowledged; between them, at least. John's stomach flipped at the implications. The possibilities. The reality. Because this was it. They were there already. Here.

Sherlock's parents hadn't invited him because they felt sorry for their son's poor divorced flatmate and didn't want him to be alone on Christmas. In fact, John didn't recall there ever having been a formal invitation made. It had been more along the lines of "What time are you boys arriving and should we meet you at the station or are you hiring a car?" A single pronoun encompassing the two of them. A single cup of tea. A single bed.

There was a gap between them now, a polite distance. Sherlock's hand on the railing was to John's elbow as his hand on the gearshift had been to John's knee. An equation of proportionality. An unknown equation to move the asymptote closer to zero. To cross the axis.

John slid over, bumping Sherlock with his shoulder. Not moving away, letting his arm rest against Sherlock's. Sherlock didn't move away either. An increased pressure along the seam of contact. Tentative but not unwelcome. Quite the opposite, in fact.

"Have you solved it?" John asked, careful to keep his tone casual. "The old case?" Or the new one, he rather thought. The case of what John meant to him, what he meant to John. What place they had in each other's lives.

Sherlock gave him a sidelong look. "Not sure yet."

"We could have another look?" John offered, leaning deliberately into Sherlock, as if to nudge him into action. Because he was sure now. Very sure. "Maybe check out the laser tag?"

He didn't know what made him suggest that, of all things, but his curiosity had been piqued by the sign at the entrance. He'd never done it, but he imagined it might be similar to some of the training exercises he'd done in the army, where they had to navigate a course with figures popping up, deciding in a split second whether they were friend or foe, whether to fire or pass on by. He'd always found them to be great fun. And that's what he wanted their outing to be: fun. No pressure, no performance. No threats or madmen, no blood or broken bones. For Sherlock to see that he didn't have to invent cases or try to cater to John's admittedly danger-seeking side in order to keep him around.

"Laser tag," Sherlock repeated with an incredulous expression. John had a brief moment of agonising uncertainty that he'd read this all wrong. In for a penny, though. Even if Sherlock hadn't meant this outing the way John had thought, John now did. This was a date, and he'd be damned if he wasn't going to go all out to make it a memorable one.

"I think there's quite a good chance your missing clue will turn up there," John said, nodding down toward the boardwalk.

Sherlock gave him a searching look, his forehead creased, as if he didn't quite trust that John wasn't about to pull the rug out from under him. "It's going to be overrun with teenagers," Sherlock warned him.

John grinned up at Sherlock. "I'm feeling a bit sprightly myself today." Too daring?

But Sherlock laughed, and John knew he was all right now. "Sprightly, John?" Sherlock said, one corner of his mouth quirking up.

John straightened up, turning slightly so his body was angled toward Sherlock. Still almost no space between them. John's chest brushed Sherlock's arm. "Shut up," he said amicably. "Now are you in or not?" He clapped Sherlock on the shoulder and let his hand linger there, his thumb brushing Sherlock's collarbone through his thick coat. In or not. He'd meant it in reference to the laser tag, but now it seemed he could be talking about this other thing too. Their life together. A life, together. The other side of the line. A buried treasure to be uncovered.

Sherlock's eyes rested on his. In his. Deep and clear. The promise of a pirate adventure and a safe harbour in one. His smile gentled, and John was flooded with warmth and a giddy sensation not unlike the call to danger that had initially drawn him in.

"Lead on, captain," Sherlock said.

They ended up joining a free-for-all skirmish with two other parties: three late teen boys cashing in a birthday present and four members of a country-and-western band in town for a holiday gig. John emerged after the twenty-minute session with the largest number of hits registered to his laser gun, while Sherlock came out completely unscathed. John almost would have suspected him of hiding in a corner of the labyrinth somewhere for the duration, except Sherlock had also clocked a fair number of hits himself.

The musicians extended an open invitation to the pub they were playing that night, and John was halfway through explaining they already had plans with the family when he realised what he was saying: the family. It was really only Sherlock's family. Wasn't it? But how could he say that: his best friend's family, who treated him like a son-in-law, which might not be too far from the actual truth, aside from the lack of legal documents stating such?

Sherlock was no help, merely looking bored by the interaction, impatient to be on his way. John shook hands and wished the band a happy Christmas, feeling slightly discombobulated. As if things were moving too fast, spiralling out of control, and yet if anything, it was only an incremental shift. A change in perspective, an acceptance of the way things really were. An acknowledgment of the status quo, but at the same time an opening of an entirely new frontier, uncharted territory. The family. Their family.

The pretense of the case tacitly abandoned, they moved on to the on-site naval museum. Sherlock denounced much of it as superficial and pandering to millenial showmanship, although he allowed the presentation on the particular difficulties of dating artifacts that had been submerged for many years was informative. John also couldn't help noticing how he seemed particularly keen on the gallery of naval uniforms, nor how he lingered in front of a diorama depicting a surgeon treating the wounded during the Battle of Trafalgar. Nor the fact that he stayed close, waiting for John to finish reading a text before moving to the next display, leaning into John's space to point out some detail. John was fairly sure Sherlock knew exactly what he was doing. Even more so when he felt Sherlock's eyes on him as they stood watching a video of historical footage of naval manoeuvres during WWI.

John glanced up in time to see Sherlock quickly look away, back to the screen. John chuckled, and Sherlock looked back down at him and laughed a little too, embarrassed maybe, or just happy, and John put his hand up and lightly squeezed the back of Sherlock's neck to let him know it was fine. It was good. Very good. Heady. Amazing. He couldn't stop grinning. Sherlock's hand came up to touch John's back, landing somewhere just under his shoulder blade, and they stood there like that for several seconds in an awkward half hug, oblivious to the grainy black-and-white scenes flickering on the screen before them.

There were more looks after that as they moved through the rest of the exhibits, shoulders bumping whenever they stood together, a touch on the arm to draw attention, remarks made low, deposited with lips almost touching ears. There was no need for more. Not here. Later. Later, John promised himself. Later, he was going to put his hands on Sherlock's skin, hold his body close, closer, until there was nothing between them. Kiss him. Breathe in Sherlock's air and infuse his with all the words he wasn't sure he was going to be able to say, not even now. Not even then. Later.

When they'd completed the tour and John's stomach started grumbling, they left the dockyards for a small, quiet restaurant that Sherlock knew in another part of town. It was nothing very fancy, but the tables had real tablecloths and fresh flowers, and there were matching water and wine glasses and two sets of forks and knives at each setting. John had soup and a salad with roasted chicken strips, anticipating a large meal that evening. Sherlock had fish with couscous, and actually ate it all. They shared a bottle of wine, although John drank most of it as Sherlock was driving. They talked about pirates and Battleship, favourite Christmases and which diseases seafarers were most susceptible to. The leaky tap in their bathroom. Whether Mrs Hudson would like the Christmas present they'd given her before they left: an array of UV lights for the cannabis plants they weren't supposed to know anything about. They didn't talk about their arms around each other at the museum, the breathless moment in bed the night before, or their feet knocking together under the table until John pulled Sherlock's in between his and held it there while their eyes met over the rims of their wine glasses.

The drive back was mostly silent, John feeling slightly buzzed from the wine and the looks and the touches, the anticipation of what might happen that night. He still didn't know how much Sherlock was comfortable with; how much he was comfortable with, come to that. Especially with Sherlock's parents just down the hall. And, he realised with a half sinking feeling as they pulled up in front of the house and saw the black town car, Mycroft too. It wasn't that he had a great dislike for Mycroft himself, but there was a constant undercurrent of tension between the brothers that had a way of spilling over into every interaction. As soon as they went inside, John knew, the good mood, the feeling of lightness and happiness that had been buoying them along for the past few hours would start to diminish.

Sherlock must have sensed it too, because he didn't make any move to get out of the car when he turned off the engine, instead sitting with both hands still on the steering wheel, looking down.

"Hey," John said, wanting to reassure him. To let him know that Mycroft wasn't going to ruin this day for them. "Thanks for that. I had a good time." He patted Sherlock's knee, gave it a squeeze. It didn't feel awkward, or even daring. It felt natural; right.

Sherlock's mouth quirked up at the corners. He gave John a sidelong glance. "Me too."

"Yeah?" John said, jiggling Sherlock's leg. Rubbing it with his thumb.

Sherlock's smile deepened. "Yes." He turned his head to look at John from beneath his lashes. His silver-green eyes crinkling at the corners. Knowing. Inviting. John's breath stuck in his throat, his heart hammering madly. His hands steady as steel. He couldn't have stopped himself at that point if he'd tried, which he didn't. There was no need, because Sherlock was leaning in too to meet him, his eyes sinking, until their lips met.

Warm. Soft. Softer than John would have imagined, and he hadn't imagined, hadn't let himself imagine, because it would only have driven him mad if he'd never been able to have this. It wasn't earth-shattering. There were no fireworks or visions, no weak knees or sobs of emotion. It was quiet. Simple. Light but sure. No hesitance. They broke apart, shifted, released their seatbelts, Sherlock's hand spanning John's shoulder, John's sliding up to Sherlock's thigh, heads tilting to a new angle, perfect choreography. The next kiss was firmer, longer. A hint of something more. A whiff of sea air. More kisses, testing the waters. Finding them to their liking. The only sounds their breaths and the soft sussurus of skin on skin and fabric shifting.

When they separated the next time, Sherlock ducked his head before John could catch another kiss. "Someone's at the living room window. My mother, I think." His voice was satisfyingly breathy. His mouth just as satisfyingly reddened. He didn't look embarrassed, though. More like he'd been caught doing something he wasn't supposed to, but was secretly proud of, a grin percolating as he peered out the windscreen.

John glanced up at the house in time to see a curtain twitch. He didn't care; wanted, even, for her to know: that Sherlock was loved, and cherished. That he was good, and deserving of happiness. That John was going to give that to him. Or try to anyway. He wanted everyone to know. He supposed perhaps they did already, had long thought he and Sherlock were a couple.

Still, he sat back in his seat, reluctantly relinquishing his connection to Sherlock. It was probably good to take a moment. He caught Sherlock checking him warily. As if John might not be happy with the turn things had taken. The furthest thing from the truth. John grabbed Sherlock's hand and squeezed it firmly while planting one last quick, chaste kiss on the corner of his mouth. It was all more than fine.

"We'd best get inside before she sends Mycroft out after us then," he said briskly. "Unless you're keen on giving him an eyeful?"

Sherlock chuckled, any remaining tension dropping away. "While the idea's not without merit, she's more likely to send my father, and I think we could both do without that."

John laughed too. "Oh God, no."

Mycroft was standing by the hearth, his phone to his ear, when John and Sherlock came in. He raised his eyebrows in greeting, mouthing 'in the kitchen' and jerking his head toward the other room. One eyebrow remained raised as he watched them leave obediently, and John smirked back, which garnered him an eyeroll from Mycroft. That answered the question of who had been spying. An eyeful indeed.

They found Mrs Holmes ladling broth over a lightly browned turkey in a pan on the table.

"Oh John," she said, "would you mind terribly putting this back into the oven for me? Myc took it out but he's scuppered off somewhere."

"I don't know who you think's going to eat all that," Sherlock said, eyeing the huge bird on his way to the chair by the sideboard. "Mycroft's diet won't allow him to eat more than three peas and a lemon."

"Oh, you," his mother scolded him in mock reprimand. "It's organic and very lean, the lady in the shop told me. No salt either, all low-sodium seasonings. I think you're the one who could stand to lay off the sweets," she said pointedly as Sherlock lifted a sugar-iced biscuit toward his mouth.

He popped it in with a quick, self-satisfied smile. The same mouth John had just been kissing. John felt a thrill run through him, realised he was staring, and forced himself to remember what he was supposed to be doing. The turkey.

"It looks delicious," John assured Mrs Holmes as he put on the oven mitts to pick up the hot pan. "Where's Bill?"

"Out back. I haven't even had a chance to let him know Myc's here." She opened the oven and stood back to let John get by.

"I'll go," John volunteered, sliding the pan into the hot oven to finish cooking. On his way out, he clapped Sherlock on the shoulder and was rewarded by Sherlock's hand covering his briefly. A momentary eye contact, a shared memory. They both knew which one. One more to add to the thousands they already had. The beginning of many more.

He found Mr Holmes sitting on a stool, hunched over the workbench with several pieces of wood laid out in front of him. It looked like he was piecing another birdhouse together. He straightened when John entered, wincing a bit.

"Hello, John," he said, sounding cheery despite the pinched look on his face. "Did you have a nice time?"

"Yeah, he took me to see the pirate ship." John came over to stand next to him, leaning back against the workbench and folding his arms.

Mr Holmes's face lit up. "He always loved going to the dockyard. I don't think he's been there in ages. Not since he was quite small. He refused to go anymore once Mycroft left. I'm glad he took you."

John tucked that tidbit away for later. "Me too," he said. "Speaking of Mycroft, he's inside." He jerked his head toward the house. "Must have got in a few minutes ago."

Mr Holmes grunted, in acknowledgement, John thought at first, but then he noticed him grimacing again.

"Everything all right?" he asked, turning to get a better look at the man. He looked pale and fragile, almost grey in the sickly light.

"I probably shouldn't have had the fruitcake with lunch," Mr Holmes said, attempting to make light of things. "If I didn't know better I'd think Sherlock was up to something again." He rubbed his knuckles over his stomach and lower ribcage.

"What are your symptoms?" John asked, getting a sneaking suspicion. He'd complained of indigestion that morning already. He definitely didn't look well.

"Oh, it's just a bit of wind," Mr Holmes said, trying to downplay the situation. "Feels like a lump that doesn't want to go down."

"Pressure? Tightness?"

"Yes, just here," he said, indicating the lower half of his esophagus. "A bit peaky as well. You don't think there was something in it, do you?"

"I had a piece this morning on our way out and I feel fine," John assured him. "I'm just going to check your pulse, all right?" He slipped his fingers up under Mr Holmes' jaw. Fluttery and weak, his skin cool and clammy, and his muscle tone slack.

"Bill, I'm going to ask you to lie down," John said evenly as he put an arm around the other man and helped him off the stool. With his other hand, he was already pulling off his jacket to toss it onto the floor. "Are you taking any medications?"

"Diovan and something for my bladder, I can never remember the name. Uro something." He moved compliantly with John, feeling heavier than his thin frame might indicate.

"Uroxatral?" John guessed. "That's lovely, just like that," he said as he eased Mr Holmes to the floor on top of his jacket. Alpha and beta blockers. A history of hypertension then. "You have any nitro on you? Nitroglycerin tablets? Aspirin?"

"No. I'm having a heart attack, aren't I?" Mr Holmes asked, sounding surprisingly calm.

"We're going to be very, very thorough is all," John said as he arranged Mr Holmes on his side, although privately that's exactly what he thought was happening. "Have you had one before?"

Mr Holmes shook his head, closing his eyes. "Just a bit of high blood pressure."

"You're doing very well, just try to relax. Is there a blanket in here?" John asked as he took out his phone.

Mr Holmes pointed out a plaid, plastic-backed picnic blanket rolled up on top of an unused cooler. John dialed emergency services with one hand and tucked the blanket around Mr Holmes with the other.

"Tell Mal and the boys I love them," he said. "You too, John." He reached one thin arm out from underneath the blanket to reach for John's arm. His grip was weak, barely able to hold on, but his eyes were clear and steady. Then he turned his face toward the floor and vomited thinly.

John dashed to the door of the shed with the phone glued to his ear, bellowing up to the house: "Sherlock!"

"They're bringing him to his room for the night. I'm going to have Mummy taken home. She's exhausted. The two of you can ride along if you want."

John opened his eyes, blinking against the harsh waiting room lighting. Mycroft. He hadn't even heard him approaching. John felt Sherlock slide his hand away where it had been loosely entwined with his, resting on John's leg. His bottom was numb from sitting so long on the hard plastic chair. Beside him, Sherlock sat with his long legs stretched out, ankles crossed. He was staring intently at his phone and didn't appear inclined to react to Mycroft's suggestion.

John looked at his watch. Almost midnight. Mr Holmes had come out of surgery an hour ago. They'd put in a stent and all the indicators were positive so far. Mrs Holmes had been sitting in the recovery room with him, but apparently the late hour was taking its toll on her as well. Christmas Eve at the hospital.

"Yeah, think we're staying," John told Mycroft as Sherlock continued to stay resolutely put. The three of them along with Mrs Holmes had come together in Mycroft's car, following the ambulance. If they didn't take Mycroft up on the offer now, they'd have to take a taxi later or wait until either Mrs Holmes or Mycroft returned in the morning.

"There's nothing you can do," Mycroft said sternly. "He's stable and resting comfortably. You can't go in now, visiting hours are long over. They'll call if there's any change in his condition."

"He said we're staying," Sherlock repeated, his voice calm but steely.

Mycroft sighed in a put-upon way. "Someone should stay with Mummy."

"You do it then," Sherlock retorted, looking up from his phone. "Or do you have to start a war somewhere? It's Christmas, surely even you can let the world muddle along on its own for a few hours."

Mycroft's lip curled in what John recognised as a sure sign of escalation. Before he could say anything, though, John jumped in: "How about you go with your mother now," he told Mycroft, "and we'll stay here. You can bring her back in the morning then head down to London if you need to."

"When will you sleep?" It didn't sound like Mycroft was concerned for their wellbeing as much as pointing out that John hadn't thought things through properly.

"Don't worry about us. I can kip anywhere, and Sherlock's used to all-nighters." He gave Mycroft a bland smile.

Mycroft appraised him coolly. "Very well," he finally acquiesced. "I shall let the nurses' station know you're staying."

"I'll do that," John said, and stood up. "Could do with a bit of stretching my legs."

"I'll have to go with you anyway, John. Only next of kin can change the notification order."

"Oh, do piss off, Mycroft," Sherlock muttered from his seat.

"That was rather my plan," Mycroft said with a sour smile directed over John's shoulder. "I have business to take care of back in London. I can't actually play babysitter. Why don't you come back and stay with our mother after all, John, if Sherlock insists on playing the martyr here. Surely he doesn't need you to hold his hand."

Sherlock stood up at that, his entire body telegraphing his displeasure, pushing in between John and Mycroft. John had the same gut reaction at Mycroft calling them out like that, trying to turn the honest sign of affection and support into something childish. Nonetheless, he put his hand on Sherlock's upper arm to stay what he suspected was going to turn into a physical altercation. They were in a hospital, after all, and tempers and emotions were running high all round after that afternoon. Sherlock held back, although he didn't shake John off.

"John is a better son to our father than either of us," Sherlock snarled, oblivious to the alarmed looks from the other people sitting in the area. "You think you can arrange things from afar, toss some theatre tickets their way, make a grand entrance once a year only to spend the whole time on your phone or criticising him for not being posh or smart enough? Or Mummy for having had the gall to waste her talents" -- Sherlock made air quotes -- "raising a family? How many gutters have you helped him clean? How often have you sat down for a cup of tea and asked what he's been up to lately?"

Mycroft remained unruffled. "Of course it's lovely John gets on with him so well, but he's our father, not a pal." He said the last word as if it were something distasteful. "There's history between us that John has neither the benefit nor disadvantage of."

But Sherlock continued undeterred, looming into Mycroft's personal space. "How many times, Mycroft, have you set foot in his workshop? What if we had come back half an hour later?"

"Mummy was about to go out--"

"And would she have known what to do? Would you? Other than call for one of your faceless assistants?"

"Mumtaz is fully certified in First Aid and CPR and carries a defibrillator in the boot," Mycroft reminded him, meaning the driver who had spent the afternoon cooling his heels -- or rather warming them up -- at a nearby cafe.

"John saved our father's life," Sherlock said savagely, jabbing a finger in John's direction. "You would be planning his funeral right now if it weren't for him, rather than trying to find the quickest escape route back to London. Or maybe you'd have left that to John as well."

"I'm going to ignore that, given the circumstances," Mycroft said with a pointed look. "Of course I'm grateful for John's quick and professional actions. Thank you," he said to John, adding after a beat, "again. That doesn't change the fact that he cannot make changes to the care sheet," Mycroft said, returning his attention to Sherlock. "So if you both insist on staying--"

"I'll go with your mother," John said, just to put an end to the bickering, although he really would rather have stayed with Sherlock. He'd taken the whole thing quite hard, not that John blamed him a bit. Mycroft was right that there was nothing to be gained by staying at the hospital, and that it would do Sherlock (and him) more good to get a few hours of sleep than to sit in the waiting room surrounded by strangers and fret. But John also understood how important it was for Sherlock to stay. The whole thing was complicated by Sherlock's history. The two times he'd been forced to leave. Moriarty and Magnussen.

"He should go, if he thinks she needs minding," Sherlock said, biting the words out in Mycroft's direction. "She's his mother, as he'd be the first to point out. Although she's somehow managed without you for the past thirty years, you'd think she'd make it one more night."

"It's all right," John said, squeezing Sherlock's arm, which he was still holding. "I don't think either of your parents will be helped by you fighting."

"Quite right," Mycroft said superciliously. "And I've reconsidered, I believe it would be best if I go with Mummy after all. Speaking of whom, I really should be getting her home. I'll inform the nurses' station on my way out. John?"

Mycroft inclined his head toward the corridor and started down it, checking that John was coming with him. John intensely disliked the way Mycroft was jerking them around, but in the interest of getting rid of him as quickly as possible, he said a few words of reassurance to Sherlock that he'd be right back, and followed after Mycroft.

"Don't let him out of your sight, John," Mycroft said in a low voice once they were out of hearing range. "His all-nighters don't come naturally, if you take my meaning. I'd hate for this unfortunate incident to be the cause of a relapse. For Mummy's sake, if nothing else."

John stopped short, incredulous. "For your mother's sake? You know what? I know you're upset over what happened, running on your sixth cup of shite coffee of the night, not yourself and all that, but Jesus, you're a piece of work. How about for Sherlock's sake? Has it ever occurred to you that one reason he turns to drugs is because he's trying to regain some control? Because he feels that people don't trust him?"

"Frankly, no. But it has occurred to me that his last major relapse was triggered by someone he cared a great deal for leaving him, to his belief permanently."

"He was the one who was sent away, no thanks to you, and I would have gone with him in a heartbeat if I'd been kept informed of what was going on!" John hissed fiercely.

"I'm not talking about what happened after the distasteful business with Charles Magnussen. I am referring to your wedding. Do not presume to lecture me on familial duty, John Watson." He looked down his nose at John, his mouth downturned in disparagement. Then without another word, he turned and walked away, the sound of his polished soles echoing crisply in the tiled corridor.

They made it back to Sherlock's parents' house just after nine the next morning. Mycroft was as good as his word, staying at the house overnight and returning to the hospital with his mother first thing. Mr Holmes was awake by then too, alert and responsive, and they'd all been able to visit with him briefly before the nurse came in to take his vitals and change the dressing on the insertion site. Mycroft had then had his driver drop John and Sherlock off before continuing on to London. Mr Holmes would be in hospital until at least the following day, and they intended to stay until he was home, maybe even a day or two longer if no interesting cases turned up.

John had let the practise where he was filling in know the situation, and they'd been understanding. It had been a bit strange to say it out loud to someone else: my partner's father. As if it were real; official. He and Sherlock hadn't discussed it, hadn't made any promises or declarations. And yet since they'd kissed -- since the outing to the dockyard, really -- it was as if a rubber band that had been straining between them had snapped. The sense of navigating uncharted waters in an unfamiliar craft was gone, replaced by a steady hand at the rudder, a confidence that their vessel was seaworthy. There was no need to fear if they lost sight of the coastline. They were in it together. His partner.

There also wasn't any question or discussion of sleeping arrangements as they undressed to their underwear and dropped into Sherlock's bed together. Sherlock on the left side, John on the right. There was still some wrangling with the blanket, but this time there was no care given to maintaining a polite distance, no imaginary barrier between them. John settled on his back, Sherlock on his side facing him. Sherlock's hand found its way to John's shoulder, his knee bumped up against John's leg, and John's hand rested comfortably on Sherlock's bare thigh. That was it. Nothing sexual. Just being there for each other, with each other. Knowing that the one would protect the other, and that when they woke up, they would still be together. Like otters holding hands as they drifted on the water.

John was already more than half asleep when he heard Sherlock ask: "What was it like for you? When your father died?"

John struggled back to consciousness, tried to make sense of Sherlock's question. Not sure how to respond, he tried to address the underlying issue first. "Your father's not going to die, Sherlock. Not today, and not this week anyway." He rubbed Sherlock's leg with his thumb.

"You don't know that."

"Yeah, I do. Doctor here. If he takes his meds, which he will, and doesn't go climbing up on the roof and fall off, which he won't, he's going to be around for a while yet."

Sherlock fell silent. John considered. This wasn't a good time for this conversation. They were both exhausted, keyed up emotionally and physically drained. Honesty, though. It was the one thing he'd demanded of Sherlock when he agreed to come back. It would be pretty shabby of him not to hold himself to the same standard. Especially now.

"And erm," he said, his heart pounding in his ears, "my father's not dead."

Sherlock didn't answer. Had he fallen asleep? John opened his eyes and turned his head on the pillow. The curtains were drawn and it was an overcast day, so it was quite dim in the room. Still, he could see Sherlock was watching him, eyes alert despite the dark circles under them. Calculating. Deducing. John straightened his neck and closed his eyes again. It was easier this way.

"Not as far as I know anyway," he continued. "I think Harry and I would have been informed, still next of kin."

He waited for Sherlock to piece it together. To spare him saying the words out loud.

"Where is he?" Sherlock asked finally.

"Up in Kilmarnock. He's serving a mandatory life sentence but he'll be eligible for parole next year."

Another silence. Then, quietly but with an unmistakable air of having finally made sense of something: "Your mother."

John nodded. His mouth was dry. He'd never told this to anyone. Not even Mary. He didn't know anymore whether he'd actually told her they were dead, or whether she'd assumed, as everyone did, and he'd never corrected her. It was easier that way. Dead parents, common enough, especially at his age. A quick condolence, never mentioned again. The truth, though, that would stick to him, to every interaction, every look, every word. It would colour irrevocably his image in the eyes of those who knew it. His heart beat frantically. He wasn't sure he could do it. But he already had. Sherlock had already figured it out. He'd taken the burden upon himself for John. His hand still rested securely on John's shoulder. His leg a pillar of warmth against John's.

"She and her boyfriend," John said. "They'd been divorced for three years already. Split up as soon as Harry moved out. He couldn't stand to see her happy."

"You were overseas."

"Harry blamed me. If I hadn't been over there, she said..."

"She's an idiot."

John opened his eyes again to look at Sherlock. Indignation at Harry, anger, maybe at Harry, maybe at John's father. At John, for not telling him earlier? Definitely curiosity. He had no doubt Sherlock would be looking up the case at the first opportunity. As long as John didn't have to explain. He didn't know all the details himself. Maybe it was time for him to read the file. He'd tossed away Mary's memory stick for the same reasons. If he'd taken a look at the contents, maybe much of the ensuing heartache could have been avoided.

John let out a long breath. "She felt guilty herself. Our father blamed our mother for Harry being gay." There was a long pause, Sherlock letting John figure it out. Letting him decide how much he wanted to lay out in the open. Finally, John went on: "I suppose at some level it all ties in. You know, to my... I only dated women, you know? Except that's not true. Well, dated is the wrong word." This shouldn't be so hard. He was lying in bed with a man, had acknowledged him publicly and privately as his significant other. He loved him, deeply, in a way he wasn't sure he'd ever loved another person before. There was a sexual layer too, regardless of what manner they acted on it, that attraction was there, undeniable.

"You had a fling," Sherlock supplied. Guessing, maybe. Was it news to him too? Or had he known, back at the wedding, or even earlier?

"It was a mess," John agreed. "All the wrong reasons. I told myself it was to get back at my father, which I suppose was true in some way, but that wasn't all. I mean I wouldn't have... if I weren't..."

Sherlock waited a moment to see if John would continue. When he didn't, Sherlock slid in closer so their torsos were pressed together, hooked one leg over John's, his chin on John's shoulder, his breath cool on John's neck. Waited again.

John swallowed, his throat tight. He didn't deserve this man. Didn't deserve him at all. "This isn't like that," he said, insistent despite the hoarseness of his voice. "This isn't to get back at Mary."

"I know." Sherlock hugged John in the half embrace.

"Yeah." John reached across with the hand that wasn't pinned to his side under Sherlock's weight and took hold of Sherlock's hand that was curled around his shoulder. He tilted his chin down and kissed it. Sherlock nestled in closer, kissed John's hand on top of his. Nudged his face in closer and kissed John on the mouth. Slow and deliberate. John kissed him back, harder, teeth pressed against the inside of his lips, squeezing his hand so tightly it must have hurt. He kissed him until he felt the tightness loosening, until the air flowed back into his lungs. Sherlock's air. Sherlock's breath. He gulped it in when he finally pulled back, but at least his throat was clear and his eyes dry. He gripped the back of Sherlock's neck to hold him there, cheek to cheek, noses nuzzling. Sherlock gave him a couple more pecks, little feathery things, before gently easing back to his own pillow.

"Hm. Oh God," John said, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes. "It's Christmas morning," he realised.

"It is." John heard the smile in Sherlock's voice. He lowered his hands and looked over at his friend. His truest one. His partner. His lover.

"I have a present for you in my bag," John said. He'd bought it before all this, of course, and it seemed insignificant now: a set of titanium surgical scalpels that he'd got at a deep discount through his last locum assignment.

"You can give it to me later. I have one for you here." Sherlock nudged John with his lower body. He was soft, so John didn't take it too seriously, but the risque flirting dissipated the last of the emotional tension. John started giggling.

"Oh my God. You can give that to me later too. I'm so tired I don't even know what I'm saying anymore." I love you, was what he wanted to say. So much I don't know what to do with it. Maybe some of the message came across through his expression, because he saw the same thing reflected in Sherlock's eyes, in his smile, in the hand sliding down his arm to grip his hand beneath the cover.

"Merry Christmas," Sherlock said.

"Merry Christmas."

"Mummy wants to know if it's all right to switch to taking the Plavix in the morning. He takes his other pills in the morning too, and it would be easier to do all at once." Sherlock looked up from his phone, which lay beside him on the kitchen table, where he was trying out his new scalpels on Molly's Christmas present.

John paused in typing up his notes from the case they'd solved that afternoon. Sherlock had said it looked interesting enough to end their visit for, although he probably would have said that about a dognapping. Four days at his parents' house was apparently his limit. His father was doing well, having been sent home yesterday afternoon. He was taking the stairs slowly but not getting winded or experiencing any chest pain. The incision was healing well too. John had checked it one last time before they left that morning, deeming even the light dressing no longer necessary.

The case that drew them away had turned out not to be the waxworks at Madam Tussaud's coming to life during the night, disappointingly, but rather a homeless woman with a sense of humour who was trading sexual favours to the night watchman in exchange for being allowed to sleep in the museum. At least it had got them out, away from the whole vortex of emotional upheaval, and back in the game.

It had also been a nice confirmation that their newly acknowledged status didn't have an adverse effect on how they worked together. The only difference was John's hand on Sherlock's leg in the cab on the way there, and Sherlock telling the cabbie that his 'partner' (he'd always referred to him before, if at all, as his associate) would settle the fare as he leapt out once they arrived at their destination. Afterwards, they'd gone for takeaway and taken the tube home, their legs jostling comfortably against each other as they sat side by side.

"They should ask his cardiologist this kind of thing," John said now in response to Sherlock's query.

"It's not really the sort of thing worth bothering her for at this time of night."

John sighed. That was true, it was nearly ten and hardly urgent. "Yeah, all right. Let's see, he took it last night so it's been 24 hours. He should definitely take tonight's dose. Then tomorrow mid-afternoon, and the next day he can start on the morning schedule. I don't think it should be a problem taking them all at once, but they should contact their GP or pharmacist tomorrow to make sure."

"Tell her that." Sherlock nodded at his phone. "My hands are gooky," he added defensively at John's raised eyebrows.

"Gooky?" John said, but he set the laptop down and hauled himself up out of his armchair.

"Spleeny," Sherlock specified.

John went over to pick up Sherlock's phone and started tapping out a response. Sherlock's hands -- double gloved, John was pleased to see -- were indeed speckled with bits of blood and tissue. The fleshy lump on the dissecting tray in front of him had been thoroughly picked apart, and slices of various thicknesses were lined up neatly to one side.

"Is this Father Christmas?" John asked.

Sherlock hummed an affirmative. "The decomposition pattern's particularly nice. Another couple of days would have been even more informative."

"Yeah, no. We'll have the health inspectors on us one of these days."

Molly, not knowing they would be out of town for the entire weekend and mindful of the time-sensitive nature of her gift, had had the cooler messengered over on the evening of the 24th. Mrs Hudson had accepted the delivery but simply left the beribboned box on the kitchen table. There, the contents had thawed and stewed for three days. Sherlock had been delighted at the result. John resigned.

The body parts Molly provided Sherlock with these days were no longer illicit plunder from autopsied corpses. She'd been dating a surgical resident for a few months now, who upon hearing of Sherlock's interest, routinely asked his patients whether they would agree to donating anything that was removed to a scientific study. The hospital board wasn't strictly informed of the arrangement, but as the patients were legally in their right to dispose of any excised tissue as they saw fit, there were really no repercussions to fear. Sherlock's current project was the result of a man who had been playing Father Christmas and fallen off the roof, injuring himself so badly a splenectomy had been necessary.

In other words, life as they knew it was back to normal. Except for one thing.... John had been putting it off ever since they got back, but it was getting late now and he was starting to flag after several days on minimal sleep. He would have liked to head up to bed, but... should he actually head up? Or down the hall?

He'd been wondering about it all day. Since yesterday, in fact. Probably even the day before that, when they'd woken up in the early afternoon on Christmas day, groggy and off-kilter from the shifted schedule. Still burrowed under the blanket, a warm nest of unwashed men. Hands finding each other, smiles, a quick kiss before getting up to use the loo and grab some food before heading back to the hospital. How could he go back from that? How could they go back? Two separate beds on Baker Street. Two separate rooms, an entire floor between them.

"You going to stay up and finish with that?" John asked once he'd sent the message and set Sherlock's phone back on the table where he could see it.

Sherlock made a vague sound that John took for agreement as he carefully lifted a slice of spleen onto an empty slide. John waited for more, tried telepathically to make Sherlock understand what he wanted to ask. He was usually so good at anticipating John, but apparently not this time.

"Right, okay. I think I'm going to turn in," John said eventually when the silence became awkward with him still standing there.

Sherlock appeared more interested in his sample than John's announcement, which was only fair. It wasn't exactly a headliner. He probably wouldn't sleep at all. Or else he'd be going to bed so late John wouldn't even notice whether he was in the same bed or not. It was fine. John would go up to his room, alone. Back to normal. It didn't change things between them. As if to prove this, John rubbed Sherlock's upper back and leaned down to kiss him on the head as he said good night. That was all he'd wanted, right? The freedom to express affection the way it came naturally to him? Still, it felt like something of a letdown as he headed to the loo for his nightly ablutions, after the increasing intimacies between them over the past couple of days.

When he came out, Sherlock was still at the table, looking into his microscope.

"Night," John said again as he passed through. He was almost at the stairs when he heard Sherlock's voice:

"My bed's bigger."

John backed up. Sherlock hadn't looked up, was now writing something on a piece of paper.

"Sorry?" John said.

"I said my bed's bigger." Sherlock seemed preoccupied with his notes but there was a tension in his body, a flicker at the corner of his eye that told John he was actually paying very close attention to him.

John's heart kicked up a notch. "Right, yeah," he said casually. As if he'd already thought about that. Which he had. "My room's more private though," he pointed out. Mrs Hudson's bedroom was right underneath Sherlock's. "We could always move things round."

Sherlock picked up another slide, still not looking at John. "Mine's closer to the bathroom. Might be convenient."

Convenient. For morning showers, of course. Midnight visits to the loo. But also for any need one might have to clean up during the night. For damp flannels. Rinsing out mouths. Washing hands. "Yeah. Of course," John said, hoping he sounded much more matter-of-fact about this whole thing than he felt. "Makes sense. All right then. I'll just..." He pointed upstairs.

"You know where everything is."

"Okay. Okay," he repeated, now grinning broadly because he couldn't help it, and because he couldn't help the next bit either, he went over and kissed Sherlock again, only this time it was on the mouth and there might even have been a hint of tongue, and John hoped to God that Sherlock understood what he was trying to say. He thought he might just, as he had a rather dazed expression by the time John was done with him.

"Enjoy your spleen," John said, and went upstairs to get his pyjamas.

John woke before his alarm the next morning. He wasn't sure what had woken him until he heard the light snoring beside him and smiled, feeling deeply satisfied and surprisingly well rested. He hadn't noticed Sherlock coming to bed last night; either he'd stayed up very late, or John had just been that tired. He checked his watch on the nightstand. His alarm would go off in twenty minutes anyway. No use trying to go back to sleep.

John turned carefully onto his side so he was facing Sherlock, trying not to jiggle the mattress. It was still dark, but there was enough light from outside for him to see Sherlock's outline, the dark mound of him under the covers. It was difficult to resist the temptation to put his arm over him and hug him close, but Sherlock could use the sleep.

John slowly sat up. He was expected back at the surgery that morning. Just as he shifted his weight to put one foot onto the cold floor, a groggy, questioning sound came from the vicinity of Sherlock's pillow.

"I have to go in to work today,"John said in a hushed voice. "Go back to sleep."

A long arm slithered up from somewhere under the covers and slung itself around John's leg, pulling it closer. John leaned over awkwardly to give Sherlock that hug after all.

"Good morning," John said, smiling into his hair.

Sherlock grunted and turned his head, seeking John's lips. He tasted stale, but at least not like cigarettes. Another kiss. Slower. Longer. Noses brushing, chins bumping, a chuckle, just a touch, lips against lips. A breath. A heartbeat. An eternity. What John had intended as a casual morning greeting was somehow turning into something quite a bit more interesting. Settling in, slow and languid, soft, gentle. Asking. Answering. Agreement. Yes. This is who we are. This is what we do. Undeniable. A moment's respite. Breathe. Sherlock's arm still held John's leg firmly in place, but his hand now spanned John's thigh, where it kneaded the muscle, his fingers starting to brush John's inguinal crease. John felt himself stirring in response and swallowed down a moan.

Sherlock made a satisfied sound in response and snugged John's leg in closer, practically dragging it underneath him and forcing John to drop back down to the mattress in order to avoid pulling a muscle in his back.

"I have to go to work," he said, but the protest was token, and they both knew it.

"I've been waiting all night for you to wake up," Sherlock said, cradling the back of John's head with his hand and kissing down his jawline.

John laughed, but it was a breathless sound as Sherlock's lips elicited delicious sensations that zinged straight down to his groin. "You were drooling into your pillow," he tried to say.

"I haven't given you your Christmas present yet," Sherlock said, returning to capture John's mouth.

"You have," John said, although he knew Sherlock wasn't referring to his official gift of a tablet computer. John had set it up and tried it out during the long hours without anything particular to do on Christmas and Boxing Day, and though he was probably going to stick to his laptop for anything involving writing, he had to admit the tablet was much more practical than either the laptop or the phone for anything visual, like video consultations on the go or pulling up crime scene photos.

"Not the tablet," Sherlock said, tugging and adjusting until John was stretched out beside him again.

"I know," John said, pulling back to try to see Sherlock's face. "But you have anyway. You really have." He knew what Sherlock meant: his body, the curious bond forged by sex. He felt it too. They were ready. He cupped Sherlock's jaw with one hand and caressed his cheek, ran his thumb across Sherlock's lips. Sherlock had already given him the gift of himself, of his bared soul. Of his trust. John wasn't trying to downplay the fact that he wanted to do this, not at all, but the fact that he was approaching it as lighthearted flirtation, when clearly it was something that meant a great deal to him, made John feel fiercely protective of him, and want to do it just right. Not in a rush on his way to work. On the other hand, would there ever be a perfect time? They were just as likely to be interrupted by a summons from Lestrade, or a drop-in client, or a bomb going off in the street outside, no matter how much time they set aside. And it was somehow fitting that it was here, in their flat, where their relationship had started, in what was now their bed, that they finally took this step.

Sherlock had never shared a bed with anyone, he said, which meant he'd never shared any of this. Or had there been physical encounters that didn't extend to the intimacy of an overnight bed? Loos, alleys, dirty drug dens like the place John had found him when he went looking for Isaac Whitney... or before that, someone's basement with their parents upstairs; the back seat of a first car; sneaking in and out of a bedroom window on a school night?

It didn't matter, in the end, John decided, because this had to be the first time he was sharing this with someone who loved him as fiercely, as deeply, as irrevocably as John did. No one who felt this for Sherlock could ever have left him. John hadn't left him either, he reasoned, despite Mycroft's accusations. Sherlock had left him, and even when John had married someone else, he'd never intended... Never. He hadn't understood, hadn't realised. John pulled Sherlock closer, held him tighter, as if the strength of his embrace could convey the fervor of his sentiment and erase any hurt he might have caused. To both of them.

"I know," John repeated, rocking Sherlock in his arms and finding his lips again. He did, he knew. The desperation. The feeling of being home at last after a journey that had lasted a lifetime.

Their kisses were blatantly open-mouthed now, Sherlock's hand smoothing down John's back, John's sliding over Sherlock's arse, tugging him closer, snugging their hips together. John was hard, and he felt Sherlock's echo against his hip.

If nothing else, Sherlock was no novice when it came to kissing, and John gave himself over to the exploration, the discovery, the wonder of this, the thing he'd never let himself dare to imagine. Having Sherlock here with him, warm and soft and hard all at the same time. Pliant and plying, their bodies curved around and into each other, legs interlaced, hands under t-shirts now, stumbling across skin just becoming tacky with perspiration. The smell of them together, unmistakably male, primal, heady.

John's thighs soon clenched with the effort not to rut, blood surging and urging him forward. He was almost at the point where he was going to have to either pull away or make sure Sherlock really wanted to take this to its logical conclusion. He rolled onto his back, dragging Sherlock with him. Ceding control, letting him set the pace.

Sherlock shifted over, crowding him, invading his space and asserting his claim. John spread his legs to let Sherlock settle between them, his arousal unabashedly prominent inside the shorts he'd worn to bed. Twin groans as Sherlock's heat met his, unfamiliar yet natural, puzzle pieces cut from different moulds but no less well-met. John let his hands wander, discovering the lines and curves, the muscles and sinews underneath his clothes, his skin. Sherlock in turn explored with his mouth, kissing John's jaw, dragging his lips down John's neck, his collarbone, lifting John's shirt to tongue and suck and nip at his chest, his nipples, until John, quaking, drew him back to taste his mouth again.

Time slowed as they exchanged languid, lingering kisses, the tension building, drawing out, stretching. At the same time, Sherlock's swollen, heavy groin bumped over John's as his hips shifted, a slow, sweet drag and release. John chased the contact, tantalising and maddening, moving his hands down now to Sherlock's backside to hold him in place, guide him, increase the pressure where he needed it most. Sherlock eventually caught on, directing and focusing his movements to coordinate with John, his kisses becoming sloppier until he left off altogether and dropped his head to rest it on John's shoulder. His hips pumped in earnest now, blatant and unambiguous, his hands gripping John's shoulders for leverage.

"That's it, come on," John grunted, two handfuls of Sherlock's arse, both feet planted on the mattress, pelvis lifting to try and meet his thrusts, to work with him and find a rhythm, feeling as if he couldn't get close enough. No matter how hard he squeezed Sherlock's hips between his thighs, how passionately he pressed kisses to Sherlock's temple, they could never be close enough without inhabiting the same body. Sherlock's face pressed into the crook of his neck, breath coming in stuttering gasps, hands clutching alternately now at John's shoulder, at his waist, his arm. A raw, keening sound building in his throat, in his chest, his lips pressed firmly together as if to contain the onslaught.

"Oh fuck, oh my God..." John's whole body was tingling, a cyclone gathering strength, swirling in toward the centre, hot and wild. A pulsating pressure, untamed, thrashing. And then unleashed, a torrent of sensation. Waves of pleasure, overlapping, exploding, spiraling outward, beyond the borders of his body. Reverberating with Sherlock's, echoing and crashing back over him. Sherlock's mouth on his, swallowing his hisses and choked-off cry, swallowing his very breath. Sherlock's body jerking in his arms, stiffening, his buttocks clenching, heat between them adding to heat, a strangled gasp.

And then the backwash. Strings cut, the dam breached, the reins released. Sherlock sagged on top of him, and John buried himself in Sherlock's damp curls, tasting salt on Sherlock's neck. Slung his leg over Sherlock's, clutched his shirt with shaky fingers, ensconcing and cradling him until he came back to himself, until he was ready to come back ashore. John's own mind was still afloat, comprehension distant, like a will-o-the-wisp teasing guidance. Alluring but somehow ephemeral. Had that really happened? He had to focus on this: on Sherlock. This was reality. His friend, in his arms. All six foot two of him with all his brilliance and quirks, all his insecurities and awkwardness, all of it John's. His. As he was Sherlock's. In this, as in everything.

He would have to get up soon, leave the (now somewhat damp) cocoon they'd created, go into the conveniently proximate bathroom, make himself presentable. Go out in public, act like it was just another day. As if his heart weren't beating back here, inside the chest of an unreal consulting detective with a penchant for piracy.

Sherlock sighed eventually and disentangled himself, flopping onto his back. "Well, that was rather okay," he said, still breathing heavily.

"It was, wasn't it?" John couldn't help the smug smile.

"Always room for improvement, of course."

"You're the genius." John felt for Sherlock's hand and squeezed it. Sherlock interlaced his fingers with John's and squeezed back.

"Clearly. I've got you here."

"Yeah, and if I don't get up soon, I'm going to be here permanently. Glued to the sheets."

"Do you know, I've never thought to run a test on the adhesive properties of semen?" Sherlock said, sounding as if that were an egregious oversight. "Wait, let me get a sample before you leave." There was a flurry of limbs and a whoosh of cold air as the covers were thrown back.

John almost protested, but thought better of it. Sherlock was already halfway to the kitchen in his own sodden pants to fetch a test tube.

This was his life now, John considered as he leaned over to turn on the bedside light. This was what he had chosen: decomposing spleens in the kitchen, his spunk an experimental medium, and a madman in his bed. Sleepless nights and sentient waxworks. The madman's aging parents and pathologically controlling brother his extended family. And, most likely, serious threats to life and limb in the not too distant future. But he'd chosen something else too. Love. Truth. Owning up to who was. The good and the bad.

Sherlock was coming back now. John lay back and peeled away his shorts. "Have at it then," he said, grinning up at Sherlock. Sherlock stopped short, a test tube in one gloved hand and an alcohol wipe in the other. His eyes widened. John grinned even more broadly. He knew it was caveman of him, but he always got a little kick out of seeing people's reaction.

"Oh John," Sherlock said, his expression turning devious. "I have a feeling you're going to be late for work after all."