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A Family Christmas

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*********

It kicked in around the fifth of December every year.

Christmas music would have been playing already, and decorations would have been up downtown and at most shops, and Mycroft would have received and signed off on the numerous holiday requests that found their way to his office never earlier than the second. Already he was in charge of juggling which employees were necessary to keep on during the winter holidays for multiple ministries and departments; another sign that he was well on his way.

But then it would hit him on the fifth, or as early as the third but never later than the seventh, that Christmas was approaching rapidly, and it was as if a switch had been flicked.

“Good morning,” he said politely to Sherlock at four forty-seven AM. Sherlock froze in the act of sneaking into his room and then ran, leaving Mycroft to grin at the dark. The Great Christmas Present Hunt was on.

Mycroft had realised at the tender age of four that Father Christmas was merely a story, although he hadn’t let on he knew until he was seven and his father had threatened him with coal for his poor behavior (Mycroft understood that it wasn’t his place, as a child, to correct his father in front of his colleagues, but Katmandu was not in Africa and the longer his father went about saying so, the worse it would be for him). Perhaps he had felt it unfair for his father to chide him in such a childish fashion.

Sherlock, on the other hand, had not yet declared Father Christmas a fake, because Sherlock was not content to present reasoning. Sherlock wanted evidence. Mycroft had a sneaking suspicion that Sherlock wanted not only to catch him, Mycroft, in the act of putting gifts into stockings, but that he wanted to spring a trap and leave Mycroft dangling from the ceiling by one leg.

At nearly thirty years of age, Mycroft was man enough to admit that Sherlock’s dedication to trapping him and forcing a confession was what made his blood rise to the occasion, and if he could, he would spin out the miracle of Father Christmas for the rest of his brother’s life.

The Christmas Present Hunt was part of the game. Sherlock would search the house top to bottom, looking for presents. He had gone through every email and searched Mycroft’s internet history the year prior. Now that Mycroft thought about it, it was also last year that Sherlock had managed to make it all the way to his office to conduct a search, having secreted himself in the boot of the car.

There was no point in staying a-bed. Mycroft got up, humming to himself, and got ready for the day ahead, making sure to pack a few catalogues in his briefcase. He would have to decide on a design this year for the house, and get Sherlock out long enough for it to be decorated.

Ah, but this year there was a good excuse. Mycroft wondered gleefully if Sherlock had even thought about what gifts he wanted to give John.

*********

“A tie?” Sally suggested hopelessly, and rolled her eyes when Greg shook his head. “Oh god. Why not this time?”

Greg signed off on another report. “I don’t think I’ve seen him wear one twice, and I’ve known him three months now.”

“So obviously he’ll need new ones. To replenish his closet, right?”

“I don’t want to get him something he already has,” Greg said.

Sally threw up her hands. “How about a tacky Christmas jumper, then? I’m sure he doesn’t have one of those!”

“Something he’d like!” Greg added, and watched morosely as Sally stomped out of his office. Again.

“Love is stupid,” he heard her announce to someone, and hid his face.

It was the biggest cliche about Christmas ever: the one person for whom it was impossible to buy. He’d sworn he wouldn’t do this. He’d get the man something simple, and plain, and not too expensive, because Mycroft damn well understood that he was impossible. Or if he didn’t, then he would, immediately, and he’d be perfectly gracious about and, probably, since this was Mycroft, he’d be surprised that Greg had bothered to get him anything at all.

But, god help him, Greg wanted to get him something, well, nice. Just nice; not something special, not something unique and telling and guaranteed to make him smile, the shy one that didn’t see the light of day nearly often enough--

“Shut up,” Greg whispered fiercely at the picture of Luke, because he could hear him laughing in the back of his head.

His first Christmas with Luke, now; that had been a treat. They’d been in Luke’s flat, because Greg hadn’t anyone else he wanted to spend Christmas with and Luke had been on call, and they’d shared some takeaway and a bottle of wine (Greg had had the lion’s share) and one rather large blanket...

Face now entirely red, Greg tried to pay attention to his reports, promising himself that he’d get Mycroft a damn pair of gloves and be done with it. And he would absolutely not think about anything involving, well. Relationships.

Not that he was in one, or considering one. He’d known Mycroft three months, and he was a widower.

Christ, but he had it bad.

“So who’s the new bloke?” Hopkins asked, poking his head into Greg’s office. “Donovan says you’re insufferable.”

“Get out of here,” Greg said, but couldn’t quite hide the grin or, he suspected, the bit of green around the gills he was feeling. Hopkins wandered off whistling, which meant the whole Yard was soon to know the gossip.

He hadn’t been able to keep it to himself. Mycroft had invited him and John to Christmas dinner at the Holmes’ house. It was couched entirely in casual terms, an “if you should happen to drop by” sort of thing, which Greg suspected was for John’s peace of mind, but it made him warm through and through.

“Sir?” Sally said, peeking back in the door minutes later.

“No,” Greg said, trying to hide behind a report.

“Too late,” Sally said, and grinned at him. “Your holiday party invite now has an option for a plus one.”

“Not going to happen,” Greg told her firmly.

“Have I told you that John’s friend got my email somehow?” Sally asked innocently. “He wanted to know something about police procedures, and you were apparently not answering quickly enough.”

“Sherlock’s been emailing you?” Greg said, eyes going wide.

“I sent him a copy of the invite, and let him know that children are welcome until eight-thirty,” Sally said, and ran before Greg could get around his desk.

*********

Sherlock had the email printed out and highlighted and on Mycroft’s desk before lunch, and set to work on his lessons with a will. His tutors checked his temperature twice each and their pockets, bags, and chairs more than that, and Mr. Jefferson even checked his car.

Sherlock couldn’t help but enjoy the way he flinched when he, Sherlock, smiled and said goodbye.

And then he got into his best suit, the one Mycroft made him wear for recitals, and waited in Mycroft’s office.

“Good afternoon,” Mycroft said, walking around the desk. “Your tutors are worried about you.”

“May we please go?” Sherlock asked, and gave his best attempt at John’s bright smile, the one that made his father and Mycroft give into him every time.

Mycroft’s eyes flicked over the paper quickly, a small twitch of a grin showing when he noted the highlighted part: children welcome until eight-thirty. “We will have to wait to be invited.”

Sherlock held onto the smile with a will. “That’s it. That’s our invitation. May we please go?”

Mycroft was putting his papers away and didn’t look up. “If Gregory invites us, we will go. And you may not request an invitation--”

“Why not?” Sherlock demanded, throwing himself out of his chair to stand in front of Mycroft, almost vibrating with anxiety. “I want to go! Please, Mycroft, please, please, please--”

“That becomes less effective with each increase in volume,” Mycroft warned him.

“But if he knows we want to go, then he’ll want to invite us. So why can’t we ask?” Sherlock crossed his arms over his chest, smugly sure of his logic.

“It’s good to have you back,” Mycroft said, and smiled at Sherlock’s glare. “Because politeness demands that we do not press our friends for invitations. After all, we don’t know if they are going--”

“John says they go every year!” Sherlock interrupted, standing up on his tiptoes. “There are biscuits and presents and horrible decorations and if Sally can get all the paperwork done before the party then John’s da has to wear a silly hat. And children are allowed!”

“Yes, I saw,” Mycroft said mildly. “And I saw that the email is addressed to you from Sergeant Sally Donovan. May I ask why you are emailing random members of the Metropolitan Police Service?”

“John knows her,” Sherlock said, feeling sulky now. It had to be all right. John had said it would be all right. And she hadn’t been angry that he’d emailed. It should be fine!

“Sherlock, you mustn’t email people who haven’t provided you with their email address--” Mycroft raised his hand as Sherlock tried to argue, and he subsided, but only because he wanted to go to the party. “If you cannot abide by my rules, I will revoke your computer access until I am certain you can be trusted to behave in an appropriate manner online, which will not be until you have attained the age of majority at the earliest.”

The unfairness of it ate at his gut, but Sherlock swallowed his first response, thinking of what John would do in this situation. He managed a sickly smile and said through gritted teeth, “I’m sorry, Mycroft.”

“Dear Lord,” Mycroft said, and then burst into laughter. Sherlock made two fists. “I’ll speak with Gregory, shall I? I can’t imagine the pain you’re putting yourself through, speaking to me so politely. Go and dress in something comfortable and we’ll have supper.”

Sherlock blinked at him for a full two seconds before turning to run to his room, his heart bursting with excitement. John was magic, absolutely magic.

*********

John’s pencil broke for the third time, and he threw it across the kitchen and stomped into his room before Sarah could do more than say, “John!”

He’d thrown himself on the bed and hid his head under his pillow before she could follow him, and so pretended not to hear when she knocked and said, “John? Are you okay?”

After a long, tense moment, she left, closing the bedroom door behind her. John crept out of bed and put his ear to the door, feeling both sick and viciously happy when he heard her say, “Hi, Greg. Are you on your way? Something’s bothering John.”

It took his da twenty minutes to get home. He heard his heavy tread in the hall as the front door shut; Sarah was leaving. She was leaving without even saying goodbye.

John pulled his pillow close, curling around it; the other was over his head again. He must have made her very upset if she didn’t want to say goodbye.

“Doc?” his da said, opening the door. “You all right?”

“I don’t feel well,” he half-shouted into the pillow over his head.

“Yeah, well, you need to be able to breathe to feel good,” his da said, and John could hear the small laugh in his voice, which meant he wasn’t angry, anyway. He sat up, still clutching the pillow to his chest, and tried to turn a brave face to his da, who burst into laughter.

“Not funny!” John cried out, and threw the pillow at him.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” his da gasped, dodging the pillow and half-hiding behind the door. “John. I’m sorry. I am.”

“It’s not funny,” John told him again, and swallowed hard. “Sarah’s mad at me.”

“No,” his da said immediately, sounding surprised. He walked into the room then and sat on the bed, putting his hand on John’s crossed ankles and shaking them lightly. “She’s worried about you, Doc. She said you weren’t yourself.”

John looked down at his feet. “I was Sherlock.”

His da coughed. “Oh, really?”

“My pencil broke. I was frus--” John scowled. “Frustrated?”

“I see, and yeah, that’s the word. Means angry that things aren’t working right.” His da shook his ankles again and John put his pillow down and crawled to sit next to him, leaning into his side. “Tough day?”

“I’m a good one, right, Da?” John asked, hooking his fingers into the pocket of his da’s suit.

“The best one,” his da said immediately. He hugged John to him. “What happened, Doc?”

“Everything just went wrong.” John sighed. “Does that ever happen to you?”

His da nodded. “All the time. But you know what makes it better?”

John shook his head, beginning to smile. His da had that sneaky voice again.

Sure enough, he leaned down and whispered to John, “Pizza and ice cream.”

“That’s not for school nights!” John protested, laughing. “You said so!”

“You’re arguing with me over pizza and ice cream?” his da asked, standing up and grinning down at him. “You want pasta and mushy vegetables?”

“No! I’m not arguing! I’m getting my coat!” John said, jumping up. He made it into the kitchen before his da and stopped, looking at the maths practice sheet he hadn’t finished.

His da clamped his hand down on John’s head and turned his face away. “That can wait. I had a bad day, too, you know.”

“Fine,” John huffed, then grinned at his da.

*********

Mycroft watched Sherlock dart out of the house to examine the trucks of the decorating team and smiled. “Warmer, but not even lukewarm yet,” he called out the car door, and laughed outright at his brother’s fierce glare.

“You shouldn’t be home yet,” Sherlock accused as Mycroft moved to join him.

“I thought we might want to get our shopping done,” Mycroft said mildly. “Do you see the man with the red scarf?”

Sherlock stared, eyes flicking up and down the distant figure. “Bad day.”

“Personal or professional?”

Sherlock’s little mouth twisted. “Personal. He’s being very efficient but he’s not focused.”

“Very good,” Mycroft praised, and smiled at Sherlock’s renewed glare. “They aren’t bringing in the presents, Sherlock. I’ve already purchased yours, and Santa won’t bring any until Christmas Eve.”

“Santa,” Sherlock sneered and shoved his hands in his trouser pockets.

“Get your coat and we’ll go shopping for Gregory and John,” Mycroft said gently.

“Are we going to the party?” Sherlock demanded, eyes lighting up in hope.

“I don’t know yet,” Mycroft said, and leveled a stern gaze at Sherlock before he could speak. “I left Gregory a message, letting him know you’d received an email from Sergeant Donovan. The ball is in his court.”

His phone rang while Mycroft was getting back into the car, having instructed the driver to wait for Sherlock. He glanced at the display and, biting his lip against the grin that wanted to form, accepted the call. “Hello?”

“Mycroft, hello,” Gregory said, sounding warm and hurried and apologetic. “Sorry to call back so late.”

“It’s not late at all,” Mycroft said mildly.

“Yeah, well. About that holiday party? It’s tomorrow, and I don’t know if you’ve made plans, but if you’d like to come, well, you and Sherlock, you’re both welcome.” He sounded nervous, and that made Mycroft lean against the door, eyes half-closed, attention trained on his voice.

“Of course I haven’t made plans. It was either going to your party or following Sherlock as he crashed it.”

“I’m so sorry,” Gregory said again, and Mycroft could picture him running a hand through his hair. “I knew he’d be anxious. But, it’s just...”

Mycroft frowned, sitting up straighter. “Is John all right?”

A huffed sigh. “I don’t know. I mean, I know something’s bothering him, but I don’t know what it is. I talked to his teacher but he’s doing fine at school. More than fine, in fact. He’s been working hard and getting along great with the other kids.”

“Is it Christmas?” Mycroft asked, catching sight of Sherlock as he ran out the door and toward the car. “Should we cancel?”

“I don’t think so. I--well, let’s see how tomorrow goes, right? I think he wants to see Sherlock.” Gregory sounded amused, suddenly. “You don’t happen to want an ant colony in the library, do you?”

“Don’t you dare,” Mycroft said in a low voice. “I will retaliate.”

“You can’t beat ants,” Gregory said.

“Puppies. A litter of purebred Saint Bernards.”

“You are a terrible human being.”

“Tomorrow, then? Seven?” Mycroft said, raising his eyebrows at Sherlock as he climbed into the car, clutching his miniature skeleton.

“The party?” Sherlock asked, and jumped on him.

“Sherlock!”

“The party? Are we going?” Sherlock demanded, pulling the phone from his hand and speaking into it. “Are we going to the party?”

Mycroft didn’t hear what Gregory replied, but Sherlock lit up and handed the phone back to Mycroft triumphantly. “We are invited!” he announced, and sat down demurely.

“We’ll be there,” Mycroft said into the phone. “I’ll be the one with the bruises.”

“Just stand under the obligatory mistletoe; someone will kiss it better,” Gregory teased, and Mycroft’s skin felt tight.

*********

Greg got John from school himself, noting the tight set of John’s shoulders with concern. “What’s wrong, Doc?” he asked, pulling him into a sideways hug.

“Nothing,” John said immediately, and stuck his hand into Greg’s coat pocket. “They’re coming tonight, right? Sherlock and Mycroft?”

“Yeah,” Greg said, and was pleased to see that John relaxed, hearing that. Whatever was bothering him, it wasn’t the Holmes brothers. “I told you yesterday.”

“They could have changed their minds,” John said.

“Sherlock?” Greg asked incredulously, and John grinned up at him.

“Okay, maybe not,” he said, and they laughed together.

John made paper chains and ate entirely too many biscuits in the big meeting room while officers wandered in and out, hanging decorations and dropping off Secret Santa gifts. There were already cards and pictures and projects made by kids of various coppers hanging on the walls and the small plastic tree, and Greg waited the full half hour before he switched the carols CD to something less annoying. Someone else would switch it back again, but he’d have a few minutes of peace.

“They’re hanging it up,” Sally announced, bouncing into the room and putting an elf hat on John’s head. John didn’t so much as look up from his paper chain. “Left side, this year.”

“It’ll be moved halfway through,” Greg predicted. “Just keep an eye out.”

“Same to you, sir,” she said, and held out a headband with reindeer antlers and bells on it. “For you.”

“No,” Greg said.

“John?” Sally said sweetly, and grinned at Greg’s glare. “Little help?”

John put his chain down, folded his hands together under his chin, and stared up at Greg with big, soulful eyes. “Please, Da?”

“You’re supposed to be on my side,” Greg said, half-laughing. “Come on, Doc. Let me off this year.”

If anything, John’s eyes got bigger and deeper. “Please wear it, Da. Please?”

“Do you bribe him?” Greg demanded of Sally. “Why is he on your side?”

It ended, as it had for three years, with Greg wearing whatever silly hat Sally had scrounged up for him, and John taking his own silly hat and handing it off to Dimmock, who was awful at telling children no. It was a tradition which John enjoyed quite a bit, though, so Greg faithfully followed the steps every year. The decorating, the silly hat, the quick bite of dinner at six, and then back to switch the CD again to the one John liked, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

John was his old self, laughing at another of his Uncle Toby’s stories about Luke, when the Holmes brothers arrived at seven on the dot. Mycroft, who usually exuded a sort of arrogance when surrounded by people, was made very, very human by his barely hidden expression of exasperation and pleading as he pushed a scowling, scrunched-up Sherlock into the room.

“Sherlock!” John cried out joyfully, and tore across the room to meet him. Sherlock let himself be pulled to the refreshments table, and Greg went to greet Mycroft.

“Glad you could make it?” Greg said, turning it into a question, as Mycroft stared after his brother.

“Yes, I am,” Mycroft said, turning a brilliant smile on Greg. Greg blinked and flushed a bit. “I can’t think of a gift Sherlock would have enjoyed more than this.”

“This isn’t a gift,” Greg protested.

“Of course it is,” Mycroft said, nodding to Sherlock, who was scowling so hard he looked like some sort of demon. “I’ve never seen him so happy.”

Sally, who had been hovering off to the side, waiting to introduce herself, turned an incredulous stare on Greg. He shrugged and grinned at her, aware that he was still red.

“Lovely antlers, by the way,” Mycroft added.

*********

“That’s Aaron, and that’s Micheala,” John said, pointing at a few older children. Sherlock stared at them hard and then sniffed, turning away. Boring.

John grinned at him. “You want to meet Uncle Toby? He’s a DI, too. He doesn’t like kids but he likes me because he says I’m just like my other da, except I don’t know all the jokes yet.”

Sherlock followed him, wishing he could move just as easily and confidently through the crowd of police officers, who looked mostly like normal people and were talking loudly about various crimes--Sherlock took in every conversation he could, soaking it up.

John tugged on the arm of a large middle-aged man who was arguing with a skinny woman about an arson. “Uncle Toby? Uncle Toby, please stop talking shop.”

“Kid!” the man growled, and before Sherlock could blink he’d swung John into the air, making John shriek with laughter and the woman step back, rolling her eyes. “Interrupting an adult and lecturing your betters! I ought to throw you in the cells.”

John gasped out, between giggles, “What if I apologise?”

“All right. Let’s hear it,” the man said, putting John back on his feet.

John swayed dizzily for a moment, then turned to the woman and said, “Alice, I’m very sorry for interrupting. I don’t know who my betters are, though.”

The man roared with laughter as the woman said, “You have no betters, John. You are the cream of the crop.”

“This is my friend, Sherlock Holmes,” John said, and smiled at Sherlock. “This is Alice and this is Uncle Toby.”

“Inspector Carter,” the woman said, holding out her hand to Sherlock. Sherlock shook it quickly and carefully. “Pleased to meet you, Sherlock.”

“Detective Inspector Gregson,” the man said, eyeing Sherlock closely. “Mr. Holmes.”

That made Sherlock stand up straighter.

“Can we go to the cells?” John asked hopefully, and Sherlock turned to stare at him, wide-eyed.

“Not a chance,” Gregson said cheerfully, and Sherlock wilted. “I’m sure we’re holding some idiot. Your da would break my face.”

“But Sherlock’s never seen the holding cells,” John pleaded.

“He has all his life to do that,” Gregson said dismissively.

“He’s not going to get arrested just to see them!” John stopped still and turned to look at Sherlock. “Right?”

Sherlock narrowed his eyes in thought and Carter laughed. “Oh, you’re going to be trouble, aren’t you?” she said, shaking her head.

“Boring, anyway,” Gregson said, and Sherlock decided he liked him. “Stupid people who’ve done stupid things trying to think up excuses. Horrible. You want something interesting, go talk to Gladwell,” he said to Sherlock. “She maps bloodstains.”

“Toby,” Carter said reprovingly.

“What? Kids like that shit.”

“Don’t swear in front of them!”

Sherlock looked at John, who rolled his eyes and grinned.

“Fine, fine,” Gregson said, and glared at the two of them. “Bugger off so I can speak freely.”

“Happy Christmas, Uncle Toby,” John said, and got pulled into a hug that looked more like a mauling. Then Gregson stood up tall and offered his hand to Sherlock.

“Mr. Holmes,” he said again, and Sherlock matched his scowl as he shook his hand. “That’s a nice glare. Think about the Met, kid. We could use a glare like that.”

Sherlock scowled harder and held on tight to the sleeve of John’s jumper, reminding himself that he was really here, and this was really happening.

“He means Diana, in Forensics,” John said, pulling Sherlock along. “Come on!”

*********

“Hi, John,” Diana said pleasantly enough, but the man with her was frowning.

“There are kids at this thing?” he said to Diana, ignoring John and Sherlock entirely.

John was used to this sort of thing. Some of the officers didn’t like kids, but his da said he had to be respectful. “I just wanted to introduce you to my friend, Sherlock.”

“Nice to meet you, Sherlock,” Diana said. Sherlock was frowning at her and John wanted to tell him that smiling would work better with her, but now the man was frowning at him, John.

“That’s Lestrade’s kid, isn’t it?” he said, and there was something not at all nice in his voice. Sherlock was glaring hard, waiting for his moment, and John wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to stop him.

“Yes,” Diana said, her voice going falsely cheery. “This is John Watson, and, John, this is Ross Anderson. He’s Forensics.”

“ERU,” Anderson said with a tight little smile.

“That’s the Evidence Recovery Unit,” John told Sherlock. “Diana was on it, but now she’s Specialist Evidence Recovery Imaging Service. SERIS,” he added, smiling up at Anderson in his politest way.

“Aren’t you smart?” Anderson said, and turned back to Diana. “Anyway--”

“You’ve just recovered from a cold and your wife bought that tie for you and you hate it,” Sherlock interrupted. “But she thinks you like it and that’s why you wore it but you’re angry about it. And you like Diana more than you like her.”

John wondered if he should wave his da over.

“What--” Anderson started shaking his head. “Who does this one belong to?”

“Sherlock Holmes,” Sherlock said, crossing his arms. “And it would be to whom does this one belong. Aren’t adults supposed to be role models?”

Anderson’s mouth was hanging open.

“Sherlock,” John said, tugging on his arm, “we should go and--”

“You’re a rude little sod,” Anderson snapped. Diana opened her mouth and John tugged on Sherlock again, but he only turned to Diana and said furiously, “This is why I don’t want children!”

“Your children would turn out terribly,” Sherlock told him.

“Why don’t you two move on?” Diana said, pushing lightly at John’s shoulder.

“What’s worse is they might look like you,” Sherlock added as John pulled him away.

“I can’t believe this,” Anderson fumed.

“We’re supposed to be respectful,” John told Sherlock quietly.

“Wasn’t on the invitation,” Sherlock muttered back sulkily. “And he started it.”

 

John grinned, looking around to be sure no one saw it. “He’s a prat,” he whispered to Sherlock, and squeezed his hand.

Sherlock made a small, happy sound and stood straight again, taking the lead and pulling John over to the tree.

“What’s this about you two showing grave disrespect for a member of the Met?” John’s da asked not five minutes later, making John jump and almost knock the tree over. Sherlock, who had been telling him what the wrapped presents were, stood up hastily and jutted out his chin.

“Sorry, Da!” John said immediately, trying to get around Sherlock. “It was my fault; I started it--”

“He was disrespectful first!” Sherlock declared, shoving John back. “He was rude to John!”

Mycroft, standing off to the side, chuckled. “And you didn’t bite him? Bravo, Sherlock.”

John’s eyes bulged. “You bite people?” he whispered to Sherlock, horror and amazement mingling in his voice.

“You should be more worried about John than Anderson,” Sherlock finished, glaring hard at John’s da.

“Sherlock,” Mycroft said, shaking his head.

John’s da was trying to hide a smile. “Well, I was,” he said, “which is why I came over here, to talk to John and find out what happened, give him a chance to tell his side of the story. So thank you for doing that.” His eyes were twinkling and John’s stomach didn’t feel quite so tight.

“I’m sorry, Da,” he said again anyway. Sherlock made an angry noise and looked away in disgust.

*********

Mycroft had been expecting the call for some time after the party, and when his mobile rang at eleven that night he paused his inspection of the ornaments on the tree, devoting his attention to the conversation. “Hello, Gregory.”

“It was me!” Gregory said, anxiety sharpening his usually soft, late night drawl. “Why is Doc upset with me?”

“Not exactly upset,” Mycroft hedged, and Gregory snorted. “No, he was anticipating a stronger reaction from you.”

“But I don’t have strong reactions--not negative ones, anyway! I don’t have to! John is wonderful.”

Mycroft frowned at the window. Gregory was, all evidence revealed, more than patient with John; he was entirely devoted to his son’s happiness. He’d never before seen John act uncomfortably around his father.

“There’s something for which he’s harbouring guilt,” he said slowly, listening carefully for any reaction from Gregory. “Perhaps it’s with reason; quite possibly it’s without, as John is a strongly moral child. However, he is anticipating your censure, that much is obvious.”

“Painfully,” Gregory said, sighing deeply. “And to think I’d take Anderson’s words over his!”

Mycroft’s eyebrow lifted. “You don’t like the man?”

“Condescending git.” Gregory’s voice was suddenly amused. “And no basis for it, unlike some other gits I know.”

Mycroft closed his eyes, a shiver running through him at the easy, familiar tone of his voice. “One can have a basis for condescension?”

“Can’t one?” Gregory teased.

“You may condescend to me about police procedures all you like,” Mycroft said, running his hand along the mantle of the fireplace. The fire itself was low, barely more than a glow, and the darkness created such an atmosphere of intimacy that he had to remind himself not to add endearments.

“Oh, so I’m the git?” Gregory sighed again. “I don’t know--what did I do? What do I do?”

“I have to admit, I am cheered by the revelation that the father of the year has difficulties sometimes,” Mycroft said, and smiled Gregory’s sputtering. “Remind him that you are there for him, I suppose. Continue in your unrelenting good opinion of him. Perhaps--” and here he hesitated, but it had to be offered-- “Perhaps you ought to spend Christmas together, at home.”

“Let’s not say that yet,” Gregory said, and Mycroft only just stopped himself from heaving a sigh of relief. “Unless I’m no longer welcome for not defending my son properly?”

“Well, Sherlock didn’t attempt to bite you, so--”

“Does he really?” Gregory interrupted. “Sorry. But has he really bitten someone?”

“Yes, but he prefers not to,” Mycroft said, smiling. “He prefers the metaphorical bite of a scolding.”

“I certainly got that.”

“Hardly. He didn’t even mention that you weren’t one to speak to disrespect, having shown such little consideration for your colleagues that you’d eaten all the ginger-molasses biscuits.”

“Not all!” Gregory cried out. “You helped!”

“I had one.”

Gregory huffed. “I’m not sorry. They were delicious.”

Mycroft hummed in agreement.

“I’ll get him from school again tomorrow, see if I can’t get him to talk,” Gregory said then, thinking aloud. “See if I can’t get this worked out before Christmas.”

“Best of luck,” Mycroft said, unable to keep the affection from his voice. “To think that I would be grateful for Sherlock’s generous sharing of his irritations.”

“A list that covers most of the known world.”

“Ha, yes.”

*********

Greg and Mycroft had conspired before John’s Christmas break started to take that Wednesday off for an ice skating outing. Mycroft had point blank refused to allow Greg and John to visit the house before Christmas Day, saying he didn’t want to “spoil the surprise.”

Greg wasn’t sure what that meant, but perhaps he’d gone and had that zoo installed in the garden.

“Come on!” John shrieked, giggling madly, as Sherlock struggled to remain upright on the ice. John had fallen six times already and, Greg suspected, had found it entirely too entertaining.

“He seems well,” Mycroft said quietly.

“Sarah was with him yesterday,” Greg said with a big sigh. “He’s mostly back to normal, but still touchy about things.”

“School ended satisfactorily?”

At that, Greg frowned. “You know, I thought it did, but John was quiet during their performance. They did a play,” he added, looking at Mycroft. “John was a toy soldier. Maybe...”

“Maybe?” Mycroft prompted. Sherlock let out a surprisingly loud shriek of triumph as he wobbled and slid to where John was waiting, who ruined the moment by falling on him.

“He didn’t seem happy.” Greg thought back to the little play. “Soldiers aren’t supposed to be, I guess. But he seemed very stiff. Compared to the other kid, I mean, the other soldier. Must be a newer kid, because I haven’t seen him around much. Something else with a J.”

“Jack?”

“No,” Greg said, furrowing his brow. “Jim. Jim something. He was talking to John a lot, trying to cheer him up, I think, but John seemed... oh, I don’t know. He wanted to stay with me and go home right away.”

“Does he have many friends in his class?” Mycroft asked.

Greg shrugged. “He gets along with all the kids. But there’s no one he’s asked to stay over at ours.” He made a face. “But that could be because of me, because my hours are so difficult.”

Mycroft made a soft, considering noise, barely noticeable over the shouts and laughter from the rink. “Perhaps you’ll have to wait it out.”

Greg groaned and let his head fall back, resting on the high back of the bench. “Not what I wanted to hear, Mycroft.”

“Would you rather I conduct surveillance on your son?” Mycroft asked lightly, and Greg turned his head to glare. “Nothing indiscreet.”

“Funny,” Greg growled. Mycroft started to chuckle, and when Greg rolled his eyes, he actually started laughing. “You really are a Christmas person, aren’t you?”

Mycroft was giggling now, almost hysterically. “Oh, Gregory, I wish I could show you what I’m doing to the attic.”

“What are you doing?” Greg asked, lowering his voice and looking for the boys. He couldn’t help but grin himself. Mycroft burst into laughter and Greg joined him, without knowing why.

“So... many... bells!” Mycroft wheezed, and wiped his eyes. “Sherlock will kill me. Look for my corpse Christmas Day, won’t you?”

“You’re a nutter,” Greg said, and brushed his knuckles over Mycroft’s cheek. As soon as he’d done it, he froze, hand hovering awkwardly, fingers tingling with the memory of soft skin.

Mycroft raised an eyebrow, lips curling into a smaller, little smile. But before Greg could do anything about it, regret it or wonder to try it again, Sherlock and John had lurched over to their bench, cheeks red and eyes glowing. John half-shouted, “Da! Can we have hot chocolate? And brownies? There are brownies!”

*********

Sherlock woke up at three twenty-seven AM on Christmas Day with alarm ringing in every cell of his body.

He had fallen asleep.

And Mycroft had had two hours to stuff stockings and put out presents--

There was a strange, distant, almost silvery noise coming from somewhere above his head. Sherlock fought his way out from under his duvet and stood on his bed, head cocked to the side to better hear it.

It was coming from the attic.

Sherlock ran. He’d catch him, catch him right in the act. His bare feet pounded down the corridor; there wasn’t time to be quiet. He almost slammed into the wall, catching himself just in time, and he grabbed the hook to pull down the trap door. The ladder hadn’t even finished sliding down when Sherlock jumped on it, climbing up as fast as he could.

There were lights. Little white fairy lights, looping from the slanted ceiling, thick enough to be walls themselves--and they were, Sherlock realised, as he climbed the rest of the way into the attic. They were walls, or sides, anyway, of a maze of lights. And not just lights, but bells: gold and silver and chiming softly to themselves, and not just bells, but snowflakes, little crystal snowflakes hanging amid the lights and striking the bells gently, the crystal and metal reflecting the light until Sherlock was entirely dazzled by it, holding out his hand in wonder.

He touched the wall of lights and the bells struck out a flurry of notes, all in harmony. Sherlock started to laugh breathlessly, stroking through the hanging strands to create more music.

There was the maze yet to consider, and Sherlock began to thread his way through it, shivering with cold and excitement, trailing his hands as he walked to make the bells sing. He found a small silver bag, no bigger than his palm, lying in the middle of the floor. Inside was a small candy cane and Sherlock ate it almost without thinking, still dazed.

There was another bag around the next curve of lights, this one a shiny green, and inside was a chocolate. Sherlock bit into it suspiciously and then laughed; it was a cherry cordial, something Mycroft seldom let him have.

Then he turned another corner to find another bag: gold, with a small bit of spicy fudge. The last one was red, and it held a very small snowflake sculpted from sugar, which melted on Sherlock’s tongue like a real snowflake would.

The maze led back around to the stairs again, and Sherlock briefly considered staying in the attic, bringing his blankets up and his pillows, but it was cold. His feet hurt and he was shivering, arms wrapped tight around himself.

Besides, what if Mycroft was stuffing the stockings right now?

Sherlock climbed down with more care than he’d climbed up, but only because he was shivering too hard to move quickly. He crept down into the sitting room, where over the empty fireplace bulged two entirely full stockings.

Sherlock shrieked in frustration and ran up the stairs again, bursting into Mycroft’s room and launching himself onto the bed.

“Sherlock!” Mycroft half-shrieked, trying to catch him and avoid him all at once. “What are you doing?”

“How did you do it? When did you do it?” Sherlock demanded, grabbing Mycroft’s face. Lines from the pillow, eyes still sticky from sleep--he’d been sleeping. When had he done it?

“What, has Father Christmas come?” Mycroft asked innocently, and Sherlock growled. “What’s this? Have you been eating chocolates?”

“You’re horrible!” Sherlock flared, and then hugged him hard around the neck.

*********

John looked up from his motorbike model kit when his da muffled a swear into his new moose pillow. “Da?”

“I didn’t get anything for Mycroft,” he said, looking at John with huge eyes. “I completely forgot.”

“Well, now he’s not going to want to be your friend,” John said, and his da’s eyes got bigger. “Da, I was joking!”

“Doc, I love you, but if you don’t find me something to regift in two minutes, I’m giving him Sherlock’s present and Sherlock gets your fuzzy pyjamas.”

John put his model down, sighing loudly. “Why do I have to be the grownup around here?”

“Why are you so mouthy this morning?” his da asked, and then tackled him. John shrieked and tried to get away, giggling and kicking, and they nearly knocked their small plastic tree over.

“Da!” he yelled. “The gloves! The blue ones!”

His da sat up, rubbing at his hair. “The ones from Sally. She’ll forgive me, right?”

“Yes, because she’ll get to laugh at you,” John said, and shrieked with laughter again as his da poked him in the ribs.

So with presents in hand and wearing matching green Christmas jumpers, they marched up to Sherlock’s house, pausing only for a moment to inspect the light-up reindeer. There were two small fir trees by the door, each decorated with tiny ornaments, and large red lanterns with pine cones and white candles inside. John was inspecting these when the door flew open and Sherlock, still in red pyjamas, darted out to grab John and haul him into the house.

“Happy Christmas!” John’s da yelled after them. Mycroft stepped back into the sitting room to be out of their way.

“Sherlock--” John gasped as they raced up the stairs. “What--”

Sherlock let him go as he raced around the corner and started up a ladder. “Come on!” he hissed when John hesitated, staring up at him dubiously. He scrambled up and disappeared into the attic, and John looked back over his shoulder.

Then he sighed and followed Sherlock.

Sherlock was grinning in triumph, arms out wide, when John climbed up. His mouth fell open.

“This,” Sherlock said joyously, “was for me.”

“It’s brilliant,” John said, looking around at the lights and blinking. “Who did it?”

“Mycroft, but he won’t say how.” Sherlock scowled at the thought, but then turned and started to push different sections of the light walls, playing music with the different strands of bells. John started laughing, because it was beautiful.

“Your brother is nice,” John said, and carefully flicked a gold bell.

“He likes Christmas,” Sherlock said with a shrug, but John could tell he was happy. Very, very happy. “Come on!”

They wandered into the maze together, and John was happy to jump into the pile of blankets and pillows Sherlock had created in one curve of the maze. They snuggled in together, Sherlock revealing a stash of biscuits and sweets, and giggled at each other.

“Your father is worried about you,” Sherlock said, suddenly and seriously.

John couldn’t answer. He’d just shoved a chocolate biscuit in his mouth, so he made a grunting sound.

“Mycroft told him he should wait until you talk to him,” Sherlock continued. He looked at John sideways. “You always talk to your father.”

John swallowed hard. “It’s fine,” he said, and flinched under Sherlock’s sharp, angry glare.

“It’s not fine,” Sherlock said loudly. “You are upset. I can see it. You’re afraid that your father is angry with you. Why? He isn’t! He never is!”

John shook his head and Sherlock sat up, grabbed his shoulders, and held him still. “What’s wrong?” he asked, and ducked to make sure he could look John in the eyes.

John tried to stare back, but felt defeated suddenly. His eyes filled with tears.

*********

Gregory was still standing at the door, staring after the disappearing children with a smile, when Mycroft got there. “Happy Christmas,” he said, echoing Gregory’s shout.

Gregory turned a brilliant smile on him. “Happy Christmas. Did you put that herd out there yourself?”

Mycroft rolled his eyes. “Of course not. I hire a team.”

“You don’t really,” Gregory said, looking around the hall at the decorations, at the wreaths and holly, the ornaments and the candles... “No, you must. You couldn’t do all of this yourself.”

“Come see the sitting room,” Mycroft said, laughing. He took Gregory’s coat and steeled himself against an urge to rub his hand over the dark green jumper, a beautiful colour on him. And it took even more willpower than that not to touch him again, when his jaw dropped as he took in their ten foot tree, trimmed to its tasteful utmost, and the deep reds and greens that had overtaken the room in the form of pillows, curtains, wreaths, and throws.

“Mycroft, this is beautiful,” he said simply. Preening just a bit, Mycroft took the two presents from his hands and placed them with care under the tree.

“I wanted more traditional colours this year,” Mycroft explained. “We did silver the year before, and blues and purples the year before that. But I return, every so often, to the red and green, with touches of gold.”

“Oh yeah?” Gregory said vaguely, inspecting the ornaments. “What, is this real gold?”

“Plated,” Mycroft said. He smiled. “But the best part was the attic.”

“Oh, yes, you were going to show me,” Gregory said, his eyes lighting up. “By the way, I’m glad you haven’t been murdered.”

“I’m sure the children are up there already; Sherlock spent most of the morning there,” Mycroft said, leading the way. “I wanted him out of the library this year. I’m having a few of his favorites replaced with better bound versions--”

He stopped at the foot of the ladder, and gestured for Gregory to go first. “After you.”

“Ladies first, is it?” Gregory said, and winked at him. Mycroft laughed, because it made no sense whatsoever, but it was silly and glorious.

“Oh, Mycroft Holmes, you marvel,” he heard Gregory say softly as he climbed into the attic. Mycroft’s stomach lurched in a way he could only describe as pleasantly.

“Sherlock, John,” he called when he’d climbed up. Gregory was looking at a snowflake, shaking his head in wonder. “Aren’t they pretty?”

Before he could answer, Sherlock emerged from the labyrinth of lights with a grave expression on his face. “John is crying.”

“What?” Gregory said immediately, turning around. Mycroft put out his hand, steadying him.

Sherlock led them into the maze, to his pile of blankets where John was still sitting, half-wrapped up and wholly miserable. Mycroft felt as if he’d been sucker-punched, and Gregory looked worse.

“Doc, what happened?” Gregory asked in a hushed sort of horror, falling onto the blankets and pulling John into his arms. John gave a tiny whimper and hid his face in his father’s chest.

“There’s a terrible boy at school who won’t leave him alone,” Sherlock said, his voice loud and cold. Mycroft reached for him and Sherlock shrugged him off viciously. “You shouldn’t make him go there.”

“What--” Gregory looked absolutely bewildered. “Doc. John. I talked to Miss Turner--”

“They all think Jim is nice!” Sherlock shouted. “He isn’t! He just fools everybody!”

“Perhaps John should tell his father, don’t you think?” Mycroft said, reaching for Sherlock again. This time when Sherlock shrugged him off, he at least looked at Mycroft, and Mycroft could see clearly the concern and fear in his eyes. “Sherlock. Let’s leave them to talk for a minute, all right?”

“But--” Sherlock looked back at John, who was still pressing his face against Gregory’s chest.

“Come along,” Mycroft said gently. “We can get the hot chocolate ready for when they come down.”

This time, Sherlock didn’t shrug him off at all.

*********

It was the most surreal moment of his life, surrounded by twinkling lights and clinking bells, listening to John’s hitching voice try to describe something he couldn’t even properly put into words.

“He just--he pretends to be nice, Da. And then suddenly he says something mean, something really horrible, and then he pretends like it was a joke. And he’s nice again. So you don’t know if he meant it. But then he does it again!”

Greg petted John’s hair and made an encouraging sound.

“But he pretends like he didn’t know it was mean. He had to apologise to Molly once, and he acted so nice that she apologised, too. She apologised because he had to apologise to her! That’s not right!”

John took a deep, gulping breath and rubbed his face with Sherlock’s blanket. Greg winced a bit at that, but there was no helping it. Something was going to get snotted on.

“And he knows I know. That he’s really horrible, I mean. He knows, so he acts like my friend, and he won’t go away. He won’t go away because he’s not nice!”

“All right, all right,” Greg said, rubbing John’s back through the blanket. “But the teachers won’t help you?”

John sniffed again. “They think he’s nice. They think we’re friends. Miss Turner said I’m so nice, to make friends with the new boy. Now we have to sit together in maths.” And he burst into tears again.

“Oh, Doc,” Greg said, and rocked him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“All the grownups think he’s nice!” John wailed. “I didn’t want you to think that, too!”

“I will never trust anyone else over you, you hear?” Greg said, and pressed his cheek to John’s hair. “Never. You’re my family. You’re the most important person in the world to me.”

John sniffed again, but he nodded.

“I’ll email Miss Turner tonight. Or tomorrow; I’m going to have to interrogate you and get evidence, you know,” he said, and hugged John tight. John made a small sound. “I’ll tell her you’re not to have to sit with this Jim kid. And that he’s snide and making you uncomfortable, and that I don’t want you to have to deal with him. All right?”

“But he’s really crafty,” John said in a small voice.

Greg hugged him tight again. “I am the police. I am the definition of crafty! And I’ll get Mycroft to help me; how about that? Are you going to pretend like some kid in your class is smarter than me and Mycroft put together?”

John smiled a bit at that. “No...”

“We can do this,” Greg said confidently. “You, me, and our friends, too. We’ll have your uncle Toby go in and talk to your headmaster, how about that?”

“No!” John cried out, looking up in horrified amusement.

“And Sally will talk to Miss Turner at the same time. We’ll let Sherlock talk to Jim,” Greg said, and finally John laughed, great big peals of laughter.

“We’re all here for you, Doc,” Greg said, and hugged him tight again. “Every single one of us.”

John sighed and rested in his arms for a long moment.

*********

“John should have lessons here,” Sherlock decided, and looked up at Mycroft. Mycroft didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow as he took mugs out of the cabinet.

“John will continue going to school as he always has, and you will continue having lessons, unless you wish to try school again yourself,” Mycroft said absently. “Running away is not the appropriate response.”

“What is?” Sherlock demanded, clutching at the counter. “Jim is vile. John’s father should arrest him.”

Mycroft’s lips twitched and Sherlock glared harder. “John is reaching out to his father at last, thanks to you,” he said, and smiled at Sherlock. “How lucky for him that he has such an insightful friend.”

Sherlock blinked, and then turned away. John wasn’t lucky to have him as a friend, was he? Sherlock was the lucky one.

“I advised Gregory to wait until John was ready to talk,” Mycroft continued, setting up the kettle. “But you talked to John, and helped him realise that he wasn’t alone.”

“Well, he isn’t!” Sherlock snapped. He stomped to the drawer with the silverware and pulled out a spoon for mixing. “Why would someone do that?”

“What, be mean?” Mycroft asked.

“Be mean to John!” Sherlock couldn’t understand it. Being mean to someone who was mean, well, that just made sense. But to be mean to someone who was as kind and friendly and good as John; that didn’t make any sense at all.

“Sometimes people who are unhappy want to make other people unhappy,” Mycroft said slowly, carefully. He started to heap cocoa into the mugs, and Sherlock crossed his arms over his chest, staring hard at Mycroft’s calm expression. “They might not even realise that they’re unhappy. But they are, and the knowledge that someone else isn’t, well.”

“That’s horrible,” Sherlock said flatly.

“I’ll remember you said that,” Mycroft said mildly.

“I would never try to make John sad!” Sherlock cried out.

“I’ll remember you said that, too.” The kettle sang, and Mycroft began to pour water in the mugs. Sherlock stared at him, desperately confused.

“I don’t want him to be sad,” he said finally, and blinked at the tears stinging his own eyes.

“Then you must remember to think about what he wants, and what he likes, and what he is comfortable with,” Mycroft said. “You mustn’t think only of what you want, even if you think he would learn to be happy with it.”

Sherlock stared morosely at the mugs. He understood; no more asking for John to join their household, or to stop going to school and just do lessons as Sherlock did.

“It’s hard,” he said finally, watching Mycroft stir the cocoa.

“Of course it is,” Mycroft said calmly. “Many things are. It’s part of growing up.” He smiled at Sherlock, the sideways laughing one. “Congratulations on your maturation.”

Sherlock blew a raspberry at him.

“The caterers will be here soon,” Mycroft said. “Would you please get the tray? The white one? We’ll move to the sitting room and exchange gifts.”

*********

He may have already cried in front of everyone, but John wasn’t prepared to let Sherlock or Mycroft see his da carry him downstairs, even if he would really rather not move by himself. So he walked with his da to the loo on the first storey to wash his face.

“Maybe we should have gotten red jumpers,” his da said, and John poked him in the ribs.

In the sitting room, Sherlock was sitting on the floor by the fireplace, wrapped up now in a small red dressing gown, though his feet were still bare, and Mycroft was on the phone with someone, peering out the window. The tree was glowing with soft white lights and a small pile of presents was heaped next to Sherlock.

His da reached out and snagged a mug of cocoa from a tray, pushing John ahead. “Sit down, Doc.”

“Here!” Sherlock said, turning to look up at them. “It’s warmest.”

John grinned, although it was still a little hard to smile, and sat down next to him. His da handed him the mug and John sipped at it, watching Mycroft end his call.

“The caterers will be late,” he sighed to John’s da.

“You’ve got caterers?”

Mycroft narrowed his eyes at him. “You didn’t think I was going to cook.”

John’s da shrugged, grabbing a mug for himself and Mycroft. Sherlock already had one, and a chocolate moustache to go with it. “No, but our tradition is takeaway.”

“No.” Mycroft looked shocked. “Really?”

“It’s good,” John offered. “And then you don’t have to wash up. And Da lets me watch Doctor Who all day.”

“So you understand how very special this is to us, to cut into Doctor Who time,” his da said, and Mycroft laughed. Sherlock nudged John’s arm and John looked at him.

“We could watch it here,” Sherlock said.

John stared. “You don’t like telly. Unless it’s crime shows.”

“I watched the space thing, didn’t I?” Sherlock glared at him and John relaxed, smiling a real smile. “What?”

“Nothing,” John said, and sipped his own cocoa. Sherlock was still glaring. “What?”

Sherlock leaned in very close, until his face was only inches from John’s. “You have to tell the truth. Because we’re friends. And you said that’s how it works.”

“Trust,” John argued, and Sherlock poked him in the chest. Hard.

“Trust is telling the truth,” he said, and then sat back to drink his cocoa, scowling at the fire. “You have to let us help you. You can’t just--you can’t just be sad. I don’t like it.”

“Well, if we’re telling the truth,” John’s da said, sounding guilty, and John spilt his cocoa all over himself and Sherlock scrambling around.

“No, Da! You don’t have to tell him you forgot!” he cried out, and then dropped his mug, putting his hands over his mouth.

“You forgot?” Mycroft repeated, raising his eyebrow and looking at John’s da with interest.

“I, er, may have regifted you a pair of gloves because you are impossible to shop for,” John’s da said, ducking his head and looking up at Mycroft, like John sometimes did to his da when he thought he could get out of trouble by being sweet.

“You may have?” Mycroft said.

“There’s a strong possibility,” his da said, and then they both started laughing.

John looked at Sherlock, who was watching Mycroft and John’s da with his nose all wrinkled up. “I didn’t mean you!” he shouted at them, and John started giggling even as he tried to clean the cocoa from his jumper by wiping it with Sherlock’s dressing gown.

*********

fin