On a cold day in October, Sherlock notices that John's worn a ragged hole near the lower hem of his favourite oatmeal-coloured jumper, and decides that he will surprise John with a replacement.
When John leaves the flat the next day, Sherlock rummages in his laundry and is stymied to discover the jumper has no tag to indicate size or maker — indeed, turning it inside out makes it quite clear that the garment is handmade; no regular machine seams here.
He puzzles over the construction for about fifteen minutes before turning to the Internet. A fisherman's jumper, he learns, and the dull colour and regular patterns are part of an old tradition (or a clever marketing scheme) from the Aran Isles. By the time he finds the cable pattern labeled "fidelity," Sherlock knows that even if it were possible, he will not be satisfied with finding a replica of John's worn favourite in a shop. Knitting it himself will be an interesting challenge, and he thinks John will be more amused anyway.
Sherlock invests his full day in deep research, reading web pages and PDFs, learning the vocabulary, and watching demonstration videos. He spends the evening lying silently on his couch, planning and visualising the results. John doesn't bother trying to draw him out, simply sits reading in his chair nearby.
The next day, as soon as John is off to the surgery, Sherlock takes a taxi out to a not-too-local yarn shop; no need to risk some chance cross-acquaintance tipping John to the nature of his gift.
Thanks to his research he quickly finds his way to the right yarn — only a few choices for a proper Aran jumper — but the selection of knitting needles is fascinatingly broad, and he spends a good hour quizzing the manager, a big elderly lady with a sweet voice, about the pros and cons of each combination of needles, yarn, and pattern choices. By then several interested customers have joined in and Sherlock plumbs a rich multiplicity of considerations before choosing his final purchases. The ladies are amused by him, but patient and kind, if a little bemused when he asks permission to examine each distinctive pair of hands. He's reminded of his intention to someday write a paper about occupational callus patterns, but he's set the idea aside again by the time he gets home, eager to try his hand at his first knitting.
It's quite simple in concept, but he's both astonished and frustrated with how long it takes him to complete his first decent-sized swatch, and that's only in basic garter stitch, he hasn't even begun with yarnovers, slip-slip-knit, knit-two-togethers and the other stitches he'll have to master before he can construct the intricate cables he wants. He measures the swatch and finds he's knitting too tightly, which might also explain the ache in his hands, but he keeps on with his experiments until the gauge is comfortably consistent in both garter and stockinette stitch, and he's ready to begin with the variations.
John arrives home, though, and Sherlock hides the yarn away in his room and spends a good five minutes running his hands under warm water, trying to soothe skin irritated by a day of working with woolen yarn that hadn't seemed coarse when he started. Lotion helps, but he finally opts to put his driving gloves on for the evening, and John doesn't ask why.
The next day, Sherlock plans a little better and quits early in the afternoon so that nothing seems suspicious when he and John go out for Friday Chinese. John does ask, somewhat pointedly, if he's picked up a new case without saying anything, but Sherlock shakes his head easily. He wouldn't dare, not after the royal rebuke he'd gotten after the pool debacle.
"Just a new research project. Rather mundane really, but new to me."
"Good," John says. "I like it when you find something new to research. Fewer firearms violations that way."
Sherlock grins. He succeeds in predicting the fortune in John's cookie, but is wildly off the mark on his own. Such is life.
Next day he's back on the net, and he finds a nice tool for assembling the cable patterns he's chosen into a final design. Quite sophisticated, this knitting subculture, and he momentarily wonders if there might be other mathematical puzzles their number-crunching tools could solve, but it's very satisfying to print out the final charts: a massive, beautiful array of complex symbols. He makes himself read through the instructions one last time, and let them simmer through an evening's musing before the fire with John, and a good night's sleep, before beginning his project in earnest the next morning.
Sherlock gets quickly through the ribbing on the cuff, and then begins the cabling on the outside of the first sleeve — the fun part. He works on it steadily for two and a half days before realising his stitch count has gone wrong.
It takes him twenty frustrating minutes to find the error, and is furious with himself over the wasted effort. The only way to fix it is frogging (as in "rip it, rip it") back to the mistake, and he has to walk away angrily from the pile of yarn that gathers on his bed, already kinked by one trip around the needles. But after a cup of tea, he returns and begins again.
He falls back into the rhythm and has made up the lost work by the time John arrives with a bag full of curries.
The day after that is better, but again, what ought to be a simple task of counting and dexterity proves a challenge: Sherlock has to "tink" or "unknit" a double handful or more of stitches, at least a dozen times, but at least he doesn't have to rip back several rows.
Sherlock is excited, of course, when a Tuesday phone call brings them a new case, and he thrusts the knitting back into its bag and hides it away. But he's uncomfortably aware of the passing days as he concentrates on unraveling crime rather than yarn. He does try to pick the work up late at night, at least to finish his interrupted row, but trying to concentrate on the case and the pattern at the same time proves disastrous. Frustrated, he's briefly tempted to yank the needles out and start over, or quietly discard the project altogether — after all, John would never know.
Only briefly tempted, though. Giving up just isn't in his nature. He simply has to be attentive to his work, and paranoid about his counting. Thinking about anything other than John's smile when he puts the jumper on for the first time is counterproductive.
After that, Sherlock segregates his time rigorously between solving the case, solving the knitting, and spending time with John. Soon enough the case is wrapped up in a tidy bow, and he has several days of blissful, intensive work, but he fears it isn't going to be enough. It isn't going to be possible to finish this for John's birthday, even if he forgoes sleep completely — which is likely to provoke more issues with John than any gift will soothe. Not a wise course, there.
Christmas is, perhaps, more realistic, then, but he finds it difficult to alter his pace for the more relaxed deadline. He has a nice routine going now — breakfast with John, watching out the window until he turns the corner toward the surgery, and then choosing a stack of albums at random from his vinyl collection to listen to while he works. Mostly classical, but the odd bit of music from his and Mycroft's teen years as well, and he wonders if Mrs Hudson finds the shift from Vivaldi to Violent Femmes jarring...
Sherlock is pleased by his progress, and his hands have adapted to the task. Occasionally he steals John's jumper to check the sizing, not that he can do much about it now if it's turning out a bit big, he can't just drop stitches without destroying his painstaking pattern.
Another case intrudes, and this time Sherlock is clever enough to mark where he leaves off in the chart, and to put a lifeline of bright thread through the last completed row, so he feels better about letting the project go for several days, more confident that he isn't "losing his train of thought".
And John seems happy to have Sherlock's full attention again. He hadn't realised there was an issue but of course he's always been blind about the consequences when he gets obsessed about something. He resolves to do better, and when he resumes knitting, he allows that part of his brain not keeping count in time with the music to muse over more topics to share with John in the evenings, more outings they can make together, even ponders what sort of "male bonding" exercise he can plan for he, John and Lestrade, to make their excursions a little less "date"-like.
The answer comes to him in a flash of cleverness as he finishes the second sleeve. By texting exclusively with Mycroft's assistant Sherlock can pretend he's not asking his brother for the favour of arranging a day at an Army live firing range. The brief indignity is completely worth it, however, for John's whoop of glee at watching Lestrade fire a grenade launcher for the first time, and the exhilaration and almost-completely-subterranean smugness John exhibits in comparing their shooting accuracy at the end of the day.
The body of the jumper proves a bigger challenge to Sherlock than the sleeves, both in managing the work on the large circular needles — the nylon cable strung between the back ends of otherwise normal knitting needles tends to curl back into a tight spiral whenever he sets the work aside — and in alternating between the intricate stitchery on the front and the plain style on the back, where it's too easy to lose his count. Still, Sherlock's glad he chose a pattern where he can work in the round, he can't imagine working the back separately, row after row of dull stockinette. He has new respect for whoever created that bloody awful scarf for the fourth Doctor...
As Christmas gets closer, Sherlock finds it more and more difficult to hide his plans. He eagerly tries to decide how he's going to present the jumper, while making a diversionary point of quizzing John about things he wants and needs.
John shrugs irritably, though, and says he doesn't really need any more "stuff". Sherlock knows he moved into the flat with almost nothing, has bought little since, but he's sure the work he's put into the jumper will be appreciated. He has trouble understanding John's reticence, though, until a chance comment from Anderson, of all people, makes him realize there might be a flaw in his plan.
It makes sense. John doesn't have a lot of money of his own, and doesn't want to exchange gifts because he thinks buying for Sherlock is bound to fail on any one of multiple counts. If he shops for things he can afford, he fears nothing he buys will be up to Sherlock's admittedly spoiled standards, and even if he stretches for something extravagant, there's no way for him to guess what Sherlock has already owned or purchased for himself, or what he will find fascinating or unspeakably dull.
And...the critical flaw. What will John do when faced with a handmade jumper, nearly three months of careful work? Sherlock recognises with sinking heart that he hasn't thought to put himself in John's shoes: even if he's succeeded in finding a perfectly interesting, appropriate, amusing gift for Sherlock, he's going to feel blindsided and inadequate.
Sherlock frets about the problem to the degree that he snaps the point off his circular needle. He takes a trip back to the same yarn shop, with his anonymous canvas knitting bag in tow, hoping they have the same brand and size still in stock. The manager Glenys remembers him and greets him by name, and is positively eager to see his work in progress; her praise is a welcome reassurance that he hasn't gone wrong along the way. She helps him thread the new needle into place and remove the broken one, and gives him some clever pointers on attaching the sleeves as he works his way up the yoke before finishing the collar.
Finally, with some hesitation, Sherlock confides his concern over the uneven gift-giving, and she smiles indulgently.
"He will be touched and pleased, no matter what, I promise you. But you're wise to consider it ahead of time. Best advice I have: think on what you would consider a fair exchange for this gift."
"But I don't need..."
"You don't need to receive anything, because his pleasure in this," she says, fondling the wool, "will be gift enough. But he may need to give you something. So think, son. Any talent he has that makes you happy? Something only he can do for you?"
Sherlock ponders, relieved that for once there's no hint of innuendo about him and John, even if the making of this platonic gift for his flatmate has become almost as intimate as it is domestic. He thanks her for the assistance and returns home, still pondering, to find John already in the kitchen, something appetizing bubbling on the hob.
Sherlock leans in to smell and identify before he remembers the bag he's holding.
"What's that?" John asks.
"Ah. Christmas gift. Let me just tuck it away," Sherlock smiles, but not before John's lips tighten. He hurries to his room and hides the bag in the bottom drawer of his chest. Back in the kitchen, John is clearing the table, and Sherlock takes over, moving his chemistry equipment off to the round table on the side. John turns back to the the cooker.
"About Christmas," Sherlock says, to the back of John's head. "I know you think I hardly need any more clutter in the flat and... in light of — that is, would it be too awkward to just tell you what I'd like?"
John rests his spoon on the hob, and turns to look at Sherlock warily. No, not wary...insecure.
Sherlock gestures toward the sink, and John sniffs at a sponge before dampening it slightly for him, and tossing it across the table. Sherlock begins wiping the table down, searching for the right words. "What I'd like, if you're willing, is for you to expand your blog posts. Include more details about the crimes and how we solved them."
John looks at him as if he's grown a second head. "I thought you didn't like my blog?"
"I have...on occasion, been annoyed with your blog. For obvious egotistical reasons." He smiles, ruefully, he hopes. "But also, because it's frustrating to see fascinating cases reduced to a handful of succinct paragraphs."
Sherlock looks up, and John exchanges a dry towel for the sponge; Sherlock holds his gaze for a moment, knowing John must be able to trust his sincerity in this.
"I admire your way with words, John, and I value your insights. Would you, please, consider expanding at least one of your write-ups into a proper article? Or story, if you prefer the fiction form. Something closer to ten or twenty thousand words, rather than a thousand. I know it's a lot to ask." He folds his lower lip uncertainly under his moistening tongue. "If you want me to, I'd be happy to collaborate, of course, ensuring the science is right, I mean...."
"Sherlock, just — shut up for a minute." John pauses to stir the soup again. "You really want me to write more?"
"Yes, I do. Even if it's not always flattering about me; though obviously I'd hope you'd be fair about my various shortcomings..." Sherlock shakes his head. "But I want you to write more about your part as well, you've been instrumental in solving some of these cases."
"Yes, your faithful Yorick..." John says drily.
"Come now," Sherlock says, annoyed. "You're much more than that, and I'll have you know that you and I in partnership have been sixty-four percent more effective at solving cases together than Yorick and I were before your arrival."
"Sixty-four..." John says, shaking his head in mild disbelief. At the figure itself, or the fact that Sherlock has calculated it?
"Will you do it?"
"I can write ten thousand words just for you, but I know myself, if I come up with something I'm proud of by the time I'm done, I'm going to want to do something with it. Publish it somewhere. Is that all right?"
"Of course. That's why I want you to do it — so people can see the work you're really capable of, when you're not just tossing it into the ether for a few acquaintances."
John lifts the pan, then jerks his chin towards the cabinet, and Sherlock belatedly hurries to pull down a couple of soup bowls for the table. John's trying to maintain his equanimity, pouring the soup for the both of them, but Sherlock can see an engaging smile hiding around the corners of his mouth and eyes, and now he finds himself more eager for Christmas morning than he had been when he was four, and certain that Mummy Claus had answered his meticulously logical demand for a computer (a cutting edge 8-bit computer!) of his very own....
The week after that is a bit maddening for Sherlock. The yoke, from the underarms to the collar, is the most complicated part of the project, and he finds it difficult to accept that in some places perfect math makes for an imperfect garment. He has to attempt and rip out certain parts several times, finally accepting odd numbers of stitches and misplaced increases or decreases in order to get the joins to lay properly.
In addition, John's not working as many shifts, and Sherlock often has to watch him caught up in his new project, typing with rapt, rapid-fire rat-a-tat-tats on the laptop, whilst being unable to work on his own without retreating back to his bedroom. That would leave him unavailable for the collaboration he promised, answering John's questions and reviving the details of their first case together. They debate, occasionally heatedly, about how much of the deduction process and scientific detail should go into the text.
Still, even with his frustrations, Sherlock enjoys the lead-up to the holiday. John has a rather ridiculous interest in Christmas decorating, aided and abetted by Mrs Hudson in smuggling a tree up their stairs and festooning the place with twinkling lights. But he also turns out to have an excellent recipe for eggnog, and a fine appreciation for the Westminster Choir, Handel, Mendelssohn, etc. that Sherlock puts on the stereo.
He finishes the ribbed collar with four days to spare, and painstakingly weaves all the yarn ends in. If John doesn't understand his sudden energetic urge to go out somewhere that evening, he seems genuinely entertained by Sherlock's ebullience, walking toward Angelo's through an ephemeral layer of snow with their laughter gusting out visibly in the frosty air.
The next morning Sherlock steals from John's laundry for the last time, and brings both jumpers back to the yarn shop. Old Glenys crows over his "finished object" and insists on showing it off to the other customers, then mends the hole in the old garment while giving him recommendations on choosing blocking pins. He buys a blocking mat from her as well, for a ridiculous amount of money given how cheap cork board is, but he really doesn't mind spending it at her shop. On a whim, he also picks up a hank of red-and-white self-striping sock yarn.
At home again, Sherlock takes a deep breath, slowly submerges his jumper in hot water, and waits, hoping fervently that the final shape and size will come out right without revealing any hitherto unnoticed mistakes. Then, with exquisite care for how fragile and feltable the wool is when wet, he presses out the excess water, soaking several towels in the process. It takes him over an hour to be satisfied that he's pinned the jumper out to exactly the correct dimensions on the mat, comparing it obsessively against the one John's worn for so long, fussing over the straightness of the cables and the lie of the shoulders and collar.
His bed is the only clear horizontal surface in his bedroom large enough to hold the blocking mat so — aghast at the thought of the work's own weight pulling it out of shape if it doesn't dry flat — Sherlock sleeps on the couch for a couple of nights, and tries not to fret that the jumper won't dry completely in the cold air in the time he has left.
Finally, though, on the evening of the 24th he runs his fingers down the smooth, regular patterns on the front, and is satisfied that he can fold his work gently in acid-free tissue paper and tuck it into a silver gift bag. Picking up his gift and his rearranged knitting kit, Sherlock traipses out to the firelit sitting room where John is typing at the desk, and sets both down without fanfare next to his low-slung leather chair.
Looking casual is the order of the day but Sherlock chooses his angle carefully when he drops into his chair, with his back to John's desk, so that he will be able see the man's reflection in the mirror at the back of the étagère that demarcates sitting room from kitchen.
Sherlock leans down and extracts his new project from the knitting bag — the red and white yarn, the first two inches of the toe of a sock dangling from slender needles — and picks up his knitting where he left off.
The typing stops immediately, and in the mirror Sherlock gets to observe an absolutely delicious triple-take as John stares at the back of his head.