Sherlock knows something is wrong. Something is wrong with John.
No, that's incorrect. Nothing is wrong with John. John is perfect. Even his imperfections are perfect -- his mistakes, his scars, his illogical beliefs. Somehow, via a mechanism Sherlock has not yet uncovered, John's flaws combine to form a flawless whole. Someday, Sherlock will understand -- will know John inside and out. But for now that aspect of John remains a mystery.
John is unhappy. Yes, that is a more accurate assessment. John hasn't smiled at Sherlock for eight days -- not a real smile, at least. He declined Sherlock's request to accompany him to the site of a double homicide five days ago. Three days ago, when Sherlock went to clasp him on the shoulder, he recoiled from Sherlock's hand as though it were a viper. He has also been masturbating twice as often, judging by the lengths of his evening showers, and yet somehow this has only increased his level of discontent.
Even now, as John sits in his chair, ostensibly reading a book, he is actually thinking about something entirely unrelated, something that magnifies his unhappiness the longer he ponders it. His gaze is fixed and vacant, his mouth pulling down slightly at the corners; he has not turned the page for nearly half an hour. Sherlock can see John slowly curling further into himself as each minute passes. His cup of tea sits untouched beside him.
Sherlock has no idea what to do. John has his bad moods, of course, but prior to last week he never kept those to himself for long. Often, Sherlock was the cause, but even then -- especially then -- he told Sherlock. Yes. The past shows that John will not hesitate to tell Sherlock when he has done something to upset John. Therefore, the problem must be different. It must be something that does not involve Sherlock. And more importantly, it must be something he is unwilling to tell Sherlock.
The possibilities unfold in Sherlock's mind, lining up obligingly to be inspected. He starts with the first: John is ill. He has a serious illness whose symptoms have not yet become apparent, but which is causing him great distress.
"Are you well, John?" Sherlock asks. It is the sort of question he normally finds ridiculous, only slightly less so than inquiring about the weather.
John looks up from his book, and stares for a moment at Sherlock. Then he shakes his head. "Yes of course. I'm fine," he says.
"That wasn't very convincing."
John expels a breath; its sound is a combination of a mirthless laugh and a sigh. "Well, I don't know what you want me to say."
"I don't want you to say anything," Sherlock answers. He is suddenly annoyed at John for not knowing what Sherlock is asking, for not knowing what Sherlock needs to hear. "I want you to stop being unhappy."
John's eyes widen a fraction. He smiles, but it doesn't reach his eyes. Sherlock recognizes it for an attempt to hide a combination of fear and sorrow. John stands and closes his book. "Yeah, well, we both know that's not going to happen."
After John has plodded up the stairs to his bedroom, Sherlock crosses the room and sits in John's chair, hoping to find some explanation. He dips his fingertips into the cup of tea, as if it's a clue at a crime scene.
The tea is cold. Sherlock learns nothing new from it.
He wakes late in the morning; by the time he emerges from his bedroom it is nearly noon. He has nothing to do other than ponder the mysteries of his flatmate, who has already gone out for the day.
There is a newspaper on the kitchen table. It catches Sherlock's eye because it's been carefully reassembled -- the pages put back in place, the crease across the centre smoothed out. To the untrained observer, it would appear unread.
Not to Sherlock.
First, he looks at the front page carefully: the London Evening Standard, from yesterday. Nothing remarkable there. Then, he flips through the pages, looking for whatever John was trying to hide. It must be something, because otherwise he would have left the paper in pieces as he normally did: fashion in the bin, news and politics on the arm of his favourite chair, and sport on the kitchen table with jam thumbprints along the side. (And yet somehow, Sherlock is always accused of being the messy one.)
When he arrives at the last page, Sherlock finds the answer; or rather the fact that he doesn't find anything provides the answer. Yesterday was Wednesday, and on Wednesday, the Standard includes a Homes & Property supplement. That supplement is missing.
The only reasonable conclusion is that John is looking for a new place to live.
Sherlock's first reaction is anger. Why would John want to leave him now? Sherlock hasn't changed appreciably since the day they met. If John was going to decide having Sherlock for a flatmate was unsatisfactory, he would have done so months ago.
A cold dread settles over Sherlock. He was wrong, last night, when he concluded that he hadn't done anything to cause this. In fact, he must have done something so egregious, so horrible, so vicious, that John has given up on him entirely, can no longer even stand the sight of him. Never mind that it was probably an accident, and Sherlock hasn't even been given the chance to explain. Outrageous!
It is appalling, really, how badly Sherlock has been treated. John knows that Sherlock is not like most people. How dare he reject him for failing to follow rules he not only does not but also cannot understand?
"Well, that's settled, then," Sherlock tells the skull. His hands are shaking. He must be cold. "What else should I have expected? Nothing to be done about it. He's just a distraction from my work, anyway."
An hour later, Sherlock once more gets out of bed and storms back into the living room.
"There must be something I can do!" he shouts at the skull. "It's not fair! I don't want him to go!"
He throws himself into John's chair. Then, he pulls out his phone and stares at it venomously. For John, he will do anything, he tells himself. After a long pause, he dials.
"Well, this is a first," Mycroft says by way of greeting. From his voice, Sherlock can extrapolate the exact level of smugness on Mycroft's face. It makes him want to hit something.
"Shut up, Mycroft. I need your assistance. It's John."
"I see. You've figured it out?"
"Naturally. I'm a little surprised to hear that you know, however."
"I'm not an imbecile," Sherlock spits.
"Of course not. But you will admit that when it comes to emotional matters, you are... less than astute."
Sherlock nods impatiently, even though he knows Mycroft cannot see. "I've never pretended otherwise. But so what? I only want to know what I did wrong, not understand why it was wrong. If I know, then perhaps I can fix it. I will fix it."
"Ah. I believe you're--"
"You must have the data already, Big Brother," Sherlock says, not wanting to hear Mycroft's excuses. "You need only search for it in your extensive surveillance archives. It would have been nine days ago, perhaps ten. Text me when you find evidence of whatever I did." He hangs up without waiting for a reply.
A few seconds later, his phone rings. He stabs at the answer button. "Don't play games with me, Mycroft. I haven't the time or patience."
"All I wanted to say was: you're barking up the wrong tree."
"I believe quoting clichés falls under the 'playing games' category."
"It's rather a relief, actually. For a moment I thought you'd grown a soul."
"You know what I did. Tell me!"
"You didn't do anything, Sherlock. I believe that's precisely the problem."
Sherlock has never met Harriet Watson before, nor spent much time thinking about her. She is inconsequential to him.
Or rather she used to be inconsequential. But Mycroft's cryptic statement has led Sherlock to the conclusion that he is missing some fundamental fact about John. There is something Sherlock should have done, something John was expecting. Sherlock cannot imagine what it is. Therefore, Sherlock needs more data. When gathering information about a suspect, Sherlock inevitably begins by interviewing the family. So here Sherlock is.
When Harry answers the door, Sherlock is taken aback. There is something of John in her eyes and around her mouth, but otherwise she looks nothing like him. Her hair is short, a brassy red with grey roots. She is older than John by five or six years. He should have known John was the youngest. He doesn't act at all like a firstborn. Why didn't he see that before? What else has he missed?
"Can I help you?" Harry asks. Her voice is gravelly. A lifelong smoker. Unsurprising. Addictive personality.
"I'm here about your brother."
Her cheeks go pale. "Oh my God. Is... is he--?"
Sherlock sees where her mind has gone. "Dead? No, of course not." The very idea is inconceivable. "He's very much alive and unharmed."
"Thank God." Her shoulders sag.
"I'd like to ask you a few questions about John."
She shakes her head. "I'm not sure what help I'll be. I haven't seen him in almost a year. We've never really got on, you see."
"So I've heard," Sherlock says. Harry's eyebrows draw downward, puzzled. "Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective," he adds, extending his hand. She takes it.
"Would you like to come in, Detective Holmes?"
Sherlock would indeed.
"I don't understand what you're asking," Harry says, her cup of coffee held tightly in both hands. "Is John in trouble?"
Sherlock wants to strangle the woman. It's as if she's being deliberately obtuse to prevent Sherlock from helping John. "It's really very simple. Tell me about John's childhood."
"All of it?"
"No, of course not. Only the important parts."
"How do I know which those are?" she asks after a pause.
Sherlock doesn't even try to hide his irritation. "Obviously I'm not asking for his favourite breakfast cereal or the colour of the shirt he wore on his first day of primary school," he snaps. "Was there ever a time when he was deeply unhappy?"
"Well, when our parents died. Is that--?"
"Yes, good. When did that happen?"
"When he was nine," Harry says, and then shakes her head. "I'm sorry, but I don't understand why the police need to know this now. They were in a car accident, there was no... is there some new investigation happening?"
"Oh, I'm not with the police," Sherlock says, looking around the room for photos of John as a child. He finds none.
"You said you were a detective." Her voice is hard. Sherlock focuses back on her, taking in her sudden change in posture, the hardening of the muscles around her mouth. He sits very still, mind whirling. He may have made a slight miscalculation.
"I said I was a Consulting Detective."
"Why are you here, Mr Holmes?"
Harry is angry and on the verge of asking him to leave. Sherlock spins though his options. There has to be some story he can tell her that will make her give him the information he needs. What does she want? If he knows that, he can craft his explanation to fit, saying just the right thing to make her trust him. She seems to care for John, even though they rarely speak. She cares for John more than he cares for her, in fact. She was worried when she thought John was hurt. She's trying to protect him now, from a man she has reason to distrust.
Ah. The truth, then. That is his best option.
"I'm John's flatmate. His... friend," Sherlock says. Harry's glare softens a bit, so Sherlock continues. "John has been unhappy lately, for reasons that are obscure to me. I need to understand why, so I can... fix it."
Harry blinks, and then sits back. "And you thought hearing about his childhood trauma would help... how, exactly?"
It sounds so like something John would say that Sherlock can't keep from smiling fondly at her. "That's the beauty of deduction. You never know which data point will be the one to break the case wide open."
She looks Sherlock over for a long minute. "I'm surprised he's unhappy now," she says finally. "Christmas was always his favourite time of year. I guess people change."
"Christmas!" Sherlock exclaims, getting to his feet.
"That's in three days."
"Yes..." Harry is beginning to look at Sherlock as if he is a simpleton. He doesn't care.
Sherlock takes his seat again. "Tell me about Christmas in your family. Tell me about John's boyhood Christmas."
"It was just a regular Christmas. You know, the tree and the lights, paper hats and stockings. Dinner was usually only the four of us. We generally had turkey, I think?" Harry looks a bit bewildered. "I don't see how this will help."
"Of course you don't," says Sherlock, waving his hand. "Doesn't matter. What else?" There must be more.
Harry's eyes dart up as she digs into her memories. "Well... the only time John and I ever really got on as kids was Christmas Eve. We knew there would be piles of presents for us in the morning, and stockings full of treats. It was the most exciting thing." Her face lights up -- Sherlock can almost see the young girl she once was. "I used to crawl into John's bed that night and we would cuddle together and whisper about what toys we hoped we'd get, how high the boxes would stack. It felt like... like anything was possible, like the morning would come and everything would be perfect."
Harry laughs wistfully. "No, of course not. It was never anywhere close to what we'd imagined."
"Thank you," Sherlock says. "You've been most helpful."
In the cab ride home, Sherlock replays the scene from two weeks ago in his mind. He and John had just come back from Scotland Yard, where they'd given Lestrade enough information to close a string of arsons targeting abandoned warehouses in Lambeth. John asked Sherlock, "So, what are our plans for Christmas?" And Sherlock remembers thinking, Our plans?, saying something dismissive, and changing the subject to something more interesting.
Stupid. He almost ruined everything.
John comes home late on Christmas Eve. Sherlock is putting up a string of lights over the mantle. "Hello!" he calls out.
"What are you doing?" John asks.
"Is that a staple gun?"
Sherlock looks at the implement in his hand. He holds the end of the strand to the mantle and fires a staple into place with a satisfying thunk. "Yes."
John looks all around the room, no doubt taking in the lights criss-crossing the ceiling and running down the walls. It is chaotic and glorious. "Right. Well, Mrs Hudson will be thrilled, I'm sure. Good night, I'm off to bed."
"But, I got a tree!"
John looks over at the lopsided fir, sitting unadorned by one of the windows. "I see that."
"Would you like to... help?"
A series of expressions flit across John's face. Sadness and longing and... what was that last one? Sherlock has no idea. "It's been a long day," John says. "I'm quite tired."
"I see," says Sherlock softly. John turns and leaves the room. Sherlock hears his footsteps echoing up the stairs, and the soft sound of his door closing. "It's all right," he tells the skull, which is wearing a small Santa hat. "The night is still young."
Sherlock waits an hour, and then changes into his pyjamas. He climbs up the stairs carefully and opens the door to John's bedroom. The curtains are thrown back, and the moonlight is streaming in through the window, casting the room in silver light.
He is tiptoeing toward John's bed when John says, "Sherlock, what do you want?"
Ah, good, he is still awake.
Sherlock strides the rest of the way over to John's bed. "It's Christmas Eve, John," he says, and climbs in under the blankets. John is lying on his back, his head turned to the side, staring at Sherlock. What else did Harry say they used to do? Ah, yes. Cuddling.
"What are you--?"
Sherlock turns and puts an arm over John, his hand resting on the pillow on the other side of John's head. He slides his feet forward until his legs touch John's. "What do you want for Christmas, John?"
"God, Sherlock," John says, his voice oddly hoarse. He turns onto his side and slides his hand into Sherlock's hair. "I can't do this anymore," he whispers. "I'm through fighting it."
Sherlock is about to ask John what he means when John surges forward and kisses him.
Oh yes, Sherlock thinks, feeling the shock of warmth against his mouth. This is good. This is John, and he is mine, and-- wait. Surely this isn't what Harry and John used to do as children. He dismisses the thought immediately. No, definitely not. He kisses John back, opening his mouth enough so that John can sweep his tongue in. This is something else entirely.
John presses his body against Sherlock's; Sherlock can feel John's erection beneath his clothing. John's words from a moment ago filter through Sherlock's mind, and the pieces of the puzzle click together. Sherlock pushes away. "This is why you've been unhappy!"
John sighs. "Do we really have to discuss this now?"
"You've begun experiencing strong sexual attraction to me. And so--" Sherlock frowns. "Why would that make you unhappy?"
John raises his eyebrows.
"Because you didn't think the feeling was mutual."
"Ridiculous. How could you not see how I felt about you?"
"How--? Half the things you say to me are insults!"
"Basic math, John. That means half aren't insults."
"So that's your way of flirting, then? Not insulting me quite as much as everyone else?"
"I don't flirt."
"That's another thing. You don't... I mean, you never... do you?"
"You'll have to finish the question if you want me to answer it."
John closes his eyes for a second. "Do you even have sex?"
"I see." John looks crestfallen.
"You know my work is my priority. If you're asking if I'm the sort of person who puts energy into finding a sexual partner, the answer is obviously no. I'm perfectly capable of gratifying my own desires myself, with the occasional one-night-stand when the opportunity arises. I never look for it, John, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested if it falls into my lap. Or rather, my flat. Anything else is a waste of resources that could be put to better use."
"I'm glad to be so convenient." There is a bit of venom in John's voice, which Sherlock ignores.
"You are rather, yes. You're a friend, colleague, flatmate, and now, I gather, sexual partner all rolled into one convenient package."
John grins, but he still seems uneasy. Sherlock thinks for a moment. Ah.
"There's something else. You said you'd been fighting it. Why? We're both grown men." John flinches, just a little. "Oh. We're both men. John. I didn't realize you were--"
"I'm not!" John says, rolling onto his back again. "Love is love, it doesn't matter. It doesn't..." his voice catches a little. "But apparently, it's harder to let that... to believe that when it comes to myself."
"I thought it would go away, but it didn't, it just kept on growing. And then the other week, well, you know what happened."
Sherlock goes very still and tries not to let his confusion show on his face.
"You have no idea what I'm talking about," John says. He laughs, then, his whole body quaking with it.
"I don't see why me failing to observe something should be cause for such mirth," Sherlock says flatly.
John shakes his head and rolls toward Sherlock again, smiling. The sight loosens something in Sherlock's chest. "No, it's not that. I've been such a wreck because I thought you-- we'd just come back from a walk, do you remember?"
Sherlock shakes his head.
"You were trying to work out that case you got over email, about the grapefruit. And you wanted to walk to think it over."
"Oh! Lying bastard of a horticulturalist."
"That's the one. When we came inside, we were both freezing--"
"It was windy, and cold. Yes, I remember."
"You took your hands and put them on my cheeks, and I-- wanted to kiss you. I was so happy, so... lost in the moment. I wasn't thinking about whether it was right or wrong or what it meant. It was just you and me and that's it."
A memory pops into Sherlock's head. "Then you said something about mistletoe."
John grimaces. "It was something like, 'What I wouldn't give for a sprig of mistletoe.' Then I put my hands on yours and looked you in the eye and leaned forward and... you pulled your hands back, and walked away, saying, 'you're cold, I'll make us some tea.'"
"Your hands were even colder than your face," Sherlock says. "A hot beverage seemed expedient. And besides, how should I have known you wanted to kiss me? I assumed you were making a reference to the Celtic practice of using mistletoe as an antidote to poison."
"Why would you assume that?"
"Because of the grapefruit."
"They were poisoned?"
"Of course not. But grapefruit juice contains a chemical that can interact with prescription medications, sometimes fatally, mimicking the signs of poisoning."
"Right. No, that wasn't why I mentioned mistletoe," John says faintly.
"I see that now. But I still don't see why a failed attempt at seduction made you so unhappy. You could have tried again later."
"Because I felt humiliated. I thought you had walked away as a nice way of rejecting me."
"I would never do that."
John smiles. "What, reject me?"
"No, choose the nice way of doing anything. Unless it happened to be the most direct way, but it rarely is."
"How's this for direct? That's enough talking," John says. He leans forward and kisses Sherlock again. Their tongues twine together, and Sherlock decides to stop thinking for a while.
The fabric of the duvet is soft against his bare skin. It's past midnight now. Sherlock feels pleasantly sleepy, his body completely relaxed. "It's Christmas," he says.
"Mmm," agrees John from his position against Sherlock's shoulder. One of his hands is slowly drawing patterns on Sherlock's abdomen. It feels marvellous.
"You weren't unhappy about Christmas at all. Harry was right."
"What does my sister have to do with anything?" John sits halfway up. "Did... did you talk to my sister?"
"I was gathering data."
"And what did you find out?"
"She said you were always happy at Christmas. She told me how she used to climb into bed with you on Christmas Eve and--"
"Oh God, is that what you were doing when you came up here? Trying to recreate my childhood?"
"Up until the point when you put your tongue in my mouth, yes."
John looks slightly horrified. "That was definitely not the tradition in my family."
"So I assumed."
John curls up against Sherlock's side again. "What did your family do for Christmas?"
"Oh, nothing terribly unusual," Sherlock says. "My parents used to pick a different theme each year for the tree. They'd put it up the night before Christmas. We weren't allowed to open any gifts until we'd figured it out."
"Of course. Simple concepts like the Fibonacci sequence, a DNA double helix -- I worked that one out before Mycroft when I was only five, he was furious -- the Krebs cycle, electromagnetism."
"That sounds... educational?"
"Oh, no, it was never anything we hadn't already learned, that would hardly have been fair. One shouldn't keep young boys from their new toys for very long, after all."
"How do you decorate a tree with an electromagnetism theme?"
"You'd be surprised what my mother could accomplish with tinsel and coloured lights," Sherlock answers.
When Sherlock wakes up, he is alone, and it is morning. The other side of the bed is cold -- John must have awoken hours ago.
Sherlock pulls on his pyjamas, shivering slightly. He never realized how draughty the upper floor was. He'll have to speak to Mrs Hudson about that.
Downstairs, John is kneeling next to the tree. He plugs a strand of lights into the socket, then sits back and grins. After a moment, he climbs to his feet.
"Good morning," Sherlock says. There is something odd about the tree. He would expect John to drape the lights around and around, distributing them evenly, working from the top down. But instead, there is a single cluster of them rising from beneath the tree, spreading out over the front in a bilaterally symmetrical pattern.
"John!" Sherlock says, recognizing it all at once. John grins even wider.
"Did you get it?"
"Cranial nerves!" Sherlock exclaims. He points to the strands one at a time. "Olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, auditory--"
"Vestibulocochlear," corrects John.
"Yes, but the mnemonics are better using the old name," Sherlock says before continuing with his recitation. "Glossopharyngeal, vagus, accessory, and hypoglossal."
John clears his throat. "On Occasion, Oliver Tries To Anally Fuck Various Guys. Vaginas Are History."
Sherlock chuckles. "I'm not familiar with that one."
"Yes, well, neither was I until this morning. Wikipedia is truly a treasure trove of knowledge." They stand and watch each other for a moment. "What now?" John asks.
Sherlock shrugs. "Breakfast? And after that, if we're lucky, Lestrade will call."
"So, you're basically hoping that some poor bastard was pushed to the end of his rope by hearing Jingle Bells one too many times last night, went home, and cut his entire family into pieces."
"I don't ask for much."
"No, you're very reasonable," John says. He walks into the kitchen, humming under his breath. Sherlock stays in the living room, watching John through the open doors.
John is happy again. All is well.