During the course of the Countess DuPree’s Christmas ball, Sherlock Holmes was forced to be as alert and on his toes as if the great mansion were filled with pick-pockets, confidence men, and assassins. The Countess’ guest list did not—for the most part—include these, but Holmes was, in the vernacular of the Countess’ society, ‘a catch’. He was unmarried, clever, distinguished-looking, and had very recently been awarded a medal and the public thanks of a monarch. This made him very nearly irresistible to certain persons.
As a consequence of his recently-enhanced desirability as a target for unattached widows, single ladies, and their keen-eyed mothers, Holmes had to exert a great deal of skill to avoid being lured out onto any balconies, into any curtained alcoves, to allow more than one turn per partner on the dance floor, or tricked into straying under any of the myriad strategically-placed bunches of mistletoe throughout the many rooms of the Countess’ immense home. He was never available to fetch punch or lemon-squash; escorted every ‘turned ankle’ to the nearest parent or guardian, or—on one particular occasion, when a certain young lady’s chaperone could not be found—to the nearest physician.
Whilst Dr. John Watson had a distinctly amused twinkle in his eyes as he gently attended to the slender, absolutely-undamaged, ankle of the frustrated heiress, he was nothing but proper and polite. As a widower, Dr. Watson was eligible, but had the perfect ‘excuse’ to avoid entanglements and offers. Holmes glared at Watson from behind his temporary patient, knowing very well that the man had found Holmes’ periodic complaints regarding the social hazards and distractions throughout the evening a source of amusement. However, Holmes also knew it was a fond amusement, and that Watson was ready on the instant to assist him, if truly needed.
In spite of the aforementioned tribulations, Holmes still managed to do his duty, and then some, to his hostess, as well as achieving the thing that was his genuine reason for accepting the invitation to the ball; he observed the Countess DuPree’s cicisbeo—touted publicly as her ‘distant cousin’—light-fingering several brooches, at least three watches, and two bejeweled combs from his secret lover’s guests.
When the midnight toast and lighting of the many candles on the enormous Christmas tree there brought all the guests together in the ballroom, Holmes discreetly alerted the plainclothes officers of the law acting as extra serving staff to their proper evidence-laden quarry. He left it to good old Inspector Lestrade to make the arrests and take things from there, having done all he had set out to do.
His work done, his patience worn as thin as vellum, Holmes had a discreet word with a footman and procured his and Watson’s outerwear and walking sticks, then circled ‘round the back of the ballroom to slip up behind Watson. Putting a hand to his shoulder, the detective murmured near the doctor’s ear, “Time to be gone, my dear Watson. I’ve already collected our things”
“I suspected it wouldn’t be long,” Watson replied quietly, leaving his half-empty glass of punch on a side table as he followed Holmes past the periphery of the throng of guests singing Christmas carols in a ragged but cheerful chorus around the huge tree.
Passing through one of the galleries, they heard the distinctive, accented voice of the Countess DuPree and Lestrade’s familiar voice from somewhere up ahead of them. Glancing about, Watson was the first one to come up with a solution; he caught Holmes’ arm and drew him into one of the curtained alcoves which Holmes had been avoiding all evening. Not at all slow-witted, Holmes said not a word in question and when they were inside, quickly released the curtains to fall together and shield them from anyone passing by. As much by habit as by design, he and Watson stood close, arm in arm to know at once if the other moved and in which direction; they even held their breath as one when the Countess and the Inspector passed by only a few feet away. The overheard conversation told Holmes all he needed to know; the Countess would reluctantly press charges, Lestrade would do his best to keep it out of the papers, and Holmes knew he would have a handsome payment from the one and a hearty thanks from the other.
He was smiling a little at his deduction when Watson made a soft noise and then chuckled almost as quietly. “Holmes,” he murmured, though they were likely safe enough to speak normally if they wished. Holmes turned to his friend in the dim light of the small gas wall sconce that held more of a small blue glow than a flame, and Watson merely pointed upward with one white-gloved hand. A sprig of mistletoe had been hung over the alcove by a festive red ribbon. At Holmes’ disgustedly amused snort, Watson’s teeth showed in a very amused smile beneath his moustache.
Holmes let his voice sound drawlingly sardonic. “I’ve spent the entire evening avoiding those blasted things and here you lead me right to one. For shame, Watson.”
“Ah, no, for the spirit of the season, Holmes,” Watson corrected in a gently-amused tone that turned warmer a moment later. “And I couldn’t dream of being ashamed of you, my dear man.”
“Hush,” Holmes murmured, pale cheeks taking on just a hint of colour at the sincerity and affection in Watson’s voice. Having been listening keenly for anyone else in the vicinity, Holmes knew they were alone for a few minutes, so he dared to pull Watson into his arms. His dearest friend and secret lover gasped in surprise, even so, and Holmes tutted at him. “And here I thought you were such a traditionalist.”
Watson scoffed gently, they both knew very well that Sherlock was generally scathingly impatient with most of the more frivolous traditions, but even as Watson parted his lips to make a witty reply, Sherlock bent his head and pressed his lips to Watson’s. It was gratifying to Holmes that Watson was more than happy to forgo his quip to indulge his lover’s unexpected compliance with the tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe. Gratifying enough, in fact, that Holmes’ indulgence lasted several long minutes; minutes spent in the warm press of lips and the warmer dance of tongues, while their breath mingled in slightly uneven counterpoint.
Even the usually quite controlled consulting detective was rather breathless when they eventually parted, and his voice low and husky with arousal. “I believe this particular holiday treat would be best removed to our rooms, don’t you think, John?”
“Proof that you are, indeed, a genius, my dear Sherlock,” Watson replied after a moment, his voice also altered by his roused emotions. “Lead on, by all means.”
Donning their hats and coats before leaving the alcove, Sherlock opened the curtains and took a moment to visually confirm what his ears had told him—the gallery was empty—before tilting his head in a beckoning gesture and leading the way to the nearest exit. Behind him, Watson took a moment to reach up and cadge the mistletoe sprig, with ribbon, from the ornamental arch of the alcove.
When Watson caught up to Holmes and received a querying lift of one dark eyebrow, his grin was unrepentant as he tucked the ornamental greenery into his coat pocket. “They’ll hardly miss it and I’ve a good notion for where to hang it when we get home.”
Having an equally good guess as to which location Watson meant to decorate with the mistletoe, Holmes rolled his eyes and snorted before continuing on and out, pretending to ignore Watson’s fond chuckling behind him.