John Watson was an elf.
An entire adolescence of enduring comments about his stature, and he’d added insult to injury by literally becoming an elf. Why had he ever thought this was a good idea?
Well, John reminded himself, because his bank account balance was actually less than zero. He had negative money. He needed a job, and it was Christmastime, and it turned out no one blinked about overqualifications when the previous elf had been fired after screaming at a bunch of terrified children that they should stop crying. All the bloke who’d hired John had wanted to know was if he thought he could make it through the day of marshaling lines of cranky, whiney children toward Father Christmas’s lap without snapping at any of them and generally behaving like a jovial, good-natured Santa’s Elf.
“Yes,” John had said. “I can absolutely do that.” Easy as pie, he’d thought.
He was reconsidering this by the end of his second hour, with a mother who was arguing with him that the prices being charged for a single photograph were exorbitant while her four-year-old triplets shouted an off-key “Last Christmas” at him.
John agreed about the prices, secretly. He also thought he never wanted to hear “Last Christmas” ever again, especially not when shouted by four-year-olds, and the line was incredibly long and this woman was holding it up and it was ages until his break and meanwhile the toddler currently on Father Christmas’s lap was screaming bloody murder and Father Christmas—an oddly young man still suffering from spots that were being covered up by a scratchy nylon beard whose name was Brian—was calling out, “Uh, elf? A little help here?”
John glanced distractedly at Brian, where the toddler was squirming all about and the mother was saying, “Darling! He’ll bring you whatever you ask for! Do you want to ask for a pony?”
“A bit irresponsible,” said a voice from behind John, a deep, smooth, assured baritone. “Unless that mother is planning on purchasing a pony for that child for Christmas.”
Just what he needed, thought John. Someone preaching to the children in line that there was no such thing as Santa.
“Think you could keep your voice down?” John snapped, glancing over his shoulder at whoever had spoken, and then his eyes widened, because it was another elf. Well, at least, it was another person dressed as an elf, although this elf was several inches taller than John and was wearing the ridiculous green costume as if he planned to walk down a runway in it. He was also wearing an expression of extreme condescending distaste that did not seem in keeping with jovial Santa’s Elfdom. “Who the hell are you?”
The man’s eyes shifted from Brian’s struggles over to John. They were the oddest eyes John had ever seen. Blue and green and gray and no color at all when you came right down to it. “Sherlock Holmes,” he said.
“What kind of name is that for an elf?” demanded one of the four-year-old triplets, who had apparently decided to stop singing just in time.
“Your nametag says your name is Jangle,” said another of the triplets.
“That’s only because Jingle was taken,” said Sherlock Holmes, glaring at John as if he’d personally offended him.
John glanced down at his nametag. Jingle, it read. Oh, he thought.
“Elf-person!” shouted Brian. “A little help here, please?”
John looked back to him, where the toddler was now kicking solidly at his shins. Brian was trying to shove him away, but the toddler’s mother kept nudging him closer to Brian.
“Take care of this,” he told Sherlock Holmes, also known as Jangle the Elf, and hurried over to help Brian with his difficulties, and got a solid kick in his leg for the trouble. His bad leg. Bloody hell.
He limped back over to where Sherlock was manning the cash register, where the triplets and their overbearing mother were nowhere to be seen.
John looked around for them. “Where’d they go?”
“I told her to stop complaining about the price or I’d tell her husband about her string of lovers,” Sherlock answered, flatly. The mother who’d just handed over her money made a small shocked noise, and Sherlock smiled and said, “Happy Christmas,” as he returned her change.
“Do you think that was wise?” John asked.
Sherlock shrugged. “She did have a string of lovers.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
“Can I borrow your phone?”
“Mine doesn’t have service.”
“What do you need my phone for?”
Sherlock held out his hand confidently, waggling his fingers.
“You’re supposed to be working,” John complained, although he’d been told he had this shift by himself, so he still wasn’t entirely sure what Sherlock was doing there.
“Excuse me,” said the next mother in line, belligerently. “But d’you think you could finish this conversation later?”
“He’s not giving me his phone,” Sherlock told her. And then narrowed his eyes. “Hmm,” he said, and opened his mouth, drawing in a breath.
John hurriedly fished his phone out and shoved it into Sherlock’s hand before Sherlock could say anything about this woman’s personal life. “Get out of the way,” he hissed, and gave him a little shove over to the side, before stepping in and sending a smile to the woman and her small, dazzled boy. “Welcome to Santa’s Grotto!” he said, as cheerfully as he could, to make up for the thing with Sherlock.
Sherlock came back as John was finishing up the transaction, handing John back his phone.
John took it and didn’t ask any questions because he was already helping the next customer. Sherlock, seeming to be feeling no compulsion to be working, leaned up against the counter next to John and folded his arms and said, “Afghanistan or Iraq?”
John dropped the coins the father opposite him had just handed him, and used the time retrieving them to get his composure back. He waited until he’d finished the transaction with the father before saying to Sherlock, “How could you possibly know that?”
Sherlock looked bored. “Oh, please, ‘military’ is written all over the way you hold yourself. You’re tanned but not past your wrists, so you’ve been abroad but not on holiday. You walk with a limp but you’re not overly bothered by being on your feet all this time, so the limp’s at least partly psychosomatic. Wounded in traumatic, stressful conditions. Wounded in action. With a suntan. Which leaves us with Afghanistan or Iraq.”
“Merry Christmas,” said John to his next customer, finishing up the transaction, then turned on Sherlock, eyes narrowed. “All right, what is this, some sort of…background check…thing?”
“No,” said Sherlock, disconcerting eyes on John’s face. “A medical doctor working as an elf. Interesting.”
John decided he didn’t have time for this. “Do you think you could help?”
Sherlock looked genuinely confused. “Help with what?”
“Help with your job,” John clarified, sarcastically. “Stand here, collect money, and don’t say anything other than ‘Merry Christmas.’”
Sherlock looked startled now. “What?”
John turned to the next customer, smiling sunnily. “Good afternoon, sir. Jangle the Elf is going to assist you today. Aren’t you, Jangle?”
Sherlock stared at him, and then John stepped hard on his foot.
“Merry Christmas,” Sherlock bit out, wincing, and John, satisfied, went to untangle a fight happening between two little girls who had both asked for the same boy band member for Christmas.
“Break time,” Sherlock said, and John looked up from the first little boy in a long time who was not crying on Brian’s lap.
“You going to cover all of this?” John asked, unable to conceal his surprise, because he didn’t know if Sherlock was actually doing his job by the cash register—although at least there had been no commotion—and he didn’t quite trust him to handle all this chaos all at once.
“No, we’re being relieved.” Sherlock nodded to another elf who was now working the register. “That is Snowflake.” Sherlock’s voice was heavy with drollness.
John found his lips twitching into a smile. “Jangle?” he said. “Really? Did you choose that?”
“Of course I didn’t choose it, don’t be idiotic,” Sherlock complained. “Come on.” He turned on his heel, heading out of Santa’s Grotto.
John followed him for some reason. “I’m—”
“John Watson, I know,” Sherlock cut him off.
“Who are you?” John asked in confusion.
“Jangle the Elf,” replied Sherlock. “Apparently.”
“No, seriously.” Sherlock walked outside into a blast of cold air, and John followed because he was being an idiot. “They told me I was alone for my shift.”
“What are you doing working as an elf?” Sherlock asked, lighting a cigarette.
“Oh, God,” said John, and glanced around them. “Don’t smoke. Elves aren’t supposed to smoke.”
“You know we’re not really elves, right?”
John took the cigarette out of Sherlock’s mouth and stomped it out beneath his curled-toe boots. Sherlock looked so surprised that he was speechless.
“Smoking is terrible for you,” John told him.
“Stick a doctor in his elf suit, he’s still a doctor.”
“Stop it with the doctor thing.”
“Why? Aren’t you one?”
“I’m an elf in a department store.”
“And what do you do the other eleven months of the year?” asked Sherlock.
John stopped himself from saying Nothing, because I lost my career as a surgeon to a stupid gunshot wound when I was off in Afghanistan getting myself shot because I’m an idiot. John said, “Make toys at the North Pole.”
Sherlock laughed. He had a pleasant laugh. It rippled under the collar of the green elf-coat John was wearing, dripped warmth along his skin, causing goosebumps to form. For the first time, doubtless because all the screaming children had been occupying most of his brain, John realized Sherlock Holmes was ridiculously good-looking, with those otherworldly eyes and razor-sharp cheekbones and exaggerated pout of a mouth, with licks of dark curls peeping out from underneath his elf hat.
John told himself he shivered because it was cold.
And then he was abruptly irritated. He had wanted an uncomplicated job with uncomplicated money, and now he had this tall, difficult, posh model of a co-worker to deal with.
“What do you do the other eleven months of the year?” he asked, trying to keep the edge off of his voice and taking a surreptitious step away from the circle of Sherlock’s attractiveness.
“Smoke,” drawled Sherlock, and John laughed in spite of himself.
And that was when Brian came barreling out of the department store behind them, shedding Father Christmas items as he darted across the street, causing traffic to snarl into blaring horns and squealing brakes.
Sherlock took off after him, his elf-hat tumbling to the ground, and John blinked for a moment, watching him dart out into the same traffic, and then said, “What the hell…” before deciding there was nothing for it but to follow.
Brian had disappeared into a waiting car that went squealing off, and Sherlock shouted at John, “Get that cab!” and pointed wildly, before crouching down and peering at the pavement.
John, bewildered, flagged down the cab and held it as Sherlock came dashing over, barreled in, gasped to the driver, “Canary Wharf,” and then snapped at John, “Coming?”
“What?” said John, even as he got into the cab.
“Quickly,” snapped Sherlock to the driver. “I’m not paying for you to sit here trying to determine how to shift the car into first.”
John stared, as the cab jerked into movement, because he didn’t know what else to do. Sherlock had a mobile in his hand and was typing on it energetically.
“You have questions,” he announced, without looking up.
Obviously, thought John. “Yeah. What the hell is going on?”
“A robbery,” replied Sherlock, still typing. “Because people are imbeciles.”
“Did Brian steal something?”
“Then why are we chasing him?”
“We’re not chasing him. We’re going to Canary Wharf.”
“To deal with imbeciles.” Sherlock, with an expression of distaste, tucked his mobile away into his pocket.
John considered if he had any further questions. He did, of course, but it didn’t seem as if Sherlock was the best at answering questions. He just said, “You’re not really an elf, are you?”
Sherlock looked at him, startled, and then laughed.
Once they got to Canary Wharf, they went into a bank and then swiftly into more impressive offices, and Sherlock kept calling him “Dr. Watson” and insisting that he was a colleague, and finally Sherlock shouted at a man in an expensive business suit for interfering with Sherlock’s investigation and tipping Brian off and jeopardizing the entire operation, and when the man threatened to call the police, Sherlock encouraged him to.
John hung back and bit his tongue and tried to determine how he’d got himself into this situation, standing in an elf suit in an expansive office, next to another man in an elf suit who had just had the police called on him.
When the police arrived, though, they seemed to listen to Sherlock, who spoke to them urgently—although no less condescendingly—about codes and passwords and safes, and then the police dashed off into action, with the man in the expensive business suit chasing after them in alarm.
Sherlock stood in the middle of the now empty office and watched them passively.
John stood next to him. “You probably should have told them about the robbery in progress first, before yelling at them.”
“Then they wouldn’t have listened to me yelling at them, and I needed them to listen.”
“Of course you did,” said John. “Not quite understanding what you needed me for.”
“It’s always useful to have a doctor at one’s side. Lends credibility to the entire affair. Even when that doctor is dressed as an elf.”
John gritted his teeth and said, “I’m not a doctor anymore.”
“Also,” said Sherlock, turning to him, “you left your cane at Santa’s Grotto.” Sherlock winked at him, and then turned and left the office, managing to look dignified even in his elf suit.
John stood still for a long time, concentrating on not having a limp, on not falling over, and when he finally took his first few steps out of the office, Sherlock had long since vanished.
John returned to the department store to find his boss absolutely furious over the desertion of his Santa and his elf, and when John mentioned that two elves had in fact deserted their posts, he had looked blank.
“You know,” John said. “The tall, posh, detective bloke with the dark hair and the eyes and cheekbones.”
His boss looked at him like he’d lost his mind and said, handing across his cane, “Don’t bother coming back here. Leave the costume in your locker.”
Excellent, thought John. Predictable.
He limped back to his dismal flat and laid down on the hard, flat bed. The limp had come back as soon as he’d been handed back the cane. Or maybe it had been attached to his termination. John lay on the bed for a long time feeling sorry for himself, and then had an idea and managed to gather up enough energy to reach for his laptop. He ignored the empty blog post screen taunting him and instead Googled Sherlock Holmes. He spent the rest of the night reading a far-fetched website called “The Science of Deduction” and growing more and more skeptical. He fell asleep as dawn was breaking and when he woke in the early afternoon he thought it was possible the entire previous day had been a dream.
Except for his renewed unemployment. He had managed to fail dismally at being an elf. He hadn’t even lasted one day.
“Bah humbug,” John said to the ceiling over his head, and tried to think of what other jobs he might be suited for.
And then there was a knock on the door. A knock. On his door. John stared at it and wondered if he was hallucinating, or still asleep. No one ever came to see him. He didn’t really know anyone who would come to see him.
Curious, John rolled himself out of bed and padded over to the door and pulled it open.
On Sherlock Holmes. He looked different without his elf costume. He looked better. He was all artfully tumbled curls and luxuriously tailored clothing, a dramatic coat with a collar begging to be tugged on, a scarf settled in the long alluring curve of his neck. John was suddenly abruptly aware of the fact that he’d apparently thought it a good idea to answer his door in boxer shorts.
Which Sherlock took in immediately, and John, embarrassed, resisted the urge to grab at the nearest object and put it in front of his crotch like an idiot.
“You weren’t at work,” said Sherlock, and brushed past him into John’s flat without waiting to be invited.
John turned, shocked and horrified, because Sherlock’s gaze was now sweeping over the flat and that was worse than it sweeping over John. The flat was the sorriest little place. Neat as a pin, because old army habits died hard, but depressing as hell, and John was appalled that Sherlock was even in it, never mind so obviously inspecting it. Sherlock looked a little like a peacock who’d landed in a pigeon roost.
“Um,” said John. “I was fired. No thanks to you.” John hurried past Sherlock and twitched the covers into place on his rumpled bed. And wondered why he didn’t tell Sherlock to leave.
“Fired?” echoed Sherlock, sounding confused. “For what?”
“For running off after you and Brian and leaving Santa’s Grotto completely unattended,” snapped John, losing his temper a little bit at Sherlock’s apparent cluelessness over how employment worked.
Sherlock regarded him for a long moment, pale eyes curious. And then he ventured, cautiously, “You know that there’s no Santa Claus, right, John?”
John rolled his eyes and said, “Oh, my God, what are you doing here?”
“I was just checking,” said Sherlock, affronted. “It’s just that everyone seems obsessed with making sure Brian the would-be grand larcenist was hearing terrified children ask for things their parents prompted them to ask for. Everyone goes utterly mad at Christmastime, it’s horrible.”
“Mm-hmm,” said John, noncommittally, because he wasn’t interested. “How did you even get hired to be an elf with an attitude like that? Oh, wait, you weren’t hired, because now my ex-boss thinks I have mental issues because I was babbling about a tall elf named Jangle. And you are much too tall to be an elf, you know.”
Sherlock’s eyebrows raced upwards, toward the curls falling poetically over his alabaster forehead like he was a bloody Romantic poet. “That’s your issue with my being an elf? That I’m too tall?”
“Yes,” said John, stubbornly.
“I was undercover,” said Sherlock.
“That was the most obvious bit of undercover work I’ve ever seen anyone perform.”
“Do you see a lot of people perform undercover work?” asked Sherlock, curiously.
“On the telly,” John answered, defensively.
Sherlock waved his hand about dismissively. “It would all have gone perfectly if that moron at the bank hadn’t sent his own private security in to monitor Brian, causing the whole operation to move up its timeline and causing Brian to spook and causing massive chaos when I had everything under control. It had to do with the children’s Christmas wish list, you know. People choose the most sentimental and obvious passwords. Idiots.”
John didn’t quite follow that speech, but he didn’t think he even wanted to take the effort to follow it. Sherlock was standing in the middle of his flat, hands deep in his coat, and John was barely dressed, and they were talking about undercover work, and John had no job and a lot of bills and needed to be out searching for employment, not standing here having this odd conversation. “Is there a reason you’re here?” And then something occurred to John. “Wait a second. How did you know I live here?”
Sherlock had the grace to shift his weight a bit, as if he knew he shouldn’t have known where John lived. He looked very slightly chagrined.
“I suppose anyone who claims to be able to identify a software designer by his tie is going to be able to find out where I live,” remarked John, resigned.
Sherlock perked up. “You looked me up on the Internet.”
“I did. Found your website.”
“What’d you think?”
Sherlock was practically beaming. John gave him a dubious look that caused his face to fall, and then John felt terrible about it, but really, the whole thing was outrageous and unbelievable.
“I knew right away that you had to have served in Afghanistan or Iraq,” Sherlock pointed out, sulkily.
“Yes, that was clever of you.”
“Do you think so?” Sherlock looked almost hopeful at that.
“Of course. Unless you just…researched me. How did you know the rest of it? That I was a doctor? That I live here?”
“Not just a doctor,” said Sherlock, “a surgeon. You’re smooth with your hands, practiced, steady, self-assured, but every once in a while there’s an intermittent tremor. You were used to working with your hands, and now you can’t anymore. Surgeon, injured, working as an elf in a department store. Fighting with his brother.”
“What?” said John.
Sherlock was almost fidgeting in his eagerness to get it out. “Your phone. It’s an expensive model. Look at what you wear, look at where you live. You’re not about flash. And you’re working as a department store elf, you’re clearly desperate for money. And, anyway, the phone doesn’t have your name on it, engraved with Harry Watson. Not your father, the phone is a young man’s gadget. Unlikely it’s a cousin. If you had a close extended family, you’d go to them for help. So, brother, then. The phone was a gift, it says so on the engraving, from a significant other, indicated by the xxx. Expensive model, so probably a wife, not a girlfriend. The model’s only six months old, and it wasn’t taken care of by your brother—you’d be careful with a luxury item like that—so the marriage is in trouble. You’re working as a department store elf instead of going to your brother for help, so you must disapprove. Maybe you liked his wife. Maybe you don’t like his drinking.”
John blinked. “His drinking.”
“He’s an alcoholic, your brother, isn’t he?” asked Sherlock, steadily.
“How can you possibly know that?” countered John, in amazement.
“Scratch marks around the charging port on the phone. Every night, he had difficulty plugging it in. You never see a sober man’s phone with those marks, never see a drunk’s phone without them. How’d I do?”
“That was brilliant,” John exclaimed, because he couldn’t help it.
Sherlock preened, looking even more like an exotic bird landed in John’s flat. “Do you think so?”
“Of course. You know it was. It was fantastic.”
“That’s not what people normally say,” said Sherlock.
“What do people normally say?”
John laughed, and after a moment Sherlock flickered a smile at him, looking uncertain whether the laughter was a good thing.
“So how did I do?” Sherlock asked.
“About all of it?” Sherlock looked extra-pleased with himself.
“Except Harry’s short for Harriet.”
Sherlock frowned thunderously now, like Harry had purposely made her name difficult just to trip him up. “Sister!” he exclaimed. “It’s always something!”
John smiled, because he was kind of adorable in the level of indignation he had achieved. He thought he should be a better host, he should offer something to drink, or to take his coat, or to—Wait. What was Sherlock even doing there? “Why are you here?” John remembered to ask.
Sherlock looked immediately awkward. He settled down more heavily into the turned-up collar of his dramatic coat. He looked around the flat. He looked back at John. John waited, curious and patient, but he did not at all anticipate what Sherlock said next. Which was: “What are you doing for Christmas?”
John didn’t know what to make of this question. “Sorry?”
“You’re feuding with your sister currently, it seemed unlikely to me that you were spending Christmas Day with her.”
Sherlock was right about that. John had put his foot down that he wasn’t going to continue to enable Harry, that he wasn’t going to see her again unless it was to take her to rehab. Which meant he had been facing a Christmas Day on his own. John hadn’t really thought far enough in advance about what that Christmas Day might entail. Probably nothing. Probably sitting around watching the Queen’s Speech by himself. John glanced around his flat, noting the utter lack of Christmas decorations anywhere in it, and conceded that it must be obvious to Sherlock, who seemed to see everything, that John wasn’t too preoccupied with Christmas.
“I have a proposition for you,” continued Sherlock, when John didn’t say anything.
John looked back at him, having a sudden vision of Sherlock whipping out a pile of cash in exchange for some sort of sexual favor, because John couldn’t see what else Sherlock might want from him by way of a proposition, and John was definitely not going to shag Sherlock Holmes. Well. Not for money. He had standards. He hadn’t hit bottom yet. If Sherlock wanted a shag, John thought he could probably be persuaded to give it to him for free.
John also thought he should probably not say that out loud, because he was acting like a lunatic here.
“I would like you to come with me to my mother’s for Christmas,” said Sherlock.
John had had a response prepared to I would like you to take off your pants. John did not have a response prepared for this. So he said a strangled, “What?”
Sherlock, the initial question out of the way, seemed to gain confidence. He spoke with a casual authoritative ease. “The estate is in Northumberland. We’d have to go up on the 23rd, and then stay through to the 6th. Mother’s obsessed with this idea that there ought to be twelve days of Christmas.”
“You want me to go to your mother’s house for Christmas for two weeks?”
“Why?” John was flabbergasted.
“Because you need the money.”
“You’re going to pay me for this? Why?”
Sherlock was back to looking awkward, which John took as a sign that he’d asked the right question. “Because I…Because I may have said, last Christmas, that I’d…bring someone home with me this Christmas. And if I don’t, then Mother was going to…set me up with…someone.” Sherlock spoke with an expression full of disgust.
John stared at him. “Okay,” he said, surprised by how even and calm his voice was. “Let me get this straight. You want me to go to Christmas at your mother’s house, for two weeks, and pretend to be your boyfriend.”
Sherlock looked pleased at John’s cleverness. “Yes. Exactly. You are bisexual, aren’t you?”
“I’m not even going to ask how you knew that. And your mother knows that you’re gay?”
“Oh, yes. There won’t be any drama. And don’t worry, there won’t be any sex.”
“Ah, so you’re not going to treat me exactly like a common prostitute,” drawled John. “Good to know.”
“It’s a pleasant estate. Mother really wouldn’t bother us very much, aside from dinnertime. You could sightsee or just sit by the fire and read a book. It would be nothing at all.” Sherlock paused and played his trump card. “And I’d pay you,” he reminded John.
John heard himself say, “How much?” and thought to himself, No, no, no, you’ve gone mad, you’re not going to pretend to be this person’s boyfriend for two weeks, you just met this person, he could be luring you out to the countryside to kill you and eat you, don’t do this.
Sherlock said, as if he knew exactly the impact it would have, his gray-green-blue eyes even and steady on John’s, “Name your price.”