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Oh, my friends, it's been a long hard year

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By now she should have been well used to it, but it still rankled every bloody time.

Violet stood, stiff and unmoving, the very picture of icy dignity, as the guards dissected the little mince pies with the attention of a surgeon excising a spinal tumour. One of them had already examined the books she and Siger had brought, the little gifts of clothes and lotions and pretty soaps, and then it was on to the food. Torn apart, X-rayed, scanned for explosive substances. And after they’d left, the gifts would be taken away and doled out sparingly. The injustice of it seared her soul, but there was nothing to be done about it.

There. Finally they were done. The head of the trio pushed the gifts across the table [she’d known better than to wrap them; the louts only ripped the paper away] and gave her a curt nod. “Right, that’s sorted; you can go on back.”

“Oh, thank you so very much,” Violet replied, oozing acid sweetness. She ignored Sig’s gentle prod of reproach, gathered up the gifts, and marched through the gloomy grey corridor toward Eurus’ room at speed.

“They’re only doing their job,” Sig murmured.

Violet sniffed. “You would think Mycroft would do something about this absurd scrutiny. Ridiculous. I’m going to have a word with him about it. And about making her room a bit nicer. All that grey and hard angles can’t be good for the psyche.”

“They have to keep a close watch. More fuss in the cell would make things difficult and distracting.”

Room,” she said firmly. “It’s a room, Sig. And I can’t see why a bit of cheer and colour would distract them. Aren’t they meant to be the best of the best?”

Beside her, struggling to match her pace, Sig sighed and said nothing more.

“Here we are,” Violet crooned. “Hello, darling girl. We’ve brought you some pressies.” She bustled to the sliding door. “I’ll have to send them through a few at a time – it’s all a bit bulky. How are you?”

Eurus sat on the bed in her sterile white pyjamas, motionless and gazing emptily into space, her hands lying limply in her lap.

“My goodness, it’s been such a busy week. Your dad and I went shopping yesterday and it was impossible to get through the streets, they were so choked with people. We had to hire one of those new car services just to travel a few squares.” Violet pushed more gifts through the sliding glass slot. “We’ve brought you some warmer pyjamas – do you see? They’re satin, with a lovely flannel lining. So much better what with the temperature so frigid in here.” Even if it wasn’t truly cold, it felt cold because of the oppressive grey stone and cement, and the long swaths of glass. No privacy at all – not even in the tiny water closet. It was utterly appalling, particularly for a young woman. Violet was certain the guards watched and leered, no matter what Mycroft had said about their discretion.

Siger moved close to the glass. “Hello, love. Happy Christmas.”

“Step away from the glass, please,” an electronic voice barked. Sig held his hands up in a conciliatory gesture and took two steps back. Behind the glass, Eurus failed to react at all.

Violet tightened her mouth and continued as if the guard hadn’t spoken. “We’ve reloaded your tablet. All sorts of marvellous books – physics, mathematics, literature, architecture just for starters. I think you’ll be sure to find something you like. I included some magazines, and there’s a book of Satie, sheet music I mean. Sherlock thought you might enjoy that one.”

Eurus blinked; Violet took it as an encouraging sign. “He said he visited last week and that you played a bit from Gymnopédie. He’s so very busy at the moment, but he said he’d be sure to see you next week.” Sherlock was terribly considerate about visiting and keeping Eurus company, in sharp contrast to Mycroft, who by all accounts rarely visited and when he did, it wasn’t a social call – it was chiefly to ensure her continued security.

SIger sat on one of the hard, uncomfortable chairs provided for visitors. A slight, shuddering exhale escaped him.

“It’s cold out – the weather reader says we might get some snow for Christmas,” Violet chirped on determinedly. “I think you’ll be glad for the pyjamas, at least. There’s some lotion as well – it seems awfully dry in here, don’t you think? There, that’s all of it.” Suddenly bereft of activity, Violet longed to lie down and sleep for hours. She flashed her daughter a high-wattage smile and then moved to the chair beside Sig’s and sank into it. “How are you, dear?”

Eurus’ fixed gaze never wavered. She blinked again, a slow, unthinking reflex. Her skin was nearly as white as the cotton pyjamas, and her luxurious chestnut hair tumbled over her shoulders. She really was such a lovely girl. Some proper clothes and a bit of makeup – what a stunner she’d be.

It was so difficult to contain her bitterness at the lost years between them. Mycroft had claimed it was for the best; Violet and Sig hadn’t even had an opportunity to discover whether or not it was true. Violet, in her deepest heart, knew it wasn’t. She’d grieved; no matter what Eurus had done, she was still Violet’s little girl, her youngest and most brilliant child. There must have been something Violet could have done to circumvent the problems that made Eurus struggle so. That chance had been stolen from her, though, and it was unlikely that she’d be able to make a difference now.

Unlikely, but perhaps not impossible. “Darling…I wish you’d say something to me. Anything at all. You know we’re here to listen to you. I’ll bring you anything you’d like; you only have to say the word. Or write it down. I….” She sighed, and Sig took her hand and squeezed it softly. “We only came to wish you a happy Christmas, darling. That’s all.”

Another slow blink, faint respiration, and those beautiful blue and totally blank eyes.

Violet shivered.

She was glad she’d brought the pyjamas.

 

*

 

The Bart’s crowd had come and gone, and Molly didn’t know why she was still sat at a table in the corner, nursing her second beer. She was out of place in her fluffy jumper and khaki trousers – the evening crowd had arrived, the women in clingy dresses, high heels, and long, glittery threads of earrings, the men in dark jeans and smart jackets. She’d never had the knack of dressing sexily and making it look effortless; she always looked wrong somehow. And it wasn’t as if she hadn’t read her share of magazines and watched fashion shows on telly, but she didn’t know how other women did it.

She couldn’t navigate a pub with ease either. Lucy, from Telemetry, had gone home with a guy she’d met at the bar, just like that. Not that Molly wanted some casual sort of fling; she wasn’t made that way. A few men had spoken to her, not bad-looking, but none of them had piqued her interest in the slightest.

Can’t think why, a snotty, sarcastic voice in her head whispered.

No, that wasn’t right. It was over, that part of her life was done and dusted, that futile obsession. It had ended with the explanation of that wretched phone call.

I’m sorry, Molly. I hadn’t any other choice. It was a twisted game, and I couldn’t take the chance that she was telling the truth.

As if that helped. Well, it did, a little, but that was the day that the few illusions she had left had been ground to powder and blown away. But the problem with obsession was that when it was wrung dry and nothing new filled the gap, there was still a gap. She’d filled it with work for a little while, and that was all right – even when Sherlock stopped by for help, or even, oddly, just to chat, it was all right – but it wasn’t quite enough. She’d spent – no, wasted – far too much time on something pointless and ephemeral. She wasn’t angry with Sherlock; he’d never intimated there was anything between them but friendship. No, she was angry with herself. Angry for wasting her time, angry that her emotions had got the better of her, and angry that she couldn’t even let herself meet someone new. It was ridiculous and maybe she wasn’t being quite gentle or compassionate with herself, but there it was; couldn’t be helped. Maybe she needed a change. She had lots of leave time accumulated. She could take a holiday somewhere nice, Spain or the south of France or something. Buy a bikini and a sarong and a big hat and swan around for a fortnight.

Molly sighed, finished her beer, and got up to go. She had half an impulse to go back to Bart’s. There were fresh corpses waiting, and if she did some work tonight, it would mean more time to relax over the Christmas holidays. The only staff there would be the night crew, and they were used to her unassuming presence; if they gave her pitying glances for being a workaholic spinster, they were kind enough to do it behind her back.

Hell with that. She’d go back to her flat, decorated with pretty lights and a garland of the Christmas cards she’d received, and watch something Christmasy. She glanced round at the sleek, laughing crowd, and intense loneliness squeezed her stomach into a tight little knot. She slipped into her parka and shouldered her way through the crowd, bumping into a tall woman in a tight green dress.

“Sorry,” the woman said, not really looking at her.

“My fault,” Molly said softly, but the knot inside her tightened. Paul, her supervisor, had called her a superhero a few weeks ago after a difficult and complicated autopsy process. Good old Molly, everyone’s chum, always reliable, guaranteed availability for problem-solving. Superhero indeed. If she was a superhero, her power was invisibility.

 

*

 

“Oh, where is the fucking thing?”

He hadn’t used but a fraction of the Christmas stuff they owned. Mary, a certified Christmas fiend, had collected boxes and boxes of decorations of all sorts – tree ornaments, garlands, sprays of artificial box, holly, and ivy, special Christmas candles and candlesticks, loads of crackers bought at the sales post-season, tablecloths and napkins, tea towels, bloody snow globes, et cetera, et cetera. Eighty percent of their attic space was devoted to Christmas junk, though to be fair it was stowed in boxes and neatly labelled in Mary’s rounded script. He’d ignored it altogether last Christmas. Now that Rosie was beginning to become more aware of her environment, he supposed that she’d appreciate all the holiday things. And she did, squealing with delight at the tree lights and gleefully hanging ornaments – dropping most of them actually, but making a valiant effort just the same. Certainly there was a tonne of stuff to choose from.

So where was the goddamned star for the top of the tree? John opened boxes at random, muttering obscenities and profanities under his breath. If he didn’t find it in the next few minutes, he was going to tie one of Rosie’s stuffed toys to the top of the stupid tree and call it good. Maybe the pink unicorn with the sparkly tail, or better yet, the plushy leaf-nosed bat Sherlock had given her for her first birthday. That would really match all the colourful glittering ornaments and tinsel. Rosie might like it, anyway.

A thin wail filtered up into the attic, unlike Rosie’s usual healthy bellow of abandonment-fuelled outrage. John frowned, got to his feet, wincing at the pop in his knees, and picked his way through the boxes to the attic door. He scrambled down the steep steps and gently pushed open Rosie’s door. “Sweetheart?”

Rosie, standing in her crib and clinging to the bars, let out a little hiccoughing sob, as if she were sorry to have bothered John but really would have appreciated a small bit of attention, please.

“Oh, what’s wrong, love? Wet bottom?” John lifted her out of the crib. “Christ, you’re warm.” He felt her forehead and her cheeks. Decidedly warm, like far too many of the babies he’d seen at the surgery just lately. “Right, okay. Calpol.” He took her into the loo and fished the bottle and thermometer out of the cabinet, then prepared the syringe as quickly as he could, trying to balance Rosie in one arm and soothe her feeble cries. “It’s okay, baby, it’s okay.” He sat on the edge of the tub and supported Rosie on his lap. “Open wide. Ahhh….” He demonstrated, managing to capture Rosie’s attention. “Come on. Ahhh….”

Rosie opened her mouth, and John positioned the syringe and released it between her tongue and her cheek. Rosie swallowed reflexively, screwed up her face, and wailed loudly.

“Sorry, darling,” John murmured, but couldn’t resist a smile. If she managed to gather enough energy to howl, then she wasn’t doing too badly. He inserted the thermometer in her ear, prompting struggling and more wailing. “Hang on, just a second, it’s coming out, hang on.” The readout was a not-alarming 37.4. “Not too bad. Let’s get you a drink and get you back in bed.”

John mixed up a rehydration sachet and offered it to Rosie in her sippy cup. She drank willingly, her eyes getting glassy and heavy-lidded. Eventually they closed altogether. John went to deposit her back into her crib, then changed course and took her into his bedroom. He lay her gently on the bed and loosened the top button of her little nightie, then toed off his shoes and climbed into bed beside her.

He couldn’t resist closing his own eyes; he was fucking exhausted. Between work and Rosie, he scarcely had time to breathe. Winter meant colds and fever and five different strains of flu and far too many young children and the frail elderly. He was surprised he hadn’t come down with a cold of his own, operating on long hours at the surgery and far too little sleep. He’d had to turn down Sherlock’s recent request to join him on a case. His days of intense legwork, he suspected, were coming to an end.

It certainly wasn’t because he still felt a bit awkward around Sherlock – not entirely, at least, not altogether. He’d wholly and unquestionably forgiven him for…everything, and he hoped Sherlock had forgiven him as well. It wasn’t easy, though, to go back to the way things had been before. There was the house he lived in, bereft of his wife and Rosie’s mother. There were the new spaces of silence that had welled up between them, nothing like the silences they’d shared in the past – Sherlock cogitating, John waiting – sometimes contentedly, sometimes with imperfectly disguised impatience. These were heavy, uncomfortable silences, aching with suppressed words and feelings.

Feelings. Christ.

Only last week, Ella had said that John was making significant progress with his anger, but she sensed a new hesitation in him, something he was holding back.

Yeah. I’m fucking lonely, he’d said, and had almost clapped his hand over his mouth in horror.

Ella had given him one of those irritatingly perceptive looks. For Mary?

Well, yeah, of course.

There had been a long, long pause.

Only Mary?

John had chewed on his lip. I don’t know, he’d admitted with a sigh. I don’t know.

And that had been it. Ella hadn’t pushed; she never did. John could have gone on, but there was no need, really. He missed Sherlock so badly that it hurt, but he didn’t know how to get things back to normal.

John pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. He had his work, he had Rosie. His colleagues at the surgery had gently encouraged him to start dating. It had been well over a year, and the grief had softened, but he wasn’t ready.

Or something.

He rolled over and picked up his phone, finding the latest texts he’d exchanged with Sherlock.

Exciting dismemberment in Epping Forest.

I can’t. Totally knackered. Wish I could.

Sherlock’s response, ten minutes later: You know where to find me. Sleep well.

Thanks. Next time, promise.

Of course, John.

“Fuck,” he groaned. He set the phone down and turned out the light. Belatedly, he remembered he hadn’t found the star for the tree.

Bugger it anyhow. This year the Magi would have to navigate by the heavenly light of a stuffed leaf-nose bat.

 

*

 

“Jesus, Miri, it’s just a game.”

Miranda folded her arms. “I would have appreciated a consultation.”

“Why, for God’s sake? It’s rated for kids twelve and up.”

Shaking her head, Miranda went to the oven, opened it, and peered in. A swirl of warm shepherd’s pie-scented air wafted upward. “You know how I feel about shooting games, Greg.”

Greg listened to the elated squawks coming from the front room. “It’s just zombies. It’s not like they’re babies and kittens. Besides, she likes it.” And Greg had been thrilled at Scarlett’s shriek of delight and impetuous hug when she’d opened the game. It was nice to hit a gift on the nose now and then. It didn’t hurt that Finn had nudged him in the right direction, but still.

Miranda closed the oven door just short of a bang. “I don’t like violent games. I didn’t think I’d have to tell you that.” She moved to the worktop and shook some spice into a jar of oil and vinegar.

“Fucking hell –”

Greg.”

“Sorry,” Greg muttered, although he was dead certain that his kids used worse language at school, and Clive aka Mr Muscles aka the arsehole PE teacher probably didn’t have much more than profanity in his vocabulary. Greg could hear him, clanking his weights in what used to be the study and was now a gym. Nice. “Look, we’ve been through this. There’s little to no established connection between violent video games and violent crime. I can show you loads of evidence –”

“Spare me,” Miranda said. She began to chop vegetables, her back to Greg. She’d got thinner, Greg noticed – probably Muscles had been nagging at her. “I just wish you wouldn’t undermine me all the time. They think I’m an ogre and you’re the cool parent.”

Greg snorted. “Trust me, they do not think I’m cool.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I know. Miri, look – it’s two days before Christmas. Truce, all right? I don’t want an argy-bargy over some stupid bollocksy video game that she’s just going to forget about in six months.”

Miranda sighed and set her knife down. She turned round and met Greg’s gaze. “Okay, all right. Fine. I don’t want to fight either.”

“Thanks, love.”

“Do you want to stay for dinner? There’s lots.”

“No, I’m good, thanks. Anyway, I’d just slow you down – knowing you, you haven’t packed a bag yet. When’s your flight? Eight tomorrow morning?”

“Ha-ha, very funny. It’s at ten. And no, I haven’t packed a bag, so you’d better go say goodbye to the kids so we can get going.”

“Right, okay.” He leant in and kissed her cheek. She smelled the same as always. He didn’t know the name of the perfume but it was nice, warm and sort of spicy. His heart twinged a bit. “Have a good holiday. And happy Christmas.”

“You too, love.” She gave him a wry little smile – she hadn’t meant to use the endearment.

“Best to Clive.”

“Yeah, I’ll tell him,” Miranda said, a note of irony in her voice. “Go on, go kiss the kids.”

Greg went into the front room. “All right?”

Scarlett beamed up at him. “This is sick, Dad.”

“Yeah, sick,” Finn echoed. He tossed long fringe out of his eyes. His plan, he’d told Greg, was to grow his hair down to his arse and braid it like a Viking. Greg supposed it was a phase. He’d had his own moment of swoopy hair in the 80s – he was still living down the photo the kids had found of him in his Adam Ant period, all hair and eyeliner and fluffy shirt. Well, it was the 80s – everyone had looked ridiculous back then, he told them, and it was only for two years, tops. Hadn’t stopped Scarlett and Finn from howling with laughter, though later Scarlett had congratulated him for being okay with genderfluid dressing. A Viking braid wasn’t nearly as much fun as his New Romantic stylings, when he considered it.

“Okay,” Greg replied uncertainly. “Look, I’ve got to shove off. Give us a hug.”

The kids paused their game and hugged him effusively. Greg kissed the tops of their heads, savouring it; soon enough, he reflected, they’d both be too tall for that. “’Bye, Dad,” Scarlett said, wrinkling her nose at him. “Happy Christmas.” She had some shimmery stuff on her cheeks and nose and above the Cupid’s bow of her mouth. Looked a bit odd, but she’d said it was all the rage on Instagram. Well, she hadn’t said ‘all the rage’ – she’d said ‘lit.’ Sometimes Greg felt very, very old.

“Happy Christmas, you two. Have a good time in Greece. Mind your mum.”

“Okay,” they chorused.

“Be good.” Greg went to the door and slipped out. He got into his car, gripped the wheel, and blew out a deep breath. What now? He hadn’t any plans. He didn’t want to go back home, and he didn’t want to go to some pub – not some unfamiliar place with crowds of people having a great time, and not to his local hole, with its ranks of exhausted working stiffs. He had a box of lager in the boot – he could just head home, he supposed, put on tracksuit bottoms and a disreputable pullover, heat up a Fray Bentos, and watch telly and get a bit buzzed.

Bit sad, really. If it had been 1982 – the most brilliant year of 80s pop, in his opinion, the year of ‘Goody Two-Shoes’ and ‘Mirror Man’ and ‘Don’t Go’ – he’d have been having it off with Nige Lambertson and a pilfered bottle of Hendricks in the broom cupboard of Nige’s parents as they hosted their Christmas drinks party. An hour later, after a lot of groping and pawing, he’d have skulked off, back to his parents’ house as they watched some naff Christmas show on telly. They’d greet him amiably, befuddled by his togs and his smeared lippy but wonderfully quiet on the matter, and offer him tea and a biscuit.

Wild times. Sort of.

He pushed the ignition and pulled away, driving at a snail’s pace, looking at the lights on the houses. It seemed as if more and more people gilded the lily lately, fairy lights and projections of snowflakes and whatnot. It was nice, though, sort of cheerful.

Greg turned on the radio and heard some pop star he didn’t know mangling ‘Silent Night’ to an electronic beat. It wasn’t a patch on Band Aid, that was certain. And it wasn't the 80s anymore, but he wasn't bloody decrepit, was he?

No. He thought not.

He accelerated, moving toward the centre of the city.

 

*

 

Martha smoothed the skirt of her new dress and crossed her legs at the ankle, smiling at Gautam as he handed her a cordial glass. “Lovely.”

“Not nearly as lovely as you.” He sat beside her and kissed her ear. “Ahh, I’m glad you’re wearing the new fragrance. It becomes you.”

“Thank you, darling. It is lovely. I always trust your taste.”

“As I trust yours. You look so beautiful.” He plucked at a fold of the dark green silk dress. “But you have an odd light in your eyes. What is it?”

“Oh, nothing,” Martha said, putting a hand over his, as much to stop the roaming fingers as to convey affection. “I’m feeling wonderful. One or two more of these and I’ll be even better.” She sipped at the cordial. She’d been drinking more, she noticed, when she was with Gautam. Out of simple enjoyment, yes, but there was something else that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. It wasn’t that she didn’t like spending time with him – it was more that everything just felt the same lately.

“You’ve seemed down in the mouth. Tell me,” Gautam coaxed.

Martha sighed a little. “Well…it’s just been an odd year, that’s all. I haven’t seen much of the boys recently.”

“The sleuths,” Gautam said with a twist to his mouth. “It’s true. I’ve seen them less myself. Mr Holmes seems to prefer other food at the moment.”

“Yes, he’s got fussy in his old age. That’s what I said to him, and he was furious with me.” Martha laughed, then shrugged. “I don’t know. It just hasn’t been the same since Mary died.”

“From what you told me, that’s entirely understandable. Didn’t Mr Holmes have something to do with her death?”

“It’s very complicated,” Martha said, nettled.

“And I am in no position to judge.”

“I don’t think any of us are,” Martha replied sadly. “Things are different, that’s all. They’re not as close…well, John’s got his own house, of course, for himself and little Rosie, and it’s lovely, but…it’s not just Mary being gone, you see. And Sherlock, poor lamb, he’s just so lonely. He’d die before he admitted it, but it’s true.”

“I’m sure things will be sorted out in their own good time,” Gautam said, patting Martha’s hand and squeezing it gently. “Goodness, one would think they were your own sons the way you worry about them.”

“Oh, don’t be silly. Can you imagine? Heavens.” Martha finished her cordial. “They’d drive me even more round the bend if that were true.”

“But you needn’t be driven round the bend, my dear,” Gautam said. “They’re not your family. And only Mr Holmes is your tenant – as you said, Dr Watson has a house of his own. Worrying about them gains you nothing. I’m much more interested in your own lovely self.” He laid his hand on her thigh. “You’re simply delectable.”

Martha didn’t look him in the eye, but all the while he’d been talking she was conscious of a growing unease. No, not unease – discontentment. Yes. And irritation. Had he ever really listened to her? He was younger, of course, but she wasn’t addled; she had all her faculties and more. And though she did tend to go on now and again – Marie Turner had told her that, and Marie ought to have known, proper chatterbox that she was – she would have appreciated more than Gautam’s version of a pat on the head.

“Gautam dear,” she said silkily.

“Yes, my sweet?”

“I heard something awfully interesting some time ago.”

“Mm. What was it about? Something naughty, I hope.” He slid his hand along her thigh, landing between her knees and slowly working his way up.

“A bit. Have you got two wives?”

His hand froze. In fact, his whole body froze. Martha looked away and stifled a giggle.

“What?”

“Oh, I think you heard me.” Martha turned to look him in the eye.

Gautam’s eyes – large, limpid, and dead sexy, if Martha were honest – darted nervously to and fro. He abruptly removed his hand, but didn’t seem to know what to do with it. It settled on his knee, then fluttered up to cover his mouth, then got tucked beneath his left elbow. “Where on earth did you pick up such a filthy piece of gossip? Was it that bloody Marie?”

“I don’t think that matters,” she said. “Is it true, then?” She moved over one roaming hand’s worth of space.

His face puckered in distress. “You know I could never possibly love someone as much as I do you.”

Martha exhaled. “Oh, Gautam. It was never love, was it? I never wanted to marry you – I thought we were having a bit of fun. But somehow I doubt either of your wives knew about me.”

“I don’t…honestly, darling, I don’t know what you mean.”

“Please. One is in Islamabad, isn’t she? Five children. The other one’s in Dorchester. Or is it Doncaster? I don’t remember. The point, Gautam dear, is that I don’t fancy being deceived.”

Gautam drew himself up in fussy indignation. “I tell you I never –”

“Save it, darling,” Martha said, holding up a hand. “I think you should go now. Go home to one of your wives. Doncaster or Dorchester would be much more convenient than Islamabad, though.”

Gautam rose to his feet. “This has all been a terrible misunderstanding,” he said, attempting dignity. “I think you should apologise. You have obviously succumbed to the kirsch. When you wish to find me, you…you know where to find me.” He gave her a stiff nod from the neck, then snatched up his coat and marched out, closing the door with a firmer-than-necessary thud.

Martha stretched her legs out, rotating them at the ankle and then admiring them. Not bad for a dotty old lady. She reached for the bottle of kirsch and poured herself a tot.

She really ought to apologise to Sherlock, but he would be so cheeky and pompous. She’d wait.

Poor lamb, though, really.

He’d scoff if she said a word, but Martha knew what Sherlock needed. And it wasn’t a tiny rip in a murderer’s sleeve or seventy types of tobacco ash (honestly, who smoked in this day and age? Martha got her soothers from Marie’s nephew Dylan, a tie salesman at Huntsman’s, a perfectly respectable young man. So much better than inhaling all that smoke and ponging all day). It was simple human companionship, pure and simple. And one human in particular.

Martha turned on the telly. Oh, a new series of Luther. Lovely, lovely man. She reached for the little box on her side table and opened it to reveal a short row of bonbons. She picked one out and popped it into her mouth. Delicious. By half eight, she’d feel no pain.

She sipped delicately at her cordial and admired Idris Elba’s extravagantly fabulous physique.

 

*

Chapter Text

*

 

The sound system, discreetly hidden away, hummed out a very satisfying rendition of ‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,’ a recording from St Paul, Minnesota of all places, but featuring one of the most extraordinary countertenors he’d ever heard. Reaching blindly for his drink, Mycroft scrolled through his correspondence, making notes here and there.

One from Moscow: Hand luggage lost. Might have gone to S/R border by mistake. Pls advise.

Sighing, Mycroft replied. Speak to Yury T. You may need to visit Zabaikalsk. An asset disappearing just as yet another US cabinet member stepped down. Was this one quitting or had he been sacked? It was so difficult to keep track lately. He found a number and fired off another text: Mattis. Quit or sacked?

The reply came almost instantaneously. Quit, then sacked. Syria.

Yet another display of infantile petulance. It would be amusing if it weren’t so god-awfully harrowing. But, likely it had little to do with an information systems asset (Mycroft refused to use the word ‘hacker’ – it fell so insalubriously on the ear) claiming knowledge of election tampering and secret servers in Bradford expected in Moscow and failing to turn up. Possibly.

My office will be calling you shortly. A matter of lost luggage from your last sojourn here.

We’ll be waiting. Merry Christmas and happy New Year, Mr. Holmes. Thanks for all your help this year.

Not at all, Mr Mueller. A very happy Christmas to you as well and I wish you success in 2019.

He scrolled through a few more texts.

Are you coming for Christmas, dear? I’ve made mince pies.

Mycroft couldn’t even be bothered to roll his eyes. Violet Holmes, empress of the mixed message. Years of exhortations to eat followed by comments on how tight his trousers had become had weathered his hide to iron. Unlikely.

Happy Christmas from Mauritius.

Smallwood. The same to you. That hadn’t lasted long. It hadn’t suited him at all, and she’d been totally unsurprised and almost amused when he’d told her so. Still, it had been mildly diverting.

We would be delighted to see you on Boxing Day. Elizabeth R

He could hardly refuse, could he? With pleasure, Ma’am.

Happy Christmas. 😊 xxx

An unknown number. Mycroft frowned. Probably a mistake, some drunken twit. He blocked the number and set the phone down. Sipping at his drink (a 35 year Glengoyne single malt, a gift from Mr Trudeau who knew better than to send blended Canadian swill), he gazed into the fire and listened to the heartbreaking beauty of the countertenor singing Handel’s opus.

It was lovely to simply sit and watch and listen, no-one to disturb him, nothing that was so urgent as to require his presence at the Ziggurat. This Christmas was no more or less memorable than many other Christmases in Mycroft’s ceaselessly busy existence. His parents were safely at arm’s length, Sherlock was, as ever, failing to maintain regular communication, and all was well at Sherrinford. As was his custom, he’d politely declined the invitation to the yearly Christmas party at Thames House – though, he noted, the invitation had been very late in arriving, almost last-minute. It was silly to be vexed, and yet. Never mind – altogether it was a very pleasant time of year, this peace and quiet. Lovely, really.

Mycroft picked up his phone. He wasn’t attached to it as so many people were, gazing at it as if it imparted all the mysteries of the universe. Although given the intelligence of the average human being, Facebook and Instagram and…whatever the rest were called unquestionably doled out as much mystery as they could handle.

He stared at the meagre collection of apps on the screen. Half a page, no need to swipe. Gloomily, he opened MyFitnessPal.

SURVIVING HOLIDAY EXCESS

YOUR 6 WEEK BELLY FAT BLASTING WALKING PLAN!

13 SLOW COOKER RECIPES UNDER 400 CALORIES

SHOULD YOU DO A DETOX?

FORGET NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS! A PLAN FOR SENSIBLE EATING YEAR-ROUND

A long sigh filtered through his nose.

The phone buzzed in his hand, startling him. Another text. He frowned at the caller readout. Was something amiss? Sherlock again? Wouldn’t that be just like him, getting into a scrape two days before Christmas.

Hi, I’m down the road. Mind if I pop round?

It took Mycroft a moment to reply. Not to compose himself, as such, but to formulate a friendly response. Certainly not. Ring the bell when you arrive.

Well, he’d tried at least. He got to his feet, downed the rest of the whisky, and dashed upstairs.

 

*

 

Sherlock tightened his E string and plucked at it idly. “Ugh.” The strings were due for replacement; until then there was no point in even attempting to saw something out. He set the instrument on the table, lay back, and gazed at the ceiling, his boredom edging into total paralysis.

Cases were hit-and-miss at the best of times at Christmas anyhow; his recent inertia shouldn’t have come as a surprise. There was the Epping dismemberment, but without John to assist the whole matter seemed unutterably dreary. He’d tackle it in the new year, perhaps. If some limbs turned up in the interim, possibly he’d drag himself to Epping Forest and have a poke around.

Moving only his eyes, he took in the state of his flat. It was pretty terrible, if he were honest with himself. Messy and disorganised even by his reckoning, dusty and damp at the same time (a neat trick, actually), something ponging unpleasantly and unidentifiably in the kitchen. Mrs Hudson had thrown up her hands and written down a list of cleaners, leaving it pointedly over a stain on the fridge, but he hadn’t got round to calling anyone yet. Perhaps in the new year. Possibly.

He hadn’t even been arsed to hang up his little string of Christmas lights in the window. He rarely indulged in any of the usual Christmas twaddle, but the lights were a time-honoured tradition even during the worst Christmases. Sort of pagan, really, lights driving out the darkness on the shortest days of the year and what have you. But not this year. Laziness, he supposed. It wasn’t as if it was the worst Christmas of his life. Last Christmas had been utterly abysmal; in comparison, this year was like receiving a package in the post that turned out to be a human ear carefully packed in salt. In a word, fantastic.

Super.

His hand hovered over the phone. He couldn’t call his parents; it was too late and anyway they’d be driving home from the ferry, and he didn’t want to hear about Eurus’ gifts being confiscated and Mummy was sure that the guards kept some of them, certainly the food and she still wouldn’t talk and wouldn’t Sherlock visit his sister more often, and his old parents too, they missed him so, etc., ad nauseam. He’d rather be waterboarded.

Should he call Mycroft? He abandoned the thought immediately. Mycroft would only make smirking little comments about the inherent superiority of a life of isolation when they both knew it was rubbish and why in God’s name did they still perpetuate that farce? Saving face, yes, but was that even necessary any longer?

Evidently, yes, because Sherlock couldn’t bring himself to plug in Mycroft’s number. Who was left? Mrs Hudson was entertaining Mrs Turner downstairs; Lestrade was doing whatever lonely divorced men at loose ends did just before Christmas. Molly had been distant, and Sherlock was well aware why. John would have been proud of his newfound sensitivity.

“Sod it,” he muttered, and picked up the phone.

Lestrade said that Collins turned himself in and implicated Edgerton. Our little visit was fruitful after all.

The reply came just a moment later. Good. That’s good. He was a cool customer. I didn’t think you’d made much of an impression, but well done!

Water on stone, John. Patience has never been your strong suit.

I wasn’t the one who pulled the emergency lever on the Tube because SOMEONE was too busy insulting Mycroft via text and missed his stop.

Sherlock grinned. Sounded like the old John, a bit. Irrelevant. What are you doing?

Rosie had a fever and I’ve been up and down all night. Thank fuck I’ve got the next week off.

How is she now?

Seems fine. I’m just keeping her hydrated. Fun stuff on Xmas Eve.

Would you like to bring her by for a visit?

There was no response, no blinking ellipsis, only dead white space. Sherlock’s stomach did a slow roll. He’d miscalculated. Holidays were for families, even small ones. John probably wanted to be left with Rosie and his memories of better Christmases.

Yeah, all right. I think she’s okay to travel. All right if she sleeps upstairs? There isn’t all sorts of rubbish on the bed?

Of course not. It’s as pristine as the day – Hastily, Sherlock erased that last. – as neat as a pin. I never go in there anyway.

Another brief hesitation, and then: Okay. Give me a bit to get some stuff sorted here. I’ll see you round half five.

Fine.

Sherlock set the phone down. The picture of calm, he folded his hands over his abdomen and gazed serenely at the ceiling.

He counted: one, two, three – and leapt up. He should tidy, just a bit.

Maybe patience wasn’t his strong suit after all.

 

*

 

Sig took a kissing sip of the terrible coffee he’d bought at the chippy van and squinted through the hypnotic back-and forth of the wiper blades. The road wasn’t in the best shape, and in the rain it was bloody awful. “I thought she appreciated some of the stuff,” he ventured.

“Oh, really? How on earth could you tell?” Violet snapped, and then heaved a sigh. “I’m sorry, darling.”

There was no response to the question, because he’d told a bald-faced lie. In answer to her apology, he set down his coffee and gently grasped her gloved hand. He couldn’t blame her for her short temper after these visits; the bitterness at what she saw as Mycroft’s betrayal was still an open wound. She spoke to him very little, trying to maintain a semblance of normality, and sometimes succeeded. She wanted to know her daughter, and he couldn’t blame her for that, either. Only she seemed to have erased what she’d known of Eurus before, as a very small girl.

Siger remembered, though. He remembered holding her close and feeling her little body go stiff in his embrace. He remembered her cool, flat gaze, filtered through the pretty eyes of a lovely child, and her attitude of mild bemusement when Siger had burst into Sherlock’s room.

But Daddy, he was laughing. I was making him laugh.

He wasn’t laughing. That was the moment it had coalesced: something was terribly, terribly wrong with his beautiful girl. He was crying. Screaming. There’s a difference, Eurus. Didn’t he say…you must have seen something on his face, something….

Eurus had shrugged. It was a different look, she’d agreed. But I didn’t know what it meant, so I didn’t stop.

Violet, always wilful, chose not to recall that incident, or previous incidents, or subsequent incidents. It beggared belief, but what could be done about it? Their access to her was limited, and she wouldn’t speak when they did see her. Sherlock and Mycroft had said very little about their encounter with her, and Sig was afraid to ask about it.

In some ways, he wished he’d never heard that Eurus was still alive. Not that he wished her dead, God no. Whatever else, she was his daughter, and he loved her. But a knot of apprehension had taken up permanent lodgings in his chest, and there were times that he wanted to flee from all familial obligation.

“Neither Sherlock nor Mycroft answered my texts,” Violet announced.

“They’re probably busy.”

“Busy on Christmas?”

“They have different lives, darling. They’re not two doddering oldies like we are.” Violet’s selective perception didn’t extend to her sons; she pushed past their patience and pressed her luck at all times, sometimes causing explosions. Thank God that Mycroft and Sherlock (Myc and Wills; to him they’d always be Myc and Wills in his heart if not on his lips) were essentially forgiving souls, though they’d both have denied it stoutly if confronted on the matter.

Violet was silent for a while, watching the reflective road signs glow and rush past. “You’re a good man, Sig,” she murmured at last. “I don’t know why you put up with me.”

“It’s the shagging,” Sig said. “You’re still a great ride.”

Violet jabbed him in the ribs, laughing. “Cheeky.”

“Mm.” He picked up his coffee and sipped again. Dreadful stuff.

Maybe a quiet Christmas, just the two of them, was just what was needed. A season of rest.

 

*

 

“Hey – don’t I know you?”

Molly blinked at the tall woman in the green dress. She did look vaguely familiar. Oh, God, she was the one who’d been involved with Sherlock. Very involved, if the papers were telling the truth. Hadn’t she – Janine, that was her name – hadn’t she been the one who’d told every filthy detail of their sex life? Not that she’d read those rags. Well, just until the story had dropped out of the news cycle.

“You’re Sherl’s friend. You had that smashing yellow frock on at Mary’s wedding! I’m Janine,” she said, holding out a hand. “Janine Hawkins. What’s your name? Sorry, it was ages ago and I can’t remember.”

“Molly,” Molly said, swallowing her dislike and shaking Janine’s hand. “You were…you were, erm, the maid of honour.”

“Yeah. I mean, to this day I don’t know why Mary picked me. We weren’t really great friends. I’m not sure she actually had great friends, honestly. God rest her soul, though. She was nice. And her poor kid, and her husband.” Janine was leaning close to Molly and speaking in her ear, struggling against the music and laughter pounding away in the pub. “Look, do you want to get a drink? I’m sick of these muppets.” She indicated her friends with an airy wave.

Molly hesitated, caught on the hop. She didn’t really want to face her empty flat, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to spend time with someone who’d evidently shagged Sherlock Holmes the length and breadth of England. Even if she was over him, it still stung a bit. But it would have been a lie to say she wasn’t curious. “Okay,” she said softly.

“Great,” Janine said with a grin. “I know someplace a lot quieter. Hang on, let me detach myself.”

“I’ll wait outside,” Molly said. She left the pub and stood beneath the awning, drinking in the cool night air. It was raining, but she liked rain and didn’t mind walking in it. She wondered if Janine would walk, or want a cab instead.

He Made Me Wear The Hat

Janine came out in a beautiful lilac coat. “It’s just up the road a bit. Come on, it’s an easy walk.”

They walked in silence to the place Janine had chosen, a piano bar with low lighting and pink banquettes. Janine ordered a Dark and Stormy and turned to Molly. “What’ll you have?”

“I don’t know. I suppose I’ll try a Dark and Stormy too.”

As the waiter glided away, Janine shrugged off her coat and smiled at Molly. “So. How’s Sherl doing?”

“Oh, he’s…he’s fine. I see him at Bart’s a lot.”

“That’s right. You’re the other doctor. Sherl said he had two doctor friends. God, that was a weird time.”

Molly cleared her throat and clenched her fists beneath the table. “Was it?”

“Jesus, yeah. I mean, just once I’d have liked to shag him. We kissed a bit, but between you and me he wasn’t much of a kisser. Tongue like a board. Not in a good way.”

A rush of warmth permeated Molly’s cheeks and neck. “Erm…but all the papers…they said….”

Janine threw her head back and laughed. “Sweetheart, that was such a pack of lies. I’m probably going to hell for that, but sod it, I made an arseload of dosh. Bought a house and all.”

Molly shook her head, bewildered. She felt awful coming here to peck and pry at this gorgeous woman; when it came down to brass tacks, she was no better than any of the tabloids. Did she feel less awful knowing that their relationship had been a sham? Or more awful? She knew she had a perpetually guilty conscience, but this was ridiculous. “You…didn’t you live with him for a bit?”

Janine snorted. “I spent the night a few times. Meaning I kipped in John’s old room on that lumpy single bed while His Lordship slept in his bed. It was one of those super-posh beds from Denmark or Sweden or whatever, too. He could have shared.”

“Didn’t you fancy him?”

“Sort of?” Janine said. “He’s not my type, really. I’m more of a Daniel Craig sort of girl. But he’s bloody interesting and smart and I reckon I was dazzled for a month or so. Wish he’d let me keep the ring, but what can you do?”

“I fancied him for a bit myself,” Molly said. A bit, right.

“I hope you realised you were wasting your time,” Janine said. “You don’t want to fall for someone like that.”

“I think I’m the best judge of that,” Molly replied with a quiet vehemence.

Janine studied Molly’s face. “Right, of course. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“It’s all right. I’m over it. He wasn’t….” Molly drew a deep breath. “He never wanted me as anything but a friend. And friends are lovely, they’re quite…you know…but I thought there might have been more, somehow.”

“How could there be?”

Molly frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Well –“ Janine paused to accept the drinks the waiter brought. “Cheers, yeah? Happy Christmas.”

“Happy Christmas,” Molly said, and they clinked glasses. “What did you mean by that?”

“It was hindsight, but – Jesus, you were at the reception. You heard his speech.”

“What about it?”

“Come on, love. John’s amazing, John’s fantastic, John rescued him a million times plus, John heals lepers with the touch of his hand.” Janine rolled her eyes. “Can’t believe I didn’t snap to it then, but you know how weddings are. Do you know, when he heard John coming upstairs one day, he told me to take my dress off and wear one of his shirts instead? It was a laugh, but I still didn’t see it.”

Molly’s ears pounded with surging blood. “You mean…Sherlock fancies John.”

“Yep.” Janine nodded triumphantly and took a drink. “God, let’s stop talking about Sherlock Holmes. I’m in the city this week and I haven’t got anyone but those tossers back at the pub to hang out with, and I’m sick of them already. What are you doing tomorrow? I don’t want to intrude on your Christmas plans, but if you fancied a stroll through the shops, I’m free.”

He’d been so cold and cerebral when they’d met. It was the allure of the unattainable, wasn’t it? He hadn’t shown interest in anyone in a personal way. But then John had come, and the pair of them were thick as thieves, instant flatmates and constant companions. Had they ever…?

Molly looked at Janine’s beautiful, totally open countenance. She hadn’t shagged Sherlock. And she’d fancied him, but in the end he hadn’t wanted her and it was all right, she was all right, she wasn’t nursing her memories. And John….

Little pieces of memory began to click together, like a Lego set. It had been Sherlock and John for the longest time, hadn’t it? But she’d been too wrapped up in her own pointless misery to see it.

A little warm light began to glow in Molly’s heart. It was all right. She could be glad for Sherlock, glad for John. She wanted them to be happy. Wasn’t that what friends wanted for each other?

“I saw a top I liked in Liberty’s,” she said timidly. “Do you think we could go there?”

“Yeah, of course. Lunch first? My treat.”

Molly picked up her glass and took a drink. “That’s good,” she said. “Absolutely. Lunch first.”

 

*

 

Mycroft Holmes answered the door, immaculate in a three-piece suit, tie firmly knotted at the neck, and shining shoes. Greg hated ties himself – he’d never fancied the choky feeling they gave him. “Inspector. Do come in.”

“Thanks,” Greg said, and crossed the threshold into Mycroft’s palace of a house. Everything looked clean and waxed and perfect. He thought of his bachelor flat with some shame. “Came to return the Koen file.” He handed Mycroft a thick folder. “Thanks. It was helpful.”

“Of course. I’m glad to hear it.” Mycroft gestured toward a door. “Would you like a drink? There’s a fire going in the library.”

“Sounds grand. It’s cold out there.” Greg smiled. “It’s all right that I’m here, isn’t it? You said the other day that you didn’t have Christmas plans.” He stepped on a sudden desire to flee. He’d felt a bit of…something…when he and Mycroft were in each other’s company, and with a boldness that was uncharacteristic, he’d taken this plunge. A visit. Business only, naturally.

God, the excitement never stopped, did it.

Mycroft gave him an odd look, but nodded. “Certainly.” He led Greg into a spacious library, book-lined and fragrant with burning logs. “Please sit down. What would you like? I’m having whisky myself.”

“That’d be grand, thanks.” He took a chair and accepted the neat whisky Mycroft handed him. “Christ, that’s good.”

“Yes, it’s a very good one.” Mycroft sat on the chesterfield sofa opposite Greg and crossed one leg over the other, then appeared to think better of it and planted both feet on the floor. “No raucous Met parties tonight?”

“There might be, but I’m an old man now, or so they think. They’re probably clubbing or something.”

“You’re well rid of them, I imagine. It’s actually convenient that you stopped in,” Mycroft said. “I can return the Penfield case file to you. I don’t think he’ll prove to be a credible witness owing to his mental decrepitude, but I appreciate the gesture.”

“Oh, that’s a shame. Sorry to hear it.”

“Yes. I think it’s a mark of progress that our offices have been collaborating more. Departmental rivalry is such an outdated construct – a habit really, rather pointless.” Mycroft cleared his throat and regarded Greg in silence.

God, had this been a mistake? “You don’t decorate for Christmas,” Greg noted, looking round the room that would have been perfect for wreaths and garlands and so on.

“No, I’m afraid I don’t go in for that sort of thing much.”

“Bah humbug, eh?”

“I suppose.” Mycroft sipped his whisky and set it on the table. “Sherlock makes a point of inviting me to his silly dos, but I think he only does it because he realizes I’ll never go.”

“I’ve gone to them. They’re lots of fun, actually. Sherlock’s a laugh when he’s had a few drinks in him.”

“He is inclined toward indulgence,” Mycroft said. “As you know.”

“He’s been clean lately, though. After that last…thing.” He still didn’t know what to make of that mess awhile back, with Smith, still jabbering away to anyone who’d listen, and their creepy, murderous sister, now locked back up in some supermax in the middle of the sea. The Holmes brothers hadn’t discussed it with him – John had been the one to spill everything, the lot of it. “Anyhow, drink’s never been his problem.”

“True,” Mycroft allowed. “Ah…what are your Christmas plans? Since Sherlock doesn’t seem to be having a drinks party this year.”

“My kids are going to Greece,” Greg said. “I’ll probably watch some telly, have a few beers. What about you?”

“I have no idea. As I said, I’m not particularly interested in Christmas.”

“You used to be, I’ll bet,” Greg replied, noticing for the first time that Mycroft’s hair was a bit damp, as if he’d combed it down with water only a few moments ago. Interesting. “What was it like, a Holmes family Christmas?”

Mycroft grimaced. “Insufferable. Noisy, chaotic, and a breeding ground for all manner of absurdities. Thank God I was able to escape them when I went to university.”

“Where’d you go?”

“Cambridge,” Mycroft replied. “Pembroke, then Darwin.”

“Nice. I might have known. I went to Central Lancashire myself. Had a good time. Actually,” Greg said with a grin, “I was thinking tonight about how we used to dress back then. I was a Blitz Kid, or at least I fancied myself one.”

A slight frown furrowed Mycroft’s forehead. “A….”

“Blitz Kid,” Greg said. “You know, a New Romantic. Adam and the Ants, Yazoo, Ultravox? No?”

“I’m afraid I didn’t follow popular music.”

“God, really? No, you probably listened to Mozart and Bach all the time. And I reckon you just wore, what – those gowns and all.”

“Well – yes. Over clothes, obviously.” A blush suffused Mycroft’s throat and cheeks.

Interesting, that. “Got a snapshot?”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” Mycroft took another drink.

“Come on,” Greg teased, slightly emboldened by the whisky.

“Well. I don’t know, really. Possibly.” Mycroft rose and opened a cabinet, then rummaged through a box. He came back to the chesterfield with a photograph and handed it to Greg.

Bollocks he didn’t know. Found it like a guided missile. Greg examined the picture of a young Mycroft, slightly softer around the face and with more hair, but looking essentially the same. His expression was serious, and he wore the academic gown over a suit. “God, do you always wear a suit? Did you wear one as a tot?”

“Certainly not,” Mycroft scoffed. “Not always.”

Greg decided to tease a bit. “When don’t you wear one?”

Mycroft’s blush intensified. “Ah…when I exercise, of course. And pyjamas.”

And pyjamas. Greg, who slept in the altogether, bit back a filthy grin. “Can I have another drink?”

“Certainly.” Mycroft bustled to the drinks cabinet and poured a slightly larger drink than the first, then handed it to Greg. “Cheers.”

“Cheers,” Greg said. “Want to see a photo of me from uni?”

Mycroft frowned. “You carry one with you?”

Greg laughed. “No, my kids took a snap of one and texted it to me, the scamps. It’s…well, have a look.” He found the picture on his phone and handed it to Mycroft.

Mycroft scrutinised it. “Good Lord,” he said softly.

“Quite something, innit?”

“Did you….” Mycroft indicated his face. “To classes? The, erm, maquillage and hair as well as the clothes?”

“Sure,” Greg said cheerfully. “Regular saucy lot we were.” He watched Mycroft’s pink countenance turn even pinker.

“Indeed.” Mycroft got up and went to a carved desk, opening a drawer. “I think I’m going to have a cigarette on the terrace. Will you join me?”

“Why not?” Greg followed Mycroft through the house – God, wasn’t it posh! – and onto a terrace facing an elaborately manicured garden that could have held Greg’s – well, Miranda’s house. An enormous garden in the middle of London. The rain had stopped, and an almost-full moon turned the lush grass greenish-silver. Mycroft handed Greg a cigarette and clicked a silver lighter. Greg cupped his hand round the flame, briefly touching Mycroft’s fingers. “Ta.” He inhaled and blew out a plume of smoke. Mycroft lit his own fag and they smoked in companionable silence for a few moments.

“You know, Inspector –”

“Greg.”

“Yes. Yes. Greg. I don’t think I’ve ever conveyed my gratitude to you…for looking after Sherlock. I know you must have protected him from any number of uncomfortable situations.”

“He likes trouble, no question.” Greg half-smiled.

“In any event, I do appreciate it. If there’s anything I can do to repay it….” Mycroft cleared his throat. “If there’s any favour you might need, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

Greg had learnt more at uni than criminal justice. Don’t over-egg the pudding, for one thing. “Thanks. I might just do that one day.” He pinched out the end of his fag and popped it into his jacket pocket. “I’d better shove off. Thanks for the drink.”

“Yes, of course.” Mycroft led Greg to the door. “I’m sorry – I didn’t take your coat.”

“Yeah, no worries. I’ll see you soon.”

“I do hope so.” Mycroft shook Greg’s extended hand. He focussed on Greg’s face, perhaps imagining him in eyeliner. “Thank you for stopping by.”

Briefly, Greg dropped his eyes to the front of Mycroft’s trousers. Very concealing, those conservative clothes. He smiled, trotted down the stairs with a wave, and got into his car, remembering belatedly that Mycroft had meant to give him the Penfield file. Well, he could always come back for it.

He’d never tell his kids, but he was feeling quite sick. Or lit. Or whatever.

A bit wild, in fact.

 

*

 

John settled Rosie into his old bed. It was, true to Sherlock’s word, neat as a pin, empty except for the bed and the small chest of drawers that had fit John’s entire wardrobe. He leant down, kissed her forehead – only slightly warm now – and crept out.

Sherlock was in his chair, bemusedly regarding his bare feet. “Did you know, John, that fingerprints and toe prints aren’t exactly alike?”

“I reckon I’ve never really thought about it,” John said, slipping into his familiar and comfortable chair. “Surprised this hasn’t come up before, actually.”

“Differential pressure causes changes in the points of minutiae. They’re similar, but not alike. The real question is how can someone walk barefoot into a bank vault but leave no fingerprint impressions at all?”

“Gloves.” He knew he was going to get an eyeroll for that one.

Sherlock delivered admirably. “Wrong. The vault was entirely clean of any pressure. No employee fingerprints either. The sweep would have revealed something.”

“They wiped the walls down.”

“There wasn’t time. The break-in, theft, and escape only took three minutes.”

“I have no idea. Maybe they didn’t use their hands at all.”

Sherlock looked sharply at John. “What do you mean?”

John shrugged. “Who knows. Barbecue tongs?”

“Hard to pick three high-security locks with barbecue tongs,” Sherlock said, oblivious to John’s attempted levity. “And why was he barefoot?”

“He?”

“Enormous feet, John. A man in all probability.”

John changed the subject. “Sherlock, when was the last time you cleaned in here?”

“This afternoon, Mum.”

“Ha,” John said. “That’s funny. I mean actually cleaned? Christ, there’s fur on the bookshelves.” He thought that the recent re-do would encourage Sherlock to adopt tidier habits, but you couldn’t change a leopard’s spots, apparently.

“John, I did tidy just before you came. I don’t do that for just anyone.”

 

“Well. Thanks.” John looked doubtfully at the flat, which was…he supposed it was marginally within the realm of Sherlock’s definition of tidy. “Are you doing okay?”

Sherlock looked up from the contemplation of his toes. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Haven’t seen you in a while,” John countered lamely.

“Not for lack of trying,” Sherlock said. “Though you’re busy. Obviously.”

John nodded and rubbed his hand along his leg. The sound of skin against ironed twill was oddly loud. “You didn’t put your lights up.”

“Couldn’t find them.”

“What a surprise.” John bit his lower lip. “I miss you, you know.”

Sherlock stared at him, that wide-eyed do-not-compute thing that he did so well. “John –”

“Hang on. Don’t say anything clever, not just yet.” John took a deep breath. “I know it’s been weird. I retreated a bit, I know that.” Sherlock watched him in silence. Shocking. “I just – I needed to sort it all out, and I thought by now everything would have settled down, but…I don’t know. I’m not happy. I don’t mean I’m not grinning like a madman every second of the day, it’s –“ He touched his chest. “Being away from you. From here, from all this. I’m not happy,” he said.

“Are you back in therapy?”

“Yeah. Well done, good deduction.” John sighed and decided not to pursue the matter further. He’d said what he’d come to say. Mostly. “All right if I let Rosie sleep a bit longer before we shove off?”

“You know I don’t expect you to join me on cases.”

“I know. I appreciate that you still ask me. It’s good to be, erm, wanted now and again.”

“Wanted,” Sherlock said, and shook his head. “I need you, you idiot.” He sucked in a quick breath and flushed a deep red. “Oh God.”

Unperturbed by the insult, John approached cautiously. Sherlock was a thoroughbred, inclined to bolt or bite. “You need me…on cases.”

“I need you,” Sherlock said, still scarlet, “in my universe, John.”

He was standing on a fault line, he knew. “I don’t understand.”

Sherlock let out a long-suffering exhalation of breath. He lifted his lanky frame from the chair and in one fluid movement was crouching in front of John. “John. Must I draw a picture?”

“Your drawings are rubbish,” John whispered.

“True.” Sherlock clenched his hand in front of his mouth, then slowly – slowly enough for John to push him away with ease – placed it atop John’s knee. “Do you mind?”

John stared down at Sherlock’s hand and shook his head. “No.” He looked up, took Sherlock’s face between his hands, and did what he’d wanted to do (but hadn’t acknowledged – he really was an idiot) for ages.

When he pulled back for breath, Sherlock’s eyes were closed.

“Sherlock.”

Sherlock opened his eyes. His lips parted, deliciously pink. “What now?”

John, feeling suddenly wicked, smiled. “Snail’s pace.”

Sherlock frowned. “What –”

“It’s going to be like old times round here. Sort of. Some differences, obviously.” He leant forward and kissed Sherlock again, nibbling lightly at his lower lip. “I’ll clean. You find the lights and start texting.”

“Oh, John, no –”

“That’s an order.”

Sherlock moved back, both hands on John’s knees. “God, I hate when you do that.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Hmph. What would you know?” Sherlock’s eyes danced. “Still, orders are orders, I reckon.”

“That’s right. Go find those bloody lights.”

 

*

 

Violet brought Siger a mince pie. She had no idea how they were going to dispose of them all; she’d made enough for an army. The neighbours wouldn’t want any what with their own Christmas feasting. Maybe she could take them to Simon Rhodes’ farm; his goats might enjoy them. “What’s on?”

“No idea,” Sig said. “Some murder mystery. Perfect for Christmas.”

“Lovely,” Violet said distractedly, and sat down with her needlepoint, a bunch of lilies of the valley on a black background. It would make a pretty pillow.

Both their phones buzzed with texts. Simultaneously, frowning worriedly at each other – what might a joint text mean? Nothing dreadful, surely? – they pulled out their phones and read.

“My goodness,” Violet said. “This is a first.”

Drinks party at eight tomorrow evening. Dress up.

Bring drinks.

Possibly some food as well.

Siger raised his eyebrows. “Is my grey suit clean, love?”

“Yes, I think so.” Violet smiled. “What on earth am I going to wear?”

Thank heavens. The mince pies wouldn’t go to waste after all.

 

*

 

Molly stepped out of the dressing room. “What do you think?” She didn’t wear dresses often, but this one would do for work or for socialising. If she had a chance to socialise sometime, obviously. Maybe.

Janine wrinkled her nose. “Bit stuffy. Why don’t you get something fun like that yellow frock you wore to the wedding?”

“Oh, I don’t know. That was a bit mad.”

“I thought it was brilliant.”

Molly gazed longingly at a rack of fluffy party dresses. “I haven’t really got anywhere to wear things like that.”

“We’ve got to go dancing or something. That’ll give you an excuse. Hang on.” Janine moved out of the changing area toward the rack with the fluffy dresses.

Molly sighed and looked at herself unhappily in the mirror. It was stuffy, but it wasn’t awful. Practical, really.

Her phone played Lick the Tins’ version of ‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.’ Molly dug for it with a scowl. God, I’ve really got to change that. She opened the text.

“What about this?” Janine proffered a silky pink number with a cascade of asymmetrical ruffles down the front.

“Look at this.” Molly showed Janine the text.

“Janey Mac,” Janine said. “Well, now you’ve got somewhere to wear this, don’t you?”

Molly nodded slowly. “Yes. Yes, I guess so.” She glanced up at Janine. “Would you be my date?”

A broad smile crossed Janine’s face. “I’d better find something for myself too, then.”

The pink dress was gorgeous. Janine had an eye.

 

*

 

He didn’t have much of a palate, admittedly, but even Greg discerned the minging reek of his tinned steak-and-kidney pie. The chip shop down the street was still open – maybe cod and chips was a better option.

Then I’d have to put shoes on. Bugger it. He sat and clicked on the telly.

His phone chirped in the kitchen – Sherlock’s ringtone. Sighing, Greg heaved himself up and went to fetch it. He hoped it wasn’t urgent.

“Blimey.” Holding the phone and still staring at the message, he went back to his chair.

His phone gave its generic text swoosh.

Did you get that?

That was fast.

I did, yeah.

There was a pause. The ellipsis flashed, then stopped, then flashed again. It stopped. Greg waited, chuckling.

Do you intend to go?

Yeah. I always do. Are you going?

A very short hesitation this time, only one flash of the ellipsis.

I suppose if you are, I will too.

Great, can’t wait. See you there.

Yes. Until then.

Greg went into the bedroom and eyed his suits. Sherlock was sure to make a snotty comment if he wore one of his regular work suits. He’d wear a tie.

Wouldn’t it be a turn-up if he showed up in just a little bit of eyeliner? No, not tonight. Maybe another time.

He hoped, at any rate.

 

*

Martha sorted her laundry and hummed as carols played in the next room. She felt surprisingly light-hearted after chucking Gautam out. They could remain friends, of course, but if she was going to step out with another fellow, he’d be someone who listened to her and who respected her, and ideally someone who wasn’t legally attached to multiple women. Of course, a bit of naughtiness wouldn’t be out of the question either.

Until then, she was perfectly content.

Her phone went off – Sherlock’s text sound, a hunting horn. Goodness, when was the last time he’d texted her? Ages ago, when he’d complained that the shower pressure was pants, probably. He must have been in a good mood – she’d seen John emerging from a taxi and he was likely still upstairs. She didn’t like to bother them, though. Things were still so precarious, she knew.

She read the text, and put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, boys.”

She’d bake scones. No, shortbread, much more festive. And what on earth was she going to wear?

Her boys were back. Wasn't it lovely!

 

*

 

Mycroft set the phone down and went into the loo. He undid his brown silk dressing gown and examined his reflection with some anxiety. Pale, odd, and despite his efforts, a bit flabby. Who on earth could possibly be interested in that?

He looked over at the phone, and his stomach fluttered – very uncharacteristic. His gastrointestinal system was comfortingly and sometimes depressingly resilient.

He’d bring a Fortnum’s hamper. Ms Marechal would be only too delighted to arrange something for him. And wine, of course. Not the best stuff. Sherlock might appreciate it – possibly – but no-one else would. Besides, the better wine was more suited for intimate celebrations.

Warmth travelled over Mycroft’s body. He gazed in distaste at the mottled pink on his chest. Perhaps he was only deceiving himself.

As if the last message might disappear, he went back to his phone and snatched it up, thumbing it to life.

can’t wait.

Mycroft shivered, then primly tied his dressing gown closed and went to select an appropriate dark suit.

 

*

 

“There. Isn’t that better?”

Sherlock sniffed. “The lights, or the announcement, or the table you’ve just cleared?”

“All of it. Look, you don’t have to do a thing except help me clean up. Go into the kitchen and get to work, it’s disgusting.”

Sherlock regarded John: his beaming, weathered face, his silly Nordic jumper, the smear of dust on his nose. A tide of emotion threatened to undo him. “You’re giving me the worst of it.”

“You made the mess, you clean it up.” From upstairs, Rosie squalled. “I’d better go get her.”

“I’ll go.” Sherlock moved toward the stairs. Maybe if he stayed up there long enough – possibly even changed Rosie’s nappy – John would attack the kitchen.

“I know what you’re thinking. You’re still on kitchen duty.”

Sherlock scowled at John. “When did I become so transparent?”

“You always have been.” John grasped Sherlock’s arm and pulled him in for a quick kiss. “Happy Christmas. Idiot.”

“Happy Christmas,” Sherlock echoed.

Just like old times.

 

End.