John halts in the doorway and blinks, hard, several times. The scene before him doesn’t change, ruling out the possibility that he’s in the grip of an illusion. Which is unfortunate because it means that not only is the living room definitely swathed in fake spider’s webs and black streamers, with candles and pumpkins sprouting from every surface, but that there really is a dog sat next to Sherlock on their sofa.
Well, it’s a puppy, if he’s going to be exact about it; a Yellow Labrador puppy, in fact, who looks to be about four months old, if overall size and the overlarge paws resting on Sherlock’s thigh are anything to go by. Although John’s more than willing to concede he might be wrong about that, given that the majority of his brain if focused on the midnight blue witch’s hat perched on its head, and a magic wand sticking out of its mouth.
‘Libbit, this is John.’ Sherlock speaks softly, his fingers continuing to card through the fur at the scruff of the puppy’s neck. The puppy turns its head and John finds himself looking into meltingly soft brown eyes that peak up at him from under the brim of the hat. It’s an image that brings a smile to his face despite his confusion.
‘John,’ Sherlock continues, finally lifting his own head so John can see clearly that his expression is as soft as his voice. ‘Come and say hello to Libbit.’
When John fails to move immediately Sherlock makes an impatient noise in the back of his throat. ‘Honestly, John, she won’t harm you. Your scent’s all over the place, so she already thinks of you as a friend. Don’t you, Libbit?’
The puppy gives a muffled woof of apparent agreement then drops the wand in Sherlock’s lap and begins vigorously licking his face. Instead of pushing her away, as John expects, Sherlock starts to laugh and cuddles the puppy close, the action sending both wand and hat tumbling to the floor. John does his best not to stare incredulously at the pair of them. He doubts he’s doing a particularly good job though, unnerved as he is that this side of Sherlock being shared with anyone other than Mrs Hudson and himself.
‘I didn’t know you liked dogs,’ he blurts, tone clipped and short.
‘I had an Irish Setter as a child.’
There is a melancholy note to the pronouncement and when Sherlock meets John’s gaze, over the top of the puppy’s golden head, John’s throat constricts at the sadness visible there. Shame at his moment of possessive jealously floods through him, heating his cheeks and making his stomach clench. He pushes both unhelpful emotions aside, concentrating his attention on the matter in hand.
‘H-’ He clears his throat, swallows, then tries again. ‘Hello, Libbit.’
She wriggles in Sherlock’s arms, tail thumping against the sofa back as she stands and tries to turn. John shrugs his jacket off and starts forward, opening his hands and offering them to her, palms up, for inspection. She lunges forward immediately, only Sherlock’s arms, wrapped firmly around her chest, stop her falling off the sofa edge in her eagerness to greet him.
‘Whoa there girl, easy.’ John cradles her silky muzzle in both hands and fluffs the fur behind her ears. Her tail takes on the appearance of an erratic helicopter blade in response, the motion making the whole of her bottom wiggle frantically. ‘You like that, huh. Well let me sit down and I’ll keep doing it.’ He squeezes into the remaining space between her and the arm of the sofa. ‘There, now, that’s better, isn’t it?’
Sherlock chooses that moment to relax his hold and John ends up with a lap full of puppy. A puppy whose sole purpose now seems to be to taste every inch of his exposed skin.
‘I did have a shower this morning,’ he says, somewhat reproachfully, once she’s calmed a little and he’s managed to coax her back into the space between them. ‘A second wash really wasn’t required.’
Libbit gives a dainty snort, darts forward to run her tongue from John’s collar bone to his check as if to emphasis her views on the matter, then plonks her bottom back on the sofa. She’s still for approximately half a second before she’s moving again, making another bid for the freedom of the floor.
‘The wand, John,’ Sherlock orders as he grabs her, a move that generates a wuff of annoyance which, when she realises she isn’t going to be released, turns to plaintive whines. Proving Sherlock right, she only quietens down once John has retrieved the wand – already baring the scars of her sharp little needle teeth – and hands it over.
‘She’s lovely,’ John says, watching her chomp happily on the plastic star, and meaning it whole heartedly, ‘but I’m still none the wiser as to why she’s here or why you had her dressed as a deeply furry Hermione Granger.’
‘Hermione turned herself into a cat in her second year, John, not a dog. And Libbit’s not staying.’
For an instant the sadness is visible again in Sherlock’s eyes but it’s gone as quickly as it appeared, dispelled by Libbit’s sudden and spirited attempt to disembowel him with the end of the wand. Still, its reappearance is enough to kindle an idea and, as he watches Sherlock undertake an impromptu tug of war with Libbit, John finds himself wondering if he might have found the answer to the problem of what he’s going to get Sherlock for Christmas. After all, they go out for a walk nearly every day anyway and a dog, even at its most destructive, can’t be more of a handful than Sherlock when he’s bored. Not remotely. Puppies don’t have opposable thumbs and thus cannot manipulate the implements necessary for the shooting of walls. He makes a mental note to discuss the idea with Mrs Hudson at the first opportunity.
‘Who does she belong to?’ John asks when Sherlock shows no sign of continuing his explanation unprompted.
‘She’s for Archie.’
Those three words go a long way to turning John’s confusion into, well, not complete understanding but something close. Archie has become something of a fixture in their lives over the past six months, since he turned up on their doorstep to demand that Sherlock help him prove he hadn’t stolen his teacher’s wallet. John’s initial assumption, that Sherlock would send him straight home, was swiftly quashed when Sherlock said, in a far more sympathetic tone than he used to their other clients, “you’d better come up and tell me everything”.
John realised over the course of that afternoon that Sherlock saw something of a kindred spirit in Archie - who was fiercely intelligence and unblushingly honest - treating him more like an equal than he did most of Scotland Yard. Archie, in his turn, hero-worshiped “Mr Holmes” and continued to visit long after Sherlock had solved the case and ensured the leader of the gang making Archie’s school life a misery was expelled. It didn’t stop the bullying altogether but it did reduce the problem significantly and Archie was much happier as a result. Something that ensured Archie’s mother, Marion, was also incredibly well disposed toward Sherlock.
‘Right, of course.’ John says, remembering the main topic of conversation during Archie’s last visit. ‘She’s his birthday present.’
‘A day early but I doubt he’ll mind. We’re having a sort of party too.’ Sherlock inclines his head towards the nearest of the decorations with an expression of distaste. ‘Marion’s idea. So he doesn’t have to go to the Halloween disco at his school.’ He waves one hand towards the kitchen. ‘Mrs Hudson’s made cakes.’
John knows better than to call Sherlock out on his dismissiveness of the party. He may never have acted with Archie the way he is with Libbit but John knows – has known since that first visit after the case was closed, when Sherlock did not simply tolerate Archie’s endless questions on a variety of topics but patiently and thoroughly answered each one of them, never mind that he then read and remembered the plots of Archie’s favourite books with scientific exactness - that Sherlock cares deeply for him.
‘That does explain the attempt at costuming,’ he says instead, rescuing the now rather crumpled hat from the floor and setting it on the coffee table. At which an unwelcome thought strikes: ‘You’re not expecting me to dress up too, are you?’
Sherlock relinquishes his hold on the wand and looks up at John, smile hovering round the corners of his mouth. ‘No, John.’ His voice is unexpectedly low. ‘I never want you to be anyone other than yourself.’
John is suddenly very aware of his heart pounding in his chest and the rush of blood through his veins. He can’t look away from Sherlock. Wouldn’t want to. This part of their relationship isn’t new, not by a long shot, but somehow every time they get to this juncture it feels like the first time. The desire that is clearly visible in every curve of Sherlock’s face and line of Sherlock’s body is echoed in each cell of his own, his skin thrilling in the anticipation of touching, and being touched. Sherlock’s breath is coming in short, ragged gasps as he starts to move, leaning towards John oh-so-slowly. John can feel himself mirroring the action, the gap between them decreasing millimetre by millimetre until he's almost close enough to taste Sherlock’s breath.
At which point Libbit, with the unerring instinct of one who knows they are no longer the centre of attention, gives a sharp yip and sinks her teeth into the cuff of John’s jumper, shattering the atmosphere in an instant and sending them springing apart.
‘Hey!’ John says, his arm being yanked downwards as Libbit rolls onto her back, all the better to get a grip on the thick navy wool. ‘I’m not a chew toy!’
‘I think that’s a matter of opinion,’ Sherlock says, not bothering to stifle his laughter as John resorts to pealing himself out of his jumper to get free of her tenacious teeth and paws. ‘But I have to say, Libbit, you have the worst timing.’
‘Or the best,’ John says, as the doorbell shrills, followed by Archie’s cry of “Trick or treat, Mrs Hudson” echoing up the stairs. ‘I don’t like starting things I can’t finish.’
Sherlock tilts his head to one side, corners of his mouth curling into the most lascivious smile John’s ever had the fortune to be on the receiving end of.
‘Very admirable,’ he murmurs, voice deliciously husky, ‘but just a little boring.’
Before John has really registered the words Sherlock’s hands are cradling his head and his mouth has been captured in a searing kiss. One that seems to be short-circuiting his entire nervous system.
‘That’s the trick,’ Sherlock murmurs against John’s lips as they break apart. ‘The treat comes later … as will you.’
Then he stands, scooping Libbit – who is still happily shredding John’s jumper – up into his arms and, with an expression so serene it makes John want to thump him, turns to the door, ready to greet Archie, whose footsteps can be heard clattering up the stairs.
‘You’re a fiend,’ John hisses as he, too, stands, moving behind Sherlock and wishing fervently he had that much control over his own flushed face and overexcited body. ‘An absolute fiend.’
‘Obviously,’ Sherlock says, fairly radiating smugness as the door flies open and Archie bursts into the room. ‘It is Halloween, John. What did you expect?’