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Going Once, Going Twice...

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Sherlock honestly did not remember getting here.

He remembered a text—Irene saying she wanted to go somewhere new for dinner, someplace nice. He remembered putting on the suit she eerily remembered he owned, remembered getting in the car she had ordered for the occasion, and remembered bickering with her the entire ride that the reason he didn’t look at the plunging neckline of her sparkling deep green dress was because he was gay, not because it didn’t show off her cleavage, but the part between the car and standing awkwardly beside the hors d’oeuvres table at a hospital charity event escaped him. Blinking dumbly down at the champagne glass that had somehow appeared in his hand, he started when Irene reappeared, plate of various fruits and cheeses in hand.

She beamed at him, lifting the plate on her palm as she looked between his face and the brie wedge, but Sherlock only frowned at her.

“You said we were going for dinner,” he murmured, and she sighed, lowering the plate as she rolled her eyes.

“We are,” she muttered tiredly, “they just haven’t opened the ballroom.” She waved a hand back toward the grand double doors on the other side of the lobby, Sherlock following her gaze through the crowd of medical professionals and philanthropists.

“You said we were going for a real dinner,” he clarified, and Irene rolled her eyes again, linking her arm with his as she held the cheese tray aloft with the other hand.

“Lighten up, Sherlock,” she said, leading him away toward one of the tall cocktail tables. “It’s Christmas. And it’s for charity. Don’t you want to lend your support in helping the less fortunate?”

“Are there no prisons?” he clipped, channeling his seasonal Dickens, and Irene sneered up at him.

“Not that kind of less fortunate,” she muttered, plopping the plate down on the table’s surface before releasing his arm. “This benefit is for Children with Cancer UK,” she said, raising a brow at him, and there was nothing much he could say to that, averting his eyes and sipping at his champagne. Irene chuckled, plucking up a cube of cheddar. “I hear the workhouses are also-”

“I never said that,” Sherlock snipped, and Irene laughed, popping a slice of melon into her mouth just as the heavy doors across the room were pushed open by the wait staff.

Finally,” she sighed, brushing her hands together before grabbing Sherlock by the wrist, towing him along. “Come on, I wanna get a good seat.”

“Aren’t seats assigned?” he replied, trying to make himself as small as possible as they weaved through the crowd.

“Tables are assigned,” Irene corrected, pushing chairs this way and that and they headed toward where Irene apparently already knew they were seated, “but not specific seats, and I wanna have a good view of the stage.”

“Stage?” Sherlock echoed, and then looked up, eyes alighting on the large platform spread across the front of the room. It was trimmed in garland and bows, lights wrapped around everything, and there was a large podium at the center, spotlights illuminating the entire setup. “Irene, what-” he started, but she hissed him quiet, giving his arm a sharp tug, and then pushed him down into a chair, which did, he had to admit, have an excellent view. He just wished he knew what of.

Turning to the table, he noticed a card in front of every seat, placed atop the silverware setting, and snatched his up, hoping it could provide some answers. Most of the information was already known or unimportant: the unnecessarily convoluted title of the event, a few key sponsors, and the different hospitals that were participating. One item, however, caught Sherlock’s attention, shining in gold-gilded letters just beneath the event emblem, and he nearly dropped the pamphlet, whipping his face around to glare at Irene.

“What the hell are you-” he snapped, but the woman waved his words away.

“It’s for charity, Sherlock, I told you.”

“But a bachelor auction!?” he spluttered, jabbing at the offending print. “What, you don’t have enough men waiting on you hand and foot, you have to buy one now?”

“Oh, please,” she muttered, rolling her eyes, “I’m not here for the bachelors. Not that I’m not gonna look,” she added, turning over her shoulder with a lecherous smirk. “Looking’s free.”

Sherlock turned his eyes to the ceiling in exasperation, and Irene laughed, laying a gentle hand on his arm.

“A friend invited me,” she said, and Sherlock’s focus narrowed along with his eyes, watching the twitches of her lips.

“A friend,” he echoed, and Irene avoided his eyes. “This wouldn’t happen to be that friend who’s on the board at The Royal London Hospital, would it?” he asked, and she bit at her lip. “The one you’ve been not-so-subtly trying to seduce for weeks?”

“Hey now!” she snapped, whirling around to jab a finger up at him. “I am plenty subtle!”

“Yeah, that dress screams understated,” he muttered, hissing when she swatted him hard across the arm, but could then only glare, the music starting as the lights dimmed.

A woman walked out onto the stage to roaring applause, Irene’s eyes lighting up as she clapped her hands together, and Sherlock snorted, earning himself a smack to the chest.

“Good evening, everyone!” the woman bade, batting her hands for quiet. She had short red hair, dressed in a simple black dress, but her shoes were a bright red, no doubt to add a festive air to the otherwise drab ensemble. “As I’m sure most of you already know, I’m Kate Harlow, president of the board of The Royal London Hospital, and your host for this evening!” Another round of applause, to which Kate smiled politely, lifting a hand to settle them down. “We from Barts Health NHS are delighted to welcome you here, and to promote such a worthy cause: Children with Cancer UK.”

Irene turned her eyes to him over her shoulder during the break for applause, lifting a brow, and then grinning as Sherlock only glared.

“Thank you all so much for coming, and I hope you have a fabulous evening. Dinner will be coming out shortly, but, first, I thought I might give you a rundown of tonight’s events. We’ve got a real special treat for you tonight,” she urged, rubbing her hands together as she turned slightly to the side, gesturing at the stage. “Our first ever bachelor auction!” She started clapping, the rest of the room joining it, but nothing was actually happening, so Sherlock left his hands in his lap. “We’ve collected the best, brightest, and most available from all our hospitals, and, with a little begging and a lot of guilt”—she paused to bite her lip in a pantomime of shame, garnering a laugh—“we’ve managed to rope 17 of them into participating. We’ll bring them out one-by-one, give you a quick summary, and then the bidding will commence! Should you win, you’ll get one of our white-coat-wonders for an entire day of your choosing, although, I must warn you, with their busy schedules, sooner is definitely better than later. All the proceeds go to charity, of course, so bid generously!” she urged, waggling a finger out at them. “And, besides, they’re worth every penny,” she added with a wink, prompting another laugh. She then smiled out over them, clapping her hands together. “Alright! The servers are gonna get you all started with bread and salad, and then, as soon as that’s out, we’ll begin, and I’ll be back up here to read off all our bachelor bios!” She lifted a hand in a brief wave, stepping down the stairs at the edge of the stage to thunderous applause just as a parade of black and white catering staff flooded in from the doors on either side, and Sherlock turned to Irene, scowl firmly in place.

The woman gradually stopped clapping, putting her neck back into its proper place from trying to crane over the crowd to follow Kate, and then turned to Sherlock, blinking innocently. “What?” she murmured, and he sniffed, rattling his head in derision as he looked away. Irene simply shrugged, going back to trying to spot Kate, while Sherlock turned his attention to the arriving salad, wilted greens he could already tell were overdressed.

With a wrinkle of his nose, he pushed at it with his fork, picking up a small piece of what looked like feta and drawing it close for examination. Putting that down, he instead grabbed a roll of some kind of sesame-dusted bread, splitting it over and smearing it with the provided butter, and then turned once again to Irene, kicking lightly at the leg of her chair. The woman only continued to ignore him, however, and, after a swallow and a drink of water, he spoke. “She’s not gay, you know,” he said, nodding across the room when Irene whipped her head to him, eyes narrowing.

“How can you tell?” she demanded, glaring when Sherlock only lifted a brow at the ridiculous question. She then frowned, looking once again out over the ballroom. “I was sure I got a vibe off her though…” she mused, and Sherlock chuckled.

“Maybe you’re losing your touch,” he muttered, dodging just in time to avoid her slap-happy hand. “But I said she wasn’t gay,” he added, lifting what was left of his roll, “not that she was straight.”

“Well, why didn’t you say that!?” Irene spluttered, and Sherlock shrugged.

“Why did you drag me to a bachelor auction the day before I leave?” he snapped back, knowing Irene was very much aware of his annual trip to his parents’. “I haven’t even packed yet!”

“And that’s my fault how?” she clipped with a flick of her hand. “I tell you every year not to leave it ‘til the last minute.”

“Well, I wouldn’t’ve if I’d known you were going to drag me to a bachelor auction!” he snarled, and Irene, true to form, stuck her tongue out at him before swirling spotlights drew their attention back to the stage.

Kate once again, stepped to the podium, applause accompanying her. “Okay, now that we’ve all carbed up,” she began, smiling at the ripple of laughter, “and before the soup comes out, let’s meet a few of our bachelors! Unfortunately, my suggestion of a swimsuit contest was shot down”—she lifted her hands apologetically, and even Sherlock begrudgingly twitched a small smile—“but they did all come in their black-tie best! Without further ado, let’s have Bachelor #1!” She turned her hands out in gesture, and then began clapping as the first man appeared, tall and tan with a tousled shock of black hair.

And so it began, doctor after doctor parading across the stage in various degrees of discomfort while Kate read out a brief synopsis of their occupation and interests, and then began the bidding, middle-aged women flying out of their seats left, right, and center. It was lucky the auction periodically broke for food and speeches from the various hospital presidents, or else Sherlock wouldn’t have had a prayer, but, even so, he had a pounding headache half an hour in, just over half the bachelors having been auctioned off.

“Do we have to stay for the whole thing?” he whined into Irene’s ear as the 12th bachelor got shipped off to a giggling divorcee.

“They haven’t even served dessert yet,” she hissed, talking out of the corner of her mouth. “If it’s not chocolate, we’ll bail,” she offered, and Sherlock sighed, propping his head up on a palm, elbow resting atop the back of his chair as he leaned over it.

“Bachelor #13,” Kate barreled valiantly on, even Sherlock having to mentally congratulate her on her perseverance of enthusiasm. “Once an army doctor, now the top emergency physician at St. Barts, please welcome John Watson!”

Sherlock’s neck cracked, he twisted it so fast, snapping his attention to the stage, because it couldn’t be, it just couldn’t be!

But it was, blond-haired, blue-eyed Dr. John Watson stepping up onto the stage, squinting under the light and looking wholly uncomfortable—and absolutely amazing—in a navy suit and thin red tie, polished brown shoes glinting under the spotlights.

Sherlock leapt out of his seat before Kate had even finished prattling on about John eating too much takeout or something, determined to get as far away from within sight of John Watson as possible, but Irene grabbed his sleeve, halting him as he passed.

“Where are you going?” she hissed, leaning up to him, angry for a fraction of a second before she simply turned puzzled, squinting up at Sherlock’s face, and then, horribly, looked toward the stage.

“Toilet,” Sherlock blurted, shaking her hand loose from his sleeve. “I- I’ll be right back,” he muttered, darting away before she could see anything else, his vision a haze as he swept past the blurs of faces and tables.

Thankfully, there was no one else in the toilet when he burst through the door, panting and shaking as he threw himself over a sink, clutching hard to the edge of the granite countertop. He closed his eyes, dropping his head as he breathed, and, when his lungs stopped heaving quite so heavily, he tipped his chin up, blinking at himself in the mirror.

It had been so long—12 years, in fact, Sherlock only 19 when they’d met—he had believed he had forgotten, managed to delete the single interaction from his mind, but it all came rushing back now, the stark white and reeking bleach of the hospital blasting full-force into his senses. John wouldn’t remember, of course—probably couldn’t even have picked him out of lineup the very next day, what with how much work he must’ve had over his university placements—but Sherlock could apparently never forget, and being in the same room with him was simply more than he could bear. He’d have to leave, have to get out of here before the wrap-up hand-shaking that always worked around the room, because he couldn’t risk finding John in that mess, couldn’t risk having to shake his hand and introduce himself and see only blank politeness in his eyes. It is the very worst thing to be forgotten when you yourself cannot forget.

“Sherlock?”

He jumped, spinning around and bracing himself against the edge of the counter as Irene came clicking around the corner, peering this way and that until her eyes alighted on him, face brightening as she rushed forward.

“There you are,” she huffed, grabbing onto his wrist. “Come on, I have to show you something.”

“Irene,” he blustered, holding his ground, his arm flapping in front of him as she pulled, “this is the men’s room!”

“Yes, believe it or not, I am perfectly capable of reading signage,” she snapped, rolling her eyes at him as if that settled the matter. “Now, hurry up before a real man walks in,” she added, and, maybe simply for the shock of it, Sherlock followed, allowing her to tug him out the door.

“Irene, what is this-” he started, and then stifled a yelp as she threw him forward, his limbs staggering at her side as he struggled for balance.

“Sherlock,” she clipped, ignoring his glare as she waved a hand in front of her, “this is John.”

His blood ran cold, heart pounding against his eardrums as he hoped against hope the common name belonged to someone else, but, as with everything else, he wasn’t so fortunate, and familiar blue eyes crinkled at him in a kind smile.

Irene grinned, puffing up like a proud mother hen as she looked between them. “He’s gonna be your date to your family Christmas party,” she added, though Sherlock was sure he’d hallucinated that part, turning to her with his jaw scraping the floor.

What!?” he spluttered, but Irene only flicked a patronizing hand.

“We both know you told them you had a boyfriend ages ago to get them off your back,” she muttered, and he clenched his jaw at the truth of it. “This way, you don’t have to say you guys broke up; earn yourself another set-up-free year! I’ve already filled John in on all the particulars.”

“Oh, have you?” Sherlock snarled bitterly, Irene simply blinking at him, and then John cleared his throat, drawing Sherlock’s reluctant eyes.

“I really don’t mind,” he said, tipping his head with a soft smile and shrug. “I already lied to my sister and said I had plans, so it works out pretty well for me. I mean, if that’s what you were worried-”

“I wasn’t worried,” Sherlock interjected, and John quirked a brow. Sherlock sighed, shaking his head at the ground, resigning himself to an explanation. “Look, I-I suppose it’s very thoughtful of you,” he muttered, waving a vague hand toward Irene, “in an unnecessary, meddling sort of way, but I really- I don’t need a date.” He peered at John through his lashes, the man frowning curiously as he searched between Sherlock’s eyes. “I- You don’t have to-”

“Well, of course he doesn’t have to,” Irene snipped, rolling her eyes to the ceiling as Sherlock shot her the hottest glare he could muster. “I told you, I already told him everything; he knows he could’ve said no. Don’t you, John?”

“I- Um, yes,” John answered, blinking at the woman. “It’s really alright,” he added, flicking a reassuring glance to Sherlock. “She wasn’t nearly this pushy earlier.”

Sherlock smiled in spite of himself, prompting a grin from John, and then cleared his throat, shaking his head at the ground. “No, I- It’s Christmas Eve,” he muttered. “I-I couldn’t- I’m sure you have something you’d rather be doing.”

“Not at all,” John chirped, slipping his hands into the pockets of his trousers as he shrugged, and Sherlock blinked, wondering why John wasn’t taking any of the outs Sherlock was throwing him, because he couldn’t actually want to spend Christmas Eve schmoozing his way around a room of the city’s most boring. Could he? “It’s tomorrow night, right?” he asked, and Sherlock nodded dazedly. “So, you’ll probably have to get there…midafternoon?”

Once again, Sherlock nodded, and John beamed, clipping a nod.

“Great! Well, Irene already gave me the address,” he said, pulling a hand from his pocket to wave at the woman, “so I’ll just pick you up. Noon alright?” he inquired, and Sherlock just stared a moment, lips parted.

“Um, yeah,” he murmured, rattling his head clear. “Yes, that-that’ll be fine,” he added, clearing his throat, and John grinned.

“Alright then,” he replied, something soft and—if Sherlock wasn’t seeing things—genuinely pleased in his gaze, and Sherlock immediately shot down all of the last minute excuses he had already begun to concoct. “I’ll see ya tomorrow. Lovely to meet you both. But, actually,” he paused, turning back from his exit to frown at Sherlock, blue eyes searching thoroughly over his face, “you look very familiar. Have we met before?”

Sherlock’s jaw stiffened, and he barely caught the swallow that threatened to bob down his throat in betrayal. “No,” he clipped, blithely shaking his head as he saw Irene’s eyes narrow at him in his peripheral vision, “I don’t believe so.”

John hummed, giving him a last onceover before he shrugged, turning away with a quirk of his brows. “Hazard of the job, I guess,” he joked with a small smirk. “I think I know everyone.”

Irene chuckled, Sherlock smiling along as John started away, lifting a hand up to his shoulder in a wave.

“Well, bye then,” he bade, making his way back through the crowd, and Sherlock couldn’t quite stop his eyes from drifting down his body, nearly jumping out of his skin when Irene slapped him hard on the arm.

“Ow!” he spouted, clutching at the sore spot as he rounded on her. “What the hell!?”

“You ‘what the hell’!” Irene snapped back, glancing out at the room a moment before drawing in close to his side. “What was that?”

“What was what?” Sherlock retorted, and Irene huffed, rolling her eyes.

“You and the good doctor,” she hissed, waving a hand out at the ballroom, though John had now completely vanished into the crowd. “I saw you when he came out on stage. You know him.”

“No, I don’t,” he denied, avoiding Irene’s eyes, but the woman moved in front of him, capturing his attention with a sharp glare that clearly wasn’t accepting that as an answer. Sherlock sighed, shaking his head as he turned away. “It’s nothing,” he muttered, shifting his shoulder between them. “It was just once. Over a decade ago.”

“One night stand?” Irene supposed, and Sherlock’s jaw dropped.

“What? No!” he spluttered, and she shrugged.

“I’m just saying, I wouldn’t have passed up the chance.”

“You’re gay,” Sherlock reminded, and Irene smiled, looking once again out over the ballroom.

“I could be persuaded,” she murmured, and Sherlock sniffed, the woman turning back to him with a grin. “Oh, you do like him!” she chirped, delighted, and Sherlock started away, Irene cackling as she shadowed him toward the door. “Seriously, what happened?” she pressed, bouncing along at his shoulder. “Clearly, it’s something. You wouldn’t get all scowly for no reason.”

“I’m not ‘all scowly’,” Sherlock snapped, and Irene quirked a brow at him. He huffed, shaking his head as he handed the coat attendant their tags, the young man nodding with a polite smile before disappearing behind the closet door. “We met at the hospital, alright?” he muttered, and Irene beamed triumphantly. “I-I was visiting someone,” he lied, but Irene wasn’t quite good enough to know the difference, “and he was shadowing their doctor.”

“And you remember that over ten years later?” Irene replied skeptically, and then blinked, expression slackening as she looked between Sherlock’s eyes. “Oh my god,” she breathed, a grin slowly growing on her face. “Oh my god, you fell for him, didn’t you!?”

“What?” Sherlock scoffed, sneering as he took his coat from the boy, shaking his arms into the sleeves. “Don’t be ridiculous. I do not fall.”

“Oh, you so fell,” Irene continued, clicking along beside him as she kept pace with his long strides. “Was it right away? Love at first sight the second you locked eyes with those baby blues?”

“No,” Sherlock grumbled, and Irene laughed, “we-we just talked, alright?”

“Mhmm,” Irene hummed skeptically, waggling her brows, and Sherlock rolled his eyes, smiling at her absurdity.

“You wanna share a cab?” he asked, bobbing his head toward the queue of them in the street, but Irene shook her head.

“Naw, I’m heading out for the night. Kate and I are going dancing,” she added with a grin, and Sherlock laughed.

“You work fast,” he chuckled, and Irene tipped her head at the compliment. “Well, good luck with that,” he wished, moving toward the curb.

“Oh, I don’t need luck,” Irene quipped back, winking when Sherlock looked at her. “Text me after the party tomorrow night,” she ordered, waggling a finger at him as he swung open the door of one of the cabs. “But not right in the middle of the throes of passion, alright? That’s a little too much information, even for me.”

“Goodnight, Irene,” Sherlock called over his shoulder, lowering down to the pleather seats, cutting off her raucous laughter with a slam of the door.

“Where to?” the cabbie barked, and Sherlock leaned forward, performing his usual scan of the man to ensure he wasn’t about to be murdered.

“221B Baker Street,” he pronounced, and the man nodded, weaving off into the night. A moment later, Sherlock’s phone chimed, and he opened the text message, already dreading the content when he saw Irene’s name.

See if you can sneak a picture ; )

Sherlock chuckled, swiping out his response.

Of what?

The reply was immediate.

Save the coy for your boyfriend

Sherlock smiled, shaking his head as he answered.

He’s not my boyfriend

Not with that attitude

Sherlock laughed, and was just considering his retort when a final message chirped in.

Dancing time. Don’t forget to text me!

He tapped his thumb over the screen a moment, and then settled on a simple ‘Okay’ before pocketing the mobile, watching the streetlamps roll past outside the window. A knot of nervous nausea began building in his chest, and he twisted his fingers in his lap, frowning out at the dark.

What was he going to wear?

*****

Supposedly, John had a nice car.

Sherlock didn’t know anything about it, of course, fairly sure at least half of what John had told him about the vehicle had been made-up words, but he’d listened diligently enough, nodding when it seemed appropriate.

John, of course, had seen right through it, laughing loudly when Sherlock hadn’t bothered to lie about his ignorance. “You’ve never seen a single episode of Top Gear?” the blond chuckled, glancing across at Sherlock in the passenger seat. “Seriously? Not a one?”

“I may have,” Sherlock murmured, and John laughed.

“You’re a terrible liar,” he chided, shaking his head, and Sherlock didn’t see any benefit in correcting him. “Speaking of lying,” he continued, twisting his neck behind them as he changed lanes, “we should probably get our stories straight.”

“Stories?” Sherlock asked, frowning, and John nodded.

“Yeah, you know,” he shrugged, “how we met, how long we’ve been together. The usual stuff. And I should probably know something about you too.”

“Like what?”

“I dunno, just…boyfriend stuff,” John muttered, and Sherlock’s stomach flipped entirely without his permission. “Where you went to school, what you do for a living, how you like your eggs.”

“Why would you know how I like my eggs?” Sherlock chuckled, and John smirked at him.

“Because I make breakfast, of course,” he chirped, and Sherlock turned his eyes back to the dashboard before he blushed too horribly.

“Well, alright,” he muttered, and John just waited, chancing glances at him between weaving around slower cars. “I went to Imperial,” Sherlock started, careful not to echo anything from their first encounter, although that hadn’t gotten much further than the matter at hand. “I have a graduate degree in chemistry, but- Well, I don’t really use it. Not often, at least.”

“So, what do you do, then?” John asked, the winter light catching on his hair through the sunroof as he turned his head.

Sherlock swallowed, dropping his face to his lap. “I work with the police as a consulting detective,” he said, and John’s eyes blew wide.

“A what?” he blurted, and Sherlock shrugged.

“It’s not really a thing,” he muttered, rattling his head. “I made it up. Couldn’t really think of a term that properly described it.”

“And it is…what, exactly?” John pressed, genuinely curious, and, tentatively, watching for any signs of disinterest, Sherlock continued.

“When the police are out of their depth,” he explained, tipping his head, “they come to me. I-I sort of…see things differently, I guess. Can spot things they’ve missed. I’ve solved over thirty murders this year alone,” he added, a hint of a brag, and John, contrary to the norm, looked more impressed than disturbed.

“Wow,” he murmured, blinking out at the road ahead. “What are you doing dating a doctor?”

Sherlock laughed, head brushing back against the seat as he blinked up at the grey sheet of clouds overhead. “What about you?” he asked, rolling his head toward the blond. “I mean, I know the doctor thing, obviously,” he muttered with a roll of his wrist, “but the rest of it, school and all that. They said at the auction that you were in the army?”

“Mhmm,” John hummed affirmatively. “Captain, Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers.”

“Do I salute?” Sherlock prompted when the man paused, and John laughed, shrugging a shoulder.

“You can, if you like,” he quipped, flashing a grin, “but I’m retired now. Medical discharge three years ago. I got shot,” he said simply, smiling gently when Sherlock gasped. “The wound wasn’t actually that bad. I mean, I still needed physical therapy for months, don’t get me wrong,” he added, turning a hand over in the air as he glanced at him, “but it was the infection that really did me in. Not much for proper medical care out there, and it was over a week before I was stable enough to transport back.”

“Sepsis?” Sherlock supposed, and John nodded.

“Doctors said I almost died. I don’t remember any of it, really,” he added with a half-shrug. “They kept me pretty out of it. But it’s fine now,” he chirped, tapping his left shoulder with a smile. “Good as new. Well, maybe not quite new,” he amended with a wrinkle of his nose, bobbing his head to the side. “Still twinges a bit sometimes, but I think it’s mostly in my head.”

“Is that what your therapist said?” Sherlock asked unthinkingly, stomach tightening with a jolt as John snapped his face to blink at him. “I- They usually include that in recovery,” he muttered, blinking down to his knees, “whenever the injury’s traumatic.”

John stared at him as much as he was able, eyes flicking between the side of Sherlock’s face and the road. “I- Well, yeah,” he answered, nodding back out at the road. “That-That is what she said. I guess the pain is supposed to be some sort of manifestation of my PTSD?” he explained, face wrinkling in skepticism. “I dunno. But, at any rate,” he continued with a small smile, “it got a lot better when I went back to working at the hospital.”

Sherlock returned the smile, nodding softly, and then silence fell again, Sherlock turning his face out the window as he bit his lip, puzzling over how to break it.

“So,” John chimed, saving him the trouble, “what about us?”

“Us?” Sherlock echoed, shaking his head perplexedly, and John lifted a hand, waving his fingers between them.

“Yeah, us,” he repeated. “The relationship stuff. Like, for starters,” he began, tipping his head, “how did we meet? You roll your ankle jogging just as a dashing young-ish doctor was passing by on his way to work?”

Sherlock laughed, startling himself a moment with the vivacity of the sound, so unaccustomed to hearing it roll out of his throat. He shook his head, grinning across at John. “I don’t jog,” he chuckled, and John quirked a shoulder, looking back out to the road.

“Got our coffee orders mixed up at the café?” he suggested, lifting a brow as he looked to Sherlock out of the corner of his eye, and Sherlock shook his head again.

“I don’t really go to cafés,” he advised, shrugging when John frowned. “I dunno, I just…prefer to make my own. Less risk of it getting mixed up with random strangers’,” he added with a smirk, and John laughed.

“Fair enough. I could probably do to cut back on them too, to be honest; it’s an expensive habit. Um…both reached for the last box of cereal at the supermarket?”

“You watch a lot of romantic comedies, don’t you?” Sherlock teased, and John stuck out his tongue.

“That’s all they’ve been playing,” he argued, scowling as Sherlock raised a skeptical brow. “Oh, I know!” he suddenly blurted, swinging a finger to point to Sherlock. “What if it had something to do with one of your cases?”

“My cases?” Sherlock echoed, and John nodded eagerly. “Like…you were a client?”

“I could be,” John offered with a tip of his head, “but I was thinking more like…a consultant to the consultant. Like you needed a medical opinion on something, stormed St. Barts- Would you storm St. Barts?”

“I quite frequently storm St. Barts,” Sherlock admitted, setting John laughing, “although it’s usually in the morgue. But…I suppose I could’ve done that.” He blinked out at the road ahead of them, frowning in thought. “I generally just send Molly upstairs to ask someone, but if she weren’t there for some reason-”

“Wait, Molly Hooper?” John interjected, furrowing his brow as he glanced between the windshield and Sherlock, and then burst out laughing when Sherlock nodded. “No wonder she’s always asking me all those weird questions!”

“She asks you?” Sherlock inquired, and John nodded, winding down to chuckling.

“Most of the time, yeah. I’ll tell ya what, though, I’m a little relieved.” He smiled, shifting his hands on the steering wheel. “I was beginning to get a little suspicious about why she needed to know so much about post-mortem bruising patterns,” he quipped and Sherlock laughed, smiling out at the trees racing past the window. “So, I guess, in a way,” he continued, and Sherlock turned back, “you’ve been asking for my help all along.” He twisted his face to Sherlock, eyes bright over a glittering grin. “I’ve halfway known you for a while now.”

Sherlock chuckled, smiling down to his knees as he nodded, but inside was an entirely different story, stomach wriggling to twist up his throat. “Yeah,” he murmured, “I-I suppose you have.” He tilted a smile up at John, who returned it with a beam, entirely unconscious of just how true his statement really was.

*****

The rest of the drive passed amicably enough, that is, until the last twenty minutes, when Sherlock’s nerves got the best of him, and he fell silent, foot tapping anxiously on the black carpet as he bit his lip out the window.

“Hey,” John murmured, placing a tentative hand over Sherlock’s bouncing knee, and Sherlock jumped, whipping his head around. “Sorry, I-” he started, lifting his fingers away, but Sherlock shook his head.

“No, I- It just startled me,” he muttered, rattling his head, not wanting to admit how long it had been since someone other than Mrs. Hudson had touched him—apart from security guards throwing him out of places, that is. “I-I don’t mind. Suppose I should get used to it,” he said with a frail smile, shrugging a shoulder, “what with us being in a relationship and all.”

“You don’t have to,” John offered, and Sherlock tried not to be too disappointed when both his hands returned to the steering wheel. “We could just not be an affectionate couple.”

“We’ll probably have to be a little bit,” Sherlock replied, biting his tongue, focusing on the pain in hopes it would distract his mind from blushing. “Otherwise they’ll get suspicious.”

John nodded, humming thoughtfully. “We should talk about that, actually,” he said, flicking a glance to Sherlock as he turned down yet another country road, following the demands of the GPS. “Boundaries, how much PDA is too much PDA, ya know, that sort of stuff.”

“We’re not a particularly demonstrative family,” Sherlock replied, shrugging down at the floor. “My parents were never overly affectionate with one another, and I don’t believe my brother’s even had a relationship.”

“Okay,” John muttered, bobbing his head, “but what about you?”

“What about me?” Sherlock asked, and John smiled.

“What do you like? Like, what did you do in your other relationships?”

“Oh,” Sherlock muttered, twisting his fingers together in his lap, “well, they-they weren’t much for that sort of thing.”

“Okay,” John stressed, turning his eyes to Sherlock again, “but what about you?”

Sherlock frowned, blinking across at him. “I-I don’t understand,” he murmured, not entirely sure those words had ever come out of his mouth in that order.

“What do you want?” John elaborated, leaning down to the GPS to check his course. “Like, if it were entirely up to you, what would you do?”

Sherlock stared at him a moment, lips shifting soundlessly, and then he closed them, gazing out the windshield, brow furrowed. “I-I don’t know…” he mused, losing track of the silence as he considered, and John pulled him back, fingers grazing Sherlock’s thigh.

“How ‘bout we just play it by ear?” he offered, smiling gently, hand just resting atop Sherlock’s leg. “You tell me if you get uncomfortable with anything, alright?”

Sherlock twitched up a corner of his mouth, nodding, and John pulled away, Sherlock’s skin all the colder for the absence.

John focused back out the windshield, his eyes widening as his lips popped apart. “Um, Sherlock?” he muttered, and Sherlock hummed. “Is that- Is that your house?”

Sherlock followed his gaze, finding the grand manor house standing imposingly at the end of the drive in front of them, the gravel flanked with rows of tall trees. “My parents’,” he replied, and John puffed a high laugh, shaking his head.

“Bloody hell,” he breathed, and then turned to Sherlock, a dazed sort of smile on his face. “Is this the part where you tell me you’re eighth in line for the throne or something?”

“No,” Sherlock chuckled, shaking his head as they pulled to a stop in front of the stone steps leading up to the grand wooden door. “I’m twenty-fifth,” he added, laughing as John’s jaw dropped.

“Wait, seriously?” the blond muttered, face paling with panic. “Sherlock!” he snapped when Sherlock did not reply, and Sherlock shook his head, unbuckling his seatbelt.

“No,” he assured, though John still looked skeptical. “I promise, no one here is in line for any throne anywhere. Although, my great-grandfather was a lord, if that counts.”

“Oh, it counts,” John replied, nodding out the window as he gazed over the front of the house.

Sherlock chuckled, turning to the front door as well, and then his smile fell, and he turned back. “Look, John, my-my family is…difficult,” he settled on, but the doctor just smiled.

“Whose isn’t?” he joked, and Sherlock shook his head, hands lifting imploring.

“No, but, seriously, mine is… Well, it’s mostly my brother.”

“Your brother?” John pressed, and Sherlock nodded, aware his seconds were numbered, his mother no doubt rounding up the troops to greet them as he spoke.

“He works for the government, thinks he controls my life, and under no circumstances should you ever be alone with him, understand?” he blurted, and John just blinked. “John!?”

“Yes, I-I understand,” he answered, still frowning, and then his eyes shifted over Sherlock’s shoulder, a muffled shout explaining why a moment later.

With a sigh, Sherlock turned, forcing up a smile as he watched his mother bounding down the steps toward them, his father hobbling along in her wake, usual candy-cane-striped bowtie firmly in place. “Once more unto the breach,” he whispered, turning over his shoulder as John chuckled.

“God for Harry, England, and Saint George,” he mused, quoting the same passage, and then grinned, winking at Sherlock’s stunned face before swinging his door open.

Sherlock followed suit, a little less gracefully, but it hardly mattered, his mother snapping him up into a hug that unbalanced him anyway. “Hello, Mother,” he murmured, patting her lightly on the back, and the woman pulled away, looking up at him with a watery smile.

“Oh, Sherlock, it’s so good to see you! I wasn’t sure you’d make it, what with that flu you had last week.”

Sherlock could feel John boring holes into the back of his head as he rounded the front of the car, but he managed a smile for his mother. “Yes, well-” he muttered, but she cut him off, releasing her hold on him as she turned away.

“Although, I suppose we have you to thank for that,” she said, smiling brightly, and Sherlock frowned, momentarily confused until he heard John’s soft chuckle at his left. “Never did have much of an immune system, my Sherlock. He should’ve taken up with a doctor years ago.”

“Mother,” Sherlock hissed, already rekindling his childhood dream of being invisible, but John just laughed, loud and bright and strangely calming.

“Well, I’m quite glad he didn’t,” he chuckled, stepping forward as he extended a hand. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Mrs. Holmes.”

“Violet, please,” his mother said, flipping a dismissive hand in the air while the other shook John’s. “And it’s John, correct?”

“Yes,” John confirmed, bowing his head as he pulled his arm back to his side. “John Watson.”

“Watson,” his mother echoed, lifting her brows at Sherlock in significance, but Sherlock only frowned, not sure what exactly was supposed to be implied by a surname. “Scottish, isn’t it?”

“That’s what my grandmother always said,” John replied, smiling as Violet laughed.

“Well, it’s wonderful to meet you, dear, just wonderful. Siger!” she beckoned, waving Sherlock’s father over, who had been hovering silently on the fringes. “Come meet John! He’s a doctor!”

“I know, dear,” his father replied, giving Sherlock a small smile as he passed, and Sherlock returned it, their usual subtle amusement at his mother’s expense, “Sherlock told us that when he called last night.”

Mrs. Holmes tutted, rattling her head, and John’s lips quivered as he dropped his chin a moment to suppress a laugh.

“Very nice to meet you, Mr. Holmes,” he said, stretching out his hand again, and Sherlock’s father shook it in a single firm bob.

“If you’re calling her Violet, you might as well call me Siger,” he said, smiling as he shrugged, and John chuckled, nodding down at the ground. “Nice car you’ve got there,” he continued, looking past them to the vehicle, and John snapped his head up, looking only slightly less surprised than Sherlock. “XK, correct?”

John blinked, lips hovering apart a moment, and then nodded, turning to the side as he placed a hand on the side mirror. “Er, yeah,” he confirmed, smiling back up at Sherlock’s father. “Got it in September.”

“V8, isn’t it?” his father asked, and Sherlock shuffled a step back, getting out of the way of the conversation he wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t hallucinating.

“Yep,” John chirped, smiling proudly over the hood.

Siger stepped forward, moving in beside John as he bent down to peer through the passenger window. “What’s the mileage like?” he asked, straightening back up, and John shrugged a shoulder, bobbing his head side-to-side.

“Not bad,” he answered. “The specs say 25, but, just around London, I can usually squeeze closer to 30 out of it.”

“Must’ve been nice to let her loose on these back roads,” his father supposed, and John laughed, nodding deeply.

“Oh yeah,” he chuckled, running his hand down the metal framing the window. “I was planning on taking her down south when it warms up. Get in some miles along the coast.”

“Beautiful country down there,” Siger mused, and Sherlock just blinked between the two of them, wondering if this was one of those out-of-body experiences everyone was always talking about. “Violet and I took my old E-type last summer.”

John blinked, expression slackening with shock. “You-You have an E-type?” he stammered, blue eyes brimming with awe when the man nodded.

“1963,” his father added, rocking back on his heels, positively radiating pride. “It’s in the garage, if you wanna-”

“Oh, no you don’t!” Violet snapped, eyes narrowing as she wrapped a hand around her husband’s arm. “You go into that garage, I won’t see you the rest of the day, and I still need you to sort things out with the caterers.”

“Yes, dear,” Siger dutifully replied, raising his eyebrows at John, who politely turned away until he had control of his smile.

“You boys can hide out in that smelly garage and talk cylinders all you like after dinner. Now, come along,” she beckoned, pulling Sherlock’s father along at her side while waving at him and John with a hand. “It’s freezing out here, and I’m sure you’re about ready for a hot cup of tea after that long drive.”

“Sounds great,” John replied gratefully, and then lifted a finger, walking toward the boot. “I just have to grab something first.”

“What?” Sherlock asked, unaware they’d packed anything at all, and then followed along to the back of the car with John.

John did not reply, instead flipping open the boot and bending inside. After a moment and a rustle, he emerged, two red gift bags in hand.

“What are those?” Sherlock muttered, looking over his shoulder to ensure his parents were out of earshot.

John quirked a brow, a smirk slowly growing on his face as he slammed the compartment closed. “What’s it look like?” he asked, riffling in his pockets until the car locked with a beep. “They’re presents.”

“Why’d you get presents?” Sherlock hissed, shuffling along at John’s shoulder as they made their way toward the house.

“Well, I wasn’t going to show up empty-handed,” John muttered as they climbed the steps. “Not meeting my boyfriend’s parents for the first time at a Christmas Eve party.”

“But you’re not my boyfriend,” Sherlock whispered, their steps slowing as they neared the door.

“So?” John answered, and Sherlock nearly tripped. “It’s still polite.”

Sherlock floundered, lips flapping uselessly a moment before he forced out sound. “I-I suppose, but-”

“Sherlock, relax,” John sighed, smiling fondly at him as they passed through the doorway. “Think of them as hostess gifts, if you have to. And, don’t worry,” he added, dropping his voice to a whisper as he tilted his mouth up toward Sherlock’s ear, “I put your name on the card too.”

Sherlock blinked, his face apparently quite amusing if John’s bright grin was any indication. “I- Thank you,” he stammered, and John beamed.

“What are boyfriends for?” he chirped, facing forward again as they followed after Sherlock’s parents toward the living room.

Sherlock looked down at the side of his face, following along the faint laugh lines creasing the tan skin around his sparkling eyes, and then twisted his gaze away, swallowing hard.

Maybe he had fallen after all.

*****

“Are you ready yet?”

“I might be if I didn’t have to keep answering that question every 30 seconds.”

Sherlock huffed, rolling his eyes as he leaned against the wall outside one of the upstairs bathrooms. “How long does it take to change clothes?” he snapped, fiddling with the knot of his red tie, a horribly festive accessory his mother had insisted on adding to his black suit and white shirt.

“Why are you suddenly so eager?” John’s voice said, drifting out slightly muffled through the wood. “You looked like you wanted to jump out a window the entire time your mum was showing us around the ballroom.”

“I’m not eager,” Sherlock snipped, twiddling at his cuffs. “Except to get it over with.”

John chuckled, the sound growing louder as the door swung open, and he stepped out, Sherlock glad he was leaning on the wall for support. He was wearing the same navy suit he had been at the auction, but the white shirt was accompanied by a golden-yellow tie this time, a pocket square of swirling red and blue protruding from his chest pocket, and, as he looked up, soft self-conscious smile on his face, it hit Sherlock like a punch to the gut just how much he wished this were real.

“Well,” John muttered, tugging at the bottom of his jacket, “how bad is it?”

Sherlock didn’t even realize he’d been spoken to for a moment, rattling his head as he suddenly came back to John watching him expectantly. “Oh,” he spluttered, swallowing as his gaze flicked down to John’s chest, “it’s, um- It’s not.” He shook his head, smiling up through his lashes as John tilted his head, frowning curiously. “Bad, that is. It’s-It’s not bad,” he added, and John smiled, a fond, gentle thing that changed the color of his eyes.

“You clean up pretty well too,” he said, flicking a hand up toward Sherlock’s chest before slipping it back into his trouser pocket, and Sherlock smiled, shifting at the knot of his tie as the skin heated beneath it.

“Thank you,” he mumbled, a corner of John’s mouth twitching, and then they fell silent, standing feet apart in a deserted corridor of Sherlock’s parents’ house.

“Sherlock-” John started, something indefinable in his eyes when Sherlock met them, but they were quickly interrupted, heels clicking toward them over John’s shoulder.

“There you are!” Violet huffed, shoulders wilting in relief as she drew up to them. “Everyone’s been looking for you!”

“Everyone?” Sherlock inquired, quirking a brow, but his mother ignored him, looping her arm through John’s.

“John, dear, I absolutely must introduce you to my friend Abigail. She’s been practically buzzing with excitement ever since I mentioned Sherlock was bringing you along.”

“Oh, god, Mother, not Abigail,” Sherlock groaned, shuffling his feet along behind them as they headed toward the stairs. “He’ll never make it out alive.”

“Who’s Abigail?” John inquired, looking between Mrs. Holmes and Sherlock over his shoulder.

“A very dear friend of mine-“

“With a very disturbing affinity for younger men,” Sherlock interjected, supplying the pertinent details, and John laughed while his mother turned her head to glare at him.

“She’s not that bad,” Violet huffed, and Sherlock scoffed. “And I think it’s more the uniforms than the age,” she added, as if that were supposed to help anything, but at least it made John laugh again.

“Which uniform?” he asked, and Violet turned her face up to him with a frown. “The doctor one or the soldier one?”

“You served?” Mrs. Holmes asked, eyes widening as John nodded.

“Afghanistan,” he replied simply, and Sherlock leaned forward between them.

“He was a captain,” he added, smiling with secondhand pride, and John turned back to him, a curious expression on his face.

“Well,” his mother gusted, clearly impressed, “an army doctor! That’s certainly something! Oh, but don’t tell Abigail that, dear,” she added urgently, shaking her head up at John. “I love her, god knows, but, Sherlock’s right, you really won’t make it out alive if she finds out about the solider thing.”

John laughed, and then nodded, bending his arm to hold Violet’s tighter as they descended the stairs. “My lips are sealed,” he vowed, and Violet laughed, Sherlock simply smiling softly as he looked between them.

The party was a whirlwind of glitter, laughter, and unnecessarily fancy hors d’oeuvres, the string orchestra in the corner playing Christmas carols all the while, but, for once, Sherlock didn’t much mind, pulled along after John and his mother to group after group of guests. John seemed to be something of the guest of honor, charming absolutely everyone he shook hands with before they’d even let go of his fingers, and Sherlock had to violently stamp down an urge to pull him away once or twice, some of the women getting a little too giggly for his liking.

He’d tired eventually, however, bobbing his head toward the punch table as he caught John’s eyes, a question in the quirk of his brow, but the blond only nodded, evidently able to handle the next socialite on his own. Sherlock slipped away, nodding and smiling at the odd person he was required to, and then snapped up a cup off the table, rounding one of the many Christmas trees to shield himself from the festivities. He closed his eyes, blowing out a gust of air before lifting the drink to his mouth, the muscles in his back relaxing for the first time all evening.

It wasn’t that he was having a bad time—quite the opposite, in fact—but…well, he supposed it was bad that he was having a good time, in as much as that could possibly make sense. This wasn’t real, he had known that going into it, but it was getting harder and harder to remember, the lie growing more comfortable with every passing second. The worst part was, it felt real, all the little nuances exactly as they would be if John were sincere, but Sherlock couldn’t afford to think that way. So what if John drifted in to press lightly against his side while they talked to the latest introduction, a seemingly unconscious gesture of possession? What did it matter that he placed a hand lightly to Sherlock’s back when they moved, guiding him this way or that, making sure he didn’t get left behind when his mother whisked them off to their next destination? Why should he care that, sometimes, when John caught his eye across a boring conversation, lifting his brows in playful mocking, he smiled at Sherlock struggling to maintain his composure like it was something special, like he was something special?

Sherlock tilted his head back, draining the rest of his punch.

It was probably just a trick of the light anyway.

“It is a comfort in this day and age to see that some things never change.”

Sherlock closed his eyes, a frustrated huff hissing past his teeth. “Mycroft,” he muttered, turning to face his brother, who bobbed his head, smiling smugly.

“Brother dear,” he replied, and Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Hiding through another party, are we?”

“I’m not hiding,” Sherlock snapped, glaring as Mycroft simply continued to smile.

“My mistake,” he said with a flippant shrug. “Clearly, you’re back here inspecting the ornament distribution,” he added, casting a glance over the tree, and Sherlock opened his mouth, eyes narrowing, but was cut off by a gust of breath to his right.

“Oh, thank god,” John rushed, shuffling in beside him behind the tree. “I thought I saw you come back here. I’m drowning out there! Miss Van- Von- The divorced one with too many Pomeranians apparently won’t let me leave until I discuss my favorite artists of the modern age, and, somehow, I don’t think she means the people behind the graffiti on Beech Street.”

“The one under the bridge?” Sherlock asked, tilting his head, and John nodded. “That is quite good,” he agreed, and John laughed, lifting the backs of his fingers to his mouth.

There was a cough behind him, and Sherlock started, having blissfully forgotten a moment, and then sighed, rolling his eyes to the ceiling as John looked up with a frown.

“John,” he said tonelessly, flicking a hand back over his shoulder, “this is my brother, Mike.”

“Mycroft,” the man corrected, pushing past Sherlock to extend his hand. “John Watson, I presume,” he said, smiling with sickening politeness, and Sherlock grimaced, rolling his eyes over the ceiling.

“Nice to meet you,” John said, flicking Sherlock a lightly scolding look. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“I wish I could say the same,” Mycroft replied, turning the pleasant veneer of his face toward Sherlock. “Unfortunately, I’ve had to do my own research.”

Sherlock glared, holding Mycroft’s gaze, the taller man smiling impassively, but Sherlock could see what was going on in his head.

“Research?” John questioned, frowning between them, and Sherlock intervened before that question could be answered.

“Just say Henri Matisse,” Sherlock advised, and John blinked at him, brow furrowing. “For the artist. Talk about his use of contrast,” he added, but John, though clearly understanding, hesitated, a crease of worry between his brows as he looked between him and his brother.

He twitched his eyebrows, a small gesture that was nevertheless clear, and Sherlock nodded, reassuring. “Okay,” he said, eyes still shifting warily between them as he turned to leave. “Thanks. And, um, it was…good talking to you. I think,” he muttered, frowning up and down Mycroft before moving out from the shelter of the tree, heading back toward the throng.

The second he was out of earshot, Mycroft sighed, Sherlock turning to find him shaking his head. “Really, Sherlock,” he said pityingly, “you had to pay a man to be your date?”

“I’m not paying him,” Sherlock snapped, but Mycroft only rolled his eyes.

“Well, no, you’d hardly need to, would you?” he muttered, waving a hand out at the ballroom beyond. “He could steal a candlestick and make more than he does in a month.”

“John’s not a thief!” Sherlock snarled, leaning up to glare into his brother’s face.  “He’s a doctor; he makes perfectly good-”

“I know who he is, Sherlock,” Mycroft interjected tiredly, swirling his omnipresent umbrella in a single arc through the air. “The question is,” he added, clicking the tip of the item to the ground, “does he know who you are?”

Sherlock’s jaw set, and he leaned back, shoulders lowering as his anger somewhat waned. “You remember him,” he murmured, and Mycroft shrugged.

“In a sense,” he mused, lifting a hand to adjust one of the ornaments past Sherlock’s shoulder. “I never met the man, of course, but I looked into everyone who appeared on the hospital footage. How ever did you find him again?”

“I didn’t,” Sherlock countered, shaking his head faintly as he turned to look out to the ballroom over his shoulder. “It just…happened.”

“Well,” Mycroft muttered briskly, popping the bubble of warmth in Sherlock’s chest, “it would be in your best interest to ensure it doesn’t ‘just happen’ again.”

“Why?” Sherlock blustered, rounding on him, but Mycroft only smiled, though something sharp now glinted in his eyes.

“Sherlock,” he said, tone dripping with patronizing, “‘The Doctor and The Drug Addict’ doesn’t exactly have a fairytale ring to it.”

Sherlock’s fists clenched, his eyes blinking down sidelong to the floor as his jaw tensed, but he couldn’t quite call it angry, a bitter grief touching at his tongue at the reminder of what he’d been trying to forget.

“Sherlock-”

“Thank you for your advice, Mycroft,” he interjected coolly, lifting his chin, and Mycroft blinked, looking, just for a second, like something more than an automaton. “Unwanted and unnecessary, per usual.”

Mycroft opened his mouth, but Sherlock cut him off with an exit, turning away and striding back out toward John, who was still trapped talking to Miss VanAndel.

“Oh, Sherlock!” the woman chimed, and John must have hurt his neck, he whipped around so fast, looking at Sherlock like a mirage of water in the desert.

Thank you, he mouthed, and Sherlock twitched a smile, turning politely to the middle-aged woman.

“I was just talking a little art with your John here,” she said, sliding a flirtatious hand down John’s forearm, which he tactfully shifted out from underneath. “Seems he’s a fan of Henri Matisse.”

“Is he?” Sherlock inquired, lifting his brows at John, who valiantly managed to keep a straight face as he nodded. “Well, I’m afraid I won’t add much to that particular conversation,” he continued, tipping his head to the woman. “John follows that sort of thing much more than I do. If it’s not Andy Warhol’s soup can, I’m at a loss.”

John snorted, and Miss VanAdel frowned, looking between him and Sherlock’s blithe smile.

“At any rate,” he muttered, turning once again to John, who blinked up at him, restrained laughter twitching at his lips, “we should get back to mother. I believe she had a few more people she wanted you to meet before dinner.”

“Alright,” John clipped, twisting toward Miss VanAndel. “Lovely to meet you,” he assured, bowing his head, and then followed along at Sherlock’s side before she could think of some excuse to make them stay. “Andy Warhol’s soup can?” he muttered, smirking up from Sherlock’s shoulder, and Sherlock shrugged.

“It was the first thing that popped into my head,” he defended, and John laughed. “And, besides, she hates Andy Warhol. It was the quickest way to end the conversation.”

“You spend a lot of time doing that?” John asked, brushing against his side as they squeezed through the gaps in the crowd. “Plotting escape strategies?”

“Only at family parties,” Sherlock replied, smiling down when John laughed again. “I used to be able to climb the trellis from the terrace to my bedroom window in just over six seconds.”

“Used to?” John teased, quirking a brow at him.

Sherlock stopped, John halting just in front of him. “I could still do it,” he snapped, but John only smirked.

“Sure you could,” he chirped, and Sherlock pursed his lips, pushing his tongue against his cheek as he shook his head out toward the open terrace doors.

“I am a grown man,” he snipped, “wearing a very expensive suit. I am not going to go outside in the cold to climb a trellis!”

John dropped his face, lifting his palms in resignation. “Hey, if you can’t do it-”

Sherlock scowled, grabbing one of John’s wrists and dragging him along toward the doors. “I’ll do it in five,” he snarled, and John laughed, stumbling a little as he let Sherlock lead on.

*****

“We should get going.”

“Yes, so you’ve been saying.”

“But we really-”

“Sherlock,” his mother interjected, looking up at him sharply from her armchair, and he gingerly lowered himself back down to his spot on the sofa beside John. The woman smiled, giving him a brief nod of approval before turning once again to John. “As I was saying, dear,” she continued, “it’s fine if you don’t want to tell us. It was probably inappropriate of me to ask.”

“No, no, it’s fine,” John assured, waving her concern away with the hand not holding his cocoa, a treat that had been distributed around the fire-lit sitting room after the last of the guests had left. “I don’t mind, it’s just…not something I usually include at first.”

“Well, I’d imagine not,” Mycroft chimed in, hovering along the wall like an unwelcome ghost of holiday weight gain. “I’m sure most people don’t have the most flattering reasons for being discharged.”

Sherlock snapped a sharp glare at him, mouth opening, and then stopped, halted by a warning brush of John’s fingers against the side of his thigh.

“I suppose that’s true,” the blond replied airily, sipping at his cocoa. “But I just got shot, so-”

There was a loud spluttering, his mother choking violently on her hot chocolate while his father’s eyes simply widened.

“Really?” the older man blurted, lips parting as John nodded.

“Good heavens!” Violet cried, palm pressed to her sternum in shock, and then she rounded on Sherlock. “Why didn’t you tell me!?” she blustered, and Sherlock blinked, mouth dropping open in affront. “I never would’ve brought up such a thing if I’d known-”

“It’s alright, Violet, really,” John interjected, leaning forward to stretch an arm between them, parrying the assault. “It was years ago; I’ve long gotten over it.”

“I suppose you saw a therapist,” Mycroft muttered from the sidelines, ambling a little further into the light as he looked down his nose at them. “Standard procedure for that sort of injury, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” John quickly replied, staying Sherlock again, this time with a heavy hand on his knee. “Yes, it is.”

“And I presume she found nothing wrong?”

“Mycroft,” Violet hissed, eyes narrowed at her eldest son in chiding, but Mycroft only shrugged, blinking innocently around at them all.

“What?” he asked blithely. “I don’t believe it is out of bounds as Sherlock’s brother to inquire as to his boyfriend’s mental health.”

Sherlock and his mother both snapped open their mouths to reply, and likely in a similar manner, but John beat them both to it.

“It’s not,” he replied, and the entire group turned to him in surprise. John smiled thinly, unflinchingly meeting Mycroft’s gaze. “You’re quite right to ask, and, yes, she gave me a clean bill of health.”

Mycroft held his ground a moment, eyes narrowing, and then stepped closer, knowing a challenge when he saw one. “There must have been quite a bit of physical therapy involved too,” he continued, and John’s fingers gripped into Sherlock’s skin as he made to tackle his brother to the ground.

“A few months,” John replied, nodding, his smile light, but his eyes glinted like the sharpened edge of a blade.

A corner of Mycroft’s mouth twitched, and he spun his umbrella in the air, apparently feeling the heat enough to need to take up more space, and everyone else fell absolutely silent, letting their cocoa go cold as they watched the exchange. “Must have been quite the grueling process,” he remarked, and John shrugged a shoulder.

“In a way,” he replied, tipping his head, “but there’s not much you can’t handle after taking a bullet.”

Mycroft stilled a moment, umbrella freezing along its path, and Sherlock smirked down at his knees.

First blood to John.

“No, I suppose not,” Mycroft murmured, recovering quickly as he tapped his umbrella to the ground. “Still, it can’t have been easy.”

“Well, no,” John admitted, shaking his head, “but it paid off.”

“Oh?” Mycroft inquired, and Sherlock tensed, sensing the strike to the throat was imminent. “All back to normal then?”

“More or less,” John replied, watching warily as Mycroft paced in front of him.

“More or less?” Mycroft echoed, turning to him with a frown. “I would imagine you’d want to be completely recovered before you went back to practicing medicine.”

Sherlock winced, the jab stinging even secondhand, and John’s jaw twitched.

“I passed all the appropriate tests, I assure you,” he answered tersely, smile twisting a bit. “I wouldn’t have gone back if I wasn’t confident I could do my job.”

“Oh, no, of course not,” Mycroft said lightly, waving a hand. “So, everything’s in order, then?” he chirped with a smile. “Dexterity? Strength?”

“Yep,” John clipped, smirking up at the man. “Why, you wanna arm wrestle?”

Sherlock choked, leaning forward as he coughed down atop his legs, John thumping him hard on the back. He turned his head, smiling bemusedly up at the man, and John winked back, Sherlock shaking his head in response.

“Oh dear,” Sherlock’s mother said, and he looked up to find her turned toward the window, rising from her chair as she crossed the carpet.

“What?” Sherlock inquired, frowning at the side of her moonlit face, and she peeled back the curtain, exposing the view.

Snow was falling thick and heavy, nearly whiting out the night sky when the wind blew just right, and Violet turned back to them with an anxious twist on her mouth.

“I’m not so sure you’ll be leaving after all, Sherlock,” she said, and Sherlock leapt up, racing to her side.

“But we have to,” he bleated, and the snow seemed to thicken even further to mock him. “We- John has to get back.”

“No, I don’t,” John supplied, standing as well when Sherlock whirled back to him, eyes popping. “I mean, I’m not on call tomorrow, and it does look pretty bad.” He waved his mug of cocoa toward the window, tipping his head as if to say nothing could be done, and Sherlock swallowed, fingers shifting in and out of fists.

“Can I talk to you for a second?” he snipped, bobbing his head toward the entryway, striding away before John had even replied, but he could hear him following, footfalls soft atop the hardwood floor. “What are you doing?” he hissed when they were out of sight, gaze flicking between the doorway and John’s face. “We weren’t supposed to stay the night!”

“Well, yeah, but,” John murmured, shrugging back toward the sitting room, “you heard your mum. And you saw that storm! I mean, my car’s nice, but I don’t have snow chains on my tires.”

“But-But you-” He leaned around John’s shoulder, checking again that there was no one lingering within earshot. “You were only supposed to be here for a day,” he whispered, leaning down, and then promptly readjusted his position, John’s shampoo making him a little lightheaded. “Those were the rules of the auction.”

“And?” John prompted, smiling when Sherlock frowned. “Look, Sherlock…let’s just forget about the auction, alright?” He shrugged, rocking back on his heels as he glanced to the floor, a faint flush of pink dancing across his cheekbones. “I have nothing to do tomorrow, and there is a storm outside, and…well, I want to,” he murmured, looking at Sherlock through his lashes. “I-I like it here,” he continued, looking aimlessly out over the corridor. “I like your parents, and- Well, alright, I’m not overly fond of your brother, if we’re being honest,” he muttered, tipping his head, and Sherlock chuckled, unable to fault him for that. “But I- I like…you,” he said softly, nervous smile tugging at half his mouth. “And not just because you climbed that trellis in 5.4 seconds.”

“It was 5.2, I told you; you took too long to hit the button,” Sherlock snapped, and John chuckled, smiling as he shook his head down at the floor between their shoes.

“Whatever you say,” he mused, lifting his chin, and then Sherlock was stuck, transfixed by the soft curl of John’s mouth, whatever light the dim corridor held seeming to be drawn into his eyes, and John was just staring back at him, expression openly fond. And naïve.

Sherlock shuffled a step back, shaking his head as he dropped his eyes. “John, I- You hardly even know me,” he reminded, swallowing down his nausea. “There are- There are things-” He faded off, turning his head to stare blindly out at the opposite wall, searching for the words to say what he didn’t want to.

“We all have things,” John reassured, stepping toward him, but Sherlock only retreated further.

“No, not- Not like this,” he muttered, shaking his head, and John blinked, tilting his head with a frown.

“What do you mean?” he asked, Sherlock’s breath quickening to accommodate his racing heart. “What sort of things? Sherlock, what are you-”

“Just-Just leave it, alright?” he snapped, throwing his hands up between them, and John started, eyes widening as he froze. Sherlock huffed out a shaky sigh, running a hand back through his hair. “You don’t like me,” he urged, looking back to John’s eyes again, which instantly swam with hurt. “You don’t even know me, and-and if you did- Well, let’s just say this conversation would be entirely unnecessary.”

“You can’t know that,” John countered, forehead creasing as he shook his head, closing in again. “Not until you tell me. It’s not fair to just assume I’m not going to like you and not even give me the chance to prove you wrong.”

Sherlock laughed, a puff of a chuckle that was nothing near amused. “I’m never wrong,” he whispered, and John set his jaw.

“You might be,” he snapped, eyes blazing as he leaned up to Sherlock’s face, “if you ever gave someone a shot.”

Sherlock opened his mouth, and then closed it again, shaking his head as he hissed out a sigh at the ground, because there was no point to this, no point in letting himself pretend for even a second longer, his hypothetical heart already overburdened. “John, I- I’m sorry if I- If you-” he started, but John clenched his jaw, eyes narrowing in a clear indication he should go no further. Sherlock blinked his eyes away, and then swallowed, shaking his head as he moved around John’s shoulder. “Let’s-Let’s just get through tonight, alright?” he muttered, heading away up the corridor. “That was the deal, after all.”

“Deal? Wait, Sherlock, where are you going!?” John called, shoes slapping along behind him. “We have to talk about this!”

“Talk about what?” Sherlock snapped, spinning back at the bottom of the stairs. “There’s nothing to talk about. We’re stuck here for the night, we leave in the morning, and then we go back to our separate lives and forget this ever happened.”

John faltered, anger fading as he blinked up at him, brow creased with confusion. “Is that- Is that what you want?” he asked for the second time that day, and, still, Sherlock had no answer.

He turned his face away, swallowing through a tight throat as he blinked out across the foyer, seeing the snow falling through the dining room windows beyond. “I don’t know,” he breathed, shrugging as he turned once again to John, whose eyes searched frantically over his face. “I don’t know,” he repeated miserably, stepping away as he began climbing the stairs.

“Wait, Sherlock!” John blurted, calling him to a stop. “Where are you going!?”

“To bed,” he answered, twisting halfway back to look at John over his shoulder. “My parents will put you in a different room,” he assured, looking down to where his hand was trembling on the carved railing. “They’re old-fashioned like that.”

“What am I supposed to say?” John blustered as he started walking away again, and, though he slowed, he did not stop this time.

“Tell them I have a headache,” he muttered wearily, flipping a hand. “That’s what I always say.”

“Sherlock!”

“You’d better get back,” he added, pausing on the landing before he passed out of sight. “Mother was just about to pull out the baby pictures.”

“Sherlock, wait!” John beckoned again, but Sherlock didn’t, taking the stairs two at a time as he raced to the second floor.

He didn’t slow his pace until he reached his room, slamming the door behind him as he leaned heavily against the wood, panting up at the ceiling. Closing his eyes, he tried to slow the pounding of his heart, but it had little effect, and, eventually, he gave up, sliding down to the floor to hang his head in his hands.

“Is that- Is that what you want?”

John’s voice twisted around in his head as he stared down at the grain of the hardwood floor, tracing the swirls with his eyes, and then sighed, tipping his neck back to thump his head against the door, feeling, for the very first time, utterly lost.

*****

Sherlock crept down the stairs on the balls of his feet, careful to avoid the creaky spots as he scanned his eyes side-to-side across the abandoned first floor.

Last he had looked at the clock, it had been 4:30, but it was probably closer to 5 now, officially Christmas, though it didn’t feel much like it to Sherlock. He hadn’t been able to sleep since heading up to bed hours ago, but he did fake it when John came by, knocking lightly on his door with a soft beckon of his name. The man had shuffled away shortly thereafter, and the house had slowly gone quiet, only the ticking of the clock on his bedside table keeping him company, and, after counting the seconds of an entire two minutes, he’d given up, heading downstairs to fix himself a cup of coffee.

Taking care of that quickly enough—god bless Keurig—he wandered back into the sitting room, curling up in one of the armchairs by the fire, which he flicked on with a stretched swat at the switch. He saw an open photo album on the coffee table in front of him, and temporarily balanced his cup on his lap, leaning forward to flip at the pages. His 10-year-old self stared back at him, looking far less than amused as he tugged at the string of a party hat wrapped beneath his chin, and Sherlock smiled down at the memory, recalling he looked a lot happier once he opened the microscope he could see still wrapped in paper on the table behind him. Another few pages in, and he was graduating secondary school, smiling sidelong at his mother as she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. It was paired with another picture, one of him and Mycroft his mother had insisted on, but, seeing it now, it didn’t look nearly as awkward as he remembered, and Mycroft may have even looked a little proud. Or at least less sour.

“Couldn’t sleep?”

He startled, gripping around the top of his cup as it threatened to slop all over him, and his eyes snapped up to see John leaning his hip against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest.

He smiled, pushing up and ambling into the room, and Sherlock was momentarily distracted from answering, his mouth going dry as John rounded the sofa. As incredible as he’d looked in a suit, he looked even better now, rumpled and sleep-flushed in pale blue pajama trousers and a simple white t-shirt, and Sherlock had to physically rattle his head to shake loose from the trance.

“Er, no,” he muttered, clearing his throat as he dropped his eyes, tapping his fingers around the rim of his cup. “Not really.”

“Yeah, me neither,” John sighed, sinking down onto the sofa across from him, and then he simply watched, looking at him with a steadiness that struck a chord of memory in Sherlock he couldn’t quite place.

“What?” he murmured, tugging self-consciously at the collar of his loose grey cotton jumper, and John shook his head.

“Nothing,” he muttered, but his focus remained. “I’m just trying to figure out why I didn’t recognize you before,” he added, and Sherlock stilled, fingers freezing where they’d been swirling circles over the lip of his mug. John smiled faintly, looking down to his hands and back up. “I think it’s the cheekbones,” he remarked, flicking his fingers up toward Sherlock’s face. “You grew into them a bit. I really should’ve pegged it at the eyes, though,” he murmured, shaking his head as he met Sherlock’s gaze. “Not the kind of thing you forget. Even after 12 years.”

Sherlock dropped his face, watching his coffee shift in his cup. “You-You remembered,” he supposed, peering up through his lashes to see John shrug.

“Not at first,” the man replied, shaking his head. “Might not have at all if your mum hadn’t pulled out that album,” he added, bobbing a nod toward the book lying between them, and Sherlock sniffed a frail laugh, berating himself for not thinking of that. John leaned forward over his knees, the leather of the couch squeaking faintly beneath him. “Sherlock, why- Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked, and Sherlock had to turn his face away. “Maybe not right away, I suppose I can understand that much,” he continued, tipping his head in allowance, “but earlier. Before you left. I mean, that is what you were talking about, isn’t it?” he presumed, shuffling forward to the edge of the seat. “Those things I didn’t know about you?”

Sherlock said nothing, the time for lies having run out, and he never had been much good at the naked truth, so he simply nodded, picking at a chip on the handle of his cup.

“So, why not just say it?” John pressed, hands turning imploringly in the air, and then he stalled, arms falling to his knees as his expression turned wary. “Unless-Unless you still-”

“I don’t,” Sherlock interjected, shaking his head as he met John’s eyes through his lashes, and John hesitated a moment, eyeing him skeptically before apparently choosing to trust.

“Then why lie?” he urged, and Sherlock huffed, unfolding and refolding his legs to let slip some of the nervous energy

“I didn’t lie,” he stressed, shrugging a shoulder as he watched the firelight reflect orange off the polished wood of the table. “I merely…omitted or amended certain details to give you an incorrect impression.”

“Sherlock.”

“Oh, come on, John!” he blustered, jumping up from the chair as he paced away toward the window, cup cradled in his trembling hands. “Of course I didn’t tell you! Who would tell someone something like that? ‘Oh, hey, remember me? That kid you treated for a cocaine overdose? How’d that chemistry final you mentioned go, by the way? I know you were worried about it.’” He turned, giving John a flat look, hoping to convey the absurdity of his suggestion, but John only blinked at him, looking suddenly stunned.

“You-You remembered my chemistry test?” he breathed, and Sherlock’s lips dropped apart, his stomach dropping as he mentally smacked himself with a mace.

“I- No,” he muttered, hands twisting anxiously around his cup, but, when John only continued to watch him, awestruck understanding in his eyes, he gave up the pretense, sighing as he looked down to his shuffling feet. “I remember a lot of things,” he murmured down at his threadbare navy socks, feeling his cheeks turning colors.

A moment of stillness passed, and then there was another squeak of leather, Sherlock looking out the corner of his eye to find John had stood, stepping toward him.

“I came to see you,” he said, and Sherlock turned, meeting his gaze properly now. “The next day,” John added, smiling shyly as he shrugged, trying to slip his hands into his pockets, but ending up only grazing down the sides of the trousers. “You were already gone by then, though. Nurse said your brother had checked you out.” He frowned, looking out toward the entryway. “Which actually seems like a fate worse than open-front nightgowns now that I’ve met him,” he muttered, and Sherlock found himself startled into a laugh. John smiled, ambling closer across the carpet, and Sherlock felt something shift between them, one tension breaking only for another to take its place. “I guess it’s true what they say,” he mused. “About it being a small world and all. At the very least,” he chuckled, shuffling his heel across the rug as he drew nearer, “it’s one hell of a coincidence.”

“I don’t believe in coincidence,” Sherlock replied, his stomach tightening with every step John closed, a numbness slowly creeping down from his knees. “The universe is rarely so lazy.”

“Well, how about fate?” John offered, smiling brightly when Sherlock scoffed.

“A fantasy concocted by the small-minded to bring purpose to their misfortune,” he clipped, and John laughed.

“I hate to break it to you, Sherlock,” he chuckled, shaking his head fondly as he moved mere inches away, “but you kind of have to pick one or the other.”

“Why?” Sherlock muttered, and John smiled, lifting a slow hand to tuck a curl behind Sherlock’s ear, stalling his breath.

“Because I’m not sure how else you’d explain this,” he answered softly, the words a warm whisper over Sherlock’s cheeks, and he had just halfway wrapped his mind around the fact that John’s eyes had flicked to his lips when the light in the corridor behind sparked on, a moment’s warning for them to step apart.

Violet Holmes wandered into view, fussing with the tie of her fuzzy lilac rode as her slippers slapped against the hardwood, her eyes widening with a start as she spotted them. “Oh, it’s you two,” she said, looking between them. “I knew I heard voices. You’re up awfully early.”

“Couldn’t sleep,” John supplied, Sherlock bobbing his coffee cup in the air in commiseration, and Mrs. Holmes smiled sympathetically.

“Too excited to see what Santa brought you, hmm?” she teased, flashing a wink at John when he laughed, and then turned, bobbing her head at them. “Come on, we might as well get started. Siger and I are always up at this hour, and I do so love waking Mycroft before his alarm; it throws him off the entire day.” She stopped, turning back to them, horrorstruck. “Please don’t tell him I said that!” she implored, and Sherlock laughed, John grinning beside him a moment before bowing his head in a solemn nod.

“You have our word,” he swore, and Sherlock turned to him, quirking a brow as they followed.

“Our word?” he muttered. “Since when do we have collective promises?”

“Oh, are we not the collective type?” John quipped, shifting his hands in a splitting gesture. “Because I can take your name off those presents. Only take a second and a Sharpie.”

“No, no,” Sherlock interjected, smiling innocently at his mother when she flicked a glance back at them over her shoulder, “collective’s fine. I can do collective.”

“Mhmm,” John hummed, flicking his eyebrows in smug taunt when Sherlock looked down to him, and then they stepped into the living room, Mr. Holmes already waiting in one of the tall wingback chairs, framing the fire and facing the just-shy-of-ostentatious Christmas tree towering in the corner, bedecked in rich hues of purple, royal blue, and gold.

“Ah, so that was you two we heard,” he greeted with a smile, rising and stepping out to greet them.

“Sorry,” John muttered, twisting an apologetic smile, “we didn’t mean to wake you.”

“Oh, no, you didn’t,” Siger assured, waving a hand in dismissal. “We’re always up around this time. You see all the snow we got last night?” he asked, and Sherlock was glad John nodded, he himself not having checked. “Lucky you didn’t try driving in it, I tell ya,” he said, nodding gravely.

“Yeah,” John replied with a sidelong glance up at Sherlock, “lucky.”

“Is it Boxing Day yet?” said a voice from behind them, unmistakable from the content even if he hadn’t recognized the voice, and Mycroft came shuffling in, rubbing at his eyes as he was towed along by a beaming Mrs. Holmes.

“Oh, hush! You always feel better once you start opening your presents,” she snipped, shooing him down onto the plush grey sofa near the tree, and he flopped into the cushions, glaring at the back of her retreating head before turning his eyes their direction.

“Oh,” he said drily, looking between them, “still here, are you?” He then focused his gaze on John, who quirked a brow, clearly anticipating the inevitable. “Don’t you have lives to save?” he snipped, but John just smiled.

“Don’t you have wars to start?” he replied tartly, and Mycroft blinked, mouth dropping open as Sherlock laughed.

“Now, boys, it’s Christmas,” Mrs. Holmes chided, bustling them over to the tree, John snagging the last remaining armchair, giving Sherlock no choice but to sit on the floor beside him, next to Mycroft on the sofa clearly not an option. “Try to keep the bickering to a minimum.”

The trio glanced between one another, and then, almost in unison, nodded, a temporary truce.

Violet beamed nonetheless, bending to peer at the presents beneath the tree. “What are these?” she asked, pulling out two familiar red gift bags, and John stood, walking to her side, but not before shooting Sherlock a glare that clearly spelt physical pain if he attempted to usurp his spot.

“Those are mine,” he said, taking the bags gingerly by the handles. “Well, ours,” he amended, waving a hand back to Sherlock, and Mycroft snorted, Sherlock stretching out a lightning kick to his shin. “It’s nothing elaborate,” he explained, checking the tags briefly before giving one to Mr. Holmes, the other going to Violet as she sat down in the chair across from her husband, “so don’t get your hopes up. They’re just…a little token, I guess. To thank you for being so welcoming.”

“Oh, John,” Mrs. Holmes fussed, smile already watery as she peered down into the tissue paper, “that is so sweet of you!”

“Quite thoughtful,” Siger agreed, clipping a quick nod, and then a derisive sniff from behind them drew their attention.

“And when do I get my present?” Mycroft snipped, lifting his brows. “I have to put up with you too.”

“That depends,” John replied, tipping his head in sarcastic consideration as he turned. “When do you get welcoming?”

Mycroft glared, John smirking back at him as the rest of the group laughed, but any further retorts were cut off as his parents tore into their presents, pulling out plumes of green tissue paper until finally finding the prize.

“Oh, it’s beautiful,” Violet breathed, the snowflake-shaped ornament twirling off its string in front of her face, and, as Sherlock leaned closer, he saw it was made to look like a gingerbread biscuit, designs piped on the surface in contrasting green and white.

“We couldn’t decide,” John said, gesturing between the pair, Siger’s ornament the same concept, but in the shape of a snowman, “so we just got both of them. You can never have enough Christmas ornaments, right?” he chuckled, adorably nervous all of a sudden.

“No, you most certainly can’t,” Violet agreed, beaming up at him, “but you can stop saying ‘we’, dear.” She stood, fetching Siger’s ornament from him as well before moving to hang them both on free branches of the fresh spruce. “It’s very sweet, but you’re not exactly fooling anyone. Sherlock hasn’t gotten us anything but socks for four years.”

“You said you needed socks!” Sherlock blurted, mortally offended, but it got a little easier to bear when John laughed, looking at him that way again, but, this time, Sherlock was pretty sure John did think he was something special.

“We got you two a little something too,” Violet chimed, smiling as she fished a small box from under the tree, passing it to John, who stepped back, sitting down in his armchair and handing the package to Sherlock, apparently instinctively, as he hadn’t been looking at Sherlock to notice he’d already been reaching for it. “Siger thought it was silly,” she muttered, waving a hand to her husband, who shrugged in acceptance, “but I just couldn’t leave without it.”

“Thank you,” John said, though, for what, Sherlock didn’t know, seeing as he was only just tearing away the glittering gold paper. “That’s- That’s so kind.”

“But of course!” Violet chirped, beaming, her eyes focused down on Sherlock, who was just wiggling open the flimsy lid of the box. “After all, every couple should have-”

“Oh my god!” Sherlock spluttered, gaping down in horror at the contents, Mycroft laughing loudly to his left as he leaned over for a peek.

“What?” John inquired, trying to see, and Sherlock picked the gift up by the attached string, stretching it out away from him like toxic waste.

It was an ornament, two brown owls perched atop a tree branch, and, though that would have been plenty bad on its own, the owls were wearing absurdly patterned scarves and knit hats, and a large red heart hung off the branch, the words ‘Our First Christmas’ scrolling across it in swirling white lettering.

Sherlock grimaced as he watched it spin, the ornament somehow growing more and more awful every time it twirled around to face him. “Really?” he muttered, levelling a look at his mother. “What would possibly possess you to-” He stopped, catching sight of the look on John’s face, bright-eyed wonder that wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of those horrible Christmas movies they’d been marathoning all month. “You love it, don’t you?” he deadpanned, and John beamed, snatching it out of his hands.

“I do!” he crooned, everyone else laughing as Sherlock rolled his eyes. “That one’s you,” he said, leaning down to point out the owl on the left.

Sherlock frowned, tilting his head at the avian visage. “Why?” he finally asked, and John grinned down at him.

“Because he looks grumpier,” he teased, batting his eyelashes innocently when Sherlock glared, and it was hard to tell whether Violet stood because she wanted to, or because she was about to fall out of her chair laughing anyway.

“Oh, you two,” she giggled, wiping a finger under her eye. “I’m gonna go whip us up some coffee. What’s everyone want?”

“Oh, no, please,” John insisted, passing down the monstrosity Sherlock was miraculously warming up to as he stood. “I can do it. You stay here, open some more presents. It’s the least I can do.”

“Are you sure?” she asked, and John nodded firmly, leaving no doubt. “Well…alright,” she murmured, lowering herself hesitantly back to her seat. “Sherlock,” she added, bobbing her head at him, “go with him. Show him where the cups and such are.”

Sherlock sighed, feigning inconvenience when there was no way he would’ve stayed here alone regardless, and they were almost through the doorway when Mycroft’s voice called them to a halt.

“Well, would you look at that!” he chimed, suddenly spirited, and Sherlock’s eyes immediately narrowed. “It would appear you’ve stumbled into a holiday trap,” he added, smirking devilishly as he nodded his head, and they both turned, eyes roving upward.

The sprig of foliage overhead was unmistakable, and Sherlock’s stomach plummeted, his palms immediately breaking out in a sweat. “I-I don’t think-” he stammered, but his mother was in on it now, her smile broad and boding trouble.

“Oh, but you have to!” she urged, nodding earnestly, and Sherlock’s breaths shifted closer to wheezing. “It’s bad luck if you don’t. They say your relationship won’t make it to New Year’s.”

“Who?” Sherlock demanded, pitch rising. “Who says that?”

“People,” Violet calmly replied, her face suddenly stone, and Sherlock gaped at her, stung by the betrayal.

“What people?” he spat. “Who do you know who has ever-”

“Sherlock.”

“What!?” he spouted, rounding on John. “Nobody says that! There’s no reason to think a twig has any bearing on-”

It all happened very suddenly, and then, just as quickly, slowed down, John’s hand coming up to his jaw and tipping him down before Sherlock knew what was happening, but time seemed to stop when their lips met, John’s still chapped, and his no doubt tasting of coffee. Still, as far as first kisses go, it was pretty damn close to perfect, John tipping his head and pressing just hard enough to imply a revisit later, and then he was gone, nothing but warm electricity zapping across Sherlock’s skin as he belatedly blinked open his eyes.

John smiled, soft and shy, as he slid his hand away, and it was all Sherlock could do not to pull him back in and do a proper job of it, but his entire family was staring at them, his mother somewhat mistily while Mycroft looked thunderstruck.

Sherlock couldn’t look any of them in the eye directly, turning his chin as he felt a delayed blush flaring across his face, and John laughed, loosely twining their fingers together.

“God, you’re red,” he chuckled, and Sherlock tried to wrench his hand away, John laughing even harder at the attempt as he tightened his grip.

There was a loud sniff from his right, and he turned to find his mother blowing her nose into a tissue she’d produced from seemingly nowhere, her eyes glistening with tears.

“Oh, for chrissake,” Sherlock sighed, shaking his head at the woman, who simply waved a hand at him in response.

“It’s nothing,” she croaked, rattling her head. “Just-Just the smell of the tree getting to me. You two go on, make the coffee.”

John opened his mouth, most likely to ask a probing question or offer assistance, so Sherlock tugged on their combined hands, dragging him away toward the kitchen. There was a bitten off yelp of surprise, and then just a chuckle, John pulling up beside him, their hands swinging along at their sides. “This is okay, right?” he asked, blushing faintly as Sherlock frowned down at him. “All-All this,” he expanded, shifting at their hands in demonstration. “We never really said- And if you-if you don’t want to-”

“No,” Sherlock interjected, shaking his head as he tipped a smile down at the blond, “no, I- I want to.” He nodded, trying to reassure John’s searching eyes, but the blond’s brow remained furrowed.

“Are you sure?” he pressed, and Sherlock slowed their steps, dropping his eyes to where his fingers interlaced with John’s, pale skin pressed tightly against the tan.

“Yes,” he replied, tipping his head as his smile turned smug. “I am perfectly capable of figuring out what I want, John,” he quipped, and, after a beat, John laughed, the sound bringing warmth all the way down to where his toes pressed to the chilled marble tile.

“Well, alright then,” John murmured, tightening his hold as he leaned heavily into Sherlock’s side, and Sherlock smiled, already giddily planning out his next message to Irene.