The first day, Sherlock assumed John had simply neglected to shave. Approximately twice a month he would do so, saying he "wanted to give his face a day off." This was something Sherlock had always regarded as supererogatory, but John was prone to certain eccentricities. Sherlock could forgive him this one.
On the second day, there remained a noticeable scruff along John's jawline and down his throat. John ignored Sherlock's pointed stare and left for the clinic with nothing more than a brusque, "Good morning." Sherlock watched from the front window until John disappeared from view, his brain rapidly sorting through and rejecting possible explanations. John hadn't overslept. A quick check of the bathroom indicated that his razor was both present and functional. He'd never before indicated that his skin might require two days of rest. Furthermore, all previous face-resting events had occurred at weekends; John had never once (while living with Sherlock) left for work with his face unshaven.
By the third day, Sherlock had narrowed it down to four possibilities:
- John was attempting a fashionable "scruffy" appearance. (But for whose benefit? He hadn't dated anyone in months. Sherlock made a note to hack into John's phone contacts again and see if a new addition had been made.)
- John had been diagnosed with a non-obvious medical condition that precluded shaving. (No visible evidence of this; Sherlock would have to check John's appointment calendar to be sure.)
- John was suffering from some sort of short-term memory loss and had repeatedly forgotten to shave. (Unlikely, but Sherlock had yet to rule it out entirely.)
- John was, inexplicably, growing a beard.
By the end of the first week, he'd eliminated all but the last.
Sherlock had assumed John's puerile experimentation with facial hair was finished following the Unfortunate Incident of 2013. The moustache had made him appear old and curmudgeonly, and once this point had been made clear to John by a quorum of friends and colleagues, he had removed it immediately.
Therefore, this turn of events was surprising. Even more surprising was that Sherlock was forced to admit that the scatter of lengthy stubble on John's face was not altogether… unappealing. In fact, it gave him a roguish, masculine appearance that not only distracted Sherlock from important work on a daily basis, but also did not go unnoticed amongst the general population. John garnered 14% more glances from women on the street than he'd done when clean-shaven, and those looks were, on average, 1.2 seconds longer.
Sherlock threw himself into research for four solid days, attempting to quantify the precise qualities of facial hair on certain men that made them more – for lack of a better word – attractive. Studies reported by psychologists and anthropologists alleged that facial hair afforded a man an air of confidence, experience, and sexual prowess. (Sherlock thought it doubtful John would feel he lacked in any of those areas. If he did, Sherlock could provide him with ample evidence to the contrary – most of it anecdotal and observational, of course.) Facial hair also appeared to be in fashion, but John had never been particularly trendy in his personal style choices. There was a certain amount of machismo amongst bearded men online, but John had never appeared insecure about his masculinity.
Of course, with a sample of one, data was extremely limited. And so when John left London to visit his sister for a long weekend at the end of November, Sherlock seized the opportunity to expand the data set. He ceased shaving and began to carefully record the results of a number of subjective measures of attractiveness. But by Sunday afternoon, rather than producing the desired effect of increased masculinity, he looked instead like a disheveled junkie. He shaved it all off in a panic ten minutes before John returned – lest John be reminded of the last time Sherlock had appeared this way.
On the morning of the first of December, John disappeared into the bathroom with a small package. Within minutes Sherlock heard the unmistakable sound of a hair trimmer – and felt an unexpected stab of disappointment. He would miss the beard, he realized. He'd grown used to John's new appearance, and had even begun to consider the possibility that he preferred him bearded to clean-shaven.
But when the door opened, John still wore the beard: he'd merely trimmed it back to a sort of ruggedly sparse state. Sherlock had to duck behind the newspaper to hide his smile. John would apparently remain bearded for the foreseeable future, and Sherlock… actually didn't mind.
Sherlock blinked. He'd been staring again, apparently. He forced his gaze down to the glass of brandy John held. It sparkled with the reflected Christmas lights from the window. He stood and crossed to the violin stand. "Shall I play something?"
John shrugged noncommittally, though he smiled in a way that indicated he was pleased. Sherlock took a moment to rosin the bow, then to pluck each string and adjust the tuning before playing a rather lengthy, self-indulgent version of "O Holy Night." John watched reverently as he played, fingers stroking his beard as they'd been doing most of the evening. Sherlock turned his gaze to the festive window display to keep himself from being distracted again.
When the piece was finished, he turned to see John by the fireplace examining a photo on the mantelpiece. Sherlock replaced the violin and bow on their stands and crossed to stand beside him. The photograph depicted the two of them in a pub a year earlier, leaning against a bar and smiling, drinks in hand. The day John's divorce was finalized, they'd gone out to celebrate, and Lestrade had taken this photo with his phone. John had liked it so much he'd framed it.
"So what do you think, really?"
Sherlock turned from the photo to look at him. John's eyes were warm and blue, and he smiled.
"About what?" Sherlock asked.
"This," John said, running a hand over his chin. "It's been almost two months and you haven't said a word. That's not like you."
Sherlock shrugged. "I've nothing to say." John gave him a long look, and Sherlock pursed his lips. What could he say? That he liked it? That he found it unbearably attractive? That he desperately wanted to stroke John's face to see what that coarse hair felt like under his fingers?
John's eyes went wide, and Sherlock realized he'd said all of this aloud. Ah.
John stared at back him for a long moment before taking a step closer. "All right."
"What?" Sherlock felt his face heat, and not because he was standing by the fire.
"Go on then." Something had changed in John's expression, something Sherlock couldn't quite identify.
Sherlock let his gaze drift down to the thatch of light brown hair mixed with wisps of gray. He swallowed once and reached out to stroke his fingers down the length of John's jaw, over his chin. The hair was softer than he'd expected – coarse, but still somehow silky to the touch. His fingers slowly traced John's lips, and he marveled at the contrast.
He glanced back up at John's eyes and felt a jolt almost like physical contact. John looked back at him with an expression of barely-disguised longing, and for a moment, Sherlock couldn't breathe. He held John's gaze and slid his fingers around to cup John's jaw in his hand.
"I've been wondering," Sherlock began.
"Yes," John said, and kissed him.
"—if you'd be willing to keep this a bit longer," Sherlock finished nearly a minute later, somewhat breathlessly, his thumb still stroking the hair on John's chin.
John's smile was brighter than the flames beside them. "You like it."
Sherlock leaned in again, smiling against John's lips. "Yes, I suppose I do."