'Oh, obvious! It must have been the brother-in-law. Why else would he have bothered to call the bookie?'
John glanced over at Sherlock, who had been stretched out on the sofa like a marble statue, all silence and calm, no doubt lost in the corridors of his mind palace for the past three hours. Now, he sprang to life, something stony and cold made vivid once more as his fingers flew across the key-pad of his mobile phone, texting Lestrade with the answer to the case.
'Solved it, then?' John asked, more for something to say than anything else as he wrinkled his nose, swapping out the dud bulbs on the fairy-lights in the hope of getting them to work.
'Of course,' Sherlock replied with a smirk.
'Brilliant. Give us a hand.'
His request received a distinctly chilly reception. He could almost hear Sherlock's moue of distaste, and the single word response dripped with disdain. 'Why?'
John cast him a dark glare, pitching another bulb into the bin and slotting a new one in its place. 'Because it's Christmas, and we need to decorate the tree. Because if I do it by myself, it will take ages and because you promised.'
'Yesterday, after you set fire to the jumper my mother knitted for me.' John ramped up the tone of accusation. Sherlock was abysmal at empathy, but if you pushed hard enough, it was still possible to send him on a very minor guilt trip. 'My mother who has been dead for almost a decade and can't make me a new one.'
Sherlock's quicksilver eyes took in the stately majesty of the Christmas tree, which was already filling the flat with the fresh scent of pine. It had been carefully placed a safe distance from the fire, and while John felt marginally bad for sacrificing a living tree for the sake of Christmas, he didn't feel contrite enough to go out and buy something eco-friendly and made of plastic.
'I don't see the point,' Sherlock muttered, reluctantly getting to his feet and accepting a bundle of fairy-lights from John.
'It's tradition.' John looped a strand around Sherlock's neck, trying to stop the string from getting tangled as he slotted in the plug and grinned in satisfaction when they lit up beautifully. Sherlock's skin was cast in gemstone hues: blues and reds and greens all adding festive cheer to his highly sceptical expression.
'John, dear, you're meant to be decorating the tree, not Sherlock,' Mrs Hudson pointed out as she bustled in with a tea tray, some mince pies, and a considerable amount of sherry in a bottle.
'Against my will,' Sherlock added, frowning as Mrs Hudson pushed some tinsel into his hand and began rummaging through boxes. 'This is a pointless ritual. It's not even Christian. They did not have pine trees in Bethlehem, nor glass-blowing capabilities –'
'These are plastic,' Mrs Hudson replied as she began sorting the baubles into different colours. 'Hold this, dear.'
Sherlock looked down into the large bowl full of little silver globes, clustered like bubbles in champagne. 'You're celebrating a pagan festival of mid-winter with excessive use of illumination and light-reflecting material festooned on a living totem to represent fertility and rebirth.' He scowled in annoyance. 'Besides, the Germans invented it.'
'Open your mouth,' Mrs Hudson ordered, effectively gagging him with a mince pie. 'Good boy. Do you want some sherry, John, dear?'
'Oh, cheers,' John said appreciatively, grinning as Sherlock made an angry, muffled sound. 'Come on, you, give me a hand with these lights.'
Rolling his eyes, Sherlock waited for John to rescue him from his burdens before polishing off the mince pie in two bites. It was one of the reasons John liked this time of year. Sherlock's sweet tooth worked against him, and by the time they got to the end of December he normally had more flesh on his bones than he did at the start of advent.
They worked in companionable peace, bar the occasional hiss of irritation from Sherlock as the branches scraped his skin, raising vivid red welts in their wake. By the time the tree was festooned in both lights and tinsel, there were tiny needles sticking to John's jumper, and the heady scent of resin clung to his skin, making something flutter happily in his chest. Most of Christmas, he could do without: the shopping, the crowds, the disappointing gifts, but this made him think of being a kid, half-sick with excitement and too much food.
'Are we done yet?' Sherlock muttered from somewhere around the back.
'Oh, stop complaining. It's not like you've got anything better to do. Were you like this as a child?' He tried to picture it: Sherlock and his family decorating a massive, no doubt perfectly symmetrical tree, a blaze burning in the huge fireplace of a gigantic manor somewhere as snow fell on pristine acres of land beyond the window panes...
'Whatever you're picturing is utterly incorrect,' Sherlock said, catching John's eye through a gap in the branches and raising an eyebrow. 'I hate to dash your notions of how I grew up, but decorating trees did not play a role. On the few times I was home before Christmas day itself, the servants did the decorating.'
'Yes, my idea of how you grew up is wildly wrong.' John snorted, wrinkling his nose before handing Sherlock a bowl of baubles. 'You do the top, I'll do the bottom.' He worked in peace for a few minutes, sipping from the sherry now and then and laughing as Mrs Hudson scolded Sherlock for putting too many of the same colour in one place.
'I know you're a beginner, Sherlock, but use your common sense,' she advised, handing him some sherry. 'Drink that. Perhaps it will put you in a better temper.'
'If you want to improve my mood, go and murder someone – make it interesting.'
'Sorry, dear, I've already got your Christmas present. Maybe that nice Detective Inspector will come through for you?'
'Really servants?' John asked after a while, wincing as he dropped one of the few genuine glass decorations on the fire-hearth. It gave a crystalline pop and littered the floor with gleaming, jewel-toned shards. 'Oops, sorry.' He set about picking them up, cocking his head as he waited for Sherlock's response. 'Putting up Christmas decorations isn't meant to be a chore; it's part of the whole thing.'
'It's patently ridiculous,' Sherlock retorted, sliding baubles onto the branches towards the tree's peak. 'Not to mention a fire-hazard. Do you know how many people died during the eighteenth century because of the tradition of putting real candles on Christmas trees?'
'That's why they invented fairy-lights,' John murmured. 'Health and safety.' He got to his feet, abruptly realising that Sherlock was standing right behind him, so close that his back was pressed to Sherlock's chest as the taller man stretched up, intent on finishing his task as quickly as possible. John tried not to blush as his skin tingled at Sherlock's proximity, telling himself it was the sherry making his blood sing and dutifully ignoring the smug, knowing look Mrs Hudson shot in his direction.
The chime of Sherlock's phone made him jump, and John suddenly found his arms full of Christmas decorations as Sherlock abandoned them to his care and read the message avidly. A smile that bode ill for criminals everywhere crossed his lips as he whirled away, already reaching for his coat. 'Lestrade's found a body in Harrods; locked room, but the victim's been identified as a man who died three years ago.'
'Decomposed?' John asked, hastily sliding the last decorations onto the few bare branches that remained.
'Fresh, but mob connections. I'll get a cab, you get your gun.'
'Sorry, Mrs Hudson. I'll finish this up when we get back,' John promised, throwing their indulgent landlady a hopeful smile as he trotted towards the stairs.
'Don't you worry, dear,' she called out after him. 'I think I can deal with the finishing touches. You'd best hurry, or he'll be gone without you!'
John grabbed the Browning from his room and his coat from the peg, almost falling down the stairs in his haste as he dashed off, intent as always on keeping up with the mad whirlwind that was Sherlock Holmes. All around, London's evening was filled with the lights of Christmas, but John barely noticed any of it. They passed him by, from the tacky glitter of fake snow to the exquisite arrangements in the luxurious, refined chaos of Harrods. He was too busy watching Sherlock work, a year-round miracle of deduction and poise, intent on solving the case.
By the time the job was done, the night was drawing to an end, and London's pulse had slowed to a heavy, lethargic beat of life and light in the darkest hour before the dawn. The two of them stumbled back along Baker Street, breathless and high on the rushing, surging adrenaline of a narrow escape. Every few paces, John's shoulder bumped against Sherlock's arm, their staggering footsteps finding a random rhythm of syncopation as Sherlock's deeper chuckle harmonised with John's gasping laughter.
'The look on his face when he found out what the ring was worth!'
'His expression when he thought you'd swallowed it,' Sherlock pointed out.
'Pompous twat.' John grinned, remembering the expression of horror on the suspect's face when a prolonged case of fraud, false identity and theft in the pursuit of an exquisite diamond had ended with John shoving the ring in his own mouth and holding it clenched between his teeth in an effort to keep it out of the crook's hands. 'You were brilliant. Everyone else thought it was just a murder.'
'It's never “just murder” when it comes to the mob.' Sherlock slipped the key into the lock of Baker Street, twisting it expertly and shouldering the door aside so that he and John could fall through into the softly shadowed hallway within. 'Besides,' he murmured, 'you were the one that found the footprint. I almost missed it – too distracted by Anderson's ineptitude.'
John slumped back against the wall, struggling to get his breath back as the whirl of his emotions continued to dance: a giddy waltz of happiness and relief, thrill and excitement. Every nerve shivered, incandescent with sensation beneath his skin, making him feel beautifully alive. It was habit, really, that made him look up, seeking out Sherlock's gaze and meeting his eye.
The connection slammed through him, jolting all the way down to his toes, and this time the quiet voice that usually held him back was conspicuously silent. Reason and logic had nothing to do with it; a second of ridiculous courage was all it took to push him forward, his hand grasping at Sherlock's scarf to drag his head down into range.
Sherlock's lips were cold beneath the tentative swipe of John's tongue, full, sensual, and unresponsive. It took John a moment to realise that fact, and his stomach dropped like a stone as he tried to lean back, a stammered apology catching in his throat. Yet before he could give it voice, the cool splay of Sherlock's gloved hand curved on the nape of his neck, and every last thought John could muster was chased away as Sherlock closed the distance.
His mouth angled over John's, the flicker of his tongue, so sharp with words and deductions, warm and firm against John's lips before he dipped in for a taste; something John was only too happy to give. Tense muscles fell languid, pushing him closer to Sherlock's taller frame as John's hands tried to wander, slipping between the buttons of the Belstaff to press lingering, needy touches against Sherlock's clothed body. Shakily, like an uncertain partner being led in the first steps of a dance, Sherlock followed John's lead, steady breaths becoming soft sounds of encouragement as tentative exploration gave way to knowledgeable pleasure.
It was only when the need for the next breath became too pressing to ignore that John broke back, panting and flushed as he stared up into Sherlock's face. That pale flesh was touched with the lightest hint of rose across the crest of Sherlock's cheekbones, and ethereal eyes had darkened to the colour of slate. Long fingers, still sheathed in leather, were knotted in John's jacket as if Sherlock were afraid that he would try and retreat.
'You have no idea how long I've wanted to do that,' John whispered, feeling the press of Sherlock's brow against his own.
'I think I do,' Sherlock murmured in a husky voice, running the tip of his nose down the side of John's as they shared a humid, shivering breath. 'Mrs Hudson made various suggestions about mistletoe.'
John's laugh was quiet and short-lived, becoming a gasping groan as Sherlock shifted his hand, running cool, gloved fingers up and under John's shirt to the warm flesh of his stomach. 'Would you have done it?' he asked, trying to imagine Sherlock making efforts to corner him and steal a kiss. It was difficult to picture, or had been, until a few short minutes ago, when that intense kiss had changed everything. Now he found himself hungry to discover the full depths that Sherlock kept so flawlessly hidden from view.
'Eventually, perhaps. As it is I didn't have to.' Sherlock grinned, not something false and bright, but the real one that started off as the curve of one corner and spread to something peaceful and shy, entirely for John. It was impossible to let the sight go unrewarded, and John tipped his head up, happily losing himself in another kiss.
No mistletoe required.