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Their Great Reward

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"With great risk comes great reward." - Thomas Jefferson

Boxing Day. In John's opinion, this was the worst time of the year. The thrill of Christmas had passed: the frantic, stressful chaos of its hours already gone. The tree was wilting and stripped of gifts, and now there was a week of dead time before the drunken revelry of New Year.

It always felt like limbo, as if there was no point in doing anything until the calendar revolved once more, bringing with it the clean slate of January the first. It was a time to be endured rather than enjoyed, and John found himself padding around Harry's kitchen at eight-thirty in the morning, out-of-sorts and resentful of the after-Christmas lull.

Blearily, he made some tea, trying to be quiet as he did so. Several of his sister's friends were asleep on makeshift beds in the living room, too hungover to stir this early. Harry herself would probably struggle to rise before midday, and John had no wish to play host to almost-strangers.

With a sigh, he added some milk to his cup, bullying the teabag to sacrifice its flavour before flicking it into the kitchen bin. The hot drink was like bliss, strong enough to chase away the cobwebs and the faint, greasy feeling of too much fatty food and cheap wine.

Despite his best efforts, Harry had ended the night in her usual state. He had tried not to dwell on it and bitten back the age-old argument. She hadn't listened to him for the past twenty years, and that was not about to change. On the plus side, her consumption resulted in her being too drunk for all but the most vague attempts to set him up with her friends. She meant well, probably; it was just that whoever she nudged in his direction – Liz, Tessa and, in a fit of inspiration, David – didn't do it for him. The same as Sarah, Jenny and “the one with the nose”, they were just... people. Interesting enough, adequately attractive, certainly up for a good time – but none of them could make his entire being spark to life with nothing but a glance.

No, that honour belonged to Sherlock Holmes.

'Idiot,' John muttered, self-derisive as he glared at the heavy grey clouds crowding the sky. The window-pane cut him off from the harsh bite of winter, but he shivered all the same, scowling into his mug. It would be better if he knew what to call it, what they had, but it defied definition. “Friends” seemed totally inadequate, and everything else was nothing but wishful-thinking. John was left with a constant, desperate feeling that seemed to commute between his heart and his stomach, dull and aching and hopeful. All he knew was that now, at the arse-end of the year when he should be thinking about good-will and family, he was instead wishing for any excuse to drag him back to Baker Street and the insane man who shared his life.

The buzz of his phone pulled him back into the reality of Harry's kitchen: dirty dishes stacked on the surfaces and empty bottles standing in grim testament. Pulling the device free from his pocket, he tried to ignore the way his heart leapt. Speak of the Devil.

“Did you survive? - SH”

John smothered a smile. Sherlock might think tact was for other people and ignore the social cues everyone else relied upon, but he knew that John saw time with Harry as a trial-by-fire, rather than a happy reunion, even if he never said as much out loud.

“Just about. Are you dying of boredom yet?”

He tried to imagine Sherlock, who had been abducted by Mycroft two days before Christmas, bearing the festive season with anything like grace, but his mind rebelled. He had no idea where Sherlock's family home was, or what, precisely, “family” entailed for the Holmes', but he doubted it would be an enjoyable experience.

“Not quite. I have deduced three affairs, four children of dubious parentage – all of whom bite – and two spies who appear to be working for different governments, neither of which are Mycroft. - SH”

John chuckled, glancing over his shoulder when a snort from the living room suggested someone was coming around, before typing a hasty reply. “Tell me about it when you're home. When are you heading back to London?”

It was an idle question, he reassured himself, not remotely needy or eager, but the sooner Sherlock escaped his family, the more likely he would be to provide John with a good excuse to get out of here.

Minutes ticked by and John scowled down at his mobile, leaning back against the fridge so that no one waking up in the living room would see him. Just when he was about to give up and blame the lack of response on Sherlock's mercurial moods, a new message arrived.

“Regrettably, my brother will not be back in Baker Street for several days. His phone has now been confiscated – as have his cigarettes. Merry Christmas to you and your sister, John. - MH”

He stared at the screen for a few moments, torn between wry amusement and disappointment. Admittedly, there was nothing stopping him going back to Baker Street by himself except his own, lingering guilt, but it wouldn't be the same. The thought of being in the empty flat without even Mrs Hudson for company held little appeal. It never felt like home without Sherlock there, anyway.

'You've got that look on your face.' Harry's wry voice was hushed, and John glanced up in surprise to see her leaning against the threshold with blood-shot eyes, messy hair and a bleary expression. Still, at least she didn't have her head down the toilet.

'What look?' he asked, keeping his voice flat in an effort to discourage her. 'There's no look. I didn't think you'd be up for hours yet.'

Harry gave him a long, unamused stare before padding over to the kettle, her bare feet almost silent as she picked over the wreckage for something she could stomach. 'I forgot to turn off my alarm.' She emptied out tea dregs and a couple of bottle caps from a mug before chucking a teabag in it. 'And don't change the subject, John, your face is an open book. You've got the same look you had when you signed up to the army – the one like you're terrified and excited all at once. I doubt it's work-related this time, though. Your mouth's doing that twisty thing.' Harry smirked. 'Which means it's about a girl.'

Her eyes, more green than blue thanks to the road-maps of capillaries across the whites, narrowed speculatively before darting down to the phone in his hand. She was no Sherlock, but even Anderson could probably have worked out who John had been texting, and her expression said it all. John hated it, the half-smug, half-protective smirk-cum-scowl of older siblings everywhere, somehow so much more patronising when it was hovering on his sister's face. 'Or a boy. I knew it!'

'Harry –'

'It's written all over your blog, John. Anyone can read between the lines!' She chuckled, glancing into the living room as someone sat up groggily and groped for the TV remote, flicking on to the BBC news. Hastily, she dropped her voice, watching John with one eyebrow arched. 'You have a man-crush; nothing to be ashamed of.'

'I – for God's sake, Harry, shut up.' Slipping his phone back in his pocket, John turned to the sink. When it came down to it, he'd rather do the washing up than face his sister and her inevitable “advice”. He rolled up his sleeves, busying himself with hot water and soap bubbles as he gazed out of the kitchen window, lips pursed and brow furrowed, not even noticing the first white skim of fluffy snowflakes fall onto the frosty ground.

People forget how useful reflections can be.

The memory, clad in Sherlock's voice, stirred through John's mind, and he adjusted the focus of his gaze to see that, true enough, Harry had shifted. It didn't matter that his back was to her, she could still see the strange paroxysm of emotion on his face, betrayed by his image in the pane. Her reflection was just as obvious to him, and John watched her face take on a softer hint of concern before she reached out and touched his shoulder.

'Or is it more than that? Oh, John.' She sounded almost surprised, but at least the amusement had fled her voice, and she sat back down at the kitchen table with a heavy sigh, taking his answering silence as confirmation. 'Him? Really?'

'Harry, you're imagining things, and I don't want to discuss my love-life with you.'

'Or your lack of it.' Harry's voice was flat and firm, the way it got when she was trying to be serious. 'John, look at you. Anyone can see that you're miserable. If it's making you this – conflicted – maybe you should do something about it. Have you talked to him?'

John winced, putting a plate down with a clank on the draining board. 'I live with him; I talk to him all the time.' He did not have to be looking at his sister to know she was scowling. 'Besides, there's nothing to discuss. He made it clear he wasn't interested in anything like that when we first met, not that I was even asking.'

'Weren't you?' Harry's question lingered in the air, punctuated by the rhythmic tap of her fingernails against the cheap ceramic of her mug. 'I knew. As soon as I read your blog, I knew he had to be different. I've never seen you like that about anyone. Maybe you didn't notice the change in yourself, but you met him and I – oh, I don't know.' She sighed, a complicated sound of irritation and resignation. 'Perhaps he wasn't interested then, but that was a long time ago, John. How are you going to know unless you ask? The worst thing that could happen is that he turns you down again.'

'Yeah, and this time he's not an interesting bloke I just met; he's my best friend, my flat-mate, my...' He cut himself off with a shake of his head, forcing his hands to be gentle on the wineglasses even when he wanted to slam something down in frustration. 'If I speak up now and he's not changed his mind, then “awkward” doesn't even begin to cover it.'

'And if he has?'

The question made John pause, hating the way his heart leapt only to sink deeper. The thought of Sherlock being of the same mind was intoxicating. He would be lying if he said he had never considered it – what would change and what wouldn't. They would still be all they were to each other now: friend, conspirator and a source of occasional aggravation. However, John would be allowed to show how much he cared, not just physically – although God that was an idea that threatened to derail his entire train of thought – but in the little ways that made up a relationship.

And perhaps he would find out if Sherlock was as distant as he sometimes pretended, or whether he would answer in kind. Not with grand statements of affection, which would be more worrying than pleasing, but by letting through glimpses of those fleeting, often-suppressed emotions. Would he let John see him, all of him, or would it be doomed from the start by Sherlock's unwillingness to be so exposed?

'John?'

He blinked, realising his sister was still waiting for his answer. With a grimace, he cleaned off the last knife and pulled the plug, already shaking his head. 'In all the time I've known Sherlock, he hasn't been involved with anyone. He doesn't do relationships, and that's fine. It's all fine.'

His sister's chair scraped on the lino before her hand curved on his arm, turning him around with unusual care. Even as a kid Harry had been all about rough-and-tumble play, but now she looked at him with something older in her expression – the most grown-up he had ever seen her.

'Sometimes the people we think we know the best can still surprise us. Maybe you're right, and he doesn't need more than what he has with you right now, but that in itself is worth thinking about, isn't it?' She chewed her lip as if she were trying to bully her brain into giving her the words she needed. 'From the sounds of it, he doesn't get on with anyone much, but he chose you, and you're not just flat-mates who see each other in passing. He shares his life with you. Doesn't that tell you something?'

'It's friendship, Harry.' John shrugged. 'Nothing more.'

Harry wrinkled her nose before smoothing out her expression. 'Be sure. Before you turn your back on it and are reduced to pining – because that's exactly what you're doing right now, and it's not very attractive – be damn sure that you've got that right. You'll hate yourself forever if it turns out you could have had more and you didn't take it. The same way I hate myself for having everything with Clara and not doing more to make it work.'

John paused in the act of cuffing water from his hands with a tea-towel, meeting Harry's gaze and seeing her genuine regret. Perhaps she didn't realise it, but she had touched on another problem; a fear that John could not shake, no matter how hard he tried.

'And if we did start a relationship and it ended, what then?' he muttered, pitching the towel aside and rolling down his sleeves. 'As a family, we don't have the best track-record of holding onto people we – care about.'

Harry looked at him sharply, no doubt noticing what he had almost said. Now her face was drawn and her smile gone. Instead, her chin had taken on that pugnacious angle that reminded John of their mother. 'That's borrowing trouble,' she pointed out. 'How can you be worried about it coming to an end when you don't even have the guts to see if it's got a beginning?' She frowned. 'You never used to be this cautious. You've had loads of dates since you got back – doesn't seem like you dithered over them much.'

No, he hadn't. Now, in retrospect, the reason was obvious. He had not been so invested in anyone else. He hadn't had nearly so much to lose, nor to gain, and that made the possibility of rejection far easier to face. Still, as far as he was concerned, he had told Harry more than enough for one day. There were some things he didn't have the strength to put into words. Instead, he shrugged and shook his head, desperate to bring the mess of a conversation to an end. It was only making the ache in his chest grow deeper, anyway.

'Hey, Harry!' David called, appearing at the kitchen door looking rumpled. 'I'm sorry, but I think we're going to have to cut this trip short. It's all over the news!'

'What is?' Harry asked, and John followed David's gesture to the window, seeing the air beyond filled with the waltz of thick, downy snowflakes, undulating before a stormy wind. 'Bloody hell!'

'Tell me about it!' David grinned, scrubbing a hand through his hair. 'You know what this country's like when it snows. End of the fuckin' world. I need to get going before they shut the roads, or you could be stuck with me for weeks!'

The house dissolved into a bustling, laughing kind of chaos, and after watching the grim-faced weatherman deliver his verdict, John retreated upstairs to pack. Serious snowfall was rare enough, and David was not joking. A few inches was enough to bring the entire country grinding to a halt. Manchester and Liverpool had already shut their airports, and Heathrow and Gatwick wouldn't be far behind. The tube would be all right, at least where it was below ground, but John needed to catch a normal train to get back into the city proper. Staying with Harry out of guilt was one thing, but being forced here because of the weather?

They'd kill each other before the day was out.

He packed away gifts and clothes, leaving the spare bedroom as neat as he had found it. He tried to keep his thoughts blank and calm, focussing on getting back to London and hoping he wouldn't get stranded halfway, but they kept gravitating back towards Harry's soft warning. It was rare that his sister was so intense about anything. She ricocheted between giddy and morose, eternally locked within the boundaries of “drunk”, but that had been about as close to sober as she ever got, and her advice rang true.

That didn't mean John was going to take it, though. What he had with Sherlock right now was good, and perhaps he wasn't completely happy, but he would take what he could get and be grateful. End of story.

Grabbing his bag he padded back down the stairs, lingering long enough to say farewell to Harry’s friends before bracing himself for the short walk to the station. He gave his sister a quick hug goodbye, grunting in surprise when her embrace tightened fiercely around his waist.

'One more thing, John, and then I won't mention it ever again,' she promised. 'If you decide not to talk to him about it, then you need to work on your game face. If I can figure it out, do you honestly think he can't?' She gave him a pitying look, breathing in a sigh as she stepped back. 'Anyway, have a good New Year, all right?'

'I will, Harry. Take care. Thanks for Christmas.'

The smile they shared was fragile and more than a little strained, but it was enough to see John on his way, his boots crunching over the newly-fallen snow as flakes caught in his hair and whispered against his coat. Cars crawled along the roads, slow and cautious over treacherous ground. By the time he reached the station, it was obvious he had made the right choice. Delays were already showing up on the information board, and he doubted the lines would be open much longer.

The journey that followed was best described as tortuous: a long ordeal of standing on platforms and sheltering in waiting rooms, rubbing his fingers furiously to keep them warm and forcing himself onto trains, some full to the brim and others starkly empty. Lunch was a bacon sandwich that tasted like cardboard, and he drank more coffee than he should in an effort to keep warm. Buses took over where the rail network gave up, and even the underground was useless. Eventually John resigned himself to a long, cold walk through London.

'Christ,' he murmured to himself as a car slid across the road, bumping to a sedate stop against a lamp-post. The driver got out, glaring up at the sky before locking the vehicle and stamping off in a different direction. The gritters either hadn't got out in time or had been inadequate, and the snow was steadily turning everything to winter-white.

Around him, the city was quiet. Traffic noise fell away as the roads became increasingly impassable, and thick clouds hastened the advance of darkness as the sun gave up its half-hearted efforts. It was then that John began to notice what else was amiss. There were no lights around to chase off the encroaching gloom. Most shops were shut and dark anyway, but there was no glow from flats or apartments. The street-lamps were intermittent at best. Some struggled on the feeble power they got from the solar panels, but most were dead and cold, or ruddy, baleful red.

Once in a while he would pass another pedestrian, slogging and bad-tempered, or kids having an impromptu snowball fight, but mostly London was peaceful in a way John hadn't seen before. He shivered in his coat, eyeing shadowy alleys suspiciously as he hurried home.

By the time he turned into Baker Street, his boots were leaking, his socks were drenched and his jeans were wet to his knees. His fingers and nose were numb, and his hands shook so hard he could barely get the key in the lock. Shoving his way inside, he cursed at the gloom of the hallway, trying the light-switch only to receive no response for his efforts. His breath clouded in front of his face, and the radiators were stone-cold to the touch.

'Wonderful,' he muttered sarcastically, groping his way up the stairs and letting himself into 221B. Mrs Hudson would be away at her sister's, and if the power was out, then no doubt the boiler had failed to ignite and keep the place warm. Still, it shouldn't be this cold, should it? Surely the electricity hadn't been off that long?

The open window in their flat gave him all the answer he needed, and John muttered a foul curse as he knocked the ice off the latch and pulled it shut. He'd love to blame Sherlock, but John had been the last one out, dashing off in a rush. This was the price to pay: a home that was almost as cold as it was outside. He only prayed the water hadn't frozen in the pipes.

Dumping his bag, he rummaged around in the kitchen for a torch. There was still enough daylight to see by, but that would not last much longer, and he had no intention of being left in the dark. The beam stuttered weakly, the batteries almost drained, and John dithered, wondering what to do first. 'Bugger, it's cold,' he hissed, leaving on his coat as he trotted back down the stairs to check the boiler. He peered at dials and glared at the ignition – definitely dead, and there was nothing he could do with a sealed unit anyway.

The torch flickered in warning, and John gave it a dark look, tapping it against his palm and muttering as the beam died. It took a few moments for him to remember his phone, and he groped in his pocket, using the sharp glow of the screen to light the way back upstairs.

A quick rummage through the cupboards revealed a staggering number of candles. Sherlock probably had them in for some experiment, and John gave them a dubious glare, thinking of poison-soaked wicks or something equally devious. However, that was a risk he was going to have to take if he wanted to be able to see.

'Candlesticks.' John blinked, pulling a face as he considered the likelihood of them having such a thing. If they did, he had no idea where they were hidden. The standard tapers might stand up on their own, but he did not want to have to explain to either Sherlock or Mrs Hudson that he had burnt down the flat by knocking over a precarious candle.

Eventually, John found some blu-tack. It was the matter of a minute to press some into the bottom of a few clean mugs and wedge the candles into the putty. Soon enough, there were little pools of mellow golden light chasing off the twilight and, proud of himself, John turned his attention to the fire.

He was just getting the blaze going when he heard the thud of the front door, followed by the dull, defeated click of the useless light-switch and a well-spoken and very familiar bit of invective.

'Pissing Mycroft.'

John grinned as his heart leap, keen and eager in his chest. 'I don't think even your brother can control the weather, Sherlock!'

There was a brief pause, a fraction-of-a-second that suggested he had taken Sherlock by surprise, followed by the thud of rhythm up the stairs. Sherlock entered in his usual whirl of pale skin and dark wool, bringing with him a few trailing snowflakes and the scent of hot, cooked dinner.

'Don't underestimate him,' Sherlock grumbled, setting down take-away boxes before dumping an expensive-looking leather holdall carelessly in the corner of the kitchen. 'I thought you'd still be at Harry's.' It was a question couched as a statement, and John made his way over to the table, raising his eyebrows as he realised the food was from Angelo's.

'Got out while I could – the snow made me feel better about leaving. How come Angelo's was open to give you this, and how is it still warm?'

Sherlock's lips curved in a smug half-smile, and he held out a box of what turned out to be carbonara to John, along with a plastic fork. 'Angelo was happy to provide me with some dinner. He says “Merry Christmas” by the way. Mummy abetted my escape by letting me borrow one of the four-by-fours.' He gestured absently towards the window. 'It's barely a five minute drive away, thus the food remained hot.' Sherlock's gaze flicked over him, no doubt taking in the wet clothes and the pinched pallor of the chill John knew lingered in his face. 'You look like you need it.'

John gave a mirthless snort of laughter and began explaining his seemingly endless trip back in from the edges of the city to the middle. 'God forbid any real bad weather shows up,' he muttered as he took a mouthful. After the endlessness of Christmas dinner the day before, he wasn’t particularly hungry, but the heat was a blessing. 'The nation would be scuppered.' He made a noise of protest when Sherlock took the take-away from him, deftly stealing some mushrooms as he gestured to the stairs.

'Go and get changed into something dry,' he instructed. 'Frostbite is unpleasant and not impossible. Leave your phone; I'll see what I can find out about the electricity supply.'

'Where's yours?' he asked, surrendering his mobile.

Sherlock gave him a dark look, his single word answer saying it all. 'Mycroft.'

John smirked and did as he was told, grabbing his bag and carrying it upstairs, his shivers starting anew. Even a short distance from the fledgling fire, the cold was vicious. In theory, his room should have been one of the warmest in the house, but the last vestiges of comfort had long since fled. Perhaps if they lived in a modern flat, one that was better insulated, it would not be too much of a problem, but the building around 221B was more than two centuries old. No cavity walls to fill with padding, dubious levels of central heating, and probably nowhere near the recommended level of fibreglass in the attic.

He got changed as quickly as he could, sacrificing cold, wet jeans for comfortable pyjama bottoms and pulling on two pairs of socks over his pallid toes. The blankets on his bed felt frigid and damp to the touch, and he grabbed his quilt and pillow. There was no way he was sleeping in here tonight, not unless he wanted to wake up with an aching shoulder and stabbing pains in his leg.

Sherlock raised an eyebrow when John padded downstairs, but said nothing. The phone was against his ear, and John could just hear the mechanical tones of a recorded message being played as he reached for the carbonara again, eating another mouthful before considering the living room. Right now, all he cared about was getting as much benefit from the fire as he could without actually sitting in the grate. It only took him a couple of minutes to start re-arranging the furniture, nudging the coffee table and armchairs to one side before bullying the sofa forward.

'Something wrong with your room?' Sherlock asked as John perched on the edge of the seat, tucking the bedspread around his freezing feet before stretching his hands out to the guarded blaze.

'It's like an icebox. Check yours, I bet it's the same. When's the electric going to be back on?'

Sherlock's voice drifted back to him from his bedroom. 'It was a recorded message. Something about a substation in Chiswick. No estimation when we'll have power back, yet.'

'I suppose we should be grateful our cables are underground,' John called out, smirking when Sherlock emerged, delicate shivers racking his frame. He manhandled his bed linens onto the sofa next to John before retreating to shut the bedroom door firmly.

'It's a shame the same can't be said for the rest of the national grid.' Sherlock turned to the kitchen, rummaging in cupboards and producing a couple of clean, if rather beaten mugs before pulling a bottle of gleaming amber liquid from his bag. He did not ask John if he wanted any, merely doled out a healthy measure and passed one over. 'This will create the illusion of warmth – unless you're hungover from yesterday?'

'No chance,' John replied, taking it gratefully. The scent of exceptional whisky assailed his nose before he took a sip, the heat rolling over his tongue and out from his stomach when he swallowed. There was no rough edge or sharp bite, just flavour and firelight given liquid form. 'God, that's good,' he murmured appreciatively, shifting over as Sherlock climbed over the back of the sofa. He sat at John's side, his own drink in his hand and his knees pulled up to his chest, his collar cutting a striking line across his cheekbones.

'Sherlock, you're getting muddy shoes on the furniture, and your coat is wet,' John pointed out, smiling to himself as his flat-mate bristled indignantly at the criticism. 'I'm sleeping on this couch tonight, and I'd rather it was dry.'

With an indignant noise, Sherlock pulled a face, which John judiciously ignored. However, before he'd had a chance to take another mouthful of whisky, he heard the double thud of Sherlock's shoes on the floor, followed by the hush of wool as the coat was pitched over the armchair nearby.

It was probably a good thing his mouth was empty. If he had been trying to drink, he would have choked at the sight before him. Sherlock in a dress shirt was not a new experience, undone at the collar as usual, his bare neck exposed now his scarf had been removed. Yet this – this was different. The only illumination was the aureate, joyous glow of the fire, coupled with the random stars of candle light throughout the gloom of the flat. He had always thought Sherlock was a man of ice, all snow-white skin and dark hair, monochrome but for the startling colour of his eyes and the pale pink of his lips, but now he looked languid and mellow, sitting cross-legged and watching the dance of the flames as if hypnotised.

Just as well, John thought, because if Sherlock looked his way now, John was fairly sure he would read every fantasy currently blooming through his mind.

Game face, John, Harry's voice murmured in his head. He tore his eyes away, forcing himself to admire the spirits in the mug instead as he cleared his throat, desperately trying to think of some conversation that didn't involve him blurting out something embarrassing about his feelings.

'Mycroft seemed fairly sure you would be staying with your family for a while yet,' he managed at last, quietly pleased that his voice sounded normal. 'I can't imagine he was too happy at you leaving.' He saw the smile curve Sherlock's lips and the gleam in those sharp eyes – calm smugness that made John snigger. 'He doesn't know, does he?'

'He has strong views on how Christmas should go,' Sherlock explained, his voice sounding weary at its edges. 'Controlling, as always, and surprisingly sentimental for someone so averse to such things on every other day of the year. He insists it's about family, and therefore I have to endure the company of an astonishing number of people.' Sherlock sagged into the sofa cushions, taking a healthy swallow of whisky before tipping his head back and shutting his eyes. 'It's exhausting: Constant noise, unending forced civility... impossible.'

'Is that a hint for me to shut up?' John asked, smiling when Sherlock turned his head to give him a glare.

'Don't be ridiculous. You're far easier to tolerate.'

'Oh, thanks for that,' John retorted sarcastically, but without malice. He knew Sherlock's moods and knew them well, but this one was rare. It was not typical exhaustion, but something a bit strained, as if he had suffered a trial of endurance and dragged himself home to the flat – to John – to recover. 'I didn't think you had many relatives.'

'Myself, Mycroft and Mummy are the only immediate family, but there are several aunts and uncles and a truly despicable number of cousins, most of whom have started to breed. Like squirrels or lemmings or something similar.'

'Rabbits,' John corrected. 'It sounds... loud.' Nice as well. It had been just him and Harry for a fair while, and it made Christmas a sad, sorry affair, quiet but blighted with the absence of so many others. However, clearly Sherlock did not share that view. Even now, he seemed strangely limp, as if he simply did not have the strength for his usual refined posture, and there was a solid line of stress lingering in the slim ridge of his shoulders.

'It is. Interminable questions, pointless comparisons and a multitude of children who seem to only know how to scream, cry and vomit.'

'And bite,' John reminded him, 'or was that an exaggeration?'

Mutely, Sherlock clasped his mug between his knees and dropped his right hand to his left cuff, slipping the button free and pulling back the sleeve to reveal an obvious dentition mark: an awkward oval of bloodied bruises. John hissed in immediate sympathy, because he knew the difference between a kid's nip – often done in play – and a proper chomp born of spite. 'Jesus,' he murmured, wrapping his fingers gently around Sherlock's wrist and urging him closer to get a better look. 'Guess the culprit didn't take a shine to you.'

'The feeling was completely mutual,' Sherlock replied, his tone indicating that he would have returned the violent gesture if he thought he could get away with it. 'Takes after his mother.' He turned, pushing back the curls at the nape of his neck to reveal a similar mark, pale silver with age. 'Savages.'

John reached out, his compassion automatic and instinctive. It was only when Sherlock twitched at the touch of his fingers that he realised the intimacy of the situation. Still, to withdraw now would only make matters worse, and John guiltily allowed himself to savour the warmth of Sherlock's skin. 'How old were you?'

'We were both five,' Sherlock replied, 'and that time I did bite back. I distinctly remember our mothers having to pull us off each other.'

'Harry gave me a fair few scars, too. Nothing major, but she liked to kick. Still does, sometimes.' John rubbed his hand over Sherlock's nape again, absently noting how rigid the muscles were beneath his touch and how cold he was. The Belstaff did a brilliant job of keeping in the warmth, but now Sherlock had shed his coat at John's request he was rapidly losing heat. While the fire was a patch of comfort before them, a wall of cold air lingered at their backs, and John quickly reached for Sherlock's bed covers, draping them haphazardly over the two of them.

Reluctantly, he pulled back his hand, frowning in concern when Sherlock slumped back against the sofa, his lanky frame taking up more than his fair share of space. One leg was resting on John's knee, the leading edge of an artless sprawl as John tried to assess Sherlock's mood.

It was not quite like anything he had seen before; not the keyed-up stress of a case gone wrong or the fugue of boredom. This was something different, something that seemed to have Sherlock pinned miserably in its grasp, wound-up and weary with its burden.

'Did something else happen?' he asked, his question hesitant. He was never sure if Sherlock's interactions with his family were something he guarded as private or simply deemed irrelevant, but either way it was rare for him to share even as much as he already had. 'You don't seem –' He paused, unsure what his next word should be, but he didn't need to fill in the blank. Sherlock understood and gave a grunt that could almost have been an apology.

'No, it was just tiresome and endless. I'm not sure what's worse, the same trite “still single?” repeated time and again or the advice offered when I responded. As if someone is somehow incomplete without a “significant other”.' The silver gleam of Sherlock's eyes was briefly eclipsed by something John didn't understand before he shifted, heaving the quilt up around his shoulders and taking another fortifying gulp of whisky.

Any other man John knew would be awkward or defensive about their personal space, but Sherlock had never bothered with such things. At least, not where John was concerned. Now, one foot wriggled impatiently under John's thigh, digging in hard until he shifted, feeling the icy touch of Sherlock's toes through pyjama bottoms and socks alike. 'You can't possibly tell me you managed to go two days with Harry without her grilling you on thingy.'

'She has a name, Sherlock,' John murmured reproachfully.

'And if she had lasted more than three weeks, perhaps I would have bothered to remember it,' Sherlock replied, but there was a flex of his foot beneath John's leg, just a nudge, not an apology but a hint of touch as if to take the sting out of his words.

A laugh escaped John's lips. 'Can't you deduce what Harry did?' he asked before realising that the challenge would be enough to sharpen Sherlock's focus and make him not just look, but actually analyse the expressions on John's face for clues. He drew in a breath, about to put him off with a hasty answer, but it was too late. He saw the exact moment when that weary gaze intensified, as if there was finally something worth Sherlock's attention.

'No,' Sherlock said at last. 'Foolish of me. You don't share your relationships with Harry, not unless they're significant. She wouldn't know about... Faye?'

'Faith.'

Sherlock made a face that clearly implied his guess was close enough, swirling the remaining whisky in his mug as he considered John over the rim. 'However, she tried to assist – encouraged you to indulge in more than superficial small talk with her friends, both female and male – as she always does when you don't turn up at her place in someone's company.'

John smiled despite himself. 'It's what siblings do. Well, maybe not your sibling.' He chuckled as Sherlock gave a snort of agreement. 'Go on then, tell me about them. Her friends, I mean.'

Sherlock curled forward, reaching to pluck something from John's jumper. His hand was close enough that John could feel the chill radiating from his fingers: a cool whisper against the humid column of John's neck. It was tempting to reach out and clasp Sherlock's hands in his, if only to rub some warmth back into him. Yet John restrained himself, simply lifting an eyebrow as Sherlock held two small strands up to the firelight.

'One's a redhead; one has a cat. Possibly the same person. The length suggests female. She sat too close to you, implying some attraction on her side, but your expression, eagerness to return home and general lack of smugness indicates little interest on your side.' He discarded the evidence, giving John a critical look before he stretched out, touching his collar on the opposite side. That meant Sherlock's arm was across John: an almost-but-not-quite embrace that made his heart constrict and pulse hard in his chest.

'Small beer stain. Unlikely to be yours unless you were trying to pour it into your ear. Could be Harry, but she prefers Pilsner.' Sherlock narrowed his eyes and wrinkled his nose in distaste. 'Judging by the colour, this is an Asian beer, Indian maybe? Suggests male drinker, about my age but without much confidence, trying to set himself apart from others with tastes that he believes are exotic but are actually only one step away from mainstream. He was enthusiastic about something and sloshed his drink as he spoke to you. For any landing on your collar he had to be well within the sphere of your personal space. One of those irritating, perky people.'

Sherlock shrugged, an eloquent gesture that drew John's eyes to the flex of his shoulders. 'As for the rest, I'm guessing there were four in addition to you and Harry. All mutual acquaintances but not work colleagues. Predominantly self-employed in fields like journalism or media – something suitably bohemian. Friends, but not close enough to try and interfere with your sister's way of life.' He made an abortive motion with his hand, withdrawing it from where it brushed against John's pulse to affect a nonchalant gesture, as if that was all that was worth saying about Harry's companions.

He was right, of course. Sherlock always was.

'Amazing,' John murmured, staring at the man beside him. Honestly, he did not know what expression lay across his features, and he didn't care, because how could he restrain himself when it came to this? How could he hide his incredulity? Even after all this time, Sherlock's deductions were astounding – the first foundation of admiration on which all the rest of John's regard had been constructed. He loved seeing Sherlock in his element, unravelling the world without bothering to censor himself because he knew that John would never turn around and belittle him for his talents.

He adored seeing the soft satisfaction on Sherlock's face: simple, child-like pleasure at the praise that should be heaped on him from every side, rather than John's alone to bestow. That first time in the taxi, when Sherlock had explained himself, clearly expecting insults and instead finding admiration, he had been so thrown that he had not been able to hide his response to it. Even after all this time, that hadn't changed, and John felt as if he could happily spend the rest of his days bringing that smile to life.

Sherlock shifted, turning more fully so that he was facing John, his legs folded up under him and his back to the arm of the sofa. The almost-empty mug hung from the limp fingers of his left hand, and John mirrored the position, his face open and relaxed as he waited for Sherlock to speak.

'Why didn't you pursue them?' Sherlock tipped his head to the side, resting his temple against the plump cushions on the back of the couch as he watched John. For once, it was not an interrogatory stare, as if he were trying to pick John's thoughts out of his head. It was something more passive, as if Sherlock were actually waiting for an answer. Perhaps the whisky had slowed him down, or possibly Sherlock was too drained by the time with his family to be so relentlessly himself, but he seemed happy to wait as the silence stretched and John considered his response.

The one that hovered on the tip of his tongue, soft and secretive, was the one he couldn't say. “They weren't you.” could be all it took to crack apart this moment. Worse, if voiced, it could take all the history and understanding that he and Sherlock shared and send it up in flames, causing a rift that nothing could repair. Part of him, something reckless and desperate, wanted to lick the lingering, smoky taste of alcohol from Sherlock's mouth and see what happened next, but his courage failed him, carrying the words away and leaving him cold.

He shrugged. 'I wasn't interested. Besides, there's always that feeling of desperation about it at this time of year. People can't face waking up on New Year's day and finding themselves still single, so they grab onto the nearest vaguely compatible stranger some when in the preceding week and try and make something of it.' John had made that mistake more than once, and he hoped by now he was old enough to know better. 'Most people are lucky if it sees them through to Valentine's Day.'

He half-expected Sherlock to point out that, in the time of their acquaintance, none of John's relationships had lasted beyond seven weeks, regardless of the time of year that they commenced. Instead, he merely gave a huff of agreement, reaching out for the bottle and adding another measure to his mug before passing it to John.

Silently, he accepted, wondering if he should try and work out why Sherlock, who so rarely drank alcohol beyond the occasional glass of wine with a meal, was indulging. However, it was good whisky, and John knew the look of someone drinking to relax versus someone pursuing the haze of drunkenness. Sherlock fell firmly into the former category. There was nothing driven or twitchy about him. His body was lax opposite John, shins and knees knocking together comfortably every time either of them shifted, and the silence was companionable, rather than strained.

Gently, John reached out, poking one finger into Sherlock's leg. 'Cheer up. Maybe there'll be a nice murder along soon.'

'This time of year it's all domestic disputes,' Sherlock pointed out. 'Understandable, really. I considered drowning Mycroft in his third helping of trifle, but Mummy would have disapproved.' His lips twitched in a smile as John chortled, envisioning some Holmesian matriarch tutting as Sherlock stood over his brother's custard-smeared corpse.

'Can you drown someone in trifle, or would it be smothering?' John mused, tipping his head in mock thought before the view beyond the window caught his eye, making him stare. His expression was enough to make Sherlock turn, and the two of them observed the blizzard dancing down outside, worse than before – a thick curtain of white that twirled in the wind's dying gasps.

'Hey, where are you going?' John asked as Sherlock grabbed his duvet, wrapping it around his body and peeling himself from the sofa's embrace. He climbed over the furniture without a second thought, his socked feet padding across the floor before he pushed the casement open. 'Jesus, Sherlock, I was just starting to warm up.'

Sherlock did not reply as he leaned against the windowsill, outlined by the dove grey murk of the city beyond. He looked ethereal, summoned up by the winter itself and barely touched by the golden elixir of the firelight. He was so quiet and still that he looked as if he was carved from stone. Only the subtle shift of muscles with every breath and the occasional blink told a different tale.

He seemed different, tonight. There were fewer sharp edges to his demeanour and cutting words to pass his lips. The tranquillity was so unusual that John climbed to his feet, abandoning his nest and clinging to the mug of whisky as he navigated his way to Sherlock's side.

John mirrored his position, leaning on his elbows and looking out into the night as his breath steamed in the air. 'What are you doing?' he asked, sighing when Sherlock just gave him a sideways kind of look and gestured to the world outside. 'It's snow.' John gave the weather a disgruntled stare and shivered as the wind invaded the flat, chasing a small slick of flakes. 'I saw enough of it walking back home.'

'Don't look. Listen.'

John sighed, reluctantly doing as Sherlock said. It was instinct to close his eyes and let his other senses take over: the scent of burning pine and the crackle of the fire, the taste of ice on each breath lingering with the whisky's warmth and the Arctic zephyrs that drifted over his skin.

Abruptly, the hush of fabric overwhelmed him as he was enfolded in Sherlock's quilt. The lingering traces of something perfumed tickled his nose, probably whatever was used to keep those dark curls tame, but mostly what he could smell was unidentifiable as anything other than Sherlock. It was reminiscent of expensive cotton, subtle smiles and something human and delicious that made John's stomach thrill.

'What exactly am I meant to be able to hear?' John asked, trying not to let his voice croak over the words as Sherlock's arm brushed against his shoulder, the two of them wrapped up side-by-side. 'There's the fire, but other than that it's – oh!'

He opened his eyes, and Sherlock's smile told him he had been inexcusably slow. Sherlock had not been expecting him to hear anything. Instead it was the absence of noise. Snow did to London what nothing else, not even the long-ago Blitz could achieve: the city stopped.

There was no traffic noise, no bustle of people. No flights roared overhead on their way to better places, and not even the few lingering street-lights could do more than cast faint halos amidst the angel-down of the snow.

'It's so quiet,' John whispered, not wanting to shatter the serenity as he watched Sherlock reach for one of the candles, balancing it on the narrow windowsill. The flame danced: a tiny beacon of home and hearth in a city reduced to wilderness once more. 'There's nothing to hear.'

'Almost nothing,' Sherlock corrected, his voice a rumbling hush. Crystal flakes caught on them both, decorating Sherlock's hair with diamonds and decking John's cheeks with the kisses of winter. 'Listen again.'

John did as he was told, taking a sip of whisky and holding its burn in his mouth as he strained his ears. It took a few moments, but at last he heard it. Like the glassy hum of sand blowing across the dunes, high and resonant, the winter brought its own song. Nothing as elegant as a symphony, but there was a susurrus of silky static in the air, limpid and light: a constant sibilance that would have been drowned out to by any city-noise. 'What is that?'

'The noise snow makes as it falls,' Sherlock said with a shrug. 'I don't think there's a word for it in English.'

'Peace,' John supplied after a moment of thought. 'Not quite silence, but almost.' He shivered again, more over the eerie edge the weather had lent to London's night than the cold, but Sherlock quickly pressed closer as if to share his warmth. 'I can't believe there's so little noise. We could be the only people left in the world.'

'At least I would be in good company.'

John looked up at Sherlock, his reply dying in his throat as he realised how close they were. At arm's length and locked in friendship's orbit, he might have stood half-a-chance, but right now he could understand precisely why it was called “falling” in love. It was sacrifice and surrender: a leap of faith that could make or break a man, and John was not sure he had the courage to find out which would be his fate.

Even with their arms propped on the windowsill and bent at the waist, Sherlock was still taller than him, looking down into John's face with a frost-blue gaze. He could see the flecks of gold and green that made those eyes ever-changing, but there was something else entrenched within those hues. Cold analysis was swept away beneath a wash of soft warmth. Where John was used to seeing the chilly indifference of factual deduction, now there was hesitance and uncertainty.

The tip of Sherlock's tongue skated over his bottom lip, a flash of darker pink that John could almost taste. Part of him knew he should step back – should put some distance between them because the idea of Sherlock looking at him now and not seeing everything he felt was almost absurd. Yet he did not seem knowing or distant with comprehension. He was just Sherlock, the man who had somehow become the only person in John's life who really mattered anymore.

He drew in a breath to speak, a quick snatch of air that fell useless in his lungs as Sherlock abruptly shifted. Not back and away as John had feared, but closer. A small duck of his head, a tilted angle, and John's brain slammed to a halt as his heart jumped into triple time, because that was Sherlock's mouth warm and full over his, shy in a way that made John ache.

Surprise rendered him motionless, muscles locked tight in shock. His thoughts crashed to a halt, lost in a tangle of confusion and the first, fragile seed of disbelieving happiness. Yet before he could urge his rigid body to move, Sherlock was pulling back, face turned away and his cheeks tinged pink as that rich voice stumbled over unusual apologies.

'Sorry, I – I didn't –' Sherlock straightened, closing his eyes and cuffing his hand through his hair as he swore quietly, sounding not only embarrassed, but hurt. 'Forget it.'

'No!' The word erupted from John's lips, born of panic and abruptly loud in the unearthly peace. He shook his head, ignoring the sough of the eiderdown from his shoulders as he put the mug of whisky on the windowsill. Reaching up, he cupped Sherlock's jaw and urged him back, bending his knees so he could meet those downcast eyes. 'No, I don't want to.'

There was not much space between them, but John closed the narrow distance all the same, his thumb brushing over Sherlock's cheek as he stretched upwards to press a chaste kiss to the down-turned corner of Sherlock's mouth. That was all it took to make the aggravating man face him fully again, his eyes wide and uncertain as they flickered over John's expression in search of clues.

Sherlock was brilliant at what he did, but in the field of emotions, John knew those powerful deductions faltered. He could either let Sherlock stand there and get caught up in a tangle of his theories, or he could offer him irrefutable proof that the sentiment was mutual.

Tilting his head, John traced a soft kiss across Sherlock's mouth. He tasted of warm whisky and cold winter air, the contrasting flavours lapping across John's tongue as he swept beyond the frontier of Sherlock's teeth, allowing himself to explore as his mind lost itself in the intoxicated reel of unadulterated happiness. It was a dream come true: a hundred fantasies finding shape in Sherlock's lean body and clever lips, slow at first, then quickening against John's to make him moan softly. The breathless sound made Sherlock's hands move at last, one cupping the back of John's neck as the other curved around his hip, holding him in place.

It was impossible to acknowledge the brumal touch of winter flowing in through the open window when Sherlock's body was pressed so close, stealing kisses both tender and deep. He seemed to be savouring every moment, as if he expected John to disappear and leave him with nothing but memories.

Not that John was much better. The few, scattered thoughts he managed to form were full of wonder that this could be happening. Finally, he broke back, drawing in a breath as his hands shook against Sherlock's face before slipping lower, down his throat and over the hammering beat of his pulse to rest on his shoulders.

'You want me.' Sherlock sounded so surprised, as if he had never dared to hope for such a thing, and John watched as those lips curved into a faint, shaky smile. 'I didn't think you would.'

John ducked his head, his smile impossible to hide. 'I thought you'd read it right off my face,' he murmured, thinking of his sister's dire warning to hide his feelings. Sherlock normally saw everything, but it seemed that, at least in this case, he had either overlooked the signs or written them off as mis-deductions. 'If I'd known you were interested, I would have told you, but –'

His shrug encapsulated all of Sherlock's apparent indifference, and he tried to remember if there was any hint that this was how they would end up, standing in each other's embrace with kisses still burning their lips. 'I suppose I believed the whole “married to your work” thing.'

'That's somewhat out-of-date,' Sherlock pointed out, swallowing tightly as his hands drifted over John's shoulders, tracing his outline as if he did not believe he was really there. 'I won't lie; back then, I needed a flat-mate, not a relationship.' His thumb skated over John's knuckles, and he fumbled for words, not meeting John's eyes. 'And it would be a relationship. I'm not – I can't –' He clenched his jaw, and John could see Sherlock's frustration at his inarticulacy: sentiment his fatal flaw. 'I don't want to risk your friendship for a quick shag.'

John shook his head, gripping Sherlock's wrists and feeling cool skin beneath his fingertips, chilled by exposure to the outside air. 'You're mad if you think that's all I'm after,' he replied, trying to ignore the thump of his heart and the heat in his veins at the thought of intimacy with Sherlock. 'What made you change your mind? About me, I mean.'

Sherlock shifted, his body swaying closer to John like a moth to a flame. There was nothing clinical or thoughtful about his expression. It was exposed, instead, honest in a way John rarely saw. It made him wonder if this was what lay ahead for them. Sherlock was still the same as he had always been, but this was somehow less-refined and more human, his distance reduced by shy affection in the privacy of their home. It was something John could get used to.

'Mycroft.' The answer was so surprising that John gaped, not bothering to hide his astonishment as Sherlock snorted and rolled his eyes. 'Well, that's not quite true. I've seen you as more than a friend for a while, but Christmas with my family – everyone asking when I was going to find someone special... All I could think was that the one person who actually matters – who doesn't just share my existence like something to be divvied up but enhances it – was bloody miles away with his sister and her friends.'

John's voice caught in his throat at the unexpected confession, and he swallowed tightly before he managed to speak. 'So what did your brother do?'

'He reminded me that I was not as incomplete as the rest of my family implied, regardless of my personal life, or lack there-of.' Sherlock smiled at John's confusion, leaning in to press their brows together. One wayward curl tickled the bridge of John's nose, and he licked his lips, hearing Sherlock's breathing hitch. 'He then proceeded to point out that we rarely receive that which we really desire without taking some risks.'

A puzzle piece slotted into place, and John realised that every ounce of hesitation he had experienced had been reflected in Sherlock, their friendship equally treasured. 'Is that why you brought home the whisky? To make it easier for you to take a risk?'

Sherlock smiled, not the half-hearted curve or the manic false grin, but something beautifully real that made John lean in for another kiss. He licked along Sherlock's pout before slipping inside for a taste and hearing the moan that escaped him. When he pulled back, Sherlock's eyes stayed closed, finally opening halfway to reveal the halcyon tarns of his irises.

'Dutch courage,' he mumbled in response, already angling his mouth for more, his whisper shivering from his lips to John's in an erotic hush. 'I was sure I'd lose you.'

John shook his head, his needless protests to the contrary chased away by Sherlock's kisses as the candles danced around them and the fire waltzed in the hearth, spilling its wealth of light and shadow across them both. He had almost allowed himself to believe he could be content with nothing but friendship. However, now he'd had a taste of this man – not just the flavour of his lips or the scent of his skin, but the hidden heart that beat away, eclipsed but far from withered beneath the brilliance of Sherlock's mind – and John knew he could not go back.

The year was heading towards its inevitable end but, within the shelter of Baker Street, John and Sherlock entrusted themselves to each other's devotion. With every tender caress and quiet word they lay claim to the gleaming promise of a new beginning.

Their great reward.