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The Baker Street Nativity

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Chapter One - The Baker Street School

Sherlock Holmes strode past the news agent (something about the euro; dull) and on into the park, where the groundskeeper (widowed, lost last night's bet on the football match; dull and dull) was unwittingly obliterating evidence of the crimes that had taken place the previous night (underage alcohol consumption, pickpocketing, public indecency; dull, dull, dull). He stopped at Speedy's for a cup of coffee - black, three sugars (the young woman behind the counter had a boyfriend from Liverpool and was reading philosophy in her third semester but considering taking a gap year in Italy: honestly, did no one have any imagination any more?) - and took exactly two sips for quality control before continuing to the school.

The Baker Street Primary School was a low, boxy product of utilitarian 1970s brick-and-glass design. It smelt permanently and inexplicably - despite an entire afternoon wasted in an attempt to discern the source - of wet dog overlaid with industrial disinfectant, and had a reputation for mediocrity that everyone, students, teachers, administrators, and alumni alike, worked hard to maintain. Sherlock was no exception. Teaching certainly hadn't been his first - or second, or fifth - choice for a career, but after being dismissed from the conservatoire, he hadn't had a lot of options. He'd transferred his credits to the Open University, finished his BA through correspondence while he was in rehab, and talked his way into a position at the struggling private school. It had been five years now, and this would probably be his last. Especially after the incident with little Seb Wilkes. Or so the head teacher, Greg Lestrade, had hinted heavily, if Sherlock didn't 'adjust his attitude'. Something which Sherlock, of course, had no intention of doing. It wasn't his fault that the child was an idiot, and unable to handle being told so.

Sherlock stopped off at the teachers' lounge to check his inbox. The room was filled with the murmur of voices as the other teachers finished preparing for their classes or gossiped in the last few minutes before the warning bell rang to signal the start of classes. This was the worst part of the day. He could deal with the children, barely - none of them expected him to be nice or polite or, dullest of all, sociable. Not that any of the adults at the school did either by now, but the accusation was still there, the finger-pointing, both overt and subtle, at his failure to conform to some random set of useless rules he'd never agreed to in the first place.

"Hey, Sherlock." Mike Stamford turned around and put an elbow over the back of his chair. "Here's one for you: I'll bet you can't guess what news I got yesterday."

"I never guess," Sherlock said as he skimmed, then binned, the accumulated memos. He wondered what exactly it would take to make Stamford stop talking to him altogether.

"All right, deduce, then," Stamford went on amiably. "As you say. Go on, I'd be surprised."

The rest of the teachers were more or less surreptitiously listening in by this point. The jackals. Sherlock frowned and took a sip of his coffee. It was the perfect temperature now. If he got this over with quickly, he might still be able to enjoy it.

"It's not a party trick," he said, but looked at Stamford anyway. He was grinning from ear to ear; not an unusual look for him, granted, but there was an extra shininess to his cheeks this morning. It took Sherlock all of five seconds to arrive at his conclusion: "Your wife's pregnant."

Stamford's mouth dropped open, his face a caricature of astonishment. "Someone told you!" He looked around. "Molly, did you tell him?"

Molly Hooper flicked her eyes to Sherlock and away again, shaking her head. As she did so, her ponytail swung earnestly back and forth. "I swear I didn't." Her ears were already turning red, as they always did when she talked to, about, or in the vicinity of Sherlock. Another point of tedium. Sherlock had tried embarrassing her, belittling her, and flat-out insulting her, all to no avail. In fact, the attention had only seemed to flatter her. He was now resorting to ignoring her.

"It's obvious," Sherlock said to Stamford, because, truth be told, he enjoyed this part, and he certainly wasn't going to let Stamford off for dragging him into this. "First, you alerted me to the fact that you specifically received some news, so something personal. Further, it must be something you consider good news, judging by the fact that your face has been frozen in that ridiculous rictus since I entered the room. Most likely one of the big three: money, career, or family.

"A lottery win wouldn't be considered 'news' for you to receive. Inheritance? Unlikely, as that would entail someone close to you having died, and you're too obviously happy for that. Plus, you find discussing one's personal financial situation to be indelicate. New job? It's the wrong time of year for a teacher to be changing positions, and you're well satisfied with your job here, God knows why, so you won't have been looking to change. Leaves family.

"Your shirt is unironed and you've a mug of that horrendous instant stuff from here rather than your usual travel cup from home. Conclusion: your wife didn't iron your shirt or make you coffee this morning, and heaven forbid you do either yourself. She's therefore either out of town or ill. She's a librarian so would need to work today, with no reason for her to be travelling on business. The only other reason she'd have gone somewhere without you is if someone in her family had died; again, your demeanour doesn't support that conclusion. You've been married for almost a year and you're a practicing Catholic. That, together with a posited illness on her part, suggests morning sickness." Sherlock raised an eyebrow at Stamford.

"Why, yes," he said with an incredulous laugh. "That's-"

Sherlock interrupted: "Obvious, yes. And now I suppose you expect congratulations for working out the mechanics of something that literally billions of other idiots around the world do every day, largely without conscious thought. "

The smile froze, then slid off Stamford's face. The bell rang. The other teachers slowly got to their feet, some shooting Sherlock disapproving looks occasionally mixed with pity, which didn't make any sense; he wasn't the one who was going to have a young of the species hanging off him for the next twenty years. Others were shaking Stamford's hand and patting him on the back, offering him both congratulations and commiserations.

Sally Donovan paused next to Sherlock on her way out. "Couldn't you, just once, act like a decent human being?" she hissed. "I can't believe people actually allow you near their children."

"Something you'll never have to worry about," Sherlock said. "What with your biological clock ticking down its last few seconds."

Donovan's face hardened. It looked like she wanted to shoot something back at him. Instead, she stepped back, shaking her head and holding her hands up in surrender. "You'd better get to your class. Before you're written up for tardiness," she said and disappeared down the hall.

The rest of the morning didn't get any better. Sherlock's coffee had gone cold by the time he was able to drink it, his pupils were even slower and stupider than usual, and the pièce de résistance came when Lestrade announced at assembly that Sherlock would be in charge of the end-of-term Nativity play.

"What were you thinking, putting me in charge of the play?" Sherlock demanded later in Lestrade's office. "I thought we agreed after what happened five years ago I wouldn't do it again." He paced in the small room like a caged tiger, trying to figure out what Lestrade's motive could possibly be for such a hateful move. Sherlock hadn't done anything particularly awful lately, certainly nothing that deserved a punishment this extreme.

Lestrade leaned back in his chair. "I like to think you've matured since then."

Sherlock stopped his pacing and gave Lestrade a sceptical look. "That's entirely beside the point. This cannot possibly have a good outcome. The children are literally useless. They are congenitally unable to produce anything of merit."

Lestrade sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "That's exactly what I mean. You can't put down these kids like that. After what you did to that Wilkes boy-"

Ah, so that was it. Although it wasn't as if Sherlock were really at fault. "He was educationally subnormal!" Sherlock pointed out, quite reasonably. There was even a psychological assessment to back him up. "He didn't belong at this school anyway."

"You launched into him, in front of everyone, and didn't let up even when half the class was in tears along with him. You can't do that, Sherlock. It's a primary class, not the final judgment. He'll likely have lasting psychological damage. Do you even get that? These are kids. They're highly impressionable, and we're not just entrusted with teaching them to read and do sums-"

"Am I being let go?" Sherlock interrupted as the pieces fell into place. Lestrade was trying to force him to quit rather than firing him outright, likely in some misguided attempt to allow Sherlock to save face. "It'll be difficult to get a replacement in the middle of the term like this." And even more difficult for Sherlock to get another teaching position, even without the onus of being sacked.

"You're not being let go," Lestrade said with a weary sigh. "God knows why, but the board have let you off with a warning. But this is it." He underscored his point by poking a finger in Sherlock's direction. "I heard the Wilkeses had to be talked down from involving their solicitor."

"Why put me in charge of the play then? You can't really mean for me to do it. Is this some sort of punishment to try and keep me in line?" Sherlock asked, genuinely curious as to how that would work.

"No, that's not the punishment. I've put you in charge of the play because I think it will do both you and the kids good to interact out of the classroom. Take the pressure off, that sort of thing. I also happen to think you'll be quite good at it, and we need someone to take the reins if we're to have a chance at competing with the Blackwood School. With Mrs Prince gone, you're the only teacher with any sort of practical experience in the arts-"

"Yes, because a term and a half of training as a classical violinist makes me the go-to person for herding a pod of illiterate year threes through twenty minutes of flubbed lines, costume malfunctions, and backstage meltdowns."

"If they're illiterate it's on you, and it had better go at least half an hour." Lestrade gave him a pointed look.

Sherlock glowered mutinously.

Lestrade relented, saying, "Look, if you're worried about what happened five years ago... I think you've adjusted your expectations accordingly in the mean time. You know what these kids can do, and what they can't. You're not going to get BAFTAs and BRITs out of them. Just have them sing a couple of carols and walk through the parts. The script's already been written for two thousand years."

"So has Moran's review. If this is about besting Blackwood, we might as well spare everyone the embarrassment right now. Moran's in Moriarty's pocket. Have you forgotten what he wrote last time? 'A Christmas calamity...Sherlock Holmes' Nativity was abysmal... minus two stars'," Sherlock mimicked.

"All right, never mind about that, forget I said anything. This isn't about Blackwood or Moriarty. This is about you and these kids and showing everyone what this school can do." Lestrade pointed his pen at Sherlock. "I want you to go out there and work with those kids and get the best you can out of them. I think they might surprise you, and you might just surprise yourself."

"Doubtful, but I see that I have no choice," Sherlock muttered. Not if he wanted to keep this job, and he did, at least until he figured out something else to do. There was a time when he would have vacated his desk without a second thought, but Lestrade was unfortunately correct in one thing: Sherlock had changed over the past several years. He didn't like to think he was more responsible, necessarily - that would mean he did things because other people expected him to - but he was more aware of consequences, and losing his only source of income from one day to the next with no replacement in sight for the forseeable future would bring all sorts of very nasty consequences with it, things he would really rather not have to deal with like banks and creditors and the unemployment office, along with the even worse prospect of 'I-told-you-sos' and 'oh-Sherlock-you-didn'ts'.

"No, you really don't," Lestrade agreed with Sherlock's assessment, far too cheerfully for Sherlock's liking. He leaned forward and shuffled through some papers on his desk. "Oh, and by the way, the punishment is, you're getting a classroom assistant," he said without looking up.

Sherlock stared. "You're joking."

Lestrade had the good sense to look apologetic. "The board insisted."

"A chaperone, in other words."

"He's a nice chap, I think you'll like him."

"You think I'll-" Sherlock echoed incredulously. "No. I refuse. This is insulting and demeaning. I put up with that inane mentoring rot the first year, and we both know how that turned out."

"You're not really in a position," Lestrade said mildly. "Look, I don't know, think of it as you mentoring him."

"You are not saddling me with a teacher trainee."

Lestrade wiggled a pen up and down between his fingers. "No. No, I'm not. In fact, I'm not quite sure why he's agreed to come." An interesting furrow appeared between his eyebrows.

Sherlock's ears pricked up at that. "Oh?" he said, pretending at nonchalance.

Lestrade pulled a folder off his desk and read something out of it. "Yeah, army doctor, actually. Invalided out a couple of months ago. Mike Stamford put us in touch. Old classmate or something. Name's John Watson."

Sherlock was more interested than he wanted to be. "I suppose he thinks he'll be giving orders, instilling military discipline, that sort of rot."

"Give him a chance before you pass judgment. What is it you always say? Don't jump to conclusions without all the evidence?"

"Never theorise without all the facts," Sherlock muttered, trying to stop from doing exactly that.

"Right. He may surprise you. And like I said, you don't really have a choice. So, make the best of it. And Sherlock... relax! Have fun. And play nice."

Sherlock withdrew, grumbling loudly but inwardly chomping at the bit to find out just what the story was with this John Watson.

Mrs Hudson, the school secretary, greeted him on his way out. "Oh Sherlock, dear, here are those copies you needed." She held up a stack of papers.

"Thank you, Mrs Hudson," he said crisply, reaching out for them. He would never have thought to thank anyone else for doing something for him, but with Mrs Hudson he never considered not thanking her. It was all the more strange because she never really seemed to be bothered by his lack of social niceties; not that she didn't notice them or even take him to task for it, but she never took it as a personal affront, and was never anything but unfailingly generous to him. It was a puzzle, but somehow it engendered in Sherlock the impulse to indulge her with just those forms and rituals that she didn't seem to miss.

"Yes, well, you're perfectly capable of using the copier yourself, you know. If word gets out they'll all be wanting me to do theirs."

"I won't tell anyone," Sherlock said in a loud whisper and took the papers.

"Oh, you," she scolded him, but it was good-natured. "That was the last time, mind. I'm not your P.A."

"You're a star, Mrs Hudson," Sherlock called back over his shoulder on the way out.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two - The Classroom Assistant


The next Monday morning, Sherlock paused outside of room 221B before entering. Rather than the usual high-pitched screeches and scraping of furniture across the floor as the pupils settled into their seats for the morning, a chorus of off-key but enthusiastic voices singing more or less in unison drifted through the half-open door. Sherlock peeked inside.

The students were gathered around a man (ex-military, forty-ish, irregular sleep patterns) sitting at one of the tables. So this was the classroom assistant. So far, completely unremarkable. He was wiggling his fingers and appeared to be leading them in song. Sherlock started thinking of ways to make him leave of his own accord. Their enunciation was terrible and there was little resemblance to a melody, but it sounded like something about a child named Susie. Utter twaddle in any case. And the bell signalling the start of lessons had already rung.

Sherlock swung the door the rest of the way open and strode in. "What's going on here?" he said in a commanding tone.

The singing came to a ragged end. The pupils giggled and whispered to each other as they shuffled quickly to their places. The man pulled himself stiffly to standing. Sherlock noticed the cane only now - left-handed, non-dominant arm injured, rank of at least captain, possibly major, given his age.

"Mr Holmes, I'm John Watson." The man smiled and switched the cane to his other hand in order to shake Sherlock's hand - right-handed shooter - without adjusting his stance. His previous assessment screeched to a blinding halt and did a whiplash-inducing about-face. Sherlock felt a tingle of excitement and rapidly re-evaluated the input thus far received. A good series of deductions should set things off to a promising start.

"Yes," he said coolly. "Mr Lestrade told me you would be joining us. Insomnia or nightmares?"

"I beg your pardon?" Watson's smile faltered.

"The reason you don't sleep well. Are you awakened by nightmares, or do you have a hard time falling asleep in the first place? Although I suppose it could be both."

Watson shook his head slightly, as if to clear it of cobwebs. "Sorry, how did you...?"

Sherlock allowed himself a small, self-satisfied smile. The students were all quiet as mice in their seats now, their eyes riveted on the pair. This would be as good a lesson as any; better, in fact, than reciting spellings, forty-five percent of which they were bound to miss anyway. He walked toward the front of the class as he began.

"It's obvious. Well, perhaps not to you," he allowed, "but to anyone with half a brain who actually uses it to observe what's directly in front of them.

"To start with: the injury to your shoulder was traumatic, likely received under hostile fire." He turned back toward Watson and conceded, "Lestrade told me you were in the army, although I can see that for myself: your haircut, the way you stand-" Sherlock made a sweeping gesture in the other man's direction. "Most people would think it was your leg that was injured, but that's purely psychosomatic: even now, you're putting weight on it and you've practically forgotten about the cane." Sherlock smirked at it, even as Watson gripped it more firmly and leaned into it.

"You hold the cane in your left hand, but it's your left leg that gives you trouble. Awkward, not to mention that you're left-handed. So why not carry the cane in your right hand, as would be natural? Because it can't bear weight. Your handshake is firm and confident, so no injury to the hand, wrist, or arm. Must be your shoulder. The fact that you experience psychosomatic pain in your leg indicates that the actual injury was traumatic, probably greatly so. Could have been a horrible accident, but given that you were stationed in a war zone, I'm going to go with hostile fire. How am I doing so far?"

Watson looked incredulous, one half of his mouth quirked up as if he wasn't certain whether he was meant to laugh or not. "Right, that's... Did someone give you access to my file? I wasn't aware I'd included any of that in my application-"

"Are you even listening?" Sherlock scolded him. "There's no file, no one told me anything. Your own body gives you away."

"What about the nightmares then? You said you could tell I had nightmares." The man seemed downright eager to hear more.

"I wasn't sure whether it was nightmares or insomnia," Sherlock corrected him, "but thank you for answering the question. To return to my explanation, if whatever happened to you was traumatic enough to cause psychosomatic pain, it stands to reason that you suffer more generally from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sleep disturbances are a common symptom. You have dark circles under your eyes, and the skin of your face is slack and sallow. Simple enough."

Half of the children's mouths were hanging slightly agape. Watson regarded him keenly. Sherlock began to feel the slightest bit uncomfortable. Which was ridiculous. He'd been correct on every count.

"Are you quite finished?" Watson asked.

"Well, I could go on, but I do have a lesson plan to get through." Sherlock picked up a stack of worksheets from the desk with an unnecessary flourish.

"That," said Watson into the silence, "was absolutely astounding."

Sherlock looked up. He couldn't detect a trace of sarcasm. And far from looking dismayed, embarrassed, or angry, as people tended to when Sherlock was done with them, Watson had a look of frank admiration on his face. That was... unexpected. Sherlock tried to suppress the flutter of what had to be curiosity that knocked against his ribs.

"What, you-" Sherlock said, unable to completely erase all traces of surprise from his voice, "you think so?"

"Extraordinary. Completely inappropriate and an egregious breach of privacy, but really quite extraordinary. You must know that."

He did, of course he did. The point was, only very rarely did anyone else acknowledge it. "That's not what people usually say," Sherlock admitted.

"What do they usually say then?"

Sherlock glanced at the little faces gawping up at him. "Something not quite as flattering." He couldn't suppress a grin.

Watson grinned back. And at that small gesture, that tiny moment of understanding and shared humour, something clicked inside Sherlock. He didn't know whether it was a switch that had been turned on or possibly off, but it was accompanied by the same feeling of exhilaration and dread that he'd had when he took his first hit after getting out of rehab the first time. That blissful completion of filling an emptiness coupled with the certain knowledge that the emptiness would only reappear in a more vicious way once the drug wore off. He'd trained himself to live with the emptiness, to skirt it or even, if he was very disciplined, ignore it. He wasn't at all certain he welcomed John Watson reawakening it, even if it did feel good at the moment.

"Well, it was," Watson affirmed. "Extraordinary, I mean. Can you do that with anyone?"

An unfamiliar emotion spread through Sherlock's chest - pride, perhaps, unadulterated by disapproval or rejection. "Yes, of course," he said, still studying Watson, looking for some chink in his honest facade, some hidden reserve of pitch being held in readiness for an attack. There was definitely something there, but it didn't seem threatening. At least, not toward Sherlock. "It's simple application of logical, deductive principles based on systematic observation," he explained.

"Well, I've never seen anything like it."

The moment stretched into something undefined as they held each other's eyes. Watson's were blue, Sherlock noted, but even as he thought that they shifted into gray and something flickered behind them, something hidden that had Sherlock looking deeper, all thought of the children around them forgotten.

Watson moved first, giving himself a barely noticeable shake and flicking the tip of his tongue out to lick his bottom lip before saying, "Right, well, I'm actually here to assist you. Greg said something about a play-"

Sherlock surfaced. He gave himself a shake, looking away and taking a step back toward his desk. Watson wasn't going to be taking over, no matter how interesting he was turning out to be. Lestrade might have been right when he said that this man might surprise him.

"I told Lestrade I had no need of an assistant," Sherlock said, "but as you're here you can sit over there and stay out of the way." Sherlock indicated a child-sized chair next to the back wall and began passing out the worksheets. He needed to regroup, he needed time to think, away from all of these distractions.

Watson's mouth pressed closed, but he squared his shoulders and went over to the seat. Sherlock frowned when he saw the difficulty with which the man manoeuvred himself into the too-small chair. Watson's leg stuck out stiffly, and he had to turn to the side to keep it out of the way. Well, he could have said something if it was uncomfortable, Sherlock decided. He determined to ignore him and continue as usual.

Predictably, the pupils were depressingly slow to grasp anything. Throughout the lesson, Watson sat there, back straight, his hands (non-smoker, surgeon - what was a left-handed army surgeon doing with gun calluses on his right hand?) resting palms-down on his knees, his eyes monitoring the pupils and all but ignoring Sherlock. This, of course, was highly distracting, and Sherlock had to refrain more than once from addressing him directly in a bid for his attention.

It didn't take long before Sherlock snapped at a boy whose strong Estuary-inspired accent with its T-glottaling and flat vowels grated on Sherlock's nerves even when he wasn't saying something that flew in the face of all reason and common sense. Out of the corner of his eye, Sherlock saw Watson look down and away. The judgment on his behaviour grated, and Sherlock struggled with the impulse to lash out at the pupils even more in retaliation. The fact that he was responding in such an emotional way disgruntled him more, however, and he resolved to suppress any reaction to either Watson's presence or the children's stupidity.

In the last ten minutes of the period, the children worked silently on their worksheets while Sherlock walked amongst them, pointing out errors. When he neared the back of the room, Watson raised a finger and caught his eye.

"You don't have to put your hand up to talk to me," Sherlock murmured, but he stopped and leaned down, his hands in his pockets. Watson's eyes were definitely blue, and Sherlock revised his estimate of the man's age downward by five years. His skin was prematurely aged from being in the sun, and the lack of sleep had dragged his eyes and jowls down.

"Right, no," Watson said in a soft voice, "only I thought we were supposed to be doing a play." He had his hands clasped, his elbows resting on his knees, and his face was tilted expectantly up toward Sherlock.

Sherlock had the inconvenient impulse to say or do something that would cause the other man to smile. Instead, he answered irritably, "This isn't a rehearsal for a play. This is a language arts class."

Watson blinked, then said, "Yes, right, that's entirely reasonable. But I think they've had enough of sitting. Look at them, they can barely concentrate." He nodded his head toward the children, and indeed, many were either staring out the window or doodling on their paper. One girl was slowly consuming one of her plaits.

"Right!" Watson exclaimed suddenly and clapped his hands once. The sound startled the children to attention. "Who wants to do a play?"

There was an immediate hubbub as the children jumped up and started cheering.

"No, no, stop-" Sherlock tried to say, but his protests were drowned by the children's enthusiastic shouts.

Watson was directing the children to move their desks aside, and that was where Sherlock drew the line.

"Quiet. Quiet!" he bellowed. "Alfie, that means you." He pointed at a boy who was lifting his chair onto a desk. Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned toward Sherlock. "The next person to so much as touch his table will be in detention for the remainder of the term."

The children barely had time to sit down again before the bell rang for break time. Again, there was a swell of small voices cheering, accompanied by a mass rush for the door. Sherlock was about to round on Watson when the man darted past him, hustling the last couple of children out with him.

"Watson! Mr Watson! Dr Watson!" Sherlock shouted, but it was too late. Watson was in the corridor, tossing jackets to the children and tying on scarves. In a matter of moments, the entire brood was running out to the school yard.

Sherlock went to the window. Watson was running around with the children, joining in their games. Sherlock looked around the classroom. Watson's cane lay forgotten on the floor where he had been sitting. Sherlock snorted and looked out the window again. He knew that he should do everything in his power to get rid of Watson. The argument he would present to Lestrade practically wrote itself. Watson undermined Sherlock's authority, contributed nothing useful, was disruptive, and didn't have the first idea about respect or discipline. To say nothing of the fact that he couldn't carry a tune to save his life, making him less than useless when it came to putting on a musical theatre. Sherlock didn't know what Lestrade had been thinking. The fact that he was psychologically unstable was the last nail in his coffin.

And then there were the things that Sherlock would never say, not to Lestrade, not to anyone. The things he stirred up in Sherlock, the fact that Sherlock actually wanted to see him again. The fact that he couldn't predict what he himself would do if given more access to Watson. No, Sherlock had no doubt what his next move would be: he would speak to Lestrade after school. Sherlock would agree to put in a minimal effort toward the play and present the facts regarding Watson in a clear and logical manner. Lestrade wouldn't have any choice but to capitulate.

Watson was playing leapfrog with the children now, with no sign of a limp or injury. They seemed to have taken to him quickly; Sherlock had to admit he was engaging, his smile and enthusiasm infectious. Strictly to the children, of course. He only had to get through the rest of the day, and then Watson would be gone.

With that thought in mind, the situation became more manageable, and the rest of the day passed without incident. Sherlock even found that he was able to indulge some of Watson's whims with the pupils. It made for less friction, and it was only one day. Tomorrow, things would be back to normal.

When the final bell rang, Watson went out to make sure that galoshes and mittens ended up on the correct extremities while Sherlock tidied the room. Sherlock heard the last little voices calling out, "See you tomorrow, Mr Watson!" and then Watson was back inside, perched on one of the pupils' desks.

Sherlock set down the books he was holding and leaned back against his desk, his arms crossed. He was prepared to make a little speech about what an educational experience this day had been all told, but it really wasn't going to work.

However, he only got as far as "Well, it's been very-" when Watson spoke over him, saying, "Can I just say, I've really enjoyed today. The kids are great, and you're-" He waved his hand toward Sherlock. "I think I can really learn something from you. And I'm not saying that to be facetious, I really mean it. That thing you did, with the..." He looked to Sherlock for the word.

"Deductions," Sherlock supplied suspiciously. He knew he should leave, go see Lestrade and do what he'd planned, but he was curious where Watson was going with this.

"Deductions, yes, right, brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. And the kids, again. Great." He licked his lips; Sherlock recognised the gesture, now that it had manifested a few more times during the day. It meant Watson was thinking something he didn't want to say. Something that made him uncertain, something he wasn't sure would be well received. Not a criticism, though. Sherlock already had a good handle on his repertoire of facial expressions for that.

"So, tomorrow we start on the play?" Watson prompted. "I, er... Not that I'm any good, but I can play the keyboard a bit. Chords, nothing fancy. So, I could. If it would be helpful." At Sherlock's blank look, he hurried on to ask, "Do you have a script or anything?"

"Not as such, no."

"Right," Watson said slowly, "well, I was thinking, do you want to come for a Sausage Sizzler?" He pointed vaguely over his shoulder.

"I'm sorry?"

"The takeaway down the road, I saw on my way in, they do these sausages with tomato catsup and a... roll, thing. Do you want- I mean, I quite fancy one, but you could just get a coffee or something and we could go over to the park, toss some ideas around."

"No, I'm-" Sherlock was unsettled. Was he being asked out on a date of some sort? "Dr Watson, I-"

"John, please, there's no reason to be formal when it's just us, is there? John." He pointed at himself. "And you're Sherlock-"

"Sherlock," Sherlock said with him, immediately feeling like an idiot for doing so.

John beamed, and Sherlock felt like much less of an idiot. Then he felt even more of an idiot, because he was actually having an emotional reaction - not just one, an entire series - to someone he would never see again. Never would find out how exactly he had been injured or why he was here or how many colours his eyes could turn, and in what circumstances - Sherlock stopped the thought process abruptly. That was certainly enough of that. Instead, he fell back on his standard rejection to personal advances, speaking in a near monotone as he looked at the top of John's right ear.

"As to the park and so on: no, but thank you for your interest. I'm flattered but I don't think that it would be appropriate-"

"No, God," John interrupted quickly, "not at all, no! I only meant- No, not like that! Not that there would be anything wrong with it, but I wasn't-" He tucked his hands up under his arms and exhaled, calming himself. "There's the play to be getting on with. Is all I meant. If you'd rather, I can email you something tonight."

Sherlock blanked his expression. John wasn't following the standard reaction pattern of agitation, apologies, and attempts at humour. He was holding Sherlock's eye, speaking firmly, not backing off. Sherlock must have misinterpreted.

"That won't be necessary," Sherlock said coolly. "I'm perfectly capable of preparing a script for a primary school Nativity on my own."

"Of course you are, only I thought I was meant to be helping you. You have all of your regular lessons to prepare. My mum was a teacher, so I know there's a lot more work to it that what shows up in here, and Greg said you didn't exactly volunteer for this, so-"

"I said I'd take care of it."

John held up his hands in surrender. "All right. Have it your way. But if you change your mind or need to contact me-" He dug out his mobile and clicked through a few screens, then held it out to Sherlock. "Here, this is my number."

Sherlock took the phone and copied the number into his own.

"So I'll see you tomorrow then?" John said.

Sherlock nodded absently, using the last few seconds to glean several more pieces of information from the phone before handing it back. It wasn't until John was out the door that Sherlock remembered the cane that was stashed under his desk. Or the fact that he'd meant to tell him he needn't return tomorrow.

Sherlock stared at the entry he'd just made into his address book. John Watson. This was getting complicated. No need to deviate from his original plan, however. In fact, his own uncharacteristic behaviour only strengthened his resolve to carry through. He didn't like being made to feel uncomfortable in his own classroom, and he certainly didn't need someone else traipsing into his life and trying to tell him what he should be doing. He grabbed the cane and went down the hall.

"John Watson has to go," Sherlock said without preamble. He stabbed the cane down onto the floor of the head teacher's office. It would have been a more impressive gesture if it hadn't been rubber-tipped.

Lestrade swiveled away from his computer so that he could see Sherlock. "What's this about?"

"He's a disruptive influence, he contributes nothing of value, he has no ear for music, and..." Sherlock flourished the cane. "He poses a potential physical threat."

Lestrade screwed up his face. "You think he's going to whack someone with his cane? Not that you wouldn't deserve it," he muttered, then looked at the cane more sharply. "Hold on, why do you have his cane? Sherlock, you can't nick a man's cane."

"Give me some credit," Sherlock said. "He forgot it. The man is unstable. He suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He could snap at any time."

Lestrade relaxed and folded his hands over his stomach. "Says the man who arrived with a diagnosis of emotionally unstable personality disorder on his record."

Sherlock looked thunderous. "That's not fair."

"No, and neither are your accusations against John. Look, I had my eye on him today, don't worry. He was good with the kids, and they obviously like him. I think he balances you out well. The two of you could make a good team. Now give him his cane back and don't come back until you have your programme for the Nativity ready to print." He turned back to his computer. Sherlock didn't fail to notice the smug look on his face.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three - The Evening Stroll


Sherlock didn't like Christmas. He didn't like any holiday celebrations, really, with their crowds and forced cheer and familial obligations. Christmas was the worst, though, the one that he was least likely to be able to avoid spending at least part of with his family. As if he had any need to have his nose rubbed in Mycroft's successes whilst everyone reminded him how he had squandered his talents and royally bollixed up his life. At least he wasn't beholden to any of them. That had been his main reason for becoming a teacher: a steady income with minimal effort on his part. It was true that it took up a large portion of most days, time that he would prefer to dedicate to other pursuits, but at least the holiday breaks were generous.

And so while the bright lights and plastic decorations that were beginning to crop up in the windows of the houses on his street didn't overtly interfere with his existence, he nevertheless found himself invariably worked up to a palpable level of aggression by the time he arrived at the door to his brownstone. Which made him doubly gratified to be greeted by an enthusiastic bundle of knee-high, shaggy, gray dog when he went inside.

Gladstone had originally belonged to Mycroft. His brother brought the dog along on his first visit after Sherlock was released from rehab, and Sherlock had immediately felt a righteous anger on the animal's behalf when he saw how Mycroft kept Gladstone at a distance, refusing to allow the friendly, playful puppy anywhere near his Savile Row trousers.

The next time he saw Gladstone was a month later, on Christmas at Mummy's house. Mycroft spent the entire afternoon sitting in the library on the phone, while Gladstone lay glumly under a chair, gnawing on a rawhide toy. Sherlock finally had enough of the dog's sad eyes, and took him for a run around the grounds when he went out for a cigarette. He never brought him back. Oh, Mycroft had ordered Sherlock to return the dog, but it was telling that he'd never made a serious effort to reclaim him.

Sherlock felt a certain kinship with Gladstone now: both abandoned and betrayed by someone who was supposed to be there for them and support them. It was no coincidence that it was the same person. Sherlock paid a skinny kid, Wiggins, a friend of a friend from his drug days, to take Gladstone out for a good, long walk during the day, but the early mornings and evenings were his.

He hooked Gladstone's lead to his collar and they set out. They didn't have a set route; Sherlock enjoyed exploring new neighbourhoods, finding narrow alleyways and cutting through courtyards that most people didn't even notice as they bustled past on their business. He was building up a mental map of the city bar none, and Gladstone was no slouch, either. They often played a game, after walking for an hour in a new direction, where Sherlock would say, 'Home, Gladstone,' and allow the dog to take the lead. He unerringly found the way back, sometimes on an even more direct route than they had followed on their way out.

Sherlock used the time on their walks to clear his head of the deadwood of the day, formulate new experiments for phenomena he deemed worth investigating, and hone his observational skills. He had always been good at watching and listening, hovering on the edges of social interactions, making connections that other people were too wrapped up in their emotions to see. Rather than being distracted by the plush softness of that woman's lips, he noticed the puffiness of her cheeks and the raspy quality of her voice that signaled her frequent self-induced vomiting. Instead of losing himself in raptures over the firmness of that man's arse, he noticed the oily skin and thickly haired arms that revealed his use of steroids.

And so he watched the strangers on his walks, saw their infidelities in their clothes and their financial dishonesties in their bags and briefcases, their children in their hairstyles and their hobbies in their fingernails. He saw, above all, that he wanted no part of any of that life. He didn't know yet what he did want, but he kept tucking data away in his mind palace, knowing that one day, it would all come together.

Tonight, he found his feet bringing him into a popular shopping district. It wasn't even December yet, but the street was lined with coloured lights, and people were caught up in the excitement of their first holiday purchases, rushing from one shop to the next with their arms full of bags and parcels. He considered turning down another street, but instead decided to set himself the challenge of keeping his focus despite the many distractions, both from the noise and crowds, and from his own internal responses to the same. He counted two people making purchases with stolen credit cards - one 'borrowed' from her parents - a band of three pickpockets, six women and two men buying items they could ill afford, eighteen tourists from a total of seven countries, two illegal immigrants from Viet Nam, and he was trying to decide whether to add the man with the eyeliner to his running tally of (so far three) vegans when he spotted a newly familiar sandy head weaving through the pedestrians. The accompanying rush, a mixture of interest and anticipation, blindsided him and made him temporarily unable to recall why he wanted to avoid the man in the first place. In any case, John had already spotted him.

Sherlock tried to take the pre-emptive route by nodding politely yet aloofly and not slowing his pace. However, John waved and came directly over. Sherlock could have kept walking, but it was likely that John would simply come after him. He stopped, indicating to Gladstone with a shake of the lead that he should remain standing. He thought he might use the dog as an excuse to end the encounter quickly, if it came to that. Before John could even open his mouth to speak, Sherlock noted that he had gone for the sausage earlier after all but hadn't had dinner yet; further, that he wasn't just being polite now. He was seeking eye contact, his expression eager but still withholding something, something that made Sherlock look more intently for its source.

"Hi, Sherlock, this is quite a surprise," John said cheerfully. "Do you live near here?" His voice was infused with genuine pleasure, and the sound caused a sympathetic thrum of contentment to echo in Sherlock.

All he said in answer to John's question, however, was "No." He didn't trust his own voice not to reveal more than he intended - or expected - if he said more at the moment.

John waited for the natural follow-up, but when Sherlock didn't deliver, he turned his attention somewhat awkwardly to Gladstone. "Who's this fellow then?" He bent down to offer his hand for the dog to sniff. "Is he yours?"

Now that seemed safe enough territory. "No, I moonlight as a dog walker," Sherlock said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

John scratched Gladstone behind the ears and laughed. "Could have been you were taking him out for a friend. I wouldn't have pegged you for a dog person yourself, actually."

"I don't-" Sherlock stopped himself before he could blurt out the admission, immediately questioning his motives for doing so. Why should he be ashamed of not having any friends? It was what he chose for himself, after all. People tended to react with pity at such a statement, though, and John - who was clearly never in want of friends - was certain to be no exception. "Yes, he's mine," Sherlock said shortly. "Gladstone."

"He is a friendly chap," John remarked. "It suits him."

It was true, Gladstone seemed to be taking to John as well as the children had. Now John was talking to the dog, saying ridiculous things, as if he could actually understand. Gladstone's tail was waving furiously, his tongue lolling out of his mouth as he appeared to hang on John's every word. Sherlock felt an irrational stab of jealousy.

"I see your leg has improved vastly since this afternoon," Sherlock said, meaning it as a jab, although it didn't come out with nearly as much venom as he'd supposed it would.

John kept his focus on Gladstone. "Yes, funny thing," he agreed pleasantly enough. "I guess you were right about it being psychosomatic."

"You knew that already."

"Yeah, I did. Still hurt."

"And now it's gone, just like that?"

John nodded, finally looking up at Sherlock. "Seems to be," he said mildly. "For the time being, anyway." He searched Sherlock's face, then said, "You knew I'd forgotten the cane, didn't you?"

"Of course."

John continued to watch Sherlock, not saying anything for a moment. Was he waiting for some further explanation? Sherlock couldn't look away. He tried to turn his gaze into a glare.

Finally, John said, "Thanks." It sounded sincere enough.

"For what?" For someone whom Sherlock had deemed easy to read, John's thought process at the moment was frustratingly opaque.

John stood up slowly; apparently his leg wasn't completely recovered yet. "For not saying anything. I didn't realise it until I was back at the bedsit, going up the stairs, trying to figure out why it was so much easier than usual." He smiled self-consciously.

Sherlock wasn't sure how to respond. 'You're welcome' would imply that he had kept silent in order to help John, when in actuality he had tried to use the lapse as proof of John's instability. Sherlock was vaguely uncomfortable about that now. He didn't actually want to ridicule John or make him look bad, which was novel. He settled for a vague harrumph that could be taken as an acknowledgment.

"I guess I was so distracted by the kids and... all the excitement and everything at the end," John said.

Sherlock couldn't recall any particular excitement, unless John meant the normal chaos of the children gathering their things and leaving at the end of the day. John had gone out to help them, that was true. But then he'd come back in. And he'd forgotten about the cane much earlier. Gladstone was becoming restless, wondering whether he was allowed to sit or whether they were going to continue with their walk.

"Well, we really have to be going," Sherlock said.

John looked mildly surprised, as if he'd expected Sherlock to stay longer. "Yes, I suppose you need to get to work on the play," he said. "I could still help, if you like."

Sherlock was caught off guard by the queer yet not at all disagreeable sensation the offer elicited in his stomach. It was similar to the feeling he used to get before a recital, the pleasant anticipation of displaying his talents and the expectation of being lauded for them. Similar, but not identical.

Sherlock allowed a brief vision to play of John coming home with him, settling on the couch, laughing, taking a glass of wine from Sherlock, fingers brushing, their eyes meeting - The sensation in his stomach intensified and zinged downwards along an internal pathway that hadn't been used in a very long time. In fact, he thought he'd severed that particular connection. Impossible. He wasn't... He couldn't actually be attracted to John Watson. He was all wrong, he was- Well, look at him: shorter than average, of no great intelligence, with lines and gray hair in excess of his age, psychologically damaged, no taste in clothes. He'd joined the army, for heaven's sake. And yet...

"Sherlock?"

Sherlock became aware he was staring, and John was waiting for an answer. And he'd licked his lips.

Sherlock shook his head in annoyance at himself. "No," answered firmly. "No, it's fine. I won't keep you."

"I really don't-" John began, but Sherlock interrupted with a curt "Good evening" and shook the lead to signal to Gladstone that he should walk on.

Sherlock had to force himself not to turn around and check whether John was still standing there.

%%%%%

By the time he and Gladstone arrived back at the house, Sherlock had decided on a course of action regarding John Watson. He would allow him to help with the play (not that he had a choice in the matter, as Lestrade had made clear), but he would not let him interfere with school work, even if he had to accept John's presence in the classroom.

Further, and of utmost importance, Sherlock would not allow himself to be attracted to or distracted by John. There was no point. He had certainly misinterpreted John's friendly overtures, and at any rate, Sherlock had no desire for any sort of emotional or physical entanglement. Although he might, possibly, be willing to sit at the same table with John during break time and interrogate him about his past experiences. Or even, if the aforementioned interrogation yielded positive and interesting results, to engage in a more extended interview over lunch.

Sherlock poured himself a glass of wine and in an effort to overwrite the horribly sentimental scene his subconscious had conjured up earlier, stretched out over the length of the couch with his laptop. Gladstone leapt up, closely avoiding crushing an unimportant yet vulnerable part of Sherlock's anatomy, before circling one or two times and settling down curled over Sherlock's legs.

"What did you think of John then?" Sherlock asked Gladstone as he waited for his computer to boot up.

Gladstone lifted his head and gave a short bark, then let his tongue hang out and panted happily.

"Hmph," Sherlock grunted. "Pushover. His hands probably smelled of sausage."

Sherlock quickly came up with an outline for the play and began looking up appropriate Christmas carols to insert, per Lestrade's instructions. Silent Night, We Three Kings, Little Town of Bethlehem. Tedious. He'd have to sing these with the children dozens of times until the words were ingrained in their meagre little minds. He was unpleasantly reminded of past Christmases, when he had invariably been called upon to play Christmas carols on his violin for his parents and their guests. That was, until his disastrous dismissal from the Royal College. His mother (his father had died by that time - and a good thing, too, according to Mycroft, because it spared him seeing his youngest son destroying his life) hadn't cared to parade Sherlock in front of her friends after that; too great a chance of uncomfortable questions.

No. Sherlock was not going to incorporate any of those songs in this - his - Nativity. He'd do without, or write the songs himself, if it came to it. It was meant merely as a spiteful thought, but once formulated, it sparked a creative desire in Sherlock that he hadn't felt in a long time. Yes! He would compose the songs himself. He may have been too strung out to sit his exams at the conservatoire, but he'd often been praised for his improvisations.

He sprang up, dumping dog and laptop, and went to retrieve his violin. He'd just work out a couple of simple melodies tonight. Facile ones, in fact: the children would have to learn them quickly. It wasn't a great challenge, but at least it would be a more rewarding intellectual exercise than Lestrade had set him. The fact that John might be impressed both by him making the effort and by the songwriting itself didn't even factor into it. Much.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four - The Christmas Tree Lot

 When Sherlock arrived at school the next morning, the scene was even more chaotic than it had been the previous day. The children were flinging pieces of folded paper back and forth across the room at each other, and the noise level had to be heard to be believed. John, of course, was in the middle of it, giving as good as he was getting and looking like he was having the time of his life. As soon as he spotted Sherlock in the doorway, he took aim. Sherlock dodged, and the folded paper sailed harmlessly past his ear. Sherlock went into the hall to retrieve it. An aeroplane. He quashed the childish impulse to shoot it back.

"Quiet. Quiet!" Sherlock shouted as he entered. "Everyone sit down!"

The frenzy subsided and the pupils shuffled around, taking their seats. John shared a conspiratorial look with some of the children near him and threw one more aeroplane, hitting a boy smack in the back of the head. The class broke out in laughter.

"Mr Watson!" Sherlock barked.

John faced him and stood at parade rest, but his eyes were dancing with laughter. Sherlock had the oddest longing to do something that would encourage the laughter to bubble over into sound.

Rather than acting on it, he snapped, "If you are going to give instruction in classroom mischief, the least you can do is make sure to impart the first principles of aerodynamics." Sherlock snatched up a scrap of paper that bore a greater resemblance to a tri-cornered hat than anything capable of flight and tossed it on his desk in disgust. "And this? What's this?" He picked up a piece of paper that had been crumpled into a vaguely spherical shape. "You'd need a ballista for this type of projectile. Really, for someone who's supposed to have been in the army, I'm very disappointed."

John rolled his eyes good-naturedly at the children, who giggled back.

Sherlock couldn't let him get away with insubordination, but he wasn't really angry. He had planned on having the children create decorations for the classroom and the school Christmas tree anyway, which Lestrade was forcing him to pick up later that day.

"So you want to play with paper?" he asked in a dangerous tone. He was speaking to the class as a whole, but he kept his focus on John. "Fine. Your task this morning is to create seasonal decorations out of paper, without using adhesives or scissors. Folding only. I want to see recognisable shapes and sharp lines. Extra points for creativity. And, after you have made at least one decoration and had it approved by either myself or Mr Watson, those who want to may make one aeroplane. We will go into the assembly hall during the last fifteen minutes and have a contest to see whose flies the furthest. Anyone who wants to learn something about aerodynamics and improve their chances of winning may come to my desk when you are ready. The rest of you may work quietly at your tables. You may begin."

There was an eager scramble for paper. The expression on John's face said 'not bad, Holmes'. Sherlock had to remind himself of his resolution not to react. He didn't need - or want - anyone's approval, much less that of an unqualified layperson who had been foisted on him as some kind of minder. He was the professional here. He sat down at his desk to design his own aeroplane. He wasn't about to let John Watson beat him.

John beat him. It must have been the throw. Sherlock's plane had the advantage in terms of design, but John either had more strength in his arm or a better throwing technique. They launched their planes from the back of the stage. The majority of the pupils' attempts didn't even reach the main floor of the room. Sherlock's glided smoothly through the air - the dihedral providing greater lateral stability, as he had planned - and touched down gently just short of the far wall. John's, on the other hand, sailed right out the door, to the rousing cheers of the class. Even his aim was impeccable.

John accepted the accolades with a big grin and high fives from the children before they scrambled around, retrieving their aeroplanes just as the bell rang for lunch. John turned to Sherlock. "What do I win?" he teased.

Sherlock was put out over the defeat. "You get to miss lunch to collect the Christmas tree for the school," he said as he jumped down off the stage.

John climbed down more carefully behind him. "Are you going too?"

"I have to. You're not insured to drive the van."

"That's a good prize then."

Sherlock's stomach did a funny and completely unnecessary twisting thing. He turned to look at John, but he was picking up a couple of stray aeroplanes that no one had claimed. He hadn't sounded sarcastic.

Sherlock stopped at the teachers' lounge to get his coat and scarf.

Nigel Anderson was there unpacking his lunch at a table with Sally Donovan. A few other teachers were trickling in as well.

"How's that Nativity coming on then, Holmes?" Anderson asked.

"Swimmingly," Sherlock replied stiffly.

"We can look forward to a five-star review then, can we?" Anderson exchanged a look with Donovan.

"It's going to be brilliant," John said as he came in. "People are going to be talking about this one for years."

Anderson and Donovan burst out laughing. "I'm sure they will," Donovan said once she'd recovered.

"Sorry," John said, "but what's the problem? You're not jealous, are you? Wanted to take charge of the play yourselves?"

"No, not at all," Anderson assured him. "I'm happy to leave that honour entirely to Mr Holmes." It was all too clear what he meant: that the play was going to be a disaster, and Sherlock would take all the blame.

If Sherlock had been alone, he would have let it go at that, possibly delivering one last zinger on the way out the door. It was no challenge to bait those two, and he wanted to get this errand for Lestrade over and done as quickly as possible.

But John apparently had ideas of his own. He walked over to Anderson and Donovan with the air of a commanding officer dressing down an unruly soldier.

"You know, obviously, I'm an outsider here, and I don't know what might have gone on amongst you in the past," he started, but Donovan didn't let him get any further.

"Yeah, you're right," she said. "You haven't any idea. Ask him sometime about the Bruhl twins or the Wilkes boy. That's why you're here, you know, to keep an eye out, make sure he doesn't screw up again. Because one of these days, he's going to do something so bad that not even he can get away with it. And trust me, you do not want to be there when it happens. I'd get out now if I were you. I mean, who are you anyway?"

"Me? I'm nobody," John said, so casually, so dangerously. "Yeah, I'm not anyone."

Sherlock literally had to bite his tongue at this point to stop himself from making a sound of disagreement. John was definitely someone; not the person he looked like at first glance, to be sure. Someone better.

"But it seems to me this play isn't about me, or you, or Sherlock," John went on, pointing around the room. "It's about the kids, and it's about the school, and it's about the bloody Christmas story, so unless you have something positive to say, or God forbid, want to help, I think you'd better keep quiet about it."

Something swelled in Sherlock. No one had ever stood up for him so obviously and publicly before. Not that he needed anyone to defend him, but John did it so marvelously. Whereas Sherlock relied on picking off bandages, pulling off masks and uncovering prickly truths, John had had the breathtaking inspiration to appeal to honour. So banal, so pedestrian, something that Sherlock never would have considered. And yet, look: there the adversary sat, cowed and silent. Brilliant, brilliant John.

"Right then," Sherlock said brightly. He didn't even have to fake his good mood. "That's us off then." He surveyed the room triumphantly; no one would meet his gaze, although a fair few of the other teachers were watching John. He saw admiration and perhaps even a bit of covetousness in their gazes. Sherlock smiled. John was his. "Come along, John," he said, and left without looking back to see if John was following. He must. He did.

Sherlock heard the slightly uneven footsteps behind him betraying the fact that John hadn't entirely overcome the phantom pain. Sherlock's smile grew more broad. John was turning out to be more than surprising. He was turning out to be interesting. A man who stood up not only to Sherlock, but for him.

"What you did in there," Sherlock said shyly as they got into the van. "That was rather good."

"I wondered for a minute back there whether I'd stumbled into an infant school."

Sherlock snorted in amusement.

"You don't have to worry, you know," John said, once they were underway.

"About what?"

"What they said, about the play. It's going to be brilliant."

Sherlock made a neutral sound as he piloted the van through the midday traffic.

"No, really. It is. I know you're not that enthusiastic about it, but I think it's going to be really good."

For the rest of the ride, John talked about all the ideas he had for the play, things like the angel Gabriel arriving on what he called a 'death slide' and Mary riding from Nazareth to Bethlehem on a BMX instead of a donkey. Soon, Sherlock was laughing so hard he could barely see the lane markings. There was no way they could stage something like that in the school's assembly hall, especially with no money and the performance date less than a month away. But then Sherlock knew John wasn't really suggesting they do any of those outlandish things. He was playing a game. A game with Sherlock. He was trying to make Sherlock laugh, make him feel better about or even forget the incident in the teachers' lounge. Was this what friends did? Was John Sherlock's friend? The idea was tender and fragile, and Sherlock didn't want to break it by thinking about it too much.

Sherlock smiled though, a genuine, warm smile, and he didn't mean to, but his eyes slid over and met John's, and he was startled to see his sentiment returned. Sentiment. Sherlock's heart sank, or maybe his stomach lifted. Something inside him squeezed in a pleasant/unpleasant way, at any rate. His resolution; what had happened to his resolution? Somehow it didn't seem important any more.

He wasn't used to working with someone. Even back in his days as a musician, he'd preferred solos to ensemble pieces, and not simply because he wanted the attention. He found it draining to engage in give and take or compromise. Negotiation was a waste of time. He'd never found his productivity or creativity enhanced by input from others. Quite the opposite, in fact, he felt stilted and held back. But having John around was different. He felt an impetus to do better, to be better, to do interesting things, things that might garner John's admiration. Was this a weakness? He had always presumed it would be, but he didn't feel weak now. He felt excited and inspired. And having someone to back him up could be advantageous in many ways.

But he was getting ahead of himself. John was just his classroom assistant. They'd known each other for fewer than forty-eight hours. They seemed to get on well and might even be on the way to having a friendship. But people tended not to enjoy Sherlock's company for long. This was exactly why it was so important not to allow emotions to hold any sway over him. The tactic had served him well up to now.

When they arrived at the Christmas tree lot, John immediately disappeared toward the back, where he said the best trees would be. If it were up to Sherlock, they would have taken the first one they saw and been done with it, but he decided it wasn't worth the argument; John was unlikely to give up without at least having a look around.

Sherlock was comparing the consistency of the sap on two different varieties of tree when he heard a voice he'd thought was permanently part of his past.

"Well now, if it isn't Sherlock Holmes."

Sherlock whirled around to face the short, well-groomed man. The scents of Molton Brown moisturiser and Penhaligon's shaving cream told him that the man was as vain and ambitious as ever."Moriarty," he said carefully.

The other man's face fell in an exaggerated manner. "Jim, please. It's always Jim for you. Wow, Sherlock. It is great to see you. I'm just-" He slapped a hand over his heart. "I'm bowled over, is what I am. Tell me you feel the same."

"I'd be hard pressed to."

Moriarty laughed, a brief, dark chuckle. "Oh, Sherlock, I'd almost forgotten how fun you are. I can't believe I let you get away. Where have you been keeping yourself?"

"Here and there. I've been at the Baker Street School just gone five years now." Which Moriarty obviously knew. He was baiting Sherlock, but Sherlock had found the best way to deal with Moriarty was to let him monologue and not disagree with him, if at all possible. Eventually, he'd have stimulated his own ego enough and would wander off.

Moriarty screwed his face up in disgust. "But you're far too good for them. You were going to be someone, the next Itzhak Perlman."

"Who ever said that?"

"Everyone! I know I did. You were brilliant- what am I saying, transcendant! - and then BOOM!" An elderly couple browsing the trees nearby jumped and stared at Moriarty's outburst. "All gone, up your nose, down your veins, 'Those were the days'." Moriarty sang the last bit, leering at the couple until they scurried off, casting back scolding looks.

"And now, what?" Moriarty continued, suddenly calm again. "You're down the road there at Baker Street. That must be such a challenge!" he declared with a little shiver of excitement. "You know, I'd be more than happy to put in a word for you at Blackwood. We'd find a cosy little corner for you there, you could even give lessons to the kiddies. 'Do, re, mi...'" Moriarty mimed playing the violin as he sang. He stopped suddenly and gave Sherlock a look dripping with fake innocence. "You do still remember that bit, don't you?"

Sherlock gritted his teeth. Where was John? If ever he needed backup, now was the time. "It sounds vaguely familiar," he managed to say in a relatively neutral tone.

Moriarty laughed again. "Oh, Sherlock, if you aren't the most precious thing. I'm kidding, of course. Kidding! We don't have any openings. But it never hurts to keep your options open, so don't lose faith. Now." He reached into an inside pocket of his coat and pulled out a flyer, which he thrust at Sherlock. "If you want to see how the other half lives - those of us who are actually competent at what we do, I mean - why don't you pop round to our Christmas bazaar? We're doing a showcase, and the talent we've got-" Moriarty made a sign with his hands like fireworks going off. "I think you might really learn a thing or two."

Sherlock took the flyer and stuffed it into his coat pocket without looking at it.

"Well?" Moriarty prompted.

"What?"

"Where's mine?"

"Where's your what?" Sherlock asked irritably. John really was taking his time with those trees!

"My invitation, silly. I showed you mine, now you show me yours. I know you're doing the Nativity again this year. Or are you worried you're heading for another minus two-star review?" Moriarty made puppy-dog eyes at Sherlock.

Moriarty was starting to get to him. "Moran's nothing more than your stooge," Sherlock snapped. "His opinion isn't important to anyone outside of your own inner circle."

"Ah, but there's the rub, isn't it? Because those are the only people who count!" Moriarty hissed. The claws were out, the fangs bared. Sherlock felt a little thrill, an echo of bygone days, at the same time as a danger signal sounded in his head.

"The head of Whitehall Studios doesn't count?" Sherlock asked. It was out of his mouth before he even considered what he was doing. But it had the desired effect. Moriarty's eye gleamed sharply for an instant before he covered with a look of apparent disinterest.

"Do tell, how's Big Brother? Done quite well for himself, as I hear. At least there's one son the family can be proud of. I doubt he has much interest in a piddling Nativity, much less the Baker Street version."

"As a matter of fact, he does." Sherlock couldn't have said what was making him continue, other than the mad desire to make James Moriarty eat humble pie. Moriarty would know it was all a lie by this time tomorrow, but Sherlock didn't much care what Moriarty thought of him. What he did care about was putting the same look on Moriarty's face that John had put on Anderson's, humiliating him like he was doing his best to do to Sherlock. It was petty, but it would feel good, and it would make Moriarty go away. An appeal to honour wouldn't work here. Moriarty had no honour or sense of shame. What he craved was fame and influence, and what he had was a narcissist complex. If there was one thing he couldn't stand, it was a rival getting one up on him. And so Sherlock aimed, thrust, and delivered his fatal blow: "He's coming down with a crew to film us. They're making a feature film out of it. I'm surprised you didn't know, with your connections." The last word dripped with derision.

Moriarty burst out laughing, but Sherlock knew his words had struck home. "A feature? About a primary school Nativity?"

"The studio was looking for something light and heartwarming. I wasn't privy to their discussions. Mycroft approached me."

"Oh, this is delicious. I really must insist that you tell me all about it." Moriarty took his mobile out of his pocket and ran his thumb over it, as if he'd just received a text. "Later, though. I'm already running late." He started walking away, backwards. "I'll call you," he said in a stage whisper before disappearing behind a Douglas fir.

"Who was that?" John was standing at Sherlock's elbow, his combat-ready stance projecting protection rather than aggression. Sherlock had the illogical desire to call Moriarty back, just to make sure he saw it.

"That was Moriarty," Sherlock said darkly, watching the spot he had disappeared from. His blood was still thrumming with the encounter.

"And that means...?"

"James Moriarty. He's the music director at the Blackwood School. No one important." He shook it off, turned his full focus to John. "Did you find a tree?"

John relaxed. "Yeah, think I did. Come on back here, I'll show you."

%%%%%


The tree John had in mind was a monstrosity that would never fit in the entryway of the school, but Sherlock thought that was appropriate payback to Lestrade for sending him on this errand in the first place. Let him deal with where to put it. He let John and the lot attendant wrestle the tree into the back of the van (Sherlock wasn't about to get sap all over his leather gloves), and drove back to the school. The whole way, John was giving him funny looks, as if he wanted to ask something but kept holding back. Sherlock almost snapped at him to be out with it, but he was wary of it being another invitation to have a Sausage Sizzler. He suspected that he would say yes this time, and he wasn't sure he was ready for that yet. He still needed to sort out where exactly John might fit into his life.

But he had more pressing matters at the moment. When they arrived at the school, Sherlock tossed the keys to John and left him to deal with the tree, while he went to do a bit of research. He hadn't seen the last of Moriarty, of that he was certain.

Chapter Text

Chapter Five - The Big Announcement

By next morning, Sherlock had been able to put all thought of his reckless braggadocio out of his mind. According to everything he'd been able to find out, Moriarty's current ambition went no further than securing corporate sponsorship for his production, and the concommitant entree into the 'right people's' consciousness. For all Sherlock cared, he could have at it. He wasn't about to get in a pissing match over money or influence. In fact, he might just set Moriarty up with Mycroft. It would serve both of them right.

Thus mollified, he'd finished composing the melody for one of the songs for the play. It was more difficult than he'd thought it would be to come up with something that was both singable and appealing. He still had to complete the lyrics, but hopefully they would be able to start learning it this week. He grudgingly admitted he was finding this project slightly more engaging than he'd expected.

He picked up his briefcase and set out for the school. For the first time he could recall, he was actually - if not exactly looking forward to the day, then at least not resigned to it being unutterably dreary. And if he was honest with himself, the highlight was going to be seeing John again. Sherlock wondered whether he'd be back to using the cane, what disruptive activity he would instigate today, and certainly the least important of all, what his reaction would be to Sherlock's composition.

When he arrived at the school, there were several unfamiliar vehicles parked outside. One obviously belonged to a photographer, another to a local reporter and a third to a member of the mayor's staff. It was only barely conceivable that the school was receiving an award; more likely some superficial improvement such as a new set of monkey bars, and Lestrade was being made to serve as a prop for a photo op. Inside, rather than finding the halls echoing with the sounds of pupils in their classrooms and the teachers holed up in the lounge until the last possible moment, there was a concentrated drone coming from the direction of the assembly hall and teachers hurrying down the corridor to get there. So, the entire student body was being held hostage to the political maneouvring. Sherlock made a beeline in the opposite direction.

"Well done, Sherlock," Stamford said in passing with a broad grin and a clap on the arm. Molly Hooper, who was with him, gave Sherlock an eager thumbs-up.

Sherlock really had no idea what they meant, unless they were congratulating him on missing the ghastly summons. He ignored them and continued on his way. With everyone was in the assembly hall, he was going to enjoy a few minutes' peace with his coffee. It wasn't as if he needed to be there. Lestrade would call him on it later, but by then he'd have finished his coffee and done checking the comments on his website; perhaps there would be some this morning.

He never made it to the lounge.

"Sherlock, there you are!" Lestrade, looking more harried than usual, was coming down the hall with a man (local newspaper reporter, two children, diabetic) at his heels. The head teacher quickly made introductions, and before Sherlock knew what was happening, he was being pulled toward the assembly hall with Lestrade blathering something about Sherlock being able to explain things better than he could, and everyone waiting for them. While Sherlock had no doubt that he could explain any subject better than Lestrade, it would be helpful to know which subject it was before beginning.

Everyone, indeed, was waiting for them. The entire school was turned out, the children sitting in rows on the ground and the teachers arrayed around the sides of the room. More alarming, however, was the phalanx of press reps and minor civic officials standing at the back of the room holding microphones, cameras, notebooks and tablet computers.

Sherlock made an attempt to sneak off to the side where the other teachers were standing, but Lestrade had a firm grip on his arm and pulled him to the front. A deafening cheer went up from the pupils. Sherlock grimaced and hoped this was all a very bad dream. He still had absolutely no idea what was going on. Was he being given some sort of award? He couldn't for the life of him imagine anyone being daft enough to give him an award of any kind related to his presence at this school. He didn't need to wonder for long, for as Lestrade introduced him and began speaking, it dawned on him in horror what was actually happening.

His boast about Mycroft coming to film the Nativity. Someone - Moriarty, it had to be - was calling his bluff. The whole school had been informed. They all expected a crew from Whitehall Studios to come and film the play. And, subsequently, produce a feature film and make them all famous. This was not happening. He was being set up for a spectacular fall. The children looked so excited, the majority of the teachers impressed. Not that he cared what these people thought of him. It would be an embarrassment to Mycroft as well, which turned out not actually to be as appealing as he'd thought such a situation might be. There was nothing for it, though. If he spun it right, he could turn the tables on Moriarty, land the ball back in his court. Lestrade was turning the floor over to him. Sherlock already had the first sentence of his dementi on the tip of his tongue.

And then he saw John. He was standing in the back corner, behind the clicking cameras and the bobbing microphones. He was smiling and giving Sherlock a subtle thumbs-up over his folded arms. And he looked … proud? Of Sherlock? And... no, it couldn't be. Sheepish.

Sherlock's mouth froze on the words he was about to say ... misunderstanding... esteemed colleague... It hadn't been Moriarty at all. It had been John. How exactly- But he must have overheard the conversation. Of course. That explained his behaviour afterwards, on the way back to the school. He hadn't wanted to admit he'd overheard a conversation not meant for his ears. Yet he'd obviously gone and done just that, to someone in a position to blow the whole thing wide open. Sherlock's head was a whirl of conflicting emotions and impulses. He couldn't deal with this now. He needed to get out of here, needed to think! But everyone was waiting for him to say something. For lack of a better idea, he began with what he'd been planning to say a moment ago.

"There's been a misunderstanding." He clenched his fists and stared at a spot on the ground. "Yesterday, I was-" He looked up to glare at John. "I was having a private conversation with an esteemed colleague-" He stopped short of naming Moriarty. John's expression had fallen further, from embarrassment to guilt, possibly even dismay.

Sherlock was angry at him; very angry. John had jumped to conclusions, gone behind Sherlock's back, interfered once again in things he had no business being involved in. Along with the anger was the even more painful feeling of betrayal. He had thought he could like this man, had dared to hope for practically the first time in his adult life that he might have a connection with someone, and now this had happened. Logically, this should have made John into someone Sherlock actively disliked, other examples being Nigel Anderson and Sally Donovan. But it hadn't. Nor had John shifted into the category of mildly annoying but not worth getting worked up over, like Stamford and Molly Hooper. He was still solidly sat in his own slot; Sherlock was startled to realise he had already started constructing a separate antechamber for John in his mind palace over the past two days, and that construction had not been halted.

"I was having a private conversation yesterday, as I said, with a colleague of mine, and …" Sherlock could not bring himself to do it. If he told the truth, he would look foolish, yes; Lestrade would be embarrassed (but not egregiously so; he'd had to cover Sherlock for worse than this), and Moriarty would be gleeful. All unfortunate but bearable outcomes. But the one who would really suffer was John. Sherlock had made the larger mistake and John the smaller one, but John was the one with a greater sense of honour and justice. He would be mortified. Oh, Sherlock would keep his name out of it here; he could still make it look like Moriarty was at fault. But that wouldn't matter to John. He would feel guilty all the same. And Sherlock simply couldn't do that to him like this. He deserved at least the decency of having the truth told to him in private. And so Sherlock made the decision to allow the sham to continue just a short while longer.

Sherlock looked out, directly into the cameras, and continued. "… and somehow," he said, "it seems the cat's gotten out of the bag. I regret... that someone has seen fit to turn this into such a circus."

The hall was completely silent. John swallowed uncomfortably, but he didn't look away. Even in his discomfiture, even as he began to realise his mistake, he was trying to be there for Sherlock, to encourage him and give him moral support.

"I despise spectacles." Sherlock's mouth twisted into a sour smile. "But it looks like we're going to have to get used to spectacles."

At those words, another great cheer arose. Sherlock fixed on John. He looked relieved and came forward to shake Sherlock's hand.

"I'm sorry about all this," John leaned in to say over the din. "I didn't mean for it to get quite this big-"

Sherlock cut him off. "Outside, now," he hissed, pulling away abruptly and turning on his heel. Once again, he didn't stop to see whether John would follow.

Sherlock went straight into room 221B and stood with his back to the door and his hands braced on his desk until he heard the door close quietly behind him.

"You had no right," Sherlock burst out. "No right at all!"

"No, you're right, and I'm sorry," John said. He was coming closer. Sherlock fought the urge to move aside, but John stopped a few feet away. Sherlock identified John's tactic of leaving himself room to maneouvre, keeping his adversary's – Sherlock's - entire body and feet in sight.

"You have no idea what you've done, do you?" Sherlock could feel the nervous energy building in him. He needed something, his bones were getting too big for his skin. There was a pile of folders near his hand, worksheets waiting to be marked. He swept them off the desk, causing them to scatter satisfyingly all over the floor, then whipped around. Part of it was a genuine release, part of it calculated to impress on John how deeply he had hurt and disappointed Sherlock.

Startled, John took a step back, holding his hands up in a conciliatory gesture. "I didn't know Greg would go to the press with it. I didn't think he'd tell anyone," John protested.

"Yes, that's it exactly: you didn't think!" Sherlock threw his hands up and started to pace. "You didn't think that maybe there was a reason I told our rival school's music director something about the production that you didn't know, that Lestrade didn't know- Did you consider for even a moment why it might be that no one else knew about this?"

"I figured- I mean, I thought you were keeping it secret, like a surprise."

Sherlock stopped in front of John, stepping in closer than he knew was polite. A mistake, he realised immediately. He could see the fine lines around John's eyes, the patch of stubble he'd missed on the corner of his jaw, but mostly he could feel the other man's body heat and smell his deodorant mixed with his own scent rising out of the collar of his shirt. Sherlock's heart rate was already elevated from the recent events, but he was now keenly aware of the throbbing in his chest and that unwanted - definitely unwanted - tingle in his stomach. It was not only inconvenient, it was directly detrimental to his position.

He harnessed the additional annoyance at himself for not being in control of his body to fuel his response: "The reason no one else knew about it is because there is nothing to know!" he shouted and stepped away again, trying to project displeasure rather than discomfiture.

John, to his credit, didn't back away, although he did falter. "There's- Sorry, what does that mean?"

"It means that it was all a lie!" Sherlock thundered. He wanted to know what it would take to make this man show some sort of normal reaction to Sherlock's provocations.

And there it was: although the stricken, sickened look on John's face wasn't one that Sherlock particularly relished.

"Oh God, it wasn't," John said faintly.

"Now do you see?"

John licked his lips and looked up at the ceiling, thrusting his hands into his pockets. "The kids..." Then he shook his head and ran a hand over his face. "Stupid, stupid..."

Although Sherlock could only agree, at the same time he had the unnatural impulse to reassure John. Guilt wasn't productive in this instance, and even though Sherlock was still hurt by what John had done - now compounded by the knowledge that he and Lestrade had discussed Sherlock's personal life - seeing John suffer for it didn't give him any satisfaction. Odd.

Finally, John lowered his hand. "Why?" he asked, sounding weary.

"He was goading me," Sherlock muttered. "I- Yes, I know it was stupid," he admitted, unable to look John in the eye. "Schoolyard oneupmanship. But nothing would have come of it," he insisted. At least nothing like this. "Moriarty would have found the truth out rather quickly - in fact, I'd be surprised if he didn't know by last night that there was nothing to it. Although I'd like to have seen his face when he read about it in tomorrow's paper." Sherlock's mood lifted slightly at the thought. It would never happen, though: Sherlock would send John back to quietly inform Lestrade of his mistake. Leave Lestrade to deal with calling everyone back to retract the story. If he was the one who had taken this public, then it was his mess to clean up anyway.

"Today's paper," John corrected him carefully.

Sherlock looked at him in surprise. "Today's- But we've only just had the assembly, today's paper came out hours ago."

John winced. "It was in the headlines this morning. And the local news. Don't you watch breakfast telly?"

"Not if I can help it." He didn't even eat breakfast. Sherlock's train of thought was derailed by the revelation. The news was already out. Lestrade must have been very busy last night. Moriarty would be frantically trying to pull in confirmations or denials. Sherlock took a small degree of pleasure in the thought of him wasting his morning.

"Greg was already reaching for the phone when I left his office," John said. "Look, you have to understand, I only wanted to ask who Mycroft was. I heard the last bit of your conversation, and I was- I know it was wrong of me. I couldn't really help overhearing, but I should have asked you rather than going behind your back. I'm sorry about that, and I wanted to ask, it's just- I'm aware of my position here. I know you don't want me here, that you see my presence as an intrusion. God, really, you made it all up?" he asked abruptly, as if he still couldn't believe it.

"I'm not going to change my answer just because your brain is too slow to grasp reality."

"Oy, there's no need to get personal."

"That's not personal, everyone's slow," Sherlock said dismissively.

"Except you, of course."

"Obviously."

John snorted with real amusement. Then he shook his head. "God, this is horrible. The kids are going to be so disappointed."

"Life is a series of disappointments. I doubt this is even the first one that any of them have experienced."

"You're an absolute Mary Poppins, you know that?"

"Who?"

"Mary Poppins." John gaped. "Don't tell me you don't know who Mary Poppins is? Magical nanny, has a bottomless carpetbag, flies with an umbrella?"

"A figure in a children's story?" Sherlock surmised, then waved the notion away when John confirmed it. "Dull." Sherlock couldn't fathom why John would be comparing him to such a character. From the description, she sounded more like Mycroft, if you ignored the 'magic' bit and read 'stomach' for carpetbag. And he did always have an umbrella over his arm; Sherlock didn't doubt he took it on aeroplanes with him as well.

"I would love to know how you ended up as a primary school teacher," John said, with some degree of wonder.

Sherlock stiffened at the suggestion; the answer went too deep, stirred up too many sins and failures.

John must have picked up on Sherlock's reaction, because he immediately backtracked, "Sorry, that's probably too- No, I actually think turnabout's fair play. You know all about me because of that-" John waved his hand in Sherlock's general direction. "-deduction thing you do, but I hardly know anything about you."

"Which is as it should be," Sherlock said coolly. "You don't need to know anything more about me. You're my classroom assistant, not my- Not anything else."

John paused at that, holding Sherlock's eye, searching for- what? There wasn't anything more. What else would they be? Not friends. Sherlock didn't do friends. He stood his ground, refusing to validate the impulse to step forward again, to touch John somewhere - anywhere - his elbow, his wrist, anything to give lie to his words and reinforce this odd connection.

But John looked away then, licked his lips, and said, "Yeah, no, you're right. I'm not anything. I don't need to know anything about you, but maybe I'd like to." He met Sherlock's gaze again. Sherlock couldn't look away. Sherlock wasn't just imagining this, was he? John wasn't just interesting. He was interested. He was interested in Sherlock, personally, aside from anything having to do with the school or the play.

This was new territory, and Sherlock wasn't sure what to do with it. Oh, people (both men and women) had come on to him before, propositioned him, made their interest known, but they had always been so unbearably obvious and dull that Sherlock hadn't even needed to consider any option other than rapid and decisive retreat. But John was different. Sherlock found he actually wanted to know John better. He wasn't certain yet whether John was proposing anything other than being friends, but Sherlock had never had one of those as an adult either: someone to exchange thoughts with in an unstructured environment; someone whose company one enjoyed because of who they were, not what they could do; someone who... What else did friends do? Sherlock didn't know. But he was curious now, and he had the feeling that discovering those things with John would be a worthy use of his time.

"Maybe," John went on, his demeanour tense, "if I hadn't been so considerate of not intruding on your privacy, if I'd felt comfortable talking to you directly, none of this would have happened." Then he smiled, if a bit tightly, but even that diffused some of the tension in the air. "If we're to work together, it would be nice to know something about each other."

"Why?" Sherlock asked. He was genuinely confused. He was also apprehensive and defensive at the thought of sharing personal details with anyone, but coupled with that was a tentative curiosity about doing so, with John.

"I don't know why, that's just how it works!" John answered in exasperation. "It makes the time you spend together more pleasant, gives you something to talk about, helps you understand where the other bloke's coming from."

Ah, yes. Working together, of course. Perhaps that was all John was after. If they were to be forced to spend the greater portion of the day together, it stood to reason that he would want them to get on. Sherlock could appreciate the logic of such thinking. He once again felt foolish for allowing his mind to wander down sentimental paths that would never be open to him.

"Splendid," Sherlock said with his own tight smile. "You are about to discover that I don't believe in cleaning up after others. Now that you know the extent of your error, you will need to inform Lestrade."

John inhaled and exhaled once, heavily. He nodded, looking down. Then his entire body stilled. Not relaxed. It was as if he'd been electrified, set on alert. His head snapped up. His eyes were keen and alive. Sherlock couldn't help his focus once again locking on to this ordinary, extraordinary man.

"Wait," John said. "What if..." He shook a finger, as if the answer were hovering in the air in front of him and he was trying to pinpoint its location. "You could call your brother." John raised his eyebrows at Sherlock in question. "Mycroft. He is your brother, right?"

"Unfortunately..." Sherlock answered, not liking where John was going with this.

"Surely it wouldn't be a big deal for him to send down a couple of guys - They wouldn't need to make a big production out of it. Just film it, burn a nice DVD for the kids and their parents."

"Absolutely not."

"Why not? It's perfect!"

"It would involve me asking a favour of Mycroft."

"Yes...?"

"Exactly."

"Sorry, I don't-" John stopped, then started on a different tack. "If it were my sister-"

"You mean your brother," Sherlock interrupted, because although it was illogical for John not to know his own sibling's gender, there was absolutely no evidence of any siblings other than the original owner of the phone.

"Sorry, who?"

"Harry, your alcoholic brother, Harry."

"All right, now that's just spooky. How the hell did you know about Harry?"

"Your phone."

"My what? My phone?"

Sherlock pointed at the pocket John had his phone in. "It's not yours, the inscription says 'Harry Watson from Clara'. It's a recent model, a young man's gadget, not your father, then, a cousin or brother. I say brother, as it's a rather expensive gift for a cousin. The case is covered in scratches where he had trouble getting the power cable plugged in: shaky hands, either a nerve disorder or alcoholic. The second's more likely."

Sherlock felt the familiar flush of a well-made series of deductions, now enhanced by the look of frank admiration on John's face.

"That... I'm sorry, I shouldn't be surprised, I know you can do that now, but that's absolutely bloody fucking amazing. Of course, you saw my phone yesterday when I gave you my number. You got all that from holding it for, what, thirty seconds?"

"I could also tell you about the state of Harry and Clara's relationship as well as yours and Harry's," Sherlock offered.

John barked out a laugh. "No, that's quite all right, thanks. It's enough that you know how dysfunctional my family is without me having to take you through all the gory details. God, brilliant," he added. "Except Harry's my sister. Short for Harriet." He grinned at having caught Sherlock out.

"Damn, Harriet!" Sherlock chided himself, although he wasn't really bothered. He would have needed more evidence to deduce that.

If he'd taken John up on his invitation that first day, he might well have gotten it. He would have gathered much more data about John as well. He might even have learned enough to figure out what the best course of action was, regarding John. He might not have been thrown off by unfounded, emotional reactions. No. He couldn't afford to think that way. He had made the right decision. It was right to keep to himself. Alone was what he knew. Alone protected him.

"Yes, Harriet," John was saying, "and even though she and I don't get on that well, I'd get her to do this."

"And I won't," Sherlock said flatly. "You'll have to find some other way to get yourself out of this."

"Me, get myself out of this?" John asked in disbelief. "First of all, it was your lie that started this all. And this isn't about me. I don't have anything invested in this, my name isn't attached to it. The only people that will be hurt by the truth coming out are the kids, the school, Greg, and you. I'm trying to help you here. Not just you personally, but the school and the kids, who are innocents in all this. Getting your brother in would solve everything, and you're not even willing to try?"

Sherlock had to admire John for the attempt. He actually believed that Sherlock had a sense of honour to appeal to. It was almost enough to move Sherlock to action, purely in order not to disappoint him. However, the main problem was: "He won't do it."

"You don't know that."

"And you do?"

"No, I suppose I don't," John agreed. "But if he's any kind of decent human being, I should think he'd at least hear us out."

"There you go then, case closed."

"He can't be that bad."

"You're operating under the assumption that he'd agree to this out of the goodness of his heart. I hate to disappoint you, but the fact of the matter is, a Holmes does not have a heart."

"I don't believe that for one second." The immediacy of John's answer struck a chord in Sherlock, almost making him doubt himself. Because John was clearly talking about Sherlock, not Mycroft. He was wrong, though: Sherlock couldn't have a heart, he couldn't let himself be drawn in, to care about someone else, to count on someone else.

And so he lashed out with his best weapon: the truth. "Why," Sherlock spat, "because you thought I was trying to help you when I didn't remind you about your cane? Do you know why I did that? Because I wanted to prove you were mentally unstable! I went straight to Lestrade and used it as evidence against you."

That gave John pause. "All right, no," he said. His voice was tight and low. "I didn't know that. I wasn't actually thinking of that, either." His left fist clenched and unclenched. "I was thinking of the way you smiled at Ollie when he showed you his aeroplane, or how well-trained and -cared for your dog is, or the fact that you paid twenty pounds out of your own pocket beyond what Greg had given you, so that the kids would have the best tree on the lot. Or the way you listen to me, and watch me, like... like I'm interesting, like I'm not just an unemployable, nearly homeless, mental and physical wreck."

Sherlock felt like he'd been knocked off balance. Was that really how John saw him? But those were ludicrous examples and proved nothing. He didn't even recall smiling at Ollie. Certainly, the boy had displayed a decent grasp of the principles Sherlock had explained to him and applied them to his model; perhaps Sherlock had been satisfied that his lesson had made it through the boy's thick skull. He certainly couldn't take any responsibility for Gladstone's good-natured personality, and of course he fed and groomed the animal; he wasn't irresponsible. Paying for the tree had merely been the most expedient course to take, given how much time he'd already wasted talking to Moriarty. And John: of course he was interesting! The rest of what he'd said about himself was pure nonsense.

"You're... not any of that," Sherlock said with a frown. It felt awkward; he was supposed to be angry at John, hurting him, pushing him away. "And I'm glad Lestrade didn't listen to me."

"See?" John said quietly. "That's not what a man without a heart would say."

Sherlock's eyes snapped up to John's. Had he been tricked? Manoeuvred into that answer to prove John's point? But no, there was no look of triumph there; merely a gentle sadness. It made Sherlock uncomfortable in a way he didn't want to think about.

"I'm not my brother," Sherlock said, to deflect from himself and get back to the matter at hand.

"No, you're not. But I know that at least one Holmes has a heart, and not only that, but he's bloody clever. I doubt your brother is that bad, but even if he is, we'll just use subterfuge to get him to come down and film the kids. If there's anyone who can do it, it's you."

Sherlock couldn't help a wry chuckle escaping at that. John was good. Oh, yes, he was very good. Sympathy and honour hadn't worked, and so he had moved on to Sherlock's pride in his intellect. Not only that, but pitting him against his brother. And he was right: Sherlock couldn't let that challenge go unanswered. That alone deserved a momentary victory, even if Sherlock knew that in the end, he would be proven right.

"It's not going to work," Sherlock warned him. "I'll never be put through to him. Too many people try to get past the switchboard saying they have all sorts of outlandish connections to him."

"Don't you have his private number?"

"He may have given it to me once, but I would have deleted it," Sherlock said dismissively.

John snorted. "Email?"

"Screened, same problem."

"Don't you ever- I don't know, get together for family gatherings? Birthdays?"

"Christmas," Sherlock admitted, "but that would be too late."

The bell rang, signalling the start of the next lesson. Out in the hall, the sound of high-pitched voices and small feet began to swell.

John walked over to Sherlock and laid a hand on his arm. "Don't worry," he said, looking up at Sherlock with an encouraging smile. "I know you'll figure it out. I'll help you in any way I can." He squeezed Sherlock's arm gently and let his hand drop.

"Aren't you... angry at me?" Sherlock asked, confused. By all rights, he should be. Sherlock had just spent the last twenty minutes insulting, belittling, and criticising him.

John laughed. "Yeah, maybe a little. Are you angry at me?"

"Yes," Sherlock said, although there wasn't much steam behind it.

"Then I suppose we're even. Look, we probably both made mistakes. Maybe we could-"

The classroom door flew open and the children started to come in, chattering excitedly. As soon as they saw John and Sherlock, they swarmed over, shouting things about being on the telly and who was going to be Mary and whether 'Iron Man' was going to make a guest appearance, whoever – or whatever – that was.

Sherlock couldn't possibly begin to formulate any kind of coherent response, because John had been about to propose another meeting. Sherlock knew he shouldn't, but he'd never been much good at impulse control. There was no way he was going to lower himself to the level of a Sausage Sizzler, however. If they were going to do this, then properly, in a place where he could concentrate fully on eliciting every detail and nuance out of the encounter, so that he would have a chance of figuring out what he was going to do about John.

"Yes," Sherlock blurted out as John was pulled away by eager little hands. "But no sausages. I'll text you the details!"

Chapter Text

Chapter Six - The Italian Place

This was a mistake. He should call it off, Sherlock thought as he stood in front of the mirror and adjusted the sit of his jacket. He didn't even know what this was supposed to be. A strategy session to hoodwink Mycroft? A working dinner to discuss the script? Should he bring his laptop? Or had he unwittingly set himself up for one of those excruciating social encounters in which two individuals assess each other for compatibility, with an eye toward the possibility of engaging in sexual acts? He didn't know which of those options he dreaded - definitely dreaded - most.

Sherlock grimaced at himself in the mirror and checked his teeth. He wondered if he should have shaved again, but he didn't have time now and- What was he thinking? He wasn't trying to impress John. In fact, he shouldn't even have changed his clothes. That was sending the wrong signal. Not that he wasn't, in fact, quite possibly attracted to John, but he wasn't going to act on it and John wasn't to know, and it did - not - matter.

But again, he didn't have time to change back unless he wanted to be late, and John wouldn't notice his attire anyway. One last glance in the mirror, and he went downstairs.

In the living room, he woke up his laptop and shot off an email to himself, attaching the notes he'd made for the play so that he could pull them up on his mobile if John should ask. And, as a final precaution, he called Gladstone and attached the lead to his collar. Angelo wouldn't mind, and he could use the dog as an excuse if things became unbearable.

John was already waiting outside the restaurant when Sherlock arrived. His face broke into a wide smile when he saw Sherlock. He'd obviously showered and shaved within the last hour, and his teeth had been recently cleaned. There were many possible explanations - aside from the obvious - for his thorough hygiene, Sherlock told himself. He might have been to the gym earlier, or been moving to a new flat, or spilled something foul, or been vomited on. It was difficult, in the face of John's honest, open regard, to stick to his resolution not to respond with a ridiculous grin of his own.

"Hiya," John said, shaking Sherlock's hand warmly. Sherlock wished he'd thought to take his gloves off first. "And you too, Gladstone." John held out his hand for Gladstone to snuffle at. The dog clearly recognised him, and bumped against his fingers for a scratch behind the ears.

"I wasn't sure if this was the right place," John said, glancing behind him at the picture window decorated with holly and boughs.

"Did you think I would have sent you the wrong address?" Sherlock had meant to be a sharp reproach, but it came out more as gentle teasing.

"No, no, it's just... bit fancier than I expected. But it's great, really," he assured Sherlock. "Looking forward to it. Shall we?" He was speaking slightly faster than normal, betraying his nervousness.

All of a sudden, Sherlock wanted this evening to go well, even if he had absolutely no idea how to accomplish it. There was a bit of an awkward moment as they both reached for the door, complicated by Gladstone lurching forward at the smell of food. In the end, John held the door so that Sherlock could steer Gladstone inside.

Billy showed them to a table tucked into the window niche. It was intimate, yet allowed them to see both the street and the rest of the guests. Sherlock got Gladstone situated out of the way under the table and took off his coat, tossing it over the bench beside him. When he sat down, he caught John staring.

Sherlock frowned and looked down at himself. Did he have a stain?

"You look... very smart," John said, laughing a bit to camouflage what Sherlock identified as embarrassment. The compliment caused a flutter in Sherlock's stomach, which was completely ridiculous. "I should have worn a tie," John added sheepishly. In fact, John had also changed his clothes and now had on a neat brown blazer (favourite piece) and a blue-and-white striped shirt (new). He looked perfectly nice, perfectly John.

"Nonsense, I'm not wearing one either," Sherlock said irritably, to cover his discomfort at his own reaction. "There's no dress code here, you're fine."

Angelo came over, holding two menus. "Sherlock, it's been too long," he said fondly. He peeked under the table. "And Gladstone, my furry hero!" Gladstone thumped his tail against the floor and gave him a doggy grin.

Sherlock made the introductions. "John, this is Angelo; Angelo, John."

"You come here often, then?" John asked Sherlock.

"Not often enough," Angelo answered for him. "I'm beginning to think you don't like my cooking," he teased.

"Simply not enough opportunity," Sherlock excused himself.

Angelo laid the menus in front of them. "Tonight, anything you want, on the house, for you and your date."

Sherlock's eyes darted to John, who in turn was looking apprehensively at Sherlock. They both laughed, but John only protested the first part of the statement, saying they couldn't possibly.

Sherlock felt warmth flooding his chest and face. It was both pleasant and confusing. John was okay with this being called a date - possibly even had come with that very expectation. John wanted to be here, with Sherlock. Not because he had to, for work, but because he - beyond all reason - saw something appealing about Sherlock. Perhaps it was merely physical; Sherlock had often been approached in his clubbing days based on his outward appearance. However, most people didn't last more than a minute or two once Sherlock began to talk. John had been exposed to Sherlock for two days now, had been the target of his deductions, insults, and anger, and yet here he was, pleased at Angelo's description and relieved at Sherlock's acceptance of it. It didn't make sense.

"I insist," Angelo was saying, in answer to John's objection to not paying. "This man saved my restaurant from burning down. It's the least I can do."

John raised his eyebrows at Sherlock.

"It was Gladstone." Sherlock pointed under the table.

"The dog couldn't have called the fire department, or told me who set the fire!" Angelo said.

"Now this I have to hear," John said with a grin.

"I'll have Billy bring a bowl of water for your dog while you decide. Oh, and a candle!" He stepped away for a moment and came back with a tea light in a small glass, which he set on the table. "More romantic," he said with a wink, before leaving to tend to the kitchen.

Sherlock busied himself with the menu. A date was one thing; Sherlock was just beginning to get his head wrapped around the concept. But talk of romance made him distinctly uncomfortable. The thought of having to sit through an hour or more of some inane courting rituals was enough to make him want to run screaming from the premises. Even the prospect of discovering more about John couldn't make it any more attractive.

John, however, didn't seem fazed by Angelo's insinuation. In fact, he didn't react to it at all. Instead, he leaned forward with his elbows on the table and prompted, "So, the story?"

Sherlock, wary lest Angelo do something even worse like summon a musician to serenade them, rushed through the report of how Gladstone's nose had led to Sherlock discovering a fire that had been set in the rear service entrance. He'd caught it before too much damage was done, and found evidence which the arson investigators overlooked that led directly to Angelo's ex-partner.

John was gratifyingly appreciative of Sherlock's observations, and eager to hear more about his methods, drawing Sherlock out and encouraging further details. Angelo left them alone, and Sherlock began to relax a bit. By the time Billy came to take their orders, Sherlock was well into his thoughts on the brain's hierarchy of priorities in information processing. Their drinks arrived next, and things improved steadily from there. The conversation easily ranged over a variety of topics. John's overlapping fields of medicine and the military meant that he was broadly conversant in many areas that interested Sherlock, and attentive and curious about those subjects in which he had little experience. He wasn't only receptive, however. Sherlock was fascinated to hear stories from John's medical school years, for example - particularly the anatomy and pathology practicals.

As the dishes and refills came and went, and there were no probing questions about his personal life or his past, uncomfortable detours into anything resembling relationship talk, or any attempts to initiate physical contact, Sherlock relaxed and found himself truly engaging with John in a way he had rarely, if ever, experienced. John didn't always agree with him, but he also didn't react with disgust or suggest that Sherlock was abnormal.

They were finishing their coffee before Sherlock thought to check his watch again and found, to his surprise, that two and a half hours had passed.

"Maybe we'd best be making a move," John suggested. "Gladstone could probably do with a walk by now."

Sherlock had completely forgotten the dog. He looked under the table, only to see him stretched out on his side, sound asleep, with his head resting on one of John's feet. As if sensing his master's attention, Gladstone perked up and yawned, and looked at Sherlock expectantly.

John was getting his wallet out.

"Put that away," Sherlock told him sternly. "Angelo will be insulted if you try to pay."

"The food may have been free, but not the service. That's for Billy." John took out a note and slipped it under his glass. "Besides, I don't like the idea of not paying my share. You took care of the dinner, so let me at least get the tip."

"I didn't actually pay for it," Sherlock said.

"It's the principle," John said firmly, and that was that.

"Fine," Sherlock grumbled and got up to put on his coat.

They said a quick good-bye to Angelo, and stepped out onto the street. Gladstone turned immediately toward home, but Sherlock paused, suddenly uncertain. Was their 'date' over (if in fact that's what it was)? Should he try to extend the evening? He wouldn't necessarily mind spending more time with John, but what did one do? Go to a bar? The prospect was unappealing. Sherlock didn't frequent bars or clubs since he'd gotten clean, and at any rate, an invitation to join him for drinks in an even more intimate environment would be pushing things too far in exactly the direction Sherlock hoped to avoid. And asking John back to his house even more so.

John appeared to be having a similar difficulty. He was looking around at the passersby, with his hands buried in his pockets.

"Well, I-" Sherlock began. "Thank you. I mean... I'm going this way, if you-" They could at least walk together, if their paths took them in the same direction.

"Oh, yes?" John looked down the street. "I mean, no, actually, I live-" John waved vaguely to the left. "But I could- I mean, it's a nice evening, I don't mind-"

"No, no, don't worry," Sherlock said quickly. "I don't want to keep you."

"Yeah, no, not on a school night," John teased good-naturedly, but Sherlock could tell he was a bit disappointed. Should he have let John walk with him? But that would only have meant an even longer walk back for John, and Sherlock wasn't sure how reliable his leg was. There was always the possibility of sharing a taxi, but it would have been a bit silly for the five-minute drive to Sherlock's house, and then there would be an argument over who should pay, and there would be awkwardness again over whether Sherlock should invite John in. To say nothing of the fact that not every taxi driver was willing to take a dog. No, it was better to end things here, on a good note.

"I'll see you tomorrow, then?" John held out his hand.

Sherlock took it, this time feeling the warm, solid grip against his skin. The contact seemed to travel right up his arm and into his chest, where it gave his heart a little jolt. Sherlock pressed John's hand firmly, once, twice, envisioned all in a flash sliding his hand further up, along the inside of John's wrist, inside his sleeve, feeling the hairs on his arm- He let go. His heart continued to jump. He found he was watching John's mouth.

"Yes, goodnight," Sherlock said and turned abruptly. Before he could consider how it must look, he was already walking away, giving Gladstone the order to lead them home. He wasn't certain he would find it on his own, given the state his mind was in.

%%%%%

The walk, as always, did Sherlock good. There was something about the physical action of moving swiftly through the streets that steered his thoughts into orderly paths. It also helped not to have John so distractingly close by. On the one hand, Sherlock was irritated that he was falling prey to so many utterly predictable behaviours around John: the desire to impress, becoming alternately overly talkative and tongue-tied, not to mention the mortifying physical signals such as an inability to maintain steady eye contact, a near constant desire to smile, elevated heart rate and respiration and, yes, diversion of blood flow to the genitals. On the other hand, he had to admit that the experience was generally pleasurable. Simply thinking about it resulted in a rewarding bloom of pleasure hormones.

However, he was wary of the lure of fleeting physical stimuli. It had taken him four months in a closed facility and a further eight as an outpatient to truly feel in control of his body and mind again. He knew how messy and hurtful relationships were. He only needed to look as far as his own family for proof of that. Momentary pleasures such as a sexual or chemical high weren't worth the loss of control and the pain that inevitably followed, sooner or later.

And if one thing was certain, it was that John wouldn't be around forever. He'd probably only stay on at the school until the play was done. He would certainly have found more gainful employment by then, especially if his leg continued to show improvement. He wouldn't want to be an underpaid classroom assistant when he could be doing something where he actually used his skills. And then he and Sherlock would part ways, and this whole silly infatuation would fade away, and all Sherlock would be left with would be another confirmation of the wisdom of his decision not to get involved with other people.

That didn't mean he wouldn't talk to John, though, or that he would try to avoid him. That would be impossible, anyway, if they were forced to work together for the next few weeks. He liked John, and John - against all reason - appeared to like him. He would simply keep things platonic and civil, like their dinner that evening. Sherlock saw no reason why they shouldn't repeat the encounter. In another restaurant. Angelo's well-intentioned hints certainly wouldn't help the cause. They might even meet at Sherlock's house. Friends went to each other's houses, certainly, without any need for intimate contact. Yes, this could very well work.

Sherlock was so pleased with himself that he didn't even scold Gladstone for jumping onto the bed while he was doing some reading at bedtime. The warm, solid weight on his leg was pleasant, and as he finally drifted off to sleep sometime after midnight, it was with the fancied comfort of a good friend breathing deeply beside him.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven - The Mayor's Invitation

When Sherlock arrived at the school the next morning, it was with something to look forward to for an unprecedented second day in a row. John was already in the teachers' lounge - now that he knew where it was - talking to Stamford and Molly Hooper. He had a mug in his hand, no doubt the local swill. His face lit up when he saw Sherlock, and he excused himself to go over and say hello.

"Really enjoyed myself last night," John said, as Sherlock sorted through the notices in his inbox.

"Mm, yes," Sherlock agreed. He tried to ignore the pleasant clenching in his stomach and willed his heart to slow back down.

John, unhelpfully, leaned in a bit. Sherlock could smell him now, the slight hint of coffee on his breath. He steeled himself not to show any reaction, instead keeping his focus on an incredibly useless memo regarding an upcoming visit from the nit nurse.

John went on in a low voice, "Although, we didn't actually get around to …" Sherlock's eyes snapped to John's. That tone of voice went straight down the little-used pathway that had been reasserting its presence with a vengeance the past couple of days. Sherlock prepared himself for John to say something suggestive, but instead he gave Sherlock a significant look and mouthed, 'Mycroft'. Sherlock snorted at the utter diametrical opposition of the two notions, and at himself for having jumped to such a fantastically wrong conclusion. It was a good thing that John - well, everyone, really - was so unobservant.

John continued in a more normal voice, "If you don't have any plans for lunch, maybe we could-"

Sherlock tossed the notice into the bin. He would actually quite like to spend the lunch hour with John, although he had no intention of using the time discussing the Mycroft situation. He'd come up with something to appease John quickly, and then they could have a pleasant time talking about... Sherlock was surprised to realise he didn't really care what they talked about (as long as it wasn't Mycroft). He was certain that he would enjoy sharing his thoughts with John on any topic.

"No Sausage Sizzlers," Sherlock warned.

John laughed. "No, think I got that. Although they weren't half bad. I saw a place a couple streets over, near the park. Speedy's? Sounds awful, I know, but they have what look like some quite nice soups."

"I know it," Sherlock said. "Yes, let's."

John's face broke into a wide smile. "Great."

Sherlock couldn't help returning it.

Sherlock had decided to set aside time every day to work on the play with the class, since they only had four weeks from the coming Friday until the performance. The first step, before they could begin learning the songs, was to take stock of what the children were going to be able to contribute. So for that morning, auditions were on the agenda, as he told John on their way to the classroom.

"Auditions, really?" John said, sounding sceptical. "Don't you think that'll make the kids nervous? I mean, they're in the show whether they're any good or not."

"None of them will be any good, that's not the point," Sherlock said. "The point is to see who is less than atrocious."

"How about you call it a 'talent showcase'?" John suggested. "They can each do whatever they think they're best at - singing, dancing, juggling, magic tricks."

"Why don't we just let them burp God Save the Queen and have done?"

John laughed. "If any of them can burp God Save the Queen, they can be the opening act."

Sherlock was so pleased at having made John laugh that he told the class they were having a talent showcase.

It turned out that no one could actually burp God Save the Queen, although Ollie could make his armpit squeak, Saffron could turn her eyelids inside-out, and Jade could hold her breath for a minute and a half. In terms of actual, useful skills, there were six children who could dance without looking like they had worms in their pants and nine who could both carry a tune and sing loud enough to be heard past the front row. Although whether one would want to hear full-throated yelling about a 'teenage dirtbag' was another question. Sherlock would have made the boy stop, if the display hadn't reduced John to ducking under the table to hide his laughter. No matter. It was going to be a disaster regardless of what they did, but at least they would have something to work with.

John went out to the playground with the class for break time, while Sherlock went back to set up the classroom for the next lesson. On the way, he ran into Mrs Hudson in the hall.

"There you are, Sherlock," she trilled. "I haven't had a chance to tell you what a wonderful thing you've done for the school, getting your brother to come in and make a film."

"I had very little to do with it," he said carefully.

"Oh now, I'm sure that's not true. Something big like this, must have been one of those elaborate plans of yours."

"It was mostly John's doing, to be honest." Which was entirely true, and he didn't even need to feel guilty for saying it.

"Oh yes, Dr Watson!" Mrs Hudson cried, diverted - thankfully - onto a tangent. "How are the two of you getting on then? Thick as thieves, or so I hear. It looks like you've made yourself a friend."

Sherlock eyed Mrs Hudson suspiciously, but she seemed to be entirely sincere. Sherlock made a vague sound of acknowledgement.

Mrs Hudson leaned in to speak in a stage whisper: "Between you and me, he probably saved your job as well."

"That was rather the point, I gather," Sherlock said shortly. He didn't like the reminder that John wasn't actually here for his benefit, but to keep him in line.

"Now dear, don't you go getting yourself into a tizzy," she said, patting his arm. "You know I've never felt this place is the right fit for you. But after what you did to little Sebastian..." She clicked her tongue. "Although he was a proper little devil, wasn't he?"

Sherlock's patience was wearing thin, his good mood after spending the last hour in John's company fading. "Mrs Hudson, do you have an actual point?"

"All I'm saying is this whole movie business goes to show what a good influence Dr Watson has been on you. Such a nice young man. The governors are very pleased."

"And we'll all be able to sleep better knowing that, I'm sure."

"Yes, well, there was some concern, you know, about giving him the position: no previous experience, bit of a dodgy profile. But that's all water under the bridge now," Mrs Hudson said in satisfaction.

"Mm, yes," Sherlock agreed, but this was news to him. He'd been under the impression that John Watson came with a guaranteed stamp of approval. It had never occurred to him that he wasn't the first one to consider John's physical and mental history to be potential marks against him. He bristled now at the suggestion. John would never endanger the children, or do or say anything inappropriate or harmful. And of course this put the entire kerfluffle over the movie in a new light. If it came out that it was all fake, that John had been the one to bring it to Lestrade, and that he had continued to perpetrate the lie even after Sherlock told him the truth, there might well be consequences for him, beyond losing his position at the school.

There was only one thing to be done, obviously: Sherlock would have to go to Lestrade on his own and come clean, tell him that John knew nothing and that Sherlock was the one stringing everyone along for his own oblique reasons. No one would dig any deeper for a motivation; they would readily accept that Sherlock was just that cruel and perverse.

There wasn't time for Sherlock to see Lestrade before lunch, and Sherlock wanted to have one last unspoilt hour with John anyway. He knew this would be the last straw, and he would be out on his ear once he confessed. And that would be the end of his association with John.

Sherlock tried to put such melancholy thoughts out of his head when the bell rang for lunch. John was waiting for him at the door with an expectant, happy smile. He couldn't help clapping John's shoulder once, though, as they went out, knowing that this would be his last and only chance to touch him, even as casually as that. It was the type of thing that Lestrade regularly did to Sherlock, and he was certain John wouldn't think twice about it.

He was surprised, then, to feel John's hand return the gesture on his back, and even more surprised when it lingered there for the span of an entire stride. The gentle pressure was like an anchor, a touchstone drawing his energy and focus into it. Sherlock sensed a hesitation when John finally let his hand drop away, as if he wanted to maintain the contact but was insecure about what the reaction to it would be. The only thing Sherlock couldn't tell was whether John was worried about what Sherlock thought, or what others would think. Sherlock wasn't sure himself how he felt about it.

He briefly - very briefly - entertained the notion that he might continue to associate with John even after he was fired, but immediately rejected it. All of his objections to greater intimacy would still remain, and in addition he would be without a job, without an income, disgraced, and unemployable in the only field he was qualified and certified for. Hardly a good catch.

At lunch, Sherlock's indecision only grew, however. Speedy's did good business during the midday rush, and it was crowded enough that Sherlock and John kept being jostled against each other as they stood in the queue to place their orders. By the third time, Sherlock was becoming so warm he had to remove his scarf.

When they finally got their food, the only seating available was at a table that was already occupied by an older gentleman. A brief glance at him told Sherlock that he'd been married for over thirty years, avoided his wife whenever possible but didn't have a mistress, went hiking in Scotland regularly, and suffered from eczema exacerbated by an allergy to strawberries. The man gave them a sour look, clearly taking them for a couple but not being particularly bothered by that fact; he just wanted to finish his coffee in peace. Still, he didn't object when John asked if they could share the table.

Sherlock took the seat next to the wall, after observing that John was taking stock of all possible entrances and exits and concluding that he would be more comfortable with one side open. John set his tray next to Sherlock's, and scooted his chair over so close (ostensibly to keep out of the aisle) that he was half in Sherlock's space. The contact was compounded by the fact that Sherlock was on John's left, so their elbows were constantly bumping as they begain to eat. Already on edge and with a heightened physical awareness from the earlier jostling, Sherlock was torn between 'two can play at this' and squeezing even more tightly against the wall.

He had already appeased John on the way to the restaurant by saying he would call Mycroft as soon as he got home that night. He had no intention of doing so, of course, but it wouldn't matter by then. The point was that he was now left with nothing say to distract him from the gentle pressure of John's knee against his, the inescapable consciousness of his solid physicality mere centimeters away. All of it exacerbated by the knowledge that he would never be this close to John again. This was his last chance to collect data: how far away he could feel John's body heat, how long John's eyelashes were, exactly what path his hairline described at the nape of his neck, the pitch of his voice when he cleared his throat before speaking...

John, on the other hand, appeared completely unperturbed, and started nattering on about the various acts the children had put on earlier. He even went so far as to mimic some of them, giggling around his food. Sherlock was going to say something scathing about having been there as well because he needed John to be quiet, he needed him to just sit and be and let Sherlock soak him in without adding more input, more nuances and expressions and why had Sherlock never noticed the little scar on the corner of his jaw before? It predated his time in the army, but was it an injury inflicted by another party, or was it an accident-

He interrupted his own train of thought as the realisation came to him of just what John was doing. He wasn't really talking about the children. As he had done in the van the other day, he was trying to put Sherlock at ease, make him laugh. He'd picked up on Sherlock's agitation. This was one of those 'what friends do' sort of situations. He was recalling a shared experience, one that he had enjoyed. True, it had only happened that morning, but they didn't have a large repertoire of common memories to draw on. So when John elbowed him lightly, seeking confirmation that Sherlock was paying attention, Sherlock smiled back and agreed that T.J. hadn't been completely pants at dancing, and bumped his knee against John's. That was rewarded with John trying to hide his smile in a spoonful of soup.

The man across from them left after just a few minutes. John remarked quietly that he hoped they hadn't driven him away.

"No, he had to get back to the ophthalmologist," Sherlock explained.

John paused and laid his spoon down, turning to Sherlock. He didn't even need to ask; his expectant look said it all.

"His eyes, obviously," Sherlock said, gesturing at his own. "They were dilated. The doctor must have put the drops in about thirty minutes ago, then sent him out to wait for them to take effect. The surgery's just around the corner." Sherlock jerked his head toward the door. "I expect he preferred to sit here than in the waiting room. It's not as if he could pass the time reading anything."

John shook his head as he picked his spoon up again. "I don't think I'll ever get over that," he said.

A glow of warm satisfaction floated through Sherlock at John's words. He went on to explain the rest of what he'd observed about the man. John listened, occasionally interjecting a 'How could you possibly' or 'Brilliant'. By the time he was finished, John had his elbow resting on the table, his body half turned to face Sherlock, and a faint smile on his face.

"You're wasted, you know," John said.

Sherlock had a momentary flash of panicky indignation that Lestrade would have talked to John about his past, until John continued, "You should be on the telly, or … I don't know, something important. That's a real talent you've got."

Sherlock was relieved that John wasn't referring to drugs, but his indignation didn't decrease by much. The suggestion that he should be doing something else with his life came uncomfortably close to what Mycroft and many others - including Moriarty - had been telling him for years. It was fun to impress John, but he would not stand for one more person in his life thinking they knew better than he what he should be doing.

"I'm not some … side-show freak to be paraded around for people's entertainment," he spit out.

"Hey, no," John said firmly. "Not what I meant. And who said you're a freak? Is that what people have said to you? The other teachers?"

"Never mind," Sherlock muttered. He pushed his soup away. Everything was suddenly too close. Why was John still sitting next to him? The other side of the table was free now. He should have moved immediately when the other man left, but he hadn't. He'd stayed there - here - sharing Sherlock's space, comfortable, not crowding or taking advantage, just sitting and listening and … and being sympathetic, for heaven's sake. It was unexpected and inconvenient, and Sherlock wanted him both to go away and never to leave.

"Sherlock." John put his hand on Sherlock's arm.

Sherlock should want to shake it off, pull his arm away, but there was that unspeakable connection again, that feeling of rightness. He was so unsettled by it that he didn't move.

"It doesn't matter what anyone says," John went on. "You're not a freak. Bit of a dick, maybe." He grinned, and the tension broke.

Sherlock snorted. "It's not my fault if people can't handle the truth."

"You have a greater responsibility than we can possibly fathom, is that it?" It could have been a serious accusation, but John said it with a smile playing around his mouth. He must be referring to something, but Sherlock couldn't think what.

"What? No, I-"

John relented. "It's from A Few Good Men."

The look on Sherlock's face only grew more oblique.

"Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson? 'You can't handle the truth'? Tell me you've at least heard of Top Gun? Never mind," he said, shaking his head good-naturedly when Sherlock still failed to react. "No Mary Poppins and no Tom Cruise movies. One of these nights I'm going to sit you down with a few DVDs and we're going to cram popular culture."

"That sounds tortuous." And disconcertingly appealing. But he wouldn't have to make the decision one way or the other now.

All too soon, it was time to return to the school. It didn't seem real that this was the last time he and John would see each other. In a couple of hours, Sherlock would talk to Lestrade, and then he would be asked to gather his belongings and not come back. That part would actually be a relief. It was the other part, the impending separation, that was uncomfortable. More than uncomfortable, in fact. It simply felt wrong, like two people leaving three sets of footprints. It niggled at Sherlock, sat heavy in his stomach. He hoped he'd get over it quickly. He certainly didn't want to have to deal with emotional fallout over this. That would defeat the purpose entirely.

John, oblivious to impending events, kept up a steady stream of innocuous and occasionally amusing comments as they walked back. His gait was still slightly off-kilter (leg still giving him twinges), and he was walking close enough that every now and then his arm or shoulder would bump against Sherlock, apparently without his notice. The casual contact, so matter-of-fact and familiar, combined with the pressures of the upcoming confession and his unresolved emotional turmoil over John proved to be too much for Sherlock's self-control.

"Do you mind," Sherlock snapped, shoving John's arm away the next time it brushed his. "Maybe you should consider using your cane again, if you're so unsteady on your feet." He strode ahead into the building, leaving John gaping on the pavement.

"Yeah, just a bit of a dick," he heard faintly just before the door closed behind him.

%%%%%%

Afternoon lessons were a nightmare. Sherlock was well aware he was presenting the material too fast and skipping vital steps, but he was in a race now to get to the end of the day, when he could talk to Lestrade. It didn't help any to see John watching him from where he was sitting with one of the groups, not saying anything, his expression becoming grimmer and grimmer, his jaw hardening more and more. Sherlock finally resorted to telling the children to get out their reading books and work silently for the remaining half hour.

John glared daggers at him, but got up and moved slowly around the room, leaning over to give encouragement and words of explanation. Sherlock, for his part, retreated to his desk and went through the drawers, sorting out anything he might like to take with him.

When the bell finally rang, Sherlock pushed through the waist-high throng and out into the hall. He heard John calling out to him, but he didn't bother answering. There was no danger of John following; he would stay and help the children unstick their zips and find their hats and wipe their noses, and by the time the last one was out the door, Sherlock would be safely out of reach.

It was a good thing Sherlock had been so quick off the mark, as Lestrade was just coming out of his office, pulling on his trenchcoat, obviously on his way to meet his wife for mediation.

"Sherlock, good man," he said as soon as he saw Sherlock. He beckoned even as he kept walking toward the door. Sherlock changed course to follow. "The phone's been ringing off the hook," Lestrade said. "Word's got out about Whitehall coming, and all the parents are ringing, wanting to know all the details."

"I don't have any details, there aren't any details-" Sherlock said, frustrated. Lestrade was in no frame of mind to listen. He was already focussed on how to make himself look good to the mediator while still hoping his wife would come back.

"No, I know," Lestrade said. "That's what I've been telling them. Last thing we can use is a bunch of stage parents lurking around." Lestrade swung the outer door open and held it for Sherlock. "But wait for this, this is the cherry on the cake," he said as they practically ran across the school yard. "The Lord Mayor's office has rung, and they want you to go to some reception do."

"Absolutely not."

"Sherlock, the Lord Mayor!" Lestrade said, as if that meant something. "You don't say no to the Lord Mayor."

"I can, and I will, because there's no-"

"Well, I've already accepted for you," Lestrade said. They'd reached his car. He opened the door.

"I can't go," Sherlock said. "If you'd let me-"

But Lestrade was speaking over him again: "You don't even know when it is. And you will go, if I have to drag you there myself."

"Lestrade, I can't possibly-"

"It's all arranged. A week from Wednesday, eight o'clock. Relax. Have fun. You drink a little champagne, you listen to a speech, you …" Lestrade waved his hand vaguely. "Whatever it is you do on a night out. And take John." He said the last bit quite casually as he slid behind the wheel, then flashed Sherlock a knowing smile.

Before Sherlock could possibly think of a response to that, Lestrade had pulled the door shut and driven away.

%%%%%%

By the time Sherlock got home and hooked the lead onto Gladstone's collar, the shock had passed and he was ready to get his thoughts in some semblance of order. He set out, purposely choosing a route that wouldn't take him anywhere near John's neighbourhood or any of the places he and John had been together.

This changed things. Of course it did. It had become too big to simply call off with a private word to Lestrade. Now that the mayor and City Council were involved, it was a wonder Mycroft hadn't contacted him yet.

On the other hand, no it wasn't. He was probably sitting in his soundproofed, climate-controlled, perfectly decorated office, laughing into his fist at the mess Sherlock was making of things. He wouldn't lift a finger until Sherlock came to him. And it was looking more and more like that was the only option left. Not that he would help, even if Sherlock did go crawling to him, and not just because Mycroft was spiteful and mean.

Sherlock was well aware that what he was proposing simply wasn't practical. A full-length feature film was out of the question, of course, but even a relatively low-scale recording for private distribution, such as John had suggested, would require resources that didn't exist, much less within the next month. A film production company, even such a successful one as Whitehall, ran on a tight schedule and an even tighter budget.

Sherlock might be able to hire a private videographer to film the play, but trying to pass them off as Whitehall or any other well-known production company would be tricky at best, and the Lord Mayor's office was expecting high profile publicity, big names, and concessions.

Sherlock was willing to take the fall himself, to accept responsibility for the charges of fraud which were certain to follow, but he didn't yet see a way to keep John out of it completely. The man would be stupid enough to confess his role in the entire debacle. And - a truth that Sherlock found more difficult to admit - he didn't want Lestrade to get dragged into yet another one of Sherlock's messes. Sherlock wasn't blind to how much Lestrade had done for him over the years, starting with hiring him in the first place and carrying on through defending him at every turn, both to the board and the other teachers. Sherlock didn't like to be indebted to anyone, and he was well aware that he owed Lestrade more than his fair share already.

So, it seemed that he was stuck with the rest of the term and the blasted play and John. And with somehow tricking Mycroft into coming on board. The prospect of seeing John every day was the only thing that might make everything halfway bearable. Although after the way he'd brushed John off this afternoon, Sherlock expected that he wouldn't be keen on continuing their association outside of the classroom any more.

He was more than surprised, therefore, when his mobile chimed with a text from John just as he and Gladstone turned around for the homeward leg of their walk.


Text from John Watson

fancy mtg 4 a pint?


Sherlock stopped in the middle of the pavement, nearly causing a woman pushing a pram to run into him (nanny, late to pick up the five-year-old sister from ballet class, wearing her employer's Jimmy Choos). He quickly ran through the possibilities. There weren't many, and the best candidate was that John was trying to instigate a repeat of their meeting the previous night; their 'date'. Which meant that John was either an idiot or a glutton for punishment. Why would he possibly want to spend more time with Sherlock when he'd been rude upon their return from lunch and ignored him after school?

Ah yes, that was it. Sherlock resumed walking, satisfied that he'd hit upon the solution (and not the slightest bit let down that it mightn't be a purely social invitation): John wanted to talk about those incidents, find out what he'd possibly done wrong. But that was precisely the point: John had done nothing wrong. He'd simply been himself. And that was exactly what Sherlock was unable to deal with. So, yes, he did fancy meeting up with John. Which was why he couldn't. He tapped out a quick negative response without breaking stride.

There was no return text.

%%%%%%

The next day at school was pure torture. Sherlock had to physically restrain himself from getting anywhere near John, banning himself to sit behind his desk for the entirety of the morning lessons. He replied to John's greetings and comments in the briefest possible manner and kept his focus on the top of John's ear when speaking to him, in order to avoid meeting his eyes (or watching his mouth or lingering over the fine lines and creases in his face or letting his eye wander down into the space at the top of his collar, leading into the dark, warm place over his heart).

The problem was, Sherlock had mentally prepared himself not to see John any more. Seeing him again now was like a diabetic being told he had been misdiagnosed and could have all the sweets he wanted. He was afraid of bingeing, of losing control. He'd already lost control, if he was honest with himself. Over his emotions, at least. He'd take the weekend to sort things out, decide what he was going to do. He only needed to make it through to the end of the day.

At lunch time, he holed up in 221A, the speech therapy room that was annexed off the main classroom, with a pile of papers. He was afraid of what he might do if John proposed lunching together again. That was why his stomach sank - or did something funny, at any rate - when the door opened ten minutes before the end of the hour.

"Hey, what are you doing in here?" John said. "I had thought we could get lunch or something. Went with Mike and Molly instead."

Sherlock congratulated himself on having correctly predicted John's behaviour for once. "What is it? I'm quite busy," he said without looking up from the worksheets he was correcting.

"Yeah, I'd be happy to help with that," John offered as he came to stand next to the table where Sherlock was working. Sherlock didn't need to see his face to know that his tongue had darted out to wet his lower lip at the end of that statement.

"I am perfectly capable of marking year three papers without your assistance," Sherlock countered frostily.

"That's not-" John exhaled heavily through his nose and shoved his hands in his trouser pockets. "Look, I don't know what I've done. I thought we were- I mean, dinner the other night was good, yeah? And lunch yesterday. But ever since then, you've been avoiding me and biting my head off at every turn. Look, I'm sorry if maybe- I mean, it doesn't have to mean anything. Just mates, is all," he said, then added in a quick, low mutter, "I feel like an absolute arse saying this, please don't make me go on."

"I would gladly pay you not to," Sherlock said, feeling the heat on the back of his neck, both from embarrassment and from the suggestion that there might have been more - that there was more, and that they both knew it.

John laughed briefly. "Yeah, so, can we just, forget about whatever it is that's been eating you and go back to... whatever it was. Without the..."

Sherlock was physically squirming with emotional discomfort, but he wasn't sure if it was because of the fact that they were even having this conversation, or because John was backing off. "Yes, fine, forgotten," he snapped. Anything to make John stop talking about it. Even if it wasn't fine or forgotten.

"Good."

"Fine."

John shook his head in amusement. He pulled up a chair. Sherlock shifted instinctively back.

"So. Did you talk to Mycroft?" John asked.

The non-sequitor caused Sherlock's eyes to fly up to John's. A mistake. A set of muscles in his chest contracted at the sight. John's eyes widened slightly and he inhaled, short and abrupt, signalling that he was experiencing a similar reaction. Oh, this wasn't over at all.

"No, why would I-" Sherlock fought down his heartbeat, drew a cool mask over his face. "Oh, the play." He shook his head, ostensibly in irritation at John's forgetfulness. "No, I told you I haven't any way of contacting him."

"Bullshit," John said firmly. "You can figure out when a perfect stranger's going to the eye doctor, you can bloody well get in contact with your own brother. Did you even try leaving a message for him?"

"No!" Sherlock slammed the folder shut with the worksheets. It was nearly time for the bell to ring for classes to start and he wasn't finished yet, thanks to John's interruption.

"You know what I think?" John asked.

"Yes, as a matter of fact, I do," Sherlock said acidly. "You think I'm lazy, egotistical, rude, and mendacious." He pushed his chair back, preparing to stand.

John laughed. Not one of the short, tension-defusing puffs of air from before, but a full-bodied chuckle of real amusement. Sherlock was offended. That was not how people were supposed to react to his accusations.

"Oh God. Mendacious?" John spluttered. "You are the only person alive today who would actually come out and use that word in casual conversation. And no. I mean yes, to some of it anyway, but that's not what I was going to say. I think you-" He emphasised his point by jabbing a finger in Sherlock's direction. "-are frightened."

"Frightened?" Sherlock rose from his chair, and this time he couldn't do anything about his pulse racing out of his control. Because John had hit the nail on the head - inadvertently, to be sure; Sherlock knew he meant something else - afraid of reverting to the role of the kid brother, afraid of being indebted, afraid of rejection: yes, yes, yes. The most frightening thing of all was how accurate John was with his deduction.

"Yes, you're absolutely right, John, I'm frightened," Sherlock said. His voice rose as he prowled around in the tiny room, gesturing wildly with both hands. "I'm frightened of you," he said, whirling around to point an accusatory finger at John, "because I've never met one of you before. I'm terrified every time I'm around you because I don't know what you, or I, are going to do." He caught John's eye and held it, as if by pinning his gaze he could gain some measure of control over the other man, or at least divine what his next move would be.

If he'd been a puppet master, he would have made John get up and leave, that being the quickest and easiest way to end this situation. If he'd been a soothsayer, he would have supposed John would say something comforting or reasonable or even humorous.

In fact, John neither left nor said anything of the sort. Rather, he looked startled and said, "I don't know either. It's ... " And then a smile slowly snuck onto his face, as if he were just realising it at that moment. "… exciting."

Exciting? This stampede of sensations running rampant through his body, this blizzard of images screaming for attention before his mind's eye, this explosion of possibilities opening new paths all around him? This was sensory overload, a tidal wave overturning all of his coping mechanisms, a klaxon sounding impending disaster.

Or maybe it was just the bell signalling the end of the lunch period.

They stayed like that for an interminable moment, until the ringing was no more than an echo in Sherlock's ears.

John stood up and put his hands in his pockets. "You know, in the army we had a saying: 'If you see a bomb technician running, try to keep up with him.'" He raised his eyebrows at Sherlock. "I'm just going to try to keep up."

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight - The First Rehearsal

Sherlock spent the weekend composing the rest of the songs for the Nativity, walking miles upon miles with Gladstone, breaking into the email accounts of Whitehall employees, and teaching Gladstone to identify and locate various chemicals by smell. His activities led to some interesting discoveries, including the entrance to an abandoned Tube station, and a PA who was receiving kickbacks from a travel agency and a catering service for sending business their way. He was unable to get into his brother's account - Mycroft had it housed on his private server, rather than on Google as the bulk of the company's email accounts were.

Sherlock was also, through everything, unable to completely keep John Watson out of his head. It wasn't bad, necessarily. It wasn't as if he couldn't concentrate when he wanted to, but there was always a presence hovering at the edge of things: what would John's face look like when he heard Sherlock play this? Would he try and talk Sherlock out of picking this lock (or would he stand lookout)? Would he be impressed at how quickly Sherlock figured out the passwords? Sherlock found there were things he wanted to share, sights he wanted to point out, theories he wanted to discuss, or at least have a sounding board for. And maybe he also wanted to feel that hand on his back again, or have that strong, capable body - far from a wreck - walking beside him, or listen to that warm tenor voice telling a story, teasing him, laughing.

It would have been easier if John were clearly uninterested in anything other than a casual, colleagues-and-occasional-punter-night friendship. Although even that would have been far more intimate - emotionally, at any rate - than any of Sherlock's previous associations. However, despite Sherlock's lack of fluency in the unspoken language of interpersonal relationships, he recognised that John would be more than amenable to exploring further options. It was getting more and more difficult to justify not giving in. Maybe it did come down to the simple fact of him being afraid: of losing control, of the unpredictability, of being hurt.

It was all so tiresome. He'd been through all of the arguments with himself before, and he knew that the practical answer was to keep things as they were now. John had stated he wouldn't seek anything more. But the fact that he kept returning to the issue, and that every time he and John were together it became more difficult to stick to his resolution, indicated that he needed another solution.

And that solution, he decided, would be to see what happened. When undertaking a scientific experiment, it was counterproductive to terminate things at the first sign of an unwanted result. One had to allow the process to play out to its conclusion in order to analyse the outcome. It was entirely possible that an unforeseen yet highly profitable product would result. It could also be that one had to scrap the entire hypothesis, but one would still have gained valuable knowledge.

Sherlock's last - unplanned, uncontrolled - approaches to anything resembling a relationship - platonic or otherwise - lay so far in the past that he allowed that the results might no longer be valid. He was a different person now - more cautious, more knowledgable, more experienced. More sober. And maybe - it wasn't that he needed to have someone else in his life, exactly, but he'd long felt that there was space for something else, something that his job and Gladstone and his observations as an outsider didn't fill. John had said he found interacting with Sherlock exciting. Maybe that was exactly what Sherlock was missing: a little excitement.

%%%%%%

On Monday, Sherlock brought his violin to school again. This time, there were no surprise assemblies nor disastrous revelations, and they were able to set up for a musical session in the assembly room. John displayed an uncharacteristic reserve upon greeting Sherlock that morning, but as they unfolded the bleachers and brought out the school's rickety keyboard, and Sherlock found his tongue nearly tripping over itself in his eagerness to relate his adventures from the weekend, John's face folded into a warm smile, and he nodded and hummed and shook his head in amused disbelief and admiration. Sherlock allowed himself to bask in the attention, smiled back, even thought to ask John about his weekend. Not that he'd done anything interesting; in fact, Sherlock deleted the information moments later. The point was, though, that it felt daring, as if he were doing something forbidden. He'd always enjoyed doing forbidden things. Although this time, the only one who might be shocked at his behaviour was himself.

He recognised that he was coming dangerously close to flirting. The thought didn't disgust him. It was like trying on a part, testing himself, seeing if he could maintain the persona. Only it wasn't a sham, this was all him. John didn't know him well enough to tell the difference, which was probably a good thing, otherwise he might have felt even more foolish. He very soon found that he had a heightened awareness of his body: how his jacket pulled across his shoulders when he stretched to unlock a strut, exactly how close his fingers came to John's when they dragged the keyboard stand into position. The way his hips moved when he walked across the room.

And all the time, he was aware of John's eyes on him. John was right: it was exciting.

"You said you could manage a chord accompaniment on the keyboard?" Sherlock said as he took a copy of the first song out of his briefcase.

"It's been a while, but let me have a look." John went to the keyboard and Sherlock brought the music over.

"I've kept it fairly simple. C Major, nothing more complicated than a couple of major sevenths." He stood close to John, without quite touching, although he did let his sleeve brush John's arm when he reached over to set the pages on the music stand.

John leaned forward to peruse the notes. It took a surprising amount of willpower for Sherlock not to let his hand rest on John's back. He imagined what the rough-soft nap of the woolen jumper would feel like against his palm.

"I don't know this one," John said. "'Nazareth'? I thought we'd be doing some carols."

Sherlock paused. He'd forgotten that he'd never discussed the play with John. John didn't know he'd decided to write all of the songs himself. All of a sudden, he was nervous. He'd done rather poorly with predicting John's reactions to things. He'd imagined all along how admiring John would be, how impressed with Sherlock's musical talents. Now he was unsure.

"No," Sherlock agreed. "I composed this one." He reached forward to adjust the sheets just as John straightened up, causing them to bump against each other.

"Sorry," they both apologised. John had turned his head toward Sherlock, and all of a sudden their faces were very close. Sherlock inhaled abruptly, getting a whiff of John's scent, a cheap mixture of SureMen, Palmolive, and Voltarol. He was torn between stepping back and leaning in. His pulse throbbed in his throat.

John flashed him a smile and licked his bottom lip as he turned away again. "You -" He cleared his throat. "I mean, you wrote the music and, and the parts and the words and everything." He nodded at the music.

Sherlock exhaled, hard enough that his breath stirred a small patch of hair behind John's ear. He had a brief vision of burying his nose in the hair there, then letting his lips ghost over the cartilaginous curve. "Yes, that's generally what composing a song means," he said shortly. He read out from the page:

"History was made in Nazareth.

Great portents abounded,

the shofarim sounded..."

John glanced at Sherlock. "It's good," he said, nodding approvingly, but his words didn't transmit the unadulterated approbation Sherlock had both hoped for and come to expect. "Do you think the words might be a bit beyond the kids?" John asked. Sherlock could tell he was trying to be nice about it, but the criticism was clear.

Sherlock drew back out of John's space completely. "They don't need to understand it, they just need to sing it."

John sighed. "All right, how does it go?" He started to poke out the melody on the keyboard. He had to keep checking back and forth between his hand and the page. He had no sense of rhythm, and it came out sounding choppy and off-beat.

"I thought you said you could play," Sherlock said. This wasn't going at all the way he'd imagined it.

"I'm better with just the chords," John said, frowning as he continued to work through the song. "Not so much moving around and it's easier with my left hand."

"Then stick to that." Sherlock went over to his violin case and took the instrument out. He'd already tuned it before leaving the house, so he only needed to make minor adjustments now before it was ready to play.

He drew the bow across the strings a few times, tightened a key, then started to play the melody of the song he'd given John. He stared at a spot on the ground as he played. He didn't want to see John's reaction now. In fact, he was rather souring on the entire prospect. Maybe they should just do the bloody carols and be done with it. When he was finished, he forced himself to look at John, more than half expecting to see blank bemusement or poorly disguised disapproval. Once again, he was proven wrong.

John didn't look surprised at all. Quite the opposite; he looked as if Sherlock had just done something which was both entirely expected and absolutely incredible. Sherlock wasn't used to anyone anticipating excellence from him. Even at the College, where one had to be very good to even achieve admission, the teachers had been on the lookout for weaknesses.

"That was brilliant," John said quietly, as if afraid to disturb the mood. "You should play. You know, just you. Forget the kids."

Sherlock swung the bow down and swished it around a bit to cover the surge of relief and pride. "The parents don't want to hear me play, they want to see little Tommy and Susie dressed in ill-fitting sacks and screeching about teenage dirtbags." His eyes met John's and they both giggled.

Just then, the door flew open and the children came in. They immediately took advantage of the large space to run and shout and generally be disruptive. Sherlock opened his mouth to yell and threaten detention, but before he could say anything, a piercing whistle came from John's lips. The children froze in surprise, then fell over themselves (in some cases literally) to follow the orders to assemble that he barked out. In short order, they were all lined up on the bleachers.

"Now you're to sit still and listen to Mr Holmes." John pointed authoritatively at Ollie, who was still snickering behind T.J.'s head.

"Yes, Mr Watson," the children mumbled. There was still a bit of jostling and whispering, but by and large their attention was at the front.

John nodded, satisfied. "All yours," he said to Sherlock and stepped back behind the keyboard.

Sherlock was impressed, and that was saying something. Not that getting the attention of a bunch of children was that spectacular an achievement, but it wasn't often that Sherlock acknowledged that someone was able to do something better than he was. At least not something relevant. He didn't have any problem admitting that the philosophy student at Speedy's prepared coffee better than he did. He didn't care to devote the time to developing his skills in that direction, not when it was much easier and more convenient to purchase his morning fix instead. But the point was that he could, if so inclined. He knew, from five years of experience teaching years one through three, that he was not capable of bringing them into line without threats or losing his temper, much less whilst simultaneously commanding both their respect and admiration. John was able to do all of that in a few seconds, and it seemed to be second nature to him. Remarkable.

"We're going to be learning quite a number of songs in a very short time, so I suggest you pay attention, Saffron Maguire." Sherlock pointed at her with his bow. She snapped her mouth shut and assumed a look of exaggerated innocence.

Sherlock set the bow to the strings and played the beginning of the song. The children stared at him with glazed expressions. He had serious doubts whether they even grasped the concept that they were going to have to remember the melody and sing it back. This was going to be tedious.

He spoke the words first, then played the phrase again and sang it as well, for good measure. When he indicated that they should sing it back, perhaps a third of them made an attempt, and even those trailed off somewhere between Nazareth and the shofarim.

"Oh come on," Sherlock said with an expression of disgust. "I hear half of you chanting the words to that horrid Gangnam song out on the playground, and that's not even in English!"

"To be fair, this isn't either," John piped up, pointing at the music in front of him.

Sherlock turned to him in affront, but before he could say anything, John looked to the pupils and said, "Here, try this," then sang, while accompanying himself with the keyboard set to chord mode:

"Things are really cool in Nazareth.

Our city is full of joy.

'Cause this is where girl meets boy..."

Despite the different words, it was Sherlock's melody, albeit with a syncopated, modern rhythm. Or maybe John was simply incapable of keeping simple four-four time.

John's voice was thin and scratchy, and he could barely reach the high notes, but incredibly, the children sang the phrase back, in a relatively recognisable manner.

John beamed. "That was excellent." He turned to Sherlock. "Wasn't that excellent, Mr Holmes?"

Sherlock screwed his face up. "'Girl meets boy'? Is this the Nativity or some soppy, dumbed-down Romeo and Juliet?"

"I prefer to think of it as a modern take on an old classic," John responded with a grin, then stepped out into the middle of the floor and started rattling off ideas. "Right, how about this. It starts off black, and everyone's wondering: What's going on?"

"I know I'm wondering that myself." Sherlock went to sit down with the children. He was going to give John a good, solid length of rope with which to hang himself.

John went on with something about backdrops and popping out of windows and marching figures across the stage, and it was all so elaborate and far-fetched that Sherlock had really heard enough before he'd even finished describing the first scene.

"Dr Watson. John!" Sherlock interrupted. "These children will never be able to do that."

John straightened his back. "Yes, they will," he said firmly.

"No, we won't," a little voice said from somewhere behind Sherlock.

"We're useless. Everyone knows we're useless," another child chimed in.

"You're not useless," John said, as if that were the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard.

"That's what Mr Holmes always calls us."

John pressed his lips together. He only spared the briefest of glances in Sherlock's direction. Sherlock felt unfairly accused; it was true, after all. Although he knew most people viewed his voicing of such opinions with a very critical eye.

"I don't care what anyone has told you," John said. "You are not useless."

"It doesn't matter anyway," a boy in the back row said. "Anything we can do, Blackwood can do ten times better."

"Psh, Blackwood shlackwood." John waved his hand as if fanning away an unpleasant odour. "This isn't some sort of contest. I don't know who's put that into your heads," he said, glaring at Sherlock. Which was actually quite unfair, as it was Lestrade who had talked about besting Blackwood at that ill-fated assembly. "And anyway," John went on, "Blackwood's not having a movie made out of their play, are they?"

A high-pitched cheer went up from the children. Sherlock returned John's glare, with interest.

%%%%%%

Sherlock let John take over the song rehearsal. Quite frankly, the children did seem to catch on much more quickly with his words and the looser beat, and Sherlock was more than happy to withdraw to the corner and do some reading.

It didn't bother him as much as it probably should, John bastardising his original composition. He'd put a fair amount of effort into it, and been pleased with the result. It actually bothered him more that John was probably right: the song was too highbrow, both for the target audience and for the performers. He'd thought he was writing it with them in mind - and at some unacknowledged yet not entirely unconscious level, for John's approval - but subconsiously, he realised after John's statement earlier about the Blackwood School, he'd been writing it to compete with Moriarty.

Sherlock more than half expected that John would suggest meeting up again, if only to discuss the changes to the song, but he went off to lunch with Stamford and Molly Hooper without a word to Sherlock, and at the end of the school day, said nothing more than a friendly good-bye before going on his way.

Sherlock was most definitely not disappointed. It seemed that he had the answer to the question of what would happen if he let things take their course: nothing at all. John must have gotten fed up with Sherlock's intrusive observations, odd obsessions, and abrupt about-faces. It was clear that he still felt some degree of attraction, if the way he'd watched Sherlock earlier while setting up and his reaction to hearing Sherlock play were any indication. But he had probably, like Sherlock earlier, decided that pursuing anything personal was a bad idea.

The next couple of days passed by in much the same way. John was friendly during school, chatting and perhaps even skirting the line to flirting - Sherlock wasn't certain about that, however; he had the shameful suspicion that was only wishful thinking on his part. In any case, he didn't extend any more invitations to Sherlock. Sherlock actually found his heart leaping into his throat when his mobile chimed one evening, only to discover that it wasn't John at all, but Lestrade, asking when it would be convenient to hold a meeting with the parents to discuss the filming. He deleted the message unanswered and threw the phone down on the table in disgust.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine - The Field Trip

"I've arranged a field trip this afternoon," John informed Sherlock when he entered the teachers' lounge on Thursday morning. John was looking particularly well: he was sporting a fresh haircut and a new jumper, obviously bought with the help of a woman. He'd also cut himself shaving, so he must have either been nervous or in a hurry, although not because he was running late from oversleeping. Possible distraction during his morning routine? It all added up to him having a girlfriend (a one-night stand wouldn't have helped him shop for a jumper) whom he'd spent the previous night with, but the underlying tension in his body spoke against that conclusion. That and the fact that John wasn't the type to play the field behind someone's back, and Sherlock was certain that the dinner, at least, had been a date. He comforted himself with that, as he found the idea of John having a girlfriend was not one he particularly wanted to dwell on.

"No, this afternoon we're working with the Cuisenaire rods," Sherlock answered curtly. He sat down to drink his coffee, deliberately choosing a chair that wasn't near any other seats.

John leaned back against the table next to him and crossed his arms. "It's all cleared with Greg and the hospital. We're taking the bus and going to visit the maternity unit."

Sherlock made a face. "Why in God's name would we do that?"

"Did you know that over half the class have never even been in the same room with a newborn baby?"

"I don't believe I have either, and there's a reason for that."

John's mouth twitched up in the start of a smile. "The central point of the Nativity is the awe and magic of that moment when everyone sees the baby for the first time. How are they supposed to give convincing performances if they've never experienced what that's like?"

"It's called pretending. It's what every child in every Nativity up and down the country does every year."

"Yes, well, we're going to go a bit method this year."

%%%%%%

 Sherlock had no choice, really, but to go along with it. His resolution not to allow John to interfere with things not related to the play had long since fallen by the wayside. The most bothersome part of it was that they were actually getting ahead of schedule according to Sherlock's strictly regimented syllabus. It wasn't simply a matter of having someone available to work individually with the slower pupils. John's presence had also worked wonders for discipline and cooperation amongst the children. They genuinely liked John and wanted to please him.

Sherlock had never before seen the point of making oneself popular; all that mattered to him was material competence. He wasn't there to play with the children or befriend them; he was there to impart knowledge, even if it meant stuffing it into their little underdeveloped brains by force. If by shouting and making threats, he garnered little sympathy, he had always supposed that he more than made up for it by demanding excellence, unlike his softer colleagues, whom he had always viewed with undisguised disdain.

One more area in which John Watson was turning Sherlock's long-held convictions inside-out.

He pointedly, however, did not hold anyone's hand, help count the children at any point in the journey, nor did he slow his pace to accommodate the parade of small feet trailing after him. This field trip was John's idea; let him deal with the logistics.

As they approached the hospital and Sherlock saw which one it was, though, he faltered. John couldn't have known this was where Sherlock had been brought when he'd OD'd the second time, a week after his father died. Not that there was any connection between the two incidents. That had been the last straw that sent him to the rehab centre. Might Lestrade have known? Unlikely. He glanced behind him, where John was bringing up the rear of their - no, of John'slittle troop, chanting a marching song and snapping his fingers at Jade and Bob, the perennial stragglers, in a playful yet firm manner. He didn't have any idea that this place held bad memories for Sherlock.

Sherlock didn't realise he was still hanging back until all of the children were already inside and John paused at the automatic door.

"Coming?" John asked, giving him a bemused look.

Sherlock gave himself a mental shake. He was being ridiculous. All of that was over and done with. It was a vagary of the human mind to replay emotions when returning with the site of their genesis. This, here, today, had nothing to do with what had happened back then.

"Yes, fine. Let's get this over with." He pushed past John and went to the reception desk, where a hospital volunteer (divorced, no children, Pilates, pair of Siamese cats, lost someone close to her to cancer) was on hand to greet them. She gravitated immediately to John, and Sherlock drifted to the periphery of the group and tuned out the woman's overly effusive spiel.

The last time he'd been here, he honestly hadn't cared whether he lived or died. He hadn't purposely overdosed, but the whole business of living - getting up, washing, eating, finding some way to occupy his time, breathing - had become so utterly tedious that any escape, any alternative, had been preferable. He didn't agree with the official diagnosis they'd given him of depression. Nor had he ever been suicidal. He'd simply been bored out of his skull. That was why he'd refused the medication they'd tried to foist on him afterwards. He hadn't needed more drugs, especially not ones designed to even out his mood. He'd needed something to engage him.

The violin had helped, a bit, once the tremors had gone away. Then it had been playing head games with the doctors and therapists. That had actually been a nice challenge, seeing how many diagnoses he could accumulate. That was where he'd started to observe people, too, at the facility Mycroft had arranged for him to go to once his condition was deemed stable. Well, he'd always observed people. But it had been there, in the culture of introspection and secret-divulging, that he'd honed his skills.

He'd quickly learned how to tell who had stashes of illicit substances, which staff members were carrying on affairs, and how to use that information to get things he wanted. A cleaner from the Ukraine who was in the country illegally yielded a mobile phone. A psychiatrist who was using his office computer to view porn got him out of biweekly group therapy sessions. And deducing the identity of the patient who'd orchestrated the break-in to the dispensary earned him the privilege of a room to himself. So, all in all, the time hadn't been entirely wasted.

And since then, he'd found things to do, experiments or little games or self-appointed training missions that amused him. This thing with John was just another one. He didn't really care how it turned out, he told himself. It didn't matter that John had cooled toward him, even if he was obviously still attracted to Sherlock. It wouldn't affect his life one way or the other if he never saw John after the play. The meetings and the talks and the laughter and the meals and the arguments - the touches and the looks and the liquid-electric feelings - none of that changed anything, none of that changed him. Even if it was pleasant and he didn't mind it, wouldn't mind doing any of it again, not even the arguments; especially not the arguments, because Sherlock actually found himself listening to what John said, even when he was wrong, even when he was being stupid and obvious and not understanding, because John was listening too, actually listening to what Sherlock was saying, not judging him or pitying him. He was trying, and sometimes he was even right. And sometimes Sherlock knew that this almost wasn't a game any more, but he had to keep telling himself it was, because otherwise it would mean something when he lost.

He was pretty sure he'd already lost. John hadn't looked at him once while the woman was talking. Sherlock knew this because he hadn't taken his eyes off of him once. John was listening silently with his arms folded. And despite the fact that he was keeping his eyes on her face, he was barely moving his head: ergo, he was not interested in her. Focusing on John, Sherlock found that the memories of his earlier hospital stay lost their sharp edge. They were thin, gray, two-dimensional; John was a beacon of warm colours and compact reassurance. He might have his own secret troubles - he still wasn't sleeping well and was wary of his body betraying him - but he had the opposite effect on Sherlock, making troublesome things fade in importance or relevance.

After the pupils had been instructed in how to behave so as to cause as minimal a disruption as possible for the patients and staff, they took the lift up to the maternity unit. There, the volunteer handed them off to one of the duty nurses, and within minutes, John had somehow convinced a new mother of twins to let the class crowd around their plastic bassinets. Sherlock was careful to keep his distance. Although he was intrigued by the idea of twins, he didn't want anyone to think he was here under anything other than duress. That, and the mother had already been eyeing him nervously.

Instead, Sherlock went to stand by the observation window to the nursery. On the other side of the glass were four bassinets occupied by newborns, impossibly small. Sherlock imagined their tiny hearts pumping blood into capillaries thinner than a human hair, the incomplete connections in their brains grasping toward each other beneath the soft bones of their skulls. It was incredible that their bodies could even sustain life. Three of them were sleeping, but one wrapped in a purple blanket was squalling so hard it was audible through the glass. Sherlock wondered how the rest of them could sleep through it.

"Cute, aren't they?" John asked as he slipped into place beside Sherlock, his hands in his trouser pockets.

Sherlock thought he should probably be irritated at the sharp burst of pleasure that spiked in his chest at the knowledge that John had left the children to come and talk to him. It was silly, but he enjoyed it nonetheless.

As to John's comment, Sherlock pulled a face. "How could anyone possibly be induced to wantto produce such a thing?"

John smiled. "I used to want one. Theoretically, I mean. I've never been in a position where it was a real possibility. And now..." He shrugged.

"What do you mean, 'and now'?" Sherlock asked. "You'd make an excellent father," he said automatically, surprised to find that, on reflection, he actually believed it.

John gave him a bemused look. "Thanks." He checked over his shoulder to make sure the class was still occupied. The mother had picked one of the twins up and was letting the children take turns touching its hands. "I'm nearly forty, not really in a position to support a family. Not to mention the, er..." He scratched the back of his neck, unconsciously revealing his discomfort with the topic. "- distinct lack of a woman in my life."

"There are other options."

"Yeah, I suppose. If I really wanted a child, but I don't. I mean, if I did have a partner" - Sherlock didn't fail to notice the gender-neutral reference - "and all the stars were aligned, I think I'd be happy about it, but I don't miss not having one, and I don't think I'll regret never having procreated in ten or twenty years. Probably be relieved, actually, not to have to deal with a teenager when I'm past the half-century mark. Never mind that though." He waved a hand in front of him as if to shoo the topic away. "How've you been?"

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing. Just haven't seen much of you this week."

Sherlock frowned down at him. "We spend six hours together in the same room every day."

John was watching a nurse adjust a soft, knitted hat that had slipped down over the face of a baby with pale brown skin. "You know what I mean." His lips twitched down and he looked away. "Sorry. I wasn't going to- Sorry," he muttered.

Sherlock turned toward John to look at him more closely. He was obviously displeased with himself, with what he'd said. Had he said something embarrassing or insulting, or - No, it was the fact that he'd touched on the topic at all. And suddenly, all in a rush, John's behaviour that week became clear. He had made his own resolution and was finding it difficult to stick to. On Friday, at the end of their lunchtime conversation, he'd said something about being like a soldier trying to keep up with a bomb technician. Sherlock had taken it to mean that he was caught up in the excitement of the sparks between them, feeling swept along by the entire situation; he'd supposed that John had reconsidered over the weekend and decided the excitement wasn't worth having to put up with Sherlock.

But now it appeared that he had meant something else, or at least something additional. John had been trying to say that he was going to follow Sherlock's lead, since Sherlock seemed to be uncomfortable with the direction things were going in, or the speed at which they were going. That was the reason behind the lack of invitations and texts, the quick good-byes at the end of the school day rather than lingering in the classroom to chat. John was still hoping for something, but it would have to be up to Sherlock to move things forward.

"Ah," Sherlock said, as the import sank in. John was making it easy for him. He could let things lie as they were. John could remain nothing more than a colleague - the only one Sherlock had ever worked in anything like harmony with, to be sure, but still just a colleague. Or Sherlock could pick up the game - and maybe something much more. Which meant that, if he wanted to see where things might lead, he was going to have to take the initiative. A completely unnecessary twinge of nerves lodged itself in his stomach. He already knew that he was going to do it. He couldn't back down from a challenge like this.

An invitation. He would need to propose an activity for them to engage in together. Had it been this difficult for John to ask him to share a meal? He made it look so casual, like an incidental thought. What should it be? Dinner? Drinks? John had said something about watching a movie. At his house? That would feel like moving too fast again.

And then the perfect opportunity occurred to him. There would be no danger of anyone shoving candles and flowers at them, they wouldn't have to converse if things went poorly, and he was going to have to go anyway; having John there might make it vaguely interesting. He cleared his throat and kept his eyes firmly on the purple-blanketed baby - who had quieted and was now sucking furiously on a dummy - as he spoke.

"Lestrade has informed me that I'm to attend a reception being hosted by the mayor's office next week in honour of our joint project with Whitehall. Further, that you should accompany me."

John blinked at Sherlock in surprise. "Sorry, the mayor's office has invited me to a reception?"

Sherlock clenched his fist. He had to remind himself that John wanted this, too. He was going to say yes. "No, a representative from the school has been invited, and I am the sacrificial lamb. You would be, for want of a better term, my plus-one."

"Your plus-one," John repeated. "So, like, your date." He was working to keep his amusement - or was it happiness? - in check.

Sherlock squirmed, wishing he had something in his hands to fiddle with. If he was going to be teased, he really would call it off. "No, like the person who will field all the unavoidable questions and lie through their teeth to keep this farce going until it can blow up even more spectacularly in our faces than it would if we simply ended it now."

John grinned. "All right. Just as long as it's clear, then, yes."

"Yes what?"

"Yes, I'd be happy to accompany you. Very happy." He snuck a glance at Sherlock out of the corner of his eye, then looked at the babies again, beaming.

Sherlock couldn't help a rather large smile expanding across his face as well.

%%%%%%

 Later, on his evening walk with Gladstone, Sherlock began to regret that he'd asked John to attend the reception with him. Not because he didn't want to him there, but because it was a whole six days away, and he wanted to see him before then, outside of school. He fingered his phone in his pocket, playing with the idea of texting John. He didn't know what to say, but it seemed altogether too long until he'd see him in the morning.

His hand was cupping the phone in his pocket when he felt the buzz of an incoming text against his fingertips.

Text from John Watson

what to wear to mayors reception

Sherlock grinned. Not even the fact that John still hadn't found the shift key could dampen his delight at the fact that John was feeling the same thing he was. It also confirmed that he had been correct in his assessment that John had been holding back to give Sherlock the chance to set the pace. Now that he'd made the opening move, John was able to respond in kind. Sherlock entered his reply without breaking stride:

Clothes would be preferable. -SH

 He hit 'send' a fraction of a second before realising how suggestive that might sound. It was only another fraction of a second until his brain helpfully provided a visual proposal of John not following the advice. Of course, it was nearly a complete flight of fancy aside from the general outline and supposition of standard anatomical completeness, but Sherlock nearly stepped off the kerb into moving traffic. Only Gladstone stopping short held him back.

While they waited for the signal to change, Sherlock snuck past his mind palace's incinerator and stashed the unbidden image in a hermetically sealed suspension capsule down in the sub-basement. Perhaps he would have occasion to make a comparison at some point to the original, or at least parts thereof. Other residents of the sub-basement, phantoms of people he'd never seen but whose appearances he had posited, included radio hosts, authors, and the occasional relative or partner of an acquaintance: he'd been pleased to be proven largely correct on Lestrade's wife when she'd come to pick him up from school one afternoon; he'd been completely off base with Stamford's then-fiancée, Mary, who - far from being an eleven-and-a-half stone blonde with tinted contacts - was a compact, understated woman with Northeast Indian roots.

His phone, still in his hand, buzzed again.

Text from John Watson

haha no really black tie?

Sherlock sighed at the lack of capitalisation and punctuation, but he was relieved that John had chosen not to drag the conversation down to the level of crass innuendo.

Ask Lestrade. He's the one who foisted this on us. -SH

 

Text from John Watson

ok

Sherlock was about to stash his phone back in his pocket when it buzzed again.

Text from John Watson

goodnight sherlock

The swooping sensation in his stomach surely indicated that it was time to turn toward home for dinner. Sherlock smiled.

Good night John. -SH

As he slipped his phone into the outer pocket of his coat, his fingers brushed against a paper. He pulled it out and found it was the flyer for the Blackwood School's Christmas bazaar and musical showcase, which was scheduled for the following evening. He was about to toss it into the next bin, but something stayed his hand. He knew he shouldn't care, but he couldn't help being curious about what Moriarty was up to. The rivalry between them ran deep. Before they'd both been dismissed from the Royal College of Music, they'd been scheduled to go head to head in the conservatory's year-end competition. Sherlock continued to feel a deep dissatisfaction at the unsettled score between them. It was like playing a concerto and stopping four bars before the end.

It was true that there was no official contest between Baker Street and Blackwood for the best Nativity, no prizes awarded, no panel of judges, but when Moriarty's production had been lauded in the press five years earlier and Sherlock's panned, it had felt like playing the next bar of the concerto, only to find that his part was in a completely different key, and the entire orchestra had screeched to a halt to stare at him.

Intellectually, he knew that whatever Moriarty and the Blackwood School did, had nothing to do with him. At a gut level, though, he needed this. He needed to show that whatever Moriarty could do, he could do at least as well. And in order to do that, he needed to know what Moriarty was doing.

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten - The Christmas Bazaar


The Blackwood School was a Victorian monstrosity of pink stone, a Romanesque throwback with arches and towers and leaded windows. It screamed old-school posh, and was exactly the kind of place Sherlock had grown up hating for all that it represented.

It figured that Moriarty would have chosen to base himself here. He'd suffered dearly under the prejudice that came with having his name, accent, and upbringing. The upper echelons of musical society were closed to someone like him, unless he had the kind of talent that only came along once a century, and Moriarty, for all that he was an accomplished musician, didn't.

Sherlock supposed, though, that at a school like Blackwood, Moriarty would have plenty of opportunity to rub elbows with patrons of the arts, flatter them by promoting their no doubt talentless offspring, and set up favours to be called in at a later date. He must have quite the network set up for himself by now. Sherlock imaged that, like himself, Moriarty would be leaving his teaching position soon. It was as if their lives were being kept in lock-step by an invisible arm. Except that Sherlock's next stage was looking more and more as if it were going to be a big step down, and Moriarty's no doubt several rungs up.

Sherlock slipped in amongst the crowd of parents and children - most in the maroon-and-gold school uniform - milling around the stalls that had been set up on the floor of the auditorium. Hand-dipped candles, etched glass baubles, straw angels, hand-knitted mufflers and tie-dyed scarves attested to the manual talents and creativity of the student body. Then there were more professionally produced wares, such as carved wooden crêches and fair-trade woollen ponchos and tasseled hats. And finally, the foodstuffs, ranging from homemade biscuits and fruitcakes to freeze-dried apples, candied ginger, and gourmet chocolates.

Sherlock paused in front of a stall selling a selection of aromatic teas and exotic coffees, considering whether to purchase a bag for John - if he made it a Christmas present, it wouldn't be too naff - before he caught himself. He never bought Christmas presents. Aside from those for his mother and Mycroft, but they were expected on pain of death or, worse, emotional blackmail, and were always the same: a bottle of perfume for Mummy and a tie for Mycroft, which he always exchanged.

But it was less than a month to Christmas, and if, by some miracle, he and John were still on speaking terms by then, it would probably be appropriate for him to give John a present. He didn't normally care about being appropriate; he'd never given Lestrade anything, even though he was on the head teacher's gift list every year. But even if they decided not to be anything more than friends, Sherlock found to his surprise that he actually wanted to give John something. He wanted to make John smile, wanted to let him know that he valued his companionship, without the tedious business of forming words and sentences about it. He would have to give it more thought, though, at another time. For one thing, it wouldn't do at all to buy a Christmas present for John on Moriarty's territory.

It was nearly seven o'clock, time for the showcase to begin. Sherlock moved toward the stage, keeping to the edge of the room. He didn't doubt that Moriarty had long since spotted him, but he wasn't planning on staying for the entire performance. He would need to leave before the end if he wanted to avoid his rival cornering him afterwards to gloat.

At the stroke of seven, the red curtains on the stage parted just enough to allow Moriarty, dressed to the nines in a new gray suit (Westwood), to pass through. The crowd surged forward, children shuffling between the adults to get a better view. Moriarty stood in humble posture with his hands clasped in front of him, a self-deprecating smile pasted onto his face. The clamour of conversation lessened to a buzz, and finally to nothing at all. He had obviously trained them well. Finally, when the silence had been stretched to its outer limit, Moriarty threw his arms out and began speaking.

"Hello, everybody! I'd like to welcome you to our annual Christmas bazaar at the Blackwood School. As you know, Christmas is a time for giving, a time for charity and valuing those people less fortunate than ourselves. So in that spirit, I'd like to recognise my very good friend from the Baker Street School, who will be directing their own quaint little version of the Nativity and is here to pick up some tips on just how the job is done. Mr Sherlock Holmes!" He made a grand gesture in Sherlock's direction, his expression all teeth and sharp eyes.

Sherlock forced himself not to grit his teeth as the entire audience turned to look at him. Moriarty definitely knew how to push his buttons, but he wouldn't give him the satisfaction. He inclined his head, then leaned back nonchalantly against the wall and indicated with a wave of his hand that Moriarty was welcome to get on with whatever it was he had to show for himself.

And he did, as it turned out, rather have something to show. The children's voices were crystal clear, their attention never wavering from the conductor. The music consisted of well-known favourites, but the arrangments were fresh and modern, showcasing both individual voices and the harmonious melding of the group. And the dancers were graceful and sure-footed. Sherlock had just decided he'd seen enough when he heard a voice beside him.

"They're very good."

Startled, Sherlock turned to see John smiling ruefully up at him. His heart jolted at the sight. He was briefly seized by the irrational notion that Moriarty had invited John as well. He didn't like that idea one bit, as it would mean that John and Moriarty had met privately at some point during the past week. But Moriarty had no idea who John was. He hadn't seen them together at the tree lot, and even if he had found out that John was helping with the play, as someone who could neither be a threat nor an asset to Moriarty, John was far beneath Moriarty's notice.

"Hello," John said, keeping his voice low so as not to disturb the show.

"What are you doing here?" Sherlock hissed.

"Don't worry, I didn't follow you. I'm just as surprised to see you. Well, maybe not just as. I could have figured you'd be here." He shrugged, watching the performers giving a perfectly timed rendition of 'Silver Bells', in four-part harmony. "I wanted to see who this Moriarty was. God, they're really good."

"Why?" Sherlock demanded.

John wrenched his eyes away from the stage to focus on Sherlock. "What, why are they good?"

Honestly, it was as if they weren't speaking the same language, Sherlock thought, at the same time as he clamped down on his traitorous body's reactions to being near John. "Why did you want to see Moriarty?"

"Oh, right. Well, seeing as he's at the root of the entire situation with the play, and you're not much for talking about things, I thought I'd try and piece it together for myself."

"But why? What possible good would come of you coming here? It's not as if anything will change. What was said was said, and at this point, anything that draws Moriarty's attention to you, or me, or the school, or the play, will only make it worse."

"Good thing you showed up, then, so he could introduce you to the entire student body and their parents," John retorted dryly.

Sherlock scowled. "I didn't anticipate that."

John snorted. "Doesn't look like Mr Moriarty got that memo."

Applause sounded around them, and up on the stage, Moriarty was bowing and introducing the last number.

"He is a good-looking bloke, though," John said.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing," John said, too casually. "I only mean, I can see the fascination."

Sherlock scowled intently up at the stage and didn't say anything. This was one of the reasons he'd always stayed out of personal entanglements. He had little interest in offering assurances to jealous lovers, or bolstering someone's ego with trite phrases and meaningless gifts. Still less in neglecting his own interests in order to waste time on inane, so-called 'bonding'. Either one wanted to be with someone, or one didn't. If jealousy arose, obviously the relationship was no longer delivering what one or the other party needed or wanted, and it was time to end it.

Aside from that, the whole idea of jealousy made him uncomfortable. There were those who would say (and had said) that he was jealous of Mycroft; of his position in their family, of the easy and lavish affection he received from their mother, and had received from their father. Of his accomplisments, his solid and gainful employment, the reach and depth of his influence. Of course that was all ridiculous. He didn't want any of what Mycroft had. In fact, he specifically rejected and repudiated each and every one of the above items.

Both Sherlock and John remained silent during the final song, a rendition of 'O Holy Night' that left many of the parents around them reaching into purses and pockets for tissues. Sherlock kept his arms tightly folded across his chest and stewed. The idea that he could have anything more than a professional interest in Moriarty was ludicrous. Surely anyone could see that they despised one another. Although, to be absolutely fair, John had only heard the very tail end of their earlier interaction, when Moriarty had said he'd call Sherlock. He supposed it might have looked like something more intimate. But he certainly wasn't about to start explaining things and justifying himself to John. Even if something were going on between him and Moriarty, or anyone else, that would have absolutely nothing to do with what went on between him and John. If they were actually involved in a physical relationship, the question might possibly be justified, but only from the health and hygiene angle. If it ever came down to it, he'd have to say he was in favour of monogamy, if only for the convenience of not having to constantly get oneself tested for various diseases.

Before he realised what had happened, the programme was over, and the curtain fell shut. Sherlock was just trying to deduce whether John was likely to bring up Moriarty again if they went somewhere for coffee - chances were high - when Moriarty himself suddenly appeared in front of him. Sherlock didn't know whether he was more irritated at John for distracting him from his plan to leave before the end, or at himself for allowing the distraction.

"Sherlock!" Moriarty gushed. "I'm so pleased you stayed. I was afraid you'd leave after the first song, when you realised there's no way you can ever top us. Oh, or was that naughty of me to say in front of your ... friend?" He turned his shark's teeth on John. "Aren't you going to introduce us?"

"John, this is Jim Moriarty. Dr John Watson."

"Ooh, a doctor," Moriarty all but squealed. "Charmed. So, the two of you are..." Moriarty raised his eyebrows suggestively.

"No," Sherlock said bluntly. Because they weren't, not in any measurable way. "John is a temporary volunteer at the school."

"I'm helping with the Nativity," John said, reaching over to shake Moriarty's hand.

"Of course you are. After what he came up with last time, well. Can I be frank?" He leaned in and confided to John in a stage whisper, "I was shocked they gave it to him again."

John gave him a tight smile. "Really. From what I've seen, it's going to be spectacular."

"John..." Sherlock tried to warn him off.

John ignored him and continued speaking to Moriarty. "Yes. In fact, he's written an entire original score."

Moriarty turned to Sherlock with a look of wide-eyed delight. "Why Sherlock, how marvelous! I must admit, I didn't expect that. I like it. You must be trying to impress someone."

It was closer to the truth than Sherlock felt comfortable with, but all he said was, "Just bored."

Moriarty chuckled. "Yes, I imagine you are. You should really drop by sometime. I have plans, you see. I might be able to find something for you."

"I have my own plans."

"Oh yes, right, I forgot. That movie thing. How's that working out for you? Lots of buzz going round, but, funny, no one seems to know anything."

"You've obviously been talking to the wrong people then."

"Mea culpa, in that case, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing what you come up with. You and Doctor Watson." He inclined his head toward John with a greasy smile.

A girl in Blackwood uniform appeared next to Moriarty.

"What is it?" he asked testily.

"The photographer says he's all ready, sir," she said, keeping her eyes on his shoes.

Moriarty shrugged at Sherlock apologetically. "The press. What can you do? Just a featurette for the weekend arts section. Don't feel like you have to leave, though. Stick around, we can chat some more later. Dr Watson," he said with the most consummately fake sincerity Sherlock had ever seen aside from his own, "it was an absolute pleasure." Then he withdrew, the student trailing nervously after him.

John rounded on Sherlock. "That's who you were trying to impress? That?" He pointed an accusatory finger in the direction Moriarty had gone.

"It's not what you think," Sherlock said, glaring at the idea that he might be interested in Moriarty as anything other than a rival. "I simply couldn't let him win."

"Win? Win what? This isn't a contest, Sherlock. This is supposed to be something nice, something fun for the kids. This isn't about you and him. Or maybe it is. Maybe I've been working under a false presumption all along."

"It appears you have," Sherlock said coldly.

"No," John ordered, now pointing his finger at Sherlock. "No, don't you do that. You and your mind games. I may not be clever like you, I may not be able to see the things that you see, but I see something in you. I know I do. Maybe there is more to this whole thing, maybe something happened between you and this Moriarty in the past, but whatever that was, it doesn't change the fact that at least part of you cares about this project for its own sake. You may not want to admit it, but you like those kids and want them to succeed. Some of them, anyway," he qualified.

Sherlock ignored everything he was saying about Moriarty and Sherlock's motivations because, really, it was all too tedious by this point. But it was what was behind John's little speech that rankled, and Sherlock couldn't let that go. "Oh yes, you obviously know me so well. Better than I know myself, is that it? We've known each other for barely two weeks, and you're suddenly the expert on my psyche?" he all but snarled.

John held up his hands in surrender. "No, clearly I don't know anything. This whole thing is-" He shook his head. "Sorry. I'm sorry, all right? I'll see you on Monday." He turned and disappeared into the crowd.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Eleven - The Third Date

Sherlock maintained his rightous indignation at John's presumption throughout the rest of the evening and well into Saturday. On Saturday afternoon, when he saw someone in the park who resembled John from a distance, his resolve wavered. Not that he changed his mind about the basic point: John had no right judging how Sherlock conducted his business, or why, or with whom. But, strangely, Sherlock found that didn't entirely prevent him from wanting to conduct his business with John. It was an unfamiliar situation: he was angry at John for having tried to get inside his head - no, if he was honest, for being inside his head - but he still liked him. More than that. He still thought John was worthy of his time.

The problem was, John might not think that of Sherlock any more. Sherlock was aware that he'd driven John away several times now. One of these times would be the last. This wasn't supposed to be an experiment in how much abuse John could take. It was supposed to show Sherlock whether he wanted to get close to another person, whether the overall positives outweighed the negatives. Clearly, he thought they still did, because he had his phone out and was composing a text.

 

Walking with Gladstone. Speedy's in an hour? -SH

He sent it before he could second-guess himself. He honestly wasn't sure how John would react this time. For all John's talk of letting Sherlock take the lead, he might have gotten fed up with Sherlock's changeability. Sherlock was fed up with it himself. The constant back and forth was draining, both mentally and emotionally. He was fairly certain he hadn't expended this much energy on a problem since he'd had to decide what to do with himself when he got out of rehab.

Several minutes later, John hadn't responded yet. Sherlock turned Gladstone around to head home. He might not have seen the text, of course. He could be someplace loud and not have heard the message alert. Or he might be sleeping. He probably catnapped during the day to make up for his disturbed nocturnal sleep patterns. Or - the highest probability, given the speed with which he had replied to previous text messages - he could have decided not to subject himself to Sherlock's temper again.

A good ten minutes later, Sherlock had begun gnashing his teeth at himself when his phone buzzed.

 

Text from John Watson

ok see u there

Sherlock was so pleased he didn't even mind the twinge of excitement in his belly. Although he did grumble at the shorthand. He changed course at the next intersection and picked up his pace. He had no thought of what he would say, or what they would do. He was simply - and disconcertingly - happy that John was still willing to meet him.

When he got to the cafe, John was already there with a cup in front of him. He was freshly shaven, so he'd been at home when he'd received Sherlock's text. He'd taken a cab, though, so he hadn't left immediately. In fact, he must have taken the extra time - and calculated in the extra expense - to appear clean and looking well. Sherlock sat down across the table from him, trying not to smile too broadly.

"Not going to have anything?" John asked.

"Hm? Oh - no, I don't... Not thirsty," Sherlock blathered, then wished he did have something, if only to occupy his hands. He rubbed them together.

"Well here, at least have some of mine to warm you up. You look chilled through." John slid his drink toward Sherlock.

Startled, Sherlock picked up the cup. The heat seeping through the stiff paper went directly to his heart. John, being as generous and thoughtful as ever - yet there was something reserved about him today, a guardedness to the way he was holding himself with his shoulders curved slightly inward and his hands in his lap. Sherlock lifted the edge of the plastic lid and took a sip, not even checking what the contents were. He grimaced involuntarily at the first taste.

"God, no sugar?" He held the cup away from himself and eyed it with disgust. Not only that, it was tea when he'd been expecting coffee.

John chuckled and picked up a packet from the dispenser on the table. "How many?"

"Two." Sherlock watched as John doctored the tea, took a sip to taste, and handed it back, making a face himself.

"How can you stand it like that? It'd rot my teeth."

Sherlock shrugged and drank the tea. For some reason, it tasted especially good now, its warmth spreading through his chest and settling comfortably in his stomach.

"Where's Gladstone?" John asked.

Sherlock gestured toward the door. "Had to leave him outside. Most places don't allow dogs."

"Oh yeah, of course. Better not stay too long then. So, what did you want to see me for?" John leaned his elbows on the table.

Sherlock hadn't actually come up with an excuse for having asked John to meet him. He'd simply wanted to see him, but he could hardly say that. He certainly wasn't going to bring up Moriarty or filming the play. But, it occurred to him, there was something …

"I was..." Sherlock began, trying to think of a way of putting it so that John would feel needed without making it sound as if Sherlock actually needed any help. "Well, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea if you took a look at the rest of the songs. For the play. One or the other might do with some tweaking."

John brightened visibly. "Oh, right! Yes, I'd be happy to. Do you have them here?"

Of course Sherlock didn't have any of the music with him. It was all back at his house. It seemed a waste of time to go there first, then to the school. There was no reason they couldn't look over the music at his house together. He could sit at the desk, and John could sit on the couch-- No, they both had to be able to see the score. John could sit at the desk, and Sherlock could stand behind him. Or they could both sit on the couch--

John was still waiting for a response from Sherlock. He forced himself to tear his mind away from the image of him and John together on the couch, their elbows touching as they passed the sheets back and forth...

"Actually, I have everything at my house," Sherlock said. "If you wouldn't mind, we could-"

"Oh, no, absolutely," John agreed before Sherlock had even finished his sentence. He pushed his chair back so fast the legs skidded on the floor, then hesitated. "Did you want to finish your tea first?"

"No, quite all right," Sherlock said, ducking his head to hide his smile at John's eagerness. "It's yours anyway."

Sherlock straightened his face out and held the cup out to John, who leaned over to tip it toward himself for a quick sip while still letting Sherlock hold it.

"You can have the rest," John said as he stood and zipped up his jacket.

Sherlock waited until John had his back to him, heading for the door, then turned the cup and put the spot John had drunk from against his lips. He ran his tongue over the crimp of the rim. It was impossible to taste anything other than the sugary residue of the tea. John turned to him, holding the door open. Sherlock quickly downed the rest of the tea and stuffed the cup surreptitiously into one of the generous outer pockets of his coat.

%%%%%%

As they turned down Sherlock's street, he was beset by a sudden bout of nerves. It occurred to him that he'd never actually had anyone over for a social call. He ran through a mental inventory of what was lying about, and whether John might be frightened, disgusted, or alarmed by any of it. He probably should have cleaned the loo... Well, there was nothing he could do now. This might turn out to be a short visit.

"This is quite nice," John said, though, as they walked in, despite the piles of books and papers on the chairs and the odd assortment of bric-a-brac crowding most other surfaces. "Live alone, do you?"

"Yes." Sherlock frowned. He'd thought that was obvious. He unclasped Gladstone's lead, then draped his coat over a chair. "Just, anywhere," he said to John, who was looking around fruitlessly for a place to hang his own jacket. "Make yourself at home, I'll be right there." He headed to the kitchen first to make sure Gladstone had fresh water in his bowl, then went to retrieve the sheet music.

When he returned to the living room, John was inspecting the skull on the mantelpiece.

"That's real," he said in a tone of bemusement.

"Mm, old friend," Sherlock said, fiddling with his music stand.

"Oh, right..." John pointed at the animal skull hanging on the wall between the windows. "And that's Gladstone's mate then?"

Sherlock chuckled. He shouldn't have worried about John finding his living quarters odd. After all, John had never once suggested that anything about Sherlock was odd. In fact, he seemed to be fascinated by all those things that others found so off-putting.

"What is it, a bull?" John asked.

"Bison, actually."

"And the headphones?"

"He has to have something to amuse him all day."

That got a full-bodied laugh. Sherlock met his eyes and couldn't help responding in kind. So this, this was what it was like to have a friend, someone who understood you and accepted you and even liked you, despite everything. Or maybe because of it? It was... nice.

John sat down at the desk while Sherlock set up his music stand so they could see each other. Sherlock didn't have a keyboard, but they found an app for Sherlock's touchscreen tablet so John could at least play a little.

It didn't take much to turn the plainsong solo Sherlock had written for the Annunciation into a rollicking gospel song that would involve all the children. Simply shifting the star of Bethlehem song from a minor into a major key and pepping up beat turned it into a foot-tapper. They had the most trouble re-working the song of the three wise men: Sherlock had no qualms arguing that the lyrics John suggested were the worst kind of teenage drivel and hyperbole. He felt he'd compromised more than enough, and was not about to allow his name to be attached to something that said, 'She's blinding me with love, she's my saviour from above'.

"How is that even possible?" Sherlock demanded, tapping his bow on the paper where John was scribbling his lyrics. "You can't actually blind someone with love."

"It's metaphorical," John said. He was at the point where he was gritting his teeth. "It refers to the light of the star standing for God's love."

"Oh, portents and shofarim are beyond year threes, but they have no problem with religious metaphor."

John tossed his pen down and leaned back to scrub both hands over his face. "You know what? I'm hungry." He dropped his hands to the table and looked up at Sherlock. "Are you hungry?"

"No, and it's barely-" Sherlock caught sight of his watch. It was nearly nine o'clock. He really wasn't hungry, though. Getting wrapped up in a project tended to suppress his appetite. But he could see the strain and weariness on John's face and in his shoulders. A break would probably do him good. And Sherlock should give Gladstone his dinner, anyway.

He glanced over at the dog, who was lying on the sofa with his head on his paws, watching them with patient, liquid eyes. He perked up his ears and cracked his mouth open at the sign of attention from his master.

"Fine," Sherlock agreed, albeit grumpily. "Chinese all right?" It was closest.

"Yeah, cheers," John said with a grateful sigh. He stretched, causing his back to pop with an audible click. "Mind if I use the loo?" he asked as Sherlock pulled up the number for Hei Fung on his mobile.

Sherlock grunted an affirmative, his attention mostly on the order he was texting. After he hit 'send', he went into the kitchen with Gladstone tapping happily across the wooden floor behind him. Sherlock measured out Gladstone's kibble, and was already reaching for the wine glasses when he realised what was going on. He and John were having dinner together. Alone. At his house. With wine, apparently. He hesitated. This would be their … well, technically, their third date. He knew what common wisdom said about the third date. Despite the fact that they hadn't so much as kissed yet. Would it be less of an invitation for sexual activity if he offered beer? Not that he kept any in the house, but he could easily add it to the order. Or what would green tea mean?

Sherlock scowled in annoyance, both at society at large for coming up with stupid rules, and at himself for feeling any sort of inclination to comply. He felt like having a glass of wine with his dumplings, no sex afterwards, and that was that. He took a bottle out of the cupboard and popped it into the freezer, being careful not to disturb the ice tray with the cow eyeballs. By the time the order arrived, the rosé would be at the right temperature.

John appeared in the doorway to the kitchen a couple of minutes later. He looked … somewhere between bemused and cautious.

"So," he said, affecting a casual tone, "what'd you do with the body?" He was leaning against the door jamb and had both hands in his pockets. Sherlock wasn't reading any anxiety or fear, but there was a definite sense of nervousness, of anticipation.

Sherlock frowned. "What body?"

"The..." John jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "In the loo. All the-" He made a vague, sweeping gesture.

"Oh!" Sherlock said as the pieces fell into place. "You mean the-"

"-the blood stains, yes." John nodded emphatically. "Not that-" He held up both hands as if to absolve himself of any responsibility. "I mean, if you did, I'm sure you had your reasons." He was watching Sherlock carefully now, his breaths coming slightly fast and shallow.

Sherlock felt a frisson of parallel excitement. John thought that he had killed someone. Possibly. Wasn't sure yet. But he wasn't panicking. Hadn't left. He was … curious.

Sherlock moved around the kitchen island, taking slow steps toward John, made sure to keep his hands visible and maintained eye contact.

"John. What are you going to do?"

"What? Nothing, I..." He licked his lips, buying time, not moving but not taking his eyes off Sherlock for a second.

"Let's examine the evidence, then, shall we?" Sherlock suggested. "Extensive blood spattering in the bathtub, up the tiles. Any on the floor?" He could virtually see John searching his memory of the bathroom, finding the evidence he was looking for.

"No." John shook his head. "I looked down to make sure I wasn't stepping in any blood as soon as I saw the tub."

"Any in the sink? On the mirror? Anywhere else?"

John shook his head again, his confidence increasing. "No, just the bath."

"Then either I was very lucky, very tidy, or cleaned everything but the bath afterward."

A smile was now playing around John's mouth. "I can't say anything about how lucky you are, but you certainly aren't tidy, and judging by the state of the fixtures and the floor, that bathroom hasn't seen the business end of a mop in months. Anyway, it wouldn't make sense for you to clean up everything else but leave the tub in that state."

"Maybe I was interrupted," Sherlock suggested.

"By Gladstone wanting a walk?" John said sceptically.

Sherlock shrugged. "Why would I have invited you over, knowing the blood was still there?"

"I could be..." John shifted slightly to take his weight off the wall. "Maybe it's like a game for you. Taunting me with what you're capable of. What you could do to me." He took half a step closer to Sherlock, close enough that he had to tilt his head back to maintain eye contact. By way of flickering up over Sherlock's mouth.

Sherlock's heart was racing now. John was all but challenging him to... what, to kill him? Or to kiss him? "We still haven't come to what you think I did with the body," Sherlock said, pleased that his voice came out so smooth. "But go on. What else?" He leaned against the inside of the door frame, mirroring John's earlier pose.

John's face became a study in concentration as he warmed up to the game. And that was ten times more interesting and titillating than any amount of innuendo or standard flirtation he might have engaged in.

"Um... The victim was standing," John deduced - he actually deduced, the wonderful, lovely man! "Blood spatters high up on the tiles. So, conscious." His eyes searched Sherlock's for confirmation.

"Well reasoned," Sherlock conceded, "but were there any hand prints? Foot prints? Smearing?"

"I honestly didn't look that closely. Off hand, I'd say no."

"So they just stood there and let me … what? Stab them? Shoot them?" He wondered whether John would let him do things to him … Not violent things, obviously. Physically pleasurable things. Sexual things. He'd never let his mind wander in that direction at all. He'd been too busy convincing himself not to give in, not to want such things. Not even to want a friend.

Would John just stand there and let him explore, try things out? Would he be satisfied to give Sherlock the lead in that, too? Maybe at first, but Sherlock rather thought John wasn't the type who would stand someone else telling him what to do for long. It was an easy mistake to make, given his army background. But in their conversations, John had already spoken obliquely about his sometimes creative way of carrying out orders, even if he'd never own up to outright insubordination (and he had been discharged honorably, no matter what else might have happened).

"You could have surprised them," John countered, "or they might have been tied up. And, shoot, I'd say." His expression stiffened slightly - speaking from experience, then, had likely seen blood spray on walls during the war. That would have looked different, of course; the stains in Sherlock's bathroom weren't from gunshot wounds, which should (hopefully) be obvious to a specialist. But clearly the impression was close enough to trigger something in John. Sherlock would have liked to explore just what that was, but at the same time he didn't want to push John too far. At least not tonight. He decided to get down to the denouement.

"If I'd surprised them while they were standing in the bath, the water would have been on, and most of the blood would have been washed away. And I think you'll find a distinct lack of bullet holes anywhere. Either way, they couldn't have remained perfectly upright once injured. They would have either tried to get away or fallen against one of the surfaces, leaving obvious tracks and smears." Sherlock leaned in until his lips were just millimetres away from John's ear.

John was standing perfectly still. He hadn't so much as twitched when Sherlock invaded his personal space. In fact, if anything, he'd leaned forward as well. He was holding his breath. Sherlock could smell that now familiar mix of middle-class brands, scents he shouldn't find appealing - didn't, in fact, in general, with their heavy, artificial chemical aftertaste - but that he was now greedy for, in just this perfect balance of menthol and citrus and something annoyingly sweet - jasmine, perhaps; incense? - that turned on all the John receptors in his brain.

"It's chicken blood, John," he whispered.

And just like that, the tension defused. Sherlock pulled back and John huffed out an incredulous breath. "Chicken... You were butchering a chicken in your bathtub?" John's mental faculties were clearly not at their best when dealing with a physical challenge at the same time. At least Sherlock hoped this wasn't a display of John's most acute mental state.

He clicked his tongue in annoyance. "Clearly not. I was squirting the blood at the wall to test the drip patterns."

John's face screwed up and he took a step back. "What the hell- Where do you even get enough chicken blood to do that with? No, scratch that. Why would you want to do that?"

"From the butcher, he owed me as I did him a favour, and it seemed like a good idea at the time." The actual reason was that he'd needed something to distract him from going over and over the confrontation with Moriarty the night before, and the subsequent argument with John. The word 'obsession' had occurred to him, which led to memories of psychiatrists, which led to amusement over an ink blot test, during the course of whose administration he'd convinced Dr Prentiss he was a sexually frigid pyromaniac with an irrational fear of heights, which led to wondering whether creating his own personal ink blots would lead to any insights on his current situation. And the blood had just been sitting there in the refrigerator, waiting to be used...

The doorbell rang.

"That'll be the food," Sherlock said. "Would you mind? I'll get the wine out of the ice box." Without waiting for an answer, Sherlock turned and went to the refrigerator. Behind him, he vaguely registered the sound of John's voice diminishing in the direction of the front door.

"Yeah, I'll just go … pay for our dinner," it said, sounding resigned.

%%%%%%

They sat at the island in the kitchen, talking, laughing, and eating out of the same containers. John took charge of carefully rationing out the single bottle of wine (unconscious reaction to his sister's alcoholism) so that they ended up lingering over the last sip or two once the food was gone.

It had been a very enjoyable experience - surprisingly so, in Sherlock's estimation, given that they hadn't discussed much of substance at all. There hadn't been any more of that what-do-I-do-now tension, either. When their eyes had met, it was with warmth and an edge of humour, as if they each acknowledged that the other knew what he was thinking, and they both knew they were being ridiculous, but it was okay.

There was still an undercurrent of something prickly and unexplored, but Sherlock no longer felt threatened or panicked by it. It was as if, through their conversation about the blood in the loo, John had let Sherlock know that he accepted him and liked him just as he was, chicken blood and cow eyeballs and all, and that knowledge let Sherlock relax and accept John in return. It was, as John had said earlier, all very exciting.

"God, I should be going," John said when he finally looked at his watch.

"There are still two more songs, the duet for Mary and Joseph, and the last one with the scene in the stable," Sherlock reminded him. He found he didn't actually want John to leave yet. Or, perhaps, ever. That was bad. Having fun and enjoying this situation was one thing, but becoming dependent was something else altogether.

"Yeah, you know, I think the music's good for both of them," John said through a half-suppressed yawn. His mouth was slightly shiny from the grease in the food, and the sleepy way his face moved as he spoke really shouldn't give Sherlock the desire to smooth a thumb across his cheek, feel the throb of his pulse in his neck. "If it's all right with you, I'll work on them at home and have the first one at least ready for us to run through the auditions for Mary and Joseph on Monday."

"Auditions again?" Sherlock groaned with distaste. "We already know who the best singers are."

"It's not about who can sing the best, it's about chemistry. We can't put Ollie and Saffron together, for example. They're more likely to get into a spitting match than sing together."

"I am not wasting another entire morning on it."

"Fine. I'll take them two at a time in the assembly hall while you carry on with your regular lesson plan."

"Fine," Sherlock acceded, although he did slump back petulantly in his chair.

"Good." John grinned. He drained the last of his wine and stood, giving in to a full-body stretch. As he did, his jumper rode up, exposing a little triangle of lightly furred belly where the bottom of his shirt gapped open just above his belt.

A tingle of desire zinged from Sherlock's throat down to the base of his abdomen. The third date, the third date, the reptilian part of his brain reminded him. He kicked it, scowling, and got up to clear away the takeaway cartons before Gladstone could get into them. He'd already decided there would be no sex tonight, and the stupid third date rule was even more reason notto do anything. He was going to need to think things through beforehand anyway, decide what he did and didn't want out of this, and how best to get it. And how to protect those parts of himself that most needed protecting.

At the door, John pulled on his jacket, then turned to face Sherlock.

"So, I... Thanks for dinner-"

"You paid."

John grinned. "You ordered. It was a good order."

"You can order next time."

"Only if you pay."

"Done," Sherlock agreed.

There was an interminable moment then, as they stood looking at each other, when Sherlock knew that John wanted to kiss him - flexing his hand, wetting his lips, taking a breath and holding it, letting it out again - and Sherlock wanted him to, wanted to do it himself, but before he could overcome that final internal barrier to this new kind of intimacy, John stuck out his hand. Sherlock took it, both grateful and frustrated.

"Thanks," John said as he pressed Sherlock's hand in his. "We could maybe do it again sometime?" The hope was written all over his face, but also the apprehension that Sherlock might turn him down. Stupid. Didn't he know by now that Sherlock, much as he might want to, couldn't possibly reject him?

"I'd like that," Sherlock said, pleased not only at the idea of spending more time with John, but also at the fact that he would, actually, very much like it. He couldn't think of anything else at the moment that he knew for a fact would give him pleasure. Not even the cow eyes in the freezer; like as not he'd end up getting bored with them and giving them to Gladstone to play with.

"Good." John nodded once, fighting not to smile too hard. "Good night then." He gave Sherlock's hand one final squeeze and let go.

"Good night, John."

He could still have called him back, or reached forward to put a hand on his shoulder, turn him, kiss him on the cheek at least, press his nose into John's hair - John was hesitating on the top step, maybe he was going to turn back himself - but then he didn't, he was down the steps and on the pavement, and he didn't even turn around as Sherlock stood there, watching him walk up the street until the darkness swallowed him.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve - The Casting Call

Several times the next day, Sherlock took out his phone with the intention of texting John. Silly things, nothing important, just thoughts he had or observations he made. Not that Sherlock's thoughts and observations were ever unimportant, but it hadn't escaped him that, in the larger scheme of things, it didn't really matter whether or not John was aware of them. That didn't stop him from wanting to share them.

The compulsive reaching for his mobile was just one of the many things he recognised as signs of a nascent addiction in his behaviour. His thoughts constantly returned to John, so much so that he caught himself imagining John beside him more than once. Nothing else could hold his interest; he abandoned the experiment with the cow eyeballs halfway through.

Walking with Gladstone, he found himself retracing the path to the shopping district where he'd run into John - had it only been two weeks ago? Alarmed at how quickly and thoroughly John had taken over his brain, he forced himself to clamp down on his impulses. He didn't need to hear John's exclamations in order to know that he - Sherlock - was clever. He wouldn't go mad if he went twenty-four hours without seeing the way John's eyes crinkled when he smiled. He was perfectly capable of purchasing a cup of coffee without considering what kind John would like - he'd never actually seen John drink coffee, although he'd smelt it on his breath, so he knew that he did drink it; it was unconscionable, however, that Sherlock had no idea how he took it - No! It was irrelevant. Completely, utterly, of no consequence whatsoever.

He put his phone back in his pocket and kept walking.

%%%%%%

On Monday morning, he put on and tossed aside two shirts (the green silk blend was too obvious, the black one made him look too pale) and was about to discard the third (the cream herringbone, unimaginative) before he caught his eye in the mirror and snarled. He finished buttoning it up with as much violence as it was possible to button a shirt up with, and pointedly did not rearrange the errant curl sticking out awkwardly over his right ear. It was horrid, positively hateful, how his every move had unconsciously become a play to gain John's favour.

By the time he arrived at the school, he noted in his reflection in the glass door that his hair had somehow righted itself during the journey. His stomach unclenched just a tiny bit.

Only to leap up into his chest when he entered the teachers' lounge to find John already there. He had his back to the door and was leaning against a table, talking to Molly Hooper. She looked earnest and gentle and had a kind smile on her face, not the skittish, slightly dazed one she usually wore around Sherlock. This one said she was comfortable with John, that she liked him, and Sherlock didn't like that one bit. Sherlock should have kissed him when he had the chance. Now there was nothing stopping John from chatting up Molly. Sherlock should have recalled that aspect of the third date, too: if nothing happened by then, it was time to cut one's losses.

Molly spotted Sherlock first, and when she did, she became … less fluttery and pink than usual. In fact, she looked almost smug, flicking her eyes back to John and murmuring something that caused him to turn toward Sherlock with a pleased smile that only became deeper when Sherlock approached. Not completely given up yet, then. Sherlock felt a bit smug at that himself. John's ears turned red and he shoved his hands into his pocket as he straightened up. Sherlock also didn't miss the fact that John gave him a toe-to-head once-over and darted his tongue out to swipe across his lower lip before speaking.

"Morning, Sherlock," John said. "Molly was just saying how she'd like to help with the play."

Sherlock directed his penetrating gaze at her - missed a corner of her mouth when applying her lipstick, two-year-old blouse, skipped shaving her legs that morning. Conclusion: not currently interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with John. Or with Sherlock, for that matter. When had she given up her infantile crush? He hadn't been paying attention; not that it was of any consequence. He was rather relieved he didn't have to deal with it at the moment. But what reason could she possibly have to offer help with the play, then?

"Why?" Sherlock asked suspiciously. Not that he expected her to tell the truth, but he might be able to discern her true motive from her answer.

"Well, it's a lot of work, isn't it?" Molly said. "And I thought it would be fun." That seemed... entirely sincere.

Sherlock looked at John with a pained expression. "What have you been telling her?"

John huffed out an amused breath. "It isgoing to be a lot of work, Sherlock. It's not done with learning the songs. There are the costumes, the sets-"

"Details," Sherlock scoffed.

"Important details. Details that won't do themselves," John said.

Sherlock's mood turned suddenly sour. He saw what was going on. John was bringing Molly in on the project because he didn't want to be put in an awkward position like Saturday night again. He wanted Molly there as some kind of chaperone.

"Why don't I just bow out completely then?" Sherlock said icily. "I've done my part with the music. Or at least I had before I let you scribble all over it."

John's expression hardened. Sherlock knew he'd gone too far, but he wasn't about to take it back.

"No one's trying to-" John started to say, angry and defensive, but Molly jumped up with a look teetering between dismay and conciliation.

"Oh, I don't want to get in the way," she trilled, several notes higher than was normal for her, and that was saying something. "You just tell me what to do, contacting parents, organising costumes, whatever. You'll never even know I'm there."

The bell rang for the start of classes. Sherlock became aware of the frozen tableau of teachers paused in their morning preparations around them. John was standing there with the corners of his mouth turned down, but it was more hurt than disapproval. It was only now that Sherlock really looked at him: used a new razor that morning, same shirt and jacket he wore to Angelo's (freshly laundered), detoured to the bathroom to comb his hair before coming into the break room. Sherlock took a step back, nearly stumbling against a chair, and had to catch at the back of it to maintain his balance.

"Typical Holmes," Nigel Anderson's sarcastic voice sounded from somewhere off to the side. It wasn't directed at him, exactly, but no one else was making a sound, so it was obvious he was meant to hear it. "Fobbing off all the real work when it comes down to it."

"I don't-" he muttered, not even sure himself what he was trying to say. He didn't care about the stupid play! If John and Molly wanted to take it over, that was fine with him. More than fine. He couldn't have arranged things better if he'd tried. Now he wouldn't have to deal with rehearsals or Moriarty or any of the headaches surrounding the supposed filming.

He somehow made it to the door, cognisant at some level of everyone watching him, but not really seeing them, and escaped down the hall to his classroom.

%%%%%%

Sherlock was quietly aware of John slipping in and out during the morning lesson, always taking two of the children with him. So he was carrying on with those ridiculous auditions for Joseph and Mary. Sherlock was well shot of the whole thing. He'd only started it because Lestrade had forced him to. They didn't actually need Sherlock at this point.

He set a task for the children to work on in small groups and walked around slowly, checking on their progress. He was bent over to answer a question when a scuffle broke out at another table. The other children quickly erupted in shouts and screeches.

Sherlock strode over to them and shouted, "Stop it! Alfie, Ollie, step back this instant!" He reached in and pried the two boys apart.

The one boy, Ollie, shrugged Sherlock's hand off and tugged his jumper down, while Alfie sniffled and straightened out his glasses.

"What in the world is going on?" Sherlock thundered.

Ollie spoke first, struggling to keep his breathing even. "He said I'd be a rubbish Joseph and I'll never make it in the school play and if I do I'll let the school down." He couldn't raise his eyes higher than the middle of Sherlock's chest.

Sherlock was of a good mind to send both boys down to John and let him straighten them out. This bloody play was nothing but trouble! Lestrade couldn't have been any more wrong when he'd said it would take the pressure off and improve his relationship with the children.

Sherlock turned to glare at the second boy. "Alfie, who put you in charge of casting decisions?"

"No one, but he hit me," he mumbled stupidly.

Sherlock ignored the accusation. "It's not down to you who's going to be rubbish, or good, or who's going to let the school down," he hissed. "As far as I'm concerned, you've just let the school down, and so have you." Sherlock pointed at Ollie. "You both think you'd make a good Joseph, is that right?"

"Yes, Mr Holmes," both boys mumbled.

"Fine. We'll see who'll make a good Joseph." He snapped his fingers at the rest of the children, who were watching the proceedings with round eyes. "I need a Mary to sacrifice up as well. Any takers? Jade?"

She looked around nervously, and not seeing anyone else volunteering in her place, stood up and came forward, giving both boys a wide berth.

"Off we go then. Let's see what Mr Watson makes of you." He herded the three toward the door. "Not a peep from the rest of you until I get back, or there will be lines," he warned, before stepping out into the hall.

%%%%%%

In the assembly hall, John was standing at the keyboard, with an easel pad facing the stage beside him. Although he couldn't see the front, Sherlock had no doubt the song lyrics were written on it, from the way Preeti and Bob were leaning forward to peer down at it as they struggled to get through the unfamiliar song. Sherlock cringed at how off-tune they were.

He only meant to shoo his three charges inside and head back to the classroom, but he couldn't help being ever so slightly curious about what John had ended up doing to the song, the one they hadn't got to on Saturday. He caught the door before it fell all the way shut and listened. The tune was, as John had said, the same one Sherlock had composed. Rather than leaving it as a duet in two-part harmony, though, he'd simplified it into one voice that the children took turns singing in alternating lines.

"He's not my type..."


"She's not too bad..."


"Not the most gorgeous I've ever had..."

So he had turned it into some sort of trite love ballad. Awful. Jade, Alfie, and Ollie crept forward, catching John's attention.

Without stopping playing, he gave them a quizzical look and mouthed, 'What?'

The three children shrugged and gestured behind them at Sherlock, who was still standing with one foot out the door. He could hardly leave now without it looking like he was running away. When John saw Sherlock, his body betrayed his surprise and he flubbed the next chord. He quickly looked back at the children and sang along softly to encourage them:


"I'll grow to love her..."


"It might work out..."


"I never knew what it was all about..."

Sherlock could leave now. He'd heard enough. John wasn't watching him, he could just let the door fall shut and... Oh, but wait. That was interesting. John wasn't simply not watching him. John was actively avoiding looking at him. Afraid he would betray himself, afraid Sherlock would see something. What was Sherlock not meant to see?


"And yet there's something behind those eyes..."


"A fire that flickers but never lies..."


"Could I love him?..."


"Could she love me?..."


And then together: "We can't rush into what is meant to be..."

Sherlock experienced a numb, plummeting sensation. John hadn't... Good God, he had. Sherlock stepped back out into the hall before he did something stupid himself. John Watson had written him a bloody love song. And was going to put it on before the entire school. And - Mycroft willing - the world. Sherlock didn't know whether to laugh or set fire to the school in the hopes of obliterating all traces that such a thing as that song had ever existed. Sherlock leaned back against the wall and huffed something at the ceiling. Laughter it was then. The arson would have been a bit difficult to explain away.

The door opened. Sherlock jerked away from the wall. He hadn't thought John would come after him. But it was just Preeti and Bob. The door swung shut behind them. Sherlock told himself he wasn't disappointed as he stalked wordlessly back to the classroom, the two children following.

Sherlock was distracted for the rest of the morning. He was writing on the board with his back to the room when John delivered the trio back to the class. He made sure to keep writing until John left with the next pair.

Whatever had possessed John to do such a thing? After the first shock faded, Sherlock was able to consider the situation with a bit of distance. Had he misinterpreted it? John had wanted to sprinkle the play liberally with hearts and roses from the start. He hadn't been thinking of Sherlock when he'd come up with his 'girl meets boy' line for the opening song. Maybe this was just part of the larger theme he'd already set up. His reaction to Sherlock hearing the words in the assembly hall could be due to apprehension that Sherlock would make fun of the song, or of him. But Sherlock had made fun of every set of lyrics John had written. John's reactions up to now had ranged from patient to defensive and amused. What was different about this particular song? The more Sherlock considered it, the more he was convinced that his first interpretation was correct: John had put something of himself into those words.

Maybe he hadn't meant them as a message to Sherlock, directly - and of course no one in the audience would ever suppose that the song could be about anything or anyone other than Joseph and Mary. Maybe John had simply written what he felt, without consciously imagining himself and Sherlock in the roles. He'd clearly realised at some point, though, that what he'd written said more than he wanted to reveal. He might possibly be hoping that Sherlock was as spectacularly ignorant as the population at large, and would never make the connection. Sherlock was happy to play along. At the same time, something in him preened and secretly hoarded the words.

%%%%%%

John appeared in the doorway of the classroom a couple of minutes after morning classes ended.

"Lunch?" he asked.

Sherlock looked up from where he was sorting completed worksheets into the children's individual work binders. He couldn't read anything in John other than calm and a bit of weariness. No lingering tension or anxiety regarding the song, or anything else. So he was going to play it that way. Sherlock felt himself relax perceptibly in return. He took a deep breath and let it out. God help him, he didn't want to want this, but he wasn't ready to give it up yet.

"Yes," he said finally. "Give me a minute?"

John wandered in and sat down on one of the child-sized desks. "Listen, about Molly..."

Sherlock kept shuffling papers and flipping binders open and shut, which John took as permission to continue.

"If you don't want her to help, it's fine. I just thought it would be useful. No reason we can't handle it alone, though."

Sherlock stacked the folders and tapped them sharply against the desk to straighten them. "It's fine," he said. He got up and picked up his suit jacket from the back of his chair. "If you want to bring her in, as I said I'll-"

John had stood as well, and stepped forward to lay a hand on Sherlock's arm. "Hey, no," he said, gently but firmly. "It's not like that. She's not replacing you, or me. I think we've worked well together so far. Remarkably well." His eyes caught Sherlock's and held them, searching, even challenging.

"Yes," Sherlock agreed, with everything unspoken those eyes were saying. All of a sudden, he didn't want to spend a loud, cheap lunch hour being jostled in Speedy's. They'd still have to be back in time for afternoon classes, of course, but... Sherlock took out his mobile and scrolled through his contacts until he found the number he wanted.

"Ethiopian all right?" he asked as he composed his text.

"Sorry?"

"For lunch," Sherlock said impatiently, having forgot that John couldn't actually read his mind.

"Wh- yeah, fine, I suppose," John spluttered.

"Excellent." He pushed the 'send' button and headed for the door, confident that his request would receive a positive answer. "It's a bit of a walk, but it would likely take just as long to find a cab in this area. Leg looks good, by the way."

"Yeah, so, thanks," John said as he hurried to catch up. "Yours, um... yours too." Sherlock could hear the grin behind him.

%%%%%%

John put up a bit of a protest when he realised they were opening the kitchen just for him and Sherlock (tiresome, if predictable), but the hospitality of Yosef and his wife Gelila was so genuine and irrefutable that he gave in even more quickly than at Angelo's.

"All right, let's have the story then," John said once a bowl of square, puffy crackers, two glasses, and two bottles of sparkling water (direct import from Ethiopia, according to the label) were set between them.

Sherlock shrugged and popped a couple of crackers in his mouth before answering. "I was able to get him off a drugs charge."

John made an interested sound. When Sherlock didn't elaborate, he prompted, "Was Gladstone involved too?"

Sherlock shook his head. "Before his time." He looked around for their host. Perhaps this hadn't been the best idea.

Conventional wisdom on relationships, he knew, said that he should 'open up' and 'trust' John. But he honestly didn't see how telling him about his past as a drug user could have any possible bearing on what they were to each other now. He was clean, both mentally and physically. If anything, it would be one more reason for John to dislike him. Or was it meant as some sort of litmus test? To see whether John still wanted to be his friend even knowing all the mistakes he'd made, all the failures he'd undergone? At any rate, he personally had no need to test John in that manner. In fact, it made more sense to present as bleached and whitewashed a picture as possible in order to entice John to stick around. Sherlock was bound to make enough mistakes in the present time without the need for bringing up the past as well.

John munched on the snacks, eyeing Sherlock shrewdly, then said, "You ever do a favour for someone who owns a Tex-Mex place? Because I think I could go for a burrito next time. Cover all the continents." He grinned, and Sherlock was momentarily overcome by his generosity in changing a subject he was so obviously curious about.

Sherlock recovered quickly and shook his head. "Although I did once help out a Pakistani cab driver whose wife does an excellent kebap. I'm sure she could be persuaded. That would be the sub-continent ticked."

Now it was John's turn to shake his head, although he was still grinning. "You are not getting some poor woman to cook for me. This is bad enough." He gestured around the empty dining room with his water glass. "Although, do you know," he said, now placing his glass carefully back on the table. "I haven't had proper kebap since I got back." It was said lightly, but there was a weight to the words that had Sherlock scrutinising him.

"Afghanistan, you mean."

John nodded. He rotated his glass slowly around where it stood.

"You never talk about it," Sherlock said.

John kept turning the glass, apparently mesmerised by the motion. "Not much to say."

It was obviously a lie. Or rather, it was obvious that many things had happened there, things that John didn't want to talk about. So, technically a truth.

John seemed to come to a decision, or rather, was now ready to follow through with the decision he'd made when he brought up the topic in the first place. He let go of the glass and lifted his eyes to meet Sherlock's - jaw set, shoulders hunched slightly, hands clasped tightly on the table in front of him. "What do you want to know?"

So he'd read the same brief on trust and openness as Sherlock had. The fact that he was offering, despite his obvious discomfort, meant a great deal to Sherlock. It meant that John was willing to give something up for Sherlock, that he was seeking more than a physical connection. It was actually quite sobering and indicated a degree of commitment that Sherlock wasn't entirely certain he wanted. Of course he wanted to know everything. But that would entail a certain degree of reciprocation - in fact, that was probably John's primary motivation: I'll show you mine if you show me yours. In the end, the only fair answer he could give was, "Only what you want to tell me."

John nodded. Sherlock could see the relief in his posture, but when he spoke, his voice was even and neutral. "That's fair. Same goes for you. Whatever you want to tell me, and the rest... doesn't matter."

And that, perhaps, solidified whatever connection they had even more than a messy confession would have.

Their hosts came back with flat breads and a tray bearing an assortment of pureed vegetables and meat sauces, and Sherlock and John happily turned their attention to the delicious food. Unfortunately, they didn't have time for the coffee that was such an integral part of the meal, but they promised to return another day for the full experience.

It occurred to Sherlock as they walked back to the school that they were amassing quite a list of future activities to undertake together: a second visit to the Ethiopian restaurant, getting together for takeout again, watching one of those popular movies that John kept mentioning... and of course the mayor's reception in two days. It was a seductive thought: that John would continue to be a part of his life long enough to realise all those plans. The term was progressing apace. It was already December. The play was less than three weeks away. Sherlock couldn't afford to think about what would come after that. Based on previous experiences, something was bound to happen in the mean time (the blame for which, like as not, falling squarely at his own feet) that would put an end to any predictions - he daren't call them hopes - he might have made at this point.

John stayed with the class in the afternoon, helping with the lessons where he could. When the bell rang at the end of the day, he stopped by Sherlock's desk before going out to help the children with their coats.

"You have a bit of time this afternoon to go over the casting?" he asked.

"You can do whatever you want, John, as I said-"

John laughed incredulously. "No, Sherlock, Jesus, I thought that was all settled. This is our project, yours and mine. I'm not doing it without you. I would really, really like to have your input on this. Please."

It was a novel feeling, having someone want to work with him without an ulterior motive. Just because they were... well, friends, he supposed, he had to own up to that at least, and because John valued Sherlock's competence and abilities. Not that he wanted to take advantage of them for his own gain, but simply that he recognised something good in Sherlock and wanted to share this experience with him.

"All right," Sherlock agreed. He suspected there was very little, if anything, he would be able to say no to when it came to John.

%%%%%%

"How about this," John said twenty minutes later, when they had all of their notes and materials spread across the table. "The three wise men, I'm thinking..." He slid around the photographs of the pupils that they'd taken from the pinup board in the hall until he'd separated out a group of five. "I can see any of this lot here, but we've got to whittle it down."

Sherlock pointed to one of the photographs. "T.J.'s the best singer, you should include him."

"Yeah, no, you're right, but..." John tapped the picture. "T.J. would make an excellent Gabriel. That song was practically written with him in mind."

"Yes, you would know."

John fell quiet. Sherlock thought he should probably apologise, but the words simply wouldn't come. After a few moments, John leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and asked, "Look, does that really bother you? That we changed your songs? I would never have done it if I didn't think you agreed."

Yes, it actually did bother him, but he saw the sense in it. The songs were better now, at least for the purpose they were going to be used for.

"No, you were right about it," Sherlock said. "They weren't written with the play or the children in mind."

"What then?"

Sherlock's mouth twisted into a wry smile. "Selfishness and hubris, I suppose."

"You're very talented. I mean, I know I'm not a professional, but I think you're very good."

"John, you eat cold pizza for breakfast," Sherlock deadpanned.

It took John a moment, but he got there eventually. "Are you saying I'm culturally illiterate?"

"Your words."

John giggled and pushed the pictures on the table around some more. "All right, T.J. as Gabriel. We've still got to lose one of these."

Sherlock pointed at one of the pictures. "Good dancer. Zach is a good dancer."

John nodded and made a note. "He's a great dancer. Zach should definitely be in." He looked down at the photos. "What about Matt?"

Sherlock made a face. "That hair."

John peered at the picture more closely. "What's wrong with his hair?"

"Just look at it. He's done that..." Sherlock swirled his fingers around near his own head. "Spiky thing."

"I think it's considered 'in'. Plus, he's a really good dancer."

"If you say so."

"What, you don't think he's a good dancer? He had that move..." John shook his shoulders.

Sherlock chuckled. "I was expressing scepticism about the hair. But yes, he's definitely a good dancer. Better than you, at any rate." He eyed him speculatively.

John sat up a little straighter. "I'll have you know I know a move or two."

Sherlock paused and gave John a very obvious look. "Oh, I'm sure you do."

"Sherlock..." John gave him a warning look and tilted his head toward the table. "The three wise men."

Sherlock sighed and pointed. "Here: Zach, Matt, and Ollie."

"What about Bob?"

"He can't carry a tune and he has no sense of rhythm. I don't know why you even included him on your shortlist."

"Because he's a firecracker. This one has fantastic potential." He picked up the little boy's picture and shook it.

"Well, then you have four wise men," Sherlock pointed out.

John's eyes widened. He pushed the pictures around until the four boys were lined up in a neat row. "Yes. Yes, exactly. We'll have four wise men. Fuck tradition, we want to have four wise men, we'll have four wise men." He leaned back and laced his fingers behind his head.

"You surprise me, John." Although he shouldn't be surprised at all. John had shown a willingness to dissemble and buck authority when he believed it was the loyal and humane thing to do. He clearly cared about the children and didn't want any of them to be unhappy with their role in the play.

"Good thing or bad thing?" John asked, although from the smirk on his face he wasn't too worried about which way Sherlock's opinion would swing.

"Fishing," Sherlock said as he unfolded himself up out of his chair.

John grinned up at him. "Still trying to work out which bait works."

"Oh, the bait's doing just what you want, I expect." Sherlock turned and went toward the door. "The question is whether you're going to be disappointed with your catch," he said over his shoulder.

"No," John said softly. "No, I really can't imagine I would be."

Sherlock paused at the door. John had no idea what he was saying. "Are we done here, then?" he asked. "I should get home for Gladstone."

"Yeah. Yeah, I can handle it from here." John leaned forward to gather up the papers from the table. "Oh, and Sherlock? Bring your dancing shoes tomorrow. It's time to start on the choreography. We'll see who's got moves."

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen - The Unwelcome Visitors


"All right, we're going to have a little warmup." John was standing up on the stage in the assembly hall, with the pupils arrayed on the floor below. He kept talking, something about how important it was to warm up one's mind and body both blah blah blah. Sherlock tuned it out.

Despite his warning to Sherlock to wear 'dancing shoes', John was dressed in the same style as always: loafers, a pair of loose-fitting trousers, a button-down shirt, and, today, a gray cardigan. Boring. Yet perfect. No one else would look twice at him. No one else would think there was such an interesting person underneath the bland exterior. Although Sherlock did wonder how John would look tomorrow night. He'd found out from Lestrade that it was a black tie affair. No cardigans and brown loafers this time.

Sherlock leaned against the wall, feigning boredom. Mostly. He expected it was going to get interesting any moment.

"Mr Holmes, come join us, please." John's raised voice drew Sherlock's attention.

"I don't dance."

"Afraid you won't be able to keep up?"

"Stalling?" Sherlock shot back.

John gave him a look that was half amused, half irritated. "Just copy what I do," he told the children. He leaned down and switched on the tape player he'd brought with him. A brassy, unnecessarily cheerful tune started playing, and John started moving.

He didn't really seem to have any sort of plan or routine, just waving his hands and shuffling his feet and wiggling his hips as the mood struck. It was a bit pathetic, really. Sherlock could have outdanced him on one foot. But he was having fun, and so were the children. From where he was standing, Sherlock could see the huge smiles on each one of their little faces. And they were all following and stepping more or less in time with the music, even the less coordinated amongst them.

John was acting as if this were a deadly serious business, all the while coming up with sillier and sillier things for the children to do. Sherlock found himself unable to stop himself from chuckling and nodding his head in time with the music.

John was in the middle of doing a move which it looked like he'd picked up from the pigeons on Trafalgar Square when something outside caught Sherlock's attention. The large windows looked out onto the school yard, which was empty at the moment. On the other side of the yard, however, a series of little maroon-and-gold beret-topped heads were peering over the fence edging the property. Sherlock made a beeline for the window. As he watched, a line of children in Blackwood School uniforms came around the fence onto the tarmac surface.

"What's going on?"

Sherlock hadn't even noticed that John had stopped the music and was now standing beside him.

"Spies," Sherlock muttered. "What in the world can he be thinking?"

"Who?" John looked out at the group of some twenty children, now arranging themselves in the school yard in what looked like some sort of military formation. "Hold on, is that-"

The last figure came around the fence and took its place behind the row of Blackwood students.

"Jim Moriarty?" John blurted out.

Without responding, Sherlock pushed his way back out through the children who were now crowding up to the windows to get a better look.

"Sherlock, what- Wait!" John called after him.

Sherlock didn't. He headed for the door, his mind whirling. Moriarty here: why? Obviously something to do with the Nativity. More specifically, the filming.

"What's going on? What does he want?" John asked, nearly having to jog in order to keep up.

"I don't know, but I'm going to find out." Sherlock flung open the glass door leading outside and strode across to the invading group.

"What do you want, Moriarty?" he shouted.

"Is that how you greet visitors, Mr Holmes? We're just here to pay a courtesy visit. Returning the favour, so to speak. You got a little preview of what we're going to do in our Nativity, I thought it only fair we had a look at yours." Moriarty looked past Sherlock at John. "You could use some work on your pelvic thrusts."

"You disgusting little worm-" John growled, taking a step forward.

Moriarty grimaced. "Dr Watson, please." He put his hands over the ears of the child closest to him and whispered, "Little pitchers."

"All right, venisti vidisti vexavisti. You've had your peep, now shove off." As Sherlock spoke, he heard the scuffing of shoes, whispers and giggles as his class gathered behind him.

Moriarty closed his eyes and shook his head, an exaggeratedly pained expression on his face. "Manners. Is it so difficult to MIND YOUR MANNERS!" he screamed, popping his eyes open as wide as they would go.

John darted forward (protective reflex, trying to put himself between the two groups) but Sherlock held out a hand to stop him, warning, "John." Moriarty was on a hair trigger. He was just looking for an excuse to blow.

"Oh, well done, Sherlock. You havetrained him well." Moriarty was breathing fast and shallow, his eyes boring into Sherlock's. If Sherlock didn't know better, he'd have said he was high. But Moriarty didn't use. He was happier in the role of the facilitator. The controller.

"He hasn't trained me," John said, low and dark.

"I think you'll find he has," Moriarty said, still not taking his eyes off of Sherlock. As he spoke, he came closer and closer. "You're dancing to his tune. They all do. He's the pied piper, only he doesn't want anyone to follow him. Do you? Always running away, Sherlock. You ran away from your family... you ran away from the conservatory... You ran away from me." Moriarty was so close now that the front of his coat brushed against Sherlock's chest.

Sherlock flinched. John's hand was between them in a fraction of a second, pushing against Moriarty's shoulder.

"That's enough."

Sherlock was so startled at the weight of the threat behind the command that he blinked away from Moriarty to look at John.

"I really don't think you should have done that, doctor," Moriarty said as he swung his gaze slowly over to John.

"You've had your fun. Now back off." John still had his hand up, warding Moriarty off. Sherlock wanted to tell John to leave it. Moriarty was no real threat. But the way John had said 'he hasn't trained me' made him keep silent.

"No. No, no, no." Moriarty shook his head, but kept his eyes now locked on John like a wolf on its prey. "You see, I haven't even begunto have fun yet." He looked John over as if sizing him up and finding him lacking. Then without any warning, he lunged and snapped his teeth loudly, snarling.

Sherlock saw that he never meant to make contact; his body was pulling back practically as soon as he began to move. But John had already reacted, using Moriarty's momentum against him to deflect him to one side, then kicking his feet out from under him. He had Moriarty face-down on the ground with a knee in his kidneys and his arm pulled awkwardly up behind his back before Sherlock could draw a breath to shout a warning.

And then all hell broke loose. Seeing their leader thrown to the ground seemed to be the trigger that set off the Blackwood students. With almighty shrieks, they jumped on John, clawing and scratching and trying to dislodge him. And the Baker Street students, of course, weren't about to stand by and let their favourite teacher (Sherlock had no problem admitting it) be attacked.

Within a matter of seconds, the school yard was full of hair-pulling, shin-kicking, epithet-hurling furies, trying to come to their teachers' aid. And John and Moriarty were at the bottom of the pile. Sherlock shouted - not that his own pupils had ever been much impressed by that; he was under no illusions how little impact it would have on Moriarty's - and pulled the screeching brats back as fast as he could. But he could only hold onto two of them at a time, and as soon as he let go to grab another pair, the first two leapt into the fray again.

It didn't even occur to him to go for help until he saw Lestrade bearing down on them, followed by Stamford, Anderson, and half the rest of the staff. Perfect.

%%%%%%

"What the actual fuck was that?" Lestrade demanded a good twenty minutes later in his office.

John and Sherlock were sitting in front of Lestrade's desk with him looming over them, his hands on his hips and his suit rumpled beyond all repair. John was in even worse shape, but he didn't seem unhappy about it at all.

"Courtesy visit, apparently," Sherlock muttered.

Beside him, John gulped down a snort. Sherlock couldn't look at him for fear of losing his composure completely.

Lestrade didn't appear to be quite as amused. "No, that was- Fuck me, Sherlock, that was the last straw. You turned me school yard into a bloody turf war."

"To be fair, it was Moriarty who-" John broke in.

Lestrade pointed at him. "Shut up. Jesus." He withdrew his hand, only to run it wearily over his face. "Sorry, John. What were you thinking, though? It's a primary school, not the DMZ."

"Won't happen again." John's voice was clipped and flat.

"Too right it won't. You- the pair of you-" Lestrade waggled a finger back and forth between them. "You've dragged this school and your own arses through the mire. If it wasn't for this whole movie business, you'd be off these premises immediately without a job, and without a reference. And you are damnlucky the kids thought they were just rehearsing a scene for the play. Although it would be the first Nativity to feature a school yard rumble," he added under his breath.

Sherlock stared stonily at a fine, dark splatter on the side of Lestrade's desk (blood, approximately four days old, from a child, sneezed through a bloody mouth, likely lost tooth). It was ironic: the lie he'd concocted had led directly to the very situation he'd wanted to protect them from. John had a black mark on his record now, regardless of whether Sherlock took the blame for the filming hoax.

"Greg, this was not Sherlock's fault," John said, low and firm. "I take full responsibility. If anyone's leaving, it will be me."

"Jesus, John, no, didn't you hear me? You have to stay. We've had some big pledges come in because of the interest from Whitehall. We can't shift responsibility to another staff member at this point. Look, I know you weren't exactly enthusiastic about this project from the beginning, but there's a lot more riding on it now. Blackwood School's music director showing up and whatever that was out there" - Lestrade thrust a hand toward the door - "is a case in point. I have the board and the press breathing down my neck. This project has to come together, and no one else knows what's going on beside you. So please, please, for the love of God, do not screw this up any more." Lestrade turned away in disgust. "And now get out, go on, back to your classroom. And for fuck's sake, keep away from Moriarty," he muttered as he started to shuffle through papers on his desk. "Man's a psychopath."

"Sorry about that," John offered once they were out in the hall.

"No, not at all," Sherlock protested. "You were magnificent."

"You- What?" John whipped his head around to peer up at Sherlock.

"Assessed the situation completely wrong, but still: fantastic. I'll be running that scene on loop whenever I need a pick-me-up."

John laughed, not quite sure whether Sherlock was kidding or not. "You're mad."

"That's never been conclusively proven, although many have tried."

John snorted again. "I'll bet."

Sherlock smiled. "For future reference, the way to handle Moriarty is to let him burn himself out. He likes to talk, but he'll never actually start anything himself. He's a button-pusher. Always trying to figure out what will get the best reaction."

"Seems he found mine," John said ruefully.

Sherlock paused, one hand on the door to the classroom, considering: accusing John of being a sycophant - denigrating his sexual prowess - or rubbing Sherlock's shortcomings in his face... One of those had primed John for the attack even before Moriarty's feint. The question was: which one?

%%%%%

At the end of the school day, Sherlock took a little extra time gathering his things in the classroom, hoping - expecting, actually - that John would come back in after seeing the kids off. When five minutes turned into fifteen and he still hadn't turned up, Sherlock berated himself for acting foolish and headed for the door.

As he passed through the hall, he heard John's voice drift in through an open window. He backtracked, stopping when he saw John and Molly Hooper sitting outside at the wooden picnic table where some teachers sat and smoked during their breaks.

"I think he's doing it for the best," John was saying, "because if it does happen, it's going to be brilliant."

"But it's not. It's not happening, is it?" Molly's querulous voice replied.

Sherlock's stomach dropped. John had told her about the movie. Or lack thereof. Of course, he would have. He'd said he was involving her in the project. He was an honourable person, and therefore he'd have to tell her the truth before she got in too deep. It could be her job riding on this as well. Would be. Sherlock understood, of course he did, why John had told her. That didn't stop it from feeling like a betrayal, like John had taken something that the two of them had created together and tossed it out into the street for it to crack open and be sullied by the world. Never mind that what they had created was a web of lies. It had been between them, and now he'd let Molly Hooper in on it, and Sherlock was the one left on the outside looking in.

"It might happen," John said stoutly.

"How?"

Sherlock pushed the door open and stepped outside. "Yes, John. How?" He wouldn't have laid even odds on his hands not shaking if he were to hold them up for inspection just then.

John turned perceptibly paler. "I was just... chatting with Molly."

"Hi," she said in her typical tentative manner.

Sherlock ignored her, instead answering John. "Yes, I see that." He settled himself on the bench opposite them. "Go on. I would so like to hear how this thing might happen that is, in fact, not happening." There was no need to explain himself. They all knew what they were talking about. He folded his hands tightly on the table in front of him. He desperately wished he had a cigarette. The miasma of nicotine permeating the wooden furniture didn't help.

John stared at Sherlock, then looked down at the table. His mouth was a thin line, his jaw clenched.

"Why did you lie, Sherlock?" Molly asked, as if it were incomprehensible that he should ever do such a thing. "About Whitehall and the play?"

"I wasn't the one-" he started automatically, not even looking at her, still focused on John, but he was interrupted.

"No, you did lie." John's voice was flat, and he was still staring at the table. "I was mistaken, and you knew that but you didn't say anything." He raised his eyes to meet Sherlock's. "I'm as culpable as you now, but I'm not the one who wilfully started it. I'll protect you, you know I will, but I want you to be honest to yourself and me, at least."

Sherlock wanted to come back with a cutting remark, something about how he didn't owe John anything, how he knew more about honesty than John did with his suppressed trauma and his psychosomatic limp. His own body was lying to him, for God's sake!

"It doesn't matter." Molly's voice cut into Sherlock's thoughts, uncharacteristically no-nonsense. "What matters is what we're going to do about it now."

"Do?" Sherlock screwed up his face as if she'd just proposed he let the children take turns throwing his violin off the school roof. "There's nothing to do. Eventually we'll be caught out, and we'll all be out of a job. You too, now that you know - which you can thank John for, by the way. The only thing we can do is prolong the inevitable."

"That's bullshit. I know you're cleverer than that." Sherlock raised his eyebrows at her. He'd never heard her either contradict him, or use any word stronger than 'poo'.

"Then maybe you've got a winning idea!" Sherlock said.

John broke in, "You've got to get Mycroft to somehow... return your calls or speak to you."

"Yes." Molly nodded enthusiastically.

"I think we should make a - what do you call it. Like a screen test," John proposed. "We should film what we've done, film some of the rehearsals-"

"The best bits!" Molly agreed.

"The best bits," Sherlock repeated dryly. "Of these children."

"Yes!"

"That will encompass all of approximately four seconds. There are no best bits."

"Oh, come on, Sherlock!" John sounded honestly irritated. "Jesus, you'd think you want this to fail.

Let's just get something, whatever we can, and film it, send it to Whitehall c/o Mycroft-"

"It's got to be worth a try," Molly put in.

Sherlock stood up abruptly. "This is a waste of time," he said, slashing a hand through the air. "There is not going to be any film. There is very likely not even going to be any play."

John looked up at him with a hard glint in his eye. "You know, I don't understand why this has to be so hard. Yes, we've screwed some things up - both of us. But the kids haven't, they've been working hard, and we have some really promising, really good material. I honestly don't see any reason why we can't put on a perfectly nice play and really show what these kids can do. And what you can do, for that matter. Does this have something to do with Moriarty?" he asked suddenly.

"Who's Moriarty?" Molly whispered.

Both Sherlock and John ignored her.

"It does, doesn't it?" John pushed. "You're afraid this won't be as good as whatever he's putting on, so you're quitting now before it comes to the test."

"This has nothing to do with Moriarty!" Sherlock spat. "I am perfectly capable of 'screwing things up', as you so eloquently put it, without any help from him. Or anyone, for that matter."

"Sherlock! Sherlock!" John's shouts followed Sherlock as he stormed away toward the street.

Sherlock cursed to himself when he realised he was doing exactly what Moriarty had accused him of the day before. He was running away - quite literally - from … from what? This wasn't like the Royal College. There, he'd failed the exams and Mycroft had forced him into rehab. There had been no question of him returning. But he hadn't set out to fail there... had he?

An argument could be made, he supposed, that the running away began when he pushed the first needle full of seven-percent solution into his veins (carefully titrated to give him more control over the effects). Maybe he had been under a great deal of pressure to succeed, living as he had in the shadow of Mycroft the Magnificent. Maybe he had been afraid he wouldn't live up to his family's expectations - although to be perfectly honest, maybe they had only been his own expectations. He'd known he would never be a world-class violinst; Moriarty's taunt about Perlman was an astute dig. And so what would the point have been of completing the course of study? Viewed in that way, it could be that he'd set himself up to fail spectacularly. At least in that, he'd made sure of being the best.

What about now? What was he running away from? It wasn't the play; that was laughable. It would have no effect on his or anyone else's life if the play went on. Anyway, it looked like John and Molly would make sure it proceeded even if he wasn't involved. He didn't think John was right about it being all about competing with Moriarty, either. Even if he walked away from any further involvement in the play right now, his name was already attached to it. He'd be the target of I-told-you-sos when the reviews came out, no matter what, a fact that he was already resigned to.

As he walked, the muscle activity facilitated the dissipation of his anger. When he became aware of where he was, he slotted into a route he'd taken many times with Gladstone. The predictable order of lamp posts, rubbish bins, and newsstands helped him impose order on his own thoughts. And when he did, he was startled to recognise that he was repeating the same pattern of behaviour over and over.

He stopped in the middle of the pavement, momentarily stunned at the simplicity of the solution. It was so obvious now: the back and forth, the approaches and retreats. The closer they came to each other, the more Sherlock felt for John, the further their connection deepened - the more abrupt and vehement his withdrawals became.

He was doing the emotional equivalent of injecting poison into their relationship with his behaviour. He had already decided he was going to fail at being a friend - or anything else - to John. That was also why he was holding back from acting on his - and John's - physical impulses and inclinations. He was trying to protect himself from the inevitable loss. A self-fulfilling prophecy. Obvious.

His phone buzzed.

Text from John Watson

sorry about moriarty didnt mean it

Relief flooded through Sherlock's body. Not at the content of the text - that was irrelevant - but at the fact that John wasn't giving up on him yet. He took a deep breath and started typing in his response. He was going to have to start acting as if he wanted this to work.

Forgotten. I'll bring a camera tomorrow. -SH

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen - The Mayor's Reception

The next morning, Sherlock put on the dark green shirt and took extra care shaving. He packed the video camera he'd bought for a time-lapse study of the spread of damp. And when he stopped at Speedy's for his morning coffee, he bought an extra cup - black, no sugar. An educated guess, but he'd be sure to get it right next time. He'd left fifteen minutes earlier than usual so that he could catch John before he made himself any of the instant stuff at the school.

Sherlock only had to wait a minute or two before John arrived in the teachers' lounge. Sherlock smiled from where he was sitting and held up the cardboard cup.

"Still hot, if you'd like."

"This is a surprise," John said as he settled back against the table beside Sherlock. He took the cup and pulled up the plastic lid, sniffed and took a tentative sip, then nodded appreciatively. "Thanks, but to what do I owe this?"

Sherlock was prepared for the question. "Purely humanitarian motives," he assured him. "Instant coffee is a crime against humanity."

John chuckled, and there were those crinkles around his eyes. Sherlock had been wrong. He definitely could not go twenty-four hours without seeing those again. "Beats what they used to pass off as coffee in the army," John said. He took another sip of the drink Sherlock had brought him. "This is nice too, though. Is it all right if I just..." He gestured at the counter where the tea and coffee things were kept.

Sherlock shrugged his indifference, but observed keenly how John added a portion of creamer from the supply of little plastic pots. Noted. He wasn't fooled by the casual manner in which John referred to his army experience. It was a huge sign of trust for him to mention it at all.

Behind him, Molly Hooper came in. She dumped her things on the couch by the wall before going over to make herself a cup of tea next to John.

"Hi, John; Sherlock," she added over her shoulder. (Brief glance at Sherlock, warm smile for John, but hands loosely in the pockets of her baggy skirt - not tempted to touch him - and dried toothpaste drip on the bottom of her blouse: didn't double-check her appearance in the mirror before leaving the house.)

John came back and took up his position again - this time closer to Sherlock, leaving room for Molly to join their little group. "Sherlock brought a camera to record the kids this morning," he told her. "When do you think you can spare half an hour?"

Sherlock tuned out of the discussion of schedules, mostly because it was dull but also because John had just done something rather surprising: he'd trusted completely that Sherlock would do what he said he would. Most people would have asked first whether he had the camera, both implying that his memory was faulty (this wouldn't even have been an insult: most people's were) and recalling Sherlock's outburst from the day before, when he'd said that filming the children would be a waste of time. But John had taken Sherlock at his word. Sherlock had said he'd bring a camera, and John had displayed complete and utter confidence in the truth of that fact. It was a small thing, nothing to get sentimental about, yet Sherlock found himself doing just that.

Sitting there watching John - relaxed and purposeful, the skin around his eyes betraying his still restless nights, clasping his firm, capable hand around the cup of coffee Sherlock had brought him, smiling briefly at Sherlock in reaction to something Molly said (he smiled back, not even knowing why) - Sherlock felt a brief, profound peace. It didn't last longer than a few seconds before Sally Donovan came in, speaking in that strident manner Sherlock found so grating, but it was long enough for Sherlock to capture a snapshot of the moment and entrust it to his most secure vault. It wasn't a memory for framing and putting on display; it was one to be tucked carefully between the leaves of an old-fashioned album with an embossed leather cover, and taken out only in quiet moments when he could immerse himself in the emotions it elicited - even if he wasn't sure yet what they were.

%%%%%%

John had arranged for Molly to meet them in the assembly hall while her class took a spelling test (she'd asked Mrs Hudson to cover for her). Sherlock showed Molly how to work the camera, and John played the keyboard while Sherlock conducted. John said they had to do Joseph and Mary's song, as it was the one with the greatest emotional impact. It was also the one that would come over best without dancing or props. Just the words and the music. They had all the boys sing Joseph's part, and all the girls sing Mary's. They still hadn't decided which children would play the parts. They'd already cast the best boy singers as the wise men and Gabriel, and John was clearly pained at having to disappoint the vast majority of the children by choosing only two. If it came down to it, they could simply draw straws; all the children knew the song by heart after those bloody auditions.

And, Sherlock had to admit, they were doing a passable job with it now. At least they all knew the words, and the tune was generally recognisable, even though he could hear one or two voices wandering off on their own at times. No, definitely not in Blackwood's league. But they didn't have to be. Sherlock was seized by a sudden proprietary pride toward these children. They were trying, all of them doing their best, because they wanted to please ... well, John, mostly, but also him.

Sherlock had always thought the standards he aimed for were high, certainly, but not unattainable. Now he thought back to what he'd said about there not being anything worth filming, about the children being useless, and he realised that he'd never actually expected any of these children to reach the measure he'd set. Not for the play, not for their schoolwork, not for their social interactions, not for anything. Self-fulfilling prophecy. He'd judged them by the same standards he held himself to, and found them similarly lacking. If not even he could succeed in his own eyes, how could they?

"...And yet there's something behind those eyes,
A fire that flickers but never lies …"

Sherlock glanced over at John. He was mouthing along the words to help the children. Sherlock wondered what John saw in his eyes. Did he see the truth, Sherlock's doubts and fears, and his curiosity about something he'd never had before? Maybe the words meant that John knew there was something good and worthwhile underneath the lies that Sherlock told - and lived. Or maybe it was just a silly song about two people who had never really existed. Characters and figments.

"Could I love him?
Could she love me ?
We can't rush into what is meant to be..."

John's focus was on the children, but it didn't appear that he was actively avoiding looking at Sherlock anymore. Maybe he'd successfully compartmentalised the thoughts and feelings that had caused him to write those words in the first place.

Sherlock didn't believe in 'meant to be', not in the sense of fate, anyway. He did believe in the immutability of physical laws. Some things were unavoidable. To every action there was an equal and opposite reaction. Atoms decayed. People died. And you could in fact rush just about anything, in Sherlock's experience. Catalysts facilitated reactions. Money talked.

Sherlock didn't like the suggestion that there was anything inevitable about a relationship developing between him and John. That felt too much like being told what to do. He could walk away from it at any time; so could John. So many things could go wrong, and there was only one way for things to go right. The odds were against them. Yet there was something that felt naggingly right about the formulation 'meant to be': it did seem like there was a pull between them, something that was holding the connection between them together, if only by a thread.

Sherlock had surely committed enough sins so far that any normal person would have bid him good riddance weeks ago. And John, in his own way, was equally closed and by any standard measure a less than appealing prospect; he'd said it himself - unemployed and unemployable, emotionally unstable, physically damaged. Seen from that angle, maybe they were both just that desperate. But Sherlock couldn't bring himself to see John like that. No, there was more to it. It wasn't just his opinion. John was true, John was loyal, John was generous, John was funny and insightful. And there was something that lit up between them, something that Sherlock now recognised was quite possibly the most important and best thing he'd ever been part of.

As if he could sense what Sherlock was thinking, John turned his head just enough that their eyes met.

"One look and we're forever.
One look and it's like we've always known..."

A delicious, shivery prickle bloomed out from Sherlock's abdomen. His mouth went dry and it felt like his heart was in his throat. He realised that he had always known. Since that morning when he'd walked into the classroom and, within the space of a few minutes, experienced surprise, curiosity, and not a small amount of discomfort, Sherlock had known that allowing John Watson into his life would lead him to places he'd never been before, and had no desire to be. Because he hadn't known what was there. His first instinct had been one of self-protection: drive the intruder away. But for some reason, he hadn't followed through. He'd let John stay. A desire for data had been the initial factor, certainly: data about John, about what lay hidden behind those gently creased eyes and the transient limp. He had barely begun to scratch the surface there, and every day - every hour, it seemed - found him ensnared more inextricably.

But... forever? Forever was a concept Sherlock had no use for. An abstraction that was only meaningful to theologians, theoretical physicists, and romantics. None of whom Sherlock felt any particular affinity to. If there was one thing Sherlock had experience in, it was the ephemeral nature of mankind. Nothing lasted forever. It was foolish to imagine it would.

The music had ended. Sherlock had lost track, his arms still held aloft and tracking the beat automatically. No one noticed. John was praising the children; Molly was fiddling with the camera. Sherlock stepped back and drifted toward the door.

It was just a stupid song. Irrelevant. Immaterial.

%%%%%

Sherlock stood at the foot of the steps leading up to the Lord Mayor's mansion, watching the evening traffic crawl past in the street in front of him. It was dark already, although it was only just after six. The streets were festooned with Christmas lights in unnatural green and red tones. Shoppers in puffy coats mixed with office workers across the street, pushing their way through to their buses. Every once in a while a black cab or private car would stop at the kerb and disgorge individuals or small groups of people in evening wear, who then flowed past him up the stairs.

Sherlock tugged at the sleeves of his suit jacket under his coat. This was such a bad idea. Not meeting John. That was fine. More than fine, really. It was the entire farce with the play. They should have put a stop to it long ago. But John had such faith in it; in them. Sherlock, on the other hand, couldn't possibly see it ending any way other than in a gigantic fireball. Hopefully not literally. Although he shouldn't be surprised. Still, he was going along with it, and he would continue to until either John put a stop to it or disaster struck.

A figure wearing an olive, fur-trimmed parka was approaching along the pavement. Sherlock recognised him by the barely noticeable tenderness in his gait, slightly exaggerated by what must be new shoes. Sherlock's stomach fluttered as the broad face came into focus. John was smiling, having spotted him too.

"Haven't been waiting long, I hope," John said once he was in speaking distance. His hair was slicked down and combed back. Sherlock thought he looked very, very good.

"Not a problem," Sherlock assured him as he tried not to stare too hard. "Shall we?" He led the way up the stairs and into the coat room. John's presence at his back weighed heavier than Pandora's box.

"It's hired, all right," John told Sherlock as he handed over his parka to the attendant, revealing his black suit and tie. His tone of voice dared Sherlock to make fun.

The thought hadn't even crossed Sherlock's mind, though, because John in that suit was making his blood run hotter and his brain run slower. The ensemble made his body look tight and compact while emphasising the strength in his shoulders and chest. Sherlock was already trying to come up with scenarios for getting the jacket off so he could have a look at John's arse: a spill, a tear, someone being chilly, John needing to perform CPR - how could he induce a heart attack in someone with the tools currently at his disposal?

Sherlock became aware he was staring, and John was starting to show signs of uncertainty. Sherlock looked away and down. "Not the shoes, though," he noted. He could see now that they were John's army dress shoes; not new, but so rarely worn they were still stiff and unfamiliar to his feet.

"Yeah, just about the only useful bit I got out of the service." John looked around at the crowd (locating exits, mapping routes of egress) while Sherlock turned in his own coat. John's hands were clenched in his trouser pockets (increased stress level).

When he pivoted back to Sherlock, his eyes reflected his appreciation of Sherlock's attire, although the lines of his face didn't relax completely. "Wow."

Sherlock's fingers drifted self-consciously to the middle button of his suit jacket. He wasn't used to genuine compliments. "Thank you," he said stiffly. "You-" He gestured vaguely at John. "They did a decent job."

"They'd better have, price I paid," John muttered dryly, and Sherlock was once again acutely grateful to John for having the knack of steering away from emotionally uncomfortable areas.

As they moved toward the reception area, Sherlock let John walk in front; he hoped having a friend rather than a roomful of strangers at his back would ease his discomfort. There was a bottleneck at the double doors leading into the main hall. As the crowd became thicker, Sherlock kept a space open behind John, and touched him lightly on the back to let him know he was there. John looked back over his shoulder, thinking Sherlock wanted his attention, but Sherlock just smiled reassuringly and nodded that he should press on.

Once inside, the throng dispersed, most heading first toward the long table where white-jacketed servers were setting out rows of champagne flutes. John touched Sherlock on the elbow. "I'll just get us one?" he suggested.

Sherlock nodded. Maybe if he could get John to raise his arms up high enough, he considered as he watched the other man walk away, his jacket would -

"Sebastian Moran," a voice announced beside him. Sherlock turned toward it. A man with a buzz cut and piercing, pale eyes was holding out his hand (smoker, heavy drinker but not an alcoholic, has a child but doesn't live with the mother).

Sherlock took it. "Hello." Pointless to give his name; the man knew who he was.

"Daily Telegraph." Moran squeezed his hand more firmly than could be considered socially acceptable before dropping it.

"I know who you are."

Moran acknowledged that with a thin smile. He looked out at the crowd and put his hands in his pockets. His lips twitched. (At least half an hour since his last cigarette.) "Excited?"

Sherlock was tiring of him already. "About?"

Moran shook his head and looked at the ground. Apparently the feeling was mutual. "Whitehall?" he said, as if it were obvious, which it was.

"Oh, that," Sherlock said. "Not really, no." That was, at least, the honest-to-God truth.

"Mycroft Holmes. Not a coincidence, is it?"

Really, the man was more tedious than a month of staff meetings. Although he did sound as if he were bored by his own questions, Sherlock had to give him that.

"You're going to have to do better than that," Sherlock said.

"Strictly off the record."

"There's no such thing."

That got another twitch of the lips in acknowledgment. "I've been asking around. No one at the studio seems to know anything. Any idea why that might be?"

Sherlock knew he shouldn't, but the words were out before he could rein them in: "Piss off."

Moran laughed outright. "Jim said you were boring, but I'm beginning to think he just wanted to keep you to himself."

"Hello, who's this then?" John asked with deceptive mildness. Sherlock hadn't even noticed him coming back with the drinks. He accepted one of the glasses and took a big sip.

"Sebastian Moran, Daily Telegraph," Moran said, reaching across Sherlock to shake John's hand.

"Moriarty's muscle," Sherlock remarked almost before he'd finished swallowing.

"I do all right, thanks," Moran said easily. "And you are?"

"John Watson."

"Dr Watson's assisting with the play," Sherlock volunteered before the questions got too personal.

"So there is a play at least," Moran fished.

"Of course there's a play," John said. "This would all be a bit pointless if there weren't."

"There are those who say it doesn't make much difference, not with Holmes in charge."

"Sorry, but what exactly is that supposed to mean?" John asked in that calm, dangerous way that gave Sherlock a little shiver of joy.

"Ah, John," Sherlock interjected soberly, "I'm afraid you don't have the full story. You see, Mr Moran here wrote a nice little review of my first effort."

"And by 'nice', you mean..."

"I believe the headline was, 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph' and it went on from 'calamity' through 'abysmal' to 'appalling'."

"Oh come on, it was appalling," Moran said.

"Do you even hear yourself?" John asked incredulously, rounding on him. "This is a kids' Nativity pageant. All other issues aside, how do you imagine those kids felt when they saw something like that printed about them in a newspaper for all their mates to see?"

It was a novel angle, Sherlock had to admit, one he'd never even considered (which said rather a lot about his sympathies right there), but John was going to have to dig deeper to touch Moran.

Moran shrugged. "That's the risk they take, going to a school like Baker Street."

John's face took on such an interesting expression that Sherlock was soundly disappointed when an outburst of applause around them cut off what was sure to have been a superlative response. They all turned toward the front of the room, where the mayor was standing with a microphone in hand.

Once the noise had died down, he began: "Ladies and gentlemen, first of all, thank you for your attendance and your support. Before I go any further, I'd like to ask Mr Sherlock Holmes to come forward." He waved toward Sherlock, and the audience turned and craned their necks.

Moran grinned at him. "Looks like they're even providing the rope."

No, Sherlock was fairly certain he'd done that himself. He moved forward through the parting crowd, barely registering John following close behind him. When he got to the front, the mayor shook his hand (golfer, cigar aficionado, two cats, homophobe) and indicated that Sherlock should stand next to him. John took a position in the front row of spectators, his arms crossed over his chest.

"We're here tonight to publicly acknowledge and thank Mr Holmes and the Baker Street School for the incredible opportunity which they are affording our wonderful city." The mayor paused for the expected applause. "Now, in honour of this occasion and much against the council's wishes, the mayor's parlour has overruled the council, and would like to offer the cathedral ruins as a venue for your show."

Moran was right after all: there was the rope. There was more applause. Sherlock put a smile on and shook the mayor's hand. John was clapping as well, but there was an odd look mixed in with his obvious pleasure at the announcement. As if Sherlock weren't reacting as he should. Sherlock tried to appear more genuinely thrilled. John still didn't look entirely satisfied. No matter; as long as the mayor and everyone else were.

The mayor said a few more words about opportunities and civic pride, and then Sherlock was handed off to an aide, who guided him down into the waiting pit of business leaders, press representatives, and civic officials. Sherlock shook what hands he could and was probably ruder than necessary on his run through the gamut, but it wasn't as if it mattered. He was seriously considering the heart attack plan after all as a diversion to make his escape when John suddenly appeared beside him.

"It's nearly seven, Sherlock, we're going to have to get going if we want to make that-"

Sherlock could quite literally have kissed him right there. "Yes, right, that meeting about the-" Sherlock agreed briskly.

"-the plans," John supplied. "And this news about the new venue-"

"We'll have to re-think everything."

Their eyes met, and there was that connection again, that sense of having a common purpose, even if they weren't exactly on the same plane, because Sherlock was sure that John was just trying to help without quite understanding why. But that was all right, that was fine, that was more than anyone ever did. And it wasn't a case of John just being some kind of sycophant or assistant; it was the fact that they were better together, that they complemented each other in ways Sherlock had never considered before - and John probably wasn't even aware of.

Somehow they made it out without being waylaid. Sherlock saw Moran talking to the mayor, but there wasn't anything he could do about that now. In fact, it might work out to their benefit if Moran told him something that caused him to rescind his offer.

Outside, the streets were still busy. Sherlock's head was buzzing and he needed to get away from all the noise, aural and otherwise. He set off toward the nearby riverside park.

"You want to tell me what that was all about back there?" John asked, puffing a bit in the cold air as he tried to keep up.

"The cathedral ruins, John." Sherlock dodged a gaggle of sixth-form girls (going to the cinema, one meeting a boy her parents don't approve of, one with marijuana in her handbag and a crush on the one with the fringe). God! Sherlock squeezed his eyes shut in frustration and nearly stepped in front of a car.

"Jesus, Sherlock, slow down!" John jerked him back and held him in place by the arm. "What about the cathedral ruins?"

Sherlock pulled away and continued across the street. "Didn't you notice in there, all those people?" he tossed back through his teeth.

"What, you mean the ones I just blew off and lied to their faces? The ones who are bending over backwards to make this the best Nativity the city's ever seen? Those people?"

"Oh please, even you can't be that naïve. And by the way, 'the meeting about the plans'? Not really indictable."

"You looked like you could use some help," John said defensively, but Sherlock could hear the grin in his voice. "Next time let's agree on a signal. I could pull a fire alarm or something."

Sherlock laughed without humour and veered off the main road toward the river. "I actually did that once, in the middle of an end-of-term exam."

"You? Not that I'd put a prank like that past you, but you don't seem the type to need to go to such lengths. I'd have thought you could sit any exam with your eyes closed."

"I could. I was already finished and had turned in the paper but they wouldn't let me leave until the end of the time." Sherlock turned around to grin at John, who promptly cracked up.

"Your poor teachers. Turnabout's fair play now then, I guess. Although I don't think any of our kids could put anything past you."

Sherlock didn't fail to hear the plural possessive. Part of him wanted to correct it, since it was still his class, and whatever shortcomings the pupils had, he felt a certain proprietary possessiveness toward them. Yet there was something dangerously attractive about allowing John to share in that. His influence on the children was indisputable. He might not be teaching them about nouns and multiplication, but Sherlock wasn't unaware of the way they looked to him first now for justice in their playground disputes, for comfort over a paper cut, and for moral guidance on how much unruliness was allowable and even encouraged in their search for individuality. All areas in which Sherlock was on shaky ground himself. Just as with the music he'd written, it was harder than he wanted to admit to relinquish complete control, but he knew that it was the right thing to do, and that the final result would be better for it.

In the end, all he said was, "Not yet, although Alfie has a certain potential."

"He's a clever one," John agreed.

They had reached the river walk now. It was quieter here, with only the occasional pedestrian or couple passing by. Sherlock leaned against the railing to look down at the river, tamed here between the brick walls of a man-made canal. The water itself was black, barely visible, but it reflected and refracted the lamps in thousands of white spots that broke against each other and merged and broke apart again. John stood next to him, his elbows propped on top of the railing. The air wasn't quite cold enough to see their breath, but there was a nippiness that made Sherlock's ears and nose tingle.

"The cathedral ruins," John said finally, just as the silence had become comfortable. "Something about that's wrong for you."

Sherlock watched a light reflection bash itself repeatedly against the brick wall on the other side. "The whole thing's wrong, John. There is no movie."

"I don't think there needs to be anymore. This has enough momentum on its own."

Sherlock shook his head in frustration. "You don't seem to understand that the bigger this gets, the closer we get to actual fraud, if we haven't already gone over that line. Those people in there tonight, those are corporate sponsors who are giving money and services-" It wasn't that he particularly cared about defrauding anyone. It was the messiness of having to give explanations and quite possibly deal with legal repercussions he didn't want. And most of all John being involved in a mess, because that would obviously be the end of their pleasant association.

But John apparently didn't see it that way. "We need money!" he insisted. "We need lights, maybe a little smoke machine..."

"You should get out," Sherlock said flatly. "Walk away. You don't need to get dragged down with me."

"Jesus, how often do I have to tell you? I want to do this. Neither of us is going to get dragged down. And I can't just-" John modulated his voice, brought it down lower, as if he were telling Sherlock a confidence. "I mean, I have a lot invested in this. It means something. You know?" John nudged Sherlock with his elbow and left it there, just touching Sherlock's arm, a single point of contact.

Sherlock turned to look at him. He did. He knew what John was saying. It was the reason Sherlock didn't want to give it up either, why he couldn't tell Lestrade, why he didn't want Molly Hooper to help even though John was right: they needed her. And it was exactly the reason why he hated so much what the mayor had done. Because this would spell the end. It had to.

John had his head turned toward Sherlock too, and now his whole upper arm was pressed against Sherlock's - one of them must have leaned in, or maybe both of them had. John's nostrils were flaring (increased respiration). His eyes flicked down to Sherlock's mouth and back up again. Sherlock wanted to. He wanted to so badly he already knew what John would taste like, but there would be no going back. They could stay as they were now - Sherlock didn't think John would ever push for more, and it was good like this, better than Sherlock ever thought he could have or deserved - or they could push the plunger in, and it would be good, so good it might just ruin both of them. But maybe it didn't matter anymore. Not if they were one corporate sponsor's phone call away from being shut down.

"You can count on me," John said, low but firm. "You know that, right? Not just for the play, but it doesn't have to be anything more complicated than that."

Except that was wrong, because surely even John could see how complicated it was already. How the strands of their actions and motivations, their desires and fears, were already nearly hopelessly entangled. Looked at that way, it almost did seem inevitable. Meant to be. Sherlock tilted his head just a few millimetres more, finding his brain orchestrating illogical responses in his amygdala to the bags under John's eyes and the greying hair at his temples: tenderness, affection, base possessiveness.

"John..." Sherlock said, his voice reduced to barely a whisper. The anticipation was similar to the second time he'd injected a syringe full of cocaine solution into his arm. The first time he'd merely been curious; the second time he'd known what it would do.

"Yeah," John said quietly, with assurance.

"Is it all right..." he asked, solely to convince himself that he was committing to the action and not out of any sense that permission might be a good thing to gain.

"Yeah. Yeah, it's perfect."

John looked so calm; Sherlock wished he were that calm, but he was a wreck. This was ridiculous, just a kiss, billions of idiots did this every day with scarcely a thought. Once and it would be over. Once was all he was going to get anyway, before he did something stupid and ruined everything, as he surely would. He leaned down and brushed his lips over John's. The flood of endorphins was nearly overwhelming - due more, however, to the relief at finally giving vent to all the emotional and physical turmoil he'd put himself through over the past few weeks than to the fleeting stimulation of his nerve endings.

He kissed John again, more firmly, finding his footing so to speak - it had been years since he'd done this, after all - and he discovered he'd been wrong: he hadn't known John would taste like this, like the champagne from the reception over traces of toothpaste - must have brushed his teeth just before leaving his flat: had he anticipated (hoped for) this? - but most of all like laughter and secrets and promises made in the dark.

Somehow they had manoeuvred to face each other now, Sherlock with his hands on John's shoulders and John with his anchoring Sherlock's hips. John was letting Sherlock lead, but he was by no means passive. He leaned into every touch on his body, chased every caress of his mouth, pulled Sherlock closer and let Sherlock know through every response and breath how much he was enjoying the attention, as well as how important it was to him that Sherlock felt treasured and desired.

Sherlock, for his part, was immersed in the sensations bombarding his body and his metaphorical heart. He'd known, logically, that John wanted this - he'd been the object of physical desire and lust before, and even given in to it when it suited his whims and purposes - but at some level he'd never truly believed that John didn't just want this from Sherlock, but for him. This wasn't about taking physical pleasure, it was about sharing something and demonstrating something, and, Sherlock realised with a heart-stopping jolt, it was about communicating something. No words were spoken, no sounds at all other than the soft whispers of breath against each other's skin and into each other's mouths, the moist-slick pops of their lips and tongues meeting and parting, and the heavy rustle of their clothing. Yet Sherlock understood, he perceived every syllable of what John was telling him: You are important; I am privileged to have you in my life; you make me happy and I want to make you happy.

Sherlock's awareness of their surroundings had receded so completely that he startled when a voice called out, "Get a room!" followed by hoots and snickers. He lifted his head, half in a daze, and saw a group of four teenagers in jeans and hoodies - at least one of them certainly gay himself - jostling each other and pointing and laughing as they walked away down the path. Well, he'd certainly had worse directed at him. And, to be honest, they were lucky it wasn't a different type of group that happened to pass by.

Sherlock looked back down at John, but he was on the verge of laughter himself. John took a step back and put his hands in the pockets of his parka.

"Feel like I'm nineteen again," John said wryly. Sherlock didn't. Nineteen had been rather bad. "Maybe we should get going," John suggested, nodding back toward the main road. The risk of drawing unpleasant attention was unspoken but understood by both. Another very real complication which Sherlock had never cared much about in his younger, more reckless years. And which he preferred not to think about now. Sherlock put his hands in his pockets, too, and together they walked quietly out of the park, maintaining a small gap between them.

When they reached the street with the lights and heavier traffic, they stopped.

"My bus stop's-" John jerked his head back up the road.

"You could come back with me," Sherlock blurted out before John could say anything else. He didn't want the evening to end yet. He quite wanted to kiss John some more. A lot more.

John smiled, but there was a wince at the end. "There is literally nothing in the world I want to do more than that, but I think we should take it slow. It's been - I mean, Christ, you have no idea how long I wanted to do that-" John nudged his chin toward the park.

"Actually, I-"

"Okay, never mind, I'm sure you do." John pursed his lips, both amused and embarrassed. "I just think slow's been good so far. It's- We both have a lot to think about, yeah?" Sherlock's face must have betrayed something, because John rushed to assure him, "Not that I've changed my mind. I mean, that was- I'm going to be kicking myself when I get home for not going with you, but I don't want to mess this up. We should do this right. There are things we should probably talk about. Definitely. Talk about. And things we might need, and-" John looked away and shrugged his shoulders up to his ears and laughed at himself. "Fuck, I'm turning into a cross between a blushing teen and the health and hygiene bloke in fourth year."

"I should hope not," Sherlock said with something bordering on genuine horror. "Ours weighed about twenty stone and had the most appalling Brummie accent you'd ever care to hear."

John chuckled. "Something to aim for, then." His eyes twinkled playfully before taking on a more serious cast. "Really though, you understand. I want us both to be sure, and not to rush into things in the heat of the moment and regret it later."

Which meant Sherlock, because John's certainty regarding his intentions had been obvious for quite a while now. In a way, Sherlock resented that John didn't trust that he was an adult who knew his own mind, but at the same time he had to admit the knot in his stomach had loosened just a bit at John's temporary rejection. He hadn't really been planning to kiss John tonight (although he'd thought about it quite a bit at odd moments over the past few days), and he certainly hadn't been planning to invite him back to his house to have sex. It wasn't that he was apprehensive about any of the potential physical acts (within reason, and John hadn't given any indication that he habitually engaged in anything outside the mainstream); but it would perhaps be polite to at least provide clean sheets and get rid of the river mud experiment, which wasn't as interesting as he'd hoped and smelled admittedly rather foul.

"Yes, fine, I understand," Sherlock said grudgingly. "Although I'm also not going to change my mind," he had to add with a bit of a glare.

John grinned. "That's... yeah, good. I'll see you tomorrow then?"

"Unless one of us dies horribly under the wheels of a bus."

John huffed out a small laugh, but there was something strained in the way he said, "God, don't even joke about something like that."

Sherlock nodded, feeling wrong-footed (likely lost someone in a vehicular incident, why hadn't he figured that out earlier?). "Right, well. Good night, then." He wasn't sure what the protocol was at this point. Did one still shake hands with one's potential almost-lover? He took his hand out of his coat pocket to offer it anyway, but John bypassed it and put his hand on Sherlock's shoulder, leaned up and kissed him briefly on the mouth before echoing, "Good night, Sherlock."

Ah. The goodnight kiss then. Sherlock hoped John didn't expect to greet each other similarly in school the next morning. It wasn't that he was a prude, and he certainly didn't care about offending the sensibilities of any staff members, parents, or children who might see them, but he was not going to open himself up to the endless, smug remarks such a display was certain to engender from Lestrade, Stamford, and the like. Still, they weren't at the school now, and although he was aware of the potential for drawing unwanted attention, somehow the busy street seemed more anonymous and forgiving a venue than the semi-private park, so he followed John's lips to return the gesture, lingering just a moment longer for emphasis.

"Good night, John," Sherlock said again before stepping back demonstratively and raising an eyebrow. "You could still change your mind?"

John shook his head, grinning and pointing at him. "You bastard." He took a step away as well, toward the bus stop. "And we still have to discuss how we're going to stage the play in the ruins. Don't think you've distracted me that thoroughly."

"Damn," Sherlock said in mock chagrin.

John raised a hand as he started to walk away. "Good night. Give Gladstone a scratch from me."

"Oh, so you'll scratch my dog's itch but not mine," Sherlock called after him.

John rolled his eyes, turned, and disappeared amongst the other pedestrians.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15: The Parents' Meeting


John didn't try to kiss Sherlock at school next morning, but Sherlock still felt like he had a sign over his head that read 'I snogged John Watson last night, and I liked it'. He was probably unnecessarily stern and short in an attempt to compensate. Not that anyone noticed a difference.

John's behaviour wasn't measurably different, either, although the warmth in his smile and the frequency with which he licked his lips - Sherlock was honestly a bit startled to realise now how early in their acquaintance John must have had salacious thoughts about him - told Sherlock that John's memory and assessment of the previous night's activities were fully aligned with his own.

They had lunch in, holing up in 221A with Molly, tea and sandwiches to sketch out a rough staging in the larger area they would now have at their disposal. Sherlock was still working on the assumption that at some point, this entire thing was going to implode in a spectacular manner, but in the meantime there wasn't much to do but carry on as if it weren't. Molly had also uploaded the short video they'd recorded the day before, and they all watched it on her laptop. Both John and Molly pronounced it sweet, and Sherlock had to admit there was a certain kitten-in-rain-boots quality to it, which was to say it was pointless, awkward and unnatural but an inexplicably large percentage of the general population would find it endearing.

The question remained, of course, what they were going to do with the video now. Molly and John were emphatic about sending it to Mycroft at Whitehall, and although Sherlock assured them once again of the futility of the effort, he really couldn't stop them from popping the DVD into a bubble-cushioned cardboard sleeve and writing the studio address on it.

Sherlock and John agreed to meet after school to work on the choreography in the assembly hall, while Molly said she needed to make a tour of the second-hand shops for things they could use as costumes. The less original sewing the parents needed to do, the better.

%%%%%%

"Right so, Star of Bethlehem, staircase to the stars, they're all sitting so we'll just have them wave their hands about a bit." John showed Sherlock the notation he'd made on his copy of the script.

"Wave their hands? The stars have hands?"

"Yeah." John laid the script down on the edge of the stage. "Oo-ooh, oo-ooh, sparkle and shine," he sang while making flashing gestures and wiggling his fingers. "Planets gather round. Etcetera."

Sherlock found it rather inconvenient that the sight made him want to smile and kiss John, rather than make fun of him. He scowled instead. "Why are we starting with that one?" He picked up the dog-eared sheaf of papers and flipped through it. "There are two other songs first."

"Just getting the easy ones out of the way. So there's that one, and then for Mary and Joseph's song I think we should keep it simple as well."

"You're going to have to bite the bullet and choose someone for those parts, you know."

John gave him a half amused, half accusing look. "That's right, make me the baddie."

"Oh for God's sake, they can't all be Mary and Joseph. Just take Jade and Shareef," Sherlock snapped. "Tell them it was my decision."

John stared at Sherlock, momentarily taken aback. "That's it."

Sherlock was surprised that John had agreed so readily, but he wasn't about to argue the point. "Good. And what should they do during the song, then? Wiggle their toes?"

John frowned. "What? No- No, I didn't mean Jade and Shareef, I meant they can all be Mary and Joseph."

"You want all the children to play Mary and Joseph?" It wasn't that Sherlock hadn't heard him perfectly well; he just wanted to point out the impossibility of what John seemed to be saying.

John, on the other hand, didn't find it problematic at all. "Yes!" he said enthusiastically. "All the girls will be Mary and all the boys will be Joseph. No, no, it'll be perfect," John said in response to Sherlock's ever more sceptical expression. "See, we'll pair them all up, all round the stage-" He gestured vaguely around.

"That's pointless; most of them won't even be visible behind the others."

"Then we'll set them up on boxes or platforms. We can use the same ones later to build the staircase for the stars. Yes!" John's face lit up. "Look, like this. Come here." John got up onto the stage and held his hand down to Sherlock.

It was easier to get up without John's help, so he did, but once beside him, John grabbed him by both hands and positioned them so they were facing each other with their profiles visible to what would be the audience.

"They'll all stand like this, staggered, in pairs," John explained. "We can start with everything dark and the spotlight on one pair while they sing one line, then switch to another pair for the next line, and so on, until the first chorus when the lights go up and everyone's singing."

"All right, yes, I can see it," Sherlock agreed. It certainly solved the quandary of favouritism that seemed to occupy John, and like the four wise men it was unorthodox enough to satisfy Sherlock's need to rattle at cages. Maybe Moran would even use the word 'blasphemous' in his review this time.

"And at the end, they all kiss." John grinned, pleased with himself.

"You want to have year threes kiss," Sherlock stated. Again, it wasn't a matter of understanding the principle, but of hoping John would grasp the absurdity of the proposal when he heard it put to him in neutral terms.

"It'll be cute. Secretly they want to," John assured him. Sherlock might have argued the point, but admittedly he had never been very good at judging emotional motivation in others. He had a hard enough time of it with his own.

However, the irony of John using the two of them to stand in now for the couple being portrayed in the play wasn't lost on Sherlock. He hardly thought they would be able to get away with giving Jesus same-sex parents. "How heteronormative of you," he mocked.

"All right, maybe some of them don't want to," John acceded. "Anyone who really feels uncomfortable doesn't have to."

With the talk of kissing, Sherlock was suddenly struck by the fact that he and John were standing in a very similar position to how they'd been the previous night. And the risk that a group of hooligans would happen to pass through the assembly hall of the Baker Street School in the next few minutes was vanishingly small.

"And how, exactly, would such a kiss play out?" Sherlock asked, not even trying to sound casual.

John didn't catch on at first, answering, "Just a peck on the cheek of course, you don't imagine I'd-" He broke off as Sherlock tugged him in closer by their joined hands. The intent dawned. "Sherlock..." he said warningly, but his mouth quirked up and he adjusted his hands to thread their fingers together.

"Like this?" Sherlock settled his body against John's and nuzzled against his cheek.

"Maybe not quite this intimate," John said, barely touching his lips to Sherlock's jaw. Sherlock was taken off guard at how immediate the response of his limbic system was. He could practically feel his pituitary gland firing up.

"Maybe like this, then." Sherlock found John's lips and kissed him lightly but with clear purpose.

"That might generate some sternly worded letters from parents," John said before returning the sentiment in kind.

"And this?" Sherlock found John's lips already parted when he descended on them again. It was almost frightening how easy it was. As if he'd always done this. John was pushing him a little now, testing whether he could change the pace. Sherlock let him, curious himself to see what it felt like to cede control, and in doing so he realised that he trusted John. He trusted him not to take more than Sherlock was able to give, and he trusted that whatever John asked of him, at least in this, it would feel good. Not just physically, but it made him feel good to be pleasing John. It was-

"Fuck's sake, looks like it was Adam and Steve after all."

Sherlock jumped back at the sound of Lestrade's voice, releasing John's hands. John swore under his breath and wiped his mouth.

"Wrong story," Sherlock bit out to vent his frustration.

"Sorry, Greg. That was inappropriate," John mumbled.

Lestrade walked across to the stage, letting the door fall shut behind him. "I'm actually pretty chuffed to see the two of you getting on so well and I take full credit for setting you in each other's paths, but-"

"Yes, we know, can't be corrupting the children," Sherlock said bitterly. He jumped down from the stage to stand level with Lestrade.

"That's not fair," Lestrade replied evenly. "It'd be the same with anyone else. Keep it professional."

Sherlock made a face. "We won't mention what Anderson and Donovan have been getting up to in her classroom then."

"What, really?" Lestrade looked both disgusted and curious.

John had come down from the stage as well and came to stand at Sherlock's side.

"Well, maybe not recently," Sherlock allowed. "Their faces told an interesting story when you had to have her desk replaced last month, though."

Lestrade's mouth hung loosely open. "Fuck me."

Sherlock smirked. "I'm not sure if they got quite that far before the leg gave way."

John snickered, only to splutter an insincere "Sorry, sorry," at Lestrade's dirty look.

"Was there a reason you came in here, other than to play morality police?" Sherlock asked.

"Yes!" Lestrade snapped back from wherever his mind had wandered. "Just wanted to remind you about the parents' meeting tonight."

"What parents' meeting?" Sherlock frowned.

Lestrade made that gormless open-mouthed face again. "The one where you talk to all the parents about the play and the filming and answer their questions," he said carefully.

"I never agreed to that!" Sherlock exclaimed.

"I sent you a text over a week ago! You never responded so I assumed it was all right."

Sherlock vaguely recalled deleting a text from Lestrade, but as usual hadn't really taken note of the content. Still: "It's not my fault you drew the wrong conclusion from negative evidence," Sherlock said.

"Well, it's too late now, it's all arranged. You have to tell the parents something," Lestrade insisted.

"There's nothing to tell-"

"What Sherlock means is," John jumped in with a warning look at Sherlock, "there's really nothing special they need to do. Just have the children there on time the night of the play."

"Yeah, all right," Lestrade said, somewhat mollified, "but still, they have questions. I'm sick of sounding like a broken record, telling them I don't know anything. It's your turn."

"I refuse-" Sherlock began, but John interrupted again.

"We'll be there," he said.

A bubble of rebellion swelled in Sherlock. No matter how their relationship might have changed, that didn't give John the right to speak for him. "You don't get to dictate how I spend my time."

"I'm not-" John glanced quickly at Lestrade and then back to Sherlock. "Look, can we-" He gave up and sighed. "Greg, could we have a minute?"

Lestrade held up his hands in surrender. "Take all the time you want. I just need at least one of you here at seven o'clock."

"I'll be here," John promised.

"Grand. I'll leave you to it then." Lestrade paused and pointed from John to Sherlock. "And not at all in the way that sounds."

John couldn't entirely fight off a smile. "We'll do our best."

"See that you do," Lestrade said as he walked away.

"Did you know about this?" Sherlock demanded as soon as the door swung shut behind the head teacher.

"Of course, Greg texted me the details same as he did you."

"And you didn't think it pertinent to perhaps mention it to me?"

"I assumed you were an adult capable of reading your own texts. Silly of me, I see now."

"No, what was 'silly' was agreeing to stand up in front of a room full of people and make up facts about an event which is never going to happen."

"I didn't think you'd be quite that noble about it. You certainly haven't had any trouble lying to me, your boss, the mayor, and anyone else who'd listen."

"I never lied to you." It was important that that be made clear.

John turned that thought over in his head for a few seconds. "Not about the play," he finally agreed.

"What exactly is that supposed to mean?"

John rubbed a hand over his face. "Nothing. Never mind. No, I suppose you've never outright lied to me, as far as I know."

"But you think I've misled you in some way? You think I'm hiding something from you?"

"I don't know. Yes. Probably. Look, I know I shouldn't be such a hypocrite, God knows there's plenty I haven't told you."

That got Sherlock's attention right away. "Such as?"

"You-" John smirked and wagged a finger. "Ah-ah, you're not getting it like that. You're going to have to earn it. And I suppose I am too." He closed his eyes briefly and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Fuck, look, forget about it. Doesn't matter. What I actually wanted to say was, when I said we'd be there tonight, I wasn't trying to arrange your schedule for you. I meant that I knew you'd be there because you want this to work out for these kids."

Sherlock pivoted and took several steps away, clenching and unclenching his hands. It was maddening how much John wanted to assign Sherlock motivations that he patently did not have. "I hate to disabuse you once again -" he began, but John cut across him.

"All right, fine," John said, speaking louder to drown out Sherlock's words. "Forget about the movie part of it for a minute. I agree, it's looking like that's not going to work out. That doesn't mean we should scrap the whole project. The kids have worked hard, you and I have both worked hard, Molly's working hard, the parents are working hard, and there's nothing that says it can't all come together and have something really good come out of it. I know-" John said, increasing his volume again when Sherlock whirled back around, about to protest that there were dozens of things that would prevent anything good coming of it. "You're thinking of the money coming in, and how things are getting so big, but honestly, those sponsors are getting plenty of free publicity already, with or without studio interest." John started enumerating his points on his fingers. "They'll sell their concessions and souvenirs to the parents and anyone else who wanders by. There wouldn't be any big product placement opportunities in the play itself, so they never would have made it onto the screen anyway. As long as the play goes on, I don't think anyone's going to do much complaining. No one was ever promised anything either; there's nothing in writing. They wouldn't have a legal leg to stand on."

Sherlock had to admit John might have some fair points. But he was speaking with too much authority. He couldn't possibly be certain- "You consulted a solicitor," Sherlock concluded.

John, incredibly, looked like he was going to deny it at first, but finally admitted, "Harry."

"Of course." That... actually made quite a bit of sense. The stamina and ambition necessary to train as an orthopaedic surgeon coupled with the strong sense of morality and wanting to help people were characteristics that could lead to a career in law as well.

"She specialises in copyright law, but she's pretty confident we're in the clear," John explained. Ah, she was in it for the money - a trait not shared by the siblings. There was always something.

"And yet you're still going to stand up there tonight and let them think plans are moving apace," Sherlock said, trying for a tone that expressed the mild irony of the situation.

John drew himself up the same way he had when he'd handed Donovan's arse to her on a platter and said, "I'm going to stand up there and tell those parents their kids are involved in something pretty damn special that they and the rest of the city are going to remember for the rest of their lives, and no matter what happens, I'm proud of them. And I'd be even prouder if you were up there with me, because this is ninety percent you, Sherlock. Those kids are sweating and crying and even bleeding because they want your approval. They want you to be proud of them."

While it was true that a couple of the children had taken away scrapes from the incident with the Blackwood students, the rest of John's statement filled Sherlock with an inexplicable, quiet fury. "Don't be maudlin, John," he said tightly. "You're the one they like, not me."

John's face did something complicated then. Sherlock would have liked to replay it, except he was more than a bit certain that pity had been involved. "Jesus, Sherlock. Did you ever-" John apparently thought better of whatever he was going to say, though, opting instead for, "It's not a popularity contest. I'm the two-weekends-a-month parent, the one who takes them to the zoo and buys them lollies and lets them stay up too late. You're the one they rely on, the steady presence, the one who takes them for their jabs and makes them eat their broccoli and gives them structure even when it's not comfortable or convenient for you, because you know it's best for them, and they see that even when they whinge about it. They know who's just dazzle and who's substance."

But that wasn't correct, wasn't even right, because John was both substance and dazzle, and Sherlock was nothing, maybe a piece of wood, a ruler, a stick. Was that really how John saw Sherlock? How John saw himself? Sherlock found himself in the sudden grip of a fierce need to make John understand how very good he was, in the rawest, most basic way; how necessary and right and Sunday dinner and Guy Fawkes Night all in one. On the other hand, John wouldn't want to be with Sherlock any more once he got his confidence back and realised that Sherlock didn't measure up to him at all. Maybe it was better to just keep quiet. Which only cemented Sherlock's point, because he'd rather have John with low self-esteem all for himself than help John feel good about himself as he deserved to.

He deflected the uncomfortable, dark weight in his heart with an attempt at humour. "Did you just make us gay divorced parents of twenty-eight year threes?" he asked with an artfully chosen look somewhere between coquetry and indignation.

John released his breath in a great snort, and Sherlock felt something simultaneously loosen and tighten in his gut.

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen - The Next Step

"Well, that went rather well," John said cheerfully, keeping pace with Sherlock and Gladstone as they walked past the houses decorated with bows and wreaths and twinkling lights. A lit-up plastic snowman stood gleeful guard in someone's garden. Sherlock would have liked nothing better than to throw it enthusiastically off a roof. "Better than expected, at any rate."

Sherlock gave him a sceptical look. "They were at each other's throats, John. We were lucky no blood was drawn."

"Yes, as I said," John agreed. He didn't say it with a straight face, though, and their shared giggles drew the attention of a woman passing by (early sixties but tells people she's fifteen years younger, thinks the laughter's at her expense, on her way to something artsy-cultural, divorced at least twice, trip to the States within the past month). Even once they were past her, John kept grinning, which made Sherlock want to kiss him right there in the middle of the street, but instead he pretended he needed to check something on his mobile so he could pass John Gladstone's lead. If his fingers happened to brush the back of John's hand, no one need be the wiser. It was a weak substitute, but it served.

The parents' questions had been surprisingly easy to handle, in the event. Things like how much money the children would be paid (none), whether they needed agents (no), when the movie would be released (depended on a lot of factors, John hedged), and when David Beckham was going to be on the set (never, good God, what kind of nonsense did people make up in those funny little brains?). No, the problems began with two parents complaining that their children's particular talents weren't being showcased enough, which quickly degenerated into a game of one-upmanship over whose child was better at singing, dancing, rapping, martial arts, playing a musical instrument, modelling, and just about every sport under the sun. The entire meeting deteriorated to the point that Lestrade ended up sending everyone home with the instruction to direct any further concerns to Sherlock's school e-mail address. Which was a fine solution, in Sherlock's opinion, considering he never looked at that account.

Sherlock and John had slipped away with the debate still raging at their backs. Sherlock retrieved Gladstone from the teachers' lounge (the meeting having only been a stop on their evening walk that he'd never intended staying long for) and the three of them rendezvoused in the car park. They didn't say anything about where they were going; it was enough just to be free of any responsibilities at the moment, walking together through the night-time streets in the crisp, damp air, companionable and nearly giddy over nothing at all.

They ended up in a hole-in-the-wall cafe, where John ordered a questionable biryani and Sherlock had a selection of sweetmeats. Afterwards, they walked down the mall, where the street performers were still plying their trade to the pub crowds, but Sherlock vetoed John's suggestion that they turn in for a pint. He'd never really warmed to the culture of ingesting alcohol in a group; the only use he'd ever had for a bar was as a convenient place to access drugs, or at least people who could provide them. And although he wanted to have John's company tonight, he didn't want it divided with the game running on the telly over the bar or the insipid women (and men) whose interest was likely to be aroused by two single men presumably on the prowl.

So they kept walking, on past the commercial district, talking about flesh-eating bacteria and bacha bazi, more or less letting Gladstone take the lead, until they somehow ended up standing in front of Sherlock's house. The friendly, casual mood dissolved, leaving something uncertain in its wake. Which was stupid, because John had been inside before and everything had been fine that time and there was no reason to think anything would be different now. But John put his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders up against the wind.

"Well, thanks for-" he started, obviously about to end the evening, which sent Sherlock into a mild panic.

"You could come in," he blurted out, only realising a split second after the words had fallen out of his mouth what that sounded like, which was terribly awkward as he hadn't been thinking of sex at all. In fact, the sheets were still unchanged and the jars of mud were still cluttering the kitchen counters. Although he had cleaned up the blood in the bathroom. "You know, we don't-" he started to explain, but that was even more awkward, so he went back to his first statement. "You could come in," he repeated, firmer this time. Without waiting for an answer, he turned and whisked the keys out of his pocket.

His heart was hammering as he unlocked the door, which was ridiculous and juvenile and completely unnecessary. If John wanted to leave, that was fine. He hadn't planned on bringing him here. It wouldn't change anything. The evening had been enjoyable and to have it end now wouldn't change that. Sherlock had talked himself so thoroughly into the inevitability of them saying good night that he was startled to find John coming in behind him. He stopped short, causing John to crowd up against him in order to get the door closed.

"Everything all right?" John asked, amusement playing around the corners of his eyes (warm, blue, deep). He was close enough to touch - it was really only the result of a conscious effort on both their parts that they weren't encroaching on each other's space.

Sherlock swallowed convulsively and gathered his wits from where they'd scattered somewhere low in his pelvis. "Yes, perfect, I'll just - Kitchen," he said and whirled away, dropping his coat somewhere along the way.

Once alone - except for Gladstone, who had followed and now stood looking up at him, hopeful for kibble - Sherlock pressed his hands against the counter and tried to think. John. Here. He was here because he wanted to be here, with Sherlock. He was, apparently, enjoying himself, and Sherlock found that he was, too, even though they hadn't been doing anything particularly interesting, just talking and walking and sitting and – Sherlock took a deep breath. And now John was here and all signs were pointing toward a sexual encounter occurring sometime in the next hour or so.

Not because of some stupid rule of thumb or because it was just what people did, and not because either of them was sexually frustrated - Sherlock had gone for years without an assignation, his naturally low libido meaning that he rarely suffered from an unscratched itch in that area, and John was the one who had advised going slowly; it might be harder for him to wait than it was for Sherlock, but he wasn't only here for sex. Certainly there were easier ways to get it than to put up with Sherlock for weeks on end.

Sherlock had started this whole thing with John because he'd wanted to prove something to himself, and he hadn't quite done that yet: John could still get fed up and walk out any time, or Sherlock might decide being close to another person - whether emotionally or physically - wasn't something he wanted after all (he couldn't quite bring himself to admit that question had already been answered unequivocally). And while he still felt the thrill of the challenge and the determination to show that he could do anything he set his mind to - even if it meant joining the ranks of the likes of Stamford, and Lestrade, and even Donovan and Anderson, with their small-minded quests for gratification in another human being - what he really wanted was to feel the way he had last night: valued, desired, admired. The way he had that afternoon: safe, in balance, cared for. The way he did whenever he was with John: accepted, liked, capable. He knew - he knew with one hundred percent certainty - that desire was the worst possible danger of all. It would ruin him if he gave into it. The problem was, he already had.

"Sherlock, are you sure everything's all right?"

Sherlock whipped around. John was standing next to the kitchen table with a look of mild concern. He'd taken off his coat but left on the brown corduroy jacket over his button-down.

"Yes, fine," Sherlock said, hastily sweeping the jars of mud aside. "Drink?"

John chuckled. "Not if that's what you're offering. God, what is it?" He reached over and picked up a jar up, sloshed the contents around, unscrewed the lid and took a whiff, then grimaced and held the jar at arm's length. "Please tell me this didn't at some point come out of Gladstone."

Now that might even be more interesting. Sherlock made a mental note. Out loud, he explained, "Riverbank mud."

John set the jar back down. "You wouldn't have any beer, would you?"

Another mental note. "Wine, whisky, and soju." Well, and the fermentation experiment under the sink, but that probably wasn't safe to consume.

"What's that last one?" John asked

"A distilled rice beverage." Sherlock reached up into a cupboard to take out a green bottle with Korean writing on the label. He handed it to John. His dry cleaner had given him several bottles after he'd been able to prove that the jade hairpin the man was accused of stealing out of an article of clothing had never left its owner's possession.

"All right, cheers." John peered at the bottle with interest, and Sherlock took out two glasses and followed him back into the living room with Gladstone clicking behind them.

They sat on the sofa, and Gladstone flumped onto the floor with a great sigh, resigned to remaining on the periphery for the time being. Sherlock told John about the dry cleaner while John poured out two measures and handed one to Sherlock, then settled back, his body half turned toward Sherlock, to listen.

"That's amazing," John said when Sherlock finished the story.

"Obvious," Sherlock scoffed, although he couldn't help being pleased at the acknowledgment.

John smiled. "What must it be like for you: to see all those connections that no one else can see."

"Anyone could see them, they just don't care to."

"Is that the difference between you and the rest of the world then? You care to see?"

Sherlock didn't care, actually. He didn't care about Mr Kwok's reputation, or Angelo's restaurant, or Yosef's legal troubles. Nor did he care about any of those people or what happened to them. He didn't even care about the favours and gifts he received in thanks (and it must be said that the observations he made got him in trouble more than they were appreciated). He simply couldn't not say anything when obvious facts stared him in the face and other people were too stupid to notice.

He held his hands up on either side of his head in a gesture of frustration. "It's all just there, I can't not see it," he tried to explain.

John eyed him keenly. "It's like that all the time, isn't it? Like a kind of sensory overload, and saying it out loud helps to get rid of it, like bailing water out of a boat."

Sherlock pulled a face. "Don't try to psychoanalyse me, John. And that was a terrible analogy."

John grinned and shook his head. "No, that's not- I'm just trying to understand. I... It's fascinating, from this end. But I have the feeling you're not always happy about it."

Sherlock shrugged. "Happiness doesn't come into it. Are you happy about being left-handed or the fact that your parents are from Scotland?"

"I've never even mentioned my parents, how did you-" John started with a curious look.

"Your accent, at times, on certain words. The fact that you refer to the school caretaker as the janitor."

John smiled and licked his lower lip. "Yeah, that's exactly what I'm talking about. I'd um..." He leaned forward to set his glass on the table. "I'd quite like to kiss you, if that's all right." He paused with his elbow resting on one knee, watching Sherlock hopefully.

Sherlock gulped down the rest of his drink. "Because I deduced that your parents are Scottish?"

"What proof is this stuff?" John asked nodding at the bottle.

"About the same as vermouth." He put his glass down next to John's.

"Then yeah, I reckon it's all you," John said, his voice tinged rough with desire.

And that was- It was such a trite line, but that didn't stop Sherlock from hearing the fondness and honesty behind it, nor did it stop him feeling like he was undergoing a phototropic phenomenon, with John as the source of light. John's breath in his mouth - sweet from the soju, warm from his lungs. John's stubble (last shave before school that morning: not expecting to end up here tonight either) grazing his chin and upper lip. John's tongue soft-firm-wet on his lip, sliding against his tongue. John's hand on his upper arm, solid and grounding.

As they kissed, Sherlock pressed closer and John pulled him in, until they were reclined against the angle of the sofa with Sherlock stretched awkwardly across him. Sherlock still had his suit jacket on, which annoyingly restricted his range of motion just when he had John spread out underneath him to sample at will. He left off from John's mouth for a moment to push himself up and struggle his way one-armed out of the jacket, John trying to help and then dislodging Sherlock even further so he could take off his own jacket.

When they finally flopped back down, they were both out of breath and red in the face and laughing a little, and the little hollow at the base of Sherlock's throat hurt with how perfect it was. He held himself there, hovering over John, torn between not wanting to upset the moment and wanting more, wanting everything.

"Hey, everything all right?" John asked quietly, rubbing Sherlock's arm, and Sherlock realised he didn't know how long he'd been staring.

"It's fine," Sherlock said, annoyed at himself.

"Take your time; we have all night," John said and shifted underneath him as if getting comfortable for the long haul. "Let me know if it's ever too much at once."

Sherlock wanted to be irritated at John's presumption that he thought he knew what was going on in Sherlock's head, but it happened he was right. Not that it was too much, exactly, but the fact was that Sherlock had stopped so that it wouldn't be. Then there was the fact that he'd said they had all night. John meant to stay. They'd barely started, and John was already saying he wasn't going to leave. Dizzy with the implication, Sherlock let his weight sink down and settle onto John. He knew he wasn't light by any means, despite his lean physique, but John didn't complain, just wrapped his arms around Sherlock's back and held him there.

In previous encounters with other people, Sherlock had felt like he was boarding a roller coaster, not able to do much more than get in and hang on and ride out the twists and turns and drops and rolls, taking the exhilarating with the stomach-dropping and dealing with the metaphoric (and sometimes quite literal) nausea on his own afterwards. But now, John was there with him, giving him a safety net, waiting for him, asking him to choose the track together.

Sherlock pressed gentle, slow kisses to John's mouth, his cheeks, his neck, while John kept a firm grip on his back, not rubbing or teasing which would have been distracting, but keeping him aware of where he was so he didn't float away into the spinning sensations and their emotional counterparts. When he'd thoroughly explored the skin above John's collar, he unbuttoned John's shirt and nudged it aside to discover the patch of hair visible in the V of his vest - more than Sherlock had, actually, but as it was fairer it looked like less. He kissed his way down John's pectoral, but ran into the edge of his vest far too soon. He made a noise of displeasure and yanked the undershirt up.

John hissed in a sudden breath, and Sherlock looked up quickly, prepared to see annoyance, but instead was met with the sight of John's head thrown back, eyes shut, and his lower lip between his teeth; it might have been pain, but in the next second John tilted his head back down and opened his eyes, and the raw wonder there gave Sherlock all the confidence he needed to smirk and duck his head back down to drop open-mouthed kisses over John's stomach, which fluttered and shivered under his lips, up to the harder ridge of his ribcage and the gallop of that life-giving muscle beneath it.

In a line bisecting his own abdomen, he could feel the hard column of John's arousal. He had honestly not given a thought to his own cock until that moment, but now it responded to the probing of his mind with a pull of pleasure low in his groin, a weight and fullness he'd never cared enough about to purposely seek out as an end in itself. Now, though, it was something that connected him to John, a silent message that said more than he could put into words. He shifted just a bit so he could rub himself along John's thigh, and nudged John's vest up to expose a brown nipple, which he experimentally licked then blew on to see it tighten and pucker.

This whole time, John had been doing an admirable job of holding still under increasing pressure, but the latest provocation had him groaning and clutching at Sherlock's back. "Fuck, don't stop," he said gruffly in response to Sherlock's questioning look, delivered with his tongue just touching the tip of John's nipple. "You look incredible and you feel even better. I have some nerve damage on that side from the-" He inclined his head toward his shoulder. "It's just a … little more sensitive to heat and cold, less sensitive to touch."

Now that was interesting enough to stop what he was doing for a moment. They'd never discussed John's injury, and if increased physical intimacy was going to bring with it an expanded willingness to share information, Sherlock meant to take immediate and outrageous advantage. He shoved the undershirt up to get a better look, but it bunched too much under John's arm to get a look at the shoulder proper.

"Just here?" Sherlock asked, passing a hand over John's right breast.

"The whole- Pretty much the whole upper quadrant, here-" John drew an imaginary line with his finger. "The front more than in back. There are some odd spots-" He exhaled hard and looked up at the ceiling. "Fuck, never mind, you can- I mean, it's not unpleasant. At all." His eyes slid down to watch Sherlock's hand invade his shirt to palpate the damaged skin. "Um. But it's okay, I know it's not the most attractive-"

John was actually making to sit up, the absolute idiot. Sherlock pushed him emphatically back down.

"It's better than attractive, John. It's interesting. The other side is unaffected?" Sherlock pushed the vest up on the left as well, and really, all of these layers were getting tedious. While there was a certain appeal to the slow strip and discovery of new John-vistas in manageable chunks, he needed to have the entire area uncovered. The sooner the better.

"Um, yeah, pretty much normal over there," John said, his embarrassment turning to amusement.

"And are there any other anomalies I should know about?"

"Well, there's the- You know about my leg. No change in sensitivity there, just the... you know, the pain. Comes and goes."

"Does it hurt now?"

"Wasn't even thinking about it. And no," he added after a moment's consideration.

"Excellent. Up we go then." Sherlock untangled himself and stood, holding out a hand to pull John up.

John just lay there with a confused expression, shirt rucked up, hair mussed, mouth puffy and red. "Where?"

"To the bedroom." 'Obviously' hovered unspoken but generally understood. "I need to have more room, and you need to get your clothes off and there are covers there so you don't get chilled. We were going to end up there anyway."

"Oh really?" John tugged his vest down and tucked one hand up behind his head, looking amused at the thought and for all the world as if he had no intention of doing any such thing.

"Yes," Sherlock said, fretting now because had he really read this so stupendously wrong? Inconceivable. He might not be a genius when it came to relationships, but he damn well knew about sex, and John had definitely been broadcasting on that channel.

He must have looked as vulnerable as he felt, because John's expression softened and he said, "That's not a 'no', Sherlock." He sat up and patted his hair down. "That's a 'there are still some things we need to talk about'."

"Yes, fine, on the way then," Sherlock said, practically tapping his foot with impatience. There were so many things he could do while John ran through his spiel about safe sex and how they- Sherlock froze for a moment. Damn. He didn't actually have any condoms. But there were still lots of things they could do, he reassured himself, and anyway right now he wasn't interested in an orgasm per se, but in touching John's skin and reading what was written there and why was John still sitting on the sofa?

"No, Sherlock, seriously, you're not exactly making this any easier."

Sherlock pressed his lips together. John wasn't going to let it go until he was satisfied. Sherlock took a deep breath and rattled off: "I was last tested for HIV, syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhoea, and hepatitis over five years ago and have not engaged in any risky activities since. You were tested for the same within the last year, likely within the past six months. You have never used intravenous drugs and have not had a sexual partner since your discharge from the army. Which does admittedly leave a small window in the period immediately prior to your injury, but you are conscientious - even overly so," he added with a pointed look, "and have never engaged in unprotected penetrative sex outside of a long-term relationship, which we have already established you have not had since your last screening. And now we really should be moving on to the bedroom, and if you've brought a condom so much the better, otherwise we will improvise for now."

John had the most curious expression on his face. Sherlock really didn't know how to parse it. John's next words were no help, either: "I don't know whether to laugh or punch you."

"Why would you do either?"

"Well, you've just roundly thrashed my masculinity, called me an anal retentive pisser, accused me of being incapable of maintaining a healthy relationship, and insinuated I'm a man-whore who'll sleep with anything with a pulse. Oh, and have condom, will fuck. On the other hand, full marks on all counts, so well done you."

"You do have a condom then? Excellent."

"No, not excellent, Sherlock," John said tightly. "Jesus. Look." John took a couple of deep breaths, looking at his feet with his hands braced on his knees. "Sit down."

Sherlock most definitely did not want to sit down. Sitting down was not moving toward more nakedness and silent communication. Sitting down was moving toward words that would not be flattering and very likely unpleasant emotions and quite possibly yelling.

"Please, just. Sit. You're giving me an inferiority complex with your-" John waved a hand in Sherlock's general direction. "Bloody elegant tallness. Even more than usual."

"The word is 'height'," Sherlock corrected him, but he sat down, if gracelessly, beside John. At least sitting down wasn't moving toward the door to leave.

John bumped his knee against Sherlock's, which was completely unexpected and made Sherlock's heart hiccup with a sort of limping hope.

John cleared his throat. "So. All that you said. About the health aspects. That's really good. You know, like I said, spot on. They screened me for HIV and hep before my surgery, and the other STIs were about ten months ago as part of my annual army physical, and I did always use a condom. And I um." John's hands were folded tightly. He licked his lips. "You were also right about the other- About no long-term relationship. Kind of hard to keep up when you're deployed, so. Not really in bad company there. But there were- God, this shouldn't be so hard, but there were quite a few others in there. Men and women. More than I'd care to own up to, to tell the truth. It was- I know it's not really an excuse, there were certainly plenty of lads who kept it in their pants or-"

"John, it's all right, you don't need to-" Sherlock tried to interrupt before both of them became even more uncomfortable. It really was fine. Sherlock didn't care one whit about what or whom John had done in the past. He certainly had his own share of ill-thought incidents that he'd undo if he could.

"No, I do," John spoke over him, and something in his voice made Sherlock let him continue. "Because it's like you said. I haven't had any kind of serious relationship in a very long time, and the last one I did have was with a woman and we were pretty much just kids, and I'm not saying it has to be any harder or even different with a man, but you're not just any man, are you?" John glanced at Sherlock with a wistful smile. "And I don't want to mess this up. It's probably silly of me, I mean we've only known each other a few weeks, but this feels different so far. In a good way. A really good way." John grimaced and looked away. "Sorry, this is probably more than you signed on for."

"Don't tell me what I want, or what I can handle," Sherlock responded automatically, but the irritation was just a cover for the whirl of thoughts that John's ramble had provoked. He'd used the words 'serious relationship'. Did he really mean he was thinking of some kind of labelled partnership with Sherlock? Something that might still exist after the holidays? Potentially even months from now? Sherlock hadn't even dared consider anything beyond the next day.

It was dizzying. It was impossible. John was in a vulnerable phase. He was the kind of person who needed bonds. In the army that role had been filled by his fellow soldiers - not the ones he slept with, but the ones whose backs he covered, the ones he protected, the ones he was willing to die for. His discharge had cut him off and set him adrift. He was simply seeking another place to fit in, another way of feeling connected and needed and supported. Sherlock was absolutely the wrong person for that. He knew that, and John would realise it soon enough. But until then, it was seductive, the idea of having John all to himself.

"I wasn't-" But John cut himself off, sighing. "Yeah, you're right. It's my problem, not yours." He straightened up and slapped his hand on his leg. "So, that's my piece said. Sort of the tip of the Watson iceberg, if you will," he finished with a lopsided smile.

An iceberg: a very apt analogy, this time. Sherlock already knew he was going to be broken, perhaps even destroyed, by this man. And yet here he was, sailing full-speed ahead on a collision course.

"If you think any of that will put me off, you don't know me very well," Sherlock said.

John became very still. His breaths were shallow and his hands were gripping his thighs. His eyes met Sherlock's, steady and deep. "I don't."

Sherlock's own heart rate quickened. "What – you don't think that will put me off, or you don't know me?"

"Both," John answered almost before Sherlock had finished speaking. "But I think we're alike in some ways." He slid his hands down his legs and pressed them together. "And if there's one thing that will make me come running, it's danger."

"What about the bomb technician?"

John appeared thrown for a moment. "What do you mean?"

"You said, in the army, when a bomb technician was running away you'd follow him to safety."

John's look of confusion turned sly. "I never said he was running away." His eyes dropped to Sherlock's lips and his mouth followed.

This time, John's hands went blindly to Sherlock's shirt as they kissed, deftly opening the buttons and peeling it away to expose him to his touch. John smoothed his palms up the entire expanse of Sherlock's flanks then down his back, covering great swaths and leaving goose bumps in their wake. Sherlock had known that John was a force to be reckoned with, someone who commanded respect through loyalty and trust rather than brute strength, but only now did he begin to understand the impact of what this rather unassuming man could bring to bear. Here was a man who could inspire confidence or break wills. Who could instil discipline or incite chaos. Whom men and women would die for. Or live for.

This time, it was John who laid Sherlock out and kissed and touched and elicited gasps. Who stroked and laved and spoke with his skin.

This time, it was John who said, "I think you said something about a bed," low and breathy against Sherlock's navel.

Sherlock slowly returned to his living room. He was stretched out on his back on the sofa, one foot on the ground. John was lying between his legs, his elbows braced on either side of Sherlock's hips and his chin hovering over the waistband of Sherlock's trousers. He was bare on top as well - when had he taken his shirt and his vest off? Surely Sherlock should have noticed that. John dipped his head to touch his nose to the swollen length inside Sherlock's trousers.

Sherlock lifted his hand to thread his fingers through John's hair. John inhaled deeply and mouthed at the material, just enough so that Sherlock felt a teasing pressure.

"We can stay here if you're more comfortable," John said without looking up. "Or I can stop."

"No," Sherlock said immediately. God, no. Awful thought. He withdrew his hand and moved his legs, just enough to indicate that John needed to get up first.

John stood up - both legs steady, his wounded shoulder far less spectacular than Sherlock had imagined, a soft swell of flesh above his belt - and for a brief moment, Sherlock experienced a backwards kind of déjà-vu: it was the feeling that he knew this scene from the future. A future in which John lived here, with him, and they were on their way to bed – their bed - at the end of the evening.

John would use the bathroom first while Sherlock put on his pyjamas, and then Sherlock would take his turn while John got settled. And maybe Sherlock would wander back down to the living room if he still had something on that held his interest, or maybe he would slide into bed beside John; and then maybe they would make love, familiar and steady and still taking Sherlock's breath away. Or maybe they would turn the light off and Sherlock would tell John the things he'd discovered and thought about and wondered that day, and John would smile against his shoulder and tell him he was daft and mad and brilliant.

But that was then. A flash of quantum possibility.

Sherlock stood up too, curled over John and kissed him with the remnants of his dissolving vision, then turned and went upstairs, turning off the lights as he went. John was silent behind him, and four paws pattered hesitantly at the rear.

"God, Gladstone's going to watch, isn't he?" John muttered once they'd reached the landing. Everything was dark now, although there was enough light coming in through the windows for them to navigate by.

"He does generally sleep next to me," Sherlock told him.

"As long as he's not going to try to join in. I may be bisexual, but I have to draw the line."

Sherlock grinned, even though John couldn't see it. "Noted."

In the bedroom, Gladstone immediately jumped on the bed and started circling, but Sherlock shooed him off before he could settle. That might turn out to be something of a problem.

He went through to the en suite, urinated, brushed his teeth, and gave himself a once-over with a wet flannel. In the medicine cabinet, he found an unopened sample of lotion some salesperson must have tossed in with another purchase.

When he returned, John had turned the light on and was sitting on the edge of the bed in his pants, looking through a pile of books on the floor. Gladstone was sitting at attention a couple of feet away, watching John sceptically. There was a rectangular plastic packet on the corner of the nightstand that hadn't been there before. Sherlock set the lotion next to it.

"'From Hemlock to Botox'?" John asked. "'The Poisoner's Handbook'? I'm starting to re-think that soju."

"I drank it too," Sherlock reminded him.

"Yes, but you've probably spent the past five years building up an immunity to iocane powder."

Sherlock took a moment to sift through his memory, but couldn't find a match.

"Another movie reference," John explained in response to Sherlock's quizzical look.

"A movie about poison?" Sherlock was mildly hopeful. The other movies John had referenced hadn't sounded very interesting.

"Only a small part. It's more of a love story."

"Dull," Sherlock said dismissively and flopped down on the bed behind John. He plucked at the waistband of John's underwear. "You've still got your pants on."

"Oi, look at you," John teased, slapping lightly at Sherlock's trouser-clad legs.

Sherlock undid his flies, lifted his hips and pulled off his trousers and pants together, kicking them away onto the floor.

John stared down at him, his eyes becoming very dark. Sherlock's penis had softened and lay sideways across his groin. John reached out and ran his hand down Sherlock's torso, from his neck over his chest and abdomen and finally over his genitals, just brushing the surface. Sherlock closed his eyes and inhaled sharply with the renewed stirrings of arousal.

"Right," John said thickly. "Just... hold that thought. Exactly like that."

He went into the bathroom. Sherlock got up to turn off the light, then got back into bed. Gladstone came over, ready to jump up and take his usual spot across Sherlock's feet, but Sherlock told him to stay down. Gladstone sighed and went to curl up somewhere else. Maybe he should get a dog bed. It was all so domestic, it was downright surreal. When he'd had sex in the past, it had always been fast and illicit and dirty, rarely safe and sometimes not even entirely consensual. He'd never calmly invited someone into his home and his bed like this, with the prospect not only of having sex but of waking up together the next morning.

The bathroom door opened. It was suddenly very still.

"Leave the light on," Sherlock said. His voice didn't sound loud enough to reach across the room, but John understood, leaving the door just far enough ajar to allow a diffuse glow into the bedroom. He had taken his pants off, and as he walked back to the bed, his erect penis bobbed in front of him. An answering tingle zinged down through Sherlock's chest into his balls at the sight. John stopped at the foot of the bed.

"Gorgeous," he said, taking in the sight of Sherlock reclining against the headboard, the covers carelessly pooled around him.

Sherlock deliberately put his hand around his penis and pulled at it lazily while watching John, side-lit from the bathroom, encouraging the nascent arousal.

"I want you in my mouth," John said. Sherlock pumped a little faster. John's penis twitched sympathetically in the air where he stood.

"Come here then," Sherlock told him.

John crawled up the bed until he was perched over Sherlock on all fours, too far up to take him in his mouth though. Instead, he dipped down to catch Sherlock's mouth with his, playing with his lips and tongue for a while. Sherlock was so thoroughly distracted, he didn't notice John had picked up the condom until he sat back on Sherlock's thighs and ripped the packet open. He still didn't entirely realise what John was going to do until he started unrolling the condom over Sherlock. Sherlock was about to object - he'd really rather been looking forward to it the other way round - but they only had the one condom, and John wasn't going to risk getting semen in his mouth. Despite their clean bills of health and everything else John had said, they weren't actually in a committed relationship and John had said he was always, always careful. Right, yes.

John bent forward again to kiss Sherlock and run his hands over his shoulders, his chest, his abdomen, stroking and squeezing firmly. He followed with his mouth, pausing to give special attention to Sherlock's neck, his nipples, a spot that was apparently particularly sweet along his ribs, until without further preamble he encased Sherlock's stiff member in sudden heat. He withdrew to gather saliva, then sank down again, working the moisture around with his tongue until the condom was thoroughly slick and the slide in and out of his mouth was smooth. Then he nudged Sherlock's legs further apart and settled down between them, his left hand playing with Sherlock's balls and his right steadying the base of his cock while he sucked and licked.

It was incredible. Sherlock's entire world narrowed down to the space around John. It wasn't even the physical sensations alone. It was the fact that John was doing this, that he was watching his cock disappear in the half-light into John's mouth; that all of John's noteworthy attention was focused on him and on pleasuring him, and that he was clearly enjoying himself thoroughly in the process.

Sherlock needed to do something; it was impossible to lie there and not have anything to do with his hands or his mouth, so he reached up behind himself to grip the headboard to give an outlet to some of the tension building in him. John glanced up to see what he'd done, and scooted in closer so Sherlock could move up as well, giving him a better hold.

John had been at it a couple of minutes now, and Sherlock had reached a kind of plateau, feeling very good but nothing that would herald an imminent climax. He squirmed his hips, trying to get just a little more stimulation, a little more pressure, to ratchet up the sensation.

John pulled off and nodded at the lotion sample. "Open that for me, would you?"

Sherlock picked it up and broke the seal on the little bottle, unscrewed the lid and held it out to John. John held out his left hand, palm up. "Just on my fingers."

Sherlock squeezed out a thin squiggle.

"More, come on, these are going in your arse."

Sherlock squeezed the bottle until John's fingers were coated and dripping. He may have overdone it a bit in his enthusiasm.

John looked up at Sherlock, suddenly hesitant. "You have had-"

"Yes," Sherlock snapped and pulled his knees up in demonstration. In fact, he'd always bottomed - mainly as it took less effort. He didn't have to coordinate or think, he only had to relax his body, and then he was free to enjoy the effects on his mind of whatever drug he'd taken. He'd also had sex with Victor several times while not under the influence - all right, not much under the influence - and mainly found it sweaty and a lot of effort for a minor reward. He'd not seen the point in banging away at another body when he got the same outcome from lying on his back contemplating the ceiling, or bent over with his face buried in the crook of his arm to block out any annoying visual input.

John smiled and brought his hand down between Sherlock's legs, cupping it to preserve as much of the lotion as possible.

"This is going to be chilly at first, sorry." Which made it sound like a prostate exam, and John was right: it was cold but his finger went in smoothly.

"All right?" John asked.

It wasn't painful, but it also wasn't very interesting. "Yes," Sherlock said, because John only meant the painful part. It was - Well, Sherlock supposed, he shouldn't have expected sex with John to be any different. It was still just two bodies doing what bodies did.

John kissed Sherlock's thigh while he moved his finger slowly in and out. Sherlock felt the sensitive muscle there contracting and releasing reflexively, sending signals forward to his balls as well. John circled there for a while at Sherlock's entrance, gently probing and stretching and slowly becoming much, much more interesting.

While Sherlock had had partners - for lack of a better word for the dealers, fellow addicts, and deluded romantics he'd let fuck him - who took the time to prepare him, it was always for the purpose of getting their cock inside. No one had ever done it specifically because they thought Sherlock might like it, or simply because they enjoyed touching him. But John was apparently fascinated, his pink tongue protruding just a bit from between his teeth as he watched his finger breaching Sherlock's body, trying different angles and pressure points to find out what made Sherlock tense and what made him squirm and what made him hold his breath and reach for his cock.

"Go ahead, I want to see you touch yourself," John said. "I'm going to put another finger in too, okay?"

Sherlock nodded and picked up his cock. The condom was drying and slightly tacky. He retrieved the lotion and squeezed out another handful, nearly emptying the bottle.

"A little more for me too," John said, holding his hand up. Sherlock obliged, then tossed the bottle aside and closed his eyes and wrapped his hand around himself. He'd never masturbated with a condom on before. It was slightly odd, if interesting because unfamiliar.

John was working both fingers deeper inside Sherlock now, and Sherlock wondered briefly why, if he wasn't going to fuck him, and then there was a flash of intense pleasure, almost too sharp. Sherlock's back arched off the bed. John pulled his fingers back, but not out.

"Too much?"

"No, good, very good," Sherlock managed, pushing down onto John's fingers to get them back where they were. He squeezed and pulled on his cock at the same time, trying to get a rhythm going.

John pushed in again, a little more gently this time, until he found the spot again. Sherlock groaned and bore down onto John's hand.

"Yeah, just like that," John said. Sherlock felt him shifting and opened his eyes. John was sitting up now, his knees spread to cradle Sherlock's arse, one hand still working inside Sherlock and the other pumping his own cock.

Sherlock very nearly came right then. He clamped his hand down at the base of his cock and waited, hardly breathing, while John stilled his left hand inside Sherlock's arse and ramped up the strokes on himself with his right.

"I want you to fuck me," Sherlock said.

"I will, God, soon, but we don't have another condom tonight."

Sherlock frantically ran through all of his past experiments and the drawers and cupboards throughout the house stuffed full with the detritus and leftovers of five years of attempts to keep himself occupied - had he never done anything with condoms? It seemed an egregious oversight. Although he didn't think John would agree to use five-year-old condoms anyway. One of them could go to the store - or maybe there was someone who owed Sherlock a favour, whom he could text and have them -

"Fuck, Sherlock, can I move again? I'm so close."

Sherlock shook his head. He didn't want John to ever move. It was perfect like this, just perfect, he needed to stay like that until they got a condom so he could put that beautiful cock up Sherlock's arse, and even then he didn't want him to move because then it would be over and there was no telling what would happen in the morning. "Stay like this," Sherlock said, knowing it was futile. "Just stay."

John bent his head and squeezed his eyes shut and slowed his hand but didn't stop completely. "Fuuuuck," he exhaled.

Sherlock saw there was nothing he could do to stop it, short of knocking John to the floor and making for a very different end to the evening.

"John, come here, come here," he said quickly, tugging at John's arm until he stopped jerking off and opened his eyes. "Come here, together." Sherlock reached for John's cock.

"You are a certified genius." John withdrew his fingers from Sherlock's arse and wiped them hastily on the sheet. There was a brief flurry of limbs as they rearranged so that John was straddling Sherlock's hips and leaning forward to brace himself with his hands on either side of Sherlock's shoulders. "Go on then."

Sherlock wished he knew where the lotion was - there were probably a few drops left - but he wasn't about to go searching for it now. He smeared the rest of what was on his hand onto John, and John shifted around over him until Sherlock was able to get his hand around both of them.

"Oh yeah, that's nice," John practically purred as Sherlock started moving his hand. John dropped down onto one elbow so he could kiss Sherlock. "You're bloody amazing."

From Sherlock's vantage point, the sentiment was entirely mutual. "John," he said between kisses, repeating it like a mantra, "John." It was hard to maintain a good grip on both of them - and he could really have used some more lubrication - but he discovered that if he held his hand steady and thrust his hips up into it instead, it worked better. John caught on and tried to coordinate his own movements with Sherlock's. He'd been close before, surely it wouldn't take much-

"A little more, yeah, like that, just a little more," John panted, his hips jerking out of sync as he tried to maximise his friction.

Sherlock dropped his cock out of the hold so he could encircle John more firmly, and blindly fumbled with his free hand to find John's nipple - the left one - and pinched, fairly hard. At the same time he gave him the filthiest kiss he could muster, while willing everything he was getting from John to reflect back through it.

John gasped and ducked away from the kiss to muffle himself in Sherlock's neck, and then something wet was on Sherlock's stomach, and everything was slipperier. John was making little high-pitched sounds in his throat, and Sherlock kept stroking him, quick and firm, until his breathing changed and the tension started to leech out of his shoulders.

John flumped down, landing half on top of Sherlock. He tilted Sherlock's head with his hand on Sherlock's chin and kissed him slowly and thoroughly. Sherlock couldn't really appreciate it, though, as his cock was still screaming for attention. He picked it up again, aware that the slickness on it now was mostly from John, which wasn't entirely hygienic but he honestly couldn't be arsed. He jerked at himself, hard and fast, while John lifted himself up on one arm and stared down at him.

"Yeah, Sherlock, just like that, come on, I want to see you."

"John … John," Sherlock pleaded, not even knowing what he was asking for.

"I'm right here, look at me."

Sherlock looked up, and John was there, just like he'd said, and Sherlock fell in and his climax flooded through him and through him and the next thing he knew John's arms were around him holding him tight against his chest.

They stayed like that, Sherlock's heart still racing and a distant ache coalescing under his heart that made him want to wrap John up and put him somewhere safe, but that wouldn't be satisfying either because then John wouldn't be with him and it would be wholly impractical to bind him around his neck like a St Christopher medal. He was both frustrated and stupidly happy. He knew this was just evolution ensuring the survival of the species - even without offspring coming into play, a bonded pair was more likely to survive than a loner. He didn't want to feel this way, and at some level there was a festering resentment and more than a little fear that he could lose it all in the blink of an eye (most likely through some stupendous blunder on his part), but that didn't stop him, at that moment, from recognising that he could live with this, and that if he were quite honest, he wasn't sure how he could live without it again.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Seventeen - The Studio Head

Sherlock wanted to touch John. Constantly. As he sat in the corner drinking his morning coffee and watched John chatting cheerfully with Molly on the other side of the teachers' lounge by the tea things, he feared the sign over his head not only now announced that he and John had shagged, but something a great deal more emotionally compromising.

John had left early that morning so he could go home and change. Sherlock wondered whether John would consider it precipitous if Sherlock suggested he simply move his things over to Sherlock's house. He couldn't have much, not more than a couple of suitcases and boxes. They could probably fit everything into a taxi. They could do it that afternoon. He'd said 'long-term relationship' (not directly in relation to Sherlock, true, but the subtext had been there). He didn't mind the blood and the mud (not much, anyway). And if Sherlock offered to charge him less than John's current flat cost, he'd really have no reason to refuse. Sherlock would have let him live there for free, of course, but he knew John wouldn't stand for that. He took out his mobile to look up John's landlord and send off an enquiry.

"Good morning." John pulled up a chair in front of Sherlock and sat down with a big, slightly sheepish grin. Sherlock was just able to stop himself from leaning in for a kiss.

"Hm," he grunted instead, still texting away. Of course they'd already exchanged the obligatory morning greetings earlier, in bed, followed by not nearly enough touching and kissing accompanied by mutual unspoken wonder that the other one was still there. Sherlock's chest tingled at the memory.

"Anything special on for the class today?" John nudged Sherlock's knee with his finger.

Sherlock had to look twice at the address of John's landlord to confirm whether it was Clarendon Management or Clarenden. This was absolutely unacceptable. He jerked his knee away.

John retracted his hand and sat back. "Sorry."

Sherlock had a flutter of annoyance at John's misinterpretation. "Distracting," he explained briefly without looking up from his mobile.

"Sorry," John said again, but this time, there was a grin behind the word.

Sherlock did look at John this time, raising an eyebrow. "You're not."

"Not really, no," he agreed smugly.

And God, how Sherlock wanted to kiss that look off his face. He scowled and punched out his message on the screen with more force than necessary. This, he realised with a flare of disgust, was precisely why workplace romances were always said to be a poor idea. Not because of the potential for distraction from work - although it really was unsporting of John to interfere with Sherlock's attempt to pave the way for their imminent cohabitation - but because there were stupid things like codes of conduct and Lestrade's bloody 'keep it professional' and the fact that even though at a certain level Sherlock wanted everyone to know that John Watson had deemed him, Sherlock Holmes, worthy not only of his time and attention but also of his affection, a much larger part of him felt this was too important and private to either be publicly flaunted or opened up for general comment. Even Lestrade's comment yesterday in which he took credit for introducing them chafed. As if Lestrade had anything to do with what went on between himself and John.

"-Sherlock?"

Sherlock became aware that John must have been trying to get his attention for a while. He hit 'send' on his message. "What?" he said irritably. He wondered if it wouldn't perhaps be faster to just call the landlord directly, posing as a potential tenant.

"Letters to Father Christmas," John (apparently) repeated.

"Yes, fine," Sherlock said, not really paying attention. The bell rang then anyway, and it was time to go to the classroom.

%%%%%%

It turned out that John had meant allowing the children to indulge their materialistic fantasies of a Christmas morning filled with mind-numbing electronics, ill-conceived gender-conformist bits of toxic plastic, unhealthy mass-produced confections that barely deserved to be called edible, and anything else the consumption- and profit-driven socio-industrial complex was advertising this year. Sherlock refused point-blank to have anything to do with the assignment, and left the lot for John to deal with and sort through over lunch. He may have made a bit of extra fuss to ensure that John didn't interrupt him while he checked his messages and made some calls. One lunch break without John was a fair sacrifice in order to ensure having him around every evening in future.

However, Clarenden Management hadn't responded to his email, and it turned out they took lunch breaks too. Rather than wait until the afternoon to ring them, Sherlock decided to resort to the brute force method, although it would be a bit trickier from his phone. He was just getting set up to hack into John's bank account to check his monthly debits when John wandered into 221A with a stack of papers in his hand.

"Sherlock..." he started, looking down at the sheets, which Sherlock recognised as the children's wish lists.

"That's your project, John. I don't want anything to do with it. You know I dislike repeating myself," Sherlock said. He tilted his phone so John couldn't see the screen with the bank information displayed.

"You should take a look at these." John laid the letters on the table.

"'Dear Father Christmas, I want a smart phone', 'Dear Father Christmas, give me loads of sweets'," Sherlock recited in a high-pitched, mocking voice.

"Yeah, it's more Playstations and Polly Pockets, but noted," John said with a funny little smile. He tapped the letters. "Read them, go ahead."

Sherlock glared a bit, but short of getting up and walking out, the fastest way to get rid of John would be to appease him. He pulled the pile toward him and stuffed his phone into the inner pocket of his jacket.

Dear Father Chrismas, I'm so scarred of not doing the play properly so please coud you make my Chrismas wish come true and make everyone love us in the play. P.S. Make me be Mary. Love Saffron

 

Dear Santa. Please send me loads of stuff. And suprises. I want to be happy. And see more of my Mum. Because she never spends any time with me. And please let me be Joseph. She's never seen me do a school play befor. Thank you very much. From Ollie.

"Yes, all right, you've made your point," Sherlock said, pushing the rest of the letters back toward John. "They all want to be Mary and Joseph, well done, your plan will make everyone happy."

John frowned and tilted his head to look at the letters on the table, as if checking on their content. "That's not- I mean, we knew that before. That's not the point here. Keep reading."

Sherlock flipped the pile around again with a great show of impatience and grabbed the next couple of sheets.

Dear Santa Please Please let my Chrismas wish come true Id really Love for everyone in the World to be happy even Mr Holmes Please help Mr Holmes find a Freind thank you very much From Emma

 

Dear father Christmas, please make my teacher happy because he seems really sad. He does'nt even like Christmas so please help him find his smile. Love, Isabelle.

Sherlock's heart froze. He laid the letters carefully back on top of the pile and stayed like that, one hand resting on the tabletop, not looking up. This was how it began. And ended. He'd let down his defences, exposed himself, let John see him - not everything, but it was enough.

"I didn't take you to be cruel," he said in a low voice.

"What the hell- Sherlock!" John exploded. "After last night, do you really imagine I'd- Jesus Christ, this isn't..." John braced both arms on the table and leaned in, speaking forcefully. "These kids care about you. That's what I'm trying to show you, after our talk yesterday. They're doing this play for their mums and their dads and for you." He pushed himself back up, hard, and ran a hand through his hair. (Upset, wants to hit something.)

Ah yes, the analogy of the custodial parent. Sherlock hadn't thought the point that important, had considered the topic closed. It was possible (obvious, now) he'd leapt to the wrong conclusion (but that's what happened when one let one's emotions get the upper hand). It didn't actually matter which one of them, if either, was better liked or more respected. They both had their strengths and weaknesses but they tended to pick up each other's slack. He'd thought that was clear to John. But maybe John hadn't thought it was clear to him. And now Sherlock was on the wrong footing again.

"If they actually wanted to make me happy, they'd use proper punctuation," Sherlock pointed out, the weak attempt at humour intended to be an apology of sorts.

John laughed, but it didn't abate his anger (hurt?). "I'm sorry, I thought... I don't know what I thought." He gathered up the children's notes. Sherlock was going to lose him. He could see it in the set of his jaw, in the sudden, worrying grey tone in his face.

"I'll do it." The words fell out before he'd considered what they would entail.

John paused, already halfway turned to go. He focused somewhere in the vicinity of Sherlock's cheek, not quite meeting his eye. "Sorry? You'll do what?" It was truly almost pathetic how eager John was to forgive. Sherlock thought he might possibly be able to live with it.

"I'll go see Mycroft." Distasteful, but apparently his last resort.

That brought John's eyes up the rest of the way. "You're going to ask your brother to film the play?"

Sherlock gritted his teeth. Didn't he just say that? "He's going to say no," he warned.

"Why go then?" John shot back immediately.

Because you want me to, Sherlock thought. Plain and simple. And with that thought, he knew he was done for. This was what he'd been fighting against his entire life: doing things simply because someone else wanted him to. Eat your Brussels sprouts. We share our toys. You're really overdue for a haircut. You can't possibly mean to wear that. Well, if it must be music then at least the Royal College. Stop this, Sherlock, you're upsetting Mummy.

Nothing had ever worked. Not pretty smiles, not cross finger-waving, not tears, not threats, and certainly not being cut off from any means of support and told to fend for himself. Until now. Until a worn (resilient), unassuming (steadfast), discarded (loyal), little (great) man appeared and told him he was extraordinary, and gorgeous, and brilliant, and meant every word of it.

"Do I really need to justify myself in this?" Sherlock retorted, letting his discomfort at his surrender come out in his tone.

John held up his hands, a bitter gesture. "No, no. By all means."

"Will you..." Now Sherlock was the one unable to look John in the eye. "It would be useful if you accompanied me," he said stiffly.

John took a moment to answer, a moment during which Sherlock could all but hear his pride warring with his sense of loyalty and honour. Finally, he answered, "After everything you've told me about your brother, I can't possibly turn down a chance like that." John paused when he got to the door. "And you know," he said, his tone now softer, as he looked down at his hand on the handle, "the kids aren't the only ones who want you to be happy. But sometimes you make it bloody difficult."

%%%%%%

By the time the afternoon lessons began, John seemed to have put the lunchtime incident behind him, although he was perhaps a bit quieter and more reserved than usual. But at least he was looking at Sherlock and speaking civilly and even smiling from time to time. While the children gave their book reports, Sherlock kept himself occupied planning the best way to approach Mycroft.

It was probably enough that he agreed to try, but it would be even better if they were actually successful. Better for John's opinion of Sherlock, that is. Sherlock had insisted all along that Mycroft would never send a crew to film the Nativity, but maybe he could play into that to turn the tables. Mycroft knew that Sherlock was counting on him saying no. But if Sherlock could make Mycroft think he cared more about being right than about the play, Mycroft was just contrary enough to try and pull the rug out from under Sherlock's feet and make him look foolish in front of John by agreeing to film the play after all. Sherlock didn't personally care whether Whitehall got involved, but it would certainly be the easier solution, with the bonus of making John happy. Yes, Sherlock would have to eat a little crow in private, but on the other hand he could do quite a bit of crowing publicly in front of Moriarty, Moran, and the 'I-told-you-so-ers' on the school staff. And if, on the other hand, Mycroft stuck to his guns and made his excuses, Sherlock wouldn't be any worse off than he was now.

He was almost looking forward to the visit by the time the bell rang at the end of the school day. It had been a long time since he'd last locked wits with his brother, much less in front of an audience he wanted to impress.

Sherlock was nagging the last few stragglers to clean up their workspace when he had an idea for the perfect final touch to their visit to Whitehall: children. Mycroft hated children. The only silver lining to family gatherings was seeing Mycroft's face when Mummy asked when she could expect grandchildren. Sherlock was never asked (he didn't want to examine the reasons for that). But if Sherlock brought a couple of his pupils along to Mycroft's expensively decorated office, forced him to make polite faces at them, maybe even threatened to let them sing - or dance - the entire project would be a victory no matter what other outcome. Yes, a stroke of genius.

Practicalities first, however. "Which of you is free this afternoon to go on a little trip to Whitehall?" Sherlock asked the handful of children still left in the room. The rest were already out with John in the hall putting on their coats and boots.

Six eager hands shot into the air.

"Saffron and Liam." Sherlock pointed at the lucky pair. The girl had two left feet (and was, incidentally, no mean dissembler), and the boy had a perpetual head cold. Perfect.

%%%%%%

Sherlock sprang for a hackney cab for the four of them to take them out to the studio complex. He was still basking in John's approval, having presented the children as the perfect way to guilt Mycroft into saying yes.

"Who could say no to a face like this?" he'd asked, cueing Saffron to put on her sweet-as-an-angel look, the same one she'd used earlier that week when Ollie sat on a piece of chewed gum. Liam gave John a gap-toothed grin and wiped his nose on the back of his hand. John handed him a tissue and leaned over his head to mutter to Sherlock, "You're a manipulative bastard."

Sherlock rather agreed. And the way John's breath had warmed his neck and the crinkles around John's eyes had betrayed his not-so-secret amusement were their own rewards.

"And you're sure it's all right?" John asked as they got into the cab. He and Sherlock took the forward-facing back seats while the children climbed happily into the jump seats. "I mean we can't just take them-"

"Do give me some credit, John," Sherlock said. "I checked, it's all fine." They wouldn't need to be home for hours yet.

Saffron whispered something to Liam and they both broke out in giggles. Sherlock tried to ignore them, but they kept looking at him, then at John, then giggling. Tedious.

"What is it?" Sherlock finally demanded.

"Jade..." Saffron could barely contain herself. "Jade said her brother saw you kissing!" As soon as the words were out, she looked wide-eyed from Sherlock to John, apparently surprised at her own cheek. Liam slapped both hands over his face.

There was silence for a moment. John didn't move. Saffron held her breath. Sherlock considered what the brother might have seen: there had been that group of youths who passed them in the riverside park. And there had been plenty of people around on the main street by the bus stop after that.

John was the one who finally spoke. "Did she?" he said mildly. "You should know better than to spread gossip."

John's approach might have been the more politic one, but it cut a bit too close to a denial. "She's right," Sherlock said.

Liam dropped his hands and gaped. Saffron tittered. John turned toward him.

"Yes, I kissed John. Mr Watson," Sherlock clarified, meeting Saffron's eye. Her giggles subsided.

"Sherlock..." John said softly.

"There's nothing wrong with it, John. Unless you think there is?" Sherlock turned to look at him. He knew John was comfortable with his sexuality - with the two of them being together - when they were alone, but now Sherlock recalled the way he'd immediately stepped away and wiped his mouth when Lestrade walked in on them and the careful space he'd maintained between them walking out of the park. Sherlock was fairly certain it was due to wanting to avoid trouble rather than any suppressed shame, however. And John's response seemed to confirm that.

"No..." John said, shaking his head slowly. "No." His smile grew until he had to look away out the window.

Sherlock smiled too and wished they were alone. Later.

%%%%%%

In the event, it was embarrassingly easy to gain an audience. Sherlock had barely announced his name before a dark-haired, Blackberry-wielding assistant (yoga, tinted contacts, trying to get pregnant) appeared and ushered them down a plushly carpeted hallway, texting continuously and admonishing them that Mr Holmes had a very tight schedule but just happened to have a few minutes free before he was due in a conference call.

"Sherlock! How kind of you to drop in." Mycroft came around his pretentiously large desk to greet them. "And you've brought the family, how lovely. Dr Watson, I presume?" He shook John's hand. The sight of John's hand in Mycroft's was disturbing.

"Yes, I'm ah..." John chanced a look at Sherlock, but Sherlock frowned and gave his head a tiny negative shake. That was Mycroft's little dig, telling Sherlock he knew what was going on and being disapproving at the same time. Sherlock looked around furiously for something to shoot back with, but Mycroft was good at hiding things and it had been too long since they'd seen each other. Oh, Sherlock could read lots of things in his clothing, the arrangement of his desk, the art on the walls, but it was harder to tell which of those things Mycroft didn't want him to see, and which he hoped he would.

But wait... No personal pictures, the crack about the family, the continued focus on John, the - yes, the resignation around his mouth, the barely perceptible straightening of his shoulders as if reminding himself to buck up - Mycroft was jealous. Not of John specifically (Mycroft preferred women, when he was in the mood, which wasn't often), but of the fact that Sherlock had someone in his life. Could he see so much in just a few seconds? Did he see more than Sherlock, in fact? Because not even Sherlock was sure what he and John had, what they were to each other. Was it truly something to engender envy in his brother? Sherlock forced himself to keep his eyes on Mycroft. There was no telling what else he might give away if he looked at John right now.

"I'm Sherlock's classroom assistant at the school," John said, managing not to make it sound as if he were either correcting Mycroft or taking offense at his jest. "And these two are Saffron and Liam, two of our pupils."

"Charming." Mycroft regarded them with a pinched little smile before returning his attention quickly to John. "Can I offer you anything? Something to drink, perhaps?" he asked as he herded everyone into chairs his assistant produced out of nowhere.

"No," Sherlock said at the same time as John said, "Thank you, that would be lovely." John gave Sherlock a funny look, which Sherlock returned.

Sherlock made sure he ended up seated next to John, and adjusted his chair so they were angled toward each other and within easy reach. Sherlock caught Mycroft measuring the distance from Sherlock's hand to John's knee. Liam and Saffron ended up on the far side of John, closer to Mycroft. Perfect.

Mycroft's assistant took John's request for fizzy drinks for the children and a cup of tea for himself. Sherlock waved her off. He wasn't planning on staying long enough to take tea. Although giving the children something sticky and spillable was perhaps not such a bad idea.

"Well now, this is certainly a surprise," Mycroft said in a way that even John must understand to mean it was anything but. "I do believe this is the first time you've graced us with your presence here, Sherlock." (Meaning: you must be very desperate indeed.) A poor start, as it meant Mycroft knew he held all the cards. Well, Sherlock would just have to make him believe he didn't care what Mycroft did.

"Don't try to be subtle, Mycroft," Sherlock drawled. "We both know why I'm here."

"Do we?" Mycroft asked politely.

"Very well, if you insist," Sherlock sighed in his most put-upon voice. "Dear brother Mycroft, please will you make a movie out of our Nativity," Sherlock sing-songed. Then he modulated his pitch to mimic Mycroft's more nasal tone: "So sorry, can't spare the time, perhaps next year."

"It would only mean a couple of hours," John interjected, but not without first casting an irritated glance in Sherlock's direction. It was then that Sherlock saw the flaw in his plan. He had depended on John having faith in his assessment of Mycroft's character and the futility of the visit. Presenting an argument in favour of the filming was like exposing a jugular to Mycroft's instinct for blood.

"To capture the raw footage, perhaps," Mycroft said, failing to keep the condescension off his face. "But after that comes the editing, the mixing. All with equipment that's already been allocated to other projects."

"It's really a very unique Nativity," John continued, undeterred.

Mycroft sighed and not-so-surreptitiously checked his watch. "It happens every year, in every school up and down the country. What's so special about this one?"

"A good question," John said briskly. "Here's an even better answer." John leaned over and whispered to the children, "One, two, three, four..."

%%%%%%

"They're not coming, are they?" Saffron asked in a small voice once they were in the cab back to the school. It was dark already, and both of the children's energy was flagging. Time to get them back before tears erupted.

"Well spotted," Sherlock said. "What was it that tipped you off? Being escorted off the premises by security?" He had to hand it to Mycroft for not pulling any punches on account of the children.

"Sherlock!" John scolded. "No," he said to Saffron, more gently. "No, I don't think they are."

"Is it our fault?" Liam's lip was already trembling.

"No! Not at all," John assured him. "No, it's... adult things like money and prior commitments."

"Although they could have sung a bit better," Sherlock mentioned.

"Sherlock!" John said sharply. "Not helping."

"I'd say I told you so..."

"Yes, right, thank you, got it," John grumbled. "It was worth a shot."

Well, perhaps. It had been a long shot at best. Sherlock wondered if things might have gone differently had he let John in on his plan. Probably not. John was a terrible liar. But at least they were no worse off than before. In fact, they could now (mostly) honestly tell Lestrade and the sponsors that the deal had fallen through. These things happened.

Sherlock's phone buzzed. He took it out of his pocket, annoyed. Lestrade. Stupid. The man knew he never took a call. And four messages. Tedious. He stuffed his phone back into his pocket. Whatever it was could wait until tomorrow. He hadn't been able to get the information about John's rent either, and now it was the weekend. He'd wanted John to stay over again tonight, but he really needed to use his computer at home to get a proper look at John's bank account, and that would obviously be better to do without him around. He was considering whether it was worth the risk of sneaking back downstairs once John was asleep when the blue flashing lights of a police car ahead caught his attention.

They were almost at the school, and in fact... as the cab pulled up across the street, Sherlock saw the police car was in front of the school, and there was Lestrade, talking to a uniformed officer, while several other people stood around them, including Molly Hooper.

"What's going on?" Saffron asked, leaning over to press her nose against the window for a better look.

"I don't know," John said, "but let's just wait a moment while Mr Holmes checks it out." John nodded Sherlock toward the door.

As soon as Sherlock stepped out of the cab, the entire group with Lestrade lunged across the street toward him.

"Sherlock, there you are!" "We've been trying to-" "Why haven't you been answering-" "Do you know where John is?" "When did you last see-"

As the situation became clear despite everyone talking at once, Sherlock despaired of the general intelligence of humanity. Obviously the children were fine. They'd been with him and John the entire time. It wasn't even six o'clock, and the children hadn't missed any lessons or appointments. When he was their age, as long as he was present for at least one meal a day and at bedtime, no one much cared where or how he spent his time. If the police had been summoned every time he took longer than an hour getting home from school, they might as well have assigned an officer permanently to the Holmes household.

By now, the children's presence in the cab had been noted, and the doors were flung open and there was an outcry and hugs and tears and Sherlock began to have a very bad feeling about this entire adventure.

%%%%%%

"Explanations. Now." Lestrade paced in front of Sherlock, John and Molly in his office.

Sherlock rolled his eyes. "There's nothing to explain. Nothing happened-"

"Nothing to explain?" Lestrade all but exploded. "You took two children out of here without permission-"

"What? Sorry, but we had permission," John broke in. "Sherlock got permission before we left."

Hearing that, hearing and seeing John's absolute conviction, Sherlock's stomach did something funny, and it wasn't the usual pleasant thing it had taken to doing around John.

"Is that so?" Lestrade's eyebrows disappeared into his hairline. "From who, I'd like to know, because it wasn't me and it sure as hell wasn't either of their parents."

"Whom," Sherlock muttered; "from whom." This was not going to end well. He could see that already. John had exhibited an enormous capacity for forgiveness so far, however. Not only that, he'd thrown himself whole-heartedly into backing up Sherlock's lies, and even laughed about beating up Moriarty. And if there was one thing Sherlock had learned about John it was that his reactions were rarely predictable. Maybe he wouldn't be quite as upset as Sherlock suspected he was going to be.

"For Christ's sake," Lestrade said, throwing his hands up in disgust. "You'd think you'd be a little less blasé about this kind of thing after what happened with the Bruhl twins."

"They were with us the entire time!" Sherlock cried in exasperation. Honestly, you'd think Lestrade would give him that much credit. He'd made sure that neither Liam nor Saffron had anything else on that afternoon; he'd had them back by supper time; and of course he hadn't let them out of his sight once. Not that the two children of the American ambassador had suffered any lasting injury from their brief excursion that one time, either. A bit of stomach-ache from overindulding on sweets was all, but Sherlock had nothing to do with that. He couldn't understand why everyone kept bringing it up.

"Oh, well that's a relief," Lestrade sniped. "Because it's not as if that's still abduction or anything."

Sherlock rolled his eyes. The way some people bandied terms about for the shock value. Even the police – small-witted as they were – hadn't actually charged Sherlock with anything that time. Not that they should have; it had simply been a huge misunderstanding. As this was.

But Lestrade wasn't done yet. "And why didn't you fucking answer your phone, either of you?" He pointed back and forth between Sherlock and John.

"My um..." John cleared his throat. "My battery's down. Couldn't recharge it last night, so I had to leave it at home this morning."

Sherlock flushed inwardly at the memory of just why John didn't go home last night.

Lestrade rounded on Sherlock. "And your grand excuse?"

"You know I never answer calls," Sherlock said disdainfully.

"Texts? I sent several of those."

"I was in a meeting, I couldn't look at them."

"Sorry, could I?" John gestured at the pocket where Sherlock kept his phone.

Sherlock took it out and tossed it at John. As if he needed to prove anything.

While John clicked through screens, Lestrade turned to Molly, who had been watching the exchange wide-eyed, wringing her hands. "Did you know about this?" he asked.

She shook her head. "I didn't know about today," she swore. "About going to the studio. But I did know about-"

John looked up. "They're unread," he confirmed. Sherlock huffed. Of course they were. Did anyone honestly think he would have ignored a direct question about the children's whereabouts?

But Lestrade brushed the information aside, and focused on Molly instead. "What did you know about? What did you know?" he demanded.

Molly turned toward John and Sherlock and pleaded, "Look, we have to tell him."

"Tell me, Molly," Lestrade repeated. "What did you know?"

"Right, well..." She blew out a nervous breath of air. "Actually, the studio, um, they're not coming." She winced and checked whether anyone was going to stop her, but Lestrade had that gormless look of disbelief he was so fond of, and John was still reading through Lestrade's texts. (Really, there were only four, how slow a reader was he?)

Molly went on, "Sherlock... panicked, I think, and ... lied...a little..."

Lestrade closed his eyes. "Of course. Bloody..."

"John had nothing to do with it," Sherlock said immediately.

Lestrade opened his eyes and looked at John, almost sad. "Did you know?"

John glanced up from Sherlock's phone. "Yes. Yes, I did." But the way he said it... distracted, as if he didn't realise he was signing off on his own dismissal. Sherlock would have liked to take a closer look at him, but he had his own damage control to finish with first.

Lestrade nodded, as if he'd expected John's answer.

"He didn't know, Lestrade," Sherlock insisted. "He was just going along with what I told him."

"That's no excuse and it's also really not the point, Sherlock." Lestrade sounded weary now, his earlier anger spent or perhaps just rendered ineffective. "You were entrusted with- No, scratch that. I, I was the one who trusted you. You've been given chance after chance after chance. I've stood up for you, I've covered you, I've put my arse on the line for you. I trusted you with children, small actual lives. I thought this whole thing with the play, that it was something you'd rise to the challenge of, but it's been nothing but a slow march down to hell from start to finish, isn't that right?"

"I did warn you-"

Lestrade laughed, a bitter sound. "Yeah. Yeah, you're right. You did. This one's on me, then. Because it's never your fault, is it? It's everyone else's fault for trusting you. For seeing something good in you. Well, that's the end of it now. I can't cover you this time, Sherlock. No one can. You either, John. You're both out. And the play is cancelled, obviously. Consider this your two weeks' notice. As to the police... no idea. I think there'll be some people out there who'll want to talk to you, at least. But I'm officially done. I wash my hands of you." He went to the door but deflated a bit and paused before opening it. "For what it's worth, though," he said, standing with his back to them, "I'm sorry." Still shaking his head, Lestrade left with Molly trailing after him, her head bowed.

As soon as they were alone, John held Sherlock's phone up to show him the display. "Tell me what this is," he said. His voice was very steady, very controlled.

Sherlock looked at the screen. It showed the page he'd been working on earlier, trying to access John's bank account. He'd left it open, meaning to come back to it.

"It's a web page," Sherlock said, knowing that was the wrong answer but unable to come up with a valid reason for having John's account page open that wouldn't make things even worse.

"Don't fuck with me, Sherlock," John said. He was using that same beautiful, dangerous tone he had when warning Moriarty off.

"It's... I needed information."

"From my bank account."

There was no way around it. "Yes."

"Are you going to tell me what information that might be?"

Sherlock shook his head slowly, unable to say the word.

"Because it had better be a very, very good reason."

It was, oh it was, it was the best reason, but somehow Sherlock didn't think John would see it the same way. Well, he might have thought the reason behind it was good - hopefully very good - but judging by his current reaction, he probably wouldn't think much of the way Sherlock was going about doing it. And coupled with the incident with the children – which had turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, no matter how one looked at it - Sherlock thought on the whole he was probably better off not digging himself in any deeper.

"I can't. It's... not a good time right now," was all Sherlock could manage to come up with.

John nodded, turned off the mobile display, and set the phone down precisely on the edge of Lestrade's desk. "Not a good time," he repeated in a low voice. "No, no it really isn't."

"Will you... We could go somewhere. Talk or... or something."

"Yeah, I think I just need a little space right now. There's probably something here I'm just not seeing, but I don't... I'll call you, all right?" He was speaking too lightly; he should be yelling or swearing or hitting something, not this controlled politeness.

Sherlock couldn't do anything but nod because he didn't have any words. He wasn't even sure what was bothering John more, the thing with his bank account or the fact that they'd taken the kids without permission or being fired or something else altogether. Then, realising that John wasn't actually looking at him - hadn't looked at him since he'd set the phone down - he said, as calmly as he could manage, "Yes, all right."

Because it was all right, wasn't it? It wasn't 'you utter freak'. It wasn't 'get the fuck out of my life'. It was just like before: they'd say good night, go to their own homes for a few hours, and then they'd see each other again tomorrow. Monday at the latest. John would be in a better mood after some food and a rest, and by then Sherlock would have come up with a perfectly reasonable explanation for having directed his browser to John's account login page. Everything was going to be absolutely, perfectly fine. It had to be.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eighteen - The Week After

The police pulled them aside for interviews - separately - as soon as they stepped out of Lestrade's office. It was easy to convince the officer that it was a case of poor judgment rather than malicious intent, but when they finally let Sherlock go, John had already left. While it was obvious where he'd gone and with whom (pub, Stamford - clearly the 'space' he needed was away from Sherlock, not humanity in general) Sherlock opted not to shadow him. Instead, he went home, got Gladstone, and set off for a long walk and a think. His time would be utilised more efficiently coming up with a plan for what to do next than dwelling on the look on John's face when he'd left Lestrade's office.

First things first. As John would now be alert to any remote logins to his bank account and Sherlock wouldn't be able to get in touch with anyone from Clarenden before Monday, he sent a text to Wiggins asking him to task someone with chatting up some of the tenants in John's building and getting the rent figures from them. That would hopefully be sorted within 24 hours.

Next was the problem of what to tell John about him nosing around in his finances. He couldn't tell him the truth - that he wanted to make sure he was undercutting John's current rent - as that would defeat the entire purpose. He could come close, though, saying he'd wanted to see how much John was earning from his pension and the school, so that he could figure out how much he would need to make to match or hopefully exceed his current income.

Because aside from losing the job at the school, it was time for John to get back into his chosen field. He couldn't do surgery with his current physical limitations, but surely he could pick up some locum hours at a general clinic somewhere. One with a social agenda would likely appeal to him best, Sherlock decided as he brought up a list of medical facilities within a half-hour of the house; it wouldn't do to waste time that John could be spending with him, on a long commute.

Of course he would have preferred John not have an outside job at all to divide his attention, but if Sherlock didn't find him one tailor-made to his own specifications, John was likely to go out and find his own, maybe even in another city, and that wouldn't do at all. No, a minimum number of irregular hours should satisfy John's need to feel that he was a self-sufficient, useful member of society, and provide enough variety for him not to be bored or understimulated, yet sufficiently close to supply Sherlock’s needs of having John around as much as possible.

He'd have to look over the list more carefully when he got home, see if he had contacts anywhere and take a closer look at their staffing policies, but it was a good start.

Then there was the question of his own employment. It was less urgent than the issues involving John, but he would eventually have to find another source of income. And not in the educational field. He could probably get by for food and clothing for a little while by calling in favours, but he needed cash for the house and utilities. If only someone would pay him to squirt blood at walls, deduce people's secrets, and find the quickest route on foot from the power station to the war memorial. What a tender world that would be.

%%%%%%

Sherlock held off until Saturday afternoon before texting John.

Busy? -SH

John didn't reply immediately, so Sherlock set the phone aside and tried to concentrate on identifying lipstick brands from the paper cups he'd collected from the bin at Speedy's. After fifteen minutes of watching the phone out of the corner of his eye, he gave up and called for Gladstone.

There was absolutely nothing to be concerned about, he told himself as he hooked on the dog's lead and set off down the street. At least the rain was holding off. If only the last image he had of John wasn't with his shoulders hunched over and his face averted, being escorted away by a uniformed officer. Sherlock wished now that he'd gone out and hunted him down at the pub after all. Even if he'd only seen him from afar, at least he wouldn't have looked so empty.

But everything was going to be back to normal now. Sherlock had his plans in place. He hadn't heard back from Wiggins, but he was confident he would before the day was out. With John out of work, he was even more likely to appreciate the offer of cheap housing. And on that same note, Sherlock had narrowed the list of job opportunities for John down to a clinic in a low-income area and two group practices, one specialising in rehabilitation following traumatic injuries and the other catering largely to the South Asian immigrant population. John would be a valuable addition to the staff at any of them, and more importantly, the social-minded aspects of each would appeal to him.

He and Gladstone ended up at the park near the school. It had a large field, so Sherlock sat on a bench and took Gladstone off the lead so he could run a bit. The sky still didn't look very promising, and there weren't many other people around. He checked his phone. Still no messages.

At the park with Gladstone. Come if convenient. -SH

After consideration, he decided that wasn't clear enough, and added:

If not convenient, suggest alternative. -SH

When there was no response after several minutes, Sherlock began to think John had neglected to recharge his phone again. He stood to call Gladstone back, thinking they might take the long way back past John's flat, when his message alert chimed.

Text from John Watson

not available right now sorry. will ring later

 A prickly sensation crawled up Sherlock's neck. If he were really occupied, he'd have said with what.

Come over. Tonight. -SH

Text from John Watson

can't. please

The prickly sensation migrated into Sherlock's stomach and lodged itself there. This was... He forced himself to take a deep breath, in and out. John was still upset. He'd been upset with Sherlock before. It had never lasted longer than a few minutes, true, but then this was the confluence of several things at once. Sherlock needed to see him, to implement his plans. Make John see that he was making too much out of nothing.

Sherlock called sharply to Gladstone and strode purposefully with him out of the park. He needed to gather more data.

%%%%%%

John wasn't at his flat. Sherlock wished he'd taken Gladstone home first. The dog was useless on a stakeout, but he didn't want to lose the time now. He resorted to parking him a couple of blocks away in front of a supermarket. On his way back, he ducked into a coffee shop to hang his coat on the rack by the door and grab a blue wind cheater (left behind several days ago) that was wadded up on top of the shelf over the hangers. He mussed his hair thoroughly and affected a slouching gait that took a couple of inches off his height. It wasn't a great disguise, but then John wouldn't be looking for him. It should serve.

To his delight, he found the rest of a packet of cigarettes in the pocket of the borrowed jacket. He begged a light off a girl at a bus stop on the way back to John's street. God, that first drag felt good, even if he knew he'd pay for it later in cravings. It was dangerous; giving in to one craving opened the door to all the rest. He really needed it now, though. And there were only four cigarettes left, and he wasn't going to buy any more.

Now he needed someplace to watch John's flat from. It had started to drizzle in the meantime. Unfortunately, there weren't any cafes or other businesses on John's street that would allow him to see the building entrance and spend a couple of hours without arousing suspicion. The bus stop, although convenient, was also out of the question, as John was likely to return home that way.

He walked up and down the street until he found a car (elderly owner, rarely driven, not moved in at least two weeks) with the older type of manual lock. A few minutes later, he was inside, shaking back his hair and wiping the water off his face with his sleeve. All that was left to do was wait. He rationed the cigarettes, and after an hour, got out to relocate Gladstone under the awning of a restaurant.

When his text alert sounded on his way back to the car, he nearly dropped his phone in his eagerness to open the message. But it was only Wiggins reporting back with a figure that very nearly amounted to Sherlock's entire monthly mortgage payment. Ironically, he could offer to split costs evenly with John - even show him the bank papers to prove it - and still save him thousands of pounds a year.

Sherlock had finished all of the cigarettes and moved Gladstone two more times before John finally turned up (hadn't been to a pub or out walking; Stamford's?). He had a takeout bag in his hand (staying in, doesn't feel like cooking but still has an appetite). It was dark now, and even with the street lighting Sherlock wasn't close enough to see his face in detail, but judging from the way he was moving, he was tired but not angry. Maybe he was more amenable.

Waiting. -SH

John paused in front of the house to take his phone out. He checked it, then jammed it (ah, there's the anger) back into his jeans and went inside. Sherlock waited, mentally following him up to his flat (light on, second floor, third window from the left), giving him time to put his jacket away and bring the food into the kitchen. Accounted for John's abysmally slow typing. He even gave him time to use the toilet. Still no response.

Don't be ridiculous. I know you don't have anything else on. Bring the food. -SH

This time the reponse came quickly:

Text from John Watson

r u fucking following me? stop it. i mean it. turning phone off

Well, at least it was something to go on. More than the evasions he'd gotten earlier. He'd prefer to stay until the light in John's flat went out, but he needed to get Gladstone before someone reported him.

%%%%%%

Sherlock sent several texts on Sunday as well, but either John was serious about turning his phone off, or he was ignoring Sherlock. Which amounted to the same thing. He decided not to force a meeting, although it meant an extra day of this puerile posing on John's part. They'd see each other at school on Monday anyway. And then, once Sherlock was able to show John what he'd been planning, everything that happened on Friday would be forgotten. It was tedious, but Sherlock was willing to exercise that much patience until then. John (like most people) was more or less ruled by his emotions, so allowances had to be made. The benefits of John's companionship were greater than the minor inconvenience of being ignored for a day. And once John moved in, such things were much less likely to occur.

On Monday morning, Sherlock ordered two coffees at Speedy's, his usual and a second with cream (the real stuff). He'd often found that the best strategy was to act as if nothing unpleasant had transpired. John wasn't in the teachers' lounge yet when Sherlock arrived, so he sat in his usual corner and checked his messages while he waited. John still hadn't written back. Childish. Sherlock huffed and put his phone away, watching the other teachers.

There were more disapproving looks than usual, and he caught snatches of '...still doing here', '...fired', and '...a crying shame'. He glared right back. He hadn't done anything wrong and certainly didn't feel any need to tuck his tail between his legs. In fact, he'd only been trying to help the school, and look how he was repaid.

When Molly Hooper came in, she gave Sherlock a nervous smile and looked like she wanted to come over and speak to him. Instead, she grabbed the papers in her inbox and scurried back out. So much the better. Sherlock didn't feel like dealing with her this morning, especially not before he'd spoken to John. He checked his watch. Three minutes until the bell rang, and John still wasn't there. His coffee was going to be cold. Maybe he'd gone directly to the classroom, as he had on the first day. Sherlock took both cups and swept past the cold looks on his way out.

When he got to 221B, though, John was nowhere in sight. Lestrade had said two weeks' notice. But maybe John had taken it to mean immediate termination. Or had something happened to him? Surely someone would have said something. Was that what Molly had wanted to tell him? But she hadn't looked upset, as she would have if John were injured.

There was nothing to do but get on with it. Sherlock gulped down his by now lukewarm coffee, tossed John's into the bin, and went to his desk just as the bell rang.

The children wanted to know where Mr Watson was, of course. Sherlock merely handed out a reading comprehension text and sat down to check his phone again. Nothing. He ran his hands through his hair. This was intolerable. He needed a cigarette. Was this what worry felt like? This ants-under-the-skin urge to do something, to demand from Molly, Lestrade, anyone, where John was?

%%%%%%

"Mrs Hudson." Sherlock smiled his best ingratiating smile at the school secretary. It was break time, and he didn't have long. "John didn't call in sick this morning, did he?"

Mrs Hudson looked up at him from her desk, her face falling. "Oh dear. Didn't anyone tell you?" She stood up (hip still giving her trouble) and came around the desk to stand in front of him, laying a hand on his arm. Sherlock froze as his mind raced ahead: John had had an accident; he was in hospital; he was in a coma; he was dead. Mrs Hudson's next words didn't mitigate the feeling by much: "He called this morning and said he wouldn't be coming in any more," she said, squeezing Sherlock's arm gently.

This must be what normal people felt like when confronted with an obvious fact they were unable to comprehend. Because that wasn't the right answer. It couldn't be. "But there are two weeks left to the term," he said stupidly. John had to come back. This couldn't be the end.

"I suppose he thought with the play being cancelled, he wasn't needed any more. I'm sorry." She patted his arm once more and let go.

Not needed anymore. No, Sherlock didn't need him, did he. He'd never needed John. He'd done fine before him, and he'd be fine now. That wasn't the point. The point was that now he knew he wanted John. He'd allowed himself to give in to a craving. Stupid. Colossally so.

"Sherlock?" Mrs Hudson said, gingerly, as if afraid he was going to do something sudden and violent.

Sherlock frowned down at her. He understood perfectly. It was like the conservatory, and this job, and everything he ever invested even the slightest bit of himself in. It occurred to him that he didn't actually know whether it was the bank account or the unauthorised field trip with the children that had done him in. Possibly it was simply the accumulated burden of everything else on top of Sherlock's difficult personality.

"No... Yes. Yes, it's fine," he said, drawing himself up smartly, because if there was one thing he didn't want, it was anyone's pity or sympathy. "That's right. No play, no need for an assistant. I should have realised."

"Are you going to be all right, dear?" Mrs Hudson asked, her concern written all over her face. "I know the two of you had become close."

"We weren't close," Sherlock scoffed. "He was simply another member of staff. It doesn't matter." He waved a hand as if dismissing all of the past month. Had it only been a month? Even better. What was a month to the rest of his life? Nothing lasting only a month had ever impacted his life before. This was no different.

"Oh, Sherlock," Mrs Hudson said, equal parts sympathy and disappointment.

Sherlock shot her a look and left, throwing the door shut behind him.

%%%%%%

"Will Mr Watson be here this afternoon?" Saffron asked at the end of the morning lessons.

"No, he will not," Sherlock said shortly.

Ollie looked up from pulling his lunch bag out of his backpack. "But he was going to teach me and the lads the choreography for the three wise men," he protested.

"Four!" Bob chirped.

Ollie rolled his eyes and gave Sherlock a look as if to say, 'You and I both know the only reason he's in.' Sherlock almost smiled in sympathy, but he did know the reason Bob was one of the wise men, and it was because John had seen something in the awkward runt of the litter. Maybe even something of himself.

"Mr Watson will not be back this afternoon, or ever, for that matter." It turned out that was surprisingly difficult to say, which didn't make any sense. It was simply a fact. No different than saying there were two hundred and forty-three types of tobacco, or Anderson was an idiot.

There was a small chorus of disbelief in response to his statement.

"And as for the play..." Sherlock looked around. All of the children were paused in their preparations for lunch, watching him with big eyes. Again, they were only facts, but it took an immense effort to form the words. "Something has changed. I let you believe that Whitehall Studios were coming to make a movie out of the play, but it turns out they aren't. In fact, they never were. I lied about it, and I let that lie grow, and multiply, and turn into lots of other little lies. And now I've been found out, and we are not actually being allowed to do the show. There will be no Nativity at all."

"Can't we do the show anyway? We don't care about the movie," T.J. said.

"No, Mr Lestrade is not going to let us do the show."

"Please, please, please, Mr Holmes," Bob begged, "can't we still do the Nativity, please?"

"It's not up to me." And even if it were, there couldn't be a show without John. It was unthinkable. Sherlock may have written the music and Molly organised the costumes and the sets along with the parents, but the play was the realisation of John's vision.

"If Mr Watson were here, we'd still be doing the play," T.J. said sullenly.

"Well, he's not," Sherlock snapped, "and in fact," he added, feeling spiteful over the fact that the children seemed much more concerned over the play than John's absence, "as a result of all of this, not only will Mr Watson not be here anymore, but I shan't be here next term either. This will be my last term. I won't be coming back."

Now some of the children began to cry. Wonderful. Just like what happened with Sebastian Wilkes, and everyone knew how well that had gone over. At least they couldn't do anything worse than fire him. Although the loss of his job, his position, and his security was a minor slap on the wrist, as it transpired. The loss of John was the much more hurtful and effective punishment.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen: The Blackwood Nativity

Sherlock didn't try to contact John again. He destroyed the paper cup (shredded, dissolved in sulfuric acid, then burned the residue) he'd kept from when they shared the tea at Speedy's. He deleted the list of clinics and wished he could delete the image of John silhouetted against the bathroom light when he came, naked, to Sherlock's bed. In fact, it was so bad he had to sleep on the couch. Which, in the event, turned out not to involve sleeping as much as trying not to think about John hovering over him right there, asking to take him to bed.

The kitchen was tainted by the echo of John and him laughing over takeaway. The desk by the memory of working on the songs together. Even the upstairs bathroom had the medicine cabinet he'd taken the lotion out of, and the downstairs one the bathtub-cum-murder scene. He might have to move house entirely. Which, given he no longer had the means to pay his mortgage, might end up not being a wholly voluntary decision.

Sherlock didn't do much more than go through the motions at school. He avoided the teachers' lounge completely. Mrs Hudson waited for him outside his classroom one day and forced a homemade Victoria sponge on him, not saying anything more than, "You're a good person, Sherlock Holmes, and don't you forget it." He may have eaten most of it in the course of repeatedly playing Saint-Saens' Concerto No. 3 in the wee hours.

The children were sullen and listless. For all that John had gone on about how much they supposedly wanted to please Sherlock and make him happy, they were doing a bang-up job of achieving just the opposite. Sherlock was glad he was going to be shot of them in a couple of weeks, and he rather thought the feeling was mutual.

%%%%%%

Friday night was the Blackwood School's Nativity. Sherlock wasn't planning on going, but somehow his evening walk with Gladstone took him in that direction, and shortly after seven they were standing in front of the pink stone structure. Sherlock left the dog tied to a tree and went inside. The posters on the doors and plastering the halls advertised 'James Moriarty's Herod: A Christmas Tale'. Appropriate. Moriarty always had fancied himself some sort of monarch.

The play had already started when Sherlock slipped into the darkened auditorium. It was nothing like the play he and John had been working on. In fact, it was as if Moriarty had gone to great lengths to make his show diametrically opposed to the Baker Street one in every conceivable way. Whereas their play was full of light and sparkle, Moriarty's was dark and shadowy. The simple, upbeat songs of their Nativity were in stark contrast to the dirge-like chants and atonal meanderings Moriarty's students presented. Instead of angels, stars, and young lovers, there were black-masked warriors and ghostly, skeletal apparitions.

Sherlock was, frankly, enchanted. Here was the work of a mind worthy of note. Moriarty had clearly written his own music as well; the deceptive calm of some passages followed hard on by shrieks of cacophony had Moriarty's particular flavour of disturbed written all over them. Sherlock couldn't help but feel that this was Moriarty's personal challenge to him, and that his response would have been found wanting, if it had ever been staged. Even in its original form, before John's input, Sherlock's play was candy floss to Moriarty's tequila. A butter knife to his surgical steel scalpel. And now, it was just so much mush.

The climax came when Herod ordered the killing of the Hebrew infants. Sherlock watched in abject fascination (the rest of the audience in wordless horror) as a specially prepared doll was torn literally limb from limb, spilling great gushes of blood over the stage, the children, and the first row of the audience. Screams erupted. It looked as if the evening was going to end in chaos until a sudden, sharp sound pierced the tumult. It repeated, over and over. Finally, it coalesced into the crack of a single pair of hands clapping.

Parents and children alike turned to see a man slowly stand up somewhere in the middle of the third row, clapping loudly and steadily. It was Moran. He stared down the looks of disbelief and disgust and clapped even more forcefully until, hesitantly, a few others began to join in. Soon the entire audience was applauding. Moran gestured for them to stand. Sherlock could only admire the choreography of this as well, for it was certainly planned down to the minutest detail, including the exact decibel level the applause should reach. He wondered whether the whole thing was, in fact, being staged for him. Moriarty had to have known he'd be there. It almost made him want to speak to him in person afterwards, but that was certainly what Moriarty wanted. No matter how Sherlock might try to hide his true opinion, Moriarty would know he'd won this round. Without his input, though, it was a win by default only. A hollow victory.

The funny thing was, Sherlock had thought John's collaborations had improved the play. Not the individual songs, perhaps. He still cringed inwardly at some of the lyrics, and the loss of the starkly beautiful plainsong solo for the Annunciation still chafed. Then there was the fact that John had made the whole thing into a trite love story and watered down the majesty and pageantry in order to be inclusive. So, really, Sherlock wondered now how he ever could have thought the play was better with John's input. Because he distinctly recalled thinking it was. Base sentiment was all it was. Hormones. Chemistry. By no objective measure was the play better for John's influence.

Except it was theirs. Together. That was really what had made it special. And that was something that no amount of Moriarty's twisted genius could replace. Sherlock wanted to be praised for his work, yes, and to have his talents recognised. But he realised that it wasn't the approbation of the masses which truly meant anything to him (although it would have been nice). Moran's poor review five years ago had stung, but John's rejection hurt. More than he was able to admit.

Sherlock slipped back out before the lights came on. Outside, he stopped to light a cigarette before untying Gladstone. He'd broken down and bought another pack a couple of days earlier, but it was absolutely the last one. As he stood there under the tree sucking the smoke into his lungs, the parents and visitors started to trickle out of the school. Most looked bewildered. Some angry. One looked... Sherlock drew back further against the tree and flicked his cigarette away. That was John. John was here. For the briefest moment, Sherlock thought he might have come to see Moriarty, but then he wouldn't be outside so quickly, and by the looks of it setting off directly for home.

Sherlock didn't need to keep him in sight. He didn't want to catch up to him before his flat anyway. He made sure to allow enough time for John's slower pace. It looked like his leg was bothering him again.

When Sherlock and Gladstone got to John's building, the light in the third window from the left on the second floor was already on. He rang the bell, half expecting John to either not respond or tell him to piss off when he announced his name through the intercom, but the door clicked open.

Sherlock mounted the steps with trepidation. He kept Gladstone with him. John seemed to like the dog, after all. He stopped in front of John's door. This was a terrible idea. What was he even doing? He was supposed to be erasing John from his life, not rushing after him like a leaf in the wake of a passing bus. He wasn't getting another chance. Not even at just being friends. Although it wasn't 'just' friends, was it? He rather thought that was the loss he felt most keenly. He could always get another lover, if he were so inclined. However, there would never be another friend like John for him.

This was stupid. Pointless. It was just going to end in another row. Angry at himself for having given in to his impulsiveness yet again, Sherlock tugged on Gladstone's lead to go back downstairs when the door opened.

"What are you doing here?" John had only opened the door wide enough to stand in the gap. Wary, but not entirely unhappy to see him. Sherlock couldn't allow himself to hope, though. That way lay danger.

He turned back but didn't come closer. "Hello, John."

"I told you not to follow me." A warning, but also resignation.

"I didn't," Sherlock answered automatically. It was even the truth. Technically. "I would hardly take Gladstone with me if I were trying to shadow you." There, a flash of displeasure. And the damnable part was, Sherlock's first impulse was to try and fix it. "I did see you at the play," he said, "but I didn't know you were going to be there. And I didn't follow you here. I walked a different route. That's why you were able to beat me by ten minutes, despite your leg acting up again."

"And how did you know where I was-" John sighed. "Never mind. You think you're being sincere, don't you? All right, come in." He stood back to make the way clear.

That was... more than Sherlock had expected. Before he could second-guess either of them, he stepped inside with Gladstone. The single room was much as he had imagined it: bland, lifeless, and utterly unworthy of John. On one side was a neatly made narrow bed, a cheap desk with what looked like might be potentially interesting notebooks and a laptop on it, a low chest of drawers, and a lumpy armchair covered in puke-coloured plaid. Opposite that was a cooking niche with some unfortunate green wall cupboards, a sink, a hot plate, and a refrigerator that was barely big enough to hold a six-pack; a plastic table, and a couple of chairs. The floor was covered by a stained carpet worn nearly through in places. The smell of overcooked pasta and wet wool was insistent.

"You want something to drink?" John said, moving to the sink.

Sherlock stood uncertainly by the door. Had he missed something? Why was John behaving so... normally? "No," he said. "But maybe a bowl of water for Gladstone."

"Pretty disturbing, that play," John said as he ran the water.

Sherlock made a sound that could be taken as acknowledgment. He looked around more carefully. Was this some kind of trap or set-up? A hidden camera to record the scene as John pretended to be nice to him, only to pull the rug out from under him at the end? Mycroft would be the first in line to watch it, closely followed by Moriarty and half the Baker Street School staff. Scratch that; the entire staff.

John looked over his shoulder at him. "Don't tell me you liked it?"

Something told Sherlock this wasn't the moment to sing Moriarty's praises. "It had its moments."

"Moments of insanity, anyway," John muttered, turning back to the sink. He set the water on the floor and crouched down to coax Gladstone over. The dog didn't need to be asked twice. He didn't even check with Sherlock, just went straight to the bowl and started happily lapping at it.

"What did you come here for then, Sherlock? I'm not going to guess anymore." John sounded tired; resigned.

Sherlock didn't know either. Maybe the impulse had been born of some mad fantasy that this whole thing was nothing more than a misunderstanding, that John thought when Lestrade sent him away that Sherlock didn't want to see him either, that he'd somehow only been interested in John as long as he was useful for the play. That John's terse texts had been practical rather than hostile. That John had been genuinely busy all week (job interviews? Sherlock focused more purposefully on his hair, clothes, hands, but even with John's head angled down he could see that wasn't the case and felt his last straws slipping out of his grasp). But Sherlock had never really been one for mad fantasies. There could only be one reason for him to be there.

"Come back."

John shook his head, watching Gladstone sniff around the water bowl, hoping for something to eat. "I can't."

Sherlock scoffed, because really, if John was going to insist on his little position of moral superiority, he was at least going to have to own up to it. Plus, Sherlock couldn't shake the feeling that John had let him in for a reason, as if he were allowing Sherlock the chance to give him something: a password, a secret handshake, a thumb drive with an algorithm that would magically rewrite the past week. "You patently can," he retorted. "If I'm still allowed to walk freely on the school grounds then certainly no one's going to stop you. Unless you mean you don't have bus fare-"

"Stop it," John said sharply without looking up at Sherlock. "That's exactly what I'm talking about."

Sherlock was startled into silence. It seemed incredible that this was about money, in the end. "John, really, if it's simply a matter of a couple of pounds, I'd be happy to-"

"Damn the bus fare!" John snapped. Gladstone, at his feet, flinched away. "Not you, Gladstone, sorry," John said more gently and patted the dog on the back. He stood up and stepped away, toward the other side of the room. Which also took him farther away from Sherlock. "Right. Erm..." He leaned back against the edge of the desk and crossed his arms. And his ankles. The body language was certainly clear enough. "What do you mean with 'come back'?" John asked. "To the school, you mean? Why should I? There's no more play."

Sherlock knew whatever he said next was crucial. He couldn't afford another misstep. John wasn't staying away because the play had been cancelled. That much was glaringly obvious. He was staying away because of Sherlock. Ergo he wasn't going to come back for any reason relating to Sherlock. But he would come back for the play. The conclusion was therefore also obvious.

"There could be," Sherlock said.

John raised his eyebrows. Sceptical. "What, did Greg change his mind?"

"He doesn't have to. We can do the play anyway," Sherlock said recklessly.

"Just you and me? We need the kids, and for that we need Greg's permission. Not that I expect you understand the concept. In addition to the fact that we haven't any place to put it on, costumes, lights, sound... Unless you've gotten your brother on board after all?" He was clearly aiming for scathing sarcasm, but he landed somewhere in the vicinity of not daring to hope. It might just be close enough.

"The city will be happy to let us use the cathedral ruins as planned. They won't have any other events booked in at such short notice. Likewise with the sponsors. They only get publicity if the play goes on, and that's all they care about. As for the children, I should think their parents would be happy to see them perform, regardless of Lestrade's opinion." It all seemed so self-explanatory when stated like that.

"You're talking about going behind Greg's back."

"This was never his project, John. It was ours."

"And the children's."

"Yes, fine, and the children's," Sherlock agreed with an irritable gesture.

John pressed his lips together, thought about it. "This is against my better judgment, you know that," he said finally.

Sherlock mentally clenched his fist in victory. Aloud, he said solemnly, "Yes."

"It's just for the play," John cautioned. "Just to give those kids something for all their hard work."

"Yes, understood," Sherlock said quickly. He would agree to anything, any reason John wanted to fabricate for himself. All that mattered was that Sherlock had another chance.

John shook his head, as if he couldn't believe he was agreeing to this. "Right then, let's do it."

"Get your coat then."

"Why, where are we going?" John asked, but he was already moving toward the coat hooks on the wall by the door.

"We have an appointment with the Lord Mayor."

%%%%%%

They didn't so much have an appointment as they had brass balls. Mostly Sherlock's. A quick check of the online city events calendar showed the city orchestra was giving a Christmas concert. The mayor was certain to be in attendance.

"Sherlock, this is never going to work," John hissed, distributing deprecating and apologetic smiles as they made their way through the black-tie crowd. They'd waited until the interval, when it would be easiest to approach the mayor.

"Right this way, doctor," Sherlock said importantly, for the benefit of the usher (two children before she turned twenty, trying to get off the dole, shiftless boyfriend, asthma) trailing nervously after them. They'd bluffed their way past the ticket box with the story that John had been summoned for a medical emergency. Sherlock's presence wasn't really explained, but no one questioned it. "Ah, there she is," Sherlock announced, craning his head over the masses as if he'd spotted the patient. "Oh dear," he fretted, turning around to the hapless young woman with the most sincere look of worry he could muster. "Someone should be in front to meet the ambulance when it arrives."

"I can do that," the usher offered, breathless with the potential for excitement.

"Excellent, just direct them round to the service entrance. I think we'd best avoid a scene if at all possible."

The usher hurried off. Sherlock looked at John triumphantly.

"You haven't really rung for an ambulance, have you?" John asked, but there was a flash of humour in his eyes.

Sherlock smiled back. "No. But we will need to be quick. She's about to tell the manager, and he's not so easily hoodwinked."

The mayor was holding court amidst a gaggle of women all trying to pretend they weren't well past their prime. The Botox alone, if vaporised, would have been sufficient to incapacitate half the orchestra.

"Mr Holmes!" the mayor cried when Sherlock insinuated himself into the group. "This is certainly a surprise. Didn't think we'd be seeing any more of you. Shame about the Nativity, after all that."

"Yes, funny thing. I wasn't made aware until just now that there's been a massive cock-up in communication. The play is still on."

"But I was told Whitehall weren't able to make it."

Sherlock waved his objection aside. Normally, he would now make a pointed observation about the risers in the mayor's ridiculous boots and the fact that his golfing partner was letting him win, and hint that he would expose his private infidelities (at least two of the women present had definite designs on the man, which would likely dry up once they found out he was also stringing along the city treasurer and a meter maid) if he didn't show himself to be cooperative. However, taking a page out of John's book, he decided this might be a better opportunity for a carrot than a stick.

"You know how these things are," Sherlock said, affecting a tone of chummy confidentiality. "Last minute pick-ups for another project. They've sworn they absolutely will make every effort to be there on the night, but that's not what it's about, is it? It's about civic pride, showcasing the future of this city, and putting on a roaring good show!" Sherlock winked broadly at the leather-skinned women and their improbable bust lines. They in turn nodded and gazed expectantly back at the mayor.

And he, simple man that he was, laughed heartily. "The show must go on, eh?"

%%%%%%

"That," John said between gasps of laughter as they walked away from the concert hall, "was absolutely insane!"

Sherlock glowed. "It worked though, didn't it?"

"I don't see how. Nope. Oughtn't to have. Only you could have pulled that off." John was positively gleeful over it.

"You were our ticket in," Sherlock reminded him.

"You didn't need me. You'd make a perfectly passable doctor yourself."

True, but not the point. The point was that they haddone it together, and successfully, and it had been fun. As they passed a Chinese restaurant, Sherlock caught a blast of warm, spicy air from the ventilator. He stopped. John didn't usually eat dinner before seven. The chances were that he hadn't had anything before the play. Gladstone (whom they'd left tied to a tree during their short visit to the mayor but retrieved immediately afterward) hung his tongue out expectantly at the scent of cooked meat.

"What?" John asked from a few feet away, wondering why Sherlock had stopped.

Sherlock reached for the door handle and inclined his head in invitation. "You haven't eaten in several hours."

All of John's enthusiasm seemed to fall away. His fists clenched at his sides before he caught himself and forced them to open. "No."

"Don't be tedious, it's not as if you have a meal waiting for you at home."

"I said just for the play, Sherlock. I'm not-" He appeared to struggle with himself, before settling on, "Not tonight, all right?"

Sherlock scowled and had to step aside to let a couple exit the restaurant (florist and a desk job of some kind, living together but only a few months, going to have sex as soon as they got home, all so obvious it made him want to scream).

John's face softened. (Regret? Guilt? Sherlock wasn't entirely sure.) "Look, I'll see you after school on Monday at the cathedral. I can start calling the parents tomorrow. I think we'll need to run through every afternoon if we're to be ready by Friday."

Sherlock nodded curtly. "Fine." This had been a stupid idea. Now he was stuck doing the play, and John was still going to disappear from his life in a week.

"Okay, well." John put his hands in his pockets (not even going to shake hands) and looked around. The pavement was empty. Only a couple of anonymous cars passed by in the road. He looked back at Sherlock. The six-and-a-half feet separating them were insurmountable. "Good night, then."

There was really nothing else to be said. "Good night," Sherlock echoed, and walked away. Only Gladstone kept looking back, as if they'd left something very important behind.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty: The Final Preparations

On Monday morning, the classroom was buzzing with excited chatter and snatches of song when Sherlock arrived. He took great pains to impress on the children that the fact they were going forward with the play was a surprise for Lestrade and the rest of the teachers, and they were under no circumstances to breathe a word of it to any of them. What Lestrade didn't know wouldn't hurt him (or Sherlock).

After the final bell rang, Sherlock arranged to meet Molly and the children at the bus stop around the corner, and they all rode together for the five stops to the cathedral. By the time they got off, Sherlock's ears were ringing. It didn't help once they got to the flagstone square that had once been the nave of the bombed-out cathedral, where the children's enthusiastic shouts and laughter were multiplied by the empty-windowed Gothic walls enclosing the area. Sherlock vowed to take a taxi the rest of the week, leaving the remainder of the ferrying to Molly.

John was waiting, as he said he would be, along with some technicians who were doing the preliminary set-up for lights and sound. He took aside the four boys who were playing the wise men, to work on their choreography, while Sherlock and Molly ran through the staging for Gabriel's song with the rest of the class. The children were very excited about the stage set up in the former apse in front of the skeleton tower and spire, not to mention poking at the cables and other equipment, and it was all the three teachers could do to keep them more or less on task.

By the end of the rehearsal, no less than three shoving matches had broken out, one girl had lost a shoe and was in tears, and another girl's mother had to be rung to pick her up early because she had stomach-ache. Everyone was exhausted and at the end of their nerves. And Sherlock hadn't exchanged more than a couple of words with John, and those had been brief and strictly related to the play. Truly, a spectacular failure as his bright ideas went.

When John and Molly herded the children over to the street side of the square to meet the parents, Sherlock hung back in a dark corner by the stage. He should really leave. There was no reason to stay. John had said 'just for the play'. He couldn't have made it any clearer.

Sherlock tapped a cigarette out of the pack he'd picked up that morning (this was really the last one) and lit it. It wasn't late, but it was dark due to the season. No one would see him this far back. Not that Sherlock cared whether John - scratch that, anyone - whether anyone saw him smoking. John disliked cigarettes, wouldn't like to kiss him- Anyone! He wouldn't want to kiss anyone who'd been smoking. (Damn it, had to stop doing that.) Such speculations had nothing to do with Sherlock anymore. The point was that Sherlock wasn't standing here pining and stealing a few more minutes of watching John when he could be on his way home. Not at all hoping John would come back to make sure everything was cleaned up, and happen to see Sherlock (cigarette finished by then) and get that hopeful look (really must delete that), just waiting for Sherlock to suggest they do something together so he could say yes.

John was looking for a job (shoulders cramped from being hunched over a small laptop computer for several hours). He was already moving on with his life, trying to put the unseemly episode with Sherlock behind him. He wasn't going to discuss it with him. Nothing to discuss. They'd never had any sort of agreement, never made any promises, never even come close to it. Sherlock was going to have a new job too. New idiots to deal with. He had no idea where, of course, or doing what, but the idiots were certain. And none of them would be John Watson.

The last child gone, John and Molly stood at the edge of the square under a low-emission street light, too far away for Sherlock to hear them. John had his hands in his pockets and his head down. Molly was speaking to him (trying to catch his eye, hand on his lower arm to keep him from leaving: something he doesn't want to hear).

Sherlock took one last deep draw of his cigarette and held the smoke in, milking it for the last few micrograms of nicotine. The tip glowed bright orange. Molly looked over John's shoulder, back toward the stage area. Right at Sherlock. Annoyed at himself, he dropped the butt and ground it out with the toe of his shoe, swivelling around at the same time to leave.

He was almost at the street on the far side of the square when he heard John call his name. He should keep going. It was petty, but John had ignored his texts all weekend and Sherlock wanted him to see how it felt. He probably just wanted to tell Sherlock something about the play, anyway, and Sherlock really didn't want to hear it. His traitorous feet, however, shuddered to a halt.

"Sherlock!" John's uneven (familiar, comforting) gait sounded on the bricks behind him.

Sherlock turned halfway, still intending to continue on his way (flee). "I don't really have time, John."

"No, I know." John stopped further away than even standard politeness would require. "I just erm..." He looked around, pulled his bottom lip in, let it go again. "Play's shaping up nicely," he offered (stalling for time). "It was a good idea to keep going with it. The kids are excited."

"Fine, if that's all-" Sherlock said, impatient.

"No, it's..." John straightened his back (talking himself into something) and pulled something out of his pocket: a piece of paper. He cleared his throat. "The last song," he said, unfolding the paper (carefully: something important).

"I'm not re-writing any of the songs," Sherlock told him pointedly. "You'll have to make do with what we have. It would be hopeless to try and teach the children a new song this late anyway."

"No, you're right. You're right. We never did touch the last song, though. The manger scene."

"I know which song you mean."

John grimaced, almost a smile. "Yeah. It's nice, works fine. It's a really good song. I just thought..." John held the paper out to him. When Sherlock didn't reach for it right away, John stepped closer.

Sherlock turned his head to look at the paper from where he was. He couldn't make it out exactly in the dim light, but judging by the arrangement and pattern of the words on the page, it was a poem; song lyrics. John shook the sheet, as if Sherlock might not have noticed it otherwise.

"And?" Sherlock asked archly.

"It wouldn't take much. Just a few adjustments to the rhythm. We don't have to use it if you don't..." John lowered his hand, glanced at Sherlock's face and away again almost immediately. He folded the paper up again. "Never mind. You're right, it's fine the way it is. We don't have time for a new-"

"Give it to me." Sherlock stuck his hand out. He was curious, that was all. It was certain to be more drivel about cool towns and sparkly stars and being blinded by love.

"We really don't have to use it," John repeated. "It's just something I came up with over the week-end, once I knew we were going forward with the show. It sort of... wrote itself." He handed Sherlock the folded-up paper as if afraid it would spontaneously combust.

"I'll have a look," Sherlock said, trying to sound curt, as he slipped the paper into his coat. He fancied he could feel the residual warmth from it having been in John's pocket. The notion made a sharp and entirely unwelcome sort of longing flare up somewhere behind his ribs.

John regarded him warily, as if unsure whether Sherlock were sincere or not. After a bit, he seemed to decide in his favour, and nodded. "All right. I'll see you tomorrow then. Same bat time, same bat place?"

An attempt at humour, judging by the facial and vocal cues, but Sherlock was, as usual, at sea. It must be another one of those cultural references Sherlock had never bothered to pick up, or if he had, he'd deleted it as unimportant.

"You never watched Batman, did you," John said with a mixture of amusement and resignation. "Oh come on," he added at the look on Sherlock's face, "tell me you've at least heard of Batman?"

"I don't follow sport, John, you know that."

John laughed, and Sherlock very nearly had to leave right then because that wasn't a sound he'd thought he'd hear again. And he wanted to hear it, he wanted to share it and be included in it, but he couldn't because he'd done something that John didn't approve of (so many rules, so many useless rules!) and John had unilaterally decided to take his laughter and his limp and his casual profanity and the little lines around his eyes and bugger off out of Sherlock's life.

"No, not-" John was saying through his laughter, "Jesus, we have to..." He trailed off as he realised what he was about to say, the amusement falling away and being replaced by sadness. "My God." He shook his head. "What are we doing?"

Panic rose in Sherlock's throat. He wasn't ready, not now, not like this. He'd prepared what he was going to say, the things he would show John, but he'd deleted it all along with the list of clinics and any hopes he'd foolishly allowed to take up residence in his mind (heart). But John was offering, he was giving Sherlock another chance. To do what? Explain? He couldn't explain: he didn't even really know what had gone wrong.

John was still talking, oblivious to Sherlock's state of inner turmoil. "I'm not actually angry at you, you know," he said quietly. "I was, but now I think I'm more confused than anything. I don't know how to make any of this right again-"

"I have to go," Sherlock blurted out, taking a step backward. No matter what he said or did, he was just going to end up alienating John further.

John flinched, as if Sherlock had lashed out at him. "Right," he said tightly, burying his hands once more in his pockets. "No, that's- It's fine."

It wasn't fine at all, but Sherlock didn't know what else to do. His entire experience with making people do what he wanted them to involved lying, threats of blackmail, and bribery. And none of those was going to help him here. What did normal people do in situations like this? Beg? Cry? What would Mrs Hudson do? Or (he shuddered) Lestrade? The answer was obvious: they wouldn't have got themselves in this deep in the first place.

"And you can-" John waved his hand around in Sherlock's general direction and started to back away. "Forget about that song. Seriously, bin it." (Embarrassed: Sherlock's curiosity was doubly piqued.) "'Night," he said gruffly and walked quickly across the square without looking back.

Molly had left already (expected things to go better between him and John). The technicians were also long gone. Sherlock was alone. He fumbled past the paper in his pocket for the pack of cigarettes and lit one. Once he had it going, he took out John's note and angled it toward the light so he could read it.

Sometime life is not all it can be

and here we are

wondering just how far this road can lead

and here we are

Then from the darkness shines a bright burning star

And who we are is changing within our hearts

One night, one moment

And everything's changed

One night, one moment

And everything's changed

Tonight is so pure and so special

We'll never feel lonely again

Cause we are standing together as friends

Oooh, and everything's changing forever

One night, one moment

Sherlock took another drag on his cigarette, squinting his eyes against the smoke, and read it through again. John was obviously trying to tell him something, but he shouldn't jump to conclusions. Especially as the last thing John had said was to bin it. He hadn't demanded it back, though. Sherlock returned the paper to his pocket. If John meant to show up tomorrow, then so did Sherlock, and he wasn't going to sit idle in the meantime.

%%%%%

When Sherlock's taxi pulled up outside the cathedral ruins the following afternoon, he felt uncertain. He disliked being uncertain. Irritatingly, it seemed he was never anything but uncertain when it came to John. And yet he hadn't given up the experiment, hadn't given himup yet. Perhaps he wasn't as unhappy as he thought he should be over unknown outcomes.

Theoretically, it seemed like a good plan, but all of his theoretically good plans had somehow come round to bite him recently. As the taxi drove away, the marquee over the cinema across the street caught his eye. The movie featured for that evening was one of those John had once expressed disbelief over regarding Sherlock's lack of familiarity with it. If he'd been the superstitious sort, he might have taken it as a good omen. As it was, he tucked the information away for a possible follow-up.

John was already there, discussing something with the technicians. He acknowledged Sherlock with a glance and a nod, but didn't come over. Sherlock presumed they were working out the details of the lighting for Mary and Joseph's song, which they were supposed to be running through that afternoon. The switching of the spotlight from one couple to the next had to be timed perfectly with the song. Sherlock took the opportunity to go to the keyboard where John had left the score and switch out the old version of the play's final song with the one he'd written up last night. It really hadn't taken many adjustments. He'd been done with it in half an hour.

He still wasn't sure whether the song meant John still wanted to be friends (or more), or whether it was just his way of saying the one night they'd spent together would remain as a fond memory, not tainted by everything that had followed. And Sherlock wasn't quite sure what his re-write meant, either: a gracious parting gift, an acceptance of John's overture toward a re-establishment of their friendship, or maybe even an attempt at an apology?

A bit difficult when he didn't know what he was supposed to be apologising for. He wasn't sorry he'd taken John along to Whitehall. It was unfair of the parents to have suspected John of any wrongdoing, of the police to have questioned him, and of Lestrade to have fired him, but Sherlock had no control over those things, and he'd told anyone who would listen that John had nothing to do with any of it. He also wasn't sorry he'd tried to access John's financial information. It wasn't as if he would have done anything with it that was detrimental to John in any way. It was simply a stupid social convention that said a person's bank balance should remain private. He wasn't sorry for showing up at John's flat after the Blackwood play (even if he had followed him, a bit); in fact, it was a direct result of that meeting that he now had this chance, if that's what it was, so he counted it as one of his better decisions.

What else was there? Maybe John had realised all those things too, after a bit of reflection (Sherlock had to make allowances, had to remember that other people were much slower to put the pieces together, as well as hopelessly enslaved to their emotional instincts), and that's what the new lyrics were supposed to mean.

Molly and the children arrived a short time later, and the rehearsal got underway. Things went more smoothly than the day before, perhaps due in part to the cocoa and doughnuts that showed up halfway through, a donation from one of the vendors who'd been granted a concession for the night of the play. Sherlock kept a close eye on the time, though, and fifteen minutes before the end, he broke off what they were doing and announced they were going to try the last song. It was probably the easiest one to stage, as it didn't involve anything more than the children standing around the manger.

Molly and the children shoved around the big wooden boxes they were using as props to simulate the shape of the stable, while John went to the keyboard and shuffled through the sheets of music. Sherlock watched him out of the corner of his eye. When John found the song, he stood staring down at it for a long moment, then looked over at Sherlock. The expression on his face wasn't one of delight. It wasn't anger, either, though. It was that soft, quiet smile, the same one Sherlock had slipped into the leather photo album in his mind palace, and his heart swelled with the knowledge that he'd finally done something right.

John walked over, still holding the music. His smile remained tentative, as if he weren't sure whether to be pleased or not. Sherlock's fingers played nervously with the lighter in his pocket.

"You re-wrote it," John said. He was standing closer than he had last night. Close enough that Sherlock could have touched him without any effort at all. He flipped the lighter around and around.

"Obviously," he said. It sounded like a term of endearment. Maybe it was.

Maybe John heard it that way, too, because his mouth quirked up and he looked back down at the music.

"I thought-" He cleared his throat. "I thought we weren't going to teach them a new song," he said, his voice low. Sherlock had to lean in a bit (to hear him better, that was all).

"They already know it," Sherlock said.

John looked up again. He was so close now. "They... How?" His entire forehead creased. Sherlock could have kissed it. Wanted to. Wanted to so much.

"We practised it all morning. Right through the break."

John looked down at the music again and put his hand over his mouth. For a terrible moment, Sherlock thought he was going to cry, but then he took his hand away, and all that came out was a little sigh.

"It's brilliant," John said. "I mean, I'm sure it's brilliant."

"It's a good song," Sherlock said. "Better now."

"Yeah," John agreed, meeting Sherlock's gaze, his smile broadening. "Yeah, I think so."

"Um, Mr Holmes? Mr Watson?" Molly's voice broke in. "We're ready?"

The children were all standing in their places, watching them. Some were giggling and whispering. John looked up at Sherlock, his eyes brimming with laughter. Sherlock smiled back, a great relief washing through him. Everything wasn't totally fine yet, but it wasn't irretrievably broken, either. He and John still seemed to be friends, and they hadn't even had to go through an awkward conversation about feelings or whatever had gone wrong before.

John held the music up and brandished it at the children. "I have it on very good authority that you can sing this while standing on your heads drinking a glass of water!" he called out to them.

An ingenious redirection on John's part, as the giggles about them spilled over into shouts and laughter at the ridiculous proposition. Sherlock watched as John went back to the keyboard. His back was straight and his leg was steady. And Sherlock meant to keep them that way.

After they demonstrated that they were, in fact, capable of learning a new song in half a day, the children were dismissed to their waiting parents. Sherlock ducked behind a tower of loudspeakers and lit a cigarette. He'd snuck one right after school, but the emotional gamut he'd run through in anticipation of John's reaction to the song had him gagging for another by now. He relaxed perceptibly as the first burn hit the back of his throat.

He was really quite pleased with the way things had gone. All he had to do now was build on John's good will, without pushing too hard. He'd decided last night that he'd rather have John as a friend only than not have him in his life at all. It was an admission of weakness, yes, but some weaknesses were worth giving in to. Having John around had made even the long hours in the classroom and preparing for this horrible play bearable, and if John's presence could work such a miracle as that, how much better would it be when he was finally free from this school and doing something he actually wanted to do? As soon as he figured out what that was.

Sherlock was only halfway through his cigarette when he heard footsteps approaching. He flicked the still-smoking butt away and feigned being occupied with his phone.

"There you are," John said.

Sherlock tapped through a couple of menus and made a questioning sound.

"Kids are all set. Molly's going to bring the costumes tomorrow for a fitting. It means we'll have less actual rehearsal time, but maybe we could split them into two groups and run through the star song and the chorus for Gabriel's song with one half while the other half's with Molly."

"Yes, fine," Sherlock agreed, not really caring how John arranged the rehearsal, and slipped his phone into his pocket.

"Okay, right." John rocked back and forth on his heels and looked around (stalling, either has something to say or is expecting something). "I guess I'll... see you tomorrow then."

It was an opening - a blatant, gaping opening - but Sherlock wasn't going to rush in too fast this time. Still, if he played it right...

"Undoubtedly," he agreed and buttoned up his coat the rest of the way. "I'm headed that way, easier to get a taxi-" He nodded toward the side of the square he'd arrived on.

"Oh yeah, I'll walk with you, bus stop's over there too."

John fell into step beside him as if they'd never walked any other way. Sherlock was taken off guard by the intensity of the longing which followed immediately on the heels of the thought. Not for physical intimacy - although that was there, too, always now, when John was near, and even when he wasn't, a constant undercurrent to his existence, but he was used to it and could generally tune it out, like white noise. He could - might have to - live without ever again tasting John's breath in his mouth, feeling his strong, sure fingers on his skin (inside him), seeing the look of steadfast wonder (there was no other word for it) on his face as he led Sherlock to completion. Sherlock already lived with numerous addictions and cravings. Sex with John Watson was no different.

No, the longing was deeper and more problematic than that. It was for the ephemeral twosomeness he'd always been excluded from, or at most, stood on the edge of, sneering at it with the self-righteousness of a tourist belittling native customs he didn't understand. He had vehemently never wanted to have any part of it, had based his entire self-image and existence on the supremacy and superiority of his individuality and separateness. The idea of forming a connection with another human being that went beyond the practical or, occasionally, the curiosity-quenching, was anathema. And so the fact that he now found himself wanting to share part of himself - to share large parts of his life, in blatant terms - was not a notion that sat comfortably with him. Not least because the success of such a venture was not something he had much control over. It depended almost entirely on the man beside him, a man he'd already disappointed and hurt, even if unintentionally.

The next move was going to be tricky for exactly that reason. John might have softened his attitude toward Sherlock, but he probably hadn't forgotten his 'just for the play' edict, and there was also the whole 'he hasn't trained me' issue. John was alert to attempts at manipulation, and although Sherlock fully intended to manipulate him, he had to do it in such a way that John didn't catch on.

The cinema was perhaps not the best choice for such a delicate approach, given the associations most people had with dating and movies, but on the other hand it was convenient, and if the details he'd looked up on Wikipedia were correct, it was the kind of film that two non-romantically involved friends might go see together.

When they got to the edge of the square, Sherlock suggested he'd have a better chance of hailing a taxi from in front of the cinema across the street.

"Hah!" John exclaimed, looking up at the lit-up marquee as they crossed over. "That brings back memories."

Sherlock gave him a questioning look.

" 'Alien', remember? That drawing of Josh's reminded me of it?"

Sherlock allowed his expression to clear, as if the memory had just fallen into place. Of course he recalled the incident and the conversation. Just as he recalled every conversation and every moment he and John had shared.

Having established the context, John went on: "The first time I saw it was at a sleepover a couple years after it came out. I can't have been more than about ten. I'm not even sure my mate's parents knew he'd got his hands on the video, looking back now. Scared the living shit out of all of us. I don't think any of us slept that night," he finished with a wry chuckle.

Sherlock was pleased at the confirmation of his assessment of the company in which the movie was typically viewed. His next words were critical. He couldn't appear too interested, but not entirely dismissive either. "It sounds laborious. A thirty-year-old horror movie?" He moved to step out to the kerb.

John went with him (was he planning on getting into the taxi as well? Another host of possibilities opened up, but the original plan had a higher probability of success.) "It holds up incredibly well, actually. You'd be surprised."

Sherlock made a sceptical face.

"No, really, it's not just plasticine models and lasers. It's very psychological."

A taxi almost stopped, and Sherlock hadn't even raised his hand. He took a step back, hopefully making it look as if he were trying to find a safer position from which to observe the traffic. John was going to have to arrive at the point quickly.

And there it was: John looked back at the entrance to the theatre. Weighed the possibility. Squinted (trying to see how many days it would still be playing). Time for the last push.

"Well, it's right there," Sherlock said briskly. "You can tell me tomorrow if it's all you remember." He took his gloves out of his pocket and pulled them on.

John's attention snapped back to Sherlock. "Yeah, you could-" His tongue darted out to moisten his lower lip (Sherlock crowed: a dead giveaway). "Why don't you come too?" he said, the words tumbling over each other. "You know, just for... Fill in some of that general knowledge you seem to be missing. If you don't have anything else on." John pressed his lips together as if immediately regretting the offer.

Sherlock paused with his second glove halfway on and gave John a deep, mustering look. John held his gaze. There was determination, but also a fragility Sherlock had never noticed in him before. John had always embodied certitude, action, and both physical and moral strength to Sherlock, but there was also the side to him that said he was nobody, that called himself a wreck, that didn't think he brought anything of substance to the table. And, come to think of it, who - despite all his positive qualities - hadn't had any serious relationships in something like fifteen years. (Not that Sherlock's life was exactly a measuring stick for such things.)

John hadn't always had such low self-esteem as he did now, though. That had come with his injury and discharge. From the few anecdotes and tidbits John had shared over the past few weeks, Sherlock had pieced together a picture of a confident, competent, capable man who had his purpose in life torn out by the bullet that nearly ended his physical existence as well. No, there must have been something else that sent him from one assignation to the next, since that behaviour was well-established long before his injury: not seeking merely physical satisfaction, but a connection.

And suddenly, all the pieces slotted into place. Sherlock could picture it easily now: there had been a girlfriend, someone he was committed to. Either she'd left him, driving him to join the army, or - more likely, as Sherlock couldn't imagine anyone leaving John once they had him - he'd always planned on joining the army, and something had happened when he was away. Maybe she'd died (was that what had made him react sensitively to Sherlock's joke about being hit by a bus?) or done something stupid like having sex with someone else during the long months of John's absence. (Just because John had loved her didn't mean she wasn't an idiot.) Either way: John - heartbroken. Unable to allow himself to feel so strongly about anyone, at first in reaction to his grief, a protective mechanism, it had later become an ingrained pattern of behaviour. As soon as he felt himself being pulled in too far, he would withdraw. Possibly there had even been one or two lovers during his army years whom he had cared for more deeply, but they would have transferred away after a short time, or been killed (alternative explanation for the aversion to accidents involving large vehicles). Reinforcement of pattern behaviour. Sherlock rather thought John could sing a song to Mycroft about the advantages - or lack thereof - of caring.

And then along Sherlock had come, and they'd found a connection. A strong one. There was no denying it now. Maybe John had fought it too, as hard as Sherlock had, and for many of the same reasons. They were both afraid it was too good to be true, that something would rip them apart, and in doing so would rip their hearts out too. The only difference was, John expected the disturbance to come from outside - a bus, a bullet, a transfer order, another lover - while Sherlock had known all along he would be the cause. And the worst part was, Sherlock was going to end up doing it again. Even if he could somehow manage to patch things up here and now, the next metaphorical bus was just around the corner. A social cue missed, a boundary overstepped, a confidence betrayed, a foible exposed.

John was still standing beside him, waiting for an answer. Sherlock knew, he just knew, he was going to do something John would never be able to forgive. He had no idea what, and he wouldn't until after it happened. It would be kinder to let John go, to bury the experiences of the past few weeks deep in a vault somewhere and return to his previous course. But Sherlock Holmes wasn't a kind man.

"Do you know," he said slowly, pulling his gloves back off, "I think I will."

%%%%%%

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 21: The Baker Street Nativity

When Sherlock arrived backstage with Gladstone an hour before the show began, it was with mixed feelings. The last few days had gone well, in his opinion. Following the movie (which had been predictably mundane, but more than sufficiently compensated by John's company) they'd spent time together every evening following rehearsal: on Wednesday they'd had dinner at a stand-up diner around the corner from the cathedral square, and on Thursday they'd walked down to the ice rink near the river and stood at the railing, sharing a bag of roasted chestnuts while Sherlock deduced the skaters and John laughed at their antics.

Neither of them had mentioned that afternoon at Whitehall, or the police, or the bank account, or anything else that had happened, although Sherlock felt John's eyes on him a few times, the weight of unanswered questions behind them. Was he supposed to say something? Things were going well enough now. He didn't want to ruin it all again by bringing up past unpleasantness. If John wanted to know something, he should ask directly.

On the other hand, they also hadn't kissed or even touched beyond bumping elbows. It wasn't that Sherlock wanted nothing to do with John if they were no longer physically intimate, but he still felt a strong physical pull, and the carefully controlled way John moved and held his body around Sherlock said that John wasn't insensible to the attraction, either. Yet there was undeniably a barrier between them, and Sherlock didn't know if it was one that John had erected to protect himself, or if it was one that John needed Sherlock to break down.

They also hadn't said anything about what would happen after the play, when they no longer had the common denominator of the school to structure their interactions. Sherlock knew John was actively looking for another job, a real job that would utilise his professional skills, and without Sherlock's input it was very likely going to mean John moving away or at the very least not having unlimited amounts of time to spend with Sherlock. Maintaining any sort of contact under those circumstances would mean making a concerted effort, something John might not be willing to do for the meagre return (especially given the still undefined nature of whatever this was they were doing). And Sherlock, for his part, wasn't interested in being someone's booty call.

Which all boiled down to this perhaps being the last time he and John might see each other.

The backstage area was simmering just below the level of pandemonium. Children were running around half in costume, tripping over their own sashes, mothers chasing after them with safety pins in their mouths. Molly was drawing beards on anyone who stood still for longer than three seconds and shouting about not trampling the scenery. Technicians were still unspooling and hooking up what looked to be miles of cables and standing in everyone's way.

The children knew Gladstone, and as soon as they spotted him, they broke away from their minders and came over to play with him. Sherlock turned him over to Ollie for the time being so that he could look around for John.

Before he got very far, though, one of Gladstone's fans ran after him and tugged on his jacket. "I'm nervous, I've forgotten everything, and I don't want to do it," she announced with a convincing pout.

Sherlock fixed her with a hard look. "Yes, well, that makes two of us. But if I can stick it out, so can you. I've even been fired and I'm still here... God knows why," he added in an undertone, putting his hands on his hips and looking over the child's head to see Molly approaching.

"Oh, good, you're here!" Molly trilled. "There's some sort of mix-up with the wigs, can you just-" She somehow managed to insert a grease pencil into Sherlock's hand. "- finish putting beards on the Nazarenes while I sort it? Emma, where's your halo?" She took the little girl's hand without waiting for an answer.

"Where's John?" Sherlock asked, but Molly was already hurrying away.

"Somewhere..." she called back unhelpfully.

Well, at least he knew John was here. That was a start.

Sherlock turned around, trying to find someplace to put the make-up, only to find himself face to face with a rather perturbed head teacher (hasn't had sex in over a month, heartburn from cheap fried food, needs a new contact lens prescription).

"What the bloody hell is this?" Lestrade's face was that particular shade of red it only developed when Sherlock was involved.

"Wife still making you sleep on the sofa?" Sherlock said coolly. "And I should think that obvious. Here, make yourself useful as long as you're here." Sherlock stuffed the pencil into the breast pocket of Lestrade's jacket and stepped around him.

Lestrade looked down at his pocket as if Sherlock had just deposited the remains of his last experiment there. "I am not going to miss you doing that," he muttered, then whipped around before Sherlock could get away. "What- No, stop, Sherlock. Get back here." He grabbed at Sherlock's arm to hold him in place. "What do you think you're doing? I just had a phone call telling me this was all happening. I cancelled this show and I cannot believe you are-" He had to let go of Sherlock as a herd of angels plowed through between them. "You are sacked!" he shouted over the general furore. "You know you are sacked-"

"Yes, I'm already sacked, there's not really much else you can do," Sherlock pointed out. Why Lestrade insisted on this tedious exchange of obvious facts when Sherlock really had better things to-

"There he is- Greg!"

Sherlock turned at the sound of John's voice to see him coming over with the mayor in tow. John flashed a grin at Sherlock as he steered the mayor to Lestrade and made sure they shook hands. Sherlock didn't think he would ever completely get used to the little leap his heart made when he saw John after they'd been apart for several hours. But then maybe he would never know.

"Thank you, Mr Lestrade, this is absolutely marvellous! Well done, sir, well done." The mayor pumped Lestrade's hand energetically.

Lestrade's face morphed into an uncertain smile. "Thank you?"

John clapped a hand to Lestrade's shoulder. "Er... I wonder if you wouldn't mind taking over, Greg, we have a few things that need sorting back here..." He gently ushered Lestrade and the mayor back out toward the public square.

The mayor waved to everyone and boomed, "Break a leg, kids, break a leg!" As he strode off, he rubbed his hands and said to Lestrade, "This is going to be sensational. This whole town will be so proud..."

Lestrade shot Sherlock a dirty look behind the mayor's back and mouthed, 'You owe me … again!', but he accompanied the mayor out of the backstage area.

Once they were gone, Sherlock and John exchanged a look and burst out laughing.

"Oh, God!" John chuckled. "I can't believe we're getting away with this."

"Was there ever any doubt?" Sherlock said, smirking.

John shook his head, still smiling too. "It's not done yet. I don't even want to think of the number of things that could go wrong."

"Then don't. Don't, John. And I won't either." Sherlock's breath caught as he realised what he was really saying. His fear of failure, of doing something that would drive John away, made it a foregone conclusion. It provided him a pre-made excuse, and it also softened the disappointment because it gave him the minor compensatory satisfaction of having been right about something. But what if he expected things to go right? Or at least left open the honest possibility? Dangerous.

John hesitated, apparently having picked up on the undertone. But before he could say anything, Molly's voice called John's name, piercing the little bubble of solitude that seemed to have formed around them. Sherlock cursed her heartily, along with everything else around them that was warring for their attention tonight.

John looked torn, unable to take his eyes away from Sherlock's. "After," he said finally, sounding breathless. "After the play, we can... we can talk then."

Sherlock's heart beat in his throat. He could only nod. That was good, he told himself. John wasn't going to take him aside and tell him he never wanted to see him again. The way he'd looked at him just now... He wasn't going to walk away from this. Sherlock clung to that thought as he watched John follow Molly to deal with whatever last-minute crisis needed fixing.

In order not to be called on to do anything himself, he set out in search of Gladstone. He needed a cigarette, and taking the dog for a walk was the perfect excuse.

%%%%%%

"Ladies and gentlemen, mums and dads!"

Out on the stage, the mayor was calling the audience to order. Sherlock was standing in the wings, John and Molly nearby lining the children up for the first number. Sherlock had secured Gladstone in an out-of-the-way corner to wait out the half hour the play should take.

As the buzzing from the crowd died down, the mayor continued: "I just want to take a minute to thank you all for all the effort and time and everything that you've put into the show, but ladies and gentlemen, if I had to single any one person out for their effort, for their time, their diligence, and their enthusiasm, it would have to be Mr Gregory Lestrade, better known to you as the head teacher of the Baker Street School. Come on, come and take a bow, ladies and gentlemen, Mr Lestrade, come on, come on..." He beckoned toward the square below the stage, where Lestrade was standing off to one side in the front row.

Lestrade looked unhappy at being singled out, but as the applause from the parents and other spectators swelled, he saw he didn't have any choice, and made his way up onto the stage with an attempt at good grace. When he reached the microphone, the mayor shook his hand, expertly turning the two of them to pose for the camera that subsequently flashed: Moran, Sherlock saw.

He'd forgotten about him and Moriarty. Stupid! Of course they would be here. His pulse increased as he scanned the crowd. And there he was: right behind Moran, the dapper Irishman was standing with his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes narrowed critically as he watched Lestrade. He turned just then, catching Sherlock looking at him. He winked and his mouth curled into a triumphant smirk. Sherlock deliberately looked away. What was he up to?

Lestrade ruffled his hair sheepishly as he reached for the microphone. "Wow. Good evening. Thank you, thanks everyone, Mayor, it's - Well, I don't really think I deserve all this, but I'll accept it on behalf of everyone who worked to get us here tonight. We're used to the school hall, we don't have all this …" He gestured around the square. "-around us, normally, for the play. And the mums and dads who've been before to see our Nativity play know that," he said with a lopsided smile, "you know, things can go a little bit wrong with the little ones, so don't ex-"

He stopped, put his hands on his hips and looked down, and paused for a moment. Then he lifted his head again and continued, more sombrely: "I was going to say, don't expect too much, but I shouldn't have said that. Bad on me. Nobody ever expects enough of the children at Baker Street. Everyone expects them to go down the drain. But I wanted to change that, back when I started at the school, and pretty soon I figured out that meant expecting a lot of the teachers too.

"I know I've made mistakes along the way, and maybe I did expect too much, or the wrong things, of certain people, but seeing this all come together here, tonight, beyond - honestly, beyond all my wildest expectations - makes me think that maybe I wasn't so wrong after all.

"I've not seen the play, I don't know what's going to happen in a few minutes. But I do know that each and every one of these children is amazing and I'm proud of them and of everyone who came together to make this possible tonight."

"Hear, hear!" the mayor chimed in behind him as the applause began.

Sherlock felt something on his bicep. He looked down to see John standing beside him, his hand just slipping away from where he'd squeezed Sherlock's arm. Sherlock shivered involuntarily and tried to catch his eye, to see what he'd meant, but John had already turned around to signal to the children waiting behind him.

"Hope you enjoy it," Lestrade's voice said from out on the stage, and then John sent the children out into the spotlight.

The show began.

%%%%%

The first two numbers went off without a hitch. Oh, a couple of the children, stage-struck, forgot the words to the songs, Isabelle's wig kept sliding down over her eyes, and most of the boys made faces when their partners kissed them at the end of Mary and Joseph's song, eliciting a wave of chuckles from the parents. But really, things were going remarkably well. Too well.

Sherlock watched Moriarty, still trying to figure out what his purpose was in being there. His expression was impassive, inscrutable; if anything, he was displaying signs of impatience, looking around from time to time and even checking his watch. As if he were expecting someone. Or something. But everyone was here - Sherlock, John, Lestrade... Moran, beside Moriarty, was calm, taking the occasional note and looking - dare Sherlock even think it - mildly entertained. But what else could it be? A direct interference would violate the first unspoken rule of the competition between them, namely that any success or failure was judged on the basis of their own efforts (or errors). Giving the opponent rope was allowed. Kicking the chair out from under him wasn't.

The next scene was a big one, involving T.J. as the angel Gabriel being lowered from the tower on wires. Showy. A crowd-pleaser and sure to generate big points if it went well. If anything were going to go wrong - if Moriarty had sabotaged something after all - this would be the one.

Sherlock watched tensely as the figure in white floated down toward the earth, sharing in the general relief when the boy's feet touched ground and the children broke into a toe-tapping gospel-rock'n'roll fusion. John had made a good call with that. After the first two more laid-back songs, this was a good point to jack up the energy level and get the audience involved.

In fact, Sherlock was so distracted by the music and the enthusiasm on the stage that he let his attention wander from Moriarty. A mistake (probably; he wasn't sure he would have been able to stop him even if he had divined his intentions earlier), for as the scenery was being switched out in preparation for the next number, Moriarty took advantage of the brief flurry of activity to quickly run up the steps and take centre stage.

He held his arms up commandingly. "Stop, stop everyone! Right, you-" He pointed at one of the helpers. "-stop moving. Stop. Stop, everyone. That'll do." He looked around and glared at anyone who wasn't frozen in place.

"What the fuck is he doing?" Beside him, John lunged forward, clearly in mind to bodily drag Moriarty off the stage.

Sherlock held him back. "Wait," he hissed. "Or do you want this to turn into another fist fight? It's probably exactly what he's hoping for." Sherlock wasn't entirely certain that was Moriarty's aim - surely he didn't think John or he would be so stupid as to repeat the same actions here in such a public arena - but he honestly had no other ideas, and he was not so secretly curious as to what Moriarty's next move might be.

Once he was satisfied that he had everyone's attention, Moriarty began: "Ladies and gentlemen; poor, deluded people," he said, shaking his head in mock pity. "I'm here to tell you that this, right here, tonight, is a LIE!" Several people flinched at the sudden outburst, and a low murmur began to run through the crowd. "You came here tonight because you thought they were making a movie. That's the only reason you're here, to rub shoulders with those Hollywood types, maybe see a celebrity or two, not to be subjected this substandard, cheese fest." He made a sweeping gesture meant to encompass the stage and everyone on or behind it. "Well, it falls upon me to tell you that no one is coming from any movie studios. No one is coming, and nobody will. That man-" He turned and pointed at Sherlock. "-is a sham. As if anyone would actually be interested in anything he came up with. Look at him. He's a failure, a nothing."

"Sherlock-" John's voice was low and beautiful with barely controlled anger. Sherlock smiled to himself. Because there was something else, something almost as interesting.

"No, John. Look." Sherlock nodded toward a dapper, besuited figured carrying an umbrella ascending the stairs leading up to the stage.

Moriarty continued his rant, oblivious. "He lied to you, and to me, and to-" He broke off, wild-eyed, when Mycroft reached him. "What-"

"Mycroft Holmes," Mycroft said, giving Moriarty an oily once-over. The pained half-smile on his face said that he found the man sadly lacking. "Head of Whitehall Studios," he added, nodding graciously to the audience. "We hadn't wanted to come out and make a big announcement like this. Children are so easily stage-struck, and reactions are so much more natural when people don't know they're being filmed. But in light of your rather cheap and disappointing display," he said with a disapproving shake of his head in Moriarty's direction, "I should like to confirm that we have in fact been recording this delightful little show from the start -" Mycroft extended his umbrella to point out several cameras that Sherlock had taken for surveillance cameras placed around the stage and the square. "-and now your performance as well," Mycroft continued, "which I doubt will make it into the final cut, but may find some other interestinguses."

"The bloody bastard," John breathed out. "Letting us think he wasn't going to come. Did you-" He frowned suspiciously at Sherlock. "You didn't know about this, did you?"

Sherlock shook his head. "No," he said under his breath. "But don't be fooled. Whatever his reasons are, it's not as a favour to you or me." Mycroft only ever did something if it served himself.

"I don't really give a damn why he's here. The point is, he is, and he's done right by those kids. And," John added, nodding at the stage, "made a nice fool out of Jim Moriarty at the same time."

Indeed, Moriarty was stalking away, his mobile at his ear and a look of impotent fury on his face as he screeched imprecations at whoever was on the other end.

Sherlock was loath to imagine what his brother would ask for in return for this.

Chapter Text

Chapter 22 - The Final Act

The play was over. Following the unpleasant interruption, the rest of the play had gone off as planned. Sherlock saw several parents crying openly during the final number. His song. The one containing what might turn out to be John's final message to Sherlock. He'd find out soon enough.

The applause after the final curtain seemed to go on forever. Everyone was dragged out onto the stage to take their bows, including Sherlock. John was beside him, holding his elbow so he couldn't leave. Not that Sherlock had any intention of letting John out of his sight; he'd said they would talk after the play, and Sherlock meant to hold him to that. Mrs Hudson was there, making a fuss and saying how proud she was of everyone. The mayor was posing for pictures with anyone within reach of his arm.

Mycroft and Moriarty, mercifully, had both disappeared. Sherlock wondered if those two facts were related, but then decided he was better off not knowing; it would simply be one more thing for Mycroft to lord over him.

Backstage, then, amidst the tumult of getting children out of costumes and wigs, John went around handing out Christmas tree ornaments he'd had made up with a picture of the class, himself and Sherlock, taken from the video they'd made for Mycroft. Sherlock didn't say anything, because the gesture seemed to satisfy some need for closure that John had. Molly was beaming and flitting around uselessly, and parents were coming up to thank Sherlock and say what a shame it was he wouldn't be back next term and wishing him luck (what in the world had they been told?); there were even children crying that they didn't want him to go. Sherlock was strongly tempted to ask whether they recalled anything of his classes.

Finally, finally, all of the handshakes and well-wishes and flowers and photographs were done, the children were bundled off with their families, tired but happy, the parents smug with visions of little Susie and Georgie being the next Hollywood darling.

John was standing in the deserted square, watching the technicians dismantle the equipment on the stage. His hands were in the pockets of his anorak, but it was unzipped, and his cheeks were flushed with cold and the remainder of the evening's excitement. He smiled at Sherlock when he came over with Gladstone.

"So. It's done," John said.

Sherlock stood next to him, facing the stage, and hummed in response.

John gave Sherlock a sideways glance. "Relieved?"

Sherlock frowned. He should be. He was, yes. Free of the school and Lestrade and Anderson and all the rules and pressure to fit into a certain mould. The future loomed uncertainly, though, and would have to be dealt with. Eventually. He settled for a simple "Yes."

"It's kind of a strange feeling," John mused, watching as two men loaded the big wooden crates they'd used as stage dressing onto dollies. "Having it all over with. Nice it all worked out though." He paused, obviously to give Sherlock a chance to add his agreement.

Was it nice? It seemed so, all's well that ends well and so on... But what would have happened if Mycroft hadn't shown up?

Apparently, Sherlock took too long in answering, as John spoke again. "Mycroft-" he began, obviously thinking along the same lines as Sherlock, but already in that one word, Sherlock could hear John's admiration and gratitude toward his brother. Even in this, which should have been Sherlock's product from start to finish, his to take the credit or the lumps for, Mycroft had to have the last word. Had to swoop in and be the saviour. Had to straighten Sherlock's tie and pay off his landlord and whitewash his records. Maybe even had to smooth the way for him and John. It didn't bear thinking about.

"John, please," Sherlock cut in with more heat than he wanted to own up to. "I would rather not discuss my brother."

"All right," John said, after a telling pause. "Ready to go then?"

"Yes."

John didn't say anything about going to a pub or a restaurant, just fell into step beside Sherlock. Sherlock's house, then. Considering a repeat of the last time he'd been over, or just trying to avoid a public scene? Or maybe he was going to say his piece as they walked, and leave Sherlock at the door.

But John didn't say anything, not even when they were over halfway to Sherlock's house. Sherlock chanced a glance. John looked tense, but not upset. His shoulders curved in, not thrust back: insecure, not angry. Carefully maintaining his own body space, but walking close enough that they could easily touch, if either of them wished. Oh, for goodness' sake! Sherlock almost snorted out loud as the realisation hit: did John really think Sherlock wasn't interested any more, just because he'd pulled back for a few days?

There was a convenience store up ahead that was still open. Alcohol might make things easier, whichever direction things took.

Sherlock stopped when they reached the shop. "I... could get some beer. I don't really have anything else..." Unspoken assumption: John would be coming to his house, actually go inside with him, stay long enough for a drink at least.

John looked surprised but didn't contradict him. "No, yeah, fine, that's... You don't have to..."

He did have to. They couldn't both be fools in this, not any longer. "Won't be a minute."

Sherlock handed Gladstone's lead to John and ducked into the shop. He hadn't had a chance to observe John's beer-drinking habits, so he chose a mid-priced brand that seemed to be popular, given the location and volume of the shelf space dedicated to it. On his way to the cashier, he passed another display and hesitated. It was probably more than a bit optimistic. John might consider it presumptuous. He'd only said they would talk. Or was that a euphemism? Sherlock grabbed the smallest package on offer and stowed it deep in his roomy coat pocket as soon as he'd paid. If nothing else, he could come up with an interesting experiment or two. He'd need something to occupy his time, after all, if John left for good.

John looked pleased about the beer, at any rate, and when they got to Sherlock's house, he went with him into the kitchen and rummaged around in the drawers for a bottle opener without being prompted, while Sherlock put out some food for Gladstone. The surreal mundanity of the scene struck Sherlock hard, and he had to blink a few times to reassure himself that nothing had actually changed from the day before. John didn't live here. Sherlock couldn't just reach over and brush a hand down his back as he flexed his shoulder to work the bottle opener. Wasn't allowed to. Didn't have the right. Or did he?

"Cheers," John said, handing Sherlock an open bottle and clinking the necks.

As Sherlock took a sip, their eyes met, and he once again lost all track of what he was supposed to be doing. All he knew was that this, being here with John, was right. He didn't know how it worked, or why, but it was something that had happened without him trying, like water condensing on a glass or the north and south poles of two magnets aligning. He had control only over the time and place of their interactions, but not over the chemistry. Not merely in the sexual sense, although that was there too, but in the sense of, well, that 'meant to be' schlock John had written for Mary and Joseph's song. The 'never being lonely again' thing. Even if they were never physically in each other's presence again, it wouldn't change the fact of what was between them. That was more than a little intimidating.

"Maybe we could go sit down?" John suggested.

Sherlock fell back into his body. His mouth was full of something prickly and earthy-bitter. He swallowed it. Unpleasant. John was walking away, going into the living room. Sherlock followed.

John sat down on one side of the couch, neatly, his beer clasped with both hands between his knees. Sherlock had a flash vision of himself in the place of the bottle. He dropped onto the other side of the couch, not so neatly, his legs stretching out under the coffee table and angled toward John. Not on purpose. But obvious. He took another sip of his beer. The liquid slid uncomfortably into his stomach, didn't help the twisting and flutters throwing a nice little afterparty down there. He'd rather have a cigarette. Possibly he should have eaten something at some point today.

John was still sitting next to him with his back straight, in half profile from Sherlock's point of view. Waiting. For Sherlock? Or until he had enough alcohol in his system to ease the way of what he wanted to say?

Sherlock threaded his fingers into his breast pocket and pulled out his phone. He felt a little like he imagined a stellar entity would as it circled the rim of a black hole. A dual sense of resignation and excitement. One-handed, he unlocked the phone and pulled up the page he wanted. Before he could second-guess himself yet again, he held it out and nudged John's arm.

John looked down. "What's this?" he asked as he took the phone.

Sherlock leaned back. "List of places I thought you might find useful."

John gave the screen a bemused look as he peered at it. "Why?"

"You need a job."

"Ta very much-"

"No," Sherlock spoke over him, "I meant, you need to feel useful. You want to feel useful. That... job at the school. That wasn't you. These." Sherlock gestured at the phone. "These are you."

John put his beer down so he could scroll through the list. "Okay," he said after a few moments. "Some interesting choices here. You know, some people might see this as controlling."

"Is it?" It was, of course it was. But was that bad? Should Sherlock not try to keep John near?

"A bit." John sighed. "But I understand the sentiment behind it. Thank you. I actually had a similar idea. Sent out a few applications. Even had an interview last week." He handed the phone back to Sherlock.

"Ah." An interview. Of course they would take him. Sherlock couldn't imagine anyone not being impressed by John. The only question was, where the job was. He took a small sip from his beer. Eventually, the relaxing effects of the alcohol should kick in, despite the taste.

"I haven't heard back yet," John went on, "but it sounded promising. It's in that new commercial centre down by the river."

That was only fifteen minutes away by taxi, and on a direct bus line. Farther from John's current flat, though; it would entail two transfers from there.

"They'll take you," Sherlock said with a quiet smile.

John chuckled. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, but it's far from a sure thing-"

"John. They're going to take you."

John turned his head to look at Sherlock. "Thanks. I hope so. It would be nice. To get back into practice. And it's right here in the city. Convenient." He looked away again.

Sherlock took a larger sip of his drink. Half the bottle gone, he should be feeling the effect soon. Maybe he shouldn't come clean after all. John was going to stay. He would have a job nearby. Things were back to a more or less comfortable level between them. Let sleeping dogs lie, one part of him said.

The other part, though, wrenched control away for long enough to say, "That's not all."

"Oh God, don't tell me you've got a new flat lined up for me as well," John joked.

Sherlock leaned forward to set his bottle back on the coffee table. He stayed there, his elbows resting on his knees, and brought his hands together in front of his mouth.

"You- you didn't. Did you?" John asked tentatively. "I mean, admittedly my current place isn't exactly Mayfair... All right, let me see the list. Or have you already picked one out?" John sounded amused.

"I wanted you to move in here," Sherlock said into the hollow between his hands.

John was silent for too long. Sherlock tilted his head to look at him. He was staring at Sherlock's knee, his expression inscrutable. He slowly raised his eyes to meet Sherlock's.

"Sherlock, I can't move in with you," he said, more gently than Sherlock deserved. "I mean, that's-" He stood up suddenly and took two quick steps away. "We hardly-"

"I said I wantedyou to. That was my plan. That's why I was trying to access your bank information. I wanted to see how much you could afford to pay. I was going to offer you a figure below what you were paying now."

John rounded on him, a mixture of anger and disbelief on his face. "And you couldn't have, I don't know, just asked me?"

"You would have said no."

"You're damn right I would have said no! You can't just- Sherlock, Jesus Christ." John scrubbed his hands through his hair and paced the room. Gladstone perked his ears up and watched him curiously from where he lay on the floor. Finally, John stopped, placed his hands on his hips, and laughed. It wasn't a happy sound. "You know, I thought I was the one who was getting in too deep too fast, but you-"

"I know what I want, there's no sense in wasting time because of social convention."

"There's a reason for social convention, at least in this case."

Sherlock groaned. "Now you're going to say something tedious about infatuation and the thrill wearing off after a couple of weeks."

"No, see, you don't know everything that goes on in my head," John said, pointing a finger at the side of his head. "I mean, yes, I'll admit at first, that was a concern. But only at the very beginning. A couple of weeks in, I knew-" John's eyes softened and Sherlock saw his throat bob as he swallowed hard. "This isn't just some quickie flash-in-the-pan. Which is why it-" He gripped the back of the chair at Sherlock's desk but didn't look away. "I want this. So much. And that's what... It scared me. Scares me. And then you lied about having permission to take the kids, and I remembered what people said about you and those other kids, and then you broke into my bank account-"

"I didn't lie, and I wasn't-"

John gripped the chair tighter. "- All right, I thought, I thought you had. I can't read your mind, although it probably wouldn't have been much better if I had," he said with a wry, regretful twist to his mouth.

Sherlock felt helpless. He couldn't argue with that. "I can't- This is who I am, John. I can't apologise for that."

"I know, and I understand, about the bank thing anyway. And I know you didn't mean any harm with the kids. But," he took a deep breath, "I do think Lestrade was right to fire you. And me. It was a poor decision. Several poor decisions. On both of our parts. Which was another reason I had to take a step back for a while. I saw that I was doing things - because of you, for you - that weren't right. That weren't who I wanted to be. Just because I wanted this so much. And that's … a bit not good."

"No." Sherlock understood that full well. Even if he himself would have done anything, from the merely unethical to downright illegal (actually had done), in order to keep John around, John had morals that he couldn't suffer himself to compromise. Ironically, that was one of the reasons why Sherlock was so keen on him. And now it was the reason he couldn't have him. "So," he said tightly, trying hard to maintain a neutral expression. "That's it then."

John's face crinkled up. "What? No, that's not-" He shook his head and ran his hand over his face, smoothing it out. "Jesus, you're..." He came over and sat down next to Sherlock again. His knee bumped Sherlock's, and his arm tensed as if he were going to reach out, but he didn't. "Tell me, Sherlock. Just tell me what you want."

"You know what I want." Something that sent John running, something that had sent Sherlock running at first too.

"No, I really don't," John said. "You want me to, what, be your housemate? I don't even - Are we together? Friends who shag occasionally? Or just that once? What are you even going to do now? Do you have another job lined up? You could be moving to Timbuktu tomorrow for all I know!"

"I'm not … leaving, I have no plans to leave. And I don't - I don't know, John!" Sherlock cried, throwing his hands up in the air. "I've never done any of this before and I don't know! I ... There's something there, and I'm better with you around. You make things better. Even horrid things like visiting hospital wards, and putting on Nativity plays, and Mycroft."

"The hospital wasn't all that horrid," John said, amusement dancing on his lips. "The babies were cute."

"The hospital was horrid," Sherlock insisted darkly. "And I never want to be in the same room with an infant again."

John let his leg relax so that it was resting against Sherlock's. "Not even for my godchild's christening?"

Sherlock jerked back in horror. "Your what?"

John smiled, perhaps equally at the prospect and at Sherlock's reaction. "It's a bit early, they don't even know if it's a boy or a girl yet, but Mike and Shelly asked me to be the godfather."

It was somewhat unsettling for Sherlock to realise at that moment that, of course... John had a life outside of Sherlock... other friends, interests, family members. Other demands being put on him, other responsibilities. A whole new dimension of being in a relationship, one he hadn't considered previously, revealed its ominously gaping jaws. Well, John had had to deal with Mycroft and Moriarty because of Sherlock. He supposed it was - if not fair, then at least understandable - that he be placed in a position of socialising occasionally with Stamford... and his spawn. He shuddered. But at least it wasn't-

"And they've asked Molly to be the godmother."

Oh God, Sherlock groaned internally and wished for something to bang his head against. John just watched him, his eyes crinkled in amusement.

"Possibly. Once," Sherlock allowed. "Just for the christening. If you'd want me to be there."

"Yeah. Yeah, I would," John said quietly. Deliberately, he lifted his hand and wrapped it around Sherlock's knee.

It was silent except for the sound of their breathing. Sherlock should - he should meet John halfway, put his hand over John's, let him know that he wanted this too, that the whole mess they'd been through didn't matter, didn't mean anything for what was between them, what they could be. But again, the seconds slipped away, and John slid his hand off. It hurt the back of Sherlock's throat.

"I should probably go," John said, not looking at Sherlock.

"No!" Sherlock said automatically. He leaned forward. His first instinct was to grab, but he was afraid John would pull away. He ended up resting his head awkwardly on the back of John's shoulder, one hand brushing his elbow. "You could... stay," he offered, feeling gangly and foolish.

"I don't know if that's a good idea," John said, which was only to be expected, but he was wrong. It was a very good idea, an excellent idea. Anything else was wrong; John leaving was monumentally wrong.

"We don't … You could use the second bedroom," Sherlock said in a rush, speaking into the warmth of John's back. "It's late and you're tired, and you've had that beer-"

"I think I can make it home safely on one beer," John said wryly, but he didn't move to get up.

Sherlock gripped John's elbow more firmly. "Please. I'd like it if... Just knowing you're here."

%%%%%%

It was well past midnight by the time Sherlock made it to bed. After John agreed to stay - in the second bedroom - Sherlock had pretty much left him to his own devices, afraid of either pushing John beyond what he was comfortable with or of appearing too grateful. Instead, he'd gone out to the back garden for a cigarette. If he wasn't going to be kissing John, he didn't need to worry about the way his mouth tasted. Also, he needed a respite and distraction from all the emotional drama.

Deliberately, he directed his mind to the brief notice in the newspaper about the third in what now appeared to be a series of suicides, which had caught his attention earlier.He was certain the police were missing something. Impossible to know what, though, without seeing the evidence. Hopefully there would be another. The article had mentioned the name of the detective in charge of the investigation. Maybe he could tap into his phone and get tipped off when it happened.

A couple of hours later, his Trojan horse in place silently forwarding copies to him of every text that Inspector Dimmock received, he lay back in the dark, Gladstone a familiar weight by his feet. The house felt different. Even though he couldn't see or hear John, knowing he was there, just two doors and a stretch of hallway between them, was... good. Instead of the usual feeling of relief that another day was done coupled with mild distaste at the thought of the next one, there was a palpable sense of potential. Of a final note being played that was no longer a discordant, unsatisfying ending, but a pause, a bridge, an introduction to the next movement.

Gladstone heard the noise before he did. The dog shifted and sat up, and then Sherlock heard it too. In the hall: footsteps. John. Going to the toilet? No: a soft tap on his door. His heart sank; John must have changed his mind, decided he would go home after all but wanted to be polite and let Sherlock know.

"Come in," Sherlock said, his voice rough, and raised himself on his elbows.

The door clicked open. John was no more than a darker shadow in the grey rectangle of the doorway. "Sorry," he said softly.

"I wasn't asleep," Sherlock said. Once again, his heart beat furiously at the sound of John's voice, the knowledge of his proximity. Pavlovian.

John took one, two steps into the room, still holding the door handle. Sherlock could see from his silhouette that he wasn't dressed, wearing only his pants and a t-shirt.

"I realised I'd rather be in here," John said. His voice was breathy: nervous (how long had he been lying awake, trying to talk himself into coming over?).

Sherlock shifted and raised the covers. His heart was racing so fast it was forcing his respiration to increase as well.

John came over and slid in beside him. He lay down carefully, keeping to the edge of the mattress. Sherlock dropped the covers back over him and lay on his side to give John more room. He pushed Gladstone with his foot through the covers, and the dog snuffled, insulted, and thumped down onto the floor.

"Sorry, I'm being stupid," John said to the ceiling.

Possibly. On further consideration: "No."

John turned his head toward Sherlock. "Is this okay?"

No. Too far away. "Yes." Sherlock clenched his hand into a fist to stop his fingers from sliding across the mattress. He couldn't see John's face very well in the dim ambient light, but he could feel John's body heat spreading into the space between them. He could smell him too: the slightly acrid overtone of his sweat (hasn't showered since that morning) partly masked by the remains of his deodorant, but mostly the complex, leathery-warm essence of John.

They both lay silent for a while. John wasn't relaxing. Not that Sherlock was either. He would gladly lie awake next to John all night if that was all he wanted, but it would be more pleasant if...

"Can I touch you?" he asked in a voice that was low and rough around the edges.

"Yes, oh God, yes," John said, already rolling over onto his side to meet Sherlock halfway, and then their arms were around each other, John's body solid and heavy and warm against his. Sherlock buried his nose in the hair behind John's ear and held him tight and breathed him in.

"I thought you didn't want this anymore," John mumbled against his shoulder, his hands bunching up the t-shirt across Sherlock's back. "I thought-"

"Always, always," Sherlock whispered, trying to hold him even tighter. He kissed John's hair, his ear, his temple, tasting salt and the slight sweetness of his skin.

"-I thought you'd given up on me, and everyone said you'd never-"

Sherlock stilled. "Who, everyone?"

John hesitated. "Molly, and Mike... Mrs Hudson..."

Sherlock pulled back to try and see John's face. "You talked to them about me?"

"I didn't-" John loosened his grip a bit, but Sherlock pulled him in more firmly against his chest to let him know nothing was going to make him let go. "It was more like they came to me," John explained, "trying to give me advice... They meant well. They just wanted you to be happy."

"What did they say about me?" Sherlock bristled a little, but mostly he was curious. It was a novelty to imagine other people saying things about him that didn't involve the words 'freak', 'shame', or some threat of litigation.

"That you'd never had a serious relationship as long as they'd known you... never even dated anyone, as far as they knew. Which - given everything else about you, I couldn't believe was because no one had ever been interested, so I figured it must have been your choice. That you were... I don't know, mostly asexual or something."

"'Mostly' asexual...?" Sherlock tried out the idea. It didn't quite seem to fit. He had experienced sexual attraction before (and pretty much constantly since he'd known John), but rarely been tempted to act on it. A low sex drive, perhaps, but not without the inclination.

"Well, you did seem pretty into it that one time," John said. Sherlock could hear the sheepish grin, and one formed on his face as well. "But maybe that was your quota for the decade." Sherlock felt John's shrug.

Sherlock snorted with laughter. John joined in hesitantly. "So... not?" John ventured.

Sherlock pressed his hand against John's arse, pushing him against Sherlock's crotch. He wasn't hard yet, but he was definitely on the way. "You're not going to get off that easily," he growled.

"Oh, fuck..." John said unsteadily. "I really... Not that I'm not completely on board with this, but just so you know, I really did only come in here to sleep- Don't stop!" John said immediately when Sherlock lessened the pressure.

Sherlock obliged by wrapping one leg around John's to hold him in place, and started slowly moving against him. He nudged his face in close to John's so that his lips were just barely ghosting over John's mouth. John's breath was coming in shallow puffs that quickly aligned with the rhythm of Sherlock's movements. Sherlock could taste a hint of the yeasty alcohol from earlier on John's breath, and he thought quite possibly he might develop a taste for beer after this.

"You've been smoking," John said, just before he slanted his face a fraction more until their lips touched, then backed off.

"I'll quit," Sherlock said, closing the gap again, and he would, he'd flush every last one of his cigarettes at the next opportunity, because he didn't want John ever to hesitate or be put off, but just now there was no way he was going to remove his mouth from John's, at least not for a good, long while. They kissed until they were both breathless, their chests heaving against each other, and Sherlock felt John's hard length bumping against his through his pyjama bottoms and John's pants.

John had somehow worked one hand up inside the back of Sherlock's pyjama shirt, which reminded Sherlock that more skin was to be had of John's as well. He tugged at John's undershirt, muttering, "Off," but didn't stop kissing him while John struggled to comply, resulting in a bit of a tangle and one almost-knee in the testicles.

Once that was dealt with, Sherlock sank back down beside John and revelled in the feel of his skin underneath his fingers. The curve of his shoulders, the dip of his back, the soft roughness of the hair on his chest, the rubbery bumps of his nipples, the uneven landscape of his scar, the smooth softness of his belly - eventually, he would know these by heart, might even be able to track their changes. He shied away from that thought immediately; too tantalising, too fraught with peril. This was still new, though, only the second time he'd been accorded this privilege, and he was only too aware that it could well be the last. And for that reason, he meant to take all that he could.

John groaned in encouragement as Sherlock slipped one hand down the back of John's pants and kneaded his arse.

"God, Sherlock, fuck," he whispered, breaking the kiss to look down at the barely non-existent space between them, where their still-clothed penises were nestled against each other. Their motions were sending wafts of warm air upward, tinged with the pungent musk of their arousal.

"I intend to," Sherlock assured him, covering his mouth again and teasing his tongue inside in imitation of the act.

John groaned again and rolled them so that he was on top of Sherlock, holding the bulk of his weight up on his left arm, while with the right he fumbled to unbutton Sherlock's pyjama top. "I hope to God you have a condom this time, because I wasn't exactly expecting-"

"Downstairs, in my coat-" Sherlock panted, trying to help John with the buttons - he'd never get them open with his non-dominant hand - and knocking into his fingers in the process.

John left the buttons to Sherlock and reached down between them. His hand grasped Sherlock's cock through his pants and stroked him while he nudged under Sherlock's jaw to kiss and suck there, working his way back up to Sherlock's lips.

Sherlock finally managed to get his shirt open and peeled the material back, letting him feel the entire expanse of John's torso against his bare skin. He gasped into John's mouth; the multiple sensations of John over him, the contact on his chest and stomach, John's lips and tongue on his face, his lips, his neck, John's firm hand demanding on his cock, were all very nearly too much. And yet he wanted more, he wanted John to cover him and surround him and be part of him.

John must have felt much the same, as he said with a note of desperation, "Can you go get it... please..." as he ground his own erection against Sherlock's thigh. "Or we could just... like this, I don't-" He delved into Sherlock's mouth again and increased the pressure of his strokes on Sherlock's cock.

Yes, yes... No! He needed... They'd had to settle for hand jobs the last time for lack of a condom. Sherlock wasn't about to settle again, not when all he had to do was go downstairs... But that would mean getting out of bed, leaving John...

John let go of Sherlock's cock, which he was about to protest, but a moment later John was reaching inside Sherlock's pants to wrap his hand around him again, this time hot skin on hot skin. There wasn't any lubrication aside from a bit of sweat, so John couldn't do much more than move the skin up and down over Sherlock's shaft and play with the head and foreskin. At this point, it was more of a tease than a relief.

Sherlock gathered all of his willpower and shifted his hips away from John while putting pressure on his shoulder to indicate John should lift up. "I'll be right back," he murmured, lifting his head to steal some more kisses.

"Maybe some of that lotion too, if you still have-"

"I'll find something," Sherlock assured him, and with one more quick kiss, he slid out from under John.

Gladstone was at his side as soon as Sherlock's feet hit the floor, and went with him downstairs. Sherlock fished the box of condoms and the little tube of lubricant he'd bought at the shop out of his coat, then went into the downstairs toilet to wash his hands thoroughly and clean himself as well as he could with a wet flannel.

When he returned to the bedroom - Gladstone tapping faithfully along beside him - he saw that John had turned on the en suite light and left the door ajar, bathing the bedroom in faint light. John himself was sitting propped up against the headboard, the covers barely covering his lap and making it clear that he'd taken off his pants.

"Found what you were looking for?" John asked.

Sherlock tossed the box at him and crawled on all fours up the bed - he had to tell Gladstone to stay down - with the lubricant in one hand, straddling John's legs, until he was poised with his face directly in front of John's. John slid his hands up under the pyjama shirt still hanging open around Sherlock's shoulders and caressed his bare skin. He licked his lips, his eyes flickering down to Sherlock's mouth and back up. Sherlock held his gaze, looked into his eyes as long as he could while he slowly closed the gap between their lips. The kiss that followed was so full of longing, desire, and tenderness, the intensity of the emotion (flood of hormones) Sherlock experienced so great, that a painful knot formed in his chest and he couldn't breathe for a moment.

How could this man have done this to him? This ordinary, extraordinary person? Did other people experience this? It seemed to defy reason that Lestrade or Stamford or - Sherlock shuddered to imagine - Anderson could have part in something so sublime and transcendental. Song lyrics that Sherlock had sneered at and made merciless fun of like 'she stole my heart so it's about to burst' and 'I feel overcome with hope and joy' no longer seemed so ridiculous. Was Sherlock the last person on earth to find out about this?

Their lips separated with a gentle click, and Sherlock rested his forehead against John's, his eyes closed, and pressed his nose into John's cheek. "Yes," Sherlock breathed out, in answer to John's question. He hadn't known he was looking for it, but he'd found it, and he wasn't about to let it go again.

Sherlock shimmied out of his pants, John helping him to pull them down and off his long legs. Sherlock's erection had flagged when he went downstairs, but John gathered his loose testicles in one hand and weighed them, rolling them gently and caressing the base of Sherlock's penis with his thumb, and it wasn't long before he thickened and swelled again.

Sherlock reached down to pull the covers back and found John already hard with clear fluid welling from the tip of his penis. The sight, and the knowledge that John had remained this hard - or been revived - untouched, merely from kissing and whatever emotions were playing out in his head right now, caused a fresh wave of desire and something akin to wonder to surge through him.

He wanted - no, he needed - to show John what he was feeling, to let him know how much he meant to him. Sherlock settled down on John's lap, nudged himself forward so that their cocks were touching, and proceeded to kiss every inch of him that he could reach.

At the same time, John's hands weren't idle, continuing to stroke and stimulate Sherlock's chest, his cock, his neck, his arse, all the while murmuring encouragements with interjections of profanity.

Finally, "Where do you want me?" John asked.

Sherlock was confused for a moment until he felt John start to spread his thighs apart under Sherlock's lap. No. While he wasn't opposed to the idea in principle, Sherlock needed John inside him. He needed to feel the connection, to feel John. He also needed to see John's face, and he didn't relish the idea of having his knees about his ears. He'd never actually been on top while receiving before - too much effort for something he'd never been entirely interested in - but this seemed as good a time as any to begin.

"Right here," Sherlock said, lifting the tube that was still in his hand. He unscrewed the lid and removed the foil seal. "I'll prepare myself if you take care of the condoms."

"What, you want … All right, I just thought-"

"The last time you were here, you said you'd fuck me, and I intend to hold you to that." Sherlock squeezed out a blob of the gel onto his first two fingers and reached behind himself to smear it around his entrance.

"I did?" John laughed (lovely sound). "God, I don't remember, I probably would have said anything-" He stopped when he realised what that sounded like. "Not like that," he quickly backtracked. "I didn't mean-"

"It's all right, I understand. You said everything that came into your head. You always do during sex. It's quite endearing." Sherlock squeezed out more of the lubricant onto his fingers, but this time carefully inserted the first one, slowly working the cool gel up and inside.

"Endearing?" John echoed, mildly amused. "I was hoping for a bit more than that-"

Sherlock silenced him with a look. "Yes. That too," he said softly.

John looked pleased but embarrassed, as if he wasn't quite sure what to say. He looked away finally and nodded at Sherlock's arm flexing behind him. "Um, here, wait, Sherlock, I can do that," he said. "I mean, I'd like to. The way you looked last time, I always think of-" He broke off, as if he'd said something he didn't mean to.

Sherlock raised his eyebrows in mock shock. "John Watson, do you mean to say you've thought of me while pleasuring yourself?" He shook his head and smirked. "Anyway, one of us needs to have clean hands for the condoms, and I've already started. Next time," he said, before he could stop himself voicing the assumption that John would come back again.

But John didn't seem to think anything of it, reaching up to kiss Sherlock, just a flutter of lips and yet terribly intimate, while saying, "I thought next time you could... You know, if you wanted. I quite like it the other way round too." He took out a condom from the box and tore open the wrapper with studied casualness.

"I've never... You might have to give me a bit of guidance," Sherlock muttered. It was somehow odd, discussing sex like this, calmly and rationally, with one finger up his arse and John's cock red and twitching practically under his nose. Sex with other people had always been nothing more than the physical act, maybe some muffled grunting or at most directions for where to lie or rambling, drug-induced monologues. This casual familiarity spoke of a mutual respect and caring that was hitherto wholly outside of Sherlock's experience.

"Oh!" John sounded surprised at Sherlock's admission. "Fine, that's... I mean, not if you don't enjoy-"

"John, it's fine," Sherlock snapped. "I was simply never interested in any other permutation previously." He was now slick and loose enough to be able to get two fingers in, which was good, but his erection was losing steam again, due partly to having to split his attention and partly to the occasional twinge as he stretched himself from this angle. Luckily, John was still as stiff as a board, and had unrolled the condom over his length. Still, he didn't want to lose any more time.

Sherlock shuffled down a bit awkwardly, as he needed to keep up his ministrations with his right hand, and held John's cock upright with his left hand so he could get his mouth around it.

"Ah!" John cried in surprise and pleasure. He rested one hand on Sherlock's head. "You don't have to-"

Sherlock pulled off long enough to say: "I didn't get to do this last time either," before resuming sucking long strokes up John's cock.

"Do you have a checklist or something? Oh God, you probably do," John giggled.

Clearly, Sherlock was not applying himself enough to giving head if John was still able to giggle. He intensified his efforts and was rewarded within moments by a muttered curse and gasping breath.

He squirmed a bit as he twisted his wrist and tried to find the right angle to add a third finger. It went in with a slight burn, but Sherlock held on and distracted himself with the heavy weight of John's cock on his tongue, the sound of John's ragged breathing, the feel of his fingers twisted in Sherlock's hair, gently pulling whenever Sherlock moved. When he was in past the first knuckle with all three fingers and the burn had faded to an occasional throbbing reminder, he pulled out slowly and lifted himself up, giving John's cock one last, lingering suck. He could probably have done with a couple more minutes acclimatisation, but it would do. He walked forward on his knees to position himself over John's lap.

John put his hands on Sherlock's hips. "You sure you're ready?"

Sherlock looked down into John's eyes. There was anticipation, excitement, ardour, but also … caring; concern; a genuine desire for Sherlock's well-being and pleasure. John didn't want this for himself; he wanted it for the two of them together. Was Sherlock ready to accept those things? To possibly even return them? He realised, though, that he did return them already.

He nodded, but couldn't help frowning slightly. "I wouldn't do anything I didn't want to, John."

John smiled fondly. "Yeah... Oh God!" He sucked in a breath and rolled his eyes back as Sherlock took his penis and wiped off the remainder of the lube from his hands onto the condom. "Warn a chap," he said shakily as his eyes fluttered open again.

"More," Sherlock demanded, holding out his hand.

John picked up the tube from where it lay abandoned amongst the sheets and dribbled some more out over himself. Sherlock smeared it around liberally, then held the base of John's cock with one hand while he reached behind with the other to guide it in as he lowered himself slowly. It took one or two adjustments and some additional pressure before the head squeezed past the only half-loosened ring of muscle. Sherlock worked himself gingerly up and down, taking in a bit more each time, all the while keeping his eyes fixed on John's face, which was going through the most incredible array of expressions.

"Fuck, Sherlock..." John breathed. "You are ... incredible..." He pressed his lips together and lifted his hips to change the angle, making the penetration easier.

"Feeling's quite mutual," Sherlock said unsteadily, his head dropping with his chin to his chest as he adjusted to the new sensations inside.

"Oh God... Come- Can you come here?" John slid one hand up from Sherlock's hip to the back of his shoulder to nudge him down.

Sherlock bent over as well as he could without John slipping out and met John's lips for a brief kiss, not nearly satisfying enough for either of them. Then, with a final effort, he relaxed down all the way and his buttocks met John's thighs. John was in.

Their eyes met, both of them stock-still. Sherlock's arse was throbbing, every heartbeat echoed and amplified.

"All right?" Sherlock asked, meaning whether John was ready for him to move.

"I - am bloody - fantastic," John said, a little shakily but trying to sound light-hearted. "You?"

Sherlock nodded, not trusting his voice anymore. This was no big deal, he told himself. Why was he reacting this way? He'd done this countless times before - not exactly in this position, but the mechanics were the same. There was no logical reason for him to feel like this. Physically, it was actually a bit uncomfortable at the moment, but it wasn't that. It was like a harmony coming together, a chord created from two instruments that were perfectly in tune, the vibrations from their combined tones resonating deep inside, deeper than nerve endings and marrow, somehow touching an even more basic level, synchronising their very atoms.

And then he started to move. Slowly, gently, he flexed his thighs and hips, while John's hands curved around his buttocks to help support and guide him. The first few passes mostly served to lubricate the inside of Sherlock's passage better and let it adjust to the intrusion. Once the slide was smooth, though, and Sherlock was registering reports of pleasure mixed in with the occasional ache from his overtaxed nerve endings, he tried out different angles until one particularly fruitful jab had him jerking upward quickly, then shimmying back down and around in an attempt to replicate it.

"Like that?" John asked, moving his hips as well in an attempt to help Sherlock find the same spot again.

"Hold still, I can't- Right there oh God John right there," he babbled, his mouth hanging slightly open and now holding perfectly still as John thrust carefully upward, hitting his sweet spot several times in a row.

"Do you want me to-" John tentatively caressed Sherlock's penis, which was actually looking rather limp.

Sherlock shook his head and tried to catch his breath. "It's all right, it feels good," he said throatily.

"Sherlock-"

"I'm not lying," Sherlock said, irritated both at John for thinking he was and at himself for making it an easy supposition to make.

"All right," John said, and he meant: I'm trusting you.

John held Sherlock's hips in place and slid in and out over and over, not reaching his prostate every time, but often enough to keep Sherlock's pleasure level at an ever-increasing buzz. Sherlock was so focused on his internal signals, on maintaining his balance and giving John room to manoeuvre, and on the fascinating flex of John's abdominal muscles with every thrust and withdrawal, that he completely failed to notice the effect their activities were having on John.

"Sherlock... we may have to try something different in a moment here because I don't know how much longer I can-" John stopped moving abruptly and squeezed his eyes and mouth shut, breathing in and out deliberately through his nose.

Sherlock contracted the muscles in his arse, which elicited a shake of a head and something close to whine from John. Stupid man, did he actually think he had to wait for Sherlock so they could orgasm together? The larger part of Sherlock's pleasure was seeing John. His own orgasm was just an afterthought. A lovely one, but not the point of the exercise at all.

"You can go on, John," he said. It sounded bossy even to his own ears.

John snapped his eyes open, looking - if anything - insulted. "No, you're not even-" He glanced down briefly at Sherlock's genitals.

"John, you can go on. I don't always... " There was nothing for it, he was going to have to say it. "It's not always possible for me to climax like this. I'm enjoying it quite a lot, but if you can... I want you to. I want you... inside me."

John looked like he was going to argue the point, but something in Sherlock's expression must have convinced him not to. Instead, he put on a wry half smile and said, "All right, Jesus, you try and be a gentleman..."

Sherlock leaned down until his face was millimetres away from John's and John was about to slip out of him entirely.

"If I wanted a gentleman, I would hardly have invited you into my bed," Sherlock said in a low voice, before closing the remaining distance to demonstrate on - and in - John's mouth just how little value he placed on proper behaviour.

"Jesus Christ..." John managed when Sherlock finally lifted his head. "All right," he said gamely, his eyes still a little hazy from the kiss. "Hold on."

Sherlock sat back and held himself steady with one hand pressed against John's good shoulder and the other holding his genitals out of the way, his thighs rock-hard with the strain of kneeling only halfway upright. John started out slowly, both hands gripping Sherlock's hips hard enough that he was sure to leave marks. Sherlock gloated over the prospect.

John had his head tilted forward and was watching intently the junction where his cock disappeared over and over into Sherlock. The tendons and veins on his neck stood out from his efforts and his face was beet-red. As he got closer, his tongue peeked out from between his lips and he jerked his hips faster and faster under Sherlock.

"Oh God, now, now..." John gritted out before throwing his head back into the pillow and grunting as he spasmed and climaxed, until he dropped bonelessly down onto the mattress, spent.

John grasped blindly at Sherlock, manhandling him by whatever body parts he could reach to pull him down and hold him against his chest. Sherlock could feel John's heart racing - or was that his own heart? John didn't move, just held Sherlock tight and pressed a long, firm kiss into his hair. Sherlock would happily have let the moment go on longer, listening to John's breathing come back to normal, enjoying the odd, pleasurably achy, reflexive contractions of his now-empty hole. He didn't like the feeling of the liquefied lubricant oozing out, although he considered whether it might not be more palatable if it were mixed with John's sperm (mental note: have mutual testing done at soonest possible opportunity). As it wasn't, he felt around until he came up with an article of clothing - his pants, as it turned out - and gave himself a cursory wipe-down.

John didn't rest for long, though. After only a few moments, Sherlock felt a hand sliding down to cup him.

"Come here. You're amazing," John murmured. Sherlock lifted his head so he could kiss him. The pace was slower now, and gentler, but no less intense. Time flowed slowly, honey-like and almost too intensely sweet, as John kissed him and sucked his skin and coaxed him back into active arousal with his fingers.

Then before Sherlock was fully aware what was happening, John was prodding at his shoulders and chest to get him to lift up, and propping up the pillow and re-positioning himself against it.

"Come here, I want you to fuck my mouth," John said.

Sherlock wasn't so stimulated that he was on the edge or frustrated. He would actually have rather lain there, basking in John's enjoyment of his afterglow. His recalcitrance must have shown, because John gave him an exasperated look and said, "I want to give you a bloody blow job in the next five minutes, but I haven't the strength left to do it any other way, so get up here and put your fucking cock in my mouth!"

Sherlock would have pointed out that his legs were also not exactly the steadiest at the moment, but he also understood that this was important to John, and actually, having John's mouth around his cock was something he didn't want to pass up. He sat up so he could straddle John's torso and steadied himself against the wall behind John's head. His penis ended up about at the level of John's forehead.

"A little higher," Sherlock suggested.

"Yeah, I'd worked that out," John grumbled, hitching himself further up. He reached for the box of condoms, which they somehow hadn't managed to knock down, and took one out.

Sherlock watched as John unrolled the condom onto his erection with a frown of concentration. Once he was satisfied of the fit, John spread his fingers on Sherlock's arse cheeks and encouraged him with gentle pressure to move forward. Sherlock looked down, entranced to see the head of his penis disappearing into John's mouth. He could feel John's tongue curling around him, moulding itself to his shape, and then as he pulled back, the tip of John's tongue lingering as if loath to let him go. Sherlock understood entirely. If it were possible, he would leave a part of himself with John, gladly and without reservation. In fact, he rather suspected he already had.

He slid in again, a little further this time; he judged he could fit just about half of it in before it became uncomfortable for John. He did this a few more times, slowly, mesmerised by the flare of John's nostrils as he tried to breathe in time with Sherlock's strokes, and the tensing and relaxing of his cheeks as he adjusted to and tried to match each of Sherlock's thrusts with increasing suction. Sherlock's heart clenched at the sight, and at the knowledge that John was trying to give Sherlock the best he could, not just here in bed, but in everything. How could he not know that everything he gave, and did, and was, was a gift?

Inexorably, the friction, heat, and pressure did their work, and the tingle of arousal that had been buzzing throughout his body became more concentrated. Sherlock couldn't help it, he had to thrust more quickly now, although he was still aware enough to try not to go too deep. John's fingers were insistent on his buttocks, though, keeping him close, and John's mouth was so soft and plush.

"John..." Sherlock said, not even sure why; his name simply felt good and right on his tongue, and if he maybe meant more than just gaining his attention, well, no one was the wiser.

John responded with a sympathetic hum and moved one of his hands down to fondle Sherlock's testicles, encircle the lower half of his penis, stroke his perineum, anything to give him more stimulation. It was good, but Sherlock needed just a bit more. If his arse hadn't been so sensitive at the moment, he might have asked for John's fingers, which Sherlock had in fond memory from the last time.

Just then, John tilted his head back just enough that he could meet Sherlock's eye. John raised his eyebrows and grunted, either in encouragement or challenge. The room wasn't very bright, but there was enough light coming from the bathroom that the details of his face were clear. His chin and cheeks, glistening with saliva; his eyes, wide and bright; his lips forming a perfect circle clamped around Sherlock.

This, it hit him at that moment: John was doing this for him, not because he felt obligated to, but because he enjoyed it as much as Sherlock had enjoyed giving John pleasure. Despite the fact that it might be physically demanding, even slightly uncomfortable, the payback was worth it ten times over. And that thought, that knowledge, was what did it. Sherlock dropped his left arm down from where it had been braced against the wall and held the side of John's face, staring intently into those blue, trusting eyes.

"John..." he said again, and this time it was a warning.

John nodded, hummed his permission, and stroked Sherlock's balls, applying just a bit of pressure, and all of a sudden, Sherlock was coming. He jerked forward uncontrollably and his eyes fell shut as he came and came, imagining his semen spouting into John's throat.

A moment later, the pulsing in his groin hadn't even fully come to an end when he was suddenly hanging out in the cold air, and he heard John coughing.

"It's fine, I'm fine," John assured him hoarsely, holding a hand up. "Just..." Another coughing fit. "Sorry."

Sherlock slid down to nestle against John's body. He couldn't really bring himself to feel bad. It had been a spectacular orgasm. And John had wanted to do it. Sherlock wouldn't have minded if John had been a bit rougher on him during intercourse either.

John wrapped his arms around Sherlock and pulled him over so he was lying half on top of John's chest, and pressed a kiss to his forehead. "That. Was spectacular," he sighed, his voice still rough.

"Mmm," Sherlock agreed. Not, he felt, that it really needed to be said. They had both been there, after all.

John kissed Sherlock one more time, then looked over his shoulder and laughed. "That bloody dog, I think he gets his jollies off watching!"

Sherlock turned his head. Gladstone was sitting on the throw rug next to the bed, his tongue lolling out and grinning at them.

Chapter Text

Chapter 23 - The Game Is On

"This would have been easier if you lived with me."

"Possibly," John agreed as he slid onto the back seat of the taxi next to Sherlock. He looked unfairly good (unfair because the taxi driver - devout Muslim, two wives (one back in Nigeria, the second here) - was already eyeing them suspiciously, and it would be annoying to have to find another taxi on Christmas Day) with his hair slicked back and the silk blend scarf Sherlock had given him a couple of days earlier around his neck. And Sherlock hadn't even seen the suit yet, hidden as it was under John's coat. The scarf was decidedly not a Christmas present, as they'd decided not to exchange Christmas presents; John had bought him the supple leather gloves he was currently wearing, purely on impulse and because his old ones were already a couple of years old and wearing at the seams.

"I had to be ready half an hour early in order to come get you," Sherlock complained.

"Appreciate it." John smiled and patted Sherlock's leg, leaving his hand there.

Sherlock flumped back and scowled out the window, but put his hand on top of John's and gave it a brief squeeze. It was hateful how sunny and cheerful it was outside. The streets were dry, and the taxi flew along the largely empty thoroughfare. It was Christmas; it was supposed to be dreary and gray, the weather matching his mood and giving everyone an excuse for sniping at each other. But now John was here with him, and he was finding it difficult to maintain his pique.

"I bought Gladstone a dog bed," Sherlock grumbled.

John raised his eyebrows. "I wouldn't have taken you for someone who'd buy their pet a Christmas present. But I'm sure he appreciated it."

Sherlock turned his head slowly to meet John's eye. "John. I bought - Gladstone - a dog bed. I'm training him not to sleep on the bed anymore. In the bedroom at all, actually. I've put him out in the hallway."

"Oh. Oh!" John said with more enthusiasm as he caught on. "Oh, right! That should be... Yeah, that's good." John grinned and rubbed his hand over Sherlock's thigh. Sherlock shifted minutely closer.

"Here. I didn't get you anything for Christmas either." John reached inside his coat and pulled out an envelope, which he held out to Sherlock.

He only needed to glance at the envelope to know what was in it. "Congratulations. I told you they'd take you."

"You haven't looked inside," John said.

Sherlock flicked a finger at it. "Addressed to you, from the clinic you applied to. Several sheets of paper, judging by the thickness. An employment contract, obviously."

"Yeah, all right, full points. There's something else, though." John waggled the envelope.

Sherlock narrowed his eyes and took it. Inside was - yes, the contract, salary a bit lower than someone with John's experience should command, but sufficient to live on, and it was John's business. And then another sheet of paper. Sherlock unfolded it and skimmed it. His eyes jumped to John's, hardly daring to hope...

"It's six months," John said, leaning over to tap his finger on the date he'd put on the termination of lease notice. The pink curve of his ear was right at the level of Sherlock's mouth. He made a mental note to lick it at the first possible opportunity. "You're right," John went on, "the place is a dump, and with what I'll be earning I'll be able to afford something nicer, maybe even closer to the clinic."

"Why six months? You can move in tomorrow," Sherlock said in a rush, before John could change his mind. "Today, we can-"

"Six months," John said firmly, sitting back so he could re-fold the letter and put it back in the envelope. "It's not a promise. I may still end up in my own place. But it's … something to aim for, anyway."

Six months from the first of the year. That would be eight months since they met; not even a year. Skirting the limits of moving too fast, by conventional societal measures. A glacial pace, by Sherlock's. Still, it didn't mean Sherlock couldn't start arranging things now so that John was de facto living at his house by the time he could legally leave his current flat. The first order of business would be encouraging him to leave an extra set of toiletries and a change of clothes. John had already bemoaned the lack of a toothbrush and having to put the same pants back on after staying the night. Serving him alcohol (more than one beer) late at night so that it would be more prudent for him to stay over. And eventually a key, merely for the sake of convenience should Sherlock be out when John needed to stop by to pick something up. And of course lots of sex. John enjoyed sex. Sherlock did, too (with John). He should possibly not be thinking of that now, on the way to his mother's house for Christmas dinner – with John, nota bene, the payment Mycroft had exacted for his help with Moriarty and the play. Most especially as Mycroft would be there too, and would immediately know what had been on Sherlock's mind for the entirety of the car ride.

He tried to think of something else. The pig hearts he'd gotten from the butcher, or … or a nice murder, yes. The tap on Dimmock's phone had been both disappointing and instructive. Disappointing because of the staggering depth of the vapidity which the majority of his correspondence contained. But instructive in that Sherlock now had a good idea of his daily schedule and which officers were on Dimmock's team. Also the facts that Dimmock wasn't above closing one eye when it came to skirting procedure, he was worried about his heart, and he had a teenaged son who was involved in drugs. All points which could be extremely helpful, given the right circumstances.

Just then, the text alert sounded that signalled one of the carbon-copied messages from Dimmock's phone. Sherlock took his mobile out to check it - unlikely it was anything pertinent, but he couldn't afford to miss that one tip-off he was waiting for, and the distraction was just what he needed at the moment. And - bingo! An address, sent from the number of one of the officers who worked under Dimmock. They must have called him to let him know he was needed, then texted him the address so he wouldn't have to write it down. It could, of course, be another case altogether, but that might be interesting as well. In any event, Sherlock would at least get to see just how incompetent the police were in the course of their evidence-gathering.

Sherlock stuffed the phone back into his pocket and leaned forward to speak to the driver.

"Change of destination. Lauriston Gardens."

"What? What's going on?" John asked. His body tensed immediately. A soldier's instinct. Always ready for action. A thrill crept up Sherlock's spine.

"A murder, John," Sherlock said, his eyes sparkling. He craned his neck to get a better view of the road and make sure the driver was taking the most direct route. They might even get there before Dimmock, which would make things immensely easier.

"What?!" John yelped.

"The police think they're suicides, but the police are fools."

The driver turned his head halfway toward Sherlock, apparently thought better of it, and accelerated a bit more.

"Sorry, what?" John asked again.

Sherlock glanced at John. He looked confused, naturally, but also expectant. Excited. Nostrils flaring, lips parted, pupils dilating. The way he had the first time he'd been to Sherlock's house and he'd thought that Sherlock might have been planning to kill him. Interesting.

"I could use a medical man at my side," Sherlock said, a plan already forming. "Would help immensely getting onto the crime scene."

"Sorry, crime scene?" John gaped. "What about your mother?"

Sherlock fluttered his fingers dismissively. "Christmas comes round every year. But a murder, John!"

"I'm pretty sure those come round at least once a year as well," John remarked dryly.

"Yes, but not like this. Not a case that I've been following for a couple of weeks now, and that I know is more than the police are seeing." Sherlock was practically bouncing on the edge of the seat in excitement.

"You're going to explain this to me-"

"Yes, later," Sherlock promised impatiently. "Now, John... the game is on!"