John’s first inkling as to the precise nature of the Holmes family's Christmas dinners came when they exited the village train station on Christmas Eve. Instead of making for the taxi rank as they usually would, Sherlock started scanning the crowd of people waiting outside, not even minding that they were clearly in the way of people exiting the station.
‘Yes,’ Sherlock frowned. ‘Parker's usually prompt to the point of getting underfoot, but I can’t see him.’
‘Parker?’ Stamping his feet to warm them, John laughed nervously. ‘You’re kidding. Like Thunderbirds?’
‘Like who?’ Sherlock asked, still using his unfair height and long neck to survey the crowd.
John sighed. ‘Never mind. God, I can’t believe your family has a chauffeur.’
This time, Sherlock turned to him, looking quizzical. ‘John, what are you talking about?’
When Sherlock had laconically invited John to spend Christmas with his family, John had been quick to accept. Harry had already told him apologetically that she and Clara were having Christmas together, just the two of them, and John was at a loose end. He had thought about volunteering in a soup kitchen over the holidays, but many of the homeless people were ex-servicemen who had simply been unprepared for civilian life. Looking at the unshaven, grey-faced men on London’s streets reminded John all too clearly of what he might have become had Stamford not recognised him in the park that January morning and, cowardly as it was, he couldn’t bring himself to face his alter egos. So he had accepted Sherlock’s invitation, trying not to sound too grateful.
Thanks to heavy snowfall their train had been delayed on the journey up, to Sherlock’s annoyance. He had alleviated his boredom by sitting opposite John and texting him throughout the journey, outrageous claims about their fellow passengers that made John bite his lip to stop himself laughing aloud and that in turn made Sherlock’s eyes crinkle as he watched John trying to control his amusement.
Now the evening drinks were already going strong when they pulled up to the house. Well, John thought, ‘house’ was a bit of an understatement. It was more like a mansion, an enormous sprawling place that was ablaze with lights and bustling with activity.
John had been relieved to find out that ‘Parker’ wasn’t the family chauffeur but the name of the man who ran the village taxi service, and who was apparently doing a roaring trade that evening with all the various Holmeses arriving at the station. However, the mansion did have a housekeeper, and after a few words with her, Sherlock dragged John along seeming miles of corridors (‘Mrs. Waring said that all the young people have been put in the east wing.’ ‘Wing? We have our own wing?’) until they stopped outside a door bearing a plaque reading Arabian Room that made John wonder if whoever had organised the bedrooms had known about his time in Afghanistan.
‘That was Aunt Octavia’s idea,’ Sherlock explained, as he opened the door and dumped his large hold-all by the bed. ‘This is her house, and she thought it would be interesting to style each room with a different theme.’
John barely heard him. He felt as though he had stepped back into one of the fairy tales that Harry had loved reading when she was a child. There were pierced metalwork light shades fixed to the wall and the entire room was decorated in sumptuous, glowing colours. Thick Persian rugs overlapped each other on the floorboards, and dominating the room was a large, comfortable-looking bed piled high with pillows and cushions in rich shades of burnt orange, turquoise, and amethyst. It was long enough and wide enough so that even Sherlock would be able stretch out on it without any long, slender limbs overhanging the mattress.
It was, however, still only one bed.
Sherlock had wandered into the ensuite bathroom and his voice echoed oddly when he replied. ‘Yes?’
The bed was a four-poster, and John ran his hand over one of the dark, glossy posts as he perched on the edge of the mattress. ‘There’s… um… there’s only one bed.’
There was no answer and, on impulse, he tweaked open the drawer of the elaborately-carved nightstand to be greeted by a quantity and variety of condoms and lubricant that would have done credit to a counter-top display at a sex shop.
In a flash, Sherlock was back in the room, looking gratifyingly concerned. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘There’s… there’s…,’ John stuttered before trying again. ‘There are condoms in this drawer! And… stuff! Flavoured stuff!’
‘Really?’ Sherlock, damn him, looked intrigued, eyes sparkling. ‘Which flavour?’
‘Sherlock! That’s not the point! The point is what is it doing there?’ Embarrassment and suppressed arousal meant that John’s retort was brusquer than he had intended but honestly: wasn’t it enough that restaurant owners all across London seemed cheerfully determined to make insinuations that made John squirm wistfully in his seat, without Sherlock’s aunt joining in?
Sherlock’s nonchalant shrug was as eloquent as any words could have been. ‘Aunt Octavia’s tremendously liberated. One of the original hippies. She knew Germaine Greer, back in the day, you know. If you look in the back of the drawer you’ll probably find a copy of The Gay Kama Sutra.’
John couldn’t tell if it was one of Sherlock’s sporadic attempts at humour, but the suggestion was enough to make him slam the drawer shut, his face burning and his traitorous mind helpfully presenting him with half a dozen images of Sherlock, flavoured lubricant, and positions from The Gay Kama Sutra.
‘Look, you have to tell her that she’s… that we’re not… like that.’ More’s the pity. He had no trouble at all picturing Sherlock’s black hair and white skin against the dramatic colours of the bed.
‘Yes, yes,’ Sherlock interrupted his lascivious thoughts. ‘I’ll sort out a second bedroom with Mrs. Waring later but right now we’re late for drinks. If you don’t want to change then we’d best go down.’
With Sherlock standing with barely concealed impatience by the door, John had no choice but to try to brush the creases out of his jacket before following him out of the room and down the stairs.
They entered a large room downstairs that, to John’s nervous gaze, seemed to be absolutely full of people talking, laughing, and drinking.
‘You said it was just family!’ John muttered in alarm.
Sherlock looked at him in surprise. ‘This is my family.’
‘There must be a hundred people in here! You’re not telling me you’re related to all of them?’
‘Don’t be melodramatic, John. There are only fifty or sixty, at most. Would you like a drink?’ As they talked Sherlock had been wending his way through the crowd toward the biggest drinks cabinet John had ever seen. ‘G and T? Whisky?’
‘Whisky, thanks.’ John wasn’t sure he could get through the evening without some Dutch courage. Not only did the room seem to be packed with a bewildering mass of people, but he was anticipating that all of them would be the sort of upper-class snobs that he had nothing in common with, and usually ended up disliking after a bare five minutes’ conversation.
Reminding himself that even such a crowd was better than a solitary Christmas in Baker Street, John sipped at the generous measure of Lagavulin that Sherlock had handed him and listened to the faint strains of classical music.
‘Is that a string quartet in the corner?’ he asked nervously.
‘It’s a stereo, John. I imagine the music was Aunt Octavia’s choice, although I’m sure it will change once Evander gets near it.’ Sherlock looked at him curiously. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Fine, fine,’ John muttered.
Sherlock seemed on the point of saying something, but then he looked over John’s shoulder and his face lit up.
‘Grandmother!’ he called and rushed across the room, towing John along by the arm. John had only a fleeting impression of an elderly woman before Sherlock’s lanky form obscured her, kissing her on each cheek before folding her in his arms. She returned his embrace, squeezing him tightly, and when Sherlock stepped back looking flushed and happy, John found himself face to face with the matriarch of the mass of people in the room.
The woman must have been in her late eighties, but she was impeccably dressed (John didn’t miss the discreet interlocked C’s on the cuffs of her suit jacket) and her white hair was cut in an elegant bob. And it was entirely clear from whom Sherlock had inherited his cheekbones. She was also beaming at John, as though being presented with an awkward man fidgeting with the sleeve of his Marks and Spencer’s suit was all she could possibly have wanted at Christmas.
‘Grandmother,’ Sherlock said, ‘this is John. John, this is my grandmother, Evangeline.’
Unsure what to do, John politely held out his hand but it was grandly ignored as she leaned in (in a gust of L’Air du Temps) to kiss him on the cheek affectionately.
‘What a pleasure,’ she smiled at him. ‘I’ve heard all about you, and I’m so happy to meet you. Sherlock, be a darling and fetch me a drink while I talk to John.’
John couldn’t count the number of times that his hints, requests, and even pleas for a cup of tea had fallen on deaf ears in Baker Street, but Sherlock only said ‘Your usual?’ before disappearing meekly in the direction of the drinks cabinet.
‘Now then.’ The woman had oddly mesmerising green eyes, and John could feel them running over him. ‘You’ve known each other for almost a year, is that right?’
‘Er, yes,’ said John, surprised to realise that it was true. With all that had happened since then, it felt like far longer since he had walked into his old lab at St Bart’s.
‘I can’t tell you how pleased I was that Sherlock had finally moved in with someone. It will do him a world of good to have someone else to consider besides himself. He’s a dear boy, but he’s always been so…’ she hesitated.
Bonkers. Mad. A complete and utter nutcase, John thought but very carefully didn’t say.
‘… flighty,’ she finished at last. ‘But Bella tells me that he seems to have become much steadier since he met you.’
John thought back over the past year, trying hard not to dwell on the box of skin samples that had been in their fridge only last month, and cringed at the thought that Sherlock might have previously been even more erratic in his living habits than he was now.
Evangeline dropped her voice as she continued. ‘I know one oughtn’t to have favourites and I don’t, not really, I love them all dearly. But Sherlock does remind me of a very dear great-uncle of mine. He was a wonderful man: very observant, just like Sherlock, and very kind. I used to go and visit him and his friend in the summer – they lived on the Downs in Sussex – and he used to let me help him with his bees. They made the most delicious honey. When Bella asked me choose the middle name for her second son, I immediately thought of my great-uncle and I have to say that Sherlock really does take after him.’
Trying to keep up with the Holmes family history, John sipped at his drink and nearly choked when Evangeline added, matter-of-factly, ‘And also because both of them are queer, of course. Isn’t that what you young people are calling it these days? Dear me, are you all right?’
‘Fine,’ wheezed John, his eyes watering and sinuses burning with whisky. ‘Sorry to interrupt. You said your great-uncle was… was…’
‘Oh yes, I’m almost sure of it. When I grew older I often wondered about him and his widower friend who lived with him. Of course, this was well after they died; at the time I was too young to really think about such things. And even if I had, I would never have dreamed of asking. One simply didn’t, back then. But you young things are so much more open nowadays.’
John had often had his suspicions about Sherlock’s sexuality, given the total lack of interest in woman and the occasional long stare that John had caught Sherlock giving a particularly good-looking man (on those occasions when John hadn’t also been too distracted by said man to notice), but he had never expected to have his wishful thinking confirmed by Sherlock’s grandmother, of all people.
‘I see,’ was all he could find to say.
‘A few years ago, quite a few years actually, he even brought a young man to our Christmas get-together and oh, my dear, I just can’t tell you how ghastly he was. None of us liked him; he was simply awful to my grandson.’ She turned her attention back to him, her eyes brightening as she surveyed him. ‘But now he’s with you, and I am glad. Perhaps you’ll even get him to stop that nasty habit of his.’
Sherlock had many habits that definitely qualified as ‘nasty’, and John strove to keep a blank face as he said tactfully, ‘I’m not sure what you–’
‘Why, the cocaine, of course! Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about, I can see that you do, though your loyalty to him is charming. You know, even as a child Sherlock did get so dreadfully bored – on rainy days I had to give him all the riddles and puzzles that my grandfather gave me – but that vile habit really isn’t good for him.’
John was left speechless. He wasn’t sure he had ever had a conversation with an older person about class A drugs before, let alone a matter-of-fact revelation that they knew one of their grandchildren to be actually taking them. Evangeline laughed at his discomfort and patted his arm. ‘You young people today, you always think you’re the first ones to discover everything. They weren’t called “The Roaring Twenties” for nothing, dear.’
Searching desperately for a safe place to step in what had suddenly turned into a conversational minefield, John seized upon something that had caught his attention. ‘You said that “Sherlock” was his middle name.’
‘Why yes. Did you not know?’
‘No, he never said.’
‘Here you are, Grandmother.’ Sherlock chose that opportune moment to reappear, holding a glass of tomato juice containing a stick of celery.
‘Thank you, dear,’ said his grandmother, taking it from him. ‘But John tells me that you haven’t told him your full name! Don’t tell me you’re still shy about it, after all these years?’
Sherlock scowled darkly, heavy eyebrows lowering, and John had a sudden and very clear image of how he must have looked as a small child. ‘It’s ridiculous.’
‘You’re being silly, darling. It’s a lovely name, there’s nothing wrong with it. But I can see your parents over there; your mother was asking Octavia if you’d arrived. Have you told her that you’re here?’
Still looking mulish, Sherlock nevertheless obediently disappeared again and John barely had time to ask, ‘So what is–’ before Evangeline took his arm and steered him deftly through the crowd.
‘I can see my brother over there. He’ll want to meet you, of course; he was so interested to hear that you’d been in the Army.’
Before John could pursue the conversation he found himself standing in front of an enormous man, well over six feet tall and possibly the same girth, entirely bald but with a luxuriant white beard.
‘Jove,’ Evangeline said, ‘this is John, Sherlock’s friend. John, this is my brother, Jove.’
‘Pleased to meet you, sir.’ John hadn’t actually intended to call the man ‘sir’, but something about his stature prompted it. And his name was entirely apt – John had never seen anyone who looked so well suited to the job of sitting on a cloud dispensing thunderbolts and righteousness. His hand engulfed in a warm clasp, John was so busy trying not to overtly stare (it was as though everything about Jove had been built to a scale one-tenth larger than normal size) that he almost missed it when Evangeline added, ‘Sherlock’s grandfather.’
‘I’m sorry?’ John was sure he must have misheard.
‘Sherlock’s grandfather,’ Evangeline smiled warmly at him.
‘Oh right. I’m sorry, I got confused there – for a moment I thought you said that you were Sherlock’s grandmother.’
‘Oh, I am.’
‘But he’s your…’ John’s voice tailed off, and he felt a yawning gulf of social embarrassment opening up beneath his feet. He ought to have known that the Holmeses couldn’t possibly be like any normal family, but this… Christ, how the hell was he meant to respond to–
Jove’s deep voice cut calmly through John’s rising horror. ‘The children call her grandmother as an honorific, of course. My own dear wife passed away with the birth of our youngest child, and my sister helped me to raise the children and then, later on, the grandchildren.’
‘Oh, I see.’ Evangeline smiled fondly at John, and he told himself guiltily to stop assuming the worst about Sherlock’s family. ‘Right. Yes.’
Before he could decide whether to apologise or ignore the whole incident, Evangeline was pulled away by another Holmes grandchild and Jove turned to John. ‘You were in the Army, I hear?’
‘Yes, I was. Served a brief tour of duty in Afghanistan.’
‘Hmm. That’s where you got shot then, I presume.’ The man indicated, with a large hand, John’s left shoulder and John nodded.
‘Yes. I suppose Sherlock told–’
‘Never served in the Army myself,’ Jove said, in a comradely fashion, ‘although I did work in a park for a bit during the war.’
‘Oh.’ John flailed for a polite remark to make. Perhaps the man had been a conscientious objector, and had to do public service instead. ‘Right. I see. That sounds… nice. With… um… wildlife, I suppose?’
Jove’s laugh boomed out, as though John had just told an immensely witty joke, and several heads turned. John saw amused smiles directed at them – clearly grandfather’s almost operatic voice range was well-known in the family – as Jove answered, ‘Yes, yes, by George, you could say that.’
Jove’s eyes twinkled, making him look like a benevolent Father Christmas, and he glanced briefly at something over John’s shoulder before he answered gravely, ‘I worked with geese that laid golden eggs, but never cackled.’
John was entirely lost. ‘I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t–’
‘Ah look, here’s Sherlock. Hello, my boy, how are you?’
Like a genie, Sherlock had appeared behind John again and reached past him to shake hands with his grandfather. ‘Hello, Grandfather. Can I steal John for a bit? Mum and Dad want to meet him.’
‘Absolutely. Off you go, both of you. John, it was a pleasure to meet you.’
‘Likewise,’ John said, although it was over his shoulder as Sherlock had already tucked an arm through his and was pulling him off in yet another direction.
‘Nice man, your grandfather,’ John said. ‘Apparently he worked in a park during the war. With geese, he told me.’
‘With what…?’ John could see the baffled frown on Sherlock’s face before it cleared. Sherlock stopped dragging him and turned to face him. His lips were twitching, in that way that meant that John’s terrible attempts at deduction had inspired not scorn or annoyance but laughter, and before continuing he deftly plucked two full champagne glasses from a passing waiter’s tray and replaced John’s empty tumbler.
‘Not a park,’ Sherlock said, serious although his eyes were sparkling with mirth. ‘He would have said “the Park”. Bletchley Park. You do know what they did at Bletchley Park during the war, don’t you, John?’
‘I’ll take that as a yes. Believe me, the government secrets he knows would make your hair curl.’ Sherlock glanced up at John’s hair, still military-short, and added, ‘Figuratively speaking. He and Mycroft get on very well, I know that much. Now come on; if we don’t find Mum and Dad then Mycroft will end up talking about politics to them all evening…’ Sherlock started moving again and John hurried to keep up.
‘But your grandfather said he worked with–’
‘“The geese that laid the golden eggs but never cackled”, I know. It was Churchill’s name for his code breakers. John, your history is appalling; I can’t believe you dared to criticise my knowledge of the solar system.’
‘That was entirely different! You didn’t even know that the earth orbited the sun! But listen,’ John said awkwardly, ‘I’m not sure, but I think your grandmother might have the wrong idea– Oh. Good evening.’
Sherlock had stopped abruptly beside a middle-aged couple, saying, ‘Mum, Dad, this is John. John, these are my parents, Arabella and Gideon.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Holmes.’
As John shook hands with a merry, curvaceous woman, she dimpled at him and said, ‘Good Lord, please call me Bella, or Arabella if you absolutely must. I suppose it’s a bit early to tell you to call me “Mum”.’
‘Er–’ As he struggled to reply, John saw Sherlock visibly twitch next to him and a tall, solemn-faced man, who John could instantly see must be Sherlock and Mycroft’s father, leaned across to take John’s hand.
‘Pleasure to meet you at last, John.’
As John shook hands, he couldn’t repress the feeling that he was looking at Sherlock thirty years on. The same curiously pale eyes, the same facial structure, and the same tall, lean build, save that Sherlock had clearly inherited his mother’s dark curls and not his father’s straight hair, streaked with silver at each temple.
They both regarded him with a warm affection that John hadn’t seen on anyone’s face since his own parents passed on, God rest them, and Bella asked, ‘So how are you, John? Sherlock’s told me that you’re a doctor, and it’s wonderful that you were able to get time off over the holiday season to join us.’
‘Er, yes, I am. And I’m just doing locum work at the moment, only a few days here and there, you know how it is.’
She nodded sympathetically. ‘Yes, the job market really is taking quite a while to bounce back after the credit crunch.’
‘Yes, it is,’ echoed John. He really didn’t feel like telling this charming woman that the reason he was unable to hold down a steady job was because her high-maintenance son had a tendency to call him up and insist that John drop whatever he was doing to join him on a case, and that John would instantly comply. He didn’t want to risk Sherlock getting his beautiful, brilliant head stoved in by a criminal or a Scotland Yarder who’d been pushed past the bounds of reasonable tolerance.
‘Fortunately,’ she continued, ‘my husband and I seem to have escaped the worst of it. We’re both self-employed – he’s a composer, you know. Writes the most beautiful music; Sherlock inherited all of his artistic side from him. I’m afraid it more or less skipped poor Mycroft.’
Sherlock broke away from an animated conversation he had struck up with his father to interject, ‘“More or less”? Don’t say you’ve forgotten that horrific summer when he decided that he was going to learn the piccolo.’
John couldn’t suppress a laugh at the thought of serious, power-wielding Mycroft Holmes murdering a musical instrument that was shrill at the best of times and downright piercing at the worst, and Sherlock grinned at him.
‘Well, yes, I suppose so.’ Bella had the grace to look a little abashed and she leaned forward and confided to John, ‘It was when he was quite young. He would never say so, but I think he was rather jealous of the way Sherlock and Gideon used to play pieces together. It was only for a few weeks before…’ she paused, clearly searching for a tactful way to finish the sentence, and settled for: ‘he gave it up, by general family consensus. But still, Sherlock, that’s no excuse for the way you whip your violin out whenever he comes to see you. It’s childish, really. One can’t be good at everything.’
Sherlock smirked, before turning to his father and saying, ‘Dad, John plays the clarinet.’
As John was wondering if he had only imagined that touch of pride in Sherlock’s voice, Gideon’s face lit up with keen interest and he asked, ‘Do you really? How wonderful.’
‘Used to,’ John corrected hurriedly. Gideon was looking alarmingly enthusiastic – as though he was planning intimate family evenings spent working their way through the collected works of Grieg – and John almost fell over himself giving his excuses. ‘I used to play the clarinet, back in school, but I’m afraid I’ve forgotten everything I ever knew about it.’
Clearly sensing John’s alarm, Gideon slid an arm around Bella’s waist and gracefully changed the subject. ‘By the way, John, don’t let my wife convince you that Sherlock gets all his artistic qualities from me. She paints, you know. She had an exhibition in the Royal Academy last winter.’
‘Oh, well,’ Bella blushed as her husband smiled, the affectionate look transforming his rather serious face. ‘It was just a small thing, nothing extraordinary. I paint under my maiden name, Cheverill.’
‘You’re Bella Cheverill?’ John was amazed. ‘My sister loves your work! I think she has a print of one of your pictures in her flat.’
‘Oh John, you’re too kind.’
Her hazel eyes sparkled at him as she squeezed his arm, and John turned to say, ‘Sherlock, why didn’t you tell me that… oh.’
Sherlock had disappeared again, and Bella smiled at him. ‘Off again. When he’s in one of his energetic phases, then he never stands still. Just like my husband.’ Gideon gave his wife an openly adoring look before someone tapped him on the arm and drew his attention away. He left his arm around his wife’s waist, and she leaned contentedly against him as she spoke.
‘They’re really very similar, you know. Even down to their mannerisms.’
‘I can see that.’ Watching Gideon as he stood with his head slightly on one side, his eyes fixed on the other person and his face almost preternaturally still and solemn, was like watching Sherlock listen to a client who had managed to supply him with an unusual case.
‘We’re so happy that you two are together,’ Bella murmured to him. ‘I do worry about him so much. He’s been on his own for so long, you know. When I heard he had met someone new I was curious, but after that horrible mess with Sebastian, I didn’t really relax until Mycroft told me that he’d met you and liked you.’
There were so many startling pieces of information in that pronouncement that John wasn’t sure which to tackle first. The news that Sebastian was an old boyfriend of Sherlock’s wasn’t so startling – the thought had occurred to John upon seeing Sebastian’s forced familiarity with Sherlock at the bank – but the information that Mycroft actively liked him, as opposed to merely tolerating him as a necessary buffer between himself and his sibling, was enough to render John speechless. One thing he was sure of was that delivering the correction he was well used to making by now was completely unthinkable. They were such a charming couple, so in love with each other and so obviously proud of their two extraordinary sons, that John just didn’t have the heart to correct their false impressions.
‘Thanks,’ he mumbled, hoping his incoherence would be taken for shyness, ‘I’m… I’m really happy I met him.’
There. That at least was honest, if not the whole truth. He was glad he had met Sherlock Holmes, because God knows what would have become of his mundane life if he hadn’t.
Bella hugged her eldest son. With the family this close together, it was easy to see that while Sherlock looked like his father, Mycroft had definitely inherited more genes from their mother – identical eyes, and the same slight propensity to weight gain that explained Bella’s curves and Sherlock’s incessant teasing of Mycroft about his diet.
‘Mel has been asking about John. Do you mind…?’
‘No, of course not! You are popular, John. I do hope you’re not feeling too overwhelmed; I remember the first Christmas that Gideon brought me here and it was rather daunting. There are such a lot of them but,’ she dimpled at him again, ‘they’re all very friendly.’
‘Daunting’ didn’t even begin to cover it, John thought, as Mycroft led him away. He was growing exhausted with the procession of odd names and bright faces of people who looked delighted to meet him, and when Mycroft arched an eyebrow at him and said, ‘Holding up all right?’ John managed only a nod in reply.
Mycroft smiled faintly at John, doubtless knowing exactly what was going through his mind, and said, ‘This next one will be have to be rather quick, I’m afraid. We’re going in for dinner shortly, and Evander’s been pestering me to bring you over to him before we do.’
A shout from one side of the room caught their attention, and they both turned to where three young men had laid claim to a sofa and were waving eagerly at Mycroft. Mycroft held up a finger, clearly signalling ‘Just a minute,’ and carried on towards the far side of the room.
‘More cousins of yours?’ John asked.
Mycroft nodded. ‘Yes, the triplets. Bedivere, Galahad and Lancelot. They went into business together, the computer software industry. I won’t bore you with the details, but they made their first billion by the time they were twenty-two.’
‘You’re making this up,’ John said weakly. ‘You have to be making this up.’
Mycroft’s impassive mask slipped for a moment and he actually looked surprised. ‘Which part?’
‘Any of it. All of it,’ John insisted feebly, grasping for normalcy.
‘Certainly not,’ Mycroft answered sleekly. ‘Lancelot was lucky – if he had been a girl he would have been Morgana.’
Before John could even begin to formulate a response to this claim, Mycroft was saying ‘Mel, this is John. John, my cousin, Melliflua.’
Almost immediately John found himself swept up in a fierce hug by a girl who, when she drew back, looked almost as out of place as John himself felt, what with the dreadlocks and the eyebrow piercing and the total lack of any designer clothing. However, just like everyone else John had met that evening, she was grinning from ear to ear as she looked him over.
‘John! Call me Mel, Mycroft’s just being horrible, giving me my full name. He knows I hate it.’
Mycroft only raised an eyebrow at her before disappearing in the direction of the three young software designers, and Mel drew John down to sit beside her on a beanbag that she’d managed to unearth from somewhere. Somewhere dusty, by the odour.
‘John,’ she beamed at him. ‘It’s so nice to meet you at last, I’ve heard so much about you.’
‘Er, really? Well that’s… nice…’
‘I even made you a Christmas gift.’
‘Oh,’ John said, feeling embarrassed. ‘That’s very kind of you, but I’m afraid I didn’t–’
She waved his apology away. ‘Oh, don’t worry, I wasn’t expecting one. I heard you wear a lot of jumpers, and I’m afraid I didn’t quite have enough time for that, but I did make you… well. Open it, you’ll see.’
Tucking an errant dreadlock behind her ear, she offered John a squashy package and sat with eager anticipation, fiddling with a white Stop Climate Change wristband while he opened it. As a length of garishly-coloured material slithered out onto his lap, it was all John could do not to laugh. It was a scarf, knitted in nauseatingly loud colours and with a bright rainbow section at each end. It was the sort of thing that the boys in Wham! might have worn in the video for ‘Last Christmas’, and John privately resolved that he would only be seen in it at his own funeral.
Instead he bit his lip, reached for a smile, and said, truthfully, ‘Thank you; it was kind of you to take the trouble.’
‘Oh, I enjoyed it. I think it’s just wonderful that you and Sherlock are together, although I have to say,’ her face fell regretfully as she twisted the silver ring around her thumb, ‘I was very conflicted when I heard that you were military. I’m sure that you’re a wonderful person, John, but I really would have preferred you to be… I don’t know… a dancer, or a sculptor, or almost anything else, really.’
‘Well, I do actually work as–’
‘And even with the up-to-date legislation, don’t you find that the attitudes of the Army to homosexuality are still just so old-fashioned?’
Mel’s blue eyes regarded him, brimming with outraged sympathy on behalf of her new, gay cousin-in-law and what he must have suffered, and for the life of him John didn’t have the slightest idea how to answer her. He fell back on safer conversational ground.
‘You know, in the Army, I was actually a doctor, and now I’m back in London I’m working in some local practices. But what about you–’
‘Oh John!’ For a moment, she looked as though she might hug him again. ‘That’s wonderful – you’re a healer! Like my sister Minerva over there.’
For a bitter moment, John had to fight the cynical thought that what he did in Afghanistan couldn’t possibly fit that description; emergency battlefield surgery and watching his friends die under his hands, helpless to prevent it no matter what he did, was perhaps not the high-minded vocation that Mel thought it was. But he forced himself to look when she pointed through the crowd towards a short, dark-haired woman who was listening intently to an animated debate going on between three other people.
‘Really?’ John felt an overwhelming sense of relief at the prospect of a more normal conversation with a fellow medic. Something less fraught with social hazards (like an in-depth discussion of the symptoms of the more gruesome tropical parasites) sounded infinitely preferable to commendations about his and Sherlock’s non-existent romance. ‘Which area does she specialise in?’
‘It’s terribly exciting. She’s just made a break-through in targeting one of the crucial genes of a rare but deadly form of cancer. She’s very intelligent,’ Mel finished proudly.
‘Er, yes, she sounds it,’ John muttered. Suddenly the life of a family GP, even one who'd started out as an army surgeon, was rather mundane and dull by comparison.
Mel seized the hand that wasn’t holding his drink and clasped it between both of hers.
‘I’m sure we’re going to be friends,’ she said earnestly. ‘Especially since you seem so much nicer than that awful Sebastian.’
‘Yes, about that,’ John grasped his chance quickly. ‘What happened there? Sherlock’s… not got around to mentioning him.’
‘Oh, he was horrible. You should ask Sherlock about him. Personally, I don’t know what he saw in him.’
‘John.’ Mycroft had turned up again, and was looking at his watch pointedly. ‘I’m afraid I need to take you away from Mel and her rather disturbing ideas on sartorial elegance.’
Mel grinned cheerfully at the insult, and John tried not to let his relief show that he wasn’t the only person to be unnerved by the homemade scarf. He stood and gathered it untidily into his arms; the thing seemed to be about nine feet long.
‘If I don't introduce you to Evander before dinner,’ Mycroft continued, ‘I’ll never hear the last of it.’
Mel suddenly seemed to be struck with a fit of coughing, and when she had recovered she said to John, her eyes dancing with mirth, ‘Ask Evander about him; he’d love to talk to you about it, and he tells the story much better than I do. Off you go!’
She gave John a little wave of farewell, and as they left Mycroft turned to John, as calmly courteous as ever.
‘I apologise for taking longer than expected. I had to talk to Uncle Nicolai and Aunt Lucretia.’ He discreetly indicated a couple standing off to one side, the man tall and imperious, the woman a perfect Hitchcock blonde. They were talking to Sherlock who, John noted, was actually looking slightly uncomfortable. ‘From the Russian branch of the family. We don’t see them much; I’ve always suspected they have links to the KGB. They’re a bit strange, to tell you the truth.’
That meant a lot coming from Mycroft Holmes, master of ceremonies at countless tea parties in deserted car parks all across London, and John laughed briefly before he could stop himself.
‘I’m sorry?’ he asked, managing to bite down on the rest of his query before it escaped: You think that they’re strange?!
But Mycroft heard his unspoken thoughts. Arching an elegant eyebrow, he said merely, ‘Trust me, John, I know that of which I speak.’
When Mycroft turned away, John let his suppressed grin spread over his face. Beneath that polished exterior and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sense of humour, John was beginning to suspect that Mycroft might actually like him after all.
Mycroft stopped abruptly.
‘Evander, I’ve finally succeeded in tracking down John, since you couldn’t be bothered to do your own running around. John, this is our cousin, Evander.’
When Mycroft stepped aside and John came face to face with Evander, he had to resist the urge to fiddle with his shirt cuffs in an attempt to smarten himself up. Evander was the same height as John, but had an effortless elegance that came from a minute attention to detail, clad as he was in a charcoal suit that even John could see was a designer label. He gripped John’s hand firmly, smiling at him, and John shook hands as politely as he could, gritting his teeth against the small voice in his head that was pointing out that, with his height and build and particularly in that suit, Evander wasn’t entirely dissimilar to Moriarty.
Don’t be ridiculous, John told himself, willing the hairs on the back of his neck to stop prickling. You can’t keep having this reaction to every short, designer-suited man you meet.
But Evander’s smile, open and free of malice, went a long way towards banishing the thought, and it helped still further when it became apparent that Evander had clearly never in his life wanted to harm another human being, if you didn’t count the person who dressed the cover model for last August’s edition of GQ.
‘I mean, really,’ he said, his husky voice sounding pained. ‘Mustard yellow? With his colouring? God, it was so hideous that their dresser should have been fired on the spot.’ His sleepy blue eyes sharpened and his gaze fixed itself on John, who resisted the urge to squirm. ‘Now you, I’m sure, might be able to get away with it as an accent colour, although you’d look better in a blue or a green. Certainly not that non-descript beige shirt you’re wearing.’
‘Um, thanks.’ John tried not to sound offended; thanks to almost a year of living with Sherlock it took barely any effort at all.
‘Oh no, I didn’t mean it like that.’ Evander put a conciliatory hand on John’s forearm. ‘I simply meant… well, look at you. You’re just not doing yourself justice. Turn, please.’ Evander twirled an imperious forefinger and, before he quite knew what he was doing, John began to turn obediently. When he was halfway around (and wondering whether it was something in the Holmes genes that meant that commands were unthinkingly obeyed by the recipient), Evander quickly flipped up the tails of John’s jacket and murmured ‘Oh, yes’ in an appreciative tone.
‘Hey!’ John swung around to face him.
‘Oh, John,’ said Evander, who apparently had no sense of shame. And no sense of personal space either – John could smell his cologne as he stepped close to adjust John’s lapels and continued. ‘You have to let me take you shopping. It’s a crime to hide yourself under what you’re wearing now.’
‘Look,’ John began uncomfortably, his mind thronged with visions of being molested in the changing rooms, or coerced into an appallingly revealing outfit, ‘it’s very kind of you to offer, but I don’t really think that–’
‘Trust me,’ Evander smiled at him, radiating reassurance as he shook a few strands of dark blond hair out of his eyes. His hair had an artfully tousled, ‘just out of bed’ look that John privately thought must have taken at least fifteen minutes’ dedicated work in front of the mirror to achieve. ‘Nothing too extreme, just working with what you’ve already got. Think casual elegance, think… James Bond.’
‘And I promise to keep my hands to myself. Scout’s honour.’ Evander held up three fingers in a jaunty salute and added, ‘Besides, Sherlock would break both my arms if I didn’t. That’s assuming you didn’t do it yourself; I’ve heard that you’re an ex-soldier.’
Evander’s smile had turned slightly lascivious, and John struck out desperately for a new topic. ‘Speaking of Sherlock, I was just talking to Mel–’
‘So I see.’ Evander eyed the scarf draped over John’s arm with a look that plainly expressed his opinion of it but made no further comment, showing what John already suspected was unusual tact for him.
John grinned. ‘Yeah, Mycroft had the same opinion. Anyway, we started talking about Sebastian but I had to leave before we could finish, and she… well, she said I should ask you about him.’
Evander’s thin eyebrows lifted. ‘Sherlock hasn’t told you?’
‘He’s not got around to it, no. I was wondering if you would mind…’ John’s voice tailed off. He was conscious that this was playing dirty, but reasoned that all was fair in love, war, and family get-togethers. And Evander was already rolling his eyes and talking.
‘Oh, I don’t mind telling you in the least. Despite Sherlock’s cloak and dagger attitude, there’s no big secret about it and I keep telling him he shouldn’t be embarrassed about it. Honestly, it was a debacle. Here–’ Evander broke away as a lean, dark-haired man walked past carrying a tray of drinks. Deftly plucking John’s empty glass from his hand, he replaced it with a large tumbler full of crushed ice and lime wedges. As John sipped at it cautiously, tasting sugar, lime, and a healthy kick of alcohol, Evander gave the waiter an appreciative up-and-down look. It was subtle, and yet oddly direct for all that, and from the lazy, come-hither smile the other man gave him in return, it was most definitely appreciated. John grinned inwardly as he wondered how much the Holmes clan were going to see of Evander after dinner.
When the waiter had moved on and Evander had turned back to John, he had a sparkling, bright-eyed look to him that was oddly familiar, although John was more used to seeing it when Sherlock had just received a text from Lestrade rather than when he had just eyed up a particularly handsome man and been eyed up in turn.
‘Caipirinhas,’ said Evander, taking a mouthful of his own drink and nodding at John’s. ‘They’re the new mojito, and just gorgeous.’
‘Yeah,’ agreed John as he wondered whether, for politeness’ sake, he ought to make an effort to look like the sort of person who had previously drunk mojitos but now wouldn’t dream of doing so. ‘So, Sebastian…’
Evander leaned closer and John mirrored the action, conscious that their body language was shrieking ‘conspirators’ to anyone who was looking. ‘It was while Sherlock was at uni. I think they met towards the end of their first year, but Sherlock only brought him home for Christmas when they were in their second year. God, he was horrible. None of us knew what Sherlock saw in him. To be fair,’ and here Evander looked slightly embarrassed, ‘I suppose all the cousins might have been teasing Sherlock a bit about his lack of a partner. Just in fun, you understand. You see, he’d never had a boyfriend or girlfriend before, he’d almost never shown an interest in anyone, so it’s possible he only brought someone along just to show that he could if he wanted to. But Sebastian was awful; he was so patronising. He used to call Sherlock’s deductions his “little tricks”; my God, you’d have thought he was talking about a performing poodle. He used to act as though he was doing Sherlock such an enormous favour by going out with him, and he was so intolerant of Sherlock’s eccentricities. I mean, his attitude was entirely unnecessary; who isn’t a bit odd in some form or another?’
In this room? No one, John wanted to say, but he held his tongue and nodded in agreement as Evander waved a hand impatiently, as though pushing the whole mess to one side.
‘All of us, Mycroft included, tried to tactfully hint to Sherlock that he could do better but, well, you know how Sherlock is when you try to give him advice: he just digs his heels in. And especially when the advice comes from his brother.’
‘I know,’ murmured John with feeling, and Evander gave him a comradely grin.
‘I bet you do. Anyway, he wouldn’t listen to anyone, until Mycroft decided that enough was enough and brought matters to a head.’
‘Let me guess,’ John interrupted, unable to stop himself. ‘Mycroft had a private meeting with Sebastian, offered him money to report Sherlock’s activities to him, and Sebastian accepted.’
‘Yes.’ Evander sounded surprised. ‘Exactly. How did you know?’
John shrugged. ‘Just a hunch. Go on. Then what happened?’
‘Mycroft had recorded their initial meeting, and also the first time Sebastian met him to report. He let the arrangement go as far as making the first payment into Sebastian’s account before he sent Sherlock copies of the recordings and of Sebastian’s bank statement.’
Ouch. John winced and Evander, reading his expression, said, ‘Yes, it wasn’t a very kind approach, but Sherlock just wouldn’t listen any other way. I’m sure you can imagine the resulting fall-out. Sherlock and Sebastian broke up the same day – I heard afterwards that Sebastian tried to pretend that he was the one who was tired of Sherlock, as if anyone would believe that for a moment – and Sherlock didn’t speak to Mycroft for a long time; it upset Aunt Bella terribly. It was several years before Sherlock started to forgive Mycroft for being right about Sebastian, and they seem to be on better terms now.’
‘If you say so,’ said John dubiously, thinking of the tension in the air every time Mycroft stopped by Baker Street.
‘Personally, I’m not sure how much Sherlock really liked Sebastian; I wouldn’t be surprised if he had just been doing it to prove a point and was more annoyed that Mycroft had been right all along than heartbroken over– Well, speak of the devil. Hello Sherlock, nice to see you. John and I were just having a chat.’
Sherlock had appeared at John’s elbow. He smiled briefly at his cousin, but John could see the tension in the set of his shoulders and the corners of his mouth and knew that Sherlock was worried about something. He just hoped that Lestrade hadn’t texted with a request to return to London; against all his expectations, he was having a really nice evening with the extended Holmes family, who had turned out to have all the charm and social grace that Sherlock usually lacked.
‘Hello Ev,’ Sherlock said, with forced lightness. ‘Hope you’ve not been saying anything I need to be worried about. I’m afraid that I need to speak with John in private.’
‘Of course not,’ Evander smiled. ‘I was just telling John about Sebastian, that vile ex-boyfriend of yours.’
Sherlock's answering smile vanished abruptly as he snapped, ‘Don’t.’
Experienced police officers usually shrivelled like leaves in the frost after being addressed in that tone of voice but Evander stood his ground, raising John’s opinion of him by several notches. Perhaps twenty-something years of exposure to Sherlock went some way towards numbing the effects of his temper.
‘Sherlock, I can’t believe you’ve not told him before now–’
‘Stop it, Ev.’
‘But you’ve nothing to be ashamed of,’ Evander persisted, brow furrowed with sincerity as he glared at Sherlock, ‘God knows I’ve had some relationships that, now I look back on them, were frankly horrific–’
‘Shut up. John, I need to talk to you.’
With no further preamble Sherlock seized John’s wrist and pulled him away. John looked back, trying to send Evander an apologetic look of ‘Nice to meet you and sorry about your cousin’s rudeness’, but Evander just winked at him, apparently completely unperturbed by Sherlock’s snarl, before disappearing in the same direction the dark-haired waiter had taken.
Sherlock’s grip didn’t relax as he pulled John off to one side of the room and John, as tactfully as he could, began, ‘Look, I think your family might have the wrong idea about–’
‘Don’t,’ Sherlock bit out, before moderating it to, ‘Please. Don’t. Not here.’
‘All right.’ The novelty of Sherlock saying ‘please’ was enough to make John cast about for something else to say. Something neutral, as Sherlock’s fingers were icy on his wrist and there was a nervous agitation to his movements. ‘You know, Evander wants to take me shopping.’
Glancing at him sideways, John was relieved to see Sherlock’s cheek lift as he smiled and relaxed fractionally. ‘You should let him. He's employed as a director of runway shows, and Lagerfeld won't put on a show without him.'
‘You know, I never realised you had such a large family. Or such a lovely one.’
Sherlock glanced at John, looking both pleased and a bit surprised, but answered with his usual dry tone, ‘Well then, it seems the mutual admiration society is complete; everyone has been stopping me to tell me how much they like you. And of course they’re lovely, I wasn’t raised by wolves. Or were you expecting Victorian parents, who used to lock Mycroft and me in the coal cellar at the slightest transgression?’
‘But you never talk about them. Any of them.’
Sherlock shrugged. ‘They're hard to explain if you haven't met them.’
‘But you could have said something. I mean, they’re all incredibly rich and successful, and some of them have apparently accumulated enough money and power to run Western Europe. Or maybe… Christ, maybe they’re already doing it and it’s just that no-one’s noticed…’
Despite his tension, Sherlock looked very much like he was repressing laughter. ‘Do you realise you’re saying that out loud?’ he asked, pulling John along as he ducked out of the crowded, buzzing room and into an unoccupied one.
They were in a large conservatory, full of various plants, with stone benches running around the walls and down the middle of the room. Greenery and flowers trailed down from the hanging baskets in the corners and the air was pleasantly cool after the heat of the other room.
Setting down the scarf and his now-empty glass on a bench, John barely had time to notice the white fairy lights that someone had artfully strung along the tops of the windows (he wondered if it had been Mel, it seemed like the sort of thing she would like) before Sherlock dropped his wrist as though John’s skin was burning him and blurted, ‘Look, I’m sorry.’
‘For what?’ John suspected he already knew, but if ever he had needed clarification before tackling a difficult conversation, it was now.
Sherlock waved a hand in the direction of the room they had just left. ‘That all my family seem to think that we’re… we’re…’
‘That we’re shagging?’
‘Yes, that. I’m sorry. If you want to leave then that’s fine. I can call a taxi for you, you should be able to catch the last train back to London, and I can make up a reason why you had to–’
‘Sherlock, stop.’ John had been struck momentarily dumb by the twin facts of hearing Sherlock apologising for something, and also at hearing the rest of his evening being planned out for him, but now he begged, ‘Slow down, please. You’re making my brain hurt. Why would I want to go back to London?’
‘Because everyone,’ (Sherlock waved his hand again, gesturing towards the room full of terrifyingly intelligent, slightly odd, but almost unanimously lovely people that made up the extended Holmes family) ‘everyone in that room thinks that we’re a couple. A fact that even you would be bound to notice eventually. When this happens in London it usually makes you uncomfortable, and you often correct people’s assumptions. I assumed you would find it unbearably embarrassing to stand up and tell an entire roomful of people they’re wrong, but equally awkward to go along with their mistaken assumptions, and so I thought you’d want to leave; you can, you’re not obliged to stay.’
‘Well, I don’t want to leave, all right? And bloody hell, of course I noticed, thank you very much. Insulting me isn’t helping the situation, you know.’ John sighed. ‘Christ, I wish you’d relax.’
Sherlock’s cheekbones had flushed an ugly, dull red that contrasted starkly with his habitual pallor, and as John drew in a lungful of cool, fragrant air, Sherlock turned his back and began pacing agitatedly. It reminded John sharply of the smell of chlorine and Sherlock scratching his head with the barrel of a loaded gun, John watching and wanting to snatch it from him but unable to stand on legs that had felt like overcooked spaghetti.
‘So why does everyone think we’re together? I mean, one or two making a wrong assumption I can understand, but your whole family… did someone say something?’
When Sherlock didn’t reply, John repeated, ‘Sherlock, has someone–’
‘I heard you the first time,’ Sherlock stopped his manic pacing but refused to meet John’s eyes. ‘It’s Mycroft, of course. Bloody, bloody Mycroft, who never has anything better to do but to stick his fucking nose into things and ruin everything–’
Sherlock rarely swore. Not out of any considerations of politeness or decency, but because he always said (dismissively) that it was a sign of a limited vocabulary and so the words themselves were less shocking to John (ex-Army, thank you) than their origin. But now Sherlock was glaring at the door, looking flushed and upset and like he was seriously considering striding out there and impaling Mycroft on his own umbrella.
‘Sherlock,’ John repeated, moving to stand in front of him and trying to make Sherlock focus on him. ‘Assuming that his sense of humour isn’t even weirder than I thought, why would Mycroft tell your whole family that I’m your boyfriend?’
‘Because,’ said Sherlock bitterly, still glaring in the direction of his sibling over John’s head, ‘he’s been trying for months to force me into this. Because he’s a sly, underhanded, fat, Machiavellian… and I’m going to kill him.’
John caught Sherlock’s arm and dug in his heels as Sherlock brushed past him towards the door. ‘Well, that would certainly be more in keeping with most people’s typical family Christmas, not that I speak from experience, of course. But before you do, do you mind telling me what he’s been trying to force you into? Just so that I know, for when I’m at the Yard posting your bail.’
Taking a deep breath through his nose, Sherlock twitched his arm free and drew himself up, looking like he was going to his own execution.
‘Do you remember the first evening we met, during that taxi driver case that you fancifully called “A Study in Pink” in that blog of yours?’
‘Yes,’ John said, refusing to be diverted by the implied insult to his written account of the case.
‘And in the restaurant you were pushing me to declare my sexuality, as though knowing which of the restrictive labels that society slaps on a person will help you pigeonhole them and understand them so much better–’
‘Yes. Well. Anyway. I told you that I was married to my work and uninterested in pursuing any kind of sexual relationship with you.’
‘You did.’ John remembered how that had stung at the time, just a little. After all, he’d not even said that he might be interested (although he’d have had to be blind not to notice his new flatmate’s striking good looks) and already Sherlock had been falling over himself to assure John of his complete and utter lack of attraction towards him.
But now John felt a tiny bubble of intrigue and hope welling up. If this halting confession being dragged out of Sherlock by degrees was going where John thought it was… well, that would be fine. Very fine, actually.
Sherlock coughed and looked over John’s head again. ‘Well, while that was certainly true at the time, later events have brought to my attention the fact that I may now, possibly, be misrepresenting myself if I said that that was still the case.’
When John was fifteen, he’d felt like the king of the world when Jennifer Thomson, the prettiest girl in the class, had sent him a Valentine’s card. They’d gone out for two heady months before she dumped him for a new student who had just joined the school and who was half-Spanish and exotic. That was the last time he could remember feeling this stomach-tingling, giddy elation at a confession from someone that they fancied him. Even when the someone looked as unhappy about it as Sherlock currently did.
‘So you’re saying you like me,’ said John, needing to be sure before he did something he might regret.
Sherlock sighed in disdain. ‘Of course I like you, I’ve tolerated your ridiculous obsession with tidying the flat and your appalling blogging about my “spectacular ignorance” for almost a year now.’
The irritable deflection made John gleefully sure that he was on the right track, and he persisted. ‘I mean, you fancy me.’
‘My God, you make it sound like we’re both thirteen years old–’
‘Yes, yes, all right. I do. Fancy you, if that’s how you want to put it. All right? But in the highly likely event that you’re not interested, or possibly even disgusted – although that is a remote possibility, you’ve shown yourself to be a generally tolerant person – then please let me assure you that nothing will happen. I’ve managed to resist your physical charms up to now and don’t anticipate any problems continuing to do so.’
Looking away, Sherlock said sourly, ‘Mycroft has been encouraging me to tell you for months now; the stupid fool is as romantic as a Victorian maiden aunt. Clearly he thought that the family’s annual Christmas get-together would be a good opportunity to engineer this conversation between us and I’m sure he’ll be just ecstatic to know that he’s succeeded.’
‘You said,’ John began slowly, trying hard to concentrate when his mind was whispering he said ‘months’… he’s felt like this for months and speculating on what Sherlock’s mouth would feel like against his own, ‘that in the highly–’
‘Likely event that you’re not interested then you’ve nothing to worry yourself about from me, yes, yes, I remember. What about it? Do you need more reassurance than that? I would have thought that an ex-soldier could–’
Sherlock’s terse diatribe fell silent as John stepped forward, standing close enough to Sherlock that he could feel the warmth coming off him, and asked quietly, ‘What about the unlikely event that I am interested?’
Sherlock looked down at John where he stood, not touching Sherlock but well and truly inside the personal space that was usually so carefully maintained. Although really, now that John considered it, it had only ever been maintained for everyone except him.
‘In that case,’ he said, in a suddenly strangled voice, ‘you do have things to worry about. Rather a lot, actually.’
Sherlock smelled like clean laundry and subtle traces of the aftershave he used when he was making an effort for formal occasions. John could see the creamy hollow of Sherlock’s throat between his collarbones, and the tiny mole on his neck that jerked as he swallowed nervously.
‘Sherlock,’ he murmured and God, his voice didn’t sound like his own any more. ‘Kiss me. Now.’
Occasionally, John had let himself fantasise about kissing Sherlock; actually, truth be told, it was a bit more often than ‘occasionally’. The first thing to occur to him was the observation that Sherlock had a full, perfectly-shaped mouth that looked made for long hours of kissing, entwined on the sofa and snogging like teenagers for hours on end. But the second thought had been that if Sherlock (with his lanky height and fencer’s posture) decided not to accept a kiss from John then all he would need to do would be to stand up straight and lift his chin and John would be left standing on tiptoe and looking like an idiot.
But Sherlock wasn’t standing up straight now; in fact Sherlock was slouching, his perfect posture nowhere in sight and his long spine bending so that John barely had to lift his face up to press a kiss to Sherlock’s lips.
Their first touch of mouths went a little awry – bumping noses as both of them tilted their heads the same way, and Sherlock’s kiss landed nearer John’s chin than his lips – but then Sherlock made an impatient noise, placed cool hands either side of John’s face and returned for a second attempt that was infinitely better.
Sherlock’s lips were warm and soft, softer than they looked but then John most often saw them set into a flat, petulant line as Sherlock complained about the tedium or idiocy of the world. Gently, John sucked a little at Sherlock’s full lower lip and instantly Sherlock opened his mouth in response, pressing his tongue forward for a warm fleeting brush against John’s mouth. When John parted his lips, Sherlock’s tongue dipped past them briefly, teasing him before withdrawing, and as John made a soft noise in the back of his throat, Sherlock pulled back and examined him.
‘What have you been drinking?’
Sherlock slung an arm low around his waist, pulling them closer together, and John gave in to the desire to lean into the palm still cradling his cheek as he answered, ‘Caipirinhas. They’re the new mojito, according to Evander.’
‘Please don’t mention Evander right now,’ Sherlock muttered, ducking his head for another kiss just as John spoke.
‘I thought you’d have been able to tell from my glass.’
Sherlock flicked a glance over John’s shoulder to his glass, half-full of melting ice and lime wedges, resting on one of the waist-high stone benches. ‘I… no, I didn’t notice.’
And that meant something, John thought to himself as Sherlock’s mouth found his again and his eyes closed. It meant something that Sherlock had been too worked up about this conversation with him that he’d failed to observe something so obvious, but John was damned if he could analyse it right now.
This time, their mouths were already open when they connected and the kiss was downright dirty – hot and messy and urgent, holding the definite promise of sex, and causing images to bloom behind John’s eyelids that made his knees quiver. He reached behind himself blindly, searching for a wall or a bench to lean against.
Suddenly Sherlock pushed at him and, dismayed, John thought for half a second that Sherlock was shoving him away before realising that Sherlock was gripping his hips and walking John backwards until the edge of one of the benches nudged the small of his back. Gratefully, John leaned against it and gripped the nape of Sherlock’s neck, loving how his eyelashes fluttered as John drew him down for another hungry kiss and pushed his other hand up under Sherlock’s jacket to seize a clumsy fistful of shirt.
When Sherlock broke away to nip his earlobe and nuzzle fervent kisses into the side of his neck, John stretched upwards, trying to bare more of his throat to Sherlock’s enthusiastic mouth and wishing he were taller. Since moving in with Sherlock he’d had frequent cause to tell himself that he wasn’t short, not really. For God’s sake, five foot nine was the average height for a man in the UK and he was only a tiny bit less than that; it wasn’t his fault that he lived with a long-limbed beanpole who was so skinny he looked even taller than he actually was.
Struck by an idea, John gripped the edge of the bench and hoisted himself up onto it. Sherlock had evidently had the same thought, as he grabbed John’s arse with flattering eagerness and tried to help, resulting in a clash of teeth and John accidentally kneeing Sherlock in the hip. It was only Sherlock’s quick reactions and lithe twist that meant that it wasn’t in another, more sensitive area that would have put a definite stop to any more activities that evening, but even as John gasped ‘Sorry! Christ, sorry, didn’t mean to–’ in mortification, Sherlock huffed a laugh and crowded closer, pushing John’s knees apart and squirming between them.
God, this was so much better. Sherlock’s hands were everywhere, or so it felt: grabbing his arms and shoulders, stroking at his hair, and meeting at the small of his back to encourage him to shuffle forward on the bench so that they were pressed together from chest to hip. Most of Sherlock’s height, John discovered, was in his legs; with John seated at the level of Sherlock’s hips then their faces were at the perfect height to kiss even as John was dimly aware that he could feel Sherlock’s growing erection nudging against his inner thigh. Sherlock was getting hard just from this – a few fumbling messy kisses – and John heard himself moan softly as he pushed forward against him and squeezed Sherlock’s hips with his thighs.
The angry red splotches had faded from Sherlock’s cheekbones, to be replaced by a pink flush of arousal that bloomed in his cheeks and across the bridge of his nose. His breath was coming quick and shallow against the side of John’s face as Sherlock kissed his ear and whispered unsteadily, ‘Look at you. God, do you have any idea what I want to do to you?’
John felt his face heat, and one of his hands untangled itself from Sherlock’s soft, dark curls and reached down to cup his arse as John muttered hoarsely, ‘No. But whatever it is – it’s fine, the answer’s yes.’
The feel of Sherlock’s narrow hips between his legs was desperately arousing, and at John’s declaration Sherlock kissed him again and tugged at John’s hips, pressing their erections together though layers of clothing and forcing a noise suspiciously like a whimper out of John.
When someone cleared their throat pointedly, John started and almost bit Sherlock’s lip in alarm. Sherlock’s head snapped around and John saw Mel and Evander standing in the doorway. Mel looked slightly pink-cheeked and flustered, and Evander was grinning at them.
‘Sorry to interrupt,’ he said, sounding quite the opposite, ‘but Mycroft asked us to come and find you to tell you that dinner is served. He didn’t want to come himself, he said there were some things that he really didn’t need to see.’
Despite wanting the floor to open up and swallow him at being caught with his hands plastered all over Sherlock’s beautiful arse, and acutely aware of his splayed thighs bracketing Sherlock’s hips, John couldn’t help grinning at the idea of Mycroft’s dry, precise voice shaping itself around the phrase.
When Sherlock made a move to step back, John gripped his hips with his knees in reflexive panic. The past ten minutes (or was it fifteen? twenty? he couldn’t tell) had left him achingly hard and straining against his trousers, and he really didn’t feel like giving Sherlock’s cousins an eyeful, even if Evander wouldn’t mind. Actually, it was more because Evander wouldn’t mind.
Sherlock glanced at him, and said merely, ‘We’ll be there in a minute.’
It was clearly a dismissal, but Evander lingered to say, ‘You know, you’re very sweet, the two of you. Together all these months, and you still kiss like it’s the first time.’
‘Bugger off, Ev. Aren’t there some waiters you need to sexually harass?’
Evander winked. ‘Already done, darling – I’ve got a little rendezvous for after dinner. If I get half so lucky as that scarf, I’ll be doing well.’
As John became aware that he was sitting on something soft, Mel was grabbing Evander’s arm and pulling him away, smothering her giggles, with Sherlock looking very much like he was trying hard to scowl and not laugh himself.
Alone once more, Sherlock looked at John. ‘Are you all right?’
It was an absurdly polite question from someone who, a bare minute ago, had been kissing John to within an inch of his life and who was still looking decidedly rumpled and unlike his usual calm self, and John did nothing to stop the giggle that bubbled up, loving the slight look of puzzlement on Sherlock’s face.
‘Fine,’ he said eventually, grinning like a madman. ‘Fucking brilliant, actually. I’ve just put on a show for two of your cousins, had the best snog in years, and now have to sit down to Christmas dinner with your family while I’m harder than I’ve ever been in my life. To top it all off,’ John squirmed against Sherlock, eliciting an incomprehensible noise and a tightening of Sherlock’s hands on his waist, ‘I’m sitting on the scarf that Mel gave me.’
He pulled it out and flourished it while Sherlock gave the knitwear a look of withering disdain but forbore to comment, clearly making an effort to be polite.
Conversationally, John added, ‘I quite like it. I think I’ll wear it to crime scenes.’
Sherlock's self-control cracked. ‘You’ll do no such thing. That scarf looks like a bloody crime scene all on its own.’
‘Then maybe I’ll keep it just for wearing in the flat.’
‘If you think I’m ever going to kiss you while you’re wearing–’
‘Maybe I’ll keep it especially for when I want to strip you naked, sit you in one of the kitchen chairs and tie your wrists behind the chair back. I’ll get on my knees in front of you and suck you off. You’ll have to watch me the entire time but,’ John paused for effect before continuing slowly, ‘you won’t be able to do a thing to touch me. Although, just to be sure, perhaps I ought to secure your ankles as well; you’re nothing if not inventive.’
John felt slightly self-conscious, articulating such an idea aloud, but it was entirely worth it to see Sherlock looking completely pole-axed.
‘I’d let you,’ Sherlock recovered quickly and leaned forward to growl in John’s ear, hand sneaking down to briefly cup John’s erection through his trousers, ‘I’d let you, do you know that?’
Shivering at the feeling of Sherlock’s breath against his skin, and long fingers tracing delicately over his fly, John pointed out weakly, ‘You’re not helping me make myself decent enough to go into dinner.’
But Sherlock didn’t sound sorry in the slightest as he backed away and let John hop off the bench. Brushing the dust from his trousers, John took a deep breath and silently willed the cool air to calm the flush in his cheeks and the tight heat of desire bubbling just under his skin.
‘You know you don’t have to come to dinner if you’d rather not.’ Instead of looking at John, Sherlock was focussed on buttoning his jacket and running a hand through his hair. ‘I’ve been told that Christmas dinner with my family can be a bit… much, and so we could skip it and just have a tray in the room. Whatever you prefer.’
John’s head was still hazy from kisses and now spinning with the novelty of Sherlock waiting for John to tell him what they were going to do, rather than barking orders at him, but he managed, ‘What? Sherlock, of course I want to have dinner with them. I think they’re lovely. Slightly crazy, and all ridiculously talented, and possibly planning world domination… but lovely.’
‘Well then,’ Sherlock was smiling at his cuffs as he tweaked them back into place. ‘That’s… good. Great.’
Suddenly, John was struck with a horrible thought and, only half-joking, asked, ‘Oh God, dinner isn’t something awful like veal or ortolan, is it? Am I going to have to eat something politically incorrect?’
‘No, John.’ Sherlock rolled his eyes and led the way out of the conservatory. ‘And I’m not quite sure what to make of this assumption that I come from a family of aristocrats. Uncle Jasper has just won his second Michelin star, so I assume that he’s taken over the kitchen with a team of assistants and we’re having whatever he felt inspired to prepare. I can assure you that it will be good, whatever it is.’
As they crossed the adjoining room, empty apart from the waiting staff chatting and collecting glasses, John thought that he could guess the person who had described Sherlock’s family as being ‘a bit much’ and asked, ‘At the bank, back in March… why did you take that case for Sebastian, if the pair of you ended on such bad terms?’
Without looking at him, Sherlock shrugged nonchalantly. ‘We needed the money.’
You mean I needed the money, John thought, looking at Sherlock’s suddenly sphinx-like profile and remembering that that very morning he’d asked Sherlock, in subdued and embarrassed tones, if he could lend him some cash. And then the next instant Sherlock had accepted a case, from an ex that he surely despised, so that he would be able to lend John the money he needed.
Something about the set of Sherlock’s jaw told John that Sherlock didn’t intend to discuss it. Not here, perhaps not ever, and instead John asked curiously, ‘If you have such a vast network of ridiculously successful cousins, why were you looking for a flatmate?’
‘None of them would have me.’
Sherlock sounded annoyed and John grinned madly, trying to sound serious and not laugh as he said, ‘Really? God, that’s unbelievable. What a dreadful shame.’
‘Yes, all right, thank you.’ Sherlock’s glare was severe, but the corners of his mouth were curving up slightly. ‘I am aware of my failings as a flatmate; I did tell Stamford about them.’
‘And one more thing: if “Sherlock” is your middle name, then what’s really your first name?’
Sherlock had opened the door into the hall and stood back to allow John to precede him, and as John glanced curiously over his shoulder Sherlock’s eyes (that had been hovering around the level of his waist) snapped up to meet his as he frowned and asked, ‘Now that we’ve kissed, are you taking this as carte blanche to interrogate me whenever you feel like it?’
‘Possibly,’ grinned John, quite liking the sound of the idea. ‘So what is it then?’
As Sherlock opened his mouth to reply (or prevaricate, John was ready for either), a soft gong sounded from somewhere in the recesses of the house.
‘Oh,’ said Sherlock, sounding happy. ‘That would be dinner.’
It was an immeasurable relief to find that, although John had been anticipating something painfully posh (possibly with silver service and a hushed silence), dinner was nothing like that. There were several animated conversations in full swing around a large table, and Sherlock discreetly nudged John towards a couple of empty spaces at one end of it. Their late arrival didn’t attract much attention beyond a friendly grin from Mel that would have shamed the Cheshire Cat, and a fondly indulgent look from Sherlock’s grandmother that John found possibly more unnerving than Mel’s grin.
The table was covered with various serving dishes, and instead of the black-tie waiters John had been dreading it seemed to be a case of every man for himself, with frequent requests of ‘Send the vegetables down this end, will you?’ and ‘Lance, pass the potatoes to your grandfather.’ All John was really aware of was Sherlock’s hand, resting heavily on his thigh for most of the meal, and Sherlock’s voice murmuring intimately in his ear about the various courses. Glad that he could blame his flush on the bottles of wine being passed around the table, it was all John could do to focus on eating like a civilised human being and not dragging Sherlock off to their room to ravish him.
Sherlock didn’t seem to be coping much better – he would remove his hand briefly to fulfil requests to pass condiments or wine before instantly replacing it, as though he expected John to vanish or leave without a restraining hold. It was oddly endearing, although it made it incredibly difficult for John to give some form of intelligent response to the questions put to him by the family members at his end of the table, who were clearly trying to include him in the general conversation.
When the coffee was being poured and people had started to break up into smaller groups, dragging chairs further along the table to catch up with family members with whom they’d not yet spoken, aunt Octavia came over to introduce herself to John and ask how he liked his and Sherlock’s bedroom. Octavia was tall and elegant, dressed in a perfectly tailored suit that made her look like the CEO of a multi-billion corporation, and when she asked solicitously, ‘Are you sure that you two have everything you need?’ John tried not to blush as he remembered the contents of the bedside table.
‘We’re fine,’ he stumbled.
Sherlock, damn him, had wandered off somewhere, and John resisted the urge to look for him and signal for help.
‘Remind me which room you’re in…?’
‘The… um, the Arabian room.’
‘Oh yes, that’s right,’ she smiled in recollection. ‘I do hope you like it. I remember decorating that one; I particularly enjoyed it. Well, each room has its own character, but I did like my Scheherazade room. I thought it was appropriate for you two, what with you being a storyteller yourself.’
She quirked a smile at him, but John was still too amazed to appreciate it. ‘Sorry, you restored the interior of the entire house yourself?’
‘Yes. Interior decoration and restoration of historic buildings has always been something of a passion of mine. Do be sure to get a good look at the ceiling of that room, it’s one of my favourite parts of the house.’
Instantly, John had a very vivid mental picture of himself, flat on his back on the enormous double bed, staring unseeingly at the ceiling and moaning as Sherlock kissed and bit his way down John’s stomach–
Blithely, Octavia threw his flustered thoughts into further confusion as she added, ‘Especially the part directly over the bed. It took me ages to get it right.’
‘Yeah, all right,’ John answered, hoping his voice would emerge as something more than a mortified squeak. She was looking at him with such a polite air that it was just impossible to connect this woman to the bottles and foil packets thoughtfully supplied in their bedroom, and precisely as John was about to make his excuses and flee, Sherlock wandered back over. He came to stand directly behind John, letting his fingers trail along the back of John’s neck in a way that made John’s skin prickle and his cheeks burn.
‘Hello, Auntie O,’ Sherlock said, like a perfect guest, without the slightest hint of the rudeness that had made Anderson seriously threaten to strangle him just last month. ‘Thanks for inviting us.’
‘Oh, not at all, it’s lovely to see you again.’ Octavia smiled warmly at her nephew, and John took a moment to wonder (not for the first time that evening) at how Sherlock, more an island unto himself than any other person John had ever met, had turned out to have such an expansive and demonstrative family.
‘What are you boys doing now?’
‘I thought I might give John the tour of the house,’ Sherlock replied blandly, subtly slipping the tips of his fingers below John’s shirt collar to stroke the top of his spine. ‘Since he didn’t get a chance to see it before dinner.’
‘Wonderful idea,’ Octavia agreed. ‘In fact we were just talking about it. You must make sure he gets a chance to have a good look at the ceiling of your bedroom.’
Unexpectedly, she grinned widely, and when John turned in his seat he was amazed to see that Sherlock was blushing scarlet.
‘Will do,’ he managed. ‘Come on, John.’
‘What the hell’s up with you?’ John asked as they made their way out into the main hall. ‘People make comments about us all the time in London and it never bothers you.’
Sherlock took a deep breath. ‘Yes, well. In London, I didn’t know…’ and he fiddled with his jacket as his voice deepened slightly, ‘I didn’t know how you kissed. Or what you tasted like. Now… things are different.’
‘I’ll say. Look, Sherlock, when she said… she didn’t really mean…’
‘Oh, possibly. Who knows? It’s hard to tell with Auntie O; she never says anything outright but Dad always said that she had a wicked sense of humour. And you saw what was in the bedside table. Ev gets on very well with her – she was the first of the family that he came out to, even before his parents.’
They had stopped in the middle of the hall, all black and white floor tiles and polished wood panelling, and Sherlock said, ‘Well. Where shall we start?’
Glancing up, John found that Octavia was, at heart, as much a Christmas traditionalist as he was himself. Sherlock turned to the main entrance and got as far as, ‘The original house on this site was built in–’ before he cut himself off at the feel of John’s hand on his neck.
Delighted at his new capacity for distraction, John tugged Sherlock closer and leaned in to kiss him softly and chastely, a mere dry brush of lips.
‘Not that I’m complaining,’ Sherlock murmured when they parted, his breath warm against John’s mouth, ‘but what was that for?’
Still resting one hand lightly against Sherlock’s throat, John glanced upwards pointedly and Sherlock snorted at the sight of the glossy green bundle of leaves, studded with bright white berries.
‘Pagan superstition,’ he huffed, even as he pulled John close for another kiss. A slow, bone-melting kiss, that made John’s mouth tingle and that was interrupted by a pointed throat-clearing. When John turned guiltily, it was to see Mycroft regarding them with very poorly concealed amusement.
‘John, you’re clearly having a good influence on my brother. This time last year he used to scoff at Christmas traditions. Sherlock, I felt I ought to warn you that people are about to start making their way out of the dining room; I was sure you’d prefer not to be putting on a show when that happens.’
Without waiting for a reply, Mycroft nodded to John and made his way towards the sitting room.
‘God, he’s going to be insufferable for months after this,’ Sherlock grumbled.
‘Yeah. But he’s earned it, don’t you think?’
Sherlock only gave a petulant huff by way of reply, but John knew he agreed. He’d just sat through dinner and watched Sherlock not only top up Mycroft’s wine glass unasked and pass him the after-dinner chocolates without a single barbed comment, but even give him a small smile when he thought they were unobserved. By the standards of the Holmes brothers, that was probably as close as it ever got to warm hugs and effusive thanks.
Dragging his hard stare away from his brother’s retreating back, Sherlock seemed to notice for the first time that John’s arm was still around his waist, and said hesitantly, ‘You know, when most people view the house they tend to start at the top and work their way down.’
John wouldn’t have thought it was possible for Sherlock to sound so awkward, but he hid a smile as he answered gravely, ‘Well, we can’t break with tradition, can we? Lead on, then.’
It was impossible for John not to watch the muscles bunching and flexing in Sherlock’s legs and arse as he climbed the stairs in front of him, and John didn’t even try. When they reached the top of the staircase Sherlock murmured, sounding a bit short of breath, ‘So where would you like to start? There’s the Renaissance-style bathroom, or the room modelled on…’
Sherlock’s voice trailed off as John reached for his hand and twined their fingers together, brushing his thumb over Sherlock’s knuckles. He cocked his head, pretending to consider the question seriously as Sherlock stared hungrily at his mouth, before saying, ‘Well, I suppose we could always start in our–’
‘I mean, your aunt did say that–’
John could feel Sherlock crowding close behind him as he walked to their bedroom door and reached for the handle. As soon as they were both inside Sherlock was reaching for him, pulling him close as his hand cupped John’s face and his lips brushed reverently over John’s features, tracing the contours of eyebrows and nose, before finally meeting his mouth.
Several hours later, John slowly drifted to wakefulness and opened his eyes. He was lying on one side of the bed, close to the edge, with Sherlock tucked snugly up against his back and snuffling into the nape of his neck. Twisting his head John could just see, over the top of Sherlock’s head, the empty expanse of mattress stretching away behind Sherlock and he grinned. He would never have thought that Sherlock would be the cuddling type but it was quite sweet, really (and John couldn’t wait to see the expression on Sherlock’s face when he said that aloud to him).
One of Sherlock’s legs was draped over both of John’s, pinning him to the mattress, and an arm was wrapped around John’s waist, holding him as tightly as though the world tobacco crop had just winked out of existence and John owned the last box of nicotine patches. Thanks to the lack of insulating body fat, Sherlock was radiating heat like a furnace, and John tried not to wake him as he quietly pushed the thick feather duvet off himself as much as he could before he passed out from heat exhaustion.
For all that Sherlock was still asleep, Sherlock’s hips were pressed up against John’s buttocks and John closed his eyes again, revelling in the memories of the previous night. The sex had been… well, to be honest, not the best he’d ever had. It hadn’t been bad – they had both come, and the fact that it was Sherlock that he was doing this with was pretty amazing in itself – but it had all been so fast. It was as though Sherlock hadn’t considered John’s agreement valid until he had stripped John naked and made him have at least one orgasm in his presence. But then, John hadn’t really minded. He had been equally as desperate for Sherlock; he supposed that several months of covertly watching and lusting after your flatmate counted as the most extended foreplay ever.
Sherlock had all but attacked John the moment he had locked the bedroom door behind them. Within moments John had been flat on his back on top of the duvet with Sherlock’s head between his legs, naked apart from his boxers still wrapped around one ankle, his thighs over Sherlock’s shoulders as Sherlock took his cock deep into his throat with a series of muffled, greedy noises that made John’s toes curl against the warm skin of Sherlock’s bare back. After a dizzyingly short time, Sherlock had pushed his knuckles up hard just behind John’s balls, and John had barely had time to slur ‘Sherlock… Sh’lock, I’m… I’m–’ before he was coming, hands fisting in the duvet to stop himself pulling on Sherlock’s hair. He was fairly sure that he’d accidentally dug his heel hard into Sherlock’s shoulder blade mid-orgasm but if he had then Sherlock, looking smug and self-satisfied as he sat up and John struggled to catch his breath, hadn’t seemed to mind too much.
When it was his turn, John had wanted to take things a little more slowly, to take his time nuzzling his face against Sherlock’s boxers and inhaling, drinking in the scent of clean cotton and male arousal, and loving the feel of Sherlock’s erection all hot and hard beneath the soft fabric, with a small damp patch over the head. When he eventually pulled Sherlock’s cock out through the slit in his boxers, he spent a long time teasing the tip with lips and tongue before dragging the underwear off and sinking his mouth further down onto him while Sherlock moaned helplessly, thighs quivering as he held himself ruthlessly still against the mattress. John had let his fingers, wet with saliva, drift down and back between Sherlock’s buttocks, encouraged by Sherlock’s breathy gasp and the enthusiasm with which he spread his legs wider.
Later, when Sherlock’s hips had started to stutter upwards as though he couldn’t help himself and his breathing had turned to short, sharp gasps, John had pushed a slick finger inside him and tightened his grip around Sherlock’s erection. He rubbed his tongue over the head, and then had been forced to hang on with grim determination as frantic palms seized painful, eye-watering handfuls of hair and tried to physically lift him off Sherlock’s twitching cock. It was the nearest a non-verbal Sherlock could come to a polite warning right before he gave a muffled exclamation and flooded John’s mouth, muscles rippling around John’s finger.
Drawing a deep breath, John could feel his nipples tightening and his cock hardening at the memory and, as if reading his mind, Sherlock’s arm shifted around his waist and he murmured as he moved in his sleep. As John chewed on his lip, he wondered if he ought to be worried at the sudden shift in the dynamic between them.
It was ridiculous, really – bolting horses and barn doors and all that. But while he had grown used to the body parts in the fridge, the idea of his bedroom becoming their bedroom (he was under no illusions there, Sherlock would love the extra space for his experiments) filled him with trepidation. Because Sherlock was amazing and brilliant and gorgeous, but now that he was actually here, pressed up behind John and tickling the nape of his neck with the slightest trace of stubble… well. Sherlock had an obsessive approach to things that interested him, not content until he had explored every single possibility and permutation with relentless energy, whereupon it was onto the next new field of study. And that, John worried quietly to himself, might be the problem.
It was possible that, now that they had finally slept together, he would become something of a temporary distraction for Sherlock, a puzzle to be turned over, dissected, solved, and then dismissed. Sherlock was like a force of nature when he got going; John had seen it at crime scenes, and while it was flattering to see it directed at him, he wasn’t sure how long it would last or what would happen to him when Sherlock lost interest.
The lean arm around his waist tightened as Sherlock stirred and rubbed his face against the back of John’s neck as he spoke, sounding grumpy and like someone who’d been woken a good hour before they were ready for it.
‘If you’re going to have a nervous breakdown then you could at least have waited until after coffee.’ Sherlock’s voice was sleepy and resentful and vaguely disappointed. ‘I got the impression last night that you were comfortable with your sexuality.’
‘I am.’ As Sherlock’s grip on him loosened, John caught at his forearm before he could pull away and held on tightly. ‘I’m not having an emotional breakdown, for God’s sake.’
‘Second thoughts, then? It’s no use trying to pretend that “it’s all fine”: your muscles are tense and your breathing’s gone funny. What is it?’
You’re amazing and brilliant and captivating, John thought. You’re like the proverbial irresistible force, like a tidal wave or a hurricane that scoops up everything in its path and whirls it around before dropping it. I’m not going to be able to say no to you, not over this, but what’s going to happen to me when you finally get bored?
They'd been lovers less than twelve hours; he couldn't bring himself to say all of that, and so he shook his head and muttered, ‘Nothing.’
The bed shifted behind John as Sherlock, clearly not believing him, propped himself up on one elbow and leaned over John, trying to see his face. The long, graceful line of neck becoming shoulder was almost hypnotic but, even with the worries niggling away silently inside his head, John couldn’t help but smile when he saw Sherlock with sleepy eyes, his face still gentle and unguarded.
‘Morning, you,’ John murmured softly.
Sherlock showed no signs of moving or of stopping his scrutiny of John, and John squirmed self-consciously and muttered, ‘Stop that,’ as he leaned toward Sherlock for a kiss. It went on for a while, and when John pulled back he was achingly conscious of the fact that they were both naked and that Sherlock had an erection that was trapped between their bodies.
‘Would it help,’ Sherlock’s hand wandered lower and John caught his breath as it reached his groin, ‘with whatever you persist in denying you’re thinking about, if we had sex again?’
A pang of lust shot through John, making his cock jerk against Sherlock’s hand, and Sherlock smiled and murmured, ‘Don’t bother to answer that,’ as he leaned in for another kiss, fingers curving loosely around John’s erection.
After another breathless interval John groaned, aware of their relative positions and of how very easy it would be for him to pass Sherlock one of the tubes from the drawer, and then Sherlock would push John’s uppermost thigh forwards with his knee and slick his fingers and–
Gasping, John pulled back, hanging on to his self-control and trying not to sound too desperate. ‘Shall I pass you the… I mean, do you want to–’
‘Fuck you? No, not really.’
It was like a dash of cold water, and John was glad that Sherlock was kissing his temple, eyes closed and unable to see his face. ‘Oh. Right then.’
Suddenly feeling awkward, he rubbed his nose. God, he hadn’t been a vain man even before he’d been to war and been sent home with an ugly, sprawling purple scar on his shoulder and more lines in his face than a man his age should have, so he told himself that it was ridiculous to feel offended by–
‘I mean,’ Sherlock said, lifting his head at last and looking into John’s face with a tiny frown, clearly reading John’s tension and belatedly aware that he’d just said something Not Good, ‘not now. Another time, yes, that would be nice–’
‘Just “nice”?’ John couldn’t decide whether to be amused or piqued.
‘But this morning, after that thing you did last night… with your finger… I was wondering… hoping, really… that perhaps you would do me.’
By the end of the request Sherlock had a voice like melted chocolate and sounded a bit as though he couldn’t breathe.
‘Yes,’ John growled, all annoyance forgotten. ‘Hell yes.’
He was pulled into a demanding kiss, Sherlock’s chest hard against his own and his cock sliding damply at John’s hip. The curve of Sherlock’s arse fit snugly against John’s palm, and when he squeezed gently Sherlock hummed in pleasure against his mouth.
A moment later Sherlock was rolling on top of John, grinding their erections together as he reached for lubricant from the drawer of the bedside table.
‘Here,’ Sherlock pushed the small tube into John’s hands and went back to kissing him, leaving John struggling to tear open the cellophane safety seal while Sherlock bit gently at his mouth and slid his cock lazily against John’s skin, one hand braced on the pillow by John’s head and the other rubbing a thumb over John’s left nipple curiously.
When John eventually got the tube open and squeezed out some of the clear pinkish gel onto his fingers, Sherlock caught his wrist before he could reach around and down and touched his tongue to the tip of one of John’s fingers.
‘Raspberry,’ he murmured, frowning slightly in concentration and God, John was never again going to be able to see Sherlock’s deductive face – or eat raspberry jam - without getting hard.
‘Yeah,’ John answered stupidly, watching Sherlock lick slowly at the pads of his middle and index fingers. Gently, John twisted his wrist out of Sherlock’s grasp and encouraged him to bend down so that John could kiss him again as his fingers slid between Sherlock’s buttocks.
When he pressed the tip of a finger inside Sherlock, John caught his breath. Sherlock was blood-hot and tight around him, and John slowly pushed in further, listening to Sherlock’s sudden breathy ‘Oh…’ The next moment Sherlock was reaching back, fumbling at John’s hand and trying to force his middle finger inside himself too.
‘Easy,’ John muttered, gripping the wrist of Sherlock’s impatiently grabbing hand. ‘You’re going to break my fingers if you’re not careful; they don’t actually bend the way you’re trying to make them.’
John thought that this needy, hungry version of Sherlock was one he’d like to see more of and he pushed a second finger inside him, forcing another moan from Sherlock as his head dropped as though too heavy for his neck. John cupped one hand over the back of Sherlock’s head, tangling his fingers in the surprisingly soft hair.
‘Easy,’ he breathed softly, as Sherlock bit down on his unscarred shoulder. ‘Easy now, I’ve got you.’
The fingers of his other hand sank inside Sherlock without resistance and he curled them forwards, just a little, until he felt the small bump against his fingertips and Sherlock suddenly groaned where his mouth was sealed to John’s skin, hips jerking.
John grinned in delight. ‘Yeah… there, that’s it.’
Sherlock made no reply, only sucked in a shaky breath through his nose, clearly almost beside himself with wanting, and moaned again. As John stroked delicately against his prostate, Sherlock spread his knees wider where they were straddling John’s hips. Sherlock’s forearms were braced either side of John’s shoulders, and John persuaded him to lift his head long enough to John to press kisses to his closed eyes and flushed cheeks.
Coaxing Sherlock’s head back down to rest in the crook of his neck again, John buried his nose in Sherlock’s hair and inhaled deeply as he reached down to curl his fingers around Sherlock’s cock, hanging full and heavy between his legs. He let it slide through his loose grasp once, twice, as he twisted his fingers and rubbed them against the precise spot inside Sherlock to make his spine arch. Almost immediately, Sherlock’s fingers took a death grip on his wrist and dragged his hand away even as Sherlock loudly groaned his pleasure into John’s ear.
‘No,’ Sherlock gritted out, ‘no, don’t. Or I’ll – oh! – I’ll…’
He didn’t finish his sentence, but John understood the warning anyway. He let Sherlock pull his hand away, and then Sherlock’s internal muscles were squeezing tighter around his fingers as Sherlock stretched and leaned over to fish around with uncharacteristic clumsiness in the nightstand. He dropped a condom onto John’s chest and said thickly, ‘Think that’s enough now.’
On a few occasions John had heard Sherlock pretending to be drunk in order to get information out of witnesses, and it gave him a triumphant thrill to hear that same heavy, slurred tone issuing from Sherlock's throat because John had been steadily finger-fucking him the whole time he was groping around in the drawer. He pulled his fingers out, squeezing more lubricant onto them before pushing back in and murmuring, ‘Just a bit longer.’
‘Oh for fuck’s sake!’ Sherlock hissed, irritated, his knuckles whitening as his hands fisted in the pillowcase. ‘I said I’m ready. This isn’t my first time, you don’t have to go slowly, and anyway it’s a complete myth that you–’
Sherlock broke off on a moan, biting his lip as John parted wet fingers inside him, spreading him open and managing to catch his prostate between his fingertips. Turning his head, John could see gooseflesh standing up on Sherlock’s arms.
‘I know you’re ready.’ Sherlock’s forehead was resting heavily on John’s shoulder once more, and John turned his head to nuzzle the words into the dark hair falling over Sherlock’s ear. ‘But I quite like this bit.’
And he did, Christ, how he did. It had always been a turn-on for him to slide his fingers inside his lovers and tease them with a surgeon’s delicacy of touch, but this was Sherlock: his maddening, gorgeous, terrifyingly self-possessed friend/colleague/lover, and watching his eyelids flutter closed as John slowly fingered him was pure heaven.
Eventually, when Sherlock begged ‘John, please’, sounding broken and entirely unabashed, John agreed breathlessly, ‘Yes, all right.’
Two pairs of hands (one shaking and sweaty-palmed, one sure and steady) tore open the foil packet and rolled the condom down over John’s cock, smearing more lubricant on top. It would have been quicker for John to just do it himself – Sherlock was more of a hindrance than a help but he refused to let John push his trembling hands away – but finally Sherlock was sitting up and wriggling, spreading his thighs even wider as he sank down onto John’s cock and groaned, ‘Christ!’ at the ceiling.
John swallowed hard, seeing his hands looking dark against Sherlock’s pale skin. He wanted so badly to thrust upwards as Sherlock’s weight settled solidly across his hips, but didn’t dare; Sherlock’s body was so tight around him that John was worried that he would hurt him. He settled for loosening the grip of one hand and rubbing it soothingly up and down Sherlock’s thigh.
‘Take it easy. Are you okay?’
‘Of course. I did tell you, not my first time.’
Sherlock’s gorgeous baritone was deeper than usual, husky with arousal and the last traces of sleep, and when he flexed his thighs to rock upwards and then back down John had to dig his teeth into his lip to keep from either shouting or grabbing Sherlock’s waist and driving up into him. When Sherlock repeated the movement, John couldn’t hold back a shaky gasp and Sherlock looked at him with just the slightest trace of a challenge.
‘Well come on, then. I thought you’d done this before.’
John splayed his fingers over the too-prominent hipbones and thrust upwards tentatively as Sherlock ground down against him. He inhaled sharply, almost undone by the tight, hot slide around his cock, and Sherlock groaned, ‘Yes. Come on, you can do it harder than that…’
And John did. He took a firmer grip on Sherlock and pushed up into him again, beginning a steady rhythm that would feel good to both of them – hopefully good enough to get Sherlock off – without pushing John too close to the edge.
John had needed to master a lot of skills in his life – what with the Army, and his old rugby team, and the long years of his medical degree – and one of the things he flattered himself that he was genuinely good at was sex. He liked it, not just the orgasm at the end but the whole process: touching someone, kissing them and stroking their skin, and finding out what made them sigh and their eyes flutter closed. He liked to talk to his partners while he was in bed with them, smile at them and kiss the tip of their nose, and he liked hearing them say ‘yes, there’ or ‘slower’ or ‘a bit harder’ and hearing their uninhibited moans when he got it exactly right.
And call it a last vestige of chivalry, but he really really liked making his partners come before he did, notwithstanding Sherlock’s passionate assault of the night before. It wasn’t entirely altruistic – he found it hugely sexy to listen to the noises they made when they were on the brink of orgasm and feel them shaking against him. And when they looked at him afterwards, all blissful and post-orgasmic and heavy-eyed, while he was still hard inside them, it made him feel ten feet tall.
So when Sherlock began riding him, John struggled to keep his eyes open through the cloud of intense sensation and watched him closely. And, after a few minutes, he soon saw that the position wasn’t really doing much for Sherlock. It wasn’t turning him off – he was still hard – but the angle wasn’t quite right for John to nudge his prostate on every thrust. The wild, desperate look had faded from Sherlock’s face and he was watching John through slitted eyes.
‘All right?’ John asked breathlessly.
‘Fine.’ Sherlock closed his eyes and continued grinding down against John.
Previously, in the privacy of his own bed, John had wondered if Sherlock ever had problems switching his mind off during sex. Perhaps he found it all so predictable as to be boring or, conversely, perhaps the multitude of sensations and stimulations overloaded that amazing brain with data, making it difficult to relax and enjoy it. However, after having had Sherlock squirming and begging under his hands, John knew that Sherlock most certainly didn’t have any problems disengaging his brain during sex, and he wanted desperately to see that dark-eyed, breathless man again.
John pulled his head down for a kiss and, while Sherlock was leaning down, took the opportunity to roll them over. It wasn’t quite as smooth as John had hoped; Sherlock tensed against the unexpected loss of balance, resulting in a fair amount of limbs flailing and Sherlock’s sharp hipbones managing to dig John painfully in the stomach. John made a mental note to have a conversation about eating a few more meals like the one they’d had last night and then he found himself lying on top of Sherlock, looking down into Sherlock’s surprised face.
‘Thought I could be on top for a bit,’ John said briefly, smiling inwardly at how Sherlock started to frown slightly at the loss of control.
On instinct, Sherlock’s legs had come up to wrap themselves around John’s waist and now John reached down to hold his erection steady as he pushed back inside Sherlock, giving him time to adjust. Sherlock’s faint scowl blurred into a look of pleasure, and when John tried a slow, experimental thrust, all the air huffed out of Sherlock’s lungs.
‘Right then,’ John murmured, spine tingling with anticipation. ‘Let’s try it like this.’
Gently he took hold of one of Sherlock’s legs, pulling it up and away from his waist and hitching it over his good shoulder so that Sherlock’s hips were tilted upwards and John could sink deeper into him. The next time he slid inside Sherlock, taking care to push upwards as well as in, Sherlock’s eyes widened and he gasped involuntarily.
‘Better at this angle?’ asked John, turning his head to press a wet, messy kiss to the bony knee bumping against his jaw and feeling the rough tickle of hair against his lips.
‘Ye-yes,’ Sherlock panted. ‘Oh God, John… that’s… oh, yes…’
Grinning with delight and perhaps just a touch of smugness, John slowly began to increase the pace, thrusting into Sherlock until Sherlock was sobbing for breath and moaning erratic instructions – ‘Wait, slower… harder… God, yes, like that…’ – and clawing at John’s arse.
‘Touch yourself,’ John said unsteadily, feeling the slow burn in his shoulders from bracing himself up against the mattress. ‘Go on, get yourself off.’
When Sherlock did so, reaching down with no finesse or elegance to grab his erection and start stroking it, his ragged panting quickly changed to short, sharp gasps for air that made John growl, ‘And Christ, Sherlock, breathe before you pass out.’
‘John… oh God, John… that feels…’
As John fucked Sherlock, biting his tongue and thinking profoundly unsexy thoughts while trying to maintain a steady rhythm, John could feel Sherlock beginning to contract rhythmically around his cock, could feel him shuddering as Sherlock teetered on the brink of orgasm. A flailing hand grabbed at the side of John’s neck and slid on sweat-damp skin before finding a grip; a grip on his bad shoulder, unfortunately, but John welcomed the sudden ache, as it cleared his head slightly and let him concentrate on Sherlock.
Sherlock, who was now letting slip a soft cry with each thrust, and whose thighs were squeezing John’s torso and shoulder, forcing him closer even as his hand braced himself against John’s shoulder, almost pushing him away.
‘John,’ Sherlock gasped sharply, suddenly coherent for a few seconds and staring up at him with eyes that seemed to be all pupil, and held a sweet look of amazement, ‘oh fuck, that’s it… I’m there… that’s…’
Gritting his teeth, John gave into the tension that was coiling in his hips and urging fasterfasterfaster. Barely had Sherlock finished speaking than John was pounding him hard and almost immediately Sherlock’s moment of lucidity was gone, beautiful face crumpling and white throat arching back against the jewel-coloured pillows as John suddenly felt wet heat against his stomach and Sherlock tightened around his cock, giving voice to a loud wail. An embarrassingly loud wail, actually, and for all that Sherlock was clearly in the throes of a mind-numbing orgasm and hence deaf and blind to the outside world, John hissed, ‘Shut up!’ and leaned down to capture Sherlock’s mouth in a messy kiss, trying to smother his noise. It didn’t work, of course, but God it was sexy to feel Sherlock’s lips quivering under his own as his pleasure tore its way out of his throat, and Sherlock’s knuckles rubbing frantically against John’s skin as more slick warmth spread between their stomachs. And their chests, bloody hell, no wonder Sherlock was loud.
Eventually Sherlock’s helpless, mangled repetitions of John’s name died down to panting whimpers and John swallowed hard. God, he was so close, his body was screaming at him to move, to shove, to finish it, but he clenched his jaw and held back, not wanting to overwhelm Sherlock if it turned out that he quickly became oversensitive after orgasm. Sherlock’s face and neck were quite spectacularly flushed, and John found himself thinking irrelevantly that the shade almost exactly matched the bright rose-pink throw pillow that had been shoved onto the floor at some point in the night. And then Sherlock dragged in a deep breath and opened his eyes as a smile broke over his face, and John found himself unable to think about anything else.
Sherlock’s smiles were as shifting and varied as London itself, and John still didn’t think he’d seen them all. There was the manic one for when a new case had arrived and The Game Was On once more; there was the tight-lipped one he gave a Scotland Yarder who’d made an unexpectedly intelligent remark; there was even the one that John had seen for the first time in the conservatory last night after he complimented the Holmes family – flattered and happy and a bit shy and trying not to show it. This one was beautiful, oddly innocent, and completely unlike any of the others. John was reminded of the first time that he had seen the night sky in the middle of desert, and had been left dumbstruck with awe by the rich beauty of the constellations spread across the velvety darkness, containing more stars than he’d ever dreamed existed.
Before he could stop himself, John opened his mouth and breathed, ‘Christ, but you’re gorgeous.’
Sherlock’s radiant smile widened into a grin that was positively predatory, and his hands gripped John’s arse as he said, ‘Come on then, show me how it’s done.’
‘What?’ John asked faintly. Sherlock was pulling them flush together, tugging his hips forward in rhythm and encouraging John to rock into him, and John was achingly conscious that it wouldn’t take much at all now to finish him.
‘If you’re so quiet,’ Sherlock elaborated, now grinning like a maniac and seeming on the verge of laughter, ‘then show me how it’s done. You know it’s terribly rude to tell one’s partner to “shut up” during sex. I’m shocked at you, John.’
Unable to stop himself, John thrust forwards and Sherlock’s nascent chuckle left his throat as a satisfied-sounding groan.
‘Well honestly,’ John hardly knew what he was saying, his mind full of OhGodyestherehardernowyesyesyes, ‘people are going to think I’m murdering you.’
If there was a reply, John didn’t hear it. Sherlock’s orgasm had left him pliant and relaxed under John, and John barely had to push into him a few more times before his rhythm broke down into jerky, desperate shoves, his balls tightening and his muscles seizing up and then Sherlock was pulling him down and holding him tightly as John came, finally, in long, shaking pulses. He didn’t manage to stay entirely quiet, although his agonised groan was mostly smothered against the damp skin of Sherlock’s shoulder.
As John gasped for air, Sherlock’s arms squeezing him fiercely, he felt his muscles twitching and jumping as they cooled, like they used to when he’d just finished a gruelling rugby match. His heart still pounding, he twisted his head slightly to drag in a deep breath and felt Sherlock’s lips move over his hairline, pressing open-mouthed kisses against his skin as his tongue flickered out to taste the sweat at John’s temples, and murmuring soundless words into his hair.
Twisting his head to press a chaste kiss to Sherlock’s flushed cheek, John realised that Sherlock’s leg was still hooked around his upper arm and bent upwards at an almost impossible angle. Fascinated, John wondered if Sherlock had ever practised yoga, if perhaps a person’s innocence had hung on the question of whether it was in fact possible for someone to get both legs behind their head. Sherlock was still clinging to John in a way that made his heart twist in tender, complicated ways but, mindful that Sherlock couldn’t really be comfortable, John made an effort to move. As soon as he felt John trying to pull away, Sherlock was quick to loosen his grip and push at John’s shoulder, groaning, ‘Off. You’re heavy,’ in a less-than-convincing tone.
Untangling himself from Sherlock’s embrace, John rolled away to dispose of the condom and when he turned back it was to find Sherlock already pressing up against his side, wriggling close and almost lying on top of him as he nuzzled into John’s shoulder like an overgrown cat.
‘You’re just as heavy as I am,’ John pointed out, even as he wrapped his arms firmly around Sherlock and a leg settled solidly across his own. He decided that he liked this new version of Sherlock, who scorned a wide expanse of comfortable mattress in favour of sleeping in the spot right next to John and who wanted to snuggle close after sex, even though the relative difference in their heights and impractical choice of position meant that John felt a bit ridiculous with his feet tucked up against Sherlock’s knees.
‘But you’re ex-military. Used to dealing with uncomfortable situations,’ Sherlock mumbled, his face mashed into John’s neck and his voice slightly muffled. John could practically feel him purring with lazy satisfaction and he carded his fingers through the sweat-damp curls tickling his jaw, thinking that physical discomfort was one thing but he wasn’t sure if he could handle the emotional mortification that was sure to follow at the breakfast table later.
Sherlock sighed against his skin, clearly reading his thoughts.
‘Oh, relax. It’s only Evander next door. He won’t mind.’ Was it his imagination, or did Sherlock’s muffled voice sound slightly embarrassed? ‘He’s probably still asleep. And anyway, you should take it as a compliment.’
No, it was true, Sherlock’s protests really did have a faintly flustered edge to them, although he’d doubtless prefer to submit to torture than admit it, and John tried not to laugh as he said dryly, ‘I’d be surprised if he’s still asleep after that.’
It was some comfort to know that it was the most liberal person of the Holmes tribe, rather than Sherlock’s sweet old grandmother, who had the misfortune of being in the next room, but somehow the thought of watching Evander smirk at the pair of them over coffee wasn’t all that reassuring.
Sherlock’s rude reply was drowned out by the clatter of John’s mobile as it vibrated on the bedside table. Snuggling against John's arm around him, Sherlock muttered, ‘If that’s Lestrade then he can sod off; I don’t care if it’s six serial suicides and an unbreakable cipher’ while John stretched out his other hand to grab his phone. The display noted that he had a text message from an unfamiliar mobile number; clicking through to the message, he laughed and then read aloud, ‘“Merry Christmas, John. If you ever get tired of my high-maintenance cousin, then this is my number. Do give me a call! EH.” God, your family are impossible, do you know that? How the hell did he even get my number anyway?’
Glancing down and grinning, John could see laughter warring with a scowl on Sherlock’s face.
‘God, Ev has no shame whatsoever.’ Sherlock snaked a possessive arm firmly around John’s waist and John revelled in the feeling. ‘Well he can’t have you. You’d be bored to death inside a week.’
‘Probably. Although I don’t know, a bit of peace and quiet sometimes doesn’t sound too bad.’
Sherlock’s scathing ‘Boring’ was cut off by the renewed buzz of John’s phone, and after clicking on ‘Read message’, John read, ‘“PS – tell Dave I said Merry Christmas too. EH.” Dave?’ John was puzzled, until he felt the sudden tension in the body next to his. He looked at Sherlock, disbelieving. ‘Dave is you?’
‘David, actually,’ Sherlock said warningly. ‘David Sherlock Holmes. Mycroft got teased at school because of his name, and my parents wanted to give me the option to be normal.’
Baffled by the annoyance thrumming in Sherlock’s voice, John asked, ‘What’s wrong with “David”? It’s an all right name; I had a couple of mates at uni called David.’
‘Exactly! It’s dull! Boring! You can’t swing a cat in the UK without hitting half a dozen men called David!’
Resolutely not dwelling on the fact that Sherlock might not be speaking figuratively, John tried, ‘Well, it could always be worse–’
‘And Mycroft and the cousins used to call me “Dave”. Dave.’ Sherlock pulled away from John and sat up as he spat the name with years’ worth of loathing, glaring at John as though daring him to laugh. ‘God, it’s hateful.’
By a superhuman effort and the application of years of military discipline, John managed to restrict himself to grinning widely as he tugged on Sherlock’s arm, trying to get him to lie back down. Grumpily, Sherlock acquiesced, and when his head was tucked once more into the curve of John’s neck, John’s palm skating across his shoulders and trying to smooth out the tension there, John murmured into his hair, trying the name out on his tongue: ‘David Sherlock Holmes.’
Sherlock twitched as though he’d been stung and growled ominously, ‘If you even think about–’
‘It’s not going in the blog.’ John hastened to reassure him, trying to forestall the inevitable rant. ‘I promise. It’ll be our secret.’
Slowly, by degrees, Sherlock relaxed against him as John kept up the soothing brush of his palm over Sherlock’s shoulders, and John grinned madly up at the ceiling. Now that he had a chance to finally look at it, he had to admit that it really was extraordinary: golden six-pointed stars embedded in complex geometric patterns that twisted and interlocked all across the room, reminding John of the time his class had visited the Alhambra while on a Spanish exchange trip.
Sherlock’s breathing grew slower and steadier, until John thought he must have drifted back to sleep. God knew he needed it, having erratic sleeping patterns at the best of times, and as John gently pulled the duvet over the limp form draped half-across him, he thought that perhaps this might work out after all.
Closing his eyes, John remembered the way Sherlock had clung to him desperately as his breathing slowed after his orgasm, his heartsick nervousness during their conversation in the conservatory last night, and words ghosting over his hair that Sherlock didn’t want John to hear; he wondered if he had perhaps underestimated Sherlock’s feelings towards him. He began to suspect that he might be one of the few men (possibly the only man) in the UK who was capable of breaking Sherlock Holmes, as unbelievable as it was. Because if Sherlock was an irresistible force then maybe John was an immovable object (and God knew that his mother had always said that he was bloody-minded and stubborn as a rock when he’d made up his mind to do something); the one fixed point in Sherlock’s life that gave him somewhere to stabilise himself while his brain spun like a Catherine wheel, all light and brilliance.
Hugging Sherlock closer and feeling more optimistic, John pressed his face into the riot of dark curls and didn’t try to stop the words that bubbled up from inside him. Words that had been sitting on the tip of his tongue since Sherlock opened his eyes and smiled at him dazzlingly a mere quarter of an hour ago, but had first started to coalesce inside him several months earlier, deep and unacknowledged, when he had realised that he would rather die himself than see Sherlock killed and had grabbed Moriarty and told Sherlock to run.
Softly, he whispered, ‘I think I lov–’
‘Don’t. Don’t say it.’
Sherlock had gone from a sated doze to rigid tension with whiplash speed, and John jumped, startled.
‘Christ, I thought you were asleep. What did you say?’
‘Don’t say it.’ Paradoxically, Sherlock hugged John tighter as he firmly squashed the romantic moment, as though he hoped to stop John speaking by dint of squeezing all the breath out of him. ‘Not now, it’s not a good time. It doesn’t count, you see.’
‘Now’s the perfect time,’ John insisted sharply, a bit stung at being rebuffed so promptly. ‘We’ve just got together after dancing around each other for months, we’ve just had sex, hell, it’s bloody Christmas, and you’re telling me that–’
Sherlock spared a hand from clutching John to wave it dismissively, before taking a renewed grip on his waist. ‘Whatever people say during or after sex doesn’t count. Because of,’ his tone fairly dripped with disdain, ‘hormones and endorphins. It’s a rule.’
‘So when I just told you I thought you were gorgeous…’
‘Correct. Doesn’t count. But I appreciated the sentiment all the same.’
‘You appreciated the sentiment?’
‘Yes. Thank you.’
It sounded as though Sherlock was carefully thanking him for making tea, and with a flare of temper John said, ‘That’s a stupid rule.’
Sherlock lifted his head and gave him a warning look. ‘I don’t care. It’s my rule.’
‘Well frankly, I think that your “rule” is a complete load of–’ John caught himself, reining in his irritation as Sherlock, scowling blackly, began to untangle their limbs and move away, clearly the prelude to a huff of epic proportions. He wondered if perhaps past experience had given Sherlock valid reasons not to believe affectionate pillow talk from lovers and he grabbed at Sherlock’s arm. ‘All right, all right. Fine, it’s your rule. I won’t say it. Now come here and lie back down, you madman. It’s too early for this sort of argument.’
As Sherlock gradually resettled himself against John’s side, John asked casually, ‘Would it count if I said it at other times?’
Sherlock was silent for a moment before he said tersely, ‘Well, yes. That would count. If you did.’
Sherlock loved nothing so much as the unexpected, and so while John wondered in what unexpected place he should repeat himself to Sherlock (in a taxi? But if he did it right then they’d hopefully end up in bed, so maybe inside the flat would be better) an idea occurred to him, so tempting that he couldn’t resist. He brushed a soft kiss across Sherlock’s forehead, an advance apology for what he was about to do, and wickedly murmured, ‘Merry Christmas, Dave,’ into his ear.
The mattress jerked and dipped under Sherlock’s violent movement, and John was still giggling when a turquoise silk cushion caught him none-too-gently on the side of the head. Before Sherlock could come back for a second assault, John launched himself across the bed, catching Sherlock around the waist and bearing him down to the mattress in a brief struggle for dominance that ended with John sitting astride Sherlock’s stomach, pinning his wrists to the mattress over his head.
‘Sorry,’ John apologised hastily, noting the murderous glint in Sherlock’s eyes, ‘I’m sorry, I won’t do it again, I promise. It’s just… well, it had to be done. Just once.’
He leaned down to kiss Sherlock penitently, and Sherlock might have been looking daggers at John but his mouth opened readily for John’s kiss and he hummed softly in pleasure.
After a few long and intense minutes John heard the bells of the local village church, far in the distance, begin to chime, ringing in Christmas morning. When he leaned back up, intending to point them out to Sherlock just to hear him scoff at John’s sentimentality, he saw that Sherlock’s eyes were dark and heavy-lidded and utterly distracting, and the words faded in his throat.
‘I think,’ John said huskily, leaning backwards instead and feeling Sherlock’s half-hard cock nudging against his arse, ‘you like me in this position.’
He released Sherlock’s wrists and immediately Sherlock was running his hands down John’s sides and reaching back to squeeze his buttocks.
‘I think I do,’ Sherlock agreed, in a voice like cinnamon smoke and velvet. As Sherlock pulled John back down for another kiss and murmured, ‘Got your breath back?’ John grinned against his mouth and thought, Yeah. Definitely the best Christmas ever.