These vignettes assume general knowledge of the first series of Sherlock and the Reichenbach scenario.
Time changes everyone.
He used to be… well, thinner, obviously. More concerned about what others thought of him. Restless.
These days he's more comfortable in his own skin. More comfortable, full stop. And, thank God, he's growing wise enough to appreciate that this isn't a bad thing. Not every act must be a miracle-like resuscitation of a failing patient before a gasping crowd of impressed colleagues in order to be rewarding.
He's learning the value of subtler moments, humble and yet equally meaningful.
He's felt the quiet joy of watching as comprehension dawns on an earnest student's face. He's known the satisfaction of mentoring dedicated young professionals as they grow in ability and confidence.
He's enjoyed the pleasure of being a friend to unique and remarkable individuals. Two such men he introduced to one other, as a matter of fact, and now he has the delight of watching each better the other in ways he never could have expected.
Speaking of whom…
Mike Stamford opens the laboratory door, quite certain of what he will find.
Sherlock continues to peer through the microscope. "Yes, it is. Well spotted."
Mike grins to himself.
"Some of us are planning to grab a pint or two tonight," Mike continues.
"This is relevant to me because…?"
"It's my birthday. That is, we're going out for a few because it's my birthday. You're welcome to join us." He tucks his hands into his pockets and braces himself for the reply.
"I don't make a habit of engaging in foolish, over-sentimentalised public bonding rituals in recognition of incidental and irrelevant dates on the calendar." A sigh. "Boring."
"I know," Mike says, unsurprised, even a bit amused. "But I wanted you to know you're invited anyway. And I'd appreciate it if you'd tell John that he is, too. It's been years since we raised a glass on one of our birthdays. Be just like old times."
Sherlock glances up at this. "I'll text him."
"Thanks." Mike looks toward the microscope. "Anything exciting?"
"Potentially." Long fingers twitch with mad energy. "I'll let you know."
"Do that." Mike offers a parting nod, but Sherlock already has returned his attention to his slide.
"I meant birthdays in general, not yours specifically," Sherlock adds abruptly.
"Sorry?" Mike pauses, half in and half out of the room, and considers the unruly curls on Sherlock's bowed head.
"The celebration of birthdays in general is foolish, over-sentimentalised, and irrelevant. Not yours in particular."
For a moment, Mike stares.
He knows Sherlock Holmes well enough to appreciate the statement for what it is. He knows John Watson well enough to know who's responsible for what it represents.
"I understand," he says at last, touched.
Time changes everyone, even high-functioning sociopathic geniuses.
These days Mike Stamford is old and astute enough to value the modest, simple, extraordinary moments when they occur.
Just now, he can't help but think he's received something of a gift, birthday or no.
She turns the page on the calendar, revealing a new month and a new photo of playful kittens.
It feels like hope. It always does.
Her eyes skim the squares that mark the forthcoming days, empty and waiting.
All but one.
A strangled gasp escapes her. She'd forgotten. How could she have forgotten?
Instantly, without invitation, memories of that night return to her. The romantic dinner at the intimate little Italian restaurant. The dress she wore. His smile.
Comparing top ten lists of favourite musicians and bands, actors and actresses, films and shows. Drinking wine and giggling like schoolchildren as they traded embarrassing stories of their teenage years. Sharing their personal histories along with the tiramisu.
She told the truth. He lied.
That night she came home and marked his birthday on her calendar, so she wouldn't forget it. The words hung there on the wall like a promise, like a good omen foretelling that they would still be a couple then, still be together, still in like, perhaps even in love.
The words mock her now: "Jim's birthday."
It's probably not even his real one, Molly Hooper tells herself. Then again, maybe it is. He used his own name, didn't he? Why not his birthday, as well? He lied only about the important things, like who he was, and what he felt about her, and how he was using her.
And who he really wanted. And why.
She doesn't look over her shoulder quite so often anymore. She doesn't check her locks half a dozen times before she goes to sleep. She doesn't have nightmares, much. She's been putting this behind her. Honestly, she has.
It's not some vague, disappointed dream that makes her flesh crawl now, or this handwritten testament to her own gullibility. It's the thought that somewhere hidden, somewhere secret – likely in her very own London – Moriarty soon might be celebrating.
She won't forget this date again.
It feels like horror. It always will.
When she hears his approaching step, she looks up to meet his smile with one of her own. His kind expression unfurls a blossom of warmth deep inside her chest, as welcome and full of promise as the morning's first cup of tea.
She's neither a randy teen driven by hormones nor a naïve romantic pining for an impossible paragon of a hero. She's earned this, with her age and experience and wits, and by God she's going to savour it: the luxury of feeling for a man who's all too human and yet someone she truly can respect, even admire.
"Happy birthday," he says. Gazing at her with undisguised fondness, he juts out his chin, and the gesture is so endearingly him that for a moment all she can do is continue smiling.
He's neither a large man nor a particularly charismatic one. His presence fills up a room with the same quiet, steady determination as sunlight. If she allows herself, she knows she could find him every bit as indispensable.
"Thanks," she says.
For several seconds they regard each other, and all is calm and comfortable between them.
Then his mobile chirps in his pocket.
Like a lightning bolt splitting apart an untroubled sky, the sudden incoming message seems to charge the very air around them.
His body curls around the phone in his hand like a coiling spring, and she can sense the fresh energy in his limbs, see the new animation in his face as he reads its screen.
"Sherlock," he whispers.
Moments earlier, he was her colleague and friend and date for tonight, Dr Watson. Now, he's a new creature; he's Sherlock's John; he's alive.
She can't shake the notion that she's intruding, somehow, just by witnessing this transformation.
"Sorry," he mutters with self-conscious chuckle, as he tucks the mobile back into his pocket. His eyes are lit up from within, and a private grin still tugs at the corner of his lips.
I'm not, she wants to say, because surely she should be glad that anything, anyone, could move him so.
But I am, she thinks, because she realises with absolute certainty that he'll never look at her – at work, over dinner, in bed – with the same electric intensity he just showed that text.
The revelation lodges in her throat.
For a moment, she doesn't breathe. She doesn't even try.
Sarah's never quite understood, strictly speaking, what exists between John and Sherlock, but labels hardly matter. Whatever it is, it's real. Real and far stronger than the tentative though well-intentioned "what ifs" that lie scattered between John's feet and hers.
"So," he says, clasping his square, strong hands together, rocking a bit on his feet, "are we still on for a birthday dinner tonight?"
He doesn't know, she tells herself. He doesn't see what I see.
No, of course he doesn't.
Her gaze falls to the paperwork on the desk before her. She's all too aware of what needs doing, this very minute, to spare them both later.
"Oh, John, God, I'm sorry. I'm afraid the timing's really bad." She gives herself a heartbeat or three to blink back inconvenient anguish, and then she meets his eyes.
"Lunch tomorrow instead?" she asks. Colleagues eat lunch together. So do friends.
She forces herself to watch as his dear, expressive face betrays him, as surprise and disappointment surrender to resignation and no little regret.
No, she hadn't been the only one who hoped…
He eases a half-step backward, widening the distance between them just a fraction.
"Yeah, lunch is good," he says at last with a genial nod, and Sarah accepts the gentleness in his voice as apology and forgiveness as well as acquiescence. "It's a plan, then." Not a date.
As easy as that. But oh, so very difficult, burying this thing not yet born.
"Thanks." Sarah swallows and stares once more at her desk, shuffling the memos and forms without seeing them.
"Right. I'll just get to it." The lightness in his tone doesn't come easily, she can tell, but she's grateful to him for making the gallant effort.
At the sound of his retreating step she glances up, admiring the broad line of his shoulders under the lab coat, the soldier-straight length of his back, the purposeful stride and swing of his arms.
You can't miss what you've never had, people say. Sarah Sawyer knows they're wrong.
She's dared to envision John as a lover, boyfriend, partner, even father. She won't grant herself permission to imagine such again, and she feels the loss as a physical pain. But she's a doctor, isn't she? She'll choose a quick lancing over a slow festering every time.
She's a big girl, too – a year older, in fact, today. She's wise enough not to ruin something she has by yearning after what she doesn't and can't and won't. What she has is an able colleague and, she hopes, a lasting friend.
Love is real. She knows that much. John just reminded her of the fact as he read that text. As birthday presents go, she tells herself, that's quite enough to be going on with.
If love exists, then it's worth holding out for, isn't it? The real thing. In whatever form it appears.
Right, then. She wipes her eyes and straightens her coat.
Their patients are waiting.
He can think of twenty-three immediate, relevant reasons why this day is noteworthy.
Eleven of these have to do with his fast-approaching conference call, timed so that seven individuals in seven different time zones and on four separate continents can compare notes on a situation all would deny in the harsh daylight of their respective homelands.
Business as usual.
If he took the time to rank all of the reasons this day is noteworthy by relevance and immediacy, the fact that he is taking another step forward in his sojourn through his forties would not appear until the three hundred and fifties, at least. Perhaps far later.
Mycroft Holmes isn't one for birthdays.
Why should he be?
He's beyond the point at which he required additional age for decision-makers to take him seriously. (To be quite honest, he's nearly beyond the point where he requires decision-makers, other than himself.)
He's not yet to the point at which his body and mind offer up constant reminders of his own finite nature. (After all, he has a baby brother for that. Sherlock's text – if he remembers, if it appears at all – will be some variation on the theme of "You've survived another year. Well done you. But memento mori, brother mine." The brat.)
As is his custom, Mycroft enters his private study early to collect his thoughts. He finds everything arranged according to his preferences, as always.
And centred on his desktop, something unexpected, as well.
A china plate, and on it, a single, elegant tart. He leans forward and inhales. Pumpkin with cinnamon and nutmeg, brown sugar and brandy, and a touch of the darkest of chocolates. It's a miniature work of art, with a filigree of delicate crust, quite obviously the product of a master chef's skilled hand.
Not a cake. Not a slice of a cake. The tart comprises all of two bites. Three, if he is very disciplined.
Which, of course, he is.
Beside the tart on a pristine linen napkin rests a folded piece of ivory-coloured heavy stock paper.
The handwriting on the top fold is feminine and precise.
It reads, "Happy Birthday, Sir."
Mycroft sighs. If she is the one who offers this, it is safe. It is allowed.
He bends close and inhales once again, revelling in the sweet and spicy scent, even as he admires the intricate patterns of its sculpted texture.
She would think to do such a thing, wouldn't she?
Then again, she's his employee. It's considered good form to keep one's superior pleased.
After a second's hesitation, he reaches for the napkin. On a whim he takes up the paper instead.
On the inside fold, in the same familiar hand, is written, "This isn't because I'm your employee. A"
He's startled into a laugh. A genuine laugh. He claps his hand to his mouth like a child, before he recalls that he's alone.
Dear God, he thinks, but it's good to be surprised, now and again. Especially on one's birthday.
It happens so very rarely.
On the back side of the paper, he pens in his bold, exact script, "Thank you, my dear. MH"
He leaves the paper on his desk.
Nineteen minutes remain before the conference call. Mycroft makes the tart last for seventeen.
They don't make it to the pub.
Lestrade rather doubted they would, so he brought along a bottle, just in case. Only one. John doesn't drink that much, and Lestrade, well, he doesn't drink that much in front of John. Or anyone else.
This isn't helpful, he knows. Or healthy. He's tried to be a better friend than this, tried to encourage John to look ahead at least as often as he looks behind. But there's no fighting it tonight.
He needs this just as badly as John does, God help him.
They end up in the sitting room, drinking without pleasure, staring in different directions into a void that only the two of them can see.
"He'd've hated this," Lestrade says, shaking his head. "He thought birthdays were rubbish."
"Wouldn't know, would I?" John replies with a tight, grim smile. "By the time I learned when his was, it'd already passed last year. I told myself this year I'd do something so unexpected… well, if nothing else, it wouldn't be boring for him."
Lestrade answers with a soft huff of breath. "'Not boring' would've been good."
"Never worked out what it might be, though." John shrugs. "What possibly could surprise the great Sherlock Holmes?"
A fall, Lestrade thinks.
He takes another swallow.
Vital Stats: Originally written in November 2011.