This is my offering for the 221B_advent community on LJ – you must go and check out all the other wonderful contributions (art as well as fic) over the course of December. Although you do have to read this first!
Huge thanks to Azriona for her brilliant betaing - without her there would be commas in places no commas should be and some rather, well, strange sentences.
NB: I don't own Sherlock, no copyright infringement intended, no profit being made etc. etc.
A Miracle on Baker Street
John stared morosely at the clean, vaguely lemon scented shelves. He'd come out to the kitchen in an effort to displace the feelings of emptiness that had been plaguing him since he popped Mrs Hudson into a taxi early this morning but it wasn't working. The kettle had been filled, switched on and then abandoned, the tin of mince pies opened and then closed again without anything being removed. He'd opened the fridge in the vain hope that something would grab his interest but instead … the feeling of wrongness swelled in his chest, constricting his lungs.
Where were the body parts and the strange smells, the dubiously coloured flasks of congealing liquids and the endless possibilities for revulsion offered by the opaque boxes in the crisper drawers? Instead there was an abundance of vegetables, fresh meat and milk. Hell the butter dish even contained butter. It was like an advert for the government prescribed "five-a-day" and it made him want to throw things. He settled for slamming the door and stomping back into the living room, trying not to think about the fact that the fridge was a pretty good representation of his life right now; crammed full of all the things that everyone told you were essential for a proper existence but empty of the one element that made you actually want to be alive.
He clearly needed distracting and quickly too because finding allegories in the contents of a kitchen appliance was bordering on the insane. He flipped on the television in hopes something would capture his interest but a quick flick through the channels showed just how futile that was. His options were a schmaltzy Christmas movies (unfortunately not the one with the teacher trying to put on the Christmas play and seduce his old flame again as he actually found that one very funny), heart-warming programmes with hosts like Noel Edmonds (that special brand of host that was able to strike the apparently necessary balance between pathologically cheery and nauseatingly moved) or a variety of fantasy films from the 70's and 80's. None of them held any remote appeal.
Switching off both the TV and the lights strung round the mirror – his one and only attempt to make the flat look festive – he shrugged on his jacket, wrapped the blue scarf round his neck and clattered down the stairs. He hesitated once he'd slammed the door and made sure it was locked, knowing he wanted to walk but not sure what he wanted to see. He dithered on the step. Should he turn left towards the park and bare trees, frozen ponds and the mournful honk of the Canada geese or go right, towards Oxford Street and Christmas lights, frenetic shoppers and Christmas music pouring out of every shop doorway. He instinctively turned left, toward the park and a different kind of solitude but stopped abruptly when he saw, at the end of the road, someone standing in the shadow of the trees.
A man. A very familiar man.
Turning on his heel so fast it made his ears ring he virtually fled towards Portman Square and civilisation. He knew it was all in his head. He'd been seeing Sherlock on and off since the one time he'd visited his grave. Just as he'd been leaving the cemetery he'd turned, on some unknown instinct, and caught a glimpse of a familiar silhouette disappearing between the trees. The jolt it had given him was almost a physical pain and it hadn't got easier on any of the subsequent times. He knew it had been a trick of the light then, just as it was now, but logic and rationality didn't help.
Oh, he was sure there had been a man at the top of Baker Street but he was equally as certain that his subconscious had taken advantage of the onset of dusk, the tiredness that itched behind his eyes, and his irritating inability to just let go of his grief to conjure the spectre. That, and the fact he'd spent the day wallowing in so many memories, meant he was, quite frankly, astonished it had taken this long for his imagination to go into overdrive or that he hadn't already hallucinated Sherlock back in the flat, playing Christmas Carols on his violin while he watched the street below.
Which would not be a good thing, the part of his mind that sounded like a combination of Ella and his mentor at university pointed out sharply, since you need to move on, not spend your days creating cosily detailed scenarios of a life now gone to lose yourself in.
Swallowing down his irritation - although whether he was irritated by the bit of him that wanted to believe in the illusions or the bit that didn't he wasn't sure – he slowed his pace to a stroll as he turned into Oxford Street, head already tilted upwards to take in the lights. And immediately broke out into a confused grin.
Marmite? They'd got the Oxford Street lights sponsored by Marmite? Well he supposed … given that nearly all the tourists seemed to love this street yet most Londoners hated it he couldn't deny the, admittedly warped, sense of appropriateness. Yet watching a glowing animated elf diving into a pot of the stuff with evident delight while his companion … Was he really being sick? Dear God! Was that considered advertising? … wasn't exactly what he looked for in a Christmas display. Especially not when it brought back the memory of the huge spoonful of what he'd thought was Nutella he'd ended up eating after Sherlock had, for reasons only know to himself, swapped the contents of all the similar coloured jars in the flat. Urgh! He could still taste the vile, salty bitterness, never mind still being able to see Sherlock's face the split second before he'd dissolved into helpless laughter and John had bolted to the bathroom to clean his teeth repeatedly.
Still, the 3D presents were reasonably attractive, picked out as they were in silver and metallic bronze and oh, yes, there were umbrellas too. Maybe Mycroft had sponsored some of it as well, he thought with a barely suppressed snigger that garnered him a startled look from a passing shopper.
Having no destination in mind and knowing that that shops would all be closing shortly and everyone would be disappearing off to do whatever it was they'd arranged for Christmas Eve, John meandered down the road, weaving deftly between the press of people. He could go down Regent's Street, he thought, on the basis that the lights there might be better. Instead he halted in front of Selfridges as a sudden wistfulness for Christmases past filled him.
He and Harry used to get brought here when they were small. Really small, before Dad got laid off and started spending his time and his giro down at the bookies and Mum had taken to taking the edge off her disappointment and desperation with gin. They'd come every year, usually on Christmas Eve but sometimes the day before, visit Father Christmas at Selfridges and then have tea at MacDonald's; staying long enough to see the lights properly before getting the train home in time for the six o'clock service at church and then mince pies in front of the tree.
Harry had loved Selfridges, especially the windows. They used to do them properly back then, he thought, eyeing the gaudily branded gold monstrosities and distressingly ugly teddy bears with distaste. Back then they spent hours putting them together and they were almost as good as a film. One year all the windows had been done on the theme of Cinderella and Harry had been entranced; swathes of blue materials draped everywhere, one of the smaller windows containing nothing but blue velvet glittering with diamond brooches and necklaces placed to mimic the constellations. Another was filled with a huge pumpkin surrounded by toy mice and the most realistic cat and dog stuffed toys John had ever seen – the Father Christmas they'd seen after had given a very convincing ho, ho, ho when he'd asked for the "practically alive bulldog, please Santa" – and hand painted bluebirds hanging from branches of real pine. There had been clocks and shoes and mannequins dressed in beautiful evening gowns with feathered masks but the main window … they'd had to drag Harry away in the end, she was so enraptured.
It looked like a theatre set, with a turreted castle in the background, mountains and grass and sky hinted at by the artfully pinned fabrics and in the centre of the window was a huge, gnarled rocking chair and an enormous red cushion. On the cushion was a genuine glass shoe, sparkling and twinkling in the glare of the lights trained upon it and, propped up on the chair, was a huge book emblazoned with the word Cinderella, just like the one at the start of the Disney movie. It looked, Harry had confided in an awed whisper as she wrapped her arms round his shoulders, like you could have stepped up into the window and entered a different world. A world where wishes really did come true and miracles still happened.
That was one of the few trips where Harry had actually seemed happy to have her little brother in tow, so it was unsurprising he remembered it so vividly. He sighed, closing his eyes briefly against the contrast of his hopes then and his hopes now. God, was he really that lonely that he'd choose to go back to that time, knowing what came after, than stay in the present? John shook his head, jolting the memories away as a brisk wind caught the edges of the scarf and forced him back to reality. Standing in the middle of Oxford Street longing for a sense of wonder and hope he would never have again wasn't going to help.
Shoving his hands deep into his pockets he started walking, picking up his pace until he was moving fast enough to bring the blood pumping to the surface and some redness to his cheeks. He didn't notice where he was going, letting his feet find whatever path they wanted as his mind wandered over the last minute shoppers as he made his own deductions about their lives and problems. He knew they were appallingly bad and undoubtedly not true but his attempts to follow Sherlock's methods had become one of the sure-fire methods of making Sherlock laugh so he'd done it as often as possible. Now he just couldn't seem to shake the habit.
He hadn't intended on coming here at all but, somehow, he wasn't surprised when an hour later he found himself standing in front of the Foreign & Commonwealth offices on Whitehall, staring at the Cenotaph. The wreaths from Remembrance Sunday were mostly gone but the ghosts this place always conjured were still there. He closed his eyes for a moment to see them more clearly; Matt's smile, Danny's mad thatch of ginger curls, Jonesy's bloody awful taste in shirts. A movement in the corner of his eye made his head snap round but it was just someone disappearing into Richmond Terrace. God, he was really getting jumpy now; definitely time to get off the street before he started actually chasing after his phantoms.
Pulling himself up into military straightness, and oblivious to the odd looks he was getting from the few people still on the street, he saluted the monument sharply and then headed north. He'd brought his unit to The Chandos the first time they'd organised a trip to London during their leave and it seemed an appropriate place to go and drink to the memory of the ones he'd lost. Besides, a pint or two might stop his imagination turning every tall man with a long coat who happened to be in his vicinity into a facsimile of Sherlock. There did seem to be an awful lot of them tonight, swirling away at the ends of streets and into alleys. He wondered for a moment whether there was a trend for long coats that he'd missed while he'd concentrated on working through the quicksand of his grief. It wouldn't have surprised him. He'd really not paid much attention to anything other than getting through the days for the past six months and it wasn't as if Bill or Mike or Greg were exactly fashion conscious or likely to start such a conversation with him.
The pint, once he'd got it and managed to find a corner to wedge himself into in the upstairs bar, was everything he could have wished for. Shrugging off his coat he began to relax, sipping and savouring the malty richness of the bitter while idly eavesdropping on the conversations happening around him. He'd developed a liking for visiting pubs on his own in the eighteen months he and Sherlock had been together and, like the not very accurate deducing of random strangers, it wasn't something he'd been able to stop doing, even though he no longer needed a refuge from the noxious side effects of Sherlock's more vigorous experiments.
The Chandos was far livelier than the pub by the flat but he didn't mind at all. It was actually very enjoyable being the only few feet of quiet in two floors of often obviously forced jollity and holiday joy de vivre. He ended up having two more pints and a bowl of chips and then picking up a paper someone had discarded earlier in the day that hadn't yet been tidied away. He wouldn't have picked it up at all – funnily enough he'd had quite an aversion to them since Kitty Reilly's little expose – but the face on the front page caught his attention: Colonel Sebastian Moran, the man who'd turned him from a good marksman into a great one and who was, according to the screaming headline, the head of a now collapsed global drugs cartel that had been run out of a flat in Balham of all places.
John would have liked to say he was surprised but he wasn't. Moran had been friendly enough with him, approving both of his accuracy with rifle and hand gun and his desire to become better, but he had a vicious streak that had chilled John to the bone the few times he'd witnessed it and he certainly wasn't above bending the rules when it suited him. He'd liked him though. They'd spent plenty of hours together on the makeshift ranges at Bastion and F.O.B Sangin when their units had been posted together; Moran helping John to hone his shooting skills in exchange for which John gave Moran tips on hand to hand combat and cover for when he went off to gamble or God knows what else with the Afghani's. Meeting contacts, probably, John thought with gut-wrenching certainty as he pushed the paper away without reading the article properly. Moran had probably been making contacts for his organisation and he'd been helping him.
He left the pub rather swiftly after that. Not because he didn't want another drink but because he really, really did and that was not a road he was ever going to travel. He didn't go home though, not ready to face the empty house quite yet. Instead, berating himself for his change of heart – he'd deliberately given everyone who had invited him to spend Christmas with them the impression that he was going to Harry's because he'd been craving some time alone – he wandered the few hundred yards back towards Trafalgar Square and settled himself on the steps of the National Gallery; content to stare at the huge, lit tree that dominated the space more effectively than Nelson's column did and remember all the times he and Sherlock had walked through here in connection with some case or other.
It took just under an hour for his bum and fingers to begin to go numb and, reluctantly, he peeled himself off the old stones and began the long walk home. A small part of his mind, the bit that sounded like his Mum, pointed out that St Martin-in-the-Fields Church was just over the way and it was only just before eleven o'clock, he could wait a bit longer and then go to the midnight service. He ignored the voice and walked in the opposite direction, intending to go up the Haymarket and onto Regent's Street again. He hadn't set foot in a church since Sherlock had died and had no intention of returning now. He knew better than to ask a deity he could not forgive for a miracle that couldn't be delivered. He'd known that at the grave, the one and only time he'd visited. So he'd asked Sherlock for his miracle instead, having more belief in Sherlock's ability to confound the laws of nature than he did in the God who had saved his life when his blood and his life had been pouring into the sand. None of it had made any real difference but he'd felt better for saying it out loud.
It hadn't cured everything though, that visit. His bitterness at being left behind and his anger with Mycroft, with Donovan, with all the people who couldn't see what to him was so blatantly obvious, remained inside, bubbling under the surface and tainting his every waking moment. He knew it did him no good, that it trapped him in a holding pattern from which he couldn't break free, but he just didn't know how to let go.
'No, it's not that I don't know how,' he whispered to the night air as he walked down the much emptier streets, finally finding the courage to be honest with himself. 'It's that I don't want to. I don't want to move on and I certainly don't want to accept he's dead because there is a part of me that is waiting for the conclusion of his trick. Waiting for him to give me my miracle. Because … because if I really, truly, let it all go then I've got to accept he is gone, that his performance on that roof wasn't to leave me enough clues to make me think he's going to come back and that it really was his note. And if I do that then I … I really have no reason not to follow him and I'm not ready to do that yet, either.'
He didn't say anything more out loud, nor did he let his thoughts continue down those lines, instead he hummed snatches of songs to himself, matching his stride to the rhythm of God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, Good King Wenceslas or whatever carol sprang to mind. He'd just finished the Commando version of While Shepherd Watched as he reached the top of Baker Street and came to an abrupt halt.
The windows of 221B were ablaze with light.
His hand immediately went to the small of his back, fingers briefly brushing the Sig before falling to his side again while his breathing sped up. He hadn't left any lights on. He knew he hadn't because other than the TV and the fairy lights, both of which he clearly recalled switching off, he hadn't had any on. It couldn't be Mrs Hudson, she was in Folkestone, with her nephew Peter and his family and there was no-one else who had a key so … his face twisted as he realised who it must be. He'd spent the better part of the last seven or eight hours wandering aimlessly in front of more CCTV cameras than he'd care to think about so Mycroft would have had plenty of time to work out when he was likely to return home and plan his appearance accordingly.
Fury coursed through his veins as - fighting the urge to actually pull his gun in case it was just too tempting to point it at the smug bastard - he stormed the few paces to the front door, unlocked it far more vigorously than was necessary and slammed it so loudly behind him that the coat stand rattled.
At which, as if the sound had been a nod from a conductor, the strains of We Wish You a Merry Christmas being played on a Stradivarius began floating down the stairs.
John froze, his foot hovering over the first step of the stairs as his left hand shot out, an instinctive attempt to ground himself in solidity and normality even as his heart began to race and his body started to shake. This wasn't happening. Couldn't be happening. He … He … he couldn't think past the music, couldn't move for the image that was playing in his mind, of Sherlock, last Christmas, stood at the window entertaining them all with the same tune.
John slumped against the wall and pressed a shaking hand over his eyes. He'd swear on any bible or precious object you'd care to mention that it was Sherlock playing, that he would know his playing anywhere, be able to pick him out of a hundred violinists without the need for a repeat performance but … for the second time in his life his courage failed him; the possibility he was wrong holding him in place. The fear that it might turn out to be some sort of trick or a recording – Mycroft's idea of a good Christmas present – was too strong and he couldn't move, couldn't marshal his body enough to start up the stairs and find out whether the one thing he had refused to give up on could actually be true. All he could do was lean against the wall and tremble.
Then, again for the second time, his failing was rectified by another. Because the tune morphed, quite suddenly but without faltering in anyway, into O Come All Ye Faithful and John found his legs were back under his control and mounting the stairs.
He didn't run but he didn't hesitate either, taking each step deliberately and using the time to slow his heart and get his breathing back under some semblance of control. The door to the flat was ajar so he just shouldered it aside and stepped into …
He blinked, confounded. No wonder it looked bright from the street was his first thought as he stared around. The fairy lights were still up on the mirror but they had been joined by at least ten more strands, draped at various intervals round the room; over the book shelves, the mantel itself and even one set looped over the bull horns. The fire was blazing in the grate and the Christmas cards he'd received had been rescued from the kitchen drawer and put up on every flat surface. And there was a tree, behind Sherlock's chair, almost brushing the roof and glowing with lights and miasma of decorations. The whole flat oozed Christmas. And John couldn't have cared less.
Because beside the tree, back to the room and still playing as if it was the most normal thing in the world to be doing after six months of pretending to be dead was Sherlock.
Shutting the door very deliberately John shrugged his coat off while not taking his eyes of the man. He was thinner, that was very obvious from the way his suit hung from his frame and the narrowness of neck and wrists. His hair was longer than usual, although the curls were no less pronounced. There was a fragility, an otherness to him that had not been there before. Alone, John thought as he chucked his coat in the direction of the sofa, he has been utterly alone. Just as I have been, only more so, because he had never had to walk away from a connection from someone he loved before.
That thought was enough to halt him in his tracks once more, conflicting emotions warring inside his mind.
One part of him was insisting that he should be furious, should be yelling at Sherlock, spouting phrases like "betrayal of trust" and "depth of hurt" and "how the hell could you do this to me". Another part was still insisting that this was some sort of mirage, like the rest of today's "Sherlock sightings"; conjured up from his own mind after his moment of acceptance on the way home. Just another of his attempts to hold onto what he wanted to believe in that little bit longer. Quite a lot of him was pretty insistent that he should already be across the room; spinning Sherlock round and ... well the jury was out on whether a punch or a kiss would be better. Another small but incredibly overwrought bit of him pointed out that he was projecting his own feeling of loneliness and love onto a man who had willing left, willingly walked away after telling John that alone was the only thing he needed. That the Sherlock who was convinced that alone protected him was the real Sherlock and that the man who had whispered "now or never" and kissed him in the darkness of that alley, hands linked regardless of the cuffs, had just been another character in Sherlock's repertoire.
Then Sherlock stopped playing, ending the final verse with a flourish and setting the violin carefully onto the desk before turning and meeting John's eyes.
And there they stayed, just staring at one another, for what felt like an eternity as John tried to process what he was seeing on Sherlock's face and, he assumed, Sherlock was doing the same. Sherlock's eyes were wide, the pupils too dilated for the brightness of the room. His face was pinched, mostly from losing weight he didn't have to spare John thought but there was exhaustion there too along with … was that fear? Looking harder John realised that Sherlock's lips, slightly parted as he breathed far too fast for a man that was just standing still, were trembling minutely. It was. Sherlock was frightened of what was about to happen. He was frightened of what John might do. He cared. No … he more than cared. That kiss and the few fleeting moments following - the ones John had sometimes half believed he'd imagined when their world collapsed so soon after - had meant exactly what he'd thought they did. Sherlock loved him just as he loved Sherlock and now they actually had a chance to find out what, exactly, that would entail.
John closed his eyes for a moment as he felt all the confusion - the anger, the denial, the grief and the pain - drop away as if he'd been a balloon finally cut loose from the tethers holding him to the earth. All that was left behind was the joy of reunion and the need to show Sherlock that his fears were groundless. That John wasn't going to run and he wasn't going to push him away. His mouth widened into a beaming smile and he re-opened his eyes just in time to see Sherlock's eyelids flutter with relief as the tension left his face. John could tell he was about to move, to cover the space between them, to be, for the third time the one that took the step they both wanted to take and suddenly John was moving, more determined than ever that this time it would be him.
Sherlock's look of shock as John barrelled towards him was momentary, replaced by a smile as wide as John's own as John reached him and pulled him into his arms. God but he was thin, John thought as he pulled him closer, burying his face in the crook of Sherlock's neck and just breathing him in, revelling in those hands that roamed fretfully across his back and sides as if seeking a way to meld them together so closely that they could never again be separated. But it wasn't enough and John tilted his head, hand snaking round the back of Sherlock's neck and pulling him down until their lips met.
A mere brush at first, the slide of skin over skin, slow enough that John could identify every crack in Sherlock's chapped lips, taste every molecule of coffee and the bitterness of cigarette smoke. He opened his mouth a little more, offering himself to Sherlock, welcoming him back, but Sherlock did not take. Rather he pressed closer, the kiss remaining chaste as Sherlock breathed and then, finally, his tongue flickered across John's lower lip. It was hesitant, that swipe, reverent almost and John realised, as he leant into the sensation, that Sherlock was memorising him, trying to take every second and make it two.
So he let him. He wrapped his arms round that bony back and just let him in, let him tease and taste and test until all he could feel, all he could think of, was Sherlock's mouth, Sherlock's tongue and all he could hear was Sherlock's breathing and the tiny moans coming from the back of Sherlock's throat. Eventually Sherlock began to pull back and it was then, only then, that John reciprocated, clutching handfuls of Sherlock's suit to keep him in place as he remapped Sherlock's mouth, took the time they'd never had and tried to show Sherlock just how much he'd been missed.
'You don't have to explain,' John said, somewhat breathlessly when they finally broke apart and Sherlock began to speak, 'At least I don't want to know right at this moment.'
Sherlock's hands tightened on John's waist, mouth twitching with what John realised was anxiety. 'But I … you … I mean …'
'It's all fine, Sherlock. Calm down,' John interrupted the mess of words with a smile that made his cheek muscles hurt. 'You're here. You came back to me. You gave me my miracle.' He reached up, running his thumb across one far too prominent cheekbone before gently brushing Sherlock's curls off his face. 'That's enough, for now. Just having you home, having you here, holding you. It's enough.'
'I don't deserve you, John Watson,' Sherlock's voice was low and there was a quiver in it that made John's heart clench, 'I really don't. I ... Oh God, John, I've missed you so much.'
Sherlock's mouth crashed back onto John's. It was hard and it was brutal and John could taste blood as the splits in Sherlock's lips broke open under the assault. It was just like their first kiss and, like that kiss, it held a promise. A promise of things they'd do, things they'd see and things they'd say, except … the element of despair was gone. The desperation and the knowledge that the promises might not be kept because of who they were and what they were facing had been replaced with the possibility of forever.
And it was glorious.
John gave himself up to it, letting the last of the pain and the grief and the anger pour out through his lips, his tongue and his hands and in turn he felt Sherlock's fear and loneliness pour into him and combust in the fire Sherlock's touch was igniting inside.
'John,' Sherlock said into his mouth as the kiss eased back into something less raw and more nurturing, 'John, listen.'
They stilled, breathing each other's air as across the city the bells began to ring in midnight.
'Happy Christmas, John,' Sherlock said as the last chime died away, eyes alight with love.
'Yes, Sherlock,' John replied, returning the look in equal measure, 'a very Happy Christmas indeed.'
Note the first: The Oxford Street Christmas lights really have been sponsored by Marmite this year and really are how I've described them, including the elf that is apparently being sick! And I do think that the polarising qualities of Oxford Street match those of Marmite – you either love or hate both J
Note the second: To my knowledge Selfridges have never had a window display quite how I described, however my Mum – who used to dress windows for several of the big department stores in London – did create a Cinderella themed window for her final exam when qualifying as a professional window dresser.
Note the third: I do not live in London but I've spent a lot of time there, especially recently and I've often walked the streets just as John does in this; using the flow of humanity and the various wonderful buildings and other architecture to take my mind off whatever was bothering me. His route is one I've walked several times in the past year (although I tend to go to The Crypt under St Martin-in-the-fields for tea rather than into The Chandos for a pint) when I've been trying to get my head round various plots I've been putting together.
Note the fourth: The "Commandos" version of While Shepherd Watched is actually a version of the carol a Corporal I once met in a bar taught me. It is very rude. The first and last verses are as follows, I'm not going to share the rest!
While soldiers wanked their cocks by night, each lying in their bed
The angels of the Lord came down and began to give them head
"Oh Glory be to God on High" they cried out as they came.
Except for Private Benjamin, who screamed his girlfriend's name.
Note the fifth: I make no apologies for the fluff. Christmas is not complete without schmaltz, fluff and happy endings.