John came home from work on Christmas Eve to see a rather disgruntled Christmas tree leaning against the far corner of the flat, newly purchased boxes of tinsel and ornaments scattered on the floor around it. Two mugs of steaming something were sitting on the side table by the armchair, and John swore he smelled gingerbread cookies baking in the kitchen. "Sherlock?" he called, setting his laptop bag down by his armchair and picking up one of the mugs to smell it. Peppermint hot chocolate.
"John! You're home!"
John almost dropped his mug when Molly stepped out of the kitchen, a bright purple apron tied around her waist and a mixing spoon caked with cookie dough gripped in her hand. "Molly?" he managed, returning his mug to the table. "What are you doing here?"
Molly's face fell slightly. "Didn't you…? Sherlock said you knew I was coming."
John bit back a frustrated curse and instead gave Molly an encouraging smile. "He must have forgotten to mention it."
Molly's face melted into an apologetic expression. "Gosh, I'm so sorry John. I can leave if you want—"
"No, no, it's okay," John assured Molly. Over the past six months, he and Molly had grown closer until John considered her one of his best friends, so it came as no surprise to John when Molly's next question was how therapy was going.
"Fine." John shrugged, picking up his mug absentmindedly and taking a sip. It burnt his tongue, but he ignored the small spike of pain. "Dr. Thompson says the PTSD is getting better." He didn't mention Mary, didn't tell Molly about seeing her for the final time yesterday, for fear that he would lose control of himself.
A comfortable silence arose between the two of them, broken a moment later by a loud beeping. "Those are the cookies," Molly said, giving John another smile before retreating back into the kitchen.
John waited a moment, listening to Molly bustle around the kitchen, before pulling his phone out of his pocket and dialing Sherlock's number. The phone rang to voicemail, and John hung up before the generic outgoing message could finish, a long breath slipping slowly through his lips.
"John?" Molly called from the kitchen. "Do you want to help me decorate these?"
"Yeah, I'll be right there," John replied, staring at the "call back" button for a moment more before slipping his phone in his back pocket and making his way to the kitchen.
They were halfway through the towering stack of gingerbread men when Molly brought up Sherlock, slipping him in after a short discussion regarding the previous week's episode of Law and Order. "How're things going between you and Sherlock?" she asked innocently, squeezing a line of red icing onto a cookie.
John focused on his gingerbread man, carefully zigzagging icing along the side of the cookie. "Fine."
"That badly, huh?"
John sighed, pushing the cookie aside and straightening. "Why are we here right now, Molly? Did Sherlock tell you to do this?"
A flash of hurt spiked across Molly's face. "He… he did. I'm sorry—"
"No, no, I'm sorry," John said quickly, running a hand over his face. "I shouldn't have said that."
Molly's face softened. "What's wrong?"
John began to ice another cookie. "I'm just tired of secrets, that's all."
Molly said nothing, staring at the stack of gingerbread cookies. Then, quietly, she said, "He's on a case."
John's hand froze, the tip of the icing dispenser hovering over the gingerbread man. "What?"
"Sherlock, he's… he's working a case right now. He told me not to tell you, but I felt so guilty, and… he probably just doesn't want to trouble you—"
"It's fine, Molly," John interrupted, despite the slow churning in his stomach. "We haven't had a case since… since June, and it's not like we're a team or anything." Or at least, Sherlock doesn't think we are.
Molly paled. "Oh no."
John put down his icing dispenser. "What?"
She put a hand over her mouth, tracking red icing across her cheek. "No, this is all my fault. I'm so stupid."
"What are you talking about? Of course it's not your fault—"
"This isn't his first case!" Molly exclaimed. "Since June, he's been through the hospital at least every week, asking to see bodies. I just assumed you were working, or at the station. I didn't even ask—"
"Calm down." John ignored the anger simmering within him—he'd asked Sherlock, so many times, if he had any cases, and Sherlock had lied every time—and put a hand on Molly's shoulder. "It's not your fault."
"I still feel horrible," Molly said, her eyes downcast.
John glanced back at the cookies. "Let's finish icing these, okay?"
Molly nodded, and after a few minutes of tense silence, the atmosphere relaxed into casual conversation again, John putting up a casual front so as not to upset Molly. His hands shook slightly as he iced the cookies, and he concentrated on the lines so they wouldn't turn out wobbly.
Damn Sherlock Holmes. Damn him, and damn John for ever having thought that they could be partners. He had used John, used him from the very start, and John was so stupid to have not seen it when it was so obvious. John stood in Sherlock's way, a hindrance, a dead weight, always breaking down and succumbing to weakness, and of course Sherlock wouldn't want to work with someone like that.
How much of it had been a lie?
Molly departed after an hour and a half, promising that she'd be back the next day to help organize Christmas dinner, leaving John with an empty flat and silence that only made John's thoughts louder, more prominent. He sat in his armchair and took an absentminded sip of his now-cold hot chocolate, his mind conjuring images of Sherlock wandering throughout the flat. Each image was slightly distorted, as if seen through warped glass, and John wondered if Sherlock had always been like that—distorted, just out of reach—and he had just failed to notice.
John closed his eyes, relaxing into the softness of the chair. He had been a fool for thinking of Sherlock as a constant, as someone to hold onto; Sherlock was, and always would be, just slightly out of John's grasp, existing on an entirely different spectrum that John could never hope to reach. This thought followed John as he drifted asleep, his mind disconnecting from his body and leaving him at peace as, in the distance, Christmas carols played softly.
Sherlock stepped out of the cab into the streetlight-lit darkness of London's night, passing the cabbie a few notes before approaching the door of 221B. As he ascended the stairs to his flat, he rubbed his hands over his coat to alleviate any remaining dirt on the fabric. The case had resolved in a chase through the alleys, and Sherlock had been forced to tackle the criminal, resulting in a rather unsavory collision with the dirty pavement of the alleyway.
When Sherlock opened the door of the flat, he had an explanation already prepared and hovering on the tip of his tongue should John demand one; the words died on his lips when only silence greeted him, and Sherlock let the door swing shut behind him, taking in the cluttered state of the flat and John, asleep in his armchair. The lines of John's face, so often creased with tension and worry, were smooth and relaxed, his shoulders slumped and his fingers limp, and Sherlock swallowed sharply, collecting the mugs of hot chocolate off of the side table and setting them in the kitchen sink.
Mycroft was a fool. Everything that had gone wrong in the past six months had been his fault, for insisting that Sherlock seal himself off from John. Sherlock blew out a long breath and braced his hands on the kitchen counter, closing his eyes. He remembered the feeling of John's arms around him, John's hands gripping the fabric at his shoulder blades like if he let go, he would be lost, and shook his head. Mycroft was a bloody fool to think his strategy would work any better than it had the first time.
"John is different," Mycroft had said, after Sherlock had burst out that there was no way he would go through that again, that it wasn't logical. "He's weak, uncomprehending, and unlikely to be able to handle something like this at the stage he's in."
"That's precisely why this won't work!" Sherlock had argued. "Janine was strong, but she still…"
"You're a fool to think that her suicide was a result of your affections. Her mind was unstable from the beginning."
"And John is any more mentally stable?" Sherlock had challenged. "Withholding this from him will just hurt him more, just as it did her!"
"I think you forget why we agreed to keep your feelings hidden," Mycroft had said, fixing Sherlock with a hard stare. "It has always been you, little brother."
Sherlock slammed his hand on the kitchen counter. "You know nothing!"
A long groan came from the living room. "Sherlock?" John mumbled, and Sherlock jolted back to the present, feeling the sting of his palm against the counter and the slight rawness of his throat. "Sherlock, I want to talk to you."
Sherlock paused for a moment, then pushed off of the counter and exited to the living room, watching as John stood sleepily from his arm chair, running a quick hand through his messy blonde hair. The sight sent a small jolt of affection through Sherlock, but he pushed it aside. Emotions were so troublesome; they emerged at the most inappropriate moments, clouding thoughts and decisions.
John's weariness quickly melted away, leaving behind a tense rage that Sherlock could see in the hard line of John's jaw and the tautness of his shoulders. "You had a case today?" he said bluntly.
Sherlock saw no point in lying when John was clearly asking the question merely out of affirmation. "Yes."
"How many cases have you had since June?"
Sherlock could feel everything beginning to crumble, but he kept his voice flat, his words without connotation. "Twenty-three."
"Twenty-three," John repeated, the words ghosting out of his mouth on a wave of apparent disbelief. "I know I shouldn't expect anything of you in regard to cases—we're not a team, or partners, or anything—but… I just didn't think you would lie to me about them."
Sherlock swallowed. "John—"
"Why are you doing this?" John said suddenly, and Sherlock could see the break in his eyes, the emotions flooding out like a tsunami wave. "Why are you lying to me and keeping secrets? Why have you hardly spoken to me since June? Why, after everything, are you gone now?" John sucked in a rattling breath, his hands shaking uncontrollably at his sides, and his eyes met Sherlock's, the brown in them reflecting simmering anger and spikes of pain.
It has always been you, little brother.
"You are correct," Sherlock said, his voice hard. "We are not partners. I made a mistake including you in the case in June, and I will not make that same mistake again." I will not let you get hurt again.
John sucked in a shallow breath. "Right, of course." His voice cracked, and he cleared his throat weakly, lowering his gaze to the floor. "How ridiculous of me to think…"
With the unknown comes pain and confusion.
But isn't the potential of beauty worth the risk?
You know nothing!
"You almost died, John," Sherlock said, and John glanced up at him, pain making way for mild confusion. "Do you understand what that means? No, of course you don't; people don't truly understand the value of their lives until they're fading away, and they forget it again as soon as they're out of danger. You were so quick to just throw your life away; your emotions got in the way of your judgment, and it could easily happen again, do you understand?"
"You're… worried about me?" John said quietly.
"No, of course not. It's simply logical that one who does not value their life cannot work effectively in the field." You could die.
"And if I said that I do value my life? Would you let me help then?"
"No, because you are undertrained."
"I could help in the hospital. Then you wouldn't have to go through Molly—you could go through me."
"Why? I don't understand—"
"Because you are a hindrance!"
John sucked in a sharp breath, taking a step back from Sherlock. "What?"
Because I would act on emotion rather than on logic. Because I wouldn't be able to separate what needs to be done from what should be done. Because I can't concentrate fully when you're around. Because I love you.
It has always been you, little brother.
Sherlock turned his back on John, starting towards his bedroom. "After Christmas, perhaps it would be best if you left." You'd be happier somewhere else.
"Sherlock!" John called, his voice tight and constrained. "Don't—"
The door of Sherlock's bedroom slammed, cutting John off mid-sentence, and Sherlock allowed himself one moment to feel the heavy weight of regret before sealing himself off once more.
"—leave me," John finished, his words swallowed up in the sharp slam of Sherlock's bedroom door. His chest felt constricted, like someone or something had its arms around it and was squeezing, so tightly John thought he might burst.
Perhaps it would be best if you left.
John pressed his fist to his lips, the lump in his throat surfacing as a strangled gasp. "Don't leave me," he repeated, his mind inevitably bringing to the surface images of his parents, of his sister, Harry, of Mary, all ripped from his life and leaving John feeling empty, like an eggshell cracked open and its contents removed. Sherlock leaving… John feared that that would be the thing to shatter him entirely, taking any strength he had left and dispersing it in the wind.
John mustered up all the resolve he had and knocked on Sherlock's door, resting his forehead against the worn wood. "Sherlock?" he said. When he got no response, he continued, "I know you don't think much of me, and I understand that you consider me deadweight, but I also know this: you're a bloody fool and a liar. You think that the world owes you a great favor, but the only one who owes you anything is me: I owe you an apology, for ever thinking that you actually cared about anyone but yourself." John pulled away from Sherlock's door, still half-expecting a response; when it remained quiet, he shook his head and blew a small breath out through his nose. "But thanks anyway for the show."
As John retreated to his room, Sherlock stepped away from the inside of his door and stood in the middle of the room for a moment. His throat felt thick with fluid, and he swallowed in an attempt to alleviate the discomfort. Then, he reached for his phone to call Mycroft.