The flat smelled of roasting turkey and freshly baked bread, with the faint traces of gingerbread still lingering from the previous day. Someone—probably Molly—had brought folding tables and set them up against the wall in the living room, pushing the chairs and couches off to one side in a manner that was probably intended to be artful. Much too many people were already clustered around the flat, some laughing with drinks in the kitchen doorway, some spread out on the couch listening to Lestrade tell vaguely amusing stories.
Sherlock stood off to the side, leaning against a wall and studying the collection of people with mild disdain. He really hated parties, especially those filled with people he disliked. Who had invited Sally and Anderson, anyway? Bloody ridiculous.
He ran a hand over his face, letting out a long, heavy breath. He’d at least thought something like this would please John; many pictures on John’s laptop had featured a heavily decorated house and large piles of wrapped gifts underneath thick-needled pine trees. Now, however, John sat in his armchair, absently stirring a mug of hot chocolate with a candy cane and staring at the Christmas tree in the corner with empty eyes.
“You’re sulking on Christmas. How predictable.”
“Piss off, Mycroft,” Sherlock muttered, sending an acidic glare in his brother’s direction. “You look idiotic.”
Mycroft pulled unhappily at his Christmas sweater, making the tiny bells adorning it jingle softly. “I stopped by Mother and Father this morning. They requested that you stop by.”
Sherlock and Mycroft rolled their eyes at the same time. “It appears moving out didn’t convey my intentions quite clearly enough,” Sherlock said, crossing his arms and surveying the room again. His eyes fell on John, who had stood and begun walking toward the kitchen. Their eyes met briefly, John’s widening slightly before dropping to the floor, and he swept quickly into the kitchen, disappearing from sight.
Mycroft followed Sherlock’s gaze. “What have you done, Sherlock?”
“Exactly what you told me to do.”
“No, you haven’t.” Mycroft’s eyes flashed with frustration hinting toward anger. “You tell yourself that because you don’t want to admit that you’ve made the wrong choices.”
Sherlock’s eyes narrowed, and his voice was tight with anger when he said, “Last night, you told me I did the right thing by sending John away. I didn’t think you prone to inconsistency.”
“Wrong again, little brother. I said you did what you thought was the right thing for yourself, which I think we can both agree is the wrong thing for John.”
Sherlock’s jaw twitched. “You’re wrong.” It was a lie, and both of them knew it.
Mycroft glanced at his watch. “It appears I have to depart.” He straightened, giving Sherlock a hard look. “Clean up your mess before it grows too large to be fixed.” He pressed a small square package into Sherlock’s hand, meticulously wrapped in simple red wrapping paper. “Don’t open this until you have.”
Sherlock watched the door swing shut behind Mycroft; then, he regarded the gift in his hand, turning it with his fingers curiously before tucking it behind a potted plant on the side table near him. There was no mess to be cleaned up. John would be gone in a manner of days, and it wouldn’t be long until Sherlock forgot what it was like to have him around the flat, brewing coffee in the mornings and vacuuming underneath the couches even when Sherlock forgot and reminding Sherlock about his completely unnecessary doctor’s appointments.
“Sherlock!” Molly called, her voice trickling out from inside the kitchen. “Can you come in here? I don’t know how to turn off your stove.”
Sherlock sighed and pushed off of the wall, taking long strides into the kitchen where Molly waited, an apologetic expression on her face. “Why didn’t you ask John?” he said, studying the stove for a moment before pressing a few buttons. “He’s the cook.”
Sherlock pulled his hand back a little too quickly, directing his attention from the stove to Molly. “Already?” Suddenly, it seemed too soon, like a bandage removed before a wound had completely finished healing, and a spike of terror shot through Sherlock as if he had touched a live wire.
Molly frowned. “He just ran to the store to get another can of jellied cranberries. What do you mean, ‘already’?”
Sherlock reeled himself in. “Nothing.”
Molly turned to face Sherlock fully, crossing her arms. “What happened?”
“It doesn’t concern you,” Sherlock snapped, turning and exiting the kitchen before Molly could say anything else and resuming his position against the wall.
Blood coursed rapidly through his veins, sending an abundance of oxygen to his head and making him slightly dizzy. As his breathing returned to normal, the dizziness gave way to overwhelming relief, accented when John pushed his way back into the flat, a small grocery bag clutched in his hand. The relief turned to familiar regret when John caught sight of him and quickly glanced away, but not before Sherlock noticed the dull pain coloring his eyes.
For the first time in his life, Sherlock allowed himself a moment to consider that he may have made a grave mistake.
John could still hear the chatter of excited voices and the crumple of wrapping paper long after the guests left, using the waning daylight as an excuse to depart, one by one, until Molly was standing at John’s side and bidding him goodbye, wrapping him in a tight hug that smelled like vanilla bean. “Merry Christmas, John,” she whispered in his ear, and he smiled half-heartedly, hugging her back as enthusiastically as he could.
Then, she pulled back, an odd expression on her face. “I’m sorry to bring this up, but I don’t suppose you’d tell me what’s going on between you and Sherlock, would you?”
John had to keep himself from flinching. “I…” He knew he should tell Molly, otherwise she’d call asking why he wasn’t at work and he would have to explain that he couldn’t find a flat for anything close to affordable in this neighborhood. However, the words stuck in his throat, and he struggled with them for a moment before sighing in defeat. “It’s nothing.” He gave Molly a forced smile. “I hope you enjoyed the party.”
“I did, thank you.” Molly’s eyes widened, and she began to rifle through her purse. “I almost forgot.” She pulled a dark green envelope from her purse and handed it to John, who took it after a short hesitation. “I know I already gave you something, but this is special. You can only open it when I’m gone.”
John turned the envelope in his hands. “Okay?”
Molly gave John a warm smile that faded a little when she said, “I’m sorry to hear about Mary. I know what she means to you.”
Meant. How much she meant to me. John nodded, focusing on the envelope. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t think we could have ever gone back to what we had, even if what happened hadn’t happened.” He looked up at Molly with heavy eyes. “Is it okay to let go?” He needed someone to tell him it was okay, that he could acknowledge that they’d loved one another and leave it behind, that he could begin again but with a new slate, one not clean but scarred with the past, and that that would be okay.
Molly reached forward and pulled John into another hug, this one softer and blanket-like. “Of course,” she said quietly, and John let out a long breath.
“Thank you, Molly Hooper,” he whispered, holding her a moment longer before letting go, feeling as if a heavy weight had fallen from his shoulders into his hands—not gone, just more bearable. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas.” Then, Molly was gone, leaving John with the faint smell of vanilla, an envelope, and the sinking realization that he should’ve talked to Molly earlier and saved himself the time and money of going to a therapist.
John glanced briefly at Sherlock’s bedroom door, behind which Sherlock had sealed himself halfway through the party with the excuse that everyone’s stupidity was hurting his head, before regarding the envelope. He paused with his finger underneath the flap before curiosity got the better of him and he ripped the envelope open in one motion, pulling out a folded piece of printer paper with his name written neatly on the outside.
Confused, John opened the paper and quickly scanned its contents:
I think I’ve watched enough romantic comedies to have a good grasp of what love’s like, or at least affection. I hope you do, too, but since I know you don’t have good taste in movies (because you still haven’t seen Harry Potter) I’m going to tell you what I see.
I left at least 100 boughs of mistletoe sitting around your flat, which I hope is enough to get you to kiss Sherlock, because you two seriously need to do that.
John let the letter flutter to the ground, his stomach twisting uncomfortably. He couldn’t help but glance at Sherlock’s door, noting wryly the clump of mistletoe positioned above the doorway, before sinking down in his armchair and putting his head in his hands.
Molly was wrong. She’d always thought Sherlock cared about John more than anyone else, from the first day they’d met and Sherlock had called in that favor for John at the hospital, but she’d been wrong then, too. Sherlock couldn’t even stand to have John rooming with him anymore, much less care about him.
John must have nodded off, because when he came to, his neck was ungodly sore and night had fallen completely, streetlight filtering into the flat and illuminating the living room.
John sat up, moving his head from side to side to work out the kink in his neck and blinking the sleep out of his eyes, when he saw Sherlock silhouetted against the window, his back to John as he stared out onto the street. However, when the chair creaked slightly under John as he moved to stand, Sherlock turned, his face shadowed so all John could see was the faint crease where his nose met his high cheekbones and the faint glitter of blue, still shining in the dark. Then, John saw the letter, gripped in Sherlock’s hands, and he let a soft, “Oh,” fall from his lips, standing and facing Sherlock with the grogginess of sleep quickly wearing off and leaving behind a mix of sadness and terror.
Sherlock extended the letter to John, and after a brief pause, John took it, their fingers brushing and sending a small shiver through John. He wondered if that had always been there, if he was just noticing it now. Then, Sherlock walked past John, heading back toward his bedroom or the kitchen or to the door, but John never found out because he followed him, putting a hand on his shoulder and stopping him.
“I just…” John swallowed, taking his hand off of Sherlock’s shoulder as it tightened under his touch. “I’m not trying to change your mind, I just… I just want to know if you still want me to leave.”
Sherlock didn’t say anything for a moment. Then: “Yes.” No.
John felt like throwing up. “Okay.” He cleared his throat. “Then I’m going to go now.”
Sherlock turned slightly toward John. “Already?”
“Yeah.” John took quick steps past Sherlock, gathering his duffle from where he’d stashed it just inside his bedroom door. “Christmas is over—there’s no reason for me to stay anymore.” Every word hurt, but John ignored the pain. He had to move on. He’d done it once today—he could do it again. He was stronger now; maybe he’d be strong enough to go back to Scotland, start a new life there.
His hands shook as he picked his car keys up from their spot on the side table—of course, not their spot anymore, just an empty table—and he gripped them so tightly the keys dug into his palm. Then, he opened the door and left, letting it swing shut behind him with a soft thud that echoed the thud of his heart as it fell to his feet.
As he descended the stairs, he felt tears collecting in the corners of his eyes, and he fought them violently, something he’d never been good at. They dripped down his cheeks, and he let out a small, embarrassed laugh as he reached the bottom of the stairs, pausing to rub his sleeve against his eyes. The coarse fabric of his jumper rather than the soft felt of his coat met his skin, and John cursed silently, glancing back up the stairs before trudging back up, the tears continuing to fall despite all of John’s efforts to keep them in.
His hand closed around the doorknob, and John took a deep breath before pushing back into the flat, taking quick, embarrassed strides to where his coat hung on a rusted peg on the wall. Sherlock was still standing where he had been when John had left, statue-like, but now John could see his face, so John hid his and said shortly, “I forgot my coat like a bloody idiot.” His voice cracked on the word ‘idiot’; he cleared his throat and grabbed his coat from the peg, slinging it over his duffle bag and turning to leave again, feeling foolish and pathetic.
John whipped around, angry tears dripping down his cheeks as he snapped, “What? Am I supposed to just stop and go every time you change your mind about whether or not you care? I can’t do that, Sherlock.”
“I know.” Sherlock took a step toward John, enough that John could see the flat lines of Sherlock’s face melt slightly, like there was something underneath he was trying desperately to keep in check. “You’re right: I’m a bloody fool.”
John’s next words died on his tongue. “What?”
“I never should have listened to Mycroft. I never listen to him anyway—why would I start now?” Sherlock took another step toward John. “I care, John. I care more than is logical.”
John’s heart thudded in his chest, but the voices in his mind that whispered all of Sherlock’s previous words refused to fade. “Then why would you ask me to leave?”
“Because you should want to leave!” Sherlock exclaimed, gesturing out the door with his hands. “Human instinct is to flee from pain, not to put oneself in the path of injury.”
John frowned, his tears drying uncomfortably on his cheeks and a headache building behind his temples. “I don’t understand.”
“I know.” Then, Sherlock’s hands were on John’s face, his middle fingers pressing into John’s temples lightly, and John sucked in a breath as Sherlock’s thumb caught a stray tear as it trickled down John’s cheek. “There are… there are things I don’t understand as well. Human emotions have always escaped my understanding. It’s fascinating how simple stimuli can generate a multitude of feelings that can completely overcome someone. Yet ordinary people, like you, you can understand emotions, use them to your advantage.” Sherlock cupped John’s jaw in one of his hands, meeting John’s eyes with an intensity that made John’s breaths stutter between his lips. “You are incredible.”
A surge of something powerful shot through John, and he leaned up and forward, standing on his toes to cover Sherlock’s lips with his own, letting the small gasp that ghosted from Sherlock’s mouth trickle out the sides of the connection. He tasted faintly of peppermint candy canes and spice, his lips much softer than John knew his own were, but Sherlock didn’t seem to mind as he rubbed small circles on John’s cheekbones, maintaining his hold on the sides of John’s face even after they separated.
“I’m still mad at you,” John warned, although the fluttering in his stomach and the small smile on his lips suggested otherwise. When Sherlock pointed this out, John rolled his eyes and pulled the other boy in for another quick kiss.