Sherlock presses his fingers to the few stitches visible above the jeans, his warmth bleeding through them and the red cotton to John’s skin beneath.
‘Will you tell me?’ His voice is uncharacteristically uncertain but the hitch and tremor makes John feel better, helps him calm his racing heart.
‘Why do you want to know?’
‘Because they mean something.’ Sherlock briefly rests his forehead against John’s before pulling back and looking straight into John’s eyes. ‘They mean something to you and you, you mean …’ His hand tightens on John’s hip, thumb rubbing over the flesh just above the white elastic as the other slides up John’s back, between t-shirt and skin, pulling him closer. ‘You mean everything to me.’
John closes his eyes and lets his head drop onto Sherlock’s shoulder, nudging aside the open collar and pressing his nose into the dip of Sherlock’s collar bone so he can just breathe him for moment. Needing the reminder, even after ten hours of Sherlock being there, explaining everything, even apologising, that this isn’t an illusion; that Sherlock’s really here. He feels his hands tightening in the fabric of Sherlock’s shirt, wanting to hold on to this moment forever.
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ Sherlock murmurs, ‘I promise you, John. I’ll never leave you again.’
John exhales, breath shaking out of trembling lips. ‘It’s a long story.’
‘We have time,’ Sherlock says, releasing John’s hip to wrap his arm right round him and pull them both down onto the sofa. ‘It’s over. I’m back. We have time.’
John smiles against Sherlock’s skin before lifting his head and sliding his hand back down to where the pants are still visible above the waistband of his too-loose jeans, rubbing his own thumb over the letters. Sherlock’s hand comes to rest over his own, a comforting weight that anchors him as he tries to order his thoughts.
‘They started out as a joke … flung at me by Matt as I walked into the accommodation block at the start of our two week’s leave. We were about to fly out on our first tour in Afghanistan, the rest of the company were spending the time with their families and we’d decided on a proper night out in Plymouth. I’d been thinking about Harry and wondering where she actually was, and I wasn’t concentrating, so I only just grabbed them before they hit me in the face. Danny started crowing “Lucky pants!” in between snorts of laughter, Bill had his what can you do with them face on and Matt was already next to me. They were all grinning like idiots and dressed for the night.
'Once I’d shaken the fabric out and looked at them properly I’d asked who in their right mind would wear red pants with a white trim when they were going out on the pull.
'“A bloke up for a little fun,” Matt had said, slinging one arm round my shoulders and winking. “You’ve shagged more women than the rest of us put together since we teamed up, without so much as a lucky sock to aid you. I think it’s tipping the odds in your favour and needs to be … rectified. So tonight you’ll be wearing those, we’ll be all commando and that should let us even the numbers up a bit.”
'I took that in the spirit in which it was meant; as a challenge and … well, one thing lead to another. If I tell you that was the night I earned the nickname “Three-Continents Watson” I’m sure you can deduce what happened.’
A quiet huff of laughter in his ear eases the tightness in John’s chest. He hasn’t talked about Matt and Danny for years. Not even with Bill, not even after … he swallows, hard and Sherlock’s arms tighten round him.
‘Needless to say Matt was less than chuffed his plan had back-fired so spectacularly and he and Danny banned me from wearing them out again. I kept them though, took them to Afghanistan stuffed in a pocket of my kit bag. I’m still not sure why, since I certainly hadn’t intended to put them on again, ever. I did though. After Matt …’
John leans his head into the crook of Sherlock’s neck and closes his eyes. He can still feel the packed dirt underfoot, see the air around him shimmering in the intense heat, and hear Matt’s muted laughter at something Barnsey’s just said.
‘It was just a routine patrol, in Kajaki. It was a nice change of pace as we’d been on an op the three weeks prior and it felt almost, well, normal. We’d nearly finished, just one abandoned house left, set back from the street with scrub behind and to the side. We worked it just like we worked every other one, Matt and Barnsey to the left, Danny and Jones to the right, Bill and I sweeping what was left of the inside and Vicey and Hale watching the street. I’d just finished checking what was left of the upstairs and was heading out the front when it happened. An explosion at the back of the house. Knocked Bill and I off our feet. For a moment I thought we’d been hit by an RPG, that we were under attack. But when there was no follow up other than Barnsey yelling for me over the radio, I knew. Matt looked like a rag doll when I got to him, the IED had blown both his legs off and half of one arm. I did what I could but … there was too much damage. I couldn’t stop the bleeding and by the time they got the chopper to us for evac he was gone.’
John clenches his jaw so tightly his teeth hurt, inhaling deeply through his nose before pushing the breath out through his teeth.
‘I don’t remember much about the rest of that day. I ... I can’t say you ever get used to death, to watching someone’s life drain out into the dirt in front of you but it wasn’t new, wasn’t anything any of us hadn’t seen before. We’d all lost friends, all mourned inside while we just got on with it. But this was Matt. He … he was family. The four of us were a family. Had been since we realised we’d rather not talk about our blood relatives never mind spend our leave visiting them. You’re close to everyone in your company but it was more than that between us. He wasn’t just under my command, he was my brother in every way that was important and I … I couldn’t save him when it counted.’
Sherlock’s lips are moving against John’s hair but whatever he’s saying is too soft for John to hear, even if he weren’t so lost in his memories.
‘What I do remember is coming back to my cot after washing his blood off me and finding Danny sitting there, face completely blank, not answering when I spoke to him. I was so intent on getting dressed and getting him sorted – I assumed he’d gone into delayed shock - that I didn’t pay attention to what I was putting one. I probably wouldn’t even have realised I’d grabbed the red pants out of my pack if Danny hadn’t chosen that moment to blink and say, “Yes, you should wear those. It’s a good tribute”. So I did.’
John makes a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sob.
‘I wore them as we got the news Matt’s body was at Bastion, ready for the onward trip home and I wondered if either his Dad or his brother would be arsed to go to his funeral at all. The next night Bill, Danny and I lit a fire out the back of the compound, drank to Matt with mugs of tea and then, as they looked on, I stitched his initials onto the pants.’
John looks down again, at the most faded of the black stitching, feeling a feather light kiss to his temple even as Sherlock runs a finger underneath the initials M.J.B.
‘Matthew James Blackwood,’ John says in response to the unspoken question. ‘Five foot eleven, reddish brown hair and hazel eyes that seemed to spend all their time dancing with barely suppressed glee. He was one of those people who could make you feel better just by being in the room, could make people laugh with a few words. I can still see his eyes going dull and flat even as I told him it would be alright, that I was there, that he was going to be alright, and ...’
They sit in silence; John unable to find his voice and Sherlock simply holding him, nose buried in his hair. Their left hands remain intertwined and Sherlock’s right now resting over John’s heart.
Eventually Sherlock murmurs, ‘It’s nearly four in the morning and you’re exhausted. Do you want to go to bed?’
John shakes his head, tightening his grip on Sherlock’s hand. ‘Ngh ...’ he croaks before clearing his throat and trying again. ‘No. I won’t be able to sleep. Besides, I want to tell you. I don’t want there to be any more secrets between us. Not now.’
He feels Sherlock’s nod of acquiescence but he wants more. He turns in the circle of Sherlock’s arms until he can make out the shape of Sherlock’s face in the gloom; the room lit only by the glow of the street lamps outside. Sherlock’s right cheek is swollen but the silhouette is still so blessedly familiar that for a second John thinks he might be dreaming. Then Sherlock flexes his fingers over John’s chest and John takes one final breath in the present before he returns to a past that still feels like it only happened yesterday.
‘The pants went back into my pack, wrapped in a plastic bag and tucked right at the bottom where they wouldn’t get lost. And there they stayed. For the rest of that tour and the two years following. By the time we were slated to return to Afghanistan the pants had become a part of my gear that couldn't be left behind and that wasn’t the only thing that had changed. The three of us were still close, still in the same platoon, but I was now a Captain, Harry and I were back in contact, Bill had been dating Mary for six months and Danny was married to a lovely girl called Lydia. She was two months pregnant when we shipped out for what ended up being my last tour of duty and I can still hear her, trying to sound upbeat as she saw us off, saying it was good timing because he’d be back just before the birth.’
John grimaces, mouth going tight and eyelids flickering rapidly.
‘He was dead two weeks later. A patrol that turned into a blood bath. How we missed the i-comm chatter that might have warned us I’ll never know. One minute everything was peaceful and the next Barnsey was down, hit in the leg and arm and we’re in a hailstorm of bullets. I was so caught up getting Barnsey to cover, giving Hale instructions on keeping him alive, trying to identify where the fuck they were shooting from and close down the guy with the RPG launcher I didn’t even see Danny fall. Not that I could have done anything. He took a bullet straight through the neck. He’d have been dead before he hit the ground ... We managed to make it safe enough to get a chopper down for the casevac - thank God, as Jones was down as well by that point and losing blood fast - but there was another fight going on at Musa Qala so the rest of us had to make our own way back without aerial support. It was a complete fucking mess and by the time we got to base I already knew what I needed to do. Bill, to his credit, didn’t question me, just went and made the tea.’
John rubs a hand over his face before dropping it to his pants, wriggling them up enough that D.B.F. is visible above the denim as well.
‘Lydia had a little boy. Named him after his Dad too, so there is still a Daniel Benjamin Ford in this world. He’ll be five this October and Danny would have been thirty. I picture them as being exactly alike, white blond hair and soft features, quiet but intensely loyal and caring. I-I’ve no idea if I’m right, I’ve never seen him. I’d intended to go and visit Lydia once the tour had finished, give her the photos I had of Danny and try to explain but ... well, you know what happened to me. By the time I got out of hospital and was in any shape to see her little Danny was almost six months old and she’d made it quite clear to Bill she wanted nothing to do with any of us. Besides which I wasn’t ... I didn’t want to relive it. I almost got rid of all my mementos but when it came down to it there were a few things I couldn’t part with – the pants, my dog tags, the photos, and the bloody medals.’
‘Your tin box,’ Sherlock breathes.
‘Yeah, I’m surprised you never looked in there. You rummaged through everything else I owned.’
‘I had my own box. I understood.’
John shakes his head, dismissing the urge to ask about it, to turn the conversation onto a different track. It wouldn’t be right. Not now, now that he has this opportunity. And Sherlock’s already talked enough today.
From the first, soft John as he’d touched his shoulder at the graveyard - which had resulted in John delivering a swift left hook that was more from shock than anger - through the long explanation delivered in Sherlock’s usual biting tones but without the usual belittlement of any of John’s interjections or queries and then - after John had finally conceded that he couldn’t walk another step and Sherlock had got them a taxi back to Baker Street - Sherlock’s apology. Which admittedly had been less about the halting, whispered sentences that flowed from Sherlock’s lips like half remembered lullabies and more about the look in his eyes as he’d reached out for John, a mix of fear and need that, when John did nothing to stop him, morphed into relief and a depth of love that John had never thought to see there.
Which is why he can’t stop now. Why, despite wanting more than anything to just take Sherlock to bed and pretend the past two and a half years haven’t happened, he has to keep going. Because he knows he will break if tries to hide this and if he breaks, he can see Sherlock will too and that is not an option. Not now they can be together properly; now Sherlock is trying to let him in.
So he has to make Sherlock realise just where he was in his own head this morning. Has to make him understand exactly how deep the damage runs. Has to let him know just how close he came to the edge. John knows this is going to be hard, harder than everything that's gone before, but he doesn't care. Nothing worth having is ever won easily.
So he sets his jaw, reaches for Sherlock’s face - eyes finding Sherlock’s in the pre-dawn light - and starts to speak again.
‘Apart from putting it in the back of my drawer when I moved my stuff in, I didn’t touch that box for eighteen months. It wasn’t that I’d forgotten about it. Hell, I could never forget that part of my life. But the hold it had over me was gone. Because what we were, together, was so much more than anything I’d ever expected to have ... to experience ... to be living ... that I stopped looking to the past. Stopped comparing my life to the lives of those around me and just focused on the here and now. And it was glorious, Sherlock! Those genuinely were the best eighteen months of my life. I needed you but you needed me just as much and it felt right. Everything felt as if it was where it was supposed to be. You may never had said the words, never looked at me like you have tonight but I felt loved nonetheless. Loved for me, the whole of me. Everything I was, just as I was. Just like I love you...
‘And then I watched you jump. I ... God, Sherlock I still can’t think of it without ... I lost more than you that day.’
Sherlock opens his mouth, to say what John doesn’t know and he doesn’t care. He can’t hear it now so he presses his thumb over Sherlock’s lips and shushes him, brain scrambling to find the next words.
‘I don’t know who called Bill - he never said and I never asked - but he found me the next morning, still sat on the landing outside the flat. I’d come back because I had nowhere else to go but I couldn’t come in. I ... I kept expecting you to bound through the front door, run up the stairs and tell me what had happened, to explain why the world wasn’t as I’d thought it was. I thought if I waited … I knew that if I walked through that door to an empty flat it would be real and I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to live without out you.
‘Bill was brilliant. He didn’t say anything, just sat down next to me and stayed there until I found the courage to get up and go in. I barely made it through the door before I froze up but he steered me over to my chair and just let me be while he made tea. Then he asked me where the pants were. I didn’t understand at first, until he said that he may not have known you well but he knew me and that I wouldn’t have loved a fake. That he’d followed what we did on my blog and in the newspapers and, while we may not have been in a war zone, we’d been fighting on a front line nonetheless and that you were a casualty. Same as Matt. Same as Danny. He said you deserved the same honour.’
John releases Sherlock’s face and shifts backwards so he can unbutton his jeans and roll the waistband over, exposing another set of stitches. Sherlock makes a low, pained sound but John ignores it, takes Sherlock’s hand and makes him trace the S and H; the letters are slightly larger than those above them and less neat. Yet it is still very clear they were sewn by the same person.
‘I wore them to your funeral. I carried them each time I visited your grave. Every time it got too much, every time I had to fight for breath, every time just keeping going seemed like the hardest thing in the world, I took them out of the box and kept them with me. Funny, I always imagined you watching me from wherever your soul had gone to and scoffing at me, muttering about sentiment and the ridiculousness of talismans. It made me feel better.’
He tugs Sherlock closer, interlacing their hands again to stop his own from shaking.
‘I lived with Bill and Mary for almost six months after your funeral. Mary was so kind, so welcoming, despite the fact she had the twins and Bill to run around after. I did stuff round the house while Bill was at work, acted as an unpaid babysitter and all the while I tried to work out what I wanted to do. I think I might have stayed until they kicked me out if the investigation into your work hadn’t been opened. But with a chance to clear your name I had to come back, had to do what I could.
‘It helped. For a while. Writing up all my notes properly, going through all of yours, reliving the cases and the bits in-between, the laughter and the ... it kept the living you in my head and the nightmares of blood and sightless eyes at bay. I still saw Bill, Mary and the kids once a week and I even, at Mary’s urging, started doing some locum work again.
‘But then the investigation was done, your name was cleared and all I felt was flat. You were still dead, I was still alone. There was really only one person in the world who I felt able to talk to and Bill was busy with his family, busy living. All I was doing was existing, coming to a semblance of life for those few hours a week where I felt like I was part of something normal, sitting at their dinner table and listening to the kids chattering and Bill and Mary talk about their jobs. But it was enough. Just. Enough for me to manage with. Then, two weeks ago ...’
John drops his head onto Sherlock’s chest, struggling with the tightness in his lungs and throat. Sherlock unlinks their hands so he can cradle John’s head, fingers carding through his hair as he rubs soothing circles on John’s back with the other hand. When John continues, he speaks into Sherlock’s shirt.
‘A heart attack of all things, Sherlock! Tell me how that can be right! How an ex-marine who runs his own fitness centre can die of a heart attack at forty five! I don’t even know how to deal with that. It’s all so wrong. I went straight over to Mary as soon as I heard, asked what I could do but all she said was that she’d let me know when the funeral was. She didn’t even let me past the doorstep. Had her parents there, she said, so she didn’t need anything from me but I could see the real reason she didn’t want me around in her eyes. See her thinking the same thing I was. Why the fuck had it been Bill and not me? He had everything to live for and I ... I had nothing.
‘By the time I’d walked home I’d decided. I made a cup of tea, got the pants out, fetched a needle and thread and said my goodbyes to Sergeant William Arthur Murray. I spent the next few days sorting everything out, cancelling my shifts, making sure I’d paid all the bills, tidying everything up round here. Then last night I sat down again, had a cup of tea chased down with a glass of the Talisker you like so much, and sewed one last set of initials onto the pants. I put them on this morning, went to Bill’s funeral, and then went to see you ... one last time.’
John lifts his head, ignores the tears that are pouring down his cheeks and yanks his jeans further down his hips, exposing the remaining stitching. Sherlock’s horrified gasp as he sees J.H.W. below W.A.M. is enough for John to know he understands.
‘You ... you were going to ...’
‘Yes, I was.’
John doesn’t soften it. Can’t soften it.
‘I wasn’t expecting to be alive now, Sherlock. I’d run out of will and I’d run out of reasons. Nothing made sense and I was tired. Tired of trying, tired of pretending everything was ok, tired of hurting all the time. I’d been hurting for so long, Sherlock, that it felt like an eternity. I didn’t even think Hell could be worse than the yawning emptiness inside me. I ... I just didn’t want to do it anymore.’
‘You ...’ A sheen of tears covered Sherlock’s eyes, lit by the glow of the dawn. As he blinks one solitary drop wells over his eyelashes and shatters down his cheek. He shudders a breath in, fighting for air before he can get the rest of the sentence out. ‘You don’t still want … You won’t, will you?’
‘No, Sherlock.’ John feels oddly calm at the truth of his words. ‘I won’t. Not now.’
‘Oh John, I ...’ Sherlock lifts his hands to John’s head, fingers stroking the lines etched deep by the pain of loss, then moving to map the gaunt edges of his face and down, over John’s too thin body. The panic in Sherlock’s eyes shifts to guilt and remorse and then the words come. Just a few but the ones John most needs to hear.
‘I am sorry … So sorry. And I … I love you, John. So much. Is it … Is everything … all right now?’
John answers him with a kiss because he can’t say yes. Because it’s not.
But he can show Sherlock, with the soft press of lip on lip, as they breathe each other’s air and hold each other close, that it will be.
That they will make it all right.