John is utterly exhausted.
It’s his first case back now that he and Sherlock are... Well, he’s not sure what they are, but they share a flat again, and there are nights of John picking out films he thinks will amuse Sherlock, and Sherlock deducing the plot in the first 5 minutes and then shouting at the telly for the rest of it, there are late night picnics of Thai takeaway in front of the hearth, and there is the sound of Sherlock’s violin lulling John to sleep again, and John ignoring body parts in the crisper again, and Mrs. Hudson’s tea waiting whenever they happen to get up. It’s almost like old times—almost.
Something has shifted between them, that much is clear. They aren’t the same people they were all those years ago when they first shared a flat. They’ve seen things they never wanted to see, and they’ve survived things no one should have to survive, and they’ve lost—oh how they’ve lost—so very, very much. And it sits on their shoulders, making their steps a little slower, their hair a little greyer, their vision a little blurry around the edges. They can’t eat takeaway five days in a row anymore, they can’t pull all-nighters without a headache the next day, and they can’t chase shadowy figures down damp cobblestone streets for miles without feeling it for days afterwards, apparently.
John hisses at the sharp stab of pain in his thigh, as he follows in Sherlock’s wake down the small footpath through the woods. They’re in West Sussex, and Sherlock had swore up and down that morning, that Jack Ferguson would be somewhere in these woods, and yet—here they are, and there’s nothing but birdsong and the soft rustle of leaves.
Sherlock glances back over his shoulder with a roll of his eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re getting old.”
“Oi!” John forces himself to stand a little straighter, and instantly regrets it. “At least, I’m not the one secretly dying their hair at three in the morning, and then attempting to hide the evidence.”
Sherlock spins around and stops dead, looking thoroughly scandalised.
John just grins. “Yeah. I know about that. I know what hair dye smells like, and you did a bloody poor job of covering it up. You’re not the only one with deductive skills, you know.”
Sherlock pouts. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But John sees the corners of his mouth twitch, and the way he self-consciously lifts a hand to his hair as he turns and sets off down the path again.
John feels a momentary twinge of fondness, a fondness he’s been allowing himself to indulge in more and more, of late. One more thing that’s changed. But this change is one that does harken back to those early days, and John finds he doesn’t mind. More than that, he finds he wants it. The anger and bitterness had begun to be too heavy a burden, and no matter how painful the thought of his feelings never fully being returned may be, it’s still easier to bear than the rage, regret and self-loathing. Sherlock wants him here at his side, he’s made that amply clear, on more than one occasion since John moved back, and that’s enough.
It’s turning into a beautiful day. One of those late Spring days that starts off cool in the morning, but almost feels like summer by noon. Sherlock starts to shrug out of his coat and jacket as the trail ascends a small hill, and John smiles at the line of sweat soaking through the fine, white, silk-cotton blend of his shirt. He’d told him he was over dressed, but Sherlock hadn’t listened, as always, and now he’s paying the price.
“You. You’re hot. I told you you would be. It’s supposed to get up in the mid twenties this afternoon, and here you are plodding around the back country in a full suit and wool coat.”
Sherlock stops as they mount the top of the hill and exit the cover of the trees. “Yes, well—even I display signs of being human sometimes, it seems.” He rolls his shoulders a little betraying his own aches and pains, and then takes a deep breath and lets it out with contented sigh. “Will you look at that.” He nods toward the vista spread out below them: rolling, brilliant-green farmland threaded through with ribbons of trees and dotted here and there with small, stone villages and snowy flocks of sheep. There’s a slight breeze up in the open, and as the clouds skitter by, their shadows trail over the pastoral patchwork below. “Lovely, isn’t it.”
It is. It is lovely. But John isn’t used to Sherlock noticing or calling out such things, and it makes that seemingly bottomless font of fondness well up in his chest all over again, tight and nearly overwhelming. “Thought you hated the country.”
“I seem to remember you saying something about it being more dangerous and crime-ridden than the city.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Sherlock pulls his eyes away from the landscape, and gives John a wink. “Let’s stop for awhile.”
“Yes, why not?”
“Thought we were meant to be looking for Jack.”
“Oh,” Sherlock waves his hand dismissively. “He’s probably back at the house by now.”
“Wait. Did we come all the way out here just for a morning stroll?”
Sherlock doesn’t reply, only throws his coat down over the damp grass, and sits down on one side, leaving room for John, should he want to join him. After rolling up the cuffs of his shirt, he crosses his legs, and leans forward, elbows on knees, chin resting on the heel of one hand, and stares out at the scenery.
John looks out, and tries to figure out just what it is that’s captured Sherlock’s attention. There’s nothing out of the ordinary, only the rolling fields and woods. With a sigh, he lowers himself down onto the other side of Sherlock’s coat with a groan.
Sherlock’s eyes dart over at the sound, before returning to the landscape. “You need to keep moving. It’s my fault. I’ve not been running you enough. We’ll take more cases.”
“You don’t need to nurse me. I’m not an invalid.”
“Didn’t say you were.”
John huffs, and lays back to stare up at the sky. “It was implied.”
“No. I only meant that you get stiff when you sit about too long, and you’re better when you get more exercise. It’s my job to keep you busy, and I’ve been neglecting it.”
“Your job?! Since when?”
Sherlock looks back at him. “It’s why you came back, isn’t it?”
John let’s his eyes slide shut, and doesn’t say anything in return.
“You were bored, restless. I provide—distraction.”
John frowns, and cracks his eyes open, squinting up at Sherlock’s serious face. “You think I wanted to come back because I was bored?”
Sherlock just shrugs.
John huffs. “No. That’s not why I came back.”
“Oh.” Sherlock tucks his knees up against his chest, crosses his arms over them, and turns away again, resting his head on his knees, staring off at nothing in particular. He looks deceptively young, folded into himself, back and the curls at his nape damp with sweat. John wants to… He wants to do something, something to make this thing between them, whatever it is, right.
“I came back because I missed it.”
Sherlock’s head pops up, but he doesn’t turn to meet John’s eye. “It?”
Sherlock does look over then, but only for a moment. He doesn’t say anything, and John knows that he only has two choices now: backtrack and try to undo it, or forge ahead.
“I missed you. I missed living with you. I missed everything we had when we lived together, before...” He takes a deep breath, and lets his eyes slide shut again. “I missed everything, and I hoped—I hoped we could pick up where we left off. And I know, I know that too much has happened, that it will never be like it was, but I guess I hoped that maybe we could find out what it is now, and that we could start from here and build something else, something new maybe. I—I don’t know.” He flings an arm over his eyes. “I’m just going to shut up now.”
There is a soft rustle of long limbs unfolding, and waft of air as Sherlock lays down beside him. John’s breath catches. He waits. “We can.”
John remembers to breathe, he turns his head, opens his eyes. “Yeah?”
Sherlock’s eyes are soft, and there is the hint of a smile playing around his lips. “Yes.”
John swallows, his throat suddenly tight. “You know you’re my best friend right? You know I’m here with you because I want to be, because I just like being with you?”
Sherlock blinks, and to John’s wonder and surprise, his cheeks turn pink, and his eyes fill. He sucks in a shaking breath, blinks once, and then sits up so suddenly, John thinks he’s been bitten by something.
“Here, what’s gotten into you?”
Sherlock’s already moved a few steps away, and is pacing at the crest of the hill. “We should go back. If Jack’s returned to the house and his father hasn’t returned from town, he shouldn’t be alone with his step-mother, or the baby.”
“Sorry, what?” John struggles to his feet with a wince.
Sherlock spins around. “Jealousy, John! Murderous jealousy! Don’t you see?!” His eyes spill over.
John frowns, totally thrown at the sudden change of topic. “What? You’re saying Jack’s the one making his brother sick?”
“Of course. It’s obvious. He’s always been a solitary boy. You know his father said he never had any friends at school, solitary pursuits, and then the trouble with the drugs after the accident. He’s injured trying to protect his mother, and she dies anyway, abandons him, and his father remarries, and then suddenly there’s a wife, and a baby, essentially taking his father away too, and Jack is left alone, wholly alone.” Sherlock frowns, and stares down at the sod beneath their feet as though it might somehow offer up answers. “For some reason he chooses to focus all that pain and resentment on the baby…”
“I don’t know, but we need to go back, now!”
“Yeah, yeah. Okay.”
Sherlock strides back toward him, scoops up his coat and heads for the woods.
“Sherlock wait. Wait!” John finally catches up with him and reaches out to grab his arm just before he reaches the trees. “Stop!”
“You can wait one minute. Look at me.”
Sherlock looks everywhere but at him. Finally his eyes settle somewhere around John’s clavicle, and John decides it’s enough. “Tell me you know you’re my best friend.”
“Of course. You’ve said so before, and now is really not the time…”
“Yeah, I said it before. But that was ‘before’. Before everything, and I need you to know that you still are, that you’ll always be, and I need you know…”
“John, is this really necessary. There is an infant’s life in danger, and I would think that you of all people would…” John feels the words like a punch in the gut, and he sees the minute Sherlock registers what he’s said. His eyes to flicker up to meet John’s then, stricken, as his lips part.
“Don’t. Don’t do that.”
“Sorry.” It’s barely a whisper, but Sherlock’s eyes are full again, sincere.
“Look at me.”
It looks almost agonising, but Sherlock does lift his eyes and hold John’s gaze. He swallows tight and dry, and tries to momentarily quell the nervous energy vibrating from every cell.
John takes a deep breath. “Tell me you know I love you.”
Sherlock’s lip trembles.
“I do, you know. I love you, and I know you don’t—do that, and I don’t have any expectations, okay, I just—I needed you to know that I’m not just back because it’s convenient, or because I need an adrenaline hit, or even just because I’m lonely. I’m back because—I’m always better when I’m with you, and I want to be given the chance to be the friend I haven’t been, and should have been, the last few years.
Sherlock shivers, and John feels his heart sink into his stomach. “Christ, you’re right, this isn’t the time, and I’m—I’m sorry. I’m a mess right now, and I can’t seem to… Listen, I just wanted you to know that I’m not going anywhere, that I care about…”
“I do.” Sherlock looks stunned at the words that have just come out of his mouth.
“I do. You said you know I don’t do that, but I do.”
John’s stomach flips, like he’s just stepped off a cliff into nothing but air and he’s hanging, suspended, for that microsecond before he starts to plummet. He opens his mouth to say something, anything, but nothing comes out.
“I know, John. I know you lo—, and I do, too—you, I mean. I mean, I feel the same towards you. And I—I know you don’t do that, not with—people like me. I know. It seeps out of you, John. Did you know that? It’s always there, it’s always been there, I’ve always seen it, but it was always easier, safer for you when it was me who didn’t do that. No choice to make. And it was fine, because for a long time I didn’t know what I wanted either, and then when I did it was too late. But I need you to know the truth now, and I need you to know that I know. I know, John, and it’s fine. It’s all fine. Whatever you want this to be—it’s fine.”
Sherlock is breathing hard, like he’s just run a marathon, and maybe he has in a way, maybe they both have.
“What do you mean, it seeps out of me? What does?”
“Everything. Everything you feel, think—want.” Sherlock lifts a hand and subconsciously rubs his chest, just over his heart, in exactly the spot where Mary’s bullet almost took him away for good. And John feels like running, falling, just—stopping. Because nothing makes sense, and there’s nowhere to hide from it. He’s gone and done this to himself, and he’s terrified, but god help him, he doesn’t regret a thing.
He needs to say something. He needs to say something, or do something before Sherlock gets the wrong idea, and gets that look he gets sometimes, the one that feels like it’s driving something sharp and acidic through the core of John’s heart, that makes him regret ever having been born because his existing means that Sherlock is hurting, and there is nothing more unacceptable than that, nothing more…
“We need to go. The baby, John.”
And this is Sherlock doing what he always does. This is Sherlock making it easy for him. “Yeah. Right.”
“Come on.” Sherlock’s shirt is clinging to his back with sweat, as he turns away. And it’s not just the heat, John thinks. This wasn’t easy for him. This was perhaps even more difficult for him than it was for John to be the one to break the ice and finally say the things that needed saying. And now John is letting him just walk away, letting him make it easy, like he always does.
“Sherlock.” He hurries after him, reaches out, pulls their bodies together and presses his face into Sherlock’s neck when he lifts his arms to wrap around John’s back. “Let’s talk later. Promise me we’ll talk later—when we get back to the inn.”
“Yes. That would be… Yes, we should.”