Character Study, Fluff, General, Introspection, Vignette
Disclaimer: These characters belong to the BBC. I have borrowed them for this story and am making no profit from this.
It was a whim, really.
Sarah Jane Smith was bored. Fed up and fractious, Aunt Lavinia would have said, if she were here and not off gallivanting around the United States on whatever research tour she was involved with now.
They'd not touched base in a long while. Lavinia never seemed to be in any one place long enough to lick a stamp, so with that example looming large all her life it was hardly surprising that Sarah had grown up likewise, and now especially, after the places she'd been and the things she'd seen…well, how could anyone be expected to keep still? There was always another project to pursue, always another story to chase, and in the thrill of the investigation everything else fell by the wayside. That was how she worked best and that was how she liked it.
Except for days like today.
She dropped the sealed envelope containing her completed copy into the post-box and wondered what to do with the rest of her day. How long had it been since she last had free time? She couldn't remember. Breaking this story had absorbed her every waking thought for too long, she knew that.
She also knew she'd make enemies from it — already had. Had it been worth it?
Today was probably not the day to ask that question.
She asked herself instead what she normally did when she had a bit of time on her hands, and came up blank. Middle of the day, everyone she knew would be otherwise occupied…or so she assumed. The occasional call to or from her editor aside, she'd not touched base with anyone, really, in far too long. She'd fallen out of touch and hadn't even noticed.
For want of anything better to do, she headed back to her flat via the park and found it full of young mums and elderly dog walkers, which made her restless in a way she couldn't quite account for. Back home, she couldn't settle. Nothing on TV and no decent books, and she couldn't have concentrated on them anyway, not in this mood.
There were possible leads she could investigate, but…no. No, that wasn't good enough. There was more to life than work.
How had she let herself end up like this?
She found herself at her desk anyway as if drawn by a magnet, looking over those possible leads because what else was there to do? One in particular had always seemed promising, she was sure there was a story there, but she'd need help with the initial research and hadn't seen or heard from the friend who was her primary contact in that field for months — and they'd quarrelled last time they met, over nothing.
She could go to someone else, of course, but she didn't want to. She'd been hanging onto this lead for a reason — and that reason was him.
It was worth another try.
So it was a whim, really, the decision made on impulse. She scribbled a note, stuffed it into an envelope, headed for the car before she could change her mind and was at his front door half an hour later.
He wouldn't be there, of course, just as he hadn't been every other time she'd tried to make contact in these last months. On mission, she'd been told, and incommunicado.
She rang the doorbell anyway and waited, just in case.
That was that, then.
She pushed the note through the letterbox with a pang of regret and turned to leave, wondering what to do now, made it all of three steps before she heard the door open.
A smile tugged at the corners of her lips. She'd know that voice anywhere.
"Harry Sullivan." She span around, startled to actually find him at home — and more startled still to find him bleary-eyed and barefoot, clad in loose-fitting, uncharacteristically rumpled trousers and exactly nothing else. He'd shaved his sideburns, she noted with a degree of regret that took her by surprise, and had let his hair grow out slightly into thick, bushy curls, currently standing every which way. It was the middle of the day, yet she'd got him out of bed, she realised, and was flustered. "I didn't think you were home."
"I got back about…" He blinked groggily at her. "What time is it?"
She glanced at her watch. "Two o'clock, just gone."
"About two hours ago."
There were heavy shadows under his eyes, lines she didn't remember in his face. He'd acquired a deep tan somewhere, but looked pale underneath it. This had been a bad idea, calling unannounced. "I'm disturbing you — I'm sorry, I'll go, let you get some rest."
"No, don't do that, old thing." He spoke quickly, sounded more awake. "Come in, I'll make tea."
He wandered away from the door without waiting for a reply and she followed, heartened by the sincerity of the invitation. Why had they quarrelled, that last time? She couldn't remember, beyond how focused she'd been on the story she was working on at the time. She'd been irritable and Harry'd seemed strangely absent-minded that day, had got on her nerves and then turned out to be in no mood to put up with her snapping at him, each of them preoccupied with other concerns. Was that really all it had been?
"No milk, I'm afraid," he told her, filling the kettle.
"Black's fine." She watched as he set the kettle down and leaned forward to stare at it as if in a trance, resting his elbows on the counter, his naked torso distracting in a way she'd never have anticipated. He'd lost weight he hadn't needed to lose, and had gained muscle. Where had he been all this time? What had he been doing?
"I don't suppose you're allowed to talk about it, are you?" she asked, the question mostly rhetorical, and he blinked as if she'd woken him, as if he'd been falling asleep right here in the kitchen on his bare feet.
"What's that, old thing?" He was never going to stop calling her that. She should mind — had, once — but today couldn't bring herself to care. It was just Harry, and it had been far too long.
"This mission that's got you so worn out you can't remember how to turn on a kettle," she said, reaching past him to flick the switch. He laughed at himself then, those newly acquired worry lines melting away, and Sarah suddenly felt better than she had in weeks — months, even.
She'd missed this, so much more than she'd realised.
Harry set out a pair of mugs and rummaged in an all-but-bare cupboard for some tea bags. There were three left in the box. He dropped one into each mug and put the last one away. "I think there might be some sugar in that cupboard behind you, Sarah."
"Not for me, thanks." He hadn't answered her question, she noted, not that she'd expected any different.
"Sweet enough, eh. I think I could probably do with some."
He was yawning, could hardly keep his eyes open. Sarah felt guilty again for disturbing him when he was clearly exhausted, had just barely arrived home off whatever mission he'd been on all these months. "I really should let you rest. We can catch up some other time."
"No, don't go." Again the reply was quick and heartfelt. "You don't know how good it is to see a friendly face."
She thought perhaps she did, smiled warmly as she turned to look for sugar and found the elderly remains of a bag. "It's gone hard, I'm afraid."
"It'll do." Harry chipped a bit off, splashed boiling water into the two mugs and then stopped as if he couldn't remember what came next.
Sarah took pity on him, removed the spoon from his hand and nudged him aside to finish the job herself. "Come on, sailor. Let's get you off your feet before you fall down."
They headed through to the lounge, where Harry sank into the nearest armchair. Sarah bent to sweep a few cushions aside before sitting herself on the sofa, began to talk, to explain why she'd come…and then realised he was asleep, the mug of scalding tea tilting dangerously in his hand. She took it off him and set it aside, stood and watched him for a moment to see if he'd rouse, but he was well gone, so she went to look for a blanket or a sheet or something to throw over him.
As she'd expect of Harry, the flat was immaculate — ship-shape and Bristol fashion, he'd call it — but there was a musty air about the place, a thin layer of dust over every surface. He'd not been here for a long time. She'd known that, of course. The only room that looked even slightly lived in was the bedroom, where his shirt, shoes and jacket were lying in a heap on the floor and a bulging bag of laundry had been kicked behind the door. The bed had been slept on rather than in. He'd arrived home and simply dropped, that much was plain, and then she'd blundered in and disturbed him.
She found a blanket and draped it over him, ruffled his hair fondly as she wondered what to do next. He didn't even twitch. Again she told herself she should go home and let him rest, but he hadn't seemed to want her to leave and she was reluctant to go without having an actual conversation because who knew when they might get another chance, the lives they both led.
She went looking for his keys instead and took herself off down the road in search of a shop that would sell milk, found a convenient general store and picked up more tea bags, sugar and some other bits and pieces while she was at it.
Harry was still asleep when she got back, breathing deeply and evenly. Sarah re-stocked his kitchen with her shopping and then browsed the rather eclectic collection of books on his shelves, for want of anything better to do. A battered old Lewis Carroll stood out among the lurid detective thrillers and medical journals; a childhood favourite, perhaps, but the name neatly printed inside the cover was unfamiliar. Ruth Maynard — was that Harry's mother, she wondered?
She took the book through to the lounge to renew her acquaintance with Alice while she waited for Harry to wake up. It seemed fitting. They'd fallen down the rabbit hole together, once upon a time.
The Queen of Hearts was holding court over her missing tarts by the time he began to stir. Sarah set the book aside and went to put the kettle on again, returned to find him blinking owlishly at her, flushed with sleep.
"Sarah," he said, and didn't seem to know what to say next.
"Still here, I know. Hope you don't mind."
"I rather thought I'd dreamed you." He pushed himself to a more upright position, his blanket slipping to the floor, and Sarah watched with amusement as he became aware of his state of relative undress for the first time since opening the front door. "Oh, I say. That's…er…I'm sorry, I should, er…"
"I've been enjoying the view," she mischievously told him and his embarrassment was everything she could have hoped for. She laughed. "Have a shower and get dressed, Harry, while I make us something to eat. You need feeding up." And that was an impulse she'd never felt before, ever.
"Er, yes. Yes, I'll…" He stopped halfway out of the room, suddenly worried. "Er…I'm almost certain there's nothing edible in the house, Sarah."
"That's all you know. The grocery fairy paid a visit while you were sleeping."
A slow smile spread across his face; she read in it relief and gratitude and affection, and it warmed her, deep down, in a way she hadn't felt in a long time. How had she managed to cut herself off so completely from everyone she'd ever been close to? Her friends had always been so important to her.
Then Harry said, "Well, I'm very grateful, Sarah, of course, but I've seen your idea of cooking," absolutely deadpan but with a mischievous glint in his eye, and she'd asked for that, she knew, he'd always given as good as he got, but that didn't mean she should let him get away with it. She grabbed a cushion and flung it at his head and he fled, laughing.
"We're having beans on toast," Sarah announced as Harry reappeared, slightly damp still and rubbing at his hair with a towel, now fully dressed, although rather more casually than she thought she'd ever seen him before.
"Very adventurous," he teased, and proceeded to wolf down his share before she'd taken more than three bites of hers.
"Here." Sarah pushed her plate across the table to him and stood to put more toast on. "Don't they feed you on these missions you get sent on?"
Harry wrinkled his nose. "I suppose things have been a bit frantic," he ruefully replied. It was closer to actual commentary on his apparently highly hush-hush mission than she'd expected.
"So did we win?" she quietly asked and wondered, in the pause that followed, if he'd answer this question at all.
"How do you define 'winning'?" he asked at length.
"That's a good question. I sometimes wonder." Sarah might not spend her life on loan from the Navy to various branches of the secret service, but her brand of investigative journalism did expose a lot of villainy and yet…how much ever really changed as a result? How much good did she really do and what was she actually achieving — especially compared with the things she'd seen and done in the past? "Do you ever miss it?" she asked, knowing that he'd know what she meant.
There was another pause as he polished off the last of her beans, looking pensive. "Sometimes, maybe, I suppose I do," he admitted, and although she'd asked the question wanting that commonality she was surprised because unlike her he'd seemed to slide back into his old life as effortlessly as if he'd never been away, no looking back.
She wondered how her own return home had looked from the outside.
"Good, evil, win, lose — everything felt so much simpler out there." Quickly buttering her fresh toast, she sat back across the table from him, brushing a stray lock of unruly dark hair out of her face before taking a bite.
"Well, there was a certain cleanness about it," Harry agreed, and that was just the right word. Clean. The kind of high stakes battles they'd been through together, out there in the big wide universe, had definitely felt a lot cleaner than the sordid affair she'd just committed to her editor for publication. "There's value in what we do now, though," he added, "Even if it isn't always as obvious."
Was he trying to convince her or himself? "I suppose so," Sarah allowed.
Then Harry frowned. "Sorry, old girl, I'd forgotten — you were here for a reason — that letter…" He half-stood, glancing around distractedly in search of the envelope she'd completely forgotten having pushed through his letterbox earlier.
"It doesn't matter, I can tell you what's in it," Sarah said with some chagrin. "It says, 'Dear Harry, I hope you're well, please give me a ring when you get this because I'd like to pick your brains,' or words to that effect."
"So this wasn't a social call," he guardedly concluded, and she asked herself when was the last time she'd contacted someone just to contact them, without any ulterior motive attached.
"I really didn't think you'd be here. There is a story — I think. I'm not sure yet, that was why I wanted some advice, but…well, it's a bit of an excuse, really," she admitted, only now realising how true that was. She wondered why she felt in need of a reason to make contact with a dear old friend, why she couldn't seem to say, it's been a while, I've missed you, can we catch up? "It'll keep. I'm sorry I disturbed you, but I'm glad you were home. I needed this."
Harry lifted an eyebrow. "Beans on toast that you bought and prepared yourself? I'm a dreadful host, I'm afraid."
Sarah kicked his ankle under the table. "That's not what I meant and you know it."
"Yes." Clear blue eyes met her brown ones, serious now. "Is everything all right, Sarah?"
It was another good question.
"I think," Sarah slowly replied, "I've been burying myself in work so much, I'd forgotten how important it is to come up for air from time to time."
"I know what you mean," Harry agreed with feeling, but it was different for him — in military service your time wasn't your own, you were ordered and you went and that was that. Sarah had done this to herself. It was completely her own fault, she knew that: so busy moving forward, keeping herself too occupied to ever look back at what had been, she'd lost sight of everything else, the simple things that actually mattered. Like friendship and companionship and taking time to appreciate them while they lasted.
"How long are you here for?" she asked. Since leaving the TARDIS, since being left, this was the friendship that mattered most in her life, for many reasons, yet neither one of them ever seemed to have any time.
So she wondered now if the stars were in alignment or something, for once, because Harry brightened. "As it happens, I have some downtime," he announced with great satisfaction that told its own story about just how rare an occurrence this was. "And I've not had a chance to make plans, so if you'd like some help with your story, now's the time to ask."
She'd been working alone for so long she'd almost forgotten what it was like to collaborate with an ally — to spend quality time with a friend.