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Particle Collisions at Ultrarelativistic Speeds

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She watches from the shadows of a doorway as Sergeant Ripley gets out of the aged Volvo, dragging several bags of what appear to be wrapped Christmas presents with him out into the snow. He has a brief, complicated struggle with a curled ribbon tangled in the seat belt, and then he's closing the door with a “Good night, Sir.”

The slam of the door is firm, but for a moment, Ripley lingers, his gloved hand resting almost gently, protectively, on the roof of the car. In the snow-dappled lamplight, his uncomplicated face shows worry, concern. If she were looking for confirmation on the appropriateness of her current project, this would be it. But she is, of course, already well past the stage of data collection.

Ripley taps his fingers thoughtfully against the chassis, then gathers his bags up and walks off, rounding the corner towards his flat in a flutter of red and gold ribbons. Naturally a generous, loyal soul like Justin would remember all his many nephews and nieces without prompting and get them each the right sort of gifts simply out of the goodness of his little heart. It's such an ordinary kindness, banal and meaningless, in the scheme of things.

It's a strange feeling, to be doing something so very similar.

The Volvo starts to blink its driver's intention to turn back out into the stream of traffic, and she dashes forward across the pavement to pull the passenger side door open, slip into the seat that Ripley has just vacated.

John whips around behind the wheel to face the intruder, his first beautiful flare of anger and readiness to fight dimming when he recognizes her into something irritated and guarded and, oh, almost fond. It makes her warm inside, that look in his eyes, the touch of perfectly justified fear diluted with a certain...softness. She thinks of his hand on her cheek in the church, as she always does, and, no, it isn't strange to be doing this, after all. Merely another logical consequence of her attachment, her concerns.

“Alice,” he says, flicking the blinkers off and settling deeper into his seat, his torso turned towards her, his right arm outstretched, wrist resting on the steering wheel. “Happened to be passing, were you?”

“Oh, come now, John,” she says, curving her lips in an approximation of a smile. “You should know I only ever do things by design. I wanted to see you, before I go away.”

“Off on a holiday? Can't say I pegged you for the sort of girl to spend Christmas sipping pink cocktails on Ibiza.”

“Ah, but then again, I no longer have to endure the pathetic tedium of pretending to enjoy hanging tinsel on the tree with my mum and making fudge in the kitchen with my father from my great-grandmother's famous recipe. He wrote a poem about that, once. Quite fetching, I suppose, if you can stomach the sentiment.” She looks out the wind-shield, at the people scurrying past beyond the steady sweeping of the wipers, beyond their metronomic crushing of the fallen flakes. It's still a triumph, what she did, every time she thinks of it, a greater triumph than she even expected, because it brought her John, who knows, who sees it in her, always, and still will never cringe from her. “Who knows,” she says, shrugging, “maybe I'll invent unexpected new traditions. But no, it's a business trip, and I'll be back on Christmas Eve.” She turns to John again, a quick twist of her head to catch him off guard. “Did you hang tinsel on the tree with Zoe, John? Make fudge? The happy couple curled up together, warming their hands on mugs of eggnog in the cosy light of the seasonal candles? Or are you missing her more now because you were never quite there for the Christmases you did have, too busy being the brilliant detective?”

John squeezes his eyes shut, rubs with his fingers at his forehead, twin creases settling deep between his eyebrows. He looks tired, worn; the look of a man losing sleep to the wrong kinds of thoughts. She has never doubted that he is stronger than something as commonplace as grief, but the holiday season is a notorious quagmire of yearnings and memories, and though of course there is nothing rational in tying one's emotions up with the time of year, John is not her, and he is not immune to loneliness.

“Alice,” he says. “What do you want?”

The weary impatience of his tone is really not appropriate with the woman who helped bring retribution down on his wife's killer, whose quick thinking made it all look like self defence and kept them out of jail, kept him in his job through the aftermath. But then it pleases her, his refusal to ever let the debt he owes her sway him in her favour or alter his perception of what she is. She's been his accomplice, but in his mind, he is still the policeman, and she is the murdering sociopath. Which is as it should be. Anything else would have diminished the stature of the man she chose to kill for. And, regardless, she's been looking forward to this question.

She turns fully towards him, sideways on the seat, her thighs in their woollen tights rubbing together with a slow promise when she crosses her legs.

“The thing is, John,” she says, softly, her mouth widening into a thin smile - inviting, dangerous - “I've committed a crime.”

John laughs, a low, deep chuckle.

“Nothing new in that, is there, though?”

“A crime that hasn't been discovered, yet,” she clarifies. “One you have yet to learn about. Oooh, now doesn't that make you curious, Detective Chief Inspector?”

His face grows serious, his fingers closing tight around the wheel, a grip that channels emotions, keeps them on his side of the car. She has a vivid flash of that huge hand wrapped around her throat, the way it felt, the sheer force of his barely contained frustration pressing down on her, compressing her.

“Who have you hurt?” he asks, and she licks her lips, her smile spreading like the thrill unfurling deep in her belly.

She keeps her voice light, taunting.

“Who says I've hurt anyone? You know better than to let your preconceptions colour your inquiries; it makes for such questionable conclusions. But there are so many crimes in London every day. How will you ever be able to tell which one is mine, how would you prove that any thesis you produce is anything more than empty supposition? Do you think you could?”

John sighs, shaking his head.

“I don't want to play games with you, Alice.”

“Ah, but you will. Because the problem has been postulated, its seed has already taken hold, in here -” She raises her hand, reaching across the space between them, and lays her mittened fingertips against his temple. This time, he doesn't pull away. “- in this, mmmm, quite extraordinary brain of yours, and you can't root it out, not until the answer has grown to fruition, ready to be plucked and sliced open, a truth born of your brilliance and stubbornness, ripe to be dissected, picked apart and acted upon. Perhaps by the time I get back, you will have the truth waiting for me, findings wrapped in irrefutable evidence.” A tilt of her head. “Perhaps not.” She lets her fingers trail down, along the curve of his jaw, up to the corner of his full lips, her body pressing closer without moving. “I would dangle the promise of a reward in front of you,” she says, breathless, suggestive, letting the words hang in the air between them, their implications settling like a black hole, a gravity well to pull them both in. Then she snatches her hand away, drops it back in her lap. “But the great John Luther doesn't need a carrot to solve a mystery, does he? To dispense justice? He just can't help himself.”

John appears unperturbed by her touch, unmovable as ever in the face of something as unsophisticated as sexual manipulation, but she still enjoys playing that card. Physical contact is so fascinating in its unpredictability, its potential volatility.

He's studying her now, eyes dark and focused in the low light, speculative and so bright, watching her as she watches distant galaxies, watches particles beneath her microscope. It's perfect.

“Why are you doing this?” he asks.

She laughs at him.

“But John, I don't interact with the things you know in the ways you'd expect. What makes you think I have a motive that would seem rational to a man like you?” She leans closer, lets her voice become no more than a whisper against his ear. “Perhaps all I want is to know that you're thinking of me while I'm away. I am, after all, a narcissist.”

John leans in, too, angles his head so that they mirror each other, his lips to her ear like hers to his, an intimate closeness carefully balanced just before the edge of skin brushing skin. His rich voice is pitched so low that she can only just catch the words above the rumble of the idling engine, beneath the wipers' rhythmic pounding.

“Which means that if I want to win a game against you, all I have to do is refuse to play.”

“And yet you never do,” she says, grinning as she pulls back, reaching behind her to open the door without losing eye contact. “Your move, John.”

He calls her name as she steps back out onto the street, but she is already gone.

 


 

It's Boxing Day morning, and she's been at home again for nearly two days, debating with herself whether or not to phone John up and push him on, when she wakes to the instinctive realization that she isn't alone in her flat. She pulls her blankets back and steps barefoot out of her bedroom to find him sitting at the far side of her kitchen table. He's sideways on the chair, one arm thrown over the back of it, his legs crossed in the manner she associates with their first chat in the interview room. Behind him, the day is breaking grey with falling snow above the London skyline outside her window. His winter coat is nowhere in evidence, which means he must have taken it off and hung it up by the front door, as if, regardless of having picked the lock, he considers himself a guest, not an intruder. This pleases her.

In John's hand, there is a small rectangular piece of plastic, imprinted with words, his fingers tapping the corner of it against the glass surface of the table. When she approaches, he slides it towards her, the plastic spinning over the table top as if on ice, coming to rest near the farther edge. It's an item description tag from a gallery exhibit, and, yes, yes, she knew he would play this game, knew he would understand how to play it with her.

“You keep trophies,” he says. “I thought I'd find this one creatively tucked away somewhere in here, but of course it would be at St. Giles. I should have realized to check there earlier.”

“You did find it, though,” she says, rounding the table, her fingers trailing over the glass, not quite touching the tile of plastic. “How clever of you.” She slides up onto the table to sit facing him, her bare legs dangling over the edge, parallel to John's. When she crosses them, their positions are mirrored, slotted together. “Naturally, it goes without saying that it doesn't constitute evidence to arrest me of any crime it may be connected to.”

John's mouth quirks, a wry twist of the corner of his mouth.

"St. Giles is open to the public. Whoever left this beneath the statue of Milton wasn't caught on CCTV or security cameras. Theoretically, it could have been anyone."

She clasps her hands together in her lap, over the flannel hem of her pyjama shirt where it cuts across her thighs.

“You don't seem very troubled by the possibility of the culprit evading justice.”

John adjusts his tie, smoothing the strip of moss-green fabric down against his chest.

“Ripley is putting the book into evidence as we speak. The collector you sold it to is in custody, with a long stay in prison to look forward to. Unfortunately, he never knew enough about the person he acquired his little find from to give them up for a more sympathetic treatment. But you don't care about that, Alice, do you? What matters here is that I know you were behind the theft. And I don't require any further evidence. Even if the lack of bodily harm did send me up the well-worn path a few times before I hit on the right case.”

Ah, she had calculated that his expectations regarding her affinity for murder would keep this from being too easy.

“Would we be having this conversation,” she points out, “if whoever did this had chosen to neutralize the security guards by killing them? Or would you be out there trying in vain to find some minuscule thread of substantial evidence to prove my guilt? This way is so much more pleasant, don't you agree?”

One of the reasons John is such a successful interrogator is his ability to make leaps in the conversation, his willingness to throw one line of inquiry overboard as soon as it's exhausted and attack the problem from a different angle with no pause for breath. She imagines that this tactic must work very well with people of ordinary intelligence. It's a perfect, seeming non sequitur when he asks,

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Alice? Did you think that was clever? Amusing?”

She thinks about the book in her hands - the thin, singular volume, colours bright and rich and manifold, spilling across page after page. She hadn't known, little more than a year ago, that the world possessed so many colours. Not really. How strange to have always understood, needing no one to break through the walls of your universe and reveal it.

“I'm sure you know what Blake writes in it,” she says, smiling. “'Milton was a true poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.' I happened to read about the exhibition at the Tate; stealing it seemed rather apt. And it was an interesting problem. I do hope it was as interesting to solve.”

John gives her a long, thoughtful look, taking his time trying to read her. She rests under the weight of the silence, waiting, lets herself admire how he isn't rushed into ending it until he understands it, commands it. It's fascinating, watching him watch her, seeing herself reflected in the lens of his mind.

“Ripley said something last night,” he says at last. “He said he'd been worried I'd spend the holidays on my own, brooding. Lost in memories and regrets, I suppose. And he couldn't understand why we were working this art theft, but he was glad of it, because it got me thinking about the here and now instead of dwelling on what's been and gone and can't be changed.” He pauses again. Down in the parking lot, someone is scraping their car out of the snow, the drag of shovel against asphalt drifting up to them. “Alice,” John asks, with the peculiar curiosity of someone who already knows the answer and only lacks the why, “was this your Christmas present?”

Her why can only be another non sequitur.

“You know where I went, I assume, on my trip?”

John smiles, teeth white in the muted light.

“Switzerland,” he says. “Turns out a physicist spending a week at CERN has very little relevance to investigations of crimes they've committed in London.”

“You know what it is?”

“The world's largest particle accelerator. One of the goals of the experiments they perform is to prove the existence of dark matter. Your field of expertise.”

She bows her head a fraction, acknowledging the recognition.

“When two particles collide like that,” she says, “coming together from opposite directions at nearly the speed of light, the impact can create a black hole. There was a widely spread fear, before the accelerator was put into use, that a black hole resulting from such a collision could grow and pull the surrounding reality into its field of gravity, making the Earth collapse around it, bringing about the end of the world. With such forces at play, it was a possibility to consider.”

John tilts his head forward, looks up at her, his eyes measuring slits beneath half-closed lids.

“Hasn't happened, yet,” he says, almost a question, and his voice is, oh, so gentle, touched with hope, with kindness.

She stretches her foot out, her toes stroking down the long line of his thigh, catching on the creases in his trousers.

“No,” she says. “It hasn't. Sometimes, despite what one might think, collisions do not bring destruction. And what they do bring can have an unexpected beauty.”

John lays his hand on her leg, warm, strong fingers wrapping around her ankle. Holding her still without exerting pressure, as one might hold something delicate, or very dangerous.

“It was a considerate gift,” he says. “Thank you.”

His thumb strokes across her skin. Outside the window, the world is pale with snow. In here, where they fall together, rushing and still, there are more colours than she knows how to count.

She closes her eyes, breathing out. She trusts John to know what they each are called, every nuance, even at the speed of light.