Naturally, a case had come up, four days prior to their planned departure. It had been one so complex and intriguing that John knew he could not ask Sherlock to pass it on, even if the detective indicated he would. That in itself had made John thoughtful. It proved that Sherlock, too, seemed to be looking forward to their journey, although John could only take a guess at his reasons.
As for himself, after some initial worries about his fitness, possible implications with the weather and concerns about all those things that could go wrong when roaming the high mountains, by now he was more than ready to set out and try himself against the pass. He had accepted the challenge. Moreover, a not too small part of him was looking forward to spending time with Sherlock away from cases and the demands of his job at the clinic. Perhaps it was motivated by a subconscious desire to arrive at some definition of or at least find a direction for the strange kind of relationship they had been maintaining for a while now. He wasn’t sure about Sherlock, difficult as it was to gauge his flatmate’s emotional state at the best of times, but for himself he had come to accept that his feelings for the detective had left the realm of ‘mere’ friendship. Things were changing, subtly, hardly noticeable. What they were moving towards he was not sure. He had come to accept he found Sherlock attractive (the cycling gear certainly helped), but did that mean he wanted a physical relationship with him? He didn’t know, having never been thus interested in another man before. If yes, and they ended up engaging in one, would it work? Would it be wise? Would it endanger their friendship, which John held dearer than anything? Would Sherlock be interested in getting closer on the physical side as well, given he had never shown any indication of interest in anybody, the confusing events with the Woman aside? At John’s tentative inquiries about his past experiences, Sherlock had readily replied there weren’t any, asking why he should have wasted his time with this ‘trivial nonsense’ at school, university or later when it could have been bestowed so much more effectively on the Work. Between the lines, John heard hints of another tale, one of someone rare and special who did not fit in with his peers and was mocked for his uniqueness, who at some point didn’t want to fit in anymore, and who ultimately paid the price, one of rejection, scorn and loneliness which over the years he had steeled himself against by shutting away his emotions and guarding them fiercely against further hurt.
Well, some of this guard had softened under John’s influence, he was sure, but whether Sherlock would ever be willing to open up further he did not know. And now the very chance to get away from London, the Work and his own commitments was in danger, a fact John mourned but did not bring up when he urged Sherlock to take the case, his heart leaping despite his disappointment when he saw the gratefulness in the grey eyes, and the manic, happy glint when Sherlock began devouring the files.
What John had not expected was how Sherlock seemed to have reorganised his priorities. Despite working on the case (a series of carefully staged art thefts from some of the city’s major galleries in conjunction with the murder of a security person), he insisted they keep training. Both had cycled a few times prior to the case, mostly in and around London because of work. Some early mornings when traffic had not reached its full brunt saw them racing up Haverstock Hill and past the Heath on to Golder’s Green, or up anything else that went for a hill in London.
During the last of these rides, Sherlock received a text from Lestrade that a second body had been found which seemed linked to the art theft case. Because time was an issue, he and John turned round and arrived at the crime scene in Shadwell by bicycle. Their appearance caused the Detective Inspector to almost choke on his coffee, Constable Wilkinson to stare for a full minute at John’s arse which earned her a death glare and a scathing comment from Sherlock (which in turn caused John to grin smugly when he thought the detective wasn’t looking, caused both by the young woman’s interest and Sherlock’s display of possessiveness), and Sergeant Donovan to inconspicuously sidle closer to where they had deposited their bikes to check them out appreciatively.
“I didn’t know they pay you this well at the hospital,” she said when John came over to her to take a sip from his waterbottle. “Or are these beauties his doing?” she added. She nodded to where Sherlock was in the process of replacing his cycling gloves with disposable to examine the body found floating face down in Shadwell Basin.
John shook his head. “His brother’s, actually. Astonished me as well. I don’t know what he had to do in return to get them, but hey, I’m not complaining.”
“Well, who would? May I?” she asked.
“Sure,” said John, watching with a grin as she reached out to lift his bike carefully. She whistled softly through her teeth.
“Mine must weigh as much as a car in comparison,” she stated.
“I didn’t know you rode.”
“Well, not regularly. Not as much as I should like, anyway. But with a job like this … I do enjoy it, though. Nothing better than a tour after a stressful day, especially when there’s a lot of paperwork.”
John smiled. “Tell me about it.”
Together they watched Sherlock crouch close to the victim that had been retrieved from the water by a team of divers and study his hands.
“I wouldn’t have pegged the Fre— him as the exercising type, though,” Sally commented.
John shrugged. “It surprised me, too. But he’s fitter than he looks. And he enjoys it. And so do I. Keeps the boredom at bay, in his case, and makes him far more manageable.”
Donovan gave him a sidelong glance, then shook her head slightly. “I told you once you should take up a hobby, remember? I didn’t intend for him to join in, though. But then I guess you are rather inseparable.” Her expression turned grave. “I never thought I’d say that, but for all his arrogance and freakiness, it’s good to have him back. Things didn’t feel right without him swanning around messing up our crime scenes and telling everybody what prime idiots they are.”
John gave her a brief nod, knowing what lay behind her words: another apology for her unknowing involvement in Sherlock’s discredit and fall. For a long time he had been furious with Lestrade and his team. It was easy to blame them for what had happened. It had served as a way to cope with the hurt and grief. But they had long redeemed themselves, working tirelessly to clear Sherlock’s name. Not purely for selfless reasons, but also in an attempt to save their own careers. Still, John had appreciated the effort, and eventually had forgiven them.
“Yes, it’s good to have him back,” he agreed softly, aware of Sally watching him keenly. He decided he didn’t care if she, like so many others, thought them to be a couple. Like many at NSY, she had seen him mourn the loss of his friend, and had most likely interpreted the depth of his grief as mourning something else than the loss of friendship. “We’re not a couple,” John had told the Woman once, but she had corrected him. And he had to concede her a point. They were, weren’t they? A couple that defied normal definitions.
“Hey, if ever you want to get rid of these beauties,” Donovan’s voice brought him back to the present, “think of me.”
He smiled at her. “Will do.”
Sherlock refused to cancel their journey or change the booking, hoping to solve the case in time to catch their train. To John this proved once more how important the trip seemed to be to him. Both as a friend and his doctor, he watched him with a mixture of worry and fascination as he worked like someone possessed. Without rest and with the barest amount of food and hydration, he constantly commuted between the Yard and the laboratory at Bart’s or paced the flat muttering to himself or studying photographs of the victims and the vanished artworks. He harassed the police for additional files of cases that might be related and even demanded access to classified information. At Bart’s he almost got himself thrown out (again) after coercing the laboratory staff into analysing skin-, blood-, hair- and paint-samples long after their normal working hours by threatening to divulge information about an affair two were having with each other and the gambling depths of a third to their respective partners.
Molly put in a word for him in the end. She even volunteered to stay after her shift to help him in the lab, relaxing the tense situation with her colleagues immediately and earning her a brief hug from an exhausted and completely lost in his mind Sherlock, and a promise of eternal gratitude and dinner at a venue of her choice from John.
Finally, at around four in the morning of the day of their planned departure Sherlock was able to confirm his suspicions concerning the thief and accidental murderer, rousing Lestrade from sleep with an impatient phonecall to instruct him whom to arrest. Less than three hours later after some speedy packing, John and Sherlock arrived at St. Pancras International to board the 7:49 Eurostar to Paris. John felt extremely touched that Sherlock had put in so much extra effort to make the journey possible. The price, however, was high.
Sherlock was utterly spent. They hadn’t even reached Ebbsfleet and entered the Channel Tunnel when he passed out. The phone he had been typing on suddenly slipped from his hands, his head lolled to the side and he was gone. John watched him with some concern as he sat sleeping deeply, slumped in his seat. He took in the paleness of his face, the blueish shadows under his eyes and the dark hollows cast by his cheekbones. But then his eyes fell on the pert nose with its distinct tanline caused by the sunglasses he wore for cycling and he smiled. As usual, Sherlock would recover, and as usual, he’d be looking after him to ensure it.
“You bloody idiot,” he murmured fondly, taking off his jumper to spread over his friend as a protection against the train’s rather fervent air conditioning.
They reached Paris all too soon. John felt sorry to rouse Sherlock who had been sleeping so peacefully. Even then he seemed barely conscious, following in John’s wake like a sleep-walker as they exited the Gare du Nord in search of a taxi that would bring them to the Gare de Lyon on the other side of the city where their train south would depart. The alternative would have been to take the Metro, but suspecting that it would be equally busy as London’s Tube, John did not fancy lugging their bikes, bags, his rucksack and his semi-conscious consulting detective through the French capital’s underground. Sherlock remained awake long enough to hand over his bank card at a cash point to withdraw some Euros and to correct John’s pronunciation as he instructed the cabby before falling into coma-like slumber again.
Boarding the train to Chambéry required him to be awake again for a short while before surrendering to sleep again and remaining out throughout their journey across France. John was actually glad about it, not only because this way his friend caught up on some much needed rest. It also meant he didn’t have to entertain a bored Sherlock over the course of several hours or try and negotiate peace treaties with offended fellow passengers who had fallen victim to the detective’s deductions. Like this, John was able to read in peace, to gaze at the French landscape pass by, and to watch Sherlock, to whom, if he was honest with himself, his eyes were most often drawn.
The detective finally roused when John shook him gently as they were approaching Chambéry. They were nearing the mountains, the forested slopes of which were rising to all sides of the city. At Chambéry they had half an hour’s wait for the regional train to their final destination. Sherlock spent the time flicking through the local newspapers. John bought some provisions in the meantime. He, too, was tired, despite having managed to grab some hours of sleep during the case and napping for brief intervals on the TGV. Some potent French coffee he hoped would do the trick and keep him awake for the remainder of the journey.
“Here, I put in three sugars because the stuff is strong enough to keep the stirrer standing upright,” he told Sherlock as he handed him a paper cup of the black brew. “Oh, did you find a map? Good. I had hoped we’d get one here as I’d forgotten to order one on the internet.”
“The ascents are pretty straightforward. In most cases there is only one road leading up to the pass,” said Sherlock, reaching for the cup and taking a careful sip. “We would have managed without the map. Still, it’s interesting to see how high the mountains are around here, and how steep the roads. What’s this?”
“Croissant. A real French one, too, not the stuff you get at home. Eat.”
“Coffee’s fine, thank you.”
“Not, it’s not. You’ve been starving yourself again on that bloody case, and I’ve been listening to your stomach rumble ever since we left Paris. Down with it, and the banana, too.”
“Doctor’s orders, I see,” muttered Sherlock. He attempted a glare, but John could tell he had already won. “I did eat on the Eurostar, by the way.”
“You stole a bite from my sandwich and fell asleep.”
“So, that was eating.”
“Croissant, now!” commanded John. Sherlock glared some more, huffed and devoured the pastry with a few bites.
“Right. You ate on the Eurostar,” muttered John and smirked.
The last leg of their journey up the valley of the river Arc passed quickly. The mountains rose ever higher to both sides of the track, their slopes becoming steeper and rockier. Small villages nestled here and there like bird’s roosts, with impossibly narrow roads zigzagging towards them. Now and again other valleys and ravines cut by tributaries of the Arc opened vistas to other, even higher mountains, their faces partially covered with snow.
Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne turned out to be a small, sleepy town with houses strung along one major thoroughfare that constituted the alternative route through the valley to the péage-heavy motorway. For this reason, it was rather busy with cars. Other than that, the centre of town seemed almost deserted. There were some shops and bistros, and a fairly large Carrefour supermarket in a small square, but many of the houses along the main street stood silent and forbidding with their windows hid behind wooden shutters. Apparently during summer many inhabitants had moved up into the mountains to escape the heat. A church and the ruined remains of a castle rose from the old part of Saint Michel which climbed the hill behind the town square on its north-eastern side. South-westward across the river, the railway and the motorway there loomed the forested slopes of the Télégraphe, their first mountain-pass to tackle on the way to the Col du Galibier.
Their hotel was situated near the end of the town, and since getting there would have meant a bit of a walk neither of them fancied with their luggage, they took a taxi. Their driver, seeing their bike-bags, grinned, nodding towards the southern mountains. “Galibier?”
“Oui,” replied Sherlock.
“Ah, c’est magnifique,” sighed the cabby, launching into a passionate narrative about les cyclistes grimpeurs, the famous climbers of the Tour the France, and how he’d been present when Richard Virenque wore the polka-dot jersey at Alpe d’Huez ten years ago, and that after the Galibier they had to attempt the twenty-one hairpin bends of this famous climb. John only understood half of his talk, his French functional at best, but Sherlock struck up a lively conversation during their short ride in his fluent, almost flawless French.
The hotel turned out to be modern and somewhat spartan in style with a bright orange façade covered in horizontal wooden panelling on its south-facing side. To the other side the three-storied building was flanked by a rocky wall that rose up to the top where the reception and dining facilities were situated, accessible by a bridge from the carpark situated on the same level.
The interior reminded John of the youth hostels he had stayed at while on class trips as a student. It made the impression of a venue geared towards sportive people who rather sought plain, functional accommodation than pampering comfort. There were signed photographs of the Leopard-Trek professional cycling team’s training camp on the wall behind the reception desk, while opposite stood a large glass case containing sunglasses, cycling repair kits, Galibier-jerseys and socks and other merchandise. The staff, much to John’s delight, spoke English.
Sherlock had booked a double room. John hadn’t even asked. It didn’t matter, neither what people thought, nor that he would not only be sharing a room with his flatmate, but a bed, too. They had done both before, although at the bed-sharing instance only John had actually slept in it. Sherlock had spent the night sitting with his back against the headboard typing away on either his laptop or his mobile, or pacing the room to gaze out of the window impatiently. John hoped he wouldn’t repeat this tonight as he was beginning to feel the exhaustion, both from the journey and the strenuous case before, and was looking forward to a good night’s sleep.
“So, since you’re so adamant I need to have a proper dinner, where do you propose we go?” asked Sherlock after they had returned the key of the bike garage at the reception after locking away their machines. “The town doesn’t offer much choice.”
“Wasn’t there a pizza place near the station?” mused John. “That close to the Italian border, it should be decent, at least.”
“Lead the way, captain,” said Sherlock, and they set out down the main street in the warm evening air, the setting sun stinging in their eyes.
The pizzeria turned out to be closed because of some family event. Due to lack of alternatives, they ended up buying a salami and some of the local Beaufort cheese together with a bottle of red wine, water and some peaches at Carrefour, and getting a small quiche with spinach and salmon and a baguette at the boulangerie opposite the supermarket. Laden with food, they returned to the hotel where they settled at one of the tables in the lounge.
The place was quite busy. A group of five middle-aged Italians was sitting in low armchairs in front of the television watching the weather forecast over a map spread on the floor between them. Immediately upon laying eyes on them Sherlock began rattling off deductions in a low voice – John assumed he needed to vent some pent up deductive energy after the long journey. As usual, he listened in rapt fascination when his friend concluded that #1, lawyer, twice divorced, one child; #2, also lawyer, demanding girlfriend, has affair with lawyer number one’s ex-wife number two; #3, teacher, French and English, single, recently moved north from Sicily, still maintains close ties to the ‘family’; #4, art-director at outdoor magazine, married, two children, fancies the teacher; #5, photographer, recently been in car accident, took up cycling for recovery, girlfriend, passionate fan of AC Milan.
John smiled when Sherlock stopped for breath and a gulp of water from his glass, before explaining what had given them away. “Amazing, as always,” John told him. “But one thing you missed.”
Sherlock frowned at him. “What?”
John couldn’t help grinning at his shocked expression. “They’re all cyclists. Semi-professional, I’d say.”
Sherlock snorted. “Of course they are. But that’s plain to see. I didn’t consider it worth mentioning.”
John was left shaking his head. It was true, even he had recognised the tell-tale signs right away: all five were skinny, fit-looking blokes of Sherlock’s stature and lanky build, with visible tanlines on hands and arms, and in the case of two who were wearing shorts, their legs as well.
“We look a little like that, too,” observed Sherlock, giving John’s bare arms a glance. Despite the typical English summer, there was a line at his wrists where the cycling gloves began, with a accompanying line further up where the jersey’s sleeve ended, now hidden by the sleeve of John’s shirt.
“I know,” said John. “Even you caught a bit of colour, although tomorrow, should the weather really turn out to be as warm and cloudless as they just showed on the forecast we need to be careful. Can’t recall when we last had over 30 degrees at home – not that I absolutely need for it to be so hot. Still, this weather here, really feels like summer for a change. We’ll better start early tomorrow, before the asphalt heats up. They serve breakfast from seven, and we shouldn’t be up much later. And you’ll be wearing an extra thick layer of sunscreen.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “I’m not a vampire. I won’t disintegrate in the sun.”
“Really? Could almost have fooled me there.”
“As you wish, doctor. SPF 50 tomorrow, and you can apply it to me yourself to make sure I’m sufficiently protected.”
Their eyes met, and John felt a jolt in his stomach. Sherlock had spoken lightly, in jest. Perhaps, John reasoned, he wasn’t even aware of what his words implied, namely things that seemed to lived in the strange, unchartered lands of what Sherlock claimed were ‘not his area’. Then again there were few things Sherlock did or said without purpose. So what was this supposed to mean, then? With any other person, John would have thought they were flirting with him. But Sherlock and flirting in the same sentence didn’t sound right. He could be charming, John knew that. More than once he had witnessed the detective beguile a witness to retrieve information. But this was different. This was … genuine. Was it? Or was this his own wishful thinking projecting things?
“You want to eat the rest of the quiche?”
“The quiche, John. Do you want to eat the last slice?” Sherlock repeated with a trace of exasperation, but also, John thought, with the tiniest of smiles sparkling in his eyes. So this had been on purpose indeed? The bastard.
“No. No, you can have it.”
John watched him as he ate, apparently unperturbed by what he had wrought. Oh, this game can be played by two, my friend, he thought. If Sherlock wanted to tease, he was welcome. But he’d better be prepared for the repercussions.