Chapter 1: Chapter 1
“I can’t even see the road,” said John, shielding his eyes against the sun as he gazed up the tree-clad slope of the mountain looming up on the other side of the valley. A fort-like stone structure beset with antennae jutted out as its rocky peak. And slope, he remedied internally, was not the right term, either. It looked almost vertical, although there were signs of human settlement visible, roofs of houses peeking out of the dense forest here and there on the lower reaches of the mountain.
“The road is mostly hidden from sight by the trees, but it winds up this forested valley," a deep voice rumbled. "If you look closely, you can see a stretch up there, where the caravan is driving.” Sherlock had stepped next to him and was pointing at a narrow strip of what might have been metal railing with a white spot moving behind it.
John shook his head in a mixture of awe and trepidation. “I can’t believe I agreed to join you in this madness. So tomorrow, we go up there? And because cycling up this one mountain which looks pretty steep and intimidating won’t be enough, we’ll be continuing on to yet another, even higher pass?” He whistled softly through his teeth. “Jesus, Sherlock, two thousand metres difference in altitude. That’s over six thousand feet.”
“Ultimately, it was your idea,” his friend answered. “Or rather, your father’s.”
John drew a breath, nodding. “True, he would have loved to be here now.” He gave the mountain another long glance, before finally turning to Sherlock. “Right, lets put the bikes in the hotel’s garage and try and find some place for dinner.”
When Sherlock opened his mouth for his habitual ‘not hungry’, John raised a finger. “I don’t care if you’re hungry or not or that you already had that croissant on the train, Sherlock. You’re eating tonight, and you’re eating tomorrow morning as well. Remember that one ride in the Cotswolds when you didn’t beforehand? Good. Because I’m not having that again, not when we’re halfway up some bloody major pass in the French Alps.”
Sherlock only rolled his eyes and went to unlock the garage. John grinned to himself. During this one memorable ‘training session’, the only Consulting Detective in the world had neglected to prepare himself properly for the hilly and wind-infested landscape with its frequent short yet steep climbs. He had ended up winded and shaking at the roadside during their ascent to Stow on the Wold, and had needed a bottle of coke and a banana to be able to move again. John liked to bring this episode up as a reminder whenever Sherlock tended to ignore his body’s mundane needs.
The garage was already packed with bicycles, mostly road bikes of the more expensive kind, sleek and stiff and light, with no extras to add weight or wind resistance. They were in fact much like the two Simplon racing bikes Sherlock had somehow persuaded Mycroft to acquire some months ago. John suspected Sherlock had taken on a rather delicate case for his brother in return, because their bikes’ combined worth amounted to that of a small car. Or else Mycroft had still felt a residue of guilt over his involvement in the events leading to his brother’s ‘death’. Back then, Sherlock’s ‘resurrection’ and sudden return only about a month ago, John had begun to realise and appreciate that things had more or less reverted to the normal madness that was life with Sherlock Holmes, a madness he wouldn’t want to miss again for anything in the world. Nine months had been enough.
The cycling had actually helped to overcome the initial shock, anger and bitterness over the betrayal following in the wake of Sherlock’s return. After a period of fights, apologies and tentative re-acquaintance, not only involving John and Sherlock but Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, Mycroft, Molly and even Donovan and Anderson as well, and the boys’ re-habituation of 221B, one of the first major cases the detective had taken on had involved the mysterious deaths of three young, healthy men. All three, according to the coroner’s report, had died of heart failure in their sleep. Sherlock had been intrigued. Once he had found out that all three had been active members of local cycling clubs and competing in amateur races, he had set out to investigate undercover.
This had not only been a reason to acquire the Simplons, but also created a source of much hilarity and as much exasperation for John. It had involved him stumbling upon Sherlock in the process of shaving his legs, the detective’s quest to find a helmet large enough to fit his massive brain and mop of curly hair (and his even more massive ego, John had added in thought), and Sherlock lounging in the flat in tight-fitting cycling gear for days on end.
It was this last aspect of Sherlock’s rekindled love for cycling which John found the most memorable. According to what his friend had told him, Sherlock had cycled while at university, making frequent use of Mycroft’s old road bike.
“It’s the only sensible way of getting around town in Cambridge,” he had claimed, reclining on the sofa in his new cycling outfit. “And my brother never used the bike, not once. Not surprising, of course. It’s ‘leg work’, after all, which he hates and tries to avoid at all costs, the lazy sod.”
John remembered the conversation, but more vividly he recalled the image of his flatmate stretched out on the couch wearing black cycling shorts and a tight blue and black jersey, his long (shaved) legs dangling over the arm of the sofa. The view had done funny things to his stomach, things he didn’t want to contemplate too deeply.
Interestingly, the first time Sherlock had persuaded him to join him for a ride and he had descended from his room in his cycling gear, Sherlock had stared at him raptly for about a minute. John had begun to squirm self-consciously under his unrelenting gaze, fearing he had put on the shorts the wrong way or that he looked utterly ridiculous in the outfit. Suddenly Sherlock had stirred, blushed, and pretended to fiddle with the straps of his helmet. And when John asked him about where they were going to go, he cleared his throat twice before being able to answer.
His friend’s strange behaviour and its possible implications – because John might not have his skill at deduction, but he could read emotions as well or even better, and moreover could put facts together – were yet another thing John tried not to think about too deeply. The two of them were still caught on the bumpy, pot-hole riddled path of rebuilding their friendship after Sherlock’s faked death and sudden, miraculous return had bombed a huge crater right into its middle, and for the time being, this meant work enough. John certainly didn’t want another set of complications on top of that only because he had come to notice that his friend – or whatever Sherlock was to him – looked good (no, strike that: bloody hot) in tight lycra. Still, the realisation that apparently said friend, Mr. ‘I consider myself married to my work’, thought the same about him had felt good indeed.
All in all the case had been solved fairly easily. Apparently doping had occurred in the cycling clubs, due to EPO and other substances being readily available over the internet if one know where to look. While most members seemed clean and were distancing themselves clearly from these practices when confronted with the evidence, John knew that substance abuse was a widespread problem in amateur sports where there were few controlling instances. The three deaths had indeed been due to cardiac arrest caused by an unnaturally high concentration of erythrocytes in the victims’ blood.
“Their blood simply stopped flowing properly while they were asleep, clogging up the coronary vessels and other vital capillaries,” Sherlock explained to Lestrade as he handed the further investigation of the doping network over to the authorities, his work done. “They used their own blood for doping to increase the transport of oxygen, which is why the drug screening didn’t show any results.”
“And all of that for a cheap trophy after a race,” added John, shaking his head. “Still, the coroner should have looked more closely at the haematocrit.”
Sherlock gave him an appreciative, proud glance, one of those John treasured as they indicated that his feeling of respect and friendship was mutual. “Indeed. It was the missing piece I had overlooked. Well, that’s why I keep my doctor around,” he stated, clapping John’s shoulder. “And for making proper tea, of course.”
“And shopping, cleaning, fetching, brushing your ego – not that it needs that … shall I keep going?”
The case was solved, but Sherlock retained the bicycles and the gear, and moreover his intention to use them. John was pleased to note that a distraction had been found for the dangerously black moods, the bouts of utter boredom that before had frequently occurred between cases. Usually, they had involved spells of excessive sulking, nasty experiments and fights about almost everything to do with the maintenance of the flat’s habitability. Worse, they had nurtured John’s constant worry that relief would be sought through illegal substances.
Now, “John, come cycling,” Sherlock would ask instead. John never refused, even when the weather was bad or he had just returned from a long shift at the clinic. Sherlock claimed cycling helped calm and clear his mind, and while that seemed true, John also knew he simply enjoyed cruising his beloved London, the city he had missed and yearned for so passionately during his exile.
As for John, he also enjoyed the exercise. It didn’t stress his dodgy leg as much as running. From time to time he would even cycle to work when he didn’t fancy taking the Tube or be stuck in traffic in a cab. Mostly, however, he enjoyed Sherlock’s company during their outings, the stories he knew about whatever part of London they passed through, or his comments about fellow cyclists or drivers. The fact that whenever John rode behind the detective he was granted a splendid view of his trim backside in those shorts had nothing to do with his new love for cycling. Nothing at all.
And now they had arrived at a hotel in a small town in the French Alps and were about to cycle up one of the highest alpine mountain passes – not exactly a logical consequence from their occasional ride in the city and surrounding countryside. This particular development had been set in motion by a conversation during a grey, drizzly afternoon about a month ago in mid July. John had returned from work early and, since Sherlock seemed engrossed in an experiment in the kitchen and didn’t even stir when spoken to, had left his flatmate to his own devices and settled in front of the telly to watch a stage of the Tour de France.
Ever since Bradley Wiggins’ win of the Tour the previous year interest in cycling had increased in the population (as evidenced, according to Sherlock, by the ever rising number of idiots on the roads). It also meant that this year’s race was granted extensive TV coverage, especially since this particular Tour marked the 100th repetition of the world’s most famous cycling race.
“They’re all doped anyway,” Sherlock commented gruffly as he flopped into his armchair opposite John, nodding towards the television where a small group of riders was struggling up a steep, winding, brightly painted road through throngs of cheering bystanders. There was a cut to a lone rider in a red and white polka-dot jersey passing underneath a banner that signified the summit of the pass.
“Yeah, thanks for your input,” John returned curtly, not eager to have his enjoyment of the spectacle besmirched by his flatmate’s foul mood.
“Come on, John, we just found out how easy it is even for amateurs to get the necessary medical assistance. You don’t seriously believe they’re riding clean, when there is so much money at stake. Some small stagiaire, maybe, but not those aiming for a decent placement in the classement général. The dopers are always several steps ahead of those developing the tests.”
“I know that. Doctor, remember? A guy I went to uni with specialised in sports medicine. Even back then he’d say there were ingenious methods for enhancing one’s performance that were virtually undetectable. And things have moved a long way from there. Still, even you must admit that this is exciting to watch. Imagine going uphill for ten, twenty miles before descending over that distance. And look at the breathtaking landscape, and the atmosphere with all those cycling-crazy folks lining the road. Look, there’s the devil. That fellow’s beyond crazy, showing up at every stage.”
He shifted in his seat to better look at Sherlock. “You know, my dad loved watching the Tour. It actually was his dream to ride the Col du Galibier one day. He had wanted to do so as a young man but never had the chance due to money being tight and then us kids arriving and all that. But each year he got all dreamy-eyed when the Tour was on, especially in those last years when he was already ill.”
He sighed and looked back at the television, recalling afternoons spent during his childhood following the Tour on their old telly, his father brimming with excitement whenever the riders crossed the high passes in the Alps and the Pyrenees. In particular, he recalled that one memorable Sunday in 1989 when the race was decided by mere seconds during a time trial on the last stage, and which also marked the last time he had watched it together with his dad.
In the present Tour, the pursuivants had by now also reached the summit and were busy pulling on windbreaker jackets for the descent, but John hardly saw it, lost in his memories. The drumming of Sherlock’s fingers on the armrest of his chair brought him back to the present. When John looked at him, he noticed that his flatmate was watching him with a curiously tender expression which was immediately replaced by a faked bored look.
“What?” demanded John.
Sherlock steepled his fingers under his chin in his customary thinking position and didn’t reply. John shook his head and continued watching the race.
“I need your laptop,” Sherlock announced some minutes later.
John snorted. “Your laptop is right there, on the coffee table.”
“I know. The battery is low.”
“So? Charge it, then.”
“Charger’s in my bedroom.”
“And you can’t be arsed to get up, I see. What do you need it for, anyway?”
“You’ll see. Please, John.”
John grinned, eyes still fixed on the telly. The peloton had finally reached the pass. “Didn’t you claim once that you never begged? You know, I often wonder how you managed on your own with no one around to fetch and carry, or to make you eat and sleep from time to time.”
He had spoken lightly, and therefore was not prepared for Sherlock’s grave and low: “Not well.”
Looking up to meet the detective’s eyes, he was stricken by his serious expression. John held his gaze, knowing that much more was being communicated here between the lines. He, too, had not managed well without the lazy madman in the chair opposite him, and despite Sherlock’s faults and exasperating habits, he was glad to have him back.
“Just don’t change the bloody password again,” he muttered as he stooped to retrieve the computer from the floor next to his chair and handed it to his friend.
An excited exclamation from the commentators caused his attention to revert back to the TV. One of the riders chasing the lone escapee in the polka-dotted King of the Mountains jersey had missed a turn during the descent, taking an involuntary shortcut down a short rocky slope onto the stretch of road below, to there narrowly escaping being overrun by one of the accompanying motorcycles. Luckily, he had not sustained any major injuries apart from scratches. His bike, however, was severely damaged, and his team’s car with the spares some distance behind.
“Should have ridden a mountain bike,” commented Sherlock dryly over the sound of his typing and the swishing of the pad as he scrolled, without ever looking up from the screen.
John shook his head. “He was damn lucky. Going downhill that fast, he could have broken his neck on those rocks. Hell, they’re a lot faster than even the cars. Imagine going down one of those roads with 40, 50 miles an hour on just two narrow wheels. Crazy.”
“Indeed. Dangerous, too. You’ll love it.”
“Gosh, look at that rear wheel. It’s completely bent out of shape,” said John, watching with a mixture of fascination and horror as the rider’s bike was exchanged and he sped off again. The cameras showed a close up of the trashed remains of the broken machine. Then John recalled Sherlock’s exact words.
“What do you mean, ‘I’ll love it’?”
“You were using the wrong tense. You, Mr. Grammar-fanatic, were using future where it should have been conditional.”
“I wasn’t. Grammar was correct. Second week of August, four days and three nights in Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne in the French Alps.”
He gave the enter-key a sharp tap as if to underline his words, before looking at John with that particular expression he always wore when he thought he had been even more brilliant than usual. To John, this also meant crazier and ultimately more dangerous than usual. He loved it.
“What did you say?”
“I just booked our holiday. According to their website, the hotel is situated right at the foot of the Col du Télégraphe and is thus the ideal starting point for an ascent of the Galibier. We’ll be taking the Eurostar to Paris and then travel on via Lyon and Chambery. Transporting the bikes on the trains isn’t a problem as long as we disassemble them and put them into bike-bags. They are so lightweight we can carry them easily with the rest of our —“
“Whoa, Sherlock, wait,” John interrupted him, raising his hands. “You mean to tell me you just booked a trip to France out of the blue to cycle up one of the highest passes of the Alps? Just like that?”
“Yes. I thought I just said that. Do try to keep up, John.”
John shook his head in disbelief. He still hadn’t managed to once more get used to the feeling of being constantly overwhelmed by his consulting detective’s sudden whims.
“I can’t just go to France in August. I have a job, remember? And even if I got leave, we couldn’t just attempt the Galibier without any training. Proper training, I mean, not just the occasional ride. Hell, Sherlock, the thing is over two thousand metres high. We live at what altitude? Fifty? How many times do you have to cycle up to Golder’s Green to feel even halfway prepared? And what about your work? What if a case comes up around that time?”
That last question seemed to cause Sherlock to reconsider his plans briefly. His expression turned thoughtful, but then he shrugged. “I’m sure Lestrade and his retinue can manage without me for once. They, too, need a holiday from time to time, don’t they?” he replied nonchalantly.
John narrowed his eyes. “You mean to tell me you’d rather go and tackle the mountain with me than work on what might turn out to be a brilliant case?”
“Don’t get too excited about my apparent bout of selflessness, John. You know I enjoy cycling. There are few things that calm my mind as effectively as riding up a hill. Perhaps it’s the extra oxygen delivered to the brain. Anyway, you made me swear I won’t revert to using any of the alternatives under threat of you moving out for good. Therefore, cycling is what I have left. And shooting the walls, but Mrs. Hudson doesn’t like that and makes us pay for the damage. Those hillocks around here serve for a brief respite, but imagine what a twenty mile ascent could do. Pure bliss. Moreover, for some time now you’ve been nagging me to take some time out. And you, doctor, need a break as well with all those extra shifts you’ve been doing lately, in addition to helping me with my cases.”
His lips narrowed, a subtle sign of discomfort or doubt. “Or do you really not want to come? Why? Because of me making decisions for you again?”
As John watched him, he was stricken by the open vulnerability displayed on his friend’s features. Even he, around whom Sherlock tended to be less guarded with his emotions, was only allowed brief glances of the detective’s feelings. More often now than before his ‘death’, but still only on special occasion Sherlock let John in. The most memorable occurrence had been Sherlock’s account of his doings during his exile. He had tried to keep his narration matter-of-factly, but John had seen all too clearly the desperation, grief, fear and loneliness that had haunted Sherlock throughout their separation. John had been able to relate only too well. Being allowed to witness some of Sherlock’s pain had nourished his ability to forgive him, and indeed be thankful for what he had risked and suffered to protect him and their friends. Now, there was a hint of that fear of rejection discernable in Sherlock’s otherwise so guarded features.
To reassure him, John shook his head and laughed. “Of course I want to come, you idiot. Not just to make dad’s big dream come true, but also to see if I can do it at my age.”
He gave Sherlock a sly smile. “You know, it wouldn’t hurt if from time to time you admitted that you simply enjoy my company.”
Sherlock snorted contemptuously, he eyes however betraying his true feelings as they were glinting with mirth. “I just need you with me as a windbreak, and to carry an extra waterbottle.”
“Hah, you can lug your own water up there,” returned John. “And as for windbreak, well, I can do that. If you think you can keep up to actually make use of it.”
In truth, he knew Sherlock could very well keep up with him. As in so many other aspects of their shared lives, they made a good team. Sherlock was faster and more enduring on the flats, and indeed more often than not served as a windbreak for John with his taller stature. With his long legs and slender but strong frame he would have made an excellent time triallist, being able to uphold a high speed over long distances with an exact, almost mechanical rhythm. John loved riding behind him on the flats, getting pulled along by his speed and enjoying the view.
Things were different in hilly terrain. Particularly when there was a change of up- and downhill passages which required short sprints and a constant change of gears and cadence, John with his greater bodily strength and flexibility was at an advantage. Here it was him who pulled Sherlock along, and there were frequent instances when he would reach a summit before his friend and wait there until Sherlock struggled up panting, his cheeks flushed and sweat dripping from his chin.
“We’ll see, Dr Watson, we’ll see,” he now said. “I’ll have our bikes checked and prepared for the mountains next week. Would you like a third chain ring for the chainset?” he asked with a mischievous grin.
“Actually, yes, I would,” replied John, not rising to the bait. “Don’t know whether I’ll need it, but some of those rides in the Cotswolds were a pain in the arse without it, literally. I’ll rather be safe than sorry. I bet you’ll refuse it for the sake of aesthetics or whatever. Well, suit yourself. And when you end up having to cycle everything over a gradient of 10 or so percent standing, I’ll be riding next to you sitting comfortably and cheering you on”
“If you have breath left for cheering,” muttered Sherlock. He glowered at John, and simultaneously, they started to laugh.
Meanwhile on the television, the lone polka-dotted rider was sprinting towards a red triangle suspended over the road which indicated the last kilometre of the stage. His pursuers had shortened their distance to him and were giving desperate chase.
“They won’t catch him,” commented Sherlock, sobering up a little.
“Unlikely,” agreed John. “Well, the French will be delighted that one of theirs wins yet another stage. And if we manage to conquer the pass, I’ll buy you one of those dotted jerseys.”
Sherlock chuckled. “And I’ll get you one with a red number on the back.”
“Really? Most competitive rider? Cool.”
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.
The Italians soon departed, perhaps to also venture into town to find some food. After a brief spell of eating in companionable silence the two friends saw the lounge fill again with other guests. There were two young men, also clearly recognisable as cyclists. They conversed in French but according to Sherlock hailed from Switzerland. Three elderly Dutch women came with a laptop and a bottle of wine and sat studying and discussing hiking routes on the small screen. Finally a German couple arrived with a girl of about seven or eight years who after rummaging in a large bag the father had carried began to spread all kinds of toys on the floor. Her parents settled in chairs and began to read.
To John’s satisfaction and relief, Sherlock dug in at dinner, eating more than John himself. So much for his claims of not being hungry, John thought. After the meal, Sherlock went to fetch his laptop from their room. Logging onto the hotel’s wifi, he began perusing several websites with accounts of their planned ride. John had read some of the descriptions already and had felt quite prepared for the venture. Today’s first view of the ‘real thing’, however, had humbled him. Had they trained enough? Had the last case put too large a strain on their fitness, especially Sherlock’s? Would the weather hold? Would they be able to find enough water without having to carry all they needed?
“Stop worrying,” Sherlock’s voice interrupted his thoughts, again giving John the expression he had actually read them. “We’ll be fine. We can buy water at Valloire when we’re over the Télégraphe. There are a couple of places that offer nourishment to cyclists and hikers along the route. They serve breakfast from seven here. We shouldn’t set out much later to avoid both the heat and the traffic. The roads are going to be busy tomorrow. The Swiss are going up the Galibier tomorrow, too, and there are bound to be plenty more.”
“I’m all for an early start,” agreed John. Even though he did not particularly mind temperatures over thirty degrees, having experienced far more extreme weather phenomena in Afghanistan with its blazing hot days and freezing nights, he didn’t fancy cycling under these conditions. He tended to sweat a lot and needed to drink much accordingly. And Sherlock did not function well in strong heat, claiming it impaired the proper functioning of his brain. This statement had caused John to call him a troll and suggest an air-cooled hat in a reference to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, which, surprisingly, was not met with a blank stare or eye-roll, Sherlock’s usual reaction to references to popular culture, but with a faint, knowing smirk.
“Although it won’t be that hot higher up in the mountains,” he added. “I reckon we’ll be needing our jackets for the descent. I just hope there won’t be any sudden snow.”
“Unlikely,” said Sherlock.
“Everything is possible at these altitudes. Some years ago, they had to shorten a stage of the Tour because there was snow on the pass, in mid-July.”
Sherlock chuckled. “Well, we can have a snowball fight, then.”
Both John’s eyebrows flew up at this offhand comment. “Tell me, how much wine did to have?”
“Half a glass, like you. Why?”
“Okay, then it’s bed for you, right now. Before you turn even more silly.”
“If you insist. You seem to be in rather a hurry to get me in there.” He gave John a wink and shut his laptop. “And it’s ‘sillier’.”
John was tempted to throw a peach stone at the lanky git as he rose from the table, before remembering that this would increase silliness to an entire new level. Glaring at Sherlock’s back, he gathered up the remains of their meal in a bag and grabbed the wine and waterbottle. Typical of Sherlock to leave these menial tasks to him, he thought.
Laden as he was with their foodstuffs, on his way out he stumbled over the German girl’s toys which had begun to take over a large part of the lounge’s floor. She herself was busy doing a Star Wars puzzle while her parents were still engrossed in their books.
John’s feet upset some of the puzzle pieces she had set aside for later use. Irritated, she looked up and studied him. John gave her an apologetic smile, which she returned.
“Kennst du die?” she then asked, pointing at the half-finished image.
John’s German being even more rusty than his French, he considered replying in English, but recalling the long conversation he’d once had with his then-girlfriend Jeanette (the ‘boring teacher’, as Sherlock had called her) about teaching foreign languages in primary school, he rather supposed that the girl’s command of English would not exceed counting to ten, naming her favourite colour and singing “Old MacDonald had a farm”.
“Ja. Han Solo und Chewbacca,” he replied.
The girl’s smile broadened. “Die sind cool.”
John nodded. At least this kid was being brought up with proper Star Wars stuff, not the prequel- or “Clone Wars”-nonsense he’d overheard youngsters on the Tube discuss.
“Kennst du auch den Luke und die Leia? Und den Yoda? Der ist grün. Und wenn der traurig ist, gehen dem seine Ohren runter. So.” She reached up to pull down the tips of her ears, looking very solemn and grave.
Unfortunately, John’s command of German had reached its limits. He had a general idea what she was talking about, but had no idea what to reply. So he nodded again, shifting the bottles in his arms and taking a tentative step towards the door.
The girl, apparently eager to have found an audience, carried on regardlessly. “Weißt du, wie der Yoda dem Luke sein Raumschiff aus dem Sumpf gezogen hat?” She sprang up, stood firmly on both feet and stretched out her arms, mimicking a concentrated Jedi-pose. “So nämlich. Mit der Macht. Und der Luke, der konnte das da noch nicht. Und der Yoda, der hat dem Luke seinen Müsliriegel gegessen, der hat ihm aber nicht geschmeckt. Magst du Müsliriegel? Ich mag die mit Erdnüssen und Schokolade. Die schmecken wie Snickers.”
Help, John thought, seriously considering to just make a dash for the door.
“John mag die mit weißer Schokolade und Mandeln,” said a rumbling baritone next to him.
John wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or worried. Sherlock spoke German fluently albeit with a slight accent, so he would be able to communicate with the girl. Then again, the combination of Sherlock and children was … interesting, for lack of a better term.
“Ja, die sind auch gut,” said the girl, smiling up at Sherlock. “Welche magst du? Und wie heißt du? Und wie findest du den Yoda?”
Well now, he was really curious about Sherlock’s answer to the last question. So far, John’s attempts at introducing his flatmate to the joys of Star Wars had been fruitless and had furthermore been met with scorn and contempt.
“Ich mag die mit Haselnuss,” the detective now described his favourite kind of cereal bar. Good to know, thought John. “Mein Name ist Sherlock Holmes. Yoda kenne ich nicht.”
The girl looked utterly horrified. Round and round the garden … That’s the solar system all over again, thought John, fighting hard to hide his grin. I really should give him a lecture on it some day and include ‘A galaxy far, far away’.
Apparently, the girl had the same idea. “Also, das ist so,” she began, and judging from what John could understand, Sherlock was treated to an exclusive summary of “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” in rapid German. To John’s great surprise, Sherlock neither interrupted her nor did he simply walk away. He stood and listened, his expression blank. Nevertheless, John thought he detected a hint of amusement.
“Paula, du kannst die beiden Männer doch nicht einfach so vollquatschen,” the girl’s mother finally intervened. “Please excuse her,” she then added.
“No problem,” John assured her, smiling. “His introduction to Star Wars was long overdue.”
Sherlock huffed. Paula looked from him to John and back. “Ist der John dein Freund?” she then asked him. Sherlock gave John a long glance, his eyes narrowing slightly like when he was poring over a most intriguing puzzle. “Ich denke schon,” he said slowly.
Paula smiled. “Cool. Mamis Kollege Henrik hat auch einen.”
“Paula, es reicht jetzt,” her father said. “Sag’ tschüß und lass’ die beiden mal in Ruhe.”
The girl waved at them. “Tschüß, Sherlock. Tschüß, John.”
The two men took their leave as well. John was still grinning when they reached their room. He unloaded the groceries onto the table, then turned to Sherlock. “Well, you do know what’s in store for you when we get back home, don’t you? Classic Star Wars, all three. I’ll spare you the prequels because I don’t think you’d survive the madness that’s Jar Jar Binks – or our telly and I your reaction to him. But we’ll have a Star Wars night.”
“Another filmic masterpiece to look forward to, I see,” grunted Sherlock, stooping over his bag to retrieve and starting to lay out his cycling gear for the next day.
“Oh, come on. The Bond films weren’t so bad. And I still don’t see what problems you had with “Lord of the Rings”.”
“Sloppy, clichéd writing, illogical, pointless story-twists that completely deviate from the source material, Hollywood-stereotyped characters that have nothing to do with their literary counterparts, wrong locations, too obvious special-effects … Do I have to go on?”
“Wrong locations? Source material?” asked John, his eyebrows almost touching his hairline. “Er, Sherlock, in case you’ve forgotten: it’s not a historical film, it’s … well, fantasy.”
“There are people who may dispute that.”
“Are you making fun of me?”
“No. I am simply stating my disappointment about those films.”
“You’ve read the book, then? You? You read a fantasy-book?”
Sherlock turned to look at him. “Problem?”
John flopped down on the bed, running both hands over his face. God, he was tired. “No, no problem. It’s just … I didn’t expect this of you.”
“Father used to read The Hobbit to me when I was little,” Sherlock said quietly, gazing out of the window. “Later, when he was no longer … available, Mycroft continued with The Lord of the Rings. He was particularly good as Gollum. The rest I read on my own.”
John burst out laughing. “Oh god, I can see that. Bet he calls his umbrella “my precious”.”
Sherlock chuckled as he turned and his eyes met John’s. “One umbrella to rule them all.”
John gasped for air, holding his side after another fit of giggling. “Don’t, don’t say such things. I can’t unsee them now.”
“Well, you started it.”
“True,” admitted John, struggling to sober up a little. “By the way, what did the girl ask you about me? Whether I was your friend? I didn’t catch all of it.”
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” answered Sherlock evasively, pulling his pyjamas from the bag and hanging them over one of the chairs at the table.
“A manner of speaking?”
“In German, the term ‘Freund’ doesn’t just mean ‘friend’, but can also more specifically mean ‘boyfriend’. Given her reaction to my reply, this is what the girl meant.”
“Her reaction to your reply?” asked John warily, wondering about the sudden change of topic. They were actually approaching a subject both had so far taken great care to stay clear of. At some point, it would have to be discussed, John knew (although likely Sherlock would disagree). But now did not seem the right time. Still, he had to ask. “What did you reply?”
For a brief moment, Sherlock stilled in his movements, before grabbing his pyjamas and heading towards the ensuite bathroom. “Unimportant.”
John stood up and moved to face him, blocking his progress to the bathroom door. “No, it’s not unimportant, Sherlock. It’s bloody important, actually. We’ve been skirting around this topic for some time now, this and a great number of other issues concerning … well … us. I don’t even know a tenth of what you did or what happened to you while you were away because every time I dare bring up the topic you pretend to be busy with a case, or lost in one of your experiments, or simply let me know in unmistakable terms that you’re not interested in any conversation. So maybe this is as good a time as any to address some of these things, before …”
“Before what, John?” asked Sherlock quietly, his grey eyes glinting.
John let out a breath, running a hand through his hair and licking his lips. “Before we share a bed tonight, for example.”
“I see no problem there,” replied Sherlock with a shrug, his intense expression instantly changing to an unconcerned, easy one, but which John knew to be pretence. “We have even shared a bed before. Or do you have any particular plans for tonight?” he asked, slightly raising an eyebrow.
John snorted in exasperation. “That’s exactly what I mean. Why this suggestive remark? Why all this teasing, hell, flirting, lately? Why this trip in the first place? What do you want, Sherlock? From me? Out of this, whatever this is between us? Tell me, so I understand. Because like this, I don’t.”
Sherlock drew himself up a little. John knew him well enough to understand he was doing it to look imperious, in charge, competent in a field that actually left him feeling out of his depth most of the time, a fact he was loathe to admit.
“What do you want, John?” he returned, taking a step towards his friend and towering over him, his eyes boring into John’s.
John gazed up at him, swallowing slightly and licking his lips again. He had not reckoned with such a direct assault, and it left him bewildered and more than aware of his own confused feelings. He returned Sherlock’s intense stare staunchly, his stance tense, before shrugging slightly and releasing a breath. “I don’t know,” he replied honestly.
Sherlock huffed. “And how am I supposed to make sense of all of this, when even you, with your wealth of experience in these matters, don’t know?” He shook his head once and pushed past John to reach the bathroom, shutting the door behind him.
John gaped after him. Typical of Mr ‘Married to his Work’ to avoid any conversation about anything even faintly pertaining to the status or future of their relationship. Or whatever this thing between them could be called. And also typical of him to twist the conversation so that now it seemed John’s fault that there was no advancement.
“My ‘wealth of experience’,” muttered John, suddenly angry. He gave the closed door of the bathroom a scowl, before grabbing a jumper and making for the door of their room. He needed some air.
Bloody wanker, he silently fumed as he trudged up the stairs towards the reception area and main entrance. Just so you know, I have zero experience in feeling more and more drawn towards my male flatmate, who by the way is a right idiot in all things emotional. So how am I supposed to make sense of all this, when super-brain down there doesn’t even feel inclined to communicate his side of things?
Leaving the hotel, he stormed across the small carpark and turning left, followed a narrow road uphill past a number of wooden chalets which could also be rented from the hotel. The air was still warm. The sun had almost gone down behind the hill that lay at the western end of Saint Michel. Countless crickets were chirping in the dry grasses and small bushes that covered the slope behind the chalets. Further down in the valley another freight train to Italy was rattling noisily along the tracks, and there were calls and laughter from a group of children playing ball between the wooden huts.
Leaving the road, John climbed a narrow, rocky path which wound up the hillside until he reached a small plateau. The remains of a castle were situated here, a ruined tower amidst a tumble of bushes, weeds and trailing plants. Several lizards scurried away when he approached the structure, the stones of which were still warm from the day’s heat. Leaning against them, he looked out over the valley to the southern mountains, the peaks of which were still illuminated while the rest of the valley was already cast in blue shadow.
Maybe, he thought, he was to blame. What had he expected from this journey? That they’d spend some days climbing mountain passes and suddenly illumination would strike and they'd return to London a couple? Weren’t they a couple already? And did he really want what they had now to change into something more, something different? Did Sherlock want this? What did he want anyway? John knew that his friend had missed him during his exile. Sherlock hadn’t said so, hadn’t put it into words, but John was able to read him well enough by now to understand how desperately lonely he had felt. He knew he was the most important person in Sherlock’s life, one of the few that were granted a view of the man behind the genius. And Sherlock was to him … well, everything. But did this mean he wanted to take their relationship to the next level. Sleep with him? Did Sherlock want that? Was this the purpose of all his flirting, because there was hardly another term for it? Sherlock had stated he’d never been in a physical relationship, mainly because he had never deemed it necessary or enjoyable. Had this attitude changed now?
John recalled one episode Sherlock had indeed narrated from his time abroad. He couldn’t recall how their conversation had begun, but eventually Sherlock had mentioned, casually, that after a close shave with Moriarty’s leftover organisation, injured and hard pressed for rest and shelter, he had sought refuge with the Woman. The mention of her had done surprising things to John. He had not been prepared for the hot stab of jealousy coursing through him, nor the bitter resentment that she, of all people, had been in on the plan, while he had still been mourning his friend. The fact that she was not dead had not shocked him in the slightest, though. In fact, he had never really believed Mycroft’s account of her execution, knowing about her guile and connections. But when he learned that Sherlock had helped arrange her ‘death’ and had not deemed it necessary to tell him, John had felt a deep sense of betrayal. And worse, Sherlock had gone to her when he had felt most desperate and vulnerable.
John still recalled his words to his friend, spoken with fierce resentment: “Well, I guess you finally had dinner with her, after all.”
Sherlock had given him a long, level glance John didn’t care to read properly at the time, still troubled and angered by what he had just heard, more than was an appropriate reaction for a mere friend.
“Yes,” Sherlock had replied evenly. “And it was high time.”
“Well, good for you,” had been John’s curt reply. Sherlock had begun to smile ever so slightly, which in turn had only annoyed John more.
“She didn’t partake,” he had said. “She just watched me. And I didn’t care about table manners. I hadn’t eaten in days, I was injured and most likely hypothermic. So I fell upon the sandwiches they served me ravenously.”
“Indeed. Soup would have been better, but they didn't have any. And before you wonder, I’m not referring to any obscure practise which might be found in her profession, but to good old-fashioned slices of bread with stuff between them. I don’t remember what was on them, though. I simply wolfed them down, followed by several cups of tea. Afterwards I passed out on the couch. At some point she or Kate must have undressed me and patched up my wounds, but that was about as scandalous as things got.”
John had felt a right idiot after the explanation. “Sorry,” he had mumbled. “I just thought that you and her … after all the effort you put into helping her in Karachi ….”
Sherlock had studied him keenly. “Do you know why I helped her? Because of her resourcefulness and ruthlessness and her connections, I decided I would rather have her on my side than play against her. I was sure, even then, that a time would come when I was going to need every ally I could possibly get. I was right, and thus able to collect a favour that ultimately saved my life and ensured my return. Now we’re even.”
“So you’re not seeing her again?” John had blurted out before thinking.
Again there had been a long, keen glance, followed by a shrug. “Why should I? As I said, we’re even.”
“You didn’t answer your phone.”
John spun round at the sound, ripped out of his musings. Sherlock was stepping round a bush. He was dressed, John noted to his surprise, in casual jeans and a rather ratty t-shirt he usually wore during acute bouts of boredom when all he did was lie on the couch and complain about everything. John suspected that actually the garment belonged to his night gear, but since he so rarely truly slept in his bed, he wasn’t sure.
“It’s still switched off and in my bag,” he replied.
“Ah,” said Sherlock. He looked, John thought, quite unlike himself, not just because of his unusual attire, but also because of his expression: cautious, as if not sure how to proceed. Rummaging in one of his pockets, he produced a slip of paper and handed it to John.
“Code for the main door. They’ve shut it already. You forgot to take it.”
“Thanks,” muttered John. Sherlock stepped next to him and stood surveying the valley. The sun had set completely now, and even the western faces of the mountains were dull and grey. Some clouds were drifting over the upper part of the valley, but for them the sky was clear and the first stars were visible.
For a while the two men stood in silence, until eventually Sherlock stirred.
“Was this one of those ‘bit not good’ things I should apologise for?” he asked.
Despite still being confused about their situation, John was no longer angry, not at Sherlock, anyway. In fact, looking at him now and seeing the slight frown crease the bridge of his nose, he had to hold back a grin because of his choice of words. Still, he decided to let him stew a bit in uncertainty, to repay him for his teasing.
“Sherlock, if you can’t tell whether you should be apologising or not, well, that’s a bit not good.”
Sherlock’s frown deepened. “That’s what I’ve got you for, to tell me. You know I’m not good at these things.”
John sighed. “It’s alright. I should apologise, too, I guess. I wasn’t particularly helpful there, either. And I appreciate you’re making the effort to …well …”
“Be normal?” Sherlock asked with a sly glint in his eyes.
“Fuck normal. I never said I wanted you to be normal.”
Sherlock smiled. “Good. It’s boring anyway.”
“True,” John agreed. The gazed at each other and grinned.
“Well, that’s settled, then,” said Sherlock.
John nodded, his expression sobering. “Not quite. I still believe we have to talk about a few things. Determine which direction we’re heading and make sure it’s the one both of us want, for example.”
Sherlock studied him curiously. “Is this standard procedure in a relationship?” he asked with genuine interest, as if immersing himself in a fascinating riddle.
“Well, at some point, yes, I guess. Not that I’ve had many relationship that reached this stage,” John admitted. “Or that I even wanted to reach this stage.”
“So this is special?”
“Yes,” replied John gravely. “You asked me what I want, and I said I didn’t know. That’s not entirely true. I think I know what I want, have known for some time now. I’m just not sure if it’s the right course to take because there’s so much at stake. I’ve lost you once, I don’t want to do so again because of some … well, inconsiderate move that we both might come to regret. You know what I mean?”
“Yes. I think so. But what if it works?”
“Are you willing to risk that? I know you’re all for experimenting. To be honest, I’m still astonished that you haven’t ever felt the inclination to experiment in this particular field before, given your natural curiosity.”
Sherlock frowned again. “Does that really astonish you? You know me, better than anybody else. You know what I’m like, and that generally I prefer not having to deal with people and relationships and sex and all that mess. What I need to know about these things for the Work I could easily acquire via observation and theoretical research. I prefer that approach, actually, in order to maintain a rational, unbiased distance. I never felt the need to participate. But obviously in our particular situation I find myself reaching the limits of my knowledge. That’s why I was counting on your expertise,” he said at length, and John knew that this was as close to Sherlock admitting any insecurity as he would get.
“I don’t have any expertise. I’ve never been attracted to my best friend before, never to a man, never to someone I live with. It’s all new to me, too, Sherlock. Gosh, we’re two proper idiots, aren’t we?” he stated with a lopsided grin.
“Speak for yourself,” Sherlock returned, but he was grinning as well.
“Is this why you arranged this trip?” John inquired. “To try and … don’t know … cause things to happen. A reaction, so to speak? Put two components together and see whether they explode? Get us out of London and have us share a room and see if the sparks fly? Because if so, then it looks like your experiment’s pretty fucked up at the moment.”
“Well, we’re not in bed yet, are we?”
John snorted and shook his head. “Seriously, Sherlock, is this your attempt at seducing me? Or no, don’t answer that. But tell me this: if I were to, don’t know, push you down onto the bed and start kissing your neck while my hand wanders down over your belly and begins to open your trousers … what would you do then?”
He watched Sherlock swallow, and also took in the slight flush colouring his cheeks and the dilation of his pupils which had nothing to do with the failing light. “You wouldn’t do this without my expressed consent,” said Sherlock, his voice rougher than usual, eyeing John with a mixture of wariness and excitement.
“Would you express your consent?”
“I … it would depend on the situation and … I …,” he huffed, glaring at John for a moment before starting to pace, gesticulating wildly. “God, I don’t know. How should I know? I haven’t done this before, I never wanted to do this before, but there are times when I look at you when you’re wearing those damned dark jeans that fit you so well or the tight cycling gear that leaves nothing, really nothing to the imagination, or even this bloody striped jumper – a jumper, John, the least flattering garment of all apart from a sack, perhaps – and I think … no, I don’t think, that’s the problem, I can’t think when you’re dressed like that, it’s my mind simply refusing to operate properly as if it were running on bloody Microsoft … serious error or something … And it’s worse when you’re in the kitchen in the morning making tea and your hair is all tousled and you smell of bed and I can’t concentrate on anything or when we’re at a crime scene and out of the blue you say something brilliant that all the other idiots missed when or when we chase a suspect and you’re running next to me and your eyes are shining or when you see or hear something you like and you wear this smile – like now, stop that, I can’t think properly when you smile like this and … God,” he interrupted himself fiercely, kicking away a stone before spinning round and scowling at John. “I can’t even articulate properly anymore with you next to me. See? So how am I to know … how am I—“
“What would you like to do in these moments?” asked John gently. Sherlock’s words had touched him deeply. He couldn’t recall having ever heard a more genuine if unusual compliment.
“I think I would like to kiss you then,” said Sherlock quietly. He drew a breath. “And then my brain kicks in again and tells me that this is all a stupid idea which will only complicate things and that I will mess things up because I usually do with people and feelings and the like and that you’ll leave and—”
“Let me tell you something about your brain, Mr. Holmes,” said John, stepping to him and reaching up to tap his forefinger against Sherlock’s brow under the fringe of wayward curls. “For something this massive and hyper-active and intelligent, it can be a real idiot sometimes.”
Sherlock’s tense stance eased slightly under the touch and he smiled. “Is this your medical expertise, Dr. Watson?”
“Damn right it is.”
They looked at each other. John was struck by Sherlock’s beauty. He knew his flatmate to be attractive in an unusual, fascinating and somewhat otherworldly way, but he had never actually used the term ‘beautiful’ to contemplate his looks, only his mind. The failing light caused Sherlock’s hair to look darker. His eyes seemed larger than usual in his pale face, perhaps because most of their striking light grey irises had vanished due to the dilation of the pupils. He seemed younger, his features softer and more vulnerable, stripped of their usual sharpness. It would be so easy, thought John, to just lean forward and kiss him, and for a brief moment he found himself wondering what it would feel like. Would Sherlock be surprised? Would he appreciate the gesture? Would he return the kiss?
Aware that most likely his friend was able to observe each and every one of these thoughts flicking across his face, John felt his heartbeat accelerate. Sherlock, too, was breathing more rapidly, his mouth slightly open. Just do it, thought John. Do it and fuck the consequences.
He leaned in, but in that moment Sherlock twitched and slapped the back of his own neck with his flat hand. John jerked back in surprise, giving his friend a bewildered glance when he stretched out his hand to reveal a flattened horsefly, resplendent in a splatter of blood. Sherlock looked from the squashed insect to John, his expression a mixture of annoyance, irritation, embarrassment and a tiny trace of relief – feelings John shared in that moment.
He cleared his throat, stepping back a little. “I think we should get back to our room. It’s getting late and these buggers are trying to eat us alive. I have some aloe vera gel against the itch,” he added when he saw Sherlock reach up to scratch the bite.
He had spoken lightly, and could tell that Sherlock tried to hide his relief that the conversation was steering toward other topics now, the same way he appreciated the chance to switch into doctor-mode. Some things had been addressed, but John knew that they were still far from any concrete solution for their dilemma, if dilemma it was. What had become clear to him was that they were clearly attracted to each other, and also that they needed more time. For now, they should concentrate on the task at hand, tomorrow’s ride. And who knew, perhaps their expedition would really alter matters. Strange things happened in the mountains, after all.
Sherlock appeared to be thinking along similar lines. Gazing up at the northern peaks, now looming dark and forbidding he stated: “Do you know what they say about Cadair Idris in Wales?”
“The one that you return from either dead, mad or a poet?” asked John.
“Precisely. Perhaps it’s the same here.”
John smiled. “Perhaps. But you know, both of us have already been dead in a way, and I’m not eager for a repeat. As for madness … well, we’re living it on a daily basis …”
Sherlock smirked. “There’s hope for your avid readership, then. I’m sure the literary quality of your blog will greatly improve after this experience.”
John threw a dry seed capsule at him. “Need I remind you that my blog has ten times the readership of your website, if not more? So perhaps your writing needs to improve in literary quality. It’s rather lacking the entertainment factor, for sure.”
“Entertainment factor, I beg you. I publish precise scientific accounts, not mushy adventure stories.”
“Well, perhaps you should put them in verse, then, to make them more attractive to potential readers.”
Sherlock did not deign to reply. He simply gave him a haughty sniff and turned to leave.
Back at their room John fetched the gel while Sherlock went into the bathroom to change into his pyjama bottoms and brush his teeth. When he emerged again, John told him to sit on the corner of the bed and hold still while he carefully dabbed some gel on the angry red mark on his friend’s neck.
“Hope this helps,” he said, maintaining doctor-mode so as not to think about that he was running his hand over Sherlock’s skin. The faint goose-bumps rising in the wake of his fingers might have been caused by the coolness of the gel, after all. His friend was sitting very still, but John could see him swallow slightly when he applied another dab. “Horsefly bites are nasty and take days to vanish. Tell me if you need more gel.”
“It’s fine,” said Sherlock, and John tried to ignore that his voice sounded rougher than usual.
“Right. Good. I’m off to the bathroom, then.”
When he returned, also changed into sleep wear after a quick wash and a brush of teeth, he found Sherlock sitting on the side of the bed closer to the windows reading a book on alpine apiculture. John went to draw the curtains partly closed. Briefly, he considered opening one of the windows but decided against it because of mosquitoes and the noise from the road.
Settling down next to Sherlock, he searched his rucksack for his mobile. “Do I have to set the alarm?” he asked. "Oh, and do you have the adapter for the power sockets? I need to charge the phone."
There was a noncommittal grunt from Sherlock. Apparently the book was interesting, although to John it certainly didn’t look it. Smiling, he shook his head and put the alarm at six thirty, before getting up to look for the adapter, which he found in Sherlock's bag. Glancing over to his friend propped up against the headboard with a pillow in his back, his long legs stretched out before him on the blanket in his grey-striped pyjama bottoms, his eyebrows rose when his eyes fell on a bit of skin where the trouser-leg had ridden up.
“Er, Sherlock, you didn’t shave your legs again, did you?”
“Problem?” Sherlock rumbled without looking up from the book.
“I thought that was just for that one case, to … how did you put it? Look authentic?”
“Most professional cyclists shave their legs. Helps with the treatment of injuries after a crash, and also makes it more comfortable for them to receive massages.”
“You’re not a professional cyclist, and I forbid you to crash tomorrow. I know the true reason for this.” He pointed at the stretch of smooth, pale skin.
“You’re vain as a bloody peacock.”
Sherlock lowered the book and glanced at John, giving him his ‘don’t be an idiot’ look. “Peacocks aren’t vain. Their display of plumage is simply part of their courtship behaviour.”
“Is it now?” John muttered, deciding not to comment on Sherlock’s choice of words.
“Indeed. You didn’t deny the possibility of a massage, by the way?” remarked Sherlock with a sly grin, obviously in teasing mode again. He wiggled his toes.
“You haven’t done any cycling today to earn one.”
“I’ll think about it.”
The grin broadened and became decidedly mischievous. “I know you will.”
“Shut up and go to sleep,” said John, plucking in the charger before getting into bed and switching off his bedside lamp. Turning his back to Sherlock, he lay smiling to himself.
Sherlock raised the book again. “Good night, John.”
My apologies to those who are waiting for the promised explanation for the events depicted in this series of drawings. I thought I'd manage to include the passage in this chapter, but seeing that it's so long already I'll put it in the next which hopefully will be up next week.
There is, however, a drawing for the Irene Adler bit referred to in this chapter, also part of my "Sherlock after the Fall" series of artworks. Its title is "Dining".
I considered including a translation of the German passages in the notes but decided against it to put the reader in John's situation of not understanding everything and having to guess. If you insist on a translation, though, do let me know.
Many thanks to all who left kudos and comments, or who bookmarked the story. My particular thanks go to justinelark who pointed out some small mistakes in the last chapter (mostly expression and grammar) which I hope to have remedied by now.
Chapter warnings: mentions of torture and slight non-con (neither explicit).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
John was woken by the fake shutter sound of a picture being taken on a mobile phone. Opening his eyes and slightly raising his head from the pillow, he was granted a magnificent view through the open windows. Behind a tangle of trees and the roofs of houses partially visible through the foliage, a sheer mountain was catching the first rays of the sun, its rugged, twisted slopes thrown into sharp relief.
John’s eyes, however, lingered only briefly on the splendid landscape as it fell short of an alternative sight. Sherlock was standing in front of the window, holding up his phone to snap yet another picture of the mountain. He was already wearing his cycling shorts, but with the braces dangling at his sides. His vest and jersey he hadn’t donned yet, and for a moment John allowed himself the luxury of gazing at the expanse of pale skin of his naked back. There were faint tanlines on his upper arms and his neck from where the jersey’s sleeves and collar ended, giving him the funny, striped look John knew he also sported. The horsefly bite from the previous evening was still visible on his neck as an angry mark of intense red.
John was pleased to note that Sherlock seemed to have continued to put on weight in recent months. His oddly proportioned but strangely aesthetic frame always reminded John of 1930s and 40s film stars in high-waisted trousers that shortened their torsos and lengthened their legs. Sherlock was still slim, but he looked fit and healthy now, a far cry from the scrawny, wrung out, haunted looking creature that had returned from God-knew-where about four months ago.
However, there were visible reminders of that dark time which would remain. A faint net of scars was showing on the skin of Sherlock’s back. John knew they hadn’t been there before, as he still – and more vividly than he what he considered appropriate – recalled the sheet episode at Buckingham Palace. It had provided him with an unrestricted and much appreciated view of his flatmate’s naked back, and the image had ingrained itself in John’s memory. It had withstood all attempts at deletion during the dark time of their separation when he desperately wanted not to think about Sherlock anymore.
“Croix des Têtes,” Sherlock’s deep voice tore John out of his contemplations. “That’s what the Mountain is called. The ‘Cross of Heads’. Interesting name. But that is not what you were looking at so raptly, is it?” he added mischievously, turning to John and grinning. “Good morning.”
“Morning,” grumbled John as he sat up, aware that his embarrassment at having been caught ogling his flatmate must show on his flushed cheeks.
Sherlock seemed unperturbed as he placed his phone on the windowsill and pulled up the braces of his shorts. John tried not to look at the thin lycra stretching over his pale collarbones too closely. God, if Sherlock didn’t pull on his jersey soon, he’d have to take a shower even before cycling.
“If you want to know, I was wondering about how you received those scars,” John defended himself. Well, that was at least part of the truth.
Sherlock’s expression darkened as it so often did when John inquired about the time he had spent roaming the world annihilating Moriarty’s vast network single-handedly. John was sure he would refuse to answer, as usual. Sherlock’s lips narrowed, his face assuming the impenetrable mask John hated so much on him, because it indicated that even he, the one person in whose presence Sherlock tended to be less guarded, was being shut out.
Sherlock gave him a long, hard look. None of your business, it seemed to say. John returned it stubbornly. It is my business, he thought. Don’t you realise, you idiot, that we’re in this together? Lifting his chin slightly, he put on his most defiant expression, communicating clearly he would not let the matter pass this time.
At some point in their staring match, something seemed to shift in Sherlock’s expression, very subtly, almost imperceptibly. But John knew how to read Sherlock, and Sherlock was aware of it. Slowly, as if accepting defeat, or rather bowing to the inevitable because John could be extremely stubborn and unbending when he wanted to, he sat down on the bed with his back towards John. For a while he simply remained unmoving, his shoulders tense and his head bowed. Then suddenly he straightened as if he had reached a decision. In a low voice, he began to speak:
“Usually, I was a step ahead of them. I worked hard to be. It was vital. I could not afford to make any mistakes. I was secretive, efficient in my methods, and extremely careful, even more so once they noticed that someone was on their trail, taking them down one by one. When I could, I alerted the authorities to take over at that stage. But there were instances when I couldn’t afford for them to get involved, or when I simply had no time to deal with them. Ruthless I was, too, doing many things I’m not proud of and that I wish I could delete but can’t. I knew I couldn’t risk getting caught. No one would get me out. I was convinced I wouldn’t survive should they capture me and I tried to avoid it at all cost. Nevertheless, they managed to. Twice.”
John could see his arms move slightly as apparently he had begun fiddling with the seam of his shorts. He did not interrupt to comment or inquire, knowing it would not be welcome. If Sherlock agreed to talk, he would do it in his own time, and with his very own narrative twist for increased dramatics.
“The first time I escaped within an hour.” John could see crinkles around Sherlock’s eyes as he smiled crookedly at the memory. “The men watching me were utter morons. They didn’t even know how to constrain a prisoner properly, much less guard him. They searched me only perfunctorily, without finding either my pocket-knife nor my mobile. That should tell you all about their intellect and their skills.”
“They sound worse than the fellows we once met at Camden Market,” John mused. “And they put idiocy to a whole new level.”
Sherlock gave a snort, followed by a glance at John over his shoulder and a quick smile. “Oh John, our friends in Camden were master criminals of Jim’s class in comparison to the thugs I encountered that night. I still wonder how they managed to point a gun in the right direction.”
John laughed. “Well, the Camden kids weren’t so sure, either. Remember how one of them almost shot his own foot? Still, those other guys did manage to catch you, didn’t they? So they couldn’t have been complete morons, can they?”
Sherlock frowned at the implication. “Idiots’ luck. I more or less ran into their arms while fleeing from a far deadlier foe. To my defence, I must admit that I was rather … preoccupied. I was still dressed – more or less – for an event at a casino in Monte Carlo. They had been tipped off and had been told to look out for me for a spot of revenge by one of the other patrons whom I had tricked into losing a rather considerable amount of money. My arrival had been … delayed by something I had to do, so there were already pissed off, bored out of their small wits, and almost missed me as I ran past their cars. Had I paid proper attention to my surroundings, had I had time to change my attire, it would have been easy to avoid them altogether.”
“Why didn’t you?” asked John. There had been something in Sherlock’s choice of words and the brief pauses in his narration that hinted at another, darker story, one he would coax out of his friend if he could. He was still surprised to hear Sherlock talk so candidly about the past, and was endeavouring to make the most of it while the strange mood lasted.
Sherlock knew what we was aiming for, when, “It has nothing to do with the scars,” he answered evasively.
John knew they had reached an impasse again, some line Sherlock wasn’t yet willing to cross when it came to opening up to his friend. Still, all those subtle hints and remarks he had let fall … John was convinced he had done it on purpose.
“I know,” he said. “But it troubles you, whatever happened. It’s plain to see it does. You rarely – if ever – admit to someone tricking you, particularly someone that stupid. You must have been extremely distracted. Knowing you and the way you normally work, all reason and rational, cold efficiency, I’d say you were emotionally compromised. Someone managed to push you far out of your comfort zone. It bothers you, to this day. And I think you need to talk about it, after carrying it around with you for months. I doubt you mentioned a word about it to your brother or anybody else. You wouldn’t have alluded to the episode, even as vaguely as you did, if you hadn’t wanted me to question you about it. So, are you going to tell me?”
“You don’t want to hear,” said Sherlock quietly, with uncharacteristic vulnerability. “Good deduction, though.”
“Thanks. Do I make the impression I don’t want to hear?”
A shake of head without meeting John’s eyes, and a sigh. “You’re not going to like it.”
“There are a great many things about your ‘death’ I don’t like.”
“This one is …,” he bit his lower lip, “… delicate. It’ll make you angry.”
“At you, or at the people who gave you trouble?”
“Both, I think.”
John held his gaze for a moment, until Sherlock lowered his eyes to his hands again. John realised he really must be troubled, since normally staring matches didn’t end that soon. “And you’re worried about my reaction?”
Sherlock gave a small shrug. “You still haven’t punched me.”
“And that’s what you’re worried about? Tell you what, you go on with your account, and if I feel the acute need to flatten your nose or add some colour to your ridiculous cheekbones, I’ll give you a warning shout.” In a more serious mood yet gently, he said: “Go on, then. Is it one of the things you can’t delete?”
Sherlock nodded, his face set hard as he raised his eyes to meet his friend’s. “That week, I had finally managed to gain access to a circle of people high up in the hierarchy of Moriarty’s remaining organisation. Those pulling the strings, those with the money, the contacts, the connections: managers, politicians, international magnates, you name them. I had received permission to join them at their gaming tables, pretending to be an up and coming film producer with the perfect business for them to invest in to launder their dirty money. Things went well for a few days. I listened to their talk at various gaming tables and during the parties following the gambling, storing as much information as I could about them and their backgrounds. I soon learned that one of them had actually functioned as Jim’s advisor in all things South American: drugs, gold, emeralds, beef. He had a hand in every pot. I needed to get a copy of his address book, his contacts.”
John felt Sherlock’s eyes bore into his, the expression difficult to read. But John thought he understood what he saw: a trace of shame and guilt, and disgust. He felt cold of a sudden, surmising he knew what Sherlock was going to say next and deciding to weaken the blow.
“How far did you have to go?” he asked, his voice calm but much sharper than intended.
Sherlock swallowed. “Further than I thought. He had shown a clear interest in me, so meeting him in private was easy. I joined him for dinner on his yacht. I had planned ahead, of course, and spiked his drink. Unfortunately, I had not accounted for other substances running in his bloodstream, meaning he didn’t pass out when I needed him to.”
He shuddered. “It was disgusting, John. I had pretended to come over as seductive yet coy, and it had worked like a charm. Suddenly he was all over me, and at first I let him, hoping for the drug to take effect. But it didn’t. It didn’t work. And I needed access to the safe in his private cabin that contained his laptop. I was torn between playing along, waiting, and knocking him out forcefully. Or just bolting, just to get rid of him. He didn’t even seem to notice that I didn’t reciprocate. I had done my research, of course. I knew how I could – should – have distracted him, how I should have played along. My theoretical knowledge of these things is quite … extensive. I had even found out what he liked. It wasn’t difficult to learn about his preferences. But in the situation, confronted with having to put my knowledge into practice, I found I couldn’t use any of it.”
He gave a humourless laugh. “How very professional, isn’t it? One should think I’d be ruthless and cold-blooded enough to distance myself from my emotions, to pull through, endure the inconvenience and carry on. It’s all just transport, after all. The small sacrifice of personal comfort for the greater good. But I, I of all people, couldn’t go through with it. All the time I thought how very wrong it felt, how invasive, how disgusting. How it shouldn’t be him touching me.
“When I could not stand it any longer – well, actually I hadn’t been able to stand it even when he started –, I tried to get rid of him. He didn’t catch my not so subtle hints, until my only rescue seemed to be to try and knock him out. Which I did, with the champagne bottle. But by that time I was thoroughly panicked and didn’t hit him properly.
“So there he was groaning on the floor holding his head, and in the next instance crying for his bodyguards. And I ran. Kicked him between the legs for good measure, and bolted. I fled the cabin and leapt overboard – to run right into the arms of the idiot thugs hired by one of his gambling companions when I emerged from the sea in the harbour. That actually improved my evening, come to think of it,” he ended with a wry smile at John – who was fuming silently.
Sherlock’s account had incensed him. He was burning with inappropriate jealousy that some stranger had dared to lay hands on what even he hadn’t been allowed yet to touch, and that Sherlock had suffered from these hands. According to what he had read between the lines, his friend had been able to escape before things turned really nasty, but still, as unpleasant and often traumatising as unwanted attention was for someone familiar with physical intimacy, he could barely imagine how scary and violating it must have been for someone like Sherlock who had never shown any interest in these things beyond theoretical research when it pertained to his work. Again there was the acute feeling of helplessness mingled with the familiar anger at Sherlock abandoning him and haring off on his own. John had not been there when he should have been, as always, at his friend’s side, and the thought troubled him to no end.
“Do you have the address of this man?” he asked, forcing his voice to sound calm and controlled.
Sherlock nodded, a fell glint in his eyes. “Bottom of the Atlantic. I dropped Mycroft a hint. He took care of the matter. The man had been on his list for a long time, and this tipped the scales against him. As you can imagine, he didn’t take lightly to his favourite brother being molested by some drug-baron. I think he encountered trouble with his boat on his way to Bogotá.”
“Good. Otherwise I would have gone and taken care of him.”
Sherlock looked at him gravely, but with the tiniest of smiles playing about his lips. “Always defending my honour, Dr. Watson?”
“Well, someone has to, obviously.”
“Obviously. You won’t hit me, then?”
“Not today. Although I must say you were a complete nutter to take such a risk. I’m sure there would have been another way to get at the data without having to seduce a drug-baron.”
“Possibly. It seemed the most efficient route, though. But I can assure you, I’m not going to attempt it again, not in a situation I can’t control.”
They fell silent and simply sat and gazed at each other, with John considering to take Sherlock’s hand and squeezing it reassuringly. But before he could do so, Sherlock reached up to scratch the horsefly bite on his neck, and John decided to speak instead. “You said you were caught twice. Did you receive the scars the second time?”
“Yes.” Sherlock’s shoulders tensed with remembered pain, and John saw a slight shiver run through him. “As I said, the first time was easy, if you don’t count what happened immediately before they caught me. The second time, however … the second time I wasn’t so lucky.
“I had broken into one of the organisation’s operating bases, a townhouse in Frankfurt where they had established a small but vital and extremely well-connected hacker community. I wanted to retrieve information not accessible elsewhere. Moreover, I had heard about a possibility to disable or at least sabotage their main servers by planting a virus designed by some friends of mine. It had do be done physically, because the systems were too well protected against digital assaults. But the virus did not work as well as it should, and the place was much better guarded than my contacts had told me. Moreover, the people watching it were sharper and better equipped than those I had encountered before. Either that, or somebody had tipped them off, told them to be extra watchful. Anyway, I managed to get in alright, but the interior layout did not fit the intelligence I had gathered from the outside. Reaching my destination took more time than anticipated, and through some minor act of carelessness I lost one of the keys I needed to reach the room I was aiming for. They noticed there was an intruder about, began to comb the building, and to cut a long story short, I was caught.
“At first I thought they would shoot me right there and then. They certainly were annoyed enough. And I can tell you, John, I’ve never been more desperate than in that moment when they pressed the gun to my head and played with the trigger, fearing that everything I had done, everything I had gone through, all the pain I had caused and was still causing you had been in vain, that I couldn’t complete what I have set out to do, and that I would never return.”
John saw him swallow as he again he played absently with the seam of his shorts.
“But apparently someone from higher up the hierarchy had heard of a mysterious shadow stalking their organisation, causing trouble wherever it showed up, and so they let me live to try and extract information. Their methods were … ingenious. They knew how to inflict maximum pain while causing minimum damage. One of the men was very handy with a knife, hence he scars. And I talked. I had constructed several stories to fall back on which I fed them. I knew they needed time to try and verify them. But I also knew that at some point there would be no more stories, and that they would get down to the truth. And then?”
He shrugged, while John felt a cold hand clench his heart. Again it was overflowing with a torrent of conflicting feelings: anger, pity, helplessness, appreciation, pride, gratefulness, rage, friendship …, some aimed at Sherlock but many at himself, at Moriarty, Mycroft, the press, the world in general. Until he recalled why Sherlock had endured all this, and suddenly all these feelings were overshadowed by the most enduring and most important one, the one that became clearer and clearer to John every day. The one that made him want to reach out to Sherlock, wrap his arms round his shoulders and pull him close – a gesture he wasn’t sure would be appreciated, however.
“What happened?” he asked instead, his voice much calmer than he felt.
Sherlock half turned away from him, his profile stern, his lips pressed together. “After a day and half of captivity that felt like an entire week, I managed to escape. Pretending to be much weaker and more seriously injured than I was, I had tricked them into believing that I wouldn’t be capable of causing trouble anymore. So, after another interrogation session, they handcuffed me to some heating pipes in the cellar but left one of my hands free, the morons. It wasn’t difficult to open the handcuff – do you recall how I practised in the flat and you laughed at me? –, nor to open the door. Things turned nasty when I encountered some armed guards on the way out. One got me with his gun, a glancing shot here”, he pointed at a scar on his left side, “but somehow I managed to get out.
“I was exhausted from lack of sleep, food and hydration, though, and bleeding from several cuts and the shot. I couldn’t go to a hospital. The fake ID I had used the hackers had taken from me, and I feared the gunshot wound would raise suspicion and alert the police. Therefore, I hid in a homeless shelter where I received some basic medical treatment after telling them I’d been victim of a mugging turned knife brawl. I stayed there for a night and then moved on, catching a small charter plane from Hahn airport to Copenhagen. The flight was an adventure in itself because of the state of aeroplane and crew. I will tell you another time. It did manage to cheer me up a little, strange as it sounds, and I arrived in one piece and lay low for a while in Denmark until I had recovered.
“As for the hackers, very soon after my departure their base was shut down by German authorities. Someone had dropped a hint they were maintaining a cannabis plantation in the cellar. When police tore apart the house in a drugs bust, they didn’t find any drugs, but they did find some of computers the hackers hadn’t managed to grab or wipe clean in their hurry to get away, which in turn led them to some of the men and women themselves, and, what’s more important, to some of the people higher up in the network. So all in all the operation was a success, and the scars a small price to pay. Without the annihilation of the group at that time, my return to Baker Street might have been delayed by several months, a year even.”
He turned his head to John, who returned his grave look steadily.
“I don’t know if I’d have managed another year,” John admitted quietly. “Not the way I was trying to cope. I’d either have moved on, deleted you as best I could, maybe gotten married and all that.” He didn’t mention the alternative, and didn’t have to. Sherlock gave a brief nod.
“I wouldn’t have survived another year on the hunt, either,” he admitted. “Sooner or later, I’d have made another mistake. They’d have caught me again, or I’d simply have died of exhaustion. And I couldn’t risk you moving on. I dreamt about it, once.”
“What did you dream?” asked John curiously. He couldn’t remember having ever heard Sherlock speak so unguardedly about his feelings and was hoping he wasn’t going to stop just yet.
But Sherlock seemed to have noticed he had ventured into dangerous territory. He gave a little shake of his head, more to himself than to John, and reached for his mobile on the windowsill. Just in that moment John’s phone began to sound the alarm.
He sighed as he switched it off. Another opportunity of getting to know more about Sherlock’s interior workings gone. He would continue to dig, though.
“Do try and not add any more scars today, okay,” he said, to end the serious, troubling conversation on a lighter note. “The mountains are no place for reckless cycling. I don’t want to scrape you off the tarmac, or collect your remains from the bottom of some ravine. And for God’s sake, put on your jersey, and a light vest underneath. You look bloody indecent like this.”
Sherlock’s stern expression changed to a mischievous one, his eyebrows rising, but thankfully he refrained from commenting. “Come on, John, get dressed,” he said while reaching for the rest of his cycling gear. “Half an hour until breakfast, and you must make sure I have a proper one before we set out.”
John snorted as he swung his legs to the floor. “Damn right. I hope they have drinkable coffee here.”
The hotel’s coffee turned out to be the typical French brew that John could only tolerate with loads of milk and sugar he normally didn’t take. Thankfully, several kinds of tea were also available. All in all the breakfast was surprisingly varied with healthy options obviously geared towards cyclists.
“Try as they might, they just don’t get those baguettes right elsewhere in the world,” John stated happily after swallowing the first bite.
“Hm,” came Sherlock’s reply over a mouthful of müsli.
John could tell he hadn’t been listening to him, but had instead been eavesdropping on the lively conversation the five Italians, also already in cycling gear, were entertaining at a nearby table.
“They’re planning to do the Col du Glandon and the Croix de Fer today,” explained Sherlock.
“Didn’t know you spoke Italian, too,” said John. “Although it doesn’t surprise me that you do.”
“I don’t. Not really. I know some basics, but not enough maintain a conversation. But I understand it well enough when I listen to it, and even more so when I read a text. All thanks to several years of Latin at school and my knowledge of some other Romance languages.”
“You had Latin at school? Of course you had. Greek, too, I bet.”
“Naturally. In addition to French and German, and later some Spanish and Mandarin on a voluntary basis before I specialised on sciences. Pity they didn’t teach Russian. It’d have come in handy when I was … abroad.”
Despite his curiosity, since Sherlock had never mentioned the Russian episode of his time as a dead man before, John decided against inquiring further. Sherlock’s bland, unreadable expression as he tried to submerge the raisins in the bowl with his spoon indicated he was in no mood to relate another tale.
They finished their breakfast in silence and returned to their room to pack food, a repair kit and spare inner tubes, mobiles and money, and warmer clothes for the descent. Filling two bottles each and applying a thick layer of sunscreen, before eight o’clock they were ready to set out. One of the Italians had already organised the key for the bike garage and so they simply had to fetch their vehicles. They had reassembled them the previous evening, but John insisted on checking brakes, tires and gearing one more time. When he was satisfied, he looked to Sherlock who was fiddling with the straps of his helmet.
“When you are,” returned Sherlock, putting on his sunglasses.
John grinned. Adjusting his rucksack – of course he was the one carrying it; Sherlock the lazy git had only stuffed as much gear as he could into the rear pockets of his jersey –, he also donned his helmet and sunglasses.
“Let’s go, then,” he said as he mounted. There were four sharp clicks as the cleats on their shoes locked onto the pedals, and off they were. Out of the short driveway they rode and onto the road, which caused John a brief moment of disorientation since he had forgotten about keeping to the right hand lane. Sherlock of course noticed and gave him a smirk over his shoulder.
“Just follow me,” he called.
“Always,” muttered John as they went down the road into the centre of Saint Michel. The air was cool, almost chilly with the addition of their velocity. The town lay in the shadow of the eastern mountains and the sun did not reach down between the houses yet. Soon, however, John knew temperatures would rise considerably, and it would be well for them to have left the valley by then to avoid the heat.
At a traffic lights they turned left, following the road as it passed over a bridge that spanned the wide, flat, stony Arc river. Cutting underneath another bridge for the motorway, there was a sudden increase in gradient as the road reached the first houses of Saint-Martin-d’Arc, a village attached to Saint Michel. The climb began in earnest.
Again there is artwork for the chapter:
• a drawing depicting the view John wakes to in the morning: "Croix des Têtes"
• four drawings from my "Sherlock after the Fall"-series that inspired the hacker-episode Sherlock narrates: "Climbing, Hiding, (Mis)calculating, Escaping"
There will be another drawing for the series entitled "Sherlock after the Fall: Seducing", which refers to the other episode he mentions. Once done, I'll also post it on my tumblr.
Sorry for the long delay. Real life has been uncooperative. I decided to divide the chapter because it was threatening to take on monster dimensions. The other half is mostly written, meaning the next update won't be that far off.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“This is going to be our lot then for the next thirty odd kilometres?” John remarked wryly as he caught up with his friend. “Lovely.”
The road they were following wound upwards through the cluster of houses interspersed with orchards and gardens that was Saint-Martin-d’Arc. It was, in fact, quite lovely as the scenery went. The road’s gradient, however, was less so.
“You have a peculiar definition of ‘lovely’, John. According to the climb’s profile it’s bound to get steeper as we go,” Sherlock replied with inappropriate cheerfulness, giving John a smirk over his shoulder.
“Thanks for the reminder. I was being sarcastic. Oh, look, there’s the first marker.” John nodded toward a white-washed stone with a rounded yellow cap. “Col du Télégraphe, 12 km,” he read as they cycled past.
“There should be one for every kilometre now,” said Sherlock. “It even states the gradient.”
John smiled wryly. “Exactly what I want to know.”
Sherlock was right, soon the gradient increased, varying between six and eight percent as the road left the village behind and began to snake up into the dark forest that covered this side of the mountain. At intervals, narrow unpaved roads branched off to solitary houses hidden in the trees. There also were a couple of hiking trails, steep, rocky tracks washed out by heavy rains which provided a direct route to the top, cutting short the many hairpin curves of the road.
The forest mostly consisted of coniferous trees, firs and pines for the most part, interspersed with oaks, birches and the occasional chestnut. The road was fairly broad and in good condition. John reckoned it was maintained so well because of the many tourists visiting the area, and because in most years the mighty open air spectacle that was the Tour the France passed through with its massive retinue. Money was bound to flow from official purses for such purposes. Particularly in the curves there were reminders of this year’s Tour in the form of fan graffiti with the names of the most popular riders painted in garish colours onto the tarmac.
Despite the early hour, there was a constant flow of traffic mostly up the mountain. According to the departmental number on the licence plates, most of the cars were local, delivering goods and mail to Valloire and some of the other villages higher up. John surmised that as the day advanced the road would increasingly be frequented by tourists either riding bicycles or motorbikes or driving cars and caravans. He was glad they had set out so early, both for the fact that despite the local traffic there were stretches when they had the road to themselves, and also because of the yet mild temperatures. It was warm already where the sun pierced the canopy of the trees, but so far they were able to mostly ride in their shade. As soon as the tarmac heated things would get a lot more uncomfortable.
John breathed the fresh, resin-scented air deeply as he rode up next to Sherlock. Ahead lay a straight bit of road, the next sharp bend only just in sight. Because no car could be heard approaching they were able ride side by side for a short while.
“How’s it going?” the doctor asked. He himself was feeling well, all things considered. The rucksack was sitting somewhat uncomfortably on his back and the left strap was pulling slightly on his shoulder injury. Moreover he was sweating profusely already. But since the gradient remained fairly constant and they had found a good (if somewhat slow) rhythm, he was thoroughly enjoying the ride so far.
“Fine,” replied Sherlock. His cheeks were flushed and there was sweat beading on his arms and running along the straps of his helmet out of his hair, but he seemed as fit and motivated as John. “These sharp bends and serpentine curves do help to cope with the ascent mentally. As do the markers.”
“Yes, I noticed that, too,” agreed John. “They let you tackle each little stage of the climb separately. You get a nice feeling of achievement once you’ve passed another one.”
“Precisely.” Sherlock swatted at an insect buzzing around his head irritably. They really love him, the bugs, John thought, and wished he had thought of bringing some stuff to ward them off.
“I wish I had a case, though,” Sherlock then stated out of the blue.
“A case? Why? Are you bored already? Aren’t you enjoying this?”
“What, enjoying this torture? Are you mad?” Sherlock asked in a mock serious tone before his face split into a grin.
“I’m joking. This is brilliant, John. The longer we ride and the higher we climb, the more I feel my mind clear. The constant noise in my brain diminishes. The view, the cadence, the exercise – they help me think, help me make connections even faster than usual. Suddenly I can access data that usually lies hidden in the more obscure rooms of my mind palace. I’m not sure yet why that is so. Is it the extra amount of oxygen reaching the brain? Is it the hormones in the bloodstream? Ah, isn’t it splendid how the body manages to produce its own stimulants?”
“So, is uphill cycling going to replace the nicotine patches now?” asked John. “And the other stuff? Well, if so, that’s good to hear. I thoroughly encourage the development.”
Sherlock gave him a quick look before shifting his gaze back onto the road. “I haven’t used any ‘other stuff’ for several years,” he said brusquely, with a hint of indignation. “I’d been clean for a while even before we met, if you want to know – and I know you do. In fact, it has been bothering you for a long time, although you never asked me outright. I didn’t lie to Lestrade back then when he staged the ‘drug’s bust’. There wasn’t anything illegal in the flat. Well, no recreational drugs, anyway. And I even cut down on the patches recently, in case you noticed. With all the extra exercise, I felt I didn’t need them. Moreover, most cases we had didn’t necessitate any extra aids. Some didn’t even require my presence at the crime-scene. My last cigarette I smoked at Monte Carlo, the night I was stupid enough to try my hand at seduction. I hated it. I hadn’t been aware that stale cigarette smoke could smell so revolting on another person when they get close to you. And don’t get me started on the taste when mingled with champagne, which I never cared for in the first place. I tried to smoke after, thought I needed it to calm down and concentrate, and found it utterly repulsive, perhaps because it brought up memories of the … encounter. Smell and taste and memory, so closely connected. That night put me off a number of things, not just the fags. Maybe the craving for a smoke will return eventually, but right now I’m actually glad I stopped when I did. Imagine doing this with lungs impaired by smoking.”
John nodded, again feeling troubled by what Sherlock had been referring to but glad about his decision about the smoking. It had been a constant point of contention between them which now seemed to have sorted itself out, hopefully permanently. “Yeah, that’d have reduced the fun considerably. I’m glad you’re off the cigarettes. You understand now why I always tried to steer clear of dating smokers? I had one girlfriend at uni who smoked, and kissing her was … well, even after she’d brushed her teeth I disliked the taste.”
Sherlock gazed at him levelly with an unreadable expression. “Yes, I understand now.” With that he increased his speed slightly so that John could fall in behind him as there was another car approaching.
Compared to the drivers they usually encountered on London’s roads, most people here were rather considerate of cyclists, swerving wide enough not to endanger them and reducing speed before overtaking. Most likely they were used to lots of riders on the roads, at least in summer. This driver was no exception. He even cheered them on through the open window of his batty Renault. John grinned and waved back.
“Wait for the motorcyclists,” Sherlock threw over his shoulder. “They’re going to be less considerate and remind you who in their opinion belongs on these roads and who doesn’t. Idiots, the lot of them.”
John rolled his eyes, despite knowing that Sherlock couldn’t see it. Sherlock had developed a profound dislike of motorbikes and particularly their owners since they had taken up cycling. John agreed to some extend. Particularly on the weekends when the weather was fair hordes of bikers set out to roam the country lanes of the shires surrounding London. Many of them were young men driving irresponsibly fast and cutting curves dangerously. When he had shifts at the hospital during those weekends, there were always some of them showing up in need of treatment, or in the morgue. During their outing in Gloucestershire, he and Sherlock had had two nasty encounters with motorcyclists. One had almost landed John in a roadside ditch, and the other Sherlock a bleeding nose (well, or the biker, which John thought more likely – people tended to underestimate Sherlock’s brawling skills when taking in his slim figure). Nevertheless, John felt the need to defend bikers in general. Not all were as moronic as Sherlock discarded them as. Also, he still recalled himself as a teenager who desperately wanted to own a motorbike of his own but couldn’t afford it, a dream which still stirred up faintly from time to time. Perhaps, he thought with a grin, I should get one now, just to spite Sherlock.
“Sherlock, you can’t judge all bikers on the basis of some idiots we encountered in the Cotswolds,” he reminded his friend.
“Yes, I can,” was the curt reply, the tone final and unwavering. Okay, understood, thought John. We’re in no mood for discussion. He did the one wise thing and let the topic drop.
Shaking his head, John let his gaze swerve over the spectacular countryside. Through gaps in the trees he caught glimpses of the valley of the Arc and the small towns strung along the river like beads on a thread. Already Saint Michel was small, the houses tiny whitish dots in the greenery of the valley, indicating how high they had climbed. On the other side of the vale, the majestic Croix des Têtes was fully illuminated now, its jagged grey peaks stabbing into the clear blue sky with only some faint shreds of cloud clinging to them.
Even if they didn’t make it to the top, John thought, the view and the splendid nature surrounding them were worth the trip. This view, and others. They had reached another hairpin bend in the road and in front of him Sherlock rose from the saddle to sprint up the steep ascent of the inner curve. John felt his throat tighten and his heartbeat accelerate in a way that had nothing to do with the exertion. Sherlock was all long legs toned from running through London after criminals and more recently from cycling, smooth and shining because of shave, sunscreen and sweat. The tight black shorts left little to the imagination. His jersey, black and grey-blue, complemented his eyes and those errant curls of his dark hair that peeped out from under his helmet. On the sleek bicycle he looked dangerously fast, like a swift and deadly bird of prey, and extremely elegant.
John swallowed. He found it hard to believe that Sherlock, despite being aware of the effect his looks had on people and sometimes utilising it for gathering information, at times displayed a strange awkwardness when it came to his features. John recalled an instance when he had found him in front of the mirror in the living-room studying his face from various angles and complaining it was all disproportionate. Back then they had just solved a case involving the murder of an architect which had involved poring over floor-plans and studying architectural designs based on composition principles like the golden ratio. John had shaken his head and resisted telling Sherlock that the very fact his features departed from the widely accepted formulas for rationalising ‘beauty’ made them special, striking and beautiful in their own right. The episode had made him wonder whether Sherlock had been teased for his looks as a teenager or child, along with his unusually high intelligence and social awkwardness. Sherlock never spoke about his childhood or adolescence, but what John had picked up between the lines painted a rather sad picture. Even as a youngster, his friend seemed to have been bright, sharp-witted and -tongued and brilliant. And lonely, increasingly so as he grew up, with a strong fear of abandonment which he had retained into adulthood.
When John’s thoughts turned to how Sherlock usually worked his charms on suspects and witnesses, aided by his striking looks, he immediately was reminded of this morning’s conversation. He still felt touched and indeed honoured by his friend’s rare and almost unprecedented willingness to reveal a glimpse of not only his time abroad, but of his emotional distress about the episode. His almost unguarded, genuine display of vulnerability had been a surprise. He had even gone as far as admitting he had made mistakes, had failed in his plans, had overestimated his own resources and capabilities. His usual detachment had been compromised by sentiment. John knew Sherlock could be quite ruthless: efficient, cold-blooded and -hearted, even cruel. There was a dark side to his friend he rarely let show, much darker than his general prickliness, his aloofness bordering on arrogance, his constant smart-arsery. Right underneath the surface, something black and dangerous loomed, constantly kept in check lest it overwhelm him. Hints at what Sherlock had been up to while hunting down Moriarty’s network made John wonder how much of this dark creature had been unleashed. Was it under control again now? It seemed certain that Sherlock had not enjoyed what he had done, or been forced to do. Things he couldn’t delete, he had said. But did he regret them when ultimately they had contributed to his return? Did he feel remorse? A part of John didn’t want to know any more about what Sherlock had been up to, whereas another part couldn’t get enough of the details, hoping they would help constructing an understanding of the enigma that was his friend. After all, John, too, was dangerous, and there were a number of things visiting him in his nightmares he wished he could delete to ease his conscience.
Luckily, there was another side of Sherlock’s that was locked away, too, perhaps even more securely than his dark side. Sherlock’s heart was much greater than the idiot gave it credit for or was even willing to accept. He had shown himself to be human several times in the past. John had been aware of it before his Fall, but Sherlock seemed at odds with that part of him, his acceptance only slowly developing. Hell, the man had jumped off a bloody building to protect his friends. If this wasn’t sentiment, John didn’t know what was.
And hadn’t it also been sentiment that had made Sherlock mess up his attempt at seduction so badly? When he recalled what Sherlock had told him, and particularly what he had not, the details he had left out, John again felt anger stir in him. From what he thought he knew about his friend, this botched encounter seemed to have been the first time he had ventured into the field of physical intimacy. Not very far, apparently, which eased John to some extent, but still, there had been contact. And Sherlock had hated it. It had “put him off things”. Smoking and drinking champagne, fine. John didn’t like those either. But did he mean other things, too? Kissing, perhaps? Obviously, he had been forced to kiss that man, or let himself be kissed. Since Sherlock had never given any indication of being interested in either men or women at all, the strange episode with the Woman aside, John had thought him to be either asexual or deliberately celibate. He did seem to feel a weird, twisted version of romantic attachment, at least to John, but so far this had never seemed to include a desire for physical intimacy. He had no problems with touching John, and would constantly invade his personal space, but John had noticed that Sherlock was reluctant to be touched, particularly by strangers. He could barely imagine how difficult it must have been for him to act as if he enjoyed the attentions of this man in Monaco. And what did this portend for whatever kind of relationship they were embarking on now? The teasing the previous evening, the lingering glances, the faint blushing Sherlock obviously thought John didn’t notice? Weren’t they signs of desire, arousal, even? Why were things so fucking complicated with the world’s only consulting detective? Wasn’t it enough that John had to come to terms with the fact he was falling in love with a bloke? Why did said bloke have to have the emotional maturity and stability of a teenager?
Completely lost in thought, John didn’t realise he had accelerated and overtaken Sherlock. His agitation about the Monte Carlo episode had apparently motivated his legs, and he had sped ahead, punching a high gear with almost violent force.
“Will you stop thinking and slow down?” came a petulant pant from some distance behind. Switching out of his reverie, John cast a glance over his shoulder to see Sherlock struggling up the slope standing in the pedals, his legs straining from pulling and pushing to catch up. “Or if you want to sprint the entire distance to prove you’re still fit for your age, feel free. You can wait for me at the pass.”
Slowing down immediately and shifting down several gears, John ran a gloved hand over his forehead to wipe away the sweat threatening to run into his eyes. “Sorry about that. You’re right, this kind of cycling is good for brain work. Got carried away a little, I fear.”
Sherlock gave a snort as he caught up with his friend. John expected a scathing remark about his thinking faculties, but what he got instead was a keen, appraising glance, visible even through Sherlock’s sunglasses. “It really bothers you, doesn’t it?” Sherlock asked gravely.
“What I told you this morning. Both the contents and the fact I spoke of these matters at all.”
John drew a deep breath. “I really appreciate that you trust me enough to tell me what seems to have been troubling you for some time. Know that I’ll always listen – and without judging – whenever you’re willing to talk.”
“Thanks. But you didn’t answer my initial question. Why? Why does it interest you? What I feel? What may or may not be troubling me?”
John was about to laugh out loud, but stopped himself when he saw genuine curiosity in Sherlock’s expression. “Because you’re my friend. Because you were distressed. Because you seemed relieved afterwards. And because I know what it’s like to carry dark, oppressing thoughts around with you without feeling safe enough to share them. Trust issues, remember?”
“Did talking about my death help you?”
John almost missed a turn, entirely unprepared for the question. He stalled answering by reaching for his bottle and taking a sip. He had taken up therapy sessions again, but at first he hadn’t been able to put his grief and anger into words at all. This had resulted in hours sitting opposite Ella and staring out of the window or at the carpet. Slowly, he had opened up, but there were a lot of things he had not told her because the only possible recipient had been buried beneath a giant pine tree, or so he had thought at the time. Now said recipient was cycling next to him, his cheeks flushed and his eyes sparkling and his chest heaving with the exertion, so very much alive. And still John hadn’t told him, although he suspected that in his uncanny way, Sherlock knew much about what still rested on his heart and wasn’t going to shift any time soon. And Sherlock, functioning the way he did, most likely didn’t know what to do with the knowledge, hence the emotional stalemate they had been caught in for some time.
“A little,” John admitted at length. “It helped me make up my mind about some things. But it didn’t alter the fact you were gone, and that … well … that I was missing you.”
The greeting, cheerfully spoken by an elderly voice, made Sherlock swerve and almost crash into John. Turning his head, John’s eyes fell on a woman on a road bike setting out to overtake them. She gave them a smile and a wave when she was level with them, and sped off.
The two friends exchanged surprised glances. “Maybe we should concentrate on the road and on cycling for now,” Sherlock suggested.
“Yeah,” agreed John. “This doesn’t seem either the right place or time for soul-baring talk. Moreover, I think I have other worries right now. That lady must have been well past sixty. Gosh, look at her speed. Makes me feel disgustingly flabby and unfit in comparison.”
Sherlock gazed at her retreating figure. “Seventy-two, I’d reckon. She’s local, according to the logo on her jersey and the lack of equipment she’s carrying in its pockets. Used to be semi-pro. She regularly participated in public races up until the 1980s, judging from the make and age of her bike. Still does occasionally now, as again evidenced by her shirt. Starter numbers have been attached to it. Underwent knee-surgery not long ago, took up cycling again as soon as she was able but didn’t do as many miles as usual, as shown by the fact she was still wearing a thick layer of sunscreen despite her tan – she hasn’t been out and about as much as usual.”
“Yeah, thanks. She’s still a lot faster than us.”
Sherlock shrugged. “If you cycled up here three times a week or more, and without the additional weight of the rucksack, you’d be faster, too. Just a short while ago you demonstrated quite impressively how much you’re able to accelerate when the fit takes you.”
John chuckled. “True. But I wouldn’t have lasted much longer. I think I prefer this pace. We haven’t even reached the crossroads yet. Oh, there come two more.”
He accelerated briefly to let Sherlock fall into line behind him as two young men cycled past, also greeting them friendlily. John huffed when he saw how effortlessly they moved.
“If it appeases you, I’m quite happy with this pace, too,” Sherlock piped up when he cycled up next to John again.
John’s eyebrows almost disappeared underneath his helmet. “You admit you’re not top of the game at something? What’s the matter with you today? Did you leave your ego in London?”
“I lack sufficient training to be ‘top of the game’ at this,” Sherlock stated matter-of-factly. “Moreover, those two men were barely more than half my age and have been cycling competitively since childhood.”
“Well, age doesn’t matter, as the lady proved so impressively.”
“Not as much as training.”
John rolled his eyes, but catching Sherlock’s gaze, he grinned. “Why don’t you tell me about those two lads? I know you’ve been itching to deduce them.”
The corners of Sherlock’s lips twitched in a faint smile as he began to talk. As usual, John listened with rapt fascination. Sherlock got carried away to such an extent that John had to interrupt him when after an increase in gradient the world’s only consulting detective began to gasp for air and John suggested he concentrate on breathing for a while (despite its inherent boredom) until the road grew less steep.
It didn’t, at least not considerably, but when one of the markers announced that they were three kilometres below the pass, the road broadened to a wide crossroads. To the left a road branched off towards the ski resort of Valmeinier, some houses of which were visible nestling along the steep slopes above the treetops.
Shortly after the crossroads the road narrowed again. The forest grew less dense, and to the left a rocky wall rose while to the right the hillside dropped steeply, with firs and pines clinging desperately to the almost vertical slope. There was a kind of railing, a crumbling stonewall with stretches of metal planks in between, but it was so low that it wouldn’t stop anything determined to take the plunge, be it car or bike. Usually, John wasn’t troubled by heights, still he found himself cycling closer to the middle of the road so as to keep away from the sheer drop only a metre or so next to the tarmac. The view, however, hardly impaired by trees now, was breathtaking.
“Do you want to take a picture?” asked Sherlock. “There is a small bay on the other side of the road where we could stop.”
“You mean you need a break?” John inquired slyly. Sherlock huffed, but nevertheless indicated left and crossed the road to prop his bike against the rocks. John followed suit.
“I wish I had brought a proper camera,” he said when they stood side by side at the railing, looking down into the valley and John held up his mobile to take a shot. “The zoom on this thing is shitty, and like this you can’t really see the true proportions of the landscape. Look, we’re almost level with the Croix des Têtes, and you can just make out Saint Michel down there.” He glanced at Sherlock and grinned. “Hard to believe we climbed all this by bike.”
Sherlock nodded, gazing at his watch. “We’ve been doing well timewise, too. Come one, it’s only two more kilometres to the pass.”
Despite the gradient remaining relatively steep, they covered those last two kilometres almost effortlessly, encouraged by the proximity of the pass. Nevertheless they were overtaken by two more groups of cyclists, one consisting of men and women of a local cycling club, and the other hailing from the Netherlands, their Rabobank jerseys glowing bright orange and blue. Gazing after them wistfully with a small measure of envy, John wondered where the hell they had trained to get so fit on the climb.
When finally they rounded the last bend and a carpark and a wooden hut came into view, together with a large sign announcing the pass, John gave a short whoop of delight. The first obstacle had been conquered, and it had been far less difficult than he had feared. A glance at Sherlock revealed his friend’s elation, despite him trying to maintain an unaffected, aloof manner.
Despite the early hour, the carpark was already half occupied. Several groups of hikers brandishing Nordic Walking sticks were setting out toward the Fort du Télégraphe, a structure of daring masonry adorned with antennae that was situated on the outmost outcrop of the mountain and which, according to what John had read on the internet, commanded a spectacular view of the Arc valley and the surrounding mountains. From their vantage point at the sign announcing “Col du Télégraphe, 1566 m” they already got a good idea of what that view might comprise. Unfortunately, they were gazing directly towards the sun, which made photography tricky and somewhat unsatisfactory.
In the knowledge of the more difficult leg of their journey still lying ahead, they decided not to tarry at the pass. John had almost emptied one of his bottles and Sherlock was on his second, much to John’s relief since usually the consulting detective neglected to drink regularly, even during cycling. They were going to have to replenish their water supply at Valloire anyway, and also eat, as John reminded his friend.
“I know you’re not hungry,” he said when Sherlock rolled his eyes at the mention of food. “Neither am I, to be honest. But if we wait until hunger strikes, it’s already too late. We haven’t even covered half the difference in altitude. The nasty bit still lies ahead.”
“As you wish, doctor,” Sherlock said petulantly, but with the hint of a smile. “After you.”
The first taste of descending along a curvy, narrow road with virtually no safety railing and a sheer drop to the right was exhilarating, especially after the long climb. The rush of wind cooled the sweat on John’s face and although he mourned every inch of elevation lost, the four kilometres downhill with ever increasing gradient were a highly welcome change after the long, slow toil up the pass. What worried, him, though, was the idea of having to go up this route again on their return journey. He wasn’t sure if he would still be capable (and motivated) to attempt yet another climb once they had done the “big one”. Well, they could always take the bus, he reckoned.
The small yet bustling town of Valloire bore a striking difference to sleepy and industrial Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne with its beige-grey houses and narrow, cramped streets. The architecture of Valloire was in most part modern yet inspired by traditional alpine building: flat, overhanging roofs and wooden panelling along the weather-fronts of the houses, with large balconies at the south-facing facades, geraniums and petunias in full flower spilling over them like floral waterfalls. The town was a busy place in summer and winter, with several ski-lifts moving up the mostly treeless mountainsides. Now in summer they were carrying hikers and mountain-bikers to the hilltops instead of skiers.
Following the main road, John and Sherlock quickly reached the centre, almost running over a group of tourists in hiking gear who had wisely decided to cross the road not a the pedestrian crossing but right behind a bend.
“Idiots,” John cursed, rising in the saddle to treat his bike’s high gear because he had not managed to shift with both hands hard on the brakes. Back when they had first gotten their machines he had found himself in a similar situation, having been forced to brake suddenly because in front of him a car had pulled out of a parking space without indicating. He’d almost come to a stop and had had trouble to unlock his left foot from the pedal. He had managed, but to his great embarrassment his bike had decided to lean over to the right, and since that foot had remained attached to the pedal, he had fallen over in slow motion and ended up on the tarmac. He hadn’t hurt himself, only his pride. Thankfully, Sherlock had refrained from commenting. John wasn’t sure, but he assumed that during one of his solo rides Sherlock had suffered his own moment of awkwardness and public humiliation caused by the clip-less pedals.
But now his bike cooperated, and after a brief sprint in high gear he caught up with Sherlock who had left the main road and cycled across a paved square in the old part of the town. Opposite a church there was a small shop nestled in a row of historic-looking houses that stood in stark contrast to the more modern buildings all around. It didn’t look like one of the usual supermarket chains but a local grocery shop like John remembered visiting as a child when staying at his grandparents in the country. Dismounting and leaning his bikes against a low stonewall next to the church, John took off his helmet and sunglasses.
“You still got Euros?” he asked. “Don’t know if they accept cards in there. Else we need a bank first.”
“Have a look in my wallet,” said Sherlock, carefully placing his bike against the wall. “It’s in your rucksack.”
“Is it, now? Hey, is there anything you’re carrying yourself apart from your mobile, you lazy git?”
“Jacket, obviously,” replied Sherlock with a grin, indicating the bulky rear of his jersey. “But if the rucksack is too heavy for you, we can always take turns. After all, you’re already disadvantaged by your age.”
John narrowed his eyes at him. “I’ll definitely remind you of the offer once we reach the steep bits. Now, what shall I get?”
Even if the shop was none of the modern supermarkets, it nevertheless stocked everything a large Carrefour would. How the owners fit all the stuff in the low-ceilinged room and onto the shelves, John had no idea. He surmised the shop was larger on the inside, like the Tardis. The shopkeeper certainly looked like she was from another time or dimension: hip with her ear-plugs, her green iPod and Heavy Metal t-shirt, and old-fashioned with her 1950s perm and flowery apron.
When John had finally found his way out again, laden with two large bottles of water, some bananas, carrots and apples, a baguette and a packet of Bressot cheese, he spotted Sherlock sitting on the wall with his impossibly long legs stretched out, his curls flattened to his head where the helmet had covered them and sticking out in impossible, sweat-fixated angles elsewhere. Yet despite his somewhat dishevelled appearance, accented by his still flushed face and sweat-streaked skin, his posture and expression were of a calm John had very rarely witnessed. Sherlock looked absent, vacant, but not in his usual “sometime I don’t talk for days on end” mode, but of a gentler and indeed happier variety. Sherlock sat utterly relaxed, his eyes unfocused, with only his fingers twitching faintly as he held his hands together against his lips in his usual thinking pose.
For a moment John simply stood and watched him, wondering what had brought on this strange, tranquil mood until he heard the reason. There was music playing from the direction of the church’s front portal. It was a piece for several voices, played by a small chamber orchestra of strings. John did not recognise the piece. It sounded old, reminiscent of church music or the occasional Bach Sherlock played on his violin. It had a similar gravitas but seemed much simpler in comparison: harmonic, structured and somewhat solemn, almost sad. It touched John as it seemed to have touched Sherlock, too.
When the piece ended Sherlock remained in trance for a moment before he stirred and sighed, then turned his head slightly to acknowledge John’s presence. “Fantasia in Dialogo by Adriano Banchieri”, he said. “I’ve been waiting for about twenty-five years to hear this piece again. And isn’t it magnificent, despite the second violin and the cello being slightly out of tune?”
“Twenty-five years?” asked John as he deposited his shopping on the wall. “Aren’t there any recordings you could get?”
“I tried, but couldn’t find any. It’s not a very well-known piece by this composer.”
“Right. What’s so special about it? It sounds different from what you usually play on the violin. Older, somehow. And have you looked for the sheet music?”
“It is older. Late Renaissance, early Baroque. And yes, I have the score. But since it’s polyphonic, it doesn’t work when it’s played on a single violin. Even if I recorded all of the voices I can play on my instrument, I would still be lacking the parts for viola and cello.”
“Maybe we could ask them whether they’d play it again so you can record it with the phone,” John suggested. “If it’s so important to you.”
A piercing look from grey eyes gave John the feeling of being a bug pinned under a magnifying glass. He was about to revise his suggestion when Sherlock’s face split into a broad, genuine smile. “You’re brilliant, John!” Withdrawing his mobile from his jersey, he strode over to the church, his shoes clicking on the pavement.
Shaking his head with a smile, John went about setting up their meal and refilling their bottles. Soon enough, the music sounded again from the church, and a few minutes later a very content looking consulting detective reappeared, switching off the phone. When he settled on the wall on the other side of their makeshift picnic, the music started yet again. It was another piece this time, lighter in mood yet also undoubtedly from the same period.
“I asked for this piece particularly, and was glad when they said they could play it,” said Sherlock after taking a sip of water. “It’s a Canzona by Giovanni Gabrieli. I used to play second violin at the school orchestra during my first year at Harrow, and this and the Banchieri piece were parts of the repertoire.”
John chuckled at the statement, handing his friend a piece of baguette on which he had spread Bressot, and half an apple and a carrot he had peeled with his pocket-knife. “You used to play second violin? Really?” he teased. “And survived?”
“Not for long,” Sherlock returned with a trace of indignation. “They threw me out shortly after our first concert. Or rather, they suggested kindly that I should stick to single tutoring. It had been an ill-fated venture anyway, right from the beginning. Not because of the music. I really enjoyed the pieces we played, which you can use to explain the unveiled display of nostalgia you’ve just witnessed in your cold-hearted friend.”
John decided not to comment on that statement. Instead he nodded. “I think I see the problem,” he said wisely. “The other kids?”
Sherlock shrugged. “It had been an attempt at helping me ‘socialise’ with my peers. It didn’t work, of course. As if I needed help. As if I had entertained even the slightest interest in socialising. In making friends.” He almost spat out the word. “Most of them were idiots: manipulative, spoiled brats. I was glad to avoid them when I could.”
“Yeah, I can imagine. But surely not all were like that.”
“Maybe not. But once I had a certain label attached to my person, those few of different mind didn’t bother about the ‘Freak’ any more. Oh, listen carefully, this passage is just masterful.”
He fell silent and John strained his ears to catch the music. He couldn’t judge the mastery, but he thought he understood the appeal of this strangely simple and straightforward and at the same time complicated music in the way the different voices wove together to create both tension and harmony.
They finished their meal to the sounds of a couple more pieces from that period, and were at one point interrupted by a man wearing 18th century clothing, resplendent with powdered wig, tricorne hat, silk justaucorps and waistcoat and buckled shoes who handed them a flyer for a Baroque Festival at Valloire later in the month.
“They were all wearing these costumes,” said Sherlock he perused the flyer. “Too late for the period the music they’re playing today is from, but apparently they also do later pieces. Unfortunately, we won’t be around anymore when the Festival is on.”
“Maybe we should have a look around for this kind of music when we’re back in London,” suggested John. “I know they do concerts of Baroque music at St. Martins-in-the-Fields quite regularly.”
Sherlock looked at him gravely with the faintest of smiles shining in his eyes. “Are you seriously suggesting accompanying me to a concert of classical music? You? ”
John shrugged and then grinned. “I accompanied you to a concert of that teeny band that I thought would make my ears bleed.”
“That was for a case, and I had told you to wear ear-plugs.”
“Even ear-plugs wouldn’t have stopped the cheesiness of their music melting my brain. But yes, I would. It’s not exactly my kind of music, but I do like hearing you play – well, at least when you really play something instead of just torturing the instrument. And you could always repay me by coming along to a football match.”
Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “Why would I want to do that?”
“Because of a stadium full of people whose life stories you could deduce while I enjoy the game. And because I’d appreciate your company.”
Sherlock gave him a long glance. “You really mean that,” he said at length.
“Of course I do. I wouldn’t be here with you if it weren’t the case, would I? Strange as it may seem to you and the rest of the world, and me, too, at times: I actually enjoy being around you. You’ve spoiled me for all normal people, it seems, and tell you what, I’m glad about it. And now finish up! There’s another bloody pass waiting for us.”
Sherlock gazed at him for a moment longer before reaching for another apple slice. Before he took a bite, John caught a glimpse of his smile.
You insecure, immature idiot, he thought fondly, can’t your massive brain compute that I’m falling in love with you? You see but you don’t observe, do you? Do I have to be even more obvious? Or have you deduced my feelings a long time ago and don’t know what to do with them, and your own?
“And in case you chose to delete it, you offered to take the rucksack for the next stage,” he added, beginning to pack the remains of their meal.
There's fanart again for this chapter at my tumblr , entitled "Fantasia in Dialogo". Also, there are some photos of the countryside around Valloire I took during my bicycle ride up the passes this July.
All in all, their stop at Valloire lasted about an hour. When they set out again, the sun had climbed high into the sky. Despite the central town’s altitude at over one thousand metres, temperatures were beginning to turn uncomfortably warm in the sun, particularly where the tarmac had already heated up.
To John’s mild surprise, Sherlock indeed shouldered the rucksack and after adjusting the straps, he mounted. When they returned to the main thoroughfare that would lead them out of the centre and onto the D902, the one and only road to and over the Col du Galibier, the doctor already started to appreciate the loss of weight and pressure on his back. So far, his shoulder had behaved surprisingly well, apart from the occasional sting at a more vigorous pull at the handlebars, but there was an ominous feeling that after the long descent with its harsh jolts and bumps and the constant strain on his arms due to braking he was going to pay the price in the evening. Hopefully, Sherlock would agree to carry the pack downhill as well to spare John’s injury some additional aggravation.
After crossing the small river Valloirette which ran into the town from the south along the D902 and whose course they were going to follow for the next ten or so kilometres, they saw a long straight stretch ahead of them, houses lining the road to one side and the river trickling in its stony bed on the other. The gradient looked … steep.
“I must have deleted that bit,” muttered Sherlock as he shifted down several gears and rode next to John.
“Yeah, me to,” agreed John. Although he had enjoyed the rest and the opportunity to learn about his friend’s past and musical preferences, he now paid the price for the hour of inactivity. His legs were slow to return to active modus and he strove to find a rhythm that would cause the muscles to function without hurting. The steep gradient and the fact they had started out a little too fast for his taste didn’t help matters. “I thought the nasty bit comes further up,” he went on, “where we leave the river valley and the road does a 180 degree turn.”
“This is nasty in my book,” complained Sherlock, shifting the rucksack again.
And it was. Unlike their previous climb there were no bends in the road. They were able to see far ahead, making the ascent seem endless. There was no shade, but lots of traffic, both local and international.
When they had finally left the last houses of the town behind and had crossed the river yet again so that now it ran to their right, both men were sweating profusely. Apart from the occasional tree standing close enough to the road to cast a flimsy shadow, they were riding in full sunlight. The cloudless sky was of a brilliant blue, and despite the warm hue of his sunglasses, the landscape all around looked unnaturally extreme to John, all harsh contrast and outlines defined to almost hyper-realistic sharpness with no mist or haze to blur more distant features. And yet it was strikingly beautiful, the contrast of rich alpine vegetation and barren rock and the views of more remote mountain-peaks rising to all sides.
If not for the traffic and his and Sherlock’s heavy breathing, there would have been almost silence, too. The river, nearly dried out during the summer months but with skeletal trees lining in its bed hinting at its power during snowmelt, was barely to be heard. Nevertheless the trickle of water looked invitingly cool and pleasant to John, so much so that he was tempted to stop and take a dip.
Now and again the toll or tingle of a cattle bell came to their ears, or the mournful cry of a bird of prey circling in the updraft along the mountain slopes. At one point John heard several sharp, high whistling sounds. At first he attributed them to one of the other cyclists on the road, or a hiker higher up on a mountain track, but Sherlock, as usual, offered an alternative explanation.
“Marmot,” he cast over his shoulder, causing John to grin.
“How come you delete the solar system and yet know about alpine fauna?” he asked, causing Sherlock to snort and most likely roll his eyes, although it was difficult to see behind his sunglasses.
“Mycroft had a stuffed toy marmot as a child, a gift from our maternal grandparents. He loved it literally to bits, so I only remember seeing a rather threadbare version of it. I was very young, but I recall him telling me all about marmots. He used an acorn cupule to mimic their whistle because to this day he can’t whistle using his fingers.”
John laughed softly. “Fascinating. Still doesn’t explain why you didn’t delete it. Can you whistle on your fingers?”
Sherlock made an indistinguishable noise. John translated it as ‘no’, but decided not to tease his friend about it at this point. “I see,” he said. “Which animal did you have?”
“A leopard. And before you ask, yes, it still exists. I didn’t use if for experiments. Well, at least none that would damage it permanently.”
“Did you experiment on your brother’s marmot?”
Sherlock gave him a sly smile over his shoulder. “I might have.”
“No surprise there, eh? It’s fascinating you kept your leopard, though. Tut, tut, sentiment, Sherlock.”
“Say he who still has both his bears and the donkey he battled his sister over for years.”
“What did I tell you about going through my personal things?”
“I was looking for woollen socks.”
“No luck in your index?”
“It doesn’t contain woollen ones.”
“I see. So I guess my nice winter socks ended up in one of your experiments because you needed woollen fibres or what?”
“No, they ended up on my feet because they were cold.”
“And afterwards? I didn’t see them in the laundry.”
“Oh, they were laundered, but I might have kept them afterwards. They’re good socks. Completely devoid of any fashionability, but functional.”
“Well, great to hear you found them useful.”
“Sarcasm doesn’t suit you, John. You don’t really mind, do you?”
John huffed. “I’ll tell you another time when I can breathe properly. Let’s concentrate on cycling for a bit, okay.”
Sherlock didn’t look too unhappy about the suggestion. They fell silent. John shook his head slightly as he recalled the conversation. He didn’t mind, not anymore. By now he had gotten used again to the fact that Sherlock would “borrow” his stuff uninvited.
On the other hand, whenever he needed anything of his friend’s there was no question of him sharing Sherlock’s things. They even had a joined bank account now, despite John’s initial protestations as he didn’t want to look like a kept man in view of Sherlock’s funds in comparison to his own income. Sherlock was surprisingly generous with his money, and apart from his rather exalted taste in clothes and the occasional technical gadget, he was very modest in his needs. Take food. There were many places in London where they ate for free because of some favour Sherlock had done the owners, but had John thought at first that his friend was posh and picky when it came to his eating habits, he soon had to remedy that notion. When Sherlock ate, he wasn’t difficult to keep, happy with takeaway or whatever John would cook, or even some simple toast or cereal. John often wondered what he had lived on during the nine months he’d spent abroad, and if he had had one decent meal in that time. Judging from how he had looked upon his return, John sincerely doubted it.
Casting a glance over the riverbed, now several metres below them, and taking in the dead tree-trunks bleached by sun and frost and battered by forceful springtime waters, he recalled Sherlock’s words about how he would not have lasted much longer out there, on his own. He had been right.
With a sigh, John tried to banish these thoughts, concentrating on the landscape instead. Despite having never been to this part of the world before, there was something familiar about it.
“Afghanistan or family holiday?”
Sherlock’s question startled John out of his contemplations, causing him to swerve slightly towards the middle of the road.
“What?” he asked.
“You’ve been staring at the landscape across the river for a while now, barely noticing what passes on the road. Given we’re almost above the tree line now and these rocky, withered slopes with their sparse vegetation have an arid look to them, and also taking into account your absent yet concentrated expression it seems obvious you are reminded of your time in Afghanistan. You mentioned once you were stationed near the mountains for a while, and you are likely to have participated in forays into the valleys.”
John gave him an astonished look, before smiling slightly. “You never cease to amaze me, you know. But you were both right and wrong in this case. Yes, I was reminded of Afghanistan at first, but then looking at these heaps of grey stone I started thinking of Wales.”
“You do realise the rocks here are not slate.”
John rolled his eyes. “I’m not an expert geologist like some people, but yes, I do know that.”
“So, family holiday, was it?” asked Sherlock without reacting to the barb.
“Yes. I was … nine, I think. Or around that age, anyway. We spent a week in Gwynedd. Hiked up Snowdon and all that, and toured some of the castles along the coast. And we went to Blaenau Ffestiniog. I remember Harry complaining all the time because the weather was rather … well, typical, I guess. Fine drizzle and grey skies the entire day. And grey were the houses, and the hills, and the giant waste heaps of slate. It made me wonder how people could actually live there and not get depressed after a short while, although personally I didn’t mind because I was totally hooked on the steam train. But they must have sunshine there, too, once in a while. Like here. The landscape doesn’t look as bleak with this kind of illumination, but quite beautiful, really. Humbling. Makes you feel real small.”
“Well, some shade now and then wouldn’t go amiss,” mused Sherlock, wiping sweat from his flushed face with a gloved hand. John cast a glance over his arms and legs.
“When we stop next, you should put on another layer of sunscreen. You’ve more or less sweated or wiped off what you had on, and there isn’t going to be any shade until we’re back at Valloire.”
Sherlock didn’t reply apart from a tiny nod and increased his speed to take the lead again.
The road continued to follow the river with only few bends and a constant gradient of about eight or nine percent. The trees receded ever more, until there were only a few twisted birches amidst thick, densely matted pillows of willow and bilberry and a great variety of alpine flora. Ever since leaving the last straggling houses of Valloire behind, traffic had increased. There was a constant line of cars from various countries, often laden with roof boxes and carriers for bicycles. In addition there were caravans and motorcycles, and a steady increase of cyclists. Ninety percent of those were riding road bikes, but a few mountain bikers were attempting the climb, too. Two young men in their twenties were lugging their entire camping gear with them in saddle bags and even a small bike trailer, but they were going fast for that. After overtaking them and seeing how they were suffering from heat and constant toil, John decided not to complain about the weight of their luggage anymore, most of which Sherlock was carrying at the moment, anyway.
The only thing making the heat bearable was a slight headwind coming down from the mountains. However, this also meant that the rider in front had to work harder. This was Sherlock, at least most of the time, because he always got twitchy when he had to ride second and seemed to have a hard time keeping his distance. John didn’t mind riding behind him in the slightest. On the contrary, he gladly let him go in front and profited from the wind break.
Although Sherlock battled ahead valiantly, watching him John noticed how heat, loss of hydration despite regular sips from the bottles and the general constant exertion were beginning to take their toll on his friend. John was feeling the exhaustion, too. His shoulder injury reminded him of its existence with increasing frequency with stings and stabs. But Sherlock seemed to be declining more alarmingly. John blamed the heat most of all. Sherlock’s usual clockwork-like cadence became increasingly irregular, his speed slowed and he down-shifted for every small peak in gradient when usually he would have stood and dashed over the rise.
When they passed another marking stone which announced ten kilometres to the pass, John rose from the saddle to overtake his friend and take on the headwind for a bit. Just when he was pulling out to the left, there was the roar of an engine and a motorcycle he had neglected to hear raced past him, causing him to pull over sharply and almost collide with Sherlock. The consulting detective lurched to the side and for a brief, horrifying moment John imagined him tumbling down the slope and into the rocky bed of the river far below. Sherlock managed to steady himself just in time, after a swerve through the goat-cropped alpine vegetation to the side of the road. He swayed to a halt and almost didn’t manage to free his feet of the pedals.
“Fucking arsehole!” John yelled, raising a hand for the two-fingered salute once he was riding straight again and dared to take a hand off the handlebars. He shifted down and stopped as well, his body shaking both with shock and anger. “Can’t they watch out? This is not a fucking racetrack.”
“For many it is,” came Sherlock’s wry remark. He was panting and despite his exertion-flushed skin looked pale while at the same time revived by the rush of adrenaline. John turned to gaze at him and closed his eyes briefly to get rid of the disturbing image that had flashed through his mind when it had expected Sherlock to tumble down the slope: a pale, crimson-streaked face with grey eyes reflecting the rainy sky above, the hair sticky in a pool of dark blood.
Sherlock approached a few steps and cocked his head slightly. “I’m fine, John,” he said quietly, and John was certain he had, in his uncanny way, deduced his thoughts.
John raised his eyes to his friend’s and gave a brief nod. Sherlock narrowed his lips in the slightest of smiles. “Do you understand now why I loathe them?”
“Yeah, I get it,” John returned, his anger only slowly abating. “The fucking wanker. I almost pushed you off the road because of him. And most likely all of this because he wanted to impress the woman behind him. God, if you’d taken the plunge—”
“I didn’t,” Sherlock interrupted him sternly, giving him a keen, piercing glance even visible through the sunglasses. “Even if I had, it wouldn’t have been your fault,” his eyes seemed to add.
John wasn’t appeased. “I hope we’ll meet the moron up at the pass. I’ll take his fucking engine apart.”
Sherlock pulled a face John knew as his ‘trying to suppress a grin’ expression. “I look forward to seeing that.”
It turned out they didn’t have to wait that long. After two more kilometres, they reached Plan Lachat. Here, after an almost flat stretch the road crossed the Valloirette by a stone bridge, took a 180 degree turn and began to mount a steep wall of rock with a gradient of ten percent and more in a sequence of daring hairpin bends. For many cyclists, this, together with the last kilometre before the pass proper, was the most feared bit of the entire climb. Even the caravans and more heavily laden cars had trouble struggling up the slope, and down, too, since the road was narrow and again sported no railing whatsoever. Moreover they had to account for the many cyclists attempting the climb.
Given the amount of traffic, there was a small queue of vehicles awaiting their turn. At Plan Lachat, where also a couple of hiking tracks branched off the main road to lead up into the mountains, a small restaurant had been established in a stone building to the left of the road. From its parasol shaded terrace one had a grand view of the spectacle that was the climb, and many cyclists as well as other tourists had stopped here for a break.
Not sure if there would be another opportunity to refill their bottles at a higher point, even though there were at least two more buildings marked on the map, John and Sherlock pulled up at the restaurant. Sherlock had recovered somewhat after the almost accident, adrenaline overcoming his exhaustion, but John knew he was in sore need of a respite before the last quarter. The parasols offered some much sought after shade. Also, there was a small well fed by a hose from one of the mountain streams where one could refill for free. Sherlock, after ridding himself of helmet and sunglasses, did the only reasonable thing: he stalked up to the hose and held his head under the flowing water for a moment, washing away the layer of dried dust and salt John could feel encasing his skin, too. Shaking his curls out of his face and sending heavy drops flying in every direction, Sherlock returned to their table.
“I highly recommend it,” he told John with a rare, genuine smile. “Oh, do take my bottles, will you?”
“Why didn’t you take them yourself?”
“Because if you return carrying all four, you might not want to close them properly and maybe stumble over that step leading onto the terrace.”
John frowned. “Why would I want to do that? Sherlock, you’re not sun-struck, are you?”
Sherlock chuckled. “Not at all, John. My mind is in perfect working condition. But I hadn’t finished. Once you’ve stumbled, you might employ your impeccable marksmanship to spill their contents over this fellow over there and hopefully also submerge the spaghetti on his plate. Recognise him? Or do you think that childish? You could of course also sabotage his motorbike, but I’m not sure that’d be a good idea as French authorities might not condone your motive. He’s a policeman, after all, although not from the area and on holiday. Alternatively, I could also give him the full deductive treatment. There are some things I’m sure he wouldn’t want announced publicly, particularly not in front of the woman he’s taken along for the ride and who he obviously is trying to impress. Your choice.”
Actually, John’s anger had abated by that time, but the thought of unleashing Sherlock on the man did hold some appeal. Sherlock seemed to read his decision in his face, grinned, and sauntered over to the biker and the woman. They were too far away for John to hear what Sherlock was telling them. The few snatches he caught were in rapid French, anyway. But when he was done the woman raised her glass, cast her drink in the biker’s face and left, to the turning of a few heads in the vicinity of the table, while the biker sat looking deeply embarrassed wiping wine off his face. A moment later he leaped up with a curse when the sound of an engine could be heard and the woman could be seen taking off down the road back to Valloire on his motorbike.
“What did you tell her?” asked John curiously.
Sherlock gave him a broad, smug grin as he flopped down on the chair. “Just a few things about the fellow.”
“Come on, Sherlock, what?” John demanded, and gave an exasperated huff when Sherlock only shook his head, his grin broadening.
“Well, have it your way, Mister Show Off. I’ll find out eventually. You can order some drinks while I refill the bottles. Oh my god, what is that?”
He nodded towards the road where another cyclist was passing the restaurant. Sherlock had followed his gaze. “Interesting,” was his only comment.
John turned to him, both eyebrows almost touching his hairline. “Interesting?”
“Obviously. And practical. You don’t sweat all over your clothes like this.”
John gazed at his dead serious expression and started to giggle. “Yeah, right, because they’re nice and safe at home.”
Sherlock joined in with a low chuckle. “You should try it, too.”
Another burst of giggling from John. “Ah no, thanks. I prefer to wear my swimming trunks in the pool and at the beach. Hell, that guy looks like he’s been wearing nothing else all summer.”
“Most likely he hasn’t. One way of avoiding tanlines.”
John watched the almost naked, extremely tanned cyclist, a man in his late sixties wearing nothing but state of the art cycling shoes, sunglasses and a pair of black swimming trunks round the bend and rise from the saddle to cover the steep ascent. “He’s bloody fit.”
“He’s local,” Sherlock stated, as if this explained everything.
They spent about half an hour on the terrace, drinking diluted apple-juice and eating the bread and what was left of the fruit John had bought at Valloire. The spectacle on the road provided good entertainment, but after a while the constant wind coming down from the mountaintops began to feel chilly on their sweaty skin. After paying for their drinks and applying another layer of sunscreen, they set out again.
John approached the steep stretch with some trepidation, but found it not too difficult once he had covered the first hundred metres. Despite the gradient, in a low gear the ascent was manageable, and there was a lot to distract oneself with. One was the daring road, again with a steep drop down to the river right next to the roadside. Another was the Tour de France graffiti covering almost every available inch of the tarmac. Ever since Valloire, there had been occasional names and encouragements in a number of languages painted across the road in colourful letters, but here, on the final kilometres of one of the Tour’s most famous passes, creativity had reached entirely new levels. People had written, painted and drawn the names and nicknames of their idols, the famous jerseys, the names of legendary cyclists of old.
When he fixed his eyes on the road and not the breathtaking countryside, John thought he could almost hear the cheering of masses of people who had occupied the roadsides only about a month ago, and almost every year ever since the first passage of the Galibier over ninety years ago. With a rush of nostalgia, he saw himself sitting in front of the telly listening to his father enthuse about the Tour, and he felt his heart clench as a wave of sadness rolled over him. His father should have been here, too, and see all this splendour.
Raising his eyes from the tarmac when he drew near the next hairpin bend, he saw that Sherlock had dropped back a little and was riding next to him, watching him keenly. “Alright?” he asked, and John felt another rush of emotion. He was sure Sherlock knew what he had been thinking about, and for his friend, the self-professed sociopath, to react to his emotional distress was a rare occurrence. He knew Sherlock cared, in his own, curious way, but most of the time he either didn’t bother showing it, or didn’t dare.
John gave him a brief but grateful smile. “I’m fine,” he replied, and meant it.
Sherlock nodded and accelerated. “Allez, allez,” he called over his shoulder, causing John to grin and increase his pace as well.
With about four kilometres to go and the pass and the last steep incline already in sight, they paused again. Actually the stop had been unplanned. John had halted repeatedly to take photographs. Every bend of the road and every outcrop of rock offered new, stunning views of the valley of the Valloirette and the surrounding mountains. He also took a few shots of Sherlock as he struggled on ahead, a tiny, blue-black figure against the majestic mountainscape. John wasn’t sure what effect the landscape had on his companion, but he felt extremely humbled, overwhelmed in a respectful, awed sense. Even though the landscape, like the deserts of Afghanistan and indeed the dark backstreets of London was potentially dangerous, right now, in bright sunshine with a few clouds casting shadows over the rocky hillsides, green turfs, and remainders of snow in some crevices and hidden corners, it did not seem very threatening but rather awe-inspiring. And gazing over the road winding like a grey serpent up the mountains and knowing how much of that road they had already climbed by the strength of their own two legs, he felt a considerable measure of pride.
Noticing that Sherlock had disappeared from the road ahead, John returned his mobile to his jersey’s back pocket and mounted again. He soon found his friend’s bike leaning against the grass and flower-grown bank, and his helmet discarded on a rock some distance above the road. Thinking Sherlock had stepped out to take a leak, he waited for a while, drinking from his bottle and watching a group of cyclists struggle past. When the detective did not reappear, John sighed, took off his helmet as well and climbed the bank to look for his friend.
He found him lying on his stomach on the edge of a small hollow. Rainwater had gathered here and formed a shallow bog grown with low rushes and cotton grass and a number of other plants John didn’t recognise. Sherlock had his mobile out and was apparently attempting to shoot pictures of the alpine flora, totally oblivious of his surroundings.
For a while, John simply watched him shifting about, holding his phone this way and that to muttered complaints about its lack of a proper macro lens. The doctor also might have enjoyed the sight of a shapely backside, and found some amusement in the fact that Sherlock seemed to have deleted the fact that the ground he was lying on was rather soggy.
“You’re obscuring the light,” Sherlock remarked without looking up.
John stepped round the bog to crouch down beside his friend. “Didn’t know you were interested in alpine flora. Or is this another remainder of your childhood pursuits?”
“I was hoping to find an alpine salamander in this bog,” explained Sherlock.
“A salamander?” asked John with both eyebrows raised in astonishment. “What’s so special about them?”
“They’re rare, and they’re interesting. But there aren’t any here. Still, this place has other assets, and one is indeed a remainder of my interests as a child.” He stretched out a hand and pointed to a thick pillow of peat moss. John leaned in for a closer look, catching a sparkle of sunlight from tiny drops of moisture upheld by slender stalks of red.
“Sundew,” he said. “Oh, I loved flesh-eating plants as a kid, too. Had several venus flytraps, only most didn’t last long because Harry would shut them by sticking in her fingers. So, you had some, too.”
Sherlock snapped another picture before turning to John – who was taken back by his expression. He looked like he was on a particularly interesting case with his eyes glinting and his gaze keen and intense. “I collected them. When I became more adapt at chemistry I tried to analyse and replicate their chemical compounds.”
“Of course you did. I only caught flies and other insects to feed mine,” said John. “Did you know that there’s an entire section of one of the tropical greenhouses at Kew Gardens devoted to carnivorous plants? They have all kinds of pitcher plants and butterworts and sundews. Have you ever been to Kew?”
“Yes, several times as a child, and more recently on a case. Not exactly during opening hours during that last visit, though, and sadly I missed this particular greenhouse.” He cocked his head slightly. “We could go there,” he suggested, almost tentatively.
John beamed at him. “Sure. Last time I went was with Sarah, and she was more interested in giant tree-ferns and other plants you find in New Zealand.”
Sherlock’s expression seemed to darken very slightly at the mention of John’s ex. “So, is Kew a standard location you take your dates to, then?” he asked, with a hint of prickliness.
John smiled. “Beats dinner and a movie every time, you know. And you don’t have to buy flowers.”
“You wouldn’t buy me a carnivorous plant, then?”
“If there was any reassurance it wouldn’t end up being fed body parts or die of neglect, I might even get you one. Unless you’d prefer a bunch of roses.”
They looked at each other and simultaneously began to laugh. John extended a hand to Sherlock. “Come on, up you get. Before your shorts soak up even more of this bog. Lucky they’re black. White ones would look … interesting now.”
John’s worry that someone might have stolen their bicycles proved unfounded. They still stood where they had deposited them against the bank. John noted that Sherlock was walking somewhat stiffly and plucking at his shorts. Apparently they were more thoroughly soaked than had seemed at a glance. He was also aware that to a casual observer, the fact that the two of them were returning from a sheltered spot with one still rearranging his clothing might induce certain ideas, and indeed they received a grin and two raised eyebrows from a couple of cyclists moving past, but he decided he didn’t care. If anything, their ideas of what they might have been up to were rather flattering.
John smiled slightly to himself when he considered how his attitude to people seeing Sherlock and him as a couple had changed. He was no longer correcting them or denying their assumptions, because in a way he knew they were right. They were a couple, and had been even before Sherlock’s disappearance and return. Of all of John’s relationships over the years, this had become the longest and most enduring, and the most serious, too.
He must have looked somewhat pensive because when he cast a quick glance at Sherlock, he found the other watching him. John adjusted his sunglasses and nodded towards the pass, visible as an incline between two rocky peaks with a thin line of curvy road leading up to it over a grey slope, cars glinting along its course. “Ready for the last stage?”
Sherlock grinned wolfishly as he fiddled with the straps of his helmet. “Oh yes.”
The last leg of the climb almost made John reconsider the entire venture. The gradient remained moderately steep until they reached the point where the road divided. There was another building here where travellers could rest. Straight ahead the road entered a tunnel that lead through the mountain and rejoined the pass-road proper on the other side. It was closed for cyclists, who had to take a left hand turn and follow the steep incline and its narrow hairpin bends up the last kilometre to the Col du Galibier.
Taking a sip from his bottle, John drew a deep breath and shifted down to face the gruelling gradient of this last lap. If anything, the view compensated for the pain and exhaustion. By now more clouds had drifted up from the West and were casting shadows on the barren landscape. Daws were circling on the thermal winds in front of the hillsides, their hoarse cries adding to the feeling of remoteness evoked by the landscape. The road they had climbed could be seen almost in its entirety from Plan Lachat, and towards the north, through an opening between two mountains, the snow-clad mass of Mont Blanc could be descried, rearing its majestic white head over all the other mountains in its vicinity amidst a halo of fluffy cloud.
Breathing hard and trying not to steer too close to the right whenever he was riding next to the unsecured roadside, John began counting down the bends. Three more to go, now two. There was a slight lessening of gradient, the last serpentine curve, a straight stretch ahead with the carpark at the pass already in sight. Looking over his shoulder to Sherlock who this time had chosen to ride second, he saw his friend’s weary but elevated smile. Holding out his left hand, he waited for Sherlock to ride up and grasp it briefly, an action which almost caused the two of them to collide and fall over because of their low speed. Grinning like a madman, John let go of Sherlock’s hand as powered by a rush of endorphins not only caused by the fact they had indeed conquered the pass, he accelerated to cover the last metres in a sprint.
They had made it. 2645 metres altitude, a large sign announced, two thousand of which they had climbed by bike. And the weather had held. And the air wasn’t too thin to breathe up here. And their provisions and preparations had been just right. And Sherlock was here, too, and he was positively glowing. Not even after the successful solving of a challenging case had John seen him look so pleased and content and, well, happy. The sight made John want to grab and kiss him.
Dismounting and leaning their bikes against the low stonewall bordering the carpark, John cast a glance about to distract himself his companion’s luminance. The road turned sharply around an outcrop of rock to its left to then dip again steeply towards the Col du Lautaret and Briançon. The view was breathtaking. The mountains here were less high than the Mont Blanc, and only patches of snow in sheltered, north-facing locations had survived the summer sun, but it was a humbling sight nevertheless, especially when one caught glimpses of the green valleys so far below.
The carpark was bustling with tourists. A large group of cyclists had just arrived from the Col du Lautaret and was busy having photographs taken in front of the large sign at the stone outcrop announcing the Col du Galibier and its altitude. Other signs were giving directions towards Valloire, St-Michel-de-Maurienne and Briançon in their respective departements. There was a fresh, brisk breeze blowing, but for now John was still too hot to care. Soon, however, they would need to don their jackets to avoid catching a cold. Spotting the well-tanned cyclist in the swimming trunks they had seen last at Plan Lachat, he noted that even he was wearing a jacket now.
Sherlock was standing with their bikes and looking back over the road they had come. John stepped up next to him. “Amazing view, isn’t it?” he mused. “And to think we struggled up all those bends by ourselves. I’ll never again complain about going up to Hampstead.”
Sherlock smiled but didn’t reply.
John slapped his shoulder. “Come on. Let’s do the touristy thing and have our picture taken posing with the bikes in front of the sign.”
To his slight surprise, Sherlock agreed readily. They found a helpful elderly Australian lady who agreed to snap a few photos with John’s mobile as they arranged themselves next to the signs after the other cyclists had vacated the spot.
“Lovely,” she commented. “But do move closer together, boys, or you’ll cover the sign. Yeah, that’s it. Little closer still. Splendid. Oh, and look here, into the camera. Oi, over here. You can flirt later.”
Blushing, John tore his gaze from Sherlock’s. He felt light-headed which couldn’t be blamed on the altitude and lack of oxygen, but rather on Sherlock’s proximity and the fact his friend had put an arm round his shoulders. John, too, had snuck a tentative arm to Sherlock’s waist, feeling him twitch slightly when his hand made contact with his side. It made him wonder whether Sherlock was ticklish. Deciding to postpone the exploration of that mystery to a later instance, for now John quite shamelessly allowed himself to relish the feeling of his friend’s lithe body so close to his, to feel his breathing and heartbeat and the warmth radiating from him, and to smell the mixture of sweat and sunscreen and deodorant and sun-warmed skin.
“You know you had your doubts concerning this venture, John,” came a low rumble as both were gazing into the mobile’s lens and the smiling face of the Australian, “but I think you will agree this has proved extremely enjoyable so far.”
John snorted and grinned. “You just want to hear how brilliant you are.”
He felt Sherlock chuckle. “You know I never tire of your praise.”
John gazed up at his friend. “At least you’re honest. But yes, I admit that this was one of your more genial ideas. Come on, let’s have another look around before we prepare for the descent.”
He gave Sherlock’s side a squeeze, watching with delight how the detective squirmed and drew a shocked breath. Then turning round his bicycle, he sauntered off to retrieve his phone from the woman who had difficulties hiding her grin. Oh yes, definitely ticklish, he thought.
Glancing back at Sherlock, he caught his friend’s thoughtful, intense expression. Sherlock was watching him with a burning fire in his eyes, a mixture of possessiveness, pride, need, and a couple of other emotions John hadn’t recognised at a glimpse. As soon as Sherlock had noticed his attention, his face had taken on the carefully calculated look he so often wore when he was trying to hide his feelings. He even retrieved the sunglasses from the neckline of his jersey and put them on again.
John nodded slightly to himself. There would be need for another talk tonight, unless they were too tired. As daunting as the prospect of discussing emotions with Sherlock was, right now John didn’t care. They had conquered the bloody pass. Sorting out their admittedly complicated relationship didn’t seem too difficult in comparison. And for now, there were thirty-odd kilometres of downhill cycling to look forward to. Everything else could wait.
Again there is a drawing for this chapter at my tumblr: "Col du Galibier"
The wind had picked up by the time they returned to the wall, and John began to feel the cold in his sweaty clothes. He rummaged in the rucksack Sherlock had deposited against the stonewall and retrieved his windstopper jacket. Sherlock, too, had donned his.
A couple of hikers were climbing a narrow path leading up to the Galibier’s actual peak. John knew this location promised an even more spectacular view than their current one at the carpark, but as tempting as the idea of following the alpinists was, with their equipment it would be utter nonsense to try and climb the path. The cycling shoes made walking on tarmac difficult. Ascending a rocky track would be suicide. Moreover, he wasn’t going to leave their bicycles at a location where a thief could simply grab them and throw them into the back of a car.
Still, he felt a strange reluctance to depart again so soon from this majestic place, particularly after it had taken such an effort to get here. “I wish I had brought a proper camera,” he mused, “and that we could wait until the evening. Imagine what sunset must look like up here in the mountains.”
Sherlock gazed at him and raised an eyebrow. “Romantic cliché, John.”
“So what? Some would describe your appreciation of the stars as romantic cliché as well.”
“I didn’t claim to be immune,” admitted Sherlock, apparently slightly disgusted at the realisation.
John studied him and smiled. “No, you didn’t,” he said quietly, knowing that despite ardent claims to the contrary, Sherlock was neither immune to sentiment nor romance.
He sighed. “Well, guess we should set out again. It’s getting quite chilly whenever the sun’s hidden behind a cloud.”
“The temperature should be about twenty degrees less than in the Arc valley,” Sherlock estimated. “One degree less for every hundred metres of elevation. According to the weather forecast, there should be about thirty-five degrees down in Saint Michel right now, meaning with the addition of the wind, we have little more than ten degrees up here. And it’s going to feel even colder during the descent.”
“Well, let’s get on with it, then. Give me the rucksack.”
“I’ll take it.”
“Keeps my back warm.”
“I see. Knew you had a selfish motive. Thanks.”
They mounted, but had to let a short caravan of cars pass until the road was clear again. Shifting a few times in the saddle until he was comfortable again, John rode in line behind Sherlock who had bent over the handlebars and simply let his bike roll the first hundred metres until they reached the first bend. For now, there was a rising slope to their right. After the bend, there would be nothing. John felt a rush of adrenaline at the realisation of how precarious the road was at some points, even more so now that they were following it with speed. Oh, this was going to be good.
After taking two hairpin bends by really leaning into them, feeling the sharp wind in his face and the way the bike reacted to the smallest to shifts in his posture like it was another part of his body, he had to correct himself. This wasn’t just good, it was utterly brilliant: fast and technically demanding and quite dangerous. The slow uphill plodding forgotten, he released the brakes after yet another turn of the road and shot past Sherlock, excitement and exhilaration taking over.
In no time he had reached the foot of the last steep climb where the road to the tunnel branched off, and on he sped, even accelerating on the straighter stretches until even the highest gear found no purchase when he stepped into the pedals. He barely managed to restrain himself from whooping with joy. It felt like a relief, rushing along like this, not just to alleviate several hours of strenuous climbing, but also months of pent up tension, of not talking about certain things that troubled him, of exasperation at a certain flatmate of his. Right now they were far away, as if the wind of his speed had whipped them from his mind, and the feeling was bloody wonderful.
Ducking low in the saddle to flatten his body against the wind’s resistance, he tried to go even faster, and managed until another bend forced him to brake slightly so as not to shoot right out of it and take a shortcut down the slope. Veering into the middle of the road to cut the curve, he noticed too late that there was a layer of loose gravel. For a brief, heart-stopping moment he felt his rear tyre lose grip and the bike beginning to slide, but he managed to control it by shifting his balance slightly and withstanding the reflex to brake hard which likely would have caused the wheel to block and slip even more.
Adrenaline shot through him like a hot rush and he desisted from accelerating after the bend to regain his bearings. As exciting as descending with high velocity was, he was not familiar enough with the route and the countless curves to risk an accident, particularly now that he was approaching the steep wall-like slope near Plan Lachat with its hairpin bends and heavier traffic.
Slowing down and feeling the wave of adrenaline ebb slightly, he began to feel the cold which formerly he had neglected in his fascination with speed and danger. Despite the jacket, his chest and arms were chilled. The Tour de France graffiti on the road reminded him that the professional riders would often stuff L’Équipe down the front of their jerseys during descents to block the wind. At least we should have brought long gloves, he mused as he carefully flexed his fingers on a stretch where it felt safe to release the brakes for a moment. They were hurting from the cold and from the constant strain of braking.
As he approached the bridge near Plan Lachat, with a stab of worry he remembered that he had neither seen nor heard anything from Sherlock ever since their setting out. The thought of the consulting detective not trying to keep up or even outpace him was faintly irritating. Slowing down when the gradient decreased and the road ran straight for a bit, he risked a glance over his shoulder up the slope. With some relief he spotted Sherlock’s black jacket and silver helmet on his blue-metallic bike taking the last hairpin to then descend to the bridge, riding far more carefully than John had anticipated of his often reckless friend.
He smiled with relief, then gave a surprised shout when two cyclists shot past him, almost knocking him over. They were young men in red shorts and red and white polka-dot jerseys who hadn’t bothered with jackets or other protective clothing for the downhill ride. John snorted, but accelerated again. He wasn’t going to let them get away too far, not because he wanted to accost them to complain, but simply to prove himself he could keep up, at least on the descent.
He didn’t quite manage to, he soon realised, because they knew the terrain very well and moreover rode far more riskily than even he would have dared. Soon they had dwindled to two red and white dots in the distance. John let them pass and decided to enjoy the ride. The road now ran fairly straight with only few and gentle curves which meant he didn’t have to brake too much and could simply let his bike run. Due to a slight tailwind and the continued decrease in altitude the cold didn’t bite as sharply anymore the closer he approached Valloire.
Now that he didn’t have to watch the road as closely for dangerous bends or gravel anymore, he raised his eyes to take in the landscape again, enjoying the new vantage point. To his left, down in the bed of the Valloirette he spotted a group of hikers trying to cross by one of the dead trees and failing miserably. Startled by the roar of a motorbike’s engine, a small herd of cattle was struggling up a steep slope to his right, bells tolling. He grinned at the memory of Sherlock complaining about free ranging cows after the Dartmoor case. Now and then he passed sweating cyclists panting up the road, feeling a rush of pride that he already had achieved what they had set out to do, while at the same time commiserating with them, knowing what still lay ahead for the poor buggers.
Recalling he wanted to take a picture of the tree skeletons in the river, he slowed down when he reached a road branching off to the left, shortly before the first houses of Valloire came into view. The road, or dirt track, rather, crossed the river by a narrow bridge. Unfortunately it was not fit for a road bike so he had to dismount to walk his machine over the rocky surface that would have posed a challenge even for a mountain bike. Without the wind chill of descending at speed, the heat of the afternoon sun bore down on him and he quickly shed the jacket. Casting a glance over his shoulder, his eyes followed the road as far as they could to try and spot Sherlock but he couldn’t see him. Hoping his always observant friend would see his bike, he deposited it against the bridge’s railing as he crossed to reach the footpath leading down to the water. Again, he wondered about Sherlock’s delay, hoping he simply got distracted by something and stopped to investigate, as opposed to a crash.
His fears proved unfounded because when he ascended the river bank again after clambering laboriously over large rocks and pieces of flotsam, again noticing how very unsuitable his footwear was for such off-track pursuits, he found Sherlock standing with their bikes discarding his jacket. John was about to greet him joyfully and comment on his tardiness when he saw the deep frownline creasing his friend’s forehead. Sherlock looked positively put out.
“Hey, had trouble on the way down?” asked John when he reached him. Sherlock glared at him, stuffing his jacket into the rucksack with almost brute force.
“One could say so, yes,” he fumed. Now it was John’s turn to frown, wondering what on earth had turned his friend so angry. Even though he was often annoyed and felt no inhibition of displaying that annoyance openly, Sherlock seldom got really angry, or else rarely let it show to such a degree.
“What happened?” enquired John with genuine concern.
He was taken aback, quite literally, when Sherlock stepped up right into his personal space, fixed him with a heated, piercing glare and hissed menacingly: “Never do that again!”
John only looked at him in utter confusion. “What are you talking about?” he asked, raising his hands in defence and his eyebrows in question.
“What were you trying to prove here?”
“Prove? With what? Sherlock, what the hell are you driving at?”
Sherlock let out an exasperated huff as if to communicate that John was being slow on the uptake again.
“You did it on purpose, didn’t you, to prove you’re still able to keep up with the more daring cyclists, not taking into account that most of them ride the pass daily and know each bend and dangerous curve by heart.”
Realisation dawned. “You’re angry because I got carried away a little?” asked John incredulously. “You, who risks his life on a daily basis without considering the consequences? You, who disappears on cases to God knows where without texting your whereabouts? You, who not long ago took on three bodyguards of a crimelord on his own without waiting for backup? You complain about me taking a bloody exciting downhill road with a bit of speed. Come on, Sherlock, doesn’t that reek of hypocrisy, just a bit?”
“Hypocrisy doesn’t have a smell,” retorted Sherlock. “And this was different.”
“Yeah, it was different because for once you were the one doing the worrying, right?” asked John slyly, watching his friend draw back slightly in surprise and narrow his lips.
“You could have slipped on loose gravel – which in fact at one instance you did – and taken a permanent shortcut down the slope. You could have hit one of the cars, or they you.”
“Yes, and so could you. But we didn’t. Don’t you trust me in taking care of myself?”
“Not when you’re high on adrenaline.”
John burst out laughing, he couldn’t help it. Sherlock sniffed indignantly. “What?”
“You can’t just admit it, can you?”
“That you were concerned about me.”
Sherlock drew himself up before subsiding slightly again. He looked thoughtful, and it seemed to John that he was considering his reply carefully – as of course he would, to make sure he wasn’t going to reveal too much information about his inner workings.
Having obviously come up with a suitable answer, Sherlock took off his sunglasses and fixed John with an intense gaze. “I’m always concerned about you,” he admitted. John had the impression he was forcing himself to maintain eyecontact despite wanting to avoid it, as if to prove a point. The struggle was visible on his face. Of course, they were talking emotions here, no wonder Sherlock was feeling uncomfortable and completely out of his depth. Still, for once he had not tried to stall but had confessed something deeply personal. Knowing his friend, John appreciated the gesture. It had taken months of struggle to get Sherlock to begin to open up, often involving bribery and blackmail, John’s most powerful threat being that he was going to move out again, and for good this time.
“It appears to be a residue from my time abroad,” Sherlock went on, talking at the speed usually reserved for the more challenging deductions, words spilling forth like the bubbly, lively Valloirette in its rocky bed below them, “a death sentence looming over you all the time and not knowing, not knowing whether what I was doing would suffice to protect you, all the time keeping an eye and ear out for news from London and fearing the one phone call or text that would announce I had failed, that either they had gotten you, or that there had been an accident, or —”
He interrupted himself and half turned, letting out a breath.
“Or?” enquired John gently, touched as he was by his friend’s confession.
“Or that you had given up,” came the soft reply, grey eyes fixed on the river below until they shifted to John. “That was my greatest fear of all.”
John let out a low whistle. “Jesus, Sherlock.” He swallowed before reaching out to touch his friend’s shoulder lightly. Sherlock stiffened for an instance but soon relaxed again, looking somewhat uncomfortable, though. John atrributed this not to the touch, but the fact they had of a sudden ventured into dangerous, unchartered territory. Here, there be dragons.
Neither time nor place seemed right for this conversation, but would there ever be a right one? So for it, then, John thought. He drew a breath, unconsciously and very lightly rubbing his thumb along the sharp line of Sherlock’s collarbone.
“Listen,” he said gravely, “I’ve seen a lot of crap in my life, and some of that has really gotten to me. I don’t need to tell you, I think, that watching my best friend jump from the roof of a bloody building was one of them. But at no point did I seriously consider offing myself. I mourned you, I was pretty desperate for a long time and no fun to be around, I guarantee you, even though those who did endure me made nice faces about it. But I struggled on, and would have done so until the pain had been more bearable and I’d been able to move on. And I definitely didn’t try to end my life today by riding dangerously.” He licked his lips. “I’m sorry I worried you. Actually, I’m surprised you didn’t try and overtake me, given your own blend of recklessness and your sometimes ridiculous intolerance for riding, running, or doing anything second. Tell you what, for the remainder of the descent you can go in front and I promise to behave and go nice and slow and follow in your wake, like I always do. The road down the Télégraphe is too curvy for racing, anyway.”
The detective gave a nod. “Nice and slow?” he asked, and John was relieved to see a spark of humour in his eyes. “Always going extremes, are we?”
John grinned. “Just to prevent you from getting all jittery again because in truth you’re just a bit frightened of curves.”
Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “Seriously, John, I begin to think you had too much sun on the way up.”
John grinned. “Hey, remind me who’s the doctor here.”
Sherlock smiled as well. “I didn’t know you specialised in the detection of strange phobias.”
“Since I moved in with you, I’ve become a bloody expert.”
They looked at each other and chuckled until suddenly Sherlock cast down his eyes, swallowed and bit his lip which John interpreted as signs of nervousness. Frowning slightly, he tried to discover the cause for the change in his friend’s mood and realised that his hand was still resting at Sherlock’s shoulder and tracing his clavicle. Sherlock’s cheeks had been flushed from the descent, but the colour spreading across his cheekbones and riding up his ears seemed to have an altogether different cause.
John felt his own heartbeat quicken. He licked his lips as he deliberately flattened his hand to place it on Sherlock’s shoulder to give it a manly squeeze, resisting the temptation to run it along his throat instead and play with the ridiculous salt-stiffened curls that peeped out from under his helmet.
“Come on, let’s go before that bunch of idiot drivers we overtook shortly before Plan Lachat catches up with us again.”
Nodding again and clearing his throat slightly, Sherlock stepped back, fiddling with his sunglasses.
Valloire was even more busy now in the early afternoon than during their previous passage. They decided not to tarry but to move on. The first metres of the ascent to the Col du Télégraphe had John’s legs screaming with pain. He had recovered on the long descent, but the change in rhythm caused his muscles to protest. Sherlock, too, seemed to feel the uncomfortable bite of overstrained musculature, riding slowly in a low gear, his step and breathing laboured. Now that they had lost some considerable altitude, the afternoon heat was beating down on them and rising up to engulf them from the tarmac, causing both to reach for their bottles frequently.
Luckily, after an initial steep begin the gradient soon petered out to a comfortable four or five percent until they reached the pass of the Télégraphe again. Next to a grassy hillock where the hiking trail to the fort branched off they halted, as this spot commanded a splendid view over the Arc-valley deep below, already partially cast into shadow.
Again John mourned the fact he had only his mobile at his disposal to take photographs of the landscape, now resplendent in golden afternoon hues that seemed to soften some of the harsher aspects of the mountains. At the end of the valley, a blue peak could be faintly seen. John reckoned that this was already beyond the Italian border and made a mental note to look up its name on the map once they were back at the hotel.
“We should go there tomorrow,” Sherlock’s voice interrupted his musings.
“Huh? Go were? To Italy?”
“Not Italy, but up there.”
Turning to his friend and following the line of his outstretched arm, John gazed across the valley toward their old acquaintance, the Croix des Têtes.
“I doubt there’s a road all the way up that mountain,” he mused.
“Of course not,” came Sherlock’s reply in his usual clipped voice that spoke of little tolerance with John obviously not catching up quickly enough. “There are settlements in the forest, though, meaning there must be ways to reach them. See the spire over there. That’s a church or chapel. I had a look at the map yesterday while you were out sulking and saw that there is indeed a chapel, halfway up the mountain. The climb should be manageable, even if there is a short stretch with a gradient of nineteen percent.”
John decided against remarking on the comment about him sulking. “Well, I’m all for cycling again tomorrow if we feel like it. I had actually considered attempting the Col du Glandon and the Croix de Fer since the Italians were so passionate about them, but considering that this would mean we’d have to travel down the valley to Saint Jean to get to the climb it might be preferable to do something in the vicinity. I certainly don’t fancy cycling on the main valley road. But let’s see how we feel tomorrow, yeah?”
Sherlock gave him an appraising glance. “Your shoulder is bothering you?”
John shrugged. “It reminds me it’s there, yes, and the descent ahead of us won’t improve it. Jolts and constant braking aren’t exactly what the doctor ordered. But it should be fine if I can get a decent shower and a good night’s sleep.”
Sherlock nodded again, and John wondered what was going on in that magnificent head of his. “Got any water left?” he asked.
“Half a bottle. Do you need some?”
“Mine are almost empty.”
They divided up what was left of Sherlock’s water supply and John praised the fact they were only going downhill from now on. “We need to go shopping again this evening, at least for beverages,” he said as they mounted again. “We still have some leftovers from yesterday’s supper we could eat, unless you want to try a restaurant.”
From his absent expression, he could tell that Sherlock hadn’t really listened to him, and he decided to leave the matter until they had safely reached the valley again.
As he had expected, the twelve kilometres down the swooping curves and serpentine bends of the Col du Télégraphe proved a greater challenge than the descent from its big brother. Many of the bends were narrower and had to be taken carefully because of loose stones on the tarmac, requiring constant braking and gearing down to be able to accelerate again afterwards. Moreover, the constant flickering change of bright sunlight and dark shade due to the trees was a strain on eyes and concentration. Traffic was still busy, with many cars going their direction and congesting the more difficult bends where some slowed down to almost walking speed.
By the time they reached the first outlying houses of St. Martin, John’s arms and shoulders were aching along with his fingers, and he was looking forward to unclipping his feet from the pedals to finally be able to stretch his legs again.
As they had agreed and already practised on the remaining ascent from the Galibier, Sherlock rode in front, and when he wasn’t concentrating on the road or mentally cursing inept drivers, John stole glances at his sleek form as he flitted in and out of the forest’s shade and leaned into the curves, wishing he had a camera mounted on the handlebars to film the sight and preserve it for posterity.
When finally they crossed the river Arc again, John recalled his feelings from the morning, a mixture of excitement and dread at the prospect of spending the next couple of hours cycling uphill. Now, his exhaustion was replaced by a surge of triumph. They had indeed made it. In front of him, Sherlock looked over his shoulder. Seeing John’s expression, the corners of his mouth twitched into a smile. “Carrefour?” he asked.
At the supermarket John bought as much water as would fit into the rucksack while Sherlock remained outside with the bikes. They still had food left for an improvised dinner, and for a moment John considered bying some beer because the idea of a cool one seemed extremely nice considering his parched, weary yet happy state. He was even looking forward to trying some local brew but found to his disappointment that apart from some Belgian beers all others were out. Someone was having a party tonight, apparently. With a sigh, he grabbed two cooled bottles of coke instead.
“We still have wine left,” Sherlock greeted him as he stepped out of the climatised interior of the supermarket into the sweltering heat of Carrefour’s carpark. “In case you fancy some alcohol tonight.”
“What makes you think I do?” asked John, handing him a bottle of coke.
“You took quite a while in there which indicated you were looking for something. Given our somewhat dehydrated state, some beverage other than water, as you already knew where to find it from yesterday’s visit. I know you sometimes enjoy beer after exercise, a habit from your rugby days or because your body asks for the electrolytes it doubtlessly provides (although there are of course healthier options should you crave only those). So, beer it was. Again, you knew which aisle to look because we got wine yesterday, hence the time you took was not simply spent searching but rather trying to decide whether you fancied any of the leftover brands or none at all.”
“How do you know there were only few brands left over?”
“Because when we arrived there were several people at the cashiers with considerable amounts of beer, and I overheard two teenagers complain they only had Stella and some other kind they did not like left.”
“Well, they shouldn’t be drinking anyway, at that age,” commented John, holding out his bottle for Sherlock to bump his against, which he did after giving his friend a questioning glance.
“To the pass,” announced John. “And a pretty remarkable day.”
Sherlock smiled as he took a draught. “To good company,” he said.
John grinned broadly. “That too.” Then he groaned as he moved his shoulders and ran a hand over his face where sweat and dust had dried into a mask-like surface. “God, I need a shower.”
Before he could enjoy the shower, John had some more and rather unplanned exercise, most of which consisted of climbing up and down the exterior metal staircase of their hotel hunting for the key of the bike garage. Even with normal shoes this was tricky, but with cycling shoes particularly the descents were no fun. Given the fact John did not undertake the journey once (up to get the key and down again, and then up to get to their room), but at least seven times in total because some idiot apparently had taken the key with them when they set out, the spare key didn’t work because it was for the old lock before it had been replaced, and the only person with another set of keys didn’t initially answer his phone, only to tell the hotel staff when he did call back that he was currently in Modane and it would take a while for him to get back.
John was cursing when he trudged down the stairs to inform Sherlock of the delay, to find him conversing with the Italians who had just opened the garage and were putting their bikes in.
“Did they have the key?” he asked, struggling to keep his voice under control.
“Oh no,” said Sherlock lightly, pulling the bottles out of their holders as he deposited his bicycle in one of the racks. “I picked the lock. Wasn’t difficult at all, despite the lack of proper tools. They should really consider putting in a more secure one.”
“Yeah, you can tell them. And nice of you to chase me up and down those bloody stairs trying to find a working key. Couldn’t you have picked the lock before my second excursion?”
“And rob you of the exercise?”
“Oh, shut it. I’m having a shower now. And unless you can lock the door again with your impeccable criminal abilities, you can wait here until the fellow from Modane arrives.”
Apparently Sherlock did indeed wait, because John had already finished in the shower when he heard the door to their room open. He decided to take his time in the bathroom to make Sherlock wait yet a bit longer. His cycling clothes needed rinsing as white saltlines were showing. The bathroom wasn’t large, and he wondered where to put all the gear to dry.
Gazing at himself in the mirror, he saw that the tour had left traces. His cheeks were still flushed and his nose redder than it should be, having barely avoided sunburn. He checked his arms and legs, praising the fact he had insisted so vehemently on applying high SPF sunscreen. The tanlines were more clearly visible, but it didn’t look like he got burned. He wondered about Sherlock with his much paler skin, though.
Noticing he had left his clothes on the bed, he wrapped the towel round his waist and stepped out of the bathroom. Sherlock was standing at the window, apparently checking his emails on his phone.
“Do we still have some of the aloe gel?” he asked without looking up.
“Yes, in my bag,” answered John. Sherlock’s upper arms looked redder than they should indeed, so did the sides of his face except for where the strap of his helmet had sat. Grabbing his clothes with one hand, John retrieved the tube of gel with the other and tossed it in his friend’s direction. “Catch!”
John stopped in the doorway upon hearing a low grunt and a clatter. Turning, he saw Sherlock stoop down behind the bed to pick the tube off the floor.
“You didn’t catch it,” stated John in surprise.
Sherlock sniffed. “Obviously.” It was difficult to tell against the light of the window in Sherlock’s back, but it seemed to John like there was a faint flush creeping over his cheeks.
“You always catch the things I’m tossing at you,” said John, still awed by this unique failure. “Most times you don’t even look up. You just catch. Lightning reactions.”
Sherlock’s eyes narrowed, but then he shrugged and began fiddling with the tube’s cap. “Maybe I was distracted,” he muttered, and by now John was sure he was blushing. Hell, he was even biting his lip, looking very young, sheepish and absolutely adorable. A grin began to spread across John’s face and he didn’t bother to hide it.
“Should I venture a guess at the cause of your distracted state?”
Sherlock gave him a quick look before glancing down at the gel in his hands again. “I’d prefer if you didn’t.”
John laughed softly. “As you wish. I’d better get dressed, then.”
“Yes, you’d better.”
While Sherlock showered, John flopped down on the bed and scrolled through the photographs he had taken during today’s journey. He smiled in mild disbelief when he reached those he had taken from the pass and that showed the road winding up, tiny cars dotting it here and there. They had managed to cycle up all those bends. A warm feeling of pride spread through him. Then he reached the photos the Australian had taken of him and Sherlock in front of the sign, and the warmth bloomed into heat.
He hadn’t noticed it then, but there was Sherlock sporting the gaze again, burningly intense, all the time looking at John who was smiling into the camera. He sighed. What to do about it, though? Confront Sherlock about his feelings? Yeah, right, he could well imagine how that would go. He had done so yesterday and nothing had changed. Wait until Sherlock approached him? Not bloody likely to happen, ever.
“You left your helmet in the shower,” Sherlock’s voice interrupted his musings and he switched off his phone.
“Yes, I had to wash it. There was salt encrusted all along the straps. Hope you rinsed your gear as well.”
By Sherlock’s expression, he hadn’t. He was wearing his usual attire, black trousers and a light grey shirt, long-sleeved, but no socks or shoes yet. His hair was a mess of wet curls.
John sighed as he got up from the bed, his shoulder protesting at the movement. He must have winced slightly, because he saw a shift in Sherlock’s gaze.
“It’s fine,” he said, moving his left arm gingerly. “How’s your sunburn?”
“I see. You needed the aloe gel for your hair, then?”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “My upper arms are a bit redder than they should be, as are parts of my face as you can see. But it’s only warm, doesn’t feel tense and should be fine tomorrow. Satisfied.”
“Yes,” said John, although he would have preferred another look at Sherlock’s arms, which had looked rather viciously red indeed. As he stepped into the bathroom to look after Sherlock’s gear and try and find a place for it, he asked, “What about dinner tonight. I’m starving. Want to have the leftovers from yesterday or go out?”
“Let’s stay in,” replied Sherlock. “I don’t fancy sitting around having to wait for a meal.”
“Meaning you’re hungry, too? Oh wonder.”
“Very funny, John.”
In truth, John was quite happy at the prospect of not having to venture out into the heat again, as it was still well over thirty degrees outside. They took their food and drink and Sherlock’s laptop to the lounge and settled at a table. The Italians were gathered around the television. There was football on, some friendly match involving an Italian and a Dutch team. John watched over their heads for a moment but since the commentary was in French, he didn’t see much use in staying. He got himself a beer at the bar, asked Sherlock if he wanted anything but the detective declined. He had opened his laptop and was frowning at the screen.
“Anything interesting?” asked John as he returned to the table.
“Lestrade emailed. And texted. And tried to phone, twice.”
“Oh? New case?”
Sherlock’s frown deepened. “Not sure. Lestrade thinks it’s an old one. Apparently the art theft case wasn’t as solved as we thought.”
“Really? What happened?”
“The man who, by taking into account all evidence we had should have been the prime suspect turned out to have a very tight alibi. And yesterday a new body turned up in the Tanks at Tate Modern. Lestrade just emailed photographs.”
He turned the laptop around so John could see.
“How could anybody have murdered this woman in the gallery? It’s such a busy place.”
“The body was found shortly before closing time. There were several video installations running, but the room itself is dark. The dead was sitting on one of the pillows, propped up against a part of the installation. Nobody thought twice about her spending so much time there, since often people weary from walking around London will come there to ‘chill out’. They only grew suspicious when she showed no reaction when being addressed.”
“So what makes them think it was murder?” asked John. “Could have been a heart-attack.”
“Yes. But as you can see, the woman was in her mid-twenties, no signs of drug use, no visible risk factors that would indicate an increased danger of cardiovascular diseases.”
“Possible. Or an allergic reaction. Or poison.”
John nodded. Either seemed a good explanation. Lestrade seemed to have been thinking of involving Sherlock from the start because he had told forensics to take photos of the victim in the position she had been found in with no changes to her posture. Only the lighting of the room had been altered. The young woman looked peaceful as she sat, eyes closed. Only the pallor of her skin accentuated by the harsh neon light and the slackness of her mouth indicated her demise. She was dressed casually in jeans, sneakers and a t-shirt, sunglasses stuck in her dark hair.
“And Lestrade thinks she is linked to the other victims?” enquired John.
“For the time being, I have too little information, but the fact she was found in a major art gallery raises certain suspicions. The autopsy should be in tomorrow morning. They did not find a handbag on her. She had an Oyster card in her trouser pocket and a Labello, but there were no traces of wallet or mobile.”
“So we wait?”
John returned the laptop to his friend and raised an eyebrow at him. “There is nothing I can do from over here, can I?” Sherlock huffed impatiently.
John nodded at the food. “Are you in case mode or are you going to eat?”
Sherlock eyed the food warily.
“Refuel now, for when the autopsy arrives?” needled John.
“You don’t give up, do you?” asked Sherlock, but there was the hint of a smile in his eyes.
“Never,” returned John, grinning broadly, handing Sherlock some bread, a slice of salami and half a peach. A thought struck him. “What about tomorrow? Do you want to leave a day earlier as planned?”
Sherlock shook his head. “Since we are waiting for the autopsy anyway, one more day won’t matter. Lestrade expects the data to arrive in the course of the morning, meaning a bike ride later would be good for mulling things over. You know how cycling helps me think.”
John cocked his head watching his friend. “That’s not the only reason, is it?”
“What other reason should there be?”
John smiled lightly. “You like it here, don’t you? You’re enjoying yourself. If that wasn’t the case, we’d be on the train right now, most likely to the nearest airport. But you’re not rushing to the crime scene, you even stick to the original plan despite a juicy, tricky case having come up. You haven’t even deduced the victim, well, not out loud, at least. I’m sure you’ve done so in your head.”
Sherlock looked up, fixing him with a long glance. “As I said, rushing over to London would not help the case.”
“Sure, if you say so.” John’s smile broadened as he watched his friend. “Thank you,” he said earnestly.
Sherlock frowned. “What for?”
“For staying. For ... I don’t know ... not putting the Work first.”
A faint blush seemed to steal over Sherlock’s cheeks. “We wouldn’t have gotten a flight tonight, anyway,” he stated. “I checked.”
John laughed softly. “Sure you did. Wine?”
Sherlock shook his head. “I’ll stick to water. After all, I’m no a case.”
The remainder of their meal passed in companionable silence. At some point the Italians got excited because their country scored against the Netherlands. Suddenly, Sherlock shut the laptop after having stared at the screen for a long time, obviously constructing several theories in his head. He did eat, however, and for him, quite voraciously, too. Together, the two friends finished their leftovers apart from the wine, of which John had half a glass. John went to their room to get the map and had a look at the route Sherlock had suggested for the next day. It was neither as far nor as high a climb, but the road seemed to have several steep passages, most notoriously the last bit up to the chapel marked at the end of it. He also looked up the mountain he had seen from the Col du Télégraphe but found himself unable to determine which peak it had been according to the map.
By the time the match had ended, John was beginning to feel the exhaustion which previously hunger seemed to have kept at bay. Sherlock, too, looked tired, having yawned twice already.
John returned their used glasses to the bar and gathered up map and laptop. “Come on, before you fall asleep at the table.”
This earned him a scowl, but nevertheless Sherlock rose and followed him to their room. Sherlock had just started to brush his teeth when a chime from his mobile caused him to dash to his nightstand and snatch it up, operating it nimbly with one hand while continuing to brush with the other. John stole a glance at his watch as he took his pyjamas to the bathroom to get changed and brush his teeth. By the time he returned, Sherlock was still engrossed in his phone, toothbrush hanging loosely in this mouth.
John grinned, glanced at his watch again, then picked up his own phone. Lestrade had texted him, too, apparently when he didn’t get through to Sherlock. There was a missed call from Mrs Hudson as well. With a trace of worry he called her back, only to find out that she wanted to know how “her boys” were faring, that some strange package had arrived for John from the US, and that, since they were in France, if it wasn’t too much trouble they could get her some Vichy Pastilles.
“Mrs Hudson sends her regards,” John told Sherlock after he had ended the call. His friend showed no reaction, but John had not really expected any. Settling in bed and getting his book, he watched Sherlock exchange mobile for laptop. Apparently now information had come up, but John knew better than to enquire about it since Sherlock was unlikely to even notice him. Faintly, he recalled that there were things they had to talk about, but Sherlock in full case-mode was even more hopeless to discuss deep emotions with than the usual Mr. ‘High-functioning sociopath when it suits me’ Holmes.
Weariness did not creep on John slowly once he had rested his head on the pillow, but rather leapt at him full force. He must have nodded over his book and was startled when Sherlock moved to finally get rid of his toothbrush. John glanced at his watch again.
“New record,” he announced.
There was a grunt form the bathroom.
“Your toothbrushing experiment. 44 minutes, 32 seconds.”
“I didn’t know you were keeping time,” said Sherlock as he exited the bathroom and switched off the light.
“I started when I noticed how you’d get distracted and walk around the flat with the toothbrush stuck in your mouth.”
“Well, I’m glad to keep you entertained.”
“Any new information?”
“Some. They checked her Oyster card and tried to find out more about her background, only to prove what I had deduced already from her clothing, make-up etcetera. No missing person record that matches her description has been filed so far, meaning we still don’t know her name or address.”
“Ah, okay,” murmured John sleepily, settling into his pillow again. He dimly noticed how the mattress dipped when Sherlock got into bed, but by the time the consulting detective had finished rummaging in his bag for something, John had fallen asleep.
John could not recall what had woken him. He had dreamt, but the dream had been merely strange, involving the mysterious package Mrs. Hudson had mentioned in the phone-call. It had been neither frightening nor upsetting like so many of his dreams. Nevertheless, he was startled into wakefulness, realising he could not have slept more than a few hours.
The room was still lit by Sherlock’s bedside lamp and he wasn’t asleep – not that John had expected him to be despite the exhausting bike ride. Sherlock lay on his back with his book The Alpine Beekeeper spread on his chest, but he was not reading at the moment but staring at the ceiling, obviously deep in thought.
“It’s ten past midnight,” he told John without stirring. “You slept about an hour and half.”
“Aren’t you tired at all?” asked John, only gradually becoming more awake.
“I am, but several matters are keeping me awake.”
“Amongst others, yes.”
Sherlock shifted slightly on his pillow, giving John a quick glance from the corners of his eyes without turning his head. “You were muttering in your sleep.”
John felt blood rush into his cheeks. “Oh. Sorry about that. What did I say?”
“I couldn’t catch much. You said my name, and Mrs. Hudson’s. It didn’t sound like a nightmare so I made no attempt at waking you.”
“How do you know what my nightmares sound like?” asked John warily, although he thought he knew the answer. His dreams had changed after Sherlock’s fall, and again after his return, and at times when he had woken, he thought he had seen a shadow in his doorway or felt a presence in his room, and the very fact had eased his mind and caused him to fall asleep again.
“The ceilings and walls in 221b aren’t very thick. I can usually tell your sleeping phases by your movements,” replied Sherlock.
John didn’t remark on how closely his friend seemed to be listening to his doings and tried not to think about what else he might have heard. He ran a hand over his face. “I haven’t had a nightmare for a while. And this dream was just strange. I only remember snatches and they don’t make any sense. Not that I mourn the absence of the others.”
They lay in silence for a while, both looking at the ceiling, their heads slightly turned towards each other on their respective pillows. “Did you dream of me, when you thought I was gone?” Sherlock asked suddenly in a quiet voice, and John was startled, both by the content of the question, so very unlike his friend not in directness but emotionality, and by the soft, insecure tone it was spoken in. He drew a deep breath, pinching the bridge of his nose briefly.
“Yes, I did. Frequently. In the weeks after your … Fall, I relived the scene almost nightly. I saw you lying on the pavement with your face splattered with blood. Sometimes I was on the roof with you and you fell or jumped or were pushed before I could reach you. Sometimes you spoke after you had landed. Sometimes ...” he swallowed hard. “Well, suffice to say my nightmares weren’t about Afghanistan anymore, or if they were, those weren’t the bad ones.”
He turned to Sherlock who lay very still, his face pale under his still somewhat reddened skin, his lips a thin line which John had come to interpret as a sign of emotional distress. “You want to know that the worst ones were?” John continued, because the memory of those nights of utter heartache and loneliness burned in him, and although he had forgiven Sherlock, he still felt the other should at least know how difficult sleeping had been for him for a while for fear of these dreams.
“The worst dreams were those that weren’t horrible at all. No body splayed on the pavement in a puddle of blood. No black coat flapping in the air, no empty eyes staring at the sky. The worst dreams were when I you were playing the violin or conducting an experiment in the kitchen. When you lay on the sofa in your favourite sulking position. When Mrs. Hudson came up with cake or scones. When we got takeaway and you sat correcting the telly. All those normal (for us), mundane things I never cherished enough until I thought I’d lost them. From those dreams I didn’t wake up drenched in sweat, or even shouting. I woke slowly, listening to the continued notes of the violin or the clatter of your test tubes from downstairs. And listening. And nothing would come. And then realisation would set in that nothing of this would come again, ever. One night, or early morning, rather, someone had stopped their car opposite the flat and was waiting for someone, and they had Classic FM on with a piece for solo violin, and I lay and listened and thought it was you playing, and then suddenly the engine started and they were gone ...”
His voice faded as his throat constricted painfully. He swallowed several times until he felt Sherlock shift closer until their shoulders were touching. He could not look at his friend, though. That night, he had cried himself to sleep, and the memory was still painful.
Neither spoke for a long time until Sherlock stirred. “So your worst dreams were the ones in which I was alive?” he asked.
John smiled wryly despite the lump in his throat, recognising his friend’s attempt at humour to lighten the situation for what it was.
“Yeah. Figures, I guess.” He drew a deep breath. “Actually, the dreams were good. The waking up to an empty flat devoid of consulting detectives was shite.”
“Is that why you moved out eventually?”
John nodded. “I couldn’t live with the memories. It hurt me to leave Mrs. Hudson, but I needed to get away, at least for a while. Guess I would have returned sooner or later, though.”
Now Sherlock gave a nod, which John felt through the pillows. He moved the book on his chest around a bit and lay still. For a long time neither of them spoke. John felt sleep pulling at him again. He was not sure how Sherlock had taken his confession as he had shown so little reaction. Then again, John had not expected any.
He closed his eyes again, lulled by the gentle sound of traffic through the closed window and the steady breathing of his companion next to him.
“I tried not to sleep at all,” Sherlock’s deep voice rumbled suddenly, startling him awake again. “I knew that if I did, the dreams would come, so I tried to avoid it. Most of the time, I succeeded, running myself ragged with long periods of wakefulness with only short naps. Often, I could not risk falling asleep anyway since my whereabouts were not safe. I would watch and hunt for days on end, until my body gave in and I passed out for a while, dreamlessly. Nothing new there, you might think, but it was different. I could not afford to lose time to sleep, or to distracting, unsettling dreams. Because for me, the nornal ones were the worst, too. They recalled what I thought I would never have again, either because I failed and you would be killed, or I would die for real myself. Or because upon my return you would not want me back, that you would hate me, and rightly so, for what I had done to you. I dreamt of that a few times: arriving back at Baker Street or meeting you in London, and you telling me that I was dead and had no right to address you anymore. Sometimes you couldn’t see or hear me at all. I was like a ghost, reaching out to you, and you would simply ignore me. Other times, you told me to piss off. And then there were all those dreams in which you died because I had failed. Often I had missed you or your assassin by a hair’s breadth, or you died in hospital and I wasn’t permitted to see you, or I saw myself standing at your grave like you stood on mine.”
He drew a shaky breath and fell silent, turning away from John, who felt rather overwhelmed at the confession. He knew that Sherlock’s time abroad had been dangerous and dark and lonely, and for a while a part of himself he wasn’t proud of had thought it just right that the consulting detective had tasted some of his own medicine. But he hadn’t known that Sherlock had missed him and feared for his safety and indeed survival that much.
And of course this brought them back to the question they had been dancing around ever since his return in ever tightening circles and yet not getting any closer to the answer. John thought it was high time to at least voice the question.
“Where does that leave us, then? Here and now, and in the future?” he asked quietly. He shifted slightly to be able to see his friend, but faced only messy dark curls. “I mean, you having nightmares about my death or rejection, and I of yours. You fearing for my safety and I worrying for yours, all the time.”
The curls moved and Sherlock’s profile appeared in his line of sight, but still his friend avoided looking at him. “Do we have to put a word for it?” he asked.
“It helps, sometimes. I mean, there’s a lot we don’t talk about. Maybe that’s to do with us being male and English ...” John shrugged, hoping that, as so often, a dose of humour would lighten the situation. God, he’d always managed to avoid the blasted relationship talk, but then again he’d never been in a relationship that had meant as much to him than this one, as weird and dangerous and utterly brilliant as it was.
Sherlock turned to him some more. “Is this the big Talk, then?” he asked, and John thought he could hear the sarcastic capital letter. “Hardly the right time and place, don’t you think, with you half asleep and my mind on a case?”
John turned to him fully and propped up his head on his right arm. “Will there ever be a ‘right’ place and time for us to have this talk. I know you hate it. I don’t exactly want this, either, but I think we need to ... well, address a few things before everything turns even more awkward between us.”
Sherlock huffed but cocked his head attentively. “Well, go ahead, then.”
John almost growled. “It doesn’t bloody work like that, you know.”
“How then does it work? We have established that you’re the relationship expert, not I. And we can’t both talk at once. Well, at least not productively.”
John flopped down on the pillow again in exasperation and with a groan when his shoulder announced it was still there and aggravated by his rough treatment during the day.
“You know what, forget it.” he groused. “Forget I suggested it. Stupid idea, anyway. Go back to mulling over your case, that’s what you do best. Only next time you get all jittery because I seem to be cycling a bit too fast, or when we have a picture taken you get all smarmy looking at me, or you see me in a towel and little else and virtually take that away with your eyes, do it more subtly, okay. Because like this, it’s bloody distracting.”
He thought he could almost feel the heat of the blood shooting into Sherlock’s cheeks and ears at his words. “I don’t —” Sherlock began, but John shook his head sharply. “You did. And you do. Hell, yesterday you even admitted as much. Jesus, Sherlock, we’re moving in circles here. You said you find my jumpers distracting. And so do I. Not the jumpers, of course. Worry about you when you’re reckless again, I mean. Gaze at you when I think you’re not looking and I’m in no danger of getting caught by Mr. I-observe-everything. And as for the visual undressing ...”
“You find me attractive?” asked Sherlock, and John rolled his eyes.
“Yes. Excellent deduction. And if you ask me ‘why’, I’ll kick you. Yes, I find you attractive. And I don’t care if you’re a man, or taller than me, or a bloody pain in the arse most of the time, or that you’re a posh public school git who most likely prefers cricket to any decent sport, or that you take up far too much space of my hard-drive. You’re the most important person in my life, and I don’t want to lose you again, to anything or anyone.”
“I don’t want to lose you again, either, John,” replied Sherlock gravely. “It’s a strange ... feeling for me, and I don’t really know what to do with it. Nobody has ever wanted me before, in any way, and I haven’t wanted anybody either. What we have, our friendship, isn’t that good? Doesn’t it work? Why should we alter it to anything uncertain?”
“Perhaps because ‘good’ and ‘working’ isn’t what either of us really desires of this. Or would you be content if things stayed the way they are now and we forget about the heated glances and constant teasing? Yesterday you admitted you find my jumpers sexy.”
“I find the content of your jumpers ... appealing.”
“And you wouldn’t mind seeing the content without the wrappings, right? And touch it, maybe?” If possible, Sherlock’s ears turned even redder. He gave a tiny nod. John smiled.
“Good. Because so do I.”
“You want to sleep with me.”
John suppressed a groan as he ran a hand over his face. Typical Sherlock, striking directly at the core of the problem. But now was the time for truth and not for further deflections.
“Yes,” John admitted. “Maybe,” he added almost immediately.
“Oh,” came the soft reply.
“Listen, that doesn’t mean it’s ever going to happen if you don’t want it either. You’re right, things are good the way they are now, and I wouldn’t want to risk what we’ve got for some brief pleasure, okay. You set the pace.”
“What if you meet someone?”
“What about it?”
“What if you meet a woman and fall in love and leave, because she may give you what you want and which I may not?”
“Sherlock, look at me.” He waited until the detective had turned to him fully. “I don’t want anybody else. I tried and it didn’t work.”
“No ‘but’. What about you, then? What if one day you decide I’m too stupid for you after all, or too boring, and you tell me to move out? If you meet someone brighter and more interesting? If another Irene Adler comes along to mess with your emotions?”
“She didn’t —”
“Yes, she did.”
“It won’t happen.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because you are different. You aren’t stupid and you aren’t boring. I won’t find anybody else because I refuse to look. Waste of time, anyway.”
John laughed softly. For Sherlock, this was as close to a confession of love as he would ever get. And the other seemed to really mean it.
“Well, guess we’re stuck with each other, then.”
John’s soft chuckle turned into a happy giggle. “Not at all. Wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Sherlock began to laugh as well. “People will talk, John,” he rumbled.
“People do little else.” They looked at each other, both grinning like idiots. According to romantic narrative convention we should be kissing now, thought John wryly. But when have we ever done anything conventionally. So instead of snogging his flatmate/best friend/whatever senseless, John yawned. “God, I’m tired. How can you not be tired after the trip today?”
“Case. And ... this,” Sherlock waved a hand over the two of them. “Keeps me awake.”
“Try and get some sleep, unless you want to cancel tomorrow’s cycling.”
“Of course not.” Sherlock looked aghast at the very suggestion. “I need to wait for the autopsy report, though. Molly is doing it so it should be concise. She knows what to look for.”
“Ah, good,” muttered John, weariness now overtaking him with the speed of a TGV. “Night, Sherlock.”
“Good night, John.”
Just when he drifted off, John thought he felt the lightest of touches on his forehead. Might have been fingertips, might have been lips. It caused him to smile, and with that smile he finally fell asleep.
There's another illustration for this chapter, "Pillow talk".
It was difficult to say whether Sherlock had slept at all because when John woke, his friend’s side of the bed was empty and cold. Only the trace of a dent in the mattress indicated that someone had lain there. John turned onto his back and lay still, listening for sounds in the bathroom, but there were none to indicate his roommate’s whereabouts. According to John’s mobile, it was 7:05. He groaned softly. Sure, they wanted to cycle again today and if the temperatures were like yesterday’s it was wise to start early, but after the past day’s exertion a little more rest wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Carefully, he sat up, feeling his shoulder and several muscles protest at the movement. Suddenly the thought of saddling up again didn’t seem so enticing. Looking to the window, he saw the Croix des Têtes illuminated in its full glory by the early sun. Recalling yesterday morning’s sight and the strange but hopefully fruitful conversation last night – some aspects of which seemed unreal and dreamlike now in the light of day –, he began to smile slightly. Had he really more or less confessed his love for his mad flatmate, and heard from the self-professed sociopath’s lips that the feeling was reciprocated?
Footsteps sounded on the corridor, coming closer, accompanied by Sherlock’s unmistakable baritone. “Fine,” he scoffed, annoyance plain in his voice as he opened the door to their room. He was wearing the old t-shirt he had used for sleeping in but had exchanged his pyjama pants for jeans. His hair looked liked it hadn’t seen a brush this morning. Shaving he hadn’t bothered with, either, judging from the trace of stubble on his chin. He gave John a brief glance and a nod before continuing to talk into the phone, his voice irritable and sharp.
“But get them to hurry, Lestrade. I can’t sit around here all morning waiting for you people to finish breakfast. Is no one getting up at a decent time anymore? I need the forensics report, and even more I need the results of the autopsy. Get them to take photographs of all her possessions, even the napkins she was carrying in her trouser pocket. I need every small detail you can possibly provide. Close-ups of her clothes, her shoes, particularly the soles, her fingernails, everything. No, I don’t care whether that’s a lot of extra work. You contacted me for help, so give me something to work with. What? God, don’t tell me Anderson is working on this? Who? The new one from Bradford, Vathijanathar? That’s tolerable. She did a decent job on that doping case. Just tell her to pay attention to every minute detail. Everything can be important. Email me the photos as soon as you get them? Connection? No problem, we have good wifi here. Confidentiality? Oh, come on, do you want the case solved or not? The Chief Superintendent?” Another quick glance at John and the hint of a smile. “John sends greetings. If he thinks he can do a better job, by all means, do tell him about my involvement and see what happens. You know he still doesn’t trust me. Yes, thought so. Enough chatting. Get your underlings to work.”
He ended the call and tossed the phone onto the bed before running both hands through his hair, creating an even greater mess. “Oh, what idiots,” he groused. “No wonder there’s no advancement whatsoever with this case.”
“And a good morning to you,” said John, smiling.
“Morning,” rumbled Sherlock before picking up the phone again and snorting while looking through his text messages. “And if the morning couldn’t be any more frustrating …,” he muttered.
John looked at him questioningly.
“Oh? What did he want? Ask us to bring him some French patisserie?”
The corners of Sherlock’s mouth twitched. “No. But we should, to annoy him and sabotage his diet. He wanted to remind me of a certain case I agreed to look into for him, in exchange for the bikes.”
“I thought they were long paid for.”
“Ah. Care to tell me about it?”
“When we get back home. Lestrade’s is far more interesting. If only he’d get his people to work.”
“Remember they’re an hour behind us. It’s really early over there.
Sherlock gave him a blank look and a shrug. “So? I was already up an hour ago, and even earlier.”
“Perhaps, but not everybody can survive on as little sleep as you obviously can. Did you get any at all?”
“Don’t worry, I did sleep. Wasted about four hours doing so which I could have spent working on the case. Had they cared to provide me with more evidence, that is.”
John sighed, rubbing a hand across his face. “Well, I for one need the bathroom now, and afterwards breakfast. You eating today?”
Sherlock looked undecided. “The cycling should cancel out any slowing effects from digesting the food, so yes, I think I will.”
John felt a warm glow inside him at the mention of cycling. Despite the case, Sherlock seemed to be putting in an effort to not devote himself fully to it, but balance his priorities. This was new, and it was precious, if not entirely selfless on Sherlock’s behalf. John knew Sherlock’s interest in cycling was not only motivated by increased productivity of his brain due to extra supply of oxygen and endorphins. He enjoyed it just as much.
For most of their meal, they had the breakfast room to themselves. Sherlock had desisted from bringing his laptop, having plucked it in to charge in their room. Instead, he was checking his mobile every few minutes, until John clanged his spoon into his cereal bowl and heaved a sigh.
“What do you think this device has a text and email alert sound for? You’ll hear when they send you stuff.”
Sherlock glowered at him, but left the phone in peace for a while. Instead, he began venting his frustration on an unsuspecting croissant. It got plucked apart mercilessly and left to die on his plate. A glare from John made him notice the mess and slowly begin to eat the pieces. Suddenly his eyes flew open and he voiced a soft “oh”.
“Lead on the case?” asked John.
It took Sherlock a moment to get back to him through the intricate pathways of his mind. “Yes, perhaps. On one of the photos they did send some tiny flakes were visible on the rim of her jeans pocket, together with a trace of white substance. Also, there were some small stains on the front of her t-shirt. You saw the photographs. It’s turquoise with some darker blue flowery pattern which almost obscured the stains.”
“What do you think the stains and flakes were from, then?” enquired John, relishing as he always did to be taken along on the ride.
“Her lunch. I hope Molly is going to check the contents of her stomach to prove my theory.”
“What do you think she had for lunch, then, and why is it important?”
“It’s important because it tells us about her whereabouts before she went to Tate Modern. The stains on her t-shirt look like anthocyanin that has been subjected to a rinse with soapy water, the change in pH causing a change of colour from purple or dark red to turquoise blue, thus successfully masking them on her clothes, or almost doing so. Now, anthocyanins are found in all kinds of red berries, as well as several vegetables such as red cabbage. I would have to do a chemical analysis to make sure. The stains could be betanin, too, which shows a similar reaction when the pH changes to more alkaline conditions. Betanin is found in beetroot. The flakes and sugar suggest some kind of flaky dough, either from puff pastry or from filo dough as in burek or baklava. The traces of sugar left outside the jeans pocket as you can see here,” he held out his phone to John and zoomed in on one of the photos with the sharp tap of a finger, “indicate the latter. Something sweet, sticky and dusted with sugar that caused her to search her pocket for a tissue or napkin to wipe her hands.”
“All right, that makes sense,” agreed John. Now that Sherlock had pointed it out, the pastry remains on the trousers were clearly visible on the high-res photograph. “But how does it tell us where she ate? There are dozens of restaurants and other eating places along the South Bank alone. There’s even a restaurant and a cafeteria at the Tate.”
“True. But I wasn’t finished. The fact that she rummaged in her pocket for a napkin suggests she wasn’t sitting down at a restaurant for her meal and that she didn’t use cutlery, meaning she didn’t have a slice of cake at a café but something you eat out of your hand. The same is indicated by the stains on her t-shirt. She ate something on the go, and some of the juices dribbled onto her front. Seems to have been something healthy, perhaps vegetarian, containing fresh salad with either red cabbage or beetroot.”
“Or maybe she had a pastry with a filling of red berries.”
“No, the juice was thin and was almost immediately absorbed by the fabric. Look at the shape of the stains and the darker colouring around the edges. Berries used for filling are thickened with sugar and starch or gelatine.”
“Okay, sounds plausible. She could have had a drink, too, and spilled that down her front.”
“Yes, possible. Freshly pressed juice. Now, where can you buy food like that in the vicinity of Tate Modern without having to sit down at a restaurant, café or cafeteria?”
John thought for a moment. “Borough Market, near London Bridge?”
Sherlock smiled at him with a measure of pride. “Exactly. I know there are several stalls that sell Eastern European sweets like baklava and Turkish delight, and others with artisan patisserie products like croissants and puff pastries. There is a stall with juices, too.” He typed something into his phone and after the site had loaded and he’d clicked through several links, he held it out for John to see. “And there’s also this stall that sells vegetarian and vegan food, with some of their salads containing red cabbage and beetroot.”
“Okay. But it’s no proof she actually went there for her lunch. Still, I guess it’d be good to check with the vendors whether one remembers her. When she bought the food, she must still have had her wallet, at least.”
“Yes, but there is more. According to Lestrade, her Oyster card revealed that she bought it three days prior to her death at Liverpool Street Station. It had last been used the day before her demise for a journey from High Street Kensington to Chalk Farm on the Tube, but not on the day of her death. That means she must have walked to Tate Modern, and according to what we found out about her eating habits passed by Borough Market for her lunch.”
“That doesn’t tell us where she lives in London, though, does it?”
“The last journey doesn’t, but I think we can narrow down the location. The faint salt-lines on her t-shirt under her arms suggest that she walked a considerable distance and broke a sweat. The state of her hair supports this theory. It’s somewhat strainy around her ears. She sweated, it dried again but she didn’t brush it to separate the strands again.
“Now, the fact she bought an Oyster card suggests she is from out of town but intended to stay for several days, long enough to prefer the Oyster card to having to repeatedly buy a daily travelcard.
“She could have lost her old one.”
“True. The card she had wasn’t registered to her name, though, neither did she get a replacement card, suggesting she didn’t have one previously. Liverpool Street could mean she arrived by train, and the fact that no missing person report has yet been filed anywhere in the country that matches her description suggests she might not be British at all.”
“Liverpool Street is where the train from Stansted Airport connects.”
“Precisely. So if she didn’t hail from Cambridgeshire, Essex, Suffolk or Norfolk, probability is high she arrived by aeroplane. Or she came by ferry, to then take the take from Harwich. Stansted is mostly served by Inter-European airlines, cheap ones. Someone who needed to look after her budget, then, a theory supported by the quality and wear of her clothes and shoes. None of them were new, the sneakers have seen several years. The profile is almost gone in places – at least it looks that way on the images I was given to work with.” He pulled a face.
“Student?” mused John. “Art student?”
“Very likely.” Sherlock brought up another photo and zoomed in on the right leg of her jeans. “See this?” Some faint dark smudges were visible on the bleached denim.
John frowned as he leaned closer. “Looks like dirt. Soot?”
“Graphite, I would say, as you would get from a soft pencil.”
“Ah, so you think she drew, made sketches?”
“Yes. She must have rested her hand on the drawing at some point and then wiped it on her leg. But her hands were clean, at least judging from what one can see on the photos. God, I wish they’d send better ones already.”
“Well, she must have been to a bathroom and washed her hands when she treated the stains on her t-shirt with soap,” suggested John.
Sherlock’s eyes shone. “Brilliant. This could suggest she didn’t draw at the Tate after visiting the bathroom there, but before.”
“Well, if we assume she was a tourist, there are plenty of sights along the river,” said John. “The bridges, St. Paul’s, even the Tower if she went that far.”
“Yes, and there are also several museums and galleries between Tower Bridge and Tate Modern. Given the fact that the first journey she undertook with her Oyster card was from Liverpool Street to Finsbury Square with the 153 Bus leads me to surmise she was accommodated in that area. The City University is situated in the vicinity, and there is a YMCA in Errol Street, walking distance from the bus stop even with luggage. I’ve actually told this to Lestrade and I hope he’s gotten a move on and checked with the YMCA whether she did indeed stay there.”
“Finsbury Square is a tidy distance from the South Bank,” said John.
“Less than two miles if she walked south and crossed the river via London Bridge. She seemed reasonably fit, so no problem there.”
“So, she’s likely an art student who liked to sketch, came from somewhere in Europe and had veggie lunch at Borough Market,” summarised John. “So far, so good. But why was she killed, Sherlock, and how? If we assume it was indeed murder and she didn’t die of natural causes.”
Sherlock had assumed his thinking position with his hands steepled under his chin. “We need the autopsy for that, particularly the toxicology report,” he said thoughtfully. “Dangerous to leap to any more assumptions before that. What hints at a crime is the fact that someone took her bag. She must have had one. You can see traces of a strap on her shoulder above the collar of her t-shirt, particularly the left one. It must have been reasonably heavy, judging by the visibility of the marks even in death. We know she carried drawing utensils, a sketchbook, most likely, and perhaps a pencil case. She must have had a wallet and presumably a mobile phone, maybe a bottle of water or some books to account for the weight of the bag. Maybe a camera. The police are searching for it. It’s probable that someone snatched it for the valuables and threw it away afterwards.”
“Into the river, if they were smart,” offered John.
Sherlock rolled his eyes. “If they were smart, they didn’t dispose of it in the vicinity but took it with them.”
John ignored the eye-roll. Taking a sip of his cooled tea, he mused, “It still doesn’t make sense. If it really was murder, I mean. How was she killed without anybody noticing, not even her, judging from the way she was sitting when she was found. On the photos she doesn’t look like she died in pain. She looks like she just fell asleep and didn’t wake up again.”
Sherlock shrugged. “There is a number of ways to achieve this through various substances.”
“Still, if what you have deduced so far is true, who’d be interested in killing her.”
Sherlock swirled the remains of the coffee in his cup thoughtfully. “We do not know whether it was indeed murder. An accidental death is also likely. Oh, I wish Molly would hurry up.” He emptied his cup with one gulp and banged it on the table with impatient force.
“Let’s go cycling, John,” he announced, rising.
“Now? I thought you wanted to wait for the report.”
“I can’t sit around here waiting. Molly will need a few hours, during which time I’d be likely to go mad round here without anything to distract me. On the bike I should at least be occupied.”
“Right. I’d actually been afraid of first alternative. Cycling it is, then. Don’t know whether there’s any signal up there, but you could always check your phone for emails, and once they’ve send stuff over, we’ll return. I’ll do some packing, and you can see if you can organise the key for the garage. I don’t fancy another odyssey like yesterday’s.”
About half an hour later, they set out towards the centre of Saint Michel. Already temperatures seemed higher than the previous day although the time was not much later. The air had a sticky, muggy quality to it. John didn’t recall any mention of rain from yesterday’s weather forecast, but the air seemed more humid. John hoped it was going to feel less so once they had left the town behind.
At the traffic lights, they turned right, following a narrowing road towards the oldest part of Saint Michel near the town’s church. Small, two-storied houses stood in a dense cluster, their south-facing facades already shuttered against the impending midday sun. Tiny alleys wound between the buildings, some not wide enough for a normal sized car to pass through. John was reminded of a French movie he’d watched as a teenager. He didn’t remember the title, but he recalled it featured two blokes raiding a Côte d’Azur casino and taking their escape through the narrow alleys of Cannes in a small car while their pursuers’ larger vehicle got stuck between two buildings.
Next to the church there was a museum dedicated to aluminium. John shook his head in wonderment as they cycled past. Who would seriously consider visiting a museum about aluminium, particularly in this area where there was such splendid countryside? Then again, Saint Michel was not merely a touristy place like Valloire, but housed some heavy industry along the river, some of it hydro-powered.
The road began to ascend more steeply once they had passed the church and John ground his teeth at the dull pain of sore musculature. He had felt considerably well this morning, his shoulder only faintly stiff and his legs barely aching. But now that they were required to work again, they reminded him painfully of yesterday’s strenuous climb. Luckily, today’s was less than half as long, their destination La Planchette being situated at an altitude of about 1500 metres instead of over 2500 like the previous day. There were, however, some steep passages to climb, and John didn’t look forward to those. He hoped his legs would recover once the exercise had warmed them up.
Sherlock riding in front of him didn’t show any indication that he was feeling likewise, apart from shifting in the saddle from time to time as if to find a better position. This morning, John had shouldered the rucksack again, carrying some provisions and an extra bottle of water since he didn’t know if there was any to be had up there. According to their map there were some small villages hidden in the forest, but he did not expect to find a shop or restaurant. They could, of course, ask the locals if they could refill their bottles, but John preferred to be as independent as possible.
Unlike the previous day, there was very little traffic. Two cars passed them, one in each direction, and a young woman on a vespa. There were no cyclists whatsoever, and John doubted that many tourists found their way up these roads. Hikers perhaps, he assumed, or alpinists trying to scale the Croix des Têtes and its neighbouring peaks.
Their going was steady yet much slower than the previous day, but John didn’t mind. Like this, he could watch the scenery in peace, enjoying the view into the valley, the houses of Saint Michel getting ever smaller with each bend of the road they took. Across the valley, the road to Col du Télégraphe could be partly descried. John smiled proudly upon seeing it snake up into the dark forest. Viewing the majestic mountain now and keeping in mind that it was only the little brother of the yet higher pass of the Galibier, he found it difficult to believe that only yesterday they had battled these mountains and won.
Today’s climb seemed a leisurely walk in comparison, despite displaying some nasty quirks. There were indeed steep parts, most notably in some of the curves. Moreover, since the mountainside faced southward there was a constant battering by increasingly hot sunshine, only now and again alleviated by patches of forest and their soothing shade. The state of the vegetation along the banks was document to the persistent heat and drought. The grass was yellow and brittle, and some of the desiduous trees seemed to have shed some of their foliage already. The only plants thriving were hardy Mediterranean evergreens, herbs and shrubs, many of which were issuing aromatic smells in the heat. There was a cacophony of sounds from crickets and locusts. Butterflies were fluttering along the banks, now and again a dragonfly would accompany them for a few yards before zooming off again. Some emerald green lizards sunbathing on the tarmac narrowly avoided being run over by their bicycles, scurrying away at the last second. At one point, John saw Sherlock ahead of him swerve to avoid a branch lying on the road. However, when John reached the spot he recognised the branch as a snake almost as long as his arm.
“Asp viper. Quite poisonous, mortality rate of untreated bites at about four percent,” announced Sherlock, slowing down..
They had been cycling for almost two hours by that time, and those were the first words Sherlock had spoken aloud since their setting out. John had heard him muttering to himself and had refrained from striking up a conversation, knowing it would be unwelcome with his friend in full case-mode.
“I know,” replied John. “Had to treat two snake bites in the week before we set out, although they were by crossed adders. In one case, a small girl stepped on one that had settled in one of her shoes that had been left out on the porch over night. Up to that point, I hadn’t even been aware that there were crossed adders in London. Usually, you only see grasssnakes. Hey, you aren’t thinking of turning round to have a closer look at the snake, are you?”
Sherlock snorted and accelerated again.
John shook his head. “Sometimes I doubt you have any urge for self-preservation at all.”
“Says he who volunteered to be shipped to Afghanistan,” quipped Sherlock. “And more importantly, who agreed to share a flat with me.”
“I didn’t claim to be sane, did I?”
Sherlock gave him a grin over his shoulder before falling silent again.
Like them, temperatures continued to climb. If John had hoped the slowly but continually increasing altitude would at some point lift them above the humid, muggy air in the valley, he found himself mistaken. He was sweating profusely, water dripping from his arms and nose and threatening to run into his eyes, more than was warranted by exertion and heat alone. One of his waterbottles was empty already, and the contents of the second were dwindling rapidly.
Ahead of him, Sherlock was continually decreasing his pace, sweat dripping from his hair, his face flushed. Cycling up to him, John panted, “If I remember the map correctly, there should be an actual village behind one of those upcoming bends. We’ve passed the signpost already. ‘Le Traversaz’ or something it said. Hopefully there’ll be some shade between the houses. I need a break and would like to refill my bottles so I get some of the weight off my back.
“Fine,” managed Sherlock in return, his breathing laboured. “Go ahead.”
The village consisted of a few scattered houses only, some of them old and built of stone, but to John’s surprise there were also a couple of more recent additions, some even looking fairly expensive with solar panels on the roofs and large glass-fronted facades. Privately owned holiday homes, John surmised.
They dismounted next to a wooden barn in the shade of a large walnut tree, resting their bikes against the trunk and collapsing on a worn bench surrounding it.
“Imagine doing the tour we did yesterday today,” mused John after he’d recovered a little and felt able to breathe freely again. “The air’s so sticky, it almost feels like one’s breathing water. I bet there’s a thunderstorm brewing.”
“The weather can change very quickly in the mountains,” replied Sherlock. He had taken off his helmet and sat with his head resting against the bark and his eyes closed. John could see that his pulse was still elevated, beating visibly at his neck. It was on full display because Sherlock had unzipped his jersey almost down to his navel. John tried not to let his eyes linger on the stretch of pale skin but did not succeed.
“You’re not checking your phone for new mail?” he asked to distract himself.
Sherlock made a gesture between a shrug and a shake of head. “I doubt there’s a good connection up here, moreover the display is too small and the sun too bright to see details properly. I’ll wait until we get back and I can use the laptop.”
John smiled faintly. “I bet in truth you’re just too lazy to move and get the phone out.”
The corners of Sherlock’s eyes creased in a smile. “That too.”
After almost half an hour of relaxing under the tree and eating a banana each, John’s attention was caught by a tingle of bells and a pervading smell of goat. Sherlock was sitting very still, only the rhythmic twitching of his feet as if to a melody indicated he was still awake. He showed no reaction to either sound nor smell.
John blinked against the patchy sunlight falling through the leaves to focus on a small herd of goats and sheep coming towards them, driven on by a man who looked like he was born back in the 19th century. He addressed John in a language that might have been French but which John didn’t understand a word of. Sherlock roused, and replied to the old man, exchanging a few sentences. The shepherd pointed upwards and nodded, smiling toothlessly before giving them a friendly wave and hurrying away after his animals.
“He said we can get water at Beaune, there’s a small garage,” explained Sherlock. “He also said we should hurry because there will be rain later.”
Shielding his eyes against the sun, John glanced out over the valley and at the hazy yet cloudless blue sky. “Well, it certainly feels like it. Come on, then. It’s still a bit to go.”
From their resting place, it was another steep, exhausting climb of a few kilometres until the road ran even for a stretch through a grove of oaks. There they passed a sign announcing the Col de Beau Plan at 1440 metres altitude. A far cry this seemed from the majestic passes they had scaled the previous day, nevertheless John registered it as yet another achievement. Because of the trees obscuring the view into the valley they did not stay long. John snapped a picture of the sign and the surrounding landscape, and soon they mounted again to reach Beaune.
From the Col, there was an actual decent into the village, not steep but steady, cool and refreshing. There were no shops, but they found the garage the shepherd had mentioned. The owner, who introduced himself as René and seemed delighted to have someone to chat to, kindly provided them with as much water as they needed to refill all their bottles. While Sherlock parlayed with the mechanic, John waited outside with the bikes, studying the map.
“Sherlock, are you sure we saw this mysterious chapel we’re going to from the Télégraphe yesterday?” he asked when Sherlock joined him. “Because if you ask me, the church tower we saw was that of Beaune, the one right over there. Meaning the chapel is somewhere up there hidden in the forest, if it even exists anymore and isn’t a ruin. I read on the internet that some of the villages further up are deserted.
“René said there’s an auberge at La Planchette and several houses that are rented out to tourists, so there will be some form of civilisation. Or do you want to return to Saint Michel already?”
“No, I’m all for going on. I’m a little surprised you don’t insist on returning immediately.”
Sherlock glanced at his watch. “It’s not even one yet, meaning Molly will just have finished the autopsy and moreover the toxicology report won’t be in. They’re mind-numbingly slow at the lab.”
John grinned. “You mean when you’re not around to harass them?”
Sherlock smirked briefly. “Precisely.”
Once they had passed through Beaune, the road suddenly dipped steeply. John restrained himself from letting the bike run, not wanting Sherlock to have another fit of worry. Moreover, since there was a lot of loose gravel on the tarmac it seemed wise to proceed cautiously.
Soon, they reached a cross-roads. To the left, the road continued downwards to descend to Saint-Martin-de-la-Porte and on into the Arc valley, while to the right it began to climb again. This turn they took. The gradient was irregular, steep passages alternating with almost flat ones. The road narrowed to a track that would only allow one car at the time (not that there was any traffic to speak of), and the asphalt became rough and patchy, a far cry from the smooth surface of the roads they had cycled the previous day.
There was more woodland now, groves of oaks and birches between meadows studded with solitary trees shaped by the sharp teeth of grazing lifestock. John welcomed the shade, despite temperatures being more bearable up here, also because the sun was increasingly veiled by haze and did not burn as mercilessly anymore. Nevertheless, even though the gradient didn’t seem to increase, John felt like he was cycling through treacle. His rear wheel seemed to stick to the road and refuse to turn despite all his efforts. When he rose from the saddle to round another bend and catch up with Sherlock again, he realised why.
“Oh blast,” he cursed, coming to a halt at the roadside. “Sherlock, I have a flat.”
For a moment it seemed as if the detective hadn’t heard, but then John saw him halt, too. “There’s a well up here on the pasture, next to those trees,” he called down. “You can check the tube for punctures in the water.”
With a sigh, John shouldered his bike and carried it up to where Sherlock was waiting, praising yet again the lightness of the carbon frame. “I have a spare tube,” John told him. “I’ll just put that in and repair the other one at the hotel – unless you want to do it here while I see to the bike.”
John had been surprised when during some previous cycling trip, Sherlock had displayed great knowledge of the repair of bicycles, and not just of the theoretical kind. John had had to remind himself that Sherlock was someone who couldn’t be bothered to replace a broken light bulb. However, after taking apart the machine with astonishing dexterity and skill, Sherlock had spent half an hour explaining in great detail the chemical aspects of mending punctured inner tubes.
John handed him the damaged tube and after carefully climbing over the barbed wire fence of the pasture, Sherlock sauntered off toward the well with the small box of mending kit. And didn’t return. John had long finished repairing the bike when he saw Sherlock still crouch near the well.
John called him. No reaction. Rolling his eyes, John climbed through the fence and stalked through the tussocky grass. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Found an interesting beetle or something? An alpine bee?”
Sherlock turned to him and raised his hand.
“Oh,” said John, smiling. “Lucky you.”
On the flattened, still gloved palm sat a large black salamander, drawing up its upper body threateningly when John leaned in for a closer look.
“It’s not the particular alpine species I was hoping to find, but isn’t it fascinating?” asked Sherlock, his eyes bright with interest. “This one must be at least twenty years old, judging by its size.” Gingerly, he reached out and touched the creature’s moist back with a blade of grass. The salamander rose even higher. “Defensive stance,” Sherlock explained. “Did you know their skin secretes poison which makes them less interesting and even potentially fatal to predators? I wish I had a plastic bag or test tube. I could collect some of the venom and analyse it at home.”
“Why not take the entire creature and put it in your pocket?” asked John sarcastically.
“John, they’re an endangered species. As much as I’d like to keep salamanders at the flat, I doubt they make good pets. Although this one seems to calm down.” He very carefully touched it again with the grass, and this time the amphibian only blinked lazily.
John felt a wave of tenderness at the gesture. Normally, Sherlock and animals wasn’t something he wanted to see combined, knowing that they did not function well together. It wasn’t that Sherlock treated them with intentional cruelty. Mostly he was simply indifferent. He didn’t particularly like dogs, so much John had gathered, because apparently back at university he had been bitten by one. Cats Sherlock tolerated. John surmised this was because they were clever and independent and often displayed a certain aloofness and arrogance reminiscent of a certain consulting detective. Sherlock was understandably fascinated by every species that was either poisonous or had developed some specific evolutionary trick, even if he didn’t particularly like them for their own sake.
The only exception were amphibians. For a reason which John imagined lay grounded in Sherlock’s childhood, the detective seemed to adore them. Toads, frogs, newts and salamanders, and particularly olms and axolotls, everything golden-eyed, wet and slimy caused Sherlock to regard it with almost childlike glee. If John hadn’t put his foot down they’d be living with an assortment of these creatures now, despite Sherlock’s claims they wouldn’t make good pets. He hadn’t yet found out why exactly Sherlock found them so fascinating, but it touched him now to see how reverently and gently his friend handled the salamander on his hand.
“Lovely, Sherlock. But we really should be going. Did you mend the tube?”
Sherlock nodded distractedly, lifting the salamander higher to be able to study its stubby legs.
“Once we’re back in London we’re going to the Zoo,” stated John. “They have all kinds of critters there. Even poisonous tree-frogs and those mudskippers you once said you’d like to keep in the bathroom. Come on, put the fellow down.”
Reluctantly, Sherlock did so, gingerly placing the salamander in the moist, weedy confines of the well.
“You know,” said John when they approached the fence again, “for someone who claims to hate the countryside, you do seem to enjoy all this tremendously. Makes me think that we should do this more often. Get out of the city, I mean. And perhaps when we’re old and grey – should we manage to live to that age – we should settle somewhere in the country. You can keep bees and all kinds of amphibians in the garden and cultivate poisonous plants and mushrooms for your experiments.”
Sherlock gave him a sideways glance, a warm glow in his eyes. “Wouldn’t you miss the danger?”
“Nah. Living with you is a constant hazard. Someone must keep you from blowing up the house, and the bathroom free of tadpoles. That should prove dangerous enough.”
Sherlock chuckled as he held up the fence for John to climb through. “And you think we’ll still be together when we’re ‘old and grey’, as you put it?”
“Didn’t we establish last night that we’re stuck with each other for good?” asked John, now holding the fence for Sherlock.
“Yes, we did.” He straightened and looked down at John with a grave expression. “Sounds like a good plan,” he said quietly.
Swallowing, John nodded. “Yes, it does.”
He saw Sherlock swallow, too, and also took in the pulse beating visibly at the detective’s throat. There we go again, he thought wryly. This is getting ridiculous.
“I forgot my helmet at the well,” said Sherlock, breaking the spell.
Rolling his eyes, John held up the fence again.
Sorry for the long delay. RL has been keeping me more than busy. Originally, this was to be the penultimate chapter, but I decided to divide it because it was getting too long. The second part is mostly written, meaning the next update should happen in the next couple of days.
Again there is a drawing for the chapter at my tumblr, entitled "Alpine Salamander".
The final stage of their ascent passed in a strange mood. This was partly due to the conversation John could not help not dwell on. Had he just made plans for spending the rest of his life with the nutter cycling in front of him? And had said madman agreed? Fact was, he could absolutely see the two of them, in twenty, thirty, forty years’ time, maintaining a cottage somewhere in the countryside, bickering like always. He wondered what Sherlock would look like then. Would he have lost his hair? His messy fringe hid it well, but John had detected signs of a receding hairline. Or would the curls simply turn white. Would he need glasses at some point, and be too vain to wear them? How long would he manage to play his violin until his fingers would be too stiff? A long while yet, John hoped. And whatever happened, John looked forward to being there to witness it. Perhaps this wasn’t the life he had envisioned for himself in the past, but now it seemed the only desirable future.
The landscape certainly added to the peculiar atmosphere of the ride. It reminded John of romanticist paintings, shaped as it was by grazing animals with its cropped, flowery grass and the almost orderly thickets of small birches, large lichen-grown boulders like landmarks set between them, and smaller stones piled by generations of farmers to low walls and narrow huts to serve as shelter for lifestock and shepherds. A pastoral, peaceful landscape like an intricate landscape garden, but it had a haunting, slightly dishevelled touch to it. Now and again larger houses were visible between the trees, but they were deserted, empty shells with dark holes for windows in the thick walls, their roofs long collapsed, saplings growing from the rotting wood. The stonewalls were overgrown by trailing plants, and here and there patches of sheep-wool had caught in barbed wire or the low-hanging branches of trees and were swaying, wraith-like, in the faint breeze.
The sun had vanished behind a thick layer of hazy cloud. It could still be felt, but not like the bright burn of the previous day but rather like a dull yet constant, oppressive heat. The air had increased in humidity, making breathing laborious. This became particularly bothersome during the steep passages, which were plenty. At one point the road ran straight for a stretch and the gradient became so steep that John considered dismounting while he still could without falling over. Even in lowest gear it was almost impossible to tread. When he rose from the saddle to put more force on the pedals, his rear tyre lost grip, and when he sat back the front wheel did, rocking off the tarmac. He ended up cycling in narrow serpent-lines, following Sherlock’s lead who, panting, forced his bike up the steep incline.
At the top where the road levelled out again they halted, standing slumped over their handlebars while trying to catch their breath. “Nineteen percent my arse,” wheezed John when he was able. “This was way beyond twenty.”
“So much for the accuracy of the map,” managed Sherlock between deep gulps of air. They looked at each other and grinned. “Another twenty metres or so and I would have fallen over,” admitted Sherlock.
“That’s comforting to hear. I thought about dismounting when we were half way up, but then you pushed on …”
“And your ego wouldn’t allow it?”
“Oh, shut up. I’m the one carrying all the bloody luggage.”
“I can carry it,” offered Sherlock.
“Thanks, but I’ll manage the last bit, too. Shouldn’t be far anymore.”
“According to the map.”
“Yes. Adds a nice measure of uncertainty, don’t you think?”
In this case, the map proved accurate. After a few more bends of the road at a moderate gradient they reached a large clearing to both sides of a stony creek. A few houses were scattered amongst solitary trees to the left of the water, while to the right, beyond a narrow stone bridge there was a small chapel. Even though most of the houses did not look like they were inhabited permanently, their windows shuttered, in front of some John spotted cars, some equipped with roof boxes, indicating tourists. One of the larger buildings even had colourful parasols set up on its wooden porch. A couple of children were playing underneath them. John surmised this was the auberge Sherlock had mentioned.
They followed the road across the bridge were it widened into a gravel-strewn carpark and then narrowed to a stony track that continued further up into the mountains. Due to the rough surface they dismounted near the bridge and carried them up a small stony hillock. A twisted beech tree grew there, and they stood underneath it to overlook the strangely idyllic settlement and the surrounding mountains. The view down into the Arc valley was partly obscured by trees, but the Croix des Têtes rose majestically to their right, its rocky peaks dull grey in the hazy light.
“The old shepherd was right,” mused Sherlock. “There is a thunderstorm coming. Can you smell it?”
“I can feel it,” said John, wiping sweat from his forehead and carefully moving his shoulder. The steep passages had not been gentle on it. Sherlock’s gaze lingered on the old injury, and John thought that for an instant he had seemed to be debating whether to touch it. But the moment passed.
“And see it,” John continued. “Those dark clouds coming from the West don’t look too friendly. Guess we shouldn’t tarry here, although it’s a shame to leave again so soon. I like this place. Maybe because it looks both peaceful and adventurous.”
“It’s awfully remote,” stated Sherlock. “It's a marvel they have electricity up here. According to common perception, however, I grant you it has a certain romantic quality, particularly with the rough weather moving in.”
John gave him a quick glance and smiled to himself. “Indeed it has. We didn’t time our arrival very well, did we?”
Sherlock raised an eyebrow in question and John chuckled, explaining, “We should have waited for the rain to catch up with us and gotten here drenched.”
“What would have been the point of that?”
“Well, it would have been entirely in accord with romantic cliché.”
“Well, our wet state would have required us to seek shelter in the hostel and since it’s almost fully booked, we would have been forced to share a narrow bed.”
“It doesn’t look like it’s fully booked.”
John rolled his eyes. “Had we arrived here soaked to the skin, it would have been, believe me. Or if this was some kind of romance story.”
“I see. What would have happened next?”
“Well, there would have been the shedding of all clothes to allow them to dry and the huddling together for the conservation of body heat and all that. Maybe there would even have been some sort of fireplace to camp in front of. The rest I’ll leave to your imagination.”
They gazed at each other and simultaneously burst into laughter. “If I were forced to spend the rest of the day and the night cooped up here without a decent internet connection, I would likely have run amok,” said Sherlock after they had sobered up again.
“You would have run amok?” asked John. “You, seriously? I would have, because of your incessant complaining and subsequent sulking. Not that I would have minded the bed-sharing and all that.”
“We do share a bed,” remarked Sherlock. “And there is still plenty of time to get soaked. In fact, if we don’t hurry, we will. I think I’ve just heard thunder.”
John listened and had to agree. A dull rumble sounded in the West. “Right, let’s get back down again before the roads are wet and you have another fit because of my potentially reckless cycling.”
Sherlock sniffed. “Will you stop mentioning that?”
“No, never. It shows you're human, and that you like me.”
“If you don't stop, I'll reconsider the latter part. There doesn’t seem much I can do about the first.”
“Indeed not, and well for it. Okay, you go in front again. And I'll take you up on the offer of taking the rucksack. My shoulder is playing up, and I don't want to aggravate it further by the extra weight.”
For the downward journey they took the shorter route which led them past Beaune and right into Saint-Martin-de-la-Porte, so that in little more than three quarters of an hour they were back in Saint Michel. By then dark clouds had covered the sky entirely, the wind had picked up and it was beginning to drizzle, suffusing the air with the heady smell of petrichor. Thunder rolled in ever increasing frequency, and once John saw a lightning bolt strike the peak of the Télégraphe, causing them to hurry along the main road to their hotel, rain whipping their faces. They reached it just in time before the thunderstorm caught up with them.
The bike garage was open and they hurriedly placed their machines inside.
“Go and check your mail,” said John to a fidgety Sherlock. “I'll see to the bikes.” Sherlock gave him the briefest smile and dashed off into the rain.
By the time John was almost done with the bicycles, having taken them apart, cleaned and dried them and stored them in the bike-bags for transport, he became aware of commotion outside the garage. The five Italians had arrived, wet to the skin and rather put out. One (the teacher, John recalled) had a bleeding knee and elbow, his trousers torn. He seemed to be in pain, favouring his left leg when walking and pressing his left arm to his body.
John enquired about what happened. The reply was delivered in rapid, heavily accented English and plenty of gesticulation. Apparently they had wanted to tackle the Col de la Madeleine but had been forced to turn round halfway because of the weather. They had wanted to take the train back from La Chambre at the foot of the Col, but had found the service to be suspended due to some repair works on the tracks. Thus, they had cycled back to Saint Michel on the main road up the Arc valley and had received a full shower on the way. About five kilometres from their destination, a lorry driving irresponsibly fast had caused two of them to crash, one, Marco, badly. He had insisted on continuing, though, and here they were. They hadn’t even managed to get the driver’s licence number.
Seeing that Marco was paling by the minute and beginning to shake slightly from pain, shock and exhaustion, John held up his hands to stop the angry diatribe of his friends. He told them he was a doctor, at which the injured man looked utterly relieved. John promised to fetch his first aid kit and check the man's injuries, at the same time advising him to seek out a hospital. The way he held his arm suggested a broken collarbone. He was given the number of one of their rooms and told them to escort their friend there and keep him warm, before he dashed off.
The short sprint up the stairs had John drenched as well. The rain was pouring down relentlessly now, driven on by strong winds, and due to the water vaporising on the warm ground the entire valley was filled with steam so dense that it was barely possible to see the houses down the road.
When John opened the door to their room, he was welcomed by a wave of moist air from the open windows. Rain was splattering on the wooden sill and he hurried to close them. Beyond, the Croix des Têtes was completely swathed in cloud.
Some of Sherlock's cycling gear lay strewn about the bed and floor. The man himself emerged from the bathroom, still in his shorts and jersey, balancing the laptop in front of him, his eyes nailed to the screen. He didn't acknowledge John or the fact the room was in less danger of being deluged now that the windows were closed and sat down on the bed.
“Where did you put the rucksack?” asked John. “I need the first aid kit. One of the Italians had a nasty crash and needs a doctor.”
A low grunt indicated that Sherlock had indeed noticed his presence, but there was no reply. Obviously Molly's report had arrived. John knew from past experience that it was no good to try and communicate with Sherlock when something related to a case had captured his interest.
After some more searching, John found the rucksack in the bathroom. Deciding against getting rid of his wet clothes and to take a shower before attending to the injured, he returned to the room with the first aid kit in hand. Glancing over Sherlock’s shoulder, he scanned the laptop screen. It showed a list of chemical formulas.
“Toxicology report?” he asked.
Sherlock stirred. “Stomach contents,” came the muttered reply. “We were right about the red cabbage and the baklava. Contained walnuts.”
John smiled at the inclusive ‘we’, when in fact the deduction about the victim’s eating habits had been Sherlock’s. It showed how much the detective considered them a team, despite not always showing it in public.
“Remember to get out of your wet clothes,” said John fondly, resisting the urge to ruffle the helmet-flattened dark curls. Sherlock only sniffed in reply.
It turned out there was little John could do apart from taking care of Marco’s scratches and bruises and sending him off to the hospital in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. From what he could tell, the collarbone was indeed damaged, and the Italian would need an x-ray to be sure whether it was broken. His roommate, Ivan, offered to drive him. John recalled what Sherlock had initially deduced about the five men upon their arrival. According to the detective, Ivan harboured more than friendly feelings for the other, which John thought he’d recognised in the way he had been hovering anxiously at his side throughout his examination.
“Do you want me to come along?” asked John, but both shook their heads.
“We’ll manage,” assured him Marco, making a brave face despite the pain. “We have a car here.”
He escorted them to their car, holding open the door while Ivan helped his friend through the rain with a blanket held over his head. Then John dashed back inside. The three others were in the lounge, still upset and agitated about what had happened. John told them what he had found out about Marco’s state and what most likely was going to be the further course of his treatment, and they calmed down. They introduced themselves as Luigi (according to Sherlock lawyer #1), Francesco (lawyer #2) and Carlo (photographer), and invited John to join them later for a drink. Knowing that Sherlock would likely spend the rest of the day engrossed in the case and therefore in no mood for talk, food, and indeed company, he readily accepted. They agreed to meet again in two hours.
When John entered the room, Sherlock lay spread out on his stomach on top of the sheets with the laptop in front of him and his mobile out as well, texting furiously. He hadn’t changed, just gotten rid of his shoes and socks and was agitatedly flexing his toes.
“I sent Marco to the hospital,” John told Sherlock in the hope his words would actually register. “His friend is driving him. Broken collarbone, by the looks of it. The others suggested to meet again later for a drink.”
Sherlock made a noise between a grunt and a hiss and stabbed at his phone’s screen to send the text. “Fine,” he replied.
“What do you want to do about food today? Don’t know if we can get any takeaway round here, but I don’t really fancy going out again in this weather.”
“I know. Does that mean you’re not eating?”
Sherlock let out an exasperated breath. “Obviously. I need to think. Molly has sent some very interesting but also puzzling facts. Puzzling as yet. There must be a pattern, some connection between these bits of information, but I can’t see it yet. The case doesn’t make sense. There is no motive. And Lestrade is getting twitchy. Both the press and his superiors are eyeing him critically. Even though they tried to keep it quiet, there’s been extensive coverage by the press. Lots of nonsense theories making the round. The Tank at Tate Modern is still closed, but given it’s a major gallery, they want business to return to normal as quickly as possible. The artist whose installation has been the scene of crime has complained about the closure.”
John shook his head. “Shouldn’t they be glad about the extra publicity?”
“I would think they are, but they can’t admit it openly, can they? Even I understand that would be a bit not good.”
“So it was murder?” asked John, taking off his shoes and soaked socks.
“We can’t be sure. According to Molly and the toxicology report, she died of an allergic reaction that caused her trachea to swell critically. Question is what caused the reaction? It’s unlikely she was allergic to any of the foods she ate as she seems to have been very conscientious about her diet. Had she been allergic to any foodstuffs, nuts or whatever, she would have known and acted accordingly. Moreover, why didn’t she notice something was wrong, she or other people? The gallery is a busy place. If she had had visible trouble breathing, it is unlikely nobody would have seen despite the darkness of the space and the flickering illumination from the video installations.”
“Maybe she fell asleep before. She had done some strenuous walking, and had just had lunch,” John suggested. “In that dark place with soft pillows on the floor, maybe she drifted off.”
“Still doesn’t explain the reaction.”
“Thought has occurred. Molly checked – good thinking –, but she didn’t find any on the body.”
“Did she check the scalp or hairline?”
Sherlock’s eyes went wide and he gave John a brief but appreciative smile as he grabbed his mobile to start texting again.
John watched him. “So, no dinner for you, then? At least take a shower at some point, yeah, and spread out your clothes so they can dry. I’m off to have one now.”
When he left the bathroom, John found their room deserted. The laptop was still sitting on the bed, but Sherlock and his mobile had vanished. John shook his head and sighed. Outside, the rain had abated, water glistening in the trees and shreds of clouds drifting across the valley to be caught on the mountaintops. The sun was out again, and John opened the windows. The air had lost the mugginess and smelled fresh and clean. Temperatures were still warm but much more bearable. Checking his watch, he realised he still had some time until his appointment with the Italians and so he started to pack those clothes and cycling gear that were dry and wouldn’t be needed anymore. Afterwards, he fetched his mobile to check whether the trains would be delayed the next day as well, but he couldn’t find any information about further line closures and decided to ask the hotel staff.
When he returned to the lounge, he saw Sherlock outside in the carpark pacing, talking and gesticulating wildly. With a smile John noticed he wasn’t wearing shoes, his white feet a funny contrast to his slightly tanned and dirty legs, the line where the socks had ended clearly visible. John wondered what any of the yarders would say if they could see him now, dishevelled, sweaty, only half dressed, looking so different from the impeccable and fashionable persona he was so careful to display.
“Ah, dottore,” Francesco’s voice stirred him out of his musings. “Your friend is coming as well?”
With a last glance at Sherlock, John shook his head. “I don’t think so. He’s working.”
“Yeah. But that’s all right. He’s not one for drinks, anyway.”
It transpired that the Italians had decided to have food in addition to drink and had booked a table at the Italian restaurant in town, the owner of which they knew. John was hungry, so he gladly accepted their invitation. Ivan had phoned from the hospital. Apparently John’s diagnosis had been right. Marco was going to be kept overnight, and Ivan was going to meet them in town. John sent Sherlock a brief text announcing his whereabouts for the next few hours. He did not receive a reply, but neither had he expected one.
Despite the fact that the three Italians didn’t speak English as fluently as their injured companion, communication functioned surprisingly well. During their stroll down Saint Michel’s main street, conversation touched upon cycling, football, stupid drivers, more football (Carlo was particularly passionate about it – Sherlock had been right yet again) and the Tour de France, to then move on to questions about their respective jobs and backgrounds. John smiled to himself when he found more and more of Sherlock’s initial deductions confirmed.
All five had been to the place before to cycle some of the other passes, their outing an annual event. They were happy to narrate episodes of previous bicycle rides over the mountains. When they were on their second course, Ivan joined them, giving a brief account of how their companion was doing and thanking John again for his quick interference. This seemed to remind the rest of them what he had done, and they toasted their ‘dottore’ with a bottle of Barolo. Over antipasti, pasta, fritto di porcini, panna cotta and espressi, John came to enjoy their easy, generous hospitality, and the plentiful food.
When asked about himself, however, he found his life difficult to explain. His job at the clinic was straightforward enough. He mentioned his military background perfunctorily, and was glad when there were few deeper enquiries. Obviously, neither wanted to spoil the evening by talking about politics.
“Your friend, what is he working?” enquired Luigi.
“He’s a consulting detective,” answered John, and launched into an explanation what this term implied while the others listened in fascination.
“So, he looks at you and knows what you do for a living because of small details he sees?” summarised Franco incredulously.
“Yes, pretty much. He deduced all your professions correctly,” said John. And other things, he added in thought, noticing that particularly Ivan seemed to be blushing, more than could be explained by food and wine. “Trouble is, he’s not the most sociable of people. Often he doesn’t keep those deductions to himself. Not everybody deals well with having their lifestory spread out publicly. Still, I wouldn’t want to exchange him for a flatmate. Life’s certainly never boring with him.”
The four men exchanged glances, and John braced himself for the almost inevitable question about the true status of their relationship.
“So you’re his …,” began Ivan.
“Blogger,” answered John good-humouredly, because everything else would take too long to explain, and he himself wasn’t sure about a definition of their relationship at the moment. “I write up his cases. I also keep him out of trouble, make sure he eats and sleeps from time to time, and straighten ruffled feathers whenever he’s chosen to ignore social cues again and insulted someone with his straightforwardness. Believe me, that’s a full-time job, but I wouldn’t want it any different. He’s the best friend I could possibly wish for, despite all his … peculiarities.”
Again there were some looks, but none of the men decided to comment, and to John’s relief, the conversation soon drifted to other subjects. A second bottle of wine was brought and emptied, there was a round of rather excellent grappa, and by the time they were finished darkness had fallen. To John’s slight surprise, when he checked his mobile upon departing the restaurant, there was no message from Sherlock. Obviously the case was taking up every available bit of his time and concentration so that he didn’t even bother texting John snippets of thought like he often did even when in full case-mode.
John felt a twinge of … neglect. Maybe that was the right term. Perhaps he had been stupid to assume that after the past two days and all the talks and almost-confessions, Sherlock’s priorities would change. No, he was not being completely fair, John reminded himself. They had changed. Sherlock had been uncharacteristically considerate, caring even. And insecure as hell.
With a sigh, he placed the bag he was carrying on the ground to don his jumper against the cool evening air. The bag contained some rolls of pizza bread for Sherlock should he feel inclined to attend to his body’s needs after all. The Italians were talking in their own language, apparently about who was still able to drive. Most had had more than two glasses of wine and the grappa, so in John’s mind neither was. Moreover, since French regulations concerning driving and alcohol had been tightened severely recently, they’d run the risk of losing their licence if caught, despite the drive being a short one. In the end they decided to walk and fetch the car the next day. John approved, as he had been ready to discourage any of them from getting behind the wheel.
While the two lawyers and the photographer were walking ahead, talking animatedly in rapid Italian, Ivan lagged behind slightly. John didn’t need Sherlock’s deductive skills to realise he was doing it on purpose. Slowing down, he waited for the other to catch up.
Ivan didn’t speak for a while as they walked side by side, but John thought he could hear him thinking. Was this what it was like for Sherlock all the time?
“Don’t worry about your friend,” John began when the silence became uncomfortable and the other made no attempt at starting a conversation. “They’ll just keep him for observation. A broken collarbone is inconvenient, but not life-threatening.”
Ivan nodded absently. Suddenly he raised his head and looked at John. “You said your friend reads people’s secrets.”
“Yes, that’s one way of putting it. And I won’t lie. He deduced a few things about you which I think are rather close to the truth, after observing your behaviour today.”
Ivan looked at him in alarm.
“Don’t worry,” John soothed. “It’s none of our business. None of your friends will learn anything from me or Sherlock. He can be discreet, you know. Although, perhaps you should have a word with Marco about the situation.”
“Isn’t it always?” muttered John.
The walked in silence for a bit, before Ivan gazed at John again. “You and Sherlock …?”
John sighed. “‘Complicated’ is too vague a term to describe us, believe me. We’re not even close to sorting things out between us.”
“But you … love him?”
John looked at the paper bag in his hand. There it was, the ‘l’-word. The word he had fervently tried not to think about ever since Sherlock’s return, and even before, in the months after his Fall. If he was perfectly honest with himself, there was only one answer to the question.
“Yeah, I think I do,” he admitted quietly. “And before you ask, no, I’m not gay. Neither is he. Things just … fit. Doesn’t make it any easier, though. At least I haven’t got any other obligations.” He nodded at Ivan’s wedding band.
At this Ivan heaved a sigh and fell silent. The other three had waited at the entrance to the hotel and John took his leave. “Give my regards to Marco,” he told them. “And thanks a lot for the food and wine.” They waved him goodbye, wishing him a good journey.
The room was dark but for the blueish glow of the laptop’s periodic table of elements screensaver. The computer sat on the bed plugged in to charge. Sherlock was sitting next to it, his back against the headboard, his hands raised and steepled under the chin in his customary thinking pose. John noticed he had changed into his sleeping gear, and showered, too, because his hair was still wet. One of the windows was open, a faint breeze fanning through the room.
“I brought you some food, in case you decide to eat after all,” said John after his initial greeting went without reply or even acknowledgement. He placed the bag on his nightstand and switched on his bedside lamp.
Sherlock twitched, narrowing his eyes at the sudden light. “Food, yes. It must have been the food. Nothing else makes sense.”
Catching up with his train of thought, “It wasn’t an insect bite, then?” asked John from inside his jumper.
“Her scalp didn’t show one, either.”
“Bad luck. Did Lestrade get anywhere with that Youth Hostel?”
“No, her identity still remains unclear. She didn’t stay at the hostel. They are now conducting a search at hotels and privately rented accommodation around Finsbury Square. It’s also possible she stayed with a friend or relatives. Still, two of the vendors at Borough Market remember her. The one at the vegetarian stall where she bought a salad recalled she had a turquoise Adidas messenger bag with her. He also remembered that she took some time sorting through her small change when it came to paying for her purchase, indicating she was not familiar with the currency. When asked whether she spoke with an accent, he was positive, but could not determine which language.”
John folded the jumper and put it in the bag. “Anything I can do to help?”
“No. I need to go over all the facts and bits of information again. There must be something I have overlooked so far.”
“They sent new photos, then?”
“Hardly sufficient ones, but better than the last batch. I need to see the body first thing when we reach London, as well as her clothes and those few possessions that were on her.”
“We should be at St. Pancras at around four in the afternoon, if all goes well,” said John. “I’ll put the alarm at six, all right? Should be plenty of time for some final packing. Our train leaves at 7:59. Have you paid the hotel?”
Sherlock waved a hand dismissively. John sighed. Of course the world’s only consulting detective couldn’t be bothered with such trivialities just now. He set the alarm and busied himself with some more straightening of the room before sitting down on the bed again and stretching his shoulders carefully, sighing when pain flared up in the left. Taking off his shirt, he started to knead the scarred skin with his right hand.
A long exhale and an exasperated “Oh, for God’s sakes,” sounded from Sherlock. The detective unfolded himself from the bed and grabbed his mobile from the windowsill. Retrieving John’s jumper from the bag against the cool nightair (likely because he was lacking a dramatically flowing coat or robe, at least), he stalked out of the room.
John looked after him in surprise, shrugged, and continued his massage until the pain had subsided to a dull throb. By the time he was done brushing his teeth, Sherlock hadn’t returned. John closed the window, hoping no mosquitoes had come in. As he settled in bed with his book, the feeling he had had earlier crept up again unbidden. Who was he kidding, he had imagined their last evening to commence differently. He wasn’t sure what exactly he had wished for, but certainly not Sherlock being completely fixated on the case. Dinner with the Italians had been enjoyable, but he would have preferred to spend it with Sherlock. Like this, it was business as usual, as if the past days hadn’t happened. Then again, he told himself off for being unrealistic. He knew how Sherlock functioned. He had come along on this trip, had even organised it. He had allowed rare and almost unprecedented glimpses into this past and his emotional state, and had displayed a side of his John was sure only very few people had ever been privy to. He really should be content with that and not ask for more for the time being. Still, a slight dissatisfaction remained.
Realising he was reading the same sentence for the third time without taking in one word of it, he closed the book and switched off the light. Might as well try and catch some sleep, he thought. With the reminder of having to buy Vichy Pastilles for Mrs Hudson at one of the stations on their way, he drifted off – only to be woken half an hour later by sounds from the bathroom and the dip in the mattress when Sherlock joined him in bed.
They lay in silence for a long while. John listened to Sherlock’s breathing to determine whether he had fallen asleep. But the detective seemed to be awake still. With a sigh, John turned onto his side facing away from him and closed his eyes. Depending on his progress with the case tonight, Sherlock was either going to spend tomorrow’s train journey in a state of constant agitation, pestering Lestrade for new input via phone. Or he was going to lie prone, passed out in death-like slumber because his body had finally surrendered to exhaustion like during the journey from London. Despite the tough cycling, John reckoned his friend couldn’t have had more than three or four hours sleep each night, presumably less.
He felt Sherlock shift around in bed and do something with his pillow before lying still again, only to squirm some more a short while after. Silence once more, then an almost exasperated huff as if something was getting on Sherlock’s nerves. He drew a few audible breaths.
“You all right?” enquired John in a low voice. “You don’t have cramps, do you?”
“No cramps,” replied Sherlock stiffly.
“Right. What’s the matter?”
“Well, keep down the squirming, then. I’m trying to fall asleep again.”
Indeed Sherlock managed to lie still for a while, and John was just beginning to drift off in earnest when there was another huff from the detective.
“We can try the kissing.”
John’s eyes flew open as his body tensed at the words, spoken softly but almost forcefully. “What?”
Sherlock huffed again. “Kissing, John.” He sounded put out, and John thought he could actually hear the eye-roll. But when he spoke again Sherlock’s voice had changed, had turned softer and far less self-assured. “We can try that, if you want.”
Slowly, John turned. “Are you serious?” he asked quietly.
“Of course I am,” snapped Sherlock. “Do you think I would have suggested it otherwise?” Again his mood changed when he continued in a less curt manner. “It seemed like a good idea a minute ago, given the many situations either of us was tempted to do so. Moreover I’m curious. So let’s get it over with.”
“Get it over with?” John felt his eyebrows touch his hairline, before joining each other above his nose in a frown. “Sherlock, this shouldn’t be a chore, but a pleasure.”
“Given the fact we are both rather daunted, I understandably so given my inexperience and disastrous encounters in the past, it does appear a chore to me. But I consider it prudent to try and see whether it’s something we enjoy. If not, the problem is solved. If yes ... well, I suppose this would create a new set of problems we can approach step by step in the future.”
John rubbed both hands over his eyes. This must be the most unromantic conversation about what he had always considered the height of romance he could possibly imagine. Then again, this was Sherlock who did nothing by the book, least of all romance.
“You talk about this like it’s one of your experiments,” John complained.
“Well, it is. Most of this evening I have spent considering all possible variables, a process which has distracted me severely from the case when really I should have been devoting all my mental powers to the investigation. However, I didn’t mind as this problem seemed more important to find an immediate solution for. But I have reached a point in my reasoning where I cannot proceed without additional information. Practical research seemed the most promising course, not to mention the potentially most pleasurable. Hence my suggestion. But if you’re not amendable, I will have to continue conducting research theoretically.”
Sitting up and moving back to rest his back against the headboard, John glanced at Sherlock, his shape outlined by the faint light filtering through the curtains. He sighed. “Sherlock, it’s not as easy as this. So, what if we do … experiment, and it turns out only one of us likes it and the other doesn’t? Have you considered that outcome in your theoretical research?”
Sherlock sat up as well, drawing up his knees and hugging the blanket about him. For all his fast talk, the gesture made him look vulnerable – exactly how he must be feeling, thought John. His eyes seemed unproportionally large in his pale face as he looked at John.
“Actually, I have. For myself, I decided it’s a risk I am willing to take. I mean the possibility of me liking it and you don’t. I’ve managed to do without physical intimacy for most of my life and I am confident I could do so again, although it would certainly be more difficult with your constant presence.”
John gave a soft laugh which caused Sherlock to tense, indicating to John yet again how insecure he was in all this despite his pretended aloofness. “Actually, I doubt you’d have to worry about this outcome.”
“Why? You’ve never kissed a man before, and you cannot know whether you’d enjoy it. Moreover, there’s a valid possibility I won’t be any good at this.”
“And here’s me thinking you’re a genius.” He smiled at Sherlock’s affronted expression. “Seriously, I’m more worried about the other possible outcome: me liking it and you don’t. I mean, given what happened to you in Monte Carlo …”
“In both our interests, I would discourage you from reminding me of that encounter. There’s only one way of finding out, isn’t there?” said Sherlock softly. John could feel him shift closer. “Could be dangerous, you know.”
“I know. And you know my reaction to danger.” John’s voice dropped to a murmur as he leaned in as well, only to draw back again and frowning at Sherlock. “Why do I get the feeling of being emotionally manipulated?”
Sherlock smiled softly. “Because you are. I’m trying to seduce you, you know, and it seems to be working. Come on, hurry up now before I lose my nerve. I spent several hours persuading myself that this is the right thing to do.”
“Gosh, you are a romantic, aren’t you?”
“Are you making fun of me?”
“No, I’m making fun of the situation and therefore myself. Right now I feel like a bloody teenager again before his first kiss. I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous.”
“And they call you Three Continents Watson.”
“So they do.” John drew a deep breath and looked at Sherlock, his open expression a mixture of anticipation, anxiety and a faint trace of amusement. A smile spread over John’s face. “Come here, you impossible man, let’s get you kissed.”
He extended his left hand and very lightly ran his fingers over Sherlock’s cheek, his heart leaping at the way the detective leaned into the touch, his eyes fluttering closed. Before his own eyes closed as well, John saw his friend swallow hard, but he did not lean back or even hesitate. Now for it, thought John, amazed and utterly grateful that he was allowed to do this when his nose touched Sherlock’s and he angled his head slightly to reach his lips.
As kisses went, John had to admit it was rather unspectacular. No fireworks went off in his brain, he didn’t get weak-kneed (which might have been due to the fact he was sitting anyway), and there was no rush of blood south. It was a chaste, soft touch of lips to lips after a moment of awkwardness because Sherlock had to navigate his nose out of the way. Sherlock had neglected to shave, and the faint stubble felt weird in contrast to the softness of his lips. He tasted of toothpaste. It wasn’t an erotic kiss in any way, but it felt right, it was subtle and careful and surprisingly tender given the pent up emotions both had cultivated for some time. In fact, if John had to describe it with an adjective, he might have opted for ‘loving’, not caring whether this made him sound clichéd or sentimental.
Sadly, it was over far too soon. Just when he thought they’d finally found the right angle and Sherlock, instead of simply holding eerily still and letting himself be kissed was starting to reciprocate, John felt him tense again.
Reluctantly, John drew back, removed his hand from where it had rested lightly against Sherlock’s cheek and opened his eyes to gauge his friend’s (friend – did this term apply anymore after this?) reaction. Sherlock’s eyes were still closed, a slight frown creasing his brows as slowly he ran his tongue over his lower lip. He looked thoughtful. John assumed he was dissecting, catalogising and inventarising the experience in order to decide whether he had enjoyed it or not. John fervently hoped the overall verdict would be in his favour. He for one had enjoyed it, despite stubble and awkwardness, and had no objections to a repeat.
“Well,” he asked when uncertainty began to stir uncomfortably in him at the continued silence, “was this all right?”
Sherlock’s eyes opened and John was stricken by the intensity of the gaze. Sherlock’s pupils were still dilated, but now they narrowed as they took in John. “No,” came the curt reply.
John withdrew some more and let out a breath to hide his disappointment. He had received a different impression while the kiss lasted, judging from the way Sherlock had begun to respond eventually.
“Well, okay then,” he muttered, trying to keep the dejection out of his voice and make it sound matter-of-factly. “It was just a trial, after all.” Giving Sherlock a brief smile, he leaned back against the headboard and ran a hand through his hair.
Sherlock’s eyes narrowed. “John, I think you misunderstood me,” he offered.
“How so? It’s fine, Sherlock. We tried and you didn’t like it. That’s … okay. It’s settled.”
“My answer did not refer to the action itself, but the adjective you used.”
“What are you talking about?”
Sherlock huffed and rolled his eyes, his face taking on his usual ‘John is slow on the uptake’ expression. “It wasn’t ‘all right’.” He spat out the word, looking almost angry at the implication, before he started worrying his lower lip with his teeth, his expression softening until he looked strangely young and indeed a little sheepish. “It was … good. Certainly strange and awkward and somewhat uncoordinated, at least on my part because I didn’t really know what to do with my nose and whether to use my hands in any way, and the taste of wine mixed with toothpaste is rather a challenge to get used to, but good. Unexpectedly enjoyable, in fact. Nothing at all like last time, which might be due to the fact you didn’t try and stick your tongue down my throat or bite my neck. I think this proves that it does make a difference who you do this with.”
A thought seemed to strike him because his face took on a slightly alarmed expression. “You enjoyed it, too, didn’t you? I was trying to pay attention to your reaction, but I got distracted. I couldn’t think properly with all this sensory input. You,” and now he smiled, “you seriously messed up my hard drive, John Watson, and I’m not sure it has properly rebooted yet.”
Throughout his speech, a smile had begun to grow on John’s face. “Yes, Sherlock, I did enjoy it. Your brain must have been affected more than you’re aware of if you didn’t notice that.”
Sherlock chose to ignore the last sentence. “I can do better, now that I know what to expect,” he proclaimed boldly.
John let out a laugh. “You have no idea what to expect, my friend,” he teased. “We’ve only just scratched the surface.”
Sherlock gave him a calculating glance. “You’re good at this.”
“Yep,” answered John happily with a certain measure of pride. He had heard from various sources he deemed reliable that he was considered a good kisser, therefore he saw no need for false modesty.
“That’s,” Sherlock swallowed, “that’s good to know. It looks like I’ll have to practise to catch up.”
“I volunteer for exclusive tutoring.”
Sherlock cocked his head. “Exclusive?”
“Of course. Demanding student that you are, you’ll need my full attention.”
They smiled at each other, until the line of a frown appeared between Sherlock’s brows again. He looked at John gravely. “I don’t want sex, though,” he blurted out. “I thought you should know, to avoid any … complications. Misunderstandings. Maybe I’ll change my mind, but for now I don’t want it.”
“Okay,” John replied, not surprised by Sherlock’s direct approach of this topic. “You know I would never force you into anything you don’t want. And for the time being … well, this is quite a change for me, too. I’ve never been with a man before, and I’ve never … well, it’s always tricky to move from friendship into a physical relationship, and to be honest I haven’t really done this before, either. I don’t want to hurt you, or scare you away, or make you feel uncomfortable. And as for sex … well, I don’t deny I find you attractive, but that doesn’t mean I want to jump your bones tonight.”
“What if you did? Wanted to ‘jump my bones’?”
John shrugged. “I’d let you know. Well, most likely you’d deduce it before I even knew. And if you wanted to participate in the jumping, I’m sure we’d find a way of making it work. If not, we’d stick to whatever you’re comfortable with. And I. As I said, it’s new territory for me as well.”
“You’re sacrificing a lot for my comfort,” said Sherlock thoughtfully. “I know you enjoy physical intimacy, your dating history indicates this, and yet you’re more or less willing to resign yourself to a life of celibacy to consider my wishes, should I stick to my decision. Unless of course you plan on finding relief elsewhere.”
John shook his head. “Are you implying one-night stands or some other arrangement, just to get me laid? Seriously, Sherlock! How many relationships that at some point involved sex have I had since I met you? You want to know? Hell, I’m sure you do know, don’t you? One. With Sarah. And that was it. All the others terminated, sometimes before we even kissed or touched at all. And you know why? Because of a certain flatmate of mine who even then managed to occupy far more of my time and my … well, to use your computer analogy, my hard drive than what I considered sane. And strangely, at some point I didn’t even mind anymore. Why? Because I realised I was happiest when I was with you. So yeah, I enjoy sex. When I can get it. But this, whatever it is we have, I enjoy even more, and I having been forced to cope without it for nine months, I’d be damned if I risked losing it again. So if you tell me now you don’t want our relationship to go beyond the occasional kiss, that’s okay. It’s fine.”
“But will it be fine forever?”
“Will you want to stop at kissing forever?”
A faint blush stole over Sherlock’s cheeks.
“Precisely,” said John. “We don’t know how things are going to develop, but when they change, we’ll find a solution. I can promise you one thing, though.”
“I won’t leave you. I know this is what you’re afraid of most of all. I won’t. How could I, after all we’ve been through? So now you’re stuck with me. And I’d appreciate if we could lie down now. This headboard is fucking uncomfortable. If you’re amendable, we could try some cuddling.”
He had to suppress a grin as both of Sherlock’s eyebrows shot up in alarm. “Cuddling?” he asked, making a face as if the word was toxic and had to be handled with gloves and protective goggles.
“Yes, indeed,” replied John. “You know, when two people who like each other huddle close together and enjoy each other’s company without the exchange of bodily fluids. Some light touching might be included as well.”
“I know what cuddling implies,” came the indignant reply.
John lay down on his side, his head propped on his right arm, watching Sherlock expectantly and with no small amusement. “So, would that be something you might want to try, too, now that the kissing seemed to have been all ri— good?”
Slowly, deliberately, Sherlock lay down as well. “Now you are making fun of me, John,” he stated petulantly, but John could tell by the sparkle in his eyes that he was amused as well.
“Maybe a little,” John admitted around a grin. “Come on, you know you invite it sometimes. And I thought that in this situation, some humour would help to ease all this unresolved sexual tension between us.”
Sherlock snorted, shifting a little closer to John while still keeping his arms close to his body, his entire figure tense as if ready to bolt out of bed any instant. “‘Unresolved sexual tension’? Where on earth did you find that expression? It sounds like something the Daily Mail would print, or the Sun. Or is it from this grey colours book I saw people read all over the world when I was abroad?”
“Do you seriously believe I read that rubbish?”
“Well, you read all those ‘thrillers’. I don’t know what’s supposed to be thrilling about books the ending of which you can determine after the first two pages because of their character constellation and narrative structure.”
“Not all of us peruse books about the particularities of alpine beekeeping for light reading. As for the expression, come to think of it, it might indeed have been something Kitty Riley penned, although I’m sure she didn’t invent it. Seems fitting, though, doesn’t it? Applied to us, I mean.”
“Speak for yourself.” Sherlock gazed at John, his lips twitching as he was fighting down a smile. “So, cuddling, yes?”
“Yes. And you could start by shutting up and putting your head on my chest so I can stroke your hair. I’ve been wanting to do that for ages.”
Sherlock scooted closer, wriggling around a bit until he was lying fairly comfortably on his side with his head resting over John’s heart and his right arm draped loosely over his torso. “All right?”
“No.” John felt him tense and chuckled, reaching out to carefully brush his fingers through the thick curls. “Good.”
Sherlock relaxed again and smiled against his chest. “Your heartbeat is elevated,” he declared after a moment of comfortable silence.
“So’s yours. Are you enjoying this?”
A low hum like the purr of a large cat he rather felt than heard was the reply. They lay for a while longer until Sherlock shifted again. “What do I do with my other arm?” he asked. “Like this, squashed beneath my body, it’ll fall asleep.
John gazed at the mess of dark curls on his chest that hid most of his friend’s face, feeling a stab of pity. “You really haven’t done this before, have you? Not just the sex, but simply sharing a bed with someone.”
Sherlock huffed. “Who’d want to share a bed with me?” he asked, his voice carrying a trace of bitterness John was sure he hadn’t wanted to display. “Not even Mycroft did, when we were children. And I didn’t bother to ask for it.” He raised his head and looked at John sternly. “I don’t want your pity, John. I didn’t mind being alone. It was what I chose, deliberately. And it was good. It worked. I was content not having to bother with other people’s demands and expectations.”
“You were content, yes. But were you happy? Are you happy now?”
Sherlock’s gaze upon him changed, softening until it was sad and tender. “Those nine months I spent completely on my own were hellish,” he admitted quietly. “I was alone again, but for the first time in my life, I felt it, acutely. I wasn’t just solitary, I was lonely. Because of you. Because you had changed things, had changed me. I felt the loss, and it frightened and almost crippled me. And now I’m back, and you’ve forgiven me, and you tell me I won’t get rid of you again, ever. And you want me, despite knowing how I am and what I’ve done.”
He reached out and ran a soft, tentative hand along John’s cheek and jaw. John let out a shaky breath and fought not to close his eyes. The feather-light touch felt more genuinely loving and intimate than many he had received the past.
The dark, slightly rough baritone rumbled on: “So when by happy you mean at peace for the first time in my life, knowing where I belong, yes, I am.” There was a slight pause. Sherlock bit his lip and tilted his head, then, “Would it be all right if I kissed you again?” he asked.
A giggle burst from John and he pulled Sherlock’s head down to him and kissed him. There was a brief gasp from Sherlock, and John, remembering his previous experience released his head again so as not to give Sherlock the impression he was forcing him. Gradually, he felt the other melt against him and return the kiss, carefully. John let him take the lead, happy to be allowed along on the ride. Sherlock kissed like he did everything else: experimentally yet thoroughly, trying out different angles and positions, but always with utmost focus and dedication.
Despite the kisses remaining fairly chaste and controlled, despite John fiercely resisting the temptation to pull the impossible man closer and snog the life out of him, both were breathing heavily when eventually Sherlock pulled back slightly to watch John with dark eyes.
“Does this still count as cuddling?” he asked with genuine curiosity.
John shifted slightly as he lay half under him, not wanting to frighten him off by letting him feel how much this little session had aroused him – although he was sure Sherlock was able to deduce it anyway, unless he was similarly affected and his brain again hadn’t ‘rebooted’ properly yet.
“Actually, this would rather be termed ‘snogging’,” John informed him.
Sherlock nodded, moving so he was lying alongside John, his head propped up on his arm, his expression thoughtful. “Did I get it right? I wasn’t sure whether to apply more tongue or not.”
John couldn’t hide a grin. “Sherlock, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ here. And the ... er ... tongue application was fine. We can definitely try some more of that next time, if you’re willing. Your technique has definitely improved from our first attempt.”
“I’m a quick learner.”
John smiled and reached out to brush an errant curl behind Sherlock’s ear, noticing with delight how the other unconsciously leaned into the gesture. God, why had this beautiful creature managed to so severely deny himself every bit of human touch he so obviously craved, judging from his responsiveness?
“That you are,” said John gently. “I expected nothing else from you, genius. Come on, let’s try and get some sleep. We have to be up early tomorrow to catch our train because if we miss it, I’m sure Lestrade will suffer a stroke and you’ll have a fit because you return late for your case.”
“I couldn’t possibly sleep now, John,” said Sherlock with a trace of exasperation. “I should be working on the case, reconsidering evidence, weighing theories against each other, testing probabilities. But I can’t concentrate. Thanks to you. How on earth should I sleep now?”
John chuckled. “What, mind palace undergoing renovations?”
“Severe reconstruction, I would say. The John-wing will have to be extended rather considerably now with several new features.”
“Oh, I have my own wing? Fancy that.” Settling deeper into the pillow, John felt his arousal ebb away and weariness creep up in its wake. He yawned and closed his eyes. Next to him, Sherlock wriggled around until he was lying with his head on John’s chest again, his hair tickling the underside of his chin and throat.
“It has become the most integral part of the entire building, you know,” rumbled Sherlock’s voice. Despite his claims for having to do mental maintenance he sounded distinctly sleepy. “Almost every other part is linked to or connected with it.”
John smiled sleepily. “Hope you’re not treating it as messily as you do our flat, letting all your stuff lie around and all that.”
“Oh no, it’s quite tidy.”
“Good. I’ll leave you to your housekeeping, then.” He yawned again and tilted his head slightly to nuzzle Sherlock’s hair. “Good night, Sherlock.”
He felt his friend’s smile through the fabric of his t-shirt. It was accompanied by a languid stretch which would have done precarious things to John’s libido hadn’t he been so tired.
This is the penultimate chapter. I'm rather surprised the story turned out to be that long. To quote a rather well known author, "the tale grew in the telling". Thanks so much to all who read and commented and left kudos.
I might write a sequel at some point, and I'll definitely write up the MJN Air episode Sherlock mentions in chapter 4 (in fact, it's half written), and maybe his encounter with The Woman he also refers to.
As usual, there is artwork for this chapter at my tumblr: "We can try the kissing"
This was supposed to be the last chapter, but it was getting very long again so I decided to post a part of it now, and dedicate the final chapter to the return journey.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There’d been salamanders in his dream. Big, black ones with light grey eyes. They’d been talking with a rather distinct baritone. Harry had been there, too, looking much younger than she actually was, and being definitely more sober. Her hair had been dyed bright red, like during her teenage years when she had experimented with lots of different cuts and colours. The landscape had been unfamiliar but beautiful, filled with the promise of exploration and adventure. There’d been mountains and wild rivers and rocks, and wide lakes with reedy islands where loons nested, their strange cries sounding across the water – until they’d been replaced by that horrible disruptive noise which didn’t stop when John opened his eyes. Noise. Alarm. Mobile phone on bedside table. Turn onto side. Move arm and switch it off. Turn onto side, move arm! Turn onto side?
It didn’t work. John’s body refused to obey this simple command – or rather, it was not in a position to obey. The reason for that, John realised when his brain had accelerated to working speed, were about six feet and twelve stone of consulting detective draped over him. One of Sherlock’s long arms had securely pinned John’s arms to his sides, their legs were tangled, and there was a warm, moist spot between John’s left ear and shoulder where Sherlock’s nose and mouth rested, continually fanned by deep exhales of breath that tickled the sensitive skin on John’s neck.
“Turn it off,” now came a murmured command from that direction. John could feel the sound reverberating through the body on top of him and his own, followed by another puff of warm air.
“I would, if I could move,” returned John, trying to shift slightly and failing. Despite his slender frame, Sherlock was surprisingly heavy. “I can’t reach properly with my left hand with you all sprawled over me and pinning it to my side, and I can’t turn to use my other arm.”
Sherlock groaned in exasperation. Blindly fishing for the phone, he grabbed it and swiped it with his thumb to silence the alarm. “You’re welcome,” he murmured, dropping the phone onto the table and burying his face deeper into the crook of John’s neck. He exhaled huffily while shifting his body slightly to get comfortable again and lay still once more.
John froze. Only now that the nerve-wracking noise had been vanquished he fully realised how close to each other they were. This was a far cry from the chaste cuddling of the previous evening. This was Sherlock pressed up again him virtually from head to toe, all lithe and languid and warm. Not good. Or rather: very, very good. Far too good, to be precise. It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes’ deductive skills to notice John’s state for what it was: aroused.
“Stop that,” came a complaint from underneath the mess of curls resting on his shoulder.
“Stop what?” asked John.
“You’re suddenly all tense. We don’t have to get up just yet, despite what your dratted phone says.”
“In fact we do. Or at least, I do. I need the bathroom. Moreover our train leaves in under two hours.”
Sherlock groaned again but didn’t move. “Just when I’m finally comfortable and you have stopped squirming.”
“Oh, you’re comfortable? How splendid. Good for you. Glad to be of service. Do I make a good pillow and mattress, then?”
John felt a grin against the skin of his neck and let out a shaky exhale. Impossible for Sherlock not to notice his heartbeat accelerating. “The best,” came the impish reply. “Once you have the decency of lying still.
“There’s nothing decent about our positions,” John pointed out, at the same time unable to prevent a smile from stealing over his face.
Sherlock lifted his shoulders in a slight shrug but otherwise stayed where he was. “Problem?”
John shook his head, his smile broadening. “As long as I can get to the bathroom soon, no.”
“Don’t pretend you’re not enjoying this. It’s obvious that you do. I can feel it.”
John swallowed. So much for that. But at least Sherlock didn’t seem bothered by what he felt. “Good to know that your deductive powers have been restored after last night’s system crash,” quipped John, glad that, as so often, they were countering a rather awkward situation with humour. “Fascinating what a good night’s sleep can do, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t sleep.”
“Of course not.”
Sherlock squirmed around a little which caused his body to rub against John’s and the latter to draw in a deep breath. “I was about to nap for a moment when your phone went off.”
“Ah, so the snoring earlier was all pretence, then? Could have fooled me.”
With a jerk, Sherlock lifted his head from his special pillow and scowled at John. “If you need to know, I was thinking. About the case, obviously, and about … well, us. This is all your fault.” With that, he resumed his former position. “Now shut up, I’m trying to rest.”
“You can sleep on the train, which in fact I would welcome because then I won’t have to entertain you for eight or so hours,” said John. “Come on, move.”
Sherlock grumbled something but didn’t budge. John was smiling broadly now. He knew Sherlock would never admit it even when confronted with evidence, but the world’s only consulting detective seemed to be excessively cuddly. Who’d have thought, considering how rarely he let himself get close to people in the past. John was sure he was the only person in the world allowed to witness this side of his friend. The realisation humbled and touched him. Sherlock was being lazy, silly and altogether adorable, a far cry from his usual outward persona. John also knew that the teasing was deliberate, and he decided to respond in kind.
“Okay, you asked for it,” he announced menacingly, feeling Sherlock smile again, his body tensing slightly in preparation for an incoming assault.
John’s smiled turned wicked when he untangled his hands, placed them next to Sherlock’s sides under the blanket but without actually touching, silently counted to three and struck.
Whatever Sherlock had expected to happen, this hadn’t been on his agenda. He made an undignified noise which John would forever describe as a squeal and Sherlock as a gasp. Sherlock flew off John to prop himself up on his arms (which, John noticed with a jolt of pleasure, brought other parts of him into closer contact with John’s body), his eyes wide with shock as he stared down at his friend.
John’s grin reached from one ear to the other. “I knew it: you’re ticklish,” he stated smugly.
Sherlock’s eyes narrowed dangerously. He was still breathing heavily, looking bewildered and adorably dishevelled, but John knew that retribution plans were being formed in that magnificent brain the very moment.
“I’m not,” came the haughty reply. “You just surprised me.”
“Really?” asked John, and stabbed his sides again. This time, Sherlock gasped indeed, but quickly caught John’s hand before he could land a third stab. Sherlock’s grip was firm, yet John knew a few dirty tricks when it came to unarmed combat. The resulting scuffle was vicious but brief, and ended with Sherlock on his back in a tangle of bed-clothes, his hands pinned over his head by one of John’s, his t-shirt ridden up almost to his ribs, his hair a more thorough mess than usual. John knew that if he wanted to, he could free himself easily. But for the time being Sherlock seemed content to stay still, his breathing somewhat elevated, watching John and particularly John’s free hand warily.
“You’re all for experiments, aren’t you?” asked John mischievously.
Sherlock nodded slightly.
“Good. How about finding out whether you’re indeed ticklish?”
“This would only be acceptable if you were to apply scientific methods.”
“Ah, okay. How about this: I run my finger up your side, and when you start to squirm, my theory is proven correct. If you stay still, yours is. Is that scientific enough for you?”
“The experiment would have to be repeated several times to ascertain the validity of the data.”
“Well, we can do that, no problem. We can repeat it every day from now on until we deem we have collected sufficient information.”
“Fine,” agreed Sherlock, his voice calm. John saw him swallow, though, betraying his anxiety. He remembered that despite the playfulness of the situation, Sherlock was still cautious about letting himself be touched, unaccustomed as he was to physical intimacy and obviously daunted by the prospect of entering into a situation where emotions, and, worse, basic needs might overwhelm his rational mind. That he was playing along like this indicated to John that he was not averse to it, and moreover that he trusted his friend. Therefore, John reminded himself sternly not to let himself get carried away and so damage or even destroy the tentative bond that had begun to develop between them.
“Ready?” he asked, shifting a little closer and releasing Sherlock’s hands so that he could ward John off if he felt he needed to.
“You shouldn’t be asking,” Sherlock informed him. “Falsifies the data by taking away the element of surpri— ahhh.”
“Does it now?” asked John smugly, removing the finger he had run along the exposed skin at his friend’s side, causing him to shiver and squirm and … well, the sound could only be classified as a moan.
Now it was John’s turn to swallow. “Noted the squirming?” he asked Sherlock, his voice rough.
Sherlock cocked his head, giving him a strange, calculating glance. “Noted,” he said quietly. And then it was John’s turn to gasp when one of the detective’s hands grabbed his head by the nape of his neck, pulled it down and kissed him, fiercely. Had their former kisses been chaste and controlled, this one definitely wasn’t. Sherlock’s tongue invaded his mouth almost forcefully, the careful experimentation and exploration of the previous evening replaced by sheer want.
Not that John was complaining. Quickly overcoming the initial surprise, he pressed his body against his friend’s and returned the kiss. Faintly, he noted how the stubble was more pronounced on Sherlock’s chin and upper lip and how strange that felt and how he’d sometimes wondered if the detective even grew a beard, clean-shaven as he usually was. But soon this thought was wiped away by the sensations of kissing and being kissed, thoroughly and passionately.
Sherlock barely allowed him to come up for air, his arms snaking around John’s back and drawing him even closer. John responded in kind, running his hands along Sherlock’s sides again and down his throat, and tangling his fingers in his hair. He felt Sherlock shift under him and was suddenly presented with the irrefutable proof of his friend’s arousal pressed against his thigh.
Something seemed to have registered in Sherlock’s brilliant yet most likely emotionally and sensually compromised brain as well because he froze, his body tensing. He terminated the kiss, his eyes wide, almost black, their pupils still dilated. He began to squirm which didn’t help their mutual situation since their bodies were still being pressed close together. The squirming turned more forceful.
“Let me up,” came the hoarse but fierce command. “John, let me up, please.”
Quickly, John shifted to the side and Sherlock almost bolted out of bed to sit on the edge, his back to John, his shoulders heaving with deep breaths.
John sighed as he sat up. “Sherlock?” he asked softly, debating whether he should touch his friend’s shoulders in a soothing gesture but decided against it when Sherlock wrapped his arms round himself. “Sherlock, I’m sorry. I got carried away a little, I fear. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Some of the tension in his friend’s shoulders seemed to leave them as Sherlock exhaled shakily, then sat up straight as if to compose himself.
“You didn’t,” he replied. Half turning to John and giving him a shy and somewhat sheepish smile over his shoulder, “I think I rather scared myself,” he then admitted. “I didn’t anticipate to be that ... responsive.”
John returned the smile, relieved that obviously no lasting damage had been done. “Well, I warned you I’m a good kisser.”
Sherlock’s smile widened, warm and gentle. “That you are. It seems I have underestimated your abilities in this field. Won’t happen again.”
“The kissing, or the surprise?” asked John before he could stop himself.
Sherlock turned more fully towards him, giving him a long glance. “Not the kissing, I hope.”
“Good,” said John, laughing softly. “Because your technique has improved yet again. It almost seems you secretly practised last night.”
“I did some research on the internet while you were asleep.”
The laughter died on John’s lips at his friend’s matter of fact expression. “God,” he groaned, running a hand through his hair, “you really did, didn’t you? Didn’t know there are sites that offer this kind of advice, but then I bet there are sites for everything.”
“You’d be surprised,” said Sherlock, his expression dead serious. His eyes were twinkling mischievously, though. They looked at each other and simultaneously started to giggle.
“Well, at least you put your research to good use,” said John when they had calmed down again. “And now I really need the bathroom.”
Sherlock raised an eyebrow, smirking. “Don’t take too long. We have a train to catch.”
“Haha, very funny. Originally I hadn’t planned on taking another shower this morning, but I fear I’ll have to now. A cold one.” He pointed at Sherlock. “Your fault, mister.”
“I find the problem usually resolves itself,” stated Sherlock with a shrug.
John walked around the bed and looked at him curiously. “Really? How so? To be honest I didn’t think you’d have this … problem. Do you ... don’t know ... think it away?”
“Something like that. I concentrate on other things, although today it seems to be more persistent. I might have to use cold water, too.”
Fascinated as he was by this unprecedented glimpse into Sherlock’s hitherto dormant or at least unmentioned libido, John couldn’t help voicing his astonishment. “I didn’t know you got into this state at all,” he said, feeling a blush creep up his cheeks. “Don’t misunderstand me. It’s just ... in all the time we’ve been living together I’ve never seen you ... well ... aroused. By anything or anyone.”
“As I told you before, it’s all your fault,” Sherlock returned defensively, his cheeks equally flushed and his ears turning red. “I thought I’d been rid of the inconvenience once I’d left puberty behind, and for a long time it was so. Then you moved in and things got increasingly complicated.”
Something about his words touched John. “Sherlock, how long have you felt … drawn towards me?”
Sherlock looked up, his pale eyes large in his flushed face. “Since we had Chinese after the taxi driver case. I didn’t recognise my ... feelings at first. I just knew I didn’t want you to move out again. And it took several of your girlfriends and the Woman to make me realise that a) I was increasingly jealous of anybody you allowed to spend time with you and, worse, touch you, and b) that what I felt for you might not be purely platonic. That realisation unsettled me, but for a long time it was bearable because I knew there wouldn’t be a situation where I’d be forced to act on my feelings, or even admit them to you. You’d made it clear on several occasions you weren’t interested. And it was all right, what we had. Cohabitation, friendship, companionship, however you want to describe it. It was good. It worked. But then you were being threatened and I had to go away, and some things became clearer to me during our time apart.”
“And what became clear to you?” asked John gently.
Sherlock glanced down at his hands in his lap, fiddling with the drawstring of his trousers. “You know.”
John smiled, deciding not to press his friend for an answer, uncomfortable as he looked sitting there on the corner of the bed, still dishevelled and aroused with his tousled hair and bulging pyjama bottoms. Carefully, he reached out and brushed an errant curl from Sherlock’s forehead.
“Yes, I think I do,” he said. “Please note that the sentiment is mutual.”
Sherlock nodded. Drawing a deep breath, he raised his eyes to John’s. “I rather spoiled the mood.”
“No, you didn’t. Remember what I told you yesterday: you set the pace. And I’m content to follow, as usual.”
“I’ll have to do more research.”
“Yes, you do that. Hope you’ll use your phone and your laptop for that, though.”
“Why? What’s wrong with yours?”
“I can imagine what kind of websites and images will pop up when you start … researching, and I don’t really fancy having them litter my computer or the search history of my browser. And they’re often infested by viruses, so be careful. Remember last time Mrs Hudson borrowed my laptop to write an email to that friend of hers from Australia? She stumbled across all those sites you researched and worse, the images you downloaded for that blackmail case in Chelsea. Christ, you even put one as the desktop background. I had a lot of explaining to do, and no help from you. Thanks for that, by the way.”
Sherlock looked untroubled. “I don’t see your problem. She’s not easily shaken. Moreover, she thinks we’re sleeping together anyway, or at least hopes we do. She has a bet running with Mrs Turner and two of her friends from her bridge club concerning us.”
John groaned. “Brilliant. Just don’t overdo it with the … er … research, yeah? I’m off to have a shower now. You need the bathroom before that? Guess we’ll have to skip breakfast in order to catch our train. You can make yourself useful and order a taxi with your impeccable language skills. Oh, and if ever you decide to want a hand with ... well, that,” he motioned towards Sherlock’s lap, “don’t hesitate to mention it.”
“What a selfless offer,” quipped Sherlock, his blush deepening, but at the same time he was smiling. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
John hurried in the shower and the bathroom. While Sherlock was in there, he dressed and packed the rest of their belongings. Sherlock emerged looking his usual self. He had shaved, had made a valiant attempt at taming his hair, and was dressed in his habitual dark trousers, a light grey shirt with sufficient stress on the buttons, and a slim-cut Spencer Hart jacket. He was carrying his toiletries and stuffed them into his bag.
“Ready?” asked John, unplugging his phone where he’d let it charge, and retrieving the charger and the adapter, the last items to go into his rucksack.
As he glanced around the room to see if they’d forgotten anything, his eyes resting on the majestic shape of the Croix des Têtes for a moment before turning his back on the view, John realised that Sherlock hadn’t shown any indication of working on the case all morning. Not sure whether he should be worried or pleased about that, he closed the door behind them.
And there's artwork again: "Ticklish"
Foremost, an apology: even though this was supposed to be the final chapter, it, well, isn't. I divided it yet again since it was getting too long. Next one, though ... hopefully ...
Anyway, I hope you'll bear with me. Thanks so much for the kudos and comments and general feedback, on tumblr, too.
A spoiler warning for those interested in one of my other fics, a prequel of sorts to this one, Over Cloud and Under Cloud (Sherlock/Cabin Pressure crossover). As this chapter contains spoilers for the story, you might want to read Over Cloud and Under Cloud first. It's not that long, and it's finished ;).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
He need not have worried. They had barely vacated the taxi at the station, with about five minutes to the train’s departure, when Sherlock was back on the phone with Lestrade. They’d managed a quick breakfast at the hotel: a croissant, yoghurt and tea for John and a black, two-sugared coffee for Sherlock. John had packed some provisions for the journey. He’d entertained the faint hope of meeting some of the Italians at breakfast to hear if they’d any news from how Marco was faring, but apparently they were sleeping in. They had exchanged emails, however, and John hoped he would at some point be updated on his recovery.
As usual, Sherlock left it to him to get their luggage onto the train – quite a challenge with the two bike-bags. Busy as he was, John did not catch all of the conversation, but apparently Lestrade had made some progress with finding out more about the dead woman’s identity. Sherlock was excited, listening raptly for long spells after he had settled into a seat, only to leap up again and start pacing the corridor when it was his turn to speak. Twice the connection failed, and Sherlock huffed and snorted and rolled his eyes, cursing French phone providers and their general lack of transmission masts.
John surmised the patchy connection was rather due to the fact they were travelling in a deep valley between high mountains, the peaks of which could now and again be glimpsed. For his part, John sat quietly gazing out of the window, enjoying the scenery and trying to internalise the fact that only yesterday they had scaled these passes by the strength of their legs alone. Only a week earlier he had barely thought it possible. A warm feeling of pride spread through his body.
Glancing at Sherlock fiddling impatiently with his phone during yet another spell of disconnectivity, he smiled to himself. The journey had been a complete and utter success, not just when it came to the cycling. Things he hadn’t let himself dare dream of had suddenly become reality, and he still hadn’t adjusted to the new features of their relationship. Of course, it would have to stand the test of reality. Things were going to be different once they were back at Baker Street. Was Sherlock going to revert back to the work-driven, single minded creature of the past, or would some of the other Sherlock, the relaxed, silly, cuddly, often insecure Sherlock be allowed to surface from time to time? Would he compromise between work and John, putting the latter first more often than previously? And what were they going to tell their friends and family? Despite the shift in John’s perception of his own sexuality and the fact that it still felt a little strange to be suddenly in a physical relationship with another man, the thought of his friends finding out about it didn’t bother him. He believed Sherlock in his estimation that most had been thinking or at least hoping he and Sherlock would get together eventually. No problem there, then. There were going to be knowing smiles and silly remarks, particularly from Harry who’d grilled him repeatedly about his true feelings for Sherlock in the past, but John knew those wouldn’t bother him in the slightest. Moreover even Sherlock didn’t seem troubled by the prospect of being suddenly found in a relationship and thus broadcasting to the world that no, he wasn’t quite the people-hating sociopath he often displayed to be left in peace, and yes, that he did have romantic feelings, deep and passionate ones, too.
John wasn’t looking forward to the obligatory Talk with Mycroft, however. He was convinced that either directly this evening upon their arrival or at least the tomorrow a sleek black car would show up to cart him off to some mysterious meeting place for a private chat with the British Government.
“He won’t eat you,” said Sherlock suddenly. John jolted out of his contemplations. “Not unless his diet is really starving him.”
John gazed at him confusedly. “How do you do that? How did you know I was thinking about your brother?”
“You were rather pointedly glancing at that woman’s umbrella in the luggage rack,” explained his friend. “Wasn’t a big leap.”
John shook his head, smiling fondly. “It always sounds so easy once you explain it. You’re right, I was thinking about your brother and the inevitability of meeting him for an interview. I’m rather convinced he knows about us.”
“Of course he does. And he approves.”
“Oh, good. That’s ... comforting. How do you know he does?”
Sherlock searched for something on his phone and held it out for John to read.
‘Congratulations, little brother’, the text message said.
“How can he know? Has he bugged our phones or the laptops – which I wouldn’t put beyond him, by the way?”
“No. Well, he might have. But if so, it was done skilfully. My searches didn’t bring anything up. No, I think he simply guessed that our relationship might progress during this journey, and for once it was not in my interest to prove him wrong.”
“Not in your interest? How splendid. You know, I think we should really get him something for his cheekiness. Some chocolates or similar. To help him with the diet – although to be honest, I don’t really see why he bothers with those. It’s not that he needs to lose weight, from a medical point of view.”
“You can ask him about it during your interview,” said Sherlock, smiling wickedly. “Oh, I think I know just the thing. Hopefully we’ll have some time for shopping at Lyon.”
It turned out they had more time than they had anticipated. The TGV to Paris was delayed by more than half an hour. Sherlock was on the phone with Lestrade again now that there was a stable connection. After calculating their new arrival time at Paris Gare de Lyon, John glanced at the clock worriedly. They’d have to hurry to get through the city with time to spare to reach and check in to the Eurostar from Gare du Nord. Should there be further delays there was a chance they were going to miss it. John decided not to tell Sherlock for the time being, knowing there would be a major strop if there was going to be a major delay in their travelling arrangements. Most likely things were going to turn out fine. And if not, having to spend an additional night in Paris didn’t sound too bad.
To use the time, John decided to look for Mrs Hudson’s Vichy Pastilles and some decadent chocolate for Mycroft. Depositing all their luggage on the platform to give Sherlock something to pace around, he set out.
“See if you can get toblerones,” Sherlock called. “As large as you can find.”
Tipping his brow in a salute and wondering slightly about the request, John looked for a kiosk.
“Why toblerones?” he asked when he returned, carrying a plastic bag with two boxes of pastilles and three small and one huge triangular bar of chocolate. “Is he particularly fond of them?”
Sherlock had relocated to a bench and had built a wall of luggage in front of him on which his feet rested. When John handed him the bag and he took a look inside, his face split into a mischievous smirk.
“He likes all kind of chocolate. Did you take a look at the nutrition facts of these?”
John grinned. “No, but I see what you mean. They had different kinds of toblerone, so I bought one of each: normal, white and dark. Actually, I don’t think I ever tasted it. Is it good?”
Sherlock had retrieved the dark toblerone and was holding it almost reverently, a faraway, wistful, even sad look on his face as he gazed at it. John wondered what memory was linked with the sweet. “Very,” said Sherlock quietly. “I’ll keep this one, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh?” said John as he sat down next to him. “Since when are you eating chocolate like that?”
“I’m not going to eat it. I have a debt to repay.”
“Care to elaborate?”
“Come on,” needled John. “We have some time to kill yet until our train arrives.”
Sherlock’s expression darkened. “Yes, I just saw it’s delayed.”
Strangely, he left it at that, and refrained from complaining about the punctuality of the French rail service. In comparison to some lines in the UK it actually seemed rather reliable to John. The doctor watched his friend gaze at the toblerone again. “Come on, out with it.”
Looking up and seeing John’s expression, Sherlock huffed. “All right. It was on that flight I mentioned, the one with the strange charter airline. I was at a real low at that time, physically and mentally, having just escaped those hackers in Frankfurt. The airline’s crew was not exactly professional. Interesting, though, I’ll give them that. At first my behaviour to them was ... more than a bit not good. I lashed out and insulted the steward. Then the owner, his mother, gave me a talking to similar to the one you granted me upon my return.”
“Really? That bad. From a stranger?”
“Yes. I might have deserved it.”
“Well, you definitely did when it was my turn. How badly did you insult the steward.”
“I might have exaggerated his stupidity and ridiculed his job. His mother took it personal. At least she didn’t punch me like Mrs Hudson when I showed up on her doorstep. Did you know she left a mark?”
“Yes,” said John, reaching out to touch the faint scar on Sherlock’s left jaw. “And well for it. You broke her heart, you know that. And she almost broke her hand when she hit you. So stop whining and go on with the story.”
“The owner certainly was incensed enough, and looked very capable of landing a good blow. She threatened to throw me out of the plane, but of course that would have been difficult, technically. I had to apologise to the steward, who, truth to tell, is an idiot. But not like everybody else. He’s a proper one. He’s not bright, intellectually, but quite shrewd and observant at the same time. High ‘emotional intelligence’, you might call it. And he doesn’t pretend to be clever. He just knows he isn’t, accepts it, and carries on. Quite fascinating.
“Anyway, after I’d been told off like a naughty child, apologised and peace had been restored, the steward, Arthur by name, provided me with tea, cake and, well, toblerone. He seems to be an ardent fan, buys it at every airport’s duty free. He gave me one bar of dark chocolate, for dark times.” He swallowed slightly, his gaze absent, a frown creasing his brows.
“I needed it. Things didn’t improve, not much, anyway. The toblerone lasted for two months. I ... treasured it, a reminder of the last kindness anybody had shown me.” He focused on John, smiling wryly. “How disgustingly sentimental, isn’t it?”
John smiled warmly. “I’d describe it as ‘human’, and there’s nothing disgusting about it. What’s this miraculous airline, then? Seems I have to thank them for looking after you so well, if only for a brief time.”
Sherlock smiled, too. “Here, have a look at their website.” He searched amongst his bookmarks, then handed his phone over to John.
John’s eyebrows rose and he started to chuckle. “MJN Air? That’s their website? Seriously? Oh my God.”
“Arthur designed it,” explained Sherlock. “Note the moving aeroplanes. Luckily he has not managed yet to embed video files.”
“And you always complain about my computing skills. Even I could design that. I might use fewer colours, though. About a hundred less.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Sherlock with a straight face and twinkling eyes, “I think you should ask Arthur Shappey for a make-over of your blog. It’s rather short of flying aeroplanes, and the colours are dull and boring.”
John giggled. “Says he whose website is all dark and sombre. How about you add some twinkling gifs? An animation of the deerstalker, perhaps? Or of you swirling that ridiculous coat of yours. That might even increase traffic.”
“My coat is not ridiculous,” sniffed Sherlock with mock indignation. “It’s a classic design and very functional. And according to you, I look cool when I turn up the collar.”
“When did I say that?”
“First visit at Baskerville.”
“You still remember that?”
“And yet you delete—”
“Can we not mention the solar system for once?”
They glanced at each other and burst out laughing. “But only this time,” wheezed John when he had sobered up a little. “What’s MJN supposed to mean, anyway?”
“I did some research, and it seems to stand for ‘My Jet Now’. Apparently the owner got it as part of a divorce payment. Here comes our train.”
When they had stowed away their luggage and settled into their reserved seats, Sherlock leaned back and closed his eyes. John watched him from across the table. “Are you about to think or sleep?” he asked, although he thought he knew the answer.
“Hm.” Sherlock neither stirred nor opened his eyes.
“Okay, I’ll leave you in peace.”
Retrieving his book from his bag, John started to look for where he’d stopped reading. The bookmark had slipped out. He was interrupted by the approach of the conductor.
“Sherlock, I need the tickets.”
“Sherlock? Tickets?” Gazing up at the conductor, he sighed. “Un moment, s’il vous plaît.”
Standing and leaning over the table, he reached into the inner pocket of Sherlock’s jacket, trying not to pay too close attention to the fact that this way his hand slid slightly over the warm, smooth fabric of the detective’s expensive shirt before diving into the pocket. Sherlock did not show any reaction, but John thought he could feel a minute tensing of his body. He smiled to himself.
The conductor was also smiling when she checked the tickets and handed them back to John. “Merci, monsieur,” she said, winking at him and wandering off.
“Lazy git,” muttered John. He wasn’t sure, but it seemed that for a brief instant, one of the corners of Sherlock’s mouth lifted in a smirk. John considered keeping the tickets with him, but then decided to repay Sherlock. Leaning over the table again, he stuck them back into the pocket. He didn’t immediately retrieve his hand afterwards, however, letting it linger over Sherlock’s heart. The detective remained very still, but despite his outward control John could feel his excitement in the elevated beats under his hand. Turning his hand, he very lightly rubbed his knuckles over Sherlock’s left nipple. A jolt like electricity went through the body and Sherlock exhaled loudly and shakily through his nose.
“Always remember, Sherlock,” John murmured, pleased to see his companion swallow, “two can play this teasing game as well as one.”
With that he settled back and picked up his book, hiding his smile.
He read about half a chapter until he found himself rereading the same sentence over and over without taking anything in. The loud music of another passenger down the coach, audible despite the person’s headphones was distracting him. The loud conversation from two other passengers didn’t help the matter. He couldn’t see them without getting up, and wondered what people they were judging from the sound of their voices. He was sure Sherlock would be able to tell him and moreover translate what they were talking about.
The world’s only consulting detective was however not available for by-ear deductions. He was still sitting unmovingly with his eyes closed, his hands folded over his stomach, his long legs stretched out under the table well into John’s footspace. He wasn’t asleep, though. John could tell by the tension in his body, the way his hands and feet twitched occasionally and his eyes moved underneath the closed lids. Not REM sleep, but deep thought. Now and again Sherlock’s lips would move as he soundlessly mumbled to himself. The game was one, it seemed, and Sherlock’s hard drive had accelerated to full case mode.
Smiling, John got out his phone and began scrolling through the photographs he had taken throughout the past days. Lots of landscape, he realised, with the occasional detail of road graffitti, a distance marker or a curiously shaped tree or rock. And Sherlock. There were fewer of the detective than John had hoped. He could have sworn he had snapped a shot of Sherlock as he had sat near the church at Valloire listening to the chamber orchestra playing. The scene was still so clear in John’s mind. But no pictoral proof existed on his phone. He sighed. Still, there were the photos the Australian lady had taken of the two on top of the Col du Galibier. Once more he felt a jolt of pride and love as he gazed at them. Pride at the achievement, love for the impossible creature next to him, gazing at him with burning eyes while he himself was laughing into the camera. He cast a glance at Sherlock and felt his heart leap. He was beautiful, with his strange proportions, the wild hair, the slightly tanned nose in his otherwise pale face.
Raising the phone, John snapped a picture of the detective, waited for the complaint, and when none came, in fact no reaction at all, he took another one with different exposure.
When he compared the two shots, he was surprised how different the other looked. In the first picture, he seemed no older than early twenties with his smooth features. In the second he looked much more his age, the shadows in his face and the faint winkles round his eyes and mouth maturing his looks. John wasn’t sure which one he preferred and decided to keep both.
Once he was done with the photos, he tried to search his emails, but the connection being patchy at best he soon switched the device off and put it away, reaching for his laptop instead. Although he wasn’t sure whether he was going to publish anything about their outing, he wanted to preserve as much of the trip as possible, if only for himself. Opening a new document, he started to type.
He got as far as jotting down a basic outline of events, sorely tempted to put down things like ‘kissed Sherlock for the first time’ or ‘snogged my mad flatmate this morning’ when he found his thoughts wandering again. Gazing out of the window at the rather unspectacular countryside with its fields and trees, villages and small rivers and the occasional sunflower field, he was reminded of family holidays long ago. They’d mostly stayed in the UK and he’d gotten around there quite a bit. Whether it had been the Cornish coast, Hadrian’s Wall, the Lake District or the Isle of Wight, as a child he had enjoyed all of them. There’d always been something to see and explore, and thus he’d never minded not going to Mallorca or Italy or the US like some of the other kids. Now he wondered how it would be like to revisit them with the bicycles and the world’s only consulting detective in tow.
His dream of the early morning came to his mind and he shook his head slightly, smiling about the memory. As dreams went, it had been weird indeed, particularly the salamander part.
“What are you smiling about?” asked Sherlock.
John started, shifting his gaze from the window.
“Oh, you’ve woken,” he teased.
“I didn’t sleep,” came the indignant reply. “I have been watching your for some time now without you noticing. Before that I’ve been thinking, but your expert method of typing distracted me. You should really invest in one of those touch typing courses. Or do you enjoy hunting down each letter on its on and stabbing it to death with your finger?”
“Haha, very funny. What have you been thinking about? The case.”
“Obviously. Lestrade’s new information does indeed shed some new light on the case.”
“Care to elaborate?” John enquired with interest.
“Later. Answer me first.”
John sighed. “I had a weird dream this morning, shortly before my phone went off. I was just reminded of it.”
Sherlock simply glanced at him and John sighed, knowing he was being deduced. “Apart from a sober, happy Harriet, which sadly is a rare occurrence still despite her working on it, it featured an alpine salamander.”
Sherlock seemed unimpressed. “So? Apparently the one we found made a lasting impression on you. They are fascinating creatures, after all.”
“In the dream, it was as large as a person, and it was talking.” It also had your voice and your eyes, he added in thought – which he was sure Sherlock was able to deduce by the slight narrowing of his eyes and the frown-lines appearing between his eyebrows.
“Come to think of it,” John went on, “it reminds me of that animated movie I watched on the telly last Boxing Day while at Harry’s. It was something about Vikings and dragons. One of them was this black, cat-like creature. Didn’t talk, it only made snuffly noises and growled. But in retrospect it did look a bit like a salamander with wings. Funny that it should reappear in a dream more than half a year later.”
He didn’t mention that after the movie, he’d excused himself from Harry and her friends and went for a long, solitary walk in the rain, berating himself because all he’d been able to think about while watching the film had been his dead flatmate. The dark, lithe creature with the bright eyes, the way it moved, sulked, grinned, how slowly it had befriended the Viking boy … It had been too much, brought up too many memories. One scene in particular had touched him and he’d almost lost it in front of the others: the boy had held up his hand and the dragon, unwilling to let itself be touched, had slowly approached until it had nudged the fingers with its nose, to then rub its head, cat-like, against the hand. The scene and the dragon’s characterisation had reminded John so much of Sherlock that he’d had to fight back tears. He’d been thankful for the room’s low illumination and the fact nobody had been paying attention to him.
“How to train your dragon,” said Sherlock, startling John out of his thoughts. He was holding up his phone, the screen of which showed a picture of the dragon.
“Thought there wasn’t a working internet connection here.”
“It comes and goes, but sufficed for a quick search. Film any good?”
John smiled, the painful memories vanishing at the image of Sherlock’s interested expression next to the silly grin of the black dragon. Now that he saw them side by side, the similarities were even more obvious. But they were no longer painful.
“Don’t know whether you’d like it. The story is fairly simple. But the dragons are fun, particularly Toothless. You really forget he’s just CGI. He seems like a real creature. The animation is that good.”
Sherlock turned the phone and studied the dragon, before swiping the display to look at more images. “Why is it called ‘Toothless’? It’s got teeth. This is the creature you dreamt about?”
John shook his head, smiling. “No, I dreamt of a salamander. Or rather, I think I dreamt of you, only you looked like one. Your voice and eyes were your own.”
Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t have that much wine yesterday, and only one grappa.”
“I wasn’t drunk,” John defended himself. “Don’t you ever have funny dreams?”
“I don’t dream of you in animal form. Though I once dreamt of Mycroft looking like a cello. It was scary.”
“A cello? Not a giant cake?”
Sherlock grinned. “I’m still waiting for that dream, actually. Why do you dream of me as a salamander? Or that dragon thing?”
“You must ask my subconscious,” said John evasively, tapping a key to rouse his laptop from sleep mode. He could feel Sherlock’s eyes on him, but the detective refrained from enquiring further.
“So, what are the new leads on the case you mentioned earlier?” asked John, hoping to distract Sherlock who was still eyeing him as if he was a particularly tricky puzzle to solve.
“Lestrade’s minions found out her identity,” stated Sherlock, sitting up a little straighter in his seat. “She’s Danish, 24, single, from Jelling. She was doing an MA in maritime archaeology at the University of Southern Denmark at Esbjerg, and flew in from that city. She stayed at a friend’s flat in Sun Street near Finsbury Square. By all accounts, the friend has been away in the Westcountry since the end of last month and police are trying to contact her.”
“Likely suspect?” asked John.
“Too early to say. We still lack a motive, and the confirmation that it was indeed murder.”
“You doubt it?”
“She died from an allergic reaction. Inquiries have been sent out into her medical records, but them being located in another country and written in another language, the exchange of information drags. It is possible that she just died from anaphylactic shock due to a food intolerance or some other allergy, although this still doesn’t explain the missing bag.”
“Any news on that?”
Sherlock shook his head.
“Well,” said John, “you’ve been thinking for so long now. Surely you have considered various scenarios. Which one do you think is the most likely?”
Sherlock gave a slight twitch of his head. “You know I don’t like to focus on one theory too early, because if you do, you run the danger of looking at new evidence too selectively in order to make it fit your theory. I need to see the body. There may be some sign of violence everybody has missed so far. Wouldn’t be the first time, although admittedly Molly has become much better at spotting seemingly insignificant detail. My – careful, mind you – estimation is that her death was indeed planned. The location, timing and disappearance of her belongings seem to support this theory. Why, though? She wasn’t wealthy.”
“Maybe she had been used as a kind of courier,” mused John. “Perhaps she carried something in her bag or the flat others wanted.”
“The flat did not show any signs of forced entry or someone searching it,” said Sherlock. “But it is possible she had something in her bag.”
John nodded thoughtfully. “Perhaps it wasn’t anything material she carried in there, or with her. Or perhaps she was confused with somebody else?”
“Both probable.” Sherlock watched him, and suddenly his eyes flew open. “John, you’re brilliant. I hadn’t considered that before.”
“Uh, what?” asked John.
Sherlock raised his hands in his thinking pose and tapped his fingers against his chin. “What if she wasn’t carrying any contraband but information in her bag?”
“Oh, you mean a USB stick or some other storing device?”
“That, or a drawing.”
“A drawing? Ah, I see. You mean her sketchbook?”
“Precisely. The graphite smears on her clothing have been confirmed, so have minute graphite particles in the grooves of her fingers. I told Molly to look particularly for them. Also, we know that she was interested in art. She had a website where apart from manga art she published architectural drawings and sketches of people, items and places from several of her journeys across Europe. She seems to have been quite prolific at that. When we have internet again, I can show you the site. I didn’t set much store by it, seeing it as a mere hobby, but now that you have alerted me to its possible significance, I need to reconsider the information. Unfortunately she didn’t update her site during her stay in London.”
John frowned. “Don’t know if I follow you, despite me being brilliant and everything. Do you mean she drew something and was murdered for it? Who’d do that, and why? Copyright infringement?”
“Or good observation?” Sherlock’s eyes where shining. John knew his mind was soaring now. Sherlock obviously revelled in that state, and John loved when he did. Sherlock leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “What if she captured something she shouldn’t have? She is studying to be an archaeologists. They are trained to look for details and record them. What if she saw something potentially criminal and drew it? Or the perpetrators thought she did. Wrong place at the wrong time. People tend to blend into the background when they draw. You make yourself suspicious when you get out a camera or phone to take a photograph, but when you scribble something down, people don’t pay heed to you at all. I realised this – and made use of it – often enough when I was abroad.”
“So you think she witnessed a crime and sketched it?”
“Or overheard the planning of one and drew the culprits,” Sherlock continued with a shrug. “There are several possibilities.”
“To be sure we’d need the sketchbook,” mused John. “But if your theory is correct and it was indeed stolen for the purpose of covering up a crime, how high are the chances of finding it still intact?”
“Nonexistent, I’d say,” agreed Sherlock. “But perhaps we get lucky.”
John nodded. “How was she killed, then? If Molly couldn’t find anything. It doesn’t seem like a spur-of-the-moment thing. Both location and execution – literally – were planned.”
“I have phoned Molly and told her to run a few more toxicology tests to look for some of the more obscure poisons. It seems the most likely means of murder, considering all circumstances. Hopefully, she’ll have results when we arrive. How much longer till Paris?”
“About an hour. Are you hungry? Why do I even ask? Well, I am.”
“Actually, I’d like some of the fruit you packed. A peach, perhaps?”
John’s eyebrows flew up. “You are willing to eat? Voluntarily, while on a case this complicated? What happened to ‘digestion slows me down’? Who are you and what have you done with Sherlock Holmes?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, John. I think we’ve just established that I need to wait for new information again. Since I’m unlikely to receive it given the less than reliable internet connection on this train, I might as well have some food now so I won’t faint from hunger when we have to dash through Paris to catch the Eurostar. Typical we should catch the only TGV in France where the wifi is down. Do I get the peach or not?”
Grinning, John reached for his rucksack and began unpacking their provisions. “Might I tempt you to some leftover pizza bread as well?” he asked.
Sherlock snorted, the corners of his mouth twitching in a smile, however. “Don’t overdo it, John.”
In the end he ate one, as well as the peach and a cereal bar, and he drank half a bottle of water for good measure. John was pleased.
Artwork again: "How to train your detective"
It's done :). I never expected this story to grow to this length, nor to spawn other stories and fanart, but to quote a well-known author, "the tale grew in the telling". Thanks so much to everybody who commented and left kudos.
There will be a sequel eventually, and more stories in the Over/Under-verse dealing with Sherlock's time abroad.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Upon their arrival at Paris Gare de Lyon they decided to take a taxi instead of dragging their luggage through the Metro. When the cab got stuck in traffic half way to Gare du Nord, John began to doubt the wisdom of their decision. They were already running on a very tight schedule due to the TGV’s delay. Even if they made it to the station in time, they still had to get through check in and security controls at the Eurostar terminal.
The result was a mad dash from the taxi rank to the departure terminal during which even Sherlock lend a hand with their luggage. They arrived within minutes to spare. There was a queue for a train departing at a later point. John cursed under his breath when he saw the mass of passengers cluttering both check in and passport controls.
“Leave it to me,” panted Sherlock, depositing his holdall and the bike-bag at John’s side. Wiping sweat from his forehead and running a hand through his hair before straightening his jacket and drawing himself up, he strode up to the desk to the complaints of several people in the queue which he carelessly and confidently pushed out of the way.
John didn’t catch what his companion told the uniformed woman behind the counter, but a short while later Sherlock waved to him to bring up the luggage. Together they entered via the First Class lane and managed to jump the queue both at passport controls and security, to then hurry onto the train.
When they’d finally stowed away the bikes at the rear of the carriage and collapsed into their seats, John involuntarily started to laugh. “Why aren’t things ever normal with us?”
“Since when did you like ‘normal’? Also, it wasn’t our fault the train was delayed.”
John shook his head, smiling. “’Course not. But still, this running around, getting into impossible situations …. What did you tell the woman at check in, anyway? She gave me a funny look and a thumbs up when I dashed past her.”
Sherlock smirked. “I told her we’d been to your stag night in Paris and that you absolutely had to catch the train or you’d be late for your wedding.”
John snorted out a laugh. “And she believed you?”
Sherlock shrugged, looking smug. “Obviously. You look like the marrying type, despite you not even wearing a jumper today.”
“Haha,” returned John, playfully nudging Sherlock’s side with his elbow and grinning when the other flinched.
“Well, I’m off the market now,” said John. When Sherlock raised a questioning eyebrow, he cocked his head in a tiny shrug. “You know, I’ve entered into a relationship with a strange but demanding consulting detective fellow, and I fear there’s no way out of that anymore.”
“Would you want a way out of it?”
“If he can be persuaded to buy milk from time to time and label his more hazardous experiments, I don’t think so.”
“That detective fellow seems to be one lucky man to have snatched you away from the crowds.”
“Oh yes. I hope he appreciates his luck.”
Sherlock smiled very slightly. “He does,” he replied gravely.
“Good. Then he’s not quite the idiot I took him for.”
They gazed at each other for a moment. John felt tempted to reach out and touch Sherlock’s cheek, but refrained from it, not quite knowing how the other would react to a public display of affection. They hadn’t discussed the matter yet. Sherlock, too, seemed uncertain what to do. He was staring at John’s lips intensely, causing the other to lick them which made Sherlock twitch slightly. To break the spell, John cleared his throat.
“Just out of interest, how does me wearing jumpers make me look like the ‘marrying type’, whatever that is?” he enquired.
Sherlock straightened up in his seat, visibly relieved before his mask was down again. “Well, they make you look reliable, steady, down-to-earth. Warm. Cuddly. Indicate a sense of humour and quiet self-confidence. You don’t have to dress up to prove what kind of guy you are. They hide your true nature very well. A most excellent disguise.”
“What’s my ‘true nature’, then?” asked John with genuine interest.
Sherlock shifted in his seat at the window to more fully turn to John. His eyes narrowed slightly as he studied him. “You’re addicted to danger, and you’re dangerous yourself. You can be very cold and ruthless when something or someone important to you is threatened, which sometimes makes you at odds with your strong moral code. You adhere to rules most of the time, but you’re ready to break them at any given instance if circumstances or your conscience require it. You dress plainly and ordinarily, even now with your tartan shirt and jeans, your standard haircut, yet there are so many minute details about you that scream ‘danger’, from the way you move and carry yourself, how you checked out the carriage before we entered, to your tanlines.”
“You and your obsession with tanlines,” said John with a smile, intrigued and strangely touched by Sherlock’s deduction. “Why do my tanlines make me look dangerous?”
“Not exactly dangerous per se,” corrected Sherlock, “adventurous, rather. The tan on your face, interrupted around your ear and down to your jaw shows you have been wearing a helmet with a strap and sunglasses. Your hands show lines where the gloves began at your wrists and ended half way down your fingers. Together they spell cycling. The fact you have these clear lines show you cycled for an extended time in the same direction without variation or shade, which either means a long straight or a mountain in a sunny climate. Since we’re heading back north-west where you’d find the flats, it’s more likely you cycled in southern parts, a fact also supported by the strength of the tan that indicates strong UV rays as you’d find in the mountains, which means you spent time in either the Pyrenées, Provence or the Alps. Now, cycling in these regions is no mere feat. It requires training, dedication, a will to endure hardship, and adventurousness and daring because what you cycle up you have to go down again.”
John shook his head, smiling. “All this from tanlines? Impressive. By the way, you’re sporting some pretty funny ones yourself. Particularly on your nose.”
Feeling the sudden urge to peck Sherlock on said appendage, he leaned in, but in that moment the detective’s phone chimed. Sherlock snapped to attention and hurriedly withdrew the mobile from the inner pocket of his jacket.
“Molly. Excellent. She just texted she has some of the extended toxicology results. I’ll need your phone for calling her. The battery’s low on mine.”
With a sigh, John retrieved it and handed it over. Quickly, Sherlock dialled Molly’s number and turned towards the window.
“What have you got for me?” he immediately asked, characteristically not bothering with a greeting. John didn’t quite catch Molly’s reply. Knowing that he was going to be rather superfluous to Sherlock for as long as the conversation lasted, he retrieved the Eurostar magazine from the net of the seat in front of him and busied himself with reading about the latest exhibitions and fancy restaurants in London, Paris and Brussels.
Sherlock ended the call much sooner than John had anticipated. From the corner of his eye he saw the detective place the phone in his lap and lean back in his seat, raising his hands in thinking position.
John lowered the magazine. “Interesting news?”
“Depends,” replied Sherlock absently. “Unless it was crafted very skilfully, it seems we can increasingly rule out murder.”
“How so? What did Molly find?”
“Her more thorough toxicological examination provided traces of saxitoxin and related compounds which indicate shellfish poisoning. At first she thought it was due to a consumption of pufferfish. The victim does not look like your usual Fugu aficionado, though. A closer look at the contents of her stomach and intestines confirmed she ate clams the evening prior to her death, and a small portion of oysters at Borough Market. Molly has done some research and found out that during the past three days there were several admissions for food poisoning at a number of London’s hospitals, Bart’s amongst them. All bore indicators of shellfish poisoning. Several stalls at the Market as well as restaurants in the area are being investigated now.”
“Well, despite more advanced methods of keeping shellfish fresh, there’s still some truth to the rule you shouldn’t eat them during months without an ‘r’,” mused John.
“Algae blooms,” nodded Sherlock. “During summer months many shellfish are contaminated with toxins from algae blooms.”
“But she must have had a large dose to actually die from it,” put in John, “and it’s strange she didn’t feel any symptoms prior to her death like nausea, abdominal cramps, the lot. I once had food poisoning due to fish, and believe me, I felt pretty miserable for about two days. Spent most of the time on or bent over the toilet. And her swollen trachea doesn’t quite fit the picture, either, although respiratory problems can occur with this kind of poisoning.”
“That’s what I thought as well,” agreed Sherlock, resting his chin on the tips of his steepled fingers. “One explanation may be that the poison accumulated in her body due to her repeated ingestion of the toxin’s source. We don’t know, she may not have been feeling well the day she died. It’s possible that the profuse sweating as marked by the salt stains on her t-shirt and visible in her strainy hair was not caused by exercise and summerly temperatures alone. Molly mentioned she might have been suffering from stomach cramps because of mild diarrhoe after her clam dinner, and the second helping of shellfish the subsequent day provided the lethal dose.”
John watched his friend, his animated face, the piercing eyes set aglow by the light from the window to appear almost colourless. This was Sherlock at his most sharp and brilliant, remote and beautiful like a snow-covered peak. “Something’s bothering you about the theory, isn’t it?”
Slowly, Sherlock nodded. “It seems too much of a coincidence, and it doesn’t explain all the facts we’ve encountered so far. I told Molly to check for traces of antihistamines in the blood. The swollen trachea may still have been an allergic reaction due to other stimulants. Maybe she was allergic to pollen. There is a grove of birches in front of Tate Modern, although July is almost too late for birch pollen. Hopefully Lestrade will get hold of the friend she lived with and she can give us some clues. Also, I need to search their flat. What bothers me above all is the missing bag. Why would anybody take it if this wasn’t murder? Apart from a purse and perhaps a mobile phone or camera there wouldn’t have been anything valuable in there.”
“Maybe she left it somewhere. Shellfish poisoning can cause disorientation and severe headaches. Perhaps she forgot it in the bathroom when she washed out the red cabbage stains on her t-shirt.”
“Cleaning staff or some other visitor would have found it.”
“What if they did but didn’t report it to the police? Don’t know if they collect lost property at Tate Modern. Perhaps they just threw it in the bin. After all, the Met didn’t search for the bag right away, only after they spoke with you. And even then it must have taken them a while to organise the search. You know how they work, after all.”
“Indeed I do.” Sherlock’s eyes narrowed as he gave John a long, calculating glance. “You’re in excellent form today,” he said quietly and appreciatively.
John couldn’t help preening at the remark. “After the holiday I’ve just had, of course I am,” he returned with a broad smile. “Come on, call Lestrade before we’re swallowed up by the Tunnel and the connection is down. I know you’re itching to. Moreover he’ll start to worry when you stop pestering him every other hour.”
Sherlock sniffed with mock indignation but then smiled as well as he picked up John’s phone.
The Channel Tunnel came sooner than John had anticipated. The wavy profile of Picardie with its gothic cathedrals and frequent reminders of the bloody battles fought here during the Great War and before had merged into the flat, dull landscape of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
At one point Sherlock had risen and begun striding down the corridor, still taking animatedly to Lestrade. John had subsequently occupied his seat and gazed out of the window for a while, reminiscing about his great-grandfather and how he had fought at the Somme in 1916 and nearly lost his life in the trenches. Luckily, he had contracted trench fever early on and had spent most of his time in field hospitals and later on sick leave at Étaples and in England. He’d been pronounced fit for duty when the war was nearly over, and had been sent back to the front. According to what his grandmother had told John, her father had been shot two days into his redeployment, receiving a ‘blighty’ which had cost him his right arm but got him back to England and safety while half his battalion were killed that day.
Well, John thought grimly as the train slowed down at Calais-Frethun station to let another Eurostar, most likely the one from Brussels enter the Tunnel first. I got my own ‘blighty’ in Afghanistan. Reaching up, he absently rubbed his shoulder. He turned his head from the window when he felt Sherlock slide into the seat next to him. And look what it’s gotten me.
“Lestrade is on his way to Tate Modern to investigate after the whereabouts of the bag – again,” announced Sherlock. “He sent Donovan and some of the forensics team – lead, thankfully, not by Anderson but Vathijanathar – to the victim’s accommodation. They’ve located the friend. Apparently she is returning to London from Tavistock and expected to arrive later today.”
He gave John a calculating glance. “Your shoulder is bothering you?”
There was a slight murmur in the carriage as the train entered the Tunnel, most likely from people who hadn’t experienced the passage before.
“Not really. I was just reminded of family history, brought on by the landscape we passed through a while ago. My great-grandad fought at the Somme and was invalided home. Twice, actually. I never met him. He died before I was born. I was thinking of how our histories have been similar. When he came back to England, he met my great-grandmother while recovering from a gunshot wound. And, well, when I got back, I met you.”
“You didn’t lose your arm, though,” stated Sherlock, his eyes gentle.
“No, I didn’t. But it was close. How do you know my great-grandad lost an arm?”
“You keep a photo of him in lieutenant’s uniform with your other family memorials.”
“I should have known you’ve been through my stuff,” complained John, but without real anger.
“Of course. Repeatedly. But only when I run out of fresh underwear.” Sherlock’s expression didn’t betray any humour, but John knew him well enough to recognise the faint twinkling in his eyes for the amusement it was.
Therefore, he employed his elbow again, but this time the detective reacted fast enough to avoid the stab. “As if you’d wear my pants. But then, perhaps you should. I’ve seen some of yours. They’re almost antique and don’t look like they’d survive another washing. Make me wonder how long you’ve been keeping them.”
“So far nobody has complained about them,” returned Sherlock defensively.
“Yeah, because nobody but me and Mrs Hudson have seen them, I reckon.”
John laughed. “No, not at all. It’s just … you’re always so impeccably dressed. On the outside, at least. A single one of your shirts costs more than half my wardrobe, I bet, not to mention your suits and shoes. And the Coat. Let’s not forget the Coat. Everything so posh on the outside, and underneath you wear these ratty, threadbare pants. And lets not even speak of that grey t-shirt you don for sulking. It looks like it was ancient when you were born.”
Sherlock lifted his chin a little higher, giving John a challenging look. “As you so correctly observed, I don’t usually expect people to see my underwear. But if you insist I will indulge you and Mrs Hudson and acquire some more exquisite attire.”
“Well, I’m sure Mrs H. would be very pleased to discover black satin pants in the washing, or something along the lines.”
Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “Mrs Hudson, of course. Not you?”
John smirked and lowering his voice and leaning towards his friend, “If it were up to me, you wouldn’t have to bother with pants at all,” he muttered.
“I see,” said Sherlock, his voice slightly rough, a tinge of red adorning his cheeks. “It’s quite uncomfortable, though, going without pants, unless you’re wearing cycling shorts.”
“Is it? When did you go without pants? God, do I really want to know?”
“Of course you do, otherwise you wouldn’t have asked.”
John groaned. “How in the world did we get from talking about my family history and World War I to discussing the state of your pants?”
Sherlock shrugged. “Don’t know. You started to complain about my underwear. At least we have an interested audience.” He nodded towards a couple of young women sitting across the corridor. To John they looked like students. Both were pretending to listen to music from their mobiles and leaving through the Eurostar magazine, but their body language plainly indicated that they’d been eavesdropping on their conversation.
John did not doubt that the women’s deductions about the status of his and Sherlock’s relationship were correct albeit exaggerated. To his own mild surprise he found he didn’t mind. All those times in the past he’d fervently insisted he wasn’t gay seemed silly now. He still didn’t identify as gay, and yet here he was, in love with his best friend who happened to be another man. If people took offence at that, well, their problem. If they wanted to put him in some kind of drawer and label him, so be it.
Not that the two students seemed to mind if their half-suppressed giggles whenever they stole a glance at Sherlock and him were anything to go by. They rather seemed to like it, and weren’t even discouraged when Sherlock scowled at them.
“Stop that. They seem to consider us cute,” John told him in a low voice.
Sherlock sniffed contemptuously. “The last time anybody called me ‘cute’ was over thirty years ago, the day we dropped off Mycroft at Harrow. The family of one of his obnoxious friends came up to us and the mother pinched my cheek and ruffled my hair and said I looked like a ‘cute little angel’. It was utterly humiliating.”
John chuckled. “God, I can imagine that. What did you do?”
“I told her her wig wasn’t sitting straight and that I’d just seen her husband pat the backside of their son’s nanny. She stayed away from me afterwards.”
“Gosh, you started early, didn’t you? How old were you?”
“What did your parents say?”
“They weren’t pleased. There were Words afterwards and I was forbidden to go to the garden and the library for a week. It was a miserable day altogether.”
Something in Sherlock’s expression caused John’s broad grin to falter slightly. Then a sudden insight struck him. “You were miserable because Mycroft went away?” he asked gently.
Sherlock snorted, drawing himself up, but instead of uttering a haughty reply he subsided again. “It was bound to be boring without him around to tease.”
John shook his head. “You know, it won’t hurt you to admit that despite all you like him.”
“When did you last mention you ‘liked’ your sister?”
“Touché,” conceded John.
For a while they sat in companionable silence, Sherlock no doubt contemplating the case again. John couldn’t imagine him thinking about family history. John stared out of the window at their reflections in front of the dark tunnel walls, as well as the mirror images of the other passengers in the carriage.
Suddenly Sherlock stirred. “I didn’t wear any at Monte Carlo.”
John’s feeling of relaxed happiness evaporated instantly at the mention of the place. He frowned at his friend. “Any what?”
“Pants. Part of my act, of course,” explained Sherlock, no doubt noticing John’s altered mood. “And before you worry, the other never got as far as discovering my lack of underwear. The moment he reached for my fly, I reached for the champagne bottle to knock him out.” His eyes narrowed as he took in John’s expression. “You’re jealous. Why?”
“I’m not jealous, I’m angry.”
“Again, why? It has nothing to do with you.”
“Because I hate the very thought of that bastard touching you and causing you distress,” John hissed, struggling to control the sudden surge of anger.
“He’s gone, and no harm was done.”
“I don’t see it like that. I think he did do harm. I’ve rarely seen you so unsettled like when memories of the event come up.”
“I am rarely unsettled.”
“That’s not true. I know it bothers you, and other things, too. You’re a brilliant actor, but you’re not a machine.”
Sherlock blinked, and John knew he was reminded of their conversation at Bart’s shortly before he had jumped. He didn’t comment on it, though. “Maybe I simply don’t try to hide from you anymore,” Sherlock said instead. “Isn’t that what people do in a relationship? Tell each other things about their past? Show their …” – he pulled a face – “feelings? So I told you. But as I said before, I’m new to this. I hardly know the rules and what kind of protocol to operate by, so I’m bound to blunder. I won’t bring the event up again if it bothers you so much.”
John’s expression softened. He reached out to brush a curl from Sherlock’s forehead. “You didn’t blunder. I do appreciate you telling me things, although next time I think I’d like a bit of a warning before you decide to throw them at me like this. But do talk, please, always. Especially about your ‘feelings’”, he added, mimicking Sherlock’s appalled voice which earned him a glare from the detective.
There was a gradual change of light and the Eurostar shot out of the Tunnel into the sunlit Kentish countryside. Sherlock shifted back fully into his seat, having moved closer to John during his confession. John reached out to tenderly brush his fingers over Sherlock’s hand as it lay on the armrest between them, and even though his friend had picked up his mobile again with his other and was gazing at the screen, he saw the corners of Sherlock’s eyes crease in a smile. He didn’t withdraw his hand.
“You should reset your watch,” said Sherlock.
There was a brief halt at Ashford at which some of the passengers left the train. John got up and casually strolled past the luggage racks to check whether their bikes were still there, but nobody had touched them.
He returned to their seats half expecting Sherlock to be on the phone again, but instead the detective was sitting quite still, lost in thought. His expression was almost unreadable, but John thought he detected a tinge of sadness.
“Anything the matter?” asked as he clambered over Sherlock who of course hadn’t moved to the window seat.
Sherlock didn’t reply immediately, and John knew better than to inquire again. But eventually the other stirred and half turned to his companion. “I was reminded of my last journey on the Eurostar. I took the one from Brussels the day I returned to London. There was an elderly couple from Kent sitting opposite me. They were complaining about the trains not stopping at Ashford and Waterloo anymore.”
“Strange you didn’t delete that,” mused John.
“I don’t seem to have deleted anything from that day.”
“Neither have I,” said John quietly. It seemed much longer ago than a few months that he’d arrived at Baker Street on an errand for Mrs Hudson, only to find his dead best friend sitting at her kitchen table with a bruised and bleeding jaw. Sherlock had looked like a wraith, gaunt and wild, his usual composure and calculated aloofness gone. Raw. Vulnerable. Genuine. It had been this insight into Sherlock’s inner workings that had stalled John’s hand from connecting with his face to add another bruise. Nevertheless there had been hurt. And anger, so much of it.
Even now, John felt a faint sting in his chest at the thought of nine months of grief and betrayal he’d been subjected to, but his anger at Sherlock had lost its initial potency. He was sure it would flare up again in the future when he needed a reminder of how much Sherlock had hurt him, when he wanted to lash out at the other for some stupidity. He hoped it would never occur, but was too much of a realist to believe that. There were going to be fights. Fierce ones, too. Relationships never ran smoothly all the time, and a relationship with Sherlock Holmes … well, that was bound to be explosive. Even more so now with a strange, tentative, uncertain yet wonderful physical component added. But if anything, John Watson loved a challenge, and he was certainly not going to avoid this one.
The train arrived at St. Pancras International right on time. Jostling their luggage through the milling crowds, they steered towards the taxi ranks on the street between St. Pancras and King’s Cross.
“I’m not taking all this stuff to Bart’s,” said John firmly as they approached the first cab in the queue. Sherlock looked up from his phone where he’d been texting Lestrade and Molly.
“But Baker Street lies in altogether the wrong direction,” he complained.
“Yes, and I don’t care. We’re going there first, or at least I am. Feel free to dash off to the hospital directly if you feel you can’t spare another half hour.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes in exasperation. For a moment he looked undecided, then “Fine,” he growled, dropping his bag on the pavement and flopping into the taxi in a dramatic flounce, the effect of which was sadly ruined by the lack of a flaring garment. “You’re not to have tea, though.”
“Why not?” enquired John from where he was stowing the luggage. “I told you, you may go ahead. I’ll meet you at Bart’s once I’m done.”
“Just get a move on,” said Sherlock tersely, causing John to smile. His friend would never admit it – despite his new-found acceptance of having to ‘talk about feelings’ from time to time, despite being male, English and Sherlock – but John knew that Sherlock wanted him around. Not just for a second opinion and medical expertise, not even solely for the benefit of his ego, to surround himself with an appreciative audience. He wanted him there because John had become an indispensable part of his work. And his life, John added in thought, causing his smile to brighten even more. And there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
The way Mrs Hudson yanked open the front door when John arrived in front of it implied that she had been waiting right behind it. Sherlock remained in the cab, typing into John’s mobile, but looked up briefly when their landlady enveloped John in a hug.
“Oh, it’s good to have you back,” she chattered, ushering John through the door. “The house is so quiet without you two. Almost like when … Doesn’t matter. Is Sherlock not coming in?”
“We’re just dropping off the luggage for now. He’s on a case and in rather a hurry to meet the police.”
She tutted but smiled at the same time. “As long as he’s happy.” Stepping back a little, she gave John a cursory glance. “You look well, dear. Even got a bit of a tan. Had a good holiday, then?”
“Yes, very,” said John.
“Conquered that mountain pass? I must say I was a little worried about you.”
“We did, and all went well. Listen, could I just leave our luggage here in the corridor? Sherlock’s really itchy to get to Bart’s.”
“Yes, of course you may. You’re not having a cuppa, then? I’m dying to hear all about your journey.” John wasn’t sure, but she might have winked at him.
“Later, Mrs Hudson,” he assured her, stepping outside again to fetch the two bike-bags and depositing them against the wall. “We’ll drop by and give you a full account. Oh, I got you your pastilles, too. They’re in my bag. There’s toblerone, too, if you want chocolate.”
“That’s sweet of you, dear. Off you go, then, before he leaves without you.” She patted his shoulder. “Oh, before I forget, a packet arrived from you from America. I had to sign for it, which seems strange since you can’t see who sent it. Here it is.”
She handed him a small flat parcel wrapped in brown paper. He shrugged. “No idea who it could be from. Maybe Sherlock can make anything of it. Thanks, Mrs H.” He leaned to kiss her cheek. “See you later.”
A thought struck him and he turned in the door. Better to get it over now, as the revelation was inevitable anyway. “How much is in the pot?”
She gazed at him confusedly. “The pot, dear?”
“The betting pot of yours and Mrs Turner’s and your bridge friends?”
She blushed rather violently. “Oh, how did you know of that.”
“Sherlock told me. You can’t hide anything from him, can you?”
“I’m so sorry, it’s just a little silliness. We didn’t mean any harm.”
He smiled. “I know. It’s fine. How much?”
“I see. And did you bet in favour or not?”
“Of course in favour,” she said, as if a different answer had never even occurred to her.
He flashed her a bright grin. “Good for you, then. You can buy us a cake with the money.”
Her eyes grew round, then she launched herself at him and hugged him. “Oh, my boys, my boys. I’m very happy for you. And for Sherlock. It was so very obvious in his case, the way he always looks at you. But he’s terribly insecure when it comes to these matters. You’ll be patient with him, won’t you?”
“Of course. We’re taking things slowly. It’s new for me, too.”
“Good. Well, off you go, then.”
“Yes. I won’t keep you from phoning Mrs Turner right away,” he told her with a wink. She slapped his arm playfully.
“How much does she win?” asked Sherlock when John joined him in the cab.
“How—? Never mind. Fifty-eight quid. She expects us to drop in once we’re done at the hospital and give her a full account. With all the juicy details, no doubt.”
“I’ll leave that honour to you.”
“Well, you’re the blogger.” He voiced turned business-like once more. “Donovan and Vathijanathar are going to meet us at Bart’s. They’re just leaving the victim’s accommodation.”
“Right. What about Lestrade?”
“Still investigating after the bag at Tate Modern. Apparently one of the cleaning staff remembered seeing it at the bathroom. He didn’t remove it, though. They’re now trying to locate the person who had the shift after him. What’s this?” he pointed at the package in John’s hands.
“Don’t know. Mrs H. said it arrived for me from the US. She had to sign for it, despite there not being any return address. Here, have a go at it.”
He handed the parcel over. Sherlock held it up carefully and examined it from various angles.
A memory stirred in John as he watched his friend study the handwritten address carefully. There was no postal stamp. No magpie seal, either, thankfully.
“It’s not the same paper,” Sherlock’s even voice interrupted his thoughts. The detective gave him a brief glance before shifting his eyes to the package again. “You were thinking of the scorched gingerbread man. Not the same envelope. This one has a much higher content of recycled fibres. Writer is female, right handed, used a ballpoint pen. Printed the letters, despite usually writing cursive. Used your full title, so no friendly acquaintance. You said Mrs Hudson told you it was from the US. How did she know without a return address or postal stamp? Must have been a private delivery.”
John shrugged. “Don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
Sherlock huffed. “Package seems to contain papers only, wrapping is for additional protection, apparently. Something important, then. May I open it?”
“Go ahead. But be careful.” With some apprehension, John watched as Sherlock cautiously undid the tape that held the wrapping paper together. Inside was a stiff envelope, which he opened as well and looked inside. “Three sheets of paper, two of them photographs.”
Slowly, he shook them out onto his lap. There was a plain letter-sized sheet of cream-coloured, heavy writing paper, watermarked, once folded. Inside it lay two photographs. John reached for the papers while Sherlock picked up the envelope again for another look.
Inside the letter, written in an elegant but functional and sparing cursive were the words:
Something of yours, doctor, and someone to watch out for.
Frowning, he handed the sheet to Sherlock and gazed at the photos. The larger one looked like a paparazzi shot of a street somewhere in England, judging from the yellow markings and the licence plates of the parking cars. It had been taken with a strong telephoto lens from a slightly elevated position and showed a man of about John’s age, tall, lean, dressed in jeans and a leather jacket. He was gazing over his shoulder at something. His face and details of his clothing were difficult to make out due to the low resolution of the digital shot, but it looked intense and concentrated, reminding John of a hunting shark.
Handing the photo on to Sherlock, John revealed the second picture. It was smaller and of better resolution, although quite dark and grainy. John felt a mixture of warmth and cold alarm spread through him as he studied it. The photograph was a close-up of a sleeping Sherlock. A beam of light illuminated his friend’s tired, marked features – it must have been taken during his time abroad. It seemed to have been shot through a half open door, stealthily, and revealed his friend in all his vulnerability. Sherlock was lying on some kind sofa, a couch pillow under his head and a patterned throw over his shoulders. He was sleeping on his right side, his left hand resting on a folded copy of the Guardian. A closer look revealed which issue: the one that announced Sherlock’s name had been cleared. It had featured an old photograph of himself and Sherlock next to the article. In the photo he now held in his hand, Sherlock’s fingers were lying lightly on the chest of the John in the newspaper photograph. Sherlock’s expression was relaxed, yet a faint frown seemed to be creasing his features as if, even in sleep, he was worrying about his friend.
“I know where this was taken,” the detective’s baritone invaded John’s thoughts. “Only one possible location, and it would make sense in combination with the rest of the message.”
John’s brows knitted when a sudden insight struck him. “The Woman?” he asked.
“Yes. I didn’t know she photographed me, though. But she had a copy of the Guardian and a couple of other British newspapers at her place.”
John gazed at the shot again, lightly running his fingers over it. “You really missed me, didn’t you?” he said softly.
“I told you I did,” came the terse reply. Then Sherlock drew a breath. “I wasn’t well when I arrived at her place. It was winter, and I had spent the passage from Europe on a container ship. I had a bad cold, and more or less collapsed on her sofa. I knew she’d try to exploit my weakness, but I needed a warm refuge for a few days. And since she was still indebted to me for organising her ‘demise’ at Karachi, I knew she at least wouldn’t sell me out straight away. I didn’t have any photos of you on my phone or elsewhere. Too dangerous. And around that time your blog was offline. I …,” a faint blush stole over his cheeks, “I used to look at it now and again, just to see your picture and reread some of your ridiculous entries.” He scoffed. “Sentiment. But I couldn’t seem to get rid of it. If anything, it became worse the longer I was away. In a way, my visits to your blog get me going, reminding me who I was doing all this for. But when I arrived in the US I found I couldn’t access it anymore. And then I saw the paper at her flat.” He fell silent, staring out of the window, his teeth worrying his lower lip, clearly at odds with the emotions he had yet again displayed so unguardedly.
“Wonder what other photos she’s got of you,” said John, hoping to break the tense mood and moreover fight a tiny twinge of jealousy. The thought of Sherlock seeking her out in a moment of need didn’t sit well with him, despite understanding his friend’s reasons.
“Most likely all of them show me asleep,” replied Sherlock. “I didn’t do much else for two days. I would have noticed had she tried to take one of me showering,” he added, the corners of his mouth twitching. “Unless of course she had a security camera in the bathroom, which I wouldn’t put beyond her.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t mind if she’d taken one and sent that over, too,” quipped John. He gazed down at the picture in his hand. “At least you’re not drooling on my photo in that shot.”
“Must have been taken before I started to.” They gazed at each other and grinned, before John sobered up. “What about that other picture. Know the fellow?”
Sherlock shook his head. “No. It should be possible to locate where it was shot, though. I’ll put Lestrade onto it. He can run the license plates.”
John worried his lip, frowning. “Do you think it’s another one of Moriarty’s underlings. One you missed, perhaps?”
“Possible,” replied Sherlock thoughtfully. “Probable, even. As much as I hate to, I may have to involve Mycroft. Good thing we bought those toblerones. They should provide a powerful incentive for him to help us.”
John was still thinking about the mysterious mail when they reached Bart’s and set out towards the morgue. Why would the Woman send him these photos? Why not Sherlock? Well, he could understand about the picture of his sleeping friend. But the other one? Was this just one of her little games? Surely she wouldn’t do anything without an ulterior motive. He considered asking Sherlock about it, but his friend had fallen silent in the cab and seemed to be lost in thought, his magnificent brain racing at top speed. John knew better than to interrupt.
Whatever Sherlock had been running through his thought, he was back fully on the case the moment they stepped into the mortuary. There Molly, Sally Donovan and the new forensic expert from Bradford, Nikhita Vathijanathar were engaged in a lively conversation about strange ice-cream flavours. Vathijanathar was a small, strongly built woman of about thirty with short, spiky black hair, an infectious smile and a liking for strikingly coloured Star Trek t-shirts that challenged the dress code at Scotland Yard but were visible even under her blue forensic overalls. Today she was wearing one that celebrated lens-flares. If not for the fact he was completely devoted to Sherlock, John would have asked her out on the spot. Like this, he simply smiled at the sight of the three ladies having fun, even at such an unlikely place as the morgue with a dead young woman lying on the table in front of them.
“Hello, Freak,” Sally greeted them good-naturedly when Sherlock rushed in. “Hi, John. Brought him back in one piece, I see.”
“Did you really cycle that pass?” asked Molly.
John nodded as he watched Sherlock whip out his magnifyer and descend upon the body, not even bothering with a greeting. “Hi everyone. Yes, we did. Another one, too, the following day. It was brilliant, but far too short a trip. The landscape is spectacular.”
“And he really managed for several days without a case?” asked Sally.
“Well, he wasn’t without one, strictly speaking, thanks to your boss. Which was for the best, I guess. Not that there was nothing else to do, but you know how he gets when he’s bored.”
Both Sally and Molly nodded, heaving sighs, while Nikhita looked questioningly between the three of them. “You’ve only experienced him during one case, have you?” asked John.
“Yes, but that was quite interesting already,” she replied, speaking with a heavy Yorkshire accent. “I’ve heard stories, though.”
“John,” came Sherlock’s demanding voice from where he stood stooped over the body. “I need you here.”
“Coming,” replied John, with a shrug and a slight eyeroll.
“What did you find at the flat?” asked Sherlock without looking up. “Anything indicating that she might have been suffering from allergies severe enough to bring on an anaphylactic shock? Was there medication? A subscription? Were there pets?”
“No, nothing,” replied Nikhita. “She cannot have spent much time at the flat because most of the stuff seemed to belong to the actual owner. There was some food in the fridge and a few pieces of laundry in her size – the friend appears to be taller so it was easy to differentiate the clothing. We brought whatever we could be sure belonged to the victim here, but need to go back to the flat once the owner returns.”
“Her medical records from Denmark didn’t indicate anything, either,” added Sally. “Apart from the removal of her wisdom teeth about a year ago she hadn’t had any health issues. No allergies, which of course doesn’t mean she didn’t have any, only that they hadn’t been diagnosed and treated.”
John had joined Sherlock at the table. The young woman looked quite peaceful as she lay there. But for her unnatural paleness she could have been sleeping. “Stine Svenson”, he read, “twenty-four years old.” A thought struck him and he looked at Donovan. “Has her family been told? Are they coming over?”
“They should be arriving early tomorrow,” she said. “They’re taking the ferry from Esbjerg to Harwich.”
“Right.” Turning back to Sherlock who was stooped over one of the hands, he asked. “Want me to look for anything special? Only I doubt I could find anything that you or Molly have missed.”
“You know I value your opinion. Look for anything that strikes you as odd.”
John shrugged and leaned in closer, trying to shut out the gory traces of Molly’s work and the smell. Sherlock walked around the body, taking in every inch. Now and again he ask questions of the three women. John could tell by the tone of his voice that he was getting more and more impatient and frustrated, likely because none of the answers were satisfactory or helpful. Twice Sherlock interrupted his examination to look at the toxicology report, and once to study the dead woman’s clothes that had been stored in evidence bags and spread out on another table.
“We already know how she died, Sherlock,” Molly tried to calm him. “Once I knew what kind of poison we’re dealing with finding the source wasn’t difficult. And as I told you, she’s not the only one afflicted by the poisoning, she’s just the only one that’s died from it so far.”
“Yes, I know. Doesn’t account for all her symptoms, though,” returned Sherlock. “There must be something else.”
John could not find anything on the body, either, so he moved on to the woman’s belongings, too. He examined the clothes, looking particularly for animal hairs as a common source for allergens, although he thought it unlikely that the woman had never noticed if she had reacted to pets. Apart from her clothes and shoes, there was only a pair of sunglasses, a used tissue and a labello stick. John picked it up and opened it. It looked new, barely used. It smelled nice, though, particularly in this morgue with its reek of death and disinfectant. ‘Milk and Honey’, it said on the side. Must be a new kind. Oh. A thought struck him, and for a moment he thought he knew what it must be like for Sherlock to suddenly see things clearly.
Returning quickly to the body, he studied her face and particularly her mouth, only to find his suspicions confirmed. Even in death a faded rash could still be seen around her lips. “Sherlock,” he called. “I may have found something.” He held up the labello and indicated her lips.
Sherlock walked over, clearly intrigued. “The lipstick? But I had Molly check it.”
“It’s perfectly ordinary, John,” Molly added.
“That may be,” said John, enjoying the attention. God, no wonder Sherlock revelled in it. “But what if she was allergic to it? Her lips and the skin surrounding them show traces of what could have been an allergic rash.”
Sherlock frowned. “But there is nothing in it to—” His eyes grew wide and he slapped his hands together. “Of course. Oh yes.” He gazed at John, his eyes shining. “Beeswax,” he said.
John smiled and nodded. “It’s contained in a lot of products, but features quite prominently in this stick. It even smells strongly of beeswax. It’s likely she didn’t know she was allergic.”
“Likely, yes,” said Sherlock absently, still gazing at John with an expression the latter found difficult to describe. An instant later, though, he knew the right term: predatory. By then Sherlock had grabbed his shoulder with one arm, bent him slightly backwards so he was pressed against his side and kissed him firmly.
There was a gasp from Molly, and the click of a mobile’s camera from either Donovan or Vathijanathar. Right, so much for talking about public displays of affection first, and for breaking the news to the Yarders gently, thought John before his brain went offline and his body took over, returning the kiss eagerly. This in turn seemed to startle Sherlock who straightened up again and terminated the contact. He released John’s shoulder and stepped back a pace, straightening his jacket. He looked both surprised at his impulsive act and pleased at the reaction it had caused. A faint blush was adorning his cheeks, and his ears were glowing red in the stark halogen lighting.
“Was this to tell me I’m brilliant and amazing?” asked John softly, smirking.
“Quite, yes. Seems you got the gist.” Sherlock was smiling as well, suddenly shy and struggling to hide it.
There was clapping and whistling from their audience, echoing from the metal doors and smooth floor. “About time, boys!” called Donovan. She was grinning broadly and seemed genuinely happy about the development. Molly’s face was a deep shade of red, but she was laughing softly. Vathijanathar was grinning, too. “I didn’t get it at first,” she admitted, “why everybody seemed to be shipping you two. Now I understand. Call me converted.”
John groaned. “Don’t tell me you’ve been betting as well.”
“Oh yes,” said Sally. “Girls versus boys. Has been going on for ages, even before all that Moriarty shit. Anyway, guess who’ll be winning now. Thanks, guys.”
“We could demand of you to delete the photo, you know,” warned John.
“No problem,” she returned cheerfully. “I have two witnesses. Can we get on with the case now, though, or do you two need to get a room first? Only the boss just texted from the gallery. Said it’d be good if Freak came down there. But only if you’re quite done here.”
Sherlock drew himself up, his cheeks still redder than usual but his composure reinstated. John recalled he hadn’t said a word to disrupt Donovan’s glee. “Yes, we’re done. Molly, run some tests concerning the beeswax, please.”
“Of course. Oh, and Sherlock, John … I’m really happy for you two. As Sally said, it really was about time.”
Sherlock gave a brief nod and turned to leave. “Come on, John,” he called, his customary aloof imperiousness and short-tempered arrogance back in place, at least outwardly.
John had long known it for the act it was. For a moment it saddened him that for the majority of people, this was the only side of the world’s only consulting detective they were ever going to see. Only few, some lucky few were granted a view of the real Sherlock, the humorous, generous, selfless, compassionate Sherlock. And only one person so far, at least to his knowledge, had been let in even further behind those nearly impenetrable walls his friend surrounded himself with. Only John was allowed to see silly Sherlock, cuddly, insecure, aroused Sherlock. Only John Sherlock would tolerate to share his bed and indeed his life. He beamed to himself, biting his lip. He was the only one Sherlock wanted, apparently had ever wanted. God, what a privilege.
And now there was this case to tie up, and no doubt there would be another case immediately after, and another. There would be danger, excitement, late night Chinese. Some more kisses, too, hopefully, and whatever they might lead to eventually. There would be a hunt for the mysterious man in the photograph and a long chat over tea with Mrs Hudson. And John was looking forward to all of it.
Giving Molly and the others a wave and a smile, he followed Sherlock into the corridor.
-< end >-