Joan took up running her first year of undergrad, partly to fight off the freshman fifteen and partly because her roommate seemed to metabolise drama the way most people did oxygen. Making coffee in the morning required lengthy, vocal disagreements with the coffee maker; showers were inevitably followed by diatribes about the misery of having to share a bathroom with anyone; and on one memorable occasion Sandra had even tried to get Joan involved in an argument she was having with her mother over the phone about whether or not some cousin of theirs should have gotten a perm. Grabbing her running shoes and heading outside had seemed like the easier option on the days when she didn't have the excuse of classes or a paper to work on at the library.
Sandra, of course, had opinions about how often Joan went running—Sandra had opinions about most things, and one of her most vehement was about the close bond which college roommates were supposed to share. Close bonds apparently couldn't be formed if one of them spent a lot of her free time jogging the pavements of Morningside Heights.
"My mom and her best friend met their very first day at college!" Sandra said pointedly when Joan was trying to review her organic chemistry notes over breakfast one morning. "And they roomed together all four years and they've been inseparable ever since! They rushed Alpha Delta Pi together and double-dated together and they were bridesmaids at one another's weddings and I think it's just one of the best parts of college, don't you! Finding a sense of camaraderie!"
Joan didn't think she'd ever heard Sandra utter a sentence that didn't end in an exclamation mark, or frankly anyone that determined to pronounce 'camaraderie' with what they thought was an authentic French accent. It gave her a headache.
"I'm, uh, training for a marathon," Joan said, which was a lie so blatant that it was a wonder she hadn't choked on it. "I need to be consistent."
"Oh my god!" Sandra said, beaming at her. "That is so inspirational! You inspire me!"
Joan quietly requested, and received, a single room for her sophomore year.
She could have given up running then, set her alarm for a more humane hour of the morning and made do with the occasional aerobics class at a nearby gym or power-walking to and from the library for exercise. But over the course of several months, Joan had grown to like running. She liked the freedom of choosing her own route, setting her own pace; liked the way that she had to work hard to find a rhythm, but once she'd grasped it, it felt as autonomic as breathing. She even, perversely, liked the days when her run was tough and her left leg felt stiff and she got a stitch in her side. Those days, just making it back to her room felt like an achievement and her shower turned into a lavish indulgence.
Oren feigned shocked disbelief the first time he saw her in sweatpants and pretended to swoon across the sofa, all teenage-boy melodrama. "My sister the jock!" he exclaimed. "Who are you and what have you done with Joan Watson?"
"Hilarious," Joan said, rolling her eyes, but at least it was a change from an entire adolescence of being sneered at as an overly-serious brain.
Joan had lived in Manhattan her whole life but running let her see the city in a whole new way, at once moving more quickly and having the time to take in everything around her: street vendors competing for business with flower-toting Moonies, jay walkers and businessmen clutching briefcases and oblivious teenagers taking up most of the sidewalk. When she struck north, up through Riverside Park and past Grant's Tomb, Joan was rewarded with a panorama that never failed to entrance her: the river, the great bulk of the George Washington Bridge, the Jersey Palisades spreading out from one side of the waters and Harlem from the other. She liked that run best on a thundery evening, when the dark mass of clouds would make the bridge stand out in stark silhouette, its lights glowing like beacons. Sometimes when she was in the mood for more company, she'd head east and south from her dorm building. Central Park was a constantly changing obstacle course, full of tourists and locals and people who were good for interval training because they made Joan instinctively pick up her pace at the sight of them.
The morning after she took the MCAT, Joan ran longer than she ever had before, until the long muscles in her thighs were trembling with exhaustion and her head was empty of lists of vocabulary and definitions for the first time in months. Longer than she'd expected to, because she had no time even to go back to her apartment before meeting her parents for breakfast, and had to slide into the booth at the diner still in her running clothes, her hair starting to come free from its braids and her cheeks hot with exertion.
"Good morning, sweetheart!" her mother said. "Aren't you cold, out running on a morning like this?" She shivered in dramatic empathy, both hands wrapped firmly around her steaming mug of coffee.
"I'm fine, Mom, it's good," Joan said, accepting her own mug of coffee from the waitress with a smile. "It helps wake me up, get my blood moving."
Her father flipped to the next page in the menu, seemingly engrossed in it although they'd been coming here for years and Joan had never known him to order anything other than the bacon and eggs, over easy, with two rounds of toast on the side. "You'll have to work on your punctuality before medical school, Joanie. A good surgeon recognises the importance of time management, you know that."
Joan wasn't able to suppress a flinch.
Her mother pursed her lips, the lines around her mouth deepening. "Michael—"
"It's fine, mom," Joan said, "I just lost track of time this morning, that's all. Sorry, dad."
He looked up at her then, eyebrows quirking. "Well, it won't be me you'll have to apologise to, will it?"
Joan ate her breakfast, and talked mechanically with her mother about the test and how she thought she'd done, and how Lupe and Emily had done, and that evening she went for another run, just as far and just as fast, until her legs cramped and she had to take the bus back home. He'd been her dad since she was five years old and she loved him, she did, and she knew he just wanted the best for her—he'd been pushing her consistently ever since they'd gotten her first standardised test scores. Joan knew he had visions of her passing her boards and getting several years of experience before taking over at the foundation. It was just that sometimes he forgot that she wasn't a set of conditions to be tweaked to reach optimum efficiency; it was just that sometimes he spoke like it was inevitable that she was going to mess up.
Sherlock didn't spare much thought for social niceties—or, as he put it, he didn't have much truck with pointless superfluities whose sole purpose was the amelioration of people's irrational discomforts or the propagation of injurious attitudes.
"I'm not being rude, Watson, I merely refuse to conflate politesse with actual consideration," he said one morning shortly after she'd first arrived at the brownstone. He'd been pacing back and forth in the kitchen for so long that Joan was surprised he hadn't worn a groove in the floorboards; the length of time it took him to walk back and forth was so consistent that the squeak of the one broken board beneath his foot had taken on a metronomic quality.
"Uh huh," Joan said, going up on tip toes to reach the tin of chai on the middle shelf. "You realise that none of this actually explains why you refuse to put a shirt on when it's forty degrees outside and the heating's temperamental."
"My constitution is temperamental," Sherlock said, chin acquiring a pugnacious angle. "And cotton is not always conducive to reflection." But even while he spoke, he was striding over to the kitchen table, from which he picked up his abandoned t-shirt and started to pull it on with jerky, irritable motions.
Joan glanced over at him as she filled the tea infuser with leaves, and found herself asking, "So you ran a marathon?"
"I beg your pardon?" Sherlock said as the long tip of his nose appeared over the collar of his shirt. The successive removal and replacement of clothing had left his hair in total disarray and he sounded as irritated as if Joan had just made a disparaging remark about his body odour.
"One of the tattoos on your back, it says 26.2," Joan said as she poured hot water into her mug and dropped the infuser into it. The tattoo itself was pretty hard to miss—dark and cupping his left shoulder blade. "A marathon's 26.2 miles, that seemed the most likely inspiration. Tea?"
"No, thank you," Sherlock said before dropping down to sit at the kitchen table as suddenly as a puppet whose strings had been cut. "And several, actually."
"Wow," Joan said, joining him at the table. "That's quite an achievement." She'd been aware that Sherlock probably ran some—she'd seen a couple of pairs of mud-spattered trainers in the hall closet, and Sherlock wasn't exactly the kind of person to wear workout clothing for lounging around the house—but she'd never actually seen him wearing them or leaving for a run.
"Well, that rather depends on the denotation which you attach to the word." When Joan stared at him, he continued, "If you mean 'achievement' in the sense of an action which one has carried out, or that of an accomplishment or triumph. If the former, yes, the latter, no."
Joan took a sip of her chai. "Given the stress that running even a single marathon puts on the human body, I'm not sure how anyone wouldn't see finishing one as an accomplishment." Joan herself had never run a race longer than 10k.
"Adolescent rebellion can encompass several forms," Sherlock said.
"And yours was running," Joan said, more than a little dubious.
"Well," Sherlock said waspishly, "I rather thought I'd build up to needling my father by spending my mid-thirties nursing a debilitating dependency on illicit drugs. Jumping right in at the deep end seemed ill-advised."
Joan looked at him for a long moment before saying, "I took up running in college because I was actually starting to seriously contemplate where I'd bury my roommate's body, and I needed an excuse to remove myself from temptation."
"Then you understand my reasoning," Sherlock said, leaning back in his chair.
"Honestly? Not even remotely," Joan replied.
That got a startled little huff out of him, and eventually the promise that he'd go running with her the following morning. Joan took it as a start—exercise would be a good addition to his sobriety regimen, and running together would help to establish their relationship.
Sherlock didn't go running with her the following morning, and when she came downstairs to remind him just mumbled that making such a promise didn't sound like him. "For future reference," he continued bleary-eyed and hunkered in the middle of a semi-circle of papers and photos, the sure sign of a case in the offing, "when I said I agreed with you it meant I wasn't listening."
Her mother liked to give them small gifts at the New Year—Oren's gifts varied according to whatever his current obsession was, but for several years now Joan had received new running clothes from her mother. To make sure that she had good luck for the coming year, the clothes were always red. Joan had no idea where her mom managed to track down running socks or compression running pants in that colour; honestly, she had no idea why her mother thought she was the kind of person who was likely to wear scarlet leggings to run in.
This year, just like always, her mother handed over the gift bag full of running clothes, and just like always she said, "For luck, honey. And they're nice and warm, lined; I worry about you going out in all kinds of weather." But the lines around her mouth were deeper than usual this year, her hands clasped in her lap, and it was only a week since Joan and Sherlock had tracked down an extortionist in a circus and Joan had received a punch to the face from an overly-excited clown for her trouble—the bruising looked much worse than it really was, but Joan knew that for all her genuine support for her new career, her mother still worried about her.
"Thanks, mom," she said, pressing a kiss to her mother's cheek. "They're really great, thank you."
For her first run of the year, Joan wore the full outfit—from red socks right the way up to the red knit cap—to do a loop around Central Park. She looked like a stick of licorice and was cat-called at least three times. There was no way she was going to wear the outfit in its entirety again and the leggings would be buried at the bottom of a drawer as soon as she got back to the brownstone. But it was worth it, to go running with her mother's warmth around her; to know that she cut a clean, bright line through the snow.
Sherlock still ran occasionally, always by himself and at odd hours of the day and night when he was puzzling through some difficult part of a case and neither the bees nor hanging upside down from the couch was providing the appropriate stimulus. During some cases, he ran much more—the case of the French perfumer's daughter actually prompted him to go out and purchase a pair of those running shoes with individual sections for each toe. Joan thought they were hideous, but Sherlock started to wear them around the brownstone and, on one memorable occasion, to the precinct.
"I find them delightfully prehensile," Sherlock said, looking down at his wriggling toes with a look of supreme satisfaction on his face.
"For those runs where you suddenly have to dangle from a tree by your feet," Joan said, turning to the next page in her novel.
"In our line of work, Watson, it pays to be prepared."
"If you're going to try to persuade me that wearing those things is a vital part of training to be a detective," Joan said, "you need to stop before you embarrass yourself."
"That you would think me capable of such mendacity is"—Joan looked up at him and arched an eyebrow—"admittedly warranted in general, but not in this instance. I am merely anxious to ensure that in this, as in all things, you are properly equipped to achieve your full potential."
"That would have been much sweeter if you weren't wiggling your toes at me while you said it."
Sometimes Joan did wonder just how much farther she could go.
"Well," Ms Hudson said, "it's something of a historiographically complicated question as far as Classicists are concerned." The two of them were standing in the accessories department of Macy's, looking at racks of scarves because an ill-timed acidic experiment of Sherlock's had resulted in the loss of Joan's entire collection thereof. She'd received a very generous gift card by way of apology, and Ms Hudson could colour-match a complexion better than anyone else Joan had ever met.
"Oh?" Joan picked up a beautiful raw-silk scarf in stripes of deep slate-blue, like the Atlantic on a summer's day, ran a thumb over the soft fabric. "So the stuff you learn about it in elementary school is wrong?"
"Not wrong, as such," Ms Hudson said, rifling through a box of reduced-price scarves with a practiced eye before pulling out one that was a sunset glory of dusky peaches and golds. "That one, dear, it will look so good with your hair. It's just that the story people tend to tell is a bit reductive because it conflates several different classical accounts and relies on a wilful misreading of Herodotus. But then, doesn't so much?"
"Sure," Joan said, as if she had any idea what Ms Hudson was talking about. Most of her knowledge of European history came from one long ago, mandatory Western Civ course taught by a professor with an unfortunate tendency to spit when he became enthused about dead white men, which was often.
"The story most people know," Ms Hudson continued, as she started to look for matching gloves, "is that there was a hemeredrome named Pheidippides who ran from Marathon back to Athens to announce that the Greeks had defeated the Persians in battle. It was twenty five miles on top of days of running beforehand, and once he reached the city, Pheidippides collapsed at the feet of the magistrates, said chairete, nikomen—hail, we won—and promptly died."
"Inspirational," Joan said dryly.
"Victorians thought so," Ms Hudson said, "but then they had a lot of issues. Oh, this one is 60% off and real cashmere, we're definitely getting this one." She draped an oatmeal-coloured infinity scarf around Joan's neck and beamed at her before continuing, "Plus, you know they appreciated the prospect of an oiled, sweaty man running around half-naked to help propagate ideals of vigorous, patriotic masculinity and colonial imperialism."
The sales assistant standing nearby was definitely looking askance at them. Ms Hudson didn't look at all concerned, just tossed their latest finds over the crook of her elbow and steered Joan to the next section. "Hats! So many people neglect them nowadays, but they really do finish a look and you have the cheekbones for them. Anyway, yes, that's the traditional story that most people know about the origins of the marathon and why it's an Olympic sport. The only problem is that it's a romantic invention, concocted by a second century fiction writer. Most people think it's taken from Herodotus, who was writing much closer to the time that the battle happened, but he doesn't report anything like that taking place."
"Huh." Joan blinked and thought about what she knew of history and how it was written. She couldn't say that she was surprised. "So we end up with a bunch of people every year running for 26 miles in commemoration of a guy who never existed."
"Oh no, dear, there likely was a professional long-distance runner called Pheidippides, he does appear in Herodotus, he just didn't make that run."
"Oh," Joan said, a little nonplussed. Ms Hudson took advantage of her distraction to put a cloche on her head.
"Adorable! Honey, you should get that, it's perfect for you. Herodotus was writing from eye witness accounts and according to him, Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta."
"How far is that?"
"About 75 miles each way. It didn't kill him though. At least not as far as we know."
"I have no idea what to do with that information," Joan confessed. She couldn't imagine what it was like to run that kind of distance, particularly in a Greek climate and over roads that surely must have been little better than dirt trails. But she supposed that there was something sort of poetic in people pushing themselves to do something difficult, demanding, chasing an ideal which had never existed, only for the real story to be far more impressive.
"Aren't the Classics fun?" Ms Hudson beamed, and patted her on the arm.
Joan felt a little like Pheidippides three weeks later as she fell onto the sofa in the living room with a groan, and said as much.
"Nonsense," Sherlock said, perching on the arm of the sofa like some oversized bird of prey. "When going from north to south, blocks in Manhattan average about 20 blocks to a mile, and our pursuit of Mr Myshall lasted only for the space of eleven. We came nowhere close to rivalling Pheidippides' feat. Not to mention that you are possessed of sufficient aerobic stamina to make a subsequent collapse statistically unlikely."
Joan let her head fall back against the cushions and closed her eyes. "Yeah, well, even half a mile is no picnic if you're wearing high-heeled ankle boots while trying to sprint."
There was silence for a moment before Sherlock said. "Ah. I'll just put the kettle on for tea then, shall I?"
"Yes," Joan said, and sighed.
There was a month that spring where Joan was the one to crack two of their cases, and then a client who showed up on their doorstep asked for her in particular—not for Sherlock Holmes, not for Holmes and Watson, but for her.
"I just didn't know where else to go, Ms Watson," Miriam Holdernesse said, hands wringing a tear-stained handkerchief, dark eyes wide and beseeching, "he's been gone for days now and I'm terrified, I can't sleep, I can't—and Sally said you were such a help to her during all that terrible business with her cousin."
"Please, call me Joan." She turned briefly and raised an eyebrow at a hovering Sherlock, indicating the kitchen and the need for a strong pot of tea in the near future, possibly one containing a slug of whiskey, then turned back to her client. "I know you've already spoken with the police, but I'm going to need you to walk me through everything again from the beginning. This might seem redundant or be upsetting, but even the smallest detail can be relevant, okay?"
Miriam nodded, lips pressed together against the threat of more sobs while she gathered her strength, and for a moment Joan had the strongest sense memory of being back in the hospital: too-strong fluorescent lights overhead and the smell of bleach in her nostrils, telling parents that their child would get better, that there was every cause for hope, that she was very sorry for their loss. She'd done that, and she could do this—a different kind of helping that called for a very similar kind of endurance.
Three days later, she stood next to Sherlock and watched James Holdernesse run into his mother's arms. Joan hadn't slept in almost thirty hours, but it was worth it to see this. Miriam squeezed her son tight enough that he shrieked "Mom!", and then she was spinning him around in circles, laughing and crying all at once.
"Nicely done, Watson," Sherlock murmured to her. "I tip my hat to you."
Joan looked over at him, at the stubble prickling at his jawline which was threatening to turn into a full beard, his shirt still buttoned right up to the neck for all that he'd been wearing it for days.
"I think," she said, "that I want to start training to run a marathon. You want to help me?"
Sherlock cocked an eyebrow at her in a way that made her suspect she was going to be the subject of some deduction in the very near future, but all he said was, "I should be delighted."
"No, Sherlock," Joan said firmly. "I'm never going to wear the toe shoes, not now, not ever. That is final."
She'd intended that Sherlock would be a running partner with her—that she'd download a bunch of podcasts that would help her transition to longer distances while Sherlock kept pace beside her, perhaps offer her some advice based on his past experience. Joan should have known that was a foolish hope. Instead, Sherlock clattered downstairs the first morning they'd arranged to go running, wearing regular running clothes topped off with a truly ridiculous hat with ear flaps.
"My ears get cold when I run," he said when he saw her eyeing it. Each ear flap ended in a fluffy pom-pom. In comparison, the bright red hat Joan was wearing—another gift from her mother—was positively sedate. "A circulation issue—genetic, or at the very least idiosyncratic." He bounced on the balls of his feet while he waited for her to tie her trainers, then produced a whistle from his pocket. "An excellent training tool, I think you'll find."
"You are not going to use that," Joan said, rolling her eyes, because of course Sherlock had decided to appoint himself her trainer. "I mean it!"
"This," Sherlock said, brandishing it at her, "got me through the Great North Run! Not to mention one marathon in the Scottish highlands, two over the Pennines, and one slightly hung-over attempt in Dublin."
"I'm not in much danger of running a marathon while hung over," Joan said as she headed for the door.
"Well, I didn't think I was, either," Sherlock said, locking up behind him, "but that's the perfidy of the Irish for you."
They fit her training in around cases and crises, visits from Mycroft and her brother's wedding. Joan started eyeing her food for its carbohydrate content more closely than ever before, identified a race to aim for in several months time, and a running schedule was pinned to the front of the fridge with an 'I Heart Toronto' magnet of mysterious origin. Despite demurring on actually signing up for the marathon himself, Sherlock seemed about as invested in the process as Joan herself was.
"I have to admit," Sherlock said one morning while constructing a stack of toasted avocado sandwiches for himself, "no small part of my enjoyment of this comes from the knowledge of how much it would irritate my father to find out that not only am I spending my time engaging in what he thinks of as a pointless waste of energy, but that I'm doing so while coaching an American. It provides a unique frisson of satisfaction, one not quite communicable verbally."
"There probably is a word for it in German," Joan said, lying on the ground as she worked over her left hamstring with a foam roller, eyes watering a little as the muscles slowly unlocked.
Sherlock pointed at her with the avocado-smeared knife. "An excellent point, and one I shall most likely make to my father during our next conversation. Adding in Germans can only help my cause."
Joan liked running the increased distances more than she'd thought she would. There were times when the thoughts of heading out on a Sunday morning to do twelve, fifteen, eighteen miles was daunting; there were times when it hurt and she was tired and when her clothes stuck to her with an unappetising mix of sweat and icy New York rain. But she liked it regardless—liked that she had a reason to keep going and going, Sherlock keeping pace by her side.
"An ice bath!" Sherlock declared, both arms gesturing towards the bathroom door as if he were Vanna White's grumpy English cousin.
"No," Joan said.
"Yes," Sherlock said.
"I swear to god," Alfredo called from the living room, "if you two don't quit it I will dunk you both in there myself."
The tapering made her impatient, having to slowly cut back her mileage even while her nerves increased, but on the day of the race itself she felt oddly calm.
"Just remember," Sherlock told her before she headed for the start line, "that you have more than demonstrated the capacity for this, Watson. This not something you've never undertaken before, but merely the last stage in an on-going process. I have every faith in you."
"Thank you," Joan told him, and smiled to see how the tips of his ears reddened when she pressed a kiss to his cheek.
Joan had never run amid such a crowd of people before—hundreds of them, thousands, from all over the world, all united behind a singular goal. Athens to Sparta and back again, she told herself when her legs got tired, thinking of Sandra's long-ago insistence that she'd never find camaraderie if she refused to go along with the way things were supposed to be. Athens to Sparta, and she kept her breathing controlled and measured and picked up the pace.
She saw them all in the crowds waiting at the finish line—Sherlock and Alfredo and Ms Hudson, who was holding up a large, glittery sign that said 'Go Joan!', and right there with them her mom and Oren. Everyone except Sherlock was cheering and even he was applauding her so hard that his hands surely ached with it; Joan raised her arms in triumph as she crossed the finish line.
That evening—after an ice bath which Joan had for once heartily welcomed—they hosted a celebratory dinner at the brownstone. Ms Hudson had somehow found the time to whip up two huge casserole dishes of eggplant parmesan and some loaves of garlic bread dripping in butter, Alfredo brought a salad, and her mother showed up with a really excellent bottle of wine. They toasted and they ate, Joan recounted the race for them all and exclaimed over the photos Oren had taken of her doggedly approaching the finishing line, and by nine she was struggling not to fall asleep face first into her raspberry sorbet.
While she was saying goodbye to everyone at the door, receiving hugs and a final flurry of congratulations, Sherlock disappeared, mumbling something about needing to go check on the bees—"Time and Euglossa watsonia wait for no man, hmm?" He came back downstairs just as she was sliding home the deadbolt and trying to reconcile herself to the discomfort of climbing all those stairs with the thought of the mattress and mound of blankets that awaited her.
"A little something for you before you sleep," Sherlock said, waving a piece of paper at her.
Joan blinked before reaching out to take it.
"I thought that you wouldn't take kindly to the suggestion that I use my tattoo needles on you," Sherlock said, clasping his hands behind his back, "although here again I reiterate both the fact that I have my own autoclave and that I boast a steady hand and something of a flare for design."
"You're not tattooing me, Sherlock," Joan said on autopilot, because this was a conversation they'd had more than once.
"No, no, you have made your feelings quite clear," Sherlock said. He waved a hand at the paper again. "But I thought that this would make a fitting alternative."
Joan looked at it more closely and saw— "You made me a temporary tattoo?"
Sherlock's head bobbed. "It might suggest a certain kinship, which I hope will outlast the imagery itself"—and Joan grinned to see it bloom dark against the inside of her wrist: 26.2.