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Of Ice and Men

Chapter Text

26 February 2018

And so, in the end, it all really does come down to this.

He really should have been able to predict it would end up this way. But then, who on earth possibly could have? Who could have assumed that nineteen years of work would be ultimately erased in favor of less than ninety measly seconds?

Well, he could. Of all the people on earth, he could have assumed.

He grips his poles through the thin gloves clinging to his fingers, shivering when the tips scratch across the crunchy surface of the thick ice. The wind is still howling, snarling through the Jeongseon Alpine Centre pass. He can barely make out the outlines of the brimming stands far below through the heavy swaths of fresh fog, hidden by the looming turns of the waiting course. The storm is groaning down at them, threatening to reappear and snatch the course away with its lightning claws, but he’s decided that he’ll be damned if the weather delays him again. He’ll ski through the center of a thundercloud itself if it means finally getting his deserved run. Finally being done.

The cheers and the booms of the announcers have long disappeared into the wind, hissed away across the untouched mountains and wafting snow. The starting gate is silent.

It’s how Sherlock Holmes prefers it; everyone who wants to walk away with their dignity intact knows not to make a sound when he’s up to ski. No cheers, no questions, no cowbells, no chants or claps.

No coaches. No other competitors.

His is the last run.

Worlds away, in the chaos of the crowded grandstands, he knows his expressionless face is being blasted across a gigantic, sparkling screen. He is nothing but a collection of equipment and advertisements and the shining red, white, and blue of the French flag—the lycra practically sewn to his skin, the impenetrable goggles covering his eyes, the helmet plastered over his head and curls, the black skull bandana over his mouth.

In fact, the only bits of bare skin left from the top of his head to the soles of his feet are two small strips of his upper cheeks, pink and stinging with the bitter March cold. They’re the only stripes of flesh to remind the crowd that he’s a human being beneath the ski suit and the bib number and the gear. That he’s a conscious, breathing man about to fling himself down nearly four thousand feet of ice at eighty miles per hour. That he isn’t a machine.

Well, not fully, at least. Not yet.

By now the television announcers will be babbling along, idiotically reminding the crowd that it’s the Super-G finals (of course it’s the finals, why else would they be willingly freezing to death in the stands watching?). That, in a shocking twist of fate at the end of the day, Sherlock Holmes might just be too far behind to make up the time to win Gold, and that maybe he can still walk away with the disgraceful-but-nobody-would-ever-admit-it Bronze.

Maybe. But probably not. The human body's only able to go so fast on a pair of skis, etcetera, etcetera.

They’ll be talking about the fall, about rumors, about Sochi. That his coach’s twenty-year run of French dominance in the Super-G might be about to be tarnished by the turncoat Brit, the unwanted never-darling about to throw away the wasted coaching and guidance of the world’s most beloved skier. The man they all wish was about to fly down the mountainside for France instead, dazzling them all with his smile of perfect white teeth and his accent filled with pride when he accepts a fifth gold.

It’s all so inanely predictable. Boring.

Still a mystery how Greg Lestrade manages to coach Holmes,” they’ll be saying with a wry laugh as the camera fixates on his face staring down the steep course, his lips silently talking through the turns beneath his bandana. Standing at the top of the desolate world.

Well, you have to hand it to him, if our reigning champion Super-Greg wanted to try and pass on the torch for France Super-G gold, he couldn’t have picked a skier to coach other than Holmes,” the more sympathetic announcer will butt in, as if it isn’t painfully obvious.

And the camera will zoom in on the grip of his fingers around his pole, steady and focused as the first announcer quips back, “Maybe on paper, yes, but still . . . at what cost?

You mean his interview skills?” the other will nervously laugh.

The announcer will soberly shake his head. “I mean, you just can’t forget what happened in Sochi, or even earlier in these Olympics during that prelims disaster, and the rumors are swirling that this is his last Olympics, even at twenty-eight. Holmes here may well be about to blow Lestrade’s first chance at coaching Gold, and who knows when another French hopeful of Lestrade’s caliber will ever come along . . .

Sherlock clenches his chest against a fresh burst of icy cold; the storm is rolling back in, and he can feel the lightning crackling in the tips of his fingers, shooting along the length of his frozen skis. The previous skier’s scores have just been announced, judging by the fresh wave of buzzing walkie-talkies behind him broadcasting the time. The numbers flash through Sherlock’s mind, but he doesn’t even register them—adds them to the list of thousands of course times he’s claimed to have forgotten over the years, but knows he’ll never really be able to forget.

The Austrian had started a critical turn right at the top of the course one half-second too late. The rest of his run didn’t even matter. He was done.

Sherlock sucks in a deep breath, filling his lungs as they press out against the skin-tight layer of lycra. He tells himself that the churning in his gut is just because he’s hungry, not something as silly as nerves. They’re looking at him, now, waiting for his signal to start. He sets his jaw and starts to silently shuffle his way to the gate, already halfway down the course in his mind, flying through the icy air and shards of ice and plumes of snow, when:

“Sherlock Holmes, any guesses at how John Watson will greet you after your run?”

Disgust burns in his fingertips.

He doesn’t turn his head away from the first blue flag as a shocked gasp makes its way through the course attendants. Sherlock’s fingers grip his poles hard enough to break the carbon and aluminum in two. He doesn’t move away his bandana to speak.

“I imagine he’ll applaud, like every other tired, freezing person in the stands at the end of a final run,” he says through gritted teeth.

The bright-eyed, fresh-faced NBC interviewer takes another step forward, oblivious to the horrified stares at his back. The rouge on his cheeks is two shades too pink. His cameraman follows, shoving the camera into the side of Sherlock’s face. Sherlock swallows down a harsh growl.

The man laughs, too-white teeth shining like the snow, and adjusts the stylish NBC logo beanie on his head. “And your chances at Gold? Are they truly slipping away? I imagine Watson might do more than just applaud if you can pull off the final run of your life, don’t you thi—?”

“Stop! That is enough!” Rough, gloved hands belonging to a course attendant suddenly appear out of nowhere, dragging the young man away. “You know no interviews once an athlete is in the gate. You will be receiving a fine for this . . .”

An anticlimactic scuffle ensues. The camera zooms in to try and catch Sherlock’s response, struggling against the firm grip of a second course attendant sliding in the snow.

Sherlock keeps his lips sealed shut.

And still, interviewer calls back over his shoulder, fruitlessly hefting his mic up into the air and waving it towards the gate. “And for Watson? Any last message for John Watson before you make your final run at your illusive Olympic Gold?”

Sherlock doesn’t answer.

“Any reason why your coach isn’t up here with you? Sherlock Holmes, any comment on that?”

He hardly listens as the interviewer’s protests fade away into the howling wind and snow, disappearing into the fog. Nobody else speaks as they calmly resume their gate positions, as if it had never even happened, and as if the earth itself has frozen solid.

But Sherlock’s answer repeats in his mind like a death knell tolling, howling and booming across the endless sea of white slopes. It hisses at him that he doesn’t even know whether John Watson will clap, or cheer, or cry, or kiss him, because he doesn’t even know if John Watson is down there in the stands to begin with.

And, while he’s at it, he doesn’t know if his coach is down there either. If the two of them haven’t just packed their bags and their medals and left him to fling himself down a no doubt well-deserved ice cliff of self-pity all alone, to a chorus of strangers. Maybe they’ll watch it on telly on the plane. Maybe they won’t.

He silently adds these thoughts to the growing list of things that have spiraled out of his knowledge or control, like apparently the fact that his entire career would come down to ninety bleak seconds, or the question of where John Watson slept last night, or the Austrian’s official time (one minute and thirty-one seconds point eighteen. Abysmal).

There is a monstrous camera still shoved in his face, this one the official Olympics lens broadcasting down to the screen in shining HD. Sherlock smirks behind his bandana, even as another emotion threatens to spill across his face. The HD lens can’t see the agonizing hours of blood and sweat that have lead up to this pathetic moment, grasping with mad claws like a dying animal for Bronze. Smearing the pristine snow with his grunting skis.

It can’t see the first time he ever stole a pair of skis when he was nine and flung himself down a mountain and his mind went quiet. It can’t see the bruise sucked into the crook of his neck by a pair of chapped lips (from a whole week ago, now, nearly faded), or the whole wheat toast Greg tried to shove in him that he should have just given in and eaten for breakfast. It can’t see the residual fear from his fall still flicker through his eyes as he peers over the edge of the gate.

It can’t see the first time Greg shook his shocked hand and said, “I will coach you, Monsieur Holmes, if you can prove to me that you are really clean.”

And it cannot see, couldn’t possibly see through the shining black shield of his goggles, that there are unwanted tears building up in his eyes. Embarrassing, sentimental, ridiculous tears, and yet they’re there, threatening to build up condensation on the lenses, and Sherlock can’t even blame them on the sting of the damn wind, or the harsh reflection of the storming sun glinting off the snow.

They’re just there. And they hurt. And they’re forcing a hot bubble of air up the back of his throat, and maybe he’ll never get to have a Gold medal around his neck, and maybe that doesn’t even fucking matter, and maybe he can’t—

The first pair of flags sag dramatically with the wind, pinned down to the course by the roaring gust of air. He blinks, then focuses his blurry eyes on the harsh ruts from the skis of his competitors that have carved themselves into the earth, revealing the choices and mistakes of every man who came before him.

“Marks, Holmes,” a disembodied voice murmurs to his right.

He nods. He’s heard a disembodied voice murmur, “Marks, Holmes,” thousands of times before.

He doesn’t shake out his limbs, doesn’t even move his neck, as he scoots up to the starting line, inch by careful inch.

The earth falls away before him, disappearing off the edge of a cliff. Now, there is only white, there is only fog, there is only standing at the top of the world and about to step off, there is only the course, and his muscles, and the perfect line of attack from his skis. There is only—

Greg’s voice, from the night before, whispered half-asleep into his ear.

Qu’estcetufaila?” he’d murmured, slow and hot and curling through Sherlock’s ever-tense bones, melting the hard rod of his sternum, freeing his lungs so they could breathe for the first time since February 9th.

Can’t sleep,” he’d whispered back.

And there is only the memory of Greg’s strong arms around his back, for the first time in days, in lifetimes, in millennia, despite everything; the way the hairs on Greg’s bare forearms had surrounded him with fuzzy warmth, like being enfolded into a field of summer grass in the middle of a dark, freezing Pyeongchang winter night. Like having the bones of his body rearranged to be back at home, re-set, powered off and then powered back on again. Softened.

There is only Greg’s voice, quiet and thin, but Sherlock had still felt the pain hidden behind it, bravely, selflessly telling him in the dark, “Whatever happens on that course tomorrow morning, tout ira bien pour toi. You know that? However you perform, you know I’ll still—

I’m sorry,” Sherlock had finally whispered, pleaded, begged.

There is only the memory of Greg’s arms going tense, just for a moment, pausing his long rubs across Sherlock’s back in the dark cocoon.

There is only the hurt sound that had whined in Greg’s throat, the sharp pinch in his lungs, as he pulled Sherlock firmly against his chest, settling them both beneath the cheap Village sheets, as he pressed his snow-chapped lips into Sherlock’s curls and said, “Alright, love. It’s alright. I know.

And there is only the silent question Sherlock had asked through the touch of his fingers. The unvoiced, longing, mourning, Where is John?

And there is Greg’s silent response, in the way his body had curled up to take up less space in the tiny bed, as he held onto Sherlock so tightly it was as if none of this had even happened, as if they were back in London getting ready for a morning of homemade coffee and eggs, and where the bedsheets would smell like John’s muscle relaxant cream, and where nobody for the entire day would ever pick up a pair of skis. Greg’s silent response of, I don’t know. I wish I did.

But he’s not wrapped in strong arms in a bed anymore—the bed he had to climb up the side of a building and pick a window lock just to get into. He’s not falling asleep to short grey hairs pressed against his temple, or lying sheltered from the world by a muscled chest and a broad back.

He’s not down in the stands with John. If John’s even there.

And ah, yes, that’s the final piece of the puzzle, isn’t it? Those inconvenient tears, trickling down his cheeks now to catch in the dips of his goggles. Fogging his view. Hiding the harsh ruts from the skis carved into the earth.

He hunkers down into his starting squat. His thighs spark and burn.

Beep . . .

He should have begged Greg to stay up at the starting gate with him, to hell with tradition, to hell with the past. Begged him to whisper last-minute instructions into his back. To secretly give a warm press to his now-shaking hand. To be here

Beep . . .

And he’s about to spectacularly let him down now, isn’t he? Let them all down. A lifetime of work, nearly four years of coaching, and he’s about to let the skiing darling of the world down.

His darling . . .

Beep . . .

Sherlock aggressively plants his sticks into the ice. He rocks back once on his heels. The world becomes a wet blur save for the first piercing blue flag.

Beep . . .

And John couldn’t be up there with him even if he wanted to be, even if he wasn’t so angry he wouldn’t answer texts, wouldn’t even wish him good luck the night before. And Sherlock should have told John that he would carry him up there on his back, would have carried him even if it meant crawling on his hands and knees up the steep ice to the gate, would have done anything, everything to have John Watson by his side, ringing one of those ridiculous cow bells and screaming for him at the start, should have—

Beep . . .

And now he’s going to fling himself down a storming mountain as the HD camera loses sight of a black skull bandana disappearing into the dangerous mist.

He’s going to punish himself, rip himself apart, screaming and thrashing until he finally hurls himself to the bottom of the mountain and looks up at a blinking neon time on a board and loses. Loses everything.

Alone.

Boop . . .

Sherlock Holmes bursts through the starting gate to oppressively silent air. Shocked and embarrassed and amazed that he’s just learned something brand new about himself even at a full twenty-eight, even at his final run of the Olympics, even in the middle of one last race.

He’s just learned that he hadn’t wanted his customary silence at the gate . . .

First turn, knees screaming, thighs burning, sticks clutching into the icy ground, flying down the face of the roaring mountain, soaring into the storming sky, skis rocketing his lean body through the punishing snow, slapping the flags with his forearm on turn number two, the hissing kiss of the wind on the two slivers of his cheeks.

. . . that he’d wanted two specific people to be applauding. To be cheering him on.