Flashes of light, unintelligible murmurs of voices around him, and a cool hand on his brow.
“Sleep,” a voice whispers near his ear, and his body is only too willing to comply, fading back into the velvety black of unconsciousness.
He wakes again, and possibly a few more times -- he can’t later remember. Each time, the hands carefully support his head and help him drink a few sips of something his parched tongue can't identify before easing him back into sleep. He is feverish, the wound in his side sending pain shooting through his chest with the movement of each breath.
Some amount of time must pass, surely, because eventually the pain fades to a slightly duller throb and his body no longer feels cocooned in sticky heat. His forehead is damp and heavy, and he has just enough strength to reach up and feel a cold wet cloth lying across it. His touch is enough to make it slide off to lie awkwardly against his ear. He reaches the other hand down and is about to prod at the thick dressing at his side when rough hands catch his and gently return them to the bedding a few inches from his torso.
“Enough of that,” a male voice says. “You're still healing. Good to see you’re waking up again. Just a bit longer, yeah?”
He definitely remembers the next time he wakes. His eyelids feel disgusting, buried like an artefact under layers of grime. He forces them open as though taking a crowbar to a tomb, and manages his first real look around.
The first thing he sees are a pair of deep blue circles. “Blue,” he says, voice and mind both apparently rendered creaky from lack of use. He blinks several more times until the circles resolve themselves into eyes. The face they belong to is male, skin tanned and hair sun-bleached blond, with lines of worry and laughter lightly etched around eyes and mouth.
“Hello there,” the man says.
“Sicily?” Sherlock asks, feeling a bit more himself.
The man blinks, surprised. “You washed up ashore. Do you remember?”
“No, I noticed. You're speaking rather fluent English to me, but you have a slight accent denoting a native Sicilian speaker, specifically of the Southeast Metafonetica region.”
“I could be a traveller,” the man replies.
“Yes, obviously you are, quite well-travelled too. But I can smell the scents of various flowers through the open windows, including lemons and oranges, commonly cultivated in the region. Additionally, if the clock on the wall is correct and I’ve been unconscious for around a fortnight, the position of the sun gives us a rough latitude of thirty-seven degrees, north as we’re neither in Australia or South America. Latitude plus flora equals Sicily.”
The man's eyes widen and he smiles. “Impressive, especially from a man who's just narrowly avoided dying.”
“It wasn't that...” Sherlock says, attempting to sit up. A hand on his chest again stops him, and he recognizes the touch from his earlier fevered memories.
“Yes, it was. You had an inflamed stab wound, fever, and were more than half drowned when you were brought here. It's a bloody miracle you survived.”
Sherlock hates to admit that the man may have a point, but he only manages to struggle against the hand for a few seconds before falling back onto the bedding with a huff. By the look of amusement on the stranger's face, the man is aware he's at least temporarily won the argument.
“If you promise not to try and get up, I’ll help you sit up,” he offers.
“Fine,” Sherlock agrees, allowing himself to be manhandled into a sitting position with the help of sturdy arms and the innumerable pillows that seem to appear out of nowhere.
“Easy does it,” the man mutters. He is close enough that Sherlock can smell him, a surprisingly pleasant mix of bergamot, bay, and cypress. Sherlock distracts himself from the indignity of being rearranged bodily by looking around the small room, which is covered in worn frescoes dominated by the colour red. He needs to give them a closer look once he can move around; they seem to resemble the Third style but he can’t be sure at this distance.
“What’s your name?” he demands.
“Just call me dottore,” the man says. “You’d likely end up butchering my proper name if you tried to say it in English.”
“If you’re that concerned about it, Doctor, I’ll just call you John.” It’s a good English name, if a bit boring. But then, his benefactor is likely to be a bit boring, most people are. For good measure, Sherlock adds, “And I’ll have you know I speak six languages fluently, can get by in another three, and can read in another half dozen, including Italian, modern and ancient Greek, Latin, and Aramaic. I’m an archaeologist and a scholar of antiquities. I likely know more about your culture than you do.”
“And I’ll call you Prat, if we’re naming people now.”
“Smartarse?” John says, now in Sicilian, his tone one of false innocence. “Maybe Smug Bastard?” he offers in Greek.
“It’s Sherlock Holmes,” Sherlock snaps.
“Blondie it is, then,” John, and he insists on thinking of him as ‘John’ now, says in English, clearly amused. It’s not a reaction Sherlock is used to inspiring, and he’s not sure how he feels about it. Especially not in this teasing, strangely not-malicious way. Though he enjoys the way the lines at the corners of John’s eyes crinkle when he smiles; it’s unexpectedly pleasant to observe. “So what brings you here, Scholar of Antiquities? That was no ancient spearpoint in your side.”
And clearly Sherlock must have hit his head while he was in the water if it’s taken him this long to remember precisely what events have brought him here. He wonders if this is what normal people feel like.
“I’ve got to stop them.”
“Who?” John asks, alarmed.
“The morons who attacked me, obviously. They’re after Apollo’s tripod.”
“Apollo’s... tripod? They’re after an ancient three legged chair? I’ve got an old stool in the corner-- they’re hardly worth killing someone over.”
“I despise repeating myself. Yes, Apollo’s tripod. And in this case it’s not just a chair: it’s the sacred chair his oracles would sit in whilst reciting prophecies, undoubtedly whilst also balmy in the crumpet or in the midst of a Nebuchadnezzar phase.”
“Because he, and whatever fools he’s convinced to provide funding for his little expedition, have some idiot notion it will tell them the future. Wilkes’ scholarship always was abysmal. The man can barely tell his hieratic from his cuneiform.”
“So if he’s an idiot,” John asks, “why are you so worried they might actually find it?”
It’s a reasonable enough question that Sherlock finds himself answering it. “Because they were serious enough about it to try and kill me rather than risk me getting to it first. He’s far too cowardly to be that violent if the stakes weren’t genuinely high-- otherwise he’d just stick to his usual tactic of writing borderline libelous anonymous letters to the Journal of British Archaeology questioning my scholarship.”
“Do you really want to know the future?”
“Of course not, John, and even if I did, there’s no magical artefact,” he wiggles his fingers, which turns out to be only mildly excruciating, “that would tell it to me. But they certainly think there is.”
“So you’ve decided to pursue a group of people who’ve already proven they’re willing to kill to get their hands on this, not because you believe it’s actually worth anything, mind, but because you... what? Want to prove you’re cleverer than this Wilkes? While you’re still recovering from the time they already almost killed you?”
John apparently has a gift for phrasing things so that they sound a bit unreasonable.
Sherlock sniffs disdainfully. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand academia.”
John actually starts giggling. “No, I understand well enough. You’re an idiot.”
“What does that make you?”
“An idiot’s doctor. Obviously.” And that sets off John laughing again, and Sherlock, for the first time in so long he wonders if he’s erased it, joins in.
“Seafood again?” Sherlock asks, nose wrinkling in distaste at the now familiar smell.
John sighs the sigh of the long-suffering, which is entirely unfair as he’s the one inflicting fish on poor helpless recuperating archaeologists. “We’re on an island, in case it has somehow escaped your notice. Besides, it’s good for your brain.” He sets down the plate on the small table next to Sherlock’s bed.
“And horrible for my nose.”
John runs his hand over his face. “Good thing you weren’t around in Roman times, then -- it was fish sauce with everything.”
“No wonder their civilization fell.”
“You’re from an island, Englander,” and now Sherlock knows John is annoyed: he only brings up Sherlock’s nationality when he’s near the end of his tether. It’s one of the many mood tells Sherlock has inadvertently memorized, carefully catalogued and labeled like drawers of pottery shards. “How can you mind it that much?”
Sherlock says nothing. The room always seems darker when John’s in a mood, and he doesn’t like it.
John sighs. “It’s not really about the fish, is it? It’s about you still being stuck here, healing, when you’d rather be out there.”
“They could have found the damn thing by now, and I’m trapped here, being force-fed enough fish it’s a wonder I’ve not started growing gills.”
John pulls the blanket partially off the bed, revealing Sherlock’s borrowed linen nightshirt and pale, bare legs to the night air. “Well, you’re definitely not a mermaid. Shame.” He hefts the covering back on carelessly and stands. “I’m going for a walk.” He grabs the walking stick leaning against the wall, an old wooden thing covered with a spiralling pattern so worn Sherlock can only see that there is one, not what it might have once been. Everything John owns is like that; old and somehow fitting around him like a tree entwining with a courtyard wall.
If the room seems darker when John’s stroppy, it’s like night once he’s actually left it. Sherlock hates it, hates being alone unwillingly even after a lifetime of being alone by choice. He should welcome the quiet, the lack of John’s incessant concern for his wellbeing. And yet.
John isn’t boring. Frustrating, at times, certainly not as clever as Sherlock, but... not boring. He’s kind but not spineless, and seems to genuinely like Sherlock, even after spending days with him. Sherlock has even been awake for some of those days. He’s actually listened to Sherlock, asked him for more stories about digs he’s been on and discoveries he’s made.
Brilliant, Sherlock can almost hear John saying, and the memory of the word echoes in the empty room.
By the time John returns, late in the night, Sherlock has allowed the lamp to go out. He lies there quietly in the dark, eyes shut.
John carefully approaches the bed where he pretends to sleep. “Tomorrow, alright?” John says, voice barely above a whisper. He brushes the curls away from Sherlock’s forehead gently, then leans down to leave a whisper of a kiss on the bared skin. It feels like a benediction. “Just one more night and you’ll be well enough to leave.”
“Sleep well, Sherlock,” he says, before quietly lying down on the pallet on the floor he’s occupied since Sherlock took up residence in the dwelling’s single bed. Sherlock stays awake, listening to John’s breathing as it evens out into the smooth cadence of slumber, before finally surrendering to sleep.
When dawn comes, Sherlock practically leaps out of bed. There are things to do, and finally he can do them.
John, in contrast to Sherlock’s good night’s sleep, looks even more tired and rumpled than usual. He wordlessly hands Sherlock bread and coffee before beginning his own identical breakfast. Since neither item contains any hint of fish, Sherlock deigns to eat without complaint.
Task accomplished, he gestures towards the packed rucksack laying by the door that John has studiously avoided glancing at all morning. “Haven’t you packed your supplies yet too? We haven’t got all day.”
“What?” John asks. He’s always a bit slow before coffee.
“Your supplies. I assume you’ll need to eat and drink as well, you’ve certainly done enough of it while I’ve been here.”
“What do you...”
“I hope you can manage a decent pace, we’ve plenty of ground to cover.”
“What do you mean ‘we’?”
“Could be dangerous. Might need a local guide. Or a doctor. Do keep up.” Sherlock glances over at John, who stands as still as painted stone. Sherlock sighs. Must he spell it out? “You’re coming with me, of course.”
John looks at him, confused, before a smile slowly spreads across his face. There’s a matching spreading warmth in Sherlock’s chest. It’s probably from the coffee.
“Yeah, I suppose I am.”
John shoves the empty canteens at Sherlock. “Go fill these, then, and I’ll pack for me. There’s a spring...”
“Around the corner, in the grotto, I know, I observed,” says Sherlock, but he’s practically bouncing with excitement as he leaves the cottage.
John moves quickly around the room, shoving his bow and arrows, a knife, a change of clothes, and a few other things he might need in another rucksack. There’s little more to actually take, as he’s already put most of his travel supplies in the sack he packed for Sherlock.
John turns to take one last look around the old dwelling. His few belongings of actual value are now in his pack, and while he’s lived here a good while it’s just a place, not a home. He hasn’t had one of those in a long time. Too long. It’s been even longer since he’s had a proper adventure. His eyes light onto a three-legged stool in the corner furthest from the bed. John chuckles. “Honestly, all that fuss over an old chair.”
“John, are you coming?” Sherlock’s voice calls from behind him, deep and vibrating with joy. It’s a beautiful voice.
John grins and turns back to face him. “Let’s go.”
ὡπόλλων οὐ παντὶ φαείνεται, ἀλλ᾽ ὅ τις ἐσθλός:
10ὅς μιν ἴδῃ, μέγας οὗτος, ὃς οὐκ ἴδε, λιτὸς ἐκεῖνος.
ὀψόμεθ᾽, ὦ Ἑκάεργε, καὶ ἐσσόμεθ᾽ οὔποτε λιτοί.
Not unto everyone doth Apollo appear, but unto him that is good.
Whoso hath seen Apollo, he is great; whoso hath not seen him, he is of low estate.
We shall see thee, O Archer, and we shall never be lowly.
--fragment of Callimachus’ Hymn to Apollo