Author's Note: This started life as a one-shot, but grew too unweildly. I warn you now, there is no plot. Just blokes drinking beer and fishing. And also swearing quite a lot.
On that stony savage shore
Strip off your clothes and dance, for
Unless you are capable
Of forgetting completely
About Atlantis, you will
Never finish your journey.
- W. H. Auden, 'Atlantis'.
"How is he?" Greg asked quietly. "Really?"
He glanced sideways at John – just a flicker of his face in three-quarter profile, before his eyes went back to the road.
"He's – better," John said.
The white lines on the tarmac sped beneath them, each momentarily dazzling in the headlights of the land rover. Dark shapes of trees swelled abruptly out of the darkness, then dwindled again behind them. The windscreen wipers swayed in hypnotic rhythm; the light glinted on the raindrops that lay beyond their arc.
John's eyes moved involuntarily to the rear-view mirror. Sherlock lay flat on his back, the centre seatbelt loose about his waist. His legs sprawled awkwardly; his left knee grazed the ceiling, and the right was bent weirdly backwards, his sock-clad foot resting on the floor below his hip. His eyes twitched rapidly beneath their lids.
Greg made a right, and the headlights swung dizzily across the slick surface of the road. He drove lazily, one-handed, his broad palm casually spanning the centre of the wheel, his elbow propped against the window frame. It was irresponsible, a little cocky; the attitude of a teenager. But Greg was like that: responsible to a fault in his working life, with friends he was cheeky and boyish, easy-going and a little foolhardy. John liked that in him; appreciated the contrast, and the compliment implicit in being allowed to see it. There was no pedantry; no pretence at being any holier or more law-abiding than the next man. Greg was the sort of cop who could cheerfully (if a little ruefully) admit to a speeding fine, or laugh uproariously at a friend's well-deserved 'drunk and disorderly'. He was a police officer who knew when to temper legality with humanity, and John liked him for it.
Greg glanced sideways again, eyebrows quirked in an unspoken request for elaboration on the topic of Sherlock's injury. John complied.
"He's still a mess," he admittedly quietly, mindful lest he wake the object of their discussion. "The bruising's faded a lot, but he still looks like an ad for poster paint. He's tired all the time, and driving me spare because he's bored out of his skull."
Greg shifted down, and the whine of the engine altered subtly. He made another right, this time onto a narrow, unsealed road. The land rover juddered over gravel.
"He still gets woken up by the pain some nights," John said. "I'd forgotten how much it bloody hurts."
"Bet you never thought you'd say that."
John smiled grimly. "No."
"God…" Greg exhaled softly. "If I could get my hands on the son of a bitch who did it…"
His hand tightened forcefully on the wheel, but he didn't look angry. He looked old and tired.
"Yeah," John said, a hollow feeling where his lungs should have been. "Yeah. I know."
They drew off the gravel road and onto a farm track; then through an open gate and onto grass. When Greg switched off the engine, they could hear crickets calling in the silence. The moon had risen and hung directly in front of them; it was a half-moon, as straight-edged as if smoothed by a plane. By its light they saw the grey shadow of hills and the glint of a stream.
Sherlock woke when the engine stilled, and shuffled himself into an upright position, rearranging his gangling limbs. John glanced at him, wary of his mood, but all he said was: "Thank you for driving, Lestrade."
They pitched the tent by the light of the land rover's headlights. Sherlock did not help, exactly, but he shrugged himself into his coat and stood beside the car, stretching on the balls of his feet and snuffing the air like some small, curious wild animal.
Greg woke John with a hand on his shoulder at 5.30 in the morning.
"Come on," he whispered. "Rise and shine sweetheart."
It was pitch-dark in the tent. They found their clothes by touch and dressed hastily, layering jumpers one atop the other.
John's hand moved cautiously across the intervening space until he found where Sherlock lay. The breath was warm and regular against the back of his knuckles.
"Let's leave Sleeping Beauty here for a bit, yeah?" he whispered to Greg.
Outside, the darkness was less absolute; the moon was gone, but the stars were visible, colder and nearer-seeming than in London. They scuffed on their dew-damp boots with chilled and clumsy feet.
By torch-light, they lowered the tray of the land rover and shuffled through the neatly-packed supplies. Greg laid the rods out on the tray to assemble them, while John was dispatched to dig for worms.
Stepping cautiously in the wet grass, he made his way down the bank. A tangle of willows grew alongside the stream, and bare, dark earth lay exposed about their roots. John crouched in their shadow and delved with strong, blunt fingers; the wet soil loosened and came away easily. A late-summer smell lingered in the earth and grass, but there was an autumnal chill in the air.
By the time Greg joined him, laden with rods and tackle and other paraphernalia, John had a respectable number of worms writhing and thrashing in an old tin, and the sky had lightened to grey. Over his several jumpers, Greg had added an enormous, shapeless garment of the type worn by farmers. It was made of coarse wool in a pattern of red and black tartan, and it hung down almost to his knees.
They got their lines into the water with plenty of time before sunrise, and sat on the bank watching the lazy progress of the stream. It eddied around rocks and submerged branches and skirled tauntingly about the roots of the willows; as the fish rose, ripples began to appear on the surface in concentric, ever-widening rings. Greg lit a small gas cooker and brewed tea in a billy. The warmth was very welcome, and they drank in enjoyable silence, passing a tin mug back and forth between them.
The sky faded from grey to yellow to pearly white, and finally to blue – a beautiful, crisp, end-of-summer day.
By the time Sherlock made an appearance, tousled, yawning, and swathed head-to-foot in a sleeping bag, it was almost ten o'clock; John had built a neat camp fire, and Greg had a round half-dozen of little, fat trout sizzling in a pan. Of the three of them, Greg was by common consent the designated chef. John's cooking was of the strictly-functional-and-nutritious variety, while Sherlock – under circumstances of extreme duress – could produce a total of two dishes not-originating in a tin: omelette and bread-and-butter pudding.
They ate breakfast sitting on the river bank. Sherlock sat with his legs crossed, the sleeping bag draped around his shoulders like a cape. He was dressed only in a pair of grey-striped pyjama pants, and looked ridiculously adolescent with his bare chest exposed and a full two inches of ankle visible above his long, pale feet (in fact, Sherlock was broader in the chest than his tailored suits suggested, and not actually as tall as everybody seemed to think he was; yet there was still something about his hunched and sleeping bag-shrouded figure that brought words like 'lanky' or 'gangling' to mind). The exposed sliver of Sherlock's chest revealed a carefully-taped surgical dressing and a spectacular array of technicolour bruises that covered him from ribs to abdomen. John's description of him as an advertisement for poster paint had been slightly exaggerated, Greg noted with relief, but there was still an impressive palette of colours on display, incorporating everything from coffee to avocado, peridot to deep mauve, and indigo to a faded yellow-grey.
John produced a six-pack of Fuller's from where it had lain cooling in the stream and tossed a can to Greg. Sherlock raised his eyebrows.
"Beer for breakfast, John? Really?"
Greg shrugged, flicking the can open with a satisfying hiss. "Hey, we're on holiday."
John grinned. "He's just jealous 'cause he's not allowed any."
By eleven o'clock, Sherlock was starting to be restless and fidgety.
"Are you going to do this all day?" he grumbled.
John gave a blissful sigh. "With any luck, yep."
Greg chuckled at Sherlock's look of pique. John lay flat on his back with his eyes closed and his arms behind his head; he stretched languorously, looking absurdly contended and cat-like.
"Is there any point in my asking why you intend to lie around on a river bank drinking beer all day?"
"Mmm… 'cause it's relaxing," John said sleepily.
"Why do you need relaxing? We haven't done anything in weeks!"
"Yeah, and you've been driving John spare the whole time. He's an old man, remember? He can't take it."
"Oi! Who's old?"
"You are John," Greg said. He patted him on the head, quite kindly. "It's not your fault. Happens to the best of us. But that's what married life does to you."
"Oh yeah, because my married life is so full of domestic bliss."
"Jooo-ohn! I'm bored!"
"Go for a walk," John suggested. "Investigate the toxic qualities of pond weed or analyse the different varieties of cow shit or something."
"Or you could get some more firewood."
Sherlock scowled at them.
"Even if the two of you have to waste hours at a time sitting around in the mindless pursuit of aquatic life, why did you have to bring me?"
"You can translate, right?" John asked, yawning. "You know that that means 'Thanks, Greg, for organising a nice, restful holiday for me when I'm all weak and pathetic and injured'."
"Yeah, 'course. Wasn't that what he said?"
John chuckled. Even Sherlock's mouth turned up a little at the corners.
"To be honest, I can't take all the credit," Greg said. "It was Sally's idea, oddly enough."
"Funny," John said. "She told me once that I should try fishing." He shrugged. "'Course, I thought she was a world-class bitch, at the time."
"Oh, she is," Greg agreed with an easy grin. "But she's my bitch."
"The Chief Inspector know you talk about your staff that way?"
Greg flicked a worm at him.
"I don't think you can afford to take the moral high ground where Chief Inspectors are concerned, mate."
John's reply was lost under a hail of twigs and torn up grass.
"BORED!" Sherlock bellowed. "Bored, bored, BORED!"
Breakfast drifted into lunch without their really noticing. With the sun high in the sky, John and Greg shucked a few of their extraneous layers, and Sherlock abandoned the sleeping bag (it was in fact John's sleeping bag, which accounted for Sherlock's willingness to trail it behind him through a damp field).
By one o'clock, even John was ready to concede that it wasn't possible to lie supine for an entire 24-hour period, so for novelty's sake they switched to fly-fishing. It was very pleasant, wading softly through the thigh-deep, green-shaded water beneath the willows. Sherlock had drifted off by himself, seemingly content to potter now that his token objection had been lodged. For awhile he was still visible away upstream of them, picking his way easily among the tree roots or crouching for long, still minutes to peer intently at some object of interest. Greg was a little way ahead of John – near enough to talk, but distant enough that there was no obligation.
"Did you say this was a family place?" John asked.
Greg gave a grunt of acknowledgement. He cast, smoothly and easily, and the flex of the rod sounded loud in the quiet of the afternoon.
"Family's friend's," he said. "He was a mate of my Dad's back when they were at school. Had kids the same age as us lot, so Dad used to bring us out here to go fishing. Then when we grew up and had kids of our own, we brought them too."
"So where are the boys this weekend?" John asked, a mite over-casually.
Greg was quiet a moment. His head was down, and he played the line mechanically between his hands. John could not see his face, only a brief tightening of his jaw, a tension that distorted the shape of his mouth.
"They're with Annie," Greg said. "Or more likely her parents. She hasn't been around much."
John did him the favour of not expressing sympathy. There was nothing he could say.
Greg's boys were impish and boisterous and affectionate; they were like boys everywhere. Toby lived for football, and Samuel for spaceships. When John first knew them, it had been dinosaurs and Fireman Sam.
On the night that Sherlock died, Greg had brought John home with him. They had cooked lasagne together, and sat on the small, crayon-covered sofa to eat it. The boys had been with a neighbour, but John had lain awake in a small twin bed under a blue coverlet patterned with planes and trains and boats. Beneath the fog of his grief, John had marvelled at the anachronism – steam engines and sailing ships and bi-planes with propellers for boys who went on holiday in 747s and rode the tube. There had been a book, optimistically entitled 'Everything You Need to Know About the Universe'. John had turned its pages for hours, unseeing, returning to the beginning every time he reached the end. At four o'clock in the morning, when he heard Greg stumble along the hall and turn on the shower, he had hurled the book across the room.