Taghairm: Ancient mode of divination, said to be one of the most effectual means of raising the devil and getting unlawful wishes gratified.
Part One: Taghairm
The days rise, grey and long. John is grateful for nightfall because it means one more day is over. His leg aches again, and he seeks the walking stick in the depths of the cupboard. There’s a post-it stuck to it:
You don’t need it. Give it to Bart’s.
John stares at the note, his heart beating faster, and he looks over his shoulder in expectation of impossible things.
He tries to obey the note’s dictate, but one day the pain fells him. On his knees in his new flat, he reaches for the stick again, like an addict reaching for the needle. Sherlock understood him in so many ways.
He fastens the note completely to the stick with Sellotape.
He thinks of his clan’s motto: insperata floruit. Flourishing unexpectedly. The word ‘inseperata’ makes him think of ‘inseparable’. But death has a way of taking the untakeable.
Longing for a landscape as desolate as he feels, he returns to the home of his ancestors, a cold, foggy, gorse-ridden, rocky, hummocky land. A land where people wear jumpers as thick as armour, jumpers felted with water and lanolin until the wool stands up on its own.
There is a legend in the Highlands: taghairm. Sometimes used to raise the dead.
He inquires in Kylesku, and he finds a man, Dougal Keairn, who will help him.
“Are you certain?”
“Yes,” John says, needful.
“Hope you’re not afraid of the devil,” Keairn cautions. “We’re about to call him.”
“Call him,” John says, and then his voice is gone. Gone as he waits for the man to kill the bull. Gone as he strips off his clothes and stands with his arms held out, body in the shape of a cross. Gone as the bull’s bloody hide is draped over him, still warm, still pulsing with life and stink. Gone as the hide grows cold, as the bull’s fats layer on his, as the man stitches him in with whips of cord.
A part of him goes wild. He wants to kill men. He wants to hunt. He wants to run in the forest. He wants to stand on the tors and bellow out his pain.
The man accompanies him across the bogs, and they slog through the mire. John’s leg howls. It howls up the steep mountain path, which goes on for miles and miles. Stones slice his bare feet. His teeth chatter, and the wind whistles. The skies threaten to devour.
There are smells. Iron and excrement. Soil. A whiff of snow. It is winter almost all year here.
There are voles. There are lonely birds overhead, crying.
At last, they reach the waterfall, which bursts forth from the rocks like blood, and leaps down the steep rock face of the mountain. John can hear it calling, and he wants to heed the call.
His guide points up the slope, showing John where to go. “You’re on your own,” he says. “Wait. If he can, he’ll come back to you. If the devil lets him go.”
John doesn’t ask what will happen if Sherlock doesn’t come back.
Alone, he goes, feet slipping on scree, on blood. The water is loud, gathering into pools on its way down to the loch below. He can’t hear a thing beyond it. He sits on a shelf of stone, cold and waiting. There is water above. Water below. The falls go on and on.
He sits there for days and nights, how many he doesn’t know. He loses count after three, faint with hunger, drinking the spray, which hits his mouth so hard it hurts. When he can’t sit up anymore, he lies down. He can’t feel his arms or his legs. He closes his eyes. The hunger goes.
He thinks of a barely-remembered legend about a Celtic prince, searching for his true love. A prophecy said she would appear to him, cheeks like blood, skin like snow, eyes of blue, and raven-black hair at her four cardinal points. And he would know her.
A dream sifts through him, a dream of Sherlock, hovering naked above him, breathing into him, kisses wet and desperate.
And then he hears his name. He’s awake, breathing hard, scrambling to the edge. Deep in the water, in the half-light of winter, Sherlock appears, drowning, his dark hair swirling around him. And John leaps. Falls. Hits icy currents, roiling and unpredictable. They try to pull him under, and he has to tear at the bull’s hide, renting it, until he’s naked among the stones, tasting them.
Sherlock is nowhere to be found. John searches the water. The world is shivering and trembling and breaking apart. Surfacing, John looks up, and he sees Sherlock standing on the outcrop above.
This time, when Sherlock falls, John is there to catch him.
Part Two: Whatever Remains
Sherlock is at a café in Ürümqi when he reads the short article in the Guardian. The fact that it’s buried beneath all the headlines lends it authenticity, but Sherlock verifies it all the same, checking and cross-checking, doing his fair share of hacking.
The known facts are these: John Watson, living in Salisbury for a year following Sherlock’s death, departed two months ago for the Scottish Highlands. He withdrew £1200 in cash (his entire savings) from his bank account before leaving. His credit card was last used in Kylesku: one night in the hotel there. Investigation by local police led to nothing more. John’s belongings (wallet, clothes, walking stick) were left with the hotel desk.
There is only one thing that could make Sherlock return before he’s certain it’s safe, and that is the one person whose safety is more important than his own.
The facts are these: Northern Scotland receives an average of 53 sunshine hours in January. The Highlanders have an unhealthy obsession with myth and legend. They like to read about noble death in battle. They believe in ghosts and spirits, devils and witches, pagan gods, beasts. John Hamish Watson has that blood running in his veins. The Watson clan tartan is blue and yellow and green with threads of red. The clan motto is: inseperata floruit, which means running across rooftops and moors, through London streets and stations, along rivers and train tracks.
It is impossible for John to be dead. And when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
A taciturn man, Dougal Keairn, leads him across the bogs and up the mountain, but Sherlock travels the last part of the trail alone. At the place Keairn indicated, Sherlock stops (heart thundering louder than water), strips off all of his clothes, and dives in.
The water stops his heart, stops it silent. His senses, his tools — sight, sound, taste, smell — are gone, but there is touch. Stones: slippery, worn. Water: cold, hard. And then John, for whom there are no words, his heart still, still, still, and then a beat. Sherlock gathers him in his arms, hauls him to the surface, to the banks, lays him on the ground, and breathes life into him.
John ought to be dead. Evidence: nine weeks unseen by anyone, and subterfuge is unlike him. Hair: long, unkempt. Growth of beard, also unlike him. Dehydrated. Thinner than he was when Sherlock last saw him, but that is another matter.
“Sherlock?” John mumbles, voice rusty, as he wakes in hospital, his eyes opening and shutting, unused to light. He turns his head on the pillow, looking in Sherlock’s direction.
“I —” John’s brow furrows. “Are you really here?”
The need for nicotine is pressing. A smoke. No. Sherlock reaches for one of the patches the nurse brought. Hands shaking, he peels it open and presses it to his arm.
“I’ll take that as a yes. Did you just save my life? Or did I bring you back from the dead?” John tries to sit up.
“Both, it appears.” The inexplicable always unhinges him.
John winces, noticing the IV, brings his free hand up to his face to rub at his beard. Unfamiliarity.
“How long have I been here?”
“Three hours. But you’ve been missing for nine weeks.”
John takes a breath, as if he’s about to say something, but he changes his mind. “You weren’t really dead.”
“No,” he says, but it feels like he has been. Months and months of silence, and now sound is rushing in.
“You know, if you hadn’t just saved my life, I’d punch you in the face. Where the hell have you been, and what in bloody hell happened to your hair?”
Shaved a month ago on the steppes, where there was no water. Easier that way. He bows his head and lays it on the bed at John’s side. A gentle hand finds him, petting the fuzz, and Sherlock doesn’t know how to answer.
Sitting in the living room of John’s flat, Sherlock listens to the hum of the electric razor. The sound of the shower. Scent of soap and shampoo. All familiar with some minor variation between the plumbing here and the plumbing at Baker Street. All of these details remain on his hard drive.
A few minutes later, John emerges in his bathrobe, rubbing his hair dry with a towel. “Haircut. First thing tomorrow.”
His face. Sherlock can finally see it. Impossibilities. Possibilities.
“I’m going to make some tea.” John is watching him. “There’s a towel in the bathroom for you, if you — are you all right?”
“A shower, yes. Showers are good.” Things you learn to appreciate when you’re dead. Sherlock goes. He stands in the bathroom with the door shut, and breathes.
He doesn’t believe in the supernatural. He dislikes things that can’t be elucidated by an assiduous accumulation of evidence. He detests the nine weeks during which John Watson didn’t exist. He detests the year during which he didn’t know, at every moment, where John was and what he was doing.
After his shower, he looks in the airing cupboard and finds a sheet. He wraps himself in it. In the living room, there’s tea waiting for him, sugared, sweet, and John is reading the paper picked up on the train back to Salisbury.
John sets the paper aside. “Nine weeks? Unbelievable. I don’t remember —”
But he does. He remembers something. Sherlock can see it on his face.
“A bull’s hide? Really?” Sherlock asks.
“It didn’t seem any more daft than — It was better than sitting here. Are you sure you’re not a ghost? You’re a lot less obnoxious than you used to be.” But he’s smiling.
A year. John laying a hand on his grave.
Suddenly, John says, “I’m shattered. I’m going to bed. I see you found your sheet. Do you need anything else?”
The sofa is soft, and blankets have been laid out for him. “No,” he says.
“Right, then. Good.” John gets up. Hesitates. Then steps over to the sofa and bends to give Sherlock a kiss.
His lips. Surprising and warm.
“Good night, Sherlock.” And he’s gone.
Sherlock doesn’t finish his tea. He turns off the light, and pulls the blankets over himself. Lying in the darkness, he imagines John, his feet shredded, the blood of the bull working its way under his skin, imagines John lying at the bottom of the waterfall, waiting, waiting, cold, for nine weeks. Some things can’t be explained, no matter how many facts you collect.
He tosses and turns. He can’t hear John breathing, and his heart seizes. He gets up. John’s bedroom door is open.
The sound of sheets, of sleepy limbs. The lamp. John blinking.
Sherlock goes. Stands beside the bed, looking down, ready to leap.
“Your teeth are chattering.” John pulls back the covers, inviting him in. “Are you cold?”
“I’ve never done this before.”
“Should I take off my sheet?”
John smiles. “If you — no. Don’t.”
Still wrapped in his sheet, Sherlock climbs into the bed. He lets John pull the covers over them. Feels John’s weight on him like an anchor, steadying hands at his jaw. The press of John’s mouth.
They kiss and kiss and kiss and kiss. They stop breathing. They start again. Sherlock doesn’t know what to do with his tongue, but his hands find the softness of John’s middle. He hears rushing in his ears. Tastes John’s taste, not water and stone. The smell of his skin, behind his ear, his neck, his shoulder. Sherlock catalogues them. John’s eyes the colour of deep water.
He’s drowning, drowning. His tangle of gone hair eddying around him, drifting away. Something new is coursing in his veins, and he’s waking, waking up after a sleep of one thousand years.