St Petersburg is a vast white darkness, and Sherlock drifts through it like a blackened ghost.
The snow is falling fast, lying deep and still in patches between the occasional streetlight. He sees gateways, and sodden incomprehensible posters, and between them glimpses of cosy, ramshackle kitchens or a sprawl of toys beyond glass. These are the boxes where people live, with warmth and language and hands.
Sherlock is cocooned from those things. He is cocooned from John, who kills unerringly and cleanly, for justice and reason and love. In wanting to die, Sherlock sucks life away and poisons it, so he is amputating himself from John, to be alone where he will simply cease to pretend.
He switches off his phone, and checks a map on the side of a kiosk. He recognises that he is making his way to the Metro. As if underground he would be contained.
From a vaulted marble entrance, Sherlock descends a vast escalator. Everything around him is, and the pain strikes him, and he does not move, carried downwards. John despises him. He is hunted by men with guns. If those things have passed, they have not passed from him. They took root in the poison, are truer than he is.
At the bottom, he gets on a train. What else, in a station?
In a run-down side street, John is sitting in the back of the car with his injured leg sticking out into the air. Zoya has brought supplies from a late-night chemist, and he’s cleaned his wound and patched it up. Now he’s gritting his teeth while she bandages it.
The laptop GPS page sits on the seat beside him, silent. Sherlock has walked away from him. When he does that, John follows, always. For as long as he can.
John cannot follow if Sherlock has vanished into his own head.
They were supposed to have won. Happy ever after. Instead it feels like only Zoya’s bustling presence is keeping John from physical collapse. Maybe he should collapse, and he’d wake up with Sherlock beside him, real again. No, he has to go on looking – as if he even knows how. Zoya has already spread-emailed all her friends in Piter, plus various outfits she refuses to name, and what can he do more useful than that?
I wanted to save him. Tell me I tried. But he can’t quite get those words into his mouth.
‘You really don’t like him, do you?’ he says as Zoya winds a bandage around his thigh.
She’s silent for a moment. ‘No, as you ask me. Perhaps I should not say this if he is dead, but even so. I read the articles about him and I understand that people admire him, but he is mad and he is hurting the person who loves him.’
John searches for his reaction to that. He isn’t offended; he likes that she’s direct.
‘He loves me too,’ John says. There’s no doubt of it. All the horror has given him that much. ‘That goes a long way.’
In spite of everything, he feels like he doesn’t want her to judge him. But she doesn’t reply at first, and John stares past her tousled head with its dusting of snow, down the quiet street into darkness. He remembers Sherlock mad and raging, Sherlock dead on the pavement, Sherlock weeping on the floor of a Valletta house, their foreheads together. They promised to fight, and their enemies are dead now. What’s left of them?
‘Sometimes an arrogant man loves one other person,’ Zoya says, jarring John painfully as she slices off the bandage with his penknife. ‘To everyone else he is an arsehole, and yet he adores the one person. You believe that the situation is permanent.’
John pauses, looking down at the dirty snow between his feet. He understands that Zoya is talking about her ex-husband, and that the analogy is valid for himself. He is sure of Sherlock’s love, but even if he comes back and lithium or some other drug reprieves them, can any normal emotion survive this?
‘Well, I have to make it permanent,’ he says. ‘I will find him.’ One last try. Bring Sherlock back and somehow keep him safe. ‘I wish I could find people like he can, Zoya. God, you don’t know who he really is, in London. When he’s him.’ John stops; he cannot bear it. And it helps nothing. ‘Drunks freeze to death here, don’t they?’
‘Sometimes at night it happens,’ says Zoya. ‘But Sherlock looks foreign so people might help, if he does not hide. John, what are you going to do? I will go home in case he comes there, yes, but you? Is it really worth to stay out?’
‘Yes. I’ll drive around. My leg’s fine now,’ he lies. ‘I’ll look at everyone I pass. I’ll talk to the police. I know you don’t trust them but I’ll pull a dumb foreigner act. I’ll say Sherlock’s a mental patient in my professional charge, which is practically the truth.’
Zoya doesn’t look convinced. John gently but firmly pushes her aside and stands on his leg. It’s less painful now – everything’s relative.
‘OK?’ he says
Zoya demurs. She evidently agrees he should risk going – if he doesn’t find Sherlock she might not get paid, which is surely focusing her mind. But John also suspects that she cares, and that therefore she guesses he simply can’t not go.
Before Zoya can suggest that she should go and he should stay at her flat, John gets into the driver’s seat, squeezes her hand through the open door and drives away.
The crowds are thin down here late on a Monday evening. Scattered passengers are reading or listening to music. Some teenagers laugh and huddle together.
It’s not quite the London tube, though. There are projecting seats, less advertising, wider carriages. The people have furry coats and serious snowboots.
Sherlock grips a metal pole as the train rattles and sways. He doesn’t think, or rather thought is a half-conscious slew of charnel and regret. He has killed, and John has killed for him, and Sherlock sealed himself away so he wouldn’t care. He was better like that. Then he fell. They are safe now, except that Sherlock fell. He can go no lower than this – Please shoot me. It is possible that he repeats that aloud. People move away.
He travels aimlessly on different lines for an hour. There is nowhere to go; train wheels and electric rails present themselves, and death is here, and he cannot reach for it. He cannot reach.
He gets out onto a colonnaded platform dripping with gilt and lined with chandeliers. The ornamentation is threat and jangle and void.
Sherlock’s thoughts skid like worn cogs. He itches. A train arrives, blue-ridge-sided and boxy, with dirt patterns that show it was last cleaned on Thursday. He gets in. ‘Ostrorozhno, dveri zakrivayutsa!’ the tannoy bellows; from the timing that must mean ‘Careful, the doors are closing.’
The miniscule deduction feels odd and solid in his mind
The train moves. The train accelerates.
He thinks of John.
The carriage lights flicker and Sherlock is almost thrown off his feet as the train lurches. At the same time, a fluid shock rips through him. Existence is gathering heft and texture, the weight and implication of John bearing through him, shot with sweetness and horror. He shakes his head as if ridding his ears of water but the new density of sensation does not clear. What is this?
Sherlock has hurt John, frightened him, left him. Yes. There is a price for that. He clutches his skull in his hands and screams because it hits him with the force of a door swinging back that John is dead. He died in the snow with his throat shot out. Sherlock loved him, and the outcome is this.
No. Of course that didn’t happen. But the image bores into his brain and nests there regardless. Sensation is returning to his mind as if after frostbite. People are staring, and there is no hope, and if Sherlock accepts that will he be allowed relief? He moans. John would not deny him relief, because John is kind. Death is relief. John is kind, and that knowledge is a knife to his beaten brain. People are staring. Sherlock will die under a train.
John is not dead. There is still time. Sherlock can go back to him.
That thought is true, and Sherlock will fight for it. Seconds pass, and he is clenched with rage because he will fight for it and lose. The wave of despair is incoming – John is dead must be dead – and it breaks over him – John despises you deserve to die – and it rushes onwards.
It has not dragged him under.
Sherlock blinks. He arches his neck, and it feels like raising his head into breathable air. What is this?
Sherlock breathes. He doesn’t dare to move or to try a real thought, but forgotten instincts stir and report. Lithium might feel like a muffling of horror, John said, the websites said. A clearing of space in the mind. This. New roots are snaking down into him, and they curl around facts that are not tumbling and jagged but fixed like rocks in a torrent: John is alive, John came for him, he remembers who he is. How he fell. Who caught him.
Sherlock sits in the zone of empty seats that surrounds him, and poison begins to drain from his mind. He is exhausted and hungry and chilled and afraid, but here is clarity, and each moment it endures is consolidation. John did not tell him about this, the calm and the bare revelation... or maybe he did, and Sherlock did not understand. For so long he’d forgotten such things.
Peace. All around, regular mechanical clicks and the susurrus of the train’s passage. People coughing, minutely shifting their boots. The business of the world, smoothly interconnected. The man sitting nearest to Sherlock is a barber. The woman standing by the door lives above a baker’s; her daughter sitting nearby has had three abortions. Facts, in order. Time, in sequence. Time in which to act.
The train is emerging onto an above-ground stretch of track near a terminus. Sherlock has two options now: travel to the end of the line, get out and freeze, or take the last train back to John.
He switches his phone on and texts: ‘30 mins. Meet me by the gates at Admiralteyskaya station.’
There’s blood seeping through John’s bandage, and his face feels hot. It’s the only part of him that does.
He’s been out for half an hour, and he’s driving around near the south bank of the Neva, scanning the few faces that pass. He headed this way because rivers attract suicides, and only when he arrived did he remember that the water is entirely frozen, a weird landscape of merengue-puff billows stretching out under the grey-orange glow of the city night.
He can’t help but see that it’s beautiful. He wants Sherlock here, the old Sherlock, so he can refuse to care that it’s beautiful and John can harangue him. But old Sherlock has been gone for a while now, and John’s not doing so well either. His vision keeps blurring, turning faces and snow and palace-fronts alike into a pastel haze. He’s decided against talking to any policemen in case they try to arrest him for drunk driving.
Fever. Hardly a surprise after the last few days. He thought they were saved, then the backlash... John is at the end of his strength. He feels like he’s hitting a soft wall inside his own head. His leg throbs relentlessly. A familiar, confident voice in his head instructs him to analyse! Think!
He tries, but there’s nothing to go on. He’s not Sherlock. Exhaustion and grief and anger blur in his mind, and he keeps driving, and he knows what this really is: a vigil. In his time John has heard both ‘Please God let me live,’ and ‘Please God let me die,’ and for all that he believes in life, he couldn’t ask anyone to bear indefinitely what he saw Sherlock endure last night. John would try drug after drug and exhaust his own energy fighting, but he can’t force life on Sherlock unwanted.
But if Sherlock dies somewhere on the frozen streets, it will happen while John is out here too, searching. Sherlock must know John loves him. If he dies, let him die knowing that. Please.
‘Just – that!’ John demands of the empty air. He’s crying inside the bubble of the car, pleading with an indifferent universe. He feels increasingly light-headed, as if a huge, woozy space were opening up inside his skull, and he forces himself to concentrate on the passersby, but the world is starting to distort... he almost swerves into a lamppost when a man on a huge black horse looms out of the snow to the right of the car. It’s just a statue, and John gets a grip before he drives up the pavement. But lamplight is strobing across his eyes and his hand lurches down and bashes into the gearstick instead of grasping it smoothly. Horns blare and pedestrians shout.
He is abruptly, clear-headedly aware that he needs to stop driving right now. He’s endangering people who have nothing to do with his personal drama.
There is a bleep – a text message. John lets the sound echo in his muzzy head as he carefully pulls over. He daren’t hope it’s Sherlock, but just maybe it’s Zoya with a lead?
As Sherlock steps off the train, he thinks of the electrified rail inches from his feet. An impulse murmurs Die, you arrogant prick, and he can feel John’s contempt for him, anticipate the relief of surrendering to it, stepping off the platform, touching his hand to...
No. That isn’t how he thinks now, or it isn’t the whole story. If he’s not quite sane, then he is in control of emotions which fester and surge but don’t spill over. He can’t be sure the vortex won’t open under him again, but the world has settled for the present.
Sherlock rides the lamplit escalator towards it.
Thanks to a slow-moving train it’s 47 minutes since he sent his text message. John will be waiting, as Admiralteyskaya is near Zoya’s flat. John has to be waiting, because what will Sherlock do otherwise?
He will manage just fine, of course, because he always has. With his mind back online, there’s no reason to panic. But he has not been himself, and suddenly he is again, and he doesn’t want to analyse that, he just wants John’s eyes and John’s smell, and the feel of John’s arms...
John is not in the atrium. Occasional Russians plod past, heads mostly down.
Sherlock’s phone has no new messages.
The lithium, if that’s what it is, won’t let Sherlock panic, but pleas seep into his mouth: I’m sorry I hurt you, I’ll do better, just come back. There’s no-one here to plead with though, and an old part of his mind supplies a relevant truth: all his life he drove away friends. He long since accepted that... Just not John. Don’t take John. Please.
Sherlock walks out onto the covered steps. He’s not a child, to need to be met at the station, and he thinks of a business hotel he saw near Nevsky, which looked like it would ask no questions of midnight arrivals. The late thrum of the city surrounds him, and the snow is white and above the tall buildings the sky is soft grey-black. Everything is itself again.
Somewhere, London and its crime scenes are waiting. Does John miss crime scenes? Something is shrivelling inside Sherlock. Whatever he shed down there in the tunnels, it was not supposed to be John. Sherlock can deduce the world down to atoms, but if he cannot –
John stumbles around a pillar at the other end of the steps.
Sherlock blinks. His reactions may be constrained, but they’re not erased. His heart flares in his chest, and then he’s trying to run diagonally down the steps, almost tripping. He cries out ‘You’re hurt!’ How could he have forgotten?
There’s blood on John’s trousers and he’s limping. His face seems grey, with flushed cheeks. The initial look he turns towards Sherlock is blank exhaustion. Then John focuses with a visible effort – and abruptly half-collapses onto the steps.
‘Oh, thank God,’ he says weakly, and wipes at his eyes. ‘Sorry... shit. All right. Have you hurt yourself? Did you...’
‘No. Forget that!’ interrupts Sherlock. He crouches down beside John, whose gloveless hand is hot to the touch. ‘You’re running a fever.’
‘You think?’ mutters John, with a ghost of his old dry wit. Then he makes an effort to focus on Sherlock and says cautiously, ‘You’re smiling at me. Has something changed?’
Sherlock hesitates. If he talks about what’s happened, he’s afraid it might evaporate, but the mixture of hope and dread in John’s face is so vivid that Sherlock can’t bring himself to stonewall it. ‘Yes,’ he admits. ‘About an hour ago. It’s like there’s space in my head and I can stand there. I think it – is it the lithium, John? Is it going to last?’
Instead of replying, John hisses in pain and clutches his leg. Sherlock is suddenly burning for confirmation of his hopes, but he has to wait, holding John’s shoulder and silently swearing that if he’s really got his mind back, he will somehow be a better friend. Neither of them want or need an easy life, but this?
John looks at him and raises a wobbly hand, as if to say Just give me a moment. Sherlock kisses the proffered fingertips.
‘I can see the difference,’ says John when he’s settled himself. ‘You’re reacting to me. No more of that appalling, sealed-off... Well, fuck that, but you know what I mean. My money’s on lithium, yes. If it’s kicked in... there’s no guarantees, Sherlock, but generally if the stuff works, it works.’ John is starting to shiver. ‘Um, can I give you chapter and verse a bit later?’
‘Of course. I spotted a hotel near here,’ says Sherlock quickly. Actually he’d prefer it if bipolar were never mentioned again. He wants London and crime scenes and Baker Street and a healthy John beside him. What matters now is getting there. He stands up and takes
John’s wrists. ‘We can get a room and call Zoya to get you a doctor.’
‘I am a doctor,’ John protests. He struggles to his feet, then groans in pain and slumps against the pillar, half-supported by Sherlock. ‘OK,’ he grunts.
Sherlock hooks his arm around John’s waist and manoeuvres him out onto the icy pavement. John is obviously at the limit of his endurance. Sherlock is scared by that but mostly it makes him focus. He can focus, and that is a joy, even through the new, slightly waterlogged sensation of lithium regulating his brain.
The world extends around him, flat and stable. There are possibilities again. Connections. Even new limitations, which he will override. But first, John and rest.
‘Sherlock...’ mutters John, sounding more than half out-of-it.
‘Lean on me,’ Sherlock urges.