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Prologue: mid-December

Sherlock

St Petersburg is a vast white darkness and Sherlock drifts through it like a blackened ghost.

Other pedestrians are indistinct bulks of coat. Around them: swirling snow, glimpses of buildings, speeding battered cars, and a size to everything as Sherlock weaves his hesitant way down a pavement piled with icy rubble and into the maw of the Metro.

Detail, the foundation of deduction, blurs and fades in this weather. It is weather of the environment and of the mind. Sherlock is compact and mute, uncoupled from himself. Even the escalators are huge. He is being carried a hundred metres down, beneath the swamps on which St Petersburg is built.

Quantifiable negatives – their near-capture, John’s anger – are suspended for the moment. As Sherlock travels in mobile limbo, he commits the error of engaging with the sourceless distress which John tells him is chemical imbalance but is more compellingly identified as dissolution of the soul. This soul is an alien artefact identified by John, and dedicated to John, and rejected by John.

For the first time in his life, the pain stops his mind. Without reflection or defence he travels downwards, and when screens on poles beside the escalator flash ads for luxury apartments, the colours and glyphs signify nothing.

The pain of disconnection is incomprehensibly vast. And therefore not quite real, not quite serious. He breathes, curious and split. Numb/agony.

When he hits bottom and moves his limbs he is... Sherlock Holmes. He does still have that. Body and name.

The station is immaculate, crisp marble, as clean and defined as his thoughts are not. It echoes to the coming of a train. The metalwork lettering fixed to the wall matches the Cyrillic names Sherlock saw on the map: he has not got lost. He is glad of that competence, and too far gone to be embarrassed by his gladness. Horror bangs itself against the glass inside his head. John is angry with him. He is hunted by men with guns. He cannot remember what the fight is. The fight is moment by moment to continue. He is not able to protest – the thick, thick glass. In his head.

The tannoy: ‘Ostorozhno, dveri zakrivayutsa!’ Words do not mean.

The train whisks him away, beneath frozen St Petersburg.


Chapter 1: A few days earlier

John

They are in a taxi, bumping over potholes as they travel the ten miles from Pulkovo International Airport to central St Petersburg. It’s sleeting hard, and outside, underneath the covering of snow, John sees wide, badly-maintained carriageways, tacky billboards and huge, concrete blocks of flats strewn across the landscape like boulders. It seems there are no houses here; it’s a little like New York only spaced out. And bleaker. Yes, definitely that.

John turns to Sherlock, who is bending over a Russian phrasebook John bought earlier. Both of them are in touristy anoraks, with dyed-brown hair for John and clear-lensed glasses for Sherlock, but the most effective part of Sherlock’s disguise is that, increasingly, he doesn’t look like himself. If you peer into his eyes, it’s as if he isn’t fully there. This is different to his usual sulks. It’s stiller. It’s quiet. It terrifies. At the moment, he is avoiding John’s gaze. He doesn’t turn the pages of the book.

The cabbie is arguing with his radio in Russian. John is glad not to have to make conversation. He is speculating, again, about how long it might take for the lithium to kick in. Sherlock’s only been on the stuff for a few days, because soon after they opened his test results – all sufficiently clear – he started throwing up. He was down for a week while a virus rampaged through his knackered system, and then it jumped over to John. Thank God John was less badly affected, as he would not have wanted Sherlock to have had to play nurse. Since his temperature went down Sherlock has been spending more and more time lost in thought. His moods still swing, but now their range seems to be from agitation to numbness to despair.

What must it be like to lose your delusions of indestructibility so hard? John never had any. He remembers injured soldier boys trying to make sense of themselves with missing limbs, after lives lived for action. All he and Sherlock have is the cord between them, and it is strained by the fact that Sherlock is being driven mad by invisible pain. The thought of that is so horrible that John does not quite know what to do with it. Sometimes he brushes it aside, because how else to keep going?

He unfolds, again, the piece of paper with their destination. They’re staying on an unpronounceable street in the flat of one Zoya Andreevna Yevdokimova, a contact of a contact of Sherlock’s. For a non-trivial fee she’ll take in Sherlock and John, not inquire into their business, and just make out to the neighbours that she’s started doing homestays for tourists who want the authentic Russia. A private flat should be under Kolyvanov’s radar in the way that hotels aren’t.

‘Hoovered up half the phrasebook yet?’ John jokes to Sherlock, because the cabbie has unexpectedly shut up and there’s quiet, and it has an edge to it. ‘I’m crap at languages – got about three words of Pashto in total,’ he adds. He’s repeating himself, trying not to sound desperate, but he needs a reaction so he can gauge what’s going on. If Sherlock shuts down completely...

‘Not quite,’ Sherlock responds, almost formally. He closes the phrasebook and sits up in his seat, his profile dark against the older, more elegant yet still sometimes run-down buildings that are now marching along close by the side of the road. Normally he’d have rattled off dozens of minor deductions by now, and John wants to shout at him, say something, be yourself!

Instead Sherlock looks as if he’s listening. To something terrible, and far away. His long fingers tighten around the book and, watching them, John feels a flicker of longing. He tamps down on it.

John sees Sherlock swallow, and bring his hand up to slowly rub his throat. He’s been monosyllabic since they left Croatia, and John has mostly just let him be, because they can hardly bond on a plane or in a passport queue. Now, though, they are turning down a side street: shabby, lined with kiosks and bare-branched, snowy trees. They must be nearing their destination.

‘I am finding it difficult to retain new data,’ Sherlock says. ‘Effectively, I... I can’t read.’ He hands the phrasebook to John.

Oh.

That’s shocking. But John manages to keep the impact separate from him, like a grenade deflected to explode just out of range. It is, he knows, a not uncommon symptom of severe depression, and will, his online medical refresher reading tells him, clear up when the lithium takes effect. Which could be tomorrow, or a month from now. They just have to keep going. John has to stay supportive. Except right now, he doesn’t even want to risk a kiss, because what little he knows about the local culture suggests that they need to be hetero mates in public if they don’t want hassle or worse.

‘OK,’ he says. ‘They’ll all speak English anyway.’

The lightness of John's conversation reflects the fact that he doesn't actually know if their driver understands English or not. But Sherlock doesn’t seem to realise; he stiffens. John’s obviously pitched things wrong, again.

Now they’re drawing up outside a block that looks like some kind of former aristocratic residence. It still has a certain grace, with columns flanking the front, set into the wall, but it’s been divided into flats and painted an unattractive yellow.

The driver indicates that he wants cash, no doubt including a large tip. John fumbles the unfamiliar money, and Sherlock pulls himself together enough to get their baggage out onto the icy street. After an embarrassing amount of faff, the taxi drives off and they’re left clutching their suitcases like the tourists they pretend to be, and peering dubiously through a security gate into a dingy courtyard full of what seems to be snow-covered rubble. Is this whole city falling down?

Then something moves... and there’s a rather pretty woman in her early thirties, wearing some kind of embroidered dressing gown, picking her incongruous way through the mess. She’s giving them an intelligent, assessing look, not unfriendly.

Dobro pozhalovat v Piter! I see you from upstairs.’

A few seconds later she opens the gate. John goes to shake her hand. Behind him, he can hear a snort; he’s only surprised Sherlock doesn’t treat him to a comment about how the woman actually saw their dollars. Well, good: this is presumably Zoya, and they’re going to have to live with her. And in any case, John prefers to be friendly until given a reason not to.

‘Hello,’ he says when they’re a couple of feet from each other. He smiles, and Zoya smiles too. John is sure he can hear Sherlock’s eyes rolling. But if Sherlock can’t even read, then all the more reason to do things John’s way.

Ushered by their host, they pick-slide their way across the courtyard to a dank, graffitied entrance. John regards it dubiously; the building may be a classical relic, but the amount of graffiti and the level of disrepair would shame a London sink estate. At least the place isn’t short on security, with massive access-coded locks on the street gate and the staircase door.

‘Come on, come on,’ says Zoya encouragingly as Sherlock stops short of the door. He moves his head as if he’s sweeping the yard for visual details, but then seems to run out of impetus.

‘Culture shock,’ says John, nodding his head towards Sherlock.

Zoya smiles, mostly at Sherlock. Presumably she’s noticed how pretty he is. ‘Ah. Piter is quite a mix. Beautiful buildings, total mess. We try to live normally. Come inside and drink tea.’

John takes Sherlock by the arm. He gets shaken off for his troubles, but at least it’s a sign of life. They carry their bags up a dark, damp stairwell to a padded door on the third floor where Zoya opens another battery of locks before ushering them in to a warm, cosy space.

It’s a short, wide hallway, with doors radiating off it, and it’s lined with shelves. Stuff, and more stuff, much of it kitsch, from books to plates to Orthodox icons to dolls to lacquered boxes. John wonders if he should admire some of it, but can’t decide what.

‘This was communal apartment but now it’s ours,’ says Zoya. ‘This is my bedroom, and that’s Mama’s. This is for you.’ She points in turn to a shut door, one that’s slightly ajar, and an open one. John follows the direction of her final gesture and finds himself in a square space with two large ottomans and a TV, along with a dresser crammed in beside a radiator and bursting with more books and knick-knacks. There are carpets hanging on the wall. It looks like it’s normally a living room but gets repurposed for visitors.

‘Lovely,’ says John.

‘Small,’ replies Zoya, with an intonation that implies gentle correction. Then she whisks them on to the kitchen, which by western standards, looks to be on the point of septic disintegration.

‘You come and go as you like,’ says Zoya, and hands keys and papers to John. ‘Here are the lock numbers and keys. I cook breakfast. The neighbours think you are tourists who want budget Russia.’ She lowers her voice. ‘In fact, I don’t ask about what you do and you don’t bring bad people here, yes? You are businessmen.’ Her accent gets stronger on that word, as if it’s Russian, and John is at a loss to read what exactly she means... but he doesn’t have time to wonder about it, because he’s distracted by Sherlock, as is Zoya. Sherlock hasn’t yet said anything, but now he’s poking at a cracked wall tile, causing more bits to crumble off; then he takes out his magnifying glass and has a look at the point where the oven door doesn’t quite meet the frame.

OK... Sherlock must have livened up a bit, which is welcome, hence the shift into detective mode (though what is he looking for?), but so far they have one half-fledged friend in Russia, and Zoya is it. This is not the way to cultivate her. Sherlock is now all but inserting himself behind the boiler. He’s actually tasting the gunk that’s flaking off the side of a pipe.

‘What is he doing?’ Zoya demands.

‘Oh, he’s just a bit eccentric,’ says John, glaring furiously at Sherlock.

Sherlock finishes his sampling and turns slowly around. ‘One could synthesize several very interesting toxins from the by-products of the various decay processes underway in here,’ he says, with a nasty smirk. ‘Do try not to kill us with breakfast, Ms Yevdokimova. I won’t eat it anyway, of course, but I suspect my colleague will.’

Dear God. John has seen that expression before, if not since, well, things happened. Sherlock is cockblocking him. He actually thinks that is a useful activity, and apparently has the spare energy for it, right here and right now.

Zoya’s gone red. ‘As you like, Mr Jones,’ she says awkwardly, using Sherlock’s cover name. ‘You are guests here and I cook for you.’

‘Yes, and I’m sure it will be lovely,’ says John hastily and firmly. ‘Very kind of you to offer. We won’t get in your way while we’re here.’

That earns John a dubious look, though Zoya soon switches it to Sherlock. John considers himself good at charming women, but it’s not going to work if his idiot partner undoes everything he tries.

‘Well, you can settle in now,’ says Zoya. ‘I’m a fitness coach, so I work on shifts at a tourist hotel, and I have to go. You came late.’

John nods, and follows Zoya out into the cramped passage, trying to think. They must not alienate this person: he knows, even if Sherlock doesn’t, that they can’t begin to understand how this city works without help, and maybe she can at least point them the right way.

Zoya is at the coat rail by the door, donning snow gear.

‘Thanks,’ says John. Then on impulse he adds, in a much lower voice, ‘I’m sorry about Sherlock. He’s a bit, ah...’ John taps the side of his head and lets some of the real sadness he feels on that score bleed into his expression.

Zoya seems to see it. There’s a softening in her face. ‘I see. No fun for you,’ she says. Then she’s gone, leaving John with the odd feeling that he just shared more than he should have done. Especially as he can sense Sherlock behind him.

‘What did you say that for?’ Sherlock demands.

Oh, Christ. As if it isn’t obvious. Why does John always have to do damage limitation? He marches them into their carpet-walled room, shuts the door, and sits on one of the embroidered ottomans.

‘Because I need to stop you screwing up our relationship with the landlady before it even exists.’ He’s leaving aside the extent to which He’s a bit... tap-tap is the literal truth. Can’t face that at the moment. ‘We can’t afford to piss her off for no reason.’

‘I suppose you trust her because she smiles at you?’ Sherlock scoffs.

John presses a hand to his forehead. ‘No, I don’t. Or maybe I do trust her. Your contact put us onto her, and I assume that was for a reason. You said she’s from a mob family but doesn’t want to live that life, yes? That would explain why she’s living in this dump and needs money. So do you see a better option than trusting her? Maybe you found one behind the boiler?’

‘I was checking the place for surveillance kit, John.’ As if to prove this, Sherlock starts on an investigative circuit of their room. ‘I may not be able to learn Russian overnight but I can still spot a hidden camera. Clearly you were too busy checking out our hostess to think about anything like that. And I concur with your analysis to this extent at least: Zoya Yevdokimova is possessed of female sexual characteristics.’

So it really does come down to that then, and all of about ten minutes after they arrive in Petersburg. ‘Sherlock,’ says John, trying to sound calm, or at least long-suffering rather than actually angry, because he really doesn’t want to be angry, he’s just... tired. ‘Please tell me you are not such a colossal tit as to be jealous of me exchanging a few words with a pretty woman.’

There is a silence. Sherlock, who is standing on the ottoman to peer behind the dresser and almost shoving his crotch in John’s face, patently is that much of a tit. In a way, John loves him for it, just not very much.

‘You’re hopeless,’ mutters John. He gets up, dodges a leg and stomps to the other side of the room, which is all of about five feet away. Presumably Sherlock is feeling a bit better now they’ve arrived, but why does the silly arse have to use that in the most negative way possible?

John expects a smart response, but all he gets is the spectacle of Sherlock scrutinising his way along the pelmet. It’s such a normal thing, really – Sherlock being rude, then scouring a stranger’s flat – that John could so easily just lose bloody patience. He can’t afford that though, so he takes a deep breath and reminds himself that they need to concentrate on surviving, not bickering, because Sherlock actually can’t ‘retain data’. (What the fuck? They are exactly how screwed now?) No wonder he wants to focus on basic logical things he can do, like searching a room.

God, he must be terrified. Which would explain why the arsehole act’s been turned up to eleven.

‘Sherlock, you said you can’t read,’ says John abruptly. ‘Exactly how bad is it? I need to know.’ Now they are alone together, medical terminology crowds his head – receptive aphasia? Cognitive dysfunction? – as if dressing the situation up in words is going to help.

Sherlock turns and jumps off the ottoman. He’s not as nimble as usual, and seems almost to turn his ankle before catching himself. John pretends not to see, realising too late that Sherlock will know he’s pretending and fuck, this is horrible.

‘I can understand English if I stare at it,’ says Sherlock, feeling along the underside of the windowsill. ‘New information won’t stay in my mind. I cannot, for example, memorise the Cyrillic alphabet.’

John nods, although Sherlock has his back to him. Sherlock is explaining something that would be so very painful to him, and doing it so pragmatically, that John swings between fear and not quite being able to believe what Sherlock says. He’s been through four months of grieving, then the madness of Malta, and now he’s losing Sherlock again? It just can’t be. He will not let it.

‘You’re not short of words when you feel the need,’ John says. ‘You’re still going.’

Sherlock starts poking at the crevices around the doorframe. ‘Willpower,’ he says. ‘I deduce what logically needs to be done and I do it. I don’t know if that will work indefinitely.’

As an explanation, that was chillingly clear.

‘OK. Is there anything else new?’ John has to probe this wound, especially for one particular thing. ‘Are you having any thoughts of...’ At that point his throat closes and will not open back up. Not for the word suicide.

‘I’m not really clear on the point of life,’ says Sherlock, lying down to peer under the ottoman John is sitting on. ‘But I’m not actively planning to terminate it.’

The implication of passive fantasy does not escape John. ‘Sherlock, it will get better. Soon,’ he says – more sharply than he means to, but this is just so bloody vital. John wants to grab on to Sherlock, kiss him, order him like a sergeant major to just get well, but he’s wary of the response. Sherlock might be angry... or not react at all.

‘Are you going to read the note Zoya’s left for us, or not?’ Sherlock says.

‘What?’ John blinks. Right then he spots the note: a piece of paper wedged into the handle of Sherlock’s suitcase. He grabs it ‘Hey, it’s a map. Of the city. Jesus – someone’s circled some side road and written "Kolyvanov" and the name of some bar.' John's not about to try to pronounce Vyborgskiy.

Sherlock is up from the floor in an instant, and peering over John’s shoulder.

‘Interesting. We do have a friend. Or is it a cunning trap, Captain Watson?’

Sherlock’s asking him? Well, it seemed to be a real question. ‘I don’t know, do I? It might be a trap but it’s not like we have any other leads. Your contact did say Zoya had mob connections and wanted out; maybe this is her way of helping us. So we arm ourselves and head to Vy-however-you-pronounce-it, I suppose.’ Because that worked out so well in Malta... oh God, John is not going to think of Zagami. Or his Maltese associate, who the news feeds named as Tabone. All over the media: Zagami’s sobbing wife and their baby daughter. Tabone’s little son.

In the army, you tried to know as little as possible about anyone who you shot. That rule came about for a reason. John focuses, and drags himself back by force. He loves Sherlock. He will kill, when necessary, to protect him.

Sherlock is sitting down on the other ottoman and steepling his fingers. ‘I concur with your proposal, but I suggest some extra steps. Firstly, I would like to ask our hostess where this information comes from. Secondly, even your skill with a firearm is unlikely to prevail unaided against an entire bar full of Russian bandits. Fortunately we have access to a kitchen.’

Sherlock pauses. John concentrates, not sure what he’s driving at yet, and Sherlock smiles. It’s not nice expression, but it animates his face, and John feels a sharp, welcome stab of anticipation. Yes. Sherlock is dangerous, even when half-broken. They both are. That is the point.

‘I haven’t made tear gas in years,’ Sherlock says. Then his expression goes blank, as if a light inside him has flickered out, and he carries on searching the room for hidden cameras.