John Watson pressed the doorbell with a gloved finger, neatly, for about half a second. His tired face was difficult to discern in the dark night, the streetlamps too dim and foggy to be helpful, but his shape could still be made out. He was a small man, with good posture despite his fatigue, wrapped in a winter coat that could have been warmer, and a scarf that could have been less itchy.
The hall light flicked on, illuminating John's face through the frosted glass, and after a click of sliding locks, the door swung open. Sherlock Holmes stood in the doorway with a politely bemused expression, his tall form still fully dressed despite the late hour. "Inspector?"
John smelt coffee and a cooked dinner on him. He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry for disturbing you so late," he began, but Sherlock interrupted him.
"It's no problem." He had a low, easy voice. He waved a pale hand vaguely towards his living room. "I was wide awake anyway. Do you want to come in?"
"If it's no trouble." John dug his hands a little deeper into his pockets. "I just want to talk."
Sherlock's sharp gaze narrowed almost imperceptively. "Of course," he said, and stepped back, holding the door open so John could step past him out of the cold. He shut it afterwards, but didn't lock it, his eyes not leaving John. "Can I take your coat?"
He hung it up in the closet under the stairs, and escorted John into his living room. A rather generously sized room, and Sherlock had -in what John now recognised as his typical magpie way- filled it up with things that interested him. It should look cluttered, but instead it looked like a cross between a library and a little antique shop. His laptop was whirring away on the coffee table, where it looked like Sherlock had been researching arachnophobia.
"For one of my clients," Sherlock explained, noticing the direction of John's stare. He dropped down onto his armchair and pulled out his violin. "Now, sit. What's on your mind?"
"So how much is this going to cost?" John joked, taking the seat opposite.
Sherlock smiled indulgently at him. "Consider that any therapeutic benefits you get from our chat are free of charge." He plucked the strings of his violin, gently, so as not to make much noise that would disturb conversation.
"Okay," said John, smoothing down his shirt. "Well. We don't know each other very well, but we've been working on the same case for a while and I trust your input as a forensic psychiatrist."
Sherlock smiled. "You flatter me. What is it?"
"I think … we've made a mistake," John said quietly. "We've been on the wrong track the entire time."
"Really?" replied Sherlock, not missing a beat with his fingers.
"Yes. We'd profiled the killer as someone with a grudge and a working knowledge of anatomy."
Sherlock hummed in acquiescence, and tightened one of the strings with a precise twist of thin fingers. "Given the expertise in his extraction of the body parts he was collecting, I'd suspect a doctor that had been struck off, or perhaps a med school dropout. Maybe even a dentist, or a human biology professor." He treated John to one of his unnerving smiles that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Or even a very dextrous person with a working knowledge of Google."
John felt the hairs on the back of his neck start to prickle up. He didn't let on to Sherlock, though, and raised his chin. "That's where we went wrong," he explained earnestly.
Sherlock's lips tightened. "Oh?"
"He's not collecting body parts."
Sherlock quirked an eyebrow. "Then why take them?"
"I think," John said quite evenly, "that he's eating them."
The temperature in the room seemed to drop, and Sherlock carefully replaced his violin on the stand, his armchair creaking as he sat up. "Go on," he said, pressing the fingertips of each hand together and resting them under his chin.
John huffed out a nervous breath. "It was when my girlfriend was making dinner for me." Sherlock's nose crinkled ever so slightly upwards, as it always did when John mentioned Sarah. "She was slicing up the chicken, and she said to me, 'the best part of a chicken is the oysters, on either side of the back'. And then I remembered the third victim."
Sherlock's eyelids flickered in memory. He'd seen the crime photos.
John continued, his voice surer and steadier than he felt. "She'd been missing parts on either side of her back. Sort of like the human version of oysters."
He swallowed heavily, and Sherlock's stare flicked to his throat, and then back up to his face.
"And then it hit me." John sat up a little straighter, even as Sherlock remained as frozen as a statue opposite him. "Liver, kidney, tongue, thymus. The parts that were taken from each victim, they were all parts that could be used in cooking."
Sherlock's face seemed to light up. He rubbed slowly at his bottom lip, eyes downcast as he thought. "Very interesting," he murmured. "This … this changes everything." He glanced back up at John, assessing. "Have you shared these thoughts with anyone?"
John shook his head. "No … I wanted to talk it out with you first. Again, sorry if I've ruined your night with all this murder talk. I know it ruined my enjoyment of Sarah's dinner."
"Oh, no, don't apologise," Sherlock said quickly, with a faraway look in his eye. "I find it fascinating." And indeed, he sat in silence for a while, obviously mulling everything over in his head.
"Sometimes I wonder if we should have switched jobs," John suggested, only half joking. "Considering the interest you take in my cases."
"I think you'll find that everyone is interested in murder, John," said Sherlock with a grin. "Besides, I'm more interested in the people behind the cases." He fixed John with his icy stare again. "On both sides."
John smile politely, although it felt stretched across his face.
"One day I'd love to have you on my couch," Sherlock mused, almost to himself. "I can't imagine the horrors lurking in that head of yours. All the things you've seen …"
"I'm not sure. Perhaps you're not as good a psychiatrist as you think you are," said John, in a rush. "You're meant to be the best, and yet although you were on this case for longer than I was, the possibility that the murderer was a cannibal never seemed to occur to you."
"What can I say?" Sherlock said, spreading his hands. "I made a mistake. I know you people like to think that what I do is magic, but in all honesty I'm as human as you are."
John paused, tentative. "You don't strike me as a man who makes many mistakes."
"I'd hate to lose your full confidence, John," said Sherlock softly. "It means a lot to me."
And then John … almost had it.
He startled backwards, and furrowed his brows in concentration. But the thought had slipped away, and suddenly he felt exhausted.
"I'm sorry," said John, bowing his head. "It was rude of me to accuse ..." He ran a hand through his hair, and sighed. "It's late. I'm very tired and I haven't been sleeping. I'm sorry."
Sherlock silently considered him over his steepled fingers. "Go home," he said eventually. "Have a rest, and then visit me when you're feeling better. We can revise the murderers profile in light of your discovery. I'll do my best not to make any more mistakes. Is that acceptable?"
John nodded weakly. "Sounds good. Thank you, Sherlock. Sorry again for -"
"Don't mention it," said Sherlock soothingly. He got to his feet, and waved his hands downwards when John moved to rise with him. "No, no. Rest here. I'll get your coat."
He disappeared out of the room, and the space seemed suddenly larger now that he was out of it. John breathed out slowly, feeling very small. As the closet door slid open in the hallway, John buried his head in his hands. What on earth was the matter with him? Sherlock was strange, but that was no reason to …
He caught sight, in the bookshelves that dominated one wall of the room, of various recipe books. One of them had very recently been opened.
John trusted his instincts. If something caught his eye, it was nearly always worth checking out. His footsteps were drowned out by the soft carpet as he walked over, almost by reflex reaching for his phone to ring Lestrade. He dialled the number with a steady hand as he flicked through the recipe book in a section Sherlock had marked for serving pork.
The attack came out of nowhere.
John spun around in alarm to see Sherlock looming over him, a glint of steel, and then white hot spilling pain as a knife was thrust with cruel strength into his stomach. He would have screamed, but the air had been forced out of his lungs by the shock, and instead he grappled uselessly at Sherlock's wet hands.
"Shh," murmured Sherlock patiently, pressing a hand over John's gasping mouth. John tried to dislodge it but the bony hand was iron strong. "Let it happen."
There was a tearing noise of skin popping, flesh ripping, as Sherlock twisted the knife deeper into John's body.
John stared helplessly up at the fascinated pale face above him, watching John like a cat watches mouse trapped under its paws. John was sweating already, too shocked to struggle, thinking, stupidly, that he had liked this shirt. He was in so much agony his legs started to give against his own body weight, and Sherlock let the knife slip from him and spun him around like a ragdoll, pressing him up against the bookshelves to keep him upright with his large hands on either side of John's waist, the knife resting against his side.
John could feel Sherlock's heat at his back, and on top of everything else, the strange sensation that his stomach was leaking out. He breathed deeply and tried not to sob as his lower body turned boneless.
"Ah, yes," said Sherlock, in a strangely tender voice. "Your legs are going. Don't worry, I'm strong enough for the both of us." He stroked a hand through John's hair, an intimate gesture that sent shudders through his spine. "I wish you hadn't realised my involvement, John, but it seems I underestimated your intelligence. Or perhaps I took my own for granted. Either way, you have to know, I never wanted to hurt you. But you forced my hand."
John heart was beating so fast in his chest, pumping blood uselessly out of his body to spill over Sherlock's carpet. He found himself wondering how on earth Sherlock was going to clean it all up. Would he hide the body, like he had the others? Would he eat one of John's organs?
His vision was going blurry and bright at the edges, like a high. He felt Sherlock's fingers scraping over his scalp.
"You're remarkable," Sherlock suddenly whispered, lips right against John's ear. His breath brushed flushed skin. "I think I'll eat your heart."
Through the pain, John recognised that voice. Sherlock seemed to freeze around him, lips still pressed to John's ear, his brain whirring. Like he'd teleported in from out of nowhere, DI Greg Lestrade had his gun aimed right at Sherlock's head. John felt a huge surge of relief.
"Drop the knife, and let go of him right now," Lestrade ordered.
The red-stained knife fell to the thick carpet with a muted clatter.
Sherlock breathed slowly into John's ear as he weighed up the situation, utterly still, and then he sucked in John's earlobe to his heated tongue, mouthing at it gently in a mock kiss, before pulling away and guiding him to the floor. As John bled out at his feet, he raised his hands in surrender and smiled calmly up the barrel of the gun.
John's world darkened around him bit-by bit as he lay on the soft carpet, the blood from his stomach slowly staining everything red.
* * *
Greg Lestrade took a quick peek at the monitor to see Dr Sherlock Holmes in the interview room, surrounded by security, his hands cuffed and resting on the desk. The man looked almost bored, his eyes half-lidded, his mouth set in a frown. He was dressed in someone's t-shirt and jeans. The designer clothes he was wearing when he came in were stained with John's blood, and therefore had to be bagged as evidence.
"Are you going to talk to him, sir?" asked DS Sally Donovan, frowning.
Greg wiped a hand over his brow. "I've just come back from seeing John at the hospital," he said, and Donovan's expression grew more sympathetic. "I need to talk to that bloody Holmes before he goes to court. I need to understand."
John had looked so small in the hospital bed, fresh out of emergency surgery with his midsection heavily bandaged, his face slack but somehow not at peace. Various tubes went in and out of his body, like he was some sort of machine. Every so often his soft blond lashes had fluttered against his cheeks, and Greg would wonder if John was going to wake up.
Of course, that was impossible. John was in an induced coma, barely able to function. Sherlock had practically disembowelled him.
"You look troubled, Inspector," said Sherlock as Greg walked in, and the bastard had a smirk stretching over his lips.
Greg wished that police brutality wasn't so frowned upon. John was in pieces and Sherlock was smiling about it, safe from harm. "You're the one that should be feeling troubled, Holmes. Unless you're so cold-blooded that murder has no effect on your conscience."
He snapped the sentence fiercely, trying to hurt with words where he couldn't with his fists, but Sherlock just stared at him with his pale eyes gleaming. "How's John?" Sherlock asked, calm, as if they were having this conversation over coffee.
"What do you care?" retorted Greg, taking the seat opposite. "You tried to murder him."
"I didn't want to," said Sherlock, entwining his fingers with the scrape of handcuffs against metal table. He had a faraway look in his eye. "I like John, Inspector, but not as much as I like myself."
Of course not. Sherlock was the centre of his own delusional world.
"How is John?" Sherlock repeated, with infinite calm.
"How do you think?" Greg wanted to shout at him, but Sherlock's supremely unruffled presence somehow made Greg's every reaction seem blustering and unreasonable by comparison. "He's inches from death in a hospital bed. You nearly sliced him in two."
Sherlock slowly blinked. "Maybe I'll send him a card."
"You'll do no such thing," Greg said tightly.
"He's very smart, you know. Smarter than you, anyway." Sherlock made a point of dragging his piercing stare down Greg's body. "I think, of the two of you, little John is far more likely to make Chief Inspector."
Greg bristled, and the grin on Sherlock's face spread wider, crinkling the skin by his eyes.
"You should be grateful. I predict that John will retire, after this. Then you'd be the natural choice for promotion."
There was a loud slamming noise as Greg leapt to his feet, smashing his fist to the table to avoid smashing Sherlock's face. His shoulders heaved as he gulped down oxygen, flushed with fury, glaring at Sherlock with hatred in his eyes. "You'll go down for life, Holmes," he spat. "You think you're so superior, but you're going to live out the rest of your days in a tiny cell, getting so ragged and wrinkled you won't be a threat to anyone. And John will recover from what you did to him, and he's going to forget you. I'm going to forget you. A few years down the line and no-one will remember you."
Sherlock's pale eyes swept over Greg's tense figure, as if mentally picking him apart. "You'll think of me, most likely when you least expect it," he said slowly. "In fact, you'll have a hard time trusting new people for years to come, although perhaps you don't realise how much this will cripple you, yet. And John?" Sherlock broke off, his voice softening. "With each twinge of his wound, with every pill he has to take to stop hurting, he'll remember me. And when the years have passed by and the hole in his stomach has healed as best it can into a scar, he'll think of me whenever he sees its shape in the mirror, or feels it scrape under his clothes. He won't ever be able to forget. And as long as he's around, you won't either."
"You wish-" Greg protested, but Sherlock interrupted him with much more malice in his voice.
"And when you see John, you'll remember the other victims that you didn't get there in time to save. You'll think of your own stupidity, how you failed to find the true killer. If only you'd looked a little closer, you'd have been able to save those people. And then," Sherlock 's eyes glittered. "You'll start to resent John."
"Shut up," snapped Greg, his heart racing too fast in his chest.
"Why didn't John have his revelation earlier?" Sherlock said, his savage delight in Greg's reaction visible in his wide grin. "Those people wouldn't have died if John had been a little quicker, a little less trusting. And soon, you won't be able to stand anywhere near him without hitting a depressive spiral that you self-medicate with alcohol. Unsuccessfully."
Greg then belatedly realised that Sherlock was deliberately working him up, with no end goal in mind but his own amusement. He was horrified that he'd let Sherlock carry on for as long as he did. The conversation was as close to a knife twisting through gut as words could get.
"I'll see you in court, Sherlock," Greg said with finality. He walked out of the room, all too aware of Sherlock's stare like daggers at his back.
* * *
Days passed quickly.
Sherlock was found guilty after a widely publicised trial, and sentenced to nine consecutive life terms in prison with no possibility of parole. He'd never get out again. Perhaps thankfully, John missed the entire media meltdown in his induced coma.
There was the endless coverage of Sherlock's involvement in his own investigation, the gruesome details of the trial, and because Sherlock's sharp features were so striking in black and white newsprint, his pictures ended up being seen everywhere. He had a knack for the pithy sound bite, and the journalists loved to hate him.
"What of your soul?" one frenzied woman had yelled as Sherlock came out of the courthouse, his slender suited figure flanked by bodyguards. "God will send you to hell for what you've done to those people!"
"God has killed billions," Sherlock had replied in a reasonable voice. "I'm sure he won't begrudge me a few measly murders."
In more vicious terms, the news turned on the Metropolitan Police Service for failing to notice that they had indirectly aided a murderer. Never mind that Sherlock had a spotless career and impeccable character references. They should have spotted it, and they hadn't. John involvement in particular was highlighted, after a tabloid journalist snuck into the hospital and got a photo of his slashed up body after another surgery. The bastards had run it on the front cover.
All of that was over by the time John had woken up, blinking blearily with eyes that hadn't seen light in far too long. For a moment, he still thought he was bleeding out on Sherlock's carpet, but a nurse was quickly there to comfort him and explain what had happened.
And, exactly as Sherlock had predicted, he soon retired from the police force.
He was propped up in his hospital bed when Greg visited, his bedside table overflowing with books and get-well-soon cards from friends and colleagues. According to the doctors he was ready to go home in another day or so, something John was probably relishing. Sarah sat by his bed as Greg came in, fussing over his pillows, and John smiled gamely but his eyes were tinged with sadness, even as he greeted the new visitor. He'd lost a lot of weight.
There was a slightly awkward feeling in the room, and Greg felt like he'd walked into an argument that had just finished.
"I'm just … too tired for it all," he said quietly, after Sarah had gently kissed him on the cheek and left to get back to work. "It's too much. You know me, Greg. To solve things, I need to put myself in the criminals shoes, I need to think like they do. And Dr Holmes …" John snapped his teeth shut, and the hand near his stomach twitched. "It's more than I can handle. I'm killing myself, trying to capture these people."
Greg remembered Sherlock's painfully accurate prediction, and glanced down at his fingers. "I think you're great at this job, John."
John looked at him for a while, and then reached over to his bedside table and pulled out a card with a defeated expression that made Greg's heart clench painfully. "Look at this," John almost pleaded, and his hand was shaking as he held out an expensively elegant get-well-soon card. "It's from him. He's trying to stay in contact with me."
Greg took it, and John's hand fell to his side. He carefully folded it open, feeling the quality of the cardstock on his thumb.
Sorry, Sherlock had written in spiky lines of black ink over the pre-printed message. I think of you often. S.
Greg gingerly placed the card with the others, out of sight at the back. "He's got life in prison, John. He can't hurt you from there."
For some reason, it was incredibly important to Greg to prove Sherlock wrong and keep John on the force. But John shook his head, like Greg couldn't understand him. He looked miserable. "When I get out of here I'm going to formally resign. I'm sorry, Greg. You're a good friend." His eyes swept up to meet Greg's. "I hope that doesn't change after we stop working together."
"Of course not," Greg assured him quickly. "You'll always be welcome to come down with us to the pub at the end of the day. But John -"
"Greg," John interrupted, shaking his head with his eyes screwed up. He looked years older, and decades more frail. "Please."
They chatted for about half an hour before Greg had to go home. He left John with his requested newspapers of the days he'd missed, so that he could catch up. John was incredibly grateful, and gave Greg an unopened box of chocolates from one of his friends to share out around Greg's family.
"They were a gift, but I can't eat chocolate right now," John explained. "I've got a very strict diet."
Greg took it thankfully, and when John held out his hand for a handshake, Greg leant down and carefully hugged him instead. He felt softer and bonier than usual. "Look after yourself, John," he said earnestly.
"You too," John replied.
* * *
On his bunk in his glass prison, Sherlock Holmes lounged on his stomach in a white uniform, avidly reading The Herald newspaper. His skin, naturally pale before he'd even been put away, seemed almost deathly now, leeched of colour from lack of sun and barely contrasting with his clothes. His eyes flickered quickly as he read, and he rubbed his forefinger over bottom lip in thought, then licked it to turn the page.
His story still wasn't over. The latest instalment concerned the asylum's Head of Staff, Dr Culverton Smith, and his promise to publish the definitive analysis of Sherlock's case to whatever eager audience awaited it. His smug little photograph was in practically every paper, and Sherlock made a point of scratching out his face whenever he came across it, in full view of the cameras. Dr Smith should know how Sherlock felt nothing but contempt for him.
Another page turn, and then another, luxuriating and soaking himself in information of a world he was no longer allowed in. The crossword was disappointingly easy, and with that Sherlock tossed the paper aside and let it scatter across the floor, digging under his bunk for his saved tabloid.
They'd let him keep it, for some reason.
Perhaps, somewhere, Dr Smith was psychoanalysing his new-found affection (or perhaps obsession) for the only victim who had ever escaped his clutches, but Sherlock wasn't particularly bothered by the knowledge that he was being studied. He'd decided long ago to let the doctor read whatever he wanted into his exact relationship with the curious John Watson.
The front page crackled as Sherlock smoothed a reverent palm down the paper, with a dry hand, so as not to smudge the ink. His hand lingered over the front page photo, a stolen view of an impossibly vulnerable John after life saving surgery. Black and white, unfortunately, but what Sherlock wouldn't do for a full colour version…
John looked awful, objectively, but Sherlock found the photograph beautiful.
The hole Sherlock had put in him was stitched and still tender under the bandages around his middle, and his small form was seemingly stuffed with tubes. He had a temporary colostomy bag dangling inelegantly out of him after Sherlock had so ruined his gut. If it weren't for all this technology, John would be on a slab like the rest of them. Technically, Sherlock had killed him, and yet here he was, alive.
It was wonderful.
His fingers danced over the photograph, brushing over stomach, chest, and then delicately over the half tone dots that made up John Watson's cheek. He leant closer and closer until his nose touched the paper, eyes almost unfocused, and after that he didn't move for hours.
* * *
Five years later, Sherlock Holmes got a fan.
* * *
"What's this about, Greg?" asked John. He'd answered the door with the sleeves of his blue shirt rolled up, his soft hair with streaks of grey in it now, and perhaps a few more wrinkles than Greg remembered. Despite that, he looked better than Greg had ever seen him. Retiring from the police had done him a world of good.
"You're looking a lot better," Greg said over tea in John's kitchen.
John tapped his fingers against his cup, eyes downcast. "I feel a lot better," he admitted. "I think it's an inside out sort of process." Despite his apparent contentment, he looked guarded. He already suspected why Greg was here.
"How's Sarah?" Greg asked in a vain attempt to make John feel more comfortable, less used. It was the wrong question. John just replied by levelling Greg with a look that had more pity than contempt in it, before calmly taking a sip of his tea and staring out the window.
They really should have kept in touch.
"I know why you're here," John said quietly. "I read the papers."
Greg decided to drop the small talk. "What do you know?"
"Two women killed in their homes, two months apart. The first one here in London, the other in Guildford, Surrey." John took another sip of tea. "The circumstances of the deaths were similar."
"Not similar," Greg corrected. "The same."
John glanced at him, unable to help his curiosity. "Did I miss something?"
Greg shook his head. "We're keeping the media in the dark about a few things. We haven't even told them that the murders are linked."
"So there's a definite connection?" John asked, his brows creasing together. Their tea was cooling on the side of the table now, forgotten.
Greg pressed his lips thin and forced himself to meet John's questioning eyes. "The victims," he said carefully, "They were missing body parts."
John's expression went from curious to horrified in a second. "That's impossible," he said, eyes wide and hands clenched tightly on the table. "He's locked up, I know he is -"
He probably checked more often than was healthy.
"It's a copycat, John," Greg assured him, and John nodded, face flushed. "But I can tell you that the victims were killed on the exact same dates as Holmes killed his, with the same organs removed. That suggests the killer knows more of the case files then we ever put out in the papers."
"A very well-informed copycat," John said weakly, and he rolled his sleeves down to cover his wrists like he was getting cold. "Is he as good at the surgery?"
"No," Greg said, talking while he pulled copies of the files from his bag. "But he improved on the second victim. The cuts are still obviously amateur, but he knew what he was meant to do, like he was following instructions."
John looked faraway for a moment, and his eyelashes twitched. "A working knowledge of Google," he murmured.
"What?" asked Greg, but John just waved for him to continue, and Greg obliged. "We've got his shoe size, a size nine, and we know he's very good at picking locks."
John went a little pale, rubbing the side of his head. "Why do that?" he asked after a prolonged pause. "Why copy Sherlock's murders so carefully?"
"I don't know," Greg said tactfully, pushing the files towards John. "You're the one with the emotional insight."
John let out a humourless chuckle, then breathed out and pinched the bridge of his nose. "It doesn't work like that." He sat back with a tired sigh. "I don't want to get involved."
Greg stared at him, then nodded and regretfully pulled the files back. "I understand."
John seemed a lot smaller now, the almost carefree air he'd had when Greg had first arrived completely vaporised. He dragged his teacup closer and lifted it carefully to his lips, but put it down without taking a sip. It had long gone cold.
"Look, John, we have to meet up at some point," Greg said, awkwardly trying to stuff the files in his bag as John stared at him with his sad eyes. "You can come around some time and have dinner with the wife and me."
It was an empty gesture. John would nod politely now, but he wouldn't call, and Greg wouldn't be the one to start the conversation. It was just a promise to assuage Greg's guilt, so that he could say to himself that he'd done something after coming to John's house and making him relive the experience that had broken him.
John escorted him to the door. There was a collection of birthday cards on a mantelpiece in the hallway, and Lestrade froze when he saw it. Another thing he'd forgotten.
John's expression was kind. "It's okay, Greg."
"No, John," Greg sighed. He hung his head. "I'm a shit friend, you know."
"You are," said John mildly, fiddling about with the cards. His hands paused over a shell-blue one, and he paused, his mouth tightening. He turned back to Greg. "I'll look at it."
"Really?" exclaimed Greg, ruffling through his bag for the files.
"Yes." John held out his hands and took them, smoothing over the covers. "I just need to get the mind-set back first."
* * *
Greg stayed with him in the living room in silence as John went over the thoroughly documented evidence. He sat curled on the sofa, his feet tucked under his body with the papers spread out over his lap, occasionally asking Greg for clarification. But even after all that, he still looked lost. He had no new ideas.
"How did you figure out Holmes?" prompted Greg, after John started to look defeated again.
"I didn't," said John absently. Then he looked up. "I mean, I had a suspicion, for that moment when I called you. But you know, I probably wouldn't have done anything if he hadn't attacked me." John frowned, and stared somewhere past Greg's shoulder. "He think's I'm smarter than I actually am."
Greg nodded thoughtfully, and John's eyes narrowed.
"Maybe …" Greg started, wringing his hands together. "Maybe he's a resource we could use."
John blinked rapidly at him, completely dazed. "You're joking, right?" he asked.
"He's good at this sort of stuff," Greg argued. "He's helped me solve all sorts of crimes before he was put away."
John's expression darkened. "Talk to him yourself," he retorted, flipping through the papers to organise the files.
"He won't talk to me. He doesn't talk to anyone."
An unspoken, anyone but you, hung in the air. John stood quickly, and Greg hurried to stand with him. "Is that what all this was about?" John asked, almost disbelieving. "A long-winded way of getting me to talk to your crime-solving machine?"
"You don't have to." He felt an irritable pang of guilt at John's crumpling expression. "If there was any chance he'd talk to me, I'd do it. But there isn't, and the next murder is scheduled to be in four days, and I'm running out of options. Do you trust me?"
"Of course," said John, in a rush of honesty. "You saved my life."
Greg nodded, trying to hide his surprise at John's vehement answer. "Then trust me when I say that if there were any other solution, I wouldn't even suggest it."
John's eyes shimmered and he blinked, licked his lips, and his arms dropped limply to his sides. He was still holding the case files. Greg found he was holding his breath as the seconds counted by.
"Alright," John said eventually, his voice almost cracking. "I'll do it."
* * *
After an hour long train journey to Berkshire, John found himself in the Chief of Staff's rather well-decorated office, seated across the man himself. He shifted uncomfortably on his chair, his polite smile fading as Dr Culverton Smith recounted Sherlock's past at the institution. He was a rather smarmy little man. John instantly felt a dislike towards him, but he kept his manner as neutral as possible.
"I remember being so excited when he first came in," Culverton sighed. "I've never been able to study anything like him before. But he's simply impenetrable to any testing."
"He's a psychiatrist himself, doctor," John pointed out. "He probably knows the tests backwards."
"Yes," murmured Culverton, rubbing at his jaw as he stared over John. "He does. That's the problem, you see, he's too sophisticated for proper analysis. And he hates me, of course." Culverton looked morosely at Sherlock patient file that was spread over his desk. "Constantly expressing how useless he thinks I am." He glanced up at John. "But, he's the one in the straitjacket, mm?"
John's composure was beginning to feel stretched.
"Now, your visit, that's something very exciting indeed," said Culverton. "He certainly hasn't forgotten you."
"I've noticed," said John, carefully calm.
"I'm very interested in any insight you might have to his character." Culverton laced his fingers together, and leaned towards John like a conspirator. "You see, I'm writing a book -"
"I try not to think about Sherlock Holmes's character, doctor," interrupted John with a tight smile. "But I'd like to get back home some time before midnight, and I don't see how any of this is of use to my investigation."
Culverton sat back, expression turning sour. "What you want to know before you meet him is that Sherlock cares about nothing but his own amusement." He started flipping through the file. "Once, he complained of chest pains, so we sent him to get an electrocardiogram. He's lying there, pulse showing on the monitor as seventy-two, and he grabs the nurse, and does this to her face." A photograph was thrust forward, and reflexive nausea clenched John's stomach. Culverton looked oddly pleased at his reaction as he slid it back. "The entire time, his pulse never goes above eighty-five."
John swallowed. He felt sweaty under his clothes. Culverton's eyelids lowered.
"Follow me, Mr Watson."
John was led down various corridors, feeling increasingly trapped with each clanging steel gate. Culverton paced in front of him with short but fast steps, talking loudly as they went.
"Mr Holmes will be in his room when you meet him. It's the only place he isn't in full body restraints, and so the place where he has most freedom of movement. There is a sliding carrier so you can pass him things, but only soft paper. Don't pass him a pen, he has charcoal in his room for writing."
They entered an even grimmer area. John stared around. He could hear distant noises of the hospital, slamming metal, harsh buzzers and raucous voices. Large orderlies patrolled the corridors, and some had mace, or even tranquilizer guns. They looked at John with interest as he passed them.
Culverton wound to a stop by a staff member in the anteroom, who was watching the monitors of the cells.
"Dimmock!" he barked.
"Yes sir?" said Dimmock, spinning around in his chair with wide eyes.
"Let Mr Watson out when he's done." And with one last glance at John, Culverton's short figure disappeared back down the corridor.
John turned to Dimmock, and they introduced themselves. "You'll be okay," Dimmock said with a small smile, perhaps sensing John's tension. He gestured to one of the monitors with a chair waiting outside the cell. "I'll be watching."
* * *
John wished he'd worn his trainers as the clip of his dress shoes echoed sharply down the corridor. He heard muttering from the inmates down the row of cells to his left, but kept his eyes fixed on the solitary chair in front of him and hurried towards it, but not so fast as to appear panicked.
Sherlock Holmes, John had been told, was in a special cell at the end.
Instead of bars, the front was tough glass with breathing holes. Apparently Sherlock used to have a nasty habit of grabbing at staff through the bar spaces and biting them in his old cell, so this one had been designed to block off all contact. As Culverton had said, there was a slider box near the end so things like food and paperwork could be passed to him. It was all incredibly secure, but the lack of an obvious barrier made John nervous. From certain angles the cell looked like it had no front at all.
Sherlock lay motionless on his bunk, his head towards the front of the cell, not even twitching a finger as John seated himself on the chair and put the case file on his lap. Something for Sherlock to get curious about.
"I suppose Lestrade thinks he's very clever." Sherlock sounded amused. His eyes were still closed. "Sending you, that is. Tell me, is it true that they promoted Gregson ahead of him as Chief Inspector?"
"They did," said John quietly.
Sherlock chewed over this new bit of information, then he let out a long breath. "Pity. He was so ambitious when he was younger," he mused. "Then again, so were you."
Don't let him get in your head, John firmly reminded himself, and he bit his lip and didn't reply.
In his bunk, Sherlock's slender white-clad form sat up and stretched luxuriantly like a cat, before he got to his feet and paced towards the glass. He seemed impossibly toned for a man who was cramped up all day, with barely any room to move, but maybe they exercised him. Or maybe Sherlock just worked out using his own body weight. He'd always liked to keep himself in condition.
Sherlock's eyes gleamed when he caught sight of John, whole again, his first real sighting of the man since the messy end of their last collaboration. He leant with casual elegance on the glass of his cell, in order to look John thoroughly up at down like he was some sort of dessert. Then again, in Sherlock's twisted mind, he probably was.
John kept his head high and stared evenly back.
"Why don't you drag that uncomfortable-looking chair of yours a bit closer?" Sherlock suggested.
"I'm alright where I am, thanks," John replied.
"I like your outfit." Sherlock peered a little closer, lingering on the button at John's throat. "Button-down shirt, nicely fitted jeans and a soft woollen cardigan. You look almost harmless." His eyes dropped to John's feet. "Fancy shoes. I could hear you clicking down the corridors. Is this a date, John?"
John held Sherlock's look with difficulty, blinking hurriedly like his eyes were hurting.
"You've barely aged," said Sherlock softly, tilting his head. "I'm so glad you came to see me. Mostly I get visits from second-rate psychologists who trained at bad universities. Dull, idiotic amateurs, the lot of them."
"Or Dr Smith," added John, and Sherlock huffed a laugh.
"Isn't he repulsive? Nothing but a caricature of a psychiatrist, prodding and poking for a reaction like a hog snuffling through mud for truffles." Sherlock narrowed his eyes, still no less sharp than they'd been when he was first locked away. If anything, he was even more all-seeing. "Did he show you the photo of Nurse Leighton?"
John inclined his head, feeling sick at the memory. Sherlock scoffed.
"He shows it to everyone. He loves telling the story. It makes him feel important."
"He's not the one who ripped her face off with his teeth," snapped John, his hands wrapped into fists.
Sherlock smiled, but didn't reply. He breathed in deeply, chest rising, and shut his eyes. "You smell delicious under that cheap shampoo, John. Tell me, did you get my birthday cards?"
"I got them," said John, voice tight in his throat. "You don't have to keep sending them, you know." He was getting wound up. His chest hurt when he breathed, and it was difficult to stay calm with Sherlock looming over him in his glass cage. He didn't want Sherlock to know how nervous he was, but from the way Sherlock was looking at him John suspected his every move was being read like a book.
"Your palms are softer, but you have a callus over the distal phalange of your left middle finger" Sherlock said, fascinated, his eyes fixed on John's fingers clutching over the case files. "You're a writer these days, long hand as opposed to typing."
John took hold of the file, and Sherlock's eyes flickered over it. "I want you to help me with a case."
A pleased smile slowly spread over Sherlock's face. "Ah," he said, his voice a satisfied rumble. "Yes. My tribute act."
John was surprised. "You already know about the link?"
"Don't be stupid, John. Of course I do." Sherlock pushed himself off the glass and started pacing, hands under his chin. "I had my suspicions after the discovery of the first body. The second confirmed it." He froze, and fixed John with a stare. "You want to know why he's choosing them."
John nodded. "I thought you would have some ideas."
Sherlock cocked his head to the side. "And why should I tell you?"
"I could speak to Dr Smith about reinstating any privileges you might have lost," John offered. Sherlock just raised an eyebrow, and John sat forward. "I'll let you follow this case, and when it's over I could send a few cold ones in for you to have a go at solving."
"Tedious," Sherlock sighed, rolling his head back. His dark hair fell back from his forehead, and John could see the pale shapes of his angular profile.
"There is another thing," John added, as if in afterthought. Sherlock's eyes fixed onto him. "By doing this, you can find out if you're smarter than the person we're looking for."
Sherlock levelled him with a searching stare. "Using that logic, you think you're smarter than me."
John shook his head, smoothing over the edges of the case file with his eyes downcast. "No," he said sincerely. "I know I'm not."
Sherlock leant on the glass again, peering down at him intently. "As flattering as it is to hear you saying these things, John, don't think you'll persuade me to perform favours for you with appeals to my intellectual vanity."
" I'm beginning to doubt I'll persuade you at all," said John. Sherlock stared flatly back, and John racked uselessly at his brain. "What if I told you about the victims -"
"I don't know them," Sherlock interrupted. "Why should I care about their deaths? Why does everyone think I should care about the fates of people who might as well not exist, as far as I'm concerned?" He froze, breaking off mid-rant, his posture stiffening as if something unpleasant had just occurred to him. John watched in confusion as Sherlock began to pace. "Victims…" Sherlock repeated, touching his fingers to his lips. He stopped, and swerved to face John. "I must ask," he said. "Have you considered the end point of this killer's game?"
John straightened his back, unsure of himself. "The end is when we've caught him?"
"If," Sherlock corrected, and his faraway gaze turned piercing. "You might not manage. And, of course, you remember how my game ended. "
Realisation slipped through John like a knife through soft innards as he caught on to what Sherlock was suggesting. "You think the killer's going to come after me?" he exclaimed.
"Finish what I started …" Sherlock muttered against his fingers. "Interesting."
John stood, causing a loud scrape as the chair skidded back over concrete. He turned to go, and Sherlock stared at him, eyes wild.
"Wait!" Sherlock went over to the slider box, and pushed it onto John's side with a clang. "Pass it over," he ordered. "Let me look at it and I'll tell you what I think."
There was something agitated about him. John paused, half-turned away already, and took in Sherlock's expectant face. He didn't want to be here. He'd rather be anywhere else, but he had a job to do. "You need to give it back afterwards," he said, and Sherlock rolled his eyes and nodded his head.
"Yes. Obvious. Now hand it over."
John stepped closer to the cell, keeping his eyes fixed on Sherlock. They were less than a metre apart for the first time in five years, separated only by sheet of glass that might as well not be there for all the feeling of security it gave John. He placed the file in the box, conscious of Sherlock's greedy stare down the back of his neck.
"Wonderful," said Sherlock softly, almost too quietly for John to hear.
John stepped back, eyeing Sherlock warily through the glass. Sherlock slid the box into the cell and took out the file, flicking through it with dextrous fingers. He walked as he read, his brows furrowed.
John felt more comfortable when out of his razor-sharp line of attention. "Do you want some privacy?" he asked, and Sherlock glanced over at him for a split second.
"On the contrary," he said, waving at the chair. "Take a seat. Your presence does wonders for my thought processes."
Slightly dazed, John obediently sat down, mulling over exactly how to take that particular comment as Sherlock tore through the case file like a computer processor. "He takes the body parts like you did," John said, as Sherlock flipped dispassionately through photographs. "In fact, the cases are far too similar to be a normal copycat. He's got information." Sherlock didn't acknowledge him, and after a few minutes John spoke up again. "Do you think he eats the parts too?"
"Shush," muttered Sherlock. "Talking isn't necessary." And he made John sit in silence for almost an hour.
* * *
"I would like to talk about the victims," said Sherlock, alerting John from where he'd been drifting off on the uncomfortable chair.
"Oh?" John answered, sitting up straight. He stretched his back, and checked his watch. "I thought you didn't care about -"
"Not their hopes and dreams and grieving faceless families, or whatever," scoffed Sherlock. He'd been standing or pacing the entire time, moving as actively as he thought. "Think of them as inanimate. I want to talk about their significance, particularly in comparison with mine."
"Well …" John started, his mind blank. He scrunched up his face. "They're younger. And he's killing women where you killed men."
"Look at them, John!" Sherlock exclaimed, waving a portrait of the first victim that had been given to them by the family. "They're young. They're beautiful. He's killing what he covets, what he desires. He probably molests their dead bodies, although he wouldn't be stupid enough to take off his gloves. Whereas I," he paused, his lips twitching at the edges. "I just had a taste."
"You said you killed the terminally stupid," John pointed out.
Sherlock just wiped his teeth with a forefinger, and smirked at him.
John swallowed thickly. "Look, this is all very interesting, but I need something practical."
"These girls aren't very computer literate," observed Sherlock, wiggling his fingers.
Sherlock snapped the file shut. He chucked it into the slider box and slammed it back over. John flinched. "The girls are unimportant to his message. He's just getting something he wants while he performs his real task."
John blinked, got to his feet. "Is imitation a message?"
"The most basic kind." Sherlock answered, with no further explanation. "Have you wondered how he knows that they'll be alone in their apartments when he plans to kills them? Alone on a certain day, at that?"
"Right, because it's no use killing them if it's on a different day to you," John said, nodding. "I'm not sure. He probably just cases them out."
"What an original thought," remarked Sherlock drily, finally giving his leg muscles a rest and rolling onto his bed. He looked quite relaxed, while John ached all over from the plastic chair digging into his body.
He collected the case files, keeping his eye on Sherlock's long stretched-out figure. "Is that all you've got?"
"For now," said Sherlock. "I think I've given you plenty of clues to get started. If I get any more ideas I'll let you know." His expression seemed to sharpen, and he flashed a quick smile. "Perhaps a home number, so I can contact you directly."
John felt his stomach lurch. He met Sherlock's eyes. "I'd rather you were straight with me now."
Sherlock scoffed. "I'm not going to spell everything out for you, John. And goodness knows your little brain needs some exercise after it's enforced hiatus." He hissed the word. "Bring more evidence whenever you get it."
"You think I'm coming back here?" John asked.
"Of course." Sherlock said it easily, like he could just demand John to do whatever he wanted. "If it's not you, I'm not interested."
John felt trapped, a tight feeling prickling up his chest at the thought of coming back here again and again. "Why?"
"Consider it my payment." Sherlock lazily rolled his head to the side, digging his toes into the blanket like a cat. "I'm not taking anything else from you, John. I just want your company while I work on this. I sorely missed seeing your face for the last five years."
"I can't say the feeling is mutual," John said quietly. He saw Sherlock smile.
"I like you, John," he said, eyes dipping shut. "You don't try to analyse me."
"The only person capable of analysing you is yourself," replied John, and with that he walked away on his too-loud shoes.