Sherlock Holmes was anything but ordinary, that much was obvious. He was well-aware of the impression he gave others: cold, analytical, socially indifferent, freakish. People did not understand his fascination with murder and the macabre. They did not realise that he saw not the blood, or the body, but the mystery. They projected their own distaste onto him and then complained when he failed to respond in the expected, human manner.
Now, for example, he was cutting open eyeballs on the kitchen table. If Mrs Hudson walked in, there would be uproar. However, she was visiting her sister, which left only John to complain. John, who was a doctor and not prone to excessive sensitivity over body parts – but who was still watching what he was doing with a vaguely sick look.
'This is for an experiment, isn't it? You're not just –' He made a vague gesture – a sort of fluttering hand wave. He did that frequently, and Sherlock had decided it was John's silent way of asking “Have you gone off the deep end?” without actually voicing the question.
'It's an experiment,' he confirmed, wiping vitreous humour from the scalpel blade before carefully slicing free another section of the sclera.
John did not ask for further details as he sank into his armchair and picked up the newspaper. He was one of the few people of Sherlock's acquaintance who didn't require overly complicated explanations to ease his moral imbalance over meddling with human remains. Sherlock had realised some time ago that he could get away with quite a lot by telling John whatever he was doing was for science, whether it was cutting up dismembered toes or taping a steak to the ceiling and leaving it there for a week.
'Fine, just put them away when you're finished with them. They're staring at me.'
Sherlock glanced up at the other three eyeballs. They were currently undisturbed, none of them matched their companions, and yes, he had lined them all up to be looking at John rather than himself. He was never very fanciful, but the brown one seemed particularly judgemental.
'Since they have no eyelids, they don't have much choice but to stare,' he pointed out logically. 'It's not like they're reading over your shoulder and beating you at the crossword.'
'Which you've already done, I noticed,' John huffed.
'I thought I would save you the trouble. You find them more frustrating than entertaining. Yesterday you sulked for almost an hour when –'
Sherlock blinked, the scalpel hovering uselessly above another sample as he listened to the clanging, echoing, horrible silence in his head: all thought wiped clean in an abrupt and startling fashion. It was as if his brain had become just a collection of pink and grey matter rather than the collusion of facts and experiences that made him who he was.
'You all right?'
The paper rested forgotten in John's lap, and he was staring at Sherlock looking nothing short of alarmed. Why was that? Oh, he had been talking, but what had he been saying?
Abruptly, like a spark catching alight again, everything came back online. Thoughts exploded into life and the peace abated, leaving Sherlock to glare at the tabletop. Perhaps other people experienced such placid moments on a more frequent basis. Stopping in the middle of sentences was a common occurrence for almost everyone else on the planet. Even Mycroft did it when he was distracted, which was not often, but this – this was different.
'I'm fine,' he said dismissively, putting the scalpel down and getting to his feet.
'Did you have a brainwave? Don't think I've ever seen you do that before – stop in the middle of a sentence like that and stay silent, I mean. Normally you're just correcting yourself or something.'
'Something like that. I need to check some data.' He could feel John watching him as he strode over to his room, leaving the door open a fraction as he began to search. After several minutes, he found the right notebook. Red, unlike all the others he owned. That was deliberate, because while these events were rare, they were important. Not murder, but still fascinating and horrible all at once: a personal mystery that remained unsolved.
He had a tendency to delete just about everything once its usefulness had passed, but this – this refused deletion. This hovered around in the back of his brain and reminded him of how it had been last time, and the time before that – of confused doctors and Mummy worrying and Mycroft talking in a calm, patient voice while Sherlock's entire head was overcome with agony and his brilliant brain was reduced to chaos.
Sherlock skimmed through his own handwriting, screwing up his eyes as he tried to decipher it. He tended to write the notes shortly after each attack, and the evidence of it was all over the place. Backwards letters, foreign nouns dropped into English sentences, words written in the wrong order... yet there was information to be gleaned from the mess – particularly the date.
There it was. He had not had a major episode for almost four years. Oh, there had been a couple of warning signs that faded away to nothing. Perhaps this was the same – a blip, rather than a pre-cursor?
He would need to be vigilant. Sherlock possessed many things, but his mind was his most valuable treasure. Yet during these episodes, everything went wrong. Thoughts lost cohesion, pain took control, and the neatly ordered bastions of his mind palace fell to rubble.
Worse, his symptoms went beyond the realms of severe towards inexplicable. No doctor had ever found the cause. They tested and tested and found nothing unusual. No signs of brain abnormality, clots, burst blood vessels.... nothing.
Migraine, they said. Take painkillers and sleep. As if that could ever be enough.
It terrified him when all his control was reduced to nothing. When his most powerful tool became a repulsive liability. He had tried to stop it last time – had not really cared about anything at all but ending it, and he had nearly succeeded.
That was his last overdose. The one that almost killed him. Even now, he was not sure if it had been an accident. Had he honestly miscalculated the dose, or had he simply been looking to make it all go away?
Shaking his head, Sherlock took a deep, shuddering breath, putting the notebook back in his drawer. Perhaps it would not come to that. He had been told, after all, that he would grow out of them, and they had reduced dramatically in frequency. At sixteen he had experienced eight in one year. Maybe the fleeting blankness of his mind had been more like an aftershock than a primary tremor?
With a sigh, he turned away from the sanctuary of his room and returned to the microscope, ignoring John's worried gaze as he resumed his experiment. This was his life now: puzzles and answers, the Work and John.
Not mind-breaking events that confused doctors and made Mummy cry.
Maybe John could not look at other people and tell their life stories from the little details that surrounded them, but he was not nearly as blind as Sherlock seemed to believe, especially when it came to his flatmate. It was difficult to share a space with someone and not become intimately aware of their habits, their quirks, their neuroses – and Sherlock had plenty of all three.
So when he started acting strange – well, stranger than usual – John noticed. It helped that Sherlock was an irritatingly captivating man. It was hard not to stare at him. John had tried, because there was only so long you could visually appraise your friend before people started to talk, but it was useless. The rumours spread, and John kept watching, attempting to learn everything he could about the mysterious Sherlock Holmes.
The eyeball incident had been the first thing that whispered a warning in his ear. Something about that's not quite right, but he put it aside. Everyone was entitled to stop in the middle of a sentence sometimes. Hell, it happened to him several times a day, but he was fairly certain he had never heard Sherlock do it before, and his behaviour afterwards had been faintly agitated, more tense and controlled.
Sherlock was a tall man, one that moved with a grace that came from growing into that elegant frame. Yet for the past three days he had seemed more compressed, elbows tucked in, shoulders hunched, strides shorter, as if he was not quite sure where his body began or came to an end anymore.
He ate, too, which made John twitchy. Normally it was a battle to get a meal down his throat once a day, but now breakfast, lunch and dinner passed Sherlock's lips. He did not raven his food, like a man sating a sudden surge in appetite, but put it away one meticulous forkful after another, like someone stocking up for future deprivation.
John frowned, trying not to worry as he watched Sherlock examine the latest corpse, every movement too controlled and inadequately flamboyant. He seemed diminished, and the subtle wrongness of it was starting to make John feel sick with worry.
'Is he all right?' Greg asked, leaning back against the police cruiser. Around them the blue lights flashed, drowned out by the weak morning sunlight. 'Barely said a word when he got here. Ignored Anderson and Donovan, and he looks...' Greg's shoulders shifted uncomfortably, and John could see that open face setting itself into lines of genuine concern.
'I don't know,' John said at last, which was the truth at least. 'He's been acting a bit strange these past few days.' He kept his voice low, not quite sure why he did not want Sherlock to hear the exchange. It felt a bit like betrayal, admitting that Sherlock had been anything but himself, but Greg cared, which was more than could be said for most people.
'He seems –' Greg pursed his lips, and a whole new level of discomfort twisted in John's guts. 'It's just he used to look like this, you know, before.'
'Before?' John asked, feeling as if the conversation had turned down an unexpected tangent, leaving him more than a bit lost. 'Before what?'
'Before he cleaned up.' Greg said it, quick and quiet. There was nothing like law and order in his voice. He just looked sick, as if he were afraid of what he was seeing. 'He used to turn up at crime scenes and be all –' He gestured weakly at where Sherlock was still crouched, looking thoughtfully at the victim's face. 'Not right. I swear, he was the most high-functioning addict I’d ever seen. You had to look close to realise what was wrong, but it was like this – like someone trying too hard not to be drunk, you know?'
'Yeah,' John muttered to himself. 'Too self-aware.' He shook his head in sudden, sharp rejection. 'He's not using. I'm a doctor. I know what to look for. For Christ's sake, I’ve been keeping an eye out for it since the night I moved in. This is something else.'
'No offence, John, but you're the one who's always willing to see the best in him, and he's clever.' Greg snorted, self-derision thick in the sound. 'More than clever. He's good at hiding it.'
'I know.' John straightened up, his left hand clenching tight at his side as a twinge ran through his leg. 'I know, but I still don't think he's using. This is something else, and wish I knew what it was.'
Over by the body, Sherlock straightened up, and both John and Greg saw him sway. It was faint, quickly hidden by tight muscles, but it was enough to make John's stomach go cold.
With half an ear, John listened to Greg call orders to his men, instructing them to take control of the scene. They were parked up at an old industrial estate, and John watched the police officers spread out, looking for clues across the vast sprawl of land.
To anyone else it probably looked like standard procedure, but John briefly wondered if Greg was deliberately reducing the number of witnesses. Before long, only Donovan remained, along with Anderson and his team, who paced towards the body as Sherlock walked over to the car, apparently concentrating on where he was putting his feet.
This close, John could see a faint gleam of sweat at Sherlock's hairline, despite the chill of the day. His eyes were pinched at the corners, and his pale skin had taken on an unhealthy tinge. When he spoke his voice was softer than usual, not a decisive, triumphant monologue, but something pointed: a straight answer for once.
'Carbon monoxide poisoning. Landlord panicked, made it look like a rape gone wrong. Sexual abuse conducted with an object, I imagine. Do what you want with that.'
'Aren't you going to tell me how you know?' Greg asked. 'I can't just arrest someone because you say so.'
Sherlock blinked, and John licked his lips. That was too slow. The normal human blink was a fraction of a second, and he found himself trying to check Sherlock's pupils without him noticing. Not that it worked. Sherlock just gave him a faintly disappointed look before he answered.
'Carbon monoxide poisoning is obvious. She's pink. Add that to the fact that there are no signs of a struggle suggests that she was moved here, and abused, post-mortem. She lived in the low rent flats over there.' He gestured to one of the tower blocks dominating the skyline. 'Ex council properties now privately owned and rented out cheap. Who would want to hide carbon monoxide poisoning? A landlord that was shit at maintenance.'
John frowned. It was not like Sherlock to curse; he thought vulgarity showed poor vocabulary. He noticed a gentle, steady tremor running through the taller man's frame. It was subtle, not the ravages of a fever, but something else. Greg had seen it too, because he folded his arms across his chest, his chin dropping as he spoke quietly.
'Sherlock, what’s wrong with you? Please, please tell me this is not what it looks like.'
A tight sound caught in Sherlock's throat and his fingertips pressed to his right temple. 'Must you be so gun-metal grey?' he spat, his eyes clenched shut as his fingers splayed across his own brow. 'Obvious. You're always so obvious. Brutal Beethoven.'
John stepped forward, inserting himself between Greg and Sherlock in one efficient movement. The army taught him many things, but one of the best skills other than shooting people from far away was how to make himself seem tall and commanding while still being the shortest man in the room.
'Leave it,' he ordered Greg, not shouting or vehement, just firm, before he carefully looped his fingers around Sherlock's wrist and pulled his hand away. 'Sherlock, I need you to tell me what's happening so I can help.'
This time the sway was more obvious, and Sherlock's weight pressed against him, leaning forward like he knew John could hold him up if necessary. The fan of his lashes did not part, but after a few moments his lips moved, framing whispered words that John had to cock his head to hear.
'My head. It's all failing. All gone wrong, wrong, wrong.' He opened his eyes then, veins making road-maps across the whites and the irises more green than John could recall seeing them before, but it was his pupils that caught his attention. The right one looked normal for the amount of light around, but the left was significantly larger, and when John carefully shielded Sherlock's eye with his hand, the dilation was far too sluggish.
'Shit, have you hit your head?' he demanded, his hand digging in his pocket for his phone, his mind racing back as he tried to think of a time when Sherlock might have injured himself. 'I'm going to call an ambulance.'
'No!' Sherlock's barked word cut across the air, making Donovan look over, but John was too busy watching Sherlock flinch from the sound of his own voice, rocking back on his feet as if the sound were a physical thing. 'Sharp, vulgar, acid green. No.'
'What's the freak going on about now?' Sally asked, her lips curling into a sneer as she stopped by John's shoulder. Her face fell as she looked at Sherlock, becoming tense and suspicious. 'What the hell is this?'
'Please stop,' Sherlock murmured, one hand curling in the collar of John's jacket as if he was trying to anchor himself. 'Electric pink hand grenade. Make her leave.'
'Are you talking about me?' She jammed her hands on her hips, looking from Sherlock to John in disbelief, as if she was not quite sure whether to be offended or amused by Sherlock's bizarre statement. Her lips were pulled into a straight line, but her eyes were wide and curious. Perhaps she felt vindicated in her description of Sherlock as a freak, but John had no time to deal with her as he reached up a hand, wiping some sweat from Sherlock's brow only to recoil as he whimpered in distress.
'Take charge of the scene, Sally,' Greg ordered. 'Check out the landlord, and keep me updated. I think we need to get Sherlock back to Baker Street.' He jerked his thumb at the car behind him. 'Get him in, and if he throws up on the upholstery, you're cleaning it up.'
It was a weak, half-joking kind of threat, but John could not bring himself to smile as he guided Sherlock gently into the back seat. A large part of him wanted to forget Baker Street and head for Bart’s instead, somewhere that they had scans, painkillers and emergency equipment. Seeing Sherlock like this made his thoughts jump to the bad, dark places: brain injury, aneurysm, stroke. His mind circled, fixated on the contents of Sherlock's skull. Was there something in there, some flaw killing him in front of John's very eyes?
Christ, what was he meant to do?
'Don't go,' Sherlock said softly, his hand reaching out to clasp John's once more until he climbed into the car. He let Sherlock lean, loose-limbed and drained against his body while he propped himself uncomfortably against the closed door. A rough growl erupted from the engine, making Sherlock jerk, and his spare hand flew to his ears as he murmured, 'Tastes like petrol.'
'Don't worry,' he whispered, swallowing as Sherlock turned his face into the dark curve of John's neck. 'I'm here. We'll fix this.'
John met Greg's gaze in the rear-view mirror, daring him to comment. However, Greg just smiled in a sad, uncertain way before he steered the car back out into the bustle of London's streets and headed for home, leaving John to bear Sherlock's trembling burden as best he could and pray that, whatever this was, it was something he could cure.