Sherlock had files spread all over the table in the living room, leaving no room for John to set his cup of tea.
With a sigh, John set his tea on the floor and leaned back in the armchair, tapping his fingers on his knee. For the past half-hour, Sherlock had been pouring over the murder files, muttering under his breath from time to time. "What I don't understand is why them?" Sherlock said now, lifting some papers and looking under them like the answer might be hidden somewhere on the blank bottoms of the pages. "A secretary, a bank teller, and a financial adviser, none of them significant parts of their companies." He looked at John. "Did your parents have any connections with these specific people?"
John shook his head. "Not that I know of."
Sherlock dropped the file with a sigh of frustration and stood up. "Get out," he said suddenly.
John frowned. "Excuse me?"
"Go to another room or something," Sherlock said with a dismissive wave of his long, slender fingers. "I need to go to my mind palace."
John stared at the other boy for a moment before shaking his head and exiting the flat. "Right," he muttered to himself. "Your mind palace."
John had been living with Sherlock for a week, and though he had learned very little about his flatmate, he knew that he'd never met anybody like Sherlock before. He was detached, distant, with a mind John had never seen the likes of in his life—he hardly seemed 18. John wondered if Sherlock was always like that, or if underneath his hard outer shell there was a boy inside who was emotional and fragile—and if there was, how could John unlock this person?
"John, dear!" a frail voice called from the side, tearing John from his ponderings. He turned to see Ms. Hudson standing in her doorway, a large smile spread across her lips. "I haven't spoken to you since you arrived."
John immediately felt bad. Caught up in a whirlwind of work and Sherlock and murder, he'd completely forgotten about Ms. Hudson, kind as she was to let him stay here in the first place. "I am so sorry," he apologized. "I'm ashamed to say I'd forgotten all about you."
"Oh, that's quite all right, dear," Ms. Hudson said with a chuckle. "I know it's hectic, what with getting a job and all the adventures I'm sure Sherlock's dragged you on. He is a flighty one."
"Actually," John said, glancing back at his flat, "I've got some free time now if you'd like to chat a bit."
"Oh, that'd be lovely," Ms. Hudson said cheerily, and she held the door open for John as he tore his gaze away from the other door and entered her flat.
Twenty minutes later, John had just finished catching Ms. Hudson up on the past week. He ended with explaining the previous events of the day, rushing over the fact of his parents' connection in the whole scheme so as not to get emotional.
Ms. Hudson was silent as she processed the information, and John seized the opening to ask, "What can you tell me about Sherlock Holmes?"
"Sherlock?" Ms. Hudson repeated.
"Yes," John said, leaning forward slightly in his chair. "Every day I spend around him it seems I know less and less about him." He struggled for words for a moment, before finally shrugging his shoulders and looking at Ms. Hudson pleadingly. "It seems like if he can just look at me and know my life story, I should at least know a fraction of his."
Ms. Hudson gave John a sympathetic smile. "That's the thing about Sherlock—he's a mystery all in himself, just like those cases he loves solving."
"That's another thing," John said. "When we were at the hospital today, he seemed more alive than I'd ever seen him. Is that what he does all the time? Sit around and wait for the police to come to him for help solving murders and the sort, because he likes it?"
"It's the same way you enjoy working at the hospital," Ms. Hudson said. "You don't like seeing dead bodies and sick people—you love the people you help and the families you help them return to. Sherlock—though he may not admit it, mind you—doesn't work for the police to see those murder victims. He does it because it challenges him and makes him think. I like to believe that, deep down, Sherlock does care about the people he helps by solving these cases, but most other people don't think the same." Ms. Hudson placed a steady hand on John's shoulder. "If you stay here long enough, John, I think you'll be able to see why I say that Sherlock does have a heart—he just guards it so well sometimes he himself forgets he has one."
John placed his hand on top of Ms. Hudson's and smiled. Just then, the door of Ms. Hudson's flat flew open with a bang, revealing Sherlock standing in the doorway. He had papers decorated with lines and lines of size-10 font grasped in one fist, which he shook in front of him. "It's not who, it's where!" he exclaimed, oblivious to the conversation he'd just interrupted.
John wasn't sure how to respond, but he was saved the trouble when Sherlock continued without pause, "A Bizco secretary, a teller from Presser Bank, and a financial adviser from HP Insurance. Don't you see?" He dumped the papers on John's lap, jabbing his finger at one seemingly at random.
John picked up the paper and studied it for a few moments, feeling both Sherlock and Ms. Hudson's eyes on him. "A crime scene report," he said, glancing up. "Isaac Richter's."
Sherlock rolled his eyes. "Yes, John, but what else?"
John couldn't understand why Sherlock wasn't just telling him whatever it was that he'd figured out, but he took to the paper again, trying to discern the solution hidden underneath the facts and mystery. "Um… well, he was the first victim, found two days ago at…" John squinted at the paper. "459 Southampshire Street. It says that's his house, Sherlock." He looked up at his flatmate, who was still watching John expectantly. "I don't see what's so strange about that."
"You're missing it!" Sherlock sighed, taking two steps forward and snatching the paper out of John's hand. Without even looking at the report, he recited, "'Isaac Richter, age 37, discovered deceased in his living room.'" He paused, and when John said nothing, he exclaimed, "Really, John, it's so obvious even you could understand."
"Sherlock!" Ms. Hudson gasped, but he ignored her protest. John glanced over at her, trying to convey with his eyes that he hadn't been offended by the comment (even though that wasn't entirely true).
Evidently tired of waiting, Sherlock finally revealed his deduction. "Discovered, John. He was discovered deceased in his living room. But where was he killed?"
John opened his mouth to say that he didn't understand, but the words got stuck halfway in his throat because suddenly, he understood. "You're saying," he realized slowly, "that someone murdered Isaac and then moved his body back to his house?"
"Yes," Sherlock said, obviously relieved in John's awareness.
"But why?" John asked. "Why would whoever it was go through so much trouble? One can't exactly drag a dead body through the London Underground easily."
If Sherlock had been anyone else, John might have thought the brief sparkle in the other boy's eyes was suppressed laughter. "Because he or she needed them to be in exactly the right place. It's much easier to murder someone outside of the comfort of their homes and then move them."
John flipped through the papers sitting on his lap, starting to catch on to what Sherlock was saying. He unearthed the crime scene reports for the last two victims, eyes flicking over the pages quickly. "But here," John pointed out, tracing a line of text with his finger. "Kyle Hampton was found outside in his garage, and Stephanie Kildring was found in her office at Bizco." He felt his earlier comprehension begin to drain away, evaporating under the increasingly frustrated vibe Sherlock was giving off. An embarrassed shame replaced it, and John had to look away from Sherlock's intense gaze. He caught Ms. Hudson's eyes, sparkling with concern, and the shame only increased. How weak was he, that he couldn't even look his flatmate in the eyes, couldn't take the way Sherlock acted like a higher being, superior to him?
John swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down like a duck floating in water, and then met Sherlock's icy blue eyes again. He'd remained silent, as if waiting for John to come to the conclusion he'd already reached, and for a moment John wondered if Sherlock was teaching him.
No. Challenging him. The slight quirk of the other's boy's lips; the way he had the answer hovering at the tip of his tongue, yet held it back, dangling it in front of John like a carrot in front of a donkey; the prompting questions and selective facts: Sherlock was challenging John.
John felt himself fill with a new kind of strength: he couldn't resist a good challenge. "Easy to find," he said, the words coming out of nowhere. "Places they would be expected to be—places they would be found."
"Very good, John."
John hadn't been expecting the praise, nor the very faint curling of Sherlock's delicate lips into a small smile. While a warm feeling began to spread its way through John's chest, Sherlock plowed on with his elaborate deduction, as if John's miniscule contribution had unlocked a dam of knowledge and facts. "This murderer doesn't want his work hidden—if he did, why carve the numbers on their chests? He's elaborate, toying with us, communicating through these murders, and he can't do that if the bodies are so cleverly hidden so as to never be found. No, he's showing off, and the best part—"
Sherlock paused the briefest of moments, but the image of him in that moment stuck with John forever: the way Sherlock's eyes animated, glowing with passion, and his sharp cheekbones pulsed up and down as his jaw worked, mind racing at a million miles an hour as, piece by piece, the puzzle came together. Then, the instant shattered, and words spilled out of Sherlock again.
"—The best part is that this whole thing is a game. One big, deadly game."
Ms. Hudson let out a small squeak. "Sherlock! These are people we're talking about."
"Yes, yes. My condolences," Sherlock said with a wave of his pale, slender fingers. "In fact, John, why don't we go pay our respects?" With a swish, he was gone, the room seeming distressingly empty in his absence, and after a moment, John stood.
"He's not actually…?" John asked, trailing off at the end. To think that Sherlock actually intended to mourn for the dead seemed ludicrous; he treated them like dolls, their lifeless eyes and papery skin only maps full of clues to solve cases.
Ms. Hudson confirmed his suspicions with a resigned shake of her head. "He probably just wants to visit the morgue again, dear."
John nodded. "Well, I'd better…" He indicated the direction Sherlock had fled, and Ms. Hudson smiled and nodded.
"Keep him safe, John," she said as he was almost out the door. He paused just under the doorframe, glancing over his shoulder. Concern painted her face, and her eyes were wide like a child's. "God knows he does the darndest things." She laughed a little, a nervous tremble entering the sound.
And though John had no idea what lay ahead, he looked Ms. Hudson directly in the eyes and said, "I promise." Then, he turned and shut the door behind him, ascending the creaky wood stairs with the weight of his vow resting heavily on his shoulders.
Just as he reached for the rusted brass door handle, the wooden door whipped open, brushing so close to John's face that the very edge brushed against the tip of his freckled nose. He froze, and then found himself knocked to the side as Sherlock barreled out of the doorway, dark blue trench coat flapping around his calves. John's back hit the railing with jarring force, and he swallowed a cry of pain.
"Come on, John!" Sherlock exclaimed, only pausing when he reached the bottom of the rickety flight of stairs, swinging around one of the railing ends to look back up at John. "Hurry!"
With a groan, John disentangled himself from the railing, mentally cursing Sherlock—not for the first time, certainly not the last. "What's the rush?" John inquired, barely reaching Sherlock before the other boy took off again, opening the front door and letting in a torrent of raindrops, whisked through the front entrance on a strong gust of wind. John considered going back for his jacket, but Sherlock's next words captured his attention entirely.
"There's been another murder."