Work Header

balanced on my head like steak knives

Work Text:

Moriarty has a crooked incisor, and Joan says, “No braces?”

“I actually rather like it.” She touches the tip of her tongue to the tooth. Bares them all.

“What's your name?”

“You know that, Watson.”

Out of everything, that's what messes Joan up the most, that she calls Joan the same thing Sherlock does.

“We've searched for months. 'Moriarty' can't be anything but invented.”

“The name, or the person?” Moriarty frames her face in her hands. She is studying Joan like they're in the Louvre. “Of course,” she says, suddenly business-like, “I've got proper origins, but you and Sherlock can figure those out for yourselves. I don't doubt either of you. But it's fun to make it a game.”

I see games. Sherlock had turned the words over in his own mouth a thousand time in the months since. Joan had been listening every time.

“You could also speed up the process.”

Joan has always worked firmly in the world of the immediate and physical. A shadowy kingpin with no history and no name is so foreign to her that it draws her deep into the intrigue before she realizes she's even that curious. She imagines Moriarty growing up as Irene Adler; she imagines Moriarty picking that name from a book when there was someone else she wanted to become.

Moriarty puts her hand on Joan's. It's very warm. “I could be persuaded,” she says, “to trade.”


Maybe Joan just didn't have a tragic enough childhood, but she really and truly does not understand what stops Sherlock and Moriarty both from seeing people as people. Even if they are strange, even if they are twisted and mysterious and confounding – they're still people. Maybe that's why she knows better than Sherlock, then, that Moriarty isn't some nemesis from the ether; she was born, she's lived, she'll die, and she's a person, like Oren or Ms. Hudson or Sherlock's father.

“Steady,” says Moriarty, and traps Joan's chin between two of her fingers. “Ah. Yes. Yes, quite–”

She never finishes the sentence, just steps back and settles onto her stool, hunchbacked as she paints. Joan holds her breath for a long time.

“You've got classic lips,” says Moriarty after a time. “Roman statue-esque, I'd say.”

Joan doesn't respond. She wants this over and done with – she wants Moriarty's revelation, as promised, though she's starting to lose hope that hadn't been a lie. Sherlock will honor his word – Joan doesn't know if the same goes for The Woman.

“Are we not speaking? That's fine. For a long time I hated noise when I was painting, you know. Music especially. The music made me think of stories and I would have to pace around to get all of the ideas out of my head, so it was clear again, for all the art to funnel through.”

“Art to funnel through,” says Joan. “That's interesting.”

“I've been told my metaphors are clever,” Moriarty says, and it takes Joan a moment to place the lilt of her tone: it's a mirror of Sherlock's voice when he's made a joke and thinks he's being awfully funny.

Joan is still deciding whether or not to laugh when Moriarty throws a sheet over the canvas. “That's all for now,” she dismisses. She's staring raptly at the hidden easel.


Moriarty's hands are stained blue, although Joan is wearing a white shirt and the wall behind her is grey. “Painting must be important to you,” Joan says. She's observing. “Or it must have been, anyway. Sherlock told me his mind is like an attic, he only has so much room for so much information.”

“Oh, I like that,” Moriarty says absently. “An attic. Very rustic.”

“You haven't cleaned painting out of your attic.”

“Did you ever do psych consults, Watson?” Moriarty smiles. It makes her look like she knows the exact date of the apocalypse. “You think knowing about my work will help you understand me. That's fair, I suppose. No, I haven't cleaned painting out of my attic.”

“It must comfort you,” Joan says. She's still only quietly observing while Moriarty works on the canvas. “Soothe you, maybe.”

“It is soothing work,” Moriarty allows. Flecks of red speckle her cheek. She looks more like Irene and less like Moriarty, but Joan still doesn't have a feel for how the two are intertwined. “Art remains,” she says suddenly. “Once I took my own tour of Lascaux to see the cave paintings.”

“Your own tour.”

Moriarty's mouth quirks. “It was after hours.”

The joke sidetracked them, and all of a sudden the sheet is going back over the canvas. Next time.


“Sherlock told me,” Joan says – Moriarty's eyes flicker over to her and then back to the canvas – “that you didn't do original work.”

“Oh, that's not true.” She waves a flippant hand, splattering smoky-blue paint on the floor. “He was there for my masterpiece.”

Joan is very good at not being scared of Moriarty, but sometimes it hits her like a wave meant to drown. “I guess I can stop hoping you're not just painting me in to a Van Gogh original, right?”

Moriarty's eyes go to her again, but this time they meet Joan's and hold her steady. “Perhaps,” she says, “you will supersede the first.”

Joan thinks of Sherlock, one day into rehab, desperately relapsing.

“Fingers crossed.”


“Have you deduced anything yet?” asks Moriarty. She sounds a little bored. “I could blather about myself, but I like when you do it.”

“I'm sure you do.” Joan shifts slightly. “You don't have any siblings, not like Sherlock thought.”

Moriarty stabs the air with her paintbrush. “Right.”

“You don't have an uncle, either.”

“I'll give you that one, I suppose, although I might, but I can't expect you to know it if I don't.”

“You're giving me this one,” says Joan, with that feeling she gets when Sherlock tries to dumb things down for her and if horrifically, painfully obvious about it. “You don't know your parents.”

“Who does? We're getting very philosophical. The arches of your eyebrows are beautiful.”

“Thank you,” Joan says. “Will you tell me about the cave paintings?”

Moriarty wipes a brush against the inside of her wrist. “Could you be more specific?”

“Whatever's important to you.”

“Mm.” They lapse into silence for a long time. Joan's back is beginning to ache when Moriarty speaks again: “They closed the site to visitors for a very long time, for several reasons, but a large one was that all the combined carbon dioxide of all that human breath was taking its toll on the paintings. When I took my tour, I held my breath for as long as I could, and when needed I exhaled into a bag I had brought down with me. Not perfect, not nearly, but I felt that even just the gesture was a necessary one.”

“That was conscious of you.” Joan can't think of another word. Moriarty laughs softly.

“Yes, it was.”

“Are you finished?” asks Joan, surprising herself. She actually hasn't been thinking particularly about how long Moriarty has been working, today and all the other days.

Moriarty frowns, the corner of her lip tugged down. “No.”


She's rushing a confirmed murderer. Moriarty paints her own wrist in slow strokes of violet.


“Someone knows you,” Joan says. Technically she's talking to Moriarty, but it sounds like she's just talking to herself. “Someone knew you, I mean, when you were a child. Someone will remember.”

“If that's what keeps you going, dear heart.” Moriarty is mixing colors, a dozen of them, to reach a shade of red Joan can't name. “I've killed all of them by now, anyway.”

“That's a joke,” Joan says. It almost comes out victorious, like it's such a victory to be able to read Moriarty even that well. “You don't kill people for sport,” she says, quieter.

Moriarty hums. “No, I don't.”

“But you do kill people.”

“I do kill people. Oh, don't seem surprised. I have no delusions that not personally committing the act makes me any less present behind the trigger. Or bomb, or gas. I could go on.”

“You don't do it for fun, but you don't care.” Joan feels sudden, deep dread clawing at her, and it takes an enormous effort to keep still. “Why don't you care?” That one, frustrated question that's always grated at she and Sherlock. Why, why, why.

Moriarty holds the paintbrush between her teeth for a moment, peeling off a hangnail, then resumes her work. “It must be awful, the last seconds of their lives,” she says. “Not the pain, you understand, but the realization. That they're dying. That they've been murdered.”

Joan waits a beat. “And?”

“And then it's over.” Moriarty's face twists into something that looks terribly like an attempt at sympathy. “I don't relish in forcing people to suffer, Watson. It's not, as you would say, my style. That they do suffer is an unequivocal fact, and one that can't be avoided. But then it is over. They are finished, and there is no more pain or hurt.”

“You think you're putting them out of their misery,” Joan says tonelessly.

“No, no. I'm not the farmer in the slaughterhouse.” The crease between her eyes deepens, and it is clear to Joan that she is trying so, so hard to make Joan understand. “I have certain goals, and the best way to reach them is through murder. People respond so well to it.”

“That's sick.” Joan means it with every fiber of her being. First, do no harm.

Moriarty's gaze goes cold and shallow. “People's attachment to each other, people's attachment to life, are the things that make murder, supposedly, an unforgivable sin.”

“What if Sherlock stepped in front of a train today?” Joan asks quietly. “Would you say the same thing?”

Her answer is in Moriarty's silence, and so Joan knows. Moriarty would miss the game of Sherlock Holmes; she would miss the opportunity of him, the possibilities of him, but she would not miss him. She wouldn't miss his horrible, ugly sweaters and his awful excuse for an inside voice and his shirts buttoned all the way up to the collar. A long, long time ago, maybe her first or second year of college, Joan had gotten stuck in an endless cycle of papers about personality disorders. She remembers plucking from the textbook and quoting, verbatim, what it meant to be a sociopath: a consistent disregard for the rights of others.

“We're all people,” Joan says. “Just like you.”

Moriarty laughs.


It's dark today, and they don't speak for a long time.

“How's it coming along?” Joan asks, softly.

“It's coming,” says Moriarty from behind the canvas, her face a thundercloud.


“I think you have me wrong,” says Moriarty, slow and sweet. “Not to cast aspersions on your deductive skills.”


“I know why murder is unforgivable. I've been... doing it so long, that it's become... necessary. To myself. Not that it doesn't hurt me, every time.” She leans to the side, the better to show Watson her open face. “I have blood on my hands that I can't wash out.”

“You're lying,” Joan snaps. She is ready to scream. “Stop, already.”

Moriarty's face comes together again. “Oh, I tried. You could have believed me, if you'd wanted to. Made yourself feel better, at least.”

“You don't care about killing people because you think you're above them.” Joan's voice rattles like she's giving a sermon. “You think you're so intellectually superior, so morally superior, that you can just do whatever you want to the rest of the ants who haven't figured it all out.”

“Interesting,” Moriarty says. She has stopped painting. “But unfortunately I'm going to have to go with 'no.'”

“Why?” asks Joan, like she has before.

The expression on Moriarty's face is a new one. “I don't think you're an ant, Watson.”

Silence. Moriarty paints on.


“It's finished.”

“Oh,” Joan manages in one giant exhale. “Wow.”

Moriarty is standing in front of the canvas, the back of which has been most of Joan's vision for these sessions. Her arms are scrubbed red and raw, but Joan can still see the faintest lines of streaked paint. Her hair is knotted at the nape of her neck; she's wearing black stockings and diamond earrings. Joan stands up, her bones aching, and Moriarty takes a pocket knife out of her shirt. In five seconds, the length of time it takes Joan to react, she's slashed through the canvas so many times that nothing is left but shreds.

Joan is coming to appreciate that dramatic moments with Moriarty are so often silent. “Was there a reason,” she says finally, still standing a dozen feet away, “for that?”

“I don't do originals.” Moriarty hasn't put the pocket knife away, and that's when fear seizes Joan by the throat.

“Are you going to kill me?” she asks calmly when Moriarty steps forward in her stocking feet.

Moriarty's laugh is genuinely surprised, just a hiccup of a laugh. “Kill you?” she says. “I want to kiss you.”

Neither of them move closer. “I'm sure it was beautiful,” Joan says, nodding to the shredded canvas, and is a little confused to find that she means it. Moriarty tilts her head.

“I'm going to break into the Sistine Chapel,” Moriarty says, sounding, for the first time in Joan's memory, delirious, “and paint you on the ceiling.”

“A true use of your talents,” Joan says, and against every single odd in the world: she smiles.