A/N: Thanks to Ishie & STVDWTWRHfan for the feedback. This story is set roughly post-Beneath the Bleeding and was originally written for Loz for Yuletide 2009.
Keeping the Stars
Tony paced the floor like a caged bear in an antique zoo. "You hardly knew her, from what we can tell. But you were in love, weren't you? Did you watch her in the café, thinking she was attracted to you merely because she fetched your coffee with a smile? Or was there more to it than that?"
He reached the edge of his living room and stared out over the street. It was grey and dreary, a typical late fall evening in Bradfield. His neglected front garden had withered to a few hardy plants, clinging tenaciously to untended soil. He made a sour face.
"There's more to it than that. There's always more to it than that," he murmured to himself. He paused, sighed. "Except when there isn't." He couldn't quite get a grasp on his offender, his alternate persona for the duration of the case. Little frustrated Tony more than stretching himself inside the mind of a killer and coming up empty handed, devoid of any new insight but touched by weariness and no small amount of madness.
He turned again, his bad knee lending a subtle hobble to his gait. Practice and physical therapy had trained out much of the impediment, but nothing could banish the hint of a limp and the long, ragged scar that stood out against the pale flesh of his leg.
"Did you ask her out, only to be turned down? Did she bruise your fragile ego? Thought you should teach her a lesson?" He shook his head, as if to dislodge the theories that simply did not fit. "No, of course not. There isn't any impotent male rage behind this. It's sexual, yes, but with no overt show of dominance or virility." He dropped the file of crime scene photos on the coffee table. "No, that's not it at all. . ."
The peal of the doorbell stopped him before he reached the far wall; he moved to answer it, a trail of muttered annoyances following him.
"It doesn't make sense," he said before the door had even swung fully open.
Carol's eyebrows arched momentarily, a subtle expression that broadcasted as much bemusement as genuine interest. "I find life is often like that, Tony. I keep trying, but in forty years I haven't worked much more sense out of it."
Tony almost smiled, but caught the expression before it formed. Carol stood on his doorstep, takeaway bag in hand, wearing a black dress that proclaimed most definitively that she had not come straight from work.
"I assumed you hadn't eaten," she said, proffering the bag.
He blinked back at her for just a second too long before confirming that he had, in fact, neglected to feed himself since the brief lunch they had shared together in Carol's office. She had not said anything then about going out, and the thought that she had purposefully hid it from him needled at his sense of envy. If she were going out with her brother, or an old school friend, wouldn't she have casually mentioned it? But if it had been a date, it must not have been very serious if it had not even involved food: she had brought enough over for two. He caught a faint hint of what seemed to be expensive-smelling scotch, though. Not normally Carol's taste. But then, neither was her dress.
"Mind if I cut through? I just stopped by to drop off the food before I ran downstairs to change."
"Sure, of course."
He stepped back and she entered, immediately surrendering impractical heels to the mat by his door.
She sighed, a noise of subdued ecstasy. "You have no idea how many hours I've wanted to do that."
He watched her as she bent to retrieve her shoes, one last chance to take in her appearance. "Beauty comes at a price. And you do— "
"Look lovely," he finished, a little lamely.
"Thanks, Tony." Carol smiled back at him, almost shy. "I'll be back in a few," she said as she moved to pad down the hallway toward her door.
When she passed close by him and pressed her fingertips against his arm—a solid gesture which never failed to ground him, and never failed to make him yearn to pull her closer—he caught a subtle sent of flowers and bergamot, one he didn't recognize. DCI Jordan wanted to be taken seriously to a near fault; she did not wear perfume. Carol, however, did. He locked the sensory memory of it away in the back of his mind, one more fragment for the image of Carol he recreated anew every night that the torment of old demons kept him from sleep.
In her own apartment, Carol shed her dress onto the bed and pulled on a t-shirt and loose trousers before heading to the bathroom and regarding her reflection in the mirror. Her makeup had survived the evening, though her lipstick was rather lighter than it had been earlier. She turned on the taps and splashed too-cold water on her face. Soap and a towel and she was back to normal. Back to the Carol who told herself daily that she was satisfied with what she had, because she couldn't have any more.
When she ascended the stairs a few minutes later, she found Tony waiting idly in his kitchen.
"Wine with your curry?"
"No, not yet, thanks. I had a bit of a head start tonight. I should probably stick to tea for an hour or two." The truth was she wanted to share the comforting ease of another drink with him, but her earlier libations still clung loosely around her thoughts like a warm fog, and she knew better than to mitigate her inhibition with too much drink when she was not alone.
Tony complied, turning to put on the kettle. "Top cabinet. Mostly black teas, but there's a little variety."
"I'm not picky," she replied, opening the cabinet and fingering the disordered array of boxes. She would have let him pick, but she never turned down the invitation to rifle a little voyeuristically through Tony's things, even if those things were as benign as his groceries.
Tony seized the opportunity to watch her, as he often did when she was too engrossed in a task to notice or care about his eyes constantly on her. He knew it was shameless and audacious, the way he often watched her a manner that could not be remotely described as professional, pinning her under his focused, appraising gaze. But she had never complained, so he had never stopped doing it.
He took her in now, trousers slung over her hips and a t-shirt fitted enough to show off the angles of her shoulders and the planes of her back. She had emerged from her apartment bare, unadorned, and honest. Whoever she had been with earlier, he presumed from the clothing she had chosen and the obvious care she had taken in her appearance that she would not have wanted him to see her as she was now. The intimacy it implied with him was almost enough to temper the tightness in his chest and the vaguely metallic taste of jealousy on the back of his tongue. Almost.
Eventually she pulled down a nondescript red box of tea and a pair of mismatched mugs. When the kettle whistled insistently, he poured the boiling water over the waiting tea bags and handed a mug to her, not needing to ask if she wanted sugar or cream. He took a sip from his own cup and flinched.
"Careful, it's still hot." She stated the obvious, but the words conveyed a delicate concern.
Ignoring her, he swallowed another mouthful. The feeling of the scorching liquid fighting its way to his stomach took his mind off the more unpleasant sensation clenched around his heart. Tony led the way into the living room, where Carol settled into her usual over-stuffed chair and he took the corner of the sofa. They ate in amiable silence, but with the purposeful speed of two people with more important things to attend to than a leisurely meal.
"So, where were we?" Carol asked as she slid her empty plate onto the side table.
The pronoun snared him and he didn't respond for a moment. She cocked her head to the side, a ghost of a smile touching the corners of her mouth.
"The case. Right." His poise recovered quickly, but his rational thought plodded a little behind. "Ah—the report confirms what you expected earlier. The victim was killed with a single cut to the neck, with no hesitation marks. The cross cut into her back was ante-mortem, likely a few hours before. The instrument was very sharp. A high-quality old-fashioned straight razor or something similar. It could be a knife, but I don't think that quite fits his personality, plus it would be harder to wield from behind."
"Your killer inflicted the fatal wound from behind." Tony waved her up from where she sat. "Kneel down, I'll show you."
Carol stood and dropped to her knees on the rug, looking up at Tony.
"The ME's report indicates she bled out in this position, and she was cut from directly behind, not at a downward angle. Which means—" he knelt down immediately behind her, sliding one knee between hers. "—If I'm your killer, I'm here. And I'm left handed, so—" Tony dragged the index finger of his left hand lightly over her neck in a pantomime of murder.
Carol suppressed a shudder. Whether it was from the sudden mental image of her own blood spilling warm over her chest like Sarah's or if it was simply from the unexpected, uncommon physical closeness of Tony, she could not say.
"Yes, but," she paused, trying to force an even tone into her voice. "But if the killer were behind her like this, why wouldn't she fight back? If she moved at all, he wouldn't have gotten such a clean cut." Carol reached her right arm behind her until her fingertips curled in his hair. "I would yank your hair. Elbow you in the ribs. Whatever I could do to stop you."
She could feel Tony nod once behind her. His arm wrapped around her body, right hand to left shoulder, pinning her against his chest, close enough that his warmth seeped through her shirt and triggered an impulse deep within her to relinquish herself to gravity and settle completely against him.
"I don't bind your hands, and the time I take setting up and savoring this moment means I don't force you down and kill you as quickly as I possibly can, before you can overcome your terror and fight back." His arm tightened across her shoulders in emphasis. "But I could hold you here if you were too weak to resist."
"Drugged?" Carol asked.
"Perhaps. We'll know when the lab results come back in a few days. But something about it seems off." His voice was low and so close to her ear she tipped her head back involuntarily.
"I don't want to dehumanize you. There are easier ways to do that, and I care too much about being near you to want to view you as anything other than who you really are." Tony paused, his head dropped to rest a moment on her shoulder. "The lack of forensics or any blood at the scene suggests I killed you somewhere else then cleaned and dressed you before laying you in the woods." He lifted his head and pointed forward with his left hand. "A mirror."
"You think he watched the murder in a mirror?" Carol craned her neck uncomfortably and caught his face on the periphery of her vision.
"Mm." He tilted his head just a little away from hers. "It's important for me to see you, and for you to see me. Together, side-by-side like this. . ."
She could feel his chest rise and fall with each breath; she turned back away from him, faced the cluttered bookshelves against the wall.
Tony continued, voice smooth as amber ale. "I need you, and I believe you need me. This is an act of profound intimacy. An act of love, even. And I need to share it with you so you'll understand. I need you more than I've ever needed anything."
Carol exhaled. He was holding her up now, the firm circle of his arm keeping her from crumpling entirely. Leaden seconds fell between them. Then, "Do you, Tony?" Her voice seemed foreign, small somehow.
The sound of his own name froze the steady metronome of gears and cogs in his mind. "Yes," he said simply. "But. . ."
She bit her lip, waiting for him to find the words for himself.
"But so do you." He sprang to his feet with unexpected suddenness.
Carol looked up at him, too bewildered to even ask for an explanation.
He meted out his words carefully, knowing the reaction they would provoke. "This was consensual, Carol."
It was Carol's turn to jump to her feet. A mixture of horror and disbelief flickered across her face. "Well now I know you've really gone mad. The woman was murdered, Tony."
"Think about it, Carol—this doesn't make sense and it's been bothering me all afternoon. The ME said the wound would look different if he had held her head back, so we know she was looking straight ahead, head unrestrained. Her hands and feet weren't bound. She had already been purposefully injured, so it's not as if she had no idea what he was capable of. If she had been drugged beyond all resistance, he would likely have found it difficult to maintain her in the kneeling position in which she died and hold her head up with just one hand. He probably would have needed to prop her up in a chair. This just does not make sense unless she submitted it to willingly."
Carol's brow furrowed. She touched a hand to her lips, shifted her weight from one foot to the other, dropped her hand. "I agree that the circumstances are a little odd, but Tony, this is not a sex game gone bad we're talking about. What you're saying is that she knelt willingly in front of a man who she knew planned to slit her throat."
"It's not unprecedented. The case of Armin Meiwes and his victim is perhaps most germane, but history is full of examples of willing participants in their own deaths. Or murders, if you want to call them that. Almost 1,000 Americans in the Jonestown mass suicide in the 70s. Over 70 Canadian members of the Order of the Solar Temple over a period of several years in the 90s. To say nothing of thousands of religious and political martyrs over the centuries who welcomed death to make a point rather than doing or saying whatever it was that would save them."
"Yes, but cult members and religious zealots have a cause or a reason for acting as they do and choosing martyrdom or suicide. From everything we know, Sarah was a typical 20-something girl with a typical waitress job and a typical cheap, dingy flat. She wasn't even a church-goer, let alone a member of an extremist murder-suicide cult."
Tony could see Carol beginning to fray around the edges, her voice pitching and bordering on argumentative. "You're right." His tone was judicious, generous without being patronizing. It was a tone he adopted often when reasoning with patients. "This is different, because it's sexually motivated. For both parties."
"What sexual satisfaction could she possibly have gotten out of this?" Tony could tell her initial outrage had softened a little, but that she was still resistant to the entire idea.
"She had consensual sex shortly before death. In a sense, you could think of it as the most extreme form of BDSM. Her impending mortality, and placing her life—quite literally—in the hands of this man were profoundly erotic to her. She sacrificed her life to experience the ultimate act of subservience and submission. And he, of course, gets off on the complete power he wields over her body and her life. The ritual is built around that. The initial cuts on the back, which we know were made hours before death, mark her. . ."
He stopped, eyes moving over Carol's face as if it held the conclusions he sought. "The cross—it's a t. T for Thomas, Timothy. Trevor, maybe. He marks her as his property, something completely under his control, with his initial, cut into her flesh. This starts the ritual. They have sex. He kills her while she watches. They will have discussed the entire encounter before it happened. The dominant, your killer, would have dictated the scenario—what he would do to her before and after death—but she would have gone along with it. The perfect submissive. And her submissiveness was critical. To him, force is crude, power is incomplete where there is still resistance. He needs to possess everything: her heart, mind, body, and will. He's not a true god without a willing and devoted supplicant, and vice versa. So they need each other, and he recognizes that. The way he dressed and laid out her body was nearly reverent, her reward for her obedience."
Tony continued, determined to have her hear everything she needed to do her job well before she argued the conclusion. "Given the rarity of each of their preferences, he likely isn't local. He would have traveled, made special arrangements to come to her, once he found her. There aren't, as you'd guess, many willing to do what she did. Meiwes went through numerous potential victims before finding one willing to actually go through with it. It also means you won't find another victim anytime soon."
The look of masked horror was still etched on Carol's face. She was piecing the argument together in her mind, clutching at whatever might suggest that Tony was wrong.
"If you dig deep in the right places, you'll find she was involved in BDSM. She may have found the local scene too tame, or too full of familiar faces and gone out of town, or she may have been more active online, arranging discreet meetings with partners rather than going to clubs. Online is probably where she met her final partner. Either way, she ultimately found that without the real element of danger, the encounters were somewhat empty. If she kept this part of her life private from those who knew her, she would have hid her accoutrements well, too, where a nosy housemate coming to borrow a pair of shoes without asking wouldn't chance upon them. Make sure your team checks vents, false dresser bottoms, inside mattress box springs, that sort of thing."
Carol nodded, glad to be presented a theory she could understand and utilize. "Stacey has her computer as we speak, and Kevin and Paula are at her flat now. I'll have Paula re-interview her housemate and see if she knew anything about Sarah's sexual proclivities."
Tony relaxed a little, finding that Carol was at least willing to allow the possibility that some of what he conjectured could be true. Carol could be at times obdurate, but her dogged quest for the truth lead her to be open to suggestions others would scoff at. It was one of the things he loved about her.
"But—" Carol started. "But I still don't see how the murder itself could have happened like that. People don't just trade their lives for sexual gratification."
Tony shrugged slightly. "Autoerotic asphyxiation can and has claimed lives, but people do it anyway. Pedophiles risk incarceration and extreme social censure for their sexual desires. Psychosexual murderers kill even if they live in a country with capital punishment. If the urge is strong enough, the risks or the costs don't always matter. Sarah's sexual urges couldn't be sated by less extreme encounters. She traded her life for the sort of perfect experience she simply couldn't get any other way."
"You sound like you understand what would compel a person to participate in their own murder. Like you think this is a rational, informed choice." Carol fixed him with a look he recognized. It was one that he met often at the moment when someone realized he wasn't quite normal, wasn't quite human, at least not in the ways that counted. He nearly winced, seeing it now from Carol, who he thought had already seen the darkest sides of him and never turned away.
"I'm saying I understand those whose desires lay outside the norm. It's a spectrum, Carol. Everyone interested in typical sex and typical relationships—intercourse, oral sex, anal sex, marriage and monogamy—is clumped on the far end. That's a significant portion of the population. But the range of human sexuality is much broader than that—fetishes, cuckoldry, open relationships, polyamory, sadomasochism and the like are all perfectly normal, yet outside the realm of common social acceptance. I understand to some extent what that's like—living on the fringes of what's considered normal."
Carol's expression had softened a little, but remained skeptical.
"Even you, Carol, operate outside social expectations in your personal life." It was a calculated move, and one for which it was worth assuming the risk. "You've put your job first, not settled down or started a family, no matter how much society tells you that, as a woman, nothing in your life should be more important. You haven't let it effect who you are or what you want."
Carol smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. "Do you know where I was tonight?"
The abrupt query startled him; he had not expected her to mention it, or explain it—not that he was owed any explanation at all. "No," he replied.
"I was out for drinks with a man I hadn't seen in twelve years. We used to date. It was serious, but we broke it off—he broke it off because he thought I'd never want to get married and settle down. He did get married shortly after, then divorced last year. Point is, I wanted to impress him. I wanted him to think that in all the years since we broke up I'd accomplished something besides my job. He was right, though—I hadn't wanted to marry him and buy a cottage in the country and have children. But I still thought I had something to prove tonight. Pathetic, isn't it?"
"Being vulnerable doesn't make you pathetic, Carol." He hoped his tone did not betray the unjust relief he felt. He waited patiently for her to meet his eyes again. "It's only natural to be self-conscious in that situation. You're self aware enough and have enough confidence to know that that lifestyle wasn't for you. You need to be with someone who would come to you on your own terms, who understands that your work is who you are. That it will always have first claim on your time, even if something else has first claim on your heart."
"Someone like you, then." Carol's gaze could be just as penetrating as his. She wasn't trained, but she was astute; years of working with suspects and a more open relationship with her own feelings made her capable of picking up every subtlety, even if she could not diagnose the underlying psychology. She was aware of how purposefully he had steered the conversation, tried to build a bridge between her and the victim in the hopes that she would be more willing to cross it if one end was even tenuously anchored to her own experience. She sensed it, and the benign annoyance it provoked in her made her needle at what she knew were Tony's own insecurities.
"Yes, I understand the importance of your work, both to the community and to you, but I was speaking in generalities, not specifics."
"How come you never speak in specifics when it comes to you and me?" Carol replied, face as placid as she could will it to be, even as she felt her heart rate pitch in that familiar way it always did when she and he inhabited the same thought.
Tony sighed, the slow release of breath buying him time to provide the answer he knew he couldn't evade. "Because specifics require certainty, and I can't be certain of anything when all I know is how I feel." It was, typically, the truth without being the whole truth.
"And how do you feel?" Carol stepped toward him but dropped her gaze, suddenly reticent. She fingered the collar of his jacket, three fingertips the only contact she would dare to initiate.
She was again close enough that he could smell the subtle warmth of her perfume, mingled with soap and the ineffable familiar scent of her. Tony strained to see her, but their closeness and the angle of her head kept her face hidden. The faint touch below his collarbone was maddening; it suggested everything and promised nothing.
He drew in a deep breath, knowing a lie would be futile, and the truth dangerous. "Like I want to be as much to you as you'll let me be. Your coworker, your friend, your confidant, your lover. I'd offer as much as you would take."
It was enough to reward him with her full attention, face turned upward and open. "Somehow, despite all my best efforts—" she sighed, but the corner of her mouth twitched with a threatened smile. "You've already managed to become everything to me, Tony."
Words failed him, or at least felt unnecessary. He pulled her toward him in an embrace, arms secure across her back, and she relented, head tucked neatly in the crook of his neck as her own arms twined around him. She felt real to him then, held close enough against his body that he could feel her breath on his neck, the steady rise and fall of her chest. One hand moved to thread through loose strands of her hair in an act of simple need, simple desire.
The insistent chirp of her cell phone ended the moment like a kite string breaking. Reluctantly, he relinquished his hold and she unfolded herself from her comfortable position against his chest. She took the call, intent and focused; Tony stood quietly, taking in the fractured half-conversation, a string of affirmations and monosyllables.
"Sorry, that was Kevin. I have to go." She stepped forward again and pressed a kiss to his cheek, an innocent gesture that lasted a moment longer than could be considered chaste.
"I know. I'll be here, whenever you get back."
"I know, Tony." Her face looked serene, calm contentment melting away the worry lines that often touched her forehead. "And thanks."
He smiled, walked her to the door, watched her leave. As her car pulled away and disappeared around the bend, Tony settled behind the cool glow of his computer and set to work.