Some kid in a Metallica tee shirt bumps John as his class files off of the school bus, but he's nice enough to give John an apologetic smile before moving by his friends. John tries to return the smile, but the boy is gone before he can; with a resigned sigh, John moves with the rest of the group out of the main street down a small, cramped alley. The stench of rotten food and mold hits his nostrils, and he resists the urge to gag. After all, he is only a visitor; the people who live here have to deal with the smell their whole lives.
"Keep up!" his teacher, Mrs. Barrymore, calls from the front of the group. She's forgone her normal stilettos for tennis shoes, but the dress remains, swishing around the tops of her knees as she takes quick steps forward. "If time waits for no one, then neither shall I!"
A few kids snicker; John simply walks faster. Secretly, he enjoys Mrs. Barrymore's quirky quotes; whenever he tells his mother them, she smiles in that way that gives her crow's feet around her eyes and shows just a small sliver of teeth.
"John! Wait up!"
John rolls his eyes but slows just enough for his friend to catch up to him, his breaths coming in labored bursts, his large chest heaving with effort. "Maybe we should add 'running' to the list of New Year's resolutions for this year, Mike," he jokes, only half-kidding. When Mike's girlfriend broke it off with him two months ago, he spiraled into the sweet arms of junk food, and nothing John said could prevent the 25 pounds he'd gained as a result.
"Shut up," Mike grumbles, but John can tell that his friend is secretly pleased that John cares. "Just because you have a high metabolism—"
"Don't start with that—"
"Boys," a female voice chides, and a delicate hand falls on John's shoulder. "Can't we go an hour without arguing?"
John suppresses a protest, instead flashing the owner of the hand a wide smile. "Hello, Irene."
Irene Adler, arguably the hottest—and most frightening—girl in school. Somehow, she gravitated towards John and Mike, something that John couldn't care less about but flustered Mike to no end. Now, Mike's cheeks burn a bright crimson, and he stammers out a greeting of his own. "You look nice today," he adds on at the end, not necessarily with the intention of flirting—God, Mike is too much a pansy for a girl like Irene, all sharp edges and feral smiles—but because it's true. Irene never looks less than stunning.
Irene flashes Mike one of her trademark smirks, and John could swear his friend visibly gulps. "Thanks, Stanford."
"It's Stamford," Mike mutters under his breath, out of habit more than anything else. He's long-since accepted the nickname.
As the three of them follow their class into a rundown building peppered with bright graffiti and looking severely at risk of collapsing, Irene turns her attention to John, her eyes flashing in the way they do when she holds a piece of valuable knowledge. "You're never going to believe what I heard on the bus ride here, Johnny."
John wants to take in the building, the people sitting braced against the walls and watching the kids with tired curiosity, their faces unshaven and their clothes mismatched and ratty. Instead, he indulges Irene and asks, "What?"
Irene leans in closer, her breath tickling John's ear, but John doesn't feel the least bit uncomfortable. He's spent enough time with her to grow accustomed to the way her eyes seem to pick him apart, to look past it to the soft-hearted, almost gentle girl that lies within. Of course, as with most people, the truth remains hidden beneath many layers of protection, and Irene's no different. "You know Mary Morstan?"
John sucks in a breath. Mary Morstan. How could he not know her? She always seemed to hover in the corner of his vision, a blond pixie-cut head among the hundreds that bobbed through the hallways at his school, sneaking into his thoughts when he least expected it. She'd transferred to his district at the end of the 6th grade, but it took him at least two years to notice her, another year to really notice her. Now, junior year, his heartbeat picks up at the simple mentioning of her name, and he's not sure whether to feel embarrassed or giddy.
Irene doesn't wait for John to answer, continuing, "Word on the street is she's broken up with that tool Moriarty. I heard he cheated on her with some college guy named Sebastian."
"What?" John chokes on the word, but before he can question Irene further, Mrs. Barrymore's voice cuts through the conversations.
"Listen up everyone!" She waves a hand at a dark-skinned man standing next to her; his treads tumble over his shoulders, rivaling the length of Mrs. Barrymore's, and he nods at us before she even introduces him. "This is Rafael—he'll be helping to guide us during our time here."
Rafael speaks in a heavy cockney accent, and he divides up responsibilities quickly and efficiently. John only half-listens; the rest of his attention wanders to Mary. He wonders how long a person has to wait after ending a relationship before the start of a new one transitions from rebound to real. Weeks? Months? John's never had a girlfriend before, so he feels like he's stumbling forward in the dark, grasping for a light switch that he has a very slim chance of finding.
Someone jabs John sharply in the side, and Irene's voice floats to his ears. "Come back to earth. We're making groups."
All around them, kids gravitate towards their friends, standing closer than normal to assert their ownership. Quickly, the group separates and divides until only a few kids are left wandering, glancing around with creased foreheads and terrified eyes. John glances at his group of three—space for one more—and reaches out towards a bespectacled boy, but before he can propose his offer to the boy, a face fills his vision, a soft hand touching his briefly before it moves to his upper arm. Then, a voice so sweet it could be honey or liquid sugar, asks, "Do you mind if I join?" and John doesn't know what to say, suddenly, or even how to speak.
Irene speaks for him. "Actually, we—"
"Of course not," John blurts, shooting Irene a pressing glare. "Please."
Mary gives John a smile that makes his knees just a bit weaker. "Thanks, John." She takes her hand off of his arm, moving to stand with his group, and John realizes that the books are horribly wrong. Mary isn't fire and sparks and heat that, when absent, leave John shivering and longing for contact.
John looked up at the building with the memory still tainting his vision, and he swore he could still feel Mary's hand on his arm, burning a freezing path through shirt and muscle and bone. Despite knowing that it wasn't, he couldn't help but shiver; then, he blamed it on the wind brushing coolly over his skin and causing goosebumps to rise all along his arms and on the back of his neck.
Though he'd never admit it, the dark had always scared him just a little. It was just a feeling, like something he couldn't quite reach no matter how far he stretched, sitting and stewing in the back of his mind. It made his breathing just a bit shorter, his heartbeat a few thumps faster, his hands less steady and coated with a thin layer of nervous sweat. He rubbed them on the legs of his pants, blinking to fully eradicate the memory of high school, and then moved forward, turning the door handle with surprising ease.
Inside, the darkness grew claustrophobic, heavy with the smell of must and decay. John let the door swing shut behind him, the thud resonating through the blackness, and then silence crept in again on padded feet. John swallowed, trying not to be nervous—nearly impossible, of course; it felt like he was approaching his own execution—and moved blindly through the building, trying to remember the layout from his junior year field trip. Of course, then, the homeless had resided within the relatively safe walls of the building; now, it only housed rats and cockroaches. Unsafe living conditions, the newspaper had said, but John knew better. It was money; it was always money.
John's foot hit an object on the ground and he stumbled, barely stopping himself from tumbling to the ground. His heartbeat skyrocketed, and he froze, closing his eyes and taking deep breaths in a futile effort to calm himself. Then, he couldn't help himself; he started talking, his words bouncing faintly off the walls and echoing back to him. It started with words of encouragement, stuff that sounded silly—beyond silly, borderline hysterical—but then it dropped to pleas and promises, all uttered in a calm, flat, factual tone that should have scared John but had rather the opposite effect. He reopened his eyes and took a few more hesitant steps forward, stretching out his hands on instinct to search for something, anything in the dark—
John registered everything in slow motion. First, he saw the tall lamp, shining downwards and making a large circle of pale white light on the dirty stone floor. Then the slightly illuminated ground in front of him, fading away slowly back into darkness the further he looked from the light.
The wooden chair, slightly crooked.
The rope, curling around fair wrists and socked ankles like coiling snakes.
The burlap sack covering from the shoulders up.
Black pumps with small studs decorating the tips. John had given her those shoes for Christmas his senior year. For some reason, he couldn't tear his eyes away from the shoes, even as he felt himself move forward a few steps, his hands beginning to shake. "Mary?"
John closed the remaining gap between himself and the chair, reaching a tentative hand towards the burlap sack. He could barely think straight, much less wonder the types of things Sherlock would have brought up. Who turned on the light? Why would he just leave his bargaining chip sitting out in the open? What was the point of bringing John out here just to leave him with Mary?
Nothing occurred to John except for the girl slumped in front of him, hands tethered to the wooden armrests, ankles to the legs of the chair. He grasped the burlap sack in one hand and worked it gently off of her head, watching with a thumping heart and clenched stomach as static electricity caused short blonde hair to stick to the burlap briefly before releasing it to fall against a smooth forehead. Then, he said her name again, placing a hand on her shoulder and shaking it gently. Her head bobbed back and forth, enough for John to get a flash of her face.
John's hands were at her cheeks and lifting her head so quickly he didn't even realize he'd done it until he was dropping his hands and backing away quickly, his heart jumping up into his throat and pounding an irregular rhythm there. He couldn't get her face out of his mind: her jaw, hanging slack like a puppet whose strings have been cut; her eyes, staring into nothing, empty of anything even remotely human; her cheeks, cold against his hands.
His eyes traced downwards, coming to rest on her stomach. In his blind eagerness earlier, he'd overlooked the faint redness spreading across her green sweater, but now he couldn't tear his eyes away. Placing one fist to his mouth, John used his other hand to pinch the bottom edge of the sweater in between his index finger and thumb and lift it just enough to see the carnage underneath.
A question, carved into pale skin: Where is Mary Morstan?
Then, hands grabbed John, binding his wrists with something cold and rough and covering John's head with a scratchy burlap sack. "John Watson," a smooth, tenor voice murmured in his ear while he struggled fruitlessly against the strong grip from behind. "My last pawn."
"What's going on?" John demanded, kicking out with his feet and meeting empty air. "Where's Mary?" Because the poor woman slumped in the chair, wearing Mary's clothing and bearing Mary's name across her stomach, couldn't be Mary—not with her dark brown eyes, more like barren land than rolling ocean.
"That, my dear Watson," the voice explained, beginning to guide John away from the light, back into the depths of the dark unknown, "is what I need you to help me find out."
Sherlock awoke with a pounding headache, lying sprawled across the living room floor. It took him a millisecond to remember why, another second to sit up with a pounding of his heart rivaling the one in his skull. "John," he said, the word echoing around the empty flat, and then he was on his feet, ignoring the throbbing in his temple. Light filtered in through the curtains; judging by the angle, Sherlock had been out for the entire night and awoken again just before noon.
And John still wasn't back.
In a flash, Sherlock had his phone up to his ear, the dial tone replaced by high-pitched ringing. He only had to wait two rings before Lestrade picked up with a nervous, "Sherlock. Please tell me you're calling with good news."
Sherlock couldn't even find it in him to make a snarky remark. "Is John with you?" He knew he sounded desperate, but he couldn't help it.
A pause. "I thought you were watching him."
Sherlock began to pace. "He escaped."
Bitterly, Sherlock snapped, "Really, Lestrade, keep up."
In an attempt to save his pride, Sherlock said, "I hardly think that matters right now. What we need to know is where he is."
Lestrade swore into the phone. "I'll put a team on it, but Sherlock, we're swamped. Missing persons cases are cropping up all over the place, and I've already got people set on standby in case this psychopath decides to show up again. Believe me, I want to see John safe, but I just don't know what else I can do. Do you know where he might have gone?"
Sherlock's pacing quickened until he finally stopped and settled with looking out the window onto the street below, mindlessly analyzing the pedestrians as they passed in an effort to put himself at ease. "If I did, do you really think that I would be calling you?"
Another pause, this one longer; Sherlock could practically taste Lestrade's discontent. "Don't worry, Sherlock," he said finally, his voice soft despite the turmoil Sherlock could hear below the surface. "We'll find him." Not I'm sure he's fine or Maybe he just needed some space. They both knew that if either of those things were true, Sherlock wouldn't have called.
Sherlock, as he always did when faced with emotions he deemed too strong to bear, resorted to facts and reason when he responded, "Yes. Alive or dead is the question." Then, he hung up and dropped the phone, hearing it clack heavily against the floor, before returning to the window.
So many people in London. Sherlock had always looked at the city as a conglomeration of fools, those who lived their lives ignorant of the darkness that lay beneath the shiny exterior of lights and sound and grandiosity. They lived in one world; he lived in another, one that once you entered, sealed you in like a prison cell without any hope of escaping. Of course, Sherlock had always considered his world a higher state of being; a life of ignorance, to him, was like a life devoid of meaning or worth.
John should have stayed out of his world.
Sherlock shook the thought away as quickly as it had come, not because it wasn't true, but because if he opened that door, that would let in a slew of emotions that Sherlock had sworn never to feel again. Life without caring was so much easier; it left no room for error, taking away that part of a person that would act rashly due to attachment.
Turning away from the window, Sherlock picked his phone back up from the floor and crossed the flat, stopping next to John's armchair. John's laptop still sat open, the screen black, on the seat cushion, humming softly; Sherlock stared at it for a moment before grabbing it, sitting down on the chair and waking it from its sleep.
Looking through John's email should have felt invasive and wrong, but Sherlock had no qualms about doing it, starting from John's most recent messages and working backwards. In order to know something only John would know, Sherlock had to know as much about John as he could, and though he would never admit it aloud, he couldn't know everything about a person simply by looking. Yes, most people wore their lives on their bodies, in their postures, in their manners and actions, and John was no exception. The moment he'd walked into Sherlock's flat, Sherlock had known that something inside of him was missing or broken; it had only taken him a few seconds to realize what. It had been written all over Ms. Hudson's face, mirrored faintly on John's; Sherlock knew from the start that John was slowly falling apart, breaking at the seams. Still, it had shocked Sherlock like a jolt of electricity when he came home from the police station to find John lying in a pool of his own blood.
Sherlock couldn't think about that night without remembering the terror that had seized his heart with cold hands, so he focused on the computer, clicking on another email and scanning it intently.
The moment of clarity wasn't grand or spectacular like in the movies. Sherlock didn't gasp or reread the email or experience a mental click as all the facts aligned. Instead, he left the flat, moving just a tad faster than his normal quick-paced walk, and made short work of hailing a cab. It wasn't until he was en route that Sherlock reflected on the email.
John had really done a terrific job of deleting all emails from his former friends. A quick glance through John's trash bin had revealed hoards of messages from the same people, all saying almost the same things: We miss you, John. When are you coming back? You know we all support you. (Sherlock had taken the liberty of permanently deleting all the aforementioned emails with a scowl.) However, an email from Mike Stamford remained in John's inbox, received just before John had gone off by himself to rescue Mary like a bloody heroic fool. It began with the same drivel as all the others: Hey, John. I know you probably stopped reading these, but I just want you to know that we all miss you back home. London can't hold a candle to Haddington, I'm sure, but I understand that you need time away. Blah blah blah—it had gone on and on, Sherlock skimming it with contempt written blatantly across his face until a part near the end. Although, do you remember that school field trip in out junior year to that homeless community? it read. The beginning of the end—not in a cynical way, though. Like the end of you as a sorry pansy pining after a beautiful girl. How the tables have turned. She misses you, John. She still hangs around us, but it's not the same without you. The message drawled on, but Sherlock had stopped reading. It had suddenly been so clear to him; the place where it all began, the beginning of the end.
"Where are we headed today?" the cabby asked, his voice light and chipper.
Sherlock didn't hesitate. "398 Taylor Street. Quickly."
The cabbie gave Sherlock an odd look over his shoulder. "That place's been closed for years. I hear it's on the verge of condemnation. Why on earth would you want to go there?"
The cabbie gave Sherlock an incredulous look but didn't pry further. He focused on the road, and Sherlock looked out the side window onto the streets of London.
The beginning of the end.