The rolling hills had faded away to shadows hours ago, but Sherlock could still see the faint outline of fences and country houses whip past the windows as he drove stoically through the Scottish countryside. Through the radio crackled muted classic rock—the only station Sherlock could seem to get, God help him. He wished he had his police radio so he could at least hear of the situation back in London, but in his hurry, he'd only grabbed John's car keys and laptop before departing.
Maybe he should have explained the situation to Lestrade.
Sherlock dismissed the thought as soon as it had come. No. He didn't need the police, and despite the fact that the police surely needed him, Lestrade didn't need to be a part of this.
Lestrade didn't need to be involved with John.
Of course, that brought the question of why Sherlock cared so much to mind, so Sherlock impatiently cranked the radio louder and focused on the technicalities of the case.
Of course the entire thing was about Mary. She was the one wild card, the one piece that just didn't match up with the rest—the very thing that, when twisted the correct direction, would put the puzzle together. It had never made sense to Sherlock that the killer would target John specifically without making a move to kill him. Tactics like that only spawned from a desire for something more, whether a simple cat-and-mouse game or, in this case, an entirely other objective.
The first three murders had simply been a beacon, meant to stand out from the normal and intended to bring Sherlock and John onto the case; the fourth, on the surface, stood as the beginning of the game, the traditional psychotic back-and-forth of a serial killer and his protagonist counterpart before either end eventually overtook the other.
However, a brief stop at the police station on his way out of London had given Sherlock a glance below the surface into the actuality of the situation, and from what he could surmise, this was nothing in the realm of traditional.
So now, even though Sherlock knew Mary wouldn't be in Scotland, even though he'd seen her face caught carelessly on security cameras in London, and even though her frantic departure hours later coincided with the time of the chess game too exactly to be a coincidence, here he was, pulling into Haddington, Scotland at 9:38 at night, locating the nearest motel and booking a single-bed room for the night.
He sat with his back against the heavy wooden backboard of the bed and balanced John's laptop on his knees, popping the top and beginning to methodically search all of John's files. He flicked through hundreds of candid shots: heads thrown back in silent laughter, hands caught mid-gesture, and faces striking ridiculous expressions. Some exhibited crashing waves or bustling metropolises in the background, but most featured the same green meadows and rolling hay fields, interrupted only by the smallest touches of human influence. The photos showed John in various stages of childhood, transitioning smoothly into young adulthood unlike the jerky, abrupt changes of some.
And then, slowly, Mary began to appear, leaking into the photos until nearly every one exhibited her stormy grey eyes, often crinkled in laughter. Even though this was what Sherlock had been looking for—there had to be some sign, something that would indicate the killer's motive—he spent hardly a second on each photo, images of clasped hands and chaste kisses flashing past in a blur. Hundreds of pictures flew by this way, all of John and Mary, all pushed aside idly—until the last.
The final photo remained frozen on the screen, and Sherlock sat back, crossing his arms over his chest and staring at the computer screen detachedly.
John stared back, grinning dopily from under a slightly askew navy blue graduation cap. His arms wrapped tightly around an older couple, both smiling as well—less elated, more fondly, pride apparent in the soft turn of their mouths. The resemblance was startling, really: the way John's nose curved upwards a bit like his mom's, or the hard, boxy line of his jaw like his dad's. Sherlock felt a sharp stab in his stomach and he snapped the laptop closed quickly, letting it slide down to the end of the bed as he reached over and flicked off the lamp.
Why John? Why now, after all this time? Sherlock barely knew the other boy—John had arrived, what, two weeks ago, and they'd hardly spoken outside of the case? Logically, it made no sense.
Life isn't logical, Sherlock. People can't be explained by formulas or speculations. Besides, what's the harm in a little taste of the unknown?
Sherlock closed his eyes and shifted on the bed until he was lying on his side, knees curled slightly into his stomach. With the unknown comes pain and confusion. Knowledge of events to come prevents heartbreak and disappointment, obviously.
The silence buzzed faintly in Sherlock's ears, lacking the frequent punctuation of London's constant traffic and nightlife. Sherlock let out a long breath and curled slightly tighter in an effort to become comfortable enough to fall asleep.
But isn't the potential of beauty worth the risk? Danger and chance will always be around you—you can't avoid it forever.
A breath in. A breath out.
Maybe. But how can you be sure?
Because I haven't fallen yet.
The killer was saying something, his hands absently fixing an already-flawless suit sleeve cuff around his left wrist, but the entire world was being suctioned away into a noiseless, empty tunnel to John, the only sound the rhythmic pulsing of blood in his veins and labored breaths wheezing in and out of his lips.
He had every right to be scared; yet it still felt like a weakness, like something to be ashamed of and hid under a hard mask of faux strength and bravery. John tried to slow the shaking of his hands, tried to bring himself down enough to concentrate on the killer's words, but his efforts slipped out of his grasp when a long-fingered hand reached down suddenly and lifted his chin, forcing John to face the man—the boy, not much older than John—standing in front of him.
"You're a part of something dangerous, John. I would listen if I were you."
John swallowed sharply. "It's you," he said, forcing the tremor out of his voice. "The boy from the chess game, the one with the bomb collar around his neck."
The boy let out a small huff of air, a sort of mocking half-laugh, and shook his head. "Really, I don't understand why Sherlock kept you around. You're about as perceptive as a toddler." He let go of John's chin and took a step back, fixing John with a cold, analytical stare, as if John were a butterfly pinned down by its wings under a microscope. "Yes, I am the boy from the chess game."
"But how? How did you—?" How did you fool Sherlock Holmes? John swallowed the question, the muscles in his jaw twitching. "We helped you," he said quietly, a hint of anger giving the words an accusatory edge.
"Yes, you did," the boy mused, a ghost of a smile rising briefly to his lips. "I have to admit, it was a bit shocking that Sherlock Holmes would be fooled by a small bout of crocodile tears—but then again, all to my advantage."
Shut up, John wanted to scream, wanted to punch the other boy, but he resigned himself to a murmured, "You bastard. You killed all those people, and for what? For fun?" John could hardly get the words out through the tight knot in his throat; his hands clenched into white-knuckled fists on the armrests, straining the rope binding his wrists down.
"I told you, John. There's a purpose to this."
John let out a strangled laugh. "What purpose? I don't understand."
"Your understanding is not high on my list of priorities." The boy reached inside his suit jacket and pulled out a roll of duct-tape, turning it over once in his hands. "This doesn't have to be about you, John—not if you keep your mouth shut."
"What are you—?" John's sentence cut off with a strangled protest as the boy stepped forward and, in one deft movement, firmly pressed a long line of duct-tape over John's lips, turning words into muffled groans.
"Don't worry, John. I just can't have you interrupting."
Interrupting what? The boy reached inside his suit jacket again, this time retrieving a small handheld camera, red light already blinking. He only glanced at John briefly before holding the camera out, pressing the button on top, and giving it a tight-lipped smile that made John shiver. "Hello, Mary Morstan. Did you miss me? I sure missed you. In fact, I'm rather disappointed that you keep avoiding me. Why don't you come see me, and we can have a little chat? I'm sure you can figure out where I am. Oh, yes, I almost forgot." He turned the camera around to meet John's wide-eyed, terror-stricken face, and John closed his eyes so he wouldn't have to see the lens, wouldn't have to think about where the video would be going. How could he have been so stupid? "If you aren't here within 24 hours, I'll slit John Watson's throat."
John's eyes flew open just in time to see the boy turn the camera back on himself, a flat, almost stoic expression on his face. "I'll see you soon, Mary," he concluded darkly, shutting the video off crisply and tucking the camera back in his suit coat.
John couldn't hide his fear anymore; he began to struggle against the ropes binding him again, rocking the chair back and forth violently. His vision blurred a mixture of bright crimson and pitch black, each color battling for dominance, and his breaths whistled loudly through his nose.
"Oh, for God's sake," the boy sighed, reaching forward and swiftly ripping the duct-tape off of John's mouth, leaving him gasping for air. "You really are insufferable."
"Leave Mary alone!" John gasped, his hands straining against the ropes so powerfully his fingertips started to purple from lack of blood. He couldn't think straight, much less logically; he could only concentrate on the boy standing in front of him and what John would give to wrap his hands around the boy's pale, fragile-looking neck. "She's got nothing to do with this!"
"She has everything to do with this," the boy growled, and suddenly, his face was directly in front of John's, so close John could feel the other boy's breath tickling his lips. The boy's hands closed around John's wrists, using them as support as he stared John down with cold, menacing eyes. "How can you possibly be so oblivious?"
John leaned as far back as he could without tipping, turning his head to look past the boy; dark brown walls, made of some sort of hardwood, absent of windows or doors of any kind, surrounded them. "I'm not a genius, okay?" he muttered through grit teeth, muted anger leaking out into his words like thick, black tar. "But if this is about Mary, then why were the first three victims connected to my… connected to me?" John closed his eyes, his hands beginning to go numb under the pressure of the other boy's. "Just explain that, at least."
There was a small pause; John remained tense, flinching slightly at each small exhalation of the boy. Then, the pressure on John's wrists lessened suddenly and John opened his eyes to see the boy standing a few feet away again, a slightly exasperated expression on his face that melted away quickly into a cold quirk of his lips, one that sent tremors down John's spine. "You can't even mention your parents?" The boy clicked his tongue thrice against the roof of his mouth. "How fragile."
"Don't avoid the question!" John snapped, finding another pulse of rage within him and bringing it, flaming, to the surface. "Why were the first three victims connected to me?"
The boy continued like John hadn't even spoken. "Of course, I suppose your distress is understandable. Finding them like that—it must have been horrible." He shook his head in exaggerated mock sympathy, tucking both of his hands inside his pants pockets.
"Shut up," John growled, a horrible twisting feeling beginning to build in the pit of his stomach. "Just shut up."
"But you know what, John?" The boy locked eyes with John, and the twisting intensified until John had to bite his lip to distract himself from the pain. "They deserved it."
"Shut up!" John screamed, tears escaping from the corners of his eyes and dripping onto his jeans. "You have no right to talk about them like that!"
"Oh, but I do." The boy took one hand out of his pocket and lazily inspected his fingernails, rubbing the nail of his index finger absently. "And do you know why?"
The tears were spilling heavily now, leaving hot, salty tracks down John's cheeks and turning his vision into a blurry mess. He couldn't speak, could barely breathe; his chest heaved painfully as he struggled for breath and tried to fight the debilitating panic threatening to consume him. He shook his head back and forth slowly, sobs ripping their way out of his throat and forcing his head down, his eyes away from the boy in front of him—but not in time to avoid seeing a lazy smirk spread across the boy's lips, curling them upwards tauntingly.
"Because I killed them."