The wind cut through John's jumper, and he hugged his arms to himself, the miniscule hairs on his skin rising to attention like miniature soldiers. Beside him, Sherlock's trench coat fluttered upwards as if attempting to take flight, and John caught a glimpse of pale ankle. The pavement, riddled with puddles that sloshed under their feet, quickly coated their shoes with a thick layer of grimy water. Ahead, red and blue flashing lights illuminated the rapidly darkening road, yellow caution tape cordoning off the crime scene. Sherlock, a few paces ahead of John, ducked under the tape and held it up for John to pass under. John did so, trying to ignore the pleasant feeling that sprung up in his chest whenever Sherlock did something like that: a little act of humanism.
Then, Sherlock commented, "I wonder what our murderer has left for us this time," and the moment was shattered. John's half-smile melted off of his face, and he cowered further into himself—only partly from the cold.
A small group of adults clustered near a police cruiser, coffee cups clutched tightly in their gloved hands. As Sherlock and John neared them, their footsteps ringing out through the street, some of them turned, and John distinguished a woman with wavy black hair and a man with a tight-pinched face. They both scowled at the sight of the two boys approaching them, the woman rolling her eyes and setting her coffee cup on the hood of the cruiser. "You've got to be kidding me," the man remarked, his voice more biting than the wind. "They called you?"
"This is a real case, Anderson," Sherlock said, his voice edging towards mocking, but only slightly. "Of course they called me."
"Lestrade," the woman cut in, spitting the name out like it was poison. She sauntered next to Anderson, regarding the two of them with contempt. "He brings in children to do adults' work." She squinted at John. "Who're you? His boyfriend?" She nodded towards Sherlock, smirking. Next to her, Anderson guaffed. The sound reminded John of the donkeys on his neighbors' farm back in Scotland: harsh and grating.
"Hardly," Sherlock replied, seemingly oblivious to the intended insult. Beside him, John felt his cheeks begin to burn and thanked God for the rapid darkening of the roadway. The sun had set a half an hour before, and night had begun to set in over London. The perfect atmosphere for a murder. "John Watson, Sally Donovan and Anderson." He curled his lip at Anderson.
"Does he have a first name?" John stammered, not quite sure what else to say.
Anderson opened his mouth to speak, but Sherlock beat him to it. "No." He swept away in a swish of dark blue turned black by the night, leaving John slightly stunned and still reeling from Sally's boyfriend comment.
Maybe because it reminded him of Mary.
No. He promised himself he wouldn't think about any of them, any of the people he'd left behind in Scotland. Especially not her, with her soft blonde pixie cut and grey-blue eyes, like the rolling ocean, observed from the secluded spot under the boardwalk where they first kissed—
"Hey," Sally said loudly, breaking John from his trance. He blinked rapidly to banish the memories, regarding the black-haired woman in front of him. With Sherlock gone, she leaned in closer to Anderson, almost unintentionally—like he was the sun and she Venus, the two connected by an invisible force stronger than anything. Despite the ghosts of John's memories, he couldn't stop the small smile that rose to his lips. "You two—you and Sherlock—you aren't friends, are you?"
John considered Sally's preposition. Were he and Sherlock friends? What, exactly, transitioned a relationship from flatmates to acquaintances to actual friends? Was it finding jobs for one another? Calling in favors? Trusting someone to investigate a murder—a string of murders—with you? John didn't know. Sherlock didn't seem like a friend. "I'm not quite sure," he decided finally, the question still turning itself over in his mind.
"Don't be." John glanced up sharply. Sally's eyes fixed themselves on John's, soft yet intense at the same time. "Sherlock Holmes, he's…"
"He's a psychopath," Anderson finished, and John's heart began to hammer in his chest. The word 'psychopath' rang through the air between them, vibrating in his bones long after every remnant of the sound of it dissipated. Images flashed through his mind's eye—Sherlock's wide grin at the mere mention of corpses, his elation at the discovery of a pattern in the murders, the way he wandered around in a sort of sulky haze during the absence of a case—and John took an involuntary step backwards. "He's a bloody psychopath," Anderson repeated, and John swallowed sharply.
"I don't think," John said carefully, "that Sherlock's the type to have friends." He nodded at the pair of them, first to Sally, then Anderson, before brushing past them and following Sherlock into the heart of the crime scene, a foul taste coating his mouth.
John found Sherlock right where he expected: crouched over the body of the victim, expert white-gloved hands hovering over her stomach without so much as a tremor. A few feet away, Lestrade stood with his hand stroking his chin absentmindedly, and John was about to join him when Sherlock spoke up. "John, come here."
John cast a glance at Lestrade, who, after a moment's hesitation, nodded his assent. "Just put these on," he instructed, passing John a pair of milky-white Latex gloves. John pulled them on quickly, feeling the powder on the inside ghost over his skin, and then crouched next to Sherlock. He couldn't stop his eyes from sliding over to glance at the other boy, taking in the sharp, pale cheekbones and the dark, contrasting curls that spilled messily over the sides of his face. Was this porcelain doll really a psychopath?
Icy blue eyes darted over to meet John's, and he looked away quickly, embarrassment flooding his system. He swallowed all poor attempts at an explanation for his actions and instead set to examining the body.
While John didn't have an ounce of secondary medical schooling in him, the brief classes he'd taken while in high school plus his experiences at St. Bart's lent him the ability to make a relatively accurate—albeit simple—observation about the body in front of him, a woman who looked to be in her thirties—the killer's M.O. Her face was startlingly pale, almost as pale as Sherlock's; her pale green eyes, wide open and staring up at the sky lifelessly, were sunken into their sockets. "Overall, she looks malnourished," John concluded, feeling stupid as soon as he said it. Of course she was malnourished—she was dead. He sat back on his heels and, putting aside his pride, shrugged. "What do you see?"
Sherlock's eyes were still on John, and he began to feel quite uncomfortable. Finally, when he wasn't sure if he could handle the intensity any longer, Sherlock returned his attention to the body in front of them, gesturing to it with both hands. "Woman, mid-thirties. Malnourished would be an accurate diagnosis—were she alive. However, dead, I would associate her pale skin with blood loss." He spread his hands over her stomach, fingers almost brushing against her black blazer. "Desk job, two dogs—collie and…huskie—and one child. Based on our killer's preferences, I would guess a faceless employee in a big business."
"Melanie Harvey," Lestrade called from the side, and John glanced over his shoulder to see the older man grasping a manila folder in his hands, leafing through the contents with the skilled hands of a trained, experienced professional. "A customer-service receptionist in Gregory and Boris Financial. 35 years old, married with a 2-year-old son." He regarded Sherlock with no surprise at the boy's accuracy; John, however, allowed himself to marvel for a moment at Sherlock's brilliance, forgetting about the body and the killer and the flashing lights around them. How could someone this intelligent be a psychopath?
Intelligence has nothing to do with it, a small voice in John's head whispered, but he pushed it away, instead concentrating on Sherlock. He, at the moment, had his fingers gripping one of Melanie's plastic buttons, slipping it with some effort through the hole and loosening the jacket's hold on her still chest. As the black blazer slowly came undone, revealing a starched white shirt underneath it, John sucked in a breath.
Blood, dark and thick, soaked the undershirt so densely that one could hardly tell it was white. Hidden by the dark suit coat, the full extent of her injuries came to light as Sherlock pushed the jacket out of the way, eyes scanning the body in front of him at lightning speed. He must have discerned something through the mess of blood and fabric in front of him because the next thing John knew Sherlock began to work on the smaller buttons of the undershirt, starting from the bottom and working upward. If it had been anyone else, John would have protested the violation of the woman, but he hardly thought Sherlock's intentions were anything other than purely focused on the injuries.
"Oh," John gasped suddenly, leaning forward to get a better look at the woman's stomach, which Sherlock had just uncovered fully. "Oh, my God."
Blood covered everything; her skin shone with the liquid, bathed an almost unnatural scarlet. John never would have believed such extensive injuries were even possible had he not seen them himself in that very moment. Slowly, deliberately, Sherlock reached forward and began to trace the outline of something on her mutilated stomach, pushing the blood away in smears that would have made anyone queasy. John suppressed his nausea and watched, more out of fear than curiosity, as Sherlock cleared the blood away bit by bit.
Then, words emerged, cut in through skin, fat, and muscle in clean lines and corners. John felt his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth, his throat suddenly very, very dry. Still, he managed to read the words aloud, his voice filling the suddenly stifling air around him. "Now that I have your attention, let's play. Remember: white always leads. 12 hours. Too slow, and he dies." John's voice wavered, and he stopped abruptly, swallowing repeatedly in an attempt to rid himself of the tight knot in his throat.
"Who's 'he'?" Lestrade asked, his question floating in from outside an invisible bubble that had seemed to surround Sherlock and John, sealing them away from the external world.
John tried to respond that he didn't know, but he choked on the words. Never in his life had John ever felt more afraid—for whoever 'he' was, for all the people on the killer's hit list, for himself, even for Sherlock—and it made him feel so pathetic and weak, especially next to Sherlock, whose fear—if he possessed any—never seemed to get the better of him. John didn't even know why he cared so much what Sherlock thought of him—Sherlock was his flatmate, nothing more. John had told Sally and Anderson the truth: Sherlock wasn't the type to have friends, especially not someone like John, who cared so much about other people and feared for their lives more than his own, who, whenever he lost someone, lost a part of himself in the process. From what John knew of Sherlock, a boy made of blue fire and ice, other people were simply there, existing side-by-side with him, never quite touching Sherlock the way people had the ability to touch John.
John found himself suddenly, inexplicable grateful for this distance when Sherlock took the words out of John's mouth. "The killer's next victim." He stood abruptly, peeling the gloves off his hands in one smooth motion that John could never hope to replicate. "He wants a game—that's why this is timed; 12 hours to find this man and save his life."
"And so we're white, then," Lestrade said, attempting to make the connection for himself. "Because we're the good guys."
"Wrong," Sherlock said, and Lestrade raised one bushy eyebrow. "The power is in his hands. He holds the advantage over us—the time limit, the body count, the secret of the game, it's all his." The corner of his mouth twitched, and John saw a brief return to the joy Sherlock got from all of this, the little bit of psychopath in him leaking through cracks in the ice. "He's the white knight, and white always leads."
The smile grew a bit, letting just a bit more of Sherlock's elation emerge, and John began to see how Sherlock could be black.
John's finger hovered over the call button, his hand shaking just enough that if he brought the two any closer together, he'd accidentally press the green rectangle and the choice wouldn't be his anymore. A few agonizing moments passed, the silence in 221B filled with everything and nothing at the same time, and then John threw his phone across the room in one fluid motion. It bounced off of the flowered couch and hit the floor screen-down, but John didn't move to see if it had cracked. Instead, he curled his knees up on the armchair and buried his head in his arms, closing his eyes and facing the black of the backs of his eyelids.
As soon as he and Sherlock had returned back to 221B, John beyond frozen from the gale-force winds whipping incessant rain into his face, Sherlock had holed up in his room without a word, sweeping piles of papers and several laptops in with him and slamming the door as a goodbye. John had stared at the closed door for a moment before fixing himself a makeshift dinner of undercooked Ramen noodles and pre-cooked deli chicken and settling himself in front of the television. After a few episodes of Grey's Anatomy, his eyes had started to droop, and the next thing he knew it was the middle of the night and he was jerking awake, his heart pounding heavily in his chest.
Mary. She'd led him here, filling his dreams with her face, her mouth shaping words that begged and cried and made John want to crumple at her feet and apologize for everything. He’d gone so far as to bring up her contact, but the guilt kept him from going through with the call.
He knew that it wasn't her fault. None of this was her fault, of course not. From the start, he'd never blamed her for anything, not once. Himself, however—that was a different animal entirely, a beast with long fangs and claws that sliced painfully. He couldn't let her get caught in the crossfire, so he'd let her go. He still remembered the day when he'd confessed to her that he was moving to London, seeing the hurt expression on her delicate face.
"But why?" she'd asked for what had seemed like thousands of time, the words cutting into his heart every time like knives into hot butter. Her lip would wobble, and he'd almost go running straight back into her arms.
Almost. "Because a family friend lives there," he'd explain time and time again, the excuse seeming weaker and weaker each time he uttered it. "Ms. Hudson. She owns a building—I'm renting a flat from her."
"That's how," Mary had protested, grabbing John's broad shoulders with her long-fingered hands. They were pale and knobby, just like Sherlock's—the hands of a pianist or violinist, though Mary was completely and utterly tone-deaf. "I just need to know why. Why are you leaving me?"
John had remained silent every time because saying the truth would hurt too much. He couldn't put into words the pain he felt seeing everything at home and knowing that his life had been torn apart by some horrible universal force. Everything reminded him of them, and looking at it all and remembering the night he came home from his date with Mary to find them…
John gasped, ripping himself out of the memories with an almost super-human force. He couldn't call Mary, not if it made him feel like this. Besides, calling her would just reopen old wounds that needed time and separation to heal. Contacting her wouldn't allow the space she needed to cut her ties with John and continue on with her life. That was what John really wanted, deep down beneath the hurt and the pain and the loss: for Mary to find happiness, with or without John.
Suddenly weary beyond belief, John sank back down in the armchair and curled up even tighter. His phone still lit up across the room, Mary's undialed number flashing on the screen, the world faded away around John as he succumbed to a deep sleep that not even the vivid memories of his past could penetrate.