John had to park twelve blocks away from the convention center, pulling in between a bright red sports car and a very out-of-place rusty pick-up truck. Shutting off the purring engine was a relief and a curse all at the same time: for one, it meant that finally the awkward silence between him and Sherlock during the drive over would dissipate; but on the other hand, a new kind of quiet crept into the absence of engine noise.
Sherlock reached for the door handle, preparing to let in the gale-force winds from outside, but John quickly said, "Wait!"
Sherlock paused mid-motion, his hand hovering on the silver handle, and John cleared his throat, the noise seeming too loud in the close quarters of the car. "Look, I know you like me to figure things out for myself, but can you just tell me why we're here?" His words sounded tired even to his own ears, and John tried to remedy them by adding, "Don't tell me you're a Harry Potter fan."
Sherlock snorted. "Please. Magic? Ridiculous." He cracked open the car door and stepped out onto the sidewalk, the wind whipping his hair violently around his ears in a maelstrom of jet-black curls. From where John sat, he looked like a vengeful god, prepared to inflict his wrath upon all those not worthy of his grace. "I'll tell you on the way," he said, leaning into the car for a brief moment. His curls stilled and fell over his face, obscuring his dark blue eyes before he pushed the locks back impatiently. "32 minutes."
John barely had time to lock the car before they were sprinting, weaving their way through the London sidewalks and probably making bloody fools of themselves. John offered 'excuse us', 'pardon me', and 'sorry' enough for the both of them, dealing with the aftermath of Sherlock's beeline toward the convention center. By the time they reached the doors, the throngs of people had become so tightly packed that John was sure Sherlock would be forced to stop, at least slow down. Fans stood in close-knit clumps, some in street clothes, even more adorned with robes and wands and more than a few lightning bolts on foreheads; a line stretched out into the large concrete plaza in front of the center, despite filtering in through at least five doors. Nobody seemed to be moving anywhere, and John's heart sank. 25 minutes, a voice in his head reminded him, sounding suspiciously like Sherlock.
Sherlock. With a start, John realized that, somehow, the other boy had slipped in among the crowds, his dark curls lost among thousands of black, wavy-haired wigs. Heart hammering—24 minutes—John elbowed his way through the masses, tenderly at first and then with more vigor, the stopwatch inside his head counting down every precious second.
"Hey!" someone protested as John slipped inside one of the doorways, sucking in his stomach to fit in between the doorframe and a portly kid dressed as Cedric Diggery. "No cutting!"
John ignored him, breaking free into the wide, open cavern of the convention center with a relieved gasp. Inside, the fans scattered the floor all the way to the edges, but the gaps between them were wide enough for John to dart through with ease.
He wanted to call Sherlock's name, shout it loud enough that it would resonate through the entire center and the other boy would have to listen, to at least acknowledge John, but the ambient noise filling the air to the brink would have stifled his cries. John cursed Sherlock's silence—the other boy could have at least told him the plan so John knew where to go—and tried to think.
Think. Out of breath, John paused next to an information kiosk—20 minutes—and tried to picture things like Sherlock did. Stupid, stupid, John mentally cursed, partially himself, partially Sherlock. 19 minutes.
"Excuse me," a small voice piped up, and John glanced over at the information kiosk. A small girl with a Slytherin scarf wrapped tightly around her neck leaned over the counter slightly, studying John curiously. "Do you need help with something?"
Wondering if he looked like the kind who needed help, John hesitated a millisecond before crossing a cross-stream of people and approaching the kiosk. "I just lost my… the person I was with." 18 minutes. He couldn't conjure up a smile. "I'm not sure if that's something you can help with."
She bit her lip. "What did this person look like?"
"Um…" John struggled for anything other that 'black, curly hair, blue eyes'. "Probably running, dark blue trench coat and scarf… high cheekbones?"
The girl was silent for ten agonizing seconds, silently mouthing something to herself. Slowly, she shook her head. "I'm sorry," she said, her eyes meeting John's, and he could see she really meant it; her eyebrows turned down at the outer edges, eyes widening slightly, face softening. Seeing the destroyed expression that must have made itself painstakingly obvious on his face, she slapped on a sympathetic smile and pushed a piece of blue printer paper across the counter towards him. "But hey—if he's any sort of fan, he's probably at one of these things." She jabbed a finger at the paper; her fingernails had black nail polish painted on them, accented by a gold stripe horizontally across each one. "I recommend the chess game—did you know the pieces they have are to scale with the ones used in the movie?" She leaned against the side of the kiosk, green eyes lighting up with admiration. "At least six feet tall, every one of them—even the pawns. Almost like playing chess with actual people as the pieces."
John glanced down at the blue piece of paper, where the girl's finger had been pointing. 'JOIN THE FUN IN AN EPIC GAME OF LIFE-SIZED CHESS – LEFT ATRIUM, FIRST FLOOR', with a picture of two chess pieces beneath it—one white, one black.
"White always leads," John breathed, the facts clicking together all at once like pieces of a puzzle. 17 minutes. He glanced up sharply, fisting the paper in his hand. "Where's the left atrium?"
The girl pointed to John's right. "Down that aisle, all the way to the end. You can't miss it."
"Thanks," John said, already in motion.
"No problem!" she called after him, but her words were lost in the mix of thousands of others all mingling together into white noise. Scattered bits of conversation whipped past John's ears, excited words exchanged between friends or vendors attempting to attract fans to their booths. As his lungs heaved and his legs burned, John skidded through an archway labeled 'LEFT ATRIUM' and headed towards the roar of hundreds of voices, renewing his frantic search for his flatmate with more vigor.
"Sherlock!" John dared to shout, stopping because what else could he do? The journey had ended; the end, before only in the distance, was here; not five feet in front of John, a massive chessboard spread across the concrete floor, adorned with equally as massive pieces. He spun in a circle, earning plenty of curious stares, but John could only concentrate on the blood rushing in his ears and the clock ticking away in his head. 13 minutes. "Sherlo—!"
"Shh!" Someone slapped their hand over John's mouth, and he panicked, thrashing back and forth like a fish out of water, going so far as to bite the fingers smothering him. "Bloody Hell, John," the owner of the hand swore without letting go, and through the fog in John's head, he groggily recognized the voice.
"Sherlock," John tried to say, but it came out more as, "Mhm-mch." Through supreme effort, John managed to calm himself enough that Sherlock cautiously removed his hand from John's mouth, and he turned to face the other boy.
Sherlock looked at his hand, where John's teeth had left a deep, red half-moon, and then back up at John's face. His eyebrows creased slightly—confusion? John did a double take. No, not confusion: intrigue. Nonetheless, something John had never seen Sherlock exhibit yet towards any human other than a serial killer.
12 minutes. John sucked in a breath, looking up at Sherlock with wild eyes. "12 minutes, Sherlock. Tell me, now. What are we going to do?"
Not who's missing. If—no, when—they saved him, that question would answer itself. Not where is he—that part, at least, John understood, or at least he thought he did. Not even what's going on—John had plenty of time to catch up to Sherlock, if that was even possible, but later. The life of whomever this serial killer—this bastard—had put at risk hung in the balance, and despite only knowing Sherlock a little more than a week, John knew Sherlock could save him.
Sherlock's eyes locked on the chessboard behind John, his jaw muscles tightening. He reminded John in that moment of a sort of soldier, a porcelain figure standing atop a hill and watching the battalions below, analyzing the situation and predicting the grim outcome. John wondered, briefly, if Sherlock would make a good soldier, and then dismissed the thought as immediately as it had come. If he knew anything about Sherlock, it was that his flatmate was not one to follow orders. He was the one to give them.
John blinked at Sherlock, his heart hammering in his chest. "What?" Maybe he'd heard Sherlock wrong—he couldn't have just said what John thought he had.
Sherlock pointed over John's shoulder, and John turned his head to focus on the chessboard, where two teams of 16 stood on opposite ends of the board, each person assigned to one chess piece. "White always leads," he said, taking a few steps forward to stand at John's side. "That's what our killer said, right? 'White always leads.' So, we watch."
"For what?" John hissed, tired of Sherlock's vague answers. "I am not going to stand by and watch as someone dies, Sherlock!"
"Shh," Sherlock said, nodding his head towards the chessboard. "It's starting."
John grit his teeth so hard his jaw throbbed. "If he dies," John said, so softly he wasn't even sure if Sherlock would hear it, "I will never forgive you."
For a moment, John thought he saw hurt flash across Sherlock's face, but he blinked and it vanished. "You wouldn't be the first," he said, voice flat and emotionless.
A wall of noise rose from the crowd, silencing any response John might have conjured. He craned his neck to see over the undulating sea of people in front of him, and beside him, Sherlock breathed, "It's starting."
Between the heads, John saw a girl clutching the top of a white pawn advance, pushing her chess piece two squares forward. John braced himself, not exactly sure what he expected to happen—an explosion, maybe, or gunshots—but the only result was a roar of appreciation from the fans crowding around the white side.
"What's happening?" John asked. "Sherlock, 8 minutes."
Suddenly, Sherlock took off, darting through the crowd, elbowing people to the side and earning quite a few glares and exclamations of annoyance. With a muttered curse, John pursued him, apologizing vehemently as he pushed past flailing arms and jostling bodies.
John froze; around him, people stilled, their cheers dying on their lips. Standing in the center of the chessboard, his arms spread wide as if holding back an invisible force, Sherlock regarded the masses, his eyes burning with hot blue fire. "I'm with the Metropolitan Police Service," he said, producing a badge from the depths of his blue coat and waving it around for the people standing closest to see. "I'll be conducting this game now."
Murmurs swept through the crowd, disbelieving looks cast between people. "Get off the board!" someone demanded, and John heard a few voice their assent.
"You," Sherlock said, whipping around and pointing at a tall boy with long brown hair falling just past his ears holding a black pawn. "Move forward one space."
"Why should I listen to you?" the boy asked. "Sherlock Holmes, right?"
Sherlock, in five long strides, crossed the black-and-white squares and paused next to the boy. He said something in his ear, his bow-shaped lips moving ever so slightly, and then pulled back. After a moment of worrying his bottom lip with his teeth, the boy nodded, stepping forward and sliding his pawn forward one space.
The arena buzzed with quiet words exchanged, all blending together into a noise like the sound of waves crashing against one another. Sherlock ignored the whispers, returning to the center of the chessboard and glancing towards the white side. "I would give you instructions, but you already have them, don't you?" he said, his voice barely carrying over the din.
In response, a boy holding another pawn took a step forward, advancing his piece one square. John, who had been slowly weaving his way through the crowd so as to get closer to the chessboard while Sherlock had talked, finally paused next to the edge of the board, nearer to the white pieces than the black. He saw Sherlock hold the boy's gaze for a few seconds before the boy broke contact, fixing his eyes on the pawn.
"Pawn to B6," Sherlock ordered.
John's heart felt like it had risen to his throat, throbbing against his windpipe as the players moved their pieces around the board, the blacks per Sherlock's hastily given instructions from the side. Minutes flew by, no matter how hard John tried to hold onto them, and the number of pieces on the board dwindled rapidly. As soon as Sherlock took out a white castle with his knight, a bishop emerged out of nowhere and eliminated his knight. Almost impossibly, Sherlock seemed challenged—whoever it was that controlled the white pieces, he was intelligent enough to rival Sherlock's intellect. Someone like that, fighting against them—
John rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands. 2 minutes. On the chessboard, Sherlock claimed the last of the white pawns. Three moves later, he lost his other castle. The game was flying by at break-neck pace; John could practically see the gears in Sherlock's head turning as he fired off command after rapid-fire command, leaving no room for rest. The players looked frazzled; who wouldn't be, John thought, pity rising up inside him. They hadn't asked for this; they'd simply come for a chess game, not this… duel.
"King to G3!"
John watched a blonde-haired girl dressed as Luna Lovegood push the king one square, her black heels sliding slightly against the sleek surface. The whole crowd fell silent as Sherlock raised his chin, looking for all the world like an avenging angel. "Checkmate."
The white king stood alone, the frail boy next to it searching frantically for a square to move into. The queen in G2 and the king in G3 watched him, their faces shining with sweat, and after a few agonizing moments, the boy nodded slowly. "Checkmate," he repeated softly, his voice shaking.
The white king toppled over, hitting the chessboard with a hollow thud just as John's mental stopwatch reached 0. John locked eyes with Sherlock, and despite Sherlock's victory, John braced himself for the worst.
Then, somewhere, someone started clapping slowly, the harsh sound ripping through the still air and making John's heart jump in his chest. Within seconds, the entire hall resonated with applause, the sound bouncing off of the concrete walls and echoing in John's ears.
Almost giddy with relief, John started towards Sherlock, but before he could take more than two steps across the chessboard, somebody darted in front of him—the frail boy, the white king—with wide, panicked eyes. "Get it off!" he sobbed, grabbing John's arm and squeezing it, his nails digging in painfully. "Please, get it off!"
"Get what off?" John croaked, all of his fear returning like a slap in the face. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sherlock crossing the chessboard. His slow strides morphed into a sprint, so he was there by John's side when the boy pulled down the neck of his black Hogwarts-style robe, hands shaking vigorously, to reveal a tight metal collar hugging his neck.
"Oh my God," John exclaimed, putting his knuckles to his mouth, but Sherlock was shaking his head, reaching for the collar.
"No," he said, his fingers brushing against the metal. "I won the game. This should be deactivated."
The boy shook his head, tears welling up in his eyes. "Please," he whimpered. "I don't want to die."
"Nobody wants to die," Sherlock said, moving to examine the back of the collar with a steady calmness that stupefied John. "Such a silly fear, seeing as it's unavoidable."
"Maybe now is not the best time to discuss this?" John warned, giving Sherlock a pointed look.
Sherlock sighed, and then in one deft motion, he pulled the collar from the boy's neck. "Your lack of faith insults me."
The boy gasped, a tear dribbling down his cheek, and he turned his watery eyes towards John. "Thank you!" he exclaimed, his voice hitching. He let out a choked laugh, his fingers touching the pale skin of his neck. "Thank you!"
John's heart swelled. Beside him, Sherlock rolled his eyes. "Please. I wasn't going to let you die. Imagine the mess."
John bit back a laugh when he recognized the lack of humor in Sherlock's tone, clearing his throat to cover for it. Around them, people were clustered together tightly, their words mixing into white noise; Sherlock, John, and the boy had just been another group, unnoticed by the others. John almost laughed again at the obliviousness of them all. It was the adrenaline, he decided, making him so unbelievably giddy; now that everything was okay and nobody's life hung in the balance, everything just seemed so happy, to the point where John thought he would burst.
Sherlock, it seemed, had no such problem. "Can you tell me anything about whoever put this on your neck?" he urged, staring at the boy intensely.
The boy bit his lip, his smile fading slowly, and John's did too as he saw fear return to the boy's eyes. "I-," the boy stammered, gaze flashing back and forth between John and Sherlock rapidly. "I- I'm sorry!"
He backed up a few steps, almost tripping over the edge of his robe, before turning and fleeing, pushing his way into the crowd and disappearing almost instantly among hundreds of other black robes. Beside John, Sherlock swore, taking a few steps in the direction the boy had gone before whipping back around to face John.
"This killer likes games, John. He gave white the orders back on that chessboard, and he lost."
"So does that mean we're done?" John ventured, hope rising in his chest. Maybe then, they could forget all about this: the murders and the numbers and his parents…
Everything came crashing down inside of John; he sucked in a breath, feeling the hope trickle out of his system.
"In fact," Sherlock continued, holding the metal collar in front of his face and turning it slowly in his pale hands, "I think we've just begun."