"Maybe you should be more careful with that," John pointed out, eyeing the collar in Sherlock's hands nervously.
Sherlock wedged the screwdriver deeper into the edge of the collar. "Relax, John."
"Relax?" John gulped as Sherlock wiggled the screwdriver back and forth, feeling his heartbeat rise to his throat, throbbing painfully. "You're dismantling a bloody bomb."
With a pop, the collar opened like a flayed fish, exposing rainbow wires and circuit boards. John braced himself, making his final amends to God, but the only reaction was a small sigh from Sherlock. When John cracked open one eye—he hadn't even realized he'd closed them—he almost choked on his own spit.
A smile. An actual smile, rising faintly to Sherlock's lips like some creature poking its head out from hibernation after an extremely long winter. "You should have seen your face."
John sat, speechless, for the better half of a minute as Sherlock poked through the mess of wires, the smile somehow remaining stubbornly on his lips. When he finally spoke, it was only to mutter under his breath, "You cock," which only made Sherlock's grin intensify.
John shook his head and looked back down at his laptop, continuing his work. The tip-tap of keys pierced the silence as John entered in names and conditions, diagnosing mock illnesses—and maybe some real ones. "We'll scatter some real cases within the practice ones," Dr. Sawyer had explained, "so be alert."
Of course, John hadn't been able to resist asking about the convention. As soon as he mentioned it, he instantly regretted it: her eyes darkened, her smile dropping quickly, her fingers stilling against the keyboard. "God, it was horrible." She pressed her face into her palms, and John's stomach twisted painfully.
"What happened?" he asked, feigning ignorance.
Dr. Sawyer sighed, lowering her hands and shaking her head. "Not one move into the game, Sherlock Holmes takes it upon himself to stop the entire game and then has the gall to tell my son off!"
The black pawn. John remembered Sherlock's pale lips hovering next to the boy's ear, whispering, and he swallowed the shame rising inside him. "How awful," he managed, doing his best to sound sympathetic.
"I spoke to administration after, but they gave me some crap about "police authority"." She sighed, the papers on her desk fluttering. "I really wouldn't be this upset, but Harrison cried—actually cried—on the way home." She bit her lip. "I haven't seen him cry since he broke his wrist last year."
John couldn't stand the guilt anymore, so he murmured his condolences and made a half-baked excuse for leaving her office, avoiding her for the rest of his shift. If she suspected anything, she didn't show it, nodding to him in passing like nothing had happened. It took all John had to nod and smile back.
"Sherlock," John blurted, his mouth retreating from the memory faster than his mind. "Back at the convention…"
Sherlock's eyes were on him now, intense spears of ice that made John shiver, and he had to struggle to get out the rest of his sentence. "Were you thinking about the kids?"
Sherlock's forehead creased. "Do you mean in terms of playing the game?" The bomb now lay on his lap, his hands stilled in midair over it.
"No." John drummed his fingers on his laptop keyboard, not wanting to ask Sherlock outright but failing to find an alternate route. "I mean… if you had lost, a lot of people would have died."
"Yes." Sherlock turned his attention back to the bomb, grabbing a pair of wire cutters from the couch next to him. "But I didn't lose."
"But if you had," John repeated more forcefully, closing his laptop. "Would you have cared?"
Sherlock paused mid-snip. The silence stretched on, filling John's ears with an uncomfortable ringing and stifling him to the point of stealing his breath away, so he spoke again, his words seeming disconnected from his body, floating in air like helium balloons. "You act as if you don't care, going about this case like it's some big game. People have died, and more will die unless we stop this killer, this psychopath." The unspoken words resonated even heavier than the spoken ones: the involvement of John's parents, the way the killer was taunting them—and how the finale was yet to come, destined to be even more spectacular than the chess game.
Despite all of John's accusations about Sherlock's lack of compassion, Sherlock seemed to understand John's agitation, centered around something John himself wasn't ready to admit, because he set down his wire cutters and stood, grabbing his coat off of the stand by the door and slipping his arms through the dark sleeves. "I'm heading to the police station," he said, pocketing the bomb collar. A single red wire stuck out from Sherlock's front pocket; John wanted to reach over and tuck it down. "Don't wait up."
Then, like a burst of wind, he ghosted out of the flat, the door slamming behind him as a sort of harsh farewell. John sank down in the armchair, letting the silence engulf him; faintly, he heard the patter of footsteps down the stairs, a few murmured words, and then the building vibrated slightly as the front door banged open and closed.
John stared at his computer, contemplating his awaiting paperwork with dull eyes, before climbing out of the chair with a surge of energy and shuffling to his bedroom. Fighting with Sherlock had taken something out of him, and the worst part was, he didn't even know why he had done it. They had almost had a good thing—Sherlock smiling, John only helping to fuel that smile, on the road to detailing the killer's next move—and John had chosen that moment to question Sherlock's character?
"Stupid," John lamented, flopping facedown on his bed and heaving a sigh into his pillow. He wasn't sure which guilt was hitting him now: the residual shame from at St. Bart's or the regret of having pushed away the only real pseudo-friend John had. As John's stomach twisted even more at the thought of Sherlock slowly taking that spot in John's heart, he knew it was the latter, which made it all the more worse. He couldn't lose anybody else.
"Stupid," John moaned again, this time with a hitch in his throat. He sucked in a rattling breath, fighting the memories, suppressing them with everything he had, but still they came like the waves of a tsunami crashing upon the coast, obliterating everything standing in their way, blinding John until all he saw was red.
And then black when he couldn't handle it any longer, smothering him with soft, fleshy hands, pushing him so far down the colors faded into nothing, evening John's breathing and sending him into a pitch sea uninterrupted by waves or any of the troubles of past, present, or future.
John heard the call through a fog, as if cotton balls had been stuffed in his ears. He raised his head out of the bliss of sleep for a brief moment, testing the waters, before sinking back under again with a small sigh.
"John, wake up!"
Something shook his shoulder, jostling John. It felt like marbles were rolling around in his head, clicking up against receptors and nerves; he groaned in protest.
"John, you're bleeding."
The words registered somewhere in John's brain; a part of him instantly awoke, scrambling desperately in an effort to search for the injury. The sleeping half proved too strong, pushing the other one down forcefully and reducing the brief paranoia to mild concern, expressed by a grunt of acknowledgement.
Footsteps away. Paused. Footsteps returning. Then, cold so intense it sent John spiraling, muscles jerking, eyes flashing open, pupils dilating, breath all coming out in one burst. He sputtered, watery rivulets streaking down his cheeks and trickling over his eyelashes, rolling over slightly and levering himself into a sitting position. "What the hell?" he protested, running a hand over his face in an effort to alleviate some of the water. He only managed to smear it.
John blinked up at the speaker, and it took a few moments for the blurry figure standing in front of him to resolve into Sherlock, sans coat, his black curls slick and sticking to his forehead. "My arms?" He raised his arms in front of him, blinking once or twice, and gasped.
Long scratch marks ran the length of the soft, pale underside of John's forearms, angry and red and jagged, dried blood running over the sides and fresh blood collecting near the cuts. John's hands started to tremble; when he raised them carefully, feeling his arms sting and burn, he saw chunks of skin stuck underneath his fingernails, and bile rose to the back of his throat.
"I did this?" he stammered, horrified by the mangling of his arms yet unable to look away, his eyes fixed and out of focus. "I don't- when—?"
And then, somewhere in the confusion, John remembered. His jaw fell slack, his whole body going numb, the pain of the scratches fading under realization. "Oh my God," he whispered, the images coming back to him with startling clarity. His mother, in the kitchen, stir-fry still sizzling on the stove. His father, halfway down the stairs, a black pistol lying near the railing. Both lying in pools of blood, their eyes open and lifeless like the very soul of them had been sucked out, leaving them dry shells of themselves. John's scream, ripping through the windows and doors and walls, the building pressure behind his eyes, the jolt when he fell to his knees beside his father, shaking his broad shoulders and sobbing. The lights flashing through the house, followed by a knock at the door John barely heard over the pounding of his own heart, the gun clenched tightly in his hands. Warm, unfamiliar hands against his cold, sweat-soaked skin and voices telling him he couldn't stay, offering condolences in flat, obligatory tones. Faces, faces, hands, voices, colors, lights, people, suits, more faces, all passing in front of John, all bouncing off of him like butterflies against glass. And then, the worst part: when he became so numb the pain just faded away, leaving him a shell, too, filled with what could pass as himself but really fell subject to the agony lying dormant inside.
Somehow, Sherlock had bandages now, gauze and medical tape and antiseptic, and he set quickly to work on John's arms while John watched, his horror numbing the pain of the rubbing alcohol. Through it all, Sherlock remained silent; he wrapped the bandages around John's arm deftly, long fingers securing the ends with tape, the only sounds being the faint whistling of air passing between lips and the rustling of gauze.
"We'll have to toss the bed sheets."
John started at Sherlock's voice, blinking at the other boy for a moment before glancing over his shoulder. Two crimson puddles, fully soaked into the comforter, sheets, and most likely mattress, filled John's vision, and he quickly looked away, casting his eyes downward so he didn't have to look at Sherlock.
John thought for a moment that he had said the words, apologizing for the part of him Sherlock had had to witness, the side that didn't have anything under control. It took him a beat to realize that Sherlock, his head turned towards the door, curls beginning to dry and fall loosely around his ears again, had said them, and a beat more to absorb them. By then, Sherlock had gone, leaving John with his hands palms-up, his head spinning, and his arms burning.
John stared at the bandages, already tainted with the first spots of blood soaking through, and swallowed. "I'm sorry, too."