Lestrade called around noon when John was in the middle of finishing his paperwork and studiously ignoring Sherlock, who was sitting across the room with a cup of herbal tea. The ringing echoed through the flat, penetrating the quiet for the first time in hours, and a few rings went by before John wordlessly stood, setting his laptop down on the floor, and flipped Sherlock's cell phone open. "Hello?"
"John." Lestrade seemed shocked to hear his voice. "Are you at the hospital? Is Sherlock there with you?"
John's stomach twisted. "No, I took the day off. We're in the flat."
"Both of you come down to Scotland Yard as quickly as possible." Lestrade sounded nervous, and John forgot his own situation for a moment.
"What's wrong?" he asked. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sherlock stand, and then the other boy was at his side, motioning for the phone.
John put the phone on speaker just as Lestrade spoke. "Bomb squad found something inside that collar Sherlock brought down yesterday—which by the way, could have gotten him arrested if I hadn't called in a favor with the chief. Bloody idiot."
"What did they find?" Sherlock cut in, seemingly oblivious to Lestrade's cutting remark.
A pause. "A clue," Lestrade said finally, his voice dry. "You like those sorts of things, right?"
"We'll be there," John said before Sherlock could respond. "Thanks, Lestrade."
"Greg," Lestrade corrected. "Sherlock just calls me by my last name because he can never remember my first."
"Greg," John repeated, the name sounding strange rolling off his tongue. "Okay."
Lestrade hung up first, leaving static in his wake, and John handed the phone off to Sherlock, who took it without so much as a second glance at John's wrists. John supposed he should be grateful that Sherlock wasn't making a big deal out of the whole thing; that was what he wanted, right? For Sherlock to stay apart from the maelstrom of bad memories and pitiful moments of weakness that John had accidently given him a window into the previous night?
John rubbed the bandages, feeling the soft fibers against the tips of his fingers, and sighed. He didn't know what he wanted.
"Come on," Sherlock said, brushing past John, his trench coat flapping around his legs. "I assume you're driving?"
John nodded, grabbing his keys off of the side table by the armchair. Then, because if Sherlock could just distance himself from everything, so could John: "How hard is it to remember 'Greg'?"
Sherlock sighed in exasperation. "His name isn't Greg. It's… Graham or Gavin or Geoff—something utterly ridiculous like that."
And, despite everything, John couldn't help but smile.
On the drive down to Scotland Yard, John contemplated turning on the radio, but he decided against it. Sherlock didn't seem like the type to listen to music. Instead, he settled with concentrating on the roadway and trying to ignore the awkward silence between the two of them. Had it always been awkward, or was it just because last night's events hung unspoken in the air like a dark, heavy cloud?
When John pulled into the parking lot at Scotland Yard, he parked the car and, after turning it off, glanced at Sherlock. Then, without giving himself a chance to turn back, he said, "I want you to forget about it."
Sherlock didn't need to ask what it was; he did, however, give John a curious look. "John, I—"
"No." John looked down at the steering wheel, saw his hands clenching the fake leather with white knuckles, and blew out a breath. "I know what I want. Just forget about everything, okay? This… this isn't something I can… I just need space to deal with myself."
"I'm not sure that's a good idea." If John hadn't known better, he would have thought that Sherlock actually sounded concerned for him. "You're not stupid, John; you know that it'll only get worse. You need help—"
"Well, it's not your decision," John spat, turning and meeting Sherlock's gaze with eyes full of fiery resistance. "So piss off." Then, before he could regret his words, John stormed out of the car and took long strides to the entrance of Scotland Yard, pushing through the door without a glance behind him to see if Sherlock had followed him. It wasn't until a secretary pointed him in the direction of Lestrade's office and he had traveled halfway there that he noticed the trembling of his hands or the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Lestrade stood as John entered his office. "Good, you're both here."
"Just get to it, Lestrade," Sherlock sighed from behind John.
"All right, fine." Lestrade frowned at Sherlock. "No need to be any surlier than usual." He picked up a plastic bag from his desk and extended it towards John; before he could grab it, a pale hand reached past him and plucked the bag out of Lestrade's hand.
John studied Lestrade's messy desk, keeping his eyes cast away from Sherlock. He didn't feel mad at Sherlock, exactly, at least not in the traditional way one feels anger towards another. It was more fear: fear of weakness, fear of closeness, fear of loss. Maybe John was mad at himself, hating his fear. Hating himself.
Reluctantly, John looked away from the desk and directed his gaze to Sherlock; the other boy extended the contents of the plastic bag—a creased piece of paper—to John. "Read this."
John took the paper from Sherlock and held it out in front of him. His breath caught in his throat before he even read the first word. "Is this…?" John didn't have to ask; the words scrawled across the page were just the right shade of crimson, the ends of each letter dripping down towards the bottom. He wanted to throw the paper on the ground; instead, he forced himself to read it, his eyes darting quickly across the page. By the time he finished, the shaking of his hands had increased dramatically; not able to maintain his grip on the paper anymore, he let it flutter to the ground, staring at it with eyes wide with horror. "No." He ran his hands through his hair, sinking down in the plush black armchair sitting in the corner. "This can't be happening."
Lestrade leaned forward over his desk. "So you know her?"
John swallowed sharply, running the words over and over in his mind. Mary Morstan will die unless John Watson comes alone to the place where it all began before the clock strikes midnight on the 14th.
"She's my… she was my…" John couldn't get the words out. He kept seeing the paper, the bloody letters inscribed across it, and he couldn't help the horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach that the blood belonged to her. He glanced up at Sherlock, not entirely sure what he was looking for in the other boy but knowing that he needed something. Otherwise, he wasn't sure if he could keep himself from falling apart all over again.
Sherlock took over for John without missing a beat. "Mary and John had a relationship before John left Scotland to live in London." It didn't matter that John had never told Sherlock a word about his old life; Sherlock spun the story out of clues and deductions, using each little part of John he'd collected through the past couple of weeks. "It was only a matter of time before the killer connected his victims to John's personal life."
"Why now?" Lestrade asked, and John would have thought that they were ignoring him, but he knew better. They were giving him the space he needed to breathe, to process. "What was the purpose of the first four victims?"
Sherlock began to pace, and the steady rhythm of his shoes on the ground helped to calm John's racing heart. "I originally thought of it as a game. The killer gives us a clue and a time, and we have to figure out the puzzle before the countdown hits zero. However, this is… an irregularity in the pattern. Every victim before had been in his or her mid-thirties with a near-insignificant desk job at a company that John's parents had ties to. They had all been left in places where they would be easily discovered. They all had a message of some sort carved onto their chests, the most obvious cause of death being blood loss from these carvings. The first three carvings acted as a summoning; the fourth one led us to the chess game." Sherlock pressed his fingers on either side of his nose, pressing up towards his eyes. "Why begin a game and suddenly change the rules?"
"Stop!" John demanded, slamming his hand on Lestrade's desk. His forearm throbbed with the impact, but he didn't care. His emotions were running high and wild; he couldn't even think past the screaming voice in his head. "This isn't a game, Sherlock!" Maybe he could have dealt before with the reality of a psychotic killer offing people using the parameters of some sort of pattern that made sense inside his twisted mind, but not now. Not when Mary's life was on the line.
"John—" Lestrade began, but Sherlock interrupted him.
"I understand that you care about Mary." Sherlock had a hardness to his eyes suddenly, like something John had said had struck a nerve deep inside of him and the only thing he could think to do was shut himself away from the world. "But you have to put aside your personal connections and focus. Otherwise, people will die." He said it like a fact, like the words shouldn't be weighted with so many emotions, like the word die was without connotation.
John wanted to scream at Sherlock. He wanted to expel all his terror, all of his fear and anger and frustration, in one mighty argument with the boy who didn't seem to care about anything at all, but before the words could escape his lips, he saw out of the corner of his eye the bandages on his wrists. They stuck out slightly from the under the sleeves of his light spring jacket, the white a stark contrast against the dark tan, and suddenly, John only felt guilt. It weighed at him, making him tired beyond belief, and he knew he sounded worn-down and pathetic when he said, "I can't. It may seem like a weakness to you, but to me, it's a sign that I'm human. I can't lose that part of myself any more than I can lose Mary." He swallowed, trying not to get emotional, and glanced down at the bandages again. Sherlock followed his gaze, watching John as he fiddled with the cuffs of his jacket, before John spoke again, not taking his eyes off of his wrists. "That's why I'm going to go."
"No!" Sherlock and Lestrade exclaimed at the same time. Lestrade shot a surprised glance at Sherlock as Sherlock continued, "That's what the killer wants. We should wait and think this through."
John shook his head. "There's no time. As soon as the clock strikes midnight tonight, she's… she's gone." He couldn't say dead. He cared too much to say dead. Gone was so much easier. It was like a promise, like a 'see you later' or a 'until next time', instead of a finality. "Besides, it's not your choice. It's mine."
"But you're making the wrong choice," Sherlock pressed, and John had never seen him so animated, not even when confronted with a dead body or mid-deduction. "There has to be something." He grabbed the letter off of the floor and scanned it with quick, darting eyes, as if searching for a hidden meaning among the letters. "Some sort of clue or deception." His rich blue eyes shot up to meet John's. "Where is 'the place where it all began'?"
It took John a beat to realize that Sherlock was actually asking him a question, expecting a response from John that the other boy didn't yet know. John felt his hope crumble when he admitted, "I don't know."
"Well, then you very well can't go rushing off to rescue your girlfriend," Lestrade pointed out.
She's not my girlfriend, a small voice inside John's head whispered. Not anymore. He didn't speak his thoughts, however. Instead, he tried to think. The clue had to have been designed for him, a reference to something that only he would know. He heard Sherlock tell him to think, felt the other boy's heavy eyes boring into him, but the outside world was lost as John delved into his memories, careful to skirt around the ones he couldn't bear to face.
It wasn't until John and Sherlock returned home to the flat and Sherlock retreated into his room that it finally came to John, like a spark had finally caught and ignited a roaring fire from where there had once only been darkness and cold. He sat up in his armchair, abandoning his laptop, and grabbed his car keys off of the side table. He paused outside Sherlock's room, his flatmate's last words to him ringing in his ears—"Don't do anything foolish, John. Come to me once you figure out where Mary is and we can come up with a plan."—before biting his lip and moving past, over to the door. He knew Sherlock excelled at many things—certainly more than John could ever hope to—and that maybe he could come up with some grand scheme and save the day, but John couldn't take the risk that the killer could come out on top and he could lose Mary. A swell of fear overtook John for a moment, and he paused with one hand on the doorknob, the other reaching unconsciously towards the bandages on his wrist. He bit his lip harder, small spikes of pain shooting through his nerves, and turned the doorknob.
"I thought we agreed that you wouldn't go alone."
John hadn't heard the other boy sneak up behind him, but instead of startling, he simply closed his eyes and sighed. "You agreed to that."
Sherlock huffed out a breath. "Details."
John turned to face Sherlock. The other boy stood just over a foot away from John, his arms at his sides, his eyes hard. John ran his hands through his hair and crossed the flat, stopping just before the armchair and whipping around to face Sherlock again. "I need to go, Sherlock." The waning light outside cast dark shadows across Sherlock's face, so John might've imagined the concern that flashed across Sherlock's face, making his eyebrows turn downwards for a moment before the stoicism set in again. "I can't ask you to understand. I can just ask you to let me go."
"It's not logical. There are too many loose variables."
John pressed his thumbs to his eyes and took a few steps closer to Sherlock. "Just… I don't know what I'll do if I lose her."
Sherlock paused. Then, he took a step closer to John, close enough that John could feel the proximity as prickles against his skin. He tilted his head upwards slightly to see Sherlock's eyes peering down at him, and then John knew the concern of earlier had been real because here it was again, along with something else John couldn't quite place, filling Sherlock's eyes to the brim. "You can't live your entire life afraid of loss. You'll only end up hurt." His tone of voice betrayed his eyes; it remained flat and factual, but still, John couldn't help but feel the words resonate deep inside of him. It almost made him turn back, listen to Sherlock's words, and cling to the small hope that they could save Mary without fulfilling the killer's request.
John's hands, which had wandered slowly behind his back and searched the side table while Sherlock had spoken, closed around a thick, rectangular object. "I'm sorry," he whispered, really meaning it, and Sherlock barely had time to register his words before John swung the book around with his right hand and slammed it into the side of Sherlock's head, just shy of his temple. A brief look of surprise flashed across Sherlock's face before he dropped like a stone, crumpling to the ground with only the slightest of exhalations. John let the book tumble to the ground next to his friend—the friend he'd just knocked out, lord help him—his stomach clenching with heavy guilt. "I'm so, so sorry," he repeated, the apology meeting empty air. Then, when he couldn't look at Sherlock's limp body any longer, he averted his eyes and left the flat, the car keys jingling softly as he shut the door behind him and locked it from the outside. Even if Sherlock woke and discovered where John was headed, he would have to find another way out of the flat. John didn't doubt that the other boy could, but at the very least, eliminating the easy way out would delay Sherlock enough for John to do what he had to.
With a final glance in the direction of the flat, John descended the stairs and pushed out of the building into the cooling evening air. The streets had quieted down, but still, people bustled to and fro, tourists with cameras aimed at buildings and street signs like they were great treasures and Londoners heading home from long jobs. Taxis whizzed past, some ignoring the hands waving from the sidewalks, some pulling off to the side; cars weaved in between them, blurs of color and streaks of bright headlights piercing the descending night. John took it all in like it would be his last time seeing it without even thinking about his actions, nodding to passersby and giving out smiles that he only slightly meant.
London was beautiful. He never noticed until now, but when he did, he paused with a hand on the handle of his car door and simply stared. It should have felt like this the first moment John rolled into town—the awe, the admiration, the desire to stay forever—but he had been too consumed by worry and sorrow to notice that he had left one form of beauty for another one entirely, of a different breed but still the same in some ways. Where John's childhood home had rolling hills, quaint farmhouses, and blue sky that stretched for miles and miles until the land cut it off cleanly at the horizon, London held brilliant colors and shimmering lights and a sort of energy that came from the movement of millions of people, millions of hearts beating, millions of lungs breathing the same air. John realized with a jolt that he would miss London; despite the conditions that had forced him here, he felt at ease in the heart of England in a way he'd never thought he could achieve outside of Scotland.
Feeling his earlier terror replaced by a serene sort of calm, John climbed into his car and twisted the keys in the ignition. The car purred underneath him; it only took him a minute to slip out into the flow of traffic, getting up to speed and settling in between a taxi and a black convertible. He glanced down at the clock on his dashboard; the time read 7:06, and blew out a relieved breath.
Good. He had plenty of time.