With his eyes riveted to his captor’s face, Sherlock held his breath, waiting for an answer. The man was without allies, trapped in a situation he couldn’t hope to escape on his own. Short of sacrificing Sherlock and abandoning him here to certain death, he had no way out. And, looking back at everything he had deduced so far about the stranger, Sherlock felt confident his captor, despite his chosen work, possessed too strong of a moral compass to abandon him.
When the man finally nodded and breathed out a reluctant, “Okay,” Sherlock felt a surge of relief. Pressing his lips together, he resisted the urge to smirk and immediately rolled onto his stomach, wiggling his fingers.
“Cut my hands free,” he ordered, craning his neck to keep his face out of the sand. Though only seconds had passed since their unknown assailant fired the last shot, Sherlock could feel the unrelenting tick of time passing and knew they could only remain where they were for so long. When his captor didn’t respond, Sherlock glanced over his shoulder, brows drawing downward in a frown.
The man’s expression was impassive. Only his narrowed eyes, raking over Sherlock’s face, gave away his reluctance to comply.
Huffing out an indignant breath, Sherlock said, “Look. I’m not much use to you with my hands bound. So you can either free me or take your chances on your own.” Eyes glittering, he jerked his head toward the hill where their unseen assailant lurked. “I doubt you’ll last long, but it’s your choice,” he snapped, watching uncertainty flicker over the man’s face.
His captor’s expression darkened at Sherlock’s tone, his decision evidently made under duress. Reaching out, he gripped Sherlock’s forearm and pulled a knife from his waist, using it to slice through the thick plastic of the cable tie. The release of constriction brought with it a rush of blood flow, the circulation spilling back into stiffened fingers and making Sherlock breathe a soft gasp at the sensation.
He stretched his knuckles and nodded to his captor. “Do you have another gun?” he asked, tilting his chin toward the handgun in the man’s hand. Another brief hesitation met his words before his captor seemed to shake it off and nodded jerkily.
“In the car.” His blue eyes darted to the handle of the passenger side door and the broken window, the edges of jagged glass reflecting the silvery light of the moon overhead. “There’s a bag on the seat.”
Nodding, Sherlock narrowed his eyes, pressed his teeth into his bottom lip, and made a split decision. Before his captor could speak again, and hopefully faster than their attacker could react, Sherlock rose to his feet and lunged for the broken window. To his dismay, his legs—still stiff and cramping from lying curled up on the floor of the backseat—sent him stumbling.
He heard the quiet catch of his captor’s breath and grabbed blindly for the window to regain his balance. His fingers found the frame, the rush of success cut short as the sharp edges of shattered safety glass sliced into his palm with sickening ease.
Face twisting into a grimace, Sherlock cursed under his breath but didn’t linger as he ducked into the car through the window. Glass scraped his front, snagging on his shirt and drawing blood on the skin beneath. Ignoring the sting, he ground his teeth together and reached, feeling for the bag half-blind in the dark.
His fingers, slick with blood, closed around a canvas strap, and he yanked. A bullet struck the other side of the car, cracking the glass of the driver’s side window. Wincing, Sherlock felt a hand grab hold of his hip and tug, pulling him back and down, the bag snagging on the window’s jagged frame before it came free and tumbled down into his lap as Sherlock landed in the sand.
Twisting to glare at his captor, Sherlock fell silent at the fierce look on the man’s face. There was blood on his cheek, still welling from a wound Sherlock could only assume had come from the window breaking, and the glass that had fallen upon them. Paired with the hard colour of the man’s eyes, the slow trickle of red made him look dangerous, roughened and battle-scarred.
The sight stole Sherlock’s breath for a second, and then the man was pawing at the bag in his lap, the metallic sound of the zipper loud in the dark.
Another bullet pounded into the sand just past Sherlock’s feet, making him hiss out a breath of surprise. Before he could linger on the moment, the sheer closeness of danger, his captor was forcing a gun into his hand.
“You know how to use this?” he asked in a voice turned hard by adrenaline. Raising his eyes from the handgun set against his fingers, Sherlock nodded. “Good,” the man said. He held Sherlock’s gaze for a moment longer, brow furrowed as his tongue darted out to wet his lips. Then, he shook his head and drew the bag over his shoulder, pulling the zipper closed.
Drawing in a loud breath, the sound steady, the man set his back against the side of the car.
“We need to move.” Catching Sherlock’s startled look, his captor pressed his lips together. “We’re too obvious a target, and I can’t get a shot like this.”
“Cover,” Sherlock muttered, catching on. The man nodded, and Sherlock closed his eyes, brow creasing as he pictured what little of the terrain he’d glimpsed during their mad dash away from the first shot. Despite the dark, his memory still lit up with familiar clarity. “There’s a wall,” he said, eyes flashing open. His captor stared at him, mouth opening around his heavy breathing, tongue pressed to his bottom lip in a calculating expression.
Sherlock was expecting the question as it came, “How do you know?”
“I saw it,” Sherlock replied, eyes tracking over the desert stretching before them, analyzing how far the wall must be from their current position. “Small and crumbling, but large enough if we duck down.” His captor still looked skeptical. Scowling, Sherlock snapped, “You have a better idea?”
The reaction to his words was immediate, the man’s face closing off, his eyes hardening. But instead of retorting, he shook his head. “How far?” he asked.
“Maybe three meters, southwest from the front of the car.” He glanced that way, the man’s eyes following. Refusing to leave space for his captor to second-guess the plan, Sherlock added, “I’ll go first.”
Blue eyes flashed toward him, the man’s pale eyebrows lowering in a dubious expression. But yet again, he seemed willing to trust Sherlock. Or elected to do so over grappling with the unseen danger on his own. He nodded, the movement curt.
“Good.” Rolling his stiff shoulders, trying to force a facade of confidence he did not feel, Sherlock nodded back. “Cover me?” Another terse nod and Sherlock breathed out a rush of air to settle his nerves. “Okay. Let’s go.”
Body thrumming with anticipation, Sherlock closed his eyes in a brief plea that it wasn’t a mistake, placing trust in his captor. When he opened them again, he glanced toward the man to gauge his readiness. He saw nothing but firm resolve, a steely gaze, thin lips pressed into a line.
With a final thought for the unexpected turn his life had taken, Sherlock broke cover.
No part of John wanted to trust Phoenix, not here, with his life on the line. But, left with little choice, and reminding himself that his death also ensured Phoenix’s, John had little in the way of options. His leap of faith had to be enough because if it wasn’t, they’d both be dead, and John wouldn’t have to worry beyond the sensation of a bullet hammering into his body.
It wasn’t an experience he wished to repeat, and so he hoped Phoenix wouldn’t betray him, just as John’s employers had so clearly done.
All of this passed through John’s mind in a flash, taking only several seconds before Phoenix was up and moving, and John’s focus narrowed to the present moment. Everything fell away, the nucleus of his attention burning down to the fine details.
He saw the tension in Phoenix’s muscles before he erupted into movement and watched the subtle spray of sand kicked up by the man’s heel as he lunged forward. It was like John’s brain had slowed. The world dropped to a frame-by-frame observation with the sound of blood rushing in his ears, the pound of his heart nearly as loud as the sound of a shot being fired.
The bullet slammed into the sand just ahead of the car, seconds after Phoenix passed the spot, the sound sending John into immediate action. He launched himself forward, booted-feet pushing off the soft terrain. Moving alongside the car in three quick steps, he planted himself against the side of the front-end and set his elbows on the still-warm hood. Anchored, John caught the fading glow of heated metal in the distance, the dying flash from the fired shot.
Ducking his head, he looked through his gun’s sights, breathed a long, steadying breath, and fired. He didn’t stop to confirm a hit. Instead, he fired again, followed by another, the semi-automatic filling the hot, heavy air with the chatter of reports. His goal, to keep their attacker pinned down long enough to ensure Phoenix’s mad dash for cover, was simple. And, despite the surge of danger and the uncertainty that he wouldn’t take a bullet any second, John felt alive with adrenaline. He felt lit up, aglow with the sheer risk of the maneuver; transported back into the life he’d left behind when a bullet found its way into his shoulder.
He heard the report and braced for impact, huffing out a startled breath when the shot went wide. It told him their attacker was firing blind, no doubt from behind emergency cover, and John fired two shots in response. He managed one more before the slide jammed, the gun spitting out a casing as the cartridge emptied its last round.
John chanced a quick glance into the dark, eyes adjusting to the gloom long enough to confirm Phoenix was no longer in sight. Hoping he’d reached cover, John ducked down and delved into his back pocket for a spare magazine. He ejected the spent cartridge with deft fingers, exchanging the empty for the replacement, the click as it slid home loud in the sudden silence.
When he chanced a glance around the front of the car, pulse hammering wildly in his ears, a shot whistled past his face.
Cursing, John slid back and dropped low. He stared out into the dark, squinting until he caught a flash of pale skin: Phoenix’s hand, waving in the dark.
With a prayer dying on his lips, sent up to something unknown that John wasn’t sure he had ever bothered to believe in, he rolled to his feet and erupted from behind the cover of the car. For one tense, agonizing moment, he could hear nothing but silence, and felt a trickle of icy fear, thinking Phoenix had betrayed him. That he had left John to the mercy of their attacker instead of providing cover in his mad dash.
But the thought shattered seconds later as he caught the telltale sound of his second handgun, roaring in the dark ahead. Eyes locked on the muzzle flashes, John pushed forward. He ran, coaxing a burst of speed from his already aching legs. He felt a brief flash of pain, burning along his thigh like a brand, and pushed it aside. The injury barely made him falter, feet stuttering briefly with surprise before strengthening, and he knew it couldn’t be more than a graze.
The wall rose out of the dark, lit in brief flashes by Phoenix’s shots. Without bothering to slow, John skidded in the sand and threw himself behind the cover, his teeth bared in a feral grimace as particulate rubbed into his thigh and scraped the torn skin.
Silence fell, Phoenix skidding down beside him with his back against the wall. In the following quiet, the lull between storms, John’s breathing was loud, each exhale whistling through his teeth. Looking up, he saw Phoenix’s eyes on his face, dropping to his thigh before the skin between his brows creased.
“I’m fine,” John gasped, not bothering to wonder why he was reassuring a man he had, only minutes ago, planned to hand over for a job. Jaw clenched, John rolled his shoulders, stretched his neck, and said, “We need to take the shooter out, but there’s no way I can get a visual in the dark.” Fingers tightening around the stock of his handgun, he narrowed his eyes. “And I think this is the last full magazine I have on hand.”
Staring at Phoenix’s face, John expected to see dismay. Instead, what he saw inspired a dual sensation of grudging admiration and trepidation. Their gazes locked, and Phoenix didn’t wilt in the face of poor odds. His eyes took on a calculating gleam, turned silver in the dark and the moonlight, and John sucked in a breath when the man nodded.
“I have an idea.” Glancing briefly at the bag, Phoenix met John’s eyes again. “Do you have binoculars?” John nodded, dry lips parting around his loud breath as he waited to hear the plan. “Are they infrared?”
“Night vision,” John replied, relieved when his captive simply nodded.
“It’ll have to be enough. How good a shot are you?”
Mouth set into a hard, thin line, John’s eyes narrowed. “Pretty damn good.”
To his surprise, the corner of Phoenix’s lips twitched upward, the expression lending a sarcastic edge of mirth to his sharp face.
John’s hand tightened around the gun, a flicker of excitement rising in his stomach at the obvious challenge. “How?” he asked, head tilting to the side as his jaw ached with the force of his clenched teeth. “I just said it’s too dark to get a visual.”
“Do you trust me?” Phoenix asked, a hint of curiousity slipping into his voice.
Allowing himself a brief second of hesitation, considering the question, John pursed his lips. “I don’t know you.” Brow furrowed, he amended, “No, I don’t. I don’t trust you.”
There it was again, that flicker of humour. It faded quickly, and Phoenix’s expression turned grim. “Will you try?” His tone was hard, earnest, something close to a plea beneath.
Despite his reluctance, the humming doubt suffusing his mind, John nodded. “I’ll try.”
“Good. Now, give me the binoculars.”
Sherlock could feel his captor’s uncertainty. It was thick, almost palpable between them, and it rankled. For most of his life, people had doubted Sherlock, second-guessed him, questioned his motives. Now, almost all of those people believed him to be dead, but now was hardly the time to dwell on whether they regretted their actions toward him.
At least here, his captor had every reason not to trust Sherlock. Still, it stung. He could only hope that the immediate danger would suffice in keeping them allied and that the tenuous truce between them would last once their attacker fell dead into the sand.
Something pressed into his hand, and Sherlock shook his head, pushing his thoughts aside as he refocused. Fingers curling around the object, he looked down at the binoculars before his eyes darted to the man before him. His captor stared back, almost vibrating with the force of his obvious curiousity. It emanated from him in waves punctuated by the bitter tang of adrenaline sweat.
As if in sympathy, Sherlock’s pulse quickened. His gaze, inexplicably, dropped to the man’s thin lips, and he grimaced and redirected his attention.
“What now?” his captor asked, watching Sherlock’s face closely, clearly confused by Sherlock’s expression.
Forcing himself to settle, his internal dialogue spitting harsh rebukes for the lapse in focus, Sherlock said, “Since you can’t see,” he lifted the binoculars, unable to help the small upward curl of his lips, “I’ll be your eyes.”
His captor stared at him for a moment. It seemed likely he may continue to do so indefinitely when their attacker fired a shot. Listening to it disappear into the sand several feet away, Sherlock surmised the sniper was recalibrating for their new position. They had time, but not much, and Sherlock leaned forward, his voice dropping into a fierce whisper.
“You said you would try to trust me,” he hissed, pinning the man with a hard stare.
Something flickered in the man’s face, there and gone before his expression hardened, and he nodded. “Fine,” he bit out, lips tense as they shaped the word. “What do I do?”
“Face forward,” Sherlock ordered, shifting around behind the man as he complied with stiff posture. Every inch of the stranger broadcast his reluctance, his dislike of taking orders from someone he no doubt considered an enemy, but, still, he did as requested. “Take your position, but stay covered.”
The man complied, lifting the handgun as he adjusted his posture. He leaned a shoulder against the wall and looked back at Sherlock with a raised eyebrow. Taking the silent query for what it was, Sherlock nodded and sidled closer. He pressed his front to the man’s back, doing his best to shape himself to the contours of his spine, the position of his arms.
Stiffening at once, the man moved as if to shift away, freezing only when Sherlock hissed, “Don’t move!” in his ear. The man fell still, his back rigid despite the hunched shape of his shoulders. Once he was motionless again, Sherlock breathed out and eased forward. His chest pressed against the rough terrain of the man’s spine, and he placed a hand on the man’s left shoulder. He felt a faint tensing at the contact and ignored it, sliding his palm down to the man’s bicep.
With his cheek brushing the curve of the man’s jaw, Sherlock breathed, “Relax.” The man only grunted in reply, but some of the rigidity in his posture eased. Holding back the inexplicable urge to smile, Sherlock resisted his wayward desire to squeeze the man’s bicep.
Instead, he lifted the binoculars, set his chin on the man’s right shoulder, and looked through them.
He fiddled with the focus on the side, scowling as he tried to engage the night vision mode. Before his lips could shape the question, he felt the man speak, his voice a rough murmur that made his cheek twitch against Sherlock’s. The contact was grimy, reminding Sherlock of the sticky blood covering the side of the man’s face.
“There’s a button on the top, in the middle.”
Tipping his head down in a curt nod, Sherlock found and pressed the button. He heard a quiet, mechanical whir before the desert flared into view around him, the dark painted a hazy green and black through the lenses. He sucked in a breath as his vision adjusted and thought he felt the man’s mouth twitch in a grin. Resisting the urge to check, Sherlock stared through the binoculars, working to get his bearings.
It took a moment, but then the hill filled his vision, and he breathed out in relief, searching for a flicker of movement, the flash of a rifle. Anything that might give their attacker’s position away. Still stiff from his cramped time spend in the back of the car, his legs twitched, forcing Sherlock to ignore the discomfort as he searched.
He saw nothing, then—there. A shift in the darkness.
Sherlock fiddled with the focus settings, zooming in and sharpening the image until he saw a shape.
“I see them,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. His lips moved against the man’s ear, a point of unexpected movement that made his captor shiver, startled. He settled almost at once, nodding his head in a minute little movement. “Take your firing position,” Sherlock added, keeping the target carefully in sight. With his vision compromised, he relied on his other senses. He felt his captor’s arms lift, tracking the movement through the flex of muscles against his chest. The bicep under his hand rippled, long tendons adjusting. He rose into a straightened, upright crouch in time with his captor, and wondered if the man could feel the wild hammering of Sherlock’s heart where their bodies pressed together.
He hoped not before pushing the thought away and wondered why he cared.
Settled once again, the man breathed, “Show me where.”
Instead of replying in words, Sherlock bit his lip, making a series of mental calculations before he pressed forward to push the man’s body upward in inches. His hand tightened around the bicep in his grip, lifting the man’s arm and turning it slightly to the left with firm guidance.
Taking a second to tilt his head back from the binoculars, Sherlock confirmed his re-posturing, compared it to what he’d seen through the lenses, and nodded. Eyes back on the sniper, he whispered, “He should be in your sights.” Wetting his cracked lips, tasting the metallic tang of dried blood, Sherlock sighed out a shaky breath and urged, “Fire.”
The sudden tension in the muscles pressed against his chest was his first warning, followed by the tangible ripple of power in his captor’s shoulders. Gaze unblinking and fixated on the humanoid shape in the distance, Sherlock hardly dared to breathe as the shot rang out. He felt the kickback of the gun, translated through the man’s arm into his chest as a forceful vibration; felt the subtle shift as his captor absorbed the force, adjusted for the recoil. It was smooth, the reaction appearing instinctive, the man’s body working in tandem with the gun like a well-oiled machine.
Muscles loose, Sherlock let himself move with him. It was like being pulled by a current, but instead of tasting the salty haze of the sea in the air, Sherlock’s tongue burned with the acrid tang of gunpowder.
Before he could regain his composure, the gun went off again, creating the same chain of events, inspiring another wash of fluid reaction in the body against his. It was heady and stunning. Like standing at the edge of a burning fire, and it woke a heat in Sherlock’s body that burned low and deep.
Belatedly, he realized his breathing sounded ragged, and that the man was perfectly still, only the controlled rise and fall of his back as he breathed betraying him as living.
“Was it a hit?” the man asked, his voice tearing Sherlock from his swirling thoughts.
Dazed, still reeling from the heat pooling liquid and molten through his body, Sherlock pulled in an unsteady breath and peered through the binoculars. He didn’t see any movement, and the tension seeped from his stiff body.
“I think you got—” he began, but the end of his sentence disappeared into a curse as a shot rang out, and a bullet screamed past their hiding place. Sherlock felt the man flinch and stiffen and, for a second, he thought his captor must have missed. But then his brain settled, clarity prevailing over shock, and he realized the angle was different.
Teeth clicking together, he hissed, “There’s more than one!”
“Yeah, figured that out for myself, thanks,” came the sharp reply, and, before Sherlock could respond, the man was repositioning himself in the direction of the attack. “Tell me where to aim,” he demanded in a terse voice, and Sherlock responded without thought.
Sparing only a brief flash of annoyance for the inspired obedience, he repositioned himself behind the man. This time, after a momentary hesitation, he slid his hand off his captor’s bicep and over his chest, along his left serratus anterior muscle. Beneath his palm, Sherlock felt the contractions of the man’s diaphragm, and he forced himself to focus on providing direction. The man stiffened slightly under the new point of contact, but Sherlock brushed the reaction aside.
“Take up your position,” he ordered, easing closer until his chest met the man’s hard back again. “On my mark.”
The man nodded and, sparing only a brief thought for the warmth of the body against his, Sherlock dropped his eyes back to the binoculars.
The sensation of a hand sliding around to his front, long fingers and palm settling hot over his ribs made John freeze. It took precious seconds for him to relax beneath the unexpected touch, breathing the tension out of his body with a heavy exhale that expanded his chest under Phoenix’s hand.
“Up,” Phoenix whispered in John’s ear, his voice low and velvet-thick. “A little higher.” John obliged, letting his arms drift upward. He heard a report in the distance and felt the force of the bullet passing half a foot away, barely registering the noise with Phoenix’s lips shaping the air into words next to his ear. If not for the adrenaline pouring fast and molten through his veins, John thought he might have shivered. There was a strange intimacy here, humming where their bodies touched, and he couldn’t make sense of it.
Hardly twenty minutes ago, the man pressed up against his back had been nothing more than an impending pay cheque, and now here they knelt, stacked together like playing cards in a deck, Phoenix’s fingers hot and firm as they nudged into John’s muscle and directed his arm upward.
“Take the shot.”
The order was barely more than an exhale, and John complied. His finger curled, caressing the curved shape of the trigger like the hollow of a lover’s throat. Cold metal turned hot by his body heat, the kickback rocking him gently back against Phoenix’s chest. John’s eyes closed, and he considered forcing them open again, but something inside him, something innate and instinctive, told him the shot found its target.
The silence stretched out, turned thick and final until the absence of sound confirmed his suspicion. Like the slow collapse of a building struck by demolition charges, John sagged. The adrenaline ran out of him in a sprung leak, washing out of his body, leaving room for returning tension. With it came the awareness of pain, fire burning in his thigh and a sharp sting building in his cheek.
Lifting a hand, John touched the side of his face and recalled the sound of shattering glass. His fingers came away gluey with half-dried blood, and he grimaced before wiping them off on his thigh. He exhaled and felt Phoenix echo the sound in a soft rush of air against his nape, in the swell of his chest against John’s back as John lowered his arms.
“I think we’re clear.” The vibrations of tension still lingering in the air softened and seemed muted by John’s voice. Turning his face to the side, John found Phoenix close enough that his nose brushed along the man’s sharp jaw, and John froze.
This close, Phoenix’s eyes, locked with his, were a shimmering glimmer in the dark, silver and bright like the moon overhead. After a second of breathless tension, John faced forward, a muscle jumping in his jaw as his teeth came together with a hard click.
“Thanks,” he said, the word roughened by the unexpected rush of emotions falling over him. When he’d woken that morning, John had a job. Now, with the night stretching out before him, he was a changed man. A stranger to himself, unmoored and untethered with a dangerous unknown pressed up against his back. It felt similar to the months of recovery after his injury, like that limbo between life and death, and John found little comfort in the parallel.
He shifted forward into the scarce space between himself and the wall, suddenly desperate for any space he could gain between himself and Phoenix. As if picking up on John’s discomfort, the man at his back rocked backward, moving so quickly that he dropped onto his rear. If Phoenix hadn’t been a complete stranger, John might have laughed.
Instead, he rose, turned, and held out a hand to Phoenix. The man glanced at the offering before moving as if to reach out and take his hand. John drew it back at the last second and said, in a hard voice, “Give me the gun.”
Phoenix froze with his arm still outstretched. Seated in the sand, he stared up at John with a stunned expression, and his eyes roved over John’s face. When the silence drew out, the two of them locked in a silent stare-down, John pulled in a steadying breath and raised his own gun. Holding it steady, he pointed it down at the face of the man sprawled at his feet.
“The gun,” he repeated firmly, tone offering little in the way of mercy. “Now.”
Still studying John’s face, his eyes betraying his surprise, Phoenix didn’t move for what felt, to John, like a nearly endless moment. Then, with marked reluctance, Phoenix slipped the gun out of the waistband of his trousers and held it out in silent surrender.
Reaching out, John took the gun, keeping his own steady, still aimed at his captive. Once he had the weapon in hand, he engaged the safety and slipped it into his own waistband. The metal was still warm from Phoenix’s body heat, and John resolutely ignored that fact as he jerked his gun upward.
“Get up,” he ordered, waiting until Phoenix complied. With the man on his feet, John nodded toward the car. “Get in the passenger seat. And don’t try anything.”
The look shot his way could have struck a weaker man dead, but Phoenix followed his orders, walking to the rental in sullen silence. John followed with the gun trained on Phoenix’s back, keeping enough distance between them so he would see an attack coming.
But Phoenix didn’t attempt any of his earlier tricks. Under John’s watchful eye, he opened the passenger-side door, carefully plucked broken glass from the seat, and slipped inside.
Only once Phoenix buckled his seatbelt, sitting stiffly, did John cross to the driver’s door. He slipped inside, gun still in hand, and started the engine. The car rumbled to life without fail, and, avoiding Phoenix’s hard stare, John looked over his shoulder and turned the car back toward the road.