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hired gun

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John froze. Sherlock’s words filtered through his shock, slow and fragmented, and John reeled.

I need you.

Needed him? Sherlock needed him? Why? John knew Sherlock had needed his help to stay alive in Morocco, had needed John to keep him safe until Sherlock was out of the country. But Sherlock was out, and now he had his brother. Meddlesome or not and sibling rivalry aside, Mycroft had far more to offer Sherlock than John ever would or could.

It didn’t make sense.

“What?” John finally managed in a hoarse voice. “What do you mean, you need me?”

Sherlock took a step closer. Still stunned by the simple statement, John didn’t back away. He let Sherlock move into his personal space until John could smell the steam clinging to his skin and feel the vehemence rising off him in waves.

“I need you, John,” Sherlock repeated, providing nothing in the way of a concrete answer to John’s questions. “What I have to do, what stands between me and regaining my life… I can’t do it alone.”

John’s mouth went dry. Shock and confusion tasted bitter on his tongue, and swallowing was a struggle. “But why me?”

“Who else?” Sherlock said. Like it was simple. As if his statement made all the sense in the world.

John balked. “Anyone,” he breathed, shaking his head. “Anyone else. Your brother, one of those MI6 agents — hell, anyone.” With disbelief still coursing through his body, John gestured at himself. “Look at me, Sherlock. Really, look at me.” He shook his head again, incredulous. “Up until three days ago, I was your enemy. According to your brother, I’m still an enemy of the Commonwealth.”

“I don’t care.” Sherlock’s breathing was loud in the reduced space between them. He suddenly seemed larger than life, his intensity sucking the limited oxygen from the air and leaving John to drown above water. “Queen and Country don’t mean anything to me, John,” Sherlock said, staring at him, eyes unblinking. “All I want is my life back. To clear my name and regain what I lost. And you’re the one who can help me do that.”

Sherlock’s words felt like a physical blow, knocking the air from John’s lungs. All those years spent drowning in his own past and trauma, and this was what would finally do him in: this moment. Sherlock and his ardour would succeed in suffocating John where everything else had failed. He clenched his jaw and forced his shaking hands to fall still. “So that’s it, then?” John asked, relieved to hear his voice emerge sounding far steadier than he felt.

Confusion flickered in Sherlock’s face. “What?” Some of his fervid energy dulled, just enough to let John suck in a gasp of air. His aching lungs rejoiced.

“That’s what I am to you? A one-way ticket to redemption?” John scoffed. “Hardly seems fair.”

The perplexed look lingering in Sherlock’s eyes shifted into alarm. Reaching out, Sherlock caught hold of John by the arms before John could bat his hands away. “No,” Sherlock said, then repeated it with vehemence, “No. Not just my redemption, John. Yours, too.”

John tensed at the statement. His redemption? Who did Sherlock think he was? Didn’t he see that John was too far gone for that? Redemption wasn’t an option for him, not anymore.

John forced his reply out through his teeth, “Who said I give a shit about redemption?”

Sherlock huffed. “Fine. Your freedom, then.”

In the process of wrenching himself out of Sherlock’s grasp, John paused. He settled and looked at Sherlock with wary eyes. “Keep talking.”

Sherlock inhaled deeply and nodded. “I’m not going to let Mycroft call the shots.”

All too aware of Sherlock’s hands gripping his arms, John held perfectly still. He could feel his pulse, thudding beneath the press of Sherlock’s palms. “And how are you planning to do that?”

A flicker of uncertainty passing over his face, Sherlock grimaced. “I don’t know yet, but I’ll figure something out.”

John’s mouth twitched with reluctant amusement. “That doesn’t sound terribly promising.”

Staring hard at John, Sherlock squeezed his arms quickly before releasing his hold and stepping back. “I’ll think of something,” he vowed, sounding far less confident than his words made him seem.

They both went quiet. The silence lingered until John cleared his throat and shifted on his feet. He felt out of place and unbalanced by the conversation. The revelation that his entire past was common knowledge to a select few made John feel like he’d lost what little of his footing remained. After spending years thinking he’d managed to slip under the radar, managed to keep out of sight, the truth was a sobering wake-up call.

“Well, alright.” John pulled in a steamy breath and glanced at the still-running shower. “Uh, can we get out of here now? I feel like I just sweated out a whole stone. Sinuses are nice and clear, though.” Rubbing the back of his neck, feeling awkward in the aftermath of their conversation, John forced out a strained laugh. “So, guess that’s a plus.”

Well done, Watson. Very smooth. John winced at his own thoughts. 

Sherlock let out a quiet snort, his lips tilting into a lopsided smile. Crossing the small room, he shut off the water and turned back to John. His expression grew intense once again, his eyes dark and beseeching. “Just… give me a chance to make things right, John.” Swallowing, Sherlock coughed quietly. “Will you do that? Will you give me that chance?”

Standing near the door, staring back at him, John pursed his lips and considered the question. His instinct was to say no, to deny Sherlock the chance he so clearly desired. Something kinder, buried deep and struggling to wake, told John to grant the request. Told him to take a chance of his own one last time.

In the end, his instincts lost the fight. Drawing in a lungful of steamy air, John sighed it out and nodded. “One last chance.” He held up a hand to silence Sherlock when his mouth popped open. “But, Sherlock — when I say one, I mean it. One is all you get.”

Sherlock’s relieved expression slipped a bit but didn’t fade entirely. His sharp features settled into a look that appeared tentatively hopeful, and he returned John’s nod. “Yes, John. I understand.”

John ducked his head, frowned at his socked feet before looking up again with a sigh. “Alright. I want out of this bathroom before I suffocate.” Ignoring Sherlock’s surprised smile at the playful words, John turned on his heel and opened the door. Fresh air rushed in, washing over John and making the pores in his face tingle at the temperature change. It felt refreshing, and John pulled in a deep breath to clear his chest of the heavy steam. Though his joke about losing a full stone from the heat in the small bathroom had been made in good fun, John found that he actually felt lighter. Likely, that had more to do with Sherlock's argument than any amount of sweat released in the humid atmosphere. But there was almost a spring in John’s step, a new sense of resolve as he left the bathroom and walked down the hall toward the dining room. The only thing tempering his improved mood was the steam and perspiration clinging to his skin. It made him grimace and crave the chill of a cool shower to wash the salt from his skin.

He was still thinking about that shower when he rounded the corner into the kitchen and came to an abrupt halt.

Sitting at the dining room table, which should have been empty, was a man. He was reading a newspaper, seemingly unperturbed that he was trespassing in what was supposed to be a guarded safe house. He was unfamiliar to John, white and blue-eyed with a receding, reddish-brown hairline. He wasn’t one of the MI6 men and appeared to be unarmed. Dressed in a navy-blue three-piece suit that likely cost more money than John had ever seen in his life, he looked perfectly at ease sitting at the head of the table where John had eaten his breakfast earlier.

Fingers twitching at his sides, John ached for the familiar weight of a gun at his side. His initial thought, inspired by adrenaline and wariness, suggested the man might be working for John’s ex-employers. But that possibility faded, replaced by a growing dread that shifted into grim certainty the longer he looked at him.

This man was no killer. At least not one who got his hands dirty. The only death he dealt was through orders given and by commanding dangerous people to do the wet work for him.

John’s rising suspicion was confirmed by Sherlock. He almost walked into John’s back, halted and frowned over John’s shoulder at the man before letting out a frustrated huff. Stepping gingerly around John, his hand drifting almost absentmindedly to rest on John’s arm, Sherlock grumbled, “Mycroft.”

The man looked up at the name. One eyebrow rose, his gaze shifting over them both, eyes lingering where Sherlock’s hand rested on John’s bicep. The eyebrow drifted higher before he took his time folding the newspaper in half and setting it on the table. Standing, he smoothed the wrinkles out of his jacket, eyed Sherlock’s steam-curled hair, John’s shining face, and offered a cool smile.

There was nothing friendly in the expression.

“Sherlock. I was wondering when you’d grace me with your presence.” The man’s voice was flat and falsely pleasant. The sound of it, paired with that unfeeling smile, made John tense. Sherlock’s hand, still on his arm, applied gentle pressure before disappearing as Sherlock took a step forward. The movement placed him squarely between John and his brother, and John couldn’t help but notice how it mirrored the night before. Sherlock had done the same with the MI6 agent who planned to search John.

Maybe deciding to give him one last chance hadn’t been such a bad idea.

“I wasn’t aware you would be paying us a visit,” Sherlock replied. The words sounded strained, and John saw that Sherlock was clenching his jaw. He spoke through his teeth, his lips turned down at the corners. He shot John an apologetic glance, silently communicating: I really didn’t know.

Staring back at him, John realized he believed the unspoken plea. He tilted his head in a small nod, and relief flickered over Sherlock’s face before he turned his attention back to his brother.

“Why are you here, Mycroft?” He didn’t bother with politeness, and John pressed his lips together to hold back an amused smirk.

Eyebrows knitted together, Mycroft regarded them both with a quiet intensity before tipping his head in a brisk nod. Tapping his fingers against the dining table, he strode forward and stopped in front of them. He studied them once again, the similarity of his focused stare reminding John of Sherlock. Their eyes weren’t the same colour, but that razor-sharp gaze was all too familiar.

John’s hands curled into fists. He straightened his back, chin lifting as he met the scrutiny with a hard stare.

“I hoped we might discuss a proposal.” Mycroft paused, and his eyes flickered to John, studying him head to toe. “And I wanted to meet Captain Watson in person. A pleasure, I’m sure.” He held out a hand, unperturbed as John simply stood there without shifting a muscle. But the hand never dropped, never wavered until John finally moved around Sherlock and reached out to accept the handshake.

“I’m sure,” he replied drily.

Mycroft’s false smile widened, growing sharper until it looked closer to a sneer. “Charming. I see why my brother likes you so much.” He didn’t look at Sherlock when he said it, but John still caught the annoyed expression that flashed over Sherlock’s features.

Mycroft released John’s hand, and John immediately stepped back. In a move so sudden it almost seemed scripted, Sherlock sidled forward again. His posture was rigid, his body language stiff. Looking at him, it was easy for John to believe Sherlock truly meant to side with him over his brother.

“What proposal, Mycroft?” Sherlock asked in a cold voice. “Hurry up and spit it out so you can leave.”

Mycroft lifted a hand to silence him. “Do grow up, Sherlock. I’m sure we can all at least be civilized.” He gestured to the table, eyes flitting once again to John. “Please, sit. Both of you.” He spared Sherlock an annoyed glance. Sherlock huffed in response but dropped into a chair without further comment.

John remained standing, and Mycroft raised an eyebrow at him in silent inquiry. John crossed his arms over his chest and offered a tight-lipped smile. “I’d prefer to stand,” he said, adding, “thanks,” as an afterthought when Mycroft looked like he might press the matter.

Instead of arguing, Mycroft offered a small shrug. “That is your choice to make, Captain.”

John’s teeth clicked together. “I’m not a captain,” he snapped, some of his recently-receded anger rising in a flash.

He received a serene expression in response, Mycroft appearing unruffled by his vitriol. “Maybe so, Captain Watson. But not all things stay in the past.”

Tension snapped through John’s body. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Mycroft indicated the chair next to Sherlock again. “Are you sure you won’t sit?” John remained standing, his back straight and his chin tilted upward in a defiant display. Mycroft sighed. “Very well. Then we’ll just have to do it like this.” Settling into the seat he’d occupied when they first entered the kitchen, Mycroft laid his hands together on top of the table. He eyed them both, received a cold stare from Sherlock and a glare from John, and sighed again. The polite facade of Mycroft’s smile slipped from his face, his hawkish features hardening. “Let’s talk, then.”   



Mycroft’s presence, something rarely wanted and doubly unwelcome now, had Sherlock on immediate high alert. Judging by John’s tense body language and refusal to sit at Mycroft’s request, the feeling was mutual.

Fingers steepled beneath his lower lip, Sherlock sat stiffly in his chair and eyed his brother across the table. Mycroft looked away from John to Sherlock, and the eyeing shifted into a staring contest. Sherlock knew it was childish, the display throwing him back to a multitude of childhood tantrums, but he held his ground. He refused to back down first until Mycroft sighed, rolled his eyes to the ceiling in a silent bid for patience, and looked away.

A small, satisfied smirk quirked Sherlock’s lips before he could squash the urge. He caught movement from the edge of his vision and glanced up to see John looking at him. John tipped his head to one side, the possibility of a smile on his lips until he coughed and dropped his eyes to the ground. Trying not to give in to the thrill rippling through him at the brief moment of solidarity, Sherlock turned his attention to his brother, curious about his presence.

Mycroft raised an eyebrow. “You look awful, Sherlock.” It was a dig and not even a subtle one at that.

Sherlock’s curiousity dried up, and his nose crinkled in annoyance. Rather than dignify the comment by acknowledging it, he snapped, “Why are you here?”

Mycroft didn’t immediately reply. He looked at his hands instead, scraping some invisible dirt from beneath his thumbnail. His silence drew out until Sherlock thought he might snap.

“Mycroft,” he growled, fingers twitching with restrained violence. Sherlock forced himself to settle, hoping his brother hadn’t noticed the lapse. Judging by the small, smug tilt of Mycroft’s lips, he hadn’t missed it. Sherlock wasn’t surprised: he rarely missed anything.

Mycroft’s throat bobbed with a swallow before he tapped a finger to his lips and spoke. “As stated, I came to see how you were, and I see that you are in rough shape and fine form, exactly as I anticipated.” Ignoring Sherlock’s bristle, Mycroft turned his focus to John. Leaning against the granite island separating the dining area from the kitchen, arms folded over his chest, John met the scrutiny with a flat, unimpressed expression.

He didn’t so much as shift beneath Mycroft’s stare, and Sherlock felt a flicker of satisfaction rise at John’s unflinching stance.

“And I wanted to finally meet Captain Watson in person, of course,” Mycroft continued, drawing Sherlock’s focus back to the present moment. “Your reputation precedes you, Captain.”

Eyelids dropping to half-mast, John quirked his lips into a grimace and cautiously replied, “I don’t know what I’m meant to say to that.”

Mycroft offered a placid little smile. On anyone else, it might have looked pleasant or innocent. On Mycroft, it made him look like a predator playing with its food. “I assure you,” he said in his oily politician’s voice, “it’s a compliment.”

John stiffened, a look of surprise passing over his face. Sherlock watched him take evident pains to smooth the reaction away, the muscles shifting in his jaw as he ground his teeth. It was a moment before he relaxed enough to speak. “I’m not sure I understand.” He squinted, his left hand tapping restlessly against his right bicep. “A compliment?”

Sherlock sat across from his brother, eyes flitting between Mycroft and John, breath shallow as he watched the scene unfold. A flicker of understanding was beginning to form in his mind, too slow and not yet clear. Swallowing, he narrowed his eyes and waited for the other shoe to drop.

“Allow me to explain,” Mycroft offered. He waited with raised eyebrows until John tipped his chin in a curt nod. “Good. Are you absolutely certain you won’t sit?”

This time, Sherlock imagined he could hear the click of John’s jaw when it tensed. “No, I’m good,” John said through his teeth.

Sherlock smothered a smile and watched Mycroft lean back in his seat with a small shrug.

“If you insist.” Mycroft paused as if gathering his thoughts, eyes on his hands where they rested flat on the table. Clasping them together, fingers laid neatly over his knuckles, Mycroft lifted his gaze to John. The smile was back, as unconvincing as a shark’s. “As I said, I have a proposal. One I think you might be interested in hearing.”

“Me?” John asked, head tilting in confusion. “Not Sherlock?” He glanced at Sherlock, who looked back at him, letting his bemusement show on his face. John frowned and looked at Mycroft again, silently waiting for clarification.

Mycroft’s smile widened just slightly. It was enough to make Sherlock’s stomach twist. “It’s a proposal for both of you, actually.”

Something was coming. Something Sherlock knew he wouldn’t like and John would probably hate. He cleared his throat and leaned forward. “Stop wasting our time and get to the point, Mycroft.”

His brother sighed, glancing upward to communicate his annoyance. “Always so impatient,” he said, aiming an indulgent smile at John as if they were both in on some inside joke Sherlock wasn’t privy to. “Such a pity.” The words made Sherlock brace for further insult, teeth locking together as he recalled all the slights — both minor and major — Mycroft had perpetrated against him in their youth. He sucked in a breath, forcing back an angry flush of embarrassment and dismay at having John made an accomplice to his humiliation.

Sherlock couldn’t bring himself to look up and gauge John’s reaction.

He was startled when John barked out a sharp laugh, making Sherlock look up at him in shock. At first, he thought John was laughing at him and felt a sick swoop in his stomach. But John was glaring at Mycroft, his jaw jutting forward in a fierce, angry smile. It was the same smile he’d aimed at Sherlock in the car, after the ferry dock. Just as it had then, it communicated John’s ire clearly.

“Fuck off, mate,” John growled, looking unimpressed by Mycroft’s attempts at gaining his trust by disparaging Sherlock. “I know what you’re doing, and it won’t work on me.”

Slow surprise flitted over Mycroft’s expression, erased just as quick when he forced his features into an impassive mask. He cleared his throat, pasting the sharp smile back onto his face. “I see.”

Sitting across from him, still looking at John, Sherlock gawked. He saw John’s eyes dart toward him and dropped his gaze, shifting to face forward again as amazement flashed through his mind. His heart was hammering in his chest, and Sherlock blinked at the table with unseeing eyes.

John stood up to Mycroft. Despite the things Sherlock had done, his manipulations and betrayal, John refused to rise to the bait. Whether that was due to a growing sense of loyalty to Sherlock or John’s intense dislike of Mycroft, Sherlock couldn’t be sure. Still, he felt a little flicker of warmth in his chest that gradually radiated throughout his body.

Mycroft cleared his throat, forcing Sherlock’s attention back to the conversation. “Of course, Captain Watson,” he said smoothly, his voice betraying nothing of the fleeting surprise he’d displayed. “I should have known better than to try.”

A harsh snort from John. “Surprised you even made an attempt. Sherlock has made it clear that you already know everything about me — not sure what you thought that would gain you.”

Sherlock felt Mycroft’s gaze shift onto him and looked up to meet it. He narrowed his eyes, defiant, as Mycroft said, “He did, did he?” He lifted a hand to his face, smoothing his thumb slowly over his bottom lip. “Fascinating.”

The two brothers stared at one another until John began to fidget, and Mycroft broke the eye contact to look at him.

“While I apologize for attempting such basic interrogation tactics on you, Captain, I stand by it. I had to be sure, you see.”

Sherlock frowned at the same time that John asked, “Sure of what?”

Mycroft smiled. “Of your loyalty.”

“My… loyalty?” John repeated in a cautious voice. He eyed Mycroft with apparent suspicion, his body language closed-off and defensive.

“Yes, Captain Watson.” Mycroft’s nod was brisk, his hands unfolding to tap against the table, punctuating his reply. “Your loyalty to my brother. A rather underhanded effort on my part, I admit, but necessary.”

John’s arms dropped to his sides, but he didn’t move from his spot at the counter. “Necessary for what?”

Sherlock watched his brother, cautiously expectant with the same frown still marring his brow, waiting for him to explain. The vague understanding in his head was still a swirling miasma, itching to be made clear.

“Of course.” Mycroft cleared his throat and folded his hands together again. His posture was annoyingly perfect, spine set flat against the chair back. “You see, this proposal of mine requires loyalty — not just from you, Captain. Both of you must be dedicated to the plan for it to succeed.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Stop dragging it out, Mycroft,” he sighed. Outwardly, his expression was bored, flat and carefully annoyed. Inwardly, his heart was still racing, the rush of his pulse loud enough to fill his ears with a soft whoosh of blood through veins. He’d never known his brother to take so long to make a point, and it had him on edge. Something was coming, and Mycroft knew neither of them would respond well, so he was drawing it out.

It made Sherlock nervous.

Mycroft’s mouth quirked. Just like that, he was once again the shark in their midst. “Teamwork,” he said simply, waiting as John shifted on his feet, and Sherlock blinked.

“Teamwork?” John echoed. He shot a perplexed look at Sherlock. Still not grasping Mycroft’s plan, Sherlock looked up to catch his eye and shrugged.

“Indeed.” Mycroft blew out a soft sigh. “Before I explain my proposal, I urge you to consider it in full before you make a decision.” His eyes flickered from Sherlock to John. “Both of you.”

John made a rough sound low in his throat. It sounded like a scoff that edged lower into an impatient growl. “God,” he snapped, arms folding over his chest again, “are you always such a windbag?” John didn’t let Mycroft’s insulted expression or his stiffened posture keep him from adding, “I get that you love to hear the sound of your own damn voice, but I’m getting fucking tired of it, myself.”

Mouth clicking shut with an audible sound, Mycroft stared at John. He looked angry and startled, caught on his back foot by the outburst. Across the table, Sherlock struggled to hold back the laugh rising in his throat. Judging by the glare Mycroft shot in his direction, he didn’t quite succeed. Sherlock found he couldn’t be arsed to care, too impressed by how easily John brought Mycroft down an entire peg with just his words. And in the kitchen of the safe house Mycroft had arranged for them, no less.

The sheer gall made Sherlock feel giddy. An unexpected rush of excitement rippled through him, making his mouth dry. It reminded him of his headache and lingering dehydration. The bathroom's hot, steam-heavy environment during his talk with John still clung to his skin, and Sherlock swallowed with difficulty. Trying to buy himself time to regain his composure, Sherlock cleared his throat and rose from the table. He ignored Mycroft’s scowl and John’s curious glance and carried on into the kitchen. Drawing himself a cup of water, Sherlock downed the liquid, gasped, and filled the glass again. Only then did he turn to face John and Mycroft, the latter of which was watching him with a calculating expression.

Sherlock sipped the water and tipped his chin toward his brother. “John’s right, Mycroft — do get on with it.”

Mycroft’s face twisted into a sour countenance, but he let the slight pass. John was still standing rigidly against the counter, watching Mycroft with a focus that threatened to make Sherlock weak at the knees.

“As you wish,” Mycroft sighed, affecting a beleaguered tone that made it clear he found the both of them tedious. “As I was saying, you’ll want to think over my proposal before accepting or rejecting it. Most likely,” here, he looked at John, who stiffened, “you won’t like it.”

John’s hands flexed at his sides. Sherlock tracked the movement before sidling over to the counter. Leaning against the cold granite brought him nearer John, close enough to hear his sharp intake of breath. Eyes half-open, he waited for John’s response.

“And why is that?” John asked in a curt voice.

A ghost of Mycroft’s earlier smile, flat and hard, flitted along his lips. “Because it requires a level of sacrifice on your part, Captain Watson, that I’m not sure you’ll appreciate.”

Sherlock heard John’s jaw pop as a tendon flexed in his neck. “Try me,” he challenged.

This time, Mycroft’s smile made it past the twitch of his lips. It spread over his face, sharp as a blade. “You are aware of Sherlock’s current, ah… situation?”

John tipped his head in a small nod. “He explained about Moriarty and the network if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“I am.” Mycroft looked pleased. “Then you’re aware of what he has to do? Why he has to do it?”

Another nod from John. “Yes. He has to dismantle the remaining crime syndicates to destabilize the network.” He glanced at Sherlock and pursed his lips, his expression thoughtful. “He wants his life back.”

Mycroft’s pleased look shifted into one of satisfaction. Something in the way his eyes gleamed made Sherlock feel uneasy. He felt like there was a trap, one John was slowly being led into. Still, Sherlock couldn’t quite see it. He narrowed his eyes, waiting for Mycroft to dangle the bait.

“I’m suggesting an alliance.”

John’s response was visceral. He snorted and looked around, squinting over his shoulder at Sherlock. Glass of water in hand, Sherlock blinked back at him.

“Did you put him up to this?” John asked, jerking his thumb at Mycroft. “‘Cos, that sounds an awful lot like the speech you just gave me in the bathroom.”

Sherlock caught Mycroft’s raised eyebrow and forced his focus back to John. “I didn’t even know he was coming here.” At John’s doubtful expression, Sherlock set down his water and leaned over the counter. John tensed but didn’t move away. “I meant what I said, John,” Sherlock said, dropping his voice until John had to strain to hear him. “No more secrets. Full honesty. Whatever Mycroft is about to suggest, I have no hand in it.”

John was silent, processing Sherlock’s words. His eyes, darkly suspicious, darted over Sherlock’s face as if searching for something. John seemed to find it because he nodded and turned back to Mycroft. The hard line of his shoulders eased, and Sherlock breathed out a relieved sigh. He reached for his water and took another sip, watching both John and Mycroft over the rim.

Eyebrows still raised in false patience, Mycroft blinked at them both. “You’re ready to hear me out, then?”

John blew out a strained little laugh under his breath. “Do I actually have a choice?”

Mycroft’s smile was almost charming. “You do not.”

“Then, by all means,” John muttered, waving a hand. Mycroft scowled but didn’t call John out on his bad manners. Instead, he sighed and continued to smile placidly at them both.

“As you know, Sherlock has become compromised. When he faked his death, it granted him an advantage: it allowed him to slip off the radar and complete his mission. Until now.” Mycroft’s smile slipped away, his expression growing sombre. “As you know all too well, Captain Watson — having been sent to capture and deliver him to his likely death — that facade is gone. His cover is blown, leaving Sherlock vulnerable. He no longer has the element of surprise on his side, can no longer go unnoticed and ignored. That puts his mission — and, by extension, Sherlock — at risk.”

John shifted his weight from one foot to the other, cast Sherlock a quick, unreadable glance, and frowned. “What does that have to do with your proposal?”

With his features arranged into a blank mask, Mycroft said, “Sherlock requires a certain level of support if he is to succeed in his endeavour. Front-line support — support I cannot grant him.”

With his face in profile to Sherlock, John’s eyes narrowed. “What does that have to do with me?” John asked.

Sherlock slid a fingertip over the puddle of condensation forming from the drops slipping off his water glass. He bit his lip, turning Mycroft’s words over in his head, following them toward an inevitable conclusion. His mind reached it just as Mycroft replied.

“I believe you can provide such support, Captain Watson.”

Sherlock and John reacted at the same time. John sucked in a loud breath and hunched his shoulders, and Sherlock stood upright, bolting out of his slouch with an incredulous expression. Before he could think of what to say, John spoke.

“Why me?” he asked, repeating the same question he’d asked Sherlock earlier when steam muffled his voice in the small bathroom. “What help would I be?”

The look Mycroft fixed John with was incredulous. “Please tell me I don’t have to answer such an inane question.”

John bristled. “Answer it,” he said through his teeth, the reply ground out from a tight clench.

Mycroft sighed and tipped his head back. When he settled again, he almost looked disappointed. “You have military experience, Captain Watson. Training as a doctor and a trauma surgeon. You’ve managed to drop off even my radar several times and kept yourself afloat with wet work. You survived an immense trauma that included interrogation, torture, and violent extraction techniques.” He offered a bemused tilt of his lips, eyebrows rising in disbelief. “Shall I go on? Or do you understand now how your experience makes you an asset to my brother?”

A loud, harsh breath huffed out through John’s pursed lips. “No,” he muttered in a dark voice, “I get it.” He shot Sherlock a sidelong glance, evaluating, before turning back to Mycroft. “And if I refuse?”

The look Mycroft offered was pitying. “I really must advise against such a refusal, Captain Watson.”

Dread tingled through Sherlock’s body, coaxing goosebumps over his skin. The final pieces of Mycroft’s plan fell into place, and he sucked in a sharp exhale. The sound drew John’s attention back to him, questioning. Sherlock shook his head and fixed his brother with a glare.

“Mycroft,” he warned, hands curling tightly around the edge of the counter, “don’t.”

Mycroft aimed an unperturbed grimace in his direction. “This doesn’t concern you, Sherlock.”

Sherlock’s fingers tensed, gripping the counter harder. “It very much does concern me.”

“This is between myself and Captain Watson.” Mycroft aimed a beatific smile at John. “Do you wish to hear the full terms of the proposal?”

John, who had been standing statue-still, came to life with a slow flex of hands against his biceps. He stared at Mycroft, tilted his head to one side then the other in a stretch, and breathed loudly out through his nose. He sounded like a bull preparing to charge, and Sherlock eyed him warily. But John held his position, leaning against the counter with his legs crossed at the ankles. Slowly, he uncrossed them, shifting his weight onto the balls of his feet. “What terms?” He sounded cautious.

In comparison to John’s rigid posture, Mycroft looked unbothered. Sherlock felt like he was full of bees, struggling not to jitter with uncertain energy.

“If you agree to help Sherlock, in whatever capacity that may entail,” Mycroft said slowly, “I will make it worth your while.”

John’s tongue darted out, sweeping over his bottom lip in thought. Forehead creased by a small frown, he asked, “How?”

The look on Mycroft’s face made Sherlock’s stomach twist. It reminded him of a hunter, one who had coaxed its prey into taking the bait and was sure of the catch. It made Sherlock want to shut him up. Made him want to grab John and pull him from the room so he wouldn’t be forced into the trap Mycroft had so cleverly set. But all he could do was stand there and let it happen, knowing they’d both been tricked.

“Amnesty,” Mycroft said, clicking his tongue on the t. “Your freedom, Captain Watson. A full pardon. Of any and all crimes you’ve committed since turning your back on the country of your birth.”

John’s back straightened. It was like an electric shock had gone through him, his spine snapping to rigid attention. “You can do that?” he asked, his soft voice communicating evident doubt.

Mycroft nodded. “I can. And I will. But only if Sherlock succeeds. Only if you truly do everything in your power to assist him in completing his mission.”

Sherlock watched John’s throat bob as he swallowed. He was quiet, prompting Sherlock to speak up, “John—”

John held up a hand, cutting him off before Sherlock could finish his protest. Sherlock fell silent, and John’s hands dropped to his sides. Shoulders squared, he held Mycroft’s gaze, unflinching and refusing to back down. “And if I don’t accept your offer?” He cleared his throat, eyes darting to Sherlock’s and away. “If I refuse?”

Mycroft smiled, unperturbed. “Then you will be held accountable for your crimes. All of them. You will be remanded into custody, sent to London and treated like the traitor you are.” Mycroft stretched out his hands slowly and tipped his head to the side, eyes pinning John in place. “You will be tried to the fullest extent of the law, no doubt found guilty, and sentenced accordingly.”

His mouth gone dry, Sherlock looked at John. He stood stiffly, perfectly still and silent with his lips pressed into a thin line. John wasn’t staring at Mycroft, but past him, his gaze fixed on the wall. To Sherlock’s vivid imagination, he thought he could almost see the horror and shock unravelling within John’s body.

He clenched his hands into fists and waited for the outcome.

It was a long moment before John reanimated. He pulled a shallow, stuttering breath in through his teeth and crossed his arms over his chest again. His hands were shaking, and Sherlock watched as he pressed them hard against his biceps to make them stop. Still, his fingers twitched, matching the muscle jumping in his jaw.

“That hardly seems like a fair choice,” John said, his voice no more than a croak.

Mycroft’s expression was pitying. “That’s because it’s not.” Hands folded on the table, he fixed John with an intent eye, like John was a specimen beneath a microscope. Like John was something to be studied and dissected and nothing more. “Amnesty or prison. Your choice, Captain Watson."