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hired gun

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“What the hell is this?” John demanded, staring at the small, innocuous flash drive resting in his palm. He lifted his eyes to the young man standing before him, who shrugged.

“Don’t ask me, man,” he replied, indifferent to John's frustration. “They just tell me where to go and who to deliver to.” Grinning crookedly, his eyes flashing with dark mirth, he added, “Don’t shoot the messenger, eh?”

John just growled in response, closing his fingers tightly around the small device. A flash drive meant securing a computer, and he’d been promised he wouldn’t need one for this assignment. Having the assurance proven false set him on edge, adrenaline spilling into his veins and feeding his urge to retaliate. Instead, John shoved the flash drive into his pocket, irritation simmering beneath his controlled facade as he shot a tight, close-lipped smile at the courier. It was fine. John would pretend everything was fine until he was alone. He could then slam his fist into the wall and curse the Colonel for yet another vague assignment.

Pay the nice man, Watson, he thought through a haze of irritation. John dug a sheaf of Moroccan dirhams from his pocket and pushed several brightly-coloured notes into the courier’s hand. They exchanged nods, and the man disappeared into the crowd. Staring after him, John admitted he was better than the usual amateurs who delivered his assignments. Not many people could ghost with such ease and in such a busy place. Either the couriers were getting better, or John’s boss was sending more experienced messengers, making the area higher risk than John initially assumed.

Upgrading his discretion another notch, John shifted his eyes over the milling crowd, the raucous sounds of the market filling his ears. He shook the tension out of his shoulders, touching his fingertips to the knife hidden at his hip, the gun tucked into a shoulder holster. Posture slipping into an unassuming slouch, John slid into the flow of people.

 


 

The man at his feet gurgled, staring up at Sherlock with shocked eyes. The early-morning sunrise painted a golden edge to his slackening face. Even as Sherlock watched, the light in the dying man’s gaze dimmed, dulled, and flickered out with the blood seeping from his open throat. The first time Sherlock watched a man gasp his last breath, the nausea lingered for days. Now, he watched impassively, the corpse just one more fallen chess piece in the game between him and Moriarty's network.

Death was his new norm. The body at his feet belonged to yet another kill in a long list that felt endless. Until recently, Sherlock believed he wouldn’t ever see the end. Now, with this man dead, only five remained. Five living people left before Sherlock could go home.

It had been ages. Two weeks ago was two years since faking his own death, and Sherlock missed London like a physical part of himself. If Sherlock was naive enough to believe in the concept of a soul, he might have said it had been parted from him the second he set foot off the roof of Bart’s Hospital. He left without knowing whether he would see the familiar, smoggy skyline of home again.

He would leave Morocco tonight, land in Serbia late tomorrow. Five names. Five men between him and home. He was so close. It was right there, the lure of success, of completion. Sherlock could taste it.

 


 

The computer was slower than John liked but secure enough. He squatted in front of the laptop, checking the door every few seconds over his shoulder. After waiting for the occupants of the apartment to leave, he hoped they wouldn’t be back in the fifteen or so minutes it would take him to go over the flash drive, wipe the contents, and slip out unnoticed.

After a night spent tossing and turning, filled with burning curiousity about the flash drive, John’s fingers jittered with barely suppressed anticipation. It was early in the day yet, and he was eager to get started.

With wariness prickling over the nape of his neck, John slid the device into one of the USB ports and waited for the computer to recognize the connection. He stretched and rolled his shoulders back, leaning forward when the flash drive popped up in the taskbar. Once loaded, John typed in his access code and frowned at the singular folder, marked simply by a designated codename: Phoenix. The target was from London, England. British.

Leaning back, John rubbed a hand over his face, assailed by memories he tried not to look too closely at. Too many years stood between now and when John last walked on English soil, and he would be lying if he said he didn’t miss it. Shaking his head, John pushed aside a nostalgic twinge and opened the file, trying not to linger on the fact that Phoenix was a Londoner, just like him.

The first thing John noticed was a photo, the icon small and grainy until he double-clicked, and the quality slowly improved. Even before the resolution was entirely clear, John could see Phoenix was attractive. His face was all sharp edges, and his eyes were sharper still, piercing even with the angle of the photo. It was taken from above, with Phoenix paused at the edge of an alley, peering out at the bustling street. Idly, John wondered why the photographer didn’t take the man out themselves and theorized that Phoenix must not have constituted a high enough threat at the time. Whatever the reason for John’s involvement, it was clear that Phoenix did something to move from ‘under observation’ to ‘a great big problem' pretty fast. The photo was dated only two weeks prior.

Closing the image, John clicked through the rest of the flash drive’s contents. He read Phoenix’s skill set, noting that he was dangerously intelligent, quick on his feet, and trained in hand-to-hand combat. Nowhere did the document tell him what Phoenix did to earn himself a spot on John’s hit list. He assumed discretion would be integral in his apprehension.

The final note in the file noted Phoenix must be taken alive. Below were two addresses, one of his current whereabouts, the other for the drop point. The job outline didn’t specify whether that meant dropping off Phoenix unharmed, which John always assumed implied that the use of necessary force was acceptable. John's lip curled as he wondered whether or not Phoenix would cooperate. He preferred to keep his pick-ups controlled, calm, and as non-violent as possible. Made for a smoother job.

A sound in the hallway spurred him into action. Wiping the flash drive, John ejected the device, shoved it into his pocket and set the computer back onto the desk as it powered down. A key scraped in the lock. John was already across the room and out on the balcony before the tumblers shifted.

Sliding the screen door closed silently behind him, John checked for witnesses, found the coast clear, and pulled himself over the railing.

 


 

Exhaustion hung heavy on his frame, bowing his back as Sherlock stumbled into his tiny room. The lodging had served as his home for two months now, and the sight of the bare, tan walls filled him with both a sense of security and an aching homesickness for London. It was hot here, nothing like the foggy, chill haze of his city, and Sherlock pined for familiar streets with a ferocity that surprised even him.

As he stripped out of sweat-stiffened clothes, he thought even the rank smell of the Thames would be welcome.

The water from the bath faucet was too hot. The billowing steam pulled fresh perspiration from his pores before Sherlock turned the taps to cold. The chill water did less to loosen his sore muscles, but it soothed the sunburn on his face when he climbed into the tub and ducked his head beneath the surface.

Sherlock opened his eyes beneath the water, staying under long enough for his lungs to burn. Bubbles escaped from his nose and mouth before he lifted his head and sucked in a gasp of air. He washed his hair, face and body, stepping out of the tub just as shivers began to ripple over his goosebump-covered skin.

Draining the tub, his mind already shutting down and craving sleep, Sherlock towelled dry with slow hands. He tousled his hair, left it ruffled and dripping, and dropped the towel over the edge of the empty tub.

In the main room, he paused to draw the gauzy curtains over the window as the sun rose, the heat building as the day ticked toward the hottest part of the morning. Without bothering to dress or pull back the covers, Sherlock collapsed naked across the narrow bed. Face buried in the pillow, he was asleep within seconds.

 


 

Sweat beaded on his brow and trickled down the side of his face as John shifted his posture to alleviate a cramp in his left thigh. The ghost of an ache lingered in the limb, and he massaged the muscle with one hand while he gripped binoculars in the other. After watching Phoenix’s bolthole for the better half of the day, John was antsy. Hours of sitting brought out his restless side, making him ache for action, for adrenaline and the chase. If someone told him working as a mercenary involved almost as much sitting around as most desk jobs, John was confident he wouldn’t have bothered.

But he was here, with a job and hours of sitting already under his belt, with many more ahead. Phoenix's file listed him as a high-level flight risk, and John’s instincts told him Phoenix was preparing to relocate. After returning to his room, he'd drawn the curtains—providing a brief and pleasantly unexpected flash of nudity—and didn't move for the next four hours. John could only assume he was asleep, catching up on missed rest and sleeping the day away in preparation for his next move. He estimated Phoenix would leave either that night or early the next day. It was a tactic John himself used, readying himself for action by refreshing his mind and body with several consecutive hours of needed shut-eye before his next job.

His initial impression of Phoenix rose another notch in respect. John needed to be cautious. Phoenix didn’t seem the type to be easily caught off guard.

A low growl drew John’s attention to his stomach, and he grimaced. Holding the binoculars with one hand, eyes still trained on Phoenix’s window, he dug for the snack he’d picked up at an early-morning street food stall on his way to the stakeout. The sfenj was mostly cold, but still airy and soft inside, and John hummed his enjoyment around a mouthful of fried dough. He’d miss the street food of Morocco when he left. Still, there would always be another place, with its own food and culture, something to enjoy in his minimal but appreciated downtime.

Popping the last of the sfenj into his mouth, John licked the oil and butter from his fingers before wiping them dry on his thigh.

A shadow passed by Phoenix’s window, the first sign of movement within the dwelling, and John froze. Both hands back on the binoculars, he held his breath and stared, waiting for further action.

There. Phoenix stopped at the window, flicked back the curtains, and looked outside. John narrowed his eyes and sucked in a soft inhale, reminding himself that there was no way Phoenix could see him from this distance. With the binoculars bringing Phoenix into perfect clarity, it was unnerving to see the way his sharp, pale eyes swept the street. They darted over the nearby buildings and seemed to settle on John’s exact position.

Unblinking and still as a statue, John stared back. He listened to the rush of his racing pulse in his ears until the curtain dropped, and Phoenix’s shadow moved away from the window. John came back to life with a strained sigh through his teeth. Lowering the binoculars, he moved quickly but with careful control, packing up his equipment and stuffing the napkin from his meal into his bag.

Minutes later, John was down the side of the building. Canvas bag over his shoulder and ball cap on, he was just another tourist on holiday. John slipped into the growing crowds as the day fell toward the cooler hours of evening, and the city came to life. 

No doubt, Phoenix would make his move soon. Which meant John needed to be ready. As he angled past a family, shooting them a smile when they looked his way, John was already pulling together the pieces of his plan.

 


 

Though his body still craved sleep, Sherlock forced himself to rise when the alarm on his watch trilled into the relative quiet of his room. Outside and below, the sound of the city coming to life rose from the streets, but the building itself was nearly silent.

Rising, Sherlock stretched his arms toward the ceiling, working kinks out of his body, stiff from sleeping in the same position for several hours. His lower back and abdomen both ached, a testament to the wounds received by his last target when the man fought back before Sherlock got the upper hand. He winced at a twinge in his ribs and rubbed a hand absently over the bruised area, grateful it wasn’t worse

He crossed to the window and flicked the curtain aside, checking for signs of unusual activity. Though he knew Moriarty’s men would be too smart to hide in plain sight with Sherlock’s powers of observation, he couldn’t help but check. It was instinctive and had saved him more than once.

Seeing nothing out of the norm, he stepped away and let the curtain fall into place before turning to study the room. Sherlock needed to book his flight. The wifi in the building was spotty at best, not to mention unreliable in its security. Public wifi, paired with a VPN, would have to be sufficient.

His things were packed and ready to go in ten minutes. Travelling light allowed him the best freedom of movement, and he only kept what little he had to. He had his basic toiletries, whatever clothes helped him best blend in, his lockpicks and tools, several fake passports. There was various money in multiple currencies, a small Acer laptop, and a handgun with one extra magazine and two ammunition boxes wrapped in a pair of ratty jeans. No phone, too easy to trace, and nothing personal save for the small leather case that held his lockpicks.

Sherlock packed everything but his picks and laptop into a sturdy duffle. He hesitated, lingering over the gun, wondering if he should take it. Even though it was evening, the temperatures were still high and stifling, and bringing it meant wearing a second layer to cover its presence. He was just going down the street to a nearby hostel to tap into the wifi, book his ticket, and then he’d be back. The gun would only draw attention, something he couldn’t afford this close to leaving.

Once Sherlock left the building, pausing in the doorway to scan the street, he immediately regretted his decision to leave the gun behind, feeling the weapon’s absence sharply. Despite his distaste for firearms, the small handgun had been the fine line between life and death enough times for him to appreciate its existence. He lingered, toying with the idea of going back upstairs to retrieve it.

Caught up in his indecision, he nearly missed the feeling of someone approaching him. Sherlock froze. His breath stuttered out in a tense huff, and he readied himself for an attack. But the stranger, a white man with a canvas duffle bag over one shoulder wearing simple clothes and a ball cap, just brushed past him, muttering a soft, nearly indistinct apology when their shoulders touched. 

Sherlock watched him go with narrowed eyes until the man disappeared around a corner. His step never faltered, unhurried but not uncertain, and Sherlock dismissed him as a tourist on holiday.

Later, he would wonder how he missed the obvious.

 


 

When Phoenix finally left his room, John shifted through the scarce shadows. He was ready to follow the man until they reached somewhere John could subdue him and have Phoenix out of sight before anyone happened upon them.

He wasn’t expecting Phoenix to abruptly halt in the exit of the building and linger there with apparent uncertainty. John waited in the dark and held his breath, eyes narrowed as he watched the tall Englishman stand in one spot.

After nearly a minute and a half, John finally had to act. If he stayed any longer, no doubt someone would get suspicious, and Phoenix didn’t look like he would move anytime soon. Decision made, John strode forward with his hands in his pockets, shoulders relaxed in a slouch to adjust his height. He took care to jostle Phoenix slightly, just enough to seem accidental.

“Sorry, mate,” he muttered, brushing past and out into the alley as Phoenix stiffened with surprise at the brief contact. Resisting the urge to look back, John walked in a slow, measured pace toward the street, glancing about in that unhurried, relaxed way of a traveller taking in the sights.

His heart hammered in his chest like a drumline until he passed out of Phoenix’s view.

Retreating into the doorway of a building with a direct eye line to the alley, John stepped into the shadows clinging to the archway. The breath he was holding hissed out through his teeth, and he forced his shoulders to relax.

That had been too close. Did Phoenix notice him lurking? Was he suspicious? If so, he would be that much harder to take quietly, and John cursed beneath his breath. Shaking his head and blowing out another sigh, he watched the mouth of the alley with unblinking eyes, leaning further into his cover.

When Phoenix eventually appeared, he only gave his surroundings a cursory glance before turning left and striding away from the alley. His eyes didn’t linger, he didn’t search the crowd, and he moved like a man at leisure, instead of one wary or anticipating an attack.

The last of his anxiety eased away as John surmised that Phoenix either believed his ruse or was a very, very good actor. Prepared for either, John slid out of the doorway and walked in the same direction as his target. Phoenix was easy to pick out in a crowd, tall and far too striking with his dark curls and sharp cheekbones.

Following at a careful distance, John waited for his opportunity to strike.

 


 

The light was beginning to sink into twilight when Sherlock headed back to his room, and the streets were loud and bustling. Annoyed by the crowds, feeling claustrophobic and buffeted by strangers, he darted down a side alley, releasing a sigh of relief when he found himself alone. With the heat and the clinging weight of lingering exhaustion, Sherlock finally felt like he could catch his breath in the open space.

He realized his mistake moments later, but by then, he couldn't escape the assault. Sherlock sensed the man seconds too late and could only twist and throw up his arm to absorb the blow meant for the back of his head, instead of dodging it entirely. To his dismay, his attacker grabbed his wrist in an iron grip. He slid a foot between Sherlock's legs to break his balance with a controlled twist and spun Sherlock into the recessed niche of a doorway.

With the air knocked from his lungs by the force of the impact, Sherlock struggled to recover. He nearly caught his breath when the man wrenched his arm around and turned Sherlock, and they were suddenly face-to-face. Taking in the sight of the man, his duffle bag, tanned white skin and ball cap, Sherlock’s eyes went wide, recognizing the ‘tourist’ who had bumped into him outside his rooms.

Idiot, he cursed silently, staring at the dark blue eyes pinned to his. He had been so stupid, dismissing the man as a threat. He was tired and slipping, and here was the consequence.

Hot breath warmed Sherlock’s throat, and a low voice murmured, “Don’t move.” A hand felt over Sherlock’s body, checking for hidden weapons, thorough and quick. The man was no common thug, that much was clear. He frisked Sherlock with practiced sweeps of his hand, radiating competence and experience. He kept Sherlock's arm twisted at his back without giving so much as an inch when Sherlock wriggled to test his strength.

He fell still when the hand searching him disappeared, and a muscled forearm pressed him into the wall by the throat. “What did I just say?” the man hissed, glaring up at Sherlock with hard eyes. He was several inches shorter, but the height difference between them didn’t give Sherlock any advantages, not with his arm and neck pinned. He swallowed, feeling his throat expand against the pressure, and blinked twice to show he understood. The man caught the message and nodded. “Alright.”

The second he softened his grip, moving to pull Sherlock away from the wall, bending to check his legs, Sherlock reacted. There was a thin blade in the side of his left boot, and he jerked forward then back to shift the man off balance before he went for it.

His fingers barely brushed the handle before a boot connected with the back of his knee, and Sherlock went down with a muffled shout. Pain ripped through his leg, and the air was pulled from his lungs again as he hit the ground. The impact sent a ripple of agony through his bruised ribs and threw his diaphragm into spasm. In seconds, he was helpless and desperately trying to breathe with a frozen chest.

A knee settled into the small of his back, carefully pinning Sherlock by his lower body instead of his paralyzed upper half. He felt the man dig the knife out and sagged in reluctant defeat. The hard plastic edge of a zip tie bit into his wrists, tight enough to press the delicate bones together but not to rub the skin raw, before the man gripped him by the throat, shifted, and pulled Sherlock into a kneeling position.

“Breathe slowly,” he ordered in a low voice. “The longer you fight the spasm, the worse it will get until you hyperventilate and pass out.” Sherlock struggled, still pulling in breaths that were too fast and too shallow. The man’s hand tightened, and Sherlock’s airway closed partially, strangling his next inhale into a wheeze. “Christ, listen to me, would you?” The man's irritation was evident, but the squeeze of his fingers on either side of Sherlock’s throat was controlled and surprisingly gentle.

Through his growing disorientation, Sherlock realized the man wasn’t choking him, but trying to control his air intake and slow his panicked gasps. The entire situation felt surreal. A typical attacker or hitman, as Sherlock was beginning to think the stranger must be, wouldn’t care. Even if he hadn’t been sent to kill Sherlock, anyone else would have just let him hyperventilate and lose consciousness, making the extraction easier.

When a hand landed on his chest and slid down to where Sherlock’s diaphragm had tightened into a constricting band, it clicked. Through the haze of oxygen deprivation, the easy expertise behind the man’s actions was explicit. Whatever he was now, Sherlock would bet his life, as little as it was worth, that his attacker had once been a doctor.

Perplexed by the realization, he finally managed a proper breath. The pressure on his chest eased slowly, as did the grip on his throat, and Sherlock gulped in another, grateful when the dizziness began to recede.

“Slowly,” the man cautioned, hand hovering on Sherlock’s throat, warm and rough against his skin. The man was clearly left-handed and familiar with firearms, going by the calluses he could feel on the man’s palm. It was an alarming deduction, speaking to a skilled, dangerous individual. As Sherlock breathed deeply, regaining his focus in inches, the man went on. “I’d rather not have to hurt you again, so maybe just do as I say, yeah?”

Pressing his lips together, Sherlock didn’t reply, instead studying their surroundings for any chance of escape, desperately looking for a way out.

The man’s hand lifted from his chest and connected with the side of Sherlock’s head. It was an open-palmed blow, meant to stun rather than seriously harm, and Sherlock swayed as his ear began to ring. Vertigo rushed over him, and he tilted sideways before the man caught his arm, hauling him to his feet. Sherlock rose, stumbling on his injured leg, the man steadying him with an efficient grip.

“I’ll say it again,” the stranger growled, his breath hot and fast but controlled against Sherlock’s ear. “If you do as I say, I won’t hurt you. Got it?”

This time, Sherlock nodded, his skull still ringing with the intensity of the strike. He blinked and tilted his head to the side, wondering if the eardrum was damaged. As if reading his mind, the man squeezed his shoulder in what almost felt like an attempt at comfort. It was confusing and at odds with his efficient, cold violence.

“There’s no blood,” the man said in a reassuring tone that made Sherlock blink. “You’ll be fine. Just don’t try to fight me again.” He waited for Sherlock’s nod before tilting his head in one of his own. “Alright. Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

The pick-up went far easier than John anticipated. As he hauled Phoenix out of sight and toward the nondescript rental car he’d parked nearby earlier in the day, he could only hope the drop-off would be as smooth.

But, as John’s stunning blow wore off, Phoenix began to struggle. Despite his breathing issues and the limp in his step, his zip-tied hands, he writhed viciously against John’s grip on his restraints. He twisted and almost tugged John off his feet with a sudden and violent jerk to the left.

Prepared, John shifted his weight, loosening his muscles enough for the pull to tug him along with his captive. Caught off guard by John following his motions, Phoenix overshot. He lost his balance, careening forward until John planted his back foot and shoved forward then back. The movement put Phoenix off his centre. Feet skidding against loose rocks on the cobblestones, he tipped neatly over onto his side once John released his grip on the cable tie.

Phoenix lay on the ground, curled onto his side, blinking up at John with a dazed expression on his sharp features. John stood over him, checking their surroundings to ensure they were still alone. For the moment, they were clear, but he couldn’t rely on that to continue.

“You’re making this much harder than it needs to be.” John nudged the tip of his boot into the man’s ribs to force him onto his stomach. Phoenix was helpless with his hands restrained behind him, struggling to rise before John’s foot landed on his back, and he went still.

Bootheel positioned over the tender skin above Phoenix’s left kidney, John pressed. The pressure was light, a warning, not enough to hurt but enough to make the threat clear. “I told you to come quietly. Either listen, or I’ll make you quiet.”

Twisting his head to the side, Phoenix sneered, “Big talk and no action.” His eyes, pale and razor-sharp, darted over John’s face and figure, lingering on his shoulders before he added, “Captain."

Shock rippled through John at the title. Unheard in so long, it still made his back stiffen as he almost stood at attention. Catching himself, he ground his teeth together and pushed away his confusion.

Phoenix was far more dangerous than he first assumed if he knew John’s past.

“I’m done playing,” John said in a crisp, tight voice. Instead of inspiring fear, he saw Phoenix smirk, and his eyes narrowed. Bending, John grabbed the man’s thick, dark curls, ignoring the way they clung to his fingers with sweat, and smacked his head against the cobblestones with just enough force to make the man go limp as he lost consciousness.

John hauled Phoenix’s slack body into the back of the rental car and onto the floor. He bound his feet together with two more zip ties before dropping a blanket over to hide him, John’s jaw clenching and releasing in a rhythmic grinding of teeth. He searched through his pockets, confiscating a small laptop, some cash, a pre-paid credit card, and a set of what looked like lock picks. Staring at the last, John shrugged and stuffed the objects into his canvas duffle bag.

Rising, he stretched the tension from his spine and scowled down at his unresponsive captive. The next mission better be twice his usual fee. Otherwise, he’d be telling the Colonel to go fuck himself for the trouble of this one.

 


 

The second his eyes opened, Sherlock squinted them closed again. His ears rang, pain throbbing through his head in sick, rolling pulses. He felt something sticky high on his face where hairline met with forehead and grimaced. Something bit the corners of his lips, his mouth filled with the thick taste of cotton—some kind of gag. Loss of freedom was the price of his complacency.

Sherlock wriggled and realized his things had been taken, and he cursed silently. Mentally kicking himself for being stupid enough to leave his gun behind, he tried to focus past the agony of his headache and listen. 

He heard the rumble of an engine, felt the vibration of movement through his body. A blanket was draped over him, covering everything from head to toe and muffling ambient noise. Sherlock dimly remembered a nondescript car before his memory faded into a red haze of pain.

Eyes still closed, he tried to breathe slowly through the cloth in his mouth and considered his options.

His captor was military, likely an ex-soldier, given his penchant for kidnapping men off the street. He wore nothing to indicate him as employed by Her Majesty’s army. Despite his British accent, he seemed to have been abroad far longer than Sherlock.

Ex-soldier, ex-doctor. Well-trained, skilled, and intelligent enough to track Sherlock and take him by surprise. Strong enough to keep hold of him, rendering Sherlock’s own defensive training all but useless. His head still rang with the force of the attack, and though his captor told Sherlock to cooperate, Sherlock never did follow orders well.

He listened to the hum of the engine, rocked with the start and stop nature of vehicular travel, and wondered where he would end up. He had no doubts that Moriarty’s men were behind his capture and tried to imagine what might await him at the end of the drive.

The motion of the vehicle rocked him in the floor well, lulling him into a daze. As the time stretched out, the gag in his mouth sucked the moisture from his lips and tongue. It made every inhale taste like dry cotton and the faint tang of metal as the skin around his mouth split and bled sluggishly. It was hot. The rental car obviously lacked air conditioning. Sherlock felt a flush work up his body as he counted out nearly two hours of travel.

There was a cramp starting in his thigh. It worked its way down his leg, making the limb twitch and jitter, his stomach clenching with the beginnings of dehydration. With the gag in his mouth, talking was impossible, and Sherlock resisted the urge to whine his discomfort.

Then, blessedly, they stopped.

The car shifted, the force of its arrested movement jerking Sherlock against the back of the front seats before the engine cut off. He curled up beneath the blanket as much as his bound, cramping legs would allow and waited.

When the door near his feet opened, it let in a rush of hot, dry air, and Sherlock sucked feebly through the gag, desperate for something that wasn’t his own re-inhaled breathing. The blanket lifted off his head, leaving him blinking to clear his vision as his eyes slowly adjusted to the sudden light. With black spots dancing in his view, Sherlock struggled to react to the hand gripping his zip-tied wrists and hauling him up to a half-sitting position. Tilted against the back seats, kneeling on the floor, Sherlock shook his head and looked up at his captor. The man stared back at him.

“I need you to listen to me. Can you do that?” His voice was rough and strange after hours of mechanical noise. Sweat trickled down his flushed face, beyond the collar of his shirt and disappearing over a clavicle.

Sherlock tore his eyes away from the droplet’s path and nodded.

“Good.” Reaching out, the man loosened the gag and let it slip down to hang from Sherlock’s neck.

The second it was gone, and his mouth was clear, Sherlock gagged, choked, and sucked in a noisy, desperate breath. He tried to draw in another, thinking he could fill his lungs and shout, but his captor clapped a hand over his mouth.

His grip was hard, forcefully punishing, mashing Sherlock’s lips against his teeth. Shaking his head, he tried to angle his jaw to bite into the fleshy heel of the man’s hand. He only succeeded in scraping his teeth against skin before fingers dug into his jaw and forced his mouth open.

“I really wouldn’t do that,” the man warned, looking down at Sherlock with fierce eyes. “Remember what I said about cooperating?” He waited for Sherlock’s nod and received only a deadly glare instead. Sighing, he went on, adding, “I’m serious. If you don’t settle down, I’ll make you.”

The hand disappeared from his mouth, and Sherlock drew in a breath once again, but before he could let it out in a yell, a plastic water bottle knocked against his bottom lip. Water spilled over his mouth and chin, and rather than choke and inhale the liquid into his lungs, Sherlock drank. He sucked the water down with blatant greed, his tongue dry and barren, the water as welcomed as an oasis in the desert.

It mixed with the half-dried blood marring his split lip and filled his mouth with the taste of metal.

Swallowing dropped a watery sensation of fullness into his stomach until the bottle disappeared, and he tipped backward with a grunt. Hands pinned beneath him, Sherlock struggled to roll onto his side, kicking his bound feet into the door frame. The man caught him by the knees and tilted him onto his side. Sherlock went limp, winded and exhausted by the brief burst of movement. The inside of the car was stifling. Even with the door open, and Sherlock’s curls clung to his forehead, plastered against his skin by sweat. Focused on catching his breath, his eyes drifted to the man and past him, taking in the darkened sky.

It was night, and the air had yet to cool.

The man studied him, his dark blue eyes roving over Sherlock’s face and drawing his attention. When he spoke, his voice was low and controlled, “You called me Captain.”

Staring back at him, Sherlock licked his lips and, clearing his throat, said, “I did. Because you are.”

A muscle twitched in the man’s jaw, betraying his discomfort with the response. As if considering the words, he blew out a long sigh before he responded, “Was. I was a captain. I’m… not anymore.” Looking away, left hand flexing, Sherlock’s captor squatted in the open car door and frowned into the dark. Sherlock studied him in the ensuing silence until the man turned back and asked, “How did you know?”

“I didn’t.” Swallowing around reactive saliva, Sherlock sniffed. The back of his throat felt thick and sticky, no doubt a consequence of his earlier assault. “It was a guess, but a good one.” When the man’s eyes narrowed, a dangerous expression flickering over his tanned face, Sherlock hurried to add, “I know you were a soldier. I could get into particulars, but it’s easier if you just accept that I know things because I see them. Which, if your employer provided any pertinent information, you are likely already aware of.” He waited and received a curt nod before continuing. “You were most likely an army-doctor, invalided by an injury that doesn’t seem to impact your new role too substantially.” Sherlock looked the man over with a critical eye, pretending, for the moment, that he wasn’t entirely at his mercy. “It’s not hard to see why a man like yourself ended up in Moriarty’s employ.”

A slow frown creased the man’s forehead, pushing his eyebrows together as his lips turned down at the corners with a bemused moue. “Who’s Moriarty?”

 


 

A stubborn quiet met his question. Still squatting in the open space of the rear driver’s side door, John studied his captive. The man studied him back with eyes that looked nearly-silver in the dark and unsettlingly sharp. It was like being taken apart, that gaze. As if Phoenix was stripping John of his skin, looking down to his core, to blood and bone.

Phoenix was a liability. John had no doubt about that. The more the man spoke, the clearer it became to John why he was tasked with capturing him. But the name Moriarty was unfamiliar to John, one he never heard before now, and he narrowed his eyes down at the man lying in a cramped position behind the front seats.

When he received no answer, John stood and stretched out his legs, tendons aching from holding the squat for so long.

“Keep quiet,” he said before tossing the blanket over Phoenix’s long form. The door closed with a click, cutting off any possibility of a response. Standing outside the car, John slipped his hands into his pockets and tilted his head up toward the night sky. It was clear and hot, the dry heat heavy and close against his skin.

A drop of sweat trickled down his temple and along his cheek as John stared up at the stars overhead. Memories crept into his head, insidious and never far, of a different desert, of constellations burning like white fire over red sand and the rattle of machine gunfire.

Sucked over his teeth, his inhale whistled as John pushed the thoughts back. Feeling a phantom twinge of pain in his left shoulder, he slipped his hands back out of his pockets and slid behind the wheel. Pausing to glance in the back at the motionless form beneath the blanket, John closed his eyes, settled his shoulders against the seat, and started the engine.

The drop site was a few hours away. John could be there and rid of his cargo by morning, and off to his next job. Maybe somewhere temperate or tropical. Maybe Bali.

Images of palm trees and crystalline, blue waters occupying his thoughts, John shifted the car into gear, shoulder-checked, and guided the vehicle back onto the road.

 


 

Curled beneath the stifling weight of the blanket, Sherlock stared at the bottom of the backseat. He combed through his interactions with his captor with a fine-toothed comb. It was better than succumbing to the faint feeling of panic beginning to well up inside him.

Closing his eyes, Sherlock ticked off what he knew so far.

His captor was an ex-soldier, formerly a man of medicine. Well-trained, skilled, competent. Brutal and strong with an unexpected edge of mercy that might be an attempt to hide a good character. He used violence and force when necessary and showed restraint when a cooler head was needed. He gave Sherlock water, handled him efficiently but without undue malice.

He didn’t replace the gag once removed.

Judging by the man’s absolute lack of familiar reaction to the name, he didn't know of Moriarty. Yet, there was little doubt in Sherlock’s mind that his captor must be employed by Moriarty’s network. Most likely, he was a freelancer of some kind, possibly a mercenary. Loyal to no one but himself.

Maybe Sherlock could reason with him. Mercenary he might be, but the man once fought for something bigger than himself. Queen and Country meant little to Sherlock, though he knew it meant much to some people. People who believed in doing the right thing, being involved, standing up for something. Sherlock never stood up for anything but his own interest in all his life, and he wondered what could take a man who stood up for others and change him until he cared for no one but himself. Pledged temporary allegiance to the highest bidder, captured strangers without knowledge of who they were.

Maybe believing in Queen and Country did that. And, perhaps, there was something of that left. There was only one way to find out—a theory.

A test.

He let an hour pass, feeling the heat press in and draw the moisture from his pores. Clearing his throat, Sherlock coughed hard and loud until his vocal cords felt raw and hot. He curled into himself, hacked out a rough sound, and croaked, “Water.”

There was a pause before he received a reply, the man answering with a short, “I gave you water.”

Sherlock bit into his dry lip and set the dried blood to bubbling up fresh from the cut, groaning, “Please.” Silence. He held his breath, hoping, tensing as he waited.

Finally, the man spoke again, snapping, “Goddammit,” before the car pulled off the road with a jerk. The gears made a harsh grinding sound as Sherlock’s captor engaged the emergency brake. The blanket disappeared, torn off his face by an impatient hand.

Sherlock once again found a plastic bottle pressed to his lips. He drank, choking a little on the water until he struggled into a partially upright position. The warmed liquid trickled down his chin and his neck. It seeped into the collar of his shirt, the air hot enough that it seemed to evaporate almost as quickly as it ran over his skin.

The man watched him with a stony expression, tilting the bottle away when Sherlock struggled to swallow. “Finished?” he asked, voice tense.

“Trying to get rid of me, are you?” Sherlock retorted, trying for sarcastic but sounding only weak. His throat felt raw, abraded by the forced coughing. The man’s eyes narrowed.

“How could you tell?” he said, feeding Sherlock’s cynical tone right back to him. He nudged the mouth of the bottle against Sherlock’s bottom lip until Sherlock shook his head. Screwing the cap back on, the man tossed the water into the passenger seat and reached for the blanket.

Shimmying up a little higher, Sherlock tilted forward to catch his eye. “Wait,” he implored, watching the man stiffen with a wary expression. “I need you to listen to me.”

His back straightening, the man went rigid. “I really don’t have to do any such thing.” The words were terse and tight, a shadow passing over the man’s face. It darkened his eyes, made them glitter in the dark, and Sherlock pulled in an unsteady breath at the change.

Though he knew the man was dangerous, now he looked dangerous. Gone was the unassuming facade, replaced with a visage that Sherlock knew to be something which must lurk deep.

Here was the thing that changed a patriotic man into something of nightmares.

“You don’t know who I am,” Sherlock said, trying again to insert reason. But his words fell on deaf ears as the man gripped the blanket, paused, and looked at him with a hard stare.

“No, I don’t. And I don’t need to. I’ve got a job to do, and I don’t need to hear your life story to do it.” Dropping the blanket, he dug into his pocket for something.

Sherlock wilted at the sight of the thin strip of cotton. He tried to struggle, but there was nowhere to go. His bound hands and feet left him helpless, and the gag slipped past the brief resistance of his lips with ease. When it butted up against his clenched teeth, the man simply grabbed him by the jaw, pinched his nose shut, and waited until Sherlock’s mouth opened with a desperate gasp.

The gag slid over his tongue, the knot rubbing at the back of his skull. He managed to shoot one last furious look at his captor before a hand tipped him back down onto his side, and the blanket settled over his head.

 


 

John passed the few hours to the drop site with hands clenched tight and white-knuckled around the steering wheel. His head swam, no longer with images of tropical Bali but of wide, pleading eyes that gleamed silver in the dark interior of the car.

He cursed quietly under his breath and resisted the urge to slam his palm against the wheel.

It was supposed to be a straight-forward job. Most were meant to be, and yet, somehow, rarely was that the case. John was sick of it. Tired. Exhausted. Working for the highest bidder, loyal to none. That’s what this was supposed to be.

Lips pulling down at the corners in a fierce grimace, John glared out at the road. Even in the military, he had more freedom. Now, it seemed he was tethered to endless jobs where nothing ever went the way it was supposed to. Phoenix’s words rattled him. The imploring way he begged to tell his story sat like a stone in John’s gut. He knew the coughing fit was faked. A ploy to force him to hear Phoenix out?

He couldn't be sure.

His GPS pinged, and John turned the wheel, guiding the car into a left turn as directed. The site was close. Soon, he’d be free of his latest burden. Free to disappear.

Fuck it all. John would go to Bali, but not for new jobs. Let the Colonel and his cheeky messengers shove all their assignments up their arseholes. John was done. He had more than enough money to quit, more than he could hope to spend in a lifetime. One last drop, and he was done.

The GPS pinged again, announcing his arrival. John shut the device off and stopped the car. Looking out the windshield, he saw nothing but scrub grass and the shadowed, looming shape of a hill in the distance, dark against the night sky. He frowned, scanning the area for a building, another car, for anything, and coming up empty.

He killed the engine and sat stiffly, listening to the car tinging and clicking as it went through its cooldown functions. On immediate alert, John narrowed his eyes. Nothing moved out in the dark, but he didn’t trust it. Something felt… off. His instincts screamed internally, emphasizing the difference between this drop and all the ones before it. Never had he been sent out into the middle of nowhere like this without someone waiting to meet him. The lack of any other presence put him on edge.

Still, there was a job to complete, and sitting here in the car achieved nothing.

John opened the door and stepped out slowly, his movements cautious. He sniffed the hot air, smelled vegetation, sand and dirt, and narrowed his eyes into the dark. There was nothing: no movement, no voice calling out, no sound of an idling engine or footsteps.

Trying to ignore his growing unease, he opened the back door and hunkered, instinctively positioning himself for cover behind the open door. He reached out and gripped the blanket, drawing it off Phoenix’s face. His captive glared at him, pupils dilating in the dark as they adjusted to the minimal light cast by the moon and stars and the overhead light in the car.

John held a finger up to his lips to signal silence, and Phoenix stared at him, lips bleeding sluggishly around the shape of the fabric gag. Holding his gaze, John slipped a knife out of his waistband and used it to cut the zip tie around his captive's ankles. Phoenix flexed his feet slowly, wincing as the blood rushed back into what had to be very numb flesh.

“Come on,” John snapped, grabbing the man by his bound hands and hauling Phoenix backwards out of the car. He came, stumbling, his legs unsteady. His feet caught on the frame before John could anticipate the snag, and they both tipped sideways as Phoenix fell. The trip likely saved John’s life, he thought seconds later, after he recovered from the shock of a bullet punching into the roof of the car where his head had just been.

John moved in a surge of action, dragging Phoenix with him as he skidded in the sand and around the car. He ducked down on the other side, breath hissing out through his teeth at the sound of bullets hammering the earth. Phoenix huffed through the gag and slipped to his knees when John tugged him down by a handful of his shirt.

“Don’t make a sound,” John whispered, staring hard into the man’s wide eyes. Phoenix nodded and went still as John shifted to press against the car. With his shoulder to Phoenix’s back, one hand still gripping his wrists, John drew his gun with the other and lifted slowly from his crouch to peer through the passenger-side window.

He caught the glow of muzzle fire and ducked down as the window shattered. The bullet thudded into the sand a few feet away while glass fell on them, and John bowed his head. He curled over the man at his side, an instinctive reaction to cover a civilian ingrained into him from his years serving. The sharp edge of a shard sliced his cheek. Another opened the flesh over his right collar bone, and John clenched his teeth together as he pushed Phoenix down into the sand.

Silence stretched out after the tinkle of broken glass dissipated, disrupted only by his own ragged breathing and the muffled sounds of Phoenix’s nasal exhales against the ground. With his heart thudding in his chest, John shifted and pulled the other man onto his side to let him breathe unimpeded, startled when a foot hooked around his leg and pulled.

He turned his head to glare and met sharp eyes below furrowed brows as Phoenix tugged again. As if trying to communicate something, he mouthed at the gag and jutted his chin out toward John, who stared. The request to remove the gag was obvious, and John weighed the pros and cons of such a choice even as he listened for continued fire.

In the end, the risk of his captive screaming seemed to pale in comparison to an unexpected ambush, and he reached out to loosen the knot and tug the fabric down around Phoenix’s neck.

After pausing to lick his bloodied lips and spit into the sand, Phoenix rasped, “It’s your employers.” At John’s doubtful stare, he shook his head. “I promise you that I’m right. I’m rarely wrong.” A brief, smug smirk before he added, “They’ll think I’ve told you something. Something they don’t want you to know. They likely thought you knew too much already and gave you this assignment as a means to an end.” Another small quirk of the lips, as if their current predicament was a source of amusement. “Two birds, one stone.”

A bullet ricocheted off the car’s frame, the shooter no doubt testing his ability to fire beneath the vehicle, and John grimaced. “What do I do?” he asked, tracing the hard metal of his handgun with a slow drag. Phoenix’s eyes darted down at the movement before returning to John’s face. This time, the small twitch crept into a full smile, hard and a little feral. The sight of it did something interesting to John’s stomach, and he cleared his throat as he focused on Phoenix’s fervid reply.

“Trust me.”

Their eyes locked in a silent battle of wills, John’s narrowed and dubious, his captive’s sharp and persuasive. His breath coming loud and fast with adrenaline, John tried to weigh the benefits in a whiplash-fast decision.

In the end, it was easy. John was without allies. He was a man alone, his only chance for backup taking the form of a silver-eyed man with a cable tie digging into his wrists. With the only other option leaving John fighting his way out blindly, with little to no knowledge of his enemy, their numbers or tactics, he was between a rock and a hard place. His only choice was to go from the frying pan into the fire.

Holding Phoenix’s cutting stare, John nodded and jumped into the fire with both feet as he replied, “Okay.”

Chapter Text

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.

“Prove it.”

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.

Chapter Text

His captor drove in silence. Staring out the windshield, wind from the broken window blowing his stiff, sweaty curls back from his forehead, Sherlock tried to make sense of the complex wash of emotions swirling within his head. The adrenaline from the attack was long gone, faded and leaving him feeling exhausted and on-edge. His certainty and hope from earlier, that their truce would outlive the adrenaline rush of immediate danger, fizzled the moment his captor pointed a gun at him.

Sherlock thought he’d earned the man’s trust. After all, he’d done everything in his power to ensure they both escaped death more or less intact. Now, feeling his cut hand pulse with the rhythm of his heartbeat, Sherlock realized he’d made a naive mistake.

Clearly, his captor's trust was not easily gained nor kept.

He glanced at the man, taking mental notes of his injuries. The cut on his face no longer bled, and there was a sticky, red mess gluing his shirt to his chest. Sherlock’s eyes dropped to his lap, lingering on the wound on his left thigh. It still bled, albeit sluggishly, and, aside from a faint grimace on his captor’s face, it seemed to go largely unnoticed.

“Why are you staring at me?”

The sound of the man’s voice, tense and a little irritated, made Sherlock jolt in surprise. Wetting his lips, he tried to speak, rasped and cleared his throat as he tried again, “You’re hurt.”

An odd emotion passed over the man’s face, but his eyes stayed staring forward. In gradual increments, his expression smoothed out, leaving him blank once more. “I’m fine.” A brief pause followed the statement before he sighed and admitted, “I’ve had worse.”

Eyes flickering over his body, Sherlock couldn’t help but believe him.

They lapsed into silence again, leaving Sherlock alone with his thoughts. Watching the dark desert terrain pass by, he wondered what would happen to him. They were no longer on their way to a drop site, not now that his captor’s employers saw him as a liability. The metaphorical hatchet blade hung over both their necks.

There was no going back for either of them.

In spite of the shared danger, Sherlock found it hard to believe they might form an alliance. His captor had already proven himself unreliable, rescinding his promise to trust Sherlock the second the immediate danger dissipated.

The man’s distrust of him rankled, and Sherlock turned toward him with anger in his voice, snapping, “You said you would try to trust me.”

If his words startled the man, it didn’t show.

“I did,” he said carefully, eyes remaining on the road. His posture stiffened, body betraying some hidden internal tension. “We survived, didn’t we?” Glancing toward Sherlock, his gaze turned evaluating before shifting back to the road. “I didn’t say I’d trust you beyond that.”

Rather than validate the statement with a reply, Sherlock sank into a sullen silence. The lull stretched out into minutes, and he assumed the man had finished his little lecture. But, to Sherlock’s surprise, he spoke again.

“Why does it matter?” There was an odd note in his voice, and Sherlock narrowed his eyes, studying the man’s profile.

“Because if you won’t trust me, I can’t trust you.”

The man snorted. “That’s some flawed logic, right there.”

Sherlock scowled. “How so?”

Another glance his way, this one longer, the man searching his expression until he turned his focus back to the road. “Because you shouldn’t trust me.”

Stiffening at the statement, Sherlock huffed out an unsteady breath. “Why not?”

The man made an incredulous sound, fingers tightening on the steering wheel as he shot Sherlock a stunned look. “You can’t be serious.”

“I can, and I am,” Sherlock shot back.

To his surprise, the man snorted in a fit of dark humour. “Then you’re stupider than I thought.”

Sherlock bristled at the insult, his shoulders rising in a defensive stance. His hands curled into fists, only for him to wince and force them open as fresh blood welled up from the gash in his palm. The pain helped clear the hazy confusion blurring his thoughts, and Sherlock shook his head in frustration. He saw the man glancing at him with reluctant curiousity but held his silence until the throb of pain in his hand died down to a dull growl.

“Doesn’t matter,” he finally said, scowling out the window with a rising sense of defeat.

As if unable to help himself, the man asked, “What doesn’t matter?”

“Any of it.”

Ignoring the confused eyes on him, Sherlock refused to speak again, and they both lapsed back into silence. He sat rim-rod straight and unmoving until the man flipped on his turn signal and abruptly pulled off the highway and onto a track that was more dirt than a dedicated road.

Bemused, Sherlock waited as his captor drove the car away from the roadway and into an open space. He looked around with a growing sense of fear, wondering if this was it, the end of him. If this was where his captor would finally put a bullet in his body and leave Sherlock for the carrion birds and the scavengers.

Dimly, he thought about whether anyone would ever find his body. Even worse, he wondered if anyone would even bother to look. Most people already thought him dead, leaving the list of those who knew he was alive short.

Sherlock didn’t want to look too closely at those names, lest he realize that not a single person on that list would bother to mourn him.

“What is this?” he demanded, trying to redirect his confusion with a rush of ire. He looked out the windows with a growing sense of unease, his hands curling together in a tense knot within his lap. “Another drop site? Was all that, the shooter, the ambush — was it all just a setup to throw me off?”

“No.” The man sounded perfectly calm. He didn’t bother to validate Sherlock’s other questions with a response. Instead, he shifted the car into park, cut the engine, and drew the gun from his waistband. In one smooth, fluid movement, he twisted in his seat and levelled it at Sherlock.

His mouth fell open, lips sticky with dried blood and aching from the dry air as Sherlock stared into the black eye of the muzzle. “What is this?” he asked, the question emerging as a hoarse croak of surprise.

Seeing that he had Sherlock’s attention, the man looked back at him over the gun. His gaze turned hard but remained level as his eyes darkened. “Now,” he stated in a slow voice, fingers stretching and resettling on the weapon, nail brushing the trigger, “tell me who you are.”

 


 

Phoenix stared at John over the gun. There was a look of shock written across his angular face, widening his eyes. But, gradually, the surprise faded, his vibrant gaze hardening as a sharp, calculating expression took its place.

“Who are you?” John said, rewording his demand. He cleared his throat and tightened his hold on the gun, leaning forward with deadly intent rippling through his body. “Why do they want you dead?” At the continued silence, he growled, “Tell me.”

That calculating look persisted, Phoenix studying him like John was a bug pinned beneath the slide of a microscope, something to be analyzed and picked apart. It was an unsettling thought, and John bared his teeth as he tried to shake it off.

“Now,” he said, an audible warning edging into the command.

One thin eyebrow lifted, and, in a voice that belied the tension ticking along the line of Phoenix’s jaw, John’s captive said, “What if I don’t want to? Why should I give up my secrets just because you asked?”

Briefly taken aback by the boldness of a man with no chance at an upper hand to speak of, John scowled. “Because I’m not asking.” Something in his tone must have gotten through to Phoenix because the man blanched before his expression smoothed out with visible effort.

Eyes darting out the window, toward the dark, Phoenix asked, “What if they’re following us?” He looked back at John, lips pressing into a thin line. “The car could have a tracker.”

“Of course it has a tracker,” John snapped, holding the gun tighter as annoyance flashed through him. Did Phoenix think he was stupid? If so, he was in for a surprise. “All rentals do. But we’ve got time.”

“How can you be—” Phoenix began, only for John to interrupt him in a low growl.

“We’ve got time.”

Silence lapsed between them, Phoenix’s lips turning white with the force of how hard he pressed them together. His expression was a mixture of disdain and hesitation, and it was just as John narrowed his eyes and drew in a breath that Phoenix spoke.

“How much do you already know about me?” Something in the way he asked the question made John take his time considering an answer before he replied.

“Not much,” he admitted, thinking back to the flash drive where he’d first viewed the man sitting across from him. Phoenix’s face was in shadow, the moon struggling to illuminate his features through the windshield. It made his expression hard to read and set John on edge. “You’re dangerous.”

The corner of Phoenix’s lips twitched upward in a brief half-smirk, there and gone, fleeting before it disappeared. “So everyone believes.” Breathing a sigh, Phoenix raised his brows at the gun. “Do you really have to point that in my face?”

“Only for as long as you’re speaking,” John said through his teeth.

“It’s a long story.”

John scowled. “You better talk quickly, then.”

The threat earned him an eye roll. “Glad to see you’re a man of reason,” Phoenix said, sounding exasperated. 

“Hey,” John growled, tilting forward to tap the gun against the man’s cheek, “I’m not playing games. Do you understand? Tell me who the fuck you are before I decide it’s too much bother to keep you alive, yeah?”

A glimmer of unease passed through Phoenix’s eyes, but his voice was a deceptively calm drawl as he replied, “Charming.”

John opened his mouth to voice another warning, but Phoenix seemed to take him at face value finally. Pausing only to lean back and gain space from the gun pressed to his cheek — the muzzle left an angry red circle on his skin — he folded his hands in his lap and frowned down at them.

“Before everything fell apart, I was a consulting detective.”

“A what?” John interrupted, his confusion making him speak up. Phoenix glanced his way with a raised eyebrow. “You were a detective?”

“A consulting detective,” Phoenix corrected. He straightened in his seat, and John glimpsed an enduring spark of pride in the man’s posture.

“Okay, but what is that?” John asked, still confused. “Like a private eye?”

Shooting him a disgusted look, Phoenix scoffed, “Hardly. Throughout my life, I studied the science of criminality. Made a science of solving cases and reading the nuances of crime scenes. Over time, I gained such knowledge that I could — can — solve almost any case.”

John made a sound of dismissive disbelief. “You’re having me on.”

His scowl deepening, Phoenix snapped, “This will take much longer if you keep interrupting, and I’d rather not have a gun pointed in my face for an extended period of time. Now, if you don’t mind.” He closed his mouth hard enough that John heard his teeth click together.

Feeling a flash of amusement at Phoenix’s peevish command, John nodded and subsided.

Eyes back on his lap, his expression flickering between reluctance and frustration, Phoenix began his story.

“It started with a case.” He glanced John’s way as if checking he was paying attention. At John’s small, stiff nod, he went on. “Serial suicides. The victims were found in strange, abandoned places, having ingested some kind of poison.”

“Victims?” John repeated, interrupting despite his intention to remain silent. “Are they still victims if it’s suicide?” The look Phoenix shot him could have curdled milk, and John pursed his lips. “Unless…”

“Unless they weren’t suicides,” Phoenix finished, the corner of his mouth twitching upward in a brief smirk before his lips flattened into a grim line. “And they weren’t. But Scotland Yard was no closer to that realization than the media. So they came to me.”

Phoenix paused, frowning out at the dark through the windshield. John waited with growing impatience. The gun remained raised even as he tilted forward with the eager need to hear more.

“It was a cabbie,” Phoenix said in an odd voice. A wistful, hazy expression filtered over his face, turning his eyes dark. “Who hides in plain sight?” he murmured before shaking himself out of his reverie. He looked at John, eyes narrowing slightly. “He came to me, said that someone had set the entire thing up with me in mind. A fan, he said. Those people, they died because someone took an interest in my work. Someone who saw people as nothing more than pieces on a game board, pieces to be moved and used and discarded as needed.” Once again, Phoenix looked away, a muscle jumping in his jaw as his teeth clenched together. When he spoke, his words sounded stiff and stilted. “I took a risk, and I was lucky. The cabbie — his name was Jeff Hope — asked me to play a game with him. To deduce which of the pills he offered me were poisonous and to take whichever I chose. I agreed.”

“What?” John interrupted, startled by the direction of the tale. “You what?”

Glancing John’s way with his eyes carefully avoiding the gun, Phoenix offered a smile that was utterly without humour. “I said it was a risk,” he replied in a flat tone. “But I took it anyway. And I got lucky. I took the right pills.” Gaze drifting away, he sighed. “What I didn’t realize was that moment, with Hope, the serial suicides, the pills, it was just the beginning. I didn’t know — how could I?” The look he turned to John was almost desperate, his tone holding a slight plea as if begging John, a stranger, to understand. “I couldn’t know what I’d set in motion by letting myself play the game. But I was bored. I was so deeply, incredibly bored.” Shaking his head, Phoenix lapsed into a pensive silence.

John stared at him, unsettled by the fervent admission. The silence stretched out until he cleared his throat and broke it.

“What happened after?”

Forehead creasing as he wrinkled his nose, Phoenix faced the windshield and picked up the line of his story in a dull voice. The sudden display of apathy caught John off-guard, and he nervously shifted his hold on the gun.

Phoenix didn’t seem to notice.

“In his dying moments, Jeff Hope gave me a name. I forced it from him. I… I hurt him.” Phoenix’s lips pursed as if trying to pull back the words even though they’d already escaped. Shaking his head, he said, “Moriarty. The name he gave me was Moriarty.”

The name twigged something in John’s memory, and he flashed back to earlier. “Hold on. That’s the name you said to me.”

Phoenix nodded. “Yes.” Eyes narrowed, he turned his head, and that razor-sharp gaze raked over John. It felt like Phoenix was flaying away flesh and bone to see deep within him, to see right down to his core, to the truth he sought. It was just as unnerving now as before. “But you don’t know the name, do you?”

Slowly, John shook his head. “Never heard it before.”

“Interesting.”

“Why?” John asked, wetting his dry lips with a nervous sweep of his tongue. “Why would I know who that is?”

“Was,” Phoenix corrected, almost absently. “And because he was, in some capacity, your employer. But he’s dead now.”

John rolled his shoulders and stretched some of the tension from his body as he turned the words over in his head. “What happened?” A thought occurred, and he asked, “Did you kill him?”

“No.” Hands twisting in his lap, Phoenix blew a gust of air from between his tight lips. “He killed himself. And then…” Phoenix’s forehead creased, and he paused, hesitating.

“And then?” John prompted, impatient for the answer.

Turning to look him in the eye, Phoenix took another deep breath and said, “And then, I died.”

 


 

Sherlock’s admission faded into the air between them and set John's curiousity buzzing.

“What the hell does that mean?” his captor demanded, forehead creased by his non-plussed expression. “You look pretty damn alive to me.”

The corner of Sherlock’s mouth twitched upward into an automatic smile. “He framed me,” he said as if the answer was that simple. In a way, it was. “Moriarty. When push came to shove, he made me the villain. All while I thought we were still playing the game and didn’t realize that I’d already lost.”

“Explain.”

That slight smile still lingered on his lips, and Sherlock narrowed his eyes at the gun. Locked in a one-sided staring contest with the unblinking eye of the muzzle, he said, “By the time I realized what the endgame was, it was too late to change the trajectory of our last stand. So, with my older brother, who is effectively the British government, I devised a plan.”

Brow still furrowed, the man’s tongue darted into the corner of his mouth in a pensive expression. “Which was?”

Raising his eyes from the gun, Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “We let Moriarty think he’d won.”

“How?”

Sherlock sighed. “We knew Moriarty planned to discredit me — planned to burn me, he said. He wanted to invalidate my work and place the blame for his crimes on me. He was very convincing, concocted an entire story where he was an actor I hired to play my enemy. Someone to make me look smart. That I faked all the solved crimes to impress people and make a name for myself.” A dry chuckle escaped Sherlock. Despite everything, he still couldn’t shake his vague, begrudging sense of respect for Moriarty’s mastery of the game. “At that point, my brother and I had little choice but to go along with it, to make Moriarty think he’d succeeded. When the time came for our last meeting, Moriarty asked me to meet him on the roof of St. Bart’s Hospital.”

“Wait.” There was a flicker of recognition in his captor’s blue eyes. “I know Bart’s. I went there for my medical degree.”

Startled by the revelation, Sherlock blinked slowly. “Interesting,” he said, wondering at the connection. “But utterly irrelevant to the story.” Fixing his captor with a sharp eye, he snapped, “Do stop interrupting.”

Sighing, the man silently gestured with the gun for Sherlock to continue. Gathering his thoughts, Sherlock did.

“When I went to meet Moriarty on the roof, my brother and I already had several plans in place. But Moriarty surprised both of us again. He threatened my landlady, the DI I worked with at NSY. To make sure I couldn’t call off the shooters planted to kill them, Moriarty ate a bullet from his own gun.”

“He killed himself?” The question sounded incredulous, his captor forgetting Sherlock’s request for silence.

“Indeed.” Eyes closing, Sherlock could still picture the spray of blood and bone and brain matter, the report of the gun as it fired.

Moriarty’s wide, staring eyes as the light dimmed from his mad gaze.

He shook himself and forced his eyes back open, upper lip curling at the memory. “He was always one step ahead of me,” Sherlock admitted with bitter reluctance. “Even there, at the end, I misjudged his dedication to the game. I always thought I was an excellent player. The best.” Shaking his head, his hands curled into claws, and he scowled. “All along, I thought Moriarty was my counter piece, the opposite player. I failed to see that he was really the creator of the game itself.”

“Christ,” came the soft response. Glancing at the man, Sherlock saw his eyes were wide and his lips were turned down at the corners in a grimace. “Sounds like he was insane.”

“He was,” Sherlock agreed, once more looking at the gun with faint unease as an idea occurred. “I just never realized how insane. Not until it was too late.”

The quiet spread between them as Sherlock let his captor contemplate his story. He appeared lost in thought, and Sherlock eyed the gun, letting a tenuous plan take hold. It was a bit insane, but Moriarty had been mad and still bested Sherlock.

Maybe it wasn’t a bad idea, doing something insane when backed into a corner with no way out.

Before he could put his plan into action, his captor asked, “What happened then?”

Shrugging, Sherlock tipped his head to the side. “I faked my death. My brother helped.” It felt like a weight lifted off at the words. For so long, two years too long, he’d carried that secret. He was a man erased from the living world, effectively a ghost, and there was a strange relief in admitting who he really was.

Who he had been and no longer was, and hoped to be again.

“Why?” his captor asked, dumbfounded. The question made Sherlock blink, bringing him back to the present moment. A flicker of wry amusement passed over his face.

“To save lives,” he said simply. “To disappear and clear my name.” He shot the man a calculating look, studying his expression for a moment before he said, “My being dead keeps others safe. It gives me free rein to hunt down Moriarty’s network.”

A troubled expression on his face, the man repeated, “Network?”

Sherlock nodded. “Moriarty was a spider. He wove a web in the form of a massive crime syndicate that spanned several continents and multiple levels of crime. By faking my death, I have the perfect cover to unravel the strands.” Shooting his captor a glare, he added, “I was nearly finished when you caught up with me.”

The man dared to smirk at that, but there was little humour in the expression. “I was just doing my job,” he said, returning Sherlock’s glare with one of his own. “It’s hardly my fault you made enough noise that they noticed you. Also, they know you’re alive.”

Sherlock scoffed. “Obviously, otherwise they wouldn’t have sent you after me.” Eyes narrowed, he scanned the man’s body language and saw nothing but confident readiness. “But I’m curious why you think that. Did it say so in my file?”

“No.” A flicker of amusement curled the edges of the man’s mouth. “It was the codename they gave you. Didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but it does now, having heard your story.”

Intrigued, Sherlock leaned forward. He hoped the movement made him look attentive, rather than what it actually was — an attempt to get closer.

“What is it?” he asked, curious despite himself. “My codename. What is it?”

His amusement lingering, the man said, “Phoenix.”

Sherlock’s eyebrows rose in reluctant respect. “The mythological creature that rises from the ashes. How… fitting.”

“Sounds like it,” came the agreement.

A tenuous sense of connection stretched out between them, and Sherlock felt a twinge of faint regret for what he was about to do. His actions would inevitably shatter any chance for a truce. But opposite the tentative potential for camaraderie was Sherlock’s hope for freedom, and that far outweighed any chance of him pulling his punches.

Still leaning toward his captor, Sherlock shifted his weight forward in a minute movement that, thankfully, seemed to go unnoticed. Just as he was about to make his move, his captor spoke again, and Sherlock froze.

“But why do they want to kill me? How does that fit into all of this?”

Stiffening at the question, realizing he didn’t have a proper answer, Sherlock shrugged, desperate to keep the man’s attention on him and off the gun. “I can only assume they think I’ll have compromised your loyalty or told you something they don’t want you to know. That, or you’ve ceased to be an asset for them, and this was just the first convenient chance to take you out.” He tilted his head in a moment of dark humour. “As I said — two birds, one stone.”

The man’s lips pursed, a scowl spreading over his face and deepening into a fierce grimace. The expression made Sherlock fight back a shiver. He looked dangerous again, a far cry from the man who had hung on his every word moments ago. He truly looked like what he was: a trained killer and Sherlock’s captor.

When he spoke, it was in a nearly indistinct murmur, as if to himself, “Why is nothing ever easy?” He lifted a hand from the gun and rubbed it over the lower half of his face, palm rasping against a few day’s worth of stubble.

Taking advantage of the lapse in focus, Sherlock lunged forward, grabbing for the gun. His hands closed around the muzzle, but the man moved faster than Sherlock could have anticipated.

Lightning-quick, he rocked forward, free hand catching Sherlock by the throat in an unyielding grip. There was nothing tentative about the hold, his thumb pressing into Sherlock’s carotid artery with sickening precision. If Sherlock had forgotten the man’s frightening duality, with his training as both a seasoned killer and a doctor with an impressive knowledge of anatomy, the pressure on his windpipe reminded him in an instant.

“Don’t,” the man snapped, though Sherlock refused to let go of the gun. He maintained his grip even when the hold on his throat tightened, constricting his airway and the flow of blood to his brain. His blatant act of defiance inspired a grudging smile from his adversary, and there was a note of admiration in his voice as the man said, “You really have no sense of self-preservation, do you?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “You sound like my brother.” Words were hard, but he forced them out as a wheeze against the pressure on his throat.

The statement seemed to catch the man off-guard, yet his grip didn’t loosen. “I can’t believe someone like you has something as normal as an older brother.”

Scoffing, Sherlock snapped, “Of course I do. They didn’t make me in a lab.” His throat started to ache, the weight of the man’s fingers sinking against his trachea.

To Sherlock’s surprise, his retort inspired a low bark of amusement. The grip on his throat softened, and the gun twisted beneath his grasp. It slipped free from Sherlock’s fingers, and an open palm hit his chest. The blow forced the air from his lungs and pushed him back into the door. Sherlock flinched and failed to catch himself before his head met the door frame with a harsh crack.

Vision swimming, the edges of his sight threatening to burn black, Sherlock blinked, dazed.

“I don’t envy your brother,” his captor said with wry, brutal honesty.

 


 

With Phoenix momentarily subdued, John considered his options. Having heard the man’s story, he felt his perspective shifting, but toward what he didn’t know. The sheer amount of information sat heavily in his mind.

Phoenix’s tale was almost too wild to believe, yet John found that he did. Looking at Phoenix as he spoke, listening to him explain the chain of events that lead to him becoming John’s target, John couldn’t help but take him at his word.

Still, it was a lot to take in. He needed time to process the tale in full, but now hardly seemed the opportune moment. Because Phoenix was right: John’s employers could easily track the rental, and they couldn’t remain here indefinitely. They needed to disappear, and the longer they sat here and talked, the higher the risk of pursuit grew. They were sitting ducks, and that knowledge sat uneasily beneath John’s skin. It felt like a hatchet hung over Phoenix’s head and, by extension, John’s.

They needed to move, needed to disappear, and that wouldn’t happen with them sitting here any longer than necessary.

Coming to a decision, John looked at Phoenix and tried not to let the faint stirrings of pity he felt at the man’s dazed expression grow into anything more. He managed, but only just. In all honesty, he felt a grudging flicker of respect for Phoenix’s bold — if utterly insane — bid for the gun.

Clearing his throat, John opened his mouth to speak. Phoenix beat him to it.

“What are you going to do with me?” he asked, rapidly blinking his dazed eyes. A small trickle of blood ran down the side of his neck, no doubt from where his head connected with the door. John pushed back a flicker of guilt at the sight. He hadn’t intended to use such force, but it was too late to dwell on the past.

Instead, he focused on answering the question. “Well, I can’t just let you go, can I?”

There was an obvious challenge in Phoenix’s reply. “Why not?” His voice was rough from John’s assault, bruises in the shape of fingers already rising on his pale skin.

John shook his head. “If you can’t figure that out, you’re not nearly as smart as my employers think you are.” After a moment of consideration, he amended, “Ex-employers.”

His voice turning sour and sharp, Phoenix snapped, “So, now what? Are you going to kill me?”

Taken-aback by the blunt question, John hesitated before answering. He considered it, knowing it wouldn’t be his first kill — far from it. But, ultimately, he realized he didn’t want to kill Phoenix. He didn’t know exactly what to do with him, but killing him didn’t seem like the right move.

Finally, John sighed and said, “No.”

Phoenix pursed his lips and scowled. “Then what?”

Shoulders lifting in a small shrug, John admitted, “I don’t know. Yet.” He winced at the honesty of his words. It was unlike him, not having a plan, and it had him on edge. He needed to establish his next steps, and John had never enjoyed thinking on his feet. Improvisation was too chancy, left too much room for mistakes.

He needed a plan, and he needed one now.

Phoenix’s scowl deepened at John’s words, his eyebrows dropping low over his steely eyes. When he spoke, he almost sounded offended by John’s lack of foresight. “What do you mean, you don’t know?” John didn’t reply, and Phoenix made a soft, snarling noise of frustration. “So I’m just your… what? Your prisoner, until you figure out what to do with me?”

John shrugged again, forced to admit that was exactly the situation. “Guess so,” he said.

Phoenix’s expression turned thunderous. His posture went stiff, his mood dark and sulkily palpable before he looked away and glared out the window. “Great,” he muttered in a flat voice. “Chained to yet another idiot.”

“Stick and stones,” John replied, unperturbed by the man’s venom. “Now, come on.” He waved at the passenger-side door with the gun. “Get out of the car.”

Eyes narrowed, Phoenix didn’t move.

Huffing an exasperated growl through his teeth, John snapped, “When I tell you to move, you move.”

Despite the warning in John’s voice, Phoenix didn’t so much as shift a muscle. He held his ground, chin lifting in a blatant attempt to stare John down. “How do I know you won’t just shoot me in the back the second I turn away?”

Instead of bowing beneath his captive’s stab at intimidation, John’s jaw clenched. Hand tightening on the gun, he pushed his reply out through bared teeth. “You don’t. I guess you’ll have to trust me.”

The sound Phoenix made in response was harsh and dismissive. “Oh, I should trust you?” He snorted, shooting John a furious glare. “That’s rich.”

“I trusted you when you asked me to, didn’t I?” John snapped, piqued by his words.

Phoenix eyed him with evident disdain, his upper lip curling back in a sneer. “Right up until you pointed a gun at me.”

“Look,” John growled, his patience snapping, “I don’t know you. Until tonight, you were just another target in a long line of jobs. Now I’m stuck with you, never mind how little I want to be. There are, no doubt, some highly-skilled people on our tail, and I don’t know if I can trust you. You can’t blame me for being cautious.”

The look aimed his way seemed to say Phoenix could, and would, do just that.

Sighing and still feeling worked up, John hissed, “And, if I wanted to shoot you in the back, I’d have bloody well done it already.” His thumb slid upward, cocking the gun. The sound was loud in the small space between them, and something that looked like apprehension tightened Phoenix’s posture. “Now. Get out of the goddamn car.”

To his relief, Phoenix complied, though he dawdled. Lifting his long legs and swinging them to the side, he opened the door and slipped out, muttering, “I see you have deep-seated trust issues. How dull.”

Exiting the car, John lifted the gun and aimed it at Phoenix over the hood, his expression stiff. “Shut it.”

Phoenix shot him a bitter look but subsided without further comment.

With his gun trained on the man’s back, John said, “Let’s go. And don’t try anything or, I swear to god, I will shoot you.”

“Whatever you say, Captain,” Phoenix said scornfully. Despite his attempt at feigned ambivalence, John saw the darkening of his eyes, the flicker of fear in his expression, and knew Phoenix wouldn’t test him again.

Not for a while, at least. John wasn’t stupid enough to believe his captive trusted him, but he knew what fear-driven compliance looked like, and he saw signs of it written all over Phoenix.

He just hoped it would last long enough for him to figure out their next move.

Chapter Text

The night was beginning to fade toward early morning, the sky lightening in the distance in slow increments as the inky, star-dotted horizon brightened into a rich, dark blue.

“Where are we going?” Sherlock glanced over his shoulder where his captor walked a few steps behind him. His hair was lit by the oncoming dawn, the sweat-darkened strands cast into gold and silver. The gun was out of sight, but the man’s arm sat strangely at his side, and Sherlock could easily imagine the weapon still aimed at his back.

The canvas bag hung over one shoulder, swinging slowly with each step. Sherlock eyed it and wondered if he was brave enough to make a grab for it, and the spare handgun inside.

As if catching onto his half-formed plan, the man narrowed his eyes and gripped the strap tighter. “Isn’t it obvious? We’re going that way,” he said in reply to Sherlock’s question, waving forward. His voice was brusque, effectively ending the conversation. 

Facing forward again, Sherlock scowled. “How informative,” he muttered to himself before wincing at the throbbing pain lingering in his skull. When the man slammed Sherlock’s head against the window, the force had scrambled Sherlock’s brain, and the aftereffects had yet to dissipate. As such, his head throbbed. Combined with his other injuries, he found he felt foggy. He could only imagine that his captor was suffering just as much, with his various wounds.

Curious, Sherlock shot another glance at him over his shoulder.

If he felt the weight of his injuries, the man didn’t let it show. He walked with a measured pace, his gait reminiscent of a soldier’s march. His expression appeared impassive, his back straight, and there was barely a limp when he stepped with the leg injured by the grazing bullet.

Looking at him, Sherlock had to admit the man exuded tenacity. No doubt, his stubborn, stiff-upper-lip personality was a powerful part of what made him good at his work, and once brought success as a soldier. However, whether or not he could out-stubborn Sherlock was something that remained to be seen. Part of Sherlock hoped he would prove far more unshakeable, but another part, one that surprised even him, realized he held an unexpected desire to have met his match.

With his lips pressed together in a hard line, Sherlock shook the yearning away. In all his life, the only person who ever came close to matching him was his older brother, and Sherlock would rather die than admit that to anyone — least of all Mycroft himself.

A low, heavy growl deep in his stomach drew him from his musings. Pressing a hand to his stomach, Sherlock grimaced. It had been ages since he last ate, ingesting no more than water, and barely enough at that. In the heat of danger, buoyed by adrenaline and razor-edged fear, the needs of his body had fallen silent. Often ignored, they’d taken their time returning, and they did so now with a vengeance, his insides cramping around the empty space within his stomach.

It was hot, the air dry and relentless, and the soon-to-rise sun would only increase his discomfort.

Glancing over his shoulder again, Sherlock studied his captor. The man hadn’t eaten recently either and even if he’d had a large meal before apprehending Sherlock, he doubted much of the caloric energy remained. And yet, just as he seemed to ignore the compounding impression of his injuries, the man marched onward with no sign of faltering.

It was both impressive and infuriating, and Sherlock bared his teeth when the man met his eyes. The expression made one of his captor’s eyebrows shoot up in a bemused look.

“What’s your problem?” he asked, making Sherlock grimace at the blunt question.

“I’m hungry.” Sherlock’s stomach grumbled, loud enough for both of them to hear, and he huffed out an annoyed growl.

The man’s eyes turned calculating, sweeping over his lean figure with an appraising expression. “When did you last eat?”

Sherlock considered the question, glancing forward to make sure he wasn’t about to trip on anything before he turned back to the man and stopped. In wordless agreement, the man paused as well. The gun reappeared, still pointed at him from within the canvas bag, and Sherlock tried not to look directly at it.

“Yesterday?” he paused, added, “I think?” He nodded. “Maybe the day before.”

The man stared. “Are you saying you haven’t eaten in almost two days?”

Tipping his head to the side, Sherlock shrugged. “Maybe three.”

“Jesus Christ,” came the response, and the man lifted a hand, rubbing at his face. As if the motion rubbed away a mask, he looked instantly exhausted.   

Unlike the time before, in the car, the urge to rush forward and try his luck at grabbing the gun was less inviting. It hadn’t worked then, and Sherlock doubted it would work now, and he stood still until the man dropped his hand and looked at him again.

“How much longer can you last?”

Sherlock frowned at the question. His brain felt sluggish. “Excuse me?”

“I think you heard me,” the man replied, lips twitching to the side. “Answer the question — how much longer can you go without eating before I have to throw you over my shoulder?”

Sherlock’s brow creased with thought. Trying not to think too deeply about the imagery inspired by the man’s words, he turned the question over for a moment before replying, “Maybe another five hours.” He turned and studied the surrounding terrain, grimacing when his stomach let out another harsh growl. “Maybe a little less, thanks to my injuries.”

“Injuries?” the man repeated. In wordless answer, Sherlock held up his cut hand. The man cursed, “Great.” Standing stiff and still, he stared into the distance and seemed to lose himself in thought. His eyes were unfocused, but his grip on the gun remained level.

Sherlock watched with detached interest, feeling the faint fogginess of his growing caloric deficit creeping into his focus. He tried to shake it off and found it lingered.

Coming back to himself, his gaze sharpening, the man sighed. “Sod this.” He lowered the gun toward the ground and shot Sherlock a warning look. “Don’t try to run,” he ordered. Sherlock held up his hands in surrender, even as he tried to calculate the potential of an escape attempt succeeding.

There was nothing but desert around them, and he had no way of knowing where they were in relation to nearby civilization. No, it would be no use to run, at least not in the state he was currently in.

“Here.”

Shaken from his thoughts by the man’s voice, Sherlock looked up to see him holding out something in a silver wrapper. In spite of his wariness, Sherlock moved closer to reach the offering. The gun came up immediately, tracking his approach, but Sherlock just took the object and retreated. Turning it over in his hands, he saw it was a protein bar.

He shot the man a confused look.

“Emergency rations,” he said, using his teeth to tear into an identical bar, his other hand still occupied by the gun.

The corner of his mouth twitching upward, Sherlock noted, “Can’t take the soldier out of the man?” He didn’t think the amused gleam he saw in the man’s eyes was imagined and had to force back a real smile at his reply.

“Something like that.”

Standing there in the lightening dark with the smell of dirt and arid desert filling his nose, Sherlock opened the protein bar and took a bite. The consistency was chalky and tasted strongly of fake sweetener, but aside from his brief grimace of distaste, he devoured the entire bar. It left his mouth feeling dry and dusty, and Sherlock struggled to swallow the last bite.

Just as he was eyeing the canvas bag, the man caught his gaze and dug inside before tossing a plastic water bottle his way.

Sherlock seized it with greedy hands and had already downed a quarter of the contents when the man barked, “Slow down!”

Freezing, Sherlock nearly spat out his mouthful, half-choked, and managed to force the liquid down with watering eyes. He pressed the back of his wounded hand over his mouth to muffle his coughing and blinked.

“I only have two full bottles,” the man explained, holding out a hand in a silent demand for the bottle. “We have to be careful not to drink it all. Who knows how far we are from the nearest town.”

Sherlock glared, watching him with a sharp expression. Feeling contrary, he brought the mouth of the bottle back to his lips, held the man’s hard stare, and took a small sip.

“Wanker,” his captor snapped, flexing his fingers around the gun as his eyes flashed with incredulous anger.

Instead of replying, Sherlock capped the bottle and tossed it back with a sneer. The man caught it with ease, his lips pressed into a hard line. Sherlock watched him open the bottle and take a quick swig before closing it again and dropping it back into the canvas bag.

“Where are we going?” he asked again, a sense of faint unease growing into something far more tangible when the man’s eyes slid away from his.

“This way.” The gun came up and settled in Sherlock’s direction, making him sigh.

“That’s not an answer,” Sherlock snapped, glaring at the weapon.

“Sure it is,” the man said in a level voice as if he wasn’t pointing a handgun at someone he’d only recently met. “It’s just not the answer you want. Let’s go.”

Filled with a wave of rumbling anger that was a poor companion to his unease, Sherlock huffed, spun on his heel, and resumed walking. He was hot, sweaty, and exhausted. With his head beginning to pound again, he tried not to admit that he didn’t see any possible way to gain the upper hand.

Rather than linger on the utter lack of control he had over the situation, Sherlock ducked his head against the rising sun and slogged onward.

 


 

Despite what his captive no doubt thought, John did have a plan. It wasn’t much, still somewhat unformed and vague around the edges, but it clarified the longer they walked. And, now that he’d finally had an excuse to eat something — even if it was no more than a stale protein bar — his mind felt a little less sluggish.

If they could reach civilization, find somewhere with food and people and an honest-to-god bed, John knew he’d figure out the rest. It was just a matter of tenacity, of pressing onward and pushing through the oncoming edge of dragging exhaustion. The time to rest would come. For now, John had his marching orders, even if they were no more than the need to put distance between himself and the death left in their wake.

John just hoped his captive would keep up with him. In spite of his flippant comment about carrying the man, John would prefer they both continue under their own power. With the way his body was aching, skull throbbing from too little water and too much heat, he didn’t relish the thought of having to carry the weight of another human.

He tried not to look too closely at the part of him that whispered he might as well just leave Phoenix if he fell. But, far louder than that insidious little voice was the soldier within him, the one that ordered no man be left behind.

Hopefully, it wouldn’t come to a point where John had to make a choice either way.

Watching Phoenix’s back as he walked ahead of him, John felt a flicker of gratitude for the man’s idiotic inability to care for himself. If he hadn’t stopped to mention his hunger, John would have kept on, forcing back his body’s needs to keep his focus on his captive.

He might not have lasted.

As it was, the protein bar mostly served to stoke his hunger, and he grimaced at the feeling of it in his stomach, sitting like a rock. Along with the discomfort, his bladder felt fit to burst, and his injuries were beginning to take a toll. For the moment, he could hide the impact. But the graze in his thigh had passed stinging and shifted into full-blown, searing pain about half an hour ago, and John wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep up their set pace.

He ached to check his GPS to determine their exact location but immediately discarded the urge. The tech was from his employers — ex-employers, he corrected — and John wouldn’t put it past them to track the device the second it came online. As it was, John would bet almost anything that the gun in his hand, given to him by the same people who tried to kill them mere hours ago, had a tracker of its own. He’d have to take it apart and disarm it or discard the weapon altogether, but there was time for neither.

John could only hope they had enough of a head start over anyone discovering their attackers' fallen bodies. If luck was on their side, John’s employers thought both he and Phoenix already dead, and they had time to find somewhere to bed down and hide out. Then, and only then, would John feel safe enough to plan their next steps and take stock of their equipment.

Ahead of him, Phoenix came to a sudden stop, and John halted in response, pulled out of his thoughts by the abrupt stand-still.

“What is it?” The gun rose warily as his captive turned toward him. To John’s surprise, Phoenix looked embarrassed. It was easier to make out his expression with the sun just below the horizon, spreading a burning line of fire along the far distance.

Looking at Phoenix, John saw that two twin spots of colour burned high up on his cheeks. They presented a stark offset to his pale skin, and John tilted his head, trying to make sense of them.

“What?”

“I…” Phoenix paused and scowled, his eyes darting away before returning to John’s confused face. The flush deepened as he muttered, “I need to empty my bladder.” The words sounded like they dragged out through his teeth, and John squinted in the fading dark to see a muscle ticking in the man's jaw.

Thank god, he thought in relief, his own bladder fit to bursting. Grateful for the chance to relieve himself and hiding the reaction, John nodded curtly. He waved to the sparse brush dotting their surroundings and said, “Have at it.”

His eyes widening, clearly taken aback by John’s cavalier response, Phoenix shot him an alarmed look. “Excuse me?”

Bemused by his incredulous voice, John’s eyebrows rose. Maybe it was just from years of pissing in front of fellow soldiers and strangers in public washrooms, but John failed to grasp the issue. “I said, have at it? You know — go ahead?” He waved his hand again. “Whatever. Just take your piss.”

Phoenix hesitated, glancing between John and the absolute lack of adequate coverage, and pressed his lips together.

His confusion shifting toward faint amusement, John’s brow furrowed, and he asked, “Is there a problem?”

A petulant silence grew and drew out. John shifted his weight from one foot to the other, waiting for a response.

“No,” Phoenix finally hissed after a moment of furious scowling. 

Catching on, John barked out a hollow laugh of surprise. “God, I won’t look.” Turning his face away while leaving the gun pointed in Phoenix’s direction, he shook his head. “Didn’t take you for the shy type.”

John saw Phoenix’s face turn even redder from the corner of his eye, something he wouldn’t have thought possible.

“I’m not shy,” Phoenix snarled. He spat the words from tight lips that curled down at the edges in distaste. “I just… I don’t relish relieving myself while a staring stranger aims a gun at me.”

John snorted. “Well, tough shit, posh boy.” Glancing his way, he gestured with the weapon toward the ground. “Better get on with it. We haven’t got all day.”

“Lovely,” Phoenix replied in an acerbic snarl. He aimed one final sour glare in John’s direction, glanced toward where he seemed to think the main road might be, and turned his back. His shoulders rounded as he fumbled with his trousers.

John looked away as promised. With his gun-arm kept carefully steady, he held his breath until the tell-tale sound of liquid hitting the ground reached his ears. 

He felt a surge of wistful discontent, his very-full bladder aching in sympathy. Ignoring the pain, John tensed and held his ground until the sound slowed, dwindled, and stopped. He thought he caught a soft, relieved sigh from Phoenix and his own exhale hissed sharply out through his teeth.

Once John heard the sound of a zipper, he could stand it no longer.

“You done?” he snapped, earning himself a surprised look from Phoenix as he turned back to John.

Nodding in confusion, Phoenix went still and frowned. With his sharp, pale eyes narrowed, he studied John from head to toe before his lips curled into a smile that was closer to a sneer. “Ah,” he said, his tone disparaging, bordering on mocking, “so you are human after all.”

“Har-har,” John muttered and waved the gun at him. “Go on, turn around.”

His eyes opening wide in a false display of feigned naivety, Phoenix purred, “Whatever for, Captain? Surely you don’t need privacy?” Still holding his falsely innocent expression, he added, “Or am I the only one lucky enough to have to pee with a gun pointed at him?” 

John’s grip on the weapon tightened instinctively, Phoenix’s gaze darting down at the movement. His lips twitched again, and something cold and hard settled into the lines of his face, turning his expression almost cruel. He didn’t turn away.

Feeling a flicker of annoyance, John bared his teeth. “Because I need to take a piss, and I don’t need you staring at me with those fucking lasers you call eyes,” he snapped, in no mood to play games.  He was tired, hungry, and sweaty, every inch of him ached, and he just wanted to take a damned piss in peace.

Phoenix, of course, wasn’t about to let John have what he wanted.

“Go ahead, Captain,” he drawled, voice twisting the title into an insult as he wiggled the fingers of one hand before crossing his arms tightly over his chest. “I’m not stopping you.” One eyebrow lifting in a clear challenge, Phoenix added, “Unless you’re shy?” He hurled John’s words back at him with biting venom.

Baring his teeth again, John muttered, “I’ll show you how shy I am when my foot is up your arse.”

Eyebrow still lifted, Phoenix held his ground. He rocked slowly on his heels and watched John in a silent display of provocation. Glaring at him, annoyed to find himself caught in a literal pissing contest, John clenched his jaw and growled low in his throat.

Have it your way. He thought the words fiercely, already tired of playing Phoenix’s game. Holding Phoenix’s gaze, the gun still raised, John used his free hand to pull down the zip on his jeans and flip the button open. The immediate release of pressure on his bladder made him bite back a sigh. As it was, his eyes fluttered shut momentarily until he forced them open again.

He caught Phoenix’s gaze again, pausing with his thumb resting on the thick seam of his open fly. John waited for him to look away, to back down or give in.

The faint flush on Phoenix’s face deepened, but he didn’t react or otherwise move.

Right, John thought, trying to ignore the sudden surge of excitement that rippled through him like lightning, guess we’re doing this.

Raising the gun again, he saw Phoenix was still watching him with that same defiant expression, his focus unwavering despite John’s undone jeans and the pause. With his bladder near to bursting and adrenaline spilling through his veins in response to the obvious challenge, John shrugged and gave up any pretence of turning away.

“Have it your way, then.”

Without further delay, John drew himself out and, aggressively holding eye contact with Phoenix, relaxed the tight clench of his muscles. The rush of release brought a heady sense of relief, and John bit into his bottom lip to resist the urge to sigh his bliss. Instead, he narrowed his eyes, unblinking as he stared at Phoenix.

Who stared back, his lips slowly twitching upward in a dangerous little smirk that didn’t seem willing to fade.

Even while John watched, his gaze hard on the man’s face, he saw a muscle shift in Phoenix’s neck as he clenched his jaw. His lips pressed together and his eyes darted down to where John gripped his flaccid length. They lingered before moving back to John’s face.

It happened in seconds, the attention there and gone, but impossible to miss.

Interesting, John thought, trying not to dwell on the moment. The man was his captive, virtually a prisoner of necessity. And, until John figured out what to do with him, that wasn’t likely to change. He had to focus and figure out his next steps, and he wouldn’t manage that if he kept giving into Phoenix’s games. It was all just a weak bid to gain the upper hand, and John didn’t need to bother when he was already top dog.

Mind made up, he rolled his shoulders, stretched his neck, and luxuriated in the feeling of relief spreading through his body as his bladder emptied.

With one eyebrow cocked, John finished, shook, and tucked himself carefully back inside his jeans. Phoenix watched with that same fierce focus, and John’s gun remained steady throughout the action.

It never so much as drifted while John did up his fly and slid the button back through its hole.

“Alright, show’s over,” he announced, adjusting himself before turning back to face Phoenix. Gesturing with the gun, he rolled his shoulders again and jerked his chin forward in a command. “Now, move.”

Turning away with that same little smirk on his lips, Phoenix lifted his hand to his forehead in a sarcastic salute and walked onward. Before his face was out of sight, John thought he caught the briefest flicker of confusion, there and gone before he could confirm.

He swiftly derailed the thoughts that tried to lead him in the direction of searching for reason in that brief expression. Even so, he felt a grudging sense of amusement rising in the wake of Phoenix’s little stare-down.

John reminded himself that now was not the time for distraction. To redirect his thoughts, he bit hard into his bottom lip and followed his captive toward the rising sun.

 


 

In the wake of his challenge, Sherlock found his thoughts sinking into a mire of confusion.

He’d tried to throw his captor off, to push him off balance with another bid for the upper hand. But, just as it had in the car when Sherlock went for the gun, his efforts failed.

It was frustrating — he was frustrated. Never before had Sherlock struggled so hard to read a person. Usually, he looked at someone and knew their entire story, knew it immediately and with little effort on his part.

The man managed to beat him at his own game, not just once, not twice, but three times. It was infuriating, and, still, Sherlock couldn’t see a way around it. No matter how he struggled and fought and schemed, the man was always one step ahead of him.

Not for the first time, Sherlock wondered if he’d met his match. The thought brought little in the way of comfort.

Now, thanks to his own stubbornness, he felt a wash of confused thoughts flicker across his foggy mind. Not only did the man refuse to back down, but he went a step further. He welcomed and seemed to accept Sherlock’s challenges with something like relish.

It was unfathomable. The man was a walking enigma that Sherlock had no opportunity to solve. The worst kind of mystery.

Irked, he scowled and kicked futilely at the sand.

They walked for what felt like hours. In rationality, it was likely no longer than one, if that. But with tired feet, aching injuries, and unappeased hunger, it seemed an endless slog to Sherlock. His energy, already limited by the happenings of the night, began to flag. Suddenly, it seemed to take all his focus just to keep on putting one foot in front of the other.

As the sun rose, climbing above the horizon and creeping upward, that slog became a battle. It reached the point where just putting one foot in front of the other required a severe level of effort on Sherlock’s part. And, as they went on, that effort seemed less and less worth it.

The pace the man set and maintained with the threat of a gun at Sherlock’s back was relentless. Sherlock finally thought he'd reached his limit with nearly three days of dangerously-reduced water intake and no food save for a chalky protein bar.

He theorized he was maybe fifteen minutes from giving in to the urge to collapse face-first in the sand when his captor ordered him to stop. His voice was stern and commanding, which Sherlock might have attempted to ignore if he’d had the energy.

Instead, he halted without challenge, desperate for the reprieve. Sherlock thought he would have obeyed immediately if the man told him to lay down on the ground and bury his head in the sand.

He stared at the sand underfoot. Thought about how burying his head beneath it might bring some respite from the burning sun. Caught up in his wistful thoughts and the arid environment of his mouth, it took far too long for him to notice the blades of grass dotting the ground. It took even longer for him to wonder why his captor called for a stop.

Raising his head, with his skull hanging heavy on his neck from compounding dehydration and fatigue, Sherlock looked ahead. There was a wall. And, beyond it…

“Is that—” he began, only to cough and choke on his own dried-out tongue. Luckily, his captor seemed to fare better than he, and he moved to Sherlock’s side, nodding with evident relief.

“Yeah,” he said, the gun finally drifting down to this side. “It’s a town."

Chapter Text

The sight of the city walls filled John with a sense of relief so visceral that it threatened to bring him to his knees. But he forced back the temptation and drew himself upright from the exhausted slouch he’d sagged into upon realizing they’d survived the desert.

“Come on,” he ordered, jerking his chin forward. His arm felt heavy, and it took far too much energy to lift the gun and wave it at Phoenix. “Let’s go.”

To his surprise, Phoenix barely reacted to the order. Both his glare and grim expression were half-hearted at best, a stark contrast to his usual displays of venom. He moved forward without comment, and John took a moment to watch him walk, noting how every step dragged, exhaustion hanging heavily on the man’s slender frame. With the realization of Phoenix’s fatigue came both a stab of pity and a rush of gratitude: with any luck, their trek had worn out John's captive, belaying his stubborn battle for the upper hand.

Maybe, John would even have a bit of peace, a stretch of respite in which to recharge. He tried not to let his anticipation grow into something tangible, lest it be squashed by a sudden sneer or desperate lunge for the gun by Phoenix. For all John knew, the fatigue was a facade, and Phoenix was merely biding his time before seizing the opportune time to strike.

John hoped that wasn’t the case. Of course, if that were to happen, he would deal with it when it came. There was no doubt in John’s mind that, even at half-capacity as he presently was, that he could take anything the other man threw at him, and then some. He’d proven himself capable of gaining the upper hand more than once in their strange, enforced dynamic. Even if John faltered, he still had his gun.

For all of Phoenix’s formidable intellect, he had no chance of outsmarting a bullet.

But, still, John felt an intense yearning for the visible weariness to be genuine. His own body burned with creeping exhaustion, and while he had run on empty more times than he cared to count, it was never a preferred state of being. John ached right down to his bones for a bed. Hard or soft, he didn’t care. Just the chance to be horizontal and out of the sun sounded like bliss, and, shaking away his pensive thoughts, John hurried to catch up with Phoenix.

He drew even with the man, found him barely lifting his feet, sand-scrubbed boots dragging over the ground with each step. Eyeing him, John thought either Phoenix was a phenomenal actor or was truly on the cusp of collapse.

A slight pang of guilt flashed through him when he found himself hoping for the latter.

“Keep your eye out for somewhere to stay,” John ordered, pretending to look around while he studied Phoenix from the edge of his vision. He received nothing but a tired little nod, and even that small movement seemed to take more energy than Phoenix could spare.

Allowing his guard to slip just a bit, John let the gun drop, tucking his hand into the canvas bag at his side. He kept his fingers around the grip, ready for a quick draw if the need should arise.

It was best the gun stay out of sight as they encountered people on their walk into the city. Some glanced their way, looking anywhere from curious to uninterested, some eyeing the blood on John’s face and leg. Others stared at the slow, reluctant dragging footsteps of his captive.

Hand tightening on the gun, John prayed Phoenix wouldn’t kick up a fuss in front of witnesses.

After a young man frowned and stared at them for too long with wide eyes, he realized they must look a sight. His grip shifted on the gun, and he tipped his head in a polite nod to the next person they encountered, an older man who regarded them warily before moving along.

“Any idea where we are?” John muttered to his silent captive who, his head jerking up with a dazed, dull look of surprise, shrugged.

“Without knowing where you drove us to after my capture, I have no way of knowing.” Phoenix sounded tired, his voice a rough scrape over an audibly raw throat.

John thought back over their travel, and his brow furrowed. “I picked you up in Tétouan, drove about seven or so hours… I think the drop site was outside of El Aioun?” He paused to confirm and nodded. “Then we drove about an hour and a bit north, ditched the car, and walked about that in the same direction.” John tried to picture the area, but he wasn’t familiar enough with Morocco to hazard a guess.

Next to him, Phoenix sighed and lifted his head. He tilted his face upward, into the hot breeze blowing through his sweat-slick curls, and sniffed loudly before lowering his head again. “Nador,” he surmised, sounding uninterested in continuing the discussion.

A slow frown creasing his brow, John asked, “Why?” At Phoenix’s silent, questioning glance, he added, “Why do you think we’re in Nador?”

Another long sigh from his captive. “Because we travelled north from El Aioun, there’s a palm tree over there,” he pointed, John turning to confirm, “and the breeze smells like saltwater.” Phoenix scowled at John’s raised brow, some of his abrasive attitude rising through his apparent exhaustion. “Nador is separated from the Mediterranean by a salt lagoon.” He squinted into the distance. John looked that way as well, but buildings blocked any chance of sighting water. There were mountains on the horizon. “The Indigenous people of the area — the Berber — call it Bḥar Ameẓẓyan.”

“What does that mean?” John asked, finding himself intrigued by the bit of trivia.

Phoenix shrugged. “I don’t know. It also has two other names. Sebkha Bou Areq in Arabic, and the Spanish Mar Chica.”

“Huh,” John hummed, considering the information. “Seems like a lot of names for some salty water.”

Turning a wry look his way, Phoenix replied, “It’s evidence of colonial influences in the area. Nador is hardly the only city where you’ll find variable names for the same places.”

Silenced by the powerful point, John nodded, and they both lapsed back into an uneasy silence. Following the road that marked the edge of the city, John found his voice again.

“So, what — you just have all that memorized or something?”

Phoenix shot him a disapproving glance. “I looked at a map.”

“What, like five hundred times?” John snorted.

“No,” Phoenix snapped, a flicker of fire returning to his exhaustion-dulled eyes. “Once. Some of us actually manage the brain capacity required to pay attention the first time.”

“Alright, alright,” John muttered. Evidently, their brief truce was over. “No need to be a prick about it.”

Phoenix muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, I beg to differ, but he subsided back into a dull silence and left John in peace.

Taking advantage of his quiet, John stopped and looked around their surroundings. With his limited Arabic, he read a sign for a hotel and, catching hold of Phoenix’s arm, hauled him toward it.

“Don’t speak,” John hissed under his breath, releasing his arm once they were inside the air-conditioned interior. The cold rush of air felt like a blessing, and John resisted the urge to stop and bask in it.

“Aye aye, Captain,” came the peevish reply from Phoenix, which John ignored in favour of approaching the hotel proprietor. It took a bit for him to remember enough Arabic to string together a proper sentence. The owner seemed to take pity on him, keeping his responses simple, much to John’s relief. He handed over the requested money, clumsily thanked the man in Arabic, and accepted the key to their room.

As he turned away and headed for the stairs, Phoenix lagged alongside him. He shot John a narrow-eyed look and asked in a whisper, “Did you tell him we were brothers?”

“Yeah. Well, half-brothers,” John muttered back, checking the doors they passed for the room number matching the keys. “And I said you were sick so we can eat in the room. Make sure you act like it.”

Phoenix’s expression soured. John thought it unlikely he would play along with the ruse, but he looked poorly enough that John wasn’t worried about them pulling off the lie. Phoenix’s already pale skin had taken on a greyish hue, increasing his pallor and emphasizing the dark shadows beneath his eyes. It wasn’t far off to say he was ill, so John didn’t heckle him further on the point, instead stopping in front of the door to their room and fitting the key into the lock.

“Get in,” he ordered, holding the door open. Without a word of protest, Phoenix sulked past him and moved inside. He glanced around as John entered and closed the door behind him.

Tucking the keys into his pocket, John took in the space.

The room was cramped, with a little table with two chairs in the corner. It sat next to a curtained window and a small, built-in air conditioning unit. The main space included the entrance and a door to a quaint bathroom. From there, the room narrowed into an alcove that housed two beds. Barely a foot apart, separated by a tiny end table, they were narrow and short.

John saw Phoenix eyeing the lack of length with a critical gaze, but then he sagged and sank onto the foot of one of the beds before collapsing backwards. His feet hung off the edge, but he seemed beyond caring, fatigue-glazed eyes staring up at the ceiling.

With a bemused glance in his direction, John turned and set his canvas bag on a chair before stretching his arms over his head. He glanced at the bag and the gun inside, eyes darting at Phoenix. He looked somewhere between asleep and awake, and John wondered if he might pass out if John didn’t make any noise.

A knock at the door broke the quiet. Phoenix sat up like a Jack-in-the-box, rocketing upright with his eyes wide and startled, the edge of sleep pushed back by the abrupt interruption.

“It’s probably just the food,” John said, crossing the room to the door. He opened it and carefully stepped aside. The man who entered nodded at him and moved within. He set a clay cooking pot on the table, two bowls and spoons, along with bread and two bottles of water. Glancing at Phoenix on the bed, he raised an eyebrow at John, nodded again, and left them alone once more.

In spite of his evident fatigue, Phoenix rose at once. He stumbled before catching his balance and made his way to the table. Dropping into a chair, he opened the lid of the cooking pot and inhaled deeply, eyes fluttering before closing at the smell of the cooked food.

“It’s tagine,” he said and began spooning the thick meat stew into a bowl without further comment. Instead of bothering to serve John, he grabbed a piece of bread and a water bottle before retreating to the bed. There, Phoenix plunked down on the edge again and began eating with a ravenous expression on his angular face, stopping only for huge gulps of water.

Unperturbed by the lack of decorum, John served himself and took a seat at the small table. He ate and drank with the same single-minded focus that had gotten him through three tours in Afghanistan and Kandahar. The water helped push back the headache pounding at his temples, and John sighed at the cool trickle of liquid over his parched tongue and throat. He turned back to his food, pausing only to glance at Phoenix and make sure he hadn’t moved.

The man never so much as shifted. He just kept eating until the bowl was empty, and he set it aside to tear into the bread. John watched from the edge of his vision as Phoenix devoured every last morsel and washed it down with the rest of the water. John pursed his lips, trying to hold back his amusement at the man’s voraciousness.

When Phoenix shot him a suspicious glare, John focused back on his meal and resumed his surveillance from the edge of his vision.

The food was good. It was rich and hearty, warming John’s empty stomach and restoring needed calories. By the time he’d finished the serving, wiping bread along the inside of the bowl and popping it into his mouth, John felt sated and weighted down. With his stomach full, the exhaustion was beginning to seep in again, and John’s eyes burned as he blinked at the empty bowl. His injuries surged back into full focus, demanding his attention with the graze on his thigh the loudest.

Before he could let himself succumb to the desire to sleep, John turned to the man slumped on the end of the bed.

“You can have the first shower,” he said, the abrupt statement making Phoenix jerk in surprise.

Back straightening, Phoenix blinked. Setting his bowl on the floor, he glanced at the bed with a wistful expression before rising and dragging himself into the bathroom without a word. The door closed behind him, leaving John alone in the room.

 


 

Shutting himself in the bathroom, Sherlock set his back against the door and closed his eyes. The final dregs of his energy seemed to drain away, the food in his body making him ache for sleep. Despite the water, he still felt wrung out and baked dry by the heat, mouth still desert-barren.

He hadn’t even considered the possibility of a shower, and, as Sherlock raised his head and saw the cubicle in the corner of the small bathroom, he found himself longing for one.

With a significant display of effort, Sherlock peeled himself off the door and moved toward the shower. He shucked his clothes, pulling a face at the smell of sweat and sand and faded adrenaline that clung to the fibres.

Breathing out a wistful sigh, Sherlock thought there wasn't much he wouldn't give for a fresh change of clothes. But, with his meagre belongings back in his room in Tétouan, nearly six hours away by car, there was little chance of that happening.

He pushed aside the flicker of anger that rose whenever he thought of the turn his life had taken in such a short period of time and stepped into the shower. He spun the taps, shivering as cold water struck his back until it quickly warmed. Taking only a moment to luxuriate in the hot spray, Sherlock turned the temperature to lukewarm, wary of heatstroke after spending the night in the hot environment of the desert.

There was a slight sting when he turned to face the spray, the water washing sweat and sand from the shallow cuts on his chest. The water cleaned blood from his head, where it throbbed from connecting with the door frame. Sherlock felt at the area carefully with his fingertips, found it tender. To his relief, the cut felt small.

He tilted his face up into the spray. His split lip burned, Sherlock hiss into the water before he leaned out of the shower and grabbed a packaged bar of soap off the counter. Shucking the wrapper, he scrubbed the bar over his body, taking care where cuts marred his skin. His palm stung, and he hissed again, switching the soap to his uninjured hand.

Holding his palm up to his face, Sherlock saw there were bits of sand and particulate ground into the ragged edge of the wound. He grimaced and scrubbed carefully, but that only served to make it bleed and burn, and he focused on the rest of his body instead.

As the soap and water washed the leavings of the night away, sending it swirling down the drain like the fading remnants of a half-forgotten nightmare, Sherlock let his mind wander.

He thought of the events since his capture: how he’d gone from the certainty that he was on his way to meet his death to here, showering in a hotel room with his captor sitting just outside the door. In all his strange, frequently unsettling life, Sherlock never could have predicted his current situation. It felt surreal, like something out of a work of fiction, rather than something a real person experienced.

Then there was Sherlock’s captor himself. He was still a mystery — aside from his past as an army-doctor, Sherlock knew pitifully little about him. Just as he’d thought that morning, lost out in the desert and dragging through exhaustion, he couldn’t crack the man’s code. One moment, he was cruel and hard, a veritable force of nature -- something to be feared, and someone to be wary of. Then, in the next, he was almost kind, displaying a dark humour that spoke to Sherlock’s innate nature in a way he refused to look at too closely.

It was baffling. Infuriating and endlessly confusing, driving Sherlock madder than any unsolved case had thus far.

And, yet, even as he thought about how satisfying it might feel to know this contradictory man to his core, he knew it wouldn’t happen. In order to learn, to break his captor down to his base elements, Sherlock would need to stay. He required more data and that meant time. It meant he would have to remain here, remain trapped, just to get to the bottom of the mystery.  Like a wayward planet caught in the vortex of a black hole, Sherlock would have to let himself drift into the man’s metaphorical event horizon. And, since such an action could only ensure his destruction, he couldn’t allow it.

It wasn’t worth it. He’d gone down this path before, first with drugs, then with Moriarty, and both brought him nothing but anguish. No matter his fascination with the soldier-turned-mercenary in the next room, Sherlock needed to get away.

As the water poured over his head, plastering soaked curls to his skull and washing away a salty sheen of dried sweat, Sherlock realized he didn’t even know the man’s name. Not that it mattered, he thought a second later, his teeth coming together in a fierce expression.

He didn’t need to know the man’s name to know he was dangerous.

Shaking his head and sending droplets in every direction, Sherlock shut off the water and stepped out into the bathroom. He grabbed a towel and dried his body meticulously, moving first down one long leg to his bare feet and up the other, rubbing the moisture out of his skin. Even with the air conditioning in the main room, the shut door and the steamy bathroom's close atmosphere immediately drew sweat from his pores. By the time he was finished drying off, Sherlock already felt sticky, a thin sheen of sweat clinging to his skin.

If it was already this hot so early in the day, he shuddered to think of the building heat to come.

Sherlock swiped the towel over his forehead and hung it on a hook before pulling on his trousers. They were filthy, marked by the events of the night, and he tried in vain to wipe away the worst stains. A dusty cloud formed and drifted onto his damp feet, forcing Sherlock to abandon his efforts.

Using a hand towel to scrub at his curls, knowing they would dry quickly in the heat, Sherlock tossed it onto the counter. He pulled his t-shirt on over his head, grabbed the loose cotton top that matched his flowing trousers, and exited the bathroom.

He saw his captor standing in the small space between the beds, frowning down at something on the floor. He looked up at Sherlock’s entrance, eyes moving over his body. They lingered on his stained trousers and ruined t-shirt, his frown deepening before he met Sherlock’s eyes.

“You’ll need new clothes,” he said. “You’ll draw too much attention looking like that.”

Sneering to himself, Sherlock moved to the bed. Even as he spat venom at the man, he glanced toward the window and thought that today might be his only chance to get away.

Later today, come hell or high water, he would make his escape the second he was sure the man was asleep.

 


 

John waited until he heard the sound of the shower running before he stood up from the table and looked around the room.

He picked up the canvas bag and moved to the other bed, sitting in the middle of the narrow mattress. Taking out the gun provided by his ex-employers, John crossed his legs beneath him and broke the weapon down to its parts with confident, practiced motions. The work was repetitive, bringing the comfort of familiarity, and he studied each piece of the gun as he cleaned and oiled the parts.

It took a full ten minutes to find the tracking chip, but at last, John found it, set within the chamber that housed the trigger mechanism.

He scraped it off with the edge of his thumbnail and, balancing it on a fingertip, lifted the little piece of tech to eye level. It was small, barely eight millimetres and only obvious because it was grey against the gun’s black metal. If it had been black, John doubted he would have seen it at all.

Standing, John set the chip on the floor and brought his boot heel down on it just as the door to the bathroom opened, and Phoenix emerged in a cloud of steam. John glanced up and saw he wore his loose, dirty trousers and a thin grey t-shirt stained by sweat and blood, his cotton top draped over his arm.

“You’ll need new clothes,” John noted, taking in the wear and damage to the fabric. “You’ll draw too much attention looking like that.”

Phoenix glared and stalked over to the bed. “I would change,” he drawled in a sour voice, “but someone kidnapped me, and what little I own is back in Tétouan.” Rather than wait for John’s reply, Phoenix’s eyes dropped to the floor and the remnants of GPS tracker. “What is that?”

“A tracker,” John replied. He squatted and carefully picked up the pieces, casting a shrewd eye over the carpet to ensure he got them all. Rising to his feet, he stared at the bits in his palm. “Hopefully, the only one.” He turned away to dump the pieces into the trash before reaching into the canvas bag.

When he turned back to Phoenix, the man’s sharp, silvery eyes, looking a little less faded from the shower, dropped to the object in John’s hand. “A first-aid kit?” he asked, looking at John with an unspoken question in his face.

John nodded and opened the lid. Rooting around inside the kit, he said, “Let me see your hand.” Silence met his request, and he looked up with raised brows when he found Phoenix staring at him. “Unless you’d rather let it get infected?”

There was a moment of hesitation before Phoenix nodded curtly and sank down on the edge of the bed. Eyes focused on the far wall with his head turned to the side, he held out his hand.

Distantly amused by the man’s blatant annoyance, John took it in his palms and bent onto one knee. Placing two BZK wipes and a roll of gauze on his knee, he squinted at the wound.

It was more of a gash than a cut, the edges jagged. John cleaned carefully, tearing open a wipe and using it to remove the sand and dirt embedded into the torn skin. Phoenix sat stiffly. Only his exhale betrayed his discomfort as it escaped through his teeth in a little hiss when John pressed too hard.

“Sorry,” he said automatically and kept his eyes on the cut. He could feel Phoenix’s stare on his bent head like a tangible point of contact. Jaw tensed, John waited for him to speak, but he didn’t, instead letting the silence stretch out.

Eventually, Phoenix looked away again.

John continued to tend the wound, little wells of blood rising up beneath his careful touches. He dabbed and cleaned until he was satisfied and placed a non-adhesive pad over the open cut. He wrapped gauze over top to keep it in place and tied it loosely, but not loose enough to slip off.

Raising his eyes to Phoenix’s tense face, he asked, “Anything else? How’s the head?”

“A few scratches on my chest,” Phoenix admitted, still avoiding John’s eyes. “But I cleaned them in the shower, and they’ve stopped bleeding.” He tilted his head in thought. “My skull is tender, but otherwise the cut is small.

“Alright.” Gathering up his supplies, John tossed the detritus into the trash with the destroyed tracking chip and packed up the kit. He set it back into the canvas bag and grabbed a handful of zip ties.

When he turned around, Phoenix’s eyes dropped to his hands again. This time, he groaned.

“Please don’t tie me to the bed,” he said, glaring at the plastic strips with his features shifting into a look of defeat.

A humourless smile on his lips, John jerked his chin toward the bed. “This will go a lot easier if you just do as I say.”

“And if I don’t?” Phoenix’s jaw tensed, his head tilting upward in a challenge.

John eyed him with exhausted frustration. “I’ll knock you out and tie you to the bed while you’re unconscious. So, you’d better decide if you want to do this with or without the future headache.”

Phoenix’s lips pressed together. His face darkened with red-cheeked anger, but he nodded curtly and held out his hands without further protest. Once again, he avoided John’s gaze, though a muscle jumped in his cheek as he ground his teeth together hard enough for John to hear.

“Just need the one,” John said, nudging the man up toward the headboard. Phoenix went without comment, his entire body stiff, his back rigid. John attached two of the zip ties to each other in loops, one fastened to the bed frame, the other dangling off the curve. He grabbed a third and looped it twice, creating a cuff that was loose enough not to cut into the delicate skin of Phoenix’s wrist but not so slack that he could worm his hand free.

Checking to make sure the setup was secure, John stepped back to admire his handiwork. The positioning of the cable tie on the frame allowed some freedom of movement, as intended. Instead of attaching it to the headboard, the frame placement didn’t force Phoenix to hold his arm over his head, a position that would only constrict blood flow to the limb.

Pleased, John nodded and picked up his canvas bag.

“Comfortable?” he asked, unsurprised when he received a deadly glare in response.

“Hardly,” Phoenix snapped. He wiggled his arm, making the cable ties clack against the edge go the bed. “Is this really necessary?”

Fixing him with a hard look, John asked, “Can you promise me you won’t try to escape while I’m sleeping?”

Phoenix’s face went blank, and he replied, “Yes.” It was almost convincing. He was a good actor, John would give him that much.

He snorted. “Yeah, and I’m six feet tall and can fly.”

His upper lip curling, Phoenix snarled and turned away as far as he could. Barely a second later, he turned back and snapped, “What if I have to use the bathroom?”

“I’ll remove the restraints,” John said.

“Go ahead, Captain,” Phoenix growled, “pull the other one.”

Shrugging, John sat on the other bed and started putting the broken-down gun back together. He did it quickly, hands never faltering as the pieces clicked into place. “It’s really your choice how this goes,” he said without rancour, ignoring the angry sound aimed his way.

With the weapon reassembled, John slipped it into the canvas bag. His own gun needed to be stripped down and cleaned as well, but he ached for a shower, and the job could wait. Standing, he slid the bag over his shoulder and turned toward the bathroom.

Phoenix watched him with a stiff expression from where he lay sprawled out over the meagre length of the bed. Halfway to the bathroom, Phoenix’s voice called John back with a question that made him pause.

“Why haven’t you told me your name?”

Looking over his shoulder, John raised an eyebrow. Phoenix was sitting up once more, his posture tense and expectant. Inside John’s aching chest, his heart began to race. It was a strange response, one he didn’t fully understand. Making an effort to conceal the reaction, John chuckled harshly and said, “Is this you trying to make friends?” There was no response. Phoenix’s eyes raked over him, scanning head to toe as his nose wrinkled. Watching him, John tilted his head. “Show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.”

The crude wording of his challenge earned the response he’d hoped for as the look on Phoenix’s face turned thunderous, his cheeks burning an ugly red. Without bothering to reply, he rolled onto his back as far as he could manage with one arm restrained.

John waited for a follow-up. But, when none was forthcoming, he shrugged.

“Have it your way,” he said, unbothered as he stepped into the bathroom and closed the door behind him.

Chapter Text

Left alone in the main room, Sherlock slumped back down onto the bed. He shoved his face into the pillow and closed his eyes with a huffing sigh.

He couldn’t say what possessed him to ask his captor for his name. All Sherlock knew was he’d gone from resolving to escape the first chance he had, to having that plan dashed by the man locking him to the bed frame. Caught off-guard by the obviousness of his captor restraining him — a predictable plan, if Sherlock had used his brain like the genius he was supposed to be — he’d slipped. Let loose some of his desperate and growing need to know and understand.

Such a significant slip in his facade, only to have the man laugh, joke, and deny him an answer.

The blow to his pride made Sherlock want to curl into himself and dissolve into the air. Crack apart and disappear — anything to get away from the interminable hell his life had become. He had no hope of escaping now, not unless he found something to sever the cable ties. And, looking around the cramped bedroom, that seemed unlikely.

Listening to the silence behind the bathroom door, punctuated by a soft sound of pain, Sherlock wondered if he would ever escape his captivity. From what little information he’d managed to wheedle out of his captor, it was clear the man had no idea what to do with Sherlock. His captor's employers had labelled him a liability, and the man was as much at risk of death as Sherlock.

Except his captor had the freedom to run wherever he liked, whereas Sherlock was stuck, saddled to a stranger who wouldn’t even give up his name. In a way, Sherlock grudgingly understood the man’s reluctance. Names held power. Knowing his captor was to identify, label, and know him, and the man was smart enough to understand that having Sherlock Holmes know who you were was dangerous.

In Sherlock’s past, only one name had played a significant part in his downfall. When the name Moriarty first pinged on his radar, Sherlock had been a very different person than he was now. He’d been young and cocky, thinking himself invincible. Fresh from six months in rehab for a substance use problem that started recreationally, then devoured the first five years of his twenties, he’d walked into the world with no intention of looking back.

It had been through the sheer boredom, the pedantic exhaustion of personal therapy, group therapy, arts and crafts, and addiction theory that he found sobriety, not through the program itself. And, when he left, Sherlock itched for engagement, fiending for stimulation the way he’d once ached for the drugs themselves. Afraid he might lose his mind in the sheer drag of days at the rehab facility, Sherlock had fought. Clawed tooth and nail until his desire for freedom grew louder than the urge to use. The addiction counsellor compared his recovery to a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, or some other disgusting platitude that Sherlock hoped never to hear directed at him again.

Leaving the facility, he’d promised to be different. Resolved to focus on the Work, make a name for himself and never travel down that dark road again. Buried in his work, Sherlock did just that. He’d been a little lonely, sure, but he’d always been lonely all his life. That was how the drugs came into his life in the first place.

But this time, Sherlock pushed work into the empty spaces instead of cocaine. And, for a while, it worked.

Until it no longer did.

When he first heard the name Moriarty, the boredom was an almost constant companion. Insidious, irrefutable, it crept into Sherlock’s life until it was suddenly louder than the Work, and the Work wasn’t enough. Cocaine started to look tempting again, and then there were the serial suicides. A new chance to be innovative, to prove that he was clever — to prove himself to the doubters, to his brother, to those who thought him strange and wrong and dark.

And, throughout it all, Sherlock burned incandescent. He’d felt invincible, infallible. He solved the cases, every single one—first, the serial suicides, the banker and the assassins, then the bombings, the escalating threats of destruction.

He lost one life, but what was one loss against all those wins? What was one loss when Sherlock reached new heights daily? When Moriarty pushed him, and he rose to the challenge, and together they were glorious? Nothing. It was nothing.

The pressure increased, ramping up like a bad high. There was Irene Adler, which Sherlock solved by the skin of his teeth. Then Baskerville, and the fear he’d felt, the sheer terror until he learned that it was all in his head. The glitch in his hard drive, the rush and the thrill when Sherlock finally pieced it together, gripped Henry Knight’s shoulders and thanked him for the chance to, once again, prove himself infallible.

Sherlock did it all, solved them all, made a name for himself just as he’d always hoped. It no longer mattered what everyone said, what awful words the childhood psychiatrists and teachers and the kids who bullied him used. Now, he was Sherlock Holmes. He was the man in the funny hat, the super sleuth, the Reichenbach hero. His name was on the tongues of the powerful, setting him up to rise in a way no one in Sherlock’s life ever anticipated.

And so, he rose — rose high, higher, far above any height taking drugs ever allowed him to achieve.

And then he fell.

By the time Sherlock realized his rising trajectory, it was ultimately a downward plunge that awaited him and not a seat at the top, and it was too late to avoid his inevitable fall. By then, all he could do was beg his brother to help him — to make it right where Sherlock had let it all go so very wrong.

False his death might be, but the fall was real, even if it was a fall from grace and only a false leap.

And now, restrained with zip ties to a bed in Morocco, Sherlock saw a new low. One where he not only faded from the memories of everyone who now doubted him, never to clear his name but found himself chained to a nameless man. A man who wouldn’t tell Sherlock who he was, what he was going to do, or even what the next step was.

If Mycroft could see him now, Sherlock wondered if his brother would recognize him. Or, even worse, if he would look at Sherlock and see him exactly where he’d always imagined he might end up. Would he care if he never heard from Sherlock again?

The realization that he couldn’t answer even his own questions made Sherlock’s stomach twist.

The self-pitying thoughts clawed through his mind, cluttering his head and making him dig his nails into the bedspread. Sherlock came back to himself slowly, easing out of his brain and back to his surroundings. As he did, the sound of the shower running in the bathroom faded into his awareness.

Smoothing his bandaged hand over the bed cover, Sherlock wondered how long it had been since he slipped into his head. There was no way of knowing, and he looked toward the window. The curtains blocked his view of the outside, but harsh sunlight burned along the edges, and he theorized it must be nearing late morning.

Sherlock let his head settle back on the pillow, and his eyes dropped to the bandage covering his palm. The gauze was tight but not enough to push on the wound. Staring at it, Sherlock recalled the skill and care with which his captor tended the gash, his quiet apology when he pressed a little too hard and made Sherlock hiss in pain. The memory filled him with an unexpected wash of rage at the man’s contradictory nature. He was two things at once, always two things, never one. He was kind and cruel. He was skilled and yet had no plan, quick on his feet and barking mad.

Sherlock was infuriated. He wanted to grab the man and shake him, shake him until his head snapped back and his secrets came loose, spilling from his mouth like sand out of a shattered hourglass. He wanted to break him open to see what was inside. Claw into his skull and read his mind, know him, and, at the same time, he wanted to escape, flee, run and never stop until the man was on one side of the planet, with Sherlock on the other.

The sound of the shower cut out, and Sherlock’s feverish thoughts drained away with the silence, dying out like a light switched off. Eyes on the ceiling, he listened to the man moving about in the bathroom — the rustle of towels, the soft noise of damp footsteps on tiled floor. The walls were deplorably thin, and Sherlock wondered what kind of din would filter in from outside once the city was fully awake.

A quiet creak alerted him before the bathroom door opened, and Sherlock quickly closed his eyes. He rolled his face into the pillow and made his breathing slow and even, hoping the man would think him asleep. Even if he didn’t believe the sham, Sherlock hoped he would be wise enough to keep his mouth shut.

He didn’t think he could keep himself from screaming his anger if the man spoke to him.

 


 

The insidious, creeping guilt that washed over John in the aftermath of his harsh words to Phoenix was almost tangible. It wasn’t kind of him to treat the man as he did, now that John’s employer's betrayal had placed them effectively on the same side. If John were smart, he would stop keeping his distance and try to find an advantage in the situation.

If he were sane, he would let Phoenix go and run in the other direction, hopefully never to see one another again.

Try as he might, John couldn’t determine which was the right decision. After the hell of his last hours serving, then his discharge and those few mindless months of emptiness spent in an army bedsit in London, John had taken to mercenary work and never looked back. It was what he knew now: working alone, rarely answering to anyone but a faceless hire and his own conscience, which he’d learned to tune out.

This new dynamic, he and Phoenix forced to work together, not as allies but through necessity, was beginning to wear on him.

But Phoenix was right. John’s trust issues were far louder than the temptation to establish an alliance. Now that he was no longer working a job, now that Phoenix wasn’t his target, John should leave. They should both go their separate ways before John made the mistake of letting himself see the man as someone he could conceivably trust, an idiotic thought if ever there was one.

Just the same, some small part of John, a small piece that threatened to contradict everything that had kept him safe since leaving the army, wanted to trust a stranger. A dangerous one, at that. Even worse, John realized he wanted to let that small part grow. But he couldn’t. Phoenix was right about his trust issues, and John had good reason for them. When he’d trusted in the past, it nearly got him killed. The last time John trusted someone, it earned him a bullet in the shoulder and an honourable discharge.

He couldn’t go through that again — refused to. There could be no new alliances for John, not anymore, possibly not ever. And certainly not here, with Phoenix.

John was better left on his own and would be so again, once he put some space between himself and Phoenix.

Even so, something made him hesitate, made him reluctant to set his captive free. It wasn’t malicious. There was no ill intent behind the hesitation. In all honesty, John found he couldn’t put his finger on what exactly drew him to the man in the other room, but it was present and undeniable, and it filled him with growing disquiet.

Whatever decision he might make, he needed to decide soon. Phoenix was far too intelligent and intuitive to miss John’s uncertainty. For now, he could keep his distance, hide behind facades. But once Phoenix recovered from the ordeal of the last twelve hours and regained his razor-sharp focus, John had little doubt the man would see right through him. He would see that John had no real plan, no next step, likely no actual hope of escaping the people he’d killed for over the past few years. And, once John was exposed as lost, he didn’t care to think what Phoenix might do.

John was a man without a safety, without a fallback plan. A tightrope walker without a net, a man without a hope in hell of surviving on his own. But even the idea of letting himself be made vulnerable by choosing to trust a stranger made John far more uneasy than the idea of trusting someone else to have his back.

Safe in the bathroom, protected from Phoenix’s all-knowing stare by the door between them, John dropped his hands onto the edge of the sink and stared at his reflection in the mirror. The face looking back at him was haggard. There was dried blood smeared over the right side of his face and along his collarbone on the same side, making his shirt stick to his chest.

Looking at the state of himself, John thought it was no wonder they’d attracted attention on their way into the city. He looked like a murderer, and while he’d been that on more than one occasion, it wasn’t something comfortably broadcast. After so long spent keeping a low profile, head down and inconspicuous, John felt seen.

It was not a comforting sensation.

He turned away from the mirror and pulled his shirt over his head, wincing when it clung to the dried blood on his chest. Tossing it onto the floor, John sank onto the toilet lid and began to remove his jeans. They made it halfway down his thighs before he stopped, teeth grinding together as the thick fabric tugged at the abraded flesh where the bullet grazed his left thigh. With painstaking care, a muscle jumping in his jaw throughout, John peeled the jeans from the wound. No matter how careful he was, the action still tore the tenuous scabbing, and sweat dripped down the side of his face as he finally separated the last bit of jean from the wound.

Blood welled up from the site at once. Cursing, John kicked the jeans off, followed by his socks and pants, and jumped into the shower.

He was quick and methodical, washing thoroughly and flushing his wounds free of dirt, dust, and debris. It felt almost sublime to be clean once again, the water washing away layers of sweat, salt, blood and sand. John imagined he was shedding his skin, scrubbing hard until his body stung from the aggressive force of his cleaning.

When he finally emerged from the shower with his skin flushed and damp, John grabbed a clean towel and set to drying every inch of his body. He found bruises and abrasions he’d failed to notice in the frenzy of survival, and which now barely registered against the stinging pain of his more severe injuries.

No longer dripping on the floor, John grabbed his first-aid kid and sat on the toilet lid again. Fresh blood was once more welling up from the bullet graze on his thigh, John pulling a face as he dug into the kit. The wound was shallow but still open, the platelets and scab torn away by removing his jeans. It could easily become infected, and John was glad he’s made sure to soap and rinse the area thoroughly.

Grabbing a wad of toilet paper, John pressed it over the wound to staunch the bleeding and ripped open the packaging for a non-adhesive pad with his teeth. He lifted the corner of the toilet paper, saw fresh blood bead on the raw skin, and placed the pad over top, reapplying pressure.

Head tilted back against the wall, John closed his eyes and sagged. With his stomach full and his body clean, his mind had far more free reign for intrusive thoughts than he would have preferred. Now, his exhaustion returned ten-fold, and it took a forced surge of energy to drag his eyes open and sit up.

When he rechecked the bleeding, it had slowed, and John breathed a relieved sigh. He set to bandaging the wound with confident hands, making sure the site was clean. He did the same with his collarbone, and then, using the mirror as a guide, he used a wound closure on his cheek. There was a bruise rising around the mark, turning John’s skin yellow and blue. It couldn’t be helped. At least his face and chest were clean of the caked and dried blood. With any luck, John could skulk away and keep a low profile. Hopefully, he could manage to pass out of Morocco without pursuit.

Bali still sounded promising.

John turned away from his reflection before his traitorous brain could remind him that nothing ever went his way. Digging out a change of clothes from his bag, he pulled them on, grateful to be both clean in dress and body. He pushed aside the pang of guilt at the knowledge that Phoenix sat outside the room in the same filthy clothes John picked him up in. He was a grown man, and if John released him, Phoenix could figure out his own path.

If John came to his senses and released him. Right now, he couldn’t say why that was still proving to be such a difficult decision to make.

John shook his head and stuffed his blood-soaked clothes into the trash before leaving the bathroom. He braced himself for venom and ire from his captive but found Phoenix lying with his eyes closed, turned half away as much as his restraints allowed. John felt another pang of guilt at the sight and reminded himself he could hardly expect the man not to attack or betray him if he left him untied.

And, with the way his nightmares sometimes failed to recognize ally from enemy, the restraint was safer for both of them.

John tried not to dwell on the thought of what might happen if he had a flashback with the beds as close as they were. He would make sure to store the guns beneath the bed and out of reach. Close enough for waking reaction, far enough for his sleeping mind to miss.

With his mind settled on the matter of his weapons, John crossed the small room and sank onto his bed. There, he took out his own gun and went through the same motions as he had with the other firearm before his shower. As it had then, the work lulled him into a comfortable place somewhere between focus and wandering, his hands following muscle memory.

He cleaned each piece, fingers familiar with every inch of the Sig Sauer. It had been a constant companion through the horrors of both Helmand and Kandahar, the gun almost an extension of John himself. He shouldn’t have it anymore — it would, in fact, be a significant detriment to his continued freedom if anyone caught him carrying the illegal, military-issue firearm. But he’d been unable to part with it, and through some creative lying, managed to keep it beyond his discharge.

As John reassembled the gun, he looked toward the window and froze, gaze caught and held by the realization that Phoenix was awake. He was watching John clean the Sig, his silver-blue eyes appearing sharper than they had earlier, though dark shadows beneath betrayed his fatigue.

Only pretending to sleep, then.

John opened his mouth to say something. But, caught between a sudden and frightful desire for conversation, and the necessity of keeping his distance, he found he had no idea what to say. How did you talk to a stranger? Worse than that, how did you talk to the stranger you’d willingly condemned to death, only to end up trusting them with your life? And who you then dragged through the desert and tied to a bed because said trust was too fragile to last?

John didn’t have an answer for any of his own questions. Eventually, Phoenix’s upper lip curled back with disdain before he turned his head away. His chance to engage passed and John closed his mouth without saying anything.

Swallowing down the unexpectedly bitter taste of regret rising in his throat, John turned his attention back to the task at hand. Pushing home the last piece of the gun helped lessen some of his lingering guilt and lower the volume on his too-loud thoughts.

But, as he reached for several empty clips and began pressing bullets into the opening, John knew he could only avoid facing his thoughts for so long. In time, his doubts and regrets would grow far too loud to ignore, and he would have to figure out what he was doing here.

He glanced at Phoenix again and wished the answers would come easier. But, as with most things in John’s life, things never seemed to come easy.

The pad of his thumb slipped and pressed into the hard edge of the clip, the thin metal drawing blood and startling him out of his thoughts.

Frowning, John stuck his thumb in his mouth to suck away the bead of red and reached for another magazine. He filled it from the box of rounds, and a third, then a fourth. Once he reloaded both guns, the extra magazines replenished and stowed, John leaned over the edge of the bed and moved to shove the canvas duffle bag beneath. The bed was so narrow and low to the ground that it would barely fit.

But, as John started to slide the bag beneath, he hesitated. Lifting his head, he glanced toward Phoenix. The man had rolled back toward him again, but his eyes were closed this time, and the lines of his face were softened and lax in what appeared to be real sleep. There was always the chance that it was a sham, given Phoenix’s talent at faking, but something told John this was genuine.

He watched the slow, steady rise and fall of the man’s chest until he realized what he was doing and, giving his head a shake, refocused on the canvas bag. After only a second longer of uncertainty, he pulled out his Sig. With the gun balanced in his palm, John stared at the weapon, allowing himself one last moment of doubt before he slid it into the drawer of the tiny table between their beds.

He checked on Phoenix again, gauging if the man would be able to reach the gun. John didn’t think he could and found himself willing to take the chance. Since Afghanistan, the Sig’s place was next to the bed. It kept John safe, kept him alive, and he couldn’t find the confidence to forego his routine.

Closing the drawer, John pushed the bag beneath the bed and slipped under the covers. Like Phoenix, he kept his clothes on, both for privacy and in case he needed to be up and moving at a moment’s notice.

Head on the pillow, John folded his hands together on his chest and stared up at the ceiling. The room was only semi-dark, the noon sun doing its best to burn through the thin curtains in front of the window. Thumbs rolling slowly, one over the other, John doubted he would sleep a wink. His mind felt like a hurricane, thoughts whipping through his head in a tumultuous rush. But, as the day crept closer and closer to high-noon, John’s eyelids grew heavier, and, eventually, he slept.

 


 

Sherlock didn’t intend to fall asleep. He planned to stay awake and wait out the man. His captor was exhausted. Even someone lacking in any deductive reasoning whatsoever could see that. If he could just stay awake until the man dropped his guard and slept, Sherlock could try to facilitate his escape.

He’d watched the man clean his second gun and fill empty clips with new rounds, biding his time. There had been an almost hypnotic rhythm to the work, one that Sherlock found caught and held his focus in a way that settled the unrelenting buzz of his thoughts. He didn’t plan to let the man catch him watching, but he'd become engrossed in the strangely soothing repetition of his captor’s movements and dropped his guard. The man had looked up, seen him, and froze. Sherlock had no idea what prompted him to hold the man's gaze, but he’d found himself hoping his captor would speak, even as Sherlock realized he had no idea what he might want him to say.

But the man’s open mouth offered only silence, and it eventually became too much for Sherlock, prompting him to turn away and hide his burning eagerness for insight into the man’s mind.

Listening to the repetitive click of bullets sliding into magazine clips, Sherlock fell asleep.

His dreams were strange. In the first, he was a child, running through an unfamiliar forest. There was something behind him, something vast and dark and breathing loudly in the dark. Whenever Sherlock looked over his shoulder, there was nothing there. But, every time he stopped, thinking he was safe, hot, fetid breath washed over him in putrid waves, and he set off running again.

The dream ended as he tumbled down a grassy hill, the scenery falling away like a set change. When Sherlock sat up and blinked, he was immediately standing, back to his current age and height, with that scared little child’s heart still hammering in his chest as Sherlock found himself walking through a cave with red walls. The walls dripped and heaved, shook with a blistering wind that plastered his curls to his head. With every step forward, a fierce sense of unease took root and grew, stretching through him the way a tree’s highest branches stretched toward the sky.

By the time Sherlock finally realized he was walking through the monstrous maw of the beast which had hunted him, the ground beneath his feet began to rock and reel. It shifted and moved, transforming into a rough, terrible tongue that rippled, pushing him off his feet and down the black throat of the beast, toward its ravenous stomach.

Sherlock thrashed and stirred in the bed, nearly waking. But he stilled, settling down and sinking into the next dream.

Gone were the living walls. Checking over his shoulder, Sherlock saw that no beast lurked at his back. Instead, He was back in the desert, by himself. Except… no, he wasn’t alone. They were back in the desert, he and the man. But there was no gun pointed on Sherlock, not here in the dreamscape. It was just the two of them beneath a sky that burned with stars, their brilliance painting the afterimage of galaxies into Sherlock’s eyes when he raised his gaze to the heavens.

“How are we here?” he asked without expecting an answer.

But the man did reply, his muted response making Sherlock stare at him as he said, “Because you fell.”

“Of course I fell,” Sherlock snapped with a frown. “I know that.”

His captor’s expression was perfectly serene. When Sherlock looked closer, he saw that the stars above had replaced the man’s eyes, turning his formerly-blue stare into the spill of the Milky Way and erasing his humanity.

“The secret is that you never stopped falling,” the man said, his strange words making Sherlock stiffen.

“Excuse me?” Sherlock said with his mouth suddenly dry.

Without moving his lips, the man said, “Phoenix.”

Brow furrowed, Sherlock whispered, “The bird that rises from the ashes of its own consuming fire.”

The man pressed his lips together and repeated himself, “Phoenix.” His star-filled gaze was intense, burning, threatening to devour. It made Sherlock take an involuntary step back, craving distance between himself and that unfathomable stare.

“What are you trying to say?” Forcing back his irrational fear, Sherlock moved forward to grab the man’s arm. He tried to reel him in and demand answers, but his hand went right through the arm, through the man’s chest, through him entirely as the dream faded, stretched thin and tore into drifting tatters.

“Wake up.”

Sherlock moved to sit up, but he was stopped by a hand on his chest, holding him against the mattress. He tried to lash out, confused and alarmed with his mind still half-lost in the dissolving imagery of the dream. One arm moved and was blocked, the other caught by the cruel bite of a plastic edge against his wrist.

Another hand covered his mouth, and Sherlock stilled, blinking up into the face of his captor.

“Be quiet,” the man hissed, staring down at him. His eyes were blue once more, no longer replaced by the spinning eternity of galaxies. “We have to go — right now.”

Slowly, Sherlock became aware of a growing, disruptive barrage of sound outside the room. He heard raised voices and heavy boots, the noise of men arguing. Sherlock realized his captor’s employers had tracked them down as he made out several low voices speaking in English.

These were the men who meant to kill him, who planned to kill them both. For all he knew, this was it. Death had caught up with him. Surely, Sherlock had no ally here. His captor could still hand him over, might see fit to use Sherlock as a bargaining chip to save his own life. Would he do that if there was even the smallest opportunity that it might buy him the chance to escape? Would Sherlock do it if he was in the man's shoes?

In the split second he allowed for the thought, Sherlock realized he had no answer. His heart leapt into his throat and threatened to choke him, and he looked up at the man standing over him. He felt his face shift into an expression of what could only be interpreted as naked fear.

“Are you awake?” his captor asked in a voice barely above a whisper. Sherlock nodded, his heart still pounding from his terrifying thoughts. The hand on his chest disappeared, though the one on his mouth remained, and the man fixed him with a hard stare. “Not a word, alright?”

Sherlock nodded again, and the man lifted his hand off Sherlock's mouth. Sherlock eyed the door with trepidation as the man ducked down beside the other bed. A knife appeared in one hand, and he kept darting looks over his shoulder while he sawed through the zip tie circling Sherlock’s wrist. Sherlock watched with dazed surprise, his mind still sluggishly trying to catch up with the waking world. The dream clung to him in spite of the adrenaline rush spilling through his veins, threatening to drag him away from reality and back to that star-lit desert-scape.

The man stood, the sudden movement pulling Sherlock out of his thoughts. The knife disappeared back into a sheath on the man’s hip, a gun appearing in his empty hand. Looking down at Sherlock, his captor pressed his lips into a thin line and held out the second gun, handle first with his fingers tight around the muzzle.

“Take it,” he snapped when Sherlock only stared dumbly at the offering. “And don’t shoot me in the back,” he added.

Slowly, Sherlock reached out to take the gun. His fingers brushed the handle, slowly curved over the grip. The man didn’t let go right away, and Sherlock looked up. Their eyes locked for a moment, brief and fleeting, and Sherlock nodded. In spite of all this man had put him through, Sherlock knew he was his only chance at survival. Even with a gun in his hand, Sherlock was still at his mercy, and that fact did not go unregistered in his clarifying mind.

“I won’t,” he replied, realizing the man was still holding the gun, his expression betraying his lingering hesitance.

His captor appeared unconvinced, wary, but he finally tilted his chin in a little nod of his own before stepping back and relinquishing the gun. Stooping, he grabbed his duffle bag and pulled it over his head. With it hung across his back, he straightened again and clutched his own gun in both hands with the muzzle pointed toward the floor.

Looking at Sherlock over his shoulder, he said, “Get ready to run.”

Chapter Text

Phoenix’s willing response to John’s commands was unanticipated, but there was little time to dwell on his surprise as the sound of nearing voices in the hall grew louder. Footsteps approached the door to their room and paused outside, and John's breath caught in his throat. It was too late to turn back or escape on his own.

All John could do was hope that Phoenix wouldn't have a change of heart and decide to shoot him in the back.

John's eyes dropped to the small crack between the bottom of the door and the floor. Two sets of shadows disrupted the light shining through from the hall, and John could only assume they belonged to their pursuers. Anything else felt unlikely, and he tensed.

It seemed luck wasn’t on their side after all, and his ex-employers had tracked them down before John destroyed the tracker in his gun. He should have ditched the weapon with the car, but it was too late now to agonize over what he should have done. As the saying went, the chickens had come home to roost, and no amount of regret on John’s part could change that. All he could do was adapt and react and make sure they — both of them — got out alive.

The thought pushed John back into a familiar mindset. His focus narrowed, clarified by adrenaline, and the blood rushing in his ears fell into background noise. It was the distant sound of the tide, irrelevant in the present moment. The gun was heavy and hard against his palms.

Phoenix’s gaze on his back was like a physical presence, stoking John’s anxiety with the reminder that it wasn’t only his neck on the line.

As he stared at the door and readjusted his tense grip on the gun in his hands, John saw the handle twitch. Heard it rattle and watched as it twisted first one way then the other. He felt a flicker of dread before seeing it hold, the lock fulfilling its simple purpose. The door remained closed, and the handle stilled. The shadows moved away from beneath the door after a brief murmur of voices on the other side.

John’s breath rushed out in a muted gasp. He breathed in with aching lungs and realized he’d been holding his breath. A second inhale steadied his stiffening body, brought oxygen to his blood and cleared his head of the narrowed focus. Chancing a glance over his shoulder, John saw Phoenix watching him intently. With the outside brilliance of the day shaded by the thin curtains, the semi-dark of the room cast his face into shadow. It made Phoenix's expression near-impossible to read, but his sharp, bright eyes glittered as they darted over John’s face, and John knew he was waiting for his signal. He nodded in silent acknowledgement, and Phoenix's breath rushed out in a heavy sigh.

With his head tilted toward the door, John crept forward and placed his ear against the wood. He listened, heard footsteps retreating and stopping as the hostiles checked the other rooms on their floor. Eyes closed, straining, he listened harder, listened to a soft exchange in English, the words too muted to make out, followed by footsteps passing by the door, moving back toward the stairs.

Once they’d descended, John leaned back away and looked at Phoenix again. He hadn’t moved, was still standing in the middle of the room, the gun in his hands levelled at the floor.

“Let’s go,” John whispered, jerking his chin toward the door. “Remember — don’t make a sound.”

His expression almost severe in its solemnity, Phoenix nodded, and John turned his focus forward.

He flipped the lock with a steady hand and grasped the knob. Slowly, John eased the door open. He did so in increments until there was enough space between the door and the jam to let him peer outside. His teeth clicked together, and his jaw clenched, trapping his quickening breath as John looked up and down the hall.

It was empty.

“Come on,” he hissed over his shoulder, not waiting for a response as he moved forward. If Phoenix was as smart as he believed himself to be, he would see that John was his best chance for escape. And if he decided otherwise… well, that was out of John’s hands, and not his problem. If Phoenix chose to follow his own unshared plan and get himself killed, John would be better off, no longer forced to look after anyone save for himself.

The thought was cruel, and John shied away from his own apathy before shaking his head clear and easing out into the hall.

It was still empty. John tucked the gun alongside his thigh, muzzle to the ground as he glanced up and down the hall. The stairs to the first floor were on their left. At the other end, a second flight led to the third floor. There was a railing just past them and a view of the distant mountains, the building's backside open to the elements.

John turned to the right and waved two fingers in the same direction, falling back into familiar military signals. For good measure, he whispered, “This way.” Phoenix’s light steps followed behind him as John moved forward silently with his weight balanced on the balls of his feet.

Falling into a quiet trot, John paused only to glance over his shoulder, checking that the hall remained clear until they reached the railing. Adjusting his grip on the gun, he stopped and looked over the side. The ground below was dotted with sparse shrubs, and the drop wasn’t far. Even so, just looking at it and thinking about the leap made John’s injured thigh pulse with the promise of pain. Teeth gritted together, John huffed out a steadying breath and pushed the trepidation away.

His resolve once more firm, John turned to Phoenix. “Give me the gun,” he said, holding out a hand. There was the briefest flicker of doubt in Phoenix’s eyes, a small hesitation before he handed it over with fleeting reluctance. Gripping both weapons, John offered a stiff smile and nodded at the railing. “Climb over, hang down by your arms until you can’t go any further, then drop. Got it?”

Casting a wary eye over the railing, which was rusty and had clearly seen better days, Phoenix looked at John again and slowly nodded. He followed John’s directions without comment, needing only a small hop to gain enough height to swing his leg over the wrought iron.

John sucked in a breath once Phoenix was astride the railing, praying it wouldn’t break. But it held, and Phoenix skidded down the side of the building, white-knuckled hands locked tight around the bars before he dropped. He was tall, and the drop was much shorter for him than it would be for John. Still, John found himself tensing with an unexpected rush of anxiety until Phoenix was on the ground. He stared up at John from below, his eyes reflecting the sun like the flat calm of a foreign ocean. John blinked down at him for a moment, enchanted by the sight.

Distant voices rose in one of the rooms, and he came back to himself with a jolt. Shaking his head to clear it, John checked the hall over his shoulder, ensuring they were still in the clear before he slipped the guns into the bag on his back, zipped it closed and hoisted himself onto the railing.

Footsteps pounded on the stairs down the hall, and his heart leapt into his throat before John was skidding down the side of the building and out of view.

The old metal was rough against his palms, peeling paint chipping off and scraping his skin. With a fleeting thought for Phoenix’s cut hand, John dropped down to the ground with a grunt, stumbling when his left leg twinged at the impact. But he was upright immediately and waving Phoenix around the side of the building until they were out of sight. John didn’t stop until they’d crossed the parking lot and ducked behind another building.

For a hair-raising moment, the maneuver threw John back into the past, and he tasted the arid-dry breeze of a far different desert on his tongue before the tang of salt from the nearby lagoon washed it out of his mouth.

Before either of them could catch their breath, John pulled the guns out of his bag and handed one to Phoenix, who was watching him with that same indecipherable expression on his face.

“Tuck it into your trousers, against the small of your back,” John instructed. He turned and lifted the back of his shirt to demonstrate, feeling the cold metal of the gun settle against his skin as he slipped it into place. He did it without thinking, and when he let his shirt drop and rotated back to face Phoenix, the man’s eyes darted up from staring at John’s back.

In hindsight, John remembered why he didn’t bare his back to strangers — why he had gone years without even attempting an intimate connection with another person. He was familiar with the network of scars that marred this skin in silvery sweeps, and years after their creation, the sight of them no longer filled him with the same dread and horror they once had. John had gone so long without revealing the marks of his past to another human being that he’d almost let himself forget the roadmap of old pain that marked his skin.

Cursing his forgetfulness and blaming the adrenaline, John tried to ignore Phoenix’s intent expression. Instead of letting himself search for horror where he only saw a burning curiousity on the man’s face, John turned his attention back to the matter at hand. Rather than allow Phoenix to question his scars, John cleared his throat and nodded at the gun in Phoenix’s hand.

“Get that out of sight,” he snapped, his voice sounding harsher than intended in the wake of his accidental vulnerability.

Phoenix jolted and blinked, then quickly did as told, reaching back to slip the gun into his waistband. When his hands fell back to his sides, he looked at John with silent expectation, that unrelenting curiousity still lingering in his eyes.

“Good.” John offered a curt nod and checked their surroundings, tongue darting out to wet his dry lips. Phoenix was strangely quiet at his side, putting John on edge. The man was rarely silent unless he was assessing, thinking, obsessing, and John hated to think he might fixate on what little he’d glimpsed of John’s back.

John faced him again and cleared his throat. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse. “Are you staying with me, then?” At Phoenix’s questioning head tilt, John added, “You’re free to go. I won’t stop you if you decide to run. But...” John paused, considering his next words carefully.

Phoenix watched him with the same anticipatory expectation as before, his eyes riveted to John’s face. It was simultaneously unnerving and thrilling, waking something deep in John he thought was long gone. The urge to lead, to speak and be heard, lingered and flared within him, making John’s fingertips tingle with a dark excitement.

Figure it out, Watson, he thought, trying to regain his equilibrium. You have to make a decision eventually. It’s now or never — what do you want?

With the gun scraping against his spine, John straightened and finally said, “If you come with me, I won’t hurt you.” He forced conviction into his voice, hoping he wouldn’t prove himself a liar. John meant what he said, but trust was far easier said than done for him, and what he was promising far outweighed any risk he’d let himself take in years. “I won’t tie you up again,” he said quietly, holding Phoenix’s sharp gaze, “but I will expect you to keep up. If you fall behind, you’ll be left behind.” Swallowing around a dry mouth and tightening throat, John’s face hardened. “Do you understand?”

Phoenix looked at him for a long, silent moment. His stare was piercing, striking John to his core, and John fancied he could hear the cogs turning in Phoenix’s head, the sleek machine that was the man’s brain speeding along as he considered his options. Even louder and far more alarming was the tick of time passing them by, putting John more and more on edge with every wasted second.

Slowly, a glimmer of challenge rose in Phoenix’s mercurial eyes. “I won’t fall behind,” he said in a stiff voice, almost sounding offended by the suggestion.

In spite of all his misgivings, a small smile tugged the corner of John’s mouth upward, and he pressed his lips together to smother the expression. “Good. That’s good.” He tilted his head in a curt nod, pushing back a growing sense of wonder at the man’s willing adaptability.

Now wasn’t the time to be open. The situation required hardness, and John shut down his intrigue at once. He needed to be cold, hard and brutal to keep them alive, and he pulled that persona on like a second skin.

“We need to move. I want to put as much distance between those men and us as possible.” He turned to study their surroundings, working to determine the best direction to take.

“Wait.”

Phoenix’s order made John pause, and he swung back around with a scowl. In the skin of a soldier, he had no patience for questions.

“What?” he snapped, his voice harsh. They were still far too close to danger for John’s comfort, and the ticking clock in his head was growing louder with every second. Even worse, he didn’t relish the thought of having his motives put under a microscope by Phoenix when John barely understood them himself. “Well? Spit it out,” he added at Phoenix’s hesitation.

Phoenix tensed, his expression darkening. When he asked his question, John immediately stiffened.

“Why didn’t you just leave me behind?”

Instead of answering, John offered a question of his own, “Would you have left me behind if you were in my place?”

To his surprise, Phoenix’s gaze dropped at once. His brow furrowed, eyes narrowing in thought. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted. When he looked up again, his expression clearly communicated his unease. “Probably.”

Refusing to let the response dredge up his lingering uncertainties about the decisions he’d made, John forced himself to shrug with feigned nonchalance. Phoenix was still staring at him with the same level of intensity, expecting a response.

Focusing on the gun at his back, letting the cold, hard metal ground him, John licked his lips, a nervous tic he never could shake. “It didn’t seem like the right thing to do, alright?” He rolled his shoulders and deepened his tone into something emphatically dismissive. “If you want, I’ll leave you behind next time. But for now, I’d like to get the hell out of here.”

His words coaxed a small grin from Phoenix, and John, not for the first time, realized the man might not be entirely sane. Then again, John might be a little mad himself.

With that little smile still on his face, Phoenix tilted his head in agreement. “Lead the way, Captain.”

 


 

Sherlock didn’t understand the man’s motives. It didn’t seem like the right thing to do? What did that even mean? The man had no reason to help Sherlock, and would have been better off leaving him behind. When the man asked what he would do in the reverse situation, Sherlock answered honestly. If that was the case, Sherlock was confident he would have left the man behind. Sherlock was an unknown, a liability, a risk not worth taking for a stranger with his life on the line.

But here they were, fleeing the hotel together, Sherlock on the man’s heels with the cold metal of the gun biting into the small of his back.

His former captor’s 180-degree change of heart made Sherlock’s head spin. He’d gone from refusing to trust Sherlock to offering Sherlock his freedom and protection in the same breath. It made no sense, and Sherlock could only assume that, once again, impending danger had forced them onto the same side. This new dynamic, the tenuous alliance, was reminiscent of their teamwork in the desert. Then, it had been a brief unity, failing to last past the death of two snipers. But now, Sherlock had the man’s word that he wouldn’t treat Sherlock like a captive again — that he would keep Sherlock safe so long as Sherlock kept up with him.

It was a complete flip from their captor-captive dynamic, and Sherlock couldn’t help but feel unbalanced.

Perhaps more surprising was his own willingness to trust the man. To take him at his word and follow as they fled to the edge of town, casting wary looks over their shoulders in anticipation of pursuit. It brought to mind Sherlock’s initial impression of the man: that he was, or had once been, a good man. A man of honour, who believed in something more than himself.

On the way to the drop site, Sherlock had tried to appeal to what he’d imagined was the man’s better nature, only to be rebuffed and shut down. Now, letting the man lead him along the outskirts of town and toward the waterfront, Sherlock wondered if this sudden display of altruism would last. He hoped it would, as he had no backup plan if this alliance ended the way the first had.

Despite his apparent freedom, Sherlock had little choice but to trust the man running just ahead of him, bent low to the ground and moving like some wild creature escaping danger. The man was his only hope of salvation, taking form in a stranger Sherlock had twice been caught off-guard by, and who had betrayed him easily and without remorse.

But Sherlock had no choice. Without his passports, money, and few other belongings, which were all back in Tétouan or taken by the man upon his capture, Sherlock had little hope he would survive to see out the end of the day on his own. In this way, he was still a captive. Sherlock remained tethered to his ex-captor, albeit now by necessity instead of zip ties, but a cage was a cage no matter how it looked. Even so, he realized that he still wanted to believe this time would be different. He wanted to trust that, this time, their enforced truce would last.

The man stopped, his abrupt halt shaking Sherlock from his thoughts. They had reached a wall, and the man pressed his back against it, chest heaving as he fought to catch his breath. It was hot, and his face was slick with sweat, mirroring Sherlock’s own clammy skin. His filthy shirt clung to his body, curls plastered to his skull by perspiration, and his morning shower already seemed like a distant memory.

“What’s the plan?” Sherlock’s words wheezed from his lips as he sucked in air with a desperation the man matched in his own loud inhales.

The man shook his head. “To stay alive,” he said, making Sherlock scowl.

“Obviously,” he snapped. The man shot him a glare.

“Don’t see you coming up with any ideas,” he growled, straightening from his bent position to meet Sherlock’s eyes with a steely expression that hardened his face into a dangerous mask. “If you’ve got any, I’m all bloody ears.”

Teeth clenched, Sherlock tore his eyes away from the man’s face and took in their surroundings. There was a walkway to their left, and a deep breath of the salty air told him it led to the lagoon. To the right was a narrow side street. Peering around the corner, ignoring the man’s hiss to stay out of sight, Sherlock looked down the street and saw the brightly-coloured signs of a market. Leaning out of view, his back against the wall once more, he looked at the man, who was silently seething at his side.

“There’s a market,” he said, tilting his chin toward the side street. “It’s likely to be crowded, which will make it easier for us to slip through without being seen.”

“Alright,” the man said slowly, his eyes narrowing. “But why?”

Sherlock cast an eye over his own body, mouth pulling to the side with distaste. “You said it yourself. I need new clothes. The market seems like the safest option for acquiring that while staying out of sight. We can blend into the crowd, as it were.”

The man’s gaze glimmered with understanding. It made his dark blue eyes sharper, catching and holding Sherlock’s attention.

“Right,” he said with a stiff nod. “Yeah, that’s good.” He shifted past Sherlock, close enough for the musky scent of his sweat and adrenaline to fill Sherlock’s nose, bringing with it a fleeting dizziness. Peering around the corner, mirroring Sherlock’s earlier position, the man nodded again. “Okay, let’s do it.” He leaned back, away from Sherlock, and felt for the small of his back, checking the gun was still in place. Hand dropping to his side, he faced Sherlock. “You ready?”

Looking at him, Sherlock took a moment to take in the man’s stiff but alert posture, the hard, challenging gleam of his dark eyes, and he tilted his head in affirmation.

“Ready.”

 

 

 

As expected, the market provided the perfect cover. Sherlock managed to sidle up to a stall selling hand-dyed clothing, and he purchased a pair of loose beige trousers and a light blue cotton shirt without issue, hidden in plain sight by the milling crowds. The man paid, dropping colourful bills on the counter, and then they were easing back into the throng of shoppers.

In the shadow of a palm tree, the man kept watch as Sherlock ducked behind a row of hedges. His heart pounded at the thought of being caught either by the men sent after them or the local authorities as Sherlock shed his filthy, stained clothes. He pulled on the new wardrobe, barely resisting the urge to groan in satisfaction at the feeling of clean fabric against his body. He was even willing to shrug when the material immediately clung to his sweat-damp skin, just happy to be out of his blood-and-sand-ruined clothes.

Shoving said clothes beneath a bush, Sherlock cleared his throat and hissed, “Can I come out?”

There was a short pause before the reply drifted to him through the bushes, “You’re clear.”

Grateful for the lookout, Sherlock slipped back out of the shrubbery, grimacing as small branches scratched his skin. One drew a thin line of blood down his arm, but he dismissed the minor injury. Next to the yellowing bruises on his face, Sherlock doubted anyone would notice the small spot of red on his bicep.

Rubbing it away with his thumb, he turned to the man, who looked him over with an appraising eye.

“You’re a bit less of a sore thumb now,” he said before reaching out toward Sherlock’s face. The gesture was unexpected, and Sherlock startled before forcing himself to hold still as the man froze in response to his reaction. Their eyes locked. Several expressions flickered over the man’s face before it went blank, and he reached out to pluck something from Sherlock’s hair with a surprisingly delicate touch. He held it out, spinning what Sherlock realized was a small twig between his fingers.

“Stick,” the man said, stating the obvious.

“Right. Thanks,” Sherlock managed, frowning at the lingering sensation of the man’s fingers in his hair. Inexplicably, the brief contact lit up his nerves like a light show, and he had to look away to regain his composure, flustered by his reactions.

When Sherlock looked back again, the man dropped the twig to the ground and crossed his arms over his chest. “We need to leave the city,” he said in a rough tone, kicking the toe of one booted foot against the ground with a frown. “Maybe we could go to Melilla.” He turned to Sherlock. “It’s part of Spain.”

“I know basic geography,” Sherlock snapped, worked up by his earlier fluster. He received a silently raised eyebrow in response and sighed. “I don’t have my passports.”

The man’s eyes narrowed. “Passports… plural?”

“Yes, plural. I’m dead, remember? Can’t exactly run around using my real name, can I?”

“Oi,” the man growled, his patience seemingly exhausted. “Don’t blame me for that. I didn’t make you fake your death.”

Teeth bared in a snarl, Sherlock glared. “No, but you did kidnap and drag me halfway across Morocco, leaving my passports back in Tétouan.”

Eyes widening, the man breathed a hard sigh out through his teeth. “Ah.”

“Yes, ah,” Sherlock mocked in a harsh voice. “So we can’t go to Melilla because then we’d have to cross the border, and, as I’ve stated, I don’t have my passports.”

“Alright, alright,” the man muttered, tilting his face upward as if asking the sky itself to grant him patience. “You’re such a beam of sunshine, do you know that?”

Sherlock made a wordless sound of annoyance, which the man ignored.

“Okay,” he said, squinting down at the ground in thought, “so you need your passports.” He glanced at Sherlock, his gaze evaluating. “What are the chances your stuff is still in your room?”

With his arms folded over his chest, Sherlock tilted his head in thought. “I paid for the month, so fairly good.”

The man nodded. “Right.” He paused and rubbed a thumb over his eyebrow before nodding again as he straightened and met Sherlock’s curious stare. “That’s where we’ll go, then.”

Sherlock’s forehead creased, brows dropping down into a frown. “Where?”

“Tétouan,” the man replied as if it were that simple.

Rocking back on his heels, Sherlock blinked. “It’s six hours away by car!” he exclaimed, caught off-guard by the suggestion. “Which, in case you’ve forgotten, we no longer have.”

“Yeah, I got that, thanks,” the man snapped. There was a warning in his voice. “I’m not an idiot.”

“Clearly,” Sherlock said in a dry voice. It earned him a glare, and a finger pointed in his face.

“You better watch that mouth of yours. I’m more than bloody happy to leave you here to find your own way.” The man’s words were a growl, his eyes flashing as he straightened to his full height and tilted his head to stare Sherlock down. Even though Sherlock was taller, he found the look hard to take head-on, and he had to fight the urge to look away as the man went on. “I don’t need to go to Tétouan, so if you want to part ways, you won’t hear me complaining.” His little rant finished, the man closed his mouth with an audible click. His lips thinned into a white line, and they stared at one another, the silence drawing out as neither seemed willing to speak first.

It was Sherlock who finally gave in, reluctantly impressed by the man’s fierce burst of ire. There was an ever-present edge of danger to everything he said and did, and Sherlock realized he didn’t doubt a word of the man’s threat. He meant what he said and was still, despite Sherlock’s venom and provocations, offering to help him.

Sherlock couldn’t help but be impressed. His trust issues aside, the man displayed not only a complexity that intrigued Sherlock, but a level of integrity Sherlock had only theorized might well dwell within him. He was simultaneously terrifying and brilliant, his dutiful offers of help at sharp odds with his abrasive manner and rough personality. He was endlessly complex, this man. When he’d been captive, Sherlock had found the dichotomous nature of his kidnapper infuriating. Now that they were more or less on the same side, Sherlock’s found his fascination growing.

“Fine,” he finally said, his response curt as he buried his rising admiration behind a forced sneer, “I’ll hold my tongue. But only if you figure out how we’re getting to Tétouan.”

The man’s eyes darkened, a sense of challenge crackling around him at Sherlock’s words. It was both alarming and captivating to behold, and Sherlock drew in a bated breath as the man’s demeanour shifted from annoyed to confidently cocky.

“Not a problem,” he said, and a sharp little smirk crept over his lips.

 


 

Standing on the roadside with his arm out and thumb cocked toward the pavement, John squinted against the sun. He watched the road and tried to ignore the petulant aura of the man standing next to him with his arms crossed over his chest.

“This is not what I had in mind,” Phoenix muttered, casting a furious glare up at the sky. “This is your brilliant plan?” His grousing was starting to get on John’s nerves, and he clenched his jaw as Phoenix snipped, “Hitchhiking is hardly clever.”

“Never said it was clever.” Closing his eyes and praying for patience, John tilted his head back and arched his neck, trying to work a kink out of his shoulder. When he opened them again, the road was dismally empty, and he bit back a frustrated sigh.

“Well, good. Because it’s not,” came the grumpy response from John’s unwilling companion.

John sighed. “Again, you’re more than welcome to fuck right off anytime if this isn’t good enough for you, posh boy.”

His words earned him a glare. “Stop calling me posh boy.”

“Can’t do it, sorry.”

Phoenix’s eyes narrowed dangerously. In some backwards, insane part of John’s brain, he found the display oddly attractive. He brushed the mad thought aside and huffed a dry laugh as Phoenix demanded, “And why not?”

“‘Cos you are,” John replied. Phoenix opened his mouth with an offended expression, and John cut him off. “It doesn’t matter if your clothes are dirty or that you spent the night in a two-star hotel — every inch of you screams public school.”

Scowling, Phoenix crossed his arms tighter over his chest. “How so?”

John waved a hand in his direction to indicate the entirety of him and rolled his stiff shoulders again before letting his arm drop. “The hair, your posture, that voice...  Pick one. I don’t care. But all of it is posh as hell.”

“My voice?” Phoenix repeated, bemused.

Shit, John thought, covering his small smile with a cough. I should have kept that one to myself.

But Phoenix wasn’t about to let him off the hook so easily. “How does my voice make me posh?” he asked, frowning at John. The expression creased the skin between his eyebrows and crinkled the top of his nose, which John shouldn’t notice, yet he noticed anyway.

“It’s… Hell, I don’t know.” John waved his hand again. “All deep and rumbly and fancy. Very stick-up-the-arse posh.”

“Charming,” Phoenix muttered. He was quiet for a moment, to John’s relief. But the respite was short-lived, as Phoenix looked down his nose at him and stated, “I’ll have you know that I’m a master at disguise."

Losing his battle to remain impassive, John snorted. He caught a flicker of a smile on Phoenix’s face before it was schooled away into a flat expression.

“Whatever you say,” John replied.

Phoenix opened his mouth again, no doubt to tell him off when he froze and pointed into the distance. “I see a car.”

Wheeling back toward the road, John stuck out his thumb and tried to look as harmless as possible. With the bandage on his cheek and the bruising on Phoenix’s face, it was no small feat, and he doubted he succeeded. When the car blew by them without slowing, John couldn’t blame the driver for giving them a pass.

Phoenix made a loud, mocking sound behind him, adding insult to injury, and John shot a deadly glare over his shoulder.

“Not a word,” he growled as his left hand flexed into a fist at his side. Phoenix stared at him with narrowed eyes before his gaze dropped to John’s hand and his mouth clicked shut with a hard snap as he seemed to think better of whatever comment he’d been considering.

Grateful for the obedience, John turned his attention back to the road and stuck his thumb out again. “Hitchhiking is a popular way to travel in Morocco,” he said after fifteen minutes passed in silence, and the quiet of the empty, stretching road began to eat away at his sanity. He waited for a response and, receiving none, added, “Tourists and locals both make use of it. It’s free, easy, and—”

“A great way to be murdered by strangers,” Phoenix interrupted in an irritated mumble. John rolled his eyes.

“I think I’m more likely to murder you if you don’t shut that mouth of yours.”

To his relief, Phoenix subsided with a pout.

The sun beat down, and John dropped his arm to bend his back. Listening to the various cracks and pops of his spine, he grimaced. It seemed it was true what people said, that old age got everyone in the end. Maybe it was time for retirement. He wasn’t even forty yet, but hanging up his gun belt for good seemed tantalizingly close to bliss right now, and John entertained the thought as he stuck his thumb out again. Bali still sounded lovely. Blue waters and white sand. No more sneaking around and chasing after marks. No more mouthy posh boys, though John hoped he never encountered another person as insufferable as Phoenix for as long as he lived.

Though, if someone didn’t pull over for them soon, that might not be for much longer.

God, but retirement sounded good.

A sound caught John’s attention. It was the faint, droning noise of an engine, and John blinked against the sun as he turned his focus back to the road. He watched a truck appear over the gentle rise in the distance, disrupting the flat line of the horizon, and he lifted his arm with a surge of hope.

Amazingly, just as John was starting to think that this driver would also blow past them, he heard the unmistakable sound of the engine gearing down. A grin spread over his face, and he stepped back as the truck pulled over. With the engine idling, the driver rolled the window down and leaned forward.

“You need a lift?” It was an older man, his dark brown skin wrinkled by years of sun, and he spoke in heavily-accented English. His eyes, a faded light brown, scanned over them both. “Where you travelling to?”

John hesitated before Phoenix stepped forward. With an unexpectedly disarming smile on his face, his pale skin reddened by exposure to the harsh sun, he said, “Midar. It’s not far.”

“Nope, only hour and a half,” the man replied agreeably. The truck was a small two-seater, and he waved at the box. “Sit in the back, and I’ll take you.”

With that startlingly pleasant smile still on his face, Phoenix nodded. “Thank you,” he replied before circling to the back and climbing over the tailgate.

John paused to thank the man and jogged around to the back of the truck, lifting himself up and into the box with a grunt. As he settled next to Phoenix and braced himself against the outside of the cab, he frowned. “Why Midar?”

“There’s a bus station.” Phoenix squinted against the wind as the truck rumbled onto the road and picked up speed. Sweaty curls blowing back from his brow, he crouched to avoid the force of the wind, blinking involuntary tears from his watering eyes. “It’ll take us directly to Tétouan.” To the unspoken question in John’s expression, he said, “It’s how I travelled there in the first place.”

John nodded and crossed his arms over his bent knees, pulling them against his chest. “Midar it is, then.”

Chapter Text

They arrived in Midar just as late day began to creep upon the scenery. The sky darkened at the horizon, the oncoming evening stealing away the azure hue of the afternoon.

The truck pulled up outside the city limits, and Sherlock jumped out the second it stopped. The man leapt out after, moving around to the cab to thank their driver. Sherlock waited, shifting impatiently from one foot to the other, for the man to join him. When he did, Sherlock turned away from the road and toward Midar.

Standing at the edge of the city, they listened to the truck amble back onto the highway and drive toward the darkening horizon. As it died away, Sherlock turned to the man. Eyebrow raised, he asked, “Alright, now what?”

The man dragged a hand over his stubble-darkened jaw. His palm made a harsh rasping noise against the stiff growth. “You’re exhausting,” he said with a tired sigh. “I’m exhausted.”

Sherlock shot him a look but managed to hold his tongue. Instead of dwelling on the comment or responding, he strode toward the city without waiting for his companion. The gun at his back shifted with his stride, the skin-warmed metal rubbing against the dip of his spine as Sherlock listened for the sound of following footsteps.

“Oh, are you actually making a decision for once?” The comment was cocky, and, his eyes narrowed, Sherlock glared over his shoulder. The man dared to smirk at him.

“In case you’ve forgotten, I spent the last day and a half at your mercy,” Sherlock bit out, upper lip curling back. “I wasn’t exactly in the ideal position for decision-making.”

The man’s mouth pulled to the side in a wry grimace, and he fell silent. They walked into town with the edge of evening hovering on the horizon, Sherlock leading the way with a twinge of deja vu, struck by how different a man he’d been when he first entered Midar. Though his time in Morocco began no more than a few weeks before, Sherlock found that he felt irrevocably changed since then. The ordeal of the past few days was partially to blame, but Sherlock thought the most significant difference was that he’d been alone then.

He certainly wasn’t alone now.

Sherlock led the way to the bus station, silently grateful to have the man’s wary attention on his side. He scanned their surroundings with a focus Sherlock found admirable, his intensity rivalling Sherlock’s own awareness. The way he surveyed the area was reminiscent of the focus Sherlock reserved for crime scenes and murders. It was both a comfort and a reminder that the man was not only dangerous but a stranger.

Sherlock thought he would do well to remember that.

They passed various buildings and milling people, the city still active as night rushed in from the outskirts. After a stretch of silent walking, the bus depot came into view, and Sherlock stopped. Patting the pockets of his new trousers, he cursed under his breath. The man halted with him, raising an eyebrow.

“Problem?”

Sherlock scowled, hands dropping back to his sides. “I don’t have any money. Someone,” he looked pointedly at the man, “took it from me.”

“Right,” came the droll reply. “Well, seeing as you’re meant to be dead anyway and have no ID, I’ll buy the tickets.”

Sherlock bit back a sharp retort and followed him into the depot. The queue was blessedly short, the evening travellers scattered into small groups within. Sherlock eyed them each in turn, deducing little details that struck him as commonplace and utterly lacking in interest. After their narrow escape in Nador, Sherlock was grateful for the banality. Boring meant safe, and for once, he preferred it.

He turned his attention forward as his ex-captor reached the front of the line.

“Two tickets to Tétouan,” he said to the man at the window. The response came in Arabic.

“Name?”

Sherlock stared. His curiousity was evident and earned a wary look from his companion. Instead of feigning disinterest, Sherlock continued to stare, his mind whirling. Would he give his real name? A fake name? Tell the ticket-seller to fuck off?

With a surge of annoyance, Sherlock realized he couldn’t predict the answers to his own questions.

Finally, his former captor dragged his eyes away from Sherlock’s intense expression and turned back to the window. “John,” he said in a low voice. “Just John.” The last was spoken firmly, and the ticket seller's eyebrows rose before he nodded and turned to his computer.

Sherlock pulled a face at the evidently fake name. A twinge of disappointment reminded him that he still knew little about the man, and he stewed over the thought.

“137.51 dirham,” the man behind the counter said. Sherlock’s former captor — ‘John’ — dug into his pocket and paid the amount. He received two tickets in exchange, the ticket-seller adding, “Bus leaves in an hour and a half.”

“Thanks,” John said in his clumsy Arabic before turning back to Sherlock. “I need to eat.” Slipping the bus tickets into his bag, he shrugged it back over his shoulder and led the way out onto the street.

Following on his heels, Sherlock waited until they were outside before speaking. “If you’re going to use a fake name, you could at least pick something more imaginative than John.” Warming to his topic, he went on in a hushed whisper, “John has to be the most common, most boring name choice you could have made. Though, maybe that’s not a bad idea…” His voice turned thoughtful, considering. “It doesn’t stand out, and almost all languages have some variant of John. But still,” Sherlock pulled a face, “it’s rather dull.”

John shot him an odd look. He was silent for so long that Sherlock paused and stared at him. Finally, John shrugged and said, “It worked well enough.” His voice was curt, and he sounded irritated by Sherlock’s little rant.

Sherlock frowned. He waited for more, but ‘John’ didn’t speak again, and Sherlock’s stomach growled loud enough that he willingly let the subject drop.

They found a small restaurant, still open and nearby. Tucked into a table in the corner, John stared hungrily at the menu and ordered several dishes. Sherlock was more reserved, settling for an order of zaalouk and mint tea. His appetite was rarely large, and a lingering sense of unease from their close call in Nador had reduced it further.

As they waited for their food, a heavy silence fell over the table. Sherlock rubbed at a smudge of dirt on his arm, overly-aware of the gun at his back. John sat across from him and eyed the front door with a wariness that made it impossible to forget he’d once been a soldier.

“So, the bus,” Sherlock said when the silence became too much to bear. Across from him, John shifted and turned his gaze from the door. He cocked his head to the side and met Sherlock’s eyes.

“What about it?”

Sherlock fiddled with a spoon before forcing himself to stop. He folded his hands in his lap to keep still, opened his mouth to respond, and snapped it shut when their food appeared. Once it was set on the table and their server left once more, he watched John eye his food with evident hunger.

Taking pity on him, Sherlock said, “Go ahead.” He resisted the urge to smile at John’s apparent relief.

They dug into their meals, John eating his bastilla with a single-minded intensity and focus that Sherlock recognized as characteristic of soldiers. Despite his mechanical eating method, John seemed to enjoy the pigeon pie, reaching for a plate of spicy sardines once he was finished with the dish.

Sherlock swallowed a mouthful of his own food, sipped at his tea, hummed, and said, “Are you afraid someone might steal your food away before you’ve had the chance to swallow it whole?”

John shot him a sour look. “In case you missed it, that was a close call in Nador.” Taking another bite, he swallowed, wiped his hands on a napkin, and sat back. The gaze he fixed on Sherlock was tense, his eyes dark and hard. “I’m not stupid enough to assume they won’t find us again. I plan to eat when I can, keep up my energy, and stay alert.”

The brief sense of amusement banished by the grave words, Sherlock sobered. “You think they’ll follow us?”

His lips pressing into a thin line, John’s brow furrowed in disbelief. “Do you really think they won’t?” His nose crinkled, his gaze judgemental. “I thought you were supposed to be a genius.”

Sherlock sneered, piqued by the implication that he was anything less than brilliant. “Are you insinuating that I’m not?”

“Not insinuating.” John leaned forward and lowered his voice, drawing Sherlock in with his hushed tone. “Look, maybe you are that intelligent. But that doesn’t mean you’re smart. There is a difference.” Tapping his fingertips against the table, he added, “I haven’t managed to stay alive this long without expecting the worst.”

Breathing out a low sigh, Sherlock reluctantly replied, “What a way to live.”

“Exactly.” John sat back and dragged another sardine onto his plate. “Now you’re getting it.”

The rest of the meal passed in relative quiet, broken only by the sounds of eating and drinking. Sherlock was pensive, still simmering with resentment at John’s suggestion that he would underestimate the level of danger. It was true that he hadn’t lived the same life as John, but his last few years had taught him not to overlook the tenacity of Moriarty’s network. It had been constructed by a madman and reflected that influence in its remaining structure. It only tracked that its members would embody that same devil-may-care attitude.

Sherlock was swirling the dregs of his tea with a thoughtful expression when John finished eating and ended the silence.

“So, the bus.” He wiped a napkin over his mouth before folding it into a neat little square and setting it next to his plate. “You were saying?”

Sherlock placed his cup on the table with a delicate click of crockery against wood. “It’s an eleven-hour trip.” Hands folded in his lap, he leaned back and watched John’s face closely. “We’ll be travelling through the night and part of the morning.”

“And?” John tilted his head, his gaze evaluating. “Is that a problem for you?” When Sherlock didn’t reply, John frowned. “It’s not one for me — I’ve travelled in far less pleasant ways, both in the army and after. Travelling by bus sounds like a vacation compared to clinging to the open side of a helicopter over active fire.”

“It might be crowded and loud,” Sherlock pointed out. He wasn’t sure what he was trying to say with the observation. Somewhere in the depths of his Mind Palace rose a snippet of reading. Crowded areas with no escape, soldiers who served in active warzones. Though Sherlock was no expert on mental health or Post-Traumatic Stress, he thought the environment might at least leave John feeling unsettled. He had little to no proof of John experiencing PTSD, but he wasn’t sure he was prepared to address such an intense disorder if it cropped up on a bus full of strangers.

John’s frown deepened, his eyes darkening. Belatedly, Sherlock realized he had struck a nerve and was struggling to formulate an appropriate response when John said, “Pretty sure the helicopter still beats the most crowded bus. Probably easier to sleep on the bus, too.”

Abandoning his aimless questioning, Sherlock shrugged and lifted his cup to his mouth. He downed the rest of the tea and returned the cup to the table before he stood. “I still don’t have any money,” he said pointedly, glaring at John’s duffle. The change in topic, paired with his snark, was an offered lifeline that John gratefully accepted, albeit with an eye roll.

“Git.” Instead of validating Sherlock’s statement with a response, John dug out some money and left it on the table. “Let’s go.” He pushed back his chair and rose, the duffle slung over his shoulder once more. “The bus will be here soon.”

 


 

They left the restaurant in a heavy silence.

As they walked back to the bus depot, John wondered at Phoenix’s strange questions. Clearly, he’d been trying to determine something, though John had no idea what. If the man wasn’t so reliant on him for safety, John might have thought Phoenix was trying to identify John’s weaknesses. But John failed to see how asking about his comfort level with a long trip on a crowded bus would help determine that. Maybe it had been an attempt at conversation, albeit a strange one?

Whatever the purpose, the questioning left him feeling uneasy. While John knew he’d be fine, he didn’t relish the idea of being trapped on a bus for eleven hours. It left them vulnerable, with no escape route should they be attacked. But, almost worse than that, John dreaded the eleven hours spent stuck with Phoenix, with no distraction from his intense focus. The man didn’t strike John as someone capable of self-distraction. He had little doubt that Phoenix would be insufferable within an hour on the road.

His dread aside, John was still grappling with his decision to help Phoenix, avoiding the urge to look too closely at his own motives. He wasn’t looking forward to Phoenix discovering the rationale for him. With any luck, he’d be able to sleep and avoid some of the likely inescapable analysis of his psyche. It was bad enough that John had given his name to the man selling the bus tickets. He hadn’t planned to, but the moment came, and John was unprepared. In hindsight, the situation struck him as moronic — John should have anticipated it. He knew Phoenix didn’t have any money. Most of his personal belongings, sparse as they were, lay within John’s duffle.

In giving up his name, John had bared a part of himself to Phoenix. Whether Phoenix realized it or not was of little concern to John’s nerves.

The bus depot came into view, and John wondered if some small part of his subconscious hadn’t sabotaged him. That Phoenix thought the name a fake should have been a relief. And yet, John was annoyed by the misunderstanding, almost as if he wanted Phoenix to know his name. To know him.

They reached the stop outside the depot, and John took the opportunity to close his eyes. He rubbed tired hands over his face and tried to make sense of what his mind was telling him. Because it sounded like it was saying that he wanted to bare himself to Phoenix, and that wasn’t an option. To let himself be known was to let himself be vulnerable, and John couldn’t afford that. He never could afford that, not as a soldier, as a mercenary, and certainly not here, with Phoenix.

Get your shit together, Watson. John scrubbed harder at his face and tried to push away his cyclical thoughts. He reminded himself that Phoenix was not his ally, no matter the situation. It was temporary, just a response to the danger. Phoenix was a stranger, a liability, a walking mark who had painted a target on John’s back. Now wasn’t the time to lose his focus. Now wasn’t the time to start thinking about what it might be like to have someone understand him. To no longer be alone, to know that someone had his back.

The last time John believed in someone else, it nearly cost him his life. Deepening trust would only increase the oncoming danger and might get them both killed. Thus far, John had managed to avoid being picked apart by Phoenix’s analytic brain. Granted, Phoenix was a captive for much of that time, with no upper hand to speak of. With their dynamic drastically changed, John could no longer hide behind violence and control. He could only brace himself for what must be coming, try to fortify his mental barriers against Phoenix’s prying.

In comparison, John thought he’d almost prefer being shot again.

Almost.

Hands dropping from his face, John straightened his back and squared his shoulders. The gun against his spine was a comforting weight as he scanned their surroundings. Falling back into a state of alert watchfulness, he studied the other passengers waiting with them, searching for the tell-tale bulk of weapons under loose clothing. Though John didn’t notice anything out of place, that didn’t mean they were in the clear. And, in that same place of wary focus, he waited stiffly until the bus pulled up five minutes later, right on time.

Digging the tickets out of his bag, he led the way on board. Phoenix was unnaturally quiet, seemingly willing to leave John to his thoughts. His silence was both a blessing and unexpected, and John should have known it wouldn’t last.

They reached the back of the bus, and John moved aside to let Phoenix sit first. But he hesitated, eyes darting from John to the indicated seat, and he didn’t move.

John sighed.

“Sit down.” He eyed the other passengers as they settled throughout the bus before looking at Phoenix. He still hadn’t moved. “If anything happens, I need to be in the aisle seat.”

One of Phoenix’s brows rose. “Why should I be the trapped one?”

John clenched his jaw. His response was quiet, hissed out through his bared teeth, “You’re not trapped, you’re protected. Now, sit the fuck down or get off the bus and make your own way.” Casting a look around the bus, John was relieved to see no one was paying them any mind. He turned back to Phoenix with a dangerous smile. “Trust me or don’t. I really couldn’t give less of a shit which you choose, but you need to make a bloody decision now because I’m tired of this back and forth.”

The words were only partially true, but John meant it when he said he was tired. He was exhausted by the constant battle between them and, while he understood Phoenix’s reluctance, they didn’t have the luxury of doubt.

Clearly taken aback, Phoenix blinked. He stared at John for so long, frowning as his eyes roved over John’s face, that John finally growled, “Piss or get off the pot.”

To his surprise, Phoenix immediately dropped into the window seat with all the grace of a sack of potatoes.

“Alright, then,” John muttered, sinking down with a sigh. He allowed himself a fleeting moment of respite before scanning the faces of each passenger who boarded after them. He had no chance of knowing what their pursuers might look like, but that didn’t stop him from searching.

He started when Phoenix leaned closer and, his voice barely more than a whisper, asked, “What are you looking for?”

John shook his head, still studying each person as they boarded. “Weapons, watchfulness. Anything suspicious.”

Still inclined toward John, Phoenix faced the front of the bus and narrowed his eyes. “That man is an accountant,” he said, tilting his chin toward a man who took the seat two rows ahead. “And that younger man, his wife is expecting. No, likely in labour,” he amended, nodding to himself. “It’s their first child. He’s nervous and trying to hide it. Not doing a great job.” Phoenix’s eyes scanned the bus, settled on a group of three people. “That family lost someone. An uncle? A brother? Someone close. They’re travelling to meet with extended family.”

Dumfounded, staring as Phoenix rattled off his observations in a rapid-fire whisper meant for his ears alone, John blinked. “How can you possibly know all that?”

Phoenix turned his sharp eyes onto John. “I told you,” he said quietly, holding John’s gaze, “I see everything.”

John nodded, the gesture quick and curt. “Right.” Swallowing, he broke eye contact, watching the last few people climb on board with the driver following. “It’s…” he paused, brow furrowed, and chose his words with care. “It’s impressive.” From the corner of his eye, John saw the edge of Phoenix’s mouth twitch upward in a small, pleased smile. He didn’t expect a thank you for the compliment and didn’t receive one.

The bus rumbled to life. The sound and vibration pulled John’s attention from his internal musings, and he settled deeper into his seat. No longer perched on the edge, some of his wariness eased by Phoenix’s observations, John folded his hands in his lap. He shifted to keep the gun in his waistband from digging into his spine and closed his eyes. Despite the facade of composure, he was still unbalanced, failing to shake the feeling that if he let himself fully relax, danger would find them.

After years spent on alert for the first hints of attack, John couldn’t settle.

He moved restlessly, searching for a comfortable position where none could be found. He was at it for so long that Phoenix finally jerked toward him and snapped, “Can’t you be still?”

John opened one eye and glared. “Can’t you shut up?”

Phoenix scoffed, the sound as vicious as it was muted. “I’m trying to, but I can’t bloody think with you wiggling about like that.”

“Not my problem,” John said simply, closing his eyes once more.

They both lapsed into silence. Phoenix’s was tense and seething, John’s unperturbed. As the engine noise rumbled through the seat and into his body, John asked, “What are you thinking about?”

Phoenix jolted, evidently startled by the unexpected question. “Nothing,” he said, sounding flustered. “Everything,” he then amended, making John raise an eyebrow. He didn’t comment beyond the gesture, and Phoenix huffed before turning his glare out the window.

Another stretch of quiet passed. Listening to the hushed murmurs of the other passengers as they wove through the drone of the engine, John sighed and dropped his head back against the seat. “We should talk about Tétouan.”

Phoenix favoured him with a sideways glance. “Yes.”

Rolling the tension from his shoulders, John kicked his bag further under the seat and sat up. He cast a watchful eye over the other passengers before turning and leaning closer to Phoenix. “They’ll be watching your room. You realize that, yeah?”

His eyes focused on John’s face, Phoenix took a second to consider the statement and nodded. “It seems likely.”

“It’s more than likely.” John frowned. “It’s almost certain.” With their faces so close together, he could see a small, dark spot in Phoenix’s right eye, as well as a ring of green around his pupils. The band interrupted the pale blue of Phoenix’s irises, the colours bold and distinct. Central heterochromia, John thought, blinking as he realized Phoenix was speaking.

“What do we do if they find us there?”

His lips pursed, John leaned back an inch to gain a bit of space between them. Up close, Phoenix’s gaze was even more intense, and it made John’s head swim to face that clarity head-on.

“I thought that was fairly obvious,” he replied, raising an eyebrow.

Phoenix squinted. His dark eyelashes were thick, casting his hypnotic gaze into shadow. “Is it?”

A small, tight smile twitched along John’s lips, and his gaze hardened. The gun against his back pressed into his spine, the cool metal a cruel reminder of his particular brand of violence.

“We take them out.”

 

                                                                                                    

 

After John’s statement, Phoenix was quiet. Leaving him to his thoughts, John subsided into a pensive silence. Phoenix sat facing the window, his brow furrowed, gaze on the glass. John wondered what he was thinking about with such intensity and bit his tongue to keep from asking.

Eventually, Phoenix’s eyes closed. With his head tipped against the window, he appeared to be asleep.

John sat and people-watched for a while, staying wary and on-edge until the hum of the engine lulled him into a doze. He hovered somewhere between sleep and awareness, a place he’d learned to straddle in his time as a soldier. The state of mind, awake but not entirely, had gotten him through many nights. Nights where he waited for action, for casualties, for panicked voices requesting medic support. It let him fade from the immediate moment without losing conscious awareness of his surroundings.

He let his mind wander, sorting through the events of the past couple of days. As he listened to the other passengers' quiet sounds, the faint rustling noise of Phoenix shifting in his seat, John tried to make sense of how he’d arrived here. It was almost unbelievable that only two days had passed since he first met the man who had become his unwilling companion. It was hard to coincide the sheer amount of events into what felt like such a small span of time. Those two days seemed endless. Like years had passed instead.

The bone-deep weariness hanging over John only emphasized the thought.

As the trip continued beyond the two-hour mark and nothing twigged John’s internal alarms, he slipped closer to a true doze. He shifted in his seat, spread his legs, searched for more room in the limited space, and settled. Next to him, Phoenix didn’t stir, not even when John’s boot knocked against his. The man was curled into himself, tilted forward and sideways with his head resting on the window, dark curls crushed against the glass.

John watched him with half-open eyes. He took in his sharp features and the shadows cast by his long, dark eyelashes. Fascinated without reason, John stared at those lashes. He’d never seen such long eyelashes on a man and marvelled. It seemed a strange thing to notice, and John finally closed his eyes with a scowl.

Dammit, Watson. Keep it in your pants.

It was a reluctant fact that John had been alone for a long time, both intimately and otherwise. When John tried to remember the last time he’d been this close to someone without exacting some kind of violence upon them, he came up empty. His last intimate interaction had been in Afghanistan, months before the bullet shattered his collarbone and bought him a one-way ticket back to London. It was lonely, his life, but the perpetual danger and risk helped take the edge off.

Now, John tried to tell himself he could allow some small amount of leeway. Phoenix was an attractive man. More than that, he was almost beautiful, all his harsh edges and the angles of his face somehow working together to make him easy on the eyes. John couldn’t begrudge himself the faint flicker of interest that rose when he looked at the man’s sleeping face. When he noticed his height and slender, powerful body.

John was only human. He saw an attractive person, he noticed. Man, woman, non-binary, genderfluid, it didn’t matter. It hadn’t mattered once John was out of his parent’s house and out in the world, and it didn’t matter now. After years of experience, experimenting and staying open to new situations, he knew who he was. John was comfortable with his sexuality. But that didn’t mean he had the luxury of pursuing it. Not now, not anymore, not since Afghanistan. Not since misplaced, blind trust nearly cost him his life.

Noticing was all he would allow. Which was easy, as the current situation didn’t exactly encourage more. Phoenix was a stranger, John had once been his captor, and danger dogged their every movement. All of John’s focus needed to stay on the situation at hand. He meant to survive, planned to outlive their pursuers, and letting himself be distracted by some pretty eyelashes and oceanic eyes wasn’t an option.

Besides, despite his looks, Phoenix was insufferable. John thought the man could easily drive him mad with words alone. If they’d met in different circumstances, John wasn’t sure he’d have been able to stand Phoenix long enough to bother learning his name. The fact that he didn’t even know his real name now was just some kind of cosmic joke.

It really was better if he kept his distance. With any luck, they’d be rid of one another soon. John didn’t see how their forced alliance could last beyond escaping their immediate danger, and the thought was as strangely bittersweet as it was a relief.

His mind somewhat settled, John crossed his arms over his chest and pressed his lips into a tight line. As soon as Phoenix was away and on his own, and John was rid of him, he’d deal with this annoying sexual frustration. There were places John could go, places that took care of their sex workers, where he could burn off his carnal needs with a willing partner without worrying about attachments. He’d indulge, wipe the slate clean with Phoenix by paying off his karmic debt to the man and put this entire experience behind him.

The thought was comforting, and John let himself relax. Gradually, his arms fell slack and hands settling into his lap, he slept.

 

 

 

He woke from a strange dream to silence. The sky in the dream had been red, and the ground had slipped beneath his feet like glass. The fading remnants reminded John of Afghanistan, and he woke with a start. Blinking the sleep from his eyes, John tensed and looked around. He slowly noted the bus had stopped, and it was full dark outside, the interior lit by faint overhead lights.

Disoriented, John looked at Phoenix. He was awake. As if sensing John’s eyes on him, Phoenix turned away from the window. “You’re awake.”

Still groggy, John tilted his head from side to side, easing a kink from his neck. Arms stretched over his head, he grunted and looked toward the front of the bus. “Why’ve we stopped?”

“We’re at the next depot.” Phoenix pushed his long legs beneath the seat in front of him in a stretch. He made a low, groaning noise before going loose and turning to John. “I need to use the loo.”

John sighed. “Of course you do.” Rising, he stepped into the aisle, noting that several seats were empty. He frowned and looked up at Phoenix as the man stood. He had to duck his head as the low ceiling prevented him from straightening to his full height. “How long have we been stopped for?”

“Maybe fifteen minutes.” Phoenix turned toward the front of the bus, but John reached out, touching his arm and stopping him before he realized what he was doing.

Phoenix looked over his shoulder with surprise, and John dropped his hand, clearing his throat. “Why didn’t you wake me?” At Phoenix’s questioning head tilt, John added, “If you had to use the loo, I mean. You could have just woken me up.”

His eyes slid away, and Phoenix looked toward the front of the bus again. For a moment, John didn’t think he would reply, but then he did, muttering, “Seemed kinder to let you sleep.”

In an immediate knee-jerk reaction to the kind regard, John deflected. Face hardening, he said, “Kindness? That doesn’t sound like you.”

Phoenix stiffened. Though his face was turned away, John sensed him closing off, his gentle expression no doubt wiped clear. With the awareness came instant regret. But the words were out and spoken, and instead of apologizing, John reminded himself that it was better this way. It was better that they kept their distance. And if that meant rebuffing any attempt at kindness on Phoenix’s part, then John would do it again.

Aware that Phoenix was still rigid and silent, John cleared his throat. “Well?” he said in a gruff voice, nudging the back of Phoenix’s boot with his toe, “do you need to take a piss or what?”

Phoenix barely reacted. But he began to move forward, making his way between the seats with his head ducked. Something in the way he moved made John think Phoenix’s hunched shoulders had less to do with the low ceiling of the bus and more to do with an attempt to shield himself from John’s cruel words. Guilt rippled through him at the realization, but John forced it back and clenched his teeth.

After a life of regret, what was one more drop in a seemingly bottomless bucket?

 


 

John’s words stung. Sherlock tried to brush them off like water off a duck’s back, but they burrowed deep. Worked their way under his skin and festered alongside all the other cruel words he’d internalized throughout his life.

He relieved himself in the bus depot washroom, glad for the privacy. At the sinks, Sherlock scrubbed his hands nearly raw under hot water and wondered why he cared. All his life, he’d swallowed the poison people turned his way, and while it hadn’t made him stronger, it helped him learn to pretend it had. If he acted like the things people said meant nothing, then maybe, one day, they would stop being said.

Yet every time it happened — and it always did — Sherlock realized his so-called thick skin was paper-thin. Made vulnerable by circumstance, John’s words cut him to the quick. He stared at his reflection, at his bruised face and swollen, split lip, and wondered when it would stop. Would there come a day when people turned to him with respect?

If he didn’t manage to dismantle the rest of Moriarty’s network, Sherlock knew he’d never have an answer. And John, with all his rough edges and his impenetrable walls, might be his last chance to succeed. The realization was far from a comfort, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, and Sherlock may as well be on his knees for all the upper hand he had.

Drying his palms on his trousers, Sherlock turned away from his reflection and left the bathroom. He didn’t see John outside. He wasn't among the other passengers, and Sherlock was surprised by the sudden alarm that rose in response to the observation. It took work to shake the sensation off. With a strange blend of emotions buzzing through him, Sherlock stalked toward the bus. He ignored the other passengers and stepped inside, moving down the aisle with hunched shoulders and cursing the low ceiling.

There were times when his height was an asset: this was not one of them.

He reached their seats, found John’s empty, and frowned. Resisting the urge to look outside, Sherlock settled into his seat next to the window. He took advantage of the moment to consider how quickly John had brushed off his small attempt at kindness. Fingers pressed to his temples, his forehead tipped against the back of the seat in front of him, Sherlock closed his eyes.

If he looked at the incident with his usual rationality and logic, Sherlock knew that they were both better off if they kept their distance. They were strangers, recently enemies, hardly allies. Necessity didn’t equal willingness, didn’t promise friendship. Neither of them had asked to be in the situation they currently found themselves navigating.

Regardless, they were in this together. All the reluctance in the world couldn’t change that. They were tethered together as surely as Sherlock had been tethered to the bed in Nador. One way or another, they had to learn to work together. But there was a fine line that had to be respected, and Sherlock found he didn’t know where it began. It was his fault that he’d tried to extend anything beyond the barest courtesy to a man who made his living in murder and violence. It had been irrational, but John had asked why Sherlock didn’t wake him, and the truth had just slipped out. After years of lying — to himself, his parents, brother, clients, the police, almost everyone — Sherlock was as shocked by the honesty as John had appeared.

He shouldn’t let it happen again. Nor should he expect John to reciprocate. He was a hard man, a cruel man when required, and Sherlock’s misplaced trust would do nothing to endear John to him. He should hope for teamwork and nothing more. In John’s case, that meant not forcing Sherlock onto his knees and putting a bullet in the back of his head. Kind words didn’t even begin to come into it, nor should they. This wasn’t friendship. They weren’t two blokes looking for a kindred spirit in one another. Though lonely and alone they may both be, it was hardly a reason for either of them to seek out a connection in the other.

John didn’t owe Sherlock kindness in any form, just as Sherlock didn’t owe him the same. Even basic civility might be too much to ask from John, and Sherlock wasn’t enough of an emotional moron to request it. If he was smart, he would withdraw. Retreat into himself and stop searching for a glimmer of remorse in the man who had so recently been his captor. Sherlock would do well to remember his brother’s words — to remind himself that alone kept him safe.

Alone protects me, he thought, eyes flashing open as he sensed a presence and turned his head to find John stopped at the end of their seat row.

Alone is what I have.

John looked down at him with a complicated expression. He looked regretful and frustrated, the simultaneous emotions twisting his mouth to the side.

Forehead once again tilted against the seat in front of him, Sherlock waited for him to speak. He stared at John from the edge of his vision, and John stayed silent. Finally, when he didn’t so much as move a muscle to sit down, Sherlock sighed, “What?”

John hesitated. His eyes flickered over Sherlock, lingered on his curved back before he held out a hand. “Here.” There was a bottle of water and a package of what looked like crisps in his grip. Sherlock eyed the offerings for a moment before sitting back and frowning.

“What is this?

Still silent, John held the items out more insistently. He avoided Sherlock’s gaze, his eyes fixed on the window over Sherlock’s head. “Just take them, would you?” His voice sounded strained. Sherlock found himself complying without thought, only realizing what he’d done when the food was in his hands, and John was seated next to him.

His fingers tightening around the water bottle, Sherlock looked down at the crisps. Perplexed, he muttered, “Thanks.”

John paused in opening a second water bottle. Slowly, he unfroze and cracked the lid. He lifted the bottle to his lips, drank and swallowed before replying, “Yeah. No problem.”

 

                                                                                                    

 

The bus rumbled back onto the road, and the journey continued. Sherlock dozed again, woke to sip his water and slipped back into a dreamless sleep. He hadn’t expected to, not with the overstimulation of his surroundings, but the other passengers were quiet, and an unexpected serenity crept over him. Maybe it was the salt and fat from the crisps, but he felt sated. With his height, Sherlock was effectively crammed into his seat, caught between John and the window. Instead of making him feel trapped, the bubble-like nature of his surroundings coaxed him into a comfortable lull. Exhausted from the past two days, sleep crept up on him with far more ease than Sherlock was accustomed to.

His rest was deep and dreamless. When he woke again, he saw that John was also awake. His upper body was turned toward Sherlock, but his eyes were on the window, gaze unfocused as he watched the night-dark scenery flash by.

As if feeling Sherlock’s regard, John’s focus shifted to his face. Their eyes met, and the contact held. It stretched out and strengthened until Sherlock felt strangely emboldened by the steady regard. His burning curiousity rose unbidden, and he blurted out the first thought that formed in his head, a question that refused to dissipate.

“Why did you become a mercenary?”

John stiffened at the question. His open, receptive expression slammed shut as his face closed off and his eyes narrowed, lashes casting his dark gaze into shadow. The sight of his withdrawal, so immediate and forceful, made Sherlock wish he hadn’t asked. But it was too late to take the question back, and he braced himself for the outcome of his curiousity.

“Why?” John’s voice was slow and suspicious.

Sherlock lifted a shoulder in a half-shrug. Internally, he cursed his own inquisitiveness. “I just wondered.”

Eyes narrowed, John said, “Not sure that’s a good enough reason for me to tell you my life story.”

Sherlock mirrored John’s expression, squinting at him in the dark. “I told you mine,” he pointed out, feeling a flicker of frustration at the double standard.

John was silent for a moment. His tongue darted out to wet his lower lip, which looked baked-dry from the heat. When he didn’t still didn’t speak, Sherlock sighed.

“You pointed a gun at me and forced me to tell you my life story.” Jaw clenched, he tilted his head forward and lowered his voice. “It only seems fair that you return the favour.”

A muscle leapt in John’s left cheek, and Sherlock caught a flash of his teeth as his lips peeled back in a brief snarl. But it disappeared as quick as it came, leaving John’s face looking haggard. “Fine,” he said in a curt tone that left no illusion to his reluctance, “I’ll tell you.”

Surprised by what felt like only token resistance, Sherlock settled back into his seat. He was secretly pleased and hid it as he folded his hands in his lap, feet tucked beneath the chair in front of him. Body angled toward John, he offered an attentive expression and waited.

It took John a moment to begin. Before he did, his eyes drifted away from Sherlock’s face. They returned to the window, his sharp gaze softening as it unfocused.

“I wanted to be a doctor,” he said, still not looking at Sherlock, “but my family didn’t have the money. I had two choices — give up on what everyone said was a pipe dream, or find another way to pay for school.” John’s lips flattened into a thin line, and his voice turned hollow. “So I signed up for the medical corps.”

Chapter Text

John didn’t plan on apologizing to Phoenix for his off-hand comment. And he didn’t, not really. He'd barely extended a peace offering in the form of a packet of crips and a water bottle. Just like he’d done earlier, refusing to look at his motives when he offered to help Phoenix escape, John didn’t bother to analyze his actions. He didn’t want to admit to himself that he felt responsible for Phoenix, albeit in some weird, twisted way. John knew if he looked closely at his motivation, he might see something resembling Lima Syndrome more than an actual expression of empathy.

With his already tenuous self-perception of himself as monstrous, John wasn’t sure he could stomach knowing any kindness he showed resulted from a psychologically-enforced sympathy. Some part of him wanted to believe he was still capable of goodness. And if he wasn’t, then he’d like to think he might want to try and be good. 

The truth of it was his guilt refused to abate. John could fret and stew over it, but when push came to shove, he’d brought Phoenix into their current situation. He had some measure of responsibility and owed Phoenix what little of his time it might take to help him regain his footing. If his helping Phoenix get his passports so he could leave Morocco was the least John could do, then he supposed he should.

He would do well to remind himself that hurting a virtual stranger’s feelings was probably the least unforgivable thing he’d ever done. In the end, John bungled his gesture of goodwill, confusing Phoenix with the bag of crisps instead of apologizing.

Phoenix was right: John had forced his backstory from him. And at gunpoint, no less. If he couldn’t even force out an ‘I’m sorry’ for verbally attacking a man when he was already on his back foot, the least John could do was level the playing field between them. Tit for tat — his own story in exchange for the one John forced from Phoenix at the end of a gun.

But John still struggled. He didn’t want to look back and dredge up the things he kept under lock and key. His past haunted every living moment of his life and clawed through his nightmares at night. Reliving what he’d gone through, even removed from the immediacy of the fear... it held as much allure as pulling teeth.

Every word dragged from his mouth, tasting bitter and acrid. Tasting of bile and stomach acid, burning in the back of his throat.

“It’s pretty straight forward,” John said, staring at his lap, “entering medical school once you’ve enlisted.” He slid his hands together, fitting fingers between knuckles and clenching until they went white. John felt a sick, hot-and-cold sensation of disquiet settling over him. He’d only just begun, and already his body was reacting to the memories rising in his mind.

Shaking his head and tapping the back of a hand, he took a breath and forged on. “The military pays for your education, you do your placements, and once you’ve been awarded your MBBS, you work in the military hospitals until they need you.”

Eyes unfocused, John lifted his head and stared past Phoenix’s face, out the window. He watched the shadowed scenery pass them by. For a second, the desert outside the bus changed, burning bright and red like Afghanistan. John swallowed and blinked hard. He forced the imagery away until Phoenix’s face, solemn and intent with his eyes fixed on John’s, sharpened into focus.

“They sent me to Pirbright for basic training. Fourteen weeks. It was gruelling.” John’s mouth pulled to the side in a grim smile, the expression entirely without humour. “Or, so I thought at the time.” Shaking his head with a harsh, rueful chuckle, he closed his eyes. “I had no idea what gruelling meant.” Then, quieter, “No bloody idea until I was shipped out.”

His silence was longer this time. When John refocused, Phoenix was still attentive, hanging on his every word. His unwavering attention was unexpected, and John took a moment to organize his thoughts before continuing.

“I saw...” He snorted, rubbing a hand over his jaw, a scrape of palm over stubble. “It’s a cliche, so I won’t say it. But the things I saw. God. You can’t even imagine. I know everyone says that, but that’s because it’s true.” Eyes unfocused, John heard the sounds of those living nightmares in his head. Except he knew it was the echo of memories: helicopters and machine guns, people crying out and the hot, metallic tang of blood in the air.

John shook his head, refusing to let the images pull him under. Phoenix’s eyes tracked the motion, his brow furrowing.

“You really can’t imagine something as horrific as seeing someone you know blown to pieces by an IED. Someone you sat with the night before, who you shared a drink with. Someone who showed you a picture of their kids, who you shared… fucking beans and toast with. You think you can imagine it, but you can’t.” John’s voice turned desperate, earnest, and he met Phoenix’s mercurial gaze with desperation. “Believe me when I say that it’s not even the stuff of nightmares because nightmares are better than… than seeing that. At least nightmares aren’t real.” 

“Was that what changed you?” Phoenix’s voice was soft, his quiet words interrupting a reverie John hadn’t realized he’d sunk into.

Eyelids fluttering, John blew a puff of air from his cheeks and shook his head. “No,” he said in a soft, strained voice. “No, it wasn’t that. Well, not just that.” He fell silent again, trying to pull the threads of his story together. He felt scattered, his mind shifting in multiple directions at once. There were so many memories, so many instances of genuine horror that made it hard to find his way. This was why he didn’t talk about what happened. Because then he’d have to sort through it all and try to make sense of it. How did you make sense of horror? John had no idea. He’d never known how. He still didn’t know how and wasn’t sure he ever would.

His breath came a little faster, and he gripped his thighs with trembling fingers. Sitting stiff and still, Phoenix was an immovable force at his side. Something about the way he sat there, unmoving and solid as a pillar, grounded John. He was a focal point in the miasmic whirlwind of John’s thoughts, his cascading memory.

Blind, John turned to him and found balance. Phoenix was spotted land in the distance, something to focus on as the horizon rose and fell with the rocking, wild waves of John’s thoughts. 

When his silence drew out, John simply sitting and staring at him with what could only be a haunted look, Phoenix leaned forward. He tilted his head to catch John’s eye, the movement making John blink.

“John?” His voice drowned out some of the relentless noise in John’s head. “What happened?”

Staring at him and trying to figure out if he meant then or now, John breathed out a ragged sigh. His mind cleared enough for him to regain his bearings, and he looked around the bus. Took in their surroundings, grounding himself firmly in the present. It was a struggle, his brain trying to suck him back down into the tumultuous fury of his nightmarish memories.

Barely keeping himself above the surface, John looked down at his hands, twisted into a tight grip in his lap.

He was safe. Well, as safe as one would be on a bus with a stranger, a probable madman, with unknown danger both behind and before them. The corner of John’s mouth twitched in a reluctant smile. Spotting the expression, Phoenix frowned but didn’t comment. Instead, he leaned back into his chair and stopped trying to recapture John’s eye.

Grateful for the space, John took a breath and continued. “There was a patrol,” he said slowly, the words dragged with reluctance from his raw throat. “I wasn’t supposed to be on it, but I tagged along at the last minute. Didn’t think much of it. I was bored, going stir-crazy. We hadn’t seen action in days. No wounded, no sign of insurgents in the area where we were patrolling. Most people would have been grateful, but I was a day from clawing out of my skin with the need for action.”

“You were bored,” Phoenix interrupted. His voice was strange, almost wondrous. When John chanced a glance in his direction, Phoenix was staring at him with what looked like reluctant admiration.

The corner of John’s mouth twitched up again. He remembered Phoenix telling his own story, recalled his words: But I was bored. I was so deeply, incredibly bored.

“Yeah,” John said, allowing the faintest amusement into his voice, “I was. I was mad bored and looking for something to do.” He lifted his head, and they shared a glance. In it, John saw a level of understanding he didn’t anticipate.

In this, they were similar.

John dropped his eyes back to his lap and swallowed. He worked his hands tighter together and went on.

“I thought it was a routine patrol. You know, looking for signs of activity near the outpost. Maybe searching for anything we might have missed in earlier patrols and air sweeps.” John shook his head. He’d been so ignorant, missing what was right in front of him. “I don’t know what I thought, to be honest. It’s so long ago, and it hardly matters now. All I remember was the other men in the patrol — men I hadn’t run with before — they told me to wait outside this burnt-out building. They told me I was the look-out. Well, by the time I figured out that was just a ruse, it was too late.”

Phoenix frowned. He shifted in his seat, stretching out his long legs and drawing John’s attention. “What do you mean?” he asked, searching John’s face. “It wasn’t a routine patrol?”

“No,” John closed his eyes, “it wasn’t. They were… it was…” His voice trailed off, and his brow furrowed. “I was hit in the back of the head. I don’t know what it was that hit me, but it doesn’t matter. I was awake and then I wasn’t, and the next thing I knew, I woke up strapped to a chair.” Face tensing, his frown deepening, John squeezed his eyes shut tighter. “Turns out I was right. Something was off, and I realized it wasn’t a recon patrol or a sweep. It was a rendezvous. A pick-up and drop-off.”

Phoenix prompted, “For what?” with quiet encouragement.

His eyes still closed, John snorted. His voice sounded harsh even to his own ears when he replied, “Illegal gun smuggling. And drugs, of course.” A quiet scoff. “There were always drugs out there. Always. I swear that’s all that bloody war was ever about, the fucking heroin.”

Shaking off the bitterness that clung to him like a bad smell, John sighed and opened his eyes. He stretched out his cramping legs and picked up the thread of his tale.

“Anyway, it was bad news — some kind of back-door dealings and illegal trade. By the time I figured out that it was all a facade, it didn’t matter. The men I was with, they didn’t believe me when I said I’d just tagged along for something to do. They thought I knew something, that I was onto them. That maybe I was a plant.” John tipped his head to the side and rubbed a hand over his jaw. A sudden wave of exhaustion washed over him. Whether it was a result of the past few days of adrenaline, the stress of telling his story, or a combination, he didn’t know. All he knew was he felt weary right down into his bones. “Fuck, I don’t know what they believed,” he finally muttered, waving a hand, “and as I said, it doesn’t really matter what I thought. What mattered was they thought I knew something, and that was it. I was fucked.”

Phoenix stared at him in confusion. He searched John’s eyes until his face paled, the blood leaching away from his sun-reddened skin. “Your scars,” he said in a slow, alarmed voice, piecing the story together far faster than John expected. “The ones on your back.”

Lips pursed, John nodded. He didn’t speak, didn’t think he needed to. He knew what the scars looked like, knew they were thick, knotted, dug deep into the skin and pitted in others. They spoke volumes more than he could say, more than he wanted to. A picture spoke a thousand words, and John’s scars spoke hundreds of thousands.

They never stopped telling the tale of what happened to him, even when John himself didn’t want to.

Still silent, he watched the horror dawn on Phoenix’s face. Watched it settle into the lines around his mouth and in his furrowed brow. When Phoenix spoke, his words were flat and final, a statement rather than a question.

“They tortured you.”

“Yeah,” John said simply. Because that’s what it was: simple. The men he’d left the outpost with thought he was onto them and no amount of protest, begging or pleading on his part had managed to change their minds. They’d scored his skin, burnt him, cut away pieces of flesh, drew blood until John was shaking and sweaty, and then they’d kept at it until they knew he wasn’t lying. For hours, they tore at him and ripped away whatever had made him the John of before. Broke him down and refused to build him back up, left him in pieces and refused to stop until they were sure he knew nothing. Until they knew he was telling the truth and had no idea what they were up to before joining the patrol.

But by then, it didn’t matter if John knew or not. By then, they’d broken Geneva conventions as well as international laws, and he was far more of a liability kept alive than dead.

“How did you escape?” Phoenix’s voice pulled him back into the present, dragging John away from the clinging grip of his memories.

Looking at him, John wondered if Phoenix knew what it was like to suffer as he had. If he knew how it felt to have the skin flayed away from your back until a blade scraped bone. To have the air pressed from your lungs by the sheer cruelty of the unrelenting pain. To look up into the face of a man you thought you could trust and see nothing but more pain looking back at you. Not many people did.

Looking at Phoenix, John didn’t think he knew or could understand. On the heels of those thoughts, John found he couldn’t begrudge the man’s lack of familiarity. He only wished he was so lucky himself.

“I didn’t,” he finally said, “escape, I mean.” He felt hollowed out and lacking, his voice sounding the same. Hollow was an apt word for what John became. Empty, just like his life since that night in the desert, where those men ripped away the human part of him and left him a desiccated shell of himself.

He thought maybe he’d been empty for a long time.

“But—”

John interrupted in a voice turned raw with remembered agony. “They shot me through the shoulder.” He lifted a hand, tapping a finger to his left clavicle. “Right here. Guess they figured they’d make it look like a chance shot instead of an execution. More believable than a point-blank headshot.” His hand flattened, palm rubbing into the gnarled scar tissue John could feel beneath his shirt. He sensed rather than saw Phoenix staring at the same spot, his eyes riveted on John’s shoulder.

Letting his hand drop to his lap and curling his hand into a fist, John swallowed. “They dragged me out into the desert and left me there. Left me there to bleed out. And, if that didn’t finish me off, for the sun to bake me dry.”

Phoenix stared at him. When John chanced a glance his way, his eyes were dark and trouble beneath his furrowed brow. “How did you survive?”

John shrugged and offered a flat, broken smile. “Someone found me — a small patrol. They were in the area by chance, a last-minute patrol route. Apparently, they had a bunch of new recruits and nothing to keep them busy.” He laughed, the sound cracking at the edges.

Looking around, John saw another passenger glance their way at the sound, and he lowered his voice.

“I lived because some CROWs got too uppity and annoying for their sergeant, and he sent them into the desert for the hell of it. If not for them, I’d have died there. Died miles and miles away from home with a bullet in my shoulder and sand in my mouth.” His laugh was quieter this time but no less harsh. “Shot by men who wore the same uniform as me, no less. Sometimes, I still can’t believe it.” The truth of it — that he’d nearly died there — always struck John as a cosmic joke. He’d survived physically, but something inside him didn’t. It was still out there, that part of him, laying in the sand and bleeding out under the Afghan sun.

John found a strange relief in telling his story. Outside of those involved and a few higher-ups in the army, no one knew what happened to John that long, haunting night. Telling Phoenix lifted a weight off his chest. Not all the way, but enough that John realized he could breathe a little deeper, that moving was a little easier.

“What happened when you told your COs about the gun smuggling?”

John came back to himself and was startled to find Phoenix’s face even closer than before. He was sitting on the edge of his seat, leaning over the armrest as if he could pull the answers from John through sheer proximity alone. Despite a flicker of discomfort, John was amused by the approach. But he still leaned back a bit to gain some distance.

“Well, it took me a while to recover. The injury nearly killed me, and when it didn’t succeed, an infection set in.”

John shivered. He could remember, with vivid recall, the feeling of sickness in his body. He could remember how it sunk deep into his bones and worked its way through his veins. He’d burned up and frozen, came apart at the seams and begged for death as the infection ravaged him to nothing more than a shadow. After the torture and the bullet in his shoulder, after being found at the eleventh hour, John had wished for death. Had prayed for his rescue to have been a dream, just so he could close his eyes and fade away from the living, waking agony of his own body.

“That infection nearly did me in where the bullet failed.” One of John’s hands lifted and drifted back to his left shoulder in an unconscious gesture. Eyes unfocused, he wet his dry lips and frowned at the window past Phoenix’s face. “When I finally recovered enough to remain conscious for longer than an hour, the head of my section came to see me.”

“Did you tell him what happened?” Phoenix asked, the question almost rude in its forcefulness.

Looking at him, John saw a burning curiousity in his eyes. It surged and flickered like a fire, making the silvery-green colour appear molten. He smiled despite the gravity of his tale, finding Phoenix’s intensity strangely flattering. After spending years on his own, John had grown unfamiliar with proper conversation. In a way, it was nice to be heard and be listened to. In other ways, it was terrifying. Having Phoenix look at him the way he was felt like being known, and John recoiled from the sensation.

Back stiffening, he met Phoenix’s stare with a hard gaze. “I did,” he replied, the smile fading into a rueful grimace. “And he told me it was none of my business. He told me to keep it to myself. When I kept trying to explain, he spoke over me. He told me that the army was grateful for my service, but with my injuries, it was unlikely I’d be able to continue in my role as a trauma surgeon. When I argued, he told me I was going to be sent home. An honourable discharge.”

John’s bitter words turned the designation into an insult, his lip curling back.

Phoenix blinked. His confusion was evident and, before he could question John’s statements, John said, “They sent me to London. Just like that. The moment I was well enough to stand up and piss on my own, they shipped me away on a plane.” He looked away, breaking the contact as the memory grew too loud in his head to keep from showing in his eyes. “I was in pain, weak and useless, stuck in some pathetic little bedsit with no one. My sister was — she is — an alcoholic. Our parents are dead, have been since I was twenty-two. Everyone I knew was either still out in the desert or hated me for leaving them for a war.”

John’s voice trailed off. He struggled with the words rising in his throat, feeling them burn at the back of his mouth. Hand gripping his left shoulder like a talisman, he gave voice to them at last. Admitted something he’d kept to himself in all the years following his discharge.

“By the end of the first month, it was all I could do not to swallow the end of my gun.” John felt the weapon against his back like a brand, and he held his shoulder harder. The pressure sent agony rippling through the damaged nerves, the thick scar tissue, right around the deadened spots where he hadn’t felt anything since the bullet punched into his skin and shattered bone. The pain made him clench his teeth together and grimace, but it grounded him. Helped quiet the cacophony in his head.

“But you didn’t.”

Phoenix’s voice reached out from the darkness creeping over the edges of John’s vision. He grabbed for it, fingers still buried in the fabric covering his shoulder. “But I didn’t,” he said in a whisper, in quiet agreement, “because someone found me before I could.”

From the corner of his eyes, John saw Phoenix tilt his head and frown. “Who?”

Staring ahead at the back of the seat in front of him, John licked his lips and said, “The Colonel.”

 


 

Sherlock was stunned. Whatever he’d expected, John’s story blew it right out of the water. He’d known it wouldn’t be a happy tale — how could it be? After seeing the scars on John’s back, that brief, fleeting glimpse when John showed him how to hide the gun, Sherlock had known there was brutality in the man’s past. But, with all that had happened since, Sherlock had almost forgotten about them. He’d been focused on escaping, on staying alive and figuring out how they were meant to work together, and the scars slipped his mind. If he’d had the time to analyze them, to think it over, he might have deduced it. Might have known what John’s story concerned.

But he hadn’t, and it caught him unprepared. Now, Sherlock’s head spun.

Everything John had gone through, what he’d survived, was monumental. Things that broke people daily, and that Sherlock thought might break him with ease, slipped from John’s lips like he was reciting some prepared and falsified account of someone else’s life. If not for the scars themselves, and the small, brief slips in John’s facade, Sherlock might have thought he was lying.

But the evidence was staggering. John was telling the truth. Sherlock knew that as surely as he knew he would never survive such a thing himself. Even as he thought it, Sherlock realized he had no way of knowing if that was true. Maybe he could if he had to.

He hoped he never had to.

Looking at John now, watching him dig his fingers against his shoulder, Sherlock tried to coincide the hard, deadly man in front of him with the broken man John described. A man betrayed by his own country. Made to fend for himself with nothing left to show for his sacrifice but horrible scars and a head full of nightmares.

Sherlock closed his eyes. He drew a deep breath in through his nose, hoping to clear his head, and clung to the last thing John said. “Who is the Colonel?”

He hoped his voice sounded steadier than he felt. No matter how he tried, Sherlock couldn’t get the image of John tied to a chair, somewhere in the desert and writhing with pain, out of his mind’s eye. It stuck to him like a burr, trapped in his brain with the same clarity with which he remembered everything. He wasn’t sure he could delete the image, conjured as it was by his own vivid imagination and John’s flat, hard words.

“He was a soldier,” John said, his voice flat. “Obviously, since he’s called the Colonel.” Something in his tone, a lurking hollow edge beneath the fake bite, made Sherlock open his eyes and look closer.

John sat with his body angled away from Sherlock. His posture was stiff, almost rigid. He stared at the seat in front of him with his hands knotted together in his lap once again, and a muscle twitched rhythmically in his jaw. Sherlock fixated on it, desperately seeking something to ground him in the moment as shock rolled through him in waves.

“Was?” he echoed. His own voice sounded strange in his ears.

“Yeah.” One of John’s thumbs moved, sweeping over the back of his opposite hand in a rhythmic tic. “I don’t know all the details, but he was discharged and sent back to England before me. Maybe ten months before. We never had any work together, so I didn’t know him. After a couple months back in London, someone approached me on the street. A man. He said he knew who I was, what had happened to me.” John frowned, and he loosened his hands, lifting one to rub absently at the skin over his eyebrow. “To say I was shocked was an understatement. I thought this was it, those men who… who hurt me… I thought this was them coming to finish the job. Tying up a loose end.”

His voice trailed off. Shifting sideways in his seat, Sherlock set his shoulders against the window and waited. He watched John’s face, tracking the subtle shifts of emotion over his expressive features. His outward presentation was confounding, both controlled and simultaneously easy to read. John wore his feelings on his sleeve when he showed them, but Sherlock found that making sense of them was an entirely different matter.

Gradually, that muscle still ticking in his jaw, John resumed his story. “It took some convincing for me to believe that wasn’t the case. The man gave me a card and told me to call the number when I grew tired of pretending I could make it as a civilian.” The corner of John’s mouth tugged to the side, the smile sharp as a blade. “I guess he knew that I’d passed that point long ago and was barely hanging on.” His eyes flickered to Sherlock, and he hesitated before adding, “If that man hadn’t approached me, I doubt I’d be here.”

“You mean, he set you on this path?”

There was that smile again, growing sharper and more jagged by the second. “No.” Their eyes locked, and John’s voice was so soft that Sherlock had to lean closer to catch his words. “I mean, if he hadn’t approached me, I’d be dead.”

“So this man, the Colonel… he saved you?” Sherlock’s brow furrowed as he tried to make sense of what John was saying.

“Saved me from swallowing a bullet,” John stated bluntly. His mouth flattened, settling into an expression that wasn’t so cruel. “So, I guess, in a way, yeah. I guess he saved me.” His eyes dropped, severing the connection between them. Sherlock blinked and slowly leaned back.“I called the number, and he introduced himself as the Colonel. Said we knew each other. I didn’t know until later that he was the soldier who was discharged before me. All he said was he knew me, and there was work for men like me.”

Sherlock tilted his head, eyes narrowing as John’s words inspired something dark and uneasy deep in his stomach. “Men like you?”

Gaze unfocused on their feet, John nodded. “Yeah, men like me. Men who brought the war back with them. Soldiers who couldn’t stop being soldiers, even when they were no longer wanted by the people who made them.” His throat bobbed as he swallowed.

Sherlock watched, eyes fixed on the movement. The uneasy feeling turned into sick dread.

“That was what he said. He said I was one of those men,” John frowned, teeth catching on his bottom lip, “and that I didn’t have to stop being what they made me.”

With his stomach twisting, Sherlock asked, “Which is?”

John’s gaze shifted, and he looked at Sherlock from the corner of his eyes. It was dark outside, the overhead lights turned off, casting John’s face into shadow. Sherlock could just make out his reluctant expression and stiff neck.

The words dragged out John’s mouth, through tight lips.

“A killer.”

Sherlock stiffened, resisting the urge to react. Clenching his teeth, he breathed out and said, “You were an army-doctor.”

His struggle didn’t go unnoticed, and John winced. Mouth tugging down at the edges, he clenched his hands together and corrected, “And a soldier. Sure, I helped people. But I killed, too. I killed under order and, I thought, for the right reasons.” Shaking his head, John closed his eyes and dug his nails into the backs of his knuckles. “I’m sure many of us thought we were doing the right thing out there. No one wants to admit that most war is pointless and self-serving. That it’s more about the money and the politics and less about doing the right thing. That most of us are just gun fodder.” John’s fingers stretched in a helpless gesture.

Sherlock stared at his fingers. “But it’s not about doing the right thing.”

John shook his head. “No, it’s not. And I guess I knew that, somewhere inside myself. You can’t take a gun and run through a town where people are dying simply because you’re there and always think you’re the good guy. But I wanted to be a doctor, and I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought I didn’t have any other choice. Then… then there was that night with the gun smuggling, and the torture, and…” John’s eyes squeezed shut, his left hand beginning to shake and taking the other with it. “And they discharged me just to keep me quiet, and I realized it was all a fucking lie.”

The pieces of the puzzle fell into place at John’s words. Tilting his head back against the window and closing his eyes, Sherlock let the rumble of the bus’s engine rattle his teeth. “I think I understand."

A soft noise from John, harsh and scoffing, made Sherlock open his eyes. He saw John looking at him with a stony expression.

“I don’t think you do,” John said in a tight voice, his lips flattening into a pale line.

Sherlock sighed. Sitting up, he leaned forward and looked John in the eye. “When you caught me, and I realized you’d been an army-doctor, at first I was confused.” He paused, waiting for an interruption. At John’s silent regard, his dark eyes burning into Sherlock’s, he went on, “I wondered what turned someone who clearly lived with integrity into a man like you.”

“A man like me?” John repeated slowly, a deadly glint in his eye.

Sherlock frowned, trying to explain his thought process. “A mercenary. A hired killer. A man without loyalty to anyone but himself.”

John opened his mouth to speak again, but Sherlock held up a hand to silence him. He subsided, and, holding his gaze, Sherlock lowered his hand.

“Don’t bother trying to tell me you aren’t a good man. Maybe you haven’t been much of one lately, but it’s still there — that goodness. No, hear me out,” he said when John began to shift, looking like he might interrupt. Sherlock rushed on, the words tumbling out so John had to listen. “You had the chance to leave me behind in Nador, and despite all you’ve said to the contrary, you’ve repeatedly gone out of your way to keep me safe.”

“I drove you to your death—”

Sherlock spoke over him, his voice an earnest murmur. “You did, yes. Because that was your job. But you were kind, in your own way. You could have simply knocked me out right from the start, but you gave me an option: comply or face the consequences. You gave me some form of power, albeit reduced. And I didn’t make it easy on you, yet you still showed care. You gave me water, you avoided using more force than was necessary, and, when push came to shove, you trusted me.”

“I didn’t trust you for long,” John pointed out. The statement dredging up the memory of him taking the gun from Sherlock and tying him to the bed in their hotel room. Pushing those thoughts aside with a wince, Sherlock narrowed his eyes.

“And yet, here we are.” Without giving himself a chance to overthink it, Sherlock reached out. John tensed, but Sherlock caught his wrist, gripping it firmly. Connected physically, he looked John in the eye. “I said you had trust issues, and now I know why. And I understand.”

They stared at one another. John’s eyes were wide, unblinking, and his arm shook with minute tremors beneath Sherlock’s grip. Sherlock could feel the hammering beat of John’s pulse beneath the skin under his fingertips.

It was a long, silent moment before John spoke again. When he did, Sherlock felt his heart rate quicken. “You can’t understand,” he said in a raw voice. “You don’t know me.”

“No,” Sherlock agreed, tilting his head in a curt nod, “I don’t. But…” he tightened his hold briefly before releasing John’s wrist. It hovered between them, John’s eyes on his own arm as Sherlock added, “But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

An odd expression slipped over John’s face. He stared at Sherlock before his gaze darted away. Lifting a hand to his mouth, he pressed his teeth against his thumb and closed his eyes. He sat perfectly still, a statue, teeth leaving slow indents in his skin.

Sherlock frowned, watching him with a growing sense of concern. He opened his mouth, managed to ask, “Are you—” before John spoke over him.

“How much longer?”

Confused by the sudden change in topic, Sherlock blinked. “Until?”

His eyes still closed, thumb pressed against his bottom lip now, John clarified, “Until we arrive in Tétouan.”

Sherlock considered the question, still reeling from the 180-degree flip. Glancing over his shoulder at the dark scenery passing by the window, he calculated how long they’d been on the road against the remaining distance. “Maybe eight hours, give or take.”

John nodded and leaned back into the seat. He sank as he did it, shoulders dropping, the tension easing away and leaving him rag doll-limp. His hand dropped from his face and settled into his lap. With his eyes closed, the shadows beneath were stark against his tanned skin.

Sherlock thought he looked exhausted. Like he was running on empty.

“I’m going to try and get some sleep,” John said. Without waiting for a response, he turned onto his side and faced the aisle. It was clear that he was finished with the conversation, shutting Sherlock out with the same force of a door slammed in his face.

Dumfounded, Sherlock stared at his back and the tight curve of his shoulders. John sat hunched into himself like he was trying to make himself smaller. It seemed an impossible feat — despite his shorter stature, John was larger than life. Knowing his story only made that more obvious, now that Sherlock knew what he’d endured, what John carried with him.

Looking at him, Sherlock realized he should say something. Wasn’t that what people did when someone opened up the way John had? They said things, kind things, things that might not make it better, but showed that they appreciated being part of the knowing. Sherlock had said he understood, but John said he didn’t, and maybe that was true.

Sherlock was part of the knowing now, but he didn’t know what to say.

Eyes lingering on John’s back, imagining the scars beneath his shirt, Sherlock wondered if the right words even existed. And, if they did, if he was capable of utilizing them. Words, and bestowing comfort through them, had never been Sherlock’s forte. Hearing John’s story hadn’t changed that.

After his mind chased itself in a circle, refusing to present anything useful, Sherlock admitted defeat. It was unlikely that John would even welcome his words if he’d had any to say. Head leaned back against the window, Sherlock closed his eyes. He was all too aware of John in the next seat, his energy like some dark, palpable force just beyond the dark of his eyelids.

Gradually, the rumble of the bus lulled Sherlock into a daze, then a stupor. He let himself drift, and John’s words filled his head. The visual memory of his face as he’d told his story was imprinted on the back of Sherlock’s closed eyes, and it followed Sherlock down into a restless sleep.

 


                                                                                                    

John was exhausted. Hollowed out, hung out to dry, scraped raw. Telling his story both freed and chained him, dragging him back into his memories. The second he stopped chasing them, they fell upon him. A rabid pack of wolves, they tore into him with tooth and nail, leaving John with nowhere to run.

How did you hide when your mind was the problem? You didn’t. You pushed it back and hoped it wouldn’t rise up when you didn’t expect it.

John’s demons were rising far higher than he could hope to bear, and he thought he might drown.

Even worse, Phoenix had tried to dissuade John of every self-held doubt he’d internalized since Afghanistan. Everything he’d told himself, that he was broken, empty, a bad man, everything John believed in trying to make sense of who he’d become… Phoenix’s words pulled the rug out from beneath them.

Now, with his head tilted into the seat, facing the aisle, John clenched his eyes shut and tried to silence the voice in his head. The one that told him maybe he wasn’t entirely irredeemable. The one whispering that redemption was a possibility if John reached for it. The one that said helping Phoenix proved he wasn’t beyond saving and, if he could just keep on this path, maybe he’d stop treading water and start swimming.

Maybe he didn’t have to drown.

But John was exhausted. He was tired, drained, and he didn’t want to swim. He didn’t want to tread water anymore — he’d been treading water for years, and it never got any easier. It only grew harder, his body heavier, and swimming sounded impossible. It would require far more strength than he had left to try.

What was worse, John thought that, with Phoenix at his side, he might succeed in changing who he was. But then what? What happened when he regained his humanity? When John looked at all he’d done, all the violence and darkness he’d pushed down and hidden within him, the blood he’d left in his wake… what then?

John thought it might consume him. And if he tried to lean on Phoenix, he’d drag him down and consume him as well. John couldn’t reach for that, not when everything he touched blackened and curled at the edges like paper held to a flame.

He knew that there was no reason for them to stay together beyond helping Phoenix reach his belongings. There would be nothing to tie them together past that point, and they would both be better off later if John realized that now. Phoenix wasn’t some kind of light in the dark. He wasn’t a pillar of hope or a second chance. He was a man John had condemned to death, and they were just both unlucky enough to end up stuck together by a common enemy.

No. Phoenix wasn’t the key to John’s redemption because John was too far gone for that. He was a means to an end, just as John was himself, and soon they’d part, and this chapter of John’s life would be finished.

Rolling his shoulders against the seat and trying to get comfortable, John’s teeth sank hard against his bottom lip.

He didn’t regret telling Phoenix his story. In some twisted way, it had been good to get it out there, to get it out of his head. To drive the toxic memories out and into the air like poison drawn from a wound. But already, John could feel the creeping weight of his past returning, sinking deeper than before, only made more potent by bringing it to the surface. It was something he carried with him always, would keep with him until his dying day, and it was a weight he was accustomed to.

Though that didn’t make it any easier to bear.

Even caught up in his thoughts, the drag of his mind as it fell back beneath the pressure of his memories, John could feel the force of Phoenix’s stare on his back. It felt like a burning sensation, the intensity of his gaze, making it impossible for him to rest. It disappeared for a while, and he heard Phoenix’s breathing soften and gentle and assumed he’d fallen asleep.

He managed half an hour of peace before the sensation returned, somehow ten-fold.

His back stiffening, John hunched his shoulders and growled, “Stop staring at me.” He heard a sharp intake of breath and bit back a triumphant smile at having caught Phoenix unawares. John thought he caught a muttered apology and stiffened. “Just… go to sleep or something,” he snapped, keeping his voice low so he wouldn’t be overheard by the other passengers. “I don’t care what you do, just… stop fucking staring at me.”

He felt that gaze linger and shot a glare over his shoulder. His eyes found and met Phoenix’s. They stared at one another, Phoenix’s face hardened, his gaze stubborn before he finally looked away, and John faced the aisle again.

Only a little longer of this, he thought. A bit more time spent trying to play well with others, and he’d be alone again. He was made to be alone, better off alone, and Phoenix was no exception to John’s self-enforced rule. Tétouan couldn’t come fast enough, and John took comfort in the fact that, if all went well, he might be free of his reluctant companion come tomorrow evening.

His mind settled, though nowhere near peaceful, John folded his arms across his chest and closed his eyes again.

Chapter Text

Their bus pulled into Tétouan as the sunrise faded into the early morning. They disembarked among the other passengers, Sherlock first with John on his heels. After the long ride, Sherlock felt stiff all over, his long legs cramped from the close quarters. Worse still was the scattered quality of his thinking, his mind still working to process John’s story and his abrupt withdrawal afterward.

Sherlock searched the sleepy faces of their fellow travellers. His tired brain struggled to divine their life stories from the wrinkles in their clothes, the way they held themselves and engaged with one another. He was spent, having passed the last eight hours of the bus ride somewhere between asleep and awake. Whenever he’d tried to sleep, his thoughts pulled him back to wakefulness. It was unrelenting, the way he’d stewed in ruminative circles over John’s story.

He let John lead the way with a stiff spine and a jerky gait. As he followed John into town, through the hot, dusty air, Sherlock stared at the back of his head and wondered if John was any better off. Had he felt the same sense of shocked fatigue after hearing Sherlock’s story?

Probably not, Sherlock mused. After all, his story didn’t involve being tortured, shot and left for dead by people he thought he could trust.

Breathing in the smell of dust and petrol, Sherlock tried to imagine experiencing what John went through. He could understand not having anyone to watch your back. Sherlock had always felt alone, had always been, more or less, alone. But John… John thought he had people to rely on, only to find that he had no one. He’d fallen in his own way, just as Sherlock had. But instead of catching him when he did, those same people were the ones to push John over the edge.

Sherlock couldn’t help but think that John still seemed to be falling.

It must be terrifying, knowing you had no safety net. No one to rely on when things went bad. How John carried on like that, Sherlock had no idea. He was caught by John’s story, by its harsh, cruel reality. What Sherlock had gone through, first with Moriarty, then with John himself, paled in comparison. Sherlock had only lost a life, and one he hoped to regain, at that.

John had lost himself. Or part of himself — he appeared firm in who he was. But something was missing, and Sherlock saw that now. The frustration he’d felt when he found he couldn’t read John, some of it made sense. He couldn’t know John because something of John was gone. Sherlock thought that must be it, the answer to his inability to make sense of John. The part of John that let him trust others, that once believed in something bigger than himself, had been shot dead in Afghanistan.

Whatever remained had likely died in the pathetic bedsit John ended up in when he returned to London.

It was appalling. Sherlock was appalled by the sheer depth of failure John had been a victim of. He’d been failed by an army that treated him like fodder, by men he thought were on his side, by his country, and, finally, by his own body. He’d been left with nothing until the Colonel gave him purpose by corrupting John further, only to ultimately betray him in the end.

Everything in John’s life had failed him, right down to his own family, and that was something Sherlock couldn’t brush off. He couldn’t move past the simple repetition of neglect that had shaped John into who he was. Even worse, Sherlock had no idea what to do about it — if there was something to be done. If there was, Sherlock doubted he was the one meant to do it.

When all was said and done, John was still the man who had condemned Sherlock to death. Assaulted and dragged him halfway across Morocco on the orders of someone he barely knew. And, while it sounded like that man had kept John from swallowing a bullet from his own handgun, Sherlock thought he should still be angry at John.

But he wasn’t.

Despite everything John had put him through, all the aggression, the threats and the lying, Sherlock wasn’t angry. He was annoyed at having been bested, but that was his own fault. He’d underestimated John, let his guard down. Had done so over and over, and now here he was, walking into Tétouan on John’s heels.

Sherlock never would have made it here without him. Granted, he wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place without John. But Sherlock would likely have been dead well before now. He doubted anyone else sent to kill him would have bothered to keep him alive. Sherlock knew he owed John his life. It wasn’t a comforting realization, but he knew that, in an abstract sense, John owed Sherlock his as well.

The awareness was both comforting and terrible. Sherlock didn’t like the idea of owing anything to anyone when he had nothing to give. Yet here was John, who’d had an integral part of him stripped away years ago, willing to help him.

It was baffling.

The early morning hour softened the city. The crowds that would gather later in the day were absent, and Sherlock took a moment to enjoy the quiet peace of the fading sunrise. Quickening his pace, he drew even with John. “I assume we’re not just going to walk up to my rented room, bold as brass?”

John glanced at him before his gaze skidded away without settling on Sherlock’s face. “No,” he said slowly, fidgeting with the strap of his bag. “No, we’re not.” The lack of eye contact made him appear skittish, and Sherlock frowned.

“What is it?” He cocked his head to the side, curious in spite of himself as John’s jaw tensed.

John’s reply was reluctant, dragged out from tight lips, “I might have an idea.”

Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “You don’t sound like you want to share this idea.”

John grumbled low in his throat. “I know somewhere we can go. Somewhere that provides a vantage point of your room.” He hesitated and looked Sherlock over with a critical eye. “But I don’t think you’re going to like it.”

Lips pressing together in thought, Sherlock stopped walking. He reached out and snagged John’s arm, pulling him to a halt. Just as he had on the bus, John stiffened. “What does that mean, ‘I won’t like it?’”

His hands flexing into fists before releasing, John studied him for a long, silent moment. Finally, he tilted his head in a curt nod. Eyes ticking over Sherlock’s face, he wrenched his arm out of Sherlock’s hold and clenched his jaw until a muscle jumped in his neck.

Sherlock stared at it, waiting for John to explain.

“When I was preparing to… well, you know,” John waved at Sherlock, somehow indicating Sherlock’s capture in that one simple gesture, “I did some surveillance.”

“Surveillance,” Sherlock repeated slowly. His eyes narrowed as John’s darted away. “You mean you were watching me.”

“Of course I was watching you,” John snapped, suddenly on the offensive. “It’s not like I could just stroll up off the street and say, hello, my bosses would like to kill you. How about you come along with me now, and we’ll be off.” He scowled.

Sherlock struggled with the inappropriate urge to grin. “Pretty sure that’s what you did.” He paused in consideration before amending, “Though, with a little less courtesy and a little more violence, if I remember correctly.”

John made a quiet, frustrated sound. “I was following orders,” he growled out through his teeth. “And I’m not now. We’ve been over this.”

Sherlock waved a hand. “Indeed, we have. And it’s old news. What matters is where we go now.”

His reply earned him a surprised look. John stared for a moment, tongue sweeping out over his bottom lip. “How… forgiving of you,” he said slowly, studying Sherlock’s face with a sharp gaze.

Eyes rolling upward, Sherlock snapped, “I meant in terms of our next steps. The vantage point?”

Colour rushed into John’s face, and he was immediately on guard. “There’s an accessible roof across from your room,” he said, hands flexing at his sides again. He refused to meet Sherlock’s eyes. “If we go there first, we can see if your room is being watched. Might not know for sure, but it’s better than walking in without a plan.”

Sherlock wet his dry lips and asked, “And you think they’ll be watching?”

John scowled, finally meeting Sherlock’s gaze again. His dark eyes hardened. “I know they’ll be watching.”

“How can you be sure?”

Several seconds ticked out, silent and taut. John’s voice, when he replied, sounded hollow.

“Because it’s what I would do.”

 


 

Crouched on the roof across from Phoenix’s room, John was struck by a sense of deja vu. How could he not be, when he was in the exact spot he’d been in shortly before setting into motion the events which had led them right back here? Except, this time, there was no one asleep in the room viewed through his binoculars — or so John hoped — and the man he’d stalked then was now hunkered next to him. Hunkered and picking at his sfenj with petulant fingers, clearly bored by the lack of excitement.

“How much longer must we sit here?” Phoenix popped the last of the street food into his mouth. He pulled a face at his buttery fingers and wiped them on his trousers with a grimace.

John lowered his binoculars and glanced at him. “It depends.”

Eyes narrowed, Phoenix’s mouth tensed into a sour moue. “Could you be more specific? Depends on what?”

Arm resting on his bent knee, the binoculars dangling from one hand, John shrugged. “On whether or not you think this is really a good plan.”

Phoenix’s expression darkened. “It’s the only plan,” he snapped, fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. “I need my passports. Otherwise, I’m stuck in Morocco.”

“Then shut up and let me focus.” John’s steady voice made him sound unperturbed while, beneath the facade, he was a tangle of nerves.

He didn’t want to be here. Without a shred of doubt, John knew they were walking into an ambush. After giving their pursers the slip in Nador, he knew Phoenix’s last established address would be their next best chance at apprehending him and John. If John was in their shoes, sent to track down the man next to him after losing him the first time, this was where John would go. It made sense for them to return here, and that knowledge made him uneasy.

John felt jittery. No amount of preparation would prevent the inevitable confrontation. He had his gun, his wits, skills, and knowledge, but that didn’t guarantee they’d come out of this alive. His gut told him this was a fool’s errand, that they should turn and leave before they walked into certain danger. He hadn’t made it this far, survived so much, just to take unnecessary risks or ignore his instincts. And, right now, John’s instincts were screaming at him to leave. They told him this was insane, walking into that building. Every inch of him was telling John to turn and run. To drop Phoenix and abandon him.

To leave him to the wolves and save his own skin.

It took far more self-control than John could spare to keep him from heeding his instincts. But he did, ignoring the urge to run. He’d been running all his life, and maybe it was time to stop.

Or, John thought as he lifted the binoculars and stared across at the building opposite them, maybe the time to run was coming.

If they could pull this off, if John helped Phoenix get his passports and disappear, John could go his own way. After this, there’d be no reason for them to stay together. Phoenix would no longer be his responsibility, John’s debt paid in full by granting the man his freedom, leaving him alive and equipped for escape.

The thought eased some of the tension in his body, and John felt the fog clear from his mind. The guilt he’d been carrying, which had weighed him down, lightened. In the end, the decision was an easy one. Help Phoenix now, repay his debt for dragging him across the desert to be killed, and disappear later. John could do it. He’d done it before. And even if Phoenix wanted to follow him, something John doubted, he would fail.

Comforted by the decision, John tuned back into the moment and jolted as he realized Phoenix was speaking.

“—Mycroft’s fault. If he’d kept a better eye on the situation, I might still be in London.”

“What?” John asked, confused by the snippet.

Phoenix glanced at him with raised brows. He searched John’s face before his lips tugged down at the corners, no doubt realizing John had been lost in his own thoughts. “Nevermind,” he muttered, glaring across the street.

“Planned to do just that,” John quipped, hiding his lack of focus behind sarcasm and disinterest. He caught Phoenix’s frown and curious look from the edge of his vision before turning his gaze back to the binoculars.

He didn’t see anything outwardly suspicious, not on the street or in the room itself. The lack of movement in the area was of little comfort. Someone could be waiting inside, out of sight until he and Phoenix were trapped in the room with no way out. Someone might be patrolling the hallways or hiding in the room next door, waiting for them to appear. Maybe they were watching them right now, and their status as ‘off the radar’ was no more real than Phoenix’s fake name.

The thought made John’s skin crawl, and he lowered the binoculars to scan their surroundings. He didn’t see anything, but that didn’t mean they were alone. John was good at the game of cat and mouse, but the men after them might be better. They couldn’t afford to underestimate their pursuers.

But there was little John could do about his concerns. They were here now, they had a plan, and Phoenix was right. It was all they had. John had no choice but to move forward with the plan and hope for the best. Whatever the outcome, he hoped it involved both of them leaving Tétouan alive.

“Alright,” he said, lowering the binoculars again, “I think it’s time.”

“Do you have my keys?” Phoenix turned to John and squinted against the sun behind him. “I had them when you picked me up, and, obviously, I no longer do.”

“Right.” John turned to his bag and dug inside. He’d taken several objects off of Phoenix when he picked him up, searching his pockets after knocking him out cold. He pushed aside a small laptop, and a set of lock picks, feeling around until his fingers brushed the hard, jagged metal edge of a key. Hooking his index finger through the keyring, John tossed them to Phoenix.

He caught them easily in his bandaged hand and winced. As John zipped up his bag, Phoenix shifted the keys to his other hand and tucked them into his pocket before nodding across the street. “Did you see anyone?”

Slipping the binoculars into his bag and checking for the reassuring shape of the gun against his back, John shook his head. “No. But that doesn’t mean anything.” Fixing Phoenix with a grim look, he said, “You still got that gun?” Phoenix reached behind himself and patted his lower back in silent answer, and John nodded. “Good. Be ready to use it.”

He received a sideways glance in response. “You really think they’ll be waiting?”

“If they’re not, they’ll catch on pretty quick.” John slipped his own gun free from his waistband, checked the clip, and slipped it back into place.

Phoenix nodded. “Right.” His expression hardened, and he looked toward the building before he followed John to the stairs.

 


 

Descending the stairs after John in silence, Sherlock was acutely aware of the gun at his back. John drawing his attention to it reminded Sherlock that he might have to actually use it, and he found his mind turning to the handgun in his rented room. With any luck, he’d have both it and his other belongings within the hour.

With the reminder came the complex emotions associated with the gun. Mycroft gave it to Sherlock for his mission, and it had kept him company through the slow, agonizing dismantling of Moriarty’s network. Not every kill he made, but a large number of them were through the use of that gun. Despite the advantage the weapon provided, Sherlock hated it. He’d taken lives with vengeance and righteous violence but had grown to hate the firearm. He saw it as a metaphor for himself, an unappreciated reminder of how Moriarty had taken another piece of Sherlock from himself. How he was dehumanized through his fate, the fall from grace that he’d suffered.

Hearing John’s voice in his head, hearing him say he’d once thought he killed for the right reasons, Sherlock wondered at the death he’d dealt himself. It had changed him, he was sure of it, but would it continue to do so? John had changed from a man who killed only for what appeared to be the right reason, turned into someone who killed for the highest bidder. Would Sherlock become something of the same?

He didn’t know the answer. But there was a stark difference between them: Sherlock had only been betrayed by an enemy. Never mind that he’d thought Moriarty was like him, that they were opposite sides of the same coin. In the end, they’d been entirely different beasts, and Sherlock now killed to bring down a monster. To regain his life.

Did that put him in the right? He didn’t have an answer to that either. Sherlock might never know the answer, but he knew if he wanted his life back, he couldn’t stop now.

People liked to think of Sherlock as broken, liked to say he was a psychopath. He’d even taken to calling himself a high-functioning sociopath if only to take the label placed upon him and reduce it to something a little more palatable. But he wasn’t. He felt things, felt them strongly, and every face of every person he’d killed lived on in his Mind Palace whether he wanted them to or not.

In the end, Sherlock’s facade had been his undoing. Moriarty had used how people saw Sherlock to destroy him, leaving him to pick up the pieces of a trap he’d walked right into. Now, Sherlock had nothing but his tarnished name and a gun to remind him of what he had once been and never could be again. Name cleared or not, he would never be the Sherlock Holmes of before. Sherlock would live with the knowledge that Moriarty made him into a man who took the lives of others. No matter how deserved every death at his hands might have been, Sherlock knew he would never lose those memories.

Ahead of him, back on the ground, Sherlock watched John check the street. His back was tense, his shoulders a rigid line of stress before he waved Sherlock forward. They crossed a road in plain sight, ducked into an alley and hugged a wall.

Listening to John’s quickened breathing beside him, Sherlock wondered how he lived with it. He’d not only taken lives in the name of Queen and Country but in cold-blood and for money. John didn’t even have the excuse of knowing if those he killed or condemned to death through capture were good people or bad, or some grey in-between. Sherlock wondered how a man like that slept at night. How he lived with himself.

Maybe he didn’t. Perhaps that was the truth of it, the reality Sherlock had to look forward to. Nightmares and guilt that never disappeared.

He wondered if it would always taste this bitter or if the burden lightened.

“Come on.”

John’s voice pulled him out of his head, drew his focus into the moment. He was on the move again, leading Sherlock down the alley toward the building. The city was still quiet, and they kept out of sight where they could. When they stepped out of the path, onto the main road, John held up a hand.

“Wait.”

Sherlock searched their surroundings, wondering what made John pause. “What is it?” He saw a stray dog, heard voices one street over as the markets opened. The few people passing by paid them little attention. It was early, but it was hot, the sun already baking the very idea of moisture from the heavy air.

His tense eyes focused on Sherlock’s, John said, “I need to know you’re ready.”

Sherlock frowned. “Of course I’m ready,” he said, gesturing between them. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“That’s not what I meant,” John said, and Sherlock’s frown deepened.

“Then what? Spit it out.”

His lips twisting to the side, John sighed. “I need to know if it comes down to it that you can take care of yourself. And… that you’ll have my back.”

“I…” Sherlock paused, letting the words die away as he studied John’s face. “Do you think I won’t?”

“I don’t know what to think.” John’s expression hardened. “Because they will find us if we go up there, and I can’t guarantee safety for either of us. We’re walking into a trap, and there’s only so much I can do.” John’s eyes betrayed his disquiet, the irises darkening, small stress lines creasing the edges.

Sherlock wet his dry lips and pursed them into a thin line. Finding his voice, he vowed, “I’ll have your back.” He could see John’s hesitation, his unwillingness to accept Sherlock’s word. The lack of trust burned. “I will, Sherlock insisted. “I helped before, didn’t I? I didn’t have to, back out there in the desert, but I did.” He searched John’s eyes, stepped closer until he could feel his breathing in the space between them. “John, you told me your story. I know what you’ve been through, and I know it’s not easy to trust me. But believe me when I say that I won’t betray you.”

Rooted in place, John stared at him. His hands clenched and released, moving restlessly at his side as he glanced away, checked their surroundings with an anxious expression. Slowly, with marked reluctance, John nodded. “Okay,” he said in a rough voice. He cleared his throat, the word a little clearer when he repeated, “Okay.” There was a brief hesitation, his eyes flickering over Sherlock’s face. “And I’ll have yours.” It sounded strangely formal, but Sherlock would take what he could get.

“I know.” Offering a curt nod and stepping back, Sherlock asked, “Then what are we waiting for?” He looked toward the entrance of the building. “If they’re waiting for us, it seems rude to keep them waiting.” When he looked at John, Sherlock extended a small, strained smile.

Instead of returning it as Sherlock expected, John reached out and caught Sherlock’s arm. Startled by the contact, Sherlock turned and faced him fully. John’s eyes were intent on his, and his expression was grave as he looked up at Sherlock.

“Just…” He swallowed, breathed out a heavy sigh and shook his head, “just be ready for anything. Alright?”

“Always am,” Sherlock quipped. John’s intensity made him feel unbalanced, the grip on his arm burning through his sleeve.

“You weren’t ready for me.” John didn’t protest when Sherlock pulled his arm away. He did so gently, without force or anger, and John dropped his hand.

“Not sure anyone can ever truly be ready for you.” Looking down at him, Sherlock pursed his lips. “And that’s where we have the upper hand. You tip the scales.”

A series of reactions passed over John’s face, a flicker that was there and gone before he stepped away. “Right.” His eyes searched Sherlock’s and lingered until he looked toward the entrance. His head dipped in a short nod. “Let’s go, then.”

Bound by that unexpected and silent agreement, they turned toward the building together.

 


 

They didn’t encounter anyone on the stairs or in the hallway outside Phoenix’s room. Approaching the door, John had the sick feeling that it was all too easy. He’d expected an ambush, expected to find someone waiting for them, and the silent, empty hall filled him with dread.

Gun drawn, he waved Phoenix out front and followed close behind. John walked half-ducked, turning to check behind them, looking ahead until they reached the door. He let Phoenix stand in front and stood back to back with him. They didn’t touch, not quite, but John could feel the heat of Phoenix’s body despite the inches between them.

Hands wrapped around the gun, John held his breath and listened. He heard the rustle of fabric and the jingle of metal as Phoenix dug out his keys. Before he could slip them into the lock, John reached back with one hand and grabbed his arm.

“Wait,” he hissed, making Phoenix freeze.

“What?” came the whispered reply.

The arm under his grip tensed as John checked the hall. “Just… one second.” He gave Phoenix’s arm an instinctive squeeze and moved him away from the door. John dropped his hold and rolled his shoulders. “Keep watch,” he said, waiting until Phoenix pulled out the gun at his back and did as told.

With marked reluctance, John faced the door. Turning his back to the hallway made every instinct scream that he was making a mistake, but he willed it into silence and focused. He leaned forward, pressing his ear to the wood, and listened. Other than Phoenix’s loud breathing behind him, John didn’t hear anything. He closed his eyes and listened harder for a few seconds more, counting them out in his head until he reached twenty — still nothing.

Leaning back, he turned to see Phoenix staring up and down the hall. “I think it’s empty,” John said, nudging him gently in the arm to catch his attention. “But let me go in first, yeah?”

Phoenix met his hard eyes for a moment. He favoured John with a long, lasting gaze as if searching for something. Finally, he nodded and slipped past as John moved aside. Phoenix worked the key into the lock, his movements near-silent, but John still winced at the soft scrape of metal.

The tumblers shifted, more sound that made John bare his teeth before the handle turned and the door creaked inward. With his fingers on the handle to keep it from swinging all the way open, Phoenix looked expectantly at John. Nodding, John rechecked the hall before he slipped past him and into the room.

Gun gripped in both hands, the muzzle aimed toward the floor, John shifted between the door and the wall. He cleared the entryway and scanned the left side of the room. It was clear, the bed there empty, and John pivoted on his heel. The gun lifted and swung in an arc, following the motion as he scanned the room.

It was small and cramped and entirely empty.

John’s breath escaped in a rush, and he pushed the door open to reveal Phoenix. His pale eyes flashed over John, noting his stance and the lowered gun. “It’s clear,” John said, stepping back to let him in. “Come in and close the door.”

Phoenix's expression was hard to read, eyes still tracking over John from head to toe before he lowered his own weapon and entered the room. He closed the door behind him. Phoenix did so quietly, but the click of the handle still sounded far too loud to John’s over-focused senses.

John turned away from him and stalked through the room. Anxiety buzzed through his body, and he clenched his jaw to still some of the shivering adrenaline that made his eyes dart over the room. John checked inside a small closet, ducked to look beneath the bed, flipped the curtains aside. Each place he investigated was clear, but his unease refused to fade. He watched Phoenix move around the room until he dropped to his knees and dug something out from under the bed. John’s eyes lingered on the dip of his back and the curve of hip and flank before he quickly turned away.

Focus. He needed to focus.

John moved toward the bathroom, leaving Phoenix to gather his things. John caught a flurry of activity as Phoenix dragged a duffle from under the bed and began searching inside.

The bathroom was small and utilitarian, consisting of a sink, toilet, and a combination shower and tub. John started with the tub, pushing the curtain aside to find it empty. The toilet was hidden in a small water closet, and he checked there as well. It was clear.

John began to lower the gun when something caught his attention: a sound, not within the room but outside. He froze, holding his breath as he strained to listen over the sound of Phoenix in the next room.

There. Voices. And footsteps, out in the hall and moving closer fast, undeniably in their direction.

John closed his eyes. His mind spun as he tried to make a plan, tried to determine if he could make it to the door before they reached it.

Too close.

They were too close, and he wouldn’t make it in time. In all likelihood, he’d reach the door just as it opened. He’d have all of a few seconds before whoever was on the other side put a bullet in him. There was no time. But maybe… 

“Phoenix!” His loud hiss caught Phoenix’s attention, where he stood next to the bed, duffle bag in hand. He was looking at the door, frozen like a deer in the headlights. He turned wide eyes to John, saw that John knew and they were out of time. Their gazes met and held. Clinging to that contact, John whispered furiously, “Keep them talking. We don’t know how many there are—”

“Element of surprise,” Phoenix interrupted, his eyes darting back to the door. “Got it.” He waved at John, shooing him into the bathroom. “I have an idea. Get out of sight!”

John obeyed, stepping out of view as the main door rattled. The handle twisted, turned, and it swung open just as he ducked down low behind the bathroom door. Through the jamb, John watched two men enter the main room.

Still standing next to the bed, Phoenix greeted the men with a blank expression. He dropped a pair of socks onto the mattress and turned to face them. “Can I help you?”

Shocked by the casual question, John bit into his knuckles to silence his irrational urge to laugh. The sheer guts it took to look two men who wanted you dead in the face and ask if you could help them… God, Phoenix was mad. Completely mad.

“Cute,” one of the men said. They entered the room, looking around with sharp eyes and hard expressions.

Crouched against the side of the tub, behind the door with the gun gripped hard in his hands, John squinted. He saw a mole on the side of the first man’s face and the gun in his hand. It was trained on Phoenix, and it didn’t move as the man moved deeper into the room. The second man was taller, his hair a shocking shade of red. He was also holding a gun, though it was at his side. They were both handguns, and John breathed a sigh of relief. Anything larger, and they’d have little hope of surviving a shoot-out.

He refocused as the first speaker said, “There’s just one.”

“Should be two,” said Redhead. There was a pause. John listened to the sound of footsteps moving around, and he shifted until he caught sight of Phoenix. His hands were raised in the air over his head. Eyes riveted to the man standing opposite him, he was focused on the gun.

“Why are you alone?” the first man asked. He hadn’t moved, letting Redhead walk the perimeter of the room. He glanced toward the bathroom before looking back at Phoenix. “Where’s the other one?”

John saw Phoenix tip his head to the side. He looked unperturbed, but his eyes were unblinking as he stared at the gun. “Who?”

“Don’t be smart with us,” Redhead snapped. He was near the bathroom, and John could just make out half of him with his narrow line of sight. His fingers twitched on the handle of the gun at his side. “We know there’s two of you. The mercenary — where is he?”

“Wouldn’t dream of wasting my intellect on ‘being smart with you,’” Phoenix quipped, making John close his eyes briefly and curse.

Don’t bait them, he thought fiercely, hoping Phoenix would pick up on his silent command.

The gun aimed at Phoenix’s chest rose until it was level with his face. “I’ll ask you one more time,” said the first man in a calm voice, “where is the mercenary?”

Phoenix didn’t move a muscle. “He’s gone.”

John shifted until he caught sight of the first man’s face. He was frowning, his eyes narrowed. “What do you mean he’s gone?” There was a dangerous edge to his voice, and John tensed, recognizing the tone as a warning.

Evidently, Phoenix heard it as well. His eyes darted to the side, toward the bathroom, but they moved back to the man in front of him before he could give away John’s hiding place. “I escaped,” he said, his voice perfectly steady. It was impressive, the way he managed to control his anxiety so well under gunpoint.

John licked his lips and reminded himself to focus. Now wasn’t the time to let Phoenix’s bravery — or was it idiocy? — distract him.

Redhead was on the move again. He was nearing the bathroom, but his eyes were on Phoenix. “Not sure I believe him,” he said in a sullen tone.

To John’s shock, Phoenix actually shrugged. “Believe what you want. Makes no difference to me.”

Redhead stopped and turned toward him. “Why’s that?”

Phoenix looked away from the gun, toward Redhead. It put John in his line of sight. Their eyes met, Phoenix staring hard at him for a second before he looked back at Redhead. “What’s that old saying? The enemy of my enemy is my friend?”

The man aiming the gun at Phoenix snorted. “You’ve sure got some stones, don’t you?”

Redhead was more focused on the conversation, refusing to let Phoenix distract him. “You’re saying the mercenary was your enemy? Thought you two were working together.”

A low scoff met his comment, and Phoenix fixed him with a pitying gaze. “He dragged me out into the desert for money. I haven’t had many friends in my life, but that doesn’t seem like a friendly gesture.”

“Guess not,” Redhead agreed. He was clearly the leader of the two, and as he turned toward the bathroom, John warily eyed his boots. “Still don’t believe you.”

“Makes no difference to me,” came Phoenix’s blasé reply.

The man kept coming, moving toward the bathroom door. John tensed. Muscles coiled, gun gripped, his legs burning with the surge of energy that would send him upward, he waited. Just a little closer. A little closer…

“You should’ve just killed him,” Redhead mused in a thoughtful voice. “Would have saved us the work of hunting him down.” He entered the bathroom, hand on the doorknob as he looked toward the sink.

John tensed, waiting until Redhead looked over his shoulder at Phoenix.

“Pity, really. It’ll be a slower death for him now.”

John straightened, letting the coiled energy in his legs propel him upwards and around the door. The gun rose, drew level with the man’s face. “You sure about that?”

Redhead turned toward him, but surprise made him slow. He reacted before lifting his gun, and John didn’t give him the chance to catch up. He registered the shock on Redhead’s face before his finger curled. The shot was deafening in the small space, and John grimaced at the noise. He resisted the instinct to cover his ears and block out the sound, closing his eyes against the spray of blood that spattered his face.

Redhead dropped like a puppet with its string cut. His blood spread dark and fast over the tiled floor, reaching for John’s boots, but he was already moving. John stepped over the body, twisted to avoid the door, and ducked into the main room. He went down on a knee and darted forward, anticipating the bullet that passed overhead. He’d expected the other man’s reaction, and John took the miss as an opportunity to gain the upper hand.

But when he rose, gun aimed, he couldn’t get a clear shot.

When his shot missed John, the man turned to Phoenix as a secondary option. Phoenix, anticipating the shift, lunged forward and caught his arm. His shoulder slammed into the man’s chest, and they both stumbled.

John watched as the man reacted, too late to use the gun again. The proximity turned into a disadvantage as Phoenix grabbed his wrist and hauled him sideways. Phoenix bared his teeth in a fierce snarl, and the man went sideways, caught off guard until he wasn’t. He found his footing, and they grappled, both locked together and struggling for the upper hand.

Still standing near the bathroom with his gun raised, John couldn’t get a clear shot. Not with the way Phoenix was moving. He was darting in and away, shifting low to catch the man off balance with each strike. He was quick on his feet, surprisingly so for his height, landing forceful blows that made even John flinch.

John kept his finger off the trigger. With the adrenaline in his veins, it would be too easy to slip up, take a shot when he shouldn’t. He tracked the man’s movement as the two struggled toward the bed and couldn’t tell who had the advantage.

With his teeth bloodied by his cut lip, and a fresh bruise swelling on his cheek, Phoenix looked like a feral thing.

The man stumbled, tripping over his feet as Phoenix darted out of his path. He started to tip back and grabbed blindly. He caught Phoenix by the front of his shirt, dragging Phoenix down with him. Phoenix planted his feet but staggered, and the man caught his balance before Phoenix could right himself.

Still trying to find a clear shot, John could only watch helplessly as the man twisted to the side and raised his arm. He saw an opportunity and seized it, slamming the butt of his gun hard into the side of Phoenix’s head. The blow was devastating.

John heard the sharp crack of metal against bone, and Phoenix dropped like a rag doll.

John didn’t hesitate, didn’t waste time staring, just took aim and fired. The bullet caught the man in the chest as he lifted his weapon. He staggered and reeled back, blinking in shock at the blood spreading over his shirt.

The man was still staring when John crossed the room and shot him between the eyes.

Stepping back and letting the body crumple to the floor, John dropped to a crouch over Phoenix.

He was out cold, eyes closed, a large bruise rising on his temple. It blended with the yellowing marks on Phoenix’s face, lighting up his face like an ugly rainbow.

John knelt on one knee and bent over him. “Phoenix.” There was no response, and he glanced toward the door. It was only a matter of time before someone came to investigate the noise, and the sound of gunfire could only keep people away for so long. John set the gun down to free his hands and gently cupped Phoenix’s face in his palms. His eyelids didn’t even flutter, and John breathed out a soft curse, “Shit.”

His eyes darted back to the door. It was open: they had nowhere to hide. There were two dead bodies and one unconscious man, and John knew he’d be in trouble if someone discovered them now.

He could leave. He could. Just get up, take the guns, his and Phoenix’s bags, and go. Disappear and never look back. It would be easy for John to disappear in the confusion. For all he knew, Phoenix might not even wake up.

But the longer he thought of it, the more John realized he couldn’t. It was true that he could leave Phoenix here without a second glance if he really wanted to, but he didn’t want to.

John tore his eyes away from the door and looked down at the face bracketed between his palms. “Wake up,” he hissed, unsurprised when Phoenix didn’t so much as twitch. John heard the impact, knew it was hard enough to scramble someone’s brain, if not outright kill them. But Phoenix was still breathing, and his pulse was fast but strong under John’s fingers when he pressed them beneath his jaw.

He was alive but out cold.

“Goddammit.” John shifted his grip and felt over Phoenix’s skull, searching for a fracture. He felt a lump rising on the side of his head, hidden beneath the blood-matted curls. There was a smudge of red on John’s fingers when he lifted them away. But the cut itself was minor, a scrape from the hard edge of the gun’s handle.

Feeling an unexpected rush of relief, John cupped Phoenix’s face between his hands again and stared down at his closed eyes. “Come on,” he urged in a quiet, fierce voice, “don’t quit on me now.” He gave a gentle squeeze and smoothed his thumbs over Phoenix’s sharp cheekbones. It felt like a strange thing to do, but John found he couldn’t help it. Phoenix’s skin was flushed and warm, reactive beneath his touch, and John repeated the gesture. It was almost a caress as he ducked his head and whispered, “Come on, Phoenix. Wake up.”

Chapter Text

The gun connected with Sherlock’s skull in a supernova of pain and left behind a shattering haze of agony. It was like an explosion in his head, a detonation of an entire structure that dissolved his mind into black. He went down, consciousness snuffed out like a candle.

It was like slipping beneath the surface of dark water. He was there, then he wasn’t.

When he finally clawed his way back to the surface, everything was in shambles. His skull ached, his Mind Palace was in ruin, and there were hands on his face. The grip was like iron. It wouldn’t have been unpleasant in normal circumstances, but even the slightest contact with his face felt like agony. It made Sherlock whimper, and he tried to pull away.

The hold on his face gentled at once, but it didn’t disappear. Sherlock felt fingers curl beneath his skull, supporting it off the ground. One hand remained on his face, a thumb sweeping slowly over the side of his jaw. “Jesus,” came the breathy sound of a voice above him, “I wasn’t sure you were going to wake up.”

John. That was John speaking to him, John cupping Sherlock’s skull like it might crack apart without his hands there to hold it together. He wrinkled his nose in a wince and tried to speak, but his voice wouldn’t come. He was dazed, the force of the blow still radiating through his head and down his neck. Sherlock imagined that he could feel it right through to the tips of his fingers, and he groaned.

“We need to move,” John said. “Someone will have heard the shots, and we can’t stay here.” He pushed a tangle of hair back from Sherlock’s forehead and cursed under his breath. “Shit, that looks bad.” His hands were still on Sherlock’s face, and his thumb traced gently over Sherlock’s cheek. The touch wasn’t unwelcome, and Sherlock let himself tilt into the contact. He was seeking more of it, John’s thumb a comforting contrast to the agony ripping through his head.

“How long was I out?” The words sounded like mush, and Sherlock winced.

“A minute, maybe two.” John’s thumb paused. As if realizing what he’d been doing, John stilled his hand and said in a gruff voice, “We need to go, Phoenix.”

Sherlock felt a spark of irrational anger flicker to life within his chest. It took him a second to pinpoint where it came from, and by then, John was coaxing him into sitting up. He felt a hand on his sternum, and Sherlock forced his eyes open to see John squatting in front of him. He was holding Sherlock up with one hand on his chest, the other moving to his back. The absence of the gentle touch on his face was vivid, and Sherlock squinted at John in annoyance.

John paused in his attempts to help Sherlock stand. “What’s that look for?” Sherlock didn’t answer at first, and John tipped his head to the side, peering into his eyes. “Phoenix, can you hear me?”

The sound of the codename, given to him by the same men who wanted them both dead, made Sherlock snarl. “Don’t call me that,” he said through his teeth. His voice sounded raw and raspy, the words dragged forth through sheer force of will.

John frowned. “What? You’re not making sense.”

“I said,” Sherlock growled, struggling to keep his eyes open, “don’t call me that.” He squinted against the light and the pain in his head.

“What?” John repeated. “What are you talking about, Phoenix? You need to stand up, come on.”

“That’s not my name,” Sherlock seethed, letting John pull him to his feet. It was as much a struggle to move as it had been to open his eyes, and he huffed at his own weakness. “My name isn’t Phoenix, so don’t call me it.”

John’s voice slipped into a soothing tone, and he steadied Sherlock as he swayed dangerously off balance. “Alright, I won’t call you that anymore.” He placed a careful hand on Sherlock’s waist. “What do I call you?”

Teeth clenched against the pain in his head and the ringing in his ears, Sherlock looked John in the eye. The hand on his waist was hot and firm, encouraging Sherlock to lean into the support.

“My name is Sherlock. Sherlock Holmes.” He swallowed, blinking hard when his legs threatened to buckle. “Not… not fucking Phoenix.”

John stared at him for a moment, his frown deepening. When his brow finally smoothed out, his lips curled into a small smile.

The sight of it caught Sherlock off guard. “What?” He winced at his own loud voice and softened his tone. “Why are you smiling?”

“Nothing,” John said, still holding Sherlock up. He shook his head, that amusement lingering. “Just… are you sure that’s better than Phoenix?”

If not for the sheer, wretched pain of his skull, Sherlock might have snarled again. Scowling, he tried to support his own weight but ended up tipping back into John’s side. “Fuck off,” he snapped, eyes half-open. “At least it’s not as dull as John.”

John barked a sharp laugh and shook his head. “Glad to see your charming personality is still intact.” The smile disappeared, and he looked Sherlock over. “Do you think you can walk?”

Sherlock clenched his teeth at the pain in his head and shifted his legs, testing the response. His limbs did as bidden, and he felt a surge of relief. In spite of the headache, everything seemed to be intact. “I think so,” he replied. Without thinking, he tried to take a step, and his legs immediately buckled. He held out his hands, and John, without hesitation, reached out to take them. He helped Sherlock regain his balance, steadying him when Sherlock staggered.

“Take it easy.” John dropped a hand on his back, the touch heavy through Sherlock’s sweat-damp shirt. “You took one hell of a hit.”

Sherlock nodded. He winced, and even that simple gesture made his vision swim, his head ring. “Noted.”

“Right.” John glanced to the door, bit his lip, and bent down to pick up Sherlock’s duffle. “You got everything you needed before we were interrupted?”

Dragging his eyes away from the dead man on the floor, Sherlock started to nod, flinched, and waved a hand instead. “I’m good.”

“Okay.” For a moment, John stared at him before he slung Sherlock’s duffle over his other shoulder, across from his own.

He looked conspicuous with the two bags, and Sherlock felt his lips twitch with a flicker of amusement before another wave of sickening pain rolled through his head and made him groan.

“Okay, let’s go,” John said, eyeing Sherlock’s unsteady balance. “We need to get somewhere safe. Lie low and let you recover. I doubt it’ll be long before they send someone to check on these two, and I’d really prefer not to be around when they do.”

Sherlock pursed his lips and tilted his head carefully in agreement. “Lead the way, Captain.”

“Don’t call me that,” John muttered. Stepping forward, he slipped an arm around Sherlock’s waist, steadying him as Sherlock weaved with his first step. “Or I’ll let you fall down the stairs.”

“Charming,” Sherlock said drily. But he held his tongue. Leaning against John, feeling the hidden strength in John’s body, Sherlock let himself be led forward.

The smell of blood hung heavy and thick over the room, tainting the air. Sherlock imagined it clung to them both as they stepped out into the hall and disappeared into the stairwell.

 


 

John held his breath until they were clear of the building and out of sight. He heard voices on the main street and the sound of approaching emergency vehicles and knew they needed to get away from the site. They weren’t exactly inconspicuous, with Phoenix — Sherlock, John reminded himself — tripping over his feet and hanging off John like a rag doll.

“Come on.” John dragged Sherlock upright when he staggered to the side for the third time. “Just… just lean on me, would you? You’re useless like this.”

“Anyone ever tell you that you have a real way with words, John?” Sherlock’s voice was soft and a little slurred. The casual use of his name caught John off guard, and he worked to push his surprise aside as he pulled Sherlock closer and tightened his arm around his waist.

“Oh, and you’re a silver-tongued angel?” John shot back before pausing and pressing them both against a wall. He peered around a corner and narrowed his eyes. Crowds were already forming on the main streets, and John scowled at the milling people before he leaned back out of view. “I need to get you sitting down.” John tilted his head to check Sherlock’s eyes. They were half-open and glazed. “Do you think you can walk a little further?”

Sherlock nodded, winced, and clenched his jaw. He managed a quiet, “Yes,” through his teeth, and John guided him down the alley.

It took some innovative routing, but John managed to locate a cafe with an outside seating area. He chose a table hidden from the sidewalk by an awning and a potted plant and poured Sherlock carefully into a chair. Sherlock slumped forward, his head pillowed on his arms.

“Hey.” John bent down and set the duffle bags beneath the table. He gently shook Sherlock’s shoulder, keeping at it until Sherlock raised his head and blinked at him with bleary eyes. “Stay awake, alright? I’m gonna grab us something to eat and drink so we can stay here.” He eyed the bruises on Sherlock’s face, the blood matted in his curls. “Just keep your head down and try not to look like a dead body.”

Sherlock’s reply was hoarse. “I’ll try.” He sat up a little in the chair with his head bowed. He looked more asleep than awake, but John figured it would have to do.

He strode inside and joined the queue. Keeping a careful eye on his surroundings, John was relieved to see that everyone seemed more or less involved in their own lives and worlds. Some of his tension eased, but he remained wary. He glanced outside at Sherlock, saw him blinking slowly down at the table, and approached the counter.

John returned with mint tea, two water bottles, and a plate of sausage rolls in hand. Sherlock was still awake, though it looked like he was barely clinging to consciousness.

“Here.” John set the food and drinks down on the table. “You need to eat.” Eyeing Sherlock’s appearance, he hesitated before suggesting, “Maybe you should use the loo and, you know,” he gestured at the side of his own face, “clean up some of that blood.”

Sherlock lifted a hand and touched his fingers to his temple with a flinch. “I feel like someone detonated a bomb inside my skull.”

John pulled a bundle of napkins from his pocket, snagged from the front counter. “Yeah, you took a hard hit. Do you think you can make it to the loo on your own?”

Sherlock shook his head. Even the small gesture made him flinch. “No.”

“Yeah, alright.” John reached for one of the water bottles. “Probably not a good idea for me to help you in there, what with how that would look and the anti-homosexual laws here.” He cracked the lid and dampened a folded napkin.

“Thought we were half-brothers,” Sherlock muttered with little bite. He was already sagging in his chair again.

“Better not take the chance, yeah?” Leaning across the table, John wiggled his fingers, beckoning him closer. “Tilt forward.” Sherlock obliged, lifting his chin with visible effort and leaning toward John.

Gripping his chin and eyeing the mess on his forehead, John dabbed at the half-dried blood. He watched Sherlock’s face closely for any indication of pain. His brow furrowed, but Sherlock held still, eyes glassy and fixed on John’s face. Up close, the constant regard was far more intense, and John did his best not to react to it. He was relieved when Sherlock’s face was finally clean, and John could tilt his head down to try and clean his matted curls. It was a futile effort. The blood had half-dried, making the locks stiff, resistant to John’s careful dabbing.

What Sherlock needed was a shower and a week in bed. The first might be possible, but the second was a bit of a pipe dream, even John had to admit.

He gave up on the curls and eyed the new bruise rising on Sherlock’s forehead. Leaning back, John balled the napkins into his pocket. “Bit better. Though you could do with some concealer. But it could be worse.” He received a tired sneer, the attempt clearly weak and lacking any of Sherlock’s usual venom.

They were quiet for a spell. John watched the people passing by and ate a sausage roll when his stomach began to growl. Across from him, Sherlock sipped at his mint tea with all the poise of an invalid.

John began to fidget. “So,” he began, prodding at a flaky crumb on his thumb, “you have your passports now.” He saw Sherlock raise his head from the edge of his vision but kept his eyes on his hands. “Where will you go?”

His movements slow and pained, Sherlock set his cup down on the table with a soft click. John kept his eyes on his thumb and didn’t look up to meet the sharp gaze aimed his way.

“Somewhere not here,” Sherlock said in a flat, wary voice. “You?”

When John chanced a look, he saw those searing eyes fixed on him, searching. He dropped his gaze again and shrugged. “Dunno. Been thinking about Bali.”

“Bali?” Sherlock repeated, confused.

John shrugged again. “You know — white, sandy beaches, clear blue water.” He turned and stared at the people passing by without seeing them. “Someplace where no one will look for me.”

Sherlock lifted his tea again. But he didn’t drink, just rested the rim of the cup against his bottom lip. “How will you get there?” he asked, studying John over the steam curling from the cup.

Hands resting flat in front of him, John drummed his fingers in a staccato pattern. “Not sure,” he admitted.

The cup clicked against the table, and Sherlock laid his hands on the table next to it. With his long fingers stretched out, their fingertips almost touched.

John stared at Sherlock’s hands. It was a moment before either of them spoke.

Sherlock was the first to break the silence, quietly asking, “Do you really think they won’t be waiting for you at the border?”

John stiffened. “I could fly.” He tapped a fingertip against a mark on the table’s surface. It brought their hands closer together, though still without touching.

“You could,” Sherlock agreed, too readily. John frowned and looked at him. His eyes were on John’s hands, unblinking and focused despite their glazed appearance. Before John could speak, Sherlock said, “Or… you could come with me.” His palm slipped over the table, initiating the barest hint of contact between them as the tip of his middle finger brushed John’s pinky.

Stunned by the simple invitation and the touch, John pursed his lips. Sherlock’s index finger joined the first, the rough slide of his fingertips burning. It was like touching a candle flame.

A little thrill went through John’s body, and he stared at the small point of contact. “What?”

“Come with me,” Sherlock repeated quietly.

“Why?” John paused and considered. “Where?”

“Because you know they won’t let you go that easily,” Sherlock said, his eyes still on John’s hands. “We’ve killed four of them, now. Your employer won’t be happy about that. If he’s anything like Moriarty was — and I have the suspicion he might be — then he won’t just let you go.”

John lifted his eyes. He studied Sherlock’s face and saw nothing he could make sense of. Sherlock was still staring at their hands, at his two fingers where they rested against John’s. His expression was impossible to read, and John frowned. Slowly, he curled his hand into a fist, creating space between them. “I’ve been a dead man walking for a while.” He rolled his shoulders and looked over Sherlock’s shoulder with unfocused eyes. “Ever since that night, when I was shot. Whether they catch me now or later… it hardly matters.”

“It matters.” Sherlock’s hand slid across the table again, once again pressing his fingertips to John’s curled knuckles. “John,” he said in a soft voice, “it matters.”

John pulled his hand arm back and dropped his hand in his lap. He stared down at the table with a frown, waiting until Sherlock slowly sat back and retracted his arm. Jaw clenched, John asked, “Why do you care?”

Sherlock frowned. He tilted his head in a silent request for clarification, and John huffed.

“About me. Why would you care about what happens to me?”

Sherlock tensed, and his eyes darted away. “I’ll admit, my reasons are somewhat self-serving.”

Watching his face closely, still unable to read his expression, John said, “Care to share what they are?”

Still not meeting John’s eyes, Sherlock frowned. “I’m in no shape to travel on my own. I know that. And, while it’s not ideal, you’ve proven yourself to be…” He hesitated. His eyes shifted to John’s face and lingered as he studied John’s expression as if gauging his reaction. As if changing what he’d planned to say, Sherlock shook his head and finished, “You would be an asset.”

Taken aback by the formal statement, John snorted. The sound made Sherlock blink. “So you want to keep me around as… what? A bodyguard?”

Sherlock’s frown deepened. His tongue darted out, passing over his split lip as he shook his head. A brief flash of pain creased his features. “I only meant that we are stronger together.”

John stiffened. He opened his mouth to deny it but couldn’t deny the truth in Sherlock’s solid logic.

It made him uneasy.

“You don’t know me,” he finally said, breaking the tense silence following Sherlock’s words.

“I don’t,” Sherlock agreed readily, “and you don’t know me. That’s true. And yet… here we are.” He shrugged. “We’ve saved one another more than once. I’d say that means something.”

Lips pursed, John leaned across the table and lowered his voice. “Oh? What does it mean?”

Sherlock shook his head. “I don’t know.” He held John’s gaze, refusing to back down from John’s hard stare. “But it matters, and I think we’d both be better off working together, rather than alone.”

John settling back into his chair with a snort. “I’ve been alone for a long time, Sherlock. Not sure it would be in my best interest to change that now.”

“And how has that worked out for you?” Sherlock snapped. John’s careless dismissal of his suggestion clearly rankled.

John winced, forced to admit, “Poorly.” He sighed, the fight draining out of him in a rush. It left behind nothing but heavy fatigue and body aches. “Look, Sherlock… What exactly are you asking from me?”

His eyes sharpening, Sherlock fixed him with a searing stare, making John regret the question.

“Help me get out of Morocco.” Sherlock leaned forward with an earnest expression. Despite his head injury, he was abuzz with renewed energy. His hands landed on the table, and John eyed them warily, grateful to have his arms folded safely over his chest. “I have a contact, someone who can ensure our safety. He’ll be able to help.” His voice deepened, took on what John thought sounded like a coaxing tone. “Trust me to get you out of Morocco.” Sherlock’s stare burned into John, their eyes locked. “You can choose where you go from there. But let me do this for you, first.”

Trying to buy himself time to answer, John rubbed a hand over his face as if considering Sherlock’s words. He winced at the scrape of stubble. God, he really needed a shave. “Why would you do that?” he asked, dropping his hand. “Why would you do all that for me?”

“For us,” Sherlock corrected, still leaning toward him. “Not just for me. John. Help me get out of Morocco, and I’ll guarantee that you make it out, too. That you make it out alive.”

John’s eyes narrowed. “And how do you plan on doing that?”

His expression still earnest, his eyes glowing with conviction, Sherlock grinned. “Give me a moment. I’ve only been working on this plan for all of five minutes.” He held out a hand, and John eyed it warily. “When you captured me, I had a laptop. Do you still have it?”

Relieved that Sherlock wasn’t asking him to shake on a deal he wasn’t sure he wanted to make, John nodded. He unfolded his arms and nudged his duffle bag under the table with the toe of his boot. “Yeah. In my bag.”

“Give it to me,” Sherlock ordered.

John rolled his eyes. “Your manners really are shite.”

Sherlock wiggled his fingers impatiently, and John sighed. He ducked under the table to dig through his bag and retrieve the device. Setting it on the table, he watched Sherlock pounce on the computer and bit back a smile. “What are you going to do?”

Sherlock opened the laptop and squinted at the screen before he grinned. “Good, there’s still power.” Looking at John over top of the computer, Sherlock grimaced. “And, to answer your question, I’m going to contact my brother.”

 


 

Sherlock had little doubt that John was reluctant about accepting his offer. The disquiet rising off of him was almost palpable. Even with the headache and the hazy quality of his thoughts, Sherlock kept an eye on him. He wouldn’t be shocked if John decided to bolt, marking Sherlock as a liability better left behind, danger or no.

Keeping an eye on John while watching the laptop power on required a level of focus that, under ordinary circumstances, wouldn’t have been an issue for Sherlock. Sherlock struggled to disable the computer's encryption locks with a concussion, people passing by, and the thundering pain in his head. By the time he’d finally made it into the system, his eyes were pulsing from the agony of his headache. John was shifting to the edge of his chair as if prepared to make a run for it.

Teeth clamped down against the urge to vomit or pass out, Sherlock fired up his VPN and opened a secure email server. The email he typed out to his brother was simple. Something that, if intercepted, would make little sense to anyone but himself and Mycroft.

 

Dearest brother,

I hope this email finds you well. My days have been pleasant, but I find the weather far too hot as of late. I think it might be time for me to move to cooler climates. I may be able to get by with a fan, but I think a change of scenery will prove far more effective in the long run.

Give my love to Annabelle and the children.

Kind Regards,

Sigerson.

 

Catching how John was eyeing the laptop, Sherlock turned the screen toward him once he finished typing. John glanced at him in surprise before dropping his focus to the computer. His eyes narrowed as he scanned the email, forehead creasing in a slow frown.

“I’m guessing that’s written in some kind of code?”

Turning the laptop back, Sherlock nodded. “It is.”

John tapped a fingertip to his bottom lip in thought. Sherlock watched him for a moment. His eyes lingered on the soft flesh beneath John’s finger before he forced his attention back to the screen. “I assume the reference to the hot weather is to let him know the area is no longer safe?” At Sherlock’s nod, John smirked. “Very similar to military language. So you’re asking him to help you leave Morocco?”

“Yes.”

“And Annabelle? I’m guessing there’s no wife named Annabelle.”

Pleased by John’s perceptiveness, Sherlock tilted his head to the side. He peered at him from beneath his lashes, over top of the screen. “Very good. Yes, and no kids, either. My brother is unmarried — Annabelle refers to Moriarty’s network. ‘Kind regards’ means I’ve been compromised. We have several sign-offs with different meanings.”

“Smart.” Leaning back in his chair, John folded his hands on the table. He looked impressed in spite of his agitation.“And Sigerson?”

Sherlock waved a hand. “An alias I’ve used since leaving London. It’s on one of my passports.”

“Right.” John surveyed their surroundings for a silent moment. He leaned forward again and picked at one of the sausage rolls without interest, his appetite clearly disappearing as his anxiety returned. It buzzed in the air between them, setting Sherlock on edge and making his head throb. “Now what?”

“We wait.” Sherlock sent the email. He wiped his history, disconnected the VPN, and powered the laptop down.

John looked uneasy by the simple reply. “That’s it?”

Sherlock shrugged. “Mycroft won’t take long to answer, but, yes. There’s only an hour time difference between Morocco and England, though it will likely take him some time to make arrangements.”

“Your… your brother’s name is Mycroft?” John frowned

Raising an eyebrow, Sherlock tilted his head. “Yes? And?”

John sighed. “Nothing. Just… Sherlock. Mycroft.” He smirked. ‘Your parents have strange taste in names.”

“They’re traditional,” Sherlock said defensively, glaring at John’s amused expression. He bent down to slip the laptop into his bag and immediately regretted the movement. It was a long moment of dizzy, throbbing pain before Sherlock could sit up again and, when he did, nausea rippled through him. “That was a mistake.”

John pursed his lips. “Yeah, you look kind of green.” He drummed his fingers against the table, his disquiet only increasing. “We need to move,” he said, eyes narrowed as he studied the people passing by the cafe, “and you need to rest. I want to get somewhere out of sight.”

Sherlock started to nod, felt the tight, pulsating tension in his temples, and thought better of it. “Perhaps a hotel on the outskirts of the city?”

“That’ll work.” John was on his feet at once, pulling both duffle bags over his shoulders. He looked down at Sherlock and hesitated. “Are you alright to walk on your own?”

It took intense focus to make it back to his feet, but Sherlock managed. He stood with one hand on the table, only weaving slightly. Finding his balance was a struggle, but he finally did and sighed, “I’ll manage.”

John offered a curt nod and a doubtful glance. “Alright. Let’s go.”

 

 

The hotel reminded Sherlock of the one in Nador, though they were on the first floor this time, and the door faced a courtyard. John handled the payment, leaving Sherlock outside to wince at the sun and lean against a wall. His balance was severely compromised, and any strength he’d regained at the cafe was swiftly dissipating, washed away by his headache.

By the time John reappeared with a room key, Sherlock was swaying on his feet. John hurried to unlock the door and usher him inside. Sherlock barely bothered to check the room, making his way to one of the beds and collapsing onto the covers.

The layout of the beds was similar to their last room, and Sherlock figured it must be a standard setup in the smaller, two-person rooms. At least here, he didn’t have to worry about John tying him to the frame. They were on different terms now, more or less on the same side, and on a first-name basis — even if John’s first name was likely a lie.

Sherlock rolled onto his side and cracked his eyes open. Sitting up was a struggle, but he managed. One shoulder balanced against the wall, Sherlock watched John move around the room, closing the curtains, checking the closet and bathroom. Satisfied, he prowled restlessly around the space. Sherlock felt tired just watching him and considered ordering him to sit down. But he scrapped the idea at once, knowing it would only make John angry. Now wasn’t the time to antagonize him. Now was the time to keep him close and convince him that staying with Sherlock was in his best interest.

John disappeared into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. Sherlock leaned against the wall and listened to the sound of the shower when it turned on.

Eyes unfocused, he carefully considered his offer at the cafe and wondered at his own motives. He’d been honest when he told John they worked well together. Sherlock didn’t lie when he said they would have a better chance of escaping Morocco together. John would be an asset, and Sherlock needed all the help he could get. Concussed, injured with killers on his heels, he was in poor shape. Keeping John with him might mean the difference between succeeding or failing.

But he knew there was more to it than that. Beyond immediate necessity, Sherlock hadn’t figured John out. He knew more about him now, thanks to his backstory, but he still didn’t know him. And he wanted to, Sherlock realized. He couldn’t let John leave without cracking the case of who he was. Selfish it may be, and likely stupid as well, but Sherlock wasn’t ready to give him up.

The bathroom door opened, scattering his thoughts. Sherlock blinked, frowned at the hazy quality of his vision, and sat up with difficulty. He watched John exit the bathroom in clean clothes, a towel in one hand, his hair still dripping from the shower. Sherlock sat still as John settled on the bed opposite him and began to scrub the towel over his head.

With the narrow beds so close together, their knees almost brushed.

“You going to take a shower?” John asked.

Sherlock grimaced and shook his head. Even the idea of standing was unappealing, and the thought of something striking his skull — even something as harmless as water droplets — made him wince.

“Right.” Finished with his hair, John stood and draped the towel over the back of a chair. He returned and stood over Sherlock, eyes narrowed as he looked down at him. “You need rest, but I want to examine you first.” Without waiting for a response, John dug into his duffle bag and returned with his first-aid kit.

Sherlock sat through the examination in silence, both exhaustion and pain-fatigue making his body leaden. He let John lift his lids and shine a light into both of his eyes, and sat still as John carefully examined Sherlock’s skull and checked for soft spots.

When John sat back, he looked satisfied. “It’s not as bad as it could have been. Your pupillary response is strong and reactive, and you’re no longer slurring your words. I think you’ll be fine to sleep for a bit.” Packing up his supplies, John returned the kit to his duffle. “I’m going to keep watch.”

Struck by the efficiency of John’s work, the kindness lingering beneath his words and actions, Sherlock frowned. He didn’t speak, and when his silence stretched onward, John raised an eyebrow.

“What is it?”

Sherlock hesitated before he finally shrugged and said, “Thank you.”

John’s eyes widened slightly before he schooled his face into a blank expression. “Just… it’s fine.” Clearly awkward, he rubbed his nape and cleared his throat. “It’s fine,” he repeated, looking around the room. His hands fidgeted at his sides, betraying his discomfort. “I’m going to get a damp cloth for your head. It’ll help.”

He turned away and disappeared into the bathroom, leaving Sherlock to stew over John’s response to his gratitude. The last time he’d attempted kindness, John had reacted with a cruel comment. This time, he’d fled.

Baby steps.

Lying down again, Sherlock pulled the blanket over his body with a quiet groan, eyes screwed tightly shut against the pain in his head. It felt like someone was striking a hammer against his skull, the agony unrelenting. The darkness behind his eyelids was a small comfort after the bright sun outside.

When John returned, Sherlock was on the cusp of sleep. He stirred, falling still at John’s soft, “Don’t get up.”

Sherlock relaxed, sinking back into the mattress. He was hardly aware of the cool cloth placed on his forehead, but the comfort that came with it made Sherlock sigh in relief. His dry, cracked lips parted, and the beginnings of another thank you lingered on his tongue. But it went unspoken, and Sherlock slipped into a dark, dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

With Sherlock fast asleep, John was left to his own thoughts. He waited until Sherlock was out cold, then dragged a chair over to the entrance and prepared to keep watch. He set the chair beside the window, next to the door, and perched on the edge. John kept one gun near at hand and cleaned the other, swapping them when one was finished, starting on the other. When he’d passed Sherlock’s duffle, his curiousity piqued, John had looked inside and found a Glock. He’d picked it up, turned it over, and glanced at Sherlock.

He’d been deep asleep, and the gun looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in ages. Lips pursed at the poor upkeep, John had taken the weapon and cleaned it as well, filling the magazines with the bullets he found wrapped in a pair of old jeans, tucked near the bottom of the bag.

With all three firearms cleaned, reloaded and pieced back together, John had nothing else to keep him busy. He’d managed to kill the better part of nearly two hours, and Sherlock was still dead to the world. Sitting between the door and the window, John flicked the curtain aside and looked out.

He didn’t see anyone in the parking lot, and the rooms next door were silent. He heard voices a few rooms down, but it sounded like the commonplace noise of children, nothing alarming.

Sig resting on his lap, John set his hands against his thighs and faced the room. Sherlock was in the far bed, curled up with his back to John. He looked surprisingly small, and the sight was off-putting to John, who thought of him as larger-than-life. Not just because of Sherlock’s height, but because of his persona. His focus was intense enough that John always felt it like a physical presence, his pale stare like a brand pressed to John’s skin. Even when they’d been enemies, he’d still been a force to be reckoned with. Now that they were on the same side, John found that impression had only increased. It was strange to see Sherlock now looking so reduced.

Agitated by the stillness of his surroundings, John closed his eyes. He tried to breathe the tautness out from his body, but it refused to dissipate, lingering in his stiff shoulders and aching back. He felt like an over-tightened piano wire, ready to snap, vibrating with barely-contained tension.

Palms rubbing over his thighs, fingers curling against his bent knees, John opened his eyes. He looked at Sherlock, unblinking, watching the slow rise and fall of his chest as he rolled onto his back. His head lolled on the pillow, turned toward John. His face, typically pale with a red-overtone from sun exposure, looked closer to grey. His eyelids were dark, the skin beneath darker still, both from exhaustion and the shadows cast by his long lashes. He looked worn out, and John couldn’t blame him. He felt the same bone-deep weariness communicated by Sherlock’s pallor.

Still gripping his knees, John looked at Sherlock and thought about his invitation. He’d asked John to stay with him, to help him escape Morocco. And, in return, Sherlock would use his connections to help John do the same. It was a tempting offer —  both because John didn’t think he would make it out of Morocco without encountering his ex-employers and because the idea held a hint of excitement.

He was, effectively, now unemployed. Since he was a wanted man, John doubted he could rely on the Colonel to put in a good word for him with other hires. If what Sherlock said was true, and John’s ex-employer was part of some massive, international crime network, it was unlikely that John would find new mercenary work with someone unconnected.

It seemed that his options had become severely limited.

The hotel was quiet, and, save for the soft, even sound of Sherlock’s breathing, the silence felt absolute. John’s thoughts were impossible to block out, loud and discordant and demanding his attention. They fed his anxiety and made him feel restless. There was little to do but think, and John kept returning to Sherlock’s offer.

He’d felt immediate resistance at the suggestion, and that reluctance lingered now. John still thought it would be better if they parted, but he found himself with fewer and fewer reasons to believe that. They’d worked well together — so far — and it seemed likely they would continue to do so. But then, where did it end? Did John stay with Sherlock indefinitely? Was that even a possibility? He had little understanding of Sherlock’s plans, knew only that he meant to dismantle the last of what had once been Moriarty’s network.

But what came after that? John didn’t know. All he knew was that Sherlock had a goal: he wanted his life back, and his mission was the key to achieving that. If he succeeded, John had little doubt that Sherlock wouldn’t immediately return to London to resume his life as… what was it? A consulting detective? Whatever that was, John knew Sherlock had worked too hard to get to where he’d been before Moriarty to just give it up. If John had any chance of regaining his life of before, he knew he’d take it. It only made sense that, given the opportunity, Sherlock would do the same.

Which brought John back to the problem of himself. If he helped Sherlock get out of Morocco, if he stayed with him beyond that point, what happened to John? Was there a place for him with Sherlock once they left Morocco behind?

John sat up and shifted his position, stretching out his legs, one of which had fallen asleep. The movement tipped him back, and he leaned his head against the wall. Eyes on the ceiling, he considered the question.

If Sherlock planned to return to London, there was little chance of John returning with him. The country that had betrayed him held little allure for John these days. After his discharge, he’d faded into the background. Became a ghost, only to vanish into the woodwork when the Colonel offered him a new purpose. Most of John’s jobs took him far from London, from the United Kingdom, but he’d had his fair share of wet jobs involving British citizens. He’d be the worst kind of idiot if he assumed that the British government didn’t know about him — he was an ex-British soldier who was honourably discharged and sent home, only to drop off the grid shortly after. It wouldn’t be the first time a wounded veteran disappeared, but John knew better than to assume the government he’d once called his own had simply lost tabs on him with his new line of work.

If John returned to London, he had little doubt about the likelihood that he would, at the very least, find himself detained.

John was a criminal, a mercenary, a man without a homeland. To return to the United Kingdom would be to relinquish his freedom. It would deny him the chance of living beyond the violence that had filled his life for the past several years. It didn’t matter that said violence had kept him sane: it was violence all the same. It was murder and treason and dealing in death, and John doubted he would receive any kind of praise from the British government should he return to the UK.

There was no chance of John returning to the city that had once been his home. London was no longer truly home — if it ever had been. Knowing Sherlock would inevitably return to London meant that any alliance they formed came with an expiration date. No matter what happened after Morocco, whether John stayed with Sherlock or not, they would eventually have to part ways.

With his eyes fixed on Sherlock from across the room, John wondered what that separation would do to him. He still didn’t know the man, but Sherlock was right: they’d shared intense experiences. They’d saved one another more than once, and it did mean something. John wasn’t certain what it meant, but he knew Sherlock wasn’t wrong in saying that it mattered. Even worse, John saw the logic in Sherlock’s offer. He saw the benefits and knew prolonging their alliance made sense. It was tempting; he wanted to work together. Despite the reminders to keep his distance, to stop trying to play nice with a stranger, John had let himself grow attached. Maybe not attached, but accustomed: used to having someone at his back.

He’d been alone for a long time. John had almost forgotten how it felt to rely on someone and have them live up to your expectations. It was a relief, in a way, just as it was terrifying.

Closing his eyes, John thought back to earlier, to the two men who caught them in Sherlock’s rented room. He’d read Sherlock’s file and knew he was trained in hand-to-hand combat. But still, he’d been caught off guard by the sheer skill Sherlock displayed when push came to shove. He’d gone at his attacker with almost feral energy: wild but somehow still controlled.

It was only pure bad luck that the other man gained the upper hand and clocked Sherlock with his gun.

John had been impressed — he was impressed. To see Sherlock in action, see him ‘stretch his legs’ as it were, it reminded John that he wasn’t the only one with an impressive skill set. Then there were Sherlock’s deductive abilities, his observational intensity. He was an asset and would continue to be if they stayed together.

But there was still the matter of what happened when Sherlock no longer needed him. When he was out of Morocco, protected by his brother's safety, he wouldn’t need John anymore. And John would go back to being alone. Just last night, John would have rejoiced at the thought. He’d wanted to be rid of Sherlock since picking him up. But Sherlock had planted a seed of temptation with his offer, one that John couldn’t stop from taking root. Now, John could imagine what it might be like to let someone in. Even if only to the extent of a partnership.

He found he didn’t hate the thought as much as he probably should.

And there was the matter of John’s guilt. There was the fact that Sherlock was in this situation partially because of him. John wasn’t stupid enough to take on the entirety of the blame — after all, as Sherlock had pointed out, anyone other than John likely would have killed Sherlock themselves. They wouldn’t have bothered to keep him safe, to help him, teamed up with and listened to him. Which made John’s guilt feel somewhat irrational. But it was there regardless, and it lingered, and it sank teeth deep into John and refused to let go.

There was the guilt, there was his reluctance to leave, and there was the gnawing desire to stop letting himself be alone. Sherlock had done this, planted these thoughts in John’s head. Shown him the possibility for change. He was extending a lifeline out to where John was still treading water, and John wanted to reach for it. Even if the respite was only temporary, he wanted to reach for it.

He groaned and slumped in the chair. Gun dangling from his hand, John covered his face with the other.

It was like they’d been forced together by fate. John didn’t believe in such a concept, not really, but it fit. Whatever had put them in each other’s way, it seemed determined that they stay together. It made John wish he’d left when he’d had the chance. Even if it meant abandoning Sherlock to the wolves, surely that was kinder than whatever John was doing now, giving both of them hope while knowing it couldn’t last.

If John left, he would be alone again. If he left now, Sherlock would have nothing. He would have no one. His brother was too far to help Sherlock, lying concussed in a bed on the outskirts of a Moroccan city. Until Sherlock was in his custody, his only ally was John.

And John’s only ally was Sherlock.

Setting the gun in his lap and resting his face in his hands, John closed his eyes again. He pressed the heels of his palms against them, hard enough to see starbursts against his eyelids. He pushed until his head throbbed, then he dropped his hands and slumped against the chair.

He couldn’t leave. Maybe he wasn’t a good man — it didn’t matter what Sherlock said, he wasn’t — but John couldn’t bring himself to leave. At least, not yet. He’d done some terrible things, both in Afghanistan and after. He was a deeply flawed person, and he’d done far worse than abandon an injured man in a foreign city. It should be easy. John had done crueller things in his life. He’d killed without remorse, without question, without pause. Leaving should be easy.

And yet…

He opened his eyes and looked at Sherlock. Brow furrowed, John counted his breaths.

And yet.

In, out, in, out, the gentle susurration of regular breathing drifted to his ears.

And yet, leaving wasn’t easy. John wanted to stay — at least until they were both out of Morocco. At least until Sherlock was in the hands of his brother, safe wherever he needed to be.

John straightened in the chair and picked the gun up from his lap. Filled with restless energy, he flicked the curtain aside and glanced out the window. The sun glared off the glass, and he squinted until he saw that the parking lot was still empty. The kids a few doors down had fallen silent or at least gone quiet, and the silence weighed on him.

Rising to his feet, he paced the room. John tried to keep his footsteps quiet, letting the carpet hush against his bare feet after he kicked his boots and socks off. The rough scratch of fibres against his skin helped ground him, and some of the agitation softened. But he couldn’t hold still. He needed to know the next steps, needed to know where they were going from here. If he was going to stay with Sherlock, John needed a plan. Once he knew what came next, he could determine his exit strategy.

Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft. His response to Sherlock’s email would give John the information he needed.

John stopped by the beds and looked over at Sherlock. He was still asleep, sprawled out on his back with his arms flung out at either side of his body. Staring at him, John burned with impatience, but couldn’t bring himself to wake him when Sherlock needed the sleep.

Instead, he returned to pacing the room, ending up back by the door. John stood over the chair, checked outside again before leaning forward to rest his forehead on the wall. He’d know soon enough what the response was, and then he’d be ready. Adapt and react. Two things John had been doing all his life would help him determine his next steps.

He heard a quiet sound behind him and leaned back from the wall. Looking over his shoulder, John saw Sherlock’s arm move. It shifted over the covers and dropped onto his chest, and he turned his head toward the door. His eyelids twitched, and John realized he was waking.

Hands flexing at his sides as he breathed a steadying breath, John tucked the gun into his waistband and turned to face him. It was time for John to choose — himself, or Sherlock.

 


 

Sherlock’s sleep was deep and strange. Absolute. He didn’t dream, just observed flashes of information and broken imagery, partial understandings of things that he couldn’t manage to grasp. The meanings were elusive, and he woke suddenly to a restless, tense air hovering within the room.

Keeping his eyes closed, Sherlock listened. He heard the sound of feet moving over the carpet and, taking a moment to focus, realized John must be pacing. The restless atmosphere belonged to him. If he listened hard enough, Sherlock fancied he could hear John thinking — could make out the turn of his thoughts. Any other time, it might have been distracting, but lingering on the edges of sleep as he was, Sherlock found it almost comforting. It was rare for him to wake up to a presence other than his own, and Sherlock let the repetitive sound of John’s pacing lull him into a stupor.

When it stopped, dying off at the other side of the room, Sherlock cracked an eye open and turned his head. John was standing between the door and the window with his forehead pressed against the wall. It was an odd position, and Sherlock took a moment to study him.

His shoulders were braced, his back stiff, arms hanging at his sides. John’s gun dangled from one hand, fingers curled around the handle with evident ease that Sherlock envied. His eyes flickered to the chair next to John, and Sherlock realized he must have kept watch while Sherlock slept, just as he’d said he would.

Looking at the window and the quality of the sunlight reaching through the curtains, Sherlock thought he couldn’t have been asleep for more than three hours. It must be around noon or just after.

Eyes closing again, Sherlock took stock of how he felt. He was sore, body aching from the events of the past few days, but the sleep had done him good. He was still tired, though no longer nearly as fatigued. Exhaustion lingered deep in his bones, but Sherlock doubted that would disappear anytime soon. What he needed was several solid days of rest and sleep, and that wasn’t likely to happen. He’d have to make do with what he could get when he could get it.

His head still throbbed, but the sharp, razor-edge of the pain had softened somewhat. It was better with his eyes closed, and Sherlock took advantage of the chance to stretch. He rubbed at his chest and heard the quiet rustle of clothing as John moved on the other side of the room. Resisting the urge to freeze, Sherlock turned his head slowly toward the door. He considered keeping his eyes closed, knowing the sun would make his headache worse, but the world was waiting. He had to rejoin it eventually.

Sherlock forced his eyelids open and saw John looking at him from where he stood by the door. Blinking, Sherlock wet his lips, swallowed and grimaced. His mouth was dry, his lips cracked, his tongue feeling thick. He ached for a drink of water and rubbed a hand over his face.

As if picking up on his need, John crossed the room and bent to search through his duffle. He came up with a water bottle and moved toward Sherlock, offering it wordlessly.

Taking it with evident relief, Sherlock struggled up onto one arm, propping himself off the mattress. “Thanks,” he murmured, cracking open the bottle and taking a swig. The water was warm, but it washed over his tongue and cleared the cottony-taste from his mouth, and Sherlock hummed his gratitude. He took another drink, swished it around before swallowing, and replaced the cap. He looked up at John. “It’s quiet,” he said, noting the lack of noise outside their room.

John nodded. “Yeah. Can’t say that I’m not glad for it.”

A small smile curled the corners of Sherlock’s lips. “No, you’re not. You’re bored out of your mind.”

The edge of John’s mouth twitched, not quite an answering smile but close. “Yeah, alright.” He took the water bottle when Sherlock held it out and dropped it back into his bag. Setting the gun on the second bed, John sat down on the other mattress. “How are you feeling?”

Sherlock winced and shrugged. “Still have the headache, but the sleep helped.” He eyed John for a moment, turning over the words he wanted to ask. “Did you get any rest?”

“No.” John’s reply was short, and he looked away. His answer confirmed Sherlock’s suspicion that he’d kept watch the entire time Sherlock slept. The realization strengthened Sherlock’s conviction that he needed to keep John with him.

He struggled up into a sitting position. The motion made his head swim, and Sherlock clenched his jaw as the room spun. He saw John lean toward him with a concerned expression that he didn’t manage to school away before Sherlock saw it. Holding up a hand, Sherlock said, “I’m fine. Just need a moment.”

John nodded and settled. He watched as Sherlock winced and waited for his head to clear. It did, his vision sharpening as the pain receded. Breathing out a sigh of relief, Sherlock set his back against the wall and closed his eyes. Once he was confident the dizzy spell had passed, he opened his eyes and looked at John.

“Have you given my offer any thought?”

He saw John stiffen, but the tension dissipated as quickly as it came. John looked tired in its wake. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he rested his forearms on his knees, hands dangling in the open space between his thighs. “I have,” he said slowly, seeming to choose his words with care. John hesitated, glancing up at Sherlock with his head ducked. There was something endearing about the look, and Sherlock resisted the urge to lean forward. He wanted to grab John by his shirt and pull him close, drag the words out of him with proximity and eye contact. But his head throbbed, and he stayed where he was.

Instead, Sherlock raised an inquisitive eyebrow and offered gentle encouragement. “And? What do you think?”

John pursed his lips. His eyes dropped, and he looked back at the floor.

Sherlock watched him with faint unease. Dimly, as he waited for John to speak, he realized John’s feet were bare. Staring at them, Sherlock tried to be patient.

“I think you’re probably right.”

Sherlock looked up again. He did it quickly and regretted the motion at once when pain lanced through his skull. John shifted toward him, and Sherlock breathed, “I’m fine.” Waving away the concern, Sherlock pressed a hand over his eyes and gritted his teeth together. “Does that mean you’ll come with me?” he asked, voice strained by his clenched jaw. He heard John’s slow, heavy exhale. Without seeing him, Sherlock had no idea what his face might be doing, but he doubted he’d be able to make much sense of it even if he could.

“Probably.”

Sherlock frowned and dropped his hand. He blinked a few times to clear his vision and stared at John’s face. Just as he’d thought, there were too many emotions to accurately name. “What do you mean, probably?” He received a small shrug in return and tensed. “John—”

But John interrupted, speaking over him.,“It means that, yeah, I’ll likely come with you. But I don’t know how far or for how long, so you’ll just have to deal with that.”

Eyes narrowed, Sherlock growled, “I don’t like not knowing.”

Another shrug from John. “Tough luck, posh boy.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes, grimacing when even that made his head throb. “Don’t call me that.”

“Only if you promise not to call me Captain anymore.” There was the smallest hint of a smile on John’s lips, and Sherlock fixated on it.

“No chance,” he replied, recognizing the attempt at banter as a peace offering.

“Then get used to it, posh boy.” John rose to his feet and retrieved the gun. He cast Sherlock a lingering, uncertain look before crossing the room to recheck the window.

Watching him, Sherlock turned John’s words over in his head and breathed, “Maybe I will.”

 

 

 

After a shower to clean the blood from his hair and skin, Sherlock emerged in clean clothes, feeling invigorated. His head still throbbed, and the cadence of the shower spray had done little to appease the pain, but it was a worthy sacrifice to have the tacky, dried blood out of his curls.

He found waiting John in the main room. He was no longer pacing. Instead, he sat in the chair between the window and the door with his gun in hand. Though he appeared less restless than earlier, one glance told Sherlock all he needed to know about John’s state of mind. He was still uneasy, some of his misgivings eased by his decision to accompany Sherlock out of the country. Like him, he could only assume that the uncertain future of their partnership had John on edge.

Rising from the chair, John crossed the room and sat on the bed opposite where Sherlock had slept. “Did the shower help?”

Sherlock moved forward gingerly, wincing as pain rippled through his skull. “It’s nice to be clean,” he said, avoiding a direct answer. John saw through him immediately.

“Still hurts, huh?” At Sherlock’s careful nod, he squinted in sympathy. “Yeah, I’m not surprised. You need more sleep.”

“Can’t help that now.” Sherlock hesitated before sinking onto the mattress next to John. If John was surprised by the proximity, he didn’t show it. Instead, he tilted his head and looked at Sherlock. His expression was hard to read, his gaze evaluating.

When the regard began to weigh on him, Sherlock turned to face John. “What?”

John shrugged. “Nothing.” He looked away for a moment before looking back. “You did well, earlier. Back at the rented room.”

Surprised by the unexpected compliment, Sherlock blinked. His brain tried to come up with a suitable response, but all he managed was, “I have training.”

The corner of John’s mouth twitched upward. “I know,” he said, raising his brows at Sherlock’s confused expression. “I read your file, remember?”

“Ah.” Sherlock looked down at his hands, folded in his lap. “Hardly seems fair.”

“What does?”

Sherlock looked at John again, eyes lingering on the slight curl of his mouth. “I didn’t get to read yours.”

To his surprise, John uttered a low, surprised laugh. He looked away and broke the eye contact, leaning forward to catch hold of Sherlock’s duffle. Fingers hooked through the strap, he dragged it over to the bed and nudged it into Sherlock’s legs.

“See if your brother replied to your weird email, Sigerson.” He paused and shook his head. “Sigerson. As if Sherlock wasn’t weird enough.”

“It’s still better than John,” Sherlock quipped, reaching into the bag for the laptop. He found and uncoiled the charge cord. He turned to find an outlet beside the bed, using the action to hide his unexpected fluster at John’s casual teasing. It felt strange, though not unpleasant, to have someone joke with him so easily. After all they’d faced, and the changes in their dynamic, that it was John speaking to him this way had Sherlock feeling unbalanced.

Cord plugged into the wall, he connected it to the laptop. Setting the device on his lap, Sherlock turned back to John and opened the screen. He went through the process of connecting to the hotel wifi — a desperately easy password to guess — and fired up his VPN before decrypting his email server.

He was all too aware of John’s eyes on him and tried not to let the attention distract him from the task at hand. There was one message waiting in his inbox.

 

Sherlock angled the laptop so John could see the screen and opened the reply.

Brother,

I can only imagine the heatwave you are describing. Where I am, it is a cool fifteen degrees. I doubt your hot weather will reach us here, and I am grateful for it.

Annabelle and the children send their regards. Ben had a sudden growth spurt and has shot up like a weed. Brit has been struggling with her school work. We are looking into alternative measures. I think Ben will be a big help.

I hope you are well, Sigerson. Ben hopes you might call him soon.

Sincerely,

M.

 

Sherlock reached the end of the message before John, and he huffed, pushing the laptop over into John’s lap. John took it with a frown as Sherlock rose and began to pace. The motion fed his headache, but he needed to move. Needed to expel some of the energy humming through him despite his exhaustion. His mind felt fuzzy and stagnant, and the pacing would help clear the cobwebs.

“Who is Ben?” John asked, catching his attention. “He’s mentioned several times.”

“It’s a codeword.” Sherlock waved a hand. “Big Ben. London. The United Kingdom.”

John frowned down at the laptop. “And when he says they’re looking into alternative measures for Brit—”

“Yes, Brit. It’s a bit on the nose, but he means me.” Sherlock paused, cast John a look before he resumed pacing. “Or, rather, us.”

He saw John go still from the corner of his eye as he turned to pace in the other direction. “Does he know you’re not alone?” he asked, making Sherlock stop and turn to him. Their eyes met, and John swallowed. “Does he know about me?”

“No,” Sherlock said, halting in place before amending, “not yet.” He dropped into the chair by the door with a huff. Hands pressed together beneath his chin, Sherlock closed his eyes. He needed to think.

He’d almost forgotten John as he slipped into his head, and John’s voice made him start.

“Are you going to tell him?”

Sherlock cracked open an eye. John was still sitting on the bed, looking over his shoulder at him with an uncertain expression. Sherlock narrowed his eyes and studied him for a moment. He saw curiousity, slight confusion, and apprehension. He sighed and closed his eyes again. “Yes. But not over email.” Sherlock heard John stand and scuff his foot against the carpet. He was already anticipating the question before it left John’s mouth.

“How?”

Unperturbed by the interrogation, Sherlock replied, “The Consulate of the United Kingdom. In Tangier.”

 


 

Silence followed Sherlock’s statement. It stretched out, turned the atmosphere tense and heavy, making the air vibrate. John swallowed and found that his mouth was suddenly desert-dry. It was a moment before he could speak, and when he did, his voice sounded strained. “The what?"

Sherlock sighed and opened his eyes. “I think you heard me.”

Standing by the beds, John stared at him. “How are you going to swing that?” The idea of it, of them walking into the consulate like John wasn’t a possible traitor, made his head spin. Surely, his ex-employer would anticipate that they might attempt such a move? It seemed like too much of a risk.

“Mycroft. It’s in the email.” Sherlock rose, stretching out his long arms and wincing as he tilted his head. “And I know what you’re thinking.”

John folded his arms over his chest. “And what is it that I’m thinking?”

Hands falling back to his sides, Sherlock eyed him with an indulgent expression. It was simultaneously withering and sympathetic, and John bristled at once. Sherlock didn’t bother to acknowledge his tension. “I know you’re thinking we might be ambushed there, and I assure you that Mycroft is aware of that possibility as well.”

Glaring down at the floor, annoyed by Sherlock’s lack of anxiety for the plan, John clenched his jaw. “Is that why we’re going to the one in Tangier?” He caught Sherlock’s nod from the edge of his vision. “When?” But before Sherlock could reply, John recalled a line in the email. “‘A cool fifteen degrees,’” he quoted, biting back a smirk at the look of surprise that flickered over Sherlock’s face. It disappeared, replaced with a gleam of reluctant admiration. “Fifteen hundred hours.”

Sherlock nodded. “Yes. I’m sure he’ll have arranged for a phone call.”

“Right.” John uncrossed his arms, tapping his palms restlessly against his thighs. He looked around the room and nodded as well. “Okay. How do we get there?”

“It’s an hour by bus,” Sherlock said, watching with interest as John pulled on his socks and reached for his boots. “What are you doing?”

Looking up from his laces, John raised a brow. “It’s already one o’clock. If we’re going to make it there by three, we’d better hurry up.”          

Chapter Text

The hour-long bus ride to Tangier was a true test of Sherlock’s patience. Now that they had a plan of sorts, now that he knew John was willing to stay with him — even if only until they were both out of Morocco — he was eager to reach the consulate. He was less keen to speak with his brother, with all of Mycroft’s pompous manner, but needs must. It was merely a necessary evil if it meant Sherlock continuing on with his mission.

The closer they drew to Tangier, the harder it became for him to sit still. He grew restless, making John shoot him narrow-eyed looks as Sherlock’s mood no doubt fed his own anxiety.

“If you don’t sit still,” John began, only for Sherlock to cut him off.

“You’ll what?” Sherlock challenged, arching a brow. “Zip tie me to the seat?”

John shot him a shocked look and closed his mouth with a loud click. He looked away with a small frown, leaving Sherlock to feel both vindicated and guilty about the low blow. But it paid off. The rest of the bus ride continued in tense silence, and John didn’t make any further comments on Sherlock’s fidgeting.

As the hour ticked by, Sherlock’s thoughts turned to the issue of John and how to keep him. He was relieved that John had chosen to stay, though Sherlock wasn’t sure how much trust he could place in John’s word. Thus far, he’d proved himself reliable, but the fact that there was potential for an inevitable expiry of their partnership made Sherlock wary. With no set end date, he couldn’t know when John might leave. He might do so without warning when Sherlock needed him most.

He needed certainty — needed to know if John was all in. Sherlock knew he couldn’t truly trust John until he had it. John was his only ally here, and Sherlock needed to know he could rely on him. Without question, without doubt. Without John, he had little to no chance of regaining the upper hand his faked suicide had once afforded. It was John or no one: even Mycroft, with all his bureaucratic power, was no use to Sherlock in the field. Out here, in the thick of it, there was no one else Sherlock could truly trust but himself. And that was no longer enough, as the remnants of his throbbing headache reminded him. Now that Moriarty’s network knew of his continued presence in the world, he’d lost the element of surprise. They’d be near impossible to strike down, close to finished as he was.

Sherlock needed allies, and he was swiftly coming up short in that area.

But there was John. John, who killed with precision and skill. John, who wasn’t afraid of taking the hard way. John, who lived with one foot in the dark, treading the razor-edge between death and survival. John, who had survived what would have felled lesser men.

In a strange, abstract way, Sherlock was beginning to see that he needed that: he needed John. If he wanted to clear his name, wanted to finish his mission and dismantle Moriarty’s web, Sherlock needed someone like John on his side. He needed someone exactly like John.

The question was, how? How did he keep John? How did Sherlock make him see that them staying together, at least into the near future and maybe even indefinitely, was a smarter choice than leaving?

As the bus carried them toward Tangier, Sherlock found he was no closer to finding an answer than when the trip began. The lack of a plan and the uncertainty of the situation drove him into a frenzy. He sat with his forehead against the window, raking his fingers fitfully through his curls until they stuck out in tangles and clumps. The tugging, paired with the vibration of the engine, made his head ring and throb, and he clenched his teeth against the sensation. He needed to move, to pace and march and move. Stuck in a seat, caught between John and the window, Sherlock had no choice but to let the bus rattle his brain and shake away the rising energy.

He shoved his fingers into his curls and tugged. The gesture made tears well up in the corners of his eyes, and he winced but pulled again. A swift gasp of pain whistled through his teeth, catching John’s attention.

“Jesus.” His low voice snapped Sherlock out of his thoughts, making Sherlock freeze and clench his fingers tighter. “Stop that, would you? You look like a madman.”

Dropping his hand from his hair, Sherlock glanced over his shoulder. He saw that John was frowning at him, and his eyes narrowed. “I’m trying to solve a problem.”

John’s tongue darted out to wet his lips as he favoured Sherlock with a wary expression. “Do I want to know what that problem is?”

With his eyes squinting half-closed, Sherlock growled, “You.” John’s brows rose, but he didn’t speak, and Sherlock added, “You are the problem.”

To his surprise, John let out a quiet laugh. It was more of a bark, harsh and dismissive, and it made Sherlock clench his jaw. “Not sure I like the idea of you trying to figure me out,” he said, eyeing Sherlock with something Sherlock might have termed wary fondness. It was a disarming expression, and he settled back into his seat with a scowl.

“Tough luck, Captain,” he replied, parroting John’s words from the hotel back at him.

John subsided with an eye roll, and the remainder of their journey passed in silence that was only slightly less tense than before.

 

 

 

By the time they exited the bus in Tangier, Sherlock was no closer to a concrete answer. Short of tying John up and forcing him to stay — something Sherlock wasn’t even sure he could manage — he had nothing to go on.

With any luck, his phone call with Mycroft might provide answers where he had none.

They walked through the city together, Sherlock leading with John a step behind him. He was quiet, and when Sherlock glanced at him over his shoulder, he looked to be on high alert. Sherlock knew John was uneasy about the consulate and about being followed. There were other reasons, Sherlock was sure of it, but he wasn’t sure what they were. John was silent and tight-lipped, refusing to give up his inner thoughts. Even so, Sherlock had his suspicions.

They were proven valid when they arrived at the consulate, and John stared up at the building with evident distrust. With his mouth tugged down at the corners in a grimace, he looked unease. Given John’s past, the history of failure enacted upon him by the British government, Sherlock couldn’t begrudge John his evident disquiet.

Before they approached the stairs leading to the consulate, Sherlock turned to him. His sudden movement made John halt, and he stopped a foot away, watching Sherlock with narrowed eyes.

“What is it?”

Sherlock studied his face before he asked, in a quiet voice, “Do you want to wait outside?”

John stiffened. “Should I?” The rigidity of his posture increased, the distrust in his gaze intensifying and now directed toward Sherlock.

“No, I don’t mean…” Sighing, Sherlock shook his head. “It’s clear you don’t want to be here. If you’d rather wait outside, I understand.”

John stared at him. He was silent as an air of stiff hesitation grew and wavered between them. John stood and stared at Sherlock as people moved around them like water around stones, some shooting them curious looks. Largely, they were ignored, which Sherlock was grateful for. He stood perfectly still, refusing to look away from John’s face as Sherlock let him work through his thoughts. 

After a long, speechless moment, John’s eyes rose. They darted over Sherlock’s shoulder, back to the building. Jaw clenching, his fingers flexing at his sides, John shook his head.

“No. It’s fine. I’ll come inside.” His gaze shifted to Sherlock’s face and lingered before darting to the consulate again. “It’s fine,” he repeated, sounding less convinced than before.

Clearing his throat, Sherlock nodded. “Yes,” he agreed, “it will.” He hoped his voice sounded more confident than he felt. Without giving John a chance for further uncertainty, Sherlock turned on his heel and strode toward the entrance. After a moment, he heard John follow.

They reached the bottom of the stairs, and John paused again. He stood there with both of their duffles slung over his shoulders, eyeing the second floor with a frown. “Wait,” he said, hand curling tight around the strap of his bag, “I can’t go in there. They’ll have metal detectors. I can’t go in, not with the guns.”

Sherlock paused. He considered John’s words and was forced to admit that he was right. With the two large, bulky bags, and the healing cut on his face, John stuck out like a sore thumb. Even without his luggage, every inch of his tense posture and wary eyes screamed suspect — paired with Sherlock’s bruises and unsteady gait, they’d draw too much attention. Even if they managed not to, they couldn’t hope to hide the firearms. The moment John walked inside, their bags would light up the metal detectors and paint immediate targets on their backs.

“Right.” Sherlock frowned at the building, frustrated that he hadn’t thought of the guns himself. It was an apparent oversight on his part, an obvious sign that he wasn’t on his game. His head still throbbed from the lingering concussion and too little sleep over too many days, and Sherlock felt slow. Without John’s quick thinking, they might have strode right into a jail cell in a foreign country, no one but themselves to blame.

Somehow, Sherlock doubted even Mycroft’s substantial influence could reach them from behind bars.

He looked back at John, who was eyeing the stairs with his lips pursed. John’s gaze shifted to him, and some of the tension in his face eased. Whatever he saw there seemed to soften some of his own weariness. Maybe it was the humanity of Sherlock’s slowed mind or the evidence of his fallacy — or, perhaps, Sherlock was being sentimentally pedantic and should focus on the task at hand.

“I didn’t think about that,” Sherlock admitted. He couldn’t seem to help the apologetic tone in his voice.

To his credit, John didn’t let Sherlock dwell on the lapse. He just nodded and shrugged the bags higher on his shoulders. “Benefit of teamwork, I suppose.” He sounded amused, but the wry edge to his words was strained. “I’ll wait over there.” John pointed at a bench down the road, set outside a shop.

Sherlock glanced toward the bench and frowned. Catching his dubious expression, John sighed.

“If we’re going to work together, then you’re going to have to learn how to trust me at some point.”

Sherlock narrowed his eyes. He still felt a lingering reluctance but managed a stiff nod. “Of course. I do. Trust you, that is.” The statement rang a little false, and Sherlock cleared his throat. He felt uncomfortably flustered, seeking out a way to redirect the moment. “Just… let me get my identification.” Sherlock stepped forward and dug into his bag. John held still, looking at the consulate over Sherlock’s bent head until Sherlock retrieved the appropriate documents and stepped away. Slipping them out of sight in his pocket, he glanced at the bench before looking back at John. “I won’t be long.”

“Alright,” John said briskly. He hesitated only a moment, staring hard at Sherlock until he turned and marched away. His posture was stiff and military-sharp at first, easing seconds later into a casual saunter that helped him blend into the crowd. Despite the heavy bags on his shoulders, the bruises and cuts on his face, John looked like he might be a simple tourist, admiring the views. He kept his pace slow and unhurried, pausing briefly to consult a map he snagged from a brochure rack outside a store. Sherlock watched him sidle through the people on the sidewalk.

He didn’t move until he saw John firmly in place on the bench, and even then, the lingering uncertainty he felt refused to disappear. Sherlock was reluctant to let him out of his sight, worried he might not be there when Sherlock needed him to be. He couldn’t shake the feeling that John wouldn’t still be on the bench when Sherlock returned from the consulate.

But John was right. If they were going to work together from this point on, he needed to learn to trust him. Maybe not without prejudice, but Sherlock could at least make an attempt. If he started now, perhaps it would become instinctive.

Double-checking that his identification was where it should be, Sherlock straightened his shirt, turned his back on John, and mounted the stairs.

 


                                                     

John's anxiety on the bus ride to the consulate was nothing compared to how he felt when he walked away from Sherlock. Leaving him to enter the consulate on his own, unarmed and alone, made John uneasy. It might be an echo from their recent ambush or the way Sherlock still seemed unsteady on his feet.

Whatever it was, it refused to dissipate. Even when John forced himself into the unassuming posture of a casual tourist, the agitation lingered beneath the facade. It pulled his muscles tight and his spine rigid, sending uncomfortable ripples of tension through his body.

Rationally, he knew that Sherlock would probably be fine. John doubted his brother would send Sherlock into a lion’s den, and Sherlock had seemed confident that the emails were from Mycroft. His worries would, most likely, prove to be unfounded.

But still, they lingered.

He tried to release some of the nervous energy in his body by jiggling his foot against the pavement. But the motion was a dead giveaway for his nervousness, a suspicious way of drawing attention, and he forced himself to stop. He reminded himself that he was close enough to react if anything went wrong. At a run, he could gain the bottom of the steps in seconds; reach the top in a few more. He could have his gun in hand and firing before he even cleared the top step if need be.

If. That was the keyword, one John needed to grasp and keep hold of. He had a clear view of the stairs leading inside the consulate, even through the milling people. He was a good shot — a fantastic shot, if he was honest. If anyone entered the consulate who seemed slightly suspicious, John could take them down without breaking a sweat. It wouldn’t do much to keep their low profile if he made his stand here on a crowded street, but John knew he could do it if necessary.

What was harder to understand was the conviction he felt. Because John knew he wouldn’t hesitate if he saw anyone approach the consulate who looked even remotely like they might harm Sherlock. The sheer level of dedication to protecting his former mark struck John as abnormal. But there it was, and he found he couldn’t be bothered to shake it off. To do so would be to go back on his word, to disregard his request that Sherlock trust him.

And John wanted Sherlock to trust him. Ached for it with the same intensity that he ached for a night of proper sleep. His need to keep Sherlock safe, to gain and keep his trust, warred with the exhausted, wary edge of John’s eroding desire for solitude. It wore away at his natural predisposition toward isolation. It forced John to admit that Sherlock had managed what no one else had since Afghanistan: to make himself a priority in the mind of a dangerous, lonely man.

Sherlock had managed to work his way beneath John’s skin. And, after years alone, it seemed that John was changing. By agreeing to stay with Sherlock, he’d rediscovered a fierce loyalty within himself. It wasn’t something John would have thought he was still capable of, but there it was.

And he couldn’t seem to shake it off.

He’d meant to escape on his own before all this. Now, John struggled to fathom how he could bring himself to do so. Even the idea of Bali seemed suddenly unattainable. Undesirable. Staying here, figuring out Sherlock’s next steps, didn’t sound like the risk John had initially identified it as when Sherlock first suggested John accompany him beyond Morocco. Though the decision was still hard to accept, John had made it in a sound mind. Had made his decision and would keep it. He wouldn’t go back now, at least not until they were safely out of Morocco. He’d been afraid of the consulate, imagined he could only be arrested if he stepped foot inside, yet had been set to do so despite his uneasiness.

In the end, he’d been able to avoid his fear with a valid reason, even if sitting just down the street still made him wary.

Perched on the bench and watching people pass by, John realized that, had he analyzed his motives sooner, he might have pinpointed the moment when his internal identity began to shift. Without that awareness, he could only guess at the timeframe. Somewhere along the way, John began to change. Even if it was temporary, John couldn’t help but think the shift had been set in motion the second he first looked into Sherlock’s eyes.

The realization was startling. With it came an uncomfortable potential for vulnerability. Now, John wasn’t only looking out for himself. He was looking out for Sherlock, for both of them, and no longer out of obligation.

Now, the danger at their backs held a double threat: John’s own life, as well as Sherlock’s.

The risk of capture lingered. With Sherlock and his mysterious brother's protection, John’s odds of making it out of the country alive were decidedly improved. As much as John knew he was better off with Sherlock than without, he still couldn’t conceive of remaining with him indefinitely. No matter this new, fierce sense of protectiveness, John would, ultimately, be forced to choose. To choose between his freedom and Sherlock. He would still have to leave. But it was better to wait, to hear out the next part of a plan John had little chance of influencing. Without knowing their next steps, without holding the cards himself, John must wait until the pieces of the puzzle were revealed. Until then, he would stick with Sherlock: do his best to trust him. Once they were out of the country, then John could run. Once Sherlock was safe, out of Morocco and off to wherever his mission might lead him next, John could turn his mind to escape.

His earlier conviction was gone. Now, it was much harder to convince himself that leaving was the right decision. But it had to be. Staying with Sherlock would only lead him back into the United Kingdom, and John had no intention of letting that happen. Still, his mind wondered what it would be like to stick it out. To let Sherlock lead him onward. To follow Sherlock away from his current life and into something new.

John wondered what that might look like. His mind turned in a direction he knew better than to encourage; turned toward bared skin and a shared life. To the familiarity of knowing another down to the bone and letting himself be understood the same way.

“Jesus, Watson,” he muttered, leaning back against the bench and tilting his face upward, “get a hold of yourself. This is only temporary.”

He pushed the idle musings aside with a fierce grimace. Fantasy was all well and good until it became too large to contain within his mind. John couldn’t afford to lose his rational view of the situation.

Sherlock wasn’t his friend: he wasn’t some prospective love interest, a hot fuck in a crowded club. He was a dangerous man, formerly an enemy — an ally only through necessity. He only needed John now because of the danger they shared. When they were out of Morocco, all of that would fall away, and John would no longer serve a purpose in Sherlock’s life.

The thought was a sombre reminder that John would be alone again soon enough. Depending on Sherlock’s phone call with his brother, the ticking clock on their partnership may very well be measured in days, if not hours. John wouldn’t know until Sherlock returned, and he forced himself to relax.

Trying to distract himself, John rubbed a hand over his jaw, still annoyed that he hadn’t yet had a chance to shave. The rough stubble was closer to a beard now, covering the lower half of his face in an itchy red-and-brown growth. He scratched at the growing hair, winced, and dropped his hand.

A beard wasn’t a bad idea. When he was back on his own, looking out for no one but himself again, a beard would go a long way to helping him hide. Beards were common in the area, and John wouldn’t look out of place with one. Better yet, it would change his face and provide some level of anonymity, at least from a distance.

Dragging his nails through the coarse hair, John wondered how long he could go without shaving it before the itchy growth drove him mad. Still, it was an idea that had merit. Maybe, once Sherlock returned and outlined his brother’s plan, John could make a decision.

He’d need all the help he could get once he was back on his own.

 


 

Walking into the consulate without John had Sherlock feeling far too exposed. Without John at his back, he was struck by the need to repeatedly check behind him as he walked through the lobby. Even with the probable safety extended to him by Mycroft’s influence within the consulate, Sherlock couldn't afford to forget that he was not truly on British soil.

He would do well to stay alert.

After only a brief stop at the metal detectors and security, Sherlock strode to the front desk with a confident pace. A middle-aged man sat behind it. His focus was on the computer in front of him, a small frown marring his brow. His skin was white and, when he looked up at Sherlock’s approach, Sherlock’s eyes darted over his face and clothing.

There was a small mustard stain on his collar. Sherlock narrowed his eyes. Without waiting for the man to greet him, he glanced at his nameplate and said, “Hello, Mr. Graves. I need to make a phone call." He had a strong feeling the name was fake.

‘Mr. Graves’ narrowed his eyes at Sherlock over his computer. “Our phone isn’t for public use,” he replied, his accent thickly Yorkshire.

Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “I assure you that I am not the public.”

He received a sharp look. Sitting back, the man favoured Sherlock with his full attention. When he spoke, his voice was cautious. “I’m sure any one of the cafes down the road will have a phone, sir. Perhaps one of those will suffice?”

His upper lip curling back, Sherlock bared his teeth. He meant it to be a smile, but judging by Mr. Graves’ widening eyes, it wasn’t even close to friendly. Ignoring the reaction, Sherlock leaned forward and dropped his palms on the counter, lowering his voice once the distance between them disappeared. "They most certainly will not suffice." Mr. Graves leaned back slightly, eyeing Sherlock with unease. Sherlock saw his hand inching toward the edge of his desk. With little doubt that he was reaching for a button to call security, Sherlock said, “My name is Sigerson. If you check your records, I believe I am scheduled for a phone call here at 15:00. Sharp.”

He popped his lips on the p, making the man wince before stiffening in response to Sherlock’s words. Graves’ throat bobbed in a tight swallow. “Sigerson, you said?”

Sherlock nodded. His sharp smile softened into something less feral. “I did. Ringing any bells?”

Mr. Graves pursed his lips, a hint of colour rising in his pale face. “Ah, yes. Actually, sir, I think you’re right.” He moved to stand, hesitated, and flashed Sherlock a wary glance. “Sorry, sir, but may I see your ID?” His expression turned painfully apologetic. “Can’t be too careful, sir.”

“Of course,” Sherlock hummed, pitching his voice into a low, public-school purr. He was familiar with the game being played. Even dressed in simple clothes as he was, with bruises marking his face and a cut on his lip, Sherlock knew how to pull on the persona of upper-class wealth and landed gentry. Posh boy, indeed. Sherlock was just glad that John wasn’t present to witness the moment — he had a feeling he’d never let Sherlock forget it.

Shaking the thought aside and reminding himself to focus, Sherlock held up his index finger. “One moment, please.” He accepted the man’s nod and pulled his passport out of his pocket. Flipping to the identification pages, he handed it over with a stiff smile.

There was a photo with the name Callum Sigerson beneath and a date of birth different from Sherlock's. Thankful that the alias wasn’t one that required him to wear contacts or change his accent, Sherlock waited as Mr. Graves studied the documentation, checked something on his computer, and handed it back with a nod.

“Everything looks to be in order, Mr. Sigerson. My apologies for the delay.” Graves’ teeth flashed in a quick, tense smile, and he gestured to a hallway off the main lobby. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll see you to an office where you may take your call.”

Sherlock accepted the passport and returned it to his pocket before refocusing on the man. “Much obliged.”

“Of course, sir.” Another terse smile, there and gone. “If you’ll follow me.”

Sherlock nodded and moved to do so, but not before he paused and glanced at the entrance. Though he had no chance of seeing John from his vantage point down the street, Sherlock checked all the same. He felt a brief flicker of doubt and hoped John would still be waiting for him just as he’d said he would be.

“Are you coming, Mister Sigerson?”

Mr. Graves’ words pulled Sherlock from his hesitation. “Yes. My apologies.” Taking a moment to shake off the uneasy feeling and reminding himself to trust John just as he’d asked John to trust him, Sherlock turned and followed the man down the indicated hallway.

He showed Sherlock into a small office. “Here you are, sir. I hope the space will suffice.”

“It’s fine,” Sherlock replied in an apparent dismissal.

“Happy to hear, sir,” Graves said, sounding anything but. With one last nod, he left, the door creaking behind him when it closed.

Sherlock looked around the room with disinterest. It was drab and utilitarian. The space was hardly more than a glorified closet, and he huffed in annoyance at the cramped area. After the small hotel rooms, the narrow, too short beds, Sherlock ached for space. With any luck, Mycroft would soon be able to provide far better accommodations than he’d been reliant on as of late. Maybe, with a top-up to his spending funds, he and John wouldn’t be forced to share a room again.

An odd disappointment accompanied the consideration, and Sherlock pushed it away at once. It wouldn’t do to focus on such thoughts. Not now, when he had a task to complete. Perhaps later, if at all. Sherlock abhorred sentiment at the best of times, but the idea behind his idle thought might deserve consideration.

With the thought of shared hotel beds banished for the moment, Sherlock sank into a hard wooden chair. The stiff back dug into his shoulders, making him squirm as Sherlock stared at the phone on the desk. He eyed it without blinking, settled and waiting. After thirty seconds passed, each tick of passing time counted out, Sherlock’s eyes darted to the clock on the wall. It was two minutes to three. Hands settled flat on the desk, Sherlock drummed his fingers against the fake wooden surface. Eyes turning back on the phone, he continued to wait.

The remainder of the minute passed by, painfully endless, the one after just as long. Sherlock had never been an exceptionally patient man, and the waiting was unbearable. With the idea of John abandoning him while he was otherwise preoccupied lingering in his thoughts, Sherlock clenched his jaw and stared harder at the landline. The clock ticked over to three o’clock. Sherlock stiffened. He narrowed his eyes, willing the phone to ring.

It remained silent.

“Come on, Mycroft,” he muttered, digging his nails against his thigh. “You’re always so insufferably on time for everything, don’t slip up now.” His brother was punctual to a fault and had been his entire life. It had irked Sherlock over the years, and it filled him with buzzing frustration now that Mycroft appeared to be late.

The clock dragged to one minute past, and the phone rang. Jumping at the sudden noise in the shattered silence, Sherlock seized the receiver. Before the speaker even connected with his ear, he was snapping, “You were almost a full minute late, Mycroft. You’re slipping.”

The reply was crisp and curt, “Almost a full minute, brother mine. Do please stop being so dramatic.”

“That’s what I said,” Sherlock managed through his teeth. As always, his brother’s voice had him immediately on the edge of a full-blown strop. Even in the dire situation in which he found himself, Sherlock couldn’t resist the urge to poke the proverbial bear. “What kept you, Mycroft?” he sneered, lips curling in a spiteful little smirk. “Did you indulge in too many carbs and fall asleep at your desk again?”

Mycroft sighed in his ear. Sherlock could imagine the accompanying eye roll with ease. “As charming as your little comments are, Sherlock, I thought you were in danger. Now hardly seems the time for your sniping.” Mycroft’s voice turned simpering. “Or is this not really an emergency?” Sherlock could almost hear Mycroft perking up with interest on the other end, one brow no doubt rising in a display of sardonic amusement. “Could it be that you missed me?”

Sherlock scowled. “Are pigs flying?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” came the blasé response.

“Hmm.” Sherlock tapped a finger to his bottom lip, letting the hum draw out. “Then, I think, no.”

Mycroft sighed again. “A pity.” When he next spoke, his voice was clipped. Right to the point, just like always. Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Tell me what happened.”

Sherlock’s scowl deepened, and he drummed his fingers against the desk. “I’ve been compromised.” Before he could elaborate, his brother interrupted.

“Clearly.”

Sherlock closed his eyes and prayed for a level of patience he knew was impossible. His jaw clenched tighter, hard enough that he heard a little pop at the hinge. “Are you going to let me explain or not?”

Mycroft’s amused smirk was almost audible. “Of course, dear brother.” He turned serious once more. “Please, start from the beginning.”

Eyes still closed, fingers still restlessly tapping out the cadence of a favoured violin composition, Sherlock gathered his thoughts. When he finally spoke, his fingers stilled. “I can’t be certain of the exact moment, but Moriarty’s people must have realized I was the one taking out their high-ranking members. I don’t know if it happened before Morocco, but they knew enough to find me here. They sent someone after me.”

“A hitman?”

Sherlock opened his eyes and blinked at the far wall. “Something like that.” At his brother’s pensive silence, he conceded, “A mercenary.”

“Did you kill him?” The question was sharp.

Sherlock squinted down at his hands, choosing his words with care. “No. It’s… complicated.” He cleared his throat. “I won’t get into it now.”

A tense silence followed. Shifting in his seat, Sherlock waited for his brother’s reply. He gnawed on his lower lip until Mycroft snapped, “Stop that. I hate it when you chew your lip. The sound is disgusting.”

Sherlock stopped with a scowl. His hands clenched tightly together until the knuckles went white, but he held his tongue.

“Go on,” Mycroft said once he’d quit.

“I escaped what would have been my pick-up and, likely, summary execution,” Sherlock continued. He scraped at a strip of peeling varnish on the edge of the desk. “I fled and was followed to Nador. I managed to escape again but had no choice but to travel back to Tétouan and retrieve my belongings. We were ambushed by two men but managed to escape.”

“We?”

Sherlock winced, cursing himself for the slip. “Yes.” He hesitated, frowning at his hands on the desk. “I am no longer travelling on my own.”

“Sherlock, who—” Mycroft’s voice cut off, the sudden silence making Sherlock’s body tense with anxiety. He imagined that he could hear the gears turning in Mycroft’s mind as his brother put the pieces together. Mycroft had always been the smarter out of the two of them. He was quicker than Sherlock and now was no different.

“The mercenary.” It was a statement. Mycroft wasn’t seeking clarification; he was confident of the answer. “Sherlock, what have you done?”

Eyes still on his hands, Sherlock quietly replied, “I need him.”

“You can’t trust a mercenary, Sherlock!” Mycroft’s rebuke was severe, and Sherlock bristled. His hand curled into a tight fist, nails pressing hard into his palm.

“He saved my life,” he snapped, pushing the words through his teeth, “and not just once.” Forcing his tone to soften, Sherlock aimed for a different tactic. “I can’t do this on my own, Mycroft. Not anymore, not now they’ve realized I’m alive. It was possible before when I had the element of surprise. But now they know I’m here. They know what I look like, know my aliases. If I try to finish this alone, I won’t succeed.” Closing his eyes, his voice quieted, grew earnest as he tried to make his brother see the logic in his decisions. “I need to finish what I’ve started. Otherwise, I can never return to London. And Joh — the mercenary,” Sherlock cursed himself again at the second slip, “he’s the key to my success.”

“So, you’re using him, then?”

Sherlock winced at the hard statement. Not because it was incorrect, but because it was closer to the truth than he cared to admit. Yes, he was using John, just as he’d used countless others to reach his goals. But even with the reality of that admission, it wasn’t just that. He needed John, yes, but Sherlock also wanted him.

It was entirely different, and Sherlock refused to explain that to his brother. Not now, when Mycroft was already uneasy about Sherlock’s choice of alliance.

His breath hissing out in a ragged sigh, Sherlock said, “Yes.” The lie slipped easily from his lips, believable and far too casual. He wasn’t stupid enough to think Mycroft actually believed it but hoped his brother might give him the benefit of the doubt.

Mycroft’s silence was deafening. He was quiet for so long that, if not for the subtle crackle of distance over the line, Sherlock might have thought the call had disconnected.

When he could bear it no longer, he said, “Mycroft. Trust me.” A sigh answered his words. The sound of it made Sherlock grin. His shoulders dropped, the tension easing from his rigid spine as he realized he’d prevailed. “Thank you.”

Mycroft’s reply sounded like it emerged from a clenched jaw. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Sherlock.”

“I do.” Sherlock lied. He unfolded his fingers carefully, grimacing at the indentations left in his palm by his nails. He hadn’t broken the skin, but the marks still stung. “For the record, I trust him.”

He heard the creak of a chair as Mycroft shifted. “I don’t think you need me to tell you how moronic that is.”

“I don’t,” Sherlock agreed in a harsh voice. “Now — tell me how to get out of Morocco.”

“Of course.” A low sigh echoed through the line, and Sherlock listened to the brief rustling of papers before Mycroft spoke again. “There is a ferry from Tanger Med to Gibraltar. Take it. I have a safe house in Gibraltar where you can regroup.” Mycroft paused. “Will you be…” he cleared his throat and started again. “Will the mercenary be accompanying you?”

Sherlock gripped the phone tighter, knuckles turning white around the receiver. “Yes.” He willed the slight waver out of his tone. “He will.”

“Again, Sherlock: I hope you know what you’re doing. If your trust is misplaced…”

Sherlock interrupted in a firm voice, “It’s not.”

He heard Mycroft’s incredulous huff.

“Sherlock, I cannot guarantee your safety until you are back on British soil.”

“I’m well aware,” Sherlock snapped, piqued by his brother’s lack of faith in who Sherlock chose to trust. “Just get us to the safehouse and leave the rest to me, Mycroft.”

His brother made a frustrated noise but conceded. After years of battling with Sherlock, he knew when a fight was pointless. Sherlock had been counting on that fact and was relieved to find the old patterns repeated now.

“Very well,” Mycroft sighed, worn down by Sherlock’s unwavering conviction. “I’ll have one of my aides call ahead to make sure there aren’t any issues with the border crossing. You’ll have to get to the ferry on your own, but I will have a car waiting for you on the other side. It will take you — both of you — to the safe house.” Mycroft’s voice turned hard. “But, if this man is going to accompany you, then I reserve the right to look into him.”

“Do what you like,” Sherlock said, still riding the high of besting his brother. “It makes no difference to me.” John might have a different view, but Sherlock would cross that bridge when it came. Listening to his brother’s breathing on the other end of the line, Sherlock cleared his throat and added, “And… thank you, Mycroft.” He received silence and shrugged.

When Sherlock moved to hang up, Mycroft spoke again. Sherlock paused, pressing the phone to his ear again.

“Sherlock?"

“Yes, Mycroft?”

A brief pause, followed by a quiet sigh. "Do be careful.”

The sentimental statement caught Sherlock off guard. It made him uncomfortable, and he squirmed in his chair. This wasn’t their dynamic, this soft, caring lark between brothers, and he closed himself against it.

Upper lip curling back, Sherlock snapped, “Careful is boring, Mycroft,” and hung up the phone.

Chapter Text

John scanned the cliques of people passing by his bench. He paused and narrowed his eyes, spotting Sherlock from the edge of his vision as he emerged from the stairwell of the consulate. Keeping his eyes forward, John rubbed an absent hand over his jaw, scratching at his chin and pretending not to notice Sherlock’s approach. It wouldn’t do to draw too much attention to Sherlock before he was safely back at John’s side.

Sherlock dropped onto the bench next to him and crossed his legs at the knee. He did so with casual ease, slinging his arms over the backrest. His fingers brushed John’s shoulder in a fleeting touch before he curled them in toward his palms.

John glanced his way, but Sherlock was looking at the people walking past. He didn’t seem to notice the fleeting contact. To John, it felt like a brand. With the heat still fading from his skin, John cleared his throat and asked, “Did you speak to your brother?”

Sherlock’s eyes remained on the passersby. “I did.” Hands folded in his lap, he pursed his lips. One of his feet jiggled with restless energy, and John sensed he was holding something back.

He frowned and prompted, “And?”

Sherlock tipped his head to the side. He eyed John with a slight wariness. “He has a plan,” he said evasively.

Arms stretched out before him, John rubbed his palms over his thighs. His frown remained. “Is trying to get a straight answer from you always going to be like this?”

“Like what?” Sherlock asked, arching an eyebrow. He was being purposefully cagey. John didn’t appreciate it, and he sighed.

“Like pulling teeth.” He caught Sherlock’s amused little smile from the edge of his vision and suppressed his own.

“Probably.”

Another sigh from John. “Fantastic.” Tapping his hands against his thighs, he leaned forward and frowned at the ground. “So… what’s the plan, then?”

Sherlock waved a hand, fingers flicking as if their conversation contained nothing of importance. “Leaving Morocco.”

John shot him a glare. “Could have guessed that much for myself, thanks.” Straightening, he sat back and studied Sherlock’s face in profile. Sherlock continued to stare straight ahead, avoiding his direct gaze. His evasion made John uneasy. The sensation shifted into suspicion the longer Sherlock refused to explain. “You don’t want to tell me,” John said slowly. He watched Sherlock’s fingers knit together in a tense grip in his lap, and his shoulders rose as tension sang throughout his body. “Why don’t you want to tell me the plan?”

Sherlock finally looked his way. His face was hard to read, his eyes cautious. “What makes you think I don’t want to tell you?” he asked. His tone was carefully level, and John could hear the control in his words. It only increased his disquiet.

Squinting, he searched Sherlock’s face. “Sherlock,” John prompted, a hint of warning creeping into his voice, “what is your brother’s plan?”

Sherlock winced and pursed his lips before replying, “A ferry. To Gibraltar.”

John stiffened. “Gibraltar,” he repeated. He drew the word out, weighing it on his tongue, testing the flavour. It left a bitter taste in his mouth. “But Gibraltar is—”

“A British territory,” Sherlock interrupted with a nod. “Yes, it is.” He turned and fixed John with a sharp stare. It felt like being pinned in place, and John didn’t appreciate the sensation. He frowned as Sherlock added, “I don’t imagine you’re too keen to step back onto British soil.”

John narrowed his eyes, teeth clamping together as his back went rigid. How could Sherlock know that? Was John that obvious? He opened his mouth to ask, but Sherlock beat him to the punch. He answered John’s question before he even had the chance to give voice to it.

“It’s obvious.” Sherlock’s tone was deceptively smooth, unperturbed. Only his hands, still clasped in a tight grip within his lap, betrayed his nerves. “You’ve been a mercenary for, what? Two years or so?”

The way Sherlock laid out his past with such ease made John jolt with surprise. He nodded jerkily in agreement, and Sherlock continued. He looked almost pleased with himself. 

“You’re smart enough to realize that the British government likely knows of your career. It stands to reason they may have marked you a liability.” The corner of Sherlock’s mouth quirked with a brief flicker of dark amusement. “After all, you were a soldier, and one injured in a criminal event within your own ranks. It’s unlikely they’d let you just disappear without at least attempting to keep tabs on your doings.” He shrugged, waving a hand as if the simple gesture could dismiss the severity of the situation.

John sat statue-still, letting the words wash over him as Sherlock voiced his worst fears.

But Sherlock, it seemed, wasn’t quite finished. “It’s only logical that you’d worry about what might happen if you set foot within British jurisdiction. Hence, your reluctance to enter the consulate.” Sherlock favoured John with an evaluating glance, his sharp gaze raking over his tense face. “Am I wrong?”

John shook his head. With his eyes fixed on his hands where they still rested in his lap, he muttered, “No. You’re right. About all of it.” He chanced a glance, saw that Sherlock looked pleasantly surprised again, and dropped his gaze. “It does make me uneasy, you’re right. And it should. I’ve already been betrayed by my country once, and I don’t see what could possibly keep it from happening again.” John pulled in an unsteady breath and frowned. “And, while I do want to leave Morocco, I don’t see how walking from one lion’s den into another will put me in a better place than I am now.”

“Out of the frying pan and into the fire, as it were,” Sherlock mused. He sounded frustratingly unbothered by the situation. John figured he could afford not to be perturbed by the possibility of John’s arrest. If they travelled together to Gibraltar, Sherlock would be welcomed with open arms by his brother, while John might very well be led away in cuffs or shot on sight. But Sherlock would have what he wanted: he’d be out of Morocco and protected. He wouldn’t need John anymore. He was under no obligation to protect John. Why would he need to worry about John’s fate?

As if picking John’s thoughts right from his mind, Sherlock turned toward him. His hand lifted and hovered between them. Sherlock’s eyes flickered to John’s left shoulder and back to his face. After a moment, his hand dropped, and he cleared his throat. “I won’t let anything happen to you, John.”

Lips pressed into a thin line, John shook his head. “You don’t have any reason to protect me, Sherlock.” He hesitated before adding, “And I have no reason to believe that you would.”

Sherlock’s expression looked pained. “I need you to trust me, John,” he said quietly.

John eyed him with evident doubt. Rubbing his hands along his thighs, he shook his head.  “You keep asking me to do that.”

Sherlock stared hard at his face. His reply was fervent. “Have I given you a reason to stop?”

It was a fair point. Looking away and clenching his hands into fists, John frowned. He saw a family crossing the street, going about their day seemingly without care. A little boy skipped ahead of his parents, his young face lit up by a bright smile. They looked carefree, happy and at peace with the world.

It wasn’t something John could relate to. He watched them for a moment before turning back to Sherlock. “No,” he said, the word dropping reluctantly from his lips. “No, you haven’t.”

Sherlock favoured him with a small smile. “Then trust me when I say that no harm will come to you in Gibraltar.”

His doubts still lingering, John pursed his lips. Instead of responding, he looked away again. He knew if he answered, what he had to say wasn’t what Sherlock wanted to hear. Still, it needed to be said. But John found he couldn’t just open his mouth and give voice to his thoughts: I can’t. I can’t trust you like that, please don’t ask me to.

Sherlock seemed to hear the unspoken words in his silence, and he narrowed his eyes. “John,” he urged. “Trust me. You did before, yes?” John offered a grudging nod, still not meeting Sherlock’s eyes. “And did I betray you?” A small headshake. Despite John’s reticence, a small, encouraging smile crept over Sherlock’s lips. He reached out again. Unlike earlier, this time there was no hint of hesitation. His hand landed on John’s arm with a firm grip.

John started at the contact and finally looked up. Sherlock caught and held his gaze. “One more time, John,” he said, earnest and fierce. “Just once more. Trust me.”

Listening to the thud of his pulse in his ears, John stared at him. Even in the face of Sherlock’s intensity, John hesitated. He’d gotten by for so long without compromising himself by trusting the wrong people. He’d vowed to rely on himself and no one else after Afghanistan. Sherlock was asking him to turn his back on everything that had kept John safe since that terrible night in the desert. It was a monumental ask, and John battled against the urge to refuse. His body buzzed with the instinctive need to escape, and he considered simply rising to his feet and walking away. Turning his back on Sherlock and finding his own way, the Colonel and his men be damned.

But the more rational side of John’s mind, the one that told him Sherlock was his best chance, was far louder. John remained, forced himself to listen. Still, he didn’t speak, and Sherlock’s brow furrowed. 

“John,” he urged, “please.” He was relentless, wearing John down with his tenacity.

It took another moment of his mind warring with his instincts before John nodded. “Alright,” he said quietly.

Sherlock grinned, immediately pleased by John’s response. To John, the moment seemed to mirror their first vowed alliance. Then, they’d been pinned down by a sniper in the desert, forced together by necessity. Now, they were sitting on a bench with people moving past them, going about their lives. There was no threat here, at least none that John could see. There was no immediate danger to unify them. The largest risk here was Sherlock himself, but John found he was taking that leap again. This time, the only protection he had was Sherlock’s word. It didn’t seem like it could possibly be enough, but John tilted his head in another curt nod.

Sherlock’s eyes gleamed. “Good, John,” he breathed, his grin fading into a calmer smile. “That’s very good.” Sherlock stood, weaving momentarily as the abrupt motion seemed to trigger a spell of vertigo.

John winced in sympathy. Sherlock’s head injury was still fresh, and it wasn’t his first. John knew Sherlock needed sleep, but instead of resting, he was working to find safety. For both of them. For John.

Sherlock’s hand was still on John’s shoulder. It lingered until Sherlock found his balance and dropped his arm back at his side. “Let’s go.”

John stood. He pulled both bags over his shoulders and frowned. “Where are we going?”

Sherlock flashed him an encouraging smile. He still looked a little scattered, and John thought he could see a twinge of pain in the creases around Sherlock’s mouth.

“Tanger Med. We have a ferry to catch.”

 


 

Compared to his restless energy on their earlier bus ride, Sherlock felt far more settled during the cab ride to Tanger Med. He was no longer possessed by the urge to fidget and rake his fingers through his hair. Sherlock would almost have considered himself calm if he didn’t now feel the need to keep a close eye on John. He had the uneasy feeling that John was still stewing over the risk of returning to British soil. He was staring straight ahead with a furrowed brow, tension radiating through his stiff posture. His face, marred by the healing cuts and bruises on his face and half-obscured by thick stubble growth, was pensive.

Despite his reassurances and earnest request for John’s continued trust, Sherlock was no fool. He was well aware of John’s trust issues. He couldn’t help but feel wary, knowing John’s past as he did. John had a good reason for his reluctance to take Sherlock at his word, and Sherlock had little faith in John’s ability to truly trust in him after a lifetime of betrayals. Winning John’s permanent trust would take far more than the work Sherlock had already put in. It would take him proving his merit through actions, not just words. And that meant keeping John close. Keeping him long enough to give Sherlock the chance to prove to John that he wouldn’t turn his back on him as so many others had.

If Sherlock could convince John that he could be trusted, John might choose to stay on his own.

The necessity of keeping John came with its own set of risks. John could turn his back on Sherlock at any time. He could flee the moment they escaped Morocco. Sherlock would have little hope of stopping him if John took it into his head to leave. Sherlock needed to prepare himself for the possibility.

For a brief moment, he was almost grateful for his brother's involvement. While Sherlock might not be able to keep John from doing a runner, Mycroft would have no such issue. Sherlock knew his brother well enough to admit that Mycroft wouldn’t just let John go. He would want to know the man who had gone from Sherlock’s enemy to ally in so short a time. The realization brought with it a pang of quiet, gnawing guilt that Sherlock struggled to force back.

He needed John. Mycroft would help him keep John. It was logical, using one’s connections as one saw fit. But the idea of using John only worsened his guilt, and Sherlock closed his eyes with a sigh. His head was hurting again, the dull hum of background pain increasing the longer he dwelled on the situation. He worked to clear his mind, hoping the pain might abate. He let the sounds around him fade away, slipping inward as he sought relief.

It was several minutes after the car came to a stop that he realized they’d arrived. Sherlock shook his head and blinked, refocusing on the present. The cab had pulled up to a curb, and John was handing their drive a handful of colourful notes.

He glanced at Sherlock, a brief flicker of concern darkening his eyes. “You alright?”

Sherlock blinked again before nodding. The gesture was stiff, careful not to exacerbate the rising din within his skull. He watched John grab their bags and slide out, and followed after. The cab pulled away, leaving them to approach the ferry terminal on foot.

Sherlock saw John eyeing the security personnel when they entered the building and crossed through the vestibule. He leaned toward Sherlock and dropped his voice. “Are the guns going to be an issue here?”

There was an edge to his words, and Sherlock shook his head. The gesture made his headache worse. Teeth gritted against the pain, he said, “No. Mycroft said he would ensure our safe passage.” Sherlock was also watching the security workers, and he offered a small smile when one man looked their way.

John frowned, brows drawing down as his face darkened. He didn’t look comforted. Sherlock couldn’t blame him for his suspicions. “Guess we’ll see how that goes,” he finally said.

They reached the customs agent. John moved forward, but the man held up a hand and glanced at the duffle bags slung over his shoulders with a suspicious gaze. John stiffened. Before he could get it in his head to flee, Sherlock sidled closer and leaned toward the man.

“Hello,” he said in the same smooth, upper-class voice he’d used at the consulate. “My name is Sigerson. Callum Sigerson. I believe there may have been a message left here for me?” Sherlock flashed a smile, trying to ignore the pain throbbing through his skull. It seemed his headache was fully awake and out for blood. He resisted the urge to wince and held the man’s gaze.

The man’s eyes widened. They darted to John then back to Sherlock, evaluating. Sherlock felt John staring at the side of his face, no doubt startled by the posh tone. Sherlock would never live down the future teasing, but needs must. He ignored the scrutiny, keeping his focus on the man. He was rewarded with a small nod.

“Yes, of course,” the man said, offering his own smile. “Welcome, Mister Sigerson.” He drew a set of keys out of his pocket. Unlocking a drawer in the desk next to him, he pulled out a slip of paper before relocating it and tucking the keys back out of sight. He slid a folded paper across the desk, holding Sherlock’s gaze. “No need to go through customs, Mister Sigerson. Your tickets have been pre-purchased, and I’ve been assured that you are to proceed forward onto the next sailing without delay.” He lifted a hand and waved one of the security guards forward. John tensed, but the man added, “Rachid will escort you to the boat.”

John relaxed, though Sherlock could still feel the tension rolling off him in waves. John eyed the approaching guard with a wary gaze, his smile small and uneasy when Rachid stopped before them and tilted his head in greeting.

Silently urging John to keep his cool, Sherlock flashed a bright smile. “Wonderful,” he said, subtly bumping John’s hip with his own and shooting him a quick glance. “I appreciate your discretion in this matter.”

“Certainly, Mister Sigerson.” The man nudged the folded paper closer, one eyebrow raised. Sherlock slipped the sheet off the desk and into his palm. “If you’ll please follow Rachid, he will make sure you do not miss your sailing.”

Sherlock thanked the man and nudged John aside. John shot him a terse look but didn’t comment despite his evident desire to. They turned and followed the security guard through the terminal in solemn silence, John's expression pensive. Rachid walked a few paces in front of them. His stride was stiff and formal, his arms swinging slowly at his sides.

He wore a gun on one hip, and Sherlock eyed it before focusing on John. He was still tense, his own pace military stiff. Sherlock sidled closer and murmured, “Relax.” He saw John’s jaw clench and dropped his voice even lower. “Come now, John. You can do better than that.” Sherlock’s statement earned him a glare, but John forcibly relaxed his posture. Sherlock heard a quiet mutter, caught the word git, and smirked.

With the easy camaraderie came a lapse in Sherlock’s careful composure, and he winced as the perpetual throb of his headache rose by a notch. He sighed and rubbed at his temples, ignoring John’s concerned expression. “Call me whatever you’d like, John,” Sherlock said, dropping his hands back to his sides with a grimace. “Just so long as you continue to trust me as we agreed.”

John heaved a sigh. His lips twisted in a bitter expression. “I said I would, didn’t I?” Shifting the bags higher on his shoulders, he shot Sherlock a frustrated look and pursed his lips. “Maybe it’s you who needs to trust me.”

Jaw clenched, Sherlock huffed. He smoothed his face into an unbothered facade and lifted a shoulder in a slow shrug. “I never said that I didn’t trust you, John.”

John’s mouth opened before he seemed to think better of speaking and closed it with a click. They lapsed into silence. The security guard, Rachid, led them forward. He seemed either unaware of or unperturbed by the tension radiating from the men behind him.

The silence continued as they were dismissed on the ferry, and Sherlock finally glanced at John. What he saw there, the slight frown between his brows, the lines around the edges of his mouth, wasn’t a comfort. Despite Sherlock’s assurance that he would keep John safe, Sherlock wondered if he wouldn’t soon be proven a liar.

For his sake — and Mycroft’s — Sherlock hoped his vow would last. If they finally escaped Morocco, only for John to be arrested by his own government, Sherlock would be forced to absorb the loss. He’d lose not only what tenuous trust he’d managed to gain between himself and John, but his potential ally. There would be no way for Sherlock to convince John to work with him if Mycroft hauled him off into custody the second they stepped foot off the ferry.

Unless… unless that was the best way to keep him. If John had it in his head to run, there was little Sherlock could do to stop him. He didn’t have the tools, the promises, to keep John from disappearing if he chose to. But Mycroft had the means — and the lack of mercy — to make John stay. But at what cost? Could Sherlock gain John just to lose him later? Was it worth the risk?

Following John through into a sitting area, Sherlock stared at his back and thought it might be. But he had no way to reach Mycroft now. No way to ask for his support. He was on his own.

Or was he? The note from Mycroft tickled his palm, reminding Sherlock of the unread message.

John took a seat. He set the duffle bags at his feet, and Sherlock dropped into the chair next to him. While John was studying the other passengers seated nearby, Sherlock unfolded the paper from the custom’s agent. The message within was short and to the point.

 

Your companion is a flight risk.

I do not plan to let him disappear.

Be prepared, brother.

 

                -M.H.

 

Sherlock stared at the message. He let the words burn into his brain, forcing the headache back as he memorized each letter. The sight of them cranked his guilt up another notch even as they filled him with an uneasy relief.

Mycroft was aware of John’s past, then. He’d no doubt figured out John’s real name and read his files. As Sherlock predicted, his brother wasn’t about to let John fade away the moment they docked in Gibraltar.

Knowing what awaited John at the end of their voyage made Sherlock uneasy. He’d asked John to trust him, and this, Mycroft’s message, felt very much like betraying him. If Sherlock told him what Mycroft planned, would John listen? Would he take Sherlock’s word that no harm would come to him if he came along to the safe house?

He looked at John. Studying his tense posture, the suspicious dart of his eyes over the other passengers, Sherlock couldn’t be certain. If he did tell John, he risked the chance of John expecting the interference. He was a dangerous man, willing to use violence if he deemed it necessary. He wouldn’t come quietly if he decided not to. There was no telling how many men Mycroft might send, but Sherlock doubted it would be a fair fight. John might very well end up injured. Or worse, shot dead for failing to back down.

After not even three full days spent in each other’s company, Sherlock couldn’t be sure of John’s loyalty to him. John had stated, time and again, that he didn’t trust easily. That he preferred to work on his own. They were only still together because it was the best chance for John to escape Morocco. Once they reached Gibraltar, no amount of pleading or manipulation on Sherlock’s part would keep John with him if John decided he wanted to leave. He saw that now. Mycroft’s message, his reinforcement of what Sherlock already suspected, solidified that fear. John would run. It was an irrefutable fact that he would, and Sherlock felt another flicker of relief knowing Mycroft wouldn’t let him. With the feeling came more guilt, his head throbbing with the stress of it.

He couldn’t tell John the plan, he decided. If he did, John may very well doom himself before Sherlock had a chance to explain why he needed him. Even if the guilt of keeping Mycroft’s plan to himself burned an ulcer through Sherlock’s stomach, he would keep it. He rationalized that the decision was the right one, made with John’s safety in mind.

Sherlock found he could almost believe it if he tried hard enough. Almost.

He folded the paper into a small, neat square and shoved it into his pocket. Hands steepled together beneath his chin, he closed his eyes and waited for the pain to ease.

 


 

This was it. Sherlock’s return to British soil had arrived, far earlier than John could have anticipated. The reality of the situation drastically moved up John’s escape timeline. He’d thought it might be months before he was forced to make such a split-second decision about their partnership. Now, it seemed he would have to react far sooner than planned. To have to make that choice now, to have it foisted upon him without warning, felt like a cruel joke.

Just hours after agreeing to work with Sherlock, John was already planning to break his word. Even if he’d spent the past few years as a man loyal to no one but himself, John was reluctant to break his vow so soon.

But needs must. John had his own promises to keep, promises made to himself in the aftermath of unlikely survival. They were crucial vows, ones that kept him safe. Kept John alive. He’d told himself he wouldn’t follow Sherlock back onto British soil, and he’d meant it. Accompanying him to the consulate had been far too close to breaking his own rules. John had to draw the line somewhere, and here was the time for it. He’d told Sherlock he would stay as long as it took to escape Morocco. John had no obligation to remain past the moment they docked in Gibraltar. Sherlock knew this. John had been clear.

Still, it was difficult to actually imagine leaving. There was always that reluctance to actually go, lingering like a bitter taste in John's mouth.

From the moment he dropped into his seat, John felt uneasy. The sensation remained through the rumble of the engines and the safety announcements. He glanced at Sherlock, saw his face was tight with pain, and felt his reluctance grow.

John forced the feeling back. He folded his hands in his lap and sank deeper into a perturbed reverie as the ferry struck out into the Strait of Gibraltar. His eyes dropped to their bags.

Their firearms rested inside the duffles set between John’s spread feet. Staring at them, John felt the absence of his Sig like a missing limb. In his agitated state, he ached to have it in his hand; ached for its steady, familiar comfort. John was far too aware of its absence, the sensation feeding his anxiety. It wasn’t long before he began to fidget, bouncing a leg when the rising tension grew too large to contain in stillness.

A sigh rushing out through his teeth, Sherlock shot him an annoyed glare. “Sit still,” he hissed. John ignored him, his leg continuing its jiggling bounce, and Sherlock huffed. He reached out and dropped his hand on John’s knee. “Stop.”

The unexpectedness of the gesture made John jolt. His head swivelled toward Sherlock, and his leg fell still.

“Thank god,” Sherlock muttered. A frown creased his forehead, and he stiffened as he seemed to realize what he’d done. His hand lingered, his eyes on his fingers where they gripped John’s knee. John, still frozen, stared at his impassive face until Sherlock’s cheeks flared with colour. His eyes shifted away, and he released John’s knee. His hand landed back in his own lap as Sherlock cleared his throat. Some of the flush in his face faded, though twin spots of colour lingered high on his cheekbones.

Still startled by the contact, John released a quick breath. Some of the shock melted away with the exhale, enough to let him consider the unexpected moment. He felt Sherlock looking at him, and John favoured him with a long, amused look. Sherlock stared back at him with pursed lips before looking away.

Maybe John wasn’t the only one feeling some semblance of attraction within their dynamic. Though John knew precious little about Sherlock’s views on relationships, he was glad for the man’s show of restraint. John’s own dry spell stretched out behind him, a vivid reminder of how just long it had been since John felt the intimate touch of another human being.

Hands clasped, John looked at the other passengers. His gaze unfocused, his mind wandering. With a determined end-date on their still-fresh partnership, John couldn’t allow himself to slip now. Sherlock was demonstrating a restraint that John himself needed to echo, now more than ever. This close to leaving, John needed to keep his head. He would continue to keep his distance and, once the ferry docked in Gibraltar, he would slip away. It would have been easier if he'd fled in Tangier while Sherlock slept, but John knew he could still do it. Now, he had no choice. And it would be easy. There would be the rush of passengers disembarking the ferry. John could disappear into the flow before Sherlock even realized he was gone.

The simple relief of a concrete plan eased some of John’s disquiet. Never mind that he’d failed to keep to any of his previous plots, it still helped to have one now. This time, he would follow through. He had little choice in the matter, now that they would be on British soil once the ferry docked. It didn’t matter that Gibraltar was a British overseas territory. John was still unnerved by the fact that he’d soon be back within the Commonwealth.

He would to well to show restraint and keep his distance. It would make his disappearance that much easier. Sherlock would be back under the protection of his brother, and John could leave with a clear conscience. He would travel into Spain, keep moving until he had an entire country between himself and Gibraltar. Between himself and Sherlock, with his powerful, dangerous brother. John could travel through France, into Germany. From there, he could go anywhere. Maybe he could still go to Bali.

Or maybe not. If Sherlock decided John was worth pursuing, he’d remember John mentioning Bali. Though John doubted Sherlock would bother to track him down, the possibility couldn’t be ignored. John was too meticulous to overlook the chance, and Bali was a known location.

Maybe Finland, John thought. He stared at the empty seat across from him with unfocused eyes. Helsinki could be interesting. He’d never been. Why not go now? Maybe the betrayal of his employers was a blessing in disguise, a chance to explore the world on his own terms.

John found himself thinking he would have preferred a blessing that involved less torture. The thought brought a wry smile to his face, and he schooled it away before Sherlock noticed. He seemed lost in his own head, his eyes closed with pain radiating through his expression.

Refocusing, John began to plot his next steps. He should acquire a new passport and identity. It shouldn’t be impossible to do, even if his employers had their fingers busy in most of the fraud-based operations. Though he’d learned how to disappear from the Colonel, John was always up for a challenge. He almost looked forward to giving his former employer the slip. Tired as he was, John welcomed the task before him.

Tension easing further, John stretched out his legs, arms rising over his head as he worked a kink from his back. He glanced at Sherlock again and saw him staring pensively at nothing. With his hands folded together under his chin, steepled fingertips just barely brushing his lower lip, he looked like a man lost in prayer. His mouth moved silently, brow furrowed over his unfocused eyes. John was reluctant to interrupt, but he needed a timeline.

He gently nudged Sherlock’s arm with his elbow, making him start. Dropping his hands, Sherlock turned toward him. “What?”

“How long until we arrive in Gibraltar?”

Sherlock fixed him with a calculating gaze. His eyes narrowed, flickering over John’s face. With his lips pursed, pain lingering around his mouth, he said, “A little under two hours.”

John nodded and settled back into his chair. “Alright.” He wiggled into the cushion and ignored Sherlock’s suspicious expression.

A little under two hours until they docked. A little longer until John made his escape. John didn’t know the terminal's layout, where the road might be, or the best way to escape. He would just have to rely on crowd cover and take it from there. It meant more thinking on his feet, but John was nothing if not adaptable when the need arose.

He shifted a leg, and his boot bumping into Sherlock’s duffle. Looking down at the bag on the ground next to his own, John frowned. Sherlock was still concussed. He was vulnerable and unsteady, couldn’t even carry his own equipment. John couldn’t make a clean escape if he had to force Sherlock to take his duffle before running. Sherlock would pick up on the odd nature of the request at once. John would be caught before he took so much as a step into the crowd.

Keeping his tone casual, he asked, “How are you feeling?”

Sherlock’s head came up at once. His hands, once more folded beneath his chin, dropped into his lap. The look he turned onto John was searching, and John cursed Sherlock’s instinctive observational capabilities.

“Why?”

John lifted one shoulder in a small half-shrug. “Just wondering.” He forced a wry smile onto his face and added, “Maybe I’m tired of carrying your bag as well as my own.” He hoped the slight jibe would make Sherlock retreat, sidetracking his apparent suspicion.

No such luck.

His upper body twisting around to face him, Sherlock fixed his searching gaze on John’s face. “You sound odd. Why do you sound odd?” His eyes roved over John’s body and settled on his fingers where they fidgeted on his knee. John forced them still, but it was too late to hide his nervousness. Sherlock turned the full focus of his razor-sharp gaze back to his face. “John?”

Feeling like he was about to be dissected, John cleared his throat and crossed his legs. “No idea. I think I sound fine.”

Sherlock’s eyes narrowed to slits. The intensity of his regard made John squirm. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

John looked away. He hoped a lack of eye contact might alleviate some of the ferocity of Sherlock’s stare, to no avail. If anything, the sensation of Sherlock’s gaze burning into the side of his skull was far worse than meeting his scrutiny head-on. Never one to back down from a challenge, John turned back and met his stare. Chin lifting in a defiant jut, he said, “I don’t need to share every single thought that passes through my head with you. You don’t get that right.”

His words hit their target, Sherlock jerking back as if from a physical blow. Surprise flickered over his face before his expression closed off. It was an echo of their bus ride into Tétouan when John had shut down Sherlock’s small attempt at kindness with reactive cruelty. To have the moment repeated, to see Sherlock react the same now as he had then, triggered gnawing guilt. It wasn’t Sherlock’s fault that John was antsy. He was right to be suspicious, even if John needed him not to be. He shouldn’t take it out on him.

“Fine.” Sherlock’s voice was clipped and curt. He faced forward again, and John eyed his posture. His back was rigid, his mouth tense.

John sighed. One step forward, two steps back, he thought with a rueful twitch of his lips. You can do better, Watson.

Eyes closing, John let his breath hiss out through his teeth. He knew what he needed to say, but it was still a struggle to give voice to the apology. When he finally did, his tone emerged strained, releasing a strangled little, “Sorry.”

Sherlock’s head came up. He turned toward him so fast that John imagined he could hear the protest in Sherlock’s neck muscles. “What?”

You heard me, John thought in annoyance. This wasn’t easy for him — couldn’t Sherlock see that? Judging by the small, bemused frown marking Sherlock’s brow, he couldn’t. For such an observant man, the things Sherlock missed were almost comical. Or, maybe John wasn’t the only one who was shite at expressing his emotions.

John cleared his throat and offered a stiff nod. “I said, I’m sorry. Alright?”

The frown remained as Sherlock stared at him. Gradually, he nodded, and some of the tension melted out of his body. “Apology accepted.”

“Alright,” John repeated in a stiff voice. “Yeah. Uh, good.” He fiddled with his sleeve, forced himself to stop, and breathed out a heavy exhale. “How much longer?”

“An hour and twenty minutes,” came the prompt reply. Sherlock still sounded reserved, but he no longer looked like he’d been carved of stone.

“Okay.” John uncrossed his legs. His boot nudged against his duffle again, and he narrowed his eyes at the bags.

There were still obstacles to address in his escape plan. With Sherlock on high alert, attuned to John’s agitation, John knew he had little hope of making a clean break. Which meant it would be messy. But messy or not, it was imperative that he leave. When the moment arrived, John would do what he must to get away. If that meant dropping Sherlock’s bag at his feet and bolting into the crowd, then so be it. The critical thing was Sherlock would be safe, they’d both be out of Morocco, and John could leave with a — mostly — clean conscience.

It was past evening and nearing nightfall with the setting sun casting the view outside the windows into shadow. The dark would make John’s escape that much easier, and he struggled to suppress the exhaustion that arose at the sight of the oncoming night. He hadn’t slept since the bus, and John felt the lack of rest beginning to wear on him. If he didn’t get a proper rest soon, he’d be of no use to anyone, least of all himself. But he had a task to complete, an escape to make before he could think ahead to rest.

Trying to ignore Sherlock’s hard stare, boring into the side of his face, John recrossed his legs and settled in to wait out the remainder of the ride.

Chapter Text

Sherlock felt like he was caught in a feedback loop. John’s stress fed his, seemingly without respite. Maybe it spoke to the unrelenting danger that seemed to continually dog their heels, but Sherlock thought it had been far too long since they’d caught a break. It felt like events just kept unfolding, leaving little room to draw a steadying breath. Sherlock felt like a man underwater, the surface never within reach no matter how hard he struggled toward it.

John radiating tension and uncertainty only intensified the sense of struggle. Worse still, Sherlock knew there was little he could do to ease his own anxiety, never mind John’s. They were stuck in an undesirable scenario, their lives always on the line.

It was all Sherlock could do to keep afloat, even beneath the surface.

He still wasn’t sure why, but John’s query about his well-being had him on edge. The question, posed as a casual inquiry, immediately struck Sherlock as suspect. It was made too carefully, with some underlying tone that Sherlock barely caught. But he did, and it had set off alarm bells. He’d reacted too strongly, forcing John to retreat and go on the offensive. Sherlock was still kicking himself for his heavy-handed approach, though John’s unexpected apology had felt like a step in the right direction.

Sherlock had little doubt that John’s uncertainties about travelling within the grasp of the British government remained. If the consulate in Tangier had been enough to put him on edge, then Gibraltar, a British territory, presented a far worse threat. Sherlock wouldn’t be surprised if John bolted the second they made land. He had little illusion to the fact that the only thing keeping John with him at the moment was open water. If the trip to Gibraltar had been possible to make via land, John would surely be long gone by now.

Sherlock tried to prepare himself for what awaited them at the docks. John would make his move quickly, and he wouldn’t look back. He’d be there and then gone if he had his way. Sherlock knew he’d have little chance of finding him again once he slipped away. Even with Mycroft’s interference, Sherlock imagined John might have a few more tricks up his sleeve. If he slipped away, there’d be no catching him. Sherlock usually had little doubt in his ability to find those who didn’t want to be found. He was a skilled tracker: his studies and work predisposed him toward finding that which no one else could. At his best, in his prime, Sherlock knew he could find John no matter where he fled.

But with multiple concussions, killers on his trail, and the need to keep a low profile, Sherlock was at a disadvantage. He was nowhere near his best. He was diminished drastically by his injuries and days of inadequate sleep, and constant stress. Though John seemed just as tired, he had few other restrictions. He was free to come and go as he pleased once they were out of Morocco. He’d spent the past few years as a ghost and could fade back into the world just as easily if given a chance.

Sherlock just had to make sure he didn’t get that chance. It was sheer luck that Mycroft planned to meddle. If Sherlock knew his brother — and he did — he had the feeling Mycroft would make sure John accompanied him to the safe house. He knew Mycroft’s insistence on John’s presence wasn’t due to any sentiment on Mycroft’s part. Nor was it a response to Sherlock’s statement of John’s necessity.

No. Sherlock knew Mycroft wouldn’t let John slip away simply because Mycroft needed to know who he was. He wouldn’t let the man who had slotted Sherlock for destruction, only to then turn around and save him multiple times, disappear. If only because Mycroft excelled in meddling in the affairs of everyone Sherlock came in contact with, John would have little chance to escape.

The thought made Sherlock grimace. He wasn’t much of one to dwell or stew on unseemly behaviours, but even he realized that he was, effectively, forcing John into a corner. If Sherlock was brutally honest, it was more a trap than a corner. And, while Sherlock had little qualms in doing what must be done to get what he wanted, he still felt a slight twinge of guilt. John deserved better. Maybe not based on the past few years of his life, but considering his past, he deserved Sherlock’s honesty. Deserved a choice in the matter. But Sherlock knew John would undoubtedly run if he told John what lay ahead, and Sherlock was just selfish enough not to give him the chance.

In time, John would understand. He would have to concede because Sherlock needed him to. Needed him. Out of necessity, yes, but also selfishly. It wasn’t ethical, it wasn’t right or even fair, but there it was.

Sherlock wanted John Watson with him, now and beyond. If trapping him in a corner was the way to achieve that having, then he’d do it without question. If Sherlock had any hope of regaining his life, he needed John. He could handle any guilt that came with his actions if it meant he got what he wanted in the end. John might have different views, but he would have the freedom to choose. Eventually.

Until then, Sherlock would prove his tenacity. He would also prove his inhumanness in the process, but nothing truly worth having ever came without sacrifice. And, if Sherlock was lucky, John might even surprise him. He might come to realize that he wanted to stay — that he needed Sherlock the way Sherlock had come to realize he needed John.

And if not… then Sherlock would let him go. Just like that. Mycroft might not be so obliging, but Sherlock had never let his brother control him before, and he wasn’t about to start. Mycroft always said Sherlock used people to suit his needs. Ironic as the statement was, it was harsh but accurate. Sherlock did use people. He used them when he needed to and took little enjoyment from doing so. He’d done it before, would do it again, and he’d use John just the same.

The difference was, Sherlock had no intention of discarding John after his usefulness served its purpose. He had no machinations of abandoning the ex-soldier. Instead, Sherlock hoped they could become a permanent partnership. At the consulate, he’d forced back idle thoughts about John. About sharing hotel rooms and sentiment. Now, with little to do but wait and agonize over when John would make his move, Sherlock found his thoughts turning back to his earlier considerations.

Sherlock wasn’t a stranger to intimate relations, though he wasn’t what anyone might term an ‘expert.’ As most people did, he had experimented, mainly in university and early adulthood. He was far too curious not to. His liaisons had been limited, and Sherlock could count on one hand how many sexual partners he’d had. There had only been one person, a man his age named Victor Trevor, who earned a repeat performance when all others were a one-and-done scenario.

But even Victor grew tedious in the end, and Sherlock had moved from the idle pursuit of sexual experiments to his work. From there, he’d lost himself in the focus required for his chosen field. Intimacy fell to the wayside. It didn’t help that he was an abrasive person, more often than not rubbing others the wrong way.

His mother used to say he was like sandpaper: made for smoothing but rough to the touch if you weren’t careful. Sherlock supposed it was as accurate a statement as any other, but even with that awareness, he’d failed to change. He never quite succeeded in softening his abrasive side. In time, it became easier to keep others at arm’s length. To focus on the work and bury that more human side of him. The one which ached for companionship, for someone to hear his unrelenting observations and praise him when he was clever (which was almost always).

Genius needed an audience, and Sherlock had been living inside a self-made echo chamber for far too long. It was part of what made trapping John into staying such an easy concept to swallow. Sherlock had no sounding board but his own mind, his own views, which were biased by his desires and needs. Because of this lack of conscience, he didn’t bother with things like right and wrong. Refused to consider the ramifications of his actions if it meant he got what he wanted.

After turning his back on the company of others outside of professional relationships, Sherlock’s tap had run dry. He’d made himself parched, ignoring even the concept of thirst. A desert didn’t ache for rain. It flourished in barren, arid heat, making use of an uninhabitable environment where no other option was available. Sherlock was the same. He went without the proverbial moisture of intimacy in favour of the clarity and focus his isolation provided.

But now, sitting here with John at his side, a man of contradictions and danger, Sherlock was parched. His mouth felt baked dry and empty, and he found he almost ached for the chance to quench that thirst. Here was the potential for connection and, even if it was only ever a partnership and nothing more, Sherlock wanted it. The suddenness and intensity of that wanting startled even him. He’d been right to push back this train of thought at the consulate. Now that he’d given his mind free rein, the ideas it presented were far too distracting. He needed to call his mind to order, but now that he’d allowed it the space to imagine, Sherlock found controlling his thoughts a battle.

His head ached, and it made thinking a chore. He was nowhere near his best, and the knowledge irked.

The abrupt sound of John’s quiet noise as he stretched his arms over his head pulled Sherlock from his musings.

With his gaze fixed forward, he refused to glance at John. Refused to fixate on the small strip of skin above the waist of John’s jeans, bared by his stretch. Sherlock swallowed and narrowed his eyes at the people across from them. He stared at their postures, reading the story of their lives in their clothing and luggage.

Next to him, John dropped his arms from his stretch and breathed out a loud sigh. “How much longer?” he asked, repeating his earlier query. Sherlock glanced at him. He was relieved to see that John’s shirt was once more covering that little strip of stomach and forced a tight smile onto his lips.

“Don’t you own a watch?”

John glared and lifted his arm. His sleeve slid down, revealing an untanned strip of skin on his wrist. “I did, but it stopped working a day ago, and I tossed it.”

Sherlock frowned, wondering how he’d missed that. He didn’t miss things — he was Sherlock Holmes. It was his job to see what others didn’t. He was slipping, dangerously so, letting himself become far too distracted by unimportant things, like John’s stomach and his own suddenly awakened libido.

He checked his own watch and saw that he’d been lost in his thoughts for far too long. “Forty-five minutes,” Sherlock said, sliding his sleeve back over the timepiece. “Give or take.”

John nodded and drummed his palms against his thighs. He seemed restless, his earlier agitation returning with the reminder of their impending arrival in Gibraltar. “Right.” His hands bounced again before settling in a white-knuckled grip on his knees. His eyes dropped, darting from his duffle to Sherlock’s, then to Sherlock’s face and away.

Sherlock could almost hear his thoughts, reading them on John’s expressive face before his visage cleared and closed-off. John’s plan was clear, his desire for escape broadcast through his restless movements. Desperate to distract him, Sherlock cleared his throat and nodded at a man a few seats down. “He’s going to meet a child he only just found out existed.”

John started. He turned toward Sherlock, blinked, and shot the indicated man a quick, furtive glance. Brow furrowed, he wet his lips and looked at Sherlock again. “How can you possibly know that?”

Jaw clenched to hold back a smirk, Sherlock pulled in a breath and launched into a flow of observations. He watched as John’s eyes narrowed with skepticism, then slowly widened with surprise. By the time Sherlock came to the end of his deductions, there was a grudging admiration in John’s face.

“Blimey,” he said, shaking his head with a wry smile. “That’s almost scary.”

Sherlock frowned, the statement-making him uncertain. “Not good?” he asked, watching John’s face carefully for the answer.

But John smiled. This time, the expression was genuine. “No, it’s brilliant,” he said, still with that smile. “Do another.”

Relieved and pleasantly surprised by John’s praise, Sherlock shifted in his chair. He resisted the urge to preen and raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “Who do you suggest?”

John scanned the other passengers. Eyes narrowed, he tilted his chin slightly toward a young woman. “Her.”

His body still buzzing with satisfaction from John’s blatant admiration, Sherlock turned his focus to the indicated passenger. As he studied her manner, he felt himself relax. He glanced at John, saw that his back was a little less stiff. He looked more at ease, and Sherlock hid his smile. For the moment, at least, it seemed that his focus had shifted away from plans of escape. If Sherlock was lucky, they wouldn’t shift back. If he impressed John enough, showed him what he was truly capable of, maybe he wouldn’t have to trap John after all. Perhaps John would realize Sherlock was an asset to him.

Maybe he would stay.

Sherlock took to the challenge with his usual sharp tenacity and hoped it would be enough.

 


 

The closer they drew to docking, the tenser John felt. After Sherlock had lost himself in his head for what felt like ages, John was glad for the distraction of his deductions. He kept John occupied by reading their fellow passengers' lives and did so seemingly without effort. Sharp eyes raking the person from head to toe, Sherlock would spill a series of observations at rapid-fire speed. He delivered his summaries in a near-whisper, keeping his voice pitched low so he wouldn’t be overheard. His lowered volume forced John to lean closer, tilting his head to hear each word that slipped from Sherlock’s mouth.

Sherlock nodded toward a man about John’s age, his voice dropping into an even softer register. “That man has a male lover in Gibraltar that he’s going to see.”

John’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “I thought homosexuality was illegal in Morocco.”

He received an eye roll. “People are still queer even where it’s illegal, John.” Sherlock’s tone was scathing, and John winced. “Please tell me you’re aware of that.”

Colour rushed into John’s cheeks as his face flushed. “Of course I know that,” he hissed, lowering his voice when a young woman glanced their way in concern. He flashed her a smile and continued in a whisper, “I didn’t mean that.”

Sherlock looked amused by John’s fluster. “What did you mean, then?”

John huffed. He knew he was being baited but couldn’t help biting. “I meant, it seems like a pretty big risk, don’t you think?”

An odd expression passed over Sherlock’s face, his eyes taking on an introspective gleam. “It is,” he agreed, his words sounding carefully reflective. “But I suppose the risk is worth it for some.” He went quiet, leaving John to consider the statement.

It made sense, John theorized. He knew love was a thing that existed in the real world, a space which John had found himself living outside of for years now. He knew movies, songs, television shows and books presented love as a powerful force. Something worth sacrifice, struggle, strife and risk. John didn’t think he’d ever felt that way about anyone, and he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to.

It sounded terrifying.

He looked at the man Sherlock had deduced, and John wondered how that might feel. How it might feel to risk everything — life, safety, freedom — just to be with someone. John knew what it was like to have your character questioned because of who you were attracted to. After all, he hadn’t thought of himself as straight since his early teens. He was no stranger to homophobia. But this was different. This was giving up everything, giving up your security, just to be with another person.

John wasn’t sure he could do it. Not with his trust issues. If he was a different person, would that change?

He had no way of knowing.

John slowly tuned back into the moment to find Sherlock staring at him. His expression was strange, his eyes focused and intent upon John’s face. There was something odd in his gaze, something John saw directed at him and didn’t understand. He might have thought it looked like confusion, or wonder, or something like awe. In a way, it looked like all three, but none of those emotions, together or singular, made sense to John. Not when they were directed at him, and certainly not from Sherlock.

He cleared his throat and tipped his head toward the man again. “Well, go on. Tell me more.”

The curious expression disappeared from Sherlock’s face. It was replaced by a tentative eagerness. John tried not to find the look too endearing as Sherlock launched into another series of deductions.

He had no way of verifying if anything Sherlock said was true. For all he knew, Sherlock was making up every word of his ‘deductions,’ and John was a sucker for believing him. But even if Sherlock was lying through his teeth, John found himself enjoying the closeness. There was something almost familiar to how they sat inclined together, Sherlock almost whispering in his ear. It was a far cry from having an intimate someone whispering sweet nothings to him from the other side of a shared pillow, but John found he didn’t mind the contrast.

It was almost nice, in the odd way he was beginning to attribute to much of their interactions. As Sherlock told him every secret belonging to an older woman sat five seats down, how she had once been the willing consort of a highly-ranked official, John smiled. He was reluctant for the moment to end. Not just because Sherlock presented a welcomed distraction from John’s restless thoughts, but because this, the two of them, would soon come to an end. It was nice, in its own way.

As he listened to Sherlock launch into a series of observations about a small family, John knew he would miss this. Might even miss Sherlock himself. They’d only known one another for a total of three days, but John could have sworn it felt longer.

Three days. That was it. For John, it felt like ages. Granted, he’d yet to sleep a full night since meeting Sherlock, and the exhaustion had thrown his internal clock off completely. With the non-stop adrenaline, the navigation of the strange new dynamic he found himself in, John felt he could barely tell up from down. If he wasn’t careful, he might lose his already tenuous grip on reality.

John rubbed a hand over his jaw and sighed. He really needed to sleep. Preferably for an entire year. Hell, he’d take an hour. Even that meagre amount sounded like pure fantasy. John was accustomed to staying awake and keeping odd hours when necessary, but the past few days had proven that even he had a breaking point, and it was fast approaching.

“Are you even listening?”

John blinked, snapped out of his thoughts by Sherlock’s question. He blinked and looked at him, raising his eyebrows. “Sorry, no. Lost myself for a moment.”

Sherlock squinted at him and rolled his eyes. “That’s because you haven’t slept since the bus. And I’m not even sure you slept then.”

John offered a shrug. “I’ll be fine.”

But Sherlock seemed dead-set on disagreeing. Flicking his sleeve back, he checked his watch and pursed his lips. “We have another twenty minutes before we dock. You could sleep.” He narrowed his eyes at John’s skeptical expression and sighed. “I’ll wake you five minutes before we make land.” When John hesitated, he added, “I promise.”

Still dubious, John moved to shake his head. Sherlock scowled and tilted forward until their faces were barely inches apart. John startled, catching himself as the instinct to jerk back rose and was squashed.

“Trust me, John,” Sherlock said. Close as he was, John couldn't avoid his gaze. He did so with a tight throat, finding it suddenly very hard to swallow.

“Why do you keep saying that?” he asked, his voice barely more than a whisper in the scant space between them.

The corner of Sherlock’s mouth twitched. It wasn’t quite a smile, and his eyes didn’t shift from where they stared into John’s. “Because you keep making me repeat myself.” Sherlock pulled in a quiet breath, let it out slowly. John felt the warmth of it on his cheek and swallowed again as Sherlock added, “I don’t like repeating myself.”

The proximity leaving him feeling off-kilter, John shot back, “Stop doing it, then.”

Sherlock was just as quick. “Stop second-guessing me, and I will.”

John had to admit, he had him there. He hesitated a moment longer before tilting his head in a slow, stiff nod. “Fine,” he said, letting the reluctance he felt bleed into his voice. There was irritation there as well because Sherlock was right: John needed sleep. He needed to take the edge off his exhaustion if he planned to make a run for it. And he would make a run for it.

John tried not to hear the lack of conviction in his own thoughts and nodded again.

“Fifteen minutes,” he said, fixing Sherlock with a stern eye.

Sherlock nodded. “Fifteen minutes,” he repeated, making the statement a vow.

Reassured, John leaned back in his chair. He crossed his arms over his chest and, casting Sherlock one last uncertain glance, closed his eyes. He didn’t expect to actually fall asleep and resigned himself to a fitful doze. But, gradually, listening to the soft sounds of muted conversation from the other passengers in their area, John slept.

 

 

 

The shrill, sudden laugh of a child woke him. John froze and opened his eyes, his groggy, sleep-addled brain taking far too long to identify whether or not the sound was a threat. By the time he made sense of the noise and his surroundings, John realized he was tilted to the side with his head pillowed on something warm and living.

He stiffened further, the muscles in his neck and shoulders pulling taut. The sleepy edge to his thought processes dissipated at once, and John drew in a surprised breath. He smelled desert air and mint tea and, beneath those, a scent that was only vaguely familiar as intimately unique to a human body that wasn’t his own.

Sherlock.

John rocketed into an upright sitting position. As he did, Sherlock jolted and shook his head. His eyes were far away and unfocused before they zeroed in on John, who sat staring at him. Sherlock’s fingers, steepled beneath his chin, dropped into his lap.

“What is it?” he asked. Taking in John’s flustered manner, he frowned. “Nightmare?”

“No, I—” John paused, letting the rest of the words die in his throat. He took a moment and narrowed his eyes, studying Sherlock. He looked unperturbed, more bemused than anything, his confusion evidently genuine. It was apparent that John’s reaction made little sense to him, and John slowly relaxed. Clearing his throat, he asked, “Were you thinking?”

Still frowning, Sherlock nodded. “Yes.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s only been ten minutes.” Eyes lifting to John’s face again, he tilted his head to the side. “I don’t understand what has you so worked up.”

John forced a tight smile. “Nothing,” he lied, feeling a surge of gratitude at Sherlock’s obliviousness. “Just… yeah, a nightmare. That.” The lie was blatant, but John pushed it out regardless. Sherlock must have been too preoccupied with his thoughts to notice John using his shoulder as a pillow.

“If you say so,” Sherlock said, conceding with a confused expression. He pressed his fingertips together beneath his chin again. “We’ll be docking soon.”

John nodded and settled back into his chair. “Right.” He jiggled his foot, knee bouncing as his earlier agitations returned full force. He was mere minutes from escape, no longer hours, and the deadline made him feel lit up like an electric charge. He forced his body still when Sherlock shot him a narrow-eyed glare.

The too-short nap had done more harm than good. John felt scattered, his mind sluggish as it tried to map out his next steps. He silently cursed himself for giving into Sherlock’s suggestion of sleep. He needed to be sharp, would need to be quick and ready, and instead, he felt painfully slow.

Rubbing a hand over his bleary eyes, John watched the other passengers begin to gather their things. Outside the windows, night was almost fully upon them, and he theorized it must be nearing seven o’clock.

After three days with Sherlock, John was preparing to strike off on his own. It hardly seemed real, but the time for them to part had come at last, and John needed to be ready.

The boat slowed, and a docking announcement was broadcast through the scratchy speaker system. John listened with half his focus as the speaker outlined safety measures and the local time. He felt like an astronaut waiting for launch, burning with potential energy and stuck on the tarmac until the right sequence of events occurred to set him free. It was a strange comparison, but it fit John’s current state. Every inch of him ached, his still-healing injuries more so, and his exhaustion battled with a rising surge of adrenaline.

It was almost time.

He felt the heavy rumble as the ferry went through its docking procedure. The floor vibrated beneath his feet, and he heard the engines slow. There was a bump, a swaying motion, and a creak, then they were docked.

John was on his feet with his bag in hand in an instant. After a second of hesitation, he grabbed Sherlock’s as well. With both duffles slung over his shoulders, John waited for Sherlock to rise. He did so slowly, taking a moment to study John from his seat.

When he stood, his eyes dropped to his duffle. He looked like he might say something, but his lips parted without sound and closed again. His expression was an odd mixture of frustrated resignation and doubt, and he stared at John for a silent moment before his face went blank. Offering a curt nod that John couldn’t decipher the meaning of, Sherlock turned away and moved toward the back of the ship.

Made wary by the strange moment, John followed slowly. He watched the other passengers as they crowded around them, everyone waiting to disembark. The two duffle bags hung heavily from his shoulders, and John shifted his weight as his body threatened to sag with fatigue.

The doors opened, and they walked forward in a crush. With his heart in his throat, his pulse quickening, John waited for his moment. They crossed over the small walkway that connected boat to dock, the water a quiet source of noise beneath the sound of footsteps. Sherlock was slightly ahead of him, and John stared at his back. He’d thought Sherlock had sussed out his plan to run. John expected resistance, anticipated Sherlock’s interference. But he walked ahead without bothering to look behind, without checking to see if John was still there. Even when they reached the dock and left the walkway behind, he didn’t look.

John found himself caught between relief and confusion. He’d been so confident that Sherlock knew what he planned to do, had even worried he might try to stop him. But here he was, almost ignoring John’s presence entirely. It was baffling. It could be the concussion, the fatigue, slowing him down. Sherlock wasn’t superhuman. He was infallible, capable of missing things. He might simply have missed the signs, and John was too paranoid to realize.

Unless Sherlock did know. Unless he knew and he was letting John escape. Giving him the easy way out, leaving space for him to slip away into the crowd. It seemed unlikely, but John couldn’t shake the thought.

Whatever the reason for Sherlock’s lack of attention, John needed to make his move. The longer he waited, the longer he dwelled, the smaller his window of escape grew. They were almost off the dock, nearing where the road began.

It was now or never.

The moment his boot connected with concrete, John reacted. He gripped the strap of Sherlock’s duffle and lifted it off his shoulder. Moving around to Sherlock’s side, he prepared to abandon the bag at his feet and melt into the crowd. It would take seconds, drop and dash.

His hand tightened then loosened, the bag halfway out toward Sherlock. It was slipping free, the strap sliding along John’s palm. The weight released, the pack started to fall, and John turned to disappear. But when he turned, he came face-to-face with a man in a dark suit. The bag made a thud as it connected with the ground, Sherlock let out a startled grunt, and John froze.

“Hello, Captain Watson.” The man’s voice was perfectly cordial, his expression impassive in the illumination cast by the lights marking the dock. A pair of sunglasses hid his eyes, and John spotted an earpiece in one of his ears.

“Sorry, not me,” he said, affecting a Cockney accent. “Got the wrong guy, mate. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve somewhere to be.” He moved to shift past the man, ignoring the sensation of Sherlock’s stare on his back.

The man caught John’s arm and stopped him again. “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, sir.”

John went stiff and still. Slowly, he turned his head and looked into the man’s face. He saw his reflection mirrored back to him in the polished lenses. Dropping the accent, John said in a soft voice, “No idea who you are, but that’s not really your decision to make.” He tensed his arms, muscles rippling beneath his sleeves. “Best to let me go before I make you.”

He received a flat, polite smile. “Let’s not make a scene, Captain Watson.”

“No idea who that is,” John snapped, narrowing his eyes. “And I’ll make a fucking scene if I want.” A threat rose in his throat, weighty on his tongue. It was cocked and ready to fly when Sherlock spoke from behind him.

“John.”

The way he said his name made John stiffen again. He looked over his shoulder, saw Sherlock watching him without blinking. He didn’t look surprised to see a man grasping John’s arm, or that the man was clearly MI6. Dread rose in John’s chest, spilling out in an icy flood. “What is this?” he demanded, realization sharpening his words. “What the fuck did you do, Sherlock?”

Sherlock winced but held his ground. He stepped closer, waving the man off.

To John’s horror, the man holding his arm stepped away at once, releasing John. Shooting him a glare, John whirled and turned the full force of his growing anger on the man who had repeatedly asked John to trust him. “What did you do?” he asked again, voice low and harsh.

Sherlock’s face twitched in a grimace. He took a step closer. “Just let me explain, John.”

But John took a step away. He ignored the man at his back, his eyes fixed on Sherlock. “No,” he said, shaking his head and searching the people passing them by. He saw two more men in suits and sunglasses, and his breathing quickened. “No,” he repeated, forcing his eyes back to Sherlock, “I don’t want to hear whatever you have to say.”

“John.” Sherlock moved closer, lifting a hand, reaching out. “John, listen to me.”

John batted Sherlock’s hand away with his teeth bared. “Back off, Sherlock.” He glanced at the man behind him, saw him watching warily. He didn’t have a weapon — or, if he did, it was holstered. John needed to react, now or never, if he hoped to get away. Slamming an elbow back into the man’s stomach, hearing his startled grunt, John surged forward. The sudden movement took Sherlock by surprise, and he stumbled back. He tripped on his duffle where it sat on the ground, forced to fight to keep his balance.

“John! Wait!” he called, cursing when he went down on one knee.

John didn’t heed his words. He took advantage of the distraction to sprint into the crowd. From the edge of his vision, he saw the two other men break into jogs, heading his way. Gripping the strap of his bag, John ducked his head and forced a burst of speed. He considered pausing to fish out his gun, but there was no time. Right now, John needed to run. And he did, in an all-out sprint for freedom. The distance between himself and the men increased. Breath rushing out of his open mouth in an irregular pant, John aimed for the parking lot and the road beyond. His legs ached, the healing bullet wound in his left thigh burning with exertion. Fatigue dragged at his heels, but he pushed onward, ignoring his body’s demands for rest.

He’d just gained the parking lot when a car pulled up and cut him off. It came out of nowhere, sleek and black and sliding out of the dark like a shadow. One moment, the way was clear, then John was blinded by headlights, and the car swept into his path. He was forced to stop, the car pulling up in front of him. The sudden stop sent John careening off to the side, and he twisted his knee as he went, swearing loudly at the surge of pain.

Before he managed to regain his equilibrium, his knee screaming with agony, the rear door closest to him opened. Another suited, sunglasses-wearing man appeared. This one was armed, and he aimed the gun in his hand at John.

Staring into the cold eye of the weapon, John felt the last dregs of strength leave his body. He sagged, grunting through his teeth as his weight shifted to his twisted knee. He heard footsteps behind him, three jogging and one slower, and knew he was trapped.

It took far more energy than he could afford to spare, but John drew himself upright. He squared his shoulders before he turned. The three other men stood in a loose semi-circle, watching him warily. John could feel the gun at his back like a physical presence, ignored as he turned his attention to Sherlock.

Whatever John had expected, it wasn’t the look of vivid regret on Sherlock’s face. It forced him off-balance for a moment, and John struggled to regain even that in the face of all the ground he’d lost. It took John far too long to find the right words. When he did, John hurled them at Sherlock like something sharp and deadly.

“You asked me to trust you.”

Sherlock flinched. “I did,” he agreed in a quiet voice, coming closer, “and I’m asking you to continue to do so.”

Eyes narrowed, John glanced over his shoulder. The gun was still aimed at his back, and he looked at Sherlock with a scowl. “You realize you’re not making that very easy for me.”

Sherlock tilted his head in a small nod. “I know, and I’m sorry. But I’m still asking you to trust me.”

Staring at him, John wondered how Sherlock could ask that of him. How he could walk John into a trap and expect any kind of loyalty was beyond John’s understanding. The betrayal stung. Sherlock knew John’s past, knew his history, and still, he had set this up.

The worst part was John had gone willingly. Followed him right into the deception, practically offered his leg so Sherlock could snap the cruel teeth of the trap shut. He was out of options. John could make a run for it, but there was no guarantee he wouldn’t be gunned down before he even took a step. He might be able to get to his weapons, even tucked into the bag as they were, but it was likely a gamble he would lose. He was caught. There was nowhere to go but forward, wherever that might take him.

John spoke through his teeth, forcing the words out past a rigid jaw. “You can take your trust and fuck right off.”

Sherlock’s face fell. “John—”

But John was through with listening to whatever he had to say. He held up a hand to silence Sherlock and turned to face the man with the gun. “If you’re going to take me, get on with it,” he snapped, dropping his duffle onto the ground at his feet. “I’m fucking exhausted, and I’m not going to sit here and play along with whatever this is.” Hands in front of him, John held out his arms. “Do what you gotta do.”

The man holding the gun eyed him for a moment before his gaze shifted over John’s shoulder. He was looking at Sherlock. Whatever he saw there, it made him lower the weapon. “Restraints won’t be necessary, Captain Watson.” Stepping aside, the man gestured to the car. “If you don’t mind.”

John stared at the interior. He saw leather and real wooden trim, and the luxury did little to soothe his anxious anger. But he offered a curt nod and moved forward. Stepping over his dropped duffle, he stooped and slipped into the car, sliding to the far door. It was locked, the handle not even making so much as a click when John tried it.

He heard someone climb in after him and saw Sherlock ducking into the car. He had the decency to stay on his side, as far from John as the seat allowed.

John turned his attention away from him, toward the front of the car. His view was blocked by a partition made of tinted glass, and he frowned at the obviousness. He heard doors closing, and the door next to Sherlock slammed shut. There was a moment of quiet before the engine hummed, and the car pulled away from the dock.

Silent and furious, John stared straight ahead and prepared himself for whatever came next.

Chapter Text

The atmosphere within the car vibrated with tension, and the air in the back seat felt thick with quiet fury. With the soundproofing, the interior was nearly silent, and John was a man carved of stone.

Sherlock stayed on his side of the backseat. Even with the space between him and John, he could feel the temper radiating off of John in waves. Sherlock couldn’t begrudge John his anger, but he still found himself searching for something to say. If he could find the right words to explain the necessity of the detainment, John might see reason. He might even agree with Sherlock. He might realize that it had been the only possible move to make.

Eyeing John’s rigid posture, Sherlock found his own thoughts hard to believe. The fact was, he’d done a bad thing — a terrible thing with complicated consequences. Sherlock chose this path, even indirectly, by failing to let John in on Mycroft’s plan. Here was his penance, the outcome he had to stomach.

That didn’t sit well with Sherlock. John’s response was rational, fair, but Sherlock felt he deserved the chance to explain. He opened his mouth to speak, saw John twitch, and hesitated. John went still again, his face darkened by a scowl. His hands, resting on his knees, flexed in a slow, dangerous curl.

Sherlock cleared his throat. “John—”

“Don’t.” John’s voice was hard, unforgivingly so.

Sherlock flinched. He tried again in a clipped tone, “John, if you’d just—”

John’s shoulders jerked upward, his head ducking in a defensive dip. His hands curled into tight fists. “I said don’t, Sherlock.”

Lips pressed together in a grimace, Sherlock fell silent. He actually contemplated heeding the warning in John’s words. Then he cast the thought aside and tried once more. “These men work for my brother.” A loud breath hissed out through John’s teeth, but he didn’t speak. Sherlock took that as an encouraging sign. “I wouldn’t let them harm you, John,” he said earnestly, “and I still won’t. If I’d known Mycroft planned to use such force, I never would have—”

John made a low, strangled noise. It reminded Sherlock of a tortured animal, and he stiffened. The sound cut Sherlock off mid-sentence as John slowly turned toward him. His eyes were hard, wide and unblinking. His hands, still resting in fists on his thighs, shook. “You knew?”

Sherlock closed his mouth with a click of teeth. “Yes, but…” Regret rolled over him, and he winced. “I didn’t know the exact details.”

He would have gone on, but John bared his teeth. He cut Sherlock off with a violent gesture, his hand cutting through the air with fearsome force. “Don’t give me your fucking excuses, Sherlock.” John’s expression was as steely as his eyes, his lips pressed into a thin, white line.

“John.”

To Sherlock’s alarm, John’s mouth curled into a slow smile. It reminded him of crocodile tears, devoid of humour and sharp as a blade. The sight of it made something tremble in Sherlock’s chest. The look reminded him of their first meeting, of John when he was still an enemy: razor-edged and dangerous.

That smile made him look like that all over again.

“How long have you known?” John asked in a soft voice. On the surface, the words sounded emotionless, but Sherlock heard the building rage beneath it. Like a ticking time bomb, counting down to eruption. “How long have you been planning this? Telling me to trust you, lying to my face… how long, Sherlock?” John’s smile spread a little wider, and his eyes gleamed. “Since the phone call?"

Sherlock stiffened, a hint of frustration rising through the heavier weight of his guilt. “No,” he said with a flicker of his own anger. John’s eyebrows rose in an incredulous expression, forcing Sherlock to rush on. “I told Mycroft I wasn’t coming alone. He pieced the story together, about who you had been. I didn’t expect him to threaten violence to keep you with me.”

John’s eyes narrowed. “Oh?” he said in that same dangerous voice. “Is that so?” His stare was unblinking, pinning Sherlock in place. That smile lingered, turning John’s face into a hard mask. “Not sure I believe you.”

Irritated by the lack of trust — even if it was warranted — Sherlock dug Mycroft’s note out of his pocket and held it out. “Here.” John tensed and stared at the offering without moving until Sherlock bared his teeth and shook it at him. “Take it!”

A ripple went through John’s body. It was slow and subtle, a deliberate roll of tension that pushed his shoulders back, jerked his chin upward. His jaw clenched, and a muscle flexed in his throat. Watching his posture change, Sherlock realized John no longer looked like a man who had lost everything he’d once known. If they’d been standing, Sherlock thought John might have appeared taller, despite his shorter height.

With just a subtle shift, John looked every inch the soldier he’d once been. He looked like the mercenary he still was.

Alarm bells rang in Sherlock’s head, reminding him that John was still an unknown. They’d only been together three days. Sherlock knew his back story, knew what he was capable of, but he didn’t actually know John. He was a stranger and a dangerous one.

Deadly.

For the first time since they’d switched sides, Sherlock felt a flicker of fear. The armed men's presence in the front seat somewhat eased the feeling but didn’t banish it entirely. Sherlock had little doubt that if John wanted to, he could incapacitate him without breaking a sweat. Likely before Mycroft’s men could react. And Sherlock was as good as useless. With his concussion, his lingering exhaustion, he’d stand little chance. If John put his mind to it, he could end Sherlock here and now.

With John staring hard at him, still wearing that little smile, Sherlock wondered if John thought the same thing.

Softening his tone, Sherlock let a hint of a plea slip into his voice. “I promise you, John. I didn’t lie to you about the phone call.” He held the note out again, his eyes earnest, imploring. For once in his life, the expression was entirely genuine. “Please. Just read it.”

John hesitated a moment longer. With his gaze still unblinking and lit with harsh fury, he searched Sherlock’s face. He sat perfectly still with his eyes narrowed before finally reaching out and taking the slip of paper.

Sherlock let his hand fall back to his lap and waited as John unfolded the note.

He scanned the contents. Brow furrowing, he reread it. Twice more before his hand closed into a slow, vicious fist, the paper crumbled cruelly against his palm. The look John turned onto Sherlock would have struck him dead if such a thing were possible.

“You asked me to trust you,” he said through his teeth. “You asked that of me, knowing how hard it was for me to do it. And then you knew about this,” John tossed the crumpled note toward him, “and you didn’t tell me. You knew what would happen when we docked, and you let it happen.” His voice was rising, nearing a shout.

Sherlock let the balled-up paper hit his chest and drop to the floor. He opened his mouth to reply when the partition separating them from the front of the car abruptly slid down. One of Mycroft’s men glanced in at them, his eyes darting to John. “Everything alright?”

“We’re fine,” Sherlock said, waving him away. The man didn’t retreat, and Sherlock narrowed his eyes. “A little privacy?” The man’s gaze lingered on John, making Sherlock’s upper lip curl back. “If you don’t mind?” He received a frown for the tone, but the man finally leaned back, and the partition slid back into place.

Confident the man wouldn’t interrupt again unless John’s anger took the form of physical violence, Sherlock turned back to John. “You’re right,” he began, only for John to bark out a sharp, brittle laugh and interrupt him.

“Oh, I am, am I? How kind of you to say so!” John’s tone rose again, this time into a mockery of gratitude. His hands lifted with his voice, fingers curled into fierce claws. “God, don’t know what I’d do without you!” John’s arms fell, and his lips twisted in a snarl. “I should have left you in that hotel room,” he added in a harsh voice. “But I didn’t, and that’s my own damn fault.”

Sherlock flinched. His headache, briefly receded and now agitated by John’s loud voice, had returned full-force. Trying to cover his pain, Sherlock clenched his teeth. “You were going to leave.”

Another harsh laugh from John. “You’re bloody right, I was! And you know why? Because you’re dangerous, Sherlock.” He jabbed a finger in Sherlock’s direction. John’s hand shook, the gesture made unsteady by his anger. “And I knew that. But I ignored my instincts because you were so pitiful. You were lost and wounded and hurt, and I took pity on you.” The sound John made was humourless and strangled. “I won’t make that same mistake again.”

Sherlock’s stomach dropped at the statement, and he sucked in a breath. John’s words hurt, stinging far worse than crueller things said to him by worse people. He felt sick, his vision beginning to double from the headache. Closing his eyes, Sherlock exhaled, trying to breathe out some of the agony, both physical and emotional.

“It wasn’t my intention to betray you, John.” His voice emerged far quieter than intended, and Sherlock felt more than saw John lean closer to pick up his words. “Our partnership is important to me. I never wanted to make you regret it.”

“Our partnership,” John spat the word, “has consisted for all of two days, Sherlock. Hardly something to risk my trust over.”

Sherlock breathed out another sigh. “It is important,” he insisted.

“Oh? Is it?” John seethed through his teeth. “Is this how you treat the things that are important to you? If so, I’d like to be downgraded to unimportant, thanks.”

The words were harsh. Sherlock flinched. “I did it to keep you safe.”

John scoffed. “I find that hard to believe.” He sounded bitter.

With significant effort, Sherlock forced his eyes open. His vision greyed at the edges before clearing, and he resisted the urge to sway. “I imagine there’s little I can say to convince you that I only ever had your best interest at heart—”

“You’re bang on with that one, you are,” John interrupted. The dangerous, deadly smile was gone. In its place was a stiff facade, a ragged mask of anger.

Sherlock rolled his eyes. The gesture did little to ease his headache, and he silently cursed himself as he continued, “I need you to understand why I didn’t tell you about Mycroft’s men. You need to know why I thought it was safer not to.”

Silence met his statement as John stared. He stared for so long that Sherlock began to squirm in his seat. He forced himself to be still, waiting for John to speak. When he finally did, he sounded exhausted.

“Why couldn’t you just let me go?” he asked in a softer voice. “You got what you wanted — you’re out of Morocco. That was the deal. I help you, you help me, we part ways.” He shook his head, helpless confusion passing over his face. “I don’t understand why you couldn’t just let me leave.”

Sherlock drew in a steadying breath. “Part of it is Mycroft. He’s a meddler — always has been. As you can see by the note, he never intended for you to escape. I thought that, if you knew, you would put up a fight. If you’d known about his plan, you’d have walked onto that dock prepared for a fight.”

His anger returning full-force, John scowled. “Yeah, I fucking would have been prepared!” he snapped in an incredulous voice. “I wouldn’t have just walked blind into a bloody ambush like that.”

“And that would have been your downfall, John.” Suddenly earnest, Sherlock forgot to keep his distance. He turned toward John and leaned forward. John recoiled at once with a visceral response that Sherlock ignored. In his fervour, he almost reached out to catch John’s fisted hands but caught himself at the last second. His hands hovered in the space between them. “John,” he said quietly, “if you’d stepped out onto that dock armed, they wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot you. Mycroft is a powerful man, but these men are trained to respond to a threat. If they saw you as one, they would have put you down. Without thought.”

John just stared. His eyes looked hard, nearly black in the dark interior.

Sherlock stared back with a desperation he found he couldn’t hide. “Don’t you see?” he whispered, straining to make John understand. “You’d be dead.”

His eyes slid away, and John pressed back against the seat. “You don’t know that,” he said in an uneasy voice.

Sherlock frowned. “It would have ended up five to one, John. I know you’re skilled, but do you really think you could take down five MI6 agents?”

John’s gaze flashed back to him, his face twisting with sudden fury. “Maybe not,” he admitted, eyes narrowed, “but I would have done my damnedest to take as many as I could with me.”

Defeated by John’s relentless anger, Sherlock shook his head. He slumped into the seat, John’s rage and his own snarling headache sucking away the last of his strength. “If you think dying in a blaze of glory is the best option, then you’re far stupider than I could have imagined.”

His hands clenching back into fists, John went deadly still next to him. “If you’re trying to apologize, you’re doing a really shite job of it.”

Sherlock tilted his head to the side and closed his eyes. “I’m aware, John. But it seems that, no matter what I say, you’ll insist on finding fault. So it hardly matters what I say.”

His words were met with terse silence. Sherlock didn’t bother to open his eyes. He could hear that John hadn’t moved, that he was sitting statue-still once more. It seemed that, for the moment, he’d won.

Sherlock blew out a loud sigh and pressed his cheek against the cool leather of the seat. His skull ached, eyes pulsing with sick waves of pain that made his head spin with vertigo. Even with his eyes closed, he felt like the car was tilting with every turn. With his stomach roiling, and his chest aching, he left John to his fury.

 


 

John had no idea where the men were taking them, and Sherlock seemed unwilling to speak again. As tense as they both were, the quiet suited John just fine. He was still furious, his body humming with the violent anger he’d always struggled with. All his life, from childhood and into his adult years, John had issues controlling his anger. He was quick to flare, and when he burned, he burned hard: long, and white-hot. Sherlock’s responses had done little to quell his rising fury. The silence was better. Without it, John wasn’t sure what he might do, how he might react.

He wanted to lash out, wanted to release the pent-up energy in his muscles. He ached for action, his fingers flexing into fists that craved action. If Sherlock opened his idiot mouth again and said another stupid thing, if he tried to make light of John’s rage, John didn’t think he’d be able to stop himself from reacting. And if he responded in this state, there’d be nothing to salvage between them.

And wasn’t that a surprise? That he even wanted to have something to salvage shocked John almost more than Sherlock’s actions. When it came down to it, John had never fully trusted Sherlock. In a way, it was his own fault for falling into the trap he was caught in. He hadn’t been lying when he said he should have left Sherlock days ago. But that was then, and this was now. Now, John had to work out the next step. It seemed the choice to stay had been taken from him, unexpectedly and with force. He’d been stupid enough to walk into a trap, and he’d have to be innovative if he wanted to slip away.

But John was tired and on his own. He needed someone to have his back. With little in the way of options, that meant making Sherlock his ally again. It shouldn’t be hard, not when Sherlock had all but admitted that he kept his brother’s plan from John because he thought John would flee or fight. It was evident that Sherlock had made his choice out of a desire to keep John with him. To protect him. Though John couldn’t fathom the why of it, Sherlock had evidently marked John as someone worth keeping. It was hard to understand Sherlock’s betrayal when John didn’t know his full motives. He needed to determine Sherlock’s plan, needed his help, and that meant sticking around.

John ground his teeth together. Glaring at the tinted glass partition, he realized he wasn’t just angry. Beneath all the rage, all that humming, furious anger, he was hurt.

The feeling settled into his chest and burned, and John couldn’t shrug it off.

Even if he hadn’t fully trusted Sherlock, he’d wanted to. John had finally thought there was a chance for him to change. Had believed Sherlock was someone he could actually place his faith in, even temporarily. He’d taken a risk and reached out, only for Sherlock to break his word.

But had he, really? Sherlock had kept vital information with John. He’d been dishonest, forced John into a trap. But did that mean Sherlock had truly broken his vow? Without knowing where they were going, John had no way of answering his own questions. For all he knew, he was on his way to a cell. To a trial. To torture.

He shivered at the last. Closing his eyes, John tried to slow his breathing at the wash of memories the thought inspired. He wouldn’t go through that again — couldn’t go through that again. He’d die before he let something like that happen. Never again would John let someone break him. If it came down to death or torture, he’d choose death without hesitation.

Unless John wasn’t on his way to prosecution and pain. Maybe there was a plan, an offering of safety. It seemed strange for Sherlock to ‘save him’ just for John to be tortured or thrown in a cell. There had to be more to it.

He opened his eyes and glanced at Sherlock. Curled into himself, he looked pained, eyes closed, his expression strained. He was still concussed, and his head had to be hurting something awful. John’s shouting couldn’t have helped with the headache.

In spite of everything, despite his lingering anger, John felt a spike of sympathy. He tried to push it back, but it stubbornly remained. He wanted to tell himself it was just his training as a doctor, that he couldn’t possibly care beyond professional empathy.

But he didn’t quite believe his own excuses, and John shook his head at his own stubborn idiocy.

At his core, John knew he cared. He cared about Sherlock, and seeing him in pain was unpleasant. God, what had Sherlock done to him? If this was the kind of effect he could have on John after barely three days together, what would happen the longer they spent with each other? Was he doomed to continue feeling responsible for Sherlock? Was responsible really the right word for what he felt?

John didn’t think it was.

His breath whooshed out in a defeated sigh. Shifting in his seat with a small flinch, Sherlock opened his eyes at the sound. He looked at John with a bleary gaze, and John realized he was doomed. Caught. Despite Sherlock’s betrayal, John did care. He’d cared before, when he hadn’t been able to bring himself to leave in Tétouan, and he cared now. It was an irrefutable fact, and it both infuriated and exhausted him.

Whatever else Sherlock had done, he’d also managed to wrap John around his little finger, seemingly without even trying. It was a terrifying thought.

Would he really have succeeded in leaving Sherlock behind at the ferry docks? John wasn’t sure, but he knew Sherlock was still too much of a liability for John to stay. If he was granted another chance to escape, he would take it. He should take the opportunity if it arose, but it was hard to believe that he would.

“John.” Sherlock’s quiet voice interrupted his thoughts.

Looking at him, John willed the caring to fade away. He tried to hate him, wanted to tell himself Sherlock wasn’t someone he should still consider trustworthy. But the feeling remained, the tangible worry and his confused anger heavy in his chest, and John waited silently for Sherlock to continue. He didn’t have anything to say himself. His words had dried up, his mouth made empty by the realization that Sherlock had trapped him with more than just armed men.

When Sherlock still didn’t speak, John said, “What is it?”

Sherlock’s eyes looked dark, red-rimmed and faded with pain. He wet his lips before speaking, wincing at his own voice. “I’m sorry,” he said in a rough undertone.

John slowly folded his arms over his chest and nodded stiffly. “I know.” His words coaxed a tentative smile onto Sherlock’s pained face. John looked away, his confusion increasing at the sight of it. “That doesn’t mean I forgive you,” he added. He saw Sherlock grimace from the edge of his vision.

“I understand,” came the quiet reply, “and I promise that you’ll see why it was necessary.”

John clenched his teeth together. It was a long moment before he managed to respond. “Not sure you’re in the position to be making promises, Sherlock.” His statement hit its mark, and he caught Sherlock’s flinch from the corner of his eyes. The reaction made John wince as well, but he couldn’t take the words back. Instead, he glanced at Sherlock and doubled down. “Don’t ask me to trust you again.”

His forehead creased by a small frown, Sherlock blinked slowly at him. His tense posture communicating reluctance. But he nodded, and John relaxed his jaw. “I understand,” he repeated in a small voice. “And I’m sorry.”

“You’ve already said that,” John snapped. He couldn’t hear any more of Sherlock’s remorse. John didn’t want to comfort Sherlock when he was the one who got the short end of the stick. Sherlock’s mouth opened again, and John growled, “I think it’s better if you shut up now, Sherlock.” Catching the flicker of hurt in Sherlock’s eyes, John softened his voice with a sigh. “Please. Just… stop apologizing. I don’t want to hear it.”

Sherlock nodded again. The gesture was grudging, but he didn’t force the matter. Eyes sliding closed, he curled back into himself.

They both lapsed into silence. Like before, John was grateful for it. But there was an edge to the quiet now, a buzz of emotion that hadn’t been present earlier. Earlier, John had felt only his own anger, his rage filling the small space. Now, with his fury tempered by confusion and concern, he could feel Sherlock’s pain and regret. They were like physical entities, pressing desperate fingers to John’s skin, whispering in his ear.

He chanced a glance at Sherlock, saw his face creased by discomfort, and frowned. They both needed rest, but Sherlock was in far worse a state than John. If they were lucky, the car was taking them somewhere Sherlock could sleep.

“Do you know where we’re going?” John asked, with his voice pitched low.

One of Sherlock’s eyes opened. He looked at John, sat up slowly, and blinked both open. His gaze was dulled by pain, his skin pallid against the dark shadows beneath his eyes. “A safe house.” He sounded tired, worn-out to the bone. His eyelids fluttered in a wince, and Sherlock covered his eyes with a hand.

The corners of John’s mouth tugged down in reluctant sympathy. “Well,” he sighed, looking out the window at the night-dark landscape, “I suppose that’s a small positive.”

He saw the edge of Sherlock’s lips closest to him curl upward. “That’s the spirit, John. Silver lining.”

John forced back the urge to smile. Clearing his throat, he folded his arms over his chest. “Still mad at you.” Despite the statement, there was little venom in the words. He was tired, Sherlock was in pain, and John couldn’t quite find the energy to stoke the fading fires of his anger.

Sherlock let out a quiet laugh. It sounded relieved. “I don’t blame you.”

Something resembling peace followed his words, and John found himself relaxing. The remnants of his anger still buzzed throughout his body, but the raging blaze was, for now, contained.

The sound of a ringing phone made him jump. Sherlock jolted. Hand falling away from his eyes, he sat up with a frown. Sherlock blinked and glared as a panel slipped out from between their seats, and a phone rose into view. It rang again, making Sherlock hiss in pain before he seized it. He answered mid-ring with a sharp, “What?”

Brow furrowed, John watched as Sherlock’s eyes narrowed. He listened for a moment and pursed his lips.

Expression darkening, he snapped, “I’m aware, Mycroft.”

Ah. The brother. John clasped his hands together, trying to quell a flicker of anger. He might feel sympathetic toward Sherlock, injured and pitiful as he was, but those feelings didn’t extend to Sherlock’s brother.

Bottom lip turning white beneath the press of his teeth, John watched Sherlock with unblinking eyes and a frown.

“Yes, Mycroft. Yes. I understand.” Sherlock’s jaw clenched, his words annoyed. His gaze flickered to John, lingered, darted away. Voice lowering, he muttered, “It went about as well as you’d expect.” He listened, looked at John again. This time, there was the smallest hint of a smile on his lips. “No, I wouldn’t say John is your biggest fan right now.”

John smirked, piecing the conversation together. He felt an unexpected flicker of pleasure when Sherlock returned the expression and John tried to make his face blank. Judging by Sherlock’s raised eyebrow, he didn’t quite succeed. If anything, Sherlock’s own smirk widened.

“Sure, Mycroft. Whatever you like. Now, if you don’t mind… my head feels like a military testing site, and your voice is, frankly, grating. Laters!” Sherlock hung up the phone and banged on the device until it slipped back into the bench with a soft mechanical whir. Only then did he slump back down in his seat, the smirk finally fading. It was clear that just the conversation had been enough to sap what little of his strength remained.

Again, John warred with his sympathetic concern. He won, but only just. Clearing his throat, he asked, “What was that about?”

Sherlock waved a dismissive hand. “Mycroft sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. As always.” He shot John a sideways look, evaluating. “He wanted to know what happened at the dock. And you are aware of my response.”

John ducked his head to hide the small smirk returning to his lips. “I did,” he agreed. Before Sherlock could return the gesture, John forcefully schooled his expression into something less amused. “Anything else?” He kept the question casual, but Sherlock heard the distrust beneath the words.

He sat up at once, turning to John with an earnest expression. “No surprises this time, John. I swear.”

One eyebrow rising in suspicion, John tipped his head to the side. “I’ll believe that when I see it.”

Sherlock looked frustrated, then pained, then exhausted. Instead of putting up a fight, he sank down again and sighed. “Very well, John.” Rubbing a hand over his face, scrubbing some colour into his pallid cheeks, he closed his eyes. “We’ll be there soon.” He subsided into a tired silence.

Listening to the quiet hum of the vehicle, John stared at the glass partition between them and the front of the car. Now that he knew where they were headed and that it was a safe house, the last of his lingering adrenaline drained away. John wasn’t entirely at ease, still on edge about what might ultimately happen to him. But, for the moment, John thought he could relax. For the moment, he was safe.

Head tilted back against the seat, he let his eyes slide shut and waited for the car to stop.

Chapter Text

Sherlock woke with a jolt. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but he’d managed to doze off, lulled by the quiet hum of the engine. It was a moment before he realized where he was, why he was in a car, and who the tired, tense-looking man seated next to him was. His vision took longer to clear, John’s face slowly swimming into focus. Sherlock blinked at him and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“John.”

“I think we’re at the safe house,” John said. He squinted out the window. Sherlock saw it was far too dark to make out much while sitting up and looking out his own. But there was a light ahead, and he managed to open the door and push himself out of the car. His legs were shaky, threatening to buckle. The nap couldn’t have lasted longer than a few minutes, and Sherlock was exhausted. He closed the door behind him, resisted the urge to sag against it, and turned toward the brightness. It was a floodlight, illuminating a cobblestone driveway leading to a heavy gate. He looked over the roof of the car as John exited on the opposite side.

John paused and looked at the gate with a frown. “We’re not driving through?”

The man in the passenger seat, the one who had pointed a gun at John back at the ferry dock, answered the question. “No, Captain Watson. The car won’t remain on site.” He strode to the back of the vehicle as the boot popped open. He reached inside and pulled out their duffle bags, upper body bent over the open trunk.

Sherlock saw John eyeing the man’s gun and prayed he wouldn’t try anything stupid. But John only clenched his jaw and looked forward again. His eyes darted to Sherlock, his brow furrowing as his frown deepened. “I hope it’s not much of a walk.”

Was that concern Sherlock saw in his eyes? Maybe it was wishful thinking on his part, but he thought it might be.

“It’s not far, Captain Watson,” the man replied, slipping the duffles over his shoulders. “The front door is a few meters past the gate.”

John’s teeth clicked together hard enough for Sherlock to hear it on the other side of the car. “Stop calling me that.”

The man offered a passive smile, ignored the baiting tone, and gestured toward the gate. “After you, sirs.”

John flashed the man a mutinous glare but subsided. To Sherlock’s relief, he marched around the car and toward the gate without a word. It was a tall gate, solid wood rising to John’s height. It looked sturdy and heavy, and Sherlock eyed it warily as his fatigue increased at the sight. By the time he reached it, John had already unlatched and pushed it open. He hesitated, lingering with his eyes on Sherlock.

“You alright?”

Sherlock see-sawed a hand. “Tired,” he said, exhaustion evident in his quiet voice. John nodded and waited for him to walk through before leaving the armed man to wrestle with the gate and their bags. Sherlock smothered a smile at the blatant insult on John’s part.

Behind them, the car pulled away, backing down the long drive with a low revving sound.

Beyond the gate, the cobblestone lane led to the house. The exterior was beige stucco, the front door set in a recess with an arched overhang. It was two stories, the upper windows perfectly aligned and separated by an attractive brickwork facade. The yard was deep green, shaded by several trees and sporting a well-tended flowerbed. In addition to the large gate, a brick wall ran the property, protecting and hiding it from the road below, the house itself set on a hillside lane.

It looked like it probably cost at least a million and a half pounds, and Sherlock scowled. “Bit flashy, isn’t it?” he commented, eyeing the pristine walkway, “for a safe house?”

“It’s not always a safe house,” their escort said. “But, for now, it serves the purpose.”

They’d almost reached the front door when another man appeared around the side of the house. Sherlock startled as John tensed just ahead. He saw John’s hand dart to the small of his back, come up empty and drop back to his side. Reaching for the gun that wasn’t there. If John had been armed, Sherlock wondered if the man’s sudden appearance would have earned him a new orifice.

Oblivious to John’s reaction, the man barely glanced their way. He turned his focus to the operative accompanying them. “The exterior is secure,” he said, touching a finger to his ear. He repeated the words into the hidden earpiece. Nodding to the three of them, he disappeared around the opposite side of the house.

It was a moment before John unfroze. Sherlock watched him carefully, waiting for him to lead the way toward the front door. He did so with a wary glance at the corner of the building. “Anyone else going to pop out at me?” he asked. There was a hard edge to his voice that turned his question into a challenge.

The edge of Sherlock’s mouth twitched upward in a slight smile. The MI6 man with them seemed to have little in the way of a sense of humour, taking the question seriously.

“No, Captain Watson,” he replied in a curt voice. “You both may proceed into the house.” He shrugged their bags higher onto his shoulders. “I will attend to your things. Do not try to leave the property.” Ignoring John’s protests about his belongings, the man turned on his heel and strode off around the side of the house as well.

John stood on the front step and stared after him. He glanced at Sherlock and said, “You think they sleep in the backyard or something?”

The words were amusing, but Sherlock was too tired to show his appreciation. Instead, he lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug and pushed past John. The front door was unlocked, to his relief, and he entered the house without bothering to check the interior for threats. If Mycroft’s men said it was secure, then it was. Even if it wasn’t, Sherlock was far too exhausted to care. If someone attacked him right now, he’d welcome the assault as a chance to catch up on needed sleep.

Someone was waiting for them inside, but he wasn’t a threat, just another operative. Seated at a table in front of the open-concept kitchen, he rose as they entered, his posture stiff and formal.

“Welcome, Mister Holmes, Captain Watson.” Ignoring John’s annoyed grunt at the refuted title's continued use, the man glanced at Sherlock, dismissed him, and moved toward John.

John stiffened at once and backed away. Sherlock saw him again reaching for the gun that wasn’t there, the gesture accompanied by a frustrated grimace.

The MI6 agent paused and lifted an eyebrow. “I need to search you, Captain Watson.”

John’s eyes narrowed. “Like hell,” he snapped. He backed away, his upper lip curling back in a fierce expression of refusal. Before he could speak further, Sherlock stepped forward. The movement put him between John and the MI6 man, and he didn’t miss the quiet, surprised intake of breath from John.

“That won’t be necessary,” Sherlock said, offering a dazzling smile. The gesture irritated his throbbing head, but he didn’t let the expression slip.

The MI6 agent eyed him warily. “I’m sorry, sir, but it’s protocol.”

Sherlock’s smile widened. It stretched his lips and made them ache. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about your protocol,” he said, still with that shark’s grin in place. “John is unarmed. You don’t need to search him.”

Lips pursed, the man argued, “Sir, you can’t be certain of that.”

Sherlock narrowed his eyes. “And yet, I am. If he was armed, you’d probably be dead.” He heard a quiet sound from John and resisted the urge to glance over his shoulder. “I know my brother pads your bank accounts with hush-hush money for jobs like these, so you’re very loyal to him. Well,” Sherlock amended, mouth twitching in feigned amusement, “as loyal as government money can buy. Regardless, I suggest you heed me just as you would him.”

The man bristled at his words. “Mister Holmes,” he began, only for Sherlock to interrupt in a sharp voice.

“Unless you’d prefer I reveal the secret you’ve been keeping?” When the threat earned him no visible reaction, Sherlock cocked an eyebrow. “I see. So my brother didn’t tell you about what I do.” This time, hearing John make another noise, Sherlock did glance back at him.

John met his eyes, his gaze wary but edged with anticipation.

Despite the pain pulsing through his skull, Sherlock felt a thrill of excitement. Oh. His lips curled into something close to a genuine smile at the look in John’s eyes. This is going to be fun.

Turning back to the man, eyes darting over his form, Sherlock let fly. “Does your wife know you’re engaged in… hmm. Not one, but three affairs?”

The MI6 agent paled. “How—?” One hand twitched at his side, near the gun holstered on his hip. Sherlock felt tension radiate off of John like a physical force. He felt it against his back, and his smile widened. That’s it, John. Pick a side. Pick me.

Encouraged by the wave of protective agitation emanating from John, Sherlock barrelled onward. “I wonder what she would think if she found out that not only are you having said affairs, but that one is with her mother?” Sherlock tapped an inquisitive finger to his bottom lip, forgetting that it was still split and healing. Ignoring the sting of pain, he narrowed his eyes. “After you’ve just had your first child, too. That’s rather rude of you.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Shall I continue?”

His throat bobbing in a loud swallow, the MI6 man’s hand fell still. He shook his head, eyes wide. “How do you know all of that?”

Sherlock grinned. “Ah, so it is all true? I wasn’t sure about the mother. Thanks for the confirmation.” John made a quiet sound, something like a smothered laugh, and Sherlock bit back a laugh. He felt positively giddy despite his exhaustion. The last remnants of colour in the MI6 agent’s face drained away. Feigning a yawn, Sherlock waved his fingers in his direction. “I’m bored now. You are excused."

He received a venomous look, but the man retreated. He disappeared out a side entrance, past the dining table and out into the dark, the door slamming hard behind him. Sherlock crossed the entryway and locked it before turning to John. Pressing his back to the door, he tilted his head in an inquisitive gesture and waited.

John did not disappoint.

“Blimey,” he said, breathing an incredulous little laugh at the end of the curse. “You’re kind of terrifying, you know that?”

Sherlock offered a pleased smile. A thrill rippled through him, and he felt a flash of heat rise in his cheeks at the comment. “Coming from you, I’ll take that as a compliment.”

John’s mouth twitched, almost a smile. He didn’t look away, to Sherlock’s surprise, and they shared a silent moment of connection. With their eyes locked, it stretched out until Sherlock started to think everything might turn out alright. That John might just forgive him without further supplication on Sherlock’s part.

Then John’s expression closed off, and he looked away. The break of contact was like a physical blow, and Sherlock huffed out a breath. Arms folded over his chest, John clenched his jaw. “Any idea how long we’ll be here?” His voice was tense, making Sherlock sag in sudden exhaustion.

“I’m not sure,” he admitted, wincing when John frowned. “At least a couple of days. Or until Mycroft figures out the next step.”

John offered a curt nod. “Right.” He looked around the room, eyeing the stainless steel appliances in the kitchen, the granite countertops. There was a bowl of fruit on the counter, and he strode toward it. Snagging an apple, he bounced it in his palm and glanced toward the stairs just past the kitchen. “Bedrooms upstairs, you think?”

Still leaning against the door, Sherlock shrugged. “Seems likely.”

John nodded again. “Okay.” He turned toward the stairs, paused and looked at Sherlock. It looked like he wanted to say something, but he hesitated. In the end, he didn’t speak. Instead, he rolled the apple against his fingers and offered a final nod before striding toward the steps and disappearing upstairs.

Sherlock waited until he heard the sound of a door closing on the second floor before he slumped. He let the momentum of his tired body pull him to the ground until his legs slid out in front of him. Head tilted back against the door, he closed his eyes and breathed out a loud, heavy breath. The events of the day — the bus ride, the attack at his rented rooms, contacting Mycroft, the consulate, their phone call, the ferry ride and Mycroft’s ambush of John — settled upon him like a ton of bricks. So much had happened in one day. With all of it came the reminder that Sherlock had barely slept over the past three days and hadn’t consumed more than tea since the day before. Even with the lack of food, Sherlock’s stomach roiled with nausea instead of hunger. He’d never been a big eater, and his body still didn’t seem to care much for sustenance, even now.

Sitting on the floor, he felt sick. His head pulsed with pain, body aching from exhaustion. He heard the water running through pipes and deduced that John must be taking a shower. Sherlock considered taking one as well and grimaced. Just the thought of standing for any length of time, even under hot, soothing water, seemed more than he could handle in his current state. Eyes closed, he slumped against the door and listened to the sound of water humming through the pipes within the walls.

It was a while before Sherlock finally stirred. When he did, his body was stiff, and rising to his feet was a battle against himself. His fatigue was so intense, so absolute, that Sherlock found himself stumbling as he mounted the stairs. He eventually gained the second floor, leaning heavily on the wall with the climb.

He paused on the landing. There were five doors, two on each side, one at the end of a short hall. It looked like it lead out onto a patio, the night stretching beyond the glass panes set within a pale wooden frame. One door was open to Sherlock’s upper right, steam coiling out and turning the hall humid. Gibraltar was hot, even at night, and the extra warmth threatened to double the layer of sweat on Sherlock’s skin, coaxed out by his laborious climb up the stairs.

The door immediately to his right was closed, and Sherlock resisted the urge to check within. Instead, he dropped his gaze to the floor and saw the faint light of a lamp from beneath. As he watched, it disappeared, and the slit between hardwood and door went dark. John must have chosen that room as his own.

Sherlock turned to the right and saw there were two bedrooms, both with their doors open. He hesitated before choosing the one across from John’s. Stumbling inside, feet dragging with exhaustion, Sherlock paused in the doorway, flicking on the light switch as he looked around.

The room was a decent size, sparsely furnished. A queen-sized bed on a dark wood platform frame dominated the space, the bedding muted dove-grey tones that complimented the walls, painted a slightly darker grey. Two end tables bracketed the bed, each with a lamp. Resting on one was a mobile phone, and two sets of clothing sat on the duvet covering the mattress.

Beside them was what looked like a folder. A dossier stamped with the word Confidential.

Sherlock ignored it. He set it aside and reached for the clothes. Shaking them out, he saw they were his size and frowned, annoyed that Mycroft had guessed which room he’d choose. Unless John had considered this room first, seen the clothing, and searched for one with his own clothing? Had Mycroft provided John with clean clothes, as he had Sherlock? Or was he leaving John only the barest necessities, treating him like the rogue criminal he was?

The burning need to know the answer almost had Sherlock crossing the hall to knock on John’s door. But he stopped himself, grabbing the doorframe of his own room to keep himself in place. Instead of demanding answers from John, Sherlock turned to the bathroom. He didn’t shower but took advantage of the clean flannels, toothbrush and toothpaste to wash his face and brush his teeth.

When he turned to drop the rinsed toothbrush into a holder, he paused. There, freshly used and still damp, was John’s toothbrush. Sherlock stared at it, bemused by his sudden fascination with the mundane, common object. It was a moment before he slipped his own toothbrush into the holder space next to John’s. It felt deeply domestic, and Sherlock frowned at how his mind thrilled at the simpleness of the gesture. He dismissed it quickly, brow furrowed.

Clearly, he’d been alone far too long if he was getting this sentimental about sharing a toothbrush holder with a stranger. It was either that, or the concussion had shaken something loose in his head, and now he was no better than a dopey simpleton.

Sherlock splashed water on his face, combed a negligent hand through his hopelessly tangled curls, and admitted defeat. His headache was now so bad that his head seemed to ring with it. He left the bathroom and returned to his chosen room. Sherlock closed the door behind him and shifted the clean clothing to the bedside table, setting them atop the ignored folder. His eyes landed on and lingered on the manila cover, but he pushed aside the curiousity as another wave of exhaustion rolled through him.

Barely taking the time to strip out of his clothes and leave them on the floor, he slipped into the bed. The sheets were high quality, the thread count deliciously luxurious against his bare skin. Sherlock took a brief moment to appreciate lying in a bed that could accommodate his height and long limbs before shoving his face into a pillow and closing his eyes.

He tried to ignore the flashes of pain behind his eyelids. There was a brief, idle thought that this was one of the first times he and John had been apart in three days. Save for his time spent in the consulate, John had been almost always within arm’s reach since they met, and it felt strange knowing he was now an entire hallway and a room away.

Sherlock pushed the sentimental realization away with what little energy he had left and slipped into a deep, dreamless sleep.

 


 

Guilt followed John upstairs as he fled the kitchen and Sherlock. The remnants of the shattered moment they’d shared clung to him like a bad smell, layered over the scent of cowardice and lingering anger that painted his skin. John pushed the feelings back as best he could, turning his focus to the second floor once he reached the top of the stairs.

There were four doors, all of them open. John poked his head into each, found three bedrooms and a bathroom. After he’d discovered clothing in what looked like his size folded on the bed in one of the rooms, he frowned. There was a phone as well, something he hadn’t expected, and no sign of his personal belongings. The MI6 agents must have stashed their duffles somewhere, and John forced back his frustration by heading to the bathroom for a shower.

With the door locked behind him, he stepped inside. The bathroom was over-the-top nice, with granite surfaces, heated tiles underfoot, and a stand-alone tub. John ignored the splendour. He stripped and beelined for the enormous standing shower. John was quick and efficient, hoping to get clean and finish before Sherlock ventured upstairs. With no way of knowing how long he had, John focused on cleaning his wounds, hissing at the hot wash of water over the still-open cuts and marks marking his skin.

Most of his injuries were healing well. Only the one on his thigh, the graze from a sniper’s bullet, still offered real pain. His twisted knee gave a little pang, but it seemed mild, well-rested by the drive from the ferry to the house.

John cleaned the scabbing wound on his thigh carefully, relieved when the new skin held. He washed his hair and the rest of his body and stepped out, shutting the water off behind him. He ruffled his hair, dried his skin and wrapped a towel around his waist. Before walking out into the hall, John cracked the door open and listened. Hearing nothing, he peered out and saw the hallway was empty.

He hurried to his room, closing the door behind him. Dressing in a clean pair of pants from the offered clothes, John dropped onto the edge of the bed. The mattress was firm but comfortable, the plush bed a sizeable queen with pale beige bedding. John took a moment to rub his hand over the soft coverlet, letting himself admire the splendour. It had been years since he slept in a good bed, and he hoped he’d be able to actually sleep.

It wasn't a given that he would. With the way his mind raced, John wasn’t sure he’d be able to shut his brain off long enough to rest. Even with the soothing heat of the shower, he felt restless and on edge. His earlier discomfort, and ensuing anger, hadn’t entirely dissipated, and they both crept back in now. With the quiet all around him, the feelings were insidious. They reminded him of Sherlock’s actions, his betrayal. The way he’d tried to brush off John’s fury, only to devolve with pain and exhaustion. He’d made it difficult for John to stay mad at him, but now that there was space between them, the anger flooded back. With the return of that anger came the realization that there was nowhere for John to go. No way to burn it off. He couldn’t leave, didn’t even have the luxury of taking a walk to clear his head.

John groaned. He was too tired for the turmoil of his thoughts, but they refused to leave him in peace. Elbows planted on his thighs, he dropped his face into his hands and closed his eyes. Focused on his breathing, John listened to the rush of his pulse. The hammer of it within his ears, the sensation of his chest rising and falling with his slow inhales, his ragged exhales.

It helped, but not nearly enough.

Hands dropping, John straightened and blinked. Waiting for his eyes to adjust, he flicked on one of the lamps next to the bed. Each of the bedrooms had a similar layout. Just as he’d seen in the room across the hall, there was a phone on the end table.

John reached for it, hesitating before his fingers curled around the device. Expecting it to be dead, he was pleasantly surprised to see it held a full charge and glanced at the outlet next to the bed. A charge cord hung from a wall block. It seemed Sherlock’s brother had thought of everything.

Frowning, John wondered if he would meet the man called Mycroft. If his apprehension was anything to go by, it seemed impossible to think that he wouldn’t. Part of him hoped he never would, while a louder, angrier part wished for it just so John would have the opportunity to punch Sherlock’s brother in his smug face.

The mental image made John’s pulse quicken, his anger threatening to rise once more, and he forced his mind in another direction.

Attention turning to the phone in his hand, John opened the home screen. To his surprise, there was no available sim card, though it was already connected to the house’s wifi. Trying to ignore the frustration that he couldn’t make calls — not that he had anyone to call — John opened the browser app. He hesitated.

The phone was likely monitored: he’d be a moron to believe otherwise. Still, John thought, does it matter? If he searched whatever he wanted, did it really matter if Sherlock’s brother knew? It wasn’t like John could just leave, not with his things confiscated and at least three MI6 agents watching the house.

Blowing a sigh out through his teeth, John lay back on the bed. He stayed on the covers, comfortable but not too comfortable, and clicked the URL bar.

After only a brief moment of deliberation, teeth pressing into his bottom lip, he typed in Spain. Navigating the links, John researched the roads from Gibraltar to Spain: the major airports, the fastest route from where he was to where he wanted to be. He read several websites on Finland, returning to the idea he’d had on the ferry.

By the time he’d reached the end of a fourth, his eyelids began to droop. John struggled to keep them open, but his vision blurred, turning the phone screen into a wash of light and colour. Admitting defeat, he set the phone on the end table. Hands clasped on his chest, John looked up at the ceiling with half-open eyes and pondered the turn his day had taken.

He’d gone into this insanity on Sherlock’s word. Had trusted him about the phone call and about leaving Morocco. Sherlock had promised to keep him safe and help John escape the country. Despite the forceful way he’d been brought to his current location, John was safe. He couldn’t deny that. But nor could he dismiss the fact that Sherlock had kept the ambush to himself. He’d both kept and broken his word by choosing the path that best served his needs, John’s desires be damned. It was infuriating, exactly what John had feared, and completely understandable.

The worst of it was that John might have done the same if he’d been in Sherlock’s place. After all, John had been using him as well, using Sherlock and his connections to escape Morocco. And he’d done so by saying he’d stay and help past that point while having no intention to do so.

When he got right down to it, John was no better than Sherlock. But that didn’t make Sherlock’s betrayal any easier to swallow. If anything, the parallels between them made it more challenging. They proved to John something he’d feared: that Sherlock was like him. Almost too much like him. That was a problem. John was a dangerous man. And if Sherlock was like him, then he was just as dangerous. John wasn’t sure he could accept the risk of working with an equal like that. He was okay with Sherlock being an equal physically, able to hold his own and a clear asset. But someone who was as ruthless as John? Maybe even more so?

There was little comfort to be had in such equality.

Closing his eyes, John rocked his head back against the pillows and sighed. His thoughts were pointless. He was trapped, caught by Sherlock and his meddling brother with nowhere to go. It didn’t matter if Sherlock was too dangerous; John had no way of escaping.

The sound of steps on the stairs made his eyes flash open. Lying in the yellow glow of the lamp, John listened to Sherlock climbing the steps. He did so in fits and starts, his feet dragging until he reached the landing. John heard him pause and held his breath. When he didn’t hear Sherlock move, John leaned over and flicked off his lamp. Ears straining for even the softest sound, he waited until he heard Sherlock move down the hall.

John exhaled. The room was hot, the house nearly silent save for Sherlock’s quiet movements. Eyes open, staring at the ceiling, John listened to him in the room across the hall. He listened to him move into the bathroom. The sound of the sink hummed through the shared wall, and John slowly blinked his eyes closed.

He didn’t think he would sleep, but, with the sound of water creaking through the pipes, he did.

 


 

Sherlock woke to the sound of ringing. For a moment, he thought it was inside his skull. But as the edges of sleep cleared away, Sherlock pinpointed the noise. It came from an external source, and he sat up slowly, eyes drawn to the phone on the end table. He frowned, blinked, and grabbed for the mobile.

Before he answered, Sherlock already knew who would be on the other end. “What, Mycroft?”

His brother breathed a low, annoyed sigh over the line. “Good morning to you, too, Sherlock.”

Sherlock wriggled back against the pillows and leaned into the headboard. “I was sleeping.”

“I’ve been up for two hours already.”

Rolling his eyes, Sherlock glanced at his watch. It was a little past 9 am. “Must be a real struggle for you, what with your cushy desk job and all the employees at your constant beck and call. Would you like a medal?” he asked sarcastically.

Another sigh. “Charming.” Mycroft cleared his throat, and Sherlock heard the change in his tone within the noise: back to business. As usual. “Regarding your companion.”

Sherlock’s teeth clamped together with a click. It was a struggle to pry them open again. Eyes narrowed, he said, “Leave it, Mycroft.”

“Sherlock.”

“You’ve done enough.” Sherlock glared at the coverlet beneath him. Digging the fingers of one hand into the fabric, gripping the phone against his ear with the other, his jaw clenched. “Let me handle what comes next.”

“I can’t do that, Sherlock.”

Sherlock sat upright. “Excuse me?” He moved too fast, and the room spun. Closing his eyes, palm pressed to his now-throbbing forehead, Sherlock snapped, “You will keep your sticky, meddling fingers out of this, Mycroft. Or I’ll—”

His brother interrupted the unvoiced threat with a scoff. “Or you’ll what, Sherlock? You have nothing to threaten me with. No power that doesn’t first pass through my hands.”

The words stung. Partly because they were correct and because it was cruel of Mycroft to hold his weaknesses over him. Sherlock forced his eyes open, hand blocking one and cutting off half his vision. Things looked a little grey at the edges. “I have John.”

He could hear the amusement in Mycroft’s exhale. “Do you really, Sherlock?” There was a brief silence, followed by, “I’ve sent you the logs from his browser searches last night. If you check, you’ll see that he was searching up possible escape routes. You can’t trust him, Sherlock.” Mycroft’s voice lowered with his growing intensity. “I am your only real ally. Don’t place your trust in this man. Please.”

Sherlock frowned at the plea. It sounded genuine, a rarity for his politically-minded, mask-wearing brother. Sherlock felt his pulse quicken in response to the gravity in Mycroft’s voice. He took a moment to process the words, trying to think past the throb of pain hammering at his temples. When Sherlock finally replied, he pushed the response through his gritted teeth, growling, “Stay out of it, Mycroft.” He moved to end the call, but Mycroft called him back.

“Sherlock.”

Phone pressed hard to his ear, Sherlock snapped, “What?”

There was a pause, Mycroft hesitating. He started to speak, stopped, and began again. “I will be keeping a close eye on the situation. If I’m not pleased with what I find, there will be consequences. And Sherlock? Those consequences won’t be yours.”

“Bugger off, Mycroft,” Sherlock hissed. He ended the call with a forceful smash of his thumb against the mobile screen. It was nowhere near as satisfying as hanging up a receiver, and he hurled the phone across the room for good measure. It skidded across the carpet and into the wall with a pleasing thud. Sherlock didn’t bother to check if it was broken. Dropping back to the mattress, he pulled a pillow over his head and groaned.

Why did nothing ever go the way he needed it to? His plans never seemed to pan out, to his endless frustration. And Mycroft was right. Sherlock had little in the form of support, allies, and help.

His brother’s meddling was as unwelcome as it was infuriating.

Head still throbbing, Sherlock swung his legs over the edge of the mattress. He moved as if to rise, caught sight of the dossier on the bedside table and paused. Brow furrowed, Sherlock stared at the folder, warring with himself.

In the end, he couldn’t help but reach for it.

Snagging the file, Sherlock slid back up to the headboard. Knees bent, he opened the folder and set it against the shelf of his thighs. The first page was a photo of John. He was looking into the distance, wearing a dark jacket, his hair cut shorter than Sherlock had ever seen it. There was far less silver, the colour closer to a dishwater-blond than the grey it was now. Cropped at upper chest level, the photo looked like it had been taken close-up, but Sherlock would bet his meagre savings that it had been far enough away for John not to notice the surveillance.

Though Sherlock squinted at the background, it was far too blurry for him to make out the location. Despite the shorter hair, the lack of greys, Sherlock was sure the photo couldn’t be more than a few years old. Something about John’s expression looked hard, closed off. If Sherlock looked close enough, he thought maybe there was a sort of sadness in his eyes. In the slightly downturned curl of his mouth. Something that made him look a little… lost.

Sherlock grunted and rolled his eyes at his own sentiment. He moved on from the photo. Printed below it was John’s full name: Captain John Hamish Watson.

Sherlock stared. John. John Hamish Watson. The Watson he wasn’t surprised at: the MI6 men had referred to John as Captain Watson multiple times. Having deduced the Captain part for himself upon their first meeting, Sherlock wasn’t off-guard there. But… Hamish? And John?

“His name is actually John,” he said aloud to the room, dumbfounded. John had given his real name to the man at the bus depot. He hadn’t even bothered to correct Sherlock when he thought it was fake. Suddenly, John’s odd look when Sherlock insulted his ‘fake name’ and called it dull made sense. All along, he’d known John’s real name and hadn’t even realized. Some genius he was.

Scowling, Sherlock thought, there’s always something.

He flipped to the next page. There was John’s date of birth — April 23rd, 1971 — where he’d been born, his parent’s names. Hamish and Joan Watson. Well, that explained the middle name. Scottish, if Sherlock wasn’t mistaken. Though, after failing to realize John’s first name wasn’t actually false, Sherlock couldn’t be sure anymore.

The first few pages of the dossier outlined John’s childhood. A quiet child with anger problems that rose in his early teens. Child services called several times to his childhood home for reports of neglect and abuse. Nothing sexual, but it appeared John’s father had been a man with heavy hands and a proclivity for drink. That explained John’s sister’s own alcoholism. It also revealed the depths of John’s reticence, his slow-to-trust personality. Based on what Sherlock read here, the torture in Afghanistan had only exacerbated a pre-existing temperament of wariness and distrust.

There was John’s parents' death, his time in medical school, and his enlistment with the army. Notes about his time in basic training, his performance in the field, his promotion from new recruit and upward, finally to Captain. Reading the folder, Sherlock couldn’t help but feel a flicker of discomfort. This felt worse than if he’d spied on John in the shower or something as socially unacceptable. This was John’s entire life, laid out at Sherlock’s fingertips, compiled by Mycroft and given to him without John’s consent.

Still, Sherlock found himself unable to stop reading. He flipped through the folder, pausing when he reached a page of handwritten notes: John’s psych evaluation following his torture. From the sound of it, the initial eval was completed when he was still heavily sedated after his rescue. John’s responses to the questions asked of him made little sense, and the diagnosis was that he likely had PTSD. In following evaluations, that diagnosis was confirmed, the psych consult noting the pervasive level of John’s trauma, both from childhood and in the army.

After the psychiatric notes were pages of medical forms. They documented John’s state upon arrival at the trauma unit on base. They were blunt and to-the-point, his condition outlined in thick, heavy medical jargon. With his learned knowledge and first-hand experience of crime scenes, Sherlock had no trouble deciphering the notes. What he read made his stomach twist. Broken bones, internal bleeding, head trauma… compiled together like this, John’s ordeal at the hand of men he’d trusted sounded far worse. John had clearly glossed over the details, sparing Sherlock the in-depth version. Reading it now, laid out like this… it made the scars on John’s back seem like small potatoes in comparison.

Sickened by the new knowledge, Sherlock flipped past the rest of the medical notes without reading further. He didn’t need to know the details and doubted John would want him to know. He didn’t think John would want him to read about how they’d bent John’s fingers back on his right hand until the bones cracked. How they’d drawn a knife over his spine, nearly severing every nerve, but refusing to lest John lose the connection between brain and body that let him feel pain.

Tasting bile in the back of his throat, Sherlock paged to a set of notes stamped with Mycroft’s official seal. Here, he read about John’s life after his discharge, his time after leaving London behind. How he’d disappeared for several months, lost until they discovered him in Australia. From there, they’d tracked him to Russia, lost him for nearly a year, only for John to turn up again in Bolivia. It looked like they’d kept passive tabs on him over the years. There were long gaps between sightings, and John aged noticeably faster in each photo. After they tracked him to Thailand, the trail went dark.

On the last page, there was a short note: Subject is highly skilled and dangerous. Multiple illegal kills enacted through employment with hostile, terrorist agencies. Passive watch continued until status change.

Added beneath that, in fresh ink, was Mycroft’s neat, looping handwriting.

Last known location: Morocco, en route to Gibraltar with protected liability. Detainment plan in place. Status updated from passive watch to active containment.

Sherlock’s breath rushed out through his teeth. He jolted, and his hands curled into fists, crinkling the pages until he forced himself to relax. His grip shook severely enough to force him to close the folder when the words began to swim.

Detainment plan. Active containment. The words echoed through Sherlock's head like the dying fade of a scream.

Closing his eyes, Sherlock set the folder on the bed and leaned back against the headboard. A growing sense of horror rose in his chest, making his brow furrow, his lips tighten. His mouth tasted bitter, and he bit back the urge to retch.

He had betrayed John, and far worse than Sherlock initially realized. And it hadn’t even been on purpose.

The notes told an undeniable story: Mycroft had no intention of letting John disappear. Bringing him here, Sherlock had ensured John's imprisonment by leading John into his brother’s trap. He could see no other possibility. Mycroft clearly planned to keep John on British soil, ending any chance John had of escaping punishment for his crimes.

John’s worse fear was being realized, and it was happening at Sherlock’s own hands.