The street-lamp flickered dismally as darkness settled over the grimy London road. There was no one about anymore, really; everyone had settled into their homes for the night, and the solitary man trudging along with his hands fisted deep in the pockets of his ratty jacket couldn’t help but stare longingly through the windows he passed. All these people whose families were intact and functional, who didn’t have to panic each day about where the next meal would come from, or how they would provide for those they were responsible for.
His stomach growled at him, as though he needed the reminder that he hadn’t found work that day. He dreaded returning to the miserable little bedsit he’d left his sister in. He knew the landlady was getting ready to kick them out, as she hadn’t seen a 6-pence worth of rent in over two months. Anything he earned immediately got spent on food and clothes, trying to clean his helpless sister up. He couldn’t even risk bringing money back; if she thought he had any, she’d steal it for cheap booze. It wouldn’t make her feel better, and he’d be rightly pissed, which would send her further into another down spiral. It was hopeless.
He reached his own street and paused, staring up at the window of their temporary home. A dim light flickered, indicating that she was still awake. Probably waiting for him to bring her food. His eyes stung as he imagined telling her for the third day in a row that he hadn’t found anything.
Irritably he scrubbed a hand across his eyes. He was an adult, and he had to take care of her--even if she was older than he was, the useless...No. He couldn’t resent her. She already hated herself. He wasn’t going to push her away and risk losing her like they’d lost their mum.
A sudden burst of loud laughter drew his attention to the pub across the road, where he could see two men stepping into the street. One was small and wiry, dressed impeccably in a pale grey suit that even from a distance, was clearly high quality and expensive. His eyes narrowed at the seemingly drunk man, who had an arm slung over his taller companion’s shoulders, contemplating what a wealthy man would be doing drinking in this part of the city. Unbidden, his feet carried him across the road, following where the two had headed toward the car lot behind the pub.
From the shadows, he could see that the second man was much less well-dressed, wearing scuffed jeans and a black t-shirt with an army-grade jacket that looked like it had fit him better when he’d had more bulk. His hair was shaggy and his face was prematurely lined; the dim light of a lamppost revealed a day’s worth of stubble on his cheeks. From the way he carefully maneuvered his drunken associate toward the black car ahead of them, he seemed to prioritize this man’s care about his own comfort.
No matter to the exhausted man watching them. This was a good mark for a swift pocket-picking, and maybe he’d be able to get a meat pie from the pub to take home. Hot, fresh food was too strong a motivator for him to bother calculating the risks. If he had, he would have seen that he was doomed.
He crossed the car lot at a swift pace, angling to intersect just behind the pair before they reached the car. A quick once-over indicated that there was a wallet in Soldier-Boy’s pocket, the corner of the leather just visible. He passed them just as the second man straightened up, laughing at something his companion had told him and replying in a low voice.
It could have gone smoothly. The would-be thief’s fingers were nimble, and he’d done this a dozen times in the last few years, desperate for money. It should have gone well. He had skimmed the cotton of the jacket, had felt the hard edge of the leather wallet between his fingertips as he twisted his shoulders, as though brushing hurriedly past them.
A vice-like grip closed around his wrist, and he gasped in shock as he was abruptly twisted around, his arm being bent awkwardly and pinned against his lower back, and he was forced to his knees from the excruciating sting of it. It was Soldier-Boy who held him down, and he began shaking with fear as the other--who was very suddenly not drunkenly weaving, or remotely unbalanced--stepped in front of him, gazing down at him with a cold curiosity gleaming in his disturbingly black eyes. His hands slipped into the pockets of his perfectly tailored trousers as he regarded the hunched man before him, studying him like a specimen on display for analysis.
“Well, now, you certainly don’t look the sort for petty crime, sonny-boy. What on earth made you try that little stunt?” His voice had a beautiful Irish lilt to it, but there was an undercurrent of threat that made his captive’s hair stand on-end. He shuddered.
“I...I didn’t, I’m not--I’m just--I’m desperate, mate, I’m sorry--”
A waved hand silenced him. “Enough. What’ve you got to be desperate about, then? You look sturdy enough, could work in a factory or something.” A handsome leather shoe lifted, and he nudged the kneeling man’s leg contemptuously, as though mocking his solid build.
Fear and hunger were making him jumpy, and he attempted to lunge free, suddenly wanting to rip into this arrogant Irish bastard.
Fire seared through his shoulders and back as the soldier restrained him almost effortlessly, digging one knee into the small of his back to cripple his struggling. He let out a low groan of rage as he subsided.
Those fathomless dark eyes were glittering as he evaluated the subdued man. “What is your name, sonny-boy?”
Pain and anger laced his voice with venom. “John.”
“John,” he spat savagely, not willing to tolerate the condescending pet name. “John...Watson.”
“Mmm.” The Irishman circled him, tapping a slender finger thoughtfully against his lip as he considered. “What made you desperate enough to pick pockets, Johnny boy?”
John gritted his teeth hatefully. “I...I have someone depending on me. I need the money.”
This made the other man pause. “You have someone--you’re stealing pocket books to take care of another person?” His tone was incredulous. “You have the starved-pit-bull look of a man backed into a corner, ready to come out biting, Johnny boy, what’re you doing looking after someone else?” He heard the grumble of John’s stomach--Now?? John thought at it irritably, Why do you have to pipe up now?--and he grinned maliciously. “When did you last eat, Johnny boy?”
“My name is John,” he said coldly. “And piss off.”
This earned him a solid cuff to the back of his head from Soldier-Boy, who still hadn’t said a word. John yelped, and through the ugly ringing in his ears now, he heard that damn Irish voice say teasingly, like chiding a kid, “Now, Seb, he’s just snarling like the good hungry puppy he is. Can’t break too quickly, even as close to shattering as he is.”
Suddenly he was in front of John again, crouching in front of him, and John did growl out loud as cold fingers slid under his chin, forcing his face up. Stormy blue eyes met beetle-like black. The Irishman looked downright...ravenous. John’s stomach suddenly twisted with a new kind of fear.
“How would you like to have those problems solved, Johnny boy?” An idle smirk flashed across his face. “Whoever it is you’re being oh-so-noble for, I could get them looked after. What’s wrong with them?”
Much as John was longing to bite the fingers caressing his skin and then bolt to freedom, he was beginning to realize he was well and truly fucked. And more than that...the possibility of getting proper help for his self-destructive sister was just a bit too good to resist out of pride. Or self-preservation.
“My sister.” His voice was hoarse and airless, and he had to swallow and lick his lips in order to speak. The Irishman tracked the flesh of pink muscle with a rabid excitement in his bottomless eyes. “My sister, she’s, she wrecked herself on booze. We’ve got no one else. I’m the only one who’ll try and help, but she’s...I can’t get her to quit. And I can’t even fuckin’ feed her, can’t get a job, or...” He trailed off, grief closing his throat. Perhaps all he was accomplishing was getting both he and Harry murdered. Idiot.
The fingers on his jaw tightened, maybe his eyes snap up again. The man’s face was so impassive and calculating. It sickened him.
Abruptly he stood. The hand on his cheek slid to his hair, and he shuddered as he felt it caressing, stroking through the uncombed strands.
“What would you do if I had Seb let you go right now, Johnny boy?”
The pet name erased whatever flickering hope he’d wanted to feel about getting Harry help. “I’d most likely knock your teeth in and run for it.” The grip tightening warningly on his arms hurt like hell, but he didn’t regret his words.
To his dismay, that answer prompted a deep, genuine laugh. “Oh, good, GOOD, Johnny boy! Not willing to lose your spirit, that’s for certain. Oh, I could have some fun with you. I think I will.”
And then he was crouching again, gripping John by a handful of his hair, grinning as he yelped in pain, and leaning close to speak to him heatedly. “I’ll offer you a deal, Johnny boy, and I think you’ll agree it’s a tough one to refuse. If you come along and behave yourself for me, like a good dog, I’ll see to it that you’re looked after, take care of you myself--” John must’ve looked confused at that, because very abruptly his captor leaned in, slamming his mouth against John’s, attacking his lips in a bruising, fierce kiss that felt more like a bite, repulsing him-- “--so long as you play by the rules, and do as you’re told. Whatever you’re told. You do any job I give you, you obey my orders.”
Seeing John’s horror at his words, he grinned. “It’s not just sweet for you, Johnny boy. Do it, and I take your sister away, put her in the best rehab program in existence, and get her life together. You wouldn’t be jumping meal-to-meal trying to keep her alive. She’d get it under control and be able to look after herself. How does that sound?”
It sounded too good to be true, that was for damn sure. John stayed absolutely still, chest heaving, unable to believe what he was hearing. “What...what kind of jobs would I have to do?” His voice was just a whisper, which annoyed him, but he was just too far out of his depth.
Those cold features twitched into an alarming grin. “Whatever I say, Johnny boy. I own a string of...leisure clubs, if you will. I need handsome lads like you to keep my clients happy.”
John felt the blood drain from his cheeks at those words. His voice cracked. “You want to pimp me out in exchange for helping my sister?”
The Irishman snorted, looking up past John, presumably at the man he’d called Seb. “Charming, isn’t it. He goes from a snarling dog to a saintly prude in a flash.” Ducking his face back down, he tugged painfully on John’s hair. “Well, I suppose that’s a good descriptor, though...right down to the fun little detail where I get to play with you anytime I like. But if you think you can clean her up yourself, Johnny, by all means--well. I say that, but if I let you slip away now, I imagine you’ll find yourself having an ugly ‘accident’ at some point soon. What do you think, Seb?”
“I’d say that’s guaranteed, boss,” the man still holding John said, his voice a low rumble that made John jump. His mouth opened and closed helplessly a few times. “You--so--you’re saying I do this or die?” Hysteria was threatening to overwhelm him. “What the hell--who the fuck are you?”
The other man grinned ferally and stood, straightening his jacket meticulously. “Call me Jim, Johnny boy, and that’s all you need to know. I think it’s a rather good offer, really, but then again, I’m the one getting the sweet end of it.” His gaze roamed over John’s body, making him nauseous. “But I won’t force you. Really,” he added with a chuckle, when John gave him a withering glare. “Your decision, Johnny boy. Make it.”
John breathed shallowly, in and out, trying to make sense of the hell he’d just stepped into. He thought of Harry, alone in that rotten little bedsit, waiting for him, scared and alone. He retched abruptly, dry-heaving as his body tried to expel the knots that were twisting his gut. He’d half-hoped Seb’s grasp would loosen as he shook, but there was no give.
Jim suddenly spoke up, his voice sing-songy and horrifying. “I’m surprisingly less patient than I let people believe, Johnny, and I really won’t ask multiple times.” He drew out a phone, checking the screen, and gave John one last cursory glance. “Maybe I’ll just have Seb snap your little neck and leave you here for someone to find...when do you suppose they’d tell your sister?”
John flinched as Seb leaned over him threateningly, and his voice came out as a yelp. “Okay--yes! God, oh God, help me...yes, I’ll do it.” He stared up at Jim, eyes stinging. “You swear you’ll help Harr--Harriet?”
The Irishman gave him a look of pure, psychopathic delight that sent icy chills all down his spine. “You’ve my word, Johnny boy. Behave yourself, and she’ll be well looked after.”
Swallowing down his pride, his grief, and the overwhelming fear, John nodded in response. Jim’s hand flicked, and before John could ask what happened now, he felt the solid weight of a heavy hand strike the back of his head, and whether it was just the blow, or the days of hunger and weeks of fear and the dizzying emotional exhaustion--John slumped forward, succombing to the darkness.