For a split second, Daniel Schreber hesitates as he stands over top the bound and helpless form of one John Murdoch. The Strangers black syringe is cold and hard between his fingers. His own is still hidden in John's breast pocket.
He could use either, easy as breathing, but the consequences are nothing but. It ought to be easy. The devil he knows is predictable; the pain he has endured for years is familiar.
John Murdoch, determined and afraid and passionate, is neither. Daniel remembers the wire frames of his glasses glowing red hot. He remembers the look in John's eyes and shudders.
"Imprint, Doctor. No more disobedience."
Daniel's fingers grip the black syringe tighter. Then he grabs for the one in John's pocket and drives the needle home, all the while hoping that he isn't condemning himself to drown.
Daniel's created contingencies, of course. He'd been too afraid not to. He'd used his own form intentionally, engraved himself on John Murdoch's psyche as one to be admired and respected, just in case his future dealings with John are anything less than congenial. He'd placed careful controls, hidden inside of a lifetime of teaching a man to be a god. He tells himself that he's being careful, prudent, and tries to push away the sickening feeling of being like them.
Activating any of those of controls isn't ideal, it isn't plan A, of course. That would be too obvious. 'Plan Anna' is the more appropriate choice, the fairy tale ending, and after John Murdoch has razed the strangers to the ground and rebuilt The City in his own image she is the first place Daniel goes. Just to make sure she's been properly activated, starting out to Shell Beach with nothing in her head but a romantic longing for the sea.
Then, with nothing more to do but wait, he goes to bed and sleeps through the entirety of the first day The City has ever seen.
Two words in the twilight as Daniel approaches his office are all that it takes to send adrenaline pumping through his veins. Daniel tries to pull a deep breath, forcing calm as he turns. "Mr. Murdoch."
John looks much the way he'd left him, olive trench coat over a new set of clothes, his collar rumpled. There's a hesitance in his manner that Daniel hasn't expected. He watches John closely, trying to read his mood.
"Still just 'Mr. Murdoch'?" John asks, lips twitching into a smile. "I thought after all we'd been through we'd be past that by now."
"Of course. My apologies, John." His familiarity isn't surprising, not after the imprint. But his presence is. Daniel steps forward, turning on friendly concern. "Is everything alright? Did you find Anna?"
There's a flicker of emotion in John's expression that looks very much like hurt, which is quickly schooled away. "No. Well, yes. But no. She's not... real, is she? She's not one of us anymore."
Shit. "One of us?" Daniel asks carefully, and John nods.
"Yeah. Bumstead's dead. She's been... reimprinted. So now it's just you and me, right?"
"I..." Daniel's voice catches in his throat. But there's a desperation to John's words that he can't ignore. He can't let John Murdoch go unchecked. If 'Plan Anna' has failed, it's time to move on to the next contingency. He could try and fix Anna, of course - despite what he's told John, he still has access to his fully in-tact laboratory - but he can't deny the danger inherent in trusting anyone else to handle a man with this kind of power, even if it is someone he creates himself. "Certainly, John. If you can... forgive me for my part in all of it."
John shrugs. "I was thinking we should celebrate, actually. Dinner, couple bottles of champagne. What do you say?"
A single imprinted trigger, and he could have John eating out of the palm of his hand, if he wanted. Five very specific words from his lips, and the new God of The City would do anything that he asked. Plan Last Resort.
He's relieved that John has given him a slightly less immoral path to take. So he keeps his voice soft and steps into him, straightening John's collar before slipping his arm through his. "I'd like that, John."
Daniel tries to stay sober, switching his champagne flute for John's when he's not looking, or dumping it when he can get away with it. It doesn't work as well as he'd like it to - by the time they leave the restaurant he feels near overheated and giddy, half-stumbling as he holds to John's arm. Still, the evening has gone exactly where he's intended, his innocent flirtation gradually growing more obvious, more open, slowly and skillfully drawing John in.
When he pulls John into an alley and through a utility door that no-one knows is unlocked but him, John follows without question.
Then he's pushing Daniel up against the wall, and their mouths crashing together in the darkness, sticky-sharp with champagne. "Need you so bad," John breathes. His hand gropes for the front of Daniel's slacks and Daniel doesn't have to fake anything - John is handsome enough, and he can't remember ever having anything more than his own right hand.
He'd intended to blow John, before John had pinned him so insistently to the wall. He can work with this, though, tugging John's slacks open to jerk him, to match the rhythm of John's hand on his cock. And perhaps this is better; now he can tangle his free hand in John's hair, hold him to kisses that grow rougher and more desperate with the stroke of John's fingers. Now he can whimper John's name into his mouth, begging for more, rutting up into John's touch like he can't get enough, like it's the best thing he's ever had.
The fact that it's all true is neither here nor there.
John's touch is rough and fumbled, but the desperation of it all is maddeningly good. He stops just long enough to lick his own palm, and suddenly Daniel can't think anymore, pleasure eclipsing every thought as he spills in John's fingers.
"My Daniel," John gasps desperately, and if Daniel hadn't just come those words would terrify him. But John's fingers are curling around his, slick with his seed, guiding his touch as John fucks up into his fingers. He buries his face in Daniel's hair with a choked cry, and then he's coming hot and slick against Daniel's palm.
It leaves Daniel feeling surprisingly satisfied.
"I was so worried you wouldn't need me," John murmurs, so suddenly vulnerable that Daniel's heart skips a beat. But this is the kind of vulnerability he needs to use, so he pushes away his own feelings and leans up to kiss him, stroking his fingers through his hair.
"Of course I need you," he replies, keeping his voice gentle, and the kiss he receives in return is slow and intense and trembling.
But then John says, "I'll tidy up," and in the instant of finding himself clean of bodily fluids Daniel is reminded of all that John is capable of, and is suddenly stone cold sober.
He swallows hard, then reaches up to kiss him, stroking his fingers gently through the hair at the back of his neck. "I don't want this to end yet," he murmurs with complete sincerity. He'll do whatever is necessary to get John to stay. "Come home for coffee with me."
"I'd really like that," John replies, and Daniel tries to ignore the surge of guilt he feels as they leave.
John comes back the next evening, and the next. He doesn't, to Daniel's relief, ask him to leave the city. He's not certain he could handle being in Shell Beach. Seeing that incredible display of power.
"Do you trust me?" Still between his thighs, John's lips brush the spot on his neck where his teeth had been worrying pleasure just moments previous. Daniel's seed is still cooling between them.
Daniel bites his tongue on an immediate reply of I have to. "Yes."
He feels John relax against him. He's smiling when he pulls back to look down on him. "Will you let me fix your eye, then? And anything else that hurts you?"
The thought of letting John Murdoch's power change his own skin terrifies him, and in a split second those five words flick across his mind. The power to control him. Daniel forces himself push away the temptation born of fear, to make himself smile and stroke a sweat-damp curl off the side of John's face. "I'd be grateful, John."
Despite never having had any experience with it himself, Daniel knows well how love is born. He's set the stage for it time and time again, created memories of intimacy and vulnerability and desire with the knowledge that they'd bloom into something more. Somehow he doesn't connect the dots between this and 'Plan Integrate Self in John Murdoch's Life' until it's far, far too late.
John still terrifies him. He supposes he's spent too long being afraid for it to stop all at once. But despite his small and constant displays of power - creating breakfast, upgrading Daniel's suits to a much more expensive wool, kissing his papercut literally better - John has yet to do anything specifically concerning. He tries to take comfort in that.
He needs John Murdoch to need him, and now when steps up against his back and bends to kiss his neck and sends adrenaline spikes through his veins Daniel can't tell if it's from fear or desire. Perhaps both combined. The thought of failing, of watching John walk away, makes his heart ache and his skin grow cold. There's more on the line than ever before.
At least giving himself to John with complete abandon is easy when he himself wants it so badly. He opens up without restraint and lays himself bare before him, and when he speaks of utter loneliness turned completion in John's arms, none of it is a lie. But he can't forget that the base purpose of all of this - falling in love with John, making John love him - was to control him, manipulate him. The fear of what will happen if - when - John ever finds out gnaws at him constantly, stress a dull ache of pain in the back of his head that he can't ever get rid of.
There's still 'Plan Last Resort', of course. Five words, the ultimate failsafe. But now the thought of using it makes him sick to his stomach, as does the inevitability of that day eventually coming. Perhaps that's what he's really terrified of.
"I wish I could help you stop worrying," John says after kissing him hello, standing in the front entry of his apartment. He presses a kiss between Daniel's eyebrows, fingers stroking up to rub the back of his neck, right in at that point of unending tension that is his fear of John Murdoch.
Daniel closes his eyes, guilt warring with that unending fear. "I'm sorry," he says softly. "There's so much to consider. The City, all these people who don't know.... We're all alone, out here."
"I'll take care of us," John murmurs, nuzzling his hair. "Trust me."
He wants to, so badly. More than anything. Daniel forces himself to breathe past the knot in his throat, tilting his face up for a kiss. "Will you come help me stop thinking about it?" he whispers, and John gives a soft, needy groan.
"Of course, sweetheart."
Being with John is always easiest when they're in bed, when he can stop thinking about the lie that started all of this and give himself over to the pleasure of John's lips on his skin. That John approaches lovemaking with the same focus and all-consuming passion that he does most everything has ceased to terrify him. Now he lets his mind go blank as his lips part to the press of his tongue, sighing as John maps his lips with slow kisses and tender nibbles that gradually grow more impassioned as he divests Daniel of his clothing piece by piece.
If John has picked up on his worry, he'll need to do his best to distract him from it. One of the many things he worries about is keeping John interested, especially considering how frequently and consistently they find themselves here. John has never displayed anything less than approval, thank god, even in the beginning, when Daniel's attempts to please him were clumsy and awkward. Still, it would have been irresponsible to not do his research, and Daniel has a carefully ordered list of kinks and fetishes, prepared to escalate their lovemaking whenever necessary.
Then John's teeth press into a certain spot on his neck, and his thoughts stutter to a stop in a helpless whimper. "Stop thinking," John murmurs, soothing the bite with his tongue. His cock, hot and heavy, presses a little harder into Daniel's stomach as he shifts over him. "I don't want you thinking about anything but me."
"I'm not," Daniel answers truthfully, and when John draws back to look down on him his smile is dubious and a little sad.
"I'll take care of the city," he says softly. "I promise. Trust me, okay?"
"I do," Daniel whispers, and tries to remind himself that his own words are a lie. It's becoming increasingly harder, especially in moments like this, the intensity in the gaze of John's green eyes mixed with adoration and gentle concern.
He needs to escalate. Needs to distract him. The how is something he's been holding back despite how effective he knows it will be. It terrifies him to ask for it. It terrifies him to realize how much he wants it.
He runs a hand up John's chest, watching his fingers move over the familiar lines of his body, fingers briefly tugging at light whirls of chest hair, which makes John hum in appreciation. He traces along John's collarbone and up the side of his neck, over skin just barely roughened with the evening's stubble. When he cups his cheek, John turns his face to press a kiss to his palm. "Tell me what's on your mind?"
Daniel takes a slow breath, trying to convince himself to commit. "You fixed my eye, once. My leg. Can you fix anything, John?"
"Most anything," John agrees, mouthing soft kisses along the pads of his palm. "I'll keep you safe, Daniel."
"No matter what? If I wanted to try something that might be... dangerous...."
John nods, and bends to kiss him. "I promise I'll always take care of you," he murmurs, voice thick with emotion, so fervent that it makes Daniel want to cry.
He whispers what he wants.
John freezes, and for a moment Daniel worries he's gone too far. Then John kisses him harder, breath coming heavy. "You sure?"
The desire in his reaction is unmistakable, and Daniel gives a soft moan of relief, suddenly wanting it more than ever. "Please, John."
John kisses him like he's already trying to steal his breath, shifting to press one hand between his thighs, pushing slick fingers up inside him. His obvious desire makes Daniel feel even more wild, and in moments he's grinding up against the push of his fingers, whimpering against his lips. "Please, John - god - "
"Shh, sweetheart...." John arranges him, not on his back but on his side, spooning up against him and loosing no time in taking him. He pushes one arm under him, holding him close, breath hot as he kisses along his shoulder and up his neck. The push of his cock is as overwhelming as always, and Daniel doesn't try to hold back the cry of pleasure that escapes his lips as John bottoms out inside him, filling him thick and hard.
"You're so perfect," John breathes, and he sucks at the crook of his neck with a groan that's delightfully helpless. He draws his free hand up Daniel's trembling thigh and over his hip, rubbing across his stomach, cupping and squeezing his cock as he moves inside him. Giving himself to John like this had been a necessary decision, but fortunately a very enjoyable one; Daniel feels drunk on his lover's enthusiasm, on the intensity of penetration, the way John works to push pleasure through him with every thrust.
It's exquisite, but not what he's asked for, so Daniel tugs his fingers away from his cock and presses them against his throat.
John's fingers tighten briefly around him as his hips jerk up harder, pushing a cry from Daniel's lips. Then he closes Daniel's fingers around his wrist. "If you need me to stop, you let go. Alright?"
"Yes," Daniel gasps, already trembling with need, with anticipation. Then John moves his other hand to cover his mouth and nose, and gives him what he's asked for and more.
Panic spikes through him as John's fingers tighten gently around his throat, as he tries to pull breath against his hand. Neither restriction would be enough to hurt him, but together it's perfect, leaving him gasping, adrenaline surging. Having a real and present reason for his terror is a sudden and inexplicable relief, and Daniel sobs in pleasure, grinding back helplessly against his cock.
Too soon the pressure releases, John's breath as ragged as his own as he kisses his neck, nuzzles his ear. "Like that?"
"Yes. Oh god, John, more - oh!" The restriction is harder this time, and Daniel welcomes it, fingers tightening on his wrist, pushing John's fingers into his throat even as he struggles against it. The helplessness of it all is as much of a drug as the pleasure John inflicts, biting down at his shoulder as his thrusts grow more rough. When his hand moves from Daniel's mouth the rush of air is almost as good as orgasm, and he sucks in deep, sobbing breaths, overwhelmed and trembling in his arms.
"More," he gasps when he can speak again, and John's teeth clamp down harder, fucking up into him hard and rough.
"I don't know how long I can last," John pants, but his fingers press down again, palm smothering him, panic and intensity making Daniel feel wild. He struggles helplessly, mewling against his skin as he fights to draw breath, and all he can feel is the pound of John's cock, owning his pleasure. Then John lets go, and the world blacks out around him as he comes untouched.
For a long moment nothing exists but the intensity of pleasure, and then he's left reeling and raw. He's too overwhelmed to speak, the hard thud of his pulse against his eardrums half-muting the world. He feels John's fingers rub over his chest and throat as he murmurs soft, breathless reassurances into his skin, and Daniel realizes he's shaking, helpless to stop it, clinging to John's arm as he pants for breath. He's more vulnerable in the aftermath of orgasm than he ever could have anticipated, and before he can think he's turning to crawl into John's arms, burying his face in his chest, fear and tension and love all pouring past their breaking point.
"I love you," he sobs, because he can't say anything else. Because despite everything, it's become the truest, most terrible thing. "I love you so much."
The last thing he expects is the choked, helpless moan that leaves John's lips, arms wrapping around him, painfully tight. "I'm so in love with you," he says, words rough and broken. "God help me. And I can't lie to you anymore. I'm so sorry, Daniel, god, forgive me...!"
The panicked realization that he has absolutely no idea what John is apologizing for starts Daniel from his reverie, and he pulls back to look up at him, cupping his cheek and trying to force a calm he doesn't feel. "For what, John? That was perfect, it was just what I asked you for. Don't be sorry - "
John cuts him off with a kiss, hard and trembling. "You trust me so much," he whispers, harsh and broken. "And I love you. And I'm so sorry, so so sorry that I didn't trust you. I let you believe that I wanted you, that I was here because I was in love with you, and I didn't expect that it would become real for me, and I swear that it is, I - "
The desperation in his words, more than anything, is what makes Daniel begin to put it together. Perhaps because they're too close to the feelings he's agonized over. "John, stop," he says, keeping his voice soft and calm. "Stop. Breathe. There you go. Start at the beginning."
John closed his eyes, silent for a long moment as his breath calms. Eventually he looks up at him again. "When I left the city, part of me never wanted to come back. I wanted to forget everything that had happened and just be... normal. I think that's all I'd really wanted since I woke up in that hotel room. Just an ordinary life, without any of... this. And when I met Anna, it felt like a new beginning. Like I could have everything I wanted, like I was being... rewarded.'
"But the more I thought about it, the more... convenient it all became. Her being in Shell Beach when it hadn't even existed the night before. That's how I knew that she wasn't real. How I knew that you'd sent her to me."
"I'm sorry," Daniel whispers, and John shakes his head.
"When I realized what you'd done... I felt so betrayed, so angry. But it didn't take long for me to realize that you were just... trying to be kind to me, in your own way. You were always so kind to me, in my memories. And then I thought about that, and I realized I felt that way because it was how you wanted me to feel, just like Anna came to find me because you wanted her to. I... realized how dangerous you were." His eyes drop, mouth twisting unhappily, and his next words are barely a whisper. "It terrified me."
The admission leaves Daniel speechless; he'd laugh at the absurdity of it were it not for the seriousness of his confession. "I didn't mean..." he starts helplessly, and John shakes his head again.
"I know that now," he says, cupping Daniel's cheek, stroking his fingers up into his hair. "I know you, beyond the story in my memories. But I didn't know you then. All I knew was what you'd done, and that - that the facility underneath the city with the memory banks was still intact, despite what you'd told me. And I realized that... I couldn't have that normal life I wanted if I couldn't be certain of your motives. So... I came here."
He looks completely miserable, and while every inch of Daniel wants to do nothing more than console and reassure him, he knows that he needs to choose his next words carefully if he wants to get through this. John has given him a chance he'd never thought possible to get out of this terrible place he's put himself in. If he gets this right, maybe he won't have to resort to those five terrible words after all.
"You were right to worry about me," he said softly, heart twisting as John's eyes dart up to his, startled. Afraid. "I've never meant you harm," he says quickly. "Please believe me, John. I've always wanted your happiness. But please realize... everything you've just said... you're not alone in those feelings. With all of your power... I couldn't in all responsibility allow the risk of something going wrong."
John's eyebrows furrow, hurt plain on his face. "I'd never hurt you."
"I couldn't have known that, John. Especially... especially not knowing how you'd react when... when...." He can't bring himself to say it, but then John's expression fades into resignation, the understanding coming far too clearly.
"Anna was supposed to watch over me." John's lips pinch as he looks away. "But I saw through her. So you took her place." He turns onto his back to stare up at the ceiling, exhaling. Daniel curls into himself, and even though his head is still pillowed on John's arm, he's never felt so alone.
Then he feels John's arm shift, feels his fingertips come to rest on his hair. "When I think back to those nights, it seems like it happened decades ago. It seems like a desperate nightmare that just went on and on. But... I remember how I hurt you. I guess you're right to be afraid of me."
Somehow his words make Daniel feel even more miserable. "John...."
"I know that words are just words," John continued. "There's no way for you to know that I won't one day crack and use my powers to be like Them, or worse. All I can says that... no matter what happens between us, Daniel, I... I'll do my best. And I hope that you'll help me. That you'll still want to help me."
For the number of times Daniel has imagined this happening, there's so little of what he was afraid of. It occurs to him now how much John must have been fretting, as tortured over their situation as he was. How much braver he is, to have been the one to finally speak the truth. And perhaps the reason why he's felt so tortured for so long is because he does trust John now, trusts him as much with his powers as he's trusted him with his body.
There's really only one thing he can do to even the score.
"John... I'd like you to help me with something."
Despite all the time he's spent in his laboratory, Daniel has never felt at ease here. He takes small comfort in the fact that John clearly doesn't either, shoulders hunched under his trenchcoat as they leave the lift and step out into the silence of the lab.
It takes longer to work now, without the Strangers to bring him things, but for this task he doesn't need much. What he needs to create is more specific and exact than anything he's ever made before. But he is more fluent in this language of memories than he even is with words. He shifts the most minute amounts, targeting very specifically, and finally steps back from his machines with a single syringe in hand, enclosing the smallest amount of memory.
John has been watching quietly, shoulders still hunched against the chill of the darkness. He looks resigned, but takes the syringe when Daniel hands it to him. "What will this do to me?"
Daniel sucks in a soft breath at the surprise and dismay he feels at John's words. "It's not for you. It's for me."
John shakes his head. "For you? I don't understand."
Daniel curls his fingers around John's on the glass and metal. "I told you that you were right to be afraid of me. There's something in your memories, John. A... failsafe, as it were. Something that only I know, a psychological control that could be activated, for any reason, to give me complete power over you."
He feels a tremor in John's hand. "...oh."
"You asked me earlier how you could help me stop worrying." Daniel looks up at him, hoping he can explain himself, hoping that John can somehow understand. "This is how. I need you to erase it from me. I can't carry this burden of knowing anymore, this possibility that I could someday become no better than the things that enslaved me. I - I need to be free to love you without always thinking about controlling you."
John's free hand cups his cheek, pupils liquid in the dim light of the workshop. "You... still want to be with me?"
"If you want me, John. I know it's not the ordinary life you wanted. I'm sorry to ask for this when I cannot offer to lift your burdens. But... I'll help you, I'll stay with you, as long as you'll have me. And I'll trust you do to your best."
John cuddles him close, cradling the back of his head. Presses a kiss between his eyebrows. "That's all I need," he whispers, and lifts the syringe.
There's a blankness in his memory, where John's trigger used to be. He'd left himself with the knowledge of it, the reminder of the gravity of the decision that he's made. As he stands in John's arms, in the middle of a room that had once held so much pain and misery for him, he feels a sense of peace wash over him. The blank spot in his mind begins to link and fuse, as memories are want to do, with the words that he's just said to John. A reminder of his promise for the future.
For a long moment he stays still, eyes closed, feeling the tension drain from his body. He hadn't truly realized how good it would be, to finally make this decision. To allow himself to trust John Murdoch like he's always wanted to trust him, for better or worse.
"Are you alright?" John says softly, and Daniel smiles, turning his face up for a kiss that's slow and sweet. For the first time the only thing he needs to think about is the pleasure of kissing him. It's perfect.
"This became real for me too, John. A long time ago. Maybe even that first night, despite my fear. I... I wanted us to be real."
"We will be," John murmurs, kissing him again. "We are. Anything you want, sweetheart... just say the word."
Suddenly he knows exactly what he wants. He smiles, stroking his fingers through the dark curls of John's hair. "I... think I'd like to leave the city now, John. I'd like to see your ocean. If you don't mind taking me there."
In the dim light it seems as though John's eyes grow brighter, his smile trembling. "Daniel," he whispers, "there's nothing I'd like more."