Actions

Work Header

Flawed Design

Chapter Text

 

 

Two men stood shoulder to shoulder on the deserted walkway, at the highest point of the large arched bridge. It was one of three bridges which allowed access from this industrial area to other parts of the city. At this time of night, only the low hum of the few security lights dispersed along the bridge and the low, distant rush of water being fed out of the dam and into the river far below could be heard.

It was far too late for many people to still be out. Most had already sought the comfort of their beds hours ago, and thus, no vehicles had passed them by in the past twenty minutes. It was unfortunate that the crisp scent of falling water was unable to fully mask the stenches of diesel, rotting vegetation and urine that permeated the area.

The man wearing the exquisitely tailored suit wrinkled his nose in distaste as he looked into the clear night sky. To all appearances, he was admiring the faint hint of stars that struggled to shine through the haze of the distant city nightlife across the river. His identical twin, Jim, looked shabby in his worn jeans and threadbare shirt and had his eyes cast downward, but not to the dark waters beneath them. No. He had focused his attention on a young man, perhaps three or four years younger than them, who sat perched on a protective railing near the dam’s edge.

The man in the suit shifted, right hand rising to slick back a stray lock of dark hair that had fallen forward, and drew his gaze down to the stranger that his brother had become so fixated on. “So that’s him?” Although he spoke in a hushed tone, it still held a slightly lilting cadence with the melodic undercurrent of an accent. He braced both hands on the guardrail and leaned forward, as though trying to get a better look at the blond man. He was, however, too far to make such a small gesture useful.

“Yes, James, that’s him.” Jim’s voice held the same unusual inflexions as he all but breathed his response into the cool night air. Slowly, a dark and twisted smile spread across his face. He continued to stare, unblinking, down at the stranger who had unknowingly caught his attention some weeks before. With a lick of his lips, his eyes traced the teenager’s form, knowing from memory the smooth lines of his face, and the lean, nearly emaciated body protected from the cold by layers of worn clothes.

James cocked his head to the side as he continued to study the distant form of the young man far beneath them, making a discontented noise in the back of his throat. “He doesn’t seem that impressive, Jim.” He drew his gaze back to his twin, whose attention still hadn’t wavered. “Are you sure you wish to delay our plans, just for a little game?”

Jim uncoiled from his hunched in position and straightened himself to his full height. Finally, he turned away, his gaze sliding to land on his brother. Jim leaned in conspiratorially, eyes meeting identical brown in the mirror image face. “It won’t be delayed much. We still have quite a bit to prepare for the next major event. Besides…” He looked back over at the distant form of his unknowing prey, that dark smile still firmly in place. “…I want to play.”

Chapter Text

“John Watson, to the office please, John Watson to the office,” a scratchy female voice called over the intercom. His name jarred John from the exhausted haze he had fallen into as he had attempted and failed to pay attention to the lesson. As the words registered through the thick fog of his daydreaming, he straightened in his seat. The sudden motion pulled at the tender muscles in his lower back and side, causing him to wince.

He darted a quick glance towards the front of the class to find Mr Nickel glaring at him. The man had his arms crossed over his expansive stomach with an annoyed scowl on his face. A low murmur of speculation had already begun with the students around him. Some of the more brazen teens were already calling for him to be suspended or expelled.

Jaw clenched, he tried to ignore the taunting words and turned his attention to closing his few books before shoving them into his bag. The slight tremble in his hand frustrated John, and he tightened his grip on the textbook. He tried to slow his motions until it was less noticeable but knew from experience that his shakiness was not something he could fully hide. When his pencil slipped from his fingers, he was sorely tempted to leave the bloody thing where it lay, near his foot, but only had two left and didn’t have the budget to get any more this month.

Grinding his teeth together, John tuned out the snickers of a few classmates as he hunched down with a wince. Picking up the small, battered pencil that was barely longer than his index finger, he carefully tucked it into the side of his backpack. Setting the bag on the now empty desk, John zipped it up, before climbing to his feet.

Once more he turned his attention towards his English teacher, refusing to shrink under the man’s dark expression. John was just thankful that Mr Nickel couldn’t berate him for disrupting the lesson for once. Even so, he had to wait passively while the teacher had his little power trip before he would finally allow John to leave.

The man did not like John for some unknown reason. His hostile attitude had started a few months back, and it didn’t matter that John handed in all his assignments on time and received good marks. The man had it out for him, using any excuse to punish John. They stared at one another, a hush slowly filling the room as they had their silent standoff.

Only when everything had quieted down, with only the shuffle of student’s feet and the clock ticking on the wall, did Mr Nickel finally give him a slow nod. Letting out a soft sigh, John began to make his way through the desks. Holding his head high, John maintained an even pace as he did his best to ignore the renewed taunting of his classmates.

Mark and Travis, two of the students who sat near the front, watched his progress. They had decided to make faces at him, becoming more dramatic and exaggerated with every step closer John got. He had to suppress a small smile at their foolish antics. At least they weren’t making a big deal out of this, even though they all knew it was never good to get called to the office.

Seeing the unvoiced question in their eyes, John gave a shallow, one-shouldered shrug as he passed them before walking out of the classroom. He had no idea what he’d done to warrant the summons. Well, they would know how he had screwed up this time shortly after he did; they were meeting up after school today. The only good thing about being called away was that, unlike his two friends, he wouldn’t have to listen to their teacher drone on about Romeo and Juliet, at least until tomorrow.

John wasn’t a bad student. He just wasn’t a model student – he couldn’t be with his history or with everything that happened when he was involved. As he made his way through the maze of mostly deserted halls he listened to his worn shoes scuffing on the linoleum, the sound echoing.

While he walked, John wracked his brain, trying to figure out what he had done this time. For the life of him though, he couldn’t think of anything. He hadn’t missed any classes in the last few weeks, hadn’t been in any fights since the beginning of the year, and - despite everything - his grades were still good. He had even made a point of avoiding arguments with the teachers this year.

Stomach twisting in dread, he neared the office, his steady pace faltering as he approached the opened doors. John did not want to go in there. He would only receive a lecture about what he’d done wrong this time before being told what his punishment was. It wasn’t often that they bothered to ask why he had done something. Even when he was, they rarely bothered to listen to his reasons. Taking a deep, steadying breath, he forced himself to walk in and up to the long front desk.

He didn’t recognise the woman behind the counter. She wasn’t the normal secretary; that one took immense pleasure in scowling at everyone the moment they entered. This one was old, older than his mum, maybe even older than his grand-mum had she still been alive. The roots of her hair were a shock of white before dye had changed the rest of the short, frizzy nest of curls to a flat brown.

Silently waiting for the old woman to acknowledge him, he shifted from foot to foot. As the seconds ticked by, he realised with a start that she didn’t even notice that he was there. Grimacing, he cleared his throat to gain her attention and tentatively stated, “I was called to the office. My name is John Watson.”

The old woman slowly drew her attention away from the massive piles of paperwork she had been thumbing through. John wondered if the woman was, in fact, over a hundred once he got a full view of her multitude of wrinkles. Even the milky blue of her eyes seemed to fit perfectly with her gnarled looking face.

After an uncomfortably long pause, in which the secretary stared at him and John began to debate whether to repeat his statement, the woman finally spoke. “Please take a seat. You will be seen in a few minutes.” The scratchiness of her voice grated on John’s already frayed nerves. When he nodded, she smiled, surprising John. The perfectly white and even teeth seemed at odds with everything else about her.

He wanted to ask her if she knew why he was here, but the stern look was enough for him to nod his head in jerky motions instead. Pressing his lips together, he turned away and crossed the short distance to the uncomfortably familiar orange plastic chairs that lined one wall. Shoulders sagging under the weight of his worry, John sunk down into the furthest seats which the school provided for recalcitrant students and either angry or concerned parents.

Dumping the bag at his feet, he leaned forward carefully and, hand pressing absently against his side, fished out a book from the front pocket. He had to write an essay about a stupid Shakespearean play for Mr Nickel’s class and hand it in before the end of the week. Over the next few minutes, he constantly shifted and twisted, trying to find a more comfortable position. Soon he gave up and opened the book to where he’d marked his last page.

John tried to turn his attention away from the reason for being here and focus on translating the old English text instead. The process always made his head hurt. His ever-present tiredness was making him feel sluggish, and it was hard to focus. Biting his lip, he looked up at the secretary, worry twisting uncomfortably in the hollow pit of his stomach.

Lowering the book to his lap, John debated whether to risk the old woman’s wrath by asking if she knew the reason for him being here. He didn’t want to risk angering her though. She might be able to make his punishment worse. Still, his worry grew the longer he stared at her.

Deciding that it wasn’t like she could beat him for insubordination, he slipped his bookmark back into place and straightened his shoulders. John drew in a breath but was interrupted by a man. “Mr Watson? Could you please step into my office?” The soft and precise voice rang through the room. The tones the man used made John stiffen automatically in response to the request.

John’s attention jerked to the far end of the room. He found the school’s counsellor standing just outside of his office. A chill ran down his spine as he carefully tucked the unread book into the front flap of his bag and zipped it closed. Hesitantly, he stood, hand clenching tightly around the arm strap. Drawing in a steadying breath, he skirted around the large desk so that the old woman wouldn’t yell at him for taking the shorter route as the previous secretary had.

John slowed as he approached the almost painfully thin man who had summoned him. Mr Benson’s rather large glasses caught in the fluorescent light as he nodded seriously. Stepping out of the way, he calmly ushered John inside. John paused at the threshold, biting down on the tip of his tongue as he stopped himself from demanding to know why he was there. Instead, he bowed his head in submission and walked in.

Once he had seated himself in the slightly more comfortable chair and tucked his bag underneath, he heard the door close with a soft click. Warily, John watched as the counsellor rounded the desk and took his seat. The man leaned back, giving John his usual professional smile, deepening the lines that had begun to form on his face. The expression merely heightened John’s nervousness.

“Thank you for coming so promptly. How are you doing today?” As he asked the question, he began to methodically straighten out the already perfectly arranged papers and files on his nearly bare desk. When John said nothing in response, Mr Benson looked pointedly and continued. “Well, I certainly hope. Your attendance has much improved since our last conversation.”

There was neither praise nor accusation in his perfectly even and precise speech pattern. It gave John no indication as to his reason for being here, and that made John uneasy. His fists clenched and unclenched rhythmically in his lap as he tried to focus his nervous energy somewhere the older man couldn’t see.

Clearing his throat, he hesitantly answered the question, “I’m alright, sir.” John was trying to decide if there was a hidden rebuke somewhere in the counsellor’s words. After all, the last time that John had been here, he’d lost his temper with the man and his attempts to pry into John’s life.

John had become frustrated with the concern the man had shown him. Other people’s concern usually made things worse for John. They began to pry and prod and ask questions. They became demanding and protective, making sweet promises that never worked out. John knew. He had gone through it before, in elementary and junior high, when he had been unable to hide the injuries fully.

So he had yelled and raged at the man, demanding that the counsellor stay out of his private life. He had raised enough of a fuss that he’d hoped Mr Benson would leave well enough alone. John thought it had worked, but his sitting across from the man did not bode well. Drawing in a deep breath, he looked back up at the man.“Why am I here?”

Mr Benson leaned back in his chair with a laugh. It was full of humour that seemed to be far bigger than his thin stature could produce. The sound always seemed to fit him though. “Right to the point. That’s one of the things that I can always expect from you, Mr Watson.” While he spoke, he picked up a letter that had been faced down on the pile of papers.

The counsellor looked at it for a long moment before he leaned forward and gently placed it down in front of John. “This came in with the school’s mail today. It was addressed to me. Imagine my surprise when I opened it to find that it was actually for you.”

John frowned at that, not understanding until he glanced down at the letter. Breath caught in his throat and his eyes widened when they zeroed in on the return address. It was from the University. Eagerly, he snatched it up and pulled out the few pages from within. The papers shook slightly in his tight grip as he unfolded the letter, scanning through the words. In a rush, the breath he had been holding came out as his brain finally registered what he was reading.

John closed his eyes, thoughts whirling as he tried to take in all of the ramifications of what the letter meant. Slowly, he opened them again, needing to re-read the words once more, still not able to believe it. “I got the scholarship!” He felt like dancing. Hell, maybe even singing. This was the best news that he’d had in a long time and better than anything he’d hoped for. He couldn’t contain the silly grin that spread across his face as he scanned the papers once more.

Mr Benson laughed at John’s enthusiasm. “Yes, Mr Watson, you have the scholarship.” He leaned forward, expression turning serious as he placed his clasped hands on the table. “I have spent the last hour speaking with someone from UCL’s Student Funding Office. He and I agree that you mustn’t miss any more school, for any reason. There is less than a semester left and you have already exceeded what is normally permissible for unexplained absences.”

When John continued to remain silent - eyes still locked on the letter - the older man cleared his throat to draw John’s attention fully to him. “He had also expressed some concern over the fact that you had missed one of your A-Levels during your midterms.” He held up a hand when John went to speak. “I have assured him that you will also be taking that one during the rest of your A Levels at the end of the year.”

Once more Mr Benson paused, leaning back in his chair. “So you need to promise me that you will attend all of your classes and write all your Exams. Otherwise, the scholarship will be revoked.”

John bobbed his head; attention finally focused on the counsellor. He hadn’t been able to attend that exam because of his injuries, it would have brought too much attention to him, and John knew that he couldn’t risk it. “I can do that. This is…” He trailed off as he looked once more down at the answer to all of his problems.

Swallowing hard, he dragged his eyes away from the words. “Thank you, sir. I had all but given up on hearing anything about this. I hope you don’t mind that I had it delivered here to you. I just didn’t want to chance it…” He hesitated, biting back the words he was originally going to say. “…getting lost in the mail,” he finished, unable to come up with a better lie when he was so distracted.

The counsellor nodded seriously, features shifting to sadness and what may or may not have been pity. “I understand, Mr Watson.” Another odd expression flitted across the man’s face before he straightened, his words becoming brisk. “All of the information that you need is in that envelope.”

Mr Benson looked over at the clock mounted on the wall. “Classes are about to be let out for the day. Have a good evening and remember, no more absences.” His voice grew stern for a moment before he softened it once more. “If you need to talk, my door is always open.”

John stood at the polite dismissal. He was still unable to tear his eyes away from the papers for any length of time. “Thank you again, sir. You have no idea how important this is.” He knew that he was grinning like an idiot, but couldn’t seem to help himself. Distractedly, he shouldered on his backpack before stepping out of the office.

It was the answer to what he had been striving so hard for but never expected to receive. John knew that if he was very careful, that if he didn’t rock the boat, he would be able to get through it without missing another day. John was determined, he would not let anything ruin his chances for this. Not when he had struggled for so long, and not when he was so close to his way out.

Chapter Text

John sat cross-legged on the grass in the field across from his school. In the distance, he could both see and hear the slow approach of Mark and Travis. Their voices were raised in challenge as they playfully pushed and shoved at one another. Realizing that it would take them a while to reach him, John pulled out another of his texts. Flipping the book open, he found the information he was searching for. He nodded absently to himself when the words he read coincided with his memory, and he turned his attention back to the assignment he was working on.

As they drew near, Travis launched himself at his friend. The ginger tackled Mark to the ground, and they began to mock-wrestle one another. John glanced up, watching the battle for a moment, wincing at the grass stains they were sure to get on their uniforms. As John tracked their flailing limbs, he decided that Travis, as usual, didn’t stand a chance against Mark’s stronger build and went back to working on the assignment.

They acted like children oftentimes. It didn’t matter that they were both eighteen and as such, older than John. They acted so much younger than him, especially when they played around as they were right now. They wouldn’t try and get him in on the fight, having learned a couple of years back that John didn’t take part in any form of wrestling. While he knew logically that it was all fun and games, his body did not understand the ‘mock’ in mock fighting. He reacted too quickly, too harshly to what he perceived as a threat. Someone trying to pin him down and wrap an arm around his throat fit that definition, and he didn’t want to hurt either of his friends.

Friends might have been too strong of a word for what they were, but they were well beyond mere acquaintances. They did hang out on occasion, either wandering around or playing rugby. Mostly John helped them out, and they did the same. At its core, wasn’t that what friendship was? He didn’t talk to them about his past, never spoke of his future, and refused to share anything about his family. His personal life was not for public viewing. He knew that they had speculated, of course. They’d even come up with some rather outlandish guesses. So long as they didn’t know anything for sure, John was ok with it.

When they rolled too close in their little battle for supremacy, John just shifted his foot over and calmly used that to keep the two boys from rolling over his already battered homework. Other than that little display of awareness, he ignored them. Instead, he focused on completing the last paragraph of the essay. His hand had already begun to ache and cramp from the tight grip he had on the stub of his shorter pencil.

After an overly loud ‘oomph’ Travis began thudding his arm against the ground in defeat. His face was red with laughter even as he still tried to struggle out from under his more muscled friend. With a superior grin, Mark rolled off the smaller teen, and the two finally began to settle themselves down, sprawling out in front of John. Each removed their packs while they tried to catch their breath, waiting for John to finish what he was writing. Their patience was, as always, rather short-lived. After only a minute or so of silence, Travis leaned forward to poke him in the side.

John automatically flinched and jerked away from the finger. Instinctively, his arm came out, and he blocked the hand with a quick motion that pulled at the sore muscles in his back. He scowled to hide the wince of pain, barely able to stop from curling in, to better protect the injury.

Travis just laughed lightheartedly at the scowl and held his hands up, used to John’s defensive reactions. “So,” the word was drawn out as he waggled his eyebrows. It was a skill that John had never figured out how to do and never seemed to have the time to learn. “Were you suspended or are you finally being expelled?” Travis had begun shifting on the ground, unable to stay still. He sounded excited by the prospect of John being kicked out, but John knew that it was because he liked to hear about drama, not that he wanted John gone.

Mark - who had been studying John - shook his head, dark hair falling into his eyes before he brushed it away from his face. “No, John would be right pissed off if that were the case. Look at him.” He motioned to John, who was still listening to the two boys while he fiddled with the pencil in his hand. “He’s way too calm for that to have happened.” Mark nodded his head as he finished his confident words.

The teens looked John over, causing John to shift uncomfortably as they waited for him to agree or disagree. Knowing he wouldn’t get any more work done he closed the notebook and slid it into his bag. His mouth twitched into the faintest hint of a smile as he thought about the letter. “I wasn’t expelled.” Taking a deep breath, he turned his attention back to the two lounging teens. The nervous excitement that had been building inside of him finally spilling forth. “I got a scholarship.”

His chest tightened painfully at the admission. The elation he had been feeling only moments ago twisted sourly in his stomach. He immediately wished that he could physically snatch his words back. Cautiously, he looked at his only friends, anxiously waiting to see how they would react to the news. John hadn’t intended on telling anyone about it, who would he tell? Harry? She would shake her head and tell him to get some more realistic goals.

Mark grinned widely as slapped John hard on the back a couple of times. “Damn, congratulations, mate!” He was strong for his size, though as an avid rugby player he was not small by any stretch of the imagination. The blows were painful, though John knew that they weren’t meant to be.

Travis sat there, slack-jawed, blue eyes wide as he stared at John in stark surprise. “I didn’t even know that you wanted to go to Uni!” He glanced over at Mark with a frown. “How could we not know that?” Once more he focused back on John, expression shifting from dismay to confusion over to curiosity. “What are you going to take?”

John felt his cheeks warm at their attention, both pleased and embarrassed by their reactions and his own. He shrugged, eyes dropping down to look at his hands. Disgust filled him as he noticed the slight tremble in his fingers. Drawing in a deep breath, he looked back up at the two teenagers. “I want to become a surgeon.” His voice, much to his dismay, came out small and timid. He half expected them to laugh or call him an idiot for wanting to go into the medical field, or maybe do something worse.

The silence began to build after John’s statement. Neither boy spoke while they processed the career that he wanted to go into. Slowly, Mark nodded his head, brows knitting together as he stared off into the distance. “I can see that. Your grades are good enough to make it in.” He looked back at John, lips pursed as he glanced down at John’s hands. He hesitated for a moment before noting, “What about your tremors though? Won’t they make it difficult?” Once the words had left his mouth, he looked guilty and a little apprehensive.

John flinched, breath catching in his throat. He flattened his palms hard against his legs, forcefully hiding the slight shaking. John swallowed, wanting to yell that his shakiness wasn’t a problem and that if everything went according to plan, it wouldn’t be an issue for much longer. But he didn’t. That would only invite more questions that John didn’t want to answer.

Jaw clenching, he looked away from the two teens, reminded why he never talked about himself. If he hadn’t told them about University, they wouldn’t be trying to dig for more information. All he wanted was for someone to tell him that this wasn’t a stupid idea. That maybe he could make it. What he wanted was for Mark to say that he had a good shot at succeeding in this.

While John was trying to come up with a response to deflect the statement away from his tremors, Travis broke the awkward silence. “Actually, I don’t think that will be much of a problem. It comes and goes, true. But do you remember last year when John had to dissect that frog? Or a couple of months back with that nasty cow heart? He was rock steady with that knife. It was brilliant.”

“Scalpel,” John corrected Travis softly, still staring down at his flattened hands. He remembered those dissections, and the other teen was right. He had stopped trembling the moment he had picked up that scalpel. John was thankful for the defence but uncomfortable that Travis had noticed. He had thought he’d hid the tremors better than that. If he had seen that, then what else had he observed?

“Scalpel,” Travis corrected with a wide grin and a nod. “See? He’s even got the lingo!” He exclaimed and leaned forward, giving John a warm smile. “Doctor John Watson. It does have a nice ring to it.” Finally seeming to notice how uncomfortable John was with the conversation, he pulled his bag closer and took out a squished brown paper bag. After a quick look inside, he winced but tossed it over with an apologetic grin anyways. “Sorry about that mate.”

John caught the small package easily, fingers wrapping tightly around it and holding it close on his lap. Though tempted, he refused to open it until they were gone. He didn’t have to look to know what it held, and his stomach growled loudly in anticipation. “It’s all good,” he said with a shrug. He still had mixed feeling about accepting this from the teen. However - as Travis had pointed out before - if he didn’t take it the food would go into the rubbish bin.

Mark glanced down at his watch before clambering to his feet. He gave a full body stretch, white button-down pulling tight over the teen’s chest. Scooping up his back, he looked down at John. “Are you up for rugby today?”

Travis stood as well, already rolling up the sleeves of his shirt. Glancing down, he began to shift from foot to foot, as though already itching to leave. “Coming, John?”

John glanced down at his watch. The heavy piece had set him back a paycheque to buy, but it had been well worth it. He gave them a slow shake of his head, really wishing that for once he could join in. “Sorry, not today, I work in a couple of hours.”

With those words, he began tucking his homework, books and paper bag into his pack. He made sure to tuck he pencil safely into the side pocket before looking back up at the two teenagers. Mark shrugged, used to him not being able to hang out with them and turned away. Travis frowned, but followed a couple of seconds later, giving John a backward wave as he took off. John watched as the two boys made their way back across the field, to where a larger group of students were already beginning to gather.

He let out a small sigh and climbed to his feet. Picking up the bag, he shouldered it on and turned away from the sight of the happy students enjoying the rare warm afternoon. Out of the corner of his eye, John caught a flash of something dark near the trees to his left. He spun back around, hands beginning to lift to protect himself, but found nothing other than the students off in the distance and a few nearby trees. With a small shake of his head, John turned away, heading back towards the school to get his bike before heading off to work.

Chapter Text

John moved quickly down the darkened streets of his neighbourhood. He looked around constantly, scanning the area as he passed by empty, run down vehicles and sleeping homes. The late shift at the motel had ended well over an hour ago. While he normally would have biked home, as he couldn’t afford the cost of bussing, last week it had been stolen.

He’d been enraged. It wasn’t like he had the money to replace the bloody thing, not with most of his meagre income going to his family. So, instead of a half hour bike ride home, it was closer to a two-hour walk. At least it isn't winter anymore, he thought with a sigh and hiked his backpack up higher. He never wore the pack over both shoulders; it would be far too easy for someone to catch the handle and have him immobilised long enough to get in a couple of good swings. Instead, it was only ever on the one shoulder, easier to slip out of if the need arose.

John didn’t live in the safest of neighbourhoods. The entire area had a worn, defeated atmosphere. Parts had sagged against the passage of time as though oppressed for far too long. Many of the buildings were pockmarked, scarred by bombs that had fallen before John was even born. To John, the scars were a physical reminder that no matter how difficult he thought his life was, it could always become much worse.

The narrow roadways were dark, and the few street lamps that were neither broken nor burnt out were unable to fully pierce the thick shadows that lined the streets he walked through. Junk and garbage were haphazardly strewn across the sidewalk and against buildings. None of the exterior lights were on at the homes he passed. It was far too late for any reasonable human to be still awake, so there were only the rare internal lights on in the rundown buildings he passed.

He could almost imagine that someone was following him. The faintest echo of feet could be heard almost out of earshot. But every time he glanced behind there was nothing but the occasional wind-strewn leaf. He’d had the oddest feeling for the last few weeks and couldn’t seem to shake the idea that someone was out there. It raised the hair on the back of his neck, but he knew that he was being unreasonably paranoid.

Tonight, his street was quiet, but that could always change in an instant. Warily, he skirted around dark pools of water from the earlier rainfall. He was constantly looking around, eyes never staying on any one thing for long. John crossed the empty road and made his way to the last building on the right. He slowed as he always did upon approaching the badly worn-down building.

The ever-present exhaustion weighed heavily on him as he began to make his way up the old walkway. From memory alone, he dodged over broken bits of cement and divots from the path leading up. All he could think about was how much he wanted to crawl into bed and catch a few hours of sleep before school.

Feet on autopilot, he made his way up the old steps leading to the front door. Unlocking it with quick movements, he slid inside and bolted it closed once more. Only a single bare lightbulb illuminated the front hall, the dingy yellow glow making the entrance look more tattered and worn than it was. With a yawn, John moved down the hall and towards the flat on the right. As he reached his door, his eyes traced over the familiar pealing white paint and pulled another key from his pocket.

Taking a slow, deep breath, he inserted the key before pulling it out a millimetre - as the lock liked to stick - and turned it. John stayed in that position for a long moment, breath held as he listened for sounds from within. When John heard nothing, he pocketed the key and turned the knob. The door had a trick to it, one that would reduce sounds made when being opened. John pulled the knob up and towards the door frame as he eased it open, mentally crossing his fingers that it wouldn’t stick because of the rain they’d had earlier. When it opened with only a little difficulty, he quickly slid in and eased the door closed behind him.

The fatigue that had been weighing him down all day was beginning to ebb away as pins and prickles of adrenaline danced across his skin. Once more, he paused. With his hand still resting on the knob, he listened for any movements from further inside. When no sound was forthcoming, John locked the door and gently deposited his bag on the ground.

Every night was the same, sneaking inside as quietly as a mouse to not wake any of the inhabitants. He stepped cautiously forward into the dark interior of the flat, careful of the two places in the front hall that liked to creak. He had nearly made it to the stairwell leading upstairs when a shadow appeared in the kitchen doorway to his right.

Adrenaline flooded his system in a rush as he spun to face the threat full on. The oven light had been left on, silhouetting his older sister's form and shadowing her features. In dark sleep pants and a tank-top, she hunched in on herself, arms tightly wrapped around herself as she gripped her elbows. “Where have you been?” She hissed in a harsh whisper before shooting a nervous and wide-eyed look over to the stairs.

They both waited, hearts pounding as they listened for any movement from the second floor. With each second that they heard nothing, John breathed a little easier. When no one flew down the stairs in a rage, he moved towards his sister. He could see the dark bruising under her eyes and long strands of hair that she had missed putting up. “Harry, what are you still doing up?” Concern filled him as he looked her over. She didn't appear as though she were getting enough sleep, looking pale and thin with far too many sharp angles and too big eyes.

“They had another fight.” With those all too familiar words, she tilted her head and nodded towards the living room, blonde hair bobbing as she did so. Harriett's fingers dug deeper into her arms, her body unconsciously clinging onto itself. She looked fifteen when she stood like that, not the nineteen she was. It made John long to gather her close and tell her that everything would be fine, that things would get better. He wouldn't though; they both knew that it would be a lie.

John let out a deep breath and looked at his watch, hating how late it already was. Rubbing a hand over his face to try to wake himself up he straightened his shoulders and walked into the other room. The miniscule amount of light that filtered in from outside was barely enough to illuminate it. Carefully, he began to pick his way through the silhouetted furniture. He gingerly stepped his way over or around papers, bits of debris and other fallen objects as he moved over to the far wall.

As with every other time that this had happened this corner was relatively undamaged. John knelt, fingers fumbling as he found the edge of the small side table. He turned it upright and set it on the ground. As he did so he felt the instability of the small piece of furniture, and he tested each leg, finding one loose and wobbly.

He turned it around so that the damaged leg was against the wall. Once more, he quested his fingers across the floor, skimming over a variety of unnamed objects before locating the one he was looking for. Picking up the small lamp his fingers slid carefully along the surface to feel for the bulb. He couldn't help the bitter smile that formed on his face when he found that it was still intact.

Once he had plugged the small lamp into the wall, he placed it on the now-upright table. Looking away first, he clicked it on. The light illuminated the room in a soft glow. John straightened with a sigh and turned to survey the damage; it was an absolute mess. Papers littered the floor, some ripped and crumpled, others appeared to have been stepped on or ground into the floor with a heel. The sofa was upended, and the coffee table was shoved up against it and broken, again. Shards of glass and ceramic dotted the stained wooden floor. John would have thought the place had been ransacked, had he not already know the cause.

John closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. He just wanted to pretend that the room wasn't a disaster, if only for a moment. Another small sigh escaped as he stood. Sleep. That was all he wanted, not to deal with this mess tonight.

Squaring his shoulders, John opened his eyes. Turning, he looked over to where his sister was hovering hesitantly in the doorway. Pitching his voice low, he asked. “Could you grab me the broom and dustpan?” It had already been a very long night. Between school, work, studying and his trek home he was utterly exhausted. Now, because of this, his night was going to be much longer.

Harriett nodded silently before turning away, leaving John alone as he continued to survey the damage. It could have been worse; he had to remind himself of that. This time around some of the furniture had been left intact. With a sad shake of his head, he began to pick up the smaller furniture, methodically moving them to the wall with the lamp.

John wished that his sister had begun to clean up the mess before he had returned home. Instead, she had waited for him to decide what to do about it. That was so typical of her, expecting John to do the majority of the work. Once Harry had returned, he had her set the broom and dustpan aside and help him to flip the sofa so that it was right-side-up and move it beside the other furniture.

The two of them worked in relative silence while they slowly made the room presentable once more. The mess wasn’t anything new to either of them. He and Harry had been doing this for years. John would have to repair the small side table, coffee table and one of the sofa’s seat cushions. They left those off to the side but did what they could to clean the rest of the room. The routine that they slid into was both familiar and strangely comfortable, and John lost himself in the task.

“Who started it this time?” John was surprised to hear his voice in the oppressive quiet. He focused on the few drops of blood that he’d found under the mess. Brushing his fingertips over the dried fluid, he tightened his jaw. The answer didn’t matter; it had ended in the usual way. The state of the room silently attested to that.

The question hung in the air between them for a long time, before Harry finally spoke. “Mum.” The answer was curt. She sighed and turned to John, her voice softening slightly as she continued, “I don’t know how, but she found your letter.” When John shot her a confused look, she clarified, “The one about the scholarship.” With those words, Harriett picked up the now full dustpan and walked out of the room to empty it.

“Damn it,” John whispered as he sat on the ground, fists clenching as he tried to decide how bad this would be. He thought that he had been so careful with the letter and had left it in his locker. But John must have forgotten it in his room, and that was how their mum found it. It was no wonder why the living room was trashed. He would honestly be surprised if their parents hadn’t destroyed the rest of the flat as well.

John drew in a slow, calming breath, trying to force the useless self-pity away. When Harriett quietly stepped back into the room he had to ask, “How bad off are they?”As always, after dealing with the physical mess, their parents were his next concern. He dreaded the answer because he feared to have to try and take one or - God Forbid - both to the hospital if their injuries were too severe for John to handle on his own.

However, if he didn’t take care of them, who would? He hated his parents sometimes, but even then, he still loved them. They were his family after all. He hated seeing Mum come downstairs with a black eye or bruises. Worse still, he hated seeing Father’s slumped shoulders as he limped into the room with bandages covering cuts adorning his form.

Things hadn’t always been this way. He could still remember when their father would laugh and play games with Harry and him. He could vividly recall the big man scooping him up and tossing him into the air, always catching him before he hit the ground. John smiled slightly, remembering how Mum used to take them out for picnics everywhere in the city, showing them all the wonders of the world. He could still see her soft, close-lipped smile, her silent approval when they asked questions.

He couldn’t quite remember when things had changed. Father stopped playing with them, and Mum stopped smiling. Then the fighting had started. It didn’t matter what he or Harry did; the fighting only got worse. At first, the violence had only been towards one another, and then one day something had changed.

Harry shrugged noncommittally but refused to meet his eyes. “There aren’t any broken bones, I think.” She looked around the room, wrapping her arms around herself once more. “Some bruising and a few cuts, Father had a nasty blow to the head. You know me, John. Mostly, I just try to stay out of the way when they get like this.”

Relief was a sweet rush through his veins. He wouldn’t have to try and get either of them to the hospital this time. The tension that had been building between his shoulder blades eased at her words. John nodded, shooting his sister a small smile before going back to tidying the room.

They continued to work in silence, old hands at sorting through the debris into what could be salvaged this time and what could not. Eventually, Harriett stopped him with a cold hand on his arm. “I just don’t get it.” She frowned, “Why are you trying so hard to become a Doctor? You know Mum and Father will never accept it.”

John stared at her confused expression, honestly surprised by the question. They didn’t talk about their plans for the future and hadn’t in years. It was far too easy to slip up and inadvertently give something away to their parents. “You mean, aside from the fact that I’ve been their personal physician for years?” He gave a half-hearted wave towards the stairs. “I’m good at it Harry. I’m not squeamish, I find the human body fascinating, and for once - just once - I would like to help someone who deserves it.”

He cut his words off as his voice began growing in volume and shook his head in frustration. There was so much more to it than that. It was a need, a compulsion. He had to help if he could. He had the knowledge and the skill to fix people. It didn’t matter who it was. If he could help, he would, but now was not the time to get into that conversation. He had a sneaking suspicion that she wouldn’t understand it, no matter how he tried to explain. He didn’t entirely understand it himself.

Looking around the much-cleaned room he knew what he needed to do next. John turned his attention once more to his sister, “I’m going to check in on them now. You might want to go for a walk.” Stomach twisting he watched Harry nod, and with one last glance at the stairs, she walked out of the room.

John counted to one hundred after he heard the soft click of the exterior door closing behind her. With every second that ticked by, John grew more nervous, anxiety twisting in his stomach. He needed to make sure their father didn’t have a concussion. If he did and stayed asleep too long, he may never wake up. The thought sent an icy finger of fear down John’s spine.

Drawing in a deep, calming breath, he stood and walked back into the hallway. Snatching up his backpack, he began to climb the stairs slowly. The lateness of the night was creeping up on him fast; it had to be well past two by this point. Under normal circumstances, he would be fast asleep by now, able to get just five hours of rest before he needed to be awake. As it currently stood, he would be getting three, if he was lucky.

He paused at the top of the stairs, seeing that his door was ajar. Biting the inside of his cheek, he crossed over and pushed it open further, knowing what he would find. Through the dim light coming in through the bare window, John could see that the tiny room had not escaped his parent’s wrath. The sight of his few belongings strewn across the floor or shattered on the ground hurt, but it wasn’t what he had focused on.

Guilt washed over him when he realised that their parents hadn’t contained themselves to only John’s things. They had not spared Harry’s side of the room in their anger. With a shake of his head, John decided that the room could wait until tomorrow. It wasn’t as though either of them had many possessions to be ruined. They knew better than to keep anything of great personal value here. John still couldn’t believe that he had forgotten the letter here this morning.

John walked the few feet to the small, pealing wardrobe that took up nearly a third of the room. He reached inside, through the hole where there had once been a door but had been broken off a couple of years back. His hand skimmed over the few articles of clothing that he owned before brushing over the solid material of a small duffle bag. Pulling it out, he looked it over in the weak light, grateful that they hadn’t seemed to notice the bag.

Switching out the duffle with his backpack, he took one last look around the destroyed room. Feeling a headache forming, he hoisted the heavy duffle higher and walked out. Cautiously, John walked the short length of the hallway to stop at a scarred and warped door. John hesitated, not wanting to go inside. But Harry had said that their Father had been hit over the head. If the man had a concussion, John had to make sure he woke every two hours.

At that moment it didn’t matter that John hated him most of the time. John didn’t think he would be able to live with himself if Father died when he could have prevented it. Steeling himself for what was going to happen next he gently knocked on the door.

In his head, John counted to sixty. When he received no response, he gingerly opened it. This room was trashed as well, everything but the bed and nightstand. John wasn’t sure if this was because of the fight or if the man had done it sometime in the last month in a drunken rage. At least the lamp on the nightstand was still in one piece. He lightly stepped across the floor, avoiding the knocked over and splintered dresser and made his way to the tall, narrow nightstand perched beside the bed.

John made sure to angle the lamp away from the bed and its sleeping occupant first before he clicked it on. His father looked like hell. He was a rather built man in his late forties. His short, light brown hair matted on one side with dark flecks of red. Bruises were blossoming along his jaw and cheekbone. The discolouration made him look even more dangerous, not less. There was a welt across his forehead, but thankfully the nose wasn’t broken this time.

The last time he’d had to set it John had received one hell of a beating as thanks. John cringed at the memory, not wanting to be in here, not wanting to risk another fight. But he needed to make sure the man was alright.

A large but ratty looking blanket, the only one in the room, covered the rest of the big man. It prevented John from seeing any other injuries that he might have. While John was distracted, trying to decide how best to aid his father, he didn’t notice the man’s eyes scrunch up in the sudden light. In a moment, the man was sitting up. A scowl spread across his deeply lined face, and hatred glinted in those glaring muddy eyes. “Boy,” he growled out. A muscled arm snapped out, cuffing John on the side of the head with a heavy fist.

The hit hurt, having caught him just under the ear. John knew that it wasn’t as bad as it would have been had the man not just woken up. He clenched his fist tighter around the duffle but refused to give the man the satisfaction of crying out at the blow. He made a point of ignoring the sharp, burning pain in his face and began to speak. “I need to make sure that you don’t need to go to the hospital, Father. Open your eyes more so I can see if you have a concussion.”

Under normal circumstances, after a fight, his father was worn out enough that John could talk reasonably to the man. It allowed John to check for injuries and bandage up what he could more easily. There were some exceptions to this, however, and tonight seemed to be one of those nights. At his words, the brown eyes narrowed into angry slits, and his father lunged forward, clumsily grabbing for John.

The man’s anger grew as he missed the grab. “Trying to play nurse again, boy? Well, I won’t have it. No son of mine is going to be some little nancy!” Spittle flew as he snarled the words in rage. The man lunged forward again, making another grab for John, uncaring that he was still tangled up in the blanket. “I’ll beat the idea out of you if I have to!” His voice grew in volume with each work.

John stumbled back a step, only now catching sight of the nearly empty bottle lying on the far side of the narrow bed. It had been half hidden under the stained a flattened pillow. Great, John thought, he continued drinking even after the fight. Normally, a big fight between his parents resulted in them finding a bed to pass out in. But when they drank after a fight, things became much worse.

Knowing that he wouldn't be able to take care of any injuries until the man had calmed down, John quickly backed out of the room and closed the door on his still yelling father. It was likely that his mum was in the same condition. When one drank so did the other. It didn't matter the time.

He knew better than try to reason with either of them while they were like this. Anything said would only anger them more. However, while it would piss his father off to no end, leaving would at least stop the escalation of the man's temper. With how easily the man had woken up, John suspected that he did not have a concussion. No, he was much too coherent.

With that knowledge thrumming through his mind, John backtracked across the narrow hall. He dumped his duffle in his room, tossing a couple of over-large shirts over it and snatched up his backpack once more. He could already hear his father beginning to move around. The cursing and stumbling crashes were loud enough that he knew his mum wouldn’t be far behind.

Tightening his grip on his bag, John fled down the stairs. With quick motions, he toed on his shoes and fled. Once he had placed a few blocks between himself and the flat, John slowed down to a fast walk. On autopilot, John let his feet carry him somewhere he could hide until school started in a few hours.

Chapter Text

The next night, John found himself perched on the protective railing that spanned the full length of the small dam, which constantly fed into the river. Above and behind him was one of the few bridges which allowed access from the industrial area to other parts of the city. John had often wondered why the dam and bridge had been built separately, but no one he asked knew the answer.

With his feet securely hooked into the thick lower bar of the guardrail, he braced his arms against the one he was sitting upon. Balanced like that, John could relax and stare out at the night. Of all the little nooks and hideaways he had found over the last few years, this little portion of the Under-bridge, as he had taken to calling it, was his favourite by far.

It was rare for anyone to come out this late at night. He should know. John had been frequenting this place for years. Because it was on the edge of the industrial district most addicts didn’t bother coming out this far to shoot up. It was too far out of the way for prostitutes to find any good clientele in the area. The homeless were more inclined to take shelter in the few abandoned warehouses nearby, rather than hunkering down in the open Under-bridge. Large cement pillars, which held the bridge up, were the only buffers against the elements and they did little more than slightly redirect the wind.

Overhead, there was only the sporadic traffic of people heading in or out of this side of the city. John figured that they were most likely heading home from a bar. Far off in the distance and across the dark, rushing water, the glittering lights at the heart of the city glowed brightly. It created a rather beautiful halo that made him smile.

To John, this place was the only real constant in his life. No matter the season - or the crap he had to deal with - this place always remained the same. He felt more at ease here. Here, there was no need to mask how he felt or what he thought. He didn’t have to pretend that everything was fine. That he wasn’t hurting inside. He could just be himself.

As soothing as this place was, being out here wouldn’t solve any of John’s problems. School was nearly complete, and he was struggling to keep his grades as high as they needed to be for his scholarship. Things at home had become increasingly worse. Both of his parents’ tempers were even shorter than usual; his mum’s especially. Normally, she was a bit more reasonable than Father. But the moment he’d arrived home from school today, she had begun yelling and throwing things. John knew that he couldn’t reason with her, but he was frustrated and concerned. He had only wanted to make sure she was physically alright after the fight.

John had been struggling over the last two years to keep his grades at the top of his classes. Home was not somewhere that he could study. But being the evening clerk at a motel had helped with his studies immensely. It was a relatively quiet environment, and not many people showed up to check in late in the evenings. The money he got for that helped keep food on the table and his parents off his back, even if he had to lie about what he did. He had been saving what little he could for additional schooling and had a small nest egg of money for emergencies.

He was almost finished school, and he wouldn’t be staying there for much longer. It would be far too dangerous for him, what with his parents’ views on what was considered “proper.” Just a couple more months, then he would be able to get into the undergraduate housing. Until then, he would have to do his best to not further anger his parents. He was so close to getting out; he could almost taste the freedom.

John let out a gusty sigh and stretched. He lifted his arms from the cool metal and towards the night sky with a couple of satisfying cracks on his spine along the way. Spine arching to get the most out of it, he held the stretch for a few seconds.

On a slow exhalation, he dropped his hands into his lap. His legs tensed slightly, but that was the only concession his body made to his shift in weight on the narrow perch. John had always prided himself on his good balance, his form shifting automatically as his arms had dropped down in front of him. Knowing that there was no real point in continuing to run his mind in circles, he purposely banished the thoughts from his head.

John spent a few minutes admiring the shifting waves a few metres below him, trying to let the crisp scent of the water wash all of his troubling thoughts away. The distance city lights danced on the dark currents. It created twisting phantoms along the rippling surface of the river. The rushing sounds of the water pouring out from the dam and crashing down were comforting, and he found himself smiling slightly.

John wondered what it would be like to live across the waters. Maybe he would live in a fancy flat where the rain didn’t leak in through the windows, and the draft didn’t leave him chilled to the bone. He would have stern, but caring parents who worried about him, but weren’t overbearing. They would push him towards his dreams instead of trying to rip them apart. Harry would be happy. His smile slipped. But I don’t live across the waters.

“You know, if you’re intent on killing yourself, there are many less painful and much more reliable ways of doing so.” The stranger’s voice was higher than his own but not as high as a woman’s. It held a slight accent that sounded to John as Irish if he wasn’t mistaken.

John twisted and grabbed the railing with both hands as he straightened in a rush of adrenaline. His left foot lifted as he spun around to plant said foot on the top rail, before pushing off. Nimbly, he hopped over the rail to land safely on the dirty cement. Crouching slightly, he looked around in quick, darting movements. It took John a long moment to track down the owner of the voice. Some twenty feet away, in the shadow of one of the many columns that braced the bridge up, stood a man.

John tensed when eyes locked onto the stranger's form. Fingers slowly closed into fists as he prepared himself for a fight. Were the words a threat, or an odd piece of advice? The stranger looked far too well-groomed to be comfortable in this derelict area. But there he stood, leaning against one of the column; uncaring that his black suit was pressed up against the filthy concrete.

A smile spread across the strange man’s lips. The faint light from security lights high above them cast shadows over his face, making the expression dark and sinister. He began a slow performance in applauding. “My, my. Now that was rather impressive.” As he drawled out the words, the stranger pulled away from the pillar and began moving forward. Those dramatic claps punctuated each measured step. “Now tell me, did you practice that? Start off slowly, so that you wouldn’t fall to your untimely demise? Work your way up to that spectacular act of quick acrobatics?”

John frowned and straightened himself out. Ok, so he hadn’t prepared himself for a sarcastic critique of his instinctual reaction to a threat. He tried to not let his confusion show and scowled at the stranger’s continued approach. “What do you want?” A quick, furtive glance around them showed that there was only the two of them there. Still, he kept his guard up even as he made a point of leaning against his former perch. He wanted to show the stranger that he wasn’t afraid.

As the man stopped clapping, his body stilled. Placing his right hand against his heart, the stranger widened his eyes comically. “Me? On, nothing much,” The stranger waved the question away before shoving his hands into the pockets of his dress pants. He slouched in on himself as he did so. The man continued moving forward as he spoke. He did not walk directly towards John but in John’s general direction.

“I was just a wee bit curious. Were you actually contemplating suicide?” He cocked his head to the side, eyes narrowing as he spoke. “Or is tempting fate your idea of a good time?” His voice rose and fell in an unusual, nearly melodic way. As he finished speaking, the stranger stopped at the railing. He stood a few feet to the right of John’s current position, tilting his head to look at John inquisitively.

John blinked a few times, caught off guard by the strange question. “Suicide is for the weak of mind,” he couldn’t help but scoff. Even the idea of taking his life was abhorrent. Even through all of the crap that he’d had to deal with in his life he had always been able to find reasons to push and strive his way through life. Even now, when everything was balancing on a razor’s edge, and one wrong move would result in him losing his scholarship, he would never consider something that foolish.

At that, the stranger made a noncommittal sound in the back of his throat. He turned and propped his side against the railing, facing John full on. “It must be the thrill then.” An odd sort of smile flitted briefly across his face before he continued. “I wonder, do you enjoy dangerous situations? You would have to, as you come out to this place so often. Here where only the dregs of society come to pollute their sorry excuses for lives.” As he sighed the last of his words into the brisk night air, he motioned to the darkened underbelly of the bridge. Filth and debris were scattered and piled as though to reinforce the statement silently.

John floundered at the words, trying to find some way to respond that didn’t sound overly defensive. Frustrated, John cleared his throat. “I don’t enjoy dangerous-” He was cut off by the man’s soft laughter ringing through the air. “Just who do you think you are?” John snapped, annoyed that this stranger, who knew absolutely nothing about him, was judging him.

“Me?” The man blinked his large brown eyes owlishly, that odd little smile still playing along his lips. “You can call me James.” In a graceful move, he leaned forward and raised a hand slightly, as though beckoning John in for a secret. “You, however, are of some interest and I find so few things interesting.” His tone lilted slightly as he spoke. Though the words weren’t any louder, they seemed oddly closer than their distance permitted.

Uncomfortable, John rocked back on his heels, once more becoming aware of the fact they were very much alone out here. “Not that interesting, I’m just another guy. Half of the world is filled with them.” With a shrug, John looked away from those darkly glittering eyes, sure that it had to be an illusion created by the city lights off in the distance. Still, it was a little disconcerting; he didn’t think that he had ever been this uncomfortable around another person. Against his will, he found himself a bit curious too.

The unusual man straightened, with a wink. “Oh, I disagree, but that is neither here nor there.” He waved his hand through the air as if brushing away the statement. “As we both seem to have decided that this is the place to be tonight, might I have the pleasure of your name?” James’ right hand reached out in almost a beseeching manner.

John hesitated. There was no reason not to tell the man his first name, even if he would never say his last. “It’s John,” he grudgingly stated. “Why did you decide to check out this spot?” While there was the occasional person who wandered down here, it wasn’t often, and they typically skittered away the moment they noticed John.

“John,” He drew the name out slightly, almost as if he tasted each letter as they passed his lips. “I spotted you…” James straightened fully and shifted away from the railing. He turned away and looked up, towards the middle of the arched bridge. He stretched an arm out, the tailored suit jacket sliding up to flash the white cuff of his dress shirt and pointed. “…from up there and couldn’t resist coming down.” With a tilt of his head, the man’s attention slid back to John, broad forehead wrinkling as he raised his eyebrows. “You, my dear, piqued my curiosity.”

John took a step closer, looking up the line of the man’s arm to where he was pointing. James’ finger directed him high above, to the very centre of the walkway, along this side of the arched bridge. “You wouldn’t have been able to see me from up there,” John mused aloud with a small frown. If John had been still, and he knew that he had, the other man should not have been able to spot his form from that distance.

James gave a one-shouldered shrug in response, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. The man dropped his arm and turned to lean once more against the rail. Facing the darkness under the bridge, he continued, “You have been here for the past two nights and last week for three.” He waved his hand casually to John’s perch. “Always sitting there, always staring down into the waters.”

John twitched, a sharp zing of fear racing down his spine at the calm tone and cool words. “Have you been stalking me?” he demanded, saying the first thing that came to mind. The intermittent feeling of being spied upon came back ten-fold, prickling over his skin in a wash of unease. If his suspicions about this man were true then his paranoia the last few months had been warranted.

His hands clenched tightly into fists, and he scanned the darkness of the Under-bridge once more, trying to verify that they were still alone. When he found no one else, John looked back at the man, eyeing the stranger’s narrow build beneath the visibly expensive material. John was sure that he would win in a fight against this man. He didn’t want to risk missing any classes by being too injured to attend. However, if it came down to it, John would defend himself.

James laughed, long and deep at the sharp accusation. “Oh, Johnny-boy, why would I stalk you?” He peered at the younger man, raising an eyebrow in a silent challenge. All the while, that same strange smile played along the edges of his thin lips. “I was bored, and now I’m not.”

The casually spoken statement left John uneasy. Just who was this man and what was it that he wanted from John? He didn’t think that James would have been able to see him from that great of a distance, but maybe his eyesight was better than John’s own. Maybe the strange man was toying with John, but to what end? While John wasn’t entirely sure what a serial killer would look like, he was sure that this man was not one.

John studied the man, trying to figure out his age. James was clearly older than John, but not by many years if the smooth lines of his face were any indication. The expensive suit was tailored to fit him perfectly. Black shoes were shined to a high gloss and his slicked back hair added to the air of refinement that surrounded him. He looked like he had just stepped out of a glossy magazine cover.

John wondered what a man who looked like that did for a living. Whatever it was, he had to make good money to maintain that kind of appearance. At that thought, John felt an irrational pang of envy. If he had the kind of money that James obviously did, then he wouldn’t be struggling. He wouldn’t have to hope that he would be able to put himself through school.

Lost in his thoughts, John didn’t heed the other man’s casual movements forward until James stood directly in front of him, one hand reaching out. John jerked back immediately, deflecting the outstretched arm with his right forearm while his left fist came up in automatic retaliation. With a sharp inhalation, he managed to stop himself before he could land a blow on the other man, instead retreating a few paces. “Just what do you think you are doing?” he snarled, struggling to shake off the rush of adrenaline that was flooding his system and tingling in his fingers.

James didn’t appear to be at all affected by the angry tone or the blow to his arm. He just let the limb drop back down to his side and tilted his head, expression going strangely blank. Dark eyes narrowed in speculation as he continued to stare. “That’s an interesting bruise you have there, Johnny-boy. How did you get it?”

John narrowed his eyes as he took another deliberate step away. He made a point of angling his face just enough that the dark swelling at the corner of his jaw was no longer visible to the man. “That is none of your business.” There was no way that he would tell this stranger about himself. He didn’t talk to anyone about his home life. Ever.

In a flash of teeth, the smirk slid back into place, and the man raised his hands in a placating gesture. “Fair enough,” James murmured as he took two slow, purposeful steps back before turning and leaning against the railing to gaze down at the dark waters.

Hesitantly, John mimicked the movement, unable to help his wary looks over at the older man. The night breeze was cool on his flushed skin, helping to calm his rapidly beating heart and slowly beginning to clear his head. That was close, he thought. He had almost struck James. He couldn’t afford to get into a fist fight right now, not unless he had no other choices.

They stood in strained silence. John didn't like the fact that he was being forced to share his little haven. He wanted James gone, but - other than resorting to violence - he was unsure as to how to get the bloody man to leave. He was certain that politely asking would only result in the stranger laughing at him. His musings cut off as he caught sight of a shooting star falling from the sky. “Oh!” The sound escaped his lips before he had even thought about it.

James too had seen the shooting star, and he chuckled at John's surprised reaction. “There is supposed to be a minor meteor shower tonight. It seems that we caught the first of them.” His tone had shifted to something pleasantly conversational, as though they were friends who had just happened upon the same viewing place.

John blinked at James for a long moment, turning the statement over in his mind. That must have been the reason that the other man had come to the bridge tonight, to get a good view of the meteor shower. He opened his mouth to ask but snapped it shut. If John wasn't willing to share his reasons for being here, he shouldn't expect the other man to tell him anything.

“Tell me, John, were you aware that a meteor shower is caused by streams of cosmic debris entering Earth's atmosphere at extremely high speeds on parallel trajectories?” James asked casually, face still tilted up to the night sky. He had spoken the words almost absently, his eyes never once straying from the falling lights.

John looked over at him, startled by the question. As strange as this man seemed to be, he wasn't an idiot. He mentally delved back into his science classes, trying to remember anything that he had learned about falling stars. After a long moment of silence, John remembered something and smiled. “Yes. Did you know that most of those-” He motioned to the falling stars. “-are no larger than a grain of sand?” He was quite proud of himself for even remembering that much.

James turned to look at him full on with an expression that John couldn't quite place. “Ah, so you are not just another pretty face.” With those words, he winked and turned back up to the night sky just as another streak of light darted across. His eyes tracked the blaze as it faded into nothing. “Then again, if you were, I wouldn't still be standing here.”

John felt slightly vindicated by the statement even though he was unsure why he cared about what a stranger thought of him. They stood there, five metres apart in an oddly companionable silence watching the night sky together. “It's a shame that the moon is nearly full.” John found himself commenting. “We won't be able to see most of the meteors.”

James looked over at him again. “It's not too great a shame. While it does hinder the view of the shower, it illuminates other…” He paused and tilted his head, eyes appearing black in the dim light. With a slow lick of his lips, he finished the statement, “…interesting things.”

John froze and stared at James with wide eyes. Was the other man hitting on him? No, that couldn't be the case. He must have misunderstood the statement. But really, how else could it be taken? He shook his head, not ready to think about something like that. While John stood there, a low beeping sound started. John looked around for the sound, relieved to have something to distract him.

After a long moment, James started and grinned sheepishly. “Oh, that would be me.” He laughed at himself and slid a hand to his waist before pulling out a small black pager. A small frown slowly creased his brow as he stared intently at it. Clucking his tongue, he absently spoke. “Exit stage right. I'll see you around, Johnny-boy.” With those words, James spun on a heel and began walking away. Still looking at his beeper, he raised a hand in farewell.

John stared after him in confusion, watching as the strange man strolled through the underbelly of the bridge, shoes clicking neatly on the concrete as though he were walking through a park. He had absolutely no idea of what to make of the strange man. John turned back to look up at the falling stars, somehow unable to appreciate them as much now that he was alone. With a small sigh, he scooped up his backpack and began his long trek home. He tried hard to think of anything besides James and their odd encounter, but his mind kept turning back to him.

John crept silently up the stairs and into his room in the early hours before dawn. He needed to get a few hours of sleep before school. He quietly closed the door behind him, squinting in the weak illumination coming in from outside. Stepping forward carefully, he made his way over to the two narrow beds. When his eyes had fully adjusted to the dim light, he realised that Harry wasn’t home tonight. She had been gone more often as of late, and John couldn’t help but hope that she had decided to move in with Tara.

Backtracking to the entrance of the room he turned on the light. This was the first time that John had taken a proper look at the chaos his parents had left after they had ripped the small room apart. Yesterday he had been more focused on getting his duffle and checking Father over to pay too much attention to the extent of the damage.

He winced as he looked at the mess. There was one good thing about not having much in the way of possessions; there was only so much that they could destroy. John let out a frustrated sigh and began to move the debris off both his and Harriett’s mattresses into a pile in front of the broken wardrobe. He would deal with the stuff and the wardrobe tomorrow night after he finished work.

Once he had moved everything away from both beds, John turned off the light. Changing into his nightclothes, he crawled onto the narrow mattress on the floor. Fatigue hit him in an instant, and he tiredly pulled his ratty blanket around himself. It was too small, only coming halfway up his chest if he stretched out, which was why he always curled into a ball. He reached out and snagged Harry’s off her bed, figuring that she wouldn’t need it tonight and layered it over his own.

John was so tired that he almost forgot to make sure that his watch’s alarm was properly set to wake him in the morning. Once he had, he closed his eyes, letting out a small sigh. Within seconds, sleep reached out and sucked him under.

Chapter Text

John held his breath as he opened the door to the flat a crack, listening. When - after counting to fifteen - he heard nothing, John shouldered his way inside. His movements were hampered by the bags of groceries in both arms. Every crinkle of the plastic bags made John wince, but he knew that there was no preventing it. Pausing, he toed the door closed before removing his shoes.

Warily, he crept down the hallway towards the kitchen, avoiding the few creaky floorboards. His arms were beginning to ache from the strain of holding all the bags up and away from his body. He didn’t yet know if anyone was home, so he didn’t want to create a bigger ruckus.

John froze, his heart thudding when he stepped into the kitchen and spotted Harry standing at the sink, arms braced against the counter. Her head was bowed down, and she stood motionless. John bit back his soft greeting when he realised his mistake. Harry would never wear a dress like that, but his mum certainly would. He had no choice but to intrude. He needed to put the groceries away. Drawing in a deep breath, he cautiously moved further into the room.

As he passed the cluttered table, his mum finally heard him. She straightened and jerked around, her long floral printed dress flaring out. Her hair was in a high bun, the silver streaking barely noticeable in her yellow-blonde hair. When John was young, he had thought that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. No one could compare, not with her high cheekbones and wide grey eyes. Her laugh was what he loved the most about her though; it had been warm and high, filled with so much love and life.

It hurt to see how far she had fallen. Her skin had taken on a yellow tinge, features sunken in. Those beautiful grey eyes had dulled, becoming glazed over and shot through with red. Her sweet laugh had gradually darkened before disappearing from John’s life completely. What made John’s chest hurt though, were the smudges of purple that circled her throat like a choker.

The frown marring her features eased into a bright smile when she recognised John. The brittle edge to the expression was almost unnoticeable. “John,” she murmured, moving forward with only a slight weave to her steps. “School’s out already? Oh, you already bought the groceries. That’s good.” She nodded her head as she spied the bags in his arms.

The words were soft and encouraging, and John couldn’t hold back the tentative smile he gave her in return. It had been over a month since he had seen her in a good mood. It was promising to see. “Hi Mum, how was your day?” He stepped around her and began to set the bags out on the counter. Realizing that they weren’t going to get into an argument today, John’s muscles went weak.

Touching his arm for a moment, she plucked a bag from the pile. After stumbling only once, she moved to the fridge and began to put things away. “Today was…” She trailed off before leaning over to snag a glass from beside the sink. It was two thirds full of a dark amber liquid. Without any preamble, she cocked her head back and downed the contents in three long swallows. “…things are better now,” she finished softly, setting the glass in the sink with exaggerated care.

John paused in the act of putting a box of cereal away. Jaw clenching tightly, he watched the self-destructive action. Turning away, he focused his attention on helping to put the food in their proper places.

The silence that fell over them was comfortable. No threat of anger hovered, waiting for an opportunity to strike. John found himself smiling slightly as they worked their way through storing the food. It had been a long time since he’d been able to spend any length of time with Mum without her becoming displeased. Soon enough there was nothing left to put away, and John began to gather up the empty bags.

“Where are the sausages?” The sharp tone in his mum’s voice jerked John’s attention from the bags. His hands froze in the act of twisting them as he looked over. Her eyes had narrowed, red darkening her cheeks. The soothing atmosphere that they had been enjoying only seconds ago evaporated in an instant. In its place, an uneasy tension began to build.

John’s brows pinched together in confusion before he quickly blanked his expression. “The sausages?” he repeated the question. That hadn’t been on the list for this week; he was sure that it hadn’t. Even without seeing the building agitation in his mum’s features, John knew better than to tell her that though. He was now in dangerous territory, and he doubted that he would be able to extract himself from the situation without angering her further.

“Yes,” she snapped. “Where are they?” Her voice had begun to rise as she spoke. The hand that had been clutching to counter to keep herself balanced dropped to her side. It disappeared in the floral printed material of her skirt as she took a small step forward.

John didn’t move. He barely even breathed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get any.” The words were hard to utter through the tightness in his throat.

His mum moved closer as he apologised. She only stumbled twice before stopping a mere three feet away. In a flash of movement that John had anticipated, but did not stop, she slapped him. “How am I supposed to make a proper breakfast for your Father if you didn’t even buy the bloody sausages?”

The sharp, burning pain across his left cheek was a welcome distraction from the burning pain building in his chest. He could feel moisture building up in the back of his eyes and hastily cast his eyes down. Jaw clenching, he struggled to think of something he could say to appease her. “I’m sorry, Mum. I’ll go right back to the store and get some.”

She huffed, head shaking as she glared. “No.” Turning away, she weaved her way out of the kitchen in unsteady, shuffling steps. “You already forgot it once, and I won’t have you picking up the wrong type.” As she spat out the words, she shrugged into her coat, the thin material hanging on her thin frame. “Clean the mess in the living room. It had better be done before I get back.” With those final words, she slammed her way out of the flat.

John blinked down at the twisted bags he clutched. The plastic crinkled in his hands as he shook. Drawing in a slow, steadying breath, John shoved the bags in their bin. Looking once more towards the hallway, he pulled the crumpled grocery list out of his pocket. Smoothing the paper out, John read through each item. He had been right; the sausages had not been on the list. Shoulders sagging, John left the kitchen and walked into the living room.

Right away, John knew that there hadn’t been an argument in here. Something had set Mum off though. She had rampaged through the room, but it hadn’t been for very long. John set about straightening the furniture and picking up everything off the ground. He swept up what looked to be two broken glasses and a single plate.

The worst of the damage had been to the sofa. A long, jagged cut ran the length of the centre cushion. The kitchen knife used was still plunged inside. Rubbing his fingers against his forehead, John sighed and pulled out the knife.

He looked at it, disgusted with the slight tremors in his hand, causing it to shake. Fingers tightening around the hilt, he could imagine letting himself go and plunging it into the sofa. He wanted to stab down over and over again, let out some of his anger and frustrations. With a sharp shake of his head, he drew his mind away from that tempting thought. He was better than that.

After placing the knife next to the sink, he returned to the living room. All that was left to fix was the cushion. He walked over the cheap pressboard wall-unit in the corner and extracted the small sewing kit from the lowest drawer. From inside he took a heavy-duty needle and upholstery thread. Once he had cut it to the length he wanted, John replaced the kit and stood.

He sat cross-legged on the worn hardwood floor, the cushion beside him. With his back against the wall, he was able to keep a cautious eye on the entrance while he worked. John wasn’t sure when his mum would be home. She might storm around the neighbourhood for a while and calm down or head directly there and back, holding tightly to her anger. He hoped it was the former. That would give him time to finish sewing and leave.

With his right hand, John gripped the torn edges of the sofa cushion. He held them together while he began to sew the large rip. Every few stitches he had to stop and push more of the damaged stuffing back inside before he could continue the process of fixing it. Unfortunately, there was nothing that he could do for the slight lopsidedness that he was creating. He needed enough of the material pulled together so that the thread wouldn’t simply come free the moment someone sat on it. It wouldn’t be pretty, but it would work.

It was a slow process, but he’d had a fair amount of experience doing this sort of work over the years. His stitches were small and even, pulling the material tightly closed. He wondered if this was what it would be like to sew up a gash. Well, he would find out soon enough. There was a little over a month left of school, and then he would be home free.

Since the letter incident last month, John had taken to staying away from the flat in the afternoons and evenings. He’d come home late, creeping into his room silent as a mouse. Monday’s were the exception. It was grocery day. He hadn’t expected his mum to be awake, let alone in the kitchen when he’d come home. If anything he’d expected Harry to be around. Where was she anyways? Maybe, he mused, she finally decided to move out.

John snorted at the thought. She’d stated on numerous occasions that she wouldn’t leave until John did. It was stupid; she should have gotten away from this place the moment that she’d been able to. According to her, Harriett felt that without her around to act as a buffer between him and their parents, John would be a lot worse off than he was now. That wasn't the case. They had both grown up with their parent's uncertain and volatile tempers. He and Harry had developed their own methods of dealing with them.

Over the last couple of years, Harry had taken to hiding from the reality of their situation, where John was actively working to get out of it. He knew he still slipped up on occasion, but there was no help for it. Today was a prime example of that. But, he’d had eighteen years to learn the dos and don’ts when dealing with their parents and how to avoid the worst of their tempers.

As though summoned by his uncharitable thoughts, Harriett appeared in the doorway. In the daylight, she looked worse than he had seen her in a long time. Her features were pinched and hollowing. The dark bruising made her wide eyes stand out starkly against the pale pallor of her skin. She crept forward silently, movements jerky as she sat down beside him, arms wrapping tightly around her legs. “John.”

She sounded tired, and John was immediately concerned. “Harry,” he responded cautiously, looking at her from the corner of his eye. “Everything ok?” From her hunched in posture and paleness, he suspected that she was not doing well. Was she getting sick? He hadn’t seen much of her since the letter incident last month. Looking at her now, he regretted not being more diligent about seeing how she was doing.

She shrugged slowly, as though the motion hurt before dropping her chin to her knees, refusing to look at him. She drew in a deep breath before whispering, “Mum’s been on the rampage. She’s still angry about the letter.”

That was the reason he was usually so careful about leaving anything important around the house. But he was exhausted both physically and emotionally. He was bound to slip up sometime. His trips to the Under-bridge weren’t helping in that regard, but he just needed to get away from it all for a while. Occasionally, he needed to clear his head and stop worrying so much.

Harriett tilted her head, resting her temple on her knees to watch him work. Out of the corner of his eyes, John saw her bite her lower lip, brows slowly pinching together. When the silence had begun to drag on, she let out a sigh. “You won’t get it. You know that right?”

The words were like a slap to the face, bringing the stinging feeling of his mum’s earlier hit to the surface. John jerked, hand slipping as he struck his finger hard with the needle. With a wince, John let go of the cushion and stuck his finger in his mouth, sucking at the injury. He turned his attention back to Harry. “Why not?” he muttered around the finger. Why couldn’t she just believe he could do this?

She snorted a low laugh and looked away from him, directing her attention out into the hallway once more. “Really, John? A doctor? Those are some mighty high hopes for someone in our station.” She laughed again, bitter and mocking. “No, your scholarship will be given to some nice middle-class kid whose family is down on their luck. It’s not meant for someone like you.”

John bristled at her condescending tone and snatched up the cushion once more. “I already have it,” he hissed through his clenched teeth, stabbing the needle through the material to sew up the last few inches. He just wanted this job done so he could leave.

Harriett shook her head slowly. “I read what your counsellor wrote. You don’t have it, not until you graduate with all your classes attended and the A-Levels completed.” She let her arms drop and tilted her head back to thump softly against the wall. “We both know that won’t happen. Besides, you’ve never been able to stop yourself from pissing Father off for longer than what-” She glanced at him, not appearing to notice his scowl or white-knuckled grip. “-a couple of months?”

John glared at Harry before turning his attention back to the cushion. With rough motions, he finished the last of the stitches and tied it off. “I do know how to keep my head down and mouth shut.” The words were bitter acid in his throat, but it was true. He could keep himself from lashing out, even if it was hard some days.

Once more Harry laughed. The mocking sound grated on John’s already frayed nerves. “Sure you can.” The condescension was almost palpable. “Just like you kept your head down last time?”

The words hit their intended mark, and he flinched, turning his head instinctively to hide the no longer visible bruise along his jaw. The last time had been a mistake, but Harry had said that Father had a head injury. John had to make sure that the man was alright. There was nothing else he could have done.

Drawing in a slow, calming breath, he looked over at Harry. He bit back the scathing comment he wanted to yell. Her words danced around in his head, a mocking tune of his past failures. Shoulders slumping, he couldn’t help but ask, “Can’t you try to be happy for me? Just this once?” This was the reason he hadn’t told her in the first place. He had known that she wouldn’t encourage him. All he wanted was for Harry to believe that he could do this. John hadn’t thought that she would purposely try to grind his dream into the dirt though.

Instead of telling him what he wanted to hear, Harry shook her head. Her expression turned more forlorn than he had seen in a long time. “I want to, but I don’t want you to get your hopes up so high that you’re devastated when you lose this.” She leaned along the wall to try and give him a side-hug. “You know I don’t like seeing you like that.”

John grimaced at the words. Fist tightening around the now repaired cushion, he made a point of leaning away. “I can handle myself, and I won’t lose this.” He couldn’t, not after everything that he’d done for it. “I’ve banked everything on it.” The last words came out as a whisper.

“That’s exactly what I mean!” Harry huffed indignantly. She climbed to her feet in quick, jerky movements. Planting her fists on her hips, she glowered down at him. “You’re just going to get bent all out of shape when you lose it! Why can’t you see that?”

John scrambled to his own feet, the cushion falling uncaring from his fingers. He refused to let her tower over him. Adrenaline buzzed through him as he took a deliberate step forward, pushing into Harriett’s space. “I don’t care if you believe that I can do this or not. But for God’s sake, just shut up about it!”

Harry retreated a step as his voice grew louder. She threw her hands in the air, disgust written across her pale face. “That’s the thanks I get for trying to help?” Her voice began rising. “You know what?” Brown eyes flashing with temper, she jabbed a finger at his chest. “You can just go and bugger yourself. See if I care!” With one last glare, Harry spun on a heel and stormed out of the flat.

John stopped himself from going after her. Closing his eyes, he clenched and unclenched his hands in agitation as he replayed their argument in his head. He couldn’t believe that she’d acted like that, especially today of all bloody days. Mum, he could understand, but Harry had no excuse. Jaw clenched, he swiped up the discarded cushion and tossed it to the couch.

Scowling, he looked around the room one last time. There was nothing more he needed to do. “Happy Birthday to me,” the words were bitter as he whispered them to the empty room. Shoulders slumping, he picked up his backpack and walked out.

John didn’t know where he wanted to go. All he knew was that he needed to get away for a while. Anger was a low burn inside that he couldn’t seem to shake and every time he thought of his family he just wanted to punch something. He tried to figure out how he was going to make it through the last month. Every day it was becoming harder traversing the metaphorical pitfalls and traps that was his home life.

It was late in the evening before John found himself wandering through the tall cement pillars of the Under-bridge. With a surety that spoke of his ease and comfort in this area, he deftly dodged mysterious heaps on the ground. His steps remained quiet as he meandered his way towards his usual place at the waterfront. Rounding the final pillar, John slowed as he spotted a man leaning on the railing, face tilted up to the night sky.

It was just warm enough out that the jeans and dark long-sleeved shirt didn't seem out of place, but the man lounging there certainly was. No one was ever out here. Well, except for James now, but James always wore expensive suits. He squared his shoulders and strode forward, deciding to pretend that the new interloper didn't exist. The Under-bridge was his place after all. If he hadn't been willing to let the presence of James keep him from coming out here, there was no way that he would let this new stranger do it.

Hand tightening protectively on the shoulder strap of his backpack, he walked closer. He made a point of avoiding the wind gathered piles of leaves and papers. He wouldn't advertise his presence either. John narrowed his eyes as he took in the man's position, about fifteen feet from John's usual perch. It was only when he'd almost reached the railing that the stranger's head turned towards him. John paused, startled as he finally recognised the man.

John continued moving forward and dumped his bag on the ground before he climbed up to sit on the rail. Balancing on the cool metal, he looked at the man out of the corner of his eyes, trying to wrap his head around the fact that the man had really dressed down. “James.” He nodded his head in the man's direction before turning to stare down at the dark waters. “It's been a while.”

He hadn't seen the other man in about a week. Their last two encounters had ended very much in the same manner as their first one, the man's beeper would go off, and he would leave almost immediately afterwards. James was the only person he had ever known that owned a beeper. It made him curious as to what he did for a living. He had speculated that the man was a professional. Maybe James was an office worker of some sort. Either that or he was a drug dealer.

James turned to face John full-on, leaning his body casually against the metal railing. “I feel like being called Jim today.” He grinned, white teeth flashing in the darkness. He made a point of studying John, his head tilting slightly as his eyes narrowed. “Bad night?”

John hunched in on himself at the question, his head bowing slightly. “It wasn't the greatest. Family,” he clarified, noticing James' – Jim's quizzical look. He shook his head at himself as he realised that he had just given up a little part of his secret. John looked away and stared pointedly at the shifting black currents of the water, silently hoping that the other man wouldn't attempt to pry.

Jim nodded his head slowly, his eyes remaining fixed on John. “Family can be rather…” He paused, the fingers of his left-hand snapping as he searched for the right word. With a lick of his lips, he suddenly smiled, fingers stopping their snapping as his hand dropped back down. “…bothersome.”

They both remained silent for a time, listening to the distant echoes of the city around them. He could feel the other man's eyes on him but chose to ignore it, even as it sent a shiver down his spine. Jim shifted his body to face John full on. He clapped his hands together loudly and announced, “What you need is a distraction. Otherwise, you'll be melancholy all night, and that's just boring.”

John wanted to scoff, but in a way, he was right. If he didn't find something else to occupy his mind, then he would sit here and dwell on the unfairness of life. “Oh? And I suppose you think you can find something to distract me?” John was beginning to get used to James – Jim and his oddly theatrical ways.

While Jim was blatantly flamboyant, he was also very smart, parting the strangest bits of information at the oddest times. Most importantly, however, was that the other man left his secrets alone. He never pried or tried to wheedle them out of him like so many others.

Jim laughed, the rich, deep sound echoed over the cool cement and out into the open air. “Challenge accepted.” Suddenly the man was standing right beside him; a hand outstretched to beckon him down. “You will, of course, have to come down from your mighty perch, for what I have in mind.”

John frowned wondering what he had just agreed to by his taunt. He carefully braced himself on the railing and stood, swinging over the bar to land much in the same fashion as the first time they'd met. “Oh? And what do you have in mind?” he inquired as he straightened to his full height, not quite an inch shorter than the other man.

With a wink and a wicked grin, the older man shrugged. “I was going to suggest a lovely fist fight, but you'd beat me into the ground then feel bad about it.” Jim's eyes danced as he placed a finger to his lips and tapped them twice. After a moment those dark eyes narrowed, and he pointed that finger at John, his brogue coming to the forefront. “Instead, I do believe something more fun for the both of us is in order.” With those ominous words, Jim spun on a heel and began walking away, left hand casually coming up to beckon him along.

He was intrigued despite himself by what James - no Jim - thought that he could do to distract him. John snatched up his bag and followed slowly at first, his eyes trained on the man's back as he watched the slight swagger, a hint at his more flamboyant side, before realising that he had been staring at Jim's arse. Face flaming in the darkness he almost ran to catch up and walk beside instead. He didn't fancy men. He should not under any circumstances be admiring the other man's arse, no matter how good it looked walking away from him.

John managed to tamp down his embarrassment as they moved through the underbelly of the bridge. He convinced himself that the older man had no idea that he had just been admiring him in more than a platonic way. He shook his head at himself as they rounded the wide cement pillars, the mantra 'I'm not gay! dancing in his head. As they walked, John became more focused on the man. They weren’t quite touching as they moved side by side, but John was certain that he could feel the heat radiating off Jim.

Over the past month they had met up at the Under-bridge on occasion, but never before had they gone anywhere together. John felt that this act of going out and doing something together would draw them closer together in some strange way that he couldn’t quite explain, even to himself. It was an uncomfortable feeling, but he also found the prospect compelling.

With every near brush against the other man, John became more uncomfortable. Nervousness began to build in the pit of his stomach, and he wasn’t sure why. Before John could contemplate that for too long, they had rounded the final pillar, revealing the service entrance. The narrow road had been blocked off years ago by a thick, overly rusted chain. But beyond that was what had caught his attention. A sleek black motorbike stood on the far side of the chain, framed in shadows.

Jim continued forward, not slowing as he ducked low under the waist-high metal chain, without even breaking stride. As he approached the bike his hand came out and caressed the body, fingers lazily trailing over the seat and tank before he leaned in and palmed the handle. His grip tightened, and in a graceful movement he swung a leg over, straddling the large machine with familiar ease and settled himself.

John stood there for a long moment, strangely captivated as he watched the older man shift the bike into a fully upright position. Once the machine was balanced, he kick-started it. The motorbike came to life with a loud roar before settling into a deep, steady rumble. Jim looked back over his shoulder at John, a brow arched in challenge. “Coming?”

It took him a moment to process the word. When he did, John felt his face flush darkly as he realised that he had just been staring. Quickly, he nodded his head, mortification filling him. Thankful for the darkness that hid the redness in his cheeks, he ducked under the chain.

He had never been on a motorbike before and eyed the rumbling machine warily as he approached. Stopping, he looked over the bike, finally pinpointing what was missing. “Where are the helmets?”

Jim laughed, “You won’t need one.” While the tone was reassuring, the words were not.

Shaking his head, John took a step away from the bike. “It’s the law.”

His eyes narrowed as he adjusted himself on the seat to better look at John. “Are you afraid, Johnny-boy?” There was a note of curiosity in his voice.

“What? I’m not afraid!” John huffed in defence. He crossed his arms and glared at the older man. He was not afraid, no matter what Jim thought. But what if they were pulled over by the police?

“Then prove it.” The taunt was sweetly spoken, uttered only slightly louder than the rumbling of the engine.

Clenching his jaw, John uncrossed his arms and moved closer again. He would show Jim. Looking over the bike once more, he finally spotted the passenger foot peg. Bracing one hand on the back seat and the other on Jim’s shoulder, he levered himself up as quickly as he could.

Once seated, John tried to adjust himself to place a polite distance between his chest and the older man's back. He licked his lips self-consciously and tentatively placed his hands on Jim's waist. His fingers were lax, barely even brushing the soft material, waiting for the older man to correct their position if he had placed them in the wrong spot. Jim didn't. Instead, he leaned forward, and - with a twist of his wrist - he revved the engine, and they took off.

John's eyes widened in alarm, and he instinctively tightened his legs around the other man, knees clamping as securely as he could. He gripped the man's waist tightly, his fingers clutching the shirt as he hunched himself against Jim, trying desperately to not fly off the machine. They steadily climbed the disused service entrance road, coming up at the bridge's North edge. Jim barely slowed as he glanced in both directions before he pulled onto the road.

Slowly John began to relax against Jim, taking note of the flex of muscles as the older man silently taught him how to take the curves and turns. John allowed his body to follow Jim's lead, leaning into the man as they rode. His arms and legs tightened instinctively as they dipped low in a turn. Breath caught in his throat and a small part of his brain screamed that they would fall off, but John found himself grinning like a madman all the while.

He couldn't help the laugh of exhilaration that escaped as they sped through the deserted industrial zone. The wind tugged insistently at their clothes and hair. He drew in a deep breath, savouring the feeling, this illusion of freedom. Right at this moment, he could just let it all go and focus instead on the rumble and speed of the bike.

John lost himself in the cool rush of wind. He tilted his head back, eyes becoming unfocused as he relished in the exhilaration of their racing down the streets. He breathed deep and full, taking in the taste of the cool night air, the scents both familiar and soothing. Slowly John refocused on the road, looking around at where they were going. He jolted when he realised that they were nearly out of the industrial zone.

As he looked around and took in the somewhat familiar streets and buildings, he decided that Jim was taking them straight towards downtown. He leaned into the other man, mouth hovering near his ear. “Where are we going?” he called out loudly to be heard over the roar of the bike and rushing of air.

At the question Jim tilted his head and turned slightly, causing John's lips to inadvertently graze across his temple for a split second before the younger man hastily drew back. “That, my dear, is a secret!” he responded with a laugh, the words and sound immediately snapped up and carried away by the wind.

John leaned back and tried to not think about the fact that he had sort of accidentally kissed the man's temple. It was an accident, so it meant nothing, he sternly told himself, trying to ignore the odd fluttering feeling that had taken up residence in the pit of his stomach. With a sharp shake of his head, he decided to ignore it and simply enjoy the ride.

It was only when they reached the more populated areas that John became aware of two rather important things. The first was that the headlight on Jim's motorbike wasn't on to declare their position to oncoming traffic. The second was that they were going way above the speed limit if the rate at which they were overtaking other vehicles was anything to go by.

Jim weaved in and out of the flow of traffic with the ease of someone who had spent most of his life on a bike. They cut between vehicles close enough that John had to tuck his knees and elbows to not hit the passing cars. Unconsciously, he clutched the older man tighter with his thighs, hands fisting into the black shirt, his heart hammering in his chest. His breaths came out, in short, almost panting bursts as he looked around them wildly, trying to regain his barring. The ride was both exciting and dangerous and his body hummed with the rush of adrenaline that coursed through his system.

John couldn't help the exhilarated laugh that burst from his throat. The last vestiges of his mundane concerns fell away as they sped through the ever-increasing flow of the nightlife traffic. He could smell the heavy scents of car exhaust and greasy food so prominent in the downtown quarter, but also an unfamiliar dark spice that mingled with an earthy scent.

John tilted his head down just a fraction feeling Jim's dark, windblown hair brushing along his cheek. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. It was the same dark spice that he had smelt before, but it also contained the faintest echo of something with a bite, something that he couldn't quite place. His eyes snapped open, and he drew back with a jerk when he realised that he had been sniffing the older man's hair.

He refocused his attention back on the road just as they raced into another breakneck turn. More comfortable now John relaxed into the curve, his body automatically moulding around Jim's and following every shift even as his pulse jumped into his throat at how close to the ground they got. Sparks burst from the foot peddle scraping against the road before they straightened out again.

He shifted back slightly so that he was no longer pressed flush against the other man. John was still enjoying the rush of wind and speed while trying to ignore how aware he had become of the other man when the first of the oncoming traffic sped past them. It took him a moment, nearly two whole blocks before his brain registered a very important piece of information. The oncoming traffic was passing them on both sides.

John felt himself go pale, his vision dimming for a second when his eyes locked onto a traffic sign. It was a red sign with a white rectangle in the middle of it. They were going the wrong direction, on a one-way. “Jim!” he exclaimed as sharp panic rushed through his system. His hands tightened into what must have been a painful hold as he tried to gain the other man’s attention.

At the sound of John's panicked voice, Jim laughed, the wind whipping away the mocking sound in an instant. He hunched further over the bike and with an aggressive twist of the wrist they accelerated more, the engine roaring at the added power. Blindingly bright lights were racing towards them at an alarming speed, and there wasn't anything that John could do other than clutch tighter and pray that the paramedics wouldn't be cleaning him off of the road when all was said and done.

More adrenaline flooded John's system as they sped through the first onslaught of vehicles. Horns honked and cars swerved to avoid a deadly head-on collision with them. Sounds seemed to amplify. The horns were almost deafening and the bike’s engine a deep, rumbling roar beneath them. John thought he could even hear shouts coming from the vehicles as they sped past in a blur.

His heart hammered painfully, feeling as though it would burst free at any moment. He felt hot and cold as he panted into the cool night air. Sweat formed only to be instantly pulled away by the wind. John's mind raced as he tried to figure out a way to save them both from certain death, knowing that he had little to no chance as he was not the one in control of this joyride gone wrong. “Damnit, Jim! Are you trying to kill us both?” He yelled into the man's ear as a van veered left to avoid colliding with them. “Pull over!”

Jim didn’t respond to his angry questions or desperate demands, but after a few more hellish blocks of playing chicken with machines that could flatten them both in an instant, he turned onto a side street. The sharp swerve took John by surprise, and it was only because of the death grip he had on the older man that he didn’t fall off. They raced through the narrower road, before turning again. For the first time since the ride began Jim finally slowed the bike. He dodged around “road closed” signs, delving further into a construction zone.

He didn’t stop the motorbike until they had rounded a final corner and all John could see was closed up shop fronts and scaffolding. There were only a few lamp poles illuminating this section, giving the area an abandoned feel even though they could still hear the distant sounds of traffic. The moment the bike was still and Jim had both feet on the ground; John extracted himself.

On trembling legs, he backed away from both the man and machine. “Are you crazy? That-” He pointed a shaking finger in the general direction of the one-way they had just been on. “-Was illegal!” It was all he could do to not tackle and throttle the man. With an angry shake of his head, he dropped his backpack, tried to slow his breathing and calm down.

Still faced away Jim held himself perfectly still. He had his head bowed, and his hands gripped the bike handles tightly for a long moment. Slowly, almost casually, he turned the bike off and set the kickstand. He allowed the bike to lean and turned the front tire before he slowly stood. The shadows around them appeared to envelop his form as he swung a leg over the seat. Jim turned then, looking directly at John. He tilted his head slightly, eyes looking black as pitch in the dim lighting and spoke quietly into the night air, “Your point?”

The rage that John had been trying to tamp down surged back to the surface with a vengeance. He took an involuntary step forward, fully intent on launching at the insane man before he caught himself. “Someone could have been hurt!”

Against his will, his mind began to conjure various ways in which their little joyride could have so easily gone wrong. There could have been an accident, one of the many vehicles that had swerved to avoid them could have crashed into another or even spun out of control. Hell, they could have ended up flattened on the road as nothing more than road kill.

The infuriating man just continued to stare at him unblinkingly; a single brow arched at John's angry statement. He waited for a long moment, and when John didn't say anything more, he slid his right hand into a pocket, the left lifting in an offhand gesture as he shrugged. “But no one was.” This was pointed out in a very calm, almost bored tone.

John let out a low growl of frustration, and he found himself taking another step forward before he could stop himself. His body trembled as he fought the nearly overpowering urge to just hit the man and be done with it. He clenched his fists tightly against the temptation, short nails biting into the palms of his hands. “We could have died.” John didn't know what else he could say to get it through the other man's head. What they had done had been stupid, crazy and suicidal.

As John's words faded into the night air, a slow smile crept up on Jim's face. The shadows surrounding him made him appear darker and more sinister. Then in a light, singsong voice that was completely at odds with their situation he spoke the two words that so easily broke John's tenuous control. “I know.”

John lunged forward, fully intent on pummelling the insane bastard into the ground. He closed the short distance between them, fists raised with the intent to hurt. He used his momentum to back the hit, throwing his entire body into the punch, but the face that he was so determined to smash in was no longer there.

John blinked once, then again as he stared up in confusion at the night sky, trying to both figure out how he had ended up on the ground and force some much-needed air into his lungs. He rolled over as he tried to breathe. John pushed at the gravel; the small rocks dug into his palms as he drew himself to his feet, finally able to draw in a breath. Still too angry to think clearly, he glared around, looking for the cause of all his frustrations and terror.

Jim stood only a few feet away with his feet firmly planted shoulder width apart and his hands casually tucked into his pockets. His head was angled down slightly. Those darkly glittering eyes focused entirely on John, his lips tilted up at the corner. “Oh, Johnny-boy,” he crooned the nickname softly. “If you just wanted to hit something you had only to ask.” The always slightly lilting cadence of Jim's voice drifted over John in a mocking wave.

Those taunting words, that bloody tone, and even his stance drove John's anger to the tipping point. A haze began to creep in at the edges of his vision, dipping the world in red. He rushed forward once more, but this time his left arm snapped out and snagged the front of the man's shirt. Hand twisting tightly in the material to keep him still John drew his arm back and punched at him again. In the last possible moment, one of Jim’s hands came up to deflect the blow just enough that it glanced off his jaw instead of landing in the middle of his face as intended.

The defensive action was fuel to his already burning anger. Why should Jim be able to try and get away from this when John had no way of getting off the motorbike earlier? He twisted his hand tighter into the black material and drug the slightly taller man close until their faces were only inches apart. “You're insane.” He spat and hit again, his fist finding its mark in the man's stomach this time.

Jim had no way to deflect the blow and the air burst from his lips in a rush. His body attempted to double over and protect itself from the pain being inflicted, but John's unyielding grip prevented the defensive motion. He drew in a slow breath and spoke. “Oh no, not insane.” Oddly enough the voice offered no evidence that he was in any pain. “Better than that.” As the words faded he locked gazed with John, somehow appearing calm and collected, that slight smirk still firmly in place.

That arrogant expression and those taunting words drove John's rage higher, and he hit the man again. This time he managed to land a solid blow on Jim's face and satisfaction coursed through him as the man's head snapped back from the force. He kept going, pouring all his frustration at this man, the situation they had just been in and his life into the assault.

He had thought that he and Jim had become something like friends, but no one in their right mind would intentionally put their friend in danger like that. Jim wasn't fighting back though; he just continued to stand there and take the beating even after John had released his death grip on the shirt. Why would he just stand there and not even try to defend himself?

John slowed his wild assault on the other man, realising that he was out of control. The haze of anger that had been fuelling him began to dissipate. The feel of his fists sinking into flesh began to make John sick to his stomach. Jim wasn't fighting. He wasn't even defending himself for Christ's sake. He just stood there and took every blow that John threw at him, straightening out after each strike or stepping back up if he stumbled backwards.

Slowly John lowered his fists and took one unsteady step back, then another. He was a despicable human being, no better than his parents. He was worse in fact because he hid behind the lie of being better than them. “Shit, Jim-” He cut himself off and looked away from what he had done. Frustrated and angry with himself he ran a hand through his hair, unintentionally streaking the blond with red, as he tried to think of something to say. Sorry I beat the crap out of you? He wasn't, not entirely anyway. He was just sorry that he had resorted to violence.

“Stop that.” The two words were sharp and controlled, causing John to look at Jim, startled.

John warily watched as the other man straightened himself fully. He cringed inside as he caught the slight wince that the man quickly masked. Jim's jaw was already beginning to darken and swell; reminding John of his own bruised jaw when they had first met. Blood glistened at the corner of his mouth and along the lines of his thin lips. By some strange miracle, John had managed to avoid breaking the other man’s nose, but Jim was going to have one hell of a black eye in the morning.

He had torn Jim's shirt at the neck so now it hung a bit oddly on his frame, but it still shielded John from seeing the additional damage that he had done to the other man. “Stop what?” He demanded, voice rough as he fought to slow his panting breaths. He stared down at his aching hands. The knuckles were red and bleeding in spots. His knee was also beginning to throb in a low, distant way and he couldn't help but wonder when he had hurt his knee.

“The guilt.” Those words snapped John's head back up. Slowly, deliberately, Jim began to advance on him, eyes narrowed as he closed the space between them. “I allowed that to happen. Had I considered myself to be in any danger you would be on the ground right now.” He sounded very sure of that. His voice was dark and smooth, completely unlike his normal up and down tones.

John shook his head and began to back away, afraid of what he had done and that he might do it again. His rage still burned inside, that anger twisted with his guilt making him feel ill. “No, I was out of control.” As much as he wanted to believe that Jim was speaking the truth, he knew that the other man was wrong. “You couldn't have gotten out of that.” As the last word escaped his lips, John found himself slamming hard into the ground.

He hadn’t seen the older man move, but Jim crouched over him. One hand was holding John’s arm at the elbow, extended out to the older man’s shoulder. The other tightly fisted in the hair at the back of John’s head. It took the length of time for air to return to his lungs for John to realise that Jim’s grip on him was the only reason his head hadn’t cracked against the ground.

Jim leaned in, voice low as he began to speak slowly and deliberately, making sure that there was no chance of misunderstanding his words. “I am fully capable of defending myself, even against you, John. Now, I will say this only one more time. I allowed that.”

His breath caught in his throat as he stared up at the other man. A shiver that had nothing to do with the cool ground raced over his skin. Heart pounding, John tried to figure out how he had ended up in this position, sprawled out beneath the older man. After a long moment of tense silence where John tried to ignore the interest his body was beginning to show at this predicament, he asked the only question that he could think of. “Why?”

“You've been bottling that rage up for a long time, I could see it from the beginning.” Jim tilted his head and studied John's face, unknown thoughts flickering behind his eyes. “It needed to be let out in a controlled situation.” Slowly, that damnably frustrating smile crept back onto his face. “So, I enraged you.”

They stayed in that position, locked in an odd limbo for seconds or hours; John flat on his back and Jim crouched over him like a dangerous creature, fingers slowly rubbing back and forth across his scalp. The motion sent little currents of electricity shooting down his neck. He wasn't sure what he would have done next, but Jim ended their stalemate by shifting away and slowly pulling his hand out from under John's head. The man rocked back onto his heels as he continued to stare down at John's prone form.

John took a deep, calming breath and sat up, unable to drag his eyes away from the confusing man. He reached out and cautiously touched his fingertips to the red swelling along the side of Jim's jaw, noting in relief that it didn't appear broken. “But I hurt you.” He couldn't understand why Jim hadn't flinched at his touch. He knew that he would have.

Instead of pulling away as John expected, he leaned ever so slightly into the touch, eyelids sliding half closed as he continued to stare. His cheek rubbed against John's palm as he nodded his head, not seeming to feel any pain from the motion. “Yes, you did. I, however, provoked you with the understanding that this was the likely outcome.”

Warm breath whispered across John's palm, and his hand slid down the older man's neck, thumb grazing the underside of his jaw. His fingers gently traced along the angles, trying to determine the extent of the damage he had caused. “But why?” He found himself asking the same question as before, not satisfied with the man's previous answer.

Jim's eyes snapped open at the question, and he pulled away, breaking the tentative contact between them. He stood, somehow managing to make the movement look graceful even with what John suspected were bruised ribs. He bent down slightly and held out his hand, silently offering to help John up. “That's what friends do.” The words were stated simply as if it made perfect sense to do such a thing.

Were they friends though? John felt lost as he stared up the length of Jim's body. He didn't have any real friends, hadn't in a very long time. There were Mark and Travis, but he still kept them at arm's length. John shot down any attempts they made to delve into his private life. They were, however, the closest he had been willing to risk letting anyone get.

Jim never asked him any personal questions. He respected the boundaries that John had set up. Even with the distance that he had tried to keep, Jim had seen the emotional tightrope that John had been walking and did what he could to ease the tension. Wasn’t that what friends did? Help? But what about the bike ride? “The one-way… Couldn’t you have done something else?” he finally asked as he accepted the hand up.

The older man grinned wolfishly, the action pulling at the split in his lip and reopening the injury. He pulled John up with a surprising amount of ease. “I could have, but as I said before, something fun for the both of us.” When John opened his mouth to deny the statement, Jim cut him off. “You were enjoying the thrill until we turned onto that street. Even then, a part of you was exhilarated.”

John shook his head adamantly, denying what the other man was suggesting. He backed up a step wanting to stop this conversation. “It was dangerous.” His defence was weak, but it was all that he could think to say.

Jim matched his retreat, moving a single step closer. “And you find danger exciting.” His voice had lowered again, the words rolling off his tongue, subtly flavoured by his brogue. “That is why you go to your bridge so late at night.” He tilted his head ever so slightly, eyes narrowing as he continued to study John. “And that’s why you are still here.”

John drew back another step, not wanting to face the words the other man spoke. The hardest part was that it wasn’t even an accusation, but a simple statement of fact. “That’s not why-” He tried once more to defend himself, a low panic beginning to creep in.

“Then why, John?” Jim advanced on him, every step matching John’s retreat as he stalked forward with dark, predatory grace. “Why do you wander through the streets so late at night? Why do you frequent an area, where only the dregs of society choose to destroy themselves? Why were you laughing as we sped through the city, and why were you smiling as you threw your punches?”

With every pointed question, he backed John up until the younger man’s back was to the wall of the building. With nowhere left to withdraw, John froze. Jim took a final step forward, leaving only inches between them. “Even now, you are excited.” Slowly, he lifted his hands, motions hesitating only slightly when John flinched. He braced them on either side of the younger man, caging him in.

John’s heart raced as he stared at this darkly terrifying man, unable to bring himself to look away. Heat coiled through his body leaving his limbs tingling as he panted into the night air. How was it that Jim saw so much more of him than anyone else had ever been able to? The danger that the other man presented was a rush because he didn’t know what Jim would do or how he would react next.

That didn’t mean that John had to be honest about it though. He was quite happy to ignore this strange aspect of himself and bury it back down in the deepest parts of his psyche as soon as possible. Drawing in a shuddering breath that tasted of the older man, he shook his head in denial. Pushing out of the cage of arms, John tried to leave the situation. He was a little surprised when it worked. As he walked away from Jim, he began to breathe a little easier.

Three steps.

That was all the freedom he had managed to gain before he was slammed hard against the wall. John struggled against the body that had effectively pinned him for a moment before a fist tightened in his hair. The action halted his twisting and straining movements to free himself. Once again, John realised that the only reason that he wasn’t seeing stars was that Jim’s hand was serving as the buffer between his head and the hard surface he was pressed against. He panted, so many conflicting emotions and reactions filling him that he froze in indecision.

Jim leaned in close, his hand sliding slowly from the crown of John’s skull to gently fist in the hair at the nape of his neck. “You can’t deny this.” As he breathed the words into John’s ear, his fist tightened in the soft locks.

John drew in a sharp breath at the pleasurable pain. Blood rushed as a shiver crept along his nerve endings. He pressed his back more firmly against the building, fingers digging into his palms as he tried to clear the haze that had taken up residence in his head. “Jim, wait.” He needed a second to think, but the other man wasn’t going to give him that. Jim stepped in, closing the small space between them until they were chest to chest. His tongue traced the shell of John’s ear before he kissed a slow trail down John’s throat.

The protest died a quiet death as heat spread from every point of contact. John shivered and lifted his hands, gripping the older man’s hips to push him away. Instead, when Jim bit down at the junction between his throat and collarbone, John’s fingers spasmed, and he clutched tighter. An unintelligible sound escaped John’s lips as fire coiled in his stomach.

Jim drew back enough to stare at John, dark gaze feeling like it could see all of his secrets. A jolt of awareness skittered along his flesh, and suddenly he was being kissed. Jim’s tongue darted out, tracing along the curve of his lips. The gentleness of the touch was a sharp contrast to the firm grip in his hair. He felt dizzy from the multitude of sensations. He wanted to take as much as the other man would give him and wanted to run from what Jim was making him feel.

In an abrupt motion, Jim pulled away. His breathing was uneven as he released his grip on John’s hair and took two unsteady steps back. Jim stood in silence, head bowed, with the distant security lights shadowing his face as he worked on slowing his breathing. “I am sorry, John.” Only then did he look up, fire burning behind those dark eyes. “I went too far.”

John blinked at him as he used the wall as a support while he tried to process the sudden absence of all contact. His body throbbed, demanding more, demanding that he finish what they had started. He shook his head slowly, trying to clear the haze, and swallowed hard. “That, uh-” He tried again. “What-” No, not quite what he was going for. “Are you hurt?” Not what he wanted to say, but it was better than saying nothing as he tried to figure out the sudden change in their dynamic.

Jim shook his head slowly, gaze raking John from head to toe, a dangerous sort of hunger painted over his features. “It’s fine. Come, I should take you home before-” He cut himself off, shaking his head more angrily this time. With one final dark look, he turned and began stalking away.

Before what? John wanted to call out the question but had a feeling that he knew the answer. Before things escalated further than they already had. The thought sent a shock of arousal down his spine, and he was suddenly very grateful for the wall he was leaning against. John forced himself to look up at the night sky instead of the man storming away from him, willing his body to calm down.

Unfortunately, the sky only reminded him of their first encounter, which brought Jim right back to the forefront of his mind. Jim was intelligent, crazy, confusing and maybe even his friend. Jim had also just finished shoving him up against a wall in the most erotic experience of John's life. He didn't know whether he should thank the man or kick him. Right now though, he just wanted to be anywhere else. He didn't want to think about any of this anymore.

John jumped at the sound of the bike's engine roared to life, slicing through the silence. Slowly he straightened and pushed himself away from the wall. He began walking towards the man and bike. He stooped down and grabbed his discarded bag, slinging it on before wrapping his arms around himself as he slowly made his way over.

After a long moment of silence where Jim kept his head bowed and refused to look at him, he finally spoke. “Get on John. If you direct me, I will take you home.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Nearly two weeks had passed since the bike ride, the fight and what had happened afterwards. John had stopped his nightly commutes to the Under-bridge, not wanting to see the man. With the same determination, he avoided thinking about Jim, or how he had felt pressed against John. Instead, he poured all his energies into studying for his A-Level exams, the first of which was only a couple weeks away.

By the beginning of the second week, his knee had stopped aching, and the scrapes over his knuckles had healed completely. It was only then that he had stopped thinking about his hurts and began to worry about Jim’s. Guilt weighed down on him over what he had done. His resolve broke, and John returned to the Under-bridge, spending a tense hour each night, waiting.

John still didn’t know what to think of the older man. Jim broke all the rules. He nearly killed them on that bloody bike. He provoked John into attacking him, pinned him to a wall and topped it all off by kissing John. What kind of man did that? Worse, what type of a person did that make John, who had been turned on by it?

His pulse picked up as he remembered being shoved roughly against that wall and Jim pressing so tightly against him. No, he shook his head sharply, trying to rid himself of the confusing feelings. John drew in a deep breath as he worked to clear his mind. With every step closer to the bridge, the scent of the river’s water masked more of the industrial stench. He hoped that the older man would be at the bridge tonight, that way he could ease his conscience, and then leave.

But Jim hadn’t been there any of the times that John went out to the waterfront. If he were completely honest with himself, John would admit that he was becoming concerned. What if there had been internal bleeding or haemorrhaging? What if he had damaged Jim’s internal organs? John would never know. He had no idea where the man lived and had no way to find him either.

Unfortunately, John had a vivid imagination. He knew from both experience and medical texts exactly what could go wrong with the human body, especially after the beating he endured. If Jim became incapacitated due to pain, he might not have gotten to hospital in time. Would someone have found him before it was too late?

John made his way through the stained cement pillars of the bridge’s underbelly. As his fingers tightened around the day’s newspaper, he hoped that his building fears wouldn’t be confirmed today. It was the same thought he’d had every day this week, ever since he had begun buying the papers. The obituaries were the only way John knew that he would be able to know if Jim was dead. Even the thought hurt, and he clutched a hand to his stomach at the sharp ache there.

All his whirling and circling thoughts slammed to a halt when he rounded the final pillar and spotted a form. Leaning against John’s usual perch, clad once more in an impeccable suit, stood the man he had been both anticipating and dreading. “Jim!” The name was past his lips before he had fully registered the sleekly attired man.

The older man cocked his head to the side, the security lights from the bridge reflecting in his slicked-back hair. In a graceful movement, he turned around. Thin lips twitched up into an all too familiar smirk when his gaze landed on John. “It’s been a while.” As he spoke, Jim uncoiled from his slouch, fingers tugging his suit jacket straight.

John’s pace stuttered before he stopped altogether. Greedily, he drank in the sight of Jim moving towards him with fluid grace. It was a clear indication that he was healing more than fine. John couldn’t see any residual bruising on his face, nor were the smooth strides indicative of any lingering pain.

Relief washed over John in a wave that left him feeling weak and shaky. The tightness, which had been building inside his chest, finally began to release. John was able to breathe easy, the knowledge that he hadn’t killed Jim soothing the ache inside.

But now that he had seen Jim, alive and well, he found himself torn. John wanted to run as far away from this man as he could. Jim made him lose control, made him feel things that he shouldn’t. As much as he wanted to walk away, he knew he wouldn’t. John had never felt so alive as when Jim was around. He wanted to take everything that the older man could give.

Unable to drag his eyes away from the approaching man, John gripped the paper tighter. Through the tightness in his throat, he croaked out, “I’m glad you’re ok.” It was all he could think to say into the silence that lay so thickly between them.

Ten feet back, Jim stopped. With slow and exaggerated care, he widened his eyes and placed his right hand over his heart. “Oh Johnny-boy, were you concerned about me?” The unusual lilt in his voice carried mocking laughter to John’s burning ears. “Isn’t that sweet of you?” he cooed sweetly.

The taunting words hurt, and John looked down at the paper clutched in his white-knuckled grip. Why had he even bothered? “I just wanted to make sure that I wasn’t a killer.” How could he have thought that Jim was his friend, or maybe even more? In his peripheral vision, he could see Jim approaching once more. He tensed, but refused to back away; he did not want the man to mock him again.

With each precise step that clicked against the concrete, John’s heart beat harder. John didn’t know why he still felt so drawn to the man. By all rights, he should hate Jim for making him lose control and attacking him. But the urge to look up into those eyes was almost impossible to resist. John wanted to pin the man to the ground and make Jim lose control in the same way.

John’s muscles tightened in preparation to bolt when Jim stopped directly in front of him and lifted a hand. As Jim lightly touched his face, John flinched but did not pull away from the tentative contact. With a small shudder, John allowed the cool palm to slide along his jaw, fingertips pressing softly into the side of his neck. A part of him wanted to close his eyes and relish in the comforting feel of that hand pressed so sweetly against his skin. Instead, he tried to steel himself against the next taunt that would pass the older man’s lips.

“You needn’t worry,” Jim murmured so quietly that John nearly didn’t hear him. His thumb brushed slowly back and forth over John’s cheek as he forced John to look at him. “I am rather resilient.” The taunting smirk, which had been gracing Jim’s thin lips only moments before, began to fade as they locked gazes.

The strained tension between them shifted between one shallow breath and the next. An uncomfortable thrill began to hum through John’s body, and he found himself leaning into the older man’s touch the slightest amount. That single point of contact held most of his focus. That echo of a bite, which he still couldn’t place, was more prominent tonight. It was smoky and slightly bitter, unfamiliar, but nagged at his memory.

His hand lifted, slight tremors causing it to shake. His fingers coiled gently around the older man’s wrist, not to pull it away, but to have a safe point of contact. Staring into those night-blackened eyes, he could feel the race of Jim’s heart in the pulse-point he gripped. Jim isn’t as unaffected as he is pretending to be. The thought sent a sharp thrill down his spine. John couldn’t resist the tension thrumming between them. Drawing in a shuddering breath, he closed the last inches that separated them.

Lips met with gentle pressure at first, closed mouths pressed against one another before opening for a proper taste. John’s tongue darted out, questing along Jim’s lower lip, before teasingly retreating. Releasing his tight grip on the newspaper, John coiled his arm around the older man’s waist. As his fingers dug lightly into the soft material of the suit, he pulled Jim closer, desperately needing to feel more.

With a harsh sound, Jim deepened the kiss. His tongue darted out, silently demanding that John let him in. He devoured John as he forced the younger man to back up. With each stumbling, backward step, their bodies brushed against one another, heightening the thrilling tension between them. As he pressed John against the cold firmness of the stone pillar, his hand slid down from cradling John’s face.

John released his grip on Jim’s wrist as he arched against the man pressing him into the pillar. With a gasp, John broke the kiss. Pleasure and need hummed through his blood, drowning out every other emotion as Jim pulled John’s hips forward. Panting, they rocked against one another, their bodies straining as the friction between them built.

Fire licked along his nerve endings. Desperately, John clutched at the fabric of the older man’s suit, trying to pull Jim even closer. He found Jim’s lips once more. Everything was what he wanted from this man. Everything that he could take and everything that Jim could give him. The earlier taunts didn’t matter, so long as this never stopped.

With a low groan, Jim jerked his head back, breaking the kiss. Panting into the night air, he avoided John’s searching mouth. “This isn’t a good idea.” He breathed and began to ease away. He clutched tightly at John’s hips for a moment before stepping back. Drawing in a slow breath, he spoke, “I find certain situations to be-” He paused, heavy-lidded black eyes locking with brown. “-very stimulating.”

The melodic words rolled over John in a wave, the cadence brushing teasingly along his over-sensitised nerves. John tried to slow his panting breaths, even as he leaned his full weight against the pillar. Licking his lips, he stared at the older man, unable to drag his eyes away from the image he made. Slicked hair tousled, suit askew. The colour in his cheeks a contrast to his pale features. His gaze darted down to the reddened lips, before looking back up into bottomless eyes.

With a small shake of his head, John tried to clear his thoughts. He frowned as he tried to understand. He found certain situations stimulating? “I figured that out after the ride-” He paused, swallowing hard as he flashed back to the feel of his fist’s sinking into the man’s flesh. “-and the fight.”

The older man coiled in on himself, shadows darkening his features as he drew another step back. “Oh, much more than that.” The ominous words echoed. He shook his head slowly, as though trying to clear it. As he straightened, Jim waved a hand through the air, dismissing his prior statement.

Turning away, Jim directed his attention on the expanse of the Under-bridge. “The potential of danger, the unknown.” When the words faded into nothingness, James refocused his attention back on John. With a slow lick of his lips, he raked his gaze over every inch of John he could see. “It holds much appeal. However, I have come to consider you a friend, so I shouldn’t play with you.”

John opened his mouth, wanting to say that he didn’t care if Jim was only playing with him, so long as they continued. But that wasn’t true; he did care. John tried to breathe through the painful constriction in his chest at the thought of the older man just toying with him. Were they friends? The man had stated twice now that they were. What did that mean exactly? Had Jim been playing with John before or was he playing with John now?

He didn’t know how to find out the answer to that question. Did that matter? John was fairly certain that Jim already knew how he felt. After all, he did just kiss the man. And quite a bit more, his mind helpfully pointed out. A full body shudder coursed through him, causing his hair to stand on end.

John pushed away from the pillar. “Typically, friends don’t meet in dark Under-bridges.” He pointed the fact out as he began moving towards the older man. All he could think about was kissing Jim again. He wanted to feel the man’s delicious heat against him once more. He wanted the man to help him forget everything he didn’t want to think about.

With every step closer that John made, Jim retreated, carefully maintaining the same distance between them. Even as he backed away, Jim began to tap a finger against his chin, appearing unaffected by what they had just done. “You do have a point. This is not the most pleasant of accommodations.” He trailed off as he looked at their surroundings. Jerking his gaze back to John, he grinned widely, “Let us do dinner.”

 

John stopped with a frown, trying to force his mind from the thought of running his hands under the man’s shirt. “Er, sure?” He hadn’t known what he had expected but suggesting something as mundane as dinner hadn’t been anywhere on that list. Even shark hunting would have been higher up than that.

In a quick motion, he slicked back his tousled hair, further hiding any physical evidence of his loss of control. “You will have to call me James tonight. I feel like being a James.” The words trailed off as he turned away. Without verifying that John would follow, he began to make his way through the underbelly of the bridge. His steps were even, neither rushed nor slow, shoes clicking neatly on the concrete. He slid his right hand into a pocket with casual ease as he headed towards the service entrance.

For a long moment, John just stared at his retreating form. Flushing, he ran to catch up. He was not going to stare at the man’s ass again. Nope. Jim-James had just all but stated that they shouldn’t be engaging in any physical activities together. As much as he wanted to do otherwise, he would have to settle for just friendship.

It was difficult. His body still hummed with the sensations the other man had created in the span of a few minutes. But he did have pride; he wouldn’t beg. Maybe it was better this way. He shouldn’t want anything more from the man, especially after the way that James had reacted to John’s worry.

Besides, he and Jim-James got on well enough without complicating their strange friendship with anything more. At least, that was what he was trying to convince himself. “Why do you switch between Jim and James?” he wondered out loud as he fell into step with the other man.

Not slowing his stride, James cast him a sidelong look. “Was that a personal question, Johnny-boy? I’ll give you this one for free, but the next will cost you.” Turning his attention back to where he was walking, James continued. “I enjoy both names, so why not use them?”

John was rather dissatisfied with the answer but didn’t push for more. He continued to follow along; lips firmly closed against all the questions he had about the man. He knew that James would demand something in return, and John had already given too much of himself away. Why was it so damned easy to let things slip around the older man?

As they neared the service entrance once more, John had a sudden thought. “We aren’t taking the bike again, are we?” As exhilarating as that had been, John didn’t think his heart would be able to handle another near-death experience. That and his libido wouldn’t be able to handle the proximity again.

James gave him an amused look before he winked, “Of course not.” He said nothing else until they had rounded the last pillar. With a flourish, he flung his arms out to a black car. It was parked at an angle, the nose of the vehicle facing the entrance. “Your chariot, my dear.”

Not overly familiar with cars, John took a long moment to study it. Based solely on the man he was standing beside, he knew that it would have to be fast. That meant that it was likely expensive too. With a hesitant lick of his lips, he hazarded a guess, knowing that he was likely wrong. “A Mustang?”

The older man stopped short at the words. A hand thudded loudly against his chest, right over his heart. “A Mustang?” He sneered the name. “Oh, Johnny-boy. How you wound me!” James lifted a hand to cover his eyes, pretending to swoon. “How can we possibly remain as friends when you cannot recognise the beauty, the splendour, and the grace that is the beloved Camaro?”

With those melodramatic words, the odd tension between them dissipated and John found himself laughing at the man’s outrageous antics. Shaking his head, he pushed James hard enough that the man stumbled off balance, shoes slipping slightly on the concrete. Walking over to the car, he made a point of looking it over once more. Nothing about the vehicle screamed any particular brand to him. It was black, had wheels and windows. “I’m afraid that to me a car is a car,” he called teasingly over his shoulder with a shrug.

“Pff, a car is a car,” James grumbled the words under his breath, but they were still loud enough for John to hear. “What am I going to do with you?” With an overly loud and dramatic sigh, he shook his head in mock disappointment. Casually he brushed by John, their arms grazing as he walked over to the passenger’s side. With a loving pat on the roof, James climbed inside.

Goosebumps rose where their bodies had momentarily connected. With a sharp shake of his head, he tried to block out the feel of the other man and the memory of more pressing against him. Instead, John tried to figure out why the man had climbed into the wrong side of the car. When the engine roared to life, it clicked.

It was an American car; they were backwards. He clearly had a thing for expensive items. What the Hell did James do for a living to afford something like this? Shaking his head again, John moved to the other side and slid inside. The moment he had closed the door James took off.

As they steadily climbed the ramp, John immediately buckled himself in. In seconds they were on the bridge, and with a squeal of tires the car was taking off. Heart in his throat, John clutched at the grab handle by his head, fingers clenching tightly around the leather. Why had he agreed to this again?

After the first minutes of breakneck speeding, James slowed down. He still drove faster than those around them, but nothing close to the speeds they had on the bike. He didn’t make any of the sharp turns or insane lane changes that John would have expected. Eventually, John released his death grip on the leather handle, letting his hand drop down into his lap.

He found himself settling in. The warmth from the heater warded off the damp chill in the air and the low hum of the car’s engine a soothing purr that reverberated in his bones. They didn’t speak during the drive, and John was grateful for that. He was still confused over the changes that had come over the older man. One minute, they were grinding against the other; the next, James was backing off. But it wasn’t only that; there was his attitude to John’s concern earlier too.

Maybe he had been overreacting. There was a fine line between teasing and taunting. John looked away from the streets and over to James. The intermittent lighting from streetlamps illuminated the man’s profile in fleeting glimpses. The broadness of his forehead drew John’s eyes down to the straight slope of his nose and inevitably to those lips.

John licked his own lips, remembering the feel of that mouth against him. With a shudder, John looked away. James didn’t want to be anything more than a friend. He could deal with that. Now, if only he could convince his libido of the same thing, then everything would run smoother. He was jarred out of his wandering thoughts by the purr of the engine cutting off. Blinking, John glanced out of the window, not recognising where they were.

“We’re here,” Flashing a Cheshire grin, James climbed out of the car.

John scrambled to remove his seatbelt before getting out himself. He was not sure what he had just gotten himself into by agreeing to this dinner. Already, John was beginning to regret his decision. In a few long strides, he caught up to the older man, falling into step as they moved down the busy street. They weren’t in the downtown quarter, but near enough that the bustle of the city was all around them.

Men and women dressed for a night on the town flowed around them in a never-ending display of classy and refined attire. As they made their way up the street, people parted for James, many giving the man an appreciative once over as they passed. John’s shabby clothes looked even worse next to him. The loose threads in his sweater dangled, and the rip in his jeans screamed poor.

John hunched in on himself, eyes cast down as he slowed his pace slightly. He slipped into the gap James left in his wake, following along that way. There was no reason that a man like James would ever lower himself to spending time with someone of John’s station. Self-consciously, he crossed his arms, using the excuse of the chill in the air as he tried to hide more of himself from prying eyes. His discomfort didn’t ease when they finally left the street, stepping into a restaurant.

Instantly, an older man wearing a freshly pressed uniform greeted them. The attendant's lip curled up slightly in a professional distaste when his gaze landed on John. The man’s haughty expression shifted from mild disgust to friendly welcome in the space of a heartbeat when he spotted James. “Mr-”

“Gregorio!” James interrupted, stepping around John and embracing the man. “How have you been?” he inquired, pulling back slightly. “How is your wife and little girl, Emma isn’t it?” As he spoke, he had positioned himself to be directly in front of John, blocking the attendant’s line of sight.

Gregorio’s voice warmed, “My family is doing quite well. Emma just aced a spelling bee.” He straightened, stepping away while patting James companionably on the shoulders. “We are fairly booked up tonight, but for you, I am sure that we can find an opening.”

“You are too good to me,” James admonished softly before finally stepping to the side. He turned his attention back to John, motioning him forward. “This is my friend, John. He will be joining me this evening.”

At the introduction, John tried to summon up a smile. He had the feeling that it looked more like a grimace, given the strange look the attendant gave him, and stopped. Self-conscious, John shoved his hands deep into his pockets. Rhythmically, he began clenching and unclenching them, trying to keep himself calm and not bolt right back out the door.

While he couldn’t see any of the patrons, due to the layout of the front, he knew from Gregorio’s attire that this place was leagues above what he would be able to afford. Maybe he could get away with just ordering a salad. Glancing around the richly decorated front, he mentally changed that to water.

“John,” Gregorio nodded graciously at him, maintaining a blandly pleasant expression. “Please follow me.” With one last warm smile directed to James, he turned on a heel and ushered them along the wall, which blocked the line of sight from the street and into the restaurant proper, to the propped open doors some ten feet down. The room was bustling with voices raised in comfortable conversation.

Looking over the sea of people, John wanted to turn and walk right back out. Every man that John could see wore a suit; each woman had on a sleek dress. In a place like this, he knew that he stood out like a rodent in a fancy ballroom. Already, people were beginning to look their way, the hum of conversation dimming as they took in the new arrivals.

John kept his head down, not wanting to see the disgust on their faces at riffraff like him being allowed into a place like this. Meekly, he trailed behind James. With every step through the room they took, his muscles tightened, and his still clenched fists ached.

His tension didn’t ease until they Gregorio directed them to a small table, set out of the way. There were a few tall trees with draping leaves which partly obscured line of sight. John was thankful that it was next to the kitchen and out of casual sight from the majority of the other patrons. In a few words, Gregorio left them with the promise of their dinner’s being only minutes away.

That didn’t make any sense to John. The man hadn’t known that he and James would be here, and neither of them had made an order. “Jim,” John spoke hesitantly.

The older man shot him a sharp look. “James,” he corrected, his brogue coming out as he spoke the name.

With a wince, John looked down at his hands curled in his lap. Absently, he picked at the dirt under his fingernails. “James,” he tried again. “I don’t think that I can…” He trailed off. How could he tell his friend that he most likely couldn’t even afford the bread that they served here, let alone a full meal? “I’m not really hungry,” John lied after a moment’s hesitation.

James cocked his head to the side, looking John over with a critical eye. It made John feel exposed. “It would be rude to refuse the food they put before you.” The words were smooth and calm, but there was the edge of a bite.

John flushed and found himself nodding. It would be rude, but so would him being unable to pay for said food. Maybe he could do dishes here to compensate? How would he explain that to James? Thanks for having me out for dinner, I’m just going to go and work off my meal now. John winced. He didn’t think that would go over well. James seemed very familiar with the staff and at ease with the pompousness of the place. He would likely be mortified if a friend he had brought in couldn’t pay for the meal.

Mentally, he began to shuffle his meagre funds around, attempting to cut corners in his already strict budgets. He wondered if his boss would let him pick up an extra shift or two, or he could cut back on the groceries he brought home for a while. The one thing he did not want to do was delve into his University fund, small as it was.

His wandering thoughts were interrupted when a server appeared at his elbow, setting down a plate in front of him. John was relieved to see that he was able to recognise what it was, spaghetti with white sauce. That might not be so expensive. Looking across the small table, James was being served something with a green tinge to it. “Thank you,” He nodded to the silent waiter before the well-groomed man could step away. The man nodded before retreating in a politely efficient manner which spoke of years of experience.

The dish before him smelt amazing. It was rich and creamy, and John’s stomach grumbled as the aroma wafted towards him. Swallowing hard, John pulled on his years of self-control and waited until James picked up his fork and took a bite. The moment he had taken the second bite, John picked up his fork and began to eat. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a decent meal. Nothing had ever tasted this good. As much as he wanted to savour the food, once he started, he couldn’t convince himself to slow down.

John ate until he couldn’t anymore. With his stomach near bursting, he finally leaned away. Idly, he began to pick at the still half-full plate of the wonderful tasting pasta. For the first time in over a week, his hands were perfectly steady as his fork twisted and twirled the long strands. He wanted to finish the food on his plate, but his stomach was already becoming queasy with the amount he had eaten. Now that he was able to drag his attention away from the food, he wondered again how expensive the meal was going to be. Too expensive, he knew.

Once more, John looked around the room. Judging by the quality of clothing that even the staff wore, the cost of the delicious food was more than he could ever hope to afford. He was thankful that the other patrons seemed to be ignoring them. He didn’t know if he would have been able to stand their blatant disdain on top of everything else tonight.

James must dine here often to not only be recognised on sight but to be welcomed in with such ease. They had even overlooked John’s shabby appearance. James must throw a lot of money around to be able to do that. Bitter envy welled up in the back of his throat, thick enough that he thought he might choke on it.

Once again, his shoulders were beginning to hunch in, and he found himself looking back at James. The man was fully engrossed in his meal, not even sparing John a glance as he picked small forkfuls of the greenish pasta, savouring each bite. John was struck once more by the contrasts between them. The man was rich, refined, and charismatic, with a devil-may-care attitude. John was none of those. What reason would James have to bother spending any time with John?

‘I have come to consider you a friend, so I shouldn’t play with you.’ The man’s earlier words drifted through his mind. But was James playing with him? There was a big difference between shouldn’t and won’t, so it was possible. What could he hope to gain, though? John didn’t have money or influence or any connections which could be exploited. He had nothing to his name. His morose thoughts were interrupted by the older man.

“Delightful little place, is it not?” James waved his left hand casually out, encompassing the small but crowded restaurant. The wait staff milled around constantly, pouring drinks and checking to see that everything was well with the customers. They served the food with quiet and polite efficiency, never lingering. They were all very professional, while somehow managing to avoid appearing snobbish.

“It’s very busy,” John offered hesitantly. His previous experience with fine dining had been exactly never. While the food was delicious, he would not have come here on his own. They would never have let me past the front door if it hadn’t been for James, he thought bitterly.

James laughed, appearing completely comfortable with this level of pomp and refinement. “It is a rather popular place. The food is delicious and the staff discrete. Normally, one would be required to make a reservation months in advance to get a table, but the owner and I have an understanding.” He flashed John a wicked smile before taking another bite of his pasta.

John couldn’t stop himself from staring at the man’s thin lips as they closed slowly around the fork. James’ eyes slid half closed as he angled his head back slightly, exposing the length of neck, as he savoured the mouthful of food. Not breaking eye-contact, James drew the fork from between his lip slowly.

Unconsciously, John licked his lips as he watched. He wished that he could lean over and draw his tongue across the distracting dot of oil that glistened at the corner of the man’s mouth. That was all it took for John to remember the feel of those lips pressed against his. A sharp tendril of desire slid down his spine, and he twitched. John immediately looked down, not wanting the other man to know how easily he affected John. We are just friends, nothing more, he tried to remind himself. His body didn’t seem to agree with that statement.

“This is a traditional Pesto Alla Genovese,” James continued, oblivious to the internal battle John was waging. “One of the things that I love about Italian cuisine is how many vegetarian meals there are.”

John’s head snapped up, “You’re vegetarian?” The words were out before he could catch himself. Instantly, he knew that he made a mistake by the wicked expression that had flitted across the older man’s face.

With deliberate care, James placed his fork on the plate before he leaned forward. “Yes,” he drew the single word out. Eyes dancing with mischief he asked his question. “Are you a virgin?”

“What?” John sputtered and jerked back, chair scraping against the floor. The murmur of conversation around them dropped as people glanced towards them. Face flaming in mortification; John scooted the chair back into its proper place. Glaring at the grinning man across from him, he leaned in and hissed, “I am not going to answer that.”

James leaned back in his seat, arms crossing slowly over his chest as he began to shake his head. “Then you are a man who breaks his word.” As he spoke, his expression smoothed out, becoming a blank mask that John couldn’t hope to read. “How can I trust someone who would do that?”

“But…” John floundered. He wanted the older man to trust him, but did he have to answer that? James’ silent disapproval was a pointed accusation. As the seconds slipped by, John’s resolve weakened. “Damn it,” he breathed. Jaw clenching and stomach twisting, he answered the question. “Yes.”

“Good.”

The single word jerked John’s head up sharply. “What?” Once more, he nearly shouted the word. He couldn’t believe James. First, the man pinned him to a wall, then he backed off, and now this? John didn’t know what to think anymore.

“Good to know that I can trust you,” he leered. Cocking his head to the side, that all too familiar smirk sliding back into place. “What did you think I was talking about?”

“I, er…” He shook his head, mortified. “-Never mind.” John determinedly picked up his fork and began shifting the pasta around on his plate. That had been flirting; he knew that. He didn’t know how to react to it. Should he take James seriously or brush it off?

John was startled out of his thoughts by a sudden commotion near the entrance. John tensed in his seat as he tried to catch a glimpse of what was going on. It appeared that everyone else wanted to see what was going on too as heads turned and craned. John couldn’t see much of anything from their little nook near the kitchen. Over the increasing hum of angry diners, John heard more than saw a scuffle break out, but his narrow line of sight became blocked as people stood to get a better look at what was happening.

“What do you think is going on?” John asked as he glanced back at James.

The older man planted both hands on the table and stood, turning to get a full view of the action. “Oh!” James clapped his hands together; delight written clear across his face. “I believe that it’s time we took a little tour of the establishment.” His voice had dropped slightly in pitch as he looked down at John. “We had best hurry now,” he stated with a mischievous glint in his eye.

Frowning, John pushed away from the table, looking from James to the backs of the now standing men and women who were beginning to crowd around the still-escalating fight. At James’s wicked expression, John stood and stepped away from the table. He wasn’t sure what the man had planned this time but suspected that it wouldn’t be boring.

In a fluid motion, James slipped around the table to where John stood. Chuckling at John’s confusion, he offered a sly wink and leaned in. Breath ghosted across John’s cheek for the briefest of moments, causing John’s heart to thud painfully in his chest. Desire sparked through him the instant he felt the older man’s fingers graze teasingly down his arm and wrap around his right wrist.

John was unprepared for the older man to slide past him, fingers tightening as he went. Jerked off balance, the grip around his wrist forced him to stumble after James, lest he fall. “What the Hell?” John demanded as he regained his footing, still following behind. He tugged hard on his captured wrist, trying to either get James to stop or let him go. He absolutely refused to be led around like this.

Distracted by trying to wrench his hand free from the iron grip, he was surprised when James pulled up short of the kitchen doors and stumbled into the man. Regaining his balance, John stepped back. The words he was about to throw at the man died in his throat when, through the round door windows, he caught sight of armoured police pouring into the kitchen. A thrill of fear shot through him, dancing over his nerve endings as his eyes darted down to the weapons they held.

James glanced at him, black eyes bright and a feral smile dancing along his lips. “Not that way then!” With those cheery sounding words, he turned and began dragging John along the wall towards the far end of the room.

Heart in his throat, John had no choice but to follow, his manacled wrist saw to that. He staggered after the older man, attention jumping from the kitchen doors to the now yelling patrons and back to James. What had they gotten into and how were they going to get out?

They ended up shoving their way through a gaggle of cowering girls near the back corner. Their voices loud and high as they babbled to one another faster than John could understand. Tears had already begun to mar the expertly applied makeup on a couple of the younger women. That was all John had time to see before they were free of the throng.

“This is the police. Stay where you are!” The loud command boomed over the raised voices and building hysteria.

Those commanding words had opposite effects on James and John. John slowed his stumbling steps. His eyes focused on the very large and very deadly looking guns that the police had drawn and were pointing at various people throughout the room. James, on the other hand just tightened his grip. He began to drag John along at a faster pace, uncaring that his hold had passed uncomfortable and into down-right painful.

“James!” He hissed as he was forced to continue stumbling. He suspected that James would continue to drag him along if he fell.

“Not now.” This time the man didn’t bother looking back as he spoke. James was looking around as they dodged men and women. They slipped through clusters, weaved around groups, not slowing their pace. All the while, John just tried to keep up. His fingers had already gone cold, lack of circulation from the other man’s grip.

When John spotted the alcove, they were only steps away. Mostly hidden by artistically placed potted plants and hanging vine, had they not been heading right for it, John would never have noticed it. They slipped past the plastic greenery, and they began running down the narrow hallway. They were almost halfway down when an officer rushed in from the far side.

Terror spiked in his veins. Instinctively, John tried to pull back, attempting to get out of the way. James’ death grip prevented the defensive reaction, holding him firmly in place. The pointed gun in the police officer’s hands caught his attention. He could do nothing as he stared down the barrel, a primitive horror filling him. The world narrowed, sounds from behind them fading out as the blackness of the weapon seemed to grow. Blood roared in his ears, drowning out his panicked breaths.

“On the ground!” the officer yelled as he drew near.

Reacting on the instinct to stay alive, John tried to comply. Halfway to the ground, he froze, the hand gripping him grinding his wrist bones together. He looked quickly at James in alarmed confusion. Between one pulsing heartbeat and the next, the older man sprung into action. One moment he had John in a bruising grip, the next he was gone.

James knocked the gun to the side before sliding under the cop’s grab. A second later he was up and behind the man, grabbing his shoulder and twisting. James kicked his leg out, catching the officer behind the knee and pulled. The man fell hard, helmeted head cracking loudly against the wall as he sprawled out on the ground. As he landed, the gun slipped from his grip and James kicked it across the hall to skid to a stop in front of John.

John knelt on the ground, gaping at the downed officer, not entirely sure had what happened. Before he could think to do anything, James was once again in front of him. He reached down, once more capturing John’s wrist and they were moving again, only this time at a sprint. This time, John didn’t try and slow them down.

Behind him, John could still hear people yelling. At the first sound of a gunshot, he knew that they were going to die. Bursting through the back doors and into an alleyway, they fled. Heart pounding, he thought it might burst as he tried to convince himself that this could not be happening. This kind of thing only ever happened in the movies.

They ran through the streets, down more alleyways, down some stairs and up some more. Their flight was chaotic and mad, John struggling to keep up with James, who was still pulling him along. He had no idea where they were going, how far they had already run or even when the madman was going to let them stop. But so long as there were no more guns John didn’t care.

His limbs burned, becoming heavy and shaky, burning through the food that he had just eaten. His breath had passed beyond ragged as air burned in and out of his lungs with every pained gasp. John desperately wanted to know what in the bloody Hell was going on, but his choices were either use the air in his lungs to demand an answer or to fuel their mad flight through the city. Considering what they had just left behind, putting as much space between them and the police raid as possible seemed like the better choice.

As they rounded another corner, James pulled them to a hard stop. Pain jolted up his arm and into his shoulder socket. Right now, he didn’t care. They had stopped, and John let himself collapse against the alley wall. Hands braced against his shaking knees he stared unseeing at the ground and tried to take full breaths.

Slowly, his panting began to ease, and his chest started to loosen. His limbs were still shaky and felt heavy as lead. Giving up, he slid down the wall to crumple into an awkward sitting position; it still hurt less than standing.

“Why-” John breathed as his heart finally got with the program and began to slow to a more reasonable pace. “-In the bloody hell, are we running?” He forced his head up to glare at the older man. He was trying to be calm and reasonable, even if all he wanted to do was throttle his friend. Again.

James cocked his head as John asked his question. He continued to gaze up at the night sky as he worked on slowing his breathing. “Well,” he finally answered and shrugged with exaggerated care before looking down at the younger man. “They needed to chase someone didn’t they?” White teeth flashed in a dangerous grin, black eyes glittering in the dark alley. “So, why not us?”

At the cheeky answer, John just stared, completely speechless. Just for the hell of it? Could that possibly be the truth? He took in the other man’s form. James slouched against the opposite wall. His chest heaved while he tried to regain his breath. A smug grin spread wide across his face and eyes danced with delight. It was only at that moment that John truly realised that James had enjoyed all of this. The mad run, the thrill of almost being caught by the police, even if they hadn’t done anything wrong. It was the adrenaline.

Unable to help himself, John began laughing at the absurdity of the situation. They wouldn’t have gotten into any trouble if they had just stayed where they were at the restaurant. After all, they hadn’t done anything wrong. But a police raid hadn’t been exciting enough for his friend. No, James had needed the thrill of their fleeing, of daring the police to come after them.

It was exactly like when they had been on the bike, he realised. Racing through the streets with no lights on was fun, but James hadn’t revelled in it until they had turned onto that one-way. He was friends with a bloody adrenaline junkie. John continued to laugh, shaking his head at the realisations before he remembered the smooth grace in which James had taken the officer down. “Why did you take down the cop?”

James rolled his eyes, giving John a disparaging look. “Some cop,” he scoffed as he pushed himself away from the wall. “Letting little ol’ me take him down in seconds. Pssh!” He flung his hands into the air and shook his head. “What are they even teaching the police these days? How to catch poodles?”

Once again, John found himself laughing at the other man’s antics. James was absolutely nuts, but he figured that had to be part of his charm. The police hadn’t caught them, and that was what mattered. Slowly, body aching from the impromptu workout, he climbed to his feet. Glancing down at his watch, he noted how late it had gotten. “Well, as fun as this has been, I really should get going. It is, after all, a school night.”

The older man nodded his agreement as he attempted to smooth his suit down in a couple of swift hand motions. His nose wrinkled in distaste when the cloth did not relinquish its hold of the wrinkles as he had intended. Giving up on the material, he focused his attention back to John.

“Ah yes. I shall, of course, escort you home, my dear. But first, come here.” He beckoned John forward with an exaggerated sweep of his arm. When John hesitated, James sighed loudly and stalked towards him instead.

In a flash of movement, James once more had the younger man’s wrist manacled. James twisted so that John was forced to turn his palm up, wincing at the pressure against his tender skin. When John tried to jerk his arm away, the older man simply tightened his grip and tisked softly at him. Only when John stopped struggling against the iron grip did James pull out a pen and begin writing something on his palm.

The moment he had finished, James released his possessive grip, a Cheshire grin in place. “There you go, Johnny-boy!” Without another word, he turned on a heel and casually strolled out of the darkened alleyway. Whistling a jaunty little tune, the man shoved his hands into his pockets, appearing to all the world as though he were just out for a bit of a stroll.

John scowled as he rubbed gingerly at the tender flesh and looked down at his palm. He blinked, then once more when he realised that it was a series of numbers. Had the man just given John his phone number? Something in his chest twisted, and it hurt to breathe for a moment. James trusted John, cared enough to give John a way to contact him if something else happened.

He was so taken aback by the digits on his palm that he hadn’t paid attention to the fact that the other man had already rounded the corner. John cursed under his breath and ran to catch up with him. Later he would memorise the number, that way he could never lose it. But until then, he was very careful about not smearing the fresh ink.

Chapter Text

John sat cross-legged on a folded and flattened bit of cardboard. He’d butted it up against one of the large cement pillars at the edge of the Under-bridge so that he could lean against the rough material while he studied. Today, he wouldn’t be spending his afternoon sitting on the railing and gazing out at the distant buildings or the water below.

He had booked this and next week off from work. That way he could focus entirely on his subjects and recovering afterwards. But, right now he was having trouble concentrating on studying. Having spent every spare moment this week, in between writing three of his four A-levels, with his nose in various books left him feeling mentally tired. Exhaustion weighed more heavily on him than usual from his increased lack of sleep. It was a price he willingly paid to be certain he knew his subjects inside and out.

Only one week left. The distracting mantra rolled around in the back of his skull, one that he couldn’t fully tune out. In seven days, school would be over, and then he would begin preparations for University. Against his will, part of him had believed what Harry had said - that the scholarship wasn’t meant for someone like him. But he was going to prove her wrong.

His watch showed it was nearly seven already. Biting his lip, John looked through the underbelly of the bridge. Columns blocked his view of the service entrance location. He would give James another half hour to show up. If the man didn’t, then John would just have to leave without seeing him tonight.

Mark had invited John out to the pub. He and Travis wanted to celebrate the completion of their own A-levels. Feeling guilty about not having spent much time with them over the last month, John had agreed to meet them there at eight. He knew the quickest route there, and if he fast-walked, he could arrive about a half hour.

John had momentarily contemplated calling and inviting James along, having memorised the number before scrubbing it from his palm. But what would he say? Hey, want to head out to a pub with me and a couple of Upper Sixth form students? John shook his head. He couldn’t imagine James being comfortable in a little, out of the way pub for a couple of hours. If he had learned anything about the older man, it was that James had a distinct preference for the luxurious.

John should have simply gone to the pub instead of stopping here first, but he wanted to see James. It was unnerving that John had become so fixated on seeing the older man. Rubbing a palm against his chest, he tried to sooth the tightness building inside.

Even now, John could feel echoes of the older man pressed against him. The remembered exhilaration of every touch, both intentional and incidental sent tendrils of phantom heat down his spine. If he were smart, he would cut all ties between them and abandon the Under-bridge for a while. James would get bored soon enough and move on with his life, without me. The thought was a very nearly physical pain. John wrapped his arms around himself, trying to ward off the sudden chill creeping into his bones.

Sighing loudly, John thumped his head repeatedly against the pillar. “Idiot,” he muttered to himself. Daydreaming about James was just stupid. They would never be more than friends; the man had made that perfectly clear. The familiar rumbling of a motorbike, closer than the steady hum of traffic on the bridge, drew him out of his self-pity. Heart thudding harder in his chest, he jerked his head towards the sound.

Hastily, John pulled his bag over and shoved the textbook inside. Zipping it closed with shaking fingers, he stood. Glancing down, he tried to brush off any stray dirt or grime that he may have acquired from leaning against the column. John was wearing one of his best set of clothes. The dark trousers were only moderately worn, with no holes in the knees or loose threads dangling. The dark red jumper was slightly too small, pulling tighter than he preferred across his chest and shoulders. Harry gave it to him a couple of years back for his birthday, and he was reluctant to wear it too often, for fear of wrecking it.

John was making a point to dress his best whenever he was around James. Unfortunately, his choices were rather limited. His best set of clothing was his school uniform, and he didn’t wear that home. John couldn’t anticipate when walking into the flat would result in angering one or both of his parents and he didn’t have a spare set.

Scooping up his pack, John made his way through the Under-bridge. He was too nervous to stand there and wait for the other man to come to him today. Before he had crossed the length of the Under-bridge, the bike’s engine cut off. The sudden absence of that rumble encouraged him to pick up his pace. In less than a minute, he passed the last of the pillars obstructing his line of sight.

Air stilled in his lungs when he caught his first glimpse of James. The man tightly gripped the handles of the bike as he walked it backwards. He had dressed down. Gone was the usual suit, replaced by a dark shirt and tight denim trousers. James handled the machine with ease, lean muscles tensed as he positioned it to his liking. When he was finally satisfied with the bike facing towards the ramp, he kicked the stand out. Leaning the machine, he turned the front wheel and slipped off.

The fluidity of James’ movements struck John. The agility made sense; the man obviously had training in a martial art of some form. The moves he used on John and later, the officer, had been fast and to the point. Before they’d known what was happening, they were laid out. That type of training was bound to cause the man to move with more grace than the average person.

James ran a slow hand down the gas tank as he smoothed back his wind-swept hair. Turning away from the bike, he paused, catching sight of John’s frozen form. Lips twitching up, he began walking towards John. “Were you waiting long, my dear?” he purred, eyes glinting in the evening light.

Feeling warmth flood his cheeks, John scowled, ducking his head. He had not been waiting for the man. Well, he had, but he wouldn’t admit that to James and have the man crow over the fact. “Actually, I was just leaving James,” he retorted. Fingers tightening around the strap of his bag, he began walking towards the exit ramp behind the man.

The elation he felt at seeing James twisted sourly in his gut. He always forgot how easily James was able to make him uncomfortable with a few simple words. That was fine. He would just get to the pub earlier than he had intended. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the man shift directions, aiming to intercept John.

“Jim,” he corrected. He forced the other man to stop, placing himself between John and the exit. Cocking his head to the side, his lips drew down. “Bored of me already?”

John shook his head. The man really liked switching between the two names without rhyme or reason. “I promised to meet up with a couple of friends soon,” he deflected. How could he possibly become bored with Jim? The man kept John on his toes.

“Oh, anywhere fun?” The man clapped twice. “No, wait, let me guess. Hmm…” Jim moved, circling the younger man slowly. The predatory movement gave John the impression of a wolf eyeing up a rabbit, and he shivered. “…the pub,” Jim stated succinctly.

John gaped at him. “How-?” He shook his head, taking back the question. “Never mind, it’s not important.” Making a point of looking down at his watch, he pretended to grimace, hoping that the man would just let him pass so that he could scrape up what little pride he still had. “Look, I have to go. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.” He stepped around the older man and began walking again.

Before he had taken more than two steps, Jim snagged his arm. “Or, I could come with.”

John’s focus narrowed to the feel of that hand loosely wrapped around his bicep. It was warm and solid. “I think it would be a bit low-class for you.”

The man laughed, rich and full as he released his grip. “Oh, Johnny-boy. No class is too high or low.” He began backing away. By the time he stopped, a few feet back, his entire stance had changed. Gone was the sophisticated man that John knew. His usual lilting tones slipped, becoming shorter and harsher. “Fit’in into the low’ah class is all in the accen’ and at’itude.”

John stared at Jim, trying to wrap his head around how easily the man had slipped from prince to pauper. He couldn’t figure it out. “How did you do that?” And what other tricks did the man have up his sleeve?

“That, my dear, is a secret,” Jim teased, slipping back into his normal melodic tones. “Now,” he pressed, “where are we going?”

John hesitated. “The Marquis.” He hoped that he wouldn’t come to regret his decision. Looking over at the bike, his pulse sped up, part in fear and part anticipation. “No going the wrong way down one-ways, no going through red lights and no crazy driving.” He made his list of demands as he glared at his friend.

Dark eyes went wide, and Jim covered his heart, as though struck by John’s stipulations. “Have I ever done anything that wasn’t in your best interest?” he challenged sweetly. Leaving John to contemplate his words, Jim walked to the bike. Palming the handle, he swung a leg over and settled himself.

John mentally sifted through their previous encounters. Their first meeting, Jim asked if he was contemplating suicide. If John had been, he was sure that Jim could have talked him back from the brink. He had intentionally provoked John into venting his frustrations and helplessness, too. “What about the restaurant?” John called out, following behind. He refused to vocalise the kiss, er, kisses.

Pausing, Jim glanced over his shoulder with a smirk. “You were worrying over the bill, were you not?” Gripping the other handle, he started the bike with a rev of the engine.

John laughed as he slipped the backpack over both shoulders. “We ran so that I wouldn’t have to pay my bill?” Hesitating only slightly, John braced one hand on the back seat, his other on the man’s shoulder and slipped on. He lingered, memorising the flex of muscles under his fingers. Slowly, John’s hand slid, gliding feather soft down the man’s back as he settled both hands at Jim’s waist.

It was only after John stopped moving that Jim gave a little shrug. “It worked, didn’t it?” This time he didn’t wait for a response. With a twist of the wrist, they took off.

Instantly, John’s knees clamped tight as his grip tensed around the older man’s waist. They climbed the ramp steadily. At the top, Jim slowed, tracking the passing vehicles, before shooting into traffic. John’s pulse jumped before settling into the faster beat it always seemed to be in when touching the older man. Using the excuse of not trusting Jim’s driving, John stayed locked around him.

Against his better judgement, he allowed himself to bask in the strength of the older man. The rushing wind cooled his cheeks, and he ducked his head, inhaling the rich scent deep into his lungs. Desire hummed through his system, and he had to shift back slightly, lest Jim figure out how easily he was affected by their proximity. If this was all he could get from the older man, then he would take it. After all, you can’t force someone to want you.

John scowled at the thought and looked around, beginning to pay attention to where they were. Disappointment filled him when he realised that they were nearly there. The pub hadn’t been at all that far, less than ten minutes away on the bike. It was a good thing that they had almost arrived. That way he could at least distance himself physically. Maybe his friends were already there, and then he could focus more on them and less on this man.

With precise movements, Jim slipped into a parking spot and stopped. John took this as his signal to vacate and carefully levered himself off. Stepping onto the sidewalk, he glanced down the block, towards the pub. A group of girls dressed up for a fun night out were approaching, forcing John to back up further to get out of their way. Almost as one, they slowed. Their eyes passed over John in a way that he was more than accustomed to, but they lingered on Jim’s form as he butted his rear wheel against the sidewalk.

Hands tightening into fists, he glared at the girls, not liking the appraising and appreciative looks they were giving Jim. But he couldn’t really blame them either. The man looked striking, creating a powerful image as he sat on the bike. His wind-tousled hair and relaxed posture offered a glimpse of what he might look like had he just tumbled out of bed.

Drawing in a deep breath, he forced his fingers to relax. Their giggling laughter grating on John’s nerves, he watched them continue down the street. “Er, Jim,” John pointed up at the sign he had spotted as he glanced back at his friend. “Looks like you need a permit to park here before 8:30.”

Jim kicked the stand, settling the bike before swinging his leg over the side. As he straightened, he glanced at the sign and shrugged. “No, I don’t.” Saying nothing else, he tucked his hands into the pockets of his jeans and began to walk towards the Marquis.

Refusing to allow himself a moment to admire the man’s backside, John caught up quickly. “I’m pretty sure that you do. This area is patrolled. If you don’t have the permit, you will get a ticket,” he explained.

“Trust me, my dear.”

John glared, annoyed that the man wasn’t taking him seriously. When Jim said nothing else, John threw his hands in the air with a loud sigh, giving it up as a lost cause. If the man wanted to pay the stupid fine, then that was his choice. John had tried to prevent it, so Jim couldn’t gripe over it later.

Situated at the corner of the block, the Marquis stood the test of time. The worn and peeling blue pain hinted at just how long it had been there. Through the window grids, John could see that the place hadn’t filled up for the evening. Most men were sitting down for a bite and a pint, before heading home for the night. His watch showed that they were about twenty minutes early.

As they stepped inside, the low hum of conversation flowed over them. It was a good place to relax and de-stress for a few hours. James immediately left John behind and made his way to the bar. John couldn’t hear what the man said, but it had to have been funny, for the bartender threw his head back and laughed.

Not wanting to waste any of his spare cash on a pint, John turned away. It was unlikely that either of the teens had shown up yet, but he still looked. A scan of the room showed that less than a third of the tables were currently in use. One thing that did catch his attention was the unoccupied billiards table in the corner.

John startled when Jim appeared beside him, a pint in each hand. The man surveyed the room, much in the same way that John had. Giving the older man a sheepish grin, he pointed towards the unattended table. “You up for a game?”

Jim flashed him a wicked grin, “I’m always up for a challenge.”

As they made their way through the pub, John fished out a coin. He had suggested the game, so by all rights; he should pay. Besides, if he had to choose between playing a game and having a pint, the game would win every time. Feeding the coin into the slot, he heard the balls release. After dumping his bag in the corner, he took the triangle off the wall and set it down on the worn felt.

Quickly, John set up the red and yellow balls before placing the eight ball in the middle. Shuffling the rack forward, he snapped it back into position and slowly lifted the triangle. When none of the balls moved, he hung the wood back on the wall.

Jim leaned against the wall with his cue resting beside him. He held a coin up between his index and middle fingers. Raising an eyebrow, he asked, “Heads or tails?”

“Heads,” John responded without hesitation.

Jim’s lips twitched up before he flipped the coin. They both tracked the small disk. It glinted in the light as it spun in the air before landing in the man’s palm. Slapping it down onto the back of his right hand, they both looked. “Heads. You’re up Johnny-boy.”

John snatched up the first stick on the rack. Snagging the cue ball, he placed it down and lined up the shot. Drawing in a deep breath, he counted to five and exhaled. As the last of the air left his lungs, John hit the ball. He stepped back as the white ball connected with the rest and they flew in all directions. When a single yellow sunk into a corner pocket, he found himself grinning.

John circled the table as he studied the placement of his colour. In the far corner from the cue ball, a yellow was less than a foot from the pocket. If he could hit it just right, he would be able to sink that one too. Biting his lip in concentration, John lined up his next shot. Using the same breathing exercise, he struck the ball. Avidly, he tracked as it rolled fast over the table and hit his yellow… in the wrong direction. With a sheepish shrug, John stepped away, giving the table over.

Jim pushed away from the wall, setting his beer down. Snapping up the cue from where it had been leaning, he waved a careless hand towards the second pint on the table. “Don’t forget your beer.”

John felt torn between ignoring the offered drink and accepting it. Uneasy with the charity, he moved to stand beside the table, watching as Jim eyed the billiards table. The man cocked his head slightly, eyes narrowing. Jim moved around the table once more, placing his back to John. In a fluid motion, he bent over. Legs slightly spread, and spine arched as he stretched towards the centre of the table, angling himself for his shot.

Heat flooding his face, John reached unseeingly over to snatch up the beer. Taking a long drink, he reminded himself that the man was not interested. His hormones didn’t care, and his gaze was drawn down to the man’s backside. The trousers were tight, framing everything perfectly. Jim has to be positioning himself like that on purpose, John thought furiously. There was no way that the man did not know how he looked while doing that.

The sharp crack of the cue against the ball jerked John’s gaze away from the man’s arse and back to the game. He followed the white ball as it hit a red, sinking it with enough force that the cue ball came to a stop almost in its original position in the middle of the table. Right, they were playing a game. Swallowing another large mouthful of the beer, he set it down and decided that he should be paying attention to what was going on.

John remained still until he knew where Jim would take his next shot and moved to the opposite side. He focused on the man’s features. Jim’s expression had gone completely blank; the only indication of his thoughts was the slight narrowing of his eyes as he leaned in. Right hand flat on the table, index finger curled around the stick, his eyes flicked up to John. In a flash, the cue struck, sending the white after another ball. John watched, ready to crow when it bounced off the red ball, which did little more than collide with his yellows. The exclamation died in this throat when the white struck a second red ball, which sank into a side pocket.

“Two points,” Jim spoke softly.

“That was a lucky shot,” John griped in return.

Jim just gave him a saucy wink and moved around the table. The cue ball had settled in the corner, mostly trapped in place by two of John’s yellows. The man studied the table, frowning slightly. John couldn’t see any way that the man would be able to get out of that. Any angle he took would result in hitting one or more of John’s balls.

This time, Jim didn’t lean down. His right hand gripped the edge of the table, slipping the stick between his fingers. The man’s eyes flicked up to John’s, and he paused. “Shall we make a bet?”

“Er,” John floundered. Jim must be good if he was willing to bet. And the sad truth was, it didn’t matter how bad the man was, he would probably win, if only because John was worse. “What kind of bet?” He wanted to slap his hand over his mouth. What had possessed him to ask that?

“Winner gets one question.” The cue shot forward again, hitting one of John’s yellows and bouncing off the side. Jim cursed lowly and sighed. Stepping back, he allowed John to take his place.

His first thought was, no, but he caught himself before saying that. The idea of Jim being able to ask him anything was terrifying. What could the man possibly hope to gain? Unless the entire reason for the bet was to get to know John better. That Jim was willing to risk losing for a chance at a single repercussion-free question spoke volumes. The man wanted to bypass all of the barriers John had put up. He wanted to get to know John. The thought left him feeling warm inside.

“A single question?” he confirmed. When Jim nodded, John let out a slow breath. “Deal,” he breathed. Looking down at the table, the cue ball was perfectly placed for John to sink a yellow into one of the middle pockets.

Squaring his shoulders in determination, John lined up the shot. He used more force than intended, and it struck his yellow, sinking the ball, but rolled back, nestling itself between one if his and Jim’s balls. Frowning, John studied the new position. If he was careful, he could hit the cue ball out from between and bounce it off the side and into another of his yellows.

Frowning in concentration, John tried to picture the angle he would need to pull off the move. Resting his hand on the table, he loosely wrapped his index around the stick, trying to imitate how Jim had done it. The position felt awkward, but he decided to go with it. On an exhale, he shot. The cue ball jumped and rolled barely a foot before sinking into a pocket. “Crap,” he muttered.

“Actually, I believe that is called a scratch,” Jim corrected softly. Moving to the end of the table, he snatched the cue ball up and placed it on the line. Seconds later he shot. The cue ball shot out, bouncing off the side and through a set of yellows less than four inches apart. It clipped a red on the far side of the table.

John watched, horror building inside, as the ball slowly rolled to the corner. It teetered on the edge for one second, two, before it sunk down the side. John looked from the table to Jim’s blank expression and back again. That had not been a lucky shot. “Bloody Hell. I’ve already lost, haven’t I?” he asked in shock.

The older man laughed. The sound was rich and warm, in sharp contrast to his poker-face. “That’s why I like you, my dear.” He winked and moved around the table, lining another shot. “It takes most people another shot, sometimes two or three, before they catch on to that little fact.” His cue struck out, sinking another red ball.

Sighing loudly, John retreated, picking up his beer again. Liquid courage, that was what he needed right now. Taking a long drink, he watched in sick fascination as the man proceeded to sink every red ball.

Jim paused as he aimed at the eight ball, looking up at John. “Would you like another shot before I finish?” he asked sweetly.

Mute, John shook his head, hiding behind the mostly empty pint. In response, Jim shrugged and sank the ball. Now, he had to answer any question that the man wanted. Fear shot down his spine, the ramifications suddenly striking him. What if Jim asked about his parents or his home life? Maybe he’d demand an answer to how John got his bruises. That would be just as bad. He wouldn’t refuse to answer the question, but now he was regretting having Jim come here.

A set of fingers, snapping inches from his face disrupted his panicked thoughts. John flinched, curling back in an attempt to get away. He couldn’t move anywhere, having placed himself in the corner. Alarm spiked through him as he jerked his attention towards the owner of the hand.

Mark frowned down at him; concern etched across his face. “You alright, mate?” He looked like he wanted to pat John on the arm or shoulder, but knew better than to do so. Instead, he had positioned his larger form in front of John, shielding him from the casual observer.

John tried to smile, not wanting to worry the teen. “Fine-” He cleared his throat and tried again. “I’m fine, just got lost in thought.” Drawing in a deep, calming breath, he leaned around Mark to scan the room. Where had Jim gone? The billiards table was free of any balls with only the cue lying on the felt. The man himself was nowhere to be seeing. “Been here long?” he asked, looking back at his friend.

Mark shook his head, still frowning. “Just got here. Travis is getting us a couple of pints. You sure you’re alright? You look…” He trailed off, looking torn.

John knew why he hesitated and couldn’t blame the guy. Giving himself a small shake, John nodded his head more firmly. “Really, I’m fine,” he reassured. Mark didn’t need to know about the bet.

Thankfully, the teen let it go. “Well, if that’s the case, up for a game?” He pointed to the cue John still held loosely in his hand.

John looked down, twisting it back and forth in his fingers before glancing around the room once more. He shook his head. He didn’t feel like getting beaten again so soon. Although, when he played against either one of the two teens, they were kind enough to let him get some easy shots in before beating him. “Why don’t you and Travis have a go first?”

The teen pursed his lips, studying John for another long moment. With a shrug, he turned and hailed Travis from the table he had just procured. They didn’t say anything as they watched the redhead snag the drinks and cross the room.

“Game?” Travis inquired as he approached.

“You and Mark,” John instantly responded.

He looked around the room once more, still searching for Jim. He figured that the man must have gone to the loo and would be back any moment. Or his beeper went off, and he left. John didn’t think Jim would have taken off without saying anything though. Silently, he watched the teens set up the table for their game. “I, er, invited another friend,” he said in a rush.

Travis’ blue eyes lit up as he shimmied closer. “Friend?” he asked, “Or friend? ” The second time, he drew the letters out, all the while waggling his eyebrows. If the tone and eyebrow thing hadn’t given his meaning away, the lecherous grin spread across his face certainly would have.

Laughing, John pushed the teen. The tightness in his chest began to ease. “Friend,” he made sure to keep the syllables short. Not that he would have told the other two even if it had been more. That kind of information was too dangerous to be brandishing around.

“And who is this mysterious friend? Do we at least get a name?” Mark asked as he grabbed the cue from the table. Walking around to the rack, he placed it with the rest before snagging a slightly shorter one. Setting it against his foot, he began rubbing the tip of his cue with blue chalk.

“Jim.” Even though Mark was only asking the most basic and mundane questions, he still felt like it was a form of interrogation. He didn’t know what the older man considered privileged information and didn’t want to break his trust by telling his friends more about the man than Jim wanted to be known.

On the other hand, what did he really know about the man? Not a lot, as he couldn’t ask any questions without being questioned in turn. But Mark and Travis aren’t under the same restrictions, he suddenly thought. This might not be so bad. Travis was curious as a cat, and he liked to poke and prod. Unless Jim specifically informed the teen that any prying would result in him leaving, Trav wouldn’t back down.

“So, what’s he like?” Mark piped up, dragging John out of his thoughts once more. He positioned himself for the first shot, but paused, waiting for John to answer.

How could he possibly describe Jim? The man was flamboyant, eccentric and a slightly crazy adrenaline junkie. He didn’t think that explanation would go over well. Looking towards the entrance, he caught sight of Jim sauntering back inside. He’d been outside? John shrugged. “See for yourself,” he deflected, nodding his head towards the man making his way towards them with two more beers in hand.

Both teens stopped, trying to figure out who John meant. It wasn’t difficult to pinpoint him. John joined in watching, trying to see him through the same eyes as his friends. While Jim had a definite swagger to his step, he was also graceful. He subtly shifted and wove his way through the laughing groups of patrons. He knew exactly what to wear to draw the eye to his form. The clothing clung close, accentuating his lean musculature, and heavy leather boots.

Raking his gaze up, he focused on the man’s face. His hair was even more tousled now than before as if he’d been running his fingers through it repeatedly. His eyes, though, burned black in the light. Direct and penetrating, they froze John where he stood. Helpless yearning for the man filled him, and John flushed.

That’s Jim?” Travis yelped, looking wide-eyed between John and the older man. “He looks-” Travis lowered his voice as he leaned in, looking like he was struggling to come up with the right descriptor. “-dangerous.

It wasn’t an inaccurate statement. There was a definite tightness in his expression that John hadn’t seen before. His steps heavier than usual and eyes more narrowed. Before he could think of something to say to the teen, Jim was upon them. He paused only long enough to pass John another beer and give Travis a shallow nod. Locking eyes with Mark, he held out a hand. “Jim,” he stated by way of introduction.

Mark’s eyes narrowed slightly, but he shifted the cue to his left and grasped the proffered hand. “Mark.” His voice was equally bland. They held that position, not actually shaking, for several long seconds. John began edging forward, intending on getting between the two if they didn’t break it up themselves in the next few seconds.

He paused when Jim grinned widely and laughed. “Oh, I like you.”

John clenched his fist, hiding it against his thigh at Jim’s words as he stared at their still clasped hands. No, no, no, he isn’t supposed to like Mark so easily. What if he decided he liked Mark or Travis more than he liked John? Having him here was a bad idea, but he couldn’t just drag the man out now. He glanced over at Travis, who looked just as confused as he felt.

“You’re a tough one. Any good at this game?” Mark nodded his head at the table as they separated.

Jim shrugged as he stepped back, “I beat Johnny-boy, here,” he calmly remarked before taking a drink.

Mark shook his head, scoffing. “My Nana can beat John.”

“Hey!” John protested at the good-natured ribbing.

Travis jostled him. “You know it’s true,”

“Actually…” Jim cast a sly look at John. “Since I won the game, I won the bet.”

Damn it. He had hoped that the man might have forgotten about that - or if not forgotten - at least waited until they were alone. Now the two teens would know whatever Jim asked, too. Running a shaky hand over his face, he looked at Jim. He couldn’t maintain the eye contact and dropped his gaze to his glass as he tried to prepare for the worst. “Fine, what is the question?”

Jim walked over, positioning himself between Travis and John. “No need to look so glum. It’s an easy one.” He sighed when John didn’t look at him, still staring into the glass. “What’s your favourite colour?”

John jerked his head up, “Er-” That was his question? Of all the things he could have asked John, he was giving up his free question to find out what colour John liked? Why would he ask something so trivial? “-maroon,” he stumbled over the answer.

“See,” he teased softly. “That wasn’t so bad.” He glanced back at the other two boys who were watching the exchange with confusion. “Are you two playing or what?” He waved a hand at the set table to emphasise his point.

“Oh, right!” Travis shook himself and stepped to the table. He placed the cue ball down and made his shot. When none of the balls sank into a pocket, he let out a loud sigh, giving the table over to Mark.

“Thanks, Trav!” Mark took position. Sighting down the cue ball, he sunk a red into the corner pocket.

Travis made a face. “Just trying to even the odds for you,” he lightly taunted. He paused, waiting until the other teen was about to strike the white again before continuing with, “You need almost as much help as John.”

Mark missed. The cue ball going wide of the one he was aiming for. “I am so going to take you down for that one,” he mock-threatened before giving the table back over.

Slowly, John began to relax. The familiar banter between the teens was soothing. He was happy that they didn’t seem to mind Jim being here. As though summoned by his thoughts, the man leaned against the wall beside him. They remained silent, simply watching the two teens struggle against one another. Jim seemed content to stand here with John, their arms close enough that John could feel the heat of the man. It helped calm some of his paranoia that Jim didn’t abandon him in favour of focusing on his friends.

Watching the mock battle between the teens was fun. But while Mark was pretty good at the game, Travis was in his element. The two taunted and ribbed one another. Occasionally, John would join in, siding first with one then the other. Sooner than expected, the game was over with Travis winning by three points.

The ginger planted his hands on his hips, crowing his superiority. “Bow down in worship, for I am still the reigning champion!” He began thrusting a fist into the air, pumping repeatedly.

Everyone laughed at his enthusiasm, clapping him on the shoulder and congratulating him. They abandoned the billiards table to another group and went off to find an unoccupied table. There was one open in the corner, and they settled themselves around it. Mark leaned forward, holding up his half-full pint. “A toast! To finally being done those horrible A-levels!”

John made a face but lifted his drink. As he leaned forward to clink his with everyone else, he corrected, “To only having one left!” They cheered, and everyone drank.

“Which one?” Travis asked in confusion. “I thought you were done too.”

“Biology,” John shrugged, draining the last of his pint. The beer was beginning to get to him, leaving him feeling warm and slightly fuzzy.

Travis shook his head, “Better you than me.”

Mark looked over at Jim. “So what do you do?”

John jerked, knocking his glass over. Hastily picking it up, he was very glad that he had just finished it. Casting Jim a sidelong glance, he had to wonder if the man would answer. John hadn’t asked the question, so he might not. What would he say?

Jim gave John an amused look as he leaned back in his chair. “I’m an external consultant.”

Travis cocked his head, frowning. “And that means?” he prompted. John could have kissed the teen, wanting to know the same thing.

Jim laughed. “I get contracted to evaluate, set up processes, and - on occasion - implement solutions.”

Each of the three teens found themselves nodding. John was fairly certain that not a single one of them really knew what that meant. Travis, bless his curious heart, continued to push. “You only work for larger companies then?” He would at least have an inkling of what Jim was talking about as his father owned his own business, one that Travis would one day take over.

As he answered the questions, Jim’s posture had subtly shifted, spine straightening, expression smoothing out. With a casual hand, he had slicked back his hair, looking much more professional in seconds. “Companies, organisations or individuals. It makes no difference to me. So long as they can pay for the results they need, I can provide the services they require.”

John was amazed. He’d had no idea that the man had such a lucrative job. What the Hell was Jim doing spending time with a nobody like John? But if Jim could do something like that, then maybe John could too. Well, not become a consultant like Jim, but it did put his dream of becoming a doctor one step closer to reality.

“Do you have a card?” Mark piped up. He didn’t appear to have any real interest in the conversation and just wanted to hurry things along.

“I work solely through word of mouth.” Jim’s eyes had narrowed, and his tone dipped.

Immediately John realised that Jim had had enough of the conversation’s direction. He tried to shake his head at Travis as the teen opened his mouth. Travis did not appear to notice the movement. “Isn’t that dangerous?” he pressed. “What if a company doesn’t like how you implemented a new strategy, or if they thought you were overcharging? Having your reputation slandered could ruin you in an instant.”

Sometimes, John forgot just how smart Travis was. Not that he had ever considered the teen to be stupid, but Trav didn’t normally talk in a way that brought his intellect to the surface. No, usually his mind was full of the latest drama show or game to play.

“Risk vs reward.” He made a point of turning his attention away from Travis’ avid expression and focusing on Mark. “How long have you known Johnny-boy?”

John scowled. The man had known John was letting his friends ask the questions he couldn’t. Now he was turning the tables. He had not agreed to that when he had invited Jim along.

Mark looked uneasily between the two of them. “A few years,” he responded cautiously. He kept most of his attention focused on John.

“We met the first day of Sixth Form,” Travis piped up, oblivious to John’s sudden tension. “Mark and I had already been friends for years. Then there John was, running late. He actually bowled us over!” Travis continued, laughing at the memory. “It turned out that we were all in the same class. We all got detention for being late and have been friends ever since,” he finished with a flourish.

John relaxed minutely. The teen hadn’t mentioned the black eye or his arm being in a sling at the time. Still, he needed to change the subject, fast. “Do you have any plans for the weekend?” He directed the question to Mark. Eyes wide, he silently begged the teen for help. They needed to veer back to a safe subject.

He shook his head, “Recovering tomorrow, and sleeping in on Sunday.”

“Helping Dad in the shop, the usual,” Travis answered when John looked over at him.

Their conversation lulled for a few minutes. The strain of adding Jim into the mix worried John to the point of having difficulty concentrating. It was either that or the beer. Jim didn’t seem to mind though. He would pipe up with little bits of information or advice as the conversation shifted from one topic to the next.

As it began to flow freely, John settled himself again. He was content not to be an active participant, so long as it didn’t round back to him. Hunkered down, John fell into a light doze. The two pints he had drunk giving him a warm buzz, thanks to his empty stomach. Distantly, he could still hear what the others were saying, but didn’t take much heed.

“I wouldn’t if I were you, mate.”

Fear shocked through his system. With a gasp, he jerked up and away from the hand that had curled around his shoulder. His hands were already up, prepared to defend himself from the unknown threat. Then, he fell off the chair.

John grunted in pain as he hit the ground, looking around wildly for the threat. Other patrons looked over at him, causing him to flush deeply, and he scrambled awkwardly to his feet. “What?” He stumbled over the word as he blinked at his friends in confusion, trying to slow his racing heart. Travis was snickering but trying to hide it behind his hand. Mark had his fingers pressed to his forehead and a long-suffering expression on his face. Jim’s hand was still in the air as he looked at John curiously.

“I warned you,” Mark commented wryly.

Travis nodded his head emphatically. Holding up an invisible mic to his lips, he began speaking, “Never touch a wild John. They are skittish when caught unawares and may attack if startled. You were lucky this time that the wild John’s first instinct was retreat. While rare, it’s not unheard of for the wild John to strike at another predator-”

“Enough!” John cut his friend off, face red as a tomato. The teen would just keep going if he didn’t put a stop to it. Mortification filled him. John couldn’t believe that he had reacted like that, especially around Jim. He couldn’t just sit back down and pretend that he hadn’t made a fool of himself. “Sorry,” he muttered to Jim. Jim probably thinks I’m an idiot. John sighed.

“I’m going to head off.” He couldn’t bring himself to look at the older man, didn’t want to see the disappointment or exasperation on his face. “I’ll see you all later.” Snatching his bag from beneath the table, he shouldered it on and turned away.

“John-” Jim began.

John all but ran out of the pub, not wanting to hear what the man would say. Stumbling outside, he looked around, trying to regain his barring. Huddling in on himself, he began walking. Thankfully he didn’t live that far from the pub, only about a ten-minute walk in the opposite direction of the bridge. Within minutes, John was creeping inside and up the stairs. Slipping into his room, he changed into his sleep clothes and fell into bed.

It seemed that only heartbeats later when something jolted him awake. Heart racing, John tensed but didn’t immediately move, trying to pinpoint what had woken him. The sound came again, something shattering downstairs. Now that the fog of sleep was beginning to recede, John became aware of yelling. Cautiously, he climbed out of bed and out of the bedroom.

At the top of the stairs, John paused, listening. One hand clenched tightly around the bannister railing as he heard more yelling coming from the main floor. A glance at his watch showed that he had only been asleep for a half hour before the rising argument had woken him. John held his breath, trying to hear what was going on. He couldn’t make out most of the angry words.

He could hear his mum’s voice raised in anger. Her tone was sharp and accusing, punctuated by the crashes of things breaking in the kitchen. His father’s was a dangerous threat that sent a shiver down John’s spine as the man cursed after each crash. While his words were unintelligible, the rage in his tone became more obvious with each second that passed.

John looked back to his nearly closed door, trying to decide his best course of action. He wanted to leave. If he got out, he could wander the neighbourhood for a few hours until things calmed down. But there was a chance that he would be caught in the cross-fire of his volatile parents if they spotted him trying to sneak out. Going back to his room was another possibility. But, if the argument was about him, then they would inevitably end up cornering him in there, and he had no way out.

The sound of something heavier than a glass shattering against the wall drew his gaze back down the stairs. He winced, mentally shifting more funds away from his savings to cover the broken items. It sounded like the fight was going to remain in the kitchen. That meant that there was no way he would be able to sneak out without one of them seeing him as he passed the doorway to leave the flat.

Shoulders sagging, he decided that it would be safest to weather the argument in his room. He would layer up, put a bit of a barrier between his skin and his parents should they decide to take their frustrations out on him. Releasing his white-knuckled grip on the bannister, he turned away. Goosebumps rose over his skin as he caught the barest whisper of a sound, forcing him to freeze. He knew that sound, and it did not belong to either of his parents. Harriett was down there. More importantly, Harriett was crying.

John didn’t think, reacting to the sudden numbing panic he felt inside. Rushing down the old stairs, he stumbled into the kitchen. The scene playing out before him shocked John into complete immobility. Harry was curled up on the floor. Her boney knees were tucked up to her chest. The arms she’d wrapped tightly around her head muffled the sounds she was making.

Her body convulsed as she cried, the pitch rising for an instant every time a glass shattered against the wall over her crumpled form. “Whore, perversion, slut!” Each harsh accusation made by their mum was punctuated by the glass raining down on Harriett’s cowering form. What Father was doing wasn’t any better. The big man loomed over her, yelling and swearing.

Then he kicked her. His boot hit her solidly in the stomach. The force was powerful enough to lift and throw Harriett into the wall. She sprawled out on the broken glass, trying to scramble away from the attack. It didn’t work. Every time she moved more glass embedded into her skin.

It was common for their parents to yell at Harriett. And sometimes, they would go so far as to hit her, but the more violent attacks had always been towards John. All John could think as he stared in shock at the macabre scene was that it had never been this bad before. Not for him and never for Harry. It was the last sane thought that raced through his mind before he ran into the room, uncaring of the danger he was putting himself in.

Both Father and Mum were so focused on his sister that they hadn’t noticed John’s appearance in the doorway. He tried to use the element of surprise to his best advantage by shouldering their father into the wall as hard as he could.

He didn’t pause to see if he had hurt the man. Instead, he spun around and hunkered down, teeth clenching as his feet found sharp shards. Grasping Harriett by her thin, bony shoulders, he began hauling her up. “Come on, Harry. You need to go,” he whispered as he urgently tried to pull her away from the broken glass. He had no time to be gentle, not with the danger they were both in. A few more cuts would be far less painful than if Father got near her again.

Hearing their father’s boots crunch on the glass, John pushed Harry towards the door with as much force as he could manage. Spinning around, he positioned himself in front of his sisters crumpled form. John hunched down slightly, feet spreading wider as he glared up at the taller man. “Leave her alone,” he snarled.

John was completely and utterly terrified. No one could stand up to this man and hope to walk away afterwards. He knew in his bones that this was going to hurt, and hurt a lot. John forced himself to breathe through the panic, clenched fists rising to defend himself and Harry against this monster.

With a snarl of rage, his father pushed away from the wall and swung a meaty fist at John’s head. Having expected the attack, John twisted out of the way. Grabbing the raised arm, John shifted and pulled, throwing him back into the wall as hard as he could. He didn’t have time to feel satisfaction at the sound of plaster cracking under his father’s weight.

He darted a glance back down at Harriett. “Harry, I need you to get up and leave. Now,” he whispered urgently. The faster she was gone, the faster he could run. That would be the only way that he could hope to save himself this time.

Their father pulled away from the damaged wall and straightened to his full height, looming over John’s much smaller form. Those muddy brown eyes narrowed in rage. “Just what do you think you’re doing, boy?” Spittle flew from his lips as he snarled, once more coming after John. Muscles bulged under his blood-spattered shirt as he began stalking forward.

Father was far bigger and stronger than John. He knew that his narrow window for escape was closing with every heavy step the other man made towards him. Cold fear consumed him, but still, he bared his teeth in a mockery of a smile. “Protecting my sister. That’s what a ‘man’ is supposed to do.”

John bit the words out caustically, trying to draw this out for a few seconds longer. If he could distract the man long enough, then Harriett would get out. He would be able to find her later, and they could figure things out from there. “Protecting the weaker sex is the man’s job, right? You were the one who taught me that.”

With every sarcastic word he uttered, John shifted further into the room. He was careful, skimming his feet across the floor so that he slid the glass out of the way without stepping on any. He glanced past Father, focusing on where his mum stood. She leaned against the sink, a plate dangling limply from her fingertips. She looked tired - as though it had been a trying day and she just wanted it to be over already.

She stared bleakly at John, not appearing to care that their father had been beating her daughter, or that he was about to do the same to her son. John swallowed hard, dread spreading out from the pit of his stomach. He didn’t think that she would stop Father, not this time. That left everything up to John then.

He needed to keep their attention on him; not his sister’s now crawling form. John couldn’t look at her, couldn’t risk either of the adults following his line of sight, but he knew to the core of his being that she was moving too slowly. That this would not end well for either of them was his last desperate thought before Father rushed him.

John was slammed hard into the wall, head cracking against the plaster. His sock-clad feet slid on blood and broken glass as he tried to push away. The feel of his father’s fist in his gut muffled the sharp slicing pains in the soles of his feet.

He doubled over, trying desperately to gasp in a breath. Panic filled him. He tried to move, only to have what little air he’d still had knocked out of him by a fist coming down hard between his shoulder blades. The world flashed, and John fell, sprawling onto the floor where Harry had been only moments before. Shards bit into the front of his body as he desperately tried to suck in air and roll away. As the first slip of oxygen burned down his throat, he felt a boot connect with the side of his head.

Black burst like stardust in front of him. The lights of the room dimming as dots and shadows twisted. The world tilted sickeningly, causing his insides to twist in protest. The deep roar of blood rushing in his ears did nothing to drown out the high-pitched hum that had taken up residence in the deepest canals of his eardrums.

John was thankful that, because of the blow, he couldn’t able to hear what his father was now screaming. In a half-daze, he watched as the man flailed his limbs, mouth opening and closing. Father was completely unaware that Harriett had just slipped out of the kitchen with one last terrified look at John.

Then she was gone, safe from the two monsters before him. Now that she was no longer in danger, John knew that he should get away himself. John tried to scramble to his feet, with little success. The sharp, knifing pains that seemed to permeate his entire body hindered his movements. His equilibrium was gone, and he felt like he would slide across the ground if he didn’t clutch at it.

John struggled, hands splaying over the ground as he shoved more glass and ceramic away from him. Flattening his palms against the floor, he tried to leverage himself to his hands and knees, only to feel a boot connect solidly with his stomach. John moaned at the blossoming pain, scrambling away from the man. Nausea welled in the back of his throat, and he swallowed the bile back.

He dropped to the ground to avoid another kick, trying desperately to keep his vision steady. It dipped, fading out for a moment. Before his sight had come back, he felt a heavy hand on the back of his shirt. Father hauled him up, the material choking him as the man dragged him from the ground.

John flailed, twisting and trying to grab at the man, but he was dizzy and facing the wrong direction. Once again he was slammed into the wall. Pain exploded in his shoulder as Father wrenched him around, but that was nothing compared to the agony he felt when Father’s fist slammed into his gut, turning the throbbing pain into sharp agony. When Father’s fist aimed for his face, John jerked to the side. Using all his strength, John shoved the monster back, and he hit the wall again. John didn’t care. He ran.

The world felt slow as he fled. He slipped and stumbled as he made it out of the kitchen, turning to the left he ran for the door. Arm outstretched for the handle, John had almost made it when his leg was kicked out. He cried out at the sudden pain, hitting his head against the closed door as he fell. John struggled to his hands and knees. If he could get past the door, he would be safe.

John did not get that opportunity. Father kicked out hard enough that John became airborne for a second, before crashing into the closed door. Father did not stop there. The monster stomped forward and continued kicking.

Every angry blow shuffled more darkness into his sight until there was more black than colour left in his vision. Every shock of pain sent his mind running further from the trauma his father was inflicting on him. He had lost his one chance to escape and was terrified that the man would kill him. The last thought he had before the blackness swallowed him whole was that maybe he had made a mistake in trading himself for Harry.

Chapter Text

John slumped down in his seat, elbows planted on the desk and head bowed. He was not even bothering to give the illusion of listening to the lecture. Mr Nickel had to be the most boring man that John ever had the misfortune to encounter. The man also had a strange obsession with annoying Shakespearian plays, as that was what he was still rambling about. His monotone voice bled one sentence into the next, without pause or inflexion. John wasn’t the only student struggling to stay conscious through this mandatory torture. He, at least, had a valid excuse.

Over the last few days, John had barely slept. While he didn’t sleep as much as most, he still required some. The small amounts he’d been getting during the lunch break weren’t nearly enough. His ribs and stomach were still painfully tender. Cut and bruises, hidden by his uniform, throbbed with every heartbeat. The ache in his head was a constant pressure, making his skull feel too small. Unfortunately, while he was accustomed to hurting, he wasn’t used to this level of pain.

In a sense, John figured he was lucky. The worst of his injuries weren’t apparent to the casual observer. Over the past few years, he had developed a reputation for fighting, so – while his appearance Monday had raised a few eyebrows – none of his teachers had tried to figure out what had happened.

John was certain that Mr Benson knew, but the man had finally figured out that John didn’t want his help. He had been the one to bar John’s entrance to the classroom where he was to take his A-level. The counsellor had watched John’s pained approach, his face a confusing mess of emotions as he uttered the words that destroyed John’s future. Twenty minutes late. If John had been able to talk faster or taken a previous trolley, he would have made it. If a well-aimed kick hadn’t destroyed his watch, he could have set the alarm. There were so many ‘if’s, but none of them mattered anymore.

After that, John didn’t know what to do. He fell back into the patterns he was used to: classes and wandering. He maintained a decently stocked first-aid kit in his locker, something that he had never been so grateful for. While his supplies were dwindling quickly, he was smart enough not to be stingy with the antibiotic ointment on his cuts, especially the ones on his feet. He religiously downed the highest doses of anti-inflammatory painkillers to help manage his injuries.

His most pressing problem now was that he didn’t have even a remotely safe place to close his eyes once school was out. While John had found and claimed various hiding holes over the years, they weren’t protected enough for him to trust that he wouldn’t get mugged should he linger too long, not when he couldn’t properly defend himself. After all, he had picked those locations so that he could see, watch, listen and think… not to sleep.

He hadn’t gone back home since the attack; he couldn’t bring himself to. John could no longer even pretend that it was even remotely safe. After he had woken on the floor with nothing but smears of blood around him, he had cleaned himself up, packed as much as he could carry and left. He knew that he should have gone to find Harry and make sure that she was alright, but he couldn’t stand seeing her right now. At this moment, he couldn’t even stand the thought of her, not after what happened. He had thrown his dreams away for her. John shook his head slowly, trying to rid himself of the depressing thoughts but having no success.

He wasn’t even sure why he still attended classes. The entire reason he hadn’t missed a single one was to get that bloody scholarship. Staying here was only torture now. This place held no future for him. He should be looking for a second job. Maybe if he could save enough money, he would move far away from this place. What would he consider far enough though? Canada? At least his parents wouldn’t be able to find him over there. They wouldn’t be able to destroy any more of his dreams. Harriett wouldn’t be used against him ever again.

With slow determination, John scribbled in his notebook. Black overlapped black, the lines spanning the width of the page as he worked on destroying the notes that he had so painstakingly taken last week. Useless. Falling into the rhythm of destruction, a heavy lassitude crept in, muting his problems, if only for a few blissful minutes.

John didn’t pay any attention to the other students. Most were simply passing notes back and forth to one another. There were even a few people sleeping behind their books. He was sorely tempted to do that himself, but couldn’t trust that any of the teens surrounding him wouldn’t try something while he was unconscious.

With a jerk that sent the bruising in his torso and tender ribs protesting, he came back to full awareness. A small ball of paper had landed in his lap with expert precision. Glancing around to see if anyone had noticed the movement, or the resulting wince, he un-crumpled the note. Smoothing it out with shaking hands, he struggled to focus on the slightly weaving words.

‘Rugby after school?’ ~T

Automatically, he glanced out the second story window to gauge the weather. It would give him the opportunity to take out all his anger and frustration on the field. It was a bad idea, though. The cuts on his feet were still healing. The cuts were an easy fix, especially because none of them had been deep enough to require stitching. His concern for his ribs and the headache that refused to dissipate grew a little more each day. He was sure that none of the ribs were cracked, but the bruising was still deep. One wrong knock and he would be in some serious trouble.

John had avoided the teens as much as he possibly could during the week. Spending time with them would result in them see more than the cut on his face, the darker than normal circles under his eyes, and his slower movements. He didn’t want the pity they offered when they had seen him on Monday. The concern in their voices when they offered to help him, to protect him, had nearly sent him into a blind rage. How dare they pity me. After the flood of anger had dissipated, he found himself feeling empty inside.

Absently, he stroked his index finger along the two-inch cut on his cheek. It started just under the corner of his left eye, slicing across to his temple. He barely noticed the discomfort under the weight of the pressure in his head. They are too happy and excited to be going onto the next stages of their lives, he thought bitterly. Soon, Travis would be working full time with his father, learning how to run the company and securing his future with an ease that John would never have. Mark was set to travel Europe for the next year before starting Uni, all under his parents’ pocketbook.

It wasn’t fair. Why did they get such an easy time of it? What had John done to deserve the hand dealt? They hadn’t had to fight uphill every step of the way to get even this far. One slip-up had cost him everything. He had no plans, no future. Even the thought of listening to their excitement pissed him off.

Scowling, he jerked his attention away from the clouds dotting the sky and down towards the school gates. Beyond the gated entrance, a motorbike stood, illegally parked on the sidewalk. Behind it, cars lined both sides of the street, leaving no open spots for it to have parked on the road. The shape and colour of the bike reminded him of Jim.

John closed his eyes, pain blooming in his chest. It was a high, clear note in the tortured orchestra that was his body. Somehow, the man had gotten under his skin and set John to his tune. He made John feel. John’s confusion wasn’t over the fact that Jim was a man; it was all of the twisting emotions that the man created inside him. John savoured every moment he was around Jim. He revelled in their conversations and basked in every brush of skin. Jim made him feel important and wanted. He was everything John wanted to be: wealthy, successful, and fun.

What would the man think of him now? He was just a lowly, working-class kid with no future and no prospects.

Breathing shallowly through the ache inside, John forced his eyes open once more. Surprise spiked through him as a familiar for sauntered into his line of sight. Frowning, John watched the man drink a soda as he walked towards the motorbike. As he reached the bike, he turned to lounge sideways on the seat, taking another long drink from the can. For one blissful moment, John simply drank in the sight.

“Jim,” he breathed the name, not entirely aware that he spoke out loud.

Reality crashed back around him. What is he doing here? John thought in dismay. He didn’t want to see Jim. Not after the spectacle he’d made of himself at the pub, and especially not now that his life was in shambles. Why couldn’t the man just leave him alone? Why did he have to come here, a physical representation of everything John could never have or be?

How does he know where I go to school? The thought struck him, a sharp jolt that sent his blood simmering. How dare Jim try and sidestep the boundaries John had set? John relished the anger beginning to build inside. For the first time in nearly a week, he felt in control. He fed the rage, encouraging the inferno inside to burn away his fear and powerlessness. He focused on the wrong that Jim had dealt him: invading John’s privacy.

That just meant that he would have to tell the man to leave. Angrily, he shoved the defaced notebook into his empty bag. When his pen rolled off the side of the desk, he didn’t bother picking it up. With jerky movements – his damned tremors were back – he zipped the pack closed. Levering himself to his feet, John interrupted the flow of the teacher’s monotone voice. Feeling the eyes of the other students on him, he turned and glared, daring anyone to say anything this time. When Travis frowned at him, John just gave a jerky shake of his head. No, he would not be joining them.

He refused to wait for Mr Nickel to have another of his silent power trips before being permitted to leave. Instead, John immediately began traversing through the rows of desks. He was the centre of attention now. But this time, he was not embarrassed. He simply didn’t care about what they thought of him anymore. He’d had enough of playing nice and following the rules.

As John’s hand touched down on the door handle, Mr Nickel finally got over the shock of the student completely bypassing the man. “Mr Watson. Take your seat. Now,” he demanded, affront clear in his tone.

John snorted at the order. Not bothering to glance back at the silent room, he flung the door wide and strode out. He had to admit, that small act of rebellion was surprisingly satisfying. It wasn’t something he’d have considered doing before, but things change. Why should he sit and listen to something that he couldn’t care less about and never use in the real world? Eventually, John knew he would come up with another plan. But, over the past few days, he hadn’t been able to come up with anything realistic.

Making quick work of the hallways, he dumped his bag into his overfull locker, before continuing towards the exit. One by one, Jim was bypassing the defensive measures John had in place to protect himself. With every step he took through the empty halls, his anger began to mount. His helplessness and the unfairness of it all added fuel to the fire. The tightness of his clenched jaw added to the constant pain, driving it up another notch.

He shook his head in agitation, trying to dispel the thoughts. Vision swimming slightly, he narrowed his eyes, focusing on the entrance doors at the end of the hallway. He didn’t want to think about his family or his failures anymore, and Jim had just made himself an excellent distraction. Every heavy step towards those doors was one step closer to pouring out all the emotions building up inside. A small part of him knew that none of this was Jim’s fault, but right now, he couldn’t bring himself to care.

John shoved through the heavy doors leading outside. His shoulder and stomach protested at the movement. The early morning sunlight was too bright, and John narrowed his eyes to slits, fighting through the sharp pain shooting through his temples. He clenched his fists tightly. Everything was slipping out of his control. Worn shoes silent on the sidewalk, he stalked towards the man leaning against the bike.

Unwillingly, he found himself thinking that the man looked good. The way he lounged against the bike resembled the stature of a model. He crossed his jean-clad legs at the ankles, his v-neck shirt hugging his torso. The man’s dark hair had been smoothed back, leaving his face on full display to anyone who could appreciate the lines. No, He refused to allow the man to distract him with his good looks.

“Johnny-boy!” Jim exclaimed, spreading his arms wide. With a casual flick of the wrist, he tossed the soda can aside. “You are alive. I was beginning to fear that perhaps you had been taken by some unsavoury creature.” His grin seemed to widen impossibly as he took John in, completely ignoring the dark scowl on the student’s face.

“Why are you here?” Tension thrummed through John’s veins, blending with his already pulsing anger. The pounding of his heart amplified the low hum of pain in his ribs, and his heavy footfalls caused the half-healed wounds in his feet to burn.

Jim’s eyes narrowed at the tone, his smile sliding from his lips. Dropping his arms back down, he cocked his head to the side. “I give you my number; I thought you might call.” His strangely melodic voice lowered, sending a shiver down John’s spine before it rose back into his usual sing-song range. “I was bored. So, I thought I’d stop by, convince you to play hookie with me.” He straightened to his full height, barely taller than John, and pushed away from the bike.

He was bored. Of course, that would be the only reason the man had shown up. John took a step forward, warring with himself. To hit the bastard or to not hit the bastard, now that was the question. Logically, he knew that none of what was happening was the other man’s fault. But, the very fact that he was here, seeing John at his worst, nearly drove John insane. “How did you know I go to school here?” Goosebumps crept over his skin as he questioned the man. It was the same spied upon feeling that he’d had the first time that they met.

At the accusation, Jim began to shake his head. With every dramatic side sweep, he tisked. “Tisk, tisk, tisk. I know where you live.” When John’s guarded expression didn’t change, he rolled his eyes, waving a careless hand towards the school. “It was either this or the Catholic School.” Jim’s eyes raked down John’s form, and he grinned wolfishly. “Though you would make a lovely alter boy.”

While the man’s explanation made sense, the fact that Jim saw more than John had ever wanted him to made his blood boil. He took another step forward, no longer caring about the pain his body was in. He wanted to wipe that bloody smirk off the man’s face. He wanted Jim to feel the same pain he was in, the same despair and claustrophobic feeling of being trapped with no way out. What he wanted was for Jim to hurt as much as John did.

John moved fast. Sharp pinpricks of pain shot up from his feet as he closed the space between them. Torso protesting the sudden movement, he took strength from the pain, aiming a tightly clenched fist for Jim’s stomach. He really shouldn’t have been surprised when the man was able to shift out of the way with a dancer’s grace.

Jim’s fingers curled into the front of John’s shirt as he moved. In a slide of boots against the sidewalk, the man twisted. He used John’s momentum to force John away from the motorbike and into the side of the blue car behind the bike instead.

John gasped, a low moan of pain escaping his lips as his front met the innocuous blue car. Sharp agony radiated out from his stomach and through his chest. His heavy, rapid breaths pushed at the tight bandaging containing his ribs. John held perfectly still, needing a moment for the pain to dull back down to a more manageable level. As it did, he braced both hands against the frame of the back door and slowly pushed away, only to encounter the warm and familiar body of Jim preventing him from moving any further.

The older man used his body to ease John back against the door, effectively trapping him. Jim coiled himself around the student; hands braced beside John’s own. With deliberate slowness, Jim stepped in, pressing his body flush. Dropping his head down, Jim breathed in the younger man’s scent. On a soft exhale, he murmured lowly into John’s ear, “Do you want to fight me?” He punctuated the question by gently biting down on the shell of John’s ear, tongue curving around the trapped cartilage.

The feel of Jim pressed in so close to him was a shock that John hadn’t thought he would ever experience again. With every slight shift the man made, small trickles of heat danced over his skin. When he’d breathed those words into John’s ear, John had struggled to bite back a moan. When those teeth grazed his ear, John did gasp. How was it that Jim could so easily pull these feelings out of him? One second, he wanted to beat the man into the ground; the next, all he wanted to do was shove his tongue down the man’s throat.

“Tell me, my dear,” he whispered before lowering his head to drop feather light kisses along the teen’s exposed neck. “What do you want?” Again, he bit down, teeth a gentle threat. Sucking softly at the base of John’s neck, he began to rock against the younger man.

John’s breath hitched. Jim had trapped him gently but firmly against the car. That always-smirking mouth was sending waves of heat over his flushed skin. It left him shaking. In a moment, the man had transformed John’s rage into something altogether different. The question he seductively posed ran circles in John’s head. What do you want? He just didn’t know anymore.

Jim’s hands traced their way down over his arms and down his sides, un-tucking John’s shirt in slow, teasing movements. When the material was finally free of the trousers, a hand slipped under the hem. Cool fingers grazed feather light over his stomach, nails the softest of brushes over the tender skin. John shivered, goosebumps rising as the hand continued its slow exploration. Jim didn’t hesitate when he felt the bandaging around his ribs. Teasingly, his fingers slid under the edge. In a sudden motion, he raked his nails down John’s abdomen.

Sharp pain twined with burning need, and John cried out, arching against the older man. What do you want? The answer was simple. More of anything that Jim would give him. Through the twisting pleasure-pain, he was having difficulty remembering why he had been so angry with the man. All he knew was that when he was with Jim, things weren’t bad.

He pushed back against Jim, needing to feel more. Tilting his head, he offered the man easier access. “I-” His breath hitched as those teeth bit down harder. John couldn’t contain the groan when Jim pulled his hips back, pressingly solidly against Jim’s obvious arousal. “-don’t want to be here anymore.” He breathed the words into the early morning air, sure that Jim would hear.

It was a near silent plea. Take me away. Fix it or change it, I don’t care. But please, don’t leave me here.

With one last kiss on the back of his neck, the older man slowly extracted himself from John’s shaking form, hands lingering before stepping away entirely. “Then come, John.”

The words sounded tense, and John turned just enough to see Jim hunched as though in pain, as he backed away. Between one step and the next, his stance changed, the man uncoiling to stand tall. He cocked his head as he raked his gaze over John’s panting form. Jim’s pupils were blown out, making his eyes appear black in the morning light. Once more, he looked cool and calm, as though they had been having nothing more than a simple conversation.

John leaned against the car while he panted shallowly. He had no idea how the man was able to shift gears with such ease. John was having difficulty standing. Need hummed through his veins as he watched Jim slowly mount the motorbike.

The older man shifted, once, twice, before reaching down and adjusting himself. Once he was satisfied, Jim pulled the bike fully upright and put the stand up. Leaning in, he twisted his wrist and kick-started the bike. It started with a loud roar that flashed John back to the first time they had ridden together. Jim settled back into the seat and turned to look expectantly at John.

John winced as he pushed away from the car. Now that the man wasn’t distracting him, his body began to throb lowly again. The pain-killers he’d taken wouldn’t wear off for a couple more hours, so it wasn’t as bad as it could be. Biting his lip, John tried to figure out how to get on the bike without too much difficulty. Quickly, he concluded that – no matter what he did – climbing on was going to hurt like Hell.

Taking a fortifying breath, John braced a hand on the short backrest, his other on Jim’s shoulder. Stepping onto the passenger peg, he hissed through clenched teeth at the sharp burning through his body as he awkwardly levered himself on. The twisting of his torso was sheer agony. Nearly falling as he landed on the seat, John tried to breathe slowly through the pain. Jim waited, silent, while John shifted and adjusted. Stiffly, he tried to find a comfortable position on the narrow seat. It was a lost cause. He could manage the pain, so long as Jim didn’t try to kill them on the bike. Settling his hands around Jim’s waist, he hunched in. “Ok,” he breathed, ready as he could be.

Instead of taking off, as usual, Jim slowly released the clutch and twisted the throttle minutely. They began to move at a gradual pace as he manoeuvred them carefully off the sidewalk. Even when they were on the street, he didn’t rev the engine but kept his acceleration smooth and easy. John was surprised that Jim diligently followed all the rules of the road. Not only that, but he signalled well in advance and only pulled into other lanes when it could be gradual. The most revealing tell for John was that the man did not once go beyond the speed limit.

Even though Jim had made the ride as smooth as he possibly could, by the time they had pulled off the main road and into a parking stall, John’s body was a ball of agony. Once the engine was off, John braced himself and tried to climb off the bike. He nearly fell, catching his balance at the cost of further exacerbating his tender ribs. Stumbling back a few steps, John tried to focus on maintaining slow, even breaths. He tried to convince himself that it was in his best interest to straighten instead of remaining hunched.

He had no idea how much time had passed before he was able to breathe without feeling like he would be sick. When he could focus outwardly once more, John warily looked around the mostly deserted street. He didn’t know where they were. Somewhere near the bar district, he guessed, by the darkened windows and unlit signs. It wasn’t somewhere that he’d ever gone. Sure, he was eighteen now, but he didn’t have the time, money or inclination to go to a bar.

“Where are we going,” John asked as his friend began walking away from him. John followed, struggling to keep up with the pace. His feet jolted with every step and ribs screamed their protest as he moved faster, lungs straining as he attempted to take in enough air. John knew that if he did not maintain proper breathing that he would be at greater risk for pneumonia. Full inhalations, however, hurt like Hell. His lungs pushed at the tender ribs, which in turn stretched the surrounding muscles and wounded cartilage. Logically, he knew that it wasn’t so much the ribs that were causing the pain as the bruised muscles, but that wasn’t much of a comfort right now.

Jim glanced back. He slowed his long strides, allowing John to set their speed. As they fell into step, Jim said, “You’re a little rundown, Johnny-boy.” He cast a sideways glance at the younger man, somehow taking in everything in that single glance. “You need to relax and sit down for a while,” he continued with a wink, dark eyes glinting in the light. “And I know just the place.”

Embarrassed that the man could see how broken he was, John looked away from that too knowing expression. At least Jim wasn’t offering him pity; he didn’t think he could stand that. When they turned the corner leading into the alleyway, John lagged behind slightly. While it resembled the vast majority of alleys that he’d been it, it was cleaner. There were still the large rubbish bins, which wafted unpleasant scents, no real amounts of debris were scattered about. He stayed quiet as they traversed the narrow way, walking near half the length of the alley before Jim stopped at a large metal door. It was nondescript, neither graffiti nor number identifying it from the next.

Jim paused, casting John an unreadable look before he stepped up and proceeded to tap out a complex rhythm against the metal. Five seconds of silence, then he tapped it again. Three more times he did this before the door slowly opened on silent hinges, revealing the small, round face of a sleepy looking woman. She glanced first at John, her loose black hair swinging forward and into her face.

The woman wrinkled her nose slightly as she looked John over before turning her attention to Jim. Pale eyes lighting up in recognition, she smiled shyly up at the older man. “Morning, Sir.” Her voice was low and wispy, like smoke drifting on the air. John felt the sharp pang of something he refused to name. Hands closing into fists, he forced himself to remain still and quiet. What he wanted to do was step between the two and slam the door rather forcefully in her stupid face.

As though reading his thought, she was no longer in the doorway. Jim widened the crack and stepped inside, beckoning John to follow along. Hesitantly, he did so. Passing the threshold, he looked around the small, bare room. There was nothing in here but a single wooden chair tucked into the corner. He frowned in confusion when he didn’t see the woman. Shaking his head slowly, he trailed the older man through the next door and into a wide, carpeted hallway.

They passed by closed doors, each one looking like the previous, as they moved closer towards the soft sounds of music. John wondered what was behind the blank wooden doors. The temptation to open one and find out had him tucking his hands into his pockets, instead of following the impulse. John forced himself to follow his friend, eyes cast down to the rich, red carpet.

Three doors from the end of the corridor, Jim stopped and glanced back at him. One of those secretive smiles played across his lips. “Welcome to Bailieborough.” As he spoke the name, his bur came to the forefront, drawing John’s attention back to him. Then, Jim opened the door. Sweet music spilt out and over him in a wave. The high strains of a flute twined with the faster tempo of a violin, highlighting the gentle crooning of a heavily accented voice. It was beautiful.

As they stepped into the low lit room, a few heads turned to glance at them. Most of the men, however, ignored their entrance entirely. They continued their low conversations in booths or round tables scattered throughout the large room. John found himself tensing again, realising that they were the only two not wearing suits. Why does Jim keep bringing me to places like this? He was trying hard to not think about how unkempt he looked in his wrinkled and untucked school uniform. Still, he continued looking around, out of his peripheral. Most of the men appeared to be in their late thirties or older, with only one or two any younger than that.

He was so focused on trying to look around that when Jim stopped, at the far side of the room, John nearly ran into him. John stumbled, hissing at the sharp pain as he caught himself. He scowled, trying to hide his discomfort and pain. He was unsure how Jim thought he was going to be able to relax here.

Jim turned and stepped back, waving a hand to a darkly coloured high-backed chair. “Sit.” Retreating a few more steps, Jim rounded the low coffee table and deposited himself onto the sofa to the left of the hair. When John levered himself down into the seat, the man smiled. “There you go, my dear. Just sit there, relax and enjoy the lovely music.”

Scowl deepening, John tentatively leaned back. The chair cradled him gently, not putting too much pressure on any one spot. Slowly, John found himself relaxing into the soft fabric. The straightness of the seat forced John to maintain proper posture, but it eased some of the strain in his chest. Exhaustion rolled over him in a wave, and his eyes drifted closed. The melodic voice of the female singer lulled him into a soft haze. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all. For the first time in a long while, John allowed himself to drift. No fears or worries to nag at him, simply the comforting warmth of this place, the soothing music and the reassuring presence of Jim only feet away.

Time drifted. He wasn’t sure how long he sat there. Long enough that the woman singer had stopped and pre-recorded music now filtered in from hidden speakers. Slowly, John opened his eyes, enjoying the heavy lassitude that filled him. Through heavy-lidded eyes, he could see Jim at the far end of the couch, conversing with a man beside him.

The stranger, while dressed similarly to the rest of the patrons here, stood out. He looked to have started the day in a full suit, but the jacket was missing, and the sleeves of the lightly wrinkled dress shirt were rolled up to the elbows. The strange man put John in mind of an assistant. Jims, perhaps?

From the deep lines etched into the man’s dark features, John guessed his age to be in the mid-thirties, maybe older. Hard work and harder decisions had removed any softness from his features. The man nodded thoughtfully whenever Jim spoke before responding in low, respectful tones. His eyes only trailed from Jim when taking notes, but even then, he leaned in closer to Jim, as if concerned he might miss a word said. Every few minutes, Jim would reach out with his left hand and scribble something down on the notepad. He waved a hand about as he explained something too quietly for John to hear.

After a while, John slouched back onto the sofa with a sharp nod of his head. An odd smile, one that John had never seen before playing across his lips. He spoke a few more words, and the stranger shook his head. In a flash, Jim was leaning forward again, eyes wide. Snatching the clipboard away, he began scribbling furiously on it. Finishing with an exaggerated flourish, he tossed the board back at the man and stood. “Employer – Gas – Motion – Friday – Failure.” Those were the only words John caught over the hum of the room.

John frowned as he tried to reason those few words into a sentence. It was obvious that someone wanted something done on Friday. Who was the employer? Jim or someone that Jim worked for? He was an external consultant, but that didn’t mean anything to John. Exactly what did the man do that he could waltz into high-end places like this without a second thought and order people around so easily? He was so focused on trying to unravel the meaning behind the words that he wasn’t aware that his friend had noticed he had woken until a small bowl was shoved into his lap. Grasping the still warm bowl to prevent it from spilling, he quickly looked down. His stomach gurgled loudly as he caught the scent and sight of the stew.

“Eat that,” the man ordered in the calmest tone that John had ever heard come out of his mouth. “You’re nothing but skin and bones.” With that rather unflattering, but accurate statement, Jim stood and walked away. He didn’t bother glancing back to make sure John followed his words.

On principle, John wanted to protest. He did not appreciate the fact that Jim was trying to order him around. But heat was seeping into his cold and aching fingers, and the aroma which filled his nostrils removed even that thought. He couldn’t say no. Gingerly grabbing the large spoon already in the bowl, he tentatively took a single bite. It was heaven on his tongue. This was nothing like the Italian restaurant, where he hadn’t been able to appreciate the fancy food fully. This he could and did appreciate. It was warm and thick, hearty and enhanced with familiar spices. Full of soft vegetables and thick hunks of meat, it soothed his sore throat and eased the knot in his stomach. This was by far the best meal he could remember eating. All too soon, he was scraping the bottom of the bowl. He wished there were more, even as his stomach protested the volume he had ingested.

Letting out a slow breath, he lowered the bowl and gently placed it on the small side table to his right. At some point, while John lost himself in devouring the meal, Jim had returned. Now, the man perched on the edge of the couch. He had propped his chin on a fist as he stared unblinkingly at John, causing the student to feel self-conscious.

Noticing the expression, Jim laughed. “A hearty Irish stew was just what was needed to perk you back up!” He clapped his hands once before leaning to the side and picking up a small tumbler. Casually, the man sniffed the contents before tilting his head back and taking a long swallow.

John flushed, embarrassed that Jim had seen how hungry and tired he was. The man always managed to see John at his worst. Instead of responding to the man’s words, John turned away, looking around the room. He was more aware now than he had been in days. There were fewer people now than when he had fallen asleep. The dim lighting made it difficult to make out any of the features of the other patrons, and the large spaces between the tables and couches encouraged privacy from prying ears. Even the soft music drowned out the murmurs of conversation.

As he continued his inspection, he found his gaze drawn to the bar at the far side of the room. The assistant man had just turned away, a glass in either hand. He weaved his way through the tables; attention fixed on where Jim and John sat. As he entered their little area, he bowed his head slightly, placing the taller of the two glasses beside John and replacing the one at Jim’s elbow.

“Sir.” He spoke softly after a sidelong glance at John’s curious gaze. “There might be an issue or two with-” He abruptly cut his words off when Jim’s eyes narrowed. Hastily, he straightened, taking a step back.

Jim slipped off the sofa, the movement both graceful and aggressive, and drew himself to his full height. Though he was slightly taller than John, he was still a handspan shorter than the man standing before him. Jim leaned in, looking up into the wide pale eyes of the assistant. Teeth bared in the mockery of a smile, he said, “Follow the instructions fully and completely. There will be no issues. He has made certain of that.” Slowly, Jim reached up and patted the other man’s cheek. He continued, voice dropping into a low and threatening murmur, “If you do not, then I will braid your intestines into a belt.”

John shivered at the tone and the words. The assistant paled before nodding quickly, the movement jerky. Eyes showing too much white, the man turned and rushed away. He kept his head bowed, not looking back and not looking at any of the businessmen he passed.

With a careful shake of his head, John looked up at his friend. “Who are you?”

Jim turned back to him, a predatory glint in his eyes. Planting his hands on the armrests of John’s chair, he leaned in. “Now, that is a rather personal question, my dear. Does that mean we are no longer adhering to our original agreement?” His breath was warm on John’s cheek. The scent of whiskey the other man had just sipped wafting over him, causing John to lean back.

At least, that was the excuse he used. Not that the other man was far too close for comfort. Licking his lips, John shook his head, wincing as the throbbing behind his eyes intensified for a moment before settling back into something manageable. “No. No personal questions.” He wanted to know the answer, but Jim already knew far too much about John.

John released the breath he was holding when the older man straightened and moved back to the sofa. Immediately, John reached over, snatching up the full glass and putting it to his lips. Warm spices burst on his tongue as he swallowed a mouthful of the mulled mead. While it tasted good, John didn’t think drinking would be a good idea right now. As he set the glass back down, he looked over at the older man. John couldn’t help the curiosity Jim had instilled in him. He guessed that the threat to the stranger had just been an exaggeration to ensure whatever plans Jim had concocted would go smoothly. After all, in real life people didn’t play with another’s intestines. He wanted to know what would happen on Friday though.

But the smallest kernel of concern wedged itself into John’s brain. He knew that Jim was dangerous in some odd way. His mind warred with itself. While Jim had done things that John might consider insane, he always had a roundabout explanation for each action. He had never hurt John, had even helped John control his anger and calmed him down more than once. The man was his friend, willing to deal with his mood swings and secrets. He never pried and somehow understood what John needed without ever needing to ask.

He does tend to pin you to things and kiss you, his mind decided to point out helpfully. John wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Jim had said that he only wanted to be friends, that it would be a bad idea for them to do anything. But then he had kissed John… again. More than kissed, John flushed remembering the man pressed against him, whispering into his ear. What did Jim want from him?

Before Jim, John had never thought about a guy in that way. Always before, he had fantasised about girls, what he would do with them, how they looked and would feel. Now though, whenever he closed his eyes, it was Jim standing there with that cocky grin and those dangerous eyes. The predatory grace in which Jim would walk forward, taking what he wanted, made John desperately want more. He’d never wanted anyone this much; he ached for the man.

John didn’t think that it was embarrassment that had caused the man to back off. Jim hadn’t changed his behaviour towards John afterwards. He would still flirt and tease. Unconsciously, his fingers brushed against his lips. Today had been different; there had been even more hunger. It had felt so good. Every trouble had slipped away under the man’s hands and nails and teeth, leaving him living entirely in that moment.

“John,” the voice was low and tight. “If you do not wish to be pinned to that chair, you had best stop what you are doing.” His tone dipped threateningly.

John’s eyes snapped open at the words. Jim was coiled in on himself, dark eyes blazing as he held himself utterly still. Flushing, John dropped his hand back to his lap, trying to look anywhere but at the intense man. Did Jim want more than friendship? Then why was he the one always pulling away? He blew hot one moment, cold the next, and John didn’t know how to deal with it.

Jim leaned away, slowly straightening himself. Finally, he turned those mesmerising eyes away from John. Dropping his arms over the back of the sofa, Jim kicked his shoes up onto the low coffee table and gazed up into the rafters. “You, my dear, like to test my self-control.” He rolled his head to look at John through heavy-lidded eyes. “And I have never been good at denying myself.”

Uncomfortable, John cleared his throat, looking away from the lounging form of his friend. “I- er, thanks for-” He looked around the room for a long moment, trying to gather his scattered thoughts. “-letting me relax here.” He looked back at Jim. “I really appreciate it, but I should get going.” John looked down at his watch. Stomach tightening, he felt slightly ill when he saw the bruising and remembered why he didn’t have it anymore.

Jim nodded at John’s excuse and reached into his back pocket. Pulling out his wallet, he extracted a few bills. Leaning forward, he forced them into John’s unwilling hands. “I can’t take you home today, business to do and all that.” He spoke the words over John’s protests, refusing to take the pounds back. “You are in no shape to be jostled around on the tube. Get a cab and get some rest.” As he spoke, he had raised a hand, waving the assistant back over. “Now, run along and I will see you tomorrow after school.” Jim made little shooing motions with his hands, still refusing to take back the money.

Before John could argue the point more, the assistant had stepped up beside him. “Sir, a cab is waiting out front.” The man had a fairly thick accent, and John found himself wondering if he was the only person here not originally from the isles.

Shooting one last frustrated look at his friend, John slowly levered himself up. Wincing in pain, he realised that he had to have been asleep longer than he’d thought as the pain meds had worn off. He couldn’t even take anymore as he had left his bag, with the pills, in his locker. He hadn’t anticipated leaving with Jim. If he had, John would have brought it and the first-aid kit with him.

Letting out a low sigh, John began to shuffle after the assistant, feet throbbing and head aching from the movement. A glance back showed that Jim was already gone. Off to do ‘work’ of some sort, he guessed. Once they had exited into the main room, they moved through a wide, well-decorated corridor. “What do you do?” John asked the older man in the sudden silence.

The man stopped at the question, looking down at John for a long, uncomfortable moment. Pale eyes took in his laboured breathing and hunched form, lingering on the long cut under John’s eye. The assistant cleared his throat, a knowing smile on his face as he said, “I follow orders, Sir.” He arched a brow, as though daring John to ask anything else. When John did not, he turned and continued his purposely slow pace towards the glass outer doors.

John made a face at the man’s back but sighed and followed behind. That was a non-answer if he’d ever heard one. Just what does the man do for Jim, he wondered. With one last glance at the stranger, he stepped through the door and to the waiting cab. He needed to get to work. He’d asked for a couple of weeks off to do his finals, but that time was now up. The clock in the vehicle showed that his shift at the motel started in little more than an hour.

He gave the address to the cabby and carefully settled himself. After work, he didn’t know where he would go. Maybe he would be able to get away with sleeping in the staff room for the night, claim that he’d just meant to rest his eyes. It wouldn’t be the most comfortable, but he would get a lot more sleep than he had anywhere else. At the very least, he could sleep in the cab until they had arrived at the motel.

Chapter Text

John sat on the edge of the counter in one of the bathrooms towards the back of the school. It was out of the way and thus less often used, which served John’s purposes perfectly. The contents of the first-aid kit were spread out, much dwindled from the beginning of the week. Panting softly due to uncomfortable angle, John twisted his foot higher up onto his lap. Firmly, he ran the cotton swab of isopropyl alcohol over the cuts. At least none of the gashes were overly deep.

They were healing, but slower than John would prefer. The swollen, red flesh rimming the edges of the scabs told of the infection John hadn’t been able to prevent. But the inflammation wasn’t too bad, and he had expected the infection. Feet were one of the hardest places to keep clean, especially because John hadn’t been willing to remove his shoes anywhere but school. If anything happened where he needed to run, John wouldn’t have time to slip his shoes back on.

Dumping the swab into the rubbish bin, he picked up the nearly spent tube of antibiotic ointment. There was only enough left for perhaps two more applications. He would need to purchase more soon. What he needed to do was restock the entire kit. He hadn’t designed the school kit for this level of first-aid. He had created it for more basic care, such as a wound re-opening and the like. He had built and stocked up the duffle bag for this level of injuries. But he didn’t have the strength to lift it when he fled, so he was forced to leave it behind. Right now, he was regretting that decision.

Liberally applying the cold ointment to the cuts, he grabbed his gauze and wrapped his foot with practised ease. The cuts on his arms were doing well, the scabbing giving way to the pale pink of scar tissue in many spots. He didn’t care about the scars themselves; they were just a few more to add to his collection. Leaning against the mirror, he allowed his head to rest against the cool surface. There wasn’t much else he could do now but wait for his body to fix the remainder.

Sighing, John glanced at his watch. Stomach aching at the sight of his bare wrist and yellow bruising, he reached across the counter for his shoes and last clean pair of socks instead. He didn’t want to put them on, but school would let out soon, and he didn’t want other students jostling him in the halls. Slowly, he slipped the socks on first, careful to not roll any of the gauze, before putting the shoes on.

Carefully, John levered himself off the counter, making quick work of repacking all the first-aid supplies and tucking it into the brimming backpack. He had already emptied out his locker, tossing what was no longer needed and what was least important. His life fit into a single bag now. The last item left on the counter was the dark red jumper.

As John struggled into the material, he thought about Harry. She’d gotten away from their parents, so she had to be a hell of a lot better off than John. Although he hadn’t tried to track her down and see if she was alright, she hadn’t approached him either. It wouldn’t have been difficult to find him, after all. Harry knew where he went to school and where he worked. It hurt that she hadn’t tried to find him afterwards.

It meant all her bluster about staying to protect him had been a lie. It had just been easier to stay there until things had become especially bat. At least she had somewhere to go. Her girlfriend, Tara would have taken her in. John wasn’t so lucky in that regard. It hurt that she hadn’t tried to find him afterwards, but if he was honest with himself, not surprised.

He had three friends, none of whom he could or would impose himself on. Mark’s family was far to well-to-do to be comfortable with John being there. Travis was the eldest of three children, and they all bunked in a single room. His place was too small to add another teenager, even if his parents had been willing. There was Jim, but he couldn’t impose on the older man like that, not after everything.

As it stood, John was homeless. What he needed to do was find a flatmate – or three – because of how much places cost. He needed to get a full-time job, as his boss wasn’t able to give him the hours he needed. But to do any of that, he needed a place that had a phone. His mind had been running in circles for the last week, but nothing helped, he always ended up back at the incident.

If John had just left well enough alone, he would have had that bloody scholarship. But, if he had left Harry to that fate, would he have been able to live with himself? Shaking his head to banish the thoughts, he gingerly shouldered his backpack on and stepped out of the bathroom. ‘If only’s and ‘what if’s were useless to him, all that mattered was ‘now’ and ‘how.’

It was the last day of school. He was already passing by the beginning trickles of excited teens, rushing through the halls, aiming for their lockers. John couldn’t bring himself to be happy for them. Sure, he was closing this painful chapter of his life, but the next one was daunting and not at all in the direction he had intended on going.

Passing through the front doors and into the cloudy afternoon, he drew in a steadying breath that wheezed slightly. Bitterness coiled inside as he watched the happy, smiling teens chatting in small groups as they left this place behind, either for a couple of months or forever. Scowling, John clenched his jaw and continued his determined march towards the front gates.

Jim had said that John would see him after classes today. He could only assume that the older man would be showing up on his bike again. He wished he could get inside Jim’s head and figure out what he was thinking. First, he would pull John close and then push him away. He didn’t want to look too closely at how much he had come to depend on Jim. He was afraid that when Jim figured out that he had no real prospects, the man would leave.

“John!”

His name being called snapped him out of his brooding thoughts. Turning, he caught a glimpse of dark hair and broad shoulders. Stepping off to the side, to prevent himself from being jostled by impatient students trying to leave, John waited for Mark to catch up. The teen looked happy and relaxed, his were strides long and smooth as he approached. It looked like he didn’t have a care in the world.

“Hey, Mark.” He tried to keep his voice neutral, not wanting to bark at the other student. Not a student anymore, a little voice in the back of his head reminded him. They both graduated and were officially adults now, with all the responsibilities of one. As he looked at his friend, he couldn’t help but compare his solitary nature to the teenager’s more outgoing one.

“Hey, I haven’t been able to pin you down all week!” He stepped around a gaggle of girls with a flirtatious wink before focusing back on John. “Are you alright?” His expression turned serious as he stopped.

“I’m fine,” John cut him off, the words hard. He did not want to talk about what had happened. He didn’t want any more pity or useless platitudes; he just wanted to leave. “I’m fine,” he reiterated, words softer this time. Mark was just trying to help.

“Are you sure?” Mark pressed as he looked John over. There wasn’t much to see today; the cut under his eye and his stiff posture. Colour was back in his face; and while he still looked exhausted, it wasn’t an uncommon sight at the end of the school year. Letting out a slow breath, the teen nodded, “Ok. Are you psyched to be going to Uni?” His laughter was warm, inviting John to join in. It just made him want to punch the teen.

“No,” John bit the word out through clenched teeth. Helpless anger simmered under his skin, even as he tried to tamp it down. It wasn’t Mark’s fault that he was in his situation. No, it’s Harry’s, that bloody voice in the back of his head murmured. “I lost the scholarship.” The words hurt to say, and he had to draw in a slow breath to calm himself down. Even if John was able to get into the medical program through Clearing, without that scholarship, John couldn’t afford University.

“What?” Mark exclaimed, shocked by the low words. He sputtered, trying to come up with something to say. “But… well…” Helplessly, he looked around, as if trying to physically find the right words. There wasn’t anything that the other teen could tell him that could make it better.

John took a deliberate step back, already regretting saying that much. It wasn’t the teens burden, and he shouldn’t have fostered even that little bit onto him. Mark had his own issues to worry about, and John had no business adding to it. “Good-bye, Mark.” Chest hurting, John turned from his oldest friend and began walking away.

“John! Wait!” Mark called from behind.

John ignored the demand. He needed to get away from this place, needed to be distracted from his pain. He needed Jim. Shoulders hunching in, he tried to move fast, winding his way through the increasing crowd. He couldn’t keep the pace and slowed, ribs and stomach throbbing as he panted. His head was beginning to ache again.

Passing through the front gates, John couldn’t stop himself from glancing back at the school one last time. Mark had followed him but had paused some twenty feet back. His attention wasn’t focused on John though. Mark held himself perfectly still as he stared past John, a myriad of expressions flickering through his face before finally settling on resigned acceptance.

John followed his line of sight, gaze landing on the man he was just thinking about. Jim - no, James - he automatically adjusted upon seeing the well-tailored suit that hugged the man’s frame. He preferred the more formal name with the more posh attire. John paused mid-stride at that realisation and blinked. He had finally figured out something about his strange friend. “Interesting,” he muttered before continuing to move forward, circling around loitering teenagers as he went.

James was lounging against the hood of his sleek black car. A Camaro, if he remembered correctly. The man braced his left hand against the car, to keep himself upright. With his right hand, he deftly flicked a coin over his knuckles in a never-ending dance of glinting silver and flashes of light.

The image James gave was of a sophisticated, wealthy and very unattainable bachelor. What the hell is he doing spending time with me of all people? John could see that the man had already garnered appreciating looks from many of the students who were slowly passing him by. Some tittered or winked as they tried to gain his attention. James didn’t glance at any one of them, eyes focused only on John’s slowly approaching form.

With a saucy little wink, James straightened away from the car. He disappeared the coin somewhere in a flash of movement that John didn’t quite catch. “Johnny-boy!” James exclaimed the nickname loudly. A few of the students who had been admiring James, stopped, looking between the two of them in confusion. “Your chariot, my dear.” With a flourish, he bowed low, the movement graceful and expertly performed as he motioned to the car.

John’s lips twitched at the sight of his obviously wealthy friend bowing down and offering his car as though he were a manservant to John, of all people. It perked up his spirits slightly, and he laughed while shaking his head slowly. “You, James, are an odd one,” he commented softly as he brushed past the older man.

He appreciated how James could always make him feel better in seconds. Slipping into the car, he set his heavy bag between his feet and carefully buckled himself in. With a low sigh, John leaned back, his body already beginning to relax, and watched James round the vehicle. With fluid grace, he slid into the driver's seat and closed the door.

James turned and looked pointedly at John’s seatbelt, eyebrows raised. When John just smiled and latched onto the grab handle, the man sighed morosely. “Trust issues,” he muttered softly, sounding put out. “How are you doing?” James asked as he settled himself in and started the car with a satisfying roar of the engine.

The comfortable atmosphere, which had only just begun seeping in and calming John, dissipated. Fingers tightening around the leather, he hunched in on himself. With a stiff shrug, John lowed away. “Fine.” Even as he bit the word out, he knew James could easily tell that he wasn’t, not even remotely.

The older man cast him a dubious look. When John refused to say any more, he shrugged, willing to let the obvious lie go. His fingers danced lightly over the steering wheel in a complex pattern for a moment before he cocked an eyebrow at the younger man. “Well, as that was your last day of school, you are now free to rule the world. What would you like to do?”

John’s frown deepened at the question, and his thoughts raced as he tried to come up with anything. All his mind conjured up was a big fat blank. “I don’t know,” he muttered at the dashboard. It was humiliating that he couldn’t think of a single thing to celebrate what should have been a milestone. When the silence continued to stretch, John realised that the older man was still waiting for an answer. “How about not being here anymore?” He never wanted to see this place again, didn’t want all the memories associated with it.

James eyed him askance, maybe trying to gauge his current mood, but John refused to look at him. With a sharp click of his tongue, the older man began to manoeuvre the car out of the stall. He carefully navigated through the ever-increasing throngs of teenagers, not appearing to notice the envious looks sent their way. John saw them, though, and they only made him feel worse. They reinforced, in John’s mind, how far out of his league James was.

They cleared the mass of student bodies and turned onto the main street. James tilted his head, eyes straying from the road to focus once more on John. “Done. However, I mean the question much more broadly than that. What do you want to do-” He winked before completing the sentence. “-with your life?”

The question dragged John’s already bad mood further down into the mud. He scowled as he looked out the window, too agitated to pay attention to where they were going. He hated that everyone else had it so damned easy. Dropping his hand from the grab handled, he clenched his fists in his lap. The despair he had felt at finding the door to his A-level closed rose back to the surface, constricting the muscles in his throat.

The frustration and helplessness that had been festering began to bubble to the surface. “There’s not much I can do now, is there?” The words were caustic and burned in his throat, but he continued. “I can’t afford University, and the scholarship was revoked.” A bitter laugh escaped his lips, tasting of failure. “I’d had a chance, and I’d blown it. All for-”

Harry. John froze mid-sentence, eyes wide as he realised what he’d been ranting about. He knew that he had some resentment towards Harriett because of her part in the incident. But he hadn’t realised that he blamed her first and foremost for how things had gone down. Damnit, he thought, furious with himself. Just tell the bloody man your entire life story while you’re at it, why don’t you? With an audible click, he snapped his mouth shut. Teeth clenching hard, he tried to take slow, deep breaths. He needed to think about what he was saying, instead of just complaining about how unfair his life was.

Letting out a slow breath, he forced his body to relax and fingers to loosen. “I made a choice, and now I have to live with it.” He directed his words to the dashboard, dejected all over again. John slumped as far down in the seat as his bruises would allow. He hated today and wished that it would be over already so he could get on with his sad and pathetic excuse for a life.

As the silence stretched on John figured that the older man was waiting for him to elaborate, but that wasn’t going to happen. He had already spilt his guts far too much and wasn’t about to continue. They drove for a time, the tense silence building to an uncomfortable pressure before James finally spoke. “That, my dear, is where you are wrong.” The natural lilt in his voice made the words sound sing-song like.

When the bloody man gave John another one of his damned secretive little smiles, John scowled. “Just what in the Hell is that supposed to mean?” James had no idea what John’s life had been like. Didn’t know what he’d gone through and how hard it had been trying to traverse the Hell that was his family. What right did he have telling John that he was wrong?

“You’ll see soon enough.” This time, James didn’t even glance his way. Instead, his attention remained focused on the road.

The man’s words ran circles through John’s head. It became a taunting little melody that, despite his best efforts, resurrected the fragile hope that he thought died in the hallway of his school. Angrily, John tried to stomp it out. He didn’t think he could stand to have his dreams crushed so thoroughly again. Unfortunately, his mind and emotions were no longer on the same page. His fears and desires warred with each other, knotting his insides and making him feel sick to his stomach.

The rest of the drive was silent. Neither one of them wanted to instigate any further conversation at this point. That was fine with John. Anything that would come out of his mouth right now would end up being angry and caustic. He didn’t want to drive James away, even if the man was a source of much of his confusions.

Eventually, James slowed, slipping the car into an open parking stall. Without bothering to look in John’s direction, the turned off the engine and slid out of the car. John hesitated for a moment, but he didn’t have anywhere to go right now. Taking a deep, calming breath, John followed suit. Shoulder his pack with a wince, he looked around the older neighbourhood. It was worn but hadn’t fallen into disrepair. It was nothing like where he lived - used to live - he corrected himself.

The flats that lined this street were taller, able to fit more people into the smaller homes. It made sense; they were closer to the more popular areas of the city. They were still out of the way enough that there didn’t seem to be much in the way of traffic right now, either by street or by foot.

John glanced at his friend as he stepped up beside James, wondering why they were even here. He didn’t think James would take John to his place. It didn’t strike John as the kind of thing the other man would do. But for the life of him, he couldn’t think of any other reason to be in a residential area like this.

The older man still didn’t look at him, instead continuing along the sidewalk. John trailed after him, silently appreciating that James was moving slower than normal. They walked halfway down the street before going up the stairs of the third building from the end. James opened the front door, ushering John in, before closing it behind them. With one last unreadable look, which had John feeling even more uneasy, they began to climb the stairs.

John fell behind. He clutched the banister tightly, trying to breathe through the throbbing pain in his chest and feet, the air burning in his lungs. The wallpaper was painfully busy, the bright pattern hurting his eyes and making his headache worse; so instead, he focused his attention on James once more. The man’s slicked back hair met his suit collar perfectly, drawing John’s eyes to the straight lines of his shoulders and down, to the man’s arse. James took them to the third floor and halfway down the hall. They stopped at a dark brown door, the brass numbers nailed on the front reading 303. With one last unreadable look at John, he unlocked the door and walked inside.

Cautiously, John followed. When James slipped his shoes off, John sighed softly and lowered his pack to the ground. Leaning against the wall, he carefully toed his shoes off. As his feet touched the cool floor, he closed his eyes. It felt good on his feet, even with the pressure of him still standing on them. Drawing in a deep breath, John looked around the small flat.

Directly in front of them, through the opened door, he could see the bathroom. Afternoon light streamed in, providing more than enough illumination for John to see that the room contained no personal belongings. To the right, there were a few hooks where on could place their coat if they so wished. Turning left, John followed James into the narrow room, eyes travelling over everything. Along the wall that separated the bathroom from the rest of the tiny flat was a simple kitchen area. It was barely big enough to hold the fridge, sink and narrow stove. Everything appeared to be immaculately clean.

He shuffled his way into the middle of the flat before turning in a slow circle to take in the entirety of the room. About halfway down the exterior wall, a small two-person table sat under a window. The second window, at the far end, offered natural light to the desk nestled into the corner. Along the opposite wall was a neatly made bed, a maroon duvet tucked in with expert precision. At the foot of the bed, a tall but not very deep wardrobe stood, partly blocking the sight of the bed.

John had to admit that it was a rather good use for the very limited floor space. The only thing that he found strange was that everything in here was perfectly straightened, perfectly clean and utterly devoid of any of the personal touches one would expect to see in a home.

As he finished his slow circuit of the room, he refocused his attention on the man who had brought him here. He was fairly confident that James did not live here. The plain white curtains, the blank walls and cheap furnishings were only the first of many hints. Most of all, it just didn’t seem big enough for his friend, certainly not grand enough. And there was definitely not enough closet space for the man’s suits at the very least. Still, he had to ask. “So…” John
arched a brow at his strange friend. James was now leaning against the fridge, his arms crossed. “Is this your place?”

At the question, James began to laugh before shaking his head. “No, no. This place is a bit-” he paused as he glanced around the narrow confines of the room. His index finger began to tap against his bottom lip as he tried to find the appropriate word. John knew he had found it when the man smiled, slowly drawing the digit away. “- cosy for me.” He finished with a wave of a hand. “It’s yours.” As he calmly uttered those few words, he tossed something at John.

Startled by the projectile suddenly heading for him, John drew in a sharp breath as he fell back a step. He twisted, ribs burning as he caught the small object. Straightening slowly, John forced himself to breathe, the pain already beginning to dissipate. When he opened his clenched fist, John blinked down at two brass keys bound together by a small ring.

He stared down at them in confusion for a long moment before the words James had spoken clicked in his brain. Eyes widening, he jerked his gaze from the keys to lock with the older man. As he took a quick step backwards, his free hand came out in a stopping motion. “Wait a minute. I can’t afford a place like this!”

He knew that he acted like a deer caught in the headlights, but this was too much. While it was tempting, John knew full well that this place was beyond what he could hope to afford. He didn’t even have a full-time job right now. Until he got one, John didn’t dare dream of something like this.

James laughed lightly at him and shrugged as he tucked his hands into his pockets. “Someone owed me a favour, and the flat is paid in full for the next few months.” Cocking his head ever so slightly, he rocked back on his heels. “That should give you enough time to get back on your feet.”

John shook his head, vision blurring slightly at the edges. “It’s too much. James, I can’t accept this.” Even as he spoke the words, trying to reason with his crazy friend, his fingers curled protectively around the keys. What he should do was march over and hand them right back to James. He should just walk away from this temptation as quickly as possible. But he wanted this chance, wanted to take the opportunity offered. John just couldn’t figure out why the other man would do something like this. It was too much.

James took one slow, deliberate step forward, then another, closing the short distance between them. His voice was soft as he spoke. “My dear, this is only the beginning of your life, but you can’t see it yet. You are tied down by all the disappointments that you’ve experienced, by the limitations imposed on you, and by the abuse of your family.” Now, he stood a mere two feet away, reaching a hand out to gently stroke along the side of John’s jaw.

John jerked away, deflecting the reaching hand with his arm. “My family?” he demanded, the words chilling him inside. How? How could he know? He can’t. He’s just guessing. I’ve been careful. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he denied as he took a stumbling step backwards. James saw too much and tore through all the defences John had created. He needed to get away from James, but the man was between John and the door.

“I know you,” his voice dipped. James stalked forward, matching John’s retreat further into the room, step for step. “I know that every time you have a bad day, there are new bruises on your skin.” The melodic cadence of his voice rolled over John in a dark wave.

John hit the wall with a low, pained sound. “That’s not true,” he choked out, barely able to breathe. He began to shake as panic grew with every word the man uttered so confidently.

“I know why-” James continued as he lifted his hands. He paused when John jerked, his body tensing as he turned his face to the side. He placed them against the wall on either side of John. “-you flinch when I get too close.”

John shook his head, vision tilting as his head throbbed. Chest aching and body shaking, he tried to find a way out of this situation. Desperation filled him as he realised that he was on the opposite side of the flat from the door, too many steps to flee from this man. “I don’t f-” He jerked again when James moved fast. Cool fingers grasped his chin and forced him to look back at James.

Blood roared in John’s ears as he stared helplessly at the older man. He was trapped more by the man’s words than by his hands. Invisible threads of truth holding him bound in place. Need and shame twisted through him, leaving John trembling. God, he had been so stupid. James knew all the secrets he had tried so hard to keep from everyone, but him in particular.

“Let me help you move beyond all of that,” James soothed, black eyes glinting as his thumb stroked back and forth along the underside of John’s jaw. The intimate touch created small licks of burning heat over his skin, thawing the ice holding him in place. The man’s fingers sent small tingles racing from those few points of contact, and John shuddered.

God, he wanted to give in to this man. He already knows about your family. Why not take this chance? the small voice in the back of his mind urged. Why shouldn’t he take what was so casually offered? Then again, what did James want in return for this? Could he risk becoming indebted to the older man? The real question was; would he destroy even more of his life because fear?

But James saw him. The realisation of that sent another flood of terror through his body. No one saw him; John made sure of that. He refused to allow anyone too close. Refused to become involved too deeply with anyone because of how they would react when they inevitably found out about his life. But James had sidestepped all the blockades in place, and now, he stood before John, offering salvation.

Rhythmically, John’s hands clenched then relaxed, still clutching the two keys, as he tried to understand. The odd tension that always hovered around them grew thicker as they stayed locked in place. He was so conflicted. His mind and heart pulled him in opposite directions. What he should do was walk away from this dangerous temptation.

This wasn’t anything as simple as accepting a ride across town, or even a free meal. The man was offering him a bloody flat. No one in their right mind would so casually offer the free use of one just because a friend was down on their luck. People didn’t work that way, and John knew that James was selfish. The man had to have some ulterior motive that John wasn’t seeing. What could he possibly get out of John accepting this? After all, no one did anything for free.

All these thoughts twisted around in his head as he stared helplessly at James. In the end, there was only one reason he could think of, even if it didn’t make sense. “Is this…” He hesitated, trying to find the right words to voice his suspicion. After chewing his bottom lip for a moment and not coming up with a good way to say it, he gave up on subtlety. “Are you trying to get in my pants?”

James stepped back, chuckling low in his throat at the accusing question. When John just continued to frown at him, the man finally brought himself under control. Letting out a loud sigh, he shook his head, looking disappointed that John would think so little of him. “My dear, if I were trying to ‘get into your pants,’ I certainly wouldn’t be doing it this way,” he chided softly as he lifted a hand, motioning to the flat.

The amused statement made John feel stupid and even more confused. Planting his hands on his hips, John narrowed his eyes at the older man. Unable to help himself, he asked the obvious question. “If not this-” He finally broke eye contact to glance around the sterile room before looking back at James. “-then how?”

He was jerked forward as the last word passed his lips. James had reached out and coiled his hands around John’s belt faster than he could react, pulling the younger man in close. Cool fingers slipped into the waistline of his trousers, caressing the sensitive skin at his hips. James’ lips hovered over John’s. Only a thin sliver of brown remained in the man’s eyes as he breathed his response. “Like this.” The words ghosted over John’s mouth before he dipped his head and kissed him.

John drew in a startled breath, lips parting against the gentle pressure of the kiss. His nerve endings stood at attention as delicious tingles danced fire over his skin. The keys he’d been clutching so tightly fell to the floor as he grabbed James’ shoulders in desperation. He was torn between shoving the confusing man away and dragging him closer.

“Wait,” John pleaded, breaking the kiss and turning his head through sheer force of will. He needed a second to think and not just react to what was happening. James refused to give him that, his mouth dropping feather light kisses along his jaw and down his neck. The rush of exquisite sensations distracted John, and he couldn’t remember what he wanted to say.

Breath stilled in his lungs when the man’s fingers traced along his waistline. James’ hands slipped under the jumper, nails grazing over the sensitised skin. He lavished attention down John’s neck before biting at the junction between John’s shoulder and neck, sucking lightly. John breathed out a shuddering moan. It was a gentle threat, the softest of promises as he trailed up to bite lightly at the lobe of John’s ear. “You want this.” The words were a dangerous statement, and he rocked his hips forward, a teasing hint of exactly what they both wanted.

John’s hips jerked at the contact, the movement creating more delicious friction between them. He shuddered, desire spiking hotly through his veins. “James,” he groaned out in protest, knowing he needed to step away from this now or he wouldn’t have the strength to later. John slid his hands down the heavy material of the suit jacket and pushed, trying to step away from the temptation that was this man.

James allowed the rejection, taking a single step back. He, however, demonstrated his displeasure by raking his nails down John’s back and across his sides as he pulled away. The burning pleasure-pain over John’s skin forced a low groan past the younger man’s lips.

John panted as he shuddered through the waves of sensation. Chest heaving, mixing the aching of his damaged body with the lingering pleasure, John stared at his friend. “I thought…” He cleared his throat and tried again, “You said that this was a bad idea.”

God, he should be given an award for being able to push the man away. As it was, he was struggling to focus on why he was trying to put some distance between them and not what the man’s mouth and hands on him felt like. He should walk away now - stop this from escalating further - but his feet were rooted to the floor. Besides, the truth was he didn’t want to leave. He didn’t want the older man to stop. He didn’t want to think anymore.

James slowly licked his lips, predatory gaze raking hungrily over John. “I changed my mind.” Those words broke the strange paralysis that he was under, and with every step James made, John retreated along the wall. When the back of his knees hit the edge of the bed, John stopped, having nowhere else to go. He stared, wide-eyed, unsure of what to do as James closed the small distance between them once more. This time, James didn’t kiss him but placed a hand in the centre of his chest and pushed.

John sprawled on the bed with a pained gasp. Heart pounding, he scrambled backwards, moving further up the bed to keep some space between them. Fear, desire, pain, and need burned inside - confusing and demanding - and he didn’t know what to do.

James immediately followed, crawling up the bed after him. He captured one of John’s ankles, forcing the leg down, then the other, as he climbed up John’s body. When John tried to push him away, James snatched up the younger man’s wrists and pinned them to the bed, with only enough force that John couldn’t retract them. He lowered himself to sit on John’s hips before slowly dragging the trapped hands up, pinning them over John’s head.

“You want this. I can see it.” As he spoke the words, his black eyes took in John’s trapped and panting form. “I can feel it.” He emphasised the statement by rocking his hips forward, grinding himself against John’s obvious arousal. The action wrenched a low groan from the pinned student. “And-” He leaned in, fingers tightening ever so slightly around the captured wrists as his lips hovered over John’s own. “-I can taste it.”

The seductive words had their desired effect. John angled his head up to capture those tempting and taunting lips. Desperate need flooded him, and he arched his body against James. John couldn’t keep lying to himself. He wanted this. God, how he wanted it. John twisted and pulled at his pinned wrists. Pain hummed under his skin as he tried to free his hands from James’ secure grasp, heightening the wild hunger burning through him. He needed to feel the man’s skin under his touch.

James gave in to his silent plea. He released the trapped hands, sliding his palms down John’s arms, fingers ghosting over the jumper as he deepened their kiss. His hands travelled down John’s chest and abdomen, fingers twisting into the material of the jumper. In slow, teasing movements, he began pulling at the cloth, forcing it up.

John arched, wanting to feel more of James against his bare skin. His torso blossomed into pain, twisting with need, and he collapsed back down to the bed with a groan even as arousal spiked through him. He helped pull the material over his head and tossed it to the side, uncaring as to where it landed. Once free of the restricting material, John moved his hands to James’ front, fingers fumbling desperately as he unbuttoned the suit jacket. When the last button popped free, he forced the jacket off the older man and tossed it to join his jumper.

James leaned in and kissed him again, distracting John from what he was trying to do. Cool hands slid over his abdomen before he pulled John up, forcing him into a sitting position. John had to brace his arms behind him to ease the pressure in his chest and stomach. His body hummed with the mingling sensations of hurt and desire. Then James was unravelling the bandaging containing his ribs with quick movements. In moments, the wrapping was gone, and James eased John back down to the bed. Hands ran the length of his torso, over the newly exposed flesh.

John gasped, eyes flashing wide as cold fear raced through his body, adrenaline sending sharp pricks through his being. John crossed his arms over his chest, trying to hide the mottled bruising, the evidence of the abuse. Twisting, John curled on his side, as much as their position would allow. What had he been thinking? “Don’t,” John gasped, flinching when he felt James’ fingers on his shoulder.

“Yes,” the single word was dark, and he pushed John flat on his back once more. “Show me, John. Everything that you cannot bare to another, show me.”

Everything? Terror grew with every thud of his heart. He couldn’t. Not for anyone, especially not for James. He would see how weak John was. “I can’t,” he denied, shaking his head, trying to curl away again.

“You can,” he urged, voice soothing even as he refused to allow John to retreat. “Let me in, John. Let me see you.”

John looked up at James. He looked wild and dangerous, his impossibly dark eyes blazing as they locked gazes. If he did that, there would be no barriers left between them. Could he even do it? He had spent his whole life hiding from everyone, refusing to let anyone too close. John licked his lips. “Please, James,” he pleaded, Don’t make me do this.

“Let me in,” James repeated as he released his tight grip on John’s shoulder. Straightening to sit perched on the younger man’s hips. He lifted his hands to the top button of his dress shirt. Not breaking eye contact, James popped first one button, then the next, exposing one inch of skin at a time until the shirt gaped open.

Air stilled in John’s lungs as he drank in the sight of James sensually exposing himself to John. The same way he wants me to expose myself to him. Clenching his fists, John let out a shuddering breath. Closing his eyes, John forced his body to relax and dropped his arms to his sides.

He knew what the older man would see. The purple and blue splotches turned to brown in some spots, blending with the sickening greens and yellows of the slowly healing injuries towards the edges. The mosaic of colours embedded into his skin was stretched tight over his ribs, a silent testament to how little he ate. Red lines of new cuts crossed over the brown of healed wounds and white of old injuries, which decorated the exposed parts of his body. The longest, spanning just under a foot in length, began just above his right hip, twisting around his side to his back. Shame flushed over his skin, and he turned his face away, not wanting to see the disgust James was sure to feel over his battered form.

John flinched, and his eyes flashed wide when he felt James’ hands rest against his sides. “Mine,” the older man whispered, raw hunger etched into his features as he stared down at John. His fingers traced lightly over the colours, nails gently scratching over the sensitised skin.

John groaned, desire beginning to thrum through his body again at the possessiveness of that single word. He grasped the edges of the older man’s open shirt, pulling him down for a kiss. James obliged, devouring John, sliding his hands over John’s skin, coaxing delicious heat back to the surface. He needed this dangerous onslaught from the other man, needed the sensations the man coaxed out of him. But John needed more. Fisting the shirt in his hands, he yanked the material off James’ shoulders and down.

Impatiently, James pulled the shirt fully off. In an instant, his hands were back on the younger man. The cool touch against his flushed skin and sharp nails sent liquid fire blazing through his being. John gasped as the kiss deepened and gripped James’ shoulders tight as he tried to pull the older man closer.

With a low sound, James tore his mouth away. His heavy breathing mirrored John’s own. He pushed back slightly, running his hands over John’s chest. Fingers brushed over John’s nipples, sending little shocks of sensations with each pass. John released his bruising grip on the older man and began to roam the skin he had only fantasised about before. With each pass of his shaking fingers, he tried to memorise everything.

James leaned forward once more, burrowing his face into the crook of John’s neck. Biting down at the junction between neck and shoulder, he ground his hips down. The dual sensations wrenched a moan from John’s throat. He pulled helplessly at the older man, needing him closer but not sure how to make it happen.

James continued rocking against John as he trailed soft kisses over his chest. Capturing a nipple between his lips, he bit down softly, forcing John to arch with a startled gasp. As John collapsed back to the bed, James scored a trail down his sides to his hips, wrenching another unintelligible sound from the younger man’s throat. John shuddered when the older man began working at the clasp of his belt, need scorching through his veins.

“James,” John panted the name desperately as the leather slithered out of the loops and hit the ground with a soft thump. All thoughts fled when a hand unzipped his trousers and slid into his pants. His whole body jerked when James’ fingers wrapped around him. “God,” he panted, body burning from everything the man was doing to him. There was too much sensation, too many things happening at once. John didn’t think he could take anymore.

“Now, what do we have here?” As James purred the question, he began to slide his hand up and down.

John arched with a cry, grabbing ineffectually at the older man. He wanted. He wanted more of anything that James would give him. He breathed in ragged pants as he thrust into the hand that gripped him. “I- James-” His halting words were cut off with a groan as the man began to pump faster.

Sliding his fingers into James’ hair, he pulled the older man down for a kiss. Lips parted against one another, tongues teasing one another. John’s hand tightened around James’ neck as he struggled against the pleasure coursing like wildfire through his body. If he didn’t do something soon, he was going to come. With his other hand, John fumbled with the button and fly of the man’s slacks. Finally succeeding with the trousers, he slipped his hand into the man’s briefs and wrapped his fingers around the hardness he found.

James groaned into his mouth as they matched one another, stroke for stroke. They thrust into one another’s hands, bodies surging and twisting together. In a sudden wash of cold air, James pulled back, removing himself from John’s grip. With quick movements, he pulled John’s trousers off, the material going the way of their shirts. He shimmied out of his clothes before climbing back over John’s exposed body.

He lined them up. One leg sliding between the younger man’s, he rolled his hips against John. They both groaned, mouths seeking one another. Their hands moved, grasping and pulling as they arched. Their rhythm increased, passion driving their every move as they ground against one another in frenzied desperation. Everything narrowed down to their surging bodies and tightly gripping hands as ecstasy hovered closer with every passing second.

In a sudden rush of sensation, John gasped, spine arching. Everything narrowed to that single moment. “James!” he cried out the name as he collapsed on the bed. A few seconds later, he felt James shudder against him, more wetness pooling between them. His weight dropped fully onto John in a moment of agony.

James rolled to the side immediately, removing the pressure of his body in a wash of air that left John feeling cold an alone. An instant later, James was tugging at him, silently coaxing John to roll onto his side. Still half lost in the pleasure, John complied. James scooted in behind, moulding his body to John’s. He loosely wrapped an arm around John, nestling his head against the back of his neck with a gentle kiss before going still. Hesitantly, John threaded his fingers through the hand coiled around him. When James didn’t protest, John closed his eyes with a contented sigh. They both lay there for a long time, simply revelling in the afterglow.

When the narrow bed dipped, John slowly came back to awareness. He rolled over and cracked an eyelid. James, clad only in black socks, padded across the room to the small kitchenette. The man didn’t hesitate or fumble but opened the correct cupboard. He pulled out a glass and filled it with tap water. Motions languorous, he drew it to his lips and with a tilt of his head, drank the contents, one long swallow at a time.

John couldn’t stop himself from staring at the naked man. Licking his lips, he ran his gaze over every inch of skin that he could see. His attention fixated on the five white lines spanning from the man’s left shoulder down his back. Three looked to have skipped over the skin, missing the spine, but starting again on the lower portion of the man’s back. The other two spanned the entire length of his back, almost exactly parallel. They ran a straight line all the way down to the top of his buttocks. John couldn’t figure out how the man could have gotten scars like that.

James glanced over his shoulder as he finished drinking the water, meeting John’s wide-eyed stare. John flushed at getting caught so blatantly staring. When the other man simply raised the glass in a silent question, John nodded his head quickly, too embarrassed to speak. He could feel even more heat flood his body when James made a point of slowly perusing John’s naked form before turning to refill the cup.

Hastily, John sat up. He forced himself to breathe through the sudden sharp pain in his chest. When he could move again, he propped himself against the wall before pulling the edge of the bedding over and into his lap. He wouldn’t have time to throw on any of his clothes, but at least this way, some part of his body was covered.

James crossed the room in quick, fluid strides and offered John the refilled glass. He took it, unable to bring himself to look at the older man. John coiled in on himself, wincing at the cool stickiness on his stomach and realising that he’d gotten some on the bed cover. “Thanks.” His voice was hoarse, and he cleared it, feeling completely at a loss as to what to do. John drank the cold water quickly before looking around the room once more, anywhere but at the naked man standing at the side of the bed.

“I need to clean up.” James leaned down with a wink, plucking the glass from John’s lax grip. “You can join me if you so wish,” he offered. When John shook his head, he chuckled softly and turned away. The man sauntered over to the counter, dropping the glass off, before walking into the tiny bathroom. After nearly a minute of silence, he heard the water beginning to run and the telltale sound of James stepping under the spray.

John just sat there for a time. He stared down at his shaking hands as he clutched the bedding in his lap while he tried to get his brain to work properly. James- He- They- “Fuck.” John dropped his head into his hands with a groan, fingers clenching tightly in his hair as he tried to wrap his mind around what had just happened. He had a sinking suspicion that he might have just made a very big mistake.

James had indicated on numerous occasions that what they did would be a bad idea. Now that they had done ‘it,’ John was afraid that the man might have been right. How would things be between them now? Will I lose James as a friend? At that thought, he struggled to breathe through the burning ache that bloomed inside. He rubbed at the pressure, trying to sooth the throbbing in hurt in his heart. He couldn’t handle losing the other man’s friendship. Especially not after everything that had happened in the last week.

James was the only real constant left in his life. He was the only one able to drag John out of his downward mental spirals. He didn’t put expectations on who John should be or how he should act. He made John laugh and scared him half to death on a regular basis. How will this change things between us? Would it? John let out a bitter laugh. “Of course it will.” But John couldn’t brace himself because he didn’t know what the changes would be. This was all uncharted territory for him.

Rubbing his face, he tried to clear his head. He needed to calm down any think everything through properly. James was offering him this place. Should he take it? It wasn’t like he had anywhere else to go, only the homeless shelters. John had seduced him and - ’let me in.’

“This isn’t helping,” he growled with an angry shake of his head that had his headache resurfacing. With a sigh, John scooted over to the edge of the bed. Dropping his feet down, he winced. With one last nervous glance towards the bathroom, he gathered his clothing and shuffled over to the kitchenette. He was sure that he’d seen a dishcloth over there. Piling his clothing on the counter, John turned the faucet to warm and ran the flannel under the stream. After wringing it out, he cleaned himself up as quickly as he possibly could.

It was chilly in there. By the time he’d finished, John had goosebumps all over his body. Rinsing the cloth, he draped it over the faucet to dry. He dressed as quickly as he could, wincing and holding his breath as he went. He was healing, but the level of vigorous activity they had just partaken in was much more than he should have done. His body throbbed with re-awoken aches. It was only after he was fully clothed once more that John began to feel a bit better – or, at least less vulnerable.

John turned around, leaning against the counter as his attention fixed on the rather rumple bed. He could feel the flush creeping up his body again as he focused on the maroon coverlet, his favourite colour. How had everything gotten so out of hand?

It was clear that James was wealthy and much more connected than John had previously thought if the flat was any indication. What would he want from John in exchange for this place? Sex. That had been the only thing he could come up with. But when he had brought it up, Jim had said no, but then he promptly turned around and seduced him. What the bloody hell was he supposed to think, it just didn’t make sense. John sighed and ran a hand through his hair in agitation. He couldn’t seem to think clearly right now, no matter how hard he tried.

“You seem confused, Johnny-boy.” The low, lilting murmur drifted in behind him. John spun quickly to find James standing just inside the room, leaning calmly against the fridge, an amused glint in his eye as he towel-dried his hair. Oh yes, and he was completely naked.

“I- Er-” John lost all semblance of coherent speech as his gaze followed an errant droplet sliding down the man’s chest, down to lose itself in the dark nest of curls at his groin. Feeling his face beginning to burn again, he quickly spun around, trying to banish the other man’s seductive image from his memory. He had a sneaking suspicion that Jim’s toned form would be etched into the back of his eyelids for years to come.

James laughed. Even though it didn’t sound malicious, it still made John feel even worse. “You’re sweet,” the older man murmured the words right behind John, and he flinched, not having heard the man’s approach. When James ran a finger down his spine, John spun to stare at the older man. “Red looks good on you, my dear.”

With a saucy wink that left John feeling even more mortified, James turned and sauntered over to the bed. Carelessly, he tossed the towel onto the rumpled bedding. Bending down, he made sure to give John a good, view of the man’s lean ass before he began to gather up his clothing.

James dressed slowly, keeping his back to John and giving him a chance to gawk without too much embarrassment. John was transfixed, unable to drag his eyes away as he watched the man’s lean muscles flex and bunch as he slid on his slacks. Once more, his eyes were drawn to the pale scars on James’ back, and he found himself stepping a little closer, trying to get a better view.

The scars were old, something that Jim had to have gotten when he was a kid, but how? John was familiar with a lot of ways that the body could scar. It almost looked like they had been made with a belt. It had to have been bad for the marks to still be that prominent. Did that mean James had suffered the same type of abuse that John had? It wasn’t something he could ask. John shifted uncomfortably, torn between running away as fast as he possibly could and tracing the lines over the man’s back. When the shirt finally obscured his view of the man’s back, he looked away.

James bent down once more and picked up his suit jacket. He straightened and turned, pulling his beeper out of a pocket before draping the garment over his shoulder. He looked down at the display of the handheld device for a long moment, face unreadable, before clipping it onto his belt.

In quick strides, he moved to the wall, crouching down to pick up the fallen and forgotten keys before he made his way back to John. He deliberately leaned in, crowding John against the counter as he made a point of placing the keys down behind him. As he drew back, he inhaled deeply, drawing in John’s scent. “I have to go, but you should stay.” He held up a staying hand when John drew in a sharp breath to protest. “I offered you this place as a friend to a friend who just needs-” He paused, as though trying to find the right words. “-a hand.” James took a single step backwards. “That offer has nothing to do with what happened afterwards.” A lecherous grin slid back onto his face, and he licked his lips slowly before sobering a moment later. “But know that I will not use this place as a bargaining chip to your bed.”

John’s mind was a whirlwind of his thoughts, questions, and fears. In the end, it all came down to two simple things; he couldn’t go home, and he had nowhere else to go. Unless he wanted to live on the streets, he would have to agree to stay here, and he wasn’t stupid enough to think that his pride was worth that price. The answer was simple then, he would stay.

Slowly, John nodded, finally giving in to the other man. “Fine, I’ll stay. But only until I can get back on my feet.” He couldn’t help but put in the stipulation. He would accept the help because he currently had no other recourse, but only until he could live without it and not a moment longer.

The dark brown of James’ eyes almost seemed to glitter at his compliance. “Fantastic!” He leaned in and smacked a loud kiss on John’s lips before he could protest. “Give me a call when you are settled in. You still have my number, correct?”

When John nodded slowly, James drew back another step. “Good. Oh, and Johnny-boy?” He waited until John refocused his attention back to the older man. When he did James leaned in conspiratorially, “Welcome to your first day of freedom.”

With those parting words, James strolled out of the flat, one hand raised in farewell.

Chapter Text

The first three days at the new flat were the worst. He tried to rest and recover from his injuries, but his mind wouldn’t shut down as he agonised over what happened. John kept a constant eye on the door and ear out for footsteps approaching. Whenever he heard someone reach step onto his landing, his heart would leap into his throat. He fully expected James to come waltzing in at any moment and evict him. That the man hadn’t shown his face at all both relieved and unnerved him.

By day five, John stopped waiting for James to burst in, and that only made him feel worse. The first week passed, only for John to realise that he hadn’t even begun searching for a job. That sent John into a flurry of activity, making and dropping off resumes everywhere he could within an easy walking distance.

Now, he had reached ten days, and he was pacing the small confines of the flat, feeling that he might go insane. He didn’t know what to do with himself anymore. For the first time in his life, he wasn’t struggling with school, studies, work, and home. The sheer number of hours in the day, filled with nothing but his circling thoughts, was daunting.

He could still feel the ghostly echoes of James on top of him; their bodies twined together as they kissed. John drew in a slow breath at the visceral memory, heat pooling low in his belly. With an angry shake of his head, John paced faster, trying to distance himself from what they’d done. The heavier footfalls made his newly healed feet hurt, but it was a distraction from the persistent thoughts.

He should call James. No, John thought with a shake of his head. What could he even say? He’d bared himself completely, and it wasn’t something that he could take back. John needed to get out of the flat and do something. Wearing a trench into the floor and staring at the walls was doing nothing but winding him even tighter. His paused as he focused on the neatly made bed with its maroon duvet. His favourite colour, had James done that intentionally? It was yet another question he didn’t have an answer for.

He ran a hand over his face, looking around the bare room for a better distraction. The only personal touch he’d made to the sterile environment was the shiny new message recorder hooked up to the phone, sitting on the edge of the desk. He’d made the purchase after it occurred to him that he might miss a call about a job if he was out. So far, if the lack of a blinking light was any indication, it was a waste of his hard earned money.

Agitated, he stopped pacing. He needed to get out of the flat, and he even had a reason for doing so. He snapped up the sealed and stamped envelope. Slipping into his too big coat, John checked his pockets for his wallet and keys before walking out the door.

The first breath of fresh air was a shock to the system. The wind was blowing hard and fast as it swept up leaves into spirals that danced down the street. Belatedly, John zipped his coat up against the cool evening air. Glancing up at the sky, if the darkening clouds overhead were any indication, it would rain tonight. Shoulders hunching against the wind, John set out, letting his feet take him towards the bustle of the closest shopping district. He wandered, not wanting to have his walk cut short by reaching his destination too quickly. He kept a mental map of the new area out of habit – just in case something happened, although he wasn’t sure what yet.

As he walked, John found his attention drawn to the various people he passed. Men and women, young and old, brushed past him. Their glances slid off him without truly registering him, as though he didn’t exist. Across the street, a group of men and women were posing for a camera. Arms were companionably draped over shoulders or waists as their laughter added to the bustle of passerby. John swallowed hard, jerking his gaze away from their happiness. He didn’t know what it was like to be inside of a group like that. To willing let other people close without second-guessing their every move.

Envy swelled inside him, and John forced himself to walk faster, hoping that he could outpace the acidic emotion. Just as his energy began flagging, he came across a mailbox standing near a phone booth. Stopping, he pulled the envelope out of his pocket. Turning it over in his hands, he made sure that both his new address and the address to the Grant Administration were correct. Maybe things would be different this time. Crossing his fingers, he slid the envelope into the box.

Letting out a slow breath, he looked around, gaze landing on the phone booth. He ached to hear James’ voice. Shaking his head sharply, he turned away from the temptation. Tucking his hands deep into his pockets, John hunched in on himself and continued walking down the street. He didn’t want to go back to the flat, not yet. It was cold and empty.

Ahead of him, he spied an older couple. They walked slowly through the crowd, forcing people to move around them. His gaze was drawn down to their tightly laced hands as the man’s thumb stroked back and forth over the woman’s knuckles. Blood roared in his ears as John fixated on that slow movement. The subtle, intimate touch was too much, and he turned away, taking a different path.

His slow wanderings took him further into the heart of this district, and John began to recognise some of the shops around him. With a nervous lick of his lips, John began searching for one in particular. He wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, but he didn’t want to be alone right now. It took him a while to find. He had only been there once before, and that had been well over a year prior.

John looked up at the overhanging sign, - Macleod’s Fish and Chips - already doubting the wisdom of coming here. Light streamed out of the front windows, bright in the dimming light of evening. Inside, clusters of people were eating and laughing, making it look warm and welcoming. That was something he needed right now. John stepped inside and was immediately enveloped by the aromas of freshly made fish and chips. John paused, drawing air deep into his lungs, his stomach grumbling as he savoured the nearly edible scents.

“Hi there.”

The words startled John, and he jerked his attention towards the owner of the voice. The girl, no more than fifteen, stood behind the counter, a bright smile on her face. As John approached, she tucked a lock of strawberry blonde hair behind an ear.

“Hey, Gina,” he greeted as he stepped up to the counter.

The girl blinked at him, her brows furrowing as he looked him over. After a few long, uncomfortable seconds, during which John regretted saying her name, she finally spoke. “Do I know you from somewhere?”

John shrugged, hunching his shoulders, as his gaze slid away from her to the menu over her shoulder. “Not really. Your brother introduced us last year.” He was forgettable; that was good. Right now though, he didn’t want to be some nameless, faceless stranger.

‘Brother,’ she silently mouthed the word and pursed her lips in thought. “Not Dean…” she muttered softly. “Oh!” Her eyes finally lit up in recognition. “You’re Trav’s broody friend.” Gina clapped her hands together in self-congratulation.

John struggled between a smile and frown. “I’m not broody,” he denied. At least she remembered him.

She laughed, the sound warm and friendly. “Maybe not now. But the last time you were here, it was a different story. You spent the whole night sulking in the corner, not talking to anyone.”

The frown won out as his discomfort grew with her assessment. He always became quiet around new people, especially in groups. There wasn’t anything wrong with that. Feeling awkward, he cleared his throat, glancing once more up at the menu. “I’d like a Haddock, please.”

She winced when she saw John’s expression, realising how personally he had taken her words. “Sure thing. Take a seat, and I’ll have it brought out.” She tried to smile at John again, but he just looked away with a nod.

“Thanks.”

John turned away from her strained smile and spied a couple of empty seats at the window. Head bowed, he took the one in the corner. Why was it that memories were always better than reality? He couldn’t recall feeling this uncomfortable the last time he’d been here. He remembered the place feeling welcoming and homey, allowing John to relax and feel at ease.

Right now, he was neither one of those things. Macleod’s should have made him feel better. But he felt like he was skimming along the edges of everyone’s lives, not a part of anything. There was a group celebrating something behind him, and the din of overlapping conversations was a steady hum of life in his ears. Instead, he felt bleak. He felt self-conscious sitting alone and wished that he hadn’t bothered coming in at all. John let out a small sigh. He would eat then leave. There was no point in staying any longer than that.

He was staring out at the people walking up and down the street when a plate slid in front of him. Startled, John jerked to the side and spun in the chair, ready to defend himself against whoever had gotten too close. His gaze followed the line of the outstretched arm, up to the stained apron and into familiar pale blue eyes.

“I didn’t think that I’d ever see you again. Not after Mark told me how you two parted,” Travis remarked quietly as he released the plate and sat down in the empty seat. He didn’t look at John, just propped his elbows on the table and gazed out the window. “I was surprised when Gina said that my sad friend was here.”

John looked away from the ginger’s distant expression and down to the steaming plate, his stomach knotting as he breathed in the greasy food. “I needed to deal with some things.” Not quite a lie, but not nearly enough truth for John to not feel guilt at saying the words. Travis had always been a good friend to him. John couldn’t say the same for himself.

The teen looked away from the street, piercing John with his gaze. “Have you dealt with them then?”

John looked away with a small shrug. Picking up a chip, he focused on dipping it into the tarter with extreme care before popping it into his mouth. It was hot and delicious, freshly made. “Some of them,” he finally answered once he had finished chewing.

“Can I help?”

Quickly, John shook his head. “It’s not the kind of thing another person can help with.” Even with how uncomfortable this conversational dance was, the tension in his muscles began to ease. He missed spending time with Travis. The only thing missing was Mark… and James. His chest hurt at the thought, and he absently rubbed at the spot.

“Alright,” Travis agreed calmly. After a few seconds of silence, he leaned closer, the two of them still not looking at one another. “Can I just offer you a piece of advice without you getting defensive?”

John stiffened at the question, his fist clenching tightly in his lap. He stared at the older teen. No. “Yes,” he managed to keep the word soft, not snapping like he wanted to.

“Stop pushing your friends away.”

It was a simple enough statement, but they stilled the air in John’s lungs. The words hit too close to home, and he blinked down at the food for a long moment. “I’m not-”

“You are,” Travis interrupted, holding up a staying hand. “I don’t understand why, but I get it.” He sighed loudly, dropping his hand back down as he hunched forward. “Gah, I’m no good at these types of talks. Where is Mark when you need him?” The ginger shook his head before finally looking over at John. “Look. What I’m trying to say is, if there is anything that I can do, you only have to ask. And if you can’t trust me, or even Mark, can you at least trust Jim?”

The constant dull ache in his chest bloomed into a sharp, burning pain. Could he trust James? – Everything you cannot bare to another, show me – John closed his eyes, trying to block out the haunting words. The image of James perched on top of him, exposing himself to John, one button at a time, flashed through his mind. He opened his eyes wide, trying to erase the memory, even as he never wanted to forget. “I-” John swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. “-don’t know.”

Travis, oblivious to John’s internal battle, pushed on. “I saw how you looked at him.” The words sent ice through John’s veins. “I also saw how he looked at you.” He finally glanced at John, a knowing look in his eyes. “He really cares, you know?”

John jerked panic spreading through his body as he stared at Travis with wide eyes. “You-” can’t know that. Obviously, that wasn’t the case. “There’s nothing-” between us. That was a blatant lie, one that he couldn’t bring himself to fully utter. “How?” How could the teen possibly know that?

At John’s stricken expression, Travis laughed. “I’m smarter than I look,” he teased before turning serious once more. “All I’m trying to say is that we are your friends, and if you need a hand, you’ve got it.” Travis pushed the chair away from the table and stood. “Now eat. My blood, sweat and tears went into that Haddock.” He shook a finger at John before turning away. He paused, glancing back, “Oh, and don’t run out too soon.”

John stared silently after the teen as he walked back into the kitchen. Everything had flipped on its head. One thing that he did know was that even with the turmoil he was now experiencing, he still felt a lot better than when he’d first walked in. Shaking his head, John turned his attention back to the hot food.

Cutting the first piece of battered fish, he put it in his mouth. It was flaky, the fish fresh and not too much batter. Delicious. The first bite woke his appetite, and he began to devour the meal with single-minded determination. All too soon, only a few small chips remained on the plate, and he pushed the plate away with a contented sigh. Leaning back, John was simply enjoying the feeling of being warm, comfortable and full, when a female voice from behind him rose above the din.

“Did they figure anything else out about the explosion?”

John frowned, the contentment beginning to ebb away. He tilted his head, trying to tune out the hum of conversations enough to focus on the one which had caught his attention. There had been an explosion? When? Where? How had he not heard about it? Oh, right. He’d been holing up in the flat for over a week.

“The one at the Church?” another voice, male this time, asked.

A wrapped bag appeared on the table to his left. John twitched again, his concentration broken. Travis leaned over with a wide grin, snatching up the mostly empty plate. “Dessert,” he indicated with a tilt of his chin. He glanced down at the plate and waggled his eyebrows. “I always knew that you’d love my cooking!” he crowed.

John smiled weakly at the other teen’s exuberance. “I can’t eat another bite.” Gently, John pushed the bag back towards the ginger with his index finger. It was heavier than it looked.

Travis mock scowled, using his own index to push the bag back towards John. “You can’t say no. It’s dessert. Besides, Gina made it, and you don’t want to hurt my little sister’s feelings, do you?”

John glanced over Travis’ shoulder, looking for his sister. The teen was at a table near the back of the room, her arms moving and gesturing as she talked to a small group who looked to be about her own age. He didn’t think she would care one way or another if he took the bag, but clearly, Travis did. Letting out a soft sigh of defeat, John forced a smile on his face. “Thanks,” he said as he pulled out his threadbare wallet to pay for the meal.

“Put that away,” the ginger scoffed. “This one’s on the house.” When John tried to protest, Travis made a face at him. “Best friend prerogative. Give me a second.” He turned away, taking the plate back into the kitchen. A minute later, he reappeared at John’s elbow, taking a seat once more. “Now, where was I?” the teen trailed off as he looked up into the rafters.

John didn’t want to continue the direction of their previous conversation. Instead, he leaned forward. “There was an explosion?”

Travis blinked a couple of times, his thought process derailed by the question. “Oh!” His expression grew serious. “It’s pretty awful. There was a gas leak at the United Church. You know the big one on the other side of the city?”

“Yeah, I know of it. Was anyone there when it happened?” He hoped there wasn’t a wedding going on or anything like that. It would be a horrible ending to what was supposed to be a wonderful day.

Travis nodded as he looked down at the table. “That’s the worst part. There was a baptism occurring at the time. Over forty people died in the explosion, including children. It’s just terrible. I still can’t believe it happened on our last day of school.”

“Travis, are you going to talk all night, or are you going to help me fill orders?”

The teen jumped, glancing over his shoulder. “Sorry, Dad. Be right in!” Looking back at John, he noticed John’s drawn expression. “I think we still have a paper about it. Give me a second.” He went behind the counter and rummaged about. When he returned, he put the paper on the table, next to the dessert bag. “I’ll see you later, right?” He waited for John to nod before smiling. “Don’t be a stranger.” With those parting words, he turned and went back into the kitchen.

John pulled the paper closer. The image covering the front page showed the United Church, part of the front completely demolished. Flames still licked at the stonework and smoke billowed up in dark plumes. It was truly a horrible thing to see. Taking a deep breath, John opened the paper to the page indicated and began to read.

41 Dead, 6 Missing After Gas Leak Explosion at Church Service

Forty-one people have died following a natural gas explosion at the United Church of Christ – located in the Eastern district – during the baptism of baby Ethan Gregory Donald.

Fire Chief Andrew Ferguson confirmed the fatalities during an interview with reporters. Six people still remain unaccounted for, according to Ferguson, and nine injured people were taken to the Royal Hospital, with three in critical condition.

“It’s a very precarious situation. It’s very unstable, and there are no signs of the missing people's obvious locations. We know that there are probably at least two floors of debris,” he said. “At this point, we still consider it a rescue. We know that we will do our best to locate everyone that is unaccounted for.”

Tragically, thirteen of those who have passed away were children, including baby Ethan Gregory Donald. Two more children are still missing.

Kellie Donald, Ethan’s paternal aunt, was down the street at the time of the explosion and called it ‘huge.’ “All the windows around me just burst out and there was this huge explosion that was so loud, it shook my insides.” She told us in an interview. “I was stopped by a man on the street when I tried to run in and help.”

Jason Myers, another witness, was talking to his wife on the street at the time of the incident. “We heard and felt the explosion, then we saw a woman screaming and running towards the fire. I grabbed her and held her back until help arrived.”

Initial aerial views showed high flames and wreckage in the centre of the church building.

Annabel Duncan, who lives about a block away, says that the explosion sounded like a ‘fireworks.’ “There were flames shooting up from the parking lot,” she told us. “We thought at first that it was a car on fire until we realised that the building was gone.”

The fire is out now, and emergency crews are going through the rubble looking for the missing people, police confirm. Gov. Matthew Chandler also issued a statement, saying the “state will provide any and all resources to aid first responders.”

“My God.” The words slipped past John’s lips as he lowered the paper back to the table. It was such a terrible situation. How could something like that happen? So many people dead, all from a simple gas leak. Glancing back at the top, he noted that the article was written on Sunday, two days after the explosion. He both wanted to know and was afraid to find out if the remaining people had been found.

With slow movements, John folded the paper and placed it as far away from him as the table would allow. He felt queasy, the food congealing into a heavy ball in his stomach. He felt like it was trying to crawl up the back of his throat, and he swallowed hard against the sensation. All he wanted to do now was go home and pretend that he hadn’t decided to leave the flat today.

John stood, nearly forgetting to grab the bag Travis had left behind and walked out of the restaurant. As he began the long trek back home, his mind circled around the article. So many lives lost in an instant. It hadn’t mattered who they were, young or old; now they were gone. Children were dead, because no one had detected a faulty gas line.

They left behind friends and family. Lovers. It would be excruciating to have someone snatched away so brutally without having a chance to even say goodbye. What if something like that happened to John? Would anyone care? Travis would… and Mark too…

James.

John stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, the ache in his chest stilling the air in his lungs. The pain grew inside, sharpening with each thud of his heart. All he wanted was to draw James closer, so what was he doing pushing the man away?

His paralysis broke when someone shouldered past him. John drew in a slow, shuddering breath and wrapped his arms around himself as he began walking again. He couldn’t keep avoiding James and ignoring what they’d done. They needed to talk. With that decision clear in his mind, John unlocked the front door to his building. He was in the process of closing it behind him when a voice called out.

“Wait!”

John paused as he debated over closing it the last couple of inches. With a shrug, he opened it again, letting the girl in. In a whirlwind of short hair and bright clothes, the girl burst through. “Thanks,” she chirped happily. She kicked the door closed with her foot.

John nodded at her and turned away. He wanted to get into his flat so that he could think of the best way to approach the James situation. Still lost in his thoughts, John trudged up the stairs. The girl followed, staying a few steps back. When she followed him onto the third floor, the hair on his body stood on end, a chill creeping over his skin. John stopped and gave her a questioning look. His hand tightened around the dessert bag as his muscles tensed.

She grinned widely, flashing dimples. “I live in 302,” she said by way of explanation before her eyes widened. “You must be th’ new guy in 303!” Somehow, even with the bulging bags she held, the girl darted around and ahead of John, effectively blocking his way further down the hall. “Me mam and I room together. Da took off a few years ago, ye see?” she continued explaining.

Slowly, John nodded, unsure as to why the strange girl was telling him that.

“Weell,” She rocked back on her heels. “We foun’ this place a few years back. Mam decided ta stay, so here we are!” She spread her arms wide, the plastic bags swinging precariously. The multitude of bangles around her wrists jangled with the movement as she spun in a full circle.

“Ah,” John offered hesitantly, frowning at the girl. She was bouncing on her feet as she spoke, the light catching in her short brown hair as she constantly shifted. He was still trying to figure out how to get past her when she started talking again.

“The last guy, in 303,” she clarified. “Weell, he was a quiet un, kinda like you.” At this point, she dropped a bag and leaned forward, poking him in the chest. “Didna say much. Cute, though. But weell, you’re cute, too, so it’s na all bad.” She grinned wider and winked at him, the words falling from her mouth without appearing to require air to propel them.

John stepped back to get her finger off of him while he blinked at her, trying to translate her rapid-fire words. He opened his mouth to say something polite, but dismissive, but was once more cut off by the girl.

“I figure we be th’ same age, Eighteen? M’ I wrong?” She tilted her head as she looked him over. “Cos there ain’t many round here, ye see. Should stick ‘gether, n’ all that.” This time, she gave him a flirtatious wink.

John paused in his attempts to slip past the girl and really looked at her this time. She was thin, not quite scrawny, with nice legs. He could admit to himself that she was cute. But as he looked at her, he had no attraction to the chatterbox girl. If she were a little taller, a little more built with darker hair and eyes, then maybe he would have been more interested. John blinked at the mental adjustments he’d made. If she looked like that, she would look like James.

John suppressed a sigh at his stupidity. Of course, he would compare her to James. Not only was he the only person that John had slept with, but he was also the man that John found himself constantly thinking about. John tried to give the chatterbox a dismissive smile, hoping that she wouldn’t take it as an invitation to continue talking at him and just let him pass.

“So, me mam’s at work for th’ night,” she continued, not appearing to notice John’s lack of interest. “You should come over! We’ve telly or a movie. I c’m make popcorn too.” She began bouncing in place again, making her look even younger.

Just witnessing that level of energy made John feel tired and he was unable to keep his sigh silent this time. “Thanks, but I can’t. It’s been a long day, and I need to get some sleep.” That was all he wanted right now, curl up in bed and not think for a little while.

“Aww,” She pouted up at him and crossed her arms. “Fine. Na’ t’night, but t’morrow yer coming over.” Her eyes narrowed at him as she spoke. “I willna take ‘no’ fer an answer.”

 

John inwardly groaned, he did not want to deal with this right now. “Can’t I’m afraid, I already have plans with a friend.” He deflected the invite a second time, hoping that she would get the hint.

“Oh, I cun come!” she exclaimed this while clapping her hands.

Nope, she most certainly did not get the hint. John scrambled trying to come up with a reason she couldn’t join him. He couldn’t use Travis as an excuse; John suspected that she would just follow him. But there was James - who had a bike. “Uh, he’s picking me up on his motorbike. No room for another person.” He felt a twinge of guilt as he watched her almost physically deflate.

“Oh, weell I should go th’n. Bye.” She muttered the words, looking dejected. She turned away and unlocked her door in jerky motions. With one last sad look at him, she picked up the fallen bag, walked through, and slammed it behind her.

“Thank God,” John whispered to the now quiet hallway. He took a slow, calming breath before he opened his own door and stepped in. He leaned against the wall for a long time, eyes closed and just revelling in the silence before he realised that he had just used his friend as an excuse to get away from a girl. “Well, I’ve avoided him long enough. We might as well talk.”

He cringed inside at how the conversation might go. But he was also paranoid that the girl would try and call his bluff, maybe go so far as to try and invade the flat. Besides, he’d said that he was hanging out with James tomorrow, so he would.

Nodding to himself, John dumped the bag in the fridge and walked to the phone. He ended up staring at the white plastic. How would the other man react to him? It didn’t matter; the call had to happen sooner or later. Rubbing a hand across his face in agitation, he picked up the phone.

His index finger hovered over the buttons, not quite touching. The dial tone hummed loud in his ear. Heart pounding harder with each passing second, he stared helplessly down at the phone. He couldn’t do it, couldn’t face the reality of James being bored of him already.

When the phone began beeping, John jumped and jerked the receiver away from his ear. Hanging up the phone, he took an unsteady step back. I can’t do this. The picture of the destroyed church flashed before his eyes, and he licked his lips. If he didn’t call, then he could lose James forever. It was hard to breathe through the fear that thought instilled in him.

Before he could change his mind again, John picked up the phone and dialled. After three rings, during which John informed himself of all the ways that he was an idiot, the receiver was picked up. “Zhengzong Lanzhou Lamian Noodle, we deliver!” came a thickly accented voice over the phone.

John pulled the phone away from his ear and just stared at it for a long moment, not sure he had heard right. Slowly, he brought it back and hesitantly asked, “Hi - er. Is… er… James there?” He could only figure that he had somehow memorised the number wrong.

“James?” The man mangled the name with his accent. “Oh, James! Ya, ya, James, I get for you!”

John had the sinking suspicion that this was going to keep getting more awkward but maintained his grip on the phone and waited. When someone got back on the phone, he would explain that he had the wrong number and be able to hang up. Afterwards, he could try to figure out which number he had screwed up.

“What?”

John easily recognised the voice. It was James alright. That single word, even spoken over the phone, sent a shiver of awareness down John’s spine. “Er... hi, James.” He greeted the man cautiously, not sure how his friend would react to being ignored for this long.

“Johnny-boy, what a pleasant surprise.” The voice was neither welcoming nor dismissive, and it gave John nothing to go on in guessing the man’s mood.

When James said nothing more, John uncomfortably cleared his throat, fingers absently curling around the phone cord. “I-I was just wondering,” he stammered slightly. “Are you busy? Tomorrow?” He felt like a complete and utter idiot. Maybe he should have just made up an excuse for calling and hung up as quickly as possible.

“Hmm, one moment.” James moved the phone away from his mouth, and John could faintly hear him talking to someone. He couldn’t hear what either person was saying. He scowled, jaw clenching as he wondered just who James was with. After a minute or so of John stewing in his uncomfortable emotions, the older man’s voice came back over the line. “I have no particular plans, what do you have in mind?”

John floundered, not having expected the man to agree so easily. “Do you-” He paused, now wondering if he wanted to see the man after all. But while the last couple of weeks had been relaxing and calming he was becoming bored out of his mind and not sure what to do with himself. He certainly did not want to hang out with the chatterbox girl across the hall, and he’d had more than enough aimless wandering in this neighbourhood. All those reasons ran through his head, but the truth was he missed talking with James. “Wanttomeetupanddosomething?” He finished his sentence in a rush before he chickened out.

He found it very strange to be asking the question. It was the first time he had ever actively instigated spending time with the man. John shifted from foot to foot, the tension he was feeling creating a fluttering effect in his stomach as he waited for the man’s answer. He felt silly being anxious over what the man would say, but couldn’t seem to help himself.

“My dear,” James purred the endearment. “Are you asking me out?”

John froze at the question, feeling his face go red at the suggestive tone. “I-” He flashed back to James leaning against the fridge, completely nude and uncaring over that fact. He cleared his throat nervously before continuing awkwardly. “Just thought that if you weren’t doing anything that we could, you know, wander around or something.” He shut his mouth, mentally kicking himself for rambling. He was such an idiot.

The older man laughed, obviously amused by John stumbling over his words. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning at ten.”

John drew in a sharp breath, somehow surprised that the man had agreed, and so easily too. “Ten? Sure, ok, er-” He bit his lip, hoping that he wasn’t asking for too much with the next question. “On the bike?” He crossed his fingers as he asked the question.

“Easily done.”

He felt his body go lax in relief. Now at least the girl wouldn’t be able to follow them or try and insinuate herself into their odd friendship. She seemed nice enough, but John didn’t want to make friends, especially with girls that liked to talk a mile a minute. “Good. I mean, I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

“Until then, John.” Without waiting for a response, he hung up.

John stared at the phone in his hand until it started beeping the disconnected tone before he hung it up. He’d done it. He had asked, and James had agreed to hang out with him. He was elated and nervous. He shouldn’t feel nervous; it wasn’t like they were going on a date or anything. They were just two friends going to spend time together, outside, away from any beds. Rubbing a hand over his face and already regretting his decision he decided that the best thing he could do for himself now was to get some sleep.

Chapter Text

John slept fitfully that night. Something dangerous and alluring stalked his dreams, teeth and nails teasing and tormenting him. Dark eyes glittered as he ran, trying to outpace the reaching hands and warm breath at the back of his neck. He was never fast enough. Caught by strong arms and pulled against a hard body, heat and need consumed him.

John broke away from the most recent dream with a gasp. With every breath, his chest heaved, body shaking from the sensations coursing through him. Sweat coated his body, and he was hard as a rock. He blinked up at the ceiling, trying to calm down. His body was not willing to listen to the demands of his mind.

John closed his eyes, his hand lifting to trace gently over his Adam’s apple before trailing down. Short nail dug into his collarbone ever so slightly. The tingles of sensation drew a small, hitching sigh from his lips as he continued his slow progress over his skin. He brushed his fingers over his nipple before circling the sensitive nub.

His other hand skimmed along his abdomen, drawing teasing patterns into the skin. With each pass of his finger, he moved lower. Pinching a nipple, John gasped softly, hips jerking at the spike of pleasure. With a slow lick of his lips, John grasped himself.

He began slowly, hand moving in a rhythm as old as time. Unable to resist, John imagined that it was someone else’s hand gripping him tightly, pumping him from base to tip. Air froze in his lungs as a figure with dark eyes and hair crouched over him. The raw hunger in their gaze sent desire humming through his veins.

John groaned as he envisioned the figure leaning down to lap at his nipple. Teeth grazed over the sensitised nub as their hand, twined with John’s own, increased the speed. Shuddering, a sound began to build at the back of his throat. He could see James’ wicked grin as the man tightened his fist around John, running his thumb over the slit. John could almost feel the heat radiating off the man’s body as he moved up John’s body.

“You want this,” James breathed over his flushed skin before dipping his head to brush teasing kisses down his chest. “I can see it.” Those intense eyes flashed, and the hand tightened around John, pumping harder. “And soon, I will taste it.” The sight of James lowering his head, lips parted to take him in, was John’s undoing.

“James!” he gasped as he came. White arched into the air to land on his stomach and chest as he strained into his hand. John collapsed back to the bed, coasting in the afterglow. Slowly, his fingers brushed back and forth over the duvet, trying not to fall back asleep. He did not want to think about what he’d just done – what he’d done every morning that he’d been here.

This thing he had with James was just… He didn’t even know what it was. They were friends, but they were something else, too. John didn’t know how to explain it, even to himself. With a sigh, John shook his head and opened his eyes. Glancing at his new watch, he was startled to realise that it was a little past 9:30 AM. “Crap,” he sighed, rolling out of bed. He only had a half hour to shower and get ready before James arrived.

The shower was fast. John scrubbed himself down, washing away the evidence of what he’d done. Hopping back out, he wrapped a towel around himself and opened the wardrobe. John found himself staring at the interior, scanning over each article of clothing, unsure of what to wear. Thanks to the nearest second-hand store, nearly everything inside the wardrobe was of better quality than what James had seen him in before. It doesn’t matter, he berated himself. But it did. “It’s not a date,” he muttered darkly as he hesitated, fingers brushing over one shirt, then the next.

John glanced one more at the time and groaned. He’s stood there for over ten minutes already, trying to decide what James would like best. Frustrated, he shook his head, wanting the tight, airy feeling in his stomach to go away. The odd fluttering inside was only reinforcing the knowledge that seeing the older man was a bad idea. But there was no going back now.

Finally, John simply closed his eyes and picked out two articles of clothing at random: black trousers and a long-sleeved shirt. He would work with that. Firmly, John closed the doors on the wardrobe, shutting away the temptation to change his mind. There was no time left to be second-guessing his decisions.

John dressed quickly, hiding the lingering traces of pale yellow and greens that still decorated his stomach in spots. Snatching up his new-ish brown coat off the hook, he made sure that his wallet was still tucked inside before grabbing the keys off the counter. Just before leaving, he glanced back at the narrow room, wanting to hide in there instead of seeing the man. Drawing in a steadying breath, John locked the door behind him and, with an uneasy glance at the door of 302, he made his way down the stairs.

When the Chatterbox didn’t come racing down the stairs after him, John felt a wash of relief overcome him. As he exited out the front, he moved slightly off to the side, in the shadow of the building. Years of habit had conditioned John to not advertise his presence, and being in the relatively safe neighbourhood for a couple of weeks wasn’t about to change that.

He wondered what they would be doing today. It was still morning, so John ruled out going to another fine restaurant. It was unlikely that James would put them in another position where they would have to run from the police. Maybe they’d go spelunking, John thought with a snort. Unlikely, John wouldn’t know the first thing about the sport anyways. So long as it kept him away from the flat for most of the day – and away from the weird Chatterbox – he didn’t care what they did.

John didn’t have to wait long. Off in the distance, he could hear the telltale rumbling of a bike zeroing in on his location. He stepped away from the building as the older man came to a controlled stop in front. Once again, Jim wore no helmet. The wind had tousled his hair and reddened his cheeks. John was a little surprised that he wasn’t wearing a jacket, considering that it was a bit chilly today. A quick glance at the sky showed grey clouds, which refused to allow the sun to beat down on them.

Jim kicked the bike into neutral and straightened on the seat. As the younger man approached, Jim made a point of looking him over, an unreadable expression on his face. It made John want to turn right back around and run to the flat. “Hey, Jim.” He gave an awkward wave, his pace slowing as he drew closer.

Jim cocked his head to the side as he continued to watch John. Dark eyes narrowed as he took in the slight hesitation and uneasy expression on the younger man’s face. John shuffled along, not able to look the older man in the eyes. “Rough night?” Jim asked, the smooth cadence of his voice soothing something inside John.

John gave a shallow shrug, ducking his head to avoid the man’s intense gaze as he climbed onto the bike. At the first brush of his fingers across the older man’s shoulder, John realised that he hadn’t thought through the ramifications of riding with Jim. Settling himself, John scooted back far enough that Jim wouldn’t know how even their proximity affected him.

Shaking his head sternly, John rested his hands on the man’s hips, forcing himself to stay utterly still. He didn’t want to deal with these emotions, wanted things to go back to how they were before. But he didn’t want to risk losing Jim forever due to his fear. “It wasn’t the greatest,” he muttered at the back of the man’s head.

For the first time since they’d met at the Under-bridge months back, John wasn’t exhausted, sleep-deprived, or too injured to think properly. He was aware that he’d answered a question and could ask one in return. What did he want to know? “Who was with you last night?”

Jim twisted on the seat to look at the younger man, a sly twist to his lips. “A business associate.”

And he’d just wasted his question. John shouldn’t have expected a better answer, given his own vague response, but it still irked him. How many people met business associates at their home? Should he believe the other man? There wasn’t any reason not to; Jim had never lied to him.

Jim made a low sound in the back of his throat. “What you need is a distraction.” His dark eyes glittered strangely. An unusual expression crept over Jim’s face, reminiscent of the ones he given John right before doing something completely insane.

The comment had the result the man wanted, puling John out of his downward thoughts. “No one-ways,” John quickly denied the man. He made sure to keep his voice firm, leaving no room for misinterpretation.

The eerie look receded somewhat, and the man pouted, leaning away. “You’re ruining all my fun,” he muttered, making his eyes round and sad, like a wounded puppy.

“Not at all,” John quipped lightly as he patted the man on the shoulder. “I just don’t like the idea of being road kill.” A slow smile spread across his face. Their light banter was something he’d missed over the past couple of weeks.

Jim made a show of looking to the sky, as though asking for patience. When he refocused his attention back to John’s unchanged expression, he let out a loud sigh and shook his head. “Fine,” he capitulated grudgingly. “No one-ways.”

Jim made it sound as though it were the hardest thing he’d ever had to agree to. John couldn’t stop the laugh that bubbled up in response. The older man turned back around and leaned forward. He revved the engine with a twist of his wrist, cutting John off from adding any other stipulations that crossed his mind. That was the only warning he gave before they were riding down the street. Jim kicked from one gear to the next as they went faster with each passing second.

John couldn’t figure out how, but somehow, he had forgotten how terrifying and exhilarating it was to ride with his friend. John clutched the older man tighter as his pounding heart lodged somewhere in his throat.

Jim was laughing as they drove at breakneck speeds through the side streets. His unguarded enjoyment of this simple pleasure dragged John’s own to the surface. John breathed deeply, the faint whiff of car exhaust and green things growing filling his lungs. He wanted to lean back and enjoy the world rushing past, not able to touch him.

Closing his eyes, John angled his head back. The wind ran cool tendrils through his hair and tugged at his clothes. He clutched tighter to his friend, everything narrowing down to touch, sound, and scent as he willingly blackened his world. Instantly, John became more aware of Jim’s muscles shifting and bunching under his touch as they moved into a turn. His stomach twisted, and he gripped the older man tighter, barely breathing as adrenaline flooded his veins. Still, he refused to open his eyes, finding this more exhilarating than any other time that they’d ridden together.

Every sound was so much closer now, flooding his senses with an overload of information. He knew they were heading into the busier areas as the passing traffic rushed by them at ever-increasing frequencies. Unable to stop himself, his limbs locked against the older man, inner thighs tensed as they sped past vehicles.

His heart beat in quick, almost jagged beats as blood roared in his ears and pin prickles danced little shocks across his skin. John’s breath came out in pants as his body tried to process the rush. Nothing mattered but the slide of Jim’s muscles as they raced into the next turn. John squeezed his eyes tight, so he wouldn’t be tempted to look. Sweat broke out on his skin, the sharp wind finding every opening in his clothes to destroy the moisture even as it formed. God, I missed this, John thought. He missed hanging out with Jim, missed the rush.

When they slid into a long curve, he was unable to keep his eyes closed any longer. They flashed open, the world bright and blinding as his eyes tried to adjust. He laughed as everything rushed past them too fast for John to focus. Jim handled the bike with amazing skill as he weaved through vehicles and raced against the lights. He made last second turns as he darted in and out of the surrounding traffic, somehow knowing where there would be just enough of an opening to squeeze through. John suspected that they’d blown through at least one red light while he’d been distracted.

He didn’t bother asking the man where they were going. It didn’t matter where they went. He’d needed to get out of the flat and away from the strange girl. He’d needed to see Jim. As he thought about the gas leak, John clutched the older man tighter. Anyone’s life could be snuffed out in an instant. He didn’t want to lose any time that he had with the older man due to his stubbornness… and fear.

As much as Jim confused and terrified him, he had also helped John at every opportunity. He really is a good friend, John found himself thinking, better than I am. He winced at the thought. It was true, though. He’d mistrusted the other man at every turn. His suspicions and doubts hindered his ability to accept anything that Jim did without looking for an ulterior motive.

Jim hadn’t made any demands. He’d helped John, given him a place to recover, and walked away. He had even willingly waited for John to reopen the lines of communication between them. Why? His thoughts always circled back to that question. John shook his head, knowing that he didn’t have any of the answers. There was no way he was about to ask the older man, so there was no point to the unanswerable thoughts.

When they began slowing, John refocused his attention, trying to locate where they now were. They’d pulled onto another side street and were leisurely approaching a long row of parked bikes. Near the end, Jim stopped and indicated for him to get off. John quickly scrambled off, still looking around. He didn’t recognise any of the five-story buildings that towered over them, and, after frowning up at them a bit longer, he gave it up as a lost cause.

Jim made quick work of backing his bike between two others and was already off when John glanced back at him. John followed Jim onto the sidewalk and gave his friend an awkward smile. He opened his mouth to break the silence between them but ended up biting his lip instead, not sure what to say. This was the reason he had been avoiding the other man. How did he go back to just being friends after what they’d done?

As the seconds dragged on, Jim raised an eyebrow. When no sounds managed to escaped John’s lips, he cocked his head to the side, making a point of looking the younger man over. “You, my dear, are looking much better. But, you still need something…” As he spoke, his left foot tapped into the ground, his finger mimicking the movement against his cheek.

John felt heat flood his cheeks and looked down at his feet. He resisted the nearly overpowering urge to hunch in on himself. It wasn’t hard to look better than the last time Jim had seen him. Time had healed the physical injuries. Nearly all of the bruising was gone, and even the dark purple smudges under his eyes had faded. Most of the cuts on the undersides of his arms had passed scabbing and were now the pinkish-red lines of new scar tissue. Even the cut under his eye had thinned and darkened, healing well. A steady diet of food had smoothed out the tremors in his hands and begun to fill out the hollows of his cheeks. He no longer looked like a starving, exhausted and beaten down teenager.

Uncomfortable with the blatant scrutiny he was receiving, John pulled the brown coat tighter around himself. “Er… thanks.” He muttered the words at his ratty shoes. “… for letting me use the flat, I mean.” He cursed himself as he stumbled over the words. He’d needed to thank Jim, but in doing so had put himself in the older man’s debt. The thought left a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“That’s what friends do, Johnny-boy.” His voice was deeper than usual, his brogue coming to the forefront. Jim shifted when John looked up, and he grinned widely. “But enough of that. Let us have some fun!” With that declaration hanging in the air, he spun on a heel and walked away.

John couldn’t help but wonder what Jim had in mind this time. He shrugged, knowing that he would end up doing whatever the older man wanted. He caught up quickly, his ribs twinging in slight discomfort as he fell into step with the older man. He felt that Jim was trying to put him at ease, not causing John to feel embarrassed or indebted over the flat. Hell, he hadn’t even insinuated anything about what they’d done together. It left John feeling confused, but relieved, and a little disappointed, too.

He should be happy that Jim was trying to make things go back to how they were before. That was what John wanted. But could he be friends with Jim and not want any more than that? John had never felt entirely comfortable with anyone until he’d met Jim. He hadn’t needed to watch his back, or worry about what he said for fear of getting a cuff to the side of his head. He wasn’t afraid that Jim would use anything he learned against John, as had been done in the past.

He didn’t judge John because of his parents, or how he’d had to live. He didn’t preach, cajole or make fun of John for not standing up to his insane parents. He hadn’t tried to solve John’s problems for him or tell him how to live his life. Jim had just left well enough alone, only stepping in with an offered hand when he felt it was needed. Even then, he’d given John the space he’d needed afterwards.

John cast the older man a sideways glance as he tried to figure him out. Maybe someone had done something similar for him when he was younger? Jim hadn’t been shocked or appalled with how John looked after the incident. He’d know what John needed without asking and silently provided it. He hadn’t made any mention of it after the fact either. He hadn’t held it over John’s head as other had in the past. The more he thought about it, the more his suspicions that Jim had once been abused seemed plausible. John couldn’t think of another way for the man to have acquired those types of scars otherwise.

Then they’d had sex. Jim had stated over and over again that it would be a bad idea. – I changed my mind - John didn’t think the redness in his face was going to go away anytime soon. Friends didn’t sleep together; they just didn’t. He couldn’t help but wonder why Jim hadn’t tried to kiss him again or even flirt with him. Maybe Jim had lost interest. The thought was a physical pain, and he stumbled slightly before regaining his balance and falling back into step.

“Stop that.” The cool tone in Jim’s voice jarred John out of his twisting thoughts. At his confused look, the older man continued, “Stop overanalysing and just ask your question.” His expression shifted, eyes lightening in amusement. “You know that I will answer you.”

John opened his mouth, no words coming out. He closed it with a snap, shaking his head. There was no way that he could ask if the man was still interested in him, or if now that they’d slept together was Jim done with him? John didn’t think he was ready to hear a straight answer from the man’s lips. “It’s nothing,” he muttered, looking around. They had wandered into another alleyway. Maybe they were going to another club?

“Tisk, tisk, Johnny-boy. Lying to me now, are we?” In a lightning quick movement his hand shot out. Strong fingers coiled around John’s wrist, jerking the younger man back.

Fear skittered over John’s skin as he was forced to a sudden stop, pain lancing up his arm at the harsh grip. John spun to face Jim full on, trying to wrench free of the hold. He raised his wide-eyed stare from his captured arm to the older man.

Jim narrowed his eyes. “Ask.” It was not a request.

John’s fingers curled into fists, and he had to stop himself from punching the older man. He didn’t want to hurt Jim, but everything inside was screaming danger. He scowled to hide the building fear when the man refused to release him. “It’s stupid,” he gritted out. The more John tried to yank his wrist free, the tighter Jim’s grip became, until John had no choice but to stop.

With a low growl of annoyance, Jim leaned close. “Ask anyways,” he murmured softly before pulling back.

John swallowed hard as a shiver coursed through his body, the sensation standing his hair on end. Jim sounded completely different. His voice was dark and cold, the same tone he’d used on his assistant. Laced within those two words was a subtle threat if John didn’t follow the command.

With a jerky shake of his head, John tried to back away, only to be stopped once more by the man’s fingers tightening. He couldn’t. There was no way he could ask, ‘Are you bored of me now that we’ve had sex?’ He scrambled for some way to deflect and defuse the situation. “If I ask a question, you get one.” The words came out in a desperate rush.

Jim reached up with his other hand, not hesitating when John flinched. “Haven’t we played your little game long enough?” He grasped John’s chin, his grip gentle but firm as he forced the younger man look at Jim’s shadowed face. “Ask me, John.”

Unlike John, Jim didn’t need to ask him anything; he’d already figured John out. Maybe it was time to end the game. But it was safer to keep this last barrier between them. The man had already destroyed every other defense John had. This was the last thing John had control over.

When John still didn’t speak, Jim sighed and let go of the younger man’s jaw, allowing John to turn his head away. Still, he maintained his iron grip on the captive wrist. “I refuse to release you until you do so.”

The threat sent a spike of terror down his spine. John knew deep in his bones that the threat wasn’t idle. He would keep them locked in this position until John capitulated to the demand. His gaze shifted down to his manacled wrist. Jim’s grip had loosened, but John knew if he tried to break the hold, the man would simply tighten again.

This was the first time that the man had seriously told John what to do. He wanted to run from the situation, but the hand wrapped around him effectively put a stop to that. If he gave up the game, he would be completely exposed. It was his choice. In the end, it all came down to one simple fact that John couldn’t keep avoiding. He trusted Jim.

Shoulders slumping, he struggled to come up with a way to answer the question, without giving away how deeply he felt for the man. “Have you- wait… Are you…? No…” John stumbled over his words, frustrated at his lack of eloquence. “Where do we stand?”

There. That was innocuous enough. It wasn’t overly emotional. John didn’t sound needy or clingy, and the other man could take the bloody question however he wanted. Pride swelled in his chest for having dodged the metaphorical bullet that was his friend.

Jim’s brows pinched together as he leaned closer, looking thoughtful. “Where do we stand?” His breath whispered across John’s cheek as he pondered the question out loud. “That is a rather good question. Where do we stand, my dear?” He grinned wickedly as he threw the words back at John.

John blinked and tried to move away, but was stopped by the firm grip on his wrist still tethering them together. “Hey,” he protested in affront. “You can’t ask the same question I asked you!”

The older man laughed, the sound low and mocking. “I can do whatever I wish.” In a flash, his expression was darkly serious once more. “No more games, my dear, answer the question. Where do we stand? Or should I ask, what do you want?”

John swallowed hard, unable to formulate a proper response to that. What do I want? Jim was the only person who ever asked him that. His parents had never asked, neither had Harry, not even his friends. Jim was the only one. He didn’t want the confusion the other man created in him. He wanted to feel Jim against him once more. Most of all, he wanted Jim to make the damned decision for him so that he wouldn’t hate himself tomorrow, and he could blame the other man if he needed to.

The air rushed out of John. He was acting exactly like Harriet. He was waiting for someone else to make everything better or worse for him, willing to take his anger out on them if he didn’t like the results. John didn’t want to have to deal with the pressure of having to make the decision. That way, if something went wrong, it wouldn’t be his fault.

Self-disgust filled John, and he sighed loudly. He looked down at his trapped hand again. Comparing Jim’s paler complexion to his own tanned skin, he couldn’t help but see all their differences and none of their similarities. The man had relaxed his grip, fingers loosely holding John, his fingers almost slipping. But he would not release John yet. In a sudden burst of insight, John knew that Jim was forcing him to make up his mind about this - all of it.

Over the last few months, his friend had shown him that not everyone was out to get him or destroy his dreams. Showed him that at least one person out there not only wanted to help but also knew John well enough to do so. While Jim had been completely unorthodox in how he’d done it, it had been what John needed. The adrenaline, fear, and exhilaration - everything Jim did had been designed to pull John out of his depression.

When John looked back into the older man’s eyes, he saw what he’d been avoiding for nearly two weeks. Hunger. “Damn it,” he breathed. Jim was forcing it to be entirely John’s choice, what they did from here on out. He was refusing to continue making the decisions for John.

He didn’t want to take this chance. Every time something good happened, fate came along and ripped it away. What if that happened to Jim, too? If he allowed himself to care even more for the man, and then he was gone, John didn’t know if he could stand the loss.

Jim leaned closer, eyes glinting. “What do you want? What can I give you?”

Each question felt like a shot to the gut. The image of the ruined church flashed behind his eyes and his chest hurt. Anything could happen. He or Jim could be gone in an instant. Was he really willing to risk never taking this chance all because he was afraid? John couldn’t keep doing this to himself. He couldn’t continue saying “no” when all he wanted was to say “yes.”

John stepped forward. The self-imposed restrictions falling away as he finally gave in. With each step he took, Jim fell back a pace. John continued moving until Jim couldn’t back away any further. He lifted his trapped hand and placed it high above the older man’s head. Jim either had to release him or have his own arm stretched above him.

Jim tightened his grip on the wrist he was holding, eyes glittering while he waited for John to make his next move. John placed his right hand against the wall beside the older man’s head and leaned in ever so slightly. Jim’s lips twitched, but he remained passive while he continued to wait. John’s body hummed lowly in awareness. Every breath drew the man’s scent deeper into his lungs, dark spice drowning out the world around them.

John knew that the man wouldn’t release him so easily. After all, he was still waiting for John’s answer. John felt powerful with Jim pinned to the wall, unsure of what his next move would be. Having the upper hand for the first time, he savoured the vulnerable position he’d put the older man in.

What did he want? It was a very good question, one that he finally had an answer to. “I want you,” he breathed the words across Jim’s lips. Satisfaction lighted through his being at the slightest hitch of breath he would never have caught had he not been so close.

A strange expression flickered across Jim’s face before he whispered, “Good.” With that, his free hand slid into John’s hair, pulling the younger man closer. Nails dug lightly into John’s scalp as his lips parted and they finally kissed. Jim arched against John, teasing with both his body and mouth.

John shuddered at the thrill and pressed the older man more firmly against the wall. Slipping a leg between Jim’s slightly spread ones, he dropped his free hand to grip the older man’s hip. He’d dreamed of this - of running his hands over the man’s pale skin once more. He gave in to the demands of his body. John slipped his hand under the hem of the black shirt, fingertips tracing over the newly exposed skin before he flattened his palm, dragging the material up.

Jim nipped hard at his lower lip as he released Jim’s captured wrist. He slid his hand down, running teasingly over John’s chest, where the coat was open. When he’d reached the younger man’s belt, he traced around to grip John’s ass, pulling him closer. He forced John’s hardness against him, grinding himself against the younger man as he began rocking their bodies together in a deliciously slow torture.

John groaned low in the back of his throat as he dropped his freed hand to join the first. He ran his palms up the older man’s chest. Even as he pressed Jim harder into the wall, he couldn’t get enough. Desire rushed through his blood as he ground himself against the older man, the hard lines of his body a perfect echo to John’s own.

Lips parted in desperate passion as long-suppressed desire drove them on. John managed to manhandle the shirt off the older man’s body and drop the offending material. In seconds, their hands were back on one another, every touch adding to the burning need that John had been trying so hard to ignore. It felt so good that he never wanted this to stop.

Coiling an arm around Jim’s waist, his fingers traced over the raised lines of scar tissue before pulling the man closer. His finger’s slid over the man’s cheek and jaw, enjoying the slight stubble tickling his palm before he gripped the back of Jim’s neck. He twisted his fingers into the man’s hair as he deepened their kiss. God, he wanted to consume Jim but not in an alley. Not where just anyone could pass by and see them.

With great effort, he pulled away, panting as he forced himself to release Jim’s delicious body. He took a slow, unsteady step back. He wanted nothing more than to press the older man up against the wall once more. Run his hands along that smooth skin and – John shook his head quickly, trying to calm his nerves down.

Getting caught making out with someone in an alley was an easy way to get robbed. Being caught making out with another man in an alley was a sure way to get beaten and then robbed. For now, he just needed to breathe and stop letting his libido control his actions.

Jim made a small sound in the back of his throat, pulling John’s focus back to him. He arched his spine, one hand splayed across his abdomen, slowly trailing up. His other dipped into the waistline of his trousers, tugging the material down slightly. A wicked little grin danced along his lips as he tempted John to come back.

When John continued to back unsteadily away, he pouted. When that didn’t work, Jim let out a soft sigh and bent to pick up the discarded shirt. In slow, languorous motions, he pulled the dark material over his head and down, hiding his skin once more from sight. John’s fingers itched to rip the offending article of clothing off the man. It was a ridiculous thought, and John shook his head again to rid himself of the tempting image.

Once the shirt was well and firmly in place, Jim moved close. He ran a hand down John’s panting chest to grip his hip. “Well, that was a fun little interlude, now how about-” His teasing words were cut off by a loud buzzing sound.

With a frown, Jim put some space between them. Pulling the beeper off his belt, he looked down at the disruptive device. His body stilled as he read the message, expression growing darker with each passing second. Jaw clenching, his gaze flicked back up to John.

They were cold.

“I am afraid that I must run, my dear.” The buzzing started again, and he glanced down once more, cursing under his breath. When he looked back up at John, his expression held an unusual mixture of anger and excitement. “I’ll take you home. We will continue this tomorrow evening, nine o’clock.” Without another word, he turned and began walking away.

“What was that?” John asked as he all but ran to catch up with the older man.

At the edge of the alley, Jim paused, glancing back at John. “An associate just fucked up… badly. I need to remind him of exactly why it is never a good idea to piss me off.”

The words sent a lick of fear down John’s spine, and he fell back a step. The rapid beating of his heart shifted from lust to something altogether different. “Don’t worry about me; I won’t keep you from your work.” John tried to smile. It felt stilted, and he looked away quickly. “Besides, I need to er… cool down a bit. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

Jim shrugged distractedly; attention focused somewhere else. Lifting a hand in casual farewell, he began walking away once more. In seconds, he rounded the corner, disappearing from John’s sight. Once more, John wondered what exactly an external consultant did, and why did John get the feeling that it was much more dangerous than the older man was letting on.

Instead of finding a trolley and making his way home, John wandered the unfamiliar area. His emotions were twisted up, and he needed to sort through them. Every time he thought of Jim, he had conflicting emotions. Elation that they were now… what?... boyfriends? John shook his head. No, nothing so childish as that. Lovers would perhaps be the better word. Absently, he brushed his fingers over his lips, still tasting the older man.

John was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Nothing good that ever happened to him stayed. He should simply take what Jim was willing to give him, for as long as the man was willing to be with him, without second-guessing or trying to anticipate when things would end. For now, he knew that Jim wanted him.

There were times that Jim scared him a little bit. John gently rubbed at the tender skin around his wrist. He pushed back the cuff of his coat, revealing the abused flesh. There was slight swelling and already the skin had taken on a darker tinge that John knew would result in bruising. That hadn’t been the first time Jim had grabbed him like that and wouldn’t let go. John shook his head, it wasn’t as though the older man had meant to hurt him; he was just trying to get John to face his fears. But sometimes his eyes grew cold, his voice would dip, and he would say things that sent chills through John’s body.

Purposely, he turned his thoughts away from the darker side of Jim. As he did so, other things that he’d been trying to ignore bubbled to the surface. He hoped that he would hear back from the Grant Administration soon but was nervous, because he suspected that they would decline. He really should find Harry and make sure she was alright, but even now, he couldn’t think of her without wanting to punch something.

Thoughts of Harry inevitably shifted to thoughts of their parents. He still couldn’t figure out what had set them so far off the edge of sanity that they’d gone after Harriett like that. Admittedly, most of that night now held an odd, hazy quality that John suspected was a direct result of his concussion, so he didn’t remember everything that had happened. But, never before had they beaten either one of them to that extent. It left John with the uneasy fear that they might somehow find him and finish what they’d started.

Lost in his musings, John didn’t register the first few drops of rain that fell around him. When one splashed on his cheek, he looked up, startled to find the grey sky had darkened drastically. “Crap,” he muttered, zipping his coat and wrapping his arms around himself. He needed to get somewhere out of the rain before it became a downpour. If he was lucky, John would find a trolley heading in the right direction. I should have taken Jim up on the ride home.

By the next block, it was no longer spattering. John knew that if he didn’t find cover in the next couple of blocks, he would get soaked through by the rain. He didn’t want to chance becoming sick right now. A quick glance down the street showed that there were no convenient awnings to shelter under, and the trees that dotted the sidewalks were too small to act as an effective barrier from the steadily increasing rain. He’d already turned away by the time his mind had registered an open door across the street. Spinning back around, he darted across the road; head ducked against the downpour. He slipped slightly as he crossed the threshold, catching himself on the black door before propelling himself fully inside.

Shaking water out of his jacket, John turned around. His gaze flicked through the brightly lit room. Pictures and posters decorated the walls and stands with writing on them were set up throughout the room. Slowly, John approached the pictures.

Most of them in this section appeared to be military personnel in freshly pressed uniforms, all standing at attention. As John trailed his fingers down the wall, he looked at renditions of fighting and solidarity. The comradery between units pulled at John as the photographer caught them in them in the middle of a celebration. Mostly men and the occasional woman had arms slung around one another. It was something that he’d been searching for his whole life. That sense of companionship.

Judging by the sheer amount of military paraphernalia wherever he looked, John knew that he’d stumbled into an army recruitment centre. He bit the inside of his cheek, thinking that maybe he should just leave now. A quick glance through the still opened door showed that the rain was coming down even harder than before. Well, that option was out.

Shaking his head, John turned away, only to be greeted by more pictures. Military doctors and nurses were standing over patients with bandages. Slowly, he reached up, fingers touching the frame of the picture. Something in his chest tightened painfully, and he forced himself to step back.

“Can I help you?”

John spun around, clenched hands coming up to defend himself as he searched the owner of the voice. From behind the far counter, and older, dark-skinned man stood. He was tall and broad, filling out his uniform well. John flushed, hastily dropping his arms back to his side. “Er, I was just wondering…” He trailed off as he looked around helplessly. Once more, his gaze landed on the picture of the doctors. The sight bolstered him, and he straightened his shoulders. “How does this all work?” he asked, waving a hand vaguely around the room.

The man smiled, deepening the lines around his mouth and eyes. “Well, let’s start off by sitting down and getting to know one another a bit.” He turned away, motioning John to follow. They walked through the large room, towards the back, where there were three closed doors.

Hesitantly, John followed behind. The man opened the first door for John, signalling for him to go in. With a nervous glance, John walked inside. Too much furniture filled the small space for the room to be anything other than cramped. Biting the inside of his cheek, John looked from the narrow desk on one side to the brown couch on the other. Gingerly, he sat down at the edge of the couch, closest to the door.

Glancing down at John, the man nodded to himself, leaving the door open a crack. He moved slowly around John to sit down on the opposite end of the couch. Once settled, he held out a callused hand. “Let’s start off with the basics. My name is Andrew, and you are?”

John swallowed hard, resisting the urge to glance back at the door. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. Drawing in a steadying breath, he shook the offered hand. “My name is John.” The grip was firm and warm but not too strong. The man wasn’t trying to prove that he was stronger than John.

Andrew smiled as he settled back on his side of the couch, hands dropping down to rest on his knees. “Hello, John. How is your day going so far?”

The memory of Jim, shirtless and arching against the alley wall, flashed through his mind. His face felt warm, and he looked quickly down at his hands. “It’s been pretty good.” That was an understatement. He was doing far better now than he had in years, all because of Jim.

“What did you want to be when you grew up?”

John’s eyes flashed up to stare at the man. The innocent question had struck a very tender nerve, and he clenched his left hand, hiding it beneath his right. He didn’t want to answer the question, but he’d brought it on himself by coming in here. Licking his lips, he finally spoke. “I… want to be a doctor.” The pain that accompanied those words was still sharp, but he was becoming accustomed to it.

Andrew frowned at the words. “What changed your mind?”

John blinked at the question. “I didn’t change my mind. I still want to be a doctor, but-” He shrugged, looking back down. “It’s not something I can afford, so I need to be more realistic in my expectations.”

The army man leaned forward, curousity making his expression more intense. “Why are you considering joining the military?”

“I want to help people.” John looked around the room, wishing that the walls weren’t bare. “If I can’t fix someone who deserves it, then maybe I could protect them instead.” It was an option that he hadn’t ever considered before now. But it would provide him with a steady income, a purpose in life, and maybe, if the pictures were telling the truth, a sense of belonging.

“Have you considered becoming a military doctor?”

John jerked his attention back to the large man. “No,” he paused, brows furrowing. “Don’t you have to go through schooling before you can enter the military side?” The idea that he could have another way to get into University was more than he’d hoped for. Maybe this way he could still hold onto his dreams.

Andrew laughed at his startled expression. “Not normally, no. You would have to go through basic training and would be required to pass specific tests first. But one of the perks of going through the military is that they will help put you through schooling if you signed on for service once you are completed. After that, who knows, you might even enjoy the military life.”

With every confident word the man spoke, John’s hopes rose. He’d never paid much attention to the military and hadn’t known that they offered anything like this. Had he known, he might have taken this route in the first place. It would have gotten his parents off his back at least. Fighting was a good and honourable career, unlike doctoring.

“I didn’t think that was a possibility.” His voice was distant as he thought about how this could change his life. Making up his mind, John straightened in his seat. “How do I go about all of this then?”

Andrew laughed at him, but it didn’t sound cruel or malicious. It was warm, like he was happy that he was helping John. “First, we would start with an aptitude test.” When John just looked blankly at him, he clarified. “We need to see where all of your skills lay currently. That way we can find the best place for you. There are also physical tests, but you look young and fit, so you shouldn’t have any issues with that.”

Andrew stood, motioning John out the door first. When they had both exited the room, he closed the door behind before looking back at John. “You can think about all of this and come back when you have decided that this is something that you want to do.” He paused when he saw John’s serious expression. “Or, if you have already decided, we can begin the process right now.” As he finished speaking, he stepped back behind the counter. While he waited for John to answer, he began rummaging around before placing a couple of pamphlets on the surface between them.

John froze as he stared down at the pamphlets. It would be a wonderful way to get into University and a guarantee of employment for years to come. He would be safe from his parents, and it would teach him how to defend himself and others better. Really, what did he have to lose?

Jim flashed in John’s mind. The man had his arms crossed. Dark eyes glinted as he smirked at John, standing completely and proudly naked. John licked his lips, willing the warmth to leave his cheeks. As long as no one found out he was gay, this would work. Clearing his throat, he looked back up at Andrew. “I would like to begin the process now if you don’t mind.”

Chapter Text

John glanced down at his watch once more. Fifteen minutes until Jim came to pick him up. The morning had flown by. It was only when evening had begun that the hands of his clock slowed. Looking around the room, he tried to think of something to occupy himself for a short time, but he’d already scrubbed the flat down and tidied up. There were no dishes to be found on the counter or in the sink, and the pamphlets about the army were tucked safely away in the desk drawer. He avoided looking at the meticulously made bed.

Self-consciously, he tugged at the heavy knit of his brown jumper. A glance outside, at the still pouring rain, proved that he’d made the right choice. Staying warm overrode looking good. Three fast taps on his door jarred John out of his thoughts. He stood and had moved halfway across the floor before pausing. Should he even answer the door? The only person who knew he was here was Jim, and he didn’t think the older man would knock.

When three more knocks echoed through the room, John bit the inside of his cheek and crossed the room. He opened the door and immediately regretted his decision. The Chatterbox girl stood, her hand poised to knock again. She looked like she was on her way to a club of some sort, with her skirt far too short and too much skin showing for John to feel comfortable looking at her.

She smiled widely as she looked John over. “Hi, d’you wanna catch a movie ‘r somethin’?” she chirped as she began playing with the short tips of her brown hair. As she fidgeted, the bangles on her arm jingled, drawing John’s attention down to her barely hidden cleavage.

Instinctively, John fell back, further into the safety of the apartment. “Er, thanks, but I already have plans for the night.” He tried to smile as he began to close the door.

Chatterbox stuck her foot in the door, effectively preventing John’s retreat. Her fingers coiled around the door and began to push. “Oh? Can I com’? It’ll be fun!”

John gritted his teeth. He did not want her in the flat, and he did not want to hang out with her. John squared his shoulders, keeping his voice polite, but firm. “Sorry, no. I’m meeting a friend of mine.” Snagging his coat off the wall, John stopped trying to close the door on the girl. Instead, he let her push it further open but crowded her at the entrance, forcing her to either step back or let John step on her foot.

As she stumbled back into the hallway, John followed. The door closed with a little too much force, and John winced, before locking it. When John turned to walk down the hall, Chatterbox stood in the middle, arms crossed defiantly as she pouted up at him. It put John in mind of a child not getting their way.

She drew in a deep, slow breath, visibly calming herself down. “Me’be yur friend wilna have a proplem wit’ me taggen’ along,” she tried one more time.

John sighed and shook his head. He didn’t bother answering the girl this time. She would just continue to hear whatever she wanted, despite what John told her. John stepped around her, to the stairs, and walked down. Irritation filled him at each clomp of her shoes trailing him down the steps.

“So, what d’you do fer fun?” She waited for John to answer for three steps. When he didn’t answer, she continued anyway, “What d’you do in yur free time?”

Still, John refused to respond, hoping that she would simply go away. When he reached the front door, John hesitated. It was still raining. As much as he wanted to flee into the night, Jim was picking him up here. Besides, John suspected that she would simply follow him outside. All he would accomplish would be getting soaked through and catching a cold. Until Jim showed, he had no choice but to put up with her chattering away about movies or a new show. He wasn’t paying enough attention to catch which one.

The Chatterbox continued nattering at him, leaning in close enough that John could smell the perfume she wore. “Weell?” she demanded loudly, hands firmly planted on the exposed part of her hips.

John glanced at her in confusion as he moved away once more. He had no idea what the girl had just asked. “Er… no.” It was a safe assumption that responding that way was the correct response, even if she didn’t think so.

Instantly, her expression shifted from faint annoyance to bright happiness. She clapped her hands together, bouncing in place. “Great!” she laughed, tucking her hair behind an ear as she beamed at him.

Crap, what had the girl asked him? John raked his brain, trying to bring the tuned out words back into focus. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure it out. She’d been rambling about shows, then… His mind drew a blank.

“So, you wilna mind me comen’ along.”

Thankfully, the sight of a familiar, black car idling down the street saved John from answering the girl. In an instant, he was out the door and all but running for the vehicle. He could hear the telltale splashing of the Chatterbox chasing after him, and that only spurred John on. The moment the car stopped, John rounded the vehicle and all but leapt inside. Immediately, he turned to face the older man, jarred somewhat out of his mild panic by the fact that the older man was not wearing a suit.

Jim’s attention focused outside for a moment before he took in John’s haggard appearance and pleading expression. He grinned, amusement clear on his features. “Lock the door if she makes you that uncomfortable,” he suggested sweetly. When John did just that, he laughed.

John jumped and scowled when the girl began tapping on his side window, peering in at them. “She wants to hang out, but isn’t taking no for an answer,” John explained over the thumping.

Jim chuckled and leaned over, ruffling John’s damp hair. “I’ll take care of this for you, my dear.” Unhooking his beeper, he placed it down on the dashboard, facing away from John. Leaving the engine running, Jim opened his door and stepped out into the rain.

Chatterbox stopped knocking on the window, straightening with a wide smile on her face when she caught sight of Jim. With his hands tucked in his too tight jeans, Jim leisurely walked to the front of the car as though it were a sunny afternoon instead of the downpour they were currently experiencing.

Jim’s dark hair had already matted to his face. Rain soaked through his shirt, the material clinging to his well-toned body in a way that John would have appreciated more had the Chatterbox not been able to witness it as well. With a friendly smile and casual wave, he beckoned the girl over.

The girl stepped away from the door and walked towards the older man. She slicked back her sopping hair, displaying herself and her skimpy outfit as she approached. As she stepped in close, Jim draped a companionable arm over her narrow shoulders and leaned in.

They stood too close. She looked up at Jim, a rapt expression on her face. The headlights glinted off the rain, spotlighting them as they huddled together. It was too intimate, and John wanted to forcefully rip the girl away from the man’s loose embrace. When Jim leaned closer, lips hovering over her ear, John clenched his fists, wanting to punch something, preferably annoying girls who wouldn’t leave.

The seconds dragged on until John couldn’t take it anymore. He grabbed the door handle, needing to separate them if he was going to stay sane. John froze when the Chatterbox glared up at Jim. She did not appear to appreciate something that the older man said. With a jerky motion, the girl broke free of Jim’s loose hold. She said something more before turning on a heel and stomping back towards the building.

Jim held himself entirely still as he watched the girl leave. He did not move until she’d slammed the door closed. Only then did he calmly turn and walk back to the car. Once he climbed inside, he cranked the heat and turned the air vents towards himself. With an audible sigh, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes.

As the silence stretched, John let go of the door handle. He finally looked away from the apartment and over at the older man. He had to know. “What did you say to her?”

Jim opened his eyes, looking out at the rain. “The little chit?” His smile held a sharp edge. “I simply made her aware that her actions were reminiscent of those of a stalker. And like a stalker, her affections were both unwarranted and unwanted.” As he finished speaking, he let out a soft sigh, clearly enjoying the heat on his body.

John frowned, opening his mouth before closing it with a snap. Well, that was one way to get the girl to leave him alone. The more he thought about the man’s words, the harder it was to keep his lips from curling. “Er… thanks?”

Jim slicked back his hair once more and waved the words off. “Think nothing of it, my dear.” Straightening in his seat, Jim plucked his beeper off the dash and tucked it back on his belt. He put the car in gear, and they began moving.

How could he think nothing of it? John should have been able to fend the girl off on his own, but instead, let the older man do it for him. Jim was always solving John’s problems for him, stepping in the moment John floundered. God, Jim must think I’m an idiot. He fiddled with the edge of his coat, unable to bring himself to look at the older man.

Give him a simple fist fight any day. He didn’t know how to deal with girls other than Harry, and they mostly fought. Getting the Chatterbox to leave him alone without yelling at her was well beyond what he knew how to do. As they drove, the rain finally, blessedly, began to ease. At least some good was coming from the evening.

“You’re thinking too much again, Johnny-boy.” Jim’s voice was intimate in the confines of the car. “Shall I distract you?” He made the teasing offer as his hand dropped down to John’s knee. When John jerked at the touch, Jim squeezed the knee slightly before slowly trailing his hand up the inner seam of John’s trousers.

John inhaled sharply at the tingles of pleasure even that small touch gave him. With a jerky shake of his head, he shoved the hand away right before it had found his groin. “No!” Licking his lips, John tried again. “I was just trying to figure out why some things were easier than others.” As the words left his lips, he realised how vague his statement sounded. In a way, John was glad that he’d ended their question game. He didn’t like having to guard himself against the older man constantly.

“Ahh.” Jim put his rejected hand back on the stick shift. “That’s because your fight-flight responses are directly tied to physical distress.”

John frowned at him. “What?”

Jim glanced over at the younger man, dark eyes narrowing, before looking back at the road. “You have very strong fight instincts, but because the chit was not physically aggressive towards you, your first response would have been passivity. When that didn’t work, your flight instincts would have kicked into gear.” Jim shrugged. “It’s likely that, had she continued, you would have eventually threatened violence towards her if she didn’t leave you alone.”

John stared at the other man, startled by the analysis spewing so casually from his lips. A sick feeling began to build in his stomach. He couldn’t believe that Jim thought he would harm the girl. He wasn’t like his parents. “I wouldn’t have hurt her,” John defended himself against the harsh assessment.

Casting John an annoyed glance, he sighed loudly. “You’re not listening. Specifically, I stated that you would threaten violence, not that you would use violence.”

John glared at the older man. He should threaten Jim with some violence. Maybe that would get him to shut up about this. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” he huffed, crossing his arms. John made a point of looking out the side window, refusing to listen to any other critique Jim had about him.

Instead of responding, Jim shifted gears and slammed on the gas. The car jerked forward with a roar of the engine, and they were suddenly overtaking other vehicles. Wide-eyed, John latched onto the grab handle. Just in time, too, as Jim took a corner faster than John thought safe. “Jim.” The name was hard to say through the sudden tightness in his throat. His worry was justified, given how much it had been raining.

As water splashed out in an arch, John’s grip became white-knuckled, and he tensed as his body was thrown against the door. He felt the instant the tires lost their grip on the road, and they fishtailed, rear end nearly sliding into the oncoming traffic. Fear and adrenaline flooded him, halting the air in his lungs.

Jim didn’t respond in any way to his name, only slowing enough for the wheels to regain traction before they were off again. John’s attention swung between Jim and the road, not sure which one was more dangerous at this point.

Jim’s grip on the wheel was tight, right-hand flexing and relaxing around the stick shift as they raced through the rain-drenched streets. He’d hunched down in his seat. Eyes narrowed as his attention darted from the mirrors to the windows, taking in all the directions in quick flashes. As quickly as they’d begun speeding, they were back to following the speed limit.

“What the Hell was that?” John demanded, unable to bring himself to pry his hand away from the leather strap just yet. Why did the older man always do such crazy things?

Jim didn’t respond right away, finding a parking stall and slipping into it with professional ease. Only when they had stopped, the engine still idling did he lean back and glance over at the younger man. “I needed a distraction,” he stated simply as he turned off the engine. “We’re here.” With those two words still floating in the air, he climbed out of the car.

John was slow to follow. His hand was stiff from clutching at the grab handle for dear life. The rapid staccato of his heart beat loud in his ears as he fumbled at unbuckling his seatbelt. Levering himself out, he carefully shut the door, not wanting to look at Jim just yet. Instead, he looked around trying to figure out where they were this time. There were people on the street, but not many given that the rain had only recently stopped.

Jim stood in the middle of the sidewalk, ignoring the few passing by him, attention firmly focused on John. When John stomped his way over, a scowl firmly in place, Jim rolled his eyes. “Don’t be testy, my dear. You could at least allow me that little thrill for taking care of your stalker for you.”

John stopped a few feet back, his anger sparking then fizzling at the words. Grudgingly, he decided that the older man had a point. Jim had done just that, and he hadn’t raced around for very long. A few sharp turns, and they’d only lost traction once, but Jim had remained in control the entire time. Letting out a small sigh, he rubbed a hand over his face. “Fine, I’ll give you that. Where are we going?”

Jim smiled, the expression lighting his face, giving the man a younger appearance. “There,” he pointed down the street to a large building where a few people huddled together, with more beginning to line up. The large white sign above showed the times the movies would be playing.

“We’re going to the cinema?” he asked, surprised and confused. It just seemed so… normal. It was completely out of the ordinary for the man, especially given Jim’s penchant for thrill-seeking. John felt some of the tension ease out of his shoulders. Something safe and without risk, that was what he needed right now. He was grateful that Jim realised that.

Stepping in close, Jim winked at him. “Is it not customary to take your lover out on a date?”

John flushed, easing away as he glanced around nervously. “Don’t say things like that,” he hissed. Thankfully, no one was near enough to have heard the words.

Jim laughed, running a teasing hand down John’s side, which the younger man flinched away from. “So worried about the opinions of complete strangers,” he chided softly. Casually, he hooked his arm with John’s and began tugging him down the sidewalk.

After a moment of being dragged, John managed to extract himself from the older man. “Damned right I’m worried,” he bit out. “And you should be, too. You know what some people would do if they thought someone was-” John lowered his voice, casting another uneasy glance around. “-gay.” John had seen it before, and it hadn’t been pretty. The man had been taunted, tormented and eventually beaten by the group. John did not want the same thing to happen to him.

The older man chuckled beside him and shook his head. “We are in England, Johnny-boy, land of freedom and change!” he exclaimed, flinging his arms out to encompass the whole of the city as he turned in a circle.

John laughed at the sight and shook his head. “Not quite,” he corrected. “I think that all your dare-devilry has addled your brain.” When Jim pouted at him, John shoved him with his shoulder before continuing down the sidewalk. This was the beginning of a new game between them. They pushed and shoved at one another as they joined the slowly increasing throng of people waiting to purchase their tickets.

John bit his lip as he fingered the wallet in his pocket. Working two shifts a week did not give him much for spare cash, but Jim always paid their way wherever they went. John could at least do this. Having made up his mind, he pulled a few billfolds out for the tickets.

Jim tisked and butted in front, paying himself before John could protest. Accepting the tickets from the teller, the older man motioned John to follow along as they made their way to the theatre room.

Feeling an odd combination of gratefulness and annoyance at the man’s actions, John followed behind. In short order, they had found seats near the back and were waiting for Batman to begin. As the lights dimmed, Jim dropped his hand down once more on John’s knee.

With a soft gasp, John shoved the hand away, looking quickly around. A man, three seats down was frowning at them. Fear skittered down his spine when they locked gazes. Turning to Jim, he leaned close so that no one would overhear. “If you don’t keep your hands to yourself, I’ll walk out right now,” John threatened softly. He didn’t want to, but he would if things came down to it.

Jim laughed and leaned back in his seat, raising his hands in a placating gesture. “Fine, fine,” he capitulated before leaning over his armrest and lowering his voice. “I’ll play nice for you, my dear.”

John flushed. Playfully, he pushed at the older man’s shoulder, forcing Jim back to his side. They didn’t say anything else as the room dimmed. The room quieted down as the projector began rolling the film. This was the first time in years that John had the opportunity to see a film, and he was not going to miss out.

John stared up at the screen, enraptured by the story playing out before him. It was dark and dangerous, the action keeping John on the edge of his seat. He appreciated Batman’s vigilante justice. The hero was unable to be squeaky-clean in a world filled with so much corruption even as he strived to bring the wrong-doers to justice.

John chanced a glance at Jim. Light and shadow played over his features, etching lines into his face. It gave John a glimpse of how Jim would look as he aged. His lips held a slight quirk as he focused on the movie. He’d slouched in his seat, knee pressing softly against John’s own. The fingers of his left hand danced a silent rhythm against the armrest in a pattern that had begun the moment the movie started. Every time John had glanced over, the fingers were in motion. Smiling slightly, John turned his attention back to the movie.

As the first of the closing credits rolled over the screen, they, like many others, rose from their seats. They flowed out of the theatre with the rest of the crowd, pushing through the exit doors. They broke away from the throng, the cool weather bit into John’s skin. He shivered, wrapping his arms around himself. Once they had left the crowd behind, John glanced over at Jim. “That was really good,” he murmured. In the silence between his words was a soft thank you.

Jim nodded his head in agreement. Perhaps, in the motion, there was even acknowledgement of the words John didn’t want to say. “There were some major continuity errors, but all in all, a rather enjoyable movie.”

“Oh? Like what?” he asked as he shoved his cold hands into his pockets. He ducked his head, to better protect his neck from the chill. “I didn’t notice anything,” John challenged the older man, curious about what Jim had caught that he had not.

Jim stopped. He pondered the question for a long moment before holding out his left hand, index finger out. “One.” He tapped the extended digit with his right index. “At the beginning of the movie when Batman goes after the fleeing crook, he pulls out his batarang. When you first see it, it is black, ridged and hinged in the middle, but once it’s around the crook’s ankle, it’s shiny black, smooth and all one piece.” He tapped his middle finger. “Two, the name of the museum is spelt differently on the inside and the outside.”

His eyes went strangely distant as he continued, tapping his middle finger. “Three. At the museum, a henchman puts handprints on a painting. Later, when the Joker is imitating the statue, the painting has no handprints.” He tapped his ring finger. “Four. During the fight on the catwalks, the Smith & Wesson turned into a Colt.”

By the time Jim had reached his second point, John was laughing. When the older man tapped his pinky, John was shaking his head, waving his hands. “Ok, I get it, lots of mistakes. But the movie was still good.”

Jim grinned and leaned in close. “I could continue.” His breath was warm against John’s cheek. “There are so many more. I could tell you in great detail.”

Again, John shook his head, still chuckling. “No, no. I believe you.” He turned away and began walking once more. He couldn’t seem to keep the silly grin off his face. They’d gone on a proper date. This must be what it’s like to be a normal person, he mused. He’d had fun.

They wandered the streets in companionable silence, slowly leaving the busier areas behind and finding residential roads. From time to time, John’s hand would brush against Jim’s. With every casual touch, John’s awareness of the man grew, until he could almost feel each step and every shift of Jim’s body.

His heart beat a faster rhythm as his gaze strayed to the older man. He wanted to touch Jim, but they were still in public. John wanted to run his fingers through the man’s windswept hair and pull him close. Later, he thought. Maybe he could convince Jim to come back to his flat.

Jim suddenly skipped ahead of him, turning and blocking John from continuing forward. When John stopped, Jim leaned in close, dark eyes intense. “Have you changed your mind about our conversation yesterday?”

John frowned, not understanding. “Our conversation?”

Jim slipped an arm around John’s waist, pulling John flush against his body. As John stared, wide-eyed, he gently kissed the younger man. His other hand slid up John’s arm to coil around the back of his neck.

John gasped at the full body contact. Desire sparked inside, and all he wanted to do was clutch the older man closer, take everything. Instead, John forcefully extracted himself, darting quick glances around them. “Damnit, Jim,” he hissed. “Not in public!”

Laughing, Jim allowed the younger man to push him away. “Such modesty, my dear,” he crooned softly. “That’s alright; we have arrived.” He swept an arm out to the long row of flats.

“What?”

Not responding, Jim tugged him off the sidewalk and up the few steps to the entrance of the expensive looking building. The clean white stucco stood out brightly in the dim lighting of security lights, a sharp contrast to the iron fencing and black door. “Where are we?” he asked, attention travelling to the narrow second story balconies each of the flats had.

Jim cast him a side-long glance, dark eyes glittering mischievously. “Somewhere more private.” He turned to the door once more and pulled something out of his pocket. After a moment of soft jingles, the door unlocked with a soft click. Secreting the keys away once more, Jim opened the door. He was slow to enter, head swinging from one side of the front entrance to the other. Once he’d flicked on the light to the entrance, he ushered John in. The moment John had crossed the threshold Jim closed and locked the door.

John didn’t have much of a chance to see more than the high ceiling and warm cream wallpaper before Jim had him pinned to the door. He pressed the full length of his body against the younger man, a wicked smile spread across his lips. Jim placed a slow, lingering kiss on John’s lips. “Better?” he asked sweetly as he pulled back.

John flushed, nodding his head. Private, that’s what he’d wanted. “Better,” he agreed softly. Grabbing Jim’s jacket, John tugged him close once more. They kissed harder this time, lips parting. Their mouths duelled, trying to gain the upper hand as they pressed harder against each other.

Jim’s hands trailed gently down John’s arms and down to his hands. Lacing their fingers together, he took a slow step backwards as he tugged John along. One step, then another, he backed up, not breaking eye contact. As his heel hit the first step, Jim hesitated for the barest instant. He began climbing backwards, still tugging the younger man.

John followed, mesmerised by the fluid grace in the older man’s movements. Jim stumbled as they reached the landing, anticipating another stair that wasn’t there. He caught his balance against John. He wrapped his arms around John once more and placed another of those soft kisses to John’s lips.

John sighed against Jim’s mouth. He slid his fingers up under the man’s coat and shirt, his cold touch light and teasing. The coat stopped his hands from tracing their way up Jim’s spine. Instead, he went lower, gripping Jim’s arse and pulling him flush.

The older man made a low sound in the back of his throat and broke their embrace once more. He tugged John down the hall, glancing around as though he had suddenly forgotten where he was. With a wicked grin, he pulled them through the third door down. The hallway light illuminated enough for John to catch a glimpse of the raised bed before Jim spun him and shoved.

With a spike of adrenaline, John sat down on the edge of the bed. He drew in a sharp breath when Jim stepped between his legs and leaned down. Desire hummed in his blood when the older man unzipped his coat and parted the material. He pushed it off John’s shoulders and down his arms, tossing it over the side of the bed.

Head cocking to the side, Jim fingered the hem of John’s cable knit sweater and tisked. “Brown is not your colour, my dear.” With those unflattering words, he brushed his lips over John’s own once more.

John flushed, even as he parted his lips, deepening the kiss. Blindly, he grabbed at the front of Jim’s coat, unzipping it with quick motions. He didn’t want soft and gentle, not right now. He needed to feel the older man against him. John slid a hand into the man’s dark hair, fingers tightening in the silky strands.

Jim chuckled at his enthusiasm and pulled back. He forced John to sit up, pulling off the sweater and undershirt with swift motions. John shivered as the cool air raised bumps on his exposed skin. He reached forward, not wanting to be the only one shirtless. Jim helped him remove the coat and shirt, exposing the pale lines of his chest. John wrapped his arms around Jim’s waist, pressing kisses to the older man’s chest as his hands splayed over the ridged lines of scars at his back.

Jim pushed him back to the bed, using the opportunity to trace over the raised scars on John’s chest, most faded to browns, some already white with age. He leaned down, his mouth mapping the skin his hand passed over.

John groaned low in the back of his throat, arching his body up, needing more than these teasing touches and soft kisses against his skin. It felt so good. His skin burned where the older man touched him.

When John tried to pull the older man down, Jim moved away from the bed completely. With quick, jerky motions he undid his belt. “Remove your trousers, John.”

The dark tone in which he gave the order sent a shiver through John’s being. That he’d called John by his name struck a chord in him, and his breath caught in his throat. John found himself captivated by the older man, watching as he unzipped his trousers, letting the denim fall out of sight.

Jim stood proudly naked beside the bed, shadows enveloping his form as the weak light from the hallway failed to reach him. He was magnificent, beautiful. What could this man possibly see in John, of all people? It didn’t matter; he was not about to let the man go. Not without a fight, and not anytime soon.

Drawing in a slow, shuddering breath, John scooted further up the bed. Once in the middle of the bed, he was quick to undo his trousers. Shimmying them off, he tossed them over the side of the bed with his sneakers. When the cold air his naked body, John shivered, and he coiled in on himself. Dropping his hands down, he tried to hide his straining erection from the older man’s penetrating gaze.

Jim chuckled at him and crawled up the end of the bed. “Don’t hide from me, John.” His fingers coiled around John’s ankles, pulling the legs flat to the mattress to crawl over them. Reaching forward, he grabbed both of John’s forearms and pushed him onto his back, exposing him once more. He leaned back, releasing John as he took in the younger man’s form.

John felt his entire body flushing as the older man paused, staring down at him for a long time. It was long enough that John began to squirm under the intent gaze, embarrassment filling him. Once more, he tried to cover himself.

Jim’s hands darted out and grasped John’s wrists, forcing them away from his arousal. He released his grip and leaned in, carefully placing his full weight on the younger man. “You are mine,” Jim whispered and kissed John once more.

The possessive words sent a shock of desire through his body. John arched, wrapping his arms around the older man, desperately wanting everything. “Jim!” he gasped, their bodies grinding against one another. His body ached, burning with need.

A door slamming loudly from down below pulled them both out of their haze. John froze, confusion filling him as he locked eyes with the older man. “Expecting someone?” he found himself asking.

Jim glanced through the open door before looking back down at John. “That might be the owners,” he pondered out loud.

“What?” John hissed, his entire body tensing at the words.

A feral grin danced over the older man’s lips. “Oh, didn’t I mention? This isn’t my place.” With that, he shifted off of John, rolling to the edge of the bed. “Come now, time to go.” He hissed as a loud thump followed by soft giggles could be heard from the bottom of the stairway.

Mentally cursing, John scrambled off the bed and dove for his clothes. Finding them in the near black was hard. What the hell had Jim been thinking? Breaking into a stranger’s home? Bloody Hell, he thought desperately as he gathered up clothes, clutching them to his chest in a death grip. When they heard the telltale sounds of people climbing the stairs, John froze, darting a glance to the older man.

The owners were slow as they ascended the stairs. Soft giggles and the occasional low male groan preceding them. “You teasing vixen,” the male laughed before they heard a squeal of delight.

“No more time,” Jim whispered and pointed down to the bed. When John just frowned at him, he rolled his eyes. “Under the bed, now.” Without another word, they both dropped down, shimmying underneath as quickly as they could. Just in time too, as two people stumbled into the room. They landed on the bed in a mess of giggles and laughter.

Heart racing with fear and adrenaline, John stared up at the blackness. Since the bed was tall, there had been enough room to get underneath, but it was still cramped. He carefully let go of the bundle he had clutched to his side and stretched his arm out and up, trying to gauge how much space there was. More than a foot, less than a foot and a half.

It was cold on the floor, and he shivered. Letting out a slow, silent breath, John shifted closer to the older man. Turning his head, he whispered low into the man’s ear. “Why in the Bloody Hell did we break into someone’s home?” His body felt jittery. John wanted to be anywhere else but trapped under this bed.

He felt the older man shrug against his shoulder. “You wanted some privacy, so I got us some.” He felt the man shaking slightly and thought it was his nerves before realising that the man was silently laughing. “I did not anticipate them coming home while we were still preoccupied.”

John fumed at the words and shifted away from the older man. He couldn’t believe Jim had done something like this. Actually, he could, and that made it so much worse. Unfortunately, his angry thoughts were constantly interrupted by the sounds from above them.

John licked his lips, trying to block out the soft moans and the rocking of the bed. He shifted once more, trying to focus on how uncomfortable the ground was instead of how restless the noises made him feel. With his eyes closed, he could imagine the two strangers rocking together, her legs wrapped around his waist as she arched against him. Against his will, John found himself responding at the mental images.

He opened his eyes wide, trying to banish the images from his mind, but the blackness did nothing to help. The woman cried out, low words that John couldn’t make out, pouring from her lips. John’s hips twitched up on a silent gasp. He clenched his fists tightly against the urge to touch himself if only to ease some of the tension building up inside.

John tried to keep his breathing even. He didn’t want Jim to know how sick he was, getting off on two strangers having sex right above him. When Jim’s hand brushed over his him in an intentional caress, he knew he’d failed. John’s hips jerked up in response, and he gasped.

Jim tilted his head, breath warm against John’s ear. “Quiet, my dear. We don’t want to interrupt them now, do we?” As he softly taunted John, his hand traced up over John’s hip.

John shuddered and had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep himself from making a sound. He wanted to shove the man’s hand away, but they would only end up in a scuffle, then they would be caught. Jim teasingly traced his fingers over John’s hip, combing through the curls at his groin before firmly wrapping his hand around John’s erection. God, John thought as his hips jerked again, the man is trying to kill me.

The position was awkward due to the restricted room under the bed, but somehow, Jim managed it. In the dark, John’s sight was utterly useless. He could smell Jim, taste him with every silent breath he took. He could hear the older man’s fast breathing beside him even as it was almost entirely drowned out by the woman’s husky moans above them.

Jim was stroking John to the strangers’ movements, twining his arousal with theirs. He strained and twisted, wanting to get away from this and needing the man never to stop. Need and desire warred inside with embarrassment and humiliation. He covered his mouth, biting at the palm of his hand as a small sound escaped his lips. He couldn’t make any sounds. It felt amazing, his shame only adding fuel to the desire coiling inside as he strained into that firm hand.

When the woman above them cried out loudly, everything inside John came to a burning point. Silently, he came, his body arching as the world spun out from around him. He strained into Jim’s tight grip for long seconds, wetness splashing over his stomach and the underside of the bed, before collapsing to the ground with a near silent gasp.

Jim squeezed once more before carefully releasing him. “There, that wasn’t so bad, now was it?”

The taunting words sent a shudder through John. He couldn’t convince himself that it was anything other than desire as his hips twitched in response. Humiliation filled him, drowning out the euphoria of his release. He felt heavy and drained, wanting nothing more than to be curled up in his own bed instead of trapped underneath someone else’s.

In the darkness, John squeezed his eyes tightly closed and tried to roll away from the older man. The sharp pain of his shoulder hitting the underside of the bed caused John to freeze, heart in his throat. The man on the bed let out a loud groan, muting the sound John made as the bed creaked one final time.

John lay there for a long time, staring up into the blackness. The hard surface of the wood floor was cold, chilling him as he tried to keep his mind blank and not think about what they’d done. Above, the couple was talking, soothing murmurs that John couldn’t make out. Guilt washed over him, for having invaded this private moment between them.

He desperately wished that they would go to sleep already. After all, didn’t people normally roll over and go to sleep after sex? Heat warmed his cheeks, and he wanted to hit his head against the ground to destroy the mental images of the couple lazily twined around one another. A phantom current of desire shivered under his skin, and he clenched his fists, trying to distract himself.

Why was time going so damned slow? John wished more than anything that they’d never come into the flat. He couldn’t believe the situation Jim had gotten them in. Breaking into someone’s house to do that was wrong on so many levels.

John still couldn’t understand how he could have become so aroused by the sounds of the couple above him. It was sick; he was sick. Worse, Jim knew how twisted and depraved he was. What kind of human being would get hard listening to complete strangers?

John was pulled out of his despairing thoughts by Jim nudging him with his shoulder. “Time to go.” The whisper was more of a breath against his ear than anything else.

The erotic feel caused John to shudder, and he swallowed hard against the pulse of arousal. Letting out a slow breath, John grabbed the pile of clothes beside him. Shimmying out from under the bed was more difficult as he couldn’t lever himself out the same way he’d gotten in. Constantly, he had to flatten himself back down, the space between the bed and floor too narrow for John to slip out comfortably.

Once free of the confinement of the bed, John sat up. Blindly, he separated the material by feel, donning each article as quietly as possible. Finally, John slipped on his coat and shoes before crawling towards the door. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Jim doing the same. When they’d both reached the entrance, they stood. Silently, Jim motioned for John to go first.

Stepping carefully out into the hallway, he paused, glancing back into the room, even as Jim did. Fear skittered over his nerve endings when he spotted the woman sitting up in the bed, staring at them with wide, terrified eyes. In horror, he watched as Jim winked at her and placed his finger to his lips - the universal sign to stay quiet. Instantly, he knew that it would not work.

He was right. The woman drew in a sharp breath and screamed.

They turned around at the sound and fled, stealth no longer a necessity. They pounded down the hall and stairs. Already they could hear a commotion from above them. In seconds, they were out the door. Surprisingly, Jim didn’t slam it shut but closed it with a soft click. In a flash, he was back at John’s side, eyes wide and glittering as he snatched John’s wrist.

John had no time to protest the continued abuse to his arm. Once more, they took off, running for all they were worth. Thankfully, unlike the last time they’d made a mad dash through the city, they didn’t go far. After rounding the second corner, Jim slowed them to a walk. By the third turn, John’s shaking began to subside, and his anger started to resurface.

With a sharp jerk of his arm, John wrenched his hand free from the older man. Gritting his teeth, John turned and, using both hands, grabbed Jim by the front of his coat. Shoving the man up against the fence, he leaned in. “What in the Bloody Hell was that?” he demanded.

Jim just smiled. When John started shaking him, he began laughing. “That was an interlude.” His tone was full of amusement.

John shook his head sharply at the answer. “That was breaking and entering. Illegal!” he corrected, all but yelling into the man’s face. Only fear of someone overhearing them and calling the police kept John from being as loud as he wanted to be.

Jim went entirely motionless in John’s tight grip, dark eyes glittering in the distant streetlight. “Yes.” Slowly, he leaned into the younger man, his body curling around the two fists holding him in place. “And wasn’t it fun?”

Frustrated with both of them, John shoved the older man harder against the fence and took a stumbling step back. “You know what?” A multitude of words passed through his mind. Rants and demands, straight down to pleas. None of that would change what they’d just done. “I think I’ll just find my own way home,” he snarled, turning away.

Lightening fast, Jim’s hand shot out. His fingers coiled around John’s elbow and jerked the younger man back to face him. “You can’t keep denying this part of yourself, John.”

With a scowl, John wrenched himself free of the other man’s grasp again. He tried to tamp down the low hum of awareness flowing through his blood “I’m not denying anything.” He pointed in the general direction of the flat they’d fled. “What we did in there was wrong.”

“Only dependant on your moral compass.” The words were dark.

“My moral compass?” John sputtered in disbelief as he shifted to face the older man full on. Clenching his hands into to fists, he was barely able to stop himself from throttling Jim. “You treat everything like it’s a game, with no bloody repercussions!”

Jim cocked his head to the side, expression going utterly blank. “It is a game.”

Fear knotting in his stomach and John took an unconscious step away from the threat. “It’s not. There are rules and responsibilities. You can’t just keep going around and doing whatever you want. Someone is going to get hurt!” He wanted so badly to hit the man, take all his anger, frustration, and fear out on Jim. But, all his instincts were saying to run fast and hard from this threat.

In a sudden motion, Jim snatched John up by the collar of his coat. With a twist of his body, the older man spun and forcefully slammed him hard into the fence. “Everyone gets hurt!” Jim hissed, face twisted in anger. “They live and die, stuck in their own little guilt-ridden worlds. Afraid to take or do because they’re told it’s wrong.

Jim leaned in until their faces were nearly touching, something dangerous twisting his features. “Do you really think that you’re better than me because you struggle with your conscience and I do not?”

With one hand, John grabbed the hand holding him in place, using his other to shove at the older man’s shoulder. Jim held on, not even acknowledging John’s attempt to free himself. “I don’t think I’m better-”

Jim’s low bark of a laugh cut off the rest of John’s words. “You stand here on your moral high horse, proclaiming that what I do is wrong. But the thing is, Johnny-boy, you love it.” He pressed the full length of his body against John, intentionally rocking his hips against John’s rock hard arousal.

Unable to stop himself, a low groan escaped John’s lips at the contact. “That’s not true.” He knew he was lying to himself more than the other man. But he couldn’t face the idea that he was getting off on this.

“Tisk, tisk. Lies fall sweetly from your lips, but I don’t believe them any more than you do.” He rocked again, still refusing to let go of the younger man. Leaning in, his lips teasingly brushed against John’s ear. “You pretend to be something other than what you are because society has told you that it’s wrong.” He rocked again, his free hand sliding up under John’s shirt, pulling him in. “You will never be happy until you can accept yourself.”

“I do.” The words sounded weak. Angrily, John pushed the older man.

With a low, mocking laugh, Jim fell back a step. His fingers slipped from John entirely as he gave the younger man ground. “You don’t yet, but you will.”

“Oh? And I suppose you’re the one who’s going to tell me how to live my bloody life?” John threw his hands into the air. “Show me how I’ve been going about it all wrong, and how you can fix me to make me better?” He spat the words, hating how easily Jim could always get under his skin.

Jim cocked his head to the side as he began to tap his chin with a finger. “I could,” he conceded, intense gaze unwavering as he looked John over. “I could strip away all the armour you have built up over the years and fashion you into something new.” That damned smirk slid back into place as his hand dropped back to his side. “But that would just be boring.”

John threw his hands into the air, anger and hurt roiling through him. “My life isn’t a bloody game!” Without bothering to looking at the older man, he stormed away. Each angry step sent a shock through him, residual discomfort from the healed wounds of his feet adding fuel to the raging fire of his temper. He spun around once more, pointing a finger at Jim. “Until you can figure out that we are supposed to be friends, and I’m not some damned toy, don’t bother calling me.”

He stomped his way home. Even the hour-long walk couldn’t calm him down. Every time he rounded a corner, John half-expected to stumble across Jim once more. He wished that was the case. At least then he would feel completely justified in punching the man in the face. He couldn’t believe that Jim would do something like that. Actually, he could, and that made it worse. He was such a fool.

Eventually, he made it back to the flat. Even slamming the door behind him did nothing to cool his temper. Kicking his shoes off to hit the wall with solid thuds, he tossed his worn coat to the floor in agitation. His attention zeroed in on the faint red light that was blinking in the far corner of the flat.

After turning on the light, he walked over to the message recorder. John wanted to delete the message without listening to it. He knew it would be something from Jim. Finger hovering over the delete button, John hesitated. In the end, curiosity won out, and he pressed play instead.

“Good evening, Mr Watson. This is Andrew from the recruitment centre. We spoke at length the other day.”

John froze in shock at hearing the man’s voice.

“I would like to invite you to come in for an overnight assessment early next week to proceed to the next step of our evaluation. Please give me a call back, and we will discuss this further.”

The man began to rattle off some numbers. John broke from his shocked stupor and scrambled to write the information down. He took a deep breath, not sure how to feel about all of this anymore. But maybe he had found a way out. Away from everything that he’d been trying to flee, and maybe, even away from Jim.

Chapter Text

With a low groan of relief, John lowered his rucksack to the ground and hung his coat on the hook above it. He would empty the contents and wash everything later. He was exhausted. His body was stiff and aching from using muscles that, in day-to-day life, were rarely used. Even his brain hurt. He wasn’t sure which part of the military evaluation had been worse: the physically demanding running and hauling of bloody heavy items or the mentally taxing tests and questions.

At this exact moment, he was regretting deciding to do this. Surely there had to be a better way than trading years of his life in military service to become a doctor. But he still hadn’t heard back about the grant. John couldn’t passively sit by and hope that things would fall in his favour.

Was he kidding himself? Maybe basic manual labour was all he was good for. His dreams of becoming a doctor were just that – dreams. Unrealistic and overreaching, that’s me, he thought bitterly. Shaking his head, John walked further into the flat.

John couldn’t believe that he’d let himself fall into this type of rut. Aimless, with no concrete plans for his future, or even what he was going to do tomorrow. Realistically, he couldn’t save enough money to pay for classes. His boss refused to give him more shifts, and two evenings a week wasn’t enough.

If the army thing didn’t work out, he didn’t know what he was going to do. James was letting him stay here rent free, but for how long exactly? Three months? Would he even continue to let John stay after their fight? The man was well within his rights to be charging John rent for the place, but John didn’t think that with his current job that he could afford it. He didn’t even know how much the bloody place was.

James. Why did it always come back to the man? John knew he couldn’t continue to stay in the flat. He couldn’t keep relying on the older man. How had John managed to get so tangled up in James that they were breaking the law together? James didn’t appear to care or have any thoughts as to the repercussions of any of his actions. What would happen to them when they were caught? And at the rate they were going, it was most definitely a ‘when’ not an ‘if.’

But it’s only small things, he mentally defended. Neither of them had hurt anyone during their crazy antics. He flashed back to the terrified face of the woman. His stomach tightened, making him feel queasy. They hadn’t hurt her, but he suspected that she would be checking under her bed for a long time, if not in therapy from the incident.

Lost in his musings, the phone ringing caused John to jump and jerk away from the sudden sound. Pinpricks still dancing over his skin, he ran the few steps to the white plastic and picked it up before it rang a second time. Maybe it was Andrew, and they’d accepted him. “John Watson speaking.” His voice was polite and professional as he crossed his fingers.

“Nice professional voice you have there, Johnny-boy.”

Something fluttered in his chest, and he scowled. “I can’t talk. I’m waiting for a call.” He muttered the lie, only feeling a twinge of guilt. His heart was torturous, having begun pounding at the sound of the older man’s voice. John licked his lips as a small shudder coursed through his body, standing his hair on end. How should he react to the man? He was still angry with James, unable to believe that the man would act that way. He missed the man, but James was bad news.

“I would like you to accompany me this evening.”

The words sent a lick of excitement down John’s spine. Opening his mouth, he very nearly said ‘yes’ to the temptation. “No.”

“Johnny-boy,” he cajoled softly, the familiar nick-name sweet on the man’s lips.

Closing his eyes, John rubbed the heel of his palm against his chest. “I said no,” his voice remained calm and firm. Why did it hurt so much to deny this man?

“Please.”

The air stilled in his lungs at the softly spoken word. No, it was the tone James used that shot pain through his chest. Dropping his hand back down to his side, he curled his fingers into a fist. He drew in a slow breath. “I can’t keep breaking the law for you,” he whispered, opening his eyes to stare at the blank white wall. I can’t keep doing this. Shoulders sagging, John slumped down into the chair.

“You won’t have to.”

The words caused his heart to thud hard. Hope began to bloom even as he tried to stamp it out. John wanted to believe him. He missed the man so damned much. Maybe he could convince James that doing those things was wrong. James wasn’t an idiot; he would see reason. Hesitating, John bit his lip. Seconds ticked by as he warred with himself. “No more break-ins?”

James laughed, the sound very nearly a physical caress that John couldn’t help but bask in. “No, no, don’t be boring, my dear. Why would I do the same thing twice? I would simply like your opinion on something.”

James values my opinion? The thought made him feel warm inside. John ran a hand through his hair, uncertainty filling him. “Is it illegal?” He had to ask. If it were illegal then he wouldn’t do it. It didn’t matter what the man tried to say to convince him.

“Not this time.”

The answer both did and did not relieve him. The man had never lied to him. So, whatever he had planned, John could trust that they wouldn’t be breaking the law. Excitement beginning to hum under his skin, John gripped the phone tighter. “Where should I meet you?”

“I’ll pick you up at 7 pm. Dress warm; it might rain tonight.”

“Fine.” As the word past his lips, he kicked himself for so easily being persuaded. He hung up the phone before he could agree to anything else. Was he being an idiot for believing the older man? Why was he so damned weak when it came to James? The longer he stared at the phone, the more uncertain he felt about agreeing to the man’s request. Frustrated with himself, John stood and walked into the bathroom. The man would be here in less than an hour.

He showered, washing away all the sweat and grime he’d acquired from the evaluation. He lingered under the hot spray, allowing the water to sooth the myriad of aches in his body. Sooner than he would have liked, John got out. Standing before the sink, he towelled himself dry.

Using the towel, he cleared the mirror and picked up the razor from the sink. John hesitated as he lifted the shaving soap. Biting the inside of his cheek, he put it back down. His fingers hovered for a long moment before he picked it back up again. Guilt began to creep in as he lathered the soap on his cheeks. It grew with each stroke of the razor as he shaved away the spars hair from his face.

After cleaning out the sink, John walked out and went directly to the wardrobe. He refused to waste any time on trying to decide what to wear. He dressed quickly. Grabbing the red jumper, he paused with a frown. He wasn’t trying to impress James. Annoyed with himself, John tossed the material back inside. Instead, he snatched up the brown one James hated and put it on.

Five minutes to seven, he slipped on his coat, tucked his keys into his pocket, and exited the flat. Locking the door, he turned away, his gaze drawn to the door across from his - 302. John hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the Chatterbox girl since James had intervened. He was grateful, but a small part of him was bothered by it. John hadn’t thought the girl would have been scared off by a little conversation with James.

John shrugged, what did he know about the girl anyway? She was a nuisance, one that he no longer had to deal with. Turning away, John headed to the stairwell and down the steps. It was a good thing that she was leaving him alone. He had too much going on to add another person into his life even if he wanted to. John waited at the front entrance for James; attention fixed on the darkening, cloud-filled sky. When his watch read 6:59, the sleek form of the black Camaro pulled up.

Goosebumps rose over his skin at the sight. John drew in a deep, calming breath and stepped outside. In seconds, he’d made it to the door and slipped inside. Immediately, he belted himself in before risking a glance over at the older man. John instantly regretted not taking more care in his attire. Next to James, he looked like the pauper he truly was.

John swallowed hard against the lump that formed in his throat as he took in the man’s refined visage. “James,” he greeted cautiously. Seeing the older man, John wanted to get back out of the car, to get away from the temptation that was James. Instead, he hunched down in his seat, arms wrapping protectively around himself.

“Johnny-boy.” His tone matched John’s exactly, every nuance of his usual lilts missing.

It sounded wrong to John’s ears, and he looked at the older man out of the corner of his eye. John tried to figure out what was different about him. The man was slow to accelerate the car, the shifting gears smooth and relaxed. The silence in the car was almost deafening. Biting the inside of his cheek to keep himself from saying anything, John hunched further in on himself. James felt colder now, less there than before. John felt like he was simply a random acquaintance that James was escorting somewhere. The thought hurt, and John jerked his attention away from the man.

John shouldn’t have given in and agreed to come. But James had asked for his help. He hadn’t been able to say no, not after everything the man had done for him. John forced himself to breathe slow and easy as he looked out the window, trying to decide what area of the city they were going to. It wouldn’t be downtown this time; they were going in the wrong direction for that.

He was brought out of his distracted musings by the man’s melodic voice drifting over him. “I have an associate that I need to speak to.” He glanced sidelong at John, verifying that the younger man was paying attention before continuing, “He has become rather reclusive and difficult to locate as of late.”

John frowned, turning the words over in his head. “You found him then?”

James nodded, focusing once more on the road. He frowned, the expression adding lines to his face and making him appear older. Fingers tightening on the stick shift, he nodded sharply, before relaxing his grip. “Yes. I had to spend some valuable resources to track the man down, but I know where he will be.”

John nodded slowly, biting the inside of his cheek. He didn’t understand what this had to do with John helping, but whatever James needed, he would do what he could. “So, why do you need me there? You’ve never involved me in whatever it is you do.”

“Yaroslav’s been acting strangely for the past few weeks. Now, he’s dropped off the radar. I need an extra pair of eyes. Besides-” He leaned closer, eyes flicking from the road to John, locking gazes for a second “-I trust you.”

The words sounded nonchalant, but they left John feeling warm and light. Those three little words eased much of the anxiety and tension he was feeling. He found himself beginning to relax in his seat for the first time since entering the vehicle. As comforting as the words were, he did, however, feel compelled to verify the man’s earlier statement from when they’d spoken over the phone. “It’s not illegal, right? Whatever it is that you’re planning?”

James laughed as he straightened in his seat. The sound was warm and full of humour. It drifted around John, inviting him to join in. “No, my dear. Not to worry, your moral compass is safe. Yaroslav agreed to do something for me. I simply need to confirm that he did it correctly.”

That eased John further, and he smiled at the older man, ignoring the morality jibe. While he wanted to talk to James about his devil-may-care attitude, now was not the time. After they’d finished with whatever this was, they would talk. “Ok.”

After that, they fell into silence yet again. Once more, John looked out the window, scanning the streets they passed through; the area slowly became recognisable. In minutes, they were in sight of the Under-bridge. John’s pulse sped up as they drove over, and his gaze was drawn down to the dam below them.

From his seat in the car, John couldn’t see much, but he could picture every part of the Under-bridge with perfect clarity. Everything from the stained pillars, to the trash heaps and, of course, his perch. His favourite place in the world. Where I first met James. It felt so strange to be driving over the bridge instead of walking beneath. His life had changed so much in such a short amount of time. Most of it because of the man sitting beside him. For better or worse, James had altered his course.

Then they were past the bridge, working their way deeper into the industrial zone. John’s brows knit together as he tried to figure out just where the man was taking him. From what John had explored, there wasn’t much around other than warehouses. But he hadn’t had the time or inclination to spend weeks wandering through every street and alley looking for new hiding holes after he’d found the bridge.

James drove in a circuitous route, winding through backroads and lesser used streets. It got to the point that John had trouble trying to pinpoint exactly where they were. He knew that they were still in the industrial district, but the dark silhouettes of buildings offered him no insight to their exact location. He found himself frowning when they pulled up beside the closed front gate of a brick warehouse. It was dwarfed by the ones surrounding it, getting lost in the background even as John stared at it. Was this Yaroslav man one of the homeless that holed up in places like this?

With quick motions, James cut the engine off and climbed out of the car. After unbuckling himself, John followed suit. Hesitantly, he trailed James as the man walked to the back of the car and opened the boot. With a surety that spoke of his knowledge in the exact placement of everything inside the dark interior, he fished out a small duffle. Slinging it over his shoulder, the older man silently motioned John to follow.

They walked along the fence line until they reached the gate. There was no lock securing it closed. James used the toe of his shoe to open it further, widening the gap with an ominous screech. The sound sent a shiver down John’s spine and, uneasy, he glanced around, hoping that no one else had heard. Gravel crunched loudly underfoot as they made their way to the front entrance. The silence around them felt oppressive, heavy and weighted with the expectation that something was going to happen.

John focused on trying to be as soundless as possible. He followed close behind the other man. The back of his neck began to itch, and he looked around uneasily. It felt like some unknown figure was watching them. He knew that it was just his imagination, but that didn’t stop the eerie feeling from creeping down his spine. The wind kicked up small dust clouds and brought with it the stench of urine. John wrinkled his nose at the sharp odour and lifted a hand to his face to try to block it out.

James laughed quietly at him, playfully nudging the younger man with his shoulder. “Feeling above all of this now? It isn’t much worse than your bridge,” he pointed out in a low tone, as though he too was feeling the effects of the dampening silence and was unwilling to break it.

John nudged him back even as he glanced around the deserted grounds once more. The uneasy feeling was only growing as they approached the building. Shaking his head, he focused on James. “At least over there, I had the scent of water to help mask the more unpleasant odours.”

James grinned at his retort and, after dropping the black duffle to the ground, slid in close. Coiling an arm around John’s waist, he pulled the younger man in. With a deliberately slow movement, his free hand lifted to slide into John’s hair and around to the base of his neck. James leaned, dark eyes mesmerising in their intensity.

The first brush of their lips sent a shock of desire over John’s skin. The tenderness of the action stole John’s breath. Wrapping his arms around James’ neck, he pulled the man closer until their bodies were flush. John inhaled sharply, breaking the kiss, when the man’s fingers twisted in his hair, tightening ever so slightly. Everything was James. The man’s dark spice filled John’s lungs with every shallow breath, etching himself further into John’s soul.

When James pulled away slightly, his expression held a wicked cast. Releasing his grip on the younger man’s hair, he ran a slow finger down John’s smooth shaven cheek. He leaned in once more until his breath whispered over the sensitive shell of John’s ear. “After this is done, you will invite me to your flat.” He bit down gently on the shell, tongue darting out to taste John’s skin. “I have some unfinished business with you.”

The words were a dangerously enticing promise. John shuddered, need and desire coursing through his veins as James released the trapped cartridge to look at John once more. Staring into those night-blackened eyes, he found himself nodding his head, unable to formulate a coherent response.

James’ grin, if anything, widened. He untangled himself from the younger man, hands lingering teasingly at John’s hips, before pulling away entirely. James turned away from John’s still panting form and bent to pick up the fallen duffle. Walking the last few steps to the graffitied front door, he grabbed the handle. It opened without the expected screech of rusty hinges, the motion smooth and silent. Not glancing back, James stepped into the dark interior.

John stared after the man, trying to calm the raging beat of his heart and slow his panting breaths. Shifting, John winced at the tightness of his trousers. Nothing to be done about it right now, he thought with a shake of his head. Squaring his shoulders, John marched the last few feet and slipped inside.

Inside the entrance, John hesitated. The interior was varying shades of blacks and greys. The only illumination came from the still open door and the two shattered windows in the room. Shuffling carefully forward, John aimed for the barely visible silhouetted form of the older man. James was crouched down on the ground, rummaging around in the duffle. With a frown, John couldn’t help but point out, “You won’t be able to find anyone in here. It’s too dark.”

“Never fear, Johnny-boy,” the man muttered. His voice sounded strange, echoing off the walls and back to John’s ears. It sent a shiver down John’s spine.

When something thumped on the ground near him, John jumped, flinching away from the unknown threat. His pulse sped up as he forced himself to stay perfectly still instead of backing out of the empty building like he wanted to. A second later, light flared. With a hiss of pain, John squeezed his eyes tightly closed as he took an unsteady step backwards.

Slitting his eyes, John looked around the main entrance. Garbage littered the floor, along with things that John couldn’t – or wouldn’t – identify. Three paths had trampled down the garbage, all leading in separate directions. The place felt desolate. He looked over at James. The light cast strange shadows over the man’s face.

James’ features took on a sharp, sunken in visage. His eyes were black pools that saw everything but gave nothing away. The grin on his face sent a chill of fear running down John’s spine. The man’s slicked back hair appeared wet in the artificial light, parts of his suit becoming lost in the shadows surrounding him. John swallowed hard, feet rooted to the ground as the man approached with his usual lithe grace. When James handed over the torch, it took John a moment to accept it. As he did so, the man clicked on his own, the second beam directed at the ground.

John tried to smile, attempting to convince his imagination that the factory wasn’t haunted and nothing was about to jump out at them. “Good thinking,” he said. “About the light,” he clarified, even though James would obviously know what he was talking about. He glanced around uneasily. It was too quiet inside the building; John didn’t like it one bit.

“I always have good thoughts, my dear.” He winked and turned away, choosing the left pathway leading from the entrance. His dress shoes were loud against the ground, the sound sharp and crisp.

Casting the beam of light to where he was walking, John followed behind the older man. He couldn’t help but think that in this instance, James was wrong.

They did a room by room search, starting slowly to make as little sound as possible. The longer they were there, the more uncomfortable John became, checking each successive room faster than the previous, wanting this to be over with already. They weren’t the most thorough, but really, they were looking for a man, not hidden treasure. Distantly, John could hear the beginning patter of rain falling. It made the factory feel even more desolate. John didn’t know what the place used to make, but it had far too many rooms.

They’d searched most of the main floor when they heard something crash at the end of the final corridor. That had to have come from the man they were trying to locate. After a quick glance at one another, they threw stealth to the wind and took off running towards the sound. Their lights bounced and bobbed chaotically to their movements as John chased the older man.

Their mad dash through the hall was loud enough that any thought of sneaking up on Yaroslav was now a distant memory. It sounded like a herd was rampaging as they kicked over small piles of trash that they didn’t spot until they were almost on top of it. James drew himself up short in an open doorway. Unprepared, John smacked into his back. He oomphed softly as he bounced back, catching himself against the wall. James didn’t appear even to notice.

Bracing a hand against the doorframe, he glanced back at John. “Stay at the door. I need to speak with him privately.” He waited, dark eyes eerie in the false light, waiting for John to nod. When the younger man did so, James turned back around. Slowly, he stepped into the room, towards where the stranger waited.

John took the man’s place at the doorway and looked inside. The room was fairly large, larger than the other ones they’d already searched. John suspected that the room was once used as either a staff or meeting room. Now, it was more of a storage for junk and waste. Old takeout containers were tossed in a corner, the pile nearly to John’s waist. Grime coated the floor, thicker in some places. Disgusting splotches only added to the mess.

The worst part, though, had to be the stench wafting out. John shuddered as it reached him. The sharp bitterness of urine burnt his nose while the lower note of musk silently announced the mould that had been given free reign. Underneath all of that was the unmistakable scent of smoke, but John couldn’t find evidence that there had been a fire inside.

Eyes beginning to water from the pungent aromas, John finally turned his attention to the man that they had come here to find. Yaroslav, if he remembered the name correctly. He watched James slowly approach the man tucked against the far corner of the room. He was sitting cross-legged, on a stained looking mattress, with a rather thick blanket draped around his shoulders.

From his position, John was unable to see much of the man. Yaroslav remained completely still as James approached, his light directed to the ground. The older man paused, staring down at the stranger for a long moment before he sighed. He was slow to kneel down on the filthy concrete in front of Yaroslav, placing the light down beside him. The position blocked John from seeing most of the man.

Uneasily, John glanced back out to the hall. He couldn’t figure out why James had wanted him there. Maybe he doesn’t like abandoned warehouses any more than I do. He shook his head at that. James was the most fearless person he’d ever met. Perhaps it was simply an excuse to see John again. In any case, he certainly didn’t look like he needed John here. On the phone, he’d stated that he’d wanted John’s opinion, but in the car, he’d wanted an extra pair of eyes. Which one was it? Was Yaroslav some threat to James? Already uncomfortable, that thought wound his nerves even tighter.

James began speaking, the tone low and soothing. John couldn’t understand what the man was saying, the words sounding more guttural and sharp than English. It looked as though he was trying to calm the man down. The stranger didn’t look scared per say, his dark expression at odds with his hunched form. John had to wonder why Yaroslav would willingly squat in this place. Surely the man could come up with better accommodations than this.

What exactly did an external consultant do anyway? Why did James need to talk to this man badly enough to warrant tracking him down like this? These thoughts danced around his head as he watched the two men. The stranger slowly began to relax, straightening out of his hunch and allowing the blanket to fall carelessly from his shoulders.

John caught his first real glimpse of the man’s face. He was pale skinned with a strong jawline and narrowed eyes under thick eyebrows. Based solely on the wrinkles adorning his features, John suspected that time had not been at all kind to him. In a gruff tone, the man finally responded to whatever James was saying to him.

Then James made a mistake.

He leaned forward and dropped his hand lightly onto the stranger’s arm. Yaroslav’s reaction was immediate. He knocked the reaching hand aside and lunged at James. He was fast, grabbing James by the shoulders and shoving the man to the ground. Suddenly, he was on top of James, yelling something in that other language.

The flashlight fell unheeded from John’s grip as he rushed forward, sending it skittering off to the side. It spun, lighting patches of the room in quick flashes before settling to face the far wall. John paid it no mind as he sprinted forward, trying to get to James as quickly as he could. He was only halfway across the room when the man released James’ shoulders, fists curling into the slicked hair instead.

James twisted, trying to buck the bigger man off him as his grabbed at Yaroslav’s wrists. He tried to pull the hands away from his head, but the man’s grip didn’t budge. There was nothing James could do as Yaroslav slammed his head roughly into the ground.

Once.

Twice.

The third time James’ head cracked against the filthy cement, it was with a sickening wet sound that terrified John. John bowled Yaroslav over, sending them both sprawling on the ground. John didn’t care that he’d hit the ground hard. He’d gotten the man off James, and he was now between the two. They both scrambled to their feet, neither looking away from the other. With a sudden jolt, John knew with certainty that this would not end well for either of them.

The man spat something that John couldn’t understand. His hands sliced down in angry gestures before he tried to storm past John, still intent on James. Adrenaline spiked in his blood John stepped forward, to push the man back one more. His hand didn’t land. Yaroslav grabbed his arm and twisted, shoving John away. Gritting his teeth at the sharp pain radiating in his elbow and up to his shoulder, John stumbled. He nearly fell as he slipped on something slick before he caught his balance.

Now that John was out of the way, the stranger focused once more on James’ form. Narrowing his eyes, John jerked the man’s attention back to him with a well-aimed fist to the head. It hurt, his knuckles and wrist protesting the action. But it had the desired result.

Yaroslav fell back a step as he shook his head. He turned to face John, focusing entirely on the younger man. The shadows cast by the two fallen flashlights made the man look like some demonic creature as he rubbed at his jaw. “I kill him, you go.”

The offer sent a shiver of pure terror racing down John’s spine. “No,” he shook his head sharply. Clenching his fists tightly, he tried to brace himself for what would come next. He’d been in fights before, but only now did he know with certainty that not a single one had been as dire as this one. This was life or death. If not his, then certainly James’. He couldn’t let the man kill his friend.

The man straightened at John’s refusal, looming tall over the younger man. “Then you die.”

That was the only warning he gave John before rushing forward. In panic, John backpedalled, angling to drag their fight away from James’ still unmoving form. Blood roared loud in his ears as he stumbled and slipped over more garbage. Raising his fists, John prepared to defend himself against this man.

He wasn’t fast enough.

The blow caught him in the side with painful accuracy. John twisted away from the second strike, agony radiating along his newly healed ribs. He darted forward, fist landing solidly in the man’s face. The hit didn’t slow the man at all. Yaroslav sneered and latched onto John’s arm.

Panic enveloped John as they began to grapple, his arm used as the centre point. He knew that if they kept at it, then the elbow would be badly broken. Fear washed away any thoughts, and he lashed out, kicking and punching at the man in mad desperation, trying to free himself.

John managed to get a good hit in, and the man relaxed his hold with a gasp. Freed, John retreated again. Yaroslav was bigger than John and faster, too. John tried to figure out what his next move would be, but the man was erratic. When the man lunged forward again, John tried to grab at him, but he fell back, not letting John get a grip. Then Yaroslav attacked.

John panted as he dodged and deflected the hits, his energy already flagging. He was outweighed and outclassed. He knew that he had no hope of winning in a fight against the stranger. But if he went down, then the man would kill James.

With that thought ringing through his mind, John braced his feet and rushed forward. Being on the defence would only get them killed. John willingly took a hard blow to his left shoulder as he bowled into the man. He drove Yaroslav into the wall, hoping to stun him. Twisting his hand into the heavy material of the man’s coat, he drew back just enough to throw another solid hit to the man’s face.

Yaroslav grunted and shoved him back. John’s grip slipped from the material. John doubled over when the man landed a solid blow to his stomach. Air rushed out of his lungs as he stumbled unsteadily back. Before he could regain his bearing, something cracked against his knee, and his leg buckled. With a cry, John crumpled painfully to the ground.

In more instinct than thought, John rolled away from the kick aimed for his head. Terror built with each panicked breath as John trying to get enough distance between them to climb to his feet. When Yaroslav followed, backing him towards the wall, John knew the man wouldn’t give him that opportunity. In desperation, he reversed his roll, latching onto the kicking leg. He pulled at the back of the knee, dragging Yaroslav down to the ground with him.

Because of his grip, John was unable to get out of the way of the man falling on him. What little air he’d been able to suck in rushed out in a pained wheeze. He shoved Yaroslav off him and scrambled on top, trying to get his hands around the man’s throat. If John could strangle him into unconsciousness, they could get away.

Yaroslav wrapped his hands around John’s. He pried the fingers away from his throat, bucking and twisting to throw John off. They both rolled away, scrambling to their feet once more. Panting heavily into the cool, stinking air, they began circling one another. The man smiled, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. “Durachit. Protecting that Chudovishche.” He launched himself at John once more.

John’s vision slanted when the man’s fist found his head. Yaroslav isn’t going to stop, he suddenly realised. He didn’t have time to figure out how to get himself out of this, not while dodging the man’s attacks. If he were alone, he would have run as he always had before. But James was unconscious. He’d die if John fled.

Fear drove him on. He redoubled his attack, trying to get in any opening that he could find. When he managed to land a good hit to the man’s stomach, John thought that he might be getting the upper hand. He hoped that, maybe, Yaroslav would run instead of continuing the fight.

Then his face exploded in pain.

Teeth clashing together, copper filled his mouth as starbursts sparked in his eyes. Vision dimming at the edges, John faltered, stumbling into the wall. He slumped more than ducked to avoid another hit and nearly fell. Swiping at his face, wetness smeared thickly across the back of his hand.

“I will end you, then him,” the man threatened and moved towards John again.

John could see from the manic grin on the stranger’s face that the words were true. It did not cow him. If anything, it pushed his fear down, letting his fury bubble to the surface. Across the room, James still lay sprawled out of the floor, like a marionette with his strings cut. It scared John to see the man so still. He refocused his attention back to Yaroslav. Who in the Hell did this man think he was, to decide something like that? Drawing in a deep breath, John launched himself from the wall.

Satisfaction coursed through him as his fist sunk deep into the man’s stomach. As Yaroslav folded into the hit, John didn’t let up. Everything narrowed down to the two of them. John let loose all his fear and rage at the man. He would not let anyone hurt James, especially not this man.

A haze began to creep into his sight, casting the room in shades of red. John’s hand snapped out, and he latched onto the man’s coat once again. Twisting the material tightly in his grip, John punched him in the face. His lips curled up as he continued hitting the man, managing to get in a good uppercut.

Yaroslav struck him on the side of the head. As John’s vision blurred and split, he lost his grip on the man. Yaroslav stumbled back, trying to put some space between them. He tripped, falling backwards. That was all the opening John needed. He dove for the man, almost missing as his vision weaved, the single man separating into two before forming back together.

He didn’t need his sight while he had a hold of the stranger, however. They fought on the ground, twisting and punching. Any opening John could find, he took. Yaroslav tried to roll away, but John followed, gaining the position on top. He laid into the man.

What had John or James ever done to him to warrant such an action? Nothing. The thoughts drove his rage higher, and he punched the man in the face. Pain reverberated out from his hand and up his arm, but it didn’t slow him down. John didn’t care that Yaroslav went limp beneath him from the strike. He twisted his hand in the man’s coat and lost himself in the rhythmic blows.

When a hand coiled around John’s left bicep, he twisted and lunged. Letting go of Yaroslav’s coat, his arm came up, snapping out to attack the new threat. When the stranger jumped back to avoid the wild swing, John clambered unsteadily to his feet. The world slanted, strobing in the weak light as he rushed the stranger. He reached out, trying to grab at the shadowed man, stumbling as the form turned into two as his vision splintered again.

In a quick slide of shoes, the man darted out of the way of the sloppy attack. John barely caught himself against the wall and spun back around. Air burned in his lungs as he panted. John squinted, having trouble tracking the faster movements of the retreating figure. With a snarl of frustration, John rushed the man who was now speaking.

“Down…” The soothing tone drove John’s rage higher. “Relax.”

Arms outstretched to catch the stranger; John was unprepared for the leg that kicked out. It caught him behind the knee, hooking and pulling as the stranger darted back again. John fell forward, knees cracking hard against the rough cement. He caught himself with his hands before he fell face first. The pain shredded his rage, leaving John gasping as he hunched in on himself. The world dipped, slipping in and out of focus as he looked up at the stranger.

His mind took a long time to process the figure. He looked up the line of the man’s body. Heavy boots, dark trousers and a black shirt rolled up at the elbows. It was only when the man crouched down that John was able to see his face. Dark hair and even darker eyes. “James?” he breathed, not understanding.

Slowly, John turned his head, but James caught his cheek. It didn’t matter anyway; his gaze had locked on Yaroslav. Bile crawled up the back of his throat. Fear and horror consumed John, and he scrambled backwards, away from James and the too still form of Yaroslav.

A tortured moan escaped his lips as he dropped his head into his throbbing hands. He couldn’t believe what he’d done. “James?” he pleaded, the tone higher with panic this time. The name was a prayer on his lips, a silent appeal to make this better. What had he done? Slowly, he lowered his hands, only to find James hunkered down in front of him. Hissing in a sharp breath, John jerked away.

“John,” he whispered. Once more, the older man reached out. He kept his motions purposely slow and in full view of the younger man. Gently, his fingers brushed down John’s cheek, the touch almost not there. “I’ll take care of it, John,” he soothed softly.

When John made a small sound in the back of his throat, the older man’s hand curled around the back of his neck. The grip was warm and reassuring. He pressed his forehead against John’s, black eyes blazing. “I will take care of this,” he promised.

Those dark eyes were the last thing John saw before darkness swallowed him whole.

Chapter Text

When consciousness finally tracked John down, it was with a sledgehammer of agony. He existed solely in the radiating pain for a long time, simply trying to breathe through it. Did I piss Father off again? Struggling to think through the waves of pain, John slitted his eyes open. His confusion as he blinked up at the unfamiliar ceiling was only a distant hum against the throbbing of his body. Then reality slammed into him.

Yaroslav.

John drew in a sharp breath as the man’s face flashed in his mind. His stomach clenched, nausea welling up in the back of his throat. Eyes going wide, he sat up. Agony flared through his being, and he groaned, trying to curl back in on himself only to freeze when that worsened his pain. Swallowing thickly, John squeezed his eyes closed, trying to remember exactly what had happened last night.

James called him, asking for help. They’d gone to that warehouse in the industrial district, and there had been that man. Horror filled him when he remembered the bloody and broken form of Yaroslav sprawled out on his back, unmoving on the ground. Bile crawled up the back of his throat and John half-stumbled, half-crawled out of the tangle of blankets and to the bathroom.

In his panicked rush, he slammed hard into the door frame. With a pained groan, John bounced off to hit the wall. Collapsing to the floor, John crawled the last few feet. He barely had time to lift the toilet seat before he began gagging. Tears leaked from his tightly squeezed eyes, agony pulsing through him to the rapid beat of his heart. Bitter stomach acid filled his throat as he wrapped around the cool porcelain, his body convulsing.

John drew in shallow, panting breaths, muscles spasming painfully as he heaved, his mind forcefully replaying the fight behind his eyelids. Only when he felt about ready to pass out from pain and exhaustion was he able to collapse back against the wall with a low, agonised groan. “I’m not a murderer,” he choked on the words, his throat raw. John stared down at his shaking hands. The ache worsened when he saw the swelling, the cuts and abrasions on his knuckles and palms.

It was all James’ fault. If James hadn’t asked him for help – if he hadn’t dragged John into that damned warehouse, John wouldn’t have had to fight the man. No, he shook his head raggedly, a shudder coursing through his body. If I hadn’t been there, then James would be dead right now. Yaroslav had been trying to kill James. John had only done what was required to protect the older man.

He couldn’t remember when it had gone beyond that. John hadn’t been able to stop himself, not even when the man had stopped fighting back. He’d gone insane in the fight. Will I go to prison for this? He couldn’t claim self-defence because he’d technically attacked the other man first. But, he’d done it to protect his friend.

James had pulled him away from Yaroslav. The way James had been so careful with his movements, gentle with both touch and voice made his heart hurt. Then there had been his promise. ‘I will take care of this.’ The words hadn’t penetrated the thick haze his mind had been in at the time, but it appeared that he remembered nonetheless.

His words after bringing John home last night had been similar, but holding a final ring. ‘It’s been taken care of.’ Did that mean Yaroslav was in hospital now? Or was he dead and the body buried somewhere? Just how did a person ‘take care’ of something like that?

John shook his head to remove the thought, immediately regretting it as his head throbbed more insistently. What am I going to do? John slowly closed his hands into fists. They were clean, the blood scrubbed away, with the slightest sheen on the torn skin. Lifting a hand, he sniffed, inhaling the faint scent of antibiotic ointment. James had cleaned him up sometime between bringing him home and putting him to bed.

Carefully, John levered himself to his feet, using the wall and sink as supports. Flushing the toilet, he filled up a plastic cup with water, swished and spat. The tepid water soothed the stinging in his gums and cheeks. Replacing the cup, John stumbled out of the bathroom. His left knee felt loose and wobbly, threatening to buckle if he put too much weight on it. He carefully hobbled into the main part of the flat, aiming for the rumpled bed once more.

Halfway there, he stopped, eyes drawn to the phone. He glanced down at his watch, the time showing that it was already past noon. John debated for a long moment as to whether it was worth the effort to call into work and let them know he wouldn’t be coming in tonight. Realising that he needed to, he limped over to the phone and dialled the number to the hotel.

“Easy Hotel, how may I help you?” came the slightly bored, but professional sounding voice that John recognised as Amelia.

“This is John,” he cleared his throat, trying to remove some of the scratchiness from his words. “Is Scott around?”

“No,” Amelia paused. “Nathan’s in today. Do you want me to transfer you?”

John didn’t, but he didn’t have much of a choice. Scott was the more reasonable of the managers, whereas he and Nathan had butted heads too many times. The frustrating thing was he understood where his manager was coming from. John was their most unreliable employee, missing days at the last minute, usually because if his father. Not today, though. “Yes.” He didn’t have time to thank her before the phone clicked. Running a careful hand through his hair, John tried to stop the rapid beating of his heart.

“Yes?” This time, the voice was gruff.

“It’s John,” he hesitated, drawing in a slow breath before pushing on. “I won’t be coming in tonight.”

Nathan made a disapproving sound. “We had a deal, John. No more missed days, no more last minute cancellations, and you get to keep your job. Now, I am going to ask you, do I need to find another employee?”

John closed his eyes against the words, knowing that he couldn’t explain that he couldn’t come in because he might have killed a man and was too hurt to work the shift. Yaroslav’s face flashed behind his eyelids. John jerked, opening his eyes wide to dispel the bloody image. “I won’t be coming in,” he whispered. The man said something else, but John hung up the phone on the words. Swallowing hard against the resurgence of bile, he wrapped a careful around his middle. At this moment, he couldn’t bring himself to care that he no longer had a job.

Turning away, he made to take a step towards the bed once more and paused. Turning back around, John picked the phone up and dialled another number. Slowly, he drew the receiver to his ear, listening to the ringing on the line. Eight times it rang before going to silence, giving no option to leave a message.

Once more he dialled, now clutching the phone to his ear. He waited, hoping, even as he knew that the man wouldn’t answer. Again, it rang until it went to silence. Despair filled him, warring with relief. Hanging up once more, he shuffled back into the bathroom. He couldn’t sleep right now. If he closed his eyes, he would see the stranger’s face again.

Turning on the shower, John began to peel off his clothes carefully. It was only as he dropped the last of his sleepwear to the ground that he realised James had taken care of more than his hands. He didn’t remember the man bandaging him up. Gingerly, John began to remove the sticking plasters that decorated his body, tossing them into the rubbish bin. Last, he removed the thick dressing around his stomach. The poultice was heavy in his shaking grip, with a sour odour that he was only now becoming aware of. That completed, he carefully levered himself into the shower, curling up in the bottom of the tub.

He didn’t know how long he stayed in there, letting the scalding water wash over him to wash away what he’d done. Eventually, he uncoiled enough to wash himself down. Every time he closed his eyes, his mind would go back to last night, back to the feel of his fists slamming into Yaroslav. He was the worst type of human being. John choked back a sob and buried his face in his hands. What was he going to do?

It was only when the water began to cool that John finally crawled out of the shower. He was slow to dry himself, patting his body down with caution as he tried to catalogue his new injuries, before wrapping the towel loosely around his waist. His knee felt a bit better as he put weight on his leg. It was stiff and sore, but it no longer felt like it would slip from the socket at any moment.

He walked back into the main room, taking small steps and using the wall as a support. Looking around, he wasn’t sure what to do with himself. He wanted to sleep and ignore reality until he’d recovered more. But John knew the moment he closed his eyes, last night would replay in his head. What he needed to do was get out of the flat.

Making his way to the wardrobe, he opened it wide. Pulling out the loosest clothes he owned, he found himself frowning. Something nagged at the back of his mind. Holding the bundle of clothes against his chest, he took a few tentative steps back and looked around the room, trying to figure out what was off.

Everything looked the same. But something… John turned and glanced at the door. His brown coat was not hanging on the hook. Dread building in his stomach, he dropped his bundle and scrambled for his hamper. Tumbling it over, he spilt the dirty clothes on the floor.

Separating the clothes with shaking fingers, he knew what he would find. Or rather, what he wouldn’t find. He was right. After checking through each article, he knew with certainty that the clothes he’d worn yesterday were gone. Why did James take them? What purpose could it possibly serve?

Unsteadily, John climbed back to his feet. Clutching the towel at his hips, he backed away from the mess he’d made until the back of his knees met the bed. Helplessly, John’s gaze jumped around the flat, looking for answers. In a way, he found it, in the form of his keys and wallet lying neatly on the counter.

At the sight, he sank down to the bed, clutching at his head. “I killed someone.” The knowledge that it was his fault was a knife of agony through his soul. “No,” he breathed, wrapping his arms around himself and hunching in. He shook his head again, pain pulsating through his body. He’d had no choice. He had to protect James from the stranger. John couldn’t stand the idea of the man not being in the world, not being in his life. John let out a slow, shuddering breath. The idea of never seeing James’ cocky grin again was too much to bear.

Immediately, he thought about Yaroslav. Was the man dead? John didn’t know. Worse, he didn’t know if the not knowing would be worse than finding out for sure that he hadn’t… or had. One hand clutched painfully at his hair, fingers tightening in the still damp locks. “This is horrible,” he whispered to the ground. “How can someone live with this?”

He needed to get out of the flat. Needed to distract himself from everything that had happened. Otherwise, he would sit here and twist himself up more. With a hiss of pain, he levered himself to his feet and scooped up his fallen clothing before stumbling back into the bathroom.

Setting his clothes on the closed toilet lid, he opened the first-aid kit. Laying out the materials he would require, John began applying iodine to his various cuts and bandaging them once more. He had no idea what James had used to make the poultice for his stomach, but whatever it had been, the muscles were much less tender than they ought to have been. Still, he wrapped his ribs and rummaged around for the half-full bottle of painkillers.

After downing two dry, he replaced all his medical supplies into the kit and put it on top of the toilet. Picking up the clothes, John dressed with care, hiding the worst evidence of the fight. Squaring his shoulders, John forced himself to look up, into the mirror. Unwillingly, he winced and flinched away from what he saw.

There was swelling along his cheek. Angry scrapes, from his face sliding across the ground, marred the left side from jaw to temple. Well, that would be why my face hurts so much, he mused. The other reason was the swelling around his eyes. At least it didn’t look or feel like his nose was broken.

His fingers touched the mirror. He traced over the damaged lines of his face. Closing his eyes, the abandoned and filthy room appeared behind his lids. Like an old movie playing without sound, he watched Yaroslav attack James, watched as he slammed his friend’s head into the ground. John remembered the panic and fear that filled him as James was assaulted.

John shuddered as he clutched the sink, feeling nauseated. He swallowed hard, before trying to take slow, deep breaths. If John hadn’t launched himself at the man, James would be dead right now. His actions had saved the man. Yaroslav had given him no choice. The man hadn’t backed down, matching John blow for blow as they tumbled around the room. Yaroslav was fighting to kill while John had been fighting to protect. At least, he had in the beginning.

Then it all changed. John could still feel the knot in his stomach clenching when Yaroslav threatened him. He had nearly killed James, nearly taken the most important man from his life. John’s heart stuttered at that. John had only wanted to make sure that Yaroslav didn’t get back up before they could leave. He knew that the human body could be fragile, but it could also take a lot of abuse. He was the prime example of that.

Opening his eyes once more, he looked at his battered face and scared expression. “I’m not a murderer,” he whispered, trying to reassure himself. Purposefully turning away from his broken image, John made his way back to the wardrobe. He pulled out his old, worn out coat, glad that he hadn’t gotten rid of it. Snatching his keys and wallet off the counter, he pocketed them and walked out of the flat.

His pace was slow as he wandered aimlessly through the streets. There were fewer people out, due to the threatening rain, but John didn’t care if he got soaked. He kept his eyes down, making sure that he didn’t trip on anything as he moved. He didn’t know what he wanted to do - or even where he should go - but he couldn’t go back to the flat right now.

When the threatening rain finally broke through the confining clouds and poured down on John, he decided that what he really needed was a good, strong cup of tea. After all, tea made everything better. Finding a café wasn’t at all that difficult, and he stumbled into the first one he found. Rain dripping off him, John shuffled his way up to the counter. He tried to smile at the girl who stood behind. “A cup of Tetley,” he muttered as he pulled out his wallet.

Looking up from the change he was counting out, he noticed the girl’s alarmed expression. Frowning, John slowly placed the coins on the counter and took a slow step backwards. He knew he didn’t look good, but he hadn’t thought that he’d garner that kind of reaction.

Warily, she snatched up the coins before cautiously turning to prepare his drink. She wouldn’t fully turn her back to him, standing sideways and shooting him uneasy glances. Uncomfortable with her reactions, John awkwardly shuffled in place, wincing at the aches the cold was making more prominent. Looking around the small café, he realised that there was only a single couple inside other than himself and the barista.

His attention strayed to the telly mounted in the corner, where the news channel was playing on mute. He found himself focusing on it when the image changed to a raging fire in a building. Brows knitting together, John glanced back at the girl. “Can you turn that up?” he asked, trying to sound polite. John thought that it might have come out more as an urgent demand, based on how she jumped and spun around to face him full on.

The girl blinked at him and nodded her head quickly. Sending John another cautious glance, she fumbled under the counter. Pulling out a remote, she un-muted the telly, turning up the volume as he’d requested.

John didn’t thank her, just turned back to the screen that had caught his attention.

We understand that the death toll has risen to 17. There are more questions than answers right now. People are asking how this could happen, how could such a respectable place like The Winston Hotel go up in flames.

Over 50 people are in hospital at this moment, being treated for a variety of injuries.

The fire is still ongoing. Emergency services are still battling the blaze that had begun around 3:00 AM yesterday morning.

Emergency responders are on the scene, but there are now concerns that the building is unstable and could collapse at any moment.

There are some terrible details of what-

John turned away from the screen, unable to listen to any more of what the news was broadcasting. He wrapped his arms around himself, feeling ill. Swallowing hard, John stumbled out of the little café, not bothering to grab his tea. There was so much death. Everywhere he turned people were dying, and somehow, John felt responsible for all of it.

The rain poured down on him, drenching him to the bone in minutes. He didn’t care. He wanted to go home but couldn’t stand the idea of being there. So he would wander until he could bring himself to step back into the flat. He walked, slow shuffling steps in the rain, struggling to breathe through the pain. His water-saturated clothes hung limp and heavy, sapping his already flagging energy. His face had gone numb, followed shortly after by his hands and feet. His pace faltered as he stumbled, catching himself against a phone booth.

John staggered inside the small shelter. He leaned against the wall for support, eyes drawn to the black phone. He stared at it for a long time, breathing slow and deep as he tried to focus beyond his immediate pain. Cold had seeped into his bones, and he didn’t know if he could make it home before he collapsed. He needed help.

Fumbling awkwardly in his pocket for his last bits of change, he looked down at the coins in his aching palm. It was more than enough. John shakily lifted the receiver and put the phone to his ear. As the dial tone droned loudly in his ear, John hesitated. Drawing in a slow, shuddering breath, he deposited the coin and dialled. With every second that passed, his head throbbed more, the pain spreading behind his eyes and down his neck.

With each ring, he curled in on himself, clutching the phone tighter to his ear. “Please,” he whispered brokenly, fighting back tears. When it clicked to silence, the first tear slid down his cheek. “James…”

Blindly, he hung up the phone. Wrapping both arms tightly around himself, he hunched against the wall of the booth. Head bowed, John let the tears fall. James had abandoned him when he needed the man most. Is James afraid of me? Is that why he won’t answer? The thought was red hot agony, and he clutched at his chest as a low moan burst from his lips.

He’d driven the older man away. John had no one to blame but himself. The idea of James being afraid of anything should have been laughable, but after the way he’d attacked Yaroslav, he couldn’t blame the man. John was afraid of himself, too. He was terrified of what he’d done - of how he’d felt letting himself go and hurting the stranger so badly.

He didn’t know what to do now. He couldn’t go back home. Not home, James’ place, his mind corrected. John had nowhere else to go. Sucking in a shaky breath, John opened his fist to look at the change in his hand. He only had enough left for one more call. With trembling hands, John picked up the receiver once more and deposited the coins and dialled another number.

“Sanderson Residence.” The voice was warm and soothing, a mother’s tone.

John clenched his eyes shut, trying to fight back the moisture that sprung so easily. His head began to spin, and he realised that he wasn’t breathing. Inhaling a sharp breath that hurt his stomach, he asked, “May I please speak with Mark?” He tried to keep his voice steady.

“May I ask who is calling?”

“It’s-” His breath hitched, but he pushed through. “John Watson.” He hoped she didn’t remember him from last year.

“Hello again, John.” Her tone lowered to something softer - more welcoming - before lifting again. “Let me get him; you nearly missed him,” she confessed. Then the phone was muffled, likely by her hand, as she called, “Mark, dear, the line is for you!”

While he waited for the teen, John stared through the dirty panes of the booth. The occasional vehicle drove down the street in the downpour, spraying water as they went. Off in the distance, John watched a figure walking quickly away, under the shelter of a dark umbrella. He touched a pane, fingers splaying out on the cold material as he leaned against the wall. The heavy rain muted the sounds of the city, enclosing him and separating him from every other person in the world. He was completely alone.

“Hello?”

Jarred from the daze he’d slipped into, John flinched, hissing sharply at the pain in his stomach. “Mark,” he breathed. He’d never been so relieved to hear his friend’s voice. “Are…” Then John realised what he was about to do. What was he thinking? He couldn’t tell the other teen what happened. “What are you up to?” The question was weak, but he was hurting too much to think clearly.

“John?” The teen sounded confused. “I was just about to go out with a few friends.”

“Oh,” John stuttered, mentally hitting himself. Of course, Mark is busy; I shouldn’t have tried to bother him anyway. “Right, I should let you go then.” He drew in a slow, shaking breath, trying to convince himself that he was fine, that he didn’t need help. That wasn’t true, though. He needed James, but the man still wasn’t answering the phone.

“Wait,” the single word sounded almost panicked. “What’s wr-” Mark cut his own words off, immediately trying a different approach. “Where are you right now?” he asked, his words lower, but no less urgent.

John bit the inside of his cheek. Instantly, he regretted the action as he bit into where his teeth had been smashed into the soft tissue last night. Letting his hand slip from the window, John focused on the unfamiliar streets around him. Having always mapped out the areas surrounding where he lived or spent any length of time at, he should have known where he was. But, as he stared up at the looming buildings and down the rain-swept sidewalks, he drew a blank. “I’m not sure,” he finally admitted, shoulders slumping.

“Ok. That’s ok,” Mark reassured, his tone becoming lower and smoother, as though he were trying to coax a scared child out of hiding. Faintly over the line, John could hear a tapping sound, the rhythm sounding agitated. “Where was the last place you recognised?”

Trying to remember, John rubbed his forehead before jerking his hand away from the tender skin. He’d been wandering for a while, but couldn’t have gone very far, not with how weak he felt. “There was a café…” he trailed off, trying to remember the name. “Maggie’s? Marge’s?” His head throbbed as he tried to picture the café’s sign above the storefront. “It was a girl’s name,” he finally muttered, frustrated that he couldn’t remember.

“A café? We can work with that.” At the teen spoke, the tapping stopped. “Was it near anything that I would know?” After a few seconds of silence, where John didn’t respond, Mark clarified. “Were there any parks, landmarks, or stations?”

John shook his head slowly, unable to remember seeing any of those things. “No.” His breath hitched as he had a sudden thought. Clutching the phone tighter, he spoke, “But it couldn’t have been more than twenty blocks from Macleods.

More scratches could be heard over the line. “Trav’s Macleods? That’s a good start,” he praised. “Can you make it back to the café?”

Could he? John didn’t know, but if it meant that he wouldn’t be alone, he would try. “Yes.”

“Ok,” Mark sounded relieved at that. “I want you to go back to the café, and I will get you from there. Promise me that you’ll stay there until I get you.” Mark’s tone turned serious.

John hesitated, his conscience rearing to the surface. He shouldn’t get Mark involved; the teen didn’t deserve this. His lips parted, shame filling him as he whispered, “I promise.”

“Whatever’s going on, we’ll take care of it.”

‘I’ll take care of it, John.’ The words were almost identical to James’ last night. “Ok,” John whispered through the painful tightness in his throat and hung up the phone. He felt pathetic, useless. Like a victim who needed help for everything because he was too weak to do anything on his own. What else could he do, though? James wasn’t answering the phone, and Mark had given him a direction: get back to the café.

Drawing in a steadying breath, John stumbled back out into the rain. His pace was slow as he retraced his steps, using buildings as support. The cold had passed beyond a comforting numbing and into more pain. Every staggering step hurt, radiating agony through his torso and up into his skull. His knee throbbed, sharp lances of agony shooting down to his ankle. He wished that he could curl up in a ball and go to sleep.

John didn’t dare let himself fall back into a wandering daze. While it would have numbed the worst of the pain and let him move more freely, he wouldn’t be able to focus. He needed to pay attention to his surroundings. He needed to find the café again.

It took a long time, long enough that he had been sorely tempted to give up on the search more than once, but eventually, he found the storefront. His gaze was drawn up to the hand-painted sign. ‘Marjorie’s.’ Well, he’d been close, at least. John thought about going inside, but he had no money left, and he couldn’t bring himself to walk to the door. Not after the way the barista had reacted to him. Instead, John slumped against the wall, letting gravity slowly slide him to the ground.

Rain battered down on him, the moisture stinging the abrasions on his cheek and he hung his head to protect his face. John wished that the last twenty-four hours had never happened. He wished that he could wake from this nightmare. John knew that he was awake, though. He was in too much pain for this to be anything other than reality. Carefully, he tucked his arms around himself. Drawing his knees up, John hunched in on himself, his eyes slipping closed.

Even the image of Yaroslav, bleeding and still, couldn’t force John to open them again. He was too exhausted, his body weak and numb. He replayed last night over and over again, like a broken record that wouldn’t turn off. Each rendition made John out to be a bigger monster than the time before.

A hand gripping his shoulder jarred John out of his dazed stupor. He jerked himself away, hissing through the pain as he raised his arms to protect his head. John sprawled out on the ground, pulse racing as rain pelted angrily down on his face. Awkwardly, he tried to scramble away from the threat, but his clothes were too saturated with water, and he fell from the weight.

“John!”

As his name finally registered through the haze of fear, John looked up. Mark stood over him, and umbrella in one hand, sheltering him from the worst of the rain. His other was out in a placating gesture. His eyes were wide and scared as he looked down at the younger teen. “John, are you-” He cut the question off with a sharp shake of his head. “Here, let me help you up.” He moved slowly, raising the umbrella higher as he hunched down, offering his hand out.

Cautiously, John reached up to accept the proffered hand. His arm shook so badly that it took two tries for Mark to grab it. The hand almost burned against John’s skin, it was so warm. As the other teen slowly hauled him to his feet, John couldn’t help but marvel at Mark’s strength. “Th-thank you,” John stuttered as he fully regained his feet. It wasn’t for being helped up; it was for the teen coming for him.

Mark either didn’t hear or chose to ignore the words. “Come on. The car is just over here.” The teen frowned down at John, his hands hovering awkwardly as he tried to figure out where to grab. With a low, frustrated sound, he cautiously took John’s elbow, gently directing him down the street. They moved slow, Mark conscious of the speed John was setting and not rushing them. He led them to a blue car parked at the end of the block.

Letting John go only when he was sure that the younger teen wouldn’t fall, Mark opened the passenger door. When John tried to protest, not wanting to get the seat wet, Mark brushed the concern away. “It’s fine. The seats can be cleaned. Now, get in.”

After John complied, Mark helped buckle him in. Once John was properly settled, the teen rounded the car. Closing the umbrella, he tossed it into the back and climbed in. Turning on the engine and cranking the heat, he silently leaned over and turned the air vents towards John. John winced at the sudden rush of air on him, before relaxing into the warmth that it was offering.

“Do you want me to take you home?” Mark asked, not looking over. His words were tentative and only slightly disapproving.

Did he want to go back to his flat? Not his flat, it belonged to James. John shook his head quickly, clutching at it as the throbbing in his skull jumped to stabbing pain. “No,” he choked out through clenched teeth. He did not want to be reminded of James right now, even if he wished that the man were here instead of Mark.

The teen nodded his head, having expected that answer. “We’ll go to my place then,” he warned as he put the car into drive. The ride was silent as they drove through the wet streets. John couldn’t bring himself to say anything about the warning. He hoped desperately that Mark’s father wouldn’t be home. It was unlikely that the teen would take him there if that were the case, but John couldn’t help the worry that twisted in his gut. There was something about the man that set John’s warning flags off the few times he’d encountered him.

Eventually, they pulled up to another row of flats. Mark climbed out of the stifling warmth of the car and out into the rain. He all but ran to the passenger side and opened the door. After John fumbled and eventually released the catch on the seatbelt, Mark helped ease John out and closed the door behind. John tried to straighten himself under the heavy weight of his soaked clothes, but he was too tired and shaking too much to pull it off. They made their way along the sidewalk and towards the main entrance of Mark’s building.

John found himself slowing their already snail pace as he looked up at the imposing building. Clean lines, beautiful architecture and pale stucco contrasted dramatically with the carefully cultivated greenery that framed the front door. Well beyond his station. He shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t have imposed on the other teen.

Mark insistently tugged him forward until they’d reached the door. He made quick work of the lock and ushered the wounded teen inside. Locking it behind them, he moved back to John’s side. Pausing, he looked at the stairs. “Er…” he hesitated, glancing down at John with concern etched across his tanned features. “Will you be able to take those?” he asked, motioning to the first of the steps.

Body pulsing with pain at even the thought of having to climb them, John nevertheless nodded his head. He didn’t want to be a bigger burden on his friend than he already was. Silent determination filled him as he took one shaky step forward, then another. He refused to let a simple staircase defeat him. “I can do it,” he gritted out.

They climbed. Mark hovered anxiously behind, just in case John lost his balance and went tumbling. As they gained the first landing, John couldn’t hold back the low moan that escaped his lips, but he forced his trembling legs to keep going. By the time they’d made the second landing, John was panting heavily, nauseous from the pain. His body screamed agony to the rapid staccato of his heartbeat.

Only when Mark was certain that John wouldn’t collapse did he dart ahead and unlock the second door down. When the teen made to come back for him, John shook his head, pushing away from the bannister. He would make it there on his own, even if it took all night. Each heavy step squished, leaving wet prints on the hallway carpet, as he stumbled through the doorway.

John let out a small, relieved sigh; soon, he would be able to sit down. He made to lean against the wall to take off his shoes but hesitated. He didn’t want to get the wallpaper wet. Looking down at his feet, he watched as water dripped off him, already beginning to form a puddle where he stood. If John didn’t clean it up soon, then the water would damage the flooring. “I’m sorry,” John whispered, shoulders slumping under the weight of his conscience.

“It’s ok, mate,” Mark reassured him with a smile. He carefully helped John out of the saturated material of his coat, letting it drop to the ground with a heavy thud, before helping to get John out of his wet footwear. “Don’t worry about this,” he reaffirmed when he noticed John’s stricken look at the pile of sodden material. “Head over to the bathroom, and I’ll get you something dry to wear.” Only when John nodded did Mark dart out of the room and deeper into the flat, presumably to his room.

Wrapping his arms protectively around himself, John shuffled his way towards the bathroom. He still remembered where it was from the last time he’d been here. His clothes stuck to him as he left wet footprints in his wake. By the time he reached it, Mark had appeared with a bundle of clothes and a towel. The older teen set them down on the sink and stepped back, allowing John to go inside.

John tried to smile at his friend but felt like he would cry instead. Closing the door, he sat down on the closed toilet lid with a low groan. He hurt everywhere. He felt hot and cold, his skin burning even as he felt chilled to the bone. His head throbbed, and he was dizzy. It had been beyond stupid of him to go out in the rain like that. He would likely get sick because of his stupidity, and that wasn’t something that he could afford.

With slow, measured movements, John stripped out of his waterlogged clothes, dumping them into the tub. Pressing his lips together, he removed his sodden bandaging, one at a time, dumping them into the rubbish bin. His hands were trembling so badly that it took him much longer than it should have. Once he was completely nude, John gently towelled himself dry. He was so cold that he could barely feel his limbs.

It took far longer than it should have for him to put on the sweatpants and loose sweater that Mark had provided for him. They were thick and warm but, most importantly, dry. He draped the towel around his shoulders to catch any lingering droplets of water from his hair. Using the sink as a support, he levered himself to his feet and stumbled to the door, almost falling. His legs felt like jelly. Opening the door, he flinched back when he found Mark on the other side, leaning against the wall, cup in hand.

“Follow me,” was all the teen said softly.

The silence in the flat was thick and heavy as John followed Mark. He led them into the spare bedroom, where the narrow bed was already turned down. At the doorway, John shook his head, taking an unsteady step backwards. “No, I should-”

“Just get in bed, John,” Mark urged as he set the cup down on the nightstand.

Stomach churning, John bowed his head and did as the older teen said. He shuffled over and awkwardly climbed in. He was overly aware that Mark was watching him and tried desperately not to make any sounds of pain. Once he’d settled himself, sitting up in the bed with his back against the wall, Mark pulled the blankets over his legs and around his hips.

Humiliation and shame warred inside him as the teen treated him like a broken child. He stared down at his aching hands, unable to look at the teen. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Mark pick up the heavy-looking chair in the corner and set it down beside the bed. Sitting on it, he leaned over, plucking the cup he’d brought in and placed it in John’s hands.

It was warm against his cold fingers. With shaking hands, he slowly brought it to his lips. The milk was warm and rich, soothing his throat and nerves at the same time. “Thank you,” John whispered at the cup, unable to bring himself to look at his friend.

“What happened?” Mark asked in response.

John flinched at the direct question, nearly spilling the drink. Mark was quick to steady his hand, holding the cup from the bottom until John had a better grip on the thin porcelain. “I-” John faltered, his breath picking up speed. What could he say to the teen? I think I might be a killer? He shook his head slowly at the thought; he couldn’t say that. Licking his lips, he lowered the cup to his lap. “There was a fight,” he whispered. Cradling the cup against his stomach, he stared into the milky depths. That was the understatement of the year.

“What happened?” the teen asked again.

John swallowed hard. “I was helping-” James. He cut himself off, closing his eyes tightly. He couldn’t bring James into this. Drawing in a shaky breath, he tried again. “There was a man-” Yaroslav’s bloody face flashed behind his lid, and John shuddered, opening his eyes wide. “He was going to kill him…” His voice failed him as he began to shake uncontrollably.

Mark was quick to pluck the shaking cup out of John’s hands before anything spilt. Putting it back on the side table, he refocused his attention back on John, brows knitting together. “You were hurt trying to stop a mugging?” Mark asked, trying to put the pieces together from what little John was able to say.

John opened his mouth to deny it but stopped. That was as good an explanation as any and far better than the truth. He could live with Mark believing that this was the result of an averted mugging. “I couldn’t stand by and do nothing. I had to stop him.” He finally looked up from his hands to the teen, desperation in his words. He couldn’t stand by and let the man kill James. At its core, that was the truth.

Mark nodded his head, gaze distant as he shifted in the chair. “Of course not. It’s not in you to simply walk away from something like that,” he reassured. He smiled at John, relief smoothing the lines on his forehead. “The other man - the victim…” he clarified at John’s frown. “… is he alright?”

John remembered his last coherent glimpse of the older man. Their foreheads pressed together with a hand wrapped comfortingly around John’s neck and those black eyes that had promised him salvation. ‘I will take care of this.’ “Yes.”

“That’s good,” Mark encouraged. “And the mugger? Did you call the police?”

John nearly choked at that, torn between laughing and crying at the question. The police? No, they hadn’t called the police. “It’s been taken care of,” he whispered woodenly, mimicking the words James had said as he’d tucked John into bed last night. Had it been, though? More importantly, did he really want to know?

“Alright, that’s good.” Mark nodded his head, eyes going distant as he finally leaned back in the chair. He stayed silent for a long time, thinking before leaning forward once more. “I want you to stay here as long as you need.” He shook his head quickly when John opened his mouth to protest. “We have the room. I don’t want you going back to your parents, especially in the state that you’re in,” Mark ordered calmly but firmly.

John frowned, only now realising that Mark didn’t know that he didn’t live with his parents anymore. Of course he didn’t. John hadn’t seen him since the last day of school. “I’m not living with them anymore,” he confessed. Perhaps he would have felt more pride for the statement if he’d been able to do it on his own, but he was only free because of James. “I don’t want to impose,” he protested belatedly.

“You’re not imposing,” he reassured as he leaned forward, helping to slide John further into the bed. “We have the space, Mother always like you, and Father’s never home anymore, so it won’t be a problem.” With those words, Mark finished tucking John in and straightened up. He moved the chair back to its place in the corner and walked back over to John.

Picking up the cup from the side table, he walked to the door. Just before flicking off the light, he turned back. A myriad of expressions and thoughts flickered across his face before he finally spoke. “You’re a good guy, John. If you hadn’t stopped that mugger, he would have hurt a lot more people.” With one last smile, Mark turned off the light and walked out, leaving John with his thoughts.

The words were supposed to make John feel better, but they had the opposite effect. John twisted onto his side, curling into as tight a ball as he could manage before the pain stopped his movements. He wanted so much to believe that he was a good person like Mark thought, but John knew the truth. He was nothing but a coward. He had gone after Yaroslav first to save James, then himself. At best, that made him self-serving… at worst, a monster.

Chapter Text

His fist found its mark with a satisfying crack that echoed throughout the room. In the weak light, John bared his teeth in the mockery of a smile as he drew his arm back for another blow. When the man tried to twist away, John pressed his knees down harder on the trapped forearms. He leaned forward and gripped the short dark hair, forcing the man’s head still. John struck down again, feeling the cheekbone break under his clenched fist.

The man’s head snapped to the side, blood spraying out to stain the floor. He cried out, trying to twist again and protect his face from the onslaught. “Monster!” he gasped out, red dripping down the side of his face from the gash in his lip.

The accusation angered John, and he punched again. “I’m not the monster here. You are!” he snarled down at the man, backhanding him. How dare he claim that, John thought furiously as his fingers tightened painfully in the man’s hair.

“He is right. You, my dear, are a monster.”

The familiar lilt in those calmly spoken words snapped John’s focus away from the man trapped beneath him. Hope skittered over his skin, and John jerked his head up. James leaned against the filthy wall, not appearing to notice that his suit would be ruined by the action, with his arms crossed over his chest. Slowly, the older man shook his head; disappointment etched over his features as he watched the scene playing out before him.

Hastily, John released his painful grip on the man’s hair, rocking back onto his heels as he straightened. “James,” he breathed in relief, “you’re alright.” Fixated on the elegant man standing before him, John awkwardly scrambled off the man. He stumbled forward, reaching out, fingers spread to grasp at James’ arm.

The older man sidestepped the hand, dancing just out of reach. Narrowing his eyes, James dropped his arms. “Don’t touch me, Monster.”

John froze at the harsh words, hand still outstretched. “I’m not a monster,” he whispered as he shook his head. “He was trying to kill you. I had no choice!” he pleaded with James, blindly flinging a hand to the man he’d been attacking.

“That’s not quite true, Johnny-boy, and we all know it.”

At the sound of the same accented voice, John spun around in surprise. The man he’d left off attacking had rolled over to his hands and knees. The dark shirt and trousers were filthy from their scuffle on the ground, clinging wetly to his body. Head bowed, he climbed slowly to his feet. Heavy booted feet planted shoulder-width apart; the man slowly raised his head. Jim stared back at him, black eyes dangerous and blood dripping down his face.

John gasped at the sight, clutching his stomach as he began to feel ill. “Jim?” he whispered. “No,” he shook his head in disbelief, scrambling for the other man. Did I do this? No, I would never hurt Jim.

With a slide of boots on the blood-spattered cement, Jim slipped under the outstretched arms. As he passed, one hand coiled around John’s bicep. He pulled and twisted, throwing the younger man to the ground with ease. “Don’t touch me, Monster,” he sneered down at John in disgust, wiping his hands on his filthy trousers as though to remove the contaminant that was John.

John was pinned to the ground by those angry words. He couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe through the pain blossoming in his chest. Helpless, he stared up as the two men closed in. They stood over him, one on either side of his prone form. Both Jim and James glared down at him, wearing identical expressions of revulsion.

“Why would I want to have anything to do with you?” Jim growled. He wiped his face with the back of his hand, making a disgusted noise when red smeared across the skin. “This is all you can do: hurt people.”

“You are nothing more than a killer,” James sneered, tucking his hands into his pockets.

“Monster,” they uttered down at him in unison.

“No!” John pleaded with them. He tried to reach up only to have his hand kicked away as Jim took a step back to avoid the touch.

“Monster!” This time, their voices were louder, the accusation reverberating through John’s head.

“No!” he cried, trying to cover his ears. He couldn’t be. He’d only wanted to protect James.

“John!”

With a sharp gasp, John bolted upright. Eyes wide and heart pounding the stuttering rhythm of his panic, his gaze jumped around the brightly lit room. Instinctively, he jerked away from Mark when he spotted the teen standing just inside the doorway. Crashing painfully into the wall, he crowded into the corner, arms protectively around his head, trying to get as far away from the threat as possible.

Mark hastily backed out into the hallway proper. He held his arms up and out, showing that he wasn’t a threat to the younger teen. “Are you awake?” he asked cautiously. Only when John was able to nod his head, the movement jerky, did Mark re-enter the room. He moved slowly as he approached the bed, hands still lifted, not wanting to startle John.

Trying to calm the panicked thudding of his heart, John forced himself to move away from the corner of the bed. Muscles tensed for an attack, he eased himself to the side, lowering his feet down to touch the cold floor. Breath still ragged, he stared down at the almost healed wounds on his shaking hands. Angling his wrist towards him, John checked the time. 3:41 AM. “I’m sorry,” John breathed, wanting to cry. “I didn’t mean to wake you up again.” He couldn’t bring himself to look up at the other teen.

“It’s fine, mate,” he reassured softly.

John knew that he meant it. He also knew that he was the source of the dark circles growing under the teen’s eyes. This was the third time tonight that he’d woken his friend, and that was still better than the previous three nights. He was stressing Mark out and causing strain between him and his mother by even being here. John knew that he was using Mark’s kindness to distance himself from what he’d done. It had to stop. He couldn’t keep using the teen like this.

“Better now?” The tone Mark used was soothing and calming, as though he were talking to a wild animal. That wasn’t too far from reality. Mark had learned quickly that trying to wake John from his nightmares by touch resulted in John launching himself at the teen. Staying across the room and calling his name until John woke was the safest thing for both of them.

It wasn’t, but John nodded his head nonetheless. “I’m so-” John cut off the apology with a shake of his head. The nightmares weren’t going to go away. If the last few nights had proved anything to him, they were going to get worse. Because of that knowledge, he knew what he had to do. “I’m leaving.” Closing his hands into fists, John forced himself to look up. He had no right to bring trouble to Mark’s door. The teen deserved more out of a friend than John was able to give him.

“Hey,” Mark coaxed as he slowly knelt down in front of the younger teen. “You don’t have to go anywhere. I’ve already said that it’s fine.” With warranted caution, he dropped a hand lightly onto John’s knee, encased in baggy sleep pants. “You’re still recovering.” To emphasise his point, Mark lightly squeezed John’s sore knee.

John winced, both at the words and the pressure and shook his head. “I have to go.” When Mark made to protest again, John cut him off. “I’ve been here too long already; I need to go home.” James’ home, not yours, he reminded himself sternly.

It hurt so damned much to think about the older man. Pain built tightly in his chest, making it difficult to breathe. He still wouldn’t answer the phone, even though John had tried to call him repeatedly. He didn’t know what else to do. Even hearing James tell him to bugger off would have been better than this silence. At least then, he would have heard the man’s voice one last time.

“At least think about staying here for another day or two,” Mark pressed, breaking John from his downward spiral. The teen looked up at John from his crouched position on the floor. His bright gold eyes were earnest as he tried to convince John to stay. “The bruises are fading, but I’m wor-”

“Don’t,” John choked out. Angry and frustrated, he shoved Mark’s hand off his knee and shifted over on the bed until he could stand without trampling the teen. John needed to move. He always thought better when he was moving around, but the room was too small for him to pace. He desperately wanted to stay and let the teen make everything better, but he couldn’t keep relying on Mark. This time, John needed to get back on his feet on his own.

“John-”

Brushing past the older teen as he stood, John snatched up his neatly folded clothes from the side-table. Turning to leave the room, he paused, guilt filling him. Bowing his head, John clutched the clothes protectively to his chest. “I know you’re worried about me, but I can’t stay. I have to deal with this on my own.”

Mark frowned, moving to follow. “Deal with what?”

John winced, mentally kicking himself. He’d already said too much. “Everything.” That was all the explanation that he could give. Anything more and Mark would be in a bad position. Without another word, he walked out. Every minute that he was here, John was closer to letting it slip that he’d killed a man. John couldn’t ever let Mark know. The teen thought he was so much better than that. The truth was, John was nothing but a monster.

Once inside the bathroom, he carefully shut the door. John was slow to strip out of the sleepwear Mark had provided for him, folding each article and setting it on the counter. He refused to look in the mirror; he couldn’t stand his reflection right now.

His skin was a kaleidoscope of sickly colours. Even though most of them didn’t hurt without pressure applied, they still looked horrifically painful. Purple and blue bruises had blossomed primarily on his legs. The majority of yellows and greens and browns were reserved for his arms and torso. According to Mark, most of the discolouration around his eyes had faded. Lips pressing tightly together, John donned his clothes.

It felt right, like he was finally going in the proper direction. While he hadn’t figured out exactly what he needed to do, John knew that he had to learn to stand on his own. He wasn’t a student anymore; he wasn’t trapped with his parents either. John needed to face the repercussions of his actions, no matter what they were. That meant that he had to stop hiding.

Picking up the borrowed clothes, John left the bathroom. John walked into the spare room and was relieved to find that Mark wasn’t there. He hadn’t wanted to continue their previous conversation. He valued the older teen’s friendship too much to remain a burden. Setting down the clothes on the nightstand, he set about making the bed. It would be one less thing for the other teen to worry about.

While he was very much improved, he was still sore. It was to be expected. Even though he hadn’t been hurt nearly as badly as he had in the incident with Father, his ribs couldn’t continue to take this kind of abuse. Repeated trauma to ribs could severely damage the cartilage and permanently weaken it. Another glance at his watch showed that it was just past 4 AM. With one final look around the room, John turned out the light.

Silently, John crept his way through the flat, heading towards the entrance. John drew up short as he rounded the corner. A spike of adrenaline shot through his system, and John flinched back. Mark had changed from his own sleepwear and now leaned against the door with his arms crossed.

He pushed away from the door, snagging John’s coat off the coat rack as he approached. Holding out the threadbare material, Mark offered a faint smile. “You’re too stubborn for your own good.” He didn’t say anything else until the younger teen took the coat. “It’s too early for the Tube to be running. Let me drive you home at least.”

Immediately, John shook his head. “No.” With a wince, he softened his tone. “You’ve done more than enough already.” He tried for a smile as he slipped on his coat. “I need to walk. I need to clear my head and think things through.”

Mark pursed his lips, mulling the words over for a long moment. “I can understand that,” he conceded with a frown. “Alright, I won’t raise any more of a fuss, but you have to meet up with me on Monday,” he bargained.

John bit the inside of his cheek, wanting to say no. “I don’t know,” John hedged. “How about Friday instead?” That would give him more time to figure out what he was doing.

Mark shook his head. “Can’t, flight leaves Thursday. Wednesday then, I’m heading down to Macleods for 6. Travis is making me a farewell dinner.”

John felt like an idiot. How could he have forgotten about Mark touring Europe? Right, he was too busy worrying about his own problems. “Ok, I’ll see you Wednesday.” Uncomfortable, John focused on sliding his shoes on.

Mark smiled, stepping away from the door. He stopped beside John as the younger teen straightened once more. “I know that more happened the other night than what you told me,” he held out a hand at John’s frightened expression. “I wasn’t going to ask, but…” He frowned slightly, trying to come up with the right words. “Whatever did happen-”

“Please, don’t,” John cut him off unable to bare what the teen would say. Swallowing hard against the painful lump in his throat, John turned away, walking to the door. Hand on the doorknob, he glanced back. “Thank you, Mark.” Fingers tightening around the cool brass, he nodded his head. “I’ll see you Wednesday,” he promised.

Turning the knob, John walked out, shutting the door quietly after him. His steps were slow as he descended the stairs, using the bannister as support. He knee was mostly fine now, but he had a few hours walk ahead of him, and he would be as kind to it as he could.

Stepping out into the cool, fog-filled street, he breathed in the heavy dampness. John took a moment to map out where he was and the best way to get back to the flat. It was peaceful at this time of the morning; no sane person was awake yet. Far off in the distance, he could hear the muted hum of the occasional vehicle. The fog was thick enough that he couldn’t see the end of the street in either direction. That was fine; he knew where he needed to go.

Zipping his coat up, he shoved his hands deep into the pockets, fingers curling around his wallet and keys. He glanced down the street, using his hearing more than sight to make sure that no vehicles were approaching and crossed the street. There was no point in lingering. He intended on taking the fastest route to the flat.

As he walked at a steady pace, John couldn’t decide whether he liked or hated the morning fog. It cast the world in shades of greys and whites, removing the clutter of the city and only showing the landmarks he was looking for when he was nearly on top of them. It was peaceful to walk through the quiet street, but it made him feel even more isolated and alone.

Every time he spotted a silhouette in the distance, his heart would jump. John would slip off to the side, trying to catch a glimpse of the person even as he hoped to avoid their notice. As the strangers passed him by, he desperately wished that he would see familiar dark hair and arrogant swagger, but that was just wishful thinking. James would have no idea where he was, not that the man would want anything to do with him now.

Thinking about the older man hurt, and John rubbed hard at his chest. His fingers itched to call the man again, but it was a useless idea. James wouldn’t answer the phone. It wouldn’t have been so hard if the man had just told John that he wanted nothing to do with him. It wasn’t like John would have blamed him. He had seen John beat someone to death. That was more than enough of a reason to cut all ties. Still, he desperately wanted to see James, wanted the man to pull him close and promise him that everything would be alright. He didn’t care that it would be a lie.

But James hadn’t answered, hadn’t told John to piss off, or that he needed time. Anything would be better than this soul-crushing silence. He hoped that time would numb this sickening pain he was feeling. But, if the past few days were anything to go by, it would only get worse. That thought truly terrified him.

As dawn broke, the early morning sun began to shred the fog. By 6 AM, the worst of it had lifted, and the morning commuters had come out, filling the streets and walkways. John found a vendor who’d just finished setting up the daily paper. He paid for one, not able to bring himself to look the man in the eye. John didn’t thank the man, just turned away, shoulders hunched.

Rolling the paper up, he clutched it tightly in his hand as he continued on his self-made route. With every minute that passed, more people filled the walks, jostling him as they went about their lives. John was beneath their notice, nothing more than a vagabond to be ignored.

The ever-increasing press of humanity around him made John feel claustrophobic. Unable to think or breathe, he forced himself to press on. John wanted to run, to hide somewhere until he could regain his bearing, but it would be a useless endeavour. There was nowhere in the world he could go to run from what he’d done. He wished that he hadn’t left Mark’s flat, wished that he could simply ignore everything for a while longer.

But, even there, he hadn’t been able to ignore everything. Every morning, Mark’s mother would read the paper. After she was finished with it, John would carefully read every word of every line. First, the obituaries, where he would pray, just like he had the previous day, that he wouldn’t find the name ‘Yaroslav’ inside.

So far, there had been no mention of an unidentified male body matching the man’s description being found in or around the industrial area either. Deep down, John knew that it was only a matter of time. Eventually, the police would come looking for him. He refused to involve Mark in something so heinous.

Today, he wouldn’t read the paper until he’d made it back to the flat. If he found what he was dreading, John knew that he needed to be somewhere that he could break down and think. The busy streets of the city were not a good place to do that. With every step closer to the flat, the more anxious he became, and he found himself slowing.

When he thought of the flat, he thought of James. John missed the man with a desperation that went far beyond anything he’d ever know. It felt like his heart was bleeding out, that he was losing a little more of himself with each second that passed without the man in his life. Why would someone let themselves fall in love if it could result in this kind of agony?

With staggering steps, John made his way up to the building which housed the flat. The sun, warm and bright, made him feel slow and sluggish. After the three and a half hour walk, exhaustion was a heavy weight pulling him down. He didn’t remember most of the walk back. It wasn’t good, but he didn’t know how to stop it. Not enough sleep and too much worry were making everything fuzzy and hazy.

With a slow shake of his head that nearly threw him off balance, John unlocked the front door and stumbled inside. Automatically, he walked the few steps to the mailboxes. There was never anything inside, but he still checked. Key shaking in his grip, his attention shifted up. Above the row of bronze boxes, taped to the wall, was a missing person sign. John froze, staring at it in incomprehension for a long time.

Jennifer Huston: MISSING

The coloured photograph above the name was of the smiling Chatterbox girl.

The keys and paper fell unnoticed from his hands as he continued to stare up at the image in disbelief. How? He’d seen her only last week when she’d tried to get him to hang out with her again. John winced as he remembered his repeated brush-offs before letting James do the same. Shame filled him as he recalled the sheer relief he’d felt at the older man taking care of the problem for him.

Guilt shivered over his skin. Maybe, if he’d been nicer to the girl, this never would have happened. Logically, he knew that his being friendly with her wouldn’t have made a difference, but knowing and feeling were two separate matters. Maybe she’s taken off with a boy or something, he tried to rationalise. John couldn’t believe that she would abandon her mum the same way her father had abandoned them, though. He hoped that she was found alive and well, soon.

Feeling tired, dejected, and emotionally wrung out, John knelt down and gathered up the paper and keys. Knee throbbing, John used the bannister to lever himself up the stairs. Attention drawn to the Chatterbox’s door, he paused. He wanted to apologise to the girl’s mother for not giving the girl the time of day, but what would that accomplish?

Shaking his head, John opened the door to the flat. He had a moment of confusion, trying to remember if he’d locked it when he’d fled. The memory was hazy and disjointed. Letting out a small sigh, John walked inside and locked the door behind him. With careful movements, John removed his coat and slipped off his shoes. His body was sore from the long walk. His knee hurt, a constant distracting thrumming that he couldn’t ignore.

Shoulders slumping, the coat slipped from his fingers, pooling on the ground in a heap. Eyes downcast, he trailed into the room, trying his damnedest to think of anything other than death, missing people, or… James.

Swallowing hard against the resurgence of pain, he shuffled towards the bed. John knew that if he slept, he would only have that nightmare again, but the bed was familiar, and he needed that comfort right. He was only steps away from the bed when his brain finally registered something rather important. There was a man sprawled out on the maroon duvet. Specifically, Jim was sprawled out on the freshly made bed.

Jim was faced away, with one arm tucked under the pillow, cradling his head. The other splayed across his stomach, fingers touching skin where the dark t-shirt had ridden up. His legs, encased in tight jean trousers, were stretched the length of the mattress, crossed at the ankles. John felt like his heart would burst just seeing the man. He couldn’t believe that this was real. Either he was dreaming or hallucinating. There was no other possible explanation.

As he stumbled forward, the paper dropped from his grip. John reached out before hesitating, his fingers hovering an inch above Jim’s shoulder. He needed to touch the older man but was afraid that if he tried, the mirage would disappear. Drawing in a shuddering breath, his fingers touched down onto the man’s warm skin.

Faster than thought, his wrist was snatched up, and he was falling. As the front of his shirt was grabbed in a tight grip, John gasped, the world twisting wildly. Air burst from his lungs as he landed on the mattress with Jim crouched over him, legs pinning John down. His fist was still clenched in John’s shirt, his other hand pinning one of John’s above his head.

Agony sparked through his body, his torso protesting the rough treatment. The older man’s weight pressing down on John’s bruised legs sent shards of pain lancing through his skin. Adrenaline flooded his bloodstream, telling him to fight, to remove the threat. John couldn’t move, too shocked by the fact that Jim was real and not his imagination tormenting him again. Breathing through the pain, John didn’t care about his own hurts. Greedily, he stared up at the older man, eyes tracing over every angle and plane of Jim’s face. He’s here; he’s real, was all John could think.

John stared down at him, dark brown glittering even as he frowned. In another second, he loosened his tight grip on John’s shirt and released the trapped hands. The older man rocked back onto his heels, putting most of his weight on John’s thighs. “John?” His voice was slightly raspy as he blinked down at the younger man.

John hissed in a sharp breath at the increase in pain, but it didn’t matter. He revelled in the melodic sound of his name on the older man’s lips. It soothed a small part of his soul, a balm to the wound he’d been carrying since that night, Dark spice surrounded him, and John shuddered, his whole body shaking. He didn’t think he’d ever be this close again.

“Jim,” he breathed. John wanted to reach up and clutch the man close, but what if Jim pushed him away? “Are you ok?” He’d been so worried, so afraid that the reason Jim wouldn’t answer the phone was due to what John had done. That Jim was here meant that it couldn’t be the case, right?

Jim leaned forward, lifting most of his weight off John. His warm hand brushed a slow trail down the younger man’s scraped cheek. “I am fine; I am not easily broken.” He smiled slightly, eyes tracing the pale lines of John’s face. “But I am concerned for you.” The smile faded as their gazes locked. “You’re not sleeping.”

John flinched at the assessment, turning to stare at the blank white wall. It broke the warm, soothing contact. Instantly, Yaroslav’s flashed in his mind, bloody and broken. “No,” he whispered hoarsely. He wasn’t sleeping. How could he? A man was dead because of him. Protectively, his arms crept around himself. He wanted to be held but was unable to ask that of the older man.

With a low sound of discontent in the back of his throat, Jim extracted himself. He carefully shifted off John and the bed to stand beside it, looking down at John’s sprawled out form. As the seconds ticked by, the silence lengthened until John wanted to curl into a ball and hide from the penetrating stare. “Sit at the table,” Jim ordered softly, turning away. “We need to talk.”

Fear rose over John at the words, the hair all over his body standing on end. The only time someone ever said something like that, it was because bad news was coming. As Jim silently padded over to the kitchenette, John forced himself to sit up. The muscles in his stomach bunched, sending another wave of pain over him and air caught in his throat.

Carefully climbing off the bed with a wince, John hesitantly padded over to the small two-seating table and sat down so that he could watch Jim. He didn’t want to know what the man was going to tell him. John wanted reassurance. He just wanted Jim to tell him that everything would be alright.

The kettle had been turned on, filling the silent room with the low rumble of water heating on the stove. Jim moved around the small kitchen with confident ease and familiarity, pulling out a tray from a cupboard above the stove and setting it down on the counter. His movements were fluid and graceful as he added two of the four miss-matched mugs from the cupboard. He added the empty teapot, two spoons and a short glass of sugar. With a graceful twist of his body, he moved to the fridge and pulled out the milk.

John winced at the sight and hesitantly cleared his throat. “That’s gone off,” he offered quietly with a flush. It had started to turn last week, and he hadn’t been here to toss it out. Ashamed, John stared down at his hands. He’d begun shaking again, tremors racing from his fingertips, all the way up his arms.

With a careless shrug, Jim put the milk back in the fridge and snatched up the teabags from a tin on the counter. He stood at the stove, waiting a long time for the water to boil. When it finally began to whistle, he snatched it up and turned the stove off. Pouring it into the kettle, he dumped the tea bags inside.

Preparations completed, Jim picked up the loaded tray and walked it the few steps over to the table. He slid it on with professional ease that suggested to John that he had experience doing this type of thing. As he took his seat, black eyes flicked up to John’s. “I figured that you didn’t have any preference for how the tea was brewed,” he commented, motioning at the tray.

In the silence of the room, the only sounds were them making their drinks to taste. With shaking hands, John took a small sip from his steaming cup. It burnt the tip of his tongue, and he hissed. He could remember Harriett doing this for him when he was younger. John felt a pang. He missed his sister.

Did she miss him? John thought that she might. He would need to get in contact with her soon. They had to talk about what had happened that night. It appeared that enough time had passed, and enough things had happened, that he wasn’t even angry with her anymore.

“Thank you,” John whispered with a sigh.

“You didn’t kill him.”

John gasped, tea splashing as the mug hit the table hard. Those four simple words shot through John like an electric current. You didn’t kill him. Closing his eyes, John fought back the tears of relief. His throat closed as moisture pooled behind his tightly clenched eyes. Emotion overwhelmed him. I’m not a murderer. The thought bounced around the inside of his skull, echoing and reverberating through his entire being.

Head bowed, he clutched his fingers together, trying to keep himself together. The first tear escaped, then another, and suddenly he found that he couldn’t stop them. The heavy weight that had been suffocating him for days was suddenly gone. In its absence, John felt weak and light-headed. Opening his eyes wide, he drew in a deep breath for the first time in what felt like years. He hadn’t killed the man.

“Thank you, Jim,” he choked out, jerking his watery gaze up to the man who’d changed everything.

A slow grin crept across Jim’s lips as he watched John. With careful precision, he placed his tea on the table and stood. Rounding the small, he knelt down in front of the younger man. Reaching out, he picked up John’s shaking hands, warmth radiating from his fingers.

John’s breath caught in his throat at the touch. Something welled in his chest as Jim’s thumb grazed gently back and for the over his knuckles. Locking eyes with the younger man, Jim leaned down and placed a soft kiss on each knuckle, tongue darting out to taste the salty moisture from his tears. As he straightened, he used John’s hands to tug John to the edge of his chair. Silent, Jim leaned in, wrapping his arms around John’s waist and hugged him close. Mouth hovering by John’s ear, he whispered, “You’re mine, John. Never forget that I protect what is mine.”

John shuddered at the protective words. Wrapping his arms around Jim’s shoulders, he clutched the man tightly to him, never wanting to let go. He didn’t think he would be able to stand it if the man ever truly abandoned him. The last few days had been too much. He wouldn’t be able to survive the loss twice.

Drawing in deep shuddering breaths, John inhaled the scent that was uniquely this man. Dark and dangerous, everything that John needed. “Jim,” he sighed, burying his face in the crook of his neck. The name was a prayer on his lips, a plea to never be left again.

Jim leaned back, gently breaking the younger man’s hold on him. Lifting a hand, he cupped John’s cheek, thumb brushing over his cheek, mapping the line where his tears had fallen. “Better now?” he murmured, a gentleness to his features that John hadn’t ever seen before. When John nodded, he smiled, coaxing the younger man to his feet. “Then let’s go for a walk,” he suggested softly.

The thought of walking any further than the bed made his already aching muscles throb in instant protest, but he found himself nodding anyway. “O-ok,” John stuttered. He didn’t care what they did, so long as he could stay near the older man longer.

Steps slow, he trailed Jim to the entrance of the flat. Watching Jim lacing up his heavy black boots, John couldn’t figure out how he’d missed seeing them when he’d come it. He could understand not noticing the leather coat hanging behind the door. He hadn’t bothered to look that direction or even hang up his coat.

With a slow shake of his head, John stiffly bent down to grab his shoes. He hissed in a slow breath, the throbbing of his overused and abused muscles aching. They’d passed beyond the throbbing, pulsing agony of the first couple of days. He could only assume that it was because of that mysterious poultice Jim had put on him after the fight. It didn’t change the pace of his bruising, however, and his skin was riddled with a mottled array of colours

More than anything, his knee hurt. But to spend more time with Jim, he would deal with the ache. The most disabling pain hadn’t been physical anyway. John hadn’t been able to handle the reality of losing control and killing that man. It had been tearing him apart inside. But I didn’t kill him, he reminded himself as he slipped on his coat.

They exited the flat and descended the stairs in silence. John gripped the bannister tightly, not wanting to risk his knee buckling. As they approached the front doors, John’s attention shifted to the Missing poster. Guilt settled over his skin. The girl was missing, and he was happy. “The Chatterbox girl is missing,” he commented softly.

Jim paused with his hand on the exterior door. Glancing back, he followed John’s line of sight to the large picture. “Ahh,” he said after a long pause. “Perhaps the Chit simply went off to stalk somebody new,” he suggested. With a shrug, he opened the door and stepped out.

John didn’t think that was the case but didn’t correct the man. What could he even say? That from their first conversation – if one could even call it that – he’d garnered her deepest hopes and dreams? He hadn’t. John didn’t know much of anything about the girl, but he did know down to his bones that something had happened to her.

They stepped out into the early morning air. The sun was bright and warm against John’s skin, and he squinted against the intensity of it after the dimness of the hallway. John fell into step with the older man, their pace leisurely as Jim directed them down the block. As they moved, Jim shifted the slightest amount closer until as they moved their arm’s brushed. Tingles spread over John’s skin at the purposeful, yet to all appearances accidental, contact. When John caught sight a familiar black car, he frowned, casting the older man a sidelong glance. “I thought you said that we were going for a walk.”

Jim laughed lightly, the sound warm and melodic, a whisper of silk in his mind. “We are going for a walk, my dear.” He winked slyly and walked ahead to the passenger’s side. “We have simply yet to reach the starting point that I have in mind.”

With those secretive words, Jim unlocked the door and ushered John inside. Once John had settled himself, the older man closed the door. He strolled over to the driver’s side, sliding in with a contented sigh, running a loving hand over the steering wheel. In seconds, the car rumbled to life, and a song began playing from the stereo.

It was dark and slow, the piano keys a delicately eerie accompaniment to the voice which dominate the song. As they drove away, John focused on the lyrics. “What is this?” he found himself asking as they drove down the street.

Jim flashed him a wicked little grin. “This is ‘Criminal Mind.’ A lovely little song written by an individual named Laurence Cowen. Here, it’s much better if you listen to it from the beginning.” He reached over, pressing a button to rewind the track in the tape deck. After a few seconds, he pressed play and John caught the final strains of some other song before it faded to nothing.

At the first sweet notes of the piano, John’s eyes slid closed. He listened avidly, feeling the music surround him, fill him in its simplicity. It was an unusual piece, revealing no remorse for doing something considered wrong. In a way, John felt that the song could easily be about Jim. The man risky behaviours of running from the police, and breaking and entering felt almost justified as he fell into the strains of the song.

As the song trailed off into nothing, Jim turned off the cassette player. Switching it over to the radio, he lowered the volume until it was a background hum. The silence that filled the car was calm and comfortable as they drove through the busy mid-morning traffic. Breathing deepening and evening out, John allowed himself to drift.

By some miracle, Jim had found parking in the downtown core. As they climbed out of the car, the older man waited for John on the sidewalk. They walked slowly, forced closer than normal by the sheer quantity of people milling about them. The heavy throng of humanity lived their lives in small snippets of conversations, not paying any mind to the strangers that passed them by.

John was grateful for the easy and relaxed pace. They skirted past wide-eyed and excited tourists, the ones who like to stop in the middle of walkways, taking pictures of everything around them with their Kodak cameras. They didn’t talk much, simply enjoying each other’s company. John was so relieved that he hadn’t driven the older man away that his brain blanked whenever he glanced over Jim. The longer they walked, the more something inside him relaxed. It was almost painful in its slow release, like a fist clenched for too long finally uncurling.

John drew in deep, steady breaths, tasting car exhaust, smoke, greasy food, and grass on the air. He enjoyed ghosting though seconds of other people’s lives - in them one second, gone the next. It made him feel alive. Humanity was all around him. He was content to let the older man lead them on their little excursion, basking in the knowledge that Jim was beside him.

John had not prepared himself for what he would find when they rounded the next corner. The smoke he’d smelt distantly for some time became immediately more noticeable. For an instant, the path in front of them cleared, and he gasped, almost choking. The block ahead looked like a scene from the War.

Tendrils of dark smoke still rose into the sky, adding to the haze. Yellow police tape was strung the length of the road. It was a flimsy – yet effective – barrier to warning people not to cross. The air suddenly felt wet and heavy, and John shivered. Uneasy, John followed in Jim’s wake as the older man elbowed his way through the throng of people. As they approached the yellow take, John got a better view of the wreckage.

The fire had utterly destroyed the Winston Hotel. The buildings on either side were not spared, blackened and charred as they were. All that remained of the once beautiful structure was the hollowed husk and broken stonework. The fire must have raged hard to have consumed so much of the building in so little time.

Police milled around at its base, staying some fifteen feet back. Set off to the side, a series of makeshift tents had been set up, and a few ambulances were parked behind, silent. There was no rush for them; anyone brought out by this point would be dead. A cluster of four firemen was slowly entering the building through a gaping hole in the side.

The contentment he’d experienced only seconds ago dissipated. John swallowed hard past the lump in his throat and turned from the wreckage. They were pushed and jostled together by gawkers more curious than appalled by the grotesque scene. He looked at Jim in confusion, not understanding why they were there. The man wasn’t looking at him; his attention fixed on something beyond the tape line. Suddenly, Jim’s eyes widened. He let out a surprised laugh, hands coming up to clap together in a loud smack.

John frowned at the action. It wasn’t appropriate for the older man to laugh in the wake of such a horrible scene. “What are you laughing at,” he hissed lowly.

For a long moment, John didn’t think the man had heard him. He flashed John a wide grin and leaned close. Surreptitiously, he pointed out a teenager crouched in the rubble, on the inside of the police tape. Once he was certain that John saw the teen, he lowered his hand. “I gave him a puzzle a few years back.” Jim sighed, shaking his head fondly. “He still hadn’t been able to solve it, the poor thing.”

Jim cast another disparaging glance at the boy before shaking his head. Unable to withhold his mirth any longer, his laughter rang through the air. This time, people turned to look at them. Some glared, others muttered. All were unimpressed with Jim’s apparent happiness over the horrible scene.

John made a point of ignoring the grumbles and Jim’s enthusiastic cackling. Instead, he narrowed his eyes on the young teenager in the distance. The boy was tall and gangly, all long limbs and awkward movements. From what little John could make out, the teen had a mop of curly hair, either brown or black; he couldn’t tell from this distance. His clothes looked too small on his frame, likely because the boy was a bean pole and looked to be growing like on too.

Out of sight of the police, the boy was scanning the ground with a severe intensity. He bent to pick something up, holding high in the afternoon light. At first, he’d thought that the teen was near his own age, but his ungraceful movements convinced John that it was only his height making John think him older than he was. The longer he watched, the surer he became that the boy was thirteen or fourteen, but no more than that.

When Jim finally calmed down, John glanced over at him. “Was it a difficult one?” he couldn’t help but ask. Why had Jim given this kid a puzzle to solve a few years back? The boy couldn’t have been more than ten at the time.

Jim grinned. The expression oddly wicked against the backdrop of rubble and smoke. “Of course! Perhaps I should give him a hint at some point,” he pondered out loud, tapping a fingertip lightly against his lower lip. After a moment of contemplation, he shrugged and turned back as the boy picked up something else from the blackened earth.

John found himself shaking his head at his mad friend. “You just like to watch people dance to your tune,” he admonished gently. Unable to continue staring at the wreckage anymore, he turned away from the fire, only to be confronted by the angry glares of various gawkers. John scowled back. It wasn’t as though he had been the one laughing.

“I know,” Jim said in his lilting sing-song tones. Jim snagged him by the arm, tugging John away from the irritated crowd. Only when the throng lessened did they stop. Jim looked at him full on, dark eyes glittering in the bright light. Slowly, his smirk slipped from his face.

Frowning, John licked his lips. “Is that why you brought me here? To see if I’ll dance to your tune?” He didn’t know why Jim did anything, especially take him to the scene of a massive fire.

The other man shook his head, not breaking eye contact. “No, Johnny-boy. I brought you here to show you that there are real monsters out there, and you aren’t one of them.” When John opened his mouth to protest, Jim leaned in close, warm breath whispering in his ear. “That, my dear, was arson.”

Chapter Text

John read through the letter once more, hoping that he’d misunderstood the words. No, they were still the same. It was a formal rejection of his request for the grant. The small kernel of hope he’d harboured after mailing the letter withered inside. Clenching the paper tightly in his fist, John struggled to breathe through the multitude of emotions welling up. Of course, he hadn’t received the grant. Why would he get that when he’d already lost his scholarship?

He’d had his entire future planned out. Why did everything have to go so wrong? You still have Jim, his mind helpfully pointed out. John shook his head. “Only until he gets bored of me,” John whispered to the crumpled paper. Realistically, how long would that be? A couple more months before Jim realised that John had nothing to offer. The thought made him feel sick.

Jim wouldn’t want to stay with someone as broken as he was. John had caused him nothing but trouble from the very beginning. Even after all the problems he caused, Jim cared for him, given him a place to live, even tended to his injuries. No matter what John tried to do, he hadn’t figured out a way to fix his flawed design. It was only a matter of time before the older man had enough of John using him and left.

Angrily, John tossed the crumpled letter into the rubbish bin. He never wanted to see the bloody thing again. Rubbing a hand over his face, John started pacing. He needed to think. Or maybe, what he needed to do was stop thinking. John simply didn’t know anymore.

John paused mid-step when he spotted the small red light blinking on his message recorder. He crossed the room in three quick strides, gaze not leaving the light, afraid that it would disappear if he looked away for even a second. With a shaking hand, he pressed the play button.

“Good afternoon. This message is for John Watson. This is Andrew Hickman. After reviewing your assessment, we are pleased to confirm that you have been selected to begin Basic Training with the British Army. Please stop by the Army Centre where we first spoke to finalise the paperwork any time during this week and to receive the additional information you will require. Training will begin on the 4th of September and will take 14 weeks. If by the end of the week, we have not heard from you, we will assume you no longer wish to go down this career path. Have a good day.”

John stared down at the recorder in disbelief. They wanted him? Something inside his chest began to swell. A combination of fear and excitement beginning to beat down his bitter frustration. He was joining the military! Finally, he had a way to follow his dreams. A wide grin spread across his face as he turned away from the machine to look around the room. He was employed and could become a doctor.

His gaze landed on the maroon duvet. “Jim,” he whispered, his elation twisting sourly in his stomach. He would leave for three and a half months. Would the older man wait for him? No, Jim wouldn’t. He’d move on to someone better, someone who wouldn’t drag him down.

If those four days when John thought Jim had abandoned him were any indication, John knew he wouldn’t be able to stand the man not being there when he came back. Slowly, John sank down in the chair, dropping his head into his hands. God, why were there no easy choices? He felt cleaved in two. Should he go after the dream he’d had his whole life, or bask in Jim until the man became tired of him? Logic told him that obvious he needed to go. His heart was thudding to a very different rhythm.

Three loud raps on the door startled John from his thoughts. Jumping in surprise, his attention focused on the door as he climbed to his feet. He really hoped that it wasn’t the police again. He already felt bad enough about constantly brushing the Chatterbox girl without their silent disapproval. Still, he preferred them over the girl’s mother. Her begging for an answer John couldn’t give had torn him up inside.

When the knocks sounded again, John’s anxiety ratcheted up another notch. Running a hand nervously through his hair, John schooled his features and opened the door. “Yes?”

“Hello, my dear.”

Startled, John fell back a step, gaze jumping from familiar black boots, up lean legs, and to Jim’s amused expression. “Jim!” John damn near squeaked as he stumbled over his discarded shoes. He could feel heat flooding his cheeks and awkwardly cleared his throat. “Sorry, er-” Hastily, he looked down. “-I thought you were someone else.”

Jim stepped inside, closing the door behind him. Leaning against the wall, he crossed his arms, head cocking slightly to the side. The action pulled the white t-shirt taut across his shoulders. “I gathered that.” Jim made a point of studying John. His gaze travelled up the length of the younger man’s body in a slow perusal, a wicked little grin spreading across his features.

John bit the inside of his cheek, body reacting to the nearly tangible caress of Jim’s eyes on him. John’s flush deepened. As the seconds lengthened unbearably, he had to turn away. He wanted the man here, but why did Jim have to come right now? John still didn’t know what he was going to do. “I-” -missed you. The words got stuck in his throat as he glanced back. “What are you doing here?”

Jim didn’t answer the question immediately. Instead, he leaned down, unlacing first one boot, then the other, allowing the tense silence to stretch between them. John couldn't convince himself to turn away from the image of Jim bent over, lean muscles bunching and flexing as he made a show of removing his boots. Placing them beside the door, he slowly straightened, finally turning to wink at John. “I just wanted to see you, my dear.”

The casually spoken words made something flutter in John’s stomach and heart stutter in his chest. Licking his lips, John backed further into the room. Needing to put some distance between them, he glanced nervously around, trying to focus on anything other than the man in front of him. Catching sight of the kettle on the stove, he made for it with the desperation of a drowning man going after a life-raft.

John couldn’t decide whether he wanted to laugh or cry. He desperately wanted to wrap himself up in the older man. Lose himself in the feel of Jim’s skin sliding against his own. John didn’t want to think anymore, didn’t want to be torn in so many different directions that he thought he would go insane. No matter what he decided on doing, though, he couldn’t keep giving in when it came to the older man. He couldn’t keep using Jim to avoid his problems. Jim deserves someone better than me.

Swallowing hard against the painful lump building in his throat, John grabbed the empty kettle from the stove. “I’ll just make us some tea then, shall I?” he offered with false cheer. Tea was safe. It would keep his hands occupied and eyes away from the living temptation that was Jim. Turning on the faucet, he spoke over the rush of water. “I even have milk this time.”

John’s thoughts shorted out when he felt Jim step up behind him. A slow shudder coursed through his body as the older man leaned in, using his hips to pin John to the counter. He reached around John, pressing the length of his chest against the younger man’s back and turned off the faucet with a single finger. “I don’t want tea,” he breathed into John’s ear.

John couldn’t fully bite back the low sound that escaped his lips as his hips twitched. He dropped the kettle into the sink, not caring that water sloshed onto the counter. Gripping the sides of the sink, his head bowed as he tried to think past the pinpricks of heat dancing delicious distraction over his skin. As he closed his eyes, his lips parted. “What do you want?”

Jim’s lips touched the sensitive flesh behind his ear, placing soft kisses down the length John neck. At the base, he bit. John gasped, jerking as desire flashed through his body. John started to turn, but Jim pressed him more firmly against the counter. His tongue darted out to taste the newly abused skin, distracting the younger man into immobility. “I want you, my dear,” Jim murmured across the dampness he’d created. “All of you.”

John groaned. He lost himself in the feel of Jim surrounding him, containing him. A shudder wracked his body when he felt hands slip under the hem of his shirt. One hand splayed across his stomach, the other teasing over his ribs. Air caught in his throat as desire sparked from each point of contact. John gave himself over to the sensations coursing through his body. God, this was what he needed, what he understood. “Jim.” The name fell from his lips like a prayer as he arched against the older man.

Jim traced a path over his skin, nails biting gently into the still tender flesh. Trails of heat lingered in their wake. As the hand breached the loose neck of his shirt, Jim splayed his hand around John’s throat, fingertips gripping the edge of John’s jaw. With slow, steady pressure, he forced John to look to the side, angling his head back. When John followed the silent command, Jim kissed him.

The kiss was a gentle press of lips. It was made more arousing by the demanding pressure against John’s body. He shuddered, pressing back against the older man, desperately wanting everything Jim would give him. “Jim, please,” he breathed as he broke the kiss, lifting his lids to look into impossibly dark eyes.

Lips twitching up slightly, Jim placed another tender kiss on John’s parted lips. “When you ask so sweetly, how can I deny you?” With delicious slowness, he raked his nails down the side of John’s neck, slipping down his chest once more. Gripping the hem of the shirt with both hands, he pulled the material up and over John’s head in a quick motion. John was forced to release his tight grip on the sink as Jim pushed the material down his arms, letting the shirt fall over the kettle.

The cool air against John’s flushed skin startled him back to reality. John dropped his hands down, bracing against the counter with a gasp as Jim ground against his arse, pressing John’s erection against the counter. The sudden pain helped him focus. What am I doing, using Jim to distract myself from everything? Guilt and shame washed over him, twisting uncomfortably with the pulsing need burning through his blood. He couldn’t keep doing this to the older man… or himself.

In a panicked rush, John broke free from the tantalising confinement of Jim’s pressing body. Unsteadily, he backed away from the older man, shaking his head raggedly. “We-” He licked his lips, eyes raking over the dishevelled form of Jim, trying to think past the need and desire. “This…” He motioned vaguely between the two of them, unable to look Jim in the eye. “… it’s not a good idea.” God, it hurt to say, his stomach knotting tightly at the admission. John wrapped his arms around himself, becoming self-conscious of the slowly fading bruises and scars that decorated his torso.

For a handful of heartbeats, Jim stayed locked in place. With painful slowness, he straightened and turned fully toward John, closing the distance between them. His movements became graceful, predatory, as he advanced on the younger man. “Why, my dear, is it not a good idea?” His voice dipped, taking on a raw edge as he stalked John’s unconscious retreat across the room.

“It’s-” John flinched, the words stilling in his throat as his back hit the wall. Fingers tightening around his elbows, he hunched in on himself. Staring hard at Jim’s chest, he refused to look up. “I…” … might be leaving you to join the army. John couldn’t bring himself to admit the truth. If he was going to leave, he couldn’t keep using Jim. What he needed to do was get out of this situation, fast. He needed Jim too much to continue denying himself, even when he knew he should.

“You’re thinking too much again, Johnny-boy,” Jim chastised softly as he took a final step forward. With deliberate slowness, the older man lifted and braced his right hand against the wall, beside John’s tense shoulder. “Shall I distract you?” he challenged softly.

The question jerked John’s attention from the steady rise and fall of the older man’s chest as an electric current shot through his body. Eyes wide, John locked gazes with Jim. Yes, his mind begged, but John refused to allow the word past the barrier of his lips. He so desperately needed Jim to make everything better, to take the reins and take control. “I don’t need a distraction,” he lied breathlessly, unable to look away from that penetrating gaze.

Jim leaned in slowly, his smirk slipping as he stopped. Lips hovering over John’s, he breathed, “Will you distract me, my dear?” The words ghosted over John’s parted lips in a sensual caress.

Jim had made certain that there was no point of contact between them, only the tantalising threat of more hovering around them. John breathed in short, panting bursts, drawing in the older man’s scent deeper into his body with each inhalation. John was afraid to move. If he did, they would touch. John knew he wasn’t strong enough to walk away from this man again. “Do you need me to?” John breathed, watching Jim’s pupils expand.

“Yes,” Jim hissed through clenched teeth, as though it were physically painful to say.

Heart racing at the admission, a full body shudder wracked John’s body. Heat coiled low in his abdomen, tingles of expectation dancing over his nerve endings. How could he deny Jim? How could he deny himself? If it had been anything else - Hell, anyone else - he could have, but never Jim.

Releasing his bruising grip on his elbows, John stepped into the cage of the older man’s arms. He fumbled at the edge of the older man’s shirt, jerking at the white material, desperate to feel Jim’s skin against his own. He flattened his palms against the small of Jim’s back. Running his hands over the lines of scar tissue, he followed the raised and rough skin up Jim’s spine, pulling him closer. John kissed him then, hard and demanding, taking everything he could.

Jim made a low sound in the back of his throat. Slowly, he backed away, pulling John with him. They stumbled across the room. Arms wrapped tightly around one another, they duelled with teeth and tongue, bodies pressing deliciously together. With a sudden movement, Jim twisted them around. He broke free of John's possessive grip and pushed.

Adrenaline spiked through John as he fell onto the bed. He gasped as pain flashed through him, twisting with his growing need. Before John thought to move, the older man’s hands were at his waist, undoing his belt with quick, sure movements. Panting, John tried to help, lifting his hips as the man unzipped his trousers and pulled. The movement was rough, and John hissed out a breath as his tender skin protested. Once his legs were free, John scooted up the bed, staring wide-eyed at the older man.

Jim had already dropped John’s trousers and was working on his own. In seconds, they fell out of sight. Jim stood proudly, his erection straining as he looked down at John, raw hunger on his face. Placing one knee on the bed, Jim leaned forward, planting his hands on the mattress. He slowly crawled up the bed, between John’s legs.

Flushing at the intense expression, John drew his legs up, trying to close his knees. Jim’s eyes narrowed as he straightened, rocking back onto his legs. Gripping a knee in each hand, he leaned forward. “Don’t hide from me, John.” He remained still, fingers caressing the tender skin at the back of each knee as he waited.

John flushed harder at the soft reprimand and had to look away. He was too exposed as it was, sprawled out on the bed like a feast. Swallowing hard, John forced the tense muscles in his legs to relax.

Jim’s eyes darkened when he felt John acquiesce. Lips quirking up at the corner, Jim slid his palms up the inside of John’s thighs in a teasing caress as he moved into the opening. Slowly, he leaned down, pressing a soft kiss to John’s parted lips. “Give me everything,” he ordered softly.

John groaned, heat pooling in his stomach even as fear danced over his skin. The thought terrified John, but for this man? “Everything,” he agreed breathlessly. He drew in a shuddering breath when Jim pressed himself hard against John, using his body to pin him to the bed. Tendrils of heat blossomed through his skin from every brush of fingertips tracing along the sensitised skin on his legs and up to his hips.

“Good,” Jim whispered as he captured John lips in a crushing demand. He controlled the kiss, forcing John back down to the bed. As John relaxed, he scored a line of red down John’s chest. John broke the kiss as he threw his head back, groaning from the pleasure-pain. Burrowing his face into John’s neck, he kissed and nipped his way down the exposed length of skin. At the junction between neck and shoulder, he bit down.

John arched up into the sharp pain. Shuddering at the twin sensations spiralling through him, John gripped the older man harder. He kissed every bit of skin he could get his lips on, drawing in the intoxicating scent that was uniquely this man. When Jim rocked against him, John shuddered. His head dropped back down to the pillow, and he tightened his knees around the older man. Sharp pain radiated from his still bruised thighs, and John gasped, relaxing his grip.

Jim pulled back slightly, eyes narrowing as he took in John’s pained expression. “Slowly then,” he whispered with a wicked glint in his eyes. Jim shifted until he was no longer putting pressure on the younger man.

John’s brows furrowed as he tried to understand what the man meant by that. Jim’s lips against his collarbone distracted John from all thought. Fingers traced teasing patterns over his ribs, nails scraping gently as Jim continued to move down.

John lost himself in the feel of the man’s mouth and hands on him, sending liquid fire through his veins. When Jim’s fingers brushed over his nipple, John arched into the touch. He panted through the delicious sensations coursing through his body. Between kisses, Jim nipped at him, teeth grazing over the bruised flesh. John shuddered, arousal thrumming through his body as he panted.

When Jim dipped his tongue into John’s navel, he nearly came off the bed. John arched, head thrown back as he squeezed his eyes tightly closed. It was too much and not nearly enough. “Jim,” he begged, twisting his hands into the duvet to stop himself from grabbing Jim’s head and forcing it down.

“Slowly,” Jim repeated, breath whispering over John’s skin. His fingers traced along the edges of John’s pants, teasing and tormenting the younger man with the gentle caresses. As John writhed under him, Jim gave in just a little, slipping his fingers into the elastic waistband and tugging them down, one torturous millimetre at a time.

John groaned. He didn’t want slow. Slow would surely kill him. He needed hard and fast, needed to be consumed by this man. “Please,” he begged, hips twitching up as more of his skin was exposed. His pleas were useless. Jim continued to work the material down at an agonisingly slow pace that had John twisting and gasping as Jim’s mouth nipped and suckled at every new inch of skin revealed.

As his erection finally popped free of its confinement, John nearly wept. God, he wanted Jim’s mouth there, had dreamed about it more than once. But the older man bypassed the obvious source of his need. Jim took his time, destroying John as he exposed the younger man. He continued to take his time sliding the pants down John’s legs. His lips followed in their wake, leaving trails of burning need.

Then, the offending material was gone. John wanted to weep in relief. He gasped when Jim spread his legs. The pressure was gentle but insistent as he waited for John to do as he silently commanded. When he did, Jim leaned in. John flinched, nerves standing on end as a tongue licked the underside of his knee, sliding up the inside of his thigh. Jim shifted closer, lips pressing open kisses over the sensitive skin as he crawled back up.

When Jim’s lightly stubbled cheek grazed the side of his erection, John cried out. Arching off the bed, he tried to close his legs around the older man, desperate desire burning through his body. Jim refused to allow the action, catching and holding his knees open as he shifted out from between John’s legs. A low sound of dismay passed his lips at the loss, and John looked down the line of his body to the older man.

Flushed cheeks and dishevelled hair. Thin reddened lips parted as Jim panted and black eyes glittered behind half-closed lids. “Roll over onto your hands and knees,” he ordered quietly.

John flushed, feeling the heat burning his cheeks and down his neck. Movements slow, he sat up and rolled over. His knee twinged in discomfort as he braced himself as the older man directed. The position left him feeling far too exposed, and he started to lower himself back to the bed. Jim stopped the action with a single finger running down the length of his spine.

John shuddered at the teasing brush, goosebumps rising over his skin. He shuddered as he felt Jim move on the bed, trying to anticipate what the man would do next. Jim’s hands gripped his hips and pulled him into full contact with the man’s erection. John gasped as his cock jumped. John shuddered as Jim leaned over him, heat radiating off the older man. He splayed one hand against John’s chest, the other sliding down to wrap his hand around John in a firm grip.

John groaned, air coming out in panting bursts as he thrust into the hand gripping him. Dropping his head to the bed, he burrowed his face into the cool material. Clenching his eyes tightly closed, John tried to breathe through the waves of sensation flooding his body.

Jim began laying kisses along his back and shoulders. The gentle nips sent electricity through his body to curl in his stomach. Yes, yes, yes. His mind became a mantra of that single word. Jim scored a trail down his chest, the burning pleasure winding John higher. John cried out, arching into the older man.

Once more, Jim’s touch became soft and sweet. Gentle touches from lips and hands had John twisting and squirming, desperate for more. He rocked against the older man, needing more, harder, everything Jim could give him. He couldn’t take this torment by slow precision much longer.

A low beeping sound started.

John felt Jim pull away from him, the only contact between them that ever-present hand stroking him long and slow. The bed dipped to the side, and John lifted his head to see Jim pulling his trousers onto the edge of the bed. The sound stopped as the Jim angled his pager to read the words written on the display.

John tensed, knowing that Jim was about to pull away, about to leave and take care of whatever problem had risen. It hurt, knowing that the pager had more of a pull on Jim than he did. Unwilling to stay there until Jim pushed him away, John shifted. The movement caused Jim to glance back at him, eyes dark and unreadable. The man tightened his grip on John, his wrist twisting as he increased the rhythm and John lost all semblance of thought.

Then Jim was back, kneading, caressing and petting John’s arse with teasing motions to the movement of his hand around John. John gasped, dropping his head back down. He clutched at the bedding, another wave of desire flooding his body. As a single finger slid down his crack, John jerked forward. John gasped, eyes flashing wide at the sensation. Jim did not allow him to move far, tightening his grip around John and pumping faster.

John groaned low, thrusting against that tormenting hand. His world narrowed to that small portion of his body and that hand tightening around him. When he felt that finger brush against the rim of his entrance, the digit was warm and wet, John cried out. The older man held it there, stroking in teasing little circles. John shuddered, gripping the maroon duvet tightly as he burrowed his head into the bed. “Jim!”

John gasped, arching away from the sensation of that single finger pressing in, breaching his outer ring of muscle. He froze, air stilled in his longs as he tried to decide whether or not it was painful. It certainly not that comfortable, feeling strange and foreign. His muscles began tightening.

Jim laid soft kisses down his spine, tongue tracing patterns over the damp skin. His purposely slowed his pumping fist once more. Every stroke of his hand on John was long and slow, from tip to hilt. The dual sensations of the older man’s hands and lips on him wound John tighter, and he thrust forward. As he did so, Jim’s finger slipped out slightly, the sensation twisting something inside of John. With a gasp, his hips twitched back.

Jim obliged, pressing in again, slowly penetrating John. He timed each pump of his hand and each nip of teeth with that finger pressing deeper and deeper. The uncomfortable, overfull sensation shifted between one breath and the next, adding to the multitude of sensations roaring through his body. It was too much. John couldn’t handle everything the older man was doing to him. Jim brushed something inside, and John forgot how to breathe.

Fists tightening in the bedding, John threw back his head on a gasp, arching his spine. He couldn’t hold still any longer. He trembled, torn between thrusting back against the older man and into the tightly gripping hand.

Close, he was so damned close to the edge. “Jim!” he cried, pushing back against the man, only to have Jim pull out of John and release John’s arousal. The sudden absence of all contact left John shaking as he panted raggedly against the bedding.

“Ah, ah, ah, my dear. We are going at my pace, not yours,” Jim admonished.

John could hear the smirk in Jim’s sing-song voice and flushed. He shifted, pushing up to his hands once more. His arms shook as he bowed his head. He was far too exposed in this position, unable to see Jim when the man could look all he wanted.

Jim gripped his hips, pulling John back slightly, then something warm and wet licked between his cheeks. John cried out, hips jerking against the steely grip. Jim forced him still, tongue circling John’s entrance. He moaned at the devilish invasion, dropping back down to his elbows as he buried his face in the pillow. Shudders wracked his body as wave after wave of sensation rocked his being.

Jim shifted his grip, hands caressing his lower back and sides. His fingers cupped John’s arse before pulling his cheeks further apart. John twitched but lost all air as he felt that tongue push in. With a silent cry, John pushed back against the older man’s mouth. He lost himself in the feel of that firm muscle pushing in and out of his entrance, sending shockwave after shockwave of need burning through him.

He flinched when he felt the older man’s fingers replace his tongue, the digits cool and wet. Moisture dripped down the insides of his thighs. Press and retreat, Jim tormented John as he taught John’s body to accept the invasion with unrelenting patience.

As a second finger pressed against him, John tensed against the intrusion, unable to stop the natural reaction. Jim just chuckled, scattering distracting kisses over his back and shoulders. His other hand slid from John's hip around to the front. He grasped John and began pumping slowly. Every time his finger thrust in deep, he pumped John to the hilt.

John shuddered out a low moan as the second finger slipped past the knuckle. It burned, twisting his need with pain. Eyes flashing wide, John cried out as the man’s fingers found that spot once more. The world dimmed for an instant. John pushed back against that hand, euphoria dancing along his nerve endings. He lost himself in the sensations the older man was creating. Jim’s hands and mouth were driving him insane.

He froze when he felt the press of the third finger against him. John shook his head on a low moan. “Jim, I-”

“Relax,” Jim soothed, running his tongue down John’s spine. He was slow with his fingers, going deep enough to find the spot that left John spinning out of control, before easing back out.

John groaned, rocking to the rhythm the older man had created. The low burn was muted by those sinful fingers finding that place inside him again and again. Fingers slid in and out of him, filling him to bursting and that hand stroking him ever closer to ecstasy. John couldn’t take this delicious torment.

Just as everything began tightening inside him, Jim pulled back. He released his grip on John as his fingers slid out. John nearly wept at the loss, his body suddenly feeling weak and hollow. Just as suddenly, Jim’s arms were around his waist, pulling him down to his side on the bed. Jim curled in behind, pulling John flush to his chest as he laid slow kisses on John’s shoulder and up his neck.

John arched against the man. He reached behind, clutching at Jim’s hip. His fingers tightened when Jim bit his muscled shoulder. John twisted, angling his head back and capturing Jim’s lips with his own. Their mouths duelled, hard and demanding. Please, he silently begged. John needed everything.

With a final lingering kiss, Jim pulled back again. John heard a soft ripping sound, and he tracked a wrapper as it fluttered through the air, falling over the edge of the bed. John flushed when he realised that it was a condom wrapper. John started to turn, but Jim wrapped an arm around the younger man again, pulling him flush.

John shuddered, feeling Jim pressed so firmly against his arse. All thought fled when Jim began rocking against him. The feel of Jim’s slick erection sliding firmly against John’s entrance left John groaning. One hand splayed across his chest, rising to circle his nipple, the other lowering to grab him once more.

Jim’s wet fingers stroked over his erection in a deliberately slow pace, building John up by increments again. He began to thrust lightly against John’s ass. The feel and friction sent shudders wracking John’s body, and he groaned. Jim’s other hand splayed over his racing heart before scoring a trail of heat down his chest. John cried out, hips twitching as he struggled to breathe. The man continued to move, tracing patterns over John’s skin.

He felt Jim shift away once more, the teasing hand around him leaving. A moment later, Jim was back. He could feel Jim, warm, wet and hard, settling against his entrance. Instinctively, John tensed, his body going rigid at the feel of the other man pressing at his opening. His breath was coming out in harsh gasps, and he couldn’t stop shaking.

Jim pressed soft kisses to the back of his neck. “Relax, John,” he crooned. “I won’t lie to you. This will hurt to begin with.” When John tensed further, Jim chuckled. “It won’t be for long. You will be screaming in pleasure before I am done with you.”

John shivered at the seductive words, not sure if he should believe the man. But Jim had never lied to him. He didn’t think that the man would start now. Letting out a shuddering breath, John nodded, trying to force himself to relax once more.

Jim wrapped a hand around John’s erection again, his other, holding himself at John’s slicked entrance. “Just remember to breathe,” he whispered as he began to breach. He pumped John with long, firm strokes as he began to enter the younger man.

John tried to remain relaxed, but it wasn’t possible. Jim was too big. Air burst from his lungs as he squeezed his eyes closed. Fists clutching at the duvet, he clenched his jaw against the burning sensation.

“Good, John, relax,” he praised, kissing the back of the younger man’s neck and shoulders. “You’re doing good.”

John didn’t think he was doing good. It hurt. Every time he tried to relax a muscle as Jim suggested, another would tighten up. He couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t focus. The man’s hand wrapped around him distracted from the pain, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

“There,” Jim whispered. It was only then that he realised Jim had stopped moving. He was pressed fully against John now. His chest heaved against John’s spine as he pressed his forehead against the back of John’s head. “I won’t move,” he swore unsteadily, air cooling the back of John’s neck.

John was slowly becoming used to the overfull sensation. The burning stretch had begun to dissipate, but John wasn’t sure that he liked the feel of the other man being inside of him.

“Focus on the feel of my hand,” Jim whispered as he began stroking John’s half-erection.

Uncomfortable and not knowing what else to do, John followed the suggestion. The slicked hand slid up and down John in a teasingly slow rhythm. He licked his lips as his world narrowed to that hand. Slowly, Jim began to move faster, his hand tightening at the base, thumb brushing over his slit. John gasped, hips jerking forward. The action caused Jim’s hips to twitch in response.

John’s gasp stilled in his lungs as the older man began to pull out slowly. The fullness dissipating wrenched a low sound from John’s throat. He couldn’t tell if it hurt or felt good, the sensation boarding on both. John slowly relaxed into the sensations. It wasn’t something that John thought he wanted to do again, but if this was as bad as it got, he could do this for Jim.

Then Jim shifted slightly. The world exploded into stars as the man grazed his prostate. John cried out, a full body shudder wracking his body. Jim focused on hitting the same spot over and over again. John arched against the man, pushing back, needing more. With every thrust, the pressure built inside him. He rocked against the older man, panting.

Every thrust, every stroke wound John higher. He could barely breathe through the whirlwind of sensations crashing through his body. “I can’t,” he gasped out, straining against the older man. “It’s too much!”

Jim’s hand tightened around the base of John’s cock as he licked the shell of the younger man’s ear. “I shall be very disappointed if you come before me.”

The words were a dangerous threat that sent a sharp shock of arousal through John’s entire being. He shuddered, body clenching around the older man as he tried to hold himself in check. Jim slowly built the rhythm, sending John higher with each thrust, with each stroke. “Jim, please-” he begged reaching behind to clutch at the older man’s hip, urging him on. “-I need…” He was wound so tight that every thrust inside of him blurred the lines between pleasure and pain. It was too much; he needed the release. He needed to come.

“Not yet,” Jim ordered raggedly. Jim wrapped around him, holding John tight. Skin glided as they rocked against one another. Every breath became delicious agony as they moved together.

Jim’s thrusts came harder, faster, hitting that spot over and over again. John lost all semblance of coherency, the world blackening as he cried out. “Jim!” Spine arching, his hand dug into the older man’s hip as his world imploded.

“John!” Jim pressed into John, teeth biting hard into the younger man’s shoulder, marking him. With a shudder, Jim slowly pulled out of John. He didn’t once release his tight grip, burrowing his head against the back of John’s neck.

John coasted in the afterglow, his body heavy and mind drifting lazily. Letting out a contented sigh, John twined his fingers with Jim’s, tugging their hands up until they rested against his heart. The feel of Jim wrapped around him, holding him as though he would never let John go, made John wish this moment would never end.

He was mentally kicking himself for having resisted this pull for so long. Had he known, really known, how amazing, how intimate and mind-blowing it was, John would have pushed for this so much sooner. His body still hummed with residual pleasure, mingled with low aching notes that John basked in.

Jim made him feel alive, cared for and protected. His fingers tightened around the older man’s for a moment before his strength gave out. Letting out a soft sigh, John gave in to the persistent weight of exhaustion hovering around him and let himself drift away in the bliss.

John was so close to sleep that he barely registered Jim slowly untangling his fingers from John’s. Eyes still closed, he distantly felt the bed shift as the warmth behind him left. With a small sound of discontent, he rolled over and curled into the spot Jim had just been in. Silence filled the room as John drifted, every breath of the man’s lingering scent bringing him one step closer to true sleep.

“What is it?”

The sound of the low, clipped words jarred John from the tantalising threads of sleep. It took a long moment to convince his eyelids to move. He peered tiredly through his lashes, spotting Jim across the room, phone to his ear as he looked out the window.

“I was busy.” This time, his tone was sharper but no louder than before. “The orders given were clear.” As he spoke, Jim turned to focus on John. “Covenant Square.”

John let his lids drift shut again. Unimportant, he thought distantly.

“You were aware of the stakes when you took on this little venture.” Jim turned cold. “Enough. It had better be done tomorrow, otherwise…” His words trailed off.

In the silence that followed, John couldn’t help but wonder what would happen tomorrow. Something with Jim’s business, so it couldn’t be that interesting. The warm touch of Jim’s fingers against his shoulder coaxed John back to his side of the bed. Too exhausted to even lift his lids, he allowed himself to be shifted. With a slow tenderness, he wrapped John in his arms, pulling the younger man close. As the seconds ticked by, the feel of Jim’s weight and heat lulled John, and sleep claimed him.

Chapter Text

The instant John opened the door to Macleod's, boisterous laughter rolled over him in a wave. Startled, he froze in the doorway, his attention jerking up from the papers he was reading. Inside, men and women filled the space. Their voices overlapped. Laughter and cheers rose above the cacophony, hurting John’s ears and sending his heart racing.

John clenched his teeth, muscles stiffening as he found himself locked in place. He did not want to walk in there. Not with the sheer amount of noise bombarding him. Clutching the papers tightly to his chest, John forced his fingers to release the handle. He took a purposeful step away from the revelry, letting the door close and block out the sounds once more.

John paced away from the building in a rush. Were all those people here to wish Mark good luck as he travelled Europe? The thought of interacting with strangers made John’s stomach tighten in unease. As much as he wanted to, he refused to leave. Mark had asked him to come. John owed the teen more than he could ever repay; he needed to do this at least.

With slow care, John rolled up the papers and tucked them safely away in his pocket. He wasn’t sure if he’d made the right choice, but at least he had made one. Drawing in a deep, steadying breath, John walked back to the door. He refused to allow himself to hesitate this time. Curling his fingers around the handle, John went inside.

The press of noise against John weighed him down, slowing his step. That, and the sheer volume of people inside the small establishment. Clenching his fist tightly against his leg, he rose onto his tiptoes and looked around. Attention skimming over the men and women, he looked for two in particular. From his place near the door, he couldn’t see Mark, but a flash of red behind the ordering counter caught his attention. With a silent sigh, John forced himself into the fray.

At first glance, John thought Travis was manning the ordering counter. But the teen was a little too talk, hair a little too dark and shoulders too broad to be his friend. Hunching in his worn, brown coat, he waited in line. As someone shouldered past him, John was pushed into the woman ahead of him. He smiled weakly in apology as the woman turned to glare down her nose at him.

John wished that Mark would have told him that he was planning on inviting so many people. John would have suggested that they go for lunch instead. Discomfort tightened his muscles, and he took a small step forward as the line shifted. He was careful to maintain enough space between himself and the haughty woman so that if he were knocked again, he wouldn’t bump her.

John let out a sigh of relief when he finally made it to the counter. “Hey, David,” he loudly greeted Travis’ older brother. “I’d like a Haddock.” John pulled out his wallet, glancing around once more. “It this all for Mark?” he asked, motioning vaguely to the crowd.

David frowned down at him, most likely trying to place John. After a couple of seconds, he shook his head, the frown sliding from his features. Still, his eyes did not light up in recognition. “Naw, this is a birthday party. So, you’re one of Mark's friends? I haven’t seen you here before.” David leaned against the counter, getting a better look at John’s hunched in form.

John nodded, wanting to be anywhere else. Pulling a few bills out of his tattered wallet, John slid them over the counter. “I don’t come out often,” he commented softly. That was an understatement. In three years, he’d been here only twice before. He wasn’t surprised that David didn’t recognise him. John made a point of being forgettable; it was safest for him that way.

“Head to the back. There’s a reserved table. Travis should be done in the kitchen soon.” David motioned to the back of the room before handing John his change.

John nodded again, but David had already dismissed him, focused on the next person in line. Moving out of the way, John ducked his head and began pushing his way through the throng of people. He excused himself repeatedly as he weaved through groups, earning the occasional scowl. Most of the patrons didn’t even notice him, stepping back into place without pausing to take a breath.

Finally reaching the back corner, John uncomfortably edged around a couple that were chatting loudly. “Excuse me,” he murmured, sliding into the chair against the wall so that he could see anyone who approached.

Sitting stiffly, John watched the varied groups of people. There weren’t as many in here as he had initially thought. His discomfort with crowds made it feel like there were more. Still, they were loud, and John wanted to leave. Pressing his lips together, John carefully pulled out the rolled papers. He smoothed them out on the table.

The first page was his copy of the military contract. The second, the list of what he needed to bring with him when he left. The third was his instructions on when and where he would need to be to begin. Absently running the heel of his palm against his chest, John tried to figure out how he was going to tell Jim.

John didn’t want to say goodbye, but he had to stand on his own. He couldn’t continue to rely on Jim for everything. John wasn’t an invalid; he was fully capable of taking care of himself. If Jim couldn’t understand that then maybe they were better off apart.

The sound of paper crinkling drew John’s focus outward once more. He winced, releasing his tight grip and smoothing out the papers. He knew that no matter what he did, he would have regrets. Now, he just needed to figure out how to tell Jim that he was leaving in a couple of weeks.

When he got home, he would call Jim, invite him over. Then they could… John flushed, a small shudder coursing through him as he thought about everything he wanted to do, and none of them involved talking. John wanted to experience everything he could with Jim before he went away.
He couldn’t decide whether he should tell Jim that he was going tonight or continue putting it off.

He should have told Jim when he’d applied, or - if not then - when he’d gone for the tests. But the more he’d put it off, the harder it became to speak of it. Besides, he hadn’t thought that they would want him. But they had, and it was the only way he still had of achieving his dream of becoming a doctor. He couldn’t throw that away, but he didn’t want to throw what he had with Jim away either. John was drawn from his thoughts by the chair across from him being pulled out.

Mark sat down, a slow smile spreading across his face as he leaned forward. “Hey, John. I wasn’t sure if you’d show,” he commented as he scooted his chair in slightly.

John looked away, focusing on the people chatting away at the next table over. The teen had put up with John backing out of invitations time and time again. “I said I would.” It didn’t matter that he’d hesitated outside. John had made a promise to Mark, and he wouldn’t break it. Shaking his head, he looked back at the teen. “Who else is coming?”

Mark opened his mouth to respond but was interrupted by a large plate of steaming chips being set down between them. “Good evening, gentlemen!” Travis’ exuberant voice was clear over the surrounding noise. With a sly wink, he pulled his other arm out from behind his back. Gripped tightly between his fingers were three bottles, which he carefully placed down beside the plate. “I come bearing gifts!”

Grinning widely, Trav slid a chair out and sat down beside Mark. Without preamble, he snagged a beer for himself and unscrewed the bottle. “What are those?” he asked with a nod of his head as he eyed the papers under John’s hand.

John tensed, fingers splaying out to cover as much of the words as he could. “Er… well…” he trailed off as he glanced between the two teens. They both watched him, waiting for his answer. From Mark’s drawn expression, John knew that the teen didn’t think he would explain. He couldn’t blame Mark for the doubt. He had a long history of refusing to answer the teen’s questions. Maybe he should tell them. That way, he could gauge their reactions. It might help him guess what Jim’s would be.

Decision made, John straightened in the seat and drew in a fortifying breath. Curling his fingers into a loose fist over the words, he looked first at Mark, then Travis. “I’m joining the military.”

Mark leaned back in his chair, stark surprise written across his features. “Damn, congratulations mate!”

Travis smiled at him. “That’s great!” As the seconds dragged on, his brows knit together, and he hesitantly asked, “I thought you were trying to be a doctor?”

John bowed his head, lips pressing tightly together against the anxiety of being questioned. “If everything goes according to plan, they’ll help me get in.”

Mark nodded, snagging a beer for himself and opening it. “That’s a good plan. When do you head out?”

John jerked his attention up from the papers. Cautiously, he smiled at them, grateful for their support. Still, guilt clawed in his gut. Would Jim be this supportive, too? Somehow, John didn’t think he would. If Jim told him tomorrow that he was leaving, John knew that he would certainly feel betrayed. Was that what he was doing? Betraying Jim? Pushing the uncomfortable thought aside, he dredged up a weak smile. “I leave for training on the fourth.”

After taking a long drink, Mark set the beer down. “But that’s less than two weeks away. Won’t you get in trouble for breaking your lease?”

John looked out over the sea of people, his stomach twisting uncomfortably. He didn’t have a lease with Jim, but he knew that the man wasn’t going to be happy. Still, two weeks could be a long enough time to convince Jim that this wasn’t John leaving him and that he did want to make things work between them. “No.”

This conversation was not going how he wanted. John didn’t like their attention focused solely on him. He wished his Haddock was there. He could hide behind the delicious food and not have to say anything for a while. Clearing his throat, John snagged the third bottle from the middle of the table. “Where are you travelling to first?” he asked Mark pointedly.

Mark's expression lit with the new topic. It seemed he was more than willing to change subjects. "I'm flying to Liverpool first. I'll be there for a week before moving on to Inverness." He couldn't keep the excitement out of his voice. Then, almost as an afterthought, he said, "Mother will be happier with I'm out of the city."

Brows knitting, John carefully rolled the papers before shoving them back in his pocket. “Why?” Was Mark’s father coming home? He hoped not. The man was an arse.

He’d tried to pay John to stop being friends the older teen, not that he would ever tell Mark that. But he suspected that Mark already knew. He didn’t know what went on behind the closed doors of the Sanderson residence, but whenever Mark’s father came home, the teen would get quiet and defensive. John wouldn’t pry, he had his own demons.

“You didn’t hear what’s happening?” Travis interjected, popping a chip into his mouth. As John silently shook his head, he and Mark shared a worried look. "You remember that Church explosion?"

“The one on our last day of school?” John asked, putting his drink down and pushing it away.

“Yes.” Mark shifted, leaning closer. “It’s been confirmed that the church explosion wasn’t an accidental gas leak. And that's not all. The Hotel fire that happened on the 13th? Just today, the fire department announced it was set on purpose.

 

 

John flashed back to Jim telling him that it had been arson. How had he known?

Travis looked down his drink, fingers tight around the bottle. “Then there was the mass shooting yesterday,” he said, looking scared. “Things are getting bad here. If Da could afford it, I think he’d take us out of the city for a while.”

Something niggled in the back of John’s mind, but he was too shocked to focus on it. “There was a shooting? Where?” he asked, feeling shaky inside. How could he have missed hearing about any of this?

Travis’ eyes flashed up, his mouth gaping. “How have you not heard? Some crazy whack-job shot up Covenant Square. Over 40 people were injured and a few even died.”

John couldn’t believe what he was hearing. This was England, not the United States. Things like that just didn’t happen here. “They caught the guy, right?” he asked. Weren’t the streets dangerous enough without adding bombers, arsonists and shooters into the mix?

Mark dropped the fry he wasn’t eating back onto the plate. “No.” He shook his head. “He’s still out there.”

John opened his mouth to push for more details but froze as he finally registered the name of the park. Covenant Square. That niggling feeling came back threefold. The name repeated in his mind over and over again, the world slipping further out of focus with every heavy thud of his heart. Distantly, he could still here the revelry in the restaurant, voices rising and falling in the rhythms of life, but that wasn’t what he’d focused on. No, he was replaying Jim’s phone conversation the other night, when Jim had thought John was asleep.

Covenant Square. You were aware of the stakes when you took on this little venture. It had better be done tomorrow. A chill skittered over his skin, standing his hair on end. John stared unblinkingly down at the wood grain of the table. His mind forcefully replayed previous conversations he’d overheard. “Bailieborough,” he muttered almost silently to the table, trying to remember exactly what Jim had been saying to his assistant when John had woken up. He’d said something about gas and Friday, but what else?

Gas and fire? Blood drained from John’s face. The Church explosion. He swallowed hard, feeling shaky. Had Jim done that? What about the shooting? John didn’t want to think that Jim could have done any of it, but the tight queasy feeling in his gut was telling him that his fear might just be on the mark. Feeling sick and afraid, John stumbled unsteadily to his feet, nearly knocking over his beer as the chair back hit the wall with a loud crack.

At the sound, Mark scrambled to his feet. He was quick to move John’s drink to the middle of the table. “What’s wrong?” he asked in alarm.

He knew about the fire too. The thought flitted through his mind, and John shook his head, the world slanting as air burst in rapid breaths. He needed to talk to Jim. He needed the man to tell him that he was simply paranoid, that he’d jumped to the wrong conclusions. “I-” John looked around, desperation filling him. “-need to go.” He needed to get this horrible thought out of his head.

When Mark made to follow, John shook his head raggedly. If what John feared was true then they would be in danger. He would do everything in his power to protect them. Without another word, John shouldered his way through the crowd of people, ignoring the exclamations. Bursting out the doors of Macleod’s, John caught himself at the end of the sidewalk. His thoughts were a chaotic mass of jumbled fears and hopes.

What was he going to do? If Jim had done those things, he wouldn’t hesitate to remove John from the picture. If John were smart, he would leave now. Maybe Jim would think he’d skipped town or something. The man didn’t know about his acceptance into the military; John still had a chance. As bad as he’d felt about keeping that a secret, he was glad for it now. It might be the only thing that would keep him safe now.

What if I’m wrong? If Jim hadn’t done any of those things then John would be running from the most important person in his life. But what if I’m right? The terror that thought invoked made him clutch at his stomach, nauseated. The churning and conflicting thoughts were eating him up inside. He didn’t know what to do. Panicked, John broke into a run, trying to outpace his fears. Jim became the only coherent thought as his feet struck the pavement hard, a fast mantra following the rapid beat of his heart. Uncaring of his safety, John ran through the streets, darting through traffic amidst honks and swears.

No matter how hard or fast he ran, the horrible thoughts refused to stop. The fear that Jim had done those things refused to be left behind in the dust. John didn’t know what to do. He knew that he couldn’t go to the police. What could he tell them? I think my lover might be a mass murderer? Oh, you want his name? It’s Jim. Well, sometimes James. Really, it depends on the day. His last? That’s a good question; I never bothered asking. Evidence? I only have a gut feeling. Right, that would go over well. They would laugh him out of the station.

As his energy flagged, John came to a panting stop, his eyes burning and a stitch forming in his side. Dropping his shaking hands to his knees, he tried to get enough air into his lungs to think. Maybe he was wrong. It could be a simple coincidence. There must be a different reason for Jim to have been talking about Covenant Square or knowing about the arson. John couldn’t come up with one.

Every conversation he’d overheard played in John’s head. Every interaction with someone other than John was relived, every bit of fear he’d felt crawling to the surface. If you do not, I will braid your intestines into a belt. That hadn’t been the only time Jim had said something darkly terrifying. John had always brushed it off as Jim been a bit strange and eccentric. What if he hadn’t been kidding?

Straightening slowly, John began looking around. Pedestrians were avoiding him, purposely looking anywhere else but at him as they passed him by. He’d run farther than he’d thought trying to flee the truth. Not truth. You don’t know that he’s done anything wrong. As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t bring himself to believe it.

As though the fates had willed it, John spotted the familiar red outline of a phone box at the end of the block. Muscles tight and aching, John stumbled to it. Trying to remain calm and control his shaking, he nearly fell inside. Fishing out a couple of coins, John lifted the receiver and dumped the money into the slot.

John knew the number by heart. Drawing in a deep, fortifying breath, he dialled. Shifting from foot to foot in agitation, he waited as it rang. Part of him wished that the man wouldn’t answer; the other half needed to know the truth. One ring, two, a third, and then John heard the click of the line being picked up.

“Zhengzong Lanzhou Lamian Noodle, we deliver,” the same heavily accented voice as before answered.

John drew in two rapid breaths, fear crashing over him in a wave. He didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to believe that his Jim, the man who had protected and cared for him, would do something that heinous. Why did he have to think these things? “Put Jim on the line.” His voice was hoarse from running. He felt like his heart was breaking.

“Jim?”

“Yes, Jim. Now,” he cut the man off, unable to deal with the stranger any longer. He needed Jim. No, he shook his head. I need the truth.

The phone went silent. With a sick curiosity, John wondered if the man had put the phone down to get Jim or if he had simply hung up instead. John’s fingers tightened around the receiver. If it started beeping, John would call back however many times it took to be put through. Clenching his jaw, John stared out at the people walking past the booth. No one noticed him. Even if they did, none would care that his life had just been turned upside down or that his heart was shattering into a million shards inside his chest.

“John?” Jim’s voice came over the line, sounding distant and distracted.

His name on the older man’s lips, even spoken over the phone sent his heart racing again. Clutching his stomach, he forced himself to sound calm. “We need to talk.”

The older man sighed. “I’m in the middle of something at the moment. We will talk later.”

The words were a clear dismissal. As much as John wanted to leave it, he needed to know. “No Jim, we can’t,” he bit out, fear humming through his veins. His whole body had begun shaking as his gaze slid over the happy, smiling people around him. They were so different from him, ignorant of the Hell John was experiencing. Steeling himself, his lips parted. “I’ll meet you at the Under-bridge in an hour.”

Without another word, John hung up the phone.

Chapter Text

Beyond the looming shadows of the Under-bridge, John stood at the railing he’d perched on for years. Gripping the cold metal tightly, he stared down at the shifting waters below. He noticed but didn’t pay any mind to the single boat floating far off in the distance. From the bridge behind him, John could hear the faint sounds of intermittent traffic over the rush of water some twenty feet below.

Feeling cold and oddly hollow inside, John waited. Every time a thought tried to pop up, he resolutely shoved it back down. He didn’t want to think anymore, didn’t want the fears and worries to consume him. He needed Jim to tell him that he was being foolish. Clenching his jaw, John forced his mind back to blank nothingness as he stared at the dark waters.

He couldn’t decide whether the chill numbing him came from the chilly evening air or the fear that Jim might have done those terrible things. In the end, the cause didn’t matter. The result left him chilled inside and out. This hollowness was the only reason he was breathing slow and stead, instead of curled on the ground. If that was what it took to stay sane at this moment, he welcomed the biting chill inside.
The low scuffing of boots over cement drew John’s head up. Slowly, he turned around, tensed muscles protesting the first movement he’d made since arriving a half hour before. At first, the shadows of the Under-bridge were all he could see. Then Jim passed the final pillar, leaving the darkness behind. Air caught in John’s throat as he caught his first glimpse of the man. That was all it took for the thin barrier of his numbness to begin cracking.

Jim strode towards John with fluid grace. The sight of the man sent a shiver of awareness down his spine. John’s pulse raced as adrenaline prickled over his skin. Jim looked exactly how he always did: cocky, self-assured… dangerous. Pushing away from the railing, he matched the older man’s approach.

Casually, Jim tucked a hand into his pocket as he slowed, his left remaining loose at his side. Coming to a full stop some ten feet back, Jim cocked his head, looking over John’s tensed form and set expression. “Hello…” his voice trailed off before his tone dipped, “John.” The name was drawn out, each letter sliding over his tongue.

Jim’s melodic voice drifted over John, both soothing and familiar. He clenched a fist tight to his thigh, refusing to let the man lull him this time. It terrified John to think that Jim had done those things. He felt cold and fragile as ice as he stared across the small space separating him from the man who’d saved him from everything – and maybe damned him as well.

“Jim.” John was proud that his voice hadn’t wavered. The name burned on his tongue. How many times had he called out for Jim, asking for help or reprimanding the man with just his name? So many memories lay attached to those three letters that John knew he would never be able to say it without all these wrenching emotions.

A slow, twisted smile spread over Jim’s lips. He took a step forward, causing John to jerk back, heart racing. With every retreating step he took, Jim matched him until John’s back hit the railing harshly. Jim halved the distance between them once more before stopping, that damned smile still playing along his lips. “Now, what have I done to create such fear in you, my dear?”

John stiffened and glared. “I’m not afraid of you.”

Jim laughed, low and mocking. “Then why are you running away?” He took another deliberate step closer.

Even with no space left, John flinched away, unable to bring himself to look Jim in the eye. He didn’t do those things, John tried to reassure himself. Then why were all his warning flags going off?

“Did you set that fire?” Eyes going wide, John wished he could snatch the question back. He changed his mind; he didn’t want to know.

Jim took a final step closer. Reaching out, he captured John’s chin in a tight grip. His right hand snapped out, blocking Joh’s arm as the younger man tried to break free. Jim peered into John’s eyes for the space of a heartbeat. His eyes widened before they narrowed. Just as suddenly, Jim released him, lips parting with a satisfied “Ah.” He smiled, but it held no warmth. “Putting the pieces together, I see.”

John resisted the urge to rub at his sore jaw, not wanting to admit that the grip had hurt. John began to inch along the railing, trying to put some distance between them. Jim had all but admitted that he’d done it. “Why would you set that fire?” His voice cracked.

Jim threw back his head a laughed. “Oh, Johnny-boy, I did no such thing.”

John hesitated. He desperately wanted to believe that Jim hadn’t, but his earlier words made John realise Jim hat to be lying. The knowledge filled him with despair. Still, he needed Jim to tell him, not simply hint at his actions. “Did you shoot up Covenant Square?”

Jim’s laughter faded to chuckles, the sound darker than John had ever heard, twisted and broken somehow. “Why would I do something like that?”

“Just answer the damned question,” John snapped.

“No.” The man rolled his eyes.

John’s shoulders eased slightly at that single word. Jim hadn’t done it. Jim wasn’t a killer. Then he remembered all the conversation’s he’d overheard. Pieces of the puzzle were sliding into place. External Consultant. God, Jim had told him what he did for a living, but John had been too much of an idiot to understand. "I get contracted to evaluate, set up process’ and – on occasion – implement solutions." Jim wasn’t the one who set the fire or shot those people down. He was ordering it. People were paying Jim to kill, and the man, in turn, had people who worked for him to act his plans out. A true middle-man.

Lips parting, John asked softly, “Did you have a hand in the shooting?”

“And what if I did?” Jim’s voice jarred John out of his racing thoughts. “What would you do, little Johnny-boy?” he taunted.

Bowing his head, John wrapped his arms around himself, feeling his world crumbling around him. “Why?” he whispered at the ground, unable to bare looking at the man.

“Why not?”

The honest curiosity the question jerked John’s head up. Why not? Anger, hot and powerful burned through his veins. John encouraged it, feeding it with all the injustices in his life, the betrayal of his lover and the loss of something that he couldn’t bring himself to name. “People died!”

Jim’s eyes widened dramatically as his right hand thumped over his heart. “They did?” he asked, sounding shocked. “Alert the media!” Then his lips quirked as his hand dropped back to his side. “Oh, wait, they already know.”

“How can you treat life as though it means nothing?”

“Because it does mean nothing!” Jim rolled his eyes and flung his arm to the glittering lights across the water. “Being born does not give you an automatic pass for life,” he sneered.

“You’re a murderer.” John still couldn’t fully believe it. This was the man he had fallen for? This callus, spiteful stranger? This wasn’t the man he knew. This was a monster.

At the accusation, Jim’s grin turned feral. “So are you.”

“I’m not,” John breathed in sudden fear.

“Tisk, tisk,” he mocked. “Have you forgotten so quickly about Yaroslav?”

No, no, no. Please God, let him be lying. “You said I didn’t kill him.”

Jim shrugged, shining his nails on his shirt and looking at them. “I lied,” he sang brightly as his attention flicked up. “Oh, don’t look so stricken. For a first kill, it truly wasn’t that bad. Well, not after all the evidence was removed…” He trailed off, a dreamy smile flitting over his face before he shook himself. “…you managed to get blood all over that room.”

John clutched at his stomach, feeling nauseous. He was a killer, a murderer, just like Jim. No, I’m not like Jim. He’d tried to protect Jim, where the older man just enjoyed destroying people. Fury burned through John. “What gives you the right to decide who lives or dies? You aren’t God!” he yelled.

Jim threw back his head, deep mocking laughter echoing all around. “God,” he shook his head, small chuckles still escaping his lips. In the next second, the mirth disappeared. “I am much better than a God.”

The intensity of Jim’s direct gaze locked John in place. He felt trapped. Cold fear consumed him a Jim stalked closer. Mind racing, John tried to figure out a way to escape. Terror filled him as he realised the only way to get out of this situation was to fight. He’d been such an idiot. What had he been thinking to come here? Alone in the night, he would be easy to silence.

Fists clenching tightly at his sides, John waited. The only way to get away was to take Jim down. He knew that Jim was the better fighter by far. All John had going for him was, perhaps, the element of surprise. When the older man was close enough, John lunged forward, fist aiming for his stomach.

Jim caught his wrist.

Angry, John struck out with his other hand, but Jim grabbed that one, too. With a twist, he threw John off balance. A leg hooked behind his knee, and John fell. He hit the ground hard, head connecting with the cement with a sharp crack that had John’s vision blurring. Jim landed painfully on top of him, pinning John beneath him. John struggled uselessly against the older man, twisting and bucking, trying to free himself. Almost before the fight began, John had lost.

Jim sat on his thighs, rendering John’s legs useless. He pinned John’s wrists to the ground, the grip painfully tight. It was only when John stopped trying to push and shove that the bruising pressure relax slightly. “Unlike your God, you can see me.” He leaned in, looming over John. “You can touch me.” He pulled John’s trapped hands along the rough cement to pin them over John’s head. “You can even beg for favours directly.”

His expression twisted as he lowered his head. “Please, Jim, fix this for me. Please, Jim, take me away.” He whispered the words over John’s parted lips, using the same reverence one would use to beg God for a miracle.

John’s heart raced as he stared up at this darkly terrifying man. Heat coiled through his limbs. He panted heavily, unwillingly drawing in Jim’s biting scent. His body had become a traitorous thing, reacting to their proximity with a will of its own. Clenching his fists tightly, he tried to think.

Why were Jim’s words so damned familiar? Fix it or change it, I don’t care, but please don’t leave me here. Had he spoken them aloud or thought them only? And Jim had taken him away, protected him and cared for him. His muscles began relaxing as he remembered all the times Jim had helped him. But Jim killed people. John shook his head sharply, trying to ignore the throbbing pain. Angry with himself, just as much as Jim, he attempted to pull his arms free.

“How could you do this to me?” After everything they had gone through together, that was what John couldn’t understand.

Jim released his grip on John’s wrists as he rocked back onto his heels. “How could I not?” he mocked, smirking down at the younger man.

The words and tone pushed his fear back as his rage surfaced. How could he not? Was he so pathetic in Jim’s eyes that the man felt nothing but contempt for John? Did he mean so little to Jim that the man could do this to him without a second thought? John clenched his jaw, the tightness adding to the pain in his head. He encouraged it.

Jim was a monster. John was better than Jim could ever be. His arm snapped out, cracking Jim in the jaw. Pain reverberated from his hand and down to his elbow, but he didn’t pause. Grabbing Jim’s forearms, he rolled them over and swung again. He didn’t manage to land the second attack.

Jim caught his arm, twisting it until John cried out. In the instant John was distracted, Jim pushed, throwing John off. Clutching his throbbing arm to his chest, John rolled away and scrambled to his feet. At the dark look in Jim’s eyes, John knew that he had no chance. The man had too much training for John to beat him in a fair fight.

Blood roared loud in his ears as he darted glances around, trying to figure out some way to get out of the situation. I should have let Yaroslav kill him The thought rose unbidden through him, and he hated himself a little for it. He wasn’t a killer. Yes, you are. Frustrated and fearing for his life, John lunged forward.

Jim moved only enough to block each attack as it came. The man used the barest amount of force, shoving John away time and time again. “Come now, Johnny-boy. Surely you can do better than this,” he encouraged.

Panting heavily, John raised his fists, readying himself to go after Jim again. He darted forward, only to have this attack blocked too. Stumbling back, John tried to think of some way to take the man down. Jim was faster, smarter, and experienced enough that he could take John down with one arm tied behind his back. There was no possible way he could win.

But if John didn’t, then he was dead. That fear drove him on, and he struck out again, trying to find an opening – any opening. A mocking grin had spread over Jim’s face as John struggled in vain to hit him. His hand and arms throbbed from the deflected blows, his terror increasing with every panicked beat of his heart. Air burned in his lungs as John made desperate attack after desperate attack. Every single one was useless.

Something in Jim’s expression shifted. The amusement drained, leaving a cold nothingness in its place. John felt true fear skitter over his nerve endings. With quick, unsteady steps, he retreated. Jim stalked after him. Once more, Jim had him backed nearly to the railing, leaving John nowhere to run.

“Is that all you’ve got?” Jim sounded almost disappointed as he stopped again. When John said nothing, Jim signed and reached behind him. When his left hand lowered back down to his side, he was holding something dark in a loose grip.

John squinted in the faint security lights from high above them, trying to figure out what it was. Another jolt of adrenaline spiked through him. A gun. “Jim,” he breathed, eyes locked on the lethal weapon. What could he say? Please don’t shoot me? Jim knew that John had learned the truth about him. Oh God, I’m going to die here.

“You see, my dear-” He motioned casually between them with the gun. “-we are at a bit of an impasse.”

John fell back another step, unable to drag his gaze away from the weapon. In an action as old as time, he lifted his arms in surrender. He had a higher chance of defeating Jim in a fist fight than he did dodging a bullet, and he’d already lost that. “Jim, wait-” he choked out.

“I can’t let you live,” Jim continued conversationally, as though John hadn’t spoken. “You know too much.” With an ease that proved to John that Jim knew exactly how to work the weapon, the man cocked the gun before lowering his hand back to his side. “Such a shame,” Jim said on a sigh, almost managing to sound sad. “You just don’t have it in you to be what I need.”

John shook his head quickly. “You don’t know that.”

His mind raced as he tried to think of a way out of this impossible situation. Jim was between him and the bridge. John couldn’t dart past him and to the dubious safety of the pillars before Jim shot him. The platform they were on was far to open for him to run. Jim could shoot him at his leisure if he tried. There was no way to escape. John fell back another step, looking for anything that could help him.

Jim graced him with a sad smile. “Oh, I do. A shame, really. I was beginning to like you.”

Not enough to leave me alive, John thought bitterly. He glanced over his shoulder, desperation flooding his veins. He wanted to live, but there was nothing he could use here. There was only the protective railing that prevented idiots from falling into the water. Turning back to Jim, his adrenaline surged when the man had moved closer during his moment of inattention.

“Although, I have loved this,” he admitted with a wink. “Playing with you, breaking you slowly.” The lilting tones were a sweet caress, completely at odds with the words he spoke. Jim continued walking towards John, his boots loud as they hit the ground. “But-” he shrugged, “-you can’t be allowed to live.”

Then, Jim lifted the gun.

On a sharply indrawn breath, John turned and ran the last few feet to the railing. He had one chance where he could – maybe – survive. Grabbing the cold metal of the protective rail with both hands, John jumped. As he cleared the barrier, a concussive bang rang out. Still turning, John let go and began to fall.

For a split second, he could see the slight quirk to Jim’s lips; then even that was gone. The twenty-foot drop was quick, leaving John no time to think. He hit the water with jarring force. In a second the rush of water surrounded John, filling his nose and ears. He didn’t know if the bullet had hit him, but if it had, the pain of crashing into the water masked it. All he could feel was the press of water, the biting cold and the insistent tug of the current pulling at him.

John flailed, trying to orient himself in the freezing blackness. Pain lanced up his already aching arm when he struck something. John breathed out in surprise, bubbles rising around him. Snapping his other hand to his mouth, he mentally cursed his idiocy. He needed all the air he had to get far enough away that Jim wouldn’t see him surface. Using the wall as a guide, John oriented himself so that he would swim left. To the right were the open waterways. If he went that way, the rushing water would drag him under, and not lot let him up.

Lungs already burning for air, he kicked out, using the wall as a guide. Even with his eyes open, John couldn’t see anything, and that sent another spark of fear through him. His layers of clothes felt like they were dragging him down. But he didn’t have time to get out of even his coat.

Each thud of John's heart hurt more than the previous, feeling like it was trying to burst from his chest. Even with his throat closed to the water, his lungs pulled at him, trying to expand. The lack of oxygen burned. Desperation filled him as he realised he was slowing. Whether it was from the lack of air or the freezing water biting into him, he didn’t know. But in either case, he needed to surface, fast.

John kicked up, his legs already heavy and starting to numb, hoping that this would be the end. He didn’t want to die. With a sharp gasp, John broke the surface, choking on the water as it lapped at his face. He drew in one burning lungful, then another, hoping that the rushing water from the dam would mask his ragged breaths.

Limbs weak and throbbing, John turned, looking to where he had jumped. Jim was leaning against the railing, arms crossed on the metal, gun loose in his hand. The man was looking down, towards the opened waterways, as though expecting John to pop up over there at any moment.

He had a chance.

Turning away, John drew in a few rapid breaths. Pulling in as much air as he could, he dove. John swam deeper than before, trying to ignore the cold seeping into his bones, the heaviness of his clothes and the man he was leaving behind. Propelling himself forward, John followed the wall. He wouldn’t allow himself to surface until he’d reached the count of 30 in his head.

His determination shattered as he forgot the number he was on and swam for the surface again. Breaking through, John gasped into the night. The slight wind blowing over the water numbed his face in seconds. Panting heavily, he looked around, trying to figure out how far he’d gone this time. Glancing at the bridge, he realised that the slight curve of the wall now hid him from Jim.

Hope sparked inside. He might make it after all. John couldn’t bring himself to dive again, even if it was the safest option. If he went under, he didn’t think he would come back up. He started swimming, this time doing the front stroke. His movements felt slower, weaker. John couldn’t feel his feet anymore, and his hands were the same.

If he remembered correctly, there should be an access ladder nearby. They were set at reasonable intervals for idiots who fell into the river, like him. He could climb up and find somewhere to hide until he figured out what to do. “Dam you, Jim,” he cursed, the words barely audible. The wetness on his face was due to water, not tears. At least, that’s what he was telling himself. He refused to cry over Jim, not again, never again.

But the tears slid down his cheeks anyway, ignoring his resolve. John was the biggest fool in the world. How could he have let himself become so caught up in the mystery and excitement that was Jim? How could he have been so blinded by the man’s charm? Hindsight was 20-20, and now, he could clearly see all the little things that he’d brushed off or rationalised away.

Of course, none of that helped John. When the water went over his head, John sputtered and coughed. He clawed his way back to the surface. Ok, no more thinking right now. Apparently, he couldn’t do that and swim at the same time. Finally, he spotted a rusty ladder off in the distance. With a surge of energy, John swam for it.

Reaching it, John lifted a hand, frowning when his fingers lay limply against the metal. Glaring at the unresponsive hand, he had to concentrate to get the digits to close around the rung. He couldn’t feel his hands anymore. His legs were becoming a thing of the past as well. The wind against his face didn’t feel so cold anymore. In fact, it was beginning to feel nice, almost warm.

If he didn’t get out of the water, then Jim would win. Shaking his head slowly, John lifted his other hand out of the water and put it on the same rung. Again, his fingers didn’t want to close. The cold numbness he’d needed when confronting Jim would be the death of him now. Growling in frustration, John shook his hand, trying to get blood-flow back into his fingers. When they started to burn, pin-prickles stabbing, he figured that was a good sign.

“I won’t let you win,” John breathed as he managed to curl his fingers a little. It would have to be enough. He couldn’t stay in the water much longer. I am stronger than you could ever dream, he vowed as he started lifting himself out. Water sucked at him, trying to pull him back under. John drew himself up, one painful inch at a time. Releasing the rung with one hand, he reached for the next.

John slipped, wrenching his arm as he fell back into the water. Gasping, John choked, flailing his arms as he tried to reach the surface again. When he broke through, he sputtered, trying to breathe through the pain and panic. I will not die here. Frustrated, John tried to swim closer to the wall. It was only then that he realised that there were rungs below the water as well.

“Idiot,” John muttered angrily at himself. Of course, there were rungs below the water. It would be easier to climb out that way. Struggling against his exhaustion, John finally managed to snag one. He tried to set a foot down on a rung but could only guess that he’d found one when his leg stopped moving down. John couldn’t feel his feet. “This is all your fault,” he whispered in the direction of the Under-bridge, voice raw.

Trying to hold onto his anger, John started to drag himself up, hooking his other arm on the rung. Slowly, he began climbing out of the water. Each step up was hellishly slow. He felt he weighed 50 stones as he struggled up the ladder. When his hand missed the next rung up, John nearly fell. His head jerked up in surprise as he clung to the wet metal. There were no more. He’d reached the top.

Relief further weakened John’s limbs as he struggled up the last few rungs and over the side. When he’d made it, John sprawled out on his back, blinking up at the night sky. It wasn’t a true black. There were too many lights in the city for that, but it was still comforting.

“Ok,” John breathed. “Time to go.”

His words couldn’t quite convince him to move. He was exhausted and hurting, but he was alive. The breeze was cold, though, and he was shivering. He didn’t want to move, but Jim could be looking for him. That thought sent a sluggish spike of adrenaline through him. With a groan, John struggled to his hands and knees. John stayed like that for a while, panting and shivering as he tried to summon up any dregs of energy he still had. As the water dripped off him to plink softly against the ground, he began to catalogue his various aches and pains.

His stomach hurt, feeling heavy and full. Must be from the water I swallowed, he mused. His shaking arms and legs throbbed from the swim… and the fight. Drawing in a slow breath, John rocked unsteadily back on his heels. He looked around, trying to figure out where he was. Warehouses rose high on either side of him. John didn’t recognise them, but that might be because he was behind them and not on the main road. Now, all he had to do was figure out what he was going to do.

“I can’t go back to the flat,” John muttered as he climbed unsteadily to his feet. Each step sent needles of pain up his legs. Wrapping his arms around himself, he focused on the ground. One foot in front of the next,; he encouraged himself. Where could John go? Not to Mark’s or Travis’ – they would be in danger if he tried. He needed to hide until...

John gasped, fumbling in his pocket, and pulled out the soggy papers from within. He still had them. Carefully, he unrolled them a little, relieved to find that the ink hadn’t smeared. John didn’t want to put them back in his still dripping pocket but clutching them in his fist was more likely to ruin the fragile papers. Letting out a low sound, he tucked them away again.

Wrapping his arms around his shaking body, John forced himself to start walking again. Falling unconscious out here was too dangerous. Maybe there was a hostel nearby. As John reached the road, he looked around. No vehicles, no sounds, no Jim. He didn’t recognise the street either. John didn’t know what lay in this part of the industrial district. He’d never bothered scouting along the river.

Head down to watch his steps; John followed the road heading away from the Under-bridge. He hoped to get somewhere safe before the last of his energy left him. As it was, he felt weak and unsteady. John didn’t know how much longer he could go on. Damn it. I didn’t jump into the river to avoid being shot only to die from hypothermia.

Unable to hold it back, a bitter laugh escaped him. Then, realising that there was no point in stopping, he let himself go. His laughter echoed off the buildings, sounding broken, just like him. It was either laugh or cry, right? But he could feel moisture on his face that didn’t stem from the river or his already drying hair. Distantly, John wondered when he’d started crying again… or worse, had he ever stopped?

“Jim,” his voice cracked.

Now what he wasn’t drowning, all John could think about was Jim. Pain blossomed in his chest until he could barely breathe. How could he have been so blind? But he’d liked me. He’d helped me, cared about me…

“Lies, all of it,” John whispered angrily.

Jim hadn’t cared about him, no matter how it had looked… or felt. John had been an amusement, nothing more than a toy to be played with until John had found out the truth. “Then something to be destroyed.” He swallowed hard, feeling sick. Jim had every intention to kill John. Hell, he’d shot at John.

Jim.

John crumpled. His head bowed as he clutched at his chest. It hurt so damned much. God, John wished he didn’t know. He wished that it wasn’t true. He would rather still be living with his parents then have this knowledge. More tears slipped past his tightly closed eyes. “Jim,” he breathed. Even now, after everything that the man had done, to him and others, he still loved Jim. How twisted was that?

That realisation was worst than figure out what Jim had done. John loved Jim, even knowing that the man was a serial killer. He couldn’t forgive Jim for what he’d done, but his traitorous heart didn’t care.

“I will never love again,” John vowed bitterly. And he wouldn’t. If John somehow managed to survive this heartbreak, he would never risk losing himself like this again.

Light shining over him jerked John out of his aching thoughts. He flinched and tried to stand, only to slip on the wet road and fall. He hissed through the new surge of pain. Squinting through the brightness, John raised a shaking arm to block the light. He couldn’t see who held the torch. Terror washed over him, and John began crawling backwards. He’s found me; he’s going to finish what he’d started.

“Are you alright?”

At the unfamiliar voice, John froze. “What?” he croaked. The light lowered until it was no longer blinding John. He repeatedly blinked, trying to get rid of the starbursts floating in his vision. When they finally cleared, John found himself squinting up at an officer.

With understandable caution, the man took another step closer. “Are you alright?” the officer repeated. His tone was calm, quiet, and professional.

John started to nod, then stopped. He wasn’t alright, and the man could see that clearly. He was wet, cold, betrayed. “Is-” his voice cracked. “Is there a hostel nearby, or a hotel?” He needed to raise his core temperature. With slow, awkward movements, John climbed t his feet once more.

The man stepped backwards as John rose. He was polite enough to keep the light shining on the ground and not blind John with it again. “There’s nothing but warehouses around here.”

John nodded his head slowly, That confirmed his fear. “Ok,” he breathed, trying to think past the cotton that had taken up residence in his head. “Could you point me in the direction of the nearest one?” John took an unsteady step forward. His balance was off, and he felt the blood drain from his face. As he blinked up at the officer, he collapsed.

Distantly, John felt himself lifted. His head thudded against something warm and firm before rolling back. The position hurt his neck, but he didn’t have the strength to move. Sometime after that, he was seated on something firm and had something warm wrapped around him.

Fighting through the darkness trying to suck him under, John cracked an eyelid. The blurry form of the officer swam into view. “Where…” Exhaustion weighed him down, but he stubbornly clung to consciousness. “Are you…?” Taking me?

“Welcome back. I’m taking you to hospital. It looks like you were swimming in the river for a while,” the man joked softly before closing the door.

John was jarred awake again by the car’s front door closing. He frowned. The man was on the wrong side. Not Jim. I’m not with Jim. Moisture pricked in the corners of his eyes at the realisation. John tried not to cry, tried not to think about Jim.

Hospitals. John clung to that thought with desperation. He didn’t like hospitals. They asked too many questions about his injuries. They poked and prodded and had too knowing eyes. But he wasn’t injured, just cold. “I’m just cold,” he muttered, head thumping against the door of the cruiser.

“You might have hypothermia. It’s better to have a doctor check you out. You don’t want to risk getting sick or anything worse, do you?” the man said conversationally.

John tried to shake his head, unable to manage it with his face pressed into the window. That was a good plan, having a doctor make sure he was alright. “Can’t get sick. Start...” he blinked slowly as lights sped past them. “...mil-mil-” he frowned as he couldn’t quite get the word to form. “Army soon.”

The car was warm. He appreciated that, even if the warmth didn’t touch any more than the side of his face. Closing his eyes again, John sighed, letting his head droop forward. “Jim…” He would be safe. Jim wouldn’t be able to find him. He would check himself out of hospital as soon as he could. Then he would hide out until he left to join the Army and never come back. A single tear slid down his face.

Jim would never know that he survived the fall.

Chapter Text

In the early morning sunlight, two men stood shoulder-to-shoulder, high above the milling downtown crowds. Far below, pedestrians wandered, living their small, useless lives. The distant hum of traffic slipped up along the air currents to meet their ears. James stood tall and proud in one of his many suits, the excellent material freshly pressed and perfectly tailored to his form. He gazed out at the full expanse of the city sprawled out before them. Only the slightest of frowns marred his smooth, unlined face.

Beside him, Jim hunched in on himself, looking as though he hadn’t slept in days. In truth, he hadn’t. He had purposely turned his face from his twin, preventing James from seeing the pained expression he wore. Jim had directed his attention down, towards a line of men, all dressed in military green. His unwavering gaze followed their slow movements as they each waited to climb into one of the four waiting trucks.

James sighed loudly and checked the time before following his brother’s line of sight. The new recruits were lined up like dominos. One flick and they would all fall down. “You’re just going to let him go?” he asked calmly, as though questioning his brother’s actions held no repercussions for him. The truth was, it didn’t. He was the only human on this earth who could challenge Jim without fear of reprisal. Of course, that trust went both ways.

“I am.” His voice was soft, the wind catching the broken words and tearing them away in an instant. Still, his eyes did not leave the single figure he had focused on. Jim licked his lips and drew in a slow, shuddering breath but spoke nothing more.

“I thought you were going to play with him, break him.” James needed to understand his brother’s mindset to anticipate what was to happen next. Not merely between the two of them, but with the young man who had somehow managed to convince Jim to let him out of the spider’s web.

“Oh, I broke him, repeatedly.” He cocked his head slightly, but his attention didn’t waver from his John. He began ticking off catalysts, “The scholarship, his sister, his parents, his moral codes, one petty crime at a time.” Jim licked his lips. A slow smirk slid into place as he remembered. “God, his fury.” Jim shuddered as he ran a finger over his lips. “He broke so beautifully. Each time becoming so malleable, ready to be reshaped how I saw fit.”

“What changed?”

Jim had always like playing with people. He got off on bending them, breaking them, and burning them to ashes when there was nothing left to amuse him. What was so different about John Watson that he brought out this… protectiveness in Jim? What had James missed?

“He did,” Jim sighed to the early morning air. “I sculpted him, shaped him, and he transformed, but not how I planned.” His entire body shuddered, but it was not from the wind. “With each thing I broke or tore away from him, he grew and hardened.” The smile on his lips twisted bitterly. “It was magnificent.”

“He failed your test,” James pressed. He could not understand why, for the first time, Jim refused to destroy a plaything of his. The test itself had been simple: allow Yaroslav to attack him and have John kill the man in turn. Jim had, of course, been there to make sure things didn’t get out of hand.

But Jim had deviated from the plan. It was only due to John’s concussion that the teenager hadn’t noticed the differences between himself and Jim. It was sloppy and could have risked them both. “He was breaking-” James blinked as a new thought crossed his mind, and he focused on his twin. “-that’s why you lied to him.”

Until that moment, Jim had wanted to bring John in and have a pretty little puppet on a string. After that, Jim hadn’t wanted James anywhere near the younger man. In all other times, if someone deviated from their master plans, they killed that individual without qualm. It had never mattered before if either he or Jim held some affection for them. In the greater scheme of things, those people were disposable.

“He did fail, by point of merit,” Jim conceded, an odd note of pride entering his voice. “He protected you while you were ‘incapacitated.’ He also killed Yaroslav, which got rid of our little wayward fire-bug nicely.” Then he sighed, shoulders sagging. “It would have destroyed him had we brought him in the way he was. His reaction to Yaroslav had proven that. But-” His tone sharpened when James moved to speak. “-look at him now. He knows that he’s a murderer, and there he is, embarking on a journey to kill so many more.”

“Rein him in or remove him,” James demanded. He did not appreciate how attached his twin had become to the teenager. John was a loose end, and they didn’t leave loose ends to be found. If John was acquired, there was a chance that John knew enough about them to cause problems.

“No.” Jim shook his head once. “My Johnny-boy will have a very long career with the military.” His words sounded pleasantly conversational. But beneath the light, lilting tones was a very real and very clear threat. Jim would not allow anything to happen to John. It was as simple as that.

James scowled darkly at his threat, wanting to kill someone now - but not John, not anymore. There were other ways to silence a man. “What of our other plans? What has he figured out?” his tone was rough as he tried to calm his anger.

Slowly, Jim straightened from his slouch. As John stepped into the waiting vehicle, Jim was finally able to turn away. He looked over at Jim, his dark expression a mirror to his brother’s “From the breadcrumbs we scattered, he knows about the Church, the Hotel and the Park. The pieces he’s gathered are useless to anyone but him. He doesn’t know about us... or Moriarty.”

“You should have just killed him,” James muttered, crossing his arms. As much as he wanted to remove this threat, he would concede this battle to Jim. After all, there would be a time when he would demand his own way, and John had just turned into his trump card.

Jim shrugged, tension lining the movement. His lips formed into a twisted parody of a smile. “We are burrowing deeper into the web, are we not?” Even as he spoke, Jim’s eyes were drawn once more to the vehicle which housed the army recruits. “Besides, I let him go in such a way that he will never look for us, never speak of us. My John thinks that he escaped our web, not that I cut him loose. He will do everything in his power to forget about us. I have made certain of that.” His final words were raw and broken as they slipped past his lips.

~Fin~