I neither own nor profit from any of these characters; they are the property of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss and the BBC.
If you see something that you think ought to be changed or improved, please feel free to let me know, if you'd like. Constructive criticism is always welcome.
Special thanks to Catch18 for the prompt, and to her and ImpishTubist for having read this over for me.
The kill was boring. Worse than boring – it was positively mundane. The target hadn't had time to run, hadn't known there was reason to beg, hadn't even been aware of the sniper rifle trained on him until the moment the bullet entered his skull, right there in that perfect gap between nose and upper lip that severed the brainstem and killed in a split second.
In the army, where every man and boy had his own shotgun, it was a useful trick to shoot like that. Enemies had no time to retaliate; they were dead before their bodies even began the ungraceful slump to the floor.
As a trained assassin, though, the technique was simply dull.
Sebastian Moran heaved a sigh, tucked his rifle along his side, and extracted himself from the freezing muck where he'd been lying for the past… several hours, judging by the stiffness in his aching limbs. He could see the dark shape of the body in the misty field below, now of interest only to the Sluagh; briefly, he considered moving it, but Newcomb had other men for that.
Sebastian was a specialist.
Unchallenging as his latest task had been, it didn't even begin to make up for Sebastian's chattering teeth, his soaked clothing or – worst of all – the mud that caked the length of his rifle. Though it wasn't his favourite (no, that honour was reserved for the Barrett left over from his days in the Provos), it was his most accurate weapon, and he hated to see it in less-than-pristine condition.
So it was that upon his return to the spartan flat he called his own, Sebastian spent several hours cleaning the rifle to a flawless shine, restoring the parkerized surface to perfection and ensuring the scope (no laser sights for him; those were for amateurs who were happy to give away their positions, happy to die) was seated and aligned properly on the rail.
Only then did he fall, exhausted, onto the pallet that served as his bed. He was not a man given to creature comforts – luxury made people weak and inattentive – and even the sheet drawn over the thin mattress seemed an excess, but it was one he would forgive himself tonight, especially as the chilly air in his small room had done little to dry his clothing or offset the hours he'd spent in the freezing mud. Sleep was long in coming, and as he lay shivering on the coarse ticking, all he could think about was the body he'd abandoned earlier, lying in the downland. He wondered which of them was colder now.
Every so often, Newcomb would bring Sebastian just such a challenge: to assassinate not for a paying client, but for their own operation. And with increasing frequency, the people he was called to address belonged to Jim Moriarty.
Oh, no one ever said so, not in so many words. Sebastian knew perfectly well he was not supposed to know whose men he was eliminating. It was part of the unwritten code of the world in which they moved; you kept your ego cautiously in reserve for such times as it was needed. But Newcomb was not very good at what he did, and Sebastian was not an idiot. There was a particular gleam in his boss' eye that only appeared when he thought he had bested Moriarty.
You didn't beat him, Sebastian thought on those occasions. He gave you that one.
Usually, it was true. Sebastian was no amateur, and neither were the men Moriarty hired. He'd watched them enough to know. When they were in compromising positions, it was because their employer had put them there. A rather efficient means of disposal, really, and Sebastian always admired efficiency. That was what had initially piqued his interest.
On very rare occasions, Sebastian eliminated a man he was sure Moriarty hadn't meant to lose. This was usually followed by swift, anonymous retribution; Newcomb lost a base of operations in Scotland, had one of his most efficient forgers brutally killed, was raided in France by Interpol after an anonymous tip-off. The reprisal for this latest job – one Sebastian was certain had not been calculated on Moriarty's part – would be… intriguing, to say the least.
An eye for an eye, and so the underworld turned.
Sebastian's usual morning routine involved a cursory wash at the sink, a far slower and more thorough examination of his weaponry, a check of his mail for orders (Newcomb absolutely would not be brought into the twenty-first century; it frustrated all of his employees, Sebastian not the least), and the careful selection of the day's tools. He was usually reporting for duty by six o'clock.
And if he was a little late today, and then a little later, until six stretched into seven, eight and nine, and no sign of him was seen, then perhaps it was understandable for his employer to begin wondering where he was. And if at ten and eleven o'clock he still had not appeared, then perhaps it was understandable that Newcomb sent one of his lesser minions to find out what was going on. And if said minion arrived at Sebastian's flat to find him lying semi-conscious on the floor, unable even to stand long enough to reach the mail or his mobile phone, then perhaps it was understandable that Sebastian had not made it in to work that day.
Sebastian was vaguely aware of the man standing in his flat, enough to struggle to consciousness when he heard, "You're ill."
"And you're – " he gasped with the effort of forming a coherent sentence " – brilliant."
He let himself slip back into a blissful, dozing state as the room swung around him, hearing the voice of the man on his mobile phone blend into the background buzz of his head, seeing his dark, blurry shape move closer and farther and then closer again…
It was much brighter the next time he became aware of his surroundings; brighter and whiter, nothing like his flat. Something beneath him, hard, cold, but not his floor, and he didn't know…
And then, later, maybe, probably, people. Did he know them? They knew his name. Some wore dark suits, some white coats, and he remembered his training – away, you get away, you don't let them…
"He doesn't recognize you, sir."
"I'd be surprised if he recognized anything right now. Look at his…"
The lights had changed again, suddenly, or maybe it wasn't sudden, he didn't know, and he was on fire, why – what – had he been poisoned, the people, was he a captive, what were they…
There were pills for this, he always carried them on the job, keep information from getting out. Back pocket why would his hands not obey him move reach roll –
He fell, hit the floor. Oblivion was welcome.
Cold was one thing. Sebastian had been cold before. Pre-dawn raids in the army, winter expeditions on the moors, stakeouts that required absolute stillness in below-freezing temperatures. He had trained his body well; he knew how to suppress shivers, slip his tongue between chattering teeth, move quickly in spite of painful stiffness.
This was something else, though, lying here shaking so violently that he almost lurched off the bed again. This wasn't cold, this was… but he couldn't seem to grasp the words he was looking for, couldn't seem to understand what was wrong, why he was here…
And then shouts and confusion and – gunshots, were they gunshots – something ringing in his head and hands, grabbing at him and pulling, it hurt, and white lights and moving shadows spun around him and he shook and he shook.
They dropped him somewhere (cold, cold and hard and his head hit the floor so that stars spangled around the edges of his swirling vision), but he didn't care, because the smooth surface felt so good against his cheek.
Just let me lie here…
No, he'd have to move, they'd have to move.
But no one came, he didn't move, and it was only moments before he slid back into sleep.
"I'm sure he'll come around in due time."
The voice was velvet-soft, seeming to drape around Sebastian, winding through his head and wrapping him in something gentle, but deadly. The words seemed like an ultimatum; he'll come around, or he'll suffer the consequences.
He didn't recognize the voice. That in itself was worrisome. Newcomb had him essentially in charge of operations, and he knew every employee in Britain (and most of the ones in Ireland and France) to some degree. So where was he, and who was this?
He raised his head from the pillow it had acquired at some point and instantly regretted it – a bolt of pain shot through between his eyes and forced him to drop back to the bed again, gasping involuntarily at the pain. Had he been – what was –
A hand, carefully, slowly raised to his forehead found no injuries; his skin was fiercely hot to the touch, but there was no source that he could find for his current misery.
"You're not hurt."
That voice again. Focus, Sebastian.
"Who – ?"
"Oh, I think you already know."
Did he know? He might know. If only the fog in his head would clear…
"Your people abandoned you, you know."
"Don't – " with supreme effort " – have people."
"Oh, now, don't be modest. We both know who was the real brain behind your little operation."
No. No, that was flattery. Sebastian wasn't an idiot. He wasn't an idiot. He just couldn't think.
"I'll be back, Sebastian."
His name, drawn out so long and sinuous it seemed like smoke tendrils, seemed somehow corrupted by the mere virtue of being spoken.
Christ, he thought. That shouldn't be so enjoyable.
His head gave a particularly painful throb and he let his hand fall back onto the sheets.
It was days before Sebastian was alert enough for an explanation of what was going on. He didn't know it had been days, of course; that information was delivered like the rest of it, dispassionately, by a rather thick-looking fellow (both physically and mentally).
"We found you when we raided you. Boss said to take you along, so here you are."
"Dunno. Week, maybe."
"Who are you?"
"Think you'd better let the boss do the asking, eh?" And the heavyset thug vanished.
Mere moments later, he was replaced by a slim, dark-haired man in a bespoke suit and perfectly pressed shirt.
"I hear you're awake now," he said. "Hi." He raised one hand and twitched the fingers in a half-hearted approximation of a wave.
"Oh, sorry – are you the strong, silent type? We can fix that. But you've only just woken up, and I'd really rather not waste the opportunity."
Sebastian glared, but the light hurt his eyes and in the end it was easiest to lie back and simply listen.
"I've had my eye on you for a while, you know."
He didn't know. "Who… are you?"
"Oh! I'm sorry, how rude. Jim." Sebastian's blank look must have given him away, because the man stepped closer as a smirk spread across his face. "Jim Moriarty. Your people have met my people."
So then that meant Sebastian was dead. Perhaps not right away; it would depend on what Moriarty had planned for him. It would depend on what kind of message Moriarty would want to use him to send to Newcomb. It would depend on exactly how angry he'd managed to make Moriarty over the last few years of his current employment. (Well… former employment, now. Making it back to Newcomb alive was, he was certain, no longer in the cards.)
For the second time, Sebastian found himself saying, "I don't have people." It was true. He might be in charge of things as far as getting the men to divide up their daily work, but he had no real authority beyond that. He ought to have – Newcomb, despite his success, was incompetent at best and flourished largely by means of his ability to hire capable employees – but the head of their operation was a self-aggrandizing egotist, and so Sebastian toiled in obscurity.
Moriarty, still standing at the foot of the bed, assumed an exaggerated expression of astonishment, letting his jaw hang slack and raising his eyebrows until they threatened to meet his hairline. "Surely you don't settle for – no," he gasped.
Then smirked. "So tell me more about this little job you have going…"
In retrospect, Sebastian wasn't sure why he had been so unwilling to give up the information Moriarty wanted. After all, Newcomb was irrelevant. He was just one of half a dozen criminals in London with more money than sense and more ambition than either. But Sebastian was well-trained, knew how to withhold information simply because someone else desired it, knew the value of such things if kept close to one's chest. And he did very well, even as his head spun and the air grew progressively hotter and more difficult to breathe.
He almost suspected Moriarty of having arranged it, but the man comfortably seated opposite him never seemed bothered by the oppressive atmosphere, not even enough to loosen his tie or unbutton his suit jacket. So it must not be the room; it must be him. Damnable illness.
Damnable illness indeed, acquired on the same elimination job that had prompted Jim Moriarty to raid Newcomb's headquarters. Damnable illness that had caused Newcomb's idiot men to throw him aside, leave him abysmally hidden while they failed to fend off the routing of their entire facility. Damnable illness that had allowed Moriarty's men to find him there instead, seize him, and bring him to their own employer for interrogation.
In the end, he just didn't see the point. Newcomb had fled, Moriarty said, and though he had no proof, Sebastian didn't doubt it for a moment. It was no more than he would have expected from his former boss, and no less than seemed to satisfy Moriarty. Newcomb had fled, the men (with the exception of the bodies, which had been burnt where they lay) were nowhere to be found, and all of the organization's assets now belonged to Moriarty. What was the purpose of keeping his knowledge closely guarded?
But when he told the other man what he wanted to know, Sebastian made it quite clear that he was doing it on his terms and his alone.
Moriarty didn't seem to mind at all.
"You impress me, Sebastian Moran," said Moriarty, with his back to the bed.
Sebastian waited. Loaded words like those did not come without a reason; they did not come without a price.
"You resisted well. And then you informed even more effectively."
Ah. A taunting session, then.
"Given your state of mind at the time…"
"You think indisposition would make me weak?"
"Oh, it has, Sebastian. It has. And yet you performed well despite it."
"I don't 'perform.'"
Moriarty's head snapped around to fix him in his gaze, eyes cold and hard, glittering, like the cobras Sebastian had seen on big game hunts. "You do what I tell you to do!"
Sebastian would have argued, but Moriarty had asked him for information, and he had given it. He did not follow orders well – that, after all, had been the reason given for his discharge from the army (though, to be fair, it had very little to do with the true causes) – but, given the right (intelligent) commander, he would follow to the ends of the Earth.
He simply had yet to find such a man.
"You understand why I can't let you go."
Oh. He let that roll around in his head for a moment, let the soft voice caress his thoughts, wondered whether perhaps this time he should permit himself to feel the faint stirrings of fear always denied.
Time to die, Sebastian?
"Tell me," he said instead, bravado marking his decision not to go down gently.
Moriarty turned, smiling. "Well, you simply can't be allowed to reassemble your men," he said, patiently. It didn't matter how many times Sebastian repeated that they were not his men, Moriarty didn't seem to want to get the message. "After all, you'd be a far more effective leader than…" a grimace of distaste, "Newcomb."
Sebastian looked steadily at him.
"You have me held captive in a basement, in a bed – I don't even know where – and you won't release me because I'm too effective."
"You can get up anytime."
"And go where?"
Moriarty gestured expansively at the room around them. "You have the run of the facility. You can go anywhere."
"Anywhere but outside."
"Games are no fun without rules."
"You bastard – " Sebastian began, but was cut off by sharp words.
"You're the best I've ever seen, Sebastian Moran," Moriarty said, and let his voice slide from harsh to soothing. "Did you really think I was going to leave you around where just anyone could find you?"
Although he tried opening his mouth to speak several times, Sebastian found he had no answer for that.
They were lazily debating , Moriarty and a slim man seated in front of a complex computer system (Moriarty's knife pressing in at the base of his neck, so perhaps his stakes in the outcome of their argument were higher than his boss'), when Sebastian spoke up from behind them. Moriarty's response came quickly – so quickly that if Sebastian hadn't been looking for that split second of surprise, of hesitation, he would never have noticed it.
On the other hand, Moriarty didn't even try to hide the slow smile of pleasure that spread across his face at Sebastian's intrusion. Instead, he simply killed the man in the office chair, applied gentle pressure to the shoulder so that the body slumped away onto the floor, and rolled the chair toward Sebastian. "Please," he said, "feel free."
In minutes, Sebastian had the scenario on the screens mapped out, had located all of the compound's weaknesses, identified places in which to station snipers, and provided a strategy for retrieval of what Moriarty claimed were 'sensitive documents.' He wasn't stupid enough to believe the cover story; wasn't dim enough to think Moriarty would have told him what was really going on – but the fact remained that he didn't need to know in order to react efficiently.
And efficient he was. Sebastian didn't know what the other fellow had been playing at, but he was surprised the man had managed to survive under Moriarty for as long as he had, given what had been on the monitors when he'd first arrived.
He began to roam the facilities freely, pushing open steel-clad doors and wandering down corridors. He never hesitated to point out flaws, loopholes, errors in the arrangements he saw Moriarty's men making, and when he set up an assassination or a raid, it never failed. And in return, he slowly realized, he never encountered a door he couldn't push open without a key, never worked on a computer system he couldn't operate without a password.
Commensalism, he thought. Moriarty profited from Sebastian's presence, and Sebastian, in the absence of anything else to do, remained unharmed by their association.
So it seemed it was almost deliberate when Moriarty – Jim, he was Jim by now – sent him to inspect a new delivery on one of the compound's upper levels. The box sitting on the metal table in the empty room contained a Walther WA2000 sniper rifle, and Sebastian gasped as he lifted it from its packaging. These were exceedingly rare – he knew of perhaps fifteen in the world – and cost tens of thousands of dollars even damaged. The rifle in the box was, of course, in flawless condition.
He exited the room with the gun slung over his shoulder, intending to test it in simulation. Jim kept a sort of makeshift firing range, with ballistic tanks to halt bullets when fired and enough distance to gain an idea of their flight patterns. It wasn't much, and certainly couldn't provide the kind of information Sebastian needed to properly vet Jim's ever-growing arsenal. But it was all he had, and the reports from the men who used the weapons in the field were consistently positive, so it was enough.
This time, though, the heavy steel door to the right of the shipping/receiving room had been swung open, a shaft of light falling through onto the concrete floor.
Not just light – daylight.
Sebastian had seen daylight just that morning, on the monitors in one of Jim's main rooms, watching his team conduct a raid in Lyon. He remembered the images perfectly. What he could no longer recall with any certainty was the last time he had seen real daylight, the kind that was now laid out in front of him.
He stepped to the door.
Jim's audacity was staggering. Newcomb, like most professional criminals, had tried to fly under the radar as much as possible; he'd run his business from a discreet area of London, spending most of his time away from his team's headquarters. Not Jim. Jim had set up an entire facility in one of the richest parts of the city and spent all of his time there. He was either an idiot or very, very brave.
Or the third option, which Sebastian thought was most likely of all – that Jim's enemies were so wary of him that, even faced with something this lavish and foolhardy, they were afraid to make a move.
"Not even going to say goodbye?"
Jim's soft voice at his ear, his hand on the gun at Sebastian's shoulder, startled him to the point where he jerked away and spun exaggeratedly. He could feel the deer-in-the-headlights look on his face, almost taste the shock of adrenaline that ran down his spine. Caught. But he hadn't opened the door, hadn't even set foot on the street in front of him.
"Oh, I understand," Jim continued. "Tempting, isn't it? Back to your humdrum lifestyle, back to boring jobs for idiot employers, back to freedom," and he dragged out the last word with distaste. "But really, Sebastian, it's only common courtesy for a guest to inform his host when he's leaving."
Sebastian looked out at the street again, afternoon shoppers hurrying home heavily laden with carrier bags, men in suits who'd gotten off work early, children only just freed from the prison of school.
Then he looked back behind him, at the long, dark corridor, the muzzle of the sniper rifle just visible in Jim's grasp, and Jim – half smug, half bored, standing behind him and surveying him with what appeared to be dismissive disinterest. But Jim was no idiot, and Sebastian wasn't, either.
"What makes you think I'd want to leave?" he asked, closed the steel door, and lifted the rifle out of Jim's hands. After all, he still needed to conduct firing tests on it.
Jim's mouth twitched into a barely-visible smile.
"Good," he said, and let his fingers brush over Sebastian's as he relinquished the gun.