Sherlock sipped at the slightly bitter liquid, taking his time to reply. "You could say that," he said, setting the cup back down on the saucer.
"It really is so good to finally meet you. Sherlock Holmes: the boy who fought back. Then again- until recently, it wasn't even you, not really. There was that plain boy from Six who burned the flowers, and that woman from One who took matters into her own hands." Moriarty mimed raising a gun to his head, letting out a long whistle as he pulled the 'trigger'. "You've just been going with the flow- playing the game. Has it been a good one?"
"What happened in the arena," Sherlock said, voice even. "The rebellion. You saw."
"Oh, come on, don't patronise me. Of course I saw it. I see everything. I hear everything." He leant forwards suddenly. Sherlock's instinct was to shrink away, but he forced himself to remain in place. "I even heard your little talk in the caves," he breathed. A chill ran down Sherlock's spine. "What, you really thought a little bit of rain would drown all those big words out?"
"The audience didn't hear anything," Sherlock said. It wasn't a question.
"No. No, that wouldn't have done at all." He leant back, seemingly relaxing again. "When you played the romance angle, I was so pleased. It was so different- it was clever. It almost got them, you know. People were turning, questioning- 'why can't they be together? Why do they both have to die?' Nice try, but no dice. We changed the rules and we did our work and we fixed that little blip. People stopped caring again. As long as two people could be together- if the possibility existed- that was fair. If somebody died, it was their own fault for being weak or slow. Not ours."
"Why didn't you just kill us?" Sherlock said, because that seemed much easier to talk about. "Why didn't you kill us as soon as Lestrade made his proposal?"
"You mean you don't know?"
"I have my theories."
"Tell me." Sherlock hesitated. "Come on, Sherlock, we're all friends here."
"It impressed you," he said. "It entertained you. It must get so boring, watching children do the exact same thing year in, year out. They kill and they die and then one eventually wins. Was it really what you imagined when you became President? That it would be boring? At least the rebellion… you found it interesting. It made you sit up and pay attention."
"Good, very good," Moriarty cooed. "And very nearly right. I was paying attention from the start, silly, from the day somebody mentioned you. The scrawny boy from Eight, who could read your life in your face and the way that you moved. And then your private session- oh, I could have wept with joy." The President had a wistful smile on his face remembering it.
"Much more interesting than yet another snivelling thirteen year old, I'd imagine."
"They don't even cry half the time," he said, disgusted now. "Mostly they just shut down and cut and slice their way through- at least Johnny boy had the good grace to break down. This year really has been much more enjoyable, rebellion is always fun to watch."
"But it wasn't aired."
"Of course not. Fun for me- dangerous for them. I might have been just a little bit impressed, but I can't have my people getting ideas. I can't have them thinking that refusing is an actual option. I let you think it was because it didn't make a difference. It wasn't going to change how many people walked out alive."
"But it did." Something dark crossed the President's face. "There are two of us, in case you miscounted."
"That," he said, "is where the problem lies, Sherlock. If it had just been you or John walking out of that arena, then we wouldn't have had a problem. Not really. The message would have been clear."
"The pills," Sherlock said. "You wanted us to take them."
"I wanted to see if you would. I was so glad when you didn't just fight each other. It would have sent the right message, but…"
"Boring," Sherlock finished for him. "By the way, what is this message that you keep mentioning? That you're all-powerful? That nothing can stand in your way?"
"More or less. What the Capitol giveth, the Capitol taketh away." He smiled around the edge of his cup. "And I can still take away."
"What do you want?" Sherlock said, hating the words but not seeing a way to avoid them.
"I want you to behave," he said sharply. "I want you to forget all about rebellion, and pacifism, and change. If you don't…"
"Let me guess, I get killed?"
"Kill you? No, don't be obvious. I mean- I'm going to kill you anyway, someday." His tone was light, but it wasn't joking. Sherlock thought of the things in the arena- the hound, the river, the berries, the pills, the flower- and he didn't doubt it for a second. He wondered if there would be any way to hide; if it would even be worth trying.
"No, no, no," Moriarty continued. "If you don't do as I say- I will burn you." He let his gaze linger on Sherlock's face, searching for a reaction that Sherlock was determined not to show. "I will burn the heart out of you."
"I have been reliably informed that I don't have one."
"But we both know that's not quite true." Moriarty's gaze flickered to the cloth tied around Sherlock's wrist, and Sherlock's entire body tensed as he realised what the President was implying. "After all- isn't that the cause of all of these problems? Your 'heart'?"
"Leave John out of this," he said, quietly. "I took the berries, I made the speech, I made the decision. Not him."
"And why did you make that decision again? The others- they have their sense of right and wrong, their sense of justice- but where's yours? What's stronger: your desire to do what's right or your desire to match me and my Gamemakers?" Sherlock's silence was damning. "But John- oh, John- he brings out something altogether different in you, Sherlock. Something dangerous. You're only a real problem when you're together- and as much as it pains me to admit it, you are a problem."
"Thank you," Sherlock said.
"Funny, that's funny." He set his empty cup down. "You see, there are now people in Panem who believe that they can stand up to me- that they can take things into their own hands, that their strength can overcome my power. I can't let them think that, Sherlock. It's just not true. You need to forget about everything to do with this 'uprising' - and I really do mean ev-er-y-thing." He drew the last word out, emphasising every syllable.
"John," Sherlock said, voice hollow. The President beamed, proud that he'd picked up so fast.
"I'll give you a few more days to play the silly teenagers, head-over-heels in lust- but then that's it. Panem need to believe that you two have broken apart, that you have no interest in each other at all. That you were young, and stupid, and naïve. After all, love can't conquer anything if it never really existed in the first place, can it?"
"We could act," Sherlock said, but Moriarty was already snorting.
"No, no, no, that wouldn't do at all. It's not just for show, you know. Like I said- you're dangerous together, Sherlock."
"You aren't afraid of him like you are of me."
"I'm not afraid of you."
"Liar." The President's eyes flashed, something malicious glinting in the depths of blackness, but he let it go.
"So separating us?" Sherlock demanded. "That's your plan? And what if John carries on fighting?"
"He won't. He needs you as much as you need him- he might be the catalyst, but you're the spark. There's no use having righteousness without a rebel."
"You're a fool to underestimate him," Sherlock warned. "Or me."
"I hope I'm not. I really do. I hope that you're intelligent enough to see that this is the only solution: your last chance. You two are going to go your separate ways, and you are going to do as I tell you, because otherwise…" His gaze returned to the rag around Sherlock's wrist. Sherlock felt the bizarre urge to cover it up, to put it in some safe place far away.
"Oh, and not a word about this to lover boy," Moriarty added. "Make him believe it too."
"So sorry to cut this short, but I better be off," Moriarty said, checking his watch. "We don't want to be late for the awards ceremony, do we? Come on, dear, get up." Sherlock rose slowly to his feet. Moriarty held the door open for him and smiled.
"You'll be hearing from me, Sherlock," he said, as Sherlock passed through.
"I look forward to it," Sherlock said, just as the door slammed shut behind him.
The sound of the anthem sent a chill down John's spine. Whenever he heard the familiar notes it brought back memories of the hard ground and cold air, and the faces of the dead appearing in the sky. It was an association he didn't think he'd ever lose.
He focused himself on the order of events, taking some comfort in the predictability. He could hear the thunderous applause as the prep teams were presented- two of them this year, of course. But then bizarrely, out of turn, the stylists took their bows. It made more sense when the escorts and mentors were introduced together: the change was for Twelve's benefit. Glamor was all they had.
The plate under John's feet rumbled slightly and then began to launch into the air. The light was blinding, the crowd deafening. On the other side of the stage, the same thing was happening to Sherlock. He had been taken straight from his meeting with the President to the ceremony, and the words were still ringing around his head, catching on the corners of his skull.
He had always known that the President was far from the kind and noble leader he pretended to be- had always seen through that particular act- but Moriarty was more than cruel. He was cunning. He was intelligent, and incredible, and his mind worked like Sherlock's did. Sherlock had been able to guess his way around the arena and into the President's head, could follow his thought patterns like a hopscotch grid. The similarity unnerved Sherlock more than he liked to admit.
Sherlock hated not knowing what to do. A huge part of him, enormous, wanted to rebel: there had never been a surer way to ensure Sherlock did something than to tell him explicitly not to. And he had spent years- seventeen of them, to be precise- knowing that what was happening was wrong, but never caring enough to say anything. He had never wanted to change the world; knowledge had been enough without action. If it wasn't affecting him, why should he care?
He could almost hear John's response: because it's what's right.
Now, he saw that. Now, he wanted to move. He wanted to rip down the rules, ruin the Capitol, flick a match and watch Panem burn.
But then his platform reached the surface and he caught sight of John and his heart flipped over in his chest, entire body swamped in a desperate relief of 'he's-safe-he's-here-he's-safe'. He crossed the gap in two long strides, met in the middle by John, and then there were lips and tongues and teeth and John's hands in his hair and his hands around John's waist, arms curled tight, and the interviewer was saying something Sherlock genuinely could not have cared less about.
Sherlock pushed his head into John's shoulder and inhaled. He imagined John lying dead, killed by Sherlock's decision to rebel, and wondered if that still counted as 'what's right'.
When he finally drew back, John was looking at Sherlock with something like fear in his eyes. He's not an idiot, Sherlock thought, a sentiment he would never express aloud. Sherlock frowned as he noted the cane in John's hand, watched him limp the few steps over to the provided sofa. He wanted to question it, but somebody had already started a countdown to broadcast.
As the man with the microphone launched into a stream of jokes, John took Sherlock's hand. I have a few days, Sherlock reassured himself when pangs of unease pierced him. He was hyperaware that every movement he made, every word he spoke, was directly linked to John's fate. He said I had a few days before I had to choose. For now, we're safe.
The lights dimmed and the seal appeared on the screen in front of them. The hand around his clenched tighter, and Sherlock wasn't sure if the anxiety in the air was John's or his own. He didn't want to watch twenty-two people die. What was the point? They were beyond help; his or anybody else's. There was nothing new to be learned.
All the same, watch they did. The video had been edited, as it always was, to focus on the victor- though, in this case, there were two. The reapings and opening ceremony were of little interest to anybody, and the film breezed through them rapidly. Sherlock watched himself and John train together, noticing for the first time just how often Molly or Greg were lurking in the background.
The film seemed to be foreshadowing a romance Sherlock hadn't even noticed- had he and John really spent that long staring at each other? Sherlock could no longer tell what had been faked and what was genuine, lines in his head blurring into a gradient. He was glad to see that his interview had had some of the more questionable lines cut from it, and that there was no focus on how he had gotten the eleven. That was where his gratitude ended.
Due to the 'lost footage' from the 'camera errors', the film was free to spend much longer on the deaths, a privilege it took full advantage of. The brief fight at the Cornucopia took nearly half an hour alone, shown from various angles and perspectives. He watched himself get weaker and weaker until he was nearly dead from dehydration, but that was nothing compared to watching John kill Serra.
It wasn't the actual act so much as the aftermath that hurt. Hearing it described was nothing like actually watching John break down, seeing things that weren't there, scrabbling at the ground. It was… difficult to watch. It's in the past, he told himself firmly. There's nothing more to understand about it, nothing more to explore or investigate. Move on; there's no point in dwelling on it.
That helped, and the next set of deaths had little effect on him. He didn't feel a thing until Sally Donovan died, when he did feel a brief burst of relief that his plan had worked out. The poisoned berries didn't make for a nice death.
Sherlock and John found each other. Greg and Molly found each other. Irene and Kate found each other. Sherlock noticed them emphasising the changeability of things- alternating shots of Irene and Molly and Irene and Kate as though they were comparable, mixing the video of Sherlock and Irene's grapple with clips of Sherlock kissing John. Sherlock supposed that the editing was on his side- if that was, in fact, the side he chose to take.
They reached the fragmented section, where the editors had tried their hardest to string something coherent together. Some of the shots they used to pad it out were from much earlier on, Sherlock knew, but the audience didn't seem to notice. As far as they were concerned, all that happened was that the six of them met each other, Molly died, they were sent flowers and then Kate killed Greg. There was no hint of it being chemically induced.
That made Sherlock angry. It's wrong. That's not what happened. They're lying, it's wrong. He didn't say anything, though, and the anger soon cleared. He watched himself shoot Greg and Irene shoot herself, and remained pleasantly numbed to what was happening on screen.
Then they made the announcement, and they aired every damn second. The words, the kiss, the gun, the pills, the speech, the berries. Sherlock was torn yet again- torn between pride that he had finally acted on the knowledge that things weren't right, that he had outsmarted the Gamemakers- and shame. Shame, and horror, and fear, because he had caused this. He had put them both in danger, and now he found himself facing a choice he had never wanted to make.
The lights came up and the President himself appeared in person. Sherlock was appalled at the immediate reaction deep within him: fear. Physical, bodily fear, just from being in the same room as the man. When he placed the victor's crown on Sherlock's head, their eyes met. Sherlock's hand unconsciously tightened on John's- only a slight movement, but Moriarty noticed. His smile widened as he moved on.
The next few hours passed in a nameless, faceless blur. Sherlock shook hands, gave false smiles, accepted gifts, with occasional prompting from John to say 'thank you' or elaborate on an answer. He didn't really pay attention to what he was saying- he was locked inside his own head, fighting a war with himself. He had two options.
One: he could do as Moriarty had instructed. He would stay quiet, undo his own work, go his own way from John and live the life of a victor. It would be traitorous. It would be torturous. It would keep John safe.
Two: he could rebel. Mycroft would probably be killed; Harry too. John certainly would. As for Sherlock himself, he wouldn't be kept alive for long enough to make a difference. But at least he would go down as Lestrade and Molly and Irene had- as somebody who was worth something.
The next morning, he still hadn't figured it out. The interview was three hours away, then two, then one, and then he was taking a seat next to John on the sofa and he still didn't know what to do. An idea was skulking somewhere deep inside his mind- but half-formed, infantile, a whisper just out of earshot.
Sherlock sat through the banter, relying mostly on John to carry the conversation, but before long they had reached the important questions and he couldn't zone out any longer.
"Let's talk about the pills," the interviewer said. "They were the clear solution- why not just take them? John, it seemed like you were seriously considering it."
"I was," John answered. "I just… I trusted Sherlock. I didn't want him to get hurt. He suggested the berries and I didn't know what to do, so I followed his lead."
What? Sherlock glanced at the boy sat next to him, and realised with a dull thud in his stomach that he wasn't the only one presenting an image here. Already he could see the explanations, the exposés on the news: they had been confused, weakened, desperate. Their actions had been stupid and rash and based on a love affair that wouldn't last. That was the story they would sell. This is how we stay alive. Ideas were spreading through Sherlock's head, edges sharp enough to scratch.
The conversation moved on. "Your kill total was two people," the interviewer informed John, as though he might have forgotten. "What do you think of that?"
"I did what I had to," John said, choosing his words carefully.
"Serra was from Sherlock's district, did you know?"
"I did," John said.
"You coped badly with her death."
"I suppose… I had never done something like that before. It came as a shock."
"I'll bet," the interviewer said. "But then the second time around, with Jupiter- that didn't seem to have anything like the same effect. Tell me, what was going through your head afterwards?"
"That I had saved him," he answered. "That I had saved Sherlock's life, and that nothing else mattered."
"So you'd kill for him?"
"I'd die for him," John answered. Sherlock remembered after the second announcement, how they'd both reached for the gun to use on themselves- he remembered the second announcement- and that was all he needed. The whisper had grown to a shout, and that was all he needed.
"Sherlock, how about your kill rate?" the man said, turning towards Sherlock. "It was the same, but with none of the emotional response."
Sherlock shrugged. "Self-defence."
"What about Kate?"
"She was clearly going to attack. Like I said- self-defence." There were murmurs from the crowd; his answer hardly matched John's. He didn't make eye contact with the boy next to him.
They made it through the rest of the interview relatively incident free, and once they made it out Sherlock found himself alone with John for the first time in days. For a few seconds, they just clung to each other in silence. There was too much to say to say anything.
"You look good," John said, looking him over. Sherlock's eyes were drawn back to the cane in his hand.
"You're limping," he said.
"Your leg didn't get hurt in the arena."
"I know. It just…" He shrugged helplessly. Sherlock opted to leave it, kissing John again instead. He knotted his hands in John's hair and tried to pretend nothing else existed, but he had never been able to shut out his own mind.
"Sherlock?" John asked softly when they separated, gently touching a hand to the side of Sherlock's face. "I… how can I help? Can I help?"
"You promised- in the arena- that it would all work out eventually," Sherlock said. The tiredness from earlier was back, heavy in the marrow of his bones. "I don't think you can do that again, can you?"
There were a few seconds of silence, and then John's fingers interlaced with his. The sensation was becoming second nature to Sherlock, the natural resting position of his hands. "I promise that this isn't the end," is what John said instead.
"That's not quite the same thing."
"Maybe it's better." He squeezed Sherlock's hand. "Less definite. Up to us."
"The scared children from Eight and Twelve," Sherlock said, not entirely sarcastically.
"The stuff of stars," John countered. Sherlock just looked at him.
"What did they say to you?" John asked softly, but Sherlock was prepared to answer now. He had made the decision already. The second he had heard 'I'd die for him' and looked at John and knew it wasn't a lie- knew that the feeling was mutual- he'd chosen. If they could do one thing and then take it back, why couldn't he?
"Nothing of interest," he said airily. The faces of the dead- Kate, Lestrade, Irene- swam up to accuse him. I'm sorry, he thought, the guilt piercing. But I promise, this isn't the end. John nodded, and whilst Sherlock wasn't entirely sure John believed him, he left the subject alone.
"We'd better get back," John said. "Glamor might come looking for me, and God knows I don't want that."
"Nobody wants that."
"You've never even met him."
"I don't have to. His name is Glamor."
John started to laugh. "So what?"
"Not only is it ridiculous, he doesn't even have the good grace to spell the word right. He's so lazy that he actually leaves a letter out."
John laughed louder, and Sherlock felt a smile taking over his own lips. I'll do what you said, President Moriarty, he thought to himself- for now.
I promise that this isn't the end.
It was a dangerous choice- even more so than an outright rejection- but it was his. Moriarty had only offered him two solutions, but now was no time to start playing by the rules. The games hadn't finished: they had only just begun. And, as ever, Sherlock had no intention of losing.
A/N- 'Catching Light', the sequel, will be arriving some time in the next few months. This story won't be updated when it does, so if you want to stay up to date on it, you can add me to your Author Alert list/Follow me on Tumblr/check my Profile page/stalk me/whatever.
I still can't thank you enough for your utterly incredible support. I can never tell you how much it means to me, but I'm never going to stop trying!
Thank you so, so much.