Note: Takes place during TGG, during those missing hours after John was taken on the way to Sarah's house but before Sherlock arrived at the pool at midnight. As always, I own nothing but my own ideas, everything else belongs to ACD and the BBC.
John wanted to struggle as he was dragged from the van, but knew it was useless. He'd been outmatched and outnumbered when the anonymous van had pulled alongside him on the way to Sarah's, and that was before he'd been bagged and handcuffed. Wherever they were taking him, there was nothing he could do about it. He was better off saving his strength than fighting a battle he already knew he couldn't win.
Strong hands gripped his arms as he was marched along an echoing hallway that smelled of … chlorine? He could hear their footsteps echoing, too, despite the bag over his head. They turned a corner and the footing changed to something that felt like … tile? Something hard and slick, anyway, but he didn't have time to think about it before he was thrust into a metal chair and in a series of quick, practiced movements, his hands were uncuffed and then secured to the sides.
He tugged at them as the bag was pulled from his head, but as expected, there was no give, no easy escape. Squinting, he blinked in the harsh overhead lights, trying to focus on the man standing in front of him.
"Dr. John Watson. It's so good of you to join us."
"Er, thank you?" John said. He guessed the designer suit-wearing man in front of him was Moriarty, but why did he seem so familiar? "I'd say it was good of you to have me, but…"
"Good isn't really my thing, doctor," the man said with a smirk. "Have you recognized me yet?"
"Moriarty," John said.
"Yes, of course," Moriarty said with a dismissive wave of the hand. "What else?"
"Er…" John looked at him, trying to pin down the creeping familiarity lurking in the back of his brain. He looked so familiar, but … not quite. The suit was wrong, it was … he was … "Jim," he breathed. "From IT."
The man just beamed at him. "Yes, excellent. I was beginning to think you'd been damaged in some way, though I told my men to play nice."
John tried to keep the confusion from his face. "No, not damaged, but guessing that might change?"
"Not if you're lucky, Johnny-boy. May I call you Johnny-boy?"
Moriarty's smile was even broader now, and John kept his face passive as he shrugged. "Nobody's called me that since I was about ten, but I'm not really in a position to argue. I'd prefer John, though."
"All right, John," Moriarty said. "The next question is … what do you want to do to fill in the time?"
"Yes, dear Sherlock's made an appointment, but not until midnight, so we've got hours to fill."
"He knows I'm here?"
"Oh no, that's a surprise," Moriarty told him. "No, he just made plans to give me those lovely missile plans—the end move of our little game."
"He made … of course he did. The minute I was out the door, probably. Oh, just shoot me now." The words were barely out of his mouth when he realized what he'd said. "I mean, not literally, or anything."
Moriarty just grinned. "Don't be silly, John. If I shot you now, who would keep me amused for the next four hours?"
"No one, I guess," John said, trying hard not to think of all the things a psychopath with a penchant for bomb vests might find amusing. "Should I tell jokes? I have some funny stories from my army days, though they tend to be better if you were actually there."
"Now, Johnny-boy, don't be silly. I have a proposition for you."
Moriarty made a gesture with his hand and one of his goons came forward, carrying … John swallowed … a bomb vest that looked just his size. "Now, you might not have put this together yet, but you're the fifth pip. I figured Sherlock would like something special for the final act and he seems attached to you for some reason. But here's the thing … that's hours away and I can't wait that long."
"So the game starts earlier?" John asked, mentally bracing himself.
"No," Moriarty said, stretching out the syllable. "What I was thinking was that I'd give you a chance to play, too."
"What?" Maybe it was the disorientation from being kidnapped, but John simply was not following this conversation.
"You're a gambling man, aren't you, John? It's simple. While we're waiting for Sherlock, you and I will play a game. If you win, you get to walk out of here, no bomb vest, no torture, no injuries. Free and clear."
"And if I lose?"
"Then the game goes on as planned. You wear this lovely vest and we continue the game with Sherlock when he arrives."
John thought hard. That seemed wrong. "Wait, if I win, I get to leave, but if you win, we just carry on with what you were planning to do anyway?"
"Exactly. It's a win-win for you, Johnny." Moriarty was practically bouncing on his toes.
"Then I don't understand. What's in it for you?" John asked, honestly perplexed.
"I'm bored," Moriarty practically shouted, and then was immediately back to the quiet-spoken madman. "If you won't play, I'll have to find other things to do for the next four hours, and you probably wouldn't like them. You have nothing to lose, doctor."
"I assume you know poker?"
John huffed a short laugh. "I was in the army. Of course I know poker. But … just poker? A straight game, no tricks?"
"I'm a genius, John, I don't need tricks to win at poker."
"You're that convinced? And you're not expecting to gain anything by it…" John stared at the man, trying not to think of the ways a psychopath might want to make poker more lively. (Electric shocks, broken bones for each lost hand … his mind filled with horrific images. He obviously had hung around Sherlock too much.) But then he took in the neat suit and the lines of strain around the eyes of the man standing in front of him and said, wondering, "You really are just like Sherlock, aren't you? Willing to do anything to avoid being bored."
"Exactly, and you should be grateful I'm giving you the option, Johnny-boy. Either play or be played with. As long as I'm amused, I'll take either one."
Weighing the options in his head, John said, "Okay, but if I win, both Sherlock and I walk away. Game over. No more pips, and you leave us alone."
Moriarty watched him for a minute, scanning him like Sherlock did and probably noting what he'd eaten for breakfast by the rate his hair was growing. "Deal—so long as Sherlock leaves me alone, though I reserve the right to start a new game."
"What, tomorrow? No new games for at least a year."
"Done. If you win."
John kept his gaze level. What did he have to lose? "Done."
Moriarty spun on his heel and gave a clap. "Wonderful! Bring in the table!"
Two of his men carried in a folding card table and set it in front of John. One of them uncuffed him while the other went to get a second chair, a deck of cards, and a rack of chips.
Looking at the sudden shark-like gaze across the green baize, John suddenly wondered what he'd gotten himself into.
"I must say, Johnny, you're better at this than I'd expected," Moriarty told him three hours later.
"I did tell you I'd been in the army. We had to do something in the off hours," John said as he shuffled the cards for another hand. The pile of chips between them was still roughly even, and he was trying not to think of all the games that had turned sour on him at the last minute.
Moriarty glanced at his watch. "Time is starting to get tight. What do you say to all-or-nothing on the next hand?"
"Why would I do that?" John found himself actually reluctant to see this game end. He hadn't realized how much he missed playing poker. He really had played more in the army than he should have and had lost more money than he'd been comfortable with. The idea of having the entire game hang on a single hand both thrilled him and terrified him, because that enticing scenario had gone badly for him too often.
He knew he was a good enough player, but Moriarty was better. Much better, if he was being honest. It was something of a miracle they'd made it this … wait a minute. "Have you been letting me win?"
"Don't be silly, why would I do that? I like to win. Nobody beats me."
John nodded. "Exactly. So why are we so evenly matched? I'm not the worst poker player in the world, but I am well aware I'm not the best, either, so … what's going on?"
He met Moriarty's eyes and held them, not threatening, but not backing down, either.
"I told you … I'm bored."
"So you're willing to prolong a game you probably could have won an hour ago, just to … Jesus, you and Sherlock are too much alike."
Moriarty's head tipped to the side. "How so?"
"You both obviously enjoy messing with me," John said. "I just haven't figured out why."
Moriarty nodded. "Exactly. Neither have I, and you have no idea how rare that is. You're really not afraid of me, are you?"
John shrugged, hands pausing on the cards. "I wouldn't say that. I've got a healthy respect for the kinds of havoc you could wreak—on me, in particular, not to mention Sherlock. That kind of unbridled … mischief … worries me. You can ruin lives in an instant and have no compunction against killing, which is bad enough, but you do it out of boredom. Just like Sherlock solves problems. I'm afraid of what you could do, no question. But—personally terrified to be sitting here playing poker? Surprisingly not."
He fully expected a threat to follow that, but all Moriarty did was ask, "Why not?"
"Maybe I've just had a lot of practice amusing bored geniuses the last few months."
"There, you see?" Moriarty said, "You're a puzzle. I can almost see why Sherlock keeps you around."
He looked back at the clock. "Well, John, there's only time for one more hand. What do you want to do?"
At the signal, John stepped out of the dressing cubicle and faced Sherlock. "Evening," he said. "Bet you didn't see this coming."
He watched the emotions playing over his friend's face and almost smiled. The man really had no idea. He had thought earlier that Sherlock had been too near the edge, too like Moriarty to be safe … to be sane. But having just spent four hours with the real thing, though, he almost felt relieved.
That last poker hand … Well, he'd known his chances weren't good, but for one hand? Luck could have made a difference but, not surprisingly, his luck just wasn't in tonight. And with the hand he'd been dealt? Let's just say he wasn't surprised to be wrapped in Semtex at the moment.
What had surprised him was Moriarty's reaction. He'd fully expected the madman to gloat, to explode with glee at the win, but instead he had just met John's eyes across the table and thanked him.
Moriarty's goons were already reaching for the bomb vest, but John almost wasn't aware, he was so busy staring at the man seated opposite him. And as much as he wanted to say something cool or tough, he couldn't help blurting out, "You're thanking me?"
Moriarty just nodded while John tried to figure out why.
Finally, he smiled—as authentic, friendly a smile as John thought he was capable of—and said, "You took the time to play, you were calm enough to play relatively well—though you need to watch your tells, John—and you were decent enough to give me a challenge. Or more of one than I usually get."
There was a glimpse just then of loneliness and frustration in his face, and John realized that no matter how powerful and feared he might be, deep down in that psychosis somewhere was an actual human being. One who rarely if ever got to interact with anyone on anything like an equal basis unless it was part of a ploy, like his relationship with Molly.
For that moment, John felt a surge of sympathy for the man.
"But now?" Moriarty rose to his feet, brushing at his suit and his men were draping the vest over John's shoulders and the man's eyes were flat and cold once again.
And so, here John was, facing his best friend in enough explosives to flatten the building, hoping Sherlock would be smart enough to figure out a way to get out of there. John obviously couldn't. Without a finger laid on him, he had been beaten tonight, and not just at poker. He'd humored a madman and lost.
It was no comfort that the outcome had been rigged—and not because Moriarty had cheated, either. John was fairly certain he'd been beaten fair and square. (The man might be an evil genius, but he was a genius, after all.) No, John had just been outmatched all evening, right from when Moriarty's outsized men had swept him from the pavement.
It wasn't often that John outright failed at something, but tonight? He was a failure on all levels, he thought. Sherlock might not even know it yet, but John had let him down. They could have avoided all this, if only John had been faster, or better.
And the worst part? He had seen the gleam of anticipation in Sherlock's face just before he'd seen John.
Sherlock—his best friend—was enjoying this twisted game as much as Moriarty was.
Or at least, he had been. The change in his face when he saw the bomb told John that—no matter what else happened tonight—Sherlock cared. Their friendship (and there was no question that it was friendship) had made an impression on his so-called high-functioning-sociopath flatmate. John just hoped that he could keep his friend from slipping across the line from "intrigued but working for good" to "fascinated and willing to try anything."
John may have been beaten tonight, but he had one more chance. One chance to show Sherlock that all of this, none of this, had been a game.
Because, having spent the last four hours with a legitimate sociopath, John was sharply reminded of all the ways that Sherlock cared. How he played his violin to ease John from his nightmares. How he made sure they stopped for meals on cases (even if John didn't always get a chance to finish them). Sherlock might be cavalier about body parts or crime scenes, and he might use his tongue like a lash on the poor, benighted idiots he came across every day (like Anderson), but there was no question he was a good man. Or that he leaned in that direction.
Which meant the fact that John, his friend, had been thoroughly beaten tonight and needed him was John's ace in the hole. His desperate need for Sherlock to pull it together and save both their skins could just be enough to force Sherlock to admit that he was not remotely a sociopath.
John couldn't save anything else, but part of him could still save Sherlock.
And so, as Moriarty walked up behind him, he started to plan for the only move he had left—saving Sherlock from his worst self, the part of him that actually believed (the idiot) that he was a high-functioning sociopath. The part that would get him killed one of these days—assuming Sherlock got out of here alive.
Which, in the end, was all that mattered, wasn't it?
AN: This piece is just further proof that I simply can't write comedy. When this scenario occurred to me, it made me laugh out loud and I pictured something funny with John and Jim kind of sort of bonding over the poker table, but when I started writing ... it wanted to be serious. Humorous glimpses, sure, but not funny. It turns out that I can't quite write anything totally serious without having little touches of humor OR something totally funny without glints of seriousness. I don't know if that makes me a better writer or a worse one, that I can't necessarily force the story to fit the vision I'd planned, but ... that's what happened with this one. The silly idea of John being forced to play games with a bored Jim while waiting for Sherlock to show up at the pool becomes a piece where John is fighting for Sherlock's very soul ... sigh. Hope you liked it, though!