Characters: John Watson, Mycroft Holmes, (implied Sherlock).

A/N: General spoilers for series 2.

"We've got to stop meeting like this," John said as he settled into an uncomfortable plastic booth. Despite the state of the lino and the faded chalk on the board advertising daily specials that looked as if they hadn't been changed since the doors opened, the dowdy café was an improvement on the dark tinted windows and close confines of a government-issue town car. But the surroundings did little to soothe his conscience. Even though he wasn't worried about being spirited permanently away, the meeting still felt clandestine, and he still felt disloyal.

Mycroft Holmes ignored both the old joke and the sarcastic tone as he stirred his tea. "Are you not my brother's keeper?" He waved at the cashier and she nodded back. A moment later a second woman came from behind the counter and set a cup in front of John.

He smiled to be polite at the server, and then as soon as she was away he regarded Mycroft uneasily, unhappy with the inference. He was many things, but he wasn't Sherlock's minder, even if he did occasionally try to rein in his companion's more outlandish behaviour. "I prefer to think of him as my friend."

A feeling of dread twisted at John's stomach as he replied. Mycroft chose these sorts of places, cafés and tea shops, when he was trying to be chummy. A chummy Mycroft was seldom a good thing, it meant he wanted something. And usually that something was John taking on an assignment he didn't want to touch with a barge pole, like lying to Sherlock about the fate of the one other person he'd cared for, or talking him into taking on a case he'd already rejected. He'd left the army, yet at times, in Mycroft's presence, John still felt like a soldier obeying orders for the greater good. For Queen and Country.

He dumped sugar into his tea, hoping it would improve the thick and oily brew, and waited for Mycroft to shove a file across the table or give him some clue to just what he was in for, but the other man did nothing but lift his cup to his lips and sip delicately. Finally John gave into the silence. "What do you want?"

Mycroft put down his cup and regarded him with a faintly wounded expression. "Merely to touch base. It's been some time since we had a friendly chat."

John felt his lips flatten into a hard, thin line. Now he was sure that trouble loomed. "Pull the other one." He didn't raise his voice, he didn't need to, there was enough vitriol in his words to make his irritation plain.

Mycroft seemed hurt by his surliness. "Sherlock has been making the papers on a regular basis. Is it so wrong that I want to know how my brother is coping with his new-found celebrity? He's had brushes in the past, but nothing like what he's enjoying now."

It wasn't hard to miss the slight emphasis on the word 'enjoying'. It was if Mycroft was well aware that Sherlock hated the glare of the spotlight. John wondered if the concern was genuine or, if given the number of cases that seemed to find their way to Baker Street via Whitehall, if Mycroft was more worried about an asset being compromised by overexposure to the media.

John met Mycroft's vaguely serpentine gaze. "Rather than trying to suss out how he's doing through me you should just ask him yourself. You know they've come up with this great new device. It's called a phone. All the cool kids are using them." He mimed pressing a receiver to his ear.

For a brief and satisfying moment Mycroft seemed disconcerted. "That's not really an option."

John dropped his gaze and drank some truly vile tea. He wanted to rip into his host but knew it would do little good. He also knew as tenuous as the attempt was, Mycroft was trying to the best of his abilities. The relationship between the Holmes brothers was a complex thing, composed in equal measure of intense concern and depraved indifference. Something had happened long ago that had damaged the bond between them so severely they couldn't even begin to mend it. John, though he was often estranged from his own sister, couldn't understand. The few times he'd raised the subject Sherlock had bristled and told him it didn't matter. That was, of course, a lie. Whatever happened mattered a lot.

It was possible to get under Sherlock's skin merely by mentioning Mycroft's name. On the subject of his brother, his friend could be bitingly sarcastic and quite cruel. Normally Sherlock demonstrated a blithe lack of concern for the feelings of his subjects when he focused his powers of observation on them, but in Mycroft's case he enjoyed scoring hits. Nothing gave Sherlock greater pleasure than watching as his brother's jaw tensed in anger after a casually delivered jibe. Mycroft found the slings and barbs childish and said so, often with a weary tone colouring his voice. He would then make a point to tear down Sherlock's most recent triumph in an attempt to put his brother firmly in his place. At least that sort of interaction could be explained. Part of what kept them alienated was an intense sibling rivalry. Sherlock would always be the baby brother. The unwelcome intruder into the domain of one meant to be an only child, tolerated rather than loved.

If they were in a state of truce, they kept each other at a careful distance and showed one another polite concern, but nothing more. It was only when Sherlock was in the grip of extreme emotional upset that Mycroft seemed to soften. Given his brother's mercurial nature it was possible that some day he might flame out in a spectacular fashion, and for Mycroft that would not do. For better or worse, their fortunes were linked. If something happened to Sherlock it could compromise the position Mycroft had created within the government and destroy his seat of power. If he was asking how Sherlock was holding up under the stress of media scrutiny, it was because he was well and truly worried.

John sighed. He didn't know how he'd become the peacemaker in their dysfunctional little family, but he was. Mrs Hudson might be the surrogate mum, but he was the one the brothers looked to when they needed to connect. Somewhere along the way John had become the string that bound the frayed rope of Mycroft and Sherlock's relationship.

"You should be proud of him," John said. Though he was often annoyed with Sherlock's antics, he kept his irritation to himself. "Sure. He gets frustrated sometimes." It was a concession to the truth. "But that's Sherlock for you. He'd get frustrated talking physics with Einstein, and not because he wasn't the one not keeping up."

Mycroft cracked a ghost of a smile and for a moment they found common ground. The idea of Sherlock berating one of the great minds of science was pretty funny, even if it was indicative of his friend's shortcomings.

The bell over the door chimed and John watched as a group of teenagers entered, chattering excitedly about the latest exploits of Hatman. He sat a bit taller in his seat, anticipating autograph seekers, but the kids ignored him. He tried not to feel too disappointed at the slight. After all, no one was interested in the sidekick unless he was standing at his hero's shoulder.

Mycroft missed nothing. He shared that irritating habit with Sherlock. His expression became surprisingly sympathetic. "And how do you manage in my brother's shadow?"

He was momentarily taken aback, touched by Mycroft's concern. In the wake of Sherlock's celebrity his life had changed in ways he had never anticipated. In some respects Mycroft wasn't wrong, John was Sherlock's keeper and it wasn't an easy job. As Sherlock's currency climbed the cases became increasingly subject to public scrutiny. Pursuing murderers and extortionists, counterfeiters and thieves was exciting, but the need to find the culprits quickly, even as the press dogged at their heels, put new pressures on them both.

Sherlock's personal habits, erratic at the best of times, became even more so. His mood seemed to vacillate between dizzying heights and the deepest of doldrums. John was forced to resort to tricks and bribes, treats and outlandish praise, and when those failed, he used every bit of tough love he could muster to keep Sherlock adequately fed and rested as well as reasonably sweet tempered with their clients. As a result, he often found himself both physically and emotionally exhausted.

"I manage." He realised he probably sounded churlish. John sighed. "It's not always easy, but we're both fine. Thank you for asking." He drank the last of his tea and gave Mycroft a tired smile. "Is there anything else? A message you want me to pass along?"

The bell over the entryway chimed again and an attractive woman in a modestly cut black suit entered. Mycroft's eyebrows drew together but he showed no other outward signs of ire as he nodded curtly at the interruption. "Tell Sherlock … Tell him … 'There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.'"

John frowned. "That's it? What's he supposed to make of that?"

Mycroft rose and said, "He'll understand in the fullness of time." For a brief moment his expression turned rueful and then it smoothed out again. His aide put a fresh cup of tea and a packet of biscuits down on the table and then they both walked out of the café.

John watched them go. He tore open the biscuit packet and broke a chocolate-covered digestive in half, letting the crumbs scatter over the dregs of his tea. As much as he hated being the intermediary, he knew as soon as he'd calmed down and got over his irritation he would play his part. He didn't understand the message, knowing Mycroft it was likely some kind of code, but it sounded like an olive branch, the type Sherlock might actually accept. And the way things were headed, for better or for worse, it was time the Holmes brothers put the past behind them.