Written for the AU contest on fuckyeahjohnlockfanfic on tumblr :D Cross-posted on AO3 too, link in my profile.
Meshing: post-Reichenbach, the events of TTSS take place in modern times, Peter's orientation is from the movie. Even though a lot of details were taken from the book, it's easy to follow if you haven't read it: every time you come across something unfamiliar, assume it's from the book XD I made some things up on the Sherlock side, but most of what I'll be doing with TTSS is canon until it touches something from Sherlock.
"I am about to shove my foot in my mouth." John says mostly to himself, but maybe also as a gentle warning, a last chance to get away for the both of them.
There's a heavy mist falling over the city and Mycroft isn't as amicable about sharing his umbrella with John as he used to be. London has been angry in the past few months, building up something big, and they can both taste it in the air. It's unnerving for the both of them though neither would admit it. Mycroft never would have thought to see the day John Watson reminded him of Ricki Tarr, the impulsive agent brought in by his older colleague for God knows what purpose a couple of years ago, the very same agent who had been a secret thorn in his side for just as long. John is too far gone to see Mycroft as anything other than his iceman reputation.
"You work in the circus." It's not a question. "That's what you people call MI6, but you already knew that I know that, because you know that my mother had a short-lived stint as a pavement artist before I was born." John takes a pause and Mycroft can see him gathering himself. For the first time perhaps since they first met, John looks to the floor when he speaks. "I haven't forgiven you… but I am ready to put that aside for now. An exception, so to speak."
John is not doing so well. Mycroft has been busy at worst, but John… well it was to be expected that it would impact him more. In his casual observation, Mycroft finds nothing too surprising. John is limping a bit, but not enough to go for a cane yet. He has a slight tremble all over, but that could be from the rain and the cold and the air. He is keeping clean and shaven, but hasn't bought anything new for himself as if he's stopped thinking about those kinds of things. He looks tired but in good health, his lips are chapped, he's probably lacking water, maybe he's been drinking a bit more, but not to an alarming extent.
They are very blatantly outside the Diogenes club, holding up the car that came for Mycroft.
"What do you want, John?"
Mycroft in his natural state strives to never appear as though he is doing anything; it's a nice cover to be lopped in with lazy politicians, and goes with his fake job description of "minor position in the British government," and it keeps him open to hearing everyone's secrets to let them think he has nothing better to do than listen. Lately, Mycroft has been seen working, spending long hours at his desk, walking fast, checking his watch, checking his phone. Nothing good for his image, surely.
He knows before he asks, and already he's thinking of possible placements, although they both know where he'll end up.
John is the best scalphunter the circus has seen in over a decade.
He is warm and understated undercover, and quiet and efficient during mailfist jobs. He excelled in training during his time in Sarratt. In the field, no one talks about him. Back at the circus, he is all the rage. For the first time since the fall, John is content. Between Brixton and the missions, he knows he is never truly happy, but he thinks that for now, it can be enough. He lets the adrenaline carry him. He is surprised by how much of a non-issue his shoulder is. He goes on dates every once in a while, sometimes for cover, sometimes because he wants to. He gets to travel quite a bit. On occasion, he gets placed in small cells with other agents. John also gets to be known for his prowess in teamwork. He makes friends. They're circus friends, but friends nonetheless. He is strangely relieved to find he doesn't see Mycroft half as often as he thought he would. Molly Meakin never reproaches him the lack of eye contact. Time passes as it should, maybe even a bit faster. John is not around London long enough to feel its pressure anymore.
And then, half a year later, on a day like any other except for all the ways in which it isn't, Control dies.
Of course John had heard of operation Testify; he wasn't completely out of the loop for being in Brixton, and what he didn't hear on the grapevine, he was sometimes privy to via Mycroft himself on his occasional but thankfully rare visits. Besides, the empty office was pretty hard to miss. Jim had been the one to settle him into his position; he had taken the time and given him all the ropes Sarratt couldn't. Jim's exile and reform to a lotus eater had come as unwelcome and unsettling to John. Once, on a voluntary date with a coworker who shared his pain, he vaguely expressed the sentiment of grieving twice, in layers. He stayed cryptic for many reasons, but the result of getting laid was completely unexpected.
In the aftermath there is a sudden lull in operations. Inertia. Lots of moving upstairs translates to a whole lot of doing nothing downstairs. All networks are frozen. Contact with the circus is momentarily cut left and right as a new leadership takes hold. Back in London, circus employees get shifted around, mothers get promoted and demoted to follow their handlers, a few janitors are fired. He is stationed on the edge of an inactive warzone with newlywed lamplighters and a local informant at the time, and in the second month when they start to show signs of cracking, John Watson does his best to keep them whole.
In the end when they get sent back home in their stocking feet because their new connection to London is incredibly clumsy and more than a bit faulty, the lamplighters are the ones who get the better end of the stick. The informant is left behind and gets shot on the third day after their departure.
Peter doesn't have many things to bring down to Brixton.
There's not much from his old position he can bring to the scalphunter bureau. He doesn't get the upper-floor privilege of taking his only mother with him and he owns nothing of use but some office supplies and a picture or two of an old female classmate he hasn't talked to since graduation to tuck in obvious places for good measure. Walking the short distance between the lift and his office, he can't be sure of what awaits him but he assumes from the gossip that it's not much anymore. A grumpy mother sits outside his door at her desk and barely glances his way when he walks past her with his hands full of his box and no way to open the door himself.
His office is small and dingy with a great big window facing a grey brick wall. It's the only thing the office has going for itself between its yellowed cream walls, stained industrial carpet, and predictable layer of dust. It's colder than the rest of the building and it doesn't take Peter long figure the window doesn't close properly. He sets up his few things and his cover and sits at his desk.
An hour later, it dawns on him that this must be the reason behind the Ping-Pong table he passed on the floor below. He thinks about going through the filing cabinet then thinks against it. The place doesn't feel like his yet. Nothing does. He can tell from the lack of wear on the keyboard and how old the model is, that the computer on his desk is really Jim's. There's a faded post-it on the screen with a standard issue password on it. He's read some of Prideaux's reports before: they were all handwritten. Maybe he should go out and meet people, he thinks, maybe he should take a walk around and get a feel of the place.
John has gone from best scalphunter still in service to worst Ping-Pong player in the building in a matter of days.
He gives it his best at first, figures he has nothing better to do, but his limbs are too short, his stealth is completely useless to the sport, and he's never been the quickest on his feet; there's only so much his hand-eye coordination can do. After two full weeks, he gives up, quiet and slightly dangerous, and retreats to an old desktop nearby to memorize all the rules of the game instead.
As far as he's concerned, Brixton is dead.
He's playing referee for a couple of guys he's worked with before in Pakistan. They've been informed by what they think is the grapevine but really is Mycroft texting John, that a new head of bureau is set to come down today, but the mood is no different than any other day since they got back. They figure, and John shares the sentiment, that the new guy would be better off knowing what he's getting into right off the bat. No use in acting all excited about nothing. And then there's the fact that none of them have been allowed to miss a day's "work" since Control's death; agents with more intricate covers have been ordered to remain out of the country just in case, take a vacation, but no such luck for the loose cannons.
As a result they've all gone a bit stir-crazy.
At noon they realize they've missed the arrival of their new boss, who actually came in much earlier than they did, and John bribes the rookie from the leftover nuts and bolts team that moved in recently to sweet-talk the head mother into giving them a hint, at the very least.
He's tall, she says, and pretty, which is beyond funny to hear the rookie say, and he looks like someone who'll be rubbish at doing nothing, which they all think is pretty brilliant though they all doubt it'll change much. None of them have enough of a reason to go knocking on his door though, and so they wait, as they always do now, playing Ping-Pong and cracking dusty jokes.
At three on the dot, John gets a text. He almost doesn't open it when he sees it's from Mycroft, but the radio's playing a song about umbrellas and their boss has yet to show his face on the second floor.
It's not him.
John scrunches his face at the small screen and rereads the message a few times. Of course his mind jumps to Sherlock when he reads it, but that's where his mind always goes when he's not watching it, so he just calls himself silly and gets on with it.
Nothing's happened yet. Mycroft's bugs mustn't be functioning properly.
Peter heard the footsteps of heavy boots outside his door, he's not an idiot, but he figures the mother will talk to him when she's ready. He'd been doing mostly field work on the docks since his return from Africa, but still he can't help but compare the way every little sound no one makes echoes against the walls, with the way he sometimes couldn't hear himself think back at the circus. Of course Alleline's reorganization and everyone's newfound disregard for this entire division has a lot to do with it, but Peter's not up for deep thinking right now. He still has to find a way to tell Richard he's been demoted, and placing the blame on his new position in general is much easier than diving into the circus's latest political structure.
Peter's never been one for long silences. Richard plays the flute in his spare time.
Peter decides against taking the rackety lift a second time and settles for the stairs to get to the second floor. He doesn't remember being impressively good at Ping-Pong, but he can't recall being particularly bad at it either.
The text was an attempt at prevention, John realizes belatedly.
He's just stated his opening line when the yelling starts over him. Seconds later, the sound of flesh being pounded by flesh joins the clatter of two wooden pallets against the tiled floor.
Oh well, he thinks, Peter could use a good row.
Mycroft hovered around Peter's desk at the circus on his last day while he was packing, after hours. He had this look on his face like he wanted to appear as posh and uncaring as he always did but couldn't get some on his features to cooperate. It made him look even more over the top than usual, but Mycroft had always been kind to Peter, and Peter liked him generally, so he waited as patiently as he could and tried to look like he didn't mind.
"Hello," Mycroft said after some time with a tone that matched the contortions of his face.
Peter gave him an acknowledging look while he split his remaining papers into piles of keep, pass on, and shred. Naturally, there was nothing in the keep pile.
"I imagine you'll be off to Brixton in the morning?" he started. Peter acquiesced, silently reasoning with himself to be numb because Mycroft might like him, but no one wants to hear what Peter thinks of his displacement. Mycroft didn't say anything else for a long time, and Peter got the feeling his full attention might be required for whatever was or wasn't going on right now, but when he looked at him, Mycroft visibly closed off even more.
Peter resisted the urge to sigh.
John is so focused on the heated redemption match unfolding that he doesn't register the footsteps over the rest of the hubbub until he hears the voice.
He'd know that voice anywhere.
A foul is committed but he isn't looking anymore.
John very suddenly has no air left in his lungs. He also, simultaneously, forgets he has a need to breathe. He feels the phantom pain of a stab in the back, pain blossoming from a single point, spreading neither hot nor cold like a blood stain. On the outside, he just looks a bit stunned.
John catches up with himself quicker than he ever could have half a year ago. He breathes in deeply through his nose. Once. Twice. He's been getting a bit better at observing. So he looks. The suit, his expression, his demeanour, he's saying something, an introduction of sorts, but John isn't listening, he's struggling to stay rational.
He wears the suit of a trendy young man, and he looks to be those things, but the sneaky crow's feet around his eyes indicate he's closer to forty than he is to thirty. Everything the mother said was true.
John isn't good enough yet. There's a din in his ears. Over the clamour of crashing furniture he isn't hearing anything at all. He gets up and knocks his chair back, but no one notices. The two players are having a row that John isn't stopping about the foul that John didn't catch. John doesn't care.
He has half a mind to hit him, sock him, yell, claw at Sherlock's new clothes and tear them in revenge, add to the commotion and throw more things. Inside him everything his boiling, he wants to whisper under his breath everything he never said and everything he could never admit to.
Peter Guillam steps forward to stop the fight.
John can't text Mycroft because he doesn't know what to type, and he can't call because he doesn't trust his own voice.
At five thirty his phone gets a text.
I'll have you reassigned.
It's not that he didn't notice.
He'd almost finished cleaning up after himself. He was closing up the latches on his briefcase when Mycroft finally decided to say his piece.
"I have a brother," He said and Peter froze because yes, everyone in the office knew about Sherlock Holmes, but Mycroft never talked about him to anyone. Not to deny and not to confirm. "You should probably know a few things about him."
That evening after hours, the things Mycroft Holmes told him were not the kind many people are aware of. The information he was privy to, Peter knows, is from a world the circus could never touch.
In the back of his mind Peter thinks of the hours Richard gave him, playing the flute for him day after day while he stared at the ceiling and drank from the bottle upon his return from Africa.
It's that he knows.
John can't stay. The row is over, the participants are rubbing at their faces and a bloke from nuts and bolts left to get them some ice. Good. His face. The crow's feet. He's tall, the mother said, he's pretty, he can't stay very still for very long, he's an action man.
John is getting better at observing.
Peter Guillam isn't just another way to say Sherlock Holmes.
In the gap of time between John's departure and a text from Mycroft, Peter thinks of going after him.
Next time: John gets a tweening job as an inquisitor, which is a joke because he knows about as much about the circus as Roddy Martindale. Mycroft convinces someone somewhere to make him a pavement artist, but networks haven't stopped inexplicably collapsing since Operation Testified. Down in Brixton, Peter Guillam starts reading a backup of A Study in Pink. It turns out he wasn't as good at Ping-Pong as he thought he was.