All my apologies to everyone reading this story on , I thought I'd uploaded this chapter here as soon as I'd done it on AO3 D:
Terribly sorry for the wait!
They can call this job whatever they like, but Sarratt is the Nursery either way and Inquisitor is just a fancy term for school teacher. He wasn't even in the field for a full year; it's a mystery to John what they expect from him. Whatever he did that was so good, he doesn't have a clue how to put it into words; he needs a textbook to prep his lectures because he has no idea what to say.
Brixton might have been dead but John still feels like he's being punished now.
Roddy Martindale isn't sure how he ended up with John Watson's file on his desk. Mycroft doesn't know how that happened either. To both of their defence, this odd mix-up did occur around the time of the annual office Christmas party, and Santa Stalin drove everyone to drink that year.
John has never wanted to teach. He never got the urge, when he was younger and playing pretend, to take up a plastic apple and hog the chalkboard. He played doctor an embarrassing amount, and soldier, predictably enough, but never teacher.
His students like him well enough. He is clear and precise, he is very good at discipline, but rarely needs to practice the skill, the presence he had in the field that made people listen to him seems to have followed him to the classroom without much fuss, and... there might be a piece of him, just a shard, that still recoils in disbelief at the way Sherlock could speak to people sometimes, a part of him who still tries to compensate for that. It makes him kinder, more patient.
Teaching is most definitely something he could do; it's just not something he wants to.
His students like him well enough, but on most days John isn't so sure the feeling is mutual. Potential spies are worse than kindergartners. His classes are full of overconfident pricks and oversensitive intellectuals picked from the big name campuses, or imported from the military and the competition. Kids in their early twenties who don't know anything yet, who tried to "prepare" themselves by rewatching their old James Bond cassettes. Looking at them some mornings makes him feel like he's back in his first year of medical school.
He might have had a few delusions left from his science degree back then. To be honest he can't remember. He's kept far too many delusions around lately to be comfortable around those he's left behind.
John sat in on a lecture once, on a warm evening in Sarratt after his own classes had finished. He sat there and, for the first time in a long time, John despaired.
Peter is bored.
Bored. Bored. Bored. Bored. Bored.
He's been stuck in his office now for about a week, and it doesn't look like he'll get any field action until the last syllable of recorded time. It's a wonder and blessing that the Brixton office has no PA system.
"If anyone in this building knows any card tricks, ghost stories, or would like to have some sex, please do make your way to my office. Thank you."
It's perfectly normal, following a fiasco like Testify, for the circus to scale back on the division that caused the scandal. Peter gets that. He knew it would happen when he grudgingly accepted his reassignment. He'd expected it, and besides, Bill Haydon had stopped by right after he got the notice from Percy to tease him about it and jostle him around some.
He knew. He was by no means prepared.
It must be said that this is the low to his high, that in the beginning of the month, somewhere between the audible gears of the faulty lift and the persisting silence of his hall mother, Peter cracked and raided the file cabinet in his office, reading anything and everything in sight. It had been a fascinating week. Looking back on it, it may have been callous of him, but at the time it seemed so necessary. Bored half to death with a half glass of old sherry and no one to tell him no, he treated the mass of documents like a really good book filled with people he mostly knew. The distraction enabled him, if only for a little while, to forget his demotion, and forget that he still hadn't found the heart to tell Richard about it.
For one whole week, Peter could look forward to going to work. Even the drive to Brixton seemed more bearable. Reading those case files, he forgot all about what had happened on his first day, the end of John Watson's promising scalphunter career.
Now Peter is sighing at the ceiling and refreshing his inbox. His chair makes screeching noises back and forth. He looks out the grim little window, but it's just as disappointing as every other time he's looked at it. He shifts his gaze to the walls and thinks he should really bring some art from home or something. He wonders about the ceiling again, but on second thought he really doesn't want to know what that stain is. He thinks of petitioning the fifth floor for a PA system, then thinks of a dozen reasons for them to say no. His shoes could use a good scrubbing, his fingernails too. Maybe he should get a pet plant.
Lies. His shoes are unscuffed, his fingernails freshly manicured.
Peter opens a new tab and starts reading John Watson's blog.
He's ghastly with plants.
John was packing the leftovers of his personal things from 221B. As of yet, they hadn't been an issue, but Mrs. Hudson was looking for a new tenant and having John's old things tucked in the drawers was counterproductive. In the end, Sherlock's science equipment had not been donated to a school. Instead, they hogged the basement down in 221C, the apartment that could never be lived in again anyway.
He didn't think he'd left much, but he had been in a hurry, and he was surprised, upon his return, to see how little he'd really taken with him. Of course all of the furniture was Mrs. Hudson's, but it was all the little things that got to John. The box of books he'd already read in the back of the closet, the little pile of paid bills in the last desk drawer, a yellowed and stained grocery list, the cleaning products he had abandoned in the kitchen cupboard.
He was, quite frankly, overwhelmed. John retreated to his old room to breathe a little, and that's when he found it again: his copy of the old family photo album.
In Roddy Martindale's defense, he'd heard great things about John Watson. He'd also heard from someone somewhere that ex scalphunters made the best teachers, but that might have only been a rumour.
Richard does his best, but Peter is clearly somewhere else.
He is sober, certainly, he never gets home later than he has to, never forgets the shopping, but there's something about him. He smells different. Richard remembers more than a few times complaining that Peter smelt something awful like the docks. His office was close and his secretary Molly liked to keep the window open, Peter would say then. Nowadays Peter smelt like dust and had an air of loneliness about him that did not leave him even at home.
"Did you have a fight with Molly Meakin?" Richard finally asks one night.
"Who? Oh, no, not at all." Peter says and quickly recovers. "Molly got a promotion, Richard." Which is the truth; she is a burrower now, right on the edge of Operation Witchcraft, sometimes allowed to hear but never to touch, which is still closer than Peter might ever be.
Sherlock had come out with it out of the blue, one grey Sunday afternoon.
"Your mother worked for M16, didn't she?" He asked with the tone he used when he made informed guesses; it was an honest question, but Sherlock obviously had an idea of what the answer was.
They had closed the lid on a case and casket around dawn and, possibly in a rare fit of mercy for John who hadn't taken as quickly to grave digging as Sherlock had hoped, boredom hadn't taken Sherlock back yet. Instead, they sat in their chairs by the unlit fireplace in relative calm, John reading a newly purchased book and Sherlock tending to his violin. To keep himself occupied, Sherlock would observe John as he read and try to deduce things he had never noticed before.
"Yeah, she did," John really didn't mind having his reading interrupted; Sherlock's explanations for his statements were always better than any novel John could find to read. "Only for a bit, before I was born." he said, and then added because he knew Sherlock was waiting for him to ask. "How did you know?"
"Well, I'd suspected just from your conversations with Mycroft and the vocabulary you used in your small talk with him, but it's your choice of novels that really tipped me off." John flipped his book around to look at the cover. When he looked back at Sherlock, he was smiling. They laughed.
When John gets to his apartment that evening, the sun has already long set. He is starting to get used to his commutes back and forth to Sarratt, but he is even later than usual tonight, having he stopped at the shops on his way to pick up milk and some takeaway. The light over the door must have gone out during the day, because it was still on when he left that morning. John has some trouble with his keys in the dark. His new landlady has nothing on Mrs. Hudson, but then again he hasn't been very responsive to her... advances.
It must have been drizzling outside, but John only notices the dampness of his hair and the added weight to his jacket once he is well inside. John turns on some lights with his elbow makes his way to his lackluster kitchen to drop off his shopping bags, tripping on an errant novel in the sitting room on his way. In actuality, it's a miracle that this is only the second time this has happened this week as John's sitting room is more than a bit flooded with books at the moment.
He doesn't notice it right away though it is a jarring shade of yellow. Much like with the rain, John seems to think he has more important things to focus on. He goes back to the front of the flat to lock the door and take off his shoes, then busies himself with putting away the milk and heating up his takeaway. He is plating his chow mein when he finally spots it. On the counter is a post-it, a note, from Mycroft.
Terribly sorry for the mix-up. You start as a babysitter Monday.
John is pretty happy, reading the note, but then he curses, and curses the fact that he forgot all about his cell phone, the one he lost three days ago on the tube. This is good news. John suspects that body guarding must have been Mycroft's first choice for his reassignment, backing his theory that he had nothing to do with John's month and a half spent as a useless if well liked inquisitor. This is good news. Nonetheless, John is less than keen on knowing that Mycroft has been in his flat. Oh, John has no doubt that Mycroft already knew what it looked like, the circus has his address and it is Mycroft after all, but...
The flat is clean. Every weekend, John gets out the Hoover, a mop, some cloths, and a list of things to scrub. With the exception of the living room, it's a tidy flat too, and even there John suspects the scattered library only makes him look smart. It's not a place with character like 221B had been, but it's not particularly modern either. In fact, it's almost reminiscent of John's little one-room, the place he stayed at upon his return from Afghanistan, but bigger. John has had the place for about a year now and it still isn't very dressed. He supposes it's not something that's expected of him anyway.
When John looks around his flat, all he can see are the empty spaces. All around there are places left deliberately bare in hopes that one day they could be filled. Empty shelves in the fridge and freezer, an unused desk, bare walls, drawers with nothing in them. There isn't an entire room filled. There is no room left entirely empty either, but that's just to avoid questions, should he have someone over.
Whether John is expecting Sherlock back or still holds some hope to find a nice woman, only Mycroft knows now.
"I've been demoted."
It's a statement he meant to deliver with a tone of finality; he's not sure how a tremor made its way in there. The impulse to let carry it over to his limbs is tempting. Richard's face isn't helping.
"Oh Peter," He says.
When Peter came back from Africa, he was done. He has a vague recollection of parking the car, shutting it off, and sitting in it for hours in front of their flat, desperately trying to come up with something to say back to that warm relieved "welcome home" that would great him. He was so sure, so certain that Richard would leave him then. There was no way. There was no possible way Peter could muster up the strength necessary to keep calm and carry on, make like nothing had happened, make love to Richard, yes everything's fine, the trip went okay, I'm just a bit knackered is all.
All his agents. All his networks. Not just the one in the city. All of them. Caught, captured, questioned, tortured, and hung right in front of him. No one got out. No one except him.
He came home with his tiny suitcase stripped clean of anything important back in Sarratt. Filled with all sorts of nothing important from the shops of Sarratt because when he came home he had nothing in there to his name, just the corpses of his networks, paperwork and rolls of film. Much like his clothes, products, and memorabilia, Peter had the frightening impression of having left his soul in Morocco, with the corpses of his dead agents.
So he came up with a lie. No "Yes Richard I'm fine," but more like "Hey Richard there was an incident at my workplace and several of my coworkers died."
Peter had not expected anything. Previous relationships dictated that when something like this happened, when he changed too much as agents tend to do, the best he could hope for was for things to stay the same, to be excused. Richard took care of him. He let him get away with things too, the drinking, and the not talking, taking walks at odd hours of the night to clear his head. But he stayed, he stuck around, made coffee, gave him paracetemols for his hangovers, he played the flute when Peter was sober enough for it and held his hand whenever. He was calm and patient and perfect.
He was perfect.
John's mother is relatively pretty. Short, she is slender with bland mid-length hair and a small mouth, but her eyes are a very nice blue. He got a lot from her, maybe too much. John is back in the sitting room, in his old chair with the photo album and a cuppa from Mrs Hudson. She's left him to his clutter a little while ago and his tea is cold. He drinks it anyway, sparing an awkward thought to his current landlady and her clumsy passes at him behind her husband's back.
It's so quiet in the flat. Peaceful. If John lets himself relax, it's almost like Sherlock is sleeping in his room, finally letting his poor body rest after a long case. By that scenario, John should be asleep too, but it wasn't so unusual, back when things like this really could happen, that John would be the one still up, cleaning the remains of an experiment or polishing his gun.
He was rather hoping not to feel this, he thinks now, alone and chilly in the underheated flat. He should get in and get out, he'd told himself on the way, take his things, salute Mrs Hudson, and go back to his own place, his nice place, bigger than he'd hoped to get when he left, with its lifeless kitchen and crowded sitting room. He should go back and pick up all his damn books, not stay and feel like home.
He left because it was empty. It makes no sense whatsoever for it to feel full again, right again.
But it does.
"Hey, Mrs. Hudson?" He calls down the stairs to her. "Mrs. Hudson, how much would you charge for rent, say, if I moved back in?"
"Yeah, I've been demoted. Head of the scalphunters now, sounds good, right? Head of a department. Except everyone knows the section's gone to shit after that scandal in old Chezcko, don't know if you remember seeing it on the news? Heard about it on the radio? I think it even made the papers. An embarrassment. The best agent we had. Well, one of the best. No, I can't tell you, I can't tell you what any of that means, I can't tell you anything, Richard, because you still think I'm a government clerk at the Competition in the office that was shot at a couple years ago!"
Peter says none of this. He doesn't mean most of it anyway.
Instead he says it's just a demotion. He says no, don't play the flute, I love it when you play the flute, my salary is actually higher now if you'd believe it, although it'll probably get cut soon, no, I don't need a drink Richard, I don't need anything, I- I'm sorry. Yeah. Some air. I need some air.
Don't wait up for me.
These things, he mostly means, but he needs something else.
The first time John went through his things at 221B, he also stumbled upon the old family album.
That was the same day he called Mycroft.
The walk back from 221B is everything John thought it could never be. He has a spring in his step and the alien urge to smile at strangers. His boxes stayed in the flat and will be accompanied by the rest of his things as soon as his lease runs out. It's more than a bit nippy outside but he can't feel it, he's too fast.
He hasn't felt anywhere this good since the aftermath of his first mailfist job.
Peter is freezing. He wasn't thinking. Richard meant well, and it's cold out, and he left in a hurry without his coat, and what if Richard thinks he's mad at him, he isn't, is he? He isn't.
He shouldn't be.
He's so used to taking the tube now. Sherlock hated the tube. It may have been a motivation for John, but mostly he just couldn't afford all the cabs by himself. Besides, he's a spy now, the crowd is good for cover, and hadn't they learned from all their cabbie accidents already?
He was surprised, when he found it, to see how close his current flat was to 221B when it was so inexpensive by comparison. John is wearing his good coat, the one he got on a particularly bloody mission to eastern Russia a quarter year past.
Tonight, John is walking home.
There should be a little cafe right around here. Recently, Peter had moonlit as a lamplighter as an old favour to Toby Esterhase, just once, right here in London. It just so happened that in the process he found this clever little hideout that provided delightfully substandard coffee and the best cannoli this side of Italy itself. He would get one, maybe two, and bring some back. For Richard. To say sorry.
Now if only he could find the bloody place.
He got the idea on his walk when he passed by the place. Sherlock had brought him there first and he'd been back a couple of times since. Once with a date, actually, but the baker had recognized him and made the gaffe of asking where his boyfriend was and if the pretty lady was his sister, and by the way, was she single? No amount of on-the-house cannoli could fix that one, and since then John's heard they've moved in together, the baker and the straight sister he never had.
Peter could swear it was somewhere around here.
The bell rings a shrill little song and John is very glad for how dingy this place looks. It's got to be the best kept secret in London, the tiny dusty bakery with the broken neon sign that advertises all the wrong things. The soup here is horrendous. Late as it is, there are more than enough left, the best cannoli this side of Italy itself.
"Why, hello there John! Oh and hi there Sherlock, long time no see!"
"Why hello there John! Oh and hi there Sherlock, long time no see! I almost didn't recognize you there, you changed your hair, haven't you!"
It must be said, Peter was rather deep undercover when he came here, wearing a hat, hiding his face in the shadows of the place, of which there were many. He nods to the baker for lack of knowing what to do.
"Hello, John." He says.
John doesn't turn around. Not yet. Peter, he thinks even as he hears the baker go on about how much Sherlock has changed since they've last seen each other. It's got to be Peter Guillam again.
"Hello, John." Definitely.
"Hullo, Peter." It has to be.
"Oh I see, solving another case, are ya? Top secret, yes? I won't say a word, I promise! So how have you boys been?""
John has two days left to wrap up his lectures and hand the torch over to his successor in the classroom. He is getting a glass of water during break when he overhears that one of Guillam's old agents from his time at the docks has gone off the grid. Defected, they say. John knows that, logically, they're probably right, but hearing them speculate so openly stirs something in him he hasn't felt in almost two years.
He still can't put a name to it.
Next time: More coffee is had, Ping-Pong is actually played, it's the start of a rekindled Testified, and a certain George Smiley makes an appearance. There's a storm coming, but for now, it's good to be back at 221B.