kindkit: Man sitting on top of a huge tower of books, reading. (Fandomless--book tower)
[personal profile] kindkit
Title: A Profession of Lies
Fandom: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011 film)
Characters: Peter Guillam, Jim Prideaux
Rating: Teen
Warnings: (skip) Mention of suicidal thoughts, period-appropriate homophobic language.
Word count: 2726
Summary: Jim wants an end to lies; Peter's not so sure.
Notes: This story is definitely movieverse, but I've imported the odd bit of book canon that seemed to fit. Although this story is complete in itself, there may eventually be a sequel. Many thanks to [personal profile] halotolerant for an awesome beta and Britpick.




As he reaches for the telephone, still barely awake, Peter says "sorry" automatically before remembering that there's no need. The other side of the bed is empty, and has been for almost a month. The tidy shape of his new life ought to be sinking in by now.

He fumbles with the receiver--shouldn't have gone to sleep drunk, and he's lucky it's not the sort of sudden awakening for which he'd need to draw his gun--and finally gets it the right way round. "Yes?"

"Peter? It's George. How are you keeping, old chap?"

"Perfectly," Peter answers, meaning he's free to talk openly.

"Right," Smiley says, in that soothing voice that never seems to change, whether he's at a party or an interrogation. "I'm afraid there's a bit of a problem I need you to handle. Jim Prideaux walked into a police station tonight and confessed to murder."

"Christ!" Peter sits up, wide awake now. "Who's he supposed to have - " Bill Haydon. It must have been. The rumours about a Soviet assassin on the loose are nonsense. George's questions must have made Prideaux reason his way to the same awful answer that Peter didn't want to believe until he saw Bill in the safe house. And then Prideaux took revenge for his wounded shoulder, his forced retirement, his official death.

"That's all I know. It seems he's not very coherent. Drunk. But he gave his real name, which is why it was flagged for Mendel and Mendel rang me. The questioning's been halted, of course."

Smiley must've pulled every string he's got. "What do you need me to do?"

"Get him out, impress upon the police that the matter is closed, use the magic words 'Official Secrets Act' as necessary, and then talk to Jim. See if you can calm him down."

"But I've hardly met the man, George. You've known him for years. Oughtn't it to be you?"

"It ought to be anybody but me."

"Yes, of course, I see. Sorry." Haydon ran Prideaux during the war, and they were friends afterwards; Peter remembers seeing them talk together over tea sometimes in Haydon's office, when business brought Prideaux in from Brixton. Poor bastard. The betrayal must have hurt worse than the bullet. "So where is he?"

He's in Taunton, it seems, near the little prep school where Resettlement wangled him a teaching job. Peter begins to believe the stories about Resettlement's indifference, so dull-minded and profound as to be indistinguishable from malice. Surely they could have found something better for a man with Prideaux's record?

It's a long drive from London to Taunton, even though in the small hours the M4 and M5 are as empty as they ever get. Peter arrives at the police station just in time to catch the night shift on their way out. It's a bit of luck, reducing both paperwork and the number of people involved. Before long, he's in possession of a thin, bedraggled, nearly sober, sick-looking Jim Prideaux.

Prideaux doesn't utter a word until they're in Peter's car, then says flatly, "I won't go back to Thursgood's."

"No, you bloody well won't."

"Ah. Where, then? Sarratt? That would be interesting. I could write a report comparing interrogation techniques. I wonder if our lot have started using electricity too."

"Don't - "

"Or are we going to a nice secluded forest somewhere, just you and me and a revolver? I won't even try to run."

"Don't," Peter says again, "talk nonsense." He starts the car and heads back towards the motorway. "You're going to stay with me in London for a while, until you're feeling better."

"Really? How long do you expect that to take?" Earlier, Peter tried to ask George the same question, and got the same helpless silence that's all Peter can manage now. After a few seconds, Prideaux ventures, "Aren't you a bit senior to be babysitting?"

"Mr. Smiley wants this kept unofficial."

"I expect he does." Prideaux rubs at his left shoulder, which he carries high and stiffly; it's uncomfortable even to look at. He makes a sound that is remotely like a laugh, as bones are remotely like a person. "I did it, you know. I shot Bill."

Well, Peter thinks, thank Christ someone did. It's a dishonest thought. The truth is, he liked Bill. Everyone liked Bill. Even George. The blank existence Bill would have had as a defector, kept on ice when not paraded around as a model Soviet citizen, was as much punishment as Peter ever wished on him. Bill--sophisticated, witty, urbane, sociable Bill--would've been miserable. Given the choice, he might have preferred the ending Prideaux gave him.

"You mustn't go around saying that," Peter answers.

"Why not? It's a free bloody country, isn't it?"

"Oh, be your age." Like this morning's sorry, it's a fossilised bit of Peter's old life. He used to say it to Michael when they'd have a row about Peter's unreliability, his variable hours and sudden trips abroad, his demanding but unspecified job.

It silences Prideaux, as it used to silence Michael. Peter drives northwards, clutching the steering wheel so hard his fingers cramp. Not long after reaching the M4, Peter stops for breakfast. Prideaux is obviously hung over now and won't eat, but he drinks cup after cup of sour coffee. His movements are mechanical, his eyes blank. He doesn't look like a man who's enjoying his vengeance.

It makes Peter do a bit of mental re-filing. Prideaux is not naturally violent, not a thug. Nor is he a self-dramatising little toad like Rikki Tarr, despite the trouble he's stirred up in the last twelve hours. He's a good agent, a good man from what George has said, who's been with the Circus since he was twenty, done miracles during the war, and after thirty-five years been shot, tortured, hustled into a dismal retirement, and had his best friend exposed as a mole.

Peter is supposed to be helping him, somehow.

"Here." Peter offers him a flask, which is the only help he's got to hand.

Prideaux takes it, sniffs the contents, and tops up his half-empty coffee cup to the brim with whisky. At Peter's gesture, he tucks the flask into the pocket of his ill-fitting, schoolmasterish tweed jacket. "Thanks."

Back in the car, Prideaux takes sips directly from the flask at precise five-minute intervals. He's rationing it. It's been a long time, Peter thinks, since Prideaux has been completely sober.

Peter tries to think of something to say to draw him out, unthreatening small talk of the kind Smiley uses so well. But every sentence falls flat in his imagination. He decides the only subject on his mind must be the only one on Prideaux's, too. "Why did you do it?"

Prideaux takes another drink of the whisky, three minutes early and a much larger one than before. "Why did I go to the police?"

"No."

Another swallow, tipping the flask sharply up; it must be almost empty. "I . . . I had to."

Peter glances at him, but he's looking out of the side window, face turned away. Peter waits until he takes a last drink from the flask and hands it back, then says, "The bottle's under the seat."

Prideaux rummages, finds it, and takes two deep gulps. He's moved from holding off sobriety to needing to be drunk again. "This won't change my answer. I had to. That's all I know."

"You were angry with him."

"Of course I'm angry with him!" Yet another drink. "Yes, present tense. I'm not so far gone I can't hear myself."

"You're so angry that you went to the police and turned yourself in?"

"If contradictions bother you, you're in the wrong line of work." He offers the bottle to Peter, who drinks. Just a little one, because he's tired, but Prideaux's bleakness is starting to knot up his nerves. His nerves are easily affected, lately.

"What did you tell them?"

"Nothing. That I'd shot Bill Haydon. They didn't take me seriously for several repetitions. Then they went haring off to find out who Bill Haydon was and if he'd been shot on their patch. They never came back."

It's the first bit of good news Peter's had since his telephone rang. Thank God for Mendel's alertness. It occurs to him to wonder if Smiley had asked Mendel to keep an eye out for just this sort of thing. Smiley has, after all, known Jim Prideaux for a long time.

"I'd have told them everything," Prideaux continues, "if they'd given me a chance." The drink is starting to show in the slackening of his hunched posture and of course his urge to talk. "Tired of lies. Sick and tired of them."

"If lies bother you - "

"All right, Polly Parrot. Lies were my job. But lies were my damn life, too. Lied to the Circus, couldn't tell them the truth of course, not and stay. Lied about myself every minute of every day, except when we . . . ." The bottle, Peter notices as Prideaux raises it again, is getting alarmingly low. He'll stop if he needs to and buy another one. "I was a lie. Never thought of Bill as a liar, though. All those years, and I thought he just . . . hell, I don't know. Misdirected a little bit. Hid me. Well, not only me. Never only me, even leaving out the other thing."

Understanding whispers in Peter's mind, an intimation of knowledge, like footsteps in the dark.

"If we met at the Circus he used to ask me how I was. We used to have tea. Old acquaintances, oh yes."

The knowledge comes clear. The footsteps have weight, and purpose, and a name. "You and he, you were . . . you loved him."

"I love him." Prideaux turns and looks at Peter defiantly for a moment before slumping back. "It was supposed to end. I sighted him and I pulled the trigger and that was supposed to end it. But it didn't end. It's never bloody well going to end."

"Everything ends," Peter says. Love ends, and so do mourning, regret, guilt, loneliness. It's the faith he clings to on bad days.

"Christ. I think I can remember being as young as you."

"I'm older than I look." He turned thirty-four last week. Since Michael left--since Peter chucked him out without explanation--Peter has felt about fifty, on a good day.

"Yes, we all are." Prideaux sighs and finishes off the bottle in one go. "Here's a funny thing. You're not shocked, little Peter. There's a self-confessed pansy in your car and all you've said is 'you loved him.' I think you're one of us. Are you a queer, Peter?"

No one's ever asked. Not when the Circus vetted him (the question was heavily implied, but never quite posed, and so Peter only had to imply his lying answer). Not his friends, not his parents who worry that he's still single, not even the men he's had. Not one person has ever directly asked.

"Yes," says Peter. It feels like scratching an itch he's been half-aware of for years, so he says it again. "Yes. I'm queer."

"I wanted to tell them I was queer. The police. I'm sorry I didn't get the chance." Prideaux lifts the bottle again, frowns at its emptiness, and drops it onto the floor. "'I'm a homosexual and I've killed the man I love, just like Oscar Wilde said we do.' I can imagine the looks on their faces."

"Each man."

"What?"

"Each man kills the thing he loves. That's what Wilde said. Not just . . . us."

"Very good. I never actually read it. Bill read bits of it to me. It was the sort of thing one did at Oxford."

Not at Peter's Oxford, but then, he's of a different generation. Post-war, unromantic. He only read Oscar Wilde because a tutor insisted. "It's frightful doggerel."

"Tell me this, Peter. Who have you killed?"

"No one," Peter says, gripped by a strange panic. In the literal sense he's killed no one, never broken a neck or sighted down a rifle barrel at a living body. Men have died in the field because of his orders, but that's not the same. And he's killed no one metaphorically, either. Michael, he's heard through a mutual friend he hopes he won't have to drop for discretion's sake, has found a flat and is coping all right.

"Ask yourself again in twenty years," Prideaux says. "When you've got so used to hiding that you've almost forgotten how much you hate it."

Peter sees a future snapshot, himself at fifty-four, with a bitter smile and broken capillaries in his nose. He looks nearly as bad as Prideaux. "It's stupid to hate necessity."

"But you do." Prideaux reaches over--Peter tenses and wishes his gun were in his jacket instead of under the seat--and touches Peter's tie. "Sky blue. Very pretty. It's your favourite, too, I remember seeing you wear it round the Circus. It's a queer's tie. Roy Bland even said so once, to Bill. 'Clever little bastard, Guillam, but why does he dress like a pansy?' If you'd just put on an ordinary tie, you'd fit right in. But you don't."

"I don't wear this tie to work anymore."

"Ah." That soft but assessing look in Prideaux's eyes is pity. "Yes, things must be tense. Everyone under the microscope."

Peter shrugs. They're not here to talk about him. "Why did you turn yourself in? You've caused a lot of fuss."

"I thought it would be an ending. A kind of ending. No more lies, at least." Prideaux presses his fingers along the dark, creased skin under his eyes. "I nearly shot myself. After . . . after Bill. I was there in the woods with the rifle. But it's complicated, shooting yourself with a rifle. By the time I'd got the preparations done I thought I'd try to live instead. Murder and suicide, it's a bit too much like a bad novel. Wrong ending. None of the endings is right, none of the possible ones."

Peter should be thinking about this, analysing. Prideaux's a problem to be contained. Instead he watches the road closely and tries not to think at all. After a while he looks over and sees that Prideaux is crying silently. His eyes are closed, his body motionless, and only the flow of tears shows he isn't dead.

Damn George Smiley. He could have sent anyone, but he sent Peter.

A few minutes later Peter pulls off the motorway and finds the nearest pub. When Peter returns to the car with a fresh bottle, Prideaux opens it without comment and drinks steadily the rest of the way to London. Peter has to help him up the stairs to the flat, where he curls up on the sofa like a child, face turned towards the cushion. Quietly, to no one in particular, Prideaux says, "I don't think I can go on."

"Get some rest, Jim. Sleep."

Prideaux seems to be asleep already, or at least unconscious, so he doesn't ask what good Peter thinks it will do.

Peter covers him with a blanket and, when that doesn't wake him, lifts his head to put a pillow under it. From this angle, Prideaux looks a little like Michael. Not very--it's just the hairline, and the expression of exhausted despair Peter remembers from that last night--but a little. It seems right that Peter should think of Michael now.

"I loved him," Peter whispers. No, that's a lie. "I love him." Not that it matters anymore. Michael is gone, as irrevocably as Bill Haydon, if less bloodily.

Peter sinks weak-legged onto the floor beside the sofa. Prideaux stirs, and Peter, giving in to an impulse he ought to suppress, kisses him on the temple as he used to do with Michael. With a sigh, Prideaux falls back into sleep. Peter is achingly tempted to hold him, to let himself pretend and Prideaux dream. But another lie will help neither of them.

"I'm going to go on," Peter says. There are no police for what Peter's done, and a gun is too drastic. He will live with it, and that will be punishment enough.

on 2012-01-22 07:19 am (UTC)
starlady: (007)
Posted by [personal profile] starlady
Oof. Well done.

on 2012-01-22 01:15 pm (UTC)
shehasathree: (MrBurnsFingers)
Posted by [personal profile] shehasathree
This is... excellent.

on 2012-09-08 07:05 pm (UTC)
Posted by (Anonymous)
You've hit the tone of the movie and the books perfectly. Well written!

exiledsofie

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