Author's note: I seem to enjoy having people mess with my characters, and then be shown the error of their ways. Oh well, I trust you all to let me know if I start doing it too often.

I blinked.

"Beg your pardon?" I gasped. Chief Superintendent Dickens merely raised his eyebrows. "You can't be serious."

He gave me a patient look. "How old is the man?" He asked.

I thought about it for a minute, then shrugged. "I don't know." He continued to wait, and I conceded. "Older than I am."

"And you aren't a young man yourself anymore." I dared to frown at the man. "He's slowing down." Dickens said. "He was already slow, if the reports were to be believed."

I sighed. "He was slow to get reports in because he was always doing so much at once. He was slow compared to Gregson, who was slow compared to Holmes."

"He's old enough to retire, Hopkins." I tried not to glare at my superior.

"He doesn't want to retire! The Yard is his life!" I was losing my composure now, confound it. "The joke use to be was the day he died would be the day he retired." Or was it the other way around? "I need him. He's one of the last of that bunch, and I don't want to let him go sooner than I have to."

"So you'd rather put others at risk when the job becomes too much for him?" I sighed. I knew better than that, just like I knew that day was still some time off. "I'll mention it to him, when I see him tonight." He'd be after Gregson next, if the man had his way.

Something stirred in my superior's eyes. I didn't like it. "That's right, you meet with him for a drink on Fridays, don't you?"

I shrugged. "A lot of us from back then get together. They'd be insulted if I didn't go." Not that I didn't enjoy the trips down memory lane, but I wasn't about to tell him that. I was irritated with the man today. Just leave me alone and let me run my department the way I see fit. It's still the most efficient.

"Mind if I join you tonight?" He asked. I managed not to wince.

"Sure." I said, hoping in vain that nothing would happen.

With that bunch, something had to happen. Something always happened.

I led the way into the building, eyes peeled for the others. Dickens followed not far behind, eyeing the place with interest. He had probably never been here before, but our group had been gathering here long before I even made it to Inspector.

"Oi! Stanley! Get over here, lad!" That was Bradstreet. I altered my path and followed the sound of his voice. He was gathered with the others at a table near the bar, a more conspicuous setting than our usual corner.

Bradstreet was grinning like somebody's harmless old great-great-grandpa. His hair was white, and his face was lined and worn, but his eyes were bright.

"That's Superintendent now, Bradstreet." Gregson informed him coolly. The grey had finally won its battle with his head, but he was still fit for duty, if no longer in his prime.

Bradstreet waved him off. "I'm retired now, I'll call him 'son,' 'lad,' or 'boy' if I so choose."

I winced. "By all means, stick with 'Stanley' and 'lad,' and don't punish me for Gregson's mouth." Gregson looked miffed, but Bradstreet was practically roaring with laughter.

"Where'd Lestrade get off to?" Jones demanded. "He would've appreciated that."

Gregson smirked. "He's breaking in the new reporter." He shook his head sadly. "They really don't give them much training at all these days, and Lestrade's always glad to help."

Jones snorted. "You pointed him out, didn't you?" He accused. Gregson didn't deny it.

Jones had been forced to give up the job; a raid gone horribly wrong had left his left arm all but useless. He still glared at those of us who were still in the force from time to time, just to remind us how lucky we are.

So far Dickens had been ignored. So far he had also kept his mouth shut, apparently content to observe. I wondered how much longer that would last on his part; this bunch would ignore him until he demanded their attention, and then they'd all clam up.

Lestrade came back grumbling. Today must have been a bad day. I wondered if it had been bad enough to add any new grey hairs to what little had managed to creep through that stubborn black.

"Cowell got away from him again." Gregson explained sympathetically. I groaned. "That makes, what, three times now?" Gregson asked conversationally. "You're losing your touch, old man." I winced.

Lestrade glared at him. "May I remind you that the first time he decided to throw an innocent bystander into the Thames, and the poor boy couldn't swim." Lestrade wasn't drinking tonight.

"The second time," Bradstreet piped up pleasantly, "the man escaped by shoving you through a window, Gregson. You were lucky, there." Gregson's smirk faded a little. He had been very lucky.

"So what happened this time?" Jones asked.

Lestrade glowered at him. "That idiot Constable Barker got in the way and got himself shot in the shoulder." He paused long enough to sit down. "Why do I always get stuck with the rookies?"

I laughed, and Lestrade turned his glare on me. "Don't think I don't know it's your fault it still happens." He warned me.

I chuckled, and signaled for a drink. "It's your own fault, Lestrade. If you weren't so good for them, we wouldn't put you with the rookies."

Bradstreet grinned wickedly. "He can't pair them up with Gregson, you know. He'd kill them."

"I'm sure." Lestrade retorted. "He'd probably annoy them to death." Gregson smiled in response. That only irritated Lestrade all the more.

Someone was approaching, and the others settled down. Lestrade signaled for a drink, but not his usual. He was given something lighter as the stranger approached and stood right behind him.

"Lestrade?" The man challenged. It set my instincts on fire. The stranger was trouble.

Lestrade tilted his head in acknowledgement, and began to turn around. The man addressing him reached forward and grabbed him by the collar. He lifted the smaller man off his feet and shook him before shoving him against the table.

Gregson shook his head as I tensed, and I realized none of the others had moved.

Lestrade reached for his cup and threw the drink in the man's face. The grip on his collar loosened, and he threw a punch.

Personally, I always enjoyed watching Lestrade get into fights with men that were bigger than he was. He was good at it, since most men were bigger than he, and seemed to- not quite enjoy it, but take satisfaction in being able to do it.

Myself, I enjoyed it, and I wasn't ashamed to admit it. Too many of the new rookies thought the man was too small to do much damage, and criminals picked him out as the weak link in the chain. It was fun to watch him dash such expectations, especially since I never had to worry about him going too far.

Lestrade had the man on the floor and was cuffing him. Gregson was now joining him, eyes on the crowd. Lestrade had attracted their attention.

But the unwritten rule here had always been that if they left us alone, we would leave them alone. This long standing mutual disregard for each other had stood us in good stead all this time. This fellow had struck first, and broken that unspoken agreement. That made him game, in the eyes of the crowd, for arrest or anything else Lestrade chose to do with him.

And anyway, they liked seeing Lestrade in action as much as I did. Those who were troublesome liked to watch the potential threat from the safety of our truce, and those who were not needed not fear the man.

Two constables rose; it wasn't coincidence that they were there any more than it was that Lestrade had not been drinking a stronger brew. They cheerfully relieved Lestrade of his burden and dragged the fellow out of the building.

Lestrade regained his seat with a self satisfied air and signaled for his usual. Gregson grinned smugly. I scowled. "What was that all about?"

Bradstreet also grinned. "He got him. Cowell's been after Lestrade all evening, since the miss this morning. We voted that he could take care of him here."

"You weren't late." Jones shrugged. "So you didn't get to vote."

"He was already here, and looking for trouble when you arrived." Gregson added. "Or we would have told you."

"Idiot." Bradstreet muttered. "You would think he would've known better."

"To attack Lestrade, or to do it in our presence?" Gregson wanted to know. "Do you need stitches or anything, by the way?"

Lestrade shook his head as he pulled out his handkerchief. "I skinned my knuckles, but that's about it." He said. "Which reminds me, how's that cat burglary case going?"

"Ha ha." Gregson was not amused. One of the cases he was currently dealing with involved cat abducting.

"Cat-napping." Jones shuddered. "I had one of those once."

Bradstreet couldn't help himself. "Don't cats like napping? Ours always curled up in the patch of sun from the window."

Gregson groaned at the horrible joke. "You can't ask about the forgery case instead?" He demanded.

Lestrade smiled. "I could." He agreed. "How is the forgery case going?" Gregson didn't really want to talk about that case either.

"Terrible. Retirement is looking better all the time." Gregson shivered. "Missie's been after me about it for a while now." He admitted. "And after that broken arm…" He trailed off, and the gathering grew solemn. He sighed. "I don't know how much more of this I want. I found myself thinking about gardening the other day. Gardening!"

Lestrade smiled into his cup. It was a resigned smile, and the others did not see it. I recognized it though. The same feeling was welling up in me.

There goes another one.

Gregson shrugged. "Not yet." He finally said. "But soon." That was something. Soon meant a year at the least.

That would give me time. The old crew had been slowly disappearing for longer than it had taken me to notice it, much to my embarrassment and regret. I was trying now, with the few of them left, to make sure the newer members of the force were ready for the day when it would just be them. I wasn't entirely sure I was succeeding.

Lestrade rolled his eyes. "Leave me with all the idiots. Very considerate of you, Gregson."

"You could join us, you know." Bradstreet offered, his expression blank. Jones stared into his drink, Gregson went to studying the walls, and my eyes drifted to the table.

It didn't last. Bradstreet snorted, and Jones cracked. Gregson let loose a guffaw, and I found myself chuckling in spite of the memory of Dicken's insistences. Lestrade alone kept a straight face, and who knew what he was thinking to be able to do so.

"Still plan on dying in the line of duty?" Jones asked. Lestrade shuddered.

"Not for some time. The wife says I'm not allowed to die first." He admitted.

"Really?" Bradstreet was curious. "When did she say that?"

"Last night, right before she tried to drown me." He replied.

I choked. "She what?" I wasn't sure I'd heard him correctly.

He shrugged. "I told you I was scrambling around in the sewers last night." He reminded me. "I was choking on the stench, and she thought I was coughing again. Then she caught a whiff of me." It was pleasant to note that the man considered the four of us close enough that he could actually talk about personal details. He was not the type that volunteered such things to people.

Jones thought this through. "So you showed up covered in filth and she whisked you off to the washroom and tried to drown you. Did she tell you that you weren't allowed to die when you showed up smelling like sewage or when you accused her of trying to drown you?"

"Before she realized I smelled like sewage." Lestrade replied. "She heard me coughing and was worrying about my lungs."

"So you have to outlive her, then." Bradstreet commented idly. "That's not very considerate."

Lestrade considered this. "She probably doesn't want to be stuck with the grandchildren. Amy has already insisted that if I should die on the job Lizzie is to move in with her family."

"Did her husband get an opinion on the matter?" Gregson asked, while Jones gave Lestrade a look.

"You have grandchildren?" Jones demanded. Lestrade nodded, and Jones reacted with a groan. "Heaven help us. The last thing this world needs is more Lestrades."

"Jack didn't have any children." Lestrade said quietly. "The grandchildren aren't Lestrades."

"Not in name." I pointed out. "But I'll bet more than one of them takes after you."

"It looks better on the girls." Gregson taunted. Lestrade rolled his eyes.

"How many?" Jones demanded.

Lestrade considered. "Amy has four: three girls and one boy. Olivia has two boys."

"They look just like him." Gregson added. "Act like him too, except they're smarter." Lestrade didn't seem to mind that his grandchildren were smarter than he was.

"Are they old enough for you to corrupt them yet?" Bradstreet wanted to know. "Don't give me that look, I remember the day your daughter walked into the Yard and reported that some unsavory looking fellow had tried to take advantage of her." He grinned at the memory. "We went to pick the fellow up and found him with a broken arm, wrist, and nose."

Lestrade glowered. "I wasn't about to have a child of mine end up a victim if they could help it." He took a drink. "The oldest is eight." He added. "And well on his way in being corrupted, as you say."

Talk drifted from there, and varied from talk of children and grandchildren to beginnings in the Yard, and it was Lestrade who eventually noted the time and stood. "I should be getting home." He said. "Good night, gentlemen."

"Goodnight." We replied. I watched him as he made his way out.

Jones was preparing to leave as well; Gregson followed soon after. Bradstreet smiled at me, and toasted me with what was left in his glass. "Carry on, lad." He said, a little more solemn than usual. "Hold on to Lestrade, Stanley. He's a Yarder 'first and foremost.' He couldn't handle being a citizen again like the rest of us."

I nodded. "I have no intention of losing him without a fight." I assured the man. Thus relieved, Bradstreet nodded and also took his leave.

And I was left with Dickens. I turned to him and waited for him to say something.

He shook his head. "I'd heard about the 'old crew' before, but I thought it was mostly just rumor and exaggeration."

I didn't smile. "You were just looking at what's left of them." I said. "And there's a reason they're still alive. I'm willing to keep Lestrade for as long as he'll stay because he'll do his job for as long as he feels he is able, and when he feels he's become a liability, he'll retire. He won't put other people at risk just to relive the glory days. In the meantime, the younger men are learning from him and Gregson."

"Gregson said he would be retiring soon." Dickens pointed out.

"He's getting tired." I said. "He'll stay for another year, maybe longer, while he decides if he's really ready or able to give it up." This place had never been a place of rank, and it made me bold. "I've known these men since I was a constable, sir. I've watched them age and grow old, I've known their faults and their gifts, and seen how they've dealt with failure and success. I know them as surely as they know me when it comes to the job.

"Bradstreet's wife told him he was getting too old, and he knew to believe her in spite of the fact that he didn't want to retire. Jones was injured, and sulked and fumed and grumbled about it, but was honored to be one of those that go down fighting. Gregson will get tired of it all long before he runs the risk of becoming incompetent, and Lestrade will be professional and competent up until the day he retires, and that will be abrupt and out of the blue to everyone, and then he'll probably die within the week. Lestrade is the Yarder."

"And that is why I'm content to keep him and Gregson for as long as they'll stay." I finished.

Dickens nodded. "You seem to know what you're doing, then." He said. "Goodnight, Hopkins."

"Goodnight, sir."

Disclaimer: Sherlock Holmes does not belong to me.