"The Shadow Boys Are Breaking"

The stairs proved to be too much.

A lifetime ago, last night, he had been bleary-eyed with exhaustion when his head hit the pillow.

He'd left his bed less than an hour later, the moment the call came.

The last of his reserves he'd spent in the early hours of this morning — on his hands and knees in the rubble, perhaps, coughing and spitting out ash and grit and dust, or at the hospital, enduring the excruciating tension of not knowing beside a too-still and too-silent Mycroft Holmes.

He didn't remember any detail of the drive from the hospital to the flat in the grim pre-dawn downpour. He recalled his trembling hand struggling to fit the key in the lock as if it were a particularly uninteresting program on the telly during which he'd nodded off months ago.

Only when he drew the door closed behind him did he remember the stairs. He switched on the stairwell light, and the steps loomed up before him, a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Turning his back to them in temporary defeat, he half-sat and half-fell until he could brace himself, elbows on knees and head in hands.

Pull yourself together. Get up. Do something. The chant grew to a roar in his ears. You know how to do it. One foot forward. Then the next.

He sat there.

"Sherlock? Good heavens, is that you?"

By the time he had raised his head and identified the voice, the woman stood before him, wrapped in a dressing gown, hugging herself against the chill.

"Detective Inspector!" she gasped.

"I'm sorry" — Lestrade struggled to pull her name from his sluggish memory — "Mrs Hudson. I didn't mean to wake you."

"I thought that— Oh, you're hurt!" The landlady waved her fingers at him, indicating that he should remain seated. "Wait right there. Don't move, Dear. I'll call an ambulance."

"No, no. Please don't!"

Pausing, she blinked wide eyes at him. At his chest, more precisely. Both his damp coat and rumpled jacket hung open, displaying a once-white shirt now painted red-brown with gore. Looking down at himself, Lestrade felt his mouth go dry.

"It's not mine," he rasped.

Mrs Hudson retreated haltingly until her back came to rest against the entry door. For a moment her gaze darted back and forth between the detective inspector and the quiet flat upstairs.

She pressed a palm to her mouth. "My boys," she whispered past her fingers.

"They're alive," he hastened to reassure her. "Still alive."

Her sleep-muddled gaze grew overly bright as she nodded toward his torso. "Which one?"

He glanced back down at his shirt, as if he could identify one gruesome stain from another.

Recent memories poured forth without invitation. He recalled Sherlock splayed in long-limbed disarray like an abandoned storefront mannequin, painted white by ash and dust and crushed concrete. He remembered John crumpled into himself like a broken toy, dripping gore. He heard the gurgling-wet sucking sound of John struggling to draw a breath, and the wheezing cough that brought shocking crimson bubbles to Sherlock's lips when he tried to speak.

He felt the weight of Sherlock's head on his shoulder, the weight of John's back against his chest. He had tried to be careful, so very careful, with those fragile burdens.

By all rights he shouldn't have been allowed to lift, to hold, to carry, but the last remnants of the building groaned and shifted above them, preparing to bury them all; it had seemed foolish to insist on emergency medical protocol if this got everyone, including the wounded patients, killed in the bargain. No neck braces, no back-boards, no required credentials, just volunteers and good intentions and frantic prayers.

And blood everywhere.

"Which one?" Mrs Hudson repeated.

The word threatened to stick in his throat, but he forced it out: "Both."

A broken whimper of a sound escaped her. Just when Lestrade had believed that this morning couldn't become any more nightmarish, he'd stumbled headfirst into the very thing that could make it so: being the bearer of bad tidings, and distressing this kind-hearted woman.

"They're still alive," he repeated. "In hospital. I just came from there."

"Will they live?" Her voice remained hushed.

Lestrade swallowed. For several heartbeats, neither spoke.

Then, unfolding from her anguished huddle, Mrs Hudson straightened to her full, if unimpressive, height.

"Don't spare me, Dear. Out with it." No whisper this time.

It didn't occur to him to disobey that tone. "I don't know. According to the doctors, it's too soon to tell." He exhaled, deflating further. "There was an explosion early this morning that collapsed a building. Sherlock and John were present at the blast, then trapped in the wreckage. It was..." He shook his head.

"Very bad, sounds like." Steadiness was returning to her voice, despite her tears.

Nodding, he frowned at the floor in front of him and cleared his throat.

"John should be in surgery a couple more hours yet. Sherlock got out just before I left, but they say he won't wake" — he omitted the qualifying "if he ever does" — "'til afternoon at the earliest. I'm headed back there, as soon as I take a look 'round upstairs. I'm hoping to find something that will help make sense of what happened, or at least show me what to do next."

Almost too late, the thought struck him that he was talking to Sherlock's landlady, the woman who had witnessed the "drugs bust" with which, when all else failed, he had tried to push Sherlock into some semblance of legal and responsible behavior.

"I'm not looking to confiscate anything, mind you. This isn't..." He gestured vaguely with his empty hands. "I don't even know why they were there in that building. I can't protect them or look for those responsible if I don't understand what's going on. And right now, neither of them can tell me."

"You don't have to explain yourself to me, Detective Inspector. I expect Sherlock gave you that key for times just such as these. You watch out for him, one way or another; I know you do." A sad smile reordered the lines on her face. "And it does a body good to do something, doesn't it? Rather than sit and wait?"

"Truer words..." He groped blindly for the energy to stand. After considerable effort, he gained his feet, only to have Mrs Hudson grasp his wrist.

"Just a moment, Dear. Hold still." She had the fixed concentration of someone who badly needed the distraction of devising and implementing a plan.

As her damp eyes mapped the lines of his body, Lestrade blinked in confusion. "Mrs Hudson?"

"I don't have anything of my late husband's, I'm afraid. I made a bit of a celebration of it, chucking everything out immediately after the execution."

Lestrade scrubbed his free hand over his face, quite lost.

"Hmm," she continued, "I think any shirt of Sherlock's would be too narrow in the shoulders, and any shirt of John's would be too short in the arms."

Releasing him, she made a shooing motion in the direction of Sherlock and John's flat. "There's nothing for it: a jumper, then. They stretch, you know, and some of John's are already a bit long on him."

"I, ah... I'm sorry?"

"You can't go back out like that, Detective Inspector. I'll find you something to wear while you shower." Gentle hands caught him at the elbow and shoulder, turning him around to face the stairs.

"Shower? But I'm not—"

"Are you going home before you go back to the hospital?"

"No, but—"

"Then take a quick shower. Trust me, it'll help: you're nearly done in. Get the blood off. Wake yourself up. Then you can have a look about." Somehow he was moving, climbing the steps, opening the door, the landlady at his heels.

"I recommend John's, the next floor up," she said. "Sherlock treats everything of his like some kind of science lab. It can be rather off-putting."

"Mrs Hudson, I only want a quick look. I can't just—"

"Do you honestly think either of these men would begrudge you anything, after you spent the night digging them out of the rubble?"

This brought him up short. She moved forward and grasped his hands in hers, lifting them up for his examination.

"I'm no Sherlock Holmes," she said in a near-whisper, "but I can deduce some things on my own, Detective Inspector."

His fingers were lacerated, his palms torn. Dried blood stained the tips of his chipped nails. He honestly hadn't noticed.

Fatigue and emotion blurred his vision, and Mrs Hudson offered a gentle squeeze of support before she let him go.

"Off with you now. I'm going to find you a jumper. Be grateful: if I was just twenty-five years younger, I'd be offering to join you and scrub your back."

Lestrade ducked his head and felt himself blush, drawing a teary laugh from the woman, which he returned in kind.

As the hot spray beat against complaining muscles, Lestrade fought a losing battle to clear his mind.

Anger would have been a relief. He wanted to be furious at Sherlock for keeping him in the dark again, for failing to realize an ally was his for the asking, that genius or no the consulting detective didn't have to pursue everything on his own. God knew Lestrade had enough mysteries to unravel without the ones Sherlock crafted around himself to satisfy his own eccentric taste for the dramatic.

But Lestrade thought back on the expressionless mask of Mycroft Holmes's face, the tension evident in every long line of the man in the waiting room, and knew this had come as a shock to Sherlock's reputedly omniscient brother, as well.

Anger eluded him. Grief left it no room.

He recalled his own hoarse voice trying to reassure Sherlock, to answer the man's unasked questions while the medical team worked over his broken body beside the ambulance. ("It's me, Lestrade; we've found John, and he's alive; your brother's already waiting at the hospital; easy now, don't fight them; be still, Sherlock...")

He remembered calling raggedly to John's limp form where it curled half-buried beneath the debris; he remembered seeking a response from the doctor, any signal of consciousness, and receiving none. ("John Watson? Doctor Watson? We've got you; we've got Sherlock. Now give us a sign, John, please...")

He relived the drive to the hospital — at Sherlock's side, as the paramedics requested, in case the consulting detective roused again and required calming. Lestrade barely blinked as he kept dutiful watch, slumped beneath his own shock blanket, breathing behind his own oxygen mask, but Sherlock never opened his eyes.

The taste of ashes on his tongue, and desperation, and bitter hospital coffee…

Pressing his forehead and fist against the tiled wall, Lestrade sagged into its support as the water washed him clean.

Lestrade would deny it to anyone, of course — including himself — but the woolly jumper felt unexpectedly comfortable. Comforting, even.

The weave possessed enough give that he had hope he wouldn't stretch it out of all proportion and ruin it for John. And it was form-fitting enough on his frame that he easily could wear his jacket, now clumsily brushed and wiped clean of the worst of the mess, over it.

His search yielded little information. Neither man's mobile appeared to be in their home. The firearm Lestrade repeatedly had taken great pains to overlook was nowhere to be found, but he had no way to know whether this meant that John had anticipated trouble and taken it with him or simply hidden the gun well.

John's laptop proved surprisingly easy to access — Lestrade would have to talk to the doctor about proper security measures when, not if, the opportunity presented itself — but the list of emails recently received showed only the same few addresses over and over again. No last-minute message from an unknown sender, then.

There was no point in bothering with Sherlock's computer. Lestrade knew he'd never get past its multiple layers of encryption.

He had his suspicions about what this morning meant, of course, considering all that had happened recently, but as Sherlock was always telling him, it was unwise to theorize before you had data.

As he paced the flat, he thought tactically about the doors and fire escape and still-broken windows. When he had satisfied himself that he could find no other immediate clues, he called the Yard and assigned teams to maintain round-the-clock surveillance on the building from every useful angle.

Perhaps they'd be fortunate and learn something new from the stakeout. If nothing else, he would be certain that both Sherlock and John's home and their landlady were safe. Doing something felt infinitely preferable to doing nothing at all.

His mind already back at the hospital, he descended the stairs to find Mrs Hudson, with red-rimmed eyes and stiff upper lip, setting out tea.

"Right, all done? Then take off your trousers and have some tea, Dear."

Lestrade opened his mouth and then shut it, once more befuddled.

"Your knee is showing through the rip in your trouser leg. I can stitch it up for you. It won't take five minutes." Hands on hips, she pinned him with a look. "And I have scones."

His stomach chose that moment to rumble audibly, reminding him how long it had been since he'd eaten a bite.

"You see? It will do you good. Go on now, you don't have anything I haven't seen before," she urged him, reaching out a hand for his trousers. Then, in a stage whisper, "Though, granted, yours is no doubt far more attractive."

Choking back laughter that could all too easily become hysterical, Lestrade did as he was told. She was a force of nature, this one.

Moments later he found himself on her sofa in his boxer shorts and the borrowed jumper, drinking wonderful tea that was neither too strong nor too weak and devouring homemade scones. As Mrs Hudson mended his trousers, he explained the surveillance plans for the building and the ways she could alert his team to anything she noticed out of the ordinary. He added her personal number to his mobile and drew out his card to leave with her.

He struggled against and ultimately surrendered to a monstrous yawn.

"Is there anyone I can ring for you? To let them know you're all right?" she asked.

"I've already contacted the Yard, but I appreciate the thought."

"I meant anyone... personal?" She looked meaningfully at the ring on his hand.

It could still catch him off guard, the sudden choking sorrow, and his feeble resistance was no match for it this morning. He shook his head, swallowing around it, staring into his teacup. "Not anymore. I buried her a few years ago," he said at last. With a shrug, he flexed his abused fingers. "Just wasn't ready to give up being her husband, I suppose. Silly, yeah?"

"No, not silly. Quite beautiful, actually," she said after a moment. "I'm truly sorry, Dear."

He took another sip of tea.

Saving him from the need to reply, she gave a gusty sigh. "There, all done. Nothing fancy, but it'll get you through the day."

She held up the trousers for his inspection. Try as he might, he could not locate the mended spot.

"Thank you, Mrs Hudson. You've been very kind," he said at last, fully dressed, accepting extra scones to take back with him for Mycroft. He felt tired, of course, bloody exhausted, but no longer stumbling drunk with fatigue.

"Don't mention it, Dear. You'll ring me when you hear news?"

"Of course."

"And when they can have visitors?"

"I promise."

"Thank you." She put a hand to his cheek and patted it lightly, smiling up at him with obvious fondness. A new wash of tears shone in her bright eyes, but she didn't allow a single one to fall. "They're quite strong, you know, each in his own way. They've been broken before, and they've mended. They'll fight."

"They will," he agreed gruffly.

"And they have very good people watching out for them."

He dropped his eyes, resisting the urge to point out that those very good people seemed to have failed the two men mere hours earlier.

"You know, you don't have to wait 'til the next emergency to drop by. It's always a treat to see you."

Smiling despite himself, Lestrade said, "I'll remember that. I haven't had a better cup of tea in years. Decades, even."

"Take care of them — yourself, too," she urged.

"I'll do my best, Mrs Hudson."

"I have no doubt of it, Detective Inspector. No doubt whatsoever."

The weight of her certainty settled on him. He nodded his gratitude and goodbye.

Squaring his shoulders, Lestrade stepped out into the dismal rain of the grey dawn.


The Optional Epilogue to this story is "Until the Bandages Came Off."

The song takes its title from the lyrics of "Time" by Tom Waits.