I neither own nor profit from any of these characters; they are the property of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss and the BBC.
If you see something that you think ought to be changed or improved, please feel free to let me know, if you'd like. Constructive criticism is always welcome.
Special thanks to ImpishTubist and LeDragonQuiMangeDuPoisson for having read this over for me.
A/N: A deal's a deal.
Lestrade makes lists of reasons to live.
He didn't intend to, at first. It was just a bit of fun, trying to figure out after a particularly exasperating case exactly what it was that kept him at the Yard. "Why I'm still here," he'd written across the top, and then he'd listed things like "free coffee" and "how else will I cover the rent on the flat."
It became something he did on harder days, reminding himself of why he'd become a police officer in the first place. "Even one fewer criminal on the streets is good," he wrote, and "if I quit, I think Sherlock and Anderson would murder one another." He swung between the ridiculous and the sublime, his reasons sometimes trailing off in erratic pencil scrawls as he fell asleep over a half-heartedly constructed list. He worked too hard, they said, but then at the same time, they dropped new case files on his desk and sent him out to new crime scenes.
Somewhere along the way, burnout set in and Lestrade hardly had the time to notice. The quick, easy grin that defused conflicts at crime scenes came less and less often, and if his team missed seeing it, they never said a word. He stopped offering light-hearted comments to keep them grounded; Donovan tried to take over that role and failed, but that was something else he didn't notice. He was too preoccupied with sorting out what needed to be done, ensuring that he had some vague approximation of control.
He was supposed to be their DI. He was supposed to have this well in hand. Sometimes he wondered what was wrong with him, why he couldn't deliver on their expectations. The other DIs went home, slept, saw their families; they took days off and had hobbies and watched television and drank coffee that they bought themselves in a shop and brewed in their own coffee makers. What was he doing wrong?
Salt-and-pepper hair became straight silver early, and the lists grew shorter. On the day he realized that he was sitting at his desk at two o'clock in the morning, a sheet of paper in front of him titled, "Why am I still here?" and only the words "I don't know" below it, he pushed the pencil and his stone-cold cup of coffee away, not caring that it spilt over the edges, and stumbled out of the building.
He walked along the street, not in the direction of his flat – it didn't feel right, going home when there was still so much work left to do – but randomly, without a goal in mind, until he ended up on Lambeth Bridge, staring out at the dark water of the Thames.
The thought crossed his mind, Why am I still here?
I don't know.
And it terrified him, and he reeled back from the railing where he'd had both his hands firmly planted, because he was exhausted and deeply unhappy and, if he were being honest, desperate, and even though he was quite (almost) sure he wouldn't, he might do something so epically stupid that…
He retraced his footsteps back to New Scotland Yard, and as he did, he reminded himself, No one else would do the paperwork.
When he got back, he took his pencil and drew a firm, deliberate line across the words "I don't know" on his sheet of paper, and instead, he filled it with his first list of reasons for being alive.
So none of the forensics specialists kills Sherlock.
So John doesn't kill Sherlock.
Because the other DIs would hate having to take on my case load.
Because I'd hate to go out while the Blades were playing in League One.
Because I'm bloody tired and going to sleep would be less work than doing myself in right now.
The last item startled him. He'd thought the fleeting, dizzy sensation on the bridge had been the product of too little sleep and too much work and standing at the edge of a sheer drop – railing notwithstanding – and he'd thought that it was gone by now. He hadn't realized that it was still there in his head.
The lists suddenly became much more important.
When he writes them now, he tells himself they're to remind him of reasons he knows by heart, reasons that don't even need mentioning because they are so clear. He tells himself that he just likes to see them written out, to make it real how very many good things he has in his life. He tells himself no matter what his mad brain thinks in the dead of night when he's working alone in his office, he's not really the sort of man who'd ever even consider – well, anyway. The lists are only in fun, just like they've always been.
He knows in some part of his mind he won't let out that, truthfully, fun has very little to do with it. The lists are not a joke, and they aren't really to remind him. They're to convince him, and they do a shaky job of it at best.
Anyway, he's still here, and so they're doing well enough.
But today's list is still blank, and he's been sitting over it for forty-five minutes, pen in hand. He's tired, as usual; the sensation is so familiar by now that if someone asked when the last time was that he'd had a good night's sleep, he wouldn't know what they meant. He's been at the Yard for nearly eighteen hours straight, which is not unusual these days – it must be at least the second or third time this week, and it's only Thursday. Maybe he's just too tired to think of anything to go on the list.
Right, that's it. Not that he's upset about this morning's anonymous phone-in, three small bodies found with skulls crushed in and clear signs of abuse, laid out beside one another in some mockery of sibling companionship. Not that he's been berating himself all day for having missed a connection between a murder in Camden and one last month in Lewisham (what if he could have stopped it? Christ, oh, Christ). Not that he's got a stack of folders to be dealt with piled precariously high on one side of his desk and another in the middle and he's just so overwhelmed he wants to sweep them all onto the floor and start fresh, or better yet, not start again at all.
It scares him a little that he can't think of anything to write, and so he pulls open his top desk drawer and runs his fingers down the edges of the creased papers inside, lifting them out and flicking through them in the search for inspiration.
The first thing he notices is that every single one of his lists begins with the same thing. Paperwork. That's great, fantastic, he thinks, even in his own mind the one thing he's good for is to sign and stamp and date the crime scenes he investigates, like some kind of underpaid secretary for the Grim Reaper himself. Nice, that, really nice, and this is only making it all worse, so he lets his eyes skip down the lists to see what else he's written.
Unsurprisingly, Sherlock's name shows up on every list – protecting Sherlock, keeping him from going off on other people, making sure he doesn't try to interrogate the families of victims, acting as a go-between for him and John at times. Not just Sherlock, either; John's name comes up every so often, Donovan's and Anderson's, Dimmock's and Gregson's, and then he realizes that every single thing he's written is something he does for other people.
Not a single reason on a single list is for himself.
Maybe that ought to make him proud, or maybe he ought to at least feel needed. All it really does, though, is make him sad. Sad that he's been making these lists for years and yet there's nothing for him on them, sad that he's realized it now and yet he still can't think of anything to write that he actually wants to see there (hobbies, interests, activities? he had those once, he's pretty sure), sad most of all that even though he's holding a thin, crumpled stack of evidence that everything he does is done for someone else, there isn't anyone who's seemed to notice.
It isn't gratitude he wants; he'd shy away from it if it were offered. But it might be nice if they'd stop giving him all their most difficult cases, or if once in a while maybe one of the other DIs could sub in for him at a crime scene the way he does for all of them every so often. Not gratitude, but perhaps just reciprocation. Not too much to ask, he thinks, except apparently it is.
The lists go back into the drawer and he's still staring at the new one, "Why am I still here?" stark across the top in dark blue ink.
He goes on staring, and the way he feels right now, that's as far as he's going to get. The reasons he's been giving himself seem suddenly inadequate, unfair, and he can't come up with any others.
"No reason I can think of," he writes truthfully. That's all there's going to be this time, and in his mind, he's picturing the bridge again, red-and-black railing only half-visible against the Thames at night. Could he? Would he?
He's already established that he hasn't really got a reason not to.
He shifts in his chair and looks over at the stack of folders. The least he can do before he lets himself start having these sorts of thoughts is sign off on the cases. He's not the type to leave a mess for someone else.
I shouldn't be joking about this, even to myself.
I'm not joking.
And he isn't, which should scare him a lot more than the blank list, except that really they both mean the same thing in the end. He's out of reasons.
Right, then. He'd better get on with these case files.
As he's flipping through the pile, listlessly checking incident reports and making certain everything's in order before he jots his name down on the blank lines at the bottom, there's a soft knock at his door. He doesn't look up for a minute, eyes fixed on the page in front of him as though he's reading, even though in fact he's trying to work up the motivation to answer the knock. Another case, he thinks, or maybe some more papers for the pile – why not? DI Lestrade is clearly willing to take on the work, or else why would he be here every night until the early morning hours?
But, after all, that's what's gotten him here now, isn't it? His complete and total inability to stop, say no, to take a break – he's never really understood how other people justify it to themselves, just putting down the folders, getting the crime scenes out of their heads and going home. He's always just put his head down and kept going, trying to get through the ever-growing load of work so that his desk is cleared, his crime scenes taken care of, and he can perhaps go home and have a proper kip.
Maybe if he'd stopped to think about it for a minute, he'd have realized much earlier that he was bloody miserable.
The knock comes again, making him jump – sinking too deep into his own thoughts, he's forgotten about the fact that someone's waiting. He shakes his head and looks up. "Come in, then," and he tries to clear a spot on the desk for whatever new paperwork is coming.
There isn't any, though; it's John Watson on the other side of the door, and what on Earth is he doing here? He's got something in his hands, a paper bag – oh, God, he can't deal with one of Sherlock's specimens right now – but John just sets it down on one of the chairs in the office and gives him a sort of embarrassed smile.
"Hi," Lestrade says back. "It's after midnight. Please tell me you haven't brought a… head or something."
"I'm not Sherlock," says John. "It's – well, I – look, are you all right? It's just today, at the crime scene, you looked… like you hadn't had a break in far too long."
"Ah, well," he stalls, trying to think of the words that will sound most natural, "that's how it is, eh? Always more work than time."
John frowns. "Yeah, but – are you here this late every day?"
He's starting to be uncomfortable, and John picks up on it right away. "I'm sorry, look, I wasn't trying to… it's takeaway, I brought takeaway. And tea, if you want it. I don't know, I've only ever seen you with coffee…"
Lestrade isn't quite sure what's going on. "You brought takeaway… to Scotland Yard… at one o'clock in the morning."
"Sherlock said you'd be here and… like I said, I wanted to make sure…"
Make sure I was all right?
He's never been in this sort of situation before. In fact, he's fairly sure he's never had to share this entire floor of the building with anyone else in the middle of the night before. He's alone when he works, and he's used to it by now, but this is – well – sort of nice, in a way.
Might as well go out comfortably, he thinks, and then, Oh, because until that one unbidden thought, he'd still been harbouring the idea that he might just be idly contemplating, that maybe he didn't really want to mean it.
He's been quiet too long. "Right," he says with forced cheer (sounds almost normal, actually), "um. Well. Thank you."
"Yeah. I'm starving – shall we?" And John pulls the foil containers from the paper bag, the Thermos full of tea ("no cups, how did I manage to forget the cups?" "It's all right, here," and Lestrade fetches a couple of mugs from the break room) and sets it all out on the detective inspector's desk.
"Here, look – " and he moves the folders to one side, putting the steamed white rice down on top of the sheet of paper that started all of this.
They eat, talking companionably about nothing of importance. Football, in which they both have the worst luck; Sherlock and his constant stream of insanity (John waves his fork around emphatically to underscore the nonsense he has to put up with from his flatmate); the weather, rainy even by London's standards; and even while they discuss the most meaningless of subjects, Lestrade thinks that this is something he would have liked to have been able to get used to.
"Tea?" John offers when the conversation has died down a bit, and Lestrade inclines his head in affirmation, so they shift the takeaway containers over to make room, unsticking the odd document from their foil bottoms.
When John picks up the white rice and peels off the list, he reads the line on top and stops.
"Er – " damn – "nothing. Just a…" Just a what? He hasn't had much practice lying and he isn't quick enough about it now.
"Why am I still here," John reads aloud, deadpan.
What does it matter if he does read it?
"No… no reason you can think of?"
"Here, it's for a case, give over," but he can already see that isn't going to pass muster with John. He's heard the 'for a case' line too often from Sherlock to simply take it at face value anymore. "Look, it doesn't matter, all right? Can I – ?"
But John isn't giving it back. "What do you mean, no reason you can think of?"
Christ. Why did he let John in in the first place? If he'd just thanked him for his concern and sent him off – and this is what it got you, wanting to give in just for a few minutes, wanting to see what it was like to live in that place where people didn't eat dinner over photographs of a murder scene, didn't spend their evenings discussing potential modus operandi. This was why he didn't try.
"Here, what's this about? Tell me."
"It's nothing. Can we – "
And that's John's army-doctor voice, the one Lestrade has heard directed at Sherlock at crime scenes, halfway commanding and halfway caring, but he's never thought he'd hear it aimed at him.
What can he say? He shrugs and looks down at his desk. "A list."
"Not much of one."
"I…" What? "I ran out of ideas."
None of this matters, he tells himself, or not for long. He opens the desk drawer and hands John the stack of papers.
John is quiet for a long time, reading through them one by one. Lestrade knows he repeats himself; he knows the lists get shorter as they become more recent. He's lost enthusiasm, or maybe material. He's not sure which.
Every so often, John glances up at him. Lestrade expects him to ask questions, but he doesn't, just looks for a moment and goes back to reading.
Eventually, he turns over the last list. By now, Lestrade has settled back into his desk chair, waiting for whatever judgment John will pass. He can take it; he's proven himself to be more than adequate at quietly accepting whatever he is given.
John puts down the old lists on his desk and still says nothing. But he reaches for the pen and Lestrade watches as he slowly crosses out the first – well, only – line on the new list.
He writes below it, "Because John would like to play a game of football with me sometime."
And, "Because Scotland Yard needs its best DI. And no one else would work with Sherlock."
And, "Because that would be an awful waste of a good Chinese takeaway."
He almost cracks a smile at that. John catches it.
"Because Sherlock's really rather fond of me and it would be fun to stick around and make him admit it in public someday."
"Because my office chair fits me and my replacement wouldn't be able to find a comfortable spot in it."
"Because my team would probably be lost without me."
Well, that or snowed under with paperwork. Lestrade can't imagine Donovan sitting down to tackle it, and the forensics guys wouldn't touch a case file if their lives depended on it.
"Because I'm the only person around here with any common sense at all."
"Because it's been raining a lot lately and I've sat through enough of it to have earned a few dry days."
"Because I haven't gotten to know John well enough yet."
That, he thinks, is true. He and John haven't really spent a lot of time with one another – at least, not without Sherlock to keep an eye on. He likes football, at any rate, and cheers for a losing team, and so they have some common ground. John seems a decent sort; they might have more.
"Because can you imagine the state of a department where DI Dimmock was in charge?"
"Because I'm in the middle of a book. Or if I'm not, there's one somewhere I haven't started yet."
He chuckles outright at John's logic there.
"Because John's only just memorized my mobile number and he's damned if I'm going to let all that effort go to waste."
"Because John needs someone normal to talk to sometimes."
Normal? He's not sure he qualifies.
"Because, quite frankly, I damn well deserve to have something good happen to me soon."
Now he really isn't sure.
"Because, actually, John would quite like to ask me out sometime," John's pen hesitates, then adds a full stop to the end of the line, and he says aloud, softly, "And that's going to be awkward enough as it is. It would be a hell of a lot harder if you weren't around to answer."
Lestrade is busy having his whole worldview rocked at the moment, though, so he doesn't say anything for a minute, instead reading over John's entire list again.
He hasn't had so many things on his lists in a while.
He looks at John, who still has the pen in one hand. He needs it, though, and so he takes it from John's fingers, turns it around and writes, "Because, actually, I would quite like to see what happens if I say yes," and that, too, would be a hell of a lot harder if he weren't around to say it.
"So would I," says John. "So – um. Coffee sometime, then?"
There's a long hesitation while Lestrade debates the meaning of his answer; then, "All right. Yes," and Lestrade gets to see what happens – John grins broadly and it lights up his whole face.
"No bringing Sherlock, though."
"If you can stop him."
They both laugh a little at that, and John reaches over the desk to lay a hand on Lestrade's shoulder.
"Going to be all right?"
"Well," he says, "better, anyway."
There's a lot wrong with the way things are right now, and nothing's going to fix them overnight, not even John – though Lestrade's got the impression that if anyone could, John would. But maybe it will help, not dealing with them all alone. Maybe it will help to know there's someone who will drag him away from his office at the end of it all and go for a pint with him.
At the very least, he thinks he ought to give them the chance to find out.
"Then I," says John, "am going home to bed. And you should, too."
"Yeah. You're right." He nods and means it. He will leave the work behind for one night and just do what he's been wishing he could for days. "I've just got this one thing…"
John shoots him a knowing look. "Don't work too hard."
Once John has left, he pulls out the stack of papers again and adds John's list to it. Then, he starts another of his own.
"Why am I still here?"
He writes in, "John," and puts the lists away.