This takes place after events depicted in the second-series Sherlock episode "The Reichenbach Fall."
There in the Shadows
The summer night trailed cool fingers down the back of Lestrade's neck, and he shivered. He turned up his collar before thrusting his hands deep into his pockets. The streetlights offered only a feeble protest against the mist; their dimmed glow left much of the street bathed in shadows.
Groping in the dark, he thought to himself, literally as well as figuratively.
It was better than lying sleepless in his flat, staring at the ceiling as late night stumbled into early morning, making bets with himself about how long his sanity would linger before it, too, deserted him.
He might be on suspension, and the resources of the Yard – not only its databases and personnel, but even his own files, his own notes – might be closed to him for the foreseeable future, but no law said he couldn't walk and look and think.
Slowly but surely Lestrade was putting two and two together. Several world-class assassins had converged on this area lately. The proximity to 221B Baker Street was, of course, obvious. Less clear was what, if any, relation they had to a name that mocked him from the periphery of his research, faint and fading like the final echoes of a half-voiced whisper: Moran.
Lestrade's instincts told him that if he could decode the purpose behind the assassins' presence and movements, or their link to the late Moriarty or elusive Moran, it might help to translate this recent tragedy into something that he could understand.
He didn't know what exactly he thought he'd discover here in the dark, in the middle of the night, as he paced out the distance between the temporary – and now presumably abandoned – digs of killers for hire. He prayed he'd know something relevant when he found it.
In the end, it found him.
Or, rather, they did.
Five against one, and all five were half Lestrade's age or younger. Each carried various weapons, as well, whilst Lestrade was armed only with grief and frustration and the bitter dregs of bewildered outrage.
He didn't waste breath identifying himself. It was clear they knew who he was. They knew what they were about, too, forcing him back into the alleyway, angling him beyond the CCTV cameras' clearest lines of sight.
In a handful of minutes, the brutal struggle was over.
John Watson had showered and shaved and dressed, and he'd made plans to return to work, because that's what adults did.
He'd eaten because Mrs Hudson needed the distraction of cooking, of tending to him, as a respite from her own mourning. If her excellent meals were tasteless on his tongue, he'd done his best not to let on.
He'd noted the slight tremor in his hand, the limp in his step, without surprise or even interest.
When he'd encountered his own face in the mirror, he recognised its expression at once. He'd seen it painted across the features of fallen soldiers in the field the moment after they realised they were desperately wounded, the moment before the full agony of their injuries struck.
Bracing for the coming pain. Wondering if they could survive it.
When evening finally came, he changed into a t-shirt and track pants, and he moved from his chair to his bed. The nightmares followed him from wakefulness into sleep like a faithful shadow.
"Why?" The gasp was all Lestrade could manage, but God help him, he wanted answers, any that he could get in the final minutes – seconds? – remaining to him.
Rough hands pressed him back against the unforgiving wall. Lestrade blinked the eye that wasn't swelling shut, but it did no good. He was most definitely concussed; the bastard who held the knife to his belly appeared as identical triplets.
"Why d'ya think, Detective Inspector?"
The blade sank deep. Twisted.
Lestrade thrashed and growled.
The knife withdrew only to plunge into his side, beneath his ribs, angling up toward his lung.
He couldn't stifle his cry.
Not a clean kill. Intentionally messy. Intentionally cruel.
When they released him he collapsed to the pavement and curled protectively around his hurts. The attackers' parting kicks registered as insults as much as additional pain.
Once their footsteps had receded into the night, Lestrade shifted himself with care, panting shallowly through his nose and gritted teeth, squeezing his good eye shut against violent dizziness.
He clung to consciousness with resolve. He couldn't panic. He had to make these last moments count. Perhaps whoever investigated his murder would connect the clues. Find those links for him. Follow them back to the truth about Sherlock Holmes.
If there was anyone left who hadn't been manipulated or bought or misled. Anyone left who'd care enough to look closely into the loss of the Yard's disgraced pariah. Come to think of it, his death would solve a lot of problems for the Met, wouldn't it?
He flinched at the thought as if it were another blow.
Attempting to apply pressure to his wounds, he tucked an arm tightly around his torso. With his other hand he searched out the mobile in his pocket. The clumsy effort all but undid him; the whine that escaped his clenched jaw scarcely sounded human.
At last the phone lay on the concrete beside him. His red-slicked fingers slipped along its surface. His blurring vision refused to focus on its screen.
"Jesus," he hissed.
A cough tore him to his roots, leaving him wet-eyed and choking on frothy blood. Not enough air. Not enough time.
Christ, it hurt.
He spat and shuddered.
His trembling hand fumbled again with the mobile. He tried by touch, by memory, to coax the device into cooperating. Any of his contacts. Anyone.
Finally, a ring.
A recorded message in a haughty, well-remembered voice.
Lestrade sobbed a shallow breath. He could imagine how Sherlock would've sneered at the pathetic sentimentalism of leaving a dead man's number programmed on his phone.
Ridiculous, the consulting detective would've said.
Lestrade was surprised that the answering mobile had survived. The number no doubt would be disconnected shortly. It only felt like Sherlock had been gone a lifetime; in reality, his fateful jump was mere days ago.
A tone. Then expectant silence.
It was a foolish waste of his waning strength, but Lestrade couldn't help himself.
Pressing his brow to the damp pavement, he ground out, "You'reright… I'm… anidiot." He gave a ragged exhalation, because a proper laugh would've been agony. "Ringin'… adeadman… t'say… I'mdyin'…" He turned his face to spit again, gagging at the thick coppery slide of gore on his tongue. "'ByeSherlock."
He lacked the breath for anything more.
As his shaky grip tightened around the phone once again, the device shot out between slippery fingers, sliding just beyond his reach.
He groaned. He braced himself. He uncurled and strained toward it.
The resulting coughing fit left him distressed beyond all thought.
He struggled back to himself as hands roamed over his body. Perhaps his attackers had returned to put him out of his misery, or some petty thief had decided to take advantage of his helplessness.
Can't just lie here and take it, he berated himself, even if you are dying.
But the hands weren't striking or stabbing or searching his pockets, he realised. They were matter-of-factly rearranging his limbs in the standard recovery position.
He blinked his good eye and squinted into the darkness. It took time for the blurred image to make sense to his muddled mind.
Several layers of mismatched and ill-fitting clothes hung on a bony frame. Slender limbs folded into a sharp-angled crouch. Stringy blond hair escaped in shoulder-length trails from a soft, shapeless hat worn low, obscuring the youth's face.
One of London's homeless. Helping him.
The young man stripped off his top layer, a zippered hoodie far too short for his arms and torso, and pressed the wadded fabric against Lestrade's belly and side.
Lestrade's already too-shallow, too-rapid breathing hitched at the added torment, and he fought for air.
"Easy. Me mate's gone for help." The tenor voice held a strange blend of accents, as if he'd come from Oslo by way of Brisbane. "Seen you, haven't I? On the telly? You're the DI who worked with the fake genius detective, that fraud Holmes."
Despairing, Lestrade turned his face toward the concrete.
If it was the last thing he did – and it might well be – he was going to repeat himself one more time. Maybe this homeless youth, unlike Lestrade's superiors, unlike his bloody team, would listen.
It was a groan: "Notafraud."
The pressure on the makeshift bandage remained firm, but Lestrade fancied that he also felt gloved fingers brush briefly against his shoulder.
The unexpected kindness moved him.
He marshalled his energy and tried to gesture toward his pocket.
"'Sallright… 'fyouneed… money… Takeitall." He panted his words wetly onto the pavement. "Justleaveth'ID… sothey'llknowme… yeah?"
He heard a huff of air, and then, in that same unidentifiable lilt, "Don't be ridiculous."
If only that voice had been deeper, that accent local: Lestrade almost could have convinced himself that Sherlock Holmes was alive. Just for a moment.
A wave of nauseating pain cramped through him, and he twisted under the stranger's hands, attempting and failing to remain silent. He wondered when the often-described numbness of blood loss and shock would set in; surely he'd earned just a bit of numbness by now.
At least he went instantly, Lestrade thought, mind wandering. At least Sherlock didn't suffer.
Sherlock Holmes opened his arms wide and fell forward into empty space. His body hovered for a long time in the air, as if invisible hands cradled him, as if that fine-boned body were weightless. At last the consulting detective struck and broke himself against the harsh desert sands. Mortar shells exploded in every direction like a multi-gun salute.
A drumming sounded, urgent and overloud.
John sat up abruptly in his bed, sweating and breathing hard. The nightmare retreated a step but remained in clear view. Struggling to orient himself, John stared at a bare stretch of his bedroom wall.
It was past midnight, and someone was pounding insistently at the front door.
Moments later he was quick-stepping down the stairs, service sidearm in a now-steady hand. He found Mrs Hudson shrugging into her dressing gown, her bleary eyes wide with alarm.
"Stay back, Mrs Hudson," he said. "Let me."
She nodded and positioned herself behind him, a gentle palm on his back.
John opened the door.
The girl seemed familiar somehow, although John couldn't place where he'd seen her previously. Young, possibly still in her teens. Black, with several piercings and multi-coloured dreadlocks. Homeless, if the condition of her clothes was any indication.
That was it: Sherlock's Homeless Network.
"Doctor Watson, yeah?" she asked, sizing him up, noting his gun.
"Used to help Sherlock. Before. Thought you'd wanna know, wanna come: his cop's been stabbed." She jerked her chin to indicate the direction. "Looks like he's gonna snuff it."
Mrs Hudson gasped. Her fingers slid to John's arm and squeezed.
John forced a deep breath, resisting the desire to dash out into the darkness. After all they'd experienced, he had to expect a trap, look for betrayal. This girl was asking him to leave Mrs Hudson alone and unprotected, after all.
"Can you describe him?" he asked.
"He's white." She shrugged. "Grey hair. Dark eyes. Dead fit." She crossed her arms. "And bleedin' all over the fuckin' pavement."
Lestrade. Oh God.
What else could he do? If there was any chance this was true…
"Right. Come in, please." At her hesitation, he added, "I need to get my kit. You can describe where he is to Mrs Hudson, so she can send for an ambulance."
As the two women talked in the entryway, John took the stairs at a run. All traces of his limp had fled.
In seconds John had donned shoes and jacket and gathered his ever-ready doctor's bag, the contents of which would have pleased both a general practitioner and a tactical medic.
He'd also vividly relived his most recent encounter with Lestrade.
They hadn't spoken properly since that other day, since St Bart's, when John had recounted Sherlock's final words to Mrs Hudson and Molly and Lestrade together. Sherlock's body hadn't yet grown cold.
The two had exchanged little more than nods at the funeral. But what had there been to say?
Then, two days ago, the detective inspector had appeared unannounced at 221B well after dark.
"John, may I have a quick word?" Lestrade's bloodshot eyes had given the flat an appraising sweep. "Preferably in the kitchen?"
Bemused, John waved him in. "Tea?" he asked, appalled at how mundane the question sounded in his own ears, as if they both weren't wading through the wreckage of the world they'd once known.
"No, thanks. Shouldn't stay long." Lestrade strode in purposefully, turned on the tap, and gestured for John to draw near.
Still perplexed, John obeyed. Lestrade leaned close, well within John's personal space – the detective inspector smelled of coffee and cigarettes – and brought his mouth to John's ear.
Only then did John understand: Lestrade was taking precautions against possible surveillance.
"They're reviewing my old cases with Sherlock, looking for anything that doesn't add up," Lestrade murmured. "Some loose ends might lead them here. If there's anything you don't want the Yard to find, you'd best move it elsewhere for now."
He began to pull back, but John caught his wrist. Matching the whispered tone, John said, "If he kept drugs here, Greg, I don't know where he hid them. I never did."
A pained look creased Lestrade's wan features. "Not drugs." He studied his shoes. "Anything of yours." After several seconds, still more hushed, "Anything that could put a hole in a cabbie, for example."
John backed away and ran a shaking hand over his face.
It was Moriarty's legacy, that poisonous seed of distrust sprouting in John's mind.
Lestrade now was doing for John exactly what he'd done for Sherlock – crossing a line to try to warn him, to protect him, as best he could – and yet John could feel, somewhere beneath the shell-shocked numbness of recent days, doubt and suspicion seeking to graft themselves to the gratitude inside him.
Moriarty's handiwork. John's fault, his loss, if he didn't fight it, didn't root it out.
He wanted quite badly to sit down.
"Thank you," he wished to say. What came out of his mouth was a stunned, "I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about."
After turning off the tap, Lestrade said, "I'd tell you that I'm not stupid, John, but I realise you have more than sufficient evidence to the contrary." Although his lips twitched as if to smile, the rest of him looked worn and disconsolate as he made to depart.
When he had doorknob in hand, Lestrade said, "I did my due diligence. Followed up behind him with paperwork on each case he solved, explaining the leaps he made, recording the evidence, dotting every 'i' and crossing every 't' twice. Had to, to get convictions that would stick. I've been over all of it again, and I'm convinced any objective inquiry would clear his name."
"But this won't be objective," John said.
Lestrade shook his head. "'Course not."
With a muttered farewell Lestrade had departed, leaving John to ponder the question of what would fuel his nightmares more effectively: knowing the Yard might find his gun, or facing the upcoming days without it.
He hadn't asked where this fiasco ultimately might leave Lestrade. Demoted? Unemployed? Prosecuted?
Or stabbed in an alley…
Now John was thankful he'd kept his pistol near. He tucked the weapon in the back of his track pants and hurried down the steps with his bag. At the foot of the stairs, Mrs Hudson handed him a torch and a folded blanket.
"I'll send for the ambulance now, dear," she said, holding up her phone as proof. "You'll be careful, won't you? Are you, you know," – she dropped her voice as she raised her eyebrows – "'packing heat,' as they say?"
"I don't know who says that, Mrs Hudson, but I will and I am." He kissed her cheek and gave her a quick smile. "Lock the door behind me. I'll ring you as soon as I can." He nodded to their visitor. "Show me the way."
"They're here," the youth said. He shifted Lestrade's arm to hold the blood-soaked hoodie in place, and then tucked Lestrade's mobile back into the detective inspector's pocket.
The young man's parting words were a brusque command: "Keep breathing."
Lestrade blinked. The youth was gone.
Lestrade was fast reaching the point at which each inhalation would cost him more effort than he possibly could expend. He was quite certain he'd never, in all of his hardworking years, worked as hard as he was doing now, just for oxygen, and not nearly enough of it.
A young woman's voice called out, "Sig? Where've you run off to, Sig?" Her boots jogged across Lestrade's line of sight and set his pounding head to spinning.
The next moment Lestrade heard a choked "OhJesusGod," and then different hands touched him, strong and steady and warm.
"Greg, it's John. John Watson."
Another familiar and broken form, sprawled in blood on the concrete…
For a heartbeat John froze, almost convinced that he was in his bed, lost inside another nightmare. Then he went to his knees beside Lestrade, taking in his patient's condition as rapidly and thoroughly as Sherlock once took in clues at a crime scene.
He wasted no time in draping the blanket across Lestrade's lower body. As he slid his folded jacket under Lestrade's head for a pillow, the wounded man clutched at his arm.
"It's all right. Stay with me, Greg, but try not to talk. Help's coming."
Blunt force trauma to the side of head. Concussion. Stab wounds. Various contusions. But first things first: respiratory failure. He disentangled himself from Lestrade's grip and reached for his stethoscope.
"Moran," Lestrade wheezed. "Moran."
"Moran's the name of the one who did this to you?" John peeled back layers of sodden clothing, baring Lestrade's labouring chest.
Dyspnea. Cyanosis. Tachycardia.
"John… beendigging" – the stubborn fool wouldn't quit, even though the effort was choking him and bringing fresh tears to his good eye – "Moran… an'Moriarty."
Their gazes locked.
John tapped on Lestrade's chest and listened, whilst at the same time trying to imagine what Sherlock would've gleaned from the words. "You're saying you've been investigating, and there's someone named Moran who worked with Moriarty. Someone who's still out there."
"Yeah… danger… b'careful."
And didn't that make John's skin crawl?
"Got it." And then, heartfelt, "Thank you."
Lestrade's eye squeezed shut. His nostrils flared. His neck strained.
No sirens in the distance. No sign of help in the next five minutes. Lestrade wouldn't live to see the ambulance if John didn't act without hesitation.
Torch in hand, John delved into his bag for the needle decompression kit.
He assembled all that he needed and then bowed his face toward Lestrade's. "You're going to live through this, Greg. I promise. But I'm afraid the next couple of minutes are going to hurt."
A tortured, grunting whimper of a sound welled up from red-stained lips.
Lestrade had laughed.
John's professionalism carried him through the worst moments, but when the immediate crisis was averted, he allowed himself to moan a soft sigh of relief and wipe his damp eyes on the sleeve of his t-shirt.
Thank God Lestrade was a tough bastard. His confidence in John's skill, even when John had to make terrible suffering worse, was humbling.
There were wounds to staunch and bandage. But before that…
His hand went to the small of his back.
"Whoever's in the shadows over there" – he kept his voice matter-of-fact, pitched to carry – "either go away or step forward. Now. I'm armed, and I will shoot."
Then he thought of the members of Sherlock's Homeless Network and the key role they'd played in saving Lestrade. He stared blindly into the darkness. "He's going to make it," he added, more gently. "He's badly hurt, but he'll recover. He'll be all right."
Holding his breath, he fancied he caught a faint rustle as someone retreated into the night.
Lestrade began to whisper feebly, and John crouched to listen. "Sayyoudidn't… bringthegun."
"Heard the streets at night can be dangerous." He nodded toward his medical bag. "Don't worry. I'll keep it out of sight when help arrives. Now shut up, Greg, and let me finish saving your life."
Lestrade grimaced but remained submissive under the ministering hands.
The muted shriek of far-off sirens sounded only after the most difficult work had been done. Of course.
"Hear that? The ambulance is coming," John said. "C'mon, stay with me, Greg. Is there anyone I should ring for you?"
John read the silent word on Lestrade's lips and frowned.
That shouldn't have come as a surprise, John realised.
After all, Lestrade had lost his wife, his team, and quite possibly the rest of his colleagues and career, as well. He would've died in the alley this very night, utterly abandoned, if it hadn't been for the kindness of strangers.
John's own admission at Sherlock's grave remained written indelibly on his memory: "I was so alone." But of course John wasn't anymore, thanks to his late flatmate.
And Lestrade was less alone than he thought.
John set his jaw. He'd ring Mrs Hudson once they reached the hospital. And maybe Molly Hooper, as well. Yes, that was a good idea.
The ones who knew the truth. The ones who believed in Sherlock Holmes. The ones who deserved trust.
They were friends. And friends protected people.
Something that had frozen inside of John as he'd watched Sherlock fall began, ever so slowly, to thaw with the heat of… whatever this was. Defiance, perhaps.
His hand showed no tremor as it circled Lestrade's wrist, seeking his pulse.
"When you've recovered," John said with conviction, "I'll help you do more digging. We'll learn who did this to you. And together we'll find Moran."
The answering "Yeah" was desperately weak and hoarse, no competition for the growing whine of the sirens, but it was more than enough for John.
Vital Stats:Originally written in February 2012.
The title comes from the lyrics "Close call there in the shadows/ There's a fear in the dark" from "Out of the Shadows" by Sarah McLachlan.
The name "Sig" refers to Sigerson; in "The Adventure of the Empty House" by Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes explains that he used this name as an alias while pretending to be dead during the Great Hiatus.
"Moran" refers to Colonel Sebastian Moran from the same story (and others), who served as Moriarty's chief of staff and sought to avenge his death.