A/N: For my dear, sweet, wonderful Cainchan, who drew the cover art which was the inspiration for this story.
It was a quiet night, cool with a clear sky, the kind that Greg liked best. He could see the stars as he drove, gleaming against a blanket of midnight velvet. It was the end of August, and summer was beginning to ebb into autumn. Soon the air would chill, children would go back to school, and Greg would trade his oxford-shirt-no-jacket for a twill overcoat. But for now, it was perfect, and he allowed himself to live in the moment.
His house stood on the corner of a quiet street. It was small and modest and sparsely furnished, but it was his, and there wasn't much in the world that carried that label anymore. His house, his car, his job. These things were Lestrade's, his alone, and sometimes they felt like all he had.
Once, three years ago, he had had more. There was John, and there was Sherlock, and there was Sherlock-and-John. Sometimes, back then, there was Sherlock-and-John-and-Lestrade and adventures and killers and firefights, but now there was none of it. Sherlock was dead, John had retreated to Cardiff to open his own practise, and Lestrade was stuck here on his own.
He was used to it.
And now he was home, at the house he had bought exactly sixteen months after Sherlock's death, putting his key into the lock and wondering why on earth the tumblers weren't clicking. He never left the door unlocked. In all his adult life, he had never left home with the door unlocked – why was it unlocked now?
Unconsciously, Greg's left hand strayed to the gun strapped to his hip. The answer was that he hadn't left it unlocked. Someone else had. He bent down to examine the door. If the lock had been picked, it had been done with an expert touch. For a moment, he considered calling for backup. If he was wrong, though, he'd never live it down. He could just see Sally laughing at him for the rest of their careers. Paranoid Lestrade, left his door unlocked and thought he'd been burgled. What a joke! No, thank you.
Greg pushed the door open and stepped inside, his tread cautious as he entered the darkened house. He flicked on a light and surveyed the foyer. Nothing had been disturbed – priceless art on the wall (a gift) had been left untouched. If he was entertaining a thief, it was not a very smart one.
And then he spotted the shoes.
They were sitting beside the runner, one after the other as though the wearer had just stepped out of them. A man's shoes, black leather, well worn. Lestrade knew they weren't his, because they were too small. So... a stupid but polite thief? Lestrade relaxed slightly, but his hand remained on his hip as he explored the house.
He went to the sitting room first, ears straining to hear any sound that might give his intruder away, but the silence was cut only with his own breathing. Nothing in the sitting room had been touched. The kitchen and hallway were intact, too, as was the guest room. That just left his bedroom, and he was starting to wonder if he was going mad, until he noticed that the door was ajar. A door he normally kept closed.
This is it, he thought, drawing close to the door, his steps silent as a cat's. Either someone is in this room, or I have finally come completely undone. With a splayed hand, Greg pushed the door open, and it gave inward on silent hinges.
The figure seated on the bed was so jarringly, hauntingly familiar that for a moment, Greg did believe he had gone mad. Even in the near-dark, the profile was unmistakable, the long curve of the torso impossible to be anyone else's. But no, it couldn't be, it could not. The man to whom this shadow belonged was dead, long dead, three years dead. Lestrade had seen the body, the broken face, the crushed ribcage. He had read the autopsy report, the death certificate. He had attended the funeral. Sherlock Holmes was dead. Sherlock Holmes was not sitting here before him now.
Tears sprung to his eyes. I thought we were done with this, he thought, waiting for the ghost to pluck the sentence from his very brain, as it always did in these nightmares. I thought you were done with me.
Then the figure moved, leaned forward slightly, turned an icy gaze toward him. And spoke. "Lestrade..."
He felt the breath freeze in his chest, his stomach seizing at the sound of that voice. The hand that had been on his gun now scrabbled for the light switch, nails scraping the paint until he found it and flicked it on.
Sherlock flinched at the sudden light, dipping his head to protect his eyes, sucking a breath through his teeth.
Greg swayed slightly and forced his eyes to focus. Sherlock was there, alive, breathing, sitting on the edge of his bed in bare feet and a cheap, crumpled suit. He found himself frozen, captivated, unable to move or even look away as he watched Sherlock adjust to the light and slowly turn his head toward him again. In three years, the boy had aged ten. Even from here, Lestrade could catch sight of flecks of grey in those wild curls, now worn too long. A scar stretched down the side of the long, white column of Sherlock's neck, a roadmap that just began there and ended only god-knew-where. He was sporting a black eye and his posture was slack, exhausted. Greg thought he could see him shaking.
"Body double," the battered young man said without prelude. His voice was thick and smooth and deep, as intoxicatingly Sherlock as it had always been, even tainted by pain and weariness. "I had to... to keep you safe..."
In a moment, Lestrade had crossed the room and was pulling Sherlock to his feet, peering into his eyes and squeezing his shoulders to assure himself that he was really there. "Are you real?" he choked, unable to believe it.
"Yes," Sherlock said firmly. For three burning seconds, he stared into Lestrade's eyes before his knees began to tremble and his head dropped to the DI's shoulder.
Greg swallowed hard and pushed him back down onto the bed again, gently as though he were made of blown glass. He could hear each breath click as though it were catching on something in his throat. He was sick, battered, and much too thin – he looked like a prisoner of war, Lestrade thought with a chill. Without a moment's hesitation, he tugged his mobile out of his pocket, keying in John's number.
"No," Sherlock croaked, staying him with a hand on his wrist. "John can't know. Not yet." He lifted his gaze to Lestrade's face. "Please."
Greg thought he might choke, or vomit. His head was reeling. Without thinking, he was putting his phone away, taking Sherlock's hands in his own, shaking his head, struggling to understand.
"Not yet," Sherlock repeated weakly. "He won't... he's not ready, he can't... can't know..."
"Okay, all right, Sherlock," Lestrade murmured, barely hearing himself. He didn't understand, but it didn't matter. "Let's get you cleaned up. Come on, nice and easy." Carefully, he pulled Sherlock to his feet again, cringing at the whimper that escaped his lips. "That's it... slowly, I've got you."
Two broken ribs, a mess of cuts and bruises, a nasty chest cold, and a festering wound in the left shoulder. This was the macabre inventory that Lestrade took as he gingerly tugged Sherlock out of his clothes and helped him shower and change. A roadmap of other, older wounds – scars both new and ancient – became visible to Lestrade as he worked. Sherlock explained in a faint voice where he had been over the last three years. Moriarty's web had stretched over the globe – starting here, in London, and spreading like a cancer through Europe, Asia, the Americas. In the process of taking it all apart, Sherlock had broken bones, ingested poison, contracted rare illnesses, and stitched his own wounds. He had killed men, tortured others, stolen, lied.
"It wasn't supposed to be so long," Sherlock said in a near-whisper, as he slowly coaxed his limbs into the t-shirt and pyjama bottoms that Lestrade provided. He crumpled down onto the edge of the bed again, head in hands as he steadied himself from the exhaustion of all this activity. "Once everything began to unfold, it was all a lot bigger than even I had anticipated." He took a shuddering breath, shaking his head softly. "I couldn't risk coming back sooner. It would have jeopardised everything I was fighting for. I kept track of you, both of you, through it all. But there was no way to... if... I-I couldn't..."
Lestrade sensed his growing distress, and rubbed a hand over Sherlock's back in gentle circles as he took a seat beside him. "Shh. There's time for explanations later."
Faster than he should have been able, Sherlock lifted his head, focussing an unsteady gaze on Lestrade's face. "You aren't angry?"
The answer to that question was complicated, but Greg smoothed it over with another truth. "I'm glad you're alright, lad. I'm glad you're back." The hand on Sherlock's back drifted upward, carding through his wet hair. "We can talk about the rest later. You need to get better first, okay?" He surveyed the broken body, winced again at the prominent ribcage, the collarbones that stood in sharp relief above the collar of his borrowed shirt. "Are you hungry? Can I get you anything?"
Sherlock shook his head. "No. Thank you. I'm... I'm so tired..."
Greg nodded. "Okay. Rest, then. We'll talk more in the morning."
For half a second, Sherlock looked terrified, until he smoothed the expression from his face with practised efficiency.
"It's alright," Lestrade whispered, scared to know what it was that caused Sherlock such terror. With a light touch, he guided him to lie back on the bed, pulling the blanket up around his shoulders.
Sherlock acquiesced, fingers ghosting over the DI's wrist as he lay down, a silent plea that never reached his lips. His eyes were falling shut even as he placed his head on the cool pillow.
Lestrade settled himself on the edge of the bed, close enough to touch but not close enough to accidentally brush any fresh wounds. "Sleep," he urged, when he saw the tension marring his friend's face.
It took only minutes. Greg stayed exactly where he was, running his fingers through the damp hair, over a shoulder, down the curve of Sherlock's back. He remained there, a quiet guard in the night, until he felt and heard Sherlock's breath deepen and slow, until he saw the gaunt face relax in sleep.
And even then he didn't leave, instead settling in a chair beside the bed, afraid to leave him alone, afraid to fall asleep. Afraid that this was a dream, and that he would wake up and be alone again.