When Gregory Lestrade is ten, his father takes him to the Temple Bar, where the Fleet meets the Strand and the monarch is invited into the City with the presentation of the Sword of State.
"This city," Samuel Lestrade tells his son, "this city will take everything from you and give nothing back. It will eat you alive and you'll thank it, because you can't stay and not love it. That's why it's a dragon."
Hand pulling free from his father's, head tilted back to try and see the dragon on the top of the monument, Greg says, "I can't see it." He frowns, blinking at the sky. "Why can't I see the dragon any more?"
"Because you're standing at its foot," his father explains, watching the traffic pass on either side of their island. "You're too close. It's like how you need to be in the sky to see London from boundary to boundary."
"Can we move back then?"
"We're waiting for someone," his father says, but he looks anxious to leave more than he looks expectant, and his hand curls around something in his pocket. "Give me your right hand."
Obediently, Greg does.
"Not a pearl-encrusted sword," his father murmurs, pressing the pearl-handled razor to his skin, "but it'll do."
Mute with betrayal, Greg stares at the thin red line upon his palm, turns his hand over and watches it waver and drip silently to the pavement, tiny splatters of crimson against the grey.
"So it will," a woman says, leaning against the monument with a cigarette in hand, directly below the snarling dragon standing guard far above her. "Hello, officer Lestrade."
"Evening," his father says, back straight and expression unreadable. "I present my son, Lady London."
Lady London's black heels click against the pavement and she moves towards them, an easy, swaying dance, careless and carefree.
"Well," she says, her eyes fixed on Greg's. "You've gone the right away about it."
"Greet London, lad," his father whispers in his ear, but all Greg can say is "Where are your wings?"
London laughs and blows a smoke ring that becomes a dragon, coiling and uncoiling in the air. "Oh, I like you," she says, her hand cupping his cheek, silver painted nails with their red crosses tickling his skin, so sharp he doesn't even realise they cut him.
(His father looks heartbroken, hand trembling upon the folded razor as if he would put it to her throat.)
"Do you know why you are here?" she asks idly, tapping ash from her cigarette.
Greg shakes his head mutely.
"You are here to make a choice. Will you obey your name, Gregory Lestrade? Will you walk my streets and be watchful?" A hiss, like a snake, the drawing of breath of some great beast. "Will you play your part?"
"What is my part?"
"You will know when you have it," London says with a sly grin, tongue between her teeth, her dark eyes like the depth of a (the) river. "Will you serve me, Greg Lestrade?"
"You're very pretty," he says, and thinks she looks like every grand lady he's ever imagined when his mother tells him stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
"I am not always pretty. I am not always female. Or even human. Will you still serve me then?"
He nods once, decisively, with no idea that he has just chosen the rest of his life, takes her hand in his like he's seen in films and declares, "I'll be your knight!"
"I, Greg Lestrade," his father whispers in his ear, voice breaking, and Greg repeats his words, careless with the delight of London's smile.
"...do swear that I will be true and bear faithful allegiance to London, according to law. So help me God."
London presses a kiss to his forehead, her painted lips oddly dry against his skin, and he feels it like a brand.
Sometimes, when he looks at his reflection out of the corner of his eye, he still sees the mark she left, glimmering on his skin.
When Gregory Lestrade is eighteen, he is the definition of 'rebel, but not too much', motorbike and leather jacket and lip curling at his father and the distinctive way he walks (copper on the beat, PC Plod).
His father shakes his head, says, "I never wanted this life for you anyway," but the expression in his eyes is a different matter, a quiet, patient weight that Greg feels in his chest, pressing on his heart, and he doesn't know what he wants or what he's trying to deny when his father looks at him that way.
(He goes to Fleet Street sometimes, balances impossibly on the thin strip of paving between the side of the monument and the road and tries to brush his fingers against Queen Victoria's skirts without looking like he's doing any such thing, a difficult thing when she stands a foot above his head.
It doesn't make him feel better.
London is never there.)
He's not running away, he tells himself. He's got his whole life ahead of him, and that's kind of the point – he's not ten any more, he has to think about the future, and what it really means, that promise given when he was ten (age of criminal responsibility, as his father was sure to tell him): swear to be true and bear faithful allegiance.
He's pretty sure he loves London (can't imagine himself anywhere else, can't kiss a girl without seeing her smile behind his closed eyes), but he asks questions anyway, like his father insists a good copper should do, even when they don't want to hear the answers.
Can he leave London? (Does he want to?) What exactly does she want of him? (Will she take his own desires into account?) Will anything he chooses actually be a choice at all?
(This City, it will take everything and give nothing back but he loves her, she's in his blood, she's the air he breathes, and he doesn't regret his oath at all, he only doubts the shape it'll take.)
"Be careful on that bike of yours," his father says, and Greg wears his helmet but drives too fast on streets too wet, as if he has to balance everything – obeying his father and denying him, loving the city and hating it, wanting to rebel and needing to belong.
(London's throaty laugh turning serious, her voice saying will you obey your name? will you walk my streets and be watchful? will you play your part? and every time Greg thinks of it he tries to tell his younger self to take more care, think about it, but always he says yes yes yes.)
He dreams of London. London laughs when he takes corners too fast, when he's stuck in traffic jams tailing back and back, when he doesn't know the way. He travels the same routes over and over before he tries new ones, until he can drive them all in his sleep, trying to imprint maps in his head.
He feels London, waiting, but nothing happens.
you will know when you find it
"Thinking deep thoughts?" Jack asks, leaning back against the wall of the pub, all calculated insouciance, watching the rain. "How about a joke? You know what hospitals call bikers in wet weather?"
"Organ donors," Greg says.
Jack laughs, flushed with youth and invincibility and Greg laughs too and tries not to think of his father, late home because he was telling someone their son was dead.
"Not me, though," Jack says smugly, and Greg looks at him and shakes his head and thinks about how he can enter a room with torn jeans and stained jacket and tangled hair and own it in seconds. Bloody unfair, that. "I'm the lord of London, me."
Greg is drunk enough to blurt out that he can't be – "I've met London," he says, and then bites his tongue hard and tries to pretend that he didn't say anything, that he's still cool and not some freak who spent his childhood walking behind his father and imitating his steps, listening with the intent open-mouthed gaping of a hungry bird to his father's quiet voice telling the history of the streets beneath his feet.
"Yeah?" Jack says, cups his palms to light his cigarette, stained fingers and bruised knuckles.
"London's a lady," Greg says – in for a penny, in for a pound – and resigns himself to hopefully never seeing Jack again, because he's seen him at the height of his cruelty and he's never wanted it turned on him.
"Well, yeah, she was," Jack says, and Greg blinks, thin white line on the palm of his hand searing hot. "But that London's dead, didn't you know?"
"No," Greg says, "No. She can't be – she's London--" Too late, he realises Jack is just playing along, getting enough rope to hang him and snaps his mouth shut.
"She was just a body London wore," Jack says. "Don't you get it?" He straightens and there's something in his voice, in his eyes, something, and Greg catches his breath.
"London," he says, and can't say any more, can't find the words (remembers her lips on his forehead, her hands on his face). The world (the city) tilts beneath his feet.
"Fuck," Jack says. "Fuck, I thought you knew." He looks puzzled, and maybe a little hurt, like Greg has betrayed him in some way.
"But you're not–" Greg says, "I don't–"
"London in-fucking-carnate," Jack says softly, and his voice shakes, "And you don't know me? What has your old man been teaching you?"
"Greg, man," and it's surreal, the way Greg can see both his best friend and the being that once took his oath as its due, quietly appalled, "If you don't know me, what the fuck are you doing here?"
"I don't understand," Greg says.
"I thought you knew," Jack says, hand closing tight around his wrist. His eyes – that unnatural green that got him all the girls, they stare into him as if to peel him apart. "I thought that was why you – but if you're not, if you can't even recognise me that's a whole different matter. What were you doing? Trying to forget what you promised?"
"Never," Greg says, wincing, feeling the bones in his wrist shift under Jack's grip.
"Never?" Jack sneers. "Sure. I thought –" he stares at him, lowers his voice softly, like saying his words too loud will give them weight, "I thought you were here to protect me. Good service and all that. The old Lady London died in a bombing, you know."
Greg swallows hard, thinks of strangely beautiful Lady London – vivacious, his father would have said – imagines her lying so very still beneath rubble, ribbons of bright blood carving channels through the mortar dust on her skin.
"She didn't have to," Jack says. "It's – it's like this," he says. "There's the City, and there's the human body, the incarnate. And when the incarnate dies," he shudders and closes his eyes, hand loosening its grip, slipping down and curling its fingers around Greg's, "it just. There's a new one, a different one, like the old one never was, and they're different, in mind, in body, in temperament. The body could live for centuries, but it never does. It dies in the plague, or burns with the city, is killed in the Blitz, or a bombing. There are what for anyone else would be 'accidents'. Or suicide."
Greg looks at their entwined hands, wonders if his hand shakes because of the cold. Suddenly he is painfully sober, wants to go back inside the Elephant and Castle and drink until he forgets the look on Jack's face.
"I don't know what you want," Greg says.
"What was the first thing your father taught you?"
"How to walk," Greg says, voice somewhere between serious and flippant, easily read as both.
"Think. The first thing your father did when he took you to the boundary to greet London?"
pearl-sheen and shining blade, blood dripping silently onto the pavement
"It's in the blood, don't you see?" Jack whispers.
"Policing. The City. Me."
"You want me to be a copper, then?" Greg says, disappointment that he'll never be able to admit to curling low in his belly, like shame.
"No. I want you to choose. Serve however you like, but choose. I don't care if you're the mayor or the leader of a street gang, it's all the same to me so long as you remember your first loyalty is to London. Just make up your mind and do it."
He lets go of Greg's hand and walks to his bike, a little unsteady. Greg watches him go and starts walking.
He spends most of the night shaking in the cold, walking beside the river, and when he gets home his father is waiting, expression on his face new and yet familiar, saying, "Son, I'm sorry, your friend – there's been an accident..."
"Lestrades have served London since 1860,” London murmurs, and Greg’s head goes up wildly trying to find them. Someone hits him in the head with a thrown pint glass and he goes down. The floor stinks of stale beer and piss and he struggles to breathe, watching his blood splatter abstract shapes and London’s there, in the red.
“Will you be the first to deny your heritage? To say no to the quiet heroism that is your bloodright?"
Get up, get up, get out, and when he staggers home and his mother shrieks to see him and his father shakes his head wearily, Greg blurts, “I’ve made my mind up. I’m going to be the best damn police officer in the Met.”
Then he faints. His father never lets him live it down.
When Greg Lestrade is twenty-six he walks his beat for the first time. He doesn’t consciously adapt his father’s walk, but he has it down pat by the end of the day and his colleagues rib him about it – yeah, yeah, fucking Lestrade knows the walk already, course he does, haven’t you heard about his old man?
He knows he’s not a good police officer, not yet, but he likes to imagine Jack slouching beside him, looking pleased, and Lady London strolling along on the other side of his partner puffing increasingly elaborate smoke shapes. He looks at everybody around, wondering. At his partner, his fellow officers, every single stranger he meets or happens to glance at, asking himself –
Is that London? Is that London?
The first time newly promoted Sergeant Lestrade meets Sherlock Holmes, he thinks he’s meeting London for the third/first time.
It’s the way Holmes reads him, easy as anything. It’s the way Holmes knows every street under his feet, can effortlessly track every potential route a suspect might take and cut them off. It’s the way city seems to explode with life, with fantastic crimes and criminals Greg expects to see in a Christie novel, not on his beat, like it’s been holding back on him all these years, just waiting for someone to make the most of it.
He tries to turn a blind eye to the occasional shaking hands and cocaine bright eyes, tries not to be furious that what might be an Incarnate, that at the very least is someone with a fierce intellect and obvious purpose, that he would look at London and all it gave and still want it to go away.
He calls his father – the way he often does when he needs advice, needs someone to tell him to say what’s already in his head – and tells him quietly, “I’ve met a man I think might be London.”
His father says simply, “If you have to think, he isn’t.”
Greg flushes, doesn’t want to admit – “I didn’t know Jack was London.”
His father never met Jack, never saw him alive, but he’d have known in a heartbeat, Greg is sure.
“Slow learner, my boy,” his father says, but it’s fond and good-humoured, and doesn’t sting like he’s letting generations of Lestrades down. “’s alright – once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. And you’ve got it.”
“Meet him anyway,” Greg says. “There’s something – you’ll get it when you see him.”
His father laughs until he starts to cough, heavy bone-shaking rasps. “No need,” he says. “You’ve got a London Love; keep a close eye on that one.”
When Greg says his goodbyes and hangs up, he stares at the clock for a long time.
He and his family, they’re not London Loves. They’re servants, and while he knows they’re cared for, the best a city could (Lestrades have never joined the memorial wall of officers killed in the line of duty), it’s a different thing to know London could love, that it could look at a person and want everyone in its borders to know this one is mine.
And this love of London’s, this Beloved that happens once every generation, two, three – right now he’s probably lying in his flat, fever-bright with coke because he thinks London, vast sprawling, all the life the world can show London, he thinks London isn’t enough.
Greg grabs his coat and fumes all the way to Montague Street.
Keeping Sherlock alive is a full-time job on top of his proper one, and whenever Greg feels worn to the bone (this city will take everything from you and give nothing back. It will eat you alive and you'll thank it) he reminds himself of Lady London’s kiss, of Jack's hand in his and he keeps his back straight and does his sworn duty.
He does wish London would stop with the weird murder cases though. Fucking serial suicides now, just to keep Holmes out of the doldrums, what’s next?
He looks up as Sherlock storms in, a swirl of expensive coat and scathing words. He looks up, and there London is at last.
“Who is this?”
“He’s with me.”
Of course. “But who is he?”
“I said he’s with me.”
London smiles in the corner of his eye quietly, everything about this London is quiet and unobtrusive and – the opposite of Sherlock, really.
Greg’s mouth snaps shut.
“So,” John Watson says. “Hello.”
Greg finds himself licking his lips, nervous beyond belief, back at his first crime scene, first job interview, first date – first meeting with London at the old border.
“It’s not very glamorous, what you do.”
“No,” Greg agrees, hands shoved into pockets, thinking of flashy Sherlock, mysterious murders and elaborate deductions, and the way London watched him, fond and intent.
“Not glamorous,” London says, and there’s a difference, Greg can see it clear as anything. “But essential. You’re a good man, Inspector Lestrade.”
Greg thinks of paperwork, of late nights and a broken marriage, of riots and regulations, of the first time someone spat in his face, of the last time he had to tell someone they couldn’t prosecute, that their rapist was likely to go free, their child’s murder unavenged.
“’s worth it,” he says gruffly, embarrassed.
London touches his first two fingers to Greg’s forehead, the exact place she had kissed him, years and years ago. His eyes are warm and kind, and maybe Greg'll never be one of London's great loves, not like Sherlock Holmes, but he's cared for all the same.
“So it is,” London says, and grins. “I’ve got your back. So let's go, before Sherlock does something stupid.” Greg laughs, and he's off and running like a young man again, London at his side.