Looking back many months later, the first thing he remembered was the voices.
People would come in and out of the room, and some would look at him with big eyes and ask if he was awake, ask if he could hear them speaking. A voice would answer — yes, they thought he could hear and probably understand what was going on around him, to a certain extent. He remembers someone reading to him for long stretches of time, a man's voice, one that was familiar to him. He was not sure if he opened his eyes, but he could feel people looking at him. He couldn't be sure. It all mixed with the vivid surreality of the Dream.
He could feel their hands on him sometimes, the warmth and the smooth pressure, and it was soothing. He was not alone. He could relax. He was not alone.
The next thing he remembered was suffocating.
He would come around just enough to realize there was a tube down his throat, and even though it was breathing for him, it was entirely too slow and he wasn't getting enough oxygen and he was suffocating. He would try to lift his hand to his face, but his arms were so heavy and everything hurt, his legs, his back, his head, and all he wanted was to turn over and pull out this infernal tube but he couldn't move. He could feel the panic rise in him as the monitors began to beep and whine, then someone would come and soothing hands and words would urge him to relax. Everything was going to be ok. He could feel the warm cottony drugs fill his body again as the barbiturates pulled him back under.
He vaguely wondered as he slipped back into the Dream if he would really mind drowning so much.
"I'm thirsty," he rasped. The sound of his voice startled him and he realized he'd been staring at the blue-and-white striped curtain next to his bed. He must be awake. He sloshed his head to the other side, but there was no one in the room and he blinked slowly. His skull felt like it was filled with pudding and his lungs like he'd been chain smoking cigarettes for days.
Mmmmm, a cigarette. His eyebrows creased as he wondered, and he tried to lick his lips. It must have been a long time since he'd had a cigarette.
His hand was up and poking around the back of his head, feeling a bandage of some sort there. Shaved hair on one side. Staples. Brain injury then. Surgery. He raised both hands up in front of his face and counted. Still had ten fingers. Small favors.
Someone walked in the room, a young ginger-haired man who was short but had large shoulders. Maybe a rugby player? No. Gay. Works out at the gym every day. Wouldn't play rugby, wouldn't risk hurting his body, particularly his brain.
"Did I hear you muttering in here?" Ginger said as he leaned over and looked at the monitors. He seemed to be satisfied and his eyes sparkled as he gave a huge smile.
"Yes, I said I'm thirsty."
"I bet you are," Ginger said and handed him a small paper cup with some ice chips. "Suck on these a bit and then we'll work up to water. It's good to hear you talking. I'll get the doctor in here to talk to you as soon as I can. She'll be glad to see you. As will your brother."
"That's the chap. Although I'm not sure if I would really call him a chap, if you know what I mean. I always just call him 'sir' " Ginger said with a wink.
"Sorry?" Ginger said as he fussed with the bag hanging by his bed.
"Where's John?" he said again, a familiar feeling of impatience returning like an old friend. Judging from the atrophy of his muscles and the vague recollections of coming in and out of consciousness, he must have been in the hospital for days, if not weeks. John must have been a regular visitor by now, bothering the nurses and checking charts.
"I'm sorry, I don't know John, but I'll ask your brother, shall I?" Ginger said.
So even though he was in the hospital (normal) and appeared to have been injured (typical), the thought finally occurred to Sherlock that something was wrong.
Ginger didn't know anything important, of course. He was as vacuous as all the rest. Sherlock sucked on his ice chips like a toddler, and when the doctor came in 30 minutes later, Sherlock had worked up to a cup of water. The woman looked at him closely and pulled out a small light and shined it in his eyes.
"Well, it looks like there's a person in there after all. Hello, Sherlock. I'm Dr. Yussif. How are you feeling?" she said as she looked back and forth between his eyes.
"Bored," Sherlock rasped, and the doctor chuckled and leaned back. She grabbed his hand.
"Can you wiggle these for me?" she asked.
"All 20 of my digits are working sufficiently, doctor, thank you. It appears that whatever poking around you did inside my brain did not adversely affect my distal movement."
"Nor your cognitive function nor verbal skills, I see," she said with a smile that crinkled around her eyes. "I'm very glad to hear it." Yet despite Sherlock's slight huff of indignation, she continued to stroke the bottom of his feet with the end of her pen to check his reactions and poke at his toe nails and finger nails. When it appeared she was satisfied that his arms and legs worked, she sat down next to him and removed her glasses.
"Besides being bored, how do you feel?"
"Like I have a distinct lack of information."
"Oh?" Dr. Yussif said. "What would you like to know?"
Sherlock attempted to level her with a glare, but his head began to swim slightly so he ended up closing his eyes instead. He felt the doctor put her cool fingers to his wrist.
"What happened?" Sherlock said, feeling like his voice came through a tunnel.
"Let's work up to that, ok? You've only just woken and -"
Sherlock's eyes snapped open.
"Doctor, I appreciate your concern and recognize the hard-wired tendency to treat your patients like children, but spare me the condescension," he said intensely. "I need information!"
Dr. Yussif sat back slightly and regarded him thoughtfully.
"All right. Two weeks ago you suffered a cocaine-induced stroke after an overdose. Your landlady found you in your flat and called the ambulance. You were brought here and after we did a scan, it was determined you had bleeding on the brain that needed to be stopped. We operated on you for three hours and got the bleeding under control, but you didn't wake after the procedure and you were not breathing reliably. We had to intubate to help you breathe, but after six days you came out of the coma and were able to breathe on your own. You've mostly been sleeping since then, but this is the first time you seem to really be awake and coherent, so — I'm just glad you're talking and moving your digits."
Sherlock squinted at her, trying to make sense of this. He couldn't tell if he was having trouble thinking because of the brain injury or because the facts didn't add up. Cocaine? He had not used cocaine in years, not since John moved in. Why would he use cocaine? Which leads him to think…
"My landlady found me?"
"That's what I understand," the doctor said. "But I'm sure you can talk with her about it more when she comes by. She has come to visit you every day, I'm told."
"Yes, Mrs. Hudson has been quite worried about you," came a voice from the doorway. Sherlock turned his head and there was Mycroft, looking smug as usual, although it was softened by a sincere look of relief on his face. But as Mycroft came into better focus, something wasn't right. Sherlock blinked, but it didn't help him to make sense of what he was seeing.
"What happened to your hair?" Sherlock said as he felt the world tilt slightly.
The look of relief on Mycroft's face fell and he sighed as he walked into the room.
"I see you have not lost any of your acerbic wit, my dear brother," he said as he sat wearily in the chair and folded his coat on his lap. "Cutting as always. What a relief."
"No, that's not... I mean why is your hair…" Sherlock said and then stopped as the conflicting evidence unfolded before him. He could feel the panic begin to creep into him and his heart rate elevate. He quickly peeked into his mind palace and found empty rooms and dead passageways. His doctor was beginning to look worried as it appeared Sherlock was becoming distressed, and she leaned down to look in his face.
"Sherlock, please try to be calm and just take a deep breath. Things may be confusing for you for a while until we know the full effects from your stroke. Just close your eyes and rest for a moment, all right? I'll be right back." She stood up and turned to Mycroft. "Can I speak with you for a moment outside?" she said and then walked out of the room.
Sherlock was relieved to watch them leave, for it gave him a moment to try to put the pieces together. Why was his mind moving so infuriatingly slow? He needed to focus. The fact was that Mycroft looked different. It was Mycroft, his brother, clearly, but he looked — old and fat. Or older and fatter, at least. His hair had receded noticeably and he seemed to have gained some weight and he had bags under his eyes. He looked as if he had aged 10 years from the last time Sherlock had seen him. But how could that…?
He squeezed his eyes shut. He had had a stroke. A brain trauma. What if he had serious damage? What if he had lost his ability to think coherently? What if he had finally pushed his body to the limit and fried his brain in a toxic chemical soup? What if ...
"Mycroft, where's John?" Sherlock all but shouted as his eyes snapped open and he peered through the open door where his brother and his doctor were talking in hushed tones. Mycroft turned with a flicker of annoyance on his face, but as he saw his brother lying in bed calling for his flatmate, Mycroft's eyes widened slightly in comprehension.
Oh, this was not good.
Sherlock closed his eyes again as he heard Mycroft and the doctor come back into the room and stand by his side. Maybe if he closed them tight enough Mycroft would simply go away and he could go back into that place where the Dream was. That long, strange dream where there was music and he was sailing on the open water and the darkness was full of mythical creatures and danger ….
"Go away, Mycroft. Come back tomorrow. Or don't come back at all. I don't care," Sherlock mumbled without opening his eyes.
There was a weighted pause. He could feel his brother and his doctor looking at each other.
"Sherlock, what is the last thing you remember?" Mycroft asked softly, and the fact that his brother's voice seemed to indicate care and worry was enough to almost break him. The anxiety mounted and his head began to pound again.
"I don't know, what does it matter?"
"It matters a great deal, Sherlock. You've had a severe brain trauma and this is important. What do you remember?"
Sherlock did not want to be here. Did not want to do this. And they have not answered his question. This was intolerable.
"You will answer my question, Mycroft. Where is John? I will not talk with you further until you tell me where he is and why he isn't here right now."
He could hear his brother sigh, and Sherlock ventured to peek out under long, dark lashes. His brother looked worried. Unacceptable. But when he opened his mouth to start shouting again, his brother quickly cut him off.
"John is fine. He's in Paddington. I just talked with him this morning."
"Paddington? Why would he be in Paddington?"
Mycroft leveled him with a wary look, as if trying to assess if this was another of Sherlock's manipulative fits or if he was truly asking because he didn't know. He folded his hands and pressed his index fingers to his lips as if weighing his response.
"John lives there, Sherlock," Mycroft finally said carefully, and the two men watched each other for a moment in silence. "He's been there since he moved out of Baker Street, after Mary died. You know this. Don't you remember?"
It was at that point that the air seemed to leave the room, because no, in fact, Sherlock did not know that. He had no idea who Mary was, and as far as he was concerned, John should be in their flat making tea and wearing hideous sweaters and helping him with cases. That's what John did. That's what John always did! No, he didn't live in Paddington, he lived at 221b Baker Street!
As the sound of his voice faded, he realized he had yelled that out loud, and for perhaps the first time in Sherlock's life, he seemed to have stunned his brother into silence. Dr. Yussif was very carefully watching this exchange and rapidly scribbling notes on her computer tablet. After a moment, she put down her pen and rested her hand on Sherlock's arm.
"Sherlock, what month do you think it is?" she said.
"Sherlock, what year do you think it is?" Mycroft added pointedly.
Sherlock looked between the two of them incredulously.
"Oh, don't be stupid. It's April two-thousand twenty," he said calmly, although his voice sounded a bit tinny in his ears. He watched as the relief washed over the two faces hovering over him. "I can tell by how much hair you've lost and those bags under your eyes. Also your jacket is a clear indication of the time of year outside. Also —" he tapped the doctor's wrist "— it says so on your fancy wrist watch.
"But no," he continued with a small flourish of his hand, "that's not the real question, is it? No, the problem is I don't remember what happened between sometime in 2011 and now, the current day, April 4th in the year 2020. I suppose that's what you were getting at, wasn't it? Yes, well done."
Sherlock took in a deep breath and then sighed, looking out the window and letting the burden of truth settle in around him like a heavy blanket.
"It appears that I've lost nine years…."