Three years changed a man.
John's limp was back, had been back since the moment his fingers slipped from Sherlock's already stiffening wrist. His night terrors had doubled as well; when John didn't come to in a pool of sweat after a night of being shot in the desert, he watched Sherlock fall again and again until his morning alarm jolted him awake. For three years, he had slept on a cot in the army medical center, despite his therapist's call to find a place of his own. John preferred it this way. When he lived at his work, he had no reason to interact with many people.
No one was interesting enough after Sherlock.
In the beginning, Lestrade had tried calling him. "We could use your help at the Yard. I know you must have picked something up from Sher—from him." An apology lay somewhere beneath that request—I never meant to doubt him, John—but John ignored it. He wasn't the one Lestrade needed to apologize to.
No cases. No chases. No flashes of brilliance. As John limped from day to grey day, he found himself understanding more than ever why Sherlock had always been so bored. The problem was, John had no way to stop it now. There was no excitement in life. There was just…nothing.
Then came the call, three years later.
John started at the sound of his phone ringing. He nodded an excuse to his patient and limped out into the hallway to take the call. "Hello?"
"John, it's Mrs. Hudson. I need you to come to 221B."
John stiffened. "Mrs. Hudson, I really don't think—"
"John, please. There's something you need to see."
The quaver in Mrs. Hudson's voice sent a cold chill down John's spine. He glanced around him warily before he asked, "Are you all right?"
"I'm…I'm…Please come to the flat, John. Please. You have to come to the flat."
She's afraid. Without thinking, John took off down the hall. "Right. I'll be there. Stay where you are." As he dashed past the front desk, the receptionist tried to stall him—"Doctor Watson! You left your cane!"—but he shrugged them off and rushed down the street after a taxi. John's cane leaned forlornly against the hospital wall, once again forgotten because of a resident of Baker Street.
When John climbed out of the cab in front of 221B Baker Street, he paused in front of the blue door. He'd been back inside it a few times shortly after Sherlock's d—after Sherlock fell, but after he'd visited Sherlock's grave that one painful day, he couldn't find it in himself to go back anymore. Each time he'd spoken to Mrs. Hudson, she'd assured him that nothing had changed. John couldn't decide whether that was a blessing or a curse.
There's nothing for it, then. In you go, Watson. In you go.
A sea of dust particles greeted John as he swung the door open. He choked down a cough and then a laugh—God forbid!—when a thought rose unbidden in his mind. Not your housekeeper!
Yes, Mrs. Hudson. Not our housekeeper.
No response. John frowned. She had sounded so urgent on the phone. Damn her, he'd left a patient to help her! It was just like before, when he'd gotten a call that she'd been shot and really it had just been a trap—
No. No, no, no. It can't be a trap. There is no one to trap anymore. Why would I be trapped? I'm nothing without Sherlock. He's the one they wanted, and they got him.
"Mrs. Hudson? Are you upstairs? I'm coming up."
As John climbed the first step, something, or rather a lack of something, caught his eye. The middles of the stairs weren't as dusty as the rest of them.
Footprints, John realized. Someone else has been here.
Not Mrs. Hudson. The prints were too large. A man, then. An amused voice in the back of John's mind that sounded suspiciously like Sherlock said, Well done deducing, Doctor. Maybe you're only half an idiot today. John shoved the thought away impatiently. Who else has been here? Mrs. Hudson must be in danger. Oh, God, what if someone got her? Not Mrs. Hudson!
Quickly, John reached for the gun that had waited patiently in his waistband for the past three years. Panic made him take the stairs two at a time. Mrs. Hudson, Mrs. Hudson, Mrs. Hudson—
Through the crack in the door, John could see someone's feet propped up on the couch. Sherlock's couch. Bloody hell, get off of Sherlock's couch. On a whim, John called "Police! Open up!" before he shoved the door open and aimed his gun.
Dark hair. Sharp cheekbones. Ridiculous coat collar flipped up.
"Oh my God—"
John's gun slipped from his numb fingers. He'd never fainted before, but he'd heard it described: the way your hearing was suddenly muffled, the black spots in front of your eyes, and then the sensation of falling underwater…He came to with his face pressed against the cool floor. A pale wrist dangled over the edge of the couch directly above his head. Without thinking, John reached out and pressed his fingers against the tiny blue vein etched against the man's wrist.
A steady beat flickered against John's fingers.
Oh God. Oh God. How?
"Oh, please, there's one more thing. One more thing! Just one more miracle, Sherlock, for me. Don't…be…dead! Would you do that just for me? Just stop it! Stop this!"
He heard me. Sherlock heard me. His heart's beating. He wasn't dead before. I made a mistake. We all made a mistake. He wasn't really gone, he was just—
When the baritone voice rumbled his name, John dropped the man's wrist. Before the other man could sit up, John aimed his gun between the other man's pale, tired eyes. "Don't move. I said don't!" he snapped when the dark-haired man slowly sat up.
"John, it's me—"
"Shut up, okay? Just shut up!" John's mind raced. How can I work out who he is? What's something that only Sherlock would know?
Then it hit him. John pressed the muzzle of his gun against the man's forehead and asked breathlessly, "The first time we met. The first time we met, in the lab at St. Barts, you knew all about me, right? You worked it out. Tell me how you worked it out, Sherlock. Tell me how you worked it out."
The man on the sofa said rapidly, "When you walked in with Stamford, you said that you trained at St. Barts, so I knew you were a doctor. Your haircut and carriage said military, the tan that ended above your wrists and below your neck said recently back from service, and the way you forgot about your limp when you stood told me it was a psychosomatic effect. The engraving on the back of your phone read "Harry Watson—from Clara XXX." Watson—a relative; gave the phone to you—brother; three kisses from Clara—romantic attachment; expensive phone—wife; the relatively new phone from wife given to you—relationship ended badly. The scuff marks around the plug-in were the kinds that only show up on a drunk man's phone. You were a recently invalided war hero looking for cheap accommodations because your brother—or rather, sister, as you later corrected me—drank too much for your tastes."
For a minute, John stared at Sherlock in disbelief. Then he sprang to his feet. "Where the hell have you been? What was that, Sherlock? I saw you fall, Sherlock! I saw you fall!"
Sherlock returned John's incredulous glare at full-force. "Exactly! You saw me fall! John, think. Think about this. Come on, you can't be a complete idiot after being my flatmate for a year and a half. I had to have influenced you somehow. Think. Concentrate. What did you see?"
With a snarl, John whirled away. Slowly, his brow furrowed. "I saw…I saw you on the roof of St. Barts. I saw you…I saw…"
"It's all true. Everything they said about me." Sherlock's voice trembled. "I…invented…Moriarty." …but John knew better because Sherlock glanced backward along the roof, towards where—
"Moriarty was there!" John's stomach churned at the memory, but he forced himself to speak as clearly and calmly as he could. "Lestrade found him on the roof after you d…fell. He'd shot himself in the head. He must have been watching you when you got on the phone with me!"
Sherlock shook his head. "Moriarty was on the roof, but he had already died by the time I phoned you. He had snipers, John. Three of them. One for each of my f…for each person I cared about."
John's eyes snapped open. "Three?"
"Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade, and you. Unless Moriarty's men saw me fall, all three of you would have been shot." Sherlock's voice trembled slightly; John took comfort in the thought that even if the "note" and the fall itself had been lies, Sherlock's strange emotions had not. "What else, John? I expected you to catch some of my hints."
"Oh, well, I'm bloody sorry I was a bit too distracted by you dying!" John whirled on Sherlock again and fought the urge to pummel him. "I was so alone, Sherlock! I was so—you have no idea—my therapist, my limp—and Molly and Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade, all trying to ask me questions, I couldn't—I can't—"
Bloody hell, Watson, stop it! Stop this. Do not cry in front of Sherlock. You think he came back to see this? Idiot! Do not cry. Do not…
A sudden motion made John jump to attention. Sherlock held his wrist out in front of John. In answer to the doctor's unasked question, Sherlock prompted, "Take it again."
Gently, John found Sherlock's pulse again. It beat steady and strong against his fingers as if it had never stopped. Sherlock had the decency to look away when John's breath came in jerky gasps.
"I need a case, Sherlock," John finally croaked. "I need a case, something, anything to keep my mind off of what—to get me back on track. Please, Sherlock. I need a case."
Sherlock studied John carefully. "Preferably a three-patch problem?"
A shaky laugh bubbled up in John's throat. "Oh, God, yes, Sherlock. I've been so bored. I've been sounding like you."
"Definitely a three-patch problem, then," Sherlock muttered. "Come on, then. I'd better go explain that I'm not dead to Lestrade."
"It's lucky he kept his job through all this. The press had a field day."
Sherlock snorted. "Luck had nothing to do with it. It was Mycroft."
"Isn't it always?" John muttered. Sherlock stared wordlessly at him before he burst into laughter. John followed him with helpless giggles. It hurt to laugh after so many years of solemnity, but it was a good sort of hurt, like feeling rushing back to a numbed limb. I missed this, Sherlock. I missed you.
If John kept his fingers on Sherlock's pulse all the way down the stairs of 221B Baker Street, the consulting detective didn't seem to mind. When they reached the front door, John turned to Sherlock. "Ready?" he asked him, as he had asked him years ago before the trial that had thrown everything to hell. God, it's been so long.
Sherlock's thoughts must have followed the same path. His eyes darkened before he smiled faintly. "Yes."
"It's…well, it's good to have you back, Sherlock."
Sherlock's smile widened. "It's good to be back, John."
"Even if I'm going to kill you later when this all sinks in?"
"Of course." With a chuckle, Sherlock pulled open the door and strode out into the sunshine. "It's all a part of the game, and oh, is it good to be back in the game!"
Note: This chapter is a day late for several reasons, one of them being that I was chasing four rugrats around a one-storey house yesterday and another being that I wanted this chapter to go as well on paper as it did in my mind. While I'm still nervous about what you all will think of it, I'm confident enough to put my theory of what will happen when Sherlock returns in print.
Thank you to all who have favorited, story-alerted, and reviewed. I hope you've enjoyed this story, and I hope to write more Sherlock fanfiction in the future.