When John wakes up, the flat is silent. Sherlock is not there, muttering to himself about some strange case. He is not there, watching horrible TV shows in a vain attempt to escape boredom. He is not there, meeting with Mrs. Hudson for morning tea. There is not even the soft and steady sound of Sherlock’s gentle snoring.
Sherlock is not there.
At first, John thinks he’s simply having a bad dream. He thinks he’s been pulled back to that time after St. Bart’s when he was so, so alone. He tells himself that it’s not real, it’s a dream, because Sherlock is back, Sherlock is here, Sherlock is right here.
It takes John three hours to accept the fact that he’s not dreaming. This is real, so very real, and Sherlock is gone, Sherlock is not right here. He spends the next hour or so looking for a note or anything, looking for something telling him where the detective had gone. He finds nothing, and is left with nothing to gauge how long until Sherlock returns at all, if he even returns.
He paces, and that’s all he really does. He barely eats, and he certainly doesn’t sleep much. He just paces until his legs ache in a way that prevents him from continuing. Then he just lies in bed, staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep. He cannot stop worrying, cannot calm down. He couldn’t handle another three years. Hell, he probably couldn’t even handle another month without knowing exactly how Sherlock was doing. They had come to care for each other in a way tailored specifically to the other, and it left John feeling empty without the other.
By mid-afternoon of the second day, John had absent-mindedly broken out his cane again. His limps became slower, and his steps were accompanied by the rhythmic thud of his cane against the floor. But he still paced, his mind still raced, and his heart still ached.
By the third day, John hadn’t eaten anything except a small biscuit the day before. He had slept no more than three hours since Sherlock disappeared, and it certainly was not quality sleep. It was nightmare ridden, full of the painful memories from months ago. He still paces, but he’s exhausted.
He is tired of being lonely, though it’s only been three days. He is tired of not knowing when he’ll show back up. He is so incredibly tired.
By the fourth day, he has stopped pacing. He sits on the sofa, hands clasped between his knees, head bowed, and he cries. Doctor John Watson is broken, for the second time in too rapid of a succession. He cries because he’s lonely. He cries because he’s alone. He cries because he is worried. He cries because he is angry. He cries until he gets the hiccups, cries until he can cry no more.
On the morning of the fifth day, he sits on the sofa again, hands still clasped between his knees as his arms rest on his legs. No longer crying, he leans forward with an anticipatory and worried expression, as if he’s an expectant father waiting for his child to be born.
On the morning of the fifth day, when the door to the flat swings open and a tired but elated Sherlock walks in, John does not react. He does not react, even when Sherlock greets him in the usual morning routine.
Finally, Sherlock reacts to John, eyeing him with a questioning, “Are you alright?” This stirs something deep inside of John, causing him to last our.
“Alright? Alright?” He practically screeches. “Sherlock, you just left. Do you remember the last time you left? It was for three years, Sherlock. Three bloody years.” He stands up and walks to the front of the taller man, meeting his eyes with some difficulty. “I had no idea where you went, when you’d be back! No note, nothing! You could’ve been dead.”
Sherlock finds no response, because for all intents and purposes, he was dead for three years. No contact with anybody, and he practically left John alone to his own devices. “I was on a case, John.”
“A case?” John spits, outraged. “We work cases together, Sherlock. We’re colleagues. We’re friends. Friends don’t leave their shared flat for days without telling the other person.”
“I was undercover!”
“I was alone.”
It’s that sentence that makes Sherlock stop and reconsider his actions. He hadn’t thought of that, hadn’t thought of the ramifications of leaving John again. Alone held a new meaning for John now, one different than anything he had experienced, even in Afghanistan. He had been alone for three years, and had just been left alone in eerily similar circumstances.
“I- I’m sorry, John.”
John looks down, away from the steady gaze of Sherlock. “I can’t… I can’t do it again, Sherlock. I could barely handle it the first time, I don’t think what I did this time could be considered ‘handling it.’ And I damn well won’t be able to do it again.”
It’s then that John begins to cry silently, realizing how grateful he is that Sherlock’s back. He’s here, he’s right here in front of him, and he’s safe. Without thinking, he leans into Sherlock, who somewhat awkwardly wraps his arms around him, pulling him in a bit closer.
They stay like this, standing in each other’s arms until long after John stops crying, sharing their body heat and the comfort of another human’s presence.Timidly, John whispers, “I love you.”
Sherlock pulls him in even closer, unable to find anything to respond. Instead, he lets the silence speak the words he cannot speak himself.