Lestrade hears the news from Mycroft Holmes first, long before he sees Sherlock. The man is flippant and clearly bored; his explanation, brusque.
My brother is alive. I’m told you would want to know.
And because it turns out that Mycroft is the reason Sherlock stayed safe all those years he was away - not to mention the reason why Lestrade managed to hold onto his job after Sherlock’s fall - Lestrade just barely resists cracking a fist across his smug face. But he does turn on his heel and walk away without another word, pausing on the threshold of the man’s damned Diogenes Club long enough to light a cigarette and grind it into the carpet with his heel.
John is his first phone call after that, and the one consolation in all of this is that he sounds as stunned as Lestrade feels.
Faked it. The whole thing. Moriarty... he threatened us, Greg. Told Sherlock he’d put a bullet in the brains of his three closest friends unless he killed himself. But he found a way around it, the git... Of course he did. Showed up at the door yesterday, half-fainting from exhaustion and starvation, but alive.
He came back to us.
Lestrade had known Sherlock six years when the detective stepped out into thin air and plunged six stories to his death on a cold morning in June.
It’s almost nine years to the day of that first meeting when he sets eyes on Sherlock again and, absurdly, that’s the only part of this whole fiasco that he can focus on.
Sherlock has been dead for one-third of the time that Lestrade’s known him, and that’s just staggering.
And he finds himself turning the numbers over in his mind as he goes throughout his day, because three years should be nothing. It’s a grain of sand on the beach, waiting to be washed away by the tide and forgotten.
There’s a calendar sitting on Lestrade’s desk, and as he turns the page from one day to the next he does a quick calculation.
There are one thousand, ninety-five days in three years.
Sherlock was gone for over one thousand days.
It may be a grain of sand, but its vastness is overwhelming.
Lestrade was forty-nine when Sherlock died. He’s fifty-two when Sherlock comes back. One-seventeenth of his life, thinking Sherlock gone forever.
Sherlock was thirty-one when he died. He’s thirty-four the day he strolls through the doors of Lestrade’s office, whole and well. One-eleventh of his life.
A small portion, but still it shows. Sherlock has tiny lines fanning out from the corner of his eyes that no longer fade when his face is passive, and his gaze is worn; wary. Lestrade sees the beginnings of a jagged scar on his forearm when Sherlock reaches out to shake his hand, and up close he notices that there are thin strands of silver mixed in with the ebony of Sherlock’s hair.
Lestrade does the only thing he can think of - murmurs, “Welcome back,” and accepts Sherlock’s nod - and then takes a seat behind his desk.
There’s work to be done.
But his mind doesn’t stay on the work as they begin to slog through his latest case, because there is a file in front of him with pictures of a real person who met a very real end. And there are dozens more tucked away in cabinets: cold cases and dead children and families who have been left behind.
Three years ago, Daniel told the Chief Superintendent that Sherlock worked twenty or thirty cases for them; Lestrade, in a fit of curiosity he now regrets, had looked up the actual number that night.
Thirty-six cases in six years. Lestrade adds this to his growing list of numbers. Six cases a year. Eighteen in three. Eighteen cases Sherlock might have solved; eighteen suspects he might have put away; eighteen families who might have been spared undue suffering.
“Thirty-six,” he says suddenly, interrupting Sherlock mid-word, and the other man glares.
“What?” Sherlock asks, irritated.
“Thirty-six cases,” Lestrade repeats. “You worked thirty-six cases for me. Solved ‘em all, too. Thirty-six cases in six years.”
Sherlock lifts one shoulder in a shrug and turns back to the file, and that’s finally when Lestrade allows himself to be angry. To be furious. And that’s also when the words come, three years of frustration spilling from his lips now that he knows their grief was all for naught.
He says fool and idiot; he says madman and insane. Sherlock died to save three people, and Lestrade can respect that. What he can’t accept is the body count left behind in the wake of the fall, because he dies a little bit - every year, every day, every hour - trying to save dozens, and still it isn’t enough because he’s not Sherlock and never will be.
Three lives. Three lives saved in the blink of an eye; dozens lost in three years because Sherlock died on account of him.
How does one measure that?
“Don’t you ever,” Lestrade says finally, his voice raw and unrecognizable even to his own ears, “put my life before someone else’s, Sherlock Holmes. Never again. Especially yours. Don’t you dare.”
Sherlock’s eyes slide moodily from Lestrade’s own to fix on the wall behind his head. He says nothing.
Lestrade turns back to the file.
It isn’t until Sherlock’s first crime scene after his return that Lestrade starts to take true note of the physical toll that those three years had on the consultant. Sherlock hands his coat to John and rolls up his sleeves to the elbow the moment he arrives, eyes flicking over the bloodied mess of the victim on the floor, and whatever Lestrade had been about to say dies in his throat as he sets eyes on Sherlock’s arms for the first time since the fall. Scars crisscross the once pristine flesh, some years old and others appearing as though they had been acquired only the other week.
His arms look as much a crime scene as the one that they’re standing in the midst of, and Lestrade’s sudden silence is noticeable. Sherlock glances at him and then barely suppresses an irritated sigh.
“Really, Lestrade, you act as though you’ve never seen a scar before.” Sherlock snaps on a pair of gloves and adds, “You can’t honestly believe I came through those years unscathed.”
Yes, he could, but Lestrade is wise enough not to voice that particular thought.
If any illusions Lestrade might have harbored about Sherlock’s invincibility began to crack at the sight of those few angry lines that mar his arms, then they are shattered completely when Lestrade realizes that the scars are the least of Sherlock’s injuries.
Sherlock crushed a kneecap and dislocated a shoulder in the fall, and had been forced to spend weeks recovering on Molly’s sofa after undergoing a multitude of secret and carefully-arranged surgeries. On the good days his limp is barely noticeable; on the bad, he will hold onto John’s elbow when he thinks no one is watching them, his lips pressed together in a pained grimace.
They’re outside the Yard one morning, Sherlock smoking and Lestrade fighting the urge to take a cigarette for himself. He hasn’t touched them in nearly a year - a new record.
“What happened there?” Lestrade asks, stuffing his hands in his pockets to keep them from picking Sherlock’s. He nods at Sherlock’s left hand, which he’s brought to his mouth with the cigarette. The final two fingers are slightly crooked, and Lestrade notices that Sherlock has been favouring them.
“Broke the fingers on this hand in Lucerne,” Sherlock says shortly. It’s obviously a sore point. “There wasn’t time to have them set properly, so I did it myself.”
Sherlock takes a drag on the cigarette. “Snapped my ankle in Italy. Broken ribs in Maine. Fractured wrist in Vancouver.”
He goes on, listing locations and injuries as though he’s reading from a scholarly journal, voice flat and eyes fixed on a point somewhere in the middle distance. He doesn’t look at Lestrade and won’t elaborate on any of the reasons behind the injuries; Lestrade isn’t sure he wants to know. But he keeps a mental tally, and when Sherlock abruptly stops talking he has counted twenty-two broken bones.
And then Sherlock says, “Sixteen,” and Lestrade is momentarily lost.
Sherlock sighs and drops the cigarette to the ground, crushing it into the pavement with his toe. The lines around his mouth are tight with pain - whether at a remembered ache or at the injuries he carries with him every day, Lestrade isn’t sure. “I also acquired sixteen new scars while I was away.”
Lestrade rocks back on his heels; blows out a puff of breath. “Hell, mate, what happened to you out there?”
But John is coming their way now and Sherlock straightens, the creases in his forehead and around his mouth fading until he appears his usual aloof and detached self. Lestrade frowns, because it isn’t like Sherlock to keep something from John. And then Lestrade wonders if Sherlock isn’t so much hiding from John has he is sparing him, and his confusion is replaced by a dull ache in his chest. They had known each other only eighteen months when Sherlock died; by the time he returned, thirty-four had passed.
Twice as long . A difficult obstacle to overcome in any friendship, no matter its strength. And now here was Sherlock, trying to make the transition as easy on John as possible. Sherlock Holmes, trying alone to carry the memory of three painful years so that John didn’t have to.
Lestrade shakes the numbers from his head as John finally joins them.
“Come, John, we’ve a baker to investigate,” Sherlock says, his voice crisp, and he strides away without so much as glancing back at Lestrade.
And the charade might have been worth it, Lestrade muses to himself, had John bought Sherlock’s lies. But the look John shoots Lestrade as Sherlock walks away is that of a man who has spent too many sleepless nights wondering who this is who has returned to them, and what happened to the Sherlock who left.
Lestrade visits Sherlock’s grave.
It had been a perhaps-monthly occurrence while Sherlock was gone, and Lestrade figures he made thirty or so visits over the three years.
Now, he goes nearly every week.
He can’t say what possesses him to visit a grave he knows to be empty, but somehow the marble stone that bears Sherlock’s name is more familiar to Lestrade than the living thing. For three years, this had been Sherlock, and though that’s been proven a lie Lestrade still finds it difficult to shake the sense that Sherlock is here rather than out there, alive, in the world.
You can’t honestly believe I came through those years unscathed.
Lestrade leaves a packet of cigarettes at the base of the headstone, as is his custom, and departs.
Sherlock takes to breaking into Lestrade’s flat again three months after his return. Sometimes he has a purpose - looking for extra space for his experiments; warding off boredom when John is on a date. More often than not, he’s there before Lestrade returns home from the Yard and expends his energy on meaningless tasks - rearranging Lestrade’s books, for one, so that they are organized first by genre and then by author.
They speak little on these nights. Lestrade will make dinner if he has the energy and a drink if he does not. He’ll stretch out on the sofa with half a mind on the television and the rest on the work while Sherlock sits in a chair and pecks away at Lestrade’s laptop because Lord knows he can’t be bothered to bring his own.
Lestrade finds he doesn’t mind as much as he probably should, and tries very hard not to think about how many of these late-night visits might have occurred during those three years.
It’s not easy, this resurrection business. Lestrade doesn’t know this from experience, of course, but he keeps up with Sherlock’s blog, as he had in the years before the fall, and finds it updating at a painstakingly-slow pace.
“Three years’ worth of lies don’t come undone overnight,” John tells Lestrade darkly one evening. “His name’s been cleared, but it’s been dragged through the dirt for so long that no one remembers he’s the same man they used to call on for help.” John takes a drink from his mug, frowns, and says, “Well, almost the same.”
“He’s not getting cases.”
John shakes his head. “Not really. He’s had a few loyal clients who never lost faith and a few new ones who come around out of some perverse form of curiosity, but nothing that holds his attention for very long.”
“Maybe it’ll get better with time,” Lestrade says, though even he doesn’t believe that. “You know how people are. Eventually they forget.”
John shakes his head. “You don’t come back from this, Greg. You just don’t.”
The next time they’re at a crime scene, tensions are very slowly escalating. It’s so subtle, in fact, that Lestrade doesn’t notice the slide until it’s almost too late; until Donovan is thirty seconds away from slapping Sherlock and Anderson looks like he’s either going to pop a blood vessel or quit on the spot. Lestrade can’t afford to have any of that happen right now and so he springs forward, pulling Sherlock away and nodding at his team, telling them silently to hang in there.
It’s Sherlock’s wrist he grabs - old habit, ancient, Before John - and, reflexively, he swipes his thumb across the underside. It may be an old gesture, but it works; Sherlock slams to a halt mid-word and his jaw clicks shut. His pulse flutters under Lestrade’s touch and oh, that was a mistake. Lestrade doesn’t let go until Sherlock’s nod, but then he drops Sherlock’s wrist as though he had been burned. Sherlock whirls off, slightly calmer, while Lestrade hopes that his trembling legs will hold his weight long enough for them to wrap up at the scene.
The memory of the pulse is still thudding against his fingers as he pulls out his mobile and keys in a query while Sherlock kneels before the corpse.
The average human’s heart beats forty-two million times a year. That’s one hundred and twenty-six million in three.
One hundred twenty-six million beats spent believing the man in front of him dead.
One hundred twenty-six million pulses of pain, white-hot and piercing.
One hundred twenty-six million wasted moments.
They’re in the hallway outside the morgue, waiting for Molly Hooper. Sherlock is smoking and Lestrade is biting the inside of his cheek to keep from saying something. He’s on edge today, more irritable than is normal for him, though he has sense enough still to recognize it. Every little noise makes him grit his teeth, and Sherlock’s restless tapping on his cigarette grates on Lestrade’s quickly-fraying nerves.
“Enough,” he growls eventually, and grabs the cigarette from Sherlock’s fingers. He grinds it out on the floor with the heel of his shoe and then stands there, hands buried deep in the pockets of his trousers and shoulders hunched as though he’s warding off a chill. Defense mechanism. Shrinking away from the thoughts swirling around his brain as though he could physically escape them.
Last time he was in the morgue with Sherlock, he’d been identifying the other man’s body.
Sherlock stares at him wordlessly, and then lights another cigarette.
Sherlock takes off after a suspect one day without waiting even for John, and receives a knife in his side for his troubles. The suspect has long vanished by the time they catch up with Sherlock, and the moment that Lestrade sees red blooming across the front of Sherlock’s shirt, all thought of the possible murderer vanishes from his mind.
The wound is far from fatal, but the pain of it sends Sherlock to his knees. He is laid out flat by Lestrade’s quick hands, because fatal or no they still need to stop the bleeding.
“What the bloody hell were you thinking?” Lestrade bellows at him, pressing his hands against the wound while Donovan calls and ambulance and Anderson dashes off to find John.
And Sherlock laughs.
He throws his head back with the force of it, as though he’s just realized something spectacular, and it’s the first genuine laugh Lestrade has heard from him since his return. It stuns Lestrade into silence, so gleeful is the sound.
Sherlock continues to laugh until the blood loss makes him lose consciousness.
Sherlock with you?
He took off about an hour ago. Left his mobile behind.
Have a row?
What do you think?
Lestrade nods to himself and pockets his mobile. The one thing John and Sherlock haven’t spoken about since Sherlock’s return, and Lestrade knows this due to too many nights spent in pubs with a man who doesn’t know what to make of his best friend coming back to life. The two flatmates dance around the subject, making veiled references to the three years if they have to make them at all, but to the outside world they pretend that one day flowed seamlessly into the next - that Sherlock stepped off the roof of St Bart’s one moment and into Lestrade’s office the next.
Lestrade finds Sherlock at the grave.
“Only you, Sherlock Holmes,” Lestrade says with a heavy sigh, “would come and visit your own grave.”
“You come here,” Sherlock counters.
Of course he would know that. Lestrade shoves his hands in his pockets and doesn’t bother denying it. It has taken him the better part of the afternoon to track Sherlock down. Loath as he is to admit it, he wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for a helpful text from Mycroft Holmes.
“There must be a reason for it,” Sherlock insists when Lestrade continues to say nothing. “You find it helpful - useful - or else you wouldn’t keep returning.”
“One man’s comfort can just as easily be another’s pain,” Lestrade tells him softly. “I don’t know what you’re looking for, but whatever it is... I don’t think you’re gonna find it here.”
“You find it comforting.” Sherlock kicks at a loose stone and takes a pull on the cigarette. “Coming here. Visiting... me.”
“And is that what you need?”
“I need to understand.”
“And so do I.”
Sherlock turns to look at him, arching an eyebrow.
“I’ve never had someone I -” Lestrade pauses, considering his words, and continues with, “someone I know come back from the dead. S’not exactly something I have experience with. Been... a bit hard to comprehend, is all.”
In truth, he’s bristling faintly at this intrusion. This is Sherlock’s grave, yes, but it’s not for him. It never has been. It’s for John and Mrs. Hudson and Molly Hooper; for Mycroft and Angelo and Lestrade, and for anyone else Sherlock might have left behind. This is a space for their pain, not another puzzle for Sherlock to work out. Lestrade cannot help but feel that Sherlock’s presence is a violation, and tries to keep his reprimand subtle.
Sherlock does not belong here.
But then Sherlock blows a stream of smoke out the side of his mouth and says, quietly, “And I’ve never had anyone to leave behind before.”
He tosses the cigarette onto his plot while a stunned Lestrade looks on, and the damp earth quickly snuffs it out.
“Here’s to learning curves,” he mutters, and is gone before Lestrade can form a response.
You don’t let John see you hurting.
You should, though.
Those years were hard on him.
I’m aware. -SH
I didn’t mean they were hard on
But I mean it. Might help you both.
Or, hell. Talk to me.
I don’t need you to be my father confessor. -SH
Then why let me see what you won’t show John?
Very little changes after that. Sherlock still breaks into Lestrade’s flat; Lestrade still brings Sherlock cases; John still stares at Sherlock as though he can’t quite believe the man is there. And still, none of them mentions what Lestrade has come to think of as the Hiatus.
Hiatus. Any interruption or break in the continuity of a work.
Discussing Sherlock’s injuries is one thing. But Sherlock still doesn’t speak about what led to such wounds; his friends won’t ask, because it’s easier to pretend that they were acquired while Sherlock was in London, with them, rather than abroad and alone. Sherlock permits them this fantasy.
Perhaps he even starts to believe it himself.
It’s raining the next time Lestrade is forced to call Sherlock in on a case.
The spray is gentle but cold, and had washed away most of the viable evidence before they even got the call about the body. They’ve since collected what was left behind and are now waiting on Sherlock, who is pacing on the far end of the roped-off scene, bent nearly double as he examines the ground. There’s not much they can do until he finishes, and so Lestrade takes up a position opposite, watching Sherlock work.
His fingers twitch inside the pockets of his jacket and he curls them into fists, fighting the urge to reach for the unopened packet of cigarettes he has taken to keeping on his person at all times. Sherlock has been particularly irritable today, hanging up on Lestrade twice that morning before finally deigning to come out to the crime scene. Since arriving he’s come dangerously close to hitting Anderson, called Lestrade an imbecile, and had growled at John to, “Take your infernal coddling and stuff it; I’m not a child,” when the doctor suggested that maybe he should take a break.
The last one took all of them by surprise, sans John, who had sighed and looked as though it was not an uncommon occurrence as of late. He occupies himself now by chatting with Donovan, but then someone calls her mobile and John turns his attention to Lestrade.
“Picked a hell of a time to give up smoking,” Lestrade mutters wearily by way of greeting as John joins him.
“Good thing you’ve still got the drink then, isn’t it?” John says, and the force of the words haven’t quite hit Lestrade before he’s saying, “Jesus, I - fuck, Greg, I didn’t mean that. I don’t even - Christ.”
“It’s fine,” Lestrade says, waving off the apology quickly even as his breath stops in his chest. That’s one number he won’t allow himself to think about, because while it’s hardly Sherlock’s fault that Lestrade fell back on an ancient vice during those three years, it’s also too easy for Lestrade to assign the blame to him.
How many drinks had he had in those three years?
How many of them might have been avoided had Sherlock not fallen?
The less Lestrade dwells on it, the better it is for all involved. He clears his throat and nods at Sherlock. “Been rough, I take it?”
John snorts. “Hasn’t been easy.”
“And how’s he been holding up?” Lestrade asks, lowering his voice reflexively even though Sherlock is clear on the other side of the crime scene.
You can’t honestly believe I came through those years unscathed.
He feels John shift his weight from one foot to the other. He says at length, “As well as can be expected, I suppose. We don’t talk about it, so I can’t really say. But he has nightmares that he won’t admit it to me. Some of his injuries didn’t heal properly, and they still bother him. And he hasn’t touched the violin since he’s been back.”
John takes a breath, and adds, “And he can’t stand being alone.”
“Never thought you’d hear that one, did you?” John offers a wry smile that quickly vanishes. “Took me a while to notice it, but he doesn’t like being alone anymore. He goes out if I’m at work; walks the streets or frequents Angelo’s. I’d wager he’s turned up on your doorstep already, hasn’t he? Follows me around when I’m at home, moving his work to the living room instead of the kitchen. That sort of thing. Kips on the sofa most nights, if he sleeps at all.”
Lestrade doesn’t know what to say to that - doesn’t know what to make of it, either - but it seems to warrant some sort of response and so he murmurs, “Christ.”
John shakes his head. “Those first few days after he came back... I kept thinking that I would turn around or wake up and he’d be gone. Vanished. And I think... I think he’s afraid of the same thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think,” John says slowly, “he’s afraid that if no one’s watching, he’ll disappear again. And he won’t be able to find his way back.”
It’s two in the morning, and someone is pounding erratically on Lestrade’s door. When Lestrade finally answers it, Sherlock all-but falls over the threshold.
“Ah, good, Lestrade,” he says, clapping him on the shoulder. His face is a disaster zone. His left eye will be black by morning and he’s bleeding from a split lip. Other, smaller marks litter his face and hands.
“Sherlock?” Lestrade blurts before he can help it. Sherlock pulls at his coat, swaying slightly as he fights his way out of the garment and tosses it on the floor. He then stumbles over to the sofa and collapses on it. “Are you drunk?”
“Hardly.” Sherlock toes off his shoes and kicks them over the arm of the sofa. “Wrenched my knee. Your flat is closer than Baker Street.”
Lestrade doesn’t even bother to ask why he didn’t grab a cab. Or, for that matter, why he didn’t even attempt to break in. “What the hell happened to your face?”
“That’s hardly polite, Detective Inspector.”
“Oh, do shut up, Lestrade, and let me sleep,” Sherlock snaps, and it’s the first time Lestrade can ever recall him wanting to rest. He throws an arm over his eyes and adds, “Or make yourself useful and find me a pillow. This sofa is atrociously uncomfortable.”
“John’s out, isn’t he?” Lestrade asks suddenly, realization dawning.
Sherlock doesn’t move, nor does he give any sign that he’s heard. It’s answer enough for Lestrade, who sighs.
“Right, yeah, I’ll go find you a pillow. And something for your knee.”
Sherlock is still asleep when Lestrade rises a few hours later, and so he goes about his morning routine as quietly as he can manage. Experience, from the years before Baker Street, has taught him that it isn’t like Sherlock to sleep much past dawn, if he does at all; it’s rarer still for him, as a light sleeper, to not stir at the sound of Lestrade making coffee.
But Sherlock doesn’t wake until an hour later, when what Lestrade can only assume is a nightmare nearly sends him sprawling to the floor. He catches himself in time and sits there for a moment, chest heaving, blinking rapidly at his unfamiliar surroundings. Eventually, Sherlock scrubs a hand through his hair and gives a sigh that’s half-relief, half-understanding, as he recognizes the room.
Lestrade averts his gaze, returning to his emails in order to give Sherlock what privacy he can. He joins Lestrade in the kitchen once he’s regained his equilibrium, and Lestrade chooses to say nothing about what he witnessed. Sherlock already knows that he saw, and wouldn’t appreciate the sentiment.
“You should have those looked at,” Lestrade says after some moments of persistent silence. Sherlock has settled into a chair across from him. He cradles his coffee-black-two-sugars in both hands and has been staring absently at a point on the wall just over Lestrade’s shoulder. Lestrade wonders if it’s the nightmare he’s thinking about.
“No, I’m fine.”
“You don’t look it,” Lestrade counters. The skin around Sherlock’s left eye is red and slowly swelling; the cut on his lip is caked with dried blood; his limp is noticeable. “Those must be smarting.”
“They are,” Sherlock agrees, and he makes it almost sound like an accomplishment. There is a pause while he drinks from his mug, and then he says, “You got old.”
“You’re just noticing this now?” Lestrade snorts, the odd segue giving him only the barest of pauses. He’d gone completely grey in the years of Sherlock’s absence, and the lines around his mouth and eyes have deepened so that they are nearly furrows, or so it appears to him. An old football injury gives him trouble on rainy days; the three flights of stairs up to his flat leave him winded more often than not.
He reaches across the table and fingers a strand of Sherlock’s hair; it glints silver in the harsh artificial light. He counts a dozen or so similar strands in the otherwise-dark mop. A dozen grey hairs in three years; a dozen threads that spoke to cold nights and endless days and fresh blood on Sherlock’s hands. “But so did you, lad.”
Sherlock reaches up to pull the probing fingers from his head, and Lestrade’s fingers inadvertently curl around Sherlock’s hand. Sense memory; slender fingers slipping between his own, holding on. But her hands were cool to the touch where Sherlock’s are warm from the coffee; her flesh had been silken where Sherlock’s is rough with callouses.
And then the corner of Sherlock’s mouth gives a valiant tug, as though he’s trying to smile but can’t quite coordinate the proper muscle movements.
“The Greeks had a word,” he says, releasing Lestrade’s hand and producing a packet of cigarettes from the depths of his pajamas. “Utopos. Quite literally, it means no place.”
Sherlock lights the cigarette and smokes half of it before continuing. “We get our utopia from the homophone eutopia - also derived from the Greek. The good place.”
He blows a stream of smoke out of the side of his mouth and fixes Lestrade with a lop-sided smile that’s sad and amused all at once.
“So which is it, this utopia?” he muses aloud. “The good place... or a place that doesn’t exist?”