"Always a Neverland" is post-Reichenbach, about Sherlock's return to London but with a twist: Sherlock has been gone ten years, not two, and the last six of those in a Bolivian prison for drug possession. So he's older, more tender, repentant – yet still brilliant; just blunted by his experiences. And because of the longer gap, John is less angry than we see in most post-Fall stories, including the official BBC version. He's still hurt, but there's also a sense of relief and a slipping back into what comes naturally for him.
Oh, yes. He also has a kid: a charming six-year-old named Will who plays the violin and who loves to draw, and who is genuinely open to Sherlock. Mary Morstan is a non-issue thanks to the larger time gap (she died in an accident four years prior), and there's also no hint of the ex(?)-assassin thing the BBC gave us. In fact, she seems to have more in common with the Mary of Doyle canon: sweet and generous and well-loved, with a sort of innocent beauty that draws John to her. She fills the role I think the Mary of TEH and TSOT was trending toward, the person who really would have helped John pull through his grief over Sherlock. Even for all that, though, Sherlock really does seem to be the great love of his life, and while John loves Mary "as well as he was able," John's not pining for her as he does for Sherlock. Which may be a strength or a weakness depending on how you look at it; for me, it seemed to strike just the right tone between respecting Mary's character, particularly in the Doyle stories even more than the BBC has managed so far.
So, yes. This story is a great honking AU. There are no scarf-wearing otter (more's the pity), but it's a Mary much more after Doyle's heart than Team Moffat's, but making sense of some very BBC-specific problems. As a Johnlocker who is increasingly ambivalent about series three in general and pretty much everything about HLV in particular (if by "ambivalent" we mean "of mixed minds but it still eats at me" rather than "don't really care"), it was like a breath of fresh air. And the way Will tempers John's reactions, give the story a really unique and interesting take on the Return.
One thing that I would have liked to see a little more delving into about this story, which may be a personal quirk and I certainly think was warranted by the genre but that still didn't sit quite right with me, was the way the story didn't really tackle what Sherlock had been through while he was away. The story is fluff and domesticity, and within that genre it works really well. But Sherlock never really tells John what he went through, either in prison or what went on before that. To be fair, we don't know what Sherlock did, and this particular version of Sherlock seems to have laid low rather than gone after Moriarty's network. Which to be fair would give him a very different set of psychological issues than I tend to imagine with BBC!Sherlock. But he refuses to work with a therapist and doesn't really talk about what he's been through. Instead, his "therapy" is playing the violin with Will and coloring and basically recapturing his childhood.
To be fair, this creates some extremely endearing domesticity, and after what he's been through Sherlock needs time to let his inner child out to play. If he's gone through mostly isolation, both from the Fall and then further by having to suppress those parts of him that got him called a "freak" in jail, having to be constantly on guard... a few months of decompression and play might do him more good than talk therapy. I think what bothered me was the idea that if Sherlock stayed stuck in this reliving-his-childhood thing, if he was more a brother than a parental figure to Will and if John is able to have a sexual relationship (yes, it's Johnlock; explicit in the sense that there is one bedroom scene, but it's told so tastefully and with such a focus on emotion the word "explicit" almost seems a misnomer), that that could be a healthy adult relationship that he think he wants. In some ways this seems to be working for Sherlock at the end, and as I said, It certainly fit the story's focus on fluff. But I did wonder where we draw the line between rejuvenation and just old-fashioned avoidance.
Which isn't, I suppose a criticism of the story so much as the kind of story being told, and that's not fair. Fluff is nice, it has its role and a lot of people really like it. And this is durned good fluff, no doubt about that. And even if this is a flaw (which I'm not convinced it is), it's certainly not a fatal one. It just leaves me wanting a sequel, or possibly to someday write my own examination of just this kind of gentler transition from the Fall back to the land of the living that isn't consumed by how broken Sherlock is by his experience, but that is subtler than that and goes deeper into all of Sherlock's psychological wounds.
Regardless of that wibble, it's a really refreshing, unique, and just flat-out fun story to read. If this sounds like your cup of earl grey, I hope you'll consider giving it a read.