The Long Road Back

He had missed London.

It had not been an active, aching sort of missing, as he had on many occasions been informed that longing for something lost meant. That was not it at all. But Paris, Berlin, Rome especially, those cities while marvellous and intriguing in their own rights, were not London. They lacked the pulse, the sounds, the constant smell of newspaper print and fried fast food and the dark water of the Thames, the yellow lights of black cabs.

Walking the streets, he was surprised at his own anonymity. It was to be expected, of course, because while people saw, they did not look. They isolated themselves in their mobile phones and newspapers – no one so much as spared him a glance, which, oddly, he felt almost annoyed by. Two years ago his face had been on the newspaper front pages every other day, obscured by the ridiculous headwear, certainly, but still recognisable enough that he had barely been able to leave the apartment without being stopped at least once by some self-acclaimed "fan". It had been even worse after his death.

He knew, of course, had made it his primary concern those first few weeks to monitor everything that was said and written in regard to himself and those closest to him. Not for his own sake, but for theirs, and it was a small blessing – though he did not really believe in blessings – that the people for whom he had had to make such an abrupt departure, had been mostly forgotten as soon as the first buzz died out. And still…

These people, surrounding him, milling the streets like so many ants intent on their work, oblivious to his presence among them again, had been a driving force in him having to leave. Had it not been for their hunger for scandal, their need to satisfy their human urge to pull anyone who was different from them down to their level again – things would not have played out the way they did. And now, a mere two years later, they did not remember him.

He had been careful in returning, of course. An assumed name, cash payments and travelling solely by underground, even if doing so exhausted him. For ten days he had roamed the city, not only re-establishing his familiarity with it – for not many things had really changed since he had left it – but seeking out what remained of what he had once taken for granted.

The homeless were much the same, some faces gone but others still present and still willing to find out that which could not be found out by browsing the internet. Admittedly though, many things could be found out that way.

He had not been idle during his forced exile: Moriarty's connections and accomplices were many and difficult to get to. But whenever a moment of non-pursuit was given him, he would roam the web, trying to keep track of those left behind. It was not out of sentiment, he told himself, though for what other reason, he could not say.

He would read Molly's autopsy reports, laughing at her remarks or shaking his head softly at some conclusion she had made before quickly covering the tracks of his unauthorized entry into the database. Likewise he would follow Lestrade's steps throughout the darker parts of the London anthill, acutely aware of the fact that the man had been demoted from his position and only recently worked his way up again, no doubt tainted by association and, he knew, punished for it. Even Mrs Hudson was traceable, thanks to her next-door neighbour Mrs Turner's excessive, though terribly executed, blogging about this or that event in the neighbourhood.

But then, there was one person who had all but disappeared as well.

Had he been talking, the words would have caught in his throat. As it was, even thinking the name was enough to cause him to lower his head and feel a strangely familiar pain, not really located anywhere but still genuinely, undeniably there.

John.

He could remember their last conversation with the same accuracy that he remembered everything else about the man. Small things, mostly; details, which he had carefully stored away in his memory bank and been adamant about not forgetting, though the knowledge had been of little practical use to him. How he took his coffee. How he tirelessly reminded him to eat, drink, sleep – once, even, to put an experiment back in the fridge because otherwise it would certainly go bad (a fact which had been, momentarily, forgotten due to the interesting flight patterns of two wasps in the kitchen window – why was it that they never came closer to one another than three inches?). His unwavering, stubborn loyalty. His voice as it called out his name for the last time.

That was perhaps the strangest thing. The sense of knowing that once he took the step, off the parapet, he would lose John. Lose John's patience with him, John's gentle way of letting him know those things that seemingly everyone else knew but that he himself had never really understood, John's dry humour, John's simply being there. It was unnerving to think of. Since that day, he had never, never, found himself talking to himself in an empty room, because he knew that someone who ought to be there to listen and reply, was not. John was not there – so what was the use of talking at all?

And John had disappeared.

He was not dead, that much was certain, and not missing, because if he went missing someone – Mrs Hudson, Lestrade, Molly or even the sister – would have alerted the police. No, he had simply ceased to exist. Until now.

Just as he had been unable to stay away from John then, in the cemetery, he could not keep himself from going to the address given to him by Gary – member of the homeless network since ten years and still eager, enthusiastic, great for footwork – a small, private health clinic. Discreet, misleadingly old-fashioned seen from the street. Very John. Except, he thought, there could not be much excitement for a retired army doctor in a neighbourhood like this one.

It was late and the clinic closed, but some lights were on and the back door was unlocked, a car from a cleaning company parked outside. Going inside was easy, as was locating the office occupied by J. Watson, M.D. Behind the door was a small, tidy room – stripped, to any normal visitor, of anything even remotely personal. But the normal visitor would probably not see the way the magazines were stacked in alphabetical order as a personal trait, or notice how the left armrest of the swivel chair was adjusted to better accommodate the once shot shoulder. Most people probably did not realise that it was the lack of personal touch which made this office very much John's.

John had never been one for personal effects. Moving in to Baker Street, he had brought one single bag of items, mostly clothes. No books, no photographs, the only items immediately distinguishable two medals, which had been hidden away in a drawer within the minute and then never mentioned.

He left the office and the clinic, unnoticed by the cleaner, and went out into the streets again, feeling not very different from before. He had known it, for a long time now – known, but wanting to ascertain that everything actually was safe before resurfacing in the world again. He would not endanger them again, not Molly or Lestrade or Mrs Hudson. Or John, though he knew well enough that John would put himself in whatever danger there was, out of loyalty. Out of friendship.

Meeting him again would be difficult. It would mean facing the loneliness, not only his own but the one he had forced back on John. It would mean having to explain things that John would no doubt think should have been explained long ago. And it meant realising that perhaps he had taken too long. Perhaps he had gone a step too far, and that which he came back for was no longer there.

It was not sentiment, he told himself, entering the underground. It was not. It was simply that without John, he really was lost. Incomplete. He had always been brilliant, he knew that, but with John, it was a good thing and it was not the only thing he was. With John, he was a man he had not been for a long time, but was determined to become again. Sherlock.

Not an anonymous someone in the throng of people, as now when he exited the underground. Not a disgraced, supposed-to-be-dead vigilante trying to rid the world of an evil it hardly even knew existed and would never even realize the danger of. Just… Sherlock. Whoever that was.

He made his way up to street level again and turned his collar up against the chilly wind that swept, as it always did, through the roaming people and the poignant fumes of car exhaust. The restaurant was only a few blocks away. Four minutes and twenty seconds, he estimated, with this amount of traffic. Somehow, not nearly long enough, and yet he moved towards the location with the same speed.

Three minutes and thirty-five seconds. What if John was not there? Nonsense – he would be there. All other alternatives had been explored and handled.

Two minutes and fifty seconds. Why would he frequent this restaurant? It was not close to his work or his apartment, in fact, it was off the chart. An anomaly.

Two minutes and fifteen seconds. They were both men who lived by rules and regulations, but John very differently so. He could manage any changes to his plans, survive any sudden event, but seemed to embrace ordinariness and easily fell into routines. A restaurant like this, so removed from his everyday life, was irregular. Wrong.

One minute and twenty seconds. But John had these kinds of peculiar ideas, did he not? Yes, he did.

One minute and five seconds. He was a peculiar man. He would do strange things, often unpredictable things. Such as risking his life for someone else. Or refuse to accept someone else's death, and talk to their headstone as if they could still hear him, despite how many men must have died before his eyes – or beneath his hands.

Twenty seconds. What would he do?

He stopped where he was standing, suddenly unable to move forward. Twenty seconds until he reached the restaurant. How would he react? The possibilities were many, but some more probable than others. Shout? Strike out? But he would believe it, would he not?

Still twenty seconds. Someone pushed their way past, too caught up in their own world to notice anything, or anyone, standing shock still on the street.

He cleared his throat, straightened his back. Whatever John did do, the fact remained that he would certainly do something. And whatever he did, he was in his right to do it. Whether striking or shouting, he was entitled to any reaction. As long as it meant that all was not lost. If it meant that John would once again just be there, to guide him, as he often seemed to do, or even scold him; if it meant that when he spoke, John was there to listen and reply, then anything leading up to that would be worth it.

And then, perhaps, he could become that person again. The one he knew he had been, to John, and also, in some small way, to himself.

He started walking, not counting the seconds because what did seconds really matter now and soon enough he would be there, at the restaurant, and with only a few more steps there would be no way of turning back, only a long road of all the things that would need to be explained and should have been long ago, and the road he had walked this far, alone, would be no more than a memory which he would be adamant to forget as soon as possible but would not forget, because it still had some practical use for him, because it reminded him that seven hundred and thirty odd days without John were nothing, nothing, compared to the possibility to talk, to be listened to, to be more than brilliant, more than he had ever known that he could be.

And suddenly he was there, opening the door, and he found himself swallowing hard as if bracing himself for battle, for remembering, for everything that lay ahead. And he took a few more steps, and he saw John, sitting there as if he had been sitting there waiting, as if there were no seven hundred and thirty days between then and now, and with that, he felt it. The missing piece, returning, put into its place in the puzzle.

And Sherlock took the last few steps.