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The hotel in Sofia is exceptionally nice.

It has a spa area with a whirlpool and a sauna.

Not that they have time to partake, but the beds are soft and the bathroom is huge.

It’s a nice step up from the dingy flat in Hong Kong and the one-room attic in Cairo.

The nice hotel is a necessity for their cover. Sherlock is supposed to be the spoilt son of a Russian oligarch, and they’re not exactly known for slumming it.

It’s the first time John is undercover as well.

John is bad at disguises and he speaks only two languages plus a few necessary words in Dari and Pashto, but the role of laconic enforcer suits him to a T. He’s wearing sunglasses and a moderately expensive dark blue suit without a tie, three buttons of his white shirt undone, a very obvious shoulder holster and firearm peeking out under his sharply cut suit jacket. His body language is casually threatening, and the entire look makes Sherlock a little shivery, not that he would admit it.

Not that he necessarily thinks that admitting it would be a problem.

The barriers between them have slowly and steadily eroded under the constant threat of being discovered, the dingy one-bedroom accomodations, the nonexistent privacy.

In Cairo, their attic only had one queen-sized bed, and the shower was next to the loo inside the room.

John didn’t blink. He’s unabashedly half-naked around Sherlock the way he never used to be. They sleep in the same bed even when they don’t necessarily have to. But Sherlock likes having John at arm’s reach, and John has been hovering and fussing over him more than he ever did, so he thinks the feeling is mutual.

It’s the constant vigilance, he thinks. The constant danger, the ever present tension. They’re also constantly together. Even when they’re not in the same room, John watches over him. Mostly from afar, from convenient rooftops or empty flats. Sherlock often can’t wear a wire, so John mans the directional microphone and catches the criminals on tape as they spill their plans to Sherlock. It’s oddly reassuring, knowing that John is watching over him. He likes having John’s undivided attention, and he’s had a lot of it. John’s eyes are always on him, even when it’s in the form of an infrared camera.

The tactic is mostly the same. Get in, get evidence, hand it over to local authorities that aren’t corrupt -finding them is sometimes more of a challenge than the actual infiltration - and get out. The cover varies, mostly on account of the information they have been able to gather on the organisation, and Sherlock’s level of proficiency in the language. Sherlock speaks 22 languages, and reads 13 more, but the difference between speaking a language and being able to sound like a native speaker is the difference between life and death in scenarios like these.

Sofia is easy. Sherlock’s Russian is flawless, better than his counterparts’, and John’s presence at his elbow enhances his performance. The thugs he’s dealing with are vicious, but not especially sharp-witted. They’re only a stepping-stone to get him to the Eastern European kingpin. He spins a yarn for them about his ‘father’, a well-known Russian oligarch, and his shipping empire, and the opportunities for smuggling. They eat it up hook, line and sinker, and they give him far too many details about their own operation. One of them gets a bit handsy, and John growls softly and flips his suit jacket aside to show his Sig.

The thug backs off and Sherlock is a bit weak-kneed afterwards.

They give him a contact in Kiev.

Sherlock spends half the night writing a detailed report for the local police, with audio files, names and dates. He sets the delivery date on the email for three months from now and ensures that the IP address won’t be traceable.

Then he watches John sleep, curled on his side on the comfortable bed, dressed in pants and a vest, the moonlight falling over the bed making him look cool and ethereal. Sherlock knows he’s warm and real.

He lies down on the bed fully dressed and lets John’s soft, even breathing lull him to sleep.

*-*

The first week after he Fell was objectively the worst week of his life.

From one second to the next he was homeless, friendless, rootless, a ghost, a memory, a trick of the imagination.

He spent his days in Mycroft’s basement, going over everything they had on Moriarty’s network, identifying weaknesses, preparing to destroy the spider’s web once and for all to reclaim his life for good.

He snuck out once to see Molly, to thank her.

She looked worried and told him John wasn’t doing so well.

It turned out to be an understatement.

*-*

They’re in Rome for a few days, a layover between Sofia and Kiev, to meet an associate of Mycroft’s who can give them information about the Topulev crime family.

It’s spring and the weather is perfect.

John has never been to Rome, so they take an afternoon to wander through the city. They stop at a small trattoria for lunch and coffee, and Sherlock takes a moment to just breathe. John is smiling with wonder at the city, enjoying the hand-made pasta and the sharp, strong Italian espresso. They don’t talk about the mission for an entire afternoon. Sherlock tells John stories about famous local unsolved murders and John shakes his head and mutters, “Only you, I swear…” in a tone that’s unapologetically affectionate.

They linger in the Pantheon. It's just before closing and most tourists are gone for the day. The ancient silence of the place makes something deep within Sherlock sing, like a plucked violin string, a peace he never thought he could achieve.

John's hand brushes against Sherlock’s.

John doesn’t move away. Sherlock doesn’t, either.

*-*

Sherlock was sufficiently worried by Molly’s words that he went to check on John in secret.

He discovered that Molly was wrong. John wasn’t ‘not doing well’. He was… Sherlock has no words for what John was.

Shattered, comes close. Devastated. Ravaged.

It occurred to Sherlock as he watched John drink himself into a stupor after Sherlock’s funeral that making one’s best friend watch one committ suicide might be objectively unforgiveable, no matter how good one’s reasons.

*-*

It’s not that he didn’t expect John to be sad about his death. Mrs Hudson was sad. Lestrade was sad. John was... bereft.

Sherlock underestimated John. Again.

Specifically how much John cares about Sherlock. Which, in hindsight - after shooting cabbies and telling him to run, after jealousy of dominatrixes and chinning superintendents - was rather stupid of Sherlock.

He has a hard time believing that people care about him. But John isn't "people" and Sherlock has known this for some time.

*–*

He argued with Mycroft for days.

He needs to know.

He can’t know. He’s a terrible actor, he will give you away, and then everything we’ve done will be for nothing.

He’ll never forgive me.

Then that is the price you pay for playing games with psychopaths and enjoying it.

It was harsh, but true.

In the end, Mycroft said the one thing Sherlock listened to. “Do you want him to live? Then you can endure seeing him sad.”

*-*

They drive to Kiev from Rome. It takes them two days. They spend the night in a trailer park in Hungary. It’s practically deserted - it’s a rainy Wednesday in April - and the trailer creaks with every move they make.

Sherlock barely sleeps. He spends the night listening to the wind rush through the trees and feeling homesick. He misses Baker Street and his violin and the noise of London traffic. He misses the damp carpet smell of their home. He misses the quiet routine of their life together, tea and crap telly and time to breathe. All the things he used to scoff about as unnecessary luxuries.

He watches John sleep peacefully and wonders.

John hasn’t mentioned Baker Street once. Or London. Or any of their friends and family. John takes all of this in stride, their nomadic existence, the total lack of privacy, the fact that all their worldly possessions fit into a small duffle bag that gets fully exchanged for an entirely new set of clothing, phones, laptops, names, identities once every few weeks.

The narrow camp bed is uncomfortable and the blanket scratches against Sherlock’s skin.

Sherlock wants to touch John. He wants to put his hand on John’s naked shoulder and just feel the joint move under his fingers, the warmth of John’s skin, the soft movements of his body as he breathes.

John is the only thing he has to hold on to.

He can’t even imagine what it would be like if John wasn’t here.

*-*

He broke when he had to listen to John beg - anyone, God, the universe, Sherlock himself - for Sherlock’s life at his gravestone.

He asked himself two questions: First, would John willingly risk his life for the knowledge that Sherlock was still alive? And second, what would he want if situations were reversed?

The questions were easy to answer: Yes. And he’d rather take a bullet to the brain than endure John’s death.

So he engineered for John to be handed a note by a member of his homeless network.

It read Vatican cameos. I will be back.

It was a grave mistake on his part, because what happened next - and he really should have seen this coming - was that a highly enraged John Watson showed up in Mycroft’s office and nearly murdered Mycroft with his bare hands.

Sherlock would have given a lot to have been there.

Mycroft finally relented and took John to see Sherlock. A vicious, raw and emotional argument later, Sherlock had a mission partner.

“You’re risking your life, do you realise that!” Sherlock had yelled.

“It’s my fucking life, and my fucking decision,” John had ground out between clenched teeth. “And if you think I’m going to sit back and sip tea at Baker Street while you’re out there getting yourself killed, you know absolutely nothing about me whatsoever.”

Sherlock relented after that, because John was right.

He has yet to regret it.

*-*

He regrets it in Kiev.

He calls himself all sorts of names in his head. Stupid, selfish, weak.

Their mission goes spectacularly wrong. They knew who he was and what he was doing. Somebody tipped them off.

Sherlock thinks it must have been Mycroft’s Italian “associate”.

The stab wound isn’t that deep, but it’s awkwardly placed. The blade went into the muscle of John’s upper thigh, barely missing his femoral artery.

It still bleeds like crazy.

Sherlock is driving like all the forces of hell are on their heels, which isn’t far from the truth, if a little fanciful.

John is bandaging his leg with shaking hands, trying valiantly not to pass out, spitting colourful curses.

About fifteen miles outside of Kiev, Sherlock pulls over into an abandoned petrol station’s car park and joins John in the back seat.

He stitches John up while John does his best not to throw up, judging from the colour of his face.

“You’re going back to London. Tonight,” Sherlock says as he presses the gauze against the wound and fixes it there with two plasters.

“Are you going back to London tonight?” John asks, sweat-drenched and panting and objectively in no state to have this conversation.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Sherlock shouts, far too loudly for the smallness of the car. “I’m finishing this alone. I’m not getting you killed. I never should have allowed you to come along. This ends now. You’re going back to London and you-”

John fists a shaking hand in Sherlock’s lapels and pulls him in, then stops him talking by pressing their lips together. It’s hard and fast and fierce. “I’m not,” he pants against Sherlock, “leaving without you. Ever.”

Then he falls back into the seat and is violently sick over the faded upholstery.

*-*

They ditch the car, their clothes and everything else they possess in the outskirts of Prague, where another one of Mycroft’s “associates” meets them with a new set of everything.

That night, they lie next to each other on another too-small, rickety bed. John isn’t sleeping because he’s in pain, and Sherlock isn’t sleeping because John isn’t sleeping.

Sherlock’s on his side, facing John, who’s lying on his back, staring at the ceiling. Sherlock puts his hand on John’s shoulder, palm flat against the joint. “Please,” he says, one last effort. “I can’t watch you die. Please.”

John doesn’t say anything for a long time. Then he puts his hand over Sherlock’s on his skin. “Would you do it, if it were the other way around?”

Sherlock swallows and doesn’t say what he’s thinking, I would never, never, never leave you alone, I’d rather die, I’d rather see the world burn. An army couldn’t keep me from your side, I’d kill anyone trying to keep me from you.

It’s the last time he brings it up.

*-*

They’re in Marrakech, and the days are hot and endless. Their prey is a sleazy politician who’s being extorted by the local organised crime lord, and they’re staking out his villa, looking for an opening.

Sherlock is hot, and listless, and bored, bored, bored. So very bored. He wants to sink into his Mind Palace and disappear.

John makes him eat, makes him drink, makes him talk.

“Tell me about one of your cases, you know, before me,” he says.

Before you, everything was dull, Sherlock thinks, but he tells John anyway, and John says “Brilliant”, and “Amazing,” and everything becomes bearable once more.

*-*

Sherlock gets shot in Malta.

The first bullet grazes his hip, but the second one gets lodged in his arm.

John kills both their assailants.

They leave on a fishing boat. John bribes a stoic fisherman who does regular runs to Sicily and they spend the night on board.

John gets the bullet out and patches Sherlock up.

The wound gets infected and Sherlock burns with fever.

John gives him IV saline and antibiotics and Sherlock drifts in and out of consciousness with his head in John's lap and John's hands in his hair.

“I want to go home,” he whispers in the wee small hours of the morning, just before sunrise.

“I know,” John mutters, pressing a feather-soft kiss against Sherlock’s brow. "Try not to think about it too much, though. Trick I learned when I was deployed. Try to keep your attention here and now. Makes it easier."

Here and now Sherlock is hot and uncomfortable but John's lips are against his skin and Sherlock is content.

*-*

They kiss again in Nice.

They run and run and run, and the cobbled streets under their feet are slippery from the recent summer shower. It’s dark and the night is warm.

Sherlock feels brilliant. He could run forever with John by his side. They’re better, faster, stronger, smarter, and they’ll win this, and they’ll go home.

He drags John into a side alley and together they watch as their pursuers run on, oblivious of the fact that their prey is gone.

John grins at Sherlock, bright and predatory and sharp.

Sherlock kisses him.

He’s wanted to since Ukraine.

Since Bart’s.

Since the pool.

Since Angelo’s that first night.

John kisses him back. He tastes of gunmetal and danger, of home and tea and London fog. Of everything good and right in Sherlock’s life.

“I love you,” he whispers against John’s lips, fierce and true and dangerous.

John smiles. “About bloody time, too.”

*-*

Sherlock kills his first man in Beijing. In fact, he kills several.

They were supposed to find the local kingpin. Instead, the local kingpin found them. He kidnapped John from their bolthole and left a menacing note for Sherlock.

Sherlock breathes through his panic and finds a core of cold, hard rage. He accesses their emergency cash and hires a local street gang to act as his muscle.

They infiltrate the kingpin’s ostentatious mansion.

Sherlock finds John bound to a chair, being interrogated by a nasty thug who’s already landed a few good blows to John’s face.

Sherlock shoots the thug in the face without thinking about it. He unties John with shaking fingers. John grins at him through bloodied teeth, and Sherlock wants to wrap his arms around John so tightly that John will be absorbed into Sherlock’s body and they will never be apart again.

They don’t have time, though, so they run, but not before setting fire to the kingpin's mansion.

They make their way out of Beijing by bus, taxi, and foot, then sneak onto a cargo train.

As soon as they're alone and safe, Sherlock backs John against the nearest flat surface and kisses him like he wants to consume John, and he does, he does. He wants, wants, wants. Wants John’s skin and his breath in Sherlock’s body and his words against Sherlock’s skin and his cock in Sherlock’s hand.

After, they lie tangled together on the cold ground, tucked away behind stacks and stacks of metal boxes filled with assorted goods meant for export.

Sherlock is about to doze off when they get a text from Mycroft.

You made quite a mess. Lie low while I fix it.

Sherlock chucks the phone into a nearby river out of spite.

They spend two nights on that cargo train, slowly making their way to the Tibetan border.

It’s dark and uncomfortable and cold, but they spend most of their time with hands exploring every inch of newly discovered skin, breath fogging up the small windows.

“I love you so much,” John whispers as he sinks down on Sherlock’s cock, slow and reverent and beautiful.

Sherlock is quite beyond speech at this point. He just nods against John, sweaty forehead pressed against his shoulder.

Afterwards, he clings to John. "I can't lose you," he whispers. "I can't go home without you."

John presses a gentle kiss to his brow. "We'll make it home. Together. I promise."

Sherlock believes him.

*-*

They spend two weeks lying low in a Tibetan monastery at 2000 metres altitude. The monastery is on the shores of a small mountain lake. It’s clear and cold up here, and Sherlock relishes the silence that is only broken by prayer chants. They spend their days exploring the mountains and their nights exploring each other.

It’s quiet and restful and Sherlock wants to stay.

They move on with palpable regret, but there’s work to be done, and it needs doing if they ever want to go home again.

*-*

Dubai is loud and hot and Sherlock hates it. Another cover, another hole in the wall hiding place. He’s losing all sense of time and space. Every morning when he wakes up, he needs longer to remember where they are, what month it is, what year, what day of the week, what language he is supposed to speak.

They’ve been away from home for 498 days.

John breaks his own rule one night.

They’re lying on their small, not especially clean bed, facing each other but not touching because it’s too hot. It’s too hot to sleep, to think, to move.

“I just want some goddamned fucking rain for once,” he whispers. “Just some good old English fog. The kind that sneaks into your clothes and makes you feel like you’re getting wet from the inside out.”

Sherlock smiles and closes his eyes. “I want chips drenched in so much vinegar they make my tongue burn with every bite.”

“I’d kill for a pint of bitter,” John sighs.

Sherlock finds John’s hand with his, laces their fingers together. “I’ll take you out for one when we get home.”

Sherlock can hear the smile in John’s voice when he answers. “I’ll hold you to that.”

Sherlock smiles back. “Please do.”

*-*

Serbia is a mistake.

Sherlock knows this almost as soon as they arrive.

There’s something about this mission that sets his teeth on edge. Maybe it’s the unusual brutality of their target. Maybe it’s the sketchy intel. Maybe it’s his rusty Serbian.

But Mycroft insisted. And Sherlock couldn’t properly articulate why he had a bad feeling about all of this, so Mycroft ignored him.

They’re both exhausted. After two years of travelling and scheming and killing and being wounded and sick and cold and on the run, they’re wearing thin, both of them.

They get into silly little snippy arguments that neither of them really wants to have. John complains about the food and Sherlock tells him to shut up. Sherlock hates their bed and John tells him to suck it up and go to fucking sleep already.

Sherlock is so tired. He wants his violin and proper Earl Grey and Jeremy Kyle and the good dim sum from the place with the door handle. He wants Angelo’s and a candle. He wants Mrs Hudson’s scones and a good old-fashioned double homicide. He wants to insinuate that Lestrade is stupid and Lestrade’s good-natured eye-roll. He viscerally misses the smell of the tube. He misses his Belstaff. He wants to sit in his chair and watch John sit in his.

He wants to snog on their couch. He wants to sleep in his own bed with John for the first time.

He wants a shower and a haircut and Angelo’s lasagna. A good night’s sleep and the sound of London traffic outside his window.

Maybe that’s why they get him in the end.

*-*

Two days.

To the best of his knowledge, he’s been here for two days.

It seems a lot longer.

They come in periodically and beat him.

He’s cold and nearly naked and everything hurts. Blood is running down his back, over his arse cheek, down his right leg.

He concentrates on the feeling of it, trying to block out the rest of his body.

He tries not to think about John.

The last thing he remembers before… this, is the local mafia don’s villa. He went in alone, leaving John in an unmarked surveillance van outside, together with two supposedly trustworthy members of the Serbian Intelligence Service.

The don offered him a glass of whiskey. He drank. Then everything went black.

He tries not to think of the probabilities of them holding John in a similar room. So far, he’s held out, held fast to his cover story, but if they hurt one hair on John’s head, Sherlock will gladly give them everything.

They come again. They've got a metal rod this time.

The first strike Sherlock nearly blacks out. The second strike he screams.

The third strike never comes. Instead, his captor takes a well-aimed bullet to the head and topples sideways, revealing a ravaged-looking John Watson, pale and dressed in combat boots, a bulletproof vest and an earpiece, obviously SAS issue. He can hear gunshots and boots in the distance. He nearly passes out with relief.

The next thing Sherlock is aware of are gentle hands on him, untying him, catching him when he can’t stand, cradling him carefully.

"It's OK, love, I've got you," John whispers fiercely against his hair, pressing gentle kisses against his forehead.

Sherlock gratefully succumbs to unconsciousness.

*-*

Sherlock wakes in a nondescript hospital room. He’s curled on his side to take pressure off his bandaged back, and he hurts everywhere.

John is asleep in a chair beside his bed.

Sherlock watches him until he wakes up. He looks exhausted even in his sleep, but he appears physically unharmed.

John smiles at him, weary and warm. Sherlock smiles back and allows himself to drift again, safe in the knowledge that John won’t let anyone hurt him.

Some time later the phone on his bedside table vibrates.

John picks up. "We're done," he says instead of a greeting.

He listens for a moment, then interrupts. "I don't care," he hisses, voice low and steely. "We're going home. Make it happen."

John flings the phone back down.

Sherlock opens his eyes again and smiles at John. "Home?"

John nods. "Home."

*-*

Baker Street is never quiet. Even at 2 am.

Sherlock lies in his own bed and can't sleep. He’s vibrating with the sensory overload of Baker Street. Dusty carpet smell and John’s shampoo and Mrs Hudson’s grandfather clock. Expensive sheets against his skin.

John snoring next to him.

Sherlock gets out of bed and picks up his violin, unable to wait another second.

He tunes it. Rosin on the bow.

He closes his eyes and listens to the sounds of home. Traffic, a faint siren, the bus rattling by.

Then he plays. He plays for London, tells his city where he was and what he did, what he's lost and what he's gained. The wounds on his back ache a bit, but they’re bearable. Everything is bearable within the walls of 221B.

At some point, John joins him in the sitting room. He sits in his chair and listens to Sherlock, just being there, like he was there in Sofia and Kiev, in Malta and Nice and Beijing and Dubai and Serbia.

Sherlock plays for John, then. Plays gratitude and devotion and gratitude for devotion, for the love he isn't sure he deserves but plans to hold on to anyway. For John, who came with him to the ends of the Earth, who got stabbed and beaten and shot at for Sherlock, and who kept his promise to get them home again in one piece. For every moment he only survived because of John, for every time he would have lost himself if not for John.

He lowers the violin. "I'm glad you were there with me."

John smiles at him, fond and true and finally home. "Always."