Not Dying Today
The impact of collapsing onto the wet pavement drove both the breath and the fight from John Watson.
His body curled around the knife wound instinctively, bracing for the agony that surely would follow. For several heartbeats he couldn't think, couldn't move, and then the pain washed over him in a sickening tide, flooding his eyes with involuntary tears. He sucked in air between his teeth and held it for a moment, fighting the conflicting urges to vomit, groan, and faint.
The sounds of fleeing men — most able-bodied, at least one half-carried or half-dragged — grew distant and then disappeared.
John's mind felt as foggy as the moist air that blanketed him, and he struggled to recall what had happened.
My fault, he remembered.
He'd plunged into the mist and the shadows, mentally cursing Sherlock's longer legs and vainly trying to match their strides. For a time Lestrade had kept pace at John's side, but as they rounded a corner the detective inspector had paused to signal back to his team. When Lestrade resumed the chase he had followed John, no doubt assuming that John still was following his flatmate.
Of course, that had been the plan. Apparently at some point John had zigged when he should've zagged. Sherlock had vanished into the predawn darkness, and John had plunged headlong into a dead end at the waterfront, only to discover more than half a dozen hostile figures emerging from the fog to welcome him.
Had one of them been the suspect Sherlock was hunting? It hardly mattered. They had wanted John dead, whoever they were.
Before John could shout an alarm, Lestrade was there, caught in the same trap. Bless him, the man had wasted no time wading into the fray to protect John's back.
John was exhausted — as most decent people were at nearly four in the morning, he told himself — with a shoulder grown tight and aching in the chill and dampness, but he was still a soldier, and he had the added benefit of being easy to underestimate at first glance. He'd put one man down barehanded before two more sprang on him.
Glimpses he'd caught from the corner of his eye showed Lestrade fighting with a grim and brutal efficiency more suggestive of youthful street experience than simple professional training. Apparently a few years at the head of a team or behind a desk didn't trump decades of hard-won muscle memory.
In one of the surreal, detached moments that sometimes came to him in the thick of battle, John had pondered this. It was no mystery why he, always the smallest and slightest, had learned to hold his own in a fight at a young age, even before joining the military. When he tried to imagine Lestrade at seventeen, it occurred to him that the other man probably had possessed an equally urgent need to know how to defend himself.
After all, bullies targeted the beauties as often as the runts, didn't they? And the pretty ones drew other unwelcome attention, besides.
One split lip and several bruised ribs later, John had put down a second man hard — perhaps too hard, if the sound of bone striking metal railing gave any indication. The bloody fog obscured everything around them. It was like swimming through stew.
Swinging about to engage the man at his back, John had registered Lestrade's cry, but his first instinct had been to pause and look for the detective inspector rather than heed his warning of "Knife!"
By the time John had located Lestrade in the confusion, it was too late for both of them.
Attempting to warn John had cost Lestrade one precious second too many. Before John could draw the breath to shout, a thickset figure had struck at the back of Lestrade's head with some form of bludgeon. John could only hope the thug was wielding a lightweight wooden club and not a heavy metal pipe.
The detective inspector had staggered a step down the dock ramp and then tumbled forward. His unresisting body slid toward the dark water even as a knife slid under John's ribcage.
Now John lay shivering, blinking hard as his surroundings blurred in and out of focus, swimming through shock to reach clarity.
Christ, he thought. If Lestrade went into the water face down and unconscious…
Clenching his jaw, he raised himself up on an elbow. He could make out three scattered bodies, unconscious or dead, but the detective inspector wasn't among them.
He dared not wait for help that might not come. Bloody hell, he couldn't even alert anyone. Sherlock had run off with his mobile. Again.
So move, he told himself. Let adrenaline serve where strength fails.
Tucking an arm tightly against his bleeding side, he gathered himself for the effort of crawling to the ramp where he'd seen Lestrade collapse.
Please, God. Please.
He had dragged himself the distance of four or five paces when he heard the rapid fall of running footsteps. He would have called out Sherlock's name, but he had no breath to spare.
A jogging man pulled up short at the far corner to take in the scene, squinting in the misty glow of the dock lights. He stood taller than John. He wore a long coat. But he wasn't Sherlock.
Anderson, John realized. At that moment, John could've sworn he had never been happier to see anyone in his life.
"Lestrade!" he panted, pointing toward the ramp. "Help Lestrade!"
The concerned frown that had furrowed Anderson's brow when he recognized John deepened with something like fear, and he followed John's direction without comment or question.
Good man, John thought, easing himself back down to a prone position. Funny, that.
The next moment a figure seemed to materialize out of thin air to kneel next to John. So silent and sudden was Sherlock's appearance, John jerked in surprise and then gasped as agony ignited in his side.
"John. John. What… where?" Long-fingered hands hovered over John's torso, not quite touching. His uncertainty made Sherlock appear achingly young.
"Your scarf?" It was all John could manage between shallow, pained breaths.
A distressed exclamation sounded from Anderson's direction, followed by splashing.
Sherlock's momentary scowl of confusion gave way to understanding, and he unwound his scarf and pressed it into John's trembling and blood-stained hand.
"Right. Thanks." John said. "Go help Anderson."
"Now. It's Lestrade." Sherlock's pale eyes widened, and he glanced toward the ramp.
"I'll do. This can wait." John croaked.
Sherlock crouched closer, searching John's eyes as if he feared this was a lie. John met his gaze and gave him a sharp nod.
A heartbeat later, Sherlock was on his feet and running.
John wound the scarf into a tight bundle, and then shakily unfastened his jacket to position the makeshift bandage over his side. Once it was in place, he rolled forward on the cold ground, using the weight of his body to press the scarf into his wound.
Breathing hard through his nose, John drew up his knees and wrapped his arms around his aching ribs, seeking both warmth and consolation. Ignoring the fact he now lay in a puddle of his own blood, he kept his eyes trained on the ramp, his mind fixed on the mantra of Please, God. Please, God. Please.
He braced himself for the inevitable bickering and posturing that he feared would come, as Anderson blamed Sherlock for dashing off and leading them into danger, and Sherlock blamed the Yard for being thick enough to require leading in the first place. John hoped they would see that their squabbling could do Lestrade no good, but he dared not expect much maturity from either of them.
Sherlock reappeared first, walking swiftly backward, followed by Anderson. Between them they carried Lestrade's limp and dripping form. As soon as they both stood on flat ground, they lowered their burden gently to the concrete. Anderson stripped off his coat and draped it over Lestrade's lower body while Sherlock drew Lestrade's arms away from his chest to rest at his sides.
The two men then folded to their knees on either side of Lestrade's broad shoulders; this wordless cooperation more than anything spoke to John of the detective inspector's dire condition.
Before John could voice his concern about possible trauma, they were examining Lestrade themselves, cradling his skull in their hands, feeling beneath his hair and along his neck. Within seconds they seemed to reach a mutual conclusion. Sherlock used his own coat to pillow Lestrade's head. Anderson settled himself on his knees and peeled back Lestrade's outer layers of clothing.
John's worst fears were confirmed as Anderson bent over the detective inspector, centering one hand atop the other on Lestrade's chest. Straight-elbowed, Anderson put his upper body weight behind forceful compressions, and John found himself counting silently with each one. Yes, near enough to a hundred per minute. Good.
After thirty compressions, a panting Anderson sank back on his haunches, making room for Sherlock to crouch forward. With something surprisingly like tenderness, Sherlock tilted Lestrade's head backward and lifted his chin forward before sealing his mouth over the detective inspector's. Sherlock gave a long breath, checked Lestrade's chest, and then repeated the maneuver.
Sherlock's hand lingered on Lestrade's silvering hair even after he leaned back to allow Anderson to continue.
The procedure didn't exactly reflect the latest standard practice of the medical community, but John had to admit that the two men were doing an admirable job — especially considering that one man worked solely with corpses these days, and the other seemed far more likely to delete first aid training than retain it.
Not that their efforts were yielding any results.
Please, God. Please.
All at once a bobbing sphere of light rose and fell over them in rhythm with the new sound of footfalls. Sally Donovan, torch in hand, soon drew up close to John. Her face went slack at the sight of Anderson and Sherlock working over Lestrade, and a wounded sound of despair tore itself from her throat.
John gave her the only privacy he could offer, closing his eyes.
When he looked up at her again, she was hunched awkwardly, balancing her mobile on her shoulder as she shrugged out of her coat.
As she phoned in her request for emergency medical assistance, her voice remained steady, but John could see tears filling her eyes.
"Right," she said, when she had completed her call. She tucked her coat around John with practical hands. "Help will be here soon. Give me a mo to get the suspects sorted, then I'll be right back, yeah?"
John nodded and whispered his thanks, sinking deeper into the comfort she'd left for him.
Cautiously skirting Anderson and Sherlock, the sergeant checked each of the three bodies slumped around the periphery of the scene, half obscured by fog. One she handcuffed and one she bound with his own belt; neither roused. The last she examined and then ignored. John couldn't find it in himself to feel any remorse.
Anderson and Sherlock continued to move in concert with each other over Lestrade's still body, working in perfect silence, like fitted gears in a well-oiled machine. The chill morning air made white clouds of each of Sherlock's exhalations, even as sweat shone on Anderson's face and neck.
Sally paused near them, clearly wanting to help, but well aware that disrupting their labors could only hurt the man they were trying to save. Neither Sherlock nor Anderson seemed to register her presence, so fixed were they on the detective inspector.
At last the sergeant crouched beside John on the pavement. She was the model of professional composure, save for her tear-stained cheeks. "Where are you hurt?"
"Knife to the side." John had to strain to speak through chattering teeth. "I've got pressure on the wound." Shallow breath. "Nothing else for it" — another shallow breath — "'til the ambulance gets here."
"You're shivering," she said, sitting down fully and stretching her legs out before her. "Would it help" — she indicated her lap — "you know, warmth? Is it worth the risk of moving you?"
The cold drained him. Shock, of course. And each involuntary shudder felt like another stabbing. "Get blood on you," he mumbled in warning.
She shrugged. "I'm not fussed."
With care she helped him shift until he could rest his head and shoulders against her body. After adjusting her coat to cover the rest of him and repositioning the scarf to press against his wound, she wrapped her arm across his chest and pulled him close. Too miserable to be embarrassed, he burrowed against her, drinking in her heat.
"Thanks," he whispered. Moving had been agony, but the warmth was more than worth it. "'Sbetter."
They clung to each other and watched as Sherlock and Anderson fought for Lestrade's life.
"Did they get to him in time?" she wondered out loud.
It was the same question John had been asking himself for what felt like hours but must have been only minutes. "Hope so."
A few backup personnel arrived on the scene, and Sally posted them as lookouts to watch for the ambulances. Sirens blared in the distance, but they never seemed to grow louder.
Sherlock was breathing raggedly and Anderson was shaking with strain when, abruptly, Lestrade gagged and began to cough up water. John squeezed Sally's arm with all his strength, and she buried her face in his hair for several long moments.
Never would John have imagined it, this seamless teamwork between Sherlock and Anderson. Moving as one they rolled Lestrade on his side, Sherlock supporting the man's head and shoulders as he heaved and wheezed, Anderson catching the flailing arms, murmuring quietly and urgently to his boss. After the worst of the vomiting and coughing was done, they resettled him into a half-curled and half-sitting position, propped between them.
They seemed to be taking turns studying the detective inspector and coaxing responses from him. Eventually John could tell from Lestrade's hoarse rasps that the man was conscious and lucid, both very good signs.
John started when he heard his own name spoken like a question in Lestrade's rusty voice.
"Knifed, but in better condition than you were. He's—" Sherlock glanced up, seeking his flatmate, and for a heartbeat he appeared genuinely surprised at what he saw. Then a small, pleased smile, without any trace of irony or affectation, transformed his fine features.
"Sergeant Donovan's with him," Sherlock said. Turning solemn, he nodded once over Lestrade's shoulder, deeply, and John felt Sally return the gesture.
At the sound of Sally's name, Anderson shot a look back at her. John realized that he'd never once seen the man appear so unguarded, never before seen a smile on his face that wasn't some sarcastic form of self-defense. This moment of exhausted, grateful joy suited him.
The ear-splitting wail of sirens hailed the imminent approach of the ambulances.
John let his eyes fall shut. There would be hell to pay in the aftermath of this disastrous night — that is, unless Sherlock had managed to solve the case while sprinting through the darkness. Then again, this was Sherlock: he probably had done. Somehow none of the details mattered too much just now.
"You still with us, or did this love-fest make you swoon?" Sally ducked her head beside John's ear, a weary grin in her tone.
Giddy with relief and light-headed with blood loss, John wanted to laugh, but he knew it would hurt too much. "Lot to take in." He blinked. "Sherlock and Anderson… working hand in hand."
With a chuckle, she said, "Don't worry, it won't happen again."
Gazing at Lestrade, bundled in the two men's coats, wet and bloody and grey as the fog, John considered how close a call it had been.
He said, "Hope you're right."
He thought, Thank you, God.
Sally held him until the paramedics asked her to let go.
Vital Stats: Originally written in April 2011.