Later, John couldn't believe he hadn't seen it coming.
He was an army veteran, after all. One who spent all his time these days chasing after criminals and living with Sherlock Holmes—both things that sharpen your sense of survival. He lived each day equally wary of unpredictable criminals and biohazards in the fridge.
Really, it made his job at the surgery giving shots and treating colds almost relaxing.
Except on the days when it was exhausting, like today. The flu was ravaging the city, and John had pulled a double-shift at the clinic, despite Sherlock's demands that he meet him at a crime scene. Normally there would have been no contest, but today? He couldn't bear to leave the overworked staff to deal with the influx of patients when, after all, Sherlock's victim was already dead.
Now, though, it was late and he was trudging home. He'd tried for a taxi—for once tired enough that he didn't care what it cost—but apparently the misting rain was just enough to keep them busy elsewhere. With a sigh, he pulled his collar up (which never made him look cool) and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, with mental promises of hot tea and bed as soon as he got home.
Unfortunately, things didn't work out that way. His exhaustion fogged his senses as much as the fog obscured his vision, and it was only at the last minute that he heard the attack coming.
He spun to face his attacker, rush of adrenalin chasing away his fatigue. An ordinary street tough, barely out of his teens, faced him, holding a knife. John held his hands out calmly. "Don't do anything stupid."
"Just hand over your wallet, grandpa." The kid herded him backwards towards an alley, away from the street and the handy CCTV cameras.
Now, John thought, temper rising, that was unnecessary. He didn't take kindly to being mugged in the first place, but if the mugger was going to be insulting as well? He was watching the point of the kid's knife, flicking nervously, when he was grabbed from behind. A rough voice said, "Get the wallet. We don't got all night."
Well, he fought, of course. His army training and active lifestyle made him more than a match for two common street thugs. He had the one holding him on the ground with a broken arm in seconds and had disarmed the mugger with the knife. It was when he was standing there, barely even breathing hard that he realized.
There were three of them.
The only warning he had was the flicker of the kid's eyes as he glanced past John's shoulder. He started to turn, but not quickly enough, not alertly enough. The third mugger's knife missed the stroke he wanted, but still slid under John's ribs smoothly and suddenly John couldn't think, couldn't feel anything except the white-hot pain that radiated through his body, melting away any cohesion to his muscles.
He crashed to his knees, hands at his stomach, trying to stem the hot blood soaking his ruined shirt. "That's for hurting my boy, grandpa," a voice said, followed by a kick in the stomach that doubled the agony. Another kick in his head made any kind of coherent thought impossible, melted in an inferno of pain. He felt hands in his pockets, pulling out his wallet and his phone, then tearing his watch from his wrist. A pound of footsteps as they ran away, supporting their injured friend, and then John was left alone.
He couldn't think. His brain tried, but Sherlock was right. He was an idiot, incapable of stringing thoughts together. All he could think was how much he hurt.
Luckily, his doctor's instinct was still working, because his hands were pressing against the knife wound. He curled tightly around them in agony, instinctively assuming the fetal position. The tiny part of his brain that was functioning approved, as it helped add pressure.
That tiny, active part of his brain, though, knew how much trouble he was in. The knife had gone deep, and nobody knew where he was. The cold mist falling was no longer just an inconvenience, either, but now a deadly threat, pulling the warmth from what few muscles still responded to instructions. Unless something changed very soon, he was going to die here, but he couldn't make his body move.
Sherlock would never forgive himself, the thought came. He would abuse himself for not being here. He would rail at John for not taking a taxi. He would yell at Mycroft for not keeping a closer eye on him (as if that were possible). A part of John could almost feel sorry for the hapless muggers, who had no idea what kind of hell hound was about to track them down in revenge.
He coughed a bit and felt hot, coppery warmth in his mouth. Not good, he knew, but there was nothing he could do. He could feel his strength ebbing and was shuddering now in the cold. How had it gotten so cold? He wished he could say goodbye to Sherlock, and regretted the loss of his phone. Couldn't they have left it just long enough for him to make one call?
God, he was tired. And so cold.
His eyes drifted shut. He would just rest a bit, and then would think of something to do. He just needed a moment to catch his breath, hard though that was. He would just close his eyes for a minute.
In his fog (how had it gotten misty behind his eyelids?), he heard footsteps. Sherlock?
A voice said, "Oh, Johnny, this isn't good." He knew that voice, but couldn't get his tired brain to identify it. Vaguely, from about a hundred miles away, he heard someone requesting an ambulance and thought that was probably a good thing. He'd broken that kid's arm, hadn't he? That should probably get looked at, he thought hazily, he was just too tired to do it himself.
Fresh agony shot through him, forcing his eyes open as every nerve ending screamed in sympathy with the pressure on his side. "Don't go drifting off, Johnny boy, you can't quit the game this easily."
Adrenalin is wonderful stuff, he thought as his sluggish brain finally identified the man leaning on his side. "Jim," he said with a gasp. "I thought you didn't like to get your hands dirty."
"And I thought you learned hand-to-hand combat in the army, Johnny. Three teenage thugs? Really? Sherlock would be ashamed."
"Long day. No excuse." John was panting now, trying to breathe around the excruciating pain in his side. Was Moriarty here to gloat? "Sorry to disappoint. Yours?"
He was almost relieved when Jim shook his head. "I should be insulted you'd even think so. My people know better than to mess with you until I tell them to. Don't worry. I'll deal with the punks myself."
John tried to shake his head, but it hurt too much. "Not. If Sherlock. Finds them…"
A look almost of concern shadowed Jim's face as he peered at John's face. "For this? Are you joking? We might even work together."
John almost managed a smile, ears starting to ring. "Shame. I won't. See that."
Jim grinned. "You don't get off that easily, Johnny." The pressure on his side eased for a moment (blessed relief) and he felt something soft put under his head. And then a flood of warmth gushed from his side, sweeping him away to the chorus of sirens.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
It was bright. Light. Everything was light. He felt hollow, as if he were filled with air and could float away.
But no. There was a heaviness in his side. Dull. Aching. Sore. Weighing him down.
He still felt cold. Everywhere but his hand. His hand was warm, almost hot, caught. Held. Someone was holding his hand. He tried to move his fingers and felt the grip tighten.
Brightness or no, he had to respond to that voice. He tried to open his eyes, but the light was blinding. He flinched, clenching his eyelids closed, unable to bear the light splitting his head..
He almost whimpered when his hand was released, but moments later the light beyond his eyelids dimmed and he felt his face relax.
"John?" The voice was more urgent.
This time he managed to open his eyes. Sherlock (of course it was Sherlock) was sitting beside his bed, face drawn with strain. John blinked, eyes crusty. Everything hurt. Even his hair hurt. But especially his head. Even more than his side—he was remembering, now. He'd been stabbed and kicked in the head. The head has a whole lot more nerves than the stomach does, and right now, every single one of them was throbbing, screaming. It was undoubtedly the worst headache of his life.
He stifled a groan and felt Sherlock lean forward. "John? What can I do?"
"Head hurts," John mumbled, hating himself, hating being weak and in hospital yet again. He forced his eyes open again and looked at Sherlock. "Look terrible."
A look of relief passed over Sherlock's face. "I'd wager you look worse."
"But I was stabbed," John told him, already being pulled back to sleep.
"True. Don't do that again." Sherlock took his hand again, and John couldn't help but clutch at his fingers, those long, strong, elegant fingers.
"I mean it, John." Sherlock's voice was almost a whisper. "Don't do that again."
"I'll try not to," John promised, and let sleep take him.
When he woke the next time, it was to a loudly whispered conversation in the corner.
"Are you certain?"
"The CCTV cameras don't lie, brother. It was a foggy night, so the pictures aren't as clear as they could be, but there seems to be no doubt." John heard the drum-like thrum of a glossy sheet of paper being pulled from a folder.
"I will hunt him down." His efforts to keep the volume down did nothing to muffle the venom in the baritone voice. "I will skin him for this. How dare he?"
John opened his eyes, gratified that it was easier this time. "Sherlock?"
The two heads in the corner turned to face him. "John!" Sherlock didn't even try to hide his delight as he bounded over to look at him, eyes taking in every detail, rating his vitals more thoroughly than the monitoring equipment beeping quietly by his bedside.
Mycroft approached the foot of the bed with a gracious nod. "It's good to see you awake, John."
Sherlock made a rude noise. "Of course it is, Mycroft. Don't be stupid. He's in a hospital bed, he doesn't need the additional stress of you being obvious. What can I get you, John, anything?"
John blinked at his flatmate's earnest face. "Some water?" Sherlock poured some from the jug next to the bed and hovered as John carefully lifted it in a hand that was far too shaky for his liking.
After he'd drained the cup, he looked back at the brothers, silently fuming at each other. Condition normal, then. "What can you tell us about your attack, John?" asked Mycroft.
"There were three of them. Ordinary muggers," he told them after a minute. "I took out one—I think I broke his arm—and disarmed the other, but … the fog was so bad, and I was so tired. I didn't hear the third one until too late. I never saw his knife. I turned enough to deflect the blow, but not enough to avoid it. They took my phone and my wallet, I think. There was nothing I could do. No excuse. Stupid."
"They certainly were!" Sherlock couldn't contain his outrage. "How dare they attack you?"
"But John," Mycroft broke across his brother's tirade easily. "Are you sure they were ordinary muggers? That they weren't connected to … someone else?"
He held out the photo despite Sherlock's wordless protest. It was a grainy image from a CCTV camera. It was hard to see past the fog, but it was very obviously Jim Moriarty.
John stared at it for a long moment. "I thought I'd imagined that."
Both Holmes brothers grew very still. "What?" asked Sherlock finally in the extra-firm, ultra-controlled voice that meant he was furious. "What did he do to you?"
"He saved my life," John said quietly. He looked up and was gratified to see that he had finally surprised both Holmes brothers. "I was bleeding out, nothing I could do. I couldn't even think, my head hurt so much. I was sure I was hallucinating. But … obviously not."
He looked back at the picture. "He was the one who called the ambulance, applied pressure to the wound until … well, until I passed out, anyway. He definitely saved my life."
"But … why? Why would he do that?" Sherlock was stunned.
John met Sherlock's eyes. "I don't think it was exactly altruistic, Sherlock. He said I wasn't getting out of the game this easily. I think he just didn't want me to die until he decides it's time."
Sherlock's face was a blend of rage and shock and something like gratitude, while Mycroft's showed no reaction beyond his lifted eyebrow. "You're certain he wasn't involved, John?"
John dropped the photo on the blanket and leaned his head back against his pillow. "As certain as I can be, all things considered. He was furious. He said he was going to deal with the kids who did this, that his people knew better than to touch me."
"He'll have to get to them before I do," Sherlock said fiercely.
"I think I said something like that," John told him. "You two are too competitive."
"Maybe for this one thing, we could work together," Sherlock said.
John gave a tiny laugh that made him wince. "Jesus, that's exactly what he said. If that weren't so damned frightening, I'd almost be flattered. And terrified."
"But avenged," his friend reminded him. "Lestrade's outside, wanting a statement. He insisted."
John nodded. "Let's get that over with before my head starts hurting again."
Later, after his nap, a nurse brought in a flower arrangement and placed it on the table next to the window. His life had gotten so weird, he wasn't even entirely surprised when it rang.
He blinked at it a moment. The mobile hidden in the flowers might have been on the other side of the room, but luckily an aide was walking by just then and he called her in. She scolded him about having a mobile in hospital, but handed it to him anyway with a cheeky "just this once."
The incoming number was labeled "Guardian Devil" and with a slight smile, he answered.
The voice he was expecting asked, "How are you feeling, Johnny boy?"
"Much better today, Jim. Thank you. And I mean that."
A huff of laughter from the other end of the phone. "This doesn't change anything, you know."
John nodded. "I know. But I'm grateful just the same. Do me another favor, though?"
"I don't do favors, Johnny," Jim told him, an edge to his voice.
"Seems like you did one last night," John said, disagreeing. "I won't forget that. What's one more?"
"What?" There was the faintest lilt of amusement to Jim's question.
"If you bump into Sherlock while you're both hunting down the kids who mugged me, try not to kill each other?"
Jim laughed. "Okay, Johnny boy. I'll give you that one. I won't even put it on your bill. It's not time for either of you to die yet."
"Good to hear," John told him. "See you around, Jim."
There was a ghost of a laugh before the call was disconnected.
Late that night, the phone beeped with a new text alert.
John clicked to open the attachment and, completely disregarding his stitches or the pain in his side, laughed out loud.
It was a picture of Sherlock and Jim standing together in rare accord in front of three battered-looking muggers tied to a park bench with a sign that said, "Never Hurt John Watson."