His uncle with the gaunt face and the yellowed fingernails, beckoning him under the rowan tree.
Years later, when John asked, his mother would look at him blankly and say, "I don't have a brother. Are you sure you're feeling all right, dear?" He would then have to dodge her hand as it came out to feel his forehead for fever, for signs of delirium.
But he remembers: his uncle's slanted smile underneath that tree, and leaning in close, his whisper like the crackling of burning paper: "Happy birthday, John my boy. Three gifts. Three times. Three moments you'll be able to stop death."
"I'd rather have a new bike," John said honestly.
The first death comes with the swing of a knife. A desperate burglar, a broken window, and Harry slumped over in the middle of the kitchen. All she'd wanted was a glass of warm milk, and John is thirteen. He's not ready to see his sister die on egg-white tiles, and so as the burglar is fleeing the house and John can hear the sirens wailing in the distance, and the stuttered gunshot rhythm of his mother's fear — he closes his eyes. His hands shake. He can't stop trembling. Harry is watching him with eyes that look like planets, like self-contained universes.
John stops death.
He feels death pass by like the rush of a train, a cold gust that blows through the house and into the ruined kitchen. Not here, he thinks, and it listens. In its passing, it slams into his bones, a knife twisting through his gut, and breathing becomes difficult until suddenly it's not. The breath lifts from his lungs like a cake rising in an oven, and he can see clearly again.
He holds out a hand, and Harry grabs it. He helps her up.
The second time John wants to stop death, he misses it by a few minutes. The phone is ringing. The police are calling. Your parents, they say, and he thinks of what the wreckage must look like, the twisted landscape of metal and rubber, and his parents' bodies.
"Are they alive?" he asks. "What's their condition?" He can feel that ice-water plunge once more as his fingers flex. He's thinking, he's thinking fast, and then his thought processes stutter to a halt when the policeman says the next four words.
He says, killed at the scene.
John could have saved them. If he'd known about it sooner, if they'd called him earlier. A fast death is merciful, but a slow one could have bought them time — could have let John stave away what was coming in the rain.
John thinks, with grief twisting in his throat, Next time I'll be faster.
He's in Afghanistan and his leg is burning. Pain is a road that travels through his body, littered with bumps and holes like the roads between Kabul and the desert warlords, and oh god it hurts. He crawls away to shelter, leaning himself up against a piece of a fallen sign. There's a woman on it, a western woman advertising Coca-Cola, and her lips are smeared with his blood when he probes his fingers into his wound, trying to assess the damage. It's not good. The rest of his troop is dead. The other doctors are dead.
It's hit an artery and he's losing blood quickly. His eyes itch beneath the weight of his dust-streaked eyelids. John thinks, No. The heat is dissipated and in its place he can feel the familiar coldness of worlds shifting, of his uncle's sharp-toothed smile.
You're not going to get me, you bastards, he thinks, and so there goes his second gift, and death turns away at John Watson's door.
The third time John stops death, it doesn't work.
Sherlock is falling, falling, falling from the roof of St. Bart's, and John is reaching out with his fingers, thinking on his feet — he knows what to do, he knows what can be done, and he doesn't care if this is his last gift, third and no more, because this is Sherlock Holmes and John will do anything to save him.
He's not yours, he's not yours, he's not yours, John shouts. Three times, always three, and maybe he's grown arrogant, because when Sherlock hits the ground, he doesn't recognize what's happened at first. He thinks it's a trick of his mind, the sun and the clouds playing games with him.
His lips are dry and thirsty. He can't clear his head.
Sherlock's body is right in front of him and all John can think about is the shade underneath a rowan tree and the crook of a finger, beckoning him closer. Happy birthday, he remembers with a dizzying vinegar laugh. He's been preparing for this all his life, him and his deck of marvels. He stops ordinary death as a doctor, and when that doesn't work he's got his trump cards. He's learned to be fast enough, quick enough, smart enough to know when to use them. Harry didn't die, John didn't die, but apparently there's a limit to miracles because Sherlock is dead and John can feel the warmth of his own useless pulse beating vicious tirades against his wrists.
It's not supposed to go like this, he thinks.
The third time John Watson stops death, a cat gets up from underneath the wheels of a Honda and streaks away. It's raining, and John is walking on the pavement with bags of groceries. The Honda driver is shouting. The cat twists by his ankles when she cuts by him, and John can smell that clean sweet scent of death as it travels onwards. In the middle of the rain, with his hair pressed to his temples, and John stares at the cat like he's been bludgeoned.
Four times? he wonders.
But there was never a fourth gift. Was never supposed to be a fourth gift.
"Third time and for a bloody cat," he mutters to himself. When he returns to Baker Street and searches his coat pockets for keys, he notices that his hands are shaking.
There's an email in his inbox from Molly.
John, she says, I have something to tell you.