She isn’t there when Sherlock falls. John’s never felt so alone.
John first meets Death when he’s 10 years old. He hates visiting this place—all the old people who stare at (or through) him; the sour, dry smell in the air; the way Grandma doesn’t know who they are. It always made Mum cry, which meant that Dad always had a few pints before they came. They’d had a godawful row about it this time, and Mum’s cheek still looked a bit red. John doesn’t say anything about it, though: he knows better.
It’s a relief to be excused after an hour of sitting still and trying not to fidget in the itchy trousers and tight tie Mum had forced on him to make him look respectable. He walks quickly toward the exit, trying not to hear as Mum and Dad talk to (or yell at, in dad’s case) the hospice staff.
“Hey,” John hears, as soon as he gets outside. There’s a girl sitting by the entrance, kicking her heels against the low brick wall and smiling at him. She’s older, and pretty, and John quickly looks down at the ground. Whenever Harry’s friends smiled at him like that, it usually meant that they were going to tease him, or hold him down to practice putting on makeup on him.
“You’re Cora’s grandson, right? John?” She’s still smiling when he risks a glance up, surprised. No one paid attention to him here. “I know a lot of the people here. She talks about you a lot.”
John scuffs his heel against the pavement and doesn’t reply. He doesn’t know how to politely explain Alzheimer’s, or that she must be mistaken. He’s used to adults telling him lies to make him feel good, but not other kids. He shrugs one shoulder, and looks back at the door. No sign of Mum and Dad yet.
“A shy Watson? Didn’t think I’d ever see that,” she laughs. She jumps down off the low wall, and reaches out one hand to take his. “Come on, there’s a great climbing tree on the grounds here. Wanna see it?”
He falls, tearing his trousers and breaking his arm, after climbing on a branch that she’d tried to warn him away from. (Years later, after he’s hazy on the details, her face a blur, he’ll remember her exasperated voice: “Doing stupid things to impress girls might be a Watson trait, but it’s still stupid.”)
His grandmother passes away in her sleep that night.
The next time John sees Death, he’s 15, and woken up in the middle of the night by a frantic phone call from Clara. It’s not the first time, so John doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t wake his parents; instead, he just steals the car keys and sneaks out of the house as quietly as he can.
The party is still going when he arrives, as if nothing is wrong, as if his sister isn’t passed out on a couch in the living room, her breathing too slow and her lips tinged blue. John’s stomach lurches, knotted up in panic, but he tries not to let it show. He’d looked some things up in the library, after the first time it had happened, and he knows he should get Harry on her side and keep her airway clear until the ambulance arrives.
John struggles with Harry’s limp form on the couch, but can’t move her properly. “Help me,” he entreats Clara, but she just looks at him helplessly, eyes huge and terrified and glazed with tears. He wonders how much she’s had to drink. John swears and pushes at Harry, hating the fact that she drinks so much, that she’s still bigger than him, that she does these stupid things and expects him to pull her arse out of it every time.
“Here, I’ve got her,” a familiar voice says. John looks up from Harry as a pale girl kneels next to him. He doesn’t know what about her is so familiar, but doesn’t have time to dwell on it now. Together, they manage to pull Harry over onto her side, and John sets Clara to keep an eye on her while he goes outside to wait for the ambulance.
“You don’t need to be so scared of death,” the girl says, following him outside onto the porch. “It happens to everyone, you know. If you think about it, it’s kind of what makes life worthwhile.”
“My sister,” John replies slowly, his words catching thick in his throat, “is not going to die.”
He jerks in surprise when she puts one arm around his shoulders, but doesn’t pull away. The thick feeling in his throat gets worse, though, and he breathes in hard through his nose, clenching his jaw.
“No, she’s not,” the girl murmurs, leaning in to kiss his temple. “You’re a dear, John, and a hero. You saved her life—hey, if anyone would know, it’s me.”
John pulls away at that, suddenly uneasy, though he isn’t entirely sure why. Her smile (and God, he wishes he could place it, not knowing itches at the back of his mind) doesn’t falter for a moment as she shrugs and tucks her hands in her pockets instead. He squares his shoulders and lifts his chin slightly as though, despite the fact that his eyes feel hot and he’s terrified for Harry, he doesn’t need any reassurance. He clears his throat roughly and drags the sleeve of his jumper over his eyes. “So, who are y—?”
He’s cut off by blaring sirens and flashing lights as the ambulance screams up to the house. In the flickering blue lights, her expression seems to shift between something alien and something so fond that he’s suddenly abruptly reminded of his Mum singing him to sleep when he was a kid. She notices his look and winks at him. “Keep your chin up hero,” she tells him, then jumps down off the edge of the porch as the paramedics come up the steps.
It’s in the news the next day. Two teenagers were dead by the time the ambulance arrived, one from an overdose, and another from drowning in the pool. No one had noticed either body.
There are times during his residency that he thinks he hears her voice, or catches sight of a young, black-haired woman out of the corner of his eye. He isn’t superstitious, and would be hard pressed as a result to explain his actions, but whenever this happens he makes an extra effort to make sure the patient he was with at the time is comfortable and happy. Many of them die within a few days.
It earns him some good-natured teasing and a few unfortunate nicknames—nothing more serious than that, as it’s evident none of the deaths were due to a medical oversight—and John stops being even somewhat afraid of death. It’s easy enough when it’s something that happens to other people.
A bullet can do remarkable things to change one’s perspective.
John had been seeing her again, on the very edge of his vision, or peering down at him from the windows of bombed-out wrecks of buildings. It made him deeply uneasy, but for no reason that he could put into words: a hunch wasn’t enough of an excuse not to go on patrol, not when everyone was already on edge.
The shot feels like a punch to the chest, the impact the only thing he feels at first—breath crushed from his body, lungs straining for air as if he’s drowning or being smothered. He doesn’t remember falling, just the impact, and the heat. The sun beats down on him out of a pale, bloodless sky, the heat crushing him flat, and only then does pain detonate inside his shoulder. He hadn’t know pain had a sound, a deafening, throbbing shriek that drowns out the yells and the orders and the crack of gunfire.
“I think maybe you should have stayed shy, Mister Hero Watson,” a familiar voice says, cutting across the noise in his mind. John blinks hard against tears, sweat, and sand, and when her face swims into focus, he sees her, and knows who—what—she is.
“Please tell me you weren’t doing this to impress a girl back home,” she continues, sitting beside him as though unaware of the chaos around her, and lifting his head into her lap. “I warned you about doing stupid shit for girls, John.”
John tries to shake his head, panic clawing up the back of his throat like bile, and tears clouding his eyes. Not like this. He doesn’t want to die here like this. “Please, God, let me live. Please, please let me live.”
She smiles at him, bright and easy, and brushes a tear from his cheek. The terror fades with her touch, along with the pain. “That’s sweet, but I’m not God John. My brother—also not God, by the way, but whatever works for you—keeps his book pretty closely guarded, but I can tell you this much: I’m not here for you, Mister Hero. Not today.” She strokes his cheek again. “Just figured you could use a friend right now.”
Despite her soothing words, John tries to sit up, a spike of adrenaline making him need to move, to keep back the darkness crowding in at the edge of his vision. He can’t stay still. If he does, he’ll die.
"Relax, John,” Death says firmly, passing her hand over his face and closing his eyes. John feels his body go limp despite himself, his thoughts becoming hazy and disconnected. “My brother—my other brother—will take care of you.”
She visits him sometimes, in the hospital. John’s still half-convinced that she’s a product of the drugs, or a PTSD-induced hallucination, but if Death is apparently to be his constant companion, he’s glad she’s pretty.
He tells her this once, just to make her laugh. “Always the ladykiller, Mister Hero. You really are a Watson.”
There are times when he’s back in London, alone again in his shitty little bedsit, that he thinks about putting his gun in his mouth. It might be worth it, he thinks, if it would mean seeing her again.
But then there’s Sherlock and danger and life lived so close to the edge that it’s like cheating death every day. John has never felt so alive.
Death finds everyone, eventually. Somehow, John had himself half-convinced that that didn’t apply to Sherlock.
“You’ve been coming here a lot,” a voice says from behind him. “Keep it up, and people would start thinking you’re a ghost. Good place for it, though, if you were.”
John can see only his reflection in the gravestone. Even if he didn’t recognize her voice, he’d know who it was. His shoulders tense despite himself, drawing back, and he flexes the fingers of his gun hand. It wouldn’t do any good, but it might make him feel better right now to loose off a few shots in her direction. “You’d be the expert there. Three months, though; that would be a bit belated to come collect me, even for you.”
“Even for me?” She laughs and moves to stand next to him. He tracks her out of the corner of his eye, but doesn’t turn. “I’m never late, sweetheart, not even fashionably.”
John doesn’t respond, just sets his jaw and remains at parade rest as she walks in a slow circle around the tombstone, tracing her fingers lightly over it. He only breaks his silence when she hops up on it, a quickly aborted “Don’t—!” He grits his teeth, thinking he should leave, but wanting an explanation.
Death leans forward, trying to catch his eye, her eyebrows raised inquisitively. “You haven’t been this quiet since you were 10,” she notes, kicking her heels against the polished marble. “Are you mad at me? Standing here isn’t exactly going to bring him back, you know.”
“Where were you?” John finally breaks and asks. He can’t look at her, just stares down at the ground, at the blades of grass crushed down around the grave. Sherlock could have told him who had visited, and when, just by looking at the grass. It makes something harsh and ugly bubble up in his throat, and he fists his hands tightly to hold it back. “Where were you when Sherlock—” he can’t finish.
“Alphabetically, or geographically?”
“He was my best friend!” John yells, looking up at her. “And you weren’t there.”
“Oh John,” Death says quietly, after a moment. He’s grateful when she looks away, politely giving him a chance to recover himself. She slides down off the tombstone and steps closer to take both his hands in hers. “No, I wasn’t there,” she tells him quietly, and squeezes his hands. “What would you deduce from that?”
The last time John sees Death, he’s in the front garden, pruning back the rose bushes and listening to the lazy drone of the bees in their hives. Sherlock has long since nodded off on the verandah, after adamantly insisting that he needed to attend to an important experiment—the kind of experiment that only came up when there was yardwork to be done, of course. Lazy bugger. When he wasn’t dozing, though, he tended to fuss over John exerting himself too much, so he wouldn’t complain about the peace and quiet for now.
John stoops to pull out some stubborn weeds at the base of one bush, and when he straightens, Death is there, leaning over the hedge, her top hat tilted back at a jaunty angle.
“It’s been a long time,” he greets her with a smile, and moves to open the garden gate. They both know she doesn’t need any such invitation but, well, he was raised to be polite.
“I’ve been around,” she replies with a grin, looking around at the garden, at their small cottage. “Followed you quite a bit, even if you didn’t notice. Guess you stopped doing stupid things for girls and started doing them for him instead.”
“His brand of idiocy is catching,” John agrees, looking back at the porch. Death hasn’t aged a day since he last saw her, of course. It makes him suddenly aware of every wrinkle, every aching joint, and every beat of his heart. Ah well, he’s long past vanity. “I’d offer you in for a cuppa, but I’m guessing this isn’t a social call.”
Death smiles at him, fondly, and takes his hand in hers. “How about you introduce me to your detective.”