Chapter 1: One
The people that see me, actually see me, are very few in number, but they almost always say I’m female. For some, I’m a young girl, hair be-ribboned, lacy dress, polished black Mary Janes over pristine white stockings. Most others tell me that I appear as a young woman, in my late teens or early twenties, beautiful and strange. To each of them, I look a little different. I suppose it depends on the time and place.
In truth, I’m hardly so corporeal. I exist in an in-between place; I am the crack between this world and the next. I haven’t got a body (not that I’d want one) but I have got a mind. And for all that people think Death is so heartless, I’ve got one of those too. No soul - that’d defeat my purpose, now wouldn’t it?
When the young John Watson saw me the first time, it was as a child. I hate taking children. People don’t know that.
Oh, you think I can’t hear you when you pray? When you rant and rail against Death and all of his (you humans always think I have a gender, and so often it’s male. Why is that?) cruelty and his taking joy in your pain. Not so. Taking children is the worst part of the job, so to speak. Because from where I stand, I can see it all: the past, the present, infinite versions of every future the person under my hands could have had. It’s something like what I think the Boss must feel, every second of every day. It’s funny, but none of us, none of the characters from your childhood stories that you fear so much, can change who we are. I will always be there at the last heartbeat, no matter how I feel about it; He will always be in charge of this whole shindig; an angel’s only choice is which team to play for. We’re all as trapped in our existence as you lot. But enough about me and mine; you want to hear about John Watson. I don’t blame you.
He was playing far too close to the street. You’ve no idea how often they do that, the little ones. I see it very frequently. So fragile, so easily broken, and they are so close to this thoroughfare that carries huge, deadly machines. Children are so very clumsy. It’s the baby fat, I think. If I were a human, I’d never have a child. Too many ways for them to hurt before they die. Too many ways to lose them and all of their potential. The world almost lost John Watson. Sherlock Holmes almost lost John Watson, years before they’d ever met.
He was clumsy, as a child. It’s funny, this future surgeon and soldier, clumsy. But there you are; humans are quite the enigmas when they want to be. He was playing on a slight hill. One moment, he was going to kick the ball; the next, he was rolling down the hill into the street, and a car was just a few metres away, blissfully unaware that there was a child lying in the road, stunned from a blow to the head.
I can never determine why some people see me and some people don’t. It’s one of the things I ponder, in my spare time. I think I’d have figured more of it out, except I don’t really have much spare time. Aside from all the normal dying you people do, you barely end one war before you start the next, and wars by themselves are so much work I need an assistant. Not that I ever get one. This is a one-being job. I think the Boss knows how much pain it gives, and can’t stand to condemn someone else to helping me. But I’ve done it for so long, since the beginning, and I don’t know anything else.
One of the ideas I’ve come up with is that you can see me when I don’t want to take you. When I really, really want you to linger a little longer (or in the case of John Watson, a lot longer). When I feel like what I imagine being ripped apart feels like, a loss of control and a lot of bottled up emotion exploding all at once. An internal atomic bomb. I think that’s when the dying see me. Or maybe it’s when they need comfort, when it takes some coaxing to get them to the other side. John Watson was going to die here, the blow to his head sealed that, but he would need some coaxing. He’d need coaxing several times; only twice, in the six times we met, would he have come willingly enough.
I moved toward him, awaiting the car. Stood over him. Incorporeal, remember? I’ve waited with the dying many times. I can’t even begin to count how many cars have run through me. I was ready to coax him into the next life, strong little boy that he was. I was prepared to wait for as long as it would take. I wouldn’t leave and come back when he was more easily taken - I like to be fair, even if it means having to hurry through the next few hours and catch up on all the souls I’m late for.
A few seconds before the car barreled around the corner, his eyes opened. This was unexpected; I had been so sure he’d die here, and that all the possible futures I could see were just that, possibilities that would never come to be. In that moment, I knew he could see me. I’ve always wanted to ask him which ‘me’ it was he saw; when we finally met, I got my answer. He told me I was the little blonde girl, and that I was very, very polite when I told him to sit up now, if you please, so the driver of the car could see him. I don’t remember saying this, of course. Very often humans project their own subconscious onto me and it saves them. I don’t mind.
He wasn’t in the habit of refusing requests, the young John Watson, so he obliged me. He sat up just as the sedan pealed around the curve in the road and slammed on its breaks, squealing to a stop a few inches from us. John’s mother ran out, and from there I’m sure you can fill in the rest: the tears, the scolding, the hospital visit, the telling of the story, etcetera, etcetera. The one part of the story that would never be told was the part only the quiet blonde boy with the stunning blue eyes knew: that Death had stood with him in what would have been his final moments, and that far from a hooded figure with a scythe, she was a little blonde girl with wonderful manners.
I like to think I made him become a doctor.
The second time Death and John cross paths.
Once again, basketfulls of thanks to my glorious beta, ongreenergrasses. Check her out on Fanfiction.net. :D
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
I met John Watson for the second time when he was 16. I’d love to say that’s young for me, but it would be a lie. I take all sorts. Open admission.
I saw him slumped against a wall, unconscious. I could feel his heartbeat growing weaker; he was losing his grip on life, and fast. I took in the scene that had brought him to this point: a kitchen, clearly they’d just finished a meal; a mother, cowering in the corner. A sister, a little bloodied, standing herself up. A drunk that was clearly Daddy Dearest had just finished beating the ever-loving shit out of the boy. His body had left streaks of blood down the wall. I figured he’d hit his head while taking the beating. Probably protecting his sister - John Watson was that kind of a person. (By which I mean a good one. I don’t like taking those. It makes my day just a little bit worse.)
Mum was sobbing, Harry was making excuses, and Da was bellowing at the top of his alcohol-soaked lungs. (I hate alcohol. Makes so much more work for me.) John Watson had tears on his eyelashes.
I rarely feel proud of my job; I rarely try to feel anything at all, if I can avoid it, so long as we’re being honest. (Sometimes, I even succeed.) In that moment, I was proud that I was the one to take him away from this life. It made me happy to be the one rescuing him, even if, to the people around him, it wouldn’t seem much of a rescue; more of a kidnapping. “Gone before his time”, his headstone would read. He’d be glad to be gone. Coming with me wouldn’t hurt. It would take away the pain, make his body as well as his heart stop hurting. To love someone and hate them at the same time, especially when that someone is your father and you’re a teenage boy, is like dismembering yourself without anaesthesia: painful, difficult, and frankly a stupid thing to try and do. You’re certain to end up hurt.
I was impressed by how long he’d held on; I had been waiting over a minute now for him to let go and relinquish his soul to me, but he hadn’t yet.
I sighed. Well, if I had lungs and could move air, it would have been a sigh. Sometimes your souls have to be touched (I say touch, you wouldn’t understand) to come with me. Some I even have to pick up, carry out of their body. It’s more work, sure, but I like to help people from one world to the next. Makes me feel needed.
I reached out and something rare happened: his soul shrank back from me. It hadn’t needed my touch; just the opposite, actually: it had been clinging to his body with all that it had. That explained a lot.
I must confess, I was happy with this outcome. A soul so determined to stay will not be letting go. Most souls crave my touch, beg for that release, long before they get it. I take them from a world of pain and hurt into something both less and more. I’m quite popular, really, as much as you claim to fear me. It’s the paradox of being human.
This was one soul I was more than willing to walk away from - so that’s what I did. I walked out that door and never looked back. John Watson made me proud that night; he chose to stay when it would have been so easy to leave. He’d make that choice rather a lot in his life. It would be the reason we met the next time.
Some people just never learn.
Thank you all for reading and commenting! Keep 'em coming, it makes my day!
The story is finished, mostly, I'm just polishing it up, so hopefully I'll be updating pretty regularly.
Death and John Watson are almost united a third time.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The third time John Watson had the pleasure of my company was in a medical tent in Afghanistan. He’d been shot in the shoulder, taken a bullet for a wounded soldier he’d been treating. He should have left when the enemy fire got heavy, but of course he refused to leave without his patient. Brave, stupid Captain Watson. In my humble personal opinion, I think our first meeting, back when he was a young child, led him to have a passion for keeping me from all the people he possibly could. But maybe he’d have always been a surgeon, who knows. No, I don’t know - I can just see possible futures from what has already happened, not alternate realities. What do you think I am, some all-knowing dimension-jumping being?
I was starting to grow attached to him; most people only meet me once or twice. This third time around was getting to be a bit much, so I was sure he was going to come along finally. I had questions I wanted to ask, about him and his family. (I get curious, sometimes, about human lives. It helps keep the tedium at bay.) How was Harriet? Did his father ever stop beating them? Was his Mum still alive? I may have been the one to take her, but it doesn’t mean I recognized her. (The answers, if you’re wondering, are: lesbian and alcoholic, yes - he died of liver failure, and yes but with untreatable cancer. No one promised John Watson an easy life.)
Now, I don’t see the world in black and white, nor shades of gray. Nothing so film noir and artistic as that. However, maybe due to my overexposure to it, or maybe just because of some defect in my design, I rarely register the red of blood, that singular color that’s found nowhere else. It’s a mark of how special John is that in all of his ordinariness, his blood struck me like…oh, I don’t know, pick a simile. But it was striking. In all the gore that surrounded us, burdened as I was with so many other lives (but not the one Captain Watson had taken a bullet for), it shouldn’t have even caught my eye, but it did. Almost unreal, too vivid to actually exist. A wellspring of liquid life, pouring out of him at a rate that should’ve guaranteed we’d be having that conversation quite soon now.
But we didn’t.
John Watson had friends in the medical corps, of course he did. But the way they kept him from me that night? The way they stopped his ears to my siren song? I think they had some help from some of my less-than-human counterparts that night, if you ask me. I’ve never had someone in my grasp like that and then had them slip out. I’m good at my job; I try not to give false hope to the ones left behind. That night, they’d given false hope to me. His soul was literally in my fingers, threading between them, and then it had been ripped out of my hands by these surgeons. I was fascinated with this man and I had rather been looking forward to our trip together. Not tonight, apparently. Within a few minutes, and after a few tension-filled silent moments from his heartrate monitor, the man was once again firmly ensconced in the land of the living, and I was again leaving empty-handed.
Not that I minded. Much.
Once again, many thanks to the beta of the year, ongreenergrasses.
(Cross-posted on fanfiction.net)
Time number 4.
(once again, cross posted on fanfiction.net)
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The fourth time I met John Watson, it was in hospital. By now I’d taken to calling him John in my head. After meeting me 3 times and leaving with his soul still decidedly within his body, I decided he deserved that small familiarity. This time was different than all the others though. This time, he had someone at his bedside, someone who was clearly very worried about him. A slow crescendo of realization hit me: this was Sherlock. The Sherlock. The one in so many of the futures where John was happy. Not missing the battlefield with every step he took, not shaky and limping and half the man I knew he could be. In the futures with Sherlock, John was whole. Happy. Hale and hearty and at home. I was glad John had met Sherlock before I came to take him away. Because really, this time he’d have to come. Avoiding me four times? No way. No one is that good. Or that lucky.
His injuries were severe; why else would I be present? A bullet wound to the abdomen; he’d lost consciousness and never regained it. Prognosis grim. Things like that, you generally don’t recover from.
Sherlock was there, though. He was talking to John, tone soft and comforting. What he was saying hardly matters; it was how he was saying it. Like nothing would ever pull his attention from John, ever. From what I knew of the man (and we had met a few times before), this was unlike him. He was stroking John’s hair, and his eyes were shiny, full of water just barely restrained. Every once in a while they’d overflow, and I’d pretend not to see before remembering no one even knew I was there. That’s one of the downsides to being incorporeal - no one pays you any mind.
If I had tears, I’d have shed them, seeing two great men lowered so far. John, my strong, brave soldier boy, fighting for every breath. Sherlock, sociopathic detective, fighting crime to stave off boredom, weeping at his side, every breath a struggle for entirely different reasons.
I didn’t want to take him. I knew I’d need to call him out, to coax him into the afterlife. He was so happy here, with Sherlock. I hated to do it. But a job’s a job, right?
I promised myself I’d give them another minute.
And then another.
And a third.
By the time the fifth rolled around, I was exasperated with myself. This was absurd. I mean, the man was going to die; might as well take him now and save him from his pain. I reached out, taking his soul in my hands, and suddenly his voice sounded, powerful and strong, unmistakably John: “NO.”
Had he just refused me? Had a human just refused to be taken by me? Yes, it happens sometimes, but really…
His heart monitor registered an increased heart rate. Sherlock’s head popped up; he had registered a change.
Oh, fuck it, I thought. If he’s really dying, there’s no hurry. I’ll come back later. Never done with trips to hospitals, you know.
I never did come back for him. Not that time, at least.
as usual, huge amounts of love to the glorious ongreenergrasses.
The last time John and Death meet and he makes it out alive.
The fifth time I met John, he was in hospital. Again. He looked pale and thin. Where he had been healthy, fit, now he looked half-starved. I’d even say sickly. Never in his whole life had I seen him this way. Not one single time, in all the pain he’d been through, had it resulted in hurt on a scale this massive. I picked up his chart; just because I can see all of a person’s time on Earth doesn’t mean I like to - it leaves me drained. And Heaven knows you humans don’t give me any time to rest. I don’t suppose you could all stop killing each other for a day or two? No? I figured as much.
Drug overdose. Probably self-administered. Suicide, the space between the lines screamed at me.
Now, at this point, I liked to think I knew John. Dying acquaints you with people in a way no one else can know them. So I was curious. Why drugs? John Watson was a man who’d shoot himself if it was that bad; more guarantee of success. I’d watched him contemplate it before, seen the gun in his hand, wondered if he’d pull the trigger this time or the next time. You see, you guys have free will; the Boss is the only one that actually knows when it’s going to happen. All I get is the possibilities, the seeing what happens if this time, you don’t. I’m not all-knowing. That’s why the drugs surprised me. Why would he choose such a quiet, boring way to go? If anything, I figured he’d jump. Parallelism or something like that.
You remember those brilliant blue eyes of the child that didn’t get hit by a car? They had paled, mellowed out, to a grey color, like a stone at the bottom of a stream. The color had washed away. If I was prone to flights of fancy, I’d say he’d cried the blue out of his eyes.
I always figured he’d get killed by someone angling to hurt Sherlock. Their destinies were intertwined now, even I could see that. Ha, destiny. You can’t even understand the concept. The vague idea you have? Nothing like it. I’d try and explain, but no human language has the words I’d need. Just take my word for it.
Why would he overdose? I knew he’d been trying to kill himself, even if no one else did. I’d seen his friend jump off the roof; St. Bart’s is a hospital, after all, not just Sherlock Holmes’ and John Watson’s playground, and occasionally people die in hospitals. Someone had died that day. I watched Sherlock leap off the roof, and knowing he couldn’t have survived, I hurried over to collect him. I was there when John got there; I saw his face. Saw him go limp and empty.
Let me tell you something: I see a lot of pain. But that was some of the worst I’ve ever had to watch. The funny thing is, when I made it to Sherlock, it took me a moment to realize there was no soul that needed taking. (I was having an off day, alright? There’s a lot of souls at hospitals. Sometimes they pull you all different directions, it’s hard to tell who’s alive and who’s dead.)
Sherlock was alive, and John didn’t know it. That hit me like a bullet to the center of my being (trust me, I know what that feels like), and I knew there was a good chance I’d see John before he saw Sherlock again. Sometimes I just know these things, and the worst part is there’s nothing I can do about them. I can’t talk to you, not only because it’s a breach of ethics but because it’s not possible. You can see me, sometimes, but I never speak. I can’t. Funny that speaking so the mind and body can hear is a breach of ethics, but speaking to the soul isn’t.
I suppose you’re still wondering why I’m here; well, no matter how John did it or why he did it that way, he had tried to kill himself. In 14 seconds or so, he was going to succeed. So I got there a little early; fire me.
When I felt the pull of his soul leaving his body, I couldn’t stop myself. I did something I’ve never, not once in the history of Death, done. Not ever.
I pushed his soul back in.
I whispered to it: “It will be better soon. He’ll come back. Just wait for him.”
I held it there, inside his body, until it took root again. Until it promised me it would hold on. Souls listen to me; a perk of the job, I guess.
Honestly, I’m not sure whether I’m even allowed to do that. But I did it before I’d even thought about the consequences, and afterwards, I figured I was just a cog in the grand scheme of the Boss, and he had probably planned for me, me of all people, to convince John to stay around a little longer.
Really, I hate being manipulated.
It's the last time Death sees John. It's the second time John sees Death. In the end, they finally leave together.
A million thanks, kudos, awards, and hugs to my beta who did everything a beta should and more, from saving me from being a punctuation Nazi because she was one to listening to my emotional rants at all hours to reminding me that I am, in fact, in possession of some modicum of writing ability. Ongreenergrasses, a brilliant writer in her own right, but the only person I will ever want to beta my work. She seriously amazes me with her patience.
Enough fawning, I know. On with the show!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The last time John encountered me, and the first time he actually met me, I’d been following their trail for some time. Or rather, they’d been following mine. Serial killer. Nearly a decade had passed since I’d seen him last, forced him to wait just a little longer for Sherlock. (If you’re wondering, Sherlock returned two weeks later.)
I had almost come to believe in John’s invincibility; after all, five meetings with me? Five separate moments on the edge of the abyss and coming back, intact, from each? That’s incredible. Miraculous, even.
In the end, it was his heart that did him in, not his body.
Funny thing is, this time I was here for Sherlock. John wasn’t even a blip on my radar.
They’d gotten themselves into trouble. Tagged along a little too close to the killer, been caught. A little torture, nothing major, but it weakened them both. Brought them down to the level of ordinary mortals. (I was there; a third victim hadn’t been as lucky as they were.) Then, they were locked in the trunk of a car. The car was driven into the Thames. So cliché.
I had already come for Sherlock while they were still in the trunk of the car. It was cold, dark, my favorite sort of a place. Close quarters, if you’ve got a body, but I’m not nearly so hindered.
“I remember you.” John’s voice was loud, almost like it was inside my head. Maybe because it was. “I know what you feel like. Look - ” here his voice faltered a little. “Look, don’t take him. Not without me. We’ve got to be together. I can’t - I can’t live without him, not again.”
This was it, then; this was how John Watson died. Because, while I can sway the vote either way, I can’t actually give back the dead, once they’re well and truly dead. I can, however, take the still-living, the ones who are clinging to life, should they choose to sever the attachment and their body be so disposed. Sherlock was well and truly dead; his gag had been just that much too tight, his lung capacity not quite enough. John had been able to take one last gasping breath before the car sank into the water. With the CPR he was being given, he’d make it, but only if he wanted to, only if I refused him this request. Sherlock, no matter how long the young EMT pounded into his chest, didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. DI Lestrade had only arrived in time to save one of them.
I’d seen John without Sherlock; I’d seen him vulnerable, beaten, abused, shot. I’d seen him try to take his own life out of abject misery because he didn’t have Sherlock. I couldn’t condemn him to a life that painful. But was it fair to take him, knowing he could live?
I never had this sort of moral quandary before I met John.
I didn’t have a lot of time to decide. If I waited too long and they revived John, he would be too attached to this world; he wouldn’t be able to let go, even if he could remember his request to me. If he couldn’t remember his request to me, he’d still never see Sherlock again, not alive. I knew what kind of life that would bring him, the daily agony of existence, knowing Sherlock Holmes was really dead this time, and he was left behind. Again.
I’m a bringer of mercy. I am morphine times a thousand. I take away more pain than you’ve ever imagined. That’s what did it, in the end. I couldn’t leave him in that pain, knowing I could stop it. It’s my job to stop it. So I did my job.
Sherlock had been with me for several minutes now. I wasn’t carrying him, he could stand “quite well on my own, thank you”. I walked over to John, gesturing for Sherlock to stay where he was. This was something everyone did alone, just me and that person. It’s how I get to know you so well. It’s why I know John so well.
I leaned down near his ear and whispered, coaxing his soul away. I knew it would take a while. It always does. John took a shorter time than most, even with all of the hurdles we had to clear. Sometimes, his soul would panic and blindly catch hold of whatever was closest, frightened of leaving. It was a primal fear, nothing John could fight in the least, and I talked him through it. Everyone encounters it at some point, so I was ready. (I never said this process was easy. Just that it could be done.) I kept talking to him, reminded him of his request, reminded him that he could go back if he wanted. I told him a lot of things, some I probably shouldn’t have. I told him anyway.
In the end, it was very easy. Like pulling a loose thread from a seam; like a sigh when you’re drifting off to sleep. One moment, John remained in the world of the living, like so many other times, and the next, he was face to face with me.
“You look different,” was the first thing he said to me.
“Yeah, well, forty-something years can do that to you.” I chuckled wryly. I hadn’t changed a bit - John had.
“Thank you. For everything.”
I took his hand and led him over to where Sherlock was standing. I took Sherlock’s hand. This was one journey we’d make, just the three of us.
Um... thank you so much for reading. I never thought it would get this kind of a response. Truly, you're all phenomenal. Like, seriously, from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much.
This fic took a bit over three months, from my first idea to now, but it's been a lovely trip. I hope this last chapter has lived up to your expectations, and if it hasn't, be sure to let me know. I'm open to playing in this 'verse a bit more. Maybe even keep an eye out for a parallel Sherlock or Moriarty piece. No promises, but the possibility is there. ;)