“I love you,” breathed Molly, almost sobbing.
Toby slowly blinked at her through the oxygen tent, the warm white fur of his belly shifting almost imperceptibly under her hand as his tabby flanks heaved shallow, too-quick breaths.
Molly slow-blinked back at him—a kitty kiss—and the tears finally spilled over, tears that had been threatening all day since she’d woken to find him wobbly-legged and gasping on the floor beside her bed.
He was fourteen years old; his heart had been failing for months. This wasn’t a surprise.
“I’m ready,” she said at last over her shoulder, her voice wavering a little.
She’d never be ready, not really, but she couldn’t keep putting it off. It wasn’t fair to Toby to make him suffer just so she didn’t have to let go, nor was it fair to the blue-uniformed veterinary nurse who’d been busying himself nearby pretending to organise surgical instruments while he waited.
He brought the pre-prepared syringe of pentobarbitone over to the bed.
“It’ll be quite quick,” he said, as he inserted it into the cannula port taped down in the shaved spot on Toby’s foreleg. “You can sit with him for as long as you like, then come back out the front when you’re ready.”
He depressed the plunger, gave Molly’s shoulder a pat, and left.
She and Toby stared at each other for a few seconds.
Cats hated being looked at directly like this, she thought, irrelevantly. To them, eye contact was a dominance behaviour, a sign of aggression or mistrust. She’d always been aware of trying to keep it to sidelong glances with Toby, but right now she couldn’t look away even if the last thing she'd ever wanted was to make him uncomfortable.
Toby’s eyes began to close, and Molly slow-blinked with him again, for the last time. The distorted prism of new tears filled up the gap between her lowered lids so that she couldn’t see him at all.
When she opened her wet lashes again, he was gone.
The receptionist—Claire, her name badge proclaimed—was chewing spearmint gum when Molly presented herself at the counter to pay the bill.
The smell always made Molly feel faintly unwell now, always made her remember Jim and the night they’d spent side by side on her couch watching Glee.
She’d been hoping so desperately that night that he would kiss her, had sidled closer and closer with each new song until she was practically plastered against his side. When he finally turned his head, he looked at her so intensely for half a minute that she thought she might die, before he made his move and kissed her, deep and slow and sharply mint-sweet enough to make her toes curl.
At last, he’d pulled away, fathomless eyes still locked on her for an infinite moment as though deciding something.
Then he’d ducked his chin, shyly thanked her for a lovely evening, gave Toby one last scritch behind the ears, and left.
Thank God, she’d only come to realise much later, after he’d left Sherlock his number and been pronounced gay, after he’d left her waiting at the Fox for an hour and a half until she’d given it up as a miscommunication, after John had apparently shrugged off being strapped to a bomb and nearly killed and was sitting in her office explaining who Jim had really been in words that Sherlock would never have used: kind, compassionate words that only made her feel like more of a fool.
Being used as she had been, as a way to get at Sherlock, made her sick. And yet when she remembered the way Jim had looked at her—looked into her and surely seen that he wouldn’t have heard a ‘no’ that night—she knew it could have been very much worse.
Sherlock hadn’t seen through him either, not really. What chance had Molly had? Even Toby, despite his initial shyness, had been blissfully rolled over and having his belly rubbed by the time she came out of the kitchen with drinks.
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” Claire whispered, and offered her a tissue box to mop up her face, waiting patiently until Molly was finished before apologetically turning the chip and pin machine towards her. She had a kind, sympathetic face; blonde curls held back in a rough ponytail. “It’s only for the injection today.”
When Molly handed back the machine, Claire leaned forward over the desk divider, the spearmint cloud intensifying as she whispered, “I’m really sorry to ask, but… would you mind going around to the back door to collect… Toby? It’s just, well, it can be upsetting for others to see….”
“Oh,” said Molly, glancing back around at all the other oblivious pet-owners in the waiting room, accompanied by their fluttering birds and boisterous dogs and cranky cats.
Molly Hooper was a kind person, and she didn’t feel any urge at all to shout out the truth as loudly as she could.
“No, no, of course I wouldn’t mind,” she said. “That’s fine.”
She held the cloth bag with Toby’s body in it on her knees on the tube on the way home from the veterinary hospital, and placed him carefully beneath the coat rack just inside the front door.
Orange tea: the way Mum used to make it for her when she was sick or upset.
Of course Mum wouldn't have made orange tea for this. Mum had all sorts of opinions on women in their late thirties whose only regular male companion was a cat, not to mention opinions on Molly wasting her life pining away over someone she couldn’t have.
As though she wasn’t a successful pathologist in her own right, earning the kind of money Mum had always thought she should marry into, all on her own. As though romance was the only thing that could complete her as a human being. As though she wasn’t fully aware that Sherlock would never feel the way she—
Molly poured the kettle and walked over to the sink, leaning on her elbows and looking out the windows at the little courtyard garden that had first drawn her to this flat.
She’d need to dig a grave, but she wasn’t feeling up to dealing with that right at this moment. There was probably a reasonable shovel in the shed. Perhaps by the hydrangeas; there was a patch of sun in the mornings there, where Toby had always loved to bask.
But first things first: tea. Molly bowed her head and squeezed her shoulders. Orange tea always helped. She should get on with it, or it would overbrew.
On the bench, her phone rang.
She dealt with the tea instead of answering. She wasn't feeling up to dealing with Sherlock right at this moment either.
And as it turned out, she didn’t get around to burying Toby that day at all.
The next morning, she had work. She hadn’t had much sleep, what with the crying and the ruminating about being a crazy cat lady who’d just lost her major relationship and about how she should really just make peace with the fact that she was destined to die alone and unloved by anyone.
She wanted to just pull the covers back over her head and spend the rest of the day in bed—and wasn’t it awful that she could do that, that Toby wasn’t walking all over her face demanding his breakfast. But she’d used up too many leave days recently babysitting Rosie, babysitting Sherlock, and besides, she was primary author on a paper that needed to be checked and signed off that day if her PhD students were going to get it in on time for the Lab Med and Path conference in Paris. She couldn’t let them down.
The cloth bag by the door as she put on her coat was another reminder—but she had at least another day before he really needed to be in the ground. She could put him in the fridge if it came to it, but that was really probably a last resort. The horror stories she’d heard from John made her wary of starting down the path where using domestic appliances for that kind of thing was okay.
When Molly came home, the sky was already darkening with twilight and it had been a very, very long day.
Her students had been arguing over her changes to the final draft and she’d had to get sharp with them to resolve the matter; there’d been three unexpected deaths in the hospital within twenty-four hours that had everyone in a tizzy to ensure had been natural causes; and she hadn’t managed to even start on the tray of slides the courier had dropped off mid-afternoon, sent to her from The Brompton for a second opinion.
Molly glanced again at the bag as she hung up her coat, before heading into the kitchen to make tea. There was at least an hour before full dark. Time for some liquid fortification before she began digging.
She’d set it to brewing and taken a slice of orange before movement in her peripheral vision caught her eye; there was someone out in the garden, by the hydrangeas.
He’d taken off his coat and scarf, the coat carefully folded on the lawn a few metres away, the scarf a crumpled ball dropped on top of it. The sleeves of his close-fitted shirt were pushed up above his elbows, dark curls clinging to the perspiration on his forehead, his designer shoes muddy from being half-sunk in the pile of dirt he’d already excavated and piled up to the side.
On autopilot, Molly got down a second mug—looked at the picture on it and put it back in the cupboard, then got down a different one—and made another cup of tea.
How had he known?
Well. Obviously. He was Sherlock. He was never going to stop being amazing.
And dear God he was fit.
Every time she thought she might be going to get over him.
Every. Single. Time.
He could be a dear man, really, on the rare occasions when he tried. When he turned his prodigious talents to actually looking inside the hearts of the people around him rather than simply looking at the marks the passage of their day had left on their skin. It wasn’t his fault he so rarely remembered that what lay deeper might be important.
She carried the mugs out in one hand.
“It’s okay,” she said, looking into the small shaft he’d dug between the bushes and holding his tea out towards him. “You don’t have to go down a full six feet, not for a pet. The body’s small enough that the smell won’t penetrate more than a few—”
She cut herself off with a wince and looked at her tea, taking a calming sip. The steam curled in the cooling evening air, and she had to blink a few times to clear her eyes.
“Is it deep enough now, then?” Sherlock asked after a moment of looking into the hole consideringly.
“Uh,” she said, drinking a bit more tea. “Yes. I’ll go and, um. Get him.”
She was glad he was here.
Toby had loved Sherlock, when he’d stayed with her for those few days after the fall, loved him in that way that cats always cuddled up to the least-interested looking person in the room.
Sherlock had professed to mild annoyance at Toby’s harassment, subjected him to lectures and glared at the white and brown hairs the smooching left on his suit. Molly had got used to not reminding Sherlock of the fact that if he wasn't comfortable, he was entirely welcome to shift Toby off his lap rather than simply complaining about it until the cat decided to move on—because if Sherlock was reticent to inconvenience someone it probably actually wasn’t due to an excess of politeness, nor a problem with his memory.
Toby had, in fact, entirely abandoned sleeping on Molly’s bed during Sherlock’s stay. Molly had got used, too, to coming out in the morning to find them asleep together: Sherlock’s long limbs folded to make himself fit on her couch in a way that somehow failed to look awkward, Toby curled up in the small of his back or on his chest like that was where he’d always belonged.
She’d never shown Sherlock the photos she’d taken on her phone, the ones that had kept her going through the worst of the years of lying he’d said was necessary to keep his friends alive, without regard to how much it hurt them.
Sherlock was drinking the last of his tea when Molly returned. She knelt down and opened the bag to slide Toby’s body directly into the bottom of the hole. It would decompose fast without a covering or any kind of embalming, which really was for the best.
He was in full rigor now and barely recognisable for it.
Molly was used to the progression of the stages of death—Pallor mortis, Livor mortis, Algor mortis, Rigor mortis—she was experienced in identifying people from photos taken in death or in life, even after the elements had been at them. It had been difficult at first, but at this point it barely even registered. Once you got used to the changes death wrought, people’s bodies looked like themselves, even after death.
Toby’s stiff body with its cold fur sticking up in all directions and its strange rigid posture didn’t even seem like a cat at all.
She stroked him anyway, settling his fur properly into place as best she could, and then stood back, uselessly folding the bag: once, twice, and three times, then unfolding it and doing it again.
Unceremoniously, Sherlock swept a shower of dirt back into the hole.
He’d reached to do a second shovel-full when she finally asked him the question.
“Did you get what you needed on the phone?”
She was still looking at Toby’s body in the grave; his tabby head and back almost blending in with the mottled brown-black earth, the edges of his white-furred stomach peeking through the scattering of dirt.
The motion of the shovel ground to an abortive halt and then Sherlock drove the blade into the pile of earth, folding his hands over the handle.
“Yes,” he said, and looked straight at her for the first time. “I did. You helped stop a murder, Molly, or at least, I thought that your—”
Molly shook her head, cutting him off. “Don’t tell me why, Sherlock. I don’t need to know. You said it was necessary. I believe you. And.”
She swallowed, but it had to be said, because Sherlock couldn’t be relied upon to intuit these things.
“Well,” she admitted, “I don’t really want you to ruin it. It wasn’t, it really wasn’t the best timing, but I’m not sorry I got to hear it from you, just once. Even if, um, even if you didn’t really mean it. And I’m not sorry that you… you know now, if you honestly hadn’t worked it out before, that I’m still, well. Life’s short, and there’s never enough time to make sure of that with the ones you, um, love.”
Sherlock followed her gaze into the grave and they stood in silence for a little.
After a minute and no particular sign from her, Sherlock went back to shovelling the dirt into the hole until it was full, and then patted it down with the back of the blade.
She realised he was frowning at the disturbed soil as he did so with a disturbingly familiar focus.
“You’re not to come back and dig him up to observe the decomposition process,” said Molly firmly.
“Never even crossed my mind,” Sherlock said, avoiding her eye.
She glared at him for a long moment, and then at the carefully smoothed-down dirt at the base of the hydrangeas.
“Once,” she conceded. “Twice maximum, and don’t let me notice you’ve been.”
Toby could hardly mind anymore, after all, and Sherlock’s interest was hardly ghoulish. Perhaps Toby could help solve a murder in the kitty-afterlife.
“I really do love you, Molly Hooper,” said Sherlock with a wry smile, and bent to place a kiss on her cheek, his lips moist against the tacky, tear-streaked skin.
Molly closed her eyes and tilted her face into it, just breathing.
Then Sherlock was gone, striding over to his pile of outerwear. He lifted the scarf off the top and put it on the grass before shrugging into his jacket and coat, then picked the scarf up again. He didn’t put it on, though, holding it in both hands as he rejoined her.
“John says it’s not the right time,” he said, sounding uncertain, which was unusual. “But….”
He pulled open the twisted knot of soft blue fabric to reveal a black tuxedo kitten in the centre. It unrolled and stretched, disturbed by the movement, yawning and exposing sharp fangs.
“He belonged to a murdered couple,” Sherlock explained. “Obvious case; gardening club rivalry that got out of hand, you only had to look at their herbaceous borders to see it. You’ll probably get the bodies at Barts tomorrow. No other family, few close friends, unlikely anyone will claim the cat. They were going to call a shelter, but I said I knew someone who might want him. I can take him back if you don’t….”
“Give him here,” said Molly sharply, snatching the little thing out of his hands and cuddling it to her breast as it mewled in protest. They’d be sending this dear creature to a shelter over her dead body.
The kitten slowly closed both eyes at her and cracked them open again to watch her. Molly carefully blinked back, looking him over from beneath the cover of her lashes.
She glanced up at Sherlock out of the corner of her eye to find him winding his scarf back around his neck and looking very pleased with himself indeed.
Molly had to wonder how far he'd had to look to find a crime scene with an abandoned cat in London. It was a big city.
“Every. Single. Time,” she told him, non sequitur, her eyes fixed on the kitten. He probably already had a name, but she was going to nickname him 'Sherlock', just to spite him. “I love you too.”