“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”
― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
Sirens and screams carry through the burning night. Wind and smoke and dust strike her face, sticking to the blood at her hairline and the wet tracks of her tears. She holds a hand up to shield her eyes. The air is cold and hot at once, and as Molly Hooper watches, the only helicopter left in London descends to the tarmac at Battersea Heliport. It is the last way out.
“Mycroft!” Sherlock cries in frustration. “You said four!”
The wind from the rotor blades slow a hair. Mycroft Holmes wears a wrinkled suit, his umbrella nowhere in sight. He is disheveled. Rushed. Fearful. A coffee stain blooms on his left lapel. She can’t stop staring at it. Somehow, more than the rubble of Westminster, more than the shattered dome of St. Paul’s and the fires licking across the city, it is the incongruous sight of that small coffee stain that cements Molly’s terrible understanding of what is happening. The world as she knows it has irrevocably changed.
“Two is the best I can do,” Mycroft shouts over the rotors. “There are limits to my influence, especially now.” He shakes his head. “I am sorry,” he says. And for once in her life, Molly does not doubt he means it. “But you can only take one.”
“John,” Mary Watson says, turning to her husband. “John, go. Go. Take her, please.”
“The hell with that,” John argues. “We’re staying together.”
Molly looks to Sherlock. She sees the resignation in his eyes before he closes them, hangs his head a moment. She knows he’s already made his impossible choice. A resonant pang of guilt strikes her, clear and true. “It’s okay. I know,” she soothes, touching his arm. “You promised them,” she says. It doesn’t matter how far he came to find her tonight, that he saved her life during the horrible mele in Moorgate after the Tube flooded and the BBC stopped broadcasting. He has a promise to honor, and it is not to her. Still. End of the world and all. Time she faced up to a few things.
She kisses his cheek, then the other. “I love you, you know. Always have.” She grips the lapels of his coat, pleading. “Please, please be safe.”
For a long moment he stares at her, unblinking. She doesn’t know if he’s heard her. Doesn’t know if he even sees her standing here, pouring her heart’s last bit of truth out even as hope drained away. “Molly Hooper,” he says finally.
Some great incendiary goes up over Embankment, casting a fiery glow across his features. He looks old and fierce, eyes shining with determination. “I’m not going anywhere.”
She starts. “What?”
Sherlock calls back over his shoulder. “Time to go, Mycroft.” His eyes never move from Molly’s, his voice meant for her only. “I’ve left you before. Won’t be doing that again.”
Behind them, John begs to his wife. “You have a chance,” he barks, trying to push one-year-old Isabelle into Mary’s arms. “For me, if you love me–”
“John, I swear to God, if you try to manipulate me into saving my own skin–”
“Mary, for once in your life just listen to me–”
“Oh God, enough.” Sherlock rolls his eyes. “You’re both going.”
Three heads whip around. “What?”
Only Molly is not shocked by the announcement. She’s still stuck on the previous one.
“Sherlock–” Mary breathes, unable to find words.
“That helicopter will get you out of London, out of England. Somewhere safe. Room enough for two adults and a small child.” He touches his friend's arm. “I made a promise. One I intend to honor,” he says to John.
Mycroft protests, looking at him askance. His expression is one of utter disbelief. “Sherlock, you cannot do this.”
“Mycroft,” Sherlock says with utter calm. “I can. I have.”
“Mate,” John pleads.
“It’s all right, John. Really. It is. After all, I won’t be alone.” He looks to her, and somehow it is the most incredible turn of events in these last incredible, nightmare days. “Molly will keep me out of trouble.”
She finds small words. “When have I ever managed that?”
His mouth ticks up the smallest of grins. “Point. She’ll keeping trying, at any rate.”
John swallows thickly. “What will you do?”
Sherlock shrugs, considering. “Get out of London. Find somewhere far enough outside all this. We might be safe at my parents, for a time.” The corner of his mouth raises a tick. “Always figured I’d retire to the countryside someday.”
“You perfect idiot. You reckless, insane, just–ridiculous fool,” Mary cries. Tears stream down her face in the smoke-blasted air.
“We’ll come back. Somehow. We’ll find you. I swear it.” John’s voice breaks. “Take care of him, Molly.”
She kisses his cheek. Isabelle’s. Her tears mingle with Mary’s. “I will. Always.”
“You be good,” John commands. It comes out weakly. His face is that of a man fully aware that this might be the last time he sets eyes on his best friend. His voice is hoarse, aching, and Molly aches for him. She aches for John and Mary for knowing they have no choice but to go, and she aches for Sherlock for knowing he cannot. She’s scrubbed raw from grief, hollowed by fear and uncertainty. John points a finger at them. His jaw ticks. His mouth twitches. “You be good to each other,” he says in a stricken rush.
Mycroft is shocked. He opens his mouth to argue, but Sherlock turns his chin, holds his head high. They hold one another’s gaze for long seconds before Mycroft nods his assent. He knows the depth of his precious little brother’s stubbornness. They grip one another's shoulder, the pain and love and fear a shining mirror in each of their faces. “I will find you. As soon as I am able,” Mycroft says to the pair of them.
Sherlock nods. “You know where to begin.”
They stutter back away from the cloud of sand and debris kicked up, shielding their faces. Her hair tangles in the dirt and rushing air. She feels Sherlock reach for her, threading his fingers through hers, not quite the comfort it should be, and still, somehow, enough. The rotors rises above the tarmac, vanishing into the bright-dark night. They watch the point in the night sky where the helicopter vanishes until long after it has gone out of sight.
“Well, Molly Hooper.”
Beyond the empty, broken frame of Parliament, black smoke rises in thick plumes. A hole in the night stands over the ruin of St. Paul’s; the Shard broken, now many. A siren blares. The ground shakes. Car horns scream. An orange-pink glow hangs on the horizon in every direction.
Sherlock squeezes her hand. “I believe it is you and me against the world.”
Above a river of flames, they watch as London burns.
Thirteen years later
A voice barrels down the hall.
“Can’t believe it. You said it, though. You always did. You said it, and hell! True enough you was right.”
“Plain as day, it was. Just waiting. Just like you told us.”
“Major, what exactly did I say?”
“That we wouldn’t know what we was lookin’ for till it stared us dead in the face,” the Major says breathlessly. He thrusts out the folder in his hands. The thin reuse paper crinkles as he thumbs the pages, scanning image after image. “What am I looking at, exactly?”
“Here, sir. Sec. F8, sir. Bottom third.”
He stops in his place, staring at a property along the edge of a wide field and salt pond, connecting through shallow marshes to coastal tributaries. Southeast Scotland, the image caption reveals. Further north than they’d ever looked. Further north than they’d ever tried, even after the first satellite images they’d gotten made it clear that their starting point had long since been leveled, surrounded by mile after mile of the empty, water-logged tidal flat that had become nearly the whole of East England. Concrete and steel and ash, slowly reclaimed more each year by a steadily rising sea.
Everywhere since they’d come up empty. Until now.
John H. Watson draws a sharp breath.
“Jesus Christ.” His hands shake, nearly dropping the file, the papers, the precious message, hidden in plain sight.
On the edge of a field, a small house sits at the end of a long dirt track. A stone wall lines a green plotted space that might be garden. A shed; a stream; a grove of trees. The barn is an upright structure at the edge of the trees, not far off from the house.
“You loon. You brilliant, bloody loon.”
Upon the roof, written in large, pink letters stood a single phrase: 221B.
Molly Hooper is dreaming.
In her dream, her father takes her hand in his. They watch as a ferris wheel turns against a pink and white sky, the spinning edges of its great mechanical frame awash in bright and colorful lights. Music drifts on the warm wind—the tunes of a boardwalk busker strolling along the pier. The sound of his voice carries on the hot salt air. In her dream, Molly Hooper knows it is the end of a day at the beach, and experiences it with an unremarkable sense of pleasure. Another childhood outing, wholly simple, forgettable, even, in it’s splendor. Her sunkissed skin is slightly burned after an afternoon in the sun. A spray of freckles dot her nose. She is weary and happy from hours spent splashing in the surf and sand. Her hair catches in the whippy breeze. Ice cream melts off her cone. She licks at it idly, tasting the ripened joy of her holiday lark with the careless pleasure of a child who is accustomed to delight. To holidays. To ice cream. Another day, another summer, another treat. She exists only in the present, unable to know how much she will come to regret the things she took for granted throughout her life. How much she was able to expect from the world, once.
In dreams, though, Molly Hooper has no worries. She has no fears. She knows no sickness, harbors no secrets, suffers no grief. Her father looks down at her, his face warmed by the light of a long-extinguished golden hour. He squeezes her hand, and Molly smiles. She only loves and is loved inside a perfect, shining moment that feels like it could stretch out forever.
Gray dawn trickles through pale curtains. The humid press of that long-ago summer gives way to the lumpen weight of blankets failing, in places, to keep out a chill all too quick to find the shortest path to bare feet and exposed skin. Pulling on the socks she’s discarded in the night, she frowns at the bolt of cold air slipping under the bedclothes, thinking of her garden. She slides her hand across the worn sheets beside her. Still warm. She rises to her feet, dons a tatty tartan housecoat and shivers down creaky wooden stairs to the kitchen.
The dream leaves her with an odd sense of guilt: a clingy, claustrophobic feeling that lingers in the corners of her mind. Irrational—she knows this and does not need the dismissive voice of one of her more familiar lesser angels to remind her of how pointless an emotion it is. But the feeling won’t be deterred. It’s sharp thing. An old, malignant remorse that has grown with the years. A longing for a hundred things gone: Carnivals. Ice cream. Holidays. Childhood. Small joys she won’t experience again. Pleasures she cannot share.
Maxwell arches his back and scratches a paw at the door, she lets him out and he streaks across the field to chase birds through the orchard and dank salt marsh. Yawning, she stretches while waiting for hot water to boil. She tries not to dwell on how much longer it takes each week to heat a six-cup-worth kettle. They’ve enough problems without the solar panels failing again. She turns the radio to BBC Scotland, not in the mood for the grim foreign reports Al Jazeera will dispel, nor the flowery propaganda spewing from Radio UN. Or would, if either of them were coming in today. The program is a rerun about epidemic awareness. A deadly dull announcer drones through a list of visible symptoms of radiation poisoning, warns about modes of contracting birdflu, and cites the months old rumors of Ebola in Spain. If the broadcasting outfit were closer she could write up a similar program. Something useful. How to splint a broken arm, maybe. How to clean a wound. Spot signs of infection.
The kettle’s wail shatters the quiet. Slow moving footsteps creak on the floorboards above. Molly worries her knuckles against her hip. Cold mornings invoke phantom aches and pains, the echoes of old injuries and pelvic fractures that never quite healed. Wincing, she reaches for a mug on the highest shelf, finding it just out of reach.
“Morning,” comes a low voice with sleep caught on its edges. Her son’s long limbs make short work of the distance. “Should get you a stepladder in here.”
“I dunno, I think having you around works out just fine,” she answers. “Tea or coffee?”
Mike gives her a terribly preteen look of revulsion. “Tea, please. Do not call that instant brown dreck coffee. Don’t deserve the honor.” At twelve, he is old enough to remember the early years when things like coffee beans still made it to their corner of the shrinking world.
She tosses him a teasing smirk of faux apology. “Beg your pardon. Didn't mean to offend your sensitive palate.”
He glances out the window. “Water is freezing again. Want me to check the gennie?”
She pauses. Shit. “Nah, don’t worry,” Molly recovers. She offers a bright smile, shrugging. He gives her a blank look, not buying the charade a bit, but doesn’t push it. He worries too much; it worries her. He is far, far too young, and only too ready to take on burdens that should never have been his. Should never have been anyone’s.
“Just a bit of frayed wiring, I’ll bet. Better let Sherlock take a look at it,” Molly says. Too often she despairs over how keen her son is to grow up. He brushes a lock of black hair out of his face rolling his eyes, and never looks more like his father than when he does. Trouble is, she loves him all the more for it, too.
“I think the idea is to get it working again today,” he grouses. “Not pull it apart to go through another excruciating engineering module. ”
She slathers jam on a bit of crumbly bread and slides a plate in front of him. “He likes giving you a bit of practical experience.”
“Oh, I know how he does. Chickens?” Mike asks, stuffing his mouth full.
She reaches for the tin of feed. “I’ll do it. It’s bitey. Get your brother and the girls some breakfast, eh?” She wants to check the garden. The cold snap won’t have been good for the vegetables.
He shoves the last of his bread in his mouth, takes the battered tin of feed from her and shrugs into an old coat. “You cook better’n I do. Stay warm,” he says around his mouth of breakfast. Molly wraps a scarf around his neck. Her fingers linger on the drab green threads, snagged here, torn there. It’s a rag. It’s nothing like the £90 cashmere bits of kit his father used to forget around London, chasing after criminals for the thrill of it.
A thread comes loose in her hand.
Nothing is like it used to be.
Cold gusts in as Mike slips out the back door. She tracks him across the garden, watching him push the fringe out of his eyes again. He’ll need a haircut. They all could stand one, really. A day at the salon she’ll call it, and warm some water from the well. The last quarter-bottle of pink nailpolish she owns is in a jewelry box below her bed. The girls will go out of their minds. It’ll help keep their (her) mind off the cold, and the unsettling start to the day.
From the opposite end of the house, front door shoves open. Sherlock slips in, tosses his coat and scarf across a chair with all the dramatic flair he once did in her labs, her living room, his Baker Street flat. She smiles.
He swipes a dab of jam with his thumb and leans against the counter at her side. She presses her forehead into the cool, scented fabric of his flannel shirt.
“You’ve been smoking,” she observes, quirking an eyebrow.
“A pipe last night. Hardly three-packs-a-day.”
She hates to admit it, but she loves the smell of tobacco on him. The memories it evokes are powerful. Treasures. She holds them close.
“No news this morning,” she observes, tipping her chin at the radio.
“No,” he answers voice low. He glances at the living room and stairs to make sure they are unheard. “But I caught Lachlan Teague heading in to the co-op. More girls missing from St. Andrews. Said the ISPA has been moving units north. And a boat ran aground last night, too.”
His jaw ticks. “South.” He does not elaborate, so England. What’s left of it. She presses her cheek to his shoulder again.
“The girls. That’s a dozen now. Are you going to help?” she asks.
He shakes his head. “Too far. Take too much time.”
She pulls back, eyes searching. Ready to give him this freedom to chase a mystery if he needs it. He’s already given up so much. “We’ll be fine for a few days.”
“Probably, but the margin of error is more than I’m willing to risk.”
“So cynical,” she teases, corner of her mouth rising. “The world won’t end.”
“Ever the optimist, Molly Hooper,” he says, brushing a lock of hair behind her ear.
“Someone has to be,” she replies.
He presses his forehead to hers. What she wouldn’t do to stay in this moment, forever, barricade it off against the closing dark.
“Easier to manage when a consulting detective is on the case,” she hums.
Sherlock runs a hand down the length of her hair. “Pity they don’t exist anymore.”
“Sure they do.” She kisses the corner of his mouth. “I believe in Sherlock Holmes.”
He holds her to him, resting his cheek on her head. Outside, Mike scatters feed to the chickens, riling them up out of the coop so he can collect eggs in a plastic bowl. If he had been born in another time, his mornings would be spent taking the Tube to one of London’s best schools. Afternoons he'd be doing homework in her office at Barts or play music in the living room at Baker Street. He would never have to worry about power or cold or chickens. None of them would.
Sherlock’s hold tightens, knowing the train of her thoughts. “He may take a case again someday, but for now I’ve more important considerations.”
A herd of footsteps descend the rattling stairs.
“Such as why I am the only one dressed and ready to run cultures,” he announces loudly.
“Christ! It’s freezing!” Jonathan grumbles. He pads to the table with Lily on his back.
“Newton jumped on my face,” Lily announces irritably, letting go of her brother’s neck as she plonks down on the sturdy table top.
“One of the dangers of letting a semi-feral cat sleep in your bedroom,” Sherlock points out.
“Feral. Please.” Jonathan snatches two bowls from the cupboard, fills each with oatmeal for his little sisters. Molly watches as he adds hot water from the kettle and a dash of honey and jam to each bowl. The gesture twists her heart. Small kindnesses may well be the only ones left.
“Silly Lily’s fat furball couldn’t fend for himself if his life depended on it,” he teases. Thank you, she mouths to him as he sets the bowls down for the girls. He shrugs, bashful, and she kisses his shoulder quickly as he fixes himself something to eat.
Sherlock moves closer, dutifully inspecting Lily’s hair with that inquiring eye. “Perhaps Newton saw a mouse in your hair.”
“There’s no mice in my hair!" she cries, indignant.
Molly has a sudden memory of her own fat cat, long ago left behind in London. She dares not wonder what became of him.
“Mmm. Wait, stay very still. I believe I’ve spotted one.” Sherlock’s long fingers skirt around Lily’s shoulders, tickling the skin around her collarbone. She giggles, deep belly laughs, and twists away from Sherlock’s teasing. Molly snorts indelicately, shaking her head.
Lily’s more reserved reflection watches, yawning. She presses against her father’s long legs. He scoops her up and carries her across the kitchen to Molly. He stirs a cup of not-coffee with one hand.
“Good morning, my quiet Violet,” Molly says, running her fingers through her daughter's hair.
“Morning. Mintea?” Violet slurs sleepily, her head on Sherlock’s shoulder. She coughs. Molly grimaces at the harsh rattling sound that worries her more with every month it persists.
Molly kisses her forehead. “Yes, we still have some mint tea.”
Jonathan and Lily bicker about the cat. Mike rushes in, slamming the door. Bits of chicken feed caught in his scarf and coat scatter to the floor. Sir Isaac stalks between the table legs and nips at the errant bits of breakfast. As she pours her children tea, Molly catches a glimpse of herself in the window. The ghost of a smile plays at her mouth. A presence that seems real enough in the flesh, if not exactly living.