There's a potted orchid on the vanity. Its blossoming stalk, a fragile drift of rich purple, strays from its slender bamboo stake and hangs over the sink as though to get a better look at itself in the mirror. Molly has a shade of eye shadow that would match it precisely, but she'd never wear it in public.
She doesn't go out very often, anyway. Maybe that's why she's been sitting here for almost forty minutes, elbows propped on the thick marble slab of the counter, her phone lying at her side on the soft, upholstered bench. She's wearing the hotel's robe. She still hasn't really grown used to staying at hotels with robes, and the way the thick white cloth shapes her shoulders and drapes across the back of her neck makes her feel like she's getting ready to go somewhere really glamorous, maybe the Blue Bar just downstairs.
It's early, though, and in any case she's just eaten. The tray's out on the writing table, heavy silver utensils crossed neatly over the plate that was too elegant for the fish sandwich she ordered and devoured within ten minutes of getting. Maybe she should have had something more delicate, something more expensive, but this is the first time she's been in London – in England – in almost two years, and she wanted to feel at home. She never feels at home anymore. She was nervous coming into the airport, clutching her passport (sorry, Jennifer Holden's passport) in its pink leather case and meeting the car from the hotel, smiling at the man who held the door for her as she slid inside, all the while both hoping and dreading that someone would recognize her.
But no one did. No one did a double-take and said, hey, you're Molly Hooper, or haven't I seen your face on the news or you're that girl who went missing last March. There was plenty of other news that week, of course – gas leaks, a disgraced art gallery – but Molly knows the real reason no one sees her is because Jim doesn't want them to. He's very good, she's discovered, at making things happen, or not happen. The night he came to her flat all dressed up and told her to pack a bag and come with him, the night she cried in the car when he started using that new voice and telling her things that couldn't be true, the last night she spent in London – as far as everyone else is concerned, that night never happened. She simply went away.
Now she's been so many places and seen so many things that finding anything left of herself here would feel strange. She's learned a lot, too – she knows all kinds of things about food and airports and hotels, how to pronounce the names of about fifty different wines without sounding stupid, how to tell if you're being served something in the wrong glass, how to send it back without sounding like you're apologizing (because why should you apologize?), where the lounges are in Charles de Gaulle, Sheremetyevo, Kennedy, Tan Son Nhat, Abu Dhabi International. She knows how much to tip the maid when you check out of a room, and she still feels bad every time she does it because of all the times she didn't do it before she found out. She knows lots of other things, too, things that mean Jim will have to kill her if she ever tries to run away.
Most of all, she's discovered things about herself she's not sure she ever wanted to know. She's learned that she can still find him charming, even knowing what he is and what he does. She can be thrilled by new clothes and posh restaurants and hotels that look like they've come right out of a magazine, no matter that it's all paid for with death. She's learned the ins and outs of the unsettling relationship between fear and giddiness, that she can be terrified of something for so long that she starts wanting it. That night, the night that never happened, she screamed at him that she never wanted him to touch her again, and he didn't – not for a year, not for more than a year, not until that sweltering July midnight in Kampala when he walked her to her room after a couple rounds of champagne (I'd tell you why we're celebrating, kitten, but then I'd have to – you know) and kissed her on the threshold, almost like they were saying goodnight, almost like they were normal. She pulled back, hating him for smiling at her that way and hating herself for blushing. But there was something about the way he moved as though he'd had this planned for years, something about the way he sat her in his lap and drew the jewelled pins out of her hair one by one that made it so easy to just let him.
She asked him, afterward, if he kept her around because sometimes he wanted a break, something to do that wasn't working. He said – quite matter-of-factly – that he never took breaks, that he was always working. She couldn't tell if he was joking. She's always been bad at that. His eyes and his mouth are so rarely in tune, it's often impossible to know what he means, even what he wants.
She knows what he wants tonight.
There's plenty of time left, so she dawdles while putting up her hair, picking out a red headscarf that she'd normally nix as far too bold, matching it to the scarlet lipstick she swore she'd never wear. She struggles through the obligatory hopping while putting on her tights, wriggles into the black dress, swaths her neck with a white muffler so wide it could double as a blanket, and covers the lot of it with her hooded grey coat.
It's stiflingly warm after about thirty seconds, but she likes it – the vanity's lighting is flattering, and she's always thrilled to find she can pull off a colour she thought was verboten. Anyway, the warmer the better, because she doesn't know how long she'll need to stay outside. Tonight she's the bait, and that always means sitting in one place long enough that she starts to get jumpy. Tonight she's already nervous, because she knows the prey, and has to wonder what would happen if she just leapt up and waved her arms at him and begged him to please, please take her home.
Out in the frosted night her breath forms a silver veil in front of her hood and her boots make sharp, hard sounds on the uneven pavement. It's unseasonably cold, but at least the sky is clear – she can pick out a few stars through the soft, all-pervasive light of the city, and the bench she chooses at the bus stop is dry. She sits and watches the people passing by for a while, wishing she'd been sent somewhere more familiar, somewhere she might have hoped to see a friend or a co-worker or even just a shop she recognized. She leans her head back to stare up into the bare, delicate branches of the sycamore tree, watching its patchy grey bark fade in and out of sight with the constant swing and retreat of headlights.
He might not see you the first night, Jim said. Don't worry. I've got it under control.
Exactly how he knows where Sherlock's going to be on any given night she isn't sure, but when she thinks about it it's not so improbable. She's never thought of him as a difficult man to find; he certainly always made himself known to her when he came in to take over the lab. He's not the self-effacing type. He doesn't go out of his way not to leave signs. His strengths lie in interpreting, not covering or fabricating – that's really more Jim's area.
Of course, it's been two years since she's seen him. Maybe he's changed.
Bus after bus after bus passes, and she sits with her arms wrapped around herself, pretending to be engaged in the map hanging behind her or the free flow of pedestrians, waiting for the phone in her pocket to buzz, to tell her she can go back to her room and warm up. The camera mounted over the door of the café behind her captures the minutes as they float by in traffic lights and surging cars, in the ebb and flow of the crowd, in the arc of the unseen stars through the dark above the city – and in the tall, energetic man who stops mid-stride on the other side of the street, turning with a flare of his coat to stare, his white face a blurred mask of incredulity on the CCTV footage. The woman on the bench stands, facing him for a moment before a bus rolls between them and she darts quickly out of frame.
* * *
John doesn't much care for being rousted out of his chair after supper and told to pack a bag for a flight to Hong Kong that leaves in less than three hours, but it's not exactly unheard of. Sherlock is usually a little more considerate – John often gets a whole day's notice before he has to whip out his passport – but these hurried, sleepless endings to weeks of inactivity are inevitable. Tonight is just the latest in a series.
I'll have a car for you in an hour, Sherlock said, capping off a very adamant speech about how important it was that John arrive ahead of him, on the earliest possible flight, to go and meet their client. A man's life depended on it, as it usually did. I'll take a cab, John responded. I don't need an hour. But Sherlock insisted. The car I send you, he said, half snarling, resentful as always to be pulled out of his pre-case giddiness to deal with the lowly logistics, and no other.
There was something different about him, John thinks as he stuffs a few pairs of socks in after his shaving bag. Something harried but eager, something disturbed but ecstatic. It's contagious. He finds himself hoping they're in for something a little more hair-raising than their latest lull here in London. He's keen to get going.
He's so eager, in fact, that he discovers he has forty minutes to spare once his bag is packed and by the door. More than enough time to run down the street to the chemist's and grab something to make the trip a little more tolerable. He's not usually big on that sort of self-medication, but it's a long flight, and it's been a long time since he's been able to sleep on planes without chemical assistance. He wonders, as he's trotting down the stairs and shoving his chin into his muffler against the cold that waits outside, what the weather's like in Hong Kong in December. Better, no doubt, than this.
He's halfway to the shop when he sees her slipping into the Tube station. His first thought is that he's simply mistaken – but then she turns as though to see whether she's being followed, and her face is fully illuminated by the flat yellow glare of the street lamp for a moment before she disappears into the shadow of the stairwell.
John changes course at once, following her through the shopping-laden crowds, keeping a steady eye on that muted grey coat that's already burned itself into his memory as though it were a cautionary orange. He stays about ten paces back until he sees her pass through the turnstile, and then he speeds up – he can't lose her. If he has to pursue her through the Underground he might well miss his car, but even Sherlock will have to admit that this is more important. Neither of them could have foreseen this.
A few minutes later, she steps onto the rearmost car of a Circle line train, and John follows suit. It's largely empty; there are a few scattered passengers taking up more than their fair share of space, and a group of boisterous young girls laughing over something by the centre door. After a moment's hesitation John sits to Molly's left, leaving a seat between them. He doesn't want to alarm her, and he has been listening for almost two years to Sherlock's certain pronouncements that she's been swept up by James Moriarty.
John has no desire to see him again. "Miss Hooper?"
"Hi." She turns to smile at him, lifting her fingers from her knee in an awkward little wave.
"Are you –" She doesn't seem at all surprised to see him. It makes his skin crawl a little. "Are you all right?"
"Oh, yes. Just back in town for a bit, you know. Um – how are you doing?"
"I'm … doing well, thanks. Listen," he says, leaning in, lowering his voice so that it barely holds against the rumble and roar of the tunnel rushing by. "Do you need help? Where's –" There's no sense going by halves, now. "Where's Moriarty?"
"Sorry." Molly shrugs, glancing nervously back at her own reflection in the darkened window. "I really don't know."
"Where are you going?"
"Just – around." She raises her eyebrows at him, then stifles a giggle with the back of her hand. "Sorry, I'm really sorry. I really don't know anything. He just said I should talk to you – he said he thought it would be nice. Just … nice." She folds her hands in her lap over her purse, her thumb tapping rapidly against the clasp. "Jim, I mean." She shrugs again, inclining her head as though in concession.
John's jaw tightens. He's been expected, then – maybe followed. He should have known it was no coincidence the moment he saw her. He shoves his hand in his pocket to pull out his phone, but stops; the odds that Sherlock doesn't know about this are vanishingly small. His insistence upon John's impromptu trip to Hong Kong suddenly makes infinitely more sense. "What about Sherlock?" He tries to sound casual. "You've talked to him, too, have you?"
She hugs her purse to her middle. "No. I saw him, though, I mean – he saw me, too. Earlier tonight. Please don't be angry, no one really wants to hurt him, you must –"
"Where is he?" He's snapping, now, but he doesn't care. He pushes himself to his feet and stalks to the door, grabbing onto the support pole with fingers that are soon white and cold. He's just missed the first stop, but he can jump out at Paddington and get a cab.
There's a helpless sort of flutter to her voice that almost makes him feel sorry for her – no, he does feel sorry for her, but he really doesn't have the time. "I don't know," she says. "Maybe with Jim, by now – maybe not. He doesn't tell me much. You should know that."
"Why should I –" He cuts himself off, biting back the anger that he can't, in fairness, reserve for her. This has been two years coming, after all – he's known it was bound to happen since the night he stood flat against the wall in that swimming pool listening to the two of them negotiating. The memory makes the back of his tongue rise with revulsion, the way it always does when Sherlock gets a particularly wistful look in his eyes, and John has to wonder.
Let's not do anything rash, Moriarty said, the irritated twitch of his mouth shifting into a mockery of patience. You should always do the math before you pull the trigger. Measure twice, and all that.
I've done it. Sherlock's face was alive with energy. You're not walking out that door. None of us are. His free hand spasmed at his side.
Then you can spare me a few minutes of your time. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that I destroy … thirty lives a year, shall we?
Sherlock quirked an eyebrow.
Moriarty smiled. For the sake of argument.
So if we assume, for now, that if I walk away from here tonight it'll be another year or so before one of us shoots the other in the back – whoever it might be, he added with a shallow bow, then we've got a debit of thirty in the ledger. Now, if you blow me to bits and I don't get around to planning their untimely ends, how many lives do you think we can reasonably expect those thirty to save?
Sherlock frowned. What?
How many? Assuming they were allowed to live, what's the life-per-year contribution we can expect from my thirty would-be-victims?
That's – speculation. Pure speculation.
Sherlock was silent. John, who had in the past several hours already twice made peace with the fact that he was going to die, began to feel a bitter sort of dread spreading through his chest.
Well, Moriarty continued, rubbing his hands together, I'm going to say five, tops. Most of the people I see to are pretty useless, really. You know that – you've looked into a few. They're ordinary men with, by and large, ordinary enemies. They're not like you, Sherlock. His tongue ran slowly along his bottom lip. They're not special. They could live a hundred years and do about as much for the world as the roaches in the walls. You, though – you're a do-gooder. What's your yearly average? How many people can expect to owe their lives to you at the close of the year? Is it thirty-five? Are we breaking even, yet?
This is ridiculous.
Forty-five, maybe? Fifty?
How many ordinary men are you worth, Sherlock? What if I killed – seventy, a hundred? Two hundred? When do you pull the trigger? How many of them does it take to make one of you?
John thought he was going to be sick. Sherlock, just –
And then, of course, Moriarty continued, there's Johnny. How many men is he –
Don't. Sherlock took a step forward, but the line of his mouth was faltering, his lip curling in frustration.
Moriarty threw his arms into the air, and John winced. Well, then! Like I said – let's not do anything rash. You do your job – I'll do mine – and when we meet again, I think you'll see the books are pretty well balanced. Til then, Sherlock. And with a wave, he strolled out the door.
John gaped. What are you doing –
Just run, Sherlock said, grabbing his arm and hauling him toward the other end of the pool, never once looking him in the eye.
If Sherlock's with Moriarty now, there won't be anything John can do. But he's not going to flee the country – he's not going to clear the board so Sherlock can have his long-awaited confrontation to himself. There's no telling how it might end.
When the doors slide open, he turns to Molly. "Come with me."
She shakes her head, glancing around as though afraid to be overheard. "No – I can't."
"I mean it. We'll keep you safe – he won't get to you." If he's got what he wants, he won't care.
It's perfectly clear from the look in her eyes that she doesn't believe him. He can't really blame her. "I'm all right." She gives him a feeble smile. "Just – go on. Goodbye."
He slips out just as the doors are shutting, frustrated, furious – but it's for the best, and he knows it. He could never have made good on that promise. When he's finally out on the street he takes out his phone, annoyed to find his hands are shaking, and texts Sherlock.
Bugger your car. Going home.
At his hail, a cab pulls up to the curb and he launches himself inside, a jerky white figure vanishing into one of the hundreds of indistinguishable black boxes that the cameras lining the exterior of the station record day in and day out, the crawling, pixellated multitudes, ants carrying ants.
* * *
Sherlock thunders up the stairs, allowing himself a rare moment of utterly irrational hope – that despite his text, John has decided not to ruin everything. He's located Molly's room at the Berkeley, had a look through and pieced together all the information that he needs to be almost certain – no, to be dead certain of the time and place of the meeting he's been awaiting for almost two years. The clues aren't hard to read when Jim is leaving them deliberately. He wants this as much as Sherlock does. But John …
Throwing the door open, Sherlock slams his fist down on the side table – because there's John, sitting in his armchair as though nothing were the matter, his only concession to the seriousness of their circumstances the handgun resting on his thigh. "Damn it! I told you to leave!" He's shouting. He'd like to throw something.
"You did." John nods, clearly doing his best to smooth the anger out of his face – god, but he's an awful liar. "I saw Molly. I'm not going anywhere."
"You idiot, he'll kill you. Do you remember –"
"Then he'll have to come here to do it. He's not going to, is he? I don't think he really wants to see me. I don't think," John says, pausing and pressing his lips together in a wounded, accusatory expression. "I don't think that was the point."
Of course it wasn't. The point was – the point is that no one has evaded Sherlock for two years at a time, that no one can lay a trap for him that he can't dive into and escape triumphant. And this is a trap, that much is obvious. Jim hasn't done anything to hide that. Sherlock's going to walk into it, though, because he knows that he can and because he wants Jim to know it, too, because he's been waiting and searching for so long –
But John is here, and now he can't. If John is in the line of fire, the answer to how many ordinary men are you worth becomes a simple, resounding one.
Sherlock clenches his hands at his sides and paces to the window and back. "You can still get out. I'll have Mycroft charter you something – anywhere will do for now, we'll regroup in a couple of days –"
"I'm not going."
"John." He crouches in front of the chair, steepling his fingers in front of his mouth. "This is my chance, he's here, he's baiting me, he's overconfident. I can finish him, he's practically begging for it, but you have to –"
"You had your chance to finish him." John is staring at the carpet. There aren't many times when John won't look him in the eye, but Sherlock has noticed that Jim seems to feature prominently on those few occasions. One, he wants to say, the answer is one.
"That was different." The frustration, the desire to leap out the door and give chase, makes him feel almost brittle with tension. "There was, as you may recall, a bomb."
But John just shakes his head.
And that's all there is to it. The choice is made – there was never much of a choice to begin with. If John is here, then Sherlock has to stay, no matter that the catch of a lifetime is waiting for him at a grubby little pub some five miles east of here, counting down the minutes. Jim will use every advantage he can get his hands on, and as long as John is in London, he's one of them. As long as John is in London, Sherlock can't possibly win.
He stands, turns to the kitchen, stops, grits his teeth, turns to the sofa – and reaches down to slap a stack of papers violently off the coffee table, cursing into the flapping cloud of pages. He collapses onto the sofa, drops his elbows to his knees, shoves his hands in his hair, and waits.
The night passes. They don't say anything. John's hand never leaves his gun; Sherlock never stops listening for a foot on the stair, a scratch at the window.
The sun rises on a patchy, grey flurry, meagre flecks of white drifting through the air to disappear as soon as they meet the wet pavement. They cling to the windowpanes a little longer, making a brief crystalline impression before pooling into the corners and dripping out of sight. Sherlock stares at them for lack of anything better to stare at, leaning against the window frame, his forehead resting on his wrist.
Jim Moriarty is undoubtedly gone. He's missed his chance, and London feels empty. He can't deny that he's relieved, though – outraged and thwarted, yes, but relieved. "Go to bed," he mutters. "No one's coming."
John creaks out of his chair and stretches noisily before joining Sherlock at the window. He still hasn't relinquished his weapon. "How do you know?"
Sherlock scoffs. Jim would have realized hours ago that Sherlock wasn't joining in the fun – of course he's gone. His only consolation is knowing that somewhere, Jim is just as annoyed as he is. Their next meeting won't be on such gentlemanly terms as this one might have been; there won't be so many playful hints, because Sherlock has given undeniable notice that the game is off. He's done the math. He's made his choice.
"Go to bed," he says again, reflecting as John's hand comes to rest on his shoulder that John has recently been pretty wretched at doing what he's told.
Eventually they turn away from the window, melting into the winter dim of the room, out of sight of the lenses lurking across the road that stare, shift, focus through the increasingly dreary weather, the thickening static of snow.