When Molly was at uni, she had two cats. Thick as thieves, Jaffa and Hob were, despite their occasionally explosive hissing and biting rows. For every growl and set of flattened ears, there were three times the number of shared grooming sessions and purring, intertwined kips on the bed. Chalk and cheese on the surface, in every way, yet never far apart.
During Molly’s final year of pathology training, Hob developed a cruelly deceptive conjunctivitis. Two weeks later, a biopsy revealed lymphosarcoma. Six weeks after that came a long, sleepless night spent processing the implications of the harsh new quality to Hob’s breathing. When morning finally came, he jumped up onto her chest, purring with his typically happy, stuttered catch, and gave Molly a soulful, trusting look: I’m ready.
After several hours of kissing, cuddling, and alternating between crying and forcing herself not to cry, not to worry the cats, Molly brought Hob to the vet. An hour later, she returned home. Alone.
Jaffa never stopped looking.
At first glance, he was still the same cat. He may have bitten and scratched without provocation a bit more than he used to, but otherwise he went about his daily activities as he always had: he ate, drank, played, slept, looked for petting, and purred at Molly’s side as she studied. But when she looked at him – really looked – he was subtly, yet fundamentally, changed. There was a……lost look just under his eyes that came out sometimes, where he would suddenly stop in the middle of a room, as if looking at the space Hob used to - should - be.
Several weeks later, Jaffa followed Molly into the loo one morning – something only Hob had ever done – and just looked at her, in that way she wished she could record for all the blind, bloody idiots who insisted that animals didn’t feel. It was a look of pure loss; confused, desperate, and pleading.
Where is he? He should be here. I don’t understand why he’s gone.
Molly had seen a lot of death since then, from the corpses on her examination table to the living death in the eyes of those they left behind. On some level, she was used to heartbreak. But she still hoped that she’d never see that look - Jaffa’s look - ever again. Her profession and life being what they were however, hope could only last so long. And when she did see it again, years later, her previous experience did absolutely nothing to prepare her for the impossibility that the second exposure would be so much worse.
Because it wasn’t a cat. She hadn’t had a cat in years.
It was Sherlock.
Sherlock, who, two years after returning from the dead, watched John leave the flat and never come home; killed by a drug-seeking robber’s bullet at the surgery while shielding his patient from harm.
Sherlock, who was Jaffa.
Molly knew that comparing Sherlock to a cat was more than a bit ridiculous, but she was certainly no stranger to awkward embarrassment. Besides, she figured it was no more ridiculous than the overwhelming theory of many of the Yarders: that Sherlock still didn’t really care enough to mourn John, to be different in his absence. They figured Sherlock would just revert to his pre-John levels of aloof, abrasive Sherlockness, any of the humanity-softened edges that John helped shape gone as quickly as the man himself was taken away.
Lestrade was the only one of the lot who’d known better than to think such rubbish. But even he’d admitted that he wasn’t sure how Sherlock would cope; figured he’d throw himself further into The Work, either by reflex or to avoid thinking about what had happened, and was already stockpiling cold case files for Sherlock’s use like provisions in a pre-apocalyptic bunker. But beyond that, he’d sighed heavily, he simply couldn’t imagine.
And that was exactly the problem. People theorizing and imagining rather than just looking. A half-giggle, half-sob bubbled in Molly’s throat at how Sherlock it all sounded. She could practically hear him in her head, going on about seeing and observing and the unforgiveable blasphemy of theorizing before data.
Because yes, Sherlock’s scathing insults became more frequent than they had been, and yes, he had demanded more cases from Lestrade immediately following the formal identification of John’s body. But that seemed to be Sherlock’s default response to any stressful situation. In fact, it really wasn’t any different than the pattern he’d followed before his own death: throwing himself into Moriarty’s case, studying and analyzing and immersing himself in every shred of data, dismissing and insulting anything or anyone he deemed a distraction with the fervor of the desperate. All the while assuming that no one would notice the mask over death’s impending shadow; that no one would see how he looked so heartbreakingly, familiarly sad when he thought John wasn’t looking.
But Molly saw.
Just like she saw him now.
Saw Jaffa’s short-tempered spats in Sherlock’s increased firing of smugly superior and purposefully hurtful insults. Saw Jaffa’s seemingly unaffected adherence to routine in Sherlock’s constant case load, the near-manic thrill of solving the puzzle occasionally marred by the barest hint of Jaffa’s lost look flickering just under the surface of his sharp eyes.
And then, three months after John’s death, it happened. Molly looked at Sherlock one day and saw not only Jaffa, but John as well. Saw John’s eyes in the wake of Sherlock’s suicide – an impossibly heart wrenching dichotomy of complete emptiness and overflowing, indescribable loss. And then saw Jaffa’s eyes from that day in the loo. Because Sherlock had straightened up from inspecting a body and, for several long seconds, just stood there: quietly, intensely staring at the empty space across the examination table – the space John had always occupied - a breath frozen on his lips as if he’d nearly said a name that he’d long been talking to in his head out loud.
Where is he? He should be here. I don’t understand why he’s gone.
Molly nearly broke down right there, the flood of memory and present heartbreak threatening to overwhelm her. She had barely been able to look at Jaffa after seeing those eyes. But she didn’t cry for Sherlock, nor did she look away. Instead, she forced herself to look at him with renewed focus, because the moment that had happened, she knew it would be soon.
Jaffa had taken two weeks.
Sherlock took two days.
Two days until Lestrade, John’s empty and loss-filled eyes now transferred to his face, accompanied Sherlock’s body to the morgue; shot through the heart after running around an alley corner in pursuit of a suspect. A corner John would have covered from the other side.
Unlike with Jaffa, she’d never say that Sherlock died of a broken heart; wouldn’t insult his trust in her by presuming to know what he thought or felt after such a loss. No, while Sherlock certainly had a heart, that bullet found him less from the reckless resignation of heartbreak, and more from……withdrawal. Sherlock, addict that he was, had gotten a taste of working with a partner, a friend, another half. And even though he tried to go back to a solitary approach to The Work, to that previous addiction and motivator, his body chemistry, irrevocably altered by years of John’s presence, simply wouldn’t tolerate it. His mind, on its deepest level, refused to completely rewire to “before.” So even though the pathologist saw that Sherlock had a bullet in his chest and had been clean of recreational substances for years, all Molly could see was that Sherlock Holmes, in a simple matter of chemistry that would have pleased him far more than the unscientific emotionalism of heartbreak, had died from physical withdrawal.
Withdrawal from John Watson.
The tears nearly won with that final understanding; the knowledge that it was the last thing she would ever truly see about Sherlock.
But it wasn’t until that night at home, with Lestrade’s mournful shock and empty John Watson eyes seared into the dark spaces between blinks, the smell of Sherlock’s blood in her nose, and the sound of Mrs. Hudson’s brave attempts to stifle her sobs haunting her ears, that Molly finally let go.
Grabbing the stuffed cat that was a mirror image of her Jaffa, she buried her face into the rough, synthetic fur and cried – raw, messy, and broken – for John and Sherlock.
And for the hearts of the three people left behind once more, condemned to share grief-stricken memories in a windblown cemetery that was now more familiar than home.