The first time she lays eyes on him, it is a washed-out afternoon in March.
She takes a ride through London, bustling and sprawling before her, Police Constable Lestrade chattering away as he navigates their path on instinct and memory alone.
"He's quite brilliant," Lestrade says. "A bit mad, though. Don't take it personally if..."
Molly filters in and out of the conversation. She lets her mind wander to such inconsequential things, sometimes: the bland bowl of porridge she'd had for breakfast, how she'd forgotten to water her plants, the mismatched pair of socks sitting atop the pile of folded laundry on her bed.
Sometimes she feels as if life happens around her and she's merely observing it, dully aware of the exploits of her friends and colleagues. She loves her job and is glad for that, but often wonders if she leads a rather small life.
And on that unremarkable, perfectly ordinary day, Molly steps out of the car and catches a glimpse of a man in a long, dark coat. He's lean and sprawling, graceful in his movements, completely absorbed in his own thoughts.
As she strides toward the blue and white barrier tape, his features come into focus, and they are equally arresting: shocks of dark brown curls against milk-white skin, sharp features, watery grey eyes that seem to glint in the cloud-muted sunlight.
Molly Hooper is enthralled.
"Lovely to meet you, Mr. Holmes," she says, the corners of her mouth quirking up. "My name is-"
"I'll be needing access to the lab," he mutters, as if she hadn't said a word. He leans over the contorted body on the pavement to inspect a fleck of green paint in the man's blood-caked hair. "Lestrade informed me that you might be of use to me regarding the matter of clearance."
Perhaps she didn't absorb Greg's warning, or perhaps she's caught off guard by the sudden lightness in her chest, but it isn't until twenty seconds later that Molly manages to conjure a response.
"Well, yes, but I - I just," she stammers a bit. "I need to observe, you know, because it's - this is a rather unique situation."
And isn't it, though.
The man gives a terse nod and dismisses her entirely. They don't exchange another word until later in the afternoon when she finds him leaning against one of Bart's sun-soaked brick walls smoking a cigarette.
"Molly," she holds out her hand and waits for him to shake it.
Sherlock merely repeats her introduction, as if to file the name away for a later date; he puts out his cigarette and doesn't see her drop her arm to her side, or the way her cheerful expression cracks ever so slightly.
He enters the hospital first and doesn't bother to hold the door.
She gives him clearance (or rather, he takes her lack of denying him clearance as a sign that he ought to have free reign over every piece of equipment in sight) and the fleck of green paint dissolves into a solution he's concocted as they sit opposite one another without speaking.
Her flat is exceptionally quiet that evening, save for the soft strains of The Heartbreaks playing as mushroom risotto bubbles on the stove. Though the last dregs of winter cling to windowpanes and bare feet, it's a shade warmer that particular evening.
Molly waters her plants and smooths a nice skirt and jumper against the cushion of her reading nook to wear to work the next day. She dreams about falling face-up into a dark, bottomless cavern full of half-haunted echoes. A sheen of sweat is slick against her lower back and at the nape of her neck when she awakes at half four.
It is only the first time she can't sort her thoughts on Sherlock Holmes and it is certainly not the last.
- - - -
It is sweltering in late July when Sherlock drapes his coat over the back of his chair and runs a hand through messy, damp curls.
Molly approaches him, her Holmes-induced timidity slowly melting away with the hours of silence they've shared. She pulls her hair into a loose bun and snaps it in place with a tie from her wrist.
"Would you like a drink?"
"Water," he says, eyes glued to the microscope.
And in a moment she replays later beneath the cooling spray of her shower, Sherlock retrieves a few bills from his pocket and offers them to her. Enough for two bottles from the vending machine.
Of course, it could've been that he simply didn't count his bills, and that he didn't intend for her to purchase one for herself, but Sherlock resides in her ever-widening blind spot and such conjecture is unwelcome in the fantasy she's managed to concoct. Not that she's especially proud of it, or wholly unaware of its absurdity.
When she returns with two bottles, no change, and a cautious smile, he's still focused on the specimen beneath the lens.
Molly drinks and paces, drinks and sits, drinks and paces. Errant strands of hair fall to frame her face and the polka-dotted mint blouse she's wearing glues itself to the flat plane of her abdomen as the air conditioning sputters out. Stunning, gorgeous, understated beauty, and he's enthralled with the dirt and ash.
Twenty-eight minutes later, on his way out of the lab, he tucks his coat under his arm and makes an offhand remark.
"You ought to wear that colour more often," he says, and slips through the double doors.
Her fingers curl around the empty water bottle and it crinkles, just a bit. The absence of his presence is almost as weighted as their lack of conversation.
- - - -
In an unexpected rush, Molly cries in truncated, quiet sobs, her back hunched against the bracing October wind.
She could've discussed the case with them back at Bart's, but an invitation to Baker Street is something rare and rather cherished, even if only in the context of Sherlock wanting to work in the comfort of his own home, with bare feet and caffeine.
Sherlock and his new flatmate, an unassuming man in an military-green jacket, chat easily and don't hear her as she's fallen a few dozen metres behind them. She catches snippets of their conversation, between breaths, and wonders just exactly how long Sherlock Holmes has taken to using words like "if convenient," and "should you want," and really, any words at all.
Eventually, when Sherlock swans off to fetch some coffee (and since when?) his flatmate slows his pace to fall in step with her. By the time they're shoulder to shoulder, she's dried her eyes, but they're still red, and John is a bit more perceptive than her usual company.
They've spoken a few times in passing. She's shocked he remembers.
"Yes," she forces a smile. "And you're Doctor Watson."
"John," he corrects, gently, and their elbows bump.
"Do you enjoy living with-"
"Oh god, no," he says, and a quick laugh bubbles in his throat. "But it's never boring."
Whether it be the thick, heavy silence or the fact that she hasn't anyone in her daily life whom she trusts implicitly, the next thing she says comes out in an unexpected burst. It springs directly from between her ribs, from the space just where her heart resides.
"My tabby died yesterday. She'd greet me when I got home, you know? She used to curl up on my feet when I typed up my case reports. I know we haven't spoken at all, really, and I'm sorry if I'm, it's just, I - I don't want to go home. D'you think we could walk for a bit longer?"
John slows his pace and rests his hand on the curve of her shoulder for a very, very brief moment before letting it fall away. He doesn't say anything, but they don't stop walking.
The coffee cools on the kitchen table in the flat because they circle the block nearing six times, engrossed in conversation, and Molly feels positively alive; not particularly happy, yet, but far better than before.
They linger on the footpath for a few minutes before John hails a cab for her.
"Are you sure you don't want to come in for tea?" he asks in earnest.
They rather enjoy one another's company, and that, Molly realizes, is the extent of her feelings on the matter of Doctor John Watson. She rather enjoys his company. He's polite, listens well, and knows just when to offer a kind word.
Her chest doesn't constrict when he smiles.
She casts her gaze to their shoes as she consider his request, and when she looks up at him again, he knows. John knows. Not because she mentioned Sherlock's name a dozen times in the past half hour or because she inquired after the man's lack of social interaction while tugging at her sleeve, but because he recognizes the look in her eyes, then.
He's seen it in the mirror.
"Thank you, John. Maybe another time."
John nods. "Anytime you'd like."
They part ways; she climbs into the idling cab and he climbs the front steps.
When John is sitting on the sofa listening to Sherlock drone on about I wouldn't have bothered to make coffee if you were going to chat up Molly Hooper all evening and Don't open the vegetable crisper until I've recorded the results of my experiment regarding the plumber's kidney, he sucks in a deep breath and interrupts the man's stream of consciousness.
"Her cat died, Sherlock," he says, as if that's supposed to mean something to his flatmate, and tosses his magazine onto the table.
When Sherlock wonders aloud if he could persuade her to allow him to dissect it, John retires to his room without another word.
Across town, Molly curls up in bed with a cup of green tea with milk and honey and pushes aside thoughts of long, thin fingers carding through her hair after a rough day.
- - - -
At Christmastime, he gives her a leather messenger bag wrapped in newspaper and offers her some of Mrs. Hudson's plum pudding by way of scooting it across the table while chatting about an experiment involving a harpoon.
She drinks half a bottle of wine, stains the glass with her lipstick, and eyes the mistletoe with a resigned wistfulness. The last thing she remembers about that evening is discovering mossy-coloured gloves hidden within the messenger bag on the cab ride home.
When she wakes the next morning, she recalls mentioning weeks earlier how her hands are always cold on her walk home from work.
- - - -
Some nights, when crickets chirp in their cacophonic flurry and the country air is too fresh to bear, Molly wraps her favourite scarf around her neck -- the one her mother knit -- and sits on the porch with her knees pulled to her chest.
He thought well enough ahead to pack a knapsack full of novels for her (Brontë, Austen, and a few books of American Transcendentalist poetry bound in pale, olive-coloured leather). They're a caricature of who he thinks she is (because she'd prefer something in the neighborhood of Isherwood, honestly), but that doesn't matter because what matters is the fact that he bothered to think about her at all.
The sky darkens slowly as she contemplates her life: how he'd whisked her away in the middle of the night despite the very real risk of dragging her into harm's way with him, how she acquiesced before he'd even finished speaking. How he unconsciously held her elbow as the train lumbered to a stop and its doors parted for them, and carried her luggage without asking or having been asked to do so.
Bare feet pad across the wooden porch and her mind snaps back to the present.
He sets a cup of tea beside her thigh and takes a seat, aching bones eliciting a reserved groan deep from his throat.
"Thank you," she says, her voice barely a whisper. What she's about to say is going to cut both ways and she's bracing herself for it.
"Herbal. I know you take it with milk and honey, but the milk's gone sour."
And then it tumbles from her lips, simple and truthful.
"He's changed you."
Sherlock stares straight ahead into the tall weeds. Something passes between them, then. Some sort of deeper level of understanding. Perhaps if others can see it, he thinks, perhaps it's real.
"I suppose he has."
"He has," she echoes.
The time for putting on acts for one another has passed; his the mask of detachment, hers the careful carrying of her heart within his shadow.
"If you hadn't been Sherlock Holmes, and I hadn't been plain Molly Hooper working in the basement of St. Bart's, and you'd never met him, do you think-" she stops to draw an uneven breath. "Do you think we could've had this? Not this, you know, but..."
Sherlock doesn't know what would hurt her more: knowing that it was always impossible, or knowing the truth.
Crisp, summer-dried grass peeks through the wooden slats and Molly picks at them in the in-between space where crickets' chirping fills the void where words ought to reside. She sips at her tea, too bitter still, despite the sugar he stashed away and reserved for her cups alone.
Yes, he's changed.
But he hasn't changed for her.
Maybe it's enough for now that he's changed at all.
He stands without another word and Molly feels the weight of his coat laid across her shoulders. She sits on the porch until the cup is empty and the air turns cold.
- - - -
It's a fair day in early April when life feels settled once more.
There's an adjustment period, because the city is buzzing with life and she became accustomed to quiet nights with well-worn novels and cheap tea. The quiet of her flat is welcome at first, because it reminds her of the evenings when they'd communicate without talking and sleep without stirring.
But when she begins to eat meals alone, she misses the clank of flatware that isn't her own, and the pasta with peas and sliced chicken, and the rare, reserved smile appreciative of her home-baked scones.
Sometimes she slips back into the life that happens around her; the life that she merely observes. But she no longer takes for granted the simple pleasure of watering her plants, and makes the unconscious decision not to plan her outfits according to Sherlock's visits to Bart's.
And roughly three times per week, just as she settles into bed with shower-wet hair and the affectionate tabby she adopted shortly after returning home, her phone buzzes.
The screen lights up her delicate features in a soft green-blue glow.
Okay? - SH