She had been surprised, and ultimately, honored, that Sherlock had come to her and trusted her with the biggest secret of their lives. Certainly, her skill and her access to resources had been crucial. But his vulnerability in that moment sealed her devotion to him. In all the years she had been watching him so carefully, she had never seen him like that.
Things had changed between them. Ever since the humiliating incident at Christmas, she had approached him differently, felt differently about him and herself. She had hated him, yes, but not really. John had tried to cheer her later, make her feel special because Sherlock had actually apologized and asked forgiveness. But she knew. She knew it was her own doing that Sherlock had so much power to hurt her. She had put her heart in his hands knowing full well he would break it.
So the next few times they saw each other, her infatuation transmuted into something more real. Actual love, perhaps. But mostly acceptance. He was, and always would be, unable to be anything other than what he was. She would be loyal to him forever. She would probably always fantasize about him. But she knew her heart wasn't safe in his hands. Her formerly squeaky, giddy voice became smoother, clearer. She could look directly at him without nervous smiles bubbling up.
And something interesting happened. The more she let her real self show, the stronger she felt, the more he listened to her. But that wasn't surprising--the surprising part was that she didn't care about pleasing him as much as she thought she would.
When the day came that he genuinely needed her, she committed to him. They spent so much time working through the details, making sure his death would be convincing, even to John. Especially to John.
She had never bothered getting to know John that well, but she did know his devotion to Sherlock was unwavering. She had told him, "He'll never believe you were a fake, Sherlock. Never."
Sherlock dismissed this. "I'll make him believe."
She felt compelled to point out, "He may not forgive you for deceiving him. For leaving him."
He paused at that, considered. "It's a risk," he had said briskly without looking at her.
And she knew she had been right to take her heart back from him. It had taken him five seconds to decide to break John's.
She had seen people hollowed out by grief before. She had experienced loss and aching sadness of her own, so she was not unprepared to see the range of emotion at Sherlock's funeral. But she had never had to pretend to mourn, to feign grief while knowing a secret that could end others' suffering. And she had never watched John as carefully as she did that day.
He stayed back. Hands clasped behind his back. When anyone spoke to him, he nodded, looked at his feet, cleared his throat. But when he thought no one was looking, she saw. He was one strong breeze away from capsizing.
And the overwhelming guilt she felt morphed into an anger at Sherlock so strong it surprised her.
Two weeks after, a phone that was not hers began ringing in her coat pocket as she finished buying coffee in the park. It rang three times before she could locate it.
"Don't say my name. Just say okay."
"Okay," she answered shakily.
"Things are progressing more slowly than I'd hoped. I don't know when I'll be able to contact you, but I wanted to say . . . thank you."
And before she could utter a syllable, he had hung up.
Everything had needed to happen so quickly. From inception to actualization, there was so little time, and Molly found herself immersed in the details of Sherlock's death--not what would come after. Sherlock had never explained what he had planned to do once the world believed he was dead, but just conveyed a general understanding that he was doing this, in some complicated way, in order to protect not just John, but everyone--John, Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, even Molly. Every time she asked him anything specific he answered that she was safer not knowing, that her role was over once his "body" was buried.
But, of course, it wasn't really over. Without realizing it, she had committed to, potentially, a lifetime of lying to people who mattered to Sherlock, who mattered to her. She saw Lestrade regularly, but was lucky in that he had stopped mentioning Sherlock after a week or two; perhaps he was afraid she would ask him how he was doing, and was clearly wrestling with some guilt of his own. Mrs. Hudson had asked her to come for tea one afternoon and Molly managed to convince her that going to Baker Street would be too much, and she would host at her flat instead. Mrs. Hudson was delighted to be invited out and even more delighted to be waited on and have Molly's cat, Toby, curling around her legs and purring. They had traded recipes, chatted about nothing, and ended up talking about Sherlock not at all, and John only a little.
Molly had asked how John was doing, and knew from Mrs. Hudson's face that he was bad off. Mrs. Hudson made it seem that he was okay, sad, of course, but okay, but Molly saw the truth in her hesitation, her fractured smile.
Six weeks after the funeral, and she couldn't put if off any longer. She would have to see him. If only to punish herself.
221 Baker Street.
She stood on the doorstep a moment, a canvas bag hanging from each hand. She could simply leave the bags on the step. There could be no doubt as to whom they were intended for. And she wasn’t the sort who required acknowledgment.
Before she could decide, the door was opening, and her nerves reactivated.
"Oh, hello, Molly dear," greeted Mrs. Hudson kindly. She noticed the bags. "For him?"
"Him?" Molly repeated, then grimaced. She’d promised herself to stop repeating what others said. Bad habit born of trying to buy time to compose a sentence and it only made her feel daft. "Yes, of course, for John," she answered, still smiling too much.
"You are sweet," Mrs. Hudson replied, patting Molly’s arm. "Go on up, then. He’s in."
"Oh! I was wondering if, you know, if you wouldn't--" But she knew she couldn't back out. She needed to see for herself how John truly was. She took a breath. "Yes, alright. How is he?"
Mrs. Hudson smiled sadly. "Well, he's . . . he's managing, isn't he?" She changed the focus quickly. "But how are you, dear?"
Molly returned the sad smile. "Managing."
"It's good of you to check on him. You know, I think Sherlock would have liked that," Mrs. Hudson concluded, and Molly found herself unable to respond. "Well, I've got to pop out to the market. I'll see you later, Molly."
"Yes, alright, Mrs. Hudson." The women traded places so that Molly was now inside the threshold, waving good bye and closing the door behind her.
She looked up the dark staircase toward 221b. Nothing else for it now. Screwing up her courage, she climbed the stairs, the two bags swinging along with her.
John sat in the kitchen, staring at the open freezer. It needed cleaning out, badly. In the weeks since Sherlock's funeral, his many experiments were deteriorating into health hazards, and John had moved as many as he could from the refrigerator into the freezer. John knew he needed to dispose of them completely, give everything a proper disinfecting and start fresh.
Ella, John's therapist, had recommended lists. Simple lists, to tangibly anchor each day. Go to work. Do the shopping. Eat. "Clean freezer" was the only task written in his notebook, in capitals under the day's date. The only goal for the entire day.
He looked over the jars, the Petri dishes, last handled by Sherlock himself, and felt his eyes burning.
He almost didn't hear the knocking, it was so soft.
A visitor. Almost certainly a woman. Lestrade, Mike, they never knocked that softly. A woman meant chatting and tea, and pretending he felt better than he really did. He hung his head a little, then rearranged his face as he pulled the door open.
"Hello, Molly," John said, forcing the smallest of smiles. She was standing there in a navy pea coat and faded jeans, a ponytail, no make-up, and holding bags doubtless full of some sort of grief-fueled cooking.
"Hello, John," she said evenly, managing not to sound too squeaky. "I've brought you some food," she said simply.
"Oh, thanks. Yeah." Automatic.
She looked him over. He was in his black and white striped jumper and jeans, and a little thinner than she remembered him. Dark half moons under the eyes, a tight, forced smile. He was reaching for the bags, and as she handed them to him, he looked up at her ever so briefly, and she saw. He was adrift.
He was making to say goodbye, to shoo her out, and she imagined him tossing the bags in a corner and going back to whatever miserable, depressing things he did to fill his time in the flat, their flat, stuffed with memories and Sherlock's ghost.
No, no, no. She couldn't, couldn't leave it at that. She stepped inside.
"John, I know you don't want me here."
He was shocked she had said it aloud. "No, it's not that--"
"Of course it is." She smiled a little nervously. "And I don't want to intrude."
She raised an eyebrow at him, and he acquiesced. Just a little.
He sighed. "I'm not . . . I'm not good company lately, I'm afraid."
"I don't expect you to be," she said honestly. "I just came to . . ." The main reasons she had come were secret, but she could tell him her other reasons, equally true reasons. "I know that you and I aren't exactly friends, and I know I've been distant with you in the past, even jealous, maybe, no, definitely . . ."
She recognized she was rambling, and stopped herself, took a breath. "But . . ."
And she tried very hard not to start crying, so she blinked hard and looked right at him, her brown eyes meeting his blue ones frankly. "We both loved him," she said gently.
John was still for a moment, and she thought he might, maybe, admit it, but then he cleared his throat, looked down, and said only, "Well."
She forgave him. "You don't have to say anything, John."
And he didn't.
Talking certainly didn't seem like the best plan, she decided. She reached over for the bags, taking them easily from his hands, and strode to the kitchen. She pulled out the meat pie she'd made and placed it on the counter, and from the second bag, the beer, still cold from the market. He watched her as she glanced toward the refrigerator, and he held his breath.
The notebook on the counter had caught her eye.
She looked up at him where he still stood a few feet from the open door, seemingly rooted in place.
"John. Shall I . . . clean the freezer, then?"
Anyone else, he would have said no. He would have been embarrassed that they had asked, and would have hated the idea of them touching Sherlock's things. But Molly was different. She seemed different. Sad, but focused, like her grief had given her some sort of clarity. Beyond that, Molly had probably been the one to procure most of what was in there to begin with, and she certainly understood Sherlock's experiments.
And, above everything else, she was right. They both loved him.
John nodded, granting permission, and she nodded back a little before turning back to the task at hand. She removed her coat, hanging it over the back of a kitchen chair and pushed up the sleeves of her pink henley shirt. She heard him close the door to the flat, then climb the stairs up to his room as she rooted around in her handbag for her stash of latex gloves and searched under the sink for empty bin-bags.
John felt nothing as he climbed the stairs to his room. He left the door open and sat at the edge of the bed, hearing jars clinking together, the water running in the sink, Molly's quiet efficiency.
He hadn't really decided to stay at 221b. He didn't really make decisions at all. After . . . After, he just came home. Hung up his coat. Locked the door. Brushed his teeth.
This robotic behavior continued, almost constantly since then. He ate, when he remembered to. He went to work and saved lives. He bought milk and tea and watched the telly. It all had as much meaning as turning a crank or pulling a lever.
He spoke to people, well-meaning people who asked him how he was, and he told them lies so they wouldn't worry and then always, deftly, changed the subject.
But he couldn't sleep. Not at night. Not in his bed.
The nightmares were so much worse now, worse than they had ever been. His heart ripped open anew as he awoke in a panic, remembered that what he had dreamed was real, that Sherlock was never, ever coming home.
He usually fell asleep on the sofa in front of the telly. At some point he would wake and turn the light on, read something, anything, until his eyelids refused to stay open. The only time he seemed able to sleep in his own bed was during the day, and only with the curtains wide open. Each nap felt like a state of torpor, and he always awoke surprised at how much time had passed, as though he'd been hibernating, shutting himself down to escape the winter.
Molly was certain that multiple parties were watching John and probably even listening in on him at home, at work. She never caught anyone following her, but Sherlock had said she'd be unlikely to spot them. As she busied herself, putting the beer in the fridge to cool, setting the pie in the oven to warm, she ruminated on how to get John somewhere where they would be neither observed nor overheard. The solution was not presenting itself, and she was running out of things to tidy.
As she scrubbed and rinsed and scrubbed again, she resolved anew. There was no question of her telling him. To keep the truth from him much longer would be beyond cruel, even if the secrecy had been for his own safety. She would have to find a way to tell him, a way to make him understand what was at stake, that no matter how angry or worried he may be, he probably wouldn't be able to do anything about it. But at least he would know. Sherlock was alive. In danger, yes, and unlikely to return anytime soon, but alive.
When John woke, the room was darkening as the sun dipped below the skyline. A glance at his watch told him he'd been asleep nearly three hours. So when he went downstairs and found Molly, he was confused. She sat curled up on the sofa, barefoot, her reddish brown hair long since loosed from its ponytail, her hands half hidden by the cuffs of her shirt as she read a mystery novel of John's.
She heard him breathing and looked up.
"Oh! Hello," she said, smiling.
"You're still here?" he asked, a bit groggy from sleep.
"Yes. I hope you don't mind. I just finished cleaning up, actually."
Groggy or not, he knew it wouldn't take that whole time to deal with the freezer, and the confused expression on his face only deepened.
"I did the freezer, but then it only made sense to clean the fridge as well. And the oven. And the bathroom really needed attending to."
His mouth was hanging open a bit at this point.
"And I may have swept," she admitted sheepishly. "And mopped. Just a bit."
"Molly, you didn't have to do . . . any of that," he said.
"Oh, I know, I just . . . I didn't want to leave without saying goodbye," she began in a rush, "and you were sleeping so soundly, so I just kept on with it, and . . . "
She blushed. "I clean when I'm nervous."
He nodded a little. "And ramble."
She closed her eyes and nodded back. "And ramble."
He found himself smiling, nothing forced about it this time.
"Okay, then. Shall we eat?" she asked, setting the book on the side table and standing up from the sofa.
We? he thought. He couldn't remember ever having shared food with her before, much less a proper meal.
"Pie's ready; I think you'll like it," she said, striding into the kitchen without waiting for him to answer. She spoke over her shoulder to him as she pulled clean bowls from the cupboard. "Let's eat in there, shall we? Watch some telly?"
She noticed he hadn't said anything and turned to look at him, sensing his hesitation. She padded back over to him and surprised him yet again by standing right in front of him, looking up into his face with her earnest coffee-brown eyes.
"John, it's okay. It's not pity."
Well, he didn't know about that; everything everyone had done lately was born out of pity.
"It's not a date," she continued.
Well, he certainly didn't know what to say to that, so he just kept looking at her with his gently puzzled expression. He was finding her candor so surprising; had she always been so? He couldn't remember.
"And . . . I promise not to ask you how you're doing," she concluded.
That tipped it for him. "Good," he said, and the puzzlement melted into relief. "I hate when people ask me that," he confessed, shaking his head a little.
"So sit. We'll eat. And then I'll be off, alright?" she said, still holding his gaze directly.
He pressed his lips together in a thin smile and nodded, and she turned back to the kitchen, finding forks, opening beer.
He sank into the sofa, located the remote and started flipping channels, and she came back with a tray laden with their bowls and two opened beers, setting it on the low table in front of them. She climbed onto the sofa next to him, sitting cross-legged and balancing her bowl in her lap.
"Looks like our choices are Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or Pride and Prejudice," John offered, and she was glad because he was choosing films as options, something long to watch that would keep her there longer. Now that she had seen the state he was in, she absolutely needed to stay in contact with him.
"Which one?" she asked.
"Oh, the Colin Firth-Jennifer Ehle one," he answered calmly.
She openly stared at him. "Are you saying that just to please me?"
He looked at her, seemingly confused again. "What?"
"Are you being chivalrous? Or do you actually want to watch a six-hour adaptation of a Jane Austen novel?" she asked, not unkindly, though she couldn't control a tone of surprise from entering her voice.
He looked away towards the screen. "It's very well done," he defended, though his voice suggested there was more to it.
Damn, but she was direct. Well, if truth was what she wanted, truth she would get, he decided. "And it's longer. It's six hours of distraction, isn't it?" He looked up at her again, letting the misery enter his eyes again, a fuller picture than what she had glimpsed when she had first arrived. And he was grateful when she simply turned her own eyes to the screen and said, "Darcy and Lizzie it is, then."
Relieved, John looked down at his bowl of food, completely unable to identify what it was, but not really caring. He tried a forkful and was a bit surprised to find it quite tasty, but then, a few moments after swallowing, the back of his mouth was on fire.
He dropped his jaw in astonishment and he actually panted.
Molly looked over at him, alarmed.
"Good God, woman!" he managed, eyes wide.
She handed him his beer, quickly. "This will help," she said, and he nearly snatched it from her and took an enormous gulp.
"Too spicy?" she asked, almost teasingly, but he was still reeling and not catching her tone.
"No, no." He coughed. "Well, a bit. I mean, it's really good, but it makes you pay for it."
She giggled a little and he tried to smile even though his lips were now burning.
"What is it, exactly?" he asked.
"Oh, it's a recipe Mrs. Hudson gave me, a sort of Mexican stew adapted into a meat pie. Pork, corn, onions, garlic, and this red chile sauce, all baked in the pastry."
"It's wonderful," he said, sniffing mightily. He saw her dubious glance and responded, "Really, I like it. It just caught me unawares."
"Sorry, sorry," she said, "I just assumed you were this manly type, you know, ex-army doctor who can handle anything, eats crocodiles for breakfast and such," she said, openly teasing him now as she took a big bite from her own bowl.
"Yeah, of course," he responded. "I just usually eat them raw." He cleared his throat. "Unseasoned."
"Oh, right," she said, smiling still. He took another bite even though his face was red, and he continued sniffing.
"Need some tissues?"
She turned back to her own food, suppressing giggles. Maybe he wasn't as bad off as he had seemed.
She hadn't thought it through at all, hadn't remembered. Tall, aloof, superior, with dark curls, Colin Firth's Darcy was alarmingly similar to Sherlock. Though she and John had fallen into a semi-comfortable silence and Molly had done her best not to check him too often, she found herself filled with thoughts of Sherlock, and couldn't imagine that John wasn't feeling the same. Damn it. She was here to comfort John, to decide what to tell him, and yet she was the one suddenly blinking back tears, even though she knew Sherlock had not died, that he was in fact alive. And she was so angry, so helpless, because she was the only one who knew, she assumed, or had Sherlock told others? He had never given her the whole picture, the whole plan, and she felt abandoned, left to navigate the lies and secrets on her own.
She felt John's arm slide around her shoulders, and she sank into him without a word, letting her head nestle onto his shoulder. Perhaps she deserved just a little comfort herself.
Not surprisingly, she had fallen asleep, and some hours later John turned off the television and found himself in a bit of a dilemma. Molly had slid down over time, now laying across most of the sofa with her head resting on his thigh. He didn't mind that so much; he was feeling calmer with her there, somehow soothed by this woman he didn't know as well as he had thought he did. Now, however, he himself was tired, and though he had many times in his life slept sitting up, it wasn't exactly comfortable. But if he moved to get up, he would surely wake her, and then she'd leave, and he found he didn't want her to leave.
And yet he was pretty sure his leg had fallen asleep.
He tried to wiggle ever so slowly into a more comfortable position, but she must not have been deeply asleep because her head lifted and her eyes blinked up at him, not yet adjusted to the moonlit room.
"John?" she asked sleepily.
"Oh!" She awoke more fully and moved to sit up, and he lifted his hand from where it had been resting on her hip as she sat up next to him. "Oh. I didn't-- I mean . . ."
She stopped herself and sighed. "Here I thought I was supposed to be comforting you."
And she smiled shyly at him.
Chin down, deep brown eyes looking up at him, long, dark hair falling messily around her face. And smiling at him.
"Let’s not worry about 'supposed to's," he said softly.
Her shining eyes widened, but John Watson was tired of thinking, tired of feeling nothing, so he lifted his hand to her face and brought her to him.
Their lips met in a soft, hesitant kiss, once, twice, and Molly moved closer, drawn to his mixture of tenderness and anguish that echoed her own. His arm wound round her waist, and they were kissing, kissing, over and over, slow, aching kisses that made Molly sigh, quickened her breathing.
This wasn't the plan.
But he was so deliciously warm, and so full of what she had been feeling herself. In every touch she felt his sadness, his anger, his loneliness. She felt his excellent kisses persuading her like soft, urgent phrases between them.
Please. Let me have this. Say yes.
They found themselves standing, then stumbling and kissing their way up the stairs, hands moving over backs, holding on tight. John kicked the door open with his foot, and suddenly, upon seeing the unmade bed staring up at them, the spell was broken, and they stopped.
He breathed heavily through his nose, and looked up at her, searchingly.
She blinked, sensing her face was flushed and her eyes likely glazed over from sheer, physical want.
"Well," he said nervously, without meaning anything in particular.
"Mmm," she murmured, not trusting her voice quite yet.
He cleared his throat. "That was . . . "
"Unexpected," she finished for him in a voice that sounded too low and husky to be her own. She swallowed.
He had no idea what to say next.
She was coming back to reality enough to start chastising herself for taking advantage of him, for letting herself get carried away when it was likely to make him even more angry with her when she finally found a way to tell him the truth. She saw him trying to decide what to do, and she picked up the reins.
"I'm not going to have sex with you," she said.
She'd bewildered him again, but he just half smiled at her while crinkling his eyes in confusion.
"Don't know about you, but I'm not in a state to be making big decisions," she continued, and he saw that she was giving him a way out.
"No, ah, I think you're . . . you're not wrong about that," he agreed.
She glanced at the bed. "Look, it's late. We're both tired, and . . ."
"Sad?" he offered.
She nodded. "So." She took his hand.
"So?" he asked, cocking his head to one side.
She led him gently towards the bed, and he didn't protest when she sat down and pulled him down to sit next to her.
"So," she said, inclining her head towards his. "A kiss. A cuddle. And actual sleep. Yeah?"
Actual sleep seemed unlikely, and he feared having a nightmare while in her presence, but he agreed anyway. "Yeah."
She kissed him softly, without heat, just kindness, and then they were tunneling under the blanket. As they lay facing each other, Molly brought her hands up to twine around his and kissed his fingers.
He looked back at her a bit wistfully, feeling so very tired. "Goodnight, Molly."
He watched her close her eyes, felt her relax next to him, witnessed her falling asleep.
How did she do that? He was so fractured, and she just got into bed with him like it was nothing, like she wanted to be there.
He felt his eyelids drooping.
She is kind, he argued.