Molly Hooper is stitching up a corpse the first time she meets Sherlock Holmes.
“I’m looking for Dr. Hooper. Who are you?” He is impeccably dressed in his finely tailored herringbone suit. An out-of-breath Detective Inspector follows hot on his heels, stumbling into the morgue with all the grace of a drunken sailor.
Molly finishes her suture, stares up at him calmly, and says, “I’m his daughter. Who are you?”
He glances alternately between her and the corpse on the table before her. “You’re not a doctor.”
Molly falters, but pulls herself to her full five feet four inches and raises her chin defiantly. “Technically, no.” And I dare you to make an issue of it.
But he doesn’t.
He asks her instead if she knows anything about a recently victimized murder victim. She does, as it happens. She assisted her father on the autopsy. If anyone asked, she was an apprentice. He scans over her notes, and when he looks up at her again, his grey-blue gaze is intense and assessing, and she is pinned under it. When he gives her a single approving nod, her stomach somersaults, and she knows she is in terribly big trouble.
Sherlock Holmes comes into the morgue regularly, sometimes alone, sometimes with one Dr. Watson in tow, but always a whirlwind. Rude, arrogant, and bossy, he sends more than one attendant scurrying in fear. But Molly Hooper, petite and mousy though she may be, refuses to scurry. So she hands him her reports, tells him her theories with all the confidence she can muster, until eventually she is the only one he is willing to work with.
Her brain refuses to pay him any more mind than is strictly necessary. It knows falling for a man like Sherlock Holmes is about as safe as walking willingly into the middle of a hurricane. Oh, but her heart, her young and foolish heart, wants nothing more than to be swept away.
So when he comes in one day, staring at her with his piercing blue eyes, luscious curls threatening to bounce free of the wax he’s brushed through them, and demanding use of the laboratory equipment, she, inevitably and against her better judgment, takes her key and lets him in.
He is an ever-present spectre in her life, always there and always out of reach. As unattainable as he is intelligent, he never quite lets her forget him, though she tries. He doesn’t come into the morgue for two weeks and by the twelfth day she has all but forgotten what it was she ever liked about him in the first place. And on the fifteenth day he blows back through her life, catches her around the ankle with the hem of his ridiculous overcoat, and drags her along with him.
She goes on dates. She meets kind, perfectly ordinary, marriable men. The kind of men she would have jumped at the chance to wed before Hurricane Holmes made landfall. And he is always there to ruin it. Her date leans in to kiss her, she closes her eyes, and all she can see are piercing blue eyes. He sees her the day after a particularly good date and deduces every secret the poor man has ever tried to hide, and she can’t bear to go on date number two.
On one occasion, a suitor arrives to pick her up from the lab while Sherlock and Dr. Watson are there. Sweet, ordinary Jim knocks on the door and eases quietly into the room, only to have Sherlock positively eviscerate him on sight. When Jim damn near bolts from the lab, leaving her stranded and dateless, she rounds on Sherlock.
“What was that for?” Her chest heaves in anger. “Why do you have to spoil—”
“He’s hardly worth your time, Molly,” Sherlock says, attention turned back to his microscope. “It would never last. I was merely saving you time. Isn’t that kinder?”
“Kind?” Molly hisses and Sherlock’s head snaps up to look at her. “In what way is you accosting my date kind? You have made your feelings about courtship quite clear, Mr. Holmes, but if you won’t ask me on a date yourself, at least don’t stand in the way of others!”
Sherlock stares at her, unblinking and still as a statue. Dr. Watson nearly bursts a blood vessel to keep from laughing.
She wonders briefly if she was right, if he truly is thwarting her every attempt to move on from her girlish, unrequited crush. But she quickly dismisses it. This is Sherlock “I’m Married to My Work” Holmes. Of course he isn’t.
So when, one year into their acquaintance and two weeks after the Jim Incident, Mr. Married to My Work turns up on her front door step to ask if she would like to accompany him to dinner with Dr. Watson and his date, it takes every ounce of decorum in her body to keep her jaw from hitting the front room floor.
They meet John and Mary at an Italian restaurant and are seated at a table covered in a red checkered tablecloth. Mary is bright and funny and Molly likes her instantly. Sherlock sits stiff and quiet beside her, which does nothing to ease her nerves.
“So Molly,” Mary asks her as their food arrives. “John says you work in the morgue?”
Molly blushes. It’s a morbid place to work, and even more morbid to tell people about. “Yes, that’s right.”
“That’s fascinating!” Mary looks genuinely intrigued. “What do you do there?”
She's momentarily stunned. She's never actually been asked that before. “Well, I’m technically just an attendant, but I—”
“She’s the most competent pathologist at Bart’s, and she’s not even formally trained,” Sherlock says. Once again, only her decorum saves her jaw from hitting her spaghetti, but the whole table save for Sherlock seems to have had a similar reaction. John and Mary are both looking at him in surprise. Sherlock clears his throat. “Well, she is.”
Molly’s blush deepens. “Thank you,” she says quietly. She looks over at him, but he’s staring stoically ahead.
As soon as she is finished eating, Mary turns to John and more or less a demands a dance, but John is all too eager to accept, so they rush, giggling, onto the dance floor. Now Sherlock and Molly sit in awkward silence, picking at the remaining food on their plates. Molly racks her brain for something, anything, to say, but nothing comes to mind. She pushes a meatball forlornly across her plate. Here’s your one chance, Hooper, and you’re blowing it.
Cases, talk about cases. “I saw the report from Mr. Travis’s autopsy. I think you’re right. Definitely arsenic.”
He looks at her. There’s something open and genuine about it that startles her. “It was his wife. I’m almost positive.”
“Quicker than divorce, I suppose.” It just slips out, and she immediately wishes it hadn’t. Sherlock’s eyebrows jump in surprise, but then a slow smile creeps onto his mouth. Her shoulders relax in relief.
“Molly Hooper,” he says, still grinning at her, “would you like to dance?”
She takes his hand and lets him lead her onto the dance floor. It’s a slow one, so he slips an arm around her waist, holds her hand with the other. Her heart still threatens to run away with her, but his shoulder under her palm is firm and steady and it keeps her feet on the ground. She’s surprised to find that he’s a great dancer.
I’ll be seeing you in every lovely summer’s day
In everything that’s light and gay
I’ll always think of you that way
When she looks up at him, their eyes meet, and the air sizzles between them. She looks away quickly, but her skin continues to tingle where it touches his.
He links her arm with his and walks her back home. They stand on her front steps under the porch light and the air shimmers around them.
“Thank you for dinner,” she says quietly. “And for the dance.”
He’s made no move to leave, so she says, “Goodnight, Sherlock.”
He blinks at her, then slowly leans forward. She closes her eyes, can feel his breath on her face. He kisses her tenderly on the cheek. Goose flesh prickles her neck and down her arms.
“Goodnight, Molly Hooper.” When she opens her eyes again, he’s gone, striding off down the sidewalk and into the night.
Molly stands shivering and chewing her bottom lip next to the ticket booth and a poster of Greta Garbo, watching Mary tap her toe in a golden marquis spotlight. She scowls through the crowd on the sidewalk, bobbing and leaning for a better view. Molly pulls her coat tighter around her and looks to the man in the ticket booth. He just shrugs and taps his watch.
“Mary, perhaps we should just go. I don’t think they’re coming.” She’s chilled to the bone and her shoes are starting to rub blisters, but she would be lying if she said she wasn’t also a little bit embarrassed. Embarrassed that she made such an attempt to look nice, washed her hair even, out of the impression that this was significant to anyone else besides her.
“Go?” Mary scoffs, walking back under the portico and pulling out her change purse. “I didn’t come all this way to not see a film.”
She smacks a couple of coins onto the counter. “Two tickets for Camille, please.” Then turns to Molly, linking their arms. “And anyway, now we can see something actually worth seeing.”
Molly tries to laugh and lets her lead them inside. She pulls out a few coins for her ticket, but Mary waves her off. “Oh, I’ll be asking for reimbursement from our so-called gentlemen callers. With interest.”
She seems so unflappable, Molly thinks. Here she is, stood up for a date with a chap she really likes, a doctor no less, and Mary doesn’t even seem to blink an eye. And maybe it’s just that they’ve been courting a while that she feels so secure. She knows where she stands with her Dr. Watson, and so him being late (or just never showing up) for a date isn’t worrying. But it’s not like this is Molly’s first “date” with Sherlock, not even her second. But standing here now, queueing for concessions and utterly dateless, she’s beginning to question if they were dates at all. To her recollection, he never called them such.
He would ask her to “accompany him” to this thing or that thing. Sometimes a traditional date-night activity, dinner and dancing with the Watsons, for example, or the time he took her to the symphony, but oftentimes not. Sometimes he takes her to a crime scene, says she’s his associate, and glares at the Inspector until he heaves a sigh and lets her past the cordons, and they inspect a body together. A very morbid brand of romance, if it is such, and she also suspects these are the times Dr. Watson isn’t available.
Once he called on her in the middle of the day to ask if she would go down to the shops with him, and they wound up in a luthier’s shop that looked like it had once serviced Mozart himself and sat untouched ever since. She learned two things that day: the first being that, among his many other talents, he plays the violin rather impressively, and second that his favorite flavour of ice cream is pralines and cream.
And while she doesn’t think one would take just any old girl to the symphony, standing here in this moment, she remembers this is Sherlock Holmes, and it’s entirely possible what she’s been reading as romance this entire time has actually just been friendship.
“Does this happen a lot?” she asks, trying to sound casual, as she takes her popcorn from the man behind the counter. Why would she care either way? It’s not like she gives a toss about seeing a film with him.
Mary looks at her, a penetrating sort of stare, like she’s reading Molly’s thoughts off the inside of her skull, then blinks and smiles.
“Getting jilted at the cinema? Occasionally.” She shrugs, then gives Molly a secretive smile. “But you get used to it.” Molly’s stomach flip-flops, and, despite her better judgment, she suddenly has the warm and fizzy sort of feeling that she’s just gotten an invitation to an exclusive club.
The theatre is dark when they finally sneak in, arms full of popcorn and sweets. They get several dirty looks and a couple of boos as they creep among the rows for a pair of empty seats.
“Oh hush, it’s just the newsreel,” Mary hisses at them, flopping onto a red velvet chair. Onscreen, a black and white crowd stands chanting and cheering and offering a simultaneous Nazi salute.
“In Nuremberg, the marching, seething squash of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi congress comes to an end. This year they say there are eight hundred thousand pairs of boots standing heel to heel—”
“What a pig,” Mary grumbles, rolling her eyes, as the mustachioed Führer appears, stamping his foot and speaking in impassioned German.
Molly chews her fizzy cola bottles and learns about the winners of the Chelsea Flower Show and a man in Northumberland who can hypnotize a chicken. “Would you believe it?”
“No, and I don’t think the chicken does either,” Mary whispers to her, and she’s grateful the film has started with a swell of music to cover the sounds of her giggling.
As it turns out, Robert Taylor in period dress is exactly the sort of American-imported fantasy material any girl needs to get over being stood up. So the two of them swoon and sigh and float out the front doors on a cloud of French romance as a pair of bedraggled silhouettes emerge from the shadow of a nearby awning, the taller of them flicking away a cigarette.
“Well,” Mary says, giving them the once-over. Sherlock has mud smeared down one cheek, and John’s coat sleeve sports a large gash in the shoulder seam. Both look suitably shamefaced at their current situation.
“Mary,” John says, holding his hands up in surrender, “before you get angry, I would just like to say that this was completely his fault and none of this—”
“My fault?” Sherlock presses an affronted hand to his chest. “How was this my fault? You’re the one who thought we could win a footrace through London against a greyhound!”
John glares at Sherlock in angry disbelief, as though he’s prepping ammunition for return fire, but switches tactics at the last minute. “We are both regretfully sorry, and we promise to make it up to you. To both of you.”
Mary folds her arms across her chest and raises a skeptical eyebrow. “Oh, that was never in doubt,” she says, and Molly has to bite her cheek to keep from laughing.
“Would you…” John glances nervously between the two of them, “like to have dinner?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Mary says airily. “What do you think, Molly? Would you like to have dinner with a couple of numpties?”
“Well as long as the numpties are buying,” she pauses, pretends to consider it, “I suppose I’m a bit peckish.” Mary gives her a decisive nod and marches down the sidewalk, pulling John along with her.
Sherlock looks at her sheepishly, and she presses her lips together in a suppressed grin. She takes the arm he offers and they follow Mary’s lead down the sidewalk.
“I am sorry,” he says and cuts a furtive glance at her. “I was very much looking forward to tonight.”
“You were?” she blurts, more than a little surprised at both the sentiment and the fact that he said it out loud.
He cocks his head at her, brows drawn. “Of course. I always look forward to our dates.”
This time she can’t fight her grin and the accompanying giddy blush. She risks a secret glance to him, and finds he’s smiling too.
Molly is invited to Mrs. Hudson’s annual Christmas party. Sherlock picks her up in a handsome navy suit, and she feels plain in last year’s Christmas dress. The decade hasn’t been kind to her family, though she’s grateful it could be much worse. He tells her she looks lovely, and when she meets his eye he doesn’t look away. She takes that as a sign of truth.
John and Mary have arrived when they return to Baker Street. Mary rushes over to embrace her in a hug and pull her to the drinks table. “I’m so glad you’ve come,” Mary says, pouring up a glass of eggnog and passing it to Molly. “John and I were afraid you wouldn’t.”
“Why would you think that?” Molly asks, taking a sip of her drink.
Mary glances over to the fireplace. Molly follows her eyeline to John and Sherlock, holding glasses of scotch and chatting amicably. Sherlock glances over, meets her gaze, and smiles, small and quick. If she had blinked she would have missed it.
“He’s awfully taken with you,” Mary says quietly.
“Who Sherlock? No, he’s… we’re just…” Except when she glances over at him again, he’s still looking at her. Is he?
When she looks back, Mary’s smirking at her. “Anyway, he’s awfully taken with you, and John says he doesn’t always know what to do with himself when it’s someone he likes. We were afraid… Who knows what he might’ve said…”
“No, he’s wonderful,” Molly says, and her hand flies to her mouth. “No, not wonderful. I mean-- I just mean he’s not been nasty. Or rude, or— or…”
“Himself?” Mary laughs. “Though I’m glad to hear he’s wonderful.”
Molly blushes furiously and takes a large fortifying gulp of eggnog.
Mrs. Hudson isn’t at all what Molly was expecting once they are finally introduced. She’s petite, almost frail-looking, but Molly watches her polish off four glasses of well-seasoned eggnog and not so much as blink an eye. She’s the kind of woman who could tell stories that would make a sailor blush, but never would in polite company. Fortunately for Molly, Mrs. Hudson must not consider her or Mary polite company, so they are treated to a hair-raising tale of her days performing in a vaudeville troupe.
“Wouldn’t believe I used to be a burlesque dancer now, would you?” Mrs. Hudson asks, twittering a bird-like laugh.
“Oh we most certainly would,” Mary says gravely. Molly can barely stifle her giggles.
“Did your husband really work for a crime firm?” Molly asks.
“Ex-husband, dear,” says Mrs. Hudson. “And he only laundered money, though you’d think he was second-in-charge by the way he talked. But he got what was coming to him in the end.”
“Well that explains how you manage those rowdy tenants upstairs,” Mary remarks as John slides up beside her.
“We’re perfectly lovely tenants, I’ll have you know,” John says, wounded. “Well, I am.” He points to Sherlock across the circle from him with the rim of his tumbler. “His Nibs is the one you have to watch out for.”
Sherlock stiffens. “Me?” he asks, incredulous. “What have I ever done?”
“Oh, aren’t you a laugh,” Mrs. Hudson says sternly, although her eyes are sparkling with fondness. “Those bullet holes are still in my wall, young man.” A buzzer sounds over the noise of the music and the partygoers. “Oh, I bet that’s the Milliners. Late as always…” She trails off as she flits away to play host.
Molly turns to Sherlock, one eyebrow raised. “Bullet holes?”
Sherlock sniffs and looks up and away. “No idea what she’s talking about.” Molly can’t help her grin.
The four of them chat about cases, about John and Mary’s work at the hospital, about Molly’s work in the morgue. John asks after her parents. They’re doing well. She asks after John’s, and Mary’s. All fine.
“So let’s see it then,” Sherlock says suddenly in a lull in the conversation. He’s looking at Mary.
“John told you?” she asks, holding out her left hand.
“Not in words, no.” Sherlock smirks and John rolls his eyes.
“Oh Mary I didn’t even notice before!” Molly gushes, examining the dainty silver band and princess cut diamond. “It’s lovely. Congratulations!” She pulls Mary into a tight hug. “Have you picked a date?”
“We’re thinking May,” John says, resting his hand on Mary’s back. She looks so excited, and so does John. If anyone deserves a fairy tale ending, Molly thinks, it’s Mary Morstan.
“You’ll both be there, right?” Mary asks.
“Of course!” Molly says as Sherlock rolls his eyes.
“I don’t know. I don’t really like weddings,” he says, sounding bored. Mary looks at him reproachfully and sighs.
For a moment, Molly can’t be sure if he’s serious, but he catches her eye and gives her a wink. She thinks it’s the best Christmas present she’s ever gotten.
It starts to get late, so he walks her home. He links her arm through his again. The air is biting cold, so she walks close to him. They don’t talk much along the way, but he does point out buildings occasionally, if he knows a bit of history or a fact about the architecture. She is even able to contribute a few facts of her own.
They stop in front of a church, a few blocks from her flat. The front door is open, emitting a warm glow and faint Christmas hymns. Parishioners have begun to file in for midnight mass. She doesn’t know why they’ve stopped, but when she looks at Sherlock he’s watching the sky. She follows his gaze up to a midnight blue expanse dotted with tiny glittering flecks of light. It’s so clear she can see the hazy glimmering smear of the Milky Way arcing down to the horizon. They stand there in the quiet street, staring at the stars, until the bell tower begins to chime midnight. She realizes it has started snowing.
Sherlock looks down at her. Their crystalline puffs of breath tangle between them. His nose has turned pink, and snowflakes cling to his hair. He reaches a gloved hand up to cup her jaw, brushes a snowflake off her cheek with his thumb. Painfully slowly he leans forward. His lips brush hers, hesitantly, and in a surge of boldness, she raises onto her tiptoes to meet him halfway. It’s all the invitation he needs, because now his other hand has found its way to the back of her neck. She grips his arms for balance. His lips are soft and warm and this close she can smell the cedar and musk of his cologne, the faint scent of tobacco. When he pulls away, she’s dizzy and breathless.
She opens her eyes, and he smiles at her. “Merry Christmas, Molly Hooper.”
The Watsons do get married in May at a small chapel outside London. Mary is radiant, John can’t stop smiling, and Molly only cries a little during Sherlock’s speech. They dance and eat cake and as the newlyweds climb into their hired car, ‘Just Married!’ painted on a cardboard sign in the back window, Sherlock leans over and says, “My money’s on one month.”
Molly throws her last handful of rice and looks at him curiously. “For what?”
“A baby announcement.”
“Two shillings says five weeks.” She looks at him amused and expectant and sticks out her hand.
He narrows his eyes at her and takes it. “You’re on, Miss Hooper.”
Exactly thirty-five days later, the two of them are invited to dinner at the Watsons’. They drop the happy news over dessert. She smiles sweetly as Sherlock huffs, reaches into his pocket, and drops a florin into her open palm.
In the fall he asks her to join him for a trip to his parents’ house. So she packs a small suitcase, boards a train with him, and rides through the southern countryside nearly to the coast. The fields are still a bright, verdant green, but the tree-covered hills have turned orange and red. The sky is clear and blue where it’s not filled with rolling, voluminous columns of white cloud. When she steps off the train, the air is crisp and smells of sea water.
His parents meet them at the station. His father takes her bag and his mother wastes no time brushing right past Sherlock and pulling her into a warm embrace. “You must be Molly,” she beams.
Molly nods. “That’s me!”
“We’ve not been here five minutes and you’ve already replaced me as the favourite,” Sherlock grumbles as his mother pulls him down for a hug.
“Oh not to worry, dear.” She pinches his cheek. “Mycroft was always my favourite.” She winks slyly at Molly. Her eyes are the same twinkling blue as Sherlock’s.
The ride from the station to their cottage is short and when they pull through the small wooden gate her eyes widen in surprise. This was not at all what she imagined a cottage to be. It’s monstrously huge, the sort of place one only obtains through inheritance and comes already staffed. She suddenly feels very small and entirely inadequate.
Mrs. Holmes shows them up the stairs and into two bedrooms at the end of the hall. “For propriety’s sake, of course,” she says, giving Molly a knowing look. “Though what you do under cover of darkness is your own business.”
Sherlock blushes furiously. “Yes, thank you, Mother. I believe we can take it from here.”
Mrs. Holmes tosses Molly another wink, which she catches with great enthusiasm, and sashays back downstairs. Sherlock rubs the back of his neck and looks at her from under his lashes, but doesn’t quite meet her eye. His cheeks are still endearingly pink. Poor love.
“Is this your old room?” she asks, poking her head through the doorway behind him.
“Yes,” he says following her in, “but most of my old things are gone. Up in the attic, I presume.” She looks around and is disappointed to see there aren’t more pieces of his childhood. Just a bookcase packed tight with titles like Treasure Island and Around the World in Eighty Days and a biography of Charles Lindbergh. On top sits an aluminium biplane and a framed photograph of two young boys. The smaller is unmistakably Sherlock, with his sharp cupid’s bow and head full of dark curls. New pieces of his puzzle begin to emerge and slot together. A little boy with a head for exploring and a heart for adventure. In truth, he hasn’t much changed.
The next day he takes her on a tour of the grounds. They walk through the back garden, across a meadow, to the lane that runs along the tree line. He points out local flora, gets particularly excited when he spots something poisonous. He shows her the rotted remains of his pirate ship in the forest. When they reach the brook they turn back up, along a footpath to a small white church. There is a graveyard beside it, closed off with a wrought iron gate. He takes her through it and winds among the grave markers to a marble stone engraved with the name Eurus Georgina Holmes. Below are two dates, only ten heartbreaking days apart. She looks at him questioningly.
“My sister,” he says. “She was born prematurely.”
She isn’t quite sure what to say, so she squeezes his hand instead. He leads her back out onto the path, and they head back toward the house. He stops again in front of a low stone wall.
“Why did you take me there?” she asks. “To see the grave?”
He gives a small shrug. “I thought you should know. I think you should know everything there is if I’m…” He stops, gestures for her to sit along the wall. He walks a few paces away, turns around, comes back. He sits down beside her.
“What I mean is,” he turns to face her. He looks so uncertain. “I think you should know everything about my family… if you’re going to become a part of it.”
For a moment she’s forgotten how to speak, maybe even how to breathe. “Do you…” She swallows. “Are you…?”
“I’m asking you to marry me,” he says seriously. “If you want to, of course.”
“Oh, you silly man,” she says softly. “Of course I do.” She leaps forward to wrap her arms around his neck with such force he lets out a small “oomph” and they nearly topple backwards off the wall.
“Oh, I nearly forgot,” he says into her shoulder. He reaches into his pocket. “This is for you.”
She pulls back to see a silver band, mother of pearl setting, little diamonds studded like stars around it. It’s the most beautiful ring she’s ever seen.
“It was my grandmother’s,” he says, sliding it onto her finger. Perfect fit.
“I love it,” she says, but she doesn’t just mean the ring.
They’re married on a warm sunny day in June. The ceremony is small and lovely at the cottage in Sussex. He finds her beforehand where she’s getting ready in the master suite. He knocks on the door and she pokes her head out.
“You can’t see me!” she whispers, slamming the door closed again in surprise. “It’s bad luck.”
“Molly Hooper, since when do you believe in luck?” His voice is muffled through the door.
“One can never be too careful. This is an important occasion.” After he doesn’t reply, she asks, “What do you want?”
“I want to see my soon-to-be wife.” She can hear his frustrated huff when he tries the handle but finds it locked.
“Well bad luck,” she giggles. “What for?”
“This is an important occasion,” he echoes. “I want confirmation you’re not going to run away and leave me stranded at the altar.”
She pauses for a moment, considering. “Close your eyes.”
“Close your eyes.”
He huffs again. “Okay.”
“Are they closed?”
“Yes.” She can practically hear him roll his eyes.
“Promise? No peeking.”
“No peeking,” he says, annoyed. Then, more seriously, “Promise.”
She eases the door open, peering out to make sure his eyes are really closed. Slowly, she reaches up, puts a hand on either side of his face, and leans up on her tiptoes to kiss him softly on the corner of his mouth. She hears his breath catch.
“Confirmation enough for you?” she asks him softly. He lets out a long breath and nods.
She leans in for one more to the other side, but he’s too quick. He turns his head at the last moment, kisses her square on, and pulls back with a cheeky grin.
“Off with you, Mr. Holmes,” she laughs. “I have to finish getting ready.”
“I could help with that.”
“Off with you.” She makes a shooing motion, even though he can’t see it.
He mutters a “Fine,” and turns on his heels to stride away, hands in his pockets. He turns back just as she is closing the door, and their eyes meet for only a moment. He shoots her a wink, and she falls in love all over again.
When they return to Baker Street that night, flushed from dancing and champagne, he scoops her up and carries her over the threshold and all the way up the stairs. Her laughter fills the entire flat.
He sets her down again in the middle of the sitting room, his hands never leave her waist. He presses his forehead to hers. “Welcome home, Mrs. Holmes.”
He kisses her gently and leads her down the hall into the bedroom. He undresses her slowly and carefully, lays her down and explores her body with such reverent wonder it takes her breath away. She thinks she’s never felt more beautiful.
William Michael Holmes arrives ten months later.
It’s not as though she expected parenting to be easy. On the contrary, she watched the Watsons slowly lose their collective minds for the first six months after Rosie was born. She knows it is a long and sleepless battle. But watching it happen to someone else and experiencing it for yourself are two very different things.
Her mother stays with them for the first two weeks after they’re discharged to come home, until it no longer hurts just to walk around the flat. The first night after her mother leaves, she and Sherlock lie side by side in bed staring at the ceiling. She feels as though someone’s taken her training wheels off and pushed her down a hill.
“What do we do now?” Sherlock asks her quietly. She doesn’t know how to answer that. Feed him? Keep him in clean nappies? Consider each day they manage to keep him alive a success? From his crib at the end of the bed, Will begins to fuss.
“Pray to God he doesn’t start crying,” she answers. He laughs softly. Will’s fussing has begun to pick up steam. She tenses, waits for the moment of impact when fussing turns to full on wails, but it doesn’t come. His soft whimpers have dissipated into silence again. For one brief moment she’s relieved, and then the panic hits. She sits bolt upright, crawls to the end of the bed to lean over the edge of the crib. He’s asleep. His tiny chest rises and falls. His mouth makes small suckling movements. Still alive.
She lets out a breath and crawls back under the duvet. She is, in a word, exhausted. And she knows now is the time to sleep. Nap when the baby naps. Except her mind won’t let her. Every time she dozes off, panic jolts her awake again. Panic that something’s happened to him, that he was crying but she didn’t hear it, that someone snuck in through the window and stole him away while she slept. Irrational, yes, but no less effective in making sure she never sleeps another wink for the rest of her life.
“Sherlock,” she whispers.
“Hmm,” he grunts, already half asleep.
“How difficult would it be for someone to break in through our window?” She already knows the answer, thinks she knows the answer, but the reassurance would be nice all the same.
“Very,” he mumbles, rolling over and wrapping an arm around her middle. “No one’s breaking into our flat.”
“But if someone did,” she presses. “What would we do?”
He sighs sharply. “You would stay here with Will, and I would handle it.”
“But what if you don’t handle it?”
“Impossible. Now go to sleep.” He buries deeper into her side.
“Of course it’s possible.” Her heart is beginning to thump loud and fast in her chest. Sweat prickles at her hairline. “You’re not infallible, Sherlock.”
He smiles against her shoulder. “Of course I am.” He leans up on his elbow and looks her in the face. His smug smile drops immediately, and his eyes soften with concern. “What’s put a bee in your bonnet about imaginary burglars?”
She shrugs. “I’m just worried… about Will. What if we can’t protect him? Or take care of him? What if something happens?”
“Then we’ll deal with it,” he says seriously. “But millions of bumbling idiots have managed to successfully raise children to adulthood over the course of human history. What makes you think you and I, the two most capable people I know, won’t be able to manage it?”
She smiles in spite of herself. “I’m one of the two most capable people you know?”
“Of course you are,” he says, flopping back down on the pillow. “Why else do you think I married you?”
“Oh I don’t know,” she says curling into his side and resting her head on his chest. “I was under the impression you were motivated by undying love and affection.”
His laugh rumbles through his chest under her cheek, and his arm tightens around her shoulders. “That too.” She smiles and closes her eyes, and, to her immense surprise, sleeps an entire hour and forty-five minutes before Will gets hungry and alerts her, and possibly the whole of Baker Street, to his discontent.
By summer, things have begun to change. She can feel it in the atmosphere, like a sudden pressure change, though her day to day life is no different. Her son continues to grow. She goes to the shops with Mary, visits her parents, makes love to her husband. Everything is the same, yet beyond the sea the sky is darkening.
She and Sherlock talk about it in the quiet of night. He tells her his speculations, the pieces he’s put together from his brother. She knows it does no good to dwell on it. Her feelings on the matter will do little to shape the reality of what is to come. So she watches her son instead. Records every first, every precious moment, everything she never wants to forget. She watches her husband become a father. She watches him compose lullabies, hold their infant in the crook of his arm while he meets with clients, push a pram through the park on Saturday afternoons. If she focuses on them, she can almost pretend the world around her isn’t shifting.
But the oppressive heat of summer continues, and the threat of war forms like a thunderhead on the horizon. Mycroft is their barometer, and as he grows wearier, so do they. They listen to the evening news with grim faces. Molly holds Will just a little bit closer.
She isn’t an ignorant woman. She knows what this war could mean, exactly all the ways it could rip her family and her life apart. War needs soldiers, and if it doesn’t have enough, it always knows how to find more. They don’t talk about it. She knows he doesn’t want to, and she doesn’t think she can. A part of her thinks, hopes, that Mycroft wouldn’t let it happen. He has the power to keep her husband home and safe, but she knows Sherlock would never let him use it. So she hopes and prays, and they don’t talk about it, and the war looms closer.
Will has his first birthday seven months after the official declaration. By this point, she would have expected to be drenched in the torrential downpour of war, but they’re all miraculously still dry. The thundercloud has moved inland, but it sits as a thick black blanket above them, continuously collecting moisture until the day it bursts on top of them. The waiting is almost as bad as the storm it threatens to unleash.
There is speculation that it will all just fizzle out. False alarm, no need to panic. The constant frown lines around Mycroft’s mouth and the greying at his temples suggest the opposite. They can’t avoid the inevitable forever. It’s just a matter of waiting for the penny to drop.
So she throws a birthday party. She bakes a cake and makes finger sandwiches. She blows up balloons and sets Sherlock on top of a step stool to hang streamers. Will won’t remember it, she knows, but they could all do with a bit of sunshine. Something to let steam off their pressure cooker lives. Everyone they know packs into 221B. Her parents, his parents, the Watsons with little Rosie. Mycroft even finds time to make an appearance. They sing Happy Birthday, his daddy helps him blow out the candle, and for a moment, they forget that Armageddon lies in wait.
The next month, they leave Will with Mrs. Hudson and go to dinner with the Watsons. She feels as though the air has shifted again. She glances around the restaurant and shares a loaded look with Sherlock. There are far more uniforms than there used to be. The gossip on the dancefloor all centers around Germany and its blazing trail through Western Europe.
If their trajectory continues, looks like France is next.
We’re under no obligation to help them.
If we don’t, who will?
If France falls, who next? Britain’s just across the channel.
It all hits her ears like the first sharp drops of rain.
In June, John and Mary visit and John looks as tired as she’s ever seen him. The hospital is swamped, he tells them. The boys from Dunkirk keep piling in. They’re running out of hands, out of beds. It’s only going to get worse, he fears.
“I don’t think I can stay,” he says suddenly, rubbing weary eyes. The flat is silent. Molly looks sharply to Mary, whose face betrays nothing. Have they already had this conversation? She glances to Sherlock holding Will at the window. His back is to them, but his shoulders go noticeably rigid. This is the first he’s hearing of it, as well.
“They need doctors,” John continues. “In the field.”
Sherlock turns around then. Looks at Mary, reading between the lines of her stoic mask. “They need doctors in hospitals, too, John. Service doesn’t have to mean digging a trench.” Mary lets out a slow breath beside her.
John looks up, face hard. “You can’t change my mind.”
By the end of July, John is gone. The first of their group. They all go to the station to see him off. If he is scared he doesn’t show it. Mary puts on a commendably brave face. She hugs him tight, gives him a kiss, and doesn’t shed a tear. Sherlock shakes his hand. Nothing else is said between them.
Mary comes back to Baker Street with them. On their sofa in the sitting room, Molly holds her as she finally comes apart, muffling her sobs in Molly’s shoulder. Mrs. Hudson comes up with tea. They sit in silence, each of them gripping one of Mary’s hands, a lifeline for her as much as for them.
Sherlock takes Rosie for a walk. They share a look before he leaves. He can’t stand to be there, listening to his best friend’s wife fall to pieces while he remains, unscathed and at home. She knows he doesn’t want to abandon her, or their son, but she also knows he feels useless, watching the world fall victim to a problem too big for him to solve.
That night he makes love to her, slowly and tenderly. She clings to him desperately, grateful she still has him there to cling to. In the still and quiet after, they lie curled on their sides, forehead to forehead.
“Please don’t leave,” she whispers, squeezes his hands tight. She wonders if brave, steady Mary also pleaded with her husband. Or if she stiffened her upper lip and made her sacrifices without complaint.
A pained look flashes over his face. “You know I can’t make that promise.”
She nods. She does know that, despite how desperately she wishes it weren’t true. She has no right to ask him to make promises he can’t keep.
He strokes a hand over her hair and something fierce passes behind his eyes. “But I can promise you that if I do, I will always come back.”
She presses her eyes closed. It is almost worse to hear him say it. This isn’t a promise he can make either, but her foolish heart wants so desperately to believe him. “How can you promise me that?”
When she opens her eyes again, he’s smirking at her, his eyes are soft. He suddenly looks like the man he was before the war, like the cocky young bull that strolled into the morgue four years ago. “I’m Sherlock Holmes. It would take a great deal more than a war to keep me away.”
Somehow, despite the heartbreaking sadness in her chest, she smiles at him.
He continues to take cases, but they are growing fewer and farther between. These days, everyone is losing someone, but it’s no mystery who and what is snatching them up. He begins to work more closely with Mycroft. She lies in his arms at night, and he tells her snippets about what they work on, what he can tell her without completely committing treason. Code breaking, strategizing, new and inventive ways to outsmart and outmaneuver the other guys. It helps her to know work is being done to put a stop to the whole thing beyond sending every young man in Britain to his death.
St. Bart’s puts out the call for volunteers, and she and Mary put their names down right away. They could both do with something to occupy their time, something to make them feel useful. She asks after John one morning on their walk to the hospital.
“I think he’s doing well,” she says. “Well enough.”
“Do you hear from him often?” Molly asks. She’s not sure if talking about it is helpful or just more painful.
“Yes, for now,” she sighs. “He says training is almost over, and they’ll be shipping out soon. He says the letters might be delayed then.”
Shipping out soon. She doesn’t want to ask where to. No matter where Mary says, the answer will mean nowhere good. Their work in the hospital is steady, it gives them something to do with their hands. But it is a constant reminder of the horrors happening outside their boarders. Anyone that comes through the doors could be someone they know.
“He’ll be gone a year,” Mary says as they change into their uniforms. “At least that’s what they told him.”
One year. So much can happen in a year. Molly puts on her most confident smile. She squeezes Mary’s arm. “It will be alright. We can make it one year.”
Mary looks at her, as unsure and shaken as she’s ever seen her. “Can he?”
Molly has no idea how to answer that, so she doesn’t.
The first bombs take them completely by surprise, in the way that a jack-in-the-box takes you by surprise. You are expecting it, prepared for it, but you still jump when the lid pops. At the first wail of the air raid siren, they look at each other, for a moment, uncomprehending. It dawns on Sherlock first.
“Close the curtains,” he says, rushing to turn off all their lights, extinguish all their candles. She snatches the curtains closed, scoops up Will, and heads for the stairs. Sherlock’s not following her. She turns back and he’s peeking through the curtain. His face is pinched and anxious.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
He turns back to her, conflicted. “Mary.”
Now she’s conflicted. Mary can take care of herself. She’s a capable woman. Molly tries to picture a map of London, tries to calculate the closest bomb shelter or tube station to Mary’s flat. Close, but she’d be carrying Rosie. And the fact that Sherlock would never forgive himself if he let something happen to her while John was gone. But there’s no way he’ll make it to Mary’s and then into a shelter in time if he goes on foot. And he’ll never get a cab.
“Sherlock Holmes,” she says calmly, “don’t you dare leave this flat. Mary will be fine.”
He stands there, weighing and measuring. He looks her in the eye and nods. They run down the stairs, get Mrs. Hudson, and crawl blindly down the basement steps. 221C is cold and damp. She wishes she’d thought to bring pillows and blankets.
She and Mrs. Hudson find a dry place along the wall to sit. Sherlock paces the full length of the floor, rubs his thumb along his bottom lip. He stops at the first drone of planes overhead. There’s a whistling, then an almighty boom that shakes the ground so hard her teeth rattle. She presses Will’s ear against her chest to block the noise. There are more explosions, the sounds of retaliating gunfire and cannons. The ceiling drops dust and plaster. She presses her eyes closed and waits.
Nights spent in 221C become their new normal. They leave pillows and blankets and a cot for Will downstairs. They beg Mary to stay with them at night. After waking up in the middle of one night to find Rosie, having wriggled out of her lap, crawling along a rail line, she finally relents.
Life adjusts to the new rhythm. She gets up, meets Mary, and walks to Bart’s every morning. She works hard, cares for patients, comes home in the afternoon. At dusk, Mary and Rosie arrive, and they sip tea until the sirens force them downstairs. They fall asleep to the sounds of explosions and thank God every morning when they wake up again.
One day in the middle of September, she arrives home, paper bag full of rationed groceries tucked under one arm. She rounds the corner of the first landing and stops short. She can hear Mycroft’s voice muffled by the sitting room door. Sherlock responds, louder, but she can’t quite make out the words. Whatever the conversation, it’s clearly heated. She ascends the last steps quietly, carefully, and stands to the side of the door, waffling. She could go back downstairs, let them finish whatever conversation they’re having. Except she has groceries she wants to put away. And it’s her house, damn it, and she won’t tolerate being ousted. She’s just made up her mind to barge in when she hears another shout.
“Absolutely not.” It’s Mycroft. She strains for Sherlock’s reply.
“Be sensible, Mycroft." His voice is raised, hard-edged. “We won’t get many opportunities like this.”
“Do you know how supremely dangerous what you’re suggesting is?” Mycroft says, clearly distressed. There’s a long pause. She thinks Mycroft is still speaking, but he’s dropped his voice to a hiss. She can’t make out any of his words.
“Believe me, brother, I am completely aware.” Sherlock is no longer shouting. He doesn’t even sound angry. He sounds… resigned? Weary? She steps closer to the door, desperate for more information.
“Then you know I can’t —”
“Stop loitering, Molly.” Sherlock’s voice is sharp. Her cheeks burn in embarrassment as she pushes the door open. Neither of them look at her. Mycroft stares at the ground. Sherlock rests his forehead in one hand, his bow swings casually off the index finger of the other. She goes straight to the kitchen, begins putting away flour and beans and tomato sauce.
Mycroft clears his throat. “I should be off.”
“This conversation isn’t over,” Sherlock says. There’s silence. Then footsteps. Then the sitting room door bangs shut.
Molly pushes the sleeves of her cardigan up to her elbows. Sets about making a cup of tea. She keeps her back to Sherlock. The first few bars of what she thinks is Mozart pierce the quiet of the flat. She presses her lips into a thin line, stares at her kettle as though the heat from her gaze will make it boil faster.
Suddenly the music stops. He crosses the sitting room in three long strides and stops behind her. His hands slide gently around her waist. He presses a kiss to the side of her neck.
“Sorry,” he says, lips muffled against her shoulder. She lets out a long breath and some of the tension in her shoulders eases. “How much of that did you hear?” he asks.
She turns in his arms to look up at him. “Not much,” she says, searching his face for any sort of reaction. “You have some sort of plan that could be dangerous. But what’s new?”
He laughs then, short and soft. But he also looks relieved. Some part of that conversation he wanted kept from her, and apparently he was successful. A dangerous plan, related to the war, that he doesn’t want her to know about.
“Are you joining up?” she asks, steeling herself. Her voice is cold even to her own ears.
He looks down and away and her heart rate spikes. “Not today.”
He hesitates and still doesn’t meet her eyes. “I don’t know.”
She twists, tries to pull herself free of him. Her kettle is whistling. He grabs her arm and pulls her back. “Molly.”
She closes her eyes. “Sherlock, my kettle’s boiling.”
“I don’t give a toss about your kettle,” he says, voice raised. Then more gently, “Molly, please.” She turns back to face him. His eyes are searching, pleading… afraid.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” she says quietly.
His hand slides down her arm to squeeze her hand. “I don’t want you to say anything. Just… if I’m going to do it, I don’t want to do it alone.” His eyes are clear blue, open and honest. It breaks her heart.
“You’ll never be alone, Sherlock,” she tells him and slides her arms around his sides and up to hook around his shoulders. He presses her head to his chest, lays his cheek against the top of her hair. She doesn’t have to like it. She doesn’t even have to approve. But she can’t turn her back on him. Not now.
After the next daylight raid, Mrs. Hudson packs her bags and heads to her sister’s in the country. It was for the best, Molly thought. She had watched her landlady’s nerves grow more frayed and frazzled over the past year. Getting out of London, away from the daily onslaught of explosives, would do her good.
It would do them all some good. So two days later when Sherlock tells her to take Will, Mary and Rosie and get themselves to Brighton, she’s hard-pressed to argue. He doesn’t go with them, of course. Too needed at the Home Office.
“Besides, Mycroft can’t bear to be over fifty feet from a bomb shelter at any given time. The coward,” he tells her from his place reclined against the headboard while she stuffs clothes for her and Will into her robin’s egg Samsonite. “I’ll have plenty of places to hide.”
“And you’ll stay with Mycroft full time, will you?” she asks and isn’t surprised when he doesn’t answer. He just pulls out a Marlboro and watches her pack.
Rosie and Will love the cottage in the country. They have whole meadows in which to run and frolic, though the weather has begun to turn cold, and all the gingernuts they can eat.
There are enough bedrooms that the four of them can spread out upstairs, each getting their own room. She tucks Will into Sherlock’s old bed, wild brown curls poking out from under the blankets. She stands in the doorway and watches him sleep. His Nana stands with her.
“Looks just like his father laying there,” she whispers, smiling. Molly smiles too, and some degree of tension eases from her chest.
Sherlock visits at the weekends when he can. He says the raids have slacked off, in that they’re no longer nightly, but are still happening with enough frequency that he doesn’t think it’s safe for them to return. So the weather turns colder and they continue to wait. It’s not altogether unpleasant. In fact, out in the idyllic countryside, it’s easier to pretend that life is normal. Mary seems to smile a little brighter, for a time.
Christmas is difficult for all of them. Sherlock comes down for a few days. It’s nice to have her family back together. His parents want to put on a proper Christmas feast, but rationing has gotten so tight the best they can do is a roasted chicken and some mashed potatoes. They gather round and toast their glasses, but she can feel, they all can feel, the acute sting of the gaping hole at the table where John should be.
As if by some miracle divinely orchestrated, the day after Boxing Day a bundle of letters arrive in the post, forwarded from Mary’s London address. The envelopes are mud-stained, tattered and torn along the edges, but Mary rips into them with all the gleeful fervor of a child on Christmas. Molly helps her sort them by date, then leaves her to curl up on the chair in front of the fire. Mary reads some of them out loud, the ones with funny stories or details of his whereabouts, but most of them she keeps for herself like so many sparkling treasures. Molly doesn’t blame her.
A pilot. He’s signed up to be a pilot. She finds out one weekend when he comes down for a quick visit. She knows the minute he takes her hand, asks her to take a walk with him, that something inalterable is about to occur. Has already occurred. Despite all her preparations, it takes her completely by surprise. It feels as though the world lurched beneath her, as though someone yanked a rug right out from under her entire life.
In some ways, pilot is a better straw than she could have hoped to pull. He will have to go away, but for six to eight long months, she will at least know he is safe. He could be trekking through the mud with the infantry, but instead he’ll be training, safe and sound and away from enemy fire.
But after training… The fight, she knows, is just as real in the sky as it is on the ground. The inevitable truth of war is that there is no safe job. Once you agree to join the fray, you live life on a minute-by-minute basis. And now, by extension, so does she.
“Where will you be training?” she asks as he leads her over the meadow to the lane by the tree-line.
He shrugs. “I don’t know yet. They’ll tell me when I report for duty.”
“And when is that?” She tries to keep her tone casual, curious, for his sake. She’s not sure if she’s succeeded.
“I leave the day after tomorrow.”
They walk on in silence, twisting along the dirt lanes that circumscribe the house and grounds, past the small church and graveyard, and stop at the low stone wall. She realizes he’s walked her down the same path they took the day he proposed.
“Will you stay here until you have to leave?” She looks up at him, takes his hands in hers. The wind whips her hair around her face.
He nods, and she breathes a sigh of relief. Nothing about this is ideal, but of all the ways he could be leaving, all the places he could be going, had she been forced to choose, this is the option she would have picked.
Somehow, they all manage to squeeze into the Holmes family car and drive down to the station. He shakes his father’s hand, hugs his mother, who tries very valiantly to hide her sniffles. When he leans down to hug Mary, Molly hears her whisper, telling him to kick some German arse. He’s smiling when he pulls back. Molly passes Will off to Mary when he gets to her. He stares at her for several long moments. She knows he’s trying to communicate to her everything he can’t say out loud. He pulls her into a hug and presses her head to his chest. She holds on as tight as she can.
She does well, keeps her tears in check through the whole thing. Until he pulls Will from Mary’s arms, cuddles him to his chest. He kisses his chubby cheek, whispers something into his ear, and the lump that swells in her throat borders on painful. He tickles Will’s belly and grins at his bubbling giggles. He passes Will back into her arms and kisses her quickly on the forehead. He picks up his bag, looks at her once more, turns around, and gets on the train. The whole ordeal takes less than five minutes.
His letters come with steady regularity. He tells her about officer training, about how bored he is most of the time. He has gotten his flight school assignment. In a few weeks he’ll be shipping off to America. She laughs when she reads this, can hear his disdain in the stroke of his pen. He complains about the bawdy jokes the other men tell. He says the one bright side is that there’s a near endless supply of cigarettes. He sends his love to Mary and Rosie and his parents.
She, in turn, writes to him about life in the country, about how she looks forward to being able to return to London. Truly, life is, well, boring for the most part, but she dredges up every story she can think of to tell him. Most of them revolve around the adventures Rosie and Will get up to. His mother drags out all of Sherlock’s old playthings, a set of wooden scimitars, a felt pirate’s hat, a tattered old kite that his father helps repair. She thinks Sherlock might like to know his son is thus far growing to be every bit the adventurer he once was.
A month after Sherlock’s departure, word comes of John’s injury. The letter contains no more details than that he has been shot and is being sent home. Molly watches Mary’s features shift from horrified to relieved. Injured, but alive. Coming home. They weep tears of joy together in the sitting room.
John is being sent to a hospital in London. They of course pack bags to meet him there, but Molly thinks this might also be a good excuse to move their lives permanently back into Baker Street. The news reports indicate the raids have just nearly stopped. They should be safe to return, and she misses the city. So they pack up all their belongings, kiss Nana and Papa Holmes goodbye, and go home.
By the time John arrives back in the country, he has already healed considerably. He is awake and talking when they arrive at the hospital. Molly waits outside while Mary and Rosie go in, and after a few minutes Mary calls for her, smiling. Molly gingerly gives John a hug, smiles when he remarks on how much Will has grown. He looks at her suddenly, questioning. “Sherlock…?”
She shakes her head. “He’s in America. Training to be a pilot.”
“God knows they need them,” John says. For a moment, he looks far away. Mary touches his shoulder gently, and he snaps back, visibly flinching from the physical contact. Molly and Will take their leave shortly after.
They settle back into their old lives and routines quite quickly. She spends several days cleaning and airing out the flat, which had grown dusty and stale in their absence. For his part, Will seems thrilled to be back home. He’s like his father in his need for familiarity. She gets word from Mrs. Hudson that she’s planning on returning to London soon as well. According to her, the threat of being blown up in London is now substantially lower than the threat of submitting to the temptation to kill her sister, so it’s time for her to come home. She smiles at this thought. She’s missed Mrs. Hudson, and Baker Street isn’t quite Baker Street without her. Perhaps she’s like Sherlock in her need for familiarity, too.
She returns to her volunteer position at Bart’s, glad to find that the building is still mostly standing. Mary, however, does not.
“I’m just not sure I should be gone that much,” Mary tells her over coffee at her kitchen table. “John needs… he doesn’t need to be alone.”
Mary does look tired, weary. She can’t say she understands completely what either of them are going through, but she has seen men come into the hospital as empty husks. The doctors call it combat stress reaction. She remembers it as shell shock. Temporary, usually, but no less painful to watch. She doesn’t know if Mary wants to talk, but she gives her the opportunity. “Is it… Do you want to talk about it?”
Mary gives her a conflicted look. “He’s… he’s home. Not all of him, not yet. But he’s alive, and that should count for something.”
“Of course it does,” Molly says, reaching across the table to take her hand. And it does count for something, but that doesn’t make it easier.
Sherlock finishes training in February and is given leave to come home briefly. She goes to meet him at the train station and has to physically restrain herself from leaping into his arms. He looks so relieved to see her, she thinks he might have had to use similar restraint on himself. He hugs her fiercely, and she can feel the last seven months’ training beneath his wool uniform. He is bulkier, the lines of his shoulders and chest are broader, firmer. She pulls back, takes a look at him in his tailored uniform, his officer’s hat, his new muscle, and though she feels guilty for even thinking it, she can’t help noticing what a good look it is for him.
He raises a coy eyebrow at her, as though reading her thoughts.
“My, don’t you look dashing,” is all she says. He laughs, scoops up his bag, and walks with her out of the station.
They have dinner with the Watsons that night after Sherlock has had a chance for a wash and a change into civilian clothes. He and John share an overdue embrace. For all the adventures they used to share, it feels odd that this hasn’t been one of them.
Sherlock fills them in on the details of his time in the States, of his bunk mates and what it feels like to fly a plane. He tells them about the sweltering heat and the locals’ proclivity for ruining a perfectly good cup of tea by putting ice in it. Bloody Americans. He’s been assigned to the Number 222 squadron stationed in North Weald to fly Spitfires. Molly, for all her fear and anxiety about what’s to come, can’t help the swell of pride that fills her chest.
John seems almost himself again. He has a severe limp, and when he smiles it’s not quite as bright as it used to be. But he laughs at Sherlock’s stories about his idiot flying partner, tells a few of his own stories, the lighthearted ones, the ones that skirt the wings of the theatre. By the time they scoop up Will, who’d fallen asleep on Rosie’s bedroom floor amidst a pile of Lincoln Logs, and head home, Molly feels so buoyant with happiness she could practically float along Baker Street and up the stairs.
Sherlock flies missions nearly every day. Sometimes escorting bombers, sometimes for reconnaissance, sometimes just to pick a dogfight. He writes her frequently, sometimes just a few lines to say, in vague terms, what he’d done that day and that he had made it back alive. But the mail system isn’t instantaneous. There’s always a lag, and she always worries until the next letter arrives.
Very occasionally, he has a free Saturday, and he takes the earliest train down to spend the day with them before returning in the evening. On these days, Mrs. Hudson always has a full breakfast waiting for him when he arrives, the best way she knows to say welcome home. Will is always insatiable in his quest to know what it’s like to fly an aeroplane, so Sherlock picks him up, holds him belly down, and zooms him around the flat, Will squealing in delight as he goes.
“Alright, my mighty airmen,” Molly laughs as her flying son zips past her. Sherlock sets Will gently back on the ground, smiling and panting for breath. Molly kneels in front of him, smooths his ruffled curls. “Why don’t you pop downstairs and see if Mrs. Hudson has any chocolate biscuits. Can you do that?” She eyes Sherlock over Will’s nodding head. He eyes her back, and there’s heat behind them.
Molly stands up, and she and Sherlock continue to stare at each other as Will leaves, pulling the door behind him. They listen, counting each step he toddles down. When he reaches the bottom stair, Sherlock practically lunges at her, hands gripping her waist, mouth a flurry of lips and teeth and tongue. She meets him pound for pound, arms slinging tightly around his neck. He walks them backward until she hits the kitchen cabinet. She lets out a startled yelp as he hoists her easily to sit on the counter, spreads her knees for him to push closer into her space.
“Do you think she’ll know it’s code?” Molly asks, breathless, as Sherlock blazes a trail of open-mouthed kisses down her neck and across her collar bone.
He gives a noncommittal grunt, tugs her closer with one hand on her hip, tangles the other in her hair. His mouth finds hers again, hot and insistent, the hand at her hip sliding up, along her waist, to brush at the underside of her breast. She gasps, pulls him closer, then stills at the sound of little feet thundering up the stairs.
Sherlock closes his eyes and lets out a long breath. “Apparently not,” he grits out, and helps her down off the counter. She is straightening her dress as the sitting room door opens.
“She didn’t have any chocolate,” Will says seriously, eyes pure innocence. I wonder where he gets that from, she thinks as Sherlock laughs behind her. She can’t help but smile as she bends down and wipes chocolate biscuit crumbs from the corner of Will’s mouth.
In early August, he asks them to come up for a visit. In his letter, he says it’s important that he stay close to base, but that he is off duty, so they catch an early train on a Tuesday and ride for two hours to see him.
He hoists Will on his hip and walks them around the airfield. Will is positively enamored by the flurry of crew and planes and asks a near endless litany of questions, which Sherlock dutifully answers. He walks them past his bunkhouse, though doesn’t take them inside. He takes them to see his plane, holds Will up so he can peer inside the cockpit. Will is so dazzled you would think he’d seen the face of God.
“Alright, Cap?” Molly turns around to see a young red-haired man standing a few paces away and holding a camera. When Sherlock turns, the young man salutes.
Sherlock returns it quickly. “McDonnell. Is everything okay?”
“Oh yes, sir,” McDonnell says, rocking back on his heels. “Everything’s fine. I wondered if you wanted a picture. With your family there.”
“Oh no, we’re—”
“I would love one,” Molly says over him, smiling sweetly up at him. He sighs, but comes to stand next to her. Will still sits on one hip, his other arm comes to wrap around her waist.
“You’re flying point for group one tomorrow, right?” McDonnell asks as he presses the shutter and snaps the picture.
“That’s correct,” Sherlock responds.
“I’m your new right wing.”
“What happened to Davies?”
“He’s been in the loo all morning, hurling his guts up—” McDonnell catches himself as Sherlock clears his throat. The tips of his ears turn pink. “Sorry, Mrs. Holmes,” he mumbles. “I mean, he’s taken ill.”
Molly presses her lips together in amusement.
“Well, then I’ll see you bright and early,” Sherlock says. “Oh six hundred.”
“Yes, sir,” McDonnell salutes again. “See you tomorrow, Tec!”
“Tec?” Molly asks after McDonnell leaves.
Sherlock’s mouth quirks up in one corner. “I believe it’s short for detective.” Molly squeezes his arm and smiles to herself.
They have dinner in town and take a walk down to the park. Will falls asleep curled up on a park bench, his head in Molly’s lap. Sherlock sits beside her, one arm stretched behind her along the back rest. She sun sets slowly in front of them.
“Molly,” Sherlock says after a long stretch of silence.
“Hmm?” She turns to look at him and his face is drawn with worry.
“You should know... tomorrow’s mission is a big one,” he says, voice strained. “Everything up to this point has been a warm up.”
Molly swallows thickly. “Okay.”
He turns to look at her and his eyes are haunting, shining with something she can’t quite place. “So you should be prepared for… I might not—”
“No,” she says forcefully. “Don’t talk like that. Please, don’t.”
“Molly, I need— If something should happen—”
“But it won’t. I know it won’t, because you promised—” she takes a shuddering breath. “You promised you’d always come back.” It’s not fair of her, she knows, to throw this back at him, to make him catch this impossible promise and hold it for her. But it’s been the one thread of hope she has thus far foolishly clung to since the day he left. He can’t cut it on her now.
He looks at her with such a pained expression her heart clenches painfully behind her ribs. But he doesn’t respond. Whatever he was trying to tell her, he drops it, pulls her to him and kisses the top of her head.
He walks them back to the station, a still snoozing Will on his shoulder. He stops her on the platform. He brushes a hair back from her face, leans down, and kisses her with all the gentleness of the first time, in front of that church on that snowy Christmas Eve.
“I love you, Molly Holmes,” he whispers, head resting against hers.
She closes her eyes. “I love you too, Sherlock.” The whistle sounds behind them, and he passes Will to her. She looks back at him as she climbs the steps to the carriage. He’s watching her intently. She finds her seat, stares at him out the window, watches him grow smaller on the platform as the train pulls forward. She tries to tamp down the overwhelming feeling that he was trying to say goodbye.
Her doorbell rings four days later. Mary is there with Rosie. They’re sipping tea and watching their children gallop around the sitting room on pretend horses. The doorbell buzzes in the middle of Mary’s story about nearly setting her hair on fire with the mood lighting in their bedroom.
She descends the stairs, still laughing at Mary’s description of John’s look of horror, and opens the door to a pair of uniformed officers. Mycroft stands, looking grim, a few paces behind them. Her blood turns to ice in her veins.
“Mrs. Holmes?” the taller officer asks.
She nods mutely. She wants to slam the door, wants them to spare her whatever rote speech they’re about to present, but she finds she can’t move.
The officer glances at his partner, clears his throat. “We deeply regret to inform you that on the nineteenth of August, your husband’s aircraft was shot down in the course of duty over enemy territory. He has not since returned, and his status is now missing in action, presumed dead…”
She thinks vaguely that the officer continues talking, but there is a great ringing pressure in her ears. She can’t hear him. She can’t think. She stares at a point behind them, gropes blindly for the stairs behind her and sits down. There is a rhythmic whooshing, like a washing machine. She numbly realizes it’s the sound of her own blood coursing through her circulatory system.
She doesn’t know how long she sits there before Mycroft’s face swims into view. He’s knelt in front of her, appears to be looking for some sort of cognitive response. There’s a sharp gasp to her right. She turns her head to see Mrs. Hudson, hands over mouth, eyes scanning between the officers, Mycroft, and Molly. She chokes out a muffled sob.
Then the world seems to erupt. People are talking, maybe to her, who knows. There’s movement up and down the stairs, hands on her, hands pulling her. She can’t stop sitting on the stairs. If she moves, if she stops staring at her fixed point out the door, some spell will be broken. She will trip the delicate wire holding everything together and go tail spinning into madness. Into some alternate reality where her husband is dead.
When she blinks herself back into awareness, it’s dark. There’s a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She stands on shaky legs, climbs the stairs. John and Mary are sitting on her sofa when she walks in. They look up at her, concerned and grief-stricken.
She looks around the sitting room. “Where’s Will?”
“Asleep upstairs,” Mary says quietly, watery.
Molly nods, turns, and walks like a puppet into the kitchen. She puts the kettle on, pulls down three mugs. She is vaguely aware that Mary has entered the kitchen with her.
“Molly…” she starts, so gently it sets prickles of annoyance down Molly’s arms. She doesn’t answer. She has nothing to say.
“Molly, what are you doing?” Mary tries again. She sounds like she’s talking to a cornered feral cat.
“We could all do with tea,” Molly says flatly. “I’m making tea.”
Mary takes a step toward her. Reaches a hand out, then thinks better of it and brings it back. “You don’t have to make us tea. We can—”
“What else am I supposed to do?” Molly snaps, rounding on Mary, eyes flashing. Mary’s eyes widen in surprise, but she doesn’t flinch. She just stands there, waiting for Molly to speak again, waiting for her chest to stop heaving in anger.
Molly feels it, the moment the wire snaps. She can almost even hear it. One moment she’s dangling precariously over a black void, the next she’s free falling, heart and stomach rising into her throat. She’s momentarily deafened again by the roar of wind in her ears. Again, she realizes it’s just the sound of her own heart pumping.
Mary sees it too, she thinks, because she rushes forward, catches Molly by the shoulders before she can fall forward into her boiling kettle. Mary gathers her to her, hugs her tightly, and there’s a flood of grief she is barely holding back behind a crumbling dam.
“What am I supposed to do?” she says again, and the levee breaks.
Three days later, Mycroft calls on her.
She hasn’t seen him since the day he hid behind a pair of soldiers and watched them tear her life apart. Bile rises in her throat as she opens the door. A sudden furious anger rolls through her. How dare he continue to breathe in his comfy office when his brother very possibly lay dead in a ditch in German-occupied France. She clenches her teeth and lets him in.
He’s there to talk about the funeral service. “His plane was shot down over enemy lines. We were unable to recover his body.” He’s speaking so matter-of-factly, so conclusively it makes her nauseous.
“Arrangements are made at Durham and Sons,” he continues. “A wake and a graveside service scheduled for the day after tomorrow. I have arranged for a car to pick you up. Eleven o’clock.”
“Why are we having a funeral?” she asks, tries not to sound combative, but doesn’t quite succeed.
Mycroft tilts his head slowly. His eyes squint in confusion. It reminds her so much of Sherlock it momentarily steals her breath. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s too early for a funeral,” she says. “He could still be out there. We don’t know he’s dead. It’s barely been a week.”
“Molly,” he begins. Once again she feels like she’s being talked to as though she were a wild animal, a grenade that might go off at any sudden movement. She grits her teeth. “His plane crashed over German territory. No one… no one saw a chute deploy.”
“Just because no one saw it, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.” Molly snaps, forcing herself to look him in the eye.
He sighs, a tiresome, exasperated thing. The sort of sigh she gives Will when he’s asking too many questions she doesn’t have the answer for.
“He could have been captured. We don’t know that,” she presses.
“We do know that,” he says sharply. “POWs are reported. In fact, they have already been reported from the day of the crash. He wasn’t on the list.”
She can feel herself grasping. She’s begun to fall again and she’s grabbing at every branch within reach on the way down, but missing them all.
“Please,” she says weakly. Her breathing has become laboured. She grips the arm of the sofa, trying to regain some kind of control over herself, but her chest aches with the effort of not hyperventilating. Hysterics will hardly help her prove her point, prove that she’s making a rational argument. “Just a few more days, Mycroft. I can’t give up on him yet.”
Mycroft is looking at her with his very specific brand of pity. Equal parts I’m sorry you’re grieving and I’m sorry you’re so delusional. It does nothing to calm the rabid panic threatening to claw its way up her throat. “I can’t…” she says, and now she knows she sounds manic. Breathless and panicked. “He can’t…He wouldn’t do this, not to me. Not to Will.”
His face softens into something resembling genuine empathy. Like he’s admitting to his own suffering. He reaches a tentative hand out, like he’s only making his best guess as to what to do in this situation, and lays it on her shoulder.
“Dear sister…” he says quietly. The kindness threatens to break her.
They have the funeral as scheduled. Putting it off, she realizes, won’t make him come back any faster if he’s still alive, won’t raise him from the dead if he isn’t. She stands at the head of an empty casket with his parents and greets mourners. Her parents help wrangle Will, help shield him from any unnecessary trauma from those who would smother him in their own pity and grief. He’s still so young, but he’s growing and as bright and perceptive as one would expect a Holmes child to be. The last thing she wants is for him to feel coerced into grieving before he’s ready in a way he doesn’t understand.
By the time the wake is officially over, she’s emotionally exhausted and her feet hurt. It’s odd, she thinks, that it’s not enough for you to lose someone you love, but that you should also be forced to stand in front of a crowd and display for them the merits of your grief. She’s grateful, then, that the graveside memorial service is small. And short. She feels, once it’s over, that she should feel something particular about seeing a grave, his grave, but she doesn’t. It’s a marble slab with his name chiseled into it sitting over an empty patch of earth. Next to it is a pre-bought plot designated for her, and one day she’ll be buried in it, but not next to him. Because he’s not there. So his grave is just another patch of dirt, and it means nothing to her.
John and Mary offer to take Will for the night. She is so tired she aches from it, wants nothing but to curl into her bed and sleep for days, but she couldn’t bear to not have her son with her. To just abandon him. So she takes him home and they heat up one of the many casseroles stacked in the ice box. She gives Will a bath, cuddles him up against her until he falls asleep, and makes herself close her eyes and recite the bones of the body until she also drifts off. She wakes up the next morning, and nothing has changed.
She carries on living because it’s the only thing she knows to do. She pulls herself out of bed every morning, makes breakfast, drinks her coffee. She does her cleaning and her shopping, takes Will for strolls in the park with Mary and Rosie. Invites her parents for dinner and makes occasional trips down to Brighton. As much as she wishes it wouldn’t some days, the world continues to turn, and so life continues its linear trajectory forward.
Eventually, against John’s warnings, she resumes her volunteer work because she thinks it will help. Work is the best antidote to sorrow. It will keep her mind and her hands occupied. She can help other people in all the ways she couldn’t help Sherlock. It will be therapeutic, she thinks, cathartic. Except it isn’t. Not at all.
She sees him everywhere. Every pair of blue eyes are his, every head full of dark curls. Eventually every pilot, every soldier that ever stepped foot in France. She spends half an hour trying to resuscitate a patient until other nurses have to physically restrain her, just because his cheekbones look like Sherlock’s. They send her home, tell her she needs a rest, she’s working too hard. On the contrary, she thinks. She’s not working hard enough.
So she trudges up the stairs. She thinks maybe they’re right, maybe a lie down will help, so she doesn’t bother to fetch Will from Mrs. Hudson’s. But she doesn’t sleep. Doesn’t even try. She steps one foot into her flat and knows it would be pointless because suddenly every inch of the place is covered in his fingerprints.
It has been easy, until this moment, to disregard his absence as anything meaningful. He hasn’t been home in a very long time. Waking up to an empty bed, coming home to an empty flat, that is all par for the course, and she’s gotten used to it. And yet today she opens the sitting room door and he’s not there and the permanence of it hits her all at once. He’s not here for now has suddenly become he’s not here at all. And so every corner, every surface that’s been humming over the past year with the potential energy of his eventual return suddenly turns loose all at once. And he’s just… everywhere.
She folds herself into his chair and stares at his violin, lying in its case, collecting dust. She thinks if she closes her eyes she can hear him playing. She can see him, standing by the window, in his blue dressing gown. No, perhaps it was the red one. In her mind he plays Bach, but she can’t quite call the melody, the exact piece he was playing. His eyes are closed. She watches him, amused, from her chair. Like a tripped wire, his eyes spring open. ‘Oh!’ He bounces over the back of his chair and onto the sofa where the wall is covered in maps and photographs. She doesn’t remember the case. There might not have been maps. But he practically leaps over to her, takes her face between his palms, and kisses her soundly. ‘Brilliant woman.’ ‘I didn’t say anything,’ she laughs. ‘No, but you made me think of it!’
There’s another memory, on the mantel, of the week before her due date. Of coming back up the stairs from tea with Mrs. Hudson to a wall full of lists and timetables, two suitcases open and half-packed, one for him and one for her, and a frantic Sherlock trying to wrap Yorick the skull in… something. A tea towel maybe. ‘What on Earth do you need the skull for?’ she asked. For the life of her she cannot remember what he said. Something about ‘What if John’s not there?’ Whatever it was she laughed so hard she thought she might send herself into labour.
There are more on the sofa. Tense stand-offs over a chess board, an argument over bills (the first fight they ever had), falling asleep with an infant Will on his shoulder. And of course the kitchen counter, the last time he was here, the feeling of his lips on hers, his warm hands on her waist. She breathes in and she can almost remember his scent, but when she reaches out it vanishes, slips through her fingers. It’s cedar and tobacco and something else, something him. An icy cold fear grips her hard, yanks her out of his chair, and sends her spiraling through the flat, pulling down every picture she has of him. Their wedding photo, his service photo, a family portrait taken when he was barely sixteen. Anything she can find she dumps onto the bed.
The wardrobe is her next victim. His scent has to be there. It’s the only place untouched by use and laundry. She opens it, pulls out a shirt. She buries her face in it and inhales, but it’s just washing powder. Not even his cologne. She pulls out another, tries again, still nothing. She tries another and another until she’s frantic, ripping his clothes from the hangers and throwing them across the room. It’s gone, it’s all gone.
She reaches blindly into the wardrobe again and her fingers feel wool. There in the back is his giant ridiculous coat. She runs her fingers over it and can almost feel the solid form of his bicep and shoulder underneath. She pulls it out, puts it on. It swallows her whole, but when she turns her face into the collar, he’s there. Cedar and musk and tobacco and sweat and Sherlock.
She has a sudden vivid memory of walking home from the morgue on a fall evening, of forgetting her coat at home that morning, of Sherlock rolling his eyes and slipping his around her shoulders. Before he asked her to dance at that Italian restaurant, before they were even friends. ‘But now you don’t have a coat,’ she said. ‘Really? I hadn’t noticed,’ he quipped and started walking down the street in the direction of her house. She can’t remember the rest of their walk home, what else they might have said, but she remembers the smell and the warmth of his coat. She remembers thinking that if this is the closest she ever gets to Sherlock Holmes she could die happy.
She crawls onto the bed, picks up her wedding photo. It’s only been four years but they look so much younger. She runs her thumb over his face. To the untrained eye he looks affectless, mouth barely upturned, especially next to her painfully bright smile. But to the person who knows where to look, to the person that knows his eyes always give him away, he’s as giddy with joy as she is. She studies him, commits every detail she can get from the picture to memory, reaches into her own brain to pull out everything else. She closes her eyes, makes herself remember the sound of his voice, the deep rumble of his laughter. It took her a month to forget his scent. What happens when she can no longer hear him? When she can no longer feel the warm solidity of his body? What happens when all of her specific images of him playing at the window coagulate into a blurry caricature of a man in a dressing gown with a violin?
What will she tell her son when he asks about him? She can show him pictures, tell him stories of his magnificent adventures with Dr. Watson, of his smaller adventures with the two of them. She can tell him that he used to fly him around like an aeroplane, teach him the elements of the periodic table before he could talk, read him Robinson Crusoe a chapter at a time while he was still in the womb. She can tell him of his father’s love for him, that he was the center of his world. But it’s not enough, it will never be enough. There are no words to adequately convey what it feels like to be loved by Sherlock Holmes, and Will won’t remember. He’ll never know.
And it’s that thought that blows a hole through her, pulls the gut-deep sobs from her chest, and sends her crumpling to the mattress. She curls tightly in on herself, squeezes her arms around her middle in an attempt to close the gaping wound there, and buries farther into the black silk lining of his coat. And in the safety of his embrace, for the first time since the funeral, she lets herself come apart.
In a way, allowing herself to fall apart was her first step towards putting herself back together. That’s not to say it happened immediately. The raw wound in her chest ached for days, and after that a sort of numbness. A hollowed out feeling that lasted for weeks. For much of that time, if it hadn’t been for Will, she would have never left her house. Even still, he would toddle downstairs to Mrs. Hudson’s, and she would use the opportunity to lie on her sofa and stare blankly at the wall until Mrs. Hudson brought him up again, usually with a cuppa.
But in the fourth week, the fog begins to lift. She joins a war widows’ group at Mary’s insistence, which is to say Mary takes her by the arm and drags her bodily to the meeting hall and sits with her through her first meeting. And while a tiny rebellious part of her still refuses to believe she is a widow, the group is nice, pleasant. She expected a circle of sobbing women, feeding and perpetuating each other’s grief, but it is every bit the opposite of that.
They joke and laugh and talk about every facet of life, beyond just the tragedy that brings them together. It is cathartic in a way she wanted volunteering to be but wasn’t. To know she isn’t alone. To have a circle of women, of friends, that can at least sort of understand. The group has frequent meetings. They take on projects to help the war effort. They pack care packages for the boys on the front. They knit scarves and socks. Will plays with the other children during the meet-ups. It feels good to be busy again.
A parcel arrives just before Christmas. It’s just a plain brown paper package, but it’s stamped as having been processed through the RAF. Her heart skitters foolishly. She dumps out the contents onto the kitchen table. A roll of film and a short, handwritten note, Happy Christmas signed D. McDonnell.
She gets the film developed right away, and she and Will spread the photographs out on the sitting room floor. Many are of young men she doesn’t know, and Will immediately goes for the ones of the planes, but there are three that make her breath catch and she pulls them out.
The first is a shot of two men. The first, the one standing in the background, slightly blurred, she doesn’t know. But Sherlock sits in profile on the right. They’re outside, and he appears to be sitting on a kind of tool cabinet. He’s in a white short sleeve, tinkering with some sort of radio in his hands. He doesn’t look at the camera, his focus trained on whatever he’s working on, but he’s grinning around a smoldering cigarette. Trust him to be photogenic when he’s not even trying.
The next is the photo McDonnell took of the three of them on the airfield. It’s a good shot, the nose and propeller of his plane are framed perfectly behind them. Sherlock is even smiling, but, as always, his eyes give him away, and they’re not smiling.
The last is another shot in front of a plane. Three men in flying gear stand in a neat line. In the middle is Sherlock, McDonnell stands on his right, and someone she doesn’t recognize stands on his left. It’s the last photo on the roll, taken after their family portrait. I’m your new right wing, she hears McDonnell say. This was taken that morning, the morning he…
The wound in her chest begins to throb again. Not an all-consuming agony like it used to be, but an uncomfortable dull ache. There’s that roaring in her ears again, and this time it sounds like a low-flying plane. Will, no doubt sensing her distress, climbs into her lap, pulling her like a balloon back down onto the Earth.
“Is that daddy?” he asks, pointing to the picture in her hands.
She nods. “It is,” she says. Then a thought occurs. “Would you like to hear a story about him?”
He nods enthusiastically, and it makes her smile. There are so many to tell, she’s not sure which one to pick, but eventually she settles on starting where all good stories start: the beginning.
John and Mary find themselves expecting again. Molly expects a wave of traitorous jealousy, but it never comes. Instead, she watches Mary’s belly swell with a vicarious sort of joy. She knits baby booties. She plans a baby shower. John and Mary tiptoe around her, hyperaware of the precious gift of their predicament.
“You don’t have to worry about me… about… this,” she tells Mary one afternoon over a cup of tea. Mary just looks at her, eyes shining with sympathy.
“Really,” she continues. “It’s… okay. I’m okay.”
Mary reaches out and puts a hand on her knee. “You, Molly Holmes, are the strongest woman I know.”
She laughs softly, but looks away. She isn’t particularly strong, not really. She isn’t doing anything that hundreds of women across London aren’t also doing. Her widows’ group taught her that. You want to think your grief is special, that your pain is somehow so much brighter than anyone else’s, but then you meet five other women just like you. You meet a woman who found out she was pregnant and found out her husband was dead in the span of a week. You meet a woman who lost a husband and a son on the same day. And as much as it’s not a comparison, it is a gentle sort of reminder that it could always be worse. So if she’s strong at all it’s because they are, because they’ve all made some sort of silent pact to hold each other up.
She says all this to Mary, in not quite so many words, who tells her she doesn’t give herself enough credit.
And that’s the crux of it, it’s not about credit. And it’s not about strength. She doesn’t get a prize for continuing to live despite incredible loss, as though she does it out of dignity or noble heroism. As though it’s a sacrifice she chose to show her loyalty to the cause. She does it because the other choice is to lie down and die, and so she isn’t strong and she isn’t a hero because if given the choice, she’d be labeled as an undignified coward for the rest of her life if it meant getting him back.
She doesn’t say any of this to Mary.
On the one-year anniversary of the crash, Molly is in the kitchen. Supper is on the stove. All her various and sundry visitors have finally gone, not that she doesn’t appreciate the sentiment. The radio plays softly in the background. She feels remarkably content considering the day.
Will sits at the kitchen table, swinging his legs, colouring, and humming what might be ‘A Pirate’s Life’. She whisks eggs in a bowl and peeks over his shoulder at a drawing of a sailing ship gliding through what appears to be space.
“Is that the moon?” she asks him, pouring the eggs into her frying pan.
He looks up at her through the mop of curls on his forehead. Definitely time for a cut. He squints his eyes and cocks his head, the Holmes-patented short-hand for are you really that big of an idiot or are you putting me on? It makes her smile as much as it scratches at the scar in her chest.
“It’s not our moon,” he tells her as though it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “It’s Titan.”
“And whose moon is that?” she asks, knowing full well that she already knows and that he would love to tell her anyway.
Will huffs, sounding entirely put upon, but when she looks over her shoulder at him, he’s simpering like he knows a juicy secret. His eyes always give him away. “Saturn’s,” he says brightly.
“Oh? What else do you know about Titan?” she asks, and it’s like the starting pistol at the derby because suddenly, as she thought he would be, he’s racing at break-neck speed through every fact he knows. He could be spinning her a complete yarn for all she knows about celestial bodies, but she has little doubt that’s not true. So she listens and scrambles eggs and smiles contentedly to herself until a song on the radio catches her ear.
It’s one she would know anywhere, and the surprise of hearing it, today of all days, nearly yanks the rug right out from under her. It’s their song. The one from their first dance in the Italian restaurant. The one they danced to at their wedding. Her breath catches. She rushes to the radio and turns up the volume, and suddenly she’s there. The memory is so vivid someone might as well have sent her back in time. The band plays and the crooner sings, and she’s waltzing under starlight in the back garden of his parents’ house.
I’ll find you in the morning sun
She can feel the fabric of his suit jacket, cool and smooth, under her cheek. She can hear him humming softly over her head, his chin bumping lightly against the comb of her veil. She can feel his hand in hers and his arm around her waist. She begins to sway.
And when the night is new
She twirls the way he twirled her, hears him laugh when she steps on his foot. Her eyes close and her heart sings in the memory.
I’ll be looking at the moon
She inhales, looking for his scent again. He’s so close, she can reach up on her tiptoes and press her nose into the warm skin of his throat. She sniffs. It smells like smoke. Her eyes spring open.
Smoke pillows in black plumes around the door of the oven. Will looks between it and her, eyes wide with fear. “Oh God.”
She rushes into the kitchen, yanks open the oven door, and in her rush pulls out the baking sheet with her bare hand. She drops it onto the stove with a loud yelp. Her hand throbs in white hot pain. Will has begun to cry behind her.
“It’s okay, love,” she tells him, pulling him into the sitting room, away from the smoke. Her hand burns with the effort. She pushes open the windows and sits on the sofa, pulling him into her lap. She can feel him trembling.
“Shh, it’s okay.” She pulls his head to her chest, lets his tears soak into her blouse. With a force as powerful as the day he died, an overwhelming, agonizing grief punches into her, and she clings to her son as the tears wrack through her.
But I’ll be seeing you
“It’s going to be okay,” she tells him again. She wants to believe it.
Molly is sure to be at the hospital when Charlotte Elizabeth Watson comes screaming into the world. She, John, and Mrs. Hudson wrangle Rosie and Will until they finally let visitors go back. She and Mrs. Hudson take turns minding the children while the other goes for their visit.
Mary, shining with sweat and exhausted, is grinning widely when Molly comes in. John stands by her bed, cradling a bundle of blanket and baby. When she walks into the room, an overheard light glints off the crown of his head, and for a moment it’s suddenly Sherlock standing there, holding Will in his hands, staring at him with such terrified wonder. ‘Hello, William,’ he says, so softly, and she watches him transform, as she did four years ago, from a man into a father.
She blinks and he’s gone, as quickly as he appeared. It’s John again, holding Charlotte in the crook of his elbow and smiling down at her.
“I’ve done this once already,” he says quietly, “but somehow it’s still astounding.”
Molly smiles and peeks over his shoulder. Charlotte is so small, her tiny face peering out from the folds of her white blanket.
“Would you like to hold her?” John asks. She hesitates, but nods.
She has forgotten what it is like to hold an infant. Will has been so big for so long, and keeps growing. Charlotte is tiny, she barely weighs anything. She curls her into the crook of her arm and stares down at her, smiling and running a thumb gently over her forehead. She sways softly and Charlotte blinks around, her little mouth smacking and suckling. “Hello, little one,” she coos.
Molly marvels at this tiny living thing. She marvels at the spark of creation that still exists in the world, that life can continue to grow and thrive amongst the ashes, in spite of everything. It is appropriate, she thinks, that one life would begin with the ending of another.
The letter arrives just after the new year. It’s a very official looking envelope embossed with the seal of the United States Air Force. She frowns but tears it open gently and pulls out the contents.
The top sheet is a cover letter on official letterhead. The following letter, it tells her, was found among the personal effects of one Major James Sholto. It says the letter contained her address and so was mailed to her as promptly as possible.
She flips to the second sheet and it is so surprising, so utterly unbelievable, that she is positive she’s imagining it. She scans back and forth across the page of his handwriting until it occurs to her that she’s not hallucinating, and so she stops, starts back at the beginning, and reads it slowly, carefully. It’s very short, but what words there are contain multitudes.
My dear Molly,
I know that things are hard, and I fear they might be about to get harder, but if you are ever in doubt, remember my promise to you. If you are ever lost, look to the moon and think of our song, and they will guide you home. Know that I will be doing the same.
You and Will are never far from my thoughts. Give him my love.
She reads it over and over until her eyes are swimming with tears and droplets have smeared the page with ink. What perfect timing, a year and a half after the fact. Where was this letter then, when it was all still fresh, when she most needed it? She scans the letter for a date. August 19, 1942. Her heart quite literally skips a beat.
She grabs her coat and the letter and Will and runs them down the stairs, knocks frantically at Mrs. Hudson’s door. She opens it looking harried.
“I’m so sorry this is out of the blue. I have to run an errand, an emergency errand. Can Will—”
But she cuts her off. “Yes, yes, of course.” Molly gives him a hug, tells him she’ll be right back, and runs into the street to catch a taxi to take her straight to Whitehall.
It isn’t hard to present some identification and be shown directly to the secretary’s desk that sits outside of Mycroft’s office.
“Is he in?” she asks, out of breath.
“If you’ll take a seat I will call you if he is available,” she says primly, looking at Molly over the edge of obnoxiously shiny reading glasses. “May I ask your name?”
“Is. He. In,” she tries again, but the secretary merely stares at her. So she marches past the desk and shoulders her way through the oak door. He’s sitting at his desk, two terrified assistants are perched on chairs in front of him. The three of them look up, startled, at her stormy entrance.
“Did you know?” she spits, waving the letter in front of her.
Mycroft raises his eyes to her and blinks owlishly. He waves off the two assistants, who scuttle quickly out the door, shutting it behind them. “Excuse me?” he asks, once the two of them are alone.
“Did you know?” she asks again. “That he survived the crash.”
Mycroft looks alarmed. “What makes you think he did that?” She says nothing but passes him the letter. He holds it out in front of him, scans over it back and front, and mutters to himself.
“What did you say?” She snatches the letter back. “Did you just say ‘careless’?”
He schools his features into a cold, reptilian stare. “No. What about this letter makes you think he survived the crash?”
“Look at the date!” she exclaims. It’s obvious, it’s so obvious. “That’s the date of the crash.”
“And you think that means he wrote it after he crashed.” It’s not a question. He leans back in his chair and lifts a sardonic eyebrow.
“When else would he have written it?” She thinks she’s starting to sound desperate, but she doesn’t care. This is an open-and-shut case, and she has an air-tight solution.
“Well the obvious answer is before he ever got on the plane,” he says coolly. As though that answer makes more sense than hers. She knows it doesn’t, but can’t say why. Oh six hundred, his voice echoes around her head.
“His call time was six in the morning!” Her voice has gone shrill. “You think my husband, my husband, woke up earlier than that? Early enough to write a letter?”
“So what if he wrote it after?” Mycroft snaps. It’s the shortest he’s ever been with her, with anyone that she remembers. “So what if he survived the crash and wrote the letter after. How does that change anything?”
“Because he could still be alive!” She explodes, hands thrown into the air. How could he not see this?
“And he’s what, wandered around the fields of France for a year and a half without the Germans spotting him?” His voice is still hard, but his eyes have softened fractionally.
“Wouldn’t we know if they had?” She crosses her arms over her chest, a preemptive suture. “You said they report prisoners—”
“Prisoners, yes. Not the ones they shoot on sight.”
Molly flinches as though he’s reached out and slapped her. She presses her eyes closed, tries to push away that mental picture. Mycroft sighs, and it sounds defeated. The room swells in tense silence.
There’s a sharp knock at the door, startling both of them. Molly looks up as a brunette woman in an army green uniform opens the door.
“Sir, the transmission’s just come through,” she says crisply. “There’s news from Reichenbach.”
Molly looks to Mycroft, who suddenly appears pale. She has a feeling their meeting has come to a close.
“Thank you, Anthea,” he says quietly, then looks to Molly. “I trust you know the way out?”
It’s not the rudest dismissal she’s ever gotten from him. The rudest was technically directed at Sherlock, but as she was also in the room, and he also wanted her to leave, she counts it. The ride back to Baker Street is long and heavy with outlandish possibilities.
Mycroft is right. Whether he wrote the letter that morning or after the crash, it doesn’t matter. It’s been nearly two years. He can’t have survived that long, not without being captured or killed or at least getting in contact with her. And yet…
And yet his letter sounded so pointed. His promise, that he’ll always come back. Their song… I’ll be seeing you. So he’ll look at the moon and he’ll think of her, which is all very sweet. Unless… Maybe, perhaps, he means I’ll be seeing you… soon. Later. Again. After all, if he was gone, wouldn’t she feel it? Wouldn’t she know?
No. Stop it. You don’t feel death, she worked in a morgue long enough to know that. Watched her father pronounce enough people dead.
And did he do that by feeling it, Molly? The voice in her head sounds like Sherlock’s. Did he just think really hard and decide if they were dead?
No. Definitely not.
So what did he do instead?
He checked for a pulse. Checked their breathing. Checked involuntary muscle response.
Good, he used his senses. And what are your senses telling you? What are the facts telling you?
That your plane crashed over German territory and it’s been over a year and a half and no one has heard from you.
All indicative of…?
She pays her fare, collects her son, and they go home. She shoves the letter in a box of his things and pushes it into the farthest corner of the wardrobe, and she can almost pretend she doesn’t hear it whispering to her.
In May, Mycroft comes to visit. She is surprised to see him when she opens the door. The lines around his eyes are deep, and he grips the brim of his hat tightly in his fist. He doesn’t even try to smile at her, just asks if he can come up and see Will. She nods, “Of course,” and watches him trudge slowly up the stairs.
She makes him tea, but he doesn’t touch it. He watches Will construct a fortress out of Lincoln Logs on the sitting room floor, frowning deeply, eyebrows furrowed in thought. She watches him watch Will, and he looks sad, so incredibly sad. His shoulders sag under the weight of it. If she didn’t know better, she would say it’s the posture of grief.
“Mycroft,” she tries gently. “What’s wrong?”
He looks up at her briefly and his expression is pained. It’s the most emotive she’s ever seen him, like he doesn’t even have the energy to put a mask on. He can’t quite meet her eyes and looks quickly down and away. Like he’s ashamed. A sickening thought occurs to her. She isn't sure where she's pulled it from, what puzzle pieces have suddenly clicked together to form this conclusion, but somehow she thinks she knows the answer before she even asks the question.
“He’s really dead this time, isn’t he?” she asks, and ever so slightly he winces. It's all the answer she needs.
“This entire time,” she can feel her blood pressure rising, but takes a breath, tries again. “He’s been alive this entire time hasn’t he? And you knew. And you didn’t tell me.”
He doesn’t look at her, but very quietly, “You buried him two years ago, Molly.”
“Except we both know that’s not true.” She gives him a tight-lipped smile, even though he’s not looking at her to see it. “Is it?”
“It might as well have been,” he says, and this time he sounds a little more like himself. “The chances of him making it back were so slim, it was easier for everyone to think he was dead.”
“Easier?” she hisses. Will looks up, startled, so she takes another breath, pushes down the righteous fury cresting in her chest. “In what way is telling me my husband is dead—lying to me—easy?” He doesn’t answer.
Suddenly she remembers their last conversation. The furious wave threatens to crest again. “When I came to your office. That letter—”
“That letter was reckless and foolish and could have gotten him killed.” Mycroft says, with an air of absolute finality.
“But I was right,” she says low and fierce. “I was right, and you told me—”
“I told you what would keep him safe.” He does look at her now, looks her directly in the eye. “His very existence was a state secret so big only myself and three others knew about it at all. Any whisper, any thought, that he might have survived that crash would have put him in jeopardy.”
“So what’s happened now?” Fear begins to wrap icy tendrils around her heart. “How can you talk about it now?”
His shoulders slump again, as though the weight they had been carrying suddenly returned two-fold. For a long time, he’s silent, and her patience grows thin. She’s about to demand answers when he speaks. “We got a mayday call. His position had been compromised, and he had to drop off the radar. That was two weeks ago. We haven’t heard from him since.”
“So you come here, to my house, to grieve for a man I thought died two years ago.” Anger and sadness are playing a fierce game of chess inside her. But when Mycroft puts his head in his hand and lets out a long shaking breath, it’s checkmate and sadness sweeps the board. It feels like burying him all over again.
Mycroft disappears after that, goes so deep into the bowels of the government she doesn’t hear from him for weeks. And if that isn’t enough to warn her something big is coming, John’s request one Thursday night during dessert is.
“Your women’s group,” he starts awkwardly, clearing his throat, “the one you’re in, the one for…”
“You can say widow, John,” she says, light and teasing. “It won’t bite you.”
Mary snickers and his cheeks turn red. “Right.” He clears his throat again. “Well, the group, it takes on a lot of projects, right? War projects?”
She nods. “We’ve done a lot over the years. Do you have a project for us?”
“We’ve gotten word, sort of a battle stations warning.” He takes a sip of coffee. “They expect a major influx of patients soon. We’ve started laying in supplies.”
“Do you know what it is?” Mary asks, cradling a nursing Charlotte in her elbow. “Did they say?”
John shakes his head. “No, nothing specific. Just to be prepared for something. Something big.”
A shudder runs down Molly’s spine. “What is it we can help with?” she asks.
John tells her they have a bandage shortage, an everything shortage really, but bandages you can improvise. “Anything you can get your hands on,” he says. “If it’s fabric and absorbent.”
So she agrees, says she’ll rally the troops, and they get to work. For days, it feels like all she ever does is cut and roll bandages. They get together when they can, it’s so much more pleasant to have company for a tedious task. Those that don’t have as much time to devote to rolling dig through cupboards and wardrobes for anything they can part with. Molly finds some old bath towels she can spare, some shirts Will has outgrown. She stands for a long time considering if she really needs her curtains, but decides against pulling them down on the off chance of another air raid.
They load boxes of bandages onto tube cars and ride them to Bart’s. The nurses greet them with grateful faces, and they fill the supply shelves full, but every time they return the shelves are empty again. It feels a never-ending Sisyphean task.
And one bright day at the beginning of June the news broadcasts and she knows they’ve gotten their something big. Every frontpage is filled bottom to top with reports from the invasion at Normandy. Some positive, some negative, it’s hard to tell at first whether they’ve done something good or made an incredible mistake.
Within weeks the floodgates have been completely destroyed in the mad rush to get beds under bodies. Every hospital in London is overflowing. The ladies of her widows’ group roll bandages as fast as their fingers can roll, but they’re running out of materials. They’ve already started scraping the barrel, collecting from friends and family.
Molly digs every linen out of every cupboard in the flat. Thinks very hard about what she could sacrifice. She goes to her wardrobe, sifts through her blouses and skirts for anything she can live with never wearing again, sliding hangers across the rack until she runs into the first of his shirts and comes to an abrupt stop.
Her fingers linger over the soft, light blue fabric. No. I can’t. Not this. But she reaches in, pulls the hanger off the rack and holds the shirt in front of her, rubs it between her fingers. How long? She thinks. How long are we going to keep doing this? But the prideful, stubborn stalwart in her digs her heels in. As long as it takes. She shakes her head as though to clear it.
As long as what takes? As long as it takes for him to come back or as long as it takes for you to finally realize he isn’t? Because the truth, she knows, is that as long as his clothes hang in her wardrobe, she still believes. Believes in him, in his promise. And there’s a tedious romantic in her that, if given half a chance, would never let them go. But the longer they hang there the less they are a beacon of hope and the more they are a burden. Because as long as she’s hanging on, she can never move forward.
She takes the first shirt off the hanger, tosses it onto the bed, and she feels it, the sharp ripping in her chest. It feels, in a way, like ripping a bandage off a gaping wound. It feels, in a way, like betrayal. But she pulls another one out, tosses it similarly to the bed, and the pain is less, and so she is able to keep going, to keep pulling out shirts and trousers until there’s a mound on her bed. She keeps one shirt, the aubergine one, her favourite, and his coat. Every other item she folds carefully, lovingly, and stacks in a box.
She arrives the next day at the meeting hall with the box tucked under her arm. Several other women have already gathered, and when she sits down among them with her box and her shears and pulls out the first shirt, they nod at her in encouragement and sympathy and understanding.
She feels as though she’s hanging over the abyss again, but it’s not quite as scary as it once was. She has a torch this time and a parachute, should she need it, and people to call should she hit the bottom and find she’s broken something. And she dangles by a single shining gossamer thread, a thread she’s held onto since that night, the night he gave it to her. She expects that she’ll cut the line with the first snip of her scissors through the fabric of his shirt, but she finds instead that it’s less like cutting a line and more like letting it go, and, to her surprise, this time round letting go is a lot less like falling and a lot more like flying.
She sits reading in bed on a hot night in July. Soft lamplight spills over the page of her book and across the tuft of brown curls poking out from under the blanket beside her. She runs her fingers through them as she reads. There’s a noise downstairs, like the sound of the front door opening. She closes her book and listens intently. Another noise, a solid thunk like the door’s been shut. Surely Mrs. Hudson wouldn’t be going out now.
She continues to listen. There’s a rhythmic thudding, like footsteps coming up the stairs. At the creaking of the middle step, her heart quickens. She eases out of bed and into the hall, closing the door behind her. She creeps into the sitting room. It’s dim, lit only by the light of the moon streaming through the window, but she sees a shadow pass under the sitting room door. She reaches for something, anything heavy, and her hand lands on a cast iron bookend. She wields it like a cricket bat as she listens to a key slip into the lock. She watches the doorknob turn, watches the door swing open, and she can barely hear anything around her over the thundering of her heartbeat.
There’s a black figure silhouetted in the doorway. It’s not making a move for her, so she grips the book end tighter and squints at the intruder. And suddenly all the air is sucked from the room. There’s pressure in her ears and an intense ringing. The bookend falls with a solid thud onto the hardwood.
She thinks she must have fallen asleep or finally cracked or something, because it's him standing in her doorway, and it can't be real. He looks like a ghost, skinny, pale, hair laying limp on his forehead, but it’s him. His silver blue eyes shine in the moonlight. She tries desperately to remember how to breathe. He doesn’t move. She closes her eyes, counts to five, and when she opens them he’s still there.
“You’re not real,” she whispers at last, and he takes a hesitant step forward. When she doesn’t move away, he takes another, then another until they’re toe-to-toe. He stands there, staring down at her. She can see his chest rising and falling, feel his breath whispering over her face.
“You’re not real,” she says again and it’s croaking, strangled around the lump in her throat. She reaches up carefully, slides her fingers along his jaw, and is surprised when they don’t just pass right through. He closes his eyes at her touch, turns his head into her palm and breathes deep. It sucks the wind right out of her lungs.
“I assure you I am.” He says it so lowly she can barely hear it. But it’s his voice. His rumbling baritone. She feels it vibrate through her palm and down her arm. He reaches for her hand, turns it over to press a gentle kiss against her knuckles.
"You came back," she chokes out, all the air still inexplicably missing from her body.
He smiles softly at her. "I promised you I would, didn't I?"
Suddenly she’s breathing again, but each breath is quick, gasping and hiccuping. He wraps her into a hug. She presses her face into his neck and breathes. It’s sweat and dirt and gunpowder and him. He holds her as her hiccuping breaths turn to sobs against his shoulder, and when her legs can no longer support her, he takes them gently to the floor.
When she's calmed down a little, he pulls back to look at her, hands cradling either side of her face. He tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, and warmth floods her, from her head, down her arms, and to her feet. Quite suddenly she remembers all those empty hangers in the wardrobe, and she sucks in a sharp gasp.
He looks at her with alarm, his hands tightening on her. "What?"
"I cut up all your shirts," she says around another hiccup. She can't be sure if she's laughing or crying. "For bandages."
His grip on her softens, and he lets out a huff of relieved laughter. He looks at her with such fondness, and when he pulls her to him again, she can feel his shoulders shaking. She's not sure if he's laughing or crying either.
There are soft padding footsteps behind them, and they break apart. Sherlock looks over her shoulder into the kitchen. He sucks in a breath and squeezes her hand.
“Mummy?” Will asks in a small, sleepy voice. She turns around to see him standing in front of the ice box in his blue footed pyjamas, dragging a teddy bear with one hand and rubbing his eye with the other.
She opens her arms to him. “Come here, love. Look who it is!”
Will takes two cautious steps forward. He squints through the dim light, takes two more shuffling steps. Recognition lights up his face. “Daddy?”
Sherlock nods. “Yes, it’s daddy.” His voice is strangled and raw.
Will launches himself forward, wraps his little arms tightly around his father’s neck. Sherlock hugs him just as fiercely and closes his eyes. A silent tear rolls down his cheek and drops onto the top of Will’s head.
The quiet joy of their reunion is shattered by the thunder of footsteps running up the stairs. Molly looks up to see Mycroft, panting and leaning against their doorframe.
Sherlock eyes him over the top of Will’s head. “You’re late.”
Molly manages to get Will back to sleep. After many, many promises his daddy will still be there in the morning, he finally drifts off.
She and Sherlock and Mycroft sit around the kitchen table. She’s waiting for someone to tell her exactly how and why her dead husband is now sitting, quite alive and sipping tea, beside her. She can’t take her eyes off him. She thinks if she blinks or looks away, he’ll flicker out of existence. She’ll look back and he’ll be gone. She reaches out and hooks her pinky to his, like an anchor. He seems to understand what she needs because he covers her whole hand with his and squeezes firmly.
“I didn’t…” Mycroft starts and rubs at the lines on his forehead. The war has aged them all, but especially Mycroft. “I didn’t know he was alive until three weeks ago.”
She manages to peel her eyes from Sherlock to stare incredulously at Mycroft. “And you didn’t think that would be a good time to tell me?”
“He was under my strict orders not to,” Sherlock says quietly.
She whips her head around to look at him, eyes shining in betrayal. “Whatever for?”
Something hard and determined seems to set in his features. “Because alive didn’t mean safe, Molly. There was no reason to give you some sort of false hope when my chances of making it back to England were still slim to none. Nothing was certain until I was back in the country.”
“And when was that?” Her eyes sting with the threat of more tears, but she blinks them back. Now is the time for understanding, not crying.
“Not more than three hours ago,” Mycroft says, staring at the table. “I came straight here as soon as I got word. To prepare you. But—” He looks sharply at Sherlock. “Someone beat me to it.”
“I wanted to tell you.” Sherlock’s voice is quiet, his head bowed over his mug. He rubs circles in the back of her hand with his thumb. “I didn’t know, if I sent you a letter, that I wouldn’t just get killed the next day.” He looks at her then, his eyes so full of guilt and grief and soul-deep weariness. It’s enough talking for one night. He’s home. He’s alive. She needs nothing more than that.
She helps him into a hot bath, lays out his pyjamas, waits for him in bed until he slips in quietly and curls himself around her. His breath tickles the back of her neck. She closes her eyes at the warmth and sturdiness she thought she would never feel again. When she wakes up the next morning, he’s still there.
When he’s ready, they tell the Watsons and Mrs. Hudson and his parents. There are more tears, more celebrations. She relives the feeling of overwhelming joy and relief with each person they tell. The more days that pass the more he feels real again. The more she trusts he won’t have suddenly disappeared again each morning.
He tells her the story of his time away in pieces over the following weeks. He tells her of the crash gone wrong, how he was meant to be alone but had to suddenly improvise amongst a whole crew of pilots and bombers. He tells her about his new identity as Major Reichenbach, how he had to arrest his own men to prove his German loyalty. She gasps at this, that he could have his own friends thrown into a prison camp.
“It was better than the alternative,” he says.
He tells her about smuggling information to the Home Office, coordinates, attack plans, troop movements; about never knowing if the intel he provided made any difference; about helping his friends escape the camp. He tells her about the nightmarish moment he was found out, his fortunate run-in with a troop of American forces.
“It took me a month just to convince them I wasn’t actually a German,” he laughs, but it isn’t very funny.
The invasion at Normandy was his lucky break, the perfect cover for an extraction. It took them a month to make it back to London in one piece.
“And here I am,” he finishes.
“Here you are,” she agrees. It feels so good to say.
And he is here, most days. But not all day, not every day. Sometimes she thinks he’s still in France, in a German field tent or pinned under artillery fire in an American fox hole. Sometimes he thrashes in his sleep, mutters commands into his radio, and she thinks he must be falling, crashing his plane all over again. She wants to take it from him, but there’s nothing she can do.
On the day the war ends, the streets of London flood with people and celebration. They bundle up against the cold and wade out into it and to the Watsons’. They pop champagne and stand outside on the front steps, watching fireworks erupt over Westminster. Will and Rosie cheer and run down the sidewalk waving Union Jacks on little wooden sticks. Molly watches them and smiles. They have no idea why they’re cheering, but the hope charging the air is so palpable even they can feel it. Sherlock wraps an arm around her, pulls her into his side. She looks up, watches him watching the display. Greens and reds and blues reflect off his skin and sparkle in his eyes.
He catches her watching him, and looks down at her quizzically. “What?”
She shakes her head. The honest truth is that she had been thinking about how beautiful he is, how grateful she is to have him back in her arms, but she can’t tell him that. So instead she says, “Just wondering what you’re thinking about.”
He turns his head back to the fireworks, squeezes her a little tighter. The display ends, and the sky is streaked with smoke. She thinks he’s not going to answer, but then he looks at her again and says, “That I’m glad to be home.”
221B is dark, save for the twinkling of the Christmas tree and the glowing red fire in the grate. The flat is peacefully quiet. Will sleeps upstairs, curled around a shiny new firetruck. Bing Crosby crackles softly through the radio speakers, and snow flurries drift outside the window onto the quiet street below. The sitting room floor is littered with wrapping paper. Molly picks through it, crumpling pieces into little balls.
“Leave it,” Sherlock says from his armchair. He puts down his new illustrated guide to natural poisons, and opens his arms. She curls into his lap.
“I think that went well,” he says lightly, smirking at the mess on the floor.
“Yes, I would say so.” She smiles at him and brushes a hand through his curls. His blue eyes dance in the firelight. They have seen so much, she thinks, to shine so brightly now. “But I have one more present for you.”
“Yes.” Her eyes sparkle mischievously. “But you’ll have to guess.”
“I never guess,” he says and winks at her. “Am I allowed to ask questions?”
“Okay, ahh,” he pauses to think. “Is it in this flat?
“Is it in this room?”
“Yes.” She’s grinning widely at him.
“Is it in my lap?” He’s grinning now, too, and eyeing the top button of her dress.
“Yes,” she says, “but it’s not me.”
He looks up at her curiously. She watches the gears turn behind his eyes. In an almost visible flash of brilliance, he's got it. “Oh,” he breaths, looks down at the waistline of her dress. When he looks back up, she nods at him.
He starts to laugh. Softly at first, then a full joyous laugh. It is such a beautiful sound she is swept away in it, and they’re both laughing. In one swift movement, he stands up pulls her to his chest. He twirls her around the sitting room until they’re both dizzy.
He stares at her intently, catching his breath. When he leans forward and dips his head, her heart stutters, and it’s like it’s the first time. He kisses her softly and rests his forehead against hers. “Merry Christmas, Molly.”
“Merry Christmas, Sherlock.”
The song on the radio changes into an old familiar one. She closes her eyes and rests her head over his heart. Snow falls. Stars twinkle in the sky over London. And in their little second story flat above Baker Street, Molly Holmes dances with her husband.