Molly Hooper doesn't think of Sherlock often, whatever else anyone might suspect.
His was never a regular presence in her life, for all her hoping. A day here, a week there. Fleeting hours, spent in silences both easy and not, piling atop one another until they gave the impression of more. Moments culled from the middles of long shifts when she raised her head to see him pause at the observation window, cataloguing the bodies spread before her with the minutest movements of his eyes. Seconds in which he bent his head as if to pray and Molly had to curl her hands into fists to keep from reaching out to trace the long dark line of his back.
These memories she hoards like a miser. Tucked away in dark corners, they will stay sharp-edged and bright as ever.
She keeps the smile on her face and her head held high as she walks the halls at Barts. She was only ever a mouse around Sherlock, letting his cool stare pin her to the floor or send her scurrying for shelter, for time to lick her wounds and bolster her courage. She has to remember to leave that Molly behind. Mousy Molly, squeaking and dreaming, with stars in her eyes and awkwardness rippling in her wake.
She never was the only one to watch when no one else was looking.
When she thinks of Sherlock at all, it is deliberate. It is planned. She lets it build within her, a rising pressure against the back of her throat and in the hollow of her chest. She has had so much practise buttoning secrets away. Keeping them hidden, keeping them safe, held behind her teeth and folded up in her gloved hands. A lifetime's habit will not break easily. Sometimes Molly wonders if that's why he asked.
When the time comes, she sits in her dark flat and watches with Toby as headlights slide along the walls from the street outside. He chatters and chases them down the length of the sofa. He leaps, front paws splayed against the plaster. He sniffs the darkness where they disappear but doesn't seem disappointed that the chase only ever begins again.
His fur is soft and sleek under her hand and the room fills with the sound of his purr. There are silvery scars on the back of her wrist from his claws, before he learnt to keep them sheathed when she stroked his white belly.
Molly doesn't sit in the dark to remember Sherlock's eyes narrowed against the lights of the lab or the dry snap of his fingers echoing across the room. She doesn't remember the feel of that heavy coat under her hand when she dared to brush away the snow that dusted its lapels. Doesn't remember the pale skin of his lips, the dark wet curls against his brow and neck, the press of his cool fingers at her wrist, and the flutter of relief that threatened to burst from her chest. All of those she saves for later.
Instead she thinks of Sherlock striding along a sunlit pier. The coat with its high collar is gone, of course. So are the suits, sleek and posh. His hair will be lighter, or longer, or both. Perhaps it's neither. Perhaps instead it is dark and short, or curly, or gone, the pale pearl of his scalp seeming almost to glow in the brightness of the day.
She hadn't pressed for details. She hadn't asked for anything at all, except to be allowed to help. And even that she hadn't needed to do, had she? Molly had always been an open book to him, as easily read as any potboiler plucked from a shelf. Easier even, every thought, every feeling, painted on her skin. But for the once—that one tiny moment she took him by surprise, his eyes sliding across her face, her heart leaping in her throat—he knew everything there was to know about her.
But there in the half-lit lab, as they worked side by side, he had told her the things she had always wanted to hear. About the work. About the things he had done, the things he had planned. He let his secrets slip freely into her keeping and she held on as tightly as she could.
Molly can see him clear as day: white hands shoved into pockets; slim, sun-roughened fingers peeling a piece of fruit; arms swinging loosely at his sides; scarf rippling in the salt wind. All of the details change, an insubstantial haze of clothing and complexions and postures that shifts from one moment to the next.
His feet stutter on the boards as he catches a glimpse of the words floating on a wall, paint still fresh enough to stink, his breath catching in his throat as his eyes take in a thousand details all at once. Will he turn to look behind him or will he move closer? Will the corners of his mouth twitch up, just the slightest bit? Or will his face stay blank, unconcerned, eyes and lips steady as he walks on?
This is more dangerous, she knows, and it runs through her like a chill. The moments she hoards pale in comparison to this shining scene in her head.
One night, sitting in the dark, feeling the rumble of Toby's purr against her skin and thinking of the words that appear upon that sunlit pier, Molly lets hope rise within her. Wherever he is—wherever Sherlock has found himself, whatever it is he does—Molly hopes that he pauses as she cannot.
In the day, she remembers to flinch, to duck her head and hurry past in case someone is watching. But there, scratched into plaster and wood and stone, sprayed on the sides of buildings and papered over advertisements, the words bloom across the city like mushrooms after the rain, in shades both bright and dark: