(look west and look away)
"Molly," he says, "I think I'm going to die."
The breath stops in this body that she's worn so long it's gone essentially human, but it doesn't mean that he's deduced her, finally, in the face of his insistence on answers provided by science. Certainly if anyone could do it it'd be Sherlock Holmes, and why else would he be looking at her like this after all this time?
But she can't be sure. And either way her answer is the same.
"What do you need?"
Again, with a curl of fire in her fingertips: "What do you need?"
He takes a step towards her. Another. His pupils are huge and with almost no effort she can feel his mortal heart racing along; he's scared. Approaching her on the plane of equals -- or at least that's probably what he thinks, he's that arrogant, Sherlock Holmes who, yes, knows what she is and what she can do -- and he's staring her right in the eye, but at least he finally has the good sense to be frightened.
"You," he says.
It's what they always say.
Molly clears her throat.
Three times. It has to be three. If he knows the power in that then he has time to interrupt her, and if he doesn't then he shouldn't be asking in the first place.
"What do you need?" she says one last time.
They're sitting next to one another on the edge of a metal morgue table, their hands resting in the gutter that drains the blood away. The very image is so poetic that Molly has to wonder if he steered them here on purpose.
She thought she was hungry when she wanted him for his brilliance and the way he sweeps through crowds like they're night mist and seaspray, like he possesses any kind of real power. And she did want him, she watched him and dressed up for him and dared him to watch her in return, dared him to use his scalpel observations to catch a glimpse of her reality. But to have that full-moon, high-tide soul so close, and offered so freely -- this hunger makes the other seem like the barest wistful thought. Molly is more tongue-tied than ever, but right now it's because she's trying not to thrum out her wanting in a language that would pluck at the hairs on his arms and leave acid grooves on the soft palate of this inadequate form.
"The roof isn't all that tall," she points out, resorting to facts; they're both comfortable with those.
"I know." His hands spasm, fretful, then catch hold of one another briefly and subside back into the gutters. His voice is as fast as ever, though soft. "There's no guarantee that death will be quick, let alone instantaneous. Depending on where my spine breaks and which of my internal organs rupture first, I could be alive for a while. Certainly for long enough to reach the morgue. Do I get a discount of some kind, if I don't actually die?"
"That's not how it works." Molly pats his hand with hers, or rather his fingers with her palm, that's the angle and the discrepancy in their anatomies. "I'm not offering healing. I don’t drag people back from the edge."
"No, that's the domain of mortals, isn’t it?"
They're silent. For once Molly has the pleasant feeling that their thoughts are running more or less along the same lines.
"Would you offer him that sort of -- deal?" Sherlock says finally. "Not offer, obviously, I know you have to be asked. But if he did."
"Is that likely?"
"I haven't told him, if that's what you're asking," Sherlock says. "I can keep some secrets. So no, I don't think John is in any danger of making such a rash offer."
That, there, is the crux. John Watson would take any deal, sign any contract and waltz straight into any hell, to bring Sherlock back from the dead. He'd be fantastic at it, too. He'd starve before touching a crumb and he'd look soldier-straight ahead all the way out. It would be a depressingly poor deal, on Molly's part, if she were silly enough to gamble with her business instead of demanding a set price.
But Sherlock isn't going to let him. It's heartwarming; unoriginal, but still heartwarming.
"You're prepared to be mine," she says, trying out the sound of it. "Absolutely mine."
Sherlock glances at her. He doesn't say it, but she can hear him thinking: not in any way that matters. The poor, trapped, searingly wonderful man. If only she didn't have to prove him wrong. She doesn't owe him any more of an explanation -- he came to her -- but this heedless acceptance feels almost like an underestimation, again.
"It won't be a deferral," she says. "You don't get to live out the rest of your life and then hand it over like -- like a used handkerchief. From the moment you wake up, your soul is mine and I can use parts of it whenever I want. You could think of it like a bank account."
He gives an impatient twitch of his shoulders; slips one hand into the pocket where he keeps his phone. "All right. I accept your analogy. What happens when you make a withdrawal?"
"You're a little more soulless," she says. And, because she can't help it: "Maybe nobody will notice the difference."
"Hah," Sherlock says, thoughtful. "And where does that leave me when the money runs out?"
Molly looks at the toes of her shoes.
"Begging for death," she says. "In my experience."
The silence of her experience forms and spins in the air. Sherlock's face is an unmarked sheet. He lowers himself to his feet and turns to look at her.
"It appears I will be depending upon your kindness, Molly Hooper."
She can feel herself blushing. She's been called kind before; she's even been called benevolent, in a time when more people knew which family of adjectives was most appropriate. But if Sherlock thinks she's kind enough to leave her payment untouched, to politely refrain from spending just because the original owner is still around, then he doesn't know her and -- for all his arrogance -- he doesn't know his own value. They so seldom do.
"If you're sure," she says, "we need blood."
Half of his mouth tugs briefly. "Blood specific, or blood general? I assume you mean mine."
She nods. He knows her workspace well by now; he knows where the sterile scalpels are, and he fetches one with no fuss.
"How much?" Sherlock says, and although he looks as calm as ever his voice is a shipwreck on the first word, broken and grinding against rocks.
Molly opens her palm between them and concentrates. The skin splits down a thin line, no more than a graze, and blood wells to the surface.
"Like that," she says, as gently as she can.
Sherlock opens a bloodied line on his own hand that's a mirror image of hers, and Molly is at war with herself at the smell of the salt, greedy and jubilant and somehow, at the same time, terribly terribly sad.
"Is this the only way?" she asks.
"It's the best way," Sherlock says, the shipwreck now banished to the softest crashing echo in the roof of his mouth; "It's the only way I have enough time for," and he grabs for her hand and closes their slippery palms together.
Alone she walks among her bodies, swinging her legs to delay each step, unable to settle. Sherlock was so sure of the way things would go, up on the roof, but she can't help thinking that Jim Moriarty has surprised him before; there's not that much to choose between them when it comes to these games.
Jim. Molly dated him because that's what she does, from time to time, and she left him because that's also what she does, on a timeframe that can lie anywhere from days to decades. She never suspected. It's a bit embarrassing. And she was left with a jarring unease, knowing him belatedly to be Sherlock's chaotic half: did he know what she was? Would he have come to her with his soul in his hands and London lamplight in the depths of his eyes, asking her to cheat death?
What little she knows of him, the real him, suggests not. (But then, how much would he care? How loudly would he laugh as she ripped his soul to gradual rags?)
She feels Sherlock Holmes die like someone has snapped a rubber band against the unbroken skin of her hand. It jolts to the surface of her mind a thought that she's been trying to avoid: this, the first deal that she's made in a very long time, is not as impersonal as the others.
There are almost no lies in the way that Molly presents herself, only omissions, and if Sherlock had failed to sketch his own escape hatch in the ceiling of Jim's trap, if he had really died, she would have mourned him with an honest aching grief. She hasn't made a deal for someone like that before, someone she'd consider a friend. She tries to keep things in their proper boxes; typical of Sherlock, though, not to stay in his box.
It takes a long time for the body to be wheeled in. Molly forces herself to be on her laptop when it is, entering data for a multi-centre study that the head of the pathology department enrolled them in -- having all of her tools set out, an empty table clean and waiting to receive him, might look a tad macabre.
"Molly," says the porter, and she stands up, too quickly. He holds out the folder of documents. "From outside, not an inpatient."
"Thanks, Nithin." She goes and takes them from him, flipping to the bare-detailed front page. "Suicide?"
"Right from our own roof, apparently," says Nithin, shaking his head. Molly is glad it's him, of all the porters; his almost prideful disregard for current events means that he's unlikely to connect the infamous Sherlock Holmes to the strange man who sometimes hangs around the labs whipping dead bodies and changing the microscopes to the wrong focal length for Molly's eyes, let alone connect either of those to the corpse in the bag.
"Goodness," Molly says sombrely. "No, here's fine, I'll get to it straight away." as Nithin nods questioningly towards the cold room door.
She keeps flicking as Nithin transfers the body, Sherlock's body, to a table. The name's on the paper, all right, but that doesn't mean he was recognised; doesn't mean he'll be recognisable, more to the point. He carries a wallet. Severe head trauma, someone's written, dead on arrival. There you are, Sherlock, the roof was tall enough after all.
Leaping from a building means autopsy but doesn't necessarily mean a coronial inquest, not with John Watson as a walking, breathing suicide note.
Oh, John, she thinks. Where are you, breaking alone?
They won't let him down here but she doesn't think he'll have left; he'll be as close as he can uselessly be.
Molly waits for Nithin to leave. Then she quietly locks the doors. There's not much for her to do, per se -- the deal was made, the potential transferred, as soon as their bloody palms touched. All that's needed now is a nod, a trigger.
She unzips the bag; its closed interior isn't something anyone would want to wake up to. Her stomach juices give a quick, apologetic roil when she sees Sherlock's face. At least his eyes are closed. She'd bet more than money that someone had to do that, fumble gently to keep them from slitting open again. She'd bet he leapt with his eyes wide, and won his staring contest with the concrete.
So quiet, so still, he could be lost in thought.
"All right," she says, "that's enough now, you did it," and puts her hand on his cold cheek, a green light signalling go to the well of her own power that's somewhere in this blood now clotting in his hair, now smudged on her fingers. The rubber band snaps again, knocking her hand away. There; done. Now the body just needs time to remember itself.
Back to her laptop and she opens a template for autopsy reports. It's surprisingly hard to get the flow of it without the preceding action, without her own soft observations played back on the voice recorder. But she's been doing this for a long time, she knows how to write a convincing fall from a height in the language of haemorrhage and fracture. She knows where the contusions should be. She describes the blood both inside and outside his skull in such precise clinical detail that it’s almost a shock when he takes a noisy breath, kicks off the bag and runs a hand through his newly clean hair with groggy, early-morning petulance.
"Interesting," he says. "I thought it'd be more like a general anaesthetic."
Molly bites down on a giggle. Sherlock Holmes, on his resurrection: interesting.
"How do you mean?"
"Instantaneous transition. This wasn't like that, it was more like normal sleep"
Sherlock is shrugging off his coat. He glances at her. "Like waking from sleep," he says again. "The feeling that you've had dreams, but no memory of what they were."
Molly's never wondered what dreams might await a soul that flees only into limbo, that has nothing better to do than curl up and wait for something to tug it back to life again. It's a curious thought.
"Your spare clothes are in the cupboard with the specimen cups," she says, tapping out a few words on the macroscopic appearance of his imaginary kidneys. "I thought it would be better if they weren't lying around in plain sight."
He fetches them and, in knowing disregard of Molly's quickly averted gaze, starts to unbutton his shirt. The darkness of the fabric only goes so far to disguise the stiff splotches of blood.
"Scars," she says, when her peripheral vision informs her that he's almost naked; reminded by the existence of all that skin. Now she's blushing again. "Um, identifying marks, do you have any? They'd be in the report."
The pale blur of Sherlock pauses, then steps into the clean pair of trousers. "Nothing in particular," he says.
The bloodied clothes he packs into a plastic bag, when he's dressed. They'll be cleaned and returned to the next of kin.
"Who's that?" she asks.
"I suppose it'd better be Mycroft," he says distastefully, "if it's to look like I had no say in it."
Molly hugs the bundle to her chest; the coat is heavy and its arms keep trying to slip out of the plastic. "What are you going to do from here?"
"Surely you could find out without much difficulty," Sherlock says, and oh, that's how he wants it to be. He wants her to join Mycroft on the list of people for whom his grudging respect manifests as snippiness. Molly can't decide if that's better or worse than before.
"Well," she says, hurt. "Or you could trust me enough to just tell me."
He looks at the floor, the ceiling, perhaps considering just as Molly did the likeliest place for John Watson to be sitting, scorched with anger and cradling his loss. Something stiff and distant leaves him, flows away almost visibly through his bare feet and down the metal drains set in the tiles.
"I can't come back to life until it's safe for me to do so," he says. "It will take time. Money. Deaths, perhaps, I haven't planned all the details of that part yet."
"What? Oh, no, dead already, useless. Other people. And you --" He stops and brings the considerable weight of his full attention to bear on her. "Will I know, when you're taking some of it away?"
"You'll know," she promises.
He shifts his shoulders, uncomfortable, this man who seems to have spent his limbo dreaming himself a plan to win back the life that Jim -- dead already, Molly didn't expect that -- shattered and ejected him from like a nut from a shell. Words crack out of his mouth like bullets.
"Fine. Just . Give me some warning when I'm about to run out, that's polite, isn't it, you do polite, don't you, Molly Hooper? Send me a card. Some kind of official notice."
"I'll make sure to count to ten," Molly says.
She texts him: May I come and visit?
Simply turning up on the doorstep might give him the wrong idea, and she won't endanger this friendship now that it is, ironically enough, closer than before. Text is the safe and acceptable language of negotiation for anything, in Sherlock's world.
She's also fairly sure that if she said 'can' instead of 'may', she'd get something cutting and incorrect about omnipotence in return. Instead Sherlock simply texts her an address, and a spark of mischief that has nothing to do with her power prompts her to wear a nice frock and bring a bottle of aggressively mediocre wine picked up at Sainsburys. Sherlock opens the door and looks down at her like he's drawn a blank, for once; Molly smiles prettily at him and hands him the wine. His hair is shorter and the new apartment has the faint whiff of cigarettes.
"How have you been?"
He doesn't answer, as scornful as ever of inanities, but she doesn't know how else to begin. She is far too much a product of her willingly-donned experiences, and she likes Sherlock precisely because he's rejected the game of human life in a way that only humans can.
"How close are you to finishing?" she tries instead, and that gets her a real look over the door of a cupboard. He appears to be searching for food suitable for offering guests, though all he's managed to turn up so far is a jar of pickled onions, a block of dark chocolate studded with raisins, and a bewildering amount of pumpernickel.
"Closer. I had a productive conversation yesterday."
They end up drinking the wine from green plastic tumblers. The hand that passes one of them to Molly has deep scratches across its knuckles. Sherlock notices her noticing, and the set of his mouth sends her question scurrying back into the silence of potential.
He snags a pack of cigarettes from the table, extinguishing her unspoken hope that the smell was due to a previous occupant. He doesn’t smoke like she thought he would; there's nothing aesthetic about it. His fingers handle the cigarette like a tool, pinched and annoyed, lingering at his lips for the shortest possible time. He drags deeply and exhales slowly, his mouth the mouth of of a mist-drenched cave.
"I never asked," she says. "What gave me away?"
Sherlock blows smoke upwards, a fragile rush that takes no shape at all.
"Did you think I'd never had dealings with your kind before?" he says.
Molly lets that one, too, go unquestioned, but she pulls it out for perusal later. She's a solitary creature both by nature and by habit, and tries not to involve herself in politics. She's too old, anyway; she makes people nervous. But that's not to say she has no contacts at all.
A small amount of clearing her throat and putting the right aspects of herself on display, delivered in the right pub, uncovers an easy trail leading to the name Holmes, but not -- ah. Molly blinks in the face of the succubus that's been eyeing her with respect for her nature and disdain for her cardigan. Not Sherlock Holmes. Someone else, for whom having fingers in pies and on pulses is not so much a career as a calling.
"Or that's what people say, anyway," she says, lifting the tea to her lips. Unlike his brother, Mycroft is an impeccable host.
"People will say almost anything, won't they?" Mycroft murmurs.
Molly swills the soft smoke of Russian Caravan across her tongue before speaking. As an experiment, she turned up to Mycroft's office without an appointment and asked, meekly, to see him. His assistant raised an eyebrow so perfect that Molly wanted to fiddle with the end of her plait, but the speed with which the official schedule was tossed aside was all the proof she needed that Mycroft knows exactly what she is.
So now she knows that he knows, and -- Holmeses being Holmeses -- no doubt he knows that she knows that et cetera. They're drinking tea and talking about politics on a superficial level that Molly, who has difficulty enough keeping track of landmasses and national borders even before you throw in things like Boris Johnson and the Lib Dems, can just about manage. Mycroft has the relaxed posture and precise manners of someone prepared to wait for the other player to raise the stakes.
"I heard that someone defused the conflict between the Danes and Xiu Mei's qi-smugglers," she says.
Mycroft sets his cup down on the saucer with a musical clink. "Oh, that," he says. "The merest bit of mediation, I assure you. On occasion it can be useful to be the most normal person in the room. Something my brother, I'm sure you'd agree, is yet to learn."
Is yet. Mycroft uses language like needlepoint; that won't have been an accident. Molly doesn't know if she wants to smile or frown, and Mycroft somehow manages to do both of them at once. He waves a dismissive hand.
"Please," he says. "I knew he wasn't dead as soon as I read the autopsy report. Good job on that, by the way," he adds, but Molly is remembering the pause between her question about scars and Sherlock's answer. It doesn't make her feel naïve so much as -- comforted, in a bemused way, that Sherlock still sees fit to build his games around her.
"And how did you…?" She waves an awkward hand in return. It translates more or less to come to be at the centre of the supernatural black market.
"Mummy," says Mycroft, with that particular breathy drawl both brothers use for the word, not quite as ironic as they mean it to be. "She knew some people."
Knew them, but wasn't one of them. This Molly knows: the most fantastical thing about Sherlock is his humanity. If Molly's power is everpresent but invisible, like starlight falling unnoticed in the middle of the day -- no lies, only omissions -- then so is the bruisable, burnable heart of Sherlock Holmes.
The morning after the night Sherlock steps back into his life, Molly goes collecting. It feels strange to be in 221b Baker Street again, to be climbing these prime-numbered stairs and relearning their creaks, to be pushing open the door to the living room and feeling her unmortal breath catch in surprise at its being occupied at this early hour of the day.
John is asleep in the shabby chair, one leg tucked up. His expression is one of exhausted wonder, unsmiling but loosened. Sherlock sits in the chair opposite, elbows on knees, leaning forward with eyes whose focus could be anywhere from John's face to miles away. There's a young bruise over his cheekbone and his toes beat a rapid jig against the floor. He doesn't look like he's slept all.
"Knock knock," Molly says softly, stepping all the way into the room.
Sherlock looks up and past her to the door. "Mrs Hudson didn't -- how did you get in?"
"Sherlock," Molly says.
He glances at John, then back at her. It's true, her timing is so exact that it's deducible.
"Thank you," he says.
The deduction isn't simple. Her kindness is only kindness because of the fact that the intensity of this evening's reunion would have been lessened, had she called to collect earlier. The fact that every subsequent moment will be lessened.
She walks over to stand south where their two chairs are east and west, north being the fireplace in this particular geography. Directly in front of Molly's eyes are dead insects arranged in a frame, beetles around a giant moth. It's past dawn and the eastern light of Sherlock blinks and dims, eclipsed by London waking outside on the street.
"I'm sorry," she says, and it's a truth so tangled that she can see he wants to call her on it, but it's truth enough.
"Don’t be," he says, brusque. "It was a fair price." He looks at John again, and stands. His knees click. "We can go somewhere else --"
"He won't wake up," Molly says, and that's a kindness too, if he'll take it.
John is a man who will have his work cut out for him, loving a luminous but diminishing soul. Not many people could do it. But not many people could have loved Sherlock Holmes in the first place, and even fewer could have compelled Sherlock to walk up to an ancient power and sell himself out of love returned. He'll do it, Molly thinks, he'll be everything that Sherlock needs, conscience and chronicler and soul alike.
"Will you tell him?" she asks.
"Eventually," Sherlock says. The half of his mouth responsible for his smiles gives a dry twist. "I think my continued existence among the living is enough of a shock to be getting on with, don't you?"
She nods. "Let's use the old analogy, then." She digs in her purse and comes up with a pound coin, quite new, which she lays on the table. "It won’t be all at once. I told you. I'm only here for a piece."
"A pound," he says. "How traditional of you, if we were dealing in flesh. Will it hurt?" Curious. Almost but not entirely detached.
Saying yes would only make him tense up, make it hurt all the more, so she doesn't. She reaches out in a way that makes no sense in these painless human languages, these slippery syllables that make no demands on the tongue, and she sees the soul of Sherlock Holmes as dawning light and bank account and paper perforated like a sheet of stamps; easily torn. She reaches out and takes her due.
Sherlock sways with the effort he is making to keep his knees locked.
Sherlock laughs with the bitter pleasure of discovery.
Instead of looking at him she looks at the moth, huge, pinned in place, a great many years away from the chloroform that landed on its head. Molly remembers that hobby -- as macabre in its way as her own work -- the innocent domain of children with nets and jars. Sherlock bends and bares his teeth and the gold coin glows purple around the edges. Molly remembers a lot of things.
"That's it," she says. She slips the coin into her pocket. "Done."
"Oh," he says, low and gutted. "No, I'm fine, I'm fine," but he grabs at the chair's arm with fingers gone pale, taut and spidery. Nearby John shifts in his sleep, and Sherlock looks at him and breathes raggedly into the loss with head unbowed.
Molly holds out her hands to him, placating, palms out; ten fingers pointing to the distant unseeable stars. She folds a finger down.
"One," she says.