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The Meaning of Being Lonely

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It must have been the dress.

He'd never seen Molly in a dress before—or didn't think he had. He couldn't remember her in anything but those baggy clothes she wore, usually covered by a shapeless white lab coat. Though she wouldn't wear anything fancy there, not with her job, and he couldn't remember the last time he'd seen her outside the morgue.

When he had—if he had—she hadn't been wearing a dress like that.

She'd done something different with her hair, too, and added a silver gift bow that should have looked childish, but didn't, somehow . . .

She had quite good legs. And very fine—well. Not childish at all.

He took a drink and watched her chat with Mrs. Hudson—or listen, anyway, with what looked like only half her attention. The rest had an expression he'd couldn't place, but had never seen on little Molly Hooper before.

Her hand moved up to her right cheek before she yanked it down to her side. She glanced up the stairs for the third time in ten minutes.

It was all for Sherlock, of course. The dress, the hair, even the new expression. Didn't have to be a detective to suss that one, though the great genius himself had been minus a clue or two tonight.

God knew the man could be difficult, rude, bloody impossible—but tonight he'd been pure acid. Even John had been unable to curb him, though he'd probably ruined his chances with his new girlfriend—Janet? Jeanette?—trying.

She wasn't half as pretty as Molly, he thought. Though some of that might be the discontented frown. Clearly, she hadn't realized her doctor boyfriend was part of a set and wasn't liking it much. She folded her arms as John interrupted their conversation to take a call.

"Hello, Mycroft. Merry—No, he's in his room. What's . . . " John raised his eyebrows and headed for the hallway before pausing midstep.

"But won't he expect me to go with—oh. No, I understand—or no, I don't, but that's nothing new. . . Of course," he said with the resigned grimace that was all too familiar to Lestrade. "Standard practice. We'll wait 'til he's gone." His voice went firm. "But you will let me know about the—? Good. Yeah, cheers." He ended the call, walked past his fuming girlfriend and bent to whisper something in Mrs. Hudson's ear that had her clutching her necklace.

"Oh, dear." she said, her face puckering in worry. "Tonight?"

"Afraid so."

Molly seemed to snap to herself. "I should really be going," she said.

"Oh, must you?" said Mrs. Hudson, though it sounded more like reflex than complaint.

"I really only stopped by for a minute. I have . . . things. To do. For Christmas. But I had a . . . thank you for inviting me." Molly handed Mrs. Hudson her glass and went for her coat.

The policeman in Lestrade wanted to stay and figure out just what the hell was going on—especially why a man who could simultaneously hack any number of mobile phone systems if he chose couldn't figure out how to change an alert on his own phone after fifty-seven texts. And what such a suggestive sound was doing on Sherlock's phone in the first place.

But the part of him who admired Molly for standing up to the man who had cut her innocent dreams to bloody ribbons—when Lestrade had done nothing but force a smile to mask the harsh echo of his own doubts that anything at all was sorted about his marriage, or could be—said his own quick goodbyes and grabbed his own coat. "I'll walk you to your car."

Molly began to protest in that fluttery way she had, but stopped and took a breath. "Thank you," she said.

He waited until she was bundled up against the snow—snow for Christmas, what a pain in the arse miracle that was—and held the door for her.

"I had to park several streets away," she said, pointing.

He smiled. "So did I."

They walked down Baker Street in silence.

"I'm glad you stood up to him," he said, finally. "He deserved it."

She might have moved her shoulders under her coat. "It won't change anything," she said.

"I don't know—I've never seen him apologize to anyone before," he said.

"No," she said. "Not even when he needs something special from the mortuary. I wonder . . . I wonder who she is."

"Who?"

"The woman. The one who gave him the gift on the mantelpiece. The one who makes him as . . . as uncertain as I am with him."

Lestrade stopped. "Sherlock. And a woman?"

Molly did her maybe-shrug again and walked on. Three steps later, her shoes—as festive and impractical as the dress—skidded on the slick pavement and he caught her as she fell. He set her upright and tucked her arm through his with a smile.

She smiled back. It was just a simple expression of thanks, nothing hidden, no secrets, no agendas—probably why Sherlock didn't care for them.

Lestrade did. It made a nice change.

The silence was more comfortable this time and lasted until they reached a light blue car, older, but well-maintained under the light dusting of snow.

"Here I am," she said. "I hope yours isn't far?"

"Three down from this, in fact," he said.

She nodded and brought out her keys. "It was kind of you to walk me," she said. "Merry Christmas."

"Yeah," he said, shaking his head. "Merry Christmas. Molly?" he added, as she turned away.

"Yes?"

"You do look very nice tonight."

"Thank you." She offered another smile and looked up at him in her shy way. "Your wife is a lucky woman."

"Well," he said, unable to prevent a bitter chuckle. "Apparently so."

"Oh!" She clapped her hand over her mouth. "I'm so—I've done it again!"

He tugged her arm down. "No you haven't. Sherlock has."

Her eyes flashed, surprising him. "He had no right—"

"Maybe not. But he usually is right, isn't he."

"Not—not always."

Not quite knowing why, he touched her cheek where Sherlock had kissed her, then took off his glove and did it again, warm fingers on her cold skin. "Molly . . ." He didn't know how to say what he wanted her to know.

So he lowered his lips to hers. Just a gentle kiss, a salute to a lovely, lonely woman.

He pulled back and looked at her, and what he saw made him try again, less gently, with some of his own loneliness in it.

She tasted . . . like warmth and wine and hope . . . and something he hadn't tasted in his wife's kisses for a very long time.

His wife.

He pulled back again, and exhaled. "Sorry. I mean, I'm not sorry, not at all, but—" He rubbed the back of his neck. "I just . . . I wanted you to know we're not all like—"

"No," she said, with that odd expression again. "You're nothing like him." And she reached up to slide her gloved fingers through his hair and bring his mouth back to hers.

It took him almost three seconds to get over the shock and then he was holding her as closely as two bulky coats allowed and making a thorough job of it this time, with her help.

Her phone rang and she stepped back to rummage through her pockets as the tune played on. Jingle Bells, which was so like her, he had to grin even through his utter confusion.

What on earth did he think he was doing?

She finally produced it. "Yes?" she said, her voice lower than usual. "Oh, but . . . Oh—no. No, no, I don't mind. Give me, um, forty-five minutes? Thanks." She closed the phone. "I've got to go to St. Bart's. An identification."

He knew he should feel relieved, but he didn't. At all. "It's Christmas," he said, though what that had to do with anything he couldn't say.

"That's why it—" She stopped and shook her head. "It needs to be me." She met his eyes. "It's okay. It really is, now."

And somehow, it was.

"I'll follow you there."

"You don't—"

"I'll follow you. Your own police escort."

"Okay." He walked her 'round and helped her into her car, then jogged to his own and started it up.

She was a safe driver—not reckless nor overly cautious—and he knew within blocks that she would have been fine on her own.

But she shouldn't have to be.

She parked close to the back entrance—an easy task in the mostly empty car park—and was halfway to the doors before he caught up.

"Molly, wait."

She turned to him, and he could tell she was bracing herself.

"Listen . . . I know how this sounds, but I'm really hoping that he's not wrong this time," he said. "But . . . I have to know for sure."

She nodded. Her eyes were bright. "Of course you do," she said. "I understand."

"Do you?"

"I think so." She looked toward the entrance. "I really should—"

"If he isn't wrong," he said, before he knew he would, "and things are, um, settled . . . could I ask you—"

"For coffee?" she said, her voice brittle, from the cold or something else.

He waited until she looked at him and held her gaze with his. "I was thinking dinner. Somewhere you can wear that dress."

Her face lit up and he wondered at how much he'd missed about Molly Hooper and why he'd noticed tonight of all nights.

It must have been the dress . . .

"I'd like that," she said. She moved closer and went on tiptoe, her cold nose brushing his cheek. "Even if he is wrong," she whispered. "Thank you for asking. And for not being sorry at all." She pressed a quick, soft kiss to his skin.

And then she was gone in a whirl of flakes and the squeak of an automatic door.

He stood there for a second or two, then went back to his car.

He put the key in the ignition, then watched as a long, black car glided up to the entrance. Two tall men got out of the back, one waiting for the driver to open his door, the other leaping out without assistance and stalking up the walkway.

No wonder it needed to be her, he thought, and felt a stab of something that couldn't possibly be jealousy.

He waited until they both went inside before starting the engine. "You'd better be bloody right this time," he muttered, and drove away through the silent snow.