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The Meaning of Being Lonely

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Molly poked her fork into the last gulab jamun, but just couldn't. "I'm too full," she said, sitting back in her chair. "You have it."

"No, I'm done." He gave her a searching look and she looked down at herself to make sure she hadn't dripped honey on her blouse, aware that what little makeup she'd bothered with that morning was long gone, her hair was a limp mess, and her fingers had chemical stains on them that wouldn't wear off for days. Greg had almost convinced her that she would be beautiful to him if she was covered in mud, but she knew this wasn't one of her better days.

And if she was honest with herself—and she had to be honest with someone—her better days had been few and far between since Sherlock had left. The stress of worrying about him and about Moriarty's spies and keeping that worry from Greg, let alone from John and Mrs. Hudson, was beginning to wear on her.

She sighed, and realized that he was still watching her, though he'd added a half smile to his odd expression. She was about to ask him if she had something on her face when their waitress appeared with the bill tray.

"More tea?" asked Maryam, with her usual cheer, clearing the remains of their meal.

"Yes, please," said Greg.

Molly reached for the tray. "Whose turn is it?"

He captured her hand with his. "Mine."

She frowned. "Are you sure?"

"Very sure." And he brought something out of his pocket and set it in front of her.

Her heart gave one solid thud, but when he pulled back his hand, she saw a gift bow of silver ribbon.

She drew her fingers out of his and picked it up. "Is this—?"

"You wore it in your hair on Christmas," he said. "It fell out of your bag in the parking lot. I meant to return it . . . and found I didn't want to." He took it back and smiled at it. "It's become a sort of good luck charm, actually. A good memory to keep with me." He reached out and tucked it behind her ear, stroking her cheek with his fingertips. "But I wondered if you could keep it for me." His fingers traced her cheek

She pulled out a hairpin to secure it. "Of course," she said, confused but touched that he'd kept it all this time. "If you want me to."

"I do. And this goes with it," he added, holding up a ring that flashed green and gold in the flickering light of the candle.

Her heart gave another thud and she drew in a shaky breath. "Is that . . . Is this . . ."

He picked up her unresisting hand. "Will you keep me, too, Molly?" he asked, his eyes intent on hers.

She stared at his handsome, expectant face and told him the truth. "I'd keep you forever, if . . . if you want me that long."

His smile as he slid the ring onto her finger and the kiss he gave her as Maryam led the other diners in happy applause almost made her forget that he wouldn't.

Not once Sherlock returned and he found out he'd married another selfish liar. . .

 

oooooOOOOOooooo

 

Lestrade waited patiently until John stopped spluttering into his pint.

"You proposed in a curry shop? That's hardly romantic surroundings."

"It worked, though." Lestrade's first proposal had been in given on bended knee at an expensive and exclusive restaurant that he could barely afford, as instructed by his wife to be—who had made sure to be dressed to the nines and that her best friend had been at a nearby table to take photographs.

His second—and last—might not be half as posh, but he'd meant it with all of his heart.  "So will you be my best man or not?"

"'Course I will," said John holding out his hand to shake on it. "I'm honored. When is it?"

"We're not sure. I'm all for short engagements, but Molly wants her family there and they're spread all over the place. She said if I can't wait, she could always ask Mycroft to give her away."

John's eyes went wide. "Call her bluff."

"Molly doesn't bluff—and I think she actually likes him."

John shook his head. "Who's bridesmaid?"

"A friend from her school days—and she's a Matron of Honor, I'm afraid. Better bring a date."

"Perhaps I'll escort Mrs. Hudson."

It was Lestrade's turn to splutter. "No offense to your lovely landlady, but you can't be having that bad a dry spell."

John finished his drink and set down his glass. "Yeah, well, looks like the papers were right about one thing. I appear to be a confirmed bachelor. I won't be good for anyone until Sherlock comes back, anyway. And maybe not even then," he added to himself.

"John," said Lestrade, "how many of those have you—"

"I'm not drunk, Greg. Or delusional—no more than usual, anyway. I'm slow, you see, compared to him, but I do get there eventually. And I flatter myself that I know him better than almost anyone in the world."

"He's . . . John, you were thereMolly was there. He's—"

John raised a hand to signal the barmaid. "When you dismiss the impossible, what's left must be the truth. He said that once, or something like it. And it's not impossible that he faked his death—especially if Molly helped. He did it for—he's done things like this before."

"You think Molly lied to us? To me? About something like this?" But underneath the automatic anger, the part of him that made him a good detective, if he did say so, went on alert.

"Did she?" John's voice was calm. "Did either of us just ask her?"

"She doesn't want to talk about him. She says she can't, that it's too hard." But the Sunday after her press conference, she'd given John that scrapbook of Sherlock and Mrs. Hudson a framed photo of him from their University days. They'd all told stories about the man for hours, until all four of them were laughing and crying and at peace with his death.

Or so he'd thought.

But Molly been on edge ever since, hadn't she? He'd put it down to a busy schedule and bridal nerves—he often caught her looking at him as if she expected him to change his mind. But now that he thought about it, it was like the weeks before the conference, when she couldn't tell him about the evidence . . .

Lestrade took a thoughtful sip of lager, and then drained it as the barmaid arrived with the next round.

John waited until she was gone before leaning forward. "If I'm right, Greg, Molly's been in a terrible position for months now—and it's just like Sherlock to put her there . . . But if she thought it would keep us all safe, especially you, she'd do it, even if you hated her for it afterward."

"I couldn't hate her if I tried. In fact . . ." He tried to sort out the thoughts whirling in his mind. "If she knows Sherlock is alive and still agreed to marry me, that proves I'm not second best."

John rolled his eyes. "Sherlock's right. You are an idiot. She agreed to marry you because you're the most important person in her life. The most, Greg. Trust me," he added with a smile. "I'm a doctor."

"You're half-pissed."

"That, too. Doesn't mean I'm wrong. You're a lucky man, Lestrade."

"I know. But do I tell her I know? Or think I know?"

John shrugged. "You could tell her I know and take it from there. And tell her I won't do a thing about it, unless she thinks it's a good idea. "

Lestrade snorted. "You're joking."

"What? Sherlock trusted her with our lives—that's good enough for me, even if I do want to kill him myself for pulling a stunt like this."

"I wasn't talking about Molly—I trust her a damn sight more than I ever will him, even now. But you're telling me that you aren't going to try to track him down?"

John turned his glass in his hands. "I think . . . I think the only reason he stayed away, stayed dead, is to take down the rest of Moriarty's people. And if the only way I can help is to stay here and keep quiet, then that's what I'll do until he decides he's done."

"Can you live with that?"

"With him not being dead? Oh, God, yes. It might half kill me to sit on my hands, knowing he's out there somewhere doing heaven knows what, but only half." His smile was wistful. "And I have to hope, don't I, that he's planning on coming back?"

 

oooooOOOOOooooo

 

When Lestrade came home, Molly was in the bedroom, folding laundry. Her eyes brightened as he came in and she returned his kiss with such enthusiasm that he was sorry the bed was covered in clothes. "You're back early," she said. "How's John?"

"Fine," he said. "He's agreed to be our best man."

"Good.' She sighed. "Helena's not sure she can make it now—her doctor might put her on bedrest until the baby comes. Maybe I'll ask Mrs. Hudson."

"Might as well—John thought she might be his date for the evening."

She shook her head. "Poor John. I know at least three women who would love for him to notice them. And one or two men, too," she added, with an impish smile.

"None of them are Sherlock," he said, leaning against the bureau.

Her smile dropped. "No, but—no. No, they aren't."

"John told me he thinks Sherlock might have faked his own death."

Her hands stilled for a second, and then continued folding. "Does he really? That's not . . . that can't be good for him."

"Is it true?"

She closed her eyes. "How can you ask me that?"

He moved around the bed and wrapped his arms around her from behind, resting his chin on her head. "Because you're smart and brave and resourceful—and you don't have to do this alone any more. You've got me and I'm staying."

"You hate liars," she whispered, her hands mangling a tee-shirt.

"First, I could never hate you. Second, you've never lied to me or to anyone—you've tied the English language in knots trying to avoid it. All to keep us safe. All by yourself."

She turned in his arms and started to sob, big wrenching ones, as he stroked her hair and whispered, "It's okay. It's fine. It's all fine."

"It's not," she said, lifting a reddened, shiny face. "They're watching John and Mrs. Hudson and you—and me, too, now. It was bad enough when I cleared his name so early, but if any of us shows a single sign that we think he might be alive. .. "

He pried her fingers from the shirt and dried her eyes. "John says he won't do or say a thing—nothing— until you tell him it's safe."

Molly shook her head. "I don't know if anything is safe, for him or for us."

"Is there anything we can do?"

"I don't know. I was supposed to make sure his cover held and that none of you suspected. I don't know how to reach him, I don't know where he is . . . the only thing I have is the letter Mycroft gave me after—oh! Maybe . . ."

She went to the closet, rummaged around and brought out a sturdy cardboard carton. She put it on the bed and took off the lid. "Keepsake box," she said, pulling out a fabric-covered shoebox. "I needed more room."

The carton was half full of sparkling cloth. "Is that your Christmas Dress?" He'd wondered what had happened to it—she'd never worn it again, not even when he'd taken her to the best Indian restaurant in London for her birthday.  He'd assumed she hadn't wanted a reminder of Sherlock's rudeness.

She nodded. "It's special," she said, setting aside a stack of assorted papers and a scrapbook that was the twin of the one she'd given John. "I know it's in here," she said to herself.

He picked up the book and opened it, expecting Sherlock's face to stare out at him. Instead, he saw his own, from an interview he'd given earlier in the year. He turned some pages, seeing his name again and again, article after article. Press conferences, a citation, quotes, even simple mentions that he was leading an investigation.

He looked at Molly, who was pulling the dark green bikini out of the box and setting it on top of what he recognized as a menu from Veeraswamy and a brochure from the resort on Majorca.

These weren't remembrances of Sherlock Holmes—this was the courtship of Greg Lestrade and Molly Hooper in a box.

"Here it is," she said, brandishing a St. Bart's envelope. She handed it to him. "I haven't read it since that day—maybe you can see something in it."

"Are you sure you want me to read this?"

She smiled. "It doesn't matter now."

The note was written on the same kitten stationery that Lestrade's had been, and the handwriting was just as hurried and with several crossed out words.

 

Dear Molly,

As you're reading this, I assume you've cleared my name—I'm sure you chose the right moment and the right reasons. You always have.

I'm sorry for all the trouble you went to over the years on my behalf. You were my first real friend, though I was never one to you, or not the kind you deserve. I'm sorry that I didn't realize any of this in a more timely fashion, though I suppose I owe my life to my idiocy ignorance.

I hope that Lestrade will manage to convince you of your worth. He might actually be worthy of you—he's a good man. Almost as good as One of the best I've ever met.

I'd tell you I'd dance at your wedding, but we both know I don't dance.

Don't let John I know you'll be there for John and for that I thank you, too.

Yours,

—S


Lestrade examined it. "So Mycroft knows, too," he said. "He must have read this before he gave it to you."

"Do you think so? Sometimes I thought he must . . . but I couldn't risk asking."

"I find it saves time to assume Mycroft knows everything." He took out his phone.

"Wait." Molly went to the bureau, picked up her phone and fiddled with it. "Use this number."

He exchanged the phone for a kiss and tapped a button.

The phone rang twice.

"Dr. Hooper," said Mycroft in what could pass for warm tones. "I hear congratulations are in order."

"They are," said Lestrade. "And that's why I'm calling. We need you to help us send a very special invitation to a very special friend."

There was a long pause. "He might not care to attend; formal events have never been his area."

"He told Molly he wouldn't dance at her wedding—but only because he doesn't dance. I believe he'd travel some distance if she wanted him there. But at this point, even a one-word refusal would be welcome."

"I do see your point." There was a longer pause. "I'm afraid I've mislaid his current address. But . . . have you already published the banns?"

"No. We haven't set a date, yet."

"Might I suggest the middle of next month? I'm sure my assistant would be pleased to assist Dr. Hooper with all the arrangements, including announcements in all the major newspapers."

"That sounds fine to me, but I'd better check with Molly. Wait, you can tell her yourself—she wants to ask you something, anyway." He handed her the phone.

She raised her eyebrows, but took it. "Mr. Holmes?" She listened. "Thank you . . .Next month? I don't think I can possi—oh. Well, if she wouldn't mind. . ."

Lestrade smiled. He'd met Mycroft's assistant and thought she probably would mind, but would never let it show.

". . . but only on one condition. Would you walk with me down the aisle?" She smiled. "No, there really isn't and I wouldn't want anyone else anyway—no, not even him. I know, but you might as well watch for him inside the church. Please say you will?" Her smile widened. "Thank you, Mr. Holmes . . . and it's Molly, please. Thank you so much! I'll wait for her call. Good-bye!"

She closed her phone. "You don't mind about him giving me away? Only he seems so lonely."

"Right—like a shark is lonely. Ouch!" he rubbed his side where she'd thumped him. "But it will be worth it to see Sherlock's face."

She leaned against him. "I hope we do. It would be the best wedding present."

Lestrade agreed, though he thought privately that it would be gift enough just to know their friend was still among the living.