You're not sure what drew you to the morgue today. You're not usually one for satisfying your morbid curiosity. In fact, you're not one for classifying your curiosity as morbid. Your line of work doesn't lend itself towards pejoratives when discussing matters of personal preference.
She's a curious one, the woman currently using a rib cutter, preparing to extract the heart of a recently deceased twenty-something. You've seen her before, watched her interactions with John Watson as they met for a coffee. If you weren't used to the duplicity of people's public and private personalities, you might have been unable to reconcile the two. You might think this couldn't possibly be the same person as the girl in the café, wearing a pink jumper with kittens and balls of yarn.
But she is. You can see the edge of some lavender monstrosity peeking out from underneath the autopsy apron. Calm, steady, confident as she pauses to note something on the chart. No hesitation. No indecision. All this from the woman who took two minutes of tumbling over herself to order a café latte.
Molly Hooper is some sort of paradox. At the moment, you're not certain whether it's a construct or merely the natural result of the application of social interaction with someone so introverted she selected a career where no one talks back.
But you do love paradoxes, love teasing them apart until you can understand how they fit together, always eager to see what surprises will spring out when you crack them open.
You adjust your clothes, wearing the costume of 'normal' today, an appalling off-the-rack outfit from Marks and Spencer that looks decent enough, but clings and bulges. But it's recognizable, trendy, makes you practically invisible.
When you open the door, Molly looks up and drops the rib cutter.
She is transformed, confidence evaporating through the door that closes behind you. She gapes at you, fidgeting, moving to brush a stray strand of hair out of her mouth before she remembers her hands are covered in latex and blood.
Her lips begin three different sentences before she says, "John Watson said you were dead… again."
It's curious that you've been discussed, and the questions of "Who brought me up in conversation?" and "But why do you recognize me, why do you remember me, Molly, dear?" hover on the tip of your tongue.
What you say instead is, "Yes, well, we both know that John Watson doesn't always make proper sense of the facts staring him in the face."
Molly ducks her head and returns to digging around in the chest cavity. The intensity of her search – really, she must suspect the man of smuggling something underneath his left lung – and the "I don't know what you're talking about" she mumbles confirm all of your theories.
There is strength and resilience in Molly Hooper, but it's buried under layers, padded by fluffy jumpers and wrapped in enormous hair bows much better suited for a ten-year-old than a mortician. Molly is carrying a secret that will eat her alive if she doesn't learn to distribute the weight of it, doesn't learn to find strength and solace and joy in its success. Doesn't learn how to build satisfaction from within, rather than from looking outside herself for reassurance. She needs toughening. Lucky for you, you know just the person.
You're still standing in the doorway, watching her dig, when she pauses and says, "I'm sorry. But did you want something? I'm rather busy at the moment."
"Yes, I can see. Busy up to your elbows."
Her mouth tightens before she says, "I am working. Just because you've been on one of my tables doesn't give you the right to barge in demand my attention."
She's feisty then. You applaud yourself for approaching her. In addition to securing Sherlock's safety, this promises to be fun. "Lunch."
Molly stares at you. "What?"
"Lunch at 12:30 at Club Gascon." You wonder what she'll object to: company or price. She surely won't agree.
"I don't leave for lunch," she answers, gesturing with her hands still buried in chest cavity. "The smell tends to put other people off."
"I'll get takeaway then from somewhere else. Postman's Park."
"I… fine… 12:45. I need more time to finish up this one."
As you leave the morgue, you send a quick text to one of your contacts then spend the rest of the morning walking around the park. It's a bit heavy-handed, but in the end you decide that a bench in view of the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice will do nicely.
Molly arrives three minutes early, fidgeting even as she walks.
Is she like this always? Is there anyone on the planet with whom she feels at ease?
She sits on the bench, leaving as much space between you as possible. The arm rest digs into her side when you lean towards her. She's scrubbed thoroughly, but the scent of chemicals with an undertone of decay still clings to her. "I ordered for you. Japanese. Veg only."
Her eyes dart to the takeaway bag at your feet. "How much do I owe you?"
"Nothing." You lift the boxes out, passing one to Molly, followed by a pair of chopsticks, as Molly's eyes remain riveted to your hands.
She takes the box but doesn't stop staring as you unpack yours. "Your hands were exactly the same. How did you find someone whose hands were exactly the same?"
You're still considering your answer when Molly blurts out, "Never mind. It doesn't take a genius, after all. Just the right connections. And you had them, didn't you? John said you worked with him, with Jim. I'm not sure why you think I should… how I could trust you. How do I know he's not chasing you down?"
You pull out your phone, scrolling through texts until you find one from Sherlock's latest phone number, Colombian area code this time, but the words are acerbic, derisive, unmistakably his, even without the signature. You hand the phone to Molly, and she scowls at it. Her thumb hits the back button, and she scrolls through two screens of phone numbers, most of them his (which she clearly recognizes), before she hands the phone back.
She stares at the pavement in front of her feet, her thumb fiddling with the lid of the takeaway. She knows she can trust you now, but whether she will is another matter altogether.
You know the conclusion she'll come to. She has no compelling reason to do otherwise, no matter how much she may think she dislikes you. While Molly muddles through her choice, you start to eat. It's not that warm a day, but best not to chance the sashimi.
Minutes pass and Molly finally opens her lunch. Your lips curl around your chopsticks at her barely suppressed squeal of delight. But her smile wilts and she turns, eyes narrowed, and asks, "Why did you bring me a Bento box with food shaped like kittens?"
Good girl. "Because I knew you would like it."
Molly's eyes flick to the bin across the pavement. The Bento box is saved from disposal only by the clump of lunch time power walkers that disrupt the pathway. Molly's voice lowers to a hiss. "Why do you care what I like? Why are you here? Why are you talking to me?"
You keep your mouth firmly shut. Molly will volunteer her own answer, which will be telling enough, more telling than any answer she might give under direct questioning.
"You don't think I'll be able to keep his secret." Her voice is solid, unwavering. You're surprised not to hear hurt in her voice. You relax against the bench. Molly's proving her own assertion incorrect with everything she's done since she arrived at the park.
"Did he send you to check up on me? Did he think that poor, pathetic Molly Hooper wouldn't be able to keep his secret?" She should sound hurt, angry. But instead she's resigned. Not surprising given how long she'd survived – no, willingly endured – Sherlock's caustic scrutiny.
"No. No, he didn't send me. I'd say he has no idea that I'm here, except the Holmes brothers united are nearly omniscient."
Molly nods and frowns into her lap before she starts picking at her lunch, dissecting the frankly adorable kittens into disparate piles of rice and vegetable. She eats the eyes first.
Once Molly's eaten the rice that used to compose the head, she asks, "So why are you here?"
"I'll admit that I didn't think you'd be able to handle a secret of this magnitude… or importance."
"I can keep secrets," Molly says, in between stabs of rice.
Normally you wouldn't push so hard so quickly, especially since you don't doubt Molly's resilience in the slightest. Not anymore. She will keep Sherlock's continued existence a secret, and she won't slip up. But she clearly could do with a bit of release, and a strong defence, giving into that instinct to fight, particularly when none of the aggressors are tangible, is an enormous release.
So you press on, goading her into a response. "Lots of people think they can keep secrets. In my experience, very few can, especially when they're under constant duress. Why do you meet John Watson for coffee? How long is it going to be until you crack and tell him that his best friend is alive?"
Molly stares at her lap, shaking her head as her lips twist into a joyless smile. "Your information isn't very good," she says before finishing her rice and cracking open her bottled water.
"I assure you, my information is fantastic. You have coffee or tea with him every Saturday afternoon."
"Yes, I do. And I have lunch with Sergeant Lestrade most Sundays and play Scrabble with Mrs Hudson every Thursday evening."
Your mouth doesn't hang open. It doesn't. But something betrays your shock because Molly continues, "And I do it to remind me just how important it is that I keep this secret. So don't you dare think that I take it lightly or casually. I am very good at keeping secrets, and I'll keep this one, and I'll do anything else he asks of me."
She is defiant and proud and gorgeous, and you find yourself smiling at her. "What?" she asks, looking over her shoulder and finding nothing there. "Why… why are you smiling at me?"
And Molly has reverted back to stumbling over herself. She's still a paradox. Still intriguing. Willing to, frankly, torture herself with this secret in a way that intrigues you. "I'm impressed by you, Molly Hooper."
She blushes and stumbles over her words. "Um, thank you… I think."
It's not a lack of confidence. She's strong and sure of herself in the right contexts. She's just yanked out of her comfort zone more easily than most, seemingly by the presence of any other human. You can't imagine Sherlock tolerating her for more than 15 seconds at a time. But he clearly does; he's still in contact with her.
How much time will it take for Molly to become comfortable around you, for her confidence to linger in your presence? And what could happen once she lets her guard down, once you praise and pet and lavish her with attention as you've done with so many others? And how magnificent will Molly be when all her smothered potential is realised?
"You seem to have an opening in your schedule on Sunday evenings," you say, beginning to tidy up the remains of lunch.
"I what? Oh, well, I guess I do."
"We should have dinner." It's wicked, you know it. Molly doesn't get the joke and certainly doesn't understand what she's signing up for.
"I… why would I want to have dinner with you?"
It's so rare that you're turned down or even questioned. Sherlock Holmes has been the only person since you hit puberty to turn you down for any invitation.
But Molly's not saying no, not yet. And she won't.