1. The food cooks poorly, and everyone goes hungry
She had just dropped her coat on a chair, her keys and takeaway on the end table, and the old striped knapsack she used for a handbag on the floor, when the doorbell rang: two short rings, one long, and then three split-second taps.
Molly's shoulders tensed, some bad premonition taking hold of her though she couldn't say why—she'd vaguely heard he was going abroad, not exactly ideal for someone who'd just taken a bullet to the chest but the work the work it's all about the work he would've started shouting if anyone protested, and the three bell-taps of urgent news weren't as bad as all that. (Their system's numbers worked backward, rather like the DEFCON warning system: five was need records, four was need legwork, two was need the bolt-hole and one, never yet employed, was your flat's wired to detonate, run.) Still, he wasn't meant to be here. I really just wanted a quiet night, she thought, as she opened the door. She looked Sherlock up and down, and her hand gripped the doorknob harder.
"Again," she said.
He actually seemed to be bracing himself, as he stood there with reddened eyes and disheveled clothes and that giveaway, shadowy, nearly greenish-gray pallor, to be struck across the face. Not that he looked the least sad or contrite or regretful, oh, not him; in fact, he had the condescending calm of some bloody primary schoolteacher, preparing to wait out an especially tiresome child's screaming tantrum. Her fingers tightened, and she gritted her teeth.
"Yes," he said, looking almost bored. "Again. And not actually why I'm here, so—"
"So why are you here?" she demanded. "To sleep it off? To rifle through my medicine cabinet looking for more—"
"I've been through your medicine cabinet, it's all exactly what one might have expected and by the way, even a doctor elbow-deep in corpses should know premenstrual painkillers are nothing but ibuprofen painted pink. Will you please put aside the grandstanding and just let me in?"
"Are you going to pay half my rent, then?" she said, not budging from the doorway. "Take care of the electric bill? Or did you forget you don't actually live here?"
She didn't bother masking the bitterness in her voice, the frustrated contempt. D'you know, she wanted to ask, just how many junkies would beg to have this many people scurrying to help them? Everyone from MI5 or whatever the hell that brother of yours runs, on down to John and Greg and me and Mrs. Hudson but God forbid you be thankful to anyone, it's all just your due as far as you're concerned, really I'm sure we should all thank you— He looked utterly exhausted, his eyes not shuttered in concentration but simply drooping at half-mast, and while it was doubtless the bloody drugs she swore she sensed something above and beyond that, a psychic weariness—capitulation, even—that no chemical could ever ameliorate. That, or she was just romanticizing plain old boring bog-standard narcotics tolerance, which even she knew would be exactly like her, which just made her that much angrier. He deduced that much, clearly, because she saw his mouth curl in irritation.
"It's too late," he said, in the slow irritating sing-song he always assumed when he felt particularly hard done by, "to wind up the Victrola and blast the oratorio about how horribly I've behaved, it's a waste of your time just as much as mine. It's already done, I'm already beyond anyone's sickly little fantasies of reform and redemption—"
"And I don't want any part of it!" she shouted. "Not if you're going to be this—this bloody cavalier about it, about yourself—"
"I am not cavalier, I am patently honest and that's what nobody can ever forgive—do your neighbors," he asked, raising his voice a good twenty decibels and glancing pointedly down the hallway, "enjoy having a front row to this whole melodrama?"
"It's deaf old pensioners all the way down, you're out of luck and I'm out of patience. Get out."
"I'm only here to—"
His lips tightened, and raising his eyes to the heavens, he took a slow exaggerated step backward, then another. There was dirt, she noticed for the first time, encrusted in great flakes all over his shoes and trousers and coat, and as he moved he left a faint, acrid smell behind him, sweat and plant decay and very stale cigarette smoke. The deep blue muffler was grimy too, with what looked like burdock burrs clinging to its edges; their pale color, their round furred shapes reminded her, unpleasantly, of little clusters of toadstools, of spots of mold. Even ensconced in the bolt-hole, actively on the run, he had always been terribly fussy about his clothes.
"Have you been sleeping rough?" she asked. "There's bits of leaves in your hair."
He thrust his hands in his pockets, ignoring the question. "Moriarty—"
"Yes," she said, "I saw the video. Everyone has. You can't get away from it. I'm not going to sit around wringing my hands that he might turn up here, or—"
"He's dead," Sherlock said. "Incontrovertibly dead, video or no video, I've finally managed to prove it even if I get nothing but haranguing for it. But if he does turn up here, you know how to alert me."
"Is that some sort of threat?" she said, after a moment. "Are you really resorting to that?"
Sherlock stared at her in disbelief. "Of course it isn't. Why on earth would I be issuing threats? It's—why in God's name are you so slow-witted tonight, it's you they should be fussing over instead of—"
"You're not welcome here," she said, calm but bracing herself on the threshold as though he might try pushing her aside. "Not tonight. I'm tired. I've worked eleven hours and without anyone to applaud me for it. I want to eat takeaway and watch telly and go to bed and not have to deal with the—the whole grand opera of your life right now, especially if you're just going to stand there spouting riddles and acting persecuted we won't all let you drug yourself into the grave. Sometimes, I just can't handle it. I don't enjoy it. All right? I'm not John."
"John?" he snorted. "John's buggered off to whatever spun-sugar suburban paradise he lives in now, I employ a few quite targeted chemical aids to a worthwhile purpose and he positively marinates in moral outrage. I don't know how Mary stands it sometimes. I must've been delusional to think you'd behave any differently—"
"Maybe you were," she said. "Because you know what? I'm tired of how you don't care what this does to anyone around you, what it does to you, walking around an addict—"
"User, not addict, I am a user, that's—"
"Yes! That you are!"
Unable to resist it—the sight of the damned things was putting her off—she strode over and, still at arm's length, reached up and yanked the burrs from his scarf in one great clump: a rough quick pull on the fabric, like tearing the bandage from a wound. He started, but didn't resist her. He looked, despite that maddening wounded pomposity, nearly as subdued as she felt.
"I don't like people," she said, "who are given wonderful things they don't deserve, gifts nobody else can even hope to emulate, and then just throw them away. I don't like them at all."
"And I," he replied, from between his teeth, "don't like scolds and moralists and self-righteous hand-wringers who refuse to see sense, even when it's spelled out for them in tiny little words, yet somehow they still always know what's best. According to them. Enjoy your telly."
He pivoted on one heel and strode down the hallway without looking back.
The burrs sat in her palm now, trailing soft new tails of violet-blue; Molly worried them with her fingertips, barely noticing the prickling sting, as she slammed and locked the door. She shook them into the little kitchen bin and crossed into her bedroom, shedding shoes and jumper and bra as she went, and in the luxury of hard-won solitude grabbed the large plush animal sitting on hind legs in a corner of the room: a great soft nut-brown, glass-eyed rabbit she'd been known, at the ripe old age of thirty-none-of-your-business, to squeeze until her arms ached when she was feeling really upset. (Why, he looks just like my old bunny I lost when I had scarlet fever!--she'd been horrified, as a child, thinking she might have all her toys burned if ever she got sick, Dad had had to reassure her over and over, when she got chicken pox, that it was no longer so but he never laughed at her for it, not even once.) Tom had bought it for her, right before things really went south between them. Looks a bit like you, doesn't it, he'd offered, all wide-eyed and twitchy-nosed and too squishy-soft to last a second in the real world, eh? Tom had something of a snide streak on occasion, mostly occasions when he was drinking, and sadly it didn't make him any more interesting—but then, seeing the look on his face when she gave like she got, that'd almost made it worth it. And she still had the rabbit. In his periodic scuttlings into the bolt-hole she'd seen Sherlock glance at it once or twice, but he'd offered no comment.
Perhaps she'd misread his seeming defiance, and it was all just the bravado of the embarrassed and ashamed. Perhaps he'd been trying, no matter what he'd said, to ask for help, actual help, and then she'd—no, this was not her doing and not her problem. He really must've made John furious if he was coming to her at all, and if he was still insisting it was all for casework then there was nothing she could do, not her or John or his own brother or anyone else. Doubtless Sherlock thought that that, too, made him so peerless, so very special, instead of exactly like every other damned junkie or skating-toward-junkie who'd ever lived. She pressed her face to the rabbit's, enjoying the satin smoothness of its premenstrual-pill-pink ear, the deep silky nap of its snout.
Would it really have been so terrible, letting him sleep it off? He'd looked so tired—and so? Get in line! All she'd wanted, and it wasn't much, was a few quiet hours of not having to see or talk to or deal with anyone else. That, as he should bloody well know, was hardly a crime.
Perhaps he didn't, in fact, believe he was all that special, in refusing all their help and insisting he didn't need it. Perhaps—it suddenly struck her, as she rubbed her cheek against the plush—this had all started with his reaching for something, anything, that might bring him a bit more in line with the rest of humanity, and to his own great misfortune he'd found it. Which was a ridiculous thought, of course, completely ridiculous. He didn't yearn for commonality with anyone but his own brother, and the two of them together was a language she'd never speak. (Sitting in close conference with Mycroft Holmes, to plan that great false demise—those one or two nights in his company felt like a month, she couldn't hide her intimidation, couldn't dismiss the gnawing resentment when she saw Mycroft perceive it and nod to himself, satisfied: Ah, just as it should be.) He didn't want to be like anyone else, and why should he? Why should anyone? No one could be anything but what they were, and as she'd learned herself—by Sherlock's hand, more than once—grasping at what you weren't just made everything worse. And if he really were beyond hope, beyond help…well. Get in line.
There was nothing on telly tonight, not even an old movie, and her chicken tikka masala had grown cold and she no longer wanted it.
2. I'm waiting for you
I must go slow
Weeks passed without news, without a text, without any taps on the doorbell, and Jim Moriarty yet seemed to be a-molderin' in his grave (yes, she worried a little bit, sometimes, lying there half-asleep imagining footsteps by her bed, but come morning the sustained hysteria of the telly and the papers and the internet conspiracy websites made her eyes roll and her pulse subside). She ran into John a few times, and though she'd always quailed a little in his presence since the reveal of the great demise, he was never anything but friendly; clearly, it wasn't her own deception that had infuriated him, in fact she sometimes got the impression John thought she'd been tricked, blamelessly bamboozled, into doing Sherlock's bidding. (Which she resented, frankly, just as much as Mycroft's cat-smug pleasure at her skittishness, but she wasn't opening that box of bad spirits with John for anything.)
And then, it was John himself who had told her—tersely, with a good bit of detail packed into a very few words, like the soldier he'd once been—the real reason Sherlock had been meant to go abroad, or rather dispatched abroad, and then was just as abruptly yanked back. She wasn't nearly as shocked as she supposed she should be, nor when John added, Be careful if that brother of his comes to you again, asking you to help with…I don't know, anything. I've never liked him. Sherlock trusts him more than he should. Message received. But couldn't John say this to Sherlock, face to face? Were they still on the outs? Who knew, and how to ask? Sherlock hadn't been at the lab himself, with or without John, in what felt like a long time.
Then, one night, she stepped out of the lift to her floor and saw him; not right by her door, but halfway down the hall, waiting. For a moment she wondered if it were entirely coincidental, if old Mrs. Singh in 15A or Mr. Sullivan in 18A had been mixed up in something unimaginable and now dispatched to a very late grave for it, but when he saw her he walked toward her, slowly, letting them both meet in the middle. He gazed at her, and she gazed back.
"I've only got enough pho tai for one," she said, after a few moments. "I'm not sharing."
"I'm not hungry," he said.
He'd had his coat washed, she noted, since last she'd seen him; the violet-blue scarf too, but it had some errant, thready tufts still standing out along its edge, where she'd ripped away the burrs more roughly than she'd intended. As for him, clean? Who the hell could tell? She wasn't going to hand-wring over it, waste of time. She heard the door close behind them, out of the corner of her eye saw him sit down, slump forward, steeple his fingers in studied thought as he had in this room so many times before. All rooms were the same room to him, no doubt. He was back in the chair he always favored, a wide-seated, stiffly padded armchair in a muted mustard and olive pattern she'd have got rid of long ago, if it hadn't belonged to her gran. Without paying him mind—much—she laid out her Styrofoam containers on the large, scuffed mahogany desk that served as her front room dining table, pried off the lids, started spooning up rice noodles and ribbons of beef in large, scalding mouthfuls. She was selfishly glad there wasn't enough to share, and whatever other favors he was after tonight he'd damned well better be ready to sing for them—
A bite of hot pepper caught her unawares and she coughed hard, eyes watering, until the sting passed. Sherlock didn't seem to notice; as so often, he was actually elsewhere. What had they talked about over fish and chips or veal parm or chicken makhani, those nights—meant to be just the once but it happened again, and again—when John was skirting his resurrected friend in understandable rage or romantic distraction and she'd been, well, just say it, the interim dogsbody (she would've preferred "amanuensis," except she wasn't entirely sure how you pronounced that)? The cases, of course, always the cases, which she'd fretted at first would be like some endless school exam but in fact, there were no interrogations; in fact, sitting there together, letting both their observational brains wander far afield, his natural snappishness seemed to simply disappear. (Perhaps, she reflected, it was all down to the food—impatience with an obtuse, unworthy universe, or plain ordinary low blood sugar?) Police business, a bit. Sometimes he'd bring up some pathology paper he'd just read, or demand if anyone interesting had been wheeled into the morgue in his absence. Once, to her guilty enthrallment, they'd ripped and clawed at an inept coroner's assistant in absentia, quite a long time, until their shared antagonism was sated. And a few times, never for any particular reason, they'd eaten in exactly this near-total silence.
Molly glanced up again, halfway through a spring roll, and saw him watching her; he hadn't, she noticed, bothered removing coat or scarf. So, what do you need this time that's John too angry or broody or whatever else to fetch for you? Spit it out. She finished the roll, taking her time with it, and after wiping peanut sauce from her fingertips, cleared her throat.
"All right, then," she said. "What—"
"When I was at university," he said, seeming not to have heard her, "I first began using controlled substances in earnest. Despite certain parties' temperance sermons I still see no justification for not employing any useful means to stimulate mental processes, sharpen the senses, alleviate the crushing minute-by-minute boredom of being alive—yes, I know," he added, though she hadn't attempted to speak, "that's never enough to satisfy anyone else, but it's all far more sensible than getting blind pissed and puking into gutters night after night for no better reason than that every other idiot around you is doing exactly the same. Some of us actually behave toward a purpose."
He sat up a little straighter in the armchair, one foot hooked around a chair leg while the other leg stayed stretched out; the church-roof of his fingers rose, collapsed, was rebuilt over and over again. "I imagined, indeed assumed, that there were natural limits to how long, or often, I might employ them—every instrumentality has its own diminishing returns, and ultimately reaches an end point of usefulness—but even when I sensed they might be transforming into a hindrance…I didn't want to abandon them." He looked down at his own fingers, as if only first noticing their movements, then back at Molly again. "And then, whether or not I wanted to became beside the point."
"What were you taking?" Molly asked, after a moment, more to fill the silence than anything else. As she'd expected, he didn't answer.
"I was working as a lab assistant between classes—hideous job, supervisor made Anderson look like Lavoisier—and I thought I could simply manufacture anything I required, but that proved much trickier than I'd anticipated. The job paid a pittance, I certainly wasn't putting a hand out to my parents or God forfend my brother…and there was this other student, he lived in the same residence hall, Harrow boy, father headed up some company or other, more money than he knew what to do with." That little half-contemptuous, rise-and-fall cadence was creeping back into his voice. "And, it didn't take much careful observation to realize he found me attractive. No, in fact, it was risible, how well he thought he was concealing it, when he might as well have been walking around wearing a placard reading 'Oh, Hello Everyone, I'm Gagging For It So Hard I'm Drooling Into My Shoes, Have You Noticed? Yes, Well, Who Hasn't?' "
Molly's face went hot and she stared fixedly into her soup, but Sherlock didn't seem to take heed. "However," he continued, "he had an intense, visceral, unconcealed distaste for me, at the very same time. It was almost fascinating, how the one actually fed on the other. 'Oh, look,' he'd say, any time I walked into a room, 'the freak's making another field study of how actual humans behave. It's called "a life," old chap, look into getting one.' Or, 'Careful, Caroline dear, the freak can take one look at you and know who you were shagging, he's like some bloody cunt-sniffing police dog—' Well, he was madly flapping his placard and I badly needed money, so clearly, the game was afoot. I deigned to look like I actually appreciated his idiot wit, now and again. I lingered when he was nearby. I would…"
His features transformed, with the same plasticine ease she'd seen him deploy with witnesses (if he'd told her his whole family were traveling actors, she wouldn't have been at all shocked), into a warm, fixed, thoroughly deliberate gaze of fascination; his eyes actually seemed to grow a bit bluer, though surely that was just the scarf, and there was just enough of a sweet-natured turn-up at the edges of his lips to make you hope, indeed hold your breath, for a full-on smile. Molly observed this phenomenon just enough to be polite, to show she was indeed paying attention, then swallowed and lowered her eyes back to the tabletop.
"And did it work?" she asked, her mouth a bit dry.
The silence lasted so long that she was forced to look up. The mask of false flirtation was banished, his expression thoroughly neutral once more, and there was no mockery in him; she, blessedly, wasn't the target of that sweet-smiling barb. And yet, something in his very calmness made her apprehensive.
"In retrospect," he replied, "it was a mistake."
"The first rule," he said, after several moments, "of extracting something vital from a third party—whether information, or anything else—is to know, to have deduced, with absolute certainty, just what they expect in return, so that you're best prepared to misdirect them away from it. I don't even know what I imagined he'd want, when I finally asked him if he might be willing to play Lord Bountiful to the relatively disadvantaged—dinner, perhaps. To accompany him on one of his hideously tedious nightly bacchanals. Sit there and bray with laughter at all his moronic jokes, I don't know. But as I spoke he simply watched me, listened to me, no differently than you are now, except smiling a bit, like he was in on some puckish little joke that excluded me entirely—I detest stupid people who start imagining they're clever, they should accept their limitations and just be glad they can feed themselves—and then he started speaking right over me, as if I'd said nothing. And then, at long last, I realized he had other ideas—"
"—of how you could…earn the money," said Molly. "And you were so drug-sick, you were ready to agree to anything."
As soon the words left her she regretted them, sure she'd set off another round of defensive recriminations. But he just nodded, a barely discernible movement of the chin.
"We were alone, of course, when this whole…conversation took place. When he had suggested his terms—not, may I add, in any useful detail whatsoever—he started walking about, rifling through the papers on my desk, leafing through books full of lab notes he couldn't have deciphered after a century of study. He lifted objects from the mantelpiece, studied them like he was at an estate auction. Taking his time. Waiting for me to tell him to stop. He turned to me, and said, with what I suppose he imagined was crushing sarcasm, 'I like your rooms. They smell so…manly.' They smelled of sweat and piss and formaldehyde, is what they smelled of, but I suppose he wouldn't be the first to find those scents arousing. Then he said, 'Now take all your clothes off. I want to see if you're really what I want.' "
He was looking at her and yet past her at the same time, and the small steady movements of his fingers had stopped. "Idiotic feint, of course, he'd long since made up his mind, but he wanted to see what he could get me to do. I could easily have refused him. I didn't. He kept walking around me, again and again, staring. Taking his time. Then, without any warning, he punched me in the solar plexus, as hard as he could, and when I doubled over began kicking me like a football, again and again. 'That's nice,' he said, after a bit. 'The more you let me do to you, the more dosh you get, but it'd better not just be a fucking show. I want it real.' He kept it up, as he was talking, with his fists and his feet."
Sherlock shrugged, the lightest uptick of the shoulders. "That was the start."
Molly had put her hand to her mouth. "He—after all that, did he at least…pay you?"
"Sometimes," Sherlock said.
His face had grown thoughtful, the distant thoughtfulness she'd seen when he ruminated over some particularly interesting, long-past case file. "We all, it turns out, have our moments of incalculable stupidity, because I imagined his sadism would be confined to the usual dullard public-schoolboy nonsense. In fact, within the limits of his mutton brain, he was singularly brutal and horribly inventive. He had all the instincts of a rapist without any of the wherewithal to get off his arse, find some suitable series of victims and plot his attacks—and here I’d thought Mycroft was the epitome of laziness. He didn't want mere capitulation, some puerile dress-up game of 'don't you just looove how much you hate this'—as he told me, he wanted it to be real. He wanted actual pain and fear. He wanted to push me not merely past physical endurance but to full-on infantile terror, so that I would struggle and panic and then truly humiliate myself by screaming for him to stop, stop, dear God it hurts I can't breathe I don't want anything from you anymore just stop—"
His voice had dropped to an exaggerated, almost gleefully histrionic stage whisper, a bright-eyed mockery as bad as any he'd ever directed at her. Worse. Stop, Molly thought, stop.
"But he didn't get that from you," she said, cutting in, selfishly, impulsively. Because it was what she wanted to believe. "He didn't get that. The…panic. And the begging."
Sherlock considered the question, and didn't answer it.
The glee, the theatricality, had vanished as swiftly as they'd appeared. He ran a hand through his hair, the fingers grasping and releasing their hold almost rhythmically, not quite pulling on the strands.
"What happened then?" she asked.
"Things continued. Inevitably, what first excited him began to bore him, so they escalated." His hand closed on a fistful of hair, held on, let go. "As did my own habits, so, I was caught in my own snare."
"How did it stop? I mean—who stopped it?"
He lowered his hand, rested his head against the chair's sculpted cushions. "His absolute favorite game was to choke or stifle the breath out of you and if you passed out, so much the better. This particular time, I retched on something he'd shoved into my mouth. As always, he kept on going, even after I—well, you're eating," he said, though she'd long since become so absorbed she'd set the spindly plastic chopsticks down. "Aspiration pneumonia. I assumed it would clear up on its own—yes, all right, act like a doctor about it," he added irritably, as she groaned out loud. "I'm inundated with doctors these days, it's a curse. What was I supposed to do, go crawling to hospital and listen to them yammering on and on about 'oooh dear, what're all these nasty marks and bruises and just look at that toxicology screen, has baby got a trauma? Does he just need to talk to someone and unburden his poor, poor 'ittle tortured soul? Would that make it all better?' "
He shook his head in disgust. "Death would be deliverance. Mycroft found out. He finds everything out, ever since we were kids—he found me in a doss-house, going blue at the mouth and nails, and dragged me to some private hospital and said he'd chain me to the bed, if it were necessary, to keep me from discharging myself. I told him to keep his pathetic fantasies to himself and he very nearly…"
His stream of words faltered and stopped. He gazed at the opposite wall, at the old Renoir poster she'd transported from flat to flat in the same cheap pressed-wood frame since medical school, and shook his head, laughing softly; not, it seemed, at the woman in the red hat and her solemn, pinafored little sister. "Mycroft," he repeated, with a sort of rueful amazement. "Always thinking he's got my number. Always, somehow, even with that massive brain, three steps behind the junior simpleton every single time. But that's all right." His voice hardened. "It means that no matter what all that looked like to him or to—to anyone else, I got what I wanted. I got what I bargained for. I won."
His face was shuttered and impassive, his eyes boring into Jeanne Darlot and the unknown little artist's model beside her as if they were clients pleading for his intercession. Choke or stifle the breath out of you. You, Molly thought. Not me. That distancing little pronoun shift, which she mightn't even have noticed from someone else, it stuck out to her. Her iced coffee suddenly tasted sickly sweet, ribbons of condensed milk swirling slowly around the half-melted ice cubes like plumes of fog in dirty air.
"D'you want some of this?" she asked, extending it toward him.
He seemed nonplussed but, nonetheless, rose and took it from her hand, drinking it down in a few swallows. Addicts, a small, nagging voice said inside her, in the cadence of one of her old tutors, they do tend to have quite the sweet tooth. But then she'd ordered the stuff, after all, and she'd never used opium (cocaine, heroin, ketamine, Mandrax, brozitolam, clonazepam, cathinone, entactogens, Sensarin, secobarbitol...) in her life. He sat back down in the armchair, the empty coffee container propped at his feet.
"Why did you tell me all this?" she asked, before she could stop herself. "I mean, not—I'm not saying I didn't want to hear it, just, I mean—why me, something like this. This private."
A faint line appeared between his brows. His hands had returned to their invisible weaving-work. "Why shouldn't I?"
"Well…I mean, why should you?"
"Because, in fact, you're not self-righteous and not a sermonizing moralist—not normally, anyway, that was unfair of me—and so I knew you could listen to it without squawking in horror or imagining I needed…" His face contorted with utter distaste. "…comforting."
The takeaway chopsticks were an unappetizing turquoise topped with livid bands of purple; had someone, she wondered vaguely, actually found that an appealing color combination, or did the factories just use whatever bits of plastic they had on hand? She tapped one fore and aft on the desktop, making it dance. "Comforting," she said. "What would that do, turn back time and make it all not have happened? What's done is done. Mistake or not, you had your reasons, and I suppose he had his, and if anyone else doesn't like it, well, what's all that but them making themselves feel better in comparison? 'Oh, what a terrible, awful thing you've done or had done to you, hardly matters which one now does it, I'm only carrying on to show I'm so pure and good, I'm so above all that, even the thought of it makes me scream and faint—' I hate that. I hate people who do that. If you think that's why I get angry at you, when you do what you're going to bloody well do anyway, well, you're wrong. Even you get to be dead wrong, now and then."
The words had rushed out of her like air from a balloon, as unexpected as if someone else had burst into the room and said them in her stead, but as they echoed in her head she thought, no, she didn't actually regret any of them. As she met his eyes and didn't look away, a split-second flash of genuine gratitude crossed his features, then disappeared.
"I really don't know why I told you this," he said.
She caught a waterlogged basil leaf with the edge of her chopstick, regarded it hanging there limp and darkened and dead. "Whatever happened to…him?" she asked. "The man who did that to you? Why am I asking? Nothing did, did it."
"Why should it?" he replied. "Just as you said, he had his reasons."
Molly held out the half-empty spring roll container to him. He shook his head and she nibbled, distracted, at another.
"That woman," she said, again unable to keep the words inside. "The one you—with that case, with the royal family and all. The one who died."
The one they said died, she suddenly thought, for what she couldn't quite believe was the first time. Just like they'd said Sherlock died, just like she'd found a body for him—but that wasn't her question, not yet, not right now. Of course, he knew what she meant, who she meant. He knew right away.
"What about her?" he said.
"I heard—you said—once you said something about how she liked to play games." Her face had gone warm again, but she was glad to have it finally out in the open. "Was it like…was she like that man?"
He seemed surprised, and nearly amused. "No," he said. He actually almost laughed, with an ease in his voice that convinced her he was telling the truth. "Not anything like that. Not in the slightest." The amusement abruptly faded away. "But still just as terrible. Every bit as terrible."
As much as she didn't want to hear it, she'd still hoped to hear oh, her? No, I liked her games. Her games were fun. They made me happy. The whole idea of Sherlock and games and this woman he'd recognized naked, the thought of it had inspired…well, it had intruded on her mind sometimes in very inconvenient ways, but after what he'd said, about the other man, it wasn't exciting anymore. "What was it, then?" she said, knowing just how much it was none of her business, just that unable to resist asking. "What did she do to you, that was just as terrible as what he did?"
"She stopped," he said.
His eyes were unblinking and his face composed and it was important, she suddenly thought without knowing why, it was terribly important that at this moment, just now, that she not look away. She studied the dark hair near one temple, slightly matted from the pressure of the chair cushion, the set but not tense line of the mouth, the blue of the irises that was always just a shade or two lighter, in the flesh, than it ever was in her memory. (Irises, she thought, idly, all those look-at-me blue petals; bit redundant, wasn't it, to say a blue-eyed person had blue irises? But no, some irises were pink or red or yellow—) He rose to his feet, and she followed suit.
"I should go," he said. "You've got—telly to watch, or whatever."
"There's never anything on," she said. "But I imagine you've got things to do."
She walked over to retrieve the empty container, which reminded him and he stooped down and grabbed it. He paused a moment as he handed it to her.
"I am actually sorry," he said, "that things didn't work out between you and—" A line appeared between his brows, and he gave up swiftly. "—whoever it was."
That was about how she thought of Tom sometimes too, whoever it was, without Sherlock's excuse. Other than simple fairness, since the once or twice she'd run into Tom, since the breakup, he'd made it very clear he felt exactly that way about her. "Yes, well," she said, "I'm over it."
Sherlock nodded, a little absently. "Still," he said, "I suppose you must miss it, sometimes—people do seem to. All that relentless, unceasing companionship, not even a bed to call your own."
"Always someone to talk to," she agreed. She tossed the coffee container, the chopsticks, a pile of stained napkins into the bin. "Always someone you've got to talk to, so they don't think you're keeping things back."
"Every single day. Whether you've actually got something to say or not." He flicked at his coat collar, turning it up toward his ears. "Then the usual round of obligations—"
"Off to his parents," she agreed.
"Or yours," he said.
"Down to the pub."
"Drinks with all his pals, who all pretend they're your nearest and dearest, and then a football match or a movie or the theater and then, whoosh! Back home to the cozy nest, the dovecote, the bower—"
"It's all so, so, so damned dull," she whispered.
The vehemence, bubbling beneath her words, seemed to set his eyes alight. There was awareness in them, recognition, an absolute lack of surprise.
"Wouldn't you," he said, slowly, very carefully, like a man stepping blindfolded through a minefield, "wouldn't you just—"
It'd come out so naturally, without her even thinking. He gazed down at her, and she up at him, both of them solemn and, she was now quite certain, sober.
"Good night, Molly," he said.
He left, once again, without looking back.
3. Conflagrations leap out of every poor furnace
Had she ever imagined hurting him? Those awful things, choking someone, routinely, until they fainted (and yes, the doctor in her was appalled, cerebral hypoxia, anoxia, ischemia, had that man known the damage he could've done and thought, well, if I can't have that incredible brain myself, then…), no, definitely not that. Plain old fun and games? Honestly, no. She had a bit of a limited imagination, she admitted it, she just liked, well, the ordinary sorts of things in bed, nothing that could attract a parliamentary inquiry or paramedic intervention, and felonious assault wasn't among them. Slapping him like that and in front of everyone, it'd been nothing but flat-out fury that shocked even her, not least because she hadn't been raised like that at all; the roughest her father ever got in anger was to grab her by the shoulders, just once, and that very gently. (Gran, well, poor Gran's idea of a devastating reproof was Molly Hooper, you have not behaved like a proper grown girl.) That he'd not resisted it, not pushed her away—however gently—had surprised her in retrospect, but she knew it wasn't from thinking he deserved it. She'd seen that flash in his eyes, that wordless contemptuous menace, If anyone else, anyone, had done that…
(Well, John could've done it, absolutely. You didn't need to be Sherlock to see that, only an absolute fool—and she wasn't one—couldn't have seen that for Sherlock there was the mass of humanity and then there was John, that John could've done that and tenfold more and still, it would've been all right between them. After the horrors he'd told her of she was glad of this, glad for Sherlock, and besides she'd lied by omission, and commission, and active conspiracy, so long to John who'd been so broken up inside she felt as though, really, she owed him. Though she'd promised Sherlock not to say a word to John, not ever, supposedly for John's own good, it didn't matter, Molly felt; she still owed him.
(But not that much. For God's sake, it'd been years now.)
No, she didn't want to hurt him. She knew full well what she actually wanted to do to him, with him, and like his own rotten decisions and rotten memories, that was her own damned problem. And that was fine, because somehow, after seeing him so, well, exposed—to the elements, to everyone around him, to his own sad addictions—it was like a prodding, painful little chunk of ice inside her had suddenly melted away and she'd stopped being ashamed, embarrassed of her own lust. And of course he could smell it on her, his whole job was sniffing out everything about yourself you prayed to keep hidden (I'm drooling into my shoes, have you noticed?), but so what? Yes, all right, I like your hands, your fingers, I imagine them pressing and touching everywhere. I like your hair, I want to get my own fingers in it and pull your head right back. I wonder if that would excite you, and what kind of sounds you'd make if you got excited. And? What're you gonna do about it? My silly thoughts are still mine.
Have you ever kissed a man—not that man, but someone you actually liked, who liked you? Gone to bed with one, because this time you wanted to? I wouldn't mind watching that. I like looking at your arse and sometimes I imagine what your cock looks like hard and what your face looks like when you come and if you think women can't make just as much of a sticky mess of the sheets as men, when they think about all that, then you don't know much. So bloody what. Every now and then, believe it or not, someone's actually thought that way about me—yes, me!—even though you never will. Which is what it is. Nobody in life, nobody, gets the whole cake. Most people were among the blessed, if they even got a sliver.
I really don't know why I told you this.
Had he ever told John? They did say sometimes men actually found it easier, confiding those sorts of things in women, but then Sherlock wasn't any sort of conventional man. But John wouldn't have told a soul. He'd have been shocked, furious on Sherlock's behalf, she could almost hear John's voice in her own head saying you were assaulted, for God's sake, repeatedly, no wonder you have so much trouble with, well, you know, with— And that, she realized, that was exactly why he hadn't told John, why she doubted he ever would—because nothing, absolutely nothing, was as maddening as the instantaneous a-ha! of the confidant who heard tell of something bad, something buried so deep sometimes even you couldn't unearth it because it was just that bad, and seized on it as the key to everything else about you. No wonder, Sherlock, you have so much trouble, after him. No wonder, John, you have so much trouble, after the war. No wonder, Greg, you have so much trouble, after the divorce. (No wonder, Mycroft, you…well, who the hell could ever explain you, let's move on.) No wonder, Molly, you can't ever seem to act normally, talk normally around other actual normal human beings, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, not after—
Has baby got a trauma? Oh, he does? Splendid! Well, that's him and everything about him sorted, forever and ever! He was right, she thought, Sherlock was absolutely right. I hate that too, no matter how innocent or well-meant I hate it. Let someone else listen to me, Molly, talk about…that, back in Isham, and think it explains every other bloody thing I ever said or did or thought? No. Never. Not ever. I really would rather just die.
She was shaking with anger sometimes and nobody could ever see it.
4. I hear the radio is finally gonna play new music
The afternoon she looked up from a not terribly exquisite corpse (South Asian male aged forty-five, car smash, massive blunt force trauma, toxicology screen pending, nothing much to interest anyone) to see John and Sherlock entering the lab, together, she felt a surprisingly strong sense of relief: good, fences were mended (yet again), Baker Street was back in business, the autopsy records they needed were right there in the file drawer, things were as they should be.
Except—not that anyone told her this outright, but you did learn to how to pick things up, here and there—things all around them were not as they should be, not entirely. Sherlock didn't look likely to be arrested again, not any time soon, but there was also no pardon in the offing, no quiet expunging of a thoroughly tarnished record (and it was surely silly paranoia but sometimes she envisioned someone in the government, somewhere, annotating a list of every last one of Sherlock's pharmaceutical misadventures, from the very first adolescent lungfuls of pot up to now). The newspapers that had first dragged him head-down through the mud, then hauled him on their shoulders toward the heavens, had abruptly stopped mentioning him at all, ever. John still maintained his blog, still updated it, but sometimes her internet would run perfectly on every other website while his was one server timeout or 503 error after another, again and again. Should she worry? Did they? John didn't draw her into any more corners to whisper news—nor Mycroft, for that matter. The doorbell didn't ring. It wasn't her business.
But one night, there was a knock—a plain, everyday rapping of knuckles, no rhythm to the beat. Only a cursory glance at the peephole, the face she was already certain she'd see, and she tugged urgently at his arm to pull him, startled, over the threshold before he could speak. She locked the door—including the chain—and as though someone were listening in (and after some of what she'd learned she'd envisioned, more than once, someone noiselessly breaking into her flat while she was at work to plant a bug, some tiny space-age sound device or video camera God knew where), turned the stereo up higher.
"All right," she said, as low as she could manage without the music drowning her out, "level with me. What's going on? Are they going to, to do something to you about Magnussen, or aren't they? Do you need to hide? I mean, really hide?"
She could admit it, it was a pleasure for once to have the jump on him. Unfeigned surprise gave way to annoyance—not, she sensed, at her—and he shook his head.
"Mycroft's been at you again, I see," he said.
"He hasn't, actually," she said. "I've…I've picked a few things up here and there. Are you in trouble, or aren't you?"
"I," he said, looking supremely unconcerned as he shrugged off coat and scarf, "am eternally in trouble. They like it that way, it excites them. A great juicy mouse they can all keep busy chasing around and around until they're dizzy, distracts them from their own supreme incompetence and soothes the sting of being self-important lickspittles to a former colony's intelligence agency—you don't appear to be under surveillance, but assume that could change at any time. John and I have been forever, it's nothing to fuss about. I doubt they have even the marginal brainpower to decipher our text-message code system but for caution's sake, consider it now defunct." He leaned forward in the armchair, elbows resting on his knees, hair standing up where he'd run a hand through it. "Along with the doorbells, God forbid anyone ever employ a bit of shorthand—"
"Couldn't someone be listening to this right now?" she interrupted. "A bug, or…something?"
"Every source I currently have says no. Besides, I've had the place routinely swept while you're at work, and nothing--every electronic communication you make," he continued, when she tried to interrupt in protest, "is under scrutiny but then, that's true of nearly anyone who uses a computer, doubly so for all those cretinous dark-web cultists. Encrypted terrorism-cell communiqués or an impulse online purchase of foot powder, all equal priority if you're an idiot in MI5, forgive the redundancy."
He raised his eyes to her, as she sat across from him on the sofa, without raising his head. "If Mycroft does come to you again," he added, "be careful."
She nodded, trying to look surprised. "He hasn't. But I will."
"He has very little idea just how much danger he's in."
And now, she didn't have to feign surprise. "Mycroft," she said. "I thought—this was all about you."
"Yes, well, so does he," Sherlock answered, with a shade of tetchiness. "I can't help being one of the lucky monomaniae his brain chemistry fixates on, it's only slightly less tedious than when he walks around straightening every picture frame in the vicinity—the two of you have collaborated before, elaborately, in an endeavor which hoodwinked not one but multiple government intelligence services and an even greater number of international organized crime syndicates, and as of yet I have no clear picture of exactly who knows that and who doesn't. But if you come to their attention as his known associate, they are more than capable of deciding that while you're obviously nothing but a footsoldier, a dogsbody, an amanuensis when considered on your own, you are the perfect unwitting bait to lead him into a trap. So as I said, if he approaches you again, or anyone but John or Mary or myself mentions him in your presence…keep your distance."
Slightly dazed, she nodded. She had a great number of questions, most of which she suspected he wouldn't or simply couldn't answer, but the essential point was easy: Heed not the siren song of brother mine. Almost touching, really, she thought with a flash of humor, that Sherlock imagined he, Mycroft, would even remember her name; for once, she was glad to be the sort of person nobody ever noticed. Even when she was standing right in front of them.
"How is he in danger?" she ventured anyway. She couldn't resist. "Why?"
Silence, as she'd expected. Well, you couldn't be in on every government-hoodwinking endeavor, now could you, nor would you want to be.
"So," he said, "just how long have you known about Magnussen?"
"Since John told me," she said, throwing caution to the winds. "He said what you said, to stay away from Mycroft."
Sherlock rolled his eyes. "The correct advice for the most ill-considered, topsy-turvy, emotionally freighted reasons, no doubt, signature John. 'You trust him too much, Sherlock, brother or no brother you trust him too bloody much,' as if I ever trust my brother with anything but whatever anodyne fairy tales will keep him a country mile and a barge-load of clues away from…what is that?"
"Sorry," she said, jumping from from the sofa to turn down the stereo. "Bit loud, isn't it—well, hang on until this is finished, I like this song. D'you want a drink or something?"
A ginger sling with a pineapple heart, coffee dessert, yes you know it's good news… Rearing up where he sat Sherlock almost gawked at the stereo, as though it were a living thing sitting there with them doing something embarrassing and vaguely disgusting, then turned to her in indignation.
"What is this?" he demanded. "Who is it and what will make them stop?"
"The Beatles," she said, in disbelief. "Do you seriously not recognize—"
"Deleted from the mental hard drive with extreme prejudice, if it ever was saved to it. And burned and stomped on and impaled on a metal railing and drop-kicked out the nearest tenth-story window, if this is what it all sounds like—seriously, will you turn that off before I kill myself?"
"No," she said, after a moment, and lowered the hand she'd stretched out automatically to turn it off. "This isn't your flat, is it? It's mine, and that's my music, and I like it. You'll live."
The sweat is gonna fill your head, when it becomes too much you're gonna shout aloud… He was starting to twitch, visibly, which along with his flared nostrils might've made her laugh if she hadn't been so annoyed in turn. "You actually listen to this," he said.
"That's a brilliant deduction! Yes. Many people listen to music in their own—"
"To this," he repeated. "Voluntarily."
"Sorry it's not all Paganini over here, did I ask you to come over?"
"Paganini, Paganini—a third-rate overhyped performing monkey, exactly the name someone always throws out when they don't know anything about the violin—"
"Will you shut up and let me listen!"
He tightened his jaw and folded his arms across his chest, eyes boring into her as if that alone might properly rarify her tastes, and just to irritate him even more she punched repeat on "Savoy Truffle" and sat there, glaring at him, for the whole of that and "Cry Baby Cry" and, though she normally skipped past it, "Revolution No. 9," all eight and a half endless minutes of it. Then "Dear Prudence" and "Julia" and "Mother Nature's Son" all over again, because those were her favorites, and then, with what she knew was a ridiculously misplaced sense of victory, she reached over and hit pause. The sudden quiet seemed to make the air crackle, a storm of profound mutual irritation.
"Right," she said, "let's have some more, shall we?"
"What-ever you like," he said, with the old dismissive smile. "I'm certain it'll just transport me."
So, she thought, as she knelt flicking impatiently through her little shelf of CDs (doubtless he was curling his lip at that too, a true music aficionado would shun anything but vinyl, but that wasn't just bloody expensive but she'd always frankly thought it more than a bit affected, thanks very much, Tom), what would really make him recoil in horror, poke at his so terribly well-bred eardrums like pins at a great gas balloon? Hated the Beatles? Well, he was out of luck, she liked all happy pop bands with happy poppy songs, or at least upbeat melodic ones even if it was John or George or whoever singing about his dead mother, and tonight he'd get an earful…bloody men and their bloody Mount Sinai pronouncements about music. Still, she considered, as she pulled out another disc at random, still better than those interminable months of pretending to enjoy This Heat and the Fall. She hit play again, and sat back against the sofa cushions waiting for the next sarcastic eruption.
"I remember one night the kid cut off his right arm, in a bid to save a bit of power…"
He opened his mouth to speak, and she braced herself; she wasn't turning it off, his coat was right over there if he kept this up. He closed it again and then, most reluctantly, sighed a bit.
"I'm sorry," he said. Dutifully, and grudgingly, but nonetheless.
"See?" Molly said, not quite so sharply as before. "You haven't died." She turned the volume down a bit, as it was starting to get on her own nerves. "Do you want a drink?"
He shook his head. This particular sort of silence didn't bother her, he was prone to it—as she'd learned in those few nearly wordless dinners, after agonies of thinking she'd committed some awful investigatory faux pas and made him inarticulate with rage—and if he'd already said everything he'd come to say, well, he didn't seem inclined to leave, and she didn't mind the company. She liked having him around even just to look at, frankly, she could admit that to herself these days. She curled her legs beneath her on the sofa, letting her thoughts wander along with the music. Now up jumped the U.S. representative, he's the one with the tired eyes…
"John's blog," Sherlock said, after a long silence. "Do you read it?"
"Is there something in it I should know about?" she asked. "Some new—"
"No, simply in general. I just wondered." He extended his legs out before him, one ankle crossed neatly over the other. "Do you?"
"Sometimes," she said. "Not always. It's—you know, when you've actually done the real thing, the legwork, talked to witnesses and all that? It's not the same as before, reading him. I mean, when you've seen it from the other side you know what he's, I don't know, slanted, or colored in a bit, because it all plays a bit better that way if you're reading it as a sort of story—not, I mean, not that he ever makes anything up. I know he doesn't, but when it's for, you know, public consumption—" She felt her face burning, and grabbed her glass of wine and swallowed hastily just to have something to do. "I'm not trying to sound like some sort of expert, I know I was only there for a few cases and if he'd been speaking to you at all you never would've asked me to—"
"Molly." He raised his voice, just a little, a pebble tossed into her own river of words. "I only asked if you'd read it."
Arista says they love it but the kids can't dance to it… "Well, anyway, he makes it all sound a bit glamorous." She could sense it sometimes as she read, John's pleasure—while being most faithful to the actual facts—at crafting the mood, the scene, the tempo most consciously to make the reader feel compelled to follow its two protagonists down the oddest, most seemingly inexplicable avenues to the ultimate solution. At least he'd never embarrassed her, the handful of times he'd written about her. "No combing through, I don't know, vehicle registration records or dull things like that. But then, I don't suppose many people really want to read about the seventeen different possible types of cigarette ash or—"
"Two hundred and forty-nine," he said, rather snappishly. "And I don't see why not."
Yes, she was tempted to agree—straight-faced, out loud—who would scroll through for sex and violence and conspiracy when there were burnt bits of tobacco to consider? Far more interesting than, say, a thousand-quid-an-hour dominatrix blackmailing God knew who, God knew how high up…and unless she'd missed it, she suddenly realized, John had never written a word about the woman. Of course, he only wrote up perhaps one case in twenty, she knew that, but something like that with illicit sex and wild rumors about aristos and actual international intrigue, wouldn't that have been a natural for the books? Or, perhaps Mycroft had warned him off it. Or Sherlock, for that matter.
"It's been down a bit lately," she said. "His site. Or it sets off my anti-virus. Is that just—"
"Coincidence?" said Sherlock. He tilted his head, studying her almost with an air of conspiracy, as if they both knew they knew the answer. "I rather doubt it."
As she'd thought. But then he didn't look particularly concerned, or at least, not yet.
"I wish I could write like him," she added. "I've always wished I could write, I used to sit down and try doing stories and things, but—nothing, it was pulling teeth to get any words out and it was all such shite no matter how hard I tried. John, though, he could've been a really good journalist, some of those long magazine features. I can hear your voice when I read him, I mean, right there in my head like you're really speaking. It's all—"
"All what?" Sherlock interrupted. "All so authentic?"
The caustic weight of that last word, once she would've cringed, but she was past thinking all that was always directed at her. He looked suddenly not tired, but weary—of talking, of thinking, of himself.
"Even if it doesn't feel authentic to you," she offered, "the way he writes about you, you're not really the best judge. My mother always used to say, when I was little, that whatever anyone thinks about themselves, the exact opposite's almost always true."
He raised his eyebrows, considering this. "So Mycroft and I are, in reality, a pair of drooling cretins? Hardly."
"No, I just mean, it happens so much that people who go about thinking, oh, I'm so kind and generous, I'll help anyone who needs it, well, they wouldn't piss on you if you were on fire." His brows went up again at this, but, she noticed, he didn't disagree. "And people who think they're kind and sweet and hard done by, they can be the cruelest and most violent of anyone—I mean, you know that, you see it all the time. And, yes, a lot of people who imagine they're brilliant are terribly stupid, and the other way around."
And because she couldn't help herself, she added, "I mean, look at Anderson."
"I try never to make that mistake," he said.
Those Quaalude bombs didn't help her sleep, as her nights grew long and her days grew bleak… His eyes were shadowed, half-shuttered, gazing beyond and past her. While she was used to his retreating very far away into the recesses of his own mind, this felt different; even his face looked different, as though he were not truly probing the depths but instead seeking mere distraction, the mind palace equivalent of a sparkly toy, from some bothersome exterior thing. And so many bothersome things to choose from. Level with me, are you in trouble? As if he ever leveled with anyone, ever. Then without warning he was staring straight at her again, through her, that old cold gear-grinding stare, and she flinched as though finding herself in the sights of a rifle.
"A footsoldier," he repeated aloud, more to himself than her. He was sitting up a bit straighter in the armchair. "A dogsbody. An amanuensis. Unwitting bait."
The crosshairs were closer now, she thought, sharper, his finger resting ready on the trigger. Why now, for God's sake? Molly gazed back down the imaginary barrel, and shook her head. "Don't," she said.
He frowned. "Don't what?"
His puzzlement seemed genuine, but then, hadn't she seen, firsthand, how easily he could fake warmth and regard? Switch on, switch off. I'm tired of this, she thought. She swung her legs out from under her, rising from the sofa. "Don't make fun of me," she said. "Again. Not now, not after everything I've at least tried to do for you."
The frown deepened. "What are you—"
"I know I was just—nothing but a dogsbody. A stand-in. All right?" She crossed her arms over her chest, pacing back and forth before the sofa in agitation. "A useful idiot. Whatever. You don't have to keep repeating it!"
"Molly, that isn't what—"
"I already know what you think of me, all right? Believe me! I know!"
Sherlock was on his feet now as well, the distracted languor the armchair seemed to instill in him instantly forgotten. "Am I permitted a half-completed thought," he demanded, "or are you just going to seek out persecution in everything I say—let me finish!" he nearly shouted, as she began to protest. "That's what they decided, that's what they see whenever they look at you—it's the old story, time and again, anyone they don't consider important they assume must also be invisible to me. And never mind the sickening presumption, imagining their thoughts could ever be commensurate with my own on any subject, wouldn't you think they'd learn enough not to make the same mistake about the very same person, time and again? That they'd in fact see that person standing there, however quietly, at the heart of one of the greatest deceptions ever successfully perpetrated on them, and yet, even after I explain outright that person's part in those events—and in sufficiently monosyllabic words—that person still manages to escape all notice? That's not an idiot. That's the dead opposite of one. Mycroft should've gone ahead and recruited you while he still had the influence to do it."
Molly froze in her tracks, and blinked. "What?" she finally said.
An impatient look flickered across Sherlock's face. "As I just said. He was rather impressed with your sangfroid during the planning of my much-lamented passing, all thirteen variations thereupon—as was I, by the way, I didn't fully expect it of you—and thought he might be able to persuade you to act as a sort of auxiliary field agent, someone who could among other occasional assignments keep an eye on me and report back to him as he felt necessary. You were devoted enough on my behalf to agree immediately to my death, after all, though it could've cost you your livelihood—and far more than that, if Moriarty's people ever got wind of you—and so how could he have failed to persuade you that for his dear brother's own good, and perhaps other petty considerations like national security, you should enter his ranks?" His mouth twisted ruefully. "He's got more actual dogsbodies like that doing more little tasks on his behalf than it's safe for you to know about, though I don't know why he bothers, they never can manage to catch up with John or myself for trying. And then, there is always…a measure of risk, in assuming you can place such trust in anyone. Ever. When they might merely be watching you, learning everything they need to know about you, and awaiting their opportunity."
A sudden shadow crossed Sherlock's features, and then passed; he had very nearly confided something, and then backtracked as soon as he was recalled to himself. She wanted to know just what was happening, frankly not for Mycroft's sake but for what that might mean to Sherlock and even, possibly, tangentially to herself, but she wasn't going to probe, wasn't even going to let on that she realized how little of this was hypothetical. Did John know what this was about, while she was in the dark? Well, he'd been excluded entirely from all that prior plotting and planning and left flat by its execution, so really, that'd be only fair.
"Well, I wouldn't have agreed to it," she said. "If Mycroft had ever asked me."
Sherlock shrugged. "He must've arrived at the same conclusion himself, if he never asked you." His face turned contemplative. "So, apparently you were right. One's imaginings of oneself are, if often not an outright inversion of the truth, a virtual funhouse mirror."
Molly stood there, arms still wrapped around herself, trying to make sense of her own thoughts. Sherlock was a silhouette standing over her, drifted over that invisible, accepted boundary between the bodies of friends to less than an arm's length removed, but she'd long noticed he did this, sometimes, when he was absorbed enough in the conversation. Sometimes she wondered if it would unsettle her less if they were both eye to eye, instead of her always, eternally, having to look upward.
"Lots and lots of us were part of all that," she pointed out. "The planning and everything. And I'm not the only one who kept quiet about it."
"But you are one of the only ones who did so without a considerable monetary bribe. That impressed him. Governments always appreciate the chance for a bit of fiscal restraint."
He gave the corners of his mouth a perfunctory turn-up, as if only remembering at the last moment he should offer this as a joke. She didn't smile back. He seemed somehow relieved by this.
"John," he said, "has an immense, stubborn gift for making me sound far cleverer and more perceptive than I actually am. Not that he ever lies, not about the essential facts, but take nothing he writes about me as read."
Molly unwound her arms, then crossed them again as she had little idea what to do with her hands. The wineglass was all the way over at the other end of the sofa, and she felt unable, somehow, to break out of their mutual orbit to retrieve it. "But you just said it," she pointed out, "you just got through agreeing nobody knows themselves, really, and what John writes about you is you. I mean, I'm sorry, he's not exaggerating it, that great big brain, with all the—"
"Don't," he said. "Please."
"But what have I said?"
"Nothing." She must've looked skeptical, because he sighed in exasperation. "Truly, Molly. Nothing. Just once, please, on a whim, believe I'm not speaking in the service of some grand, elaborate scheme of—"
"I'm not angry," she said. "Or hurt. If that's what you're asking."
He didn't answer. The CD had played through and gone silent.
"If you're never clever enough to satisfy yourself," she said, "no matter what, that still doesn't make you stupid."
He looked more acerbic, which was to say more like himself. "Please tread cautiously, for your own sake, or you'll start sounding fit for one of Mrs. Hudson's refrigerator magnets."
"Didn't I say John was the one good with words, not me? I—he knows you, all right? He's your best friend, isn't he? Well, if your best friend can't suss out the real brilliance in you, even if you can't, then who else ever could?"
"So love and affection make human beings trenchantly perceptive? Well, that's good to know, there's several million murders rendered even more senseless—"
"All right, then, here's something you think about yourself that definitely isn't true—you're not some grand, frightening enigma, that none of the rest of us can ever hope to understand. You're just not." She couldn't blame the wine for this one—she'd barely taken a swallow before he came barging in—but the feeling of saying exactly what she was thinking right when she thought it had a dizzying effect all its own. "You're an incredibly intelligent human being, astoundingly intelligent—"
"Freakishly intelligent, even?"
"Don't speak for me. I'm standing right here."
His eyes, paler this close up, widened in surprise. The sight, and his silence, gave her a certain pleasure. "An incredibly intelligent human being, a sort of genius, who can read people terribly well in some ways and not well at all in others, doing the sort of work you were probably always meant to do. That's all. Isn't that enough? And if someone else can see that, why d'you always have to insist that they're wrong?"
"Because," he said, after a moment, "to be able to be read like that, so easily, even by persons who merely see but have no natural talent to observe, means walking about with an indelible target painted squarely on one's back."
Just as his eyes, so close up, looked paler his hair looked more tightly curled and darker, a true black without the warmth of even the deepest brown. Stray strands of silver interrupted it, here and there, but were still sparse enough to be invisible just a few feet away. The black cloth of his shirt was scrupulously clean and closely tailored, verging on threadbare so close up but then again, from a few feet away it wouldn't matter. Though it also didn't matter she wished she'd worn a better-looking jumper, the dark green Shetland or something; this old beige fisherman's rollneck didn't do a thing for her and was far too big in the bargain. She threaded her hands into its sagging sleeves.
"Then maybe," she replied, "that just means all of us, everyone, can read everyone else, a little bit, when we want to, and you happened to be born with about ten times your fair share of that. Twenty, even. Which would mean you aren't freakish at all, wouldn't it. It'd make you human like all us other humans, just—that much more so."
She shrugged in turn. "Sorry," she said. And, instinctively, braced herself for his reply.
He was silent for several moments.
"I'm not certain I would be sorry," he said, "if I could believe it."
Something, she had no idea what, about this quiet statement defeated her, finally, and she dropped her eyes to gaze down at her feet. Bare and pale against the floor, with her peculiarly crooked little toe—a genetic quirk from her father, and Gran—pointing nearly off to the side, the piglet who wasn't ever going to market if it didn't bloody feel like it. His shoes were what they always were: black, gleaming on top and sides, hopelessly scuffed at the toes. She forced herself to look in his face again, and was strangely glad he didn't smile. I feel strange, she thought, suddenly. But his news, however much she'd suspected it anyway, had been strange, and the lacunae where he told her nothing were strange, and the whole idea of being followed--nothing to fuss about—was strange to her. Doubtless she would get used to it. She'd got used to him, after all.
"It's a bit late," she said.
"It is," he agreed.
The restoration of the small courtesies seemed a relief, to him as much as her. He stepped past her, toward the other end of the sofa where he'd thrown his coat. The blue scarf, tossed beside it, had slid from the sofa arm to the floor without either of them noticing. Molly walked over and picked it up, brushing a streak of dust from the wad of cloth, and shook it out to hand to him.
"I think I tore up the nap," she said, again seeing the long loose tufts, the stretched threads beneath them where she'd ripped away the burrs. "Sorry."
Later, as many times as she replayed the scene in her mind, she could not have said exactly how it happened: his hand reached out for the scarf and, instead, landed on her shoulder, then both her hands slid up his chest (or perhaps it was the other way around, her first, then him—) and somehow, with shocking speed, they had seized hold of each other. Her body was pressed flush against his, the warmth of their flesh penetrating black linen and beige wool, and it wasn't just her, his arms were wrapped tight around her, his lips opening to hers, his breath catching as her fingers reached up and sank deep into his hair. He staggered backward, not letting go, and when he felt the wall against his shoulder blades he clutched her even tighter, his palms sliding beneath her jumper and up her back.
Molly had her arms wrapped around his neck and without any forethought, her nails dug into the skin and drew downwards, slow, and hard. He made a sound close to a gasp, forcing her mouth open wider against his, and just as she was savoring, at long last, the taste of him, just as she felt coherent thought blessedly fading away, he wrenched himself free, stood there staring down at her wide-eyed with shock. Molly could hear her own breath, a panting sound, and put a hand to her lips as if that could stifle it; here it comes, she thought, her stomach twisting as it dropped, anticipating the nose-dive into humiliation and misery, her eyes already pricking with unshed tears. Oh, God, it isn't fair, it's not fair, but here it comes.
His own breath, rapid and short, was an echo of hers. He put his fingers to the hand at her mouth, drawing it gently down and away, and stood there holding it in his grasp as though, deprived of it, all his balance might be lost. He was gazing at her eyes, her lips, her hair as though they made up a puzzle he had no means to solve. He doesn't know what he wants to do next, she slowly realized, no triumph in this discovery but only what she knew was an absolutely fatal instinct to comfort, to reassure. He's nervous. With me. He hasn't any idea what to say or do next. She swallowed, and twined her fingers around his.
I won't tell you what to do next. I want it to be you, deciding it. Just…deduce it. What you want. Can't you?
His free hand reached down, the thumb slowly caressing the edge of her hairline, lingering at the whorl of her ear. His fingers slid back, tugging at the clasp holding back her hair; the ponytail collapsed, his hand cradled the back of her head and they were kissing again, slowly, deeply, hours of this ahead of them, maybe days. He took her bottom lip between his teeth, bit down lightly, shivered as she broke away just long enough to kiss his earlobe, behind the ear, the juncture of jaw and throat. Her hands, without her ever planning it, had wandered to his arse, clutching, and his hand was cupping one of her breasts, and without any resistance from him, none, she had started unbuttoning his shirt.
This isn't happening, she kept thinking, in a haze that almost bordered on panic, but it was happening, and for once—she could tell, she could simply tell—that whether he'd never done this before, not with a woman anyway, or he had but it'd been far too long, this was something she knew far better than he. That discovery made her feel tender, not triumphant, but thanks to the verbal wounds he'd once inflicted on her himself she knew not to show it, knew enough to hide, to concentrate all her thoughts strictly on his mouth, his skin, how he'd grown hard feeling her nails at his neck and her hands on his arse. They were both on their knees now, mouths parting only to catch breath, bodies bowed together on the soft, worn rug. She'd raised her arms to help him pull off the jumper, the thin T-shirt beneath it; his shirt was open and her breasts were bare. She didn't know how any of that had happened. Because this wasn't happening. None of it.
He was at her breasts too roughly and she put her own hand back on top of his, felt his fingertips follow her silent cues. Then he lowered his mouth to them, now far too cautious with lips and tongue. She stifled a noise of arousal and frustration, she was so studiously silent, but it all came out another way when she pushed him straight onto his back, relishing his startled near-shout (and he'd liked it, the tenor of that sound told her he'd liked it, she'd decided something for him after all and he'd gone ahead and let her). She ran her palms over his chest, fumbled with his trouser buttons and—and he grabbed her forearms and effortlessly rolled her over, pinning her beneath his own body. She pushed back, seeing if she could turn them both over again; when his fingers gripped her arms tight, his thighs pressed full force against her own legs in response, she felt a shudder go through her, trembled again when he released his grasp to stroke her hair, run undisguisedly eager fingers all through its length.
She raised her hips up off the floor and he pushed her trousers down, knickers going with them, and their mouths were locked again and his hand between her legs and nothing made sense anymore, she didn't want it to. Words, phrases flitted through her memory at this last moment like warning flares, sociopath and I want to see if you're really what I want and trying to compensate for the size of her breasts and then the sudden, freezing fear that she'd been tricked, not for the first or the seventeenth time—but look at him, flushed and shaking, his eyes drawing shut but then coming open again to look down at her, stifled sounds behind his tight, set jaw as she closed her fingers around him and slowly stroked his cock. The memory of his touch against her hair, as though he'd long thought about doing that, had wanted to do that more than she'd known. Her legs drew up, around his waist, and his cheek was pressed to hers as he entered her, began to thrust. They moved together easily. Without apology, without hesitation. As though they'd done this many times before.
Which didn't mean it was magical. He got too frenzied too fast and came with a choked gasp like some randy teenager when she was still barely halfway there, falling back heavily against her shoulder like any other man. Then they lay there, on the floor, not looking at each other, him waiting to get hard again, her waiting for him to realize he might try, in the interim, getting her off some other way. She could've laughed at him, as badly as he'd ever belittled her: So you can read anyone like a neon sign from five miles away but lying on top of them, well, that just kills it?—
—but she wouldn't laugh at him, she didn't do that to people, she knew far too well how it felt. Instead she took his hand and moved it to where even he could take the hint, was rewarded when, guided by her own wordless sounds, he went from delicate to forceful and back again with an almost cruel dexterity. Her head was thrown back and he was kissing the high edge of her cheekbone, as thoughtfully and downright sweetly as he ever had when they were both clothed and standing upright. Too excited now to be calculating she let her own hands, her mouth roam anywhere she wanted them to, kissing, stroking, grabbing, pinching, biting, and as he pulled her back beneath him she heard him draw in a long, sharp breath.
"Keep doing that," he murmured. "Keep—"
He stopped talking. She curled her nails into his buttocks, urging him on, and this time, this time, both of them.
They both fell asleep, there on the floor. Then, in the early hours of the morning, they awoke and dressed and said goodbye, just as calmly as if it had all been any ordinary night, and the second the door closed behind him Molly virtually sprinted to the bathroom, tearing off the jumper and trousers she'd thrown over naked skin, standing under a pelting shower aching from the floorboards and him and too dazed to think clearly, about anything. All right, she finally told herself, sitting shivering wrapped in a towel on the edge of the tub. All right. The word aberration was invented for exactly this sort of thing, and only a madwoman would expect anything at all to come of it, and for all she knew it'd only happened because, however lucid he'd seemed to her, he'd in fact been high as a kite. That was it. Think no more about it. You'll have enough trouble just looking him in the eye, next you see him.
Whenever that would be.
Two nights later he returned, and since he acted as though nothing had changed between them, nothing at all, she swallowed what felt like a great yarn-ball of her own, jangling nerves and followed his cue. He had actual reason to return, anyway, another update about whoever was (apparently, possibly) making his life difficult, and thereby all their own. Do not take the 19:02 or 19:54 trains, he told her, without any context. Ever. Some of this was starting to scare her, just a little bit, but she agreed. She still wanted to ask, demand, if he—and John, and Mary and whoever else, for that matter—really needed to hide. Mycroft, though, some cold-hearted, unassailable part of her thought, Mycroft could well fend for himself. Especially if all this was, at the bottom, all his fault.
Then Sherlock ran a hand along her cheekbone, tentatively, like someone unable to resist poking through the bars at the tiger's teeth. She traced his lips with a fingertip, risked sliding her fingers into his hair to draw his head to hers, and it all happened again, so easily, all either of them had had to do was ask. A few nights after that, he really was about to leave when she ran a hand down his arm, let it linger, and after the briefest of questioning glances he pulled his coat and scarf back off, draped them over the armchair, let her take care of the rest. Hello, I may or may not be killing myself pharmaceutically, but I have no intention of stopping. My head may be more of a mess than you even know. Your life may be in danger. You know mine is. Mind how you go, but never ask me why. So, shall we shag?
Yes. Yes, we shall. As much as you like.
5. I can't understand it
I'm a no-good coward
She'd never imagined it, having a relationship—if this even deserved the word—where she had to put her foot down and insist on the bed instead of the floor (the sofa, the countertop, the wall), but there you had it. Not that she didn't understand it, really, the pleasure of having a dark, quiet space entirely yours and nobody else's—not even a bed to call your own—but yes, she was thoroughly conventional and every now and then, just once or twice, she wanted to lie down and fall asleep with him somewhere designed for the purpose. Tonight, actually, she'd emerged from the bathroom to find him already asleep, one bare arm stretched over his head and his face nearly buried in the pillow, and hadn't been too disappointed; she was exhausted, thirteen hours' worth of work and whispered consult with him and John and a commute twice as long thanks to all the routes she now couldn't take, and even that afternoon he, and John, had been nearly spinning with fatigue. She didn't ask. They were both, it was clear, holding back enough now that she was almost afraid to. She slid under the blankets, moving lightly so she wouldn't wake him, and in moments was asleep in turn.
She was on the 19:54 train that was somehow plummeting downward, and downward, as though the Underground were built on the side of a mountain; a forbidden time now, a forbidden route, but she was so ready to be home that she'd take her bloody chances (and something had happened, in her dreams, before she found herself on this downbound train that she needed to run from, run far away, by any means she could find). The train plunged farther down, and farther, she was the only passenger in this car and something was wrong with the machinery for the car was jumping on the track like a shaken toy, her seat was rattling beneath her, she grabbed at a pole for balance but the car's metal joints and hinges were loosening, separating, flying apart—
Her eyes shot open to the darkness of the bedroom, the half-light of the half-moon beyond the window; her heart racing, she slowly felt herself coalesce back into waking flesh and bone, the dream deferred, the disintegrating train car reduced to a hand vigorously shaking her shoulder. Sherlock was leaning over her on one elbow, frowning, eyes intent on her face even as the nighttime reduced them to twin ashen shadows.
"You were crying," he said. It almost sounded like an accusation.
Still only half-awake she put a hand up to her cheek, and felt it come away damp. "Oh," she muttered, her breath and heartbeat now slowed once more. "I do that," she told him. "Sometimes, in my sleep. Don't know why. It's nothing."
She couldn't remember what she'd been dreaming, before she got on the train—because that, she was somehow quite certain, and not the train bit had kicked off the waterworks—but then, she never could. (Can't you tell me? she was tempted to demand. Just by looking?--but he might take that as a challenge and then they'd both be here all night.) He was still staring down at her, moving the puzzle pieces this way and that, and while it didn't anger or annoy her she really, truly, had nothing she could tell him in way of a solution. She did that. She could never remember why.
"You woke me," he said.
"I didn't mean to," she pointed out.
"I was certain," he said, stubbornness creeping into his words, "that I heard someone crying out for help."
Had she done that, in the dream, when her train car began breaking up around her? No, she could still see that scuffed blue seat there in her mind, was very certain she'd just hung on for dear life without making a sound. She shook her head.
"I do that," she repeated, trying her best to sound offhand. "Get a bit weepy, I mean, sometimes—it's probably hormones, or, something. It's nothing. Go back to sleep."
When he still didn't stir she turned away, resting her cheek against her pillow once she'd retrieved it from the floor and determinedly closing her eyes to his. She was terribly tired, and she knew he was too. I do that. Sometimes I do things. There's no need to ask about them, any more than I ask you. All right?
No? Pity for you.
It did occur to her that perhaps he was simply worried, but by the time this absurd idea crossed her mind it was cut short by sleep.
When she woke again, dry-eyed, pale gray light was slowly filling the room and Sherlock was still unconscious. Both his arms and one bare leg were weighing on her body; not embracing her, but flung over the blankets covering her as if he'd grown restless in the night. The sheets on his own side were out of her line of vision, dragging against the floor. Carefully, with the most minute of shiftings and turnings, Molly angled herself so that without her pushing him away, her head came to rest in the hollow just below his shoulder, just above the chest, her hair—silly indulgence, this—brushed back so her cheek lay right up against his flesh. He had pleasingly soft skin on his body, not quite like a woman's but close enough, as if to make up for hands covered in the small callouses of old chemical burns. This was quite nice, really. She closed her eyes again, savoring the odor of his skin, that endless hour and fourteen minutes left before her alarm went off—
Bugger. She had to pee.
6. I give up, why can't they?
What did they talk about now? Well, there was one thing they never discussed, ever, simply did together with lesser or greater frequency, sometimes night to night, sometimes only time to time, there was no pattern to what they had or when they had it and she had never sought one. Absolutely nothing had changed between them in public—nor, Molly found, to her sincere surprise, did she want it to—and if John knew, because despite, well, the obvious irony, Molly took it as read that Sherlock's secrets were also John's, he wasn't letting on either. Thankfully. All she wanted, these days, was to be left alone. Mostly.
But it was ridiculous anyway, verging on narcissism, to think John would give a damn what she was up to, when he had his own life and a new daughter (she'd thought it was just courtesy, Mary's note saying the little stuffed rabbit Molly sent had been a hit, until John proudly showed off a photo of the baby clutching it as she slept) and, no small thing, the continuing situation—whatever the hell it was—with Mycroft, with Mycroft's allies or enemies or whoever they were, with Moriarty's heirs or assigns or whoever they were. She'd stopped looking over her shoulder, stopped seeking clues in John's blog (503 service unavailable) or Sherlock's own website (404 not found) or the verboten train routes and times (now expanded to six) or anything else, simply waited, as before, to be told what anyone might need. She preferred, in honest fact, to be presented with an actual plan and to know her own place in it, but until that happened—if it ever did—she wasn't even going to think about it. Much.
As for what she or Sherlock might need, in other capacities, that was an ongoing discovery.
He had not changed, she had not expected him to change, and that meant that still, even now, while she doubted not in the slightest that she mattered to him (in some way, or another), he did not notice her; he observed, but he didn't see. Join the club! He was like that with everyone else who mattered, she'd worked that one out all by herself, and to whinge about it now would be like shaking a fist at a rainstorm. She'd started wearing her hair loose around him more often, since that first night, and while he doubtless deduced her motive (and, mercifully, didn't feel compelled to recite it aloud) she was certain he didn't notice, or care about, the actual feeling behind the gesture. Perhaps, in fact almost certainly, he just wasn't capable of that. Always, with men, it did seem to come down to some version of honey, just be grateful for whatever you get.
And she didn't care. That was the thing, whether he ever truly noticed her or not, she simply did not care anymore. Are you here? Are you staying? Good. That's all.
The cases, well, frankly she'd have believed he was ill if everything didn't circle back to them in the end. They were him, in a way her own work had never been even when she was in her pathology run-through and nearly hallucinating from tiredness, the world outside the hospital and the lab a distant planet she barely remembered. There was no outside world, for him; everything in it was contained in one case after another that made up his brain like a series of interconnected, folding boxes, all subsumed into each other; she'd never say it to anyone but a mind palace, from where she was sitting, looked a good deal like a very spacious prison. (And he'd doubtless say Yes, well, you would think that, wouldn't you, which she'd say didn't make her wrong.) Endlessly enthralling, all those cases? Or just enthralling because they were endless, because human beings simply never stopped finding reasons and ways to cheat, hurt, kill one another? That question she actually did care about, a good deal more than he knew, but still, she wouldn't ask.
And either way the work continued, even at the most ludicrous of times; it was always all about the work and so really, why stop the work just because you're physically inside someone else? These days, who didn't multitask? However silently their first few encounters had played out, when he had what she'd heard John call a three-patch problem on the brain he'd simply keep thinking it through, out loud, no matter what else was occupying his attention. But the thing was, she was not complaining, because it was good, it got her going to hear his voice start to jerk and go uneven as his excitement grew, harsher faster breaths clipping short the ends of his words, the narration falling to pieces, anyone halfway observant could see by the traces of—strychnine in his bloodstream and—asphalt markings—his coat—before he was oh—oh—dead more than six and—and—and a half—
He liked it when her fingers trailed along the edge of his ear, followed the line of his jaw, when she wrapped her legs tightly as she could around him and twisted her hips about, pushing against his own thrusts. The one time she'd raked nails against his shoulder blades—a little self-conscious doing it, but it was the sort of thing she'd thought all men liked—he started so violently she stopped straight away, and only later did she see on his back, beneath her own well-meaning scratches, the faint, never to be asked about traces of scars. Stroking there, though, with the side of her hand, that was all right. His own hands would slide up the sides of her face, always coming to rest in her hair; he kissed her temples, her forehead, yet sometimes avoided her mouth and she wasn't sure why, was she that bad a kisser, really? But the few times she took the initiative there herself, he didn't flinch or freeze or get that visible, knotting tension in the muscles of his neck that she'd learned, from her brief foray into assistant detective work, was his red flag of absolute boredom. If she kissed his neck he'd squirm a bit, somewhere between excited and oversensitive, and then push her mouth aside. Sometimes, she did it again anyway.
It was rather obvious—given the steep learning curve between their first encounter, and all that followed—that he'd straightaway consulted the internet, libraries, any number of other knowledgeable sources (including, he once mentioned quite casually, a lesbian Irregular of a few years' acquaintance) on cunnilingus, vulvar stimulation, the most anatomically advantageous sexual positions, the end point of every relevant nerve ending. It didn't keep him from being awkward at first, driver's-manual-to-road-test awkward, until experience took over from instruction. It didn't keep her, there with his head between her legs, from bracing her heels against the mattress like she might fly right off it, shouting his name, grabbing the wooden slats of the headboard and hanging on so hard they creaked and groaned under the strain. Again, she'd sometimes whisper, right after, utterly blissfully selfish, and he actually would. Was this really the first he'd ever done this? With her? Again.
Didn't she—you know, that woman—didn't she ever have you do this? she was sort of dying to ask. Order you to? If you like ordering men about wouldn't that be, well, the very first thing? I mean, it'd be for me— But dear God, she didn't dare. Or care, because the sound of his breath when he raised his head, the sight of his mouth and chin wet from her, his cheek wet too where he'd rubbed it, panting hard, against her cunt, it got her wet all over again. Not bothering with the preliminaries she was long past needing he would fuck her right after, a straightforward bog-standard male headboard-banger (and she wasn't complaining, not knowing she'd got him in that state), but the once or twice she'd instead put her hands to his hipbones and started lowering her head to reciprocate he had pulled away, each time, a very definite no. Wasn't that the very first thing, if you were a man, the headboard-banging and that? But perhaps it…reminded him of something, she probably didn't want to know what, and she wasn't going to spoil things by demanding a checklist.
Though sometimes, she suspected he had one. Your hand won't fit, she'd said, on one such occasion, actually scared but not scared enough for a definite no, wet despite herself as she watched him calmly making his fingers, knuckles, palm that much wetter. Not stopping until his whole hand was dripping, up past the wrist. It'll hurt, it'll— And still she hadn't refused it, and she couldn't even have said what he murmured into her ear, a soft patient stream of soothing calculating entreaty, until she was calmed and ready and then all of his fingers, knuckles, palm, up to the wrist. She'd screamed, possibly, and not from pain, and was so embarrassed she wanted to hide her face until she saw his, wide-eyed and heated and unmoored with longing and when she curled unsteady fingers around his cock, within seconds he shuddered and came. His hand still in her. God, she thought, as she gripped him tight without even meaning to, on the brink again, anything you want, anything, ask me for it now—
(And what about him, in turn? She had much smaller hands, after all, would he enjoy it too? She was far too shy to suggest it, and wished she weren't. If he would only ask.)
"Do you want me to hurt you?" she blurted out, once, before she could lose her nerve.
It wasn't a sexy question, just an embarrassing one, but she couldn't stop herself; what if he wanted that more than anything else, what if he just thought she was too timid or priggish to oblige? And it was far easier, that crass, clumsy query, than to say plainly and out loud I'm not joking, I'm really not. I will do anything you ask.
But he didn't answer.
He didn't like anything where they weren't face to face. She'd noticed that, and pretended she hadn't. He liked being on top, she'd noticed that too, but he seemed to like the other way just as well. As did she. Once, just the once, he'd been lying there with her straddling him, his hands cradling her buttocks while she moved slowly, at her leisure, making things last; he was delivering another endless sermon on the mount about—the forensic significance of post-mortem decorticate posturing, or something else just that sexy? There really was no shutting him up. Purely facetiously, the sort of gesture it would've scared her to make only weeks earlier, she put her hand against his mouth and pressed tight. And instantly he fell silent, chin lifting to expose his throat while his head pushed back against the pillows; his eyes squeezed hard shut, his face went nearly scarlet and that sharp, long, yielding exhalation of breath, warm against her palm—she hadn't been prepared for that, not at all. She kept her hand in place, gripping so her fingers ached, and he'd gone all at once from letting himself be had to simply being used and it was so good, and then it got better—
—and she hadn't done it again since, because she was, well, sort of saving it, that's how it felt in her head, a special treat for some other moment when they could both really use one—which was ridiculous, she knew that, but he hadn't ever spoken of or requested it again, so what did he even want from her? Did he want to be gagged, tied up, was that all right as long as he could still breathe? Then why keep so bloody quiet about it, all the time, with no impediments to speech? Rat-a-tat soapboxing and acid-drop bon mots every other time, about every other thing, but now, this stubborn silence?
Look, I mean it, all right? Did you think I was kidding? I'll do anything you want. Anything you ask.
But no, there were some things she'd flatly refuse him, if he ever asked. She wasn't hopeless! Far too accommodating, sometimes, perhaps, definitely, but still and all, no doormat. Will you let me hurt you, Molly? No, even the glossy dressed-up fantasy of that left her cold. Will you let me watch you with another woman? No, I had that argument three boyfriends ago and no floor shows, sorry. Will you reach inside that marvelous pharmacopeia all you bloody doctors have on tap, any time you want it, it's wasted on you and all I'm asking is just a little-- No, no, no, no. But he'd never even hinted at any of that, nor anything else, so for all she'd now seen more of him than she'd ever bargained on in a lifetime she was still faltering, stumbling in the dark.
She checked her medicine cabinet, more than once, in his absence. The booze too, while she was at it. Nothing was ever missing. She watched him for signs of intoxication, disorientation, that depressing signature smell it sometimes left in his sweat and breath, and nothing—but then, just like before, he was gone often enough and long enough that that didn't mean much. She'd grown too good at staying silent. But then, that had started long before Sherlock.
She didn't know what any of this meant, far less what any of it meant to him. Probably it meant nothing to him: diversion, novelty, pure physical release. She didn't care. She should, but she didn't. Better her than heroin, was that really what it came down to? No. She didn't believe that, even if only because she couldn't bear to believe it. She would not. Even he couldn't have feigned the look on his face, that first night. She told herself.
Some of the things he'd said to her, the more intimate things, embarrassing things, dangerous things; did you confide those in a diversion? Well, perhaps he did. There was no understanding him, and she'd known that. But no matter what it meant or didn't mean to him now there was no way, she was convinced in her bones, there was no way he had ever meant any of this to happen. Not any of it.
Sometimes, when she was alone, she'd throw her arms around her own plush rabbit and hang on as if it were a raft in dark waters.
7. The facts we hate
You'll never hear us
She unlocked the door, threw her knapsack on the floor and jumped to see him sitting there, cross-legged, in the exact center of the sofa, straight-backed and stocking-footed and possibly waiting like that for hours. His shoes sat lined up beside the old armchair, his coat and jacket draped over its cushions.
"How much did you really know," he asked her, no preliminaries, "before he revealed himself, about what Jim Moriarty was up to?"
Like an irresistible cough during a bad cold she could feel it traveling up her throat, that old skittering foolish don't-hurt-me laugh she'd thought she'd banished for good. "He—" She fumbled with her keys. "Why, why d'you think I knew anything?"
He waited. Molly swallowed.
"Not that he'd killed anyone, or hurt anyone," she said, the plain truth, and yet with her pulse speeding up and sweat blossoming on her skin as though she'd just been caught in an awful lie. Surely he sensed it, immediately. "Never that. I knew he—that he wasn't what he said he was, that he was probably some sort of con artist or…you know, one of those men that make a game out of pulling women, and the real fun's reporting back to all their mates? I lied to him sometimes about little things, like saying my parents were still alive—I don't know why—" That damned laugh again, it really was like a chronic cough. "Try and level the playing field, I suppose—I never left my bankbook where he could get at it. I changed my computer passwords every day."
It all sounded more and more foolish the more she spoke, and her whole skin felt heated as she hung her coat up and sat, fingers clutching her knees, on the straight-backed birch chair across from the sofa. "But of course he could've got access to anything he wanted, I suppose, if he'd wanted to. I was selfish, I thought, well, everyone's got to look out for themselves, now don't they, and it's not like I could prove anything against him, if I'd pointed fingers at him Greg would've thought I'd gone mad. And he acted kind to me, whatever he was thinking, and I thought he was…" The word stuck in her mouth for a moment. "…handsome."
Sherlock said nothing for a few moments. The church-steeple was back, she noticed, his fingertips pointing toward the ceiling in a pale, rigid arrow.
"You told me and John," he noted, "that you only went out with him three times."
"I lied," she said. "But you knew that right away, didn't you."
"And it didn't disturb you at all," he said. "That you knew he was lying to you? That he might've emptied your bank accounts or, I don't know, made off with that ridiculous rabbit? That he wasn't anything he said he was?"
"Who ever is?"
The almost casual finality in her voice, that did seem to surprise him. She swallowed again around a dry mouth.
"That was before I had the rabbit, anyway," she said.
She wasn't even sure whether she'd been trying to be funny, but either way it fell flat. Of course nearly all her jokes always had, with him.
"That he was feigning affection for you, in the service of a self-serving ulterior end in which you were irrelevant?" The line of his back and shoulders, not touching any of the sofa cushions, you could've used them as a ruler. "That he was fabricating absolutely everything about himself, beginning with his name? That he wouldn't touch you?"
And how would you know? she was itching to fire back, but he knew, it was the sort of thing he always bloody knew. Feigning affection. Suddenly she remembered one of their own investigations, that awful man who'd lonelyhearted his own stepdaughter, and while she'd merely been appalled and horrified it was Sherlock's genuine, combustive rage at the man that had startled her most of all—not that she'd thought he'd think it a case not worth solving, but some part of her had been relieved that he hadn't found it amusing. She'd good as expected he would, had just been praying he'd keep it to himself, but when he took the stepdaughter's hands and said something to her, quietly, that Molly couldn't hear but which had made the woman in the midst of her wretchedness manage to stop crying and nod, recovering some sort of sorrowful calm, Molly felt…well, funny, actually. As though she'd stumbled over something intensely personal that she absolutely was not meant to see, and which propriety required she pretend she'd never seen at all. Fortunately, Sherlock's own behavior never made that difficult.
"He did touch me," she retorted anyway, stubbornly. "I mean, he sort of did. He'd kiss me, now and then, but—" She shrugged, a harsh twitch as though some large, noisome insect had landed on her shoulder. "Always an excuse not to, you know, do much of anything else—isn't he just a born gentleman, you think, for a little while. Of course I wondered, after the little while, if—"
She was smiling now, a hard twisted feeling in her jaw, and she didn't know why. "No, actually," she said. "Even if he were gay, or mostly gay, only with a woman because he wanted to find out what it's like, you could still make that work if you both wanted to—so no, not gay. Arrogant. Playing games. Dangling someone on the string because that's just more fun for him than an actual, normal relationship could ever be, even just a casual one. Even one where the woman barely ever asks for anything. Watching her bang over and over again into a great Plexiglas wall, with him behind it, and just loving the sound when it smacks her square in the face."
There was a long silence. Then the old cold smile, the derisive light in the eye, the whole gallery of expressions warning he was winding up toward one of his genius jeremiads. She found, lately, that all that didn't frighten her nearly as much as it once had.
"So you're a bit of a saint, then," he began. "By your lights. Never asking for anything. Never wanting anything but the beloved's company, however meretricious, never demanding anything, never the slightest feeling of resentment or injury or any shred of self-respect or—"
"I respect myself, and my feelings about all that aren't any of your damn business." Molly's fingers gripped and pinched at loose folds of trouser cloth, not in nerves now but in anger. "What d'you care? When did you ever even think to care? Can't you just work my feelings out for yourself, anyway, that massive brain of yours, or is all this just more fun?"
"Not even for one solitary moment did it bother you? That you never even knew if you were placing all your trust in an absolute, cold-hearted, pathological liar?"
"For God's sake, John didn't even know you were alive for years and he still speaks to you, I'd have slammed the door in your face for good—"
"Forgive me if I find that extremely hard to believe, based on your track record of self-abnegating—"
"—and if we're asking questions now, why couldn't he know? You told me, you told your brother, you told your parents, you told dozens of people and some of them could've turned on you for the price of a bag of chips and none of us were your closest friend, why was it so bloody important that he, of all people, never know? Did you really think that'd save him, if someone came after him next?"
The frosty scorn in his expression had congealed to full ice. "And what's that got to do with anything? Why would you care? Don't change the subject because you can't manage to explain yourself."
"Explain—I don't owe you an explanation of anything! Who the hell do you think you are?" Propelled from her chair as if she'd been yanked by great elastic bands, she stalked across the room, bundled up his shoes and coat and all the rest and threw it all at him hard enough that he had to duck a wingtip to the jaw. "All the same, you know that, all men, in the end you're all the same—I don't know why I put up with him, all right? I was stupid! I was lonely! I was hoodwinked! Sociopaths are just my type! Pick whichever one you like and you haven't got an answer for my question, have you, because you don't know why you did it either. But that can't be it, because if you don't know why you did it that might mean you got a bit impulsive, just like the rest of us, and if there's one thing you can't stand—"
"Oh, we're playing turnabout now! I see!" Sherlock was grinning broadly as he did up his shoes, fingers jerking rapidly at the laces, but his eyes had gone from glacial to incendiary. "Please don't recite any more of that sentimental drivel about how deep down I'm the most human of humans and just don't know it, I've listened to enough evasion and prevarication for one night."
"Yes, well," Molly laughed again, not the high-pitched fearful skitter anymore but a low, harsh sound, "don't complain, we all know how much you love the sound of your own voice."
He threw the scarf around his neck, getting the ends lopsided in his agitation and angrily yanking the whole thing back off. "Why did you put up with Moriarty? Even half-suspecting what he actually was? Why?"
"Because I'm a saint. Didn't you say so? What kind of stupid question is that? If you're the walking computer, why don't you tell me?"
"Not much of a personal credo, Molly, just for the record, 'All You Need Do Is Show Up.' "
"You don't know, do you." His insults were sliding straight off her, rivulets of water off an umbrella, and standing over him she felt the oddest sensation of triumph. "You can't work it out at all, not sitting here trying for hours on end, and it's driving you mad. Blithering mad. Is that it?" There was a nasty edge to her own voice she didn't like, didn't like at all, but she couldn't stop. "Well, let's face it, you haven't got even inches to fall, have you, to be driven entirely round the—"
"I am not like him!"
His words seemed to echo around the room and there wasn't anger in them, not anymore, there was panic. In his words and in his eyes, as he sat there on the sofa with one arm halfway in one coat sleeve, looking up at her like she'd pushed him to the edge of a very high cliff. A very tall building. Were those the eyes someone else had seen, years ago? Stop. I can't bear it. Just stop. Her anger, that ugly little wish to poke and pierce until something bled, was dissipating like fog burning off in harsh sunlight.
"I never said you were," she replied, more calmly. "And you aren't. I always—when we first met he was so, well, charming, you've got no idea, he could get you to go along with nearly anything—I suppose that's how he managed to recruit people. He made you feel…important. Like in just ten minutes you'd become the center of his whole world, even if you knew, deep down, that couldn't possibly be true." She could remember the sensation, when Jim looked at her, when he smiled, a hypnotic disorientation that was something far beyond and stronger than sex, and even in memory it was so powerful it unsettled her. An addiction. "And so you felt like everything revolved around you, all his thoughts must center around you—but he never talked. Because he had nothing inside himself to share, I mean, yes, plenty of horrid plans and schemes and ideas I never knew about, but nothing else, just this sort of semblance of being, like an actor in a play. Playing at being a person."
She picked at a loose thread at the hem of her jumper, lost in recall of that strange, poisonously alluring few months. "Funny, isn't it, how you don't even notice for the longest time that someone's not actually speaking to you. You think you're sharing everything with each other, for the longest time, and then one day you realize that even when they're sitting right there, there's this echo in the room—"
Still half in and half out of his coat, Sherlock leapt to his feet, marched to the foyer and, one scarf-end still dangling halfway to his knees, slammed the door behind him.
Molly stood there for a few moments, quietly contemplating the door itself as though it might offer its own apologies. Then she crossed over to the window and, after an interval, saw Sherlock walking on the pavement beneath, now fully ensconced in the coat, not looking up or around him or slowing his pace. Whoever he'd so casually mentioned surveilled his every step, was one of them outside right now, reporting on his departure? Who watched the watcher? She closed the blind and turned away from the window.
Distraction. That'd be nice. Another voice—Julian Cope (one of Tom's few favorites she'd actually grown to like)? The Kinks? No, she wasn't in the mood for music tonight. She picked up the novel she'd been half-heartedly picking at for weeks, not much in the mood either for time-traveling Oxfordians wittily carrying cats all around Coventry, and was only a few pages in when she heard a tentative rapping. She didn't heed it for several moments; then, though the rapping had long since stopped, she slowly rose and went to the door. Sherlock was still standing there, having deduced she would, at some point, decide to answer it. Just as she, in turn, had deduced he hadn't left.
He had the old, neutral look again, gazing down at her. An intense dispassion. If all that weren't just another mask. She moved aside to let him enter and stood there, silently, the paperback still in her hand. If only because fiction was one of those fripperies the hard drive couldn't accommodate, he didn't even glance at the cover.
"I am not like him," he said.
Molly laid the book on a side table and motioned, with her chin, toward the armchair. After a moment's hesitation, he sat down.
"I didn't lie to you," she said. "I told you you aren't like him, and why I think you aren't, and you can either believe me, or not. If you can't believe that anyone besides yourself—or your brother—can ever be right about anything, it's not my problem."
No answer. She shrugged, feeling slightly foolish, and studied the scarf-end still listing, beneath his coat collar, far too much to the left.
"Stay," she said. "I wouldn't mind company."
His eyes flickered, a little warily, toward the bedroom door. "I don't—"
"Stay anyway," she said. She managed a brief smile. "Never demanding anything. That's me."
She left the room without any great ceremony to brush her teeth, pull on the T-shirt and old pajama bottoms she slept in, and came back in to find him still sitting in the armchair, coat and shoes still on but showing no indication to leave. Funny, she thought idly, crossing arms over her chest, that he knew perfectly well what her breasts looked like now, and yet the T-shirt outlining them, her nipples a faint shadow through the thin cloth, still made her a bit self-conscious.
"Well," she said, needlessly, "I'm going to bed."
"There's some pita bread and things in the fridge," she continued. "If you get hungry."
Passing by the armchair she gave in to impulse and, as she'd never done, leaned down and brushed her lips against his temple. Like a bird pecking at a statue—he didn't move a muscle, didn't even glance up—but he also didn't push her away or jerk his head out of reach, that was something. Perhaps. He'd be gone again by the time she was asleep, but at least, she thought, as she turned out the light and pulled the blankets up past her neck, this time she was prepared for it.
As was her annoying, periodic habit, she woke nearly two hours before her alarm, the sheets twisted around her so that she had to thrash a bit to free her shins. She brushed the back of a hand against her tear-stained cheeks and, after searching her memory for any fragment of a dream and finding none, studied the pillow beside her, the fan of dark curly hair spread on its surface. Sherlock, still in trousers and shirtsleeves and stocking feet, lay on his side, limbs contained and columnar in a small oblong bit of the mattress, his breathing steady and deep and slow. She imagined—though she didn't have to now she'd felt it herself, so many times—the pulsation of blood beneath his skin, speeding up in excitement, nearly throbbing at climax, ebbing and easing in satiety. When he was full fathom five in deductive thought, wandering the farthest wings of the mind palace, did it race or did it grind to a near-halt? And never mind what sort of brain he had, what sort of heart, really? It beat, it circulated blood, a bullet could shear its tissues into offal, but that was as far as it went.
John can keep a secret, Molly had said, when Sherlock first came to her demanding to die. You know that. So why won't you tell him too? Why can't I? Wouldn't it make all this so much easier?
He'd simply refused to answer that. Mycroft, when she'd repeated the question in front of him, had seemed not to hear her at all, but then clearly he heard very few people, ever, when they opened their mouths. Not even Sherlock, sometimes.
Why me? she'd asked Sherlock, when it was just the two of them, there in the morgue, and he'd explained what he wanted of her.
Of course, she knew the answer: Because he'd known, probably since first laying eyes on her, that she'd do anything he asked. Nearly. But that wasn't what he said. Because, he'd said, all business, a country mile from ingratiating, you've got just enough of a working brain to coordinate matters without falling on your face. Lestrade, God help him, he'd be in over his head.
But I'm not coordinating anything, she'd pointed out. Mycroft is. And…and I know you, you could get a body some other way, if you wanted to. You don't need me for that. I'm not coordinating anything.
He'd stared down at her then, his expression indecipherable.
Not yet, he'd said. At least, not that you know. But there are things you don't need to know, just yet. Nor John. He'd been quiet for a moment. Nor Mycroft.
And it wasn't love, or deference, or self-effacement, but sheer bewilderment that had kept her, all this time, from asking anything else.
Sherlock shifted in his sleep, rolling onto his back. Molly turned on her side, gazing off at the opposite wall, bare the eight years she'd rented this flat though she'd always vaguely meant to hang some pictures. He didn't believe her, she could tell he didn't, but it was true: He wasn't anything like Jim. There were things that'd happened between her and Jim she could've told Sherlock to prove it, other things, that weren't love-intimate or sex-intimate but simply…she didn't want to discuss them, ever, with anyone, they rankled like fresh wounds even now. Had Sherlock worked them out for himself, and simply not bothered saying so? That was entirely possible. In fact, probable. And yet—and yet—even all that couldn't convince him.
It was a power, of a sort, over him that she did not want, and did not know how to relinquish.
8. My blood on my hands
It's all my fault
The moth flew from his hair and into her face so swiftly that she jumped, almost stumbling backward, and he batted at it indifferently, seconds too late. Lulled by the cold outside, she thought as it flew to the alluring nest of her ceiling light, one of the coldest Octobers on record, only now awakening in the warmth of the flat—Molly returned to her task, knotting and snipping off the last of the suturing thread. She lifted the edges of Sherlock's hair to examine her stitches, running from the corner of one eye up to the temple and disappearing behind his ear, but when she put a damp cloth to some of the dried blood matting his scalp he shook his head free. She poked a corner of it through the torn shirtsleeve instead, removing more blood and bits of gravel from the raw, scored skin.
"You've been sleeping rough," she said. Just to make conversation. "There's twigs, and bits of moss, all down the back of your coat. Not fresh, either, pressed in—"
"Your observational powers are astonishing," he said, barely flinching at the touch of the alcohol swab. "By the way, tell your neighbor three doors down to stop trying to feed you up, she's got that grandchild with enterocolitis and her own pernicious anemia to fuss over and judging by your breath, her lamb kofta contains a suffocating amount of coriander."
The old, sardonic animosity glinted from his eye like a thin little sheet of glass, a fog of dispirited exhaustion swirling behind it. His other eye was swollen nearly shut, but he wasn't allowing her near it. She picked up her tweezers again, pulling out a gravel shard nearly the size of a pebble.
"I like coriander," she said, dropping the gravel onto the tea saucer serving as her surgical tray, "and Mrs. Carrigan's an excellent cook. Score one for guessing the grandchild and the anemia, though—"
"Intuiting! Is that word all right? Christ, you never stop."
She yanked out another bit of gravel, more roughly than was called for, and sat back on her heels by the side of the armchair. The little folding table she'd pulled up beside it seemed to contain the remnants of some simultaneously dull and sinister party: the saucer full of stones; her tweezers and swaged needles and antibiotic cream; another saucer, and its dog-ends of the half-pack of cigarettes he'd chain-smoked, one after the other in barely contained agitation; a half-empty whiskey bottle; an empty bag of the crisps he'd apparently been living on for days (salt and vinegar, that felt appropriate somehow); and, in the middle, a bowl of soaked, soiled ribbons of gauze and another of water. She, and he, had scrupulously cleaned his hands, and face, and arms; both bowls were opaque to the depths, brimming over with red. The direction of his eyes mirrored hers. He gazed down at her.
"I haven't killed anyone," he said.
This time, she thought. And didn't need to say, she knew he could read it plain on her face.
"Whose blood is this, then?" she asked.
No answer. Never any answers. Delicately, so as not to capsize its contents, she rose, lifted up the table and moved it beside the desk, then resumed her place next to the armchair. Kneeling at his feet, practically, without any pretext other than that this was where and how she felt most comfortable, right now, who even knew why. Her hair wasn't loose tonight; it was twisted and braided up into a knot behind her head, keeping it well out of the way as she sewed up that gaping, streaming gash he'd had on his face when he stumbled into her flat. There were still the faintest traces of dried blood on his lashes and down to the cheekbone, like some morbid stage makeup, and when she'd first seen him with one eye obscured by the fresh flow and the other a mere slit she'd feared that—that someone had done something to them, far worse than just punching the orbit. Sherlock reached over, picked up the pack of B&H sitting on the chair arm, but instead of lighting up again studied them without interest.
"I don't know why I bother," he said.
"It's a bit hard to give it up," she said, "I mean, when—stress. They say nicotine's more habit-forming than—"
"It's disgusting sentimentality at best," he continued, "and not justified by actual fraternal feeling in the slightest. After all, Mycroft was more than happy to stand by and let me be beaten to a pulp and tortured into insensibility, for hours, in fact days, so why didn't I simply return the favor? Seize my great opportunity for secondhand retribution?"
Molly shifted from kneeling to sitting, arms wrapped around her knees. "You still haven't told me what's happened—"
"It isn't obvious?" He laughed then, as though exchanging pleasantries with some other, invisible third party. "Why do I bother asking anyone that question, it never is. My brother, for all intents, was the British government—before you ask me, no, I do not speak metaphorically—and there has been a spectacularly successful coup d'état. And I, in the midst of all this, have been instructed from no-longer-on-high to hold my fire. Indefinitely." Sherlock rested the cigarette pack back in place, fingers slow and careful as if moving a chess piece. "Urgently instructed. He said I'd unleash the equivalent of a fifth horseman if I took matters directly into my own hands—again—that in my signature drooling, infantile idiocy I refused to accept that a cavalier's charge in the sunlight would accomplish nothing but outright massacre, while stumbling patiently and blindly in the dark for years, for decades, for as long as necessary with no results whatsoever, will somehow produce some sort of triumphant—"
"He begged you," Molly said softly.
His eye was hard, frustrated staring down at her, but he nodded. One curt motion of the head.
"Stumble in the dark. Stumble blindly. Rely on nothing and no one, including the powers of the rational mind—because what exactly will keep those powers operative, without even a pennyworth of actual information—and simply, what, hope to trip over a light now and again? We anticipated trouble but this, I admit it, neither of us anticipated anything close to this. His network, his connections, his resources, are gone. Destroyed. As are most of mine and John's and Mary's. Overnight. Every nerve ending, severed." He ran his tongue along the edge of his teeth, gazing at and through the Renoir print on the other side of the room, then back at Molly. "Fortunately, they have apparently again concluded after long study that you are an absolute nonentity, an afterthought of the most inconsequential variety, and for the time being that is what you absolutely need to remain. Alter nothing about your habits, your associations, your interactions with your nauseatingly parental neighbors. Take whatever trains you see fit, they've stopped monitoring your movements about the city. Speak to no one else about any of this. Ever."
I barely have anything to speak to anyone about, she wanted to say, but it would've sounded like complaint, like angling for inside information she suspected he didn't yet possess, and she'd already heard more than enough to make her feel a bit lightheaded. "For the time being," she repeated, trying to sound matter-of-fact. "And after that?"
Sherlock rested his elbows on the chair arms, and winced when raw skin brushed against the stiff, embroidered upholstery, and interlaced his fingers like a net of twine knots. "I did tell you," he said, "when I was preparing to die, that you weren't a wholly significant piece of the puzzle yet. Which didn't change the fact that when all the probable outcomes of all the different possible scenarios of my death were considered, and the several dozen likeliest aftermaths and their potential consequences for all the players involved were examined and analyzed from every necessary angle…you stood a not insignificant chance of becoming one. Possibly."
He ran nervous, wandering fingers through his hair, not seeming to notice the faint film of dirt and dried blood that left on his hand. "The moment has not yet been prepared for. I don't know when it will be. I don't yet know what it will entail—as I said, for reasons beyond anyone's control all of us now are groping blindly for any foothold." His voice had dropped, his light eye seeming to turn darker. "But we shall find one, and when we do…let it come down."
Shakespeare, then, had made it to the hard drive, unlike the Beatles. Somehow or other. She swallowed.
"Who is it, exactly, who's after Mycroft and—and all of you?" she said. "Is it Moriarty's people? Some of them that, that slipped out of the net?"
"That's not yet impossible," he said, slowly, thoughtfully. "But all indications are that his image was simply an easy, freshly memorable tool of manipulation, to throw millions of people off the scent all at once. That this is something far greater, and deeper-rooted, than his own late empire's wildest imaginings. "
Something inside her stomach was starting to coil and twist. As always, when real fear did that to her, she willed herself to ignore it. "And you knew all this about—about me," she said. "That it might come to something where you would need…something bigger from me than what you asked. A lot bigger. You worked all that out years before any of this ever happened."
His eye wandered again to the pack of cigarettes, then to where she sat. "I made an educated guess," he said.
Molly glanced toward the folding table, its whiskey and scissors and blood. "What am I going to have to do?"
"I don't know yet," he said. "I may not for some time."
She bit hard at her lower lip, felt the soft cushion of it caught between her teeth, forced herself to stop. A bad habit, from when she was little. "I don't…I wouldn't know how to do anything that isn't just behind the scenes sorts of—"
"Learn by doing," he said.
They studied each other for several moments, unblinking. The silence rose up between them.
"Only if you tell me," she said, "whose blood that was on your hands."
The silence was a fog, growing thicker and more disorienting as she waited. Obscuring their vision of one another, even as their gazes didn't break.
"I have not killed anyone," he finally said. "Not now. Not yet."
"I believe you," she said.
He considered this. "You have no reason to," he said. Quite calmly.
And yet, she thought. And still. "Where's John now?" she asked. "And Mary, and the—"
The word sounded as though it'd been lodged sideways in his throat, pulled out of him by terrible weight and force. By torture. Molly ran a hand over the back of her head, feeling the coiled, pinned-up braid, the faint friction of the hairpin against her scalp, as though it were a weapon she might unleash.
"My dad killed someone once," she said.
His expression didn't change. He sat there, in the habitual armchair, watching her.
"He…we never had much money, when I was growing up, and Mum was—she had some problems, and then she was ill, and he'd always been the one taking care of Gran, his mum. Gran was in a car smash and had her head sort of, well, bashed up, and sometimes she was normal and sometimes she was like a little girl who needed looking after. She'd get lost, and things. He did it all himself, none of his brothers or sisters wanted to know—I know you don't care about sentimental family drama and all that, but for this, it's part of what happened. It's important."
She curled her arms tighter around her knees, fingertips gripping at her calves. "He had this mate, Matthew, who'd moved to the village just a year or two earlier but it was like they'd always known each other, Matthew this and Matthew that and I couldn't stand him. He was always drunk, he got Dad to drink too much, he was the loudest most unbearable sort of good-time Charlie and he just had that look in his eye, of someone who thinks they're so much cleverer than they'll ever hope to be. He always had a scheme going. Always. None of them ever came to anything, but my dad still thought he walked on water, because it was his friend. It was Matthew.
"Matthew had some business idea, I don't even know what exactly it was, but it involved ice cream. Some sort of plan to open shops, or have their own ice cream van, or something like that, I was only eleven and even I could see it was nothing but clouds and wishes…but my dad, he believed in it, he really did. He thought it'd be the making of him, a new house, a carer for Gran, school fees for me and all that—he sank all his money into it. Everything he had. And Matthew, his mate, he robbed him blind. I don't think he ever even meant to invest it, not for a second—I couldn't ever prove it, but that's what I think."
She could feel, she thought, a bit of the braid starting to slip on one side of her head, and jabbed the hairpin viciously at it until it was back in place. "Dad kept—he would just pace about the house, saying out loud to nobody that Matthew couldn't do this to him, his best mate, he'd go talk to him, he'd make him see sense—and when he decided, one night, I said I was going with him." She shrugged. "I don't know why. I didn't want to see Matthew, it's like I told you, I hated him. But I wouldn't let up until Dad finally let me in the car with him, and we went to his place, on the edge of the village. He lived by himself, it was nighttime, nobody around to see us pull up. And Dad said, 'Wait in the car.' He was in there…he was in there for an awfully long time, it felt like, and it was cold, and I got worried. About Dad. So—I went inside. The door was still unlocked, and I went inside."
Molly rested her elbows on her knees, and stopped speaking.
"Unpremeditated," Sherlock said, into the silence. "His apparent social affect, not to mention your physical language and vocal intonations when you speak of him, none of it suggests a violent psychopath, so he wouldn't have brought a child with him had he expected anything worse than a fistfight. No weapon in the car, I presume?"
Molly studied the floorboards, didn't look up, because if she looked up she might see that face of his, the logician's disengaged, whirring-clockwork mask, and she didn't want to. His voice, at least, that didn't sound entirely as it used to. Not quite so cold and removed.
"No," she said.
There were small gray tufts of lint on her wheat-colored socks. She pulled them off, little finger-picking motions like sewing stitches. "I walked in, and…he was in the kitchen. Matthew. Dead. He was always tinkering, Matthew was, there were always tools and things spread out in his house for some project or other, and Dad had hit him in the face with one of his own hammers. There was blood and…something else, wet, all over the lino, on the—Dad was just standing there, like he'd suddenly found himself in someone else's body, and his eyes were—well anyway, he looked at me, and I looked at him, and I said, I said, 'I can clean up the room.' And Dad was still just standing there, staring down at the hammer in his hand, and—so, I just started. There were cleaning things in the cupboards, and all that, so I started. And that seemed to snap Dad back to life, and he started looking for—out in the back shed, he found something to use as a tarp. To roll him in. And a shovel. And I kept on cleaning, just enough to get rid of the blood and all that, and I heard sounds like something heavy being moved behind me, and while he was rolling him into the camping blanket or whatever, he kept saying, 'Don't look, Molly, sweetheart, don't look.' "
Had she looked? Had she actually seen anything but those two legs, stretched out in their battered old boots, and the brain matter, the blood? She couldn't remember. I'm going with you, she'd said, a second time, and again, and her father was too paralyzed inside, stunned by the enormity of what he'd done to protest. To do anything but take that blanketed bundle, and the shovel, and place them in the boot of his car.
She looked up, then, but somehow barely seemed to see Sherlock's face even as she gazed into it. "I had to protect him, you see. He hadn't meant to do it. You said as much yourself. You've got to understand, my mum was dead by then—she'd had cancer—and he had me, and Gran, to take care of, and that was all the money he'd ever earned in the world, gone. On horses and drink. That's what Dad said later. Horses and drink. So I cleaned up—what had happened, and I even looked around thinking, perhaps there'll be a strongbox or something with all Dad's money, but there wasn't one. I got the hammer and wiped it all over with a cloth, like they did in the movies, and we got back in the car and we drove toward—"
"Isham," Sherlock said.
Her vision cleared then; suddenly clearer, she thought, than at any time before in her life. She studied Sherlock's swollen cut-up face, the bruises already beginning to form around his eye, along the edge of his jaw.
"All this time," she said, as the coiled twisted thing in her gut became hard and indigestible: a bitter chunk of iron that she'd swallowed, without realizing. A hammer. "All this time. You already knew."
"I didn't," he said. "I didn't know."
"What, was it one of your case files all along? One of your precious newspaper clippings?"
"You absolute bastard. How long have you known this about me? All along? Since I met you? Were you just waiting your chance?"
"Molly, you don't—"
"I didn't know."
She could hear her own breathing from between her teeth, feel the heat flushing her face, but as she kept waiting for his supercilious triumphant I-know-you-rider look to appear she saw nothing but tiredness in him, a stubborn bone-deep tiredness. "You grew up in the East Midlands," he said. "Your accent gives it away. You were probably born sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s and you said you were eleven when the murder took place. In that window of roughly five or six years when the crime might've happened, approximately 20,000 people went missing in the Northamptonshire region—men and women disappear in roughly equal numbers, so call it 10,000. About seventy percent of missing persons ultimately return alive and well, so 3,000. The contemporary of a married man with an eleven-year-old daughter would be around twenty-nine at minimum, so when further adjusted for age—"
"Another guess? Another lucky guess?" The hammer was tapping at her insides, hard. "Oh, aren't you good. It's a fun parlor game, isn't it."
"Your father died a free man, you'd have mentioned otherwise, so no solved-case records. In 2003 a group of builders unearthed the remains of a male corpse buried near the A509 between Isham and Milton Keynes, one of only eighteen unidentified bodies discovered in the area between 1990 and now—eleven were female, six of them believed to be the work of a now-incarcerated serial killer. That case is still inconclusive. Of the seven men, three were suicides, one hypothermic, two the wrong age range, that leaves your Matthew. The cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head and neck. The corpse was never identified. Your father must've been not just his best but his only mate, because nobody ever reported him missing—assuming he was the classic peripatetic con artist, he'd rarely stay anywhere long enough to be missed. I didn't find any of it interesting enough to bother pursuing further, at the time, but as soon as you said—"
"Interesting enough," she repeated. "Interesting—stop talking. Really, truly, stop talking."
He rubbed fretfully at a temple, sighing in exasperation. "Please don't pretend bludgeoning a serial swindler in a fit of long-repressed rage during a heated dispute over money is anything but the most spectacularly pedestrian of crimes, save for domestic homicide. I realize this particular example of it is far more interesting to you for unavoidable reasons, but—"
"Are you ever, in your entire miserable bloody life, ever going to just stop talking?"
He fell into a measured silence, not taking his eyes from her. She willed herself to breathe slowly, through her nose, clutch her knees achingly tight until her fingers stopped trembling.
"You make me so angry sometimes," she managed, around the fist-sized piece of gravel lodged in her throat. "So angry."
"You've been quietly enraged your entire life, Molly," he said, his voice remorseless and an echo of her own. "Don't dissemble. Nobody who tries that hard and that desperately to smile at everything and everyone she sees isn't terrified that one day she's going to boil over like pitch and scald the whole world around her to one great blister, so you duck and weave and bob your head and laugh that nervous little laugh and if you ever manage to look anyone straight in the eye, it's a Christmas miracle—"
"And what do you think you do?" Watch me, she thought, watch me staring right back at you, all the times I've done it and still, still you say that— "Always, always looking over everyone's head, past them, beyond them, down your nose, you think you fool me? I've seen all that news footage of you just like everyone else, you know what you look like in some of it? You look scared. Not superior, just scared, angry scared, like some sort of cornered rat. You hate being looked at. You like everyone begging for your attention, but somewhere over there, where they can't keep staring back at you, where you can't boil over on them. Didn't I say you weren't as different at all that? So go on, then! Laugh at me for saying it! Get it over with!" Silence. "God damn you, laugh!"
He put his fingertips to the long, sutured wound running from his eye, tracing it, as if he had only now realized it was there. He picked up the cigarettes, tapped them on the chair arm, but as soon as one slid from the pack he seemed to think better of it and put them down again.
"You did nothing wrong," he said, "by not speaking about it. By protecting your father. By keeping the secret that probably killed him, to the grave, and letting the grave go unmarked. By not destroying his own life, and yours, any more than he already had."
The hammer lodged in her insides had tap-tapped at the gravel boulder, patiently, reducing it to powder, then vanished in turn. It was a little easier to breathe.
"And what would you have done," she said, her rancor draining away. "I mean before this, if, say, if Mycroft ever killed anyone, or ever got mixed up with anyone who—"
That stopped her short for a moment. Though it never should have. Everything, she thought, absolutely everything about life was like standing at the very edge of a high, crumbling cliff, not just a foot but a mere toe put wrong all that was necessary to plummet into the abyss. They only lied to you, when you were little, making you think you were safe in that cozy little cottage hundreds of yards back.
"Or John," she said.
He didn't react, for a moment. Then his one open eye seemed to go fixed, and frozen. No wonder he loved his job so much; it was heady, that special, satisfactory bite of knowing what someone else imagined you couldn't possibly find out. A nasty little pleasure, but then most addictions were.
"He came by one night," she explained. "To the morgue, very late, while I was working. He was a bit drunk. Incredibly drunk, really—this was after you, er, left. Before he met Mary, I think. He was in a bad way, I mean, very bad. He didn't confess anything, but he told me all these, you know, bits and pieces, about you and him, and the first case you ever did together, and—I sort of strung them all together. In my mind." Her fingers ached, from how she'd been clenching them. She rubbed at her knuckles until it subsided. "And then I left it all there. In my mind. And he was so pissed he didn't remember telling me."
Sherlock gazed down at his own hands, and sighed.
"You did nothing wrong," he repeated. "About your father."
"I don't care if I did," she said. "It's like that, it's just like that sometimes, when someone's important to you, it's—"
"Yes," he agreed. "It is."
Had it bothered her, surprised her at all, what John had accidentally told her? Soldiers…well, that's what soldiers did. They killed people, sometimes. As did doctors. Gardeners, though, they weren't meant to. Saying anything to anyone, how would that have brought Matthew back? She'd made Dad put on some of Matthew's own clothes, Matthew was only a little taller and heavier, bundled up his in a bin-bag so the blood soaking them couldn't get into the car seats. Threw the hammer in there too, and its wiping-cloth. Sat there in the front passenger seat, unable to take her eyes off him in the half-dark of the car dash and the road lights and the few headlights streaking past them on the motorway, as he drove, and trembled, and wept. The bin-bag was in the back seat, rustling softly at every turn. I'll wash those, Mol, he kept repeating, though she did everyone's laundry, took pride in doing the chores Gran couldn't help forgetting. Don't you worry. I'll wash them. Don't you go worrying about anything.
A lot of that night, after she'd started cleaning that kitchen lino, was all a sort of haze. But it took so much time, she did remember, so much dirt, caked-on soil all over his stolen clothes, to dig even a shallow grave. But he was a gardener, gardeners got deep in the dirt and got dirt everywhere, and so no one would notice a bit more mud on the seats, and besides he couldn't go home naked. He made her stay in the car this time, for all of it. Because he hadn't brought a weapon, a shovel, when he first went to Matthew's place, because he hadn't been planning anything. Because he'd never wanted her mixed up in what he hadn't even known he'd do. Because he'd let her come anyway, because somehow, somewhere, in the recesses of thoughts he was too scared to contemplate, somehow he had known he'd need her.
He'd always been proud of her, her dad. He'd always thought she mattered. That school meeting, the headmistress saying that she, Molly, was smart enough for chemistry and biology A-levels, should think of medicine even, and he'd leaned forward in his chair listening and nodding in intent concentration, and never, not once, demanded to know who'd do his washing while she was dissecting cadavers. The first corpse they'd ever wheeled into the classroom lab, she'd stood there in a corner fixed and frozen in absolute dread of that smell, again, the odor of death filling her nostrils so she'd never get it out, but in the confined boundaries of the lab and the morgue it was…nothing, really. Just flesh, rendered quiet. She liked the smell of the lab, its harsh sterility, a layer of distancing protection between the live and the dead. Like a good thick mackintosh against freezing winter rain.
"They buried him alive," a voice said, across her reverie.
No, Molly almost said, without thinking. Trust me, Matthew was definitely dead. Then she looked up, and saw Sherlock's face.
"They…did things to him. A large number of things, over a quite extended period of time. From what John and I have pieced together they seized him right from that precious club of his, I still don't know exactly how much of its membership served as active or even passive participants, and took him to…they did a great many things to him."
Molly stretched out an arm, retrieving the slippers she'd kicked off sometime between Sherlock's arrival and assembling her surgical table, and slid them back on. It was foolish, in fact completely irrational, but she felt a sudden conviction that at any moment she, and he, might need to take off running, and she might slip and fall in mere stocking feet. These, for slippers they had good firm soles.
"Who are 'they'?" she asked him. "This particular they, I mean. You must know. It's how you got that face. Mycroft wouldn't have told you to hold fire if he hadn't seen you aim."
Sherlock studied the cigarette pack, his gaze fixed and shoulders rigid as thought it were a great fat scorpion sitting on the chair arm, ready at any moment to strike at his hand. "All the while, I was in pursuit, every possible lead exhausted, every outside avenue of information suddenly and definitively cut dead and I could not find him, and I could not find him, and all the while I knew exactly what was happening to him. At every moment."
"I can't imagine it," she said, as levelly as possible. "I'm sorry you had to."
"Imagine?" He made a sound, a sort of exhalation, that wasn't a laugh. "No. There was footage. Sound files. They sent them to me. Continuously."
Molly rose to her feet. Sprawled on the floor like she'd been, it'd be that much harder to take off running, get a good head start on…them.
"They did things to reduce him to an animal state, a condition where his own mind was absolutely extraneous and meaningless, slowly, and patiently, and with the skill of master craftspersons. And I could not find them. They rendered him insensible, yet with just enough consciousness left to know, and perceive, exactly what was happening to him, and how much and how long he would suffer before it finally ended…that is an art, you know, an ancient and exquisitely horrible art. And I couldn't find him. Mary. Mary broke into—I don't know what level of MI6 encrypted files, so we finally had a path, but not the least idea of where it led. Where it ended. 'Mind palace,' John kept saying, 'your mind palace, clear your head and concentrate and use your—' A mind palace is not fucking sorcery!"
His voice rose almost to a shriek and then his teeth clicked and clenched together, cutting off words, allowing only harsh breaths. Molly was standing over the armchair now, hands slipped into her pockets, feeling very steady, very still. He didn't continue for several moments, just kept staring at the cigarettes.
"It never fails to astonish me," he finally said, "just how much dirt is displaced in the digging of even the shallowest grave. This wasn't shallow. They took, and shoved him in—there were at least eighteen different equally probable burial locations, and then, there it was, this great trunk, we were pulling on the handles, John and I. His blood was everywhere. Soaking through what was left of his clothes, and—John found him. John saw something in all those messages, in Mary's readouts that I simply didn't, and after three false starts John found him. He claims it was a wild guess. I don't believe him. I believe he was able to observe what I didn't, because Mycroft said it himself, he said it is never an advantage to—I was not thinking straight."
Molly came closer to the chair. She was close enough now to touch him, but did not.
"John is alive," she said, "and safe. Mary. Their little girl."
"Yes," he said.
"Mycroft," she said.
"You did nothing wrong," she said. "Nothing."
He looked up at her, and his face was so wretched she drew in a breath.
"I told you I trusted you," he said. "That you mattered. Years ago. I told you that."
"I didn't believe you," she said. "I didn't trust you. Not then." She glanced down at her feet for a moment, the solid slippers still really not suited for outdoors. "But it's all right. I never really trust anyone."
He nodded. "It's better that way. Not just with me. With anyone."
Molly considered this. "I said then, though, didn't I. Back then, I didn't. Now…it's too late."
That sound from him, again, that wasn't really a laugh.
"And you told me what I asked you to," she continued. "Unless there's something else you aren't telling me."
"There isn't," he said.
"And can I trust in that?"
Some of the old look—a trace, a ghost—returned to his one open eye. She was glad to see it there. It didn't frighten her at all anymore.
"Learn by doing," he said.
He picked up the cigarettes, examined the pack yet again from all sides, then squeezed it in his fist. Molly watched the knuckles go pale, the striations running across them stand out pink, an abrasion along the thumb flush a deeper red. When she reached for the pack he let his fingers fall free with no resistance; the crumpled paper was warm from his skin, let off a faint odor of crushed tobacco. She placed it, quite precisely, back where it had rested, then leaned forward and put her hands against his shoulders.
He wrapped his fingers loosely around the backs of her legs, just at the knees, then slid them upward, by slow degrees, until they rested at her hips. She let him be the one to pull her to him, didn't flinch when he gripped her shoulder blades too hard, when their mouths met too swiftly and their teeth made a jolting little click. She kept trying to be careful, mindful of bruised ribs and swollen fingers and skin scraped raw but he wouldn't let her, his hands pulling her clothes up or aside and running against bared flesh everywhere at once, his lips pushing hers far apart and an arm wrapped around her waist keeping her pressed against him, there in the armchair.
She pulled her mouth free, kissing his cheek and his jaw and all down his neck, running her tongue slowly along the hollows of his throat. He didn't even try to talk as her hands roamed down his chest, loosening buttons as she went, as she undid his trousers without any ceremony and stroked him, dug nails into the flesh of his thighs. He moaned, not the attenuated noises she was used to from him but a full-throated sound, not trying to hide it, and hearing it she panted a little, gripped him just the smallest bit harder. His own touch faltered, his knees spread to better accommodate her, and not letting herself hesitate she slid to her own, there between his feet. She kissed the skin inside one thigh, rubbed her cheek against it fully prepared for him to shove her away, but his breath came faster and something in the muscles of his legs became at once bowstring-tense, and yielding.
"All right, then," he managed, hand cradling the back of her head, not pushing it forward, just holding her in place. "All right—"
"I'll stop if you don't want me to—"
"I said all right!"
His voice was full of the old vehement impatience but his face looked—dear God, embarrassed, undone, and she might be a fool for love but not nearly enough of one to try to comfort, to reassure. She lowered her eyes from the sight of it and ran the side of her hand along his cock, kissed and licked slowly and at her own, selfish leisure, caressed his hipbones with her thumbs as she drew him into her mouth. His foot moved of its own accord, thudding at the floor as she wrapped her tongue wetly around him, drew her lips tighter, and more sounds were coming from him, nothing theatrical, nothing artful, but loud and pulled from a place too far inside him for her ever to see, to reach. Then shaking fingers were pushing her head away, and she didn't resist, and he was all agitated acquiescence when she straddled his lap, wriggling clumsily into position against—oh, he liked those little push-and-slide movements she'd made finding her balance, it was right there on his face, so though she was steady now she did a bit more of it, took her time taking him inside her.
His teeth sank into her shoulder and she relished the sharp little pain, moving faster back and forth against him, threading fingers into his hair and gripping tighter when she heard his muffled groans. She felt herself trembling and heard herself saying in someone else's voice not yet, not— His hands back on her hips were maneuvering her by the smallest degrees, this way and that in opposition to her own thrusts, and then his fingers slid between them both, pressing and rubbing and willingly trapped in place. Her voice went wordlessly uneven and high as she shook and held on tight and tipped over the brink, and again. He was moving furiously beneath her and his free hand yanked her head back, pulled roughly at her hair, but she didn't feel it as pain; she actually laughed, and whatever that laughter shook loose inside her made her come again, harder, and she felt him cry out in turn, and yield to himself.
She was drenched in sweat, the thin blue cotton shirt she was still wearing bunched up above her breasts and damp at the armpits; she inched it back down, slowly, until her upper half was covered again, never mind the crumpled trousers and knickers and bra on the floor and her bare buttocks resting on his lap and the stickiness running down the inside of one thigh, right onto the leg of his trousers. He had always been downright fussy about his clothes. She gently tipped back his chin, wanting to kiss him, but before she could he had buried his bruised, cut-up face against her shoulder, pressing his forehead into the hollow just below it, as though he might somehow burrow beneath the skin and stay there, hide there. His breath slowed and steadied in tandem with hers and he wouldn't look up, he didn't speak. His arms drew back around her, holding her there in place.
"Sherlock?" she whispered.
He wouldn't look up and he wouldn't move. Asleep? No. Not at all. She stayed where she was, shifting as best she could to a more comfortable position, draping her legs over the opposite chair arm and sending the ruined cigarette-pack thudding softly to the floor. She arched her back a little, stretching muscles gone cramped huddled up against him, and as if she had tried to pull away from him his arms suddenly gripped her tighter. Clutching. Refusing to let go.
"Shush," she said, though he had made no sound at all. None. He just sat there, not looking up, not letting go.
There were things she wanted to say, a great deal of things, but he had long since guessed them and he would never echo the words back. She didn't care. She rested her cheek against his hair.
"Are you all right?" she finally asked.
A long time seemed to pass. Then, without looking up, he shook his head.
"Nobody would be," she told him. "No sane human being would be."
The top of his head was gritty, the coarse curls still matted in a dry powder of mud and blood. She stayed where she was, there in his embrace, stained with him, by him, down past the skin.
9. It's about time
It's about space
It's about some people in the strangest places
Admit it, she wanted to say, all that night, all the next day, all the many long days and weeks and months that came after. You came to me with your secret, and you kept John as far away from it as you could, for exactly the same reason. You begged him, back at university, to stop, and her, that woman, not to, for exactly the same reason. You scream and kick at Mycroft prying into your life but the first sign of trouble, you always ran to him, and you're worried sick for him now, so worried you could cry. We're all—other than Mycroft—so desperately stupid, but alone—truly, absolutely alone—for a year, a month, a week, you couldn't do it. You just couldn't. Sherlock Holmes, you need us so desperately, all of us, sometimes I really think it makes you hate us.
Or, she reflected, that was just what she wanted to believe, and he was just another flatterer and user and heartless self-serving pillock who was one day, inevitably, going to get her killed in her own—no. That was not what she believed, and she never would, and nobody else's sneering or mockery or grandiose demonstrations of violence and sarcasm could make her. She could trust in her own damned deductions if she wanted to, she wasn't an idiot. The dead opposite of one, according to some. And she had made her choice, and she wasn't going back.
She'd made her choice. She'd given over her life for the price of one question, one answer to it, and knowing she was not going back gave her the courage to take charge, a little. She'd coaxed him from the armchair, after a long time, and found some waterproof bandaging for those stitches and then good as propelled him toward the shower, staying there until it was actually running; several minutes later, when she heard the sound of sobbing from behind the closed bathroom door, she went into the kitchen and ran the faucet there, offering privacy, drowning him out. Fed him, and herself, from the leftovers in her refrigerator, neither of them paying any heed to what they ate. Gave him something a doctor had once given her, from a bottle (still nearly full, untouched by him) kept not in the medicine cabinet but buried at the bottom of a carton of old clothes; a good day and a half, two of those midnight blue pills could've knocked anyone else out, but he was back on his feet six hours later. It didn't matter, she herself hadn't slept at all that night and yet, even without outside aid, didn't feel the least tired. Nerves did that to you sometimes, she knew.
"Where will you be?" she asked him, as she tried to eat some toast, gave up on it, packed her knapsack for work. Matter of fact, and not feigning it. They both had a difficult assignment ahead, even if hers was, just yet, hurrying up and waiting. "If you need to stay here, then—"
"I may be gone for quite some time," he said, staring into a mug of tea without bothering to drink it. The very same tone, all business. "Or holed up here, for a bit. I can't say yet. Everything is up in the air."
She nodded. She'd expected as much. She glanced over at the piece of notepaper sitting before him, covered with sketches and hieroglyphs and letter-number combinations that made sense only to him, but would have to come to make sense to her: another communications code, for any information not shared face to face, to be memorized and employed and then discarded, at his behest, for its first, second, fifth successors. That was one good thing about studying medicine, you learned to swallow great gobs of information and then parrot it back on short notice without batting an eye. He was wearing the old striped dressing gown she'd dug out for him, the one that had belonged to her father, back when he first started using her flat as a bolt-hole; she studied the curve of his back, the angle of one shoulder as he put down the mug and picked up his pencil. I'll miss you, she wanted to say. I already do. But that was one good thing about Sherlock, he'd usually already guessed it before you had to make a fool of yourself by opening your mouth. Or at least, that was what she liked to imagine.
"Right," she said. "I'm off." She shouldered the knapsack, glanced clinically at the long suture running across one side of his face, the swollen eye that had blossomed into purplish-black glory overnight. "Don't forget to put on some more of that antibiotic. Or to eat something."
He nodded vaguely, not looking up from the notepaper. She turned and headed into the living room, toward the front door.
"Molly," he called out.
She turned where she stood, gazing across the living room into the tiny kitchenette, the little counter stool where he sat with his tea. He rose and came toward her.
"What is it?" she asked, shifting the knapsack to her other shoulder.
He stood before her and she waited, expecting something to do with those scribbles of code, but he had none of the imperious urgency she was used to when he was on the bloodhound's track. He opened his mouth and closed it again, awkwardly, and shifted from one foot to the other.
"Molly," he said, "I need…"
She waited. I need milk from the corner shop. I need another corpse—ginger this time, perhaps, or six fingers on each hand just to make it interesting. I need uppers, downers, narcotics, anesthetics, hallucinogens right now, and I don't care if you break my jaw for it. I need you to fill in for John again now he's on the run, bring your notebook. I need to hide. I need to flee. I need to die. I need someone to chat up about nothing over curry and chips. I need things Mother Nature wouldn't give me on a bet. I need a newer dressing gown, this one's color doesn't suit me at all.
"What do you need?" she said, softly.
His gaze flickered to his feet, for a moment, and he didn't answer. She put a hand out, holding her breath, touching the hair finally divested of all that dirt, and his own hand reached down, rested lightly against her lips. She kissed it, impulsively, then took it in her own grasp and drew two of the fingers briefly, slowly, into her mouth. His breath quickened. She lifted that hand and pressed it against her cheek, as he himself sometimes would, in bed, when he'd forgotten to be contained and distant. The knuckles pushed against her cheekbone, and when he kissed her they slid down along the side of her neck, lingered, pulled away the same time as his mouth. He took her face between his palms, studying it, but he didn't kiss her again and she hadn't thought he would. Then he released her and they stood there, facing one another.
"I really would do anything you ask," Molly said. Then shrugged. "Almost."
He considered this, and shook his head.
"Anything I ask, Molly Hooper? Don't do that. No matter what happens. Don't ever." He laid his palm back against her cheek. "Promise me."
She closed her eyes for a moment, concentrating all her senses on the touch of his hand. Then she nodded.
He turned away, back toward the kitchenette, the notepaper covered back and front with his writing. Molly pulled her jacket off the coathook.
"I'll—" She shrugged again. "Don't forget to lock up when you go."
He nodded. He never did forget. She left him and the flat without looking back.
Halfway down the hall she stopped in her tracks, waiting without realizing it for the sound of an opening door, footsteps on the sole-worn oatmeal carpeting, and thought, no, I'll go back. This whole horrible thing, whatever it is, with Mycroft and John and all the rest, we'll pretend, just for a few hours, that none of it's happened. We'll play at being some ordinary couple, just like I always thought I wanted, and spend the whole day in bed and say just what we want and give it to each other and then we'll tell each other everything about ourselves, absolutely everything, and so that way if something terrible happens to either of us, both of us, because of all this, then we'll both at least die knowing that we—
—and oh, God, if all the madness he'd pulled her into hadn't ever happened, if it really were all just fish dinners and pub nights and those scribbles were him getting a head start on their taxes and their only arguments were about having his parents round for dinner it would be so boring, so boring, she would rather die. And she wasn't the only one. Far from the only one. Isn't that right, John? What's-your-name, Woman, Belle Dame Sans Merci or whatever? That woman in the tabloids, He-Made-Me-Wear-the-Hat? (Mary too for all she knew, and she certainly wasn't judging?) Don't you want that, if you'd just admit it, to tumble as far down the rabbit hole as you can go? Isn't it that much better, knowing that you might never emerge above ground again? So she could die. So what? She'd be dead right now anyway, if Jim had thought she mattered at all. And plenty of women with perfectly ordinary, bog-standard, round-the-pub actual boyfriends died at their hands, every single day, and not from boredom. Look at the papers. And besides that—well, she'd been lucky so far.
Sometimes it was a very deliberate thing, to see what might—or might not—lie before you, but to choose not to observe it.
She bought a newspaper, skimmed the front section on the Tube without absorbing much of it: rumored shakeup in the cabinet. Oil prices falling. Refugee crisis worsening. Charges against a banker, accused of beating and choking a stripper unconscious, prompt soul-searching about laddish City culture. The morning was gray and cold, her jacket too thin for the wind, and she was glad to get back inside the morgue, back to a place full of quiet and sterile air and the same routine over and over again. Prescott, one of the lab assistants—pale sproingy hair, broad as he was tall, a gentle amiability that reminded her of Gran—looked up from one of the sinks as she emerged from the locker rooms, raising his hand in greeting.
"Good weekend?" he asked.
"All right," she said, as she always did. "Bit dull. You know. Just telly and all that."
He wasn't really listening, but then he never did. She studied Prescott industriously toweling off up to the forearms, back to her, as though she and Sherlock and everyone connected to him were together on one side of some great Plexiglas wall, and all the rest of the world on another. She was inexplicable to everyone on that other side, as she had been nearly all her life without understanding it; her whole life now was inexplicable, and that left her alone and at peace with her own, inexpressible thoughts. In other words, she was free.
She rolled up her sleeves in turn, and began scrubbing her hands for the day ahead.