A case, he said. It’s what he always said. Your heart for a case, Molly Hooper. Your heart and nothing in return, Molly Hooper. Molly’s heart flayed on the table, more like. All of Molly’s nerves bared to the prickle and drag of one fool man’s inability to love her back while draining away everything she had.
After she hung up with said fool, exhausted and wrung out, head pounding from tears—dehydration and inflammation, Mols, replace your liquids and take an ibuprofen—she sat in her window nook staring sightlessly at the goings on of the pavement outside. A little mop of a dog tangled in its leash and its owner’s legs. Kids waiting at the kerb for breaks in traffic, only to dart shrieking across the street between cars. A woman with great square shoulder pads and heels up to the clouds on her mobile, mowing down the men in her path. Busy people and their busy lives. And Molly, tucked away.
The living. Not exactly her forte.
Molly’s hand was shaking. She’d left the letter on the sill.
The service is on Friday, Molly dear, it said on the bottom in shaking script. I do hope you’ll come. She loved you so.
Love. Love. What had it got her? All these bits of herself, never recovered. Her dad, dead and gone these twenty years, Sherlock, oblivious and chasing some high off of her back, and Dr. Rhys, her mentor. The only person who’d believed in her in the days after her father’s death, who’d helped her apply to university when the most Mum could encourage her to do was smoke three packs a day, who’d listened to her whinge on about the girls at school and then the girls at university and then her dissertation and then St. Barts interoffice politics and sexism and always bloody Sherlock Sherlock Sherlock.
Dr. Rhys was gone and despite wringing a declaration of devotion from the love of her life not half an hour earlier, Molly Hooper was alone in the world.
“Wales,” he said, eye flicking down to her bag and back up to her fringe. “For a funeral. I see.”
She wanted to be angry at him. She wanted to be furious. Instead she was only hollow, and the walls of her insides ached with loss. There was nothing left in her for anger.
“Whatever it is, Sherlock, can it wait, please?” she said. “I’m not, you know.” She lifted one shoulder and dropped it again. “Holding you to anything. So.” She averted her gaze to the pavement as she pushed past him to her door. He stepped aside as she turned the key but hovered by her shoulder.
“I owe you an explanation,” he said. “Please, you can tell me to sod off, but at least let me tell you why I—let me tell you why.”
Molly let him in with a sigh.
“I know why, Sherlock,” she said. She ventured a glance at him, taking up the space of her doorway like a great awkward bat in his Belstaff. She dropped her bag on the floor and her keys on the hook by the jamb. Bravery bubbled up in her gullet. She tilted her chin up to look him in the eye. “For a case, as usual. Good old Molly, she always makes a good stepping stone for all your deductions, and damn the consequences. Who cares about my feelings when you can solve a puzzle on my back, right?”
A bitter laugh clapped out of her throat.
“No? Well. Please.” She swept her hand towards her sitting room in invitation. “Do enlighten me.”
He stepped forward only for Molly to stop him.
“Shoes off,” she said, finding the steel in her voice. “God only knows what the world’s only consulting detective has been tromping though.”
His mouth guppied about a bit until he snapped his jaw shut. Molly turned her back to him just as he began to toe off his shoes—some kind of heinously expensive Italian leather, probably bespoke, the toff. The glimpse she caught of his toes stretching out the fabric of his socks proved unbearably intimate. By the closet, she shrugged out of her coat and kicked her own sensible trainers off. She stared at the rows of jackets and jumpers hanging there, a sea of drab and fuzz, before she squared her shoulders, straightened her spine, and turned around to join Sherlock in the sitting room. He was standing before her sofa, coat draped over the armrest, deducing, no doubt, everything about her pathetic life.
“I’ll not make tea,” she said, and he twisted around to face her. “Since this will be a short visit and all.”
He made sharp, maddening eye contact.
“It wasn’t a case,” he said.
“So you lied,” Molly said. “What a surprise for me.”
He stepped closer to her, hands splayed as if placating before he dropped them to hang awkwardly at his sides.
“Sherlock,” she said. “Why do you want to torture me so? Why don’t you—why don’t you just leave me alone? Let me be, Sherlock. Stop making me—debase myself for your whims! Because I’d do anything for you, and you know it, so you have to stop asking. You have to just. Go. Away!”
He rocked back, eyes wide and face pale. Molly found she was shaking and panting through the roil in her stomach.
“I’ll go,” he said after a moment, quiet. “I’ll go and I swear I won't bother you anymore. But let me speak my piece. Please.”
Molly clenched her teeth together.
“Say it and leave, then,” she said. “Be quick, Sherlock.” Be quick because I’m about to crack and I couldn’t bear if you saw.
“I—hm.” He fidgeted.
“Okay!” He raised his hands in the universal gesture for stop, wait, don’t throw me out on my bony arse. “Okay.”
“What part of be quick is escaping you right now?”
“Mycroft, John, and I were being held captive by a powerful adversary who threatened to blow up your flat if I didn’t get you to say what you said in under two minutes.” It rushed out of him like the tide, and when he was finished he heaved air into his lungs and looked as haggard and deflated as the empty shore.
Molly stared at him. He seemed young suddenly, like a schoolboy stood nervously before his teacher awaiting punishment. He took a breath and let it out again, ragged. He took another.
“I swear on my life, Molly, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I didn’t mean to toy with you, or make you feel as if I were playing with your feelings, or. Or anything. I meant only to keep you safe. I meant only to—to make sure you. Stayed.” He swallowed, the sound of it loud in the silence of her flat.
“My favorite teacher died,” Molly blurted. Sherlock’s gaze, which had dropped to the carpet, snapped back up to meet hers. His mouth did that thing where it arced downward like a cross frog.
“I’m…sorry,” he said.
“She was all I had,” Molly said. She was horrified to find humidity gathering at the base of her throat. “She was all I had.”
Sherlock’s eyes were the colour of seaglass but far sharper.
“I’m sorry,” he said, more firmly this time. Molly’s eyes stung, but she pressed her lips together and refused to let the tears fall. Sherlock produced a handkerchief out of nowhere and held it out to her. She took it, but it hung from her fingers, not to be used.
“I’m being silly,” she said. “She wouldn’t have wanted me to feel like this. She would have wanted me to be strong.”
“Your feelings are your feelings,” Sherlock said. “Not to be…logicked at like game theory.”
“Maybe you took a blow to your head while you were being held captive.”
That produced a tiny rumble of a laugh.
“I’ve had a lot of time to think the last few years,” he said.
Molly drew herself up and blinked hard. The breath she drew was cool and deep.
“So you escaped your criminal mastermind, then,” she said.
“What does that mean?”
“It means life is far more complicated than winning or losing, solving a case or not solving it. Life is far more complicated than I used to think it was.”
“Maybe you’re a grown up now,” Molly said. She almost laughed. Sherlock smiled softly, and her heart broke all over again.
“Maybe,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said. Sherlock’s eyebrows rose. “For saving me. Even if…even if you didn’t mean—you know. Even if you didn’t mean it. I understand.”
“I’m fine.” She forced out a watery smile. “I’m fine.”
“I did mean it,” Sherlock said. “I did.”
“Sherlock, please don’t—”
“You’re my friend, Molly Hooper,” said Sherlock Holmes, “and I love you. I love you.”
Molly’s tears dropped from her lashes.
“Oh, Sherlock,” she whispered.
“I only lied when I said it was a case,” he said. He reached out as if to touch her arms, only to draw back abruptly. “I know it’s not what you want, and it must be a very poor substitute, I know that. I do know, Molly.”
She stared up at him, at the turmoil written on his face—a miasma of regret and resignation and empathy, of all things.
“You do, don’t you,” she murmured. Sherlock’s eyes closed. When he opened them a moment later, they were overbright and more vibrant than the sea.
“I’m fine,” he said, and cleared his throat when his voice cracked. “If you’ll permit me the use of your catchphrase.”
Molly reached out then, ringing his wrist loosely with one hand. He shuddered, body drawing towards hers as his shoulders rolled into a defeated slope. He was close enough that she could almost gather him up into her arms if she wanted to. Almost.
“We’ll both be fine,” she said. “We’re British, after all. We have tea and bickies instead of feelings.”
“‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,’” Sherlock said.
“Not five minutes ago you’d not have said we’d both be fine,” Sherlock said. He had the temerity to look put out about it.
“Five minutes ago, I had nothing,” Molly said.
Sherlock blinked and swallowed. Molly smiled tremulously at him. If another tear fell, well. Neither of them was about to mention it.