A/N: There I was, claiming I was going to start working on an original novel, and then blam. This hits me on Sunday evening. Enjoy.
"You say it. Go on, you say it first."
Acid rises in his throat.
The clock is ticking.
But she doesn't know that.
"What?" He wants to laugh at the idea, not because it's funny, but because it's terrifying.
And she knows that.
"Say it. Say it like you mean it."
Fear engulfs him, drowns him, and dread pools in his gut, heavy, and freezing him in place.
"Final thirty seconds!"
Eurus is not surprised by this turn of events. Perhaps this was the point all along.
But he knows, he knows he will not be able to rip those words from her without putting himself on the line first, without proving to her that this is serious, and that whatever it is, it's not for his own entertainment. It's not to engorge his ego, or prove a point. She needs to know that before she'll cooperate.
So he has no choice, but to mean it.
Deep down he knows he does, of course he does. She is more than a colleague, more than an acquaintance. She's one of the few people he has always been able to rely upon.
He can't lose her.
He closes his eyes, and the clock ticks down.
"Morning!" the pathologist says brightly as Sherlock and Lestrade enter the morgue. She's wearing a flowery shirt; a complete contrast to the stark white walls infused with death which enclose her on a daily basis.
"All right Molly?" Lestrade says in greeting. "This is Sherlock, by the way," he waves a hand towards Sherlock by way of an introduction. "He's assisting on this case."
He can feel her eyes on him, big and bright and brown, and steeped with curiosity.
"I don't think I've seen you before," she says.
"No he's a consultant," Lestrade says. "He's not on the force."
She narrows her eyes at this. "Medical consultant?" she asks.
"Consulting Detective," Sherlock says briskly. "Only one in the world." His eyes linger on her expression, and he can tell she doesn't quite know what to make of him, but beyond that, he can't gauge her.
She should be easy.
But she's not.
"So what about this fall then?" Lestrade says, nodding towards the black body bag laying on the slab. "Sherlock seems to think it - "
"It wasn't a fall," she says, and Sherlock's heart freezes at her words.
Not one iota of input from him, and she's already well on the way to being correct.
As pathologists go, she might be everything he's ever dreamed of. But he can't get his hopes up, not yet.
"Oh," Lestrade says, and he steps aside so the woman can unzip the body bag, gently pressing the sides open so that they can take a good look at the victim.
"There'd be a head injury," she tells them. "Or some broken bones, some sort of obvious damage. You don't die from falling down the stairs without getting a single mark."
This had been Sherlock's precise point when they'd been at the crime scene.
"I think...maybe," she's less certain now, tiptoeing around a hypothesis, her eyes flicking over towards Sherlock with every other word. "Maybe she was being hit regularly. She had internal bleeding. Maybe this time was...too much."
It's a grim, but incredibly valid assessment.
"What's your name?" Sherlock asks, turning his attention from the pale cadaver to the pathologist's face.
"Molly," she says, her thin lips curving around the word.
"Hooper," she supplies, a hint of a frown on her brow.
"Molly Hooper," he repeats, testing the words in his mouth. Her name rolls off his tongue rather easily, and he mentally stamps it onto a brand new folder in his mind palace.
Lestrade is silent, looking between the two of them, apparently concerned that Sherlock is about to call Molly an idiot.
He couldn't be more wrong.
"Good work," Sherlock says, with a nod, his hands clasped behind his back.
"Thanks?" Moly replies, in a tone that suggests she doesn't need him, or anyone, to tell her that she's excellent at her job. She gently pulls the body bag closed, and pulls the zip up and over the lifeless face.
Sherlock looks her up and down; she's slender, dainty, even. But she spends all day in a morgue wielding a bone saw.
He thinks he could grow to like her.
There's a snag.
She likes him.
She doesn't just respect his intelligence, or ability, but she likes him. She stifles her laughter whenever he makes an inappropriate comment, as though the dead might rise again to reprimand her. She knows how he takes his coffee, and brings him a cup back to the lab whenever they're on a long stint, and she's gone off on a tea run for herself.
She bends the rules for him, which is great.
But she likes him.
He needs to be careful, and he needs to keep her happy. If she ever found out what a bastard he is, she wouldn't want anything to do with him. That would be it, the end of the road, no more Molly.
He'd be stuck with Yates, instead, and the thought of it makes his stomach turn.
He's never had a first name person before. He's never been on such casual terms with someone before Molly. She's not Hooper, never that. She's Molly, and he's Sherlock, and they work well together.
He supposes he likes her too. There's a dark streak to her sense of humour, and a buoyant, inescapable cheerfulness that the dead cannot squash out of her.
He's heard her argue with a colleague over test results and what can be inferred from them. Her intelligence had become all the more apparent, her voice a little harder every time her colleague had dared to speak over her.
Her victory had come in the form of a frosty silence, followed by the sound of someone rustling their papers and clearing their throat, before turning on their heel and heading back down the corridor.
Molly had almost screamed when she'd found him lurking around the corner, still reeling from overhearing such an excellent exchange.
He's not surprised that she's got it in her, but it's a joy to witness all the same.
She'd been wearing a bold, turquoise jumper, with some gold coloured buttons on the shoulder.
"That colour," he'd said, as they'd headed down to the morgue for Jonathan Winters and his crushed skull. "It suits you."
He'd earned himself a sheepish smile and a quiet 'thanks'.
He is still in favour, his true self undiscovered, and it's one less thing to worry about. He can distract her, draw her attention away from the worst of him, and make her feel good while he does it.
He realises, over the course of time, that it's his true self that she likes. Good bits, bad bits, and the terrible bits too.
It baffles him.
"You're not secretly a black belt, are you?" he asks.
She laughs and shakes her head.
She's used to him being in her flat now. She'd been on edge the first couple of times, as though she'd been exposed.
He turns up without texting now, and she doesn't mind.
It's handy. And her flat is nice, much nicer than any of his other boltholes.
He steeples his fingers under his chin and thinks, while Molly twirls a long lock of hair around her finger, awaiting his answer.
"You're a light sleeper," he says slowly. "And you sleep with your phone under your pillow, so it would have to be during the day."
She narrows her eyes at him, but doesn't counter his claims; she knows they're true.
"I could kill you in the shower I suppose," he says. "Make it look like a fall."
"Have you seen the size of the bolt on my bathroom door?" she asks. "No chance."
He inclines his head, conceding her point. Everything in her flat is heavy duty, cast iron, and is yet to be bested.
Victorian properties, built to endure.
"Maybe I'll have to kill you with kindness then," he says flippantly. He's not sure he should tell the woman living alone about all the possible ways she could be murdered.
She snorts at this. "D'you honestly think you're capable of that?" she asks. "How would you kill someone with kindness?"
He shrugs, because the question does have him stumped.
"I suppose you just have to be really nice to someone until they get sick of it and top themselves," he sighs.
"I think it'll take a long while for that novelty to wear off," Molly replies.
"Well how would you kill me then?" he huffs. She should be easy to kill - she's a small woman who lives alone and works odd shifts. Statistically, she should be the easiest target available.
Maybe he'd snap her neck in the morgue. It'd be quick, and clean, and she wouldn't suffer.
He wouldn't want her to suffer.
Maybe he'd tell her that her hair looked nice first. He'd get one last smile before her life evaporated.
"Coffee," she says.
He looks across to her, and she's smiling.
She does that a lot.
The solution has come surprisingly quick to her. Maybe she's considered it before, maybe on the days when he's been irritable or rude, or so frustrated that he's lashed out verbally, or just point blank ignored her altogether.
"Well, you don't even like coffee," she says. "No matter how much sugar you put in it. You just drink it to stay awake. And you take it black because you think it sounds cool."
"Dairy slows me down," he argues, but she looks pointedly towards his cup of tea (with milk, no sugar) and he falls silent.
"Anyway, you're always so distracted when you drink coffee that you'd never notice if I'd slipped something into it. A bit of extra sugar, and the first you'd know about it would be when it's already too late."
He'd like to think his tastebuds are a little more refined, but he knows she's onto a winner.
"Fair enough," he says, and he feels a crack in his armour. For the first time he realises he's not invincible, that Molly Hooper is very capable of murdering him if such a thing ever took her fancy.
"Plus you'd never suspect me, would you?"
"Well I will now," he says sulkily, and he picks at a loose thread on one of her many scatter cushions.
He won't. He trusts her. Too much.
It's later, when he finally concedes to the prospect of sleep, that he steps quietly into her bedroom, toes off his shoes, and undoes a couple of shirt buttons before sliding under the covers. She stirs in her sleep, and then breathes in deeply - she's awake.
Sherlock rolls onto his side, focusing his eyes on her in the dark. Then, when the world is quiet, he grabs her, his hand finding her mouth, index finger sliding across the front of her throat.
"Dead," he breathes, his words making a few loose strands of hair flutter around her ears.
She sags against him as her shock subsides, and he releases her. As soon as she is able, she whacks him with the back of her hand.
He is exiled to the sofa for the rest of the night, but he's proved a point, so perhaps it's worth it.
It's much colder out here.
He's shaking. It's barely noticeable, but he can feel it.
She must be able to tell too. She touches him when she moves past him, between the computer and the phone, just a hand on the shoulder, the slightest hint of reassuring pressure that says 'it's going to be okay'.
She doesn't talk to him though, and for the first time in his life, he wants to talk. He wants her voice to permeate his mind, to soothe him. He wants her to say something inappropriate, but the words never come.
It's gone four in the morning when he breaks the silence.
"Are you o-"
She shushes him before he can finish his sentence, and he stops, his voice dead in its tracks.
He doesn't get shushed very often, and if he ever does, never pays any attention to it.
But she's focused. She's hunched over the computer, her eyes narrowed at a line of data.
She rushes over to the phone, her wheeled chair rolling across the office and bumping into the door frame. She punches a number into the keypad, then holds the phone between her ear and her shoulder while she opens drawers, hunting down a spare pen and pad.
"Hi, can I speak to Rajesh please?" She waits while the person on the other end of the line babbles something at her. "It's Molly from Bart's. It's quite urgent."
She waits while she is left on hold, alternating her gaze between the floor and the sepsis wall chart plastered in every office in the hospital.
He'd be completely helpless without her.
"Rajesh! How are you?" She ambles through the pleasantries rather quickly and gets to the point. "I think you might have someone on your list that's involved with one of Scotland Yard's cases."
It's a half truth, which makes it easier for her to lie. It's a good job Rajesh can't see her - she's curling the phone cord around her finger, tangling it up in her anxiety.
"Male, caucasian, mid thirties, dark hair...yeah? Great." She meets Sherlock's gaze, her shoulders sagging in relief. Her first smile of the evening graces her lips.
"Could you have him sent over as soon as possible?" Another pause, and then her smile broadens. "Brilliant, thanks Rajesh. I owe you one." Rajesh says something, and either it's funny, or Molly is delirious with exhaustion and relief, because she laughs, and then bids him goodbye with a handful of thank yous before she puts the phone back on the receiver.
"You were right," she says, and she runs a hand through her hair, letting out a long, slow sigh. "He'll be here in an hour or so. He's coming from King George's."
Sherlock nods, his insides crumpled with helplessness. Were it not for her, he might as well do the deed for real. There'd be no hope of success.
He doesn't know what he's ever done to deserve her.
. . .
She's still there later, after it's all over. She's taken over a small room that doesn't get used anymore. The paint is peeling, and the window is a bit leaky, creating a black stain of mold around the woodwork.
It's an old hospital, with solid brick walls, and no perspex windows so nurses can check in. It's all very secluded, and it's just what they need.
She cracks the plastic top of the sponge, releasing the disinfectant, then rubs the sponge back and forth over her glove until it leaves a wet trail in its wake. She wipes his face gently, cleansing away all traces of fake blood while he sits on a lone plastic chair which has seen far better days.
Being dead isn't very glamorous.
She moves a lock of hair aside so she's able reach some of the red stains on his scalp. His homeless network had been more than generous with the fake blood.
Neither of them say anything. They've pulled off the impossible, and somewhere, possibly only a mile or two away, John is staring into a lousy cup of tea in Lestrade's office.
The thought makes his throat constrict, but both of them, as well as Mrs Hudson, are safe. That's the main thing.
"All done," Molly says, her voice soft. She lowers the sponge, now stained pink. His face is tingling, though the rest of him is numb.
"I'm dead," he murmurs, and he meets her eyes. He's never seen pity in them before. Not directed at him.
"Not to me," she whispers. "Never to me."
He looks down at the floor and swallows. There's a rustle as she throws away the sponge and its packaging, then peels off her latex gloves.
When she puts her arms around him, he doesn't fight it. He sinks into her embrace, resting his head against her chest, the thud of her heart reassuring him.
They're both alive, they've both outsmarted Moriarty. The hardest part is over.
He doesn't know how he's going to cope without her. She's become the left hand to his right. He's so used to her now, he's become lazy.
He breathes in, memorising the sweet scent of her perfume, mingling with the chemicals of the hospital.
She always makes everything better, even faking his death, even him. And now he's got to get by without her for an indefinite amount of time.
He's not looking forward to it.
She's on the day shift, according to Mycroft (he's never wrong).
It's just gone eight when she pads in, her shoes scuffing against the linoleum floor. She walks straight past him, over to her locker, and jams her keys into the door.
When she gasps, he knows she's seen him, and he can't keep the smile from curving his lips.
She looks at him for a long moment, her eyes bright, as though she can barely believe he's real. She takes a tentative steptowards him, then hesitates.
It's been a long time.
But she saved his life.
He steps forward, closing the gap between them.
From the corner of his eye, he can see something glinting on her left hand. He chooses to ignore it.
"Hi," he says.
She smiles, and opens her arms. He embraces her without question. He breathes deeply, and she's still the same. It's like he never left, but at the same time, he knows there is a gaping chasm that will need filling, that will need explaining.
For now, however, he is home.
"I missed you," she breathes.
"I know," he says, and he tightens his hold on her, anchoring himself to her. His body aches, pain smarting through him as he presses his lips tightly shut to keep himself from making any noise. If he relays any hint of pain, she'll start worrying.
She's worried enough over him.
He keeps holding her, for longer than he has ever held anyone. If he's honest, he's missed her too. He's missed everyone, their quirks and habits, their company. Solitude is such a lonely place to return to.
Molly occupies a special place in his head. She was his last piece of contact with home, the first one he turned to when his world was falling apart.
He doesn't have much left to hide from her now.
"Do you still like me?"
She pulls away from him, a quizzical expression on her face. She laughs, just a little. "What d'you mean?"
"Well," he says turning his eyes towards the bank of lockers on his left. "I've been dead for two years. You might have decided that I'm a bit of an arsehole since I left."
She laughs again, her eyes crinkling at the edges.
"You are an arsehole," she says. "But yes, I still like you."
She smiles, then raises onto her tiptoes to press a kiss to his cheek. She holds him, for the final part of the hug, that one last moment of homecoming.
The world has changed, but the important things are still the same.
He can't say a word. There is nothing left. He is empty.
His shirt is damp from Molly's intermittent tears. Every so often she starts again, and after a few minutes, regains control, sniffing quietly.
He keeps his arms around her, and she lays against him, her palm flat on his chest, her ear resting over his heart.
He has never known loss like this, and he never wants it again. He doesn't know what to do. And so he sits there, with Molly, and goes over and over and over everything he could have changed.
Because he is in a torturous, self loathing mood, he wonders what it would be like to lose Molly. He wonders what it would be like to touch her skin and feel nothing, nothing but the clammy chill of death.
He stands abruptly, and paces back and forth along the length of Molly's lounge. It's not a huge space, and the frequent turns start to make him feel dizzy, or maybe that's the mental image of one of her pastel coloured blouses being saturated with scarlet.
He looks over to her, the real her, with her hair a mess, her eyes red, black smears of mascara around them, and he cannot imagine a world without her.
But terrible things happen. And they happen to good people. The aquarium is proof of that.
Molly stands up, her eyes fixed on him. He turns away from her, and rams the heel of his palm against his temple, trying to block out all the possible scenarios that could snatch Molly from him.
Mary had died saving him, protecting him.
Because she'd liked him.
He turns sharply, rounding on Molly, and grabbing her by the shoulders. "Don't you ever, ever do anything as stupid as that. Don't you ever dare do what she did."
He can't even say her name.
There it is again, the look of pity in her eyes as she swallows down her grief.
He wants to hear her say it, wants that promise from her. She's the sort that would never break a promise, never shatter a vow. She's a better person than he is, and the world would suffer far more from her loss than his.
He's still gripping her shoulders tightly, but she places her hands on top of his, and his fingers yield, just a little.
"Nothing like that's going to happen," she says. "I promise."
It's not the promise he'd wanted, and not one she has any control of either.
"I never thought that would happen with Mary," the name claws its way out of his throat. "And it did, so you need to - "
"Terrible things happen," she says softly, and she reaches up to brush her thumb against his cheek.
"But they don't happen all the time," she adds.
She's missing the point. It only takes one terrible thing to destroy any number of lives. It's not a one for one scenario. This has been a life altering change for all of them.
"Sherlock." Her voice is soft, and he wonders how long he has been trapped inside his head. He looks down at her; his hands are barely clinging to her shoulders now.
"There's enough going on without you worrying about things that aren't even happening."
She's right, but it doesn't settle him. Logic isn't welcome at the moment. Mary's death was completely illogical. There had been no reason behind. One last shock from Norbury to make a point.
And it had been meant for him.
He lets Molly guide him to bed, and when they're settled, he curls up against her side, resting his head against her chest, desperate to hear the continued thudding of her heart. Her fingers play with his hair, gently curling his locks around her fingers. Eventually, he slips into unconsciousness, and the world disappears.
When he wakes, it's light outside, and he can still hear it.
Thud thud, thud thud, thud thud.
It's a good sound.
"Say it. Say it like you mean it."
Breath vanishes from his lungs.
He cannot tell her that she needs to say it to avoid being blown to smithereens. He can't imply that anything untoward is happening at all.
But she must know. She must at least suspect.
But, he supposes, this is the test. If it's so crucial for her to say it, for her to utter those words, then he needs to prove it to her. He needs to prove that this isn't a stupid game, that he's not being callous or heartless, or any other quality of which he could, normally, be correctly accused.
She has turned the tables on him. Of course she has, that's what she does. It's why she's so precious to him. She holds up a mirror to show him what he is, and then asks him if he likes it.
Nobody else does that.
She is underestimated, always, and by everyone. That was key for his game with Moriarty, and ultimately led to his survival. It's this quiet strength, in small moments, that always sees her come out on top in a vicious and uncaring world.
She is a power that the loudmouths of the world rarely acknowledge. And it is always, always to their cost.
She's full of surprises, and she will not be controlled by anyone, least of all by the man she loves.
His world is ending, with each electronic blip catastrophe draws closer and closer.
A world without her is not one he is prepared to entertain. He supposes that tells him everything he needs to know.
The word comes slowly, punctuated by the countdown, but then he hits a dam.
He has never said this before. He has never said it and meant it. And that's the hardest part.
He has to dig deeper. There are seconds left. He needs to refocus.
Brown eyes in the cold morning light of a church. Seeing him, once again, for who he really is, but liking, no, loving him all the same.
She twinkles in the blue light of the lab, there's the curve of a smile as she teases him, but then helps him anyway, because that's who she is.
A snort at a comment of his, something he'd stated out of fact, but had realised, upon reflection, had been a little bit obtuse, given that they were in the company of a cadaver.
Her mouth, twisting with amusement, when he had been showing off, just for her. She was the only audience he'd wanted to entertain, every raise of his eyebrows carefully calculated, every soft murmur, tailor made, just to make her smile. All of it, all for her. When he had overstepped the mark, one look from her had been enough to make one of the most difficult words come out as though it were a natural reflex.
He looks at her now, wishing she could see him, that her eyes could meet his, and she would know, she would understand.
This is all on him.
"I love you."
The dam cracks, and then everything starts to trickle through, eroding the gaps until they become larger and larger and there are hardly any defences left at all.
The most surprising thing? It's so easy to say. To her, at least.
And so he says it again, to make sure she hears him properly. To make sure she knows he's serious, and that his difficulty is in saying it, but never in meaning it.
"I love you."
A breath. The seconds tick down.
"Molly." It comes out in a breath. It's a plea. Desperate.
But nothing comes back.
And then the words come, whispered, fractured, but nonetheless uttered.
Relief floods through him, and she lives to love another day.