Zugzwang: a situation in which the obligation to make a move in one's turn is a serious, often decisive, disadvantage.
I love you.
The words refused to leave Molly's mind, even now, days after the phone call.
I love you.
The words she had been dreaming of hearing him say, for years now, said to her not once, but twice.
I love you.
That the second set were true, she had no doubt that he'd meant them, at least in the moment. Something had changed between the first and second statements, she'd heard fear in his voice the second time.
I love you.
So she'd held her own hand and whispered the words back to Sherlock through the phone as she felt something searing across her back, something she strongly suspected…
She hadn't looked. She couldn't. 'It wasn't fair,' she thought bitterly. Loving someone for years, only for them to finally say those words and feel her soulmark burn.
She found herself dreading going to work. What if today was the day that he finally came in to the morgue. What would she say to him, what could she possibly say to him? Would their relationship be as it was – professional, someone close enough to be invited to Christmas – but yet maintaining distance? That Sherlock Holmes was not a particularly romantic driven man was plain enough. And yet he'd said that to her – twice.
"Leave me alone," Molly's voice was on the verge of breaking.
"Molly, no, please, no! Don't hang up! Do not hang up!" Sherlock heard his own voice rising in fear. She was his friend and he was going to lose her. He couldn't lose her.
"Calmly, Sherlock, or I will finish her right now."
Sherlock filtered his sister out. It was only him and Molly.
"Why are you doing this to me?! Why are you making fun of me?"
No, no she couldn't be thinking that of him. He would never… and yet he had. Several times over.
"Please, I swear, you just have to listen to me." His sister continued to taunt him. "Molly, this is for a case. It's... it's a sort of experiment." He knew as soon as they left his mouth that those had been the wrong words.
"I'm not an experiment, Sherlock."
"No, I know you're not an experiment, you're my friend. We're friends, but, please, just say those words for me." She didn't know the danger she was in, she couldn't know the danger she was in, but the fact that she was in danger was at the very forefront of his mind.
"Please don't do this. Just... just... don't do it."
"It's very important. I can't say why. But I promise you, it is." Of course it was important, it was her life in danger.
"I can't say that, I can't... I can't say that to you."
"Of course you can. Why can't you?" Of course, he knew exactly why she couldn't say it.
"'You know why." Molly continued adamantly. Any other time, Sherlock would have admired her persistence.
"No, I don't know why." Sherlock ground out. Time was running out and he couldn't lose another friend.
"Of course you do." Molly, as ever, saw right through his lie. She was brilliant, and once more, any other time Sherlock would not have despaired by it.
'Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.' Moriarty flashed over the screen.
"Please, just say it." Sherlock almost begged her. He didn't care that Eurus was watching, that this might be, in her end, a simple experiment. His friend's life was at stake, and he had already watched as one died.
"I can't. Not to you." She was brilliant. Truly she was, yet Sherlock could not…
"Why?" He was pushing her, he knew, and yet he needed her to just say the release code.
"Because... because it's true. Because... it's true, Sherlock. It's always been true." Nothing that he didn't already know.
"Well, if it's true, just say it anyway." A simple solution, and one that would save her life.
"You bastard." They both already knew the words were true. All she had to do was say it.
"Say it anyway." He pushed her, pushing through so many of his own complicated emotions.
"You say it. Go on. You say it first." Molly, of course, did not know. Molly didn't have the context. Molly did not know that she was running out of time.
"Say it. Say it like you mean it." Sherlock looked to his sister.
Final 30 seconds.
"I... ..I love you. I love you." Even Sherlock heard the change in his tone when he said the words the second time. "Molly? Molly, please!"
"I love you." As Sherlock's face fell into his hands with relief, the countdown froze. And his soulmark burned.
The days that followed were a blur. Sherlock wanted to reach out to Molly, to explain what had happened to her. He also didn't want to lose her friendship. More restless than usual, he had shot more bullets at the wall, unwilling to take a case. The Final Problem. Well, Moriarty hadn't quite been correct. The was one more problem yet – how to repair his relationship with Molly Hooper.
John had told him, multiple times, to simply go see her. Talk to her. But there were too many variables, the most clear one that she might not even see him. "Well, then give her a ring."
"Don't be ridiculous, John," had been his response. "Why would she answer her mobile after the last time I rang her?"
"If you won't go to see her, and you won't give her a ring to have her over here, you'll just have to have this conversation at Bart's. And you are going to have this conversation, Sherlock. I'm not going to stand by and watch you throw this away. You of all people should realize that." John's voice had been firm, though Sherlock had clearly detected layers of emotion underlying his words. Yes, he of all people realized that John would never be able to watch someone squander their last opportunity to be with their soulmate. "I know she's your soulmate, Sherlock."
"I can't, John. I've asked too much of her. I've quite possibly utterly destroyed her."
"Molly Hooper is much tougher than she looks," John countered.
"I know." And variations thereupon.
It had been going to happen sooner or later. Sherlock would have simply preferred it to have been later. The cab ride to Bart's was quiet, though this silence was far more pregnant than other times.
As Sherlock examined details on the corpse, he sense Molly leaving the room. Without a second thought, he followed her, motioning for John to continue the examination.
"Leave me alone, Sherlock," Molly said quietly.
"Molly," Sherlock took her by the arm, pulling her into an office.
"Let go of me," she said firmly. Sherlock looked at her. Her eyes were welling, her face reddening, her lips trembling.
"Let me explain," he said, wincing at the poor word choice.
"Explain? Sherlock, what's there to explain? Go back to your investigation." Molly wrenched her arm free, grasping the door handle. "Get out."
"Molly, I meant it. They weren't just words. Maybe the first time, but not the second." Sherlock hesitated. "You are my soulmate."
"I asked you to leave," Molly said defiantly.
"If you don't believe my words, then look." He quickly slipped out of his jacket, ripping open his shirt. There over his heart, in Molly's own handwriting, were those three words. "Look at yours."
The sight of Sherlock Holmes bearing his soulmark in front of her, a soulmark in her own writing, was too much for Molly. Slowly, she took off her lab coat, unbuttoning her blouse so that her mark was visible. I love you.
"Sherlock," though Molly was at a complete loss for words, he understood, for he felt exactly the same.
"I love you, Molly Hooper." How freeing it was to say aloud, without the pressures of her life in danger, without the cruel twisting of what ought to have been perfect into a demented game devised by his sister.
"I can't do this any longer, Sherlock," Molly closed her shirt. "Not after…everything."
"You're my soulmate," Sherlock said desperately. "I saved you."
"I waited seven years for you to pick up on anything, Sherlock. I won't wait any longer."
"Who wants to wait? Molly, I have been blind, I have missed what was staring me in the face for years."
"Yeah. You did. I'm moving on, Sherlock. Maybe next time I won't find a boyfriend who's a criminal mastermind or the biggest idiot I ever knew, or maybe I won't find anyone, but I am moving forward in my life."
"Then let me come with you. Together, Molly. Starting over, as soulmates. Please."
"I can't. Please, just go, Sherlock."
"I would do anything, for you, Molly Hooper."