Molly took a bus to Holyrood and began to ascend Arthur's Seat. It was a misty day and the view across the estuary was obscured. Still, the drawn-out, plaintive calling of the seagulls was heard from the shore, competing with a similarly mournful bagpipe somewhere at the foot of the Royal Mile. Molly set a leisurely pace, allowing other climbers to overtake her. She wasn't into this munro-bagging thing; she just wanted air and space to think.
Sherlock's story so far was acceptable. No, more than acceptable, it was encouraging. It had the ring of truth. If he had claimed a long-suppressed, ever-present passion for her, she wouldn't have believed a word. But everything he had told her was plausible. Plausible and, on the whole, welcome news. She was particularly pleased to hear about the fate of the science prints. The thing about the sperm bank, while vastly insensitive (but that was Sherlock for you) was also rather touching. In fact, had the situation arisen, she might well have availed herself of the opportunity.
Trust Sherlock to present her with a pile of evidence! Trust him to explain everything in such painstaking detail. So, okay, he wasn't the world's worst bastard after all. Obviously, she had known that he wasn't, but it had certainly felt like that at times. He was arrogant and blunt and profoundly irritating, but first and foremost he was an oxymoron: an eloquent man who struggled with communication. Struggled with it endlessly but for once had managed to spell things out in plain English. She was the person whose judgement he trusted, whose faith had saved his life, the person who mattered most to him. It was almost too good to be true, but true it was, she felt certain now. The question was…
Did she still love him?
Molly reached the summit, panting. It was windy up here and the mist was slowly dispersing. She could see the silhouette of the castle now. The presence of the sea loomed as a suggestion in the East. From down in the city came the sound of the one o'clock gun. No crime to solve here, just a spectacle for the tourists.
Gingerly, Molly approached the ring-fenced, out-of-the-way place where she had parked her affections for Sherlock. She probed it, allowing his image to rise, for the first time in months, fully in front of her mind's eye. Sherlock-of-the-mind gazed at her with his unsettling eyes. But there was no anxious flutter in her heart. "Sherlock," she murmured, but the familiar tightening of her chest did not happen. She assessed him calmly, coolly, weighing him against everything else in the world to see if he would tip the scales. They quivered in the balance. Was it possible that she had outlived this ancient obsession? Could what she had thought of as the love of her life have faded away because of choir singing and pottery?
Perhaps it was the arrival of the letter. Perhaps it had taken this one event, that Sherlock would seek her out to bare his soul to her, to set her free. Perhaps she was ready to close that chapter of her life.
"Goodbye, Sherlock," she whispered experimentally. She was prepared to see his image float away among the wind-driven clouds. Instead, she heard his voice in her head.
"Really, Molly? The heart flutter and the butterflies are gone and so you think it's all over? Was it just about that, Molly? About little tingling sensations in the body? Could you possibly be that shallow?"
"Of course not," Molly's inner voice replied. "It wasn't just about that. You're my friend. We're friends. That's more important than any tingling sensation – oh..."
"Exactly so," said the inner Sherlock. "You were so preoccupied with wanting me to luuurve you that you failed to see the value of what we had. You were looking for a single rose and failed to see the garden you stood in."
"It's not a single rose," Molly defended herself, casting about for a suitable metaphor. "It's the rose bush that gives the whole garden its scent."
"Perhaps," the inner Sherlock conceded. "But you won't ever find out what roses grow, or not, in our garden, unless you look everywhere. So go and finish my letter."
Molly sighed. The Sherrinford footage, yes, she would have to face it. What she knew about that day was little enough. Psychopathic sister, macabre game show with life and death stakes, death threats to her, cameras in her flat, Sherlock forced into a corner. John had tried to tell her more before she had cut him off. Mycroft had confirmed it when he came with a team to make her flat secure. "He was trapped, Dr Hooper. It was all a trick. I trust you won't hold that against him."
And Molly didn't hold it against him. She held it against herself. She recoiled at the memory of herself whimpering and sobbing at the phone like a small child. If it was possible to reduce her to such a wretch with nothing but a bit of trickery, then something had to change urgently. She was no use to anyone, least of all herself, if she crumbled like this because of anything Sherlock Holmes said or did. This was no way for a grown-up woman to behave. She needed to get her act together. That, ultimately, was the reason she left London.
Perhaps things had changed since then. If the same scene were to play out now, she might be able to handle it differently.
"Molly, please, without asking why, just say these words."
"I love you."
"That's a rather odd request, don't you think?"
"It's for a case. It's a sort of experiment."
"Like a code?"
"Yes, like a code."
"Can't you get someone else to say it?"
"Your voice has the right pitch."
"All right. Do you have your pen and paper ready? I...love...you. Got that? Sorry, need to go now, have a nice day."
Had she been able to do that back then, as she should have, there would have been no need to uproot herself, to desert all her friends and flee to Scotland.
"But," whispered a timid voice in her head, "if you had been able to do that back then, there would have been no consequences either. Everything would have carried on as before. You would never have received a heart-wrenching letter from Sherlock, which is still sitting on your desk."
There was nothing for it. She had to listen to Sherlock's confessions to the end. She made her way back down the hill and took the bus home.
The disc is still in the drive. Molly has made herself a cup of tea to hold on to and is fighting down the nausea as she opens file 11.
It is a room like a bunker, with a TV screen at one end and a single object in the centre. A box. A coffin. A coffin?
Sherlock, John and Mycroft enter. Sherlock speaks on the phone to a child. She is frightened. On a plane? Something about crashing into a city? John and Mycroft argue, Sherlock tried to reassure the girl. The call ends abruptly, and a woman appears on the screen, uttering cruel, callous words about death. Whose coffin is it?
"Please start your deductions."
Sherlock rattles off observations, determines that it is for a woman, alone, of limited height and limited means, practical about death – until he is interrupted by Mycroft. The lid. Molly cringes. Will her name be on the plaque? No, not her name, the three dreaded words. And she can tell from Sherlock's expression that he thinks of her straight away.
"So who loves you?" Mycroft asks. "I'm assuming it's not a long list."
John mentions Irene Adler; Sherlock shuts him down immediately. Speaks her name. Then the woman announces her challenge. Explosives. A three minute count-down. The "release code." Sherlock's face pinched and harrowed. His expression of despair when she doesn't pick up the phone. The relief when she does. The panic when she almost hangs up. Molly, the Molly of back then in her kitchen with her phone pressed to her ear, can't see any of this, but she should hear it in his voice. She is too wrapped up in her own agony to notice his. While the seconds are ticking away, she prolongs his torture by making demands. She is selfish. And still he says it. He says it twice.
"I saved Molly Hooper!" he roars. The woman's mocking voice replies. From what? Look at what you did to her. And Molly knows: Sherlock has never played with her feelings. Sherlock has never toyed with her or with anyone else. This is what toying with people looks like. She wants to be sick.
But the video is not finished. While John and Mycroft make for the door, Sherlock hangs back, gently putting the lid on the coffin as if she'd really died.
Nothing, nothing on Earth could have prepared her for what comes next. She sees the wood splinters fly. She hears Sherlock's cry of anguish. She sees him as she has never seen him before, out of control, defeated, undone. Because of what he did to her?
Because of what she did to him. Because she'd broken down when he had needed her to be calm and strong. Because she had been emotional when it was necessary to be rational. Because she had forced him to say what he didn't want to say. Because she had failed him.
Molly was weeping.
Yes, she had failed him. Through her lamentable weakness she had made his already intolerable situation even worse. "Look at what you've done to yourself," the woman had taunted him. But Molly knew, when she saw him smashing that coffin and howling like a stricken animal, that she, Molly, had done that to him. She had wanted to be his rock and his strength, but when it came to the crunch, she had melted like wax, torn like cobweb. And surely this will be how the letter ends: "As you see, Molly, you were not quite the woman I thought you were. I had been fond of you, and I remain grateful for your past assistance, but I cannot see a future with a woman who cannot face the kind of challenges I have to deal with. Regretfully, then…"
Eyes closed, letter pressed to her chest, Molly cried for some time about this imagined conclusion before she eventually gathered the courage to confront the real rest.
Are you crying, Molly? I am so sorry I had to put you through this, but I am sure you understand why I wanted you to see this. The footage speaks for itself. Vivisection. You cut open the dead, who are past caring, but oh, Molly, my sister! She cut us both open, you and me, just to see what was inside. And yet, just why was this all so terrible? Why did you feel you couldn't tell me what I already knew? Why didn't you trust me? John keeps telling me it wasn't my fault, and I say once again, John is rarely right. It was my fault entirely. If I had had my act together, I could have approached this differently. Eurus had only demanded that you had to say the words "I love you." She didn't specify that you had to mean me.
"Hi, Molly, I have Rosie here with me and she is a little gloomy. Can you cheer her up? Tell her you love her."
"I love you, Rosie!"
"Hi, Molly, I need your help with Italian. What does this mean: Roma, città antica, come ti amo?"
Problem solved, 15 seconds flat, no hearts sliced open. I could have asked you what the chorus was in any number of pop songs. I could have asked you to repeat a string of random sentences like a code, and slipped it in there. A possibility like that didn't even occur to me at the time. I was locked in a loop where it was about you and me. About us. Where you had to say it to me. And still, I could have saved you pain.
"Hi, Molly, I'm sitting here pondering. Trying to become more human, you know. Exactly why do we love our friends? I love Rosie because she has the most adorable chuckle. I love John because he has made me a better man. Why do you love him?"
"Oh, I suppose because he is kind, funny…"
"Can you say it in a full sentence, please? Can you start with 'I love John because…'? It helps me think."
"Oh, okay. I love John because he is kind and loyal and funny."
"Okay. How about Mrs Hudson?"
"I love Mrs Hudson because she's such a crazy old biddy."
"How about me?"
"Um, I love you because you are smart and always do the right thing."
"Thanks. And I love you because I've lost count of how many times you have saved my life."
Problem solved, two minutes left on the timer, Molly's dignity intact. See how easy it would have been? Eurus was right, it was the emotional context that destroyed me. I couldn't think of it in a way that would not have raised your suspicions. I could only think of it as being dead serious. The words were written on a bloody coffin lid, your coffin lid! They were written in mile high letters in my mind. I couldn't think straight. I couldn't remember any of the many little I Love Yous that you could have quite innocently said. Only of the big one. And because I knew you wouldn't want to say the big one, I tried to disguise it, and so we ended up with all those unfortunate words floating in the air. Game, case, experiment. It was my manner that set you on edge. My lack of clear thinking. I failed you so badly. I just wanted to save your life and I forgot that I owed you more than that.
There is still more to unpack here. My failure wasn't merely of that moment in time. My failure had been many years in the making. I come back to my original question: Why didn't you trust me? Why? We were so close. There had been long stretches of time, weeks and months even, when I slept more often in your bed than in my own. I had held you in my arms while you were sleeping. I had come to you with all my troubles. I had trusted you with my life, more than once. Why, then, could you not trust me with your heart? Why did you automatically assume that I was mocking you? Did it all go back as far as The Incident at the Christmas Party? I know I have been self-centred and flippant and obtuse and negligent, but I have never been deliberately cruel to you. It was only when you accused me of making fun of you that I realised just how suspicious you were. That you were on guard all the time in case I wanted to toy with you. Nothing could be further from the truth, and yet, through my own failure, because I did observe but did not understand, I had planted this notion in your head. One of my stupid games, you thought. Had I been a better friend, then I could have said to you, "Molly, I am scared and stressed. I need some kindness. Please tell me that you love me." Had I been a better friend, you would have said it without fear. See how all paths were closed to me? The light-hearted, the sensible, the heartfelt, all blocked, leaving only the ham-fisted. "Without asking why, just say these words." God, I couldn't have handled it worse if I'd tried.
What happened next tortured me at the time, but with hindsight I consider it a miracle. Where I had failed to protect your dignity, you took charge and protected it yourself. "You say it. Go ahead." My brave and clever Molly. That was just the right solution, or would have been if I'd had a moment to collect myself. You couldn't know that the time was running out and I was panicking. I was frantically thinking in what tone I had to say the words so they would convince you to reply. I couldn't afford to get it wrong. I did my best and to this day I don't know whether or not it was enough. It was enough to make you say it, but the aftermath suggests that it wasn't enough to make you believe me.
And here we come to the ultimate question, the one I am sure you have asked yourself: the question whether I "meant it."
Even with all that had gone before, Molly still felt the need to close her eyes for a moment and brace herself before she read on.
Well, of course I "meant it," but what does that mean? If you have watched the video to the end, you will know the strength of my affections for you. Is that enough? Or can you only be satisfied if they mirror yours exactly? I know you love me (Or loved me? Do I need to use the past tense?) in the sense that people call "romantic," and in all honesty I have to tell you that I do not understand what that means. Billions of people across the world are living their lives as couples; is it even possible that they all have the same kind of feelings for each other? There must be room for a lot of variation. How can people divide up their attachments to others so neatly into categories; romantic, platonic, erotic? Chemicals must be labelled, but why feelings? Why do people agonise about the state of their relationships, why do they debate whether they are dating, exclusive, in a relationship, engaged – all just for the sake of other people! And what's all the fuss about going on a date anyway, going out for dinner, as if that somehow makes a person more important? You couldn't be more important to me if I took you on a thousand dinner dates.
Help me out here, Molly. You are the number one person in my world and I told you that a long time ago. I am at a loss as to what I could possibly tell you that would be worth more than that. Do you want me to call you "darling" or "sweetheart" or something like that? I can do that, if it makes you happy, but what's the point? Do you want to hear things like that I am enchanted by your brown eyes or intoxicated by your scent? I'm not. I delight in the scent of you because it gives me comfort, and that's why I sleep so well in your bed. Do you want to hear that I lie awake at night dreaming of running my hands over your naked body? Why would I be so disrespectful to you to allow myself such thoughts? Should I say that I crave the feeling of your lips on mine? I don't. My mind does not function that way. Which is not to say that I might not like it if we tried it sometime. Would you like to try it sometime? Would you like to show me what you've dreamt of? I'm prepared to give everything a chance, if you will give us a chance.
You may well ask how it can possibly have taken me several months to write this letter. The letter is – I'm sure you will understand this – merely the tip of the iceberg. In the aftermath of Sherrinford, I had to rebuild myself and my mind palace and I had to take steps to rebuild my family. None of these tasks are anywhere near complete yet. Needless to say, criminals have not been sleeping either just because I had to deal with personal problems. And in the midst of all that, I had to work out what had been going on between you and me during all those years. I dare say these few pages have taken more effort than a medical research paper of similar length.
It is my sincere hope that you will have read this far. When I told you that I thought your wish was unfair (yes, yes, I had my words to you all planned out), it was because you didn't know all this. You made a decision based on guesswork. Now you can make an informed choice. Needless to say, I am biting my nails hoping that you will choose me. If, however, you decide against me, or if you have "moved on," let me make this one last plea: Get in touch with John. He and Rosie have done nothing to deserve losing you, and they've lost enough already. Come back to London or at least make sure you see them sometimes, and I promise I will make sure our paths never cross, if you so desire.
Finally, please open file No 12.
It was a sound recording. Sherlock playing the violin, a tune she'd not heard before. It started on a soft, trembling note that gently blended into undulations up and down the scale like birds soaring through a stormy sky. It rolled in rich and strong like the ocean on a wintry beach. It flickered like the silvery underside of poplar leaves. It climbed snowy mountains, it delved into mysterious caves, it sighed at the moon and smiled at the sun. It spoke the language of the truest heart of all, and engraved on that heart was her name.
I composed this for you, Molly. If the thousands of words in this letter have not succeeded in reaching you, maybe this will.
Yours, in hope,
The gallery was housed in a neoclassical building off Belford Road. A semi-circular drive led to the five-pillared entryway. This drive enclosed a piece of landscape art which easily outshone all the artwork inside the building. Languid curves of terraced turf defined the outlines of two shallow, crescent-shaped pools: grass and water drawn together like a vast natural brooch.
It was twenty to ten on Sunday morning when Molly entered the grounds from the North entrance. The sun shone fiercely. She had come about halfway when she saw Sherlock approaching from the South gate. As soon as he spotted her, he left the path and cut across the lawn. She veered off the drive and walked across the grass, too. He began to run. Molly stopped herself from running, but she quickened her pace. They met at the edge of the curved pool, with five foot of fresh Scottish air still between them.
"Molly. Generous as always. I was prepared to wait and be tortured for a week, but you came straight away."
"It was the least I could do. Sherlock, I want to – "
"Wait, first things first. Forgive me, Molly. Please forgive me."
Molly stepped forward and took hold of his lapels.
"I forgive you. And I want to ask your forgiveness too, Sherlock."
"For abandoning you without even giving you a chance to explain. You were right, I have been unfair to you. And then there is my Sherrinford failure. You were right to ask why I didn't trust you. I absolutely should have trusted you. You were my best friend, and I let you down when it mattered most. If I had been stronger that day, I could have saved you so much pain. Lord, Sherlock, you were trying to save my life and I called you a bastard!"
"You didn't know."
"I should have known. I should have known that you wouldn't mess with me like that and that something was seriously wrong. I failed you so badly. I am sorry."
"Molly, no! There's nothing to forgive."
"Please, Sherlock, I don't want to hear that. I forgive you with all my heart, but you must forgive me, too."
Sherlock was visibly taken aback, but something in her face must have convinced him, because he wrapped his arms around her and whispered in her ear: "All right, as you wish. I forgive you."
As she relaxed into the embrace, she felt his body do the same. At long last, the barriers between them were down. It felt so peaceful. They stood for some time in silence, until finally Sherlock pulled back and peered into her face.
"So, what now? We have forgiven each other, but that was only half of the problem. Where do we go from here? Have you made a decision?"
"Yes. You can use the present tense, Sherlock. I choose you. Whatever that might turn out to mean."
"My Molly." He smiled and, for the third time in their lives, gave her a tender kiss on the cheek. It was the merest brush of his lips against her skin and it was over in an instant. Molly remembered all her fantasies, the whole pandemonium of passion that she had dreamt up over the years, and wondered how much of it would ever come true. Perhaps it mattered much less than she had always thought. Sherlock had chosen her and she had chosen him. Whatever love he was capable of, he had offered to her. He was standing beside her and he had called her his. It was enough for now.
Sherlock took her hand.
"You're cold," he said and pushed their intertwined fingers into his coat pocket.
"What's this?" Her fingertips had touched something smooth and hard.
"Oh, I nearly forgot. Present for you."
He let go of her hand and pulled a tiny box out of the pocket. Clearly a jeweller's box. What was he playing at? Molly struggled to rein in her imagination as she opened it.
"Yes. Dainty earrings. They'll suit you much better."
They looked a little like the big hoops she had worn a lifetime ago at the ill-fated Christmas party, only that these were the size of thumbnails. And they were not covered in glitter.
"Sherlock! They look very expensive."
"Well. I earned a pretty neat sum on that Battenberg case. And if you consider all the birthday and Christmas presents I never gave you, that'll all add up."
"They are lovely. Thank you." She kissed him swiftly on the cheek.
He smiled. "You are so graceful. You have to teach me how you do it."
"Graceful, me? Have you forgotten all the times when I stammered as soon as you looked at me? Or that time I spilled coffee on you? Or when I broke your pen?"
"Liar. You have it all stored in your mind palace."
"I swear, I'm going to lock that room and throw away the key."
Molly put on the earrings. Then she wrapped her arm around Sherlock's waist. He stroked her hair.
"You're going to love Baker Street, Molly. It's all been restored."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, the damage from the explosion has all been cleared up and – "
He looked at her, perplexed.
"My God, Molly, you don't even know! I have taken such care to explain my inner world to you that I've forgotten to fill you in on the external details. Eurus – you know about her, don't you? – blew up my flat. We had a lucky escape. But it's all been done up nicely and John has moved back in with Rosie. But there's plenty of space for you! We'll just buy a bigger bed. That is, if you'd like that. Would you like that?
"I'm not sure." Molly glanced up at the frosty blue sky. "I've kind of fallen in love with Enbra."
"With whom?" There was a hint of panic in his voice.
"Oh!" Molly chuckled. "I think I'm going native. I mean E-din-burgh."
"Oh, I see." He mulled this over. "How about we keep your flat for weekend getaways?"
"We're going to have weekend getaways?"
"All the time!" He pulled her closer. They looked down at their figures mirrored in the water. "We're going to have anything we want. You, Molly, you made it all possible." And, after a bracing intake of breath: "I should very much like to kiss you. I mean properly. Would you like that?"
"Would I ever!"
She raised her face. In the dazzling morning light, the crescent-shaped pool reflected the image of Sherlock Holmes and Molly Hooper, the dark and the dainty, embarking on a new adventure -– and liking it.
The landscape art at the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh is by Charles Jencks. I suggest you look him up; his work is amazing!