The end comes suddenly.
Collapsed on her kitchen floor, Mrs Hudson is a thin heap of rags for Sherlock to find when he comes back from a case in Edinburgh.
As he is wont to do for every tragedy that befalls a friend, he punishes himself — for not being there, for not knowing it would happen. His voice shakes that night on the phone to Molly, even though he’s not the type of man to cry when there’s someone around to hear it. He doesn’t ask her to, but she sleeps on his couch for the next week all the same.
Like a kite caught on the wind, Sherlock drifts from one sleepless night to the next, barely speaking, surviving on caffeine and bow resin and cigarette smoke.
Thank god there’s been nothing more.
Daily, Molly makes him three square meals that he doesn’t eat. Mycroft sits rigidly alert by the fireside for hours on end watching, listening, as Sherlock plays until his fingers are raw and aching, lost in his grief. Changing of the guard is at five each day. Only on the last before the funeral does Mycroft stay after she’s returned from work. That night while Molly is boiling water for yet more medicinal tea, she sees through the dimpled glass that partitions Sherlock’s rooms that Mycroft briefly stands at his brother’s back to lay his hand on his shoulder as he stares into the street softly playing, only returning to his seat when the kettle clicks off.
The service is lovely. Molly sees to almost all of the arrangements herself, reserving some of the busy work for those who need occupation most. John she task with the hymns and readings, Sherlock with the flowers. He chooses pink roses and white Canterbury bells.
Hundreds of mourners cram into the pretty little church on the east side of Welwyn Garden City – along with a son that no one except Sherlock knew she had. Tanned and relaxed, happy, fresh off a flight from Florida, he’s too much like his father for comfort.
After the interment, one by one the congregation line up to offer their condolences to the old girl’s former tenants who look exactly like what in reality they are: two young men who have just lost their mother.
John weeps openly, as strangers shake his hand.
Sherlock does not.
Rosie – almost two now – is old enough to stand by her father’s side and throw a flower onto the coffin before the dirt is tumbled in, committing that that was Martha Hudson to the earth. “Bye Nana,” she says as John leads her away, not really understanding that it’s goodbye for good.
Back at Baker Street, Molly makes tea while John pours whiskey in to the glasses of the select few who have been invited to the house, kept private this last week. The married ones from next door fuss over canapes and trays of sandwiches. Mrs Turner looks like a strong gust of wind would knock her over.
The lovely woman who will never be Mary Morstan, but who is liked by John’s friends all the same, sits in an armchair off to the side where she’ll be in no one’s way and holds her fiancé’s sleeping child in her arms as she gently strokes the child’s fine blonde curls away from her forehead – all the while humming a lullaby that Molly can’t quite place. In her head she hears her mother’s lilting voice from long ago softly singing, ‘Oh let the light that shines on me, shine on the one I love.’
Francis Hudson Jr. chats happily to his wife back home on a flashy new mobile phone, telling her that he’ll be on the first flight out of London as soon as things are finalised with the will.
Sherlock has retreated to his flat and locked the door behind him.
It’s difficult for Molly to know, sometimes, whether he runs away because he wants to be alone, or because he wants someone to follow. She and he have always shared a dichotomous intimacy: with one hand he pushes her away, with the other he draws her near. But Molly has learned not to take it personally, it’s the way he is in everything: with Sherlock it’s always two ends of an extreme.
It takes almost a full hour of small talk and remembrances before she can pocket the envelope she has been entrusted with, the one bearing Sherlock’s name written in Mrs Hudson’s neat hand, and finally slip away to quietly climb the stairs.
Molly’s foot is on the last of the seventeen steps when the knob turns and the door (the one that has managed to go unpainted for all the time Sherlock has lived there, even after a bomb or two has gone off) opens, just a crack, enough that she can see he’s elegantly sprawled on the floor still dressed in his black suit, all sharp elbows and knees, his back to the wall, long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankle. A shaft of glorious golden sunlight spills out on to the landing, made soft and diffused by tendrils of cigarette smoke and scattered motes of dust catching on the breeze.
It’s an invitation to enter, she knows, but with Sherlock it’s best to leave those concessions to his human frailty and need for companionship unremarked upon. Molly knocks on the door frame, asking softly, “Is it alright if I come in?”
In that way he has of sounding haughty and down-at-heel all at once, he tells her, “If you like.”
She lowers herself to the dusty floor, sits beside him with her back holding the door closed, their elbows touching, her hands folded in the lap of the black dress she’s worn only once before, years ago. Catching a glimpse of his red-rimmed shining eyes, Molly doesn’t allow her gaze to dwell on them as she gives in to the sudden urge to take his hand in hers: it’s shockingly cold (but then that’s to be expected, the windows are open and Sherlock is thin-blooded at the best of times) and somehow that makes him seem even more fragile.
He tenses a little at their first touch, but then relaxes (there’s no one there to see the small act of tenderness, after all) and lets out a shuddering sigh. “Are you going to be tedious about my smoking?”
“No. But I am going to ask if I can have a drag.”
He straightens his shoulders, peers at her. “You don’t smoke.”
Molly quirks her lips, somewhat pleased that she’d been able to keep something of herself from him. “Don’t I?”
A hint of a smile pulls at the corner of his mouth as he offers her his cigarette, casually, like it’s still normal for them to share such small intimacies.
“I’ll have you know, Mr Holmes, that I am a woman of glamour and hidden intrigue.”
Sherlock’s eyebrow twitches. If he’s trying to hide how impressed he is he doesn’t succeed. He looks at her curiously, affectionately amused.
Molly slips off the heels that have been pinching her feet all day, flexes her ankles and wiggles her toes against the seam of her tights. Just to prove a point, she takes one immediately regretted pull and hands the cigarette back to him, where he places it between his lips and inhales it, smoking it all the way down to the filter, extinguishing the butt in an empty cup that sits beside him on the floor. It dies with a hiss as it drowns in the dregs of his tea.
She strokes the heel of his hand with her thumb. He strokes the palm of hers with his index finger.
Outside, the sky is clear and dazzlingly blue. The rooftops go on endlessly: there are no clouds to be seen through the open windows, no birds in dilating flocks. It gives the illusion of vastness, making the flat, the space she and Sherlock occupy, seem so much smaller.
They both stare straight ahead.
“I have a month to find somewhere new,” Sherlock finally says, still avoiding eye contact. His voice is a little hoarse, dry from lack of use. Or maybe the cigarettes. He’s been getting through at least a pack and a half every day for the last week. “The American served me with an eviction notice in the car on the way to the church this morning.”
It takes Molly a minute or two to catch up to what she’s just been told. She was certain, so certain, that the envelope Mrs Hudson’s solicitor had given to her had something to do with passing the house to Sherlock.
“She left him the house? Your house?” Molly asks, incredulous.
He doesn’t answer, barely nods.
“And he’s selling it?”
“Sold. Or as good as.” Sherlock corrects. “Developers. They’ve bought half the street already. Apparently it’s going to be the headquarters of a building society or something equally depressing.”
This is the very last thing he needs right now, to lose his home on top of everything else— He’s barely keeping his head above water as it is, why – why – would Mrs Hudson do this to him? It has to be a mistake. Has to be...
“You can object, or contest, or something—”
No, he shakes his head, jaw tightening. “She didn’t want me to have it. The least I can do is to respect her final wish.”
Molly fixes on him. Sherlock’s mouth is tight, lips pressed together and pale as the rest of his colourless skin. He blinks four or five times in rapid succession, his jaw tenses and his Adam’s apple bobs.
“Sherlock.” Molly says softly, tilting into him.
“Me, Molly. Me,” he grits between clenched teeth. “How could I not have known?”
The anger in his voice isn’t really a surprise. The helplessness isn’t either. “There’s no way you could have. You can’t blame yourself…”
His dimpled chin is trembling now, and a silent tear drips from it. There’s an audible click when he swallows. “She blamed me. She was angry with me because I failed her.”
Molly’s throat throbs as she thumbs away the damp streaks on his cheeks. “You can’t really believe that.”
“Why not? It’s what I do, isn’t it? I’ve failed every woman I’ve ever cared about: Mrs Hudson, Mary. You.”
She squeezes his hand, tamping down all of the things she wishes he would let her say. Yet she doesn’t falter. Not one bit. “You’ve never failed me.”
He looks taken aback, more than a hint of frustration in his voice. Self-loathing bleeding into his words. “Really? Haven’t I?”
It’s taken them almost all of the twelve months since that horrible phone call to reach a state of equilibrium, one where he accepts that she loves him, and she accepts that he doesn’t (can’t, won’t) return her softer feelings. So she’s not about to say anything that will destroy the fragile balance reached through the pretence that neither of them is in pain because of the weakness of the other.
“No.” Molly says. “No. Not me, not anyone. She loved you. You must know that.”
“And what good did it do her? She died alone on her kitchen floor as though not one person in this world felt anything for her.”
He’s crying now, properly crying and Molly takes both his hands in hers. She doesn’t look straight at him, because if she does she knows she’ll cry too. Instead she rests her head on his shoulder.
“When he was dying, my dad used to quote an old French proverb. ‘Tant va la cruche à l'eau qu'à la fin elle se casse,’ he would say — that it is the fate of glass to break.”
Sherlock’s chest heaves a shuddering wet breath. “Unusually romantic for an accountant.”
There’s an unexpected surge of sadness from somewhere deep inside, hazy grief at the edges. “One of the reasons I loved him so much. He was a complicated man.”
Matter-of-factness is the aim, but she misses it by a country mile and they both know she’s stumbling into territory that she hasn’t meant to tread. It takes a conscious effort to bring herself back to the point. “I suppose he was trying to teach me that change is inevitable, that all things break, all things end. So maybe it’s not how we die that should be remembered, it’s how we lived. Mrs Hudson had a full life, Sherlock. She loved and was loved in return. It’s the most any of us can ask for.”
Sherlock hiccups a bitter laugh. “Then what does that say about me?”
Molly presses herself to him even tighter. “You are loved, Sherlock Holmes.”
Loved by everyone, she should say, but doesn’t. The omission hangs there between them until slowly Sherlock’s tears have eased and his hands aren’t shaking anymore.
Quietly, his head comes to rest on top of hers. His voice is thick, “Still?”
She hesitates only briefly. “Always.”
“Even if there’s no hope?”
“Even if I don’t hope, I’ll never be able to stop myself from wanting. End result is the same thing.” That, she supposes, is the truth of it.
Molly looks at their joined hands and tries very hard to shake off the feeling of regret for all the could-have-beens.
Across the floorboards, the shadows cast by late winter sun cut a curving path into the bruised evening light, slowly marking the end of this terrible, sad day.
Neither one lets go of the other.
“You can do so much better than me, Molly Hooper,” Sherlock whispers hoarsely, taking her fingertips to his lips.
“Obviously,” Molly says, not entirely with a straight face. They both smile, watery about the corners. “But that’s irrelevant as you won’t have me anyway.”
Beside her Sherlock shifts and tries clumsily to take her in his arms, offering what little comfort he has in him to give by kissing her cheek. His lips accidentally catch the corner of her mouth and she tastes him: salty-sweet and musky smoke. When their eyes meet Molly feels unsettled by something in them, something she’s never seen before, something unfamiliar, desperate and raw. It could be grief. It could be something else. It could be nothing at all.
In his throat she sees his pulse beating too quickly. Their faces are so close together that he fills her field of vision.
“Molly—” he says so quietly that if it wasn’t her own name she might not know what the word is.
There’s nothing to be done about how they feel, so she cuts him off. They can’t have the ‘It’s not you it’s me’ conversation. Not again. Not today. It is what it is, as he’s taken to saying of late. And Molly doesn’t think she can bear to hear him say I’m sorry like he means it, not even once more. They’ve circled and looped around it too often. They’ve come to terms with it as much as their hearts will allow.
“Where do you think you’ll go?” She asks, untangling their hands.
“It’s okay,” with that half-truth she stands, brushes off her skirt and steps back into her heels, ignoring the fact that his voice had cracked when he said her name. “Really, I’m okay. We don’t have to talk the past to death. It’s fine.”
He’s silent for so long as he stays sitting on the floor. Molly walks to the window, putting as much distance between them as the living room will allow. She’s breathing so hard on the age-worn glass that is a barrier between her and the city that it fogs over, partially obscuring her view of the street below. Through beaded mist Molly watches the last of the invited guests pile into taxis or walk off in the direction of the tube. It’s then that she realises just how alone Sherlock will be after she leaves. Yes, he has John. But John has Rosie and Not-Mary and the new practice on Queen Anne Street, probably, in a year or two, more children, his life is busy, full. He has Greg and Mycroft, but that’s not quite the same. He could have her, but then he’s never wanted that. Mostly he’ll just have himself.
For a moment she’s numb with sadness for him. For them both.
Eventually she hears him sigh, seeming to accept that the subject is once again closed. “I’ll stay at John’s, in the short term. Maybe my parents if the hunt for a house drags on too long.”
“You’re thinking of renting a house instead of a flat?”
“Buying,” he says from the doorway. “Maybe even outside of the city. Who knows?”
Molly’s lashes flutter. “You’d—You’d leave London?”
When she turns their eyes meet at last: he looks miserable, wretched. “You said so yourself. All things end. Change is inevitable.”
His words— the emotion in his voice—something is simmering under the surface, and right now she can’t stand to hear what he might say next, because it’s begun to feel oddly as though he’s saying goodbye to something.
Maybe even to her.
When she realises her legs have gone weak, Molly decides that it’s probably time to leave before she does or says something that she’ll only regret later. In her effort to keep steady she doesn’t notice that Sherlock has come to stand scant inches from her.
“Molly?” he says, his voice low, gentle.
It startles her, and in her panic she pulls the envelope from her pocket and hands it to him. “I almost forgot, I have something for you.”
He frowns at the manila paper in Molly’s hand. “What is this?”
“I don’t know. Only that it’s for you. Mrs Hudson’s solicitor...” her words die away. “Would you like me to stay while you read it, or—?”
“—No, ah, no. Thank you.” He takes it and turns, his features now meticulously blank. Whatever was there before, whatever he’d wanted her to see in his demeanour, is gone. The moment lost.
Whether she should breathe a sigh of relief or mourn its passing she’s not quite sure.
Crossing the room, his walk is unsteady. Standing at the kitchen counter, leaning against it for what little support it offers, Sherlock turns the envelope this way and that without opening it. His fingers trace the letters of his name written in ink, turning the paper over to repeat. After a moment or two he walks deeper into the flat, his bedroom door opens quietly but doesn’t close again.
The protective instinct to follow is fought, because Molly knows she should afford him privacy for this last moment with Martha. So instead she takes a few deep breaths to suppress tears that are stinging again at the corners of her eyes, wills her legs to be steady, and heads back downstairs.
221A is a mess: cups, glasses, plates and napkins are strewn everywhere.
Molly cleans, puts everything away neatly and tidies the flat to a standard that would be acceptable to Mrs Hudson. She empties the fridge and takes out the bins.
By the time she’s finished it’s gotten dark.
There’s not a sound to be heard from flat B. No light shines from beneath the doors.
Molly tries not to worry about him, and fails spectacularly. Still, she can’t stay: she doesn’t trust herself, not after what happened earlier, instead she sends Mycroft a text, closing the door behind her and flagging down a taxi when he replies.
She should go home, it’s been a long day. But she can’t face being alone just yet so she takes a detour via Meena’s, whose couch she sits on until almost midnight nursing a glass of wine that she doesn’t drink while watching TV without really seeing or hearing any of it.
Meena doesn’t ask, Molly doesn’t tell, but when they hug each other goodnight on the doorstep, her friend holds her tighter than Molly’s ever been held by anyone before in her entire life.
“I know how hard it is when you love someone,” Meena whispers into the crook of her neck. And Molly doesn’t really know if she’s talking about Martha or Sherlock.
Perhaps it’s both.
When finally she makes it back to her own place she walks past Sherlock’s coat hanging in the hallway without noticing that it’s there.
In her bedroom a familiar-unfamiliar shape lies on the right side of the bed – her side of the bed – in the moonlight that shines down on them both. His back toward her, a graceful line of bare skin.
It’s been so long. So long. Not since—
Well. She’d said so herself earlier: no use beating the past to death with a stick.
For the longest time she indulges herself and leans against the door frame, studying the shape of him lying in shadowed shades of nocturnal blue and black: his mop of dramatic dark hair stark against white cotton, the way it curls at the nape of his neck, the rise and fall of his breathing, his face in quarter profile veiled by the night, spine straight and the way his arm curves around his (her) pillow. Bones protruding further through his pale skin than the last time she saw him this way. Nude beneath the sheet that rests at his hip, all of his angles and sharp edges visible in the muted moonlight, leafless branches of the tree outside her window shifting over him.
Orange and bergamot drift on the air, risen from only the heat of his blood.
“Are you going to stand there all night, or will you be coming to bed?” Sherlock glares over his shoulder, his body stiffens but his eyes – silver halos flashing brightly – they’re uncertain. That circular saw blade tongue of his has always been his shield of choice. One part defensive irritation, one part cautiously testing the waters, his quills are raised. Sherlock has always excelled at covering one meaning with another. Is it alright that I’m here?
Molly smiles, can’t help herself. There’s a split second where she thinks she should change in the bathroom, but then thinks better of it and strips down to her pants at the side of the bed – there’s no point in modesty, he’s seen it all before – climbing in beside him. “Happy now?”
“Deliriously,” he drawls, turning in her direction and propping himself up on one elbow to look down at her where she lies, fixing her with a stare of the most intense interest.
His eyes shine, quicksilver drowning in liquid black.
Molly finds her throat getting tight.
“I’ve— I’ve got an appointment tomorrow morning,” he says, “to view a house on the coast. I’d like you to come with me. Thought we might drive down together after breakfast.”
Molly runs that through her Sherlock filter. “You mean you want me to drive you.”
“Thought had occurred,” he grins crookedly.
Molly returns it in kind. “Fine. But no smoking in the car. And you can pay for the petrol.”
“Fine,” she agrees, still smiling.
Sherlock stays on his elbow, scrutinising her, his own smile fading.
Molly feels her gaze drawn to his lips, feels herself pink in the merciful darkness, relieved that he can’t see much more than the outline of her features.
The sound of their breathing hangs there in the cool air, still, quiet, suspended in stretched out time.
Sherlock swallows. Hard.
Watching her ever so carefully, he says, “Your father’s translation of the French proverb was incorrect. Tant va la cruche à l'eau qu'à la fin elle se casse is more commonly understood to be, ‘so often the jug goes to water that it eventually breaks.’”
She knows her heart will stop beating if she meets his eyes, because there is something both terrifying and thrilling in the way he feels lying beside her. “What does that even mean?”
“It’s a warning that making the same mistakes over and over again will cause you to break.” After a moment or two the bedsheets rustle and he draws closer. “You know,” he says, voice tentatively soft, “it’s never wrong to hope when both of us want.”
Slowly, haltingly, he raises his hand to rub silken strands of her hair between his fingertips.
Molly blinks, her heart beating like a little caged bird. “Only if what we want is the same thing.”
“Quite,” he says, lifting her chin so that their eyes meet.
Molly’s tummy flips at how rough and low the sound of his voice has become.
“Quite,” he says again, this time tilting his head and pressing his warm mouth to hers tenderly.
Only a thin cotton sheet separates their bare skin. The hand in her hair pushes deeper, his fingertips rubbing circles into her scalp. Her hand splays wide across his chest, glides ever upwards to hold the back of his neck. Sherlock gasps softly into her mouth when she threads her fingers into his hair and pulls with almost no force at all: his breath full of spent air makes her lungs constrict from lack of oxygen as though he has tied her down. Even though his kiss has been restrained, slow, he has confined her by it, possessed her with it.
“I should have told you sooner—”
“No,” she holds a finger to his lips. Regret will not be allowed in this moment of pure joy. “No. Don’t. Let’s not—”
Sherlock leans down, kisses both her eyelids and her lips. He nods, “Alright. Good.”
And Molly rests her hand on his cheek. He closes his eyes, leaning into it.
With their second kiss, some of the hesitancy is gone. His arm around her waist pulls her closer and it’s deeper than before. More intent.
For his part, Sherlock seems equal parts nervous and sure. He can’t say the words (he doesn’t have them, the lexicon of love has always been elusive for him) but she knows in her heart of hearts exactly what it is he’s trying to tell her.
As the world tilts on its axis, Molly finds the courage to let herself fall for him all over again.
When the kiss ends, Sherlock’s head tucks under her chin, resting over her soaring heart. He kisses her sternum, softly, where the top of her breast is bound by the bedsheet, folding himself around her, fingertips trailing the cotton edges and the small swell beneath. In his touch there’s the promise of so much more.
For now though, the restless, undefined energy that has buzzed through him this last week seems to finally have dissipated. Sherlock sighs, breath deep and even on her exposed skin as she cards her fingers through his hair: Molly smiles to herself as she does, his usually artfully displayed curls undone because of her.
Through her open curtains she lies awake staring at the moon, a thousand questions racing through her mind. A thousand possibilities.
Someday she’ll ask. But this is more than enough for her right here and now.
I don’t know how much time I have left, only that it’s short.
There’s nothing I can leave for you that you’ll want, so instead I bequeath to you what you need.
My solicitor has a key for you. There’s a safety deposit box at Lloyds’ with enough for you to start again somewhere new. Make memories there, Sherlock, happier ones.
You’ll be angry with me at first, I know, but in time you’ll see that I was right. There are too many ghosts at Baker St and it’s time you got on with the business of living. Time to stop dwelling on the past. Forgive yourself and let go.
I want you to have my good China, think of me when you make tea with it. Don’t be alone when you do.
Hug Rosie often, children need that sort of thing. You do too. Be patient with John, neither his brain nor heart are as big as yours but he’s trying so very hard. Give my love to Molly.
Be brave. Give yours to her too.
Goodbye, my boy.