It was after the death; after the funeral. After the inquest and even after the suspension, which seemed to have gone on forever. It was a Thursday; overcast and cold, though it was still September. And in the lobby of New Scotland Yard, a woman was waiting to see Detective Inspector Lestrade.
Detective Inspector Gregory Peter Lestrade was a lot of different names to a lot of different people. He was Boss. He was Sir. He was Guv. He was Mate. He was Dad. He was Son. To Julie, he'd once been Darling and was now Greg. Generally, he was used to answering to 'Lestrade'.
Mary Elizabeth Hooper was just plain Molly. She was waiting for him at the front desk, beyond which no unauthorised people ever went; up from Barts on her lunch break. She had a cheese and ham sandwich in a clear plastic box tucked up in one hand, and Lestrade, who was yet to go on his lunch break, thought it may just have been the most pathetic and depressing sandwich he'd ever seen in his life. Her hair had once held a braid. You could always tell the time by Molly Hooper's hair; she came in to work neat and in order, but inside of about three hours her hair always escaped its bounds and made her look like she'd been caught up in some sort of localised tornado.
"Molly. What can I do for you?"
Lestrade had always fought the urge to tack on the name "love" to everything he said to Molly. It was paternal and well meant, but it not particularly professional. The PC manning the reception desk was already glaring at him. She clearly thought he had better things to be doing than talking to a woman in a pink knitted jumper and plaid trousers.
Molly seemed even more nervous than usual and in no great hurry to begin; Lestrade ushered her into a nearby vacant office, shut the door and repeated the question. She wrung her hands as he twitched open the blinds and turned to face her.
"Molly... Listen, um, we're kind of slammed just now -" This was a lie, as the only slamming anyone was doing upstairs was Thompson slamming the photocopier. "Is this something that can wait?"
"I was just wondering," she managed to get out, looking more flustered than ever, "if you've heard from John lately?"
Lestrade groaned in spirit and gestured for Molly to sit down. "Quite recently," he said in different tones. "He's okay."
"Oh, good." She smiled weakly, then paused. "He... was a little upset the last time I saw him. I - I was wondering if you could tell me where he is, what he's up to these days?"
Lestrade sighed. "I really can't," he said, folding his arms. "If John doesn't want anyone and everyone to know where he is, it's not my place to go giving out his address. I can tell him where you are, if you want."
"Has he said he doesn't want to see me?"
"No," he said, without bothering to clarify that over the last few weeks he'd not known John to refer to Molly in any way, shape or form. "But he's still licking his wounds, Molly. Not sure he's really operating on that level right now. Now what I'll do is, I'll give him your contact details, and -"
"You've given him my contact details."
"Months ago. He hasn't contacted me. Not since the inquest."
"Well, I can't exactly make him. I'll let him know you asked about him..." Lestrade sighed. "Molly, he's okay. Really. And I'm sure he'll be back on the radar once he gets through this whole… thing."
Lestrade still struggled to refer to the death of Sherlock Holmes. Clearly, Molly did too.
"Oh, Christ, don't cry..." He pulled a tissue out of his jacket sleeve and handed it to her. "Come on, don't do that. What's this about?"
"Before he - the night before he - I promised Sherlock..." Molly swallowed hard, but hadn't needed the tissue. "I promised I'd keep an eye on John. He asked me to. I'm supposed to, aren't I? I mean, when you make a promise to someone you have to at least try, and now that..."
Silence. Exasperated silence.
"You do know he's going to kill me for this." Lestrade sighed, pulled out his phone and started searching through the menu with one thumb. "Right. You got something to write this down with, or do you want me to text it to you? If he asks, you didn't get this from me."
It was nearly eight o'clock that evening before she was able to make it to the address Lestrade had given her. There was no answer on the mobile phone; there hadn't been for months, and Lestrade didn't think there was a landline. Modest little flat; quiet backstreet, where foxes still foraged in bins under the weak haloes of halogen street lamps, and other things more sinister rustled among the weeds clumping against the boundary fences. The lights were on, but it was quiet behind the door and a minute or two before she heard the clink of a security chain and the door opened.
Molly didn't know what she expected on seeing John Watson for the first time since the inquest. What she didn't expect is that he would look so… normal. Utterly normal. Not a man in the depths of despair; a man who had got up that morning and had a shower and brushed his teeth and shaved and put clean clothes on. He may have lost a little weight, and was soon going to be in need of a haircut. Clean and neat. Looked very tired.
By this time she was staring at him.
"I'm sorry," he broke the silence again, his face twitching briefly into what was meant to be a polite smile and didn't quite make it. "Come in."
Although it was getting late he was still fully dressed, including his shoes and jacket. As he showed her in, she got an idea of why he was wearing his jacket indoors. It was easily as cold in as it was out. He went over to the radiator and started fussing with it, muttering something about it being defective and that he was going to speak to the landlord about it.
So far, she thought, he'd barely registered who it was, and hadn't really looked at her.
"Tea? I'll make tea."
He ushered her into a chair - the only chair in the whole flat, and one so rickety she was nervous about sitting on it. As he fussed around the kitchenette, she looked around. There wasn't much to see. A bedsit - hideous wallpaper, and carpet dating from the mid seventies. The curtains had jagged tears in places and were spotted with mold, though the rest of the place held spotless order. A bitter reek of old damp pervaded the carpet; four decades worth of leaks and drips could not be remedied by a simple cleaning job. Aside from the single chair and tiny table, there was little else in the room but a forlorn-looking, narrow bed in the opposite corner. It was so close that she could almost have reached out and touched it. She didn't think it had enough warm bedclothes on it - not for her tastes, anyway. But maybe the ex-soldier really didn't feel the cold like she did.
When John brought her cup over he sat on the bed, since there were no other chairs. He hadn't made any tea for himself. There was a good half a minute of awkward silence, broken only by the clink of the teaspoon against the cup as Molly stirred her tea.
"So," she said, trying to speak brightly. "Not seen you in a while."
"No... I guess not."
"I've missed you. I tried to call, but I think maybe you've changed your number since… I mean, I kept getting no answer, that's all."
"No, well. I… uh."
Molly had the right number, and had never really suspected she had the wrong one. She flushed in embarrassment; not only her embarrassment, but John's. He was looking at the carpet, the ceiling, a nearby lamp and just about everything available to him except her face.
"How've you been keeping, John?"
It was the wrong thing to say, or perhaps the wrong tone. If anything, the room suddenly became even colder. "Fine," was the terse but still polite response. "Just fine."
That had been on Thursday. On Friday, Molly dropped in to see John on her way back from a grocery trip with a few random items. The wrong thing, again, but she left satisfied that she'd sooner have John offended at her than going without basics like coffee. On Saturday morning John was not at home. Sunday she was at Baker Street to see Mrs Hudson; Sunday night she was back at John's with a casserole she'd been instructed to give him. He was offended. He accepted it. Monday was a busy day and she did not go out to the little flat. Tuesday evening she came back, making sure that Mrs Hudson's as-yet untouched casserole was actually served and eaten. Wednesday she brought more groceries. John made tea for both of them this time.
Thursday night she did not go to the flat. She had somewhere else to be.
If Molly looked strange and out of place at New Scotland Yard she looked absurd at the Diogenes Club, amid velvet carpet and mahogany fixtures. As if aware of this, she spent a minute under the pitiless glare of the electric chandeliers and then retreated to wait things out. She did not have to wait for long; it was only a few minutes before Mycroft was leaving. He barged through the foyer and down the steps in his usual business-like way and would have walked straight past Molly Hooper, but for one timid little plea in the darkness.
She was standing in the deep shadows next to the front steps, out of the way of the prying lights.
Mycroft Holmes: the only person on earth who called Molly "Miss Hooper" and, she felt, he always contrived to make the name sound like an insult. Molly had only met Mycroft a handful of times, but she found this unnerving; she found the man himself unnerving. He had always been polite to her, but he had a way of looking at her as if he could read her mind, and what he could read displeased him.
"Hello," she fumbled. She was pulling at her ponytail.
"How can I help you?" Evidently, "hello" was not on Mycroft's mental list of standard greetings.
"Can I talk to you, please?"
For a second Mycroft looked as if he was going to ask Molly to make an appointment with his secretary for some time the following week. "I'm very busy at the present, Miss Hooper, is this -"
Another sigh. Mycroft was making a noble effort not to roll his eyes. Of all the people he had never expected to be at the beck and call of, Molly Hooper was surely the most prominent. Yet the shy pathologist from Barts had been very useful to him, however much he might have grudged her for it. "Very well," he said. "Would here suit you? We can talk in private."
It was cold, and she gratefully got into the back of the car Mycroft had waiting. The chauffeur, without being asked, got out of the car and walked around to the rear as Mycroft got in and shut the door with a little more drama than was probably necessary. In the light of the street lamp across the way he could see that her eyes were so dilated they looked nearly black.
Molly was sitting in the back seat of a Mercedes Benz with the most dangerous man in Britain, and it terrified her.
"I assume this is -"
"Have you seen John Watson lately?"
"Ah." Mycroft paused for a few seconds, examining the handle of his umbrella. "No, I haven't. We did not part on good terms."
"I've been seeing him a bit this week," she blurted out. "I mean… not 'seeing him'… not like… listen. I think we need to help him. Did you know that he's..." She paused. "Do you know he's... got limited means?"
"I know he has a small army pension, and a sister who is financially comfortable." Now it was Mycroft's sleeve that had become fascinating.
"Did you know there's no heating at his flat? He tried to tell me that the heater was faulty. But I checked the other day, and the stove-top doesn't work either. He's had the gas disconnected. And then there's the rent. I'm sure he -"
Mycroft made an impatient movement. "This is all very disappointing to hear, but I fail to see..."
"We need to help him."
"Because he needs our help. And because we both know Sherlock isn't dead."
Mycroft's pupils narrowed. In the half-light, he looked like a hunting falcon. In a burst of confidence Molly followed up her unexpected advantage.
"When I said I'd help Sherlock, I didn't think... I didn't think it was going to be like this. How long am I going to have to do this for?"
"I think you know as well as I do that we're not operating on a schedule. For the present, my brother deems it necessary that he not be found by anyone, and I'm afraid that includes John."
Molly strongly suspected that it was Mycroft doing the deeming, not Sherlock. A schedule. Of course, it was Mycroft thinking about schedules and timetables; Molly had worked with Sherlock for four years before... all that... and if there was one thing she knew about him, it was his utter contempt for the constraints of time.
"I'm sure John wouldn't tell anybody he was alive..." she offered weakly.
"He wouldn't have to. The man is utterly transparent. James Moriarty was the man at the heart of a network, and that network remains. And while it remains, it would not be safe for John to know anything. Anything at all."
"I didn't know -"
"You said you would help Sherlock. If you knew beforehand how long you would need to keep this up for his sake, would you have let him die?"
There was a long pause. Molly met the challenge of Mycroft's gaze - it was he who broke it. She reached out for the car door, then stopped. "No, I'm going to tell him," she said.
Mycroft sucked in his breath; a dangerous, serpentine sound. "That," he said, "would be extremely ill-advised of you."
"Then do something to help! I told Sherlock I would help John -"
"Then you may have promised beyond what was in your means to carry out," Mycroft told her coldly. "A man like John Watson is difficult to 'help'. Nevertheless, my brother and I really are quite indebted to you. I'll make a few discreet enquiries into John's living situation and make arrangements as necessary. You have my word on that."
The only problem with this was that Molly wasn't sure what Mycroft's word was worth. She wasn't sure what her own word was worth.
"And," Mycroft continued heavily, "if you truly have Sherlock's interests at heart, you'll treat this issue with the utmost discretion. It's not only Sherlock who is at risk."
"What do you mean?"
"Be careful, Miss Hooper."