Molly never used to be nervous around John Watson. In fact, she barely even noticed he was there. It wasn't that he was boring or anything, just that he always followed Sherlock, and she always watched Sherlock. John was like office furniture in the corner of your eye. Not obtrusive, just there, in its rightful place.
After, though. After Sherlock asked her for a favor, the favor that's been tearing her apart inside ever since she agreed to it- because how could she not, when he'd asked her- she is nervous whenever John comes by. She can't look him in the eye, which means everyone thinks she's got a crush on him, of course, and she tries not to stutter but somehow she always loses her train of thought.
It's not a crush, though. It's guilt. He looks so haggard, so tired, and she wonders why he does this to himself, keeps consulting with the Yard like Sherlock did even though he seems to have hurt his leg at some point since she last saw him, because he limps nearly all the time. He's pushing himself, and whenever she sees it she's reminded of her own part in the deception that's causing him so much heartache.
One day, a month after Sherlock's death- she has to practice saying that, voice trembling in the silence of her own apartment, even though she knows it's not real it feels like tempting fate- she can't take it anymore. He's looking over one of DI Lestrade's bodies and he's so pale, and the shadows under his eyes are so dark, that she cracks.
"Do you want to go out for a drink?" she blurts, interrupting something he's muttering to himself about the case.
John looks up at her, first with an annoyed look at getting pulled out of his train of thought, then surprised and confused when he processes the question. "Uh…"
"Not, like, I mean I don't want to date you," she laughs nervously, then gasps, "I mean, not that I don't like you, but, I mean, as friends."
He looks down at the body again for a moment and she squeezes her eyes shut in place of slapping her own forehead, and she's got them open again by the time he looks up.
"Um, sure. As soon as I'm done here, we can… go find a pub." He nods decisively, still with a bemused expression.
She flashes an awkward smile, which he doesn't see, and goes to turn off the equipment in her lab.
Once they find a pub, it's not so bad. There are so many people that she can't be watching them all at once, can't possibly track every eye on her and examine every person to ascertain what they're thinking about her. It's scary and relaxing, all at once, to know that in a place like this, anyone could see her looking silly or overhear her saying something idiotic, but that they wouldn't care one whit.
She brings over their pints, wondering if he'll notice that she sprang for the better quality, and looks away shyly when he does and thanks her. She sips at her drink, trying to think of something to say. She always has so many thoughts racing through her head, most of them about whether the people around her are looking at her, or not looking at her, and what they're thinking about her either way, whether they like her. She knows she's messed up before with John, forgetting his name that once and generally ignoring him in favor of Sherlock, but now she feels beholden to him. It's her fault he's like this, so she ought to make it better, right?
She could ask about that. How he feels that Sherlock has left- is dead, he's dead- but she can't mention that, it's obvious how terrible he's doing, even though she'd love someone to discuss it with. She could ask if he's seeing someone- that's what her colleagues always ask each other those few times they've invited her along for drinks. They've stopped asking her. But no, he's distraught about Sherlock, he wouldn't be seeing anyone, right? What about Mrs. Hudson, who she met the once? No, better save that for later, they need an icebreaker. She needs something perfect, something that'll start them off so they'll end up laughing, just like the movies. Think, think!
"How's work?" she says.
He nods. "Not bad."
She's sitting up straight in the booth, but makes an effort to seem relaxed. "I was surprised you started consulting," she tells him, trying to sound interested. But not too interested, don't want to seem strange. "It's not much like being a doctor, is it?"
"I picked up a lot, with Sherlock."
He shrugs, but she can see how much effort it takes him to say the name. Years of watching the people around her, of feeling so self-conscious that she has to know what everyone around her is thinking, have given her good instincts for that sort of thing.
"Like what?" she pushes, trying to get John talking.
"You want to talk about the case, when you're off work?" He gives her a slightly disapproving look.
She shrugs. "Some people think my job is weird, but I like it, or I wouldn't do it. I'm curious," she insists. "Tell me what you noticed. Only," she tries to smile, hoping he won't take this badly, "try not to insult me too much while you do it?"
That gets him to crack a smile, even if it's faint. Molly feels a tiny burst of exhilaration inside at the small success. "I promise I won't. Well," he thinks, "there's the ligature marks on the wrists. The police found him tied with rope, but the marks are too small for that. His shoes and jacket were old, yet he was wearing an expensive watch. Probably a gift of some sort, and a recent one at that. The faded tan line around the finger suggests he's going through a divorce, so the watch is probably a gift from a new girlfriend. Considering it was smashed to pieces near the body, I'm guessing the ex-wife killed him, then dumped the body somewhere that would incriminate the new girlfriend, she probably lives in the area the body was found."
Molly's mouth has fallen open. "You- how did you figure all that out?"
John looks surprised. "I… I just did. I mean, you must have seen some of it, right?"
"The ligature marks, yes, but the rest?" She blinks. "I think you picked up more than you thought."
He's frowning into his drink, considering this, when she realized something else. "You didn't say his name," she murmurs.
"His name. You didn't say his name."
"I-" He looks shocked. "I don't… What is it?" he asks, almost frantically.
"Samuel Hendriks," she says quickly.
He repeats the name under his breath. "I don't- I don't want to be like him," he says slowly, to himself. "A lot of ways, I do, like. I want to be smart, and- I want to not care about what other people say. But I never want to not care, period."
"I know," she whispers, hand clenched around her pint. He looks at her, and she looks at him, and for the first time tonight- maybe ever, she sees the real John Watson.
"You do, don't you?" He nods. "I forgot. You've known him even longer than I have."
"No," she says firmly. "I didn't know him." She tips back her pint and drains it to the bottom. "You want another?" she asks, wondering if this is Dutch courage she feels or just escape. "I feel like drinking tonight."
He accepts the offer, watching her like there's something to look at, and she can feel his eyes on her all the way to the bar.
The morgue gets busy, then, and if John shows up to consult she doesn't notice. There's some sort of gang war going on that's turning out bodies by the truckload, and no one needs a detective to help figure it out. Molly picks up the symbolism of the tattoos pretty quickly and can soon narrate the tide of battle just as well as the gray-faced officers who come to collect her results.
It's two weeks after the night with John when Molly clocks out early and beelines for the pub. She's got no make-up on, she's barely watching where she's going, and she's got vaguely-formed plans of passing out after her first pint. On some light-headed turn of fancy, she slides into the booth she and John had shared that once, thinking maybe it could provide some familiarity, comfort, even, and shrieks when she sits on someone by mistake.
It's him, it's John, and she's just too tired and wrecked to even apologize, so she slumps down beside him and stares at the table, thinking she'd just love to lay her head on her arms but she hasn't done that since she's a child and what would people think of that and why is it that a boy died tonight and she's still thinking about this!
"Er, are you alright?" John asks.
She looks at him and sees exactly what she expected. He looks concerned, but there's a squint in his eyes that means he's considering that it's just her, just her oddness. She recognizes it because she's seen that look ever since she was a child and she doesn't need it- of all nights!- tonight. She winces and shoves off from the table, but her wrist is caught before she can go three steps.
"Molly, what's wrong?" he says more seriously, and now he's frowning and inspecting her face, just the way Sherlock does- did, and can her brain for once just shut up about this!
"Shut up about what?"
She gives a little laugh, and John brushes her cheek with a thumb, smearing the tears that have begun to fall without her noticing. He nods to himself and suddenly he's standing taller, guiding her to the exit. "Come on."
She doesn't protest, half too tired to argue and half ecstatic, blessed, that someone has reached out, cares enough to drive her home after a bad day. It's never happened before, and there've been times when a friend's help, or even a hug, would have been lovely, but she's gotten used to being on her own.
John's hand hasn't left hers since they got in the car.
"Where are we going?"she asks. He's never been to her flat; he's had no reason to.
"Baker Street," he answers, squeezing her hand. She thinks about protesting, but then wonders why she would.
When they get there, it's quiet. It's a bit past twilight and the streetlamps are lit. Molly stands on the doorstep while John unlocks the front door and stares at them. She's thinking about how she used to sketch things in uni and trying to remember when she stopped.
John and Sher- John's flat is a mess. Not that there's anything strewn about or anything, but there's a pile of newspapers in a corner, a few unwashed dishes on the table. John takes her coat and nudges her toward the couch, and she remembers the last time she'd been here and how she'd been way too dressed up and then blushed red as her lipstick, or that's what it had felt like, at least.
John sits beside her, not too close, facing her enough that she knows he's paying attention but not so much that she feels pinned down. He says, "Now, tell me what's the matter?" in such a kind voice, like he actually cares, that she can't even analyze it and just starts sobbing.
For a few moments, she feels absolutely pitiable, crying on this almost-stranger's couch, but then he reaches around her gently and then she's crying into John's jumper, and that's completely different and not pitiful, it's almost safe.
"A few days ago, I saw this girl," she says later, once she's wrung out enough to not even feel self-conscious anymore, "shot through the chest. It was just a ricochet, they weren't even aiming at her. It was an accident. She was only seven."
John nods, and she can feel the roughness of his cheek scraping her ear. She wonders what he's thinking about how she's slumped on his chest- does he think her weak?
"And today-" she continues, grief overriding even her shame, "her brother, seventeen years old, he'd just gotten her name tattooed on his bicep, you know, with hearts and her birth date and death date. He went looking for the ones that killed her. GSW to the forehead, ten feet, they killed him point-blank and it's all so stupid!"
She starts crying again, and John just holds her and rubs her back, and she babbles about how she can usually handle this and wall it off, ignore that they're people who had lives because she loves the science, but not today.
"I understand," he says at last, once she's been quiet for a while. "I felt the same way. I lost so many people, men who could've been me, and I thought I had a handle on it. But the first time someone in my unit died… I didn't even like him, and I couldn't understand how it tore me up so bad."
She feels awkward, unsure how to take something this private from John, who she barely even knows, who never seems to reference the war when she could hear it, though she's heard he used to be a soldier. But he turns his head and looks at her and his gaze his so strong that she immediately hides her uncertainty.
"It's better this way, that these things hurt us. I know it is, no matter what Sherlock said." Here his mouth twists, and Molly feels a terrible pang in her stomach, that somehow for this last hour she's forgotten how she's deceiving John, how much she's hurt him, how much of a betrayal it is for her to be crying on his couch. "He thought that being purely rational was better. But I think, when you hurt, when you care, it makes you try harder, to be better. It makes you love the people around you, because you know they could be gone soon."
His eyes are bright like she's never seen them before, passionate, and she wonders for a moment that a man who can be like this can also fade into the background so easily.
"Those kids deserve someone to care for them. Don't ever think you're weak for that."
They sit there for a while longer, and John offers her tea. She declines, and says 'thank you' with too much meaning, and he hugs her tightly and then she goes home, unable to rid her mind of his kind eyes.
That night really helps her. It's a combination of getting all the crying out and John's words and just having someone to be with, who cared enough to be there with her, that makes her feel less alone. Eventually, the morgue returns to normal and John's there more, and they smile at each other when they cross paths and small talk when they're on the same case. Molly knows that the familiarity should feel awkward or fade away, because she just isn't good with people, period, but somehow it's not. John always talks to her like he's really interested in what she's thinking, what she feels about things. It's unfamiliar, but she likes it, she really does.
It's a month later when her sister's birthday makes her casually wonder- not that she thinks about John a lot, just a little- when his birthday is. It only takes a quick Google search to discover that it passed a week ago.
Feeling rather disappointed, Molly can't help thinking about it, and she decides- it's not like anyone considers her normal anyway, might as well put the cherry on top of her 'crazy' reputation- that she'll get him something anyway.
She chooses a nice pale green jumper, warm and soft, and wraps it in blue paper. She's always very aware nowadays of the presents she chooses and how she wraps them, not wanting to put across any subconscious messages through the wrapping. In fact, she rewraps the jumper twice before she's convinced she's not sending the wrong message through how she taped the creases.
When she gives it to him, it's two weeks after his birthday and there's a man who was killed by his German Shepherd in between them.
"Uh, thank you?"
"It's for your birthday," she explains, smiling in a mostly not self-conscious manner. "You know, you should've had a party or something."
John shrugs. "Who would I invite?" He's got a far-away look in his eyes that she knows means he's thinking about Sherlock. Hard not to recognize something you see in the mirror.
"Me," she blurts out loudly. John startles and she blushes. "How about tonight. We'll go- I don't know, but we'll go somewhere. I'll pay?"
The awkwardness she's been feeling less and less around John comes back in crushing force, until he smiles and says, "Yeah, that sounds nice."
They catch a cab after work and Molly directs the driver to a small restaurant near her house. "It's not fancy or anything, but they've got great food," she explains nervously on the way. "And they do take-away; I don't know many places that don't do take-away, I practically live on it. But the atmosphere's really nice, I promise."
John's smiling at her like he wants to laugh, but not in an unkind way, that she'd know. But he looks like he thinks she's funny. "I'm sure I'll love it," he says.
He does comment on the charm of the place when they walk in, and when he takes off his jacket she blushes. "I guess you like it, then?"
"What? Oh, yeah, it's very comfortable." He shrugs, stretching the green jumper over his chest.
"I think it might be too small," she worries, biting her lip. "I wanted it not to sag, 'cause that'll give you a draft-"
"Right up your back, I know," John chuckles. There's that look again, like he thinks she's funny, and Molly shifts in her chair. "You really needn't worry so much."
"I just want to get things right," she says quietly.
John reaches across the table to where she's been fiddling with her napkin. He puts his hand over hers to make her stop. "You have. This," he gestures at the restaurant around them, bustling but not busy, just what Molly loves after a long day in the morgue, "it's perfect."
"It's just dinner," she denies, but she feels like she's glowing a little.
"It's a friend, taking me out for my birthday. My sister will probably remember next month and send a card, then claim it got lost in the mail. Lestrade left a voicemail apologizing that he couldn't meet, he's been swamped. Mrs. Hudson cooked a fruitcake, and the less said about that the better."
He grimaces, and Molly laughs- too loud, too high-pitched, weird-sounding, and she immediately ducks her head. John raps on the table in front of her and she looks up. "Last year for my birthday Sherlock set off an explosion of bright red fireworks, with an accompanying stench. His explanation was that it's my favorite color."
"That… sounds nice," she guesses, feeling miles out of her comfort zone once again.
"My favorite color's blue." He chuckles, but there's a look of boundless grief in his eyes, and Molly looks away. She wonders where their waiter is with menus or too-cold water to break this up.
"The point is… you cared enough to do this, and you didn't have to. There's very little you could do to get it wrong." John sits back in his chair, looking very tired all of a sudden.
"I'm sorry," she whispers. "About Sherlock. I haven't said."
"Everyone's sorry," he replies flatly, a wrinkle of consternation developing between his eyebrows.
Molly forces herself to look at him and she sees through the usual cover, his 'everything's a mess but I'm handling it' cover, the one she's recognized for the past two months because she's wearing it too, just much better than he is, and she finally looksat him.
He's tired, but it's so much more than that. He looks older, like the energy Sherlock exuded all hours of the day was some sort of fountain of youth, and now that it's gone he's wasting away faster than time. He looks diminished, soaked and put through the ringer and like he's handing on by his nails to the edge and she put him there, she helped.
"No, I'm really sorry," she tells him, clutching the table with both hands, feeling tears burn from nowhere. "You have no idea how sorry I am."
John clenches his jaw. "That was about the only thing you could have said to get it wrong." He stands up forcefully, drawing the eyes of the diners around them and nearly slamming into the waiter, who was finally approaching with their menus.
"John!" she calls after him, but by the time she's grabbed her jacket, he's already out the front door. She runs after him, finds him trying to hail a cab. When he sees her he curses and starts walking away, hampered by his limp and cane.
"John, I'm sorry," she begins, but he spins around.
"I'm fed up with people saying they're sorry!" he bursts. "Everyone says that! Mycroft, Mrs. Hudson, Sally, fucking Sally. Reporters, before they ask how much of it was true, how do I feel knowing he was a fraud. What did he say, before he did it!"
She's crying. She's always had a low tolerance for sad stuff and the compassion and the guilt here are just too much.
"Is that why you invited me out?" John demands. "To show me how sorryyou are? Because it doesn't mean a thing!"
"That's not it!" Molly insists. "I just- I wanted to be a good friend."
"I don't need a friend! I need him back!" he shouts at the top of his lungs, then stumbles. She rushes forward, catches him and helps him to an iron gate, holding him until he leans down, hands on his knees, face crumbling. "I see him everywhere."
"I know." She nods, closing her eyes. "I do too."
When she opens them, John's staring at her in confusion. "You do? Why?"
Because I can't stop thinking that any day, he's coming back. That anyone could be him, on the street. She can't tell him that. But that's not the whole story. "I was the- the coroner on call, I had to-"
The make-up, the fake blood that she helped wash off, the body he'd disfigured in advance, the moment when she'd looked between them and her heart pounded at how similar they looked, how easily it could have been another way.
"Long coats." John's staring off into his own nightmares. "Dark-haired men, especially when I see them from behind. Scarves, which- everyone has scarves, nowadays…"
"Pale skin. You know how hard it is to find a corpse that doesn't have pale skin?"
Their voices sound rough, like they've been shouting- they were, weren't they? Molly doesn't know how they got here. Her life is never this exciting, this… heart-wrenching. It doesn't feel real.
"No, it doesn't." John gives her a grim smile and slowly stands, clutching his leg and hissing. "Look… I'm sorry for running out like that. You didn't deserve it."
"No, I'm sorry." Molly shakes her head. "I've never known what to say to people. I always say the wrong thing."
"You didn't. I just… it means more, coming from someone who understands," John tries to explain, shrugs. "I didn't know you did."
Molly nods, seeing Sherlock washing away the make-up and the fake blood.
"You want to- I don't know, drink beer and watch crap telly?" John suggests. "I guess I ruined your dinner plans."
She tries to smile. "They do take-away."
They start doing pizza and crap telly a few nights a week, and eventually they graduate to movies. They don't share many genres- she's into romcoms and he's more of a James Bond type- but they find that black and whites tend to have romance and drama, and they make do. Molly gets better at ignoring the pangs of guilt, even when John confides in a low voice that he's glad she's there because the house feels less empty, and she starts to discover what it's like to have a friend.
Molly feels comfortable with John in a way she hasn't with anyone since her best friend moved away when she was seven. She sort of feels like she could tell him anything, no matter how strange, and he'd just squint and then think about it, never tell her she was crazy or stop inviting her over. Sometimes she does, say something wrong, for all that John claims she can't, but maybe it is true because he gives her and odd look and then moves on. And after a while there aren't as many of those odd looks, he just accepts whatever she said without being surprised. It feels like he knows her, and getting to know him is… just wonderful. He's absolutely lovely, more so than Molly ever would have expected.
But it's also… tense. No, not that. But there's something that's not so easy, sometimes, when she looks at him across her desk at work or across the table at their restaurant, or across at his armchair in Baker Street, and she wishes she could sit closer to him and sometimes, she fancies that maybe he's thinking the same thing.
But that's silly, really. She's just grateful to have someone to talk to about her cat and the stupid new CID investigator and she tells herself to stop being so silly until one night, when she's been feeling particularly… tense, or whatever, and suddenly it's not silly anymore.
It's only nine, and usually they might watch another movie before she heads out, but tonight she's been feeling strange when she looks at him, or when she's not, just too aware of him being there, so she makes her excuses to duck out early. Somehow, she gets the feeling John sees right through her.
He gets her coat from the rack and steps over to her, eyes strangely calm and then strangely close and then closed and then he kisses her very lightly and she blinks at him.
He stays very close, and her brain doesn't immediately ramp into overdrive because it's too overcome by his very long nose- how has she not seen that before?- and the fact that he's just- and what, anyway?
"What's that about?" she murmurs.
"I thought, instead of beer and pizza, next time, we could try that restaurant again. As a date, that is." Molly blinks again, and stutters something she's not even aware of, and his expression goes from slightly nervous but mostly confident to embarrassed. "But if you'd rather not, that's-"
"No, I just- I'm not your usual type, am I?" Her voice is too squeaky isn't it, oh my God what must he think of me right now?
"Sherlock talked about the women you dated. I mean- oh my God, I'm sorry- no I'm not, I mean-" she claps her hands over her mouth, feeling as though her cheeks are on fire. "I'm sorry," she mumbles.
"No, that's true," he says firmly, taking her elbows and guiding her hands down. "I do usually date… women I meet, and then we go out a few times and they find out what I do for work, or they meet Sherlock, and then she either breaks up with me, or I break up with her, and it's terribly awkward and I don't want that." He blinks like he's annoyed at himself, and Molly rambles all the time but she's never seen John do it, and it's cute. Very cute.
"I need to stop dating the same kind of woman and expecting something different to happen. I need someone who knows what I do, won't freak out if I leave a case file open, and most of all, is okay with the fact that I still talk about my dead flatmate in the present tense."
He's not her usual type, either, to be honest, Molly considers as she stares at the- very cute, kind, funny, decorated war hero who understands why she loves her work- man before her. Usually the men she dates are either geeks desperate to see a real bra or men who think she's pretty before they find out what she does.
"Okay," she says, feeling like this is all some sort of dream, or joke, and any minute now John's going to say 'gotcha!'
"Okay," he says, and smiles, and she leans forward, unsurely, but he lets her kiss him. And it's nice, really, but she's still in shock a bit, so she smiles nervously and leaves.
In the cab, she takes a deep, calming breath, and smiles, and then starts to cry.
The dinner-date is just like every other dinner they've had at the restaurant, warm and easy. John makes her laugh, and for some reason he smiles at her, droopy-eyed, like he's relaxed, not at all like he's on a first date, just like he's comfortable and happy. And she rambles a bit again, which she had cut down on when she was with him, but he doesn't seem to mind. And he kisses her at the door to her cab, and it's- it's very nice.
But like every time she when she drives away from him, she looks out the windows at the darkened city and wonders, wonders when he's coming back.
It's just like with any other man, any other boyfriend she's had. And there have been a few, although never enough, quite, to make her feel normal. But sleeping with John is just like it was with her other boyfriends: the rhythm's never quite right for her to really get going, and his kisses are just a bit too wet, but she likes it anyway. She likes the way he touches her, the way he says he name into the sweat-damp skin of her neck. She particularly likes the way he brings her off with his fingers when he finishes just a bit before she's ready.
A week later, she gives him oral sex for the first time, and he really loves that. Molly did go to medical school, after all, and all of her boyfriends have appreciated the fact that she's learned to apply her studies outside the morgue. She kisses him afterwards and he looks at her, wide-eyed and still heaving breaths, and it makes her laugh, really laugh. It's one of the few times she ever really just stops. After that she just curls up against him and falls asleep, all the thoughts silenced.
"Why are you with me?" she says quietly, one night. A million thoughts always running through her head, nothing ever seems to stop them, not even sleeping next to John.
John looks at her and smiles, like he can see her insecurities like Sherlock, but he's not a prat so he's gentle and kind instead of scathing. "You're… you're nice," he says thoughtfully. "You're smart, and-" he leans forward to kiss her gently, "you're very beautiful."
"Most people," she hesitates, because there's insecurity, which can be cute, and then there's pathetic, "most people think I'm odd."
"You are odd," he laughs, and she almost feels hurt, but he's confusing, because he brushes her cheek with his fingertips and says, "but so am I. We make a perfect couple, I think."
He wraps an arm around her, still smiling, and she smiles back. Inside, though, she's thinking, always thinking, and right now she's thinking that Sherlock was odd as well, and she's sure John would never describe Sherlock as nice.