"Oh, Mel. It didn't happen?"
Disheveled and flushed as always, Molly had just clattered into the Caffe Grana, where Melissa Brennan was already waiting for her at one of the tables. She dropped her handbag on the floor and sat down in the chair opposite her. "It" was the diamond ring that was most definitely not on the third finger of Melissa's left hand.
"No," Melissa grouched, but she didn't sound truly angry about it. "Bastard. At least I got him to talk about it this time; that's a first."
Molly stared at her friend. While she had sometimes been frustrated with John - even angry with him - she had never referred to him as a 'bastard', not even in the privacy of her own head. That Melissa could casually drop a term like that about the man she wanted to marry scandalised her. "Did he say anything… er… worrying?"
"Not really. Exactly as I expected." Melissa lifted her voice to a higher, mocking register. "'Oh, I'm just not ready', 'I've got to consider Julie's feelings, she's the mother of my kids', 'We're already living together, it's just a piece of paper', 'I'll buy you a ring if that's what you actually want', 'I'm a sodding commitment-phobe' - okay, he didn't really say that last bit. It's just depressing, really, how desperate I am. I don't like it- oh, look, um, just the pumpkin soup, thanks, and a skim cappuccino…" This to the waitress who had just wandered over. She wrote down Melissa's order and looked across at Molly, who blurted out the same without glancing at the menu.
"I mean," Melissa continued as the waitress went off with the orders, "I'm sure I don't know why he needs to keep deferring to what Julie wants. She's got her own boyfriend, so I can't see why she'd care about me. And it's not like the kids are little... and I'm being obnoxious and self-centred, aren't I. How are you, anyway? You look slightly lumpy and completely exhausted."
"I'm a bit tired," Molly admitted, tweaking a lock of hair off her forehead. "I'm okay. Nothing terrible."
"You're not telling people what colour clothes to buy for the baby, then? Sneaky."
Molly smiled. "We don't know," she said. "I suppose surprises are nice."
"Only if you get the surprise you want…"
"Oh, we don't care," Molly insisted as the waitress brought back their coffee and placed it on the table. Then she stopped and backed up. "Wait. I mean, we don't mind. Just as long as everything's all right."
Melissa tilted her head slightly and looked across at her. "And is everything all right?" she suddenly asked, sipping her coffee.
"With the baby? Oh yes, everything's fine."
"I wasn't entirely talking about the baby, actually."
Embarrassed silence. Molly, staring vaguely off through the front window to the café, stirred her coffee absently for a few seconds. "Mel," she suddenly said in a rare boost of confidence, "I was wondering. Do you and Greg, um…"
Melissa waited patiently.
"Well, um. How often does… I mean, do you… does Greg… um…"
"Molly." Melissa was making an effort not to smile. "Are you trying to tell me that you're being held out on?"
"It's not that." Molly put her hands on her burning cheeks. Melissa smiled a little. She wasn't entirely certain, but she'd always felt that Molly was a closet nymphomaniac, or close to it. Emphasis on the closet part. Poor thing was so repressed that she looked embarrassed when people mentioned her pregnancy.
"It's not that?" she repeated, quietly but with a distinct note of disbelief in her voice. "Wow, you're a much more patient woman than I am, believe me. If I was being held out on, Greg would be looking down the business end of a hissy fit."
"Yes, I…" Molly paused and took a deep breath. She was playing with her coffee again, spooning froth off the cappuccino. "It's not just that. I mean, yes, we haven't… in a while and... I do miss that."
"Is John being good to you?"
Molly looked even more flushed than ever, but this time it was a spark of outrage.
"Now, don't get all offended," Melissa said calmly. "We're sitting over lunch, and you're trying to tell me that your marriage has just hit a bad patch. I'd be awful not to at least ask it."
"John is always good to me," Molly protested. "No, he would never- not be good to me. But I'm worried about him. He really hasn't been himself for a long time, and he doesn't sleep properly. I think he's depressed."
Melissa raised her eyebrow and took another sip of her coffee. "When you say that, do you mean clinically depressed, or just a bit sad because things haven't been all that great for him recently?"
"I don't know. Maybe both."
"Sorry to bother you, Mrs Hudson. Sherlock's not answering the doorbell. If he's pretending not to be home, he's doing a bad job of it. I can see him sitting in the armchair all the way from the street."
Mrs Hudson had just opened the front door to Baker Street that evening and unexpectedly found that handsome Inspector Lestrade fellow she liked standing on the doorstep. It was past eight, and she was in her dressing gown and slippers. Lestrade, seeing her cringe, couldn't work out if he was amused or felt sorry for her.
"He, er... yes, come in, Inspector," she blurted out, stepping aside to let him through. As yet, Lestrade was about the only person on earth she had never called dear. Seemed disrespectful, addressing a policeman like that. "Is everything all right?"
Since Sherlock's return, Mrs Hudson never let the police into the flat without asking questions first.
"Oh, everything's fine. It's about..." Lestrade paused. If he said 'a case', Mrs Hudson might mention it to Harry. Who would definitely mention it to John. And John was not going to like that at all. "Secret men's business," he said instead, a catch-all to keep a prim elderly lady from asking too many questions. Smudge, so-called officially now, was lying stretched-out on the third step down from the flat. He turned his attention to her.
"Hey, puss," he said lightly. "You've been missed. Sort of. We don't want you back or anything. Keeping out of trouble, then?"
"Dreadful mischief, she is. She got into Sherlock's papers the other day, ripped them all up to shreds. Like confetti, it was - all over the living room upstairs. He's afraid to keep the flat door open now." Mrs Hudson was smiling. Lestrade suspected that Smudge had vindicated her on a lot of things Sherlock had done to her property throughout the years.
"I'll bet. I won't be long, Mrs Hudson. By the way, those are lovely earrings you're wearing..."
Mrs Hudson blushed and tugged at one earlobe. "Oh, these? They're old. A twenty-first birthday present from my parents."
"That would make them, what, five years old?"
She giggled. "Oh, get along with you!"
Lestrade was probably never going to stop flirting with Mrs Hudson. He left it alone this time and went up to the flat. Sherlock ignored his knock. He opened the door and found Sherlock nowhere near the armchair or the window. He was sitting at the kitchen table, examining what looked like sand under a microscope. He did not acknowledge Lestrade's entrance in any way, shape or form.
"See, that's what I love most about you," Lestrade opened with. He looked across at Sherlock's armchair, finding a frighteningly lifelike dummy version of the man propped up in it. "It's how friendly and hospitable you always are. It just makes me feel so loved."
"You were unhappy when I disturbed you at work yesterday," Sherlock said evenly, without taking his eyes off his slide. "And yet you're annoyed that I'm not delighted that you've disturbed me at my place of work. Odd, that."
Since his return, Sherlock had at least become better at working out if his friends were annoyed or not. Next up: teaching him why they were annoyed.
"Yeah, well, I still managed to make eye contact. What the hell is this, Sherlock?"
"Uncanny Valley over here." Lestrade pointed to the dummy. "Sniper-bait? Do I need to stay away from any open spaces?"
"Did it fool you?" Sherlock wanted to know. "I'm not asking for amusement. When you saw it from the street, did you suppose it really was me?"
Lestrade coughed. "Yeah."
"Excellent." Sherlock smiled a little. "Just a little experiment, Inspector. I knew you were coming tonight with news about the Edalji case. I've been exploring various different methods of keeping my personal safety both personal and safe. I'd say most plausible threats to me are of average to sub-average intelligence, and would be fooled by a simple prop, as you were."
"Thanks a lot. Here's your access letter." Lestrade waved the envelope in his hand vaguely and placed it on the table. "They said the stuff isn't to leave their office, but you can have a look at it under supervision. And Mel spoke with staff at Stafford Prison. Edalji is a Cat-C, so we shouldn't have any problems talking to him, provided that he's-"
"Wait, what?" Sherlock broke in sharply. "What did you say?"
"I said, 'He's a Category-C-'"
"No, after that."
"Okay, stop. We?"
"Well you've got to take somebody along, Sherlock," Lestrade responded. "And if you're not going to take your longsuffering handler, the next best thing would probably be to take someone who knows the police and prison system, and has some modicum of tact."
"I do not need a minder!"
"No, you need a gag, actually. Since those are kind of hard to say anything through, the next best thing you need is somebody to kick you hard when you start your usual routine. I'm not going to be a laughing stock if I refer you to Stafford and you get every copper in the constabulary offside." He paused and put his hands in his pockets. "Look," he said, more quietly. "I don't want to keep having to bring it back up, but the last time you tried to interview somebody…"
"You and John were both with me that time." Sherlock had reached out for the envelope and was looking the paperwork over. "Bad example."
"Yeah, but that's what I'm saying, we were with you. For… witnesses. Claudette Bruhl was just one frightened kid, and look at all the trouble that happened. You need someone with you when you talk to Edalji. For all we know, he's a psychopath."
"Well, if he's gone around eviscerating farm animals… I mean, murder makes more sense to me than that. Most people have got reasons for doing that kind of sick thing - money, or jealousy, or something. Why would make a person want to rip the guts out of sheep? It's not normal."
"Murdering one's parents for an inheritance is normal?" Sherlock was referring to the recent case of Tyree Jessop. Parricide so open-and-shut he'd barely glanced at the police report.
"Well, no, it's not normal, but at least it makes some kind of sense." Lestrade paused thoughtfully. "Do you think he did it? Edalji, I mean."
"I haven't the faintest idea yet. That's why I'm going up there."
"Why we're going up there. Not sure that you should be let loose unsupervised among a parson's family either, if I'm honest. God knows what you'd say, or get up to." Lestrade sat down in the high-backed armchair that had once been John's, and Sherlock looked up at him for the first time.
"Inspector," he said icily, "sit elsewhere."
Lestrade got up. There was no way he was going to tamper with Sherlock's creepy effigy, so he remained standing. "You know, Sherlock," he ventured, "we could take John tomorrow. Pretty sure he's not doing much important just now -"
"Absolutely not," was Sherlock's inexorable response.
"We had fun in Grimpen that time, didn't we?"
"We watched a man step on a live landmine."
"Oh, and you loved it." Lestrade stifled a grin. The Baskerville adventure had been one of the more enjoyable work projects he'd taken on in the last five years. He'd not had any chance to shoot a gun since then; and even though he'd missed at Dewer's Hollow, he still remembered that moment as one where he'd been controlled and stoic- what Matthew would have referred to as a badass. Seldom did he force himself to remember that the second and third shots he'd fired that night had been because his fingers had clamped in cold-sweated terror, and he'd squeezed them off accidentally.
"There's really no response to that remark that you'll accept, is there," Sherlock remarked dourly.
"Not really, no. How does this connect to you not letting John back into your little club again?"
"John's extremely limited in what he can physically do. It makes no sense to take him. He's not useful to me just now."
"Are you useful to him?"
A short pause. Then Sherlock merely huffed and picked up a nearby book, opening it at what was clearly a totally random page. It was Lestrade's cue that he'd had enough of playing nicely with visitors and needed to be left alone again.
"All right," he said, getting up. "I'm off, then. Nine tomorrow morning? I'll pick you up."
Sherlock grunted again without glancing across at Lestrade, who took himself away.
The digital readout on the clock sitting on the bedside table proclaimed it: 1:49am.
Ordinarily, Molly would not have been able to see that readout as she hazed out of sleep. It was on John's side of the bed, and was usually obscured by John himself. John wasn't there now, though the furrow Molly had sleepily rolled into was still warm.
She struggled to focus. A pitiful, hoarse squeak from somewhere in the dark room; Casper had also woken, and decided that he wanted to be let out. He was scratching at the door. Molly rose, crossed the dark room, and opened it for him, watching his ghost-like form slip silently out the door and along the corridor.
She found John down in the kitchen. He hadn't put the light on and was looking out the window, illuminated only by the street light near the corner and the light shining from a window across the street.
He startled a little; then, seeing it was only Molly, he sighed. "Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"You didn't. Everything okay?"
"Yeah, it's fine," he said. "I'm just a bit... awake, that's all. The couple across the street were just having one hell of a row. Apparently, they were at a party somewhere in Maida Hill and he wouldn't stop flirting with 'some Swedish bitch'. And then it was on. I haven't heard language like that since the army."
"Are they all right?" She went to his side to have a look, but all she could see of the house across the street was the amber light of a shaded lamp and the gauzy dimness of muslin curtains.
"He peeled off in the car a couple of minutes ago. They'll survive, I'm sure."
Her hand fumbled at his side, searching briefly for his. She found it, and gave it a quick squeeze; he leaned in to peck her cheek, but there was something... automatic about it.
There were some things it was easier to say in darkness. A place where you could be close to somebody - perhaps the closest two people could be - and not have to answer to their gaze. "John," she murmured to him. "Are we okay?"
"'Course we are," he said immediately, but too quickly. "Why?"
"You haven't been yourself lately. You've been so sad and quiet, and you... you seem to think a lot... about something that makes you sad. And I just thought maybe… that it was something that we could talk about?"
"Oh, Lolly," he muttered, for the first time in four months. "No, I'm okay. I'm just... frustrated with not being able to do things, that's all. I shouldn't take it out on you. Sorry."
"Are you worried about the appointment on Wednesday?" This was with Hanrahan, who would give a new list of Things John Could and Couldn't Do. This could, depending on his opinion, mean much greater freedom for John... or more restrictions than ever.
"I don't know. Maybe." This was John's way of saying that he was. Even so, Molly had an idea that this wasn't what was keeping him up at two in the morning, and neither was the row between the neighbours across the street.
"Are you angry at me?" she asked him timidly.
He blinked and turned to her, frowning. "Am I angry at you? For what?"
"For lying to you about Sherlock being alive all that time."
He sighed, taking both of Molly's hands in his and giving them a brief squeeze. "Honestly?" he ventured. "Yeah. Sometimes I'm angry about it. Sometimes I'm furious. That's my problem, not yours."
"No." She shook her head. "It's our problem. We... we go through these things together, don't we? When you're happy, it makes me happy. And when you're sad, it makes me sad."
His face suddenly hardened again; she could see it clearly, even in the half-light. He slipped his hands out of hers. "So... you want me to cheer up because it's making you feel bad?" Toby was now brushing against his legs; John picked him up, as if defying Molly to tell him not to. "I'm sorry, Molly. I can't help thinking that's selfish."
"Going back to bed now. Goodnight."