Minimum safe distance. Hard to achieve, harder to maintain, Molly thought.
Asda in the early morning hours was so depressing, it was almost funny. Normal people, people with friends and families and lives either bought milk on the way home the night before, or waited until day break. They weren't weaving around stock people, trying to decide on either Hob Nobs or Jammie Dodgers at four a.m. If she went with the Hob Nobs, she could lie and tell herself they were healthy. There was some oatmeal behind all the chocolate. Enough lies for one night. She grabbed both boxes and headed for the till.
She gasped at the cold when the automatic doors opened, hoping it could clear her mind. She had wished to shake things up a little for Christmas. Be careful what you wish for.
Sherlock lied. He barely looked at that woman's battered face and naked form and identified her. Everything she knew about her job told her he couldn't have recognized her. She had shown hundreds of bodies to hundreds of people for identification. Some were the deceased's family, some were co-workers, and some were friends. Even if Sherlock had no association, but had somehow been in the same room with the woman for an hour (nakedness not really the issue), he hadn't looked long enough. It was as if he walked into the morgue with a name and found a body close enough to match. No explanation needed; she followed his apparent intent, but she couldn't just put the issue out of her mind. She had managed to keep contact with the elder Holmes to a minimum, but his presence there had been like a pit viper in her morgue, adding a deep unease to the entire melodrama.
Realistically, Sherlock was hardly the most honest person she'd known, but she'd never used the word "lie" in reference to him before. Beguile, delude, fib, misguide, misinform, even mislead, yes, but not lie. She hadn't been sure he was capable of it until now.
Usually his deceptions came from games he played to stave off boredom or provoke a reaction. The problems arose when people were too thick to catch on or too clever to play along.
John had triggered a display of one tactic days ago. Sherlock had been examining a blood sample under one of her microscopes while John droned on about some lack of tact the other man had shown. Sherlock cut him off mid-sentence to ask for a fresh slide from the box near his own arm.
Appalled, John didn't notice her shaking her head. She had twigged to that ploy long ago. It was Sherlock's version of a nice way to get someone to shut up. It was effective as always, John handing him the slide then retreating across the room to mutter to himself about degrees of self-centeredness. Why didn't John notice the new slide discarded, unused as Sherlock refocused on whatever had caught his attention in the blood sample?
A new game that arrived with the move to Baker Street was at-home testing of body parts. She had let him run experiments on medical cadavers in the lab almost as long as she had known him. Bart's was a teaching hospital after all, and allowing him to conduct some of the same tests as the students was easy enough to bury in paperwork. Okay, so he did a lot of tests the faculty would never understand, but she was sympathetic. She hadn't felt a need to nursemaid him after he reviewed a few of the more esoteric ones with her, and he was usually happy to share whatever results he had gotten with her. It was mutually beneficial.
Before change of address cards even dried, he began taking some of those experiments back to Baker Street. He never said a thing about it, but she heard it first, loudly, from John, then later from Mrs. Hudson. She always heard them out, claimed she would have a word with him about it, but they really should have known where her loyalties were. In the end, the word she had with him was on how cadaver parts had many of the same qualities as other raw meats, so leaving eyeballs in the microwave for hours at a time was really an unsanitary practice. Liquids raised cross contamination concerns for both experiments and food, so he had to be more careful. He promised more conscientious use of the refrigerator and freezer and it was a settled issue between them.
What he had never needed to explain to her was the greater experiment of watching normal people, like John, Mrs. Hudson, or any casual visitor to the flat reacting to an unexpected discovery. Juvenile? Yes. The mischievousness he tried so hard to hide while he explained in detail the pending research he needed a fresh fatty liver for was something she'd always found hard to refuse. Besides, she wished she'd had the nerve to do the same to a few people!
She could never forget the day Sergeant Donovan sat in the cafeteria at Bart's, regaling her fellow officers with the story of Sherlock's self diagnosis as a high functioning sociopath. Molly had little use for the officer even before that. She was sloppy, leapt to too many conclusions. Her nickname for Sherlock put her teeth on edge, but she kept reminding herself that the officer had no idea the nicknames her fellow officers used for her when she wasn't around. No one can properly diagnose themselves, but beyond that, she doubted anyone could diagnose Sherlock. He would simply choose what he wished to appear to be and would behave to the letter of the psychiatric diagnosis handbook. Freud himself would have been confounded.
Molly shook her head, dropping half a Hob Nob back into the grocery bag as she walked. Sorting out her whirring thoughts was going to take a stronger drug than chocolate. She burrowed deep in her handbag, into the zippered pocket she hid her tampons in. From beneath the loose packets, she pulled out the small box and electronic lighter. Pub crawling in university had taught her she was one of the very few people who could be exposed to nicotine without having an addictive reaction. As a pathologist, she knew exactly how bad even an occasional cigarette could be. Naughty Molly, some little bit of her that still remembered how delicious it was to sneak around behind Mommy and Daddy's back grinned and didn't care. She never finished a packet, smoking one or two a year and throwing away the rest when they got stale. Lighting one, she tried to hold in the cough. The rest of the pack and the lighter went in a nearby bin.
She had thought she'd smelled tobacco smoke in the hallway as she had left the morgue. Molly does wonder about his nicotine patches. Sherlock used to smoke almost constantly, but she knew from experience and experimentation that his actual nicotine level must have stayed low due to his usual brands and the rate he inhaled at. He would light one, drag less than a handful of times, and then extinguish it, only to light another a few seconds later. A pipe would have suited him better. They tended to put themselves out, needing to be relit when the smoker was ready.
Greg had hinted at some drug use in Sherlock's past but Molly very deliberately stopped that conversation and never dug deeper. She knew he had been trying to warn her away from the cliffs, but that was information Greg had no right to be passing around.
She had watched Sherlock with the patches, seen him apply multiples almost as an act of bravado. He would gasp, eyes dilating, but it wasn't the patches he was reacting to. It couldn't be. They were designed to never cause an abrupt change in body chemistry, only allowing a tiny amount of nicotine to be absorbed by the skin.
Her theory, which she hoped to never have a chance to test, was that his real addiction was to ritual. The peeling of the cellophane and foil, pulling the paper tubes free of the packet, the flash of ignition from the lighter, now changed to opening individual envelopes, pulling away the plastic liner paper, locating a spot not used for 24 hours, easing air pockets out the edges of the adhesive. If he had used harder drugs, she was willing to bet they required more preparation than merely rolling in paper or pouring in a glass. Really didn't want an answer to that one.
She took another puff, watching glowing bits of red ash swirl away. Molly wondered if John knew that Sherlock had set fire to his previous flat, leading to the move to Baker Street. She wouldn't have known herself except for the body Greg followed to the morgue. Neither man wanted to give her the details, but Sherlock was never arrested, so she assumed it had been neither a crime nor a true accident. The damages weren't too extensive, but it was bad enough that his landlord didn't want him back. She was still storing a few boxes for him under her bed. Sometimes when he was being particularly irritating, she told herself she'd go home and rifle through them, certain that at some level he would know about the invasion. Naughty Molly still hadn't gotten her way and the boxes remained untouched.
Molly really liked John. Wanted to wring his neck or bop him on the head occasionally, but that was true of anyone. She used to worry about Sherlock passing out from exhaustion or starvation while being dismissed as a whining diva. In a quiet moment, John filled her in on the details. The fasting while Sherlock worked wasn't the best choice he could make, but beyond that lapse, he was eating better than most people. Very low carbohydrates between cases, backing up energy with caffeine and sucrose. The carb overload of a large Chinese dinner after things were completed contributed to his "post case coma" as John called it. No wonder it could put him out like a light! The Consulting Detective brought down by a rice ball! She hid a smirk behind her hand. John would label a blog entry that if she ever told him!
Okay, another sore subject as she flicked the still-burning cigarette away. She thought about talking directly to John about it, but she wasn't confident of her own scars on similar issues. She deeply, dearly wished John hadn't claimed on his blog that Sherlock didn't know the earth revolved around the sun. It didn't seem to have bothered Sherlock, but it bothered her enough to give John the cold shoulder for weeks! She wasn't sure he'd noticed, maybe just thought she was being shy. She had wanted to put him through a wall.
As long as she'd known Sherlock Holmes, almost everyone viewed him one of three ways. The first group, those who wanted to use his abilities, she understood. He craved the best tests, best puzzles, best mysteries and that first group brought some of the best. The second group tried to dismiss him as a self-promoting egotist. Molly would be the first to label him self centered, demanding, difficult to work with. (It had taken her a year to remove "vain" from the list.) All promotion was either John's or outside Sherlock's control. He wasn't asking for keys to the city or buildings to be named after him. Conversely, you didn't tell someone who just performed a beautiful flawless aria that they could carry a tune in a bucket!
The third group was the one most delighted with the "earth around the sun" quote and made her blood boil; those like Sergeant Donovan who considered him a freak. As if it was all some parlor trick he learned in an old Houdini book! Nothing special, no skill he had learned, invested time and effort to master; nothing that couldn't be replicated by a ten year old if he had the right library! The freak aspect was one she was intimately familiar with. The tiny woman elbow deep in rotten corpses, the skinny thing identifying last meals of the dead. Too young, too small, too feminine, too powerless to do such a big bad job. She wished she could have worn stiletto heels at work just for the extra height! Every time a new intern came in, she had to invest weeks putting the "fear of Molly" into them just to keep from being buried in paperwork!
She knew what had happened. Her own disjointed conversations with Sherlock showed the pattern. No matter how brilliant he was, he only had a limited number of thoughts he could keep in play in his mind at one time. If he had been in the middle of a case or experiment having nothing to do with astronomy when John said something about rotations, Sherlock may not have been able to pick up that thought as well as the ones he was using. The only thing that seemed to help him narrow down the thoughts was talking them through. Maybe she'd wait until Dr. Watson was in surgery and ask him for the recipe for that wonderful coq au vin he made often. See how he liked it!
She sighed. Sherlock could be amazingly considerate, but it had to be on his own terms and by his own methods. One unfortunate night, not long after he had begun getting under her feet at the lab, he startled her when she was juggling the morgue's audio recorder, rubber gloves, scalpel, and bone saw. When she jumped, she dropped her MP3 player in the cadaver's abdominal cavity. She fished it out, of course, but couldn't make herself clean it up. It hadn't been expensive, but it would have been a couple of weeks until she could afford a replacement. No way to know when she'd get a chance to load it.
Two days later when she opened her desk drawer to grab a pen, she found a new, smaller MP3 player with a built-in clip to fasten to fabric. New ear buds were wound in a case. Suspicious, she put it on her collar, put in the ear buds and hit "play". It was already loaded: Beethoven, Bach, Rossini, Schubert, and a lush sounding production of Puccini's "La Boheme". If she had needed a neon sign to tell her who left the player for her, Niccolo Paganini's "24 Caprices for Solo Violin" told her everything.
Neither of them ever mentioned it directly. In passing, she made an oblique reference to a friend wanting to improve her taste in music. She wondered if he knew she kept it and used it as she received it, never changing or adding her own tracks.
Almost home, but something wasn't right. Twice she stopped but swore she could still hear footfalls. She took a moment to move a couple items from her purse to her coat pockets. Nothing wrong with being cautious.
She supposed the confusing part was that Sherlock only…fibbed, stretched the truth, teased, those he actually cared about. Everyone else he behaved formally and distantly with, ignored, or told the truth. The whole truth. Both barrels. Usually with a bonus pick axe, chain saw and machete!
She could always hear the teasing in his voice when he claimed she had put on weight, or that her mouth was too small, or any of his other taunts. Like a seven year old confessing he had noticed her. Far more disconcerting were his fake attempts at actual complements! She always played along, but it was all she could do to keep a straight face! They had played this game a lot since they met and it had been so comfortable for her.
She loved him. It wasn't a question and was not dependant on being reciprocated or even acknowledged. He had built a life with no place for a romantic companion and she had no delusions about that. There was even comfort in that. Her prayer was that he never looked that closely at her; never saw the raw patches, the wounds that couldn't heal. Her dream was that he never offer her a place she could never accept no matter how much she wanted. So she played up Mousey Molly, gave into a stammer she could have easily quashed. She dressed even more conservatively than Bart's required, showed up with the odd moppet in tow as if she were dating (really, really bad idea). It all went so well until that damned Christmas party.
Cold fingers on the back of her neck, wrapping in her coat collar. "Hello, little girl!"
Oh, damn. One problem with Mousey Molly; she looked like a victim. Words from so long ago echoed in her head: soft places with a fist, hard places with a blunt instrument. Grabbing the contents of her pockets, she leaned slightly left, driving her right fist up and back, pulling loose from the hand and her coat as the expletives started.
He was already charging, but she had time to flip the blade of the butterfly knife out, steadying the handle with her thumb. She stepped aside, swinging at his eyes, cutting his forehead instead. The blood ought to blur his vision.
She was yelling now, taking a moment to kick a couple of bins into the street. It was important to make as much dumb stupid noise as possible.
He came on faster this time, dragging both of them into the middle of the street. She took the opportunity to stab him twice in the thigh, then across his fingers so he'd let go of her. Headlights bounced across the scene as a driver put the car in reverse and left.
Dark blood marred the entire leg of the attacker's jeans. He was swaying slightly and when he went to charge again the damaged leg gave out under him. He still threw his entire body weight at her, trying to grab on.
Deadly force was no longer needed. She pocketed the knife, then armed herself with a slightly bent golf club that had fallen out of one of the bins. "Don't move and I won't hit you." She was sure Sherlock had never heard that tone from her! It took the attacker three strikes to get the message. This mouse had claws!
When the police arrived, she insisted they call Lestrade.
She waited for Greg on the curb, required shock blanket clashing with her sweater. Under protest, she'd had to turn over her knife as evidence. They promised she'd get it back, but that could take months. The ambulance people gave her a once over and she discovered the bastard had gotten her. A cut through the shoulder of her Christmas sweater, leaving a long thin red line that hadn't really bled and would sting in the shower.
All and all, not the best Christmas season. Sherlock had been so tense, drawn razor thin. What he had said would have been bad in the privacy of the lab, but to have snipped like that in front of everyone had been so awful! The kiss had blown her mind afterward, but that wasn't where she was focusing. He snipped at her at the party, and then had her essentially falsify a death certificate in the morgue. Oh, something was very wrong. She wished she could talk to John alone, compare notes. It wasn't Sherlock lying that had set her on edge; it was whatever he was lying for. Something…
"You're going to be okay, Molls?" Lestrade offered his hand.
She stood, wishing she could put out a bounty for every person who shortened her name. "Yeah, Greg. He just shook me up. Sweater's ruined, but I'm fine. Look, can we not tell Sherlock about this? I mean, it was just a mugger, no criminal…" She closed her eyes. "He's right behind me, isn't he?"
Sherlock handed her the Asda bag, her purse and her coat. "I thought you'd prefer a different companion for the rest of the walk home." He seemed oddly pleased for some reason.
She gave Greg the blanket and put her coat on. "Actually, I can't think of a better one." Molly smiled, but Sherlock was giving her a strange look. "Greg, if you have any more questions, I'm on second shift tomorrow."
"Okay, Molls. Get some sleep."
She was careful not to speak until she was sure they were out of everyone's hearing. "Sherlock, I need to ask you something, but I need you to hear me out first." She seemed to have his attention, but was smart enough to look away as she began.
"You lied in the morgue. You had no idea who that was, or if it was who you thought. You don't need to explain anything to me. I know there are always things you don't tell for a lot of reasons and I'm not asking you to change that. Something has you preoccupied; more than usual. You told me yourself how dangerous it is when you're preoccupied." Molly was very sure her eyes were turned away from him; giving him what privacy she could while prying. "Are you alright? Would you tell me if you weren't?"
He didn't answer for a moment. "You haven't stammered. I think I miss it."
She blew hard out of pursed lips. "Evasion." No correction coming. "Thank you for answering. My flat is up these stairs."
"I will be."
Without intension, she looked him in the eye. She believed him, had a million more questions, but knew there were no answers. Molly reached out, her hand stopping inches from his jacket lapel. "Minimum safe distance." she whispered. Now to get upstairs without the waterworks. "Good night, Sherlock."
She sagged against her locked front door. Cracks were beginning to form. She slipped her keys into one coat pocket and noticed the other pocket seemed too heavy to be empty. Reaching inside, she found a beautiful inlaid butterfly knife, perhaps half again as large as hers. She swore she didn't breathe for a full minute. She checked the unlocking mechanism. Much smoother than her old one. "Guess he thinks I can take care of myself." she whispered, smiling.
Moving to the kitchen, she put the kettle on and emptied the Asda bag. She stomped her foot. "What kind of a man steals a poor girl's Jammie Dodgers?!" Apparently the same kind of a man that left her a set of three nicotine patches.