A/N: Spoilers for The Empty Hearse! I'm off to bed. Enjoy.
The Real Thing
In truth, he sets out with the intention of it demonstrating all the reasons as to why he shouldn't care, which, he will admit, is probably not one of the more decent things he's ever done. Granted it's not up there with pretending to be dead for two years, but he's putting that one down to exceptional circumstances, rather than poor decision making on his part.
When she arrives at his flat, with a scarf so long that he knows she's going to trip over it before the day is out, he finds himself standing straighter, as though the fact that she's even smaller than John will make any difference. It doesn't.
The word dinner optimistically blurts out of her mouth, but he casually moves past it without even acknowledging it, though he does make a mental note. She probably just wants to catch up. That's what normal people do, isn't it? Catch up, over dinner. He wouldn't have much to tell her to be perfectly honest. He's not sure she'll be too impressed with all the gory details about how her maniacal ex put a bullet through his own brain. Maybe he'll save that one for parties.
She doesn't interrupt, which is good. She takes notes, which doesn't make any difference to him whatsoever, but having her there keeps away the silence. He can't think when there's silence, and even when she's not saying a word, even when he's not looking at her, he knows that she's there and it helps. He doesn't know why - John would probably make some quip about some mental condition that potentially cites one or two of his habits in its key symptoms. He shouldn't be surprised that it's this easy, having her around. After all, he's worked with her for years, and professionally, they know each other's habits better than anyone else. It's just like being in the lab; they manage to move around each other without having to employ a single last minute side-step or awkward rotation.
Naturally she doesn't grimace at the skeleton, which is always good for a crime solving companion, and she even goes so far as to jump in and start her own analysis when he's finished with it. He finds he doesn't mind that at all. Actually, it's far better than her making all those notes, and he'd like her to jump in more often. It's more productive, and, after all, her own deductions save him a rather arduous trip to Bart's, which can only be a good thing. A portable pathologist. Now there's an idea.
She emits a short hum of laughter at the sound of Shilcott's novelty doorbell, and he finds that that, more than the stupid, inane thing itself, brings a smile to his face. He has been away for so long, with no familiar faces, no lighter moments to relieve him from the grim existence that being dead brings, that he never realised how much he missed the mundane things. He had not thought for one moment he would miss her, but ever since he first laid eyes on her in that locker room, ever since he caught a glimpse of a sparkle on her left hand, he realised he has missed her terribly. She is full of surprises, always, and that keeps him on his toes. Predictable people are so dull, but Molly, no, she's not dull. Not one little bit.
Shilcott, being a train enthusiast, is of course tediously eccentric. The revelation that there's a woman in his life really does prove to Sherlock that there must be someone out there for everyone, no matter how many metres of track line their living room walls. He finds himself exaggerating his expressions, then glancing to Molly to see if she's noticed, his lips twisting into a smirk whenever he sees her biting her lip, her head slightly bowed, cheekbones accentuated as she tries to hide her giggles.
He knows, of course, the origin of the term 'cars' in conjunction with the tube, but keeps quiet when she questions it, relishing in the roll of her eyes and the sarcastic quirk of her brow as Shilcott exasperatedly explains the etymology.
"He said he liked trains," he murmurs, and while Shilcott is too caught up in his CCTV footage to hear, a smile spreads across Molly's face, her eyes lighting up as she meets his gaze. But then, the footage catches his attention, and Molly's smile is pushed to the back of his mind, though the background silence (he's blocked out Shilcott's commentary) seems only half as invasive.
He offers her chips, in exchange for maps, which seems like a fair enough swap. She wanted dinner after all so he's merely complying with her wishes, while she fulfils her role as companion by fetching him his necessary resources. Perfect. There's something different about her though, now they're out of Shilcott's flat, and the memory of her smile evaporates in the back of his mind, as he is now faced with the forlorn expression painted on her face. He doesn't like it, and so he bangs on about the chip shop, and the owner and shelves, (though he notes her sardonic tone and wonders if she's become a little more acidic in his absence, or whether it was there all along and he was just too much of an idiot to notice it).
He turns at the bottom of the stairs, and she pauses, a few steps behind him, her hand resting on the bannister.
"What was today about?"
"Saying thank you." It's sort of true. She's always shown an interest in what he does and she has been enjoying herself, he knows. The shared looks of amusement behind Shilcott's back were more than enough to inform him of that. Even if it has been something of a test on his part (failed, he reminds himself bitterly) there is no reason why it can't double as a gesture of gratitude. Two birds, one stone, what could be more convenient?
She frowns and descends another couple of steps. "For what?"
"For everything you did for me," he says quietly. He doesn't want any curious ears behind flat doors listening in on this conversation, because he knows he's going to have get his hands dirty in that horrible cesspool of humanity that's been festering away in his chest these past couple of years.
"It's okay," she says, moving past him. "It's my pleasure."
"No. I mean it."
"I don't mean pleasure, I mean I didn't mind, I wanted to." she says quickly, as though her word choices are his primary concern right now.
"Moriarty slipped up, he made a mistake," he tells her, brushing her babbling aside. "Because the one person he thought didn't matter at all to me, was the one person that mattered the most. You made it all possible." He needs her to understand this, needs her to realise how very important she is. Her voice echoes from some distant room in his mind palace - I don't count - and he shuts that thought down, because she does. Moriarty only thought Molly didn't matter because he'd seen, first hand, how Sherlock treated Molly. Molly had assumed she didn't count because she was on the receiving end of it all, and in his quieter moments, on those lonely nights when he'd been lying on uncomfortable sleeper train benches, staring up at the grubby ceiling, he had to swallow down many an uncomfortable lump in his throat.
Not a single muscle twitches on Molly's face, no hint to suggest that she believes him, or thinks him to be toying with her, or whatever other conclusion she might wrongly arrive at. The entire day, which was supposed to give him a whole host of reasons as to why Molly is best kept in the lab, has only blown that entire notion out of the water and given him a hundred reasons as to why he should ask her to do this more often.
"But you can't do this again, can you?" He says the words quickly, before he becomes a selfish coward and starts talking about chips again.
"I've had a lovely day. I'd love to, I just…"
He nearly smiles at her use of the word 'lovely'. It's not what most people would use to describe a few open and shut cases, a hoax Jack the Ripper skeleton and an encounter with a train enthusiast, but it's the word she uses. And then, at long last, she acknowledges the ring on her finger.
"Congratulations, by the way," he says, and he is actually rather proud at how genuine the words sound. He doesn't know what's been going on - he's out of the country for two years and all of a sudden everybody's getting married. Lestrade is still hovering on the fine line between marriage counselling and divorce, so nothing's changed there. He is, perhaps the only one who's still the same.
"He's not from work," she says slowly, determinedly, as though to assure him that she's not dating a criminal mastermind this time around, and he finds himself smiling. "We met through friends…the old fashioned way." And then, of course, comes the babble - trips to the pub, dog walks, friends, family and he's nice, apparently, but then she trails off nervously, and he can't find it within himself to let her keep spilling her words into the open air as though they are acting completely independently of her brain and solely in cahoots with her heart.
"I hope you'll be very happy, Molly Hooper," he says softly, and he means it. He genuinely means it, and woe betide the man who should ever dare to make her unhappy. "You deserve it." The sentiment is soon batted away however and he's back to his old self, because before he can stop himself, he's saying, "After all, not all the men you fall for can turn out to be sociopaths."
"No?" She's quiet as a mouse, but he can still hear her, loud and clear. Her brow is creased in concern, as though she's worried that her fiancé, with his dog and his parents and his friends and his tediously normal lifestyle might actually turn out to be a Russian sleeper agent or a member of the Mafia.
"No," he says with a smile as he gazes at her, drinking in every detail, from that stupid scarf that clashes with her multicolour jumper, to the soft hints of blusher, colouring her cheekbones. He can give no logical explanation as to why he does it, but he knows it to be the right thing to do. He leans in, and presses his lips softly against her cheek, and before he can think about any of it, or gauge her reaction to dissect in its entirety, before he can convince her to forget everything else and come for chips, he leaves.
When he reaches Marylebone, he orders enough chips for two, and is given plenty for three. He gets through the first two portions on his way home, polystyrene tray in hand, blue and white striped carrier bag dangling from his forearm, fingers gritty with salt. He wonders where she is, what she'll do this evening, and when he gets home, he throws himself into his chair, coat still on, and unwraps the third tray.
He hears her arrive before he sees her, and then hears pleasantries exchanged that scream of a Suffolk grammar school and amicably divorced parents. He doesn't want to be any part of this, doesn't know why he told her that it was absolutely fine for her to bring her darling fiancé along to their gathering. He'd rather face the press than Molly's boyfriend, and after all the trouble they caused him, that's saying something.
"Ready?" he asks John, turning away from the window. He had intended to brush over the situation, perhaps say a quick hello so as not to upset Molly, and then head out into the pack of wolves, waiting on his doorstep, but Tom is standing in the doorway, blocking his exit, and he is forced to look at him.
Sherlock sees the same look of barely suppressed shock in Tom's eyes as he feels, and the first thing he notices about him is the cheapness of his coat. It's a poor cut, low quality wool, probably new season in some low priced high street store, years behind the rest of the fashion world, but no matter, the coat does not necessarily make the man. It's with some irritation, however, that he notices the scarf, and the way he's folded it then looped it around his neck. His shoes are well polished, but well worn, his trousers featuring a little polyester, though not so much it makes Sherlock pull a face.
He glances at John, whose eyes are wide and urging him not to be rude, and so Sherlock holds out his hand, and Tom shakes it - his grip sufficiently firm, and though his gloves are real leather, they're quite obviously a Christmas present from his mother two, perhaps three years ago. He can't even look at Molly as he passes between them, despite the fact that she has a new coat with a rather better quality of wool and a much more flattering cut.
John joins him on the landing, and the first thing he says is: "Did you…"
"I'm not saying a word," Sherlock replies, pulling the ends of his scarf through the loop. He realises, too late, what he's done and immediately regrets the decision to even consider donning any outerwear at all. Surely his suit jacket could have sufficed?
As the photographers set off flashes inches from his face, and huddled journalists shoot questions at him in loud, demanding voices, he can't stop the smile from spreading across his lips. John will call him a smug git for it, assuming that it's due to all the attention being lavished upon him. But no. It seems that even his relatively new humanity can't keep him from being a selfish prick.
When he thinks about it, later that night as he stares at the ceiling which has earned itself a new crack during his leave, he thinks that it might not actually be as selfish as he first thought. After all, if Molly Hooper, who deserves happiness by the bucketload, can settle for such a pale imitation, imagine how thrilled she'd be to get her hands on the real thing.