A Curious Intimacy

by Branwyn

fandom: the Mary Russell novels

rating: PG-13

summary: Donleavy and Russell. Before it all went pear-shaped.

notes: This has to be the first slash I've written in over two years.

She does not think of her father often. There are moments when she considers this and knows it to be strange, but they are rare. She leads an active life and more often than not she is simply too busy for self-reflection. And even if she had possessed the leisure, such weak-minded rumination bores her. Donleavy is, like her father, a ruthless logician. It is (was) their unique talent to recognize facts where others see quandaries, to bend, manipulate, and re-order the world around them until those facts are recognized for truth.

Facts are the business of Donleavy's life—facts, her religion, opinion and guesswork merest heresy. She does not allow for differences of perspective. To her mind, interpretation is no more than sloppiness, a kind of futile intellectual cowardice. One does not reason with facts. They simply exist, as much a work of nature as the Sahara, the Alps. As Reichenbach.

Donleavy's life is ordered by certain facts, those she was born to and those she has discovered for herself. They are her birthright. Now that she is growing older, she discovers that they will also be her legacy. She thinks often of legacies now that Mary Russell has come into her life, and of the peculiar symmetry of their relationship. Such pupils as Mary are a rarity, an exquisite pleasure, in the life of any teacher. They are also a liability, as her father could have pointed out; the first time Donleavy sees the girl in the flesh, she is alert to the danger, but she finds, to her surprise, that she is almost helpless before the temptation. She is disciplined; she might have resisted. But she chooses not to.

stuff about attraction, first meeting, etc

"A regrettable, but necessary function of scholarship," she tells Mary, as she undresses her for the first time, "is to render the perceptions of genius intelligible to lesser minds. Understanding is given to few, and those who do not share your gifts will always expect you to apologize for them. Do not make that mistake, or one day you will discover that you have wasted your entire life trammeled by the mediocrity of others."

She pauses, peering through the lamp light to regard the girl, who stands, shivering, in her thin cotton shift. Mary crosses her thin arms over her breasts. "Has that happened to you?" she asks, a curious gleam in her wide eyes.

Donleavy smiles and reaches for her, pulling her arms away from her body. Mary stands limp, unresisting, as Donleavy caresses the side of her face and begins to pull the shift over her head in one continuous motion. "I have been careful to avoid such a fate," she says, and stops a moment, fascinated, to study the scars that line and pucker the girl's flesh.

She glances up to find Mary's eyes on her, her mouth pressed into a thin line. Her expression is both nervous and defiant.

"But then," says Donleavy, cupping the white breast, watching the girl's eyes widen behind her spectacles, "I have never been afraid to risk the unconventional."

"I shall endeavor to mimic you in that." Mary's voice is low, nearly a whisper.

Donleavy smiles. "I believe it will come naturally to you."

She keeps Mary Russell close over the Michaelmas term. Not so very much closer than their academic relationship would warrant, but closer than she had intended months ago when she had first arranged for their paths to cross. Chance had played almost as large a role in bringing them together as any of Donleavy's designs; chance had placed Mary Russell in Donleavy's college, and something deeper than chance had determined that she should study mathematics. And Donleavy was not one to sneer at the gifts of fortune; luck was no less a fact for being inexplicable.

She does not think of Sherlock Holmes often, not as such. She is so deeply immersed in the business of studying him that he has become abstract, academic. She has seen him twice in person; once when she was eighteen, after her mother's death, when the facts of her father's death had come to light, and once three months ago, when he had accompanied his young apprentice to Oxford for the start of her first university term.

She ignores most of the photographs her people have sent to her. The only face Sherlock Holmes has for her these days belongs to Mary Russell, the only reports of him that have meaning for her are those she has managed to pry from the girl, who is both shy and only too eager to speak of him. There is much to learn from her brief, careful speeches. The blunt promise of her mind was sharpened into readiness by Holmes' tutelage; all her fine opinions have their origin in his lessons. Once or twice she has been amused to hear a third generation corruption of one of her father's own aphorisms from the girl's lips, and she divines from this that the story of his relationship with Moriarty is one which Holmes has never shared with Mary in its entirety.

"My father would have enjoyed meeting you," she says one day. "He taught me most of what I know, long before I ever came to university. He would have delighted in your talents."

"I should have taken great pleasure in meeting any teacher of yours," says the girl, in tones that would have been insufferable flattery, had she been any older.

"One day soon," says Donleavy, smiling, "I shall tell you all about him."

In terms past she has conducted dalliances with one or two of her more amusing pupils, but when they present themselves this term she turns them away, coldly at first, cruelly if they are persistent. Behind the locked doors of her study she beds Mary Russell in almost the same manner, though she is careful to ameliorate her attitude with sighs and moments of winning softness.

The girl is her student, but Donleavy is learning from her—more, perhaps, than she is teaching. She has intended this from the start, but the lessons begin to take her by surprise. It is a shock, at this stage of her career, to feel the prick of something like regret when Mary leaves her of an evening, but it is there all the same.

She has never made the mistake of believing Holmes a fool. She accepts that her father had admired him; she admires him herself, in her cooler moments. But she had wondered what he was about, allying himself to a girl, who, for all her charm, could only make him vulnerable. Now she is discovering for herself that there is an almost irresistible allure in the notion of training a worthy apprentice. Especially now that the doctors are shaking their heads and delivering their grim prognoses. Mortality is a fact, as inescapable as all the rest. She is nearing the end of her life's work, and she has no daughter to see it through, should she fail.

One evening in early November, she tells Mary that she will be away during the following terms. "I do wish you had come to me sooner," she says, tempering the maudlin sentiment with a wry smile and a dig of her nails into soft flesh. "I have...enjoyed our time together."

Around her gasping, the girl says, "I am certain that your lessons will prove to be the most memorable of my university career," which teases a genuine smile from Donleavy.

She is not a fool, either; she knows too well that at eighteen a young girl's loyalties are beyond trifling with. There will be no winning her over from Holmes now. It would be madness to try. The thought fills her with a strange, sudden resentment, and her clutching grows sharper, almost violent.

Then she releases her, and Mary stumbles backward, confused, breathing rapidly. Donleavy leans back against the couch and, almost unconsciously, lifts a hand to her forehead, as a stab of pain in her gut pricks tears from her eyes.

Soon it will be time to make an end of this. She has plans, events to set in motion. She cannot afford more distraction than she already has to contend with. Or more pain.

"Miss Donleavy." The girl's voice is uncertain. Even—dare she imagine it—concerned. "Are you...are you quite well?"

Donleavy screws her eyes shut. "Perfectly," she says, and opens her eyes. The girl is standing, unclothed, before the fire, toying with her braid like a child.

A momentary weakness, nothing more. Donleavy reminds herself who she is, who the child is, and sits up.

"Unbind your hair," she says, "and come here."

The girl obeys, and Donleavy smiles, showing her teeth.

"You have become complacent, Miss Russell," Donleavy says, on the last day of term before the Christmas holidays. "Your other tutors are, perhaps, sufficiently overawed by your potential for brilliance that they have not yet demanded the proof of it. But I am not so easily satisfied."

She watches Mary flush and shift slightly in her seat, a guilty schoolgirl called up before the headmistress on a petty infraction. Donleavy continues, her burden lightening as she applies the precise scalpel of her tongue to the disintegrating remnants of their intimacy.

"Your essay suggests a number of brilliant possibilities. No doubt you feel that even as mere suggestions they do you credit." Her voice grows in conviction. In a distant corner of her mind, Donleavy is aware that she is speaking of more than the essay. "But insight alone does not mature scholarship make. To merely hint at the existence of avenues you do not deign to explore is to waste the time and effort you expended on discovering them." She allows herself to grow disdainful. "I have no time for eccentric geniuses who will not trouble themselves be as exacting as they are clever."

"I apologize," says the girl, clearing her throat. "I was in a hurry to discharge the last of my obligations for the term. It's not an excuse, I know."

Donleavy regards her for a long moment in the dim light. "When one sets a course," she says, "one must pursue it. There is no turning back, no faltering. Surely you can see that." The words sound dangerously like a plea in her own ears.

"Of course."

Last night, the pain had become severe enough that she had finally succumbed to the doctor's insistence and begun to inject herself with morphine. The parallel with Holmes is oddly satisfying, but she is aware that the drug has numbed her to more than the cramping of her stomach. Her hand twitches on the desk, as though it had thought to reach forward and brush the damp hair from Mary's face. Curious.

But it won't do. The girl is already dead. Donleavy has murdered her this morning, with a phone call to the bomber John Dickson, and she will murder her again, here, in just a moment, when she taps the neat stack of paper on the desk between them and says,

"I want this re-written. Eliminate the prosody at the beginning and expand the two middle sections. The conclusion could do without the smug rhetoric, as well."

Mary flushes again, and a patently adolescent whisper of rebellion moves across her features as she contemplates the agony of postponing her holiday by another twelve hours. But she suppresses her sigh, and stands, collecting the essay with one hand and her coat with the other. "Of course. I'll see to it."

"Yes. I trust that you will." She stands, and walks with Mary to the door; there they pause, and in the same moment turn to look at each other. Donleavy regards her through the dim light, and, reading her face, braces for what is to come.

"Will I see you again?" says Mary.

"I fear not," says Donleavy, and there is a strange pain in her breast, piercing the haze of the morphine.

Mary nods. She opens her mouth, as though to speak, then closes it, her lips pressed tightly together.

She is a relative stranger to spontaneity; every move she has ever made with regards to the girl has been planned and rehearsed in advance of execution. But her hands and feet are moving now of their own accord, in response to a need they have not communicated to her in thought. She reaches for Mary, cupping her face and drawing her down for a kiss, longer and stranger than any that have passed between them before.

It was not, she tells herself later, an unreasonable thing to do: longing, like mortality, like revenge, is also a fact.

"Thank you," she whispers into the girl's ear, and then, releasing her, shuts the door between them.

Outside, the rain beats a steady staccato against her window, and Donleavy returns to her desk, and her business, and what remains of her life.