The next day in the sitting room at 221B between 5:47 and 5:56, there is a faint chemical smell that is detected a moment too late; the heavy drop of someone falling limply out of a chair to the floor; the gleam of a key resting at the dark bottom of a pocket; beautiful white teeth snapping at thread to cut it; the neat and clean but quick scrawling on paper; the rustle of cloth of somebody changing clothes; and then departing footsteps that stop momentarily on one of the top stairs as Irene Adler reaches into a tight hidden pouch on the inside of her sleeve and takes out a ring which she puts back on her left finger before continuing down the staircase.
On his way back home, Watson goes through an alley approaching Baker Street and finds himself passing Miss Adler, who only smiles and nods at him in greeting.
Brow creasing as he notices something, he abruptly holds out his cane before she completely passes by him, blocking her way to stop her in her steps. Irene looks back at him, only looking bemused by him stopping her, as he brings his eyes up and down her figure attentively.
"I'm not sure that dress is quite your color, Miss Adler," he says meaningfully.
For she is wearing a very familiar gray one.
She gives him an ignorant-looking smile, suddenly fidgeting with her hands a little in front of her. "He let me keep it for the memories," she says, and then her face becomes more serious. "I just came to say goodbye, you see...I've been given some news that compels me to leave London, and I'm not sure when I am to see him again..."
Watson just watches her delicate and subtle expression of regret with careful scrutiny. As she keeps holding her hands together, one covering the other, he finds his eyes drawn down to them with a sudden suspicion. He has not lived this long with Sherlock Holmes for nothing.
With no care for tact, he reaches for her left wrist to pull her hand quickly away from the other and uncover it. Her eyes go wide when he holds it up and looks, seeing a generously sized jewel glimmering on her ring finger.
"No," he says in a low and incredulous voice, not surprised by the deceit so much as the extent of it. "All this time you have still been married!"
Irene still doesn't completely drop the act, looking down as if slightly ashamed.
He then acts quickly, holding his cane under one arm to grab at her with both hands. He starts feeling around her hips and her waist around the back of the dress, demanding, "Where is it?"
"What are you talking about?" she says, sounding very uncomfortable and trying to pull his arms away with a shocked look. "Doctor, this is most inappropriate!"
Watson just smiles at her mockingly. "Why suddenly so shy?" As she keeps fighting to break free of his searching hands, he says with growing frustration, "You know perfectly well what's hidden in this dress!"
Her expression finally returns to something looking like the real Irene. "As do you," she says with a diabolical smile. "Haven't you seen it enough already?"
Finally one of his hands finds where he can feel a prominent, hard bump under the cloth, the diamond now slid around to the other side of the waist so that it can't be reached by tearing open the loose part of the seam. He has no idea how she made off with it, but quite certainly the dress still carries the same value as it did when he took it last night.
"Give it up, Miss Adler," he says dangerously, still calling her that out of habit.
"Give up what?" she says, no longer putting any effort in giving a convincing performance but just being enraging.
"The—the diamond." He starts stammering in his frustration, grabbing at her skirt forcefully and not completely sure about what to do. "The dress. Give it—Take it off."
It fits her quite tightly, he sees with dismay. She just keeps smiling at him almost as if she is getting some kind of personal amusement out of his trouble with it. "I'm afraid there's no way to be a gentleman about this, doctor. I know that isn't usually in your nature."
He looks straight at her face a moment after that, his look resolute and determined, as if he takes the words like some kind of challenge. "Very well," he says. "We'll do this the hard way."
She grunts in slight pain when he pins her hard against the brick wall behind her with one forearm held firmly across her waist, letting both his hands momentarily free. He takes his cane from under his arm and swiftly draws the sword out. Then, stepping on one of her feet with moderate pressure to keep holding her in place, he bends over and takes up the bottom of the dress, starting to cut through it easily from the bottom up. She stays still with some of her former look of amusement still present as a trace in her eyes, letting him carefully slide the blade up through the tight waist of the dress with it lying flat, bringing it all the way up until the point protrudes out of the neckline under her chin. Then he reaches for her face to tilt her head back before turning the blade at the smallest angle and then jerking it forward in a quick movement that slices the rest of the dress open with ease.
As he turns her around to hold her lightly against the wall as he pulls the sleeves free from her arms, she says somewhat impassively, "I assume it's your intention to give me the embarrassment of having to leave this way."
"Not at all," he says as he lets her turn back around and then grabs onto her arm securely. Putting the sheath end of his cane back over the blade, he explains, "Only to give you the embarrassment of being dragged back to my room this way."
As she registers his meaning, her eyes locked still on him become hardened for a moment with defiance. She waits just a moment looking at him this way, and then forcefully lunges herself to the side, pulling hard to try to get free from his grasp.
It takes all of Watson's effort to hold onto her tightly and keep her from running away. He can't possibly allow her to escape after all of this. He's afraid turning her over to the authorities may be the only certain way to ensure that Holmes will never be stupid enough to fall prey to her ever again.
"Be reasonable!" he says as she continues to struggle wildly to get away. "How far could you even run looking this conspicuous?"
Then Irene suddenly lets out a very panicked-sounding scream. "Please! Help!"
Watson drops his cane as he quickly grabs at her to cover his hand over her mouth and silence her. But already there are several passers-by gathering at each end of the alley after her cries drew their attention, now looking shocked by the sight of the scantily dressed woman being roughly handled.
"By God!" says one man to him. "What the devil do you think you're doing to that poor woman?!"
He instantly backs away from her, letting her go except for keeping a firm grasp around one wrist. "No!" he says as he looks at the horrified eyes on him, holding his other arm up beseechingly. "Please, it's not—You don't understand!"
"Help me!" Irene calls again, her eyes crazed in an impeccable performance of fear.
"Shut up!" he says in a low but sharp voice, now grabbing onto her shoulders to turn her to him and look at her with threatening anger.
Then her expression wavers from the frightened mask, taking on her typical clever smile. "I'm very sorry to do this, doctor," she mutters.
Before he realizes where her hands are, one is pulling out his revolver and then has it pointed straight on him. He jumps back slightly in alarm, his hold on her loosening just enough that she is able to force herself away. A whole crowd of curious and angry onlookers is now gathering in the alley on both sides of them, and as she backs away with the gun still pointed at him, a noble soul takes off his coat and puts it over her shoulders to cover her as if she is still the vision of complete helplessness she was a moment ago. Peeking through the thickening crowd, Watson is able to see her lowering the gun once she has backed up almost to the end of the alley. Just before disappearing around the corner, Irene Adler winks at him.
Then she is gone.
And without even having the threat of a revolver to defend himself now, Watson finds himself suddenly helpless to escape the numerous men now pressing in on him intent on showing their displeasure in defense of the beautiful lady, as if they haven't even realized she is no longer there to be impressed.
Before he moves to defend himself from the first punch from an attacker, he spares a brief thought to wonder if getting the diamond from her is even worth all this when this was always Holmes's problem and would be more of his loss in the end, and swears to himself he is going to kill the man.
Almost none of the men taking it upon themselves to teach him a lesson make it away without some injuries of their own, but in the end it is just Watson left on the ground after a final kick to his side leaves him too weakened to immediately rise back up. Finally satisfied, and now starting to attract some shocked attention from people who did not see enough to understand their justification for victimizing him, the last of the men who wanted a moment with him leave him there.
For a moment he just stays lying on his side, thinking decisively how this is most definitely not worth it. No.
Then, with a sudden not-quite-defined but still gripping worry, he opens his eyes wide. Driven right back to action, he raises himself up to sit, groaning at the pains in several places on his body. He grabs the dress where it lays next to him and turns it onto the back side, and something he sees automatically makes him go still a second: the place at the seam where the diamond was inserted actually looks even less neatly sewn back together than it looked before. He quickly rips it open to take out what is inside.
All he finds is a large brass button which was what he could feel inside it before—his own stray coat button, to be exact. And with it is a small folded note.
Dear Dr. Watson,
If you're reading this, then I was right in predicting I would end up crossing paths with you as I left your residence, or that you would at least manage to catch up to me, after you returned home at 6:00 as you do every Saturday. I'm afraid I had the diamond tucked inside one of my shoes the whole time, and that you were, of course, right about me on many counts, while Holmes for all the good it did him was right on nearly all.
Be sure to keep trying to protect your friend from himself as well as you do. I dare say he is almost as dear to me as he is to you, though I also seem to have my own ways of being misleading.
I'm sure I might have been able to avoid a last confrontation with you altogether if I had not taken the time to write this letter and prepare a means of escape at all. But in the end, I couldn't resist the potential opportunity for provoking you to willingly have me undressed for once.
After reading it, he grabs his cain from the ground and stands up, crumples the note into a ball in his first and throws it down before leaving the alley.
"That...damn...woman!" he mutters in a low growl to himself when he is going up the stairs inside with his feet stomping heavily in his bitter outrage.
When he goes through the door into the sitting room, he is stopped in surprise for a second at the sight of Holmes lying motionless on the floor near his desk and then rushes toward him. He is unconscious, with traces of lipstick on one side of his face, a spool of thread lying on the floor near where he has fallen as well as a wet folded cloth.
"Holmes!" Watson says, lifting his forearm and shaking it.
Holmes stirs slowly with a quiet groan and a dazed turn of his head, then opens his eyes to look up at Watson. Gradually regaining his sharp sensibility, he seems to read something very clearly from the look on his face.
"Sorry, old chap," he murmurs. "She couldn't help herself."
He scoffs. "Who?" he asks sarcastically. "Could you mean Mrs. Norton?"
Holmes frowns, barely perceptibly, then sighs a little. "Yes. I knew she was still his wife. I knew...almost the entire time..." His speech trails off with the effort he takes to sit up, clearly still light-headed.
"What did she do to you?" Watson asks, taking hold of him under his arms behind him to help him get up on his feet.
Holmes gestures toward the cloth on the floor. "Chloroform, no doubt," he says. "Not the most ruthless method she could have used once she had resolved to take the diamond from me by force."
"And I suppose you had no expectation she would do so," Watson says critically as he helps him over into a chair.
"I took no chances. I meant to stay in this room all of today to keep a close watch up until our appointment to deliver it to our client at eight-o-clock tonight, but it seems I obviously should have had you stay here with me through the day. I was only sitting there, in the process of reattaching your button to your coat, when she came in after evidently making a point of not noticeably stopping at the top of the stairs this time and also changing the sound of her footsteps so that I thought she was Mrs. Hudson, and before I knew it she was coming at me from behind..."
"You were...what?" Watson asks, getting a little lost, and then looking over toward the desk where he now sees his coat lays. "You were trying to sew my button back on?"
"Yes. I was...reattaching it, yes," Holmes says with a tone of impatience as he explains it again.
"Is that why you hid it from me so I couldn't find my own coat to wear this morning? So you would have something to do here all day?"
"Watson," Holmes says very seriously, "a place where a button needs replacing or a tear that needs mending on part of a man's clothing means the same as it does for a woman to be without a wedding ring. A most certain sign of a bachelor. And for yours to be missing from such a noticeable location on the upper area of your outermost article of clothing looks almost tastelessly desperate. Good God, you'll have women throwing themselves at you from every direction everywhere we go! We can't have that at all, not if we're to be efficient and focused in our everyday work without distraction."
He just shakes his head dismissively, closing his eyes a moment. "Whatever you say...How did she even find where it was hidden anyway?"
"It hardly matters. There are only so many ways to hide something in a small place like this and she is much too clever not to be able to figure it out somehow. But actually, I had slipped the key to my drawer into your pocket for temporary safekeeping."
Watson looks up in alarm. "The drawer which you're meant to keep me from getting into? And you just let me have the key?"
"Well, you didn't know you had it, did you?" Holmes just answers lightly. "But obviously she had a pretty good idea after she felt a key in your pocket last night. And again, my mistake was in assuming I could physically protect both items as long as I were here, if I didn't trust my wit against hers. But she managed to physically incapacitate me, and then it was all too easy for her to discover where the dress was hidden, most unimpressively easy...But I see you got the more brutal treatment." He is now looking more closely at the soiled state of Watson's clothes and the wounds on his face with some alarm. "What the deuce happened to you anyway?"
He just shakes his head. "Suffice it to say the days haven't changed since fights for the sake of your lovely woman could easily ensue," he says, remembering one he once witnessed breaking out outside Adler's house that allowed Holmes to pretend to have gotten hurt.
Seeming to understand enough, Holmes just raises his brow briefly.
Something Holmes said before now rattles in his head. "What was that I thought I heard about you knowing she was still married?" he asks in some disbelief.
"Yes, I knew since that day you found her in the bedroom," Holmes explains easily. "Though obstructing one's eyesight can have a quite pleasurable effect on making other senses especially stimulating, my principle reason for blindfolding Irene as long as I had her tied up in bed was to quickly search through all her possessions to satisfy my suspicion. After I found her ring, of course, I became rather distraught and was hardly inclined to proceed as planned, instead deciding to leave her there a while.
"That was why she always paused at the top of the stairs, you see—to remove or put back on her ring. If I know Irene at all, the careful regularity of this action as if the ring is the most important, as well as other simple indications I noted in all the time I spent with her, reveals the marriage has only become a superficial show and is all but completely dissolved. Especially considering she is at liberty to travel on her own for so long. I would expect it won't last more than six more months."
"Oh, what are you on about?" Watson says intolerantly as he leans his head into his hand with weariness, not liking the way he almost sounds hopeful about the idea.
"You needn't look at me that way, Watson," Holmes says.
"I'm not looking at you at all."
"He was unfaithful to her first."
Then Watson does look back up at him. "How could you know that?"
"Because the one time I met him right before they were married, I could pick him out as the unfaithful type from twenty feet away."
"Indeed," he just says in a very flat and skeptical tone, though his look has nevertheless softened a little.
Holmes calmly goes on explaining. "When I found out she was staying at the Grand, I never had any great suspicion that she was responsible for the disappearance of the diamond. However, I found it very likely she had seen me there at some point and easily deduced that I had taken the case and then decided to initiate a reconnection with me. The theft was too simple to have been her work, you see, and all evidence pointed to there being at least more than one culprit. Irene is cunning enough to steal something on her own and in a way that carries her distinct signature, or else she would not be interested in it at all, for common everyday theft is rather below her. But I knew the idea of stealing it from right under my most astute nose might appeal to her a great deal. When I said you don't know Irene as well as I do, I did not mean that I ever had more reason to trust her, but only that the easier you make it for her to do something, the less interested she will be in doing it. I thought my best chance at protecting myself was to be as heedless with her as possible to take all of the challenge and satisfaction out of crossing someone like me. But I suppose in the end...she is who she is."
"You don't imagine the best way of protecting yourself would have been to listen to me from the beginning?" Watson asks, his tone now too tired to even sound angry.
"Well...everyone has to have their weakness, Watson."
As if accepting that a little, he sits back in the chair with a long sigh, looking up at the ceiling. Then after a moment, he says with an only dimly regretful realization, "I never even had the chance to see the damn thing."
Looking over at him again, Holmes asks, "What?"
"The diamond," he clarifies. "In stealing the dress right off her back like an idiot, all I got to see was my own coat button. Well, and the woman and her revealed figure, again."
"Ah. Yes...A diamond of that color and size, a rare thing to see indeed." Thinking about it, Holmes sighs a little wistfully. "I suppose it suits her more than any common person of royalty anyway."
Watson actually smiles a little, shaking his head. "You are truly hopeless."
Then as Holmes looks back at him with an attempted small smile, and then looks back down, Watson thinks he can see something hidden behind his expression and his complete silence that follows, something uncharacteristically wounded.
He sits forward on the edge of his chair, not quite meeting eyes with him as he speaks somewhat awkwardly. "Well, it's...definitely not satisfying to be proven right in this kind of case, or...Well, that is to say I..." He clears his throat, shuffling his position uncomfortably. "I'm...sorry. Holmes."
Holmes stays with his eyes down on the carpet, almost looking like he heard none of the words as he just thinks a moment longer. Then he suddenly just takes in a quick breath and says, "No matter," getting up from the chair in a fast movement and forcefully brightening a little as he turns to him with a new thought. "What was that you said before about your button? She took it?"
Taking a moment to catch up to the random inquiry, Watson answers, "Yes, she sewed it into the dress in place of the diamond to trick me. No wonder the thread wasn't quite the right color," he adds dryly, looking over at the spool of black thread still on the floor that Holmes was using.
"You have it then?"
"It's here..." He takes it out of his pocket and Holmes immediately goes over and snatches it.
"Ah, excellent!" Holmes tosses it up in the air and then catches it once. Then, giving Watson a hard pat on his shoulder, he says, "There we are. Now all is not lost, my good man."
As he walks away, Watson just watches him a while with an eyebrow raising in some bewilderment. Then he sinks back into his chair, resting his head back, and echoes in a bitter mutter to himself, "No matter."
A long time later, Watson one day passes the table where the portrait of Irene is displayed after going to look out the window, and he stops when he notices it has been knocked over backwards, the picture staring straight up at him.
It was days after she disappeared last time that Watson once tried insisting, "Isn't it time we finally threw this away?" as he took the photograph dangerously close to the fireplace. But Holmes became very obstinate at once, telling him, "Don't you dare even think of it, Watson." For a brief few seconds they actually became engaged in literally fighting over the picture before Holmes got him to let go by distractingly flicking his fingers at one of his ears in his familiar fashion of disorienting an opponent. Clutching his ear in pain, Watson then responded by giving him a hard back-handed slap across the face before he walked away from the fire in resignation.
Now he picks up the frame and looks at it closely, wiping his sleeve across the picture to brush the small layer of dust away from it. And then he puts it back down, setting it upright again, and walks away with the faintest crooked smirk on his face.
In the world there are all kinds of women, none of which ever had much of an effect on both him and Holmes, if either of them at all, which always suited him just fine.
And then there is Irene Adler, the rare specimen who somehow stands apart, who was able to make a fool of Holmes twice and once made fools of both of them. No matter how much he would like to say she was Holmes's mistake and only his problem, there is an undeniable truth in what she did. As long as he is insane and foolish enough to be his colleague and his friend, in the end, the two of them will share everything.
He thinks briefly of the note she left for him after fooling him, and for the first time ever right now, he wonders a little if Holmes's greatest mistake had been not realizing that in getting close to her he was not making it too easy and less of a challenge for her to betray him, but rather quite the opposite. Whatever little difference it makes.
And he can admit to himself that there was a certain point after which he did not want to be right about her. But because of that as much for any other reasons, he knows it can only be a good thing that she is now out of their lives again.