A/N: Consider this as a sort of... Valentine's present? With Irene Adler as our darling Cupid...ess. O.o Anyway. Equal mix of light humour and seriousness, but a tad more serious than PMS. (By which I meant Post-Marital Sabotage, not... the hormonal one.)
Disclaimer: No, it is not mine, evidently.
Enjoy the romping, and please don't forget to review!
A Lady's Touch
I. The Lady Insists
The jewel was a little too large to be proper, but Irene Adler wasn't one who bothered about that.
For her, it was just the perfect size: the size of a knuckle, a great green ellipse that winked splendidly from amongst her deep brown curls. Of course, it was actually intended to be worn as a brooch; but Irene, who had never quite approved of dressing in the societal norm, had decided it would be all the more charming worn as a rather ostentatious and unexpected hair ornament.
"I don't think that trinket belongs to you, Miss Adler."
Irene leaned forward in the glass to admire it better. "If I am to believe all that I am constantly being told, Sherlock, it would seem as if I don't own anything at all."
Sherlock Holmes – puffing contentedly at his pipe at the breakfast table of 221b Baker Street – only scoffed, the smoke jetting out of his lips in a spurt. He was dressed as he tended to dress at home, with no John Watson to make sure he didn't catch cold – in a pair of light trousers held precariously up by a belt, a white shirt that had not been properly pressed or buttoned, and a pair of scuffed, unpolished boots that he had evidently not bothered to bend down and lace up. To complete the rather haphazard look, an unfastened red necktie had been carelessly slung underneath a messily upturned collar.
"You know I really should turn you in to Scotland Yard."
"But you won't, will you, Sherlock?" Irene turned from the mirror and gave him a playful smile. "That's why I like you so much, you know. You distrust the police as much as I do."
"For different reasons, Miss Adler."
"Oh, they are not so different. The police amuse me; they only manage to bore you. Both emotions are exclusively reserved for the superior of intellect, and so I believe I can say we understand each other on that point – don't you?"
Holmes shot her a sharp look over his pipe.
"What I can't seem to understand, Miss Adler, is why you are here in my rooms at all."
"Didn't you miss me?"
"I would not dare to presume, Miss Adler, that whether I missed your presence or not has any bearing at all on the visit in question."
Irene settled back against the low table, leisurely removing her long silk gloves. Her nut-brown eyes sparkled with their usual mischief. "That wasn't what I asked, Sherlock."
"I will answer your question when you've answered mine."
"Why you are here today."
"Ah," said Irene, drawing the word out. She tossed the shed gloves onto a chair before making her way towards the seated detective, her fingers lightly brushing against his shoulder. "The ever-elusive motive. Well, you're a detective, Sherlock; shouldn't you already know? Can't you read it, perhaps, from some abstract clue about how I've dressed, or my voice, or how I move about the room?" She paused, leaning over him with a provocative grin. "Or can it be that I've finally succeeded in puzzling the greatest human mind in London?"
Holmes arched a brow. "Only London?"
"I cannot speak for all Europe – though of all the minds of this great continent, Sherlock, yours must certainly be the most conceited."
"You flatter with the utmost charm, Miss Adler," said Holmes, smiling as he pulled away. "Although I don't think I can accept the title. Our Prime Minister is still alive, you know."
"But have I puzzled you?"
"It depends on your definition of puzzled."
"Do you know, then, from where I have come today?"
Irene watched as Holmes wandered towards the bay-window and looked out into the street below. "From Dr Watson's home. To console him, perhaps, on the recent loss of his wife."
"He told me you had not visited yet."
"That is an accurate summary of the current state of affairs, yes."
Irene fell silent, sharply observing every nuance of expression in the back Sherlock Holmes presented to her; the sudden stiffness that had entered the muscles of the neck, the way he seemed adamant not to face her. There were an infinite number of clues in that back, clues that Holmes usually kept fiercely under his guard – the fact that they'd leaked through in such a moment only emphasised what Irene already knew.
Finally, she sighed. Her voice was startlingly sober.
"I'm very sorry for it, you know, Sherlock. She was a very good woman."
"You met her?"
"Not in person, no. But any woman who could remove Dr Watson willingly from your side must have rather considerable merits of her own."
"Is the doctor..." Holmes trailed off, then suddenly cleared his throat. "Well, he must be very upset, of course."
"He is alright. He is in good health." Irene felt, rather than saw, the detective's relief. "But you should still visit, Sherlock; he needs you right now. I'm sure he did not mean what he said to you – "
"He meant it."
"I know he meant it. He blames me in part for her death, Miss Adler; I am certain of that. I know it is so."
"He has forgiven you."
"I haven't forgiven myself."
"Sherlock, this is not like you at all," Irene rebuked, but keeping her voice very light and gentle. "From my knowledge, you are always the first to forgive yourself, especially when something is entirely your fault."
"You could be speaking to your own reflection, Miss Adler."
"Well, I do own we share quite a few vices, yes; but at least bull-headedness is not something I share with you. It doesn't go well with pearls, you see, and anything which doesn't go well with pearls isn't worth having – at least from a lady's point of view." Irene sighed when Holmes didn't try to reply. "You really must go and see him, Sherlock. He is all alone."
For a long moment, Holmes said nothing. Then, suddenly, he turned around and gave Irene Adler a piercing look.
"Was that the sole mission for your visit, Miss Adler? Or was there something else as well?"
Irene smiled and snapped out her fan. "That was all."
"To induce me to visit Dr Watson's home."
Holmes seemed perplexed by this – which was a sight Irene very rarely saw, although it always brought her mixed feelings whenever she did. There was a vulnerability about Sherlock Holmes when he didn't have logic to prop him up, and Irene – who had long ago recognised this weakness and treasured it more closely than any pilfered gem – felt the familiar overwhelming sadness, the knowledge that she was not enough to bridge that fundamental gap inside him. She was a distraction, a brilliant, bright little bauble; she caught the light when there was light around her to catch, and she reflected it back onto those around her. A dazzling, inconsequential thing. A will-o'-the-wisp. She came; she flashed fire; she went. It had taken her three years away from England to realise this terrible, altering truth, a truth she had been unwilling to accept at first (Irene Adler, not able to snare the man she loved?), but with time had come acknowledgement, had come defeat. Those three years, Sherlock Holmes hadn't once tried to find her. And yet she'd heard from John Watson all the things Holmes had done – tricks, plots; elaborate, juvenile things – to make Watson return to Baker Street. She'd seen Watson's face – seen the confused, weary fondness – seen the exasperated way he'd described everything, seen the half-smile that had followed, irrepressibly.
She'd known then, finally, what it all had meant.
Even if Holmes and Watson didn't realise it yet, Irene Adler did with a clarity that was frightening.
So when Holmes gave her that childish, bewildered look that shot straight through her armour and into her chest, Irene Adler didn't say anything. She didn't smile; she didn't try to laugh. She didn't try to make a witty jest.
Sherlock Holmes needed to find out for himself that there was a part of him – buried perhaps very deep, but still there – which needed John Watson, desperately.
A part which would tell him he didn't need Irene.
"You are quite possibly the worst gentleman I've ever met, Sherlock."
Irene watched, entertained, as Holmes shot a quick glance out of the hansom cab window. The sixth time in five minutes. Irene Adler was counting.
"I couldn't possibly be the worst, Miss Adler. Not considering the sort of society you associate with."
"My, that could be construed as a very ungracious insult," Irene exclaimed laughingly. "I shall have to strike you on the face with my glove, if you're not careful, and then you will be forced to fight a duel. Dr Watson would take up my side, no doubt. He'd shoot you for me. And he'd enjoy it, too."
"Yes, no doubt he would."
"But could you shoot him?"
"What a thoroughly intriguing couple you are," Irene mused, which earned her a shrewd look from her companion. "I meant couple as in two people, of course, not as two persons involved romantically – although from the reports of your bickering these last three years, such a phrase would not be applied incorrectly, I think."
"Dr Watson has been kind enough to give me some details of your relationship, yes."
"He wrote you?"
"Certainly not. He told me – this morning."
Holmes looked out again. Seven, Irene thought smilingly.
"This cab is going too fast," he said eventually. "We are turning into Curzon Street already. This is really quite unacceptable. At this rate, we will reach Cavendish Place at precisely twelve-thirty-three."
"And is there any objection to us arriving at precisely twelve-thirty-three?"
"It's too soon."
"You're afraid of seeing him."
"I am not," but Irene saw the look on his face, the fleeting flash of uncertainty. "I merely don't want to trouble the good doctor so close to lunch; he always lunches at one, you know. It doesn't make sense, since he breakfasts around about ten, and three hours is certainly not enough time to digest all that toast and eggs and tea, but every time I speak to him about it – "
"Rambling is an indication of nervousness, Sherlock," Irene cut in, tapping him on the knee with her fan. "And he breakfasted early this morning. I saw him at nine. In fact, I very much doubt that he slept at all last night."
"Watson never neglects his sleep."
"He did this time, Sherlock, I assure you." Eight. "Oh, do stop looking outside. You are in the presence of a lady. Out of form, you might at least pretend to stare at her, instead of at whatever it is you're looking for in the outside street. It would only be polite."
"We are on Dalton Street."
"That is no excuse for your lack of gallantry."
"The last time I was aware of such, Miss Adler, gallantry did not constitute staring at young ladies in hansom cabs."
"No, that falls into the lot of common manners," said Irene airily. "Gallantry involves staring and paying pretty compliments. This is a new bonnet, you know."
Nine. "It becomes you charmingly."
"There, that wasn't so hard, was it?" Irene sighed as Holmes gave a disinterested "Hmm" in response. "Although for the sake of sincerity, you might actually look at the bonnet in question before paying the compliment. But no matter. You are out of practice, I guess. I can't think that Mrs Hudson would have any praise-worthy headwear."
"Must this cab go so fast?"
"Sherlock," and Irene's voice suddenly turned earnest, "you are rather studiously avoiding all my attempts at distracting you. You need not worry. Dr Watson wishes to see you, I'll swear to that."
"He said as such?"
"He did not have to. Call it a... woman's intuition, if you will. You men are always terribly hopeless with this sort of thing."
Holmes looked at her abruptly. "With what sort of thing, Miss Adler?"
Irene smiled. "With knowing what you actually want."
"I never have that issue," countered Sherlock Holmes stubbornly, casting his grey eyes at the window again. "I always know exactly what I want, and right now, I want this hansom cab to slow down. Cabman? Sir! Slow the horse down, will you? The lady is feeling faint."
"Why, what a dreadful liar you are, Sherlock! I don't feel faint at all."
"You certainly look faint."
"No, Sherlock, that is not how you pay a compliment. There is an art to compliments! I'm afraid you aren't a natural in it. The modern euphemism for faint is fair of complexion; you should remember that, next time you want to slow down a cab."
Holmes made a noncommittal noise at this, settling back in his seat with unconcealed agitation and tucking his unshaved chin onto his chest. Irene smothered the fond smile that leapt to her lips, opting instead for a sort of wry amusement. It was easier to hide behind amusement. Pretending she didn't take anything seriously in all the world was a skill, a finely crafted mask that she wore with double-edged care around Sherlock Holmes; but always in the perpetual fear it was slipping, that within a single, unforeseen, unguarded moment, he might see through it entirely and lose all his prior interest in her – or worse, that he might pity her. Irene knew she'd rather die than have Sherlock Holmes pity her.
"Are you going to come in?"
Irene jerked sharply out of her thoughts. "I'm sorry?"
"Will you come in with me? When we... get there. You know."
"Would you like me to? I'd hate to impose upon an intimate reunion between Dr Watson and yourself."
"I'm rather expecting a loaded revolver, in truth."
"Oh, Sherlock," and Irene leaned forward to pat his hand reassuringly, "Dr Watson is not so very ungallant as that. He wouldn't shoot you without giving you plenty of warning first. And then you'd have time to run out the door, or out a window, or hide yourself behind my skirt."
Holmes chuckled at that, and Irene sagged a little in relief.
"That's better. You see? It is not like you are going to be crucified."
"I should have told him about Mary."
"None of that, now."
"It's true, Miss Adler; I should have told him the very moment I knew."
"I don't think I quite like you today, Sherlock. I preferred you without a conscience, and thoroughly unscrupulous; you were much more dashing then. And anyway, my maxim is never to dwell on the past – it makes one seem horribly self-indulgent, you know. Ah, here we are: Cavendish Place. You may escort me out of the carriage, Sherlock."
The street was a busy one. All over the pavement and the cobblestones there was a great activity, a great sense of predefined purpose; a coordinated and corroborated feel to the all-consuming, reeling mass. Ordered chaos. Gentlemen – gold-and-ivory-tipped canes tucked pompously beneath their arms – bowed politely to ladies they recognised, hailed cabs, walked briskly down the street with gold-gilt pocket-watches in their hands. Ladies moved beneath lace parasols in groups, chatting amiably, gowns hidden beneath long cloaks. And then the blurry region of the less reputable: clothes not so smart, faces not so well-powdered, carrying boxes, carrying carpet-bags, voices a little too loud when they spoke. A few urchins dashing about bare-foot. Servants on errands. Heat coming off cab-horse flanks. Not a single distinctness in the entire spectrum of people; but a vast continuum, in which one type blended into another, in the same way that each house facing into the street blended together like row upon row of bricked teeth. Each apartment had no lack of delicate charm – but each one's charm was so similar to that of its neighbours that, delicate or not, they all seemed alike. Such was London – so compressed and so minutely diverse that the overwhelmed senses had no choice but to step back, to squint, to take only the general idea to avoid being swept away by a voluminous whole.
That was obviously not the approach of Sherlock Holmes. Irene looked on, an indulgent smile on her face, as his grey eyes swept calmly over the street, no doubt committing every important detail to memory.
"As much as I adore you, I have no overwhelming desire to spend the remainder of my existence in this cab, you know."
Holmes threw one final glance out of the window (Irene sighed and thought resignedly, Ten) before opening the cab door and letting himself out. The outside air was fresh and clean – crisp with the approach of a long-awaited summer and the promise of oncoming days of heat.
"Why, you were wrong, Sherlock," said Irene teasingly once Holmes had helped her onto the pavement; "It is only twelve-thirty. We are inexcusably early."
Holmes busied himself in paying the fare. "Yes, quite."
"Shall we stand on the pavement for a moment, then? Or brave Fate by ringing the doctor a full three minutes early?"
Knowing full-well which of these options Holmes would be inclined towards, Irene didn't wait for an answer, instead hooking a gloved arm into the detective's own and manoeuvring him (a tad forcefully) towards Watson's front gate.
Holmes baulked at the steps. Irene's answer was a curt jab in the ribs with her fan.
"Now, Sherlock, no trouble, please."
"Please don't make a scene. I usually adore them, provided they're made over me; but I have absolutely no interest in making one over you. Up the steps, now."
"Miss Adler – "
"Shall I ring? Or shall you?" Before Holmes could furnish some other excuse, Irene stretched out an elegant hand and rang the bell. "There. It's done. Now, we wait."
"He may not be home."
"Sherlock, don't be ridiculous."
"He may be busy with a grievously injured patient."
"He will have another grievously injured patient in a moment, Sherlock, in the form of you if you do not cease this childishness," said Irene, but there was a pert little smile on her lips.
Holmes gave her a pouting look. "Are you threatening me, Miss Adler? I thought you were in love with me."
"Oh, I am in love with you, Sherlock; that's why I'm doing this."
Irene had kept her voice light and flippant, her smile winning, but try as she might she couldn't look into his face. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Holmes frown, surprise and sudden confusion rising in his grey eyes. She instantly regretted her impulsivity.
"Miss Adler, what are you – "
Irene's smile broadened, recognising a lifeline when she saw one. "Dr Watson."
To her relief, Holmes immediately abandoned his attempt to puzzle her out and turned to his friend, eyes now crackling with a multitude of emotions that Irene Adler scrutinised carefully. It was only around John Watson that Holmes became transparent – his indifference, his projected imperturbable calm always faltered just that tiny fraction whenever Watson was in the vicinity; not enough for the doctor himself to notice, but just enough for Irene's experienced eye. A glance that lasted just that little too long; a smile, after Watson had turned away. Little chips that fell from the high, hard walls Sherlock Holmes, in his logic, had built for himself. And now, Irene distinctly recognised the things that flashed across Holmes' half-open face: the surprise, the joy, the concern, the denial. The fear. And then an all-encompassing coolness as Sherlock Holmes reconstructed the walls once again.
A brisk, slightly impersonal nod. "Doctor."
Watson, who had evidently not expected to see his former room-mate on his front doorstep, seemed at a loss for words. He stared. His brows gathered, puzzled, together. "I – Holmes, what are you doing here?"
"Miss Adler wished to pay you a visit; I agreed to escort her as far as here, but since I have an urgent appointment in under an hour – "
"You are not leaving?"
"I'm afraid I must. It is a new case, and so you'll have to excuse – "
Catching the way Holmes was looking towards a nearby cab, Irene's quick brain instantly threw up a plan and she cut in before he could manage another fatal word.
"Sherlock, I think I feel a bit faint."
Holmes shot her a look that was almost panic. "Now, Miss Adler – "
"I'm sorry doctor," said Irene, suddenly leaning very hard on Sherlock Holmes, all the while keeping a very firm grip on his elbow, "I was not feeling very well in the cab on the way here – Sherlock can attest to that. It's this horrid corsetry. What demands you men make upon your women! I can scarcely breathe. May we go inside, perhaps?"
Watson – ever the gentleman – immediately took a step back from the doorway. "Why – yes, the sitting room is just upstairs on the left, if you need – "
"A couch? Yes, I'd like that, thank-you, doctor. Sherlock, you may help me in."
"Miss Adler, you know I can't really stay – "
Irene leaned harder. Her brown eyes blazed him a warning above her smile. "Come now, Sherlock. You'll take some tea. I insist."
"I have an appointment to keep – "
Irene looked up, surprised at the way Watson had said those words. They'd seemed simple enough, but Irene could tell by the startled, semi-reminiscent look on Holmes' face that there was something that she could not understand – something higher – that had passed between the two, something intimate, with the utterance. She looked between them, trying to comprehend. She couldn't. And she knew she never would; those words had recalled for Sherlock Holmes and John Watson something to which she, as an outsider, was not privy.
It hurt her a little, but she pressed it down. Vaguely, she was aware of Sherlock Holmes saying, a tad uncertain, but still managing to sound light-hearted:
"Watson, you remember we talked about this."
There was an unexpected half-smile on Watson's face, as if at a memory. Irene watched as he turned away.
"Well, you heard her, Holmes. The lady insists."
The first five minutes were undeniably awkward, Watson quietly laying out tea and Holmes – uncharacteristically silent – pretending to be preoccupied. Irene, stretched out on the couch with pillows under her head, was perfectly aware that said awkwardness was due entirely to her presence; knew she was a precarious lid on all the volatile emotions straining to be let out between the two.
Sometime in the fourth minute, Watson finally said, "I had not expected you to visit me again today, Miss Adler."
Irene laughed at the stiff restraint in Watson's tone. "Oh, I won't stay long, doctor. I came to... deliver a package, merely. I'll just catch my breath, and then I'll be off."
"You won't stay for lunch?"
"No; I fancy I shan't." Irene stood with a small sigh, brushing the creases from her frock. "The tension in this room is quite unbearable, and my doctor advises me never to take food in such charged atmospheres as this – apparently it makes one liable to stones of some sort. Most unpleasant."
"I trust that tea does not count as food," said Watson, the restraint melting a little at her pertness.
"No – but I must be going all the same."
"Shall I call a carriage then, Miss Adler?"
"The weather is charming, so I think I shall walk. Now, my cloak – ah, thank-you, doctor." She smiled at him and moved towards the door. "There won't be a need to see me out; you had best stay with Sherlock, lest he explode something in your absence. He has a habit of doing that – but I'm sure you're already aware of such."
"Yes, I am," and Watson gave Holmes a small, dry look.
"I've never exploded anything in your rooms, old boy," Holmes protested then, artfully widening his eyes. "Not once. Not even a single teapot. Or a vase."
"You've exploded plenty in Baker Street to make up for that, Holmes."
"You are always exaggerating my experimental exploits, doctor. I distinctly remember that in all our time at Baker Street I never managed to explode a vase more than twice."
Irene laughed, throwing him a sideways wink. As she left she saw the doctor was standing by a bookcase, his strong arms folded over his chest, his eyes down – his clothes still that of the deepest mourning – but an unmistakeable, genuine smile on his face.
The problem, Irene decided, was one of clothes.
The skirt was an especially difficult thing. It was wide and ungainly; the epitome of the latest Parisian fashion but so heavy that, standing on the narrow roof-ledge of Watson's apartment at Cavendish Place, Irene Adler was beginning to believe all the stories she'd heard of London women getting themselves blown over cliffs in high winds. She wished – not for the first time in the past five minutes – that she'd had the good sense to steal some of the doctor's clothes before stepping out onto the doctor's roof; they wouldn't have fit her, wouldn't have come anywhere close, but at least she would have had the consolation of knowing she wouldn't be splattered onto the sidewalk should Mother Nature decide to pick up the breeze.
Luckily, John Watson's sitting room window did not face entirely out to the street. The English were unobservant as a rule (Sherlock Holmes, perhaps, the only one excepted), but Irene knew that even the most cloddish of Englishmen would notice a lady standing on a roof in broad daylight if said roof was right in front of the street. She would have had to listen at the sitting room's keyhole instead – which would've been easier, but which would've have felt distinctly more...
And Irene Adler was definitely not an amateur in these things.
Granted, after five or six minutes she was beginning to regret her more professional – but infinitely more uncomfortable – choice of the two options she'd had available to her; but reasoned that, since the roof in question ran just under the desired sitting room window, she could bear the discomfort. For the moment, at least.
From inside, she heard footsteps approaching the window. She shrank back, heart racing, as Dr John Watson threw it wide open (no doubt Holmes was smoking that infernal tobacco of his) and then promptly left it again.
"I had no idea you still remembered that, old boy."
Irene inched forward, peeping one eye over the sill just as Watson reached the sitting room table.
"How could I forget?" The sound of pouring tea. "She did empty a glass of wine over you, that time. And it was thoroughly deserved on your part, Holmes, might I add."
"I cannot agree, my dear Watson. It was she who insisted – "
"You could have refused."
"And be accused of ungallantly denying a lady?" Holmes scoffed, parking his pipe back into his mouth. "Preposterous. Utterly preposterous. I'm surprised you'd even suggest such a thing."
"So you chose the infinitely more gallant option of insulting her to her face instead."
"She had no stomach for my talents. That is no fault of mine."
"You deserve to be taken out and whipped," but Irene heard the amusement in the doctor's voice. "You are the prime example of mind over manners, Holmes. It won't serve you."
"It's served me quite well in the past."
"That's because, in the past, you lived with me."
"And you made up in manners what you lacked in mind, so we were bound to get along, weren't we?" Watson snorted and Holmes flashed him a self-satisfied grin. "But on the subject of us residing together, old boy – you know there's nothing to prevent us from returning to that arrangement. Your old room is still obligingly empty."
Irene winced at the sudden tightness that entered Watson's face, and knew that Holmes had pushed too far too soon, once again.
"Mrs Hudson has been asking after you – "
"You know I cannot move back to Baker Street."
Holmes fell silent at that, moodily staring down at the floor. Finally, he said: "And why not?"
"After what you've done – I'm surprised I even let you into the house today. If Miss Adler had not been there, I don't think I would have been able to."
Irene shifted a little closer, trying to catch the answering expression on Holmes' face. When she did, she saw it was decidedly blank; wiped clean of everything, the grey eyes giving nothing away.
"So you have not yet forgiven me, old boy. Well. I suppose I shouldn't have expected anything less."
Watson sighed, sank into a basket-chair. "It's not that I've not forgiven you, Holmes; it's just – I can forgive, I just cannot at the moment forget. Perhaps in a year or so – "
"A year is very long, old boy."
"Long – but necessary." Watson suddenly looked tired, as if the momentary respite afforded by the banter of a few minutes previous had run out, and now all the things that had been weighing on his mind before Holmes' arrival were piling themselves back up again. "You were wrong not to tell me about Mary, Holmes. I can forgive that, because I too was at fault, but I cannot forget it. You know it was a blatant betrayal of our friendship."
"She did not wish me to tell you, old boy. I could not break her trust."
"So you broke mine instead."
Holmes seemed to have nothing to say to that, his eyes sinking gloomily to the carpet again. His rumpled form sagged a little in the armchair. Irene bit her lip, gaze raking over Watson's face in the hope that she would find some small clue there – but the doctor had propped his brow against his hand, and it was difficult to make out any of his expression.
Finally, the hand dropped away and Watson sighed. Motioned weakly towards the table.
"No, old boy, I'm alright."
A moment passed. Then: "I never asked you before, Holmes, but – why didn't you tell me? And please don't excuse yourself by quoting Mary's wishes. I know you well enough to understand it was not any misguided sense of discretion which held your tongue."
"I know what you're thinking, Watson – and I tell you, it wasn't because of that."
"It wasn't because of what?"
"That I wished Mary gone." The detective's voice was low and sincere. "It is true that, of these three years that you have been married to her, I have not been... content. But I would never go to such lengths to remove her, Watson. That would have been openly malicious, and – despite what you may think of my morals – I would have felt it beneath me to do such a thing. I don't play games when human life enters into the equation."
"You've played such games before, Holmes, you know."
"Yes; with your life, and with mine. We both knew the risks, and we were both of us willing – at least, most of the time. But with Mary, old boy? That is not quite the same thing. Initially, I was quite against keeping her condition from you; I knew it would hurt you when you found out, you see, and I knew you would find out. It was only a matter of time. Sooner or later, you'd catch her during one of her coughing fits, or see the blood she tried to hide on the pillows or the sheets. You'd notice that she was getting much too thin – and so on. And then you'd panic. You'd worry." Holmes paused, not looking up. "Mary knew that."
"Was that why – "
"She was convinced that nothing could've been done to help her, and she was convinced you'd destroy yourself trying to prove otherwise."
The knuckles on Watson's hands were white, but he somehow managed to keep his voice steady. "She told you that?"
"Late last March."
"And..." Watson cleared his throat slightly, the half-suppressed pain tight against his face. "And by that time, you'd already known about the consumption for – how long?"
Holmes looked at him. "A week. At most. She was a truly remarkable woman, Watson; not only had she been able to hide her illness from you, but she had also managed to blind me to it for at least a year. I say that in earnest, old boy – I knew nothing of her condition until March last year."
"Upon which you confronted her?"
"Had she seen a doctor?"
"She told me she had already been to a doctor in Piccadilly, and that he had – not been very encouraging."
Watson's jaw clenched. "She only saw one doctor? Why did she not – "
"She said she'd felt there was no real need. His diagnosis had confirmed what she'd already felt intuitively, and as such – "
"Intuition is not anything definite!" Watson wrenched himself up out of the basket-chair in one sharp, rough movement and moved distractedly towards the mantel. "There are treatments – diets – we could have moved her to a warmer climate, somewhere South, perhaps – "
"Perhaps." Holmes' voice was so quiet, Irene had to press herself right up against the window to hear it. "But in any case, she would not permit me to tell you anything."
"March wouldn't have been too late – we could have done something – "
"I'm sorry, old boy."
"You're sorry – !" Watson threw his hands up in a wordless gesture of despair. "You're sorry – oh, Holmes. You don't understand how – if only you'd told me, if only you'd said something – "
"She did not wish it."
"And I would not wish you to conceal anything from me – but you chose to honour her wish over mine, Holmes! I could've helped her – "
"She wanted your love, she did not want your worry. Watson," and Holmes leant forward to put a hand on Watson's arm, only to have it shaken off again by the doctor; "Watson, stop. Stop for a moment. Listen to me. You could not have done anything. I could not have done anything. I agreed to say nothing because I saw she was right. By late March, Watson – winter had passed, and it had taken its toll, she could barely speak for coughing – "
"I never heard her coughing."
"You spent so much time at the clinic that winter, old boy, that in all truth I'm not the least surprised."
Watson took a step back as if he'd been slapped. Then for a long, tense moment, there was no sound at all; outside by the window, Irene held her breath, trembling, afraid of what she suspected was coming, afraid of the words she felt would soon mangle their irreversible, terrible way from John Watson's mouth and into the air.
They didn't come.
Instead, it was Holmes – tone soft now, apologetic:
"I did not mean to hurt you with what I said just then, my dear Watson. Believe me – I did not mean it."
The tension passed out of the room in a rush as if suddenly too tired to keep itself up. Watson sighed deeply, dropping himself back into the chair and passing a hand over his eyes. Holmes – unused to such situations – tried to comfort him by gingerly patting his arm, as if he expected any moment to be rebuffed.
"I'm very sorry about Mary, old boy. I really am."
"It's alright. It wasn't your fault." Watson let out a shaky breath. "I apologise for my loss of temper, Holmes. It was selfish of me to blame you for Mary. I – I don't know what came over me."
At the relieved silence which followed this, Irene felt her entire body sag with the same sentiment – so much so that she almost crossed herself. Not being religious, however (something else she shared with Holmes), she settled for leaning heavily against the window ledge instead. Everything would be alright now; she could feel it acutely. It was an intuitive thing – and Irene Adler's intuition was rarely wrong, if ever. No. The first hurdle, she knew, had been overcome: that of forgiveness, true forgiveness, something Holmes had not expected but which Watson had ultimately found it within him to give.
Irene smiled a little to herself. Well, she'd done a good morning's work; enough to earn her lunch at the Savoy, at least. With this new thought in mind, she was just in the process of easing back off the roof towards the open window of Watson's study when there was the sudden sound of tearing fabric from behind.
Her head snapped back. What she saw almost made her groan.
And then the next moment Holmes was leaning out of the window of the sitting room, his pipe in his hand and his eyebrow raised.
For a moment, the two of them just looked at each other. And then the detective's face broke into an amused little grin as he took in the sight of Irene Adler there on the roof, the silk of her bustle caught on the sill and ripped all the length of a dainty box-pleat.
"I had not expected to see you again so soon, Miss Adler," he said; "but in any case, I think you had best come in."
A/N: I think this is perhaps one of the first stories (that I've read, at least) which have told of the Holmes/Watson relationship from Irene Adler's point of view. I'd originally intended to write from Watson's POV, but since both Post-Marital Sabotage and Quindecim Secundus were from his POV, I decided that I'd try something different. And anyway, sometimes I think Watson has a thoroughly one-track mind. Irene Adler would be more... fun. ;)
Let me know in a review if you like what I've done so far – so I'll know there's a point finishing the second part of this story, which I've currently done about half of.
Please, please don't forget to review, my lovelies!