A/N: A humble Two-Shot no longer, my friends; halfway through writing this Chapter, I realised belatedly that it would be nigh impossible to cram everything into two meagre Parts. Absolutely no room to manoeuvre. So I've extended it, though Lord knows how many Parts there'll be now; I'll just... let it flow. Hope you guys don't mind.
Thanks to my reviewers for Part I: Kyla45, roxxihearts, janinePSA, zombified419, mildetryth, euphrates, BrieStarWarsQueen, Shinobi Mi-chan, UbiquitousPhantom, Lucy'sDaydreams (as to your request for smut - I'll see what I can do, but no guarantees :wink:), speechbubble, Positively, SutaakiHitori, Middle-Earth Muggle, lime-kitteh, NeverFree, Huehuetecti, raven612, Smoochy, Master Li, adevotedreader, Fayet, glasswalker, swabloo, Always a Bookworm, Shella, wild4rose7cool, and Curreeus. You guys are the reason why I write what I do. ;)
Enjoy this instalment, and don't forget to review!
II. A Fact of the Age
The difference between the common criminal and the artiste was a very subtle one:
For Irene, who undoubtedly belonged to the second category, such poise in the face of crisis came naturally. Even with only half of her bustle intact – which was a thing of regret, as the frock was new – and with Sherlock Holmes opening the sitting room door with a wry, unsettling smile on his face, she was still able to swan into the room as nonchalantly as if she'd just come in from a party.
From his basket-chair, Watson arched his brows at her.
"I hope the weather on the roof was as charming as you'd hoped, Miss Adler?"
"Oh, it was splendid. Although," and Irene turned towards Holmes, who had been busy in closing the door after her, "you really must change your tobacconist, Sherlock. I could smell nothing the whole time except for your pipe. It was most nauseating."
Watson gave a short laugh at this, tapping his fingers against the arm of his chair. "And was the expedition worth the nausea, Miss Adler? Did you manage to hear anything of consequence?"
"I heard plenty of consequence, and absolutely nothing of interest."
"Nothing? I'm afraid we've disappointed you, then."
"Oh, I would not go so far as to call it a disappointment," said Irene airily as she began to remove her gloves. "The most consequential things are always the most disinteresting, like politics. May I have some tea, doctor? Thank-you. It is most uncomfortable out there, you know. And you two did not seem to want to let up."
She did not miss the slight note of discomfort that entered Watson's eyes at this.
"I... may have gotten a little carried away, yes."
Irene smiled and took it upon herself to lighten the mood. "You are such a very upright man, doctor, that I can't imagine you getting carried away by anything short of a global cataclysm, or a very forceful rendition of Die Walküre. Which is a pity – you are so very handsome to look at, you know. Sometimes I think I wouldn't mind carrying you away for myself. Indeed, I think you would suit me perfectly."
"What of Holmes, then?"
Irene paused, pretending to consider for a moment. "Well, I had not really given thought to that; but now that you mention it, doctor, I suppose – well, yes. It's quite true that you would suit him perfectly too."
"That was not what I meant," said Watson, startled but laughing.
"None of us ever know what we mean," although she took the utmost care to scrutinise Watson's face. "It's a fact of the age. Am I not right, Sherlock?"
Irene blinked at the strangeness in Holmes' voice. There was a sudden calculating look on his aquiline features, and the sharp way with which he was watching her was unnerving; as if he'd only just recognised some elusive clue that had been woven all along into Irene's repartee, and was only now trying to gauge how reliable it was, how complete. Irene smiled at him. Quite flirtatiously. But she matched his bold stare without wavering – knowing that if Holmes respected anything, it was tenacity – and let her message reach him silently through her gaze, confident he was capable of deciphering it.
I am in love with you, Sherlock; that's why I'm doing this.
You would suit him perfectly.
"My dear Watson, whatever was the matter with you? You seemed distracted through the entire thing."
Irene, her arm threaded through Watson's left, bit hard on her lips to suppress a smile as the three of them passed down the Royal Opera House steps.
"Why, Sherlock, he cannot have been more distracted than you; and you are always passing yourself off as being cultured, too. I think it a most disgraceful deception on your part, you know."
Holmes gave her a surprised look. "You think me unrefined, Miss Adler?"
"Certainly. You paid absolutely no attention to the opera – "
"Which is unforgivable, I expect?" quipped Watson, lending her a small smile.
"Oh, no, doctor; I have nothing against him for that. Indeed, it is quite uncultured to listen to operas with alacrity, nowadays – everybody simply winds up believing you're deaf. No, Sherlock; you paid absolutely no attention to the opera, which is forgivable, but you paid absolutely no attention to me either, which is not." She leaned across to straighten the detective's tie, earning herself an irritated glare in response. "You spent the entire Third Act staring at Dr Watson here, and now I'm quite jealous. I'm no fun jealous, you know. As they say, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."
"I did not stare at him," Holmes mumbled, jerking away as she tried to fix his collar.
Irene clucked her tongue and fixed it anyway. "Then how did you know he was distracted, Sherlock? If you weren't staring."
"I deduced it."
"Without any data?"
"I never make deductions without any data."
"And you can't gather data without observation, and you can't make observation without staring, Sherlock. It is quite a terrible habit of yours. No subtlety at all. Whenever you are in an inquisitive mood, everyone around you winds up with one less layer of skin."
"Shall I call a cab for us?" said Watson, breaking into their playful tête-à-tête. "Or shall we remain standing on the pavement here until the two of you run out of things to say?"
"Oh, we shall never run out of things to say," laughed Irene as she returned to his side; "At least, I shan't. I am too over-educated for that."
Watson shook his head with a smile. "I'll get us a cab."
"Two cabs, if you please." And then, when he looked at her in surprise, "Oh, I am sending Sherlock away in disgrace. I shan't have him in the same cab as you and I – he will ignore me entirely and stare at you the whole while, which does terrible things to a woman's vanity. And besides," she added, more seriously, "I want to speak to you alone for a few minutes, doctor. It would be easiest for me to do so in a cab."
"Speak to me? Alone?"
"Oh, don't look so apprehensive. I promise I shall be perfectly well-behaved."
"You are never perfectly well-behaved," grumbled Holmes from Watson's other side. "And I'm not taking a separate cab, Miss Adler."
"Sherlock, there's no need for you to be jealous. I shall return the good doctor to you once we reach Cavendish Place, and I assure you he'll be none the worse for wear."
"I have had experience enough not to trust your assurances."
Irene laughed, curling her arm through Watson's again. "Really, Sherlock, is it quite decent for you to be so suspicious of a lady? The most harm I could do to Dr Watson in a cab would probably be to kick him in the shin with my boot, and even then he'd feel nothing through all this lace."
"That is not the reason for my concern, Miss Adler."
"That is because you have no reason to be concerned, Sherlock."
Watson rolled his eyes and turned away, leaving the other two still bickering by the street.
"I'll go and call the cabs," he said dryly over his shoulder, "or else we'll never get home tonight, I think."
Irene hummed, her chin tilted up provocatively as she gazed out of the window of the hansom cab. The faint, whitish lay of smog on the rooftops and chimneys of the passing houses had the thin consistency of buttermilk, and at the thought of the clean, crisp air outside, she pulled her velvet cloak tighter about her shoulders.
Her voice was light. "Didn't you enjoy my choice of the opera tonight, Dr Watson?"
"I enjoyed it very much, Miss Adler."
Irene hummed again and turned to look at him.
"There's no need to be polite, doctor. If you did not like it, you have only to say so. I'm a lady, but I am not so delicate that I cannot bear to have my operatic tastes challenged, you know."
"It was very well-sung."
"But you did not like it." Irene nodded as if confirming some little detail to herself. "I do not have Sherlock's level of insightfulness, perhaps, but I do have a very good lorgnette to make up for it. You were distracted through the entire thing. Most notably, doctor, during Act Three."
"It is nothing."
"In my experience, nothing is very rarely, if ever, nothing."
Watson cleared his throat, obviously desiring to change the subject. "I believe you wished to speak to me about something, Miss Adler? Something you did not wish Holmes to overhear?"
"I wished to discuss the opera, doctor," answered Irene, with a flippant smile, "which was what we were doing until you tried to divert the conversation just now. Such a venerable masterpiece, La Traviata. One of my all-time favourites, I believe."
The surprise made itself known on the doctor's features. "The opera?"
"Did you know, perhaps, that Verdi based its story upon Alexandre Dumas' La Dame aux Camélias? And that Violetta Valéry had her tragic roots in the celebrated French courtesan, Marie Duplessis? It is said Dumas actually had an affair with her. I, for one, don't believe such a thing. No self-respecting lady – or self-respecting courtesan, for that matter – should ever have an affair with a writer, let alone a French one; it makes one appear so very sentimental, you see. And sentimentality is becoming quite fatal nowadays. To be sentimental is to be romantic, and to be romantic is to be over forty years of age. But Verdi handles it quite admirably, I think."
"I have no idea what you're trying to say."
Irene laughed at the openly perplexed look on Watson's face. "But don't you agree? The most admired courtesan in all of Paris falls mutually in love with an upright man, and then ruins it all with ill-conceived notions of preserving his honour by rejecting him. He fumes at her rejection, publically insults her, leaves her, before discovering her self-sacrificial motives and subsequently confessing his love to her, only to have her die in his arms of consumption as the curtain falls."
"I thought you said you liked the opera, Miss Adler."
"Oh, I like it immensely. Sentimentality in oneself is unpardonable, but sentimentality in others is thoroughly amusing."
"I did not think the opera was amusing," said Watson, a little indignantly. "It was quite tragic."
Irene tapped her fan with her fingers lazily. "Tragedy, doctor, is misfortune falling upon oneself. Comedy is misfortune falling upon somebody else. That is the only difference between the two, as history has proven time and time again."
"All the same, I cannot see how you treat it so lightly, Miss Adler."
"I do not treat it lightly," said Irene then, suddenly turning serious. Her eyes sobered and she leaned forward to look into Watson's face earnestly. "I am merely trying to make a point – but perhaps I am not being direct enough. Let me try again."
"I chose the opera in question for a reason, Dr Watson. Said reason was not to make you uncomfortable – as you undoubtedly were, due perhaps to the similarities you saw between Violetta Valéry's condition and that of your recently departed wife's, in Act Three."
Watson blinked. His lips parted a little. "How did you – "
"Please do not take this the wrong way, doctor, but you are quite transparent."
"Yes, I suppose I am," conceded Watson, his face clouding. "You are right, Miss Adler, in any case. That point was indeed the source of my unease."
"I hope you forgive me for it."
"You are entirely forgiven."
"Good." Irene smiled at him and patted his knee. "As I said, I had not intended to make you uncomfortable with my choice. Rather, I had intended to present to you... a certain social dilemma. Perhaps a moral one, too."
Watson frowned. "Why – "
"The why shall make itself clearer in time. At present, let us concern ourselves with the actual dilemma." Irene settled back into her seat, her stance relaxed but her brown eyes incongruously sharp. "Violetta Valéry was a courtesan, doctor. Had she a right to claim the love of a respectable man? Let us step outside the realm of the operatic stage for a moment, and pretend this Violetta is genuine, although if she were I'd certainly advise her to leave her dressmaker. The tulle on her last gown was hideous. No, doctor – I don't want sentimentality, you understand. I want to know what you truly believe."
"I don't see why this is relevant."
"Everything is relevant," smiled Irene, winningly. "I am pretending to be Sherlock Holmes. I am pretending to ask a series of seemingly irrelevant questions to arrive at an astoundingly relevant end."
"And what end is that?"
"It wouldn't be an end if I revealed it now, would it?"
Watson sighed, although there was a wary amusement in the bright blue eyes. "Very well then, Miss Adler, I shall indulge you. In the case of Violetta Valéry – I do not see why there'd be any rightful objection against her loving whomever she pleased."
"She was a courtesan, doctor."
"And you are a lady. I don't think that bears any weight on the question."
"I don't think we are quite looking at this in the right light," and Irene, laughing. "A lady and a courtesan are two different things. There'd be no gossip if I were to marry a Baron tomorrow morning, but if a courtesan were to, there would most certainly be plenty."
"I did not think you were the type to flinch at gossip, Miss Adler."
"Oh, I am not. I love scandals. They make a woman interesting."
"Then what – "
"But I am not the person under scrutiny here, doctor." Irene gave him a very meaningful look. "Let us pretend – that you are the beloved gentleman here, the Alfredo Germont, so to speak. Horrid name, 'Alfredo', by the way. Now – since you are Germont, would you accept the attentions of a courtesan, knowing full-well the consequences involved if you did?"
Watson looked taken aback at this. "I – I don't know."
"I suppose I had better make the consequences more clear. Gossip, certainly; but also social isolation, moral isolation, the silent disdain of every person around you, the spiteful laughter in drawing rooms far from yours where you, in your disgrace, are no longer invited. You would be in exile in your own country, doctor, in your own street. Friends would turn from you. Your family would turn from you, lest your depravity besmirch their own good name. And always you would have to brave the superciliousness, the wordless mock in every courteous smile, bear in silence the scorn of hypocrites. All these things – and possibly more. For love. Could you do it, I wonder? It's worth pondering."
"You bewilder me," and Watson's open face showed it plainly. "I have absolutely no understanding of why you wish to know these things."
"I can confidently assure you that I have my reasons."
"I hope so," and his mouth frowned beneath the moustache again. He tapped his cane distractedly against his boot. "I suppose – well, I'm not being sentimental, Miss Adler. But I think, in such a circumstance, I might take the risk."
"Might I press you so far as to ask you why?"
"This is a very thorough interrogation for the sake of a fictional character, Miss Adler."
"She was not fictional, she was Marie Duplessis. Her predicament was real, doctor, which is why I so adamantly seek your opinion upon it."
"And why is my opinion – "
"You are not following me," interrupted Irene, silencing him with an amused look. "You are bent upon particulars, doctor, and in doing so you are quite missing my point. Perhaps my example was not clear enough. Let me see – you are Germont, yes. And Violetta Valéry shall be... Sherlock Holmes."
"Just for the sake of example, you understand. I cannot obviously equate myself with Violetta, for I am, as you pointed out previously, a lady."
Watson gave a snorting laugh. "Holmes will not be pleased when he hears about this."
"Oh, he doesn't need to hear of it, doctor. I don't intend him to. Now, within the constraints of our example, doctor – if Holmes offered you his... affection, would you be in any way inclined to accept it?"
"I can't imagine Holmes offering 'affection' to anyone or anything," said Watson, still laughing.
Irene made an impatient gesture. "Violetta, then. Forget Sherlock for the moment. Violetta. Would you endure the rejection of the social masses out of love for her?"
"This is entirely absurd."
"It is a very simple question, doctor."
"If I really loved her, then yes, I suppose I would." Watson's lip had twisted into an indulgent grin. "I am not overly fond of Society in any case. And anyway, I would not hear of something so superficial standing in the way of mutual happiness. Provided she loved me also, of course."
"And if she did?"
"Then the issue would be quite settled, wouldn't it?"
"Good!" Irene nodded approvingly. "I am so very glad to hear you say that. Let us return to Sherlock, then."
Watson's grin paused for the slightest moment on his face. "What of Holmes?"
Irene laughed, taking both herself and the doctor by surprise. The light of a streetlamp skimmed over her high cheekbones and for a moment, she was her usual uncaring self once more.
"You are looking apprehensive all over again! It is really quite charming. That is the only reason why I so enjoy scandalising polite society – they always manage such delightfully disapproving looks, as if no-one had ever been divorced before, or eloped, or worn evening gowns cut so low on the chest. How delicious is English morality! One feels almost obliged to break them out of the habit."
Watson looked at her cagily, refusing to be so easily deterred. "What of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Adler?"
"Well, he is your closest friend."
"He is indeed."
"He was not happy with your marriage, I believe?"
"He was initially unhappy, certainly," admitted Watson, still managing to look quite lost. "He threw up a lot of inconsequential fuss."
"But after four or five months, he began to desist."
"Yes, he did. He stopped trying to vilify Mary, in any case, which I took to mean he'd accepted my marriage to her. But Miss Adler," and the puzzled look intensified, "I don't see how this has any bearing upon – "
"You thought it was because he'd accepted your marriage?"
"Well, Miss Adler, I can't see any reason why else."
"Perhaps, doctor, it was because of the simple fact – that he saw you were happy as a married man."
The carriage around them began to slow, the steady drum of the cab-horse's hooves on cobblestone thudding to individual, distinctive clops. Irene shot a look outside the window – they were turning now into Cavendish Place, and just ahead of them, in the copper ring of streetlamp light, stood Sherlock Holmes. His hansom cab was nowhere in sight. There was a sulkiness in the hold of his shoulders that told Irene that he'd been there for a very long time, and before her quick mind had time to think better of it, her entire body warmed at the sight of him. For all his self-assurance and his intellect, Irene Adler knew she'd always think of him in the very manner that she saw him now – alone on the pavement, hands shoved into overcoat pockets, dark hair blown far beyond common decency by the wind; the childlike irritation to the set of his lips that betrayed his impatience and his guarded unease. Worry. For someone, but not for her. She turned back to that someone with newfound urgency, desperate to make him understand.
Watson seemed startled by the sudden gravity in her eye. "Miss Adler – "
"Violetta Valéry," Irene broke in, voice low as she tapped her fan against Watson's left wrist, "made the fatal error of self-sacrifice. For the honour and happiness of someone she loved, she was willing to give up her own right to both. A noble gesture – but the trouble with noble gestures is that they are never recognised until it is far too late." She leaned closer, propriety and manners be damned. Her words were sharp as they stung the air. "Alfredo Germont was far too late. I only hope you, doctor, being a little wiser now than he, will not allow yourself to make the same mistake and overlook a fresh chance at happiness that, even now, is right before your face."
"I – " Watson stuttered, his eyes flickering over her face. He wet his lips. The hansom pulled to a stop. "I don't think I understand – what are you saying exactly, Miss Adler? I hope you are not propositioning me."
"Propositioning – ! No, doctor!" and at the unexpected notion Irene burst into a ringing laugh, sinking back into her seat again. "No, I am not – propositioning you. Good Lord, no. Sherlock would have me arrested and hung."
"Then what – "
"As I stated before, doctor, I cannot equate myself with Violetta. Whom Violetta Valéry stands for, in this immediate case, I shall allow you the privilege of puzzling out for yourself."
"I don't think – "
"The two of you are quite unpardonably late."
Irene turned to the narrowed eyes of Sherlock Holmes at the hansom cab's window without missing a beat. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw John Watson frown, still distracted by the words she'd said to him.
She smiled to give Watson more time to compose himself.
"Now, Sherlock, no unpleasantness until we've had tea. One can bear almost anything with a good cup of tea; sometimes I think it is the only sensible reason why the English have remained civilised for all this time. Although," she added as an afterthought, "whether they are civilised or not is a matter of debate. Having spent so long in your company, Sherlock, I find myself beginning to think – "
"Are you alright, old boy?"
Watson gave him a preoccupied look. "What? Oh, yes. Yes, Holmes, I am fine."
"What has Miss Adler been saying to you?"
"There's no need to worry about my bad influence, Sherlock. I've merely overwhelmed him with my conversation, is all. He just needs a minute or so to recover from my wit."
"Not the only thing he needs to recover from, I think," and Holmes' eyes were deep in analysis. "A cab trip that bordered on almost an hour – you must have dispensed a bit more than just epigrams, Miss Adler."
"Oh, epigrams and advice," said Irene indifferently, motioning for the detective to open the cab door. "The two things left to a man nowadays that he does not need to pay a fortune to receive – although I did have to bribe the cab-driver with a sovereign. But no matter. Dr Watson is still in one piece."
"You gave him advice, Miss Adler?" prodded Holmes then, unable to keep the suspicion out of his tone.
"Of the very best kind."
"And what kind is that?"
"The kind one inevitably regrets in the morning, because one has completely neglected one's own best interests." Irene allowed herself to be escorted onto the pavement. "And I am quite unused to neglecting my own interests, Sherlock. It always manages to make me feel quite, quite heartless."
"And no-one would ever describe you as being heartless, Miss Adler."
"I hope not," and Irene laughed, though her eyes were sad. Sherlock Holmes could wound steel in his ignorance. "I hope not, Sherlock. Because then they would, for once, be right."
The brooding look on Watson's face did not fade upon relocation to his own sitting room. Irene Adler, too smart to presume otherwise, knew that Holmes had invariably picked up on this fact, which explained the searing glare he was currently directing at her back.
Feigning nonchalance, she moved towards the fireplace and warmed her gloved hands beside the flames.
"I hope you're not still sore about me putting you in a separate cab, Sherlock," she said. "It was for your own good, you know."
"But you wouldn't know anything about that," Irene continued with a sigh. "I've known you for almost five years now, and you are still incapable of seeing what's good for you and what isn't."
Holmes, his chin propped up against his wrist, gave a muffled grunt and shifted in his basket-chair.
"Watson, old boy, I need a stiff drink. You don't mind if I crack into the brandy you have in the liquor cabinet, do you?"
"Do you think it quite proper to drink while a lady is present?"
"Miss Adler," said Holmes to her severely, "if I had thought you to be the type to faint at the mere sight of a snifter, I would never have made your acquaintance at all."
"I don't recall you had any choice in the matter," put in Watson, unexpectedly. The other two turned to look at him, upon which he arched an eyebrow in response. "You were paid to make her acquaintance, Holmes. And to keep it long enough to relieve her of a certain photograph."
"Oh, I remember that," said Irene in a bright voice. "I still have that photograph you know, Sherlock."
"You told me you'd destroyed it, Miss Adler."
"Did I? How peculiar." Irene rearranged her features into something resembling surprise. "I would never destroy that photograph. I look far too pretty in it. Didn't I show it to you? I quite outshone the reigning King of Bohemia, which is the real reason why he wants it back, of course."
Holmes, who had been busily invading Watson's spirit case during all this, now stood with two filled snifters in his hand. He crossed the room to pass one to the seated doctor, who accepted it from him without a word.
"Any other surprises, Miss Adler, while you're in the confessional?"
"What an inappropriate metaphor, Sherlock! You know I don't go to Church."
Holmes sniffed, tilting his head to one side to fix a beady grey eye on her. "It's never too late to discover God, Miss Adler. Or at least, that's what the doctor here is always trying to tell me."
"And he is quite right, I'm sure, but I'm infinitely more devastated by the fact it appears too late to discover any supper." Irene looked about her, clasping her hands. "Doctor, don't you have a housekeeper?"
"No," droned Watson, staring into his glass.
"You had one once," said Holmes with a sharp glance of surprise. "A Mrs Turner, I believe. She made the most dreadful toast."
"Mary always made the toast."
"Did I say toast? I meant coffee." Holmes cleared his throat a little. "Erm. Miss Adler, fix me another drink, won't you?"
"Certainly not, Sherlock. I'm not married to you." Irene grinned at the irritated look on his face. "The doctor will oblige you however, I'm sure."
Watson smirked. "I'm not married to him either, Miss Adler."
"No? How truly extraordinary."
"Never mind," Holmes muttered, crossing to the liquor cabinet himself. "Listen, Watson old boy, you really must get a housekeeper again. I don't know why you let Mrs Turner go. It's always such a nuisance having to fix one's own meals. It's the only demmed reason I tolerate Mrs Hudson at all." He stopped. "You have been fixing your own meals, haven't you?"
Watson gave him an amused look and said, "Of course I have, Holmes."
"You've lost weight, is all. A full seven pounds, old boy, if I am not entirely mistaken. She must have been gone – what, three or four weeks? A month of makeshift meals, my dear fellow. Really, I'm quite surprised at you. You must get someone else in at once."
"My lease is only until mid-August, Holmes. It does not seem worthwhile to employ a housekeeper for only one month."
"Mid-August?" Panic twitched itself over his face, then was gone. "That's awfully soon, old boy."
"Yes, it is."
Holmes frowned, turning the twice-emptied snifter over in his long fingers. Irene stared at it, thinking somehow that he was going to drop it, but he didn't. He put it down on the breakfast table.
"Well, I suppose it isn't too soon, my dear Watson. It'll give you enough time to pack, in any case. Though how we'll fit all your new things into Baker Street, I can't imagine – Mrs Hudson will have a heart attack."
"I'm not going back to Baker Street, Holmes."
The frown deepened, but Irene could see Holmes had expected this. "Then where will you go?"
"Mary's brother has a place in the country; I will go and stay with him for a while."
"Mary's brother!" Holmes looked up, his eyes suddenly flashing. "You would rather stay with a man whom you hardly know, than return to your old rooms at Baker Street?"
"I need a change of air, Holmes."
"My brother also has a place in the country. We could – "
"This is not about whose brother has a place in the country," Watson interrupted, almost impatiently. "This is about me needing to get away, Holmes. I need to get away. From everything. From everyone."
"From everyone, Holmes."
"By which you mean me primarily, since you have no other intimate friends in London."
"By which I mean I need some time to think, alone, Holmes."
"You cannot go, doctor," rejoined Irene, feeling two sets of eyes immediately alight on her. She studied her face in the mirror over the mantel to avoid having to meet either one. "You cannot be so cruel as to leave me in town alone with Sherlock indefinitely. You know what we are like together. Without you here we'd tear each other to ribbons, and then if you ever decided to return to London you'd find the pair of us adorning some dowager's frock."
Watson smiled at her, but the resolution in his eyes didn't fade. "That would doubtless be a regrettable occurrence, Miss Adler, but – "
" – you would still permit it? That is not the conduct of a gentleman, you know – and after I thought we'd quite understood each other after our little talk in the hansom cab, too! No, really, doctor. You cannot go."
"It is already settled."
"Nothing is ever settled until the day it is done."
"I have written Mary's brother, and he has already written back; he expects me."
"There is nothing in this world more enjoyable, doctor, than doing what nobody expects you to do."
Watson sighed, getting up tiredly from his chair. Irene followed his progress across the room via the mirror, her brown eyes trying to read in his posture some sign of relenting, some tiny aspect of give. Holmes – still tucked next to the breakfast table – was trying repeatedly to light his pipe.
"London smothers me," said Watson at last from the window. "It is too... familiar, Miss Adler. Have you ever had that feeling? That everything is happening a little too... close?"
"You mean that everything is happening a little too soon," Irene pointed out, arching her brows.
Watson tipped his head in thought. "Yes, I suppose that's so."
"I had never thought you the type to run away, doctor."
The strong shoulders locked. "That is not the reason why I'm leaving town, Miss Adler."
"No? Perhaps I've misread your intentions, then. My apologies." Irene shrugged, turning back to Holmes. His questioning look tweaked a smile from her lips and she went to him as he made another attempt on his pipe. "Oh, Sherlock, you are a positive fright with matches. Didn't anyone ever tell you never to play with fire? Or, at least, never to do so while staring at Dr Watson? No? Well, you are being told now. You'll have the Brigade on us. Here, I'll do it for you."
The moment it was lit the detective took it out of his mouth, jabbing at the air with it to prove his point.
"Watson, old boy, you cannot leave next month. You have your practice. You cannot in good conscience abandon that, you know, even if you persist in abandoning me."
"I am not abandoning you, Holmes. There's no need to be so theatrical."
"I'm going, Holmes."
"Then let me come with you."
Watson closed his eyes in bottled frustration. "I'm going alone, Holmes, and that is an unalterable fact."
"It's not a fact, old boy, it's a probability. There is a distinct difference between the two, and as such, one should never state probabilities as facts, as in this instance if you were to relocate to the country I would undoubtedly have no choice but to follow you – "
"Sherlock, you must be more delicate than that," laughed Irene, though her eyes were slightly alarmed. "It takes a woman to handle these things properly. That is why we always wear such beautiful gloves. Just give the doctor and me a moment, won't you? And there's no need for that calculating expression; I shan't elope with him, I give you my word," and she snagged Watson's arm and pulled him towards the door. "I am merely going to tell him off. Charmingly, of course, like a lady should. Now doctor," as she closed the door firmly behind them; "you must not leave London. You must give me your word."
"Miss Adler – "
"Sherlock needs you. He hasn't had a case in months."
"Whether Holmes takes on a case or not – "
"Don't you see what it means, doctor?" Irene caught his gaze, held it with an iron will. "Sherlock Holmes. Without a case. In London. Alone. If anything were to happen to him, you'd be miles away, far too away to help. Oh, don't give me that look, doctor; I know you too well. I read you like a Parisian pattern book, and those are made for the illiterate. No – even if you were away from London, doctor, you'd still worry about him; you know you would."
"He's thirty-two, Miss Adler. He can take care of himself."
Irene frowned. "I thought you had forgiven him."
"I have, Miss Adler; but this is... different."
For a moment, Irene Adler leaned back, said nothing. Studied Watson's face from under her lashes. From another room, the metallic clang of a clock striking twelve came through thick, piled on the carpet in rips and folds.
And then Irene pulled a breath together.
"You are afraid, doctor," she said at last.
Watson jolted, and Irene didn't miss the sudden way his fingers tightened themselves into fists by his side. The blond head dipped a moment, before resurfacing completely wiped clean of emotion.
"I am not afraid, Miss Adler," and his voice was toneless and cool. "There is absolutely nothing for me to be afraid of."
"Oh, there are quite a few things, doctor. Guilt, for one. Rejection, for another. Consequence, conscience, and moral reproach – if you are not afraid of Society, then you are afraid of yourself. You haven't, perchance, forgotten what we spoke of in the cab, scarce an hour or so ago?"
"Of course not."
"Then take my last piece of advice, doctor – stay. You must. Surely, in your heart, you know that you must."
"I don't think I know anything for sure any more," and Watson looked away in a manner that made Irene's chest clench. A terrifying swatch of emotions warred over his face, one after another, darkening his blue eyes. "Ever since Mary passed away, Miss Adler, everything around me has been so confused, and I – "
"You must have loved her very much."
"Yes." A hard swallow, the pale line of his throat sharp and cold. "Yes. I did."
Irene leaned in, taking Watson's chin gently in one hand. He faced her reluctantly, still smarting a little over his loss of control; she didn't press him. She gave him a dazzling smile instead.
"There's no need to be afraid of what you feel, doctor." And then, at the startled look on his face, she lightened her tone. "One should never be afraid of what one feels. One should ever only be afraid of two things in this world – death, and an overdone carne al ragù."
A small scoff. "And which is the more bearable of the two, Miss Adler?"
"Oh, death, doctor; of that I am positively sure. At least, I've been told it is less pessimistic – you don't spend its entirety wishing you were dead, you know, which is more than can be said of a badly-cooked meal."
Watson gave a half-hearted snort, though Irene saw that the shadow on his face had eased somewhat.
"You never talk sense, Miss Adler," he said after a while. "Sometimes I think you let your clever tongue run away with you."
"Provided it doesn't run away without me, doctor, I am not overly concerned," she laughed back at him. "And provided you don't run away either, and leave Sherlock here in London alone, I think I shall be quite content. There is no need to be afraid of what you might do," and her voice was low, unexpectedly gentle. "You are not defiling Mary's memory by feeling this way; but you will be defiling Sherlock's devotion to you if you don't acknowledge how you feel on the matter, and I know how you feel, doctor. I see it too well."
The blue eyes wavered for a moment before breaking away. "Have I always been so easy to read?"
"No, of course not. You were much easier to read three years ago."
"That is some reassurance at least," said Watson, with something that half-resembled a smile.
"I should not think so, doctor. Men should leave mystery solely to the women – it is our right," said Irene, and she graced him with a roguish smirk. "And we do it so much better. But you will stay, won't you? Promise me that you will. After all this effort I've gone to to make you stay, it would be a grave affront to my personal honour if you still persisted and went, you know."
Watson's smile faltered. "I – I can't promise that I will not go."
"But I see that you have not promised that you will go either – which is enough for me, and should be enough for Sherlock, too. I shan't ask for more at present. I am satisfied."
And Irene Adler put her gloved hand back onto the door.
A/N: She's not so much a matchmaker as a marriage counsellor, I suppose...
Part III is in the works; it's proving a little problematic, mainly due to the fact that Sherlock Holmes is a more formidable hurdle than Dr John Watson, and I'm trying to keep the pace as realistic as possible without dragging it on for too long. I should be able to finish it by next week.
I hope I handled Watson's hesitation well? Him and Holmes are as damnably stubborn as mules. Let me know in any case what you think. I didn't want to make this Chapter too serious, but it's difficult to pepper attempts at wit throughout something like this without making it farcical. God, I hope it's not farcical. It isn't, is it? :feels insecure:
Oh – and in answer to a PM I received – my version of Irene Adler is a mish-mash of the movie-verse and Oscar Wilde's Mrs Erlynne, Mrs Allonby, Lord Goring, and Mabel Chiltern. Hope that, as such, she's enjoyable?
In any case, please don't forget to review!