A/N: Thank you all for your wonderful reviews, alerts and favourites. This chapter contains my own version of the Reichenbach Fall and its aftermath, and brings my story to the end. It's been a pleasure to talk/write to you, and writing this story left me feeling a little better about myself than I usually do. I hope you enjoy the final instalment: and do remember to keep on shipping Sherlock and Irene!
He tries to keep track of her exploits, but it's not always easy, what with the companies closing down and people killing themselves anyway because of the crisis.
Yet he does pick up some hints if he looks for them: subtlety, finesse, grandeur. A touch of a feminine hand.
He knows she's still out there, having a ball.
It's been eight months, and not a single message appears in his inbox.
He decides to go after Moriarty in the end, the whole situation getting way out of hand. Mycroft manages to obtain some intelligence that turns out to be mildly useful, something about a 'villain lair' in Switzerland. He packs his bags, books a ticket, and tells everyone he's going on a holiday. John suspects something, of course he does, and insists he'd tag along. He shrugs and snorts. "Do as you wish, but remember this wasn't my idea."
The night before their departure, his phone vibrates. Don't go there.
Why do you even care?, he replies, angry and disappointed and angry, mostly at himself for being so affected by this.
I just do.
He doesn't answer, and she doesn't press on the matter.
They fly to Zurich, then take a train to Luzern, hoping to get some more information before continuing down to Meiringen. It's easy to lose John in the winding alleys or down by the waterfront, to smoke a contraband cigarette—or seven—and think about what he's about to do. Moriarty needs to be stopped, that much is certain. The price… well, all the important things in life seem to come with a price tag attached, don't they?
It takes him nine days to find out everything he needs to know.
On the tenth day, he gets up at five and walks to the train station, hoping to catch the first train to Meiringen. Just before boarding, he sends a text, and smashes his phone against a stylish rubbish bin made of iron.
It takes him quite some time to catch up with Moriarty, to lead him away from the hotel he'd been staying in, into the woods, close to the scenic attraction of the place, a picturesque waterfall. He's tired, and Moriarty is too, although neither of them would ever admit it.
They spar verbally, and when this doesn't work, fling themselves at one another, blows, punches, kicks and twists, everything he knows in theory, but hates in practice.
They're hanging on the edge, and pause long enough to exchange vicious looks and sad, knowing smiles.
"So this is it."
And then he pushes, and the other man pulls, and they stumble down, down, down, stars, moons and nebulas flashing in front of his eyes.
John's voice. He really is quite perceptive—and late.
His first assessment after he regains consciousness is: this cannot be the afterlife, unless the air of whichever imaginary dimension he'd found himself in is one of extremely stuffy and heavy quality. He tries to open his eyes, but his eyelids are far too heavy. His limbs feel wooden, heavy and stiff, and he cannot move, try as he might.
"Don't do anything," a voice says next to his right ear. "You might tear the stitches, and I don't have any more anaesthetic."
A moist swab touches his lips, and he gratefully licks them, opens his mouth. "H-how lo…"
"Four days, seven hours, and forty-three minutes. Now go back to sleep."
He'd rather ask some more questions, get more answers—but the exhaustion takes its toll, and he falls back into a dreamless pit.
It's easier when he wakes up next: the pain is still the most overpowering sensation he feels, but there's some clarity as to his condition and general whereabouts returning slowly with every passing minute.
He can count at least six broken bones, but there's bound to be more; he's got a splitting headache and is nauseated. The room is hot and stuffy, dust particles irritating his nostrils. Wooden walls, sloping roof and simple furniture suggest a mountain lodge or a cottage of some kind. There's a clock on the nightstand, its hands reading twenty minutes to eleven, in the morning judging from the grey, dispersed light coming in through the only window. A bunch of bandages and a cluster of pills; some syringes and glass vials—somebody seriously injured has been treated in this room, and he's positively sure that 'somebody' is him.
The door opens with a creak. "You're finally awake."
She is paler and thinner than when he'd seen her last. Her hair is longer, flowing loosely down her back. She's wearing simple, bleak clothes: soft fabrics in several shades of grey, sturdy shoes, no jewellery or make-up. Just a clean, thoughtful face, lips pressed into a thin line.
"You were out for eight days," she says as she stands by the bed and checks his forehead for fever. "Delirious, most of the time. In case you were wondering: left femur and humerus broken, three ribs cracked, ruptured spleen, and a concussion. You were incredibly lucky, Sherlock."
"How did you…?"
She shrugs and sits down on the bed, fingers picking at a lose thread in his blanket. "I simply had to watch Jim's movements. I knew you'd follow him anywhere."
"I thought you no longer worked for him."
"I didn't. I don't. But that doesn't mean I didn't keep in touch."
"Besides, that text of yours—'Goodbye, Miss Adler': did you really think I wouldn't catch up on that…?" She's still looking down, face impassive. "Dr Watson left yesterday," she says after a long pause, "but I'm sure some of your brother's people are still around. Would you like me to place an anonymous call?"
He shakes his head, frowning. "Moriarty?"
"They found him the day before yesterday."
He detects sadness in her voice. "Would you rather have it the other way 'round?"
She looks at him coolly, her face contorting into a bitter grimace, before standing up and tearing up a disposable syringe package. "I like you better when you're asleep."
So sleep he does, the drug she injects him with making him drowsy within seconds.
She feeds him, washes him, changes the dressings on his wounds like a professional nurse. Cold. Impassionate. Unattached.
They don't talk much. She relates to him the progress of the investigation of his presumed death, informs him about the changes in his body, the speed of the recovery. Sometimes she brings him newspapers, mostly German, and translates the more complicated passages if he asks her to.
Sometimes he can hear her, walking around the cottage in the evenings, or sitting in the room next to his, watching the telly.
He sometimes wonders whether she'd come to him if he called.
He never does.
Four weeks later, a doctor comes in—some local fellow, keeping quiet most of the time and grumpy when he's not—and removes the plaster from his arm. "The leg needs another three weeks," he informs him, and Sherlock wants to hurl things across the room in frustration.
Irene comes back into his room after seeing the doctor out, and stands at the feet of his bed, arms folded across her chest. "I have a prepaid mobile, bought it last month, the account is clean. Would you like to call somebody?"
He shakes his head, avoiding her gaze. "What for?"
"There are people looking for you. Worrying about you. Caring about you."
It's her turn to shake her head. "Let me put it another way: it's a smart phone. You could always download some games."
"Those are dull, and unimaginative. Don't you have anything? Chess, perhaps?"
She finds two mismatched sets of Scrabble stuck in some faraway corner of the cottage. He makes a new, bigger board, and cuts the missing letter out of some cardboard. Two days later, they play for the first time, Irene sitting cross-legged on his bed, her knee resting against his blanket-covered thigh.
Both of them try to go for words like 'insufferable', or 'pretentious', or something equally charming.
He wins the first game by three points, loses the second by four.
"I need to leave next week. I have work to do."
She puts 'advant' before his 'age' (he's had rotten luck with letters this time). "I'm not sure what to do with you."
He doesn't even have to think to lay down 'dis'. "What are the options?"
Irene leans down to pick up a wine bottle she'd left on the floor (she firmly refuses to let him drink, claiming it might have some undesirable side-effects on his drug-fuelled body) and takes a long gulp, not bothering with a glass. "One, I could leave you here. Restock the fridge, chop down some wood for the fireplace. You should be alright, it's only for a week or so. Only—it's you, so you would probably get into some kind of trouble the first night I was gone, and I'd have a cripple or a cadaver to deal with after I got back."
"Which brings us to option number two."
"I take you with me. You stay out of harm's way, let me do my thing, and enjoy the weather."
"There's also a third one: I go with you, sabotage your plans, get you arrested and go back to England a hero."
She nods, contemplating the board. "There's that, too. Which would it be?"
He loses the game by two points.
It's not that much different from being locked away in some God forsaken cabin, he muses as he nibbles on pieces of apple, mango and melon, sitting in a comfortable armchair by a large window overlooking the sea. Irene's been gone most of the time, coming and going as she pleases, changing from a power-suit into a cocktail dress, a bikini ("They have a lovely indoor pool, you should try it someday"), a full-length evening gown. He simply sits on the bed, in the armchair, in the tub, his leg properly elevated, pouts, and waits for her.
Naturally, he can deduce everything about the people she meets (a divorced CEO of an international bank, heavy smoker; a gay purchasing manager in charge of business on the Far East from a well known electronic corporation, cat lover; et caetera, et caetera), the reasons behind the meetings and so on, but it no longer satisfies him. After all, this is no real work, no actual mystery.
He's bored, frustrated, and his leg itches. He wonders if he could take the plaster off, scratch until it stops, and then re-plaster the limb himself, just for the fun of it.
On the fifth night he finally explodes.
Irene's been gone for the better part of the day, came back to have a completely silent dinner with him, and is currently getting ready to leave for a final banquet with her 'customers'. Sherlock sits on the bed, surrounded by loose pages from so local newspapers (he's trying to learn a new language, anything to kill the time), crumpling some of them into tight balls, and throwing them against the wall.
"It's no use, and you know it," he yells at the closed bathroom door. "The 'business' is a bust: you may try all you want, but no funds shall be transferred to that secret account of yours, they're far too cunning for that."
"What do you suggest, then?" she yells back at him over the buzz of a hairdryer.
"Skip the banquet. Order room service. I'm bored."
"And I should answer to you every whim… why, exactly?"
"Because you're responsible for my wellbeing."
She laughs out loud at that, and turns the hairdryer off. "Good one, Sherlock. I'm not your girlfriend; in fact, I'm not even your friend. I gave you an opportunity to go back to your life; several ones, if I recall correctly. You opted to stay—and now you're telling me you're bored?"
"Well, I am. Bored enough to seriously consider selling you to whichever government pays best."
"Don't be such a baby." Rustles, clicks and whispers of fabric suggest she is in fact planning to ignore his plea and proceed with that stupid dinner. He's bloody jealous now: not of her, and certainly not of the attention she gives to those pathetic little men—but of the life she leads, of the danger, the excitement, the constant surges of adrenaline.
He's an addict, deprived of his favourite drug. And she wouldn't give him the only thing that might calm him down a bit: bickering, discussions, arguments, intellectual stimuli.
She walks out of the bathroom, pinning the last lock of her hair in place, and he's forced to correct the last statement: there's one other thing that could, perhaps, take his mind off his hopelessly dull existence.
The dress she wears is a long sleeved, tight fitting, floor-length assembly of blood-red sequins, catching the light as she moves purposefully around the room. And when Irene turns to pick up a bottle of perfume, he realizes that the gown is backless, showing off the milk white skin that reflects the light even better than the shiny fabric.
"Are you that desperate to close the deal?" he asks hoarsely, knowing very well that he'd lost the next round.
"Maybe I just wish to indulge the fantasies of men who actually appreciate the way I look." She comes over to the nightstand, rummaging through the drawer to find her lipstick, and Sherlock reaches out to place one hand on her back, drag his nails down the cool, soft skin.
"What makes you think that I don't?"
She turns to face him fully, and puts one knee on the bed, leaning back and into his hand. "Do you?"
There's a tear on the side of the dress up to her hip by the time they're finished with each other. The white bed linen is covered with sequins, and the skin on Irene's back now bears long, reddish marks from Sherlock's nails.
He cannot see the side of his neck, but from the way it itches he deduces it's probably turning red, possibly purple.
Irene actually snuggles this time, her hand on his chest, fingers idly circling his nipple. He smoothes one finger down her spine, and she hisses as he irritates the broken skin. "That hurt, you know."
"What's a little pain, compared to the knowledge that you've won?"
She laughs bitterly and sits up, still playing with his nipple. "Have I? I would have thought leaving you here all hot and bothered was a much better way to handle this."
He frowns, pushing her hair away, tracing the lines of her neck and shoulders. "What's the score, then?"
She slowly shakes her head. "I'm not sure we're still playing, Sherlock."
And he suddenly realizes that she's right, which is the most disconcerting thought he'd had since Switzerland. "What does it mean?"
"Probably that you'll be leaving me sooner rather than later. Going back to your own life, as much as you despise the thought right now. We could never do this normal, domestic thing; we're not made for this."
"Do you ever wish we were?"
She stands up, takes the dress (or rather what has once been a dress) off, and crawls back into bed, into his arms. "What would be the fun in that?"
It takes them surprisingly long to actually drive each other mad.
Perhaps it's all thanks to the fact that, as soon as his plaster comes off, Sherlock is back to his old antics, nosing around the internet and playing God to the police in the majority of the European countries. Perhaps it's because Irene spends as much as six months per year travelling around the world, doing God (and Sherlock) knows what.
Perhaps it's the thrill they still feel at the touch of the other's skin, the taste of their arousal, the look on their face as the ecstasy consumes them.
Or the fact they can no longer end their Scrabble games in anything else but a tie, and they do love to play for win.
In the end, though, it becomes apparent that some relationships work better when they have an expiration date on them, and are ended before they turn completely sour and rotten.
He waits for her to come back from yet another escapade, his suitcase packed, a train ticket tucked safely into the inner pocket of his jacket. He sits in his armchair (the one that easily fits them both, especially when she's straddling him and there are not unnecessary clothes separating them) and smokes, thinking of the lazy mornings and hectic nights, about heated quarrels and equally fervent apologies, about the way she finishes his sentences for him, and the easiness with which he can predict whether her next scam will be successful or not.
They grew accustomed to one another.
They're also highly skilled at not talking to each other for days, inflicting wounds with purposefully hurtful words, and blaming the other for all the evil in the world.
It's an everlasting seesaw, never stopping, swinging them high and dropping them down within seconds.
And as much as he enjoys the highs, Sherlock knows the lows will soon murder all the pleasure of being with Irene.
Which, frankly speaking, he couldn't possibly take.
She probably feels the same, because when she opens the door and sees him sitting in the armchair with his knees pulled up to his chest, she simply smiles and drops her suitcase to the floor, her coat and the rest of the clothes following closely.
"So it's a goodbye," she says, climbing onto his lap and undoing the zipper of his jeans. "Better make it count."
He does every single thing she likes, and she returns every favour eagerly and thoroughly.
Afterwards, they stay in the armchair and smoke, her back against his chest, her hair tickling his nose. "You're going to miss me," she says, and he nods, pressing a kiss to the top of her head.
'I won't be the only one."
"No. No, you won't."
"Will you be coming to London anytime soon?"
"Perhaps. Should I give you a call?"
He smirks and turns her in his arms, capturing her upper lip between his, biting down gently. "Text me. I'll see what I can do."
Everyone's positively ecstatic to have him back. It's tiresome, it's irritating, and it makes his ego grow even bigger.
"Weren't you lonely, though?" John asks him on the third night after his 'triumphant return'; they sit in the pub where John's bachelor party took place, the whole 'old gang': John and Mary, Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade, Mycroft, of course, and Molly, very pregnant and very happily married Molly who still looks at him as if he were a big piece of chocolate cake. "After all, you didn't have any friends to help you out, did you?"
His phone vibrates in his pocket, but he doesn't check the message, not just yet. She would probably make him go and meet her somewhere, and they would freak out and put surveillance on him, and everything would go to hell.
"No, absolutely no friends. But I guess it was alright."
(And anyway, if he doesn't answer, she might simply come over to 221B. He kind of missed his own bed.)