Disclaimer: Sherlock doesn't belong to me. Obviously.
Chapter One – Dinner?
Irene feels it as soon as she enters the flat. Something is wrong. What is it? She reaches her hand inside her purse. There is a revolver in the secret compartment inside. She eases it our carefully, eyes darting around the darkened corridor. The living room is empty, half empty coffee cup on the table, exactly as she left it. The kitchen, dark and still, the fridge humming to itself. Turning the corner into the bathroom, Irene feels it. A faint breath of cold air across her face. Someone has left the bathroom window open, just a sliver.
She takes pulls the gun out of her purse, flicks off the safety catch.
"I know that you're here. You'd better show yourself at once." Her voice rings out cold, crisp and powerful: her London voice - a voice she hadn't used for months now. She feels an utterly irrelevant pang, nostalgia. Ridiculous.
She edges carefully down the corridor to her bedroom. The door stands ajar and she can see clearly that the duvet is creased – someone has been here since she left this morning. Someone has lain on her bed. Very carefully Irene places her hand on the pillow. It is faintly damp. Smells of her shampoo.
"Credit where credit is due." A deep voice reverberates from behind her. "This is almost the last place I would have expected to find you."
Irene whirls around, almost dropping the gun. Her heart is thumping, surprise, joy, fear stream through her all at once. He is standing behind the door, a tall still figure, face half hidden in shadow. Irene's heart constricts. He's alive, he's here, he's….
He's one of the most dangerous men you've ever met. Don't forget that now.
She swallows once, hard, and throws back her head. She is London Irene, Leboutins, lipstick and ice.
"Mr Holmes. This is – unexpected."
"Is it?" Sherlock Holmes takes a step out of the shadows, his sharp face thrown into relief by the light from the door. He is thinner than he was when last she saw him; the sharp angles of his face look positively painful, and his voice is hoarse. "Don't you watch the news, Miss Adler?"
"The news said you were dead." Irene points out.
"And you know how talented I am at arranging such trifles." Sherlock crooks his lips at her, a poor pretence at a smile. "Put the gun down, Irene."
Irene lowers the gun only a fraction. "First, tell me why you're here."
Sherlock's eyes gleam in the darkness. Is he angry? No, Irene decides, amused.
"I need your help."
"What sort of help?"
He looks away, eyes travelling the room, weighing up options in his head. How much to tell her. Irene shifts the gun in her hands. He'd damn well better tell her everything.
"For a start, I need a place to stay for a few days. Sleeping rough takes its toll."
"Is that why you appropriated my bed?"
"It seemed like a fair exchange." Irene recalls her own stay at Baker Street. He'd left the window open, not out of forgetfulness but as a tribute to the memoy of Irene's own little sojourn in Baker Street. Not a sentimental allusion, more likely a deliberate thought subtle message. Time to return the favour, Irene.
"I don't really do fair." Irene says flatly.
There is a trace, just the smallest trace, of a smile in his eyes as he looks back at her. "True, not quite your style. Nevertheless, you will help me."
Sherlock raises his eyebrows a fraction. "There are at least three answers to that question, Miss Adler– the most pertinent of which is that I can make it worth your while."
Sherlock looks down at her steadily. "I arranged your death Irene."
"And, if you wish me to, and I believe that you do, I can bring you back to life."
A long silence, as Irene turns these words over in her mind. Then, slowly, she lowers the gun. "What exactly do you mean by that?"
"I can make it safe for you to return to your old haunts, old companions, perhaps even your old name…. if you so wish." He casts a sarcastic look around the bedroom. Ugly flowered wallpaper, net curtains, unidentified stains on the wall. Her life, as of the last eighteen months. Of course I so bloody wish. "As long as you scratch my back, Miss Adler…."
Irene looks at the man in front of her for a long moment, assessing, calculating before abruptly turning and putting her gun back in her drawer, locking it tightly.
"Well then." she says briskly. "It appears we have things we need to discuss. Dinner?"
They sit in Irene's kitchen, Sherlock hunched slightly over the counter. Irene pulls out a packet of tortellini and plops it in boiling water. She watches her visitor out of the corner of her eye. He may be in a worse state than she initially thought, she realises. In the full light of the kitchen his clothes are practically hanging off him and his pale skin is almost grey, with an unnerving sheen. The way he hunches suggests he is in pain – some form of injury inadequately treated. The newspapers had said that he had jumped off a roof – perhaps he really had. She feels a stab of pity, which she quickly smothers. Playing nursemaid was not her style (not without a sizable pay check, at any rate). Sherlock Holmes, of all people, wouldn't expect that from her.
Still, if he is going to be of any use to her, he will need to be in better shape than he is in now.
"When is the last time you ate anything?"
Sherlock blinks up at her for a moment. "Are you being literal or metaphorical?"
Irene shoots him a whiplash smile. "Literal. For now."
"I found a Cornish pasty in a bin under a railway bridge – day before yesterday."
"I'm not sure which is a more disgusting thought – a literal second hand pasty or its metaphorical equivalent."
"I do not engage in sexual intercourse under railway bridges." Sherlock informs her cooly. "It was still in its packet."
"You couldn't buy food?"
"I could, but most shops have CCTV, and I need to avoid some very observant people. Anyway. I was in a hurry, and it was there. It was a perfectly adequate arrangement."
"Hardly." Irene points out. "You're as grey as a tramp's underwear."
"Considering I died two weeks ago, I think I am in rather good form.". An odd spasm pulls at the edges of his mouth. He turns slightly, cover his face with his hand.
"I'm fine. Headache. Result of low blood sugar, no doubt." Sherlock waves his hand. "Your pasta is boiling."
He's right – bubbles have risen to the surface of the saucepan, and the water has gone cloudy, overcooked pasta breaking apart in the water. Irene hates cooking. Life was so much easier when she could charm someone into doing it for her. Kate had always rather enjoyed being ordered to the kitchen – she'd even taken classes, taking pains to improve herself, whipping up elegant little gourmet meals in the style of Jamie, Nigella, Deliah.
Irene paused. It had been a while since she had thought of Kate. It was oddly painful.
Irene drains the pasta and divides it into two bowls. She plops Sherlock's portion unceremoniously in front of him. He looks at it without much interest.
"So. How did you do it?" Irene slides into the chair opposite him. "Fake your death?"
Sherlock sneers. "Can't you work it out?" he stabs at a forkful of pasta.
Irene considers. "Body double? It's hard to find a convincing one with its face intact, but you could have Doctor Watson identify it as yours – that ought to convince most people."
The pasta hovers in the air for a second, and then is returned to the plate untouched. Sherlock's face is, if possible, even paler. Interesting.
"Unimaginative." he snaps. "You have just described your own effort at playing dead."
"Not exactly." Irene says, with deliberate cruelty. "I didn't have any loyal friends to lie for me. I had to do it the hard way."
Sherlock turns his face away, a fraction of an inch. His long fingers tighten on the countertop.
"God." says Irene. "So he thinks you're dead too."
"It was necessary." Sherlock does a passable impression of detachment, voice neutral, eyes fixed determinedly on the room behind Irene – but Irene can tell that beneath that all concealing coat every muscle has tensed. The tension is radiating off him in waves.
"You should eat," she says, more softly. "Starving won't solve anything."
Sherlock shrugs, but picks up the fork again. They eat in silence. Irene thinks back to the day two weeks ago when she saw Sherlock's face peaking over the top of the newsstand. Suicide of Fake Genius! Irene had wanted to laugh. It seemed clear as crystal to her that the story couldn't be true – the man who had solved inexplicable deaths with a glance, who had cracked the code on her phone, the man who had rescued her from a terrorist cell – he couldn't possibly have killed himself. It was too, too pedestrian.
No, it was a set up, part of some glorious adventure, Irene thought, and she had gone about her day with a light step. She'd rather looked forward to reading about it in the papers when at last the full story came out. Then, when she had got home, she had looked up John's blog. He was my best friend and I'll always believe in him.
That had been a rather nasty shock.
She knew John Watson, she'd spent rather a pleasant afternoon with him in Baker Street chatting, watching Sherlock Holmes mutter and pace as he deduced. And Irene was a good judge of character. Nothing in John Watson's wry open demeanour could have led her to believe he was such an accomplished actor. And that blog entry – those two stark lines – rang with a very real pain.
She'd gone back over the news report, the descriptions of the death. She'd even broken her own rules and hacked into Scotland Yard's databases to take a look at the coroner's report. It had left her sick and shaking. Could that man, the most extraordinary, brilliant, pitiless man Irene had ever met really have met such an ugly, tragic, ordinary end? Could it – could he – really be over? Jim Moriarty was brilliant, Irene knew, and more than a little obsessed. Could he really have beaten the detective after all, and so completely?
Looking across at the man opposite, now scooping up pasta with suddenly discovered hunger of the half starved Irene thought that even if he hadn't been the death of Sherlock Holmes, Jim hadn't done too shabbily. He seemed to have done a pretty effective job of swinging a wrecking ball into Sherlock's life. The man before her was gaunt, strung tight, almost to the point of snapping (really why else would he come to her for help?)
"More?" she asks, as Sherlock pushes the plate away, empty.
Sherlock shakes his head.
Irene takes a bottle of white wine out of the fridge, pops the cork. She pours it into two glasses and pushes one towards her visitor.
"I don't drink."
"It's medicinal." Irene smiles. "Come on." She pulls him on to his feet, guides him across to the sofa. (He doesn't stiffen at her touch, doesn't try to shake her off - a sign of just how below his normal functioning he really is.) "It's time for you to tell me exactly what you are planning to do – and how you intend to bring me to life again."