Note: Well, I'm sure most of you weren't expecting an epilogue to this story many months after it was concluded. Neither was I. But I've started posting the Sherlock/Irene sequel to this story about what happens when they finally reunite in person and it made me want to write a bit of a transition between them. (That story's called "The Way the Heavens Go", and I've begun posting it in case you liked this story but hadn't seen that one yet by the way). But this vignette didn't really belong in that story timeline-wise. Nor did it fit in "The Sign of the Four", in spite of showing Irene's reaction to things that happened in that story. Ultimately I felt this was the best place for this vignette. Consider it a little bonus. Enjoy!
She'd always known this is how she'd see him next: in a news video, pushing past a crowd of reporters, scowl fixed in place. After all, by the time of his supposed suicide, he'd made quite the impression on the media and the public alike. Naturally his return to the world of the living was bound to cause a stir. And of course he couldn't just waltz back in quietly. No, Irene thought fondly, of course he had made a quite literal splash, jumping right back into a case that ended with him taking down an escaping criminal on the Thames. Sherlock Holmes had spent a year and a half remaining incredibly low key, utterly unseen and unnoticed by anyone save for her. Of course he'd re-enter the world in a spectacularly theatrical way.
But she hadn't expected the news anchor's words, spoken over the images of Sherlock and John hustling out of a hospital and into a waiting black towncar: "... released today after suffering a near-fatal cardiac arrest brought on by an overdose of cocaine..."
Those words stopped Irene cold. Drained all the warm blood from her face and limbs. She felt as if it all headed straight to her stomach, because she immediately began to feel a wave of churning nausea. She had to have heard that wrong. She stopped the BBC online video, dragged the progress bar back ten seconds. This time as the words were spoken, Irene noted Sherlock's pale complexion, the dark circles under his eyes, his tightly pained expression. And she realised she wouldn't have even needed to hear anyone say it. She'd seen him in that state far more times than she would have liked. Irene knew what Sherlock looked like in the midst of a cocaine crash.
Before she realised it, she'd slammed her laptop shut, sending it into sleep mode and her bedroom into silence. Irene's legs seemed to draw up onto her lounging chair involuntarily, folding up closer to her body. She pursed her lips together tightly, her eyes closed of their own volition.
As soon as they did, Irene was hit with a keen memory, an image she'd never been able to wipe from her mind. It flashed into her mind, filled all of her senses and she was here, nearly a year ago, seated in this chair while Sherlock lay stretched out on her bed. The memory rushed at her like a freight train barrelling past, rocking the world around it and sucking all the air away with it:
In one smooth movement, Sherlock unclenched his fist, loosened the belt on his arm, and deftly sunk the needle into a vein. Irene felt her own breathing stop as he pushed the plunger in a little, then withdrew some blood. Then he depressed the plunger slowly, so slowly Irene felt as if time had stopped. When he pulled the needle out, he had the momentary presence of mind to replace the cap and vaguely rolled it aside on the bed. Then he inhaled a sharp, shuddering breath and fell back onto her pillow. All of his muscles seemed to tense up, a sweat broke out on his forehead, and his breathing was rapid and uneven. For a few panicked moments, Irene wondered if he might be seizing.
Then his muscles relaxed as he breathed out a long, ragged, nearly orgasmic, "Oh fuck."
Irene forced her eyes open, trying to shove the memory out of existence. A futile effort. The bed lay before her, and the sight and sounds and emotions she'd experienced were still solidly lodged in her mind. At the time, she'd been dying to see him come undone. Now, the memory made her sick. And the only clear thought she could crystallise was: you were a fling. He's gone back to his first love.
Irene's hands had clenched around the metal edges of her laptop so hard she knew it would leave indentations on her palms. There was nothing else to grasp onto at the moment. She'd always known this was a possibility. Even that it was probable. Relapses were extremely common, as her entire interaction with Sherlock over the last year had proved. She'd told him as much. She'd expressed her worries about his ability to get clean on his own before heading back to John and work. Told him she could come with him. But he'd insisted on going it alone. And he'd clearly made it back to London, to John, even to his work.
Then why? Irene let out a shaky breath, realising her pulse was pounding along with a throbbing pain in her head. But she couldn't understand it. If Sherlock had all the things he desired, all the pieces he'd missed that had driven him back to cocaine during his time in hiding, why would he have gone back to using? What dark pull could have drawn him into that?
Every fibre of her being wanted to face Sherlock herself. To question him, yes. Or perhaps, as she was surprised to find herself wishing, simply to hold him. No, he'd never agree to that. He'd most likely push her away awkwardly. After all, she'd made it clear when he'd left – if he wanted to talk to her, that was in his hands. She wouldn't push. As much as Irene now desperately wanted to phone him, she couldn't. He had no number yet, but it was more than that. She'd known then and knew even now, if Sherlock wanted her to remain in his life, he had to reach out to her. She'd done enough damage to his mind and body as it was.
Irene had no idea how he would feel about their relationship in the sober light of day, once he'd left the hotel in Tel Aviv and headed back to London to face reality without her. To confront his own obstacles. He'd been so sure that he could do it. That his iron will would get him through the solitary pursuit of sobriety and self control. Of a return to peace and some measure of security after a year and a half of hellish, dangerous pursuits and soul-rending loneliness on the road. Sherlock had thought he could do it. He'd been so sure.
"Near-fatal cardiac arrest brought on by a cocaine overdose." The words echoed in Irene's head, constricted her throat painfully.
He'd been wrong.
Sherlock needed help. That much was clear. And she reminded herself that John had been at his side leaving the hospital. Perhaps, at least, that meant Sherlock was accepting help. That was good, wasn't it? John would do everything he could to look out for his friend. In the end, Sherlock most likely didn't need her help at all. And if he wanted it, he would call. Or text. After all, she'd told him to contact her only when he was ready. If he ever was.
Ten days and twelve hours after the awful revelation, Irene was lying in that very same bed, the one from that potent and awful memory, her eyelids growing heavy and her breathing slowing as sleep swam towards her, when a buzzing sound yanked her just slightly back into consciousness. Irene took a deep breath, but didn't open her eyes. Whatever it was, it would go away.
The buzz came again. Irene turned over sleepily, letting out a small sigh. Sleep was almost there. It had been a long day, with three different clients. Normally she wouldn't have booked that much work in one day, but lately she'd been doing her best to stay as busy as possible. Rendering her completely exhausted now at midnight. She pulled the covers up to her chin.
Letting out a sharp sigh of irritation and only half-awake, Irene opened her eyes and rolled towards the noise, which was coming from her night stand, determined to locate and destroy it. Her hand reached out blindly in the direction of the offensive sound and came down on -
Her mobile phone. Of course. She always left it on vibrate just in case, but the only people who had this number were clients and a few acquaintances she'd made here in Israel. Clients wouldn't be calling at midnight on a weekday. No one called at midnight on a weekday. Who would do that? Eyes bleary, Irene looked at the screen of her phone for an answer.
Irene blinked a few times, expecting to see a name from her contacts swim into focus. Instead, there was only an unidentified number. A number beginning with a +44 country code. United Kingdom. She blinked again, this time to subconsciously test what she was seeing. In her bleary state, perhaps she was only dreaming. Everyone she knew in the UK thought she was dead, and certainly wouldn't have had her number. Everyone but one person.
In her haste to sit up and switch her bedside lamp on, Irene nearly knocked it over. Her mobile had rung four times by then, and she flicked her finger quickly over to the answer button. She paused a moment with the phone in her lap, contemplating all the potential conversations and outcomes that might exist within that phone in this moment. Then she lifted the mobile to her ear.
At first, she merely listened. The slight sound of breathing on the other end told her the caller was doing the same. Was he as lost for words as she? He was the one who had called. Another few seconds passed and it became clear that Irene was actually going to have to speak first.
"Sherlock," she said, completely confident about who she was speaking to. What surprised her was how fond and yearning the sound of his name was on her lips. And the undertone of relief there as well.
It must have surprised him, too, because after a pause, Sherlock replied, "You know that I didn't in fact die."
But you could have. The thought immediately came to mind, despite the fact that Irene had managed to suppress herself from thinking about that since she'd seen the news report. This wasn't the overly sensationalised wailing of some woman about her lover working in law enforcement or fire fighting, potentially facing danger. Sherlock faced dangerous situations on a daily basis, and Irene had never given much thought to the notion that he might actually be killed by a suspect. She hadn't even really believed it could happen when he was dismantling Moriarty's network. The closest he'd come had probably been with Moran, and the psychological impact of that had been more damaging to him than any physical wounds.
No, in spite of those very real dangers, part of her had always felt that the only thing that could truly destroy Sherlock Holmes was himself. And he almost had. Overdosing to the point of cardiac arrest? Irene's throat constricted painfully at the thought once more. He'd finally pushed himself to the edge. And she'd done a damned good job nearly getting him there before. Then she'd at least done her bit to pull him back. Now to have him back in the same place he was less than six weeks ago... But this time, she couldn't be there. Couldn't see him. Would he have even have wanted to see her?
It wasn't until Sherlock cleared his throat anxiously that Irene realised she hadn't responded to his comment. He'd most likely guessed at what she must be thinking, though, because he continued matter-of-factly, "I'm fine now. A bit run down, but no significant lasting damage the cardiologist says. Fortunate."
"Yes it is," Irene agreed.
There was another pause on the other end of the line. Irene felt she could practically see Sherlock struggling to find the words. She knew he hated speaking on the phone, and speaking about personal matters, so the combination must be horrific. Finally, he ventured,"You're disappointed in me."
Irene felt a small pang at that. His tone was factual, as it always was when he was sober, but just the hesitation bellied some level of anxiety and reticence on his part. "Is that why you put off calling me? Because you thought I'd be disappointed?" she asked.
Sherlock paused again, and she could picture him stoically considering how to phrase his response. Finally, he said, "I wasn't sure how it was customary to handle a situation like this. Like ours."
"I highly doubt you're alone there, Sherlock. I don't think there's ever been a situation quite like ours," Irene noted wryly, though she meant it.
She could hear him sighing a bit. "Obviously," he conceded, "it's unique. Which makes it more complicated."
Irene had to bite back another sigh on her part. She understood that conversations of a personal nature were difficult for Sherlock. But this was like pulling teeth. She was doing her best to be patient, but tried to give him a nudge. "You know, this will be much easier if you just come out with all the things you're trying not to say right now. More awkward, perhaps, but right now you're clearly holding yourself back and it's not doing either of us any favours. I may have an inkling of what you're thinking, so I can begin it for you if you like." She took a calming breath, then said more evenly, "You called me, which means you knew I'd be concerned when I saw the news about you. But you didn't call right away because you were crashing, feeling unwell, and didn't want to speak to me about it when you were once again emotionally vulnerable. Yes?"
"Yes," Sherlock replied tightly. When Irene didn't speak, he seemed to begrudgingly realise this meant it was his turn. So he said, haltingly, "I assumed you'd want to hear that I was all right. But it was difficult thinking of how to convey that to you without implying that I … see this as more than it is. Or expect something more from you. What happened between us was..." he stammered uncharacteristically, and Irene could picture the frustrated look he must have on his face at his inability to get the words precisely right. "For me it was quite meaningful. And I know it was for you as well, I don't mean to imply it wasn't," he added quickly, predicting her objection. He'd been pacing around a room and she could hear now that he'd stopped.
Finally, he let out a shaky breath, and seemed to let his reservations go along with it at last. More quietly now, Sherlock said, "When you gave me this number, you did so with the hope that once I was settled back in London, we'd be able to keep in touch. That we could meet up again somewhere, spend a weekend together perhaps. You certainly didn't agree to be my nurse or my therapist. Just because we slept together once-"
"Twice," Irene couldn't help correcting. She was doing her best to keep quiet and let him speak.
"Just because we spent one night together," Sherlock clarified, "and had discussed the potential for more doesn't mean that you're now obligated to me in any way. You're not stuck with this simply because you happened to have slept with me recently. When I left you, I didn't expect to be stuck here at least 90 days for rehab. But I think I might actually need it this time."
Whatever irritation Irene had previous felt at Sherlock's hesitance and obfuscating had melted away by now. Obviously this was all difficult for him to say. Especially given that he didn't know where their relationship stood or whether it was appropriate to burden her with any of this. "I appreciate your thoughtfulness," she said, continuing quite firmly, "but while the timeline of our reunion might have changed, the nature of our relationship has not. Everything that happened between us, everything we said and did... I think it was clear that we have feelings for one another. And I hope that you understand by now that you can't shock or disappoint me. We may have only slept together twice, Sherlock, but we've been intimate much more often and for much longer than that."
There was silence on his end of the line, but this time it seemed more comfortable. What she could hear of his breathing was soft, almost contemplative in its rhythm. When he spoke, he sounded much less flustered. "So you'd be open to staying in touch," he ventured tentatively.
"I insist on staying in touch. I want to know how you're doing. How annoying your therapist is. What brilliant deductions you've made on cases. What John's doing that irritates you. What sort of underwear you're wearing," she said, the playful curl of her lips coming through in her voice.
To her relief, Sherlock scoffed at that. He didn't chuckle, but his supposed disapproval was almost more rewarding, much more him than his approval of her flirtation would have been. "Must everything come back to sex?"
"Oh, I very much hope it does," Irene affirmed. Then, more soberly she added, "But I know you have to focus on your rehab. I wouldn't want to genuinely distract you."
"No, it's fine," Sherlock said, thoughtfully. "In fact, it might be useful to have a bit of additional motivation. Sobriety is a goal unto itself. But there's no reason there can't be some... other incentives."
She could hear his voice getting a little dry, heard him cough involuntarily, and a smile graced Irene's face. She could picture the faint blush of pink across those fantastic cheekbones. Could recall the sound of his heart nearly beating out of his chest, as it would be now if she were there, leaning in over him. If she could hover with her face above his, she'd see that look of pure adoration that he'd had in his eyes. And she could run her hands through that thick wavy hair, holding on tightly. There was pleasure, to be certain. But there was something much deeper. A connection that could not be quantified or explained. An utter peace of the sort both of them had chased after futilely for years. But it could be theirs. Both of theirs. That was still possible.
Irene drew in a long, deep breath of contentment. Yes, that was an eventuality worth waiting for. "You don't have to tell me anything you're not ready to," she said quietly. "But you also can tell me anything you want to. Whenever you want."
Sherlock let out a shaky breath. Irene thought she could hear an enormous weight lifting off of him as he said, "Thank you." As if realising something, he added, "And the same goes for you. That's only fair. I can't promise I'll have the most helpful responses or support. But it's only fair that you have access to me as well. Though I'll set the text alert to silent this time." Irene smiled at that. In general, she was feeling a bit better now that he seemed slightly more at ease. He continued, "Actually, I don't think we should speak much if we can help it. Texting would be better. They can be deleted, and if Mycroft or anyone else happens to be watching me, they won't be able to simply listen to my side of the conversation and possibly figure out who I'm speaking to." He paused a moment, then added very seriously, "You do realise you're still taking a large risk by contacting me this much. Are you sure it's worth it?"
"Yes," Irene replied without hesitation. She had no doubt about that. When she'd seen him on the news, seen that he'd relapsed and nearly died, the very last thing she'd wanted to do was run the other direction. But as much as she badly wanted to know what had prompted him to use again, she didn't want to force the issue. She hoped he would let her into that truth some day, but for now, she was simply glad to be connected to him in any way once again. Irene shifted into a reclined position on the bed. Her tone shifted with it, lightening considerably. "Now that we've got that sorted, and you've woken me up for at least another hour, and considering we may not be having many conversations where I get to hear that lovely voice of yours..."
"Yes?" he asked, and she thought she could hear him intentionally letting said voice slip into the low, rumbling baritone he must be at least subconsciously aware was immensely attractive.
She savoured the small chill it sent through her a moment before continuing, "Tell me about the case you just solved. The one that ended with you swimming in the Thames in November. But-" she said, cutting him off sharply before he could say anything, "you have to give me the clues you had along the way. Not just the solutions."
"You want a chance to solve it, I presume?" Sherlock asked, and she could hear a rustling then creaking noise that sounded like he was climbing into bed. His tone was, she dared say, marginally relaxed.
"Of course," she said, unable to help the smile creeping onto her face. The strange feeling of contentment washing over her seemed heedless of the harsh and difficult realities they were facing and of the fact that she was a woman of supreme pragmatic realism. Just for this moment, she could be an optimist. Just for them.
"It was a rather complicated case," Sherlock said. "It may take a while to relay the details."
Irene settled herself comfortably onto her side, then turned her mobile to speaker phone and laid it beside her on the bed. "Oh, don't apologise, Sherlock," she said. If this was the sort of time they could spend together for now, she would take it. Not that she didn't also want to shag him senseless the second he was allowed to leave the UK and sneak off to meet her. But for now, he was alive. She was alive. That was enough to be going on.
Irene allowed herself a sly, fond smile as she said, "It's been ages since I've heard a good detective story."