When he drove into the small village of Saint-Jean-de-Muzols, the headlights of his car were the only lights for miles around. The thick darkness of the night had been locked into the valley by the mountains that enclosed it, and the strong yellow beam made a stark contrast as it passed over the rows and rows of vines that ran alongside the main road. His breathing was barely breathing anymore: as ragged as the sails of a wrecked ship as one by one the breaths tore themselves from his throat. His fingers trembled against the steering wheel.
In the smothering silence, he pulled the car up outside a small house. The building was old, made from grey and weathered stone bricks and seemingly as impenetrable as a fortress. There was a light on in one of the downstairs rooms: the yellow gleam covered by thick, purple curtains. For a moment he wondered if he was doing the right thing, but then he remembered that there were no other options; who else would take him now? So he opened the car door and dragged himself out, leaning for a moment on the door before quietly closing it. His feet scraped along the gravel as he stumbled over to the front door. Once more, he leant against it as a rush of dizziness sent spots exploding behind his eyes. Then he raised his hand, and pressed the doorbell.
There was a long pause – which was understandable, after all, people didn't usually expect visitors at two in the morning – and then came the sound of muffled footsteps and the click of various bolts being unfastened and the key being turned in the lock. The door opened.
They stared at each other for a long time, and Sherlock felt momentarily satisfied that he had managed to sufficiently surprise her.
"Hello, Mr. Holmes."
"Miss. Adler," replied Sherlock, without smiling. It was taking nearly all his concentration to stand upright. "Might I come in?"
Irene's brows pressed down onto her eyes. She looked very different to the last time he had seen her – now her hair was loose and messy, her face clear of cosmetics. She was dressed, not in a tight dress or an execution gown, but in a pair of rather ordinary purple cotton pyjamas. "I thought you were dead," she said accusingly.
"I'm not. But I might be soon. Can I come in?"
Irene didn't say anything for a moment. But then her spine straightened, and she adopted a familiar teasing smile. "Say please."
Sherlock sighed. "Please."
"Good boy." Irene moved to one side, allowing him room to past, and he brushed against her arm as he stepped into her house. Where she lived now was very different to her previous grand affair in Belgravia: all sleek wood panelling and dark, warm colours. It felt more like a home here.
"I see you got rid of your housekeeper," he observed as a cool wind touched his neck and the door shut behind him.
Irene hummed noncommittally. "Kate had her business in London. She was no longer necessary to my wellbeing. Would you like a drink, Junior?"
He felt a slim hand settle on his shoulder, slowly turning him around until they were face to face. Irene's eyes were glittering; her mouth slightly opening as if in promise. She took a step forward so that her lips were almost level with his neck.
"How about something to eat?" she said, the timbre of her voice soft and low. "We never did have dinner, did we?"
She raised her face to his, until he could almost feel her on his cheek, her hand on his neck.
There was a moment of stillness, and then Irene pulled back. "I'm sorry?"
"I can't. I – you know I…"
Then there was a finger against his mouth. "Ssh," said The Woman soothingly. "You don't have to explain." She drew her finger away, and took a step back, smiling sadly up at him. "Still, we had our fun, didn't we? While the game lasted."
Sherlock smiled. "You posed a bigger challenge to me, Miss. Adler, than anyone else I've ever known. Just not for the reason you think."
Irene smirked. "It wasn't just me, though, who posed a challenge. Me and one other."
Sherlock slowly nodded. "Of course."
"Well, that will have to do, I suppose."
Irene smiled, and it was probably the most undisguised he had ever seen her. Sherlock returned the gesture, and when she reached up to stroke his face there was no stirring deep inside him of something buried and forgotten. There was only recognition that this woman, The Woman, could never be anything less than his unadulterated equal.
"Look at those cheekbones," she muttered wistfully. "So wasted."
Sherlock laughed, and then Irene placed a quick kiss to his cheek.
"Dinner?" she asked. "I think there might be some cold cassoulet in the fridge."
She took him through to a large kitchen and sat him down at a long oak table while she heated up the stew. There was a photograph on a shelf of a beautiful young woman with ripples of blonde hair and a jacket that was unmistakably French, holding a cigarette and smiling at the camera as if she were trying not to laugh.
"She's your girlfriend," Sherlock stated.
"She's called Anais."
"I presume you've told her everything about your prior existence."
"Of course," said Irene, as she placed a bowl of cassoulet in front of him. "She's very accommodating."
Sherlock speared a bean with his fork. "I can imagine."
He ate in silence for a short while. Irene watched him intently, resting her chin on her latticed fingers.
"You said you might be dead soon. Would you care to elaborate? Anais would be very upset if I was killed on your behalf."
Sherlock swallowed. "When you were working with Moriarty, did you ever meet Sebastian Moran?"
Irene frowned delicately. "I only met Jim once, for the initial consultation. There was somebody standing behind him: I thought he was a bodyguard, but he never spoke. A tall man, tanned, blonde hair."
"Who is he?"
"He was Moriarty's sniper. He took over the business when his boss died."
Irene cocked her head. "And…he's following you?"
"No. I shot him. His friend is following me."
A smooth eyebrow was raised. "Well, that explains the bloodstains. And how long has this 'friend' been on your tail?"
"Eight hours. I drove here from San Sebastián. I estimate he's about an hour behind me, but he'll be stopping to speak to people."
"So you'll wait, and then what?"
Sherlock took a deep breath. "Try not to die."
Irene sighed. "I suppose I'd better slip into something a little less comfortable, then."
She disappeared upstairs and eventually came down in a sleek, gas-blue halterneck. Her heels tapped against the floor as she walked.
"What do you think?" she grinned.
"That was rather the point. Can I ask you something?"
Irene placed a hand on her hip. "How do you know I'm not in on it? Someone could have told me you were coming. In which case, you'd just be a fly in my trap. So how do you know?"
Sherlock steepled his fingers. "I don't," he conceded.
Irene looked him up and down. "Then why are you here?"
"Because I have nowhere else to go."
"Oh, poor sweetheart!" Irene crooned. She sashayed over and took his chin in her fingers. "Don't worry. I'm not in on it."
"That's very reassuring."
She patted his cheek and sat back down opposite him. Then she produced a tube of lipstick from a pocket and began to apply it, smearing her mouth with a bold red, her bottom lip being pulled along with the tide.
"So, when is this 'friend' supposed to be showing up?"
"What happens if he doesn't come here at all? Do I get to keep you?"
Sherlock smirked, and didn't reply.
"So you didn't die. What happened?"
"Moriarty was threatening people. I had to jump off St. Bart's to stop that from happening."
"I did, but a friend of mine helped me to fake the death."
"Ingenious," Irene purred. "And nobody knows you're alive except me?"
"You, and my brother, and a pathologist, and almost everybody I've encountered recently," muttered Sherlock.
"Oh, don't be a spoilsport. John doesn't know."
Irene studied him intently, and she opened her mouth to speak again, but at that moment the doorbell sounded, shrill and insistent. She froze momentarily, and then leapt to her feet.
"Hide," she hissed, and Sherlock scraped his chair back. "There's a cupboard under the stairs."
Sherlock wasted no time in dashing back into the hall and throwing himself into the cupboard. Before he shut the door, he saw Irene smooth down her dress as she sauntered jauntily over to the front door, and then he enclosed himself in a dusty darkness.
He tried not to breathe as the front door clicked open. There came a muffled sound of Irene speaking in French, and then a yelp – presumably Jones had pushed her aside.
"Je ne sais pas ce que vous parlez! S'il vous plaît quitter ma maison!"
"Cut the bullshit, miss," replied Jones, his accent distinctive. "Where is he: where's Holmes?"
"Je ne comprends pas!"
There was a thud as Jones hit the wall and bellowed, "I know you're in here, Holmes!"
Sherlock felt for the gun, still tucked firmly in his waistband, and drew it. Then he flung the door open, and stepped out of the darkness, into the light.
Irene was standing by the still-open door, a look of false terror plastered on her face. Jones was in the middle of the corridor, sweating with effort, a SIG Sauer P226 in his hand. At the sight of Sherlock, he leered and raised his firearm, and Sherlock mirrored his movements exactly.
"Well, well, Mr. Holmes," said Jones, wiping his forehead. "Here we are at last."
"At last," Sherlock replied levelly.
Jones shook his head slowly. "You killed a mate of mine earlier. So you know what happens now. I'm going to shoot you, right here in Miss. Adler's house. Then I'm going to go to London and order people to take care of Dr. Watson."
"If you shoot me I'll shoot right back."
Jones clearly hadn't anticipated this. "You think you're a big man? Think you're some kind of hero? Well you're not. You're scum."
Sherlock smiles to himself, and repeated the old words. "Heroes don't exist. If they did I wouldn't be one of them."
Jones grinned. "Go to hell, Holmes."
A shot rang out, and Sherlock's eyes flinched shut. When he felt no stabbing pain, he opened them again to see Jones clutching at his sodden chest before crumpling to the floor, his breathing shallow. Irene cocked the small pistol in her hand, and winked.
"Amazing what you can hide if you have the right pockets," she smiled with waxen, ruby lips as Jones died on the floor before her. "You should probably go now, darling, before I call the police."
"You…" Sherlock wiped his forehead with the back of one hand. "Why did you do that, why?"
"Call it a favour." Irene nudged Jones' meaty shoulder with the toe of her stiletto. "Now we're even. Properly even."
"You can't get all the way here and then wind up in some horrid French prison," Irene smiled languidly. "And anyway, I won't be arrested. Even if I am, I'm sure I'll get off. I know the General, you see…"
Sherlock smiled at the playful glint in her eyes, and when she finished the line he murmured it along with her: "At least, I know what he likes."
"Thank you," he said.
"Don't bother." Irene reached up, and kissed him on the cheek. "We'll be seeing each other again. After all, you just can't seem to keep away."
Sherlock dropped the gun onto the floor. Then he turned and bolted out the door as rosy-fingered dawn began to caress the sky into life.
He spoke for hours, as the night sky bended to the rain that slicked it down, and Molly sat patiently listening. He told her of the room full of dreamers, and of the man with one eye and an impossible desire. He spoke of the woman who turned men into pigs, and of how in a house by the sea his brother had read him the names of lost souls. He told her of when home had called to him and he had nearly answered. He told her of the moment when he was trapped between two dangers, and he told her of the woman who took him in when he washed up on her doorstep. All of this he told her, and all of the many adventures in between, and she listened silently throughout. When he was finished he couldn't meet her eyes under the bright lights of her flat.
Molly was absent-mindedly tickling the area between the cat's ears from when it had crawled onto her lap at some point during the tale. Sherlock swallowed and leant back against the sofa. His throat was raw from speaking; the tiredness pressing against his brain and filling up his head like a plastic bag.
"What?" he snapped. Molly remained unperturbed.
"Moran's dead now." It wasn't a question.
"Yes," he replied. "But there'll be somebody else before long."
Molly smiled. "Take it one step at a time."
There was a pause as, outside, the rain thundered down over London's rooftops, slamming against the windows and drowning the trees that stood against it.
"I'm glad you're back, Sherlock," Molly murmured. "You're braver than I am." Then, as if she hadn't said anything at all, she lifted herself to her feet with a grunt. "You can stay here tonight, but then you've got to go home in the morning."
"Why wouldn't I go home?"
Molly shrugged. "Because you're scared."
Sherlock laughed contemptuously. "Scared? I'm not scared; what sort of idiot do you take me for?"
Once, this remark would have folded Molly in two, but now she only crossed her arms. "Don't do that."
"Don't pretend it doesn't affect you. You're doing it like you used to; pretending you don't feel anything because it makes it easier. It might be difficult to believe, Sherlock, but I'm actually quite intelligent and I-I can see things."
Sherlock looked down at his hands. "I killed people, Molly," he muttered.
Molly shrugged. "Well, they weren't very nice people, were they? Anyway, I killed you. We've all just got to…get on with it."
There was a long silence, broken only by the purrs of the cat as it slumbered against the imprint its owner had left on the beanbag.
"You're shivering," Molly said, after a while. "Put some blankets on. I'm going to bed, so don't you dare put your shoes on my sofa."
She crossed over to the window to draw the curtains and then stopped, gazing out thoughtfully at the pouring rain.
"It's good, this rain," she said quietly, as if talking to herself. "London's been dry for ages. We needed it."
Then she drew the curtains, and turned off the light. The room was plunged into a throbbing darkness, and Sherlock fell into sleep even before she shut the door behind her.
When he awoke, there was light streaming through the closed curtains where a second ago there had been only night. The rain had ceased to fall. Sherlock rubbed his eyes, and stretched out on the sofa, finding himself entangled in the cotton throw that had been his duvet. The cat gazed warily at him from beside a potted plant.
There was a note on the fridge that said: Gone to work. There's food in the cupboard. Clothes hanging in wardrobe. Good luck! Xoxo. It was nearly midday.
Sherlock brewed a cup of tea and then rummaged around in the cupboards for something edible, coming up only with a loaf of Tesco's granary and a jar of Marmite; God he'd missed Marmite. When he had eaten he went into Molly's bathroom and stripped the clothes from his aching body. He stood in the shower for nearly forty minutes, scrubbing the remnants of cheap dye from his hair and soaping away the cuts and scrapes and bruises.
When he was done, he looked in Molly's bathroom mirror and sighed at his reflection. He could have passed for a member of his own homeless network. He found some razors in a cabinet and shaved off the stubble from his chin until he vaguely resembled someone more familiar. Then he towel-dried his hair and clipped his fingernails; found a bin bag and disposed of all his stinking, bloodstained garments.
His coat was in Molly's wardrobe, hanging in a plastic dry cleaner's bag next to the rows of dresses and floral tops. He took it out and stroked the material, and then put it to his nose and smelled it. All the clothes he had been wearing on the day of the Fall were there too; all cleaned and pressed into near-newness. Sherlock put them on one by one, gradually feeling himself return as he did so.
Outside, the pavements were damp from the previous rain, and his polished shoes squeaked as he dodged puddles. There were very few people out on the streets, save for a few builders digging up the road, and nobody turned to notice the dead man who had risen from the grave. Sherlock hailed a cab, and climbed into the back seats with relish.
He smiled, and announced in a clear voice: "221B Baker Street."
Sherlock stood outside the house for a while, looking up at the brickwork and the black door and the windows. The spare key, as always, was hidden underneath a loose slab of concrete next to the door, and he found it with practised ease. He unlocked the door quietly, hardly daring to breathe, and sighed with relief when Mrs. Hudson didn't come flitting out of her flat. The wallpaper was the same; he still knew how to walk up the stairs without treading on the floorboards that creaked.
Then he turned the corner, and there it was.
His fingers found the door handle and Sherlock paused for a moment before pushing against the wood. As if welcoming him home, it gave way with a sigh under his hand. When he walked slowly into the room he felt the wave crash and break over him, and he accepted it with joy, for on that empty horizon he could just make out the shape of his ship, finally coming in to land.
John Watson turned around, and the journey was over.