The Woman After the Fall

No help for it.

Sherlock watched John from a distance, noting the tears, the tenseness of his shoulders, the military bearing that seemed even more stiff than usual—all signs of deep, tearing grief. Faintly he heard John say, "Just pull off one more miracle, for me. Don't be dead. Do that for me, will you?"

John. Sherlock thought. I'm so sorry I can't tell you that I pulled off that miracle.

He watched John walk away from his own grave.

His new phone beeped.

All's set. Let's have dinner.

With a final look at his own grave, Sherlock turned to walk back to the plain black car at the end of the road. He stepped in behind the wheel, and drove south, toward Dover. He'd take the ferry to Calais, then meet The Woman in Paris.

John.

Somehow, and he still wasn't sure that he'd pulled it off, he'd managed to fake his own death.

Sherlock took a deep breath. With Molly's help, the fall that could have ended his life only severely injured him. The muscle relaxants she gave him just before the fall; the laundry truck that caught him, only to tumble him back on the street; the quick movement of the paramedics, cued by Molly, that scooped him up and took him to the morgue. She swapped out his body, declared him dead, and tended his head and shoulder where he'd hit the truck and the pavement. She smuggled him out the back door to his friends in the homeless network, and they'd hidden him while he recovered.

But it was time to start the bigger investigation. It was time to uncover the Moriarty network, and take it down.

Clear his name.

Reclaim his identity.

Reclaim his friends.

John.

Sherlock clenched his teeth, took a deep breath, and relaxed his jaw. There was time. As long as he could keep John from looking too closely, he had time.

The priority was keeping John—and Mrs. Hudson, LeStrade, Molly—safe.

Damn Mycroft.

As he approached Paris, Sherlock ditched the car and headed for the nearest Underground. The Woman awaited.

Irene Adler sipped from her café au lait, nibbled on her croissant, and, apparently relaxed, took in the scene around her. The sidewalk café near the Champs Elysee was a perfect spot to meet a dead man.

Well, and she was dead, too, wasn't she?

Irene smoothed her hair, now a shade of luscious red, and checked her reflection in her compact. I am Sher-locked, she thought to herself, with a bit of an inside grin.

She took another sip of her café, alert to the crowd on the sidewalk.

And then he was there.

Sherlock.

He looked different, but the same, Irene thought. Same gorgeous cheekbones, but a hint of a mustache, a change of coat, a different colored scarf.

Just enough of a disguise, even though he'd left the gorgeous curly hair.

Can't wait to run my fingers through that.

He spotted her, and slowly approached the café counter.

"Un café au lait, s'il vous plait."

Sherlock took his coffee, and made his way over to Irene's table. "Is this seat taken?"

"Please, help yourself," she replied, watching him. As Sherlock slid into the seat opposite, she reached out for his hand. At her touch, his skin warmed, as hers did.

"Well, it's not dinner," he ventured.

Irene caressed his hand. "No, but I'm awfully happy you're not dead."

"So here we are," Sherlock said. "Two dead people. Any tips?"

Irene laughed. "You gave them all to me when you destroyed a terrorist cell with a machete."

Sherlock smiled uncertainly. This flirting thing was difficult. "All in a day's work."

They were silent for a moment.

Gently, Irene asked, "How's John?"

Sherlock shied away. "He's alive. That's what's important."

"Yes," she agreed, then let the silence grow between them, her hand in his. Suddenly, his hand squeezed hers, hard. She didn't let him see that he'd hurt her, but put her other hand over his, and squeezed back.

"I didn't know what else to do," he admitted, the pressure of his hand on hers showing her clearly the turmoil within him.

"You need to come with me," she said softly. "Let's give you a time of peace. Some space to think."

His eyes burned as he looked into her face. "I don't want to think."

Irene lifted his hand to her lips. "I can help you with that."

She held his hand as they strolled down the Champs Elysee to her flat. It was small, unobtrusive, in a nice, quiet building. She wondered, as they walked, whether he'd ever strolled hand-in-hand with a potential partner.

"No," he said quietly.

Irene looked up at him. "Sorry?"

"You were thinking. And wondering whether I'd ever had even this level of intimacy with a woman," he said. "It's not hard to figure out."

"Turn your brain off, Sherlock," Irene said softly. "It's time."

"Perhaps."

She smiled, withdrawing her hand at her door, digging for her keys. Silently, he watched her as she withdrew her key, opened the door, and disengaged the alarm. He followed her in, and Irene shut and locked the door, resetting the alarm.

"Moderately good security," Sherlock commented, suddenly unsure of himself, wondering where to put his hands.

Irene smiled at him. "Of course. I didn't want to waste the life you gave me."

"I hardly gave you –"

She cut him off. "You did. And I don't forget it. I won't forget it." Irene approached him, slowly, watching his opalescent eyes as they locked on hers. "And I've been—Sher-locked—since I first knew you existed.' She reached up and touched his face. "And the first time I saw this face."

Sherlock captured her hand with his. "I thought I could ignore that part of myself that needed. I thought I could live on intellect alone. But you have taught me—and John has taught me—and Moriarty has taught me—that I cannot live on intellect. I need human contact. But I'm not very good at it."

"Honesty?" Irene left her right hand trapped in his, and brought her left up, leaning forward, deliberately placing her body in his personal space. "Does that mean you're ready to—have dinner-?"

"No," Sherlock said, deliberately. He ignored her left hand and drew her firmly toward him. "I'm ready to have you."

A thrill went through her as he pressed his lips to hers. She knew he'd had little to no experience with sex, to put it indelicately, but, oh! The feel of him!

It had been some time since she'd—misbehaved.

But as she leaned into his kiss, Sherlock stopped, and simply touched his forehead to hers. "I'm not sure how to proceed," he whispered. "I know what to do, but—"

"—you let me show you, won't you, Sherlock?" Irene asked softly. "I'll be gentle with you."

He flashed a sudden grin. "No riding crops this time?"

She laughed. "No." Irene slipped her hands out of his and wrapped her arms around his middle, tipping her head back to look directly into his eyes. "Just us."

Their lips met again, and Irene took the lead, using her tongue to tease his lips apart and deepen the kiss. He made a guttural sound, deep in his throat—it sounded like a growl, Irene thought dimly—and suddenly the world started spinning. His mouth never leaving hers, he swung her up into his arms and strode through the flat, finding her bedroom just where he expected it, to the back of the flat. He set her back on her feet as they reached the bed, a mammoth platform covered in blue silk, and he moved his lips to her neck.

"I've read a bit about sexual pleasure," he murmured into the soft hollow at the base of her neck, just under her ear. "Is this something you like?"

"Very much," Irene purred. She pushed his coat off his shoulders, unthreaded his scarf from around his neck—no small task as his mouth was very busy with her neck—and began unbuttoning his shirt. "And do you like this?" she asked, lightly tracing the contours of his naked chest as she worked his shirt off of him.

"Very much," he purred back. "Shall I?"

"Oh, please do," she whispered, and his hands—those long, slender fingers—tugged her jumper up, over her head. It landed with a plop against the wall, and suddenly his hands were full of her breasts, the luscious flesh he'd seen the first time they'd met, and had taken such note of.

"32," he whispered, moving his hands downward to span her waist. "24." He tugged on her waistband, pushing her skirt down and stepping on it to pull her out of it. "34."

"You remember," she sighed.

"I've never forgot."

Irene slipped her hands into his waistband, unbuttoning his fly and reaching behind to grip his firm buttocks. "I've wanted this body." She pressed her naked chest to his. "I've wanted you."

"You have me," Sherlock said, grasping her by the waist and tossing her on the bed. In a flash he was on top of her.

"You still have your pants on," she gasped.

"That's for your protection," he said hoarsely. "I don't know—"

"Off with the knickers, Sherlock," she said breathlessly, helping him along. Naked, she rolled with him, landing on top of his firm body. She drew his hands over his head, and lowered herself to him. Her breath caught as he entered her, and his growl of pleasure delighted her. She rode him, setting a pace that would drive the most jaded man mad.

"Oh, please," he said, groaning with the pleasure of it.

"I told you, Sherlock. Twice," she responded breathlessly.

"Please, Irene," he said, and tumbled her onto her back, re-entering her in one swift moment. The pleasure building as he pounded himself into her until she screamed. He shuddered, the intensity of the moment overtaking him as his body spent itself in her warmth. He collapsed on top of her, stunned.

Then he remembered the scream.

"Did I hurt you?" he asked anxiously.

"Not at all," Irene purred. "I just need to get my breath back. Sherlock, I do believe you're a natural."

"Well, I am a genius."

She laughed. "Turn off your brain, Sherlock."

To his great surprise, he did.

Sometime in the night, his dreams troubled, he turned back into her, and they made slow love in the dark. With The Woman, he could forget, for a while, what had drove him to this place. With The Woman, he could be himself.

And perhaps, get his life back.

The sun streamed through the corner window of Irene's bedroom when Sherlock next opened his eyes. He knew, instantly, that he was alone; he couldn't smell her. Slowly, he sat up, taking note of the rumpled bedclothes, the lack of clothing on the floor—

Hang on; where were his clothes?

Sherlock grinned, and rolled out of bed. No clothes on the floor, none in the hamper, none in the closet. Laundry day? Too obvious? One set of clothes and The Woman hides them. He strode, naked, to the dresser, and opened the top drawer. Inside, he found his wallet, cell phone, scarf, and a note.

If you're thinking I'm playing "hide the knickers," you'd be wrong. Simply sent it all out for cleaning. Went out to get breakfast. Be back soon. Kettle's just boiled. XX

So I'm to wait around for you naked, Sherlock thought. He laughed out loud, then headed for her bathroom. A shower seemed to be in order. Maybe she'd left him a towel.

His shoulder twinged a bit as he raised his hands to wash his hair with her shampoo, reminding him that he wasn't yet fully healed. He'd well and truly done a number on his right side when he'd tumbled to the pavement outside of St. Bart's. Sherlock ducked under the hot stream of water from the top showerhead—The Woman spared no expense in her bathroom, which could assault him from any direction with water and steam, it seemed—and let the soap sluice out of his hair and down his body. He stood there for a minute, letting the heat from the water soothe the sore shoulder, closing his eyes against the sensation.

Painful things, these feelings.

He didn't move when he heard the shower door open, and didn't start when she pressed her naked, wet body against his back. He simply turned into her, running his hands down her sides, then up to cover her breasts, running lazy thumbs over her nipples.

"Is this how you prefer me?" he murmured the question into her ear, then moved his lips to the base of her neck, where he now knew she loved to be touched.

"Oh, yes," Irene purred. "Wet and naked."

"Is this why you took my clothes?" He ran his hands down her back to rub her backside.

"No, but it's definitely a happy side benefit," she said. "Are you hungry?"

"Starving," he said, and closed his mouth over hers.

"Well, Sherlock, it's all well and good that you're here—and thank you very much for thinking of me—but what will you do now?"

Irene poured out as Sherlock, wrapped only in a towel, buttered a croissant. "Well, Irene, it's all well and good that you're willing to keep me for a bit, but what would you like me to do now?"

She sat down across from him, tucking her lacy robe around her waist as she did so, and picked up a slice of cheese from the platter between them. "I rather thought that you'd have a plan in hand."

He took a bite of his croissant, chewed and swallowed. Heaven. "I have to admit, I do have something in mind. But it will take some time to execute. And I do need, unfortunately, to heal before I set out on this journey."

Irene paled. "You're going to track down the Moriarty network." It wasn't a question.

Sherlock cocked an eyebrow. "You expected me to do something different? Settle in with you here, perhaps, spending our days finding inventive ways not to be bored?"

She frowned. "Hardly. But Sherlock, facing Moriarty nearly killed you. I wasn't so sure it hadn't. If I didn't know first-hand that you are exceedingly good at making it appear as though someone were dead, I'd have worried even more. When I got your note in the drop box we arranged, I felt all kinds of things, and relief was one major emotion as part of the batch." She dropped her eyes. "I don't want to see you hurt again."

There it was, that feeling again. Sherlock reached for her hand, sliding his long fingers to her wrist to take her pulse. Elevated. "You should know me well enough by now, Irene. I cannot have my life back until I eliminate those who would take it from me—and my friends. It's a mercy, in a way, that Moriarty thought you dead, because he would likely have tried to kill you as well. He had three assassins set to kill John, Mrs. Hudson, and LeStrade, simply because he knew it would hurt me. I had to jump, Irene. I had to jump and save them. They're the only ones he knew about that I loved—do love. But I also love you. I thought I could talk myself out of that very human emotion. But I can't."

She took his wrist in her other hand, and took his pulse. Elevated. "Sherlock, love, you're safe here with me. And I know you're a man of action. I see this is your course, but you can't expect me to be happy that you'll throw yourself in harm's way again. What if I were to do the same? The last time I was in serious danger, you killed several armed men with a machete. How did having me in danger make you feel?"

Hollow. Fearful. "Confident. Because I knew I could save you, too," he said. "Eat up, and I'll fill you in on what I plan to do."

Irene looked him dead in the eye. "What we plan to do, Sherlock, because you certainly aren't going to do this alone."

Relief. "Woman, I didn't know you could be so forceful," he said. "Wait, what am I saying? You were a practicing dominatrix. Of course you can be forceful."

"Shall I get the riding crop, dear?"

He grinned at her. "After breakfast. I do find that I need fuel this morning."

"Good sex will do that to you," she commented. "Something you now know a little more about."

He caught up her hand again, and pressed it to his lips. "It almost makes my brain stop racing, when I'm in your arms. It's a relief, in a way."

"You have a remarkable brain, Sherlock," she said. "I doubt you ever stop thinking. But if I can do my part for five minutes, I'm glad to try."

"Better than any drug," he answered, then leaned forward to kiss her lightly. Sherlock then sat back. "Now, fuel."

The pair of them dug into the platter of cheeses, pastries, and fruit, sipping on English Breakfast tea and talking of nearly inconsequential things. Her favorite color? Green. His? All of them had their uses. First love? Jenny Taylor, a high school drama queen, for Irene. "It's when I knew I loved women as well as I loved men." None that he could think of, except for that unrequited crush on his maths teacher in seventh form. "She could solve existential equations in her head. It was amazing." Friends? Very few, Irene admitted. The occasional lover became a friend. "I've been alone most of my life. It's a hazard of my old profession." Same for Sherlock. "Aside from Mycroft, with whom I am exceedingly upset, the only true friends I've had are John, Mrs. Hudson, and LeStrade. And Molly Hooper."

"Molly Hooper?" she inquired, picking up her tea cup to finish it off.

"A friend who runs the morgue at St. Bart's—she's the true reason I'm alive to sit here and take tea with you, Woman. She gave me the muscle relaxants that made my body lax enough to absorb, rather than fight, the blow to the concrete; she supplied the body that John buried; she tended my wounds immediately after the fall, ensuring that no one got to my body before she did. She alone knows that I live and the means I used to remain alive. The homeless network asks no questions." He paused. "Mycroft might have figured it out. He's brilliant, too. Just don't tell him I said so. But he'll say nothing. He'll know what I'm up to next. With any luck, he'll ensure that I have a place to go back to."

Irene dwelled on Molly Hooper. "Is she in love with you?"

Sherlock averted his eyes. Feelings, again. "I believe she is, though I didn't realize it until very recently."

"Poor girl," she said. "And are these feelings reciprocated?"

"In friendship, Woman," Sherlock assured her. "I respect and trust Molly Hooper, and I love her as a friend. She sees me, as you do. But I have treated her rather badly."

"We are a pair, Sherlock." Irene sat, silent, for a moment. "I should tell you, as we start to work on our plan, that I'm going by the name of Michele DeForte in this life. I'm a sex therapist. I have clients. All above board, of course. I forged the credentials, but I'm remarkably good at helping people through their problems."

He sat back, thinking. "That seems a good course for you. I wasn't sure you'd be able to give up the dominatrix."

"I took that up to establish that I had power, Sherlock." Irene looked down. "I've been hurt, from the time I was small. And I needed to become the one who had the power, rather than the one who was powerless. Becoming a dominatrix was one way to do that—and make money, which is another form of power. And collect information."

He reached over with his right hand and tipped her chin up, so he could look her in the eye. "We are what we make ourselves. I admire your ability to take care of yourself. And I'm deeply honored that you've allowed me to help take care of you on one occasion. I'm even more honored that you've chosen to share yourself with me." Sherlock released her chin and stroked her cheek. "You're not the only one who's been hurt."

"I thought not," she said softly. "It's rare to meet someone with your charisma and talents who hasn't indulged in sex at some point in life."

"I simply decided, at a point, that there was no point in pursuing sexual relationships, at least not for me. They're distracting. Love can be a hindrance in my chosen line of work, interfering with logical decisions and observations. Relationships are even trickier; how can I possibly use my brain and my logic to solve the puzzles that are my true passion if I'm always worried about someone else?" He turned back to his tea. "I've never wanted that distraction."

Irene sat very still. "Then you don't mean to stay with me once you've recovered your old life. You'll go back to John and your work, and I'll be a distant memory of a puzzle you once cracked."

Damn feelings. "Not in the way you mean, Irene. I didn't mean to offend. I just don't know what to do with this kind of relationship. If you weren't already dead …" Sherlock drifted off. Irene knew that look, and she watched him as he flew in a different direction. Watching him, she picked up another slice of cheese and nibbled. Why is this so sexy to me?

When Sherlock drifted back, she'd cleared the tea table and curled herself up on the breakfast room sofa, book in hand. "Michele DeForte."

"That's my current name," she said, carefully placing a marker in the book.

"If I can gain my old life back, perhaps there's a way we can bring you back, too," he said slowly. "Let me think about it."

"If anyone can, you can, Sherlock," Irene said tiredly. "I just want to know that I mean enough to you that you'll come back."

Forgetting he wore only a towel, he jumped up, and it went flying. "Of course I will. Somehow."

Irene laughed. "You're an odd duck, Mr. Holmes. But I'm glad of it."

He patted himself down. "I need a pen. Why don't I have a pen? And where's my violin when I need it? God, what I'd do for a cigarette. And where are my knickers, anyway?"

She stood up languidly. "Now you know my nefarious plan to keep you here by eliminating your clothes, eh? Never mind, I'll go out later and buy you more. The ones you had were awful."

"How? Never mind. Do you need my sizes?"

"Of course not. I've had you under me, over me, around and through me, Mr. Holmes. No one is more acquainted with that body than me—possibly not even you—and I shall have no trouble picking something out. Something more in line with your new identity, and less Savile Row."

"My new identity?" He quirked an eyebrow.

"I took a look at your wallet. It seems you're going by S. Hendrickson," she said. "What does the S stand for?"

"Sherlock."

"How original."

"Easier."

She rolled her eyes. "Well, my dear, I think you're going to be a little more rock-and-roll and a little less posh in this incarnation. At least for now."

"As you say, Ms. Adler. I mean, Ms. DeForte."

A bell sounded. Irene smiled. "That'll be the first shipment, likely."

"First shipment of what?"

"Knickers, of course." Smoothly, she moved to a hutch against the south wall and opened the doors. Inside, Sherlock saw several screens displaying differing views of her flat, including the front door. A delivery man stood at it, carrying a box, about a metre square. As he looked, the man glanced at his watch.

Military standard issue. Secret service. Sunglasses by Mi6. Shit.

"Stop," he said. "That's not your clothes delivery, Irene. That's a British agent." Sherlock studied him a second longer. "Best that you answer the door. But carefully."

Irene took a revolver out of the hutch drawer, checked the load, then tucked it under the band of her robe. "Always, dear. Might want to wrap that towel about you again, just in case."

"Wish I had my knickers," he muttered, placing himself just behind the door frame to her living area, where he could see her front door, but, it was hoped, none could see him. Irene proceeded to the door, taking her time with the latch. When she opened it, the "delivery man" did nothing but hand her the package. Irene marveled at its lightness for its size. "Thank you," she said.

"Good day, miss."

Sherlock narrowed his eyes as he watched the "delivery man" simply stroll away. Damn Mycroft.

Irene shot the bolt, reset the alarm, and gestured to Sherlock. "I do believe this has your name on it, darling."

"As do I," he answered resignedly. "I'm afraid the jig is up on Michele DeForte, too. I'm sorry."

She shook her head. "Don't be. If he wanted me arrested, he'd have done it. I imagine he's rather glad you've got me on your side."

Sherlock stepped up next to her and looked at the box. Mycroft's seal. S. Hendricksen, c/o Michele De Forte. Rue Cologne, Paris.

"Well, apparently I didn't fool my brother one bit," he noted. "I guess I didn't expect to. He'll have worked it out by now."

"Shall we open it?"

"Yes, let's. But slowly. I doubt he'd try to blow me up, but there's always a chance that someone else got hold of it along the way."

Together, they peeled the outside paper off the cardboard box, then stripped the tape from the top. Inside, foam packing peanuts—not very environmentally friendly, tsk—surrounded a violin case. Sherlock pulled it from the foam, turning it over carefully in his hands. Mine. He popped the case open to see his violin, in perfect tune, with his bow. A note had been tucked under the bow. Sherlock set the open case down on the nearby sofa and drew the note out of its resting place.

"Anything else in there?" he asked absently.

"Nothing that I can see. Is that a note?"

"Yes." He turned it over in his hands for a minute, then tore open the top of the note.

Happy hunting. I'll keep Baker Street for you. MH

Something akin to warmth for his brother spread through him. "He's sent me my violin. Damn him."

"Who, Mycroft?"

"Yes, my brother. He's said he'll protect Baker Street for me." He paused a moment, then ran his hand over the strings of his violin. "I'm sure he knows what I'm up to. In fact, he probably hopes I'll do this dirty work for him. And this time, he's right."

The bell sounded again. Irene peeked at the screen. "Oh, this one's the real deal, darling."

"Knickers?"

"In a manner of speaking."

"I don't like the sound of that at all."

"Be afraid, darling. Be very afraid." Irene chuckled as answered the door, exchanged a pleasantry with the delivery driver and accepted a box.

As she turned around, she heard the rich sound of the bow on the strings, in a slow, lilting melody that stopped her in her tracks. Irene watched Sherlock as, eyes closed, he played a moving, yet sad piece of music. As he drew the bow across the strings on its final note, she sighed. "How lovely, and yet how sad."

"I wrote that for you—when I thought you dead the first time," he said quietly. Sherlock laid the violin and bow back in the case, and closed it. "I'm glad you could hear it."

Unspeakably moved, Irene set the box down and moved into his arms. "I am, too."

Maybe feelings weren't such bad things after all, Sherlock thought, wrapping himself around the Woman. The only woman who mattered.

"Is that door locked again?" he asked softly, his chin just resting on her head. She placed a kiss at the hollow of his neck. "Yes."

Irene hugged him, then stepped out of his arms. Holding his eyes with hers, she shrugged out of her robe and let it drop. "You are not supposed to get started with this hunt until you're fully healed, Sherlock," she said quietly. "I think that means it's time to turn your brain off for a while." She stepped forward again, running her hands over his chest, as she now knew he liked, then sliding them up to cup his face.

He captured her hands in his. "I'm enjoying this new experience, Woman."

She smiled slowly, with a cat-like stretch that drew her even closer to him. "Are you ready for riding crops, yet?"

Sherlock laughed. "Maybe later. I'll guess I'll want to know all I can if I'm going to let my libido out to play for a while. Before I have to put it away again and get back to business."

"I plan to ensure that you learn how to work without putting your libido away," Irene purred. "Let's start with this."

She took his hand, and led him back to her bedroom, nudging him lightly so that he'd sit on the bed. She left his towel on, but teased him by lightly tracing the contour of his hips under the swatch of fabric. She watched his face as she did so, pleased by the darkening of his eyes. He said nothing, but left his eyes on hers as she let her hands roam freely, exploring his skin, touching him lightly everywhere.

Everywhere but—there.

"What game is this, Irene?"

"I touch you, but you can't touch me. Not until I say you can. If you can make me say it without touching me, you win." She smiled. "Think."

"Interesting," he said. "How do you know I won't cheat?"

"Because you love the game, Sherlock."

"Can't deny that I do love a good game," he commented. "What do I win?"

"Me."

"Had you already."

"Ah, but not like this."

"And if I lose? Does everything just stop if I touch you?"

"Not at all, but that wouldn't be any fun, now would it, darling?"

"Depends, I suppose, on the level of the game, doesn't it?" Sherlock stretched back on the bed, and the towel tented over his groin. "Apparently it's already working on me. Is that normal?"

Irene laughed. "With a man who's been as repressed as you've been, I would say that's more than normal." Avoiding the tent, she traced her nails down his thighs, and back up. She slipped her hands under the towel, lightly tracing the planes of lower belly where they connected with his upper thighs. Again, she skirted his –well, quite impressive penis, if truth be told—and with one smooth motion, popped the towel open to expose him.

"Now I could, I suppose, begin to touch you there," she said conversationally. "But that would be boring—and we hate being bored, don't we?"

"You're driving me mad, woman," Sherlock said, locking his hands together behind his head. Let the dominatrix take the lead, he thought. Why not?

"That is rather the point of the game," she said. Irene moved, kneeling next to him on the bed, and using her breasts to trace small circles on his chest. She watched his flat abs ripple with the effort to not touch her, and the knowledge that he was completely under her spell made her want. But she wasn't quite done, yet. She straddled his stomach, allowing her wet heat to come into contact with his lower belly, just out of reach of his penis. Leaning forward, she placed her hands, one on either side of his head, and lowered her lips to his cheekbones. She traced the contours of his face with her lips, then sank into his mouth for a deep kiss.

"I believe I just lost," she whispered, touching her forehead to his. "I want you to touch me. I need you to touch me."

"Why don't we call it a draw, Woman? I need to touch you." He rolled her over so that she lay spread beneath him, her hair sprawled across the pillows. Sherlock raised himself up to took a moment, to drink in the sight of her, his woman. And yearned, before the epiphany struck.

"I don't have to want you from a distance now, do I?" he said wonderingly. "You're truly here. You're truly mine."

She smiled at him. "I'm truly yours, as you are truly mine."

He used his body to press her into the bed, covering her completely as he sunk his lips into her neck, then offered fleeting kisses along her collarbones, the groove between her breasts, and her stomach. At the last, he closed his mouth over her breast, suckling gently as she groaned. "Sherlock!"

He said nothing, but moved to the other breast, then sank further down, kissing the skin along her lower belly.

And still lower.

Irene's hands fisted in the blue silk cover as he ran his tongue over her, around her, and then into her. Her salty taste filled his mouth as she shrieked his name, and then, quick as a snake, he was in her, feeling her throb around him as she convulsed under him. He held her for a minute as her quakes subsided, then began to move, slowly, letting the sensations they'd built together mount, feeling her slick body moving under his, matching him beat for beat. Together they quickened the pace, nearly racing now as their hearts beat together, and all at once, she screamed again, convulsing over him, and he let himself explode inside her in a liquid rush.

He collapsed on her, burying his face in her neck so she wouldn't see his tears.

She felt them, anyway. Oh, the poor man, she thought, tears welling in her own eyes. Poor me. Why have I never felt this with anyone else?

Because Sherlock is the One.

The One man who matters.

"Sherlock, darling," she whispered. "I have never had this kind of experience with anyone else, ever. It's not just sex for me-because you are the one man whom I have ever, or will ever, love."

He said nothing, but dried his eyes in her neck, and turned to her side, disengaging from her warmth and sliding a hand up to cover her left breast. "You are the only person I have ever, ever, wanted to do this with," he whispered back. "I had no idea-none whatsoever-what it would feel like, what it would be like." He stilled for a moment. "I think I know now why sex can be something one would kill for."

"It's not sex they kill for," Irene corrected him quietly. "It's what they think is love."

He had nothing to say to that, but thought about it as they cuddled together, quietly enjoying their shared space. As Sherlock lifted his right arm to put around her, he winced, involuntarily.

"What, what is it?" Irene asked anxiously.

"Just still tender on that side from the fall," he said. "Not to worry. Probably I've just over done the physical activity in the past day or so. Not that I'm complaining."

Irene tsked. "I should have asked."

Sherlock raised himself up on his good side. "There's still a good bit of bruising in my shoulder where it hit the pavement, and my head aches occasionally, but all in all, I survived a six-story fall fairly well."

She shuddered. "I don't even want to think about it. I can't imagine how John felt watching it."

Sherlock was silent. "I had to make him try to believe that I would actually kill myself—that I actually was a fraud and couldn't handle it. I don't think he believed me."

"He didn't; it's on his blog."

"What?"

"Haven't you looked?" Irene sat up. "It's just one line, and the video of the news reporting you dead. He says, 'He was my best friend, and I'll always believe in him.'"

John.

Sherlock passed a hand over his eyes again, then sat up, too. "We've got to fix this, Irene. I can't let them all go on thinking what they do."

"Well, this is certainly a change from the Sherlock described in John's blog," Irene said briskly. "That Sherlock is very nearly manic with the fast pace of his brain, a veritable calculating machine."

"And this one is the flip side of that, Irene. Depression has dogged me as long as I can remember," he paused. "You probably ought to know that I have self-medicated on occasion."

Puzzled, Irene asked, "Self-medicated?"

"Cocaine, mostly. Nicotine, obviously. Molly wouldn't give me narcotic painkillers, just because of that past as an addict," he said quickly. "I've pretty much learned to live with pain, anyway."

"Sherlock, who knows this?"

He gave a half-grin. "Mycroft. John. Mrs. Hudson. Lestrade. Molly."

"And now me."

"And now you." He paused, then babbled on."Mycroft tried to get me into see a psychiatrist, but all they want to do is put me on legal drugs that tamp down my brain. Can't live like that."

"So you put up with the depression-"

"To use my brain to do what I love to do."

Irene paused. "That makes a kind of sense, even if it's not very bright."

"Mycroft put John on my scent very early on in our friendship, and Lestrade was no better. The very first night John and I met and started working together, Lestrade came to the flat to conduct a drugs bust. John couldn't believe that I'd have anything recreational on hand, and I had to prompt him quite firmly to shut up. They didn't find anything that time, but it's only for the grace of John Watson and a murderous taxi driver that I didn't get busted. And there's been bad nights since. The night I thought you dead, for example. I identified you at the morgue, and Mycroft gave me a cigarette. I've come to see that he gave me the cigarette to determine whether I was in any danger of relapsing. I was. John and Mrs. Hudson searched the flat before I got home, messed up my sock index-again-and didn't find my stash. I didn't use it. But I wanted to."

She laid a hand on his face. "I'm sorry I put you through that. I had no idea."

"Why should you? Why should anyone? I've tried to put myself together and stay sober, with a great deal of help from my true friends, my brother-damn him-and the cases. The cases are what really keep me from resorting to the drugs to keep me from being bored." He caught her hand in his, drawing it down. "Although I'm starting to learn about the benefits of other activities in keeping me from being bored."

She laughed. "Even you can't possibly want to do this again. That would be five times in less than 24 hours."

"I've been a bit repressed, Woman. You've introduced me to a delightful way to pass the time, and while I can't imagine engaging in it with anyone but you, I don't think I'll ever be quite the same again. I hope you don't mind teaching me all you know."

"All I know will be quite a lot."

"I'm a fast learner." Another half-grin. "Besides, I'm supposed to be recovering from serious injuries here. Bed is the best place for me. Honestly."

"Hmmm..." Irene said. "You seem to be rather energetic for bed."

"Who says I want to sleep? Besides, I still don't have any knickers."

"Ah, yes, the knickers." Irene extricated her hand from his, kissed his cheek, and leaped out of bed. Sherlock just had time to appreciate the beauty of her naked form as she ran for the front room and the box that had arrived just before they had gotten distracted. Irene dragged the box in to her bedroom, and started ripping off the tape.

"Just wait, Irene," Sherlock said, getting up himself. "Are you sure it's a delivery box?"

"It is just what I was expecting, Sherlock," Irene said, busily pulling the box apart to reveal several items of clothing. "I love shopping. These things come from a wonderful posh store downtown." She grabbed a package of silk boxers. "Here you are, knickers." Rummaging around a bit, she dug out a pair of ripped jeans and a deep purple silk dress shirt. And socks. "The only thing I couldn't find was boots in your size. We'll have to go out for those, so I kept your shoes. And I got this smart leather jacket in place of your coat. Can't have you going around all hot and broody in that long one, but I kept it. It's in your closet."

Sherlock glanced at everything. "Ripped jeans, really? I can't imagine why you would have thought I'd enjoy ripped jeans."

"I told you once, disguise is a self-portrait," Irene said as she pulled out another pair of jeans and three shirts in bold colors. "You're a young rock star detective. Let's look like it."

"Hang on; you said my closet. What closet?"

"Oh, I haven't really given you the grand tour, have I? Well, I have far too many clothes to share mine, and I thought you'd likely want your own space to think in, so, while I expect to be sharing a bed with you, I did have the other bedroom made up into a study for you. It's got a closet. And that's where your clothes will be."

"Where is this room of legend?" Sherlock popped open the bag of boxers, chose a gray pair, and slithered them on. Decently covered, he prowled around her room. "There can't be that much space here. Front room, breakfast room and kitchen, your bedroom and bath. Have I mentioned I love your shower? Spared no expense there, did you? But where is the other room hiding?"

"Just here," she said, stepping to her own closet and pressing a hidden switch at the side. The back of the closet opened, revealing a door to another room. "Off you pop and check it out."

Sherlock brushed her clothes to the side, stooped to grasp the handle of the door, and swung it open. Then he stood, his abused heart taking yet another beating as he saw what she'd done for him.

The wallpaper was that dreadful regency brocade characteristic of Baker Street. A desk stood near the window, equipped with laptop and printer. A file cabinet stood nearby, and a bookshelf the height of the room spanned an entire wall. At a glance, Sherlock could see everything from the encyclopedia to the Harry Potter books. On the opposite wall, a plush sofa-long enough for a tall man to stretch out on-faced a gas fireplace.

"Mycroft sent just the thing to round us out," Irene said as she ducked into the space. She handed him his violin case. "Here, darling. The finishing touch for your study."

For a change, speech left him. His study. A place for him to retreat, to think.

To work.

"When someone sees you, truly sees you, and knows what you need, it's an amazing gift," Sherlock said slowly. He turned to her, took the violin from her hands, and laid it on the sofa. Turning again, he took both her hands in his, and leaned in to kiss her softly. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. It didn't take long to put together, and when I got your note I decided it was best to give you that space to think. As I recall, you're a brooder when you're on a problem, and I suspect there's plenty of brooding to come." She turned to fuss with a union jack pillow, a replica of the one she saw at Baker Street. "And anyway, it was once my job to know what people like."

"No wonder people paid you so much," he said thoughtlessly, then winced. "Not good?"

"No, it's fine, Sherlock; it's true. I was paid very well to know what people liked and to provide it," Irene said. "I'm not offended. I've just tried to find a different way to employ those skills in my new life. In this case, I wanted to please you." She went on fussing with the pillow, her back to him.

Nerves, he realized.

"It does please me, Woman." Sherlock spun her around to face him, then kissed her deeply. When he released her mouth, he pressed his forehead to hers. "You are an extraordinary woman. I couldn't ask for a better partner in this endeavor."

"Except, perhaps, for John."

"No, not even John. He's too honest. They'd make mincemeat out of him, threaten him, use him as a pawn in the game, even as Moriarty did. The only way to protect him and the others at this point is to leave them completely in the dark. The only reason I can even partner with you is that we're both thought to be dead, and that's a distinct advantage. I do admit, though, that John is an extraordinarily useful partner in crime-solving." Sherlock took a deep breath. "Do you have any clients in the next few days?"

"Ah, no. I cleared my schedule. My next appointments aren't until a week from today, in my downtown office," Irene answered. "I thought you'd want some time to convalesce, and we need time to form our strategy."

"I have some thoughts on that," Sherlock said. "I'm feeling better already for being understood. But I do hurt."

"I have some basic, non-narcotic pain killers in the bath. Let me get them. You go ahead and get acquainted with your room. Let me know if you're missing anything you'd like; I'm bound to have missed some detail that's essential to your process," Irene teased as she left the room.

Sherlock turned slowly in the space. Spying the closet, he walked over to open it, and saw the suit he'd arrived in, his black wool coat, and his shoes. On the back of the closet door, he saw a blue dressing gown of the style he liked, and he remembered that Irene had spent her time in Baker Street wearing his favorite dressing gown. It was like her to remember.

Remembering probably had been part of her protection.

Sherlock didn't like to pry completely into the lives of those he cared about, despite his tendency to run off at the mouth. It wasn't intentional; his brain, quite simply, refused to turn off. But it was clear to him that Irene had been abused, probably sexually, and probably from quite a young age. That much was evident from her need to dominate both men and women, and possibly in her more usual attraction to women. The need to please, to know what her clients liked, likely stemmed from a need to be loved. That told him that she'd grown up in a household where she'd been neglected and abused.

Now that she was loved, would she trust it?

Would she trust him?

Should she trust him?

That's the question, Sherlock realized. Can she trust me? Not will she, but can she. Can a woman whose needs were so clearly subjugated to the will of others, even masked with the false power of a dominatrix, truly trust anyone?

He didn't realize, as his thoughts drew him down this path of analysis, thinking about the Woman who was quite simply the only one who ever made him want, that he was plucking the strings of his violin. He'd quite handily flopped on his new sofa with the violin, and the strumming of the strings helped him line up his thoughts.

It was how she found him, an hour later. Reclining in dressing gown and knickers, plucking the strings of his violin.

Irene smiled to see the effect of her work. Soothed, she thought. Resting. Thinking.

He'd be back in no time flat.

It was late evening when Sherlock emerged from his den. He now had a plan, of sorts, and it was time to share it with Irene.

Only she wasn't in the flat.

He strode through the bedroom, noting subconsciously the absence of a set of clothes in her closet, a pair of heels, and the box of his new clothes. Had she really put them away in his closet without him knowing?

Through the short hallway, into the kitchen and breakfast room where a dinner setting for two was laid, the candles unlit, the glasses unfilled. To the front room, where a few more boxes had accumulated during his thinking time.

She really does like to shop, he thought.

Well, if she wasn't there, then perhaps she'd left him a clue somewhere.

Gone out for dinner, perhaps?

No; the table was laid, but she'd hardly have done so scrupulously without a plan for dinner. He checked the fridge, and saw she'd put a platter of antipasti together. Italian. Yum. He helped himself to an artichoke heart, and saw the wine breathing on the counter. Perhaps she went out to get dinner, he thought, noting the absence of pasta or any sort of entree.

The opening of the door came as a relief.

"Is that you, Irene?"

"Yes; can you help me with the bags, please?"

She was carrying a handled paper bag that offered the enticing scent of spaghetti and meatballs. In her other hand, a bag contained a fresh baguette and a wheel of brie. "I thought it time we actually had dinner. You've been thinking the better part of the day, so I decided to go out for fuel." She handed him the bag with the bread and cheese. "Slice this up, will you? I'll set out the antipasti."

"I already helped myself to an artichoke heart. I'm famished," Sherlock answered. He pulled out the fresh loaf, found a serrated knife, and started slicing up the bread into perfect half-inch slices. As he finished, she slid a basket under his nose, and he piled the bread into the basket. He pulled out the brie, unwrapped it, and placed on the small plate she'd added to the counter. Irene placed the antipasti tray on the table between their plates, then piled half-orders of spaghetti on each of their dinner plates. As he set the bread and cheese on the table, she poured their wine.

"Chianti," she mentioned. "Thought it would go well with our French/Italian dinner."

"And so it shall," he said, then stepped round the table to pull out her chair for her.

"You do have pretty manners when you choose to employ them, Sherlock," she commented, then sat as he helped her to the table.

"Mummy insisted," he said. "Mycroft bloody well did, too. Damn him."

"Eton? Cambridge?"

"Harrow. Oxford."

"Ah, the traditional route."

"Well, for the Holmes family, at any rate." Sherlock seated himself, then took another artichoke heart from the platter. "Mycroft thought me a bit too much of a romantic, and a bit too dramatic, to allow me to diverge from the carefully chosen path of the Holmes men. The only thing I was able to thwart him in was my choice of profession. Usually, we're marked for service."

"I wondered about that," Irene said, spreading brie on a slice of fresh bread and sampling it. "You two are remarkably smart, and Mycroft, at any rate, is terribly cold-blooded. As you can be."

"It's part of the training," Sherlock said. "Generations of we Holmes have served the Crown, and we're raised to be highly efficient at the task. Mycroft couldn't get me to cooperate."

"You speak of him as one would a parent, Sherlock."

"Our father died when I was small. Mycroft is 10 years older than I; he had the raising of me at that point. Mummy was useless in her grief, and for some years after. Love being the ultimate distraction," he said. "It's a trap I intended to avoid."

Irene smiled. "So much for that."

"Yes, I suppose."

They talked then of less consequential things, trading bites of dinner. Favorite movie? Casablanca, hers; Maltese Falcon, his. They agreed to have a Bogart cinema night at some point, and moved on to music. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Irene said; Wagner and Rachmaninov, Sherlock said. "Really? Classical only?" "I'll allow that I quite enjoy Gaga." Belly laughter from Irene; confusion from Sherlock. "She's going to be classic!"

As they finished cleaning their plates-sex was hungry work-Irene laid back. "We do have a lovely pot de creme au chocolat on hand for dessert, if you'd like. But I'm not sure I could eat another bite. As it is, I'll have to spend an extra 10 minutes on my treadmill in the morning."

"You have a treadmill here?" he asked. "This flat is larger than it looks."

"I bought the flat behind as well, and installed doors. Your study actually is part of the other flat. I use the front room of that flat for an exercise area. We've weights and a cycle as well."

"That's good," Sherlock said. "I'll need to be working the shoulder more as it heals."

"Speaking of, there's Tylenol in the cabinet if it's necessary, and I thought I'd give you a rub down before we turn in tonight," Irene added. "Ready for dessert?"

"Why don't we save it for later?" Sherlock rose and started gathering the plates. "I'll give you a hand with the clean up."

"Just stuff them in the dishwasher, darling," she said, rising herself to bundle up the leftovers for the fridge. "Hmm. We have enough left for a midnight snack if we'd like."

"It was a pleasure to enjoy dinner with you at last." Sherlock finished placing the last of the silverware in the dishwasher, adding washing powder, and closed it up. He punched the appropriate buttons, and it began to run. "Now what?"

"Well, we could enjoy some telly," Irene said, "or I could give you that rub down. Or we could talk about Moriarty."

"One more Moriarty-free night, if you please," Sherlock requested. "I've got him locked down in a corner of my brain, plan to come, and it's nearly cooked."

"All right then; telly or rub down?"

He grinned. "Do you really need to ask?"

"Right, then; telly. AbFab or Smallville?" Irene asked demurely, batting her eyes at him.

"You are a tease, aren't you? I would quite like a rubdown, if you don't mind."

She laughed. "Fine. Go and get your medicine, strip down to your knickers, and lay on the bed. I'll get the ointment."

Sherlock went into his den, stripped off his clothes, and laid them back away in his closet. Wearing only the silk boxers, he padded back through Irene's closet and into her bath, finding the Tylenol in the medicine cabinet above the sink. He palmed four, swallowing them with the help of a handful of water from the tap, then used the toilet and washed his hands. As he dried them on one of her fluffy white towels, he heard her bedroom door open and shut.

"Are you ready for me, darling?" Irene called out.

"Just about," he called back. Giving into a moment of vanity, he checked his hair in the mirror, took a deep breath, and let himself out of her bath and into her bedroom.

She was waiting for him.

Irene wore a filmy green gown that only hinted at the body beneath it. The fabric skimmed over her hips to the floor loosely, so she had room to move, but it covered her completely. Her hair was bundled back into a messy bun, stuck with a silver hairpin. In her hands she carried a small pot.

He cleared his throat. Would he ever be free of this feeling of want? Every single time he saw her?

"What's in the pot?" he asked.

"A special cream I picked up especially for you. It has a bit of this and a bit of that in it, but it's mostly herbal, designed to facilitate speedy healing," she answered. "Please, lay down on your left side. It's the right that's sore, right?

"It is," Sherlock confirmed, then lay as she instructed, on his left side, exposing the right side of his body to her.

She'd seen it as they'd made love, but she took the time now to really study the mottled skin, a hideous green and yellow that indicated healing along his ribs and hip. The top of his shoulder looked swollen with deep muscle bruising, but it, too, was healing. "This cream should help."

Irene started by coating her fingers with the cream, then slowly, gently, rubbing it into the skin of shoulder. It warmed and cooled the skin simultaneously as she worked the muscles in a deep tissue massage, then skimmed down his right bicep to address pressure points at his elbows and his inner forearm. Turning him slightly, she coated her fingers again, and gently raised his right arm over his head. Leaving it there, Irene worked the cream into the skin over his ribs, and smoothed it down, over the space between his ribs and hip.

"You are extraordinarily lucky, Sherlock," she murmured. "You could have damaged your spleen, your liver, your pancreas."

"I know," he said lazily, enjoying the feel of her hands on him. "But I didn't."

Irene shook her head, and then began on his hip. There was less bruising there, which told her he'd taken the brunt of the fall on his shoulder. "How did you protect your head?" she asked.

"Not well, I'm afraid," Sherlock replied. "I managed to concuss myself, but since I didn't squash my head like a grape, we'll call it a win."

Irene shuddered, and continued to work the cream down his right leg. "Flip onto your stomach, Sherlock."

"Why?"

"I want to rub this into your back. I can see the strain on it from the fall, and you really need lining up."

"You can do that?"

"I learned massage therapy as part of my training," she said. "It's a useful skill."

Obliging, he turned over on his stomach, and she started work at the top of his shoulders, near the base of his neck. She worked pressure points at his shoulder blades, and down the sides of his spinal column, finishing each point with a light rub across his back. At the top of his hips, she shimmied his boxers down to rub cream in at the base of his spine, then took a moment to enjoy rubbing it over his firm buttocks.

"That's not a pressure point," she heard him say, the sounds muffled in his pillow.

"No, but since it's there..." Irene felt him chuckle, and, thus encouraged, she ruffled up his boxers from the bottom and worked the cream into the skin at the top of his hamstrings, and lightly rubbed it all down the backs of his legs. "Now, back on your back, darling."

Sherlock turned over, easing his shorts as he did. She smiled at him, then dipped her fingers back into the cream and started working it into his chest and arms, applying pressure to points at the vortex of his pectoral muscles and belly, lightly rubbing everywhere else. As she reached the top of his boxers, she ruffled them down, pulling them up and over him, shimmying his shorts off completely.

"Well, I see repression has struck again," she commented lightly, working the cream into the tops of his thighs, and applying pressure to points at his sacral chakras.

"It's not repression, Irene," Sherlock answered, smiling up at her. "It's just you. Only you seem to be able to do this to me."

"I'm flattered," Irene said, echoing one of the first things she'd ever said to him.

"You should be this time," he said. "In point of fact, observing you has always led to this with me. It has in the past driven me mad."

"As I told you, darling, I'm planning to show you that having a libido-and employing it-takes nothing away from your work, and you may even find that you're better at your job for understanding us mortals," she teased.

"One can only hope," Sherlock murmured, "because the genie's out of the bottle now."

Irene laughed again, and continued working the cream down his legs to his feet. She worked the pressure points in his arches, and as she skimmed the bottom of his feet, she felt him stifle giggles. Experimentally, she skimmed his feet again, and the giggles threatened to burst out of him.

"Sherlock Holmes has ticklish feet!" Irene exclaimed. "What the criminal world would do with this information!"

"No doubt it will result in some hellish torture for me at some point," Sherlock said breathlessly, letting some of the laughs out.

"For now, it's simple fun for me," Irene laughed, "and I'm the only one who knows this information. What shall I sell it for?"

"You can use it for protection," Sherlock said. "For I will do anything to keep you from revealing that tidbit. Wouldn't do for the criminal element to know that all they have to do is tickle my feet, and I will give up anything."

She laughed some more, then left his feet and moved up to lay at his side, pillowing her head in the hollow of his uninjured shoulder. "I think you should rest, Sherlock. You've been running, and fighting, and you've hardly taken the time to process everything."

He pulled her into his side in a cuddle. The first, he realized, of his life. "I'm really going to be fine, Woman," Sherlock said, hugging her. "With as able a nurse as you, how could I not be? I already feel better."

"I'm glad," Irene answered, wrapping her arm around his waist. "Because I'm not above drugging you to make you heal."

Sherlock laughed. "Duly noted. But I'm not feeling particularly sleepy. In fact, that rubdown seems to have woken me up a bit."

"I noticed," she said, and allowed her hand to find its way down to his erect penis. "I haven't really spent much time with this, have I? I haven't shown you how sensitive this can be, have I?" The residue of the cream on her hands alternately cooled and warmed him as she lightly rubbed the length of his shaft. "How does this feel?"

"Amazing," he said breathlessly, the calm reached through the massage starting to break slightly as she increased the pace of her rubbing. "Woman..."

"You'll just have to take it, Sherlock," she murmured. "I know you can." She moved even more quickly, one part of her brain gauging just how much pressure to use to bring him to the brink of climax. She saw his hands begin to fist, and she stopped.

"Irene …"

"Beg for mercy, Sherlock," she said, and scooted up. She reached for a bottle of oil on the bedside table. "Almond oil. It's got many medicinal uses." Irene poured a pool of oil into her hands, then began to anoint him liberally with it. "And, it's ….tasty." She leaned forward, and began to lick it off of him, starting at the base of his shaft, using her tongue in long strokes to tease him and taste the oil.

"Oh, my great god in heaven," Sherlock barely managed to get out, his chest heaving with the effort of resistance.

And then she took the whole of him in her mouth.

His world exploded with immense pleasure, and as he came in an explosive rush, she sucked him dry, working the tip of his penis with her tongue as she did so. Irene smiled inwardly as she heard him pant with effort, quake with the pleasure. As his quakes subsided, she sat up and reached for the glass of water on the bedside table, drinking to clear the taste of him from her mouth.

"You planned this," Sherlock said wonderingly. "The cream, the oil, the glass of water at the ready. You intended to …"

"It's called a blow job, Sherlock, in case you're wondering," Irene said. "I really thought you could use one. And now, you should sleep like a baby."

"But you-I mean-you didn't get any pleasure from that, did you?"

"I got pleasure from pleasing you, Sherlock," she said softly. "And from being in control of pleasing you."

Dear God, Sherlock thought. He knew there was something profound in what she was saying, but he couldn't quite wrap his brain around it. His body felt lax, soft, like melted butter pooled over pancakes. He barely registered her pulling the silk sheet up over him as he fell asleep.

...

Irene watched him as he slept. He looked so young, so innocent. But that remarkable brain of his. Did it stunt his emotional growth? Or did he choose to shut off that emotional part of himself, as best he could, in pursuit of the refinement of that remarkable brain?

She didn't know. But he was surely getting another kind of education now.

Irene got up, went to the kitchen, and poured herself another glass of Chianti. She had a man sleeping in her bed. A great man, a smart man. A sexy one.

It was the first time she'd ever chosen to have a man in her bed.

Oh, not the first time she'd had a man, certainly. Her stepfather had seen to that when she was barely old enough to process the act. But she'd grown, hadn't she? She'd grown, and learned that sex could be power, if employed properly.

She'd had her stepfather killed by a client approximately 10 years ago.

It was odd, she thought. Even by dint of massive amounts of therapy, Irene had never quite shaken the revulsion she had for some forms of sex. That didn't mean she couldn't, or didn't, engage in them, but she'd charged outrageous amounts for the privilege.

Women were less complicated, in general, she thought. More emotional. Less driven by their bodies.

And yet, there was Sherlock. He was oddly vulnerable. He knew, intellectually, about sex, but she found his lack of obvious knowledge intriguing. And challenging. And in many ways, he was her opposite. Somehow, he'd been damaged, too. Probably by a woman; probably by a series of cruel young people. It's hard to tell, she thought. If she'd been brought up by the Ice-Man, how would she have reacted?

What was his mother like?

As a sex therapist, Irene had learned a great deal about the psychological problems that can prompt people to have difficulty with sex. Or with their own sexual identities. In a way, that was what she was helping Sherlock to do.

But this time, it was complicated. He's not a client, she thought. He's my lover. My friend. My love.

She finished her wine, and sat in the dark.

Alone.

Sherlock woke with a start. He glanced around, suddenly awake and alert. The oils and water were gone; so was Irene.

Would he ever wake with her at his side?

In fact, it looked as though she'd never come to bed. Curious, he rose, found his knickers, put them on, and padded out through the flat. It was early, still; the sun was just coming up, and he could see the sunrise through the kitchen window. He continued out to the front room, to find her curled up on the sofa, tear stains on her face, an empty bottle of Chianti on the end table, a glass on the floor.

His stomach curdled. Sherlock cast his memory back to the night before, wondering what possibly could have caused her this kind of emotional pain, something that needed soothing with alcohol and tears. All he could think of was the intimate act she'd performed on him.

Why on earth would that voluntary act have caused this?

Sherlock knelt in front of her, and touched her face. "Irene?" he asked softly.

She murmured something unintelligible in return, and he stood, bent to scoop her off the couch, and carried her into her bedroom. She turned into his neck, and he gently lowered her into the bed, sliding in next to her and pulling the sheet over them both. He pulled her into his arms, and watched her sleep, putting his mind to the puzzle that was Irene Adler.

His eyes were on hers when they fluttered open, and her first thought on walking was how beautiful his opalescent eyes were. Irene smiled at him, and then started to stretch, gradually realizing that she was in bed with Sherlock, and not on the couch in the front room.

"How did I get here?" she asked.

"I carried you," Sherlock replied.

"Why did you do that? Your shoulder really shouldn't be subjected to the kind of strain you're subjecting it to," she scolded.

"You weigh hardly anything, Irene, and you looked very uncomfortable. Besides, I wanted you to sleep with me. I've been here two days, and I've not woken with you yet."

Irene smiled again. "I'm sorry. We've been at cross purposes. I just needed a little space last night, after you went to sleep. I didn't mean to fall asleep out there."

He caressed her cheek. "You mean you didn't want me to see you in the state you obviously had worked yourself up into after I was asleep. You don't have to hide from me, Irene. I see you. And I'm sorry."

She stared, wide-eyed, up at him. "Sorry for what?"

"Well, it seems to me that the only thing that might have triggered that crying jag, was, well, that thing you did for me …" Embarrassed, he stopped for a second. "I can only guess that performing that act disturbed you in some way."

"Definitely the new sexy," Irene murmured. "Sherlock, you're right, but not in the way you mean. Let me up, darling. I need the loo. And we'll talk over breakfast."

He let her go, and rose himself. Heading to the kitchen, Sherlock looked for the kettle, the tea, and any leftovers they might heat up for breakfast. He found bread, and cheese, and fruit. He laid out a light breakfast, set up the tea, and was just pouring when Irene came back out, dressed and pressed, in light trousers, heeled boots, and a kelly green tee, her hair dressed in braids.

"New look for you," Sherlock commented. "I like it."

"Thank you," Irene said. "I'll suggest you dress, too, and we can go for a walk after breakfast. I need to get out a bit."

"Fine. Here, have a cuppa." He handed her a cup of tea, light and sweet, and she sat at the table with it. They munched silently on brie and strawberries, day-old baguette and tea.

"This is a little ridiculous," Irene said, breaking the silence. "I didn't mean to make you feel self-conscious."

"I know," Sherlock replied. "But I don't think I know enough about this whole relationship thing to really fathom what you did mean to do. And why it made you cry." He paused, swallowed, and continued. "I don't want to make you cry."

"You sweet, sensitive man," Irene said, and reached for his hand. "Do you remember when this was the most erotic thing we could do? You took my pulse, and you knew that my feelings for you were genuine."

"To be fair," Sherlock said, turning her palm over and laying his fingers on her wrist. "I didn't put the pieces together until far too late to be useful to either of us."

"In that way, the education of Sherlock Holmes continues," Irene said playfully. "But I suppose, as we seem to be lovers-because you are most definitely not a client of the old kind-it's time you knew a thing or two about me. Besides the fact that I like to have power over men."

Her pulse was elevated, Sherlock noted, but he didn't think it had anything to do with the chemical attraction between them. More likely, it had to do with nerves. "You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to. I've figured out quite a bit of your story on my own. But I also don't want you to feel like you have to do anything you don't want to do, either. And I'm afraid you're having sex with me because you think it's expected-not because you truly want to. I haven't forgotten what you told John. You said you were gay. In that context, your actions with me haven't been consistent with someone who likes to engage in sexual activity with women more than men." He paused. "So, I guess, I have to wonder at your motives. I don't want to hurt you. I can reign myself back in, Irene. I'd been celibate for 33 years; I could certainly re-employ the same meditative techniques I used to control myself before I met you."

"Sometimes I forget how incredibly perceptive you can be," Irene murmured. "I suppose the truth of my orientation is that I'm bisexual. I must be, because I genuinely want to engage in sexual activity with you, Sherlock. I have been attracted to you since I first saw you; attracted to that brain, those cheekbones, that body. Attracted to you, sincerely. I wanted to give you pleasure; I wanted to show you more of what could be in store for you as my lover."

"But?" He prompted gently.

"But..." She hesitated. "After you went to sleep, I realized that my intimacy with you was-has been-the first time I've ever voluntarily pleasured a man in that way. It shook me up a bit, and I had to have a bit of reflection time to settle myself down."

Sherlock's eyes iced over. "Voluntarily?"

Irene looked down at their joined hands. Her pulse beat rapidly against his wrist. "I was 8 when my stepfather first forced me to perform that act on him. It wasn't the last time."

"Where is he now?" Sherlock asked softly, murder in his eyes.

She knew it was there. "He's dead. I bribed a client to kill him about 10 years ago."

They were silent as each struggled to contain their emotions.

"Well, I'm glad, Irene, as it saves me the trouble of killing him for you," Sherlock finally said. "I do believe I'd like that walk."

"Sherlock, I need you to know one thing absolutely," Irene said earnestly. "I touched you in that way because I wanted to. I absolutely wanted to pleasure you. Don't let my story taint that for us, please." He looked down at her, and she pleaded again. "Please."

"For you, Irene, I will believe you," Sherlock said softly. "But you must never do anything with me-or to me-that you absolutely do not want to do. Promise me."

Irene hesitated. It had become second nature to put others' needs before her own. She looked up at him, into those eyes that mesmerized her. "I promise to try."

He smiled, and leaned in to kiss her softly. "I'll take that." Sherlock released her hands and rose from the table. "I'll go and get dressed now. I feel like strolling with you, hand in hand, along the Seine."

"Wear the jeans, darling," Irene said briskly, rising herself to clear the table. "It's a loose disguise, but it's best. You're mildly famous here, too. And leave the stubble. Don't shave."

"I do know how to dress myself, you know," he called back from her room. "Been doing it since I was small."

"Yes, but not like this, you posh thing," she called back. Irene continued to tidy up, emptying the dishwasher, refilling it, and tossing the day two leftovers. She made a mental note to stop at a market while they were out to find something for dinner. Moving to the hutch, she checked the security cams, and pulled a purse out of the top drawer. At the clearing of his throat, Irene turned around.

Oh, yummy.

He'd gelled his hair, tousling it messily around his face, accenting the cheekbones. He'd put the jeans on, and they were tighter than he'd normally wear, showing off his trim hips and fine bottom. The deep blue shirt he wore untucked, sleeves rolled up, top three buttons undone. The brown leather jacket she'd bought was tossed casually over his arm, and Irene thought she'd swallow her tongue.

"Sherlock, I do believe you are the yummiest man of my acquaintance," Irene sparkled as she said it. "And if we don't leave this apartment right now, you may very well find yourself back on your back in my bed again. Now."

Sherlock chuckled. "Can't have that. Come on." He held his hand out to her, and they strolled out.

They rambled down the sidewalk, passing cafes and shops, heading for the river. They'd both put on posh sunglasses, and they might as well have been invisible for all the notice paid them as they strolled.

"I wonder if I could enact the homeless network here," Sherlock mused out loud as he spotted a dirty young man on the street, begging for wine. "Eyes and ears all over the city in London."

"Ah, very useful," Irene commented. "I don't know. How's your French?"

"C'est bien," Sherlock replied with a twinkle. "But I don't know how useful they'll be to me here. I think my priority has to be finding anyone who our enemy used as a lieutenant of sorts."

"Well, that would be Sebastian Moran," Irene said. "He manages the tasks that good old Jim couldn't be bothered with. I've dealt with him slightly, but I prefer to work with those in higher authority, if I must."

Sherlock observed everything on the street as they walked, passing the time by deducing the stories of those they met. He made Irene giggle with the observation of the adulterous poodle-lover, the bored house-boy, and the potentially murderous postal carrier. "He'll bear watching. He doesn't deliver our mail, does he?"

Reassured that he did not, Sherlock went on exercising his brain by pointing out the guilty businessman, the shady police officer, and the poor widow. Irene, breathless with giggles by that point, could barely stand up as they reached the river itself. Sherlock helped her stay upright, then joined in her laughter.

"You know, Irene, you and John are the only ones who have ever appreciated the game of deduction as I play it," Sherlock observed. "Others, as I once told John, find it to be extremely irritating."

"Only because you show no tact at all when observing their own actions, Sherlock," Irene replied, wiping her eyes. "You're really quite brilliant and witty when you want to be. But most don't like to know they're quite so obvious. It's really quite human."

"I do know my mouth runs away from my brain sometimes. I simply don't think about what effect my words are having; I'm just playing this game," Sherlock tried to explain.

"Oh, I know that, darling," Irene said. "And I find it entirely entertaining."

He smiled at her, tucked her hand in his elbow, and strolled on, entertaining her further with stories about captain on a boat floating down the Seine, the young couple fighting over their future on the dock, and the shady pickpocket looking to score a wallet. A hard stare from Sherlock sent the young person off in a different direction to do his dirty work. Irene laughed freely, thoroughly enjoying his company.

As they made their way back toward the flat, Irene tugged on his arm to take him to a local market. "What shall we have for dinner this evening, Sherlock?"

"I rarely eat when I'm on a scent," Sherlock said, "and much food doesn't entirely appeal to me. But I've been famished lately."

"Hmmm, you're still healing and you're exercising dubious muscles," Irene said idly. "I think I fancy red meat for dinner."

They picked out a pair of gorgeous looking steaks, salad greens and more of the lovely fresh French bread they'd eaten the night before. Irene looked at the wine selection. "A pinot noir, darling?"

"I probably ought not drink too much more in the way of alcohol, Irene," Sherlock said quietly. "I don't doubt that I could handle it, but it's a sure sign, when I'm thinking that, that I ought not."

Irene put the bottle back. "In solidarity, then. How about some Perrier?"

"Perfect."

"We still have the pot de creme to sample for dessert. How are you at cooking steak?"

"Erm, put it on some sort of fire and wait until it's done?"

"Don't tell me; cooking is one of those things you try to remain spectacularly ignorant of."

"I know all the great restaurants in London, Irene. There's a reason for that."

She laughed some more, and as he took their shopping bags, she led the way back to the flat. "It's just lucky for you that I've had to cook for myself more often than that. I even have a grill pan."

They let themselves in, and Irene put their dinner groceries away. "Fancy a snack?"

"Is there any brie left?"

They ate standing up in the kitchen, nibbling on cheese, antipasti, and fresh bread, washing it down with Perrier.

"So, what's the plan for the afternoon, Sherlock?" Irene asked as she washed her hands.

"Well, I suppose I ought to start tracking down this Sebastian Moran," he answered idly, looking out her window. "That ought to take a minute or two. And then I thought I'd spend some more time with you. If that appeals, of course."

"It does, indeed. And if you take some of that time you're going to use now to work on the Moran problem, I'll take some time to return some client phone calls," Irene said. "Shall we meet back here later?"

"Find me in my den," Sherlock said, kissing her lightly and disappearing into her closet. She smiled happily, and headed to her front room to make those calls.

Sherlock went first to the laptop on his desk, starting a Google+ search for Sebastian Moran, looking for publicly available information. There was very little. On their walk that afternoon, Irene had shared that Moran was some sort of a lieutenant to Moriarty, managing the side jobs that Moriarty couldn't be bothered with. With his boss gone, where, oh where, would Moran go?

He sat back in the very comfortable chair provided by Irene, and thought for a second. How to smoke Moran out? Sherlock smiled, then typed in the URL for a goods exchange web site.

"FOUND: SuperSecretPlansForMNetwork. If needed, apply to h ."

Sherlock copied and pasted the same message into goods exchange sites all over the web.

Let's see if that works.

Meanwhile, curious, Sherlock checked John's blog. Nothing new; just the very sad top post. Sherlock was sorry to see it; he hoped, eventually, that John would be able to move on and recount more of their experiences. He bookmarked the site, and continued his search, flipping to his gmail account, routing it through several others to arrive at the secret drop box site he'd created. Several of his alias accounts ended there. Just now, however, the box was empty of everything save the note from Irene confirming her address and his welcome. He set a text alert to his new phone, and sat back.

Sebastian Moran.

Moriarty's network, with him at the center of the web, was vast. Taking Moriarty out of the web put a huge hole at the center of it, but the web would hold with the effort of the few in his trusted inner circle. Irene had once been a part of that circle, but not in a concerted way. She was a pawn to Moriarty, a woman who dealt in sex and secrets, and who might be able to distract his primary rival.

Well, and it worked, didn't it? Sherlock mused. Irene has proved to be one serious distraction. But she's also been a significant ally, and that's something Moriarty couldn't have counted on.

Not for the first time, Sherlock wondered if it was she who had stopped Moriarty from blowing them all up at the pool. That would imply she'd been well aware of him before he even knew of her existence.

Irene. Will I ever think of her as Michele?

Most likely not.

Dusk had fallen by the time Sherlock snapped out of his work. With his text alerts set, there was nothing much for him to do but wait.

Normally, he hated waiting.

But now he had The Woman.

He found her in her front room, curled up with a John LeCarre novel and a cup of tea, her hair loosened from its braids and draped around her shoulders. She looked up when he entered, and placed a bookmark on the page she was reading.

"Progress, darling?"

"I think so. Started some wheels turning, anyway. We'll see what happens. And your afternoon? Was it productive?"

"Yes, it was," Irene answered. "I have a client-and I can't say too much for the confidentiality of it-who has been petrified of intimacy with her husband, poor thing. Repressed from childhood. The husband has been very, very patient, but I'm helping her to loosen up. I'm afraid if she doesn't, she'll never be whole again. I spent the better part of my afternoon listening to her."

Sherlock smiled at her. "You are making good use of your new career."

"I hope so," Irene said. "I worry sometimes that I'm not doing anyone any good whatsoever. And I miss the game, Sherlock."

He sat on the sofa next to her and reached for her hand. "I sympathize entirely, Irene. But the game is a bit different now, isn't it? It's a game to with two winners, I hope. And we're playing for life."

"I rather like the sound of that." Irene snuggled into him.

"So," Sherlock said tentatively, "who is it that tends you when you need tending, Irene?"

She tipped back to look at his amazing face. "What do you mean?"

"I don't believe I've actually said this to you, yet," Sherlock said shyly. "But you're a beautiful, vibrant, brilliant woman, and I'm thoroughly amazed by you. And ever since I arrived, you have tended me; you have tended every one of my needs, physical and emotional, and never once asked for anything in return. So I ask you, Woman, who is it that tends you?"

Irene thought a moment. "I have always had to tend to my own needs, Sherlock. I told you once that I make my own way in the world."

"Then it is high time that someone tended to you," Sherlock said quietly. "Do you trust me?"

Irene looked steadily at him, seeing something in those eyes. "I do."

He rose, and held his hand out to her. She took it, and rose with him. He leaned down to kiss her, lightly at first, gently, just a nibble of teeth, a sweep of tongue. Irene sighed, a low deep hum of satisfaction. The corners of his mouth turned up when he heard it, and he deepened the kiss, feeling himself respond to her taste. Keeping up the kiss, he began to back her up, through the kitchen, into her bedroom, slowly dancing their way to the bed to a tune in his own head.

Willing, she danced with him until they came to rest next to her bed. He broke off the kiss, then brought his lips to her right ear, then the pulse point at her started to move her hands toward his shirt buttons, but he stopped her, taking her hands in his and holding them away from his body.

"You can't always be in control, Irene," he murmured quietly. "Let me tend you. Trust me."

Irene looked at him for a minute, then signaled her surrender by placing her hands behind her back. Wide-eyed, she stared up into his eyes, mesmerized by the intensity of his gaze. "I do, Sherlock. I do trust you."

He reached for the bottom of her tee, and pulled it up over her head, revealing her lovely breasts tucked into a scanty lace bra. "I like that," he purred, and lowered his head to move his lips along her collarbone, then the tops of her breasts, lightly kissing the skin there. "I think we'll leave that on for now."

"Sherlock," Irene said unsteadily. "I'm not sure what-"

"Trust me, love, won't you?" He slid his long fingers into the waistband of her trousers, and tugged them down, over her hips, and let them slide to the floor. Sherlock helped her step out of them, then in one swift motion, picked her up and laid her on the bed, tousled and aroused.

"You're wearing too many clothes," she said breathlessly.

"Just enough, for now," he answered, shimmying out of his shirt and joining her on the bed. He kissed her again, a deep, drugging kiss that set her system humming. "We can go as slow as we like. We have all the time in the world, and I'm tending to you this time."

He nudged her bra straps off her shoulders with his lips. She began to move, her hips circling as she felt the pressure inside her building at his touch. "Sherlock …" she sighed.

He said nothing, but moved his lips first to her right nipple, teasing it lightly with his tongue, then sucking deeply as she cried out with pleasure. He did the same with her left, then moved his lips down her belly, sliding his tongue under the lace edge of her matching panties. He pulled them off of her with his teeth, moving them off her thighs with her help, casting them off somewhere into a darkened corner of the room, and moving back up to spread her legs. He kissed her again, then moved down, nestling his face between her legs and using his tongue to lick the small nub at the top of her cleft.

It was Irene's hands that fisted in the bedcovers now; her pants that alerted him to her pleasure. "Sherlock!" Irene could barely stand the pleasure any longer. "Please! I need you inside me!"

He lifted his head. "Twice, Irene." And bent himself back to the task of pleasuring her.

A long moan filled her lungs, escaping as she erupted under his tongue. "Sherlock!" Irene screamed his name as he came up for air, raising himself up over her, and covering her mouth with his so she could taste.

She felt lax, pleased, melted. But the taste of her own passion sparked something in her, and she responded to his kiss. "Now, Sherlock, please."

He moved away from her, stood, and removed his jeans and boxers. Laying back down next to her, he turned her to face him, running a hand along her thighs, then cupping her wet heat. He slipped one of his long fingers into her, rhythmically building the pressure in her again, taking his time, feeling her muscles tighten under his hand, knowing she was about to erupt again. He took her mouth as started to shout, swallowing her scream as she came.

"Oh, God, Sherlock."

Again, he said nothing, but moved her to her back. He raised her legs, and entered her slowly, with a growl from him and a sigh from her, and began to move, achingly slowly, so slowly Irene felt she might die from the pleasure of it. "God, Sherlock."

He felt her bunch again, her muscles tightening around him. He surrendered to the sensation, increasing the pace as her muscles began to milk him when she came again. And then it was he who shouted as he came inside her with a rush. He rocked a bit, as did she, unwilling to break the connection between them, before collapsing on top of her to get his breath back.

Irene lay dazed underneath him. What had happened to the virgin who entered her flat two days before? He'd said he was a fast learner, but this was above and beyond.

"I did a bit of studying this afternoon; I hope you don't mind," Sherlock murmured into her neck.

"I should say not," Irene murmured back.

"I think I was only able to do this because you've done such a fine job with me the last few days, Irene," Sherlock said. "And, of course, I've been practicing control half my life." He leaned up again to look at his beautiful woman. "Have you been well and truly tended, love?"

She leaned up to kiss him. "I've never been so well tended in my life, Sherlock." She kissed him again. "Thank you."

He smiled, reluctantly breaking their connection to move to her side and scoop her up to nestle against him. "It won't be the last time," he promised.

...

The pattern of days continued as Sherlock healed and continued his tracking. Irene went back to her clients, spending most of her days away from the flat as Sherlock worked his case in his den. Some days they went out together, frequenting cafes along the Seine, people-watching. Others, Sherlock holed up in his den, searching not only for Moran, but also for the paid assassins set to kill his friends. He had no idea whether the hits would still hold if he turned up alive, and he'd prefer not to take that chance.

With Irene's assistance, Sherlock secured legal documents that showed his new identity, which he had been persuaded to change to Steven Hendrickson, a Dutch citizen. Using these, Sherlock quietly left town, traveling to sites where the assassins had last been seen, developing contacts in major European cities, and building his own network of informants. On these trips, Irene sometimes accompanied him, especially when a beautiful woman could be an extraordinary asset, which was often.

He found the handyman assigned to kill Mrs. Hudson in Brussels, and set him up to take a hard fall with the local police. By the time Sherlock was through with him, the handyman was serving life in a Belgian prison. He tracked down the man responsible for killing Lestrade, and left him in his place, to be dealt with upon his return to London. An anonymous tip to Scotland Yard's internal affairs division, however, ensured the officer would be kept under surveillance until he got back to deal with him personally.

Sherlock had a bit more difficulty tracking down the man with the rifle who had had John in his sights. He turned out to be an American, based out of New York. But the man was extraordinarily difficult to follow as he traveled around the world, a sharpshooter, military trained, used by a wide number of people for hire.

Sherlock reluctantly admired the fact that Moriarty considered John to be the most difficult to take down, and he had as a consequence engaged a true professional to take him out. That, of course, wouldn't do, however. And given what he knew about the assassin, that sharpshooter would not likely give up the contract, even with the knowledge that Moriarty was dead.

In fact, much of Moriarty's network refused to believe that the villain himself WAS dead. With much subtle guile, Sherlock succeeded in planting the seeds of doubt among the tangled lines of the web woven by Moriarty, and he finally tracked the sharpshooter to Dubai. In Dubai, the sharpshooter met with an unfortunate accident, and the threat to John's life was eliminated.

As he continued his work, Sherlock marveled at the partnership he'd built with Irene. They each had their own lives, and work, of course; she had her clients, and he, the hunt. But she proved to be an immeasurable asset, using her knowledge of human nature and her own remarkable brain to help him see motivations he hadn't thought about.

As his net began to tighten around Moran, Sherlock spent more time alone in the back alleys of Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, and Dubai, trading favors and bribes for information. In some of those places, he didn't dare take Irene, fearing for her safety. She gave him some grief over that, but Irene found it hard to argue with someone whose main concern was whether she was safe-especially when he trusted her to take care of herself under all other circumstances.

The final piece of the Moran puzzle came to them in the middle of the night, via text alert from one of Sherlock's homeless network in London. Moran had personally taken a contract for a hit.

Sherlock looked at the display screen on his phone, his face illuminated by its glow, and felt sick.

The hit was on John.

Irene turned in her sleep, the light disturbing her eyes. "Sherlock? What is it?"

Stunned, Sherlock flipped his phone over. "Moran plans to kill John. The motivation is still unclear to me, but he's taken a contract to kill him."

Irene sat straight up. "What? Why? How?"

"Again, unclear. What has John been up to that would capture Moran's attention?"

"Do you suppose it's enough that he's your former partner? Or, because you're dead, do you suppose he thinks it's John who's committed the havoc you've been wreaking on the Moriarty network?"

Sherlock turned white. "I didn't even think about that. How did I not think of that? Why would anybody think a simple army doctor could or would …." He trailed off. "Irene, do you know what John's been up to lately?"

Sensing that sleeping time was over, Irene leaned over and turned on the bedside lamp. "His blog has been stuck on that last message for the past six months. I assumed you were keeping tabs on him."

"No, I guess I assumed he'd go back to practicing medicine, set up with Sarah at the surgery there, or do something equally useful with his time." Sherlock rubbed his hands through his hair. "Maybe it's time to reach out to Mycroft."

"I thought, and I quote, 'I'll never reach out to Mycroft if I live to be older than one hundred years,'" Irene said dryly.

"Well, even I have to eat my words sometimes. I can't get to London earlier than tomorrow, and Mycroft can get to John tonight." Sherlock flipped his phone back over, and, heedless of the time, dialed a number he hadn't rung in more than six months.

His brother's voice took him right back home. "Mycroft Holmes."

"Hello, brother."

Silence. Then, a clearing of the throat, a cautious sniff, and, "I take it your hunting has gone well."

"I expect you've heard so," Sherlock said carefully.

"I expect I have. What brings you to this pretty pass this evening?"

"I've gotten word that Sebastian Moran plans to kill John."

"For what possible reason?"

"I thought you might know."

A pause, and then, "The last I heard, John was teaching forensic pathology at St. Bart's. It doesn't seem to be completely his cup of tea, but bills must be paid, I suppose. He's still at Baker Street. I managed to convince him that I wanted to keep your old things, as a memorial, and they've been stored in 221C pending your return. Which I assume is imminent, based on this conversation."

"We'll need to spring a trap for Moran, and expose the lieutenant inside Lestrade's operation, before I can come back."

"Will you want to come back, Sherlock? I was under the impression that you were living in a state of connubial bliss with a former sex worker."

Sherlock bristled. "Former is the operative word here, Mycroft, and I'll thank you to leave her out of this conversation."

At this, Irene, who had of course been listening to every word, silently slid out of bed, miming that she'd be in the loo.

"How can I? Especially, when it seems you've blown a hole in your own very successful cover of her death. Rumors of her existence have begun to spread after some of your exploits in Europe."

"Rumors only, of course," Sherlock said archly. "They can be dealt with. Michele DeForte has a perfectly stable and above board existence."

"Yes, but Irene Adler is better known in some circles, Sherlock. I still regret tossing her into your path."

"I don't."

And there it was.

"Well, then," Mycroft said slowly. "I suppose I'll increase surveillance on John until your return."

"I'll be in London tomorrow. I'll need some sort of safe house to start with," Sherlock said, easing out of bed and heading for his den.

"Just head to Baker Street, Sherlock. I'll let Mrs. Hudson know she's going to have a new boarder. The whole place has been under surveillance since your untimely demise, but I'll step it up. You might want to disguise yourself."

"I already look very different than I did, Mycroft."

"Really? I should like to see that."

"Why don't I meet you at the Diogenes Club at noon tomorrow? We'll catch up, brother dear."

"I'll leave word at the desk."

The line disconnected.

Sherlock slipped his suitcase out of his closet, then packed for a few days' trip. He'd come back to Irene from time to time, so he'd leave some of his clothes here. Sherlock debated leaving the violin, and decided it could stay where it was for the time being.

The truth was, Sherlock didn't know if he was ready to go back to Baker Street. In a way, being "dead" had been a relief and a release from the pressures of being a celebrity detective. His return would likely blow headlines out of proportion, unless he could somehow keep out of the papers.

And what of Irene? The days of delightful company, the nights of endless pleasure. Could he really give up their partnership and change it for the more platonic company of John Watson?

Sherlock didn't know, but he did know his goal of regaining his life was in reach.

It was more than time to talk to Irene about their future.

Two words, Irene thought. That's all I have to say, and he'll likely stay.

I'm pregnant.

Will they be enough?

Irene had been able to disguise the morning nausea, the mood swings, and some of the other physical changes from Sherlock. He was often gone, and when he was present, he spent most of his time in his den on his relentless pursuit of Moran. He also wasn't very good at the whole female thing, she thought. He might not even put two and two together.

Or in this case, understand that baby would most definitely make three in another six months.

Sherlock Holmes, a father?

Irene Adler, a mother?

She laughed out loud at the absurdity of it, but she hadn't yet been able to tell him. And she couldn't bring herself to terminate the pregnancy, even if that might be most sensible. She'd never expected to be a mother; doctors had told her that pregnancy was next to impossible given her early history.

Apparently Sherlock's child had other ideas.

"Already difficult and brilliant, aren't you," she murmured to her belly.

Soon enough she'd begin to show, and even the oblivious detective would deduce that a child was on the way.

Assuming he was still here.

Irene took a deep breath, looking at herself in the mirror, investigating her face for tell-tale lines and wrinkles. Seeing none, she realized that she was glowing. Pregnancy agreed with her, it seemed.

"Irene?" Sherlock tapped on the door. "Are you all right?"

"Oh, yes, Sherlock," Irene busily washed and dried her hair. "Are you done with your phone call?"

She opened the door to reveal his silhouette. "I am," he said. "I leave for London in the morning."

Cold fear gripped her heart. "Is that safe?"

"As safe as it can be," he assured her. "I'm going straight to the Diogenes Club to meet Mycroft, then I'm off to Baker Street. Mycroft's put maximum surveillance on John. I think I can count on him to keep John alive until I can get there and put Moran away, once and for all."

"Good," Irene said. "That's …. good." Too late, she realized that she sounded absent-minded, as if she wasn't quite with him.

"Is something wrong, Irene?"

"I think we need to talk, Sherlock."

"I was just thinking that."

She smiled at him, then drew him away from the door and back to their bed, wondering when she'd changed the pronoun in her head from "hers" to "theirs." She lifted the sheets, slid in between them, and held her hands out to him. "Come to bed, and we'll talk."

"Going to bed with you often doesn't involve talking," Sherlock commented, but he slid in after her, drawing her close to his side so that her head pillowed on his good shoulder. The silk of her nightgown teased his flesh along his side, and as usual, his body responded with speed.

"You've become insatiable, darling," Irene murmured into his ear.

"Only for you, Woman," he said.

"If you're leaving tomorrow, will you be coming back?" she whispered.

"If I'm alive at the end of this pursuit, Irene, I will be coming back. I can't live without you, now. There are cases here, there, and everywhere, and I'll probably keep the Baker Street lodgings for my London cases, but Irene, I'm an international property now. In some ways, I'll be better off for this time apart from London. The contacts I've made alone!" He paused, then squeezed her to him in a slight hug. "And having been introduced to the delights of the flesh, I doubt I can give them up."

She smiled to herself. "I think it's time you knew something about me, Sherlock."

"That sounds serious, Irene." He turned to face her, their eyes just inches from each other, their lips nearly touching. "What else is there to know?"

How to begin?

"You know part of my childhood story, but you don't know that doctors told me because of it, I could never have children," Irene began. "It's why I've not insisted on birth control with you, love."

"But?"

"They were wrong."

Sherlock absorbed the statement, then rapidly assessed Irene with an objective gaze he'd not employed with her in months. The faint glow to her skin, the heaviness of her breasts, the warmth of her body-

"You're pregnant?"

"Shocked?" Irene asked quietly.

Stunned. Scared. "Pleasantly." Instinctively, Sherlock knew he needed to make her feel at ease with the news. "You?"

"Pleasantly, too." Irene let out a breath. "I've been so afraid to tell you. But Sherlock, I never thought I'd have this opportunity. Ever. And to have it with you? I can't imagine a better man to be the father of my child."

"But?"

"You live a dangerous life, Sherlock. How will we fit into it?"

He pulled her to him, buried his face in her hair, and hugged her fiercely. "We will make you fit."

Long after a content Irene had fallen asleep, Sherlock remained awake, his great brain buzzing with new knowledge and possibilities. Pregnant. And nearly four months along, out of the stage where miscarriage was most likely. A Holmes child?

He knew a sudden depth of fear and love for this little person who would be popping into his life. If his friends could be sacrificed to get to him, what could a criminal do with Irene and their child?

England was probably out of the question. Irene was too well known there, even disguised under a new name and hair color, and it would not take long for her old enemies to expose her. While Sherlock could and would keep tabs on them, the task would be Herculean. Paris was marginally better, and the Michele DeForte identity well established. But if Mycroft were to be believed, Irene's association with him underground had stirred up rumors of her continued existence in that identity. While Michele DeForte could probably protect herself on her own, if exposed, Irene and Baby Adler-Holmes would need help in their vulnerable state.

They hadn't been lax about security. As far as Sherlock could tell, the only people who knew the Paris address were themselves and Mycroft, though the delivery personnel could always be bribed.

A baby.

He was going to be a father.

What the hell did he know about being a father?

Sheer panic overtook him, though he took care not to wake Irene with it. He'd made a rookie mistake when it came to sex-he hadn't even thought about birth control. He'd assumed Irene had taken care of it.

Well, and she thought she had, hadn't she? Sherlock calmed. No, it was hardly her fault they'd pulled off a miracle and made a baby.

Whether Irene liked it or not, her "protection" now consisted of him, Mycroft, and the whole of the Holmes legacy. He imagined that she would appreciate that, as long as she could keep her autonomy.

God, a baby.

Sherlock wished for John, his best friend, who could always be counted on to inject a note of reason into his more manic moods, and Sherlock surely felt one coming on now. Irene had witnessed shades of the mania a few times, but she had a surefire way of channeling it. He found it tough to maintain that level of manic energy when Irene could skillfully undercut it by "misbehaving" with him.

Could they even have sex while she was pregnant? He knew nothing about any of this.

He rarely had felt so stupid. John would call him an idiot.

And he'd be right.

Deep breaths. Deep breaths.

"Sherlock?" Irene moved in the dark, lightly placing a hand on his naked chest. "Are you all right?"

Just having a panic attack, darling. "Fine." He managed to spit out the word as he fought the flutters in his chest.

"No, you're not." She flipped the light back on. "You've gone all pale and sweaty."

"Nothing. Panic attack." Deep breaths. Deep breaths.

She raised an eyebrow, slipped out of bed, and found him a glass of cold water. "Slow sips, Sherlock, that's a lad." Irene laid two fingers on his carotid artery, and found that his pulse was racing. "Shhhh," she whispered to him, as he sipped the water. Irene sat him up, then leaned against the headboard behind him, cradling his head on her chest. She soothed, stroking his hair as he calmed.

"Irene?"

"Yes?"

"Can we really do this?"

"I think we must, Sherlock, darling."

"Can you come with me to London tomorrow?"

Irene hugged him more tightly. "Of course. I don't want to be anywhere else."

He took another deep, cleansing breath. "We can do this, Irene. I can protect you both."

"Don't forget, Sherlock, that I would fight to protect us all, too." Irene continued to stroke his head. "I know John is your partner in solving crimes, but I am your partner, too. And you will not have to handle any of these tasks alone."

"Alone protects me."

"But it doesn't protect us."

Point taken, he thought, calming. All right, then. "First things first. We're going to Baker Street in the morning, in our best disguises, and hope that John doesn't throttle us both. I'll leave you in his care while I seek out Mycroft, and I hope we can bring this all to a close by the end of day tomorrow. All we have to do is find Moran, and by God, we can establish a life together."

She nodded, still soothing. "We'll want to bring your violin."

"We should keep this place, Irene. It will provide a retreat. Baker Street is really more of a bachelor pad. It's not a place for a family. Not that the Holmes family home is all that much better. We'll have to find something. We have so much to figure out."

"One step at a time, Sherlock. First, let's get your life back."

"Right." He turned around and kneeled to face her. "I promise, this is the last of the panicking. We will simply move on and deal with whatever comes. One thing at a time."

Irene sighed. "And perhaps you'll have a quieter practice from now on, and perhaps not, but we will manage together. And won't Mrs. Hudson enjoy having an infant to spoil?"

He laughed, long and hard. "She will, indeed." Sherlock leaned in and kissed her, hard. "We're having a baby."

"We are."

"She'll be beautiful, brilliant, and talented, of course."

"Of course HE will. Remember, John expects us to name our first child after him. I believe it's 'Hamish;' am I right?"

Sherlock stopped and stared at her. "John knew where this was going, even then, didn't he?"

Irene gave a half-smile. "He knows you very well."

"Sometimes better than I know myself, I think." He gave the half-smile back to her. "Irene, one question."

"Yes?"

"Is it safe to make love with you while you're pregnant?"

"The doctor said yes."

"Good." He leaned in and kissed her again. "Because before we go to London, I want one more night with you."

"It's three a.m."

"Then we're going to be tired on the train."

...

Irene tucked her red hair into a single braid down her back, put on dark trousers and a blue jumper, and called herself ready. She left off the make up, wore minimal jewelry, and tossed on a long coat. December in London would be cold. She added black gloves, picked up the handle on her rolling bag, and followed Sherlock out to the cab that would take them to the train station.

Two hours later, the pair of them arrived at Kings Cross, and briefly debated. Cab or tube? Given Sherlock's appointment at the Diogenes Club at noon, they opted to cab it to Baker Street. Sherlock had opted for the leather jacket, jeans, and a green silk shirt. He'd grown a beard and mustache, neatly trimmed, and cut his hair (over Irene's strenuous objections). He looked more than a little dangerous, and nothing like his previous self. They acted the parts of lovers-it was remarkably easy, seeing as they'd often strolled hand-in-hand in Paris-and snagged the first cab that would stop for a beautiful woman.

The ride to Baker Street seemed interminable to them both. Irene put on her "cool-as-a-cucumber" mask, but Sherlock seemed to be a bundle of hyperactive energy, tapping his feet, drilling his fingers on his needs, and rubbing his beard. Even her touch on his arm couldn't quite suppress the nerves.

"He is going to be so angry," he said softly. "I hope he gets over it quickly, but I just don't see him letting this go so quickly. In his place, I wouldn't. But then again -"

"Sherlock," Irene hissed. "You'll know when you know. From what you told me, Mycroft was giving Mrs. Hudson the heads up about you before we arrived. She'll be prepared to see you. Just calm down."

He tried to take her advice, but as Baker Street came into view, the mania kicked up. Irene said nothing, but as he bounded from the cab, she took control of paying the cab driver and asking for their bags to be unloaded from the boot. Sherlock glanced up and down the street, into the windows at Speedy's Cafe, and took note of the flats next to and across the street from 221B. Nothing out of place that wouldn't normally be out of place, given the length of his separation from the place. No sign of John. No sign of Moran. No sign of-wait, there was Mycroft's surveillance team. Sherlock relaxed a bit, and took both their bags from Irene. "No lifting for you," he murmured, and he ignored her protests as he deftly dragged both roller bags with one hand to the front door of Baker Street.

A deep breath, and he buzzed Mrs. Hudson's door.

When it opened, the breath left him as he was bundled unceremoniously into the front hall with Irene and hugged within an inch.

"You naughty, naughty boy, I ought to turn you over my knee for what you've put us through the last six months, what have you done with your face? Are you hungry? Let me get you a cuppa. And who's this?" Mrs. Hudson paused for a second. "Do I know you?"

"Mrs. Hudson, this is Michele DeForte. My fiance."

An upgrade, Irene thought. But he might have asked.

"Pleased to meet you," Irene said, holding out her hand to Mrs. Hudson. She found it ignored as Mrs. Hudson hugged her within an inch, too.

"Well, not only is the boy alive, but he's brought me a girl to meet. What stories you both have to tell me!"

Sherlock relaxed and smiled. "I'm glad to be home. Where's John? I need to see him."

Mrs. Hudson's smile faded a bit. "He's already out to the surgery at Bart's. He works too hard, Sherlock. Ever since you, well, left, he's been up and out early every day, home late every night. I haven't seen a girl 'round here in ages. The poor man's lonely. He never goes out, not for fun, anyway, and he's not touched his blog. I'm not altogether certain he sleeps, either, though I can't really hear him the way I could hear you, Sherlock, seeing as he's all the way at the top of the stairs and your room is just upstairs from me, but he doesn't spend any time at all in your main flat. I don't think he can, Sherlock."

"Sherlock, darling," Irene said. "I think you need to find him, quickly. I recognize these signs of overwork and avoidance as very dangerous steps for a veteran with PTSD."

Sherlock looked at the women in his life, and he realized they were right. He would have to be late meeting Mycroft.

"Well, let's get our bags upstairs, then, Mrs. Hudson, because I'll need to go to Bart's and find him. Is our room ready?"

"Oh, that tickles me, Michele. 'Is OUR room ready?' I'm not your housekeeper, dear, but of course I made sure you had fresh sheets and blankets on your bed, and I unpacked your posters and put them back in place. The rest of your things are in storage downstairs; Mycroft's been paying the rent on that flat to keep them there, should have been a clue to me I suppose, especially when he kept putting off the reading of your will and just started paying your share of the rent for John, I don't know why John didn't figure that out..."

"Mrs. Hudson, if you please, Michele's tired," Sherlock said.

"Oh, of course, dear."

Up they went, to find the flat substantially as he left it. The science lab had been moved out of the kitchen, and things were far too clean for his taste, but it was definitely Baker Street. Sherlock brought their bags into his old room, Irene close behind him, Mrs. Hudson chattering away in the background, and he felt an immense sense of deja vu. He turned around quickly to find Irene looking at him with a half-smile.

"Been here before, haven't we," she said quietly.

"This time I'll keep you here a while," he whispered back.

She reached for and squeezed his hand, then turned to Mrs. Hudson. "Will it be all right for me stay here while Sherlock goes out to find John?"

"Oh, of course, dear. Let's have some tea and get acquainted. We're all set here, Sherlock. Off you pop."

Sherlock squeezed Irene's hand back, kissed Mrs. Hudson on the cheek, and headed out to St. Bart's.

He started at the morgue, seeking out Molly. He found her, eyes in her microscope, and quietly said, "Hello, Molly Hooper."

She looked up, and sheer, sparkly joy lit up her face. "Sherlock! You're back!" Molly threw her arms around him, then just as quickly, retreated. "Sorry, oh, but it's so good to see you!"

"It's good to see you, too, Molly," Sherlock said.

"Has everything been taken care of? How's your shoulder, your head? Any long term effects?"

"None. I had a very capable nurse," he replied, and kissed her cheek. "Actually, I had two of them, Molly. I brought the woman back with me."

Molly's face fell slightly, but she rallied. "That's wonderful news, Sherlock. Erm. What brings you back to Bart's right now?"

"I've got a final plan to execute before I can reclaim my life, and I need John. Do you know where he is?"

Molly's face told him that she knew, and he wouldn't like it. "He's in the third-floor lab, working out how you might have been able to survive the fall, if only he'd known you were going to take one."

Sherlock's jaw dropped. "Seriously?"

"I think he's spent every waking minute-when he's not berating medical students or treating patients-experimenting with differing drug combinations to see if any might have mimicked the symptoms you displayed on the roof and on the pavement. He's simply convinced that you had a hidden agenda, and once he'd cleared out the worst of the grief, he started trying to figure out how you could have done it." Molly looked up appealingly. "I haven't told him anything, Sherlock, but I've really wanted to."

Sherlock sighed. "I'll find him, and tell him he's quite right. He's obviously not stupid."

"Third floor, Sherlock. Lab 3A."

"Thank you, Molly."

He headed up the stairs to the third floor, and followed the corridor down to Lab 3A. Sherlock took another deep breath, then opened the door.

John stood at the lab table, dissolving something in a clear liquid. He wore goggles and gloves, reminding Sherlock of himself in some of his more mad scientist-y moments, and seemed completely absorbed in his work. Sherlock cleared his throat.

John looked up. He blinked, took off the goggles, and blinked again. "Nope, you're not really here. You don't even look like him. So bugger off."

"John, it's me. Really." Sherlock stepped over to the lab table. "What are you working on?"

John's eyes followed him around the lab table to the spot next to him, where Sherlock stopped. "I'm diluting hydrochlorythiazide in a ten percent solution to determine its relaxant effects."

"Not quite how I did it, but quite effective in its own way, I'm sure," Sherlock said.

John didn't take his eyes off of Sherlock. "I'm now having visions when I'm wide awake. This is a problem. I'll have to call Ella."

"Your therapist? Maybe. But not for the reasons you think. John, it's really me." Sherlock stretched a hand out and grasped John's shoulder. "See?"

John blinked once, twice. Then he slowly pulled his gloves off, laid them aside, and punched Sherlock in the face.

As he went down, Sherlock thought, I deserved that.

"You cold-blooded calculating bastard," John roared. "How dare you?"

Sherlock sat up. "Got any ice?"

"It's all in your veins, Sherlock," John hissed.

"So, no ice, then." Sherlock got back to his feet. "There's probably some around here somewhere."

"You were dead!" John shouted. "I grieved for you! I buried you!"

"And I for you, John. Although I suppose the difference is I knew I might be able to come back, and you didn't know I could," Sherlock said, rummaging in the lab cooler to see if he could find something sufficiently cold to put on his eye. He turned around to see John standing at rigid attention. "I'm sorry for the deception, John, but I did it to save lives."

"Moriarty," John spit the name. "How did he induce you to jump?"

"Assassins trained on you, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade. No way to call them off unless I jumped." Sherlock shrugged casually. "He killed himself so I couldn't make him call them off. I've spent the last six months tracking those assassins down so that they could not fulfill their mission if they found out I was alive, and tracking down Moriarty's top lieutenants so I could break his network."

John stared at him for a second. "So you pretended to take your own life to save mine?"

"Well, yes, I suppose that's the size of it, yes. There really isn't any ice in here, is there?" Sherlock turned back from the mini-cooler.

John processed what Sherlock was saying. "So I take it you've broken his network, then, if you're back."

"Well, yes and no. I've tracked down and eliminated the assassins, all but one who will be dealt with shortly-don't look at me like that, only one had an accident, the other's in prison-oh, and just have to take down one more person, who, fortunately, I know the precise location of."

"Oh?" John asked.

"Yes, he's in a flat opposite Baker Street and is contracted to kill you. Shouldn't be difficult to draw him out, take him down, and resume life as I used to know it. I hope," Sherlock said. "Oh, except for the wife and child on the way. That's new. Have to figure that one out."

"I think I might faint," John said. "Hang on, did you say 'wife and child on the way'?"

"Actually, you've met my fiance. We helped save the commonwealth from her last winter, and I personally helped her out of a spot of trouble a month or so later. I went to her when I 'died,' and, well. I guess someone-probably Mycroft-should have had 'the talk' with me rather than leaving me to learn on my own because I never even thought of consequences until Michele-that's her name-rather surprisingly turned up pregnant."

"I have to sit down," John said. He did so, heavily, on the stool by the lab table. "So you're saying you went straight to a woman I thought to be gone-"

"You knew she wasn't in a witness protection scheme in America," Sherlock said. "You actually knew the story I'd concocted for her when I hid her last winter. I knew you knew, but I couldn't tell you I knew you knew because then you'd know I'd hidden her from Mycroft.

"So, you couldn't have texted? Written a note? Somehow let me know you were alive?"

"If I had, I'd have risked your life. I couldn't do that, John."

"But now that I'm actually at risk again-"

"I can't let you die, John. You're my best friend. Even the Woman gets that. She was the first to insist I come. And when she told me about the baby, I insisted she come with. I'm not about to leave her unprotected until I figure out-we figure out-the wisest course of protection for her and the newest generation of Holmes." Sherlock smirked. "Mycroft will have kittens."

"Mycroft. Did he know?"

"He figured it out, yes. Sent me my violin." Sherlock looked at his watch. "Listen, John, speaking of Mycroft, I'm to meet him at the club at noon. Can't wait to see what he thinks of my beard. Care to come along? We're going to put a plan in place for breaking the back of the Moriarty network once and for all."

John stood up. "I wouldn't miss this for worlds. Bloody hell, I missed you, Sherlock."

"And I you. Let's go."

"You look like some punk rock rioter on the street, Sherlock," Mycroft said mildly. "Quite a good disguise for you, actually."

"Thank you, brother." Sherlock handed Mycroft a USB drive. "All the major and minor players in the Moriarty network. I imagine you'll find it useful. Once we take out Moran, the web should fall apart. There's no one left to step up and head it. I have evidence that Moran himself plans to kill John, sooner rather than later, though I'm not certain why that's so. The Woman thinks Moran might believe John to be behind the sabotage of his global interests." Sherlock smirked again.

"Yes, about the Woman, Sherlock. My surveillance team says a woman came with you to Baker Street today? Is it she?"

"It is. Oh, and I'll need you to release the second lap of the trust fund."

"You are NOT marrying her, Sherlock."

"I am. You're to be an uncle."

John didn't think he'd ever seen Mycroft dumbstruck before. He looked like he'd been pole-axed.

"How is that even possible?" Mycroft asked quietly. "Her file indicated she was infertile due to long-term early childhood abuse."

"That's what she thought; that's what she was told." Sherlock stared at his hands for a second. "We, neither of us, had any idea that we could conceive at all. It's as much a surprise to us as it is to anyone, Mycroft. But I've seen the reports; I've even seen a picture, and there's definitely a Holmes heir in there. Assuming, of course, you have no plans to marry and procreate."

John cleared his throat. "Such abuse has been known to cause infertility, but it can also correct itself over time. I imagine she wasn't informed about that possibility."

"Sometimes I find your medical knowledge exceedingly valuable, John," Sherlock said admiringly. "That said, shall we move on to topics of a more criminal nature? I'd like to enjoy Christmas this year."

Mycroft rubbed his hands over his face and forehead, then steepled his fingers under his chin, unconsciously looking like his little brother working out a hard problem. "Simple enough, Sherlock. We'll surround him, and when you give us the signal, we'll take him into custody. You have the contract, I suppose?"

"Naturally."

"That's evidence enough for an arrest, though it would be useful to catch him in the act of pulling the trigger. And it might be best to phone Lestrade to be in on the takedown. He'll want to help you clear your name."

Sherlock looked up from his phone, where he was busily researching the tenants in the flats across from 221B. "How is he?"

"Oh, he took your 'death' hard; he thought he could have prevented it. It was he who found Moriarty's body on the rooftop, and he who deduced that you were incited to jump. In fact, Lestrade has done a great deal of the work needed to clear your name already. I had him tipped off to the dirty police officer ready to kill him, and, in case you hadn't heard, that officer was given enough room to be caught in the act of another hit. He was arrested early this morning."

"That gives me immense satisfaction, I must admit, though I would have liked to have been in on the arrest," Sherlock said. "I think you should tip him off that I'm alive. I have need of my other eye."

"Yes, I noticed the shiner," Mycroft commented. "Nice punch, John."

"Cheers," John said.

"Yes, Mrs. Hudson hugged me, but my best mate punches me in the face. I'm fairly certain Lestrade will want to do the same, so I'd like to avoid that as long as possible." Sherlock tucked his phone back in his pocket. "I've asked the Woman to contact me if she spots anything out of place. We spotted your surveillance on the way in. I think the best thing to do is to set up John in his bedroom tonight, clearly, and enticingly, outlined against his bedroom window. We can then watch Moran in the flat he's taken opposite-really, that was too obvious, I expected more from a Moriarty lieutenant-and collect him when he makes his shot."

"Erm," John said. "Not that I'm unwilling to be bait, but if you wait until he takes his shot, I'll likely not be alive to testify against him."

"Oh, didn't I say? We'll set up the dummy in the window. It will look like you're there, but you will be safely across the street with me, ready to be in on the takedown. I'll see if Mrs. Hudson and the Woman will be willing to turn the dummy from time to time to make it look as real as possible."

"Do you ever plan to call her by name, Sherlock?" Mycroft asked, curiously.

"She's got more than one name now, and she's not settled on the one she'll have in her new life back here in England. Best to make Michele DeForte and Steven Hendricks disappear, now that we have what we want." Sherlock paused. "Besides, she's always been The Woman to me."

"From the first naked meeting," John commented. "I'll never forget you stumbling over your words when you thought I was turning on the charm for her."

"I didn't think you noticed."

"Oh, I noticed, Sherlock. I found it highly amusing," John smirked.

"You would."

"Yes, well," Mycroft interjected. "Time enough to deal with The Woman and the new Holmes heir after we clean up this business with Moran tonight. Let's get this set up."

John and Sherlock took their leave of Mycroft an hour later, and headed back to Baker Street.

"So," John said, "in sum, you're alive, she's alive, you're expecting a baby together. Wait, I thought she was gay?"

"Bisexual," Sherlock said briefly.

"And I take it the great mystery of your sexuality...?"

"Solved."

"Ah, I see." John shook his head. "I never thought you'd find a woman before I did."

"Neither did I, mate. We've made it work the last six months, though. She leaves me to my thoughts and my trips and my cases, and I leave her to her clients." Sherlock strode down the sidewalk, searching for a cab.

"Clients?" John raised an eyebrow. "Is she still a practicing dominatrix? Because that would be a bit awkward for a steady relationship, I'd think."

Sherlock laughed. "No, she's become a sex therapist, and from what I've observed, a good one. I hate to disrupt her practice, as she's been building up the last year, but her current identity is no longer safe."

"Will she want to start over, Sherlock?"

Sherlock thought it over. "I think she'll do whatever she needs to to protect herself and our child, and if that means starting over, she'll do it. I think we want to keep the place in Paris, though. It's a nice retreat."

"Paris? Is that where you've been?"

"Yes." Sherlock spotted a cab. "Taxi!"

They slid into the back of the cab. "221B Baker Street, please," Sherlock requested. The cab driver pulled away, heading for central London. "I've also been to most of the major cities in Europe and the Middle East. I used her Paris flat as a base."

"So, how have you two been getting on?" John asked cautiously.

Sherlock gave his half smile. "I think I have been persuaded that it's not completely necessary for me to cut myself off from all human contact in order to help people. Between you and the Woman, and in his own way, Moriarty, I have discovered my motivation for the game-helping people. Love is a distraction, John, but I think it's probably a necessary one."

"Now that's refreshing," John said. "Near death experiences do that, don't they?"

Sherlock looked sideways at him. "Which you've known for some time, my friend. No wonder you've wanted to punch me."

"Yes, well, I've had my chances." John looked out the window. "Did you say her name is Michele, now?"

"For the moment."

"Good to know."

"Mrs. Hudson doesn't seem to recognize her in her current disguise. Casual, with red hair, one long braid," Sherlock commented. "I miss her dark hair, but I have to admit the color change is stunning. It makes her look very different, in a good way."

"She's a bit too famous here to get away with her old look, I'd think," John observed.

Sherlock shrugged. "I want her with me. I don't know how we're going to make that work right now."

They pulled up to Baker Street, and John paid the cabbie. They hopped out, and John let them in the front door. The pair followed the sound of women's voices to the men's flat, and Sherlock enjoyed finding Irene in the middle of teaching Mrs. Hudson a basic yoga pose, one that was good for her bad hip.

"Don't push it," Irene said. "Stretch only as far as it doesn't hurt. You don't want to cause injury; you just want to gently stretch the muscles there to strengthen them. They'll better support you that way."

"Sherlock, your young lady has a wonderful way of helping people," Mrs. Hudson exclaimed, seeing them in the door.

"Yes, she does, Mrs. Hudson," Sherlock replied, smiling at Irene. "Everything all right here?"

"Right as rain, Sherlock," Irene replied. "No Vatican cameos." The code word for trouble, instantly understood by both John and Sherlock, set them both at ease. "And this must be Dr. Watson." She held her hand out to him, and John bent over it. "Ms. DeForte?"

"Michele, please," she corrected him, a little glimmer of amusement in her eye. John smiled. "Please call me John, then."

"Of course, John." Irene crossed over to Sherlock, and slipped her hand into his. "I hope we're not disturbing you too much by barging in this way."

"Not at all," John assured her. "I've missed Sherlock, and I'm glad to see that he's happy."

"Well, now that all the introductions are out of the way," Mrs. Hudson said, "I think it's time I found us some tea. I have some cakes I got at the bakery early this morning, and a few sandwiches. Just let me go downstairs for them. I'll be right back."

"Need help, Mrs. H?"

"No, no, I've got it. You all get acquainted," she said, waving John off and making her way downstairs.

As she left, John turned to Irene. "I hear that you're presenting Baker Street with the pitter-patter of little feet."

"Sometime in May," Irene said cautiously. "Actually, I would be glad of your advice as a doctor, John. I'll be looking for a specialist here."

"Fertility and obstetrics really aren't my area, but I know a doctor or two I can scout for you," John said. "Are you feeling quite well? I understand that this was rather a surprise."

"Quite a surprise, actually," Irene said. "I've been cautioned to take every precaution if I want to carry to term."

Sherlock looked at her, concerned. "You didn't mention that to me."

"Well, we've hardly had time to process the news, Sherlock. I didn't want to worry you unnecessarily. And I really am feeling quite well at the moment. The morning nausea is going away, and so is the tiredness. I might actually have energy again, soon," Irene soothed.

In that instant, John knew that Irene was keeping something from Sherlock. And he knew what it was.

Having this baby would be a very difficult thing for Irene to do, given the scarring from sustained abuse. A vaginal birth would likely be out of the question. "As I said, not my area," John said cautiously, knowing that one false word would put Sherlock on a scent that Irene did not want him to ferret out. "But I'll be glad to find you a good doctor."

"Thank you, doctor," Irene said gratefully.

"I also hear best wishes are in order on your engagement," John continued. "So you have mine, and my sympathy."

"Hey!" Sherlock exclaimed.

"Actually, John, Sherlock hasn't asked me to marry him," Irene said archly. "I think he's assuming an awful lot."

"Didn't I ask last night?" Sherlock asked, frankly shocked. "I know I intended to."

"I think something came up," Irene said wickedly.

"Oh, yes," Sherlock blushed and patted his jacket down. John bit back a grin, and watched as Sherlock stumbled through the apartment in his race back to his room. He heard the sound of a case being opened, a rummage, and then he saw Sherlock race back.

"I bought this for you a few weeks ago," he said, "before I even knew about the baby. Well maybe I did know? Did I know? No, I don't think so. Anyway, I intended to ask you for your hand once all of this was over." He popped open the small black velvet box to reveal a fiery yellow diamond set in platinum. "It's rich and showy, which I know you'll like, and I hope you'll accept it."

Touched, Irene caressed his face, then looked at the ring. "It's beautiful. But you have to actually ask, Sherlock."

Sherlock looked round the room, then abruptly went to one knee. "Dearest Ms. Adler, would you do me the undisputed honor of agreeing to be my wife?"

Irene gave him a sparkling look. "Yes." As Sherlock rose, he reached for her hand, and slid the ring on her finger. Heedless of the amused John, Sherlock sealed their bargain by kissing her firmly on the lips.

She laughed, and John thought he'd never heard such a happy sound. "If it weren't for the assassins on the doorstep, I'd be perfectly happy, Sherlock," Irene said.

"Shall I leave you two alone?" John asked, liking the happiness displayed by his old friend.

"Actually …" Sherlock started to pull Irene back to his room, but was stopped when he heard Mrs. Hudson on the stairs. "Ha. Still not the end of the world, but it is Mrs. Hudson with tea."

...

The evening passed quickly as they set up the sting that would hopefully catch Moran. Sherlock didn't believe Moran to be as bright as Moriarty, but he thought it important to take every precaution, just in case. With Mrs. Hudson and Irene well coached, they set up the mannequin in front of John's bedroom window, leaving a clear silhouette against the window shade. At regular intervals, one of the women would turn the mannequin slightly to make it look as though it was a living person.

John and Sherlock set up shop in the empty flat across the street, finding dark corners from which to watch the same window. Lestrade and a few hand-picked officers took up positions along the street, and by the time night fell, there was nothing to do but wait.

John and Sherlock took up their positions and waited in the dark, watching the window and the street. They stayed silent in their vigil, knowing much had been left unsaid between them, but it wasn't necessary to fill in all the gaps. The priority, as John agreed, had to be catching Moran.

It was after midnight before movement on the street alerted them. A dark figure entered the flat below them, and to their surprise, crept up the stairs toward the flat in which they were hiding. Sherlock watched, astonished, as Moran set himself up in front of the same window through which John and Sherlock had been posting watch. The pair had faded into the shadows on either side as they heard Moran's steps come up the stairs. From their dark corners, they watched Moran put together his rifle, a high-powered affair with an optic scope. Moran opened the window, sighted carefully along the barrel, and pulled the trigger, shattering the glass of John's bedroom window and taking out the mannequin.

Within seconds, John and Sherlock were on him, and as Lestrade and his officers swarmed the room, Moran gave up the struggle. He was restrained, and with one handshake, equilibrium was reestablished between Lestrade and Sherlock.

As Lestrade's officers bundled Moran down the backstairs to the waiting unmarked squad, Lestrade turned to Sherlock. "Back, then?"

"Yes."

"Still willing to consult?"

"If it's absolutely necessary. I'm a bit over big, showy cases, Lestrade. I think I'd like to be a bit less obvious from now on. And I have no intention of letting the press know that I'm alive. I'm just going to quietly work for Mycroft." Sherlock looked Lestrade dead in the eye. "It's good to be back."

"I missed you, Sherlock." Lestrade stayed silent for a minute, then continued. "I think I've pieced together the whole of the story. You should know that the tips you've been sending have been put to good use."

"What tips?" Sherlock asked innocently.

"You know, I'm not entirely stupid," Lestrade said. "I knew there was something more to the story when I found Moriarty's body on the roof of St. Bart's. Plus, your tips were phrased the way you text. Sorry, Sherlock, but I found it obvious. And since I do trust you, we followed through. The Old Bailey has been-and will be-busy for some time."

"I'm glad to hear it," Sherlock said sincerely.

"Hang on," John interjected. "You knew he was alive, too?"

"Well, I'd pieced it together from the tips," Lestrade said. "And Mycroft wasn't nearly as distraught as he should have been."

Sherlock snorted. "You've met my brother. He'd only be distraught if he failed the Queen."

"Not true, Sherlock. I've seen him distraught. That last OD that put you in the treatment center. He despaired of your survival," Lestrade said quietly. "Why do you think he keeps such tabs on you?"

Sherlock shrugged. "He's never shown me the least bit of affection or emotion. Other than exasperation. I'll have to take your word for it."

"Well, do." Lestrade held out his hand again. "I'm glad you're not dead."

Sherlock shook it, and Lestrade left, too.

"So everyone had a clue that you were alive except me," John said. "I don't know how to feel about that."

"You had a clue, too, John; Molly tells me you'd almost cracked it by the time I did turn up," Sherlock commented. "Of course, she feels terrible that she couldn't tell you."

"Molly knew?"

"Molly is the reason I'm alive, John."

"Seems you owe her a great deal, then," John said.

"I do." Sherlock sighed. "Let's off to Baker Street, then. I want to tell the Woman that this mess is over."

They set off across the street, headed into their own flat, and went up the stairs. Irene sat in Sherlock's chair with a cup of tea and a book-J.D. Robb this time-and looked up as they entered.

"Quite a crash upstairs, boys," she said. "Mrs. Hudson's already fussing about the mess, but the police photographers and forensic scientists were quick to get their pictures and dig up the bullet from the mannequin's head. I stayed out of sight, Sherlock. I didn't want to risk recognition."

He crossed to her, took her book and placed a bookmark in it. "That was probably best. But now that Moran's caught, we'll have to work out what to do next."

"So, do I have a bedroom to sleep in tonight?" John asked.

"Yes, John. Mrs. Hudson's just dealing with the last of the glass," Irene replied. She reached up to take Sherlock's offered hand, and he helped her out of his chair. Pale. Sweating. Elevated pulse.

"John, would you take a look at I-Michele, please?" Sherlock looked at her, concerned. "You don't look well."

"Just pregnant, darling," she said. "I think I've had a bit too much excitement tonight."

John stepped forward, checked her pulse, touched her forehead, and looked into her eyes. "Just needs a lie down, Sherlock. I imagine the pair of you have been under some stress the last little while. Put her to bed, let her get some sleep, and I'm sure she'll be right as rain in the morning."

"There, you see?" Irene patted Sherlock's face. "Trust the doctor."

He caught her hand again, and kissed it. "I do." Then, totally shocking a highly amused John, Sherlock swung Irene up into his arms and carried her away. "Good night, John!"

"Yeah," John said bemusedly. "Good night." He shook his head as he headed up the stairs to his own, slightly destroyed room. "Maybe now I can have a girlfriend."

In his room, Sherlock set Irene on her feet, and started stripping off her clothes.

"Really, Sherlock?"

He paused. "I've imagined you in my bed more nights than I can count, Woman. But I can restrain myself. I'm only finding you your night clothes so I can tuck you in."

Irene smiled up at him. "I appreciate your restraint. I don't know if I can stay awake much longer. I'm suddenly very, very tired."

Sherlock said no more, but rummaged through the top drawer of his bureau, where he'd kept his casual shirts, chose one at random, and buttoned her into it. Compliant, she waited until he'd finished buttoning her up-all the way to her chin, apparently restraint had its limits-then slid into his bed, between his sheets, and waited for him.

He stripped to boxers quickly, turned out the light, and slid in next to her. Drawing her into his arms, Sherlock tucked Irene's head into his shoulder and held her as she fell asleep.

The sun shone brightly through his window when at last he woke the next day, Irene still beside him. Sherlock looked around for his alarm clock and found that he and Irene had slept more than twelve hours. He supposed they needed the sleep after the previous, rather eventful, 24 hours.

He looked down at Irene, willing her to wake up so he could see her beautiful blue eyes in that pale, pale face. She still seemed unwell, but even as he looked, her eyes fluttered open. "Mmmm," she stretched, and then bolted upright. "Sorry darling, need the loo."

"Ah, fine." Sherlock watched her run to the bath and slam the door behind her. He heard the faint sounds of retching, and got up himself to rap on the door. "Do you need help?"

Irene gave a strangled "no," and Sherlock made himself scarce. He picked up his smart phone and started a search for "pregnancy symptoms". He learned that morning nausea was actually a good thing at this stage of pregnancy; it meant the hormones she needed were doing their job and supporting the baby. He also learned that fatigue was perfectly normal.

However, the phrase she'd used with John when telling him of her pregnancy stuck with him. He'd compartmentalized while he was on the hunt-what else could he do?-but the quiet "I need to be careful" had struck him as ominous. John's casual answer also struck him as suspect. What did they know that he didn't?

He heard the shower running, and he hoped she spent a few minutes there as he sped up his search. Sherlock looked up possible reasons for caution during pregnancy, and found so many items that even his brain spun. Needed to narrow down the search, then. He thought about Irene, her history, and even the miracle of their conception. He plugged in new search terms, and his eyes narrowed as he read a few key points.

Internal scarring due to early childhood sexual abuse often led to infertility, which Irene had been told had been true in her case. Pregnancies to women who had suffered such scarring, however miraculous, had potential to be very, very dangerous, depending upon how and where the child had attached itself to the womb. Even under the best of circumstances, the probability of her delivering in a normal, safe way were practically nil.

There were quite a few things she hadn't told him, Sherlock thought to himself. Probabilities were his bread and butter, and he didn't like the probabilities that this new information presented to him.

She hadn't told him when she first knew she was pregnant, because she hadn't wanted to terminate the pregnancy.

And now it was too late, even if they'd wanted to, which neither of them did. And now her health could be in serious danger.

And sex was still OK? That one boggled the mind, but he'd ask John, too. He no longer trusted Irene to give him information that would affect the way he treated her.

She'd spent too long catering to the whims of others and thinking nothing of herself.

Sherlock took a calming breath, and he decided to act as she did-as if everything was and would be just fine. He straightened up, cleared the cache on the search history on his phone as a precaution, and tried the bathroom door. It wasn't locked, and he slipped inside. On the other side of the basic curtain that hid the basic bath-he missed the Paris steam shower already-he could see her silhouetted, rinsing out her masses of hair.

Quietly, he shed his boxers, and he drew back the curtain slightly, joining her in the tub.

"This space is small," he commented. "I don't think I realized how small until this moment."

Irene finished her rinse and smiled up at him. "It's only small to you because you're used to the Paris bath."

"Too true," he agreed, and reached around her for the body wash/shampoo combination he'd left behind. Mrs. Hudson had kept his bath clean, but clearly had preserved his things. She'd had hope then, he thought. Sherlock backed her up under the water and soaped his hair and beard. Irene reached for the bottle, too, and started rubbing him down with it, water streaming over them both.

"I don't know if you want to do that, Irene," Sherlock said wryly. "You might not be ready for me this morning. Are you quite well?"

Irene giggled. "Much better. Always am after that morning trip to the loo." In fact, her eyes were sparkling as she backed him up out of the water and briskly continued her rub down. "Here, trade places with me so you can rinse off." They traded places, and water sluiced over his body, rinsing off all the soap. "In fact, I'm feeling so much better, that I'd like to continue this discussion in your bed. I believe you mentioned something about imagining me there?"

Sherlock's eyes held hers as she reached around him to shut off the water. "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure," she said, "if you'll help me out of this tub."

Sherlock stepped out first, pulling a towel out of his cupboard. He held it open for her as she stepped out, and wrapped her up in it. He pulled another towel out to wrap around himself, and a third to wrap around her hair. Silently, he rubbed her down with the towels, making her skin glow with his attention, and once again, Sherlock felt silenced by her beauty.

His.

Irene let him tend her, then took the third towel and wrapped it around her hair, turban style. Her eyes peeked at him from under long lashes. "Don't be long, darling." She sashayed out of the bath back to his room, and Sherlock turned around to face his bathroom mirror, toweling himself off.

Time to get rid of this beard.

He took the manicure scissors in the cupboard and cut the hair of his beard down as close to the skin as possible, then soaped up and shaved it off. He trimmed the mustache, decided it needed to go, too, and ruthlessly shaved it off.

"Are you coming back to bed, Sherlock?" Irene called from his room.

Wondering if John had heard that-and if he should be embarrassed if John had heard that-Sherlock wrapped his towel around his middle and stepped out, back to his room. He slipped into the room and shut the door behind him, turning to face the woman sprawled, naked, in his bed.

Paris seemed a lifetime away, and nerves came to claim him. Making love in Paris had seemed a fantasy, a part of his life that wasn't real, in a way. But now the Woman was in his bed. At Baker Street.

Waiting for him.

Sherlock locked his door.

Irene giggled.

"Well, Woman," he said, drawing off his towel and laying next to her on the rumpled sheets, "now that I have you here, what on earth shall I do with you?"

"I'm absolutely certain you've thought of one or two possibilities. Perhaps dealing with riding crops," she teased.

"Perhaps," he agreed, delighting her. "As I recall, the first time I fantasized about you in this bed was the evening of the day you drugged me, slapped my face, and hit me about the shoulders with a riding crop. It did get my attention."

Irene laughed. "Well, and so I intended to get your attention."

"You starred in many inventive dreams and scenarios for months after that," Sherlock continued. "As much as I tried to stifle them, they kept creeping back at odd moments." He started playing absently with one of her nipples, which looked engorged. At her hiss, he looked up. "What?"

"They're a little tender, Sherlock," she said. "I'm sorry."

He raised an eyebrow, then replaced his fingers with his mouth, offering her nipple a soothing, tender kiss. "I have a lot to learn about women, it seems."

"I think learning about each other will never stop," Irene said, and it was she who ran her fingers through his hair, and tipped his head up. "I missed this face."

"Beardless," he said ruefully. "I missed it too."

"Will you grow your hair back out, too?" she asked, continuing to run her fingers through his hair.

The sensation made him want to purr. "I don't know. Would you like me to?"

She fanned her fingers on either side of his face. "I love you."

Moved, he brought his lips to hers, then pressed his forehead to hers. "I love you, too." He kissed her again, using tongue and teeth to excite and soothe, devouring her mouth. She moaned deep in her throat, and put her arms around him, pulling him on top of her and gripping his tight butt. He complied willingly, rising to the occasion, growling as she spread her legs under him, tucking one of her legs over his and pulling him to her. The ever-present need they had for each other exploded between them as he entered her with one hard thrust, swallowing her scream as she urged him on with her hips, moving them upwards quickly to meet his thrusts, their mouths fused together, their bodies frantic to become one. Almost too quickly, Sherlock felt her muscles bunch around him, and knew she was about to climax again. He thought about the periodic table and kept going, knowing she would come a third time if he could hold on long enough. At that third climax, he let himself go, pouring himself into her, then collapsing on top of her. He stayed there a minute, holding her closely.

Irene stretched under him, feeling amazingly limber for a woman who was melted in a pool all over Sherlock's bed. She wrapped her arms around him again for a hug, and as she squeezed, he squeezed back, then rolled off of her, taking her hand as he did so to maintain the contact.

"I guess we need to be a bit quieter here, what with a flatmate and all," Irene said softly.

"I assume so. Though I rather enjoy the thought of making John jealous," Sherlock idly replied.

Irene laughed, a sparkling waterfall of joy that made him laugh, too. They laughed together until tears came to her eyes, and Sherlock wiped them away with his fingers. "We so needed that," Irene said.

"That we did. The Woman is in my bed," Sherlock said smugly. "It's about time."

"Well, I've been here before, but I'm afraid you don't remember it. I lay right next to you in your coat while you were drugged that night, and I walked you through the boomerang case," Irene reminded him. "And I later snuggled up right here while I waited for you to come home on New Year's Day."

"That I do remember," Sherlock said, sitting up. "I thought for some time that you did that deliberately, to make me remember you in this bed."

Irene batted her eyelashes at him. "Would I do that?"

"Yes. Of course you would."

"Can't put anything past you, darling," she said. "So, what now?"

"What now? Breakfast-if you're hungry-and probably Christmas shopping," Sherlock said. "I hate Christmas shopping, but it's what people do. And I'm hoping for a better Christmas this year than last."

Irene's smile faded. "I hope for that, too."

From the hall, they heard Mrs. Hudson call. "Sherlock!"

They laughed again, then got up and started dressing for the day.

Mrs. Hudson set out a full English breakfast for her weary travellers, laying it out on the tea table in the flat's living area. Hot tea, fried egg, fried potato, sausage, tomato, bacon and toast dominated the table, and she'd added a glass of milk at Michele's plate. Mrs. Hudson wasn't entirely stupid, either.

John came down to find the table laid for four and a pair of lovers missing from the living area.

"They're still giggling in his room," Mrs. Hudson said. "I called them a few minutes ago, but I'm afraid they're entirely caught up in each other."

"I guess we know the answer to the question we asked ourselves last Christmas," John commented, picking up the paper to read all about Moran's arrest. As promised, Sherlock's name was left entirely out of the account. He looked up as he heard Sherlock's door open, and light footsteps in the call.

Michele/Irene stepped into the room looking like a fresh young thing, clad in black yoga pants and a long, pale blue tee. Her feet were bare, and her wet hair had been braided back into one long braid. Sherlock followed close behind, tucked into his favorite blue dressing gown and slippers. The pair seated themselves, and Michele/Irene eyed her glass of milk with suspicion.

"Why have I got the only glass of milk on the table?" she asked suspiciously.

"Well, it's hard not to see you've got a glow about you, Michele, and I thought you'd want the calcium this morning," Mrs. Hudson said. "We'll have a word about your diet later."

"I thought you weren't our housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson," Sherlock said mischievously.

"You're bringing me a young lady to spoil, Sherlock. I don't plan to let her lift a finger until she presents me with a grandbaby to spoil, too," Mrs. Hudson said tartly. She poured tea. "Eat!"

John and Sherlock looked at each other quickly and looked away, trying not to laugh and insult Mrs. Hudson by doing so. Irene/Michele laughed, anyway, and patted Mrs. Hudson's arm as she reached to pour tea. "You are a dear, Mrs. Hudson, and I love having you on my side," Irene/Michele assured her. "I'll drink my milk like a good girl."

"Good." Mrs. Hudson made sure everyone was served, then sat herself. "Now, we must have the story, Sherlock. I let it wait yesterday because we clearly had better things to be doing. But it's time to tell all."

Sherlock looked at Irene, and she set her fork down to take his hand and squeeze it. "It begins, I suppose, with his fall off the roof of St. Bart's," Irene said. "He had a bit of help surviving it, mostly from someone I'm told is named Molly Hooper, and when he'd recovered sufficiently, he came to find me."

Sherlock picked it up from there. "We'd met the previous winter, and stayed in touch. I found her in Paris, and spent the next six months using her flat as a base of operations for tracking down the rest of the Moriarty network and punishing those who tried to kill my friends."

"And we fell in love along the way," Michele continued. The pair exchanged a long look. "And now we're engaged, and there's a baby due in May."

John, who had been steadily eating without comment, spoke up. "That reminds me, I've something for you."

"Oh?" Sherlock asked.

"After brunch, Sherlock. Meanwhile, Michele, I went out this morning and touched base with a few doctors I know, and you have an appointment tomorrow with Christine Baker, at the Wickersham Fertility Clinic, at 2 p.m." John took a swig of tea, and used his last bit of toast to clean the last bit of egg yolk from his plate. "Thanks for brunch, Mrs. H. It was wonderful."

"It's good to see you eating, John," Mrs. Hudson said briskly. She rose and started clearing plates, taking them into the spotless kitchen. Sherlock rescued his-he hadn't finished his eggs-and Irene took a last bite of toast as her plate disappeared, as well. She wasn't all that hungry, and probably wouldn't be until later in the day, but she'd made the effort.

Sherlock tucked into the rest of his beans and sausage, cleaning his plate. "Thanks for brunch, Mrs. Hudson," he called. Then he turned to John. "So what have you to show me?"

"It's really for both of you," John said as he rose from the table and headed toward the bookcase. From it, he took down a leather bag, which he brought to Sherlock. "Thought you might like it."

Sherlock raised an eyebrow and opened the box. Inside nestled a weirdly shaped stethoscope and a Doppler box. "What is it?"

"It's a fetal heart monitor. You can hear the baby's heartbeat any time you'd like," John said. "Shall I show you how it works?"

"Please," Sherlock said, fascinated. Irene raised an eyebrow of her own. "Really?" she asked.

"I haven't heard it yet," he explained.

"Well, then, far be it from me to delay you," Irene said. She stood, kissed his cheek, and went to the sofa to recline, pulling her tee up and her pants down her belly slightly so that her lower abdomen was exposed. For the first time, Sherlock noticed a slight bump there. He went to her, gently touching the exposed skin.

"It's hard," he observed.

"Muscles, Sherlock," John explained. "The uterus is comprised mainly of muscle tissue that supports a developing fetus." He pulled out the stethoscope, plugged it into the Doppler box, and warmed the flat metal disk in his hands before laying it on the slight bump. He listened closely, moving the stethoscope until- "There it is," he said softly.

Sherlock listened, entranced by the sound of a tiny racing heartbeat. He blindly reached for Irene's hand, and she squeezed it. "We actually did this, Irene," he said softly.

Tears appeared in her eyes. "We actually did."

John cleared his throat. "Well then, the two of you can listen any time you'd like. It's simple to work and causes no harm." And if necessary, I can check on the state of the baby in an emergency, he didn't say.

"Am I interrupting?" Mycroft's dry voice broke into the moment.

"Yes, Mycroft, of course you are," Sherlock sniped. He kissed Irene's forehead and stood up as John put the machine away and Irene tugged her shirt back down. "But I suppose that will be evidence enough that we are expecting a child?"

"For the moment. I believe we have things to discuss, Sherlock."

Irene put out her hand, and Sherlock helped her up. "Mr. Holmes," she said politely.

"Ms...DeForte. Are you quite well?"

"I am, thank you. Sherlock, darling, I think I'll see if Mrs. Hudson wants to go Christmas shopping with me," Irene said. She kissed his cheek and went back to their bedroom to put herself together for an outing.

John cleared his throat. "I'll just go, then, shall I?"

"No, John, if you don't mind, I'd prefer a witness," Mycroft said. "These matters may require one."

Sherlock rolled his eyes and gestured to the tea table. "We've just had brunch, Mycroft, but I believe there's still tea if you'd like some."

"Thank you."

Irene stepped out of Sherlock's room, boots, coat, gloves and hat acquired. "I have my phone, Sherlock."

He nodded to her, and listened as she went down the stairs, spoke with Mrs. Hudson, and the pair of them bustled out of the house to catch a cab.

The silence between the men weighed heavily on the tea table. For a moment, John thought the table might collapse under the weight of it, as each brother waited for the other to speak. Finally, just to break the ice, John said, "So will you call him Hamish, after all?"

Sherlock wrinkled his nose. "We've discussed it, briefly. Who names a child Hamish, really?"

"Well my granddad, for one, who named my dad Hamish," John said.

"Really?"

Mycroft snorted. "Sherlock, you spent the first part of your trust fund frivolously, on drugs and science equipment. Have you never wondered, John, why a man who so obviously comes from money was looking for a flat share? I cut him off after the second stint in rehab."

"I made enough through my own business to support myself; I hardly missed it," Sherlock said absently, scrolling through his phone again. "But there was a clause about if I should ever marry …"

"Yes, yes, the next lap will belong to you. And it's been almost three years since you last went into treatment. I wonder how much Ms. Adler knows about your financial state?"

Sherlock refused to rise to the bait. "She has her own funds, her own work, and her own life, Mycroft. Even if she did know that I'm the second son of a landholder-"

"What?" John interjected. "You're a peer?"

"No, thank God. I leave that to Mycroft and his behind-the-scenes string-pulling," Sherlock said. "I don't even have a title. We have an entailed estate and a modest trust that I assume has grown since Mycroft's been managing it."

"It has," Mycroft said. "You're worth considerably more now, especially with your earnings from detecting growing appreciably."

"So I assume you want us to craft a suitable prenuptial agreement regarding our assets, protecting the Holmes trust and ensuring that my child has something left to go to school on?"

"That's part of this discussion, certainly. If you insist on marrying this woman, we'll want to protect your interests in the event of a divorce," Mycroft said. "You are a terrible person to live with, and she will have all my sympathies should such an event arise."

Taken off guard, John laughed, and the look Sherlock gave him made John howl even more. "So here's you thinking Mycroft's trying to protect you, when in fact he's trying to protect her," John said, wiping his eyes.

"Yes, amusing," Mycroft said. "I'm actually trying to protect them both. But I can hardly expect Sherlock to toss the mother of his child into the street to fend for herself."

"It's 2012, not 1895, Mycroft," Sherlock replied. "Irene can certainly take care of herself and our child, if necessary. But I do admit to an old-fashioned need to protect them both."

"Then it seems that we are on the same page. Let us outline a verbal agreement, with John as witness here, and then I'll have it drawn up."

The details out of the way, Mycroft took his leave, and John sat back to watch his flatmate. Sherlock had steepled his hands under his chin, and he looked deep in thought. John wondered what problem he had put his mind to; it seemed the paperwork would be all but done within a few days. He supposed, however, that there were other things to settle.

Such as who would live at Baker Street.

Such as when the wedding would take place.

And whether, Irene would be able to carry to term-though John sincerely hoped Sherlock didn't know the odds on that one.

It was good to have him home.

End of Book I