Lots of Sherlock and Irene being introspective in this chapter… I wanted to combine it with more action, which happens after this part, but it was just getting too long for one chapter – AND I actually wanted to get something published! The first half of this chapter will be the one and only nod to Series 4.

Chapter 38: Past, Present, Future

He couldn't breathe. It was black as pitch around him, and Sherlock couldn't breathe.

He wasn't sure when nothingness had coalesced into some sort of consciousness – it could've been in the space of an instant or across days or years – but even in his nascent awareness he felt a desperate clenching sensation as he struggled to inhale. Pain arrived with awareness so closely that it almost felt like the pain preceded it – as if the pain had always been there.

His usual practice of running a body scan after returning to consciousness wasn't possible now; he felt nothing but the excruciating tightness in the region of where his chest ought to be and the desperate need for oxygen. His impression of the rest of his physical self – his lower torso, his limbs – was all vague fog and numbness, as if it hadn't materialised along with his consciousness. It might have worried him if he weren't so preoccupied with pulling in air.

But why couldn't he breathe? What had happened? He felt distilled down to two components, pain and confusion, but he channelled all of his limited mental acuity into understanding the situation. Maybe if he understood it, he could find a way to relieve the agony of it.

His throat felt flayed and raw, and even as he concentrated he could feel what seemed like individual particulates searing and prickling their way down his oesophagus. He tried to cough, but the feeling didn't subside, as if he didn't actually have a throat to clear.

As he considered that with the agitated bafflement of a confused toddler, scent became the first major sense to return, and suddenly the desperate lack of oxygen and the pain that scorched his throat and his lungs made sense.



At that he felt his eyes prick with tears as well, and all at once, he could open them.

His vision was blurred then went double, but even when it merged and focused the sight ahead him didn't make sense, although he accepted it with the acquiescence of a dreamer. He only questioned where it was he had come to find himself and why he felt as if he were asphyxiating, not the logic or plausibility of it.

Stretching out ahead of him until it thinned then vanished into the focal point of distance was a corridor. With its warm-grained wood panelling and its diffuse recessed lighting, it seemed familiar in some deeply fundamental and personal way, but he couldn't place how. It bore a resemblance to the halls of Mycroft's home, but it wasn't that…

As his mind continued to puzzle over this, clarity improved, and he found that he could now move as well.

He staggered a few steps on legs that felt like they were still materialising, and the burning, suffocating sensation eased. The source of the smoke must be behind him, and if he moved forward he could find clearer air.

As the tightness in his throat and chest eased he was able to take better notice of the panelled walls on either side of him again, and he reached out and pressed his hand against the smooth grain. At that sense memory flooded through him, bringing with it a feeling of intense nostalgia and awareness. For a moment he experienced what seemed like double-vision again, but the images transposed over one another vertically, not horizontally. He was seeing the corridor from two angles – from his current height and about from hip-height.

He hesitated, squinting his eyes and furrowing his brows as he sensed that there was something there, something just out of his grasp in his distant memory.

At that a waft of smoke billowed out behind him and he braced harder against the wall, then felt his diaphragm spasm painfully. After a moment he doubled over, trying desperately to suck in oxygen as his eyes bulged in their sockets behind his clenched lids.

The acrid scent and the feel of this warm wood under his palm were kindling something in the farthest, deepest depths of his mind, but the fire seemed to be gaining on him, and he had to keep moving.

He turned his head forward, and suddenly a faint breeze buffeted against his face from some source ahead of him. The air around him cleared but he still felt the catch in his breath as he straightened, and he cracked his eyes open to peer through the shadowy hall.

He forced himself to stagger on, his fingertips tracing along the panelling as he moved instinctively towards that fresh air. He wasn't suffocating anymore, but in this liminal place the air between the drifts of smoke and the clear air ahead was tepid and heavy. Staying still meant suffocation, and eventual incineration, but with each step forward the air moved a little more, smelled a little bit sweeter. He couldn't linger; he had to keep moving on.

A cry echoed off the corridor in the distance and he jerked to a halt, his heart hammering hard in his chest as he strained to listen. The sound of it had sparked something powerful and instinctive in him, and he felt the need to pick up the pace. His legs seemed like they had gained strength, and with resolve he began to stride forward.

In moments the hall ahead changed, and Sherlock saw a series of doors to both the left and right, all shut and all identical.

As he stared at them, his head moving back and forth as he tried to discern if there was anything at all distinctive about them, no matter how minor, the sound came again.

This time he heard that it was a small child, not a woman as he had initially thought – not The Woman. It came rolling down the hall, bouncing off the angles and grooves of the wood panelling, until it sounded like it was coming from all directions ahead. It was impossible to tell the sex of the child, and again a sense of something deeply familiar but unknown swept over him. But was it a distant memory being triggered, or recent?

Sherlock picked up his pace, his breathing laboured from anxiety rather than smoke now, and came to the first pair of doors.

Left or right? he thought, facing first one and then the other.

He strained hard to listen but there was only silence now, apart from the faint crackling and swooping sound of fire behind him – more distant now.

He sucked in a breath and wrenched the handle hard on the door to the right, and through it he saw a familiar and dingy basement flat. Well, he had called this place on Montague Street a flat – it was really nothing more than a glorified bedsit that Mycroft had found for him, and for which Mycroft had paid the rent. Still, even though Sherlock had acted simultaneously entitled and resentful towards his brother about it at the time (a trend, he realised, with a pulse of remorse), the stability the room provided had been critical in turning around his life; he understood that now. It had been the one thing not subject to chaos and uncertainty, and even though it was a cave Sherlock had been barely aware of the passage of day into night at that time. At first it had been the drugs to blame for that, but then it was the all-consuming nature of The Work. The darkness and grubbiness of it had never bothered him – the dependence on his brother it represented was what had so grated.

His eyes swept over the room with its narrow single bed, battered wardrobe, ancient Argos recliner, and sink with a small boiler attached, and he could now appreciate the duality of the place. It had been a half-step above a hovel, but it had also been a true home and refuge to him – regardless who paid the bills. At the time it had been the first time he'd felt that way since… when? Perhaps not since he had been a very small boy. It had been the first time he had felt that he might have a physical place in the world, and shortly thereafter, that had expanded to also finding an existential place in the world as well. The latter might not have been possible without the former.

And still it had been a mark of pride and a true turning point for Sherlock when he had gained enough stability and independence to afford his own rent for the flat on Baker Street, albeit at a discounted price and with a flatmate. Severing that financial tie with his older brother had been exhilarating and essential to his core self-esteem, but it had also contributed to his resentment whenever his brother still tried to exert any type of authority. Sherlock had demonstrated that he didn't need Mycroft's help anymore, and Mycroft still could not recognise that his, Sherlock's, autonomy was legitimate.

For such a smart man Sherlock had been unforgivably stupid; it was so obvious in retrospect. He'd only been using one set of indices – tangible indicators such as financial reliance – to measure his dependence on his elder brother, but those weren't nearly sufficient. Mycroft had been right and Sherlock had been wrong about all the ways in which Sherlock still depended upon his elder brother and took him for granted. Sherlock's needs might have changed, but his brother had somehow always intuited what those needs were and had provided support accordingly. Sherlock no longer required him to pay the rent, but he did expect resources, get-out-of-jail-free passes, high-level access, a one-man expert panel, and so much more – all of which Mycroft provided readily and with only the occasional exasperated sigh and/or raised eyebrow.

No, it was Sherlock who had proved the faithless brother.

He had thought the very worst of Mycroft, had refused to give him the benefit of the doubt, and – perhaps most egregious – had lacked the imagination to conceive of the way in which Mycroft was blameless. Nothing could be more of an affront to Mycroft's legacy than that, and now it was perhaps too late to make amends.

If so then it would be Sherlock, not Mycroft, who would bear the long burden of underestimating his brother.

He pulled the door shut hard, and leaned his back against it, closing his eyes tightly.

Back in the corridor the tendrils of smoke thickened around him and by necessity, not readiness, he opened his eyes again after only a few moments.

He regarded the door opposite him, and with a masochistic and reckless sense of curiosity he stepped forward, turned the handle, and gave it a push.

It was the living room of 221B, looking as if Sherlock himself had just stepped out. Golden late-afternoon light slanted in through the window to illuminate a smorgasbord of papers and photos spread out on the carpet in the middle of the room, and an 18th century Romani-English dictionary lay open to a page halfway through. He recollected the case to which this research belonged at once; it had been the end of August, of 2010. Two years, seven months, one week and three days in the past.

He took a few more steps towards the idyllic scene, idly wondering what would happen if he resumed his spot on the carpet. Would it still be warm? If he closed the door behind him, would John step through it shortly afterwards, sans moustache, sans fiancée, still bearing some of that residual awe and gratitude towards Sherlock?

The notion was tempting, almost intoxicating. That time – after John and before The Woman – had been so simple and, at the time, fulfilling. For the first time that he could recall all his most basic and fundamental needs had been met, and he'd even felt the warmth of contentment and satisfaction – feelings that had always seemed to come to easily for everyone else but had been ever-elusive to him.

His heart pounding, he lifted his foot to move fully into the room, but froze mid-step as his own thoughts came back to him.

'Before The Woman.' 'Simple.' 'Fulfilling – at the time.'

He hadn't realised it then, but back in 2010 he had been so starved for external validation of the new life he had created for himself and for stability of his own making, that the meeting of these simple needs had seemed incredibly nourishing at the time. They wouldn't be enough to sustain him any longer.

He could not stay. Not only that; he didn't want to stay. To stay unmoving and complacent was to stagnate, and he abhorred that over all else.

With that in mind, he backed out of the door and strode into the hallway to face off the next door to his right.

He turned the knob and pushed, and was met with another empty room. This one jarred after the easy familiarity of what the previous two doors had revealed, and it took him a moment to grasp how he knew it.

Ah. Bogotá.

It hadn't been one of his first stops post-fall by any means, but it had been a significant one, and his work there had permanently crippled Moriarty's network. In his and Mycroft's research into the hundreds of entities that comprised the syndicate, they'd discovered one of particular power and effectiveness – a massive neck supporting much of the hydra, so-to-speak. The well-respected international consulting firm, with dozens of offices in 20 counties, created the perfect pretext for Jim's operatives to cross borders and make key international contacts, and Moriarty had managed to infiltrate and recruit pre-existing senior staff. He had also installed a number of sleepers in each of the countries in which the firm operated. The majority of the firm's work was above-board, which cloaked the illegal actions in legitimacy, but the relationships it facilitated had been critical to the success and influence of Moriarty's network.

At that time the firm's newest office was being set up in Colombia's capitol due to the rapid improvement of the country's economy and development, and the Holmes brothers knew that some of Moriarty's savviest and most high-ranking power brokers would be on hand to make critical connections and in-roads 'on the ground floor.'

They had been correct in that, and it had been a very fruitful stop in the course of Sherlock's mission, but the flat in the anonymous modern apartment block where he'd holed up in the La 93 neighbourhood meant nothing to him now. He didn't understand why it was being shown to him, and so after only an expressionless, cursory scan he moved on.

Next he opened a door to reveal a flat in Newark, New Jersey.

Then Serbia.

He slammed the door hard against the image of last room moments after opening it, and despite the ravenous onslaught of flame preceded by smoke that was now licking along the first pair of doors, he took a moment to let his rapid heartbeat calm.

As it did, something clicked into place. The latter three doors had showcased more than his movements across the globe to dismantle Moriarty's network. They were the places where his morale had been at its lowest, when he had been most desperate for home or for, as was more often the case, The Woman.

Guessing Irene's passcode had been the first time his triumph from a professional victory had ever conflicted with his personal feelings – the first time personal feelings had ever entered into the equation at all, apart from the thrill he got out of it, and this paradox had continued into his time abroad.

In fact, during his hiatus his successes often exacerbated his feelings of isolation and loneliness. There had been no one with whom to share victories (his brother wasn't interested in post-mortems, only with what they must do next), and whenever he completed one leg of the operation, he and Mycroft assessed how much there was still left to achieve. These were the times he'd resurface from his gruelling and all-encompassing work, only to be reminded again of how long it would be before he could return to London, or… elsewhere. But moreover, each achievement highlighted how many resources, both personal and professional, the job demanded – resources that could not under any circumstances go towards tracking down someone unrelated to his mission.

What's the point of this? he thought, not out of some realisation that none of it actually made sense but because the emotional toll of it was starting to weigh on him, and he couldn't discern any reason for it.

He stumbled on when the fire behind him grew close enough to flush his skin and send him into another painful coughing fit.

What, he wondered as he faltered and fell forward against the next doorframe, would happen if he lingered in one room for too long, and the fire caught up while he remained inside?

The idea was unappealing, mostly for the way he sensed it would finalise some sort of choice in this already limited palette of options before him.

But what was ahead for him, either? The only recourse he had was to keep trying doors, and hope that one of them held answers, but that seemed so passive and desperate.

And who was it that had cried out? Every room behind him had been empty.

He stood indecisive for another few seconds before the oncoming fire forced a decision, and sheer curiosity and the need to be aware of all options caused him to turn the handle. What he saw stopped him short in a way that none of the other rooms had.

It opened to reveal the living room of 221 B once more, but where there had previously been warmth and familiarity there was coldness and a sense of desolation. In fact, it felt even more abandoned and impersonal than all those safe-houses and boltholes he'd revisited moments before. Unlike before, there was no impression that someone had stepped out only the moment before, or that someone might walk in at any moment.

Sherlock scanned the room for the possible cause of his plummeted heart, and his eyes fell on his bookshelf. The postcard, a talisman and warning against sentiment, and a symbol of his intentional estrangement from Irene, was in place. It had only been a matter of days since Sherlock had been so foolishly proud of his ability to look at that postcard and continue to function as Sherlock HolmesTM, but seeing it now made him wince.

The flat was dark, the hearth bare, and Sherlock would've ridiculed this ersatz Mind Palace for being so heavy-handed in its imagery if he hadn't been so affected by it. The overall sight shook him and left him feeling as cold as the room appeared.

Before The Woman. Without The Woman against his will, and then Without the Woman by sheer bloody-mindedness.

Where was the door that opened onto a small, unadorned berth on a cargo ship on the Arabian Sea? Was that still ahead of him in this continuum? Or, since these rooms seemed to appear to him in chronological order, had he somehow missed it in the confusion of the smoke and the doors' identical features?

…Did it matter? As he'd already noted all the rooms were empty, and it wasn't the room itself that had been so meaningful to him. It was the woman in that room, and the quiet and almost effortless intimacy they'd crafted between them within those walls. It had been the richness and sweetness of seeing and being seen on their own terms, of having not only his baseline needs met but hitting stratospheric benchmarks he'd never imagined for himself. It had been falling in love.

Apparently alone again, though through no choice of his own, the reminder of how he had wilfully scorned Irene's place in his life was agonising. The decision had still been an emotional, not rational, one, but it had been fear instead of love that had guided it. He'd recognised the potentially all-consuming power of his feelings for her, and had been terrified that he would experience the same loss of self that had happened the last time he'd let need and lust (albeit of a different, more chemical nature) reign his life. But surely there was some middle ground to be found?

Seeing these spaces also reminded him how infrequent and rare time spent with The Woman had been in the scheme of his life. It was almost impossible to reconcile the impact she'd had on him with how little time they'd actually been able to be together - either by circumstance or his refusal to integrate these two parts of his life, of himself. Perhaps that explained why when he was with her he experienced every moment, every sense, every emotion so intensely, but he could not continue in that same binary fashion in which he was either rapacious glutton or ascetic. There had to be another way.

He turned his back on the room and all but fled from it into the hall, where he saw at once that the fire had caught up to him once again. The doors behind him charred and blistered under blue-tinged flames, and he felt the searing heat roll against his face and the fire-created draught tousle his hair.

Part of him was tempted to stand still and let immolation come.

But as he remained rooted to the spot, swaying back and forth slightly with his eyes closed as the heat intensified against his skin and the acrid smell of burning wood singed the inside of his nostrils and throat, another cry echoed down the corridor.

His eyes flew open and he spun towards the sound, to see that for the first time since he had regained this dubious consciousness there was something other than a brown corridor tapering into a vague, distant grey point.

Instead there was light ahead, and he let out a harsh laugh, made all the more guttural by the smoke swirling around him, bringing tears to his eyes.

The eponymous light at the end of a tunnel – of course.

As he made his way towards that light fingers of smoke began to rise from between the floorboards underfoot as well, curling around woodwork and then wreathing and obscuring what looked like human figures ahead. They had appeared with the light and looked like filaments in bright bulbs – so bright that he had to look away as they flared like the final, intense glow of lamps about to burn out.

They were the first signs of life beyond the disembodied cries he'd heard, and he disregarded the threat of the smoke ahead of him as he moved forward in a dream-like trance.

But as he continued to risk glances into the light, desperate to make out the identities of the figures, he saw that, no – his first assumption about what was happening hadn't been right. It wasn't that smoke was filling the space; it was that the corridor itself, and the flickering figures in it, were dissipating as quickly as they'd appeared. The rooms branching off of the hall behind him, all vignettes from his past, had disappeared into the smoke one by one, and now so too were his surroundings, but they disappeared into smoke itself.

Finally he understood something of all of this. While the past was tangible and consumed by the passage of time, what lay ahead was his future which was ephemeral – it was yet to be. It hadn't been decided, and there laid true choice.

Sherlock came awake with start, as if he'd fallen at speed from a great height.

"Did we have a house fire when Mycroft and I were children?" he shot off to his mother who was sitting beside him, wherever he was. Meant to ask her, at least, before the pain like countless splinters gouging their way through the lining of his throat made him reflexively swallow, which magnified the pain ten-fold.

It made him suck in a deep gasp and press the back of his head into his hospital pillow as tears jabbed his eyes and stars exploded behind his lids.

"Shh-shh, don't try to talk!" he heard his mother exclaim, as he squeezed his eyes shut and let out a shaky, whimpering breath through his nose. He felt her grab his hand and squeeze. "You're terribly— oh Sherlock, you're terribly hurt. You had some sort of allergic reaction, and then there's your poor throat – someone's gone and cut it open…"

"For his own good, they said," Sherlock heard his father comment from out of sight, but he didn't see his mother's reaction to that.

The pain and the reminder cleared his mind, and everything that he and Irene had experienced came back to him in a headlong rush. The grotesque game James had played with them, the bluff that Sherlock had called, Irene's expression when she plunged the syringe into the other man's heart… but no one had cut his throat – so…? Ah. Mary. Mary had saved them. Twice over, from the sound of it, because she must've given him an emergency field tracheotomy, although he didn't remember that bit.

But as those memories and thoughts filled his mind they seemed to supplant something else, something that had just been there. What was it he had meant to ask his mother? He'd had it moments ago, and it had seemed vast and urgent… He strained his mind to remember, but whatever it was it was already gone, with the swiftness of any other forgotten dream.

Still, he felt as if he had woken up with a subtly altered sense of self, and he turned to his mother again and summoned enough energy to lift his hand and wave it in the universal sign that he wanted to write something down.

As the hours spent seated in the cheap foam-padded hospital chair passed, Irene felt her exhaustion billow and thicken around her like fog, enshrouding her and muffling her perception of everything around her. Either the chair was exceptionally comfortable, or she was so tired that it only seemed that way – she wagered on the latter.

She had repeatedly surfaced from and then relapsed into a trance-like state, but for some reason on this occasion she came out of it with a surge of adrenaline that set her on high-alert, but didn't do much to offset her bone-deep weariness.

Her fatigue had been dulling her awareness and slowing her reflexes, which made her feel sluggish and vulnerable. For her, being at anything less than peak form had always set off alarms, and now the feeling made her want to run. It had always been that if she couldn't fight, she'd flee, and though that had also always been her second resort, oftentimes it had been her only resort.

She noticed that she'd gone rigid and all her muscles had tensed, and she forced herself to relax again for Nero's sake. Her baby was passed out across her lap with the exhaustion of a child whose long fever had finally broken; his hot and clammy face was pressed against her arm, his mouth hung partly open, and lank curls were plastered against his forehead.

Looking down at him, she envied him his ability to sleep, as well as his absolute certainty that his safety in his mother's arms was unassailable, in spite of having just suffered such a traumatizing ordeal.

Even as a child she'd had difficulty falling asleep, as she'd rarely able to let her guard drop enough or her thoughts slow enough to relax. When her parents had still been together she'd driven them spare by repeatedly calling for them after her bedtime, or crawling into bed with them in the early morning; in their eyes these were further symptoms of their daughter's pathological need for attention and the monopolisation their time.

Throughout her twenties and into her early thirties her survival instincts, coupled with a racing mind that always formulating new ways to do mischief, had conspired to make sleep the one luxury she wasn't able to obtain. Melatonin capsules she'd bring back to the UK from travels abroad, as well as stronger measures when necessary (which had been often enough), had been crutches.

After Nero's birth, the sleeplessness of motherhood and the anxiety of protecting Nero, in addition to the concern any new parent would feel for their child, ensured that she'd have to continue to survive on very little sleep.

But she could remember very few times in her life when she had been this utterly depleted and exhausted. Every part of her was spent beyond endurance.

This was partly due to the fact that she'd only managed a handful of hours of sleep in the past few days, but it was also the knowledge that her child was safe, and to some degree – for the first time in perhaps a decade or more – so was she. For the first time in ages, she could relax her vigilance, and let down the guard that had become her exoskeleton. If she fell asleep sitting up right now, with her child splayed across her lap, here in public, nothing would happen to her, no one would touch her, nor even care that she was so vulnerable.

So why was her heart pounding? Why, instead of feeling uncomplicated relief and satisfaction over being safe, was she experiencing a dismaying array of emotions? There was some relief – for her child – but a sense of plummeting dread for herself. It was instinctual and existential, and she couldn't immediately place why she was feeling it.

Then it hit her with the resounding weight of an unassailable truth.

Irene didn't want to be safe.

In the past the perception of safety meant either stagnation and complacency, or that she had missed something and she was in danger. Usually it was the latter, but this time she didn't think it meant either.

Her identity and her sense of self-worth had always been tied to how effective her calculated antagonism was proving at any given time, and how much of a threat her marks found her. These could be been measured by her state of peril, which she'd constantly test and reassess. It had been all about finding the edge of the knife and teetering there – pressing the challenge just up to the point before where she might get herself in over her head. (With the Air Bond matter, she'd finally tumbled over that edge and into the abyss – or at least so it had felt at the time).

But up until that point it had been a twin thrill – knowing she was constantly challenging power and accruing it for herself, whilst always remaining ahead of those were after her, even in spite of all their superior financial and social resources.

Now, for the first time in perhaps over a decade, no one cared, no one found her to be a threat.

At that thought a feral panic took hold of her, and it superseded whatever sense of accomplishment she'd felt at finally beating the threat that had been after her and her child for so long.

She felt her arms tighten around Nero again, but this time it was in preparation to lift him and escape this place. She didn't know where she would go, but she couldn't stay in this godforsaken hospital corridor another moment.

This time she wouldn't be fleeing some menace she couldn't outmaneuver, but something even worse: her own irrelevancy.

If no one felt threatened by her and there wasn't a single soul who wanted her dead or beaten, then what did she matter? Who was she, now?

"Irene Adler," a voice said, and Irene blinked rapidly as she looked up at the person who had interrupted her thoughts.

"—Mary…" she replied, and her voice sounded more even than she would've expected.

"Morstan. Mary Morstan," Mary said, as she fell heavily into the chair next to Irene. "You haven't left."

Irene didn't answer.

"Oh – do you not have anywhere to—?"

How prescient that question was.

"I do," she said, forcing herself to relax again, as best she could. "I'm just going to wait until he's out of surgery. Then I…"

Then she could… what? Run? But first, she would sleep. Not that she would ever admit needing something so basic to anyone, let alone this woman.

But this was Mary – she had saved all of their lives. And if she were honest with herself, Irene found that speaking to her was having a welcome distracting effect.

"How did you find us?" Irene asked.

At that Mary gave Irene a sly grin, and Irene noticed how attractive it made her.

"That watch John wears? It was a gift from me. Thanks to his preference for the oversized kind it wasn't even a challenge to add a tracker."

"GPS and audio transmission I assume?" she asked, feeling slightly more alert.

"Of course."

Irene hummed, then asked, "Do you normally track your fiancé…?"

"Only when it's for his own good. He and Sherlock get into a lot of trouble, you might have noticed. Actually – do you want one too?"

She turned dancing eyes onto Irene, but Irene wasn't so diverted yet that she could parry in the playful, acerbic way she might under other circumstances. Vague thoughts about this being the digital equivalent of having Sherlock on a leash slid in and out of her mind without consequence.

"Anyway one of Mycroft's people, Andrea, phoned me to fill me in on what was really happening, though at that point I was already on my way back from Croatia – I left shortly after John did. Oh - Mycroft has known about me since I first started working at John's practice," she added as an aside, anticipating Irene's question.

"When the three of you left the flat I got an alert and turned on the infrared on John's watch. With the motorbike it was just a matter of hacking into the correct frequency, since it was controlled remotely."

"You work for Mycroft?" Irene asked with a raised brow. It seemed unlikely, somehow – and diminishing.

Mary snorted. "God no. He wishes. No, and anyway I'm retired. But some things are worth bringing out the old skill-set for."

"I know just what you mean…"

"It's not as easy to leave it behind as you'd think, is it?"

Irene made a sound of agreement, but her thoughts swirled. Was Mary's tone a little too knowing? Had she sensed Irene's moment of agonised dilemma…? Had there been a slight edge of knowing that hadn't been related to what they'd experienced together earlier that day?

To deflect, Irene said, "You know, before you showed up it occurred to me that Mycroft's men couldn't possibly reach us – but you're neither, are you?" Not Mycroft's, certainly not a man.

Mary answered her with an enigmatic, eye-crinkling smile, and Irene felt another spark of attraction.

This woman, Sherlock… One thing she could say for John Watson was that he seemed to have a keen ability to attract very special people. Frankly, Irene couldn't see it.

"Sherlock insisted we trust you," Irene said. "Said you were the secret weapon."

Mary's expression went thoughtful, and Irene saw that she was taking the comment in the spirit in which it was meant: Irene had made an enormous leap of faith, and Mary had lived up to expectations, and Irene was grateful. Women such as them spoke of matters of vulnerability and trust almost exclusively in subtext.

Then Mary made an amused huff.

"So… finally got there, did he? Took him long enough, I was starting to think he'd never figure it out."

"Your 'skill-set'? I don't think he wanted to look too closely, he respects John Watson enough not to pry."

"I'll have a word with Sherlock later. In the meantime, don't tell John."

"Don't tell John how exceptional his wife is?" Irene rarely meted out praise, but with this woman she found herself unable to help it.

"Oh, he already knows that bit," Mary said breezily with a flick of her fingers. "But swear you won't tell him about my involvement, who I a– used to be."

"I know how to keep a secret."

"Oh yes, I've heard all about the way you keep secrets. But I don't have anything to offer you, so there's nothing in it for you if you do. So let's just keep it between us girls, what d'you say?" The words were flippant, but there was steel in her voice that hadn't been there before, and that had been when everything was a life-or-death situation.

Speaking of that…

"Oh I don't know, you came in rather useful earlier today," Irene said, sounding equally glib.

They met each other's eyes, appraising gaze to appraising gaze, but then they broke into smiles of mutual understanding, edged with the slightest trace of wariness. Mary turned to leave again, but this time Irene's words stopped her.

"Fine. But then you don't tell Sherlock that… I stayed."

"All right…" She paused to look at Irene speculatively, then said, "You two really are alike, aren't you?"

At that Mary did leave, leaving Irene with a poignant, heavy feeling in her chest, and questions swirling in her mind.

At one point she almost called after Mary, to ask her how she had done it – how she had seemed to leave her demons and compulsions in the past and find fulfilment in her new mundane life, but she let the other woman walk away.

She sensed she already knew what Mary's answer would be, and she knew that as potent and intense as they were, her feelings for Sherlock weren't enough to sustain her through whatever crisis she was experiencing. The women had their similarities, but only to an extent; Irene had seen that three-stone engagement ring on Mary's finger, and knew that she could never wear such a token, let alone participate in the institution it symbolised. She had become a mother, yes, but people could get accidentally pregnant. They couldn't get accidentally engaged.

Mary had been an immeasurable help in the past day, but she couldn't help with this.

Yes, Irene had stayed – so far. But for how long could she? What was here for her in London beyond Sherlock? Where was it Irene belonged?

Nero's eyes cracked open then, and they swivelled until they found hers, and when they did he let out a deep, world-weary sigh that sounded far too heavy for a child that wasn't yet a year old, and it pained her.

It also reminded her that it wasn't only her interests that she had to consider now. Before all of this had ended her role had been, if not easy, at least clearly defined: protect Nero and ensure his survival at any cost. It had been a natural evolution for her since she had been so accustomed to protecting her own interests and safety at all times.

Now she had to consider vastly new territory: she had to consider not just what it would take for her child to merely survive, but to thrive. She would have to try to be selfless in a way that she had never been before. She didn't think she would be able to achieve that if it were just for Sherlock Holmes, in large part because ceding that level of control would actually undermine their delicate but perfectly-balanced dynamic.

But for her child? For Nero? Perhaps… She had to try. But first, she had to figure out what that even meant.

For the second time in ten minutes Irene's thoughts were interrupted by another woman's voice, and when she looked up she saw Sherlock's mother standing over her.

Lydia Holmes's face was haggard and her complexion pale, but her eyes were warm and her voice trembling with suppressed relief when she said, "He's asking for you."

To be continued... Thank you so much for reading, and comments and reviews are deeply cherished by this writer!