Note: Sorry it took so long to update and thanks for sticking in there. In the past 10 days I've literally not even had enough time to edit and post this chapter. Which leads to some good news/bad news:

Good News: I got the job I was interviewing for. I'm now working as the writers' assistant for the staff of a major television drama (though I won't say which one for privacy), and hopefully on the path to being able to write episodes myself in a few years if things go well and the show stays on the air. This is obviously my dream job and something I've been working towards since I was in high school. So I'm pretty pumped and so far am loving the writing staff and contributing to the show.

Bad News: I'm going to have to scale updates back to once a week at most. But right now I've caught up to my backlog because of posting so frequently early on, and now I'm to a point where I've never been with any of my other Sherlock fics, which is that the next chapter isn't done yet. So now when I can update sort of depends on when I get free time. We'll see if things calm down after this first week. I was going to write this weekend but wound up with an assignment for work that's going to take about 20 hours, sooo yeah. Please bear with me and please don't bug me about updates. I have this whole story planned out in detail and I love writing it, I promise I'm not about to just forget it exists. I will write whenever I have a chance, but that's largely out of my hands.

Now, all that news aside, thanks so much for sticking in there and I hope you enjoy the new chapter! No, we're not moving on too quickly from the hotel, btw. I ought to clarify that the interactions between Sherlock and Irene here aren't, in my view, an interlude in the story - they are the story. So yes, there's still some more of that to go. One more chapter, since people seem to be itching to know specifics. But trust me, all of this detailed exploration is for good reason in the overall story as well. Now enjoy the chapter!

The afternoon sun beamed down on John and Mary in a ridiculously pleasant manner. There was a light breeze in the air, gusting off the river a few blocks away and flitting through the stone streets of Florence just to make sure no one walking along them was a touch too warm. It was like a world designed rather than naturally occurring. Sitting at the outdoor restaurant in front of their hotel, John considered that even the lunch they'd just had, with its slightly rustic tomato sauces and seasoned meats, had been the sort of fantastic thing one saw on a travel show.

John looked across the table at his fiancée. The dark gold tendrils of her ever-messy hair caught the sunlight. Her pale skin shone like the marble of one the city's many flawless statues. That's what he had seen when he'd returned from the church, when Sherlock had practically ordered him to go back and sleep with her. John had taken great offense to having his private life orchestrated in such a way.

But then he'd arrived back at their hotel and seen Mary sitting on their balcony overlooking the Palazzo della Republica, legs stretched out as she lounged in the sun with her papers. John had paused there in their room before she'd noticed him, just staring breathlessly. Sometimes he couldn't quite believe his luck, couldn't fathom how he'd stumbled into a relationship with someone so smart, lovely, and caring. It had happened when he'd least been looking for it, when he'd most needed it, and when he'd had nothing else to hang on to. Sherlock had been dead, the world had been gutted, and Mary had been his rock. And she would continue to be for the rest of their lives.

In spite of the protestation he'd given to Sherlock, John had wound up gathering Mary in his arms immediately, carried her to their luxurious king-sized bed, and made love to her passionately yet tenderly. She'd had no objections about her work or his. She hadn't asked where Sherlock was. The world had just been them in a way that, in truth, it hadn't been in the last six months since Sherlock had returned. In an odd way, the best part of all of it had been the quiet room and the way she just stared and smiled at him while running her fingers through his short hair for a long while afterwards.

They'd eventually dragged themselves down for some much-needed nutrition, and now as he basked in the glow of the sun and the afterglow of love, John was thoroughly convinced that this was the most wonderful place on the planet. "I think," he began as he picked up his credit card, having got his bill back, "that there isn't possibly any way this place could get more pleasant."

Mary raised an eyebrow and took a sip of her sparkling water "Is that a challenge?" she asked.

John laughed. "Wasn't meant as one, but I suppose it couldn't hurt," he said, raising an eyebrow. "Got something in mind? I'll preemptively say I'm up for it. A walk, a museum, a boat ride on the Arno... returning to the room." Here he took a sip of his water, casually, innocently.

"Very generous of you," Mary replied, a knowing amused glint in her eye that said she understood that as a man, if given the option, John would probably always choose going back up to the room.

"Well I'm amenable like that," he deadpanned. Then, more seriously, he added, "No, as much as I'd like that, this is an incredible place and we should probably take the chance to do something we wouldn't normally do. I seem to remember that's what holidays are for, though it's been a really long time since I've had a proper one." Actually, now that he thought about it, John wasn't sure he'd really been on holiday since before he'd joined the army. Blimey. He'd done some traveling, all right, but that was as far from leisurely as it got. He silently thanked Sherlock again for thinking to bring Mary along. Not to mention for giving them so much free time. It was far more than John had expected they'd have while the case was still active. A small part of him felt odd, like they ought to be doing more work. But if Sherlock thought this was the best course of action, then obviously it was. He'd never do something to jeopardize a case.

Mary got up from the table, breaking John out of his reverie, and he stood as well. "The concierge told me about a supposedly magnificent and unique spa over near the Duomo," she said. "They do all sorts of unique skin rubs and treatments. It sounded exotic."

"Sounds expensive more like," John muttered, but Mary had already clasped his hand firmly in hers and started walking out of the restaurant and across the Piazza. They passed the magnificent fountain, statues of nymphs surrounded by water, tiny mist droplets drifting out on the wind acting as a natural air conditioner. Once again, John sighed, begrudgingly acknowledging that in this place he couldn't even really be annoyed at the prospect of spending a lot of money on silly spa treatments.

Santa Maria del Fiore, with its famous red-orange brick-tiled dome, was only a few short blocks from their hotel. John knew nothing about architecture, but even he could appreciate the basilica's beautiful grandeur, its dazzling patterned marble exterior. He and Mary had gone inside the day before, then up to the top of the dome to see the view of the city. Sure, it had all been a bit touristy, but it was fun.

Really, he was starting to realise it had been ages since he'd just let himself relax. Even though Sherlock had been back among the living for six months, John was just now starting to shed the skin he'd put on for a year and a half before that, the weighty cloak of a man in mourning. Mary had helped him then, but he felt as though things were just now returning to normal. That his new life was just really beginning now. That the past could really start to be scrubbed away. Maybe a spa treatment wasn't an awful idea.

It turned out Mary hadn't been kidding about this place being 'near the Duomo'; it was practically right behind it. An unobtrusive entrance was one of many doors in the long continuous row of buildings lining the pedestrian street. A tiny plaque with a buzzer next to it was the only identifying marker. Mary rang the buzzer as John glanced at the sign, which was in English. "Soul Space," he read, trying not to sound too sceptical.

"Oh you know how these places are. They've got to have a zen-sounding name of some kind, haven't they? Part of the atmosphere," Mary reasoned lightly.

The door opened, and a petite olive-skinned woman smiled down at them from the step above. "Buongiorno," she said, and they did their best to repeat the greeting. But that was enough to tell her they were British, and she continued in moderately accented English, "Welcome, come in." They followed her inside, off the street and into a low-lit, warmly decorated posh little waiting area. It was surprisingly nice, though John supposed now that the Savoy probably wouldn't have sent its well-paying customers to some dump. The woman circled around to behind a desk and opened a quaint paper appointment book. "I am Sofia. I will help you with anything. Do you have an appointment? Are you staying in one of the rooms?"

"Ah, no," John said, exchanging glances with Mary. "Didn't think about that. The concierge at the Savoy recommended it..."

The woman's eyes lit up with familiarity. "Ahh, Bruno, si. It is all right, we have plenty of space for appointments today. You would like a menu in English?"

"Yes, please," Mary said.

The agreeable young woman handed them a large list of items printed on fine stock paper. "I will let you look and come back in a moment," Sofia said, giving them a smile before slipping off to check on one of the other rooms.

John let out a sigh and settled himself onto a couch alongside Mary, who held the 'menu', regarding it thoughtfully. He leaned over to look at it, wondering what sorts of things a day spa even offered. "Seventy euros for a massage? Is that how much a massage costs?"

"Apparently," Mary murmured, clearly trying to indicate with her soft tone that they should keep their voices down. "They've got aromatherapy. A sort of sauna thing, I think. Or maybe it's part of the Turkish bath?" she sounded completely uncertain as she squinted at the menu in the low light.

That made John feel a bit better. "So you've got no idea what any of this is, either," he pointed out with a small, knowing smile.

Mary kept a business-like face on, clearly determined to figure this spa thing out. "Well, no. But how difficult can it be? There are massages, skin treatments, things involving hot water. Really, it can't all be that complicated."

John gave Mary a sceptical look, paused, then quite deliberately pointed to one item on the menu. "That says 'Space Man', Mary. They've got a treatment called the Space Man! What is this place?"

"I'm sure that's just a translation issue," Mary replied, sounding completely unsure.

Now John was shaking his head in bemusement as he noticed some of the other treatments listed. "The Chocolate Ritual, it says. They pour melted chocolate and coco on you and that's meant to do something or other nice for your skin. If you want chocolate poured on you, I'll do it for free," John muttered suggestively, immediately earning him a half-hearted slap on the arm. He grinned and, encouraged, continued, "And The Wine Ritual. How could that possibly do anything?"

Mary frowned. "It says here that involves rubbing grape skins all over your body as some kind of exfoliant. Not actual wine..." she attempted to explain.

"Oh, grape skins, yeah of course. Everyone knows that one," John deadpanned.

Mary met his stoic expression and playful eyes with a small smile and shake of her head. "You're awful," she said. "Can't we just have our one ridiculous posh people spa day?"

John looked at his fiancée, at the twinkle in her eye and the quirk of her lips, and thought he'd do just about anything to make her happy, no matter how silly or expensive. Anyway, they were rarely the kind to splurge or indulge. "You're right," he said, leaning over and giving her a quick but tender kiss. Pulling back, he smiled at her. "You deserve it." he said.

"We deserve it," she corrected, tugging affectionately at his shirt front and smiling back. Lifting the menu she said. "So what do you think. Just the regular couples package? Don't tell me you'd object so much to a massage and a hot bath?"

"No, I don't think I'll complain about that," John replied, the smile still firmly planted on his face. Again, he failed to believe his luck in finding a woman who fit him so perfectly. Who found his teasing and sarcasm charming rather than annoying, who was brilliant in her own field and didn't mind his own ridiculous line of work. Someone who'd not only accepted but embraced his admittedly close relationship with his extremely odd and often off-putting best friend. Hit with a new surge of appreciation, he kissed her again. "Why don't you choose some aroma therapy oil sauna... thing as well," he said."

Mary gave him a questioning look. "Oh? Why so agreeable all of a sudden? You're not about to tell me about the five different mistresses you've been running behind my back, are you?" she asked without a hint of seriousness.

"Hey, only four of them are mistresses; what Gary and I have is real," he replied with mock-seriousness, provoking a small gorgeous laugh from Mary. Then he said, "I was just thinking about the fact that you've lived with Sherlock for six months straight without a break or sizeable reward and this is the least I can do, really."

"I like Sherlock," Mary contested.

"I know you do," John replied. "Doesn't mean he's easy to live with."

"Fair enough. I don't really care what the reason is, if you're paying for a spa package, I'm going to take it," she said, leaning in and giving him a lingering, sensual kiss. His eyes fluttered closed as he felt a general sense of warmth and well-being flood him. He didn't need expensive spa treatments for that. He only needed her.

John couldn't help but think of Sherlock, off in some part of this beautiful city with its warm sun, stunning architecture, narrow stone streets, cool breeze, and romantic warmly-lit spas... but instead sat in a university hall listening to a boring lecture on wood grains. Or maybe he'd made his way to a natural history museum by now and was staring at the skeleton of some animal or another. John sighed as he pulled away from Mary, brushing a loose strand of hair behind her ear and studying her face.

And suddenly he had a different thought about his friend, one that made him feel a bit sad. He knew that Sherlock truly enjoyed his bizarre interests, his solitary pursuits, and his complete detachment from all things romantic or pleasurable. But as John stared at Mary and felt his heart thud loudly with the particular sensation only produced by deep mutual love and desire for another person, he couldn't help feeling a pang of sympathy for his friend, who had never experienced that sort of feeling and probably never would. John couldn't help thinking to himself, with an inward sigh, Sherlock really doesn't know what he's missing.

An obscene low moan of pleasure fell from Sherlock's lips unbidden. The consulting detective lay on his back, arms reaching up blindly to grasp for purchase on Irene's sides as she straddled him, having taken him in rather deeply now, but moving her hips in still-slow circles. Her hands were planted on his chest, and she used them as support for herself as she leaned down to kiss him without otherwise breaking contact. In fact, the shift in position sent another jolt of pleasure through Sherlock, all the way down to his toes. He could feel the now familiar heavy, tight sensation gathering below. He was holding his breath and knew he shouldn't be, and forced himself to exhale, though it was shaky and barely helped. When he tried to open his mouth to articulate how close he was, his words turned into a few broken grunts instead as his own hips rose instinctually to meet hers.

"Close?" Irene whispered, her face inches from his, her breasts intermittently rubbing against his chest in a delightful manner.

Sherlock winced and nodded, knowing by now what would happen next. That she was about to stop moving and let him calm down a little before they resumed their motions. To help his stamina, she'd said. It was beginning to feel a bit more like torture. But this was the rhythm they'd settled into, had repeated three times now since Irene had turned the tables on him.

Sherlock wasn't quite sure how that had happened, either. He'd been deep into his own experiment, finding he greatly enjoyed the power he had to pleasure her, to see her unravel and know he was entirely responsible. He'd succeeded in causing her to orgasm once externally with his mouth, once with a combination of his mouth externally and his fingers internally. The second had happened much more quickly, but of course Irene had already been incredibly sensitive from the first orgasm. In reality, Sherlock knew this was no good as an 'experiment', and that really only the first observation counted. To determine what really turned her on the most, he'd have to try the other methods on completely separate occasions, as independent variables...

He'd pushed aside that experimental problem for the sake of observing the results of the internal manual massage method, moving up to hover over her and observe the subtle changes in her expression triggered by the penetrating strokes of his hand. He'd just been getting rather aroused by this view of her when Irene had taken advantage of their new proximity. Without warning, she'd broken out of her undone, blissful state and shot a hand out, encircling and stroking his half-erection firmly a few times.

Needless to say, that had left Sherlock shocked and shuddering, which had been the perfect opportunity for Irene to shove him over onto his back, climb on top of him, slide his fingers out of her, and replace them with a wholly different part of his anatomy. It had happened in what had felt to his hormone-addled brain like no time at all. He recalled the fierce look of prideful domination in Irene's eye and the slow, tortuous way in which she'd clenched around him and swirled her hips. He'd let his head fall back limply onto the pillow, and had gladly given her the lead. As if he had any other choice. One chance to do things her way, he reminded himself. He'd agreed to this. He'd just sort of forgot about that.

But now here they were, some indeterminate period of time later, and they were both covered in sweat and long-restrained hungry desire. Sherlock slid his hands up from Irene's sides to tweak her nipples, urging her onward and happily producing a small groan from the back of her throat. Sherlock's brain and body were now screaming at him to bring things to completion. So he moved one hand up behind Irene's neck, lifted himself up slightly off the bed onto his other elbow, and forced her face close to his, his eyes locking on her darkly determined ones. He knew the plea was there in his expression, but he didn't have enough pride left to bother letting anything remain ambiguous. "Please," he gasped, with an upward roll of his hips.

Irene, her breathing also ragged and her porcelain skin flushed all over with arousal, still managed to seem utterly in control and commanding as she stared down at him evenly. "Mercy?" she asked, breathless, as she leaned forward and bit at his bottom lip, scratching one hand down his chest as the other cradled the back of his head.

Sherlock couldn't help the whimper that escaped his throat, and saw the flash of satisfaction in Irene's eyes at that. Of course this is what she wanted. She may have indeed been helping him last longer, attempting to address an issue he'd brought up earlier in the day. But she was also enjoying this very, very much. He was mad with need, and his instinct was to hide that weakness, to shut it away instantly. It should have frightened him, both having this vulnerability and her knowing he had it. On second thought, though, that wasn't how a relationship was supposed to work, was it? Weren't you supposed to … open yourself up? And wasn't that what this was now, what they'd decided on? A relationship?

So Sherlock bit back his instinct to run, to hide, to bury his weakness and desires deep inside his mind, to lock them away lest they be used against him. He would leave them there for her to see. Though it utterly terrified him. He thought his heart might be pounding now more from fear than from arousal, but as he stared up at Irene's perfectly brilliant, devious eyes, tiny knowing smile, he could see both the razor-sharp intelligence and the surprisingly gentle care she put into every ounce of affection exhibited towards him. And the fear melted away, replaced by an oddly warm feeling of what he might call fondness, if he were certain that was something he had experience feeling. Irene belonged. That's all he knew. The rest of the confusing bits he'd figure out later.

So Sherlock brushed his lips against hers and whispered, now less crazed with desire but more purposeful in his intent, "Mercy, Irene."

Something in his manner stopped her, made her pull back and study him a moment, as if pleasantly surprised rather than proudly victorious. Then she clenched her internal muscles tightly, and surged forward to wrap her arms around his neck as she pulled him into a sloppy, aggressive kiss. With his elbows and arms supporting his upper body in his propped position, Sherlock couldn't reach up to hold her. He could only lie there, at her mercy as she began rocking against him with a ferocity that matched the manner in which her mouth attacked his.

His own hips rolled and thrust upwards with increasing lack of precision as he let himself go, drinking in the occasional hungry contact with her mouth as the maddening pressure built below and sent sparks flying through his mind. Irene now braced herself with both hands on his shoulders, using the leverage to pull herself down onto him, hard. Sherlock gasped, greedily pressing himself into the contact, increasing the friction between them as much as possible as Irene now ground against him forcefully. She sucked in a sharp breath herself, and he knew they'd found just the right angle for her. In silent agreement, they stilled any unnecessary motions laterally and instead thrust together, him following her pace and rhythm.

Then Irene's pelvic muscles clenched around him, her nails dug into his shoulders so sharply he thought she might break the skin, and she leaned forward to press her lips halfway to his as she moaned out his name. That sound and that messy kiss, more than the wild sensation of her around him, was what pushed Sherlock over the edge. Desperate to free his arms from the weight of his upper body so he could touch her, he dropped back onto the pillow, quickly reaching up to take hold of Irene's sides to steady her as she trembled through her orgasm.

Before she was quite done, Sherlock wrapped his arms around Irene, pulling her down towards him, needing to feel her body against his, wanting to hold her tightly and never let go. He saw the look of utter ecstasy, satisfaction, and yes, fondness in her now unfocused gaze. He wanted her to see that he felt the same. Sherlock looked into her eyes as the brilliant buzzing, pulse-pounding sensation in both his brain and body finally hit the point of no return. His throat was dry, he was covered in sweat and the smell of sex and Irene and whatever mad hormonal process was doing all of this to him. He finally held her tightly to him and let himself go, crying out her name in abandon as the waves of pleasure pulsed through him at last. She covered his mouth with hers and kissed him deeply, making his head swim with the perfection of it all.