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The Woman Who Was

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The woman who had been Irene Adler stayed at 221B Baker Street for nearly a month.

It was obvious that as days became weeks Mycroft grew steadily more displeased by her continued presence. Mrs. Hudson grew more curious as it became more obvious that the woman who was now staying at 221B did not stay in John Watson's old bedroom. John grew used to her presence, grew used to her questions, her seeking information the consulting detective would not give her. Sherlock, on the other hand, remained reticent and seemingly unconcerned, rarely deigning to acknowledge that anything at all was amiss, as if the Woman's presence was an anomaly, as if she would one day disappear despite all seeming evidence to the contrary.

The woman herself seemed more confident with each passing day. Between John Watson's attempt to make up for the deficiencies in what he thought of as his best friend's response to her condition and information she and Sherlock gleaned from Mycroft's files and her own spotty memory, she had begun to understand the woman known as Irene Adler. Complicated, daring, ambitious. And with what she pieced together of Irene Adler's life before her 'death' in Karachi and the criminal enterprise she ran after the death of one Jim Moriarty and the death and resurrection of one Sherlock Holmes, she thought she understood what sort of Woman she had been.

She might not remember Irene Adler, but she now knew who Irene Adler had been, and she found herself slipping on the part as if it were a comfortable mask or a second skin.

There were gaps, of course, in her knowledge, hairline fissures in her mask. Things that required an emotional memory, a depth of feeling that she did not quite grasp. But those were few and far in between, and she was certain the only one who saw them were Sherlock Holmes.

Which was fitting, given those gaps seemed to involve him intimately. Despite her best efforts, she still did not understand what had passed between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler in Karachi, or what had occurred between them during his death. All she knew were the basic facts, that he had saved her in Pakistan, because he could not abide a world without her in it, and that they had spent several months together during his false death, and either during or shortly after that time she had gained control of a criminal empire.

What motivated either of them during that time remained a source of frustration, a mystery, to her.

Had Irene Adler and Sherlock Holmes been lovers during those months? Had it been something as simple as love that had motivated his rescue? What had she done, the dominatrix who'd brought a country to its knees, for him to demand that there not exist a world without the Woman in it?

It galled her that she did not know, but she knew enough of Irene Adler now to know that she could not remain in Baker Street indefinitely until she found out. Criminal enterprises became unstable when their heads were missing for long, and she rather enjoyed the fact that this one was hers.

So the woman who had been Irene Adler made plans to return. To trust in what skills she possessed and what knowledge she has gleaned to ascend Irene Adler's throne. It was dangerous, yes, but she was confident.

Which was why she stood in 221B now, dressed not in the now-familiar silk dressing gown, but in a dove grey designer dress, stockings, and a pair of Louboutin heels. Each breath she took brought the strangely familiar scent of sandalwood and vanilla to her nose, and she took comfort in the fact that it all felt right, that it felt correct for her to stand here in said clothes, that the perfume she wore brought a sense of familiarity.

She was not Irene Adler, not to herself, but the disguise felt like a second skin, felt right, and if disguises were a self portrait, she expect she had not far to go.

"So this is it then," she said, tilting her head to look up at Sherlock Holmes, who stood toe-to-toe with her, so close as to practically be looming over her with his height despite the heels she wore. She wondered if that was the point, that he was attempting to intimidate her with his nearness, but she felt no such intimidation looking up at him. A small smirk played on her blood red lips, and she moved to step around him, to head for the door to the now-familiar flat and London beyond.

"Goodbye, Mr. Holmes."

His hand shot out to catch her wrist without conscious thought, though Sherlock should not have been surprised. She surprised him. She made him surprise himself with how easily sentiment welled up for her despite his attempts to deny them. If that was not proof that she was Irene Adler to her very core, he did not know if there could be proof.

She was more Irene Adler now than she had been when he'd brought her back to his flat. It wasn't simply the designer clothes or the Louboutin heels, or even the lipstick that made her smirk as bright as blood against porcelain. There was a confidence to her again, a surety that was so utterly the Woman's that he could almost believe she remembered.

But there were still moments when she'd slip, tiny slips, when she used words that meant something to him but not to her, when his reactions would be met by a blank look, that would break the illusion. That made him remember that she did not know, did not know him, did not know them, as Irene Adler had. And there were the flashes of surprise in her face like the one now, when he took her wrist, that showed him that she did not remember, even as she learned facts and built up knowledge of who the Woman had been, she did not remember the tiny touches, the gestures that were theirs in a way words were not.

She stopped, a look of momentary surprise on her face that then turned to one of expectancy, and Sherlock found himself at a loss for words. There were a hundred things he could say, and of that, at least fifty that he wanted to express. He wanted to tell her to be careful, that her allies were dangerous, that if she needed him he would come. But the words died in his throat, because being careful was not in the Woman's vocabulary, because she was more dangerous than any ally of hers could ever hope, because to admit that he would come to her aid was an admission of sentiment, one that neither of them would acknowledge.

So he stood, swallowing down his words yet not letting go, and found his fingertips resting against her pulse. Her elevated pulse, her pupils dilated as she watched him expectantly, and it was nearly enough for him to want her to stay, despite all knowledge that the Woman would not stay, that to ask would be dangerous, because the Woman would not stay but the woman who had been Irene Adler might and prove herself a ghost. His eyes focused on her lips, on the memory of the waxy taste of her lipstick, and he said nothing.

She waited, another second, two, and suddenly he felt her lips on his, warm and familiar against his mouth, kissing him with unexpected deliberation. Even in his shock, he kissed her back, because he could not imagine ever not kissing the Woman back when she kissed him. Impulse gave way to a slower pace, a cautious exploration, but before he could pull her to him, she stepped away, broke the kiss with an audible sigh. "The last time you said goodbye, you thought you were about to die," he found himself saying, his eyes blinking open from some moment before when he had made no conscious thought to close them, his voice low as he pulled back. As he let go of her wrist and the familiar fluttering pulse beneath his fingers. "We never say goodbye."

She stepped away then, breaking the bubble of contact between them thoroughly, and all he could think of was that her lipstick had been smudged, the smallest imperfection at the corner of her mouth. "No goodbyes," she echoed, though it seemed to be one of agreement, and another step, moving backwards until she reached the door. She lingered there for a moment, her hand on the threshold, until she smirked, a small quirk of her lips and smudged lipstick, and turned her back on him, her stiletto heels clicking on the stairs, and her words drifted back to him. "Til the next time, Mr. Holmes."

He breathed then, drew in a long slow breath, the ghost of vanilla and sandalwood curling into his brain. There was enough in the Woman's response to satisfy him, and he nodded, his words spoken only to himself, a promise and some small sentimental hope, that the next time he saw her, she would be herself again, the Woman whole and hale in all her mystery. "Til the next time, Miss Adler.”