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The Passion that Slays and Recovers

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Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary.

She knew when it was all starting to get too much - the clearest symptom was a tendency to avoid mirrors and blank walls, because illusory shadows and outlines started to move in the corners of her eyes. They weren’t so much hallucinations as memories and alternate realities, and they were disruptive to the here-and-now. Dangerously so. Working in the field, one simply couldn’t tolerate that kind of mental clutter. It wasn’t well-suited to domestic matters either. It was just not a useful state in any way.

Even now that she was relatively settled down and, arguably, reformed, Mary’s stakes were never going to be anything like an average person’s. The last time she’d allowed her clarity to be compromised by her own doubts and regrets and self-recriminations, disaster had nearly engulfed her whole world.

Mary knew when she needed a cleansing. Too much painful clutter. Too much of it taking the shape of guilt and self-doubt. Too long spent hiding it away this time and pretending everything was fine; she needed to feel all that rage and fear and self-loathing flow through her, like a flooding river that left nothing but a cool, clear stream when the deluge was done.

It wasn’t as if she could see herself telling even the first barest surface facts to some nice, normal therapist who’d never been anything but a civilian, above-ground and exactly what they claimed to be, probably never even saw a dead body except people who’d died politely of illness or old age like decent respectable folk. Patient confidentiality was a flimsy enough honour code, to Mary’s reckoning. New life notwithstanding, Mary was never going to give up certain contacts in her secret book (and, frankly, some of the most important people in her alleged “new life” had far too many of the same damn numbers for Mary’s comfort.)

Most of those old contacts Mary would never see again - or more importantly, would never allow to see her again - but there were some she still found useful and beneficial. Some whose presence she found reassuring in a deep level even as she allowed herself to be thoroughly terrified at the surface.

One person who could have her wet and quivering with a single knowing nod and a hint of a red, knife-edged smile.

That was nothing to be ashamed of, Mary knew. The therapist she needed was one of the best in the world - someone who had that effect on a lot of people.

***

It took her two coded phone calls, three disguises, and one cabbie tipped extra to turn off all GPS for Mary to make her way to the exclusive private address in Belgravia. It wasn't the same exclusive private address in Belgravia she'd been to years before, of course. Unlike some people, Irene Adler thought that a faked death was a good opportunity to reinvent oneself and shed old habits. At least a little. A tiny bit. Well, she'd always had her eye on the Georgian across the street anyway.

Mary could hear that vulpine smile over the phone, shivering a little in nervous delight that Irene took the call herself instead of delegating it to a member of her harem of beautiful assistants-cum-apprentices. "Oh yes, Friday at seven? I do have a free block of time there. One of my regulars is indisposed. Or, possibly, disposed of. There is an earlier standing appointment as well, but I think I could have him taken care of by seven. Yes, in fact that will work out rather well."

Scheduling an appointment was never this easy - Mary knew it shouldn't be. The Woman liked to make her clients work before they ever reached her door. The readiness and ease already had her on her guard. Security was always a concern as well, so that shapely ginger - Kit? Kath? Kate? - guided Mary to an elegant changing room for the strip-search (which both women enjoyed), once inside the well-appointed foyer. Kate - it was Kate, yes - stowed away all of Mary’s hidden weaponry in a lockbox with an exasperated smile.

Kate presented Mary with a soft, thin robe to wear - luxuriously tactile, and nowhere near enough to conceal much of anything or ward off any drafts.

They had not parted on the best of terms, the last time, and so Mary thought it was best to present herself on her knees, arms at her sides, gazing at the floor.

Trying not to tremble, to look up, to beg as she heard the imperious click of thousand-quid high heels on the exquisite parquet.

Trying hard to hold still as hands clapped sharply right above her head with a whip-like violence. Irene’s voice even more effective. “You!” Never loud, never shrill. Crisp and cold and smooth and hard, like a polished stone.

“Me,” Mary said quietly. “Yes, me.”

“And who are you these days? Turn your face up so I can slap it properly.”

Mary obeyed instinctively, and Irene’s red-painted nails lashed her cheek. (A controlled blow, making more noise than pain - but still not painless.) Mary flinched, and then hated herself for it. She kept her eyes up and watched Irene’s face with its shifting planes and limitless changes of light in those blue-grey eyes.

Irene was resplendent in a corseted catsuit that looked black in the overhead lights, and shimmered forest green near the exquisite candle lanterns. Her form was so trim and clean-lined, her skin so flawless, her bones so sharp and delicate. Someone who’d never experienced Irene’s art might be excused for thinking Irene’s beauty was half the trick - and anyone who had would know that it was only about a quarter of the trick at most.

“You’ve disappointed me so much, Mary. A housewife? A nurse? Insipid roles. And you’re completely unconvincing in them.”

“I only tried to be happy,” Mary snapped. “I’m not as good at the game as I used to be, and I needed to get out before someone took me out. I waited too long and I messed up. I need -”

“Don’t tell me what you think you need. I know. Is your safeword the same?”

“Yes -” Mary started to say, and stopped as Irene bent down to pull her hair.

“I think not. That’s a terrible safeword, since you put it all over a USB stick. Anyone who knows how to hack a Holmes hard-drive knows it by now, my dear.” Irene never spoke a crude word, but every syllable on her honeyed tongue sang of sex between the lines. She leaned down and whispered into Mary’s ear, her breath redolent of mint and Egyptian musk. “I require a new one. For my ears only.”

Mary reeled, tried to think. “Can’t we just do green, yellow, red?” she said, a little petulantly.

She sensed a quick, barely rustling movement, and then the sharp pressure of a stiletto heel in the top of her thigh. She glanced up by reflex, up the slender, enticing length of Irene’s leg until she remembered to jerk her eyes back down to the ground. The weight of Irene’s step upon her helped her focus. “I won’t tolerate banality,” Irene snapped. “Not from you.” Mary gasped, and whispered a different word.

“Ah yes,” Irene said. “That will do. Come upstairs.”

Mary had never seen the new house before, and felt a little thrill to realise she could no longer get a clear sense of which delightful punishments were coming from the choice of room alone. Was that door the medical office, or was it the kennel for naughty pets? Was this one the Third World prison or the military barracks or the velvet-lined opium den where the wealthy debauched their pleasure slaves?

Irene never really needed a large number of props, but she was a big believer in atmosphere and setting.

Still, the room she had chosen was simply appointed - not wearing any sort of costume. The leather benches, the pillars, the slings - those all stood frank and undisguised. The room could be anything, depending on the lighting, the fantasy, the roles in which Irene and her sub immersed themselves.

The simple act of kneeling in the parlour to greet her Mistress-for-a-session had been enough to bring Mary into a state of openness, of willingness, of - incredibly enough, it still surprised her - trust. Her faith in Irene was greater now than her faith in herself, that brittle easily breakable thing.

Now she kept her head bowed and barely glanced up through her eyelashes, looking for cues and clues. Mistress gazed at her impassively as she ticked off possibilities from the toy rack mounted into the plain dark red wallpaper.

Irene would know what Mary needed. She always had done.

“Does your husband know you're here, Mrs. Watson?" Irene asked casually as she chose a single-tailed flogger of buttery black suede. She'd start out light then. Mary knew she wasn't allowed to complain about that.

There was a sharp underbite to Irene's words, and Mary kept her eyes downcast as she shook her head no. “I’ll tell him . . . later.”"

“I’ll make sure to leave marks that he’ll see,” Irene said, laughing just a little. "Another day, another secret. That's my Mary. Just can't help herself." Irene slapped the flogger against her own palm, and Mary jumped. Irene paced in slow circles around her, studying her from every angle. "You think keeping secrets keeps you safe. A common mistake. But it's a lie. If someone knows your secrets . . . they own you. You've put a collar on your own neck, and handed someone else the leash."

Mary looked up and held Irene's gaze for just a moment, and found she could not sustain it for long. Irene was fire and ice and ownership, and in a blink she'd stalked up on Mary and seized her hair. Roughly she dragged Mary's face to her own.

Close enough to lick her cheek, if she wanted. From Irene, Mary wouldn’t mind. "Who owns you today, Mary? Who has your secret now?"

Mary was trembling now, and her mouth was first very dry, and very wet. "You do," she said, half-whispering. "You do, Mistress."

Irene smiled and pulled Mary's hair hard, and then soothed the burn with a stroking caress to the scalp, and Mary thought she could feel electricity all the way down to her brain. "You don't call me that like you mean it," Irene said. "But you will. I know your Caymans account has been frozen. You can't afford me. You're one of my charity cases. Because . . . " Irene leaned in close and breathed hotly in Mary's ear. "I like you." She gave Mary’s earlobe a sharp little nip, and Mary gasped, heat blooming in her loins.

Then Irene stood up suddenly, and Mary reeled with her absence. "Strip," Irene demanded. "Show me what's mine." Her slender hand took just one passing grasp of the robe, now offending and unwanted. Mary shrugged it off where she knelt, her skin an already-sensitive field of gooseflesh and hunger, folding the robe carefully until Irene gave a little feline growl and snatched it from her, flinging it across the room.

Mary gasped at that tiny little display of violence, frozen in anticipation, ashamed at herself for being so wet and craving, so needy already, so far down so soon, willing to obey Irene's every whim.

Mary knelt lower and presented her unguarded back, and that alone signified how abased she'd become. She felt plain and neglected in contrast to Irene’s flawlessly maintained beauty. She stole a glance up and sideways at Irene’s face, and felt gratified beyond belief to catch the merest glimpse of true desire. The soft tail of Irene’s flogger slithered down Mary’s spine like a serpent, and Mary seemed to feel her flesh rising to meet it.

"Dangerous Mary," Irene said mockingly. There was a flick of the flogger across her left shoulderblade and Mary jumped, more from surprise than pain. There wasn't really any pain, not yet. "Anna. Code name Guenevere. Code name Ruby. Code name Anisette. Kneeling at my feet like the slave you are." There was a sharper flick at her back, and Mary flinched. "You don't even know my code names. For all you know, someone's hired me to do you in. It would be so easy. You'd let me, wouldn't you? Don't even think you would fight right now, would you?"

Mary gasped a little, and her eyes began to water as a harder blow fell, and the tip of the flogger wrapped enough to stroke her breast with the tiniest bite. No. No she wouldn't fight. She had come here to stop fighting. To take the pain and ride through it. Maybe come out the other side stronger, maybe not come out at all. Either way, it was good.

Stinging little bits of the flogger nipped at her skin with regularity now. Irene was just getting warmed up, and so was Mary - floating and groaning softly, sweat prickling on her brow and in her armpits and between her thighs, her skin sensitised in confusion between pain and desire. Her senses began to change and shut down, and Mary was already beginning to float as fight-or-flight instinct rose up, made a weak showing of itself, and died away.

She wasn’t sure which stung harder, Irene’s flogger or her tongue. (Oh, her tongue. To receive that touch literally, not metaphorically - too much to hope for. Mary’s treacherous clit was swelling in hope nonetheless.)

“You’ll always be a dangerous woman, Mary,” Irene said in a stern voice. “There’s no changing that. You have to be dangerous in the right way. Denial will destroy you and everything you love.”

“I know, Mistress,” Mary said, trying to keep tears from falling.

“Even when you were a rookie, you didn’t make rookie mistakes. That’s why you were at the top of your field. That’s why you’re still alive.”

“H-ow do you know all this?”

Irene withdrew the whip. Air flowed between them, heavy and charged. Mary could hear the creak of Irene’s corset as she bent to rake Mary’s lightly striped back with immaculate nails. “Are you questioning me, pet?”

“Of course not, Mistress, it’s just…”

Irene gave a disgruntled little click of her tongue, and glided over to her tool table where her phone gleamed. She flicked through files quickly and showed Mary a picture. Mary gasped. “That’s-”

“Yes, your old handler from your CIA days. I knew what he liked. Him and his Mossad boyfriend both. It’s amazing what a few CBT toys of my own design can get men to reveal. You intrigued me, even then. I liked the shape of your eyes. I wanted to see big pretty tears coming out of them. So I took an interest in your case, as a mutual friend of ours might say.”
Irene tossed the phone back onto the table as if it had offended her by being boring. She returned to the tool rack, and chose another simple, elegant device of torment.

Mary tried to hold still and steady as the slender birch cane traced the curves of her hips and rear, looking for the next spot that needed sharp attention, but their shared thought was more stinging still, and it was coming up on her greatest failure, the reason she needed purging.

“Let’s talk about a dead shark,” Irene said quietly, her smile not entirely unsharklike herself. No, more intelligent and graceful a predator than a shark. An orca, perhaps. She giggled a little and hummed the Jaws theme as Irene brought the birch down with a snap across Mary’s arse, and Mary yelped in spite of herself. The blow was still more sound than fury at first, but the real bite set in with a second’s delay. “Let’s talk about Charles Augustus Magnussen. Let’s talk about the night you shot the wrong man. As rookie mistakes go, pet, that’s a howler. They don’t get much worse.”

Mary trembled as the birchen rod lingered in the sensitive spot at the small of her back, already primed by soft leather. “I was . . . taken by surprise. I was rattled. He was so smug...and he’s dangerous himself, and I-” They weren’t talking about Magnussen anymore.

She didn’t finish that thought - it died in a high-pitched cry as the twig came down again; the padding of Mary’s rear only off-set it a little; it was the sensitivity of her skin there that burned. “Of course he’s dangerous,” Irene said. “But a dangerous ally is still better than a dangerous enemy.” She cupped Mary’s right arse cheek roughly in her immaculate hand, and dug in sharp fingernails, priming the flesh for another quick, sharp strike. “And if he hadn’t had that Hollywood miracle, you’d have made two more dangerous enemies, which is the last thing you need, my pet. Especially Mycroft Holmes and your own sweet husband. No, make that three. I wouldn’t have been pleased with you either.”

Another strike, a long pause, and then another.

“Please, Mistress - - “ It was the talking that was breaking Mary down, not the blows. Physical pain was easier - even Irene’s exquisite agonies -

“Oh, we’re getting to the crux of it. You need to hurt.” Irene took the rod in her teeth and reached down to give Mary’s nipples a sharp pinch. “You’d rather hurt than talk. Well, that’s your tough luck, pet. You came here for both, and that’s what you’re getting.”

Mary shook and bit her lip as Irene tipped up her chin and lifted her by the shoulders, running the tip of the wand against her nipples, flicking them sharply from time to time to watch the flesh of Mary’s breasts jiggle as Mary tried to keep her breathing deep and steady, tried not to tense against the blows.

“So, enough about men. Magnussen is dead at least, so that’s one less snake in the pit to worry about. Even though it was Sherlock Holmes who did it, in the end. A man of many talents, to be sure, but not known for his marksmanship - unlike you and your sweet husband. So Magnussen’s head can’t have been a very difficult target."

Mary cried out as the flexible cane struck the pale flesh of her thigh. "I thought - I was afraid John would be accused, I knew he was there and armed, he always is--"

"Really?" Irene barked. "Although his gun isn't the same model as yours, and a ballistics report would exonerate him immediately?" She grabbed Mary by the neck and dug the tips of her nails into thin, vulnerable skin.

(That was why Mary needed Irene more than any other practitioner of the art. Irene took risks. Highly calculated ones, of course, but Mary never once felt that Irene would be politically correct. Mary personally knew of two people who had died following receiving Irene's services, and neither were accidents. She suspected there were more. Irene was careful and professional, but she wasn't tame.)

"Don't you dare lie to me," Irene said as she squeezed. “I’m not John. I know when you’re fibbing.”

"I didn't want to give birth in prison," Mary gasped. "Sherlock's too close to Lestrade. He just cares about being right. He'd have turned me in."

"Hm, I doubt that,” Irene said, loosening her grip on Mary's throat and tightening the one on her breast instead. "I think you did it because he pissed you off."

"Well, yes," Mary said. "That too."

"Well, understandable,” Irene said, smiling for a moment, drawing Mary into false relaxation. “But not so easily forgivable, I don’t care what he said. Not for his sake, but for your own. It’s eating you up. You cannot afford to be sloppy and stupid. You let Magnussen see you do it and live." Irene released Mary completely, leaving her gasping.

She had a cold, disgusted expression as she took jeweled nipple clamps from the worktable. "Didn't you ever wonder why CAM never talked? It was because he already owned you, Mary. And not in the way I own you right now. I try to be a good Mistress, I really do. But if Masters are bad, then their slaves should kill them, don't you agree?"

Mary winced as the clamps were placed to her blood-engorged peaks - even more sensitive than usual from nursing. She’d pumped before the visit, and that only made it worse. Irene tugged so lightly, so unbearably gently, terrifying in its foreshadowing. Irene’s calm, piercing speech was lancing every boil on Mary’s heart, shattering the bubbles of self-blame and bringing their contents writhing and reeking to the surface. Healing hurts worse before it gets better.

"This is why you hate yourself," Irene said as she made a tiny but rough little jerk on Mary's vulnerable tits. "You had a chance to be free. To win your own freedom, and damn the consequences. And you didn't take it. You added more links to your own chains. You gave him even more rope to bind you with."

Mary couldn't help it, the twin bee-sting points of pain on her chest were beginning to bloom little sparks of colored flame in her head, and she let loose the whimpers she'd been withholding, full of the terrible knowledge that soon she'd begin to cry and would not be able to hold it back. Her heart was pounding and she was panting in terror and ecstasy, because she had not come here to keep her dignity. She'd come here to relinquish it. She couldn’t do that without a fight - it had to be forced out of her, and Irene could do that in a way no one else could.

Irene now only needed one hand to keep the pressure on Mary's nipples, and soon she would need none at all, for Mary would be so highly sensitized there that all Irene would have to do was drop the chain, and the chain's weight would do the work, swinging with each sob and moan and strike. Little drops of milk were leaking. Mary wondered if Irene would taste.

"Prison? Lady Smallwood might have started a campaign to have you knighted for it, if you'd done it in time to save her husband. Everyone has their point of leverage, Mary. Timing matters.

Now the pain was blooming all over Mary’s body from Irene’s light but skillful work, and even more, her implied power. Nerve pulses everywhere shook Mary to pieces, and she felt at first paralytically heavy and then gloriously, soaringly light. Irene was still speaking, but her words blurred and faded and Mary floated upwards on her stern voice alone, following the sound of her words and abandoning their meanings. Irene now seemed to be reciting poetry in a language Mary didn’t know.

Mary was alone with herself - her cowardly self, her self with bad judgment, her self that was cruel and callous at the worst times, and soft and sentimental at the other worst times. Her self that hurt a friend instead of removing an enemy when she had a quick and clear-cut choice. Her self that thought lies would protect her from her own past, and in that was wronger than anyone had ever been, in the history of the world.

Her self that had Irene’s full attention. Her self that felt lifted and glowing, and safe and loved in all her horrible, lumpy weakness. Her self that felt her hidden truths rising to the surface of her skin with every stinging, personally tailored bespoke blow. Her self that realised she was sobbing - ugly and red-faced, dripping tears and snot freely. Her self that had finally cracked enough to allow it, safe in the circle of Irene’s skill, Irene’s inability to be shocked, Irene’s exquisite gift of of the exact correct penance.

Her self, curse it, that thing she was stuck with at all times no matter what. Her self was blooming flowers of pain everywhere but between her thighs, where a different little nova grew. Fuck, Mary thought she could come just from rubbing her thighs together, as she hadn’t done since she was in her twenties, she was that wet and pulsing. No partner had ever brought her there with gentle kisses and caresses, not so quickly or so fiercely.

But as soon as Irene got wind of that - which was quickly, much much too quickly - there was a firm, controlled kick, keeping Mary’s legs apart and her hips away from anything that would give her contact. Mary gave a frustrated little cry, and Irene purred with approval at her suffering.

Irene ran her fingers over the nipple clamps and teased them just a little, almost gently. “Please -” Mary gasped through her tears. “Please -”

“Please what, pet?” Irene asked, low and intimate. “Stop? Do you want me to stop?”

“No!” Mary cried.

“Good,” Irene said. “Because I really don’t want to stop. You’ve been so good for me.” Irene’s eyes were dilated dark, a thin line of sweat gleaming at her hairline, her breath coming a little deep and fast. She turned her glorious back for a moment, and went to the table, and pulled on a pair of elegant, opera-length latex gloves in glossy black. “I know you’re clean, Mary,” Irene said. “But this . . . distance is just a little bit more humiliating, isn’t it?”

She advanced upon Mary slowly and ran her gloved fingers over the clamps one last time, and then efficiently, almost gently, unhooked them. Mary gave a true scream, her first, as pain rushed through them with the return of blood.

“I know, baby, I know,” Irene murmured softly as she nuzzled her face into the crook of Mary’s neck. “It’ll all be better soon. Isn’t it better already?” She pressed a kiss there - soft, tender, as a lover would. She didn’t bite. The only mark she left there was a faint red ghost of lipstick.

Mary closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them enough to watch Irene’s fingers circle her reddened, swollen nipples with a gentleness that made her ache. White drops of milk appeared on the black latex, and Mary sighed as Irene lifted a fingertip to her red-painted mouth, to taste. “Sweet,” Irene said, and a world of meaning was in that single syllable. “So sweet, Mary.”

Mary turned her mouth up, habitually, pleading silently. Irene didn’t do this with her clients, did she? Would she?

Irene kissed her.

It was almost chaste, light and teasing, just a little flick of Irene’s tongue across Mary’s lower lip. Mary sighed, a small high sound escaping her.

“So beautiful,” Irene murmured, and slid her gloved hands down Mary’s hip, around her belly, caressing the last traces of the baby weight - and then at last, put her fingers right where Mary wanted them but was too far gone to beg for: right over the rise of her mons, dipping up into the slick ridges of her cunt, deft fingers circling her clit.

“Oh god yes,” Mary gasped. “Mistress - Irene!”

“Did I say you could use my name?” Irene hissed, curling her fingers roughly, almost painfully.

“No,” Mary said. “No, I”m sorry.”

“You can,” Irene said softly. “Just this once. I want to hear you shouting it. Do you want to come, pet? Do you think you deserve it?”

“Irene - god - yes. But no.”

“But yes, goddammit,” Irene snapped as she started fucking Mary with two fingers, hard and fast. “What did I do all that work for, if you still don’t think you deserve it?”

“Irene, please, a little bit higher - oh god yes, there, please, faster-”

“That’s it, pet,” Irene murmured. “Beautiful, Mary. Beautiful Mary. You’ve been so good. You’ve worked so hard. So brave -” and, panting just a little, showing a controlled display of her own desire, Irene fingered Mary fiercely, working her clit in sharp, rough strokes until Mary was close, so close, on the edge - then pushing her gloved fingers back inside, to harvest more of Mary’s natural slickness to tease the clit again in a way that was so kind that it was cruel. She got back up to speed as Mary begged only in high-pitched tones, far beyond the reach of words.

Irene pressed the whole force of her hand into Mary’s cunt as Mary came, bucking wildly, a climax more intense than she’d experienced in years; all the decades of tension and suspicion in her shoulders seemed to burst and once and spill out into Irene’s supple, imperious hand.

“Mmm, lovely, lovely,” Irene crooned, lowering Mary down gently and holding her, rocking her through Mary’s last aftershocks and the complete meltdown of her muscles.

Irene never rushed the come-down. Never ever, no matter how many other appointments might be waiting. That is not how one becomes one of the best in the world, no. Mary just trembled and shook and wept in her arms, clinging to her with gratitude and relief, and Irene treasured moments like this nearly as much as the more dramatic rushes of power.

But still, after a time, Mary stopped snuffling and pulled herself up. She was ashamed of how blotchy and snotty her face must look, but for once, she felt free of all the other, much deeper shames.

She wanted to reciprocate. She wanted more than anything to see Irene gasping and keening and twitching in the violence of her climax. Did Irene even want that? Did Irene have lovers, aside from clients? Did Irene ever relive favourite sessions in her bed at night, with her own incredibly skilful hands brought to bear on her own body?

Mary knew she could not even begin to ask such questions and broach such subjects. Not yet. Maybe never.

"How are you feeling?" Irene asked as she massaged Mary's shoulders. There was smugness in it - she knew how Mary was feeling: wobbly, trembling, weak as a kitten and high as a North Korean surveillance satellite. Endorphins were a stunningly effective drug. Mary started to wipe the mascara streaks from her face, and then almost whimpered in grateful pleasure as Irene took it upon herself to do that, with a creamy plush towel lightly dampened with rosewater.

Luxurious aftercare, not perfunctory or grudging, Mary thought. She really does care. And I really do feel purged.

“I think you’re ready for Phase Two now,” Irene said. Her voice was soft, but there was a core of steel beneath. Mary would be ready, or else. “The remedial training.”

“Ah yes,” Mary sighed, sitting up and laughing. She still stayed still on her knees as Irene brought the robe back to her, and helped her into it, and belted it around her waist. Mary immediately felt more normal, more in-control, now that she was closer to clothed. Ready for what came next.

“How long has it been since you trained at a range, Mary?” Irene asked.

“Much too long,” Mary said.

Irene handed Mary something vaguely gun-shaped. It was a Wii-style game piece, for virtual reality video games. Or so the young people say. “Surgery. Used to be your specialty, didn’t it? Mmm, the Russian oil executive in Kyrgyzstan?”

“How do you know about that?”

Irene sighed, exquisitely disappointed. “What have I just told you? You can’t let endorphins make you stupid. I misbehave, you know that. But how did that story go? You were offered a very tidy sum to kill him, yes? And an even bigger one not to. So you went in on it, you performed very convincing gunshot surgery and the man was officially very dead. But the hospital was bribed, and last I heard he’s doing very well for himself in Argentina with his new passport and new liver and new fingerprints. And you walked away with both fees. Clever girl. It was a very good trick. Even I was impressed. I understand why you’d want to get up to speed in case you ever need it again. But alas, you are out of practice. So you’ll be taking remedial training, as you requested, and I will not take no for an answer.”

“Right,” Mary said, taking the game sensor with a shaking hand, which already spelt trouble. “Practice. On a virtual target.”

“Well, Irene said with a little smile as she dabbed at her forehead with an immaculate handkerchief. Mary could smell her sweat, but it had no effect on Irene’s flawless makeup. “Not entirely virtual.” With a grin, she reached for a remote on the little medical table and pressed a button. The shiny black glass wall began to slide away - yes, of course, a mirror, Mary had known that all along. Hadn’t she?

Mary didn’t know what she’d been expecting. Not a simple paper target like you find at a range, no, something far more sophisticated. A hologram, some robotic creation…

What she got was him.

Sherlock.

Live and in-person. Almost naked but for tight black briefs that were more lewd than honest nudity. He was strapped to a luxurious, leather-padded St. Andrew’s Cross, arms and legs splayed like an almost pornographic Vitruvian Man. His head lolled gently against one of his arms, and he gave Mary a heavy-lidded, lazy smile.

Drugged?

No. All natural, just his own body chemistry. Endorphins and hormones. Bruises and scores and striping marks on his neck and chest and thighs were evidence he’d recently received the gift of Irene’s tender mercies. The large, insouciant bulge in those tiny pants was evidence that he wasn’t at all unhappy to be there.

But there was an odd, cool medical flavour to the tableau, with all the monitor wires attached to him at dozens of points on his torso and limbs, and the large, man-sized video screen beside him that displayed a digital map of Sherlock’s every blood vessel and internal organ. The sensors would trace the predictable effects of every virtual shot from the video-game gun - nothing would actually harm him in truth, but everyone would be vividly instructed in all the possible side-effects of bullets in HD detail.

“Are you ready, Mary?” Irene said, tightening her hand around Mary’s hand on the Wii gun. “You’re going to shoot him. Virtually. Head and genitals off-limits, as tempting and distracting targets as they are. You’re going to shoot to wound, incapacitate, hinder. Many times, in many places. We’ll reset the sensors to start afresh every time. You’re going to get the surgery right this time.”

Mary felt weak and exhausted - but she would have to re-learn her old precision under adverse conditions. A little bit of a thrill was rising in her despite herself - she could do this. She would have to do this. “What if I can’t?”

“If you can’t? What do you mean?” Irene purred, with false ignorance. “Oh. You mean, if you botch the job again, and you kill him again? Virtually? Oh, that would be too bad, wouldn’t it?” Irene looked up at Sherlock and smiled. “Why don’t you tell her, pet? What will happen.”

Sherlock smiled, and his teeth looked sharp in the reddish light. “I don’t know, Mistress,” he said. “I’ve been hanging here a while, and you worked me over well. I’m not at the height of my powers.”

“Tell her,” Irene ordered, and her teeth looked sharper than his.

“If you kill me again, Mary - virtually, of course - then you and I will trade places. And I certainly need much more training than you do.”

Mary looked up at him - as blasé as a bound man, nearly naked, bruised and sweaty can be, which in his case was more than you’d think - and back to Irene, whose spine was straight and unyielding and whose face was stern. “I don’t know if I can, not after -”

“Don’t mind me, Mary,” Sherlock said. “This is your scene. I’m just a prop.”

“He makes an excellent footstool, too,” Irene said. “My pedicurist was very impressed with his steadiness.”

Right then. This was just a video game, wasn’t it? Mary picked up the sensor and swung it experimentally. The weight and grip was completely wrong, of course. “I don’t know if I ever said this enough,” she said to Sherlock. “But I really am sorry.”

“That’s not necessary,” he said. “But you should apologise to Mistress for damaging her furniture.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Irene said with a generously sadistic smirk. “She has and she will. And besides, your landlady has threatened to hire me to make you apologise for damaging her walls.”

“I hope she does, I’ll look forward to it,” Sherlock said with a smile. Mary had never seen him looking this relaxed before.

Mary took in Irene’s satisfied, feral smile and Sherlock’s steady, wide-open gaze. She let her eyes roam over his body and tried not to let them linger on the round pink scar that had healed so well, just below the right lower edge of his ribcage.

Sherlock chuckled.

Mary lifted the toy gun. “I can do this.”

“I know you can,” Sherlock said.

“Don’t let her off so easy,” Irene said warningly. “Make her prove it.”

“I’ll prove it,” said Mary, and “fired.”