There were days when John Watson waited for the other shoe to drop. Instinct of long training, that, both in the field and (to be quite honest) in years of guarding Holmes' back through whatever ridiculously convoluted case of human depravity he had involved himself this time. Good fortune does not last, cannot be relied upon: too much good fortune, particularly if you mention it aloud, brings the attention of the gods, and their possible envy.
When they were in bed alone one night, he said as much to Mary, drawn out by her gentle, implacable curiousity as to the thoughts that moved behind his eyes. She smiled at him, and said, "Pagan," in a gently chiding, teasing voice, tapping a fingertip on his nose. He couldn't say much to that. Three years in the mountains made men into fanatics or atheists, he'd found, and he tended towards the latter.
"The thought doesn't worry you, I take it," he said, smiling, catching her finger and kissing the top of it. She shook her head, the slight smile on her lips still.
"My God is a doting father," she replied. "And there has never been one of those who was not pleased to see his children delight in the gifts he gave them." Then she canted her head and went on, in a more serious voice, "I can't promise there will never be trouble, John. Not in this world. Perhaps in the next, but not in this one. But I can tell you that if you are always waiting for the blow, eventually your neck will get very, very sore indeed."
He kissed her, then, and she settled down into a posture more suited to sleep, while he thought. When he spoke again, it was quietly, in case she was already dreaming so that if so he would not wake her. "And how well does that work for you, my love?"
Mary was not yet asleep, but she was close; though her voice was wry, it was also the lazy voice of sleep, and she said, "Better some days than others, darling. But it's worth the pains."
Then she did drift away. And John lay in the dark and thought for some time after.
For there was something in him that still said: a man should not be allowed to keep both his dearly loved (however maddening) bachelor-days friend and companion, and his most-beloved wife: not without lies and complications, difficulties and distresses, things to make him pay for his transgression. Loving them both, both emotion and action, ought not to make it easier to love each separately.
Too much good fortune; too much joy in the world. That he should have both loves, and that they should love one another.
Surprising him, Mary stirred, and kissed his collarbone. "If it helps," she said, still sleepily, "remember that you and I had a terrible row on Saturday about the curtains, and that Sherlock has killed Gladstone three times this week, and nearly got you arrested again last Thursday."
John could not help the sudden, self-amused smile, even though no one was looking. "Are you implying something, my darling?"
"Mmm," she agreed, and then yawned. "That a great many people would consider living with a woman as shrewish and pig-headed as I am quite the payment indeed, and a great many more would consider bearing the weight of being Sherlock Holmes' friend and companion to be sufficient pains for sainthood. Now do stop fretting and go to sleep, your heart is all the wrong rhythm."
John kissed the top of her head. "You are not shrewish," he informed her, and felt her smile against his shoulder.
"No argument with pig-headed?"
"Only about some things," he replied. "Like curtains."
"Go to sleep, John," she said. "The world will give us mountains enough to climb tomorrow."
She is not Irene.
Watson is Watson, if more inclined to be dry, ironic and sharp than he might have been, five years before. But there, Holmes cannot quite say that the change is unwelcome, because the challenge increases, whether in cases or in intimacy. He finds that he can still thoroughly rely on Watson, if not to kick open every door or follow behind on every case, then to be there when he, truly, is needed. He would put it down to an increase in his friend's skill at deduction, but he knows the truth: those deductions come not from Dr Watson, but from his wife. Mary.
Who is not Irene.
Because (they have never discussed this, and they never would) part of Watson's constant presence has been concern. It would take a very thick man not to see that concern quite clearly in all of Watson's movements and choices: the concern that this will be the time one drinks too much, or takes too much cocaine, that this will be the time one is entirely in over one's head and thus killed, all for want of a revolver, or another fist. And while over the years Watson's skill at deductions based on objects has increased, he has never become mankind's best eye to deductions based upon persons.
But now there is Mary, who is not Irene.
He comes back to this thought over and over, not because it matters, but because he is bothered by how much it does not. Sadly, yes, he had said when she told him he would miss her, and she was quite correct - and yet. And yet the ache is a great deal less, and when he is with Mary he never finds himself making the comparison. It is only later, as now, walking the streets of London and learning her current mood, that he takes note of the fact that he does not compare, and finds himself wondering as to why.
With Irene, everything was play, was struggle, was challenge. That is not so with Mary, and yet - his two first meetings with her remain, impressed upon his mind. Perhaps, then, that is the difference, or part of it: that with Irene, the struggle for victory was eternal - where Mary, as a cat having demonstrated her claws and that she would use them, is now content to sheathe them until a transgression has been committed.
He suspects she knows him as well as Irene. Possibly, by now, as well as Watson. He suspects this ought to disconcert and concern him. It does not. Irrational though it might be - and he suspects it is - he is quite certain that she knows exactly what she knows, and thus he is safe not only from real malice on her part, but also from mistakes that another might make, betraying him by accident by not knowing what he would choose to hide.
Or perhaps that is not irrational. Perhaps, indeed, he has all the data he needs to make that inference, and simply does not wish to look at it - ah, yes. He suspects that is the case. (He sits down on a broken wall by the wharf and pulls out pipe, tobacco and matches, to watch the night-traffic of these docks). There is as much to be observed of men and women in physical intimacy as anywhere else. There simply accompanies more reasons to wish not to.
Holmes smokes and thinks, and contemplates hands and eyes, mouth and body, breasts and arms and legs and (as the Bard once put it) adjacent demesnes. No: clarity, truth, he contemplates a look, perhaps, an intimation, a statement made by body instead of by word. A statement of safety and affection, of forgiveness if also of expectation.
More importantly, he contemplates his own response to it. And to the counterpoint it makes to the statements Watson makes, similarly silent, both in the same intimacy and in the world, which sometimes belie entirely what he says aloud.
He had never meant to come to rely so completely on Watson. It had happened largely by accident, and to a great extent unnoticed, such that it had been a shock and sudden bereavement when first this woman entered their lives and took him away. And no sooner now than had he finished, at last, coming to terms with that loss, than said woman gives Watson back, and adds herself to the bargain.
She is not Irene. Perhaps it is time to accept how much that does not matter.
He does have his own key - yet he is thoroughly unsurprised to find that when he opens the door, however quietly, it is to find the housekeeper waiting at the top of the smallest flight of stairs. There is a story to Mrs Trust, he knows. He has not divined it yet, but it is the type of story that rewards endless patience better than aggressive pursuit. But he knows that she sleeps lightly, and that though it is hidden behind an admirable length of practice, still, the English of Britain is not her native tongue.
Tonight, she says, "I'll make it three for breakfast, then," with a quiet dignity that belies her nightdress and housecoat.
He contemplates the time, and suggests, with an equal dignity, "Brunch?"
She has a nut-brown face, like a field-labourer, wrinkled and old. It contemplates this with pondersome reserve and at last proclaims, "Likely best. Good night to ye, Mr Holmes."
He remains where he is for a moment, torn between two rooms, but at last goes to his own. This thoughtful mood, he knows of experience, does not answer well to company, however beloved (and he will think that, here and tonight) the companions might be. Tomorrow is early enough.
Dearest Aunt Emma, the letter of a hundred unwritten writings began, always, I cannot tell if you would approve of me now, or not.
Death made the letter a moot point. Whether Aunt Emma would approve or not, Mary wouldn't know it until she made her own way to God's country, if then.
She got up early; John stirred a little when she disentangled herself from the bed, but did not wake, which confirmed her suspicions that he had not actually stopped his thinking last night when she fell asleep, but had rather lain awake. She hoped he had come to some comfortable conclusion.
One of her more comfortable dresses was laid out, and she put it on, washed her face, rebraided her hair, and went down to the breakfast-room, called by the scent of tea, coffee and scones. Sally said, "Good morning, ma'am," in passing, clearly running for the store-room and something Mrs Trust wanted; Mary smiled at her, but otherwise let her pass on.
"Mr Holmes came in early this morning," that worthy said, when Mary came in to the breakfast-room. "Suggested brunch, which I thought was wise, but I've some scones for you and tea." And she directed Mary to sit down, and gave her both, and for a moment Mary felt very young again, and safe.
"Have I mentioned how grateful I am you would come to us?" she said, as she took her teacup in her hands. Mrs Trust gave her the same fondly tolerant smile, with its implied wisdom, as she had given Mary as a child, and Aunt Emma as long as Mary had known her.
"Where else was I ever likely to go? I got you trained right, as an employer, when you was little. Couldn't stand to break in a whole new woman, not at my age." She went over to the fire and shifted a coal or two. "And you went and married a reasonable gent, while you was at it."
Mary smiled, lifting the teacup to her lips. "And then went and brought home a disreputable one," she added, and Mrs Trust snorted.
"Don't know about that," she said, "he's got an excellent reputation in his own matters. And it makes you happy to have someone to fight with." She shot Mary a level look. "Were you frettin', Miss Mary?"
"I suppose I was," she replied, and reached for a scone.
Mrs Trust gave a quiet little grunt if disapproval. "Enough trouble in the world," she said, sternly. "Don't go borrowin'." She took herself out, Mary being chid, in the direction of the kitchen.
"Have you introduced her to Mrs Hudson?" John's voice asked from the doorway. "They'd get along marvellously." He was dressed, mostly, if simply and without jacket. He had on her favourite waist-coat, the green one, but not a tie. She did, Mary reflected, have a very fetching husband.
"They play backgammon on Sunday afternoons, after church," Mary replied, half-turning. "But I think Mrs Trust introduced herself." John sat down and took her hand. She squeezed his fingers and smiled, and said, "I think we're doing well, John. Don't you?"
"Yes," said yet another new voice, this time Sherlock's, also from the door, "but your washerwoman has done something different to your sheets. I'm not sure whether or not I approve."
For his part, Sherlock was untidy, his hair come straight from sleep and his bracers over a rumpled shirt. Because of where John sat, Mary saw them in contrast: her tidy doctor and her disastrous detective. Sherlock, she realized, would see likewise the contrast, she beside his Watson. She wondered what John saw.
Sherlock came into the room and, much to her surprise, leant to drop a kiss on her cheek. "I'm early for brunch," he said, and stole her tea.