He wondered sometimes if she saw the world the same way he did. It was not her body that preoccupied him, nor her brain, really – though that should give him pause, shouldn't it? Her brain, which was surely similar to his. But did she see the world ever racing along, her thoughts traveling down paths previously unexplored, brilliant bursts of colour in a world of grey? Or was she simply like Watson, perfectly intelligent but disciplined, and not a genius, certainly not, not the way Holmes himself was? Had she managed to outsmart him with inferior intellect? How curious.
It was her brain he was interested in after all, then. She couldn't possibly string herself along on tempting substances; he was himself only living through Watson's frequent admonitions, and she had no one like Watson to watch after her, did she? So she must abstain, or destroy herself, and she certainly wasn't destroying herself. Not with such a sharp smile and quick wit.
And were she privy to his thoughts now she'd surely slap him –
No, of course not, what was he thinking? She would hit him solidly if she bothered to strike at all.
She had disappeared so thoroughly that he could not track her movements. Encountering things he couldn't do felt rather like encountering a military man where he'd expected an inexperienced pickpocket. It was not a sensation he appreciated, nor was it one he was accustomed to.
He rather thought she was doing it on purpose. Antagonizing him, that was it, giving him what he wanted and then disappearing like a morbid fairy godmother. Or really, not at all like one, as those sorts tended to be a bit more mysterious. Irene Adler was bloody obvious. What made her who she was was that in terms of crime, it didn't matter a whit how obvious she was. She'd pull off the trick anyway.
"Oh, for God's sake."
Holmes didn't move. "Your chair is more comfortable than mine."
"That's not my chair, you dolt, that's our bloody bed. Mary's and mine – not yours."
"Once upon a time –"
"Don't even start. Things change, Holmes. I fell in love."
"Always with the excuses! Someday you will understand that you have to take responsibility for your actions. You have to stand up for yourself! You have to be a man! You have to -"
Watson's cane came down on his head so hard he damn near fell over. "You're being positively ridiculous. I considered what it would do to this, to us, when I was trying to decide whether or not to accept Mary's offer. It was neither easy nor a decision I made quickly, and no matter how many tantrums you throw, it will also not be easily reversed."
Holmes' mind tripped over the logic and fury, whirling, trying to analyze – Watson's body language was defensive, his muscles tensed in seeming readiness to attack. It was odd, off-kilter, all of it, for Watson was balanced and gentle compared to Holmes. Well, and that wasn't a terribly apt comparison. Many people were balanced and gentle compared to Holmes. He was fairly certain a good number of thieves and whores were balanced and gentle compared to himself.
But one thing stuck out in his mind, like a glimmering gold coin amidst piles of dirt. Mary's offer? Mary's offer? "She proposed to you? What a cad!"
Now Watson just looked exasperated. "She's not a cad, for God's sake. She's a woman, one whom I care about quite a bit. You ought to be able to accept that for the time it takes to sit down to a pleasant meal, at least."
"Oh, is she cooking tonight?"
It was the wrong move to make; Watson threw him out the window, and didn't even have the courtesy to toss the gloves he'd left on their bed out after him.
He pondered it for a week, during which he also collected the skins of no less than ten rats he caught via rope trap. The skins were all he examined simply because he had a boy he'd found in an alley deliver the meat to Watson's house. Rat stew was, contrary to popular opinion, quite delicious, though he doubted Mary would consent to try it. Of course, that was simply a distraction, as was the attempt to create something salable from the rat skins (they made, as it happened, very poor leather). The rat experiment ceased to amuse after three days and he found himself compelled to seek out new amusement in the form of solving two robberies and a murder for the ever-incompetent police.
And now! Now he was, once again, utterly bored and without even the most primitive of amusements. No one had the decency to kill a high-profile noblewoman or rob a duke blind, even.
That was the sort of thing Irene would do, really. Irene. He could attempt to track her, again, could harness the energy currently animating his limbs in useless patterns and use it to find her and –
His brain stuttered there, because really, find her and do what?
No matter. He would simply find her and improvise. Italy! She loved Italy; he could go to Italy and sweep her off her feet. Or have her arrested. Really, he thought, both would be quite entertaining. It had been some time since he and Watson took a jaunt to the continent, since as a rule they required some reason to go, a lead that was more than a whisper-thin bit of evidence and Holmes' (admittedly superior, if he dared make the claim himself – and of course he dared) instinct to guide them.
True, in this scenario (which was itself rapidly becoming entirely non-hypothetical), he had no lead but a vague inclination, a sort of hunch that Irene was in Italy. But then, in this scenario he also lacked Watson, for the man was ensconced in domestic bliss with his entirely irritating wife. She could regulate him, and he could regulate his patients. Holmes was sure they were in bliss. Happy, wedded, entirely unchaste bliss.
Perhaps he could make Irene marry him. He was fairly certain, with the careful application of mind-altering substances, she could at least be induced to consider the possibility for certain...future applications. Obviously they would all have to be nefarious – he wasn't a naïve fool, whatever other faults he had – but he was certain he could formulate at least five. Possibly even ten.
"I did tell you," an arch female voice said from the doorway.
Of course, Mary always sounded arch. Still, he liked the descriptions his mind came up with. They were quite comforting. Almost literary.
"It's possible he can't even hear us," Watson observed. He sounded lazy. Satiated thanks to his lovely wife, Holmes had no doubt. He'd be going soft soon, poor fellow. "He does get lost in his thoughts quite frequently. They're all inane, you understand, but he does like to consider them with such care that he often loses contact with the outside world."
"Fascinating," Mary said, sarcasm evident in her tone.
"They're actually all quite witty," Holmes said – or attempted to say. He hadn't spoken out loud in some time, and his voice was rustier than he'd expected it to be.
"God, man, you're an absolute wreck," Watson said.
"He wouldn't stop nattering about you," Mary said. "Do you think Holmes would like these curtains? Were he around, he'd have us carve our names on the sill. His favorite color is precisely the shade of this carpet. Ad nauseam."
"Abominable habit, that," Holmes said.
"Precisely," Mary said. "I rather think we're well rid of you, but John has other ideas."
"The room I chose will suit me nicely, thank you," Holmes said.
"Absolutely not. We are simply here to invite you to supper."
"Personally? Madame, I'm touched. I'd bow to you, even, but I really can't be bothered. I'm in the middle of an experiment, you see."
"Rat skins. How lovely."
"You're an absolute fool," Watson said. "We'll see you at eight, then."
"Oh, I'll be there earlier. I'm simply dying to see how you've chosen to decorate."
"Do you know," Mary said, "you simply cannot affect an upper-class accent. I've heard you try, and it's atrocious."
"Good day, madame," Holmes said, turning around.
There was a long, awkward pause. Well, yes, he supposed it was petty – but really, what did she expect? She could not simply enjoy bantering with him as though he'd known her for quite some time. He was free with his insults to everyone, but that was the sensible manner to conduct himself in. he had, after all, proven his mettle as a man, and a highly intelligent one at that. She had taught some schoolchildren the alphabet and then thrown wine in his face. Not notable accomplishments, those.
She'd married Watson, of course, but that was not an accomplishment so much as a sin against all intelligent members of society. He was much better utilized when Holmes could direct his energies.
He was so absorbed in his train of thought that he failed to notice Watson and Mary leaving. When he finally turned to see that the rooms were, once again, empty, he lifted his bottle of distilled tree sap and set about applying it to the wicks of nine candles. He'd create a prodigious amount of smoke, thus understanding the smell so that he could identify it in later cases, or burn the place down; either way, it was bound to be a profitable exercise.
His hair was singed, but it made him look that much more dashing. "Lovely of you to invite me," he said, swanning past Mary. "Shall I proceed to the dining room?"
"I'm quite flattered that you know where it is," Mary said. She sounded sweet as sugar, which meant she was planning something terrible.
"I know a great many things," Holmes said. "The smell of arsenic, for example. And the sound powder makes as it touches liquid. One must be familiar with such things, in my line of work."
"Naturally." Her smile didn't even waver. Honestly, Holmes had no idea what Watson saw in her. She was an abominable specimen of womankind. "This way, please."
"You could take my arm," Holmes said, purely to upset her.
"I could," she said, and didn't.
She led him not to the dining room, but to the sitting room. It was appointed in exactly the manner he'd remembered; it had not decreased in tastefulness one iota. If they were robbed, he thought, he'd know exactly how the thief made his way throughout the room. And then he'd find them, of course, because he generally couldn't abide thieves whose work was so obvious, and his disgruntlement with Watson didn't extend to actively wishing the man harm. How could he, after all, when Watson was growing softer and more useless by the day? Occasionally Holmes happened upon helpless animals that he would shelter for a week or two until their injuries healed or they became sufficiently less starved and could manage on their own again.
Of course, about half the time he forgot about them and they died anyway, but the natural order could only be interfered with to a certain extent.
He came out of his reverie with a start. "Five, or six?"
"Times I called your name? Eight." Watson favored him with a cutting look, blessedly familiar. Damn the man for inviting sentimentality. "Good evening."
"Oh, dispense with the formalities." Holmes dropped himself onto the longest sofa, toeing off his boots and propping his stocking feet up. "How's the practice? The weather? The wife?"
"Satisfactory, grey and easily observable from your rooms, lovely and blooming, as you can see."
"I've never been good at casual conversation," Holmes said. "I fall short of proficient, really. It's simply not in me to temper my intelligence to suit others' laziness. Did you receive my gift?"
"Gratefully," Mary said, so quickly Watson's expression didn't even flicker. "By the by, there was a boy who drowned in the harbor a few days ago."
"Suicide," Holmes said. Probably not, but really, boys drowned in the harbor too regularly for even he to find the mystery interesting.
"He was a sailor aboard the Western Bounty," Mary said. "A perfectly forgettable ship, except the boy was scarcely sixteen and already first mate."
"The loss of such a prodigy is sure to be felt in the maritime community for at least a fortnight," Holmes said. "Watson, have you encountered anyone with boils yet? Dozens of them, I mean, festering all over the body. I find such conditions fascinating."
"He had gold coins inscribed with Egyptian on his person as well," Mary said.
Damn her – and damn her twice for observing his expression and sitting back with a smug look on her face, ceding the conversation to Watson.
"We're sure he wasn't a pirate, because he had no markings and the ship had an impressive ledger that, while it doesn't preclude smuggling, implies primarily legitimate activities," Watson said. "The boy was a traveler, it seems, and prodigiously intelligent. Still, it would be rather unremarkable if the coins were not wrapped in a silken handkerchief with your initials on it."
Of course. "Irene. Do you want revenge, then? Am I to be called to perform your bidding like a dog on a chain?"
"Have you been reading operas again?" Watson said.
"That's beside the point," Holmes said. "Answer the question, damn you."
"We assumed you would be interested in talking to her, at the very least," Mary said. "Tracking her is something of a preoccupation for you, is it not?"
"Holmes is generally unfamiliar with the concept of hobbies," Watson said.
"Nonsense. I read opera." Holmes looked from one of them to the other, trying to suppress the calculation in his mind that wanted to take charge and impel him to action. Touching either of them would be a grievous mistake at this juncture. "Were I to find Irene, I would have to abandon all my professional obligations for a time."
"There is that danger, yes," Watson said. "She's a complex woman even when she is not deliberately attempting to elude us."
"The handkerchief implies that she wants to be found, or at least present in our minds," Holmes said. "She's a veritable genius, Watson, and she would not leave such a conspicuous clue without expecting it to be followed. Still, it will take time. She enjoys chases more than can possibly be healthy for a woman her age."
"I wonder, do you always hypothesize about the health of young women with whom you are acquainted?"
"Only the ones I or Watson have had intimate relations with," Holmes said, mentally cheering when he managed to make her blush. It was a talent, that. "It's a professional interest, you see."
"Your sensibility, as always, charms and surprises me," Mary said. "Will you be taking chase, then?"
"Circumspectly and with great attention paid to the intricacies of the chase, yes," Holmes said. "But there is still the matter of my financial stability to be discussed. Distracted, I might be run out of house and home. Destitute, with my mental prowess entirely unable to help me." And yes, this was a plan – a glorious plan, in fact. Quite possibly the best plan he'd ever had. "Watson, you will have to take me in."
"Oh, for the love of God," Watson all but shouted.
Mary didn't even look surprised. "I rather thought you'd make that demand."
"And still you extended the invitation," Holmes said.
"You're inviting yourself," Watson said. "Rather rudely, in fact."
"The invitation to find Irene, which you knew I would not ignore." Holmes dredged up his most charming smile. "Mysteries are irresistible to me, Watson. Do try to fight your natural forgetfulness."
"Damn you," Watson said, with more feeling and passion that Holmes was sure he could muster up for his own dear wife.
"Not before I find Irene." Holmes smiled, filled with satisfaction at his own cleverness. "And then you may damn me all you like."
Watson turned a fascinating shade of puce. Holmes felt his own smile increase in response. He was looking forward to Watson's marriage after all.
He dreamed vividly the night before he was to begin formally investigating Irene's whereabouts. He'd gone to sleep entirely sober, but now his dreams had taken on a quality he usually experienced while in the thrall of mind-altering substances.
Watson lay beneath him, in a position he hadn't seen in nearly a year. His chest was bare, his hands extended above his head. He looked quite enticing, but different from Holmes' waking memory of the man: more filled out, more muscular. The results, he was sure, of lazy married living.
Mary swam into his vision. He tried not to look at her, but his dreaming mind thwarted him: no matter where he looked, he could see her. She was beautiful, wearing a gauzy sort of nightdress with her hair down. He rather thought he'd die before he saw this expression on her face, however; it was soft and affectionate, completely foreign to any look she'd actually given him.
"You should probably leave," he told this phantom Mary. "I am quite close to doing things that would shock and alarm you."
"He'll not allow you to fuck him," she said. "That was the one condition I was clear about."
If this wasn't a dream, he would have fallen over. Of course, if this wasn't a dream, a good many things would be different. "Oh? I was under the impression that he wanted me to. Don't you?" he said to Watson.
Watson's smile told Holmes precisely what he thought of this sort of manipulation. "Technically speaking, the rules were formulated with the understanding that any partner I had would not be present at the time of the activity. We did not think to stipulate what changes might occur, should the woman be present."
"You're a fool," Mary said. An ordinary wife, a good wife, would have made her voice more gentle, or at least affectionate. Mary sounded as thought she believed it. Holmes congratulated himself on his extraordinarily accurate mental characterization of the woman: should this scene ever take place outside his own mind, he was sure she would use exactly that tone.
"Your husband knows it, and yet he stands by me," Holmes said. "Would you do the same, I wonder?"
"He's too easily convinced of your helplessness," Mary said. "It's lucky that I'm in love with him, and not you."
"Hmm," Holmes said, keeping himself from saying something he'd regret. "I suppose I should get on with it, then." He moved his hands down to Watson's ass, closing his eyes as his fingers found the spot he hadn't touched in too long.
And the bloody joke of it was that this was going to get far, far more emotional than he would ever allow himself to even think about becoming while awake.
Might as well embrace it, then. He liked jokes, as a rule.
He leaned down to suck on the skin stretched over Watson's collarbone, conscious of Mary's eyes on him, tense and aroused as he –
Damn it. It wasn't even dawn yet.
Well, that didn't mean work couldn't be done. He needed to go down to the docks and inquire whether or not anyone had seen Irene, and choosing to do this in the pre-dawn would gain the sailors' respect – though it would not impress them. Nothing impressed that lot. Well, perhaps a calamitous storm, but as of yet he was incapable of concocting one.
He stood up, only to find that his erection was making it difficult to contemplate anything upright. Well, then. He certainly wasn't going to wank after having such an absurd dream, so he looked down and gave the member the most withering glare he could summon. After a truly ridiculous amount of time, it finally gave in and subsided.
He allowed himself a satisfied nod before he went to get dressed. His stubble was far too prevalent to be anything but messy-looking, but he hadn't the time to shave. He made sure to put a jaunty hat on before leaving his rooms, however.
Two hours later, his frustration was mounting. The docks had, thus far, been profoundly unenlightening. If Irene had not intended to be found relatively easily, why had she left such a distinctive marker? Holmes knew it was a bit ridiculous to expect results so quickly, but really, for all that she possessed a genius for illegal activities, Irene was hardly subtle.
"Where are you?" he muttered, scanning the docks for other sailors to accost.
"You're not terribly patient, are you?"
Holmes closed his eyes briefly, allowing himself to regain his equanimity before he turned around. Irene was sitting on a barrel, wearing breeches and a shirt that made her look like a cabin boy. "I could say the same to you."
"I planned all along to reveal myself to you quickly, whereas you expected your search to end within a day. Surely you did not think I would be so easy to find?"
"You were, though."
"If I did not want you to find me, then I wouldn't have been. You and I both know it."
Her speech sounded even more stilted than usual, her diction and accent thoroughly confused. She'd have been traveling, then. Holmes filed the detail away for later. "You're taking an even greater joy than usual in toying with me and mine. Pray tell why."
"Watson has always been mine," she said.
That startled a laugh from him. "I think he'd refute that a few thousand times."
"I share you with him," she said. "We both own different parts of you – but then, you own him as well. So do I."
"That makes no sense," Holmes said. "Less than no sense, really, and you know it, which begs the question of why you're stringing me along like this. I almost think you are attempting to conceal a deeper truth, most likely one that has to do with your motives, as they are currently even more opaque than is usual for you. While it may be true that you exert some manner of influence over both of us, you have never before expressed interest in Watson's life, which leads me to believe that your current involvement stems from Mary's addition to our lives. This hypothesis is supported by your previous extreme and equally inexplicable actions in removing Mary from Watson's company."
"You know, I have a few of my own hypotheses," Irene said. "Foremost among them that you're not half as quick as you pretend to be. You talk, and talk, to keep your mind racing in hopes that it will seem impressive. But you're really a fairly ordinary man."
"Nonsense. My powers of observation are unequaled."
Irene had the temerity to outright laugh at him. "Oh, Holmes. How do you sleep at night?"
"Soundly, ordinarily." An idea came to him suddenly, catching fire as quickly as the driest leaves. "Come back with me."
If he'd surprised her, she gave no sign. "I beg your pardon?"
"Your machinations indicate an intriguing level of interest in my relationship with both Watson and his wife. By returning with me to their home, you'll be able to observe whatever has caught your interest with greater detail."
Irene's smile was as intriguingly scheming as any he'd ever seen from her. "Observe?"
"Well, you certainly can't participate," Holmes said, the pomposity and innuendo of his statement entirely escaping him until the words had left his mouth.
Irene's laugh was sudden and clear. He quite desperately wanted to make her do it again, so he held out an arm. "Come with me," he said. "Our entrance into the Watson home will surely provoke an entertaining number of protests."
"On the contrary, it will provoke two," Irene said. "Repeated, naturally, and bound to be profoundly irritating."
"You're coming with me, then," Holmes said, and tugged her along to the sound of another laugh.
Irene Adler did not trouble Mary because she was a thief; nor did she trouble her because she was a beauty, a flirt, a legend (among some circles, at least), or a nuisance. No; Irene Adler was a problem simply because she was convinced that Mary was someone she was not. And she was disturbingly persuasive about it.
Mary was quite sure she was not high-spirited. She had been happy to learn French, paint china, and embroider as a child. She never felt the urge to climb a tree, or steal food before supper, or bully another child. Now that she was grown, she was content to read, keep house, and make sure John didn't injure himself too terribly in pursuit of dastardly criminals. Or boring criminals, really.
Leaving the country had been foolish of her. Oh, the adventure had been lovely, but Mary liked having a home to keep. She liked knowing the street she lived on – its moods, both during the day and night, its inhabitants, its thieves. She had left because she was enamored of the tales Irene spun, and – yes, she could admit it to herself. She had been frightened. Frightened because, weak and boring though women like Irene might think her to be, she had to find a different sort of strength to be John's wife.
John, for all his virtues, was too much like Holmes: he sought danger and intrigue, and was not a steady man. It fell to Mary to be the rock to his waves. She must stand up to Holmes where he could not; support him when he was discouraged, grieving, or frightened; look her neighbors in the eye when rumors of his mysterious nighttime activities arose; protect his reputation, that his more legitimate patients would continue to patronize his practice.
And her occupations extended far beyond John, into realms that many of the wives who occupied their street would consider distasteful. She administered to the sick in their own homes, in parts of London far less safe than their street; she frequently took walks on her own; she held conversations with loose women and pickpockets. She was no wild adventure-seeker, but she was hardly a delicate, blossoming girl.
Why Irene's perception of her made her feel so defensive was a problem she preferred not to think about.
She had other issues to occupy her thoughts, now. Holmes had been coming about more and more. First he had a bedroom to himself, and then he brought some clothing, and then he brought Irene Adler – who also frequently ate with them.
When he brought his violin, she knew she needed to speak to John. She was neither ignorant nor unimaginative, and had seen the looks they exchanged. She'd always rather suspected she would be sharing John with Holmes; the precise manner of the exchange, and that it would include Irene Adler, was a surprise.
Still, she knew more or less what she needed to say. On a night when John's occupations brought him home earlier than usual, they spent an hour in the bedroom, and another two hours sitting close and talking about nothing in particular.
Finally, she said, "John, I've a matter to discuss with you. It's – I don't wish to alarm you, but it is considerably more grave than most things."
John stiffened beside her. "What is it?"
Someone less used to calamitous secrets would have made suppositions or demanded full answers. She took a deep breath, reminding herself that he had heard of and done many outlandish things, and said, "I am not unaware of your relationship with our wayward houseguest."
He did not move – deliberately, she thought. "I do hope you don't mean Irene."
That made her smile. "No. John –" She pulled back so she could look at him fully. "I was aware when I married you, you know, that I would be making compromises. Not in the least of which would be standing by while you pursued a line of work that is more dangerous than I prefer to think about. But you cannot think that after meeting Holmes and seeing you two together, that I could possibly think I would be gaining all of you – or most of you – in the marriage."
"It's not like that," John said. "Or rather – it is, but it isn't." He shook his head. "Were I to tell Holmes tomorrow that I was leaving you and this house, and returning to our old quarters...he'd restrain me. Physically, if he had to. I've never seen him like this before, playing games with Irene and persisting in crossing both our boundaries. If I didn't know any better..."
No one, Mary knew, ever said that without knowing that what they were saying was true, and simply hard to understand. "Yes?"
"He doesn't want just me," John said. "In many ways he's never wanted just me – he hungers for the world, as it were. But this time, specifically." He touched her chin. "He doesn't want just me."
She heard her breath catch, but it felt like the action of another woman. This was a possibility she had entertained, but only briefly, when she could catch her thoughts on another stray idea easily.
"I suppose..." She shook her head, trying to clear it. "I'd not planned for this eventuality. Though it occurred to me."
"And now the action you'd suggest is no longer as desirable an option."
"Precisely." She tried to imagine it – her and John welcoming Holmes to their bed. She could picture it, but somehow the possible reality of it continued to escape her. It was not the sort of image that she could ever see becoming reality. "I don't understand where Irene fits into all this."
"Nor do I." John's eyes became unfocused. "She's always up for a lark, and he'll have found it easy to draw her into...whatever this is. But she's not the sort to stay past when things amuse her."
Mary tried to imagine being like that: so independent as to almost seem lonely. She couldn't. "I almost feel sorry for her."
"Don't. She has chosen her path, and I rather think she enjoys it. It's for neither of us to judge, or try to change."
"And yet we must try to change Holmes."
"Or...let him change, at least." John moved down so that he could kiss her, soft and warm. It was not the sort of kiss she imagined him having with Holmes, or her...having with Holmes. Could she? Either way, it would not be like this. Some part of her was for John alone.
"We need a plan," she said. "Some sort of strategy."
"He'll see through it," John said. "He always does, blast him."
"He'll see through your plan, you mean. Darling, he's not the slightest idea how my mind works, or what sort of plan I might formulate." She tilted her head, mischief rising in her heart, making her smile widely. "And you can't possibly think my intellect so inferior as to be incapable of surprising him."
John pulled her close roughly. This time, his kiss was hard, full of everything he wanted from – with – her. "You," he breathed, "are...God, I lack words." His hands moved over her, stroking her skin, nails just brushing her.
She moved onto his lap, writhing a bit, catching his wrists in her hands. "I'll find the words for you, then," she said – and she did, though they disappeared beneath gasps and moans soon enough.
She was tempted to reverse her opinion on the matter when she was awakened by Holmes playing his violin in the middle of the night.
She took a candle to his room and entered without knocking. Irene was nowhere to be seen; Holmes was dressed in nothing but a robe that gaped in inopportune spots.
"Knocking is a courtesy that is generally accepted to be preferable for all classes of society," Holmes said without looking at her.
"As is waiting until daylight to practice musical instruments," she said. "Forgive me if I find my desire to grant courtesy somewhat strained."
She had been half hoping to catch him by surprise, but he didn't so much as stiffen. "Mrs. Watson. Forgive me."
"Do dispense with that ridiculous claptrap," she said, moving to sit on the only other available surface: his bed. "My name is Mary, and this is my home. If I had not already forgiven you, you would be on the streets."
He raised his eyebrows: she'd managed to impress him. "Well! Pardon my mistake, then."
"You ought to tell me what you're thinking, that's made you turn to the violin so violently."
"While the offer is generous, I'll have to decline. There are few people who can follow my thoughts, and you are surely not one of them."
Watson had warned her that he would say something similar – unnecessarily, since she was familiar with his absurd machinations. "I would hate to think that you are implying that my husband chose to marry his intellectual inferior." She raised her eyebrows. "Unless, of course, you simply wish to reason with yourself that John's partner is so inferior as to not present a threat to your bond with him."
Holmes opened his mouth, and closed it, and then opened it again. No sound came out.
"Now," Mary said, "why don't you tell me why you are playing so loudly as to interrupt my sleep."
"I am finding Irene to be a troubling creature," Holmes said. "Not at home in any countries, not willing to make any alliances."
"I hardly think you think of her as a creature," Mary said. "Men refer to women as creatures when they seek to belittle them."
"God forbid I should do that to Irene." He sounded amused. "She's confounding all the same. Damn the woman – I certainly can never predict her whereabouts and moods, I who can predict nearly any change a man could imagine! And now she plays games with me, seeking to tempt me down any number of unwise paths."
"I wonder that you allow yourself to be tempted by her."
"Allow." Holmes snorted. "You do not know her mind, if that is the idea you have."
"And yet I do know yours. No, Holmes, do not scoff at me; you are not half as difficult to understand as you think, not for someone who is married to John."
"And I suppose you're to tell me you understand everything about how his mind works, as well?"
"Not everything, but enough." Mary looked around until she found the telltale wooden case. "You have been..."
"Don't tell Watson, for God's sake. The man will throw a tantrum."
"My loyalty is not to you."
"Then, with all due respect, why are you here? Mary."
The way he said her name was...investigatory, as though he were taking a very important volume down from a bookshelf and pronouncing its title to a room of scholars. It was odd, she thought, particularly since her name was so overwhelmingly ordinary.
"I'm worried," she said, "about John, his relationship with you – and my relationship with him. For all your combined intellect both of you seem incapable of exerting a managing force over any part or your lives outside the crimes you solve."
"You are past worry," Holmes said. "He married you, he beds you. Have done with it."
"Yes, and once I produce a son I shall move to France and have dozens of protectors," Mary said acidly. "Do stop. I am worried because you own a part of him – you know this as well as I do, or shall I go into detail?"
"It would be amusing," Holmes said. "Don't."
"You miss him. You cannot bring yourself to separate from him – and yet you do not have the freedom to communicate with him the way you would, had I not married him."
"Communicate?" Holmes stuttered over the word, his eyes twitching. "Do you mean –"
Mary returned his incredulous stare as steadily as she was able. "I do."
"You're mad," Holmes said. "Utterly mad. Does Watson know he's married a madwoman?"
"Do you call him Watson when you're touching him?"
That had the desired affect of making Holmes bluster. She smiled as he scrambled to regain his facilities.
"Madam," he finally said, "I am going to go to bed, and in the morning, we will treat this as a dream."
Victory. "I bid you goodnight, Mr. Holmes," she said, and swept out.
Of course, now that she had laid a foundation for a rather interesting series of events, she had to stay abreast of changes and adjust her plan accordingly. "Rather Machiavellian of you, don't you think?" John said.
"If you've a better method for handling him, please, share it."
He didn't, of course. Men were absolutely useless with that sort of thing. "Very well," she said when he spread his hands uselessly. "Invite him for dinner tonight, please."
"He'll be there anyway."
Mary sighed. "I'm aware. Invite him anyway, please. Trust me."
John stared at her for a moment. She knew that look – and so she reached out before he moved, pulling him close to her with one hand and moving the curtains to cover the window a bit more with the other.
The kiss was hard and hot – it brought to mind the nights they'd spent just after being married, learning one another's bodies and testing one another's limits. It was free, glorious, and...
"We're both thinking about him," she said when they paused.
For a second John stiffened. She smoothed down the front of his shirt, waiting for him to process it. "It feels like a betrayal," he said, looking down at her. "You must know –"
"And you must know," she said, "that when he bathes and is reasonably sober, I find him attractive. Not as much as you, obviously – not as much as you do, and not as much as I find you attractive. But there it is, all the same."
John closed his eyes and dropped his head, pressing his forehead against hers.
"Now I must ask," she said – carefully, for this was the question she was almost afraid to have a definitive answer to – "if you think he, in turn, would find me attractive. I know he is not repelled by women, but..."
John kissed her again. "He'd be a madman not to," he said, his hand finding her breasts as he moved down to kiss her neck. "But before we...Mary, this is insanity."
"He is insane," Mary said. "You are as well, and I...well, my family called me a madwoman, marrying you."
"Know this, then." John moved back a little, his expression deadly serious. "He owns a part of me, and always shall. But you do, as well. And they are not inequitable."
Her heart twisted. She had known he was a good man when she married him, of course, but this demonstration was nearly overwhelming.
"I would not ask you to give up such a large part of yourself," she said. "After all, what would I do with half a husband?"
John laughed a bit and lowered his head, kissing her again.
They did not formulate a plan; such a thing would have frightened them both, in an odd way. Perhaps such potential fear should have indicated to her that they weren't ready for the disruption Holmes would cause; but then, she suspected no one was every truly prepared for Holmes. Somehow, she had to suppress her ordinary caution and allow John to lead her down the unexplored path.
Dinner, however, was not unusual: Holmes was being a nuisance.
He had invited Irene, which in and of itself was an irritant. Irene was the picture of civility, but as always it was a veneer over the sort of woman Mary was coming to love, respect, and want out of her house.
The two of them created a sort of vortex of frantic wittiness, a space that made Mary nervous and John, as much as she could tell, very nearly furious.
Or perhaps he was simply lamenting the delay of their not-plans that Irene represented. Anything was possible, Mary thought as she smiled sweetly and inquired after Irene's health.
When the meal was finished, she rose. "Irene, I believe we should withdraw to the drawing room. The gentlemen have private matters to discuss."
"I suppose you could call it that." Irene smiled and took Mary's arm. Her clothing was thin; Mary could feel the heat of her skin through the few layers. "Let us bid them goodnight, then."
Mary simply inclined her head, but Irene pulled John closer and kissed both his cheeks. Mary was sure that if she asked, Irene would simply declare it continental and amusing. It was all Mary could do to refrain from preemptively pointing out that Irene had, in fact, been a motivator of Mary's own illicit education.
When the drawing room doors closed behind them, Irene led Mary to a chaise, pressing her down into the seat with a strength Mary found rather at odds with Irene's body. "Excuse me," she said, pressing against Irene's arms. They may as well have been bars of iron.
"Indeed, I wish to offer no offense," Irene said lightly. Her tone was still pleasant, but there was venom in it now. "I simply find myself wondering why Holmes, who ordinarily is as difficult to catch as a single drop of water, is dangling between you and your husbands' fingers."
"Oh, dear. Did he rebuff your advances?"
Irene wasn't provoked. "Do you think this is a game? He'll never be only yours."
No, Mary thought; that was true enough. Holmes loved Irene with a dedication and longevity that she doubted even he recognized. It was obvious that Irene did recognize it – and equally obvious that she lacked the impartiality to see just how deeply that bond extended. "Nor will John," she said as evenly as she could. "And yet I returned, in spite of your efforts to simplify the problem."
"I hardly think it can be called simplifying."
"There are still two of them, and I do not wish to be secondary in Holmes' affections." Irene raised an eyebrow. "Or, indeed, tertiary."
Mary could move her left arm, and she did now, finding the bare skin of Irene's neck and stroking gently. "You will always be something different for him."
"And you?" Irene's grip tightened. "Staying at home, tending to a husband who is not yours?"
"It is not a virtue," Mary said. "I share John because I must. Holmes is no better or worse."
She had not stilled her hand, and now she felt Irene lean into it a bit. She was about to make another reckless decision, Mary realized, and leaned forward, pressing her lips against Irene's.
It was not a chaste kiss, but it held little lust. Irene kissed back for a moment before releasing Mary and moving to sit across from her. "I suppose I should apologize for sending you away."
"It was my decision," Mary said. "Your perception of my facilities and choices troubled me somewhat, but it occurred to me rather strongly that your judgment was not one upon which I needed to rely, or even consider with gravity."
Irene's laugh was as high and clear as a tinkling bell. "You're a worthy match for him after all."
"As are you." As were they. She...could voice this thought aloud, now. "I have long known that truth lies in directions we may choose not to seek, but this is a rather permanent one."
"Are you ready to accept it?"
"Absolutely not," Mary said. "I will anyway, of course."
"Naturally," Irene said, and they changed the topic to less complicated matters.
Irene left that night, and sometime between bidding her goodnight and turning their backs on the door, Holmes disappeared.
John sighed, clearly exasperated. "Damn the man."
"We have time to resolve the problem," Mary said.
"Or answer the question, if you prefer that phrasing." Mary took John's hand. "Come to bed."
"I confess myself curious as to what you and Irene discussed," he said as they climbed the stairs.
"This and that," Mary said, tone deliberately airy.
John glanced down at her in surprise, and then smiled when he understood. "You're a troublemaker."
"I'd hardly call it troublemaking. Peacemaking, more like."
"Precisely." Mary opened their bedroom door –
And there, of course, was Holmes, sitting on their bed with the ease of familiarity. "Good evening."
It was remarkable, Mary thought, how much the sight did not surprise her. "You were rather discourteous when bidding Irene goodnight."
"Shall I explore the minutiae of our relationship with you? I admit it presents an interesting challenge, but at the same time, three people are rather enough to occupy a single bed. Rather more than enough, but Watson here assures me that you are not prone to hysterics the way many women are, and I have long espoused the idea that some women, when remarkable, are well worthy of one's attention, and as Watson generally has sound judgement, I have concluded that your worth is..."
Mary turned and took her dress off.
She'd had confidence in her appearance long before John began courting her. Now she turned around, shoulders back, and appraised Holmes.
"Take off your clothes," she said. "I cannot tell if it is the cut that makes you lacking, or if it is simply something about your person."
John stifled a laugh. "Gentler. He's a man of delicate sensibilities."
"That is provocation of the lowest sort," Holmes said, and stripped his shirt off. "Utterly base taunting, like schoolchildren, or a boy killing a dog." His trousers. "Not, naturally, that I am comparing myself to a dog. But children have been known to taunt that which they feel is mysterious to them, which surely is an apt comparison." His drawers, and his undershirt. "What you perceive as lack is simply delusion on both your parts."
John had been right: his babble was rather endearing when he was bright red.
"Of course," she said, and turned to John, rising on her toes to kiss him.
He pulled her close immediately, hands moving down to her bottom. Holmes being there made him move slowly, as if he was trying to keep Holmes from commenting, or startling and leaving. She changed her reactions accordingly, running her fingers through his hair where she normally would have pulled it, stroking his cheek when she might have dug her fingernails into his shoulder.
She was wet, so much so that she was tempted to press against his leg and just let her hips move – but she ran a hand down John's chest, tugging his shirt up and unbuttoning it, still looking at Holmes.
They'd not been perfect together when they shared a bed for the first time. John had been far too gentle; it was a result, he would later tell her, of his time with Holmes, who had been so volatile for so long that a gentle hand was needed with greater frequency than a rough one. Mary, for her part, had been rather clumsy with inexperience, and frightened of making mistakes.
But they had learned what each other liked, given a bit of time and a strong inclination to love. Now they simply had to apply that learning to another.
One who, she reminded herself, had had John before she had known him. She took the wave of jealousy that accompanied that thought and let it slowly dissipate.
Her consciousness returned to the scene before her. Holmes looked stunned, hungry, everything she'd anticipate from a man in his position. She smiled, led John to the bed, and said, "Come closer. I can see you constructing a barrier you'll come to think actually exists soon."
"Does Watson teach a class, then?" Holmes followed them to the bed and sat down gingerly, as if he expected the sheets themselves to bite him. "The care and keeping of one Sherlock Holmes?"
"I am simply observant," she said. "Here; take my hand."
Holmes obeyed. His palms were clammy; good God, she thought. He truly did care about the outcome of this, enough to at least make him nervous.
"Touch him with me," she said, and brought their hands together to touch the hollow of John's throat.
"His skin was always too soft," Holmes said. "Like a bloody baby, he is." He moved his other hand to Mary's thigh. The skin there prickled, and Mary opened her legs a bit as John looked down and flushed.
"He'd like to see you touch me," Mary said. "He does love observing. Sometimes I think that's why he became a doctor."
"Nonsense," John said, voice breathy. "I enjoy helping people as well."
"Help us by lying back, then, you old hero," Holmes said.
Mary laughed as John obliged – but her laughter cut off the second Holmes pulled John's trousers down.
"You've sucked him, I assume."
"He's told me you have as well." She sounded, Mary thought, almost saucy. Certainly different from how she usually was. "The question is how we go about doing things now that there are two of us."
"I don't suppose it occurred to either of you to take turns," John said.
Mary looked up at him, and then down at Holmes. The way their bodes were arranged...yes, that ought to work. "Here, darling," she said, and ran her thumb over John's length.
John gasped. "As opposed to...?"
"Oh, I wasn't talking to you," Mary said, and turned to kiss Holmes.
It caught him by surprise and was sweeter for it: he kissed as she'd expected, slowly and thoroughly.
"Take care of him," she said, and moved up to kiss John.
John moaned into her mouth. "What are you planning?"
"Something we've done before," she said, and moved to put one leg on either side of his face.
His entire body seized. She looked behind her to confirm that it was not just her doing; surely enough, Holmes was making good use of his mouth and fingers, somehow managing to simultaneously project an air of utter smugness.
"What do you think we should do with him when we're done?" she said, turning back to John.
John gripped her hips and leaned up, licking her. Her breath shuddered out of her with force that surprised even her. "Keep going," she whispered, and did her best to stay still.
His movement was interspersed with moans of his own. She almost wished she could watch Holmes...but then, there would be time for that later. She did not intend to exhaust them only once, or really any number of times that could be easily counted.
But it was beautiful, this moment, it was – her mind scattered, thoughts breaking and washing away from her, a hint of what was to come as John moved one of his hands to press against that specific spot he'd been teasing with his tongue.
"Does she ever hold you down?" Holmes murmured from behind her.
John pulled away. Mary had to bite down on her tongue to stifle a petulant protest. "She's hardly large enough to," John said. "But she's a deft hand with knots."
"We do seem to choose women who do, old friend," Homes said.
"Yes, it's all quite sentimental," Mary said. "I'm impressed by both your needs for intermission. Have you become so old, then?"
"The next step will be wine in my face," Holmes said. "Nose to the grindstone then, as it were."
This time, John's groan was of an entirely different sort.
The humor lasted for as long as it took for them to all remember what they were doing – and then Mary felt as though fire were lit through her bones.
"Two fingers," she said softly, looking down; John obeyed readily, pushing in hard.
"Christ," Holmes said. "I have to – damn it, John, I want to see."
"There will be time for – oh god," Mary said. "Oh god, that's cheating, you bloody bastard."
But John ignored her, crooking his finger in the way he knew damn good and well would make her –
Fall apart, very nearly literally, for as her mind shattered and she cried out she fell forward, very nearly sending herself flying headlong into the floor, saved only by a quick grab by John and her own instinctive bracing against the wall.
"Well," Holmes said. "That explains more of the thumps than it doesn't."
"Oh, stop it," she said, kicking his shoulder.
"Help me here, then."
Mary glanced at John's face. He looked rather like someone had offered to teach him all the medical secrets of the next century. "Of course." She moved down and gripped Holmes' hair, hauling him up to kiss him.
"Sit back and watch," she said. "But don't you dare finish without us."
And then she pushed him backwards and sank down onto John.
It was comforting and familiar and amazing as always, stealing a gasp from her as she moved. She was sure she made a show – John had told her she did, on more than one occasion. That she could affect him like this never stopped being a breathtaking fact of their lives, something that was equally precious and terrifying.
Mounting pleasure once again chased out thought. She reached down and played with herself, ran her hand up and down John's chest. When she brushed wet fingers across his lips he shouted and spilled himself in her, shaking, his hands open, palms to the ceiling.
She caught one hand in her own. When she leaned back, guiding their fingers to herself, Holmes was there to catch her – and one of his hands joined theirs.
"Beautiful," he murmured. It was brief, unguarded, and precious for those reasons. With that in her ears, it was easy to give herself up again, mind utterly whiting out.
"Now," she said when she'd regained some semblance of control, "we ought to do something about you."
"Ought you, then?"
But she saw directly through his attempts to be flippant. "Be careful," she said as she straddled his lap. "I'm not likely to conceive, and I'm not sure I would even...I'm not sure I would even mind, but John..."
"Don't – I don't care." She very nearly startled when John came to sit behind her, pressed against her back.
It shocked her. This was not the time or the place for such a revelation, she thought numbly, looking down at Holmes' equally flabbergasted expression.
"And all this time," Holmes said finally, "you've been accusing me of being a madman."
"You are," John said. "You cannot think – neither of you can – that we entered into this lightly or without an implicit understanding of the consequences."
She had forgotten John's propensity for difficult truths. "Yes, but we ought to talk about this."
"We will." He kissed her shoulder. "Mary, we will. And it is your choice, as always."
She looked down at Holmes. All this talk was probably just arousing him further, she thought with no small amount of fondness.
"Today, then," she said. "Tomorrow – we will talk."
"How foreboding," Holmes said, and leaned forward to kiss her breasts.
She lowered herself on him, smirking when a strangled, half-moaning sound burst from him. "Tell me how much you've thought about this." When he looked up at her with near-uncomprehending eyes, she tensed around him and said, "Now."
Trust the bastard to find a way out of anything: he chose that moment to fall apart, shaking as he reached completion.
"You're quite persuasive," John said. She could hear the smile in his voice, and turned to kiss him, one hand on each of their heads.
Holmes was himself again in just a few seconds, wiggling under her. "I'll fall asleep like this, you know."
"He will," John said. "Trust me."
Mary considered the implications of that statement, raised her eyebrows, and moved back on watery legs, sighing when he slipped out of her.
"Sleep," Holmes said, patting the pillow next to him.
He rather reminded her of a dog, floppy and loyal. The comparison was unnaturally endearing.
She caught John's eyes and nodded at the bed. They moved in tandem, lying down on either side of Holmes, their arms bracketing him and pressing against one another.
"Right," Holmes said, and fell asleep as though he'd timed it.
Mary kept watch, even after John had closed his eyes and fallen asleep as well. She felt oddly as though she were bearing witness, and was – equally oddly – determined to do the self-appointed duty justice.
Of course, eventually she fell asleep as well. It was as sweet and easy a sleep as she'd ever had.
John was the first to wake up, to Mary's surprise. She expected to be brought back to consciousness by Holmes' deranged rambling, but instead it was to her husband's back as he watched the sun rise.
She left the bed and went to stand beside him, running a gentling hand down his back when he startled.
"You move silently," he said, and turned so that he could kiss her.
"I would apologize, but it can be useful." She chanced a smile. "We'll fill your memories with something better."
There was the old familiar sadness in his eyes when he took her hand. "You know it's impossible."
"I do." She wondered if it was an impossibility Holmes had accepted – if he felt the same fierce need to protect John. "But I carry your hope, John."
John glanced over at the bed. "You and that bastard."
That startled a laugh from her. "This is going to be terribly difficult."
"You did tell me being married to me would be enough work for two lifetimes."
"Your courtship was absurd. I wanted to ensure you knew precisely what you were asking." Mary couldn't resist taking another look at Holmes. "And last night. John, we will have children. You will look into their eyes, and you may see him."
"I want that." John's smile was rueful. "I have wanted it for longer than is truly respectful to you. Or – or medically possible."
There was no answer to that. Mary simply blinked.
"It is my decision," she said finally, when both their blushes had died down. "I will be carrying the blasted thing, after all."
Luckily, he caught the joking lilt in her voice. "I did not mean to pressure you last night."
She waved a hand. "You didn't. I learned quite a bit of self defense in the Americas. I'd have crippled you."
"My wife," John said.
The statement held an inexpressible tenderness. Mary closed her eyes briefly. "I cannot tell you I will ever truly feel ready to carry a child, though when I do it will be a challenge and a joy. But when I do, also...it could be his. I would not have made the choices I did if I did not acknowledge that as a possibility, and welcome it."
John surprised her by kissing her so hard it was nearly bruising. "I am so thankful for you," he whispered.
"And I you." But something tugged at her, low in her stomach. It was guilt, by now an old guilt – but it was also more than that. "When I left..."
"We don't need to talk about that. I know –"
"Irene's art is in making people do what she wants. I know that. But I left of my own accord." She might as well just come out with it, she thought. "She wanted to make me more interesting."
"Well, if I thought you boring, I wouldn't have married you."
Mary took a deep breath. "It has been difficult for me these past days, seeing Holmes and Irene this way. Holmes won't give Irene up, and I...will still want you to myself, sometimes."
"We will work through the complications."
"Jealousy took me before," Mary said. Her urgency was odd, she knew, but she needed to make him understand this above all other things. "Do you understand? Avarice for a life I have never wanted led me to abandon you."
"All of us will be petty," John said. He pulled her closer, running a hand up and down her back. "Mary, your own capriciousness will hardly be worse than Holmes'. My faith is that two good people whom I care about very deeply will find ways to make their lives work together, and with my own. Many people hope for more with less evidence."
That made her pull his head down and kiss him carefully, intently, nipping on his lip and tugging his hair. "You're terribly analytic, Doctor Watson."
"It's his worst quality, really," Holmes said from the bed. "Well, that and his approach to oral sex. I don't suppose he's better with you?"
"I learned," Watson said, "with both of you. Tosser."
Holmes' smile was lazy and satisfied. It made Mary itch to touch him, but – "We are going to take a walk around London."
"Why in the name of God would we want to do that?" Holmes was the picture of indolence, moving a hand over his chest and down to his stomach – and down further still. "We've a bed, and all day, and Watson's skills could use quite a bit more refining. Additionally, I've done some thinking about the situation we find ourselves in, and as my deductive powers far exceed yours or Watson's, you would benefit from the revelations I came to."
"You speak in essays," Mary said. She moved over to the bed, offering him a hand. "Do be quiet."
The face he made was utterly childish in its petulance. Mary thought her fond reaction to it an example of the particular form of madness with which she'd been struck. "I'm to go for a walk, then, am I? Like a pet dog?"
"Dogs are better behaved. I do believe I like them more."
"Holmes likes himself well enough for both of us," John said, coming behind her to wrap his arms around her waist.
"You two make a disgusting picture," Holmes said, and stood. His hair was rumpled, but his smile was genuine. "Let's depart, then. I've a suspicion our walk will be pleasant."
And it was.