London, November 1893
John Hamish Watson woke on the rug in front of the hearth in his sitting room, his dressing gown spread over him like a blanket, and for a sickening, disoriented moment he thought he was lying on the tiger-skin in Baker Street N.W., 221B. But the unmistakable scent of Parisian perfume rather than Persian tobacco put paid to that notion almost immediately, and the contralto voice, flatly accented as only an American could mangle the Queen's English, pounded the final nail into the delusion's coffin.
"Dr. Watson," said Irene Adler from somewhere behind him; "good morning. Would you care for some tea?"
Watson might have been a shadow of what he once was, but he was more than capable of throwing off the dressing gown and bringing his revolver to bear on Adler in as much time as it took him to sit up, which is to say, only a second. Adler was sitting on his settee, wearing a vivid green dress that highlighted her eyes and threw the gloom of the doctor's residence into stark relief. She had evidently removed the black bowler hat that lay on a side table from her chestnut hair, which was piled atop her head in an a la mode style. She was beautiful, incontrovertibly present and alive, and for a moment, it was all Watson could do to keep the gun steady, so choking was his anger.
Adler regarded him directly, and he knew, irritatingly, that she had comprehended every turn of his thoughts. In that respect she was achingly like—the feeling was disconcertingly familiar.
"Miss Adler," Watson said at last, when the silence stretched and it became clear that she intended to wait him out. He was viscerally awake, years of adventuring and a year in Afghanistan having left him able to be instantly ready for a fight. "What are you doing here?"
"Direct as always," Adler said with a very slight smile. "I have not come to murder you either asleep or awake, if that's what you fear. Won't you put the revolver away and join me?" She did not say You look as though you could use a good cup of tea or anything of the sort, but something in the manner in which she sat behind the tea tray managed to imply it handily.
Or perhaps Watson was merely projecting his own better impulses onto other people, since he no longer heeded them in himself. At any rate, she hadn't gone for the gun or the stiletto he knew she must have somewhere on her person, and tea was its own logic. There was toast, too, he saw, and that was enough for him to stand up, shoving the revolver back into his belt and shrugging into the dressing gown. He left it open, exposing yesterday's shirt, trousers and braces; if she didn't care, he ought not give a damn, either.
"Milk or sugar?" she asked when he sat down, as if she were a woman like any other, and for a moment he was reminded painfully of Mary. The horrible thing about bereavement, he had learned, was that the person who was gone became so persistently present in their absence.
"Neither," he told her brusquely, and waited for her to swallow some of her own tea, making sure that the level of the liquid in the cup decreased, before he sipped his own. When he tasted it, he realized that he ought to have asked for sugar; combined with the bitter taste of adrenaline on his tongue, the strong tea was almost sour.
Adler smiled slightly at him over her cup. "I see that you share Sherlock's suspicion of me, Doctor."
Watson managed to hold his teacup steady when she voiced the detective's Christian name, which he accounted a definite victory. "With good reason, Miss Adler, wouldn't you agree?"
"Please, Doctor, you may call me Irene."
"Very well then, Irene, to what do I owe this dubious pleasure?" Watson asked, setting the cup down so hard the tea sloshed onto the saucer. He would never consider speaking to a woman in such a tone—he and Mary had hardly ever quarrelled—but this woman was not like any other. Holmes's regard for her was ample proof of that, and there was far more besides.
"Perhaps I just felt like paying a call on an old friend," she suggested, her eyes narrowing slightly. "I do prefer to travel in the winter—you've no idea how dull New Jersey can be."
Watson was a betting man, and he would bet money that she hadn't set foot in New Jersey in years. "Old friend?" he repeated. "That's not quite the word I'd use."
"Comrade-in-arms, then," she suggested. "Fellow mourner, maybe."
Holmes was two and a half years gone over the Falls, and Mary in the ground for more than a month, and Watson still could not separate out the pain he felt at the thought of either of them into constituent parts. He'd managed, somehow, to hold himself together—for Mary's sake, he'd told himself—while she'd been alive, though he knew she'd known he was coming apart at the seams, one stitch at a time, and that he'd tried to hide it from her even as her illness dragged her down. But since her death he hadn't been able to hide his despair from himself, and he knew Irene could see it on his face.
"Fellow traitor," he said, just to see if she'd rise to the bait. He was rewarded when she flushed slightly, with anger.
"Name me one occasion when I betrayed Sherlock Holmes, Doctor," she said, her voice going lower, almost mannish.
Watson raised an eyebrow. "Where shall I start? Oh, I have it—how about when you accepted employment with Professor Moriarty, his arch-nemesis? The man who killed him?"
"I took that job to protect him!" she said furiously. "I saved his life more than once—and yours too, I'll have you know, not that I expect any gratitude from someone who—" Adler shut her mouth and sat back on the settee; she'd half-risen in her agitation. She reached for her tea, and drank some, her mouth set in a rather unattractive line.
"Finish your sentence, please," he goaded her. "What were you about to say? 'Someone who squandered the gifts he was given? Who didn't appreciate them in the first place?'"
"I was sorry to hear about your wife's death, Doctor," she said after a long pause, putting down her teacup again. "Frightfully sorry. She was an extraordinary woman."
"I know," Watson said simply. "Thank you."
Of course, like a certain mutual acquaintance, Adler could not resist having the last word. "I never thought you deserved her, of course," she said after a minute. "Or him, for that matter."
"Neither did I," he assured her bitterly. "Nor that I could." At least, he thought, I did try. The words were no more comforting than they'd been last month, or at the end of April 1891, or at any of the myriad moments between then and now.
She did not say At least you were given the chance to do so, but the words vibrated in the air between them, or so he thought at any rate. It was a bad habit Watson had picked up since he began serializing stories for The Strand; he was always, now, trying to ignore a little voice in his head which dispassionately tried to dramatize the events of his existence, make them fit into a plot. Despite the fact that he hadn't touched pen to paper since sending the manuscript describing (in a heavily fictionalized form, of course) the final problem in Switzerland to his editor, he'd been unable to break the habit. In its way, it was far more addictive than gambling.
"I need to see your case notes, Doctor," Adler said at length, changing the subject. "I have been retained by someone, whose identity I am of course not at liberty to divulge, to make investigations into a certain person who may or may not be currently resident in London. My employer is convinced that Holmes took a case several years ago which may have some bearing on the present matter, but the story was never published and Sherlock's brother has possession of all his papers. Yours are the only records to which I can possibly obtain access in any reasonable length of time."
"Why in God's name didn't you just come in for an appointment like any other patient, then?" Watson asked. Perhaps because he'd spent the night on the floor, and by no means slept sound—he never slept soundly, he could no longer tolerate his own bed—he suddenly felt very tired, and his leg was throbbing in a way that presaged a possible bad day.
"He wouldn't want to see you like this," she said, looking directly at him with a sympathy far more flaying than contempt. Watson could cope with contempt; it was what he felt for himself constantly, after all, and he hadn't yet thrown himself into the Thames. Nor would he, which in some moods was its own torment.
"Don't tell me what he would or wouldn't want," he snapped.
"Why not?" Adler demanded. "Because you knew him better than I?"
"Because he's dead!" Watson half-shouted.
She didn't seem affected by his outburst in the slightest. "We both know that doesn't change hardly anything important, Doctor," she said, regarding him coldly. "If it did, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
He wanted to argue the point, but of course she was correct. Sherlock Holmes had been the compass star in John Watson's firmament almost since the day they'd met; his marriage to Mary Morstan had merely added another star, rather than displacing the more ancient heavenly body. Even now, he wasn't sure that Holmes, who'd been so utterly perspicacious in every other respect, had ever understood that properly. Watson had loved them both; he still did.
He opened his eyes and saw that Adler was still sitting on the other side of his table. She'd forgotten to reapply her pleasant expression, and was still practically glaring at him. Suddenly he had a great deal of sympathy with Ebenezer Scrooge's desire for solitude in the face of Jacob Marley.
"Which case notes?" he asked, because that seemed the most direct way to get her out of his life, again. Permanently.
She did smile at him, at that, and Watson reminded himself that this woman was not only a master criminal, but that she had outsmarted Holmes at least four times. And though she'd been Holmes's muse, he, Watson, was not looking for a muse. In fact, he'd vowed to stop writing altogether.
* * * * *
They finished their tea in an armistice silence, and then Watson escorted Adler into his consultation room, which doubled as his office.
"What day is it?" he asked when they entered, belatedly remembering that he had a profession to practice, not to mention a reputation to uphold.
"Sunday, Doctor." Adler surveyed the room with an obviously methodical interest, cataloguing its contents. It was so much like Holmes that Watson had to look away, and so he missed her reaction to the statuettes of naked Greeks on the windowsill, if she had any.
He kept his unpublished case notes in the safe concealed behind the landscape painting over his desk, though he'd give good odds that any competent lockpick could crack it without real difficulty. The notebooks' true security lay in the fact that he'd written them in his own personal shorthand, which he'd partially ciphered. Between the two, they were probably impenetrable to anyone still living.
"When did this supposedly connected case occur?" he asked when he'd opened the safe.
Adler had taken the seat across from his desk, rather than on the examination table. Well, Watson had no interest in taking her on as a patient. "It would have been just before the Blackwood affair," she said. "My employer conjectured June of 1890, or thereabouts."
"Yes, the first Blackwood murder took place in August, though we didn't realize that initially, of course," Watson said absently, rifling through the little notebooks. Eventually, he found the volume he wanted and pulled it out. There was a brown bloodstain along one edge of the front cover, a souvenir of their fight with Dredger in the sewers beneath Parliament. This was the notebook out of which he'd harangued Holmes, when they'd spent that night in gaol, and Mary had posted his bail.
And he'd left Holmes behind, not looking back. If he hadn't regretted it at the time, why did he have second thoughts now?
Because he was a damned hypocrite. Not to mention, most likely, psychologically disturbed.
"May I see?" Adler asked pointedly, and he realized he'd been sitting in his chair staring at the notebook.
"I'm afraid you won't be able to understand my writing," he said, and he even managed to sound properly apologetic. "Are you referring to the case involving the East London Shipping Company? Holmes caught the murderer, but he confessed to me that he thought the man had been put up to it. By whom, he did not venture to conjecture."
"No, he wouldn't have," said Adler distantly, "not until he'd already figured it out." She was looking out the window, which gave onto the bare trees of Cavendish Square. Had she stood, she might have observed some of Watson's neighbours out for their weekly promenade.
Abruptly, she looked back at him, meeting his eyes directly. "Could I ask you, Doctor, to transcribe the relevant portions of your notes for me?"
Of all the possible ways to occupy a bleak Sunday morning in November, the first day remaining in a rather bleak life, copying out old case notes for Irene Adler had to be one of the least preferable.
But really, Watson had nothing better to do.
"Very well," he told her. "Call on me at the same time tomorrow; I ought to have a fair copy for you then."
* * * * *
Adler showed herself out, Watson assumed; he spent the next few hours at his desk, arduously translating his notes into plain English. What made it difficult was not deciphering what he'd written, but remembering the events they conjured: remembering Holmes, infuriating and enthralling and alive. After two and a half years—after two days at the Falls, half out of his mind—Watson knew the detective wasn't coming back, but the knowledge didn't do anything for the pain.
He knew from scientific experimentation, on himself, that morphine was no proof against it either, and that alcohol offered only temporary relief.
Fictionalizing the stuff of their life together had always required a liberal dose of obscurantism—he'd deliberately changed names, rearranged days, seasons, and years, and altered people and events in job lots to shoehorn them into an exciting plot, which usually could be extracted from actual events without too much difficulty. Watson had started writing seriously after his marriage, as a rather transparent attempt to satisfy his desire to be out with Holmes in the present by living vicariously through their exploits in the past, as well as an attempt to please Mary's taste for detective fiction. She'd been his first audience and his most perceptive critic; a good portion of the architecture of each story had been her suggestion, since as a reader of the genre she'd known what conventions he ought to follow, and which to break.
He'd submitted the first story to the editor at The Strand just before his departure with Holmes for the Continent on Moriarty's trail, so the detective had never had the chance to venture his criticisms on the printed version of their adventures. Watson had been anticipating being henpecked for such major changes as switching their heights, so that Holmes rather than he stood over six feet, and his deliberate decision to downplay his own intelligence and acquired deductive ability, not that his stories would become the detective's only monument. His drowned body had never been found.
For a while he'd felt guilty that The Strand had paid £30 a story—more for the two novels—but at some point he'd decided that, given what else he'd done, earning an income off his life with Holmes was not the sin that would damn him. That night he'd taken Mary to The Royale for oysters and champagne; that it had been one of her last good days gave the memory a certain added edge.
Early in the afternoon Watson realized that he'd begun to shove elements of the case around in his head as though preparing to write a story out of it, and he immediately stood up from his desk and decided that, half past two or no, it was time to get dressed and go for a stroll in Regent's Park. He did not want to write any more stories, despite the undoubted allure of fiction; in fiction Holmes, and their partnership, were immortal. But Watson had bought that immortality at the price of distorting Holmes's personality and character into almost unrecognizable caricatures, partly because it made for good fiction and partly because he hadn't been able to bear resurrecting the detective every time he'd picked up his pen. Confronted with his notes on the genuine article, Watson remembered again, despite what he'd said to Holmes that morning in gaol, Holmes's essential warmth; one true smile from him had been enough to lighten the doctor's life for hours at a time.
Too, all the adventures he had left unwritten—the giant rat of Sumatra sprang rather forcibly to mind; he still had the scars—felt too intimate in ways he'd never articulated even to himself. There was a difference between memorializing Holmes, polishing his reputation along the way, and deliberately erasing their life together. If he did that, people on the street might eventually come up to him and inquire about, say, that certain blackguard in Rotherhithe with the revolver, when what Watson remembered was Holmes kissing him afterward. He'd already had quite enough of people saying, "Oh, I didn't realize you were so tall," or thinking it very loudly, and if the royalties cheques from the publisher were any measure by which to judge, he had better get used to it.
And without Mary to serve as editrix, any new stories would suffer in comparison to their older fellows, even by the low standards of the genre.
After several turns through the park he felt better, or at least, reconciled again to the facts of the matter at hand, and he returned to his desk, finishing the transcription well after sunset. Cook, whose talents admittedly lay rather in knowing when to make herself scarce than living up to her sobriquet, served him dinner at seven. Watson ate without tasting the food and, after several brandies in front of the fire, decided that he had enough liquor in him to chance sleeping in his bed tonight. Their bed. The bed. In any event, his leg couldn't endure two nights in a row on the floor, even if he did dream again of drowning.
The bedroom was dark, and somewhat chilly, but the maid had given notice last week and Watson was in no mood to hire servants; he'd begun toying with the idea of leaving London altogether, though he had no idea where he might go should he do so. He gave two to one odds on Cook quitting before the new year, in which case he would have to do one or the other, but for now he had neither the will nor the stomach for any such drastic change.
* * * * *
Watson awoke the next day with no memory of having dreamed of Holmes or of Mary, which fulfilled his qualifications for a good night. It wasn't that he dreamed of them frequently—quite the opposite, in fact. He'd dreamed of Mary just once, a few days after she'd died; he'd joined her for breakfast, as he had hundreds of times before her illness, and they'd had a normal, smiling conversation. It had been normal, he'd felt content, and Watson had woken up with his face buried in the pillow to keep from screaming in rage.
He had not dreamed of Holmes after the Falls. He had dreamed of Holmes after the publication of "A Scandal in Bohemia", a rather nightmarish dream in which the detective had scolded him (though not in so many words, of course) for portraying Irene Adler as an opera singer rather than as a criminal—"Why is it more scandalous to be an opera singer than a master criminal?" Watson had demanded; of course Holmes hadn't answered—and made barbed comments about the ridiculousness of silver eyes, all without looking at him.
Adler did not appear at the breakfast hour, the appointed time, and Watson, telling himself she could go to the devil for all he cared, immediately went up to his office and began reviewing his notes on the patients he would see that day. The number and nature of patients in his practice had fluctuated wildly over the years since he'd left the Army; at the moment it was on the lower end of the range, and comprised a mixture of not quite fashionable women of middling class and age and retired military men.
One of Watson's few reliable sources of amusement was applying the deductive abilities he'd learned from Holmes to his patients, amazing them with accurate statements as to where they'd been and what they'd been doing before they came for his appointments. Unlike Holmes, he knew when to stop; Watson used deduction as a parlour trick, putting people at their ease.
And in truth, it was also a defence; when his patients marvelled at his quick wit and decisive manner they were less likely to pay attention to him as a man rather than a physician, or to see the wounds he was hiding in plain sight.
Watson kept two photographs on his desk. The first was his wedding portrait; it was almost the only image he had of Mary outside his own mind, and while he did not need a portrait by which to remember his wife, it was good to have her happy countenance in front of him to contrast with the wracked visage of her illness, which he was only slowly learning to forget.
The other photograph had also come into his life on the occasion of his marriage: in a rare fit of irony, Lestrade had had a print of the photograph taken in the crypt of St. Paul's after Blackwood's apprehension framed, and had presented it to him "to commemorate your retirement, Doctor." The inspector, Watson himself and Sherlock Holmes's left elbow regarded him soberly. Watson cursed or smiled at that elbow—which, he knew, was clad in one of his own shirts—depending on his mood.
Today his expression of choice was rather more of a glower. Cook showed Captain Philips out at half past three, and as the gloom in his office deepened with the sunset Watson stared at the top of Holmes's head and wished that they'd never heard of Irene Adler. Or, traitorously, that Holmes had been able to return her affections. Watson couldn't understand preferring semi-solitude to the companionship of a woman who loved you, even if you did not love her back. But then, he had loved Mary wholeheartedly.
Watson was weighing the merits of decamping for his club when, on the heels of the clock striking four, Cook knocked on the door and informed him that a certain young gentleman was asking to be shown up. It wasn't unheard of for new patients to present themselves in such circumstances, even at four o'clock on a Monday afternoon, so Watson flipped a mental coin and bade her show him in.
The man in question was clean-shaven and rather young, wearing a black slouch hat and dark knee-length corduroy coat, single-breasted, over black trousers and a high-collared white shirt, as well as a blue neckcloth and presumable waistcoat. There was something very familiar about the ensemble, and for that matter about the clean-shaven gentleman himself too.
On the instant Cook shut the door behind her the man took the chair across from Watson without so much as a by your leave, crossing one leg over the other and leaning back in it comfortably. He removed his hat with a slim hand and tossed it on to the doctor's desk. "Do you by chance have any enemies, Doctor, or gambling debts?" Irene Adler asked, running that same hand over her chestnut hair, which was cleverly pinned up to resemble a masculine hair style.
After years of living with Holmes, Watson was beyond shock or even surprise at such sudden transformations. "Not to my knowledge," he answered automatically. He hadn't seen Adler's transvestite ruse in five years, of course, but some things defied forgetting. "Why?"
"Your house is being watched," she explained, glancing around the room. "I suspected as much yesterday, but tonight I am sure of it. Do you have those case notes for me?"
"Who is watching my house?" Watson demanded. "And for God's sake why?"
Adler shrugged. "If it's not money, then it's enemies. You're sure they don't belong to you?" she repeated, picking up the photograph taken in the crypt and frowning at it.
Watson frowned, running down a mental list. "No, I am quite certain that all of mine are dead," he said, omitting to mention that he'd dispatched most of them himself. "Though I suppose I might have made some without my knowledge."
"You, Doctor?" Adler smirked. "Hardly." She set the photograph of Holmes's elbow down on the desk and turned the wedding portrait towards her, glancing at it for a moment before moving it back.
"Then whose enemies are they?" he asked, irritated.
"When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth," she quoted at him, with a hangman's smile. "Ergo, if they are not your enemies, they must be Sherlock Holmes'."
For a long moment Watson could only stare at her, the blood pounding in his ears. "That is impossible," he ground out at last.
Adler shrugged again. She somehow seemed very American in men's garb; as a woman, she had a decidedly Continental air. "It is beginning to seem that someone has cause to suspect otherwise," she said. "Or more probably, that my employer is attempting to gull whoever put a watch on this house into believing so. I can't think of any other reason I am to dress like Holmes and go down with you to the boxing matches tonight. Now, about those case notes?"
Watson stared at her for another minute or two, then reached into his desk to withdraw the fair copy. "So we're going to the fights, then?"
Adler's attention was already on the pages he'd handed her. "Doctor, I could have sworn I just said that."
* * * * *
In the event, Watson dressed for dinner and signed Mr. James Andrews in as his guest at his club, and he and Adler whiled away the evening hours over a slow meal, followed by brandy and cigars. Even knowing the secret, it was remarkable to hear her contralto modulate to a husky tenor, and to see the deadly but feminine woman play the part of a slim, graceful man. Watson's club was fairly staid, but he noticed them attracting more than a few appreciative, if covert, glances.
"What possible benefit might there be to rousting out Holmes's enemies?" he wondered aloud after the waiter had lit their cigars and withdrawn. He'd allowed Irene to choose for them, and was quite pleased with the fine Havana brand she'd selected.
She took another puff on her own cigar before answering. "Either whoever it is wants to coöpt them, or to destroy them. In both cases the essential precondition is to find out who they are."
"Since their identities will lead to their motivations," Watson agreed, and then grimaced around his cigar. "Discovering them would be easier if Holmes himself had told me."
Irene glanced at him sharply. "Do you mean to say that he didn't?"
Watson looked away. "You knew Holmes," he said eventually; "he had a remarkable talent for talking without actually saying anything of import. And he was as proud as Lucifer. What's the line—? '…that fixed mind/And high disdain, from sense of injured merit,/That with the mightiest raised me to contend…'" Realizing the expression on her face was not appreciation but polite confusion, he shut his mouth and took another puff of his cigar.
"What is that from?" Adler asked.
"Milton, of course! Paradise Lost? What do they teach children in America?" Watson was sorely tempted to roll his eyes, but forbore nobly.
She chuckled. "Reading, writing, and 'rithmetic, Doctor," she said tartly. "And for us Northerners, Yankee ingenuity."
"Well, ingenuity aside, your education in the great works of English literature was clearly sadly deficient."
"Between English literature and ingenuity, Doctor, I think ingenuity has served me better in the long run," Adler said quietly, and Watson had an abrupt, discomforting flash of insight. Holmes had once told him that he was too clever for his own good; the same had to be doubly true for Irene Adler.
If she noticed his appraising look, she paid it no mind. Instead, she drew her timepiece out from her waistcoat and opened the cover. "It's a quarter past nine," she noted. "That ought to be long enough, don't you think?"
They stood in the street outside to hail a cab rather than having a member of the club staff do it for them, to facilitate their being followed. Watson could feel a familiar tension beginning to sink its claws into his chest and shoulders, as steadily as the fog came up off the river and settled into the streets. He'd trained himself to head toward danger, rather than away, and bore up under it with the forced ease of practice, but he would never enjoy the sensation.
Having a companion by his side alleviated that tension somewhat, though the uncomfortable knowledge that he could trust Irene Adler only in the short term added its own pressure. Sitting across from her in the cab, his best answer for all of it was to check again that his revolver was fully loaded and in good working order, and that the blade of his swordstick withdrew smoothly from its sheath.
Irene had taken the seat facing opposite the hansom's motion, and she watched him for a moment before producing her own firearm some whence. Watson had to admit that she might in darkness have easily passed for Holmes, particularly with the riding crop tucked under her left arm.
"You called yourself a traitor, Doctor," she said abruptly, head bent over the revolver. "May I ask what you think you have done?"
It was fairly dark inside the cab, or Watson would never have answered the question. But he could admit, if only to himself, that the prospect of discussing the truth of the matter with another human being was absurdly tempting. Mary had known, of course, but the last thing he'd wanted was to burden her with his pain while she was dying; he'd already done it far more than he ought while she'd been healthy.
"It cannot have been that you married," Irene continued, "unless you have now begun to regre—"
"Never," Watson interrupted. If she were a man, he might have struck her for that. "I don't know if you are a gambling woman, Irene, but I am a gambling man, and the first thing a gambler learns is that even the best luck runs out. I went all in on the two of them, and I would do it again." Watson sat back and crossed his arms. "You see, don't you? I loved him, and even knowing he had five months to live, I would still have married her then."
The only sound was the horses' hooves and the hansom's wheels striking the pebblestones, and then Irene spun the cylinder of her revolver back into place with a loud click. "Well," she said, "at least you will be damned for doing rather than for inaction, Doctor. Now, if we keep to the edges of the crowd, we should be able to mark our tails with relative ease."
"And then slip out to ambush them?"
"I rather think that they will try to ambush us, Doctor," Adler said, a certain grim note staining her contralto.
Watson checked again that his revolver was both secure and easily accessible. "I suppose we shall shortly find out."
* * * * *
Watson had been going to the fights fairly regularly when he lived with Holmes, usually when one of them needed to make their share of the rent; despite the detective's cracks to Mary about the doctor's prowess as a gambler, Watson was usually quite astute in his betting, particularly when he'd put money on his flatmate. Watching Holmes stripped to the waist and running with sweat (and occasionally blood) had been a pleasurable torment quite separate from the thrill of seeing one's wager pay off. Even now, Watson's throat and belly tightened a little at the memory, his mouth going dryer.
No, as a gambler Watson's problem was that in the long run he never could quite quit while he was ahead, which was why he'd made first Holmes and then Mary the keeper of his chequebook. Now that both of them were gone, he probably ought to speak to his banker about restricting his cash flow in some way.
Assuming, of course, that he survived tonight's round of spectatorship.
As a solution to his quandary, death did have a certain appealing simplicity, but if Holmes had been too narcissistic for suicide he, Watson, was too stubborn. He'd survived Afghanistan and ten years as Sherlock Holmes's friend and lover, and he was damned if a broken heart would do him in after those considerable perils.
Still playing Holmes's part, Irene took the lead when they left the cab at the nearest cross-street, and they walked without any particular hurry down towards the river and the warehouse beside it, lit from within by the harsh glow of electricity. The thin fog dispersed the light into a faint nimbus.
There was already a match in progress, if the shouting was any guide, and when they stepped inside they saw that the warehouse held a respectable crowd for a Monday, all clustered around the two combatants pounding at each other in the ring. Watson and Irene, hats canted low over their features, drifted slightly apart and wended their way to the rear of the crowd, trying between them to keep most of the room covered. With his nearly eight inches' advantage in height, Watson let himself drift farther back; he still had a clear view.
The fight ended fairly quickly, with a knockout blow to the back of the head, and in the sudden flurry of movement he nearly missed their pursuers' entrance. There were four of them, unremarkable East End stock at a guess, with nothing in common other than their birthplace and the unmistakable air of shared purpose. Watson looked long enough to fix them in his mind, then let one of the boys running through the crowd take his wager on the outcome of the next fight. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Irene doing the same.
The next two pugilists, who'd settled into circling each other warily, forearms raised to guard, were more evenly matched than the previous round, which Watson knew had been set first to get the crowd's blood up. Already spectators were shouting out words of encouragement and derision, and when one of the men, his black hair gleaming under the lights, stepped forward and initiated the first exchange of blows, Watson heard himself shouting along.
It was a struggle to pay enough attention to the fight so as to be a convincing spectator while reserving enough of his awareness to retain a general sense of where Irene and their tails stood. Watson had been trained to concentrate on one activity to the exclusion of all other sensory input, and it was a hard habit to break; he was not Holmes, to be able to notice everything around him at once. In that respect they had complimented each other, as in so many others.
The thought of Holmes stabbed at him painfully, as always. Watson had never realized, until death had robbed him of both the people he'd loved, how present they were in his life, no matter how often he did or didn't see them. Though he'd known, of course, how important they both were to him, in a strange, horrible way their permanent absence had made it infinitely clear. He thought of them both every day, and knew he would every day until the day he died, and every thought hurt.
Nor was there anything to be done about it. It was like his bad leg, to be dealt with as best as possible and not to be mentioned in company. No one wanted to hear about Watson's pain or grief or rage, and truth be told, Watson himself was growing bored with them. He couldn't forget, and didn't want to, but he was weary of hurting.
Of course, the world had next to no respect for his wishes, and if he needed more proof of that it was to be found in the fact that Irene Adler, passing for a man, was standing at his elbow and casting him a significant look. Watson glanced at her sidelong and saw her mouth When it's over to him under the cover of another roar from the crowd, and he flicked his fingers against the hilt of his swordstick to show he'd understood. She drifted away from him, but not very far, while in the ring the two combatants circled each other, swaying drunkenly. Watson found that he couldn't remember on which he'd put his money, and didn't much care, but he could see that the black-haired man was only a few good hits away from defeat. It wasn't so much a question of stamina, or even of skill, though those were important; no, it was a question of determination, of the will to do what had to be done, and it was obvious to those who could see that the man didn't have it.
Adler had made the same assessment, apparently; when he glanced at her as the other man in the ring brought his opponent down with a powerful blow to the solar plexus, he saw that she was already turning away, one hand drifting to her jacket. Feeling the hair on the back of his neck prickle, ignoring his instincts, Watson very deliberately did not glance around before he followed her out.
On the street she waited a moment for him to catch up, and then set off toward the river without a word. Watson felt into place a little behind her and to the right; the sounds of their mismatched steps fell oddly flat against the fog, which had thickened considerably.
They didn't walk for long before indistinct shapes stepped out of the gloom in front of them, resolving into two of the four toughs who'd tailed them into the warehouse. Adler and Watson halted immediately.
"Evenin', gents," one of the men said, in a thick accent that confirmed the doctor's earlier assumptions regarding his origins.
"Good evening," Adler returned, her voice a perfect counterfeit of a husky tenor. It wasn't Holmes's voice, thank God, but there was some of his insouciance in it all the same, and Watson's throat tightened with a different emotion.
Irrationally, it made him angry, and he was glad to have a target for that anger at hand, for once, since he had to dispel it before this confrontation progressed to the main portion of the programme. John Watson was tired of letting other people take the lead, of being the one left behind, and the fact that these men had got in his way at this very moment was ample evidence that their luck had deserted them.
"I presume," he said, and his own voice sounded harsh in his ears; Adler stiffened slightly; "that you have some larcenous purpose in disturbing us."
"Somethin' like that," the other agreed.
"Capital," said Watson, knowing they couldn't see his rather demented smile and not caring in the slightest. "But not, I am afraid, for you."
In the next instant, Adler brought up her revolver and shot the second man without further ado. He fell with a thick cry that indicated she'd most likely punctured a lung, and Watson silently blessed her quick reaction. They didn't know each other well, certainly not well enough to predict each other's actions in a fight, and it was imperative that they deal with these two before their fellows caught up.
Then the first man was on him, and predictive thought was driven from his mind the instant he brought up his swordstick and unsheathed eight inches of the blade to block the man's punch. The blade slashed the knuckles he'd meant to drive into Watson's face, and the man cried out, but he didn't wheel away as Watson had half-hoped. The doctor immediately resheathed the blade and drove the stick's grip up into his assailant's stomach.
He'd misjudged his aim; it was a glancing blow, as Watson learned when the man's fist sent him spinning. But Watson was a veteran of more than one sort of battlefield. He kept his grip on his swordstick as he stumbled, and came back with a combination blow to the man's larynx and then the knee. He went down, and Watson had just enough time to bring up his forearm to block the knife of one of the other two footpads. The blade bit, not deep but long, and he let out a grunt of pain.
Knives weren't his forte, and for lack of anything better to do Watson seized the man's knife hand in his, but then Irene was there; she'd lost her revolver, or more likely discarded it empty, and as he watched she calmly drew the edge of her blade across the man's throat, the ease of her motion belying the raw sawing strength it required. Their eyes locked over his shoulder as the man's lifeblood spilled down his neck, and something hot and sickening bloomed in Watson's belly. Both she and Watson stepped back to let the man drop to the ground between them, then turned so that they stood at a slight angle to each other, back to back.
But there was no one left to fight. The man who'd first spoken lay unconscious at the doctor's feet, and Irene had killed the other two, leaving only the one she'd shot initially. Watson stepped over to that man and wedged one of his shoes underneath the man's prone form, turning him over roughly. When all was said and done he couldn't be bothered to care too much about the fate of men such as these; he saved his sympathies for the innocent.
"How is he, Doctor?" Irene asked from behind him, and Watson stiffened automatically. Having anyone but Holmes in that position gave him a frisson of unease, but of course it was something else to which he must become accustomed.
"He's alive," Watson answered, feeling for a pulse in the man's carotid artery and finding one, stronger than he might have thought. He palpated the man's upper chest for a few moments before finding the bullet hole, and put his ear to it.
"Your bullet punctured his upper left lung," he reported after a few seconds, straightening. "Help me." He and Irene each seized the man under one armpit, then propped him up against a nearby wall. His head lolled to one side. Watson doubted he'd recover without medical attention, but if his airway stayed clear he had some chance.
He saw Irene running her hands through the pockets in the man's coat, but didn't comment. "Doctor, are you all right?" Irene asked presently, standing up. She laid a hand on his arm, and Watson hissed in sudden pain. He was distantly surprised to hear concern in her voice.
"I shall be, once I have my medical kit," he answered, with a fair bid at nonchalance. "Shall we?"
Watson bent to retrieve his swordstick and they walked slowly away from the river, up to a street where they would have some hope of finding a cab. When they had finally found one and were ensconced inside Watson let himself lean back against the bench, closing his eyes. His arm throbbed dully, and he suspected his hands were bloodied. He'd noticed Irene limping slightly, and when they passed a gaslight he saw blood trickling down her face.
"Did we accomplish anything tonight?" Watson heard himself asking, and was surprised by the bitter edge to his voice.
"I believe so," she answered after a while, and he heard his own weariness in her tone. "But I cannot in good conscience tell you what, Doctor. I do not wish to endanger you further."
"And it is your choice to protect me?"
He heard her suck in a breath, and the words Someone has to vibrated unvoiced in the silence. But after a moment she said quietly, "Holmes would not have wanted you hurt."
"He's dead," Watson said dully. "I can't think what he would have wanted matters very much." And perhaps, he thought, if he told himself so often enough he might one day start to believe it.
* * * * *
They spoke no more until their cab pulled up at Watson's house in Cavendish Place. Irene had managed to retain her hat, and she paid the driver while Watson started the slow process of negotiating the stairs up to his door and thence to his bedroom. Now that the adrenaline had faded, his leg throbbed in time with the cut on his arm.
To her credit, Irene followed him slowly up the staircase without a word of help or complaint, whether at his speed or at the darkness. Watson didn't mind darkness; he had sat up many sleepless nights in his home over the past three years, and he knew it well enough for his purposes regardless of illumination.
When they reached his bedroom, however, Watson did strike a lucifer and light several of the candles. "Hot water," he muttered, easing out of his coat carefully, wincing at the pain and at the rents and bloodstains.
"I'll get it," Irene said. "Is your Cook asleep? Do you need anything else?"
"Thank you, yes, and no," Watson said curtly, sitting on the edge of his bed. He didn't comment when Irene helped him out of his jacket, and when she had left the room he carefully unbuttoned his left cuff, glad he'd chosen a shirt with the cuffs attached.
The wound was not deep enough to require stitches, for which, given that Watson did not relish either putting stitches in himself or asking Irene to do it for him—he had no idea whether she had any skill with a needle, and no desire to find out at first hand—he was profoundly grateful. But he did accept the basin of hot water and clean cloths she brought, and gladly.
"You as well," Watson told her when she set the basin down on the nightstand, indicating the water and bandages.
"It's nothing serious," she protested, but nonetheless pulled over his desk chair and, after holding the bandage on his arm steady and then tying it off, permitted him to clean the cuts on her head and arms; she had divested herself of coat and jacket and rolled up her shirtsleeves. Watson hesitated for an instant before raising the cloth to dab at the blood on her cheek, but immediately told himself not to be a fool.
Irene sat very still under his ministrations, her eyes slightly unfocused; he could not tell what she was thinking, and her quiet, even breathing was loud in the silent house. At last Watson sat back a little and studied her critically, inspecting his handiwork. "You'll want to keep them clean, of course," he said, "but they should heal up nicely. And how is your leg?"
"How's yours?" she asked, with a half-smile to take the sting out of the quip, and Watson felt his lips quirk.
"Of no immediate concern," he told her firmly; "unlike yours."
"Oh, very well," she said, with ill-concealed annoyance, and bent over to remove her boots. The back of her waistcoat was crimson satin, and Watson's breath hitched involuntarily. When she stood and removed her trousers altogether, affording him a view to a magnificent bruise rising purple and green across her right thigh, he very nearly swallowed his tongue.
Still, he was a professional, and he was damned if he was going to give Irene Adler one jot less than his best as a physician. Keeping his eyes determinedly on the injury, he carefully palpated the bruise, ignoring the hiss of the breath she couldn't quite keep from drawing through her teeth. Her skin was warm beneath his hands, and felt as soft as it looked in the candlelight.
"Nothing broken or torn," he pronounced after what must only have seemed like an eternity. "You may find it comforting to apply a cold compress every so often, if you can, but there is not really much more to be done than wait for time to have its way. I have laudanum, if you like—"
"No," she interrupted, "I don't." She had sat back down in the chair, and Watson assumed that it was therefore safe to look her in the face again, though she had not yet moved to reclaim her trousers.
Her eyes seemed almost translucent in the candlelight, and he realized that there was no such thing as safety in Irene Adler's company an instant before she leaned forward and kissed him.
It had been nearly a year since anyone had touched Watson intimately, and he found himself opening his mouth to Irene's lips and tongue almost before he knew what was happening, and when he did he let himself savour the feeling for an instant before he pulled back, the tastes of wine and tobacco and adrenaline in his mouth.
Their bodies were pressed close together; she had one arm around his back and the other against his chest. "I'm not Holmes," he told her firmly.
Irene reached up to caress his jaw. "I know that," she said in a low voice. "But you're as close as I can get to him."
Her rolled shirtsleeve brushed the edge of the bandage on Watson's arm. "I could say the same to you," he said, with reckless candour, and was relieved when she laughed.
"I'm not Holmes, either, you realize," she murmured, replacing her fingers with her lips against his jaw, and Watson smiled.
"I shan't hold it against you," he whispered, "provided you do me the same courtesy."
Irene rose from her chair and knelt on the bed, straddling his thighs with her own. She very carefully removed his bowler hat from his head, which Watson had forgotten entirely, and tossed it to one side with deliberate unconcern before looking him in the eye. "I believe I can manage that."
She kissed him again, her criminal's hands divesting him of his braces and unbuttoning his shirt with feather-light touches. Watson let her push him back onto his elbows and then into the bed while she got him out of his clothes, interspersing her attention to the fabric with attention to his person; the feeling of her bare thighs against his trousers while she knelt above him, and of her body under his hands when he ran them beneath her now-wrinkled linen shirt, was ridiculously arousing.
Of course it was nothing like being with Holmes, and not really much like making love to Mary either; Irene wore men's clothing over her woman's body, but was neither his dead lover nor his wife, and Watson welcomed the difference. He was sufficiently haunted without bringing his ghosts to bed with him.
With that in mind he followed Irene's lead, sliding his hands up to cup her breasts through the open front of her shirt, and when she threw back her head and moaned he took the opportunity to pull the damn thing off over her head. She flung it onto the floor before kissing him again.
Watson gripped her hips and pulled her closer, the heat between them exorcising the last of the November chill from his limbs. Her lips were gentle on the scarred flesh of his shoulder, but not as soft or as warm as the delicate flesh between her thighs when he slipped his hand down between them. Irene's eyelids fluttered closed and a strange half-smile bloomed on her face. Watson made careful note of her respirations as he stroked her, from within and from without, and only when she was very close to her completion did he pull his hand away.
But again she surprised him, opening her dilated eyes and giving him a single brilliant smile before rising on her knees a little to fit herself around him, reaching her hand between them to guide him inside. Watson groaned when she sank down on top of him, the pleasure of it nearly whiting out his awareness. But he managed to retain his grip on his senses and on his self-control, and after a brief pause they began to move, eventually finding a rhythm together. They did not tumble over the peak of glory simultaneously, but near enough that their cries echoed in each other's ears.
After a long moment Irene let out a ragged breath and rolled off of him, collapsing to the mattress at his side. Feeling sated, Watson languidly dug in the nightstand drawer for his cigarette case, and could not even be annoyed when Irene reach over and plucked the cigarette he'd just lit from his grasp. She really was remarkably like Holmes at times.
"What a monstrous lie, to call that the petit mort," he said at last. "The one could not be less like the other."
Irene exhaled a puff of smoke thoughtfully. "Is not the point of a euphemism to draw the sting out of something undesirable?"
"Some stings cannot be drawn," said Watson, but in his current state of drowsy well being he seemed to have misplaced his cloak of sorrow, and the words had no power over his mood.
"What will you do?" she asked eventually, leaning over him to stub the cigarette out in the ashtray on the nightstand. The tip of one pink nipple brushed the edge of his nose as she did so.
Mary had always loathed him smoking in their bedchamber. "I could not leave London," he admitted, taking a last pull on his own cigarette before grinding it out next to hers. "And you?"
"That would be telling," she murmured. "But I am certain I shall survive somehow."
"I am—glad of that," said Watson, fumbling for the right thing to say. "Holmes would not—he would not have wanted you to come to grief. And nor would I," he added, honesty being both his cardinal virtue and his greatest vice.
Irene smiled, and if there was pain in the expression, he knew better than to remark it. "I know."
* * * * *
When he awoke in the morning Irene Adler was gone, his bed and the room chill with her absence. He did find one of her collar-studs under a chair several weeks later, at about the same time he discovered that she had stolen Mary's wedding ring, the stone of which had been a gift from Holmes, out of the safe in his office. When Watson realized the ring was gone he had a painful moment remembering Mary laughingly calling it 'the Moonstone,' but he had always nursed his suspicions as to how exactly the detective had obtained that diamond, and in the end he had to smile. If Irene had not had the victory, she had yet had her revenge.
After some consideration Watson elected not to report the diamond's disappearance; rather than expose himself to the incompetent prying of insurance investigators, he cancelled the policy on the ring just before the new year. Proving once again that no man won every bet, Cook did not give notice, and Watson hired another maid just after Christmas. He rang in 1894 with champagne at his club, bereft of everyone and everything to which he had once thought to devote himself. Like Adler, he knew he would survive; he owed them all that much, and far more.