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Scenes from an Unusual Domestic Arrangement

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1. Why rove my thoughts beyond this last retreat?
Why feels my heart its long-forgotten heat?

- Alexander Pope, "Eloise to Abelard"

"Did you ever think about my question, Sherlock?"

The voice comes out of the fog like the scent of her perfume in a salon, although she isn't wearing any at the moment. Indeed, when she herself appears, quite like an apparition, walking along the high wall, she is dressed in male garb and her hair is hidden under a hat. There are no cosmetics on her face. She might, in the dark, pass for a particularly beautiful youth.

Irene Adler lands in front of him, chin raised and cheek smudged, with her hands in the pockets of her coat.

"What an unexpected pleasure," he says, in a voice that he makes sure makes clear tells her it is neither. But Irene does not rise to this bait. Irene has the same look to her that she did in the bolt-hole above the stalls. He refuses to understand it. She has no right to ask him to.

He is aware of being petulant, and resents this, as well.

"Mary told me where you'd be," she says, and before he can even pretend to himself that he feels the gut-deep shock of betrayal, she goes on, "as I'm sure she told you I'd come find you. Where the hell did Watson find her, anyway? Your brother should make her an ambassador somewhere."

He ignores the reference to Mycroft, answers, "I am told that Watson nearly ran her down on the street, broke her umbrella, and begged her address in order to replace it. Thence was the poor man doomed."

"And doom spread to you," Irene says, sliding under his guard and scoring a hit. And one he ought to have seen coming, too - damn her. How did she do this to him? It was enough to make him want to shake her.

Among other things.

"Was I right?" she demands, suddenly knowing. "Did you miss me?" Before he can form a response sufficiently cutting - or honest, he is, truth told, somewhat torn - she adds, "I did ask you to come away with me, once."

"I seem to recall the incident," he agrees. "Maids shrieking at a naked man handcuffed to the bed does stick with one."

"I only drugged you after you said no, Sherlock," she replies, as if that makes all the difference. Her voice sounds tired, instead of sharp, though. "On the bridge," she goes on. "I asked you what it would be like if we trusted each other."

"You said you'd explain everything," he counters. "Yet there was no mention made, at the time, of where we would find some poor constable's body, thrown out with the shit." That still rankles, more than he will admit. The constabulary may be, may have always been, as much a millstone around his neck as an aid, but by God, no young man deserved that.

"I woke up in handcuffs, Sherlock," she replied. "You'd already decided we couldn't. And I wasn't going to take on Moriarty for nothing."

He has never enjoyed losing his hold on anger, nor any emotion. He has turned on his heel, away from her. But she says it anyway: "I'm asking you again, Sherlock. What would it be like?" He says nothing, and she goes on. "If we did trust each other. If we both agreed to lay the weapons down."

"Do you recall," he says, slowly, without turning back, "what I replied, when you asked me why - "

"'Chronologically, or alphabetically,'" she interrupts. And that, perhaps, is both why she can always unsettle him, and why every time she appears he finds himself, like the proverbial moth, courting death. She has even, this time, imitated his accent to a near perfect pitch, save -

"An excessively rounded 'a'," he remarks.

He gives in. He turns around.

"Let's start," she says, levelly, "with letter thirteen."

She is deliberately twisting his meaning, given that the original question was full of reasons not to trust her, but his mind betrays him and instead of pointing this out he finds himself saying, "I fail to make the connection: why should your seduction of Watson's wife - "

"Oh for the love of God, Sherlock," she says, rolling her eyes. "Don't be such a bore. Besides, if anyone was seduced, it was me."

He gives her a sufficient length of time to contemplate his disbelieving eyebrow, whereupon she waves one hand, the other at her waist. "Oh, fine, not into bed - that was me," she admits. "But that hardly counts, and I only barely did. I don't think you could make that woman do anything she didn't want to, and don't even try to tell me you don't know that. Or that you don't know exactly what I mean. She got me, just like she got you. It's a good thing she's not a moral reformer, or we'd both be buggered."

He finds it difficult to lie to Irene Adler. It is as if, somehow, it would be a real insult, and while he is more sanguine than he likes about the idea that he may someday have to kill this woman, or have her imprisoned, he has never been comfortable with insulting her. Somehow, that would sully her in a way that other things would not.

"She made herself my friend, Sherlock," Irene goes on, in a softer voice. "Do you know how long it's been since I had a friend? Because I don't. So I'm asking you. What would it be like if we trusted one another?"

He struggles, for a moment. With himself. With the idea of her. With the memory of the moment she fell.

With the echo of I wish you would.

"If you bring harm to this household," he says, finally, more serious than most things he has said in his life, including every other promise he has ever managed not to make, "I will see you hang."

The relief on her face for just the smallest instant wrings him. Perhaps she meant to step to, perhaps to kiss him then: instead, he steps back, turns and walks away.

Tonight he will drink, perhaps fight, place a bet for Watson, and join hard men in cursing women to the lowest depths of Hell and wish, perhaps, for the days when it was just himself and a once-a-soldier, and the chase, and everything had been a great deal simpler.

(When he will come by, in the morning, on the pretext of borrowing something - possibly the dog - he will find Irene at the table with her hair in rags, drinking coffee instead of tea, like any American.)

(Mary won't say anything. But she will steal an opportunity to stand on tiptoe once as she passes, and brush her lips against his.)

(For his part, Watson will simply glower at them all, ensconce himself in a chair, and pretend to read.)

 

2. Let us stay
Rather on earth, Belovèd,—where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.

- Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet 22

"Your pet felon," her husband announced, appearing in her mirror with his cane still in hand, "has stolen my dog."

Mary held the curl in place against her head and glanced down when she couldn't find the pin by touch. "Irene is not my pet anything," she replied, "she's only borrowed him, and Gladstone is our dog and I swear if you reply 'the dog' I shall throw something at you and my dressing table has more than adequate ammunition."

"What is Adler doing with the dog?" John demanded, limping into the room. That explained why he was apparently in short temper; his leg must be worse than usual. As such, Mary ignored the minor issue of the phrasing, clearly inserted to make sure she knew she couldn't tell him what to or not to say.

Mary reached out a leg so that she could hook one of her other stools with her ankle and pull it close. She didn't tell John to sit in it: rather, she simply brought it into conversational range, and he could make his own choice about whether or not his leg ached that much.

"I didn't ask," she replied, "but she did promise to bring him back in time for tomorrow's morning walk, in one piece, and conscious." Mary did not add which is more than one could say for the times Sherlock's taken him, or even kept him in the house, but she could tell her husband could hear it. She glanced over her shoulder as he stalked to one of the windows in the room. "Has Sherlock come back with you?"

That, she saw immediately, was an unwanted question, and the rest of John's irritability was explained. He didn't answer, but she just went on, "Should I ask what he's done now?"

"No," John replied. Then, "I'll explain later."

Mary considered her reflection, turning her head one way and then the other. She pursed her lips in thought, looked down at her half-dressed state. "Shall I have a headache, John?" she asked, as she took up her perfume, the one he particularly liked with the lily and the sweet.

"What?" John demanded, having clearly lost himself in brooding thought while staring out the window. She put her perfume oil down and stood up, hands smoothing the front of her corset and knowing that he followed that.

"The Beecham's," she replied. "The thing I was dressing for. Shall I have a headache? It is," she said, stepping across the room, her voice arch, "everyone's day off."

He did catch her meaning; her darling was anything but slow. No one to hear, no one to care, no one but us, my love, she meant, and possibly the best cure for a terrible mood. Games that were only theirs.

The brooding look smoothed off his face as she came close, and tilted her head up to him. He did ask, "But then, who will go to say you've a headache?"

"Forgiveness, permission," Mary replied, in their proper order, before she used a hand at the back of his neck to pull him down to kiss, and the other to press her palm to his prick through his trousers.

John did say, "My dog had better be back tomorrow," but Mary bit his bottom lip in retaliation, and he didn't bring it up again.

 

3. Dissemble nothing, not a boy, nor change
Thy body's habit, nor mind ; be not strange
To thyself only.

- John Donne, Elegy XVII: On His Mistress

"I still blame you."

This is one of Watson's more annoying habits. They will have an argument. The argument will devolve to fisticuffs (almost always at Watson's instigation). The violence will compose itself into sexual congress (for which he himself will have to take at least half the responsibility). And then, instead of enjoying the aftermath and leaving things where they ought to be -

Watson will return to the argument.

"Your logic remains suspect," he replies, staying on his back. He is still somewhat short of breath, and feels much more comfortable examining the ceiling while his senses arrange themselves back into their proper order. "You," he added, finally alighting on a winning argument (as denial, and even defence, God help him, of Irene's character and his own decisions, had been the cause of the argument in the first place), "are the one who married the mastermind."

Silence: then Watson moves. He pushes himself up onto one hand and glares down at Holmes, who reflects that some time ago he might have felt jealousy at how quickly Watson leaps to her defence.

Not, this time, that she's under attack.

"I beg your pardon?" Watson says, with narrow eyes. It is difficult, for a moment, to fight the fascination with the precise expressions that cross his mobile face: the way the skin folds there, the muscles move here.

He shakes this away, and summons his argument - or, as it happens, his musing. "Fascinating, isn't it?" he remarks. "That of a master thief, a military man and my own remarkable self, it is the governess who plots our course? That has always been the fascinating thing, Watson: this has all been Mary's idea."

The play of expressions, again: but he does not entirely trust that Watson's thoughts will not go in unfortunate directions (sometimes the man needs guidance, that has always been true), so he adds, "Thus, if we are to blame anyone, we must blame her beloved aunt, and that would be speaking ill of the dead."

Watson's face is a study in history. It is carved with the lines of the Afghan mountains, with the few scattered pocks of London air, with the long care of a doctor, and with the softening lines of a married man. He has been many things, has Watson. More than he realizes. But it is the soldier that moves beneath his skin, now, and is perhaps always the frame on which all else depends. He can surrender, as soldiers can, to the undefeatable, which gives him a comfort and a grace that Holmes himself has never possessed, and admires, envies and disdains all at once.

The soldier is there for a moment. Then there is the light of the sardonic, and Watson says, "No, I blame you."

It is perhaps irritation that makes his own mind slow, because he begins to protest (irritably) before he realizes Watson has shifted his weight yet again, this time between Holmes' legs, and Watson's hand has closed on his prick.

"I didn't say it was your fault," he hears Watson's voice in his ear, as his head falls back. "I said I blamed you."

 

4. The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colour'd ill.

- William Shakespeare, Sonnet 144

Adler, dressed like a dock-worker's trollop, dropped herself into the chair across from him. The pub was dim. Watson was quite grateful: it meant he didn't have to look too closely at the table. Even if it did make reading the (badly typeset) piece of absurdity he'd picked up from the boy outside for a ha'penny that much harder.

"Late, is he?" Adler said, in an accent assumed to match the dress, and Watson merely turned the page and shot her a look in answer. He might have said, no, I like drinking horse-piss masquerading as beer, but it seemed pointless.

She got a drink. They waited until nine, and then, both of them irritable by now, they left and headed towards the secondary meeting place.

The one that implied (quelle surprise, as Adler had muttered under her breath, with her arm linked through Watson's as they pretended themselves a married couple down the road) that something had gone wrong.

They settled in to wait by the wall, and Adler propped her feet up. "I swear," she said, in her own American tones, "he always picks the coldest, foggiest nights to make a mistake." When Watson didn't immediately answer, she cocked her head at him and gave him the smile that generally turned Holmes' brain to - well, if not jelly, at least a less efficient brain than it normally was, or ought to be. "You are allowed to talk to me, you know."

"Was I supposed to have something to say?" he asked.

"Some people like conversation," she replied. She took off the bonnet that was part of her rôle and shook out her hair, white fingers through tangled dark curls. "Or so I'm told. And here we are, all cozy together."

She had a point: the recess that was sheltered from the occasional drizzle that came out of the fog was not particularly spacious.

"Yes, well," he said, "they do say keep your enemies close, keep the kleptomaniacal compulsive liars your loved ones are inexplicably in love with closer."

Adler pursed her lips at him. "That was much more contrived than your usual daggers of wit, Dr Watson. I think you're warming to me."

The smile she gave then was not one designed to melt men's hearts. He'd seen it before. Waiting for Holmes to make his way out of his drug-and-drink induced coma, Adler with scratches all over her face, and Watson with his arm in a sling.

"We have been," she went on, looking down at her hands, "a very good team. You know that, right? You, me, Sherlock."

"Right up until you got your hands on what you wanted," he countered immediately, "and ran off."

"Running off won't get me what I want anymore," Adler replied, turning her head to stare out into the fog. "Which, let me tell you, was an irritating thing to realize. We have the same goals now, Dr Watson," she said, turning back to look at him.

He reminded himself that she was a liar very nearly by profession: frank looks and honest eyes were merely part of her repertoire.

Still. By now he was fairly practiced at detecting falsehood; these were very honest eyes, and the look was very frank.

At that moment the whistled strains of Hail Britannia floated in through the fog, and Adler scrambled out of their little shelter to meet their belated consulting detective.

Watson followed her.

 

5. Now she shines among Lydian women like
the rose-fingered moon
rising after sundown

- Sappho, "To Atthis"

Mary never asked what Irene was doing. She used her silent trust like a terrible weapon, ensuring by never asking that Irene would always remember the promise. Irene thought she could probably write a book, by now, all just by watching Mary Watson: How to Rule the World Without the World Noticing. It was probably a good thing for everyone that Mary had no inclination to crime, politics or revolution.

Irene got what she wanted by lying, manipulating, and occasionally pulling a knife. Mary got what she wanted by convincing everyone it was what they wanted, too. If it hadn't carried so much damn risk, Irene might have tried it.

Tonight, though, the performance was legitimate. Recital, not stage, but she enjoyed the occasional intimate party, and the Marquess always had good wine. She could be Irene Adler, prima donna, and not think about any of it. And it was nice to have someone to help lace her into her corset.

"You cannot possibly take adequate breaths with it that tight," Mary protested, when Irene told her to pull harder.

"Yes I can." She looked over her shoulder and smiled at Mary's highly dubious expression. "That's why it's short; it lets my rib-cage expand. Which adds its own spice to the performance."

Mary shook her head, but was betrayed by the smile. Then she got her own back, when she did pull, by asking, "How goes your plan to seduce my husband?"

Irene grunted softly at the tug of the corset and waited until Mary secured the laces before answering. "Stalemate." She stopped leaning on the bed-post and stood up, remembering the feel of her body and testing to make sure her claim about breathing hadn't been a lie. Then she went for her gown.

Mary sat on the bed. "The real trouble is jealousy, you know," she said, toying with the locket she wore. "His," she elaborated, when Irene shot her a querying look.

Irene couldn't quite think of a way to express her disbelief that didn't seem . . . insulting, either to Mary or to her husband. At least, not in words. So she fell back on the stage, and made a somewhat theatrical gesture to the open door, and the other, closed door (Sherlock being out giving Scotland Yard a headache once again), letting it stand in synecdoche for their entire marital arrangement. When she added the disbelieving look, Mary seemed to grasp it.

"That's different," she said, folding her hands. "Sharing us with each other is nothing - we are both part of him. And of course, Sherlock took some time to get used to me, but I made sure - well, at least, I tried to show him that I fit in places he didn't, not that I was taking all that much away. But John has always been jealous of Sherlock's affections towards you, I think. Well, and frightened." Mary gave her a wry smile. "You haven't always been good for him."

Irene looked down at her. Mary wasn't terribly striking, just to look at. Not plain, no, but not (and Irene thought this with more wryness than vanity or pride) the kind of person, in looks, Irene herself was. Mary wasn't going to be tittered at, but neither would she ever turn heads in a crowd.

Maybe that's why people underestimated her. Including Irene. "No," she said slowly, "but then you decided to fix that, didn't you?"

"I like games that let everyone win," Mary replied, admitting everything in one sentence. "John will come around, Irene; he's not unattracted to you." And then her eyes lit up with the sparkle that, if you got to see it, would turn your head (or you were a damn fool). "Not that anyone with eyes and inclination could be. He just . . . needs to take the time to understand that he isn't losing Sherlock - or me - to you. 'Opponent' is a difficult title to give up. He'll come around."

There was an actual knock: the rap of one knuckle. Irene turned. Mary looked up sharply. Irene's skirts swirled gratifyingly (this would look magnificent later), but her hair was still down around her face when she was confronted with Dr John Watson at the door to her room - in his house.

He looked at his wife, however, not at her. And his face was - not quite reproving. But something close.

"You did that on purpose," he informed his wife, and to Irene's complete and utter shock, there were spots of colour on Mary's cheeks.

But, being Mary, she only lifted her chin. "Well?" she demanded. Watson - John - didn't answer.

When he did turn to Irene, it was to say, "Your carriage is here, Miss Adler."

"Thank you," she said. And she knew the silence that came afterward would be awkward, but it was hard to think how to break it that wouldn't make things worse.

But he only sighed a little and looked back to Mary, putting his hat back on his head. "There's a fight I wish to see tonight," he said, and Irene suspected the words were loaded.

Mary said, with quiet dignity, "Send word if you're going to be very late, darling."

He nodded to her, and - bowed, slightly, to Irene, before he left.

Mary broke the rest of the silence immediately by asking, "Can I help you with your hair?" And Irene let her.

6. I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home

- Emily Dickinson, "A bird came down the walk"

Sally interrupted Mary's reading to say, "Mr Holmes is here for the night, ma'am," and Mary blinked, startled out of her reverie. She put the book she hadn't really been reading down, and said, "Thank you," and Sally bobbed and took herself away again.

The girl was getting to be as uncanny in her ability to read the currents of the household as Mrs Trust. Mary stood up, left Ovid on the table, and then stood indecisively in the middle of the room. She tried to decide whether she wanted to see Sherlock tonight; then she tried to guess if she'd get the Sherlock she did want, out of all the myriad facets of the man.

Finally, she gave up trying to do either.

Her feet and her skirts made soft sounds against the wooden floors as she descended. Her feet were bare, in spite of the cold, in spite of her mother's chiding voice in her head. She'd loved bare feet as a child. And it was her house, after all.

Sherlock was not in his room: he sat in the parlour, in shirt-sleeves and suspenders, with his stocking-feet on a footstool, and a manuscript on bee-keeping in his hands.

It was difficult to tell, with Sherlock, where he'd been. Even he, if presented with himself to deduce, would have difficulty, because the possibilities were so broad. Every bruise, every scuff, every spatter on his shirt-sleeves: all of them could come from anything, anywhere in London and often beyond.

Mary wondered where he'd been tonight. And why he'd chosen to come. No: she didn't wonder. She speculated. But, even when she sat down on the couch closest to his chair, did not ask.

She couldn't think of anything else to say, though, that did not sound brittle and false, and Sherlock would fall upon that like a hound on the scent.

He was slouched, with his eyes bearing the faraway look of one completely lost in the text before him. Nevertheless, when he turned the page, he said, "Everyone must be caught in their own cleverness sometime, my dear. Even you; even me."

Mary could smile at herself, if ruefully. "Should I ask where you spoke to him?"

"Her, actually," Sherlock said. He sat up and laid his manuscript aside. "I met Irene as she arrived at her party."

"Did you come all the way here to comfort me?" Mary asked, sliding into their games, gently mocking both herself and him.

"That, and Mrs Hudson is having my rooms repainted - no, I did not kill the dog." He leaned forward. "One of Watson's most excellent qualities, as I am sure you've noticed by now, is that he is very forgiving. Particularly when the matter involves things that are merely uncomfortable, while still being uncomfortably true."

Mary worried about accepting that, for a moment, and then sighed. She leaned on the arm of her seat, and leaned her chin on her hand. "There are so many things in this world that make us miserable, Sherlock," she said, by way of answer - answer to it all - certain he would follow her, "that I think when we have the opportunity to be happy, it is a tragedy when we get in our own way."

"That was terribly sentimental," Sherlock told her, arch, and so coaxed a smile.

"I'm a married woman," she retorted. "It's expected of me." She tilted her head. She asked, "Are you angry with me, for this?" knowing that she might not like the answer. And that he would know what she meant by this, because she had manoeuvered him as much as John or Irene, and in the end, she suspected his pride might be the most hurt.

He didn't answer at once. He leaned back in his chair, and seemed to be choosing his words. Inwardly, Mary winced, and braced herself.

"I find myself," he said, at last, "entirely bemused by the thought that I am now in a world where it is possible to trust Irene Adler." He paused. "Somewhat, at any rate." He met Mary's eyes, and said, "I suppose it is only fitting that nothing less than so magical and blessed a creature as an English housewife could bring that about."

The parting shot, she supposed she deserved, but the answer was its own comfort. It was . . . difficult, she supposed, to communicate affection to Sherlock.

In the end, she stood up, and came before his chair. He intuited her meaning quite well: when she bent to kiss him he lifted arms to pull her down.

"You are," he breathed in her ear, "a remarkable housewife."

She did not think she needed answer that.

 

7. We cannot live, except thus mutually
We alternate, aware or unaware,
The reflex act of life

- Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "Love"

When they meet, returning home, it is genuinely coincidence. Irene Adler steps down from her carriage, tired, and beginning the long slow decline of spirits that performance always gave as she descends from the goddess of the stage to the tawdry self she can never escape.

She steps down to the curb as a man limps to the same door she intents, with the limp of a man to whom it is an irritation and vexation, but not a burden.

John Watson stops when he sees her, or better, when he realizes what he sees. For a moment, they look at one another in silence. Irene thinks perhaps she should break it, but by the time she has decided how, Watson has already limped up his own steps and tucked his cane under his arm.

He holds out a hand, inviting. "Miss Adler," he says. He has a gift for speaking silences, and after a moment, she smiles, and steps up to take his hand.

"Dr Watson," she says. And now, closer, with a very sensitive nose she says, delicately, "You do know - "

"Yes," he says. "Someone got overexcited at his winnings. It's only the coat - I'll have to have it cleaned." His hand is on the door, and as he pushes it open he pauses and adds, "And I think I'll need to get a bigger bed."

It takes a moment before Irene can actually believe he said it. This is why, by the time the door opens she is almost helpless with laughter, and it doesn't entirely stop when Mary gets up from her seat in the drawing room.

Sherlock looks Irene over first, and then Watson. He remarks, "You look gorgeous," and she isn't sure which one of them she's talking to.

Mary says, "John, darling, you smell like a still."

Irene starts giggling again. And Watson says, "I know."