Chapter 1: Prologue
July 16, 1881
Another cab rattled past, pulled by a horse that had seen far better days and guided by a driver who looked to not have many left.
Eight, Watson counted before he shook himself out of his reverie and opened his pocket watch. It showed a quarter to ten. He snapped it shut again.
"Watson? John Watson?"
Watson started and whirled around. He ended up face-to-face with a kind, open smile attached to a familiar young man. "What have you done with yourself, my friend?" the man asked, making a vague gesture with one hand which seemed to encompass all of Watson – everything from his tan skin to the cane he was leaning most of his weight on.
"Stamford?" Watson blinked owlishly. What in the world? "I haven't seen you since Barts!" he continued, the smile spreading over his face mirroring the other man's. "How have you been? I'd love to catch up with you, but I'm-"
"Waiting for someone, yes, I know. And I believe this is our cab."
A modest carriage wobbled to a halt on the street beside them as Stamford spoke. Its driver sat staring straight ahead and didn't so much as glance at them when Stamford climbed inside.
Once more all Watson could do was blink. "W-what? But this is only the ninth! And-" He cut himself short and threw what he hoped was a not so obviously worried look over his shoulder. People were milling past them, all caught in their own thoughts or discussions. Not even the mangy dog sniffing around the nearest lamppost paid them any mind.
After another second of hesitation, Watson sighed and followed Stamford up into the cab. He barely had time to settle himself before the driver smacked his lips and they began rolling down the cobbled street.
Watson looked at the still-smiling Stamford in silence for a moment, then said: "I suppose the counting was merely a way for you to spot me?"
"Exactly!" Stamford crowd, looking pleased with himself. "Clever, wasn't it?"
"Very," Watson replied, his tone a little too even.
Stamford cleared his throat and fidgeted. "Eh, yes. I must confess it wasn't my idea. Apparently it's one of the more commonly used tricks. But enough about that! What have you been up to, Watson? I haven't seen you in years and you do look like you have more than a few stories to tell."
It was Stamford's turn to mimic an owl. "Really? You were accepted?" he asked, then hurried to add: "Not that you're not a fine doctor, but the military has always been so dreadfully old fashioned."
"Well, not being a woman helped," Watson quipped, a pale smirk tugging at his lips. "But not by much. It's a terribly boring story, to be honest, and anything but cheerful. No, I'd much rather talk about what's happened to you of late! I suppose congratulations are in order?" He gestured at the collar around Stamford's neck: a fairly modest affair, made of leather with a few decorative stones and a golden pendant attached to it.
Stamford's smile widened. "Lovely, isn't it? We married this June."
Watson's eyes lingered on the collar.
It would have been much easier to get a hotel room with one of those around my neck, he mused to himself, fighting back a sigh. Though then I wouldn't have needed it to begin with.
He threw a glance out the window to observe the leaders and followers walking along the street. He did catch sight of one leader woman, walking with her head held high and glaring at anyone who dared to give her a disapproving look, but the others were men; either hurrying somewhere or enjoying an afternoon stroll, many arm-in-arm with one or two followers.
The followers, on the other hand, were equally represented by both sexes. They were all walking at least two and two, if not with a leader then with another of their own kind. Some had children with them, young ones yet unmarked by categories: dancing around their feet, impatient with the slow pace of their parents or wishing to stop and pet a dog or jump in a puddle of water.
God's will, indeed, Watson thought. "And God said unto the man, 'Take these followers and guide them, for they are frail and weak of will.'" The quoted brought a frown to his face.
Finally, he tore his gaze from the pedestrians. "One of us, I presume? Your husband, I mean."
"Of course," Stamford replied without hesitation. "And he's a doctor, too – which was enough to convince even a lover of old traditions like my father that changing my surname would be too much of a hassle. I'll introduce you tonight, if you want me to, after we've made the arrangements for your lodgings."
Watson pulled his cane up to eye-level and began slowly rotating it, as if he was inspecting it for flaws. "That would be most kind of you, but I fear I must decline for now. My health is fragile and I would be very poor company."
Stamford's smile didn't falter. Instead it turned gentle and he changed the topic with no more than a shrug. "A later date, then. Now, as I'm sure you're already aware, the Church has become far too interested in our little congregation."
Watson gave a curt nod.
"It wouldn't be safe for you to stay with any of us, no matter how welcome you would be. It's just too much of a risk for everyone." He held up a hand to silence any forthcoming protests. "Luckily, a few days ago a follower of my acquaintance, free from all ties to us, expressed a wish to go halves on a suite in Baker Street and bemoaned the fact he had no one to go halves with. I thought it at least worth looking into." He paused. "I hope you don't mind sharing lodgings?"
"Actually, I would prefer it, as long as I do so with a reasonable individual. One who doesn't make much unnecessary noise."
"I can assure you Mr. Holmes did not seem the kind of follower to invite friends for tea and gossip, much less rowdy parties."
As the cab came to a halt, Stamford cleared his throat. "Just so you know ahead of time – no one will think ill of you if you ask for other housing once you've met him."
Watson frowned. "Whatever do you mean?"
"...You will see."
Watson couldn't help but stare.
At first, it was almost impossible to place the man. There were the usual small clues – the wider cut of his sleeves, the length of his hair – but next to Watson himself, not to mention Stamford, the man looked positively scandalous. Lack of jewellery was fairly common, but to wander about a morgue in your shirtsleeves; why, really!
The bruised corpse he was looking at didn't help matters.
Watson didn't know if the proper response should be to storm out in indignation or laugh himself silly. It felt as if he'd come face-to-face with one of those leader women who'd taken to wearing skirt-like trousers, protesting on the street.
"Mr. Holmes?" Stamford called to the man, who hadn't looked up from the corpse even after he and Watson had coughed politely – twice.
"Hmm?" the man responded. His gaze was still distant, though, a look Watson had seen more than once on the face of an academic colleague trying to recall all possible diagnoses for a sore throat.
"Mr. Holmes, this is Dr. Watson."
A spark of interest lit in Holmes' faraway eyes and he turned his back to the corpse. "A doctor who is also a follower, just returned from …" he paused and let his eyes dart over Watson, "Afghanistan. I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Dr. Watson."
"How on earth did you know that?" Watson had to fight not to let his jaw drop open.
"Never mind. I assume you're here about the rooms?"
The rest of the conversation was a blur. One moment they were talking about violins and the next Holmes exclaimed, "Excellent! I'll see you tomorrow, then?"
And Watson found himself, without hesitation, replying: "Absolutely!"
With that, Watson and Stamford took their leave.
"So, what did you think of him?" Stamford asked once they were well out of earshot.
"I think," Watson replied, gazing up at the sky, "that sharing rooms with him will either be the best or the worst idea I've ever had in my life."
March 23, 1886
Above him the ceiling spun slowly, ever so slowly. Looking at it felt almost like being gently rocked to sleep in a boat. He was quite sure the needle of his syringe had snapped in two when he'd dropped it, but for the moment he couldn't find it in himself to care.
The familiar voice nearly drew his attention to it, but not quite.
A hand roughly shaking his shoulder succeeded where words had not. "Ah, Watson," he managed after a few moments of blinking. "My apologies, I didn't hear you come in."
Watson's face frowned down on him. "I noticed," he said, folding his arms over his chest. "Have you really nothing better to do than this?" The last word was pronounced with a distaste he knew Watson generally reserved for the lowest of crimes and anyone who entered a political discussion ill-informed.
He bit back a sigh. "What would you suggest then, good doctor? Exercise and healthy eating?"
Watson gave a groan of frustration and walked out of Holmes' field of vision. The shuffling of paper could soon be heard, followed by Watson stepping back to where Holmes could see him, hands full of letters. "Does none of this interest you? Nothing?"
There was something in that tone of voice Holmes felt he should recognize, but for the life of him he couldn't recall what. It probably wasn't important. "Not a single one."
A silence fell over the room. It wasn't the usual, comfortable quiet they'd spent the past five years developing, but neither was it a completely new lack of sound.
"I'm going out," Watson stated, followed by the sound of paper hitting table, then the soft thuds of several letters losing their balance and landing on the floor, hopelessly lost among the various notes and dust already down there.
Holmes remained where he lay. He didn't even flinch when the front door downstairs slammed shut.
Watson sighed to himself as he nodded to the man by the doorway, handing over his hat and coat. Why does it always end up like this? He seemed so pleased with himself yesterday, but still he-
"Good day, Mr. Watson!" a woman dressed in a very eye-catching, fancy dress called, smiling at him from the corner table she was seated at. The light from the nearby window caused her collar to glitter faintly, accentuating its diamonds.
Doctor Watson, he thought to himself, but smiled back and nodded a greeting. "Good day, Mrs. Preece."
"It's been a while since we saw you here," she commented. The woman and the man seated next to her – neither of them dressed as lavishly as Mrs. Preece, but that was only to be expected – voiced their agreements with short 'hmms', and the man took a sip of tea. "What have you been up to? Do tell us! Sit down, sit down." She gestured at a free chair by their table.
"Thank you for your kind offer, but I am looking for someone. Maybe next time," Watson replied, his cheerful expression remaining in place.
The woman heaved an overly dramatic sigh but kept smiling and waved him off, as if he was the one who was keeping her. "Very well, but you'd better share some interesting stories with us later. We all know there has to be more to that last publication of yours than what they let you put down on paper."
"Eh," was all Watson could manage. His cheeks had begun to protest his stiff smile.
"That reminds me! My husband is arranging a small gathering at the end of the month. I'm sure I could convince him to invite you as well." She paused, taking her time in lifting her tea cup to her lips. After a long sip, she continued: "And maybe Mr. Holmes would feel inclined to accompany you?"
Watson bit the inside of his cheek, then cleared his throat. "It would, of course, be unseemly for me to visit on my own," he said, keeping his tone of voice the same as one might have used to utter the sentence 'the grass is green today'. "I shall ask him. I'm sure he'd be delighted," to decline your generous invitation.
"Lovely! I hope you have a pleasant day, Mr. Watson," Mrs. Preece chirped as she leaned back in her armchair. The movement made her flossy white dress puff up and for a moment she looked like a roosting hen, contentedly clucking to herself.
"A pleasant day to you too, Mrs. Preece. And to you as well, of course." He nodded his farewell to Mrs. Preece and her two companions, then hurried to the far end of the room and a familiar face.
"Watson," Stamford greeted him, lips set in the almost-smug smile he seemed to sport at all hours of the day. "I think we will find a free table upstairs."
"Stamford," Watson replied and followed him into the next room. Much like the first, there were tables and comfortable chairs placed along the wall, as well as a few paintings, which gave the house a very homey feel. Unlike the first room, however, all the chairs were empty and there wasn't a teacup in sight.
To the right of the door was a rickety staircase, to the left the tables and a door that was slightly ajar. Stamford immediately headed for the stairs, commenting: "So, has Mrs. Preece finally accepted that you are qualified to practice medicine?"
Watson rolled his eyes and gave a chuckle-like sigh. "Ah, that would be the day. I assume she can't yet remember to address you by your proper title, either?"
"Of course not," Stamford huffed, reaching the top of the stairs. They entered a narrow hallway with five closed doors lining its walls. The only sound that could be heard other than their voices was the creaking of floorboards under their feet and the even thuds of Watson's cane. "What do you think she believes we spend our days doing?"
"Why, give kind, calming advice to friends with headaches, of course. Possibly giving advice related to childbirth on occasion," Watson said as they halted outside the third door and knocked. "When I'm not out having scandalous adventures with one Mr. Sherlock Holmes, that is."
Stamford gave a resigned sigh too melodramatic to be convincing. The door in front of them was slowly opened by a woman in her early thirties, who looked ready to bolt at any second.
"Good day, Mrs. Bevan," Stamford greeted her. "Are any of the seats here free?" He rolled up his left sleeve to reveal a small white cross sewn into the fabric of his jacket. Watson did the same and Mrs. Bevan's shoulders sagged slightly.
With a friendly nod she took a step back from the doorway, gesturing for them to enter. "Eh, yes, we do have some unoccupied tables. Would you like some tea?" There was a small, absent-minded frown on her face, as if she was mentally going through a list of things she should say and ask. "Lovely day, isn't it?"
"Quite lovely, yes," Stamford replied as he entered the room. It was quite small compared to the ones downstairs, but with the similar fittings and a few occupants seated at the tables, all dressed in follower clothing. "And no tea for us, please, we won't stay long."
Mrs. Bevan gave another nod and hurried to close the door behind them before standing back, her eyes fixed on the door as if she were a guard dog and the room her master's house.
Stamford and Watson exchanged amused looks, then took a seat by the window, as far as possible from the room's other visitors.
"So," Stamford began as they were seated, "have you thought of what we discussed last month?"
Watson took a deep breath through his nose and fought not to fidget in his seat. "Yes, I have. I..." he trailed off and turned to stare out the window. "The rumours are getting worse. As it is now, the only thing that's keeping an outright scandal at bay is Holmes' fame and popularity." Watson glanced at Stamford, then let his eyes dart back to the world outside the room. "No one has been rude enough yet to say anything to my face, but I'm neither deaf nor a fool. It simply can't go on like this."
"Do not fret so, my friend," Stamford interrupted. "I do believe I've found a solution to your problem."
Watson nearly started, eyes immediately torn from the window and back to Stamford. "You mean...?" It was hard to tell if his tone of voice was hopeful or apprehensive.
"Exactly," Stamford replied. "I've asked a few friends, and I do believe I've found someone you'll get along with. Would you be interested in meeting her?"
There was a long pause before Watson smiled, somewhat thinly, and said: "I'd be delighted!"
"Wonderful!" Stamford's own smile widened and he leaned forward in his chair. "My husband and I are meeting her for dinner tonight. If you have the time, maybe you could join us?"
Watson hesitated, but this time only for a heartbeat. "Yes. Yes, tonight would be fine. Thank you, Stamford." The last sentence seemed to be an afterthought.
"I'm glad to be of help," Stamford replied. "How are you holding up, otherwise? I heard your last adventure with Mr. Holmes was quite something."
"Heard or read?" Watson asked, his stiff smile giving way to a look of amusement.
"A little bit of both," Stamford admitted. "Is it true that the Duke of-" He cut himself short and cleared his throat. "Well, uhm, is it?"
"I have no idea what you're referring to," Watson said, fighting to keep his face neutral.
Stamford narrowed his eyes, but his smile stayed in place. "Don't be so coy about it! I have my sources and they say there was a proposal." He waited for a reaction from Watson, but when none came he continued: "As rumour has it, either your friend is merely a very fastidious sort – which wouldn't surprise me in the least – or His Grace has some odd preferences Mr. Holmes found to be in terribly bad taste." A twitch of Watson's lips made Stamford pause and wait. Still, Watson said nothing and Stamford finally spoke: "Which one is it, then? Do tell me, Watson, I'm ever so curious. There is no shame in a little gossip."
"You know my friend is a very private man, Stamford," Watson answered, a hint of a smile on his face. "He'd never forgive me if I spread any rumours, true or not."
"Not even a small clue?"
"Not a one."
Stamford heaved a sigh, but didn't look nor sound particularly disappointed when he said: "Very well then, I must admit myself defeated. You are, and always have been, very loyal to your friends Dr. Watson, and I cannot help but respect you for that."
"And you have always been a very loyal, if meddlesome, friend, Dr. Stamford," Watson admitted, his smile now wide enough to match Stamford's own.
"How kind of you to say," Stamford laughed, then got up out of his chair. "Now I must excuse myself. I'm sorry to rush off so quickly, but I have a patient who wished to see me this afternoon. I will see you tonight, then?"
A shadow of some sort flickered in Watson's eyes, yet his expression remained pleasant. "Yes, of course, tonight. And again, thank you."
"It is my pleasure to bring together what I believe will be a happy couple within the hour, but don't thank me until you've met her. We will dine at my husb- my apologies, our house at six. Don't be late!" With that goodbye, and a few nods to familiar faces around the room, Stamford left.
Watson remained seated, staring out the window. Outside, the day grew brighter; inside, people finished their tea and discussions and eventually left. A few of them chanced a look over at Watson as they walked past him. He remained unmoving.
Finally, when the sun had reached its highest point, he got up, took his cane and, without as much as a glance at the room's other occupants, left.
"Ah, Watson, how good of you to join us!"
Watson froze, door to the sitting room half-open. While Holmes' abrupt manner of greeting someone before they'd entered a room was nothing new to him, the woman seated by their table was.
From what he could see, she was a quite striking follower woman, somewhere close to her fortieth birthday and dressed in a pale blue gown that rivalled Mrs. Preece's. Though unlike her, this woman's clothes seemed subdued and dignified. If Mrs. Preece was a hen, this woman was a swan.
However, her throat was suspiciously bare.
"Mrs. Frewin, this is my good friend, Dr. Watson," Holmes introduced them, motioning for Watson to take a seat. The woman gave Watson a tight-lipped smile as he did. "As I'm sure you've already noticed, she has come to us to ask for help in finding her missing wedding collar. A very valuable wedding collar, to be exact."
If Mrs. Frewin was at all surprised by Holmes' statement, it didn't show. She simply nodded and kept her gaze on him, waiting.
"Now that my colleague is here, we can begin," Holmes continued and Watson couldn't help but frown. He waited for me? Why did he think that was necessary?
He tried to catch Holmes' eye but the detective avoided him, instead looking at their guest. "I will be needing as detailed story as you can manage, or I will be of no help to you at all. Any fact you forget could be key to solving the crime that has been committed against you."
"Very well," Mrs. Frewin said. She raised one hand halfway to her throat, then seemed to catch herself and it returned to rest in her lap. "Last night, burglars broke into my husband, Mr. George Foret's, house and stole my wedding collar. It is valuable, just as you said. It's a diamond necklace, a heirloom that has been in my family for generations. My husband had it refitted for our wedding ceremony."
"Have you gone to the police?" Holmes asked, leaning forward in his chair.
"Of course," Mrs. Frewin continued, her voice even. "They were of little help, other than stating that the burglars had entered through the kitchen window. They also called attention to the already obvious fact that the strongbox I keep the collar in had been broken into with no little force."
Holmes got up as she spoke and began rummaging through his desk, sweeping aside paper after paper until he uncovered a pipe, which he then stuffed and lit. Mrs. Frewin's eyes narrowed at the smoke, but she made no comment. Watson wasn't sure if he wanted to smile or frown.
"In what way was the forced entry into said strongbox 'obvious', as you put it?" Holmes asked, reclaiming his seat.
Mrs. Frewin, her eyes still fixed on the pipe in a near glare, answered: "The lid was nearly off its hinges and the lock was nowhere to be found. It looked like the ruffians had simply thrown it to the floor or hit it with a hammer until it broke."
"And where was this strongbox located?"
"On a night table next to my husband's bed. We found it on the floor this morning, empty."
A spark of interest finally lit in Holmes' eyes. "Mrs. Frewin, may I assume this bed you speak of is the one you and your husband spend your nights in?"
Watson frowned at this and was just about to comment when Mrs. Frewin answered: "Yes." Her disapproving gaze was still on Holmes' pipe and there wasn't so much as a trace of a blush on her face.
"And was this where you and your husband slept last night?"
Another "Yes" followed, just as steady and detached as the first.
"You didn't hear the burglar enter or destroy the strongbox?"
Mrs. Frewin shook her head no.
"So you mean to say, madam, that your collar was stolen from your very own bedroom, where you slept, without you or your husband noticing?"
Holmes paused and took another drag on his pipe. "Did anyone else hear anything unusual last night? Your husband's staff? Your neighbours?"
"Only our neighbours," Mrs. Frewin replied. "They told one of the officers they'd heard what sounded like hammering coming from our house. They did not call for the police, as they assumed it was my husband up late working."
"And what is your husband's line of work?"
"Mr. Foret is a lawyer." Before Holmes could speak, Mrs. Frewin continued: "However, he has," she paused, frown now thoughtful rather than irritated, "interests I'd rather not speak of. I can assure you it is of no use to you." Her glare intensified as Holmes took his pipe out of his mouth to speak. "His work room is next to the bedroom," she said before he could interrupt her, "so it is not strange that the neighbours were convinced there was no danger."
Another pause followed, then: "Mr. Holmes, if you and your colleague are to work on this case, I will have to ask you to leave that be. Whoever took my wedding collar was surely nothing more than a burglar – a clever one, but still a mere burglar. I know of your skills, I know of your past successes. If I wasn't convinced you could solve this case based on the available information, I wouldn't have come here in the first place."
Watson held his breath as Holmes took another long drag on his pipe, eyes distant. Finally, he gave a curt nod. "Very well, Mrs. Frewin, I accept your terms. We will call upon you tomorrow morning. Please leave everything in your husband's house as you found it after the theft was discovered; it will allow our work to progress more quickly."
An expression that wasn't quite surprise darted across Mrs. Frewin's face quicker than a startled mouse. Then she gave a stiff nod and stood. "Tomorrow morning, then. I will inform my husband," she said and left the room, without as much as a glance in Watson's direction.
Holmes watched her go, pipe between his teeth. His eyes were keen, almost glowing in the rays of sun leaking into the sitting room through the thick curtains. When the sound of Mrs. Hudson wishing Mrs. Frewin a good day reached them he finally moved, getting out of his chair and crossing over to the window.
Watson shielded his eyes as Holmes pulled the curtains aside, not even flinching as light flooded into the room. "What do you make of this, Watson?" he asked, eyes staring down at the street below them.
"You really should stop smoking in front of clients," Watson scolded him, but his heart wasn't in it. "And I think it is a quite intriguing case. Burglars breaking and entering without as much as a dog barking? Most curious." He paused, leaning back in his chair. "I assume you already have a theory?"
Holmes smirked and pushed away from the window. "It is a most curious situation," he agreed. "It could, of course, be her husband attempting to gain some money out of an insurance swindle, but I hesitate to cast such accusations just yet."
"Really?" Watson commented, lifting an eyebrow. "What else could it be, then? If I were to guess, this sounds very much like the husband has ordered the staff to keep quiet, had one of them enter through the kitchen window, and then broke the strongbox open in his work room. If the neighbours are used to him making a racket at all hours of the night, I'm sure Mrs. Frewin wouldn't bat an eye, much less wake up."
"Ah, but you know we never guess, dear Watson," Holmes chided and reclaimed his seat. "Mrs. Frewin does not seem the kind of person to suffer her husband's whims, follower or no." He let out a mouthful of smoke and leaned his head back to watch it drift upward towards the ceiling. "We shall find out more tomorrow. Now, what did Stamford have to tell you?"
Watson, eyes straying to Holmes' exposed neck, gave a huff of laughter. "I was wondering if you had the presence of mind this morning to notice me leaving."
To say Holmes flinched would have been an exaggeration, but his gaze darted away to the window and didn't return to meet Watson's for several seconds.
Watson tore his eyes from Holmes' neck, an expression of shame flickering across his face. "However do you keep track of when I'm meeting Stamford?" he asked, a suspiciously carefree note in his voice. "I don't suppose I'm following some form of pattern that I'm not aware of?"
"Only lately," Holmes assured him, emptying his pipe in the ashtray on the table – a fairly new addition to the room, as its predecessor had perished in Mrs. Hudson's latest cleaning attempt.
"What pattern would that be, if you would be so kind as to share your observations?" Watson muttered, eyeing the smouldering ashes with exaggerated interest. "And don't look so smug," he added, not having cast as much as a glance at Holmes.
Holmes shrugged. "It is no great feat. Since around Christmas, you've gone to your House of Meeting three times, a month between each visit, and each time you return in a foul mood. Had I managed to miss taking note of that, I would be ready for retirement post-haste."
"How are you so sure I've been meeting with Stamford?" Watson hurried to interject, narrowing his eyes. "He is hardly the only one besides myself who attends that House of Meeting – how does my supposed foul mood connect to him being there?"
"True, you are not its only members," Holmes agreed, lips still curled in an all too self-satisfied manner. "But the only person there whose opinions you value is Stamford, so only something he's said could cause you any grief. Though I must confess myself mystified as to what it is you've been discussing."
For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Watson's attention drifted back to the cooling ashes and Holmes turned to look out the window again, his face blank.
"Incidentally, I'm invited over to Stamford's husband's house for dinner this evening," Watson finally said, whilst untangling the day's paper from under a smaller mountain of books. "I assume you will be busy planning our visit to Mr. Foret tomorrow?"
The only response Holmes gave was a soft 'hmm'. His eyes were still glued to the sky outside and he'd begun to absent-mindedly knock the end of his pipe against the ashtray.
Without commenting, Watson sighed and unfolded the paper. Holmes soon got up out of his armchair, taking a few of the books balancing on the table as he disappeared into his room. Watson continued to read.
An hour later, the clinking of china and rapping of knuckles against the sitting room door, along with a muffled "Dr. Watson?", drew Watson's attention away from the article he'd been reading over and over again for the past ten minutes – never getting further than the first three paragraphs.
"Come in, Mrs. Hudson!" he called, hurrying to at least try and clear the table as Mrs. Hudson pushed the door open, tea tray in hand.
"Locked himself in his room, has he?" she commented with an amused look towards Holmes' bedroom. "About to solve another great mystery?"
Watson chuckled. "Most likely." He helped her set down the tray, carefully nudging a few old letters out of the way and somehow saving them from tumbling to the floor. "No dinner for me tonight, please," he said then, as Mrs. Hudson began pouring tea, "I've been invited to a friend's husband's home."
Mrs. Hudson's amused smile turned cheerful. "Have you, now? Well, that is wonderful news! I'll only cook for myself and Mr. Holmes, then." She finished pouring the second cup and put the sugar bowl on the table before picking the tray back up.
"Have a lovely evening, dear," she said, stopping halfway to the door.
"You as well, Mrs. Hudson," Watson responded, pretending to return to reading the paper.
For a moment it looked like Mrs. Hudson wanted to add something more. She threw a glance at Holmes' closed bedroom door and opened her mouth, but instead of speaking she coughed, then closed her eyes and shook her head curtly. Giving Watson another encouraging smile, she nodded a goodbye and exited the room.
Watson continued to not-read. The tea grew cold.
Watson took a deep breath before knocking on the door in front of him, fidgeting with his shirtsleeves until it opened.
The house of Stamford's husband, Dr. Blythe, was no impressive affair, but neither was it spartan. Watson had only ever visited a handful of times, but had no trouble recalling the homey feel of the sitting room and the small hallway full of photographs – all apparently taken by one of Dr. Blythe's siblings, who owned a studio a few blocks away.
Dr. Blythe and Stamford were both there to greet him when the door opened, all smiles and eager to usher him into the dining room. Dr. Blythe took his coat and managed to hang it up on the coat rack before they all burst out laughing.
"Old habits and all that," Dr. Blythe excused himself and very pointedly didn't offer either Watson or Stamford his arm as they walked the short way to where the dinner would be held.
Though he should have been, Watson wasn't at all prepared for the sight that met him when Stamford opened the door to the dining room. There was already someone seated at the table; a woman about his age with blonde hair and sensible, unassuming clothes, who got up out of her seat as soon as the door had fully opened. She smiled at them in a friendly, but nervous, manner.
Shamefully the first thought to rush through Watson's head was: Thank God, she's wearing a dress!
"Dr. John Watson," Stamford said, stepping over to the table to stand next to the woman, "this is Ms. Mary Morstan."
March 24, 1886
Watson stared at the houses and people slowly rolling by. Holmes sat next to him with a book in his lap, flipping its pages back and forth at seemingly random intervals. Watson continued to stare.
"My dear doctor, would you please tell me what it is that has had you so upset all morning?"
The sudden question made Watson start and turn away from his staring contest with a particularly over-decorated house, a sheepish look on his face. "Ah," he sighed, "it's nothing. I promise," he added hurriedly as he caught sight of Holmes' raised eyebrow. "Truly."
The eyebrow remained raised, but Holmes made no further comment. Instead he shut the book, put it aside and straightened out his clothes. "I do believe we'll arrive shortly. Did I tell you about the interesting fact I found out about Mrs. Frewin while you were having dinner with Stamford and his husband?"
"No, I don't believe you did," Watson responded.
"It would appear that Mr. Foret is Mrs. Frewin's second husband. Her first husband was Mr. Foret's older brother, Stratton Foret, who made some lucrative investments during his lifetime. Investments that Mrs. Frewin inherited after his untimely death in a most unfortunate train accident. Mrs. Frewin remarried two months later – quite the scandal at the time. In fact, they just returned to London last week after several years living abroad."
Watson's eyebrows made a heartfelt attempt to climb up into his hairline. "That is quite the story. And Mrs. Frewin's current husband, was he well-off before he married her?"
Holmes' smile showed that Watson had asked just the right question. "Mr. Foret was actually heavily indebted before his marriage to Mrs. Frewin," he commented cheerily. "According to Shinwell Johnson..."
"Of course you talked to Johnson," Watson muttered, eyebrows quickly darting down into a frown.
"According to Johnson," Holmes continued, as if they were merely discussing the weather, "Mr. Foret has enjoyed his wife's monetary situation a great deal these past three years. Rumours claim he's enjoyed it too much, but naturally that's only speculation."
Watson stood his cane on the cab floor and let it fall from his left to his right hand and back again. "So insurance swindle is still on the table?"
"It's a definite possibility," Holmes agreed, "but we can draw no conclusions until we've seen the rest of the evidence." As if on cue, the carriage came to a halt.
Watson opened the cab door and paused halfway out, taking in the sight before him. It was an impressive house. Certainly not the largest or most pompous of estates they'd ever visited, but it was still obvious its owner had both the means and the desire to make his home impressive to look at, as well as comfortable to live in.
Behind him, Holmes cleared his throat. Watson immediately took the last three steps down from the cab and onto the street. "Terribly sorry."
Holmes didn't respond. He just gave Watson a look before he walked up to the front door. Said door opened before either of them could so much as think of knocking. On the other side stood a man of average height, with wide shoulders and an expression that embodied – or well, at least expressed – disapproval. He didn't say a word, only held the door open long enough for them to enter, taking their coats and disappearing.
"Welcome, gentlemen." Mrs. Frewin appeared at the end of the entrance hallway, as prim and proper as the day before. "Please excuse Bell. He's been in a frightful mood since the theft occurred."
Watson had to fight not to bite his lips or clench his hands behind his back. "Mrs. Frewin," he greeted her, briefly meeting her eyes before letting his gaze dart from one surprisingly bare wall to the other.
"Perfectly understandable," Holmes said, looking as at home here as he would have playing his violin. "Would he be willing to answer some questions later? It would help the investigation immensely if we had the chance to interview the staff – we might have some questions the police overlooked."
"I'll tell everyone to gather in the kitchen," Mrs. Frewin replied curtly, indicating a door at the far end of the room behind her, the dying glow from the fireplace therein lighting the way. "The scene of the crime is upstairs, the first door on the left. You must excuse me, but I'd prefer to remain here. The strongbox was a family heirloom as well and seeing it in pieces upsets me a great deal." She looked about as upset as a mildly annoyed statue, her face completely impassive.
"Of course," was Holmes' only response and Watson wisely made no comment, only followed Holmes up the stairs.
"Now what has you so on edge?" Holmes asked in a teasing tone of voice once they were out of earshot.
Watson bit back a sigh. "Other than the fact that we're little better than burglars ourselves at the moment?" he hissed back, unable to stop himself from glancing over his shoulder. "If her husband comes home and finds us here, he could have us arrested for trespassing!"
Even though all Watson could see was the back of Holmes' head, he strongly suspected Holmes had rolled his eyes at that comment. "This is hardly the first time we've entered a house without its owner's expressed permission, and I've never known you to be this jumpy before. Really, Watson, what is the matter with you today?"
"It's awfully empty here, isn't it?" Watson chose to reply. He made a vague gestured at the walls, all lacking in decoration of any kind. "I guess it's only natural since they've been gone so long, but you'd think there'd at least be some paintings. I mean, the garden looked so well kept. It's downright unsettling."
Holmes halted outside the door they'd been heading for and turned around, fixing Watson with a narrow-eyed stare. "Babbling, Watson? You expect to distract me from your lack of answer by ranting on about the household's lack of decorative paintings? Why, really." The combination of frown and smile made it hard to tell if he was offended or just amused.
"Could we please concentrate on investigating and leaving before Mr. Foret comes home?" Watson gritted out through clenched teeth. "I told you, it's nothing of importance!"
Holmes' smile faded, but he said nothing. Instead, he opened the door to the bedroom.
The room inside proved to be every bit as subtly extravagant as Watson had expected it to be, yet somehow it was as barren and sterile as the hall and stairway. No pictures, no trinkets haphazardly spread over the dresser, not a pillow out of place.
Well, except for the broken strongbox on the floor.
Holmes immediately walked over to one of the nightstands and crouched down next to it. Squinting, he leaned in close, scrutinising the wood. Then he turned to the strongbox lying on the floor to its right.
"The burglars smashed the strongbox against this table six times, leaving deep indentations on this side." He stroked the left side of the nightstand, following the small bumps and cuts with his fingers. "Because of the metal's age and apparent low quality, the lock broke easily and the burglars could leave with their prize."
He dropped down to lie flat on the floor, face turned to look under the bed. "Very clean. They must either have tidied up before the police arrived, or the police weren't bright enough to inform Mr. Foret that the scene of the crime must remain untouched. What is your opinion?"
Watson, having stayed by the door, walked over to his side and knelt down. "Mrs. Hudson couldn't have done it better herself," he remarked at the state of the room in general, joining Holmes in looking under the bed.
"Indeed." Holmes got to his feet and leaned his weight on the bed, attention on the other nightstand. Watson winced as the neat bedding was rumpled.
"Someone in this household at least has a trace of common sense!" Holmes crowed and crawled fully onto the bed to reach for a half empty glass of water. Before Watson could even consider stopping him, he'd taken a sip – a bare touch of lips to water, yes, but enough for Watson to want to reprimand him. Of course, he didn't.
"Yes, this will be very useful," Holmes muttered, mostly to himself. "Come along, Watson!"
Feet once more on the floor, he hurried out the door, glass still in hand. Without a second thought, Watson followed.
The servants were all in the kitchen, just as Mrs. Frewin had said. The ever-disapproving Bell had them all lined up, as if for inspection, and Holmes was quick to pull the youngest aside – a frail maid, who had trouble looking either of them in the eye.
"Tell me, Ms...?" Holmes began, ignoring a very dark glare from Bell.
"Charlotte," the maid filled in, "Charlotte Patel."
"Ms. Patel," Holmes continued, "was there food delivered to this house the day before yesterday?"
Behind him, Bell's glare intensified. Ms. Patel fluttered her eyelashes in a fashion that on anyone else would have seemed theatrical. "Yes," she answered. "Is that important? None of us heard anything, we swear!" she hurried to add. One of the other servants' back straightened and one or two pairs of hands were clenched into fists, but no one commented.
Bell's glare grew darker. Ms. Patel bit her lip and cast her eyes downwards.
"I'm sure you didn't," Watson interjected, smiling warmly and silently willing Holmes to quicken his pace. "Mr. Holmes is merely following a clue. He's by no means accusing anyone." Yet.
"He'd better not," Bell growled.
"The food," Holmes went on, still with his back turned to Bell, "could you describe the person who delivered it?"
"Uhm, s-she," Ms. Patel stuttered, "she was just a delivery girl. I-I didn't really..."
"Just one woman?" Holmes prompted.
"Well, no, but I didn't see the others much. Four, five others. Maybe." She threw a desperate glance at her fellow staff, who all gave varying degrees of shrugs and confused expressions in reply. "They had a carriage of some sort, for the food, I suppose." She hesitated once more.
"Where had you ordered the food from? And who decided where to order?"
"What exactly are you implying?" Bell interrupted before Ms. Patel could as much as open her mouth. He abandoned his position at the end of the line and walked up to Holmes, squaring his shoulders and doing everything but standing on his tiptoes to tower over the kitchen's other occupants.
Holmes' only reaction to this was to lift an eyebrow. Watson took a step closer to Holmes. Behind his back, he fisted his hands around his cane. "In an investigation, any little detail can be of vital importance," Holmes stated calmly, holding Bell's gaze.
Finally the heavyset woman next to Ms. Patel spoke. "It was me, sir. I'll go find the address to the store." She excused herself with a graceful curtsy.
"My thanks." Holmes paused and gave the room and its occupants a long, thoughtful look. Then: "If you have no further information for me, I believe I shall have a look around the house. Watson, would you be kind enough to-"
"Now you listen here!" Bell cried out, his growl now edging towards a roar. "You can't just go walking around the house as you please. Who gave you permission?"
"Mrs. Frewin, if I recall correctly," Holmes replied without missing a beat.
Bell's face had gone quite red and Watson was convinced he would have been able to hear his teeth grinding against each other, had he stood any closer. "Mrs. Frewin?" Bell gritted out. "The master's wife told you to search the house?"
"Not in those exact words, but yes."
Watson spotted Bell raising his hand just in time to step in between him and Holmes. Making sure to keep his posture slightly bowed and to not meet Bell's eyes directly, he said, as softly as possible while still being audible: "I believe we've caused you enough trouble for today. We're both very grateful for your cooperation and hope that the police will bring back Mr. Foret's property swiftly."
Summoning forth his warmest yet most professional of smiles, Watson glanced at Holmes, who gave him a quick, short nod. He gave a similar nod back, then let his eyes and smile sweep over the line of servants before returning back to Bell – or rather, Bell's nose. "If it's not too much trouble, I'd like to offer all of the house's staff a medical examination, free of charge. We fear the food might have been drugged."
Bell frowned, but lowered his hand. His mouth was hanging open, as if he couldn't decide if he wanted to yell or agree. "Uhm," he muttered, fidgeting, "well…"
"A free visit from a doctor?" a man with a greying beard asked, peering at Watson from under bushy eyebrows. "And drugged food, oh my! I think it'd be wise to accept, don't you, Joshua? Can't do any harm now, can it?"
Bell looked torn between wanting to glare at Holmes and listening to the elderly man. He put his hand on his chin in a thoughtful manner and his frown deepened. "Very well," he finally agreed. "But he leaves the room."
Holmes, yet again on the receiving end of a most threatening glare, gave a flamboyant bow and left.
Evaluating the staff's state of health didn't take long, consisting mostly of interviews rather than formal examinations. When he was finished, Watson found Holmes on his hands and knees, rifling through the ashes in the fireplace of the room neighbouring the kitchen.
"If you're looking to gain Mr. Bell's approval, I highly doubt that is the way to go about it," Watson quipped as Holmes withdrew his hands, holding onto a badly burnt slip of paper. "What have you found?"
Holmes held the paper so close to his face that he was almost inhaling its charred remains. He squinted at it and gave a hum of approval. "Something of possible interest." The paper disappeared into a pocket and Holmes got to his feet, brushing ashes from his hands.
"I must say, your skills of observation have much improved," he commented, flashing Watson an unusually wide smile. "It was very good of you to figure out what I wished you to do, as well as the reason for it."
Watson felt his cheeks heat and he averted his gaze to a nearby window. "With no one waking up to hear the burglars and you so interested in that water, it wasn't much of a mystery. As for what you wished me to do, what else would you have asked me? I am a doctor, after all."
"And what did you find out, Doctor?"
Watson flipped open a small notebook: "Not much of value. They all seem perfectly healthy, though the cook said she'd felt dizzy after dinner the night before the break-in. No other symptoms that could have been caused by poisoning."
The faint clattering of pots and pans could be heard through the kitchen door. Bell shouted something – what, exactly, was hard to distinguish, but he didn't sound as angry as he had earlier. "Mr. Foret has quite lively employees, not to mention loyal," Holmes muttered, then added, almost as an afterthought: "Why did you see it necessary to intervene?"
A pause. "That man was ready to backhand you," Watson replied, studying the window drapes. "I know you. You would have hit back or, at the very least, insulted him, and that would have gotten us thrown out on our ears within a second."
"Yes, you laugh," Watson grumbled, attempting to frown but not succeeding. "I don't doubt you could have fought back – probably broken a few of his bones, too – but what about me? Some of us still have a reputation to maintain." His face fell as he spoke the last words and Holmes gave him another searching look.
"Are we quite done, here?" Watson hurried to ask, gaze still on the drapes.
"Yes, quite done. Mr. Bell's banishment of me from the kitchen gave me ample opportunity to visit all the rooms I wished to. Shall we?"
Mrs. Frewin was nowhere to be found as they headed for the front door, and neither were any of the servants. They let themselves out. Holmes was holding the glass of water he'd found, making no attempt to hide the theft.
"I believe I'll be spending most of my afternoon analysing this," he commented, holding it up to what little light there was. Clouds hung heavy in the sky above them, threatening London's rooftops with rain and thunder. "I assume you have plans."
Watson tried to clear his throat inconspicuously, but failed miserably. "Eh, yes. I'll have the cab drop me off outside my House of Meeting. I'll be back at Baker Street before nightfall."
Holmes said nothing, only put his arm out to hail a driver. They remained silent for the rest of the ride.
The atmosphere of the House was just as cheerfully oppressive as always. Watson spotted Ms. Morstan immediately after his arrival, sitting alone at one of the main room's corner tables. Gaggles of followers had gathered at all the neighbouring tables, not so subtly whispering amongst themselves and stealing glances at the solitary woman when they thought no one was looking.
As soon as Ms. Morstan's eyes met his she got up and pulled out a chair, smiling gently. A hush fell over the room.
"Ms. Morstan," Watson greeted her and took the offered seat.
"Dr. Watson." She pushed his chair in with surprisingly little effort, then sat down opposite him, hands folded on the table.
"I would make a comment about the weather," Morstan finally spoke, as the bustle around them died down and two cups of tea and some sandwiches ended up on their table, "but I hope we're not that pressed for a topic of conversation."
Watson smiled and took a sandwich, but didn't start eating. Instead, he placed it on the small plate in front of him and lifted its lid to peer inside. "Hopefully not, no. I believe," he hesitated, releasing the sandwich to take a cup of tea, "I believe you said you had a question for me." A careful observer would have noticed the cup lightly shaking as he raised it to his lips.
A twinkle of amusement lit Morstan's eyes. She reached over the table and took his free hand in both of hers. "My, my, Dr. Watson, you truly waste no time," she whispered, cupping her hands around his as if it were an injured bird. She wouldn't quite meet his gaze when she stood and walked around the table to stand by his chair. Around them the room's occupants froze, as if on command.
Watson put the tea cup down slowly and took a deep breath. He felt Morstan let go of his hand with one of hers and let her tilt his head up so that their eyes could meet.
"John Hamish Watson," she said, "would you do me the honour of becoming my husband?"
Watson gulped, but held still and forced a smile. "Yes."
The distinctive sound of thirty-six men and women starting to whisper among themselves could be heard immediately afterwards.
Morstan stroked the ball of her thumb softly over Watson's lips, a warm smile on her face. "You've made me a very happy woman," she commented, loud enough for everyone to hear.
She gently placing Watson's limp hand on the table and returned to her seat. She opened her mouth to speak, but before she had the time to say anything further a polite cough could be heard from over Watson's left shoulder. Looking up, he came face-to-arm with one Mrs. Preece.
"Do excuse us, but we would very much like to introduce ourselves to the House's new member," the woman – this day in a dress more reminiscent of a male peacock than a hen – chirped, moving to an empty seat by their table. "Would you mind if we joined you?"
Two other followers appeared behind her, the man and woman Watson had seen her with the day before.
Morstan glanced at Watson, who shrugged. "Have a seat, please," she said, addressing Mrs. Preece.
"Thank you," Mrs. Preece replied and was seated in a heartbeat, as were her two friends. "Our congratulations! It's always wonderful to witness expressions of love and devotion," she chattered, waving at a man walking around with a tray of tea cups. "But first, introductions! I'm Mrs. Madeline Preece, wife of Mr. Nichol Hagon, and these are my dear friends, Mrs. Rebecca Vanover and Mr. Alton Rosamond."
Watson took a long sip of his tea in an attempt to hide his amused smile. Morstan's cheerful expression had remained in place all throughout Mrs. Preece's monologue and she smoothly stepped in when Mrs. Preece paused to draw breath. "My name is Mary Morstan, and I must say I'm thrilled to be in such lovely company."
Mrs. Vanover clumsily unfolded a fan and held it up to cover her suddenly beat red face in what Watson supposed was meant to be a coquettish fashion. Mr. Rosamond's only response was a smirk, while Mrs. Preece positively shook, she was giggling so hard.
"You seem a good fit for our dear Mr. Watson, if I may be so bold," she managed to get out between fits of laughter. Watson gulped down all of his tea and fought the urge to glare at the woman.
As soon as she had herself under control, Mrs. Preece leaned over towards Morstan, a hand cupped over her mouth in the manner of a child about to whisper a secret. "He's got quite a sharp tongue, that one," she murmured, adding a wink for good measure. "Now, have you by any chance met my husband?"
Morstan, undaunted by the close proximity of Mrs. Preece's face, simply said: "I have not yet had the pleasure."
"Ah, then you must come to our soirée, you really must!" Not waiting for an answer, Mrs. Preece produced a small square of white paper and handed it to Morstan, who could do nothing but nod and keep smiling. "It's on the 28th. Nothing too extravagant, I assure you – just a little gathering of close friends and new acquaintances such as yourself."
"My thanks," Morstan said once she could get a word in edgewise. "Making new friends is always wonderful, wouldn't you agree, John?"
Watson bit back a groan. "Yes, wonderful."
"Wonderful!" Mrs. Preece echoed with much cheer. "I'll inform my husband tonight."
"We're most grateful," Morstan said, just before Mrs. Vanover cut in:
"It is so refreshing to have good news and cheer with times like these," she sighed. There was still the hint of a blush on her cheeks.
"Times like these?" Mr. Rosamond asked, in a droning tone of voice that made it sound like a rhetorical question.
Mrs. Vanover snapped her fan shut and gave her friend a dirty look. "It's in all the papers! I just told you about it, didn't I?"
Mrs. Preece rolled her eyes. "Don't start again, Rebecca, dear. Talking about it will do you no good; it'll only spread you melancholy to others!"
"Whatever is the matter?" Morstan asked, voice as smooth as honey.
The trio quieted down and Mrs. Vanover drew a deep breath. "The disappearances!" she hissed. "Surely you must have heard of them? People dragged off the streets as soon as the sun's gone down, never to be seen again! And not just riffraff, decent folk, too! The papers say the police can hardly keep up."
"As if they've ever done that," Mrs. Preece quipped, then laughed at her own cleverness. "Have they come begging at your friend's door yet, Mr. Watson?"
"Not yet," was Watson's curt answer.
"They'll come crawling soon enough, I'm sure."
"May your leaders keep you safe," Morstan cut in, before Watson could say anything in reply, "It would pain me if any harm would befall you. But I'm sure such astute followers as you have picked excellent protectors."
Mrs. Vanover once more disappeared behind her fan, while Mr. Rosamond continued to smirk. Mrs. Preece looked ready to succumb to another fit of laughter. "Flattery will get you nowhere, Ms. Morstan," she chided playfully.
"Then I shall count myself lucky for having won John's hand in spite of it," Morstan teased. "Now, if you would excuse us, John has an appointment with a patient. I believe we'll still have time for a walk, if we start for Baker Street at once."
It took Watson a few seconds to catch on. "What? Oh, yes, that appointment! I'd completely forgotten about it."
Standing, Morstan walked around the table and, with a polite nod to their company, offered Watson her arm. They said their goodbyes and were out the door as quickly as was seemly.
"So that was the infamous Mrs. Preece," Morstan said once they were well out of earshot.
Watson nodded and obediently followed her lead as she tugged him to the right, guiding him around a puddle of water. "She's an acquired taste, to say the least."
"Having second thoughts?" There was an attempt at amusement in her voice, but it didn't quite carry through.
"I am not one to go back on a promise," Watson responded, eyes straight ahead.
Morstan gave his arm a light squeeze. They passed two follower women, also arm-in-arm, who greeted her by name and wished them a pleasant afternoon. After they'd disappeared behind a corner, Watson continued: "To be honest, what I said last night is very much true. I am still surprised you're willing to marry me, despite..."
"Do not judge yourself so harshly," Morstan scolded. "I only ask because of the suddenness of this. I've had weeks to prepare and a fair idea of what I was getting myself into. You, on the other hand, barely had a day's warning." She led them out of the way of other pedestrians, then brought them to a halt and turned to face him. "I am the grateful one," she assured him, reaching up to brush at a lock of hair that had escaped from under his hat. "To know the famous Dr. Watson would agree to be the fiancé of a female tutor – inheritance or no – is quite humbling."
Watson chuckled and let his eyes dart away to follow a small child rushing after its mother. "And to think that a respectable young leader should see fit to settle for a follower who, besides this," he gestured at his leg and shoulder, "and a medical degree, also sees fit to run about London with a consulting detective." Another chuckle. "Believe me, Ms. Morstan, you are not the only grateful one."
"Then we are an even match," Morstan stated, and with a gentle tug she had them walking again, crossing the street on an invisible, winding path to avoid the cabs and horses.
At the next corner they rounded, Morstan stopped to buy a rose from a girl who couldn't have been older than eight. The second it changed owners, for a few coins more than what had been asked, it was broken in half and made to decorate Watson's breast pocket. The small girl gave both of them a gap-toothed grin, holding her earnings pressed close to her chest.
"While on the topic of last night's dinner," Watson began, holding still so Morstan could adjust the rose, "I've been meaning to ask you about that remark you made."
Morstan hands faltered for a moment, finishing their task with less grace than they had begun it. "Which remark?"
"It's not really of any importance. I just got the impression that this wasn't..." he trailed off, as if expecting her to finish the sentence for him, before catching himself. "What I'm trying to ask is, and I am by no means trying to be rude, I merely wish to avoid misunderstandings. I-" He sighed. "My apologies, but I must be frank: I am not your first fiancé, am I?"
What was left of the amused spark in Morstan's eyes went out like a snuffed candle. Still, she refused to let her face fall. "There was someone else," she verified, voice little more than a whisper, "though that was years ago."
"I'm sorry," Watson replied, "I-I do hope I haven't offended you."
Morstan gave a weak smile. "Not at all. I would be a low creature indeed to keep something like that from you. Now, I believe it would be courteous of me to walk you home."
Watson's lips stretched into a smile to mirror hers. "I believe so, yes."
And with that, they steered their steps towards Baker Street.
Holmes stood bent over the table reserved for chemistry experiments when Watson finally returned. He didn't look up, though he'd clearly heard the doctor enter, for he said: "Enjoyed a long walk, I see."
"You see, do you?" was the reply he got as Watson made his way over to what remnants of dinner there were. "Do you see anything else? The solution to Mrs. Frewin's mystery, perhaps?"
"Perhaps. You wouldn't happen to know what this is?"
Watson turned to look over his shoulder at Holmes, or more precisely at the beaker of clear liquid Holmes was holding.
"Water?" he guessed, freeing a bit of bread from the clutches of a lexicon.
Holmes' smile widened. "So it would appear at first glance. Now, observe!" Walking around to the other side of the table he secured the beaker over a heater and, after some rifling among the various items cluttering his workstation, produced a small metal box full of tiny white flakes. Taking a pinch of it, he sprinkled the flakes into the beaker.
Within seconds the liquid turned a deep red colour.
"A chemical reaction, brought on by the heat and the sodium hydroxide," Holmes explained, having taken note of Watson's raised eyebrow. Turning the heater off he disappeared to the back of the room and returned wearing a pair of thick gloves. With careful hands, he loosened the red liquid's container from its stand and moved over to the window.
"Chloral hydrate," he went on, holding the beaker up to the light of the last rays of sun. The red liquid gleamed orange briefly, then shifted back to red as Holmes lowered his hand. "Created when chlorine and ethanol are allowed to react together in an acidic solution. It's a hypnotic drug, most commonly used in mental hospitals and prisons. The patient – or in this case, victim – falls asleep approximately an hour after the drug has been ingested."
"I'm well aware of the effects of chloral hydrate on the human body," Watson muttered, but there was no bite to his words. "It's a miracle no one was poisoned!"
Holmes gave a curt nod in agreement. "I've sent the Irregulars to investigate all the possible locations the thugs may have purchased it from – it may be a shot in the dark, but if they are clever enough to drug an entire household without causalities they may be clever enough to attempt to cover their tracks."
"So they will be running all over town," Watson commented, taking a bite off the piece of bread he'd saved. "What are we meant to be doing, then?"
"I have, of course, given them a list of more likely locations," Holmes answered, "but as I said, it may be for naught. We shall focus our efforts on the household instead – a feat like this is very tricky to pull off indeed, unless one has help from the inside. But now to the matter at hand!"
Watson blinked, mouth full of half-chewed bread. "Excuse me?" he managed to inquire, narrowly avoiding choking on one of the larger pieces.
"You, my dear doctor, arrived here arm-in-arm with a leader woman who is completely unknown to me. That, combined with your peculiar behaviour these last months, makes you the matter at hand."
Watson attempted to swallow the suddenly too-dry bread. It took him three tries until he succeed.
"Surely there can be no need to hide her identity from me?" Holmes asked as he waited. There was a hint of worry in his eyes and voice, unnoticeable to anyone but Watson and a select other few.
Watson swallowed a fourth time, then squared his shoulders, as if making ready to take on an oncoming hoard of enemy soldiers.
"I am engaged."
If there was ever a moment Watson could claim to have seen Holmes dumbstruck, this was it. "You – you are what?" he spluttered, putting the beaker down into its stand with less than steady hands.
"Engaged," Watson repeated, endeavouring to keep his tone of voice firm, "to be married."
"Of course to be married!" Holmes hissed back, "do you take me for a fool? For Heaven's sake, why?"
Watson held his friend's gaze and refused to so much as blink. "What are the usual reasons for people to get engaged?"
Holmes looked ready to answer, but whatever that answer would have been was lost as he changed his mind and snapped his jaw shut again. With an air of forced nonchalance, he began taking of the gloves and threw them into the shadows near the fireplace. Watson had to stop himself from saying something, anything.
Holmes cleared his throat. "Well, I must admit you've managed to surprise me." The words left his mouth reluctantly, as if all of them were frightened children, coaxed out from behind their mothers. "I do believe I've completely lost my appetite. My energy shall be better spent going through these books than forcing mouthfuls of cold soup down my throat." With that, he began to head for his room, arms full of dusty books he'd more or less scraped off the floor.
He paused in the doorway only long enough to say: "Enjoy your dinner, Doctor."
Watson refused to stare at the closed bedroom door. He turned his attention to the cooling soup and managed to pour himself a bowl without as much as glancing over his shoulder.
He passed the evening reading a pleasant novel and did not once pause to listen to Holmes' footsteps as the man paced up and down his room.
And when he went to bed, he was most certainly not kept awake by violin music coming from the sitting room.
Most certainly not.
March 25, 1886
Morning by the docks was dim and grey. More than a few men and women were already at work there, dragging about cargo and making repairs, but they were moving slowly and sleepily, as if they'd all much rather be inside.
Still, there was some swift movement. Two small shapes darted around among the scaffoldings and barrels, moving along the walls and ducking into shadowed doorways as they made their way towards a rundown shop on the outskirts of the dock.
"You think he's there?" one of the shapes whispered, huddling closer to her companion. "It looks dark."
Her companion raised a finger to his lips and hushed her.
The first shape, a girl with unwashed hair and trousers of a colour undistinguishable from its mud stains, pouted. "Don't shush me!" she hissed, folding her arms over her chest. "We're going to lose to Tom again, and it's all your fault. I told you that lady was full of-"
A crash from inside the shop interrupted her. Her companion, a lanky boy a few years her elder, signalled her with a wave and they both snuck up closer to a grimy window. Inside, the silhouettes of three men were wrestling. It would have looked more like a shadow play rather than a real fight if it hadn't been for the shouting and sounds of breaking glass.
"Liz, get the cops," the boy whispered to the girl, who frowned in response.
"From where?" she questioned, still pouting.
The boy sighed, already making his way towards the shop's door. "Just grab any copper you see and drag him back here if you have to. Or find some of the others, I don't care, just get it done! I'll stay here and keep an eye on things."
The girl huffed, but whirled around and ran off the way they'd come.
Inside the shop, one of the silhouettes now lay on the floor, unmoving. The boy sidled away from the window and pressed his ear against the keyhole of the shop's door just in time to catch one of the standing figures growling: "…for trying to blackmail us!" followed by a thud.
The boy hurried to take cover behind a large wooden box as footsteps began to move towards the door. Out stepped two men. Their clothes didn't look out of place in the dock environment, designed for hard work rather than good looks, but the flecks of drying blood on the sleeves were admittedly eye-catching.
The first man rolled up his sleeves and spat on the ground before giving the other a curt nod. As one, they turned and headed away from the shop.
The boy hesitated for a long moment, eyes darting between the shop door and the men's backs as they disappeared around a corner. Then he squared his shoulders and hurried to follow.
He made it to just outside the docks before they spotted him.
It wasn't apparent at first. They didn't stop, didn't say anything, didn't even look over their shoulders. Instead, they turned around a corner into a narrow alleyway and simply disappeared – or so it seemed.
The boy stopped dead in his tracks as he rounded the corner and cursed. He cursed even louder when an arm appeared from out of the alley's shadows and wrapped around his throat, followed by a second that threatened to crush his ribs.
"Got us a little spy, have we," the man holding him taunted, tightening his arm around the boy's waist. "Ask Sebastian here what we do with spies."
The second man stepped out of the shadows and a flash of light drew the boy's attention to the knife in his hand.
That was, thankfully, the moment Liz showed up with Wiggins and the others.
Watson seated himself by the fireplace with a sigh. He hadn't bothered knocking on Holmes' door, as Mrs. Hudson had informed him that he'd rushed off somewhere at the break of dawn and not yet returned.
He nearly jumped out his skin when he spotted a man by the window. Said man turned around to face him as the door to the sitting room fell closed.
"My apologies," he said, hands clasped behind his back in a relaxed fashion. He was well-dressed in dark colours and wore a wedding belt around his waist – a leader, if one were to judge him by the cut of his clothes. His face was thin and adorned with a neatly trimmed beard, which framed an open smile. "Your landlady let me in some time ago. I hope you don't mind."
"She failed to mention that," Watson said and bowed politely. He got a benevolent nod in return.
"Understandable. She must be a very busy woman." The words seemed to underline the mess around them and Watson bit his tongue to stop himself from commenting. "I'm Mr. George Foret. I understand Holmes has taken it upon himself to find my wife's missing wedding collar?"
Watson took a few steps further into the room, stopping when there was nothing but a table between himself and Mr. Foret. "Mr. Holmes was asked by Mrs. Frewin to investigate the theft, yes," he replied, taking it upon himself to try and clear some space among the correspondence and books littering the table. "We assumed you had been informed."
Mr. Foret chuckled and took a step closer, lifting a paper here and there, unmoved by the clouds of dust he stirred. "My wife is very good to me, very humble and obedient," he spoke softly, "but there are moments when she acts ... rashly, I suppose. She always has the best of intentions, of course, but the road to hell and all that."
Watson cleared his throat and Mr. Foret looked up from a book he'd carelessly flipped open. His smile was mischievous. "Again, my apologies." He closed the book and took three swift steps around the table, cornering Watson against an armchair. "I must admit to having followed yours and Holmes' adventures avidly. Sometimes your exploits makes one forget you're members of the softer sex."
"Imagine that," Watson said, shifting his cane so he could lean on it with both hands, which forced Mr. Foret to either back up a step or get his foot smashed.
Mr. Foret and Watson turned their heads as one towards the door to the stairs, where Holmes now stood. "Dear Lord, I must be losing my touch," he muttered, eyes widened into an honest look of confusion Watson knew to be completely false, "I was quite certain your fiancée was a woman."
Watson took a step away from Mr. Foret, narrowly avoiding the armchair. Mr. Foret, on the other hand, laughed. "I see you've done your friend a disservice in your writings, Dr. Watson," he chuckled, his attention fully on Holmes. "He has quite a sense of humour."
"He does indeed," Watson murmured, taking the opportunity to limp over to a chair in the far corner of the room.
Mr. Foret ignored him. "Mr. Holmes, it is an honour to finally meet you." He moved across the room swift as a snake, smoothly grabbing a hold of Holmes' right hand and bending to kiss it.
Holmes tolerated the administration with a blank expression. "Mr. George Foret, I assume," he simply stated.
"Guilty as charged," Mr. Foret replied. "Your landlady let me in."
Holmes slowly raised one eyebrow. "I inquired about your presence here before walking up the stairs, and it would seem Mrs. Hudson has no memory of letting you in."
"How strange," Mr. Foret said, not missing a beat, "I came here not twenty minutes ago. Is she usually so forgetful?"
"Mrs. Hudson has always had a keen memory, at least when it comes to those she plans on serving tea."
A long pause followed in which Mr. Foret's smile seemed to widen further, if such a thing was possible. "Then I shall ask for tea next time," he quipped. He was still holding Holmes' hand. Holmes made no move to withdraw it.
"Ah, but I forget myself," Mr. Foret continued. "I have come here to ask that you end your search for my wife's collar. Leave that to the police."
Watson sat up straighter in his armchair. Holmes' face remained a mask of calm. "Really?" he questioned, "Whatever for, if I may ask?"
"I simply find it to be a waste of your genius," Mr. Foret hurried to assure him, finally releasing Holmes' hand. "Let the police deal with this. At worst, they'll never find the collar and I'll have to buy a new one, as well as hire new staff."
"Let me see if I've understood you correctly," Holmes said, frowning thoughtfully. "You wish to leave a burglar that hired a person in your household to drug your food for the police, who so far haven't got a single lead. I must admit, I find myself baffled by your reasoning."
"Clever thieves are still just thieves," Mr. Foret responded, having returned to shifting through their belongings in a lazy manner. "As I said, you should focus your genius on other, more important endeavours. I hear there's been a wave of kidnappings this past week – surely that deserves your attention more than the loss of a collar, no matter how valuable?"
Holmes joined Mr. Foret by the table, putting everything back in its place as soon as Foret lost interest – though 'order' might have been too strong a word for it. "I have, in fact, followed the matter with interest," he informed both of them. "And I can assure you that I am more than ready to assist, as soon as I'm asked to. Until then, I shall assume that Scotland Yard has the matter under control."
"But of course. Oh, what have we here?" Mr. Foret liberated a small square of white paper decorated with careful writing from the mess on the table. "Well, this is a pleasant surprise! Mr. Hagon was kind enough to invite me and my wife yesterday, so I assume I will see you there?"
Watson desperately tried to catch Holmes' eye, to no avail. "Yes, we're looking forward to it," the detective answered blithely.
"You should, I'm sure it'll be quite a thrill. I've been made responsible for the entertainment after dinner, you see." Mr. Foret's smile had an edge to it now. Watson fisted his hands around his cane until his knuckles turned white.
Holmes bowed politely, somehow having opened the door to the stairs without a sound, and now stood with his hand on the doorknob, eyes on Mr. Foret. "Until then, Mr. Foret."
Mr. Foret tipped his hat. Without another word he left the room, flashing a smile Watson's way before Holmes closed the door.
The room remained silent until the front door slammed shut.
"What a thoroughly unpleasant man," Watson stated, frowning. "He makes Mrs. Preece seem tactful. I'm almost glad we're no longer..." He paused, having caught sight of Holmes' knowing smile.
"We're not ending this investigation, are we?" he finally sighed, to which Holmes nodded curtly.
"We are in the employment of Mrs. Frewin, not Mr. Foret," he pointed out, stepping away from the door. "Really, Watson, when has a disgruntled husband ever stopped us from fulfilling our obligations to a client?"
Watson didn't comment. Instead, he unfolded the day's paper, shielding himself from Holmes' gaze. "You said you've been following the kidnappings?"
"Naturally," Holmes replied as he slid into the armchair closest to the window. "I must admit, the complete pattern still escapes me. The attacks so far have been strangely unpredictable – children and workers, followers and leaders. Only the elderly seem to be safe. It will be a challenge to solve."
Behind the paper, Watson's frown deepened. "Has Lestrade contacted you?"
Holmes fetched his pipe and Watson sunk deeper into his chair, stretching his legs.
The paper hardly survived Watson's startled reaction. After carefully folding up its remains, he put it down on the table and glared at Holmes, who was very pointedly not looking at him. "What about her?"
"Are you aware that her father was executed for the murder of two of his fellow soldiers? Or was her inheritance the only thing of interest to you?"
Watson's cheeks flushed, though there was no shame behind the heat. "Mary's modest inheritance played no part whatsoever in our engagement, and-"
"Then what did?"
For a long moment Watson couldn't meet Holmes' eyes, no matter how hard he tried.
Holmes seemed to take this as an answer in itself. "You are not members of the same House of Meeting. I've never heard you mention her name nor in fact thoughts of marriage, which leads me to the conclusion that you've met her very recently – this week, I should say. And, to my knowledge, the only places you have been in the past seven days that were not here or at your House were the homes of patients and at dinner with Stamford and his husband." He paused to light his pipe. "She did not appear ill."
"Not that you asked, but yes, Stamford did introduce us."
"A spur of the moment decision, was it?"
The last of the dust Mr. Foret had stirred up made patterns in the sunlight coming in through the window. Down below in the street, a man called out for a cab.
"You know you are an awful liar," Holmes chastised. "Tell me the real reason."
Watson managed to keep silent and picked up a novel he hadn't yet finished reading from under the ashtray.
"Is your wish truly to become some power-hungry stranger's possession?"
Watson slammed his book shut and gritted his teeth. "Holmes, you're exaggerating. The laws have been modernized-"
Holmes' eyes grew dark and he slammed his pipe down on the table with no little force. "No, it is you who can't see the trouble, the danger you're putting yourself in! No matter what quarrel you have, the law will be on her side." He grimaced, as if the mere thought of it left a bad taste in his mouth. "A pet dog has it better than a married follower, if only because they can't fathom a life outside captivity. Why would you do that to yourself?"
"As I said, you're exaggerating!" Watson sighed. "There are plenty of happily married couples in the world. What makes you so sure that I will be miserable with Mary?"
"I have no idea. Maybe because you've only known her for two days, yet are ready to sign your life away?"
A door suddenly slammed open downstairs, making them both pause. The sound of stumbling, light steps followed and soon voices as well.
"Dr. Watson! Dr. Watson!" two children cried from the other side of the door to the sitting room in an uneven chorus. Before either of them could move, it swung open and three Irregulars stumbled in. The boy in the middle was leaning heavily on his companions – an older boy and a younger girl, who was keeping a firm grip on a boot that had dripped a sporadic trail of mud behind them.
"Wiggins," Holmes greeted the eldest of the three while Watson made his way over to the child in the middle, who was swaying on his feet.
"This will need stitches," the doctor stated as he brushed aside the boy's hair to reveal a bleeding gash near his collarbone.
Holmes waited until Watson had helped the injured boy to a seat with assistance from the girl that had arrived with him, before turning his attention back to Wiggins. "Report."
"We did as you said, sir," Wiggins began, darting worried glances over at the boy in the chair. Watson had momentarily left his side to limp over to one of the adjacent rooms. "We split up into groups and showed your notes to everyone on the list." Behind him, Watson returned with his medical bag. "Got some different clues out of it, so we split up again. Bill and Liz think they found what you were looking for, so we came here straight away!"
"Details, Wiggins," Holmes muttered, eyes on the needle and thread Watson was preparing.
"There was more than one place that had sold the chle..." Wiggins stumbled over the word, made a second attempt before giving up, "the thing we were looking for in the past week, but only two who were bragging, so we figured we'd go to them first."
Bill hissed slightly as the needle poked through his skin, but remained still. Liz had taken his hand in hers.
"Me and Tom went to the one place and Liz and Bill to the other, a shop by the docks, while the rest kept asking around. Liz says there were men at the shop when they arrived, and that there wasn't much left of the shopkeeper when those men left."
"Most unfortunate," Holmes muttered arms folded over his chest. "Go on."
"Well, Bill sent Liz for the rest of us while he followed the suspects." He put a prideful emphasis on the last word. "Tricky bastards tried to grab him and were about to drag him off somewhere when we caught up with them."
"Was anyone else hurt?" Watson cut in.
"Not bad enough to need a doctor," Wiggins hurried to assure. "There was a lot more of us than them and they seemed pretty winded from their fight with the shopkeeper, so we got Bill away safe pretty quick. Couldn't catch them, though, but we managed to snatch this off one of them!" He nodded at Liz, who immediately held up the large, grimy boot she'd been carrying like it was a hunting trophy.
Holmes gave a triumphant shout. "Well done, my friends, well done!" he praised as he turned the shoe over his in his hands, scraping at the dirt on the heel and breathing in its decidedly unpleasant aroma.
"Is there diamond dust on the sole?" Watson drawled, finishing the stitches.
"Don't be silly, Watson," Holmes said. "But it is a vital clue. This happens to be the shoe of one Mr. Bell of the Foret household."
Watson's eyes darted to the boot as if drawn there by a magnet. He looked just about ready to ask: Are you sure?
"See the fine quality? Definitely made in France, by a quite famous Parisian shoemaker, to be exact. They have the habit of impregnating their merchandise with flower scents. It's faint now, but there's no mistaking it." He scraped away some of the dirt, revealing fine leather. "Too large a size to fit any of the other servants. I took note of their clothes yesterday – Mr. Foret spares no expenses on his staff, though Mr. Bell does not appear to think that enough. And judging by this mud..." He trailed off. "The docks, you said?"
"Yes, sir!" Wiggins responded eagerly. If he'd had a tail it would have been wagging frantically.
"Two men with only three shoes between them will be easy to track, so we best get under way. Wiggins, run to Scotland Yard and make sure Inspector Lestrade gets this." Holmes was already shrugging on his coat, handing a hastily scribbled note to Wiggins. "You will all receive your just reward once we return."
Watson got to his feet with a groan. "Stay here with Bill until we get back," he ordered Liz while drying the blood off of his hands. "Bill is to remain seated. Ask Mrs. Hudson for some tea and-"
"Come now, there isn't a moment to lose!" Holmes cried and was off through the door. With a sigh and a final glance at his patient, Watson followed.
It took them two hours to find and follow the tracks left by the two men Wiggins had spoken of. Holmes' attention had remained entirely on the mud and dirt of the street, and Watson was just about ready to demand he say something when Holmes froze.
"I believe we've arrived at our destination," he murmured, gesturing at one of the many rundown warehouses they'd been wandering among for the past half hour. There was a light burning in the upper window, which looked surprisingly clean compared to the broken and dirty ones on the lower floor.
"See those lines in the dirt?" He pointed at the ground just outside the warehouse's entrance, which was covered in asymmetrical lines, as if a group of children had spent their afternoon drawing in the mud with sticks. "They've attempted to hide their tracks. A clumsy attempt, to be sure, but it still speaks of the ability to plan and predict. Keep your pistol ready."
Watson gave a curt nod and made ready to walk out of the shadowy corner they had hidden behind when the warehouse door slid open with a faint creak. They watched, unmoving, as a finely dressed man walked out.
"That's odd," Watson commented as the man disappeared into an alleyway.
"You know the man?" Holmes asked, taking a tentative step out from their hiding place.
"Hardly, but I have seen him before – yesterday, to be precise, at my House of Meeting. His name is Alton Rosamond. Mrs. Preece introduced us."
"Did she, now?" Holmes peered in to the warehouse through a shattered window. Inside, there was dust and darkness, but no movement. "Open the door, carefully," he instructed Watson, attention still on the room. "There's light coming from under a door inside. Judging by the size of the main area compared to the building as a whole, there is an elongated, windowless room behind it. Our suspects didn't bother cleaning up the tracks of dirt they left behind on the floor, and I can hear no steps from the upper level, so we can assume the thieves are all in that room. Be on guard."
"Always," Watson muttered back, working the door open with his cane.
Holmes glanced at the ground again. "Hmm, most curious."
"What?" Watson whispered, door half-ajar.
"Nothing," Holmes whispered back, before kneeling in the dirt. "I'll enter through a window on the other side of the building. Wait for my signal before you enter the second room."
Watson frowned but nodded and snuck inside, gun first.
A few floorboards creaked ominously when he stepped on them and the light was very dim, but no attackers came out at him from out of the shadows. There was a rickety ladder to his left, leading up to a hole in the room just the size to fit a large man through and down to a similar hole in the floor. Stacks of wooden crates were lined up along the walls and there was a fine layer of dust on everything. One or two spiderwebs decorated strategic nooks and crannies. Everything reeked of decay and something else unpleasant Watson couldn't quite place.
It took far too long a moment before Holmes reappeared, climbing in through a glassless window on the opposite side of the room. He made it over to Watson's side soundlessly, as if he'd memorized which floorboards made noise.
"On three," he whispered, gesturing at the door they'd stopped next to and careful to keep out of the thin light seeping out from under it. "Gently."
Watson slowly turned the doorknob. He met no resistance, and they were greeted by more crates and the faint light of a faraway lantern. Without a word Watson stepped in first, taking cover behind the crates, and Holmes followed, closing the door behind them.
The men in the room were all seated on rickety chairs not five feet away, all strangers aside from Mr. Bell, who had a stained towel wrapped around one foot and a scowl on his face. He looked up just in time to miss the door closing. He glared at it for a while, as if it had personally offended him, then turned to the man next to him. "We done here?"
The other man shrugged. "Just about. Anne and the others are probably packing away the last of the goods. We'll leave on your signal, boss."
Bell huffed in annoyance at the man's less than respectful tone of voice, but made no comment. Instead, he demanded: "Open the safe."
The other men in the room groaned in unison.
"Christ!" a man with a neck nearly as wide as his head growled and fixed Bell with a rivalling glare. "You can polish the damn thing tonight!"
Their eyes remained locked in challenge for a good twenty seconds before the man with the neck averted his gaze and stood. "Fine, you win."
As the man made his way over to the safe, Holmes leaned closer to Watson and spoke into his ear: "I'll take the ones on the left. You go around from the right and knock Mr. Bell unconscious – we'll need him for questioning."
"There's five of them!" Watson hissed at him.
"I am sure you've seen worse odds, old chap," Holmes whispered back with a twinkle in his eyes Watson recognized all too well.
"Holmes!" Watson gritted out through his teeth, reaching out to grab his arm two seconds too late.
If time could stop, it would have then. As if in a drunken haze, Watson watched Holmes crawl to the other end of the stack of crates quick as a weasel. Once there, he stood up and stepped out right in front of the thieves – of which one now held a diamond studded collar in his hands. He even lifted his hat in greeting to the five pairs of eyes that turned to glare at him.
"Gentlemen!" he said and Watson had to stifle a very loud, very unfollowerlike curse. "I do believe that collar to be the property of one Mrs. Frewin. Would you kindly explain how it has come to be in your possession?"
To their credit, the thugs didn't stare in disbelief at Holmes for too long. Sadly for them, Watson was quicker still.
The butt of his gun clubbed Bell to the floor before his fellows even had considered drawing their weapons. Holmes dodged a knife at the same time Watson tripped one of the men, who reached out and managed to drag another down with him. The fourth was unarmed by Watson's cane rapping over his knuckles.
Holmes was busy wrestling the fifth – the man with the neck – when the unarmed man took his first swing at Watson, in turn knocking his gun away. They both made a mad dash for it, Watson using his cane to knock the wind out of his opponent while stepping on the hand of one of the felled men, who'd also made an attempt to reach for the weapon. The man's groan of pain was swiftly silenced by a kick in the head.
Two down, Watson thought to himself as he reclaimed his gun and braced himself against a wall. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted Holmes, who was still busy with the fifth thief and thankfully gaining the upper hand, slowly but surely.
The winded man, one arm wrapped around his ribcage, froze as he noticed that the gun was back in Watson's hand, but not for long. Next to him, the third thief still conscious was making his way up from the floor, and as soon as Watson's attention shifted to him the man with the bruised ribs pounced.
This time it was Watson's knee, not his cane, that smashed into his stomach.
Watson made quick work of his last disoriented opponent, managing to twist behind him and catch him in a stranglehold, using is cane to suffocate him just long enough to make him pass out.
"Well done, Watson!" Holmes crowed before clobbering the last thief over the head. The man fell to the ground with a moan.
Watson gave a nervous laugh, feeling weak in the knees. "That," he choked out, "was suicidal!"
"Now who's exaggerating?" Holmes turned to pick up the collar before Watson could retort. "Let us search the rest of this building, to make sure they have no friends lying in wait for when Lestrade gets here."
"Or at least find some way of restraining these chaps," Watson interjected. "Their coats could possibly do."
"Excellent suggestion," Holmes agreed and handed the collar to Watson. Soon they had all the five men secured, wrist to wrist and ankle to ankle.
"Now," the detective whispered as they made their way back into the larger room, "I will search the storage down below and you the room above us. We meet here again in no more than ten minutes."
Watson only nodded in reply and began climbing up the ladder; seconds later hearing Holmes do the same, in the opposite direction.
The room above was small enough to be well lit by the lantern that stood in its only window and full of yet more crates. At least the stench was less potent there.
Watson set his cane aside and began searching through the crates, only to find nothing. He was about to call out to Holmes when Holmes beat him to it. Only there was no call, just a cry of pain.
He edged closer to the ladder in dread and found a monster of a man dragging a terribly limp Holmes out of the hole down below. Holmes struggled weakly, his movements oddly uncoordinated and slow.
"How did you get loose?" the man huffed, the tone of his voice more suitable for addressing runaway dogs than a fellow human being. "Thought yourself right clever, huh? Sneaking off to hide somewhere until everyone had left – even got yourself a follower out of the deal. I'm mighty impressed!"
As quietly as humanly possible, Watson put a foot on the ladder and began to climb down. Let him keep talking. Oh Lord, please let him keep talking!
"Would probably have worked, too, but you see, you don't survive this line of business being careless," the man rambled on, his back thankfully to the ladder. "Ms. Anne always has some of us go back, you see. She's smart like that."
Watson suppressed a sigh of relief, as he touched down on the floor, allowing himself time for rage. Holmes had a dazed look in his eyes and there was blood leaking from a cut at his temple and his lip.
Watson made an attempt to catch his eye but failed as the ruffian laughed and fisted his hand in Holmes' hair, pulling his head back to bare his throat. "Well, well, well! No collar, no cuffs." He made a sound of playful disapproval. "You are a clever one."
Watson had to bite back a curse, nearly breaking the skin of his lower lip. He gripped his pistol tighter, burning holes in the back of the ruffian's head with his eyes. Get up Holmes! For God's sake, get up!
Holmes gave a weak groan and blinked a few times. He made an attempt to grab at the fist in his hair, but the ruffian easily swatted his hands away. "The boys can't have taught you much about manners. Don't worry 'bout that, though – I'm a very strict teacher. Now, where did your little friend run off to?"
In hindsight, Watson could not fully recall how he ended up pressing the barrel of his gun against the back of the man's head. All he knew was that he truly wanted to pull the trigger. "You will let go of him, and you will do so now!" The click of the cocked pistol followed.
The ruffian stilled and his grip on Holmes' hair loosened. "S-sorry sir, didn't know he was yours, sir. D-didn't even know he was a follower, sir," he stuttered, suddenly as tame as a scolded watch hound. "I could assist you, should you wish to bring him home for punishment. Promise I won't touch a hair on his head, sir." He started at his own words, looking down at the hand in Holmes' hair as if he'd forgotten it belonged to him. "I-I mean, I..."
"Do not try to distract me," Watson found himself saying, voice as cold and firm as steel. "Get up and get out of my sight!"
The ruffian was on his feet in a heartbeat, hands trembling. Slowly, he stepped aside from Holmes and turned around. His eyes widened when he saw who he was being threatened by. "You!" he exclaimed, looking for all the world as if it was the snake of Paradise itself that had spoken to him. "But he told you to..."
"Leave, if you wish to keep breathing," Watson growled, kneeling at Holmes' side while steadily keeping his pistol aimed at a point between the ruffian's eyes.
There was a glint of hesitation in the man's gaze. Then his attention focused on the pistol barrel once more and he began backing away out of the room, holding his hands out, wrists pressed together in a gesture of surrender.
Watson watched him until he had disappeared around a corner. He let his eyes dart from the entrance to the many windows, making sure no one else had used the struggle to sneak up on them, before finally relaxing and returning his pistol to its hidden pocket.
With another groan Holmes attempted to sit up, which Watson swiftly thwarted by placing a firm hand on his chest. "Lie still and let me examine you. At the very least, you have a concussion."
Holmes blinked up at him, eyes not quite focusing on anything. However, he refrained from further action and remained supine. Watson reached out and gently began feeling for fractures, noting the shallowness of the wound at his temple.
"That was very impressive."
Watson's hands froze, fingertips resting against Holmes' skull. "Whatever do you mean?" he mumbled, not meeting Holmes' unsteady but searching gaze.
"I think you know precisely what I mean," Holmes quipped, then hissed as Watson's fingers brushed against the top of his head. "Gently, Watson, gently!"
"You will have quite a headache for a few days, but nothing is broken, thank God." A sigh of relief escaped his lips and he carefully lowered Holmes' head back down to the ground. "Inspector Lestrade and his men should be here any minute. Just remain where you are and I'll see if they can get a stretcher for you."
Another groan, but this time not caused by any physical pain. "Watson, the day the police see me carried from a crime scene will be the day of my death. Help me stand!"
Once more Watson put his hand on Holmes' chest, this time with more force. "There will be no talk of death or walking. I'm sure you know as well as I do that concussions aren't something one just shrugs off. I am your doctor. If I say no walking, you will not walk, and that is final."
Something not unlike an amused grin tugged at Holmes' lips. "Just as I said: impressive."
Watson would have replied if Lestrade hadn't chosen that moment to finally come to their aid.
As soon as he laid eyes on the five policemen hesitantly entering the room, Watson suddenly felt very out of place. It was as if he found himself in unsuitable dress at a ball and unable to decide if he should find a change of clothes or ask someone for a dance. Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself and got up.
"Inspector Lestrade, how glad I am to see you. Would it be possible to fetch a stretcher for Mr Holmes? I'm afraid he's been injured."
Lestrade halted halfway into the room with a confounded look on his face. He glanced down at Holmes, still on the floor, his lips sealed tight in a smile and eyes closed. "Eh?" he said, shifting his weight to his other foot.
Watson frowned. "Are you deaf, man?" slipped out before he could stop himself. Lestrade and his men started almost simultaneously. "Holmes has received a blow to the head that may have caused a skull fracture. He is in need of rest and medical attention. I need assistance to carry him safely back to our apartment, or his injuries risk becoming worsened. Is that understood?"
Some of the officers nodded weakly. Lestrade was still gaping at him, eyes wide.
"I said, is that understood?" Watson repeated through gritted teeth. Two of the officers closest to the door hurried out without as much as a look in Lestrade's direction.
"Uhm," Lestrade finally managed, taking another few steps into the room. "Did you...?"
"Here is Mrs. Frewin's collar," Watson explained, taking said collar out of his pocket. "And you'll find the thieves in the next room, most likely still unconscious. What happened here was a bit of unrelated trouble – a wayward street thug thought he'd be able to make off with some smaller trinkets while we were busy, nothing more."
"Ah, yes, I see," Lestrade mumbled, already on his way to the next room. He paused with his hand on the doorknob and threw another glance at Holmes, still unmoving though clearly awake. "You will be all right, then?" he inquired, gaze flickering from Holmes to Watson and back again. "I can have my men accompany you to a hospital, should it be necessary."
"We will be perfectly fine, Inspector. I thank you for your help."
Lestrade hesitated another second, then opened the door to the other room.
Once the room was empty of all but the two of them, Holmes opened his eyes and gave Watson a very knowing and pleased grin. "Smaller trinket, am I?"
"Oh, be quiet, you," Watson sighed, but returned his smile. "I think I hear the lads with the stretcher. Will you be able to swallow your pride long enough for us to get you home?"
Holmes gave a theatrical sigh. "Well, if you deem it necessary, Doctor, what choice do I have?"
In reply Watson just shook his head, smile still in place, and turned to greet the men with the stretcher.
After the Irregulars still occupying their sitting room had left – all three a guinea richer – Watson set about tending to Holmes' wounds in earnest.
"This should heal without complications if you change the bandages regularly," he said as he wrapped gauze over the wound, careful to avoid putting too much pressure on any of the injuries. "No rushing about London chasing thieves and murders for a least two days, preferably three."
Holmes, who'd remained docile during the examination, nodded meekly. "I will do as you order, Doctor."
Watson froze mid-motion. For a second, he just stared at his patient. Then: "Now wait a minute, Holmes! Don't think I don't see what you're trying to do."
"Whatever do you mean?" Holmes' innocent expression was less theatrical this time, but still no match for Watson's searching gaze.
"You," Watson said, pointing an accusing finger at his friend, "are trying to convince me I have no need of a leader."
"Brilliantly deduced," Holmes quipped, lips widening into a Cheshire grin. "On what did you base this conclusion?"
Watson nearly toppled over the stool he'd been seated on as he stood and positively glared down at Holmes. "Your strange unwillingness to order Lestrade around was a clue, if nothing else. How much of it did you plan?" The muscles in his jaw clenched painfully. "Please tell me you didn't let that man sneak up on you on purpose, or I shall be forced to hit you myself."
"I can assure you, Doctor, that I had no intention of going home with a splitting headache."
"But you planned the rest, didn't you?"
Holmes remained silent.
Watson looked ready to kick the table in frustration. "You think I always leave ordering the police around to you out of some misguided sense of propriety?"
"You've always been one for tradition." Holmes gently brushing his fingers over the bandages. "Or the guise of tradition, at least."
"Just what exactly are you implying?" Watson said, pacing back and forth as much as his leg allowed.
"You know perfectly well what," Holmes snapped back, eyes narrowing. He stood and paused briefly to catch his balance. "I thought you had no interest in the foolish rules of society, but now-"
"Mary is a kind, gentle person," Watson began but was immediately cut short by Holmes' venomous: "Since when has that ever been a reason to marry someone you've known for less than a day?"
All the air went out of Watson. He sunk down into an armchair, uncaring of the files he crushed. "I'm doing this out of love," he spoke softly, resting his head in his hands. "I know that to be an emotion you do not care for, so my reasoning must seem highly illogical to you; but I assure you, I've thought this through."
Holmes' posture turned oddly rigid. Then he turned to face the fireplace, but not before Watson caught sight of the less than joyful smile tugging at the corner of his lips. "Of course I don't. Clever choice of words, Doctor – I can say nothing against them."
"Please," Watson said, voice muffled, "if you must take this rage out on someone, do so on me and not my fellows. You have no idea of the danger they'd be in if-"
"You truly believe me to be that heartless?"
Watson almost didn't hear the words. He looked up and was met by wide eyes and a deep scowl. He held Holmes' gaze for a moment before scrubbing his hands over his face as if to banish a headache.
"Mrs. Frewin has her wedding collar back, at least," he finally said with a weak smile. "But Mr. Foret won't be happy to realise his head of staff was the ringleader." He reached down to unlace his shoes and grimaced. "One wonders what made him choose such a disgusting hideout. I swear, the stench will never leave these clothes."
"Why, to keep all their victims as far away from any human with a conscience as possible," Holmes responded, gazing into the fire.
The laces fell from nerveless fingers. Watson stared, gaping, at Holmes' back. "W-what did you see?"
"Nothing as macabre as you're picturing right now," the detective murmured, reaching for the stoker, "but still decidedly unsettling."
Without a word, Watson stood and made his way over to a cabinet where he uncorked a bottle of brandy and poured two glasses. He handed one to Holmes. "Tell me."
"There was," Holmes began, giving the fire a vicious poke, "a stable down there, for lack of better word. At least thirty individuals had been kept there for several days and no one had bothered to clean their cages." He took a sip of the brandy. "Judging from the footprints in the filth, there were at least two children among them. They must have been herded out not two hours before we arrived."
Watson put a hand on his shoulder.
"Another curious thing," Holmes said, gulping down the last of his drink, "were the markings I found on the walls. Crosses carved into the wood, but not religious symbols. It looked more like someone had been counting or had written a coded message." They exchanged a look that wasn't as much meaningful as it was questioning.
"So when you inspected the ground outside the warehouse…"
Holmes snorted. "The lines were indeed the work of Bell and his men, but not to cover the marks of their boots. A transport wagon passed by there and it left heavier than it came." He took a deep breath. "The creatures kept in the lower room were undoubtedly human. Combined with the other evidence we've come across thus far, I can only draw one conclusion."
"Slavers," Watson gasped, his expression one of dawning horror. "By God, Holmes, why didn't you send the police after the man? We could have caught them red-handed!"
"It would have done more harm than good," Holmes answered calmly. "As he said, they have been in business quite some time, not in England but most likely somewhere in Europe. There's been plenty such crimes listed, but no more than a few underlings caught and put on trial. He would simply have led them astray or surrendered at once.
"Loyalty is handsomely rewarded, I suspect – there wouldn't be enough evidence to sentence him to more then a public flogging, and after that the entire organisation would have moved on. Like this, we at least have a chance at saving the victims."
"Somewhere in Europe," Watson echoed. "France, perhaps?"
The fire crackled, its light slowly dying as its fuel burned up and turned to ashes.
"In one way, we're lucky," Holmes quipped, voice void of any humour. "Had they simply been thieves or murderers, they would have slit Bill's throat and been off. As it is now, we have an excellent chance at catching them."
Watson gave Holmes' shoulder a squeeze before reluctantly withdrawing his hand. "Then we can do no more tonight. Get some rest, Holmes. The risk of you slipping into a coma is slim, but I'll come in to check on you in an hour to be on the safe side. Call for me if you need something for the headache."
Holmes gave him another unreadable look. "As you wish, Doctor."
March 26, 1886
"It looks to be healing well," Watson commented as he changed the bandages.
Holmes flinched slightly as pressure was applied to his wounds.
"Sorry," Watson said, but his hand remained in place. "Remember what I told you last night?"
"No sudden movements and rest," Holmes droned, as if reading from a list.
"Which means?" Watson prompted.
Holmes sighed. "That I shall be forced to remain caged in these rooms for days on end, no doubt."
"Nothing so drastic," Watson said, rolling his eyes. "I have a patient to see to, so I'll have to leave shortly. Leave the wound open to the fresh air."
He stood and stretched. "Why don't you meet me for lunch? I should be free by half past twelve."
"The usual establishment?" Holmes asked, leaning back in his chair.
Watson nodded in agreement and gathered his supplies. With a last word of goodbye, he was out the door.
Holmes stood and watched from the window as Watson hailed a cab. He charted its progression as it roll away down the street, a blank expression on his face.
It took him less than five minutes to get dressed.
"You look like you had a fun night," was the first comment out of Adler's mouth as she opened the door.
"Why, thank you," Holmes said, slipping inside, "I'm conducting a very interesting investigation at the moment, so a few bruises are only to be expected."
"I should have figured."
The room inside was packed full of trinkets and clothes spread haphazardly over all available surfaces. Furniture was more spares, consisting only of a table, two armchairs, a fireplace, and what could have been a bed hidden under a number of large ball gowns. A few rays of sunshine seeped in through a small window on the right-hand wall.
"This is a pleasant surprise!" Adler professed, slamming the door shut with a smile. "Though I left you clues more than a week ago. I'd begun to think you'd forgotten all about little old me. And take that moustache off, you look ridiculous!"
"Impossible," Holmes responded before removing the bush of dark hair from under his nose, pushing a suit out of the way so he could take a seat. "That would demand much graver skull trauma."
Adler laughed and swooped down to administer a deceptively innocent peck on his cheek. Holmes swatted her away, his scowl more playful than angry. "What brings you to this side of the world, then? Our lovely weather?"
Outside, the clouds were gathering into a grey mess in the sky. A raindrop hit the window.
"Let's not pretend this is a social visit, Sherlock," Adler said, sitting down opposite him in the remaining armchair. "You could at least have brought Dr. Watson – it's about time we were introduced. It would only be fitting, since I feel I already know him, what with you raving about him every chance you get."
"Ah, but this time you're only partly right," Holmes responded, ignoring her last comment. "I am in need of an escort."
The smirk that spread on Adler's face spoke of nothing good. "Tell me more."
Holmes cleared his throat. "The good doctor and I have been invited to a soirée this coming Sunday. It is vital for our current case that dinner goes as smoothly as possible."
"And you think this will be accomplished with me in the room?" Adler questioned, crossing her legs as if to point out the pinstriped trousers she was wearing.
"Well, if you dress less provocatively, yes," Holmes replied, his expression blank. "Are we in agreement?"
"Not yet," Adler murmured, resting an elbow on the arm of her chair so that she could comfortably support her jaw with her hand. She tapped a finger against her chin thoughtfully. "What do I get out of this?"
"I do believe you're familiar with this symbol." Holmes stuck his right hand deep into one of his ragged coat's many pockets. The piece of paper he withdrew was decorated with two equally sized rectangles, drawn together to form a cross. Alder's half-choked gasp was the most realistic he'd ever heard her utter.
"I still don't see how this leads to any kind of reward for me," Adler muttered, frowning.
"This symbol is a vital part of my investigation as well," Holmes said, tucking the paper into another pocket. "If I don't misremember, you have some affiliation to it."
Adler's frown turned more thoughtful than irate. "What makes you say that?"
"This." Another piece of paper appeared from yet another pocket. This one was much smaller, and its edges were little more than coal. On it, three partially cut-off words were written. The ink had been quite damaged by heat, but it was still possible to read: 'ritual and Temp'.
Adler chuckled. "You sure can make a mountain out of a molehill."
Holmes sighed. "Don't act coy, Adler, it doesn't suit you."
He received a weary sigh in response. "Very well, I'll play by your rules this time. But don't think you won't owe me."
The prospect didn't seem to thrill Holmes, who merely lifted an eyebrow.
"I can't tell you much about the organisation," Adler said, her expression stern. "But I can tell you about the man you're after."
Holmes' eyebrow climbed a little higher.
"Judging by that piece of paper, you've already guessed his name. And judging by the talk I've been hearing around town, as well as the symbol you dragged along, I'm pretty sure you already know the source of his grudge."
"The 5th of December, 1883."
Alder snorted and muttered, "Should have expected that," under her breath. "Do you truly need me for this?"
"Exact facts are always necessary, and my only way of acquiring them is to interview one of the participants. Of them, you are the one least likely to have me quietly disposed of in a dark alley."
"Don't be so sure of yourself." Her grin had returned, playful as ever. "Can't say there's much to tell. The man was getting too zealous for his own good, getting too close to very important information. I was assigned the task of finding a way to keep him under control, and I did my best."
Adler shrugged. "Meeting places, members. For a while, we feared he'd even found out the identity of our leader. Quite a feat, too, since most of us have no clue."
"But you do?"
"I have my ways," was Adler's only reply, a hint of pride entering her smile.
Holmes' eyebrow remained aloft. "So your reasoning and motivation for this act – which, may I remind you, risked becoming quite a scandal with great legal repercussions – was based solely on your loyalty to this 'organisation'?"
Holmes steepled his fingers in front of his face, elbows resting on the arms of his chair, and met Adler's gaze with steady, searching eyes. "No, there is more to this," he said after a long moment of silence. "You are hiding something from me."
"Aren't I always?"
"True," Holmes agreed, "but this could be relevant to my investigation."
"You just want the sordid details."
Holmes frowned. "Absolutely not!"
"But we could exchange advice," Alder teased, tilting her head further into her hand to give Holmes a lopsided grin. Holmes frowned in confusion. "Coy doesn't suit you, either. Stop pretending – even I've heard of your sinful life. You didn't really think it was a secret, did you?"
"Whatever do you mean, Ms. Adler?"
"You and Dr. Watson, of course." She got up from her seat and walked over to the dusty window, throwing a smile over her shoulder. "Two unmarried followers living together for years without a leader in sight, going on dashing adventures, turning down all proposals that come their way. Really, Holmes, refusing a duke? No wonder people talk."
Holmes' frown deepened as she spoke. His hands were digging into the armchair, tearing out stuffing it could sorely stand to lose. "I am in no mood for your games. And Watson, if you must know, is engaged."
"Ah, poor darling," she mocked him. "Rejected by your one true love! You must be heartbroken."
"Only over the fact that he's made a rash and dangerous decision," Holmes replied in a steady tone. "He was introduced to this Morstan woman not three days ago." He cut himself short and glared at his hands, as if they were to blame.
Something about Adler's posture changed. She didn't start or straighten her back. Her expression remained the same, her lips spread wide in a taunting smile, but there was something in the way she listened, they way she held herself that was different.
"So then that makes you a free man," she said, stepping away from the window and over to his armchair. She braced her hands on the backrest and leaned in close, until there was little more than a hand's breadth of air between their faces. "My, my, Mr. Holmes, coming unescorted to the home of a leader! And if I may remind you: I don't have the best of reputations."
"I tremble," Holmes drawled, once again lifting an eyebrow, unmoved by her close proximity.
"As well you should," Adler huffed, leaning back "Now shoo, I have things to attend to." She picked up the moustache Holmes had discarded on the table and handed it to him.
"And those things would be?" Holmes inquired, standing.
Adler shrugged. "Nothing special. Maybe make a visit to the House of Meeting I attended when I lived here, for old time's sake and whatnot. I will call on you before Sunday, have no fear."
Holmes carefully reattached the bush of hair to his upper lip, then gave Adler a polite bow. She watched him go with false disinterest before turning to stare out the window once more.
The restaurant was positively brimming with people, which didn't put Watson at ease at all. He tugged at his sleeves for the third time in as many minutes and glanced at the entrance.
The doors swung open to reveal a couple who embodied the word rich, glittering gold and silver in the afternoon sun. Two follower women walked behind them, whispering with their heads close together. Watson paid no attention to any of them.
A hand on his elbow startled him out of his anxious fidgeting.
"He'll be here, don't worry," Morstan reassured him, giving his elbow a light squeeze. "I'll go find us a table."
The only reply she received was an absent-minded nod.
When Holmes finally did show up, his forehead suspiciously free of bruises, Watson stifled a sigh of relief. Said relief didn't last long.
"Watson," Holmes greeted him in a tone of voice so acidic it could have corroded steel, "what is that woman doing here? I was quite sure that you suggested lunch, not a trap."
"Don't be so dramatic," Watson muttered. "I didn't wish to trick you, but I knew you wouldn't have come if I'd told you the whole truth."
"And that makes it more honest?" Holmes inquired, glaring over Watson's shoulder.
"No," Watson admitted.
They stood at a stalemate until Morstan spotted them and immediately steered her course in their direction.
"Was this her idea?" Holmes hissed before she came within earshot.
"It was all mine," Watson replied, meeting the detective's searching gaze.
Holmes' shoulders dropped and he took a deep breath. "Very well, I will indulge you. I'll even let her pay for my meal, if that will make you happy."
A smile tugged at Watson's lips. "Such sacrifices you make for me."
Morstan halted by Watson's side and smiled openly at both of them. "Mr. Holmes, it is a pleasure to finally meet you," she greeted him, taking Watson by the arm and offering to do the same for Holmes.
After a moment's hesitation, Holmes accepted. "The pleasure is all mine," he replied with cheer so convincing it could have earned him a place in any theatre company.
Still smiling, Morstan guided the both of them to a table for three. Some of the restaurant's patrons paused in their dining and talking to watch them pass.
"I must admit, I am an avid reader of your adventures," Morstan said, holding out a chair for Watson and then for Holmes, who accepted the assistance without pause this time.
He sat down, a polite smile on his face, and answered: "Then you have me at a disadvantage, Ms. Morstan. Watson hasn't breathed a word about you. Tell me, how did the two of you meet?"
Watson gave Holmes a cautioning look as Morstan took a seat between them.
"A mutual friend introduced us," Morstan answered, gently placing a hand on one of Watson's. "I confess I was quite taken with him from the moment I saw him. It's so rare to find such an open-minded follower as him – not to mention clever and handsome – that I couldn't help but propose the next day. And, as luck would have it, he said yes."
Holmes bit back a groan at the adoring look Morstan threw Watson, who reciprocated shyly. Well, shyly to any observer who wasn't Holmes. He caught the smile Watson was suppressing and had to stop himself from commenting.
"And what is your line of work?" he asked instead, drawing Morstan's attention away from Watson.
"I'm a private tutor," she answered, as a waiter stopped next to her and began placing a series of covered platters on their table. "I took it upon myself to order for all of us. I hope you don't mind."
"Of course not," Holmes assured her. "Watson, you're awfully quiet. Is something wrong?"
Watson started. "No, no, I'm quite all right. Why don't you tell Mary about your latest case?"
Holmes frowned slightly. "I don't know if it would interest you, Ms. Morstan," he said, taking a sip of wine. "I'm sure Watson will make it far more fanciful and to your taste once he's had a chance to write it down."
"As much as I love John's writing," Morstan interjected, "it would be quite an experience to hear it told in your own words."
Out of the corner of his eye, Holmes caught Watson's pleading look. "Very well, then. Three days ago we were contacted by a follower whose wedding collar had been stolen. I cannot, of course, reveal her name, but…" He went off on a tangent that lasted well into the dessert. For each word he spoke and each glass of wine he drank his posture relaxed, until he seemed just as at ease as his companions.
Finally, the last plate had been carried off by a waiter and the case descriptions – for Holmes had not been able to keep to just one example of suspects apprehended because of their choice of clothing – ended.
"You are active in the women's rights movement." Holmes asked Morstan, or rather stated, when their wine glasses had been refilled.
"Yes," came the answer. "Though we prefer not to call it that – it makes us so easily confused with the work for followers' rights."
Watson gave Holmes yet another look, and again Holmes ignored him.
"So you have no interest in the rights of followers?"
Morstan's cheeks took on a pinkish tint. She chuckled. "Please, Mr. Holmes, do not twist my words. Of course I care for your and John's rights as much as my own. The distinction is mostly for the politicians. They do so love their categories."
Again she gazed fondly at Watson. "I do what I can for both sides. And our work benefits you as well! For example, if it wasn't for such visionaries, John and I would not have been allowed to marry even today."
Had Holmes possessed hackles, they would have been raised. "That would certainly have been a pity," he commented, voice once more acidic.
Morstan didn't seem to hear. "Speaking of rights," she said, "Mr. Holmes, I must admit I feel rather guilty for taking John from you." Her hand closed around Watson's as she spoke. "You should not have to lose your friend and chronicler so that I might gain a husband."
Watson frowned in confusion. Holmes merely lifted an eyebrow.
"What I'm saying is," Morstan continued, "that I would not hesitate to take you in as well. In fact, it would be an hon-"
Before Morstan could finish the sentence Holmes stood, expression uncannily neutral. "I suddenly feel very ill, please excuse me."
Morstan and Watson were both on their feet in no time and seemingly without thought. Morstan reached out to steady the detective.
Holmes took a step to the side and pushed at the hand holding his elbow, ruffling the sleeve of Morstan's dress in the process. "Thank you, I believe I'll find my own way out," he said curtly, bowing before slipping away towards the exit.
Once again, the eyes of half the restaurant were on them.
"I'm sorry," Morstan whispered to Watson, "I truly didn't mean to upset him. Go after him?"
It wasn't an order, but Watson was more than happy to obey.
He caught up with Holmes on the street outside and had to grab him by the arm or risk losing him in the afternoon crowd. Holmes glared and seemed ready to curse out loud, but let himself be guided to a doorway where they could talk in peace.
"I suppose that was your idea as well," he hissed when Watson let go of his arm.
"Actually, no, that was all hers," Watson responded, wringing his hands. "Holmes," he began, but Holmes cut him short.
"I saw the cross inside her sleeve," he gritted out through his teeth. "Is that what you've been hiding all this time? An organisation that works to gather followers for leaders too incompetent to attract one on their own? I've said nothing of it for years because I saw no harm in your 'secret gatherings,' but if this is where it has led you, maybe-"
"You've completely misunderstood the situation!" Watson finally cried, causing an elderly couple to give them an odd look. He took a deep breath as they passed, trying to lift his eyes from staring at the ground. "Maybe…I mean, perhaps…"
"Spit it out, man!"
Watson squared his shoulders and forced himself to look at Holmes' face rather than his shoes. "Maybe Mary's idea isn't such a bad one," he said, pleading with both eyes and voice.
"If you wish to be her plaything go right ahead, but don't try and drag me down with you!" Holmes sneered and made to walk back onto the crowded street.
Watson gently grabbed him by the arm again. "Please, Sherlock, just listen to me for a moment!" he begged, pulling him back into the doorway. "You would never have to take any vows, and things would be so much easier for us."
Holmes gritted his teeth, but remained silent and listened. Some of the make-up covering his forehead had become smeared, revealing a dark bruise.
"Mary would never demand anything from you, I can swear to that," Watson assured him. "And think of how much it would facilitate investigations! Some clients might mistake you for," he paused, cheeks a light shade of red, "for being Mary's follower as well, but there is nothing illegal or immoral about that. You've let people think far worse of you."
He took a deep, calming breath and attempted a smile. "In short, our lives would be very much like now, only with added benefits. Surely that wouldn't be too terrible?"
For a second the anger left Holmes' eyes, replaced by what could have been yearning. But in the next moment it was gone, and his eyes darkened further. "Maybe not," he answered, "but I'll be damned before I share you with the likes of her!"
Dumbfound, Watson could only watch as Holmes melted into the crowd. It took him another few minutes to gather his wits enough to return to the restaurant.
Watson couldn't help but give the woman sitting opposite him a suspicious look. After the fiasco at lunch, he and Morstan had spent the cab ride to the House of Meeting in silence and thus he hadn't been prepared for the company.
They were seated at a table in the far corner of the first room on the lower floor, and it wasn't just Watson staring. The woman – who Morstan had greeted with a happy, "Irene!" – had attracted a great deal of attention, dressed as she was in a pinstriped suit. She seemed perfectly happy with this predicament.
Morstan ignored the looks thrown their way and ordered some tea. "Did you get the message I sent you?"
"Yes," the woman replied, her eyes on Watson. "And I brought what you asked for. But first, you should introduce us."
Morstan blinked, then smiled. "Of course, how foolish of me to forget! Irene, this is Dr. John Watson, my fiancé."
Watson bowed, ducking low to avoid accidentally upsetting the tray that a follower, who was paying far more attention to the woman in the suit than to the tea, put on their table.
"John, this is an old friend of mine, Irene Adler."
Adler gave Watson a friendly nod before picking up a tea cup. "Good choice," she commented to Morstan, sweeping her gaze over the doctor in an exaggerated and offensive manner. Under the table, Watson fisted his hands in his lap.
"Enough with the flattery," Morstan hurried to interject, her amused tone edged with a hint of warning. "Would you please show us what you brought?"
Adler rolled her eyes and gave Watson a theatrical wink. "Such a slave driver," she muttered to him, far too loudly to be considered a whisper. "Very well, here is your trinket." She retrieved a small box from one of her trouser pockets and swiftly handed it to Morstan.
"Thank you," Morstan said. Attention fully on the box, she stood and took two steps to the right until she was standing by Watson's chair. "Your hands, please," she ordered, smiling widely.
Frowning thoughtfully, Watson stretched out his arms towards her, hands turned with their palms upwards. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Adler, a grin to match Morstan's adorning her face.
Morstan opened the box, revealing a pair of circlets.
At first glance they appeared plain, made of metal a faded golden colour and without any gem stones for decoration. However, when one looked closer it was possible to make out lines in the metal – masterful carvings that created an almost hypnotic pattern.
Watson's frown deepened.
He nearly bit his tongue when Mrs. Preece's voice suddenly chirped: "Are those your engagement bracelets? They're utterly lovely! Wouldn't you agree, Rebecca?"
Looking up, he found himself positively besieged by Mrs. Preece and five other followers, all fawning over the circlets as if they were a newborn child. All except one, that was.
Alton Rosamond met his eyes for the briefest of seconds. There was something in his gaze Watson couldn't quite put his finger on, and the man disappeared from view before he could really give it a second thought.
The gentle pressure of Morstan taking his right wrist in hand drew his attention away from the crowd they'd gathered. He made an effort to reciprocate her smile when she slipped on the first circlet, but didn't quite succeed.
Around him, the followers continued to express their delight and awe. Adler caught his gaze and gave him what could have been a sympathetic smile before standing and leaving without another word.
Her departure drew enough attention away from him for the crowd to part somewhat, giving him a clear view of the front door just in time to see Rosamond exit.
Watson got to his feet as soon as the second bracelet had been placed around his other wrist. "These are truly lovely, Mary," he proclaimed loudly. The wide smile he gave her was somewhat strained. "But I fear I have patients to attend to. May I..." He trailed off, unable to or unsure of how to finish.
"Of course," Morstan replied, leaning over to give him a chaste peck on the cheek. "I will see you tonight."
Throwing her a grateful look, he was out the door in under a minute.
Outside, the crowd of pedestrians had thinned somewhat. Watson nearly failed to spot Rosamond disappearing around a corner at the crossroad to his left and he quickened his pace, cane clicking rhythmically against the cobble stones.
Out of nowhere, a hand landed on his shoulder. He didn't start. The touch was too familiar for that.
"I thought you had gone back to Baker Street," he said, eyes still fixed on the fleeing form of Rosamond.
"Are those new?" Holmes asked, his tone far too light.
It took Watson a second before he answered: "They're an engagement present."
The hand on his shoulder tightened its grip briefly, then let go. "I spoke to Lestrade not half an hour ago," Holmes whispered as he fell into step beside him. "As I predicted, the captured men were of little use. They refused to give up any information regarding the slavers, even though Lestrade assured me his officers had been very," he paused, allowing a hint of distaste to enter his voice, "persuasive."
Ahead of them, Rosamond halted by a carriage that was blocking the entrance to a narrow alleyway.
"People claiming to be their employers took them away this morning, after whatever punishment our dear Inspector could claim fit their crimes. Mr. Foret apparently had Mrs. Frewin and a number of his staff fetch Bell."
Three well-dressed men stepped out of the carriage. Rosamond laughed nervously at something one of them said, then began mumbling to them, seeming to stumble over his words.
"Tell me, did Mr. Rosamond leave once he knew of your presence?" Holmes inquired, eyes intently focused on Rosamond's lips.
"When did he leave, then?"
One of the men from the carriage held out his hand, as if expecting Rosamond to give him something. Rosamond shook his head.
"A little while after Mary had given me..." He cleared his throat. "After she'd given me the bracelets. I don't know how long he was in the House before that."
Holmes huffed. "A clever spy, but for whom?" he mused. "It would make little sense for him to have a connection to the slavers. From what I've found out, he's been working as an assistant to a priest his whole life – hardly the safest of recruits. Then again-"
Blood was dripping all over the ground and flecking the carriage's wood before Watson could comprehend the flash of silver aimed at Rosamond's throat. Holmes had already taken off at a dead run.
Around them, onlookers screamed in terror. One of the men made an attempt to climb up on the empty driver's perch, but was brought up short by Holmes more or less tackling him, arms wrapping around his legs in a steel grip.
Watson was at his side moments later, gritting his teeth against the ache in both shoulder and leg and almost failing to block the second swing of the murderer's knife.
In the distance, a policeman was ringing his bell.
Holmes soon had one man pinned to the ground while Watson took on the other two. He made another attempt at disarming the knife-wielding man as a few onlookers made a dash for Rosamond, who lay gasping for air like a stranded fish.
The two men set upon Watson as one and managed to wrestle the cane from him. He caught sight of two policemen rounding a corner not ten feet away as he managed to punch one of the men right in the nose. He didn't see the third man picking up his cane until it was far too late.
The pain was numbing. It was only with a Herculean effort that he managed to dodge the man's other swing.
No third swing came. Swift as lightning, Holmes knocked his captive unconscious, then threw himself at Watson's attacker, catching the startled man in a stranglehold. With a look of fury on his face, he maintained his hold until the thug's eyes rolled back into his head.
Watson collapsed on the steps leading up to a nearby house. The world around him was refusing to stay still, shifting and rolling like waves. Soon he felt hands on his shoulders. It was hard to tell, but he believed Holmes was kneeling in front of him, asking if he was all right.
He tried to reply, but a flash of nausea ran through him and he had to focus on choking it back.
"Watson!" Holmes' voice shouted, not quite matching the movement of his lips. Dark shapes – hopefully help – appeared behind him.
"Mr. Holmes, I think you've done quite enough here," Watson heard a female voice say. Then reality slowly faded into darkness.
March 27, 1886
"….do that to them. I've ruined everything!"
"Don't be ridiculous. You did what was necessary."
The voices drifted in and out of his consciousness as time passed in a slow crawl. Now and then the voices drew closer, accompanied by a hand gently shaking his shoulder. Part of him knew that they meant well, waking him up as they did, but the less rational section of his mind fought it, his eyelids heavy with sleep.
They succeeded in awakening him, again and again, only to let him slip back into unconsciousness.
"I would like to see you try and explain that to him."
"Hush now, the doctor is back."
The church echoed hollowly as Father Coupland made the first round of the day, lantern in hand to light his way around the pews and marble pillars. He paused by the altar, kneeling and offering a quiet prayer, then continued his walk.
A faint knocking could be heard from one of the smaller doors on his left.
There was little surprise on Coupland's face when he opened the door to find a finely dressed follower man standing on the other side, wringing his hands around a roll of paper. Coupland nodded for him to come inside and he did so wordlessly, leaving a trail of water on the carpet.
Outside, thunder clapped.
"I did expect them to send someone," Father Coupland commented as they walked side by side towards the rectory, "But not this soon." He sighed. "Well, the Bishop is nothing but efficient, I'll grant him that. Let me see your papers." The command was gentle, but a command nonetheless.
The man tried unsuccessfully to smooth out the many wrinkles in the paper, before handing it to Coupland carefully, as though handling a newly hatched bird.
Father Coupland unrolled the paper and nodded as he read, hmm-ing and hah-ing at seemingly random intervals.
"So they told you nothing of Rosamond's work?" he asked once he'd reached the end of the document.
"N-not much, Father," the man stuttered, wringing his hands in the absence of the paper. "They merely handed me that and told me to come here immediately."
Father Coupland nodded, smiling kindly at the fidgeting man. "You'll have a challenge filling his shoes," he said as he unlocked the door to the rectory. "Alton was a fine boy – odd, some might say, but very kind and diligent."
The door slid open with a loud creak. Inside stood a table overflowing with parchments and books, as well as two rickety chairs and several bookshelves lining the walls, stacked so close together that it was impossible to see if they were hiding stone or wood.
"This may seem somewhat unorthodox, and I must confess it is," Father Coupland began as the man nervously seated himself on the edge of a chair. "It must be unsettling to come into a position where one's predecessor has met such an…unfortunate end." He put a gentle hand on his guest's shoulder.
"I confess it is," the man muttered to his shoes.
Father Coupland moved his hand to give him a comforting pat on the back, drawing a wet sound out of the soaked coat. "Not to worry, Mr…" he paused to throw a glance at the document still in his hand, "Garner, we shall endeavour to be more cautious from now on. I won't let you out of my sight until I've made sure you have someone who can accompany you in your mission, and the Bishop writes that he has made efforts to ensure the obedience of our...allies, whatever he means by that."
"Please don't trouble yourself for my sake," the man hurried to say, looking up from studying his footwear. "Could you perhaps tell me of this…" his eyes darted to the document as well, though all that was within his line of sight was its blank side, "this sect the Bishop advises I shall infiltrate."
"'Infiltrate'," Father Coupland huffed, "you make it sound far more dramatic than it has to be. But you do deserve to know what you're getting yourself into." He put the document down on the table on top of some other parchments and took a seat opposite his guest.
"They call themselves 'the Equals'," he began, his smile losing its humour. "A group of Chaos worshippers and supporters of unnatural practices." He made a sign to ward off evil and turned his eyes to the table.
"Their sign is a mutilated cross." He pointed to a sketch on one of the parchments. "Truly, I think it the crassest of jokes. Instead of symbolising the support leaders provide for followers such as yourself, once they are joined in holy matrimony, they've…" He made a helpless gesture at the sketch – two equally sized rectangles forged together to form a cross. "It's simply despicable."
His guest made no comment, only stared at the sketch, as if committing it to memory.
"I pride myself on having a mind open to many things," Father Coupland continued, his attention still on the table. "Take the women claiming to be leaders, for example. A few of them are trouble makers, yes, but most are honest, civilized folk. These people, on the other hand, they break the laws of both man and God without guilt, even willing to murder people who get in their way, as poor Alton learned."
A frown flashed over his guest's face, but he didn't look up in time to catch it.
"Frankly, I believe we should leave it all to the police from this point, but I fear the Bishop refuses to see reason." He shook his head sadly. "Don't ask me what quarrel he has with them, for I haven't been foolish enough to find out, and neither should you."
His guest shivered. A drop of water left the brim of his hat, falling to stain what little dry cloth was left on his trousers.
Father Coupland blinked, as if just noticing the man's soaked appearance. "You must be freezing, poor thing! I'll go make us some tea; we'll have plenty of time to talk about this later."
As soon as the priest had left, the man took up a pen and began to scribble frantic notes on a blank piece of parchment.
Father Coupland returned shortly with two cups steaming tea to find the rectory empty. He put the tea cups down on the table and picked up the lantern he'd placed on the floor, then returned to the main room. He let his gaze sweep over the pews, squinting in the dim light. "Mr. Garner?"
A faint knocking could be heard from a small door to his left. His fingers tightened around the lantern.
On the other side was another finely dressed follower man, panting like a race horse and just as soaked as the first. "Father, please forgive my clumsiness, but I was given a message to deliver to you," this new man rambled, stumbling over his own words, "only to have it torn from my hands by some ruffian not two streets from here! I tried to chase after him, but lost him and my way. I tried to catch him, please believe me, I really tried!"
The sound of Father Coupland's lantern crashing against the carpeted stone floor was drowned out by thunder and the howling of the wind.
Watson awoke with a splitting headache.
"Please lay still, Mr. Watson," the soothing voice of an unknown man ordered. A hand pulled his eyelids open one by one, giving him a blurred view of an unfamiliar ceiling.
Soon the face of an elderly man with a greying beard came into focus. "What is the last thing you remember before waking here?"
Watson hesitated, but only for a second. "There was a murder. My friend Holmes and I tried to apprehend the murderers. I believe I was stuck down," he made a face, "with my own cane."
The man pulled his hands back from examining Watson's eyes and forehead. "Good, no memory loss, then," he commented, sitting up straight. "How is your head?"
The man gave him a lopsided smile. "I'll give you something for the pain." Then he stood, disappearing from Watson's field of vision. "He'll be right as rain, Ms. Morstan, as long as he rests. I advise that any punishment you see fit to deal out be postponed at least a week."
"I'll keep that in mind, Doctor, thank you very much," the voice of Mary Morstan replied. Watson's eyes widened.
"Mary?" he asked, slowly turning his head to the left, in the direction of the voices. The room, he noted, was very clean and fairly small. Morstan was seated in an armchair that looked to have been there longer than the room itself, right across from the bed he was lying in. The only other person in the room was a man he assumed to be the doctor. "Where is Holmes?"
"Not here." There was enough ice in Morstan's voice to freeze the heart of even the bravest of men. "You are forbidden to meet with him until I see fit." Her eyes narrowed into slits. "And with what happened today, I think that won't be any time soon."
Watson could only gape at her in utter shock. "Why?" he finally managed to ask.
Morstan crossed her arms over her chest. "You had no thought for the consequences when you lied to me and followed Mr. Holmes straight into danger? You said you were going to see a patient."
He tried, but couldn't quite coordinate his shocked expression into a frown. "I did not follow Holmes into danger," he settled on saying, "I went there of my own free will."
"I am well aware of that, which is the only reason I didn't have him flogged."
All blood drained from Watson's cheeks. "Mary, please-"
"No excuses, no apologies," Morstan said, cutting him short. "He will not enter this house and you will not leave until the doctor allows, and had we been already married I would not have let you leave my side for a week at the very least."
The elderly man, who'd been stealing glances at the door during the argument, cleared his throat. "Actually, Ms. Morstan, I believe Mr. Watson is strong enough to be moved back to his home tonight," he muttered, avoiding looking at either of them. "As long as he spends the day resting, that is."
Morstan took a deep breath. "Thank you, Doctor, that will be all."
The elderly man bowed to Morstan and exited the room as swiftly as his legs would carry him.
As soon as his footsteps had faded into silence, the atmosphere in the room changed drastically. Morstan's glare softened into an expression of regret and Watson finally managed a frown. If his head had allowed for it, he would have bolted upright.
"This is not what we agreed upon," he spat. "Holmes was right; I acted much too rashly in submitting to this. You have no right to keep me here – allow me to leave at once!"
"And what sort of a leader would that make me look like?" Mary interjected, her gaze steady, her hands folded in her lap.
With a sigh, Mary got to her feet and approached Watson, a small smile tugging at her lips. "I know what I promised – what we both promised each other – but we can only go so far before someone gets suspicious. Can you imagine any leader of decent and sound mind who'd let her follower rush off into danger, get injured and not say a word against it?"
He managed to glare at her until she was done helping him sit up, leaning against the headboard of the bed. It took him a moment to process her words, but when he had his glare softened. He brought a hand up to rub over his face – gently, so as not to make the headache worse. "You are right. I apologise for my outburst."
"Don't apologise," Morstan soothed him, "It's perfectly understandable that you're frustrated and I regret my part in that. At least you reacted more rationally than Mr. Holmes. Let us just say that it was quite a challenge to make him leave your side." She winced at the mere memory of it.
Watson groaned. "He must have been furious."
"You have no idea."
"Actually, I think I do."
They exchanged awkward smiles.
"You care for him greatly, don't you?" Morstan asked suddenly.
"What manner of a question is that? Of course I care for him!" Watson answered, his tone one of disbelief. "Surely that must be obvious?"
"Yes," Morstan agreed, "But not in the way I think you're referring."
The smile that had found its way onto Watson's face faded. "Someone like you shouldn't pay attention to such rumours," he muttered, turning his eyes to the ancient armchair.
"And someone like me shouldn't much care if they were true," Morstan countered.
This brought Watson up short. He didn't seem able to decide if he should glare at the armchair or turn and face his fiancé again. In the end, he settled for looking at his hands. "Will this be a problem?"
Morstan shook her head. "Hardly. And don't worry about just anyone noticing. I only thought I might be right after overhearing your conversation yesterday, before that dreadful fight."
She nearly laughed at the look of surprise she received in response. "I followed you when you left the House. How else do you think I was there in time to drag you away from Mr. Holmes?" Her smile weakened somewhat, but didn't quite leave her face. "I should be the one apologising. I was too eager in my plans, and..." She paused. "I promise I meant well, and that from now on I will talk to you beforehand when such issues are at stake."
"Yes," Watson said. "Please discuss any such decisions with me, and perhaps I might manage to convince Holmes not to loathe you. Though I can promise nothing."
"Agreed," Morstan sighed. She gave one of his hands a pat and helped him lie supine once more, then stood. "I must get going. A meeting has been arranged to discuss the current crisis and they wished for as many members to attend as possible."
"Crisis?" Watson asked, again frowning in confusion.
Morstan blinked in equal puzzlement. "The kidnappings of c- oh." Her eyes darted to the door. "I forgot you hadn't attended the meetings this week. It would seem..." Something dark entered her gaze. "It would seem we are the target."
Watson opened his mouth, but Morstan silenced him with a gesture. "Irene and I are walking there together, so there is no need to worry. My employer will keep an eye on you, so there is no danger here, either. I'll return you to Baker Street as quickly as I can – we'll pretend I planned some form of punishment for you, and I'll let everyone know I've forgiven you."
She fidgeted. "I really must be off." And before he could even begin to ask a question she was out the door.
He lay staring at the ceiling for a good hour before sleep finally reclaimed him.
It was late evening when Watson finally returned to Baker Street. Morstan had walked him to the door, but they'd both thought it wise for him to enter alone.
They were saying their goodbyes as Mrs. Hudson opened the door. She gave Morstan a suspicious look, but as Watson seemed no worse of wear than could have been expected and Morstan made it very clear she had no intention of keeping Watson locked away anywhere, she warmed to her enough to invite her in for supper.
Morstan gracefully turned down the offer and returned to the cab, promising to visit at a later date.
Watson allowed Mrs. Hudson to fuss over him a while before steeling himself and ascending the stairs to the sitting room.
Moments later he halted, hand halfway to the doorknob. From the other side of the door, roaring laughter could be heard – he recognized Holmes' voice instantly, but there was another there as well. A woman's laugh.
Cautiously, he opened the door and was met by the sight of Holmes and Ms. Irene Adler, seated at the table by the window, apparently enjoying some wine and conversation.
Adler sat facing the door and greeted him with a nod, which caused Holmes to turn around in his chair, a wide smile on his face. "Ah, Watson, there you are!" he greeted him. "How is your head? I believe you've already met Ms. Adler."
"Why Sherlock, if I'd known you'd found one of us to caper along with you, I would have visited much sooner," Adler commented, taking a sip of her wine.
Watson's blood seemed to freeze in his veins. All he could do was stare in shock at the woman, the ever-so familiar stranger, who'd just turned his world upside down.
Holmes got up from his chair and was at Watson's side in the blink of an eye, helping him to a free seat. "Ms. Adler, please mind your manners," he chided, though there was no true bite in his tone. "Watson has had a trying day."
"All thanks to you, I'll wager," Adler replied, grinning.
Watson got the sudden urge to hit someone – which of them he wasn't sure, which stayed his hand if nothing else. The remaining shock helped as well.
"You are a walking danger to us all, Mr. Holmes," Adler continued playfully, refilling her empty glass. "It would probably be safer for the rest of us if you followed your friend's example and found yourself a leader to keep an eye on you."
"You would have me on a leash, Miss Adler?" Holmes inquired while reclaiming his seat.
Adler laughed. "I'm not fool enough to think a leash would hold you," she quipped. "Chains at the very least, a blindfold and a gag, then maybe."
Holmes leaned back in his chair, in the manner of a self-satisfied cat stretching itself out on a windowsill. "Oh, really?"
Watson was sure his jaw was hanging open. "You know each other?"
Adler and Holmes paused in unison and gave him a look that seemed to say: 'Isn't it obvious?'
Fisting his hands in his lap, Watson managed to say: "Holmes, you mean to tell me that you have ties to this," he paused to search for words, positively glaring at Adler, "this cad of a woman?"
He got a sigh in response. "Yes, Watson, I do," Holmes said, as if addressing a small child. "We have in fact known each other for years." He held up a hand to stop Watson from interrupting. "You are about to ask why I haven't told you about this acquaintance, to which I would like to offer this situation as answer."
For a moment awkward silence reigned supreme. Then:
"Ms. Adler," Watson gritted out through his teeth, eyes on Holmes, "Would you kindly leave us?"
Adler seemed to mull this over for a second, then threw Holmes a lopsided grin and stood. "I believe I shall." She walked over to the door as Holmes and Watson continued to stare at each other – Holmes' expression calm, and Watson's one of barely suppressed rage. "Mary and I will call on you tomorrow at five. Until then, gentlemen!"
This seemed enough to start Watson out of his silent fury. He turned to stare at the now closed door in pure disbelief. "She is joining us for the soirée tomorrow?" he gasped. "You invited that walking scandal as your escort to a soirée hosted by Mrs. Preece!" What began as a question ended as an outraged accusation.
"Mind your head, Watson," was Holmes' only response.
"Mind my head?" Watson echoed, colour rising to his cheeks. "Mind my head!"
He bolted out of his chair – a rash decision which nearly had him tumbling forwards onto the table, stopped only by Holmes swiftly steadying him. This did nothing, however, to stop the tirade of words Watson was determined to say.
"I wake up in an unknown room, worrying about the rift my clumsiness must have caused between my friend and my fiancée, while you spend your day drinking wine with a leader of such ill-breeding! Mr. Foret pales in comparison! I could have been locked in that house for days and you simply-"
"Yes, how is your fiancée?" Holmes hissed back, venom positively dripping from every word. "I am curious how you escaped her; or did she finally realise the illegality of her claims on your freedom? I do still wonder why you agreed to this engagement, if you now find the consequences so despicable."
Their eyes locked in a silent battle of wills. Finally, Watson snapped, "It's entirely your fault!"
Holmes blinked in honest confusion. He opened his mouth to speak, but Watson was quicker:
"If it wasn't for your theatrics, your insistence on never clearly picking a side, my engagement to Ms. Morstan would never have been necessary." Holmes made an attempt to look away but Watson followed him, keeping their gazes locked. "You must have heard the rumours. You, who pride yourself on your eternal vigilance and observation skills!"
"Yes, but those are merely rumours," Holmes countered, frowning.
"Yes, 'merely rumours'," Watson agreed without humour. "And how many times have you – we – been hired to stop rumours from ruining better men than us? You know how poisoning gossip can be!"
He clenched and unclenched his hands, as if wishing to grab a hold of his friend and shake some sense into him. "We could have grown old as two spinsters, together, and no one would have lifted an eyebrow! But every time you dress oddly or smoke or oppose a leader, people talk."
Holmes looked to be at his wits' end – a most uncanny expression for him. "And since when has people talking ever troubled you? For reason's sake, Watson, you were in the army!"
"It troubles me when I lose patients over it!"
All air seemed to go out of both of them. Unsteadily, Watson sank back down into his chair, while Holmes retreated to his customary position by the window.
"You must have noticed," Watson said a moment later, "You always notice. I've had far too few patients call on me in the last month – frighteningly few this week."
All he got in response was a curt nod.
"How long did you think it would have taken for it to start affecting your cases as well?"
No response this time.
"You never asked how I got into the army."
Holmes turned to look over his shoulder. "I assumed it was due to your skills as a doctor."
Watson didn't call him on the lie outright, but it hung unspoken in the air between them. "His name was Marcus Graydon," he began. "He was a friend of my brother's and, through him, a friend of mine as well."
Leaning his weight partly on his cane, he stood and made his way over to stand next to Holmes. "He was very supportive of my decision to attend university and, later on, the military. In fact, it's him I have to thank for being recruited in the first place."
Holmes didn't so much as glance at him, all of his attention apparently focused on a group of female leaders outside, most likely on their way to a political meeting of some sort.
"It is practice in the military for followers who join to do so under the strict observation of a leader to whom they are engaged, as I'm sure you're already aware. Less known is the unofficial practice of bachelor leaders offering help to equally unattached followers, who cannot sign up for military duty of any kind alone."
He sighed and leaned forward, both hands on his cane. "The higher ranking officers tend to turn a blind eye, as long as nothing unsavoury happens. In short, I am no stranger to imaginary love affairs, no matter how poor a liar you claim I am."
Holmes gazed thoughtfully out the window for several long minutes. Watson hovered by his side, unsure whether or not he should leave.
"You said you were engaged out of love."
"But you do not love Ms. Morstan."
For a moment, Holmes looked very much the machine Watson had occasionally likened him to. One could almost see the cogs turn inside his head. "This love you spoke of," he began, strangely hesitant, "would you classify it as romantic love, rather than the affection one might feel for a parent or sibling?"
"Or friend," Watson supplied, his grip on the cane turning his knuckles white.
No pause, no hesitation. "Yes."
They watched a woman stop to scold the crying boy she was dragging along behind her down the street. The boy tried to take off the hat the woman kept insisting on placing on his head, and was nearly backhanded for his efforts.
"Who did you say gave you the bracelets?"
Watson glanced down at said jewellery, still wrapped around his wrists. "Mary, who else?"
Holmes sighed impatiently. "Yes, yes, but who gave them to her?"
A smile tugged at Holmes' lips and he muttered something under his breath that Watson failed to catch.
He bit back a gasp as a hand was placed on his.
Holmes' smile faded and he lifted an eyebrow in question.
Unable or unwilling to shake the hand off, Watson stuttered: "I-I'm not secretly a leader, you've misunderstood. This..."
"Do I honestly seem like a man in need of a nanny?" Holmes asked, folding his arms over his chest.
"That is not what this is about, and you know it," Watson responded, his eyes fixed on where Holmes' hand had rested a mere second ago. "I have never hesitated to break the law for you and this would be no different, but..."
"This morning, I found out much more about your 'organisation' than I ever could have dreamed there was to learn," Holmes interjected, the smile returning, "which is the only reason I allowed Ms. Morstan to keep you for so long. Had I not learned that her behaviour was all a skilful act, I would have found a way to free you from her clutches before noon."
Watson listened silently, his face very pale.
Holmes gave him a reassuring smile. "I realise now the purpose of your organisation and I can assure you, I do not find it repulsive or immoral in the least."
Watson blinked, but not in confusion. He brought hand up to rub at his eyes. "If I had the words to express the relief and joy you've just granted me, I would write you poems," he quipped, the light tone he was trying to adopt falling somewhat short. "But I fear there is still one matter at hand."
"Yes, of course; your engagement." There was nothing bitter about the amusement in Holmes' voice, which made Watson frown in confusion.
"You made it quite clear you have no interest in joining in the lie with me, unless..."
Holmes avoided his gaze, which was answer enough.
"Sadly, I am a man of my word," Watson murmured. "And I don't believe my reputation could survive the wound of a broken engagement. Then again-"
"No!" Holmes swiftly interrupted. "No, we wouldn't want your reputation to suffer any more than it already has." He covered his mouth with a hand, stifling a yawn. "Actually, I think this conversation will be better continued tomorrow. Good night, Watson."
Watson made an attempt to speak, but Holmes had turned his back and was wordlessly heading for his room.
"I have some good news," he said suddenly, halting by his bedroom door. "I am quite confident that by tomorrow evening the case with the slavers will be closed for good. The members of your organisation will be able to sleep safer."
Watson looked on as the bedroom door closed. He let the fingers of his left hand gently trail across the back of his right as he stood there, recalling the warmth of Holmes' touch.
With a muttered curse, he tore his eyes from the door and began to limp towards his own bedroom.
It was going to be a long night.
March 28, 1886
Watson was only half-awake when raised voices called his attention to the upper floor.
Mrs. Hudson stood at the bottom of the stairs when he stumbled out into the hallway, tugging a coat on over his nightshirt. "Who's here?" he asked her, joining her in staring up at the closed door to the sitting room.
"Inspector Lestrade just arrived," Mrs. Hudson answered, not taking her eyes from the landing. "I was just about to wake you, Doctor."
"I'll go upstairs," Watson reassured her, wrapping the coat tighter around himself. "I'm sure there's nothing to worry about."
Mrs. Hudson gave him a doubtful look, but nodded and turned to walk back to the kitchen.
Watson ascended the stairs slower than he would have liked to. His head still throbbed faintly and his leg was less than cooperative. Only his shoulder seemed to have gone through the previous night mostly unharmed.
"...for you to be running off to some ball!" Inspector Lestrade nearly deafened him as he opened the door to the sitting room. Holmes was seated at the table, also recently risen from bed judging by his state of dress, surrounded by a sea of clothes Watson recognized as his own and calmly consuming a plate of eggs and bacon. Right behind him stood a red-faced Lestrade, his brow knitted in rage and frustration.
"Actually, it's a soirée," Holmes quipped, apparently completely at ease with Lestrade towering over him.
"Do you expect me to go back to the Yard with that message?" the Inspector continued, his voice lowering into a groan. "You cannot possibly think that-"
"Yes," Holmes interrupted, putting his knife and fork down on his now clean plate. Anyone else would have had to put in a lot more effort into sounding authoritarian while wearing a dressing-gown, but Holmes managed it with ease.
"I can assure you, Inspector, that our attendance at the soirée tonight is very vital to the conclusion of this case, as is the presence of your men. Morning, Watson!"
Lestrade started and looked up from glaring at the back of Holmes' head, spotting Watson on the opposite side of the room, still partly hidden by the door. "G-good morning," he mumbled. What little colour had faded from his face returned in an embarrassed blush.
"Good morning, Holmes, Inspector," Watson sighed, continuing to shield himself with the door more out of habit than any true modesty.
"Inspector Lestrade was just leaving," Holmes stated. "Weren't you, Lestrade?"
The man in question fidgeted, clasped his hands behind his back and straightened, as if standing at attention. "Eh, yes, it would seem I was," he said, eyes fixed on a part of the wall to the right of Watson's head.
"It's good to see you have some sense of propriety left," Holmes quipped. "I'm sure Watson won't mind leaving the room for a minute, so as not to bring the wrath of his fiancée down upon you. I can assure you, she's quite formidable when enraged."
Lestrade swallowed audibly.
Watson rolled his eyes and backed away, opening the door to his consulting room instead. He ducked inside and waited until Lestrade's footsteps reached the end of the stairs. Mrs. Hudson, he noted as he made his way back into the sitting room, looked to be less than pleased with the inspector, if the glare she gave him on his way out was anything to go by.
"One would think he'd have learnt to trust me by now," Holmes muttered from behind the day's paper.
Watson hovered by his chair for a moment. "Holmes," he began, "about last night..."
The paper rustled nervously.
Someone had readied a plate of eggs and bacon for him – undoubtedly Mrs. Hudson – so Watson took a seat and made an attempt at eating, eyes darting to Holmes every other second. "You said today would be a better time to discuss it," he said, half accusing, half pleading.
"Yes, but not yet."
Watson stabbed at one of his fried eggs hard enough for yolk to splatter onto the table cloth. "Then when shall we?" he said.
Holmes folded down the top of the paper and caught Watson's gaze with his own. "Tonight, as soon as the case is solved. I promise. Please be a little patient with me."
A piece of egg slowly made its escape back onto the doctor's plate. Picking up a napkin, Watson hurried to cover his mouth. He gave Holmes a long look, then went back to his breakfast.
"Very well, we'll talk tonight," he agreed once his plate was empty.
"Lestrade has a lot to learn from you," Holmes said, a smile tugging at his lips.
Watson laughed and his shoulders dropped. "Pray he never does. You'd be insufferable."
With a chuckle, Holmes turned his eyes back to the paper. "There would-" he began to say, but he was interrupted by Mrs. Hudson entering the room. Her forehead instantly wrinkled into a frown when she spotted Holmes' state of dress.
"Mr. Holmes!" she exclaimed, almost slamming the door shut behind her. "What in the world were you thinking, receiving the inspector in your night clothes," she paused to choke back a sigh, "again?"
Holmes steadfastly kept his eyes on the paper. "Should I have hidden in my room like a blushing maiden? Besides, the inspector was far too busy yelling to notice."
Mrs. Hudson huffed and began cleaning the table. Watson winced as the cutlery scraped against the plates in a much more aggressive fashion than was necessary.
"I think I'll go get dressed, if there are any clothes left in my closet," he said, glancing around at the mountains of jackets and trousers thrown over all available furniture. "I have some resupplying to do before tonight."
Holmes chuckled. "I'm merely helping you select your outfit for this evening. Run out of bandages, have you?" he asked over Mrs. Hudson muttering under her breath about detectives who had no sense of shame.
"Yes, thank you for the help with that, and the sorting of my clothing as well," Watson said, an edge of sarcasm to his voice.
Mrs. Hudson departed with a last less-than heartfelt glare in Holmes' direction. The detective in questioned stood and went to get his pipe. There was a spark of amusement in his eyes as he lit it. "I'll assist you in covering your bruises if you get back in time. I've had enough of your fiancée's scorn to last me the rest of the month."
"Goodbye Holmes," Watson merely sighed, turning to leave.
Mrs. Preece's 'little' soirée turned out to be a gathering of a good fifty people. Her husband's house, which was no small affair to begin with, appeared to be filled to the brim. The long cloth on the dinner table looked suspiciously uneven, as if more than one table had been pushed together to form a longer one, and there was hardly space enough in the room for chairs.
The rest of the rooms were no better off. Everywhere people stood nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, leaders arm-in-arm with their followers, all conversing about the unimportant things that were always discussed at parties: who'd married whom, who was engaged, who'd just had children, the latest scandals, and so on.
I guess Mrs. Preece only stopped at fifty because we'd all be dining on the street otherwise, Watson thought to himself as he narrowly avoided being elbowed in the ribs by a young and overly excited follower woman.
"I'm so terribly, terribly sorry!" the girl hurried to apologize to Morstan as soon as she noticed what she'd been about to do, curtsying and all but bowing her head to the floor.
"No harm done, child, calm yourself," Morstan soothed her before guiding Watson out of the throng of people, through an open door leading to the balcony. The reason for its lack of guests immediately made itself known via a bone-chilling gust of wind.
"Are you all right?" Morstan whispered, huddling closer.
Watson shrugged. "I must admit that, as new experiences go, having people talk over my head isn't very uplifting. It shall take some getting used to." He threw a glance over his shoulder, back into the room they'd just left. "Holmes is a far better actor than I."
The man in question was at that moment obediently letting himself be lead around by Adler, who had ended up in discussion with an elderly leader dressed in an equally aged uniform. Holmes stood silent by her side as she talked, smiling politely at the other guests who passed them by.
"They make a stunning couple, don't they?" Morstan said, starting Watson out of his thoughts.
"If only for their clothes," he grudgingly agreed, eyes trailing over the pair in question. They were both wearing outfits in muted colours that melded well with the other guests, while still standing out in subtle ways through small pieces of jewellery. "I must admit, I'm still surprised Ms. Adler showed up in acceptable dress."
Morstan chuckled and turned to walk back inside, still with her arm linked in Watson's so that he could do nothing but follow. "She has excellent taste when she puts effort into selecting what to wear. Or rather, when she chooses to be less provocative," she murmured into his ear before halting to Adler's left.
"...and as I was about to go over the hill..." the elderly man in the aged uniform droned on, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Morstan and Watson had joined his listeners. Morstan looked ready to clear her throat and catch his attention, but someone else beat her to it.
"Ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served," one of the house's servants announced from the doorway opposite the balcony. "Please abide by the seating arrangements."
A wave of muttering went through the room, a mixture of annoyance and cheer in the guests' voices.
"Seating arrangements?" Morstan asked Watson under her breath.
"Mrs. Preece´s soirées are," Watson answered, grasping for an apt description, "different."
They took their seats. Watson was, to his slight surprise, paired up with Adler, and Morstan ended up next to Mrs. Vanover, who immediately set upon her with questions about poor Mr. Rosamond, tears glittering in her eyes.
Holmes ended up with Mr. Foret as his neighbour at the table. Within minutes, they were talking and laughing together like old friends. Watson had to bite the inside of his cheek not to glare at them. He spotted Mrs. Frewin a few chairs away, engaged in discussion with Mrs. Preece, who was seated across from her.
Alder leaned towards him as soon as the main dish was brought in. "Do control yourself, Dr. Watson," she whispered teasingly. "Save your adoring looks for your fiancée."
Watson's eyes widened in shock, then narrowed into a glare in the span of a heartbeat.
"Don't try to deny it," Adler said before he could speak. "You are truly as bad a liar as Holmes told me. Though I can't really blame you. I admit it's quite a challenge to not look – he cuts a fine figure in that waistcoat."
As she spoke, Watson couldn't help but let his eyes trail back to the man in question. It was hardly the first time he'd seen Holmes dressed up – far from it, in fact – and if he was to be honest with himself, it was not the first time he'd looked, either.
I've been so careful, he thought to himself, attempting to tear his gaze away from Holmes' hands, fluttering about in complicated gestures emphasizing what he was telling Mr. Foret, but last night...
"There, you see?" Alder chided. "It's almost shamefully easy to follow your train of thought."
"Or maybe you only see what your depraved mind wishes you to," Watson countered.
Alder choked back a laugh. "Touché, Doctor."
Watson huffed and turned his eyes to his food; his ears, on the other hand, were very much focused on Holmes' conversation. It was a little hard to catch what he and Mr. Foret were discussing over the clattering of cutlery, the laughter, and chatter around them, but not impossible.
"I hope you're not upset we followed through on your wife's request," Holmes said to Mr. Foret, his voice barely audible in the din. "It just seemed like such a waste not to share the information we had with the police."
The cheer in Mr. Foret's voice sounded strained. "I can hardly blame you for bringing a thief to justice – though I do wish it could have turned out differently."
Holmes gave him a sympathetic look. "Sadly, we cannot change the culprits, only find them. It is a shame that Bell betrayed you."
"The reason why still escapes me, I must confess," Mr. Foret said, sounding honestly upset. "He was always such a loyal servant. I guess greed can corrupt even the best of leaders."
"A depressing truth. But let us speak of lighter things. Are you enjoying London?"
"Why, yes!" Mr. Foret exclaimed cheerfully, sorrows immediately forgotten. "It has always been my fondest wish to return here, at least once. Did you know that-"
They lapsed into a conversation about philosophy and Watson let their words become an indistinguishable part of the chatter around him. He glanced to his left. "How were you and Holmes introduced to one another?"
Adler started at the sudden question, turning away from her other neighbour – a young follower of about seventeen years of age, who'd mumbled into his plate more than he'd actually talked to her. She smirked and drawled, "Wouldn't you like to know."
"So it's related to some form of crime, then?" he asked, finishing off the last of the food on his plate.
"You could say that," Adler sighed with a fond smile on her face.
All guests fell quiet and their gazes turned to the head of the table where Mrs. Preece and Mr. Hagon were seated. Well, Mrs. Preece was seated. Mr. Hagon had gotten to his feet and stood swaying with a glass of wine in hand.
"Everyone," he repeated, a slight slur edging his tone, "we have decided that before dessert is served, we shall have some entertainment!"
Cheers broke out all around the table. Watson felt his stomach sink.
"Now, my good friend Mr. Foret has promised to take care of the more interesting part of the evening," Mr. Hagon continued, receiving happy shouts from the rowdier of the guests. "For the more delicate of followers among us, there will be musical entertainment in another part of the house. Cheers, and enjoy the rest of the evening!"
Everyone raised their glasses in a toast and then stood. Some couples followed Mr. Hagon into a room on the right, while others – mostly the young and unmarried – followed a servant in the opposite direction. A few guests remained by the table, unsure of where to go.
"What are your plans, Mary?" Adler asked as soon as she'd handed Watson over, who'd simply rolled his eyes at being manhandled out of his seat and over to his fiancée.
Morstan linked her arm with Watson's, her eyes on Adler. "John still has a terrible headache, so I believe music shall be the wisest choice. Will you join us?"
"I'll see what Sherlock is in the mood for," Adler replied with a wink. Watson glared at her.
"Excuse me, Ms. Adler?"
"Yes?" Adler replied to the sudden question. Mr. Foret was standing to her right, a smiling Holmes on his arm. Watson tried to catch his eye, to no avail.
"Would you mind terribly if I borrowed Mr. Holmes for a little while?" Mr. Foret asked, a wide smile on his face.
"Not at all," Adler was quick to reply. "We were just about to go listen to the music, and I fear that would bore him endlessly. Take good care of him until dessert."
"Why, thank you," Mr. Foret grinned. "This way if you please, Mr. Holmes."
Watson watched him lead Holmes away to the room on the right, stopping briefly to speak to Mrs. Frewin, who looked less than amused. Watson sympathised with her.
"What in God's name possessed you to do that?" he hissed at Adler as soon as they'd entered the next room. "Leaving him in the hands of that-"
"Really Doctor, I thought you knew your friend better than that!" Adler interrupted, rolling her eyes at him. "Sherlock Holmes has, is and never will be in the hands of any leader on this earth."
Watson snapped his jaw shut and Morstan gave his arm a gentle squeeze. "I'm sure he'll be fine. Come, let us enjoy some music while we wait."
He gave a curt nod and, with a last glance at the closed door behind them, allowed himself be led towards the other remaining guests.
Inspector Lestrade was at that moment not a very happy man. He was huddled in a street corner across from the luxurious house of one Mr. Nichol Hagon, two equally unhappy policemen at his side.
The light and laughter from inside the house flowed out into the streets, echoing against the walls of the neighbouring houses. Outside, it had just started to rain.
"I hope Mr. Holmes knows what he's doing," the younger of the two policemen said, pulling the collar of his coat up against the mounting wind.
"He always does," Lestrade muttered back, rubbing his hands together for warmth. "I just wish he could've chosen better weather to do it in."
"Gone?" Watson shouted. Morstan quickly grabbed him by the arm and led him out onto the balcony before any of their fellow guests could pose unwanted questions. "What do you mean he's gone?" Watson demanded again, voice lowered to a mere hiss. Drops of light rain stained the white of his shirt collar as he spoke, but he paid them no mind.
"As in 'disappeared'," Adler growled back, eyes dark with rage. Behind them their fellow guests were getting ready to return to the table. "They must have snatched him on the way to Foret's 'entertainment'."
Watson narrowed his eyes. "Was this part of some plan the two of you concocted together?"
Adler shook her head 'no' without hesitation. "He must have thought of something right now or had a plan in mind he didn't see fit to share with us."
"Or this isn't part of any plan," Watson insisted, locking eyes with her, "and we should call for Lestrade now to stop anyone from leaving. They could be dragging him out through the back entrance right now, or worse –"
"Calm down," Morstan stepped in, almost having to push her companions apart to break the stare-down that had been initiated. "I think we all agree we should go look for him. The first one to find signs of struggle or clues he may have left behind signals for help. Understood?"
Watson nodded stiffly and lifted an eyebrow as Adler did the same. Without a word, Morstan linked her arm with his again and waited until Adler had made her way back inside before guiding him through the crowd of guests.
"How do you two know each other?" Watson inquired as they made their way towards the room of Mr. Foret's entertainment.
"Know whom?" Morstan replied in an absent-minded fashion, her eyes betraying her calm by darting back and forth between the door ahead and the windows to their left.
"Ms. Adler." There was an edge of impatience to his voice. "You must have known her a long time for her to obey you without question."
"You've hardly known me a week and you didn't protest," Morstan pointed out in a neutral tone, nodding to Mr. Hagon, who was helping his dishevelled wife take a seat at the table.
Watson shrugged "Yes, but I've been raised to follow orders since I was sixteen. She, on the other hand, is a leader and, from what I can tell, as stubborn as Holmes, if not worse. I highly doubt she'd listened so attentively to a suggestion from anyone else – not without some protest, at least."
"We are old friends," Morstan admitted, turning them around to gaze out over the table and guests, waiting for a moment when no one was looking their way. "But I don't see what that has to do with anything."
"I am very tired of being kept in the dark," Watson interjected. "I get enough of that from Holmes, and him, at least, I trust. I would have you speak plainly with me, please."
Morstan threw him an unreadable look. "What makes you feel I've been hiding things from you?"
She almost received a laugh in response, but Watson managed to disguise it as a fit of coughing. "Perhaps we should start with the fact that the two of us seem to have had quite different intentions with this engagement."
Her sceptical tone brought colour to Watson's cheeks. "Well ... I ..." He trailed off, his eyes flickering about the room in search of a distraction. There was none to be found. "I fully intended to keep my promise to you when I made it. We are both Equals, and so far we've gotten along well – several engagements have started worse. I think we could have learned to," he hesitated, voice dropping even lower than the whisper it had already been, "to love one another."
"But now?" Morstan whispered back, putting her free hand on his elbow.
"Let us just say I've come across some enlightening information concerning myself." He paused and finally met her eyes. "And you."
Morstan remained silent for a moment. "I think there is something we should discuss," she began, but then stopped short, her eyes widening.
Watson followed her gaze to where Adler stood smiling at Mr. Foret, who'd just helped a shivering girl no older than sixteen to a chair. Watson recognized her as the follower who'd nearly elbowed him before dinner.
"Mr. Foret," they overheard Adler greet him. "Where ever did you leave Sherlock? I hope you didn't forget him strapped to a table somewhere – he gets awfully grumpy if left alone too long."
"Mr. Holmes?" Mr. Foret asked, frowning with a hand still on the girl's shoulder. "He's not with you? I left him with my wife – she said she had something to show him upstairs – and then I assumed he'd returned to you, for he never attended our side of the entertainment. I must say I'm terribly disappointed."
Watson was sure his heart had stopped. He and Morstan glanced at each other, then back at Adler, who gave them a subtle nod.
"We'll talk on the way," Morstan said and they were off as fast as they dared, heading towards the stairs.
Holmes tugged at his bonds as the two brutes who'd chained him up left the room.
"I really thought you would have seen this coming from a mile away, Mr. Holmes. You disappoint me."
With a final tug Holmes relaxed, leaning back in the chair he'd been forced into. "I'm terribly sorry to disappoint, Mrs. Frewin," he apologised with little sincerity, cocking his head to the side. "You were quite convincing as a victim."
"I've been told I'm an excellent poker player," Mrs. Frewin smirked, her smile growing wider by the second. "Though I admit you found my wedding collar much faster than I had expected. My husband tells me you're quite a story teller, or rather a bragger. Why don't you share your solutions with me while we wait for my associates?"
Holmes echoed her smirk. "The glass of water in your room was the first clue that someone from inside the house had to have assisted in the break-in. The likelihood of the thieves getting inside long enough to carefully drug everyone in the household without being seen or accidentally poisoning some of you was very slim, and the glass was half-empty even though the water tasted foul," he explained, as if they were fast friends sharing anecdotes over dinner. "I took a sample of the drugged water and soon had the name of the drug that had been employed. There was little trouble tracking down the shop the perpetrator had gotten his supplies from, as few legitimate vendors would have provided a civilian household with such a large amount of chloral hydrate without asking questions first."
"Yes, but I highly doubt there is any shortage of such persons in this city," Mrs. Frewin interjected.
Holmes nodded. "Unfortunately. But the shopkeepers who do such business would have asked for a hefty price and, though you call me a bragger, I can hardly compare to a man with little honour and a full pocket. Not to mention that such individuals are notorious for biting the hands that feed them."
"So you have spies all over London, Mr. Holmes?" Mrs. Frewin quipped, eyes sparkling with amusement.
Holmes didn't answer her. Instead, he continued his tirade as if she hadn't spoken at all. "As luck would have it, your Mr. Bell made a bad decision on when to go and punish the poor fellow who'd tried to blackmail him, and then there was nothing more left to do but track him down."
He shook his head slowly, as if exasperated by a pet dog that hadn't quite figured out that chewing on the master's shoes was a bad idea. "The carriage tracks, the filthy prison under the warehouse, the presence of Mr. Bell – they all led me back to you."
"That is quite a leap of logic."
"Possibly, yet no," Holmes replied, smirk still in place. "You see, your prisoners were clever enough to carve messages into the walls; a message of several small crosses. I was convinced they were a code of some sort and I was partly right. There were enough crosses to match the limit of the number of humans you could have kept alive in that filthy hole, which meant all of the prisoners were Equals. They were being targeted."
The lower part of Mrs. Frewin's dress shifted as she crossed her legs. "You have me at a complete loss, Mr. Holmes. What does any of that have to do with me?"
"Ah, then let us go back to the beginning," Holmes grinned. His arms twitched, as if they'd been ready to make a sweeping gesture to emphasize his words. "Your husband's craftsmanship is quite impressive," he commented, giving the elaborate chains another experimental tug.
"Why, thank you."
Holmes relaxed again, letting his shoulders drop. "Quite a loud hobby, I'm sure. But as I was saying -- when you invited me to search your house, I found two very important things: the glass of drugged water and the burnt remains of a letter in the fireplace outside your kitchen. It had not been there when Watson and I had passed through the room to interview your staff, and as your husband wasn't at home all but one of the house's inhabitants were with us. You were the only one who could have placed it there to burn."
"And this slip of paper told you what, exactly? There couldn't have been much left – I stayed to watch it burn until I heard Bell throw you out," Mrs. Frewin asked, picking up a leftover apple from the table next to her.
"There wasn't," Holmes admitted, "but there was enough. It was badly damaged, but I could still draw conclusions. You'd burnt a letter signed by someone from the House of Lords."
Mrs. Frewin's eyebrows climbed closer to the edge of her scalp.
"'ritual and Temp' the note said, which, when combined with the quality of the paper and ink, pointed to 'The Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled," he said, reading the words like a poem. "In my line of work, it pays to keep a close eye on persons of high station as well as the criminals and lowlifes. Only one current member of the House of Lords is paranoid yet proud enough to write a letter himself and sign it thus: the Bishop of London, John Temple."
Mrs. Frewin took a bite of her apple.
"The significance of the letter was not immediately clear to me," Holmes continued, watching her chew, "but the name Temple is not unfamiliar to me. In fact, in December of 1883 he was part of a small investigation I'd been asked by his wife to perform – the same investigation that introduced me to one of my now long-time friends and gave him a clear motive for wishing harm on the Equals." Holmes paused and frowned thoughtfully. "Well, more harm than the Church already demands."
"And what did you find out?" Mrs. Frewin asked after swallowing another bite of fruit.
"My friend got to him before I could. I did not know this until yesterday, but apparently the group she works for had discovered valuable information on his personal tastes, and as he was the man currently in charge of their persecution, they seized a good opportunity for blackmail."
"I didn't know you'd ever taken on a case as simple as that of a secret lover – illegal or not," Mrs. Frewin chuckled. "It really doesn't match what I've heard of you, Mr. Holmes."
Holmes chuckled as well. "Ah, but you're jumping to conclusions too swiftly," he scolded her playfully. "His wife was far too concerned with the underhand dealings she suspected him of, as well as his habit of gambling away their money, to worry about such a simple matter as an affair."
Another piece of the apple disappeared into Mrs. Frewin's mouth.
"She was right to worry," Holmes continued, his eyes darting to look over his captor's shoulder for a second. Mrs. Frewin turned to follow his gaze, but found nothing but the closed kitchen door behind her. Distant sounds from the guests flowed down to where they sat below, as faint as the unsettling sounds undoubtedly emanating from Mr. Foret's carefully planned entertainment.
"He was, sadly, too well-connected to be put on trial for assisting in criminal activity – slavery, to be exact – but the blackmail kept him in check. He was forced to hide in plain sight for a long while, denying every hint of a scandal, and the slavers, now without the support of a man in Parliament, fled abroad."
"You do tell marvellous stories," his captor interjected. "Why did you never go into theatre? The stage has missed a great talent."
Holmes seemed to fight the urge to roll his eyes for a moment. "As I was saying, the slavers had to flee the country. I went through all I could find on slavers in West Europe within the last ten years, and I came up with some very interesting numbers."
"Your first husband came into a great deal of money in the year 1880, coinciding neatly with the rise of the criminal slavery in Britain. You both fled to France in January 1884, where you lived comfortably until his mysterious train accident, which you escaped unharmed. Two months later you returned to England to marry his younger brother, only to again return to France because of the scandal this caused."
Mrs. Frewin chewed thoughtfully on the last of her apple before asking: "What makes you think I didn't just end it there? What use did I have for a group of criminals, and why would they ever have listened to a follower?"
"Plenty of reasons," Holmes replied. "To lead, all one must possess is a keen mind and knowledge of the organisation, and such an organized group of criminals couldn't just disappear – not while there still was money to be had, and especially not when the woman in charge had an indebted husband to support. France has long had trouble with slavery. Becoming one fish in a large pond made for less rewards, but also safer working conditions."
"Well that sounds nice," Mrs. Frewin agreed. "So nice, in fact, that I can see no reason for these slavers ever to return to their old hunting grounds. How do you explain that, Mr. Holmes?"
"Ah yes, the sudden return," Holmes mused, rubbing his chained hands together in an attempt to massage some life back into them. "The reason is, of course, the Bishop of London."
His statement was met with only silence.
"After keeping quiet for so long, the risk of scandal finally died down; but Temple was left quite desolate because of his love of gambling and lack of extra funds," he continued on, closing his eyes in an almost meditative expression. "Naturally, he began to plan his revenge along with the restoration of his wealth. And what better way than to bring down a dangerous sect – a feat he undoubtedly would be commended for by the Church and the Queen herself – as well as temporarily bringing back his largest source of income? There was still the blackmail to consider, but as long as he was careful, no one would know of his involvement."
"Very good, Mr Holmes," Mrs. Frewin encouraged him in a pleased fashion. "And what motivation did you say I had for returning?"
"Such impatience," Holmes mocked. "But yes, the motivation. Temple, as I said, is notoriously paranoid and thus must have kept copies of all exchanges between himself and your organisation hidden away in some safe place. He was desperate enough to threaten to take you down with him, and the French are not known for their tolerance of slavers."
"No, they're not," Mrs. Frewin agreed, shifting in her chair. "I've lost plenty of good men to them."
"'Skilled' is perhaps a more suitable word? I highly doubt there was much goodness in any of them," Holmes said, ignoring the glare this earned him. "Now, Temple's plan was partly to bring you back and have you simply kidnap as many of the Equals' members as you could within an acceptable time limit – a week. Having dealt a painful blow to their moral, your underlings would then take the new merchandise over to France, and you and Mr. Foret would stay here indefinitely to make sure no one connected you to the kidnappings."
Mrs. Frewin motioned for him to continue. It was then her turn to throw a glance at the still closed kitchen door. Upstairs, the music as well as the unsettling sounds from Mr. Foret's 'entertainment' had died down to footsteps and the occasional loud laugh.
"The other part of Temple's plan was slightly more strategic. To truly erase the Equals from existence, he had to capture their leader. Not only would that be a crippling blow to the organisation, but it would also give him a perfect subject for interrogation. For who would know the Equals better than the one organising them?"
"Correct," Mrs. Frewin said, "Let's see you find your way to the end of this rope: who is their leader?"
Holmes gave her a calm smile. "Why, Ms. Mary Morstan, of course."
Mrs. Frewin laughed in delight. "Very good, Mr. Holmes, very good!" She was all but clapping her hands. "And how did you come to that conclusion?"
"I had my suspicions, but I didn't know for sure until Rosamond's death. I hurried to take his place a few moments before a true replacement could arrive at the church where he worked and had time to read through some of his research. Half of it was written by Temple himself, further denoting his obsession." Above them, the footsteps of the other guests seemed to move towards each other, accompanied by the scraping of chairs being pushed across the floor.
"Apparently, the Equals were quite outspoken about their 'worship of Chaos' some hundred years ago – enough to have established their own rituals of marriage. These rituals are, of course, no longer in use, but it would appear the leader of the Equals inherits the last of their customary engagement bracelets as a symbol. At least that was what Temple claimed in the notes on Morstan's father's execution." Holmes wet his lips, his eyes positively burning with excitement.
"I understand better and better what my husband sees in your adventures, Mr. Holmes."
He continued to talk as if he hadn't heard her: "Temple notes elsewhere that he saw the friend I mentioned earlier – Ms. Irene Adler – wearing these bracelets on several occasions, which had him convinced she was his target for many years. Thus he ordered a man to infiltrate the House of Meeting she had attended while living in London, lying in wait for her return. After that, I think we both know what happened."
"Mr. Rosamond witnessed Ms. Morstan receive them from Ms. Adler, only to give them away as an engagement gift seconds later," Mrs. Frewin filled in, glancing up at the kitchen ceiling as if trying to see through it to the gathering of people above them.
"He hurried to report your mistake and thus he'd outlived his usefulness, letting you kill two birds with one stone by creating an opportunity to claim the Equals as a murderous cult. All that was left then was for Temple to wait until the slavers had left for France before arresting Ms. Morstan, citing Watson's bracelets as evidence of her guilt."
"All quite neatly tied together," Mrs. Frewin praised.
Holmes bowed his head, as if receiving applause from an audience. "Though I must admit, there is one strand of logic that still escapes me."
Mrs. Frewin tilted her head to the side in a gesture of mock confusion. "Truly? And what could that possibly be?"
"Attracting mine and thus Dr. Watson's attention. Involving me at all was a very high-risk gamble, and you had no way of knowing of Watson's future engagement to Ms. Morstan when you contacted us. Later, you could just have had Rosamond befriend or follow Watson and thus keep an eye on Mary through him. You're not a gambler, Mrs. Frewin. What could possible have made you hire me for the collar theft case?"
"What indeed. Let us just say that I saw a way out and took it."
Holmes froze. "Explain, please."
Mrs. Frewin grinned. "The reason for your involvement in all of this is you, Mr. Holmes."
Holmes blinked, a look of confusion slowly making its way into his eyes. Then he blinked again and it was gone, as if it never had been there in the first place. "Ah, I see."
"Do you? Interesting. Maybe we should compare notes, to make sure you have the right answer?"
He shook his head in response. "I've talked enough to satisfy even my love of theatrics for now. I'd be more than glad to listen to you speak this time."
Mrs. Frewin shrugged. "As you wish." She leaned back in her chair and her eyes took on a slightly distant look, as if she was contemplating a mystery. "A little of it was to distract you from the kidnappings, but most of it..." She made a vague gesture with one hand. "I have no desire to be trapped here for the rest of my life – belittled by my peers and under the thumb of that bastard Temple.
"In short, a very powerful client of mine offered safe passage for me and my husband to Sweden in exchange for you. I've been running from the law long enough and have no need for more money – it was a calculated risk, but with a great reward."
Holmes made no comment, which brought a fresh smile to the corner of Mrs. Frewin's mouth. "I will give you a clue, since you're so found of them: for a professor, he's surprisingly influential."
The tug at the chains that followed seemed more of a reflex than anything else.
"Tomorrow morning, two horribly burnt bodies will be fished out of the Thames, wearing your and Dr. Watson's clothes. You will, naturally, be with my client by then, but Dr. Watson is another matter," Mrs. Frewin drawled. "I'm not foolish enough to think you'd come willingly, so here's a deal: he will be spared death if you comply and make no attempts to escape."
When Holmes finally responded, his tone was surprisingly light. "What you mean is that he will be murdered or sold off."
"Correct." She looked very much like the proverbial cat that had gotten the cream. "If you really behave, I might even make sure you end up with the same master."
A glint of steel flashed in Holmes' eyes. He didn't tug at his chains or fist his hands, but his tone of voice evened out, becoming much less playful. "Mrs. Frewin, I must warn you, I do not take kindly to threats made against Dr. Watson."
"You don't say," Mrs. Frewin smiled. "And what is your plan of action – talking me into freeing you, perhaps?"
"No, but I will reconsider allowing Ms. Adler to gun you down where you stand."
Mrs. Frewin's eyes widened as something cold and metallic nudged against the back of her head.
"You really should hide in rooms with better locks, dear," Adler said, pressing the barrel of her pistol against the base of Mrs. Frewin's skull. Behind her, the door stood wide open.
Watson was hovering in the doorway, the two thugs who'd tied Holmes to the chair knocked out cold at his feet. His cane, still held at ready, looked much the worse for wear.
He moved to Holmes' side as soon as Adler had pulled Mrs. Frewin out of her chair and set about unlocking his chains with keys taken off the belt of one of the unconscious men. He might have mumbled a soft "Oh thank God!", but no one called him on it.
They suddenly heard the sound of heavy footsteps approaching.
"I am not going down alone," Mrs. Frewin hissed through gritted teeth as she caught sight of Inspector Lestrade, flanked by Morstan and two constables, enter the room next to the kitchen. "I will tell them all about your little sect, and then you'll hang as surely as I will."
"Don't forget to mention the crosses in our sleeves," Adler taunted calmly, pistol still aimed at her head.
Lestrade approached, handcuffs already unlocked. "You seem to be in a right mess, Mr. Holmes," he commented to the still-chained man and shook water from his hat. "And before you ask, yes, my men did find and arrest a group of thugs parading a whole horde of missing persons out of the Bishop's estate – they sent a man over to report not ten minutes ago." He frowned. "I would ask you not to look so smug, but it would be pointless, so I'll just do my job and leave you to it."
Holmes did indeed look smug – or as smug as a man being thoroughly searched for wounds by another man could look.
Mrs. Frewin stared straight ahead as Lestrade cuffed her and sent one of his men upstairs for her husband. Still, she managed to utter some words. "My husband has nothing to do with this; please leave him to eat his dessert."
No one commented. The constable still in the room knelt by the two unconscious men and, with the help of Adler, began to secure them.
Once all the suspects had been rounded up Lestrade muttered something under his breath, gave a reluctant nod of thanks to Holmes, and then turned to guide Mrs. Frewin outside, leaving Holmes, Watson, Adler and Morstan alone in the kitchen.
Watson followed the policemen closely with his eyes as they left the room. As soon as they were out of sight, he gently cradled one of Holmes' freed wrists and gave the bruises forming there a soft kiss. It wasn't much more than a brush of lips, but it was still enough to bring some heat to Holmes' cheeks. He gave Watson a questioning look, then let his eyes dart between the room's two other occupants.
"We talked," Morstan said before Watson could. "And we should do some more of that, though preferably not here. Baker Street in two hours?"
The other three nodded in silent agreement. Before long, they were walking arm-in-arm to hail a cab.
If any of them took note of Mr. Foret and the third policeman standing in the garden – Mr. Foret quite audibly sobbing – no one mentioned it.
"Time to unravel this once and for all," Holmes said as Mrs. Hudson left the sitting room. Adler, Morstan and Watson were all seated in what chairs and armchairs were available, following him with their eyes as he paced. "Ms. Morstan, Ms. Adler, please explain your decision to involve Watson and I in this marriage scheme of yours."
"Scheme?" Adler responded, her expression a picture of innocence.
Morstan elbowed her hard enough to make her grunt in pain, but not with enough force to cause injury. "I think we've played plenty more games than necessary already," she sighed. "And we apologise for whatever distress we might have caused – I can assure you, that wasn't our intention."
"Then what were they?" Watson said, eyes narrowed into something that wasn't quite an accusing glare.
Adler and Morstan remained silent for a long moment, exchanging glances.
"When we made the decision to go through with this, I can assure you we were convinced you two were ..." Morstan finally said, trailing off with a frustrated sigh.
"'Engaged'," Adler interjected with a smile.
"Like the two of you already are," Holmes filled in, stopping to fetch some tobacco out of the heel of a shoe.
Adler and Morstan both nodded. If Watson was surprised by this, he hid it excellently.
"Mary and I met eight years ago during a meeting for the rights of female leaders," Adler continued, sitting up straighter. "We quickly became friends and I soon noticed the crosses."
"Naturally," Holmes said. Morstan's cheeks took on an embarrassed flush of red.
"It seemed like an interesting organisation, so I joined, simple as that," Adler went on, giving Morstan a fond smile. "At least to begin with."
"Love is blind," Watson muttered, lifting one of his shirts from the hills of clothing Holmes had left in the room and turning its sleeves inside-out. No cross.
Morstan chuckled. "Exactly," she agreed. "And sometimes very foolish."
"The bracelets," Holmes stated, glancing over at the jewellery still around Watson's wrists.
Morstan and Adler's smiles faded somewhat. "That mistake cost us dearly, especially after we tried to be clever and arrange to blackmail Temple," Adler muttered, fisting her hands for a second before relaxing again. "People got suspicious, there was gossip. To make a long story short: Mary had to seek new employment and I fled the country for a while."
"Not the best of years," Morstan added, reaching out to interlace the fingers of one of her hands with Adler's. "We kept in touch as best as we could," she spoke softly, "but with the Equals being my responsibility, I could only take so many risks. Sometimes we went half a year without so much as an exchange of notes."
"The marriage was my idea," Adler confessed after another moment of heavy silence. "As was choosing the two of you to be our partners in crime." She sighed at Holmes' raised eyebrow. "We overheard Stamford and his husband talking about Dr. Watson's search for a leader and decided to seize the opportunity, since I already knew Holmes well. At the very least, I knew you wouldn't report us to the police."
"And I have memorised all our members, so we knew John was not adverse to the concept of a false engagement," Morstan filled in, smiling at Watson's surprised look. "It's the safest way of keeping track of everyone – anything put in writing is so easily stolen or copied. My father made me practice ever since I was a small child."
"And yet, you insist on crosses and bracelets," Holmes quipped, lighting his pipe.
Morstan's smile turned somewhat sheepish. "It was good of you to warn us before we left for the soirée," she said. "We did have time to warn all of our members who were at risk, so I highly doubt your friend Lestrade will catch anyone with sect symbols in their clothes. We can make up an excuse for the bracelets."
"I've already thought of one," Adler assured her, squeezing her hand gently in a soothing gesture. "Speaking of bracelets, you should know we only chose those," she made a vague gesture at Watson's circlets, "to give Holmes a clue as to our intentions, since he'd made it quite clear he had no true knowledge of what the Equals were." She paused. "You should have them replaced with something else, so that we can avoid trouble."
The silence returned. Holmes made his way over to light the fireplace. Morstan huddled closer to Adler.
"Why didn't you see fit to inform me of this plan from the very beginning?" Watson asked, arms crossed over his chest. "You knew I was an Equal and, as you said, not averse to a little theatrics to keep the gossip at bay."
Adler shrugged. "We wanted to test the waters, see how motivated you were," she said without any attempt at apology. "Especially as we came to realize you were far more law-abiding than us."
"Not to mention that there were so few safe places to discuss the matter in," Morstan added, avoiding looking either of them in the eye. "We were, of course, going to tell you as soon as was possible. I apologise for our clumsiness – we merely wished to help you while we helped ourselves."
Watson glanced at Holmes, who stared into the now flickering fire. Neither of them said anything.
"Well," Morstan sighed, her fingers tightening their grip on Adler's hand, "I believe that is all we have to tell. Maybe we should take our l-"
"Nonsense," Holmes interrupted. "If we are to be part of this scheme, I should like to have all the details. I've been considering it since Irene visited yesterday and made it quite obvious with her endless talk of you, Ms. Morstan, that you had more interest in each other than in Watson."
The two women froze halfway out of their seats. "So you do not object?"
The smile that spread over Holmes' face was surprisingly warm. "No, not at all. Watson?"
Watson rolled his eyes. "I thought I made my opinion clear days ago."
Holmes grinned, first at Watson, then at Adler and Morstan. "Ladies, let us discuss marriage."
They stood by the window and watched Adler and Morstan get into a cab. The chilly night breeze couldn't quite carry their voices up to the second floor, but Holmes still smiled and nodded, as if keeping rhythm with the inaudible conversation between the two women.
Watson watched him out of the corner of his eye and couldn't help but grin like a fool. "If I wasn't so tired, I would give you a stern talking to," he said, his expression robbing the words of whatever weight they might have carried. "What were you thinking?"
"Having the police catch Mrs. Frewin red-handed was the only sure way she'd get her just sentence," Holmes replied, stifling a yawn. "My method might have seemed rash to you, but I had to seize the opportunity when it presented itself. Also, I was quite certain you would come to my aid in time."
Watson shifted his weight from one foot to the other, turning his eyes back to the world outside their rooms. "You had no idea how long we searched for you – we were quite sure she'd taken you out of the house before we saw her men loitering outside the kitchen." He paused. "I suppose you allowed the rest of us to believe Mr. Foret was the guilty party so that we wouldn't interfere in your plan."
Holmes' only response was satisfied smirk.
With a hand braced against the wall for support, Watson lifted his cane to study its new bumps and blemishes. "How ever did you realize the poor souls were being held in John Temple's house?"
"The document Temple sent to Father Coupland was a vital clue," Holmes answered, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the pile of papers in the armchair behind him. "To assure the future spy of his safety, Temple claimed he'd taken possession of something very important to the one who ordered Rosamond's murder. It didn't take me many minutes to realise he meant the kidnapped Equals."
Watson let his cane drop to the floor with a soft thunk, closing his hand around its top before it could topple over.
"Temple's whole goal with this operation was to earn money," Holmes continued, "and with the captives in his power, he had the choice between following through on his promise to Mrs. Frewin or simply giving up the slavers to the authorities, which would have earned him quite a reward."
"Well, yes, that much I followed," Watson interjected, "but how did you know he kept them in his own house? It seems like the last place one would wish to keep incriminating evidence, especially living evidence."
Holmes nodded. "Temple no longer owns any property other than his own house, and he's too anxious and poor to rent a big enough storage facility. The only people who ever visit him are his colleges, due to the stigma of the near scandal as well as his paranoid personality. There was thus little chance of discovery, as the slaves were to be transported abroad today during the soirée to provide Mrs. Frewin with an alibi, and even if they were discovered it wouldn't have been hard to convince the captives that he'd played along with the slavers to rescue them. He knew Mrs. Frewin to be intelligent enough to realise this, so there was little risk of her not playing along. In short: the conclusion was simply logical."
"Of course," Watson snorted, grin still in place.
"Tomorrow, I shall go to Scotland Yard with the document Temple meant to send to Father Coupland, and Lestrade will undoubtedly come here and wish to turn our entire wardrobe inside-out to make sure we haven't stitched all of it full of crosses," Holmes said cheerfully as the cab disappeared around a street corner. "Before that, some rest would do us good."
"Yes," Watson agreed. He started when Holmes gently placed a hand on his. This time, however, he didn't pull away, merely looked up to meet his friend's searching gaze.
"Watson, what did you and Ms. Morstan agree on, when you decided to become her fiancé?"
Watson sighed. "The same things most Equals promise each other: to allow each other as much freedom as possible, while still making sure not to attract unwanted attention from the law."
The hand on his tightened somewhat.
"And you were truly ready to spend the rest of your life with her?"
"To be frank, no, but I had to," Watson replied. "The gossip had to die down somehow, and …" His voice dropped to an embarrassed murmur. "I was quite sure you wouldn't have me, so who I married didn't matter."
"You thought I wouldn't love you because I am a follower, or because you pretend to be one?" Holmes asked, voice equally quiet.
Watson's eyes widened. "Both," he gasped. "You truly are a follower?"
"Does it matter?" Keen eyes scrutinised him, searching for a clue as to his answer before he could speak it.
It didn't take Watson long to decide. "No."
Holmes was the first to break the comfortable silence that followed:
"I fear I made a frightful mess of your room while you were away purchasing bandages," he confessed with mischief in his eyes. Only a faint tremble in his hand betrayed his nerves. "Terribly sorry, Doctor, but I had to make sure there was no incriminating evidence to be found. I hope you will forgive me eventually."
"John," Watson corrected him, "and at this moment, I couldn't give two figs about my room or the mess you've most likely made of my bed to ensure I'd have to look elsewhere for a sleeping place tonight." He reached up with free hand and cupped Holmes' cheek, who leaned into his touch with a soft 'hmm' and guided their foreheads to rest against each other, mindful of their bruises.
"Bed," he said simply after a moment, catching the flicker of uncertainty in Holmes' eyes. "I am dead on my feet and shall most likely faint if I don't get to sleep soon." He moved to release Holmes, but not before tilting his head to fit their lips together.
The kiss was gentle and short and Watson was quite sure he'd never been happier in his life.
"Should I become engaged to Ms. Adler?" Holmes suddenly asked in a teasing tone of voice, halfway to his bedroom. "Just to be on the safe side, I mean."
Watson laughed and wrapped an arm around Holmes' waist. "Let us discuss that tomorrow."
Thankfully, it would be a long night.
Chapter 8: Epilogue
May 2, 1886
A door closed.
"We have a letter!"
"Do we, now? I assume France is treating them well."
An exasperated, yet fond sigh. "Mary sends her regards and hopes you and Mrs. Hudson are tending to my every need."
A snort. "Is there any sense in that letter, or shall we just ignore it and get dressed for the opera?"
"Very little sense."
"Opera it is, then." Clattering of a violin being placed on a table.
"They'll be back in another month or two, but they say they won't be staying long."
A laugh. "Irene sends her regards."
Rustling of clothes. "I suppose we shall have to write them back, if only for appearance's sake."
A door opened.
"Of course. Now, what did you say was playing tonight?"
"Ah, I do believe you'll be pleasantly surprised. The first-"
A door closed.