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Marriage á Trois

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Marriage á Trois.

~*~

Mary Morstan, at age fifteen, is very different from the woman she will become. She is headstrong, and hasn't yet learned to temper it with patience; she is a bluestocking, and has not yet learned to hide her intelligence; she is romantic, and has not yet learned to temper it with pragmatism. She is wildly in love with the most inappropriate boy possible, and as she tumbles into the hay with his lips on her she can't imagine a future that looks anything other than this.

~*~

Mary Morstan, at age nineteen, is a woman grown, by any standard, and is engaged to a handsome young officer who dotes on her every word. He's absolutely sweet, though he's admittedly a little lacking in the brains department, and he always does exactly as he ought. Mary did some things she very much ought not to have done, and none of them worked out very well, so she thinks that she should give being proper a try. And of course, Harry loves her very much, and she knows that they're going to be wonderfully happy together. They have a bright future, and she's very much looking forward to living it.

~*~

Mary learns three things over the course of the Blackwood case, three very important things that make her consider her future with John very deeply indeed.

The first is that his best friend is an ass. To be fair, she had a great deal of warning on that front, as John almost made them late to dinner at the Royale with his graphic descriptions of horribly embarrassing things that Holmes did in the past. Still, she would have thought that the famous Sherlock Holmes would have been clever enough not to postulate on shaky evidence about her supposedly mercenary leanings, and she also would have thought that he'd know to be a little less blatant with his distaste for her very existence. Everything he did during those five tense minutes at the dinner table was only calculated to drive himself further from John's favor, and if she could realize that, then surely he would have been able to; apparently he just couldn't help himself.

The second is that no matter what he says, John is actually quite incapable of saying no to Sherlock Holmes, which she learns the hard way when she receives his message and is forced to come down to Scotland Yard to bail him out of prison. While she goes about the business of actually posting bail and filling out the paperwork and so on, the officer at the desk spends an inordinate amount of time describing the utter carnage of the shipyard, and Mary is able to piece together a) the fact that John and Holmes were arrested on general principles rather than on any particular charge, and b) John very easily could have been killed, simply because he couldn't say no to his friend.

She doesn't say any of this during the long, silent drive back to his new home on Cavendish, because unlike Holmes, she actually has a degree of common sense when it comes to managing John. But she's thinking very hard about their engagement, about how it's not even official since he hasn't given her a ring, and about whether she can stand to be married to a man who might as well be married to his friend instead.

The third thing she learns, which is the most surprising, is that Holmes is just as obsessively devoted to John as John is to him. He's obviously quite guilt-torn over getting him blown up, and even though she knows he must be needed a dozen different places to solve the case, he is still here, by John's side, while he convalesces. That says more to her than words ever will.

~*~

Two days after the showdown at Parliament, John comes to call on her at her parents' house while she is taking tea, and he quite unceremoniously goes to one knee, presents her with an absolutely enormous diamond ring, and asks her to marry him.

After all the crying is over, and her parents have gracefully faded away, she sits on the sofa next to him and spends a little while admiring the ring on her finger. "We'll have to actually set a date now, you know," she warns him. "There will be planning. It will probably take months."

"So no Christmas wedding?" he says, and she gasps in mock affront.

"Don't even joke! I still have a job to do, you know."

"And a most excellent governess you are indeed," he says, pressing a fond kiss to her forehead. "Take as long as you like with the planning, it doesn't matter to me. Only do feel free to consider my home ours."

"Oh my, what will the neighbors say," she murmurs, only half-joking. The woman from whom John bought the house, who he in a fit of pity apparently decided to keep on as a cook-slash-housekeeper, is the kind of woman who finds fault with everything. "I can't possibly play mistress of the house till it's ours in truth."

"Well, at least say you'll come to dinner often," he coaxes, "as I'll be quite busy with my practice and I don't want to lose track of you now that you've done me the great favor of agreeing to marry me."

"As if I'd allow you to get lost," she says, but she's looking at the ring on her finger and what she really means is, Now that Holmes isn't trying to drag you away.

~*~

The thing is, she knows without John telling her that the diamond was supplied by Holmes. He tells her that he doesn't know where Holmes got the bloody thing, but that's because men (excepting Holmes himself, of course) are generally less observant than women and that's why John never saw "the bloody thing" dangling on a gold chain around Irene Adler's neck. Mary spotted it when Adler showed up at John's bedside looking for Holmes, and while Mary was busy talking herself out of slapping the woman senseless Adler had bent over John's bedside, ostensibly looking at his injuries but really looking for some hidden Holmesian clue, and the diamond had fallen free of her bodice. It really was quite distinctive.

What this means is that the ring on her finger is a concession and apology all in one, and that's a fine thing to wring out of a man like Sherlock Holmes. Mary loves it, a little bit because it's a very fine diamond and she's more easily dazzled than she likes to admit, but mostly because Holmes ripped it off the neck of Irene Adler in order to give to John so that he might put it on her finger, and she gets a small-minded kind of thrill every time she looks at it. She not only won John from Sherlock Holmes; but John also won Holmes from Adler, and that's a victory indeed.

And that is why, when John tells her that they're invited to take tea at Baker Street as John picks up the last of his belongings, she accepts the invitation. "Are you quite sure, my dear?" John asks her, with uncharacteristic hesitance. He had the exact same wary expression on his face when he told her that Holmes had finally agreed to meet her, and right now, she knows he's thinking something along the lines of, "And look how that turned out." She can't entirely blame him. However:

"I'm quite sure," she says reassuringly, and means it. Their first meeting was less than auspicious and she wants to have a do-over, and today, so shortly after solving arguably the largest case of his career, is a day when Holmes is almost guaranteed to be in a good mood.

At Baker Street, John listens with fond patience to Holmes' explanation of his cleverness for far longer than the five minutes he initially promised. Mary doesn't entirely mind, because she is busy realizing that this is going to be her life from here on out. John can't break away from Sherlock Holmes, and Mary absolutely does not want to break away from John, and so she is going to have to find a way to incorporate Holmes into their life together, or she isn't going to have much of a life with John at all.

So she fusses over the dog, and she listens with half an ear to the conversation. The words aren't as important to her as the rhythm of their speech, the easy patter of words falling in practiced and predictable rhythms. They banter tightly, John beginning sentences and trailing off, offering the end of the phrase up to Holmes as a gift. They have almost entirely forgotten that she's in the room, though John casts her a glance every few minutes or so, checking in. She waves him off. She's trying to decide if there's room for her beside them, and if so, how best to convince them to make the room?

The journals. She's almost certain that whatever answer she seeks, it can be found in the journals. "I'll see Mrs. Hudson about tea," she murmurs to John, so that he won't come after her at an inopportune moment, and then slips down the stairs, two cheerful voices fading slowly above her.

The porter is just finished loading John's parcels, and she taps him lightly on the shoulder. "A favor from you, my good man," she says, and he turns to look at her in deep puzzlement. "That trunk, yes, that one there," and she stretches onto her toes to make sure that he can follow her pointing finger, "can you deliver it to my rooms?"

"It'll be extra," the porter says immediately, and she smiles.

"I had rather thought it would be," she says, and counts some coins into his palm. "Will that do?"

"Yes, marm," he says, his brows going up a little at her generous tip. "Where to?"

Once she's given him the address, she goes back inside and sees Mrs. Hudson about the tea, arranging for a light lunch to be brought up as well, then goes back up to Holmes' study. The two men are still talking, about politics, now, and she's fairly sure that she hasn't been missed.

But John's head turns the moment she walks through the door, and his smile at her entrance is the same as it always is, unclouded by distraction at his friend's conversation. It's more of a relief than she likes to admit.

Later, after Clarkie shows up and Holmes goes running off and they're on their way home, Mary says, "John, would you mind terribly if I read some of your adventures? I know a writer's words can be very private, but I'd like to get an idea what sort of cases you were working when you weren't chasing down devil-worshipping noblemen."

"I shudder at what you'll think of my grammar," John says with a grin, "but of course, you have my permission."

"That's excellent news indeed," she says. "Because I already bribed the porter to send them to my rooms."

She's not going to start off her married life by lying to her soon-to-be-husband. Luckily for her, John just shakes his head ruefully, smiling a little at her presumption. "At least you gave me the pretense of asking for my permission," he says. "It's more than Holmes ever does."

It may be petty to get such pleasure at hearing herself compared favorably to Holmes, but Mary is determined to enjoy every bit of this moment, sitting in carriage with her fiancée, her head leaning against his shoulder in a very wifely manner. "I'll be sure not to manage you too obviously in the future," she tells him, and listens to the echo of his laughter in the quiet, intimate space of the cab.

~*~

Mary enjoys reading John's journals more than she expected, and she finds herself quite caught up in them. So caught up in them, in fact, that she disappears from everything but her job for almost a week after the visit to Baker Street. It's not just John's flair for writing and his ability to remember some of the scenes nearly word-for-word and detail them in such a way that Mary feels almost as if she's standing there herself, both of which are exceptional. It's not even the breathless excitement of a adrenaline-rush-by-proxy when she's reading about some daring escapade in which the intrepid heroes escaped by the skin of their teeth, though she's suddenly feeling very enlightened as to just what her fiancée is up to even when he's not actively getting himself blown up. No, what fascinates her the most is the unwitting truth that John reveals about the great detective himself; through his words she discovers something about Holmes that she would never have been able to discern on her own.

John comes to call on her at her small little apartment off Lady Coleridge's main house. The housekeeper shows him to her sitting room where she is engaged in the final stages of an embezzlement case eight months hence, and she scrambles to her feet to answer his knock. The housekeeper leaves, but still he remains very properly outside her door and frowns when he sees the state of her quarters. "My dear, are you quite well? Your mother hasn't heard from you in days."

Her sitting room floor is scattered with small heaps of his journals, and those surrounded by stacks of back-issues of The Daily Graphic. John's journals reveal a painstaking attention to detail as regards to Holmes, but also a distinct tendency towards self-effacement. She has had to resort to even The Daily Graphic's inefficient reporting to get a glimmer of his contributions on some of the trickier cases. Luckily, she is particularly good at reading between the lines.

None of which helps her right now, faced with John's concern and looking, she's sure, nearly as untidy as her quarters. "I assure you, I'm fine," she says, with what she hopes is a reassuring smile. "I've simply been busy."

"Very busy, I should say," he says, frowning even deeper. Then he notices the familiar covers of his journals and in his astonishment forgets himself enough to step forward into her rooms. "You've been busy reading me?"

Abruptly, she realizes that he might be upset. He gave his permission for her to peruse his journals, yes, but she knows that he didn't truly expect her to read them with any real interest. Perhaps there were, after all, things in these pages that he doesn't want her to know. Most men certainly wouldn't want their future wives to know such intimate details.

John halts only two strides into the room, and he is no Holmes to read a person's history at a single glance, but he knows her well enough to read her expressions even at her most composed, and right now she is far less than that. "My dear Mary," he says, his voice softening, "don't think I'm vexed with you. I'm merely perplexed as to your interest in my scribbles."

"But you're a brilliant writer!" she exclaims, forgetting her worry of a moment before. "Your scribbles, as you call them, are far more captivating than the dull accounts published in The Daily Graphic."

"You'll make me blush," John says, perhaps a little flirtatiously, and Mary smiles in relief that disaster is averted and goes to his side. "There, much better," he says with satisfaction, when her arm is tucked in his. He presses a kiss to her temple. "Honestly, I'm flattered. But your poor mother is at her wit's end with wedding plans."

Mary laughs and leans her head on John's shoulder. She is tall for a woman, and so she loves that he is tall enough for this; and just improper enough in his affection to allow it, though they are not yet wed. There are some advantages, certainly, to marrying a man so inured to improprieties by the very improper Sherlock Holmes. "I am sure she is handling things much more capably than she believes, but I am nevertheless sorry that you were subjected to her fretting." Secretly, she quite loves that he is comfortable enough with her family that her mother will pour her worries into his ear. "I shall call on her at once, and set her mind at ease."

"My mind is eased simply to see you in good health and spirits," he says, smiling, "but my dear, I must ask. When I arrived at your door just now, you looked very sad. Is there something else that's bothering you?"

She lifts her head from his shoulder so that she can better see his face. Do you know that your dear friend Holmes loves you as fiercely as I do? she wonders. Do you know that you are in love with him in return?

She has spent years studying love poetry written in their original languages. She spent her childhood at the knee of her dreamy, bookish father, who gave her rather more freedom with his library than a proper young lady ought. She knows love when she reads it, as it has so thoroughly been revealed in the pages of John's journals, but she doesn't know if John is aware of what he writes.

She dares not ask. England is not Ancient Greece, and she can't risk even John's endlessly tolerant disposition on so important and delicate a matter. So she says, "It was a moment's thoughtfulness, nothing more," and says it lightly enough to be convincing. But she can't do nothing with her knowledge, and so she also says, "Do you or Mr. Holmes have any particular plans this evening? I must go and calm my mother, but afterwards I thought perhaps the three of us could make another attempt at an amicable dinner."

John's expression becomes calculating, and she knows he is planning whatever sort of machinations he thinks will be necessary to get Holmes to agree. But she knows now, by the diamond on her finger, that Holmes has resigned himself to the inevitable and will submit meekly enough to dinner. It will be her task to show to him that she never wished to take his friend away from him, and prove instead that John Watson has more than enough heart to be shared between them.

"He'll be there," John decides. "Though I can't make any promises as to his behavior."

"None are needed," Mary returns quickly, "as long as you won't be too ashamed if I make a scene in return."

"I'm the last one to complain about making a scene," John admits, "and I have to say that it would be a pleasure to see you get the better of him, if only for a moment."

It would be a pleasure for Mary as well, but she suspects that Holmes would enjoy it most of all. "Then we're agreed. Do come and meet me even if he balks, though. We'll both be so busy over the coming months, with the wedding and your expanding practice, that we'll scarcely see each other till we're wed."

"I shall just have to make sure that the time passes very quickly indeed," he promises, then presses an affectionate kiss to her cheek before taking his leave.

~*~

Holmes does come to dinner, and is in fact on his very best behavior, solicitous and charming and fairly sparkling with wit. Mary has a marvelous time, but she doesn't fool herself that the display is for her benefit. Holmes is making a point to John, proving that he can fit into polite society when it's asked of him, because John has already proved that he can't leave Holmes when he's needed. Holmes is making a compromise, Mary thinks. If she needed any other evidence of his love for John, this would be it.

Over the next two months, John is called away no fewer than sixteen times for aid on cases, though he is always scrupulously careful not to miss any social engagements, which includes one of the best Christmases she has ever spent with her family. Holmes, for his part, seems willing at last to cease detaining his friend when such events occur, but this must be an easy sacrifice to make, as Mary is far too busy to manage more than an occasional meal with her fiancée.

"It's quite ridiculous," she tells him in exasperation one evening over dinner. "Charlie has taken the news of my upcoming nuptials with very ill grace indeed, and I have my hands full trying to keep peace in the school room. As if I don't have enough trouble, calming my mother's nerves and planning the smallest details of the wedding!"

John pats her hand soothingly. "Have you considered asking Lady Coleridge for some time off?" he asks. "I'm sure she would be delighted to grant it to you."

"Oh, but I can't," she tells him. "If I took time off now, I couldn't in good conscience ask for more for another six months or longer. Our honeymoon, I'm afraid, would be quite out of the question."

John looks hesitant, but offers, "I can't say that I have any fierce attachment to that week in the countryside, my dear, and you know that things are just starting to pick up with my practice. Perhaps we can postpone our honeymoon for some other occasion, our first anniversary perhaps, after we have gotten our fill of domestic bliss and have started to argue over curtains and who gets to lay claim to the last empty bookshelf."

She stares at him, her mouth fairly gaping in astonishment, for long enough that he flushes and mutters, "It was just a suggestion."

She seizes his hand before he can pull away. "No, no, my love, you are a genius!" she declares. "I was simply struck with surprise at the elegance of your solution. If you would feel no great loss at postponing our honeymoon, I would be delighted to begin our regular life together directly after the wedding."

"Well, perhaps a couple days off," he says, a smile lurking behind his mustache, and she has to stifle her laughter with her hand.

"Certainly, my dear," she says, his eyes sparkling back at her with equally repressed mirth. This is not a proper dinner-table discussion, but neither of them are quite proper and she quite likes that. "We'll need the rest."

"Or something," he says agreeably, and at that Mary is forced to return to her meal before she descends into giggles like an undignified schoolgirl.

~*~

Lady Coleridge is delighted to grant Mary some time away, especially when she learns that Mary's honeymoon will be postponed for some time, and she'll be returning to her post mere days after the wedding. Charlie is considerably less than delighted, sulking about losing his heretofore entirely devoted governess to another male, but that's a problem she'll have to settle later.

With only another month left until her wedding, Mary suddenly finds herself with a surfeit of free time, even with the endless visits to the dressmaker's and haberdasher's and the inn where the reception will be held. She takes advantage of this free time by spending long mornings curled up in the chair in her father's study, sharing the silent companionship of scholarly pursuits, and by taking meals with John, sometimes at her parents' home and sometimes alone in his new house. She likes to dismiss the overly proper Mrs. Douglas as soon as dinner is prepared so that she can get some peace and sets the table herself, humming cheerfully. She looks around his dining room and she thinks, this will soon be mine and she looks at his handsome, kind face across the table and thinks and this will be soon be mine, too.

It makes her smile, a secret thrilling pleasure inside. Harry, dear sweet man that he was, would have belonged to her if he had lived, but Mary is beginning to learn that there is no triumph in owning a man's heart when he is all too eager to give it away. She, simple Mary Morstan the governess, won the heart of John Watson despite the best efforts of the world's only independent consulting detective, and that is a triumph indeed.

She will never have all of him, however, and perhaps that is what allows her to love him back with a fierceness she never felt with Harry. She has a life and mind of her own, and she would be very reluctant to give it over entire to John. A married couple must have other pursuits if they are to be happy, she thinks. As long as John does not begrudge her position as governess, she does not begrudge John his cases, and certainly not his friendship.

However, when the day comes that he arrives twenty minutes late to dinner in his own home (in their home, as he still likes to insist) trailing apologies like a bad perfume, she thinks that it's probably time that she makes sure he knows that.

"…and Holmes is like a cat in water if he doesn't have an audience for his clever denouement, so I stayed to let him explain his genius in order to keep him from sulking later, but of course he took far longer than I expected and-"

Mary catches his wildly gesticulating hand with hers, and he trails off and looks at her with apologetic eyes. "There is no need to be sorry, my dear," she says, subtly drawing him towards the dining room. She didn't want to begin without him, but neither does she want to eat her dinner cold. "Perhaps next time, however, you can bring Mr. Holmes with you? Then we can have our dinner and he will have one more person to tell how clever he has been."

John balks just before she can get him to the table, and when she looks into his face to see why, she finds him frowning more heavily than her suggestion quite deserves.

"John?"

"You shouldn't have to endlessly compromise to my inability to say no to him," John says heavily. "Why aren't you furious with me? Once again I have inconvenienced you due to Holmes, and you respond by inviting him into our home!" He sighs and looks down at their joined hands. "I don't understand you," he says to the floor.

Her heart squeezes tight at his bewilderment. While he has never before been engaged, unlike her, she's very sure that she's far from his first romance; John is not a man who takes love lightly. How many others were driven away by the omnipresence of Holmes' influence?

"There is little to understand," she tells him softly. "He is your friend, and he means a great deal to you, so he will clearly be a part of our lives. Why shouldn't I make room for him at the beginning?"

"You threw wine in his face at your first meeting," John says with disbelief. "Surely you must resent him at least a little."

If anything, she feels sorry for Holmes, because by any outward measure, she has won every unspoken contest between them. But he has compromised in defeat, and she can compromise in victory.

Besides, she quite likes Holmes, and she says as much to John. "I was simply making the point that I was not to be bullied, and he listened quite nicely. Truly, John, he is a very charming companion; it's no hardship to share a meal with him."

John's mouth quirks sideways into halfway smile. "He's often entirely the opposite of charming," he mutters darkly, but she knows he's beginning to see her point.

"Well, you shall just have to tell him to be on his best behavior," she says briskly. "Or else I'll have to resort to more drastic measures than a glass of wine."

John laughs, a trifle shakily, and seizes her other hand with his, so that they stand facing each other, their hands linked between them. "You are a most singular woman," he says seriously. "My darling, I'm sure that I don't deserve you."

She gives his fingers a quick squeeze of reassurance. "I assure you, I'm filled with all sorts of flaws which you have yet to discover. I'm very selfish with my time, as you'll soon learn, and more stubborn than you can imagine. I think we deserve each other quite nicely."

Without warning, he leans down to capture her mouth with his. This is no chaste peck between betrothed, but a kiss full of passion, promising many things that words can't fully translate. A well-bred young lady would step away, but Mary has done many things a young lady should not consider, and so she kisses him back, their hands still awkwardly tangled between them, until he leans just far enough away to take a breath.

John lifts one slightly unsteady hand to tuck a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. "I love you, you know," he says with great seriousness, and she smiles dazedly at him in return.

"And I you," she says after a moment, as her wits begin to return. Mary has been kissed before, has done things that her mother would faint to hear about when she was still young and foolish and impressionable, but there is a world of difference when there is love behind such actions. Mary is suddenly very much looking forward to the wedding day, and more particularly the wedding night. "But my dear, surely we have discussed enough? Our dinner is growing cold."

He laughs, as she intends, and allows her to draw him to the table. "Next time you should begin without me."

"Then there won't be any dinner left at all," she retorts. "After running errands all day I'm famished."

"That will teach me not to be late, certainly," he says, as he holds out her chair and seats her gracefully at the table. "One or two times eating kitchen scraps and I'll learn to be very prompt indeed."

"Next time you're bringing Mr. Holmes with you," she says. "The time after that, we shall see."

~*~

Mary doesn't really expect to see Holmes before her wedding (only a handful of weeks away, now) because John has become nearly as busy as she, with his efforts to square away the last of his patients so that he can be at home to help her settle in after the wedding. But surely enough, a mere eight days before she is to become Mrs. John Watson, John sends her a note about dinner and adds that Holmes will be attending as well.

Mary gets there early, to make sure that the table will be set with something worth eating. Mrs. Douglas only reluctantly allows her in when she answers the door, and Mary spends a pleasurable hour touring through the house and asking insulting questions about the state of the housekeeping. It's a petty pleasure, to be sure, but if Mrs. Douglas is so ready to disapprove of John and Mary's deplorably middle-class behavior, then Mary is perfectly willing to oblige her.

John and Holmes come tumbling through the front like a pair of puppies only ten minutes late, laughing breathlessly at some shared witticism moments before. John is his usual immaculate self, but Holmes is even more disheveled than usual, with several days of growth shadowing his jaw, his waistcoat buttoned only haphazardly, and his cravat hanging loose at his throat and stained with what looks like soot. Mary slants her gaze sideways in anticipation of the look of disdainful horror that crosses the housekeeper's face.

"Please make sure that the table is set, Mrs. Douglas, so that we may eat as soon as possible," Mary says pleasantly. "I'm sure that our guest is hungry."

"Starving!" Holmes booms. "I've been tramping around the docks all day, and I didn't want to risk lunch."

Too busy, is more like, because Mary suspects that Holmes must have a stomach of iron to still be alive, if some of John's stories are true. Mrs. Douglas shudders quite satisfactorily, however, and disappears to the dining room, as Holmes busies himself with shedding his wrinkled overcoat.

"I cannot believe you hired that woman," Holmes says to John. "You are going to scandalize her into poisoning you before the year is out."

More like six months, Mary thinks.

"I bought the house from her, she's a poor widow, I can't just turn her out," John protests. Mary has heard this before. Mrs. Douglas fetched a tidy sum for this house out of John's pocket, and isn't poor at all. Mary doesn't see why they should continue to subject themselves to her poor cooking and ill-disguised sneers, and pay for the privilege, at that.

"Well, when she finally does throw up her hands and leave, allow your wife to choose the replacement, hmm? I imagine that way, you're much less likely to be killed in your sleep."

Mary allows herself a small smile. John splutters indignantly, and Holmes rolls his eyes. It's not the first time she's felt some sense of kinship with the man, but it's the easiest she's felt about it.

Over dinner, which is at least decent if not particularly good, either, Holmes regales them with the tale of his latest case. A young lady of quite high birth lost a very expensive necklace, cast carelessly aside on a table while receiving a veritable crowd of suitors in her salon. It was almost certainly one of the young men, and while retrieving the necklace out of the pawn shops was no trouble, the young lady certainly didn't want to end up marrying a thief. Holmes spent the last several days investigating the characters of the various suitors, as tracking the culprit through the pawn shop records had proven impossible.

"But surely it was the young man who kept bringing flowers," Mary says, laughing, when Holmes begins to wind up his tale. They're on the main course, now, and she looks up from cutting her roast beef to find both men staring at her. "What?"

"My dear, how could you possibly have thought of that?" John says, with great astonishment.

She looks at Holmes, who has a disgruntled expression on his sulky face. "That only took me four days to discover and another three to prove," he grumbles, with no small amount of exasperation. "Pray, do tell me how you arrived at that conclusion."

"W-well, it was a guess only," Mary stammers, unnerved at the force of Holmes' unfriendly gaze. "But if he was bringing that many bouquets, he either quite infatuated indeed, or he was feeling guilty, and by your own account he acted with no particular devotion before the incident, which leaves guilt as the most likely motive."

"Bravo!" cries John, clapping his hands with delight. "I don't know about Holmes, my dear, but I for one am impressed."

"Oh, I'm impressed," Holmes says darkly. He looks as if "impressed" is not the word he would have chosen to use. "How did you become so familiar with the signifiers of a guilty mind?"

There's an accusation in his voice, clear as a bell, and John sits upright in his chair, no longer amused. Mary lifts her chin defiantly. She refuses to be bullied by this man. "I may not be a connoisseur of criminal behavior, Mr. Holmes," she says with icy dignity, "but I am very familiar with children. It has been my experience that a young boy will never be as sweet to his governess as when he has done something for which he deserves blame."

Holmes rests his chin in his open palm and looks contemplative, but it's just a cover for the anger sparkling in his eyes. "So you're saying that criminals are really little more than overgrown children."

Mary leans forward, annoyance with this damned man overriding her caution. "It was you who said that most of your cases could be solved by a drooling infant, was it not?"

"I don't recall that," Holmes says stiffly, and John cracks out a laugh.

"Well I do, Holmes, and she's right, you said just exactly that. You can't blame her for proving your point, and quite thoroughly, too."

"Hmm," Holmes says, and his face says I can blame her if I want to as clearly as if he shouted it. This is nothing new and Mary is used to being Holmes' own, personal harbinger of doom, but she's also starting to feel rather resentful because she is trying, Lord knows she is, and he comes into this house and looks at her with accusing eyes as if she is everything that has gone wrong his life.

Well, she didn't steal John, Holmes lost him, and she is doing her best to share even after Holmes drove him into her arms, but if Holmes can't behave like a civilized human being then she sees no reason to continue to compromise. She glares across the table at him.

For a moment, Holmes looks sour, and then he seems amused, which serves to make her even more furious. Next to her, John squeezes her hand, sensitive to the tension in the room, probably trying to warn her not to say something that she'll regret. Right now, she's fairly sure that she won't regret anything.

Before she can open her mouth to express her utter contempt, however, the condescension in Holmes' face fades away and is replaced by something like curiosity. Her fury is apparently fascinating to him, and he stares at her with a kind of intensity that she imagines terrifies all manner of criminals, but she meets his eyes and refuses to look away. She will not allow herself to be flattened by this one-man hurricane.

And then a miracle happens. As she meets his gaze as fearlessly as she can, she feels herself being studied, without the critical prejudice that has previously been a hallmark of their acquaintance. Now he is simply studying her, as Holmes studies all interesting persons that cross his path, and Mary can only sit still and let him glean what secrets he may. It is one of the hardest things she's ever done.

Finally, finally, the ordeal ends when Holmes drops his gaze back to his plate and, as if the entire unspoken exchange has not occurred at all, says, "This roast beef is only barely mediocre, Watson; whatever you are paying that woman it's undoubtedly too much."

John begins to defend Mrs. Douglas, and Mary focuses on her meal and tunes them out. After all, she's heard John's defenses several times already, and Holmes' arguments are surprisingly similar to her own. She is instead thinking of Holmes and his long, thoughtful consideration, of the curious lack of resentment in his eyes. If she were a more fanciful woman, she would say that it was as if her were seeing her for the first time.

She cannot for the life of her discern what she did or did not do or say, what strange alchemy of behavior and circumstance cause the shift, but every scrap of intuition that she possesses is clamoring that somehow, she has finally become something other than a friend-stealing charlatan in the eyes of the redoubtable Mr. Holmes. It is perfectly ridiculous that this wondrous event should happen a week before her wedding, and yet at the same time, completely predictable. Holmes never does anything like the rest of the world, and she has come to know that better than most.

~*~

And then, before she knows it, she's getting married.

The day before the wedding is spent in a flurry of activity, Mary and her mother running errands to practically every corner of the city. Everything needs to be double-and-triple-checked to make sure that all is in readiness for tomorrow: guests, flowers, church, and so on. Dinner is spent listening to her father practice his toast (and her mother insist that it isn't right for Mary to hear it ahead of time) while Mary makes gentle suggestions to correct some of the more stiltedly formal turns of phrase. After dinner, her mother goes over the checklist of all the little chores left undone while Mary assures her that they'll be taken care up, until at least she's able to excuse herself to bed and finally, finally, breathe.

She stares at her reflection in the mirror. I'm getting married tomorrow, she thinks. This time tomorrow I will be wed, and my whole life is going to be different.

Her reflection just looks back at her with a kind of rueful panic, no wisdom to offer, so Mary just sighs at herself and starts taking her hair down. She's going to have a long day tomorrow, after all, so she might as well get some sleep.

She's already changed into her nightgown and is tying off the end of her braid when she hears something go plink against her window. She pauses, her fingers going still on the bit of ribbon, and she stares at the window with narrowed eyes. Surely it couldn't be…

The plink noise comes again, and this time she sees the pebble rise into view and strike against the glass before falling away. It's all too gothic romance for words, and Mary rolls her eyes before getting up to investigate. A bit part of her is absolutely certain that she's going to find Sherlock Holmes standing in the alley, some absurd, grandiose last-second attempt to get her to call off the wedding and give him his friend back, but instead she just sees John, who is poking around with his cane looking for another rock to throw and is bareheaded and is completely insane.

She opens the window. "What on Earth," she hisses down at him, and he looks up at her and grins with the heartbreaking, unrestrained, wild joy that made her fall in love with him in the first place and says, "Can I come up?"

The answer to this is, of course, No, you maniac, this is my parents' home and we're getting married in fourteen hours, but somehow he ends up scrambling up the tree that her father used as an escape route when he was still a young boy and clambering through her window, all awkward arms and legs and coltish grace. She laughs at him, quietly, and then he steadies himself and looks up and they are suddenly very close, staring into one another's eyes. John is still grinning like a lunatic, but there is a quiet sort of terror in his eyes.

"I cannot believe we are actually doing this enormous thing," he admits, and she bites her lip to stifle slightly hysterical laughter.

"We are quite insane," John continues, and she nods frantically: yes, yes, how is it that no one else has realized how terribly strange this all is? and John just gives her this terrible smile and says, "I had to know if you were damnably scared as I am."

At that she has to kiss him, and one thing leads to another, and after a few pleasantly hazy minutes they fall into her bed together, clinging to each other with a kind of terrified ferocity. Tomorrow they will pledge themselves to one another until God do them part but right now Mary is too busy undoing the buttons on his trousers to care.

John's nimble surgeon's fingers make quick work of her underthings, and he settles between her legs, his body heavy and implacable above hers. There is a moment of hesitation, and she whispers her secrets into the warm space between his neck and his shoulder, and there are no recriminations on his face, just a sort of gentle acceptance. In return he murmurs promises into her hair, vows no less real than the ones they will make in front of God and everyone twelve hours from now, and when he thrusts into her she thinks, I now pronounce you man and wife.

~*~

He sneaks back out just before dawn the next morning, rumpled and cheerful, and Mary hangs out the window and watches him go, knowing that anyone could see them, and not caring the slightest bit. They're getting married today, and at this exact moment there is no part of her that cares about what's respectable.

At breakfast her mother comments on her good mood. Apparently Mary is smiling, and when she realizes this she makes an effort to restrain herself because her father, at least, is not a foolish man when he decides to pay attention, but she can't seem to control it. She beams at her mother across the table and her mother says, "Well! You certainly don't seem nervous about your wedding."

Mary has nothing left to fear because Mary already feels married. Vows were exchanged last night, in the intimacy of tangled bed sheets, and the ceremony due to take place in a few short hours is just a formality.

~*~

It's almost an anticlimax when Holmes tries to ruin the wedding.

She's in the back room of the church, putting the finishing touches on her appearance, trying to recapture the feeling of calm that she had this morning. It's not that she's worried about the marriage itself, because knowing that John was as delightfully panicked as she put paid to that quite nicely. Anytime you share a fear, she thinks, it only makes it more likely that you're able to work through it. She and John are going to be excellent at being married.

Mostly, she's standing here, fussing with the curls hanging to the sides of her face (honestly, what was she thinking, she should have had them pulled back with the rest) and worrying about all of the things that could go wrong today. Her mother, helpful woman that she is, has been listing all of these possibilities all day, and Mary has, mostly, been tuning her out, but now she's alone and there are ten more minutes before she can go out to start the processional and that long, long list is playing in the back of her mind like a symphony, everything from what if the flowers aren't the right color to what if the candles tip over and the church catches on fire. Her mother is a very thorough worrier.

A knock on the door interrupts her train of thought, and she turns gladly, welcoming the interruption. Before she can cross the room to open it, however, the knob turns without her invitation and Holmes walks in.

He's unusually well-groomed, his hair lying perfectly in order and his cheeks clean and smooth, oddly dashing in full formal black with all articles of clothing properly in their place. He's not a welcome sight, however, because if Holmes is here, ducking into her dressing room and trying not to look furtive, then it's because he is doing something he shouldn't, and that something is almost certainly related to the fact that in nine and a half minutes she's marrying his best friend.

"Watson wanted me to check on you," Holmes says, and she can't help her disbelieving face at this blatant, blatant lie. John would never assume that she needed checking on like a toddler left untended, and if that changed due to a blow to the head, he certainly would not have sent Holmes.

"He did not," she says, and Holmes makes this incredible face, like a child being caught with a sweet. Holmes, she thinks, likes to assume that he is a brilliant liar. It is true that he can talk almost anybody into almost anything, but only if he is allowed to abuse them verbally for several minutes beforehand.

"Yes, well." Holmes accedes with a sharp gesture, apparently realizing that carrying on the lie would be futile and perhaps even counterproductive. "He doesn't know that I'm here, as a matter of fact. He's busy worrying himself half to death out front and didn't notice me leave."

"And you took advantage of your newfound freedom to come here," Mary says warily. The idea that John is as worried as she, however, is just as comforting as it was the night before. "Somehow I don't think this is exactly what John wants from his wedding day." Or me, she adds silently.

"What Watson doesn't know can't hurt him," Holmes says, in blatant defiance of all historical precedence, and then adds hastily, before she can point out this particular fact, "And I wanted to talk to you alone."

If she were standing, Mary would take a step back. Nothing good can come of this, absolutely nothing at all, and the restrained glee she can see on his faces fills her with fear. There is only one reason he could have for this maneuver. "You shouldn't be here."

"Just one question, Miss Morstan, that's all I need."

"What, to chase me away into the city, never to darken John's doorstep again?" Her hands tighten on the handle of her hairbrush. "Holmes, I am getting married in eight minutes. To John. There is nothing you can do to drive me away. For God's sake, please give up!"

"Does John know that you are not a virgin?"

Mary stares at him, at the sick triumph on his face, and thinks of John, last night, moving between her thighs. She bursts out laughing.

Holmes doesn't seem particularly fazed by her reaction, however, just leans further back against the doorframe, positively lounging, the fingers of one hand fiddling absently with the cufflinks on his opposite. "I'm not referring to any indiscretions in which you two may have indulged, though for your sake you'd best hope that you don't have an early birth. No, I'm talking about before John, before even the tragically lost fiancée."

Mary feels the blood draining out of her face. "I don't know what you're talking about," she lies, and she knows that it shows on her face.

His smile is a terrible, terrible thing to see. "Your face is all the confirmation I could ever need," he laughs. "Who was he, Miss Morstan? Another young soldier, one perhaps a little below marriageable income? A second cousin, perhaps a third, left trustingly alone in your presence? One of the young bucks at the university when you went there to borrow a book for your father?"

It was a groom, years ago when her family still had money and they'd had a little place for themselves out in the country. Her mother hadn't quite yet learned to worry as she did now, and her father rarely looked up from the pages in front of him to see what his youngest daughter was doing outside of the house. "John knows," she says.

Holmes raises both eyebrows, skeptical in the extreme, and perhaps a little wary at her sudden air of calm acceptance. "It is easy to test, you know, a word to him will settle the matter," he says suspiciously. "And finding out something like that on his wedding day would be-"

"He knows," Mary repeats. "He knows everything, Mr. Holmes, all of my secrets, every bit of my past, all of my favorite books and foods and how many languages I can read and how to calm my mother when she's in the middle of a fret and how insufferably blotchy I get when I cry." She pauses for a moment, to regain her breath, and glares at Holmes, who is quite still, his expression unreadable. "We do talk, you know, and we've had quite a long courtship, and I would never be so foolish as to hide things when he has a detective as a friend, how utterly stupid do you think I am?"

There is another long pause. "How many languages do you speak, anyway?" he asks at last, as if they are having a perfectly civil conversation. She makes a noise that is not unlike a teakettle at full boil.

"Holmes! It is my wedding day, and I would very much appreciate it if you would leave me alone." She looks away, down at her hands, so that she won't have to see his expression. "John will be missing you by now."

She doesn't hear a reply, and when she looks up, it is to see that Holmes is gone. She takes a deep breath and looks back at her reflection.

You are utterly mad to take that man into your life, her reflection seems to be saying, but before Mary can think of any suitable argument, her mother sweeps into the room.

Things go very quickly after that, and it seems like it's all a blur until Mary finds herself walking down the aisle, her fingers wrapped vice-tight around her father's arm, her gaze fixed steadily on the altar at the end. Holmes is waiting there, scowling intensely, and the priest, but between them is John, who is looking back at her like he can't believe his eyes, and even with all the things that have gone wrong, this is absolutely the best day of her life.

~*~

"I now pronounce you man and wife," the priest says, and John kisses her almost before the words are out, his arms coming up to wrap around her. She clings back just as fiercely, and thinks yes, this, absolutely.

 

~*~

After the reception is finally over and they are able to wave goodbye to all of their guests, climb into a carriage, and go home, John and Mary lock themselves in their bedroom and don't emerge for two days.

They have Mrs. Douglas deliver their food, and Mary takes a great deal of pleasure in answering the door clad only in her nightgown, her hair loose and tumbling over her shoulders, the very picture of a fallen woman. John suffers through the whole thing patiently, out of eyesight in bed. ("Honestly, love, don't you think that's a bit-" "Petty?" "I was going to say excessive.") He doesn't understand the fine art of psychological warfare in the home, being a man.

Eventually, however, their honeymoon- such as it was- is over, and that morning Mary gets dressed for the first time in two days, kisses her husband goodbye after breakfast, and goes back to work. Charlie is absolutely beastly after a month away, which was to be expected, and Lady Coleridge is beside herself with relief to have her governess back. Mary deals with Charlie's sulks and Lady Coleridge's uncomfortable effusive compliments and only bites her tongue three or four times, and when it's done she's able to go home to John, which more or less makes the whole mess worth it.

John is quiet and thoughtful that evening, though, something more than Mary's own disorientation at her return to regular life. He carries on a witty conversation over dinner, telling her a drawn-out tale of a young couple attempting to ask for contraceptive advice in the six months before their own wedding. His flawless impressions of the gentleman's nervousness and the lady's bluntness have her giggling into her wine glass, but after their dessert plates are been cleared away and they retire to the drawing room, he reverts back to silence, fetching a book from his study and settling into his customary chair with nary a word. She sits on the couch with a lap-desk and makes inroads on a month's worth of missed marking, stealing glances at his still and silent form, wanting to ask what troubles him but unsure of her welcome.

Finally, as they prepare for bed, she gives up and asks him directly, "What's wrong?"

He looks up from his blank contemplation of his sock drawer. "Hmm?"

She says, "It's only been three days, and is probably a little early for regrets," lightly, as if she hasn't been worrying over this very thing all evening.

John's expression clears, and he immediately climbs into bed beside her, wrapping his around her. "Of course not," he soothes. "Just something I heard this afternoon. It's probably nothing."

It's Holmes, Mary thinks, because what else would it be, but it doesn't concern her- for now- so she allows it to lie, and instead turns her mind to distracting her husband from his thoughts.

~*~

A week later, John finally admits, "It's Holmes."

"No!" Mary says flatly, and then laughs at the face John makes. "Honestly, darling, what else could it be?"

"Holmes is not the only source of trouble in my life," he argues, then seems to realize that this isn't a line of thought that he wants to pursue and changes the subject. "Yes, well, he's gotten himself tangled up in some smuggling case and will barely go home to eat, much less sleep or bathe. I'm quite worried about him."

"Surely he can take care of himself," Mary suggests gently, because Holmes is a grown man and if he doesn't have the sense to come in out of the rain then that shouldn't be their problem.

John doesn't look reassured, however. "That's just the problem. I really don't think he can."

Then he sighs, and shakes his head at himself. "Well, he won't listen to me regardless, so I suppose all the worry is pointless. He'll crash when the case is over, and I'll just have to trust that he has managed to stay well enough in Mrs. Hudson's good graces that she'll look after him."

If Holmes isn't responding to John, then the situation is considerably more dire than she thought, Mary considers. John's happiness is of paramount importance to Holmes, second only to his own overriding obsession with truth.

"He'll be fine," John says, clearly trying to convince himself and failing. "He's always fine."

"Mm-hmm," Mary says.

~*~

A quick chat with Mrs. Hudson tells Mary where she needs to go. The dockside market isn't really someplace she ought to be, but it's the middle of the afternoon and she makes sure to visit the spice stall first, so she blends right in to the crowd of women laden down with parcels. Now, to find Holmes.

When she does, she's glad that Mrs. Hudson warned her about his appearance, because she never would have recognized him otherwise. She's seen Holmes looking very disheveled indeed, but right now he honestly looks like he's dying. His hair looks like some animal coated in grease has made it into a nest; his eyes are heavy and bloodshot and ringed with dark circles, and his face, rarely clean shaven in the best of times, looks as if he hasn't seen the razor inside of a week. From what John's told her, he probably hasn't.

If she didn't have John's worry as a goad, she would probably assume that this was all intentional, part of his disguise, but looking at him now, she's uncomfortably certain that the only deliberate part of his disguise is the worn, ragged clothes he's wearing. The toes of his boots are stained with what looks like old blood. She hopes, no, prays that it's not his, but that's probably a futile hope.

It hits her, then, exactly what it means to have married John Watson. She knew when she said yes that she would be dealing with Holmes, but she never understood, before, the tangled nature of John's codependence with his best friend. She understands, now. John can't say no to Holmes because this is what happens when Holmes is denied.

John told her that he didn't think Holmes could take care of himself. Now she has to admit that John was right, and what's more, that she's taken on that burden at the moment she took John's name.

"Finished?" he asks.

Of course he spotted her, probably long before she finally caught sight of him. He's Holmes, and she's been staring like an idiot for the last minute. She hopes she isn't blushing to be caught. "You look dreadful."

"All part of the game, m'dear," he smirks, and no, she still doesn't believe that.

"Naturally." She makes sure to roll her eyes extravagantly, ignoring the voice in her head screaming childish because sometimes it's worth it to bring yourself down to someone else's level. She had to learn to speak Holmes with some degree of fluency or this will never work. "John's worried about you."

Holmes waves a dismissive hand. "Regrettable habit, that."

This is the crucial moment. If she telegraphs too loudly, Holmes will get suspicious and this will never work. "More than worried, Mr. Holmes. I didn't come here alone." She twitches the corner of her mouth downwards, as if in distress. It's not hard to fake. "We've been here for hours, looking for you, but John's leg was getting week and he went back to wait in the cab. He refuses to leave without you."

She finishes her speech with a worried little sigh, fighting the urge to bite her lip as Holmes deliberates on this bit of news. He's not looking directly at her, which is a good thing because she's a good liar but not that good, and by the time he does turn his attention back to her he's clearly too busy thinking about John to notice any little liar's tells she might be displaying.

"Well, if he's that worried," Holmes gets out, his voice a little cracked, and she knows she has him.

She waits while he closes up his stall (and Lord only knows how he got his hands on one of those) and then he follows her meekly enough through the throngs of people, ignoring all the looks that are thrown their way. They make an odd pair, Holmes looking like a walking disaster and her still dressed for a day in the schoolroom, but Mary doesn't care anymore than Holmes right now, and eventually they reach the carriage.

Holmes climbs in on autopilot, then freezes after collapsing onto the seat. From inside, his voice echoes as he says flatly, "I can't help but notice that this carriage is empty."

"Isn't it, though," she responds, then climbs in, shuts the door, and hits the roof for the driver before he can climb back out. "John is at home, eating his lunch, where he should be. I'm here to make sure that you do the same."

"Honestly," he says, and rolls his eyes exactly the same way she did for him, earlier. "You are all such a lot of mother hens."

"You look like a corpse," she tells him frankly, "and even I know that cocaine is not a replacement for rest, especially when it comes to acuity of the mind. Go home, eat something, sleep for at least six hours, and then you can go back to your case and, most likely, will be considerably more useful."

Holmes scowls at her in silence, and Mary does her best to endure the scrutiny as the carriage rumbles its way towards Baker Street. She is a governess, and staring contests are no new thing for her.

Eventually, Holmes is the first one to crack. "It wasn't very honorable, lying to me back there."

She huffs out a laugh. "Men have the luxury of considering honor, Mr. Holmes. Women are forced to worry about survival first and foremost."

"I doubt highly that your life has ever been in danger, Mrs. Watson," Holmes asserts, his eyebrows raised. "You have, for the most part, had a very sheltered, middle-class upbringing."

She gives him a speaking look, because for the most part means that he's alluding to the one particular way he knows she wasn't sheltered at all, and he's promised not to bring it up again. Holmes has the good grace to look somewhat abashed, but he doesn't back down from his assertion, and Mary feels abruptly exhausted, looking at this man pushed to the edges of endurance who still has the energy to quibble over philosophies.

"Suffice to say that even a comfortable woman has little in the way of personal choice, and leave it at that," she tells him wearily. With impeccable timing, the carriage rolls to a halt. "And now we have arrived. You've heard my advice, which is the best I could promise John I would do, and now I suggest you heed it. Knowing you, however, I doubt you will."

"I am capable of listening to good counsel," Holmes says with dignity, and scrambles past her to leap free from the carriage. Once standing on the cobblestones, he peers up at her with a queer sort of intensity and says, "Do not think for a moment that we are done with this conversation. I refuse to allow you to lob such a conversational grenade and then walk away. You will explain your views on a later date."

"Not until you look as if you're among the living," she tells him, and he grins back at her, bright and boyish despite the exhaustion.

"I think I'll start with scones," he announces, and then saunters away whistling a tune that if her memory serves, goes to a very scandalous drinking song.

"Always has to have the last word," she murmurs to herself. "I'll remember that." Then she pulls the door shut and signals the driver, and they roll on towards home.

~*~

After that, Holmes goes back to his case with some greater degree of circumspection, and after a week or so he catches his smugglers and returns to his previous habits of showing up for dinners at random. Mary is happy enough to see him, because it means that John has lost that hovering sense of constant worry that was eating him up inside, and her life goes back to some form of equilibrium. If she expects Holmes to remember his demand for her to explain her views further then she's reprieved; Holmes seems to have forgotten all about it.

Then one afternoon she's browsing in the market, trying to find something for her mother's birthday. Her father is easy to buy for: books, books, more books, and she knows his collection well enough, even now that she's moved into her own home, that she can purchase for him unerringly. Her mother is, in this as in all things, slightly more complicated.

She's considering the merits of a peach silk hat with black lace trim (on one hand, it would go brilliantly with her mother's favorite gown, but on the other, it's a bit too daring for her mother's usually staid taste) when Holmes materializes at her elbow and says, "So on the matter of honorable women."

She wants to be angry but instead she just laughs. He's looking much better today, not tidy because he's still Holmes but still an infinite improvement over the way she found him weeks before. "I didn't realize that my mind was so fascinating to you, Mr. Holmes."

"It wasn't," he says baldly. "Much. But now you've made me curious."

Fatal words, Mary thinks wryly. She never should have opened her mouth, because now she has the sense that he's not going to give her a minute's peace. "It's not complicated. It's just that you're a man and these things likely never occurred to you."

From the expression on his face, she could not have picked anything more calculated to offend. "I'm not an ordinary man," he says icily.

Oh, well, if that's how he wants to be. "And that's exactly your problem!" she says with relish. "You've always been extraordinary, and for the most part you've been able to get your way in the world, yes? You bludgeon people with the power of your vastly more capable mind and run rings around the police and ignore the rules of decent society that the rest of us are forced to obey, and you get away with it, because you're needed. You're special. Does any of this sound familiar?"

"You forgot 'champion boxer,'" Holmes says with an attempt at lightness, but he has gone very still, and she knows she's struck a blow.

"You don't get punished, when you break the rules," Mary says. "Men don't, as a rule. When men spend their time in houses of ill repute they're called rakes, but a woman who has an affair is a whore. Men who are well-educated are considered polished, whereas women are bluestockings and not fit for the marriage mart. When a man gets into trouble it's a jolly good scrape, but if it's a woman, well, then she should have known better."

Her voice is very quiet by this point, forcing Holmes to lean quite close to hear her. People are jostling about, parting around them like the Red Sea, but neither of them notice, too busy staring each other down.

"I'm not unaware of this, Mrs. Watson," Holmes murmurs back, after a moment. "Some of the cleverest people I know are woman; Irene is the only one who's ever bested me so thoroughly. I've never thought that the rules of our society are remotely fair when it comes to the fairer sex."

"I know," she says softly. She's not enjoying this anymore, or even angry. She's just tired. "But you still threw my lack of virginity in my face on the day of my wedding."

Holmes flinches, and she's a little ashamed that the fact makes her fill with triumph. It's not that she wants him to feel ashamed, particularly. It's just that she's tired of being his own personal Eve, as if she is the source of all the sins in his narrow little world. For the world's foremost observer of human behavior, he can certainly be rather appallingly bad when it comes to simple human decency.

It wouldn't be so bad, she thinks despairingly, if she could dislike him in return. But he's charming and witty and clever and her husband loves him and Mary isn't immune, damn it all, and she wants him to like her in return. If she could just dismiss him as "John's hateful friend" then none of this would be a problem for her, except that she can't and it hurts her every time he lashes out. He's stopped, mostly, but despite herself she still feels the sting of the moment when he looked at her and told her you are not a virgin with such terrible triumph in his eyes.

"I apologized for that," Holmes says eventually.

"No, you didn't."

He winces again. "Then I'm apologizing now. I hardly consider virginity worth much of anything, you know, it's just another thing that one hasn't done and I'm sure you know how I feel about new experiences." He smiles, attempting to be charming. She's not sure that she's willing to be charmed.

"You said it because you thought it would hurt me, because you can ignore the importance of such things, but you know that I cannot. I don't have the luxury."

Holmes smiles wryly. "I concede the point, Mrs. Watson. Woman operate under different rules than men."

"I'm not finished," she says. "The reason that Miss Adler keeps outsmarting you is that she is smarter than you, or at least cleverer. Women have to be. Men accuse us of being sneaky and full of guile but leave us no other avenue by which to gain control. Irene Adler is a woman who is always in control, therefore, she is smarter than every man she sees. If you could have seen past her pretty face and remembered that, you would never have gotten into such trouble."

Holmes stared at her, as close to surprised as she's ever seen him. She's filled with a terrible pride, knowing that she managed to render the great Sherlock Holmes silent with the power of her words.

She touches the brim of her hat. "Good day to you," she says, icily polite, and then she turns and walks away.

For once, the last word is hers.

~*~

She's amply repaid for her minor victory scarcely a week later, when Holmes shows up after a terribly long day and says, "I have a task for you, if you feel you can manage it."

She's exhausted from Charlie's high spirits and her toes ache from where they were trampled during a particularly ill-fated dancing lesson. She does not feel like dealing with Holmes right now, and she makes sure that that sentiment is extremely visible on her face.

Holmes twinkles back at her, delighted with her foul temper. "Come, come, my dear, it will give you a chance to prove your point about the cleverness of women, and to aid a fellow doctor's wife, as well."

Mary stares longingly at the door to the dining room, then looks back at Holmes. He's clearly not planning to go anywhere any time soon. "Ten minutes."

He follows her into the drawing room, and stays slouched against the doorframe while she settles into her favorite overstuffed chair. "Explain."

"My client is one Mrs. Bethany Tyler, married to Mr. Avery Tyler for thirty years. Three weeks ago, they celebrated this felicitous anniversary with a lovely evening out and a gift of a very expensive sapphire necklace. Two days later, their lifelong cook, Mrs. Bowman, retired. A week after that, their maid, Sally Moore, quit to go work in the countryside. Several days later Mrs. Tyler discovered that her necklace was missing."

"You suspect the maid, of course."

"Naturally," he drawled. "For that matter, so did Mrs. Tyler. But there's no evidence one way or another, and Mrs. Tyler can't think up a single motivation as to why. They treated her very well, gave her glowing references for her new job. Mr. Tyler said he considered her as a daughter to him."

Mary raises her eyebrows. "How close was she to the cook?"

"It's a small household, so in all likelihood fairly close, but she retired. It's not as if she was let go with no references."

Mary sighs. "Do you honestly know that little about how a household is run? Lifelong servants don't just retire; that's why they're called lifelong. Whatever they're telling you, if this Mrs. Bowman left their service after three decades as their cook, something happened to make her go. What about the maid's job in the countryside, was that even real?"

"Real enough, though the offer was hastily withdrawn after the accusation of theft. She had no reason to think she wouldn't be provided for."

"Hmm." Mary has an idea, but she's not willing to say a word to Holmes until she's sure. While it doesn't seem like him to proceed without evidence, she's not willing to chance it if her suspicion is correct. "Is Miss Moore still in town?"

Holmes raises his eyebrows. "You want to speak with her?"

"Well I suppose I could pull out a Ouija board and confer with the spirit world, but yes, talking to her directly seems much more efficient," Mary says, exasperated. "Honestly."

"I have her address right here, as a matter of fact," Holmes says ingenuously, and pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket. "Just in case."

"Of course," she says insincerely, and takes the note from his hand. "Nothing to do with hoping you could talk me into doing your job for you in what is likely to be as inconvenient a manner as possible."

He grins boyishly. It looks mostly friendly, but she's disinclined to trust when Holmes has shown such a grudge in the past. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Right." She looks down at the address in her hand- Lord, it's clear on the other side of town, clearly this little errand is going to take most of her day- and then back up at him. "Holmes."

He straightens at the sudden seriousness of her tone. "Yes?"

"If I do this, it isn't because this is a task that I'm performing for you, like I am one of your pupils." She's not falling into the same trap as John, no matter how much he seems to enjoy the role. "This is a favor that I'm doing for you, no more and no less. Understood?"

His smile doesn't diminish. If anything, he looks a little rueful. "I accept your terms, m'lady," he says with a short bow, and she has to bite her lip against the urge to roll her eyes like a sulky child.

She's mad for doing this, completely mad. But perhaps, at last, Holmes will stop hounding her, if only she'll play his game.

~*~

The address that Holmes gave her for Sally Moore is a set of rooms in a run-down building that is covered with untamed ivy and flaking paint. It has a certain kind of ramshackle charm, but it certainly isn't much compared to the comfortable home Sally had with the Tylers.

Mary feels like there are eyes on her everywhere as she climbs the steps to the third floor, but that's just her nerves making themselves felt. There are no cracked doors or peering faces, and Mary is worried not for her safety, but because it feels like there is so much riding on this one simple task.

Sally answers the door on the first knock, with a speed that renews Mary's suspicion that she was being watched. "Can I help you?"

"My name is Mary Watson." She's considered this part a dozen different ways, but in the end she decided to go with the truth. If what she thinks about Sally's motives is correct, then this is the way least likely to get stonewalled. "I'm here on behalf of Sherlock Holmes."

Sally's eyes go wide, but not with fear or alarm. Instead, Mary sees exasperation, and rue, and sheer, stubborn, bloody-mindedness.

Inwardly, Mary smiles. This is not a woman who is afraid to be caught. This is a woman who is daring the world to try. No wonder Holmes had such trouble with her.

"You might as well come in," Sally says grudgingly. "He'll never leave me alone, else."

Five minutes later, Mary is seated in a shabby but respectable drawing room and sipping tea. "I'll tell you the same as I told him," Sally says firmly. "I never had a problem with the Tylers. They were like family to me."

"That's what the Tylers say. But if that's the case, then why take another job?"

"Fresh country air," Sally responds, without missing a beat. "I've got a bit of a cough, you know." She demonstrates, with a cough so tiny and genteel that it's almost mocking with its fakery.

"But Mr. Tyler is a doctor, and a very fine one, from all that I have heard," Mary exclaims. She's certain that Holmes covered all this ground, because there is nothing that Holmes likes better than to poke holes in people's falsehoods, but she's working towards a change in angle that may get her the response that she wants. "Surely he wouldn't begrudge you a treatment so simple."

Whatever Sally would have said to that, Mary will never know, because just as the maid is opening her mouth to reply, the door bumps open and a comfortably plump middle-aged woman enters the room carrying a tea tray.

"You should have told me that you had a guest, Sally dear," the woman scolds, setting the tray down on the table. "Nevermind that, though, I have the tea though it's not as good as one might hope with the short notice. I did just finish up a batch of scones, which I hope you'll like-" She pauses and peers short-sightedly at Mary. "And who might you be, dear?"

"This is Mrs. Watson," Sally says stiffly. "She's here for Sherlock Holmes."

A single look at the woman's face tells Mary everything that she needs to know. "Mrs. Bowman, is it?" Mary asks, as if there is absolutely nothing amiss in this scenario. "It's very good to meet you."

"Yes, well," Mrs. Bowman flounders, and then after a single, burning look at Sally, makes her escape. Mary takes a bite of one of the scones and nearly moans in pleasure. Heavenly, she thinks, and turns her attention back to the maid.

"How long have you known she was your mother?" she asks.

"Always," Sally replies, then slumps back into her chair like a puppet with cut strings. "Lord, how did you guess? Even Holmes didn't seem to have an inkling."

"I think he was working the angle of you being Mrs. Tyler's daughter, personally. An indiscretion on her part, badly covered up, and the cook fired when she discovered the truth. But I know Avery Tyler fairly well, you see, and while you don't resemble him in the traditional way, you speak very much like him, and when you're angry you angle your chin just so- just like that, as a matter of fact." Sheepishly, Sally ducks her chin back towards her chest, her face losing that oh-so-telling arrogant cast. "And now that I've met Mrs. Bowman, well, you're the spitting image of her, when you're side-by-side. Did Holmes never interview you together?"

"We were very careful to avoid that," Sally says. "We've always been very careful not to be seen together, just in case. I think Mr. Tyler knew that he had a child, but I doubt he ever suspected I was she. It was Mrs. Tyler who put the pieces together. They had a screaming row after their anniversary, and Mum was let go after that."

"And you couldn't let that pass," Mary says softly. Oh, she feels for this defiant slip of a girl, a clever bastard child getting justice the only way she knew. She feels for her indeed. "You already had a newer job, out in the country- where your mother could join you and no one would take it amiss, I think? So you took the necklace. Did you even intend to sell it?"

"I didn't even think at all when I did it," Sally admits on a rush. "I was just so angry- and I was leaving- and Mum was going to be left with nothing- and it was in my pocket before I even thought twice."

"Do you still have it?"

Sally goes still and stares at Mary, long and hard. "If I admit that to you," she says slowly, "then it's evidence. Right now I can deny it ever happened."

Clever, clever girl. "It's your word against mine, and now that I know your motive it won't be hard for the police to put things together. If I choose to say something you'll be jailed without question. It's better to be honest."

Sally's face does something complicate at the word if, and she sits up straight in her seat. "I still have it."

Mary nods, once, sharply. "Your mother," she says slowly, nodding towards the plate of scones, "is clearly an absolutely divine cook, but I have to ask. Are you any good as a maid?"

Sally's face flashes with pride. "I'm the best," she says fiercely, and Mary believes her.

"All right. Here's what we're going to do."

~*~

Holmes graces them with his presence at dinner that evening, and he spends most of it grinning with fiendish anticipation across the table, even as he talks of other things. John seems to be uneasy, seeing some new trouble looming on the horizon, but Mary eats placidly, secure in the knowledge that for once, she is in control of the situation.

After dessert, Mrs. Duncan clears their plates and Mary sits back comfortably in her chair, making no move to retire to the drawing room. Holmes mirrors her posture, all lazy indolence masking coiled anticipation, and he says, "So I believe you were doing me a favor this afternoon."

She can't tell from his voice if he expects that she has failed or succeeded, but either way, the expression on his face when she pulls the sapphire necklace from her pocket and sets it in the middle of the table makes her week. Possibly even her month.

"Good God," John exclaims. "Where on Earth did you get that?"

"As far as the Tylers are concerned, Holmes found it at a pawn shop." Her gaze never wavers from his face. "After much hard work, of course."

"Well, naturally," Holmes drawls, but the corner of his mouth is twitching, like he desperately wants to smile and can't quite stop himself. "And Sally Moore?"

"Has been guaranteed a new place of employment," Mary assures him. "Along with her mother, Mrs. Bowman."

Holmes' eyebrows shoot up. "Generous work indeed. And just who is this saintly new employer, to take on a suspected thief and a cook who bore a child out of wedlock?"

"Well, me, of course."

Holmes lets out a bark of laughter. John turns to glare at her. "And you didn't think to consult me on this decision?" he says, though he sounds more exasperated than truly angry. "We already have someone to run this house."

"Yes, and she's already been paid for the house," Mary replies, exasperated right back. "For one thing, the Avery's dinner parties were always the envy of everyone because of Mrs. Bowman's cooking, which you'd know if you paid even a tiny bit of attention to friends who are not Holmes-"

"I pay attention!"

"-and for another," Mary continues, trampling heedlessly over John's objection, "Sally is clearly a young woman of above average intelligence who will be fiercely loyal to us to her dying days. So, to summarize-" And now she includes both men in her glare. "-in one afternoon, I have solved Holmes' case, and provided our household with two dedicated, talented servants to replace the substandard one that John so foolishly decided to keep on. Are either of you particularly inclined to complain about this?"

Holmes holds up his hands, looking as if he's still desperately fighting off laughter. "No, no, I wouldn't dream of it, my dear."

John sighs. "It would be nice to have some of that roast duck that the Tylers used to serve." He raises his eyebrows pointedly. "I do pay attention sometimes, darling."

"Yes, yes," she says, and pats his arm consolingly. "Of course you do."

Holmes lets out a deeply undignified snort of laughter. "I shall do well not to underestimate you again!" he says, and truth be told, he sounds genuinely delighted. He quirks a smile at her, boyishly handsome, and she feels a satisfied warmth spread through her chest, slow and thick as honey. "Very clever work, Mrs. Watson, very clever indeed."

The warmth ratchets up a notch at such obvious praise, and Mary realizes that she's blushing. "There are some things, Mr. Holmes, in which women have a unique perspective that men cannot hope to understand," she says, with asperity, to cover her embarrassingly girlish response. Then she relents, and says, "On the other hand, you didn't see the two of them next to each other. The family resemblance is painfully obvious, then."

"Then next time I shall have to be more thorough," he says, and sketches out a lazy half-bow, right there at the table. "Or I can ask for your piercing insight."

Honestly, that's just over the top. "Only if you want to owe another favor," she tells him, and he laughs again. She's never heard him like this, almost crazed with his own delight, but a glance over at John shows him smiling indulgently, as if this is normal post-case behavior for Holmes. He didn't even solve it himself, so by all rights he should be sullen at her victory, but for some reason, he seems even more thrilled with her success than she.

"I should be going," Holmes says abruptly, while Mary is still puzzling at his behavior. "It's late and I have some good news for the Tylers in the morning."

"Just don't tell them that we've hired their banished help," John says with a sigh. "Or else we'll never hear the end of it."

"I think I can manage to leave that part of it out of my story, yes," Holmes says agreeably. Their chairs all scrape back as they stand, and then there's an awkward moment where they all stand there, each waiting for another to move away first. Finally, Holmes twitches his shoulders, like a horse shrugging away a fly, and nods to Mary. "Walk me to the door, my dear, if you would be so kind?"

She trades a helpless look with John, then shrugs and loops around the table to join Holmes. "Certainly."

He's silent as they reach the foyer, taking his coat down from the hook and shrugging into it with an absent kind of grace. Mary stands by and watches, not understanding why Holmes requested her presence for this moment if he didn't want to talk to her alone.

Then Holmes turns and looks at her, the tiny smile still lurking on his face. "I owe you my thanks, and probably an apology," he begins, and she cuts him off right there because this evening has been enough of a turnaround, and there is only so much strangeness that she can handle.

"All you owe me is a favor," she tells him, and relishes the flash of annoyance that she gets in response to her interruption. "And you can be sure that I will collect."

The corner of his mouth look indulgent, now, and she can't understand where this outpouring of Holmesian affection is coming from. She has done nothing extraordinary, but if what it takes to earn Holmes' respect is guilt-tripping a defiant young woman into revealing her crime, well, he clearly doesn't spend much time around children. It's not as if her participation was some selfless endeavor on his behalf; why should he be so happy about this? She won.

"If there is anything I have learned, Mrs. Watson," he says softly, "it's that I can trust you will do what you say and say what you mean." He flips his hat off the stand and onto his head with a complicated twist of his hands, then nods cheerfully. "It's been a pleasure."

He's gone moments later, and Mary is left staring at the door as if it holds some secret insight into what is honestly the most confusing man she's ever met.

"What does he even mean," Mary complains to herself, then shakes her head. No use worrying about it tonight; tomorrow she'll have to let Mrs. Douglas know that her days are numbered, and that will be trial enough for the time being. She goes back upstairs, to her dear, sweet husband who is clever and warm but never, ever twists her into knots.

~*~

Removing Mrs. Duncan turns out to be less of a chore than Mary had predicted, because at the very beginning of the discussion of her replacements the woman draws herself up in a huff and storms away. She's packed and gone in less than two hours, which leads Mary to believe that she was well aware of the tenuous nature of her position in this household, and goes a little ways to soothing John's guilty conscience. If she's leaving that quickly, then she has somewhere else to go.

Sally and her mother move in the next day, trailing a pitiful number of boxes that contain all their worldly possessions. After thirty years in a prosperous household Mrs. Bowman, at least, should have much finer (and more numerous) possessions, but Mary looks at the proud cast of Sally's face and remembers how vicious and petty Bethany Tyler can be when she feels wronged, and understands. Privately, she promises herself that she'll take better care of them, though she'll have to do it subtly, so as not to trample on the ragged edges of their pride.

With an extra set of hands around the house, some of Mary's chores evaporate, leaving her at loose ends in the late afternoons. John watches her attempt to get ahead on her lessons plans for perhaps a week and then suggests, gently, that perhaps she would like to get outside and take a walk instead. Mary takes Sally with her and walks to the market to get what they need for dinner that evening, because it's more efficient and because she likes the young woman's company. She's very quiet, most of the time, allowing Mary to drift along in her own thoughts, and only speaks up to offer opinions on the task at hand… and then, slowly, on various passers-by, showing an acerbic wit that reminds Mary a little of John.

"That lady, there," Sally will tell her, getting Mary's attention with a light, respectful touch on one arm. "If she stuffs her bosom any further it's going to fall right out of her dress."

Or another time, "Look at what she's got caked on her face! Ten to one she's married to a younger man and he's inclined to stray."

She's unkind with her observations, but clever about it, seeing far more in the sea of humanity that Mary ever will. Everything in her life so far has trained her to set her attention to specific individuals, to assess their needs and provide for them as best as possible, whether as her father's helpmate or her mother's worrystone or Charlie's governess or John's wife. She doesn't know how to know things about people in the general sense, and she wonders, sometimes, if this is a little bit what it's like inside Holmes' head, seeing things about the lives of perfect strangers at a single glance; determining all the nasty little things that people would rather be hidden.

One afternoon Sally stops them as they're examining a butcher's wares, anxiously tugging on Mary's sleeve. She's gotten bolder with her touches as she's grown comfortable around Mary, and while Sally will probably never be able to look at Mary as if she's just another person, at least Mary is fairly sure that she's considered to be a friend.

"Guard your pockets, miss," she whispers, sliding closer to Mary in the press of the crowd. "The same urchin's been following us for three streets at least, and I'm sure that he has an eye to your purse."

Mary glances, casually, over her shoulder, and recognizes the boy's dirty face. "Oh, he's not after my purse," she says casually, already turning her attention back to the stall. "He's one of the Irregulars. Holmes has him follow me sometimes."

Sally's eyebrows go shooting towards her hairline. "Even for him that seems a strange way to be looking after his friend's wife."

"Ha! No, while I suppose that would be kind in a very… odd sort of way, I think Holmes merely wants to keep an eye on the situation, make sure that I'm not doing something scandalous that would harm John. He likes to know things, does Mr. Holmes."

Sally looks doubtful. "Mayhap that's all it is, but it seems awful wasteful when you tell him everything he asks regardless."

Mary gives her a speaking look, because they've had multiple conversations about eavesdropping, but the truth is that Sally can't help but overhear what they say when she's clearing their plates. "I doubt it's a gesture of affection, setting his boys on me like a common criminal."

"If you say so," Sally says, then tactfully turns back to the butcher's stall.

Mary thinks about it later, though; she actually finds that she can think of nothing else. When exactly had she started noticing some of the Irregulars following her about? Was it before the wedding, or after? Was it before she'd hired Sally, thus before solving the case that had apparently earned Holmes' respect and vaguely avuncular affection? Thinking back, she's only seen them following her for a handful of weeks at most; every other time she's spotted them she's been out and about with John.

Maybe Sally was right, she thinks. Maybe this is Holmes' demented way of looking after her, which is odd, to say the least. Part of her wants to find the whole experience stifling, but it is infinitely preferable to any of the multitude of ways that Holmes could make his attentions felt and so instead she chooses to find it sweet. And truthfully, she's merely grateful to have his affection at all; to have him look at her as some kind of extension of John is better even than she hoped for. He does not always treat John kindly, or even gently, but John seems to thrive in spite of it, and Mary can only hope that she will do the same.

~*~

Most of the time Mary loves teaching, truly, but every once in a while she finds herself wanting to brain her charge over the head with his Latin textbook.

Today is an exceptionally bad day, because she's already feeling poorly and Charlie is in a mood because his mother caught him at some kind of wrongdoing and he's been banned from a promised trip he's been looking forward to for months. Mary had nothing whatsoever to do with either situation, but Charlie, in the way of all children, is taking it out on her regardless. Mary is doing her best to be patient, because she knows that if she can just keep herself from reacting then Charlie will eventually wear himself out, but right now her temples are throbbing and she just wants to tear his beastly little head right off.

"There's a visitor for you, miss," says one of the Coleridge's army of soft-footed maids, looming suddenly in the doorway. "I told him that you were in the middle of a lesson but he said you were expecting him. Shall I send him away?"

Behind the footman she can see the vague outline of her visitor, a very familiar hat in his hands. "No, send him in," she sighs, because she knows that she'll never be rid of Holmes otherwise, and she has the faint hope that perhaps he'll be able to distract Charlie long enough that her headache will subside.

The footman looks disapproving, but he says, "Very good, miss," and steps aside, allowing Holmes entrance. Holmes bounds into the room, looking uncommonly delighted with the world, and beams at both her and Charlie equally.

"Afternoon!" he says pleasantly, and doesn't wait for Mary to respond before he crouches down to meet Charlie's eyes. "You must be the man of the house, Mister Charlie; I've heard so much about you."

Charlie looks like he's not sure what to do with this very strange gentlemen who is invading his personal space. "And who are you?" he asks, somewhere between rude and genuinely curious. Holmes grins back at him.

"Mister Sherlock Holmes at your service, young lord. Perhaps you've heard of me?"

Mary knows very well that Charlie has heard of him; Charlie, in the wake of the Blackwood case, could talk of little else for weeks. Before today Mary has managed to conceal her connection to the Holmes that all the papers talk about, but right now Charlie is glancing quickly between her and Holmes with an air of discovery. After this little visit he is absolutely never going to leave her alone about this, she thinks with surprisingly good humor. Well, perhaps it'll get the little brat to mind her a little more closely.

"Oh, yes, sir," Charlie says fervently, and Holmes grins even wider.

"Excellent! Well, I find myself with a free afternoon in between cases, you see, and I was perhaps wondering if you'd be interested in learning a few of the detective's tricks I've picked up over the years. If your governess can spare you, that is," he adds, and winks at Mary, who smiles back with blatant relief.

"I'd love to!" Charlie exclaims, and that's how Mary ends up with the afternoon off.

At the end of the day, Mary is feeling much less inclined to homicide and her headache has faded, forgotten in favor of watching Holmes bounce around the schoolroom like an overgrown boy himself. He shed his jacket somewhere along the way, and the cuff of one sleeve is covered in pencil shavings after the lesson about observing trace evidence, and he looks faintly frazzled as he offers his arm to walk her home.

"I never realized that children could be so tiring," he admits. "I have newfound respect for you, my dear; your job is more challenging than I could have dreamed."

"Well for a man who doesn't have much to do with children you handled him brilliantly." She smiles up at him. "I'm going to be hearing about this visit for weeks, if not months, and the leverage I can use from being 'Mr. Holmes' friend!' is incalculable. Truly, I'm in your debt."

"Nonsense," he dismisses with a shake of his head. "Watson told me that you were feeling poorly today, and one thing I do know about children is that they can be like wild animals, waiting for the least hint of weakness before they pounce. Watson thought that you might need the distraction, and so he sent me to you to serve as such."

"I can only imagine how distracting you were being for his patients, if that is the case," she laughs.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," he says with wounded innocence. She rolls her eyes.

~*~

Later that evening, she mentions it to John, already laughing and waiting to hear the story of whatever dastardly thing Holmes was doing to make John send him to her. But John only gives her a deeply puzzled look, and says that Holmes wasn't in his office for more than twenty minutes, just a brief visit before he had to finish something up for a case.

"But he told me that you'd informed him that I was feeling poorly, and needed a distraction, and sent him off to do the work," she says blankly. "I assumed that he was making a pest of himself and you invented an errand to get rid of him, but-" John is shaking his head. "No?"

"I did tell him that you were suffering from a headache," John says with raised eyebrows, "but only when he asked after you. Furthermore I would never have sent Holmes to you when you're already suffering from a headache, because he's the number one cause of the headaches I've had in my lifetime, and I would never inflict him on you when you're feeling less than your best."

"Well, he was surprisingly helpful, all things considered," she says distractedly. "Why on Earth would he lie about it, then? And if it wasn't at your instigation then why would he come to call at all?"

The corners of John's mouth curl inward in a self-deprecating smile, and he shoots her a deeply significant look from beneath his eyebrows. Try as she might she can't decipher what message he is trying to send to her, apparently with the power of his mind alone.

"What?"

He blinks at her, then shakes his head, and sighs, and leans back in his chair. "Nothing," he says, and it was very clearly not nothing, but for her peace of mind she decides to take him at his word.

~*~

Aside from all the myriad adjustments married life has demanded of her, there is one persistent mystery that plagues Mary. Someone keeps stealing her morning papers, which is especially aggravating because she pays extra to get the Daily Telegraph in addition to a proper news rag and the gossip pages she is expected to read. She's tried waking up early enough to catch the culprit herself, but Mary is a woman who likes to sleep in on the valued days when she doesn't have to leave for work, and the thief is intermittent enough in his efforts that on the rare occasion she's managed it her paper is unmolested. It is a minor matter, perhaps, but one that threatens to drive her mad.

"Honestly, dear, why don't you just ask Holmes?" John suggests, very puzzled, over breakfast one morning when she has discovered a distinct lack of any newspaper on her front stoop yet again. "It is rather his field of expertise, and I know for a fact that he is bored and restless from a lack of cases at the moment."

"It's just a newspaper," she protests, in direct contrast to the tirade against the injustice of it all that she was delivering not one minute before. "Isn't this somewhat beneath his notice?"

"He managed to set his hair on fire yesterday," John remarks, which only seems like a non-sequitor at first. Mary realizes his meaning after a moment, and winces with deep sympathy.

"He's truly that bored?"

John rolls his eyes. "You don't know the half of it," he says. "He's especially bad because I went through the flat and confiscated all of his cocaine a week ago."

"Oh." Mary feels a deep sympathy for Mrs. Hudson, in that case. "You truly think he would be willing to help? I am so very tired of not getting my paper. I like to have something to read over breakfast."

"Believe me, I'm aware," John says long-sufferingly. "And no, I think he'd be delighted. And even if he isn't, well, doesn't he owe you a favor?" John raises his eyebrows expectantly. "I seem to remember much being made over the fact at the time."

It isn't as if she was ever planning to use that favor for anything significant, because she knows now that her friendship with Holmes has progressed such that for anything truly important, he will be willing to offer his aid regardless. She might as well call in her debt for the theft of her morning paper, which is minor but also excruciatingly annoying and showing no signs of letting up anytime soon.

"Very well," she decides, and tucks into her breakfast with a will.

Across the table, John hides a smile.

~*~

"A 'stakeout,'" Mary repeats, feeling rather like a broken record. "You want me to sit up in a stakeout with you?"

Across the table, Holmes beams. "Come, my dear, it will be an experience! Just think of the story you will be able to tell Charlie."

"Which I will be relaying rather quickly, because I do actually work tomorrow morning," she retorts. "Normal humans- people unlike you, Holmes- need a certain amount of sleep before they are ready to deal with the rest of the human race. Especially children."

"It's only the one morning," Holmes coaxes. "Forgo your afternoon walk for a bit of a lie-down and you'll be right as rain by dinnertime!"

"But… I thought you would just ask one of your Irregulars. You seem to have no trouble having them follow me."

Holmes doesn't react to the mention of his latent obsessive tendencies, because Holmes is also ridiculously single-minded when he's set on talking one into some insane plan. This isn't just her own experience talking; John has said as much on numerous occasions. "I like to manage things with a personal touch," Holmes says, smirking. "Truly, it will be an invaluable life experience to add to your growing collection."

Mary looks desperately at John, who holds up his hands as if to ward them both off. "Don't look at me," he says darkly. "I'm not getting up early for love or money, so don't bother trying to offer either."

There are a half-dozen really, truly, good reasons Mary should say no, but as she looks helplessly back across the table at Holmes, grinning boyishly with his hair falling into his eyes, all she can say is, "When do I have to wake up?"

~*~

The answer to that question is, as it turns out, before dawn, because Holmes is a hateful, sadistic human being. Sally comes into her room to wake her with a light shake of her arm, and watches the process of Mary extricating herself from John's arms without waking him, as look of questioning disbelief on her face. Mary can't believe she's doing it, either.

She meets Holmes in the kitchen wearing her oldest, shabbiest dress under a very thick cloak, painfully aware that she's pale and hollow-eyed and looks like death. Holmes greets her with a smile that's far too awake for this hour, and holds out a cup of tea, and Mary forgets every crude thing she thought about him not five minutes ago as she takes it and greedily inhales. Holmes laughs, mostly silently, and leads her out to the front stoop.

It takes a few moments, and another cup of tea, but by the time the sky is starting to show streaks of color and the darkness smothering her street is beginning to give way, she's feeling something closer to human, if a trifle chilly. At her first shiver Holmes scoots a bare inch closer till he's pressed against her left side, and there's a part of her that worries about the extremely small chance that someone might see them, but most of her is just grateful for his warmth.

The sun creeps a little higher into the sky, throwing off raggedy rays of orange and gold and pale, buttery yellow, the colors dimmed by the city air but not defeated. Mary stares upward- she hasn't seen a proper sunrise since she was a little girl- and hides her wondering smile into her teacup.

"It's beautiful," she whispers.

Beside her, Holmes hitches in surprise at the sound of her voice after such a long stretch of silence, but when he replies she can hear his smile in his voice. "I see a lot of these in my line of work."

"Do they ever become… less?" she asks. "Mundane, perhaps?"

Holmes takes a long moment to consider. "I don't think they do, no."

This pleases her, though she's not entirely sure why. "Why do you see so many sunrises, anyway? Too many early morning stakeouts?"

"And quite a few too many all-night ones." Holmes chuckles. "And a fair number of recreational all-nighters. Seeing sunrise from the wrong side of the clock is an experience I'm all too familiar with, I must admit."

"Heathen," she teases. He leans a little harder into her side, just for a moment, a tease, before straightening back up again.

"I'd be ever-so-boring if I weren't," he ripostes, and she lets out a tiny little giggle.

"The last thing you could ever be is boring," she says very truthfully.

"Why, thank you!"

"That wasn't entirely a compliment."

"Oh, come, my dear, you love us incorrigible trouble-makers and you know it."

She twists around to pin him with a raised-eyebrow stare. "And how exactly do you figure that?"

"All governesses have a soft spot for people like me." He pauses to grin, devilishly. "Well. The good ones, anyway."

"I'll take that as a compliment," she says dubiously. "I think."

"It was definitely a compliment," he assures her. "Besides, a woman who wants to avoid trouble at all costs would have taken one look at Watson's disreputable friend and very sensibly run screaming."

"I don't run so easily," she informs him, and he snorts.

"I had figured that out, thank you. That wine took forever to get out of my cravat."

She eyes his neck critically. "It's had worse stains."

"Well, my wardrobe suffered a grave injury when John departed," Holmes says lightly. "It's been a strain keeping up-"

His words cut off suddenly, and his entire body goes stiff, like a hunting dog going on point. She opens her mouth to question, but his sharply upflung hand cuts her off, and she stares at the empty street, trying to spot whatever caught his attention.

There, on the corner. A raggedy street urchin saunters down the street, as if he hasn't a care in the world, but as he comes closer Mary can see the calculation in his small frame. He could be a message-runner, or even a delivery boy of some kind, but his steps slow as he comes closer to her house, unable to see them, tucked away behind the wide column.

"Him?" she whispers to Holmes, who shushes her harshly, his gaze fixed on the boy, who draws nearer still. He pauses, briefly, glances around in an extremely guilty sort of way, and then darts down to grab her paper.

Holmes lunges down the steps, fast enough that Mary isn't entirely aware he's left her side until he's on the sidewalk, the boy's arm caught in a vice grip. She blinks dazedly as Holmes gives him a brisk shake, like a terrier with a rat, and then she pulls herself to her feet, clutching her cloak close as she follows more sedately.

"Got him," Holmes says with satisfaction. She kneels down to retrieve her paper from where the boy dropped it during his attempt to get away, and then stays there, studying the boy at eye level.

She holds up her paper. "Why were you taking this?" she asks, bewildered. "What on Earth would you want with it?"

His back goes stiff with outrage- or fear, it's hard to tell. "To read," he says with disgust.

Her eyebrows go up. "There are easier ways to go about that," she points out. "And why my paper, specifically? None of my neighbors have lost theirs."

At this he does look a little shamefaced, which is interesting to see. "Only one on the block that gets any proper news."

Mary sits back on her heels, and trades significant looks with Holmes. The fact that boy is even capable of recognizing the difference between gossip mills and "proper" news sheets, much less is inclined to read the latter, speaks extremely well for his intelligence.

"What's your name, boy?" Holmes says, and he doesn't sound threatening now so much as curious. The raggedy scrap of boyhood at his feet tilts his head back so that he can meet Holmes' eyes and says, defiantly, "Tom."

Mary raises her eyebrows at Holmes. Holmes looks resignedly back at her, then back down to Tom.

"How would you like to earn a few extra coins?"

It takes some negotiation, but eventually it's established that Holmes wants him to be one of his Irregulars, rather than hiring him for some more nefarious or sordid purpose, and Tom warily agrees. He's heard of Holmes, of course, it sometimes seems as if everyone in London has, but he's slow to trust. Mary manages to break the ice by pointing out that she doesn't mind him reading her paper, really, it's just that she would like to read it first, if he would please, and then he was welcome to peruse the headlines to his heart's content. This offer seems to prove her inherent worthiness, and by extension, Holmes'. He accepts, is released to do whatever he does with his day, and scampers off.

Holmes follows very quickly after, ignoring her attempts to get him to stay for breakfast, saying that he's got something on which he has to check for one of his ongoing cases, and bows quickly over her hand before taking his leave. John is still asleep when she goes back inside, so she takes the opportunity to wake him in a very pleasant way indeed before she has to dress for a hurried breakfast and dash for work.

It's a nice morning, even when she catches herself yawning over Charlie's lessons later that day, and with her foolish smile, she feels something looming, like a chasm, underneath.

~*~

John gets called away to France, to treat and then see home a wayward fellow officer who's fallen ill with the fever. "Knowing him, he's probably caught something from the prostitutes he so enjoys," John explains while packing haphazardly, "but he's one of my best clients and he's offering a very large sum of money for the trouble. This one week shall pay for a month in the countryside. Or wherever we choose to go on our honeymoon," he corrects hastily, because they've been bickering about this off and on for the past two weeks, and she knows that he doesn't want to set it off again right before he leaves.

"And he's your friend," Mary says dryly, wincing as he tosses a stack of trousers on top of some badly-folded shirts. "So of course you are running to his aid."

John pauses, giving her a rueful smile, and she takes the opportunity to nudge him out of the way and begins repacking his clothes, more carefully this time. "I do have that unfortunate inability to say no to my disreputable acquaintances when they need me."

"Speaking of which, is Holmes going with you? He could use the time away."

"No, he says that he's in the middle of a case and it would be quite impossible to leave now. I'm not entirely sure I believe him, as he rather dislikes the officer I'm going to treat, but calling him a liar never gets me anywhere, so I left him to it. It's only a week." He stares at his bag. "How do you fit those shirts so well?"

"Because I am magic, my dear," she informs him. "They will always be unwrinkled later, provided you put them away properly when you unpack."

"Magic indeed. Holmes always mangled them past repair if I didn't hide them quickly enough." He comes up next to her and drops and absent kiss on the side of her neck. "I do wish Holmes would come with me, even if he does by some miracle actually have a case. I think he's on the verge of sinking into one of his black moods, and I worry about him."

Trying not to shiver from the brief kiss, she says briskly, "Would you like me to check on him while you're gone? I can do my best to snap him out of it, if he's getting too troublesome."

"I wouldn't want you to make such a sacrifice," John laughs.

"Nonsense. Having an excuse to slap some sense into Holmes would be no sacrifice at all."

"That stopped working for me years ago, but the sheer surprise might actually work in your favor."

"That's settled, then. Or, if slapping doesn't work, I can always drug his tea."

"I have faith in you." Seeing that she's finished arranging his luggage to her satisfaction, he closes and locks his bag and pulls it off the bed. "Take care of my favorite genius while I'm away."

"Don't worry, Holmes will be intact while you're away."

"I wasn't talking about Holmes," he says with a grin, and leans down to kiss her fiercely.

She enjoys it for a long moment, then shoves him away, laughing. "You're going to be late for your train," she says. "You'd best hurry. And stay away from the captain's prostitutes!" she adds.

"Darling, for you, I can resist any temptation," and he leaves before she can point out that that is a filthy, filthy lie.

~*~

The first day, she leaves Holmes alone, because she has work of her own to do and there is at least a possibility that John's doubts were unfounded and Holmes is actually working on a case as he claimed. The second day, she goes to Baker Street after Charlie's school day is over, and sends word to Mrs. Bowman that she'll be dining out this evening. If Mrs. Hudson is unable to prepare dinner for two on such short notice, Mary is more than ready to offer dinner at the Royale as a bribe.

Of course, first she has to find the man.

"So he hasn't been working on a case," Mary repeats to Mrs. Hudson, just to be sure.

Mrs. Hudson looks like, if she were a lesser woman, she would be wringing her hands. "Not for weeks, now, and he's been holed up in that room and making all kinds of noises."

She suspected that John was right about Holmes' imaginary case, but it's nevertheless disappointing to have her suspicions confirmed. "But he isn't home now." Obviously not, or she wouldn't have needed to go hunting for the landlady in the first place.

"No, he left about an hour ago, in his worst clothes with a glint in his eye. He's looking for a brawl, he is, and Mr. Holmes always finds one. I won't be seeing him till morning."

Mary taps one toe in annoyance and considers her options. A large part of her is tempted to just go home to a quiet evening with her books and leave Holmes to his fate. She can come back tomorrow, when he'll be nicely pounded into submission and just about finished sleeping off his drunk, and try again then. But she told John that she'd look after Holmes, and she knows how John feels about Holmes getting into fights when John isn't here to patch him up.

So she sighs and says, "The Punch Bowl is still his favorite, yes?"

"He pays for a room above the bar, so it's not worth it to go elsewhere," Mrs. Hudson admits, in the tones of one sharing information she's not supposed to know. "But missus, you can't go down there, it's a pit of vice of the lowest order."

"I only want to send a message to him," Mary soothes. "It's perfectly safe."

If she had any common sense she wouldn't be doing this, Mary thinks ruefully twenty minutes later as she climbs into the hansom outside Baker Street; she would go home and change first, at least. But then again, if she had common sense, she would not be going after Holmes at all.

The cabbie is reluctant to drop her off in front of the Punch Bowl, but Mary is determined, and so he gives in and lets her out. She goes down the stairs to the basement boxing ring that she's read about only in the less-edited of John's journals, and even with John's carefully detailed description she's unprepared for the heat and the sweating mass of human bodies that greets her.

She reels about for a minute, trying to spot Holmes in the crowd. She gets close enough to the ring to see that Holmes isn't boxing at the moment, and she can't see him anywhere, so she fights her way to the bar and asks the bartender about the elusive detective.

"So you're looking for Holmes, eh?" the bruiser at her elbow replies, before the bartender can get a word out. "He's not here lookin' for a lady, if you get my drift, so if you're looking for love I've got your answer right here."

Mary looks up at the beefy mountain of a man next to her, and decides that she's never making any foolhardy promises to her husband again.

"Perhaps I should introduce myself first."

"Tell me your name, lovely," the boxer coaxes.

"I'm Mrs. John Watson."

She can see recognition trying to force its way through the man's sluggish, liquor-addled brain, so she helps it along a bit. "The partner to Mr. Holmes."

The boxer turns white under the broken blood vessels of his florid cheeks. "No offense meant, lady!" he says, and flees. Mary turns her attention back to the bartender.

"He's in his room upstairs," the man says respectfully. So Holmes has fought already, Mary thinks. Drat him anyway. "And might I say, missus, that was neatly done.'

"It's no great trick to handle a drunk," she says with a smile. "Which room?"

"Third door on the left, though you'll hear him long before," he says. "And I warn you, he took the bottle upstairs, and he's in a terrible mood."

"Excellent," she replies, "So am I," and climbs the stairs.

Once clear of the press of sound from the boxing ring below, she realizes what the bartender meant about hearing him first, because it's easy to track Holmes to the correct door by the discordant notes coming from a very fine violin. She knows he can play very well indeed, but she doubts he's in any kind of shape to do so now. Why he brings his violin to places like this, she doesn't know.

"This must be a very pressing case indeed," she says as she comes into the room. "If these are the measures you take to solve it."

He looks up sharply at the sound of her voice, and she shuts the door behind her to give her a chance to study him. He is still at least technically wearing his shirt, but has clearly slung it about his person as a nominal concession to dress, and it's fully unbuttoned over his chest. She ignores the expanse of bare flesh before her and notes the cut over his rib, probably from a carelessly worn ring, the swelling in his jaw, and his split lip.

"I was not expecting company," Holmes says at last, once he has undoubtedly noted several dozen more pertinent details about her person. "What on Earth are you doing here?"

"I made a promise to John that I wouldn't allow you to sink into a black mood of any kind," she says lightly. "I'm allowed to slap you, if that will help," she adds, just to get him to give her an exasperated smile. "I'm fairly sure this falls under my jurisdiction in the matter."

"My dear I am perfectly fine," he says reflexively. She doesn't know what expression she makes in reply, but it must be skeptical in the extreme because he laughs and says, "Admittedly I look a little worse for the wear, but I'm an expert at patching myself up."

"I doubt that highly."

"Such calumny for my skills! Watson was not always around to patch me up, you know, and I have been boxing a very long time."

"That as may be, but John has been around for a very long time as well, and you've likely forgotten how." As if Holmes ever forgets anything. But she doesn't like the image of him alone up in this squalid little room, draining the bottle and treating his wounds in the dingy little mirror in the corner. It would offend John's sensibilities in the extreme, she knows, and she finds she's not overly fond of the idea, herself.

Holmes leans back and smirks and he spreads his arms wide. "If you want to play nurse, my dear doctor's wife, I shan't stop you."

"Good," she says briskly, and goes to the side table, loaded down with supplies for just such a purpose. She supposes that this is an establishment that sees more than its fair share of injuries. "I'd hate to fight with you over it, when you are so clearly a skilled boxer."

Holmes seems a little taken aback at her quickness to take him up on his suggestion, but he recovers quickly enough and quips, "I'd never hit a lady. Well, perhaps Irene."

"It would take a large stretch of imagination to call Irene Adler a lady, no matter who she marries this time." Mary judges that his ribs probably don't need bandaging, so she grabs a rag, a pail of soapy water, and some of the wound salve that John swears by, and returns to Holmes' side. "Hold still and let me clean these."

"Whatever my lady desires," Holmes drawls, and but he does fall silent, and his head lolls back against the wall as she tends to him. She works dust and dirt clear of the cut on his side, and ignores the nearness of his bare chest, the smell of his sweat, and the clean lines of his jaw and throat, bared to her in a way her hind brain insists is submission. She has made a promise to her husband to care for his friend, and there's no place for those thoughts here.

"There," she declares, after she has finished cleaning and anointing his wounds. "Much better."

"No kiss for luck from my very capable nurse?" Holmes jokes, then seems to remember who he's taking to and his eyes fly open. "My apologies, my dear," he begins, but driven on by an impulse she can't quite name, she leans forward and presses a kiss to his forehead as a mother might.

He gapes at her, in undisguised shock, and she takes his hand between hers before he can regain his considerable faculties.

"Come home with me," she says, softly but urgently. "We will make the guest bedroom for you, and you can explore my study, as I do have quite a few books that even you are unlikely to have read, and Mrs. Bowman will have an amazing breakfast ready for you."

"I don't-" he says, beginning what is likely a very rational and sensible series of objections, but she steamrolls right over them.

"Just don't return to your rooms, where you hole up in your own mind and drive yourself mad, and quite break poor John's heart in the process." She pauses, breathing hard, then admits, "And I'm none too fond of seeing you like this, either."

He regards her for a long moment, and she stays still, gripping his hand too tight, and lets him see what he will.

"All right, my dear," he says, finally. "I'll accept your hospitality. To keep you from worrying, of course."

"Of course." Relief makes her bestow another impulsive kiss, this one on the bruised knuckles of his right hand. "Come, we'll collect your winnings, and if you can make yourself presentable-" honestly, she doubts this very much, "-I can promise dinner at the Royale. I'm told it's your favorite."

"So extravagant. I'm flattered."

"Well, you were the one who told him to give me his checkbook," she retorts, and he laughs, honestly and without cynicism. It's such a rare sound to her ears that she can't help but smile foolishly in return.

~*~

The next day Mary isn't needed in the schoolroom, as Charlie is called away to spend some time with his uncle in the countryside. Mary eats a leisurely breakfast alone, and then retires to her study to work on her lesson plans.

While doing her paperwork, she keeps an eye on Holmes, stretched out on the couch in her study. One of her books is open over his chest, and Mary knows that he was likely awake almost to dawn with his reading. Her book collection is very fine indeed.

With him safely asleep and not pinning her to her seat with his endless scrutiny, she can admit that she loves him. He has the ability to annoy her to distraction when he isn't even there, but despite his collection of quirks and flaws she feels for him an uneasy combination of elder-sister exasperation affection and helpless desire. If she were to ask him, she thinks that John would understand her feelings all too well.

She loves her husband, is struck daily by his kindness and patience and his sly, barbed wit that never fails to startled her into laughter. But it's her love for John that makes it all too easy to love Holmes, because Holmes has left invisible fingerprints all over even John's carefully guarded heart. And John, in turn, has shaped Holmes far more than either of them likely realize. To love one of them, to really love one of them the way that she so fiercely loves John, is to love the other. It's not a comfortable feeling.

"You have the fiercest frown on your lovely brow. What on Earth are you thinking?"

She looks over to see Holmes with his eyes open and watching her steadily. "I'm merely missing John," she says, and it's enough of the truth that he seems to accept it. "How did you sleep?"

"Very well, considering the length of this sofa," he replies. He sits up with a groan, catching the book from it falls from his chest and marking his place with one finger. "I distinctly remember you promising me breakfast. Or will you fall through on this bribe as you did on the Royale last night?"

"No amount of tidying was going to make you look respectable enough for the Royale," she retorts, "and anyway I didn't hear you complaining while you stuffed your face with Mrs. Douglas' good cooking. You're a little late for breakfast, I'm afraid, but I can get you tea and if you wait an hour, lunch will be ready."

"By all means, bring on the tea." He stretches in increments, an odd serpentine motion that starts at the neck and goes out to his fingertips. "By the bucketful, if you have it."

"You'll have to content yourself with a pot, but you may have it all to yourself," she promises, and rings for Sally.

"One pot of tea, please, and tell Mrs. Bowman that it will be two for lunch, after all."

Sally's gaze doesn't waver to the guest on the couch. "Very good, marm," she says, and whisks herself away.

"She's quite impressive," Holmes remarks. "I don't think I've ever met a servant quite so capable of ignoring me so thoroughly."

"Well, you're usually interrogating them," Mary points out with a smile. "But yes, Sally is made of sterner stuff than your average maid, which was why you set me on her in the first place, if you'll remember."

"Which you handled quite capably!" Holmes replies cheerfully. "Much like you handled my own drunken self last night. I am beginning to wonder if there's anything at all that would give you pause."

I'm not overly thrilled to find that I'm in love with possibly the most impossible man of my acquaintance, she thinks in his direction, but is careful not to let it show on her face. Contrary to popular belief, she knows that Holmes cannot actually read one's mind, and she's learned that he's only good at reading people when they're saying something he wants to hear. "Contrary to popular belief," she says aloud, "John did not marry me for my pretty face."

"True," Holmes admits readily, then adds with a wink, "but it is such a pretty face, my dear."

Luckily, he is too busy peering over her shoulder, impatient for his tea, to take note of the sudden beating of her heart. She too often forgets how utterly, breathlessly charming he can be, without even trying, because she is too familiar with his bad habits. His little kindnesses are still startling to her.

"Whereas you, on the other hand, are not at all lovely right now, I'm afraid," she says, and lets the familiar briskness of the schoolroom mask her confusion. "Your face is bruised into a number of interesting colors and your hair looks as if you were dragged through a hedge backwards. You'll have to bathe after lunch, or I'll be quite ashamed to have allowed you out of the house."

Unspoken is the reality that there is no such thing as allowing Sherlock Holmes anywhere, but he only points out slyly, "I'll have to borrow some of Watson's clothes if you truly want me to look respectable."

Mary smiles, a little ruefully. She thinks that maybe this man could ruin her life, if she let him, and he'd look at her with that little-boy mischief all the way down. "That's all right. I'm told you have a barter system."

~*~

Holmes does leave, much later, after an afternoon of poking through bookshelves and having a pleasantly insulting argument about her taste in literature, but instead of going home he invites her out to the Royale. Supposedly it is a thank-you for the night before, but Mary thinks that he's realized he can use her as a substitute for Watson and she can't object, because it's better than the alternative. This theory is confirmed when he shows up the next day, to "return Watson's clothes," but he settles himself once again in her study till she grows exasperated with the distraction and sends him off to find something else to do. He spends a couple hours in the kitchen bothering Mrs. Bowman about the chemistry of spices, and then switches his focus to Sally, who ignores him beautifully until he comes back to Mary, who by that point is finished balancing the checkbook and is willing to entertain Holmes in the middle of a full-on fit of boredom. He goes poking through her checkbook, setting off a lively discussion about the cost of maintaining a household that winds its way into her lesson plans for Charlie and then into the education of young men versus young women, and then by default into her own education in girlhood at her father's knee, which continues on into dinner. She has Mrs. Bowman cook for them instead of going out, because her neighbors are scandalized enough by Homes without her spending evenings out with the man twice in a row while her husband is away, and Holmes stays till late in the evening, drinking John's brandy and arguing about politics, until he finally makes his unsteady way home and Mary is able to collapse into an exhausted sleep.

The next day, Holmes finally gets a real case and she's left to her own devices till John gets home at the end of the week. She greets his return with a degree of relief merited by a lover coming home the wars, and he laughs when he finishes kissing her nearly senseless right there in the foyer.

"How did you fare with Holmes?"

"Well, I think I successfully prevented any black moods," she says, "but I have to launder three of your shirts, you need a new bottle of brandy, and I have an entirely new level of sympathy for your situation."

He laughs again, and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. "Poor Mary," he says. "I'm willing to wager that you handled him very well."

Entirely too much sympathy indeed, Mary thinks. Now we're both in love with him.

~*~

It is not as if anything changes for her, after that. She already knew that she loved the man, as unwilling as she was to admit it to herself, and she still gives more of her heart to her husband than whatever corner of it that Holmes has managed to claim. Admitting the truth changes nothing because it was already true. Mary still looks after Holmes in whatever small ways she can, still feeds him and lets him run tame in her home and scolds him like a mother when he leaves it a mess, still provides him with witty banter and just enough bend in her patience to let him think he can coax her into anything. Mary does what she's always done, and makes herself into John for him, much as she knows John made himself into Holmes' Watson all those years ago. There is no difference, only that she knows how utterly ruined she truly is.

The problem is that Holmes is changing. Oh, not obviously; he is still utterly himself every moment of every day, it's simply that he spends a great deal more of those moments around her. He is suddenly everywhere, showing up for meals at random, arriving in what is clearly the middle of an intense case, walking through the door still muttering to himself about smugglers or thieves or murderers. A handful of times he comes through the foyer and into the dining room and just stops, looking confused, and she realizes that he didn't even realize where he was going, and must have given the hansom driver their address on sheer reflex.

Sometimes he even shows up when they're not even home. He's run out of room in his flat to store more books of his own, and they often find him in her study or John's, intently reading some reference or other that he doesn't own. She even notices one of her bookshelves, previously mostly empty, that a month later is threatening to collapse from the weight of stacked books, eclectic in collection and most definitely not purchased by her.

Holmes is invading, colonizing, and Mary wants to take him by the shoulders and shake him, tell him nothing is supposed to change, don't you understand?

But of course she does nothing of the sort, and not only because she would sound like a lunatic. She does nothing to stop him because she's perfectly aware of her own role in this insane little play, and if she were to change her lines suddenly all of the other characters would notice and wonder why. She can't imagine explaining to John, or, God forbid, Holmes that the reason she can't bear his incursion into her space is because of just how much she likes it.

God, though, how she loves it, loves seeing Holmes put his grubby handprints all over Mary's carefully maintained space. It means that she's become something he can take for granted. Normally this is something to be feared, not enjoyed, but there is a fundamental truth that Mary understands about Holmes and the selfish, grasping way he'd tried to hold John away from her: to so carelessly assume that something will bear up to ill-treatment, is to trust in that implicitly. Holmes likes her, Holmes turns to her in times of confusion and distress just as he turns to John, Holmes considers her space open to him even when she's not there to welcome him in. Holmes trusts her. It's all she can do not to spin in dizzy circles and announce it to the world.

So no, she doesn't change, but she does adapt. She leaves instructions that Holmes is to be allowed full access to the house, makes sure that there is a guest room kept prepared for him, adds some of his favorite foods to their menu and stocks his brand of scotch in the drawing room. She gives him the key to her study to keep him from picking the lock, and she clears another bookshelf for his use and sorts his existing books so that he can find things easier.

(The look on his face, when she hands him the key, is wondering, and there is a smile on his face that makes her think of sunrises. He is stupidly, helplessly attractive in that moment, because Holmes has all the charm of a man who has lived his life to the utmost combined with startling flashes of little-boy vulnerability, and she is a governess and a bluestocking and she cut her teeth on pilfered adventure novels when she was ten and she is not made of stone, for God's sake. None of this is something she lets herself think about till after he is gone and she is once again alone.)

After that she often comes home to find him reading her books, or asleep on her couch. She thinks nothing of it, because Holmes has no sense of boundaries and she knows he keeps the most absurd schedule, so of course he needs to catch up on his sleep whenever (and wherever) possible. Everything about Holmes is odd, so of course this seems perfectly normal.

Apparently, this is wrong.

"My god, he's actually asleep," John exclaims, too-loud, one evening after dealing with an emergency patient. She shushes him impatiently, and he nods with penitence, waiting till she's followed him into the hallway and closed the door. "Has he been doing that long?"

"Sleeping here, you mean? Only for the past month or so. I think he's actually been awake for at least thirty-six hours, the lunatic, of course he's going to catch rest at the first opportunity."

John shakes his head. "Mary, you don't understand," he says, with real wonder. "I've never seen him sleep like that, except after a crash, and you maybe be sure it takes much longer than a day and a half to bring him to this point. Until now I thought only cocaine withdrawal could get him to fall asleep anywhere but his own flat."

Mary swallows heavily. "He's here a great deal," she offers, but it's weak and she knows it. Familiarity does not necessarily breed comfort.

John allows her the comfort of believing this excuse, however. "It's also much quieter here than at the Punch Bowl," he admits, and they laugh, and don't speak of it again.

Later that week, however, Mary quietly uses a bit of her set-aside money to replace her hard, fashionable sofa with one that's more comfortable. Holmes doesn't say anything, if he even notices (of course he notices) but the mere fact of it makes Mary feel better.

(It's possible she's in much deeper than she even realized.)

~*~

Everything is going smoothly, and so of course that is the time in which Irene Adler chooses to return to London.

Mary hears about it first from Lady Coleridge, of all people, who is all a-flutter over the sold-out performance at the opera the evening before. Mary is forced, through increasing degrees of disbelief, to listen to an exact recounting of the entire evening, down to the smallest detail of Miss Adler's attire. While Mary doesn't have any particular grudge against Irene, aside from a general sense of distrust and this cannot end well instinct, she isn't fond of her either, and after the first ten minutes of this recitation she begins the delicate task of extracting herself back to the schoolroom.

"Mother's on about the opera, still, isn't she," Charlie says gloomily, when she finally makes it back.

"Yes," Mary says grimly, and then forces a smile when he looks at her with interest. She does not need her charge to realize that there's anything amiss with her mood. "But the opera can be a wonderful experience, and from all that I've heard Miss Adler is a very fine performer indeed."

"Hard to miss, the way Mum talks about it," Charlie says mischievously, and she should scold him for talking about his mother disrespectfully, but instead she just smiles back.

~*~

After that the woman seems to be everywhere, and Mary can't stop hearing about it. She's the toast of the town, now that she's properly out in society instead of her fly-by-night weeklong trip during the Blackwood case. Mary is somewhat looking forward to needling Holmes about her presence, but this turns out to be a doomed effort because Holmes is suddenly never there. Mary often wakes up to find her study in disarray from a midnight visitor but Holmes is already gone, and when he does visit during waking hours he's distant, slouching and sardonic and sharp enough to cut with his wit. If this is the effect that Irene Adler has on Holmes then Mary doesn't care for it, not one bit.

She's worked hard to attain this balance that they've achieved, and she'd like to know what right has Irene Adler, to come into town and completely disrupt Mary's carefully ordered life. Irene was not there to drag Holmes away from a case or the muddle inside his own head and Irene did not suffer through a dozen teeth-grindingly awful dinners before finally earning some measure of respect. Irene did not reorder her life to accommodate the whims of Holmes' genius ways, but instead just swans about, diving in and out of Holmes' life as if she's on holiday. It's infuriating.

Aware even as she does it that it's probably outside of the bounds of even their unconventional sense of propriety, Mary bribes Tom the paper boy to spy on Holmes. Tom likes her better than Holmes anyway, for all that the man offers him some extra coin now and again, because Mary will set out some scones or extra fruit along with the paper in the mornings, and if he's running late enough that she's already awake she likes to sit on the front stoop with a cup of tea and chat with him a bit, reading through the front-page articles together. Tom is more than willing to give her tidbits about Holmes, and she assuages her guilty conscience by assuring herself that it's nothing Holmes doesn't do for her, and regularly.

A few days later, Tom reports back to her that Irene has been spending some time in Holmes' flat. He's only seen her the once, Tom admits, but he saw her hat on the mantel one afternoon, and smelled her perfume another.

It's worse than Mary suspected, she thinks. She doesn't know for certain that Irene has some ulterior motives at work, but she every scrap of intuition she possesses is screaming at her. And even if, on the slightest off-chance, Irene is merely conducting an affair, she's ruining the good life that Mary has built and that, Mary is abruptly certain, will absolutely not do.

~*~

Mary begins the next day with a plan to track down the ever-popular Miss Adler. It's a good plan, if a touch elaborate, and after she gets home from work she has extracted from Lady Coleridge the address of Irene's opera house, which seems a good place to start. From there she is hoping to wheedle her way backstage after a performance on the strength of her last name and John's friendship to Holmes, but none of this proves necessary, because Irene comes to her.

Sally meets her at the door with an unhappy expression on her face, and tells her that "that woman" is in the drawing room, waiting. Mary could ask her which woman Sally means, exactly, but there is an expression of distaste on Sally's face and Mary has a sinking feeling that she knows exactly who it is.

She doesn't have much time to arm herself, but she takes a moment to get herself into the proper frame of mind and so when she sails through the doors she is smiling her most charming smile and holding out her hands in greeting. "Miss Adler! What a surprise to see you here. I had not thought you'd remember me at all!"

"Oh, but how could I forget dear Watson's faithful fiancée?" Irene replies, all smiles, her voice riding the fine edge between mockery and sincerity, and then they settle in to chat.

Mary asks about the opera, of course, and Irene tells her about her recent performances, which segues neatly into a series of funny anecdotes about some of her previous shows, and then to how she met her second, no, third husband. (Cue the faux-sheepish laughter, but Mary can see the genuine pride at her numerous divorces.) Sally brings the tea service, and they sip from their cups as Irene obligingly turns about and asks Mary about how married life is treating her. Mary smiles and tells her that's it treating her very well indeed, aside from the occasional argument over their eventual honeymoon destination: Mary wants to go to the sea; John would prefer a quiet week in the countryside somewhere. Then, she laughingly tells the story of her troubles with Mrs. Douglas and her acquisition of her current household staff, which allows them to move the conversation to the subject they both truly with to discuss.

"Holmes has told me of your invaluable aid on that case," Irene says, all smiles. Holmes confides in me. "He seems to find you quite impressive!"

Ah-hah, thinks Mary, she's here because she's realized that I'm cleverer than she thought I was. It's the sort of thing that's worrying to a woman who's used to being the only wolf in a herd of sheep. Irene, Mary realizes, thinks that Mary is likely to interfere with her plans for Holmes. Ironic, when Mary thinks much the same of Irene.

"It was… what does Holmes always say? Elementary." I've spent a great deal of time with him, she is saying, and enjoys the flash of annoyance in Irene's eyes. "Women are just that much more experienced in household matters, haven't you found? Holmes had it figured it out in a heartbeat, I'm sure, but for whatever reason he wanted to see me do it, first."

"Oh, well, you know Holmes and his games." He played them with me first. "It's a gesture of affection, honestly, and I know for a fact that he's quite fond of you." Her smile is both roguish and confiding, triumphant at this allusion to her liaison. "The way he talks about you, I thought to myself why, I simply must meet the new woman in his life!" After I was there first. "To be introduced properly this time, of course. Things were so hectic before." When we were involved in a case you only barely witnessed.

Mary is abruptly tired of this farce of a conversation, and decides that it's long past time to bring it to a close. She has no desire to sit here further and trade sweetly-smiling barbs with this woman. "Miss Adler," she says, and sets down her teacup, leaning forward. "Let us be frank."

Irene seems delighted with this change of pace, and similarly sets aside her teacup, mirroring Mary's position. "Oh yes, Mrs. Watson," she says, mockingly, "do, let's."

"I want you to leave London."

Irene jerks backward, her eyes going backward. "Good Lord, Mrs. Watson, what on Earth could cause this sudden hostility?"

Nothing sudden about it, Mary thinks, but of course they both know that. Irene is trying to play the innocent, to turn the tables of offense back toward Mary. It isn't going to work. "It would be best if you could leave in the next day or two, but by week's end would be good enough, I'm sure."

Irene's pretty face darkens with anger. "Who do you think you are to hand out orders like-"

"I'm the woman wearing the diamond you stole from the Maharajah."

There was a long pause, in which Irene gave an assessing (and slightly longing) look at the diamond on Mary's hand. "Yes, well." Irene sits back in her chair, into a posture that would a slump in a woman less controlled. "I was surprised at that particular choice of his, I have to admit. So. Mrs. Watson. Why, exactly, do you so ardently desire my absence from London?"

"I could say something about my general distrust of your motives, and my concern for the reputations- and purses- of some of society's brighter lights."

"But you won't."

"No." Mary takes a deep, steadying breath. "The truth, Miss Adler, is that you are absolutely no good whatsoever for Holmes, and I won't have it."

Irene's eyebrows shoot up. "You're being very protective of a man who is, after all, only a friend of your husband."

Mary smiles. She's fishing, caught off guard and casting around for Mary's motivations, but Mary isn't going to play her game. "If the diamond isn't proof enough, I'll make something up. I spend my time with children, Miss Adler, fiction is an art form at which I excel. If you don't leave I will find a way to make things too, shall we say, uncomfortable for you to stay, so either way you will be leaving London. All I'm offering is the chance to do it voluntarily, and with a modicum of grace."

Irene doesn't respond immediately. Instead she studies Mary, her gaze steady and intent, as if she can divine the secrets of Mary's soul with a single look. Mary keeps herself still, used to this sort of scrutiny after all this time around Holmes- and Holmes is by far more intimidating at this sort of thing, not least because she has more to hide from him.

At last, Irene ends her study and smiles ruefully, graceful even in defeat. "London was getting too hot for me anyway," she says lightly. "I think I shall depart for somewhere cooler for the duration of the summer. Perhaps I'll try my luck at the tsar's court."

"I'm sure you will be all the rage," Mary says, and stands. Irene stands as well, and they walk in silence to the front door, Mary trembling inside because she's done it, she's accomplished this monumental victory over a woman Holmes can't even seem to control. (But then, his motives are suspect.) All she has to do is make it to the door and see the woman out, and it will be over.

Of course, Irene pauses halfway out the door, twisting to look back at Mary, whose hand is on the door, ready to close it on this unpleasant little chapter of her life. "I just wanted to tell you," she says, quite seriously, "that I wish you all the luck, I really do. He's a difficult man, but… worth it, I think we're both aware."

"Enjoy Russia," Mary says, and then shuts the door as soon as the last twitch of Irene's skirts have passed through the doorway. She leans her forehead against the unforgiving wood, and hopes against hope that whatever was on her face, whatever gave her away, please, let it not be visible to Holmes.

~*~

Holmes comes by for dinner the next night, with the "news" that Irene has unexpectedly left town. He's not woebegone, exactly, but there is an air of distracted dismay hanging around his person, and she and John do their best to be appropriately sympathetic. It's a strain, however, because Mary knows perfectly well John's opinion of Irene, and it's not much better than her own. John, after all, had to watch the first two times that Irene swept through Holmes' life and disrupted everything and then left; however he also seems to feel a certain amount of admiration for Irene's ability to affect some measure of humility in the never-humbled Sherlock Holmes. Mary wants to say, but what about me, haven't I shown that I'm just as clever, but a) this would truly be appalling timing for that kind of discussion, and b) there are some things that she just doesn't want to reveal to the man she married, and the fact that she loves his best friend is one of them.

So she pretends to be sorry for Holmes, and commiserates her way through dinner and even dessert, and pretending sincerity when she is the cause of the entire situation is such a strain that she can barely taste her food. John is sneaking her odd looks with every brittle laugh and overly-sincere expression of sympathy, but luckily for her, Holmes is too caught in his mood to notice. After dessert Holmes decides to "make his way home" with a light in his eyes that makes her think that he's heading for the Punch Bowl, but Mary is just really, truly not up to dragging him back to the surface tonight. John waves him off with a smile that is rueful and not worried, though, and after all the man is a boxer, so it's possible that she's over-thinking this just a bit.

Mary slumps as soon as the door shuts behind him, so relieved to be free from the role of sympathetic wife that she's like a puppet with cut strings. It's only for a moment, but when she straightens back up, John is studying her with a disturbingly acute expression of realization that Mary is used to seeing on Holmes' face.

"Sally tells me that Irene came for tea yesterday afternoon."

Damn, damn, damn. Why did it never occur to her that John would figure it out? She of all people knows that he's just as intelligent as his friend, and fiendishly observant in his own right. It's only next to Holmes that he seems less, and John has learned a great deal from his years of friendship. He might not be able to identify a person's neighborhood from a glance at the mud on his boots, but he's always aware of the people around him, all the time spent chasing Holmes' moods leaving him an emotional bellwether. Of course he was bound to figure it out.

He doesn't seem to be furious, though. He doesn't even have that look that Holmes gets, like he wants to peer inside her soul and find out what makes her tick. He's just looking at her, very patiently, totally sympathetic, totally understanding, and her breath catches. It's moments like this, when she feels so exactly in tune with this wonderful, clever, caring man, that she remembers why she waited so patiently for all those months for him to propose.

"It was a very stimulating conversation," she replies, steadily.

That's it. They don't talk about it any further, barely speak at all, as a matter of fact. They retire early to bed and Mary forgoes her nightgown in favor of crawling in bed next to him, feeling the whole warm bare length of him against her. They make love slowly, her face buried in the crook of his neck and listening to him pant into her hair, and afterwards she curls close to him for comfort, her head on his chest and his heart beating against her ear. One long arm comes up to wrap around her shoulders, and his hand strokes her hair, with long, even strokes.

It's soothing, and she's lulled halfway to sleep when she hears him whisper into the dark, "He's so much worst when she's around."

She knows.

~*~

Holmes starts to act odd, after that. This wouldn't be particularly noteworthy, because for Holmes odd is a baseline measurement, but for the fact that he is acting odd in different ways at different times. Holmes is well known for his utterly obnoxious behavior and his ability to sink into a funk and to run manic and high on cocaine for days on end, but before he always took out his moods, be they positive or negative, on everyone equally. This, Mary comes to realize in the weeks that follow, is no longer the case.

Holmes, when he is away from them, is behaving nothing like himself. "He's so quiet," Mrs. Hudson says in disbelief, when Mary visits her for tea and some gentle prying. "I bring him food and he says "please" and "thank you" as nice as you please, and there's no gunshots from his rooms, or strange smells or smoke or anything. Even when Mr. Watson was living here he was never so well-behaved."

Tom the paper boy is thoroughly her spy against Holmes, now, happy to enjoy a breakfast that is likely finer than his next three meals. He mumbles through a full mouth, "'s not like he's acting stupid or nothin', but you know how he does that thing where he allus looks like he knows the answer even when the rest of us don't know nothin', except he doesn't do that no more, just looks as confused as the rest of us till he solves the case. An' even then, he doesn't seem to care."

"It's absolutely ridiculous!" John says, waving his arms about in a way that would be, on another occasion, actually quite funny. Any more enthusiasm and he'll topple right over. "I was called in to verify cause of death and Clarkie asked me if Holmes was feeling well. Clarkie! The most unobservant officer in all of London's finest thinks that Holmes is acting oddly!"

The thing is, though, that Holmes is still himself whenever he's in their home. There's something worrying even in that, however, because if anything Holmes is a bit too much of himself, if such a thing is possible. He is absolutely witty, frequently reducing them almost to tears with laughter at one of his anecdotes; he is blindingly clever, impressing even jaded John with some of the maneuvers he's pulled on his latest cases; he's attentive and kind, asking after John's patients and Charlie and Lady Coleridge. It's as if he's putting on his absolutely finest performance of himself, trying to do and be his best at every moment until it is nearly exhausting to watch.

Mary worries that it's something to do with Irene, which seems likely if one considers the timing. This odd behavior, after all, started within a week of her abrupt departure, and it would be too great a coincidence if Irene wasn't somehow related to the cause. Mary wants to know what's happening with him, wants to just reach across the distance between them and lay her hand on his arm and say tell me what's wrong, how can I help, I would do anything, but every time she remains still and just watches him wind himself down like a clockwork toy, aching in sympathy. She's afraid to ask in case the answer is Irene, which would make this entire ridiculous experience Mary's fault.

John catches her watching Holmes sometimes, and she knows he can well guess her train of thought, but he doesn't say anything to reassure her. Instead he glances from her to Holmes and back with deeply significant looks, and on the one occasion she gathered the nerve to ask him, point-blank, what he thought was the matter, he just sighed and shook his head. This only makes her more afraid that it is her fault, after all.

She follows Holmes to the door one evening, unable to bear the idea of watching him tear himself up one more day, and puts her hand on his arm as he reaches for his coat and says quietly, "I don't know what troubles you, Holmes, but I hope you know that if there is anything I can do I will. You have only to ask."

Holmes freezes at her touch, and slowly turns to look at her after her little speech. He swallows hard, once, and doesn't seem to know what to do with his hands, eventually patting hers restively. "I will keep that in mind, my dear," he says, his voice a mere scratch in his throat, and then he puts on his coat, and he's gone.

~*~

A week later she's having a perfectly ordinary day, no headaches or inclination to murder, but Mary still feels a sense of déjà vu when one of the maids appears at the schoolroom door and says in a resigned voice, "Someone to see you, marm."

Holmes looms behind her, hat in hand. "It's all right," Mary assures the maid, while Charlie lights up as if he's just been given a rather coveted gift. "He's unexpected, but far from unwelcome. Come in, Holmes."

The maid grimaces in disapproval, but nevertheless departs. Mary smiles warmly at Holmes, inwardly wondering what on Earth he's doing here, and gestures him into the room.

Holmes doesn't enter. Instead, he fixes her with an undecipherable look and says, "It's a beautiful day outside."

"That it is," Mary agrees, baffled. Holmes twists the brim of his hat with restless fingers, with something that she'd call nervousness in another man.

"I thought that I could take you both in the park," Holmes says in a rush. "If you think Lady Coleridge won't mind."

The last, directed at Mary, brings Charlie to his feet in a pleading rush. "Oh, please, Mrs. Watson, I'm sure she won't mind…"

Mary is fairly certain of this, as well, but doesn't let this show on her face. "I don't know, she was awfully determined that you complete your biology lessons," she stalls, tipping a wink to Holmes. "I'm not sure that she'd approve of you going off instead of learning something."

Charlie's expression goes calculating, and after a thoughtful moment, he suggests with childish cunning, "I could have my biology lesson at the park."

Mary gives Holmes a teasing look. "What say you, Mr. Holmes? Are you feeling up to assisting me with a biology lesson after lunch?"

Holmes, unaccountably, begins to blush. Mary stares in fascination at the flush burning its way across his cheeks, because she hadn't known it was possible for Holmes to feel embarrassment, especially for such trite- and accidental- innuendo.

"It'd be my honor," Holmes says, after he takes a moment to recover his composure. "Though I'm sure that you're fully capable of teaching me a few things on the subject."

Astonishingly, she begins to blush, which is outside of the pale. It is not as if they are flirting, for God's sake, but her stupid heart can't be convinced of the fact. "Charlie, go get your coat," she says steadily, pretending with all of herself that that little byplay has not just taken place, and Charlie runs to obey. He returns with alacrity, and they troop outside. It's decided that on such a beautiful day the only thing to do is walk to the park, of course, and Holmes offers his arm to her for the stroll. She takes it, trying not to feel too much like the silly schoolgirl she hasn't been in quite a few years.

Lunch is… odd. Mary enjoys herself quite enormously, and has one of the best lessons with Charlie she can actually remember, and she resolves to try these little outings more often on her own, if this is the kind of result to which she can look forward. Holmes is his usual charming self, of course, always ready with a witty remark or insightful comment as the lesson progresses, and whenever Charlie threatens to be distracted by the goings-on of the other park-goers, Holmes immediately takes it on himself to play the attentive schoolboy, till Charlie is giggling and focused on her once more.

It's a marvelous afternoon, but strangely tense underneath all of the fun. Holmes spends the entire time glancing at her, clearly working himself up to say something every time Charlie's attention drifts, but forgoing whatever it is whenever her charge refocuses. It makes for a somewhat disconcerting experience, because Mary has never known Holmes to be in the least reticent, and can only imagine that it's something that he can't say in front of a young boy, which causes her to worry. What could be so serious that he would come to see her like this and yet not bring himself to speak?

Holmes escorts them back to the Coleridge home, keeping Charlie spellbound the entire way with a carefully sanitized version of one of his less dangerous cases, but underneath her hand Mary can feel that the muscles of Holmes' arm are tense. When they reach the residence, Charlie manages a perfunctory, mumbled goodbye (some etiquette lessons have stuck better than others) and bolts up the steps, leaving Mary standing on the sidewalk, arm-in-arm with Holmes.

She tilts up her face to smile at him. "Thank you for an absolutely wonderful afternoon," she says softly. "I don't know what prompted you to offer, but I had a marvelous time and I know Charlie did, too."

Holmes looks startlingly serious, and she thinks, this is it, he's going to tell me, and she has to brace herself. It's going to be terrible, she just knows it, Holmes is being awkward and that never happens, did something happen? She waits, tensely, for him to speak.

~*~

"And then nothing!" she shouts, much, much later that night. John is perched on the stool at her dressing table, still in his shirt and waistcoat, watching her pace about the bedroom. "He just stared at me for this long moment, and he actually opened his mouth, then it snaps shut again and he just bows and leaves. What on Earth is going on with him? He's been acting bizarre ever since Irene left, but this isn't just odd, it's infuriating!"

John waits a moment, then says, "Are you finished?"

She folds her arms over her chest. "For now."

John sighs and scrubs his hands across his face. "Have you genuinely not noticed, darling? I've been led to believe that you're the observant one out of the two of us, but this is giving me reason to doubt."

Exasperated, she demands, "What?"

"He's in love with you."

She gapes.

"I honestly don't know how you haven't noticed," John continues, tiredly. "He hasn't exactly been subtle. I've suspected since that stakeout, over Tom the newspaper thief? It might go further back, though, I'm not sure. I do think that's why Holmes was in such a black mood afterwards."

Mary is still in a daze, not entirely able to process this news, but she retains enough cognitive function to parse the timeline. "You're referring to your trip to France?" she asks. He nods. "Why on Earth did you send me to look after him, then, if you knew what he was thinking?"

John gives her such a speaking look that she can't help but understand his meaning, and she finds herself torn between anger and hysteria. "It's not generally considered the done thing to push one's wife at one's best friend!" she says, somewhat shrill, and John winces away and looks defensive, crossing his own arms over his chest.

"Well, it's not as if you don't love him back," John snaps.

Mary's jaw actually, literally drops at this pronouncement, and the sulky accusation in his voice rather abruptly causes anger to be her overriding emotion. "You did not just say that."

"Well, it's true, isn't it?" John scowls at her. "I'm no detective, you know, but I'm perfectly capable of seeing what's right underneath my nose. Furthermore, you're my wife and he's my best friend, it's rather hard to miss, all right? Of course I know."

Of course he's right, but that does not make this conversation any easier: quite the opposite, in fact. Mary scowls right back. "You're a fine one to accuse me of spreading my affections."

"And what exactly is that supposed to mean!"

"Well, for God's sake, you're in love with him too," Mary says with exasperation.

John goes white; she can practically see the blood draining from his face. Mary is immediately regretful, because that is a secret she never meant to impart to either of them and one that John almost certainly doesn't want her to know, but of course it's too late to take back the words. They hover in the air between them, like the ringing aftermath of a gunshot.

Without another word, John climbs to his feet and leaves the room.

Mary waits for another ten minutes, twenty, an hour, but John doesn't return. She's left to climb into bed alone, very much afraid that she's just ruined her marriage, and vitally certain that there's absolutely nothing she can do about it.

~*~

John hasn't returned by breakfast the next morning, and Mary's reflection in the polished surface of the tray cover is tight-lipped and pale, with dark shadows under her eyes. She eats her breakfast and goes to work and somehow she manages to teach Charlie without doing anything suspect, though how she manages this feat she doesn't know. Holmes doesn't repeat his visit, which is just as well because there is a part of her that rather irrationally blames Holmes for this entire mess, even as she's aware that for this, at least, he isn't at fault. She can still only barely process the idea of Holmes being in love with her, which she finds so inherently ridiculous that it has to be true.

Regardless of her inner turmoil, she manages to struggle through her day and return home, hoping against hope that she will find her husband there. Sally meets her at the door, sympathy showing through as she shakes her head, but Mary still has to actually go into his office to check, and then his private study, as if he will just magically appear if she wishes hard enough.

It finally strikes her, standing in his study, that John is gone and to all appearances he is not returning any time soon, and this is the point at which Mary curls up in his chair and starts to cry.

Sally comes in eventually and tries to coax her out, which is the only way that Mary is made aware that it's time for dinner. Mary refuses to be coaxed, and after a little while Sally gives up, withdraws and shuts the door quietly behind her. Darkness falls in the little study, cut only by one small lamp on John's desk, and Mary stares at it like it's got all the answers in the world.

All she can think about is the fact that she has, absolutely and without reservation, screwed up everything, and the worst part is, she knows exactly how she ended up here, every step of the way. If she'd just left well enough alone when it came to Irene Adler then it would all be fine and right now she would be sitting down to dinner with her husband. Likely Holmes wouldn't be there, but she should have contented herself with that. After all, John was the man she married, and Holmes was the reluctant addition. It's pure foolishness that she allowed him to become so important in the first place, foolishness that has very likely cost her marriage.

Eventually she drags herself out of the study and makes her way up the stairs to bed. She brushes out her hair, and puts on her nightgown, and goes into the rest room for a brief bit of washing up, and when she comes out John is sitting on the bed.

He looks fairly terrible, his clothes and hair bedraggled in a way that she's used to seeing on Holmes, and he offers up a sheepish smile when he sees her staring. She holds still, for one beat, and then another, and then she launches herself at him.

She doesn't cry again, exactly, but she does curl herself very tightly into his arms and he holds her and makes shushing noises into her hair while she shakes a little bit. Eventually, they shift to a more comfortable position lying down, and John wriggles out of most of his clothes and gets them under the covers, and they lie like facing commas, breathing each other's air.

Mary doesn't say all of the things she wants to say, like I'm so sorry and I'm not entirely sure why you came back and please don't leave me again, because in this exact moment things are peaceful and she doesn't want to ruin that. John evidently feels the same way, judging by the number of times he catches breath to speak and then lets it out again, but eventually he does sigh, and tuck a lock of hair behind her ear, and says, "I owe you a rather enormous apology, darling."

"There's more than enough blame to go around," she says back, her voice a little rusty from her earlier tears and the hours of silence. "I shouldn't have brought it up. I know it's not something I should know."

"How did you know?" John asks, and Mary ducks her head, a little sheepish, and admits, "It was in your journals."

For a moment his face does something complicated as if he is groping to remember a moment of insanity that would lead to him writing such a thing down directly, but then he catches her meaning and stutters out a laugh. "Of course you did, my God, Mary. Do you even know…" He trails off, and she waits, patiently. "You have to understand, it's something not even Holmes ever figured out, I mostly stopped thinking about it myself, years back, it was just something that was there. And you saw it just by reading my journals." He shakes his head. "Perhaps it's just as well that Holmes always refused to read my stories when I finished."

Mary stares at him at that part of his confession, because really? Really? "Are you absolutely blind?" she demands, forgetting that just an hour ago she swore that she would never speak of it again if only it meant he would come back.

"What?"

"Of course he is in love with you back, didn't you know?"

The shock on John's face tells her that no, he absolutely did not know, and they stare at each other in a long, tense silence before both reach the unspoken agreement that they'll make love now and deal with this later.

~*~

Later, of course, comes merely an hour later, which is approximately how long it takes for their verbal skills to return in the wake of the fading afterglow. They're both lying on their backs, side-by-side, Mary's fingers laced through his and his thumb smoothing at the fine bones on the inside of her wrist, and neither of them are saying a word.

It's John, finally, who has the courage to say, haltingly, "So what do we do now?"

"I don't know," Mary says, which is an absolute lie. The obvious answer is staring them right in the face, but it's so utterly ridiculous that even they, with their ordinary lives made into foolishness by Holmes at every turn, can only barely edge around the corners of the idea. Certainly neither of them have the nerve to say it out loud, because it's unthinkable.

Even if both of them are thinking it.

So Mary says brightly, "We could at least begin to plan our seaside trip for our honeymoon," because rehashing an old argument is always, always easier than discussing the brand-new and unnerving. They've hashed this out so many times she could have this argument in her sleep and probably has, and it might be the coward's way out but just this once, Mary is all right with not being the brave one.

"The countryside is clearly the better choice," John returns quickly, sounding relieved at the change of subject, and that's the last they speak of the Matter for weeks.

~*~

The joke is on them, as it turns out, because Holmes actually remembers their honeymoon. This is unprecedented, because Holmes is exceptionally bad at dates, and while he hasn't disappeared again like he did when Irene was in town, he has certainly made himself scare compared to the deluge of visits that preceded it. When he is around they don't particularly talk about it, because the honest truth of the matter is that neither of them particularly care where they go for their honeymoon, they'd both be happy to just stay home and laze around in bed for two weeks, probably, and Mary has already privately decided that they're going to split the difference, spend half the time by the sea and half the time in the country and see as little of the great outdoors as possible in either location. It's not as if it matters, really. Not like other things.

Therefore they're both a little surprised when Holmes announces, one evening at dinner, "If you haven't made a decision about your honeymoon destination, may I offer up a suggestion?"

John looks up with raised eyebrows; Mary offers up a mute shrug. She has no idea what Holmes is up to either. "As long as it's not that shack in Bristol," John mutters. Holmes laughs, a little awkwardly.

"Of course not, my good fellow, I'd never subject your delicate sensibilities to such a place. No, I was thinking that you might enjoy the use of my brother Mycroft's cottage. It's empty this late in the summer, and the property is quite something. It's ideal for a honeymooning couple looking for a little time to themselves."

It's a generous offer, and completely unexpected, and Mary knows there is also some hidden significance in the gesture because there is a catch in John's throat when he says, "That's very kind of you, Holmes. Tell your brother that we accept."

Mary isn't even inclined to argue, for all that John just high-handedly accepted for both of them without consulting her and for that matter the countryside is his choice in their long-running argument, because there is something important going on here, something making the air between them tense and heavy with hidden meaning. She can't even begin to guess at what it's all about; there's so much history between them that she knows she'll never really be able to touch.

But looking at the two of them, at the twisting nervousness on Holmes' face and the quiet desperation on John's, it becomes quite clear that something is needed here, something beyond John's dignified acceptance. And no, they still haven't talked about this, but she makes the leap and asks, "Oh, but surely you're coming too, Holmes? I'm sure your brother would love to see you."

Both men choke, but Mary is determined, and she refuses to take no for an answer. And when they leave London, two weeks later, Holmes is in the carriage with them.

~*~

Holmes didn't lie to them; the cottage in which they're sequestered is lovely, and the land around it is gorgeous, gently rolling fields to one direction and a dense, intensely green forest to the other. Holmes has clearly neglected to mention a few things about his brother's estate, namely that it is an order of magnitude larger than one might expect from someone very much not born into the peerage, but it's a relief when they arrive at the cottage and find it a slightly dusty, comfortable sort of place. Neither one of them are particularly at east with grandness, and this place suits them perfectly.

Nevertheless, she and John can't quite enjoy their first day there. They both sort of drift through the rooms for a while, until they end up in the living room, quietly settling in to read in mutual silence. Mary keeps glancing up to see John looking out the window, where one can just barely see the outline of the main house across the fields, and she knows that he continuously catches her doing the same. They're both aware that they're waiting for Holmes to show up, because this isn't going to work without him.

Mary doesn't know when it happened, exactly, but somewhere along the way, her efforts to make sure that Holmes would not interfere with her marriage turned the man into a de-facto second husband, and she honestly does not know what to do unless Holmes is willing to play the part. He came with them, which was an excellent sign continuing how strenuously he protested the idea right up until the moment he climbed into the carriage with them, but then he let them out at the cottage and kept going to his brother's house, which was not. Now they're stuck waiting for him to comes to his sense and figure out the obvious the way the two of them already has, and to come to them. They can only reach out so far; at some point he, too, must make some effort to bridge the gap. Mary honestly doesn't know if he will.

Tired of waiting, Mary takes her book and crosses the room to John's couch, nudging him gently. He obligingly moves over to make room, and she curls into his side, settling her skirts with a single swish and laying her head on his shoulder. He lifts his arm to make them more comfortable, then gives his paper an experienced shake to settle the pages, and they subside back into silence.

If they must wait, at least they may wait together.

~*~

Holmes finds them like that an hour or so later. He knocks on the door and hesitates even when John calls out "Come in!" but eventually lets himself in, lurking by the doorway and talking to a point on the wall behind them approximately two feet above their heads. "Mycroft bid me to come down and invite you up to the main house for dinner, if you are not otherwise engaged."

He says it as if he thinks they have spent the day involved in any manner of perversion, and Mary trades a disbelieving look at John. Clearly Holmes, for all his detective talent and the fact that he is a genius of the first order, is well and truly missing the point.

"Oh, I think I can set aside any previous engagements if it means I get to meet the mysterious Mycroft," John says, with a poor attempt at sounding casual. "The way you describe him, Holmes, he might as well be a wizard in a castle."

"Well he did teach me everything he knows about the art of deduction, which from the view of the uneducated does apparently seem much like magic," Holmes retorts. "Regardless, he's quite eager to meet you as well, which was why I was sent down here with the invitation even though I told him that this was your honeymoon and you would likely prefer not to be interrupted."

"You've never hesitated to interrupt before," John shoots back, and they keep going for a little while longer, but Mary ceases to listen. She's looking at John's fingers, white-knuckled around his paper as he banters tightly with Holmes as if there is nothing amiss, and she's looking at the desperately unhappy cant of Holmes' body even as his face is arranged in a smile, and she is realizing that in this, as in so many things over the last year, she is going to have to the one who actually makes the effort.

So she stands quite abruptly, interrupting the flow of their bickering, and darts across the room to Holmes' side, forgetting to reorder her skirts and almost falling into Holmes as a result. He catches her, steadying her headlong rush automatically with his hands on her arms, and she does not give him a chance to say anything before she leans up on tiptoes, puts one hand to his startled face, and kisses him.

He goes quite still, though through her fingertips against his throat she can feel his pulse racing. She softens the kiss into something a bit more refined, coaxing him with her mouth, and after a long moment he starts to respond, almost against his will. His hands rapidly tighten almost to the point of pain on her arms.

Mary can hear, perfectly well, when John sets aside his paper and stands and crosses the room to join them, but Holmes seems to be perfectly shocked to find John standing there, so close to the both of them, when Mary rocks back onto her heels in a desperate bid to catch her breath. Her hand slides away from his jaw to fist in the (disheveled, as always) collar of his jacket, preventing him from running away when she feels his body tensing to flee. Apparently he still doesn't understand.

Holmes looks at John, his eyes already going wide with apologies and denials, his famous brain shifting into overdrive as he searches for some excuse for the fact of kissing his best friend's wife right in front of him. Mary can see the entire process on his face, as clear as day, but just as Holmes is working himself up to open his mouth and actually speak, John quirks his lips into a smile and leans in to kiss him too.

There is a long, terrified moment where Mary is entirely unsure of whether Holmes will finally, finally pick up on the obvious, and then she can feel his body relax, as if a switch had been flipped, and she knows that he has finally understood. He starts kissing John back with enthusiasm.

Excellent, thinks Mary, and enjoys the view as she starts working out the logistics of getting all three of them unscathed into the bedroom at the back of the house.

~*~

Much, much later, they lie in bed together, a tangle of legs and arms and warm, bare bodies, and they talk. It's all the whens and whys and hows that each of them came to realize their love for each other, all the signposts and hallmarks of their relationship, and it's the kind of conversation that seems banal and sickly romantic and silly if you hear someone else doing it; but when it's you it seems like the best thing in the world.

"It was Irene," Holmes confesses, somewhere into the mass of Mary's loosened hair. "When she came to see me, before she left, she told me that you'd made her go."

Suddenly the timing makes sense- his odd behavior, him trying so hard when he was with them but distracted elsewhere. Mary stifles a laugh in John's shoulder. "Holmes, were you trying to… court us?"

She can hear his scowl in his voice when he replies. "Well, mostly you. I was unaware of the nature of John's affection."

"That's because you're not as perceptive as you like to think you are," John says blandly. "It's been years, Holmes. Years."

"You could have said something, you know," Holmes says, disgruntled, and Mary starts laughing before John even has a chance to scoff.

"Oh yes, because that sort of thing is so easy to bring up! And you, of course, were so forward on your own. Why, we practically had to throw ourselves at you before you'd pick up the hint!"

"Yes, Holmes," John chimes in, like a particularly cheerful death knell, "I was beginning to worry that you were losing your skills of deduction."

"Never!" Holmes declares grandly, which is spoiled by Mary's elbow in his ribs.

"Both of you shut up," she orders. "I'm trying to enjoy this."

John snorts- normally he's the one who likes to linger in the afterglow, while Mary is perfectly ready to drop off to sleep- but Holmes rolls up onto one elbow, staring down at her with an odd reverence, the way he always looked at John when he thought that no one would notice. "Your wish is my command, my lady," he says softly, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. She catches his hand and drags him down into a kiss, to cut off any more lovesick staring.

The truth is that there is still a part of her that thinks that Holmes only loves her because she is John's wife, but the rest of her has decided that she no longer cares. None of them would be here if it weren't for all the connecting points between them, and it's the weight of history between John and Holmes that made John into the man she would like to marry. She can live with being the newcomer to their narrative, as long as they're willing to make room when she asks. Judging from the way John twists around so that he can begin to deliver a line of kisses down her neck while Holmes seems to be trying to plaster every inch of himself against her starting with his tongue, this isn't likely to be a problem.

Then John stops with the kisses (Mary makes an outraged noise into Holmes' mouth) and says, "Aren't we expected for dinner?"

There is a long moment of appalled silence as Holmes realizes that his brother very likely knows what's happening at this exact moment, and then he leaps out of bed. Mary watches him make a dive for his trousers, and she can only let her head thump back against the pillows and laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

~*~

When they get back to London, Holmes directs the carriage first to Baker Street. He pauses to press a kiss to their mouths, lightning-fast, first Mary and then John, then makes a speedy exit, the door banging shut behind him. Mary watches him bound up the steps to the front door, and as the carriage starts to pull away, she sees him glance back over his shoulder, and his tiny smile makes her grin at John.

They make it home themselves a short while later, and they leave the driver to drag their luggage up the steps to their foyer in favor of dragging themselves into their house, heading for imminent collapse. John takes his pipe and immediately sequesters himself in his study "for a little peace and quiet," which is eminently reasonable considering that Holmes was like a hyperactive child the entire way home: amusing, but exhausting. Mary herself feels her bones aching with tiredness, and from the less-than-perfectly-sprung carriage, but some lingering restlessness leads her to find Sally and check in.

"It's been quiet, miss," Sally says, with the satisfaction of a job well done. "There was one of the doctor's patients that came looking, but I sent him on to Mr. Watson's friend like he told me."

"And Tom?"

"Showed his face a few times," Sally says with an eye-roll. She doesn't entirely approve of Mary spending her time on a raggedy little urchin, but then Mary has known since childhood that servants are almost invariably far more proper than their masters and mistresses. "I think he's waiting till you got back, mostly, but he did bring the paper back when he showed, so they're all stacked up and ready for you."

Mary smiles. "I told you he would. We have an arrangement."

Briefly, Sally softens into a smile. "Mum's scones can work wonders," she admits, and Mary laughs in response.

"I'd like you to make some changes in the guest bedroom," she tells Sally quietly. "Nothing overt, but I'd like you to make it better set up as permanent quarters."

Sally's face shows the flash of perception that drew Mary to her so much in the first place. "Mr. Holmes finally earns himself a place away from the couch, then?" she says slyly, and Mary huffs good-naturedly.

"You could say that." She doesn't elaborate any further; servants know everything, Mary firmly believes, and usually before their masters have figured things out. If Sally doesn't know that Holmes is settling into their lives in a slightly different capacity, well, she'll know soon enough, and Mary's fairly certain that she of all people isn't going to be disapproving. "Transfer any articles of clothing he's left behind into that wardrobe, if you please, and make sure that the windows have some very thick curtains. Holmes isn't fond of early mornings."

"Who is?" Sally asks rhetorically, then goes to obey her instructions.

Mary doesn't want Holmes to live with them, precisely, because she's almost positive that he will end up attempting wholesale destruction the way he does in his own flat, but she does want him to feel at home here. More than he already does, she amends, thinking of just how much time Holmes spends in their house. She wants him to feel like he has a place. It may not be important to him, but by God it means something to her.

She changes out of her travelling clothes and into something fresher, then goes back downstairs. She goes to the kitchen to order tea from Mrs. Bowman, then on her was back to her office she pauses briefly by the closed door of John's study. Just for a minute, just long enough to listen to the small quiet sounds of him, turning pages and puffing on his pipe, the clink of a glass being set down on the table. It sounds like home.

Then she goes back to her own office, and sits down at her desk, and then just stops for a long moment, a foolish smile on her face. "Not where you thought you'd be, my dear," she tells herself, thinking of the young girl she'd been once, head over heels in love with a groom, and then older, being courted by a nice young officer who said all the right things. The girl she'd been back then could never have imagined this life, not in her wildest fancies. "Not where you thought you'd be at all."

Then she picks up her pen, and drags her ledger closer. She has work to do, and Holmes will be back soon enough.

 

.end.