The woman strolling out of Sherlock's boarding house looked pale, but her smile at Mary shone sharp. "You must be the vixen," the woman said, her voice hoarse and her accent flat.
"Pardon me?" Mary replied.
The woman paused next to Mary. She smelled like violets, like cologne and gunpowder. "Sherlock likes you more than he wants to admit," she murmured. "I suppose I might, too."
"Who are you?" Mary asked, feeling a scowl knit across her forehead. "Have we met?"
"We will someday," the woman said. "This afternoon doesn't really count." She pursed her lips in a mockery of a kiss, leaning close enough that Mary considered stepping back, but didn't.
A loud bang resounded from one of Sherlock's windows, then, and by the time Mary looked back around, the woman was already gone.
Upon entering Sherlock's sitting room, Mary was immediately wreathed by a fragrant smoke. "Did something explode?" she inquired. She waved a handkerchief in front of her face, then pressed it against her nose.
"Every experiment involves some element of risk." Sherlock emerged from the depths of the cloud, his hair ruffled more than his tone. "What have you done with Watson?"
Mary noted his misordered buttons and grinned. "John has three consultations," she said, "as, it appears, did you."
Sherlock frowned. "Don't be coy." He opened a window and waved the last of the smoke away. "Women mistakenly think it attractive."
"How unfortunate," Mary replied, rolling her eyes before he turned around. "I'm remarking upon your disheveled state," she said precisely, feeling bold.
"A demeanor of brilliance, perhaps?" Sherlock said.
Automatically, Mary stepped forward and straightened Sherlock's collar. "You are impossible," she noted. He froze, and she almost set to his buttons before she recalled herself and folded her hands. "I ran into the most interesting woman," she recalled. "Outside, just a moment ago."
Sherlock's eyes darted to a photograph behind her, the one John had asked her not to remark upon. "There are all sorts of lively characters in London," he said. "I imagine someone of your background might find many of them exciting."
"Of course," Mary demurred.
He focused on her, interest sparking in his eyes. "What are you doing here?"
"We ought to get to know each other," Mary said. "For John's sake." His hands twitched, and she let her lips twist into a smirk. "And our own."
Sherlock dropped into a chair, his every gesture insouciant. "What do you propose?"
Mary settled across from him and extracted a bottle from the cache beneath the chair. "Perhaps a nip of brandy?" She ignored his surprise. "Unless you'd prefer tea."
Sherlock steepled his fingers, and she thought, perhaps, this would work.
Mary ensured a reiteration of the scene occurred every week, at different hours of the day, but always at Sherlock's boarding house, and always accompanied by brandy of some sort. She learned to field his jabs in ways that made him blink, and every once in a while, she managed to wring a concession from him, or even a compliment.
John knew of the visits, and on the nights that he spent with her, she wrapped her arms about his waist and they exchanged tidbits of frustration with and affection for Sherlock. On the nights when he was dragged, albeit protesting, into another case, she woke to his kiss shortly before dawn. He would taste of tobacco and whiskey, and she would trace his skin for new scars.
"And Sherlock?" she would whisper, and John would groan or chuckle. Always, though, he would kiss her forehead, then her throat, and whisper of injuries, then exasperations, and then deductions. She reveled in the pitch of his voice, soft in concern, deep when impressed, and always thrumming with consternation.
What amazed her, over time, was how quickly she mirrored those same emotions herself.
Plum brandy and a meteor shower brought Sherlock to Mary's parlor in the middle of the night. Thinking there was an emergency, she rushed into the parlor in her dressing gown. She found Sherlock waving the housekeeper away as he doffed his coat.
"Where's John?" Mary asked, reaching forward to clutch Sherlock's sleeve.
"John?" He tilted his head, as if confused, before something like embarrassment crossed his face. "Ah. He's perfectly fine. A handful of routine autopsies, that's all. I felt confident he could perform the task on his own."
Mary sank onto a settee. "Thank goodness."
"Indeed." Sherlock's fingers drummed against the bottle in his grasp. "A nightcap, perhaps?"
Mary looked up, her heart still racing from the initial flush of panic. "You're incorrigible," she stated.
Sherlock strolled forward, his path an inefficient zig-zag. He crouched before her, and she considered pushing him over. "John saved my life tonight," he told her.
"Doesn't he every night?" she replied.
Sherlock's gaze was warm, almost palpable as it skipped over her face. "As do you," he said, almost voiceless. "On occasion."
She smiled, and he was already halfway to a kiss.
Mary awoke to a familiar dip of the mattress, and John's kiss against her nape. She twisted to trace his face with his lips, and his breath ruffled her hair as he nipped her ear. She started to rise, but a heavy arm against her thigh prevented her from maneuvering successfully.
John laughed, and in the moonlight, she watched the sweet crinkles in the corners of his eyes. "I can't imagine how you slept through his snoring," he remarked.
She stifled her own laughter, looking down at Sherlock's sleeping form. He snuffled as she shifted her weight, the loop of his arm growing tighter. "It's only a trial at first," she said. Sherlock's snorts grew louder. "Do you think he's awake now?"
"Most likely," John observed. "But he'll pretend as long as he can."
Mary tugged at John's nightshirt. "Let's make it difficult for him, then." John obliged, yanking it over his head. "I imagine he'll have a marvelous critique."
"Critique, darling?" John protested, sinking into her arms. "Really?"
Mary twined her arms around John's neck. "You're as bad as he is, sometimes."
"We'll see about that," John muttered. He rose above her, and she arched, gratified.
Sherlock "woke" several minutes later, at a most inopportune moment. John cursed for a rather long time, but together, Mary and Sherlock managed to placate him.
The critique came in the morning, before tea, but neither Mary nor John was inclined to pay much attention, given Sherlock's vocalizations the night before.