“Can you hold your tongue?” she asked, somewhat abruptly.
John blinked in surprise. “I – I can keep a secret.”
“Well.” Baroness Adler made a complicated face. “I carry around a great many secrets, many of them,” and here her mouth quirked briefly, “other people’s. The secrets of powerful people are their own kind of power. Do you not find that to be true, John?”
John still felt out of his depth. “I’m not sure, madam.”
The Baroness made a noise of dismissal and carried onward. “I don’t entirely care for London society myself, so I like to make…. adjustments, where I can. I can, for example, make a request of Lord Holmes that he give lodging, for a time, to a young cousin of mine from Scotland, who is recovering from illness and requires the care of a specialist in London for the next several months.” John’s heart lifted suddenly, dizzily, as he began to taken in her meaning.
“So I am to pose, as. As your cousin,” John managed. Saying it aloud only confirmed his sense that this was an utterly far-fetched design, and yet somehow fed his ridiculous sense of euphoria.
“Distant cousin,” the Baroness confirmed, smiling. “My great-grandmother’s sister married a member of the Garde Ecossaise. They relocated to Scotland some years later.” John couldn’t help raising his eyebrows. “It is an improbable world we live in. But yes, it is a plan that will require some” – she trailed off delicately – “concessions.”
“That is all right, madam,” John said, and it was – he had known, after all, that resolution for which he had dared hope would come at great cost. The thought of leaving his family behind, saying goodbye to Gran and to Harry, only seeing them perhaps once a year, continued to tug down the corners of his heart even as the rest soared high enough to practically lift him off the ground. Whatever it was that the Baroness asked him to do in exchange would be worth it, he would manage it. “But will it work? How can you be sure that Lord Holmes will agree to, to– “
“Mycroft Holmes is in my debt,” she replied, sparing them both John’s struggle to complete the thought. “There is no need to go into details, I think, but he will not have forgotten it. And I will… remind him that I rely on his discretion as he relies on mine.” She cocked an eyebrow at John. “So what do you think so far, John Watson?”
John felt himself crash back to earth. “I think that… that there is a lot I still don’t understand. About how this will work. How the deception will succeed. I confess that I am not sure how to sustain it.” But I trust you, he did not add. Because he did – her cleverness was evident, as well as her ability to manipulate – but those very reasons made him hesitate to confirm out loud how completely he was in her power.
The Baroness sighed. “Yes. This is the point at which it will rather depend on your strength of character.” She leaned forward, her gaze searingly intent, and John felt himself stripped to the bone under the force of it. “I asked if you could hold your tongue.”
John dipped his head, freshly aware of the gap between them. “You did, madam. And I assure you that I can keep your secrets.”
“Oh, you won’t have any to keep, other than your own,” the Baroness replied airily. “That is not my concern. And I don’t need another spy in the Holmes household.” Her voice sharpened beneath its silk-smooth surface. “No, this little experiment will be its own reward, I think. But.” She paused, drew breath; and John wondered, in a dim and detached corner of his mind, what task, what terror might be stern enough to make this formidable woman quail. “Your face will not give you away, and your manners are gracious enough. Your hands” – she flicked her eyes down in some distaste, as John reflexively folded them together in front of him, as though for protection – “are a problem, but a few weeks’ care will change that. We will keep you here a few weeks, while I return to London, and then I will send for you. But if you are to enter the Holmes household, you must,” and here her voice caught only briefly, “you must pledge to me that you will speak not a single word. At all.”
It had cost her no little effort to say it, but her eyes were unrelenting.
John was stunned; as though the very suggestion had already robbed him of his voice.
“We will call it a consequence of your illness,” she said.
John stared, and struggled to absorb. “You want – you wish that I might…. I am never to speak?” His voice shivered to nothing on the final word; he felt pressure on his throat, and realized that his hand had, quite unconsciously, risen to wrap around the base of his neck, as though in protection. Or perhaps to keep it in, to press it back into himself.
“I can furnish you with a gentleman’s wardrobe,” said the Baroness, “and I can help you remake your person, to an extent, until you more fully appear the part. But I cannot erase the sound of your past from your speech – I do not know how it could be done.” Her voice softened slightly. “It would destroy any history we might contrive.”
“But… I cannot write,” John protested. “How am I to, to communicate, to explain myself to….”
She smiled slightly, and (John thought) sadly. “You say a great deal with your face. More than you realize, I think. And your Holmes will not be troubled overmuch. He wants nothing so much as an audience.”
Holmes. Your Holmes, she had said. John closed his eyes.
Tiltedsyllogism is the co-founder of the BBC Sherlock fanfic reading group reading221b, a mod at the antidiogenes writer’s chat room, and is helping to run the Sherlock TV Fusion Project. She is particularly fond of writing remixes (you can find some here and here) and 221bs. She also writes the occasional, and always insightful thoughts on fandom discourse on tumblr.
Rated: Teen, Word Count: 45,573, AO3 Tags: Alternate Universe, fairy tale, The Little Mermaid, Angst, Pastiche, Victorian AU, Botany, Sacrifice