Notes: Kudos to Tilman Menshevik for helping me with
some continuity points and sorting out dates. Due to the time
differences between the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Marvel, I've
fudged a bit.
An Encounter in a Field
A falcon circled in the sky, a smear of black against blue gray. The bird tipped, abruptly changing direction, before plunging down to strike against the ground. From the hilltop one could not see what small animal was being gutted, only a flurry of violent activity.
A woman on a horse called to, what was clearly, her bird and it ascended with a beat of feathers, exploding back toward her position. She raised a gauntlet-covered fist, waiting, prepared when it arrived like a small missile, claws finding purchase. She took the vole from it, rolled it between her fingers and after a moment's pause, gave it back to the falcon.
"Are you going to sit there and watch me for much longer, sir?" She pointed her face up toward the sky and the hazy sunlight reflected off spectacles. "It will rain presently and like most sensible people, I prefer to be inside when it does."
Raven stiffened, startling his horse, which sidestepped in agitation. He put a hand on its neck and it calmed. "I did not mean to spy on you." He drew his mount alongside hers. "My name it Raven Darkholme - "
"An odd name." The woman smiled faintly, her eyes dimly visible behind the tinted glass. "I am Irené Adler and this is my father's property." She looped a glove-covered hand loosely through the reins and leaned back to counterbalance the weight of the bird.
"I, yes. I know. I am working for him to - " Her challenging tone had spurred the defensive response and he found himself stuttering. He clamped his jaw shut.
"To resolve a dispute concerning union sabotage of his steel mill. Yes, I know about that as well." She was still facing him, but her smile seemed in danger of growing into some form of laughter. Then she blushed and turned her face away, while tending to her hawk.
Raven had the uncomfortable feeling that she was actually looking through him and was oddly relieved when she removed her attention, though he knew she was blind. Her father had been dismayingly open on that point. Did he not understand how vulnerable that made his daughter in the presence of less-than-reputable men? Not that his reputation in regard to women was an issue, of course. He prided himself on his detached objectiveness, much like a doctor's.
He searched the area for protective riders but found none. Nor were there any tracks or areas of beaten ground to suggest that more than one rider was present. While he understood and approved of some changes in the days social climate, Raven still considered it dangerous for a single woman to travel alone. It was a simple matter of fact. While women could be treacherous, devious and even dangerous they were, nevertheless, in constant danger. At the same time, he would not judge her to be as courageous as some women in current society who openly challenged traditional dress codes and female behavior. Not that he disapproved of such social phenomenon.
If anything, her appearances suggested a proper, social elite upbringing which resulted in a stiff carriage and imperious tone of voice. Despite that, she was rather attractive. She was not as perfumed or decorated as some of the women who attempted to gain his attention, nor was she dressed in a provocative manner. She wore a simple, green riding suit, a hat to ward off the sun, which matched rather rakishly with her spectacles. But, she sat astride the horse, holding a bird of prey with confidence Raven found of greater interest than the current style of jewelry or hair dress. He had heard a great many things about a certain Miss Adler that piqued his interest.
"If you are quite through looking - and I assume by your silence and lack of movement - which I assure you I can hear - may I ask why you have come all this way?"
"I am merely a curious man. It is, after all, what I do for a living. I find that listening to as many people as possible, from as many sources as possible, increase my success in closing cases." He raised an eyebrow, a gesture wasted. "You are rather outspoken."
She ignored his implied query and blunt tone of voice. "I understand you have quite a reputation in that field. Just as you do for your lack of interest in all things feminine."
"Rumors are hardly evidence, but I appreciate spoken truth more than subdued politesse."
"Oh, that is quite true. After all, rumors say that certain union members have deliberately damaged the factory machines, so they may not work until they receive greater compensation. Of course, it is more likely that my father is under cartel pressure to avoid raising costs. Hence, he hires men to damage his own equipment so that he may accuse the works of malpractice. So - "
The falcon screeched and bated its wings. Irené laughed. "Camilla is tired of our prattling. She's fat as a marmot but can't hold still."
"And I believe you are correct about the weather." Raven urged his horse around, back toward the Adler country residence, terminating her line of questioning.
Her guess was surprisingly accurate, but not fully correct. The German Steel Manufacturers' Cartel was certainly involved, but not by her father's request. If anything, evidence suggested that union factions split along party and religious lines within his mill itself were attempting to hinder his product output. Further, while Germany and Austria were political allies, it was the former nation that held greater economic power. No doubt, they preferred to keep it that way and as far as cases went, this was a typical example of political treachery. "What does your father think of your hobby?"
"The tendency towards unwanted opinions or falconry?" She set the bird on the specially designed pommel of her saddle and took the reins around it.
He eyed the hooded bird, now sedate. He knew enough of the minutiae involved in falconry to consider raptors dangerous animals. More curiously, the Adlers were not born into the wealth and lineage required for the highly regulated but dying sport. Her father, German of origin, was an industrialist forced by his own family to marry outside. As such, Irené lacked the access to engage legally in this particular hunting. "Both."
Her lip curled into a polite sneer. "My father prefers to indulge his crippled daughter, as an act of charity and tolerance. Nor does he wish to act in conflict with the mill unions. I prefer to have things my own way, not dictated to me by wealthy peers."
"Ah." He guided his horse to follow hers. A change in subject was in order. "May I ask, how is it that you can guide your mount correctly?"
"Ever suspicious?" She gave a droll smile, baring even, white teeth. "She knows the way back to the stables and has been trained to return to them on command. And now," she craned back, unerringly in his direction causing the saddle and tack to creak softly, "a question of my own. Tell me, detective, while your English accent and manner are impeccable, German is your native language, is it not? You are not from England." She clicked her tongue. "Despite official information to the contrary."
Raven leaned back in astonishment so suddenly, his mount misunderstood and came to a halt. He placed his hands on the pommel and found himself smiling over the ears of a horse. "No one has ever guessed so openly, but yes. As you likely have heard, I speak several languages fluently, so the majority of people fail to hear the minor differences of sound." He motioned his steed to continue before he was left idling in a grassy field.
"You sound pleased, detective."
"I would prefer that you call me Raven."
"That would be most improper."
"I do no care for propriety."
"So rumors say."
A Debate in the Library
Raven was stalking swiftly up the hallway, tapping his sword-cane in time with every second step, when Irené burst out from her father's Study, straight across his path and onward into the Library. He raised his brows and made a moue. Raven had been on his way to report his conclusive findings to her father, but he never could resist a good mystery. Turning sharply, he went toward the Library.
He pressed an ear against the heavy wooden doors. There was no audible human sound. Cheered by the fact Irené wasn't crying, something he simply could not tolerate, he invited himself into the room.
Irené was leaning over the windowpane, facing the clear glass with her head lowered. Judging by the set of her shoulders, the slight quiver of her skirts and hair; she was in a rage. Raven allowed her time to compose herself by slowly removing his greatcoat and hanging it over the back of an overly ornate, wide-backed chair. He set his cane against the armrest.
Irené sighed heavily and patted her hair. "You didn't knock."
"I assumed you would hear me." He approached, suppressing a sense of anxiety. Why he should feel nervous when her anger was directed elsewhere? If he were truly sensible, he would quit her company. But her face was flushed and he could see the muscles in her jaw working. She licked her lips and he forced himself to look away.
So, he jumped when she whirled about, striking the wall with the side of her fist.
"My father is a crowing idiot. Insufferable! A fool who will not listen to good advice! He will ruin us!" She was pacing in agitation and did not stop until she drew up a hand's length from his chest. As suddenly as she had thrown the fit, she stopped, flushed near scarlet and hastily backed away from him to a more proper distance. "Regardless, why are you here?"
"I wanted to report my findings to your father, collect my fee and be on my way. You distracted me." The hazy sunlight outlined the curves of her face, shoulder, breast, down to her waist and hip where it was broken by the cloth of her long skirt. He had understated the truth of the matter. "But I am not pressed for time," he offered.
"And, as always, you are curious as your namesake."
"Ravens are carrion birds; they feed on the dead and croak."
"They are solitary birds, found away from men. They display great curiosity and like to play. Like all creatures, they serve a purpose, else they never would have evolved."
"You're well read."
"Better than some. Did you know that my father genuinely believes that his company can grow in size indefinitely? That so long as he increases his profit margin, his success is assured? He believes that his current success is a sign of his individual greatness, his unstoppable will power. It probably never occurred to him that his own cartel might -"
Irené smiled ruefully. "And I've been so careful not to give myself away."
He moved with assurance, maintaining near-perfect balance and economy of movement. In his career, he had traveled abroad and visited both India and the Orient where he had seen fighting styles unique to those cultures. Upon his return, he had sought out, in disguise, the educations offered in the small but thriving area of Limehouse commonly referred to as Chinatown. His skills of deception protected him from the dangers inherent in such an area populated chiefly by sailors and criminals. But before that, he had been raised in a traveling circus and skills learned in childhood were not easily forgotten.
Raven circled Irené, smiling grimly. "You're not blind. I've been watching you. Your motions are sure and directed. I've never seen you collide with any obstacle. You also have a tendency to look toward others before they speak to you."
Irené's smile grew pained. She removed her spectacles, carefully folding and placing them into a hidden pocket. She faced Raven with obvious deliberation. Her eyes were completely clouded, the milkiness obscuring the iris of both eyes. They showed no response to the change in light. "As you can see, for once, you are wrong."
Stymied, he turned on heel to look out at the mountains. The afternoon sun had given way to thunder heads, rolling blackly toward the valley. It was not often that he was wrong and another so often correct.
"When I was thirteen, I began to lose my sight. I also began to have nightmares. At the time, they seemed foolish. Of course, I did not fully comprehend the political state of Serbia at my age. I knew the manner and appearance of the man and woman in my dreams seemed wealthy. The day after King Alexander was assassinated, the nightmares stopped." She sighed. "You are the first person I have told this. And with the Austro-Hungarians annexation of Herzegovina, what can a single person do?"
"Anyone with a sound mind can understand the political struggles occurring there. It proves nothing that - "
"Nor can I prove that their monarchy will one day declare a nation that will ultimately fragment in bloody civil war, more than once. My dear Raven, I am well aware that you hold phantasmagorical beliefs in contempt, preferring intellect and the stimulation of opiates. Keep in mind that I did not make any claims in those areas." She fingered her glasses through the material of her dress. "To be frank, I believe my abilities are entirely natural. I do not believe evolution is entirely the product of chance. If anything, there is an ultimate path and purpose to everything. Perhaps my purpose in life is not to challenge what will come, but to remember the truth of what will happen rather than the tidied version history will write."
Raven frowned, attempting to suppress a sense of disappointment. Contrary to popular belief, he did not disdain women, only a common lack of education and intelligence in so many of them. She had seemed so intelligent, possessing a cutting wit and a politely reckless edge that invigorated him. It was a shame.
"You do not believe in destiny?"
"Is answering unspoken questions one of your abilities?"
Irené wheeled on him, planting her hands on her hips as a lock of hair fell loose from beneath her hat. "Yes. Because in most versions of this reality, you do ask. Just as you will always disagree with me over the point of individual control of fate. Just as you are not.... Forgive me."
"Meaning that I agree with your father more than with you? I cannot accept that I have no choice in determining my future or affecting the world around me." He wondered what he was not.
"Oh, you, you-. Don't you understand? There are choices. There are always choices. But no matter what you choose, the future remains predictable. Do you think I have not tried?" She returned to staring at the window. "Once, I saw that there would be a spill in the factory. It would kill three men and maim five others. It would be caused by a mechanical default in a machine. I went myself to the factory, ignored the harassment that followed and demanded with persistence until the machine was examined." She paused, composing herself. "There was only a minor offset in the gears, which was corrected, yet the accident occurred nevertheless. The defect developed during the reassembly of the machine."
"Ah, then you believe you are clairvoyant. That is a popular pastime among members of - "
"Of my society and class. Yes, I know. That is why I do not advertise. I do not want to be considered a laughing stock, mentally inept or simply a freak of nature. Would you?" By this point, Irené had advanced to mere inches from his waistcoat.
Raven took a decorous step back.
Irené unbuttoned her riding jacket, reached into an interior pocket and removed an odd metal rod. She pushed a small switch on top of it and it snapped out into a cane. She dropped the narrow end of it to the floor, with an audible click, between the toes of his boots.
He cleared his throat and took another step back. "I would no want to be considered abnormal, no."
Her eyes crinkled and she laughed suddenly, with great humor and blushed faintly. She covered her mouth with a curled hand until she regained her composure, then placed both hands on the head of her cane. "No, I suppose not. Times will change, inexplicably, inexorably, inevitably." She raised her brows, tilting her face sidewise at him. "Take, for instance, German industrial might. In only a couple of short years, there will be a war."
He discovered he was staring at her face, staring so he held unnaturally still, his muscles cramping in tension. Raven did not feel many things strongly, only a sense of injustice, a burning need for truth, rage at abuses of power but rarely ever the softer emotions. What was the name of the feeling that caused the act of gazing to be possessive? "There have always been wars. There will always be wars. In fact, one only needs to take in the sheer quantity of non-aggression pacts and alliances being formed in conjunction with the economic competitions to realize we are heading towards a crisis."
"No. This will be War. This will be a continent spanning atrocity that will neither begin nor end for decades. Oh, it will end officially, but not in reality. There will be battles between periods of obscene oppression and genocide. In the midst of it will be a severe economic depression. And it begins in only a few short years. You cannot imagine the bloodshed on such a scale." Her earlier humor had dissipated. Though she wore gloves, Raven could see she clenched her cane tightly enough to tremor. He brows were raised so that her eyes were round.
He found himself at a loss and shuffling, uneasy, like a child again. "But surely-"
"Surely what?!" She cracked her cane against the floor, leaving a gouge. "No one will listen to me. And it does not matter if they do. It will happen. It will always happen and I will see it and remember the future for the rest of my life. I can only follow a script like a damned stage actor."
Raven cleared his throat in surprise at her language. Despite his doubt, he found himself curious. "And what will spur this war?"
"The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Or perhaps we can consider it already begun, with these dreadnoughts, giant war ships, so rapidly being built. And yet even these things will be nothing compared to the war machines of the future. The very light will kill. Particles of - of matter - I cannot even comprehend, will kill."
She seemed to be mad and delusional as well as above his station. He had been in this room, along with a young lady, far longer than proper and should leave. "May I-"
Her head swung towards him. "Sit."
He found himself sitting in a large wing chair. "Miss Adler, I don't mean to disparage your beliefs or opinions, as I'm a great believer in honesty and truth-"
"You, my dear Raven, are a liar of the first degree. You are not a detective," she bit out while advancing on his chair. When he started to rise, she snapped her cane back between his legs so close that her skirts brushed his knees, pinning him with social awkwardness. "You are not as you appear. You are not a scholar. You are not your age. You are not even a man."
There was a dead silence between them, except for the cadence of Irené's breath, intense with anger. "And that frightens me."
All Raven could do was raise his eyebrows for his lips seemed glued shut. Never one to dismiss the impossible, he now needed to face the chance she might not be mad. What if she could see the future? What if he could stop injustices before they occurred?
She nodded, in sightless agreement. "To condemn you," she twisted her cane in an arc, "is to condemn me. And," she turned her head to face the window, paused. "Now."
A small objected collided with the window causing it to reverbate with the impact. A few stray feathers blew away quickly, in approaching winds.
Irené made a sound that could have been a laugh or a sigh. "I shall release you, good detective, but I expect you to arrive tonight for the banquet to be held in your honor, though I also know you would prefer not to." The woman, the utterly strange and powerful woman, stepped back and smiled politely.
He rose on shaky legs, gathering together his greatcoat and fumbling with his own ornate walking cane. He could hear his own heart beating furiously, perhaps with terror or perhaps with the fierce desire that came close to crippling his composure. How could she understand the importance of his composure or his need for freedom from all things? How could she know? How could such things exist in Darwin's world?
"You may wish to wait a moment. Your breath is uneven." Irené's smile curled further to one side as she idly replaced her spectacles.
A Tryst in the Garden
"Ah, so, you came." Irené's spectacles gleamed in the light from the moon and backwash from the lit windows. "You are late."
Raven didn't move from his position on the terrace. "I did not think I would. I almost didn't." He tipped his head back and closed his eyes, listening to the world as Irené saw it. All he could hear was the wind, his heartbeat and the murmur of human voices from the house.
She took away his cigarette, smelling the blue smoke curling into the night air, turning green in the glow of the oil lamps. "Do you know, that this will someday be illegal?"
"A shame. It does wonders for the mind." He looked more closely at her then, doing his best to appear stern and aesthetic while knowing the effort was wasted. "Why did you ask me here?"
"I have a proposition for you, a logical means to common goals." She continued to stare blankly at the hashish as if gauging its worth, before bringing it to her own lips. "I do not wish to sit back and watch the future unfold, unchallenged, around me. I would like to make choices. I most certainly do not wish to marry a man who will simply tolerate me and expect children and obedience from me, as if I too were a child."
Raven looked away with a faint smile. She certainly did do as she pleased.
"We will soon have the same legal privileges as men, but not for a few years yet, and I do not intend to be trapped in this country during the coming war." She tapped her cigarette in a single effective strike. "You have great abilities and skills, yet you often waste time searching for proof and information, unable to stop what has already happened. But I lack courage, despite my greater age. Than yours, of course." She trailed smoke as she spoke, seemingly oblivious, like a dragon unaware of its danger.
He followed in silence for a while. He could no longer reassure himself that she had a penchant for lucky guesses. While chance was an aspect for life, coincidence was often not. "Do you really know?"
"Walk with me," she ignored. Irené clasped his arm loosely in her own and tugged gently in the direction of the gardens. He balked, but only for a moment, as she led him down a deliberately winding path. The air was still muggy after the afternoon rain, which had failed to evaporate in the setting sun.
She brought them to a wood and stone alcove set against a hedge wall, littered with fallen yellow leaves. "I know a great deal. I could tell you many things, if you would believe me, act with me."
Mutely, he realized his hands were sweating. He saw her look down and take slow breath, before facing him.
She put her hands on his chest and pushed, indicating that he sit. Irené curled on one leg beside him, on the bench, and removed her bonnet. She placed it on the ground, underneath the bench and ground out the cigarette.
"I know that your hair is the color of dried blood, that you have the eyes of a tiger and skin the color of slate. You quite a bit shorter than you seem and of a different shape altogether." She took the lapel of his greatcoat in one hand and pulled it aside while the other hand smoothed his waistcoat. "Tell me, can you feel that?"
Raven grabbed the hand on his chest attempting to belay the surge of sensation. "Only the coat is real."
"I know." She smoothed her hand across the fabric again, catching on the edges of neat buttons and he let her, though never releasing her wrist. "And all of this is part of you."
"Stop." Raven's voice was harsh and low. "You said you had a proposition."
"Yes. You can be what I need you to be. I can tell you what you need to know. Would you not call that an even trade? But now, I am merely being generous." Her whimsical smile was eerie in combination with hidden eyes.
He found himself gasping for air when all she did was trail her fingers up his neck and across his jaw. She was threatening his self control. Yet, what did it matter? "I am only an accident of nature." But what if it was possible, for the two of them, to change the world with a combination of knowledge and infiltration?
"True. As am I. A cripple, despised and pitied. A different sort of freak, but tell me, will you change if I kiss you? Will you try to run?" Methodically, she straddled his hips and smiled fiercely when Raven gasped loudly and quickly grasped her waist to push her off. "You never run," she whispered, leaning close so his nose nearly met her cleavage. "Because there is a guest of my father's not a stone's throw from us. And because you do not wish to by the time he leaves."
Her words seemed to make little sense, a sort of noise jogging through his consciousness. Irené was close enough to smell, to taste. The weight of her body in his lap, her legs around him and heat. He could feel the damp heat against his own crotch and- Raven was losing cohesion, ripples going through his flesh, putting small cracks in illusion. He clamped his teeth. "I can't...."
Her face was flushed, her lips parted. "It doesn't matter. I'll see you. I have always seen you." She held his head in her hands, tipped her head and licked across his lips. Testing. It was smooth, a dragging wetness and he heard a whine. She seemed to pull back and he tangled a hand in her braid, pulling her back. A kiss with such ferocity, he wanted to bite but sucked on her lips instead, licking across her teeth as she momentarily resisted. Then purchase until Irené ground herself against him. Her.
Raven jerked her head back against the hedge in a rustle of motion. She could see the strands of her own red hair as they fell over her face. She waited for shock but all she received were the rhythmic motions of Irené's hips, her cunt grinding into, well, something. Raven couldn't help grinning, painfully, like a broken mold, but a smile all the same.
Irené bit her neck and mumbled, "I do not care what it is so long as you employ it." She used her elbows to push aside the lapels of the remaining greatcoat and stopped to look before following with her tongue and hands.
Raven dragged a heel through the ground and rolled her hips as her head fell back as the last bits of facade crumpled. Irené was teasing her nipple, nibbling, then licking while thoughtful hands cupped her breasts, exploring texture and weight. Raven used one hand to clasp the other woman's neck while her second flattened, changing form to seek out buttons and ties.
She growled, not caring if her teeth gleamed sharply or her eyes glowed. Irené grunted and laughed as they hit the ground, cushioned by a serpentine change in form, Raven's coat left behind like a shed skin. She bit Irené kindly on the ribs and dragged her cheek across her stomach, so soft, running her hand, trailing fingers through pubic hair. It curled into a loose shape and dragged convex against wet labia. She caught her breath. It was for her. It was not to be believed but the blood pounding in her ears-
"In," like a garbled hiss from Irené, who arched her back, briefly rasing her hips. "I don't care." She clenched her own hands around the tentacle that had once been Raven's arm. It slid across her body, greedy.
Raven froze, a quick rearrange without awareness, for her own pleasure, for a change. Moving swiftly, ignoring the traditional mechanics of human joints to enter. "Have you?"
"Yes." A snarl more than an answer. Irené hooked a leg around the small of Raven's back but the urging was unnecessary.
Raven dropped her hips, using the member she fashioned as a man might, but then adjusted watching Irené's face tense, hearing soft moans, and ground, motion where there could normally be none. Sliding arms underneath and around the truly blind woman and howling away years of fear.