“Are you sure they were headed this way?” the voice half-whispers, high and breathy with barely contained excitement.
“I think so,” another girlish voice replies gleefully from three (no, two) aisles to the left of his regular study carrel sandwiched between the medieval history collection and the rows of pathetically out of date atlases gathering dust in the stacks. “I saw him come in just as I was leaving the nurse’s office. He told the school secretary he was here to see Mrs. Hudson, and I passed her in the hall on her way to fetch him!”
“How do you know she was bringing him here?” titters a third girl, her voice growing breathless as she tries to keep up with her friends as the group comes even closer before stopping just one aisle away.
Lifting his chin and gazing over the uneven tops of the neat row of books on the shelf just above his desk and through to the other side, he can see the backs of three heads (brunette, brunette pretending to be a blond, redhead pretending to be brunette) attached to three necks (one long and tan—recent beach holiday judging by the small patch of lighter skin revealed by a sunburn that peeled away, one short and pale—sporting the freckles she can’t cover up with concealer like those on her cheeks, and one of average length—unremarkable but for the edge of the purpling love bite peeking just above the collar of her school uniform jumper) attached to three girls (fifth years, popular, vapid and useless) clustered around the end of one of the long rows of bookshelves that fan out around the circulation desk in the center of the library like spokes on a wheel.
“Mrs. Hudson is the librarian, Marjorie,” the first girl snaps, exasperation coloring her reply. “Where else would she be taking him?”
“I don’t know, Dora,” Marjorie shoots back defensively. “Melody didn’t hear anything about them coming to the library. Could be taking him lots of places.”
“Fit thing like that,” Melody purrs, “he could take me anywhere he wanted.”
“That’s because you’re a slag, Mel,” Dora says, rolling her eyes and tossing her curtain of dark hair carelessly over a slim shoulder, smacking Marjorie full in the face with it in the process.
“Oi, watch it Dor—“ Marjorie huffs, spitting out strands of hair that have adhered to her sticky, overglossed lips.
“Shhhh!” Melody hisses, putting a finger to her mouth to quiet her friends and pushing them back out of the line of sight as the heavy glass door to the library swishes open.
“Here we are!” The librarian says brightly, the three hiding girls growing still and silent as they peer between the shelves to sneak a look at the two people who’ve just entered the large, airy space.
“So this is where you spend all your time,” a voice answers (male, fairly young, pleasant and masculine with just a hint of a Welsh accent coloring the vowels, not a Londoner by birth but not a brand new resident of the city either). “It’s a fair bit bigger than I’d imagined it would be.”
“Yes, I suppose it is a bit grand for a secondary school of this size,” Mrs. Hudson agrees. “But we were lucky enough to be the beneficiary of quite a generous donation a few years back, including a very large collection of both new and rare volumes as well as a healthy endowment that came with the express intent that the funds be used to upgrade and maintain the library.”
“Impressive gift,” the man replies. “My old school library seems like a broom closet full of paperbacks and a mouldy old set of encyclopaedias compared to this place. Alumnus with a soft spot for the old alma matter, eh?”
“Not a former student, no,” the librarian answers, vaguely. “A fine young man, though—in charge of a sizeable family trust, with a great respect for knowledge and a certain amount of gratitude to the school for…well, for being so welcoming to gifted students.”
“A huge amount of gratitude, I’d say." His voice recedes and rises again (turning slowly in place, no doubt taking in the tall polished walnut shelves stuffed with thousands of volumes, the state of the art computer terminals tucked into well-appointed study nooks, and the cozy seating areas arranged with comfortable leather armchairs and settees). “I can see why you love coming to work every day.”
“And you’ll love it too, John."
“I think I will,” the man (John) agrees, a smile evident in his voice. “Thanks again for this, Mrs. H. You’re doing me a big favor with this job, and I won’t forget it.”
“Oh nonsense, dear. It’s you who is doing me the favor. Nearly two years on from the renovations and we’ve still got over half the inventory in the Holmes collection left to catalog and shelve. I’ve been thinking of hiring on a part time assistant for months, and it’s lucky you’ve got the time now.”
“Yeah,” John replies, his tone bright but tinged with something hesitant (Disappointment? Regret? Not enough data…). “Lucky indeed.”
“All right then, the first afternoon bell should be ringing here in just a few minutes. Why don’t you go on and leave your coat here behind the desk, and I’ll show you around the building and introduce you to the rest of the staff.”
There’s the swish of fabric being peeled off and dropped over a chair, then idle chatter and footsteps that exit back out the library door that swishes softly shut behind them.
Followed immediately by a shrill, high pitched, ear-splitting squeal.
Followed immediately by two more.
From his vantage point behind the three girls, he presses a finger to his ear and shakes his head in an attempt to clear the ringing now echoing through his skull.
“Oh my god!” Dora Lancaster says. “You were right, Mel.”
“Of course I was,” Melody scolds, pulling out her mobile phone and sliding her fingertip quickly over the screen. “I always am. I told you he was hot.”
“I’ll never doubt you again.” Dora turns to lean against the shelf and fans herself dramatically with a hand.
“How old do you think he is?” Marjorie asks, her cheeks flushed and her eyes bright.
“Who cares?” Melody shrugs, her thumbs tapping furiously on her phone. “He’s older than any of the little boys at this school—and that’s all that matters to me.” She punctuates the last word with a final tap of her finger against her mobile phone, finishing the movement with a small flourish.
He rolls his eyes and stares back down at his notes where they’re spread before him.
A fraction of a second later, three text alerts chime in near unison.
At the same moment, another (silent) alert brightens the screen of the mobile phone on the table in front of him. He looks down to see that a text has arrived, the words “NEW CONFESSION!” appearing on the screen.
Glancing up between the shelves, he watches the three girls read the same message, then lowers his gaze again to his own phone. He swipes through his apps until he finds the acid green skull, a small number “1” floating on the top right corner of the icon. He taps it and the screen goes black, and a message begins to appear one letter at a time, as though it’s being typed out:
iConfess: The new library assistant is HOT! He can check me out and take me home ANY TIME.
There’s a second round of high pitched squealing from the girls in the next aisle, and Sherlock looks down at his phone in time to see the message that just appeared begin to pull out of focus before the letters explode in a shower of white sparks and his home screen pops abruptly back into view.
“Melody!” Dora laughs, slapping her friend playfully on the shoulder. “I can’t believe you just did that!”
“Everyone in school is going to read that!” Marjorie says, her voice shrill and her eyes wide.
“I bloody well hope so.” Melody shoots them both a grin before shrugging and slipping her mobile back into the side pocket of her pleated uniform skirt. “There’s a new gorgeous, blond, blue-eyed bloke in the building—that’s the kind of thing students at this school have a right to know.”
“But what if people find out you’re the one who said it?” Marjorie asks, worrying nervously at her bottom lip with her front teeth.
Melody narrows her eyes suspiciously at the shorter girl. “How would they find that out? Are you going to tell people it was me?”
“Of course not!” Marjorie says, shaking her head emphatically. “I would never do that!”
“Are you sure?” Melody asks, affecting a nasty snarl as she steps towards her friend. “Because you and me and Dora are the only ones who know it was me that sent that confession, and you seem pretty worried that everyone will find out.”
“They can’t find out who sent it, Marjie,” Dora says, stepping between her friends, rolling her eyes and raising a hand to fend off Melody’s impatient scoff. “That’s sort of the whole point of 'iConfess' isn’t it? You type in your confession, everyone sees it, and then it self destructs. Totally anonymous. Everyone knows that.”
“Right, yeah, Okay,” Marjorie says, then smiles at her friends. “Sorry, I just forgot.”
“That’s all right,” Dora says, reaching out and squeezing her friend’s shoulder. “Besides, the three of us are best friends—forever. We’d never betray each other. Right?”
“Right,” Melody and Marjorie answer in tandem.
He tries to hold in the laughter. He really does. And to be fair, he doesn’t laugh.
Three heads whip around in his direction and he ducks quickly—but not fast enough. The soft thunder of angry feet on carpet echoes in his ears, and in moments the three girls have rounded the end of the shelf and are bearing down on him where he sits.
“You!” Melody snarls, stomping toward him and stopping just a few feet away. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“I was studying.” He looks at her coolly, calmly gesturing one pale, long fingered hand at the chemistry notes spread out before him on the desk. “Until I was interrupted.”
“You were spying on us!” Dora accuses, pointing a finger at him angrily.
“Oh, is that was it’s called when one huddles behind bookcases peeking through shelves at people who don’t know they’re being observed?” He tilts his head, peering at at them innocently. “I was wondering how one might define that particular act. Thanks ever so much for the clarification.”
“I don’t know what you think you heard, but—“
“Oh come now, Melody," he says, dismissing her indignation with a careless wave of his fingers and a pointed roll of his eyes as he turns his attention back to the desk. “I know exactly what I heard, I am not deaf, you know—though you gave it a good go at making me so, what with all the screeching.”
“You better keep your mouth shut, freak!” Dora hisses, stepping up beside Melody and staring down at him.
“Oh don’t worry,” he says, affecting his most uninterested tone. “Your secret is safe with me.”
“It better be." Dora puffs out her chest and tries to sound tough. “Though it don’t matter if you say anything or not, nobody with half a brain bothers listening to you.”
“Doesn’t matter, Dora. Do at least attempt not to butcher the very language born in the same country you were." He sighs heavily as she begins opens her mouth to reply. “Oh never mind, I don’t expect you to listen to my advice, given your very astute observation that half-brained people rarely ever do. Good Lord, the admissions standards for this esteemed educational institution really are abominably lax.”
“Yeah,” Melody says with an icy smile. “I hear they’ll let anyone in this place. All it costs is one brand new library.”
“That’s right,” Dora chimes in. “At least none of us had to have our families buy our way into this school.”
“Is that so?” Sherlock inquires, his tone light and curious. “Are you under the mistaken impression that the very large cheque your father writes each term is some sort of selfless charitable contribution?”
“That’s different,” Dora says, looking slightly confused. “That’s for tuition.”
“You do know what that word means, don’t you?” Sherlock asks, head tilting and brow knitted thoughtfully.
“Of course she does,” Marjorie says, stepping up next to the other two girls and adding a third hostile glare to those already directed his way.
“I think not,” Sherlock replies, crisply punctuating each terminal consonant. “But as luck would have it, there’s a very fine selection of dictionaries shelved not fifteen feet from here. If you’d like to pop over and confirm that the word tuition is literally defined as “the charge or fee for admission and instruction as at a private school or college or university” have at it. I’ll be right here, ready accept your apology on the matter.”
“Why should I apologize to you, freak?”
“Let’s see,” he begins, listing her offenses and ticking each off with a flick of an elegant finger. “For your abysmal understanding of the English language, for attempting to impugn the honor of my family name, for subjecting me to your inane ramblings over a random stranger you proceeded to stalk the moment you laid eyes on, and for you and your pathetic little friends being so generally uninteresting that I’m too bored to continue with this list. Take your pick.”
“At least we’ve got friends,” Marjorie says, and the other two girls smirk their approval.
“Too right, Marjie,” Melody agrees, lifting her chin to stare down her nose at him. “Look at you, all alone, surrounded by your stupid books and papers, skulking around the library spying on private conversations. You’re the pathetic one here. You should be apologizing to us.”
“There’s one slight problem with that scenario, Melody,” he says with a tight smile. “I’m not sorry.”
“Oh yeah?” Melody's pretty face twists into a viciously unattractive sneer. “You WILL be.”
She turns on her heel and begins storming away, one hand reaching into her pocket and retrieving her mobile as she goes. The other two girls hesitate for just a moment before each throws a disdainful glance his way then follows her out of the stacks and through the door. He stands there for a moment, the library quiet and still and deserted around him, wondering exactly how “sorry” such a dull excuse for a human being could possibly be capable of making him—when a flash of light from the surface of the desk catches his eye.
Oh. Of course.
Looking down at his mobile, he swipes until he sees the green skull with the new message indicator. Tapping it, he eyes the screen suspiciously as the following text appears:
iConfess: Sherlock Holmes is a faggot and a FREAK!
He stares at the words as they begin to fade before bursting into the customary shower of sparks and disappearing from view. He shakes his head ruefully, dark curls spilling carelessly over his smooth, pale forehead. This is Melody Harrison’s grand revenge? An anonymous jab on the app of the moment that every Morningside Academy student will likely tap on and see flashed across their devices—and then just as likely forget before the last sparks of the message disappear from the screen?
And hardly a crushing blow, really. Interpersonal relationships may not be his area, but even he understands that if you’re going to start a hateful rumor with the intent of causing your victim the maximum amount of pain and embarrassment—at least make sure it isn’t something that everyone already knows.
With a sigh, he stands up and slips his mobile into his front trouser pocket then begins gathering up his assorted papers and books. Normally he wouldn’t clear out this early in the day, preferring to pass his afternoons in the relative safety and seclusion the library provides him. It’s the one place (outside of the makeshift laboratory he’s assembled over the years and secreted away in the fourth floor attic space above his bedroom, the location of which not even his chubby git of a brother has sussed out and taken away from him in the name of “fire safety” or some such nonsense. Yet, anyway.) that he actually likes to be. It feels like home to him.
As well it should, really.
His insufferable brother paid quite a hefty sum for it, after all, from the trust their parents left in his care (along with one younger, and rather incorrigible as it turns out, brother seven years his junior) when they passed away five years ago. Five years, three months, fourteen days, three boarding schools, two expulsions and one rather unfortunate incident involving a pair of skunks roaming into a dining hall filled to capacity on parents visiting weekend (that no one had ever been able to definitively tie to him thank you very much) to be exact.
Along with the monetary gift Mycroft Holmes had bestowed upon the school at Sherlock’s unorthodox mid-term admittance to Morningside two years ago, there was also quite a large donation of books and furniture and fixtures from the impressive library that sprawled over the east wing of the manor home in Cornwall where both Holmes boys were born and spent their childhoods. When it became clear that a boarding school education wasn’t quite the right fit for his younger brother, the elder Holmes sibling closed up the house and moved everything—including Sherlock—to the family’s second home in London. Much of his father’s extensive library found a new home on the third floor of the massive town house on Highgate Road, a large amount of the volumes were donated to several deserving charitable organizations and archival museums, and a very respectable number of the best and most useful items made their way here—to the renovated school library on the northeast corner of the second floor of Morningside Academy.
Sherlock is starting to forget his mother’s hands, her easy smile, the ever present scent of roses and rich, dark soil that hung around her all summer long, and the feel of her soft lips against his crown as she tucked him in at night. He can’t quite remember the color of his father’s eyes, the exact sound of his booming laugh, or the faint scratch of tweed against his weary cheek as strong arms carried him up to bed.
But the smell of binding cloth, the feel of ancient parchment maps unrolling, the sigh of worn stuffed leather chairs, the warmth of a broad lap as a large hand encouraged him to turn the pages with his tiny fingers, and the timbre of a deep voice giving life to letters inked over countless page? Those things he remembers with astonishing clarity. And when he stands in this place, it seems possible that he will never forget.
Tucked here between towering shelves stuffed full of hundreds of years of knowledge on tens of thousands of pages filled with hundreds of thousands of words made up of millions of individual letters—Sherlock Holmes fits.
He’s nearly finished gathering up and packing away his schoolwork when he hears a door swish open followed by two sets of feet (one clad in slightly worn trainers, the other in sensible kitten heels) entering the library. He pauses where he stands, slowly pulling the flap of his messenger bag closed before he silently loops the strap over his head and threads one arm through the gap, listening intently.
“You’ll spend most of your time here, of course,” Mrs. Hudson says cheerily as she and her companion walk toward the large circular desk at the center of the room. “But you’re free to use the staff areas if you’d like, and you’ll be doing a fair amount of moving boxes out of storage and dragging them up here so we can finally take a proper inventory. That won’t be a problem, will it?”
“I don’t think so,” the other voice (John) replies.
“Because there’s a handcart available, of course,” the librarian continues, her voice softening a bit. “And there’s no shame in taking several trips if it’s easier for you to—“
“I’ll be fine, Mrs. H.,” the man says, a bit more loudly than he’d likely intended to if the slightly uncomfortable pause and small cough that follows is any indication. “Really, it won’t be a problem. I promise I’ll take it as easy as I need to, all right?”
“All right, dear," Mrs. Hudson replies, no doubt reaching out and laying her hand softly on the man’s shoulder in a sincere display of motherly affection. “You know best.”
Sherlock smiles to himself, imagining the look on the stranger’s face after being on the receiving end of one of Martha Hudson’s maternal moments. He knows from experience that while you may want to be taken aback by the contact (you are practically a grown man, after all) and might even actually have case for being so (this woman isn’t your mother, for heaven’s sake)—there’s something rather lovely about the sincerity of the gesture that makes you forget very quickly that you ought to be offended. It’s diabolical, really.
“Is the library always this empty?” John asks, his voice even and pleasant once again.
“On most days, it’s fairly quiet,” Mrs. Hudson tells him, a note of regret in her voice. “We get quite a lot more traffic when teachers assign research projects, and things pick up a bit during exams week each semester.”
“It’s such a lovely space, though.” John's voice fades a bit as he starts to walk around the common area and examine the seating areas and computer terminals. “It’s a shame that it doesn’t get used more.”
“It really is,” Mrs. Hudson agrees. “But it seems that libraries hold less appeal for young people when they’ve got instant access to all the information they could ever need tucked away in their pocket.”
“I suppose that's true. My mum always told my sister and I that she didn't know why we kept calling them ‘phones’ when she’d never once heard us actually speak to another person on them.”
“My mother used to go on endlessly about how I spent all my time crouched in the hallway with the one half of the phone pressed up against my ear and an endless stream of nonsense rattling out of my mouth and into the other." Mrs. Hudson sighs heavily. “Time makes relics of us all, John.”
“True enough.” John huffs out a quiet sigh of his own, and after a short pause there’s the sound of a hand thumping against something solid—a slight creak as fingertips pull against a slick surface and the unmistakable whoosh of a stationary object suddenly in motion—and in his mind Sherlock can see the large, ornate globe rotating on its axis just as clearly as it had when he’d set it spinning himself in the library of his childhood home next to his father’s favorite chair. “But this here is a work of art as much as a map of the world. Can’t get this on a smartphone.”
“Actually you can, dear. There’s an app for that.”
Sherlock hears a soft exhalation of breath followed by a huff of laughter that starts low and slow and rich, and then morphs into something that can only be described as a…giggle. As he listens to the sound float through the air toward him, Sherlock feels a strange fluttering in his stomach—the corner of his lips twitching reflexively as if to join in.
Which is preposterous, of course. He’s definitely not going to start laughing at something Mrs. Hudson said to someone he doesn’t know just because that someone is laughing. It wasn’t even that funny. But when the laugh ends, and the fluttering in Sherlock’s stomach fades, there’s a strange emptiness left in its place—and he’s struck by the sudden thought that he wishes he could hear it again.
“So you’ve had the tour, we’ve talked a bit about what your duties will be--Oh!” Sherlock hears her run her palms softly over the lines of her blouse and skirt to smooth them before beginning to walk in his direction. “Sherlock, love—come out and meet John, the new library assistant.”
Sherlock freezes in place, holding his breath and staying very, very still.
“Who’s Sherlock?” John asks, and his footsteps begin to cross the floor in the same direction that Mrs. Hudson’s are moving—directly towards him.
It’s not that Sherlock is in the habit of avoiding Mrs. Hudson. Quite the opposite, really. He’s quite fond of the woman, to be honest—and not just because she makes the best raspberry jam biscuits in the world and never forgets to bring him a packet of them each week now that she knows they're his favorite. Or because she actually listens to him when he speaks, and doesn’t just pretend to. Or because she gave him his own key to the library after she’d found him attempting to pick the lock one morning when she was running late. Or because she’s always been kind to him, not because she had to be—but because she actually likes him.
Or maybe for all those reasons, really.
He doesn’t know why he suddenly doesn’t want her to know he’s been here and listening this whole time…he just doesn’t.
“Oh, Sherlock comes with the library, John."
“A student?” John asks, the volume of his voice increasing as they grow nearer to where he’s standing.
“Sixth former,” the librarian confirms, her voice warm. “Spends a lot of time here. If he’s not in class, you can find him tucked away back in the stacks with his nose in some book or another. And frankly he’s here even when he should be in class—bit of a sticking point with some of the teachers but he gets top marks in every subject, so they can’t complain really. He always sits right…”
There’s a pause as Mrs. Hudson and her new assistant round the end of the shelf and find the aisle empty, the desktop surface of his regular study carrel bare and the desk lamp switched off.
“That’s odd,” Martha Hudson says as she regards the empty chair. “I could have sworn he was still here, he’s hardly ever gone home this early in the afternoon.”
Sherlock clutches his bag tightly to his stomach, his back pressed up against the end of the shelf one aisle away, and listens as Mrs. Hudson continues.
“He’s a lovely young man," she says fondly. “Smart as a whip, with a wit to match. He’s a bit of a loner, doesn’t mix much with the other children—he transferred in from another school a few terms back, and you know how kids are, always so reluctant to let someone new join in the fun. Well, you’ll meet him soon enough, I’m sure.”
“I look forward to it,” John tells her, and it strikes Sherlock that he actually sounds as though he means it.
With one slow, graceful turn, Sherlock pivots around the far edge of the bookcase and stretches his neck slightly to peer between the shelves just in time to see a shock of golden blond hair disappear down the end of the aisle and back out into the library common area.
“All right then,” Sherlock hears Mrs. Hudson say to her companion. “Let’s take a walk down to the storage room and I’ll show you which crates we can get started with when you come in tomorrow.”
“Sounds like a plan,” John agrees, his voice fading and growing dim as the library door softly swings shut behind him.
Sherlock lets out the breath he’s been holding in one steady, loud huff and pulls in another, enjoying the rush of air into his oxygen starved lungs. After a length of time just long enough that, by his calculations, Mrs. Hudson and her new assistant should be far enough away that he can slip out unnoticed, he walks to the end of the aisle and pauses for a moment. He cocks an ear, listening for approaching voices or footsteps, and hearing none he steps out in the center of the library.
He looks around him—at the familiar furnishings and rows of volumes on the shelves—breathes in the dust and comforting smell of old books...but the silence and solitude doesn’t seem to sit as easily with him as it normally does. Tightening the shoulder strap of his bag around him, he walks towards the exit as the ghost of a sneering voice echoes softly in his head:
Look at you, all alone, surrounded by your stupid books and papers, skulking around the library spying on private conversations. You’re the pathetic one here.
His shoulders slumping slightly, he presses on the handle and slips out the door.