Like most places along the high street, Hillary Topsham decorated her bookshop for Christmas with twinkling lights and silver tinsel. The store, a corner shop with low ceilings and that dusty smell of books that mingled with the incense she burned, was usually a low-lit building anyway but turning off the lights and allowing the fairy lights to illuminate every surface was Hillary's favourite thing about winter. A short woman with ash-blond curls, Hillary had never married and had been happy in that. Almost fifty, the bookshop – named Imelda's Corner after her sister – was her pride and joy, barely making a profit but always enough to keep the business alive. Her favourite days year round, but especially at winter, were Fridays, because it was on Fridays that her favourite customer would join her in the shop for almost the entire day. She wasn't sure customer was the right word for him, though, as he never actually bought anything from her but, despite his age of just fifteen, he was somebody she considered a friend and looked upon him as an adopted son or grandson of sorts.
As the second day of blizzards took hold of the city, keeping the day dark and dull, Hillary opened the shop on Friday morning with a flick of the sockets, turning on the fairy lights, and reached up to the lead-squared door to turn the aged sign from 'closed' to 'open'. Within moments of turning her back, heading toward the back of the small store, the wind chime above the door was rattled as the door flew open, welcoming in a gush of wind and her favourite customer. Wrapping her cardigan around herself tighter, her arms folding under her bust, she smiled bright as the door was closed and a snow-covered Sherlock Holmes shook himself free of flakes.
"Sherlock," She grinned sweetly, "Look at you – you must be freezing cold." She stepped toward him and offered him the same, warm hug she offered him every week.
Wrapping spindly arms around the small, aging woman, Sherlock's dark nest of curls mingled with her blond locks as he held her in a quick, hunched embrace. "I'm fine, Ms Topsham, honest. I have my scarf." He straightened up and pulled the navy blue, knitted scarf from around his neck. "Can you believe the weather?" he asked, glancing back behind him to look out of the window, below which was lined with a cushioned row of comfortable window seats.
"Horrid." Hillary wrapped her arms around herself again. "Tea, Sherlock?" she offered, wandering toward the back of the shop slowly; behind the store room was the small kitchenette and living space that Hillary called home.
"Please," he nodded, unbuttoning and drawing off his coat. "You know," his voice rose so that she could hear him as he wandered up to the floor-to-ceiling shelf marked 'Classics' inscribed in italics. "I wrote to my brother last week, telling him about you and your bookshop."
"Oh?" Hillary called back sweetly, "This is your brother away at University?"
"Yes," Sherlock responded, "He'll be finished very soon, taking up a position of great importance somewhere or other, blah, blah…" he flapped, his hand cupping like a duck at the side of his head as he glanced over the worn and torn spines of uncountable books, most of which he'd read. "Well I told him about you letting me stay here most Fridays and I received his letter back yesterday. He says he would like to visit when he comes home for Christmas next week," he lowered his voice, hearing her footsteps on the thin carpet as she approached the till, right alongside the door, and placed their cups and saucers onto the counter.
"That would be lovely, meeting your brother." Hillary smiled and pushed Sherlock's cup closer to the edge of the counter as he walked toward her, eyes wide and storming with various curious colours.
"He'd think the decoration was somewhat tacky, but I'm sure the books would interest him greatly," he nodded with a smile, picking up the dainty cup from the saucer, sipping the just-right tea. "Will you read to me again today?" he asked, eager eyes scanning her.
"Oh Sherlock, you do have silly notions." Hillary smiled, "I only read out that passage to get you interested in the book and it worked, did you finish it?"
"I did!" Sherlock turned back, finding the coat he'd flung over the window seats, and produced the battered and bruised, much loved copy of To Kill a Mockingbird from his pocket. "Excellent!" he nodded.
"Good, I'm glad. Surely, though, to answer your question, you'd rather read to me? Pick your favourite book from the store and read it to me." She urged in her gentle manner.
"That's nowhere near as fun." Sherlock's full lips pulled to the side. "Besides…" he began in his over-excited yet still somehow sombre-emotioned manner, eyebrows shooting up, and stopped dead as the door jerked open with a tinkle of the chime and a gust of wind and snow-flurry.
Both Sherlock and Hillary eyed the customer momentarily as he shook off the snow from his short body. He was young, older than Sherlock but not into his twenties, and hidden beneath a large, winter coat and a hat that covered his ears from the winter winds. Hillary brought her lips into a sweet smile whilst Sherlock grabbed his tea cup and disappeared into the shelves of books with something of an air of sulkiness – how dare somebody enter what was his?
"Hello," Hillary began enthusiastically, "How can I help?"
"Hi," the young boy replied, pulling off his hat to reveal sandy-blond hair, thick and tousled. "I've looked everywhere for a book and wondered, well imagined, you'd probably have it. You looked the kind of store to have all the better things about old books," he grinned with straight, white teeth and a very slight twang off of an Edinburgh accent, all but lost in inner-city London.
"What book in particular?" Hillary smiled with eyes wide and put the glasses from around her neck onto the edge of her up-turned nose.
"Crime and Punishment," the lad replied confidently.
"Sher-lock!" Hillary seemed embarrassed by the sudden, boom of voice to come from Sherlock's direction, though the boy himself was hidden behind a mahogany, free-standing shelf. "Sorry," She turned back to the young customer. "I do have a few copies, most of them are new, actually, reprints, given the amount of university culture the city how holds it seemed to become a popular read among students."
"Oh I'm not a student; well I am sort of, but I'm not studying English. I want to be a doctor," he grinned proudly, "It's actually for personal reading."
"Maybe you should try Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein', much more interesting and it has a lot of chemistry and biology, I guess. Good for a doctor to know those kinds of things, I shouldn't wonder." Sherlock emerged from behind his shelf and handed a rather bothered looking Hillary his cup and saucer. "Crime and Punishment is an overrated book of no real importance, believe me. I read it about five years ago."
"Five years ago?" the blond boy glared somewhat disbelievingly at the boy before him, all limbs and curly, dark hair, and smirked. "You couldn't have read it five year ago, you must have been about what? Ten?"
"Exactly," Sherlock nodded. Holding out his hand to the shorter boy, Sherlock cleared his throat, "The name's Sherlock Holmes."
Tentatively, the young boy gripped Sherlock's long, slim fingers, "John Watson."
"Nice to meet you John," Sherlock's mouth quirked into a smirk on the left side and his eyebrows rose up. "I can show you where she keeps the copy of Frankenstein if you like?"
"And Crime and Punishment?" John's brows hooked up.
"Not worth bothering with," Sherlock turned his back and began to walk back into the array of bookshelves, leaving John glaring in his wake before looking back at Hillary.
"I can find Crime and Punishment for you," She whispered a little, "But it's best if you humour him or he will never leave you be," she smiled, "Good natured boy but very full-on. Umm, very insistent."
"Did he really read that so long ago?" John asked, astonished.
"Oh yes," Hillary nodded, "He's been coming to this store since he was eight years old, has read nearly every book I possess."
"Ten years old…" John whispered to himself, shaking his head. "So, is it really a rubbish book?"
Hillary shrugged, "Not for me to say; I enjoyed it but Sherlock found it a little underwhelming." She smiled, "Go on and follow him; maybe you'll find something else you like?" She encouraged, "And I'll go and find out your book." She wandered away, her cardigan loose and flowing around her shoulders as she wandered toward the back of the store.
John thought carefully a moment before turning and walking into the shelves piled high with books, decorated with tinsel and lights that twinkled. "Where are you?" he called out to Sherlock before spotting him two shelves along, three down, long fingers pulling out a book from the shelf.
"Here," he proclaimed, his voice sharp and refined, "Frankenstein," he handed it over with a triumphant smile as John reached him. "There are some comfy seats near the storefront, under the window. Cushions on them," he wrinkled his little nose and John smiled despite himself, "Nice place to sit, especially now with it snowing," he bounded past John, leading him, all unspent energy and gangly legs. "You can read there and watch out."
John found himself amused by the boy, younger than him by a year or two it seemed, and followed him willingly back out to the shops main floor, spotting him already perched on the window's soft-seating, his long legs pulled up under his bottom, clutching a book with a green bookmark placed somewhere near the middle. "What's that?" John asked.
"The Old Curiosity Shop," Sherlock held the book up with the cover exposed as John sat opposite him.
"You like Dickens?" John wondered as he turned the copy of Frankenstein over in his hands, tucking his left knee under him as his right leg touched the floor, bouncing on his toes.
"Sometimes; he rabbles on a little in his text, tends to give you information not wholly relevant to the story itself, but he tells a good tale," Sherlock replied and John almost laughed, though not out of humour at Sherlock's words, not to mock him, but in fascination. The boy, so young, seemed so sure and so mature yet filled with immature, childlike energy and wonder in his eyes that were so alien and bore into John whenever he looked into them. "Do you?" Sherlock asked.
"No," John shook his head, a smile curving his cheeks up as though they were made of dough. "I like Oscar Wilde." John added.
"Oh, Lord, no!" Sherlock shook his curls speedily and John found himself mesmerised as they tumbled across his forehead then back again as he settled, "Common as muck and a rebel for the course. Not really my kind of thing. Worse than Crime and Punishment, even!" he added and grinned at John with such a smile the other boy felt his cheeks flush red.
"You ooze charm, you know?" John asked, looking down at his book in hand for a distraction, reading the synopsis.
"I what?" Sherlock frowned and the deepening of his voice made John look up, fearing he'd offended the young man.
"You 'ooze charm'," John repeated, "You're a charming person." He said. "Sorry, was that a bit over-familiar? I've only known you five minutes but it was definitely meant as a compliment." His words tumbled in a flurry, so quickly his very slight Scottish accent seemed more pronounced.
"No," Sherlock frowned about the brow but his lips smiled, "No, its fine. I've just never been called charming before," he shrugged up one shoulder, closing his book and holding it on his lap.
"Well what do people usually call you?" John asked, his accent vanishing again.
"A pain in the backside," One of Sherlock's eyebrow quirked up and John let out a silly laugh. "So," he broke in again, "Where about in Scotland are you from, I'm guessing Edinburgh?"
"Yes." John seemed almost frightened at his words. "How did…my accent? I thought it was all but gone, I've lived in London since I was…"
"Five," Sherlock said and smiled when John's eyes both brightened and widened at the same time.
"Yes!" he nodded feverishly, "How did - how do you do that?"
Sherlock shrugged one shoulder, "I observed," he licked his full lips and then smiled. "Why London over Edinburgh; it's much nicer up North." He sniffed.
Blinking, still in shock, John tried to unfog his mind to answer the younger man's question, "Um, my Dad, he's a doctor. He got a job at St. Bartholomew's Hospital further out," he pointed subconsciously at the window, indicating to the London streets. "We all got pulled down here; Mum, Harry and me."
"Harry's your brother?" Sherlock asked.
"Sister, Harriet, older by two years."
"Is she in boarding school?" Sherlock asked, with wide eyes. It was here John noticed a little smidge of immaturity come out; hopeful and drawing in with an unsure smile.
"No, she works with Mum in the Florist off Baker Street," John nodded, "I like to get out for a while, school's closed with the weather and I can't stand to be locked in the house or surrounded by flowers – I have hayfever," he rolled his eyes, "Then I spotted this place," he glanced around him, "Thought I'd check it out for my book." His eyes landed back on Sherlock. "You have a brother or sister?"
"Older brother," Sherlock nodded, "Mycroft. He's away at University."
"Strange names, you and your brother; Shurrr-lock," he let the words roll off his tongue, "My-c-c-croft,"
"Mummy always said it was in case we got lost. She could call our names and know we were her children immediately when we replied, as nobody else would have such labels," Sherlock looked at John proudly who was more focused on the fact that a fifteen year old had just termed his mother as 'mummy'. "Father always said it was because it would toughen us up. I think it's just because they wanted us to be as different from the rest of the world as possible." He shrugged and John's eyes watched him, looking for the joke.
"You call your mum, 'mummy'?" John asked, "But you're fifteen?"
"So," Sherlock's face sat defiant.
John smothered a laugh with his hand and then shook his head as it poured out, silky smooth, from his seventeen-year-old throat. "Sorry," he shook his head, "I've just never heard a fifteen year old say mummy and be serious about it!"
"Don't mock me!" Sherlock's voice raised a little and he glared at John until his red-cheeked laughter stopped. "I completed my school leaving exams last year, two years older than the GCSE age whilst you struggle through your final year in school. You were bullied from a young age, probably because your hair is slightly ginger, most likely because you used to suck your thumb in primary school and nobody has let you forget it. Your sister has been sneaking alcohol into the house for the past two years and you've been forced to keep it a secret, black mailing you. It's not for her gain, though, it's for yours. You've got something you don't want your parents to know, it could be that you smoked ten cigarettes in the course of a month when you were fifteen but I think it's probably your homosexuality."
Sherlock took a breath and John's eyes and mouth fell wide as he stared at the lanky boy, now on his feet in a fit of slight temper, towering over him with scornful eyes. Sherlock pushed his hands into his trouser pockets, his book abandoned onto the seats and paced beside John for a moment before sitting back down, opposite him again, clutching the book like a security blanket between his fingers. "How could you possibly know any of that?" John's breath escaped him with words jumbled in hap hazardously.
Sherlock's jaw twitched, "I told you. I observe."
"But I didn't - I just…" John's mouth bobbed like a fish, Frankenstein falling to the floor from his slackened hands. He rubbed his face with the heels of both hands digging into his eyes for clarity. He sighed and looked squarely at Sherlock. "Are you a freak or something?"
"No, I'm not!" Sherlock's frown deepened.
"Then how? Do you have cameras on me; are you going to murder me?"
"No!" Sherlock tutted loudly, "I just - I can read people, I guess," he shrugged, suddenly feeling awful.
John licked his bottom lip nervously and sighed again with both exasperation and uncertainty, "I guess this is why people call you a pain in the backside," he grumbled as he reached to the floor for the book and rose to his feet. "Thanks," he held the book up, "For finding this out for me."
"It's fine," Sherlock shrugged sarcastically and dragged his knees up on the chair, hugging them as he watched John move toward the counter, reaching into his coat pocket for his hat and wallet. "Wait," Sherlock jumped up, "Do you still want Crime and Punishment?"
"The lady went to look,"
"No she didn't," Sherlock shook his head, "Hillary went to give us privacy; she does it every time somebody comes in who is about my age, male or female. She's insistent on finding me a partner," he tutted, trying to push aside the moment of animosity from moments ago. "She'll be in her kitchenette about now, making tea." John's face pushed into a smile, a flash going off behind his mind, an 'oh' shaping his lips as the penny dropped. Sherlock looked at John and placed his hands on his hips. "So, the book, do you want me to get it?"
"No," John smiled again, looking down at his hands, and placed Frankenstein on the counter. "And I think I'll leave that one for today, maybe come back another day, read it here rather than buying it, if that's allowed?"
"It's allowed," Sherlock smiled and, for some reason, bit into the corner of his bottom lip lightly.
"Maybe we could sit on the window seats and read together?" he spoke with a shyness he wasn't sure he even possessed and flicked his eyes back up to Sherlock.
"Maybe," Sherlock shrugged without expression but, despite himself, couldn't hold back a smile as his eyes met John's.
John pulled his hat on, down over his ears, and smiled again at the blue tinge taking over Sherlock's eyes. He stepped forwards, held out his hand to Sherlock and cleared his throat, "It was good to meet you, Sherlock Holmes."
One hand tucked behind his back, Sherlock took John's hand in his and shook it gently, "Likewise, John Watson from Edinburgh." Shyly, he inched forwards and pressed his lips with a small pop against John's cheek.
"I stand by my earlier words," John managed to speak though his heart beat wildly in his young chest and his hand slipped, sweat-dampened, from Sherlock's. "You ooze charm." He turned without another word, without words from Sherlock, and pulled open the door to a flurry of snow that rushed in; dancing around the wind chime as it twinkled and sent a cold blast of London winter into the shop. Standing stock still, Sherlock watched John's black coated figure disappear into the dull, London streets in ankle-deep snow that continued to fall. His head tilted every-so-slightly to the side as he felt a flutter capture his stomach and run up his insides, injecting his heart to make it pound with ectopic beats. So this is what the greats wrote about, is it?