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Once Upon a Bookshop

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That night, John was once again visited by his nightmares.

The cruelties of war and misfortunes of the fallen often haunted his sleeping thoughts. On other nights, it was the memories of his late wife and all she took with her in death, or perhaps a mix of both evils--a blur of the two things John feared most mixing vivdly in his mind. He was used to being plagued by grim dreams, but it hadn’t made his heart harden in the wrong ways. If anything it equipped him with much needed anxiety and preparation for what could come of his current ordeal. He was certain that Sherlock was the root cause of his cautiousness and fear, but John justified it as something he enjoyed, something he was addicted to, and something he didn’t dare chase away. The fact that Sherlock was growing on him was a terrifying miracle in itself, and he often asked quietly in his mind, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?!”

His alarm clock blared once more. Another day, another personal mystery unsolved.

The morning had followed their daily routine. John made breakfast for himself and Hamish, took a shower, got dressed, locked up the flat, and went to work. Seeing Sherlock waiting by the shop door as usual floored John more than it should, something the stubborn soldier wouldn’t admit to himself.

There was an odd and familiar sense of rhythm about the three of them running the bookstore. Sherlock kept the shelves and reading area in spotless condition while John attended to customers and paperwork. Hamish helped when he could, doing small tasks within eyesight of his father and happily assisting in daily necessities. The day overall had remained uneventful, the comings and goings of customers creating a slow pace within the store, but John couldn’t help noticing the way Hamish looked adoringly up at the new hire. As he attempted to file some papers and dust his desk area, he watched Sherlock take Hamish’s hand, lead him up the stairs of the ladder and pass books up to him, one by one, telling him to think about where each book should be placed according to alphabetical order. It warmed John’s heart and cooled his head, seeing Hamish so responsive to learning, happy and bright in another’s company. Though the weight of dinner with Sherlock hung heavy on John’s mind and made him too awkward to say anything, he stood back in admiration and watched the two take care of his shop and fix what needed fixing, closing the store at the end of the day with nothing more than a few simple goodbyes and an “I’ll see you at eight.” John felt his stomach flip and churn with bittersweet anticipation, a feeling he hadn’t had in years and a feeling he was absolutely uncomfortable with.

The walk back home was covered in silence. Hamish trailed happily beside his father, humming the tune to the alphabet, unknowing of the panic and the racing thoughts of his parent’s apprehensive mind.

John pushed out an anxious breath as he opened the door to their home, stepping through the entrance and hanging his coat quickly on the peg. John checked his watch. 6:15. That gave him more than enough time to get ready, make some soup or whatever Hamish wanted for supper, and call Mrs. Hudson to watch him. Instructing his son to watch some telly, John went into his bedroom and closed the door behind him, fumbling through his drawers for something suitable to wear and groaning when he found nothing. He didn’t have the luxury of nice clothes, save for one tuxedo that he kept buried in the back of his closet, but that was far too over the top and he wasn’t certain it fit him anymore. John settled for some fresh jeans, a red jumper with the collar and cuffs of a blue and white plaid button-up peeking out in just the right places, and his favorite pair of light brown shoes. It wasn’t going to be a fancy place, he knew. Sherlock was homeless. John would most likely be paying for the whole thing, much like two people going out on a word John refused to use that started with the letter “d”. This wasn’t that . This was business.

John stepped out from his bedroom, brushing off his outfit glancing up expectantly. “Well?”

To his surprise, Mrs. Hudson grinned widely from her spot beside Hamish on the couch, clapping her hands together and letting out a short, happy squeak. Hamish must have told the landlady about going to dinner with Sherlock, though how exactly remained unknown.

“Oh John,” the old woman chimed, rising from the cushions and brushing off his shoulders. “You look so dashing. What a lovely jumper, red really suits you. I’m so happy that you’re meeting someone, what a miracle.” She kissed John’s cheek, reeming with pride, her words leaving him baffled.

“W--this isn’t--no, Mrs. Hudson, this is just business. He’s not my--”

“You don’t have to hide anything from me dear,” she assured with a wink. “The ones next door just got married.”

John refused to reply, not wanting to upset her and settled for a simple grin of appreciation. “Good to know.”

“How late will you two be out?”

“No idea. Not too late, it’s just a meeting.” John swallowed; he hoped to find out more about Sherlock as a person, but that wouldn’t make it a date necessarily. Safety first. Right?

“Alright, dear. I’ll fix some dinner for Hamish, don’t worry about a thing. Just make sure to have a good time and text me when you’re on your way home.” She adjusted his collar fondly, patting his cheek with encouragement and walking into the kitchen. “Hamish, would you like some--”

The doorbell rang. John’s stomach sank into his feet, the echo of the high ding rattling inside his brain like an alarm of utter emergency. Giving a small goodbye to his landlady and kissing his son on the forehead, he took his coat and slipped it on like battle armor, preparing for what may or may not lay just outside his front door. John made sure to grab his cane as well as the sales report Sherlock had requested, folding it up and shoving it inside his jean pocket. The soldier took small, cautious steps down the stairs before gripping the door handle and turning it.

John had almost forgotten how well Sherlock could clean up.

Sherlock’s curls seemed to be much more kempt and somehow devilish than John remembered from hours earlier. His black slacks were freshly pressed and his shoes were shined. A purple button-down was partially hidden by a suit jacket, his signature wool coat and that rugged navy scarf. John felt his nausea dissipate.

“Eight o’clock. Right on time.”

“I’m only late if I want to be,” Sherlock replied with a patient smirk. “I’ve hailed a cab, it’s a bit of a walk to the restaurant. I trust you brought the papers?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Good.”

John padded the folded up papers in his pocket, stepping into the fetched cab and squirming a bit as Sherlock sat beside him. The closeness made him uncomfortable for seemingly every possible reason, none of which were reasons John quite understood. The ride was silent and strange, not more than a few words of small talk exchanged between the two, but even such subtle conversation had eased his tense nerves by the time their destination came into view.

The restaurant, called Angelo’s, was adorned with windows as tall as the ceiling and doors bordered with goldenrod. A dim and almost romantic light shone softly down on the water of the Thames, coursing and waving gently beside it. The soft sound of a piano bled through the swinging doors and the outlines of people, tables and chandeliers were barely visible through the dim glow of the inside. John was starstruck.

“I’m very underdressed,” he muttered in pure disbelief, looking down at his casual outfit and over to Sherlock’s suit. “A warning would have been nice.”

“Nonsense. You look fine.”

“How can a homeless man afford this? Is there something you’re not telling me?”

Sherlock smirked and dodged the question. “If we don’t make our reservation, we’ll be rescheduled.” He exited the cab and waved a hand for John to follow, and naturally, the doctor did. “Could you be any more mysterious?”

He grinned. “I’m flattered you think so.”

“Don’t be. I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Neither did I.”

The interior of Angelo’s was it’s own unique sight. John felt his jaw drop slightly, eyes scanning hungrily over the antique light fixtures and handmade table covers. A fountain rested in the center of the lobby, the walls were decorated with deep blue, red and gold patterns, and the kitchen had an open wall that allowed guests to see inside. The furniture was made of cherry, cushions of high expense, and John had a feeling that more celebrities and royalty dined in this place than commonwealth.

A booming voice stole John from his thoughts. “Sherlock!” the large man exclaimed, extending a massive hand and clapping the poor man on the shoulder. “I was wondering when I’d see you again. Anything you want, free.”

John was genuinely shocked that Sherlock had any sort of acquaintance, much more from the owner of a celebrity establishment. He watched the two exchange a few polite words and updates, much more content to admire their surroundings and following them to the table when the time had arisen. Angelo sat them down, placing two menus on the table and grinning broadly.

“I’ll bring a candle for you and your date.”

John’s expression changed from wonder to defensive. “Hang on, I’m not his--” Angelo had gone before John’s plea met his ears, leaving the doctor hanging awkwardly on the edge of his unfinished sentence. He pushed out a sigh of mild irritation and averted his eyes to the window, staring out at the water, the dark silhouette of London Bridge looming against the navy sky. The stars twinkled brightly against the horizon and reflected along the water, accompanied by the shine of the restaurant and buildings with city lights. John didn’t know how much longer he could handle the silence, and decided to offer up a question to his employee.

“Do you like it? The bookshop?”

Sherlock paused a moment. “Of course. It’s a very homey place, to say the least. It’s not hard to grasp the basic functions of the store, things that need doing and such. It’s an ample distraction.”

“Distraction. From your...drug problem?” John dared, shuffling awkwardly. “Sorry. That was a little blunt.”

”No, it’s fine,” Sherlock said dismally. “Cocaine, like you said. I’ve been an addict for six years.”

“But you stopped, right?”

“Yes.” Sherlock didn’t hesitate. “I stopped.”

“Good. Can’t say I’d want someone like that working around my son,” John said with a gentle nod. “You understand, don’t y--”

Angelo interrupted briefly to set a lit candle on the center of the table, flashed the two men a smile of adoration, and promptly walked away once more. Sherlock seemed to be biting back a grin.

Why don’t people believe me when I say this is business? John asked himself, a look of disblief on his face. Sherlock sipped at his wine and didn’t take more than a second to respond to the other’s unspoken thought.

“Because it isn’t business. Not fully, anyway. You want to know more about me as a person, and rightfully so. And I’m curious to see if my previous deductions about you were correct.”

“Previous...deductions?”

“Yes.” He set the glass down on the table. “You know, the one you got angry about and left me in a diner.”

John couldn’t supress a chuckle. “Yeah, well. Not everyone takes kindly to being ‘deduced’ like that.” He, too, sipped at the red wine, swirling it around in the glass before setting it down. “It was phenomenal, though. I don’t know exactly what it was, but it was phenomenal.”

The conversation was cut as the waiter, dapper and clean-shaven, came to collect their orders and menus. Some pleasant chatter and a few minutes later, John had ordered a steak with a side of mashed potatoes and mushrooms, and Sherlock stayed vigilant with a soup and salad. The waitor left again, leaving them in solitude.

“Did I get it right?” Sherlock asked.

“What?”

“The deduction. Did I get it right?”

John bit his lip and nodded. “...mostly, yeah.”

Sherlock stayed quiet, most likely for an explanation, but it wasn’t how John wanted to start out the night. “How did you get so good at that deducing thing, anyway?”

“Practice,” the man replied. “It’s a trait I’ve always utilized. I can tell anyone’s life story within the past few years just by looking at them.”

“That’s an arrogant way to look at it.”

“Yes. I’m an arrogant man.”

“Quite right.”

Thirty blissful minutes passed, the two men locked in entertaining conversation that kept the both of them pleasantly occupied. John was enchanted by the charm that seemed to seep from Sherlock’s pores, so much so that it made him continue the conversation with more of a driving, curious force. A desrie to know him. He wasn’t sure if the feeling was reciprocated but he’d never heard Sherlock say so much in one day, let alone in a half hour, and John considered that a success. Their talk was cut as the waiter brought their ordered food, setting it before them and leaving once more.

“Bloody hell,” John grinned, the bite of steak bursting with flavor and melting tenderly in his mouth. “This. Is. Wonderful.”

“Best free food around,” Sherlock agreed with a playful grin, taking a small bite of his salad. They ate and drank, saying little things here and there about the restaurant and it’s food and service before John struck up the depth of a conversation again.

“You didn’t answer my question from earlier, you know.”

“Mm?”

“How can you afford a place like this? I mean, I get that it’s free, sort of. I guess I’m just waiting for an explanation.” John took a bite and listened.

“I’m a friend of the owner. I also have a very rich family. I remain homeless because I don’t wish to waste money on a flat when I live comfortably the way I do.”

“The way you do? How’s that?”

Sherlock leaned forward on his elbows, looking up from his food and locking John’s eyes. “I break into people’s flats, use their showers, sleep in their beds while they’re off on holiday. They never know I was there, save for the books, your books, that I leave them. No one seems to have books in their homes anymore, it’s rather distressing. It makes for a nice apology.”

John couldn’t help the bubbling laughter that built inside him and burst, and before he could think he was covering his mouth and laughing harder than the soft atmosphere deemed appropriate. “Let me get this straight,” he huffed. “You break into homes and leave the owners books as an apology? Something tells me that’s more of a ‘get more knowledge’ vendetta than an ‘I’m sorry’.”

Sherlock’s laugh made John weak. “I suppose.”

“You know...” he began, setting his knife and fork on his plate. “If you’d like, I can offer you a job.”

The mood had gone from joking to serious. “...what?”

“Well, you seem to like the shop enough. I could use the extra hands and I think you’ve paid off what you stole.”

“You...” He frowned. “You want me to stick around?”

“Of course,” John replied, feeling a pity in his heart that he couldn’t detain. “You could use the money to get your own place, or use your own wealth or whatever. Hamish likes having you around, he admires you and I think you’d be a good influence on him. You were helping him read the other day, that means something to me.” John gave a nervous chuckle and sat back in his seat, running his fingers through his sandy hair. “I guess I’m asking you to stay, really.”

Sherlock looked particularly distressed by John’s confession. He set down his fork and rested his hands in his lap, staring down at the table, lost in his own mind. John’s smile turned sour, desperate to know what he was thinking but too much of a gentleman to ask. Was that water in his eyes?

“Yes,” Sherlock spoke quietly after a few minutes. He cleared his throat, straightening his back and picked up his fork again. “Yes,” he said in a stronger tone. “I accept your offer.”

John, still worried, felt his smile return. “Good. Hamish will be beside himself,” he noted happily, and the two ran off with a new topic, and one after that, and one after that. Politics, weather, real estate, America, the war, furniture, movies. John was impressed with Sherlock’s knowledge and Sherlock was fascinated by John’s personality. An hour passed, then two, then three. John didn’t mind that Sherlock was avoiding personal talk; the evening was progressing swimmingly without the messiness of deep issues. He was enjoying himself, they both were.

It scared John, what could become of it.

When the clock read eleven, Angelo approached the table wearing a suggestive smirk. “We closed an hour ago, Sherlock.”

John felt his cheeks grow warm.

“Sorry, Angelo. We’ll leave now. Thank you for the food.”

“Don’t worry about it!” the big man beamed in response, patting both Sherlock and John’s shoulders before stepping away.

“Ready when you are, John.”




The crisp, cool night air had them both huddled up in their coats, walking lazily along the side streets. Sherlock raised his hand to hail a cab, frowning at each unsuccessful attempt. “No one seems to be available,” he grimaced.

“Hey,” John perked. “Why don’t we walk?”

“What?”

“It’s not that far, I’m sure there’s some shortcuts we could take.”

Sherlock mulled over the idea before agreeing. The two walked side by side, the sound of cars and winter winds barely audible as they tuned in to each other.

“So...why cocaine?”

Sherlock squared his shoulders as if preparing for the depth of the talk this would become. “It helps me think. My brain is like an engine, always running as fast as it can, and when it slows I need to...fill it up with gas, if you will.”

“Makes sense. What made you start? If you don’t mind me asking--”

“No, no,” Sherlock replied with a knowing nod. “You want to make sure I’m not a psychotic drug dealer that works in your shop and entertains your son. I don’t mind.” He put his hands in his pockets, continuing to walk, averting John’s eyes. “I don’t know how to explain it in a way you would understand. I needed to keep my mind busy. It helped.”

“At what cost, though?”

Sherlock grinned painfully. “Too much.”

A line had been drawn, so obvious John could see it in the air. He knew he’d crossed that line, gone too far, the stab of guilt piercing him through Sherlock’s downcast eyes. He’d shown more of himself than John ever thought possible. The favor had to be returned.

“Your deduction,” he began, rubbing his arms to warm himself up. “It was accurate. Too accurate. That’s why I left you there in the diner, honestly. I’d never really confronted the reality of all this and having a stranger throw it in my face like that was too much for me to handle.”

Sherlock frowned. “I...apologize.”

“No, don’t. It was good. It was good for me, Sherlock,” John forced. “You were right about all of it. Mary and I were happy for the first couple years of our marriage, and then it all fell apart. We didn’t love each other anymore, the fights were a daily nightmare, and we were going to split up until she found out she was three months pregnant without even knowing. We made a deal to try and rekindle whatever we’d lost, which was everything, and it had been working little by little...” John’s throat tightened and he had to stop walking in order to regain himself. Sherlock had stopped too, lips parted and eyes wide with observation.

“You know what the worst part is...?” John muttered, barely keeping his seams together. “I wasn’t in love with my wife when she died. She’d just given birth to Hamish, and...she wouldn’t stop bleeding...and I wasn’t in love with her.” He blinked back tears, sniffling a bit and turning away in shameful embarrassment. “God, sorry. That was too much information.”

“I disagree,” Sherlock said softly, taking a step closer to John’s cringing form. “You love her still. Maybe not in love, I don’t know the difference, but you do love her. You only just took your wedding ring off and you’re moved to tears in the memory of her. Simple deduction.” He shrugged a bit, looking away from John and off into the city street. “I imagine that love has too many routes for you to choose just one to define it.”

John felt his heart soften. Cocaine addict? Maybe. Asperger’s? Possibly. Friend? Comforter? Where was this coming from, and why was he so bloody thankful for it?

“Thank you,” John muttered, collecting himself at last and clearing his throat. “That...you’re right. That was then, this is now. Hamish is my only worry.”

“You should get home to him.”

“Yeah. I should.”

The rest of the walk was laced with cheerful discussion and light hearted subjects to contrast the confessions of earlier. By the time they reached Baker Street, John was exhausted and ready to fall over, content to sleep on the concrete for what it was worth.

“Listen. Are you sure you don’t want to stay the night here?” John asked, trying not to be distracted by the light hitting Sherlock’s face in all the right angles. “Not victimize some poor bastard? I have a couch.”

“No,” Sherlock replied, a smirk on his face. “I’d rather not trouble you.” He stepped off and began walking away, hands in his pockets. “Besides, if it comes down to it, I know a nice little bookshop around the corner that’ll suit me just fine.”

John’s smile was unbreakable. Warmth encased him in a happy bliss, a mixture of emotions he hadn’t felt in a long while, and when John laid his head to rest no nightmares came to haunt him.