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A Novel Meeting

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“Let me know if you need anything else, Mr. Watson,” the twentysomething girl says as she sets down a water bottle on the table. “I’ll be just over there.”

He smiles up at her. “Thanks, Amber.”

She smiles back and returns to the register. John, meanwhile, leans back in his chair. He always prefers to have signings at smaller, independent bookstores instead of the larger chains; places like this feel more cozy and casual, more like a place he can really sit and chat with fans than a place just out to sell merchandise.

This particular store is tucked away in a narrow street off Portobello Road, near enough to Notting Hill Gate to get plenty of traffic from both there and the market, but far enough away that it feels like it still could be a bit of a secret. The shelves reach the ceilings and are spaced just this side of uncomfortable, exuding a sense of being embraced by books whenever someone walks through the aisles. John has been placed in the reading area, where several cafe-style tables and chairs are arranged around a small fireplace, in which flames crackle merrily to ward off the chilly wind blowing outside. His spot is ideal for encountering customers; the shop is small enough that anyone wandering through will have to pass by this area and would need to be exceptionally dedicated to avoiding social interactions to evade him.

John shifts in his chair, glad it is a soft seat for once. At his first signing, a few years before, he had felt rather shoved to the side in the large bookstore in central London, placed in a stiff-backed metal chair and left alone by the employees for the duration of his signing. Since then, he has searched for different, more welcoming venues. This shop is one of his favorites, and today marks his third signing with them.

Murder in Marylebone, his newest release and the concluding volume in his Sherrinford & Sacker mystery series, has only been out a few days, and so this is his first signing for it. Sure, he may not be the biggest name in the world of mystery novels—hat tip to dear Agatha for occupying that position—but he has a sizable following, with a well-meaning but rather cult-ish subset who insist the only real fans are those who read the Sherrinford books before his first standalone had really put him on the map. Still, it’s a good group of fans overall.

Not many people are here yet. So John occupies himself by adjusting the placement of his book, turning it on its stand so it better faces toward the front of the store. He then spends several minutes digging through his bag for his favorite pen, one he reserves especially for signing contracts or books. Finally finding it, he places it carefully on the tabletop and waits.

Over the next hour, a rather steady trickle of people wanders in, likely coming from the market or a nearby restaurant. He has two hours here for the signing, strategically scheduled to catch the post-lunch crowd, and is glad to see that it is proving to be a wise decision.

He has a rather pleasant chat with a pair of university students about his books and characters. They are kind and insightful and polite, the ideal fans. He gladly signs and personalizes their books, thinking they might be the best fans he will meet all day. However, after they finish their conversation with John and wander off to browse through the shelves, he hears a crash and several thumps.

“Oi!” barks the voice of a man John had seen enter a while ago, and who had ignored him pointedly. “Watch it!”

“Sorry,” a second voice replies, sounding flustered but a bit irritated. “However, your walking in the centre of the aisle is not exactly conducive to any of us getting where we want to go.”

“You trying to start something?” the man asks sharply.

“I’m merely trying to get by-”

“What, with that stack of books? You don’t really need all those, do you?”

“In fact, I do,” the second man says coolly. “Perhaps you could benefit from reading more as well. There is probably a lovely volume just over there on how to make friends. I suspect the first chapter says something like ‘firstly, do not be an arse to random strangers.’ ”

Above the angry huff of the first man, John can hear footsteps, one pair retreating and one approaching. Then, around the end of the bookshelf that had been blocking his view, a man emerges, looking ruffled.

Oh.

The man’s sharp cheekbones are tinted with pink, likely from the wind outside and the confrontation, and his curls are tousled in an almost indecently windswept way. John guesses he is mid-twenties, just a few years younger than John. When his gaze lifts and meets John’s, the author is immediately struck by the man’s eyes. Those eyes are fictional-character-level gorgeous, he thinks. Piercing, oceanic, verdant eyes...

No, stop that , he scolds himself. You’ve got to quit… rhapsodizing about strangers. Even if they are as stunning as this one.

“Everything alright?” Amber the clerk pokes her head around the corner.

“Fine,” John nods with a swift smile. “It just sounds like that bloke over there was irrationally angry to find himself in a place with so few pictures in the books.”

Amber looks surprised but bites down on a guiltily amused smile and retreats; the man turns an even deeper shade of red as he chuckles at his shoes.

“Hi,” John says to him, straightening his spine. He glances down at the books in the man’s arms and understands—to an extent—what the angry man had meant: He is holding several, haphazardly piled. John realizes he must have dropped them when he’d run into the grump and had to snatch them up again quickly.

And... they are all John’s.

“Looks like you found the right place,” he smiles wider as the man, flush fading, approaches.

“I suppose I did,” he says in his chocolatey voice. “I hope it’s alright I brought these?” He hefts the stack for emphasis.

John nods. “Yeah, they don’t mind if you bring books you already own to signings as long as you buy at least one from them.”

“I did,” he replies as he drops his leather shoulder bag on the ground, sets down the pile on a table near John’s, and hovers. The top book, John sees, is indeed Murder in Marylebone, a receipt poking out of the top. “Erm… do you mind signing all these?”

The blush has returned, John notices when he looks back up. The man’s hands are dug deep into the pockets of his long coat, and he bites down on his lip. And damn, he’s cute—shut up, John!

“Not at all,” John beams up at him. “Why don’t you sit down?”

The man does, moving as if to rest one foot on his knee, then seems to think better of it and sets both feet down flat on the floor. He leans back in his chair with his arms crossed. John, meanwhile, slides the pile of books—nine in number, paperback and hardcover, and in varying states of wear-and-tear—over to his table and flicks one open to the title page. It happens to be Felony in Finchley, his first book. He smiles down at it with affection.

“Who should I sign it to?” The familiar question rolls off his lips easily, but somehow it feels more meaningful this time. He’s never met a fan quite so dedicated, quite so willing to lug an entire armful of books to get them all signed, quite so handsome even when he blushes.

“Er… Sherlock,” the man replies.

“Sherlock,” John repeats, then spells it aloud to ensure he gets it right. After receiving an affirmative nod, he smiles and bends over Felony in Finchley. “So you like the Sherrinford series? Is it perhaps because you both have unusual names? Lovely, of course, but unusual,” he adds with a swift smile.

Sherlock looks surprised. “I… yes, I favor that series over your standalone works. But they’re all… good.” He swallows.

John fiercely represses the word adorable as it floats into the conscious part of his mind. “Thank you.” He completes his signature, closes Felony in Finchley, and picks up its sequel, Crime in Clapham. “Sherrinford is one of my favorite characters I’ve written. He tries to put out such an aloof attitude but is truly so emotional. It’s a complex balance, but I love the challenge.”

Sherlock nods, leaning forward in interest. “How did you come up with his name?” Immediately, the red tint is flooding back to his face. “I know that might be a strange question, but… I always wondered, and could never find online-”

He stops himself, eyes widening. John just grins. Finding out he has been stalked on the internet should not be so flattering, but from this man, it is somehow. “I think I saw it on a gravestone once, maybe in Wales? To be honest, I don’t really remember where it was; I was pretty young. But the name stuck in my head, because I’d never heard it before, and then when I got this story idea, it seemed like a good fit.”

Sherlock nods and watches as John finishes writing in the second and third books. Then, however, John pauses and returns to Crime in Clapham, which he regards thoughtfully. It’s more dog-eared and well-loved than the others, and out of curiosity he flips to the first folded page.

It’s the scene where Sherrinford Scott meets James Sacker, he realizes. James, the character most of the fans tend to overlook in favor of fawning over Sherrinford, is the assistant to Sherrinford and often the one who gets into trouble thanks to his difficult friend. He had not appeared in the first book, which had narrated Sherrinford’s origin story, his discovery of his passion for crime-solving, and his struggle with controlling his emotions as he attempts to solve several horrible connected crimes. The second book, however, had seen James insinuate himself into both Sherrinford’s and John’s lives. John had nearly panicked, not knowing what to do with him, when he’d shown up as a witness to Sherrinford’s new case, seemingly fighting his way out of John’s pen of his own free will. But after just a chapter, John had fallen under the spell of the sarcastic but loyal man. And he had stayed with Sherrinford—and John—ever since.

Sherlock seems to have read this scene many times, judging from the way the book seems to fall open to that page of its own free will. James’ name is even underlined the first time it appears.

Intrigued, John glances up at Sherlock.

“James is my favorite character,” he admits. “While I must say I relate to Sherrinford more, James is the sort of person I’d rather get to know.”

Then, as if realizing how much he has revealed with those few words, he looks back down at his lap and wrings his hands. John smiles, feeling absurdly fond of this man already.

“What did you think of Evil in Edgware?” he asks after a few moments, trying to coax the man back into speech.

It works. Sherlock looks up, suddenly much more animated. “You killed Sherrinford!” he growls, voice strained and using a tone John has heard before: that of complete and utter betrayal one can only feel at the hands of a beloved author. “You killed him off just like that, and James didn’t even get to say goodbye! I… I found it so unsatisfactory, I didn’t want to buy your next book.” He delivers the last sentence as if it should mortally wound John’s ego, but instead it makes him laugh.

“But you did buy the next one,” he gets out between giggles. After all, he just signed it.

Sherlock huffs and crosses his arms. “Eventually,” he spits, sounding a little resentful.

John grins. “You know this one’s in the same series, right?” He hefts Sherlock’s new purchase, sparing it a fond glance before redirecting that same look at the man himself. It has been several years since he has written a Sherrinford novel, and it has been—strategically—marketed as a mystery with Sacker at the center. The fact that Sherrinford is back has been a guarded secret. John had had to fight for that one, wanting the man’s return to be a surprise, rather than a publicity boost. The publisher had eventually relented to his continual insistence, and John now gets a thrill every time he sees someone walk off with Murder in Marylebone, knowing they have a shock ahead of them.

Sherlock nods, but looks skeptical. “Yes, but…” He frowns. “Is Sherrinford alive? I’ve seen theories circulating online that he could be, but I feel you’ll have to do some careful maneuvering to explain how he survived if he really did.”

John chuckles again. “I think you’d better read the book to find out.”

Sherlock scowls, but nods. “Fine.” He clearly is attempting to maintain a serious expression, but John sees his lip twitch. He is not fooling John with his haughty air.

After a moment, John gets his amusement under control and continues signing the books, making sure his usual message of “happy reading, [name]! ~ John Watson” is especially neat, and that Sherlock’s name is spelled right. The effort is worth it; Sherlock is definitely his favorite fan he’s met today, probably in months or perhaps years.

“So what do you do, Sherlock?” he asks as he puts down his pen and sits back a moment to survey the man. He still has a couple books left, but finds himself not wanting to rush this encounter.

Sherlock shifts under the scrutiny. “I’m still in uni for my graduate degree, chemistry.”

“Wow,” John raises his eyebrows. “Impressive. I was always pants at chem.”

Sherlock scoffs and glances away. “It’s hardly that impressive. Plenty of people enter this field.”

“Sure, but I bet you’re top of the class,” John risks a wink, and is glad to see the blush make a triumphant return to those—striking, prominent, enticing— cheekbones.

“But I wasn’t a published author at age, what was it, twenty?”

Now John has to preen, just a bit. “Nineteen, actually. But I have to tell you, one book a year is exhausting sometimes.”

“Not for some in your circle,” Sherlock points out with a cocked eyebrow.

“What, for people like Jimmy or Mike? Yeah, well, I’m not them,” John waves a dismissive hand.

“Thank goodness.”

“Don’t like them?” John has to bite back a laugh.

“Please,” Sherlock wrinkles his nose. “Your prose is much more polished, and your characters are scores better.”

“Thank you,” John smiles softly. However, he cannot resist another tease. “Though I’d rather hear that from literary magazines than a chemistry student, no offense.” Another wink, another intense flood of red to that—ivory, velvety, lovely —skin.

“I write,” Sherlock blurts out. He freezes then, eyes blowing wide in shock at his own outburst.

“You do?” John asks, cautious, after a moment.

Sherlock nods, seeming to realize he has cornered himself. “Yes… But it’s nothing, really. Nothing I’d ever get published.”

“Stories?” John asks before he can stop himself; excited to have unearthed this other layer of Sherlock—this degree of complexity apparently tucked away underneath the layers of caustic arrogance and shy uncertainty. This creative, emotional side, just adds to John’s ever-growing fascination with Sherlock.

Sherlock’s gaze drops, and John’s follows it to Sherlock’s bag. It’s similar to John’s, though shinier and probably more expensive, worn at the seams from what is probably years of use. The corner of a journal pokes out of it.

“Is it in there?” John nods. Sherlock sees what he does and dives down, tucking the journal further into the bag. He emerges, more scarlet than ever.

“It’s nothing,” he repeats. He looks embarrassed but also defensive. “None of your business.”

“Alright,” John nods. He knows how terrifying it is to share one’s creative work with anyone, strangers or otherwise. “Can I just ask one more question about it?”

Sherlock hesitates, eyes scanning up and down John, who shivers under the gaze—and not exactly from discomfort. “Yes.”

“Is it stories? Poetry? What kind of writing?”

“Poetry,” Sherlock murmurs after a beat. He does not elaborate, and John does not push him. Instead, he takes up the last two books and opens one. He signs it with quick and confident pen strokes, then pulls Murder in Marylebone close. His pen taps on the book jacket’s surface as he considers. Then, decided, taking a risk that he hopes will be worth it, he opens it to the title page and begins to scrawl.

“So.” He sits back a minute later and closes the book, getting a thrill as always at seeing his name on the cover. “You’re a closet poet and a genius graduate chemistry student. It’s a wonder you get any time for pleasure reading,” John rubs his neck. “I feel a bit flattered.”

Sherlock purses his lips. “I read other things besides your books,” he asserts, but the claim sounds halfhearted.

John laughs. “Sure you do.”

“I do,” Sherlock insists. “I only read yours to begin with because my landlady gave them to me!” He rolls his eyes, but John can see the poorly disguised affection behind the gesture. “She knows I used to have an interest in criminology a few years back and thought I might enjoy them. Trust me, if you knew her, you’d understand why I had to read them. She’s… insistent.”

“She sounds lovely,” John says. He already likes this woman, for if not for her he may never have met Sherlock.

A small smile fights its way onto Sherlock’s face, as if he is thinking the same thing, and they regard one another in silence for a few moments. Then, however, footsteps break the spell.

“John Watson!” A pair of middle-aged women come forward, and one begins gushing. “Oh, we’re such big fans of yours! I didn’t realize you would be here today!”

And both launch into a tirade about how John Watson’s novels are the best books ever written. John, all too familiar with overly-effusive fans—who often only do so in an effort to get special treatment from the author—glances at Sherlock, intending to give him a conspiratorial smile and wink.

Sherlock, however, seems to have wilted in the presence of the other fans. He shrugs the strap of his bag onto his shoulder, then quietly slides his stack of books off the table and into his slender arms. His eyes downcast, he gets up and makes to leave.

“Wait,” John says, and the sound of his voice makes the women snap their mouths shut at once. He ignores them for the moment and plucks Murder in Marylebone out of Sherlock’s arms. “I didn’t finish signing this one,” he tells Sherlock as he uncaps his pen once more.

He scrawls a few more words, then shuts the book and sets it back in place. “It was nice to meet you, Sherlock.” Silently, he tries to plead with his eyes. He doesn’t want Sherlock to leave yet.

Sherlock bites his lip again and his eyes—those icy, dazzling, depthless eyes, shut up Watson, honestly!— meet John’s. “You too, John,” he says, in a strange tone. He sounds a bit shy, a bit uncertain, a bit… disappointed? Or is John just hearing what he wants to hear?

With that, Sherlock spins on his heel and departs, leaving John alone with nothing but the women’s babbling and transparent flattery to occupy him.

No.

John shakes his head a bit, resolved, then turns to the two women. “Would you excuse me for a moment, ladies?” He gives them the charming smile he knows just works, whether it be in appeasing tottering old aunts at family reunions or in flattering pretty young women and men at pubs. John Watson’s smile, when deployed strategically, is nearly impossible to resist.

As expected, they both melt at the sight and assure him it’s perfectly fine, to take as long as he needs!

Glad to put off the inevitable gushings of smothering praise, John darts away, holding up a finger to Amber the clerk to signal he’ll be back as he rushes outside.

Sherlock is already halfway down the street, shoulders hunched against the wind. His curls—raven, silken, enticing, alright seriously John, get a grip—flutter and bounce about and nearly derail John’s train of thought. The idea of losing his chance, however, spurs him back into action.

“Wait!” he calls. “Sherlock!”

Sherlock looks back and skids to a halt, surprise evident in his slightly parted lips. “What is it?”

“I just…” John comes to a halt a few feet from him. He takes a deep breath. “Do you want to… erm… I mean, I was wondering if… If you maybe wanted… to go for a coffee with me? After my signing finishes, I mean? I’ve got a bit of time still, but… If you’re free after…”

He trails off, shuffling his feet and looking down. Maybe this was a bad plan…

"You know," Sherlock muses. "Before I met you, I didn't expect you to be so much less eloquent in real life."

John's head whips back up. He frowns, amused but still uncertain. "Is... is that a yes?"

Sherlock tilts his head, mouth curving up on one side. He looks rather pleased, rather full of wonder. As if he has never imagined this, has never thought anyone would ever ask him out, has never believed he could be liked.

Well, given time, John intends to change that. For now though, he fidgets, waiting.

Sherlock blinks, then a gorgeous sight appears: he grins. “Yes.”

“Really?” John's heart leaps.

Sherlock chuckles. “Yes, really.”

“Okay, great!” John feels lighter than air. “But let’s figure out where to go after, because, er... I really should get back in there.” He jabs a thumb over his shoulder toward the bookstore, and Sherlock nods.

“Well,” he says. “I don’t have anywhere to be right now. I could… wait in there.”

John chuckles as they turn to head back in unison. “Yeah, I’m sure you could find something to occupy yourself.”

Sherlock gives him the most endearing, almost disbelieving smile. "I might start the new book I got today."

"Yeah?"

"Yes, it's by a marginally talented, surprisingly charming mystery writer. You might have heard of him, but he’s rather unknown still in the grand scheme of things."

John bursts out laughing as they step over the threshold of the bookstore. "Marginally talented!" he scoffs.

Sherlock's laughter, so bright and joyous, sustains him for the rest of the signing.

 


 

After the stock is signed for the store, and John touches base with Amber—“we’ll be sure to reach out for another signing next time!”—he packs up, slinging his leather messenger bag over his shoulder. He’s done well here, having sold about a dozen books.

Rather giddy with how good a day it’s been, John drags an enthralled Sherlock away from one of the bookshelves, then watches in amusement as his soon-to-be date buys another three books, which he shoves into his bag along with his newly signed Watson collected works.

The afternoon passes quickly, coffee and scones consumed in a cozy cafe in Notting Hill. They talk for hours, laughing as if they have been friends for years, rather than having only just met. At the end of the afternoon, as the sun begins to dip down below the rooftops of London, John works up enough nerve to reach across the table. His fingers skim Sherlock’s, then intertwine. Sherlock’s answering smile, so surprised and pleased, sends warmth all through John.
Their hands remain linked for the rest of the evening, until they are standing on the pavement outside, saying soft goodbyes and exchanging phone numbers.

Then, without warning, Sherlock’s bag splits at the side, and his books—old and new—tumble out onto the ground. He and John scramble about, snatching them up before wind, puddles, or pedestrians can damage them, and John rushes back inside the cafe to commandeer a plastic sack for a backup container.

When he returns to Sherlock, he finds him still crouched down on the pavement, eyes fixed on the open page of one of his books. John realizes which one it happens to be and watches for a reaction from Sherlock.

Sherlock, the most fascinating person he has ever met. Sherlock, who seems so unused to attention and interest, but who has the most delightful, unique opinions. Sherlock, whose sharp wit and shy smiles are rapidly becoming two of John’s favorite things.

Sherlock, who now has a book with a rather special title page:

 

MURDER IN MARYLEBONE

A Sherrinford & Sacker novel

by John H. Watson

 

To Sherlock ~ Best of luck in your studies and poetry. You seem a bit like a real life Sherrinford; I think if James were real, he would have loved to meet you. I certainly did.

Happy reading! ~ John Watson

P.S. I hope someday you’ll be brave enough to show the world your writing. I’m sure it’s as beautiful as you are.

 

ACD Publishing
New York | Toronto | London

 

Sherlock finishes reading, then looks up at John, who realizes he has been holding his breath. He lets it out as Sherlock beams at him, stands in a single swift motion, and leans over to peck John’s cheek.

“Thank you,” he murmurs in that—deep, mesmerizing, unforgettable— baritone, breath against John’s ear.

“You’re welcome,” John whispers. They stare at each other for several moments, smiling. Then, John lifts a hand to Sherlock’s cheek and pulls him down.

The kiss is soft and rather chaste, but it sends John’s heart into rapid flutterings. He leans in, feeling Sherlock doing the same. However, this is their first date—John reminds himself they have time, plenty of time. So he breaks the contact and steps back.

Sherlock opens his eyes and smiles.

“Goodnight, John,” he says.

“Goodnight,” John replies. “Text me.”

Sherlock lifts an eyebrow and shakes his head, expression going serious. “I doubt I will.”

John’s heart takes a sharp plummet into the pavement. “Oh.”

“At least for a while. I have a novel to finish reading, after all,” he says with a smirk and twinkling eyes.

John laughs, relieved. And Sherlock spins, coat twirling about him, and strides away with a spring in his step.

Beautiful, John thinks as he watches him go. Beautiful, extraordinary, wonderful.