Chapter 9: Testing the Water
I might have to reevaluate Mrs. Hudson's potential threat level, Sherlock thought with a touch of chagrin.
Not even five minutes after steering the boy into her downstairs apartment, the inquisition had begun. Sherlock was relegated to a seat at the table out of the way; Mrs. Hudson was halfway convinced he inspired chemical rebellion in any kitchen he had the misfortune to inhabit, and Sherlock was perfectly content to quietly observe from the fringes. It's best to let them have an untainted first interaction, he'd told himself. Independence needs to be developed early.
John's voice in the back of his head snorted, unimpressed. You're just trying to stay out of the line of fire. Someday the silent, inscrutable routine isn't going to cut it, Sherlock.
Sherlock didn't bother dignifying that with a response, attention focused on the unexpected scene in front of him.
The consulting detective had spent years perfecting his interrogation techniques. Each method was carefully tailored to the type of person he was trying to get information from: the steamrolling genius, for obnoxious officials, particularly of the New Scotland Yard variety; the coldly detached daredevil, for time-hardened criminals and thugs he needed answers out of quickly; the palm-greaser, for his indispensable homeless network; and the tender touch, for the newly grieving or weak of spirit (…still reporting varying degrees of success on that last one).
Each approach comprised of a careful conglomeration of different elements, the result of years of trial-and-error experiments. He'd been punched, slapped, laughed at, thrown in jail, and rather memorably, stabbed once, in the pursuit of these techniques. He considered himself an old hand at them by now, thought he'd seen every trick in the book. So it was with an understandable level of mystified fascination that he observed the interactions between Mrs. Hudson and his new charge.
Apparently her preferred method involves food preparation, he noted fastidiously;it was a delicate mix of subtle pressure and demanding presence all at once. And so cleverly hidden beneath that sweet demeanor.She'd taken taken one considering look at the seated Sherlock, but the immediate dismissal on her face was obvious. Instead, she'd come at Harry with a vegetable peeler and enough fishing questions that the detective had been sure the boy would clam up and retreat, only to find he was a sudden fount of information.
Sherlock slid his gaze to the small figure camped on the opposite side of the table. He was skinning potato after potato with practiced, even strokes, exposing a familiarity with the task.
Is he weak against the grandmothering type, or is this Mrs. Hudson's specialty, I wonder? Sherlock thought with a clinical sort of interest, filing it away with the other data he was collecting on his charge.
The detective watched as the old woman coaxed details out of Harry bit by bit, patiently pushing towards the big, important topics: where he came from, when he was expected back, and how on earth he'd gotten involved with Sherlock.
The kind yet pointed investigation she doled out while doctoring the chicken had the boy scrambling to reassure her that Sherlock hadn't kidnapped him from somewhere, that the detective had (as far as the boy knew), begun the adoption process legally. Despite coming from that guileless green, the beady-eyed look the landlady cast at Sherlock told him she wasn't convinced. Harry was sharp though, and hadn't missed the expression either; he'd rushed to explain their game next, trotting over to bin the leftover peels.
That little anecdote had merely earned the detective the most severe pursed lip he'd seen yet, although Sherlock remained unruffled.
Harry had sensed things were going south when the chopping ceased its steady rhythm; he cast a wary glance between the woman, the remaining handful of tubers, and Sherlock, before fading into silence.
Mrs. Hudson stewed for a minute more, until she finally noticed the tense hush in the kitchen. She took in the boy's hunched shoulders, and visibly relaxed. "You and I will be having words later," she promised the detective, a sharp glint still in her eye. "Now, Harry dear, tell me what your favorite subject in school is?"
The atmosphere lightened perceptibly with the return of her bubbly nature. Sherlock watched his ward hesitate, looking between the adults again, before explaining quietly that he thought he might be partial to math, but wasn't really sure. "I liked learning my letters, too," he added. "Reading is fun, but hard sometimes."
Dinner continued relatively painlessly thereafter; Sherlock was pleased to hear the boy articulating his likes and dislikes, and took note of the fields he actively tried to avoid (any extensive details about his time in Surrey seemed to be a touchy subject: no mention was made of old friends, old teachers, or old guardians).
Mrs. Hudson seems to have adjusted as well, Sherlock marked, observing as she absorbed the boy's words and let him dance around the taboo topics. Every now and then she shared a story about Sherlock himself, trying to drag a laugh out of Harry. Mentioning the time he'd been escorted to Buckingham palace naked earned a full-on giggle, which she seemed to take as a sign of victory.
Dinner ran quite late, but cleanup was a quick activity; by the time they all made it upstairs, Harry was fighting a whole string of yawns.
"Let's get you to bed, dear," Mrs. Hudson proposed gently, placing a hand on his shoulder. "It seems you've had a big day."
A questioning glance was tossed in Sherlock's direction, to which he nodded. "I'll see you in the morning; we can talk then."
Harry nodded in return, a determined look coming over his face; he reached over to brush Sherlock's sleeve, uttered a soft, "Goodnight," and doubled timed it up the stairs. Mrs. Hudson cracked a smile and set off after him.
Sherlock stared after them, face inscrutable, before turning to the kitchen to put the kettle on.
"Oh, Sherlock!" Mrs. Hudson began, worrying at her lip. She had ensconced herself in John's newly returned armchair, settling in for a serious conversation. "Have you really adopted him? You can't just get his hopes up and turn him back in at the end of the month, you know!" she exclaimed quietly.
Sherlock ignored her irritated tone. "I've started the process, yes," he answered cagily. "We'll have to see if it's a good fit, but I don't anticipate any problems."
Her gaze went inwards, the teacup he'd given her earlier clasped unconsciously between aging hands; he'd been apprehensive that she would drop it, so absent had been her actions, but years of perfunctory preparation had taken over. He'd eased into his own chair as soon as the last splash of milk had gone in, prepared to defend his actions.
A sigh, and she focused on him again. "Just when did you decide to do this?"
"I began pursuit of the project a few months ago; Harry's only been involved for the last four weeks or so."
The landlady narrowed her eyes at him. "Does this have something to do with that mess in the back of your closet? I couldn't make much sense of your notes, but now that I think about it, he bears a startling resemblance to the boy in the photo."
Sherlock looked away mulishly and pushed back into his seat. She's nosier than I've been giving her credit for, he thought with a grimace.
This prompted a raised eyebrow, a knowing tilt to her mouth. "He'll need some more things," she said at last, relinquishing the teacup to the side table. "He only brought the one case?" she asked, looking for a denial.
Ah, discussion closed, he thought, pleased. A rush of warmth filled him then – she was already making plans to take care of the boy. There had always been an underlying faith between them, and he appreciated it now more than ever: she didn't bother questioning his ability to handle this, just asked how she could help.
"Yes," Sherlock nodded.
A pursed lip. "I'll take him in the afternoon then, unless you'd like to?"
Sherlock snorted at that. "I haven't the foggiest what all he needs, and I mean to pick up a few more things for his lessons from Bart's–"
Mrs. Hudson sat up straight, "Don't you dare bring more body parts into this flat, Sherlock Holmes!" she burst out. "At least give the boy a week to get used to you."
But Sherlock just waved her off with a hand, "–just some glassware to get him started on basic chemistry. Perhaps one or two solutes I've run out of. We won't get to body parts for quite a while, I think," he said dismissively.
Mrs. Hudson watched him carefully for a moment; she's either decided I'm telling the truth, or that it's just not worth putting up a fight, he mused.
"Alright. Will you remember to feed him lunch if I leave you two alone? I'm supposed to meet up with Dotty over on Marylebone, 'round noon."
"Mmm," Sherlock agreed, "I think we'll go out – I want to bring him by Angelo's."
She stared off into space again, wearing the look she got when she was thinking about taking care of someone. "Off to bed for me then," she said eventually, rising to her feet.
Sherlock watched as she automatically took the tea things back into the kitchen, absently reaching out to snag his violin. He'd just begun plucking out a tune when she stopped by his chair, placing a hand on his shoulder. No words were exchanged, just a brief squeeze, leaving him to his music and thoughts.
Unless drugs were coursing through his body, Sherlock came back to consciousness much the way a machine powered on: there was nothing, and then complete functionality, systems immediately taking in input.
The first thing his brain noted the next morning was a quiet murmuring creeping through the hallway door, followed by the muted clang of something metallic coming into contact with a wooden surface. Pots on the kitchen table, he labeled absently.
A second later, and he processed that information. Mrs. Hudson must have come up to make breakfast. Apparently I'm not to be trusted with food anytime soon, he thought wryly. I bet she leaves something in the fridge for lunch, despite our conversation last night. A yawn escaped then, and he briefly weighed the pros and cons of going back to sleep. Better not, he told himself with a tinge of regret, it sounds like the boy is up as well.
Sherlock stretched out on his bed for a moment, alternately tensing and relaxing each muscle group as he organized his plans for the day. After he confirmed everything was in working order, he rose and slipped on his dressing gown from its hook on the back of his door.
A glance at his bedside clock told him it was just past half nine. I suppose Harry's an early riser then, he mused. Or a light sleeper – could have woken up when Mrs. Hudson began cooking. Perhaps she can be convinced to take over in the mornings? he thought with a small measure of hope – while he'd do whatever was necessary for a case, Sherlock wasn't awake before nine as a general rule, unless he'd never gone to bed to start with.
He padded down the hallway with near-silent steps, pausing at the entryway to survey his kitchen. Green eyes locked onto Sherlock's position immediately; the boy had twisted around from his perch on a footstool near the sink. From the water splashed on his shirtfront and his dripping hands, he'd been washing the skillet sitting in the drying rack.
The measuring stare was back, and he'd started chewing on his bottom lip – signs Sherlock had linked to a nervous state of mind. He's trying to gauge my reaction again, but to what?
"Good morning, dear!" Mrs. Hudson's bubbly voice rang out from her seat at the table. She only got a few words into her next sentence, the usual drivel about tea, before he dismissed her in favor of examining the boy closer.
Something yellow had latched onto the sleeve of the oversized, faded grey t-shirt he was wearing – bit of egg, Sherlock decided, catching sight of broken shells in the bin. Has Mrs. Hudson already fed him? That was easier than expected, he reflected, pleased.
A humming noise cut in then, derailing Sherlock's train of thought; his gaze darted sharply to the left, trying to pinpoint the source. Mrs. Hudson was still babbling in the background, but the boy spoke quietly, offering: "The oven's kicking on again. We didn't know when you'd be up."
Sherlock was a little confused at the slightly apologetic tone, but nodded after catching sight of a red light on the appliance.
" –and Harry made breakfast this morning, isn't that nice?" Sherlock swung his attention back to the landlady to find her staring at him pointedly, giving an unsubtle nod in the boy's direction. "I was just saying how thoughtful it was of him, right, Sherlock?"
Sherlock stared blankly at her for a second. What's she on about, now?
She's trying to give you a clue, genius, John prodded from the back of his head. Some appreciation is in order – positive reinforcement, remember?
"Er, yes," he mumbled, looking back to the boy, "thank you, Harry."
"No trouble," was the muffled response, before the child stepped off of the footstool, stepping over to the oven. He pulled on the side drawer to grab a potholder, unlatching the oven to retrieve the previously unaccounted for eggs.
I don't remember having eggs or cheese in my refrigerator, Sherlock speculated when he caught the scent of sharp cheddar. The platter was brought to a waiting pad on the kitchen table, which had been set for three places.
The detective continued to observe the quiet, but purposeful puttering around; toast, butter, jam and a tea service shortly joined the eggs on the table. He knows exactly where everything is, Sherlock noted with some degree of surprise; he must've been up for longer than I thought to familiarize himself to this extent. I don't think Mrs. Hudson would have shown him; she stopped opening my drawers after the toe incident. Sherlock saw him pause only once, digging around in the cutlery drawer to come up empty. The boy gave a soft frown, clearly thinking to himself. He closed his eyes for a moment, before repositioning the footstool to snag the large serving spoon in a vase on the counter.
"Sit down, Sherlock," Mrs. Hudson interjected, calling him over from the hallway.
Sherlock settled into the chair beside her at her prompting. Harry joined them shortly, passing the spoon to Mrs. Hudson first.
"Thank you, Harry, this looks wonderful." She smiled at the boy, serving herself up some eggs.
Sherlock busied himself doctoring his tea with a splash of milk, feeling Harry's observant eyes on him throughout the entire ritual. He added some to Mrs. Hudson's tea for her and passed it across the table. The landlady returned the favor, handing him a piece of toast. He took a perfunctory bite and stared into his tea, thoughts swirling again.
"Do you not like eggs?" Came a sudden, shy question. "I can make something else, if you prefer?"
Sherlock blinked back into focus. "They're fine, I suppose." An elbow in his ribs urged him to continue. "I don't eat very much as a rule – digestion is a waste of energy, interrupts my thought process."
"It's true," Mrs. Hudson added when Harry continued to look dubiously at him. "I have to practically wrestle him to the dinner table so I know the silly fool gets at least one meal a day." She cast a disparaging glance at the detective. "Ever since John left, I've been terrified I'll come upstairs to find you passed out from low blood sugar."
Harry's face turned alarmed at that comment; he took a firm hold of the serving spoon, dishing a generous helping of eggs onto Sherlock's plate. "I'm not big enough to be of much use if you faint, so you better eat," he warned.
Sherlock was about to reply that he was certain the boy was capable of ringing the police or fetching Mrs. Hudson, only to realize Harry still hadn't taken any eggs for himself; he raised his eyebrow at the boy's plate instead, the hypocrisy implied. Harry squirmed for a second, but clearly knew what the detective was asking. He shifted his gaze sideways and muttered, "Wanted to make sure there was enough."
Sherlock pressed his lips together, suspecting this was a leftover habit from Harry's previous life. "Well, there's plenty," he replied. "Go ahead and eat."
When breakfast was finished, Harry had leapt up and started gathering the dishes.
"Such a polite young man," Mrs. Hudson praised. "But you cooked breakfast, so I'll wash up, Harry."
Harry looked a bit distressed, but Mrs. Hudson steamrolled through his objections. "Nonsense, dear. Though if you manage to rub off some of those fine manners onto Sherlock, I'll treat you to something special," she told him with a wink.
Sherlock merely rolled his eyes and remained seated. Harry hovered uncertainly behind the landlady at the sink, before his attention fell on the condiments still present on the table. "I'll just put these away," he said with a tinge of relief, heading for the fridge.
Sherlock fixed an eye on the boy. I suppose it's a beneficial trait that he doesn't want to remain idle, but this is a little excessive, he mused. He seemed capable of sitting still at the home…perhaps meditation should be implemented sooner than I'd planned?
His cell phone began ringing from his dressing gown pocket. Sherlock pulled it out with a grimace, hoping it wasn't Lestrade: he had too many things on to deal with a subpar murder at the moment. The number looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn't quite place it. Better just answer. You can always hang up.
"Sherlock Holmes," he acknowledged.
"Hello Mr. Holmes," came a pleasant, smooth voice. "This is Lacey Williams, Harry's social worker. I wanted to call and see how the first night went. Is now a good time to chat?"
Ah. Jumping through hoops again, he snorted mentally.
Remember, be polite! John warned him.
Sherlock sneered and answered in his most cheery voice,"It's fine, we just finished breakfast."
"How were things after I left last night?"
"Fine," he repeated. A mental prod had him continuing shortly, "My landlady came home, and we all had dinner together. He went to bed. No problems."
Harry had turned back to peer over his shoulder after hearing the last line, curiosity written all over his face. Sherlock met his glance steadily and quirked an eyebrow. Openly eavesdropping now?
A faint rustling noise came through the phone, the sound of papers being shifted. "Ah, that's the 'Mrs. Hudson' we have on file, correct?"
"I'm glad to hear things went well. What's on the schedule for today?" she inquired politely.
Inducting him into my cult via ritualistic sacrifice of a house pet, he snarked to John. "I thought we'd take the day to pick up some things for Harry, probably bring him to a favored lunch spot."
"Excellent. I'd like to talk to Harry for a bit, but can we arrange a meeting for sometime on Monday morning? I'll come to Baker Street, around ten?"
"That would be acceptable," Sherlock agreed, before holding out the phone. "Harry, Miss Williams would like to speak with you."
Harry shut the refrigerator door and padded over to take the mobile before stepping a meter away to avoid talking in Sherlock's ear. "Hello?"
Sherlock couldn't hear Miss Williams' side of the conversation, but caught the gist from Harry's responses. Probably wants to know if he feels comfortable, if he slept okay, if he's having second thoughts, etc. Sherlock was oddly anxious about Harry's answers considering how dismissive he was of his own (and how sure he was the boy was happy), but Mrs. Hudson had finished the dishes and come over to take him to task over breakfast.
"I was bringing up your morning tea and found him staring into your kitchen cabinets with despair," she disclosed softly. Her eyes crinkled up then. "Goodness, I don't think I've ever seen a little boy look more like an English housewife! He heard me coming in and almost started ranting, wondering if all you ever ate was crackers and rice – I guess John must have stashed them in a cabinet somewhere, but I didn't have the heart to tell him that."
Sherlock was befuddled, having a hard time picturing his ward ranting over anything, much less the state of his cabinets. But after the egg situation, perhaps that's not so surprising. Seems like he was responsible for meals at his aunt's, and I bet the group home welcomed some willing assistance in the kitchen. A pause, and then, Interesting that he still sees it as his responsibility though, he ruminated. I suppose this lends credence to the strongly nurturing personality trait.
"Anyways, I told him he was welcome to anything I had in my pantry, but he insisted on paying me back for the eggs and cheese – said he'd work chores 'round the flat for me, I just had to let him know what I wanted done; I snuck up the toast after he came back upstairs."
She smiled at the detective, but it fell a little flat. "He's so unassuming, so eager to help. It's darling, but I don't remember that being normal for little boys, Sherlock," she said quietly.
Sherlock wrinkled his nose a bit, unsure what to tell her. He finally settled for: "Harry is quite unique, but don't worry after him too much – I believe there's more to him than meets the eye."
She favored him with an appraising glance, before shaking her head fondly. "I'll leave you boys to it; I'll be back around tea time. Don't," she admonished sternly, "forget to feed him lunch. There's cold cuts in your fridge and a loaf in the bread box – on second thought, I'll leave a note for Harry, just in case."
A hint of a smile came to Sherlock's face at his landlady's predictability. He nodded his assent and relocated to his armchair, tea in hand and the morning paper clamped to his side.
A light tread on the stairs told him Mrs. Hudson had finally taken her leave; he poked his head up from the paper to check on his charge, who appeared to be wrapping up the phone call. A few seconds later and the boy was at the elbow of Sherlock's chair, offering him the mobile back.
Sherlock returned the phone to the pocket of his dressing gown and began folding the paper, placing it on the side table under his teacup. He gestured to the red chair across from him, "Have a seat."
The boy clambered up and draped his arms across those of the chair; Sherlock was amused to see his hands didn't even make it three-quarters of the way. The solemn demeanor, in conjunction with the ill-fitting glasses perched on the end of the boy's nose, made for quite the combination – if Sherlock were a lesser man, he probably would have cracked a grin by now. Instead, he simply leveled an assessing gaze at the boy, oddly curious to see how long it would take him to begin squirming.
Harry lasted a little over thirty seconds before his eyes were darting between Sherlock's face and different points around the room; Sherlock's faint smile grew even more pronounced. It's better than a few weeks ago. Progress is progress, I suppose, he thought wryly, no matter how small.
"I'd like to discuss with you," Sherlock began at last, "the matter of your education while you're here."
The boy relaxed perceptibly, to which Sherlock quirked an eyebrow. "I mentioned, when we began this process, that there were things I'd like to teach you; you were amenable at the time. Do you still find yourself in the same state of mind?"
"The observation thing?"
"Yes, among other skills."
"You only asked me yesterday," Harry said, somewhat incredulous.
"Do you still find yourself in the same state of mind?" Sherlock repeated.
The boy spoke slowly, brow furrowed, clearly trying to make Sherlock understand. "I know that a lot of kids at the home would have jumped at the chance to have a family again; some of the kids still keep their stuff all in one place, just in case someone wants to adopt them – they don't want to give the parents time to change their minds," he said with a sad smile.
"But for me," he continued, "the home was already such a better place than where I was before, that I didn't ever think anything would be better. I was happy there. And then our game started – and it was a lot of fun, more than just helping the younger kids with their crafts."
A beat, and he went on. "I thought a lot about this before you even said you wanted to adopt me." He flushed, averting his eyes; but then he overcame the self-consciousness and looked at Sherlock with a clear green gaze. "So when I say that this is where I want to be, and I want to learn what you have to teach, I mean it," he finished simply.
Sherlock reflected on that speech in silence, and cleared his throat. "Well, then. I think we'll start you on Latin. The romance languages will have a basis for later in life, and English is a good enough starting point for German," he asserted, before flitting on to the next topic. "That leaves languages with non-phonemic orthographies; Mandarin would probably be the most useful, judging from the way the world is going, but you've already shown a predisposition for Arabic, so I suppose that choice will be up to you."
Sherlock fixed an expectant glance at the boy, hoping that by rambling on about his plans he might have been fully absconded from actually responding to Harry's revelations. Harry just looked overwhelmed, eyes huge in his face, confusion shining through, and Sherlock mentally gave himself a pat on the back – potential crisis averted.
"Questions?" he prompted next.
"Er, what are the 'romance languages?'" Harry asked, still dazed. "And non-whatsit ortho- orthogr- orthag–"
"Orthographies," Sherlock cut in, relieving the boy as much for his own sake – it truly grated on him to hear the English language decimated so – "meaning writing systems. 'Non-phonemic' means words that are not written as they sound; English is a phonemic language – when you were learning to read, you probably sounded out words by speaking their individual letters, yes? Have you ever seen Chinese characters before? They look something like this," he said, pulling out a pen to draw on the paper he'd left on the side table. A few short strokes later and he passed it over to the boy.
"This is the character 我, 'wŏ,' which means 'I.' Nothing about the lines of the character suggest that pronunciation to you, which is why this is a 'non-phonemic' language. Mandarin uses Chinese characters to represent words. Many of them are based off of images ancient peoples would use to symbolize that object or concept."
The boy seemed to be following, or at least no longer had the bewildered look. Sherlock thought he might even see the light of comprehension, so he went on. "Romance languages," he continued, "are those initially based off of Latin root words – while they may be spelled and conjugated differently, you'll find that many words in these languages are very similar.
"For future reference," Sherlock said, getting up to stride over to the bookcase. He selected a thick, leather-bound book off the fourth highest shelf, presenting it to the boy, "this is a dictionary. Feel free to use it whenever you don't understand something. There are some helpful notes in the margins I've added over the years."
The boy took the book and ran a hand over the gold-embossed lettering on the cover, fingers tracing the dips and curves of the large cursive D. "Learning a new language sounds like a lot of fun," he finally declared. "What else are you going to teach me?"
Sherlock let a pleased smile slip out at that, and checked his watch. It read ten to eleven. Excellent. "I'm going to go get dressed, and then we're going to visit a friend's restaurant."
Harry blinked up at him, surprised. "I thought you didn't eat very much usually. Are you already hungry? I can make more food," he offered.
Sherlock stood and waved his hand at the boy, already heading for his room. "No, no, we're not going for the food – it's for your first lesson," he called over his shoulder.
A/N: Hoo, baby. Hi guys!
Yowza, long time no see - I don't know how many of you checked my profile for info on story updating, but here are my (poor) excuses: May was spent celebrating another year of life, graduating (officially), finding a new place to live, and moving out of our apartment. June was spent playing the homeless nomad 'cause our new place didn't want to let us in till July, so we hit the road and went south for Bonnaroo and some good cooking :). I just got back to the city and have spent the last week cruising the streets for free furniture and cafe hopping in search of wifi until our internet gets set up.
Basically a lot of life got packed into the last few months. Sorry for disappearing on y'all, but I hate it when authors make an entire chapter just an update that they're going on hiatus for a bit. Anyways, we're still not back to regularly scheduled updates yet, but I'm intending (fingers crossed) to get the next chapter up at least before the end of the month. Be patient with me.
Good news is, there was lots of time to think and plot on this road trip, so I have an actual idea where we're going now! It's just gonna take us a while to get there.
Love you all, and I hope you enjoy this long-time-coming chapter. I'm looking to reply to all the wonderful reviews you've left me today/tomorrow :).