AN: This was originally written for tzulocked on Livejournal for the 2012 December Holmestice. The idea started earlier, at the Sherlock Seattle Con, when a lovely gentleman on the "Women in Sherlock" panel with me mused that Mrs. Hudson had always been portrayed as a motherly figure, when in fact she might have been closer to Sherlock's age. I immediately wanted to write about Sherlock and Mrs. Hudson having some adventures of their own, and this whole mess sprang from that.
Extra thanks to thisprettywren and prettyarbitrary for their lovely encouragement and beta work, and breathedout for helping with the extra period details.
Charlotte Collier grew up at 221 Baker Street, in flat A. Her parents had bought the building for a song in the bright years before the crash of 1929, before Charlotte was born. They rented out flats B and C when they could, but not many of the tenants stayed for long. They found that living at a famous address was occasionally tiresome. Flat C was the basement, musty and dark, but, in the lean days of the 1930s, it had the advantage of a lower rent, so was occupied more often than the infamous upstairs flat, 221B.
Growing up, Charlotte thought it was brilliant. As the landlord of 221B Baker Street, her father owned all of the books. They were cheap, flimsy editions—the best they could afford. She'd grown up reading about Sheridan Hope, the brilliant detective in Victorian London, and his loyal sidekick, Ormond Sacker. Her friends at St. Mary's Free School didn't share her enthusiasm for detective stories, but were more than willing to run about the streets and back alleys of Marylebone with her, pretending to be either a criminal or the latest victim while Charlotte marched about in a burnt-cork mustache and hand-me-down dress that nearly dragged the ground, making speeches about how obvious the solution was.
After the war, when Charlotte was twenty-six years old, a young man came to live in 221B.
Shortly after he moved in, he came downstairs for tea with her family. Her mother fretted about the short sugar ration for two days beforehand, insisting that they all go without so she could make proper scones. Charlotte had watched the last of the week's butter vanish into the mixing bowl with a small sigh.
When tea-time finally arrived, Charlotte let her parents carry the conversation with vaguely polite noises about the weather, while she studied the new tenant. Sherlock Holmes was handsome enough: dark hair and pale skin and sharp eyes, and if he'd fought in the War, he seemed to bear no scars, visible or otherwise. He didn't give himself airs, but everything about his bearing suggested that he belonged somewhere much posher than a sitting room in Baker Street. Charlotte instinctively liked him, without being able to put her finger on why other than that he looked very familiar.
"And what do you do, Miss Collier?" His question caught her off-guard, following hard on the heels of her father's pronouncements about the chances of a Tory government winning the next election.
"Lottie studied secretarial work," her mother said. "But you know, after the war..."
"Mm, yes," Mr Holmes said, still looking at her.
"What did you do during the war, Mr Holmes?" Charlotte asked on impulse.
"Did I do my bit for King and Country?" he asked. Charlotte might have imagined the sardonic quirk at the corner of one mouth, so quickly did it appear and then vanish. "I was with the Royal Engineers at Normandy."
"You boys did a fine job over there," said Charlotte's father, his face red and jovial. "Damn fine job."
"Thank you, sir," Mr Holmes said.
"Have you been in London long?" asked Charlotte, smiling. She could feel the weight of her mother's disapproval, but curiosity had the best of her.
"Just a few weeks," Mr Holmes said, "but I lived here before that, years ago."
"Well, welcome back to London then," said Mrs Collier, stepping into the conversation with a warning look at Charlotte.
Mr Holmes gave Mrs Collier a rather limp attempt at a smile, and the four of them sat in awkward silence for a moment. Then Mr Holmes rose to his feet. "I don't want to make any more of a nuisance of myself. Thank you for the tea, Mrs Collier, Mr Collier." He gave Charlotte a nod. "Miss Collier."
Her father saw him to the door, while her mother scowled at her. Charlotte frowned to herself. Sherlock Holmes was lying about something. He looked entirely too familiar to have been away from London for that long.
She was still trying to place him on the day her mother brought her a cup of tea while she sat reading the morning paper at the table after breakfast one morning.
"Lottie dear, I have a surprise for you." Her mother was as slender and pretty as she had been as a bride in the two wedding photos that were framed over the mantel. Although quite petite herself, Charlotte sometimes felt gawky and awkward in comparison. At the mention of a surprise, she frowned. If it were a good surprise, it wouldn't require tea.
Charlotte was something of a disappointment to her parents. She was their only child, and at the advanced age of twenty-six, she had neither married nor accomplished anything that made remaining single admirable. She'd had a few shop jobs since leaving school, but couldn't seem to make anything stick. With the relative shortage of eligible young men, she'd not met anyone remotely interesting enough to marry, and even if she had, those young men had their pick of the girls in London, and Charlotte didn't think she was any great beauty.
"What is it, mum?" Charlotte sipped the tea, steeling herself.
"Evie Hudson's son Edward is down from Cambridge this term. Edward's about your age, dear. He put off university until after the War." Her mother sounded as if that were some great point in his favor, as if most of the university-aged lads in England hadn't done that exact same thing.
"I think I've heard you mention him," she said. She had, only dozens of times. Edward Hudson came from a family with money, with connections, and Charlotte's mother couldn't bear the thought of those connections going to anyone else.
"Lovely boy," her mother said. "Evie and Edward are coming to tea next week. You'll be a dear, and help me get the place shined up nice and proper today, won't you?"
Charlotte gave up her tentative plans of a peaceful walk around the city with an internal sigh. "Of course, mum. Where should I start?"
"I think here in the dining room might do, and then there's all the dusting to be done..."
Charlotte finished her tea while her mother prattled on, "There are real eggs in at Mr Henderson's—do you think I should make a cake? We should have more sugar by then..."
While she was running the duster over the bookshelf in her father's study, she spotted an old familiar book: The Memoirs of Sheridan Hope by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. She smiled to herself and pulled the book from the shelf, flipping through it.
And then nearly dropped it in surprise.
There. There it was. Near the front of a book was an illustration of Hope and Sacker in the passenger compartment of a train. Hope was leaning over, explaining some vital point of their current case to Sacker, one finger pointing at his palm. Charlotte brought the book closer to her face. There was no mistaking that profile. The clothes were Victorian, but—that Byronic head of dark curls, the sharp angle of his nose, the impossibly high cheekbones... Charlotte felt dizzy, and grabbed the bookcase with her free hand.
Sheridan Hope was Sherlock Holmes. It was impossible, given that Hope was fictional, and even if he weren't, he would have been long dead or impossibly ancient by now. But there he was, right there in front of her on the page. She took a deep breath, trying to clear her head, then tucked the book into the pocket of her housedress.
As soon as she could grab a free moment, she went to her room and pulled out the book. There were all the stories she remembered, only now when she read Hope's dialogue, she could hear Mr Holmes's smooth baritone. It was utterly mad. As she flipped through the book, the other illustrations only deepened her certainty. The frontispiece gave a date for the illustrations as 1894, and the man in those illustrations was an absolute double of the man who rented the flat upstairs. 221B Baker Street, the same address of the fictional Sheridan Hope. Charlotte's head began spinning again.
She had to know more about Sherlock Holmes.
He was awfully quiet about his job, when anyone else on Baker Street was glad to have a job, and said so. Further, his mysterious job kept some very odd hours. Charlotte was awakened one night at half two in the morning by the sound of one set of footsteps going up the stairs, and then a pair of footsteps going down. She knew it had to be related to Mr Holmes's work, because when he left for reasons that she knew weren't work-related (off to visit family, he said, or out to the shops), his footsteps were duller somehow, less eager.
His job also involved something chemical. Odd smells floated down the stairs from 221B at all hours, reminding her of the matchhead smell of sulphur and the tang of metal in the air down by the Limehouse steelworks. Hope, too, had had an immense knowledge of chemistry. Curiosity was driving her mad.
One night, when she heard the footsteps, she was ready. She'd taken to sleeping mostly dressed, so she jumped out of bed, pulled on her stockings and shoes, and pulled her coat around her as she slipped out the front door. Mr Holmes was half a block ahead of her, talking animatedly to a man in a suit and trenchcoat. Pulling her collar up close around her face, she hurried closer so she could overhear.
"...should have called me earlier," Mr Holmes was saying as his long legs set a brisk pace down the sidewalk. "The trail will have gone cold by now."
"We thought we had him," his companion, a round, whiskery man, said. "All the evidence pointed—"
"The evidence did no such thing," Mr Holmes said. "You misunderstood what you were seeing, as usual, Gregson."
Charlotte nearly stopped dead in her tracks in the middle of the sidewalk. Surely he wasn't a—
"I put my best men on the case," Gregson protested.
"If that's the best the Yard has to offer, you're lucky more people haven't turned criminal. London would be overrun."
Scotland Yard? Oh god, he was a detective. Charlotte tried to think about what little she knew about police work,and she couldn't come up with any job that came close to explaining Mr Holmes's comings and goings. If he were actually on the force, surely he would have told them by now. And even if he were undercover for some reason, wouldn't he have another job as cover? Holmes was a detective working with Scotland Yard, just like his fictional predecessor in 221B.
Gregson flagged down a cab and gave the driver an address in Stepney. Common sense told Charlotte she should go back home, but Curiosity checked for the pin money in her coat pocket, and she raised her arm to flag down the next driver.
Even at this late hour, there were men and women on the streets of Stepney, many of them drunk and clinging to each other even though it was a work-night. She quickly paid the driver and got out, spotting Mr Holmes and Gregson a half a block up. A few of the single men eyed her with greedy speculation in their eyes, and for the first time since leaving the house, Charlotte felt afraid. She realised that most of the unaccompanied women around her were working girls, and despite her own drab, modest clothing, more than a few men were eyeing her as if making the same assumption about her.
"'Ey, dolly, you lost?" came a voice from behind her.
She walked a little faster, suddenly not wanting to be too far behind Mr Holmes and the policeman.
They stopped at a grimy pub and went inside. Charlotte didn't dare follow. She could hear raucous laughter and the sound of an Irish reel barrelling from the open door. There was no way she could pass as a patron in her tweed skirt and middy blouse, no makeup on her face and her hair a mess. She could go home... or she could make herself as unobtrusive as possible and wait outside. She shrank against the dirty brick wall in the alley and tried to make herself invisible.
After several minutes, Charlotte was feeling the effects of being out so late at night and making a mad dash across the city. Her eyelids were getting heavy, even with the crashing and yelling coming from the door of the pub. Suddenly a rough hand grabbed her arm and a voice demanded, "What the hell are you playing at?"
Charlotte jerked her arm to free it before realising who had spoken to her. She looked up to see Mr Holmes scowling down at her. "Let go of me," she said.
"Are you bloody mad?" he growled. "What were you thinking, coming out alone at night to a place like this? Why were you following me?"
"You saw me?"
Mr Holmes rolled his eyes. "Nice middle-class girls in their Christmas overcoats don't exactly blend in around here at this hour. I spotted you the instant you closed your front door. I just didn't think you'd be stupid enough to follow me this far. Now answer me, why are you following me?" He gave her arm a little shake.
"Are you really a detective?" she blurted.
"You are mad," he said.
"I wanted to see what you did," she said. "I was curious."
"Well now you have, Miss Collier, and not only that, but you nearly allowed a murderer to get away thanks to the distraction you've provided." He pulled on her arm, tugging her towards the street. "And now I have to spend even more valuable investigative time seeing you safely home."
She planted her feet and tried to resist, but he was bigger and stronger. He hauled her out of the alleyway and down the sidewalk to the rude hoots from the drunk men.
"That'll show 'er!"
"You're in for it now, miss."
Mr Holmes glared at them and they fell quiet, letting them pass. He refused to say another word the whole trip home. Charlotte kept alternating between wanting to strangle him and wanting to beg him not to tell her parents. When they arrived home, he paid the cab driver and pulled her out of the cab harshly enough that her arm would probably show bruises in the morning. "Now," he said, "go back inside, go back to bed, and forget this ever happened." He turned to walk away.
"Sheridan Hope!" She hadn't meant to call the name out, but she wanted his attention.
He turned around slowly and came back to her. "You're ridiculous."
"It's you though, isn't it? I don't know how, but..."
Mr Holmes glared down at her, his eyes sparking. "Say one word more, and I'll be speaking to your parents about this evening."
Charlotte closed her mouth against anything else she might say. She tried to imagine her father's thunderous expression on learning what she'd done tonight.
"Go back to bed, Charlotte." Mr Holmes turned and walked away, and Charlotte was halfway back to her room before she realised that he'd called her by her first name.
He didn't deny it. That was the thought she kept coming back to the next morning as she yawned her way through breakfast. He'd mocked her, and threatened her, but he hadn't denied what she'd said. After her father went to work and her mother went to the shops, Charlotte defiantly fixed an extra cup of tea from their ration. She'd go without tomorrow if she had to.
After last night, she was more certain than ever she was right. It was a mad idea, and she should probably be locked away for believing it, but it was true. It felt true. She just needed proof. The spare keys to all of the flats were hanging in their kitchen in a little tin box. But the Hudsons were coming for tea in the afternoon, so there was no time to even think.
She spent the early part of the day helping her mother scrub and polish and shine everything in hopes that a bit of extra sparkle would help disguise the places that were a little threadbare or dated. The rest of the afternoon was spent in a beauty parlour, being fussed over, her dark hair tortured and teased and fussed with until she thought she'd go mad. She felt like the sitting room sofa, having bits polished so no one would notice the big thin spot in one cushion.
When she got home, her best dress was laid out on her bed with a new pair of stockings. The feeling of being on display was unavoidable. She sighed and got dressed and went to the kitchen.
Her mother was there, adding the finishing touches to a fluffy white cake crowned with tinned peaches. She looked up and gasped as Charlotte came into the room. "Look at you! Just look! You look lovely!" She wiped her hands and came over to fuss at Charlotte's dress, frowning at the waistline. "Oh, we should get this taken in. You're getting so thin!" She spoke in that tone that was somewhere between approval and disapprobation, as if unable to decide if Charlotte's new thinness was a plus or a minus. "Oh, you're not wearing lipstick. Come here, love." Charlotte found herself hauled towards her parents' room, and the appropriate shade of lipstick carefully applied to her mouth. She managed not to grimace. Lipstick always made her feel like her mouth was covered in a thin layer of grease; she had to resist the urge to swipe it away.
The doorbell rang just as her mother put the final touches on Charlotte's face. "That will be them, dear. Now go answer the door, and don't forget to smile!"
With a smile dutifully fastened to her face, Charlotte went to the door. It opened to reveal a woman of Amazonian proportions: tall, broad-shouldered, full bodied in every way. Charlotte didn't expect to like her, but the way she carried herself, unashamed of her height and her build, was compelling. She was dressed immaculately, in a full navy blue skirt and cream jacket that nipped in tight at the waist. Her hat and gloves matched the skirt. Next to her, Charlotte felt like a child who'd been caught grubbing in the garden in her Sunday dress.
"And you must be Lottie, your mother has told me so much about you!" Evie Hudson stepped forward with both hands out for Charlotte to clasp, then leaned in to press a kiss to her cheek. "My, aren't you a pretty one. Edward, isn't she pretty?"
From his mother's shadow stepped a young man who nearly matched his mother's height, but came short of her breadth. His hair was a dull ginger colour, carefully combed and slicked back. He wasn't a beauty, but the lines of his face were interesting, spoilt only by a weak chin. "She's lovely, mother. She's also standing right here." He gave her a smile.
"Oh dear, where are my manners. Lottie, this is my son, Edward Hudson."
"How do you do?" murmured Charlotte.
"How do you do, Miss Collier." Edward shook her hand with a slight bow. "A pleasure to meet you at last."
Charlotte felt her cheeks heat up. She suspected that both mothers had each spent a great deal of time extolling the virtues of her friend's offspring. "Indeed. Won't you both come in?" She showed them into the sitting room, where her mother waited with the tea.
The two mothers contrived to run on an errand together to the kitchen, leaving Charlotte and Edward sitting across from each other. "So, Miss Collier, has the subtle maternal pressure been as firm and steady on your side as it has been on mine?" His eyes twinkled at her over the rim of his teacup.
"I'm not quite sure, Mr Hudson. Has your mother been discussing names for potential grandchildren yet?" Charlotte stopped, mortified, but Edward laughed.
"No, but I think she has some definite ideas for a wedding date. I'm sure she'd offer to help with your trousseau if you'd let her."
Charlotte wanted to crawl under her chair, but giggled in spite of herself. "Oh dear. They have their minds made up, don't they?"
"I believe if they could, they would make up our minds, Miss Collier." He smiled at her, and she felt some of the embarrassment drain away.
"Well in that case, you'd probably ought to call me Charlotte."
Edward shook his head, "Not Lottie?"
"Please no," Charlotte said. "That makes me sound like I should still be in school uniforms and pigtails." They smiled at each other while their mothers returned from the kitchen with the cake and some plates, chattering at each other.
When she heard Mr Holmes's footsteps echoing their going-to-work rhythm down the front stairs, she thought of the key and of what she might find in his flat.
Mr Holmes was out with Inspector Gregson. She'd heard them talking on the landing. Mum was out shopping, and Dad was at work. 221C was currently unoccupied. She couldn't count on another chance like this any time soon.
The lockbox in the kitchen was a little ridiculous: she'd learnt to pick the lock when she was just eight, so it held no difficulty now. She pulled out the right key, and headed for the stairs.
The edges of the key bit into the palm of her hand as she ascended the seventeen steps up to 221B. Charlotte's heart beat painfully against her ribcage as she turned the key in the lock and swung open the door. Thanks to her father's careful maintenance, the door moved easily and quietly, but the faint squeak sounded like the wailing of a lost soul in the stillness of the building.
It was a good thing her mother never came upstairs. She would faint dead away at the state of the flat. There were piles of papers and books everywhere, overflowing ashtrays and the smell of stale smoke. The kitchen table off to her left was nearly invisible under the weight of glass beakers and test tubes and other equipment she didn't recognize. She could smell the state of the kitchen sink from where she stood.
Now that she was here, she wasn't sure what to look for. An old photograph? A book autographed to Mr Holmes from Arthur Conan Doyle? So far her short career as a sleuth was proving to be a disappointment. She crept away from the open front door and into the main sitting room. The bookshelves were overflowing, with books on every imaginable subject. And yes, there in the middle of the chaos, was a set of Doyle's books, one far older than the set that belonged to her father. Charlotte reached up and touched the binding of one tentatively, then pulled it down from the shelf.
There was no compromising autograph from the author, but in addition to the illustrations that had first caught her attention, she flipped through the pages to find that nearly every page was full of margin notes and corrections in a firm, spiky hand. One page had the following passage underlined, "The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain." In the margin was scrawled, "Arthur, you sentimental, melodramatic fool. The bullet barely grazed your arm. My eyes did not dim, for God's sake."
The other notes were similar. "How could you have missed the most important element in that case—the man's shoes!" "What were you thinking, you old dolt? Always go the pub first for gossip."
It was the work of a moment to compare the handwriting in the book to the handwriting on notes scattered about the flat. It wasn't proof though, of course not. He could just be a nutter. But, there was something oddly affectionate in the marginalia, the feeling of a long and cherished argument that had gone on for years. It was hard to leave the books behind and explore the rest of the flat.
The main floor bedroom was neater than the sitting room. Mr Holmes was careful of his wardrobe, but Charlotte already knew that from looking at him. She couldn't quite bring herself to rifle through his things, her cheeks pink just from standing in a strange man's bedroom at all. In the end, all she could manage was a quick glance around before modesty forced her to flee the room.
The upstairs bedroom was being used as storage. Boxes stood stacked on top of boxes, and the room had the musty, sharp odor of mothballs. She didn't even know where to begin. The closet door stood slightly ajar, so she squeezed her way toward it to take a look.
Inside was a row of clothing, carefully hung and wrapped. Charlotte peeked as carefully as she could inside the wrapping on the first one and found a familiar drab green fabric, a British Army uniform. Not a surprise, really. There were similar uniforms tucked away in similar closets across England right now.
But the next wrapped package hanging next to it was also a dull green wool, the fabric gone a little fragile with age. There were other boxes on the floor of the closet as well, and each one she checked revealed another military uniform of progressively older provenance. With utter care, Charlotte unwrapped the the first one enough to get at the name tag on it: Sherlock Holmes. The next older one, which she could only assume came from the Great War, bore the name Sherrinford Helmsley. Her hands were shaking as she checked one more, and found the name she expected to find: Sheridan Hope.
"Finding everything all right?"
Charlotte screamed a little in surprise, and spun around.
Mr Holmes was leaning in the doorway, still in his coat and hat, arms folded across his chest. "You really shouldn't have left the front door open, you know," he said. "I might not have known you were here otherwise."
She scrambled to her feet, and tried for as much dignity as she could muster. "Who are you really, Mr Holmes?"
"You've been rooting through my closets. I think you can call me Sherlock," he said, a dry smile on his mouth. "You know who I am. In fact, you're the first one who's ever figured it out."
He laughed then, a rich, surprising sound. "Surely I don't need to say something about the impossible versus the improbable, do I?"
Sherlock shook his head. "I don't know." His brow furrowed at the words.
"You've been alive since the last century," Charlotte pressed.
"Oh, much longer than that," he said.
Charlotte leaned back on her heels, and held on to the closet door. "The uniforms..."
"All mine, as you deduced." He said the word with a half-wink. "I try to avoid war as a rule. It's tiresome beyond belief, but sometimes unavoidable."
"I think... I think I need to sit down," Charlotte said, feeling the blood drain from her face.
Sherlock stepped forward and took her gently by the elbow, leading her to one of the stacks of boxes and sitting her down. "It was a shock to me as well."
"What, one day you just... didn't die?" Her laugh was harsh and stuck in her throat.
His expression softened a bit, but he reached into his trouser pocket and brought out a small penknife. She flinched when he opened it. "Just watch," he said. He rolled up his shirtsleeve and drew the blade of the knife down over his forearm hard enough to crease the skin, but nothing happened.
"It could be d—"
"Dull?" he said, and promptly sliced off one of the buttons of his coat with a single, swift moment.
Charlotte took the knife from him before he could stop her and dragged it lightly over the tip of her finger. There was a sting, and several beads of blood welled up immediately. She hissed.
"That was foolish," Sherlock observed, pulling out a handkerchief so she could wrap her finger.
"So it's not dull," she said, feeling a smile pulling at her mouth.
"No," Sherlock agreed. "It's not dull. At the moment." They looked at each other for a long moment, and his eyes were warmer than she remembered seeing them before. "You've clearly got a spine to you, I'll say that much. Come downstairs. There might be some tea in the kitchen, but I wouldn't swear to it."
There wasn't, so she wound up making them chamomile tea in her own kitchen after scrubbing off the dust from the spare bedroom in 221B. Their kitchen, the one she'd known for her entire life, seemed unreal in its ordinariness compared to the madness upstairs.
"So you've just... what, been a detective for hundreds of years?"
"Once I realised it was an option, yes," he said. "It saves me from the worst of the boredom, keeps me in touch with the world."
Charlotte sat her mug on the table. "Wait. In the stories, you had a brother."
"Ah yes. That was all Arthur's doing. He thought I needed humanising." Sherlock grinned at her. "And he wanted to put me in my place every now and then."
"Did... he know?"
Sherlock nodded. "You were the first one to figure it out on your own. He was the first one I told. Poor man. He saw me run down by a cab in the street and insisted on treating my injuries in his surgery. Of course, there were no injuries."
"He was... he was Sacker, wasn't he?"
He gave her a sharp look. "I thought I noticed the dust on my bookshelves had been disturbed." He swallowed some tea and grimaced at the taste. "Yes, although why he gave himself such a ridiculous name, I'll never know."
Charlotte laughed. "It was pretty ridiculous." She studied her teacup, cradled in her hands, then asked, "How much of what he wrote was true?"
Sherlock waved his hand dismissively. "Most of the cases were. Of course, he changed details, and left out almost everything of importance." He checked his pocketwatch. "I'm due back at the Yard in a bit." He studied her intently, and she fought to meet his gaze and not squirm like a bug on a pin. "I could use some help on this case. A woman's help, in particular."
"Me?" So much for dignity. Her voice was a faint squeak. "I don't know anything about being a detective."
"But you do know how to talk to people," Sherlock said. "You've nerve and you're not a fool, which puts you ahead of most of the clods at the Yard."
Her mother would faint. That alone gave the idea some merit. Charlotte straightened up. "What do I need to do?"
Sherlock rose from the table, grinning. "Get your coat. The game, Miss Collier, is on!"
Charlotte stood, paused long enough to put the tea cups in the sink, then grabbed her coat and followed Sherlock out into the damp, rainy afternoon.