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Watson's First Case
stillhouse
dbalthasar
Because I couldn't get this one out of my brain...  A school story, of sorts, with James and John.

James Watson sat cross-legged on the end of his best friend’s bed, frowning as he counted up the last of his monthly allowance.  There was enough to take them to the carnival one final time, which was all that was really required, even if it meant no spending money for the next two weeks.  But he needed to be certain.

John Druitt looked warily at him, turning the cricket ball over and over in his hands, rubbing it the way he always did when he was thinking hard.  “James….”

“Because it’s only a theory so far,” James said, and swept the coins together into his hand.

John blinked at him.  He was tall for fourteen, and would be taller still, had a long way to go before he reached his full stature.  “You could let me ask the question.”

James gave his oddly adult smile.  It was an expression that worried the masters, and tended to make the other boys want to hit him just to be on the safe side, but, John, at least, seemed to take it in stride.  “It doesn’t count unless I can prove it.”

“You told me you knew how it was done,” John said.

“Yes.” James drew himself up, rested his chin on his knees.  “Most of it’s trickery.  I figured it out right away.  The mind-reader is very clever, but he’s giving clues to the woman.  The way he asks the question, and the order of the words he uses, tells her what it is he’s holding.  There’s a dwarf or some very small person in the chess-playing automaton, you can tell by the order in which the presenter opens the doors.  Not to mention that there’s a faint but definite smell of gin around it by the end of the night that coincides with a decline in the play. Fire-eating and sword-swallowing aren’t even really tricks, it’s just something you can learn to do.  But the Spring-heeled Jack….”  His voice trailed off, and he glanced at John, uncertainty showing for the first time in his eyes.  “I don’t think he’s a trick at all.”

“His teeth drip flame,” John protested.  “And his eyes glow.  Not to mention that he can jump six feet from a standing start.  It has to be a trick.”

“Well, yes, the dripping flames are a trick,” James conceded.  “I think it’s a compound of white phosphorus, though I’m not entirely sure how it’s applied.  The glowing eyes are certainly enhanced by the lighting, but the jump —” 

He paused again, and John shook his head.  “Is impossible.  No human being could do that.”

“Precisely,” James said.

John eyed him warily.  “Really?”

James nodded.  “I know of three ways the trick can be done.  I’ve thought of three more, but I’ve eliminated all six of them.  They all require some apparatus, either concealed under the platform or, more rarely and dangerously, on the actor himself, and no apparatus is present.  Therefore, Spring-heeled Jack is really jumping over a six-foot fence — from, as you say, a standing start.” He paused.  “It’s not a trick.  And when you’ve eliminated the impossible, that which remains, however improbable, has to be the answer.”

“What remains is also impossible,” John said.

“Evidently not.”  James scooted off the bed, and pocketed the handful of coins.  “In any case, I intend to prove it isn’t.  Are you coming?”



The carnival was closing for the night, the last of the village crowd herded none too subtly toward the edge of the camp.  John drifted with them, matching the pace and the movement with unconscious ease.  They had changed out of their uniforms — James, of course, had a cache of clothes hidden in a hollow tree just outside the school wall — and there was a decent chance they might make it back in through the dormitory window before their absence was noticed.  If James would only hurry. 

He risked a glance over his shoulder, saw James slip into the shadows beside the nearest tent.  Instinct kept him from stopping, checking his own pace:  there were people watching, the sword-swallower by his tent, the gypsy at the steps of her caravan, and he knew better than to betray any hesitation.  He kept moving, always on the edge of some group or other, until at last he could slide into the darkness himself.  He put a tree between himself and the flickering lanterns, and stopped to consider his next move.

They had seen the show again, James pointing out sotto voce how the tricks were done, and John had to admit that the other boy seemed to be right.  But of course James usually was.  He could hear people moving through the tall grass at the edge of the carnival camp, rested his back against the tree to wait.  Spring-heeled Jack had performed his act without a hitch, bounding into the air without apparent effort, flame dripping from the corners of his mouth, eyes glowing in the lamplight, hands curved as though the fingers were tipped with claws.  For a finale, he’d leaped over the six foot fence from a standing start, jumped back again while the crowd was still exclaiming and applauding, and then leaped off the stage and vanished before he’d even begun to come down.  That hadn’t been part of the program before, and John wondered if it had been entirely planned. 

The footsteps were moving away.  He risked a glance, and saw James watching from just beyond the tent that housed the actors.  James lifted a hand, beckoning; John nodded, and edged toward him, keeping well away from the light.

“Well?  Did you spot any apparatus?”  His voice was just above a whisper.

“No,” James murmured.  “There wasn’t any.  And now they’ve lost Jack.”

“What?”

“They’ve lost him.  He wasn’t supposed to jump off like that, the barker’s worried and the mind-reader’s more than a bit fussed —”

Sure enough, the barker and his assistants were milling about outside the tent, and as John watched, the mind-reader appeared in the doorway, holding out a pair of lanterns.

“Back,” John said, and they retreated further into the trees.

“I was right, though,” James said.  “It’s not a trick, which means that Spring-heeled Jack isn’t human —”

Something moved in the trees above them, a rustle of more than leaves and wind.  John shoved James to the side as a stocky shape dropped from the trees.  It landed lightly, too lightly, a shape like a man in stiff pale leather, eyes glowing like a cat’s, hands crooked to expose claws that glinted in the firelight.  There was no fire on its lips, but the shape of its mouth was wrong, too long and thin to be a man’s.  James stood his ground, his eyes flicking from point to point, assessing, memorizing.  Spring-heeled Jack snarled, a weird rattle deep in its throat, and slashed at him.  James jumped back, stumbled, falling, and John reached for the cricket ball in the pocket of his jacket.  He flung it as hard as he could, straight at the small of the creature’s back.  He heard it hit, heard the thing give a soft angry mew, and it leaped straight up again, disappearing into the canopy of the trees.

“James —”

“I’m fine,” James said.  John reached for him anyway, hauled him to his feet, looking up to be sure Jack wasn’t doubling back.  “I was right, that wasn’t human —”

“Yes,” John said.  He owed him that much.  “But this isn’t the time.”

James blinked, some of the excitement fading.  “No. I suppose not.”

“Come on,” John said, and shoved him toward the path that led back to the school.



“All right,” John said.  They had made it safely back over the wall and into their room, sat now together on James’s bed, backs to the wall and shoulders pressed together.  James had locked the window and wedged it with his pocketknife, but neither one of them felt quite safe enough to sleep.  “What was it?”

“I don’t know,” James said.  He leaned a little harder against the other boy, grateful for the solid warmth of his body, the strength of his arm.  That was disturbing in a way he didn’t really want to examine, and he frowned, turning his attention to Spring-heeled Jack.  “It isn’t human,” he said again.  “And not something entirely supernatural, like a demon or a devil.  Or, I suppose, an angel, though this is hardly what one would regard as angelic behavior.”

“Why ever not?” John asked, with a wry smile.  “Once you’ve gone this far —”

“Because a cricket ball hurt it,” James said, impatiently.  “It was clearly corporeal, and, for a guess, not terribly intelligent, or it would have ignored what was ultimately a fairly minor attack.”  He closed his eyes, summoning up the image he’d imprinted on his memory.  “More or less man-like in shape, with thick skin, clawed hands, wide mouth — it could almost be reptilian, except that I don’t know of a species of reptile that leaps like that.  But it has to be some species that hasn’t officially been discovered, or is believed to be a legend —”

“James.”

James gave him a sidelong glance.  He recognized the note in John’s voice, the warning that he was about to go too far, and he’d learned to trust the other’s judgement. 

“The carnival’s moving on tonight,” John said.  “If you say anything, you’re just going to get into trouble, and I, personally, would like to get out of this without a caning.  So can we just leave it that you were right?”

“But I don’t know what it was,” James said.  “I have some theories, but no data.”

John sighed.  “If I help you find your data, will you at least do it discreetly?  No hints to the masters, no awkward questions?  Just books?”

That was fair, and more than James had expected.  He could get John to search the school’s library — books on reptiles, first, with an emphasis on jumping lizards, if any — while he himself went through the Proceedings of the Royal Society.  The volumes were almost up to date —

“James,” John said again.

“Yes.” James saw the question in the other boy’s eyes and answered it.  “Yes, I agree.  Just books.”

“Good.”  John put his arm around James’s shoulders, pulled him sideways in a rough hug.  James relaxed awkwardly into the embrace, elbowed him fondly.

“Thank you.  For — was it a leg cutter?”

“Idiot,” John said.  “That was unknown to the Laws of Cricket, and almost certainly illegal.”

“Well, whatever it was —”  James paused.  “Thank you.”

“You’re my friend,” John said.
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Oh, God, I am pretty much dead of "aww." Oh, boys. Such strange and charming little creatures they are -- and of course ultimately doomed, but at this age they're completely adorable.

I can see that James at fourteen would be irritating as hell, to anyone who didn't like that kind of thing. But John clearly does, given his feelings for James and Helen. And I can see this teenage!James really clearly -- ten going on thirty, far too old for his age mentally and a little young emotionally, and not quite ready to come to terms with the adult world.

I really love this!

Thank you! I think James really was ten going on thirty at this age, not all ready to deal with anything that might be more emotionally complicated than "John's my best friend." While John is fascinated by clever (and probably the only person in the school who hasn't hit James more than twice) and just barely able to see that they might be playing with fire. But it's James, so...

This is utterly adorable! Little James and John are as cute as cute things, and still utterly themselves. James has to know how it works, and John plays backup with a cricket ball. Thank you for this wonderful look at how it was before it all went wrong!

Glad you like! They had to have been this close once, or James wouldn't have been able to needle John so skillfully...

Oh yes. Just adorable!

Hey, I recced this on the gateworld John and James thread, but I didn't realize it was locked. A couple of people tried to read but couldn't see it. Would you mind unlocking it, perhaps?

Thank! They are kind of cute, before it all goes horribly wrong....

But I like that at the end, after everything, they were still friends... Even though they still had underlying issues with John's past behavior, at the end of the day their epic Bromance survived.

This is a brilliant romp! I love the way that James has everything worked out, and John's swift action with a cricket ball. And the classic school story way that this could have been a big lethal mess, but now nobody will ever know.

Thank you! You just know they were trouble at that age!

And the classic school story way that this could have been a big lethal mess, but now nobody will ever know.

I'm glad that worked - it was fun to try.

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Thanks! I was figuring that if Abnormals are out there, then people are going to stumble across them now and again (and Spring-heeled Jack is a Victorian myth-thing), but most of them aren't James, and don't realize what they're seeing. And John is a useful sort to have around, especially with a cricket ball in hand!

This is great fun. I love the use of the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack and that James figures it all out.

Thank you! It was kind of irresistible - there are so many Victorian oddities to play with, and the thought of James and John as schoolboys together...

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