Actions

Work Header

From the Mixed-up Files of Aiba Masaki, (Amateur) Detective

Chapter Text

Our journey from the station to my family home took place in absolute darkness. Indeed, I felt a strange shiver pass through me as we rode upon the horse-drawn cart, staring up at the night sky. It was a cloudy night, and only the barest sliver of a moon relieved the darkness. I felt for a moment as though I had been transported back to the Sudan—as though I had never even left the place—but the detective’s hand reaching for mine reassured me that I had indeed returned.

We were cheered by the warm orange glow of the windows as we approached the small estate, and Aiba chattered excitedly beside me of how astonished Lord Kazunari and the valet would be by the tale of our exploits (or, as the detective described it, they should be amazed by “the triumph of his cunning detection and my gallant defense of a lady’s honor”). The detective glanced at me with a half-smile as he spoke the words, and it occurred to me for the first time that perhaps the detective was intending to make me laugh with his foolishness—I wondered how much of his nonsense had been said with a similar aim in mind.

I was grateful that even in the dark I was able to make out the kind expression of his beautiful countenance. Focusing intently (though, I must own, with what secretiveness I could) on the detective, I did what I could to suppress the anxiety threatening to overtake me the closer we approached—the last time I had been in the house had been on the occasion of my parent’s funeral. I had not even stayed the night after their burial.

All such meditations on my past were superseded, however, by contemplation of the violent noises issuing from the residence. I did not like to wake our family’s old groundskeeper, Shimura, at the late hour, so Aiba and I dragged our luggage to the entrance ourselves and began knocking at the door. It was only after loud and repeated rapping that we were rewarded by Lord Kazunari flinging open the door, his appearance distinctly ruffled. After a short greeting, he seized Holmes’ cage from the detective without ceremony, releasing the cat with an order to “make himself useful and bring his master some dead mice.” Holmes, after tumbling out of the cage, recovering his dignity by first licking every part of his body carefully and then hissing disdainfully at his lordship before sauntering off, his ears pricked up as though already on the scent of some new prey (I reflected that it was like the detective to have a cat that must have been a hunting dog in some former life).

I believe Lord Kazunari was on the point of hissing in return; he turned to me with some abruptness, “Forgive me for my ill humor, doctor. But I’ve been chasing the mice out with a broom all day. The kitchen is crawling with them.”

I have misled the reader if you imagine that this conversation was carried on in an everyday, level tone of voice—rather, you must imagine every word shouted at the top of one’s voice, for we were overwhelmed by the din of a hammer and splintering wood. “I’m afraid when we arrived and your man let us in,” his lordship continued to shout, “that we discovered the place in shambles. According to the old man, the living room had flooded earlier this year and the wood floor is stained—Satoshi insists on removing and replacing the boards himself. He’s planning to use the wood for a new piece he has in mind.”

“Piece of what?” I cried as his lordship led us toward the parlour. His lordship sent me a pitying look, as though unable to believe that anyone could be so ignorant, “Why of sculpture. What else could a lot of damaged floorboards be for?” he snorted.

True to his lordship’s words, we discovered a bare-chested Ohno with hammer and crowbar tearing up the floor of my parlor. The valet looked perfectly unconcerned to be discovered so, nonchalantly throwing down his iron bar to greet us, wiping a sheen of sweat from his forehead as he spoke, “I’m afraid, sir, that nearly the whole floor will have to go—the place is in a pitiable state.”

The valet’s words were quite true. Upon leaving for the Sudan, I had left the house entirely in the hands of Shimura, who was ninety if he was a day. At the time, I had been in no state to consider the future in a rational manner, and my only thought had been to escape as quickly as possible from the house that had come to hold such painful associations. Allowing Ohno to return to his work, I explored the house with increasing consternation, noting the state of disrepair into which it had fallen. I felt a pang as I thought of my mother’s horror could she see the current state of her linen closet.

To my advantage, however, was having the detective at my side—he assured me quite seriously that all could be set to rights, it would only take several days of hard work from himself and Ohno but we should soon have the place “ship-shape.” I stared into the detective’s cheerful countenance, shaking my head as I wondered what I had done to deserve such faithful companionship after so much neglect of my responsibilities.

We returned to the parlour where, persuading Ohno to take a rest from his labors, we drank wine directly from the bottles (discovered earlier in the cellar by Lord Kazunari) and ate cheese and toast cooked over the fire (an occasion of much debate between Aiba, his lordship, and myself as to the proper management of one’s tongs—the valet, as might be expected, managed his own toasting with a quiet natural grace). We recounted the discovery of Lady Riisa’s diamond and the arrest of Lord Akanishi. In spite of his earlier words, the detective was even more eager than myself in praising Madame Becky’s remarkable courage and Holmes’ fortuitous arrival.

“Ah, so that is why the doctor’s once handsome face has assumed such a hideous cast,” was Lord Kazunari’s response, smiling as he gestured toward my ever-worsening black eye, “I had suspected another hair-pulling match with our favorite professor.”

“Detective!” I cried in alarm, realizing with some horror that the detective must have recounted my misadventure at Oxford to his lordship.

“Now doctor,” his lordship began chuckling, “Do not fear, I can assure you that Aiba was flattered by your display of…”

“Shall we not all go to bed?” Aiba cried, his attempt to talk casually over his lordship rendered somewhat less casual by his leaping upon Lord Kazunari and forcibly covering his mouth with his hand; I was delighted to observe that Ohno’s affection for his lordship did not prevent him from laughing heartily at the two as they wrestled upon the ground without making even a single move to defend his lordship.

After some time, I was forced in good conscience as a physician to pull the detective from my patient, and we resolved upon sleeping in the bedchambers of the second story, the section of the house that seemed to have escaped the flooding that had so damaged much of the first floor. To my relief, Ohno immediately lit a lamp and led Lord Kazunari away by the hand—I should have been embarrassed to leave our company hand-in-hand with Aiba, yet I do not think I could have coldly left him to make his own way, either.

The detective and I sat before the fire in silence for some time; the cheerful warmth reminded me pleasantly of our (somewhat) peaceful evenings together in the great room at Garden Place, which I had already begun to feel the strongest and most unexpected longing to return to. The detective woke me from my daze with a light touch upon my shoulder, and we made our way arm and arm to the staircase, where the detective suddenly paused and turned to me with a look of uncertainty, biting his lower lip as though frightened to proceed.

Attempting to relieve his distress, I inquired gently, “Is there something you wish to speak to me about, Aiba?”

The detective glanced warily between myself and the long (and currently rather treacherous-looking) staircase. “Jun,” he began after some hesitation, forming each word carefully, “I am concerned by the stress that was placed upon your leg earlier today. I wonder if you would allow me the honor of…” his voice began to fade in the face of my evident astonishment, “carrying...you…up the stairs?” he finished with a squeak, looking positively terrified of my response and beginning to back away.

I was more surprised than offended. My leg had, indeed, been in great pain since my encounter with Lord Akanishi, but I had thought that I had concealed it from the detective—I had taken great pains not to walk with a limp any more pronounced than usual, grimacing only a few times as we boarded and disembarked from the train. How had the detective realized my discomfort?

Aiba carried on hurriedly, “I know that you are perfectly capable, of course…but I fear that I cannot allow you to harm yourself in such a…”

“Aiba,” I interrupted, “were you really able to carry me up the stairs the night of Lord Kazunari’s injury?”

The detected ceased his rambling and responded by nodding slowly, as though endeavoring not to make any sudden movement that might inspire my wrath.

Instead, I found myself unable to prevent a grin of genuine delight. I studied the staircase, and then the set of Aiba’s broad shoulders. “I do not think I can consent to being carried,” I finally offered, “but if you would consent to take me upon your back, I would be very glad of the assistance.”

Beaming, Aiba kneeled down obligingly, and I climbed upon his back, tugging at his hair in gentle remonstrance when he staggered to his feet with a distinct “Oof!”

“You are sure you can manage?”

“Quite sure,” the detective responded evenly (although slightly breathlessly). Holding on tightly, I smiled into his hair while he carried me with surprising ease up the staircase.

“I can feel you smiling,” the detective volunteered in a pleased tone.

“Impossible. I think you must make a better study of anatomy. One cannot feel a smile through the medium of one’s hair.”

“You have clearly never carried a chimpanzee upon your back before. Of course one can feel a smile. I shall prove it to you directly that we reach the bedchamber.”

I was formulating an indignant retort to the effect that I would not bear comparison with a chimpanzee, but the words died upon my lips; at the top of the staircase stood Ohno and Lord Kazunari; the former perfectly impassive while he held a struggling Holmes, the latter grinning like the Cheshire cat as he stood with his arm wrapped about the valet’s waist.

Ohno shoved Holmes into Aiba’s arms as he stepped onto the landing, “He’s been crying and searching for you, sir.”

“But his owner was clearly otherwise engaged,” his Lordship laughed, looking positively delighted at my mortification. “Do not let us interrupt you a moment longer, off to bed with the both of you!” he grinned, gesturing expansively towards the hall.

Any goodwill I had begun to feel toward his lordship dissipated; I kicked Aiba’s side to indicate that he might place me upon my feet, but instead the detective only mumbled “Good night” and hurried down the hall. At first indignant, I forgave him when I noticed that the tips of his ears were turning red.

Unable to imagine occupying the chamber that had formerly belonged to my parents, I guided the detective to the bedroom of my youth. Where I was unceremoniously dumped upon the small bed (I was in sympathy with Holmes’ earlier tumble from his case). Aiba began fumbling for a match to light the room’s candle while I stared up at the familiar cracks in the ceiling, reflecting on how little of my dignity remained after less than a week in the detective’s presence.

I heard the strike of a match and a soft glow illuminated Aiba; he took up the candle and passed it over the walls eagerly as though expecting to uncover some hidden treasure. All his illumination revealed was my wall of bookshelves, each stuffed to the breaking point with novels. I flung a hand across my eyes, recalling with a groan my extensive collection of boy’s adventure stories.

“Such a collection!” the detective enthused, “I knew you were brilliant, Jun, but I had no idea you were such a voracious reader. I believe your collection rivals my own,” he spoke wonderingly, bending eagerly to make out the titles.

“I’m afraid you will not find much brilliance there. It is only my collection of trash. As a boy and as a young man, I believe I read every story of piracy, adventure, war, and foreign places imaginable. Please,” I continued, trying to keep the note of desperation from my voice, “blow out the candle and come to bed,” I urged, hoping to distract the detective from further perusal of my chamber.

To my relief, the detective only gave me a curious glance before extinguishing his candle; we fumbled to undress in the dark. I sat up, pulling at my tie ineffectually; my fingers were heavy—I recalled that I had drunk almost an entire bottle of wine.

Suddenly Aiba was before me in the dark, his hands taking over the task; I reached to unfasten the buttons of his shirt. “You are so methodical, Jun,” he breathed quietly, “I am surprised to find your family home so neglected.” He spoke the words without the slightest hint of accusation.

I could not answer at first; I waited until I had removed his shirt. My voice was suspiciously thick when I spoke, “I am only truly methodical in matters of dress, detective. In every other matter, I am untidy.”

“I doubt that to be true,” the detective replied in a low voice as he began untying my shoes.

It was easier to speak the words in the dark, “When my mother and father passed away within days of each other, I was very eager to be gone. My sister had her husband to return to in Manchester, and I could not imagine staying alone a single day in this house. I had attended them both throughout their illness, but I had…failed,” I swallowed, moving from the bed and kneeling down to begin on Aiba’s shoe laces, “And I have tried never to think of this place since that day. Looking back, I am not sure if I ever mourned them—I simply fled. And then I fled the Sudan. And then I met you,” I concluded, standing to remove the detective’s belt.

“I am thankful you did,” Aiba rasped—I feared that I had once again inspired tears from the detective.

We had finished undressing. “You promised to prove to me that one can feel a smile,” I reminded him sternly.

The detective laughed shakily before pushing me down upon the bed, “Then let me begin the demonstration at once.”

I could hear the smile in his voice.

 

*

 

The next day brought Lady Riisa and Madame Becky to join our party; and the day after brought Professor Sakurai to Hayworth. The following weeks were among the happiest of my life. To return to England in full expectation that loneliness and solitude should be my lot—a solitude relieved only by the patients that I should encounter in my medical practice—and then instead to find myself amongst a companionable circle and experiencing a romantic attachment more precious to me than any former tie—all this was the cause of a happiness more intense than any I had ever felt. Although I believe it is no longer fashionable to confess it, the gratification of having my affection returned by a truly good and superior gentleman proved intoxicating.

The seven (nine if I am obliged to include the cat and the parrot) of us lived a strange, ramshackle sort of existence for those four weeks—we bunked upon couches, in servant’s rooms, and occasionally upon the floor. The house was barely habitable, at first, and it was even more astonishing to see the ladies existing without the aid of their personal maids (apparently they had agreed to act as lady’s maids to one another, their inexperience quite evident in the always precarious state of their stays and coiffures). We lived entirely without servants but for Shimura and his nephew—I could not remove the faithful Shimura from his position, but I urged him to invite his young nephew Daigo to join him in order to assist him with his duties. His nephew proved a strange, tall, taciturn fellow, but an excellent workmen and groundskeeper.

While Lord Kazunari, Professor Sakurai, and Madame Becky worked furiously to prepare the manuscript, Ohno, Aiba, Daigo, Lady Riisa and I did what we could to clean and repair the house (indeed, Lady Riisa astonished me by her facility with a feather duster). In a week, we had the place in a tolerable order, and all that truly troubled us was the necessity of keeping Lord Kazunari’s presence at the estate a secret—while Hayworth could not be well known to the residents of London, my sudden return and the presence of a large party of ladies and gentlemen at the house was certainly a matter of interest to the residents of Hayworth.

Our attempts to remain “under cover,” as the detective phrased it, were not helped by Aiba’s immediate popularity with the village residents. Lord Kazunari kept strictly within the walls of the house (which seemed not to trouble him in the slightest), and the rest of the party confined themselves to the grounds. Aiba, however, insisted on walking into the village, and he returned up the drive with about twenty children hanging off him. I noted once again the detective’s remarkable ability to delight young children, though the children generally seemed to express their love for him by beating him soundly at every chance. Luckily, the appearance of my own visage was generally sufficient to frighten the children away from the estate (a fact that Lord Kazunari never ceased to mention, most often at the breakfast table).

The detective was also an instant success with both Shimura and Daigo. While I could barely get more than a few observations on the weather or the state of the grounds from either of the two men, they frequently disappeared on long rambles in the woods with Aiba, during which they would collect various insect specimens and recount long, convoluted tales of country life that Aiba would then attempt to re-enact before the fireside later in the evening.

But if I sometimes imagined us living in a kind of pastoral utopia (an enchantment I was prone to when taking a walk alone with the detective), there were always more serious matters at hand. The manuscript was prepared at a feverish speed, with Sakurai expediting pages copied by ourselves to his maid, Maki, to be typewritten and delivered to the publisher in Oxford. Within two weeks, the book was prepared—a great triumph, but we also began to hear nearly every day from Lady Riisa’s maid that their London house was receiving anonymous threats directed towards Lord Kazunari, and his safety remained a pressing concern.

However, I must confess to the reader that my energies were not exhausted in anxiety for Lord Kazunari and affection for the detective; in spite of my (now I can admit, rather feeble) determination to overcome my dislike of the professor, his presence in the house proved a continual source of annoyance.

Particularly because the professor proved so integral to the publishing process and so helpful to Lord Kazunari’s political aims; the professor took a passionate interest in the publication, and many of our evenings were scenes of intense debate between the professor, Lord Kazunari, and Madame Becky, as they formulated and schemed what passages and plans would prove most compelling to the public, and how they might best foment popular (and parliamentary) support for the measure. The professor demonstrated such ambition and acuity that he soon accepted an offer to serve as Lord Kazunari’s political secretary (a position, I privately reflected, far more suited to his unscrupulous nature).

More irritating than the professor’s excellence in carrying out Lord Kazunari’s projects was his renewed friendship with the detective. Though I could learn no particulars of their private interview at Oxford, Aiba seemed to have forgiven him, and the two conversed quite pleasantly, and sometimes with an intimacy that I envied—the two had a long history of acquaintance that I did not share in. The professor seemed delighted by Aiba’s forgiveness, and he had no scruples inserting himself into our various pastimes, never hesitating to volunteer as a third companion on our morning walks, or leaning over to examine whatever book Aiba happened to be perusing (the detective, much to my chagrin, was reading his way through my entire library of adventure stories). And the professor was so unfailingly polite and easy in his manner towards me—never once referring to our scuffle—that I sometimes longed to wipe the smile from his insufferably handsome face.

A special source of pain was the professor’s skill at the piano. I might have whole-heartedly enjoyed his excellent playing; he entertained us nearly every night on the piano, and his skill and expression were truly impressive. But I was inwardly tortured by even the most fleeting expressions of admiration upon the detective’s countenance as he watched the professor play.

It was during one of the professor’s performances—as I stood sulking in a dark corner, attempting to set him aflame with my glare—that I was once again approached by my other cause of vexation: the lovelorn Lord Kazunari. His lordship had continually requested that I speak to Ohno on his behalf, but I still hesitated; I could not imagine what I might say to the valet to convince him to Lord Kazunari’s satisfaction. I already believed the valet to be sincerely attached to his lordship, and I thought Lord Kazunari unreasonable to demand the further proof of Ohno agreeing to live with him permanently. His lordship seemed to have arrived at this proposition prior to the preparation of his manuscript, but now that he had little to do but await the book’s publication, the idea seemed to obsess him.

Lord Kazunari had chosen his moment well; following the direction of my glare, he sidled up beside me to offer in a low voice, “Are you confident that you do not wish to possess information that might prove damaging to the professor?”

“I thought he was your friend,” I muttered, glancing towards Aiba to be certain he was oblivious to our conversation; he was pressing his nose fondly against Watson’s beak, so I could assume with some confidence that his attention was distracted.

His lordship shrugged, “Yes, but I am still furious about his misuse of Aiba’s work, and I think he forgives himself for it far too easily. I would not mind watching him squirm a little.”

His lordship’s eyes were narrowed; his tone chilling. I had come to realize in what esteem his lordship held the detective, and how protective he was of his friend; I was relieved that I had not yet incurred his lordship’s wrath. For the first time, I felt a kind of sympathy for the professor. Though I did not like to admit it to myself, I occasionally saw something in the professor’s eyes when he looked at Aiba that convinced me that the professor had not yet forgiven himself for the pain he had occasioned him.

It was then that the professor raised a hand, gesturing for Aiba to join him upon the piano seat, mouthing “Masaki” at the same time. Aiba, looking surprised, joined him after a few moments, watching quietly as the professor’s elegant fingers ran rapidly over the keys. The detective smiled softly.

My course was decided. “You will tell me his secret, regardless of whether I succeed with Ohno or not?”

To my surprise, his lordship released a breath and sagged slightly, visibly relieved by my words, “Yes, as long as you make a sincere attempt. But I think you will be successful. You are very well-liked by Satoshi at the moment—every since you allowed him to keep your floorboards, he considers you a patron of the arts.”

 

*

 

Following Lord Kazunari’s suggestion that Ohno considered me his artistic patron, I chose to confront the valet while he was at work on his sculpture. I had unthinkingly given him permission to work upon the grounds, and the valet had undertaken a project of shocking size, constructing from old and damaged wood, as well as wire provided by Daigo, an enormous structure that somewhat resembled a birdcage or a kind of open air dome. Regardless of its intended purpose, the neighborhood birds seemed to have taken to it as some new form of aviary (much to Aiba, Daigo, and Shimura’s excitement, who were often to be found studying the various creatures that perched themselves upon its lineaments). Ohno had offered no explanation for his choice of material and design, and he never discussed his future plans for the piece. Nor did he require praise or encouragement; he simply worked upon the thing steadily, seemingly content to follow the dictates of his own private vision. Upon my lawn.

I waited until he seemed to be taking a short rest before descending from the house to meet him; he had ceased sanding a piece of wood and was standing back as if to observe his progress. Knowing something of Ohno’s eccentricity, I thought a direct approach might prove most effective.

“Good morning,” I began. Ohno turned slightly, registering my arrival with some surprise before nodding his head in greeting. A gentle smile played across his features; the moment seemed right.

“Lord Kazunari has promised me some damaging information about Professor Sakurai if I speak to you on his behalf. He is currently standing at the kitchen window, staring at us. Do not turn around,” I warned un-necessarily—the valet remained engrossed in examining his own work. “We must appear to be in deep conversation for at least several minutes,” I continued, “or he will accuse me of making no effort. I would be greatly obliged if you would act as though I were convincing you of something for a few minutes.”

Ohno tensed but nodded his assent.

After a pause of about thirty seconds, during which we both stared dumbly at his work, I made another attempt, “You must appear to be talking with me,” I reminded him.

Ohno nodded.

“We could discuss the weather. Or your sculpture,” I offered hopefully.

Ohno began picking his nose.

Desperate, and intensely conscious of Lord Kazunari’s gaze boring a hole into my back, I relented, “May I inquire as to the cause of this…disagreement…between yourself and his lordship?”

The valet turned his face from me with a shrug of his shoulder. Long seconds passed, and I had just given up all hope of a response when he suddenly spoke out clearly, “His lordship would like us to live together upon our return to London, but I have told him that such an arrangement is impossible.”

“May the…obstacle…to this arrangement be got over? His lordship assures me that he would do everything in his power to secure your affection.”

Another long pause. “His lordship has my affection. He need take no pains to secure it. But I cannot live with his lordship.” The valet turned to me, his eyes full of some intense emotion. “Can you imagine me living in his London mansion?” he inquired, his voice deceptively calm.

The image was not an easy one to conjure, certainly—but seeing the pain in the quiet valet’s eyes made me eager to resolve any difficulty. “I am sure his lordship would leave the mansion—he would live anywhere you desired.”

“How should I pay my rent? How should I buy food and clothes?”

I stumbled over the words, “His lordship…surely….”

“Would you allow Mr. Aiba to support you?”

I was taken aback by the question. Now I was silent for some time before responding, “It is true that Aiba and I have the advantage of some equality of income. But were Aiba unable to afford Garden Place, for example, I would not hesitate to…”

“But would you allow him to support you?”

“No,” I answered truthfully, “I would not.”

Ohno turned from me once again; I could not read his expression. “I support myself as a valet, and my position at Garden Place allows me to work as an artist. I doubt I can find another such position, or an employer so good. I cannot live with his lordship until I have earned enough through my own work to support myself.”

I was stunned by the valet’s obstinate pride—but it was similar to my own. “But do you not regret his lordship’s great anxiety….that is to say, the night he arrived at Garden Place, you must have seen how heedless he was of his life—his only desire was to be near you.” To my amazement, the valet’s hand was trembling at his side. I continued in a lower tone, “Perhaps his lordship’s strong desire for you to live with him disguises his fear that you will disappear from his side once again.”

The valet’s hand clenched into a fist—I wondered if I had tread too far. Ohno turned upon his heel and began striding toward the house. I watched the valet enter through the kitchen door, and (irresistibly if inappropriately curious) I observed from a distance through the window as they shared a passionate kiss. Their bodies were pressed close, but from the tense grip of their hands upon one another’s shoulders—as though each were determined to simultaneously push away and restrain the other—I recognized an impasse.

I sighed for my failure. Turning back to examine the strange sculpture, I wondered whether the artist had been trying to construct not a cage but a home.