Actions

Work Header

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

Chapter Text

The two of us were back in our coats just as Madame Becky and Lady Riisa stumbled upon our clearing; both ladies looked exceedingly refreshed. “The day grows hot,” Lady Riisa observed cheerfully, “let us return to the house.”

“I see that you’ve had no luck today, ladies,” I could not help observing, catching Madame Becky’s eye as I gestured toward the notable lack of game retrieved by the two ladies.

“And you’ve got leaves in your hair, gentlemen,” Madame Becky returned, eyes brimming with mirth.

My hand flew to my hair where (of course) I found nothing; Madame Becky laughed heartily at my expense. Aiba, on the other hand, looked as though he were wearing a laurel wreath, and I took a few moments to pull the leaves from his hair before we set off toward the house.

As we walked, both the detective and myself seemed filled with a sense of buoyancy; while I cannot speak for the detective, I believe that I had spent the last three weeks in a state of incredible tension, unaware of how tightly wound I had become until the rush of exhilaration that followed. The two of us could not stop laughing nor harassing one another; if not for my leg, we would have raced each other to the house. Instead, we had to content ourselves with throwing handfuls of leaves at each other while the ladies looked on in amusement at our antics.

One cannot lay a hand upon a lady, even in jest, but Hayworth provided new victims for our high spirits—particularly as Lord Kazunari greeted us at the door, looking anxious to speak with us. Before his lordship could speak a word, Aiba and I had swept his jacket up over his head, and, while his lordship cursed us most violently, Aiba ran off to seize a perfectly impassive Ohno in his arms and twirl him about the parlour; Professor Sakurai cried out in warning as the pair knocked over a side table. I held his lordship in a headlock for a very satisfying minute before he managed to break free, spluttering that “Aiba’s madness had infected me and that both of us should be carted off to Bedlam on his orders as soon as possible.”

Taking pity on his red-faced lordship, I finally relented, “Have you had news?” I inquired, attempting to smooth out my expression into one of polite interest.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I have,” he grumbled as he fussed with his jacket and hair, “Very critical news, though I doubt you will be interested in it, considering the state of post-coital idiocy into which you have fallen.”

His lordship’s words sobered me instantly. “Nino…” I hissed warningly, anxious lest any other members of our party should have heard him.

His lordship simply smirked, having neatly recovered the upper hand in our conversation, “I take it your outing was a success. You can thank me later, preferably by rendering me some service without question. However, I will not press the matter now,” his lordship continued in a placating tone, observing my thunderous expression, “because I can now report that our publication is a success.”

His lordship broke into a boyish, almost shy grin as he passed me the morning’s London paper (specially delivered each morning by train and messenger to Hayworth). The front page headline read: Publication of Lord Ninomiya Kazunari’s “Notorious Streets of London: The Journey of One Famed Aristocrat Into the Bowels of Our City, Involving the Most Incredible and Salacious Adventures, With a Special Plea for the Reform of Our City’s Poor Laws” sparks publishing sensation; Bestseller inspiring cries for urban reform.”

“I see you decided on the title suggested by Aiba,” I observed dryly, but the grin that I could not repress assured his lordship of my real pleasure at the news, for he only smiled happily in return.

“Of course, we cannot be certain that the work’s popularity will translate into real success for the reform bill, but…”

“The iron is hot,” the professor asserted, entering our conversation, “and now is the time to strike. If you will allow us to remain in your home for the next two weeks, doctor,” the professor bowed in my direction, “I believe we may work from here to organize the popular interest into a movement of support. The public is already crying out for an appearance by his lordship, but I believe from Maki’s reports of the threats reaching Lord Kazunari’s residence that the city is still too dangerous. Let us wait, and have his lordship return to London in the guise of a conquering hero to propose the bill.”

“Of course,” I replied, a certain stiffness in my tone as I addressed the professor, “I have already assured his lordship that he may reside here as long as necessary.”

“So you think my plan a good one, doctor?” the professor asked, looking into my countenance searchingly, as though truly anxious for my opinion.

I frowned. “Yes,” I responded shortly, “I think his lordship is right to wait to return to London. The delay may make the spectacle all the more impressive when he returns.”

The professor looked thoughtful, but there was also a gleam of restless excitement in his countenance. “We have much work ahead of us,” he murmured, and I could almost see the cogs turning in his mind as he imagined all the steps he should take to publicize the cause and secure political support for the measure.

Aiba interrupted us by seizing his lordship in a fond embrace (his lordship was nearly suffocated, as the detective still held Ohno in his arms—the two men were smashed against one another). “That is true,” the detective nodded toward the professor, “but for tonight, at least, let us celebrate this good news together.” The detective’s ecstatic smile rendered all opposition useless.

 

*

 

I drank little that evening, too preoccupied in keeping the rest of the party (the ladies included) in tolerable order during our celebration. Not that they should have done any real harm, but the parlour had already lost an end table, and I feared that with only the slight encouragement of a few drinks Ohno should be tearing up the floorboards again; the valet had to content himself with lying with his arms wrapped about Lord Kazunari, his lordship’s back resting against his chest, tracing designs upon the floor with his foot as his lordship and the detective drunkenly wrote out a detailed “Plan for General Success” together that I believed should prove illegible the next morning.

I had just finished convincing Madame Becky to release a yowling Holmes and go to sleep before the fire with Lady Riisa (Madame Becky kept insisting that “the darling kitty loved her kisses”) when I was startled to hear the professor addressing me. “Jun,” he intoned darkly from his seat at the piano, “come and turn the pages as I play.”

I approached warily; I had thought the professor relatively sober—indeed, he had seemed strangely melancholy all evening—but as I watched his fingers stumble over the keys, I realized that I had been mistaken. “Sho,” I pronounced the professor’s name with some sarcasm, hoping to inspire an apology for how informally he had addressed me.

Instead, the professor only raised a hand to beckon me closer. “Jun, I must speak with you. Instantly,” he commanded.

Bemused, I suggested with what gentleness I could muster, “Perhaps you would like to rest now, professor?”

The professor banged harshly upon the keys. “No!” he cried. I sent an anxious glance in the detective’s direction. “No,” the professor repeated more quietly, “I must demand something of you first.”

I sighed, consenting to stand beside him and turn the pages as he began slurring his way through several passages of Beethoven. “Ever since Eton,” the professor began, his face flushed and eyes dark, but his words still distinct, “Masaki has loved animals. Even when we were boys, he always took them in. Birds with broken wings, abandoned kittens, wounded rabbits…he would not listen to the masters, and his room was always filled with animals, no matter how often he was caned for it.”

“Hmmm,” I murmured, my attention drifting from the professor’s discourse as I watched Aiba falling asleep in the easy chair. His mouth was falling open. His lordship and the valet had been embracing passionately for some time, and I was relieved when they fell behind the sofa and out of sight of the rest of the company.

My attention was arrested, however, by the professor’s next words, “But he wasn’t just punished by our masters,” the professor continued, his fingers gaining more confidence, “his kindness brought about another punishment—as soon as the animal was well, he released it. I watched him cry as though his heart was breaking every time he said goodbye to another creature.”

I stopped turning the pages, lost in contemplation of the detective’s face as it was illuminated by the orange glow of the fire. I could easily imagine what the professor had described; I recalled the detective’s wracking sobs upon our return from St. Giles.

The professor’s fingers stumbled; he concluded the piece with a jumble of discordant notes before pushing back the piano seat and standing before me, seizing me by the collar. “Do not,” he commanded, his gaze intense, his breath reeking of whiskey.

If the professor had not been intoxicated, I should have knocked him down. I still might have but for the undercurrent of sadness in his tone. “Pardon?” I gritted out in reply, struggling to rein in my temper.

“Do not stay with him if you plan to leave him once you are healed…if you are just another broken thing that he has taken in until you leave him…” the professor’s voice was rough; to my astonishment, a tear slipped from his eye.

I loosened the professor’s (already slackening) grip on my collar. “Professor, I have no intention of leaving the detective’s side.” I pushed him to the piano seat by his shoulders, perhaps more forcefully than necessary, “Only Aiba’s express command could cause me to depart from him. And even then, I am not certain that I would obey him.”

The detective’s head hit the keys with a bang; I was furious enough to leave him there to sleep. I hoped sincerely his face would be a pattern of keys by morning.

I turned away from the professor, my heart turbulent. I was angry and shaken by the professor’s words—yet witnessing the depth of his concern for Aiba left me in curious sympathy with Professor Sakurai. I had always thought of us as very different men, but perhaps I was more discomfited by the similarities between us.

Looking upon the detective’s sleeping countenance, I was overcome with gratitude—gratitude that I was beside Aiba and not, like the professor, condemned to speak my regrets into an unfeeling instrument, a green parrot named Watson resting upon my back.

 

*

 

The next morning at breakfast, the professor joined us last, hesitating near the empty chair beside my own. The professor was pale (to be more accurate, a little green-looking), and he was glancing at me with a furrowed brow expressive of deep concern—I guessed that he possessed some unsavory memories of last night’s celebration. After some time I had relented and, with Aiba’s assistance, had dragged the professor from the piano keys to the sofa, but I knew from experience how disconcerting it was to wake upon an unfamiliar sofa with a parrot sitting atop your head.

“Sho,” I motioned for the professor to take the seat beside me, “Good morning. Would you like some coffee?”

There was an audible gasp from around the table—even Holmes paused in the middle of licking his paw. From the corner of my eye, I perceived Aiba beaming in my direction. Apparently, my dislike of the professor had not been as well-concealed as I had hoped.

With an expression of shock, the professor lowered himself gingerly into the chair, as though he were expecting a mine to explode beneath him at any moment. When he was seated and I had poured him a cup of coffee, he finally assumed an expression of relief, and his eyes evidenced both gratitude and something like mischief as he replied with a wry smile, “Thank you.” And after a pause—“Jun.”

Aiba reached across the table to shove a piece of buttered toast into my mouth. From that morning on, a truce existed between Professor Sakurai and myself.

 

*

 

It was well that I had overcome my dislike—or perhaps I should write, my antipathy—of the professor, as we spent the next two weeks in close quarters. Hayworth’s telegraph and telephone office—built several years ago in a frenzy of optimism during which the village council had imagined that someone would actually wish to communicate with Hayworth, but then abandoned after its first year of existence—became our headquarters, and we spent almost eighteen hours (if not more) a day engaged in sending cables, telephoning, and letter writing, orchestrating our campaign and contacting the London and national press.

His lordship, Professor Sakurai, and Madame Becky seemed engaged in a contest as to who could prove most dedicated to the cause, and it was often that I had to insist (as a medical practitioner) that Madame Becky return to the house and sleep.

The detective was also an enthusiastic and invaluable participant in this work, keeping spirits at headquarters high and proving particularly talented at the writing of pleading letters—he had the best record among us of securing funds from wealthy donors, and of having his editorials published in local papers. Aiba proved so dedicated to assisting Lord Kazunari that, more often than not, I ended the night by covering the detective with my jacket as he slept sprawled across towers of documents. I also learned a particular talent of the detective’s—even in the deepest sleep, he would seize my hand tightly in his own, and I spent my share of nights sleeping upon the desk beside him.

Ohno, unfortunately, proved useless at letter writing (unable to include those pleasantries and compliments necessary in addressing strangers, social graces apparently totally unknown to the valet), but he was also the most talented among us at operating the telegraph and telephone.

But Ohno had another project upon his mind; if he spent many hours a day assisting Lord Kazunari, he also worked feverishly upon his “sculpture.” Indeed, on the very last evening before our return to London, the valet was still hammering at the project. The great wooden lattice now rose high to the sky, resembling a kind of wide, squat, circular tower with an open roof and turrets. I was astonished that he had completed the project with materials gleaned from the house’s renovations; I was also horrified by the structure’s permanent residence on my lawn.

On our final day at Hayworth, I approached the artist just as the afternoon light was beginning to wane, watching as he descended the tall ladder he had built himself to land lightly upon the ground. We exchanged a short greeting, then turned to stare upon his masterwork. As usual, Ohno sought no opinion; he only gazed with a look of quiet satisfaction, caressing the structure as though it were as dear to him as his lover. I thought it resembled a cage more than ever.

“It looks ghastly. Like a prison in a gothic novel,” I offered frankly, wondering how the artist would respond.

As I might have predicted, Ohno was unperturbed by my evaluation; I doubt his expression would have changed had I declared it a work of genius. But I was surprised when he turned to me with a smirk and an expression of suppressed glee, suddenly reminding me of no one so much as Lord Kazunari, “The work is still unfinished, sir. These are only its bones,” he smiled, squinting up into the rays of sunlight catching the tops of the wooden turrets.

This was alarming news. But before I could protest his abuse of my artistic patronage, I found myself swept into Aiba’s arms, rendered breathless by his sudden proximity and his firm grip upon my arms as he dragged me into position; the detective, to my amazement, had brought his camera from London to Hayworth, and now he was insisting on a group portrait before we departed the next day. Aiba declared that the mellowing early evening light was “ideal” for photography, and he further insisted on arranging our party before Ohno’s strange creation—he went so far as to refer to the piece as our “dear tenth companion,” sending a shiver down my spine at the thought of the structure coming to life. An enthusiastic and determined detective (in his deerstalker hat, no less) was irresistible, however, and soon we were all arranged to his satisfaction before the sculpture. It took us some time to restrain Holmes, and even longer to persuade Watson to make one of the party. Finally, we were all in place, and stood obediently frozen as the detective opened the shutter before sprinting to assume his place in the photograph.

The strange lattice-work of Ohno’s masterpiece as our background. Daigo, a shovel in hand; Shimura, peering into the distance; Professor Sakurai, frowning and stiff; Ohno, gazing blankly directly into the eye of the camera; Lord Kazunari, smirking, with his right hand placed in a very un-gentleman-like position behind Ohno; myself, looking confused and off to the side; and Aiba, smiling brightly enough to blind. Madame Becky and Lady Riisa, dressed all in white, seated with ladylike decorum on delicate garden chairs set before us, and Holmes (as suspiciously and uncharacteristically docile as the two ladies) seated in Madame Becky’s lap. Watson is a mere blur high above the detective’s head—he never ceased flapping his wings during the exposure. A strange group, one would say, wondering what possible set of circumstances could have brought such a collection of individuals together.

I trace my fingers over the photograph now; it sits beside this paper on my desk as I write. I took the photograph out of its frame weeks ago, and its edges are already frayed and its surface worn smooth from the repeated scrutiny of touch. Although the detective had cried for us all to be still “on pain of death,” after assuming his position by my side he had reached for my hand; my look of confusion is directed towards the long, rough fingers entangling themselves with mine. You cannot see our clasped hands in the photograph—the detective’s sudden movement rendered our hands a blur in the final exposure. Each time I study this image, it recalls the sudden warmth of the detective’s hand in mine as the chill evening air set in, the fast panting of his breath and the rapid rise and fall of his chest as he came to rest beside me.

I thought that perhaps our final night ceremonies were at an end after this solemn memorial photograph, but I was astonished to discover, when I re-entered the house, a cake awaiting me, bearing the strange and lengthy legend covering every bit of its surface, Many Thanks to Doctor Jun for the use of Hayworth and his invaluable assistance in all our endeavors. The detective was smiling shyly at my surprise while Lady Riisa and Madame Becky produced crackers out of thin air, and I was surrounded by tiny explosions and applause as I performed the honor of slicing the cake. I must confess that the taste left something to be desired, but I was already thoroughly satisfied when, to my much greater amazement, Ohno and Aiba left the room for a few moments to return bearing my phonograph.

I gaped. Some cake may have fallen from my mouth (at least, judging from Lord Kazunari’s delighted laughter, I suppose that something equally embarrassing must have occurred). My formerly broken phonograph was placed before me—perfectly reassembled, its pieces gleaming and wood shining brightly as though recently polished. My expression must have adequately expressed my delight—at least, Aiba looked sufficiently pleased by my reaction. “We have fixed it, Jun,” he explained excitedly, “Ohno, Nino, Sho and myself have all had a hand in it.” (The professor had the grace to look a little shame-faced and mutter an apology for destroying it in the first place before Aiba continued). “There were a few moments when we despaired of the task, but we managed to pull through in the end.” The detective began fumbling with its parts, “It’s not quite as good as new…there is a crack here…and here,” he mumbled, pointing out the offending areas, “and a scratch upon the side…but it still plays, Jun. It will play anything!” he exclaimed. Ohno produced a record, and soon Meditation de Thais filled the small kitchen.

Words were inadequate to express my gratitude then, and I can hardly write of that evening now. I was only relieved that the party understood my stunned silence for happiness, and that Aiba did not question the tears that came to my eyes. I surprised myself with my response—it was only a phonograph, I reminded myself sternly. But to have something that I had assumed to be lost forever returned to me—when I had entertained no hopes of its recovery—it reminded me of my first meeting with the detective, when he had returned my best top hat. It seemed like a small miracle.

It was later that night, when the detective and I had retired to a garden bench to admire the stars, that I found the courage to make my request of Aiba. We were still able to hear the music of the phonograph as it continued its rounds in the kitchen; his lordship and Ohno had fallen long ago into a slow, drifting, passionate kind of dance, pressing each other close as though they desired to melt into one another, while the professor was waltzing with Madame Becky and Lady Riisa in turns (the lady unoccupied by the professor taking up Holmes as her partner).

We had been silent for some time before I asked, “Aiba, would you be so good as to accompany me somewhere early tomorrow morning? Before our train departs?”

I could not see the detective’s expression, as our temples were pressed together and our faces close, but I felt him tense slightly at my words. He did not question me, however; he only replied in a low, serious voice, “Of course. I would accompany you anywhere, Jun.”

“Thank you,” I breathed, relieved that the detective had not requested further explanation. “But first, you must promise me one thing.”

I felt the detective tense again—I smiled at the thought that he was already preparing himself to perform some great feat or accomplish a difficult task. “Anything that it is in my power to perform, I will promise it,” he replied firmly.

“When you accompany me tomorrow, promise me not to cry.”

 

*

 

I laid the flowers I carried upon the ground and thought.

“The house is in very good condition, now,” I finally began, “Shimura has even re-planted the garden. It has all the old flowers, mother, but Daigo has added some new plants. You would like him, father, he takes care of Shimura well and is an excellent shot. I am sorry that it took me so long to return home, and about the sculpture on the lawn.” I could not help smiling as I confessed that particular piece of news. “The last letter I received from Tsubaki said that she was very happy with her husband in Manchester. I will travel there myself soon, and make sure of it. I am very well. I have found a place in London and I am surrounded by many good friends.” I swallowed, unsure how to proceed but certain that all that was really important still remained to be said—my throat was closing involuntarily, as though it were unwilling to allow me to voice my feelings. I swallowed again. “I miss you both. Thank you, and I’m sorry. I will return soon.”

Unable to continue, I turned away from my parents’ graves toward the detective, who was seated on a mossy tree stump some feet away. He was watching me intently and, as I had predicted, his eyes were swimming. He was making a valiant effort to hold fast to his promise, though, blinking his eyes furiously and wiping a rough tweed sleeve across his face. I offered him my handkerchief when I reached him, “Forgive me, detective. My request was a selfish one. I release you from your promise,” I urged him.

“I am quite well, Jun,” Aiba insisted stubbornly, waving away my handkerchief, “It’s only this damn pollen out so early in the morning,” he choked out, eyes red. The detective gave a prolonged, manful sniff before seizing my arm and bringing me to his side. The trunk was not quite large enough for both of us to sit comfortably, but I did not mind seating myself with my spine against the detective’s. It was easier not to face him, just now. I could still hear some sniffling coming from his direction, but I chose not to wound Aiba’s pride by referring to it. “As if I would break my promise,” he was muttering quietly.

I took a deep breath, staring up at the stone church spire nearby. The churchyard was always beautiful, and it was especially so in the early morning light. It was cold—I could feel the true beginnings of winter in the biting air—and our breaths left our mouths in clouds as we shivered in our coats, scarves, and hats. A few minutes pressed back to back, however, soon warmed us.

As soon as I felt that the detective’s breathing grow even, I began, “Aiba, I would like to tell you about my time in the Sudan. I am not sure if it is something that you would like to hear, or that I should recount to you, but lately it has pressing on me strangely—I feel as though it would be a great relief to me if a friend would listen to my story.”

I felt the detective’s shoulders jump in surprise and then (with his conscious effort, I think) relax to resume their usual position. “If you think that it would be a relief to you to tell me, Jun, I am happy to listen.”

“Thank you.” I closed my eyes, thinking where to begin. It was so quiet—even the birds seemed still asleep—that it seemed I could hear our hearts beating in unison. “As I think you are already aware, Aiba, after my parents’ death I became very desperate, more so because I felt that I had failed in their treatment. I am not sure what course I would have taken, but I was saved by an old friend of mine from school, Oguri Shun. He was a very good man, sometimes eccentric and moody, but also very courageous and generous.”

“Like you,” Aiba murmured softly—I could hear the smile in his voice. I felt something clench inside my chest.

“We were very similar in some ways. Mostly in our tempers, I think,” I grimaced. “He attended my parent’s funeral, and he invited me to join an expedition into the Sudan that he was a member of—the forces were looking for an additional doctor, and he was confident that I would be accepted. I had always dreamed of foreign travel and adventure—such dreams made up my whole childhood, and I had consented to become a doctor only because my father had demanded it. I agreed, leaving England immediately and without regret.”

I opened my eyes, staring down at the frost upon the ground and trying to recall the blistering heat and sands of the Sudan. “But the longer I remained with the expedition, the more I became disenchanted with our presence there. We were meant to subdue local resistance to the British government and secure the empire’s financial interests in the region. But my adventure was more of a bloody, sickening mess than I had expected it to be—I wondered why we were even there, meddling in the affairs of a people whose language we did not even speak. I saw…” I stopped myself. There was a difference, surely, between telling Aiba my history and needlessly inflicting my own demons upon him—how could I recount to him my memories of massacres, or of dead women and children?

“I grew very disillusioned,” I began again, “and determined to return to England. But before I was able to execute that plan, our party was attacked by some local fighters. We were in a field of land mines, and we were unprepared. I was behind an overturned cart, scanning the area for the injured, when I witnessed Shun being cut down.” For several moments I could not continue, but at least I was not shaking, as I usually did when I thought of this moment. I tried to imagine that Aiba’s broad, still back was my own and remain calm. “I ran out into the field. A mine exploded at some distance. I was far enough away to escape with my life, but some shrapnel embedded itself into my leg.” Now I was rushing, my words bleeding into one another. I wondered if the detective could still understand me. “I held Shun in my arms as he died. I could not be separated from him. Worse, several men that I might have treated had I not injured myself—indeed, I might have saved them even injured, if only I had not been so inconsolable—died that day. I betrayed my sacred duty as a physician. Later that night, after the other doctor in our party had saved my leg, I assaulted our commanding officer. I was, of course, immediately dismissed and sent back to England.”

I took a deep breath, strangely relieved now that the worst of my sins had been confessed—the detective truly knew me, now. “But they allowed me to return Shun to England. He was burned in the desert, and I carried his remains back to England. The day before we met, I had returned his ashes to his parents.”

Having finished my account, I found myself waiting anxiously for the detective’s reply, as though his next words would seal my fate. He was the first person to whom I had narrated my history, and I wondered what his opinion of my conduct would be. I was surprised when the detective turned to face me, pulling me into a tight embrace. His voice was low and rough beside my ear, “Thank you for telling me, Jun.” He pressed me even closer—I almost feared I would be crushed, “I am very, very sorry that you lost your friend.”

Although the sentiment was a commonplace one, I was somehow astonished—the detective seemed not to have understood the real thrust of my narrative. I managed to pull back an inch from his shoulder to meet the detective’s dark, concerned gaze, “And…my conduct? You cannot think my behavior was right, or…?”

The detective stared back at me more seriously than I had ever seen him look, “Jun,” he said, his voice gentle yet surprisingly authoritative, “That you loved your parents and friend so dearly is a testament to your good nature. I don’t see what I could find objectionable in that. You were in shock, Jun. You are only human, you cannot but make mistakes—you cannot expect yourself to possess the infallibility of a god. I know that it is in your character to castigate yourself for supposed imperfections, but you cannot expect me to perform that task for you as well.” Aiba smiled, perhaps at my lost expression, and raised a hand to caress my brow, “After all, even the great Sherlock Holmes has been known to make errors in judgment,” he assured me, his face brightening at the thought.

“When?” I cried suspiciously.

The detective’s expression grew more serious, “When he fell in love,” he replied softly.

I felt…unsatisfied by our interview. I had hoped for either condemnation or absolution, but the detective seemed to be refusing both. Unsatisfied as I was, however, I also felt light, almost as though I were floating. The detective’s opinion of me seemed unchanged by my confession, and happiness coursed through me. I could not help reaching up to pet the detective’s soft hair, almost laughing in my relief.

The detective looked back at me seriously, however. “When I left the university, the chimpanzee I kept for my studies was given to the London zoo—I did not own him, the university did. I go to visit him every Wednesday when I am in town. He is still well enough, but a cage is a miserable change from the garden he was able to roam in at the college.” I watched the detective’s eyes fill with tears as he spoke.

As odd as his speech might appear to the reader, I understood the detective’s intent perfectly—as I had confessed to him the secret that weighed most heavily upon my soul, the detective sought to do the same for me: he was telling me of his keenest regret.

It was with some difficultly that I suppressed a smile (of pure affection, not mirth, I can assure the reader) before continuing. “Do not worry, detective. Should you be unable to secure the chimp for your research, the two of us will free him from the zoo by force.”

The detective looked scandalized but intrigued as he gasped, “Jun! You wouldn’t!”

“Care to test that hypothesis?” I challenged him with a raised brow. I was perfectly serious—I would travel to the ends of the earth for Aiba, so a mere theft of a chimpanzee from the London zoo seemed, in comparison, a very small price to pay for his happiness.

I was pulled close, the detective’s voice at my ear again, “I love you, Jun.”

I tried to find the words, but my throat was closing again—I realized that I had been more afraid of my own tears than of the detective’s. I swallowed again and again, and had just mastered myself well enough to reply when I was suddenly overtaken by a violent, shuddering yawn.

Fortunately, the detective was not insulted but only laughed as I scowled. “I hate mornings,” I growled as the detective pulled me to my feet.

The detective kneeled before me, “Then allow me, Jun,” he said, indicating that I should climb onto his back.

I considered his offer. “If you will promise me one thing.”

“Anything,” he smiled up at me, and my heart throbbed painfully in my chest at his sincerity.

“That this is the last time you force me into the humiliating position of being carried upon your back,” I smiled, confident the detective would read my real gratitude for the offer in my eyes.

“Ah Jun,” the detective laughed breathlessly as he pulled me down toward him, “Now that is one promise that I will never be able to keep.”

 

*

 

In spite of our anxieties concerning Lord Kazunari’s safety, our train journey to London proceeded smoothly. Until, of course, we were interrupted in our private compartment by his lordship slamming open the sliding door. Aiba and I sprang apart, hurrying to straighten our clothes and hair (Aiba’s deerstalker had somehow found its way atop my head), fearing that we had been discovered by a train attendant. At the sight of Lord Kazunari, however, I firmly pressed Aiba back down upon the seat cushions and growled, “Nino. Out. Now.”

His lordship scowled. “No. I must speak to Masaki immediately. And privately, Jun,” he demanded imperiously.

Now the detective groaned, pulling me closer by my collar. “Nino,” he whined, “ten minutes, please.”

“Ten minutes!” I exclaimed, offended.

“Fifteen,” the detective amended, struggling to bite back a smile.

“It is concerning Ohno’s future,” his lordship insisted.

I saw that Aiba’s attention was engaged; I overcame my dislike of displaying affection before others to press my lips against his, hoping to distract him. The detective responded to my kiss, but I could feel his concern; I released him with a sigh. Running a hand through my hair, I passed by Lord Kazunari and out of the compartment. “Five minutes,” I hissed, glaring as I passed his lordship.

“Fifteen,” he responded coolly.

I had planned to wait in the narrow hall outside, but seeing Lady Riisa exit the compartment she shared with Madame Becky and sweep down the opposite side of the corridor, I decided to take the chance that Madame Becky might like some company; she greeted me with a warm smile and set aside her novel and the small knife she was using to slice its uncut pages apart.

“Jun,” she smiled, “I feel as though we have not really spoken in ages. So preoccupied with your new romance that you have no time for old friends,” she addressed me teasingly as I seated myself across from her.

“I believe I met Aiba before we become acquainted, Madame,” I reminded her, “and…” I had been about to say, you have a new romance of your own, but I prevented myself at the last moment.

Madame Becky narrowed her eyes shrewdly, “You are aware of Lady Riisa and myself?” she demanded.

I nodded my assent, uncomfortable as I recalled the intimate scene that the detective and I had witnessed in the woods (indeed, I flushed as I then recalled the scene between the detective and myself that had followed).

Madame Becky was smiling, but her clear eyes were unreadable as she continued, tracing the window sill with one gloved-hand as she spoke, “And you are…shocked…by our relationship?” she challenged.

“I would say, surprised. I have no right, of course, to be shocked by any unconventional relationship. But I never suspected that you and Lady Riisa would form such a close bond.”

Madame Becky beamed on me approvingly, “Nor did I, Jun. Indeed, I wonder that I could fall in love with anyone, let alone a woman with such a close resemblance to Nino,” she shivered. I could not help laughing at her expression of horror. “But I found that she had too good a heart for me to resist her.”

Perceiving my skeptical expression, Madame Becky protested, “No, truly, doctor, you do not know her as I do! She plays the role of the haughty lady, but when I returned to the house that day to present her with the diamond, she rejected it, asking me to sell it and use it to help my dancers and those women cruelly seduced and abandoned by Lord Akanishi. Meisa, especially,” Madame Becky’s voice dropped, her eyes dimming with sadness as she continued, “Meisa will soon give birth to his child, Jun. And rather than scorning her, Riisa instructed me to use proceeds from the diamond to settle a life-long income on her, so that she may raise the child in security.”

I had not guessed her ladyship’s goodness and generosity—I saw that she resembled (if not exceeded) her brother in that respect as well. “Then perhaps she is good enough for you, Madame, after all,” I replied gallantly.

Madame Becky’s green eyes were bright again, and she looked almost shy as she continued, “I have never felt so…happy…in my life before, Jun. The bill looks likely to pass, and Riisa convinces me that I may trust in the goodness of people once again. Before these events, I could count the number of people that I trusted in this world on one hand. And that was if I had lost a thumb. But now, I think that the list may be growing.”

“And may I ask whether I am included on that hand?”

“You, doctor, are the pinky,” she replied, raising that digit for my inspection. I could not help laughing. “And you and Aiba?” she inquired eagerly.

I wondered what Madame Becky wished to know—surely the nature of our relationship was evident to the entire party. “Pardon?”

She gave a huff of frustration, kicking my knee with her heel. “Are you planning to make an honest man of him? Have you confessed your love? Given him a ring?”

I was stunned, not least by the violence of the blow to my knee. “Do you think Aiba would…like me to do such a thing? Does he expect a ring?” I cried, a rising sensation of panic in my throat.

“Would you not wish for some assurance?”

“But Aiba has never…”

I was interrupted so instantly that I began to suspect that Madame Becky had been planning to surprise me with this information for some time, “But Aiba will not, Jun. He told me that he does not wish to restrain you in any way, in case you should wish to leave him. You must be the one to assure him that…”

It was in the midst of this interesting conversation that we were interrupted by Lady Riisa, who assured me that her “dreadful brother” had returned to his compartment and that Aiba was now awaiting my return.

I left in a state of confusion, appalled by Madame Becky’s information. The detective believed that I might wish to leave him? I had been privately convinced that the detective was far more likely to leave me.

I re-entered the compartment, completely befuddled, and profoundly irritated by my befuddlement. The detective pulled me to him instantly; I was tempted to disregard Madame Becky’s words and simply enjoy these rare private moments together. But I found it within myself to separate from the detective. I searched his face as he gazed back at me with an expression of innocent surprise, his lips still wet from our kiss.

I licked my own lips. “Detective…Aiba…”

“Yes, doctor?” he prompted helpfully after I failed to continue.

“I have something I must tell you.”

“Something you must tell me?” he encouraged, the corners of his eyes wrinkling with amusement at my stern expression.

“Yes…it is only…” I struggled to locate the most appropriate expression. Instead, “In short…” fell from my lips. “In short…in short…” I stuttered idiotically.

Aiba was looking down at our hands, biting his lip and clasping and unclasping his hands spasmodically—I recognized the signs that he was struggling desperately to contain his laughter.

“In short...I believe it is only right to tell you that, if you should ever wish to…end…our relationship, you must be the one to leave. Because I could never choose to part from you, Aiba—I want nothing more than to remain by your side for the rest of my life. I can promise it.”

Now the detective’s mouth was opening and closing idiotically. I smiled, catching his lips with mine.

 

*

 

Our arrival in London was astounding—his lordship stepped off the platform to a crush of supporters, all cheering his arrival enthusiastically and carrying signs and chanting slogans of support. Lord Kazunari waved solemnly and, with a dignified mien (another of his disguises, I thought), spoke sincerely to them, first to the crowd as a whole and then to individual members that approached him. “Are you sure it was wise to advertise his arrival in London?” I cried, frowning at the professor as the two of us struggled to clear a path for our luggage through the sea of on-lookers.

Professor Sakurai appeared eminently satisfied by our reception, “Yes. This is just what we need to get a picture in the morning post. And it has been a week since Lord Kazunari has received any threats—the tide is turning, Jun! Lord Nakai and Lord Toma have finally come over to our side, and they bring many more with them. Whatever excitement we can create for the measure can only strengthen our position.”

The professor soon abandoned me to speak with a group of women carrying large signs, and I was left to secure a cab for Madame Becky and Lady Riisa, then wait for the crowd to disperse and deliver the detective back to me—he had insisted on remaining close to Lord Kazunari’s side in case his lordship should require his assistance.

When Aiba finally emerged from the chaos, dragging his lordship and Ohno close behind him, he confessed, in a tone of deepest regret, that he had lost his deerstalker hat in the confusion.

 

*

 

The days that followed appear, in retrospect, both impossibly slow and far too brief—how is it that I can recall with perfect clarity the fall of the detective’s hair at the breakfast table, the exact expression of his eyes as they traveled over the pages of A Study in Scarlet, the precise motion of his finger as he caressed the neck of my phonograph. I recall these small details so vividly, yet if asked to account for how we spent those happy days, I should be at a loss—I can only say that we were in love, and we had assured each other of our affections to the extent that both of us (I pray) felt a true, secure happiness and delight in each other’s company.

I have now been staring at this page for some time—I have reached the moment that I fear is of greatest interest to my readers, but of least interest to myself. In fact, I wonder that I should write it—expect that it is the moment that evidences, most completely, Aiba’s bravery and loyalty.

I cannot write of it tonight. I will try again tomorrow. I will write it straight, with none of the digressions and embellishments that have so far colored this narrative. Facts, is what Holmes would demand of me. I will attempt to write in facts.

 

*

 

As is very probably well-known to my readers, the incident occurred at the opening of parliament’s winter session. Lord Kazunari was entering the house amidst a throng of supporters. Professor Sakurai and Madame Becky were in attendance to lead several of the demonstrations and observe the proceedings in the house; Aiba and I were on our way to St. Giles to visit some of my patients, but we had decided to stop along our way to watch Lord Kazunari’s procession from a distance. I carried my bag of medical supplies. Ohno had insisted on remaining at the house. Although he did not speak the words, I knew the valet did not wish to appear in public in his lordship’s presence; he feared for his lordship’s reputation if the press learned of their relationship.

The detective and I did not hold hands in public, but the detective was teasing me by bumping the back of his gloved palm against my own at irregular intervals (is this a fact? It happened, yes, but is it relevant? I can no longer distinguish what I must write and what I should leave unwritten).

Our eyes were scanning over the demonstrators in wonder when I caught sight of a striking-looking young woman; I had a vague memory of having seen her face before, but I could not place it. She was severely, even handsomely beautiful, with dark, gypsy-like features. Her face was pale and grim, however, and she wore a large, stiff black gown and had wrapped several large gray shawls about her figure.

She was following Lord Kazunari’s procession closely; she stared at him fixedly as he ascended to a kind of makeshift platform to wave generously in the crowd’s direction. In the midst of the clamor, she was perfectly still and silent.

The fixity of my gaze drew the detective’s notice—he followed my line of sight. “Meisa,” he breathed, his surprise evident.

I wonder that she should have fixed my attention in that crowd—I can only attribute it to her absolute stillness. But I often wonder if, had I not been so attentive to her presence, the detective would have observed her himself.

It was when she reached into her shawls, her hand emerging with a gleaming pistol, that the detective gave a shout and broke into a run.

I could not follow—at least, I tried to pursue him, but I stumbled. My shouts drew Sho’s attention.

But not soon enough.

Nino was closer than Meisa—Aiba did not attempt to run to her through the crowd. Instead, he ran to Nino. He reached Nino, blocking him from the crowd.

I saw Aiba fall before I heard the shot—in that brief interval between sight and sound, I wondered dumbly why the detective had crumpled to the ground.

After that, I obsereved nothing—the expression on Nino’s face, the screams and turmoil of the crowd as Meisa was seized—the world was black and silent.

Memory returns when I am by the detective’s side; Sho was cradling Aiba’s head in his lap. Aiba reached for my hand, gasping. My eyes ran over his torso—the bullet had lodged itself in his lower ribcage. His jacket was stained black—with blood, I realized.

I could say nothing—I only stared at the detective blankly. He was licking his lips, struggling to keep his gaze upon my face, as though near unconsciousness but determined to press the blackness back from him—

“Nino…” came the detective’s ragged, painful voice, “Jun…Nino…is he…?”

It was Sho who finally answered the detective. “He is safe, Masaki. He is safe. Your actions saved him, detective.”

I recognized the tone of Sakurai’s voice at once—it was a voice I had heard often at the bedsides of the desperately ill. But I had never been very good at employing it myself. It was the voice one uses to ease the moment of dying—to allow the one we love to depart from us in peace.