Ohno found his admiration for Nino’s abilities at crossing roofs and jumping through skylights while carrying all manner of fantastic objects greatly increasing as, with much ungainly effort, he attempted to conquer the edifice of the Ninomiya’s Belgravia mansion. There was, conveniently, an ivy-twined lattice beneath Nino’s window—Ohno had scouted the precise location of his bed chamber over a few nights’ watch—which provided a means for Ohno to cling desperately to the side of the house as he ascended. As Nino had been with the oriental carpet, he would have been very grateful for Aiba’s help. But he was determined to deliver the large painting and small potted plant himself.
Ohno could not help but feel that he should have turned back, turned back the moment he realized that the mansion was hosting a grand party that night; he could hear the strains of the orchestra as he climbed, and the many windows of the house glowed brightly, save for those belonging to the family’s private rooms on the third story. He should have turned back, and returned another night—but he found that, risky as continuing was, he could not face another journey across town with the canvas on his back.
And, in truth, his body still hummed with the excitement of having completed the painting, mere hours before—he longed, now, to see the work settled in its proper home.
It was when he reached the window that Ohno’s heart began to race with agitation, even beyond what his exertion in climbing the lattice had caused. He felt that the intended romance of the gesture would be greatly compromised by his having to break a pane of glass (though he had brought along a sturdy cloth to wrap about his hand, should he need it).
But no—as he’d expected, the window was unlocked, and opened easily. More than once, he’d seen Nino leaning out of this window, smoking a cigarette, only to hastily snuff it out and hide it in his jacket when seemingly interrupted by someone else (Ohno could not help but imagine Nino’s sister, Riisa; perhaps she was intentionally trying to catch his lordship in the act).
Ohno crawled into the dark room, and—after freeing himself of the plant tied to his waist and the covered canvas strapped to his back—he collapsed, panting, on the floor. Really, these nocturnal excursions seemed far too much trouble for a man to undertake; Ohno experienced renewed pangs of gratitude and pleasure at the thought of Nino having undertaken so much effort, on so many occasions, to enchant and amaze him.
Ohno’s sight adjusted to the darkness of the room as his breathing calmed. It looked to be the fine room of a wealthy gentleman, and it was totally unexceptional—Ohno was surprised to detect no sign of its master’s extraordinary character or actions in his surroundings.
Ohno hoped, in some small way, to remedy that.
He took no trouble to be silent as he began unwrapping his gifts, as he was surely protected by the dull roar of music and conversation rising up from below. But his heart would insist on beating fast; he’d always imagined undertaking this adventure when Lord Ninomiya Kazunari was out of the house, not when he was most likely leading the dance down below. The knowledge of Nino’s actual presence in the house—that they in some measure shared this space, for the first time—was enough to make Ohno’s hand tremble.
Ohno had placed his letter and the small Venus flytrap on Nino’s bedside table—Aiba had procured the plant for him from the botanical gardens, enraptured by its small size (“Fit for an Elvin king!” he’d declared, delighted)—and he was beginning to arrange the painting when he was surprised by a sudden illumination in the dark room.
He jumped, and turned in the direction from which the soft light issued—there, in the doorway, stood Nino, holding a candle and looking, for a moment, absolutely astonished. Then, as comprehension dawned, he smiled, so widely that he revealed his gums; it was only after he’d extinguished the candle and turned on the gas light that he had managed to school his expression into anything resembling calm, and the corner of his mouth kept twitching upward.
Ohno blinked at the sudden flood of light into the room. He saw Nino’s smile; that he looked breathtakingly handsome in his formal dress; and that he was staring at Ohno expectantly.
“Surprise,” Ohno offered weakly.
Nino smiled. “Are you here for your stolen shoes? Or perhaps you have some more ambitious plan of revenge?” Then, catching sight of the plant and the letter at his bedside, “But no, you’ve come to leave something for me!”
The two dove for the letter at precisely the same moment, wrestling for it between them on Nino’s bed. “You weren’t meant to read it yet, I’ve not finished…”
But as Nino was the only one of the two willing to resort to biting, he soon had the letter in his possession, and Ohno flopped down helplessly beside him as he eagerly tore open the envelope and began to read; Ohno noticed that his tie and cummerbund were in a considerable disarray from their tussle.
Ohno closed his eyes, wishing he hadn’t tried to stop Nino from reading the note, after all—he’d made so much trouble about it, that Nino would now be expecting something very shocking, or very grand, when in truth the short message was neither. His written expression of his sentiments was so inadequate that he’d wanted Nino to read it after seeing the painting (and after Ohno himself had already disappeared into the night).
Ohno opened his eyes and watched as Nino read,
My Dearest Kazunari,
I do not think you could remember even half of what I’ve shown in this painting. There are so many things, some very great but others unimportant. But I wished to show you that even the smallest object is forever etched into my mind and heart, as long it has some connection with you, no matter how slight.
I hope I can convince you—although I left, I never thought, even for a moment, of forgetting you, and I do not intend to forget you now. If you should ever want me, I will be at No. 5, Garden Place, waiting for you, and always thinking of you. I can promise you that, at least.
In constant love,
Ohno could not help feeling mortified by his clumsy style of writing, but then pleased, as Nino’s eyes sparkled and grew warm as they traced over the awkward lines, giving them the beauty they had lacked until falling under his gaze.
When he had finished, Nino re-folded the letter, placing it under his pillow before turning to Ohno with an expression of pleased anticipation. “You’ve brought me a painting?”
Ohno, caught by the beautiful expression of his eyes and smile, nodded and gestured vaguely in the direction of the canvas. Nino crawled over him and tumbled to the floor with his usual cat-like grace; he crouched before the large canvas that leaned against the wall beneath the window, his expression of delight quickly replaced by one of confusion. Ohno understood; the painting Nino saw was only a re-creation of the intricate pattern of an oriental rug.
Ohno joined him on the floor, stopping first to turn the canvas around. “The painting is on this side,” he began, but then found it oddly difficult to continue—he had been burning with a desire to show Nino the completed work, to have his opinion of it, but now he did not know how to explain it. “I thought…there should be one painting on one side, and another on the other, in case you wished to hang it…I mean, you needn’t, but if you wanted to keep it here, the real painting might be too…private…to display…”
He realized that Nino was not listening to him—or, at least, not listening very closely. He was sitting quite still, all his attention fixed on the work before him.
It was like no work of his that Nino had seen before; instead of the rough, impressionistic style that Ohno usually preferred, it was carefully, minutely realistic, almost like the work of a Dutch master. Although each piece was finely delineated, the canvas depicted no clear scene; instead, it was a riot of a thousand separate things, all pressed against one another, jostling for their share of the viewer’s attention. There was an apple, a lantern, a Venus flytrap and a goose; everything Nino had ever given Ohno and more: a gray sparrow and a crumbling brick chimney, mittens and socks and night shirts, London vistas, trains and Oxford courtyards, a parrot and a cat and a magic lantern, reams of pages all covered in writing, even a yellow book, and—at the center of it all—Nino and Ohno together on a magic carpet, in a scene out of the Thousand and One Nights.
Nino knew he would have to examine it for many hours more in order to fully comprehend all of its details, but when he sat back on his heels, he saw that the chaos managed, somehow, to cohere into an image of harmonious profusion. Each object was brightly, boldy colored, and yet Nino felt no fatigue in looking at it; the colors glowed, but did not overpower the viewer. “May I touch it?” he inquired suddenly.
Ohno was surprised by the question, but did not hesitate in his answer, “Of course. It’s your painting, Kazu.”
But Nino did not touch it, in the end; he only brought his fingers very close to its surface, and followed how one line gave way to another. “It seems wrong,” he spoke quietly, “that I should be the only one to have the privilege of seeing it. It is one of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen. But then,” he spoke now with an almost blinding grin, “no one else could derive as much pleasure from it as I can, for it would not call to their mind some thousand most precious, most beloved memories.” He punched Ohno lightly on the shoulder. “Of course I remember all of these things, Satoshi. I was there too, you know."
Ohno felt a tremendous wave of relief pass over him, as all his sudden doubts and anxieties were extinguised by Nino’s words and smile. “I already want to start another,” he confessed, “but first, I need more material. I put everything I could think of into this one.”
“I think I can assist you in that. You realize that I will now be expecting such a present fairly regularly, perhaps every thousand days or so?”
“I promise it,” Ohno swore, and then he kissed Nino passionately, trying to convey as best he could through the kiss the sincerity of his vow that they would pass another thousand days in each other’s company, at least.
They stopped kissing only when they had to pause for breath; both were so determined to continue, however, that each was a little dizzy when they finally parted. They breathed together quietly, Ohno combing a hand through Nino’s hair (it was growing long again), while Nino clasped Ohno’s other hand in both of his own. “I should return,” Nino sighed finally, after some time had passed, still looking with bright eyes in the direction of the painting, “I think I’m meant to be introducing a young lady to society, god help her.”
The two rose from the floor. Below, the music changed, becoming gentler than formerly, yet still lively. Nino’s demeanor changed with it; he looked at the floor, and he almost seemed on the verge of shuffling his feet before he extended his hand to Ohno and demanded, in a soft but determined voice, “But before that, would you do me the pleasure of standing up with me, sir?”
Ohno felt an unexpected flutter at the invitation, as though he really were a young girl at her first ball. “I would be honored to, sir,” he croaked in return.
They could not quite look at one another; and there was some confusion, at first, as to who should lead, and how, but within a few minutes they were waltzing quite agreeably around the room. “You dance very well,” Nino observed, only a little breathlessly.
“I used to practice with Satomi.”
Nino gave a small laugh, “I learned with Riisa. She had a remarkable talent for stepping on my toes.”
Eventually, the music changed again, and they stopped. “I never enjoyed a dance so much,” Nino said, looking serious.
“It was my first. I mean, with someone other than my sister,” Ohno smiled.
“Not the last, I hope.” They kissed again, and parted, with Nino sighing heavily once again. “And now I really must go.”
Ohno nodded, and began moving toward the window; Nino caught at his sleeve with a strangled half-cry, half-laugh. “No, I’ll take you down the back staircase and you can leave through the garden door, at least. I’m very, very touched, but please, I beg you, do not climb through the window, or any window, again. I’ve no desire for you to break your neck for a romantic gesture.”
Ohno could not help feeling a little offended, considering Nino’s history of carryings-on with skylights and windows and all manner of unusual means of egress. “Will you ring the bell at Garden Place, then?” he asked pointedly, as Nino began leading him by the hand along the darkened hallway.
He could hear Nino rolling his eyes in the dark. “Yes, very well. I’ll come to the door from now on. Masaki will be thrilled. We'll both starting behaving like gentlemen.” Ohno squeezed his hand gratefully.
“Why did you return to your bed chamber in the middle of a ball?” Ohno whispered, the question reoccurring to him now that all the excitement of discovery and dancing had passed.
“I had a headache, and I wanted to lie down in the dark, if only for a few minutes. Amazing how the pain disappeared competely the moment I saw you standing there,” Nino whispered back.
Ohno wanted to ask Nino more about his headache, and advise him to rest, and not to smoke, but Nino was already leading him down a narrow, curving staircase, and then toward a secluded door. Nino clasped his hand ever tighter as they approached it. On this floor, the heat, noise, and light of the party were nearly overpowering, and Ohno could hear hurried footsteps on the other side of the wall. He knew that he ought to be concerned about their being discovered and exposed.
But it all seemed strangely distant, even as the noise made it almost impossible to speak; they could not stop looking at each other, and smiling. Ohno felt warm, and light, and tingling—Nino’s joyful, unguarded smile and glittering eyes told him that he had, indeed, succeeded in conveying to Nino's knowledge some part of the truth of his ceaseless devotion.
Nino leaned in close and spoke in his ear, “I’ll see you at the door of Garden Place. Until then, old man.” They parted slowly, their fingers caressing as they reluctantly unclasped their hands. Yet never before had they parted so happily—so mutually certain of seeing one another again.
“Little thief,” Ohno murmured, though it was unlikely that Nino would hear him amidst the din.
Outside, the garden was dark and cool, a pleasant change from the tumult indoors; Ohno could not help wishing that they were walking through it together. But he could still feel the warmth of Nino’s hand, and of Nino's lips pressed against his own, and, hearing the strains of another waltz, he could not stop himself from most foolishly dancing his way down the path, smiling at the sky.
1896 (Eight years later)
Nino was just setting down her cup of cocoa when Umi asked, very softly, “Would you and Satoshi take me to school today?”
Nino and Ohno exchanged a look. She was clearly trying to introduce the matter before Aiba and the doctor entered the room again, and she looked flushed from the consciousness of her betrayal.
Ohno had been reading the newspaper, which he’d half-hidden beneath a tea towel, as he washed dishes; the news was of Oscar Wilde’s prison sentence, and he knew that Nino would throw the paper away if he saw him reading it. Now, he put it aside, and ventured quietly, “Don’t you think Mr. Aiba would be disappointed, Umi? He loves walking to school with you.”
Umi’s flush deepened, and she stared into her cocoa. “Yes, but…papa’s appointment was canceled this morning…so if daddy walks with me, he’ll come, too, and people…people stare at us.”
Nino laughed outright; Ohno could not repress a small smile. He understood what Umi meant. Both Aiba and his partner, Dr. Matsumoto Jun, were tall and strikingly handsome men, and both tended toward the eccentric in their choice of fashion. Each was likely to draw notice as they walked down the street; together, they invariably attracted a good deal of attention, and Umi was still very shy. At home, she was talkative and bold, but even now, at age nine, she tended to shrink away anxiously from any kind of public notice.
“And so you’d like me to take you,” Nino demanded, “because I’m so very plain and unprepossessing, and so unlikely to draw the eye of any passerby?”
If anyone else had posed such a question to Umi, she would have burst into tears; but she was so used to Nino’s teasing, that she only kicked him lightly, sending Holmes into a fit of discontented mewing from underneath the table, where the cat was searching most assiduously for breakfast crumbs.
“No, of course not,” she mumbled, clearly struggling to form some inoffensive explanation, “You’re just…not so tall as they…”
Nino fell back in his chair as though struck; Ohno and Umi laughed. “You may not believe this, Umi, but I was once considered a very fascinating and eligible bachelor, and women would have given up their finest ribbons for the right to accompany me down a London street.”
Umi looked at him with a slightly bewildered expression, as she always did when he made some reference to his former life. She’d been adopted by Aiba and Jun at the age of five, and by then Nino had already completed the process of divesting himself of his title and wealth, and of conferring all his inheritance on Lady Riisa. Umi could not remember a time when Nino was in Parliament, or a Lord; she had only ever known him to live at Garden Place, with Satoshi, and to write science fiction serials for the newspapers. Although Umi knew Lady Riisa, and understood her to be Nino’s sister, she never seemed to quite believe Nino’s assertions of having once been a lord, generally treating them as another of the fantastic tales he recounted for her amusement.
“If you will insist on insulting my looks and manner,” Nino went on, “then at least confess that I’m your favorite uncle.”
Umi sipped her drink with a suspicious smile.
Nino groaned, “It can’t still be Satoshi? It’s been Satoshi for ages! Is it Sho? If you say Sho, I’ll be in a foul temper,” he threatened darkly.
"It’s Toma,” she confessed quietly, smiling into her mug.
“Ah ha! The truth comes out! Satoshi, I knew we shouldn’t have let him take her ice skating last weekend! Now we’ll have to take her to the zoo, merely to begin making up the ground we’ve lost!”
Noting the time and hearing Aiba and Jun in the hall, Ohno placed a gentle hand on Umi’s shoulder. “I’ll ask Mr. Aiba if Nino and I can walk you to school, for old time’s sake.”
She looked up at him gratefully. “Thank you, Satoshi,” she replied feelingly.
Nino tsked and began chivvying her into her winter things while Ohno spoke to the pair in the hall. In truth, it had been quite some time since he’d taken her to school, and the pair readily assented without suspecting any other reason for his request. Ohno had been used to take Umi to school nearly every day, but since Aiba had opened his office of detection and zoological research near Umi’s school two years ago, the morning walk had naturally fallen to her father.
It had been so long, in fact, that, once they were out the door, Ohno automatically reached to take her hand in his own, only to find that she’d tucked both hands into her muff and was quite ready to walk on unassisted; she looked so much like a proper young lady in that moment that Ohno stopped in surprise, suddenly recalling the scared, silent child she’d been when he’d first known her.
Nino, of course, saw the movement of Ohno’s hand, and his astonishment. He tugged at Ohno’s coat sleeve, smiling, “Come now, old man, we’ll be late for school.”
Nino and Umi chatted as they made their carefully along the wet streets; there had been an early snowfall, which had quickly given way to slush, and Umi occasionally deigned to allow them to take her hands when there was a particularly fearsome-looking puddle for her to jump over. She talked to Nino of her lessons on the geography and people of Japan, and asked him questions about the next installment of “The Sparrow Thief,” questions to which Nino responded, as usual, with the most vague and yet most tantalizing hints of what was to come.
When they reached the gates of the school, Ohno saw how Umi began to change, a little; she did not look unhappy, but she seemed to be bracing herself for all the general noise and excitement and being-looked-at of the day. He squeezed her shoulder and wished her a good day. “Mr. Aiba will be here at three to collect you,” he reminded her, un-necessarily.
She seemed to hesitate, then turned and hugged him tightly for a brief moment before running off through the school gates.
“Don’t run! You’ll slip!” Nino called after her, exasperated. He turned to Ohno, exclaiming in a tone of great offense but with the hint of a smile, “Do you see that? Such blatant favoritism! She acted as though I wasn’t even here!”
Ohno laughed, and the two turned back toward home.
“What are you thinking about so determinedly, old man?” Nino asked, after a while. “You seem even more distracted than usual—look, I can see where you’ve trod into the slush.”
Ohno had been thinking quite deeply. But his reflections had been so sudden, and on a topic of such importance, that he hardly dared own them. But Nino was waiting for his answer, as they strolled slowly together down the street, and he could not help answering him truthfully. “I thought…I suddenly thought…I cannot say exactly why it should occur to me…” He paused for some time while they walked. Nino waited. Then, taking a breath, he confessed, “What if I were to leave my inheritance to Umi?”
Nino was quiet for a moment; Ohno was afraid to look at him. He was on the verge of speaking again, though with no idea of what to say, when Nino replied, very calmly, “I think that is a very good idea.”
Ohno stopped walking. “You do?”
“Yes.” Nino stopped, too, and looked back at him. “Masaki and Jun are managing, but neither of them have anything to spare. We use up all my royalties every year, and your paintings are doing very well since the exhibition, but you refuse to sell the best pieces. I do not doubt that, if anything were to happen, Riisa and Becky would provide for her, but if she had an independent fortune…” Nino smiled broadly, “Imagine the things she could do! Marry, or not. Choose any profession she liked. Travel, even to Japan, is she wanted to. I’m sure it will be difficult, turning up after all these years and making claims, but if you can recover it, it would be wonderful for her. For the future.”
“You look angry,” Nino observed, with a bemused expression.
“You’re not angry? When I…when I said I would rather die than take on my father’s name…and then I…I…you have given up everything while I…and now, after ten years, I have the gall to say I’d like the inheritance, now? You should be furious,” Ohno exclaimed, his face hot, and with a prickling feeling at his eyes and in his throat.
Nino looked slightly stunned; Ohno realized that he had been very near shouting, and that his nose was running, as well. And then, Nino astonished Ohno by—of all things—blushing, and looking rather guilty as he answered him, “To be honest, Satoshi, after Masaki and Jun adopted her, I thought that things would certainly end up in this way. I knew it could only be a matter of time before your kind heart prompted you to think of it. Your mother and Satomi would have approved of it, too.” He stepped a little nearer, shielding Ohno and his tears from the view of the street. “Why would I be angry?” he asked quietly, looking at Ohno’s gloved hands, but not taking them. “I love her, too.” He looked up. “And I love you.”
"You had more faith in me than I deserved," Ohno managed, and then he could not resist. He felt such an intensity of love and sheer, overwhelming affection for the man that stood before him that he knew he would spontaneously combust if his feelings were not expressed; he seized the back of Nino’s overcoat, swept him cleanly off his feet, and dropped down to kiss him, passionately, as Nino went limp in surprise.
They broke apart when Nino—finally regaining both his senses and his footing—pushed him roughly away. “Satoshi!” he gasped, looking utterly scandalized, “We are in the street! People can see us, you idiot!”
Ohno pulled him close by the back of his collar. Nino was starting to laugh, in spite of himself, and he did not resist when Ohno brought their faces nearer. “I’d fight them all,” Ohno promised him, “for one more kiss with you.”