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Portrait of the Artist Ohno Satoshi as a Young Man

Chapter Text

London, 1886

Ohno set down his paintbrush. He was out of yellow, and the light was fading. Stopping felt like waking from a trance, so absorbed had he been in his work. But if he did not stop now, he would miss the sunset.

Dizziness overtook him as he rose to cover his easel; he felt his arm tremble and a sweat start on his brow, but in another moment he had mastered himself. After covering the painting carefully, he looked with expectation towards his garret’s skylight; already, the sky was taking on the pinkish glow of sunset.

The skylight was why he had chosen this place, which had little else to recommend it. It was somehow both drafty and cramped, with a sharply-sloping roof that he still occasionally bumped his head against. In summer, it was close and hot, and in winter the wind rattled the floorboards while he shivered beneath the bedding that was the room’s only real furniture besides the chair he worked at and the table below the skylight.

But when he sat to paint during the day the room was flooded by a clear, dancing light unlike any he had ever seen, and at night his attic’s dust motes continued to dance in the bright moonlight.

Rising from his chair, Ohno jumped to stand on the small table at the center of the room. With practiced motions, he took a leap and caught the edge of the roof’s opening, pulling himself out through the skylight and onto the roof. Another wave of dizziness washed over him—when had he last eaten—yesterday?—and then he shivered. He had been hoping to leave his skylight open for several more weeks, but autumn was arriving early this year.

Ohno tucked in his legs and rested his chin on his knees, suppressing another shiver. He watched the sun set behind the blackened chimneys of the surrounding tenements. He had rented the garret because of the skylight, but he had stayed for so long—longer than he could remember staying in any one place since his mother’s death—because of this view: the sun sinking behind the dark buildings with a vividness of fiery color unmatched in his whole previous experience of the London sky.

Ohno couldn’t help but smile when the gray sparrow approached him, hopping gently as it chirruped hopefully. “I don’t have anything for you,” he rasped, surprised when his voice cracked—but then, when had he last spoken to another living creature?

Ohno felt vaguely guilty but still pleased when the small bird settled on his hand, its keen eyes examining him quizzically. He really had nothing to give him—the last crumbs in his house had been given to this same supplicant last night. But, oddly, his friend did not seem to mind; Ohno’s smile widened as the sparrow continued to rest on his hand and chirp. He stayed with him until the last rays of the sun had faded and been replaced by the glow of candles in windows and—in the distance—the white pinpricks of street lamps.

Ohno waited until his teeth started to chatter and the sparrow had flown away—back to its nest in the building’s unused and crumbling chimney, Ohno suspected—before he slipped back through the skylight, his hand moving instinctively to shut the window behind him as he remained suspended in the air.

But the pane of glass would not budge. Ohno tried again; the bars that raised the glass from the roof were stuck. He jerked at it again, and he saw stars; he realized that his arms were shaking.

He landed on the table and stepped down heavily, almost falling to the floor. He managed to crawl into the mattress on the floor that served as his bed, his hands shaking as he pulled the bedclothes over him. It would be a cold night.

 

*

 

Except that Ohno was burning with fever. He felt as though he were on the roof again, only now the sun was setting on top of him, blinding him with its light. He knew that he must drink water, but his limbs would not obey his mind’s commands; he thought he was halfway to the pitcher, but then realized with a start that he was only at the foot of his bed. His head was on fire. And then he was falling into darkness.

 

*

 

Slowly, he became aware of something cool touching his lips, and then water soothing his parched throat. He drank eagerly; only after his throat had quieted did he realize that there was a hand on his neck supporting his head. The hand disappeared, allowing him to fall back onto the pillow.

“Annngh,” he whined softly at the loss.

He was happy when the hand returned, this time to his forehead; it was cold, and small and soft, like a woman’s hand. He raised his own hand to press the cold hand more firmly against his brow and struggled to open his eyes; like his limbs earlier that night, they refused to obey him.

Now the hand was caressing his brow lightly; it seemed to want to calm him. Using all his strength, Ohno wrenched open his eyes.

A pale white face floated above him in the moonlight, its dark, almost black eyes wide and searching. Ohno was not certain whether his next word was a greeting or a prayer. “Mother,” he gasped, as his eyes fell closed again.

There was a strange snuffling noise—almost a huff—but the hand remained on his brow.

 

*

 

Ohno woke with a start. From the way his room was flooded with light, he knew it was nearly midday. He saw his water pitcher beside his bed; he drank from it until it was empty. Then he spotted the loaf of bread and lump of cheese beside it; his hands shook more with anticipation than with weakness as he tore off a piece of the loaf, pausing to take in its fresh scent before beginning his meal.

Ohno surveyed his attic as he chewed. The bedclothes were in a tangle beneath him, but the room was otherwise serene, the canvas that covered his painting lay exactly as it had fallen the night before. The skylight was still ajar.

Only once he had finished the bread and cheese could Ohno think. If he had doubted whether the dark-eyed, cold-handed attendant of the previous night had been anything but a figment of his imagination, the meal left at his bedside convinced him of its reality.

But who could have nursed him? There was no one. He had never invited anyone to his garret—indeed, it would be more punishment than hospitality to subject someone to its conditions. Ohno reached his garret by a long, crooked flight of stairs that separated it from the building’s other rooms, and the man in the room at the bottom of the staircase languished away his days in an opium-induced haze (Ohno had once joined him, but, perversely, the drug had made him more alert, almost paranoid rather than serene).

Thoughts of his father’s family came to him—but they were equally impossible candidates; they did not know where he lived, and he could not imagine any of them caring for him and then disappearing. They would not, Ohno knew, ever assist him without expecting something in return.

Ohno moved through these reflections methodically, as though striking them from a mental list; he felt that he must be careful, that he must consider every rational possibility before giving way fully to the conviction he had held since the moment he awoke—that his mother had come and cared for him last night, saving him from what might have turned into a fatal illness.

He knew those eyes. True, the eyes last night had not been quite the same; they were darker, colder, more brilliant that his mother’s—and the hands were wrong, his mother’s fingers had been long and thin like his own—but surely a journey from the afterlife might alter such superficial details of a person’s appearance? The way the fingers had passed gently across his brow, and the absorbed concern of the eye’s expression—they were unmistakably known to him. They belonged wholly to the only person who had ever cared for him.

The thought that his mother’s ghost had visited him (and, apparently, made a stop at the bakery down the street—Ohno recognized the scent) did not frighten Ohno but filled him with a grateful happiness. He felt suddenly strong and certain, full of good resolutions: he must work; there was no other food in the house, and he must recover his strength; and he would need tools to mend the skylight, and more yellow paint—all progress on the painting was halted until he could purchase more. He would go to the mason yard and earn enough to eat and paint. If his mother had come back to this world to save him, then he could no longer be so careless of his life.

 

*

 

Ohno returned to his garret long past sunset. He had been fully absorbed in the gravestone he had been shaping at the yard; it was not that ecstatic absorption that accompanied his own work, but at least for this project there was enough detailed tracery required to prevent his mind from wondering. He had been hesitant upon first entering the yard, wondering vaguely if perhaps the stonemason he worked for sporadically had been his midnight visitor, improbable as it would be—but the master greeted him with such perfect unconcern that Ohno rejoiced, free to return to his conviction of his mother’s apparition.

Ohno had enough for a little paint, but remembering his weakness (his arms ached from even the initial work of design) and recalling the faintly accusing look in his mother’s eyes, he bought food instead; he carried his groceries in a small paper sack under his arm as he made his way up the dark and narrow staircase that evening.

Ohno was mentally calculating when he would have earned enough for a full, fresh tube of paint—the end of the week?—when he caught sight of a faint light glimmering beneath his door: the glow of a lamp.

Ohno’s heart raced; for a moment, he was seized with panic. But then something like a half-hope—un-formed but passionate—gripped his heart. If only…if only he might see her again…he pushed open the door (it was never locked—he had nothing to steal), unconsciously holding his breath as he stepped over the threshold.

His eyes were briefly stung by the sudden brightness of the lamp; it sat on a chair beside his easel. The cover of which had been removed and tossed carelessly to the floor, exposing his work to the sight of a young boy with dark hair who stood before it. His arms were folded behind his back, and he was apparently scrutinizing the piece intently; he appeared totally unmoved by Ohno’s entrance.

Ohno was too stunned to feel the full weight of his disappointment. He simply stood dumbly at the door, watching the boy examine his painting.

Then he turned around. At first, Ohno could not make out his features, but then the boy stepped towards him and out of the shadows. They were the same pair of eyes; they shone just the same in the dark. And they still held a look of accusation.

The boy walked towards him, reached into his grocery sack, and pulled out an apple. He took a bite, and then pointed up at the open skylight, “You ought to have that fixed, old man. Otherwise anyone might drop in.”

Chapter Text

Now that he stood so near him, Ohno could see that he had been wrong; his eyes were nothing like his mother’s. And he was not as young as he had first thought, either; the pale face was unlined, but that dark and penetrating glance did not belong to youth. Ohno’s first impression was of a man who felt himself to be the master of every room he entered; after all, he was quite coolly biting into Ohno’s apple while his quick eyes traveled over his figure with such unapologetic curiosity that Ohno felt his face grow warm.

Ohno would think over these things later that night as he lay in bed, staring at the fall of moonlight through the still-open skylight; now, he could only taste the bitterness of disappointment. His vision blurred, and he wondered at his own stupidity. His mother was dead. She could not return to him.

A clear but nasal voice jolted him from his reverie, “You look as though you’d seen a ghost,” the stranger observed, not unkindly.

“No.” Ohno walked towards the small table at the center of the room to set down his groceries, still too dejected by the absence of his mother to attend to the slight figure following close behind him, “I haven’t.” Mechanically, he lit the candle, forgetting that the garret was already illuminated by the stranger’s lantern.

The stranger took another noisy bite of his apple, “I thought perhaps you were starving as well as ill,” he suggested abruptly. He sounded almost offended; Ohno recalled having heard the same note of accusation in his voice the night before.

Ohno turned to face him, forcing himself to repress his disappointment and respond to the challenge in the stranger’s eyes, “I forgot to eat.”

The stranger gave a huff of laughter; Ohno was startled again by how clearly he recalled the sound. “Slipped your mind?” he smirked. “Because you obviously have such a plethora of amusements here to distract you?” he gestured with his half-eaten apple towards the cold and empty attic.

Ohno knew that the words were meant to be insulting, but the stranger’s eyes had grown warm, and as he spoke, their eyes met, and his voice wavered—he appeared, Ohno thought, almost anxious. Strangely, Ohno felt the corner of his mouth beginning to quirk into a smile. “What is your name?” he wondered aloud, surprising himself with the softness of his voice—but then, everything seemed hushed and muted in the glow of the lamp; even the sharp glints in the strangers eyes blurred and began to shimmer in the steady light.

The stranger turned, moving away from Ohno and towards the uncovered painting. “What is the subject of your painting?” he demanded, his voice oddly tight.

“A view of the sunset from the roof.”

“Have you finished? It’s difficult to tell what you’re about.”

Ohno licked his lips before answering, his throat already dry from the few sentences he had spoken. “No. I need more yellow.”

The stranger stared at the painting while he finished his apple; Ohno stared at the stranger, surprised to find himself unable to withdraw his gaze from the line of his profile. His eyes moved of their own accord over the line of his nose, mouth, and chin again and again; his right hand itched for his pencil and to trace the contour onto paper.

His fascination was interrupted by the stranger’s sudden inquiry, “Have you been to Paris recently? Did you see the new style of impressionism being practiced there?”

“No,” Ohno mumbled, still distracted—the tip of the stranger's nose was round, but there was something sharp about his chin and mouth, like a cut after softness—the contrast between the two—

The stranger turned towards him with a half smile, “Listen, old man, are you some sort of bohemian? I mean, you’ve got a wealthy father but you prefer living in squalor to devote yourself to your art with a capital “A”? That sort of thing?” His voice was smooth and sure now; Ohno wondered if he had only imagined the awkwardness before.

Ohno closed his eyes, his ears ringing as he replied firmly, “No. I am not a bohemian.” When he opened his eyes, the stranger was surveying him narrowly and with evident displeasure, examining him as though he were a collector and Ohno were a specimen that bore the wrong markings. “Then why do you speak as though you’ve been at Oxford?” he finally demanded.

Another reason Ohno avoided conversation. His accent always invited questions. But he could not recapture the sounds and rhythm of his mother’s speech. When he had turned four, his father had started to teach him, and he had hit his knuckles (and once his ears) with a ruler whenever he spoke using his mother’s accent. His mother had done the same, but with tears in her eyes. Beginning with those lessons and his red and stinging hands, all words came to feel equally thick and stupid on his tongue. But he naturally reverted to the speech his father had taught him and that he had learned to read and write in. Even his mother’s words were lost to him.

It occurred to Ohno with the suddenness of divine revelation that this stranger was being extraordinarily rude, and that he was under no obligation to answer any of his questions. He swallowed down the fear that had risen inside him so suddenly and boldly moved his eyes over the small figure before him, noting for the first time the strange state of his clothes—every item he wore was patched and frayed and at least a size too large, seeming to have passed through several owners before reaching him. Except for the unstained white silk handkerchief at his throat. “Why do you?” he finally countered.

The stranger positively scowled at his response, letting out a breath of frustration that rearranged the dark hair that fell heavily across his brow. Ohno felt himself beginning to smile again; he so rarely had the opportunity to feel satisfied with his own speech. “You haven’t yet thanked me for saving your life,” the stranger muttered darkly, dropping his gaze to stare fixedly at the floor.

Ohno felt his smile widen. He took a step nearer, determined to memorize the unusual features for his sketchbook. There was something odd about his expression, something that Ohno—as usual—could not find words to express. His pencil was always better than his tongue at description. He took another step nearer. “Thank you,” he whispered, this time forgetting to raise his voice; it was difficult to remember how to speak to another human when for so many weeks his only interlocutor had been the small gray sparrow on the roof.

When Ohno was so near that he might have reached out and taken his hand, the stranger startled him by raising his head and fixing him with a glare. “I am overwhelmed by your display of gratitude,” he replied acidly. Then, his figure hunched, he swiftly avoided Ohno and stepped nimbly onto the table; he leaped lightly to catch the edge of the skylight, and—in another moment—his figure had disappeared through the opening and into the cold London night.

Ohno stood alone in the quiet garret. His surroundings glowed with a strange warmth; he realized that the stranger had left behind his lantern. He had also, Ohno observed, left behind the core of the apple that he had stolen from him; he had placed it quite precisely at the center of the table beneath the skylight. “Thief,” Ohno spoke the word aloud to the empty room, deciding on it as his name for the stranger who had cared for him so devotedly and then stolen his apple.

Dazedly—perhaps he was still ill, he thought, as his mouth was dry and his heart pounded strangely—Ohno put out the light. But he left the core, thinking that tomorrow he could offer it to his sparrow.

 

*

 

That night, Ohno dreamed of the thief. In the dream, he tried again and again to draw his portrait, but it remained unfinished because he could not remember the shape of his hands. He had been so intent on his face that he had forgotten to study his hands; the hands whose cold and gentle touch he could recall even more vividly than the sound of his voice or the look of his eyes. He repeated the question again and again to himself in his dream until he thought he would go mad: why had he forgotten to look at his hands?

When he woke the next morning, Ohno found arranged carefully beside the untouched apple core a new, whole apple and—his breath caught—a fresh tube of yellow paint.

Ohno sat unmoving before his work for several hours that day, his brush in his hand, before finally succumbing to his desires and moving to the table to work on a sketch of the thief. He ate the apple that the thief had left for him as he worked, sometimes stopping to close his eyes in yet another attempt to recall more perfectly the features that held his imagination prisoner. When he had finished his apple and his drawing, Ohno realized that the reason for his fascination was a laughably simple one. Examining his drawing was like looking into a mirror—every part of the thief’s expression reflected back to him his own solitude.

Ohno left the drawing at the center of the table; the next morning it was gone.

Chapter Text

The morning after his portrait of the thief had disappeared, Ohno woke at first light. Still only half-awake, he dragged himself out of bed and stumbled towards the table beneath the skylight, expecting the thief to have left some token in exchange for the portrait—perhaps a fresh tube of paint, or another roll from the bakery.

But all that had appeared on the table was a bright patch of sunlight. Running his hand across the table’s empty surface, Ohno shivered. The patch of blue sky above and the bright sunlight on his hand promised a beautiful autumn day, but already the air was growing cool. He could not, he thought regretfully, leave his skylight open for much longer—even a light shower would likely destroy the few possession his attic held.

There was a curiously hollow feeling in his chest as he stared at the empty table; why had he been so certain that he would receive something? Ohno took a step back as the sunlight fell across his eyes, momentarily blinding him; he then realized that he was stepping on something extraordinarily soft, and that he could not feel the warped and battered wood of his floorboards.

Ohno looked down. An elaborately-worked Persian carpet covered the entire floor of his garret, its soft fibers rubbing pleasantly against the soles of his feet. The colors were pale—light grays and blues—but the complex pattern of interlocking stars was so intensely beautiful that tears came to his eyes as he knelt to follow its lines with his fingers. He remembered another carpet with bright red flowers and climbing vines in his grandfather’s study. Ohno lay down, pressing his cheek against a white star. From this vantage point, he could see that the carpet extended even beneath his mattress—how could the thief have lifted his furniture without waking him? And how could he even have carried such a large object in through the skylight?

Ohno wondered vaguely if he were dreaming. Perhaps he still lay in his bed, desperately ill, and everything—the lantern, the thief, the apple, the paint, and the rug beneath him—were all the products of his fevered mind. Or perhaps he was awake, but after his long solitude had finally fallen prey to some delusion.

Ohno half-hoped that he would never awaken.

 

*

 

Ohno went to the mason yard that day, thinking to use some of his earnings to buy a gift for the thief in exchange for the carpet. As he carved tiny, precise cherubs into headstones, he cast his mind about for some possible present, but he could think of nothing—at least nothing that he could afford. Finally, he asked the master if he could have a small piece of stone—a scrap—and he spent his break carving it into a miniature of the lantern the thief had left behind. He felt oddly pleased with it when he had finished; it looked like a lantern that an elf or some other magical creature might carry. He placed it carefully in his pocket, conscious of its weight against his thigh as he worked; he felt almost anxious for the day to end and the next morning to arrive.

It was only that evening when he was being paid for the day’s work and he felt the weight and slick texture of the coins in his hand that he realized—the thief must have stolen that carpet. He was, after all, a thief. And—the thought was more terrible to Ohno in its obviousness—the carpet may not even have been a gift. Perhaps the thief was using his attic as a kind of storehouse for stolen goods and would return later to collect them.

As Ohno walked slowly home, the voice of his father—how long since he had fallen prey to thoughts of him!—echoed through his head, “Satoshi has always been a kind child, but slow. I fear he will never be able to catch up to the other children.”

Ohno decided that he would sit up and try to confront his thief that night; he had no security that he would appear again, but he had entered his attic without fail for the past four nights, so there was a good chance of him returning. Ohno moved his chair to the table and collected some scratch paper, then lit the candle and placed his small carving of the lantern at the center of the table. He would sketch to stay awake, and he would catch the thief if he returned. And this time he would be sure to carefully examine his hands.

 

*

 

Ohno woke the next morning to the steady thrum of raindrops across his roof. He was not at the table but in his bed. Hearing the rain, he bolted upright, panicked, but the attic was still dry; an umbrella had been opened and placed to cover the stubborn opening of the skylight, its carved wooden handle hanging from the ceiling like some strange chandelier. Ohno stumbled over to the table, but of course he had already seen from his bed that his sketches and the stone lantern had been taken. And that in the corner of his room stood an enormous tropical plant that proved, upon closer inspection, to be a Venus flytrap. It took Ohno several minutes to extract his finger from its gently-insistent grip.

 

*

 

After that night, Ohno received something from his thief nearly every day. A few mornings nothing appeared; once he’d discovered something upon his return from work. In an alarmingly brief period of time, his garret acquired: two rich tapestries that covered the walls; a quilt and set of silk sheets; an orange ottoman; an enormous Japanese screen that depicted a field of violets; a quilted blue smoking jacket; a copper kettle; a porcelain tea set, an oil portrait of a woman holding a peacock; and a lavishly-illustrated edition of Sir Richard Burton’s A Thousand and One Nights.

Ohno did not know whether to laugh or to weep at the absurdity—and the expense—of the items that now regularly appeared in his garret. The Venus flytrap was by far the worst, as Ohno always felt as though it were silently accusing him of neglect; the most difficult to resist was theThousand Nights, whose scandalous illustrations Ohno found himself perusing with increasing frequency.

At first, Ohno had felt strangely obligated to offer the thief some return, as though he had agreed to some pact; after the blue smoking jacket, he hoped to lure the thief out through defiance and left him nothing. The next morning, he found that—in addition to having left the peacock portrait—the thief had stolen his best and only other pair of shoes. Defeated, Ohno continued to leave his small offerings of drawing and carvings, embroidered cotton handkerchiefs and hand-knit mittens.

Every night, Ohno sat up in wait for the thief; he invariably awoke tucked into his bed. Every night that his creations disappeared and something outrageous took their place, Ohno grew more convinced that he would never again lay eyes on the thief—but how could he remain so elusive even as his presence pressed in upon Ohno from every corner of his room? Would he forever be the victim of this stranger's caprice—and did he even possess the will to resist?

The smoked goose, however, proved impossible for Ohno to accept.

 

*

 

The night before, Ohno had left the thief a miniature of the gray sparrow. In the morning, the table held the largest cooked goose that Ohno had ever seen. It was elaborately-dressed and even seemed to have been covered in some sort of glaze—he could almost imagine that the dish was still warm.

Ohno sat dumbfounded before it, unsure what to do with such an enormous meal. After sitting blankly for a few minutes, he thought of the children who lived in the basement. They had a mother—Ohno remembered catching sight of her face once as she returned home. The cellar-like room they inhabited seemed to Ohno to be always seething with life—children running, laughing, crying and shouting. It was impossible to tell precisely how many lived in the single room. It was also, he felt, a place of death—he remembered seeing a doctor carrying a too-still, too-small body from the house. Ohno had never spoken to the mother, but occasionally the older boys stopped him on his return from work and asked him to pitch in one of the ball games they played in the narrow alley beside the house.

Ohno thought of writing a letter, but then he remembered that she might not be able to read. He could think of no satisfying way to make the present. In the end, he carried the goose down the five flights of stairs to the basement, his arms trembling as he took the final steps. Outside the door, he was instantly swarmed by children clutching at his legs and shirt; he could hear a woman singing inside. “Give this to your mother,” he mumbled as he handed the platter down to the four strongest-looking children before hurriedly making his escape.

 

*

 

When Ohno returned from work that evening, three small girls were sitting outside the house, each clutching a few wilted-looking flowers. The three were singing softly together under their breaths, sweetly but so low that Ohno could not make out the words. When they spotted him, they leapt up, and the oldest stepped forward and began speaking loudly and rapidly, “Ma can’t come away from the baby that’s sick, sir, but she says thank you very much and she’s shamed as there’s nothing to give you and we’re to thank you, sir. For the bird, sir,” she clarified as she thrust her flowers towards him; her sisters quickly pressed forwards with a chorus of “thank you, sir” to offer their flowers.

Ohno wished that it were possible to vanish where he stood; he could not recall ever having felt such embarrassment. But he managed to collect the flowers with a quiet “Thank you, tell your mother it was no trouble” before almost fleeing up the stairs.

 

*

 

Safe in his garret once again, Ohno sat at the table and studied the limp blossoms the girls had given him. As he examined the pale petals, it occurred to him that the goose was, absolutely, almost un-arguably, a gift. Everything else that had appeared, the thief might return for. But to give someone food meant that recovery was impossible. That, perhaps, your only aim was that person’s comfort.

At that thought, Ohno knew that he must put an end to this game. He resolved to do what he now realized he ought to have done a fortnight ago. Stuffing several rolls into his pockets, he stepped onto the table and caught the edge of the skylight, pulling himself up and through to the roof. He surveyed the roof and the city below. He shivered, but he was glad of the cold as it would keep him awake.

At the edge of the roof stood a disused and crumbling chimney where the gray sparrow made his nest; the bottom of the chimney had long since been boarded up, so that Ohno was able to crawl inside and hide himself between the cracked brick walls. He smiled as the sparrow appeared to perch lightly on his knee; the two shared his rolls as they began their vigil.

 

*

 

As though anticipating the thief’s arrival as keenly as Ohno, the moon was full and bright; even the sky seemed party to his desires as the clouds dissipated to reveal a strikingly-clear night sky. Ohno caught sight of the thief’s figure easily when he appeared on the roof an hour after midnight, and he could even make out something of his profile—he knew the line of his nose and mouth. Ohno had watched him leap noiselessly from the roof of the neighboring house and stride confidently towards his skylight. He carried a small package under one arm. One moment he stood bathed in moonlight, the next he had vanished through the opening into the attic below.

Ohno wondered if his heart would explode—it beat so intensely in his chest that it felt difficult to breath. Still, he was careful not to wake the sparrow beside him as he emerged from his hiding place and began moving—as slowly as he could make himself—toward the open skylight. His blood pounded in his ears, but Ohno grew more confident with every silent step—the thief might have skill and sheer audacity on his side, but Ohno was nothing if not patient.

When he finally dropped into the room, Ohno took in the scene with a glance; the thief was distracted, his eyes fixed on the uncovered canvas as a flood of moonlight illuminated Ohno’s painting of the sunset.

In another moment, Ohno had the thief pinned to the floor, confining him by holding his hips tightly between his knees and gripping his hands in his own as he pressed them against the Persian carpet. Panting, Ohno realized that he was strangely breathless from the exertion and that the thief could easily throw him off. But from the manner in which the thief was blinking up at him, mouth agape, it was evident that he was too surprised to think of overpowering him.

Exultation coursed through Ohno’s body; he felt himself glow with victory. His wave of triumph, however, was followed almost instantly by confusion; he felt his grip weaken as he stared directly into the wide eyes of the thief. They still held an expression of helpless astonishment as they shimmered in the moonlight.

Now that he had caught his thief, what was he to do with him?

Ohno licked his dry lips. “Little thief,” he began, startling himself with the hoarseness of his voice. He swallowed, trying to still the tremble in his words before continuing, “What is your name?”

Chapter Text

The thief’s eyes grew impossibly wider at the question, but he mumbled back promptly enough, “Ninomiya Wellington Kazunari the Third.” Observing Ohno’s nonplussed expression, the thief rolled his eyes before continuing in the confident nasal tone that Ohno recalled from their last meeting, “Nino. Call me Nino.”

Nino. He felt as though he had heard the name before.

Now Ohno had to think of a new question. But at the same moment that the thief confessed his name, Ohno felt the small, cold hands grow limp in his own, and then Nino's fingers were interlacing themselves with his. Startled, Ohno looked up towards their joined hands, and it was then that Nino easily threw him, reversing their positions so that now Ohno was staring up into those dark eyes as the thief hovered over him. Their hands were still tightly clasped. “And what is it that you want with me, Ohno Satoshi?” The thief—Nino, Ohno corrected himself—was smiling.

Ohno forced himself to think and speak quickly, thinking of his mother’s despair at his absent-mindedness as a child; once, he had become so absorbed in examining his picture books that he had failed to notice when the candle fell and his sleeve caught on fire. Now, he commanded himself not to become distracted by the sensation of their joined hands or of Nino’s warm weight pressed against his body. He could not continue tracing his features or observing how the moonlight fell on his lank black hair. Finally, Ohno closed his eyes, “I want you to take away the things you have left behind.” Eyes still closed—though perhaps his strategy had been a mistaken one, as shutting out his vision seemed only to heighten the sensation of their joined hands—he tried hard to think of further demands. “And return my shoes,” he finally added.

Nino sounded amused, “I’ll return you shoes, but why should I take away everything else? If you don’t care for it, why have you been leaving me gifts?”

Ohno opened his eyes, “I can’t let you use my room to hide what you steal.”

Some of the humor in Nino’s face fell away; he released Ohno’s hands and sat back on his heels. After a moment, he stood and moved to light the candle. Ohno noticed that Nino treated his garret as though it were his home; he felt strangely as though he were the intruder.

Ohno remained on the carpet for a few moments, trying to catch his breath—he waited until the room had ceased spinning before standing to face the thief. Nino was standing very still with his face turned away, but Ohno could still trace his profile in the dim candlelight. When Nino spoke again, his voice was distant, “If you wished me to stop, then you should have locked your window. There was no need for such a dramatic capture.”

Ohno could think of several possible replies to this, the most likely of which were that the thief could easily break the lock, and that closing the skylight would not solve the problem of the outrageous possessions that currently resided in his room. But instead Ohno found himself replying, “I do not wish for you to stop. But I wish that you would bring different things. Just bring food. Simple things, like bread and milk. Things that children would like.”

Nino turned to face him; Ohno felt relieved even to be glared at. Nino was clearly annoyed, but more than anything he seemed puzzled by his words. “You want me to feed you?” he frowned, his eyes suspicious. “Why would you think that I would agree to such a plan? How would I, according to your own words a thief looking to hide stolen goods, benefit from such a proposal?”

“Not me. I mean, there is a large family with almost nothing to eat living in the basement of this house.” Ohno swallowed, struggling to explain, “I do not think you would stop stealing if I asked you too, and from what I have seen you are a master of your trade. But you could use your skills to help them.”

Nino’s eyes narrowed; once again, Ohno felt as though he were being examined and found unsatisfactory. “If you have such faith in the goodness of humanity, I wonder that you choose to live in such abject solitude.”

Ohno felt flattered that Nino seemed to think he had a choice in the matter; he could not imagine himself appearing as fit company for anyone, but the thief seemed to think that his isolation was entirely of his own making. Growing more confident, he took a step towards him. “I have no faith,” he whispered; Nino inclined his head curiously toward him, reminding him of nothing so much as the gray sparrow. He remembered to raise his voice, “I have no faith,” he repeated, “but I believe in what I see. You could have left me when I was ill, but you saved me. You take the rubbish that I leave for you and call them gifts. You gave me something to eat, something that could not be returned. You did not profit from any of those actions.” Ohno fell silent, oddly exhausted—he could not remember the last time he had spoken so many words together.

The thief’s countenance seemed to pass through a rapid series of emotions before settling on simple bemusement. “I think you have too simple a conception of what constitutes profit,” he finally replied, eyes downcast. There was no condescension in his voice, but there was frustration.

Ohno took another step nearer. Nino smelled of sweat but there was another scent—something that made Ohno think, inexplicably, of Christmas. Citrus, he realized. He pictured the oranges and limes he’d found stuffed inside his Christmas stocking as a child. Moving closer, he was suddenly aware of how extraordinarily clean Nino was, in spite of his ragged clothing. Ohno knew that his own hands and face were covered in a fine layer of dust from his work at the mason yard, and the tips of his fingers were black with charcoal. Nino’s skin was almost translucent in the candlelight. But there was, Ohno was relieved to discover, a patch of stubble at his jaw, as though he had shaved too hastily that morning.

Ohno was no longer certain of how long they had remained silent, but he found that his gaze was drawn irresistibly towards Nino’s mouth, and then the haze of citrus grew stronger; for one dream-like moment he thought that the thief was leaning towards him, but then Nino stepped back and the scent vanished.

Ohno did what he could to recover his wits as Nino began speaking, his voice tight and hurried, “I can easily bring you food. But in exchange, I will leave all this,” he gestured towards the room’s strange objects that loomed in the moonlight, “until I decide to sell them.” He smiled bitterly before turning his face away. “And I want to be able to use this attic whenever I like,” he added, softly but in a tone that suggested that he would brook no opposition.

Ohno’s heart was in his throat, “You want to…live here…with me?” he wondered aloud, sounding stupid even to his own ears.

“No!” the thief shouted angrily, turning on his heel to face him; then, catching sight of Ohno’s horrified expression, he burst out laughing. “No,” he repeated more calmly, still laughing, “but I could use another hideout. You must see how such an obscure attic could be of use to an industrious thief like myself. I spend half my life running across roofs in my efforts to evade Constable Hatori.” Nino smiled, revealing pale pink gums, and Ohno knew that he would agree to anything that he asked of him. He nodded his assent.

Too quickly, the thief was moving away from the light. “Then we will encounter one another again, old man,” he murmured, as though to himself.

Ohno reached out and grabbed his wrist; Nino flinched but stilled, making no attempt to escape. Ohno fixed his gaze on the thief’s smooth, un-lined hand as he questioned him, surprised by the almost desperate urgency he felt; in spite of the thief’s words, he feared this might be the last time he spoke to him. “What you asked me before, whether I was a Bohemian with a rich father, that is your story, isn’t it? You have a rich family, but you do not live with them.” His voice was shaking, “You choose to be a thief.”

Ohno felt the thief’s arm trembling, but his voice was calm as he answered quietly, “Yes. That is my story.”

Nino broke from his grasp and stepped up onto the table, and Ohno scrambled up after him. The thief laughed when Ohno grabbed his shoulders from behind to stop him escaping; Ohno grew warm at the sound. “How did you know my name?” he demanded.

Nino turned to face him, still smiling, “Because you signed the portrait, old man,” he scolded, bringing a hand up to smack Ohno lightly across the forehead, his fingers ghosting lightly over his face before his hand fell away.

Ohno was stunned; he had the vague sense that he might start weeping simply from being touched. “Oh,” he replied.

It wasn’t until Nino had actually leapt up and caught the edge of the skylight that Ohno thought of his next question. He had to throw his arms around Nino’s waist to tug him back down, pleased when Nino shouted in surprise and fell him against him in his efforts to steady himself. Somehow Ohno’s mouth ended up at his ear. “How were you able to move everything in without waking me?”

Nino took a shaky step backwards. Ohno caught his elbow to prevent him from falling off the edge of the table. Nino instantly tried to shake him off, but he held fast. Nino panted, his expression unreadable, “Because, you homicidal maniac, I count hypnotism among my many talents.”

Ohno was taken aback. The suggestion was absurd, but then, everything about his thief—Nino, he reminded himself—was profoundly unbelievable. Nino caught his curious gaze. “Watch,” he commanded, his eyes suddenly soft and authoritative as he raised his hand and hovered it before Ohno’s eyes. “When I snap my fingers,” he continued, his nasal voice oddly-soothing, “you will fall into a deep, deep sleep. You will awaken at sunrise, and you will have forgotten everything that passed between us tonight.”

He snapped his fingers right before Ohno’s eyes; instinctively, Ohno blinked and jerked back. The thief used his momentary distraction to free his elbow from Ohno’s grip and catch hold of the skylight; in another moment he had vanished.

“Liar!” Ohno called weakly after the retreating figure. “I remember everything,” he insisted aloud, as if to reassure himself before the empty room.

 

*

 

After that night, Ohno half-feared that he would never encounter Nino again. He knew from the stories that his grandfather had read to him as a child that once the source of the magic has been revealed, the story almost always comes to an end.

So the following night he made no effort to watch for his thief; he forced himself to sleep with his back to the skylight, as though his attention might frighten him off. He was rewarded for his restraint the next morning when he woke to discover three bottles of milk, five loaves of bread, and his best shoes on the table. Inside one of the shoes was a piece of paper folded tightly into the shape of a star. Ohno’s fingers shook with impatience as he hurried to unfold it. The writing was small and neat—definitely the script of an educated man—but the lines were vibrant with energy, as though (Ohno thought) the letters longed to escape the confines of the page.

Dear Satoshi,
Do you have any conception of how difficult it is to carry three bottles of milk across four rooftops and then to lower those same bottles through a window and onto a table without—you will notice—spilling a drop? Even a master thief like myself has his limits. I hope this will quiet those mewling children you are so inexplicably fond of for some time, as I certainly cannot be expected to perform such feats every night. I expect some of your finest work in return for this piece of generosity. I should also note that winter is coming, and I would be very thankful for a new pair of socks. The mittens you left are very warm.
Even as I close this letter, my brow is still damp with the sweat of my labour. How deeply unpleasant.
Yours sincerely,
A master thief

Ohno laughed out loud, surprising himself with the sound; after some thought, he concluded that he could not, in fact, remember the last time he had laughed. He could hardly have explained why if questioned, but for some reason the note struck him as hilarious. Even more unjustifiably, he felt certain that although the note appeared serious, Nino had really intended it to be funny.

Ohno thought for the entire day over how he should reply to Nino’s note, but it was impossible to think of anything satisfactory; he had no news and even less wit. Although Nino had laughed a few times when they had last spoken, he did not, Ohno reflected sadly, know how to be funny. In the end, he scribbled his message down and folded it up tightly without reading it over before retiring to press his face into his pillow until his mortification subsided.

Dear Nino,
Thank you. I will knit you a pair of socks. Socks are the most troublesome article to knit and I think they will not be finished until the end of autumn, so you should continue visiting my attic at least until winter begins if you wish to collect them. If you would be so good as to leave me a tracing of your foot, I would have a rough idea of the size.
My mind wandered to thoughts of you and your note throughout the day, not just when I paused in my work but even when I was working. I am sorry that in spite of so much thought, this note is still not amusing.
Gratefully yours,
Satoshi

 

*

 

For a fortnight this pattern continued; Nino left some food nearly every day, and the two men exchanged notes. Ohno carefully re-folded Nino’s small missives and kept them in his pockets. He worked, slowly, on a pair of socks, struggling to remember how his mother had knit them; he was forced to unravel his work and start again several times.

He naturally became a favorite with the children in the basement and, after some time, gained a firm idea of just how many there were (eight) and of their names (though he still confused the names of the three girls closest in age). He even endured an interview in his garret with the children’s mother; she’d knocked on his door to thank him and (he suspected) to examine him, and it had been impossible not to invite her in. Of course she’d stared, mouth agape, at the Venus flytrap and the portrait of the lady with the peacock; after several minutes of stunned silence, she’d offered hesitantly, “I suppose, sir, that you’ve come into some money, and thought you’d do a good deed by feeding my poor ones?” Seeing Ohno’s discomfort, she’d continued with more assurance, “Why, anyone can tell you’re a step above this house, sir, if you’ll excuse my saying it. Just to hear you talk I knew you for a gentleman. But don’t worry, sir, I won’t try to make you my husband or my gentleman,” (Ohno blushed scarlet as she continued) “I’ve no need of any more men, I can say that for certain. And to speak plain I can tell you’re not like that, sir, I can see you only mean to help. I’d refuse for myself but with children to feed there’s no refusing, so I’ll thank you and ask you to supper. It must seem quiet up here alone.”

“It’s not always so lonely,” Ohno mumbled.

“Well I daresay you prefer it, sir.” She took a sip of the weak tea he’d hastily brewed while surveying him critically. “But I thank god for you and for me that you came into that money, sir,” she finally pronounced, “you used to look so thin and ill that the children—you’ll excuse them, sir—they called you ‘the ghost in the attic.’ But now you look well and like a real gentleman, and the children love you, sir, truly.”

The family meal was more bearable than Ohno had expected. He found that he was not expected to speak but only had to submit to having children pull at his arms and chatter into his ears throughout the meal; the arrangement suited him perfectly. And when they ended the evening with a game of marbles (Ohno won the first round handily before retiring to help the younger children), he found that he was actually enjoying himself.

When he opened the door to his garret later that night, he was instantly possessed of the conviction that someone had been in his room while he was out. But no notes or gifts had been left, and nothing was out of place; two half-drunk cups of tea still sat on the table where he had left them. After searching the room over for a second time, he concluded that he must be growing paranoid—the natural result of having a mysterious visitor descend on one’s home while one slept. It was only when he lay down to sleep that his suspicions were confirmed—his bedding still held the scent of citrus.

 

*

 

Ohno only had to wait three more days to discover Nino asleep in his bed. He’d returned from work late in the evening; the sun was already setting as he entered the house and ran the gauntlet of children emerging to greet him. He thought of nothing as he climbed the stairs, too exhausted from the day’s work even to think of his thief. But as soon as he opened the door and stepped inside his attic, he felt his hair stand on end, as though a current of electricity had passed through him as he’d stepped over the threshold. He spied a small lump beneath his quilt that proved, upon closer examination, to be Nino. He was curled up tightly beneath the cover, so tightly that Ohno wondered how he could be sleeping comfortably. He looked ill; even paler than before, and somehow worn. There were streaks of dirt across his face. His brows were knitted, and he’d half buried his face into the pillow he was clutching tightly. He was also—Ohno’s heart seemed to stop at the sight—pressing his face into a corner of Ohno’s night shirt.

After some time, Ohno realized that he could not continue sitting on his bed and staring at him; he would probably be frightened if he woke and found that he was being watched. So, as quietly as possible, Ohno moved to the table and lit the lamp. He considered sketching but worried that the scratch of crayon against paper might wake him. In the end, he decided to amuse himself with the Thousand Nights, first carefully turning a few pages to be sure that the sound would not awaken him. But Nino seemed to be very deeply asleep.

It was only when Ohno’s mind had stopped thrumming with questions—had Nino been hurt while trying to steal food for him? Was he exhausted from the task? Was it right to encourage him to continue stealing? Did he always work at night, and sleep during the day? Was he ill?—and he had started to become absorbed in the story before him that Nino woke. Ohno heard the bedclothes being moved, and then a short, startled gasp followed by a long interval of silence. He kept his eyes fixed on the page before him though his whole attention was concentrated on the figure behind him. He relaxed only when he heard feet padding softly towards him, and then his entire body felt hot as Nino pressed himself against his back and leaned his (rather sharp) chin on his shoulder to examine what he was reading. Ohno tried to act as though he were still calmly reading, hoping to appear as unruffled as the thief had during their first encounter, but he forgot to turn the pages.

Nino, however, merely inquired—in a voice so raw and tired that Ohno wondered again if he were very ill—“What happened to your hand, old man?”

For a moment Ohno’s mind was blank, but then his awareness of the dull throb in his left hand returned. He lifted the messily-bandaged hand to the light, “I cut it today while carving a name into a gravestone.”

“Do you often hurt yourself while working?”

Ohno shook his head firmly. “No. Today I worked too fast.”

Nino’s huff softened into a tired sigh. “It’s difficult to imagine you doing anything too fast,” he grumbled weakly.

Silence stretched between them again; Ohno wondered if Nino would simply fall asleep on his shoulder. He tried to remain still, but the feeling of Nino’s warm breath against his neck made him squirm. Finally he stood, avoiding the fascination of Nino’s dark eyes. Ohno discovered that, in a crisis, he truly had nothing to fall back on but the example of his mother. “I’ll make you a cup of tea.”

 

*

 

The tea did seem to revive Nino—at least, his eyes grew brighter and his complexion gained some color as he drank. So Ohno brought out his tin of biscuits—he could not have explained why, but he had started buying more food since first encountering the thief—and then his loaf of bread and started fixing him slices of bread and butter. It was a poor meal, but Nino ate it ravenously, as though famished. It was only after the third slice of bread that Nino mumbled, “You know that our arrangement was only that I might use your attic. You are under no obligation to feed me.”

“Then you should have refused,” Ohno returned, offering him another biscuit and deciding that having his week’s wages eaten in one go was worth the smile he was given. Observing him in the lamp light, Ohno thought how different the thief seemed tonight; he appeared not just exhausted but thoughtful and almost—if it were really possible—abashed, even embarrassed in his presence. In spite of his casual occupation of Ohno’s attic, there was little of the confident criminal in his manner. Ohno worried that he had been through some ordeal, but he did not dislike this quieter Nino—it made him seem more like someone who really might be content to spend time with him in his wretched garret.

But his expression was too bitter as he stared down at his plate. Ohno wanted to ask what had happened, but instead he demanded, “How were you really able to move the furniture into my garret? And why did I always wake in my bed in the morning?”

Nino gave a half-smile, and Ohno congratulated himself. There was some life in his eyes as he responded, “I already told you, old man. I learned the art of hypnotism in Paris from a very powerful spiritualist, Monsieur Fosco. You have an unusually suggestible temperament. For someone of my skills, it was child’s play to place you in a trance and erase all your memories of the night.”

Ohno tried to repress his amusement, but the corner of his mouth twitched. “I don’t believe you,” he insisted flatly.

Nino assumed a deeply-wounded expression. “Then I will give you a demonstration of my powers,” he declared. He raised his hand and placed it right before Ohno’s eyes, just as he had at their last meeting. “When I snap my fingers, you will fall into a trance, and you will be completely under my power.”

This time, when Nino snapped his fingers, Ohno obligingly fell back into his chair, lolling his head as though deeply asleep. He bit the inside of his cheek to stop himself from smiling when he heard Nino’s snort of suppressed laughter. Nino moved to stand behind him and placed his hands on his shoulders; Ohno tried not to lean in towards him when Nino whispered in his ear, “When I snap my fingers again, you will wake, select three biscuits from the tin, and juggle them. When I snap my fingers a second time, you will emerge from the trance with a perfect recollection of the extent of my power.”

He snapped his fingers; Ohno immediately took three biscuits and began to juggle them, careful to keep his own expression stiff while observing the look of delight on Nino’s face as he juggled them easily.

But when Nino snapped his fingers again to awaken him, Ohno claimed to have no memory of having been under a trance, and insisted that he did not believe that Nino could have hypnotized him; Nino insisted on another attempt. The two continued this way for some time; at Nino’s request, Ohno stood on his head, wore the blue silk smoking jacket as a turban, recited the first two stanzas of “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” and drew a chicken, all the while continuing to claim that he did not believe in Nino’s abilities. The game ended when Nino commanded Ohno to turn into a gorilla, and both men burst out laughing after only his first clumsy movement as he dragged his knuckles across the carpet.

In the midst of these antics, the two had ended up seated beside each on the Persian rug; Ohno turned so that he could see Nino’s face more clearly, pleased that he no longer seemed so melancholy. It was when he turned to face him that Nino caught his gaze. And there was something in Nino’s laughing eyes when he looked at him that made Ohno feel, in an oddly pleasant way, as though the floor had fallen out from underneath him. His gaze was so warm, and so intent—as though (Ohno could hardly allow himself to credit the thought) Ohno were the one person in the world that Nino most wished to gaze upon. “Satoshi,” he said quietly, and Ohno felt his heart shudder in his chest for the second time that night.

Nino raised his hand. His voice trembled as he recited, “When I snap my fingers, you will fall into a trance. When I snap my fingers again,” there was a pause during which Nino exhaled shakily, “you will kiss me once before falling asleep. Then you will wake in the morning with no memory of having seen me tonight.”

He snapped his fingers. Ohno didn’t even blink. Instead, he took his cold hand in his own, lowering it as he interlaced their fingers. He met Nino’s gaze steadily. “I remember everything,” he breathed before bringing their lips together.

Chapter Text

The first (and last) person Ohno had kissed was a maid in one of the houses his mother had worked in. He’d been walking up the narrow staircase to the servant’s quarters, holding his candle carefully, when he’d been stopped at the landing, pulled aside by someone standing in the shadows and then pressed against the wall. His candle had dropped to the floor but extinguished itself. Ohno was distracted by the sound of the candle rolling slowly down the stairs as soft, demanding lips were pressed against his. Shocked, he’d opened his mouth to say something—perhaps just “hello”—but she’d only continued kissing him with greater passion. He remembered that it had felt rather pleasant and vaguely disgusting all at once. When she’d raised his hand to press it against her breast, he’d stilled, feeling that it would be impolite to remove his hand but unable to imagine what she wanted him to do next.

A few kisses later she’d broken away from him with a sigh; he was relieved that the darkness hid his expression—he was sure that it must be strange. He felt strange. She gave a longer sigh, her tone disappointed when she spoke, “I knew you were one of them.”

Ohno coughed before finding his voice, “One of who?”

She was tucking stray hairs back into her braids as she answered, “You know. A queer one. One of those fellows who’s only after other gents. A Nancy,” she finished with a dismissive shrug of her shoulders. She ruffled his hair. “Don’t worry. Not as if I have anyone who’d care to know,” she reassured him lightly before continuing on her way down the stairs.

Ohno’s knees had gone weak; he’d slid down the wall to the floor. It was not so much the kiss that had affected him—though he’d still felt it on his lips—as the easy way that she’d defined him: “one of those fellows who’s only after other gents.” Ohno had not known that it was even possible to be such a fellow, but if it were possible, then he was certain that he was one of “them.” He thought of how much he liked the footman, Okada, and the feeling he got in his stomach when Okada rolled up his shirtsleeves to reveal his tanned forearms when he played cards with the other servants in the kitchen. For the first time in his life, Ohno allowed himself to dwell on those thoughts; he imagined kissing Okada, and his heart sped.

Since that kiss, Ohno had known that he was, in some way, “queer,” but it had hardly mattered, as he had felt no need to act upon such feelings. He could not remember the last time he had desired someone. Since his mother’s death, his body (and, he supposed, his mind) had been painfully numb—as though not just his hand or foot but his entire body had fallen asleep, and every attempt at movement produced only a knife-sharp pain. Pleasure seemed a distant thing—something that he had only ever imagined.

When Ohno kissed Nino, it felt like coming alive again. His desire was so immediate and so strong that he forgot to breathe; if Nino had not finally broken the kiss and stroked the side of his face until he had stopped shaking, Ohno would have fainted on the spot. Kissing Nino was not like his first kiss, or like his fantasies of kissing Okada. It was still soft, and warm, and wet, but it was also Nino—his Nino. His thief.

Ohno later thought that, after being left behind so often, he should have known that Nino’s first instinct would be to flee and thus planned accordingly. But then, he had not planned to kiss him.

As it was, Ohno watched helplessly as Nino got to his feet. He’d calmed Ohno with his stillness and with his sure hand on his cheek, but when he stood Ohno saw that his legs were shaking too. “Don’t go,” he breathed. “Don’t go,” he repeated more loudly.

Nino was already climbing onto the table. “I’m sorry,” he said as he reached for the skylight, his voice thick. “I’m sorry,” he repeated, “I’ve already stayed too long.” Nino paused with his hand lightly clasping the edge of the skylight; Ohno’s heart leapt as he observed the indecision in his stance. “I’m sorry,” he said for the third time, his voice mechanical. “It’s not my choice. But I have to go.”

“Come back,” Ohno said, but he couldn’t be sure whether Nino had heard him before he’d disappeared through the skylight.

That night was agony. Ohno thought that his fever had returned as he drifted between wakefulness and strange, vivid dreams of Nino turning into a sparrow and flying away. Truly, Ohno thought, he was awake—and now the pleasure he was able to feel would be balanced by even sharper pains.

 

*

 

A day later, Ohno discovered a glass bottle of antiseptic and a clean roll of bandage for his hand on the table. He almost sent a prayer of thanks to God that he would see Nino again, but before he could complete his prayer, he looked up and saw that the skylight was closed.

He went up to the roof to investigate; the hinges had been repaired and oiled, and a new lock had been placed on the clasp. The pane closed and locked smoothly.

Ohno experienced such a surge of fury at this discovery that it made him dizzy; then he wondered what he could destroy. He had few choices; almost nothing in his garret actually belonged to him. He thought of burning Nino’s letters but knew instinctively that he would never be able to carry it out. In the end, he violently unraveled the socks he had been knitting at Nino’s request, then went back up to the roof and used a brick from the crumbling chimney to break the lock. He left the skylight open.

 

*

 

After that day, there was nothing. Ohno continued to leave the skylight ajar in spite of the bitter coldness of the November air. He stayed in his garret for two days in a row; he spent two more nights on the roof with the sparrow. But he never caught sight of the thief’s slight figure.

After the first week had passed, the mother of the children in the basement came to visit him—she said a large crate of food had been delivered to their room, and she showed Ohno the note that had been attached to it. Ohno recognized the small, lively script at once.

My sincere wishes for your health and happiness, Ohno Satoshi

Over the next several weeks, the family continued to receive food parcels, all with short notes written by Nino but signed using Ohno’s name. Ohno tried several times to catch the parcels being delivered but with no success. Nothing was left—or taken from—his attic, and the scent of citrus had long since faded.

In spite of the cold, Ohno spent more time than ever on the roof with his sparrow, looking out over the rooftops and thinking. He found that he could not forget. He knew that he should forget. He would (he tried to convince himself) have been able to forget were it not for two things: the parcels, and Nino’s last words—he had said that leaving was not his choice, but that he must leave. Meaning that perhaps he had wanted to stay.

In his darkest moods, Ohno knew that the most rational explanation for Nino’s behavior was that the thief had been playing with him, finding it all to be a good joke. He probably continued to send the food out of guilt, or because he was kind, or both. When he had repaired the skylight, he had most likely meant to tell Ohno that their strange relationship had come to an end.

But Ohno was patient, and—as his mother had often observed—Ohno was stubborn. So he forgot nothing that had passed between them, and he waited for Nino’s return.

 

*

 

Ohno lay awake on his mattress, watching the fall of snowflakes in the moonlight as they entered through the slightly-opened skylight and drifted downwards to collect on his table. It was the first snowfall of the year. Ohno was finding it difficult to sleep, and not only because the air in his garret had turned frigid. Ever since kissing Nino, everything seemed to possess a greater intensity: colors, voices, textures, his own thoughts—everything left him strung out with a nervous energy, a feeling he could only compare to his disastrous experiments with opium. Watching the glittering snowflakes, Ohno remembered his amazement as a child when his father’s house had first been fitted with gas lighting; his mother had allowed him to pull the chain on the most magnificent lamp—the enormous one in the dining room—and he’d marveled that such a small action could cause the glass fixtures to flare instantaneously to life. But such lights were also simple enough to extinguish; Ohno did not know how to make himself stop burning.

A shadow fell across the table. Ohno jolted upright, though he half-expected another false alarm. But no—one thin leg, then another—but rather than landing lightly on the table, the figure fell into the room, crashing down and overturning the small table before lying perfectly still on the snow-dusted floor.

Throwing over the bedclothes, Ohno scrambled to his feet. In two steps he was beside him. He took him into his arms and examined his face; his hair was wet with snow, and there were dark bruises forming around his eyes. Most alarmingly, there was blood staining the corner of his mouth.

“Kazunari!” Ohno shouted, shaking him.

To his relief, Nino opened his eyes; his gaze wandering to the sky above before coming to rest on Ohno’s face. Meeting his panicked eyes, Nino gave a half-smile. “Mother,” he rasped. Then he tried to laugh but coughed up blood onto the front of Ohno’s nightshirt instead.

Ohno held him to his chest, rubbing his back while Nino coughed; fortunately, no more blood came up, and Ohno did everything he could not to think of the warm blood on his shirt. The coughing seemed to further exhaust the thief; he made only the faintest noise of protest when Ohno stripped him of his wet clothes and vigorously dried his hair with a corner of his nightshirt before re-dressing him in some of his own clothes. He managed to carry Nino to the bed, gasping slightly with the effort; Nino was small but similar in stature to himself.

Making sure that Nino was wrapped up well in the blankets, he hurried to pour him a glass of water. Sitting Nino up, he ordered him to rinse out his mouth, but Nino only lolled his head against his shoulder with a blank expression. In the end, he used his own fingers to clean the blood from his mouth; it frightened him that Nino could not seem to manage even a small protest at the action. He thought frantically whether there was anything else he could do. All he could think of was to use the antiseptic that Nino had given him to clean the cut at the corner of his mouth (at least Nino made a hissing noise and flinched away when he applied it), and to put the socks he had knit for him on his feet. He closed the skylight before crawling into bed beside him; the room was ice cold. So he wrapped his arms tightly around Nino, who pressed his face into Ohno’s neck.

Ohno thought that Nino had already fallen asleep when he heard his muffled voice, “Why did you leave the window open?” Ohno felt something wet against his neck—could Nino be crying?

“Why did you fall through it?” he countered quietly, mumbling the words into Nino’s hair.

Ohno fell asleep once he felt that Nino’s heartbeat had calmed and that his breathing was slow and even against his neck.

 

*

 

Ohno woke to the peal of church bells. The day was bright and clear after the storm; even with a thin layer of snow covering the roof, the skylight still diffused a clear morning light throughout the room.

Ohno felt extraordinarily warm—he rearranged himself to get a better look at the man lying on top of him. Ohno realized that he had never seen what Nino’s features looked like in daylight. But today was likely not a good indication of his general appearance—he was paler than usual, and his eyes were ringed with black and purple. His mouth looked better than it had last night, but there was still a nasty cut on his bottom lip. Ohno let his gaze drift to Nino’s shoulders and to the arms that were holding him—there were light yellow and green bruises there. On his left shoulder, there were bruises in the shape of fingerprints. Ohno had once seen similar bruises on his mother's arm.

As though he could feel his gaze, Nino stirred in his sleep before opening bloodshot eyes; he blinked up at Ohno with an expression of mild surprise before comprehension seemed to dawn. He looked apologetic, and he moved slightly as if to begin disentangling himself from Ohno. Ohno wrapped his arms around him more tightly and pulled him back.

Nino sighed—not unhappily, Ohno thought. “Do you go to church on Sundays, old man?” he asked into his chest. Nino’s voice was rough, and it cracked on the word “old,” but Ohno smiled at how much more like himself Nino sounded.

“I never go,” he replied. He hadn’t been inside a church since his mother’s funeral.

“Then what do you do on Sundays? Do you stay in and paint all day?”

Ohno shook his head. “No. I go to the baths.”

Nino propped his chin onto his chest so that he could look at Ohno, and he managed a weak smile, “I’m afraid I don’t know what that means, but let’s go to the baths, then.”

 

*

 

Ohno had his threadbare overcoat; Nino had the remarkably fine one he’d worn the night before. Ohno recognized it as the same kind his grandfather had worn. He looked a sight dressed in Ohno’s ragged clothes with his thick coat over all, but Ohno supposed his own appearance was nearly as alarming. Though he didn’t look as though he’d been beaten to a pulp the night before.

The two men walked to Westminster, first stopping at the bakery at the end of the street to buy fresh rolls for the journey. Ohno also stopped to collect his clothes from the washerwoman’s, stuffing the clean garments into the sack he’d brought along. As they walked, Nino observed everything with quiet interest and stayed close to Ohno’s side. Ohno wondered if Nino really did only travel at night, as he seemed unfamiliar with the streets they traveled. Or perhaps he stayed close in an effort to conceal himself from the curious gazes of passers-by; his bruised face could not help but draw attention.

Although Ohno suspected from the glint in his eyes that Nino was lying, Nino had claimed to have no money in his possession, so Ohno had paid for the rolls and, when they reached the public baths at St. James’, he paid for two private baths. Usually, he would buy a ticket for the twopenny plunge and bath in the large central pool with the other men of limited means (he liked coming early Sunday morning when the pool was less crowded), but he felt strange at the thought of bathing together with Nino. And he felt even stranger when he imagined Nino bathing with other men. So he bought two tickets for the sixpenny private bath, grateful that he had accumulated some savings over the past two months.

With the more expensive tickets, they were given soap as well as towels and led to the private compartments; the attendant unlocked the doors and filled the baths with hot water before ushering them inside. Nino looked slightly lost as they parted, and Ohno felt compelled to explain, “I’ll meet you outside the doors. I’ll wait for you to finish.” Nino rolled his eyes as if annoyed by Ohno’s attempt to reassure him, but he smiled nonetheless before entering his own compartment.

Ohno entered his room and quickly stripped, wanting to enjoy the luxury of a hot bath for as long as possible; but once he was inside the tub and the first sensation of pleasure had subsided, he became acutely aware of the sounds on the other side of the (apparently paper thin) walls—he could hear every small splash Nino made as he moved around in the bath, and he even heard when Nino gave a small sneeze.

Ohno tried very hard not to picture Nino taking a bath. But Nino made it more difficult to avoid the mental image by suddenly grumbling, “Didn’t we just pay an exorbitant fee to bathe privately? I hardly think this is private—I can’t enjoy a bath when I can hear you swimming laps over there.”

Ohno smiled, “Then stop listening.”

“Stop being noisy,” Nino returned.

“Lie down with your ears under the water and stare up at the ceiling,” Ohno suggested, “everything will be quiet and far away.”

“Are you doing that now, old man?”

Ohno made no reply.

After a minute of silence during which Ohno was careful not to splash, he heard Nino’s voice coming low but clear through the wall. “Thank you, Satoshi. Thank you for taking care of me last night and this morning. I’m sorry.” There was a pause before he continued. “For everything I’ve done. Forgive me.”

Ohno wasn’t sure whether to remain silent or to speak; after a few moments, he replied “You’re welcome.” He spoke the words very softly, but afterwards he could hear angry splashing on the other side of the wall.

 

*

 

Nino looked better after the bath; he was still dressed in Ohno’s clothes, but at least they were the clean ones, and his eyes seemed less tired. But he couldn’t seem to meet Ohno’s gaze, blushing almost scarlet when they met again outside the baths and looking straight ahead as they walked together back towards Chelsea. Ohno realized that he had done something wrong—for some reason, he ought not to have replied when Nino had thanked him in the bath—but he could not think of any way to recover the easy atmosphere they had shared that morning.

Ohno was so lost in thought that he failed to notice that Nino had stopped walking until he bumped into his back. He looked up to discover that Nino was pointing to the barbershop in front of them with a strange look of satisfaction. “You should have a shave,” he declared, “your beard makes you look like you’ve escaped from Bedlam.”

Ohno raised a hand to his face, feeling the soft bristles on his chin. Nino looked determined; Ohno cast his mind about desperately for some means of escape. “Only if you cut your hair,” he finally challenged, gesturing towards the dark locks that fell below Nino’s shoulders.

To Ohno’s surprise, Nino quickly took his hand in his own, “You’re on.”

 

*

 

They were only a few streets from the barbershop before Nino was pushing him into an alley to begin touching his face; Ohno leant against the brick wall while Nino ran his fingers over his (now smooth) cheeks and chin. Ohno watched the expression in Nino’s eyes as he examined him and felt himself turning red. Nino smiled so widely—the smile that Ohno remembered because he could see even his gums. “You look so young now, old man,” he praised him, continuing to stroke his face.

Ohno brought his hand up to caress the lines of Nino’s neck and then stroked his fingers across his nape; Nino twitched as though he had tickled him. “You still look terrible, little thief,” he confessed before he could stop himself, but Nino only laughed.

They kissed; Ohno couldn’t help smiling at the thought that like a lamp, he was flaring to life once again. After kissing for some time, they somehow rearranged themselves with Nino turned around so that Ohno could kiss the back of his neck; they continued (Ohno felt as though he could go on kissing Nino's neck forever) until they were interrupted by the noisy applause and whistles of a trio of friendly-looking prostitutes passing by. “Spending the Lord’s Day in prayer, then?” one of the women called out to them gaily.

They laughed but still broke apart as the women passed. Ohno realized that he had suddenly developed a new talent; he had only to look into Nino’s eyes to know what the other man wished him to do—Nino gave him another wide grin when he grabbed his hand and began pulling him down the alley. He navigated the labyrinthine side streets back to the house so that they could continue to hold hands as they walked—almost ran—back, and when they reached the house they really did start running up the stairs.

Nino gave a breathless laugh when they entered the attic; seeing the question in Ohno’s eyes, he explained, “That’s the first time I’ve used the door.”

Nino sat on the mattress and Ohno followed. He was moving forward to kiss Nino again when out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a smear of rust; his nightshirt lay on the bed where he had discarded it that morning, and the bloodstain on the front stood out with startling vividness in the daylight.

Ohno jerked back; he looked at Nino, and instead of seeing the desire in his eyes, he saw the cut at the corner of his mouth and the tender skin around his eyes. In his mind’s eye, Ohno saw the fingerprints on Nino’s arm.

“Satoshi,” Nino’s voice seemed to reach him from a distance. “Satoshi,” he called again, using his hand to turn Ohno’s face in an attempt to refocus his gaze. “Where have you gone, old man?”

Ohno took Nino’s hand in his own and stared at it. “You can’t leave,” he ordered quietly.

Ohno looked up; he'd made a mistake again. Nino’s eyes, laughing a minute before, now looked desperately sad. “Satoshi, I cannot…” he began.

“You want to hear about my past, don’t you?” Ohno spoke loudly over him, surprising them both.

Nino searched his face. When he finally spoke, his tone was cautious. “What do you mean?”

“The first night we met—you asked me why I spoke the way I do. If you promise me that you will stay with me tonight, and that you won’t leave me without saying goodbye, then I will tell you everything. My entire history.”

Nino looked almost angry; his voice rose with every word he spoke, “How can you still be so simple? Do you trust just anyone who climbs in through your window? Why would you trust me with your history? How can you still," Nino paused, seemingly unable to speak from sheer frustration, "believe that I would keep my promise?” he finally demanded.

Ohno tried to smile as he answered, “You haven't left me with much of a choice. If I stop trusting you to keep your promises, I have to let everything end.”

Nino pressed his face into the crook of his arm, hiding his expression from Ohno. After a minute, he lowered his arm and pressed his face into Ohno’s shoulder instead, embracing him. Ohno returned the embrace, pulling Nino closer. When he finally spoke, Nino's voice was thick with some emotion; Ohno wished that he could look into his eyes again and know what he was thinking. “I promise. I promise that I won’t leave you tonight, or leave you without saying goodbye. So tell me your story. It had better be a good one.”

Chapter Text

Ohno had never thought of his life as a story—as something with a beginning, middle, and end. He very rarely thought beyond the day—or the hour—that lay before him. But it was true that each of his present days felt haunted by his past.

Ohno did not know how to begin; he thought that Nino would grow impatient with his silence, but he waited, letting Ohno play with the newly-shorn hair at his nape while he thought. Finally, Ohno broke their embrace and turned to gaze down at the patterns on the carpet. Nino swung his legs over the side of the bed so that he was sitting beside him. “Just begin at the beginning, old man,” he advised quietly.

Instead, Ohno began at the end. “My mother died a year ago. From consumption. My little sister died of consumption three years ago.”

Nino covered Ohno’s hand with his own. “You had a sister?”

Ohno nodded as hot tears flooded his eyes. His poor sister; his chest still burned with guilt when he thought of her. After her death, he had been so absorbed in keeping his mother alive that he had never truly mourned her.

“She was called Satomi. She was clever and beautiful. She would have loved that book of the Thousand Nights—she could have read it in a day. She could read anything she liked, no matter how long it was, in a day. Even though she had never been to school. She was always faster than me, at everything.”

“How did she learn to read?”

“I taught her.” Ohno hesitated; what he said next, he had never admitted even to himself, “I think my mother must have wished that she had died with my sister—they fell ill at the same time, but my sister was gone in a day while my mother had to struggle on for three more years. I know she tried, for my sake, but she missed Satomi so much. That…that was when I learned masonry—she couldn’t work anymore after her illness. I could have made a higher wage at first if I had gone into a factory, but she said,” Ohno swallowed before continuing, “that it would be the death of her if I worked in a factory. That if I couldn’t be an artist, I had to at least learn skilled work.”

Ohno remembered coming home at nights from the mason yard, exhausted, to find his mother waiting for him. He would tell her not to wait for him, but she always waited. He would sit, and they would tell each other everything that had happened to them that day. Often his mother was not well enough to leave the house, but she always had stories to tell him of what she had seen out the window or of what she had heard from their neighbors. She made even the most everyday incidents—giving crumbs to a bird, speaking to an old man who proved to be a remarkably talented whistler—sound like adventures. That was what both his mother and his sister had liked best—imagining adventures. He had liked staying at home.

“The first night we met,” Ohno continued abruptly, “That was the anniversary of her death.” Nino started beside him. Ohno glanced at him, trying to smile, “I think that was why I was so convinced that you were her.”

Nino’s eyes were serious, but he gave him a crooked smile in return, “You know this is all terribly out of order, don’t you?” he asked, so gently that Ohno’s heart clenched. “Go back to the beginning, or I can’t understand you. Or, at least, tell me how you all lived before your mother and sister were ill. You all loved each other—you must have been happy.”

Ohno nodded before turning his gaze back to the intricate patterns of the Persian carpet. “We were happy when we were together. We lived as servants. My mother and sister worked as maids. I was anything—a houseboy or a footman. The best was when I was a stable boy. And once I was hired to look after the family’s dogs.” Ohno smiled, “I was better at looking after animals than people. It’s easier to know what an animal will do.”

Nino tensed beside him, almost as if he were angry, “Had you been a servant since you were a child?”

Now Nino was bringing him back to the real beginning. But Ohno tried again to postpone it. “No. We started moving between houses when I was twelve. It was difficult to find good positions because my mother had no letters of reference, and there were three of us. We were hired by people who saw us as a good bargain—we’d take lower wages to stay together. They were the sort who’d sack us all six months later, thinking they could find cheaper. And,” Ohno stopped, wondering why he felt compelled to share with Nino what still caused him such agony to think of, “both my mother and my sister were beautiful. They couldn’t keep positions because they refused…I should have….” His throat was closing and his vision blurring—all the anger and helplessness of those times returning to him as he spoke and overwhelming him; it all felt as intense and new as when he had first seen the bruises on his mother’s arm four years ago.

Nino brought him back, squeezing his hand hard and turning his face towards him, “Tell me their names, and I’ll have their houses ransacked by the end of the week,” he promised, his tone deadly.

Ohno couldn’t help but smile. He brought his hand up to caress the side of Nino’s face, letting the action calm him. “I’ll consider it.”

Nino scowled, “Are you doubting that I could have their houses ransacked?”

Ohno’s smile widened, “Never.”

Slowly, Ohno realized that he felt somehow relieved—lighter, and warmer. Nino did not blame him and—more than that—for the first time in his life, he could speak of his mother and sister to someone who sympathized with his anger and sadness—someone who also believed that they had deserved better. All their lives, his mother and sister had encountered only cruel indifference, but staring into Nino’s scowling face, Ohno knew that Nino, too, believed that their lives had been precious. That what had happened to them mattered.

It occurred to Ohno that he loved Nino. The realization made him feel stronger, and more certain of his plan; he loved Nino, so he would do everything in his power to protect him. He would not fail Nino as he had failed his family.

All of this seemed to pass through his mind very rapidly, but perhaps it had all occurred much more slowly than he had thought because Nino was waving a hand in front of his eyes. “Old man, have you fallen asleep again?” he demanded impatiently, but his eyes were filled with so much concern that Ohno quickly shook his head and pulled Nino towards him, embracing him in an attempt to reassure him, “No. I was thinking. That I’m glad I told you. That you’re the only one.”

He could feel Nino growing hot at his words, “You…don’t have to tell me anymore.” His voice dropped to a rough whisper; he sounded almost ashamed. “I’ll keep my promise. You’ve already told me more than I ever had a right to ask.”

“No, I want to tell you. I want to tell you everything. The truth,” he mumbled into his hair.

Nino seemed to flinch at the words—but perhaps Ohno had imagined the movement because when he spoke again his voice was calm: “I’ll listen, Satoshi. To anything you want to tell me.”

Ohno sighed and closed his eyes. They had finally reached the beginning. “Before I was twelve, we lived in one house. My mother was the housekeeper of Sir Frederick Fairlie.” He heard and felt Nino’s intake of breath as he recognized the name. “When I was a child, I did not think I had a father. I had always used my mother’s name, “Ohno.” The other servants called me a “bastard,” but I did not know what the word meant until later. Sir Frederick was an invalid—sometimes he would be well for months at a time, but then he’d fall ill again and be confined to his bed. He was a collector—he had a study filled with strange things; I remember the glass cases of insects and stones and fossils. I would have liked to look at them, but I was terrified of his study because that was where he gave me my lessons. He started teaching me when I was four, and he punished me whenever I used my mother’s accent.” Ohno licked his lips, “That why I speak this way.” He managed a small laugh, “And why I’m not very good at speaking.” Nino shook his head, just slightly, against his shoulder.

“I didn’t know he was my father until I was ten and my grandfather told me. I never called him anything but “sir” while he was alive. My grandfather was always kind to us—he took my sister and I out to play, and he let us use the books in his library. My sister was never allowed in Sir Frederick’s study.” Ohno voice shook from the force of his anger, “I don’t think he ever thought of my sister—she was not his heir, so she was nothing to him.” He took a breath, trying to calm himself enough to continue speaking. “I never saw him with my mother. I do not know if they loved each other. When I was going through her papers after her death, I found her certificate of birth, and I discovered that she was only fifteen when she gave birth to me. Fourteen when she started working as a maid in his house.”

Nino wrapped his arms around him more tightly; Ohno realized that he was shaking as he spoke, “He died when I was ten. Everyone thought that I was his bastard, but after his death, his will revealed that he had been married to my mother when I was born. The marriage certificate was in his desk drawer. I was his legal heir. While he lived, he did not want anyone to know that he had married his housekeeper, but he was determined that his son would inherit his title and his fortune. He left me everything, but he left my mother—his wife—and my sister with nothing. They weren’t even mentioned in the will.”

“So you inherited a fortune?” Nino wondered, obviously perplexed.

Ohno shook his head, “No. There was a provision in the will that I would only receive my inheritance when I turned twenty-one. Until then, my grandfather was my legal guardian.” Ohno closed his eyes. He rarely allowed himself to remember those short years; but now he remembered lying on the beautiful red carpet in the library with his sister, turning over the pages of books together while his grandfather and mother sat in front of the fire—his grandfather always smoking a pipe while his mother knit and asked them questions about what they were reading. “We all lived together in the house for two years. But then my grandfather died in a railway accident, and my uncle, Sir Frederick’s brother, became my legal guardian.” Ohno gritted his teeth, “The first night he arrived, he told me to pack for school and threw my mother and sister out of the house.”

Nino gasped. “You can’t be serious? He…his brother’s wife…?”

“The will forced him to recognize me as the heir, but he said he would never support a housemaid.” Nino almost growled at the words. “It’s possible…it’s possible that Sir Frederick thought there was no need to leave my mother anything—that he was confident that my grandfather would take care of her until I was twenty-one. Sir Frederick was young when he died, and my grandfather was always strong. But I can never forgive him. How could he—how could someone who cared so much for rare things, someone who had so many glass cases, be so careless of the lives of his wife and daughter?”

“Did your grandfather leave you nothing?”

“He had nothing to leave. Sir Frederick’s title and fortune came from a childless cousin; my grandfather had lived on his money. Like the rest of us.” Ohno fell silent again.

“So you went to school?” Nino prompted softly. “But you said you became a servant when you were twelve?”

“My mother told me to wait until I was twenty-one, and then we could all live together again. I was at Eton for a day, but I ran away the same night I arrived. To join my mother and sister.”

Nino started back to look at him, his expression a mixture of bemusement and admiration, “You ran away from Eton?”

“My mother tried to send me back, but I refused to leave them. So we stayed together. Later I heard from one of the family’s servants that they’d found the body of a young boy in a lake near the school, and that my uncle had identified the body as mine. There’s a certificate of my death in an office somewhere.”

Ohno had not expected to enjoy telling his story; but he found the expressions of utter horror and astonishment that passed over Nino’s face as he told of his “death” oddly satisfying. For once, the thief seemed entirely lost for words as he stuttered, “But…you…you still have proof of your birth? And…servants…someone…from the house would recognize you? When you’re twenty-one, you’ve only to declare yourself alive and you’ll inherit a tremendous fortune!”

Ohno’s amusement vanished; he hesitated to tell Nino the entire truth. But he had said that he wanted to tell him everything. “I am twenty-one,” he revealed quietly, hoping that if he spoke the words lightly enough that perhaps Nino would not notice them.

“Pardon? What the devil did you just say?” Nino shouted, actually jumping to his feet in his agitation. “When…for how long…” he continued shouting.

Ohno had entertained a very, very small hope that perhaps Nino would simply respond “Oh all right” and drop the matter, and then they could have a cup of tea. Or better yet, kiss again. But he supposed he couldn’t reasonably expect Nino to take the news so quietly. “A week ago. That is, I turned twenty-one a week ago.”

Nino was actually wringing his hands; Ohno reached out to take them in his own but Nino snatched them away. He did, however, sit back down beside Ohno on the bed. “You…” his voice was hollow, “you’re not planning to claim the money, are you?” he finished with a bitter laugh.

Ohno shook his head. Nino was taking deep breaths, obviously trying to calm himself. “You…realize that the money belongs to you. You are his son. Your mother would want you to have the money. You could paint. You could go to Paris! Or you could give it all away to the family in the basement. Anything…but to waste it…to refuse it out of pride…” Nino turned to him, his expression torn between disbelief and frustration as he met his eyes.

Ohno looked down at their hands, resting so close to one another without touching. The words were harder to say than he had expected; for a moment, he felt like he was back in his father’s study, with the words refusing to leave his mouth and the ruler hovering over his knuckles. “I can’t,” he finally managed. “Kazunari. I can’t. I couldn’t touch a single farthing of his money. It repulses me.” Ohno swallowed before raising his eyes to meet Nino’s fierce expression. He had told Nino that he wanted to tell him everything; now he would show Nino the ugliest part of himself. “It’s not…pride. It’s revenge,” he spoke the word flatly, his voice devoid of emotion. “More than anything, he wanted his son to carry on his name and his fortune. I can prevent that.”

Ohno held Nino’s gaze steadily. Nino shook his head. “I’m afraid of you,” he rasped, his voice barely above a whisper. Ohno felt as though he had been slapped. “I never thought that I could be afraid of you, Satoshi, but I am.” His eyes were so full of sadness as he looked at him—Ohno wished he had never told him. “I’m afraid because you are unforgiving.”

Ohno felt as though something precious were slipping through his fingers. “But we’re the same,” he insisted. Nino’s eyes were confused; Ohno hurried to explain, “You, too. You have a family that you will not…or cannot…return to. I told you my story to show you. That I will never tell you to go back to them. If there’s a reason you can’t return, I understand it.”

Nino avoided his eyes, “Satoshi…I…”

Ohno waited, but Nino seemed unable to continue. Ohno surprised himself with his next words, but the alarm in Nino’s eyes made him desperate, “So stay with me instead,” he mumbled. Nino’s head rose, his expression astonished. Ohno spoke as clearly as he could while his voice trembled, “Stop being a thief. Stay here with me instead. I’ll take care of you.”

Nino looked as panicked as Ohno felt. But there was also, Ohno thought, something like hope in his eyes—he was looking at Ohno the way he had in the alleyway that morning, just before he had kissed him. “You don’t have to…I can…” he began.

Ohno wrapped his arms around him. “I know. But I want to. I want you to stay here. I love you.”

In the silence that followed, Ohno wondered if he would die if Nino rejected him. Since his mother’s death, he had concluded that it was impossible to die from a broken heart; if it were, he would already have died many times over. But now, as Nino’s silence seemed to expand until it filled every corner of the room, Ohno felt as though his heart was slowly being torn apart.

"Stop,” Nino finally spoke.

Ohno’s throat burned. “Stop what?”

Nino took a long, shuddering breath. “Saying everything I most want to hear. You might actually convince me.” His voice was shaking, “Just think how terrible it would be if I agreed. I am not an easy man to live with. I have very exacting requirements. Beginning with sleeping arrangements.”

Ohno dragged him down onto the bed so that they were facing each other; Nino wrapped his arms around Ohno’s neck while Ohno wrapped his arms around Nino’s shoulders to pull him even closer; he wanted to feel himself almost suffocate in the embrace. “So you’ll stay?”

Nino nodded, staring directly into his eyes so that Ohno could read the happiness there. “I’ll stay.”

Chapter Text

That evening, Ohno took Nino up to the roof to watch the sunset. It was cold, but they shivered happily beside each other, their hands clasped inside the warm pocket of Nino’s overcoat. Ohno had brought up a roll for the sparrow; the small bird soon emerged from his nest in the chimney to settle himself on Ohno’s knee. Nino stared, fascinated and—Ohno thought—a little alarmed by the sparrow’s proximity.

“Here,” he offered Nino some crumbs, “Hold out your hand and he’ll come to you.”

Nino looked skeptical but slowly offered his hand; in another moment he was shrieking. “He bit me!” he cried, holding his hand out before Ohno accusingly. “Look, old man, your wretched pet bit me! When I was trying to feed him!”

Ohno tried very hard not to laugh, but it was difficult with how extremely unrepentant the sparrow looked; he was still sitting on Ohno’s knee, with his head quite coolly turned away from Nino’s scowl.

“You must have frightened him,” Ohno murmured.

Nino glared. “Of course you take his side,” he grumbled as he shoved his hand back into his coat pocket, taking Ohno’s hand into his own again and squeezing hard.

“I have been acquainted with him longer,” Ohno replied innocently, surprised by how much he enjoyed teasing Nino.

But at his words, Nino’s expression grew serious; he stared intently at the sky for some time before speaking again, “You know, old man, I used to watch you.”

“What?”

“Don’t say what, say pardon,” Nino sniped, but there was no fire in his voice—only, Ohno thought, embarrassment. “I…worked in this neighborhood. More often than not. And I liked to stop at these houses in the evening. The view of the sunset here is the best in London.” Ohno, too, looked towards the distant, multi-hued clouds. “It was when I was watching the sunset one evening from that roof there”—Nino pointed out a neighboring house—“that I first saw you. I thought you were talking to yourself, but then I saw that you were talking to a bird. I thought you were a madman. Particularly because of your beard.”

Nino paused before continuing; Ohno held his breath, not wanting to do anything that might stop the flow of revelations. “But I thought you seemed gentle, for a madman. You were always giving that creature food even though you looked half-starved yourself.” Nino’s voice grew quiet, his words hurried, “That night, when I saw that the skylight was open, I felt...perturbed. I wondered if something had happened to you. My plan was only to close the window, but when I approached…I could hear you crying out for help. So I let myself in.”

Ohno could not quite comprehend that his evening meetings had been observed by someone else, but of one thing he was certain: “Thank you for saving my life.” He squeezed Nino’s hand, hoping that Nino could feel how sincerely grateful he was that he had entered his garret that night.

Nino glanced at him out of the corner of his eye before returning his focus to the sunset, but he was half-smiling as he continued, “I was furious when you called me “mother.” I spent the entire night nursing you, and you thought I was someone else. And a woman, at that,” Nino laughed. “I told myself that I should return the next night to make sure that you were still alive. But my motives weren’t really so honorable—I wanted you to know that I had aided you. I wanted your gratitude.”

“You have it,” Ohno assured him.

Nino shook his head, “I don’t deserve it,” he replied, more quietly than ever, and with a note of sadness in his voice that startled Ohno. But before Ohno could protest, Nino was already turning to him and demanding, “How do you plan on supporting me then? And not just me, but yourself, this filthy animal,” he pointed disdainfully towards the sparrow, who was calmly picking at the roll near Ohno’s feet, “And that wretched family of nine?”

Ohno had hoped to postpone this conversation, at least for a day, but Nino seemed determined, and Ohno supposed he had a right to question him—he had, after all, promised to take care of him. “I’ll work more hours,” he replied stoutly.

“When will you paint?”

Ohno thought for a moment. “On Sundays,” he finally decided.

“You go to the baths on Sundays,” Nino insisted.

“Only in the morning. I’ll paint in the afternoon and evening.”

“And what am I meant to do?”

“Anything you like. Just…stay out of trouble.” Ohno tried to smile, as though he were joking, but it was difficult to speak the words lightly when he would have very readily fallen to his knees and begged Nino if he had thought it would stop him from stealing.

Nino shook his head. “I’ll get a job. I can earn more as a clerk than you could ever earn as a mason. On a clerk’s wages, I could feed us all, and you could paint.”

Ohno must have looked as astonished as he felt because Nino laughed at his expression. It was difficult to believe that the scrawny, bruised thief beside him could speak with such confidence of taking a position in an office. Ohno knew that he was educated—much more educated, he was sure, than himself—but it was almost impossible for him to imagine Nino seated at a desk, pegging away at a respectable job.

“You’ve already forced me to cut my hair—there’s nothing more to stop me from getting a position. I’ve already a few forged letters of reference. I’ll have something in a few days.”

“Then why….” Ohno paused, unsure how to phrase the question, “if you could have a regular job, why did you steal?”

Nino looked at his feet and shrugged, “Offices are dull. But that wouldn’t bother me if I was living with you.” The sun had already set, but even in the darkness Ohno could see Nino’s face growing warm, “If I lived with you, I wouldn’t need anything else to amuse me. I’d be content. With just you.” He did not look at Ohno, but he spoke each word with a slow purposefulness, as if he wanted Ohno to remember them.

Ohno’s heart was in his throat; he felt himself actually trembling with happiness. “That’s why I can work more. If you lived with me, I wouldn’t need to paint…”

Nino shook his head violently, “No. You must paint, Satoshi.” Suddenly, Nino smiled widely, and Ohno felt himself weakening further—was Nino aware of the effect of that smile? “What I want, more than anything, is to see what you would paint if you could paint as much as you liked. Even if just for a few months.”

Ohno hesitated; Nino moved as if to stand up, “Or we can cancel the whole arrangement…”

Ohno caught him by the arm, “Stay.” Ohno thought about the children in the basement—even if he worked as long as he could, every day, his wages would still hardly feed them all. “I agree,” he surrendered. Nino smiled. “But you’re getting the worst of the bargain.” Ohno found it oddly difficult to continue speaking, but he felt as though he had to confess, “Kazu, you seem to think that I have some special talent, or that my pictures are good. But they’re not much of anything. They’re not worth your…”

Nino was already shrugging his shoulders dismissively. “I like them,” he declared, as though that were all that mattered, and Ohno was reminded of his first impression of Nino: a man who felt himself the master of every room he entered. “And you like painting them.”

Ohno smiled, “They’re not serious works of art.”

“I can’t think of anything more dreadful than a serious work of art.”

Ohno laughed. “Then I’ll paint. But if you tire of the office, tell me,” Ohno insisted doggedly, ignoring Nino’s look of annoyance, “Don’t run away.”

Nino leaned more heavily against him; Ohno wrapped his arm around his shoulders. “I won’t,” he promised quietly.

It was cold, but neither seemed to want to move inside; instead, they watched as the street lamps flared, one by one, to life in the distance. The gray sparrow, having finished his roll and sent a final disapproving glance towards Ohno’s companion, retired to his chimney; Ohno pointed out the structure to Nino, “That’s where I hid. The night I caught you.”

Nino huffed. “I should have guessed. You can converse with a bird because you have the mind of one.”

“That night, when I caught you, I wanted to kiss you.”

Nino elbowed him, hard, in the ribs, but he replied softly, “I wanted you too.”

Smiling, Ohno thought of their first kiss; how Nino had insisted that he could hypnotize him. “Kazu,” he tried again, “how were you able to move everything into the room without waking me? Why was I always in my bed in the morning?”

Ohno could almost hear Nino thinking—deciding whether to answer honestly or to continue the game. When he finally spoke, he sounded so exasperated that Ohno knew he was telling the truth: “I carried you into bed, old man. You couldn’t stay awake through the night. Once or twice I had to wait until dawn, but once you fell asleep nothing could wake you. You don’t seem to notice it, but you carve stone for fourteen hours a day and eat almost nothing. You’re always falling asleep.”

Ohno was too stunned to reply; he’d never considered the possibility that he’d simply drifted off. Nino surprised him by pulling his free hand toward him and circling his wrist easily with his thumb and forefinger, “Look,” he accused, shaking his arm lightly.
Ohno freed his hand from Nino’s grasp and then circled Nino’s wrist with his fingers. “I can do the same,” he defended himself.

“But your fingers are long and beautiful,” Nino insisted as he stared down at their hands, “not like mine.”

Nino looked up and caught sight of Ohno’s expression; then he blushed so intensely that Ohno actually took pity on him and inquired, “But how were you able to carry everything in through the skylight?”

Nino looked away, still trying to recover from his embarrassment, “It wasn’t difficult with a rope. Though for the screen and the portrait I had the assistance of a friend.”

Ohno jolted at the word. A friend—Ohno realized that he had never heard Nino refer to another living creature before. But of course he must have friends.

“A friend?” Ohno repeated stupidly. He could have bit his tongue out—his voice had sounded so pathetic.

Nino nodded and smiled fondly as he explained, “A strange friend who likes schemes and adventures, and thinks it’s even better if they take place on strange rooftops in the middle of the night.”

Ohno waited, expecting Nino to say more about the man he was evidently close to—but he was quiet and seemed lost in thought as he leaned his head onto Ohno’s chest. Ohno felt as though a thousand questions hovered, waiting, in the air; he’d only to make a small movement and they would whir to life—Where did you meet him? Who are your other friends? Where do you live? Why are you staying? Although it had not been his reason for sharing his history with Nino—he’d only thought of delaying him from leaving—he had expected that, after sharing his life with Nino, Nino would share something of his history in return. But Nino remained silent as he clung to him. Ohno could feel that he was tense; he was even breathing shallowly, waiting for what Ohno might ask him.

Nino had promised to stay. Ohno believed that Nino sincerely intended to stay. But even now, Ohno felt as though Nino might vanish like one of the genies from the Thousand Nights. And Ohno had never trusted himself to say the right thing—he would surely have been the character that chants the spell wrongly and loses all his fortune. So in the end, Ohno asked Nino nothing; he only held him until Nino shivered and said, “It’s cold. We should go back in.”

 

*

 

Nino had promised that living with him would be extraordinarily difficult, but Ohno thought that it was simple. It was true that nearly everything Nino did surprised Ohno, but since he generally liked everything that Nino did, it didn’t seem to matter. And usually, he could look into Nino’s eyes and divine almost exactly what he was thinking, so in the end he was able to keep up with what was happening better than he would have expected.

Nino still, occasionally, seemed utterly opaque; Ohno might turn from his painting to see him sitting on the carpet, the cards he’d spread out before him forgotten as he stared fixedly ahead, lost in thoughts that Ohno could not even begin to imagine. It was at times like those that Ohno felt the cold shiver of fear return, the fear he’d woken up to almost every morning the first month Nino had lived with him—the fear that Nino would have disappeared while he slept. A similar feeling seized him whenever he caught sight of Nino from a distance, either walking down the street or perhaps across a rooftop—whenever Nino moved away from him, completely unaware of his gaze. At those times, Nino seemed startlingly distant, as though Nino really were a visitor from another world.

But those heart-stopping moments were rare; more often, Nino was, quite literally, attached to him. Ohno had never known that there were so many ways to hold onto, lean against, or drape oneself across a person, or to use another person as a convenient platform for sitting, napping, shuffling cards etc. Ohno felt intoxicated—sometimes even dizzy—from so much physical contact during their first weeks together; it had been so long since he had even touched another person, and now he seemed to be almost permanently joined to the person he desired most. Sometimes Nino even shuffled his cards with only his right hand so that he could continue holding Ohno’s hand in his left.

That was another surprise, though Ohno supposed he should have guessed; Nino, if not a hypnotist, really was a magician (and, Ohno suspected, had cheated quite a bit at cards in the past). Ohno had admired his magic, and Nino had promised not to cheat when they played cards together, but even without cheating their games were hopeless—Nino only had to watch the twitching of Ohno’s nose to know what he had in his hand.

It was because the two of them couldn’t play cards together that Nino had first invited the family downstairs up to play cards; something else that surprised Ohno was how well Nino seemed to like the whole family. He always referred to them as “those wretched children,” but it was Nino who suggested inviting them all for Christmas day and taught them all the Christmas games that Ohno dimly remembered from his own childhood. And it was Nino who gave them all gifts that were so expensive that Ohno suspected he had broken his promise and stolen again (Nino claimed to have some savings, but Ohno still wondered). And, of course, it was Nino who worked every day to feed them.

The children quickly became fond of Nino: he showed them card tricks and made flowers appear from behind their ears, and he could play stick ball far better than Ohno. Even their mother adored him; Nino made a better cup of tea, and within a week he seemed to have grasped the intricacies of all the local melodramas and neighborhood rivalries and could discus them fluently with her. Ohno realized that Nino was, in fact, charming—an unsettling realization, as Ohno felt more confused than ever as to why Nino should choose to waste his charm on him.

But, at they very least, Ohno made Nino laugh. That, more than anything else, made Ohno feel as though Nino required his company. Nino laughed often with other people, but never the way he laughed when he was with Ohno. Ohno could recount a simple story—something he was sure that no one else would find amusing—about conversing with the gray sparrow or about a strange thought he’d had as a child, and Nino would fall to the floor, covering his face with his hands as he cried with mirth.

For years, Ohno had felt haunted by the past, but now he began to remember it differently; it was no longer so painful to speak about his mother and sister when he recalled how his mother used to wash dishes with the family’s cat curled around her neck, or how his sister had lit a whole packet of fireworks at once in the yard and then told Ohno to hide them when she’d seen the butler approaching (he’d ended up in the rain barrel). Nino made Ohno laugh, too, but Ohno liked it best when he made Nino laugh; when Nino laughed, it felt as though something that had grown hard and fixed inside his chest were dissolving, and he could breathe again.

Nino still never spoke of his family, of his career as a thief or even of the friend he’d once mentioned. Instead, he told Ohno stories of travelling in Europe, of visiting the Rue Morgue or seeing the paintings in the Louvre, of wandering the streets of Berlin or riding in a Venetian gondola. At times his stories seemed true; more often, they seemed like outrageous lies. Ohno listened to them all, but whenever he tried to inquire further or pin down a particular detail, Nino would elude his questions and turn the conversation with a skill that Ohno could never match; if he persisted, Nino would finally begin kissing him, and he would forget everything in the rush of physical sensation.

Ohno wanted to know Nino’s history. But then, how much more could he know him? What could his past reveal about him that Ohno did not already know? They slept together; they shared money, clothes, food, and even their bath on Sunday (Nino protested that it was a waste of money and that they should just pay for the twopenny plunge, but Ohno insisted and they continued to buy two private tickets; after the attendant had left, Nino would slip into Ohno’s compartment). They spent almost every moment that Nino was not working together. As he had promised, Nino had found a job in a bank; he told Ohno that it was dull but that the work was easy enough that he had plenty of time to read sensation novels under his desk and to find new hiding places for the head clerk’s fountain pen. When he returned from work in the evenings, they played hypnotism or Nino modeled for him. On holidays, Ohno showed Nino how to travel the London streets while Nino taught Ohno how to travel the London roofs. When the weather grew warmer, they started carrying Ohno’s paints, easel, and canvas across the roofs so that Ohno could paint what Nino had determined were “the finest views in all of London”; when he wasn’t painting Nino, Ohno painted more sunsets, more rooftops, more starry nights.

Ohno knew what Nino’s breath smelled like when he first woke and approximately how long it took his fingernails to grow before they had to be cut; he knew that Nino was brusque and masterful, vulnerable and kind. That he was cynical but loved works of imagination. The more their lives intertwined, the less important it seemed to know how Nino had lived before the night he had dropped in through his skylight.

There were only two points on which they differed; Ohno still wished that they could rid the garret of the Venus flytrap, but Nino insisted on caring for it (Ohno relented when he saw how much the children enjoyed catching their fingers in it and then screaming bloody murder until they were released). And Nino and the gray sparrow never warmed to one another; even after several months, the small bird still refused to take even a crumb from Nino’s hand.

 

*

 

The first time Ohno even had a chance to miss Nino came in the spring, a few days after Easter. Nino was late. He usually managed to slip out of the office by five, and he was never later then six. But it was already six-thirty, and Ohno was restless. He had finished a painting that day, and he was anxious to show Nino the result; he had been hoping that Nino would arrive home early, as it was a painting of Nino’s favorite view of Whitechapel. But Nino did not appear, and there was nothing more in the garret for Ohno to cook, clean, or mend; he’d even grudgingly watered the Venus flytrap.

He thought of watching the sunset, but instead found himself running down the stairs to wait for Nino at the door; he was immediately besieged by a crowd of boys asking him to pitch (first, of course, they asked if Nino could pitch, but hearing that he was not at home, they admitted with some reluctance that Ohno would do). Thinking it would distract him, Ohno followed them out onto the slushy streets; he played until their mother called them in for supper. She greeted Ohno warmly and, seeing the muddy state of his shoes as he stepped inside, insisted that he leave them with her to be cleaned. Ohno resisted; in the end, she threatened to untie his shoes herself if he would not hand them over.

Chastened, Ohno walked in his socks back up to the garret. He didn’t think of eating but threw himself on the bed, wondering uneasily whether something had happened to Nino—he imagined a former accomplice arriving at the bank, or Nino being recognized by someone he’d once cheated at cards as he walked home. As the minutes crawled by, Ohno fell into a light, troubled sleep—he dreamt of Nino spreading a deck of cards out before him and telling him to find the Joker, but the cards ran away from him as soon as he touched them.

He woke to a rapping at the door. Ohno leapt out of bed to throw the door open, breathless with impatience. At first, he thought there was no one on the other side, but then he looked down a few feet and discovered one of the girls holding out a package for him. It was his (now clean) shoes, wrapped in newspaper. Ohno did what he could to compose his expression and thank her for it. She looked around him as though hoping to spot Nino; she seemed almost as disappointed as Ohno at the sight of the quiet garret.

The sun had set while he slept; Ohno set the shoes on the table and lit the lamp. He sat for a moment then sprang up again, deciding that he might as well begin searching for Nino now. He hurried to unwrap his shoes. The lamp light fell across the crumpled paper, and Ohno started at the sight.

For several minutes, Ohno was convinced that he was experiencing some kind of delusion—perhaps he feared so intensely for Nino’s safety that his mind had conjured up this strange vision. But no matter how often he blinked, the sight remained the same. On the crumpled and torn newspaper, Ohno saw what could only be described as Nino, only wearing a dress and a wig.

With shaking hands, Ohno brought the paper towards him, smoothing it out carefully and bringing it closer to the lamp. Yes, the photograph was still there—not Nino, a woman—but so extraordinarily like Nino that Ohno’s breath caught.

He read the caption below the picture:

Lady Ninomiya Kazunari Riisa, aged 19

Nino. Ninomiya. No wonder the name had sounded familiar—Lord and Lady Ninomiya.

Heart pounding, Ohno forced his attention to the article below the photograph.

Can We Expect His Lordship for His Twin Sister’s Debut?
Now that the beautiful Lady Riisa’s coming out ball has been fixed for this May, a new fever of speculation has ensued over the possible whereabouts of his Lordship Ninomiya Kazunari. As this paper reported in February, Lord Kazunari was noticeably absent from the opening of Parliament, and he has not been spotted with his fellow MPs to this day. Indeed, all of London—from the most esteemed official to the lowliest chambermaid—continues to marvel at the mystery of this prominent gentleman’s disappearance from public life this winter. Rumors have circulated that his lordship has joined his esteemed father and mother in France, but our Parisian correspondents assure us that the young lordship has not been spotted in that capitol. Can we believe that his lordship would be so hard-hearted as to remain abroad for his sister’s London debut? The mothers of London’s most eligible young ladies do not think so; that corner, at least, remains ever-optimistic that his elusive lordship will soon return to his position as an eminently-desirable member of London society. Lady Riisa declined to comment to this paper on anything relating to his lordship.

It was only after several minutes that Ohno thought to check the date; the paper was printed some weeks back, at the beginning of March—it had obviously passed through several hands before reaching the family belowstairs.

Ohno wished he could burn the paper, or rip it, but he could not even tear his gaze away from the photograph of Lady Riisa. Nino’s—Lord Ninomiya’s—sister. His twin sister. She was beautiful, and so remarkably like him—not only in the lines of her face, but in the deep expression of her eyes. She, too, could look sad even while smiling.

It was only when he felt the light touch on his shoulder that Ohno realized that Nino had returned. He looked up but his vision blurred; at first, he could only dimly make out Nino’s features in the lamp light. He looked pale and disheveled; he was panting as though he had been racing, and there was sweat on his brow.

Ohno stood up too quickly; the chair crashed as it fell to the side. He moved instinctively towards the door, but Nino grabbed his wrists to restrain him. Ohno tried to break free from his grasp, but Nino held onto him with his entire strength; he squeezed Ohno’s wrists so hard that fresh tears slipped from Ohno’s eyes.

For once, Ohno found his voice first. “Are you planning to hypnotize me?”

Nino flinched. And when he finally spoke, his voice hoarse, he had nothing to offer him but Ohno’s own words, “You want to hear about my past, don’t you? If you promise me that you will stay with me tonight, that you won’t leave without saying goodbye, then I will tell you everything. My entire history.”

Chapter Text

December

“I have to visit a friend tonight. I’ll be back before morning.”

Ohno had been unlacing his shoes; at Nino’s words, he began slowly retying them. “A friend?”

Nino was already shrugging on his overcoat with his back towards Ohno, “Mmm.”

“The friend…who helped you to carry things here?”

Nino nodded almost imperceptibly.

Ohno had finished lacing his shoes; he reached for his coat. “I’ll walk with you.”

Nino was staring at the carpet with his hands in his pockets; Ohno was surprised that he hadn’t already prepared an excuse as to why he couldn’t accompany him. It should have been easy enough for him to think of something. After some time, Nino sighed and raised his eyes to meet Ohno’s. The words came out in a rush, “It’s not a walk. I’m taking the last train down to Oxford. He lives in rooms at the college. It’s his birthday tomorrow, and I’ve only tonight to leave his gift for him.”

Ohno tried not to smile too broadly, but he couldn’t prevent a warm sensation from spreading through his chest—for only the second time, Nino had told Ohno something concrete and particular about his life.

However, Ohno’s happiness was quickly checked by Nino’s next words: “I won’t allow you to speak to him. Or even see him. It’s something I have to do alone.” His voice was gentler as he continued, “I’ll return in a few hours. I promise, Satoshi.”

He was already moving towards the door; Ohno caught the back of his coat. “Then I won’t speak to him. But I’ll accompany you.”

Nino turned to face him, glaring as he shrugged himself free of Ohno’s grasp on his collar. Still frowning, he studied Ohno intently, his dark eyes searching his face; Ohno tried to school his features into an expression of mild obedience—his best “servant” look. “Well if you’re only going to sulk about it all night, then I supposed you’d better come along,” Nino finally grumbled.

 

*

 

Ohno tried as best he could to make out something of the countryside speeding past them at what seemed to him a highly dangerous rate; even though the carriage possessed only a single, flickering light, it was still almost impossible to see anything beyond his own reflection in the glass.

He kept his gaze fixed firmly in that direction, however, because he knew that Nino was annoyed with him. On the way to the station, they’d stopped at a shop to collect a heavy wooden case, and Nino’s tone had been so short and his expression so sour when Ohno had inquired about what was inside (“A surprise”) that Ohno had decided that he’d better not speak to Nino for the remainder of their trip, a resolve that was strengthened when he caught sight of Nino’s murderous expression when he’d purchased two third class rail tickets.

It wasn’t pleasant, exactly, to be so clearly unwanted, but Ohno didn’t regret accompanying him. When he thought of how he would have felt waiting in his garret for Nino to return—his mind racing through every possible way that Nino might, at that very moment, be coming to harm—Ohno was certain that he preferred Nino’s immediate displeasure to the torture of his own speculations.

The car rocked violently; Ohno’s grip on the windowsill tightened and for a moment he forgot to breathe. Then he heard Nino murmuring softly beside him, “You’re turning white, old man.”

Ohno snuck a look at Nino’s face; it seemed safe to converse. Ohno nodded. “Are the cars meant to sway from side to side that way?”

“It would be stranger if they didn’t.” Nino frowned, looking thoughtful, “Is this…your first time on a train?”

Ohno nodded. Nino swore softly. “I’m sorry, old man. I didn’t think.” There were only a few other passengers in the carriage, most of whom were dozing; Nino carefully brought his hand behind Ohno’s back to rest it between his shoulder blades, patting him there as though he were a child. “The first time I rode a train I was five and on my way to school. I spent the entire trip retching out the window.” Ohno smiled; Nino scratched his back lightly, “Don’t laugh.”

“I’m not.” He wasn’t laughing; he was smiling because Nino seemed to have forgiven him for coming along. The carriage lurched again and Ohno’s smile vanished; from his first step onto the swaying floor of the carriage, he’d been thinking of his grandfather. What had his last moments been like—would he have known, or had it been instantaneous?

Nino brought his hand up in front of his eyes. “When I snap my fingers,” he began in a soothing voice, “You will forget all fear, and the rest of the journey will feel as smooth as floating down a calm river.”

Ohno had never floated down a calm river, either. But when Nino snapped his fingers, he did feel as though all his fear had vanished—but Ohno knew that it was because he could feel Nino’s hand resting against his back. “Amazing how comfortable they make these third class carriages, isn’t it?” he managed with a straight face, “I’d be delighted to ride in one all night.” Nino laughed, and Ohno felt warm again.

 

*

 

Ohno wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but he was somewhat surprised when they’d entered the college grounds by climbing over a fence and forcing their way through a hedge. He’d thought that since Nino was visiting someone that he obviously knew well, they might make a more predictable entrance. But instead they were evading the patrol, moving swiftly through a labyrinthine series of stone corridors.

Nino came to an abrupt stop before yet another stone building. One of the windows on the ground floor was illuminated, and Nino frowned as he examined it. “How is that idiot still up and about,” he mumbled as together they carried the heavy box and set it beneath the window, “he must be up late writing a treatise on whether snails feel envy or some other nonsense.”

Ohno looked curiously into the room; he caught sight of a figure at a desk—a young-looking man, with brown hair, who was writing furiously with a quill pen—before he was violently pulled from the sight by Nino. Nino marched him to the corner of the building and took off his overcoat, draping it across Ohno’s shoulders. “Satoshi, you have to promise me that you won’t stir from this spot. I’ll be ten minutes. Promise me,” he repeated. Ohno had never seen Nino look so serious—he nodded his assent. Nino kissed him, hard. “Thank you. I’d say five minutes, but it will take him at least that long to calm down enough to stop shouting at me.”

And then Nino vanished, leaving Ohno to stand alone in the cold. Keeping his gaze fixed on the flower bed at his feet, he listened as Nino rapped his knuckles sharply against the glass; then there was a crash, some incoherent shouting, and finally the creak of the window being opened. Ohno caught half a phrase—“Nino! I haven’t seen you in weeks! Where have you…”—before the voice was muffled; Ohno imagined Nino pressing his hand over his companion’s mouth. Then the window slammed shut again, and Ohno could only listen to the wind as it ran along the bewildering corridors that made up the college.

True to his word, Nino returned in ten minutes. His expression was distant, thoughtful; he seemed to hardly notice Ohno even as he insisted on rubbing his face and hands warm before accepting his overcoat. The sky had lightened, but it was beginning to snow as they made their way back across the grounds. “It won’t be pleasant, but we can catch the milk train back to London,” Nino stated flatly.

Ohno stopped; their hands broke apart. Nino turned to him, his gaze finally coming alive again as he examined Ohno’s face. Ohno did not know how to describe Nino’s expression.

Ohno was not sure why he had stopped, or what he intended to say. It was only after being snowed on for some time that he shocked them both by asking, “Are you ashamed of me?”

Nino seemed to shudder; he gripped Ohno’s shoulders and looked as though he might shake him. “What do you mean?” he asked softly.

“Are you...you don’t wish it to be revealed that we are….” Ohno did not know how to describe what they were.

Nino really did shake him—very lightly, but his eyes were furious as he spoke, “Don’t think that. Don’t think it, or feel it, even for a moment. Swear to me that you’ll never think that. If I thought that you really believed that I was ashamed of you, I would throw myself into the Thames tomorrow.”

Ohno brought his hands up to cover Nino’s, “I don’t care if you are. I just wondered why…”

Nino shook his head. “Never. I’m ashamed of myself. I didn’t want you to meet him because I don’t want you to know the truth.”

“Do you…do you truly believe that I could learn something that would change my opinion of you?”

Nino didn’t hesitate, “Yes.”

Ohno wiped the tears from Nino’s eyes, “And you truly believe that I would…stop loving you?”

Nino shook his head jerkily, “That I’m not certain of.”

Ohno thought of the night that Nino had fallen in through the skylight—the bruises and the blood. “Kazu,” he hesitated before continuing, “have you murdered someone?”

Nino gave a mirthless laugh, “I almost wish it were that simple.” Ohno had grown used to Nino’s rapid changes of mood, but he was still startled when Nino turned away from him and ordered in a brisk tone, “Hurry up, old man. We’ll miss the train.” But he let Nino interlace his fingers with his and drag him along.

They didn’t speak for the rest of the journey. On the train, Nino fell asleep against Ohno’s shoulder. They were alone in the compartment, so Ohno brought Nino’s head down to rest in his lap and watched the fluttering of his eyelids as he dreamed. When the train shuddered to a halt back in London, Nino woke with a frown, rubbing his eyes. Then he sat up and threw his arms around Ohno, holding him tightly while breathing shallowly against his ear. Ohno listened to their hearts racing against one another; Ohno accepted the embrace as Nino’s apology. He tightened his arms around Nino. I’m not leaving.

“Shall we invite everyone up for Christmas tomorrow?” Nino asked into his shoulder, his voice muffled.

“Mmm,” Ohno agreed.

 

January

Ohno had never been to the National Gallery; Nino had learned this and decided that he should visit as soon as possible. “The paintings there are rubbish compared to yours,” he’d declared, “but I don’t think you’ll realize how excellent your paintings are until you see how they compare to the froth on display there.”

Ohno didn’t think that the paintings were rubbish; he’d been staring in amazement at the same Turner landscape for over an hour. At first, Nino had been enthusiastic, launching into a disquisition on Turner’s career and the history of English landscape painting. But after ten minutes, he’d grown restless. After thirty minutes, he’d already circled the gallery three times over, and he could only look at Ohno in despair—he was still staring with a rapt expression at the first blasted painting that he’d shown him. He told Ohno that he’d be in the sculpture gallery, rolling his eyes when Ohno only nodded briefly in response.

When Nino returned an hour later, he was relieved to see that Ohno had at least moved on to a new painting. He stood at a distance and watched Ohno admire the paintings, smiling at his expression of complete absorption as he seemed to study each individual brushstroke. Even from a distance, Nino could see that the fingers of Ohno’s right hand were twitching; he knew that Ohno would want to trace the lines himself with a pencil or brush. Next time they would bring his sketchbook.

An hour later, it was ten minutes till closing and Ohno still hadn’t made it past the first exhibition room; Nino was contemplating how to tell Ohno that they had to leave when, to his amazement, he saw a tall man approaching Ohno with a broad smile. At first, Nino thought that he was mistaken—the stranger couldn’t really be heading toward Satoshi—but then the stranger was beside him with his hand on Ohno’s shoulder; in another moment they were embracing awkwardly as the stranger pulled Ohno in toward him.

Nino couldn’t help but admire his own restraint; he managed to walk across the gallery to join them even as he longed to break into a run.

 

*

 

The stranger was called Okada. Apparently, he’d been a footman at one of the houses that Ohno had worked at; they’d known each other there for only a few months, but Okada seemed to retain crystal clear memories of Ohno and to be extraordinarily delighted to discover Ohno again. He was the same age as Ohno (Nino had at first thought that he was much older), taller than both of them, and handsome. He remembered Ohno’s sister and mother vividly, and he held onto Ohno’s elbow as he guided him into a public house so that they could all become re-acquainted over a drink.

Nino had never loathed anyone more in the entire course of his life.

He was drinking, which was a mistake—the last time Nino had a drink, he’d ended up falling through Ohno’s skylight. But Okada was paying, so he’d spitefully kept ordering. But he knew that he should stop soon, as the room was growing warmer and the hum of conversation was growing louder until he was confused and couldn’t answer Okada’s questions properly. At least in the gallery, while Ohno was still in shock and unable to speak, he’d had the presence of mind to introduce himself simply as “Nino, Satoshi’s friend,” but Okada had looked at him in a way that made Nino wonder if he recognized him. He should have felt relieved that Okada was clearly too interested in Ohno to pursue the matter; instead, he felt as though he would do almost anything to draw his attention away from Satoshi.

“And now? Are you still in service?” Okada continued to question Ohno. They’d reminisced for half an hour, but now Okada seemed determined to uncover Ohno’s current circumstances.

Nino answered for him; even he could hear that his voice was too loud. “No. He’s not a servant any longer. He’s an artist.”

Ohno was shaking his head. “I’ve been painting more,” he explained quietly, “but usually I work as a mason. It’s the trade I learned after we left.” Nino hated how gentle his voice was, as though he were trying to calm him.

Okada smiled, “Painting? I can’t say that I’m surprised—you were always making pictures in the flour on the kitchen table. Your mother would have been proud. She always told everyone you had a talent though you never would show anyone but her.”

Now there were tears in Satoshi’s eyes; Nino took his hand and glared at Okada. But he felt happier when Ohno made no move to shake off his hand, so he moved their joined hands to rest atop the table.

Okada’s smile didn’t waver, but he held Nino’s gaze as he observed dryly, “And I see that you’ve found a loyal friend since.” His voice grew warmer as he shifted his attention back to Ohno, “But don’t forget all your old friends. You could have…you can still come to me…to us…for anything.” He grinned, “After all, we’ve both survived the same master. Brothers in arms, aren’t we?” Then he reached across the table and ruffled Ohno’s hair.

Nino stood; the room lurched, as though they were back on the train. But he strove for dignity, “You’ll have to pardon us, but I’m afraid the hour grows late and we ought to be returning home. But please accept our best wishes for you health and happiness, and I will watch your future career with interest.”

He wasn’t sure, though, that all the words had come out quite the way he had intended, as both men were looking confused, and then Ohno and Okada were talking quietly together and Okada was passing a folded piece of paper to Ohno while Nino clung to the table. Then the two men were shaking hands but before Nino could even protest he was being led outside by Ohno.

The fresh air somehow made him feel more ill; but as soon as he felt strong enough he steered Ohno into a darkened alley. He had a vague idea of searching for the piece of paper in Ohno’s pocket and reading it but then, catching sight of Ohno’s concerned expression, Nino thought that he had better kiss him instead.

He kissed him as fervently as he could until Ohno finally pushed him away, looking nonplussed. “Forgive me,” he managed, before turning away and emptying the contents of his stomach onto the street.

 

*

 

It was a long walk from Pall Mall to Chelsea; they took a carriage part of the way, but there was still plenty of time for Nino to grow uncomfortably sober and then mortified as Ohno carried him home on his back. His legs were still trembling but he would have insisted on getting down to walk, only he didn’t think he would ever be able to speak to or look at Satoshi again for the rest of his life. So he leaned his head against Ohno’s shoulder and shut his eyes tightly, as if that might shut out his painful thoughts.

What he was feeling, he realized gradually, was panic. Not so much that Ohno really would run off with Okada—Satoshi was too kind and too irrationally loyal to even think of such a thing—but a sharp panic that he might be running out of excuses. If Ohno really was entirely friendless, alone in the world with no one to care for him, then that at least partially excused his behavior. Yes, he had lied to him. He lied to him. But now Ohno ate meals regularly, and painted, and had a proper blanket on his bed, and he had someone to look after him if he was sick. But if there were other kind and honest (if also un-necessarily tall and handsome) people who knew and liked Ohno and would willingly help him, who were his brothers in arms—then Nino was nothing more or less than the villain of the piece.

He was soaking Ohno’s shoulder with his tears. Nino could hardly remember crying before meeting Satoshi; his only clear memory of crying as a child was of screaming his head off the morning he was sent away to school; his father had slapped him and told him that his behavior was a disgrace to the Ninomiya family. Even as a small child, he’d been angry, felt stung by injustice—but he’d sworn to himself that he would never let anyone see him cry again. He still felt weak and foolish when he cried, but around Satoshi he sometimes couldn’t stop himself.

But it was what he liked about living with Satoshi—he could say and do anything he liked, without thinking. Around Satoshi, he was free. There was no Ninomiya name to live up to or protect. But it was also frightening—the tight control that he’d exerted over himself all his life seemed to be slipping ever further away, and before he knew it he was vomiting in alleyways and weeping into his overcoat, all because Satoshi had smiled at someone better-looking than him.

He was relieved when they reached home and Ohno dumped him unceremoniously onto the bed, panting from the effort—he’d grown much stronger in the two months they’d been living together, but Nino was still nearly the same size as him and Ohno had carried him for a mile.

Nino hid his face against the pillow and pretended to fall asleep while he listened to Ohno moving quietly about the garret; then Ohno turned him over and thrust a cup of water at him, “You ought to at least rinse your mouth out if you want me to kiss you again.”

Nino cracked an eye open, then abandoned all pretense of being asleep. With a sigh, he sat up, then went to actually brush his teeth and change into one of Ohno’s nightshirts. When he finished, Ohno was already lying in bed; he held his arms out to him as he approached. Nino crawled inside and Ohno brought their faces close; Nino did think that Ohno was about to kiss him, but instead he only sniffed near his mouth, “You do smell a bit better now.”

Nino laughed, and he must not have been as sober as he thought because he asked, “Satoshi, you don’t…rate…that tall person higher than me, do you?”

Nino risked opening his eyes again; Ohno looked delighted as he brought their noses together. “I don’t rate anyone higher than Kazu,” he smiled, his voice low and certain.

Nino felt his heart constrict. He wished he deserved Ohno’s good opinion—but if he couldn’t deserve it, could he ever bring himself to forfeit it?

 

February

Ohno's entire knowledge of how to, in the maid's words, be "a fellow who’s only after other gents” was gleaned from his experiences with Nino, dirty jokes he’d heard in the servants quarters and around the mason yard, and five illustrations in the unabridged collection of Sir Richard Burton’s One Thousand and One Nights that Nino had stolen and deposited in the garret the previous autumn.

It was the pictures that bothered him. He and Nino had been intimate, but they had never done anything like what was shown in the pictures. Perhaps it belonged to the realm of fantasy as much as the rest of the tales in the collection. But putting the illustrations together with the jokes he remembered, it seemed as though it were something that two men were expected to do together. But Ohno could hardly believe that such a thing was really possible. The thought of it made him flush, almost burn, and not in an entirely unpleasant way. But it looked painful. The jokes that he had heard were always cruel—perhaps it was something that only a cruel person would ask for.

But sometimes Ohno felt as though Nino were waiting for something more—as though he expected Ohno to act and was disappointed when he did not.

This was not something that he could discuss with Nino; he had no desire to reveal the humiliating degree of his ignorance.

Which was how Ohno found himself standing in the seediest bookshop in Chelsea, contemplating which work of pornography would (for a shilling) provide him with the clearest and most detailed explanation of what he was meant to do. What he would have liked to do was search methodically through every pamphlet in the store; but he was being stared at by the shop clerk, he was drenched in sweat, and he felt as though he were about to faint. So in the end he seized the book with the most respectable looking cover (there was an illustration of a Greek temple on the front) from the shelf that he had been directed towards and almost threw his pennies at the clerk before stuffing the book underneath his shirt on the way out. The cheap yellow paper felt oily against his skin.

The first terror was that he would be accosted by the children on his way to the garret, or that their mother might come by for tea; he snuck like a thief into his own attic, anxious to avoid notice as he moved soundlessly up the stairs. Once inside, he hurried to the roof—he had no reason to expect that Nino would return suddenly from work, but if he did he would at least have a bit more time to dispose of the book.

But then the sparrow was approaching him, chirruping hopefully in expectation of some crumbs. So Ohno moved to the other side of the roof. And then he turned his back to the small bird; the sparrow seemed to huff with annoyance (had he learned the trick from Nino?) before flying back to his nest in the chimney.

Ohno read. Two hours later, he felt somewhat more enlightened and far more terrified, torn between vague arousal and a queasy feeling of terror. In the stories, the characters—if they could be called characters—thrust each other up against any available surface in ways that Ohno could only imagine to be extraordinarily uncomfortable. There were horse whips and riding boots involved, and much more screaming than Ohno thought was necessary. He could never do such a thing to Nino; it was even worse than Sir Richard Burton had led him to expect.

He thought of burning the book, but it would take hours to burn with their small stove. He thought of throwing it off the roof, but what if one of the children picked it up? Nino would be returning soon; with apologies to the gray sparrow, he hid the book in a corner of the chimney, securing it carefully beneath a brick.

 

*

 

A week later, Ohno returned home from the grocer’s to find Nino sitting at the table, eating an apple and reading the book. He recognized the damned temple on the cover instantly.

He ought to have known that it would be impossible to conceal anything from Nino, but that knowledge did nothing to lessen his mortification. Ohno dropped the groceries, “How did you find it?”

Ohno had expected Nino to laugh or look angry, but instead he looked thoughtful. He set the book down before he answered, “I was trying to befriend that spiteful creature that lives in the chimney when I noticed it.”

“I don’t…I wouldn’t….” Ohno stuttered.

Nino was looking at him meditatively, “Do you want to do the things in the book?”

“No!”

Nino stood up and started walking towards him, “I want to."

Ohno wondered if Nino were laughing at him; but he appeared perfectly serious. “You mean…with the whips and…?” he whispered hoarsely.

“No!” Nino flushed, looking slightly embarrassed for the first time since he’d entered the room. “Not…with anything. But I want you to…make love...to me. That way. I…didn’t think you were interested, but when I read it, I thought you might be interested. Since you'd taken to hiding yellow books on the roof.”

Ohno sat down heavily on the bed; his knees had gone weak. He was grateful when Nino came to sit beside him, so that he could speak to him without having to actually meet his eyes. “Have you…ever done anything like that before?” he asked, heart pounding.

“Once,” Nino replied, his voice light. Then he paused, as though debating whether or not to continue. “It hurt so much that I thought I was dying,” he confessed in the same calm tone.

Ohno felt as though all the blood in his body were rushing to his head; in another moment, Nino was kneeling before and holding his face in his hands, “Don’t faint! I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have told you that, old man. It won’t be like that with you.”

Ohno focused on Nino’s face and remembered to breathe; he held onto Nino’s hand until he was calm. At first, Nino had looked alarmed, thinking that Ohno was about to collapse, but as Ohno’s breathing grew even, Nino began to smile.

“Are you laughing at me?” Ohno asked softly.

Nino shook his head, “Not really. I’m just…surprised that you’re so worried. And amused. Because I never thought I would have to advise you to stop thinking. But you should stop thinking.”

Ohno exhaled shakily, “But what if I’m terrible at it? Or I..." he swallowed, needing to confess his real fear, "hurt you?”

Nino shrugged. “Then I’ll tell you to stop. And you’ll stop. I might be dreadful as well. You could change your mind.”

Ohno shook his head, “I think you’ll be disappointed.”

Nino closed his eyes before continuing, the words so soft that Ohno had to hold perfectly still in order to hear them, “You’ve never disappointed me, Satoshi. Not even once. Whatever happens, all that matters is that we stay together.” Nino opened his eyes, “You’re not planning to run out on me after, are you?”

Nino smiled as though he were joking, but Ohno recognized the anxiety in his eyes—the anxiety that he always tried so hard to conceal from him; Ohno wondered why Nino so hated to show him when he was afraid. Ohno shook his head vigorously, "I’m only worried about you deciding to escape through the skylight again.”

Nino’s laugh sounded relieved; Ohno wondered if he had been holding his breath. “You always think that I’m on the verge of leaving, but pathetic as it makes me seem, I’ll confess that I’ve nowhere else to go." Nino swallowed and looked away; Ohno knew that he was trying not to cry. "This is my only home," he concluded shakily.

Nino actually turned red as he spoke the words, but he stared steadily into Ohno’s eyes so that Ohno could see the sincerity there. Ohno embraced him. “I love you, Kazu,” he breathed into his hair. “More than anything.”

“Good,” Nino replied, “Then stop teasing me and fuck me already.”

“Kazu,” Ohno groaned. But he pulled him up onto the bed and did his best. It was just as he had said—it was better when he stopped thinking and let himself be guided by Kazu’s hands and breath, by his moans and the words he mumbled into his ear and under his breath. It was like painting--when he grew so absorbed in the lines and colors that everything else simply ceased to exist. Only better--Ohno wondered if he would ever be able to paint again. If he would ever be able to do anything again, knowing that he might be doing this instead.

Ohno smiled; he’d never heard Kazu stutter before. “Are you laughing at me?” he panted.

Ohno shook his head. “I’m just happy,” he answered honestly, breathing in the scent of citrus behind his ear.

Chapter Text

“I know your story.”

“You don’t.” Nino was pulling him towards the bed. Then Nino’s hands were on his shoulders, pressing him down.

He resisted, “I know that you have a sister.” Ohno remembered Nino’s words. This is my only home. “And a home.”

It still felt difficult to see Nino, somehow—it was as if his vision had narrowed to the circumference of the halo of light cast by candle. He could not see Nino as he stood before him—he could only see Nino as he appeared now in his mind’s eye: standing in a drawing room (one that looked remarkably like Ohno’s father’s), elegantly dressed, with Lady Riisa at his side. Pictures had always been Ohno’s relief, but this one clutched at his heart. He sank down on the bed.

“Where have you been?” he asked dazedly, struggling to focus on Nino’s face—the strange, pale, frightened face above him—observing again the sweat that covered his brow.

Ohno thought he saw a flicker of hope in Nino’s eyes as he answered rapidly, his voice still rough from exertion, “I’ve been followed. For the past month, I think. Perhaps longer. I managed to lure him away for now, but it can’t be long until he finds our home.”

“Followed?”

“My family would have sent someone.”

Ohno dropped his head down and then Nino was beside him, pressing his face into his shoulder and tangling their fingers together. He didn’t think that he’d been silent very long, but then Nino was pleading, “Say something, Satoshi.” He was breathing harshly, “Please.”

Nino had never asked him to speak before. Ohno realized that he had grown so used to doing whatever Nino asked of him—juggling biscuits, standing on his head, painting a view of Whitechapel—that his tongue moved automatically at the request: “You don’t work at a bank.”

Nino’s forehead moved back and forth against his shoulder; Ohno wanted to reach up and still him. “What do you do during the day?”

“Explore the city,” Nino replied quietly, as though he feared being overheard. “Read. I…work on a book that I’m writing. Like a study…I interview people about their lives, and then I write them down.”

It was this that finally angered him: more than Nino’s being a Lord, the fact that Nino had possessed—every day since they began living together—a life that he knew nothing about. That he was writing a book, and Ohno had never even seen him holding a pen. “What kind of people?”

“Poor people.”

Ohno stood up. He took the knife from its place on the table near the loaf of bread, and he used it to slash through his finished painting, starting at one corner and making one long, slow cut across the picture so that the canvas hung in two pieces from its frame. He didn’t know why he’d done it until he turned around and saw Nino’s face, and then he knew that he’d done what would hurt Nino the most. He dropped the knife, frightened of himself. The expression on Nino’s face made him sick. “I’m sorry,” he gasped.

Nino stood up, laughing as tears spilled carelessly from the corners of his eyes, “Don’t apologize, old man.” He reached Ohno and hit him lightly across the head; Ohno trembled at the familiar gesture. “Don’t apologize,” he repeated as their eyes met. Nino’s eyes were so dark, but they shone in the dim light; Ohno was reminded of the night they’d met, when he’d returned home to find Nino staring at his painting. Nino placed a hand on his shoulder. “You’re shaking,” he observed, his own voice uneven. “Sit down and I’ll make you a cup of tea.”

 

*

 

Ohno watched Nino making tea. Nino’s tea was always better than his, somehow—if one of the older girls came to visit, they’d wrinkle their noses when Ohno stood up and he knew it was because they were hoping that Nino would make the tea. Ohno started at the realization that Nino—Lord Ninomiya—could never have made tea before coming to his garret. “Why do you know how to make tea?”

Nino stopped short for only a moment before continuing his preparations, his back to Ohno. “It’s not a particularly mysterious process. I watched how you make it,” he admitted as he brought the teapot to the table. His hair had grown longer since the day they’d had it cut; now some fell across his eyes, concealing his expression from Ohno as he spoke, “Once, months ago, I dropped in and saw two empty cups sitting on the table. I’d never known you to have a visitor before. I was so jealous that I thought of stealing the entire set back.”

Nino set the cup of tea in front of him. Ohno stared at the delicate blue flowers against the white porcelain. The tea set had been one of the first items left by his thief.

Nino sat across the table from Ohno, his eyes still hidden but his voice almost challenging as he continued—as though, having been found out, he was determined to reveal all: “I thought that I wanted you to be happy. But I found that, in fact, I only wanted you to be happy with me. That I was…am…selfish.”

Ohno felt his heart constrict, but he couldn’t let himself comprehend the words; if he did, it would be impossible to go on. He took a gulp of tea too quickly—it burned his throat. The pain came as a relief; he took another drink. “I don’t understand,” he finally choked out. “Why did you leave these things here?”

Nino was silent for a few moments before responding; he seemed to be forcing himself to speak calmly. “They were meant to be…gifts. It started out as a sort of lark,” he explained carefully, “I…really did use to watch you. Talking to your sparrow on the roof. And I thought you were interesting. Even more so when I saw your painting. I thought it would be a shame to let someone so talented starve. And I thought it would be…amusing…to leave things for you. Things you could use, or things that I thought would make you laugh. I planned to stop after a few weeks. But then you kept leaving me gifts, and I couldn’t stop. I’d spend all day thinking of what to give you, and how you might react. There was something to look forward to.” He paused, taking a sip of tea before continuing, “I told myself that I was helping you. But in truth…I wanted you to wonder about me. To think about me.” He gave a hollow-sounding laugh, “To solve the mystery.”

Ohno knew how much Nino hated to reveal himself, even if it was only to him. It was something Ohno understood—what it was like to speak while always waiting for the blow to fall. It was something they shared, it was why—Ohno’s breath caught at the thought—they had seemed, so instantly, to belong together. They so rarely had to explain to one another. He wanted to tell Nino to stop, that he didn’t want to hear any more. Instead, he tried to solve the mystery, “Why were you in Chelsea? Why do you know all the back alleys in London?”

“I don’t know all the back alleys.” Seeing Ohno’s look, Nino continued, his voice tense, “Several months before that, I’d started…slipping away. In the evenings, mostly. I’d dress in old clothes and just wander the streets. Trying to get as far away from the Ninomiya name as possible.” Nino sighed, and then the story seemed to pour from him in a rush of words, “I’d no idea that the prison bars would come down so quickly, you see. I’d only been out of school a year when I had to take over my father’s seat in parliament. I thought I had time—years—before I had to become Lord Ninomiya. But my father was already dying by then—of consumption, we say, but really of syphilis.” Nino grimaced, “All his whoring finally caught up to him. And he has such good medical attendance that he’s dying of it slowly, with plenty of time for him to go mad before the end. But he’s held on to enough of his former self to be highly concerned for the future of the Ninomiya name. I came here because I wanted…I wanted to be free,” he confessed, as though revealing a shameful secret.

Nino’s eyes met his; Ohno felt almost frightened by the determination in his gaze, “You may think that we’re different, now, but we are the same.” Nino stood, moving towards him and taking his hand in his own, “Did you know that I was at Eton when you were? I’d forgotten about the boy who ran away and drowned in the lake, but I remembered it the night you told me your history. They told us the story to scare us, but it didn’t stop me from running away half a dozen times. But I was always caught and brought back.” There was something wistful in Nino’s voice as he continued, softly, “I’ve often wondered what would have happened if you’d stayed. If we’d met then.”

As Nino looked down at him, gripping his hand, Ohno was seized by a sudden terror—a terror of giving in. Of doing whatever Nino asked of him. Why the prospect frightened him so much, he could not have said, but he stood, ignoring the pain in Nino’s eyes as he pulled his hand away. He stuttered as he spoke—something he hadn’t done since he was a child—but he managed, “W…w…we’d never have met. We weren’t…the same. We’ll never be the same.”

Nino’s gaze grew hot, “But we so easily could be.” His voice was even softer now, “If you’d accept your inheritance.”

Ohno felt as though he were choking. Nino drew close to him again, “We could meet freely then, as equals. You could join the Royal Academy. People would finally see your work.” Ohno looked down; Nino’s hands were clasped together tightly, his knuckles white. He was begging him.

Then Ohno looked up, and Nino gave a half-sob, half-laugh, “But you won’t, will you?” His eyes were almost taunting, but his voice wavered as he continued, “Not for me.”

He looked like he wanted to smash something—Ohno almost hoped that he would. Instead, he roughly wiped the back of his hand across his eyes and demanded quietly, “Would you have done it for your mother and sister?”

“I don’t know,” Ohno whispered. He examined himself, thinking of them. “Yes.”

But not for you—the words, unspoken, crackled in the air between them. Ohno felt the presence of something in himself so hard and unfeeling, so implacable that it took his breath away.

Nino turned away—he leaned his forearm against the wall, his back to Ohno, evidently trying to compose himself. He was shaking slightly, with anger or sadness or some mixture of both. Ohno felt his heart, and even his limbs, aching with the desire to comfort him. Yet that strange, hard will held him fast, staying his steps. It would be better for Nino if he did leave him—as he stared at the thin back, Ohno felt like a monster. He remembered Nino’s words: I’m afraid because you are unforgiving.

When Nino turned back to him, he was pale but his eyes were dry. Ohno expected that he would leave, that he would say goodbye—instead, Ohno was stunned when Nino observed calmly, “We’ll have to move then. To a different neighborhood, or outside of London. He didn’t seem like a particularly good detective—we can evade him.”

Unable to stop himself, Ohno staggered forward, the tears spilling from his eyes all at once as he swept Nino into a crushing embrace, rendering him breathless. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, not knowing what else to say, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

He could hear both the concern and the happiness in Nino’s voice as he brought up his hands to clutch tightly at Ohno’s back, “I already told you not to apologize, old man. This whole bloody affair is my fault. I should have been honest with you.”

Nino thought that all had been resolved, that everything could continue as it had in the past; Ohno tried to believe it, too, but he couldn’t stop fresh tears from dampening Nino’s face as they kissed.

 

*

 

“I’ve thought of where we can live together.”

They were lying in bed (“You’ll be ill if you don’t sleep,” Nino had insisted; Ohno had agreed because Nino looked on the verge of collapsing), Nino’s back to Ohno as Ohno held him tightly. Both men stared at where their hands were joined on the pillow beside Nino’s head.

If Nino was troubled by Ohno’s lack of response, he gave no sign of it as he continued, “There’s no sense in continuing this game of cat-and-mouse with my family. We’ll go to Paris instead. It’s far easier to be anonymous there. I’ll leave it all—the name, the money. We’ll finally, truly, be free,” he breathed softly, with a hopefulness that broke Ohno’s heart. “It’s beautiful there,” he continued, “You could visit the Louvre every day for a year and still not view all of its paintings. And you can see the new Impressionists. And the bread there is better than anything in a London bakery.” His tone grew more determined, almost commanding as he concluded, “We can book passage and cross the channel together tomorrow evening. There’s nothing to keep us here now.”

“You should sleep, little thief,” Ohno suggested, then flinched at his use of the endearment.

But Nino only sighed, squeezing his fingers lightly between his own. And after some time, he did sleep.

For once, it was Ohno who was left awake. With Nino still and silent, his doubts and fears descended, uninterrupted and with trebled strength. He drowned in them, caught in an undertow that dragged him again and again back to one, terrible conviction—that he must leave Nino.

Nino always looked young, but in sleep, his features relaxed, he looked even younger. Ohno knew that he was not really much older than Nino, but as he stared down at his pale face, he felt a thousand years old. Ohno had always thought that Nino’s sudden appearance in his life was something like a fairy-tale, a story out of the Thousand Nights. For the first time, he thought that it must have been the same for Nino; his lonely garret must have seemed like a magical place to him—his escape and his freedom.

But traveling between two worlds was very different than crossing over into a new one entirely. Ohno knew that there would be nothing liberating about the poverty they would live in if they went to Paris; only the very wealthy could imagine such a life to be anything but a prison. In Paris, there would be no “salary” out of Nino’s own pocket, only the struggle to survive. Would not Nino come to resent him for it? To long for the life, and the people, that he had left behind? And knowing that if only Ohno would accept his inheritance, it might all be remedied—how long could his affection last under such circumstances, and what damage might he have done to his future before he realized his mistake?

Such were the thoughts that passed through Ohno’s mind that night. He tried to fight them. And then he thought: Just accept the money. Accept it, and be happy with Kazu. Hot tears of frustration built up behind his eyes as he repeated the command to himself over and over again, knowing that he would never follow it.

Ohno brushed the hair gently from Nino’s forehead, tracing again that profile that had so entranced him the first time they had met. There had always been something defiant in that profile, something that rebelled against circumstance. But while Ohno had never felt, even for a single moment, like Sir Fairlie—all possible connection to that house passing away with his mother and sister—he believed that there was a part of Nino that was, absolutely, Lord Ninomiya Kazunari. And as the picture of Lady Riisa he’d seen in the newspaper flashed again before his eyes, Ohno believed that there were parts of Nino’s life that he could not—should not—abandon merely to be with him.

That conviction grew stronger within him with the passing of each hour; still, he wished to hide from its truth, and when Nino stirred and opened his eyes toward dawn, Ohno cowardly closed his own in a pretense of sleep. He expected that Nino would turn towards him and fall asleep again—their noses almost pressed against each other—as he often did in the early morning. He wanted him to; he wanted to feel his warm breath against his face for the last time, even if the memory of it would only make his future agony all the more painful.

Instead, he felt Nino extricate himself gently from his grasp, and then he heard the soft sounds of clothes being collected, and then a light scratching of pen against paper.

Ohno opened his eyes after the door closed slowly behind Nino. Heart pounding, he climbed out of bed and moved to read the note that Nino had left for him, wondering if it contained Nino’s farewell. But it only read:

Satoshi-I’ve gone to book our passage. I’ll return soon. Your Kazu

Ohno threw on his coat and, carrying his shoes in his hand, followed him out the door.

 

*

 

Nino had taught him well in their excursions around London; Ohno was able to follow him easily as he made his way through narrow rookeries and obscure alleyways in the dark of the predawn hour. He stayed at a careful distance but managed to keep Nino in his view as they passed slowly from Chelsea and into what Ohno dimly recognized as Belgravia—only it seemed to be the other side of Belgravia, not the magnificent façades of the district’s mansions but the servant’s entrances and places where the trash was collected.

Ohno knew the note to be a lie; Nino would not rise before dawn to book their passage. But he had said that he would return, and Ohno believed that he would. He wanted to know who it was that Nino had to say goodbye to. He thought he could guess, but he wanted to be certain.

Ohno’s suspicions were confirmed when they arrived at the most opulent house on the street; even from the back, it resembled a palace. Nino leapt over the shrubbery that bordered its back garden with practiced ease, approaching the servant’s entrance as though he had made this same journey many times before.

Ohno silently shadowed him.

Then Nino stopped, picking up some gravel from the lawn and throwing it strongly so that it clattered against a third story window situated at the building’s corner. The sun had risen, and each object—grass, flowers, gravel, Nino’s hair and coat—seemed to shine with an unnatural clarity in the early morning light. Ohno hid himself more carefully behind the shed that concealed him. Nino waited a few moments, then threw another handful of gravel. Ohno shivered in the brisk morning air.

The sash was raised and a face appeared; the blood pounded in Ohno’s ears as he recognized the face of Lady Riisa.

After only a glance at her brother the face disappeared and the window was closed. Nino was clearly waiting for her arrival; Ohno watched as he overturned a stone resting atop the garden wall and removed a packet of cigarettes from beneath it, reaching into his coat for a light.

Ohno hadn’t known that he smoked. He’d never tasted even a hint of tobacco on his tongue. The stooped, slight figure seemed a stranger to him; it seemed impossible that they had been planning to run away to Paris together only hours before.

Nino was smoking when his sister opened the back door, still in her nightgown. Ohno’s breath caught at the incredible resemblance between the two; he was grateful that Lady Riisa at least did not share her brother’s mole, as it would have rendered the similarity too uncanny. Though now her face was almost as pale and drawn as her brother’s. Ohno sensed that Nino was speaking to her, but he could hear nothing. Nino’s back was to him; he could only watch Nino’s words as they reflected on his sister’s face, as she looked first astonished, then furious.

Nino kept smoking; Ohno wished that he would put it out. Apparently so did Lady Riisa, as she stepped outside into the cold air to pluck it from his hand and throw it onto the gravel. Then she slapped her brother across the face and burst into tears.

Perhaps it was only because she resembled Nino so closely, or perhaps because—like Satomi—she clenched and unclenched her fists as she cried, as though infuriated by her own helplessness, but the sight tore at Ohno’s heart. As much as if Nino himself were sobbing.

Nino stood, unmoving, at a distance from his weeping sister. And then he shook out another cigarette from the packet and lit it.

Ohno watched the wisp of smoke curl its way skyward and then, not wanting to see any more, turned away and began the journey back to Chelsea.

 

*

 

When Ohno opened the door to the garret, there was a tall black column in the middle of the room. Gradually, he realized that the column was a man, a man with a dark hat, dark beard, dark coat and dark shoes. He didn’t look up when Ohno opened the door—he continued examining something on the table. Ohno’s heart seemed to stop when he realized that the man’s long white fingers were sifting through the notes and letters that he and Nino had written to each other. Ohno kept the letters pressed between the pages of the Thousand Nights. Which meant that the black column must have searched the garret very thoroughly in order to discover them.

Calmly, the man looked up, his expression almost pleasant. He seemed in no hurry to begin their conversation. “Good morning,” he nodded, his voice surprisingly high and soft—the words seemed to float away as soon as they left his lips. “Perhaps you’ve heard—I had some words with Lord Kazunari last night. I’ve been asked by his family to look after his interests. My card.” He removed a small white square from the depths of his coat pocket and held it out as though expecting Ohno to accept it; when Ohno didn’t move from his spot near the door, the black column smiled and placed the card carefully on the table.

“I want you to know that I feel absolutely no contempt towards you, Satoshi. You see, this kind of case is my specialty, and I can assure you that they occur with frequency. How could I possibly blame you for being flattered by the attention of the powerful? And as for his lordship—well, it’s remarkable the fondness this class of men have for their social inferiors.” He smiled even more broadly, “Of both sexes.” His voice grew lighter as he continued, “So you see, I blame neither of you. But I must warn you—I have observed hundreds of these cases. And I have never seen one end happily, no matter how warmly the parties involved felt towards each other. And I’m afraid, Satoshi, that it is usually the party in your position who makes the worse end.”

He dragged his hand through the pile of letters as though cooling his fingers in a pond; some of the papers fell to the floor while others scattered across the table. Ohno felt as though he were going to be sick as he watched the strange fingers moving among their words. “Which is not to say that there is no danger to his lordship, of course. I only mean to say that my sympathies are with you. But his lordship—these letters aren’t quite proof of acts of gross obscenity, are they? Yet they would sound highly suggestive when read aloud in a court of law.”

Seeing the look of bewilderment on Ohno’s face, he laughed. “Not that I mean to expose either of you, of course. Far from it. But in all these hundreds of cases, I’ve learned that these liaisons are always revealed in the end. Even if you were to burn these letters, I can assure you that it would not be long before Lord Kazunari’s reputation would be damaged beyond repair. There are already whispers—in some circles they already begin to suspect that he has inherited the madness of his father. Only he exhibits a more virulent strain in his…eccentric…choice of partners. All powerful families have enemies, you see, eager to put even the hint of a scandal to good use.”

At last he stopped touching the letters, but Ohno still felt as though he might be ill. “His family is quite sympathetic to the awkward position you’ve been placed in as well. We realize that you must have been accustomed to a certain level of prosperity while living with his lordship.” The next words were almost a whisper. “I have been authorized by Lord and Lady Ninomiya to offer you five hundred pounds, cash, in exchange for your disappearance from his lordship’s life.”

Ohno laughed. He laughed hysterically, until he really was almost sick on the floor. There were tears running down his face by the time he managed to suppress his laughter; he coughed painfully in his attempts to choke down his mirth. When he finally calmed himself enough to meet the man’s gaze, Ohno felt oddly proud that the man’s placid smile could not quite disguise the hint of uneasiness in his eyes. The column’s eyebrow was twitching as he examined him again, more warily now.

Ohno swallowed. “I wouldn’t leave him for anything less than a thousand pounds,” he stated flatly.

The smile grew genuine; the column’s forehead smooth. He sighed with satisfaction. “I thank you for being so reasonable,” he said with a slight bow, reaching for the black bag at his feet.

When Ohno saw him removing the hundred pound notes from the overstuffed bag, he regretted that he had not asked for more.

 

*

 

He had been thinking for far too long. Since he had read that item in the newspaper the previous evening, his mind had not stopped its torturous machinations. Now, he acted only on instinct, refusing to consider his actions. After the black column left, he quickly wrapped the money in a pillowcase—adding the last of the money they kept in the house to the pile—and penned a brief letter. Almost frantic, fearful that Nino might return at any moment, he burned their letters until nothing remained but ash. Then he took what bread was left in the house and climbed up to the roof to leave it for his gray sparrow.

But his sparrow was not there. He would surely return later, but he had hoped to say goodbye. It was then that he almost broke. He could feel his limbs stiffening, his eyes growing hot—he might collapse on the roof. But then he was forcing himself to move again, slipping back into the garret.

He collected the pillowcase and the letter he’d written, and a small bag that held some of his clothes. He’d been determined to take nothing else, but when he’d opened the door something had compelled him to turn back and take one of Nino’s shirts from where it rested in a tangle on the bed. He stuffed the shirt hastily inside his bag and almost ran from the room—he was afraid that if he remained an instant longer, he would begin to think again, and then his mind might find some excuse to stay.

On his way out of the building he was relieved to find the girl he’d hoped to encounter—she was sixteen, the eldest and most responsible of the family. She was sitting on the steps, half-watching some of the younger boys playing in the street while she sewed. “Where is your mother?” he demanded. She started; he realized that he must look wild. He felt wild. Like an animal that had bitten off its own leg to escape a trap.

He did his best to speak calmly and to soften his voice, “I have something for her. Is she in the house now?”

The girl nodded, still looking at him nervously. “Yes, she’s just in. Cooking breakfast for the little ones.”

“Then would you do me the great favour—I am in a great hurry at the moment, but if you would give her this letter”—he passed the envelope to her—“and this gift.” The girl examined the bundled pillowcase curiously. “It’s only something that I owe her. Will you take it to her now? I’m sorry that I cannot stay another moment.”

“Yes, sir.” She stood and moved as if to enter the house, then hesitated, turning back. “Do be careful of your health, sir,” she smiled at him encouragingly, “Just think how he would feel to see you looking so peaky.”

It seemed a miracle to Ohno that he was able to reply over the lump in his throat. “Thank you, Susan,” he managed hoarsely, “Give my best to your mother.”

“Yes, sir,” she nodded, holding the bundle carefully as she turned and passed into the house.

Ohno turned left; then he took every turning that he—they—had never taken before, until he reached a place that he did not recognize. With every step, he felt himself growing lighter, more transparent, until he was certain that he must have vanished entirely.

Chapter Text

September, 1888

500. Ohno sat on a park bench, contemplating the number. He never thought of the number in words—five hundred. Instead, he pictured the curves of each digit distinctly. It was a satisfying number to hold in his mind, round and even. Impressive. Excessive, even—500 pounds would have been enough to keep him for years.

Ohno treasured the number; it was, he reflected, his greatest accomplishment. He’d never thought of them as “accomplishments,” but even his paintings had been left behind and must have been destroyed by now. The gravestones he’d carved meant little—he’d had a facility for it, but the work could have been done by anyone.

But 500 days since he’d left Lord Ninomiya Kazunari—that achievement was his and his alone.

He’d been surprised when he’d found himself counting the days with such unerring accuracy. The passage of time had always been vague to him, but even weeks after he’d left Nino, he’d find himself thinking, “28” or “32,” or “50,” until he gave in and began noting down the number each day in the journal that he’d started keeping.

This keen awareness of the passage of every individual day, of every separate hour—it was one of the many things that had not gone as he’d expected after leaving. He’d thought that leaving Nino would feel something like the mourning after his mother’s death—weeks of agony, and then a kind of numbness setting in. He would return to that merciful haze that he had existed in before Nino had arrived.

There were some weeks of agony. But then, at the end of them, he’d found himself still, frustratingly, awake. Far from numb. He still ached for everything—for food, for sex, for Nino, for his sparrow.

That each day had been so hard-won gave Ohno more reason to be proud of his accomplishment. Although he’d seemingly done nothing—merely returned to his original position of obscurity in relation to his lordship—in those 500 days his lordship had accomplished much. He’d accomplished so much precisely because Ohno had left him: his lordship had opened his sister’s coming out ball; he’d become a major figure in the House of Lords.

Ohno knew all this from reading the papers, which he now scoured faithfully for items on his lordship or Lady Riisa; they weren’t difficult to find, as Lord Kazunari’s political career had been causing something of a sensation. His father—the older Lord Ninomiya—had been a liberal, but his son, the papers reported, was something of a radical (or “positively an anarchist,” according to his critics). Lord Kazunari wanted the poor laws to be reformed; he wanted the government to provide public housing for destitute women and children; he’d stated publicly that he thought women had the right to vote; he thought India ought to be given sovereignty; he introduced bill after bill to parliament, all the while declaring that the House of Lords and all other hereditary positions ought to be abolished.

That statement had made Ohno smile. He could imagine Nino’s expression when he’d said that to some bewildered reporter—it would be the same expression he’d always worn when tempting Ohno to choose a card, any card, from his hand.

Ohno had read that interview on day 423.

He’d come close to destroying his record on day 223; that was the day he’d attended the funeral of Nino’s father. It had been an elaborate affair, parts of which had been open to the public. Stealthily, Ohno had slipped inside the cathedral and made his way to the upper sections of the choir, where he could look at Lord Ninomiya Kazunari from a distance. At the time, Ohno’s heart had pounded at his actions, but there hadn’t really been any danger of Nino catching sight of him; Nino had only looked to the front or gazed downward where his hand held Lady Riisa’s.

It was the first time Ohno had seen Nino dressed in his own clothes; even his small figure seemed suddenly more imposing. His eyes were dark and inscrutable, his expression mask-like for most of the service; but when Lady Riisa leaned slightly to the side to speak to him, his expression softened into one more familiar to Ohno.

From what Nino had said of his father, Ohno was unsurprised that neither sibling looked particularly sad at the funeral, only pale and tired. But they also—Ohno had thought with a catch in his throat—looked right seated beside each other at the head of the church. Nino had looked right. Like Lord Kazunari. Like Lady’s Riisa’s brother. Like he was where he ought to be.

Of course, despite Ohno’s belief that he’d made the right decision, he’d felt bereft when the service had come to an end; two hours felt like hardly enough time to study the familiar lines of Nino’s nose and mouth. Ohno had wanted to follow them to the churchyard; instead, he’d stayed in the choir while the church emptied, and then, for the first time in years, he’d prayed. He’d prayed that soon he would believe not only with his mind but also in his heart that Nino would forget—that Lord Kazunari had forgotten—him.

Ohno knew that he would never forget—it would be absurd even to try. It was why he had stayed in London. In London, he could at least follow news of him. Besides, he reasoned, it was almost easier to hide within London’s chaos than outside the maze of its streets (Ohno knew that it helped that he had had no family that would own him, few acquaintances, and that, according to any legal record, he had drowned at the age of twelve).

He introduced himself as “Samuel” (the name of an old servant who’d been kind to him) and found work where he could. He gave up masonry as, at least in the months immediately following his departure, mason yards would have been the first places that Nino would have looked for him (if indeed, Nino had still felt any desire to find him after learning that he’d left him after accepting a thousand pounds from the Ninomiya family’s private detective). He was qualified to be a servant, but he had no letters of reference, and he could not imagine himself serving under any master again; his spirit rebelled against that prospect more than ever. He’d thought of contacting Okada, but he’d stopped himself in case Nino had written to him.

And because it was too painful to return to any part of his past.

So he’d worked as a waiter (he wasn’t so bad at the job, expect that he sometimes lost the thread of what he was meant to be doing); he’d dug ditches; and he’d even spent one disastrous day as a shop assistant. Finally, he’d found a steady position working as an unofficial aide-de-camp for a group of officers temporarily stationed in London (he’d found that soldiers weren’t over-concerned with character references). The position had been freer than that of a servant’s, and the officers he’d assisted had taught him to use a sword and how to shoot (he felt as though he’d spent the blisteringly hot summer doing little else but mediating the various duels that the officers conducted amongst themselves). At the end of the summer, the officers had asked him to travel with them to their winter encampment in Ireland. Naturally, he’d refused.

That had been several weeks ago; since then, he’d rented a small room but had spent all his days in the park, feeding whatever birds approached and trying to convince himself to look for work again—already summer was ending, and he could not live through another winter without a position.

Even in the sunlight, Ohno shuddered at the thought of the previous winter. After leaving Nino and the agony of the spring, he’d made it tolerably well through the summer, but he’d fallen into a depression with the arrival of winter. He hadn’t been able to work but had (barely) lived off the wages he’d earned that summer. He’d managed well enough during the day; he would go to the public library and read until it closed. It was the long, black, sleepless nights that followed that had been terrible—Ohno knew that it was beyond his strength to endure another such winter.

And yet, he hesitated. Occasionally, he ran his eyes listlessly over advertisements in the newspaper, but he had he taken no other steps to find work. To find something that would divert his thoughts—at least temporally—from their habitual channels and that would tire him enough so that he could sleep at night. But he only occupied his bench faithfully, and counted again and again the days that separated him from his thief. Ohno’s sense of triumph dissipated as these gloomier, more familiar thoughts overtook him.

The sound of a cat hissing furiously jolted him from his melancholy; Ohno raised his head to discover an extraordinary scene playing out on the opposite side of the street.

An almost-shockingly handsome man was crouched low on the pavement, his knees in the dirt, attempting to lure a bad-tempered orange cat out from where it lay starving in a gutter. The cat was thin and covered in mud, but it was fighting the gentleman’s outstretched arms with every bit of strength it possessed. Ohno observed that the man’s jacket sleeves were clawed nearly to shreds.

The gentleman seemed happily oblivious to the fact that the cat clearly had no interest in being rescued, smiling brightly while reaching out to the animal with calls of “Good kitty, nice kitty.” Passerby glanced at him warily and kept a careful distance, but a small troupe of interested children formed a half-circle around him. They laughed delightedly as the cat lashed out again and caught the man’s hand with his claw. To Ohno’s surprise, the gentleman didn’t seem to notice the blood: “Nice kitty,” he smiled.

Ohno watched, fascinated, for the next half hour as the gentleman gradually lured the stubborn feline into his arms. Ohno thought that it was a horrible-looking thing, hardly worth the effort—bright orange with a squashed face and sour expression. It continued to struggle weakly even after allowing itself to be lifted into the gentleman’s arms.

The man was now smiling so brightly that, even from across the street, Ohno felt for a moment as though he were back in his garret, dazzled by the rays of summer sun falling through the skylight.

And when the man turned away and—in his haste—failed to notice that he’d dropped his hat onto the pavement, Ohno found himself running across the street and calling out “Sir!” before he was even aware of it.

“Your hat!” he cried out again weakly, unsure of how else to describe the strange-looking item with flaps that he’d collected from the sidewalk. At first, Ohno thought that he had never seen such a hat before, but then he remembered a series of illustrations for a story in The Strand—something Nino had read to him—a detective called Holmes. He’d liked the stories, though he’d always thought that Holmes was rather unfair on his friend—the doctor—Watson.

Panic bloomed in Ohno’s chest as other memories appeared and threatened to overwhelm him: Nino, lying in bed, reading the story out to him by candlelight. Sometimes interrupting the narrative with his observations, or covering his mouth as he laughed. Kicking Ohno’s feet under the cover to make certain that he was listening. His heart raced, and his breath disappeared; Ohno wondered if he was going to faint (it would not be the first time since leaving that thoughts of Nino had caused him to swoon).

Fortunately, the gentleman with the cat pulled him back into the present by seizing his hand and shaking it with an enthusiasm that bordered on violence. Ohno gradually become aware of the gentleman’s voice, strangely breathy but deep, “My dear sir, I cannot thank you enough! I can assure you that I would have been devastated to lose this hat, which is of so much sentimental as well as practical value to me at present,” the man carried on.

Ohno struggled to focus on the man before him; he was, he thought dazedly, even more handsome than he had appeared from across the street—his features even more perfect— with dark but clear brown eyes. Having both the stranger’s gaze and his smile concentrated upon oneself was overwhelming yet also oddly soothing. Like the feeling of a warm bath. Or perhaps it was like coming in from the cold to sit before a roaring fire. In any case, Ohno reflected with some disappointment, it felt precisely like what he had always hoped that taking opium would feel like.

Ohno swallowed, embarrassment overtaking him as he realized that he had not spoken but had only been staring at the man stupidly for the past several minutes. The gentleman did not seem perturbed by his silence, however, as he had busied himself with donning his hat and was now positively struggling to keep the cat (who seemed to have gained strength) in his arms.

“Oh I say! Really!” the gentleman cried out as, to both their astonishments, the cat finally escaped its savior by making a wild leap in Ohno’s direction; Ohno’s hands rose automatically to support the animal even as he flinched back, expecting to be scratched. Instead, after a moment, Ohno heard and actually felt a deep, vibrating purr travel across his chest and shoulder as the cat nuzzled into his neck.

Ohno stared at the gentleman, open-mouthed with surprise; the gentleman stared back with a similarly slack-jawed expression. But then his smile shone more brightly than ever when he finally spoke, “Sir…I realize that all this must seem quite unforgivably rude…but you seem to be a sort of good angel sent my way…would it greatly inconvenience you if I were to humbly request that you hold onto the animal while I just step inside the office to collect my post?” he gestured vaguely towards one of the street’s many buildings.

It was strange, Ohno thought; even as he spoke in half a minute more words than Ohno had spoken in the last month, the gentleman still seemed…hesitant. Shy. His eyes were warm and friendly, but they flicked down anxiously to the pavement as he spoke. He stared at his feet for a moment as though he were tempted to start shuffling them. Ohno was reminded, somehow, of Nino. Why, he could not have said. “Yes,” he replied faintly.

“Sir, you have my eternal gratitude,” the man smiled brilliantly again before reaching out to scratch behind the ears of the cat, who was now slumbering against Ohno’s shoulder. It seemed to Ohno that he only narrowly missed being pet himself, as the gentleman’s hand seemed to hesitate by Ohno’s ear for a moment before he hastily withdrew it, looking embarrassed. “Please allow me to introduce myself,” he bowed, “I am Aiba Masaki, lately a professor of zoology but now pursuing a career as a detective. In a strictly amateur capacity, of course. May I have the pleasure of knowing you?”

“Ohno Satoshi, sir,” he nodded, returning the bow.

It was only after the gentleman had disappeared into a nearby building that Ohno realized, with a start, that he’d given Aiba Masaki—amateur detective—his real name.

 

*

 

The gentleman had not been exaggerating when he had promised Ohno his eternal gratitude in return for the favor; in fact, his gratitude was so unflagging in its intensity that, somehow, Ohno found himself being taken to dinner by the man. And the gentleman seemed so delighted by even his confused acceptance that, unaccountably, Ohno obeyed the man’s horrifying instruction to fold the sleeping cat up and out of sight into his coat before they entered the restaurant (“I don’t suppose they’d take kindly to us bringing a stray into the place,” the gentleman had whispered, sending what Ohno supposed was meant to be a wink in his direction as they entered).

More food was ordered than Ohno had seen in a month. And then the gentleman was ordering whiskey and pouring him a glass; Ohno accepted it gratefully, hoping that it would distract him from the fact that he was seated in a restaurant with a cat sleeping on his lap.

The gentleman continued to blather on—about the beautiful weather, the sights of London, the quantity of stray cats he had observed roaming the city and his theories thereof—seemingly requiring no more response from Ohno than the occasional “hmmm” or “I suppose so, sir.”

But after they had both emptied their whiskey glasses, a flush crept into the gentleman’s face, and with a genuinely nervous expression he leaned forward to murmur, “Ohno, I must confess that I did have an ulterior motive—at least, I mean, a motive in addition to what I assure you is my very genuine gratitude—in inviting you to dine with me tonight.”

Ohno could not believe that he had allowed himself to be led into such a situation (what exactly the situation was, he was not certain, but it was definitely a situation). He was going to have to flee the restaurant, but first he would have to detach the cat’s claws from where they were digging into his trousers. Which might fatally slow his escape. Why had he followed this complete stranger? What had he been thinking? (In truth, Ohno knew exactly why he had followed him. He had followed him because he reminded him in an odd way of Nino. Every so often, there was something familiar about him, something in his gestures or in the way that he spoke—a shadow of Nino passing over his features as clouds pass across the face of the sun).

Ohno was trying to pry the claws from his legs; Aiba seemed oblivious to his distress, staring mournfully into his empty glass as he continued mumbling, “You see, I find myself in quite a difficult position, and I have no one to turn to for advice. I have been in London for nearly two months now, and I still cannot manage to secure the services of a valet.”

Ohno stopped trying to shift the stubborn animal from his lap. “You…need some advice on finding a servant?”

The gentleman looked up at him, his eyes hopeful as he nodded.

“But…why would you think…that I…?”

Aiba interrupted his stuttering, “You seem very kind and trustworthy, and familiar with the city. And I thought that you might have…please forgive me if this is a great impertinence, if so please attribute it only to my stupidity, but…I thought that perhaps you might have worked as a servant, perhaps as a valet?”

Ohno was stunned. Yes, the man had introduced himself as some kind of professor and then as some kind of detective, but he seemed so entirely oblivious to everything taking place around him that Ohno had already formed an opinion of him as a species of kindly idiot. Slowly, he nodded. In his amazement, he forgot once again to be cautious and instead confessed the truth, “You are right, sir. I was never a valet, but I have worked for some years as a servant in private households. How…?”

Seeing that Ohno was not offended, the gentleman glowed with pleasure, “I was not certain. But I suspected…you seem very educated, but although I have given you my name and have been calling you ‘Ohno,’ and I think we must be nearly the same age, you continue to address me as ‘sir,’ as if out of habit. And your eyes keep returning with disapproval to the state of my coat sleeves,” he laughed, extending his arms to better display the shredded material to Ohno’s view.

Ohno laughed; the sound startled him. It was like hearing someone else laugh. He cleared his throat and spoke quickly, trying to recover from his surprise, “I…am not certain that I could be of much assistance to you, sir…”—the hopeful light in Aiba’s eyes dimmed, and for some reason Ohno found himself backpedalling furiously—“…but I can try, if you let me know how I might help.”

The glow of happiness returned; Aiba poured him another drink as he withdrew a piece of paper from his coat pocket. “You are too kind. In fact, I was wondering if you might take a look at the advertisement I have published? Just now I was at the post office, and I have again been disappointed by a lack of response. I think that perhaps I have written the advert wrongly. Would you be so good as to suggest some improvements?” he inquired, pushing the paper across the table towards Ohno.

Hesitantly, Ohno accepted the paper. He read the advertisement all the way through, and then he sat dumbfounded. Mostly, he was surprised that a reputable paper had printed it. He had no idea where to begin, but every time he glanced up, Aiba was staring at him with so much eagerness that it seemed that he must say something. Finally, he decided to mention the most innocuous point, “You haven’t given any details about salary.”

Aiba’s brows knitted together; he craned around the table in an attempt to re-read the note in Ohno’s hand. “But I have!” he insisted. “Look!” he pointed, “I’ve said here, ‘Fair compensation determined by mutual agreement upon application for the position.’”

Ohno swallowed, wondering how blunt he ought to be, “Anyone will think you mean to cheat them, sir,” he finally whispered.

Aiba’s eyes rounded with horror, “Cheat them?” he gasped. “I assure you, Ohno, such an idea was the farthest thing from my mind—I only wanted to know what they expected before naming a salary. I swear to it!”

“I know, sir,” Ohno nodded, embarrassed. Yet he felt that he had to be certain that Aiba understood, “But many would think that’s a fancy way of saying that you’re going to try to argue them into accepting a lower wage.”

Ohno was expecting the gentleman to become offended. Instead, when he raised his eyes, Aiba was staring at him with an expression of grateful admiration; he felt himself blush in response. “That is just the sort of advice I need! How lucky I was to encounter you today! You truly are a good angel, as I suspected! Please, do continue,” he requested brightly, pouring him another drink, “What else is wrong with it?”

Ohno took another look at the paper though he didn’t really need to. “You haven’t asked for any letters of reference.”

Aiba had taken a small pencil and notebook out of his pocket and was now recording his advice; Ohno felt his blush deepening at the rapt attention he was receiving. “Ah yes, you are supposed to ask for those, aren’t you? It quite slipped my mind. You see, I’ve never engaged a servant myself before—at the college they provided one for all the professors.”

Emboldened, Ohno continued on, “And…you’ve described yourself here as a ‘gentleman of modest means but of a generous spirit.’ That also sounds like you mean to cheat people out of salary.”

Aiba nodded and continued taking notes; Ohno felt as though there was nothing for it but to see the matter through to the end. “And the specifications that you’ve listed for applicants…” Ohno made some effort to phrase the observation as delicately as possible; instead of saying “you sound like a madman,” he suggested, “it’s unlikely that anyone can fulfill them.”

Aiba looked up, his brow creasing once again with confusion, “Which of the specifications?”

Ohno looked down to read from the advert, “A gentleman of modest means but of a generous spirit seeks the assistance of one gentleman’s personal gentleman viz. a valet or private manservant. In exchange for fair compensation determined by mutual agreement upon application for the position, duties would include the expected i.e. care of wardrobe, household management, light housekeeping and occasional cooking. In this extraordinary circumstance, applicants should also be prepared to engage in some elementary detective work. All assistance rendered in detection will, of course, be financially compensated beyond the regular salary. Applicants should be possessed of a fondness for animals and facility in their upbringing; an irrepressible love of adventures; unexpected or even hidden talents; unimpeachable honor; a keen sense of right; and a desire to assist the downtrodden.”

Ohno looked up; Aiba was still looking at him with some confusion but with a gentle half-smile, as though encouraging him to speak out his thoughts. Ohno felt a sudden wave of protectiveness towards the gentleman seated before him, the kind of protectiveness he used to feel towards his sister. He felt compelled to explain as honestly as he could: “Everything listed after ‘In this extraordinary circumstance’….no one would answer such an advertisement, sir. It is beyond…the bounds of a valet’s position. And if someone did answer this advertisement, I am afraid they would have some evil intent. Forgive me, sir, but I am glad that no has replied because if they had, you would be taken advantage of.” Ohno slid the advertisement back across the table, “The man that you are looking for, sir—he does not exist.”

 

*

 

Aiba seemed fairly devastated by Ohno’s assessment of the advertisement. Ohno thought that perhaps he would want to end the meal as quickly as possible, but instead his criticism seemed to require that he accompany the gentleman for the rest of the evening, as he most earnestly begged that he would stay and drink with him. After a few more glasses, tears were beginning to shine in Aiba’s eyes, and Ohno was feeling an uncomfortable prickling at the edges of his own vision.

But then the cat—having napped and eaten all the leftovers that Ohno had passed under the table—seemed to decide that he had had quite enough, and his loud meows and the restaurant patrons’ startled reactions sent both men into fits of suppressed laughter as they fled the restaurant in disgrace (with Aiba leaving behind on the table what Ohno suspected was an amount far beyond that listed on the bill).

Ohno had not been drunk in a long time; he hardly trusted himself to drink when alone, as he feared that he might become so intoxicated that he would seek Nino out. But now, with a cat purring inside his jacket and Aiba tugging him along the street, he felt the pleasant numbness that he had craved for so long overtaking him; perhaps that was why he docilely allowed Aiba to lead him to his lodgings. “No. 5, Garden Place,” the gentleman slurred as he struggled to fit the key into the lock.

The house was larger than he had expected, and cold when they entered; Ohno felt himself growing sober in the chill air. The cat, seeming to guess that this place was home, leapt out of his arms and sprinted quite confidently up the staircase; the two men followed the animal to reach a large room with a fireplace. The room was filled with boxes, some half-opened and with their extraordinary contents spilling out onto the floor. There were towering stacks of books teetering precariously throughout the room, and several specimen cases on the floor that Ohno nearly tripped over. He broke into a cold sweat; the cases reminded him of his father’s study—those inviolable glass boxes that he used to stare into with such fascination.

He swung himself about, forcing himself not to look at the cases but instead to focus on Aiba, who—to Ohno’s surprise—was very capably lighting a fire; he also seemed to have regained some of his sense after entering the house. Once the fire was well built up, Aiba turned back to him, smiling when he noticed Ohno’s surprise, “In truth, I can shift pretty well for myself. I only play at being the gentleman, you know. My parents were cooks.” Ohno was stunned; he could not imagine how Aiba had become a professor. Aiba frowned, “Though in spite of all that I’m afraid I’m still a bit of a danger in the kitchen—I burned three breakfasts this week.”

Aiba sighed, flopping down next to a packing crate and fumbling with the lid. “A bowl for the kitten’s milk…” he murmured. Ohno helped him open the box and locate a small china bowl wrapped in newspaper. Aiba retrieved a half-empty bottle of milk from the kitchen and poured some out, setting the bowl on the floor near the fire. Another bottle of alcohol and two tumblers seemed to appear out of nowhere, and the two men sat drinking together, leaning against one of the crates, as they watched the cat have his first taste of milk. He sniffed and circled the bowl suspiciously for some time, his tongue finally darting out hesitantly for a brief taste; after a moment of consideration, he seemed to take to it and lapped at the milk enthusiastically.

Ohno smiled; Aiba gave a shout and clapped his hands, nearly spilling his drink onto Ohno’s lap. “What ought we to call him?” he demanded eagerly.

“Holmes,” Ohno suggested instantly.

Aiba turned to him with an expression of adoration; Ohno tried not to shrink back from the force of his smile, “My dear fellow, how could I have even considered anything else? Once again you have rescued me from a terrible blunder!”

Ohno shook his head and tried to protest, but Aiba was already standing and saying something about Holmes and Watson and something else that Ohno couldn’t catch but that sounded like “magic lantern.” Perhaps Aiba was even more intoxicated than he had thought.

But then the gentleman was dragging out a strange contraption from behind a packing case. Ohno thought at first that it was some new kind of camera, but then Aiba was explaining that it was a kind of light projector. “A magic lantern,” he smiled happily. “A wonderful name, isn’t it? Like something out of the Thousand Nights!” Ohno’s heart beat more quickly at the mention of the volume. “It was given to me as a birthday gift by my dearest friend a few years ago. I have some slides that show illustrations from Sherlock Holmes…I want to show you…” he opened another box and began messing about with what looked to Ohno like a lot of glass squares, bordered with wood; he was holding them up to the fire to study them before beginning to slot them into the contraption.

It was as Ohno was watching him carefully placing the pieces of glass inside the machine—the movements of his hands careful and precise even as he was swaying on his feet—that it occurred to him that Aiba must be desperately lonely. The revelation came over him like an unexpected gust of rain, chilling him to the bone. He had himself been alone for so long that he fancied that he had developed a kind of immunity to it; loneliness was in the air he breathed, the food he ate, so that he no longer expected to feel anything else. But looking at Aiba—who lived in a dark house that was much too large for one person, who spent hours trying to lure ungrateful strays into his arms, who put absurd advertisements in the newspaper and dragged complete strangers back to his house to show them pictures—all of Ohno’s resistance crumbled, and he wept.

Aiba, fortunately, did not notice his silent tears; the room was lit only by the fire, and he was still focused intently on the slides. Aiba moved something at the side of the machine and then, to Ohno’s astonishment, an illustration of Holmes and Watson in deep consultation appeared on the wall opposite. Ohno gasped, wiping at his eyes; Aiba turned to study his response, smiling delightedly at Ohno's expression of open-mouthed wonder. He waited patiently as Ohno examined each new image before moving on to the next, and when they were finished with Holmes and Watson, new slides were pulled out. In the dark room, they exclaimed together over vividly colored apparitions of butterflies and fish, birds and flowers.

Between the drink and the fantastic images floating in the room, Ohno felt as though he had stumbled into a kind of dream world; and when it became apparent that Aiba was weeping, very quietly, as well, he put his arm around his shoulder and allowed the gentleman to lean on him, soaking his shirt with his tears, until they both fell to sleep on the floor.

 

*

 

When Ohno woke, his first thought was that it must be day. But instead of the blistering hangover he had expected, he still felt pleasantly blurry, and the room was swaying oddly. He glanced towards the large windows to one side of the room; it was still dark out. Why had he awoken?

Then he heard it again. The shrill ring of a doorbell. He closed his eyes, but the noise continued. Curled up in front of the fire with a surprisingly gentle Holmes in his arms, Aiba continued to snore through the alarms.

Blearily, Ohno forced himself up. Must stop the noise, he thought, stumbling down the stairs. Can’t wake Aiba and Holmes. Must sleep.

He felt oddly proud of himself for reaching the door, what with the stairs changing places on him so often, but he managed to outwit them. Finally reaching the entryway and grasping the knob firmly after a few attempts, he flung the door open to reveal a very blurry man in a top hat. Ohno leaned forward, squinting one eye closed in an attempt to get a better look at him. Then he laughed. The man looked like a very startled squirrel.

The man started talking. Much too fast. About being a colleague of Aiba’s. A professor. Professor Sakurai Sho. Ohno raised a finger to his lips, “Shhh. You’ll wake them.”

Now the man looked rather offended. “Them?” he repeated, seeming angry. He tried to push past Ohno into the house; instinctively, Ohno blocked his path with his arm. He decided that he didn’t like this visitor—why was he coming to the house in the middle of the night, unannounced? And if he was a university colleague of Aiba’s, surely Aiba would not want to be discovered in his current state—drunk and tear-stained and holding a mangy cat.

Ohno tried to tell the man to wait in the entry for a moment until he announced him, but his mouth wasn’t quite obeying his mind’s commands. He reached out to try to take the man by the shoulder, but then both his hands landed around his throat instead. “Sho,” he slurred, “Sho wait.”

The man’s eyes widened, he broke from his grasp as though frightened out of his wits. “My…apol…apolo…gies…” Ohno stuttered, moving towards him again with his hands outstretched. He should remove his coat; one had to help visitors with their coat and hat. But the gentleman kept backing away from him in the most frustrating manner. Ohno frowned, “Sho,” he repeated, this time reprovingly, reaching out and somehow landing at his throat again. But by then the gentleman’s hand was already on the door handle, and in another moment he’d vanished with a squeak of terror.

Ohno stared at the door in consternation for some time. When he turned around, he gave a shout; Aiba was standing at the foot of the stairs, smiling and crying at him at the same time. When Ohno caught sight of him, he launched himself at him (rather as Holmes had earlier that day), sweeping him up into a crushing embrace. “Did you…really….just cause Sakurai Sho to flee from my house?”

“Err…yes?”

He was hugged even tighter. “How I wish you could be my valet!” Aiba sighed mournfully against his ear, rocking him from side to side.

Ohno couldn’t understand how he had any tears left, but his eyes were stinging again as he realized that he would, in fact, like to be Aiba’s valet. Instead, he repeated something that Nino had often said to him (though the words came out a little garbled), “You shouldn’t trust people so easily.”

“You’re not people,” Aiba said thickly. “You’re Ohno Satoshi. The man you said didn't exist.” Aiba sighed again, “Won’t you consider being my valet?” he pleaded against his ear.

Was this how Nino had felt, after he had discovered him alone, sick, and hungry in his garret? That no matter how foolish it was, he simply couldn’t leave someone so hopeless alone? At least Ohno could blame the drink. “Un,” he nodded.

In the morning, after they’d both choked down some breakfast and wrapped warm towels around their heads in an attempt to relieve their excruciating hangovers, Aiba—this time very shyly—asked him again. Ohno’s answer was the same.

Chapter Text

Ohno insisted on calling Aiba “sir.” He’d been invited to call him “Aiba,” and then “Masaki,” but he’d refused both. Acting as though they were friends, or even equals, would be a foolish attempt to ignore the real conditions of their relationship: Aiba was his employer, and he was Aiba’s valet. He was paid a salary to live at Number 5, Garden Place, and no pretense of friendliness could change that.

Only the line between acting as Aiba’s valet and as his friend seemed to grow fainter with each passing day, and Ohno could not only blame the confusion on Aiba’s unfailing interest in Ohno’s affairs and propensity for sharing long, detailed accounts of his dreams with Ohno. No, Ohno knew that he was also to blame—if he really was acting towards Aiba only as a valet, he wouldn’t be spending all his salary on groceries and new shirts for the detective. He wouldn’t, with no prompting from Aiba, be knitting him mittens and new earflaps for the winter.

And he wouldn’t be allowing Aiba to perform so many of his tasks: Aiba built the fire every day, and (much to Ohno’s chagrin) insisted on continuing his experiments in the kitchen, so that half the time he ended up cooking their meals. Ohno laid out his clothes in the morning, but Aiba regularly re-arranged the ensembles he selected (praising his taste all the while, even as he rapidly chose a different shirt and pocket handkerchief). And if Aiba was at home and saw Ohno cleaning, he would grab a cloth and help him.

Ohno knew that he should, in fact, be deeply offended—such behavior was an insult to him as a servant. It suggested that he was incapable of doing his work properly. But Ohno could not find it in himself to reprimand Aiba; he was clearly unused to having a personal servant, and he was so obviously lonely. Ohno began with the intention to be irreproachable in his conduct towards the detective, to never forget his real place in the household; within weeks, the two were drinking together in the evenings. Ohno was not paid to be his companion, but how could he stop Aiba from re-telling one of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures or from describing the mating habits of chimpanzees when it gave the detective such obvious pleasure to converse with someone?

Slowly, Ohno could feel himself giving in, and even taking advantage of Aiba’s laxity; he began passing his nights sleeping on the orange sofa in the large room on the second floor that they used as combined parlour, living room, and office. He’d found it difficult to sleep in a bed since leaving Nino; the first time he’d fallen asleep on the sofa, it had been an accident, and he’d been horrified when Aiba discovered him in the morning. But Aiba had only smiled and apologized for waking him; when he’d discovered him the fourth time, he’d gently told Ohno not to worry himself—that he was welcome to sleep on top of the bookcase if he liked. “I’m just so grateful that you consented to take the position, Ohno, and I want you to feel perfectly at home here,” Aiba had beamed at him.

That was the worst of it—Aiba’s gratitude. When Aiba was, for the most part, perfectly capable of taking care of himself. But then, Ohno did not feel as though his services were completely un-necessary. After a month of living at Garden Place, Ohno reached the reassuring conclusion that although nine-tenths of the time, Aiba really did not need him, the one-tenth when he did need Ohno, the situation was absolutely desperate. It was during that one-tenth that Ohno felt that he fairly earned his salary: after all, it was Ohno who prevented Aiba from giving the month’s rent to a local charlatan claiming to have six starving children; it was Ohno who put out the flames the evening Aiba accidently set one of the kitchen chairs on fire while trying to make jam; and it was Ohno who stopped Aiba from removing all the mirrors from the walls in order to fashion them into a suit that he believed would render him invisible (Ohno worried that Aiba would cut himself on a shard of glass if he tried the experiment).

Ohno realized that to many (perhaps to most), much of Aiba’s behavior would seem wildly eccentric, perhaps even mad; but Ohno did not find him all that strange. He quickly discovered that Aiba had, in fact, been an accomplished professor and that he possessed an incredible knowledge not only of zoology but also of the other natural sciences. He was always gentle and polite (sometimes to a fault). It was true that he was easily carried away by his enthusiasms, but Ohno could sympathize with his passion; Ohno remembered that when he used to paint, the task really could become so absorbing that he would forget to eat and sleep. Ohno recognized a similar single-mindedness in Aiba—it was only that Aiba was so very much louder when absorbed in something than most people were.

But more than anything, the erstwhile detective seemed to Ohno to be at loose ends with life. Ohno gathered that Aiba had resigned his position at the college under troubled circumstances, and that his resignation had something to do with Professor Sakurai Sho; sometimes Aiba received letters from the man that he threw into the fire after reading. But Ohno knew no more than that; he only saw that, cheerful as Aiba generally was, he was also prone to fits of despondency. Sometimes, in the evening, Aiba would sit in one of the chairs before the fire with a book in his lap, but Ohno knew that he was not really reading; only staring into the fire with a sadly puzzled expression, as though trying to work out some knot that only grew more tangled the more he attempted to unravel it. And it was at those times that Ohno felt most keenly—from the pain in his chest—that Aiba was far more to him than an employer. That he cared for Aiba as a friend. So in spite of all his original attentions, after only a few weeks he allowed Aiba to call him “my dear friend,” and he joined him for a glass in the evening when he offered it, and he simply handed Aiba the soap if he wandered into the kitchen while he was washing the dishes.

But still, Ohno called him “sir”—a last defense against total impropriety.

 

*

 

It was because of the friendship that Ohno felt for Aiba that he found himself drawn into his detective work. Not that there was much work to speak of. In spite of Aiba carefully worded advertisement that he’d had Ohno approve before submitting to the local papers and trade journals, London’s denizens proved reluctant to turn to the former-zoologist for assistance (a reluctance that Ohno silently thanked whatever deity might be listening for).

But then their neighbor, an elderly woman who was hard of hearing, lost her small dog, and quite innocently shared this fact with Aiba during one of their daily conversations shouted over the garden wall. After two days of tireless investigation (Aiba literally did not sleep, in spite of Ohno’s entreaties), Aiba discovered the animal caught in a nearby chimney; after that, local people with lost animals began seeking Aiba out. Ohno knew that it was not the detective work that Aiba had imagined undertaking, but he threw himself into it and was remarkably successful, attracting more clients. Ohno assisted Aiba the best he could by shamelessly pestering wealthier clients for some form of payment (he felt none of Aiba’s scruples about demanding money from those who could afford it).

But it was only when the dog thieves arrived on the scene that Ohno actually began accompanying Aiba on his investigations. The reason for the recent disappearance of so many animals from the neighborhood became clear when ransom notes began arriving, and the police were not interested in pursuing the matter. The neighborhood’s poorer victims appealed to Aiba for help, and a meeting was arranged with the thieves so that Aiba might negotiate on their behalf. Ohno could not—in good conscience—allow Aiba to confront the gang of thieves alone; he had no idea exactly how dangerous dog thieves were, but he decided to bring his pistol (a gift from his last employer) along in any case (a decision he chose not to share with the detective).

The pistol proved un-necessary; the main difficulty, Ohno soon realized, was that Aiba was quite incapable of negotiation. He was so disgusted by the men—“Black-hearted villains!” he declared them—that within ten minutes it was clear that terms would never be agreed upon, and Ohno almost feared that Aiba was about to challenge the ringleader to a duel. Surprising himself, Ohno took Aiba aside and asked if he might take over the negotiations; more surprisingly, Aiba quickly agreed, giving him a grateful look before turning back to glare at the villains. “You’re in for it now gentleman!” he announced darkly, “You’ve incurred the wrath of Ohno Satoshi. He may appear to be a mild-mannered valet, but I can assure you that he is the very devil when roused.”

Ohno and the thieves looked at Aiba skeptically, but the thieves seemed eager to negotiate with anyone besides Aiba, and Ohno stepped forward readily. “The families you’ve stolen from can only afford five pounds each,” he began quietly. “We can’t move from that number.”

Ohno repeated those sentences for the next twelve hours. Four hours in, Aiba fell asleep in front of the fire; six hours in, they took a break for dinner; ten hours later, Ohno was playing cards with the ringleader as he continued trying to persuade him. “Six pounds,” the man demanded wearily, his voice hoarse, “Just six pounds then.”

“Five pounds. Each. We can’t move from that number,” Ohno repeated.

“Then we’ll strangle every one of the blasted animals!” the man shouted, overturning the table.

“But then the whole operation will have been a loss,” Ohno observed mildly as the man seized him by the collar and threw him up against the wall. “Five pounds. We can’t move from that number.”

The man finally broke at sunrise; with tears in his eyes, he accepted the money the families had prepared and returned the animals to Aiba. Then he punched Ohno in the nose and told him never to show his face in their territory again or he would skin him like a cat.

Aiba, of course, was devastated by Ohno’s injury; Ohno felt rather proud of himself. He thought that his mother and sister would have liked to hear the story of that night; they would have found it to be a thrilling adventure.

 

*

 

After that night, Ohno worked often in the capacity of a negotiator or mediator with local criminals; he found it to be a simple task—you only had to decide exactly what you were willing to concede and then never stray from that resolution. It was true that some meetings descended into violence—a fact that Ohno concealed as best he could from Aiba—but Ohno could take care of himself. Soon, Ohno had acquired something of a reputation in their part of London; gang members actually groaned in annoyance when they spied him heading towards their headquarters.

Ohno was so successful, in fact, that within a month the sundry ransomers and petty thieves that had occupied the neighborhood quite comfortably for so long had all but disappeared, leaving Aiba with very little work to do. There was still the occasional turtle that wandered off, but for the most part, Aiba was left to a peace and quiet that Ohno knew must be difficult for the detective to bear.

So it was guilt that drove him to inquire—one rainy night when the detective sat staring into the fire with a particularly melancholy look—“Is there…anything I can do for you, sir?”

Aiba turned to him, smiling automatically at the sound of his voice, but Ohno could see that the smile did not reach his eyes. “No thank you, Ohno, I’m quite comfortable.” His face looked sad again as he turned back to the fire.

“I am…I am sorry, sir, that we have so few clients lately…I did not mean to…”

Aiba laughed, and this time the smile reached his eyes. “Are you actually apologizing to me for your very excellent work in ridding Garden Place of those pests?”

“Not…not exactly…and it was your work too, sir…”

Aiba laughed again, “Ohno, I promise you, I am not melancholy because I am longing for more criminal activity.” His expression grew serious, “It is just….” he sighed, staring more intently into the fire, as if embarrassed. “You recall the box that arrived today?”

“Yes, sir,” Ohno nodded. They had carried it up the stairs together that morning.

“It is the last box to arrive from my old rooms. And I am very anxious to open it…but also…I am frightened of it. It contains many very precious things to me—my research notes, my old diaries and photographs. But I think it will also pain me to see them.”

“You needn’t open it tonight, sir,” Ohno offered.

“Of course. But I am afraid…” Aiba seemed to examine his thoughts before continuing, “if I don’t open it tonight, it will be harder to open tomorrow, and even harder to open the day after. Harder and harder, until I will begin to think that the box simply can’t be opened.” The detective coughed, embarrassed, “Do you…could you possibly understand what I mean?”

Ohno understood. “I think I do so, sir….sir, if you would like…I could open the box for you.”

Aiba smiled, relieved, “That is a very kind offer, my dear friend. But perhaps…if you do not think it is too childish…perhaps we could open it together?”

Ohno shook his head, “Of course not, sir. It’s only right for your valet to assist you in unpacking.”

Aiba grinned, his hand moving again as though he wanted to pet Ohno, but as usual he stopped himself (Aiba had apologized to Ohno for the gesture several weeks ago; he’d explained that he’d grown so used to spending his time with chimpanzees that it was difficult to stop himself from wanting to pet someone when he was delighted by them. Ohno understood that Aiba meant the comparison to a chimpanzee as a compliment).

Together, the two men pulled out the box. Ohno carefully unscrewed the nails that secured the top; Aiba sucked in a breath as the cover was removed and the contents revealed.

Ohno moved at least thirty notebooks filled with Aiba’s scrawling hand; beneath them lay a picture of Aiba with Professor Sakurai Sho. The professor was wearing the same top hat that Ohno had seen him in the night he’d come to Garden Place; Aiba had bits of twigs in his hair. They were posing beside a fountain, probably at college. Ohno felt an odd sensation, as though he recognized the spot. Aiba flinched when the portrait was revealed; Ohno was quick to turn it face down onto the pile of notebooks.

Then Aiba gave a short cry of delight; beneath the framed photograph lay an album. Aiba seized it and began leafing rapidly through the pages, sighing with happiness when he located the page he had been searching for. He look at Ohno with sparkling eyes, “Thank you. I don’t know why I was so frightened. I feel so comforted now by looking at this photograph—it was taken with my closest friend, who I have not seen in many months.” He turned the album around in his hands so that Ohno might look at the photograph. He pointed at the image proudly, “He is the son of my benefactor—the one who sent me to school,” he explained.

Ohno believed, for a moment, that he was in a dream. But the rapid beating of his heart felt too painfully real. Then he wondered if he had gone mad—was going mad. The room was spinning; Aiba talked incessantly, “Even though I was the son of the cooks, we played together since we were children, and then when I was ten I was sent to join him at school.”

Ohno swallowed and tried to speak, but he had no breath. He become conscious of Holmes meowing loudly at his side, rubbing himself insistently against his leg. With shaking hands, he took Holmes into his arms and hid his face against him as he replied shakily, “Lord Ninomiya Kazunari….”

The likeness was unmistakable; he wore a school uniform, but otherwise the photograph might have been taken yesterday. Or 500 days ago, Ohno thought, I don’t know what he looked like yesterday. He buried his face further into Holmes’ neck, trying to still his trembling.

Aiba was still staring at the photograph happily, but he looked up when Ohno pronounced the name, “You recognize him?” he smiled, obviously surprised.

“I…in the newspapers…”

Aiba nodded, still smiling, “I see. Yes, my benefactor was the late Lord Ninomiya. Nino’s father.”

Ohno flinched at the name; Aiba smiled apologetically, “Excuse me, I realize how rude that must sound. But it is what I have always called him when the two of us are alone—as I child I was hit by anyone listening if I called him ‘Nino,’ but then he would slap me across the face if I called him ‘Lord Kazunari,’ so in the end I tried to avoid calling him anything but ‘my friend,’ and the habit remained. I still can’t quite manage to say ‘his lordship’ when speaking of him to others.”

Ohno shook his head, trying to convey that he did not find Aiba rude, but he had already exhausted his ability to form words. As if sensing his distress, Holmes purred more intensely against him; somehow, the sound steadied him. Aiba seemed uninterested in looking through the rest of the box; he continued to stare at the photograph, his expression thoughtful. “How I wish I could see him!” he finally sighed. “But then,” he managed a small smile, “he will certainly come for my birthday. He has never missed my birthday. It falls on Christmas Eve.”

Christmas Eve. A mysterious box, and a train ride to Oxford. I’d say five minutes, but it will take him at least that long to calm down enough to stop shouting at me.

It was given to me as a birthday gift by my dearest friend a few years ago. The familiar gesture that Aiba made with right hand…the turns of phrase that he’d grown accustomed to but that still sent small shocks of recognition through his body whenever he heard them….

Ohno spoke the next words from behind Holmes’ paws; the animal seems to be trying to shield him from Aiba’s view. “You…do not often see him?”

Aiba shook his head, “Not of late. If you’ve seen him in the papers, you must have read of his career?”

Ohno nodded.

“And when he’s not at the House, he spends all his time searching London.” Aiba’s expression grew sad, “He lost someone very dear to him, and he is always searching for them. I think that…he does not like me to see him that way.” Aiba seemed to be speaking more to himself than to Ohno now, “He does not like anyone to see him being weak. That is how he would think of it. And I think…he does not want to burden me with his pain. Though it is a burden that I would happily share.” Aiba looked at Ohno, smiling when he saw the way Holmes was pawing at him, “If only he would allow us to take on the case, then perhaps we could find him ourselves!”

“He…” Ohno swallowed, “…lost someone?”

“Yes.” Aiba looked sad again, “The person he loves most in this world.”

Ohno had not been expecting that reply. He had, of course, not been expected any of the conversation to occur. But those words left him weak; he crossed his legs and clutched Holmes tighter to his chest, nearly rocking back and forth to calm himself as he continued, “When…when did he lose that person?”

Aiba’s brow wrinkled; he seemed to be engaged in some mental calculations. “…two years ago? A year and a half?”

“So long ago…”

Aiba laughed, “It seems long to you? I thought you were older than me, but you sound like a child,” he teased. His expression grew more serious, “What is two years if you truly loved? I would hate to think that such a love as he felt could be forgotten so easily.”

“But his lordship…is he not occupied…I mean, does he not have other duties to distract him…”

Aiba was turning the pages of the album as he answered, “That is true, but his thoughts still remain fixed on him. I know that the papers portray him as a very frivolous man, but beneath that appearance of mischief…Nino is a constant person. He does not open his heart easily, but when he does his affections are unchanging.”

Ohno knew his next words were dangerous, but he could not prevent them from spilling from his lips. “But what if…what if that person did not wish to be found…?”

Aiba frowned. “That is possible,” he said quietly. “Nino has told me no more than that they were separated because of a misunderstanding. But I am sure that Nino means no harm to him, and I think he would be comforted to know his fate.”

“And…you do not know his name…?”

Aiba huffed, rolling his eyes, “No. That villain still won’t tell me his name! And I helped him lower an Oriental carpet into a miserable garret in Chelsea for this man. He says that I don’t deserve to know it. He’s hated sharing ever since we were children.”

That, finally, was more than Ohno could bear—it was then that Aiba seemed to notice his distress. “Ohno, are you ill?” he moved closer, placing a hand against his forehead, “You are burning!” he cried. “My god, I have been blathering on again, and you’ve been sitting here patiently listening to me though you were ill! Let me help you to your feet.”

Normally, Ohno would have resisted the detective’s assistance; but now he allowed himself to be led to his room as docilely as a child (“Would you prefer the couch?” Aiba inquired, but Ohno shook his head, wanting to be as much out of sight as possible). He allowed Aiba to tuck him into bed, to place a cool cloth over his forehead and generally fuss over him until he managed a feeble protest, “Let me sleep, sir. I’ll be fine after a good night’s rest.”

Aiba studied him suspiciously, but after another weak protest he finally began moving towards the door, leaving Holmes behind with instructions to look after Ohno and to let Aiba know if he grew worse.

Ohno waited until he could no longer hear Aiba’s footsteps before he retrieved the chamber pot from beneath his bed and vomited the entire contents of his stomach into it. When he had finished, he lay back on the bed, panting.

He sickened himself. He sickened himself because, more than any other emotion—far stronger than even the shock and anxiety coursing through him—what he felt was happiness. Happiness that Nino, perhaps, really could not forget him. That he had once been—that he still might be—the person that Nino loved the most in this world.

It sickened him because he had no right to feel such an overwhelming happiness. To feel such joy—it was the most selfish reaction imaginable, the most unforgivably cruel. Because he had been the one to leave. Because he had convinced himself that he had left for Nino’s own good. So that Nino would be happy. How could he live with himself if, even after all this time, he was still not able to suppress that terrible, selfish part of himself that wanted nothing—that cared for nothing—but that Nino should love him?

He pulled Nino’s nightshirt out from where it was carefully folded underneath his pillow; he could only imagine the scent of citrus now.

Ohno did not sleep that night; he waited until his fever broke and his trembling stopped. Then he drank some water and set down a dish of milk for Holmes. At dawn, he left Garden Place.

 

*

 

Ohno did not know that he was heading towards Chelsea until he recognized the bakery; he caught the scent of it before it was even in view. He stopped and bought the first bread of the day, chewing on it as he continued down the street. When he reached the house, he looked for the family, but the basement room seemed abandoned. So he walked up the five flights of stairs to the garret; his hand was surprisingly steady when he knocked on the door.

There was no answer; he knocked again. The he tried the handle; it opened.

The room was more wretched than he remembered. Darker than he recalled, in spite of the skylight. The ceiling seemed lower, and more of the wood was rotting. The cold took his breath away; he shuddered as he stepped inside. Almost everything had been taken away, but the room was not empty. There was still a bed, with a cover. The table still stood beneath the skylight. And there was a blank canvas on his easel. Brushes and small pots of paints were laid out on the table; Ohno ran his fingertips over the tops of the jars and a thick layer of dust came away on his fingers. The fine hairs of the paintbrushes were dry and cracked with neglect. They must have laid there for months.

A single white envelope had been placed at the center of the table. Ohno struggled for breath as he opened it. He recognized the handwriting instantly. What he read surprised him.

Dear Sir,
As you know, I cannot read or write so I asked your friend to record my words for you. But I do not have the words to thank you for what you did for us. I can only say thank you, thank you, thank you over and over again until it would tire you. Please think of it like I have said thank you a thousand times. I swear to God, sir, that what you gave us will not be spent foolishly. I will find apprenticeships for the boys and I will put the girls, every one of them, into school just like they wanted. I do not know why you had to give us this gift just before leaving on such a long journey—it must be because you are so good that you do not even like to be thanked. But know that we are thankful, and we will all live the best, and that we will also do good for others and help those in distress so nothing will be wasted. God bless you, sir. I don’t know yet where we will live, but my friend Sarah is the landlady of the Green Dragon down the street and she will always know where to find me. Come and see us all when you are back so we can thank you and because we all love you. God bless you a thousand times,
Mary White

Ohno put the letter into his coat and sat on the bed, shaking. He tried not to indulge himself in such pathetic tears, but some escaped; when he had seen the handwriting, he had expected a letter from Nino.

He sat in the cold for some time, thinking of nothing, until the intensifying sunlight drew his attention back to the skylight. His sparrow. His heart pounded. It was a foolish hope, he knew—the bird could not still be there. Not after so long. But he would at least see the view once again.

He stood on the table and jumped up to catch the handle; it slid open easily. Like the door, it was unlocked. He pulled himself up and onto the roof, his body remembering the movements.

The roof, at least, looked the same. Perhaps even more beautiful than he remembered it; the sky was light and soft that morning. There was, of course, no sign of the sparrow. But he went to search the crumbling chimney anyway, startled to see the remains of a nest. When was the last time the fragile structure had been visited? Or it might still be in use. Ohno smiled at the thought that a new family of sparrows might have moved in.

It was as he was examining the nest more carefully that something at the corner of the chimney caught his eye. For one wild moment, he believed that it was the yellow book that he had once hidden from Nino; like that book, this was hidden beneath a brick inside a corner of the chimney.

But no, this was wrapped in a thick white canvas cloth. When Ohno unwrapped the cloth, he discovered a thick sheaf of paper—perhaps two hundred pages altogether. The first twenty or so pages were illegible; the cloth was wet, and so were the pages—the words had washed unevenly away. The same was true of the last fifty pages at the bottom of the stack. Ohno peeled the damp pages away until at last he found a clean, dry page covered with Nino’s small, energetic script. Hands shaking, he flipped through the dry pages—some of the pages were torn at the top or along the edges, and others were smeared with soot. But many of the pages were still clean. Still legible.

Forcing himself to breathe, forcing his heart to slow, forcing himself to remain conscious, Ohno sat, resting his back against the chimney. He held the papers in his lap, his fingers especially gentle at the thin, frayed corners. He read.

Chapter Text

25

I hate you more than I thought it was possible for me to hate anyone. Which you should consider a compliment, I suppose, as I possess an impressive capacity for hate.

I hate you even more than my father, now, I think—another accomplishment to add to your resume.

At least my father was consistent in his cruelty. You give an appearance of compliance, of obedience, when in reality your will is so stubborn and your inclinations so incapable of change that I can only condemn myself as a fool for hoping that I could move your heart.

And you are not only the most stubborn man who ever lived, but a coward as well—your instinct is to run, instantly, from anything that alarms you.

Though I must confess that I share that instinct. But that does not mean that I cannot blame myself or you for such despicable weakness.

What angers me most is the money. It suggests that you have such a low opinion of me—that you hold my intelligence and feelings in positive contempt. Did you really think, for even a moment, that I would believe that you had taken the money? Or, if I had believed it, that I wouldn’t have known that it was nothing more than a ploy to disgust me? But you would not give me even the satisfaction of seeing through the ruse to your real motives—you had to hand it off to that wretched family, an act which I would be sure to discover.

Perhaps that was meant as the real insult—to show me just how little you cared for wealth. Whatever your motive, I cannot forgive you.

I wish you had taken the money. And used it. Then I would not have to imagine you starving to death in some even more miserable hole (if anyone could find a more wretched place to live in London, it would be you).

Was it all because I asked you to take your inheritance? I would never

I would NEVER have forced you. Or asked you again.

I wish I had never asked. I thought my actions had showed you that

that I cared for nothing but you. That I would have sacrificed ALL to be with you.

But I suppose such a statement is a lie. One soaked in unattractive self-pity.

I would have sacrificed nothing by leaving with you, Satoshi. I would only have gained.

The sacrifice would have been all on your side.

 

*

 

90

I begin to fear that I will never see you again. I shouldn’t have expected that you would take yourself to any place known to the both of us—but still I searched them. I even contacted that odious, overly-tall servant that harassed you in the National Gallery. But he knew nothing of your whereabouts, in spite of close questioning. Now I search all the places we have never been—there are many. But still I cannot find you.

Perhaps you did cross the channel that day. Perhaps you are in Paris—I hope you are. It gives me pleasure to think that you might be there—I picture you at the Moulin Rouge, drinking with Toulouse and I smile even during the most dull parliamentary session.

I hope you are anywhere but in the Thames. Or the morgue. If you were found, they would lay your body out for the public to gape at. You would be so alone. I do not think you would throw your life away but

I have dreams about the boy who drowned in the lake near school. I dream that they take us to the lake and force us to watch as they dredge up the body. To show us what happens to boys who run away from school. In my dream, my heart pounds because I know, I KNOW before they show us, that the body is yours.

But then when they turn the face towards us, it is always someone that I do not recognize.

I am not a superstitious man, but this dream gives me hope that you are still alive.

I think of hiring private detectives, but if you remain in London I think they would only frighten you from the city. I want to be the one who discovers you. Though I am beginning to doubt my powers to do so.

Why do I continue searching for you? I cannot say

At first, I think it was anger, spite—I wanted to shout out you. I wanted the last word. You left before I could even properly argue with you, or blame you. But now

now I hardly know why I keep looking. It is like a reflex, almost, or a habit that I cannot break. My father was a drunkard (back when he was anything else, now he is only designated a madman)—I could actually see the way his skin would begin to crawl after some hours without a drink—the impatience glittering in his eyes. I suppose I have gained some sympathy—I think I am the same now. It starts when the sun sets—an itching in my hands, a tingling at the back of my neck. My mouth grows dry, my heart races—I must escape. There is no relief until I am swallowed by the darkness, roaming the city in search of you.

But I have nothing that I could tell you, if I did find you. I know there is nothing I could say that would alter your convictions.

Perhaps I will only look at you, from a distance. I can imagine that—I could watch you—I could see that you are alive and well. And then I would leave, satisfied.

Another lie.

I have always found it strange that diaries are assumed to be honest records of a man’s thoughts—to be revelation of our truest sentiments and desires. For who do we lie to more than to ourselves?

You would answer that I have lied at least a thousand times to you—no, you would not even think to answer that.

But this is not really a diary—I write it to you, Satoshi. Lie to you.

 

*

 

163

I no longer know when I am searching for you and when I am not. When I work on my book, I question everyone I meet for some news of you. When I search for you, I take down notes for my book.

My book has undergone a transformation. It started as a picture of the London underworld—a view of life on the other side, written for the wealthy. But the more I see of this world and the more I speak to the people who inhabit it…I think the book is becoming some sort of treatise. Some kind of plea for reform.

I am stunned by the ordinariness and yet the senseless misery of it all—poverty always held a glamour for me—the lure of adventure. I thought that only the wealthy could feel such restraints as seemed to cramp and confine my every movement. But I have discovered how little I understood the lives that held such fascination for me—there are so many people, suffering so needlessly or striving to the point of exhaustion because they dared to be born a woman, or to have a child, or to fall ill and be unable to work.

I think of you and your mother and sister, and I wish that it was in my power to remedy such glaring injustices as I encounter. You would probably think that it was in my power—at first, I thought so too, that such injustice only had to be recognized to be solved. Then I discovered that politics resembles nothing so much as a very complex game—still, I was undeterred. I believed in my powers. I have always been good at games.

But then I realized that injustice persists not only because people are unaware of it—that there are men—those in power—who know injustice intimately and profit by its continuance. My confidence was shaken.

And now I fear that this is a game played at a level beyond my skills. That my plans will never come to fruition—or that the cost to myself would be too great.

My father, I know, believed in reform—whatever his faults, he believed in justice and equality. His reward for such noble aspirations: a lifetimes of failed projects and disappointed hopes. His only real achievement—no small one—was giving Aiba an education. But it did not satisfy him.

But senselessly I persevere. How else am I to spend my days? How else regain some purpose after your disappearance?

I think of you as I work—is this what you wanted? Would you admire me? Would you despise me for such self-important attempts, as I despise myself?

But perhaps in the end, I will find the advantage—I am far more practiced in deception, and I have far less to lose than the majority of my colleagues—their lives are comfortable and satisfactory. Vulnerable to attack.

I am not ashamed to admit that you are the only man I have ever lost against—the only man to outwit me.

 

*

 

224

When I arrived today, I discovered your sparrow, cold and still in his nest. I laughed because the grief I felt at that moment was nearly a hundredfold to that I felt at my father’s funeral yesterday. I was choked with tears—I sobbed, loudly, until I thought I would be ill. It was a disgusting exhibition.

The sparrow’s last revenge, I think—he would have been pleased to render me so foolish at the last. I think you would smile to hear that he has never ceased in his dislike of me, though I have arrived to feed him almost every evening. He accepts my offerings with only the greatest reluctance and contempt, I can assure you.

You have infected with me your eccentric notions in regards to the creature—my first thought upon discovering him was—now only I remember! No one left who can recall the evenings we spent here!

It was the kind of nonsense that Aiba would come out with. He mourns the death of worms when it rains.

How I wish I had introduced you to him—how I regret that night! It makes me sick when I think of it—that I left you to stand in the cold. If only I had introduced you then—told you the truth, or lied, I do not care—then there would be someone with at least some glimmer of understanding—someone who could recall that “yes, he spoke that way” and “yes, he moved his hand that way.” Now I can depend only on upon myself to remember.

It frightens me. Slowly, without meaning to, I might forget. The bedclothes no longer hold your scent.

This slow disappearance pains me more than the suddeness of your departure.

It is why I try to record my memories of you—but I am never satisfied to write of you—the words feel weightless. They drift. They are thin and pale—they convey nothing of the weight I feel when I recall you, a weight that seems to hold me fast to the earth. These words do not describe you; they only ever reveal myself. A subject that I am thoroughly sick of.

I thought of you as I sat in the church yesterday. The night I fell in through the skylight, and you cared for me. I had never been touched by anyone so gently before—even now, I can feel the tenderness in every movement of your fingers when you washed the blood from my mouth. The look in your eyes—I had not known that your eyes could be so bright or your gaze so intense. As if only I—you hardly knew me—but as if you valued—

I fear forgetting you—and yet that memory—yesterday, the sensation of it—it was as though I were back in that dark room with you. Held by you. Feeling your cold skin against my cheek.

We didn’t know then that the disease was driving my father mad—I did not understand why he had seized me. I’d been hit by him before but never with such violence—I thought he might know. I couldn’t imagine what else could have made him so angry. It was only a week after that he had to be confined. But that night, it seemed as if I could never return to that house again—but when you took me in your arms—I felt such happiness at the thought. I was glad to be cast off if it meant that I could be taken in by you.

Riisa could see I was choking—I think she was astonished to see me convulsed by such grief. She clasped my hand so tightly—she told me she would shield me from view if I wished to cry. She knows how much I hate to cry in front of others though I have never told her this.

I think

The reason you left—was it because you were afraid? In truth, I know that you would have left to protect me—I know you would have been told that your staying would ruin me.

But more than that—were you afraid because I was so eager to leave everything behind? To leave Riisa

I have felt it now—the grief and fear of an attachment to someone who would abandon their existence at moment’s notice.

I know now that a life cannot be so easily abandoned. Riisa

I would have regretted

I know now what I wish to tell you, if we meet again. I cannot thank you for leaving me, but I would tell you that you were right—that there are things that should not be sacrificed, even for what we desire most desperately.

But you’ve forgotten—you’ve done the same. It would have been wrong of me to leave—but it follows then, that you were wrong to leave me.

Except that

In my fantasies, you loved me as intensely as I loved you. I never imagine you happy—I take satisfaction in thinking of you miserable, in agony. I hope you have regretted every day that you have been apart from me.

But that is only fantasy.

In truth

In truth—

I will write it—

You could have sought me out. I have never hidden myself from you.

It is strange that this thought no longer makes me angry, only sad. My anger has burned itself away over these many months. My memories of you—they are hazed over with a veil of longing.

If only I could see you again, then I could become angry, or annoyed—but because you have hidden yourself from me, I am left tormented by my ideal of you.

 

*

 

345

I do not know why I continue this record—at least, I take no pains to preserve it. There are thoughts recorded here that should rot into nothingness.

I believe that I can finally sincerely write that my only desire is for your happiness. Even if I were never to see you again, if I could be assured of your security, and that you were able to exercise your talents and find satisfaction in your work, then with that knowledge I could live apart from you. Content.

Another lie.

I love you more than I thought it was possible for me to love anyone. But not so much that I can wish for you to find happiness apart from me. My want of you is too great for that.

I think that, between us, only you are capable of that kind of love.

But even if you felt such love for me—

I could never deserve it.

But then who has ever refused something they desired because they did not deserve it?

 

*

 

The rest of the pages were damp and illegible, the ink smeared. Ohno could not tell how long Nino had continued the diary. If he still continued it.

The sun was setting over the rooftops by the time Ohno finished reading; he did not wait for it. He stood, clutching the chimney to steady himself when the roof spun around him. He realized that he had eaten nothing since morning.

The papers addressed him by name, so he took them. He dropped back down through the skylight and collected the jars of paint (the brushes were spoilt, so he left them), placing them with the papers into a pillowcase taken from the bed. Then he took the canvas from the easel and began the long walk back to Garden Place.

 

*

 

Aiba must have been waiting for the sound of the lock; he’d only just stepped in the door when the detective was already bounding down the stairs towards him (followed by a rather miffed-looking Holmes).

Aiba seemed to stop himself short from seizing Ohno, so Ohno dropped his pillowcase and canvas and threw his arms around Aiba instead. He felt Aiba start. “I’m so sorry that I left this morning without telling you, sir,” he mumbled into his shoulder.

Aiba’s hand rose to pat awkwardly at his back, “There, there, Ohno, please don’t worry yourself. Of course you can leave when you like. I was only worried because you were ill…and you left so suddenly…without a word…I thought…”

Ohno tightened his grip on the detective, “I will never leave you, sir. I enjoy being your valet, and you are my dearest friend in the world.”

He stepped back from the embrace; Aiba looked as though his face would break from his smile. “Ohno…you…” he began, but he could not continue as the tears gushed from his eyes.

Ohno put a hand on his shoulder. “But I must ask you for a very great favor, sir. Something that might cause me to lose my position as your valet. But even if I were to lose my position, sir, I still would not leave you. I would live here as your friend, I swear to it.”

“Ohno…” the detective sniffled, wiping at his eyes, “…what could you possibly say that…”

Ohno held up the canvas, “I’m an artist, sir.” He hadn’t painted since the day he had left Nino, but Ohno thought that he had done enough work in the past to still have some claim to the title. “And at times the urge to paint will come over me so strongly…it is something I cannot fight, sir. During those times…during those times I cannot serve you properly, sir.”

Aiba’s hand landed so heavily on his shoulder that Ohno stumbled; Holmes yowled as he trod on his tail. Aiba looked triumphant. “I knew it!” he crowed, “Ohno, I knew that someday you would reveal your hidden talents to me! Just as I predicted in my advertisement,” he beamed. “Of course you may paint! I can shift well enough for myself until the muse is through with you. I only pretend to be a gentleman, you know.” The detective concluded his speech with what Ohno had learned to recognize as his wink.

Ohno embraced him again, “Thank you, my dearest friend, sir.”

 

*

 

Ohno painted, and he did not leave Garden Place. He had not considered what he ought to do. Instead, the decision seemed to have come down from the heavens: he would not seek Nino out, but neither would he leave Aiba. He would wait. Until Christmas Eve, when Nino would arrive to visit his friend. Then he would see him again. He would allow Nino to see him again.

Beyond that first moment of recognition, he did not think.

 

*

 

Only Nino did not arrive on Christmas Eve.

He arrived almost a month earlier than Ohno had planned for. Several days after Ohno’s birthday.

Ohno had finished the portrait some weeks ago and was once engaged in his regular duties. He was surprised to hear the doorbell ring so long past their evening meal, but it was not unheard of for some panicked dog-owner to seek Aiba late into the night.

His curiosity grew, however, as he approached the door; Ohno could have sworn that he heard the beating of wings and then a series of muffled curses.

When he opened the door, the first thing that he saw was a large, ugly green parrot; the creature was throwing itself desperately against the thin wire bars of its cage.

Then he saw Nino, holding the cage. “Calm yourself, you wretched creature, or I’ll send you back to be stuffed,” he was growling.

Then Nino saw Ohno.

It was only after Nino collapsed—the strength seeming to leave his body so that he fell to his knees, the parrot squawking loudly through the descent—that Ohno realized what an advantage he had on the other man. He had, at least, been expecting—planning—to encounter Nino again. But Nino could have had no thought of seeing him here.

Ohno moved forward, unthinkingly, to assist him—but then Aiba was in front of him, picking up the cage and pulling Nino to his feet. “Nino!” he was shouting over the commotion taking place in the cage, “You’re here! And you've brought a parrot!” he cried, obviously delighted.

Nino was trying to form words; Aiba seemed unable to make them out over the parrot’s cries. “Why….” Ohno realized Nino was whispering. “Why…why…”

Aiba saw that Nino’s gaze was fixed on Ohno. “Ah yes!” he continued shouting, “I can finally introduce you to my valet and assistant in detection. Nino, may I present London’s most honorable and talented valet, Ohno Satoshi.”

Nino, Aiba, and the parrot looked at Ohno; Nino still looked stunned. Aiba was grinning; the parrot looked cross.

“Your…your l…lord….lordship,” Ohno stuttered, jerking down into a bow.

This was not, Ohno reflected, how he had envisioned their meeting. Part of the reasoning behind waiting until Christmas Eve was that he would have time to prepare a speech—or, at the very least, a plan of how he would behave. True, he had made no progress on such a speech or plan, but he had comforted himself that he still had at least a month to work on it. But now, confronted with Nino so suddenly, Ohno found that he had forgotten most of the words in the English language. If only I had learnt French, he thought stupidly, Satomi always said that I ought to learn French.

When Ohno raised himself from his bow, he saw instantly that something in Nino’s eyes had shifted—before, he had looked simply amazed, almost panicked. Now, his gaze was hot. Angry. Dangerous. His lordship opened his mouth to speak…

But all of this seemed lost on Aiba, who quite forcefully took Nino’s arm in his own, seized the cage, and began dragging Nino up the stairs, chattering excitedly over the parrot’s squawking all the while.

Ohno, stupidly, followed. He could see Nino’s feet. He could see Nino’s legs. His heart was going to burst—he would die before he reached the top of the stairs. He could see the nape of Nino’s neck—the back of his head—he could hear Nino's voice...

Ohno walked into Aiba’s back. Aiba laughed, “Steady there, good sir,” he smiled. “Ohno, would you be so good as to make us a pot of tea?” Nino looked ready to protest, but Aiba spoke over him, “And don’t even think of escaping, Nino. I have not seen you in three months. You are spending the evening with me. We won’t let him run away now, will we Ohno?” Aiba faced him, his eyes teasing.

Ohno gasped. “Pardon me, sir?” he managed faintly. He looked down; the left side of his face felt hot, as though he could feel Nino’s furious gaze boring into him.

He risked a glance up; Aiba was looking at him curiously. “I…I’ll make the tea, sir,” he finally breathed before throwing himself in the direction of the kitchen. He heard one last loud question from Aiba—“Where did you find this remarkable specimen?”—and Nino’s faint reply—“I stole him from a taxidermist”—before slamming the kitchen door behind him and sinking to the floor.

 

*

 

Ohno scalded his hand making the tea. When he brought the tray in, Aiba and Nino were seated beside each other on the orange sofa; the parrot had been released from its cage and had perched itself on the bust of Charles Darwin on Aiba's desk. Aiba held a large illustrated encyclopedia in his lap; he seemed to be looking for what species of parrot Nino had rescued.

Avoiding Nino’s gaze, Ohno poured out the tea. When he handed Nino the cup, the tips of their fingers brushed against each other for a moment. Ohno shivered.

Nino took a sip while Ohno busied himself with pouring Aiba’s cup. “Weak. As expected,” Nino pronounced in a low voice, as though he intended for only Ohno to hear the words.

But Aiba must not have been as absorbed in his book as Nino had thought; he looked up with a frown. “As expected?” he repeated curiously. “Nino, don’t tell me that you’ve met Ohno before?”

Ohno froze; his entire body actually went cold. Nino started, but then he smiled—smirked, Ohno corrected himself. Nino widened his eyes as he looked in Ohno’s direction, as if trying to force him to meet his gaze, “Have we met before, Ohno? There is something so familiar about this tea…do I recall its distinctive flavour from tea parties past?”

Ohno couldn’t meet his eyes, “That’s…not for me to say, sir,” he finally whispered.

Aiba surprised Ohno by kicking Nino, hard, in the shin. “Why are you acting so beastly towards him?” he demanded angrily. “I’ve told him such nice things about you, and he reads all the columns about you in the paper. And now you’re behaving like an ass.”

Aiba turned to Ohno with what Ohno was sure was intended to be a comforting smile; Ohno still felt tempted to overturn the tea pot onto his own lap in order to escape the situation. “Please do not judge him too harshly, Ohno. His bark is much worse than his bite. To quote Miss Austen, he takes pleasure in professing opinions that are not actually his own.” He elbowed Nino in the ribs, “Think how disappointed he must be after the glowing reports I’ve given him of you.”

Nino looked at him; Ohno met his eyes. They were still so dark. Soft. The same. Kazunari, Ohno thought. But his face—it had changed. So thin and pale—Ohno traced the stark lines of his cheekbones with his eyes.

“Are you…” Nino coughed, his voice tight as he continued, “…disappointed then, Ohno? To discover…to discover how poorly I compare to those reports? So much so that you would hesitate even to claim an acquaintance with me?”

Ohno thought that he would rather stick his head into the fire than endure one more moment of that mournful gaze. He shook his head, “No, your lordship,” he replied firmly. “I find that…that you in every way exceed those reports. And you exceed especially your own report of your character. I could only be…honored…to know you.”

Something shifted again in Nino’s eyes; Ohno unconsciously took a step towards him. Aiba opened his mouth, and then Holmes walked into the room and spied the bird on Aiba's desk.

Ohno escaped in the ensuing chaos, muttering something about tea cakes while Aiba shouted for Nino to help him remove Holmes’ jaw from around the parrot’s neck.

 

*

 

When Ohno finally returned with the tea cakes, Nino was standing before the fire with his back to the room; Ohno saw him flinch when he set the tray down.

“Forgive me, Aiba, I feel strangely unwell this evening. No, I will see myself out,” he murmured hastily. He didn’t look at Ohno as he left the room. Aiba ran after him.

Ohno sank down onto the couch, breathless. He closed his eyes; dimly, he could make out the sound of Aiba’s disappointment and of Nino’s soft replies.

When Aiba returned, Ohno, as if possessed, managed some words in response to his observations; he even tried to comfort the detective by suggesting that Nino would return again soon. He helped Aiba arrange a cage and then provide food and water for the parrot—“Watson,” Aiba had already christened him—and then he cleared away the tea things.

What was he feeling? Seeing Aiba rifling through the encyclopedia had reminded Ohno of the books in his grandfather’s study. Satomi had loved to read the dictionary, a fact that had always astonished Ohno as a child. She had even had a favorite word, whose definition she would repeat so often—as though it were a magic spell—that Ohno had memorized it as well. Ohno could still hear her voice: “a trancelike state of great rapture or delight.” Ecstatic—that was the word he was searching for. I feel ecstatic.

But Ohno did not feel prepared for what he must inevitably encounter that night. He felt drunk, unsteady on his feet. So he took his time, washing each teacup twice and even scrubbing the kitchen table when he had finished with the dishes. He waited until Aiba had retired to bed, until Holmes and Watson both slept, until the last embers of the fire had burned themselves out.

Only then did he take himself to his room, unsurprised when he opened the door to reveal Nino seated cross-legged on his bed, leaning back against his pillows. Reading the small notebook—his journal—that he kept in the drawer of the nightstand. Nino’s face was pale and wet with tears.

Aiba had taught Ohno how to use the magic lantern. His favorite part of running the strange machine was the moment when he adjusted the lens and the blurred shapes and colors took on their clear, hard outlines; a definite image emerging from chaos.

Seeing Nino again—seeing Nino there—it was as if Ohno’s entire existence snapped into focus. Why had he believed that he could prepare himself for this moment?

Nino looked up at him. His voice was rough when he spoke, “So you haven’t quite forgotten me yet, old man.”

The tears felt hot on Ohno’s cheeks. He walked towards him until he hovered, uncertainly, above him. Nino looked up at him, eyes wide. Still surprised. It made Ohno's heart ache--that he should still be surprised.

“Little thief…” He reached out, slowly, and placed his hand lightly on the back of his neck, touching the soft hair. Nothing more. Just that. He would do just that.

But of course just that would never be enough.

Unable to stop himself, Ohno covered Nino's mouth with his own.

Chapter Text

Ohno hadn’t thought when he leaned over Nino; his body had acted before his mind could prevent him. Even as their lips met, he had no idea how he would be received.

But Nino kissed him back. He kissed him back, and he brought a hand to the back of Ohno’s neck, and then he kissed him harder. They sank further down onto the bed, Ohno’s journal crushed, forgotten between them. Ohno didn’t know whether the tears on his face were Nino’s or his own. He reached for Nino’s hand and his heart lept at the familiarity of the fingers that met his own; the sameness of it rendered him momentarily breathless. He hadn’t, as he’d so often feared, forgotten any of it. Even now that he knew him to be his lordship, he was still the Nino that he remembered. He even kissed as he always had, clinging to Ohno as though he were drowning and Ohno his only possible salvation.

But Ohno was unable to stop himself from flinching back a little when Nino’s fingers passed over the skin on the back of left hand. He kissed Nino harder, hoping to distract him from the sudden movement. But Nino broke the kiss; Ohno made a sound suspiciously close to a whimper when Nino shifted beneath him, trying to look at his hand.

Nino held the hand up to his face, blinking away lingering tears to examine the burned skin. “What have you done to your hand this time, old man?” he rasped quietly.

Ohno tried to kiss him again, but he was met with Nino’s cheek. Sighing, he rested his head beside Nino’s, nosing behind his ear. Citrus. Christmas. “I scalded it,” he admitted. It was difficult to keep speaking when he could feel the wild rhythm of Nino’s heart between them. “Making tea,” he clarified, as Nino to seemed to expect some further explanation.

Much to Ohno’s dismay, Nino squirmed out from underneath him.

Ohno let him go with a sigh. He listened for Nino’s nearly silent steps as he left the room. His little thief was always so quiet. He pressed his face into the pillow, pinpricks of pleasure traveling down his spine at the warmth and scent imprinted there. He shifted onto his back to await Nino’s return, wincing a little as the binding of the journal that had been crushed between them pressed into his spine.

Ohno removed it, holding it up and trying to see its contents through Nino’s eyes. He’d left it on the table at his bedside; what had Nino found in it to make him weep? Ohno knew that—unlike the papers that Nino had hidden in the sparrow’s nest—it contained no eloquent declarations of passion or remorse. Unlike Nino’s beautiful words, the messy collection of numbers and images before him hardly seemed capable of conveying how much he had longed for him.

But the pages were, undoubtedly, full of Nino. In addition to his cryptic record of how many days had passed since he had left Nino—a list of numbers, nothing more—there were newspaper clippings carefully pasted onto its pages. Every article and picture he’d searched out and examined on the subject of Lord Ninomiya Kazunari.

And there were sketches of Nino. Ohno hadn’t realized it before, that there were so many; even when he’d been unable to paint or sculpt, he hadn’t been able to entirely stop his pencil. Sometimes only a finger, sometimes an eye. Sometimes an entire scene in the garret. There was some sketch of Nino on almost every other page. But they were rough and smeared; some had even been violently scratched out.

Ohno was examining a sketch of Nino at his father’s funeral—his figure small and faint beneath a broad cathedral ceiling—when Nino returned, carrying a bag that Ohno knew well from the many times that Aiba’s enthusiastic ventures had ended in minor cuts and bruises. It didn’t surprise him that Nino had known where to find it.

Ohno tossed the journal aside to stare at Nino as his figure moved into the light—his heart suddenly in his throat again, as though seeing him for the first time that night. Nino looked pale and composed, and as though he had washed his face, but his eyes were still suspiciously bright. Ohno thought of their first night together; the way the candle had cast stars in Nino’s eyes.

When he kneeled at the side of the bed, Ohno tried to pull him up to join him. Nino’s hand darted out to seize his leg, just above the knee; Ohno jerked involuntarily and then instantly stilled. “Be still,” Nino commanded him un-necessarily. "Or I’ll squeeze harder,” he warned. It was something that Nino had discovered one night, as they lay in bed—the exact spot that, when touched, could incapacitate Ohno with pleasure.

Tears sprang to Ohno’s eyes as it occurred to him with renewed force how unbearably glad he was that Nino was there, leaning over his hand, expression warm in the soft light of the oil lamp. He wanted to paint him, now, so that he could possess this moment and keep it safe; this moment when Nino was beside him—Nino who knew him so entirely that he made Ohno more present in the world, more real, simply by looking at him.

Nino sniffed dubiously at the jar of Aiba’s homemade poultice before applying a thin layer to the back of Ohno’s hand, his eyes meeting Ohno’s only after he finished wrapping the linen bandage. “You should either smile or weep, old man. To do both at once is hardly dignified,” he suggested quietly.

“I’m not dignified,” Ohno managed through his tears.

“I know it well. You have one of my old shirts underneath your pillow.” Nino fidgeted with the bandage as he spoke. “And you have my…what I wrote.”

Ohno nodded. At Nino’s searching gaze, he swallowed, attempting to calm himself so that he could speak clearly. “I found them when I returned to the garret a few weeks ago. After I realized that you were the friend that Mr. Aiba spoke of.” He broke from Nino’s grasp only to twine their fingers more tightly together, squeezing hard, desperate for Nino to believe him. “I swear that when I agreed to become his valet, I had no idea that he was your friend. I swear it, Kazu, on the memory of my mother, I swear that I did not know…”

Ohno was still swearing when Nino crawled up to lie beside him. “The incredible thing is that I believe you. It’s impossible, but everything about you is impossible,” he murmured into his neck. The tightness in Ohno’s chest eased slightly; he brought up his uninjured hand to pet at Nino’s hair. Some tears of relief escaped him at Nino’s trust. “What were you planning to do?” Nino wondered quietly. “Find another position? Or just continue hiding from me here?”

It all seemed so stupid now that Ohno was ashamed to confess it, but he knew that he owed Nino some explanation. “I…thought that you would come on Christmas Eve. For his birthday. I thought that I would see you then.”

Nino huffed out a laugh; it tickled Ohno’s neck, but he only shifted his body closer to the warm breath. “And what did you have planned for Christmas Eve?”

“I thought that once I saw you, I would know what to say.”

Nino laughed again, then reached down and squeezed just above his knee, making Ohno gasp with pleasure. Then he started to weep.

He cried so silently and so deeply that Ohno was not at first aware that Nino was crying, but then he felt the dampness against his shoulder and the tautness of his body; Nino was weeping so violently that he shook.

Ohno had never seen Nino so distraught—not since the night he had fallen through his skylight, bruised and bloody. He had no idea what to do, so he did what he had done then and hauled Nino atop him, wrapping his arms tightly around his trembling frame and brushing his lips against his temple until he calmed. After some time, he became aware of Nino mumbling words into his chest. He stilled even further, trying to make them out. “Tell me,” he urged, wanting to hear his voice again.

Nino looked up at him, frowning. “I shouldn’t…I shouldn’t be like this…but I truly, truly believed that I would never see you again…that you were here all this time…it makes me want to tear something apart. I think it must be some divine punishment for my sins. Aiba has been begging me to visit him, and I have refused him for months. And that you should even find him, in a city of five million people,” he dropped his head back down to Ohno’s chest, as if in defeat, “I feel as though this has all been some dreadful lesson about pride and about visiting that maniac more often, which is all extremely unfair considering how desperately I have searched for you.” Nino looked up at him again, this time with something like awe in his expression. “But I suppose I cannot be angry,” he whispered as his eyes traveled again over Ohno’s face, “not when that same providence brought you here, where I could find you.”

Ohno could feel his heart pressing against his chest, as though it would happily leave his body if only to rest more closely beside Nino’s. His thigh had gone numb from Nino’s touch. “I don’t…I don’t know if it was divine…I followed him…I agreed to work for him…because you’re just alike. I told myself that I could never go near you again, but I was still seeking you out. That’s how I found him.”

Nino looked so entirely befuddled by his reasoning that it made Ohno smile. “You think that Aiba and I are just alike?”

Ohno nodded. “Yes. You’re both shy. You treat people the same way. You both help people.”

Nino continued to stare at him doubtfully, almost wonderingly. Ohno tried to explain, “I’m proud. Of the things you’ve done. As Lord Kazunari. You’ve done so many incredible things, more than I could ever do. I know that you’re trying to help people.”

Nino groaned and broke from his grasp. Ohno followed, wondering what he had said to cause such an expression of anguish. Nino curled in on himself, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes. “Satoshi,” he half-laughed, half-moaned. “I see that you have not yet lost your ability to un-man me with your words.”

Ohno wanted to reach out to him, to remove his hands from where they were pressing so painfully against his eyes, but now he hesitated, no longer certain whether Nino would welcome the touch. The silence grew thick between them while Ohno stared and Nino breathed; then Nino lowered his hands and turned toward him again, eyes red. “Satoshi, what I want most in the world is to take you home with me. But I cannot,” he ended on a shuddering breath. “I cannot,” he repeated.

Ignoring the film of tears obscuring his vision, Ohno nodded. “Because you can’t forgive me.” He was careful to keep his voice even—he wanted Nino to know that he understood, that he did not blame him.

Forgive you?” Nino pushed him down onto his back, pinning him by the wrists as he scowled down at him. “What in the bloody hell are you going on about?” he demanded, voice low.

Panting, Ohno forced himself to meet his gaze. “You can’t forgive me for leaving.” He let the next words escape him in a breath, “For not taking my inheritance.”

“Idiot,” his lordship said, “Idiot.” And then he kissed him so violently that their teeth clashed. When Nino finally pulled away, releasing Ohno’s wrists, Ohno saw that his lower lip was bleeding. Ohno made a sound of distress, reaching up to wipe the blood away with his thumb. “Kazu,” he chastened.

Nino was still glaring. “If there is anyone undeserving of forgiveness, it is me, Satoshi, not you. I cannot…I cannot ask you to stay with me now because I have…started something that may be dangerous.” His eyes softened from anger to sadness as he continued, “I had given up hope. I still searched for you, but I no longer had any expectation of discovering you. Thinking I had nothing to lose, I thought I might as well do something…good. Even if I had to use somewhat…unethical…means to achieve it. I’m in the midst of something that I can’t…” Nino finally gave in to the pressure of Ohno’s hand tugging at his arm and collapsed against his chest again, “…that I can’t involve you or Masaki in.”

Ohno held him tightly, “Is this about your book?”

Nino nodded miserably. “But more to do with politics. With methods of persuasion.”

“If our…if what happened between us was found out, then it could be used against you?” Ohno suggested quietly. It was what he had feared even before Nino had risen to such prominence—that their relationship, if discovered, would ruin him.

“Yes,” Nino finally replied, clearly pained by the admission. He propped his chin up on Ohno’s chest to stare at him, his expression open and suddenly far too young. “Or I could just say to the devil with all of it and ask you to come home with me now,” he offered.

Ohno met his gaze and even the air between them seemed to hum with possibility. Ohno’s body thrummed—with relief that Nino had forgiven him, cared for him, that Nino wanted him, was offering himself to him—but also with the knowledge of how passionately Nino must have devoted himself to this aim, of the good he was trying to accomplish. “Even if you asked me to stay with you, I would say no.”

The words slipped out before Ohno was quite aware of them; they were so flat and cruel that for a moment Ohno feared that only violence or rejection could follow them. Instead, after staring, mutually aghast, into each other’s eyes for some time, they both burst out laughing.

They laughed and wiped at each other’s tears until Nino asked, with a crooked smile that Ohno returned, “And may I inquire as to why I am rejected with so little endeavor at civility?” he teased.

Ohno laughed, then tried to explain himself seriously. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…I think that you should finish what you have started. I think…that England is better for having your lordship in a position of power.” Flushing to the tips of his ears, Nino gave him a glare of embarrassed displeasure that Ohno ignored. “And I’ve already promised Mr. Aiba to stay always at Garden Place, as his friend if not as his valet.”

Nino groaned, rolling onto his back and taking Ohno’s hand in his own, running his fingers softly over the bandage. “Somehow I’m not surprised that you clearly feel a far greater loyalty to him,” he muttered.

“He needs me more,” Ohno replied. Nino tugged at his hand. “For now,” he amended.

Nino’s voice was steady, but Ohno could hear the troubled current of uncertainty beneath it, “And what of my need of you, Satoshi?”

He rearranged himself and Nino so that they lay facing each other, wrapping his arms around him and pressing their faces so close that Nino squirmed in his grasp and Ohno went cross-eyed. He shifted back a few inches so that he could look at him properly. He made sure his words were clear and steady, and exactly what he meant. “If you have need of me, you can always find me here. I’ll never be anywhere else, and I’ll always be waiting for you.”

Nino brought their faces together, so that they shared breath. “I suppose I can be satisfied with that,” he murmured, “For now.” He tangled his fingers in Ohno’s hair, and Ohno closed his eyes with the pleasure of being so ensnared. He wished…he wished that Nino would wrap him up as securely as he had his hand, that he would steal him away and never let him go. Or that he could hide Nino at Garden Place, painting him in his studio, bringing him cups of weak tea and regaling him with tales of the amateur detective’s latest adventures. But when he thought of all that Aiba had done for him, of the promise he’d made—when he thought of all that Nino might still accomplish, of what might happen to Nino if they were discovered—he could not allow himself to surrender to those desires.

Nino’s voice, soft and tired, interrupted his thoughts. “Tell me what you’ve done with yourself since I last saw you.”

Ohno shook his head—as much as he could, with Nino holding him so still—hardly trusting himself to speak now that he lay in Nino’s arms, miraculously forgiven and accepted. “Nothing of interest,” he finally mumbled. “Tell me about what you have done.”

Nino snorted. “You already know. You, in a very rude and un-gentleman-like manner, have read my journal. And I can see that you’ve been following my career in the papers. Please,” and Nino stumbled a little over the word, “I haven’t had any news of you. Well,” he smiled a little, “other than hearing a dozen times from Masaki about what a superlative valet he’d discovered.”

At first it was difficult to think of anything to recount—when he cast his mind back over the time since he’d left the garret, what impressed him most strongly were memories of long nights in the dark, longing for Nino. But as Nino continued to question him, he remembered more: he told Nino about visiting the British library, and the books he’d read there. About learning to fight and use a sword and shoot a gun, and rescuing stolen pets. About finding Holmes, and the magic lantern. Nino’s eyes drifted closed, but every time Ohno quieted, thinking that Nino had fallen asleep, he would tug at his hair to demand that he continue.

Ohno told stories until he lost his voice and Nino really had fallen asleep. Ohno passed his fingers in front of his face, marveling at the reality of the warm, fluttering breaths that met them.

 

*

 

Ohno woke cold, heart beating fast. The bed was empty beside him—such an everyday sight suddenly threatened to undo him. He scrambled up, allowing himself an unsteady breath when he saw Nino, curled up in the window seat with Ohno’s journal, running his fingers across a page.

What happened last night seemed so close to what Ohno had most longed for that he would not have been surprised if it had all been a dream or vision. But, as always, Nino was reassuringly real—he looked over at him from the window seat and started laughing, the reason for which Ohno didn’t understand until Nino walked over and started combing out his hair with fingers.

Ohno circled Nino’s waist with his arms to reassure himself of his reality. It was still very early—only the faintest rays of dawn crept in through the window. In the early morning light, Nino looked pale and worn again; in the lamplight, he’d looked as he had when they’d first met. His hair was the shortest that Ohno had ever seen it. “You look different,” he mumbled sleepily against his stomach.

Nino made a considering noise. “So do you. Better,” he said, something in his voice that Ohno couldn’t name.

They leaned against each other for some time before Nino sighed quietly into his hair, “If I am leaving, I should leave soon.”

Ohno nodded automatically, trying and failing to recall the reasons he’d thought of last night that made their parting now a good idea.

Nino was already moving away. “I’m taking this,” he said lightly, holding up Ohno’s journal. “As a fair trade for mine.”

Ohno realized that Nino intended to leave his room the same way he’d entered it—through the window. Groaning, Ohno stumbled out of bed to catch up with him. “You can use the front door.”

Nino didn’t turn to look at him, but he allowed Ohno to wrap his arms around him again even as he shook his head, “I prefer windows. I’ve had good luck with them in the past.”

Nino wouldn’t look at him. Ohno wondered if they would ever be able to separate—however temporarily—without this sickening sense of an irrevocable farewell. “You’re sad,” he observed, chafing Nino’s cold hands between his own.

“You’re happy?”

“Yes. Not that we’ll be apart, but I’m happier than I’ve been in years. We found each other. And you don’t despise me.”

Somehow, Ohno had known those last words would vex Nino enough to face him; Nino twisted around, muttering “Satoshi” in an aggrieved manner, swearing when he caught the small smile that Ohno couldn’t quite suppress at his success. “For someone who turned me down flat last night, you’re making it rather difficult for me to leave,” he pointed out, wriggling in his arms for emphasis.

“You’ll come back.” Ohno didn’t know whether he intended the words as a question or as a command.

Nino leaned into him. “Of course I’ll come back.” Ohno could actually feel him beginning to smirk. “I’ll have to check on how Watson’s getting along, won’t I?”

Nino accepted Ohno’s pinch with only a mild yelp, then shifted to lean more of his weight against Ohno before beginning to speak rapidly into his shoulder, “Last night I dreamt that we were together at Garden Place. We were sitting in the parlour with Masaki and Riisa and people whose faces I didn’t know. We were drinking tea and holding hands. In the dream I knew that it was something we did every day. It was such an ordinary occurrence that I didn’t need to see your face to know that you were beside me.”

Ohno smiled, “A prophetic dream?”

Nino was silent; Ohno could feel the tension in his body as it rested heavily against his. “When I woke, I told myself the same thing. Ah, that’s what life will be like when all of this is over, when everything’s been done, and no one can hurt us.” Nino took a breath, burying his face in Ohno’s shoulder, “But what if nothing ever ends? What if there’s never a time or place in which we can be ordinary? I feel like I’m gambling, I’m gambling the time we might spend together now for a plan that I have no way of knowing will come to fruition. Aren’t you…aren’t you afraid of what might happen between now and then?”

Ohno was silent for a long time, thinking. Nino clutched tightly at his shirt, waiting for his answer. “I think it’s…different for me. I never expected to see you again, or for you to forgive me. I never thought I would touch you or speak to you like this again. Just knowing that we will meet, no matter how or when…it’s all a gain to me. I can’t…feel it like a loss. Because I know you’ll succeed, and I know you’ll return.”

“‘The world was all before them,’” Nino quoted softly. “That sort of thing?”

Ohno held him tighter, breathing in the scent of citrus behind his ear. “Yes. You’re all before me now.”

Nino released his grip on his shirt and stroked his bandaged palm before kissing him. When they separated, Nino smiled. “Then I’ll leave the way I came, old man.” They kissed again, and then Nino really was opening the window and sliding down the drainpipe, Ohno leaning out into the sunlight to watch him alight safely onto the street, and then to watch his figure until it disappeared around the corner.

Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to sleep again, he started to dress. Only to discover that Nino had stolen his shoes. Ohno smiled, feeling as though his heart would burst.

 

*

 

Naturally, Ohno broke three plates that day. He burned the toast, gave Holmes bird feed and Watson a dish of milk, and when Aiba asked him why he was walking around in his socks, replied “Of course, sir.”

He couldn’t stop thinking of Nino’s smile—the smile he’d given him before he’d left. Ohno was certain, upon careful reflection, that the smile hadn’t reached his eyes. Nor had it revealed his gums. He must, Ohno concluded, have been trying to reassure Ohno—when surely it was Ohno who ought to have been reassuring Nino.

Ohno cursed his clumsiness. How could he make it clear—clear that his only reason for thinking they should live apart was so that Nino’s life would not be entirely wrecked by his presence? Ohno knew, now, that he could never hide himself from Nino—he would never find the strength or will for that again—but he was still determined to find a path that did not end with him becoming the albatross round Nino’s neck.

But, he realized while rolling out dough for tea cakes, perhaps he only believed that such a path was possible—only felt confident to seek it—because he knew, now, that Nino loved and needed him. Had he ever made it clear to Nino how deeply he was loved in return? Ohno thought of the papers he’d found in the sparrow’s nest—how they’d given him the strength to meet Nino again, how every word, read again and again, had become such a treasured part of himself.

And what had he given Nino in return? Hardly a fair trade—a collection of scraps and sketches.

Ohno knew that he would never be able to form such beautiful words for Nino. But he had to give him something more—even if it could never match all that Nino had given him, he had at least to make an attempt.

That evening, Ohno interrupted Aiba’s melancholy perusal of the rock-hard cakes that Ohno had provided for tea, “Sir, I wonder if you know how I might go about acquiring a Venus fly-trap plant?”

Aiba was predictably delighted by the request, almost laming Holmes with a tea cake in his excitement. “I know precisely the man for the job, Ohno! We can discuss the matter with him tomorrow at the botanical gardens.” Aiba took a sip of tea, suddenly frowning. “You know, I have the oddest feeling that you’re not the first man to ask me about procuring a Venus fly-trap. What are the chances of receiving two such requests in as many years?”

Ohno poured him more tea. “I really couldn’t say, sir.”

Chapter Text

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,
Satoshi

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.”

Ohno stared.

“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.”

 

The End