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The Reaper's Weakness

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Barok had always been fond of animals. He could still remember playing with Balmung when he was a child. In the wintertime, when snow covered the ground of the estate, they would go running through the snow-covered fields together. Sometimes he would trip and fall, and Balmung would get ahead a few paces, only to turn back in concern upon noticing Barok no longer followed him, and bark by his side until he got to his feet.

There were times when he dearly missed Balmung, but when the hound passed away following Klint’s death, Barok was in no fit state to even consider caring for a pet, and once he became known as the Reaper of the Bailey, his newfound image ensured no one could know how much he cared about animals.

Still, it didn’t mean he cared any less.

That became quite clear one day when he was walking through the halls of the Prosecutor’s Office and overheard two of his fellow prosecutors talking.

“Something really has to be done about the bats in the courthouse.”

“I’ll look for a professional to exterminate them.”

Barok stopped walking.

Exterminate them?

Yes, a group of bats had taken up residence in the courthouse, which caused hysteria during some trials when high-strung attendees noticed them, but they did little more than hang from the rafters and mind their own business. That was better than he could say for half the people that entered the courthouse, and no one spoke of exterminating them.

He walked up to the two men. “Are you discussing the bats in the Old Bailey?”

They looked rather alarmed at his sudden interest. “Y-Yes, my lord.”

He folded his arms. “I will handle the problem.”

And so he did.

He handled the problem into a net, and then he handled the problem into a cage, and then he handled the problem back to the safety of his office, where the bats flew up to the ceiling and he realized he would have to learn how to properly care for them. What did bats even eat? Perhaps this was more trouble than it was worth.

He looked up at the bats. One of them looked back at him and made an adorable squeaking sound.

No, learning to care for them was not such an arduous task that he couldn’t do it.

#

Several years after the bats became a permanent fixture in his office, with the only unfortunate consequence being nonsensical rumors about Barok being a vampire, he was on his way out of the Old Bailey when he spotted a rather confused-looking man from Scotland Yard peering up and down the hallway as though lost.

“Is there a problem?” he asked.

The man jumped. “Sir! I was sent here to deal with a problem at the courthouse concerning some kittens, my lord!”

Kittens?

“Apparently a foreign gentleman arrived to get some sort of paperwork, which is when the incident occurred…”

Barok pinched the bridge of his nose. “Surely you realize this is the criminal court, not where one would find paperwork relating to civil matters?”

“Oh! Then where should I go?”

Good God, was this man actually part of Scotland Yard? Was this the best Londoners could hope for when it came to their protection? He shuddered at the thought.

“Never mind,” he said. “I will handle it myself.”

He got the important details out of the man, and headed off to solve the kitten-related incident for the good of law and order and also the opportunity to see kittens. No one ever thought to bring kittens to the Reaper of the Bailey. A chance like this was unlikely to ever come up again.

At last, he reached the scene, just in time to hear a desperate shout.

“Catastrophic Courthouse Cat Calamities!”

Oh no, no, it was that Nipponese who kept getting arrested for things. Barok really ought to have paid attention to all the details of the incident, not just kittens.

The unlucky man was flailing his arms desperately in an attempt to reach a narrow niche high up on the wall, which appeared to be meant to display potted plants. At the sound of Barok’s approaching footsteps, he turned. “At last, thank—oh noooooo!”

The man—Natsume, was it?—held up his hands and shook his head frantically, and Barok realized that, having survived two trials against “the Reaper,” Natsume most likely took his own arrival to be a sign of his impending death. Barok almost felt guilty, until he spotted a tiny fluffy face peeking out from the man’s jacket.

It wasn’t as though he were actually there to do him harm; Natsume could handle a mild bout of terror if it meant Barok had a chance to appreciate kittens.

One kitten was within the folds of the man’s jacket, perhaps in an interior pocket of some sort, looking about with feline curiosity. A second, Barok noticed at last, was on the floor, weaving around and around its master’s feet. And a third, which seemed to be the problem, had ensconced itself in the aforementioned niche, rather too high up for a man of Natsume’s stature to reach.

With one hand over his eyes, Natsume began lamenting his fate. “Oh, to think it would end like this… all because I heard of some paperwork I must complete before returning to my homeland. Perilous Paperwork Prevents Progress!”

What on Earth was he… oh, never mind. Presumably he brought the kittens to the courthouse with him when he came to complete his paperwork, and one of them escaped him to find such an interesting vantage point, leading to the current predicament.

Did he, then, intend to take the kittens overseas with him? That might not be allowed, and it would certainly give him trouble. Perhaps Barok should offer to find them a good home. They would surely enjoy having the run of the estate.

…Would it be exceptionally stupid to name a kitten after his brother? Because the troublesome kitten looking down at them from behind the plant was a Klint if he ever saw one.

Sharp pinpricks in his leg alerted Barok to the fact that the kitten on the floor had apparently tired of circling its master and saw the taller newcomer as something to be climbed. As it rapidly scaled Barok’s leg, Natsume let out a despairing wail and hid his face behind his hands completely.

Surely he didn’t think Barok would hurt an innocent kitten…

The kitten made it all the way to his shoulder and peered at him with curiosity, and Barok glanced at Natsume. He was still cowering with his eyes covered. Good. Barok took the opportunity to pet the kitten’s sweet little head, and it started purring. It would be more difficult to come up with a name for this one—

Wait a minute, what was he thinking? He should not be naming any kittens; they were Natsume’s kittens, and the man had not said a single thing about needing to find a home for them. He would take them back to Japan with him, and Barok would never see them again.

Damned Nipponese.

Barok removed the kitten from his shoulder, scooped up the stranded kitten with his other hand, and then held them out. “Here. Attempt to be more careful in the future.”

Natsume lowered his hands and stared at the offered kittens. He accepted them cautiously, the look on his face suggesting he didn’t entirely believe he and all three kittens were actually getting out of this alive. “It certainly won’t happen again,” he said. “I’m never setting foot in another courthouse as long as I live, no matter what paperwork I’m told to fill out!”

The kittens were climbing all over him as he spoke. Soon the troublemaker made it to the floor and started to prance down the hall.

“Pay closer attention!” Barok snapped. “Klint is about to get away again!”

Natsume yelped and turned, catching the kitten just in time.

Then he paused and looked back at Barok with a baffled look on his face.

Oh. He’d said it out loud. Barok glared at him. “Is there a reason you are still here?”

“No! Definitely not! I’ll just be on my way now!” The terrified man fled with his kittens in tow.

#

(When the cat called Wagahai appeared in court some time later, there were far too many people around for Barok to dare pet her, and he once again cursed Natsume for taking all of the kittens home with him.)

#

Some months later, Barok was busy looking over files for an upcoming case when the door to his office opened and the newest detective on the force barged in, without an invitation but with a small black puppy in her arms.

“What is the meaning of this intrusion?” Barok demanded, even though his brain was screaming PUPPY!

Lestrade stopped in front of his desk and held up her companion. “This ‘ere is Chief Inspector Toby! The boss said I should take ‘im around an’ introduce him to everyone.”

Toby? As in, Tobias? She’d named the dog after Gregson? Barok withheld a snicker.

A shout of her name came from the hall, and Lestrade turned toward the door with a huff of breath. “Oi! What’s the big idea, eh?”

Apparently disturbed by the shouting, Toby wriggled in her grip, and she set him down hastily before running out of the office.

And then they were alone.

Barok paused, then took off his glove and held out his hand to Toby. The puppy sniffed his fingers cautiously for a moment, then licked his hand. He wagged his tail and looked up expectantly. Just like the bats and the kittens, he had no preconceptions about the Reaper of the Bailey. Animals never judged a person based on what other people said about him.

All right, which would be easier to explain if someone walked in, a puppy sitting on his lap or himself sitting on the floor? Barok considered that for a moment and then dropped a few papers to use as an excuse if he were caught before settling down on the floor alongside Toby.

He reached out again, and Toby didn’t object, so he petted him. “You’re a good boy, aren’t you? You’re the best boy.” He would never, ever, under any circumstances let anyone hear him talking like this, but it wasn’t as though Toby would tell people. “Chief Inspector Toby, yes, you’ll be the number one detective at the Yard for sure. Who could see that face and refuse to confess, hmm? No one, that’s who.”

Oh, he missed Balmung. Perhaps he could find some excuse to take Toby for a walk later.

Toby rolled over onto his back, and Barok obligingly rubbed the dog’s stomach. He cast his gaze around the office. Surely he must have something that could conceivably serve as a toy for Toby to play with, but what? If he truly were as grim as half the rumors in London claimed, he would have a collection of bones somewhere at least, but alas, he had nothing of the sort.

The puppy hopped to his feet again and jumped forward before Barok could react, placing his front paws on his chest and licking his face happily.

The door opened and Lestrade stepped in. “Sorry, the boss got all up in arms about somefin’—”

Barok hastily grabbed the papers he’d dropped and stood up, with a pang of guilt at Toby’s surprised whine over the sudden lack of attention. He dusted off the papers and set them on his desk as though that was what he had been doing the entire time.

Lestrade stared at him. “Uh…”

He folded his arms.

She was surely keen enough to realize he did not normally sit down on the floor to retrieve lost documents, but she only smirked and picked up Toby. “We’ll be movin’ on, then. Sorry for the disturbance.”

Several possible responses came to mind. Perhaps Pray disturb me any time you have your loyal companion with you, or These doors will never be barred to Chief Inspector Toby.

He settled for, “Hmph.”

#

Barok could not entirely deny his nervousness when he finally presented himself at 221B Baker Street to take tea with Iris Wilson. Normally, such an occasion would only be troublesome due to the potential of encountering that irritating detective, but now that he knew Iris was his niece, her presence induced anxiety of a unique sort.

Either he would be unable to hide his emotions and betray the secret without intending to, or the opposite would happen and he would be too callous and cold, hurting his niece like only the most wretched sort of person would.

Despite being tempted to retreat, he forced himself to stand there until the door opened.

Iris clasped her hands in delight when she saw him. “Mr. Reaper, come in!”

“I thank you.” He stepped inside and looked around.

For some reason, there was a small aquarium near the door. He tapped the side of the glass out of curiosity and drew the attention of several colorful fish.

Then he looked at the rest of the room. It was… rather cluttered, but not unpleasant. Although the half of the suite he concluded was Sholmes’s gave him a headache even to look at, Iris’s side was quite cozy, if not the sort of surroundings he was used to.

Come to think of it, didn’t they have a cat? There was no sign of the creature anywhere around, though.

“If you’re looking for Waggy,” Iris said with a knowing tap of her head, “we had to shut him in the attic for now.”

“…Waggy?”

“Oh, that’s what I called Wagahai. He’s the cat Mr. Natsume left here!”

Leaving aside the embarrassing fact that it took Iris approximately ten seconds to conclude that he, Barok van Zieks, the man formally known as the Reaper of the Bailey, had been looking around for a cat… “Pray explain why your pet is shut in the attic.”

“He was a bit too interested in the fish, that’s all.”

“Ah, yes, I was about to inquire about the aquarium. I do not recall ever seeing it before.”

Iris lifted her hands in an exasperated shrug. “Runo finally found some actual fish for his aquarium to take back home as a reminder of his stay, only to find out he can’t take them back to Japan after all. Now it’s sitting out here until we figure out what to do about it.”

#

“Since when do we have an aquarium in our office?”

“I believe you have work to do, Asogi.”

#

Things were finally returning to a sense of normalcy. Barok was on his way back to his own office when he overheard a quiet discussion.

“…all we have to do now is get the birds out of the Lord Chief Justice’s office.”

Those fiends! It wasn’t as if the birds were complicit in Stronghart’s crimes; why should they be driven out of their home?!

By the next morning, all of the doves, as well as Madam Rosie the parakeet, had been successfully relocated to the tallest tower of the van Zieks estate. Poor Madam Rosie would be the most difficult one, as she appeared to still miss Gregson—or possibly Stronghart, unlikely though that seemed. Hopefully they would all adjust to their new home in time.

What did one feed a parakeet…?

#

Barok remained focused on work until the third time Asogi looked up from the letter he was reading with a puzzled frown.

He sighed and set down his pen. “Does something in that correspondence concern me?”

It seemed unlikely that it would; while he had yet to respond to the last letter he received himself from Naruhodo, it certainly was not such a great length of time that the man would have already asked Asogi for assistance.

Asogi stared at him for a moment and then said, “I think I’ll just read this entire paragraph out loud.”

What was this sudden sense of foreboding?

He cleared his throat. “We ran into Soseki-san the other day, and he asked me to pass a message on to the Reaper, which I assume means Lord van Zieks. No, I didn’t believe it either, but that’s what he said. Soseki-san’s message is: ‘In my panic, I could not quite make out what you said that day, but I named the kitten Kurimuto. I hope that is close enough.’”

“That’s fine,” Barok said quickly, even though he honestly couldn’t hear the similarity, but he had no intention of continuing this conversation with Asogi.

Asogi stared at the letter again and then looked back up at him. “I have so many questions.”

“Then put that inquisitive mind to better use and return to your work.”

This was mortifying, but also rather touching that Natsume cared about his attempt to name the kitten at all, let alone enough to follow up with him about it. Although how, pray, did he have enough time between bouts of panic to realize Barok liked cats? Perhaps the man was more observant than he got credit for.

When Asogi finally, mercifully left the office, Barok pulled out a fresh sheet of paper to begin his own letter. He would simply need to obtain the means to correspond with Natsume directly. He wished to inquire about the kittens’ welfare yet had no intention of holding such a conversation by proxy. Presumably Naruhodo could convince the man that Barok was not the Reaper of the Bailey and therefore there was no danger in giving him an address at which to reach him.

Partway through his fourth attempt at writing a request for Natsume’s address without sounding suspicious, he became aware of voices approaching his office.

“Not a chance,” Asogi said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

“But it explains everyfin’, don’t it?” That was Lestrade. “Trust me, it’ll work.”

Barok certainly hoped she wasn’t pulling his apprentice into some sort of trouble…

A moment later, the door opened, and Asogi returned, carrying a cage that contained a small rabbit.

He raised his eyebrows. “Dare I ask?”

“It belongs to the defendant in an upcoming trial.” Asogi shook his head. “Since the man apparently has no friends who can feed the rabbit while he’s in prison, it was turned over to the Prosecutor’s Office.”

“I see.”

“Oi, ‘Sogi!” Gina yelled from the hall. “Come ‘an ‘elp me wiv this!”

“I’m coming, I’m coming!” Asogi shouted back.

He unceremoniously plunked the cage down on Barok’s desk over his protests and departed the office.

Barok sighed and looked at the rabbit. Poor thing. It must be frightened, suddenly in an unfamiliar place and surrounded by strangers. A partly-eaten carrot sat in the cage alongside a few others, presumably for the rabbit to partake of, although at the moment it was simply looking around, its whiskers twitching.

“You’re all right,” he said to the rabbit, although since he had so little experience with rabbits, he had no idea what one ought to do to comfort one. Would it want to sniff his hand like a dog?

After a moment, he picked up the carrot and held it out.

The rabbit sniffed it and then began nibbling.

Having secured this measure of trust, Barok reached into the cage and gently petted the rabbit between its long ears. It was rather cute, and fluffier than he expected.

Once it finished the carrot, he reached for the next, but then paused. Asogi had yet to return, and he had some concerns about what Lestrade might have involved him in. This might warrant checking up on.

“I’ll be right back,” he promised the rabbit. He strode across the office and opened the door.

Which nearly clipped Asogi in the head in the process.

Asogi scrambled backward. Lestrade stood a few feet away from the door, her posture casual, but she was close enough that she almost certainly had been right next to him a moment ago.

Barok folded his arms. “Pray tell me you have a good reason for spying on my office.”

Neither of them had the decency to look ashamed. Lestrade looked self-satisfied and pleased with herself, and Asogi just seemed amused. He reached into his pocket and handed something to Lestrade—wait, that was money; he was paying her??

“I am waiting for an explanation,” Barok said.

“It’s very simple, sir.” Asogi’s lips twitched. “Miss Lestrade bet me that if we left you unattended with literally any animal, you would eventually start cooing over it.”

Barok reeled back. “I do not coo.”

“I was right, though.” Lestrade folded her arms and beamed at him. “You’re a real animal-lover, ain’t ya?”

He scowled and turned away in case the heat in his cheeks manifested as a noticeable blush. “C-Certainly not.”

“Oh well,” Asogi said. “I suppose now that it’s over, I should take the rabbit back.”

“Do you mean to say even the story about it belonging to a defendant was a mere pretense?”

“That’s right. Miss Lestrade grabbed it from the streets this morning. I’ll just take it back outside and let it go.”

“You will do no such thing!” Barok snapped before he could help himself. “I will endeavor to find a home for it at once!”

Lestrade gave him a cheeky grin. “Good thinkin’. I bet he’ll like livin’ in a posh place wot you got, eh?”

He groaned and covered his face. That was it, he was finished. She had set a trap for him, and he took the bait. This was the most embarrassing day of his life, and he would never be able to talk himself out of this one.

Well… at least he no longer needed to come up with excuses when he wanted to take Toby out for a walk.