Haru sends a baleful look to the source of his suffering, who’s unabashedly cornered him on a wall with starlit eyes and a damnable book that Haru willfully sets on fire in the inner cogs of his mind. Not that he hasn’t threatened to with words.
“Please, Katou-san?” Saeki
the traitor looks up at him pleadingly whilst pushing the book into Haru’s fists, “I swear it’s good! It’ll be worth your time!”
Because Haru is a weak man to humans who have mastered the Complex Arts of Puppy Eyes™, Haru gives in eventually and unfurls his whitening fists. A book gets shoved on his unwilling hands, and Haru tries not to go into the deep end by regulating his breathing.
“Stop being so dramatic; it’s just a shoujo novel.” Kamei rolls his eyes at him, how dare him, flapping his own copy as a substitute fan because it’s currently in the middle of summer and the heatwave could potentially make anyone slip into a coma. Haru hopes he slips into one. Immediately.
“Besides, you need to read something else that’s not a case report.” Kamei adds flippantly and Saeki bobs her head enthusiastically, clearly not caring about Kamei’s input as long as Kamei agrees with her and her questionable hobby of entrenching her desire of obsessing over Shoujo materials unto somebody else that’s unwilling.
“This better be good.” Haru hisses at them with the proficiency of an aggressive cobra ready to strike.
It’s insulting that none of them looks threatened enough.
Which brings to Haru’s current distress of being shipped off to another world without his consent, hijacking a body of a cowardly son of a poor Baron who’s supposed to meet a grisly end at the start of the novel. The one who dies is the son, not the Baron, which is coincidentally now him.
Admittedly, the novel had been good—not that he’d say it out in the open. He has appearances to keep with his reputation as a surly bitter detective that has been in the height of his glory before he had a bad fall and additional trauma while at it.
So, the novel. Set on Europe in Victorian era but with characters who possesses Japanese names and a protagonist who Haru never knew the name of for some reasons, and Haru’s not that old yet that he can’t remember it so it must be the author’s negligence. Or maybe it was mentioned once or twice and Haru didn’t care enough for the protagonist enough to remember it? Very likely.
There’s some dubious details that Haru’s sure are incorrect but the author merely hand-waved over even though it’s vital to the plot, and some details that held no importance but had dragged on for three pages, back to back.
Reading the novel had been a journey in itself to not set it on fire like he originally wanted to using his trusty burner stove, or chuck it on the trash bin that had been six meters away from Haru, or submerge it in his bathtub and flush the remnants away in the toilet and call for a plumber to unclog it come morning.
But yeah, the novel had been good.
Despite testing Haru’s nearly non-existent patience, the novel still managed to root itself into the darkest corners of Haru’s heart like mold. The protagonist had been vapid and immature, and so of no value to Haru and his relatively tiny interest in the novel. The tiny interest, on the otherhand, is solely occupied by the male lead, touted as the “Detective Prince”.
The Detective Prince, Kambe Daisuke, who’s literally the Kingdom’s crown prince, had been an interesting character with questionable ethics and an appropriate amount of skill and braincells to solve crimes. His solution of slapping the criminals with money that probably came from the Kingdom’s tax but well, tax was the crown’s property, no? So yes, his solution had been disparaging, especially to poor people like Haru and justice-driven people like Haru.
In short, it just really insulted Haru, okay?
Returning back to the topic at hand, protagonist and the Detective Prince meet at the royal ball and for some vague reasons, the protagonist managed to hook the prince’s attention. A couple more chance meetings, criminal cases that both of them had scrambled to solve with the protagonist as a deadweight, and eventually a harrowing incident that almost took away the prince’s life and the subsequent confession, defeat of the Bad Guy™, grand wedding, and happily ever after— that’s about it.
The cases were interesting, so to say, a bit farfetched and pretentious, but hey, it worked! The prince also had a lot of unnecessary flair put into describing how his coat billowed in the wind, how he looked hot when drenched by the rain, how enrapturing the plains of his pronounced abs were—and even the intricacies of his clothing every time he appeared, which had Haru suspect that the author might have been a bit off with their focus. Haru wishes they paid more attention towards the cases instead of the quality of the damn buttons and shoes, instead.
Haru’s review would be about half a star out of five. A bit too harsh, and Haru says “it’s good” even to a coffee that is no better than a sludge and he paid 600 yen for, so, was the novel good? Yes, because Haru says things he doesn’t mean, or Haru’s like-dislike qualifications has been an equivalent to a forest fire since the beginning.
The first case that had been tackled had been about the Baron’s dead son, a.k.a. the current Haru who stole the son’s body somehow when Haru was fast asleep. After bashing his head on the wall twice, mirror once, and wooden table thrice in succession, Haru is now sure that he’s not in an ill-begotten dream from the trauma of reading the whole thing in one-sitting.
Haru only even remembered the first victim because the last name had been Katou, too. The Baron’s son’s name had never been revealed, and Haru invited catastrophe when he asks the maid what his name is, and is told by the maid that it is “Katou Haru, my lord. Do I have to call for a doctor?”
Yay for the unchanged name, but not for the family doctor who travelled for three hours and diagnosed him of amnesia, which, fair enough.
After a round of tears from both the Baroness and Baron who clearly doted on their “precious meek son who could never hurt an ant and had severe case in social ineptitude” about how unfair life had been for him, he finally got left alone to wallow in his new reality of pretending to be an innocuous lamb who could only function properly as a plot device and disposable mob.
Compartmentalization has been a thing that Haru excels at fortunately, and so, after two days of a series of mental breakdowns, eerie silence, hysterical screaming, and bemoaning his luck, or lack thereof, Haru finally exits his room with renewed vigor for his continued existence.
He was a murder case as far as Haru could remember, killed by another noble who detested him because Haru was about to be engaged to a woman the noble fancied. Why the noble hadn’t married the woman first when he’s the son of the Count and clearly of higher station, Haru doesn’t know, but Haru is pretty sure that there has been no solidified engagements yet.
A quick check with his parents who are set to do any of his biddings and more, Haru’s future is now clear of any marriage unless he picks a partner out of his own volition. Considering how harebrained the novel is, Haru does not drop his guard even for one second in fear that even a sandwich can potentially lead to the most gruesome death.
So Haru does the next best thing—kick out his servants from his room and extensively exercise and practice his katas. The body had been in a state of frailty, destitute of any muscles or even fats so he ate a balanced meal to rectify past noble Haru’s mistake. The sudden change to the physical brunt that the body had been accustomed to had made him feel terrible at first and he wanted to pass out after an easy set, but Haru’s known for his persistence even at the face of death.
He doesn’t dare get out of the house until he manages to wrangle his original lean state, which took him a solid four months. He reads up on the important things, like how the kingdom worked and its basic history, geography, neighboring countries and relationship with them, a whole load of law so he knows he won’t be convicted for doing something stupid, and social etiquettes that is apparently more important than life itself.
For the second time, he exits his room as a new man, which well, is just a regular Haru for those who knew him previously, with a slouch in place for underestimation purposes, messy hair and less messy clothes because the servants had almost died of collective heart attacks when he attempted to get out of the room in less than stellar appearance, wardrobe-wise.
By now, he still lowkey blames Saeki and Kamei but never really hated them for it because Haru is a man who doesn’t hate or hold a grudge despite how some people perceive him to be. It’s not like it’s their fault that Haru maybe died in his sleep and stole a body of a fictional character. A horrifying thought would be that that fictional character would find himself in Haru’s evacuated body, which is just—no. Thinking about that last one still sends him reeling in denial, but can’t refute either that it maybe the case, logically speaking.
“Count Sakamoto’s son died from an accident! Such a terrible thing…” The Baroness gossips, regret twisting her motherly features. The Baron shakes his head in agreement, and Haru stops himself from shoveling food in his mouth like a cave man, looking up from his plate.
“Who?” Haru says with his mouth full because Haru may have learned etiquette doesn’t mean that he’ll apply it.
“Ah, yes, you don’t remember anymore. Count Sakamoto’s son is Akihiko, who’s also your childhood friend before, well…” The Baroness trails off in remembrance of the unfortunate incident that is her son’s sudden amnesia.
“Quite a shame too, since he’s recently engaged with Baron Kanzaki’s daughter.” The Baron comments before adding further explanation, “Oh, Baron Kanzaki’s daughter was the one you were supposed to be engaged to, Haru. We managed to repel the engagement in light of your circumstances.”
Haru makes a noise of assent but he’s now far from paying attention, the realization that someone died because he didn’t hitting him in the face with a hot brick that’s on fire. He’s been replaced. The storyline found another canon fodder to feed for the story so it could keep going and it’s Haru’s fault for trying to avoid his fate.
Haru’s grip on his spoon tightened, bending it a bit from the pressure before he set it down with the controlled efficiency akin to a robot, “What was the accident?”
The Baroness blinks, turning to her husband and receiving a mirrored look of bewilderment, “A fallen flower pot from above his head, I believe. The pot was purportedly teetering on the edge of the shelf in their greenhouse that Akihiko very much liked to frequent due to his fondness of horticulture. He may have bumped the shelf which resulted to the pot’s descent.”
Haru hums, a frown curving his lips downwards, “The funeral?”
“In two days.” The Baron answers, sipping from his wine, “Will you come?”
Haru nods in confirmation and picks up his spoon and fork again to continue his meal in contemplation. He leaves soon after and beelines to his room, pushing himself with his regimen again. He’ll have to collect evidences and have the bastard responsible thrown in prison. If he’d have known, Haru wouldn’t have tried to get out of the damn engagement.
If nothing else, this only reinforced Haru’s place in this world as real. Perhaps for the past few months that he spent in this world, he saw the people as mere characters of a book—faceless and irrelevant. Not real flesh and blood. Haru still expects to open his eyes one day and see the water-stained ceiling of his dingy bedroom that he’d never gotten around to fix; heading to his job and returning the novel to an overly ecstatic Saeki who would insist for his review.
And now, his oversight, his reluctance to accept reality, has cost him a life of another that shouldn’t have been.
Haru continues his regimen aggressively and collapses on his bed when he feels every speck of his muscles screaming at him to stop. He knocks out in less than a minute.
Two days later, Haru’s dressed in pitch black mourning clothes, emptily gazing at the lowered coffin. The somber atmosphere is almost painful to Haru who is filled with churning guilt, gloved hands formed into tight fists at his side. He, the guests, and the Sakamoto family returns to the Sakamoto manor for a post-funeral luncheon.
He sees the Sakamoto Count and Countess in stages of grief, acceptance yet to set in. A young girl cries at the side, supported by friends at the passing of her fiancé. Haru stares at her for a second long, noting that she must be the Kanzaki’s daughter whom he still doesn’t know the name of yet.
He breathes out and gets out of the stuffy room, and only breathes in when he could only inhale the fresh grass and flowers and not the incense and artificial perfumes. He spots the greenhouse by the distance and heads there without any hesitation.
The greenhouse is expectedly locked, and Haru stands by the entrance with sharp eyes looking for another way in. The greenhouse is made of steel coated in black and blue glass panes that are not as transparent as it first seems. There are skylights in the dome ceiling and a substantial gap between the ceiling and the walls to let fresh air in. A tree outside the greenhouse leans in close to the ribbon walls, and Haru hopes that it’ll be close enough so that Haru could sneak in through the gap and not brain himself while at it.
Haru climbs the tree easily, body light as he grabs after branches and hops over after testing if it could hold his weight. The steel framing of the greenhouse is firm and Haru could confirm as he slinks in in an almost practiced manner without generating any noise except a few unavoidable squeaks from the glass and rustles from the leaves.
He spots a nearby step ladder and he precariously slithers in the gap and reaches a foot towards the top step, hauling the rest of his body down so both of his feet have a solid landing and finally letting go of the edges of the gap. He comes down without falling to death and inwardly praises himself like a narcissist for his atheism.
The greenhouse isn’t cleaned, most probably vacated after the accident. Strewn broken pots and its pieces lie by the floor, soil scattered and the plants it housed rapidly dying from being uprooted. Sakamoto Akihiko must have landed on them when his body went down from the impact.
A closer inspection of the scene reveals a medium-sized broken clay pot with remnants of dried old blood, the only pot missing from a four-tiered shelf filled with pots of varying sizes. Small sizes from the top and the biggest ones by the bottom shelf.
He frowns and crouches forward to examine the largest piece of the bloody clay pot that had survived the fall without touching anything. The largest piece is half a pot at most, surprisingly. As all clay pots are in a garden, flecks of dirt and moss has gathered outside the pot in a layer.
Haru squints. Is that—
“I wouldn’t have expected a trespasser in broad daylight.”
Haru jerks back in surprise, lifting his head almost in a whiplash. A man stands at about ten meters away, dressed in dark formal suit like any others, except a higher notch in quality which is kind of ridiculous because Haru is not fashionably inclined but even he could tell. The man must be of higher station or maybe just spoiled.
The man looks clean cut, arrogance and confidence rolling off him effortlessly, and judging by the smirk on his face, he must’ve thought that he caught Haru red-handed.
Which, huh, he totally did.
“Nothing to say, hmm?” The man says when Haru schools his expression into his best nonchalant face. He has an elaborately-designed wooden cane with him, and Haru notices a particular quirk when the man keeps lightly tapping the handle with his forefinger. The man’s position doesn’t transfer any of his weight on the cane, which means that the cane is just an accessory.
Amused, slightly impatient, an air of assertiveness—perhaps a Marquis or a Duke? Someone who’s clearly higher than a Count.
Higher station it is.
Haru sighs because he knows that what he’s doing is technically breaking and entering, and as a police officer, he might as well arrest himself for breaking the law and potentially corrupting an evidence.
“How can I help you?” Haru says instead, slouching non-threateningly and partly resigned to his fate of being arrested. The man is not obviously expecting the response with how both of his eyebrows climb up to his hairline which is in clear view because the man had his hair slicked back in an attempt to look professional, which he’s rocking at if Haru has any opinion about it.
“You’re quite a bold individual, aren’t you?”
Haru crushes down his need to reply back with a snappy sarcasm because he’s not a child or a teen who couldn’t hold his tongue anymore and any words from him might be taken against him in a jiffy.
But then, “Thanks.”
Haru inwardly recoils from the horror of not being able to crush that one out. Why is Haru like this? Why does he invite death to take him away to the netherworld?
A surprised bark of laughter erupts from the man’s lips which abruptly ends the moment it begins, and the man himself looks stunned by his own reaction, which would have been funny but the man probably has enough authority to send Haru to the gallows.
Ah, seriously, screw this world and its less than stellar portrayal of the importance of life.
The man clears his throat in an attempt to save face, “May I ask what your purpose here is, trespasser? You can also introduce yourself so I may not call you that if it offends you.”
…Does this guy think that Haru is an idiot? What he’s doing is probably equivalent to a victim about to be killed and saying “What’s your full name and address so I can report you to 911 before you kill me.” Just a bit more indirect and polite, and the victim is not going to be the one who’ll die but the killer.
“You may not ask.” Haru says bluntly and crouches again to resume what he’s doing earlier. He keeps an eye on the man but it’s mostly a split attention, which could be dangerous because the man could easily be the perpetrator. But then there’s the matter of the pot and the clean line cut across the layer of dirt and moss as if, “A string.”
“Indeed.” The man agrees, and Haru almost lands on his butt because the man is now behind him, leaning to peer at what Haru is intently looking at. He has a thoughtful look in his face, index finger and thumb pinching his chin.
Haru stands up straight and is pleased to find that he’s a bit taller than the man. He walks off to the large plants near the shelf, lightly moving the leaves back to see if the string was left by chance instead of being discarded properly. There must have been another person with Sakamoto Akihiko that day who could have pulled at the string the moment Akihiko was directly below the rigged pot, but from what Haru had been told, there was nobody else with him inside. His servants were outside the green house as per Akihiko’s orders and they only went in when they heard the crash.
But a string would have been seen even if it’s connected to the outside. That would have immediately alerted Akihiko immediately. The first suspects would be the servants who were outside the vicinity and also taking into consideration that the glass is semi-see through—the inside only visible when someone outside is in a close distance to the glass.
But how would the string not be seen? From the thickness of the trace of loop left behind on the pot, it must be on the thinner side.
“A clear string?” Haru surmises, and doesn’t realize that he said it out loud until he got a response.
“But at what direction would it be pulled?”
Haru should probably stop forgetting that he’s not alone and that another man is with him at the moment. He side eyes the man and instantly regrets it because the man is looking at him squarely in the eyes, curious and… fascinated?
Obviously forward. There’s no other way for the pot’s direction to fall but forward. But then the perpetrator had to be directly on the left side outside the greenhouse since the shelf is situated by the right wall, facing the left. The clear string must have also been extremely long if the width of the entire greenhouse as well as the inclined angle from the height if it was pulled down from below were accounted for. Another thing to consider was the limited usage of clear strings, or specifically, clear steel strings. It’s only used in very specific ways and so the production of the string itself is limited and the price of it is on the expensive side.
Haru’s eyes land on the step ladder that he used earlier and his hunch blares out like a siren. He approaches it and searches for markings. It’s made of wood so a thin line of white engraved on it should be present judging by the pressure of pulling a pot of medium weight, which would be approximately about 8 to 10 pounds at most along with the soil inside it, probably more if the plant’s weight itself was added too.
Haru could almost jump in joy when his hunch is proven right by the line of white in the middle of the top step and the following step, looped around in all four side rails. The step ladder itself is not a foldable one and is a permanent build that needs to be manually dragged around. It wouldn’t have held up with the pressure exerted for dragging the pot off the shelf but the trails of soil on the bottom steps of the ladder that is definitely not from Haru’s shoes could definitely attest that the step ladder was used as a makeshift shelf for the pots for the time being, and it added weight for the ladder to not immediately topple off.
So the extra broken pots were not from Akihiko falling over them but the pots that had fallen off from the step ladder. Nobody cleaned up the broken pots but they made sure that the ladder, which had been on the front of the shelf, would be relocated beside the shelf as an extra precaution.
The tree outside from where Haru sneaked in from would be the best bet to pull the string from. The perpetrator would have quite a strong grip and extra thick leather gloves or their palms would have been sliced off.
There was also the additional smear of blood on the feet of the ladder which could point to Akihiko having contact with it when he plummeted to the ground. It would be a good idea for someone to insist at that time to remove the ladder out of the way in the pretense that it might cause more harm to Akihiko.
Haru snaps back to reality when the man asks, “So? Any input?”
Haru turns to him and the man is still staring at him like a creep with obscure intentions.
“You used the key to go inside here?” Haru asks back and the man tilts his head slightly, maybe a bit miffed that his askance has been ignored.
“Yes, unlike you.” The man returns demurely and Haru doesn’t pay him any more mind, walking out of the greenhouse in a stride and turning to the corner to face the tree from where he climbed on earlier.
Haru’s eyes narrows because there’s blood stains on the grass. Old blood stains that had gone unnoticed. It’s a miracle that there hasn’t been any rain in days or it would have been as good as washed out and free of evidence. So somebody really sliced off their hand.
Arrival of footsteps through the sound of lightly crushed grass alerts Haru that the man has followed him out.
“Not only are you bold, but you are quite rude too, aren’t you?” There’s a huff in the man’s tone and Haru snorts at him.
“Who’s with Sakamoto Akihiko when the accident happened?” Haru asks him another question and the man’s lips purses at the repeated show of disrespect.
“And why, pray tell, must I tell you? Why do you think I know, in the first place?” The man challenges, folding his arms over his chest in an imperious manner. It’s almost cute but if the man could just drop his pretenses, it’d be great.
“Because you’re known for your meticulous background checks. If you’re here, that only means that the only thing you had left to see was the murder scene since you have already been informed of anything that happened related to it prior to your arrival.” Haru reasons out and gestures to the dried bloodstains on the ground, “Your suspect is a desperate woman who has a deep cut on one of her palms. Somebody assisted her but she was the one who pulled the string. She plays a stringed instrument and the clear string she used is probably from her spare steel string roll. Since musical instruments are obscenely pricey for the populace that aren’t nobles, your best bet would be a noble woman who has a strained relationship with Sakamoto Akihiko— enough to attempt to murder him.”
Something like wonder crosses on the man’s face and Haru does his best to ignore it, “How do you know the gender?”
“The amount of blood and the roundabout execution. If it were a man, they would’ve bled more. They also wouldn’t have resorted to such critical planning, almost to an obsessive degree, which means that they’re someone who must not be implicated by all means because they have little power to object. It couldn’t have been a servant woman because steel string roll is expensive and nobody buys it unless they have a stringed instrument that, at this point, are only restricted to nobles due to its equivalent price of four robust horses. Only nobles can splurge for that kind of amount.”
The man’s lips curls upward, pleased smugness returning like the obtrusive sunlight hidden beyond stormy clouds which decided to finally leave after a stubborn round of heavy downpour and a flash of lightning every three seconds.
“You probably figured out how it was done since you’ve been watching me and reading my expressions which is as good as an open book apparently.” Haru says first even before the man could and turning away from him and towards the building where the luncheon is still in full depressive swing, “Good day, Detective Prince.”
Haru waves an arm for extra emphasis that he is leaving now, good bye, see you never.
…Haru sprints to get his point further across.
He arrives in the building without breaking a sweat or heaving like a dying man, whispering to his mother that he’s going to go home ahead because his stomach doesn’t feel really good. He exchanges pleasantries and condolences one more time with the couple with their deceased son, getting asked in return about his unfortunate circumstances of losing his memories by which he simply waves off.
In the corner of his eyes, he sees the Kanzaki’s daughter looking at him with glassy eyes, filled with longing and desire to approach but couldn’t, while stroking her left hand with her right hand lightly, both covered with gloves. She’s hunched slightly on her seat, looking small and frail, helpless.
Haru leaves with heavy steps, never even once sparing her a proper look that she should have deserved.
He gets in on his family carriage and instructs the coachman to return home and drop him off, and come back later to the Sakamoto manor to pick up his mother and father. He absently gazes at the scenery by the window and closes his eyes, asking for forgiveness that will never be heard by the person who needed to hear it the most.
When his mother and father return back and the three of them gather for dinner, he is informed that Kanzaki Mamiko has been arrested for murder by the Detective Prince, Kambe Daisuke, who had joined them in incognito.
“I didn’t even know that our very own Crown Prince had been there! Such impeccable disguise! Who would’ve thought that he would attend as a middle-aged red haired man!” The Baroness gushes excitedly, flapping away her hands.
“Truly noteworthy.” The Baron agreed, “As expected of our Crown Prince. Nobody else have caught him in his disguises so far, they say. I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Haru drinks his juice silently and starts to cut away at his steak with a determined focus.
“But still, to think that Mamiko-chan would…” The Baroness trails off and the mood instantly dampens.
“If you didn’t have an amnesia, Kanzaki Mamiko would have been your fiancé now, Haru.” The Baron says pointedly at Haru who is quietly eating and being as inconspicuous as possible.
“Mamiko-chan wasn’t a bad girl.” The Baroness defends quietly, “Didn’t Prince Daisuke also reveal that Akihiko blackmailed her into becoming his fiancé? Mamiko-chan is also a daughter of a Baron so she doesn’t have power over Akihiko to reject his advances. She must have felt desperate and saw that her only way out was to end her tormentor’s life. Even her maid, Maria, had helped her, and that maid had have a bleeding heart for as long as we knew her.”
“I didn’t imply that she was.” The Baron sighs resignedly, “I’ve known her since she was little, my love. She, Haru and Akihiko were the best of friends. I wouldn’t have expected that Akihiko would turn out that way but Mamiko was always on the meek side. She had been the happiest when she was informed that she was to be engaged to Haru.”
Haru doesn’t say anything because he has no words for it. He doesn’t know who Kanzaki Mamiko or Sakamoto Akihiko are; he held no attachment to them. All he could feel is the sour taste in his mouth and guilt for the young girl who didn’t know that the one she loved the most has been replaced by an impostor.
But murder is murder, even if that meant very little in the grand scheme of things—in this world which doesn’t value life as much as it is valued in his original world.
As much as life should be rightfully valued.
A friendship that became something more and ended up in tragedy. Original Haru from the novel died from poisoning, and who, other than Akihiko, could have done it? Akihiko who was his friend, Akihiko who was close to him that Haru would most likely consume anything he gives Haru because Haru would think nothing of it but an act of good will or receiving a gift from a dear friend—A dear friend that had sinister plans and selfish motives. In the end, Mamiko would end up alone in grief and misery.
The Baron and Baroness must have seen how downcast he is because they offer him consolation afterwards. Haru returns back to his room with pitying gazes from servants, and Haru doesn’t react to them because he doesn’t know how to and it isn’t his right.
He wonders where the Haru who is the original owner of this body is now.
He wonders how he is occupying the body.
Haru sleeps with a mind filled of turmoil and the wish to go back home to his small apartment and nosy coworkers who were as close as family to him.
He wakes up and sees the rich silk of his canopy bed first thing in the morning and stops himself from wanting things that will never be anymore. He drags down a weary hand on his face and sits up, slides off from his bed, and prepares for another day.
Three days later, Haru is lying on a sizable branch of a large tree because he’s now convinced that he won’t die immediately if he does something dangerous for once and languidly eating the cherries he stole off in bulk from one of the fruit platters. The sun is setting by the horizon and its rays dapples on Haru’s figure softly; from the distance, he can hear the festivities of the royal ball, and people who are outside for the afternoon tea time moving to the ball room for the main event of the night.
Haru hasn’t been informed that the royal ball would take a whole damn day. Haru is wilting from being socially active to pretentious people who’d sharply sniff as if they stepped on a dung every step they take and it’s taking a lot of Haru’s willpower not to fly off in unreasonable rage.
So here Haru is, technically in hiding and worrying his parents but Haru just doesn’t care anymore. Whatever, he’ll return to them later when the whole thing’s about to blow off. He might be tempted to go down and steal off some more food. Free food has its own impact to the palate, especially the royal palace free food that’s a gourmet free food, and well. Free food.
He stares at his plump cherry bleeding out its juices held between his thumb and forefinger and thinks if they added anything suspicious to it. Or maybe it’s just Haru’s inner poorness that has him so grateful.
“Oh my, I was thinking that I wouldn’t see you again.” A voice from below breaks him out from deeply tackling his former financial crisis and he flinches in surprise, his cherry falling off his grasp.
A perfunctory look down below has him regretting his life choices because he knows who it is just from the sound of the voice but Haru is not Haru if he doesn’t take a good long look at the face of death.
Or well, in this case, at the face of his future jailor.
The Detective Prince is now out of his disguise of being a middle-aged man with slicked back red hair, instead he’s in a white dress shirt tucked in on his black slacks and royal knee-high boots. His sword is now not disguised as a wooden cane but strapped on his hip, and his face looks exactly like how the book describes him. He looks casual, in a sense, not in full regalia that he should have been considering that the main event will be on… in four more hours.
Oh yeah, he can totally understand why the prince is in less than appropriate clothes that should be consumable to public eyes.
“I see you’ve been beating up your knights instead of playing nice with your guests.” Haru says and screams and bawls inside of his foolish brain for having more bite than it could chew during these dire times.
The prince raises an eyebrow and his textbook signature smirk is in place, “And how would you know that?”
Haru tries to mold himself on the branch, kind of like becoming a goo in hopes that the prince would ignore him and his in-built rudeness, “There’s dirt in your royal boots and slacks, Your Highness.”
“I could have participated in the midday Royal Hunt or any activities that could have made me dirty. Why do you say that I’ve been training with my knights, instead?”
Haru stops ignoring him in place of giving him an incredulous look, “Because I was in the Royal Hunt and you were clearly not there? And a whole slew of your knights went missing at the same time? And this place is so grassy except for the training grounds from which you spent your time in?”
Haru sees in full view how those lips widen in satisfaction and Haru lets out a long breath and starts to accept that he’ll be thrown in jail before the night ends.
“You were in the Royal Hunt?” The prince asks and yeah, Haru might have dug that one. Haru’s only hiding in the first place because some people just would not leave him alone after that fiasco. Haru could concede that it had been partly his fault for having too much fun and he’s surprised why the nobles weren’t running for the hills the moment they saw him approach. The look in the Baron and Baroness’ face, gaping at him like he’s been replaced by an alien which, yeah, the body was replaced by an alien which is Haru. An alien Haru from another universe.
“Yes.” Haru replies and resumes his past time of becoming one with the tree. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to become one with the tree compared to spending the rest of his life in a dark, damp prison with only rats and cockroaches as his company.
The prince must have known that Haru’s attention span that has been trained on him has dwindled because he doesn’t say anything anymore. There’s a few blessed silence of peace and Haru basks in it, before he hears
something someone climbing the tree and his line of sight is filled by an inverted face.
Haru should have chosen a medium tree instead. Now, there’s two of them above and the damn tree looks like it could support a hundred more.
Haru rises from lying down to sitting up and admires how fast the Prince reflexes are for instantly removing his obstructive face so Haru’s head couldn't smack into it and deal him a good injury. He rolls his shoulders and massages a knot in his nape before shooting the Prince a disgruntled look.
The distance between them is less than an arm away and Haru braces his feet in the event that the prince would suddenly push him off the branch he’s been occupying.
“I heard an interesting rumor during the midday Hunt.” The prince starts, and Haru is one wind away from belting in hysterical breakdown because Haru should know what he’s talking about since Haru was there.
“Some of my best knights joined it, you see. They told me that Baron Katou’s son won it. Additionally, he did not claim the price and somehow disappeared right after, so Baron Katou had to claim it in his place.” The prince informs him, smirk akin to a cat that got the canary and found a whole house filled to the brim with premium cat food.
Haru shifts his eyes and eats his cherries in silence to avoid confirming anything.
“My knights couldn’t stop giving Baron Katou’s son enough praises. The accuracy of his mark while seated on a moving horse was a thing that should be passed on in legends, they say. I would dismiss it as an exaggeration, but all people that I’ve passed by today have been waxing the same lyrical ever since and spreading the news to those who were not present during the midday Hunt.”
Haru bites out a curse, feeling panic well up his gut like acid burning through his intestines. He has to leave this palace or not consider leaving at all today. He exchanges a cursory look with the figure beside him and opens his mouth to say a short “Bye” before fleeing, but before he could utter anything a steely hand coils around his wrist.
“Please, we were having such a good conversation, weren’t we? Won’t you stay unless we properly finish it instead of leaving me hanging once more?” The grip around his wrist imperceptibly tightens in warning and Haru licks his lips and thinks of another plan that doesn’t include dislocating his arm just so he could get away.
“You sound like a jilted lover.” Haru says and his plan forms into one that ends up with him screaming insults at the top of his lungs to the prince. He trashes it immediately.
“I feel like a jilted lover.”
“This is the second time we’ve seen each other.” Haru informs blandly, grasping for a leverage that most likely doesn’t exist, “Also, shouldn’t you be preparing for the ball? Aren’t you the star?”
“I should, shouldn’t I? But how can I prepare in peace knowing that someone I have taken an interest to would use it as a chance to slip away?”
Haru stares at him for a long moment, not knowing what to say because really, what can you even say to that? It’s your fault for taking interest? Please don’t take interest? You can shove your interest up your ass?
The prince doesn’t even look the least perturbed when subjected to Haru’s judging eyes. He simply returns the stare with his perfect smile and if this were a manga, flowers would be blooming in the background. But it isn’t a manga, so no, there’s just awkward silence all over.
“You have low standards if you’ve taken interest in someone like me.” Haru finally says, mouth going dry every prolonged minute the moment lasts.
“You shouldn’t sell yourself short.” The prince refutes, and Haru would normally be flattered for being defended but only if he defends him when Haru is long gone, preferably in the confines of his own bedroom where it’s safe and Prince-less.
Haru sighs, and he does it like he’s breathing out his lungs, “Fine. I’ll stay here all night long and not do a runner, okay? Go back to your duties and be a good prince for the Kingdom.”
“Come down when the ball starts.”
Haru blinks at the request, or well, demand since there’s no ‘Please’ In the sentence, “Um, no? You can return here instead. Bring some foods while you’re at it.”
The prince chuckles at his response, and Haru notes that the grip in his wrist has never been loosened even once which kind of irks Haru because he might say goodbye to it soon since the blood circulation is still being cut, “You’re aware that you don’t have the authority to refuse or order me around, yes?”
“I am, but do I look like I care? What I really care about at the moment is the state of my wrist.” The snark cometh unbidden, or so they say, when somebody is very done. Haru agrees with all his heart. He can’t tiptoe about with this guy when the guy clearly does not give a shit to Haru’s state of being. Or Haru’s wrist.
The hold lightens and it would be the perfect chance for Haru to break it off, hop down at the expense of broken heels and dislocated legs, and crawl away using his hands as fast as his hands can drag him, but no, Haru’s still not far off the end in terms of his sanity. Even Haru knows that escaping is a distant dream that will never be.
Haru shakes his wrist to let the blood flow return to its usual healthy state again. The prince’s smirk becomes a weird fond smile and Haru looks at him warily.
“I still can’t trust that you won’t run. I have a feeling that the moment I turn my back away from you, you’d be in a carriage heading to your home.”
“What the hell do you want me to do? Come with you to your bedroom and change your clothes for you? Become one entity with you?” Haru almost snarls in frustration because the prince is being unreasonable. Go to the ball, and then scrap that, I can’t leave you alone because you’d take off. What. Does. He. Want.
“Excuse me what?”
“Come with me.”
Haru shuts his eyes and prays for mercy to some flying people in heaven who’s probably laughing at his misery which is his whole life, in retrospect, “What is this, a romance novel? Do I have to swoon right after and say ‘Yes’ and we run off to the sunset together?”
“We run off to my room together.”
“If that’s an innuendo then it’s a terrible one. Besides, there’s not so much distance in an enclosed space for running. I don’t want to be responsible for this Kingdom’s Crown Prince to be chucked in a mental asylum for running around inside his room like there’s a track installed there for marathon.”
The prince lifts an elegant eyebrow, “Who says I don’t have a running track in my bedroom?”
Haru’s eyes widen not because he believes the Prince’s bullshit but because the Prince has a sense of humor that’s up to Haru’s tastes, “Seriously?”
“Unfortunately, no. But I might take you up to your suggestion of helping me dressed.”
“You’re insulting your servants’ capabilities. I’d be mad if I were your servant. Actually, I’m mad for your servants. They dress you so well and you ask some incompetent nobody out there to help you dress up instead.”
“You really don’t run out of things to say, do you?”
“So I have been told. By the by, it’s turning dark now and you have your duties. Stop wasting your time around here; both of us knows that you can probably just barge in my house and demand that I be brought out from the comfort of my room and lay waste to my peaceful sedentary life. If you think I don’t know that one of my newly installed servants doesn’t report to you, then now you know. I’m sure you can know me through my servant’s report since it looks like he sends thirty pages in a day just detailing how I eat and sleep.”
Haru spits out with a grudge and has half a mind to tear off the Prince’s head for looking so startled. Probably didn’t expect that Haru knows about the plant. Or being back talked so aggressively. Either way, Haru’s quota for being social for the day has reached past the limit and up to the cosmos. Haru is done playing nice.
A smile breaks out from the prince’s lips, akin to a child that finally got the toy he’s been wanting since forever, “And you tell me that you’re not interesting, Katou Haru?”
Haru glares at him and twists his mouth in displeasure. The prince laughs at his petulant expression.
“Very well, I’ll concede for today. If you run, I’ll come to your house and invade your personal space, intrude to your family if I have to.” The prince says blithely, finally backing down and gracefully coming down from Haru’s tree like he should have the moment he climbed. Maybe he shouldn’t have climbed up at all.
Haru breathes out in relief of finally being freed from a close company of such an infuriating and tiresome individual, “Pretty sure you still will even if I don’t run.”
“Two meetings and you know me so well now, Haru.”
“Come bother me in this abode when you have offerings, Your Highness. I’m sure you can mellow me out using delicious food.” Haru replies and lies down again, shutting both of his eyes. The sun in the horizon has finally hidden every single of its rays and the lightings are replaced by the excessive ones inside the palace and well-positioned lamp posts outside.
“Very well. Don’t fall asleep or you might fall.”
“Thanks for worrying, good bye.” Haru ends the conversation and tunes out the laughter. A light crunch of footsteps away from Haru has Haru tilting his head to the side to see the Prince’s disappearing back. The prince won’t probably have time to come back anyway, since he’ll be meeting the protagonist. Hopefully, he’ll be left alone.
Against advice, Haru falls asleep. He doesn’t move a lot in his sleep so he has the confidence to stay on the branch and not fall to his death. When he wakes up, he can hear the ball’s music going on like a lullaby and quiet murmurs of people pretending to be demure. The moon is bright in the sky from Haru’s point of view.
Haru’s hope shatters when the familiar voice asks from below. He looks down and sees the Prince, in full regalia and looking every bit like a Prince in fairy tale is, laying out a picnic blanket by the tree. He also has two baskets with him filled with foods.
“Done schmoozing?” Haru asks, genuinely curious. He’d have thought that the protagonist would have the Prince’s full attention now, flirting away the whole evening.
“Yes. Ladies nowadays can be particularly insipid, especially when trying to gain favor.”
“Harsh.” Haru replies but doesn’t disagree. It’s how the book portrayed the ladies in the novel after all, falling over themselves so the Prince would spare them even the slightest of his attention. It’s a generalized and unjust portrayal; a grievous insult to the women Haru knew in his former life. Saeki would probably coo if she’s here, but Saeki could also knee someone in the balls and act cute afterwards.
Haru doesn’t get a reply and hears the rustles of cloth being unfolded and placed instead. He sits up from his position and swings down using the same branch he slept on, the length of his arms providing enough distance for Haru’s legs not to break during impact with the ground.
He mostly does it nonchalantly and distractedly, his mind still not fully awake. It’s when he’s on the ground that he notices the Prince staring at him from smoothing over the cloth on the grass. Haru tilts his head in askance, “What? Do I have something on my face?”
He wipes away at the corner of his mouth in case if he drooled and it dried, but he found no such evidence of embarrassment. The prince shakes his head ruefully, smile returning, “I’m surprised that you came down at all. I have informed your parents as to where you are, since they’ve been looking for you the moment you pulled your disappearing act.”
Haru hums and plods towards the arranged blanket spread. The prince himself is regally seated on one end, placing the two baskets in the middle, “They said when they’re going home?”
“Oh, they’ve gone home already.”
Sleepy Haru snaps to wakefulness, “What?!”
“The ball will be over soon. Half of the guests have left already.”
Haru stays rooted from where he’s standing, “And what, they just left me behind?”
“After telling them that I’ll be hosting you as a guest for tonight, they did-- gleefully so.” The prince gestures at the opposite side, and Haru begrudgingly sits down, still in suspended disbelief.
“Eat, Haru. I was told that you fancy these foods.” The prince says, and Haru mechanically reaches out for a club sandwich and takes a bite off of it. The prince could have spiked the food he brought for Haru, but Haru still couldn’t believe his parents’ betrayal.
He has wolfed down three sandwiches when he comes back to his senses, “So, anything interesting happened while I try to come to terms that my parents are traitors?”
“Nothing much. Simply the usual—entering the ball and socializing with the nobles, a slew of flatteries, dancing. Although there had been a particular…hiccup, the party went on rather smoothly in my opinion.”
“Hiccup?” Haru asks and wonders what happened to the protagonist. Did she not come today? She was supposed to bump into the prince like a typical shoujo encounter with the protagonist and male lead, and against all odds, he’d pay her attention despite her sticky nature—
“I bumped into a daughter of a Viscount and she would not leave me well alone. I had my guards escort her out in the process.”
… Haru chews on his sandwich and tries not to feel bad, but then he remembers how the entire novel had revolved around her and her view in life, which had been the reason in the first place why he found the novel distasteful. If Haru could describe her succinctly, she’s a self-serving girl who views life narrowly. Teenagers who’ve read the book would most likely romanticize her view but Haru does not.
Well, to err is human, and all that. It’s not like Haru himself is a perfect being free of mistakes and should not be criticized.
Haru kind of expected that she’d change for the better at the end of the book and found himself disappointed that her issue wasn’t even tackled at all. He wonders what Saeki saw in the book that she’d push him to read it. The cases maybe? He could agree that some of them had been interesting.
“Flying off in your head again, Haru?”
Haru looks up from eating through a blueberry puff pastry and inwardly lights a candle for this male lead who may have just lost his future wife. But the matters of the heart is not Haru’s expertise, therefore Haru will gladly wash his hands clean of that and not touch it even with a ten foot pole.
“I follow your request to stay and now you want to prolong it. Do I have to fear for any kidnappings in the future?”
“Perhaps; if it’s a kidnapping that your parents approve of.” A mischievous glint flashes on those cool eyes and Haru grits his teeth and light a candle for his future too.
“Maybe, it’ll be a kidnapping that you’ll approve of too, someday.”
Haru snorts at the wishful thinking because yes, it’s really wishful, “That’s not called a kidnapping anymore.”
“Speaking of, your mother, the Baroness, has informed me that you have received quite a lot of marriage proposals after seeing your performance earlier. There’s one from a Countess, as well.”
Haru winces and the taste of the delicious pastry suddenly becomes ash in his mouth, “I shouldn’t have picked up that damn crossbow.”
“You do not wish to get married?”
“No thanks. Not unless I like them enough to marry them.”
The prince turns quiet after that small response and Haru’s spirits resurfaces when he finds fried chicken and french fries in one of the basket. If only there’s a burger, then it would’ve been a complete set meal.
The prince huffs a what suspiciously sounds like restrained laughter, and mumbles loud enough so that Haru could hear, “So, I need to have you like me, then. It would be quite a challenge but I shall happily accept.”
Haru blinks at the strangely uttered resolve and shrugs, busying himself with eating. At least he finally understood why Saeki recommended the novel at all to Haru.
That woman knew Haru too much not to figure out what his type is, after all.