It was 8:03 AM on a chilly London morning, and the post was late.
Baker Street 221B received all sorts of mail from all sorts of people; heavily-stamped and securely classified documents from Scotland Yard, droves of fanmail directed towards the resident great detective (and usually only read and answered by the chronicler of his tales), urgent requests to take cases, and the ever-rushing tide of bills and invoices. After the postman had finally arrived to drop off the typical mountain of correspondence, and after Ryunosuke had nearly sprained his back hefting it over to the living room table, he'd noticed a small postcard had slipped out from the pile. One written in thick ink, in tidy strokes, and...in Japanese. An invitation to an afternoon get-together at the corner of Briar Road, extended to himself and Susato.
So, as the clock struck four, the two wrapped themselves up in their winter attire and made the trek to a highly familiar residence. Arriving at the door, Ryunosuke gave it a brisk knock, which prompted the immediate response of a brightly bellowed "Come in, come in!". The duo stepped into a small room that, against all odds, seemed colder than the snow-blanketed streets outside.
The resident scholar-and-student turned towards them briefly before glancing back, apparently in the midst of wholeheartedly failing to coax a resting Wagahai off of a stack of notepapers. "Please, make yourselves at home!" He seemed to have taken some pains to rearrange his humble abode into something suitable for visitors―the towering mounds of books had been shuffled into various corners of the room and redistributed into something resembling manageability, and the small writing desk usually shoved against the wall had been hefted into the center of the room, with a pillow and a folded-up blanket placed beside it as makeshift seats.
"Thank you, Natsume-san." Ryunosuke unbuttoned his coat and, after looking around for a few seconds for somewhere to hang it, draped it over the raised paw of the maneki-neko standing guard near the entrance. Susato unclasped her own, hanging it over a stack of Gothic horror and assorted farces.
Soseki, physically unable to bring himself to lift a resting cat off of anything, abandoned his futile mission. He whirled around to face the judicial duo, spreading his arms wide. "Ah, it brings my heart such joy to be able to partake in this pleasure―candid conversation with compassionate countrymen!" His lower lip trembled as he raised his quivering hands. "And in our shared mother tongue...!" A budding tear glinted at the corner of his eye, swiftly wiped away with a flick of his thumb. "I've been here so long I fear I'm rather out of practice, so please, pardon any missteps I may make."
"I...don't think you need to worry about that." Ryunosuke settled down onto the pillow, finding Soseki's archaic phrasings reminding him of literature studies back at university.
Susato sat down beside him on the folded blanket, giving a small bow. "In any case, thank you very much for the invitation, Natsume-san."
"Of course! By all means!" He straightened his lapels, his wooden sandals clicking against the floor as he approached the two. "Rest assured, it was the absolute least I could do after the myriad kindnesses you've bestowed upon me!"
"O-oh, it..." Ryunosuke grinned sheepishly, one hand ruffling the sides of his ever-prickly hair. "It was nothing, really."
With no other cushions or cushion-substitutes in his flat, Soseki slumped down onto the hard floorboards, crossing his legs. "Not nothing, Naruhodo Esquire!" He shook his head emphatically. "The absolute antithesis of nothing! What you did for me was―was everything!"
"We were only doing our job, Natsume-san." Susato deployed a smile with practiced professionalism, gentle and mild. "And we're very happy to have been able to help you."
"Still! However! Nevertheless! I'm―I'm not sure you can fully grasp the depth of my gratitude!" His arm shot out in a sudden, sweeping gesture, one stiff hand pointed in Ryunosuke's direction, eyes ablaze with fervor. "Naruhodo Esquire, do you have any idea of how terrifying it is to be slapped into manacles in a foreign land?!"
"Um, well..." Ryunosuke's hand went to his chin, his brow furrowing. "No, I suppose not. Just on a boat."
Soseki had drawn in a deep breath to continue his tirade, but found it escaping him. "Er―ah?"
"Oh, and back in Japan!" He nodded solemnly. "I nearly forgot about all of that."
"..." Soseki blinked. While Ryunosuke quietly mused on his previous run-ins with the law, he leaned over one side of the table, hissing a whisper across it. "Ms. Mikotoba Esquiress, does Naruhodo Esquire have a...past I should be aware of?"
"Only as a victim of circumstance, Natsume-san." Susato replied, not bothering to match his hushed tone. "But in any case, it's very good to see you. With everything that's happened, and with how we left you last time..." She tilted her head, mulling over how best to phrase it. "We worried you might be getting lonely."
"Ah. Well..." He trailed off, weighing his options. While his immediate instinct was to shut down any avenue of concern or reason to feel sorry for him, so as not to burden the minds of his most treasured allies, they'd seen enough of him at his worst that denying it would just come off as a flagrant lie. He cleared his throat, concocting a compromise. "...there's no need for that! I-I've socialised enough elsewhere in England to learn that it wasn't for me, and anyway, I don't intend to stay in this country much longer."
"Still..." Ryunosuke glanced up, seemingly returned from his trip down memory lane. "...without Susato-san, I'm not sure how I'd manage to cope here. It must be extremely difficult, not having other friends in the area."
It was an innocent enough remark, but something about its sincere lilt and sympathetic phrasing efficiently dredged countless memories of social misfires to the forefront of Soseki's mind. His hands twitched, bristling with defensiveness. "No, of―of course I've made friends here! You needn't worry about me, Naruhodo Esquire! There's―" He closed his eyes, counting on his fingers. "―there's Smokey, Blinker―blind in one eye, you understand―the Colonel, Macavity, Tawny―oh, a spitfire, that one―"
While she'd initially seemed optimistic, Susato's expression gradually inched towards worry. Her hand curled around her cheek as her brows furrowed. "Are...they all cats, Natsume-san?"
"Er, no, no, some..." His eyes wavered as he inhaled deeply, continuing in a rapid murmur under his breath. "Some are mice―" He arched his head suddenly towards the side and rose to his feet, bustling towards the miniature stovetop that constituted a kitchen tucked away in one corner of his flat. "The pump outside was frozen again and with my budget the way it is I couldn't procure any bottled water for tea, but I broke off some icicles from outside, so as soon as they melt..."
Behind the scholar's back Ryunosuke and Susato made eye contact, each of their expressions bearing the telltale tinges of deep concern.
"Should we...?" Ryunosuke started.
"Yes, I believe so." Susato nodded.
Ryunosuke raised his voice, calling across the small room. "Do you have any plans for dinner tonight, Natsume-san?"
"I-I do, in fact!" He replied, returning to the pair after verifying the state of the icicles, the sputtering heat of the gas stove putting up a stubborn fight against the embedded chill of the room. "I am making beef stew!"
"Oh?" Ryunosuke threw Susato a pleasantly surprised glance, who responded in kind. Any expense unrelated to procuring towers of literature normally seemed too rich for his blood. "That sounds nice."
"Most certainly! Only..." He tugged aimlessly at his pocket handkerchief. "I don't have any beef, so I'll substitute potatoes."
"Ah! Well, a regular stew can still be hearty, in winter."
"Indeed! Although..." He fiddled with one stray tendril of his hair. "I don't have any carrots, so I'll substitute potatoes."
"O-oh...?" Ryunosuke's polite smile began to fade at the edges.
"And..." He flicked some stray motes of dust off his sleeves, sinking back onto the floor. "I don't have any onions, so I'll...substitute potatoes."
"...Oh." Susato echoed, her fingers drumming against her cheek. "So...in effect, you're making potato soup?"
"...Yes." He glanced to the side, crestfallen. "That is...another way to put it."
Susato paused for a few seconds, then gave him a small nod. "I hope you enjoy your beef stew, Natsume-san."
"...Thank you." Soseki drew in a deep breath, his pupils ping-ponging from Ryunosuke's unbearably understanding smile to Susato's intolerably gentle gaze. Unthinkingly, his fists began to curl under the table as he glanced between them, before finally caving under the combined weight of their camouflaged concern. "...P-please, both of you! Your eyes are thick with pity! I-I know I'm a malnourished wreck of a man, but my vision's perfectly fine!"
"A-ah! Um, sorry, it's just―well―" Ryunosuke drew back, putting one hand to his chin and averting his eyes. "We came here today to check up on you. Partially because we were..." He glanced around the dilapidated room, lit only by a candle near the bricked-up window, cold enough that every breath formed vapor clouds in the air. "...sort of surprised you're still staying here."
"Ah, well, the room in which I almost met my death several times over is..." Soseki's eyes twitched, pupils darting around the walls, scanning for spectral wisps. "Hardly ideal, of course. But the rent is paid up until the end of the month, and I'm afraid I don't have the resources to find another location..."
"In that case..." Susato placed her hands in her lap, speaking gently as she unveiled their offer. "Why don't you spend the night at our residence?"
His wavering gaze froze, zipping back to the slightly awkward but undeniably warm smiles of his visitors. Having his well-being cared about by others was, after one endlessly long and unbearably alienating year in this country, a long-forgotten sensation. A soft, prickling fuzz swelled in his chest. "Wh―why don't I...? I―yes! I―gladly! I―" His hands, outstretched in gratitude, went stiff in mid-air. Bit by bit, his fingers began to curl and twitch. "But wait...you're lodging with him, aren't you?" Narrowing his eyes, setting his teeth, and clenching his fists, he loaded his voice with every ounce of pent-up contempt available to him. "Herr Lock Sholmes! The blighted blister baning my―"
"Natsume-san..." Susato's professionally neutral tones slid in effortlessly between syllables, cutting short his alliterative assault. "I know there's some bad blood between the two of you, but Mr. Sholmes is really quite a gentleman once you get to know him...in his own way."
"H-hrm." He leaned back and folded his arms, utterly unwilling and ultimately unable to meet her on this field of debate. "Well...that may be the case, but..."
She tapped her cheek, continuing, her words calm and contemplative. "And this place could still be hazardous to your health, couldn't it?"
"Well..." Soseki's eyes flicked between the exposed pipes, the inadequate stove, the bricked-up window, the vanishingly meager bed... "Perhaps, but..."
"Then it's settled!" Susato's smile shifted from professional to glowing, having quietly spic-and-spanned every little detail away with practiced efficiency. "Pack everything you need, Natsume-san―I'll hail a cab!" And, with a pump of her fists and a quick nod, she grabbed her coat and set off out the door at a brisk pace.
A creature of habit, and a relentless shut-in, Soseki responded to her bustling hurry with a frozen stare. "...Now?" After a few moments, it melted into muddled confusion, glancing from the open door to Ryunosuke and back again. "But I, ah―I just put thruppence in the meter, I..."
"We'll reimburse you, Natsume-san." Ryunosuke said, smiling as he got to his feet and moved towards the exit. "We'll be waiting outside. Take your time, alright?"
For a few moments, Soseki stood stock-still in the frigid husk that constituted his flat, taking in the sudden change to his day's schedule. There was a very adamant part of him that was ever-inclined to cancel plans, to reject alterations, to burrow into solitude, but...with the myriad kindnesses these two had already heaped upon him, accepting one more would hardly be too much, would it? And...he took a few last cursory glances around the room, one tensely-held breath deflating out of him. After the recent events, he really would rather be anywhere but here, even if that meant the lodgings of London's so-called 'Great Detective'.
With that resolve tucked away in his mind, he packed a few books, his sleepwear, extinguished the gas stove, coaxed Wagahai into his travelling bag with an oft-practiced combination of pats and scratches...and, after some consideration, leaving a note on the door alerting Mr. Garrideb to his absence, in the unlikely circumstance he'd be wanted for something.
Casting one last glance around his flat, he scurried down the stairs, gritting his teeth against the firm chill of the London winter as he stepped onto its icy streets. His sandals left distinctive indentations in the snow as he paced over to his allies, joining the pair in a pulled-up hansom―and, though the cushioning was relatively barebones, there was still a sense of distinctive luxury to it. Not since the first day of his arrival to this country had he gotten the opportunity to travel in one of these...at least, provided you weren't counting the two one-way rides that had been foisted on him on behalf of the police department. His companions sank into light conversation, discussing various facets of the upkeep of their office, and Soseki leaned back, tensing every muscle in his body in his furious attempt to relax.
Before long, the three had arrived at Baker Street. Ryunosuke and Susato led the way, with Soseki following some distance behind, instinctively clinging to shadowy corners. As they advanced up the steps, he found himself tensing; the lilting, uptempo sound of a jaunty waltz was drifting down the stairwell, getting closer as they approached the door. Ryunosuke fumbled slightly inside his coat pocket, retrieved his copy of the apartment key, and the trio stepped inside. The two occupants went to remove their shoes and hang up their coats, while Soseki only managed to get as far as setting his bag down on the floor before retracting back into a rigid unease.
There was no point denying it for even a second: The place was a substantial step up from his own humble abode. Vast, wide, and window-endowed, with a roaring fire at the far wall that banished all trace of the encroaching chill. The furniture was heftily cushioned and set in charming arrangements, the eclectic decorations spoke to a life dripping with untold stories. Being offered a chance to reside in a place like this, he would've wept with joy, if not for...
Ryunosuke shut the door behind them with a gentle click. A sudden edge to the lilting violin music sliced a clear cut through Soseki's train of thought, his eyes zeroing in on the turned back of the withering pest that seemed to find every opportunity to creep into his life. The shambling shyster of a great detective, the accursed accuser, his revolting rival...whirled around, and burst into a grin that seemed to scatter light into each shadowy corner of the room.
"Ah, my dear fellow, how utterly delightful to see you again!" He beamed, approaching the three with the light, dance-like steps that seemed to carry him wherever he went. And, though it seemed likely to be some manner of optical illusion, Soseki couldn't help but feel like he was staring straight down at him.
He found himself thrown for a loop. Try as he might, it was remarkably difficult to sustain a bout of loathing under that gleeful gregariousness. "It―it is?"
"Of course!" On closer inspection, tracing the line of the detective's gaze, it seemed to be fixed not on him but on his bag...or, more specifically, on the passenger within. As Wagahai hopped out Sholmes stooped down, scooping her into his arms and scratching her attentively behind the ears. "Our last meeting was really too brief to form a proper bond, wasn't it, Mr. Calico?" Ah. Yes, of course.
"...Good afternoon, Mr. Sholmes." Ryunosuke started, seemingly having gotten into the habit of needing to remind his co-lodger of the existence of people around him.
"Afternoon, Mr. Naruhodo, Ms. Susato! Where have you―" His eyes went from the first presence, then the second, then stopped as they settled on the third. The great detective gasped, flailing his arms as he tumbled backwards. It all happened in one acrobatic set of motions―Wagahai bounded out of his grasp, Sholmes converted the momentum of his haphazard fall into a backwards somersault, and as his heels connected with the floor he sprung back to his feet, arms whirling in clear preparation for impending fisticuffs. "My good fellow, you've got some gall to sneak up on an old college boxer like that!"
"I―" He raised his hands, curled into furious fists―then, hastily realizing the detective might interpret it as him putting up his dukes, slammed them back down to his sides. "Sholmes, I did no such thing! I've been here all this time!"
"Oh, have you?" He studied the man's face for a few moments, scanning for tics, before tapping a finger to his temple. "...well, I suppose you must have slipped beneath my notice. I'm afraid you're eminently forgettable, when you're not terrified or outraged."
Twitch. The blood boiled at his face, brows curling like a set of caterpillars squaring up for a wrestling match. "Y-you―"
The detective smiled, framing Soseki's face with his fingers. "Ah, there he is! It's all coming back to me now!" He put one foot backwards, one arm waving in an elaborate flourish as he gave a light bow. "Pleasure to meet you again, Mr. Natsume."
Soseki snarled, his flickering eyes zipping towards the door behind him and, on seeing Ryunosuke was standing too close for an easy escape, darting towards the window. Susato noticed, clasping her hands in front of her."...Mr. Natsume's had a long week, Mr. Sholmes. Please don't give him too much of a hard time."
"I wouldn't dream of doing anything of the sort! He is, after all, exquisitely entertaining company." Sholmes paused for a moment, twirling a wisp of his hair with one finger. "Now, what was it? There's a faint recollection teetering on the very precipice of my mind...ah yes, of course!" He spiked one finger into the air, scowling. "Mr. Naruhodo, I am absolutely furious with you!"
"W-what?" Ryunosuke reeled back slightly, his eyes wide. "How come?"
"You absconded without so much as a by-your-leave!" Sholmes spun around, pacing the room as his arms whipped out in wild, theatric gesturing. "As evening rolled around and hunger pangs resounded through my body, I was torn by the moral dilemma―to feast alone, or to wait for my companions to return, even as it meant being taken to the brink of starvation?"
Ryunosuke paused, then slumped forward, an exasperated expression creeping up on him. "We...we told you we'd be leaving later in the day. This morning, remember? We even left a note."
"Yes, but you didn't leave a note telling me to read it, did you?" Ryunosuke had to admit, he was slightly impressed―for all the witnesses and criminals he'd interrogated, he'd never encountered anyone with Mr. Sholmes' finely-honed knack for shifting blame. "I was forced to partake of my dinner in utter solitude, abandoned by all!"
"...I'm glad your priorities are in place, Mr. Sholmes." He sighed. Susato, her tone considerably more jovial, continued:
"And I'm glad you found a solution to your moral dilemma, Mr. Sholmes!"
"Well, never mind that. All is forgiven. I suppose I can eat twice. Are you hungry, Mr. Moustache?" He'd be met by complete silence, Soseki's eyes firmly fixed on the bounteous table at the side of the room like a cat staring at an aquarium. Sholmes smirked, snapping his fingers. "Don't dilly-dally, then!"
The quartet made their way to the table, and while conversation was admittedly somewhat shaky at first, Ryunosuke and Susato's habitual repartee set up a wonderful foundation to build on. Even Sholmes seemed to be managing to keep his more barbed remarks to himself, although that might just have been as a consequence of his intense focus on cramming as many Scotch eggs into his mouth as possible. The topic rested mainly on literature, the only field in which Soseki routinely found he had something to contribute; but, as that discussion got slightly too animated for comfort, Susato diplomatically tugged the subject away to flit around the many curiosities of England's transportation, industry, and fog-wreathed weather.
And at one point in the conversation, without particular interruption or fanfare, Susato shifted into Japanese. It made him stiffen up a little, glancing sideways at the Englishman at the table, but Sholmes had lit his pipe and seemed to be in an inattentive state of post-food bliss, so he mustered his courage and responded in kind. Having spent the past year getting more and more used to being branded an outsider through any eccentricity, increasingly conscious of his speaking and accent, being given the opportunity to have a conversation in his native tongue in the presence of a Brit felt...oddly tense, and yet wonderfully liberating.
They spoke of the beaches at summer, the streets in winter, the abundant foliage of spring, the withering branches of autumn. They spoke of their respective steamboat journeys to England, their expectations before leaving, and all the various customs, sights and people they missed from Japan. When the conversation wrapped up, being submerged in that wave of recollection and reminiscence had left him feeling thoroughly at home, as if he could open the door right this moment and discover the bustling streets of Tokyo outside.
No such luck, of course. But it was a nice thought.
He leaned back, simultaneously sluggish and revitalized by the rare treat of a substantial meal; he hadn't eaten this well since...well, the last time he was invited here after his first trial, not too long ago. Come to think of it, casting his mind back to that day...one recollection pushed through his thoughts, prompting him to glance around the room for someone noticeably missing.
"So..." He started, slipping back into English, prompting Sholmes to ever-so-slightly glance up from his pipe. "What became of that girl who was here the other day? Your, ah..." He paused for a second. The man didn't seem capable of a speck of maturity, but there was really only one possibility, wasn't there? "Daughter?"
"Oh, um―" Ryunosuke raised one finger. "Iris is really more of Mr. Sholmes' roommate than his―"
"In her room." Sholmes cut him off swiftly, a clear frisson of pride bubbling through his normally-aloof voice. "Inspiration for a new project's consumed her every waking hour since this morning! Well, nearly every―she and I prepared dinner before she bustled back to work, and..." His gaze seemed to fix on some faraway point mid-sentence, eyes lowering as he continued. "...recalling it now, I'm not sure she actually had any."
Ryunosuke nodded, tapping his chin. A few moments passed before his eyes swivelled back to Sholmes, brows furrowed. "Wait, you ate twice before making sure she'd eaten at all?"
"...A lapse in judgement." Sholmes muttered, no snappy comeback or graceful buck-shifting to hand. A shade of genuine worry seemed to dwell on his face; the girl was clearly a sensitive subject for him.
"Ah!" Susato exclaimed, slightly too loudly; she dialled herself back down, clearing her throat as she continued. "Why don't you bring some dinner to her room, Mr. Natsume?"
Soseki nodded, having been bestowed a benevolent bounty of boons and eager to make himself useful. Before he'd even had the time to pace around the table, Sholmes deployed every ounce of his customary food-obtaining speed to cobble together a plate featuring a smattering of ham, eggs, salad, yellow cherry tomatoes ("She hates the red ones, you understand") and various other sundries. The residents of Baker Street resumed chatting behind him in hushed tones as he embarked on a search for Ms. Wilson's room. A series of ringing, metallic clangs led him to a door adorned with a couple of small plush animals, which seemed to be the likeliest candidate; he raised his hand to knock, but was intercepted by a cheery "Door's open!" from inside.
After a quick initial peer inside to scan for potential dangers, he'd inch open the door just enough to slither in, pressing his back to the wall. His time in this country had ingrained him with the habits of a prey animal. To an extent, the room was overwhelmingly decorated with bright pastels, a parade of pinks, purples and blues; the extent stopped at the spot occupied by a large wooden workbench, festooned with brass and gears and innumerable, unnameable contraptions. In front of it sat a small figure, relentlessly hammering something that resembled a bulbous trophy at the end of a complicated series of metal rods. With her eyes obscured by thick goggles and her hands bundled up in thick gloves, it was hard not to see the girl as some sort of temporally displaced blacksmith.
"Mr. Natsume, it's so nice to see you again!" She said between hammer-swings, eyes still firmly fixed on the inscrutable device that she was working on.
He took a deep breath as he cautiously stepped further into the room. Whatever the indiscretions of Sholmes, his daughter had always proved vastly more tolerable company in the few encounters they'd shared. "And the very same to you, Ms―ah, Dr. Wilson! The others were concerned you might not have eaten, so..."
"Oh, how sweet of them! I brought a plate with me earlier, but I am getting fairly peckish." He set the meal down on a side-table, neatly covered with lace (which was, itself, non-neatly covered with motor oil). "Hurley didn't bother you too much, did he?"
"Well...not so much with his words, no..." His lips curled into a snarl, recalling their brief-yet-intense foray into English literature. "But―but his opinions! He had the audacity to say he found Milton 'overrated and rank'! Said he preferred some fellow named Camembert―that pompous showoff knows I don't speak French!"
"Oh dear..." The young girl turned slightly to the side and pushed her goggles up to her forehead to reveal a small frown, oft-deployed when discussing her co-lodger. "I believe he might've meant 'Stilton', Mr. Natsume. I'm afraid Hurley knows his cheeses better than he knows his literature."
Rewinding details of their conversation in his head, Soseki found that made...an infuriating amount of sense. He pinched the bridge of his nose, clamping his eyes shut. "Agh...even when he hasn't the faintest idea what he's talking about, that man still manages to vex me!"
"Mhm, he tends to have that effect on people. Still, I hope you enjoyed the food―oh, while you're here, pass me that screwdriver, would you?"
He nodded, identifying it from a neatly-organized tool rack and handing it over. "Wholeheartedly! It was all absolutely wonderful, thank you."
"I'm glad to hear it! I was considering making some dish that'd be familiar to you, but I didn't want to mess it up...but Susie's promised to teach me how to make unadon for next time! Hopefully jellied eels will be a decent substitute for the fresh variety―pass me that potassium nitrate, would you?"
"Ah, I―" His gaze flickered over a vast array of containers and vessels on a wall-mounted rack, each labelled with too-many densely packed chemical syllables in tidy, elegant cursive. "Er―"
"The white bottle." After some further scanning he managed to identify it, glass clinking as he passed it over. She uncorked it and scattered a generous sprinkling into one open end of the construction...which, to his now-alert eyes, was beginning to look more and more like a rocket launcher. As soon as the powder sank into the barrel the apparatus sparked to life, beginning to rattle and fizz like an over-pressured steam boiler. "There we go―open the window, would you?" Iris gave a darling grin, pinning the increasingly-erratic device in both arms. "And quickly, if you don't mind."
He twitched, his own jitters intensifying alongside those of the device―having dodged execution in the halls of the Old Bailey twice and death by suffocation nightly, Soseki had no intention of ending his life as an unfortunate bystander in a madcap experiment. He stomped hastily to the window and unlatched it with trembling fingers as Iris followed alongside. She held the chaotically convulsing construction in her arms, aligning it onto the cityscape outside, adjusting one degree here, one degree there, calibrating for wind strength...then pulled a lever on the side of the device and watching it streak across the sky, leaving a trail of vibrantly colored smoke.
The two of them watched as it disappeared over the clusters of buildings. At the zenith of its curve, it cracked open, dropping a small payload fixed with a miniature parachute which drifted softly through the air; finally, the rocket itself arced back down, clattering harmlessly against the roof of an apartment building. Iris beamed and clapped her hands, the look of unabashed delight on her face split neatly halfway between a scientist with a successfully proven hypothesis and a child with a new toy.
"I'm working on a new delivery method for my manuscripts to the offices of Randst! Saves us making the trip ourselves, or paying for postage. Of course..." She took a look at the heavy streak of scorch marks that had formed on the floor behind the launcher, putting one hand to her chin. "There are a few snags to work out."
It took Soseki a few moments to regain focus, but as the smoke faded from the air, he rustled himself to attention. "A-ah―yes, of course! You're a published writer, aren't you? A-and at your age, no less!" He said, overpoweringly eager to steer the subject away from anything explosive, corrosive, acidic or incendiary. He adjusted a few strands of his hair, dabbing away a cold sweat in the process. "I must say, with you having reached success so young, it makes me feel rather...feeble to not have started yet."
"Oh, I know!" Iris nodded, setting the launcher back onto her workbench with a heavy clunk. "I often wish I'd started at eight, but that's the way it goes, I suppose." She turned to face him, her spirits seemingly buoyed by the successful experiment. "I've written more stories now than if I'd never started at all, and when you get going, Mr. Natsume, so will you!"
Well...that was true, he couldn't deny that. He found himself doubting whether this girl, with her multifaceted competence, keen insight and decidedly helpful spirit could really be Sholmes' daughter. "Yes...yes, quite right. Then, if I may ask...have you any advice for dealing with those employed in the magazine trade?"
"Newspaper men, hm..." She closed her eyes, lost in thought. "Well, I'd say the most important thing is keeping your deadlines. The paper always has to see print, after all. Always try to bear in mind an angle for continuing a story, and good points to end your installments..." She paced gently around the room, waving her hands in a fairly convincing impression of a university lecturer, as he nodded along. "A thrilling chase or a dramatic turn are often good places to end on, though take care not to overrely on them. Whether it's emotional stakes or grand adventures, there should always be something for the reader to look forward to in the next issue..."
Finally she turned sharply on her heel, her puffy sleeves floofing through the air as she twirled to face him. "But in terms of getting published in the first place, they're businessmen first and foremost! What they're all looking for is something they can sell, so..." She grinned, brandishing a finger in a way that was uncannily and unsettlingly similar to the great detective's glib mannerisms. "All you've got to do is blaze with a determined confidence that you can give them what they ask for!"
"...I see." He nodded in a resigned sort of way and tapped a finger to his temple, clearly already having put any option that relied on confidence out of his mind. "Well...I suppose they're not the only avenue to literary success."
That, clearly, had been the wrong answer. "No, no, Mr. Natsume―" Iris circled him, scrutinizing him from tip to toe with a discerning eye. "Come on, straighten your back! Eye contact! 'I am the renowned author, Soseki Natsume!'" Her face lit up in an encouraging smile. "Try it!"
The child's sparkling eyes seemed to beam straight into his heart, but his days as a teacher had given him some degree of immunity to that type of weaponized sweetness. "A-ah, aha―no, thank you." He spoke with a practiced demurity, tilting his head in an attempt at an authorly affectation. "I shall favor a...subtler style of self-promotion."
"..." Softly, she shook her head from side to side. Her shoulders lifted in a small shrug as she looked up at him, sporting an expression of faint yet potent disapproval. "Mr. Natsume, if you can't assert yourself in front of a ten-year-old, how do you intend to pitch your stories to a hall of critical editors?"
Soseki jolted backwards as if he'd just received a haymaker to the chest. The ability to immediately identify a carefully-guarded nerve of his, then strike it without mercy and with full force...maybe this girl really was Sholmes' daughter, after all. After a few tense moments under her unwavering gaze he cleared his throat, glanced towards the floor, and forced out an ephemerally soft murmur.
"I, ah―I-I am the ren―"
Iris folded her arms, going seamlessly from 'university lecturer' to 'elocution instructor'. "Louder!"
He raised his eyes, still flickering like candles in the breeze, and twiddled his fingertips. "I'm―I mean, I am the renowned―"
"Close!" She grinned. "Once more, from the top!"
Before his mind's eye danced the recollection of Locum Student Naruhodo Esquire and Ms. Mikotoba Esquiress, cutting radiant silhouettes in the grim halls of the Old Bailey. Eyes shut, teeth gritted, fists clenched: Resolve! Determination! Blaze with confidence! "I AM―"
Outside, around the dining table, the remaining lodgers of Baker Street's conversation was in full swing. Susato ran her thumb along the handle of her teacup as she spoke. "...So, that's why we think―" She froze mid-sentence, cut off by the blaring lilt of self-affirmation exercises resounding through the walls. Ryunosuke and her both turned to stare in the direction of Iris' room, eyes wide and puzzled―Sholmes, on the other hand, grinned and grasped his pipe, beaming with the familiar pride of any parent who finds their child has made a new friend.
And so, through a meandering road of tea, conversation, parlor games, and an admittedly well-performed violin recital, afternoon gave way to evening, and evening gave way to night. Iris withdrew to bed early, taken by post-dinner drowsiness; Sholmes practiced his customary disappearing act, seeming to flit away in the spaces between moments; and, finally, the trio of Japanese exchange students swapped words of good night before Ryunosuke and Susato disappeared up the staircase to their office-abode. Soseki remained downstairs, having established camp for the night on the drawing room sofa. After casting a series of swift glances around him to ensure privacy, he unbuttoned his vest and got changed.
When he departed from Japan, he'd packed his best dress kimono―for high-society parties, and literary mingling affairs. In the days before the endlessly vast span of the current year had passed, back when the possibility of coming to England still held some sort of promise, back before his increasingly escalating terror of doing anything that marked him as an outsider...he'd hoped that it might be a conversation piece, something to share with fellow men of letters hoping to learn about the ever-expanding world around them.
Thinking back on it now, it felt impossibly naive. Over time societal gatherings had become rare in his world, open-minded people even rarer, and as the encroaching chill of winter crept in through the poorly-maintained walls of his flat...it really wasn't fit for anything but to sleep in, ensconcing himself in a frail layer of extra warmth and a nightly reminder of home.
Of course, he mused, staring up at the brightly-painted ceiling, that presumed that he'd even manage to sleep in the first place. The couch was unnervingly soft to a spine that had gotten used to floorboards, and besides, it was a whole four hours or so from his earliest bedtime. As if that wasn't enough, consciousness at this hour always brought with it a trickling flood of unwanted thoughts; being a drain on the resources of his compatriots, his relative lack of interesting life events to share, and, hovering uneasily near the forefront of his mind above all else, the fact that he'd have to trudge back to his room in the morning.
Haunted by the persistent spectres conjured by his own mind, he tossed and turned fruitlessly before letting out a weary groan, muffled by the cushions. He sat up, rubbing his eyes, resolving to read a book by gaslight or somesuch―
―only to find Sholmes perching on the edge of the couch like some towering sleep paralysis demon. Soseki jerked back, one shrill shriek escaping him before he clamped his hand over his mouth.
"A wonderful falsetto, Mr. Moustache!" The detective rebounded, seemingly entirely unfazed. "If your career as a writer doesn't work out, have you considered the opera?"
"Sh-Sholmes!" He stammered, still coming down from a rush of fight-or-flight adrenaline, his heartbeat slowing from its quadrupled pace to a mere triple. "What are―what on earth are―"
"It's one of the disadvantages of a brilliant mind, you see." Sholmes shifted to a sitting pose, leaning back and crossing his legs, seeming to constantly balance near the edge of teetering off. "It often doesn't see fit to let me rest. I see you happen to be similarly afflicted!"
"Um―" The rampant uneasiness that plagued him was hardly a mark of a 'brilliant mind', but then again, the manic cacophony that surely constituted the inside of Sholmes' brain couldn't qualify, either. "S-Something like that, I suppose..."
"Very good!" Sholmes snapped his fingers and hopped off the couch with an abrupt certainty, leaving Soseki to worry whether he'd just unthinkingly agreed to something. He paced the room with uptempo steps, moving in the direction of the door. "A walk, then! To dial down the senses."
"Sholmes, I..." He'd only spent a minute in the company of this man, but he could already feel a profound weariness settling into his bones. "...after everything that's happened, I'd―I prefer not to go outside after dark."
"Come now!" His towering form loomed forwards over the armrest, casting an upside-down yet unmistakably disapproving scowl far too close to Soseki's own face. "No roving thug would dare attack London's greatest detective, and besides, what could be a better alibi than being at my side?"
"...Do what you want." He rolled onto his side, shutting his eyes again. "But it's the dead of night in the dead of winter, and I'm staying indoors."
"Hm. I see." The great detective put one hand to his chin, making a show of musing. "So that's the story, is it..." Sholmes struck a pose, his tone adopting a professional neutrality laced with mild concern. "'Yes, officers, he claims he was sleeping at a friend's, but there's no one that can attest to his whereabouts―'"
Soseki's eyes slammed open and he whirled around, flopping like a fish on dry land. "Wh―y-you―" He fixed his most intent stare on the detective, eyes meticulously and fervently scanning for any errant twitch or flickering glance that might betray his bluff. Sholmes remained stoically statuesque. After a few moments of breathless rage, he conceded. "―ugh, fine!"
"Ahahahaha! Yes, I knew that'd light a fire under you!" Soseki got changed in haste, every movement rapid and clipped, rattling off a series of ornate insults under his breath; clearly furious, but not furious enough to want to risk disrupting the other residents' sleep. "Come, come, no need to be cross. Fresh air is the cheapest panacea known to man, no?"
With the cheery click of the detective's heels, a hissed 'Pesky―pestering―pestilent―pest', and the soft thump of the door shutting behind them, the darkened interior of 221B Baker Street fell back into tranquil silence.
Winter in London was a remarkable spectacle, viewing it from the outside. The relentless gears of industry never truly ground to a halt; horse hooves clattered across the thoroughfares routinely, laborers and bankers alike trudged through the many winding streets and alleys of the town, and wherever you went you could see the vivid energy of a city that refused to bow down to the elements. The cobbles sparkled with freshly-fallen snow, and icicles twinkled under the persistent lamplight. Soseki had never truly been able to appreciate any of these details, however, as his focus was always pinned towards one of its more practical angles.
Winter in London was wretchedly, woefully, worryingly...wintrous. Arctic. Tundraesque. Cold. The constant pile-ups of snow would've been bad enough on their own, but it never seemed to really stop, only thinning above street level as it morphed into the city's characteristic mist. Forcing your way through the thick fog was like navigating through a wall of ice, leaving droplets of condensation to linger and freeze on your skin.
Pushed into this frigid hellhole in the middle of the night Soseki hissed, snarled, and cursed, lingering behind Sholmes as much as he could to avoid being dragged into some inane conversation...and occasionally speeding up to a sprint, acutely conscious of not losing track of the man's silhouette in the thick mist. Finally, through many untraceable twists and turns, the great detective stopped at a small open field that, in the warmer months, probably filled the role of some sort of park; he settled down on a well-worn bench after dusting some snow off of it, crossing his legs and clasping his hands behind his head. Soseki followed suit, getting seated at the very extreme of the other edge.
"There, you see?" Sholmes peered through the strands of mist, towards the clear night sky beyond. "Bracing, isn't it? And all those stars!"
Soseki threw a quick yet potent glare at him, then squinted up at the sky, half-obscured through the thick fog. "I can't...see any."
"No, me neither." He continued seamlessly, as if he'd never claimed anything else. "But it's lovely to imagine them, isn't it?"
"Ghh..." Soseki tried to set his teeth in fury, but they were chattering too much to manage. "W-why'd you dr-drag me out in this―" He cupped his hands, blowing into them furiously before hugging them tight to his body. "―blasted weather, anyway?"
Sholmes closed his eyes, his trademark grin beginning to curl across his lips. "A pertinent question! Let me tell you a story."
"What? No, don't―"
"Some years ago," Sholmes pressed on, unrelenting. "I had the stupendously good fortune of making the acquaintance of another exchange student from a faraway land. He was disciplined, kind, strong, attentive, considerate, exceedingly patient and extremely resilient..." He seemed to be drifting further and further into recollection as he spoke, before darting back to the present with a soft snap of his fingers. "Or, to put it another way, he was the polar opposite of you in every way imaginable!"
Soseki could feel his patience run dry at much the same pace as he could feel his toes going numb. "Sholmes, if you just wanted to insult me, you could've done it in front of a roaring fire―"
The great detective waved his hand irritably. "I am building to a point, Mr. Moustache! Pray, don't interrupt me before I pen my conclusion. As I was saying..." A note of warm reminiscence seeped into his voice as he continued. "This man was a one-in-a-million specimen, balancing his inexhaustible strength with an ever-present warmth. As I came to know him he struck me as someone fiercely independent, who seemed to need no other person on earth, and yet..."
The detective's smile, usually lingering on a spectrum of smugness ranging from 'mild' to 'intolerable', seemed to have departed off on a new axis: 'sincere'. "...he insisted that he did. And thus, I drew my masterful deduction." Abruptly his finger jabbed in Soseki's direction, prompting some distressing flashbacks of all the other times Sholmes had targetted him with his scrutiny while wielding that exact same self-assured grin. "That you, as his polar opposite, is someone who fervently insists he doesn't need friends, yet quite direly does!"
Soseki found himself knocked off-balance as he once again took center stage in the detective's deductions. "Excuse―I―'fervently'―" His brain was working overtime dissecting every detail of that insufferably presumptuous statement, hopping rapidly from plain anger to rationalization to argumentation and back across. Eventually, he drew the first weapon in his arsenal: Denial. His fists clenched at his sides. "I've never said anything of the kind!"
"Oh? Then indulge me in a line of questioning, Mr. Moustache." His fingers weaved an elaborate dance through the air, flourishing triumphantly as if he was about to deal the coup de grace. "If you don't veer away from socialization, then why do you seem to make every effort to avoid me?"
"Why―why do I―" He could feel a vein thumping in his forehead, his eyes bulging. In normal circumstances, honesty generally had to filter through a fair share of distortions before reaching his lips; but this man always managed to bring out the bluntness in him, and spurred further by the biting chill of cold and the needling edge of sleep-deprivation, Soseki drew a deep breath, clenched his fists tighter, and hit him with the uninhibited truth. "Because I despise you!"
His words lingered in the air, hovering in the hallowed silence of this winter night. Sholmes mused on them for a few seconds before giving a curt nod. "...Ah. Yes, you do, don't you?" He put one hand to his chin and glanced sideways, solemnly inspecting the wispy branches of a nearby willow. Soseki caught his breath and drew back, and just as he started to feel pinpricks of guilt overtake his initial rush of fighting spirit, the great detective doubled over, folding on himself like a slumped scarecrow and bursting into cawing laughter. "Ahahaha! Well, so much for that theory!"
Soseki exhaled through clenched teeth, feeling just the tiniest shard of relief that he hadn't been genuinely hurt and overwhelmingly silly that he'd worried about it in the first place. He rustled his head, changing tacks. "Well―anyway, it's not like that at all! I have Locum Student Naruhodo Esquire, and Ms. Mikotoba Esquiress, and I welcome their company gladly! A-and it might happen to be the case that they're the only ones, and―and that I only made their acquaintance last week, but―" A defensiveness was prickling and curling around him, doubling down further under Sholmes' attempts to scrutinize his social state. "―but it doesn't matter! I have no interest in mingling with any of the wretched people of this wretched country! I know! I've tried!"
The detective glanced back at him, a twinkle of curiosity glinting in his blank eyes. "Oh?"
He drew himself back, his twitching fingers settling. Ugh. In all his eagerness to trounce this man on the field of argument, he'd said too much, touching on the grounds of long-ignored memory Naruhodo Esquire had unintentionally dredged up this afternoon. He'd managed to sidestep the subject at the time, but the houndingly horrible Herr Lock Sholmes was certain not to let him get away that easily.
Still...there was something handy, perhaps, about having a rival. The things that he didn't want to confess to the people he actually respected for fear of worrying them could all be offloaded on this convivial thorn in his side. He adjusted a few strands of his hair, his normally-wavering voice settling into a moody monotone. "It―it was a long time ago now...in my first lodgings. The people there were slightly snobby, but gregarious―perhaps just to keep up appearances, I don't know. I wound up invited to a-a minor get-together, some pub night. I dreaded going, but I moreso dreaded staying at home, and they were nice enough, and..." A hole grew in his chest as he spoke, drawing to the glumly inevitable end of his story. "We talked. I enjoyed myself. And as the evening went on, I invited my hosts to go..." He let out a deep sigh, rubbing his eyes. "Snow viewing."
Sholmes beamed with recognition, drawing his thumb along the rim of his pipe. "Ah, a wonderful custom! An old friend spoke highly of the festivals at Sapporo."
"Y...yes." His puzzled eyes scrutinized the man beside him, who always seemed to know less than he should, and more than he had any right to... "A-anyway, they got these...stiff, confused smiles. I tried to explain, but I could tell the words were bouncing off of them, and it was one of my first and strongest reminders that I―" Resistance was building in his chest, but now that he'd started, he forced himself to keep going. One word at a time. He drew in a deep breath.
"―that I do not belong here. I know there are millions of people who would have understood what I meant, but they're all so...far away. I'd been aware I was alone, but in that moment I felt lonely, and it all kept going..." He put one hand to his cheek, leaning forward, his half-lidded eyes staring at one particular spot of dead greenery. "Very downhill from there, I'm afraid."
He'd been bracing himself for interruptions at any spot in the conversation, but Sholmes, for once, seemed to be listening. A tense silence hung between them for a few moments before he spoke up again, his voice remarkably restrained. "...A tragic yarn, Mr. Natsume. If I'd known, I wouldn't have waited until today."
"What?" He glanced sidelong at Sholmes, brows furrowing. "Waited with what?"
The great detective's split-second seriousness fell to the wayside, his trademark grin cracking his face once more. "With my invitation to go snow viewing, of course! I'm very glad you accepted." Sholmes' arm spread wide, indicating the glittering field before them. "After all, it's beautiful this time of year, isn't it?"
"..." He threw one skeptical glance in Sholmes' direction. Then, putting his many concerns and anxieties to the wayside, Soseki looked up.
The area clearly didn't see many visitors, leaving a crisp, untouched blanket of white to adorn the various stones and cobbles. The trees stood silent and majestic, painted in the colors of winter in a stark contrast to the gray, withered branches above. Halos of gaslight diffracted through the fog, twinkling across the frozen barrens and leaving the landscape with the smoothness of silk and the sparkle of diamonds. It was, undeniably, beautiful. His gaze trailed across the park slowly, then bit by bit went back to his side...to the great detective, beholding the scene with his own glittering grin.
Did he plan this? Was he making it all up after the fact? He couldn't have known, and yet...how could this man so seamlessly bounce between seeming like he didn't know anything, and seeming like he knew everything? A dozen persistent questions picked away at his mind, but for the moment, the serene sight of the area began infusing him with some of its calm. "Yes, I...I suppose it is."
Lost for a moment in the glimmering scene, they sat in silence together. Finally, Soseki shook his head. "Still, that...loneliness is one of the reasons why I'm pursuing the field of literature. My time here has been unbearable, and I do want my experiences to be useful for something, but more than that, I want―" His arms went stiff once again, muscles tensing as he jabbed one hand out in a javelin-like thrust. "For my works to unfold down the ages! To bring smiles and tears and comforting acknowledgement to the countless generations of the future! To make people think "What stories he told", and "I wish I could have known him"!"
"But my good man...if all you want is for people to get to know you, surely you don't need to wait until you're dead." Sholmes flicked a finger in his direction, his theatrical gesture enhanced by the spotlight thrown upon him from the hazy illumination of the gaslights. "Wouldn't it be easier to make friends in the here and now?"
Soseki glanced up at this beaming, radiant, unabashedly confident man, envying whatever aura of black magic he possessed that left him immune to self-doubt. He wished it was that easy. He wondered why it wasn't. Finally he rubbed his forehead, sighing. "...You'd think so. But I am...I..."
He felt himself trailing off and going quiet again, but these were sentiments he hadn't properly phrased for ages, even before he came to this country, even before taking into account the solitude of the past year. Something about it all felt too important to sink back into sullen silence. He slammed his hands onto his knees, deploying violent movements in an attempt to physically kickstart his confession, and gritted his teeth. "Sholmes, you may have noticed that I am not the best with people!"
"...Being possessed of a keen eye and an elevated mind, yes, I'd noticed one or two hints to that effect." There wasn't a trace of sarcasm in his voice. The great detective seemed to have mastered the art of withering sincerity. Undeterred, Soseki pressed on.
"But―but the myriad tales recounted in literature allow me to see, and learn, and live, to not just be this skulking spectral sidelined silhouette, and―" Unconsciously his fists had begun to tighten, cloth crumpling in his fingers. "―if I could leave a similar trace on the world, that I saw, and learned, and lived, then that is all I could possibly want!"
"Hm...well, it's certainly an achievable goal. After all..." Sholmes whirled his head around and struck a dramatic pose, seemingly ripped straight from one of the illustrations of Randst magazine. "A wrongful arrest and a great detective! You won't go wanting for material, I'm sure."
He leaned back again, giving a small nod. "Possibly, but...I believe I want to write small stories, about small lives. Those strike me as the most important." Soseki paused for a moment, then flinched, realizing too late that he'd left himself open. He rubbed at his eyes, grumbling. "Bah. Say it, then."
"..." Sholmes puffed at his pipe, then spoke, wielding tones of utmost confidence. "I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about."
Soseki threw a sidelong glare at him then curved his back and puffed his chest out, adopting a ghoulishly smug grin. "'As befits a small man!'" He sank back, folding his arms and returning to his customary half-scowl. "You were thinking it, weren't you?"
Sholmes adjusted the brim of his cap, his slender fingers flicking through the air. "My good man, you should know better by now than to accuse me of thinking! It's a wretched vice, and one I avoid as much as possible." He gave a quick nod and a half-shrug, shutting his eyes. "Your problem, on the other hand, is that you overindulge in it."
Soseki found himself quietly awestruck at this man's self-confessed shameless brainlessness. Perhaps...just perhaps, there was something to that. "Well, I...yes, maybe. I do find myself...haunted by the notion of how people see me, but..." His fingers tensed around his temples as his mind flickered back through the lonely months of pacing the streets, of the staring, the whispers, the hushed wisps of laughter...and, at the end of it all, the two heaven-sent figures that had looked straight at him and smiled. He swallowed and steeled his nerve, the pent-up gratitude of the salvation they'd offered him welling up in his chest.
"B-but―when Locum Student Naruhodo Esquire and Ms. Mikotoba Esquiress visited me earlier today, it struck me that...they are exactly the sort of fine companions I've longed for, and want to be deserving of! And when they asked me to stay the night, I was overwhelmed with―I mean, I―" He gulped, huffing in deep breaths of icy air, raw against his throat. "I do truly appreciate their company! And that of Dr. Wilson, PhD, and to―to some extent yours, and the food, and the lodgings, and I―"
Despite his best efforts, his words only seemed able to emerge in clipped, staccato bursts. He nearly doubled over, frantically fighting his instinctive response to shove down the shred of sincerity attempting to escape him. "I don't want you to think...I mean, I couldn't possibly...that is, it would be unbecoming of me to act like I'm not grateful for the absence of discourtesy with which you've treated me―"
"You're tripping over your double negatives, my dear fellow!" Sholmes cut in. His grin was, as always, fervently insufferable, but this time his acidic sting lay in the understanding gentleness of his eyes. "Say it outright―I'm sure you'll find it much easier."
Soseki gritted his teeth, drawing on every reserve of his strength to force the necessary words out and only managing a feeble hissing. "Th...th..." His eyes snapped open. With a thunderous thump he slammed his fists onto the sides of the bench, a thick, frigid blanket of snow coating his knuckles. "Thank you! All of you!" Wheezing like he'd come fresh from a marathon, Soseki pumped his fists back to his sides, riding on runner's high as he clapped his eyes onto the detective's face. "And after I return to Briar Road, and then to Japan, the―the kindness you all have shown me on this day is something I'll remember forever!"
Sholmes' expression seemed to be entirely suspended in a drop of frozen time, for how little he reacted. After one long moment of gazing into the air, his clear blue eyes drifted over to Soseki's face. "...My good fellow, from what springboard do you jump to that conclusion?"
Soseki huffed a little, drawing back. The man certainly picked his moments to be pedantic, didn't he? "Bah―well, fine, maybe not forever, but certainly as long as I live, or if not then at least a few decades―"
His head shook softly side to side. "No, no, not that part. Why do you think you have to return?"
"..." Soseki met his eyes with a numb stare, not quite processing. "W-what?"
"Mr. Naruhodo and Ms. Mikotoba pleaded your case quite eloquently while you were speaking to Iris, and I found myself entirely convinced." He puffed at his pipe, proceeding calmly and methodically. "You are, after all, exquisitely entertaining company. And the less expenses you have, the sooner you can get back to your homeland, no? Besides, I'm already housing two Japanese exchange students―what's a third?"
Gazing at Sholmes' calm countenance, Soseki found himself having to blink a great deal. It might've been the fog, but the world seemed to be getting...increasingly blurry. "I'm sure I won't even notice you're here." The detective continued, his gentle smile twisting into its customary teasing curl. "You are eminently forgettable, after all!"
"Sh-Sholmes―!" Was just about all he managed to sputter. Struck and jumbled by a tangled mess of emotion vivid in his chest, his breathing getting faster, his reflexes leaping towards instinctive, familiar outrage but every sensation just coming out confused and burbling, impossibly identifiable next to this infernally irritating, illogically irresponsible, fervently, frantically frustrating...friend? The words piled up in chaotic clusters around his brain, none of them managing to reach his lips but one. His fingers locked up, grabbing feebly at the air. "...Sholmes...!"
"Ahahahaha!" And, without word of warning, the detective slammed his arms around him, dragging him into a meaty hug. "Come now, don't get emotional in winter―those tears will freeze right to your face!"
If he hadn't been incapacitated by the unexpected assault of overwhelming kindness, he would've fought physical contact like a feral alleycat, but...his fingers were twitching and his lip was quivering, and there was really no shuttering the floodgates now. Without compunction, hesitation or regard for his personal dignity, he burrowed his face into the great detective's coat, leaving it speckled with smudged teardrops. Soseki's whole body heaved with sobs, Sholmes' hands steady on his shaking shoulders. Around them, light glinted off the still and serene snow.
Before long, the duo embarked on the long and meandering walk back home. Where Soseki had previously stayed as far out of Sholmes' reach as possible owing to loathing, he now found himself taking the same distance owing to sheepishness at his sudden lack of composure; but he did allow himself to be drawn into, perhaps, one or two inane conversations. Time seemed to pass by faster than usual as the two returned to Baker Street, trudging up the stairs with silent steps to avoid raising the landlady's ire.
As the lock clicked and the door slid open, Wagahai pricked her ears up and approached the two. Soseki kneeled down to pet her, and it wasn't until his hand moved over her soft fur that he realized his fingers were frozen to the bone, entirely distracted from the cold by the ardor of their conversation. He glanced up to murmur a 'good night' to Sholmes, then...glanced to his right, to his left, and, just to be safe, to the ceiling. No luck. The man always seemed to be wherever you didn't need him, and vanish without a trace when you did.
Well...perhaps that was for the best. Ending their conversation on a high note, and all that.
He stepped out of his sandals, unbuttoned his vest, and laid down on the couch, musing. Wagahai hopped after him, purring as his hand curled over her in an idle sort of way. Quietly, he counted his fortunes to himself: A cat, and food, and warmth, and friends, and...questionable allies.
One good day at the end of this frenzied week, which in itself followed off from the previous oppressive year, had left him with something he never expected to find in England; some manner of hope for the future. It hadn't been his intention to retire for the night, but as he sifted through the scattered memories of the unusually hectic day, it didn't take him long to drift into sleep.
And, for the first time in far too long, no spectres loomed around him.