A/N: Some of you know I'm not really big on AU fics. Yes, I read them, and some have even become favorite stories with me, but I find that most even of the better ones fall into that category where the AU is interesting and well-written but the canon characters might as well be OCs that happen to have the names and appearances of more familiar faces. The balancing act between the original story and the new setting is a delicate one and more often than not doesn't work out.
So why the heck, you ask, am I writing one, and worse yet, making it my first story in this particular fandom? Or even worse yet, making it as Part One of a proposed six-or-seven-part series of short stories??
Part of it, frankly, is because everything I might have to say about these characters in their natural setting has already been written, and done much better than I could manage. There's some damned great ShizNat fics in this section. And part of it is because the idea just snuck up and bit me on the hind end and would not let go. And hey, the Mai franchise already has two canon AU settings itself in Otome and HiME Destiny, right?
But hey, either I'll do a good job with it and you'll all be entertained, or I'll fall on my face and you'll all get to point and laugh...so you win either way!
1. While I've gleefully snapped up some of the characters' Otome-verse last names because they better fit the setting, these are definitely their HiME incarnations.
2. I've willfully given London a larger and more thriving Japanese community than, so far as I know, existed in the 1890s. Similarly, while the idea of a mixed-race female Sherlock Holmes might provide fertile ground for an interesting exploration of gender and racial prejudice in Victorian England, these are issues that will be mostly glossed over for the sake of making the story work. You may assume that the infamous Fujino smile and the even more infamous Kuga Death Glare stifle such feelings before they have a chance to manifest.
3. Likewise, while the speech patterns won't be completely modern, I'm not using the fully pseudo-Victorian speech that I employ for my gothic horror fiction. It's hard enough to write in character!
4. Bonus points for every "A Study in Scarlet" cameo or parallel that you spot!
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My association with her began in so ordinary, almost prosaic a fashion that I can scarcely believe it ever happened that way. Something that changed my life...no, changed me...in so many different ways should have been clearly marked out and labeled.
Fireworks, perhaps. A jubilee parade. Those would have been about right.
It didn't happen that way. Instead, it kind of snuck up on me. Life's like that, always doing its best to catch me by surprise.
She's like that, too. Maybe that explains something.
I'd found myself in the late summer of 1898 confronted with a series of what you might call financial reverses. My father had apparently decided that nineteen years was long enough to support the child of his late mistress. For the past four years I'd had a nice arrangement going with the headmistress of the ladies' seminary I was supposed to be attending: she handed over three-fourths of the substantial sum she was getting for tuition, room, board, clothing, and a considerable allowance--to be fair, Gerhart Kruger was generous so long as it only required him to open his wallet instead of his heart--and in return stuck the remaining quarter in her pocket and allowed me to go to the devil in my own way. She didn't even have to forge glowing reports about how I was doing since no one ever asked.
The arrangement had suited us both nicely. Unfortunately, the money tree had shed its last leaf.
As you'd probably expect, a teenaged girl with a substantial stipend and a lack of oversight tended to get out of hand. It wasn't all luxury and free living; a good part of what I did required money. Especially when I was younger, cash well spent had kept me safe when I hadn't yet developed the skills or the brains to do it myself.
I hadn't been a complete idiot, of course. I'd been saving here and there and had reinvested my capital. There were plenty of people in London who'd have killed in an eyeblink for an income of eleven shillings sixpence a day. For me, though, I needed to make a sharp change--down--in my living expenses.
The worst offender of the lot was that I'd been staying at a small private hotel, which offered comfort, reliability, and an army of efficient employees to take care of the concerns of day-to-day living. That had to change; I needed rooms at a reasonable rate.
I'd been bemoaning this fact to Mai, the owner and cook at my favorite Japanese restaurant. Actually, it's pretty much my only Japanese restaurant, since I prefer Western cooking. Still, I like to at least pay lip service to my cultural heritage, and Mai's food is damned good. Besides, she's one of my few genuine friends.
"Do you know, you're the second person to mention that to me today," Mai replied. "Just at lunchtime a lady was saying how it was too bad that she couldn't find someone to go in with her on some rooms she'd found."
A short, dark head popped up from behind the counter.
"You should go see her!"
"Mikoto! If you have time to chatter, go take this order to the third table."
"Yes, Mai," the girl caroled and scooped up the tray of ramen bowls Mai handed her. As always, Mikoto ignored the hint of chastisement from her adopted sister. From what I knew, Mikoto had been sent to England to live with her brother only to find him missing or dead. She'd have ended up on the streets, but Mai had taken her in. For all her tragic past, Mikoto always had a smile on her face whenever I saw her. Then again, I didn't know where she'd come from, so maybe living with Mai and all the ramen she could eat was a happy step up?
"Actually, Natsuki, Mikoto has a good point. Maybe you should look into this. I could introduce you."
Mai was like that. Venting your feelings to her could be dangerous, because she'd try to fix whatever was wrong.
"I don't know. Sharing lodgings with someone else, always tripping over their stuff or getting woken up when they crash around at odd hours, the prying questions as to what I'm up to..."
Less than impressed with my complaints, Mai giggled.
"You just don't want to have anyone else around, Natsuki. You're so private, sometimes."
"Afraid they'll steal your lingerie collection?" Mikoto chirped as she came back.
I slurped soup while my ears burned. Kids could always find a way to embarrass a person. Mai, on the other hand, had hit the nail squarely on the head. My business was, oddly enough, my business. I say 'oddly' because the bulk of humanity seems to disagree with the concept. Prying and gossip were a cottage industry.
Still, she was right in another way, too. If I wanted reasonable comfort, then the odds were I'd have to end up sharing lodgings with someone. And when I thought about it, this person Mai had mentioned might be better suited than a random stranger. After all, at the least we had one thing in common. And Mai had called her a "lady" rather than a "woman," which meant something.
"All right, Mai," I gave in. "Go ahead and introduce us."
"Great! Turn around, then."
I blinked in surprise, then turned around in my chair. Standing just inside the door was a tall woman dressed in, of all things, a traditional Japanese kimono in a pale violet shade with a wisteria pattern. In contrast to the outfit, her hair was light brown, nearly blonde, and her eyes out-and-out red--not even like an albino's, but as a positive quality, crimson the way mine were green.
"Miss Viola," Mai called. "Welcome back. I'm surprised to see you twice in one day."
"Well, I still haven't settled into a new home, so a good meal isn't easy to come by. My hotel doesn't run to Japanese food." Her voice had a gentle lilt to it.
"We can certainly help with that, and maybe also with your other problem."
"Ara, you've found a fellow-lodger?"
"Exactly! Miss Shizuru Viola, this is Miss Natsuki Kuga."
"Hey," I offered.
"Be polite, Natsuki."
"I'm pleased to meet you," I grumbled, extending my hand to the newcomer. Those eerily red eyes looked me over while she shook it. Obviously, she was noting the fact that I was dressed in a man's shirt, trousers, and boots instead of proper female dress, though I was soon to find out that there was more than just the surface she was seeing.
I was surprised that she'd jumped to a first-name basis. Was it because Mai had addressed me that way? Her smile didn't quite match the faint teasing tone of her voice, either; it was placid, even serene.
"Natsuki was just saying how she was looking for someplace to stay at a fair price," Mai said.
"It's certainly that. The rooms I found are a suite in Baker Street, very nicely furnished, but a shade too expensive for a single tenant. For two, however, the rates are quite fair. That should appeal to your German frugality. Though I trust you don't carry on firearms practice indoors? Cigarette smoke is one thing, but I do think gunpowder should be confined to tea within the house."
"Wait, how did you--?"
An impish trace invaded the smile.
"The bone structure of your face suggests the Germanic, though there's always immigration to consider. The rest, your hand told me." She lifted mine. "See? Traces of powder on the backs of the fingers, and nicotine stains on the tips."
"I'm trying to cut down," I muttered, embarrassed. Smoking wasn't ladylike, which is why so many ladies who weren't satisfied with the roles urged on them by society smoked. I hadn't been making a political statement when I'd started the habit, though, just trying to look rebellious in a juvenile way. Hence the embarrassment.
The masculine clothing and the practice with handguns, on the other hand, were just practicality. A girl's got to look out for herself, after all.
Still and all, it surprised me, and worried me a little, that in a couple of quick glances Shizuru had noticed so much about me. I didn't like people prying around in my life, and it looked like this woman didn't even have to pry to find the answers.
On the other hand, she hadn't asked the obvious questions. She hadn't asked why I preferred male dress (in style, at least; I was making no attempt at disguising my actual gender) or why I was practicing with revolvers. They were things I'd expect someone to want to know about a fellow lodger, certainly more significant than an ethnic background.
The mask-like smile told me that this was someone who understood secrets. She might notice more than most people, but she wouldn't necessarily tell what she knew or make a nuisance of herself.
Better that, I thought, than a busybody, even one too dim to be more than an annoyance.
"Baker Street, you said?"
"Ara, so you are interested!"
"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, and all that."
"Then after dinner shall we go see the rooms and find if they are to your liking?"
"That suits me," I agreed.
The rooms at 221B turned out to be everything I could have hoped for: two bedrooms and a single large, airy sitting-room which frankly offered as much comfort as I was getting at my hotel. The landlady was a redheaded Scotswoman who gave the lie to all the calumnies directed at her nationality about meanness over money, given how reasonable the rental terms were. Some of that was due to Shizuru, whose deft flattery put a blush to the lady's cheek. I kept my mouth shut so as not to spoil it. We signed the lease on the spot and moved in the next day.
The first several weeks with my new fellow lodger seemed to bear out my confidence in making the move. Shizuru never once asked a single question about my activities, even when they required me to leave at odd hours or on one fairly memorable occasion when I arrived in a disheveled, mud-spattered state after I'd had to convince several gentlemen that my unusual clothing choices didn't go hand-in-hand with a taste for unusual sex acts. On the contrary, she said hello when I came back, goodbye when I left, and over meals would chat pleasantly about politics or the latest headlines in the papers or a novel she was reading or anything else except our personal lives.
There was a flip side to that, though, and it was that for all her care not to invade my privacy, she was equally reticent about herself. Strangely, rather than being comforted by that, I found myself provoked. Maybe it was because I already had one mystery in my life and didn't need any others, or maybe it was just that I had more natural curiosity than I was willing to admit to. For whatever reason, the riddle that was Shizuru Viola fascinated me.
The most obvious thing about her was that she was far more in touch with the Japanese side of her heritage than I was, despite--or maybe because--her appearance could pass for European. She tended to wear kimono around the house and about a third of the time when she went out. About half of her books--and there were a lot of those--were in Japanese, and the writing desk included both a pen set and brush and ink for calligraphy, which she would use interchangeably. Her hand was exquisitely beautiful in both Latin and Japanese characters, to the point where I understood for the first time how calligraphy could be considered art and actually felt a prick of shame at my own careless scrawl. And then there was the tea.
I have never in my life met someone who was as devoted to tea as Shizuru. She took to it as some people took to tobacco or to alcohol; it was always present, a prop to reading or writing or just sitting and thinking. Generally it was green tea drunk from a handleless cup, but it went beyond that. At least once every couple of days--maybe more, since I wasn't always around for it--she would perform the actual tea ceremony with a grace and serenity that made it seem like our very English sitting room was suddenly transported to medieval Edo. That wasn't all, though; because each day she insisted upon the ordinary English teatime being observed and at that time she would preside over the tray with all the elegance of the lady of the manor. A china pot of Assam or Darjeeling and the various additions of milk, sugar, or lemon were handled with the same respect for tradition as she wielded the whisk for the Japanese ceremony.
Personally, I preferred coffee, which always seemed to amuse her. I got the idea that lot of what I did amused Shizuru. Now and again she'd give voice to it and tease me about something, but always gently and without malice. It always annoyed me at the time, but in its way it was almost endearing. I'd never had someone to share the kind of casual intimacy that allowed for friendly teasing. And yet it was an intimacy based entirely around superficial things, since if she'd tried to draw closer through more significant confidences I'd have just pushed her away. I often wondered if she knew that and did it on purpose, or if it was just her way.
The part of Shizuru Viola that most fascinated me, however, was the question of what, precisely, it was that she did. She was undeniably a lady by manner, so it was theoretically possible that she "did" nothing--that is, she lived off an income from family funds. Yet I couldn't bring myself to believe that. For one thing, she had callers of a type so widely varied that I couldn't make sense of it. A caller might have the sober respectability of a City man, the polished elegance of the gentry, the scruffy wear and tear of a tradesman, or the downright disreputable look of the kind of people you usually never saw five feet beyond the East End. There was one woman who appeared no less than three times, a blonde around our age dressed expensively and fashionably, with a perpetually sour expression on her face. There was no pattern to these calls; sometimes she'd get two or three in a day and sometimes I wouldn't see a single person for a week.
Sometimes she would go out. Occasionally it would be with one of the callers, other times alone. From what I could tell, though, she spent most of her time in our rooms, much more than I did. Fundamentally she was a lazy person, but also a perfectionist. When she acted, she did so with precision and to excel, but only when she had to, or so it seemed.
Like I said, a mystery.
To this day, I still don't know what made her cross the line. Maybe it was even the reason she gave me, though I doubt it. No, she'd noticed my curiosity about her--she couldn't miss it, given my general lack of subtlety and the fact that Shizuru was Shizuru--and had decided for whatever reason to give me answers. Maybe she'd had it planned for some time, and the letter gave her the opportunity. Or maybe when the letter arrived the whole idea came to her at once. Shizuru's "hows" could be almost as impenetrable as her "whys" when she wanted them to be.
It was in the early morning when the letter arrived, hand-delivered by a messenger boy rather than in the past. I was still working on my second cup of coffee, almost ready to join the human race, while Shizuru was well into her after-breakfast tea. That it was important she confirmed at once by setting the teacup aside while reading. She frowned slightly as she took in the information, then looked up at me with a speculative glint in her eyes.
"This is troublesome," she announced. "It seems that I have to go to the waterfront. That's a dangerous place for a woman alone." After a slight pause she added, "Would Natsuki be able to come with me?"
"What?" I responded brilliantly.
"Natsuki is a dangerous person, isn't she? I would feel much safer if Natsuki were beside me."
"You want me to be your bodyguard while you run some errand?"
Shizuru smiled at me.
"That's exactly it."
My first instinct was to say something along the lines of "Why should I?" That was mostly the lack of caffeine talking, though, because I realized right away that this was a perfect chance to learn more about my mysterious fellow-lodger.
"I guess there's no helping it," I said. "We can't let you run around getting yourself into trouble."
She rose to her feet.
"I'll be ready in ten minutes, then. A hansom would, I think, be advisable."
I ran a brush through my hair to get out the worst of the knots and put on a jacket whose sole purpose was to provide pockets for my revolvers. I kind of envied the American "gunslingers" from the dime novels who could just go out with their guns openly strapped on. I went downstairs and managed to flag down a cab just in time for Shizuru to appear on the walk beside me wearing a lavender walking dress, her hair pinned up beneath a hat set at a jauntily fashionable angle. When she'd said ten minutes, she'd actually meant it. We climbed in, she gave the driver the address, and we were off.
"So," I said, "mind telling me why we're off to the seedy side of town?"
"Ara, is Natsuki interested in me?"
"I just don't want to embarrass myself when we get there by not knowing what's going on," I denied. As an excuse it at least had the value of being true, just not the complete truth.
"That would be annoying, wouldn't it? This is a professional call."
The cab wheels rattled loudly over the cobblestones.
"I make my living as a private consulting detective."
Wait, what was that?
"Okay, private detective I understand"--if not quite able to picture Shizuru in the role--"but I'm having trouble with the 'consulting' part."
"The majority of my cases come to me at second hand, as it were. Private inquiry agents and the official force alike hire me when they're out of their depth, or sometimes they refer clients on to me directly. I'd say that only one in ten cases comes to me without some intervening agency, so in that way I am a consultant."
I still had trouble with the idea of Shizuru as a detective. The image of her crawling about on her hands and knees examining footprints through a lens kept refusing to focus in my mind, it was so outlandish.
"So how does that work?" I asked. "I mean, what is it that you do that they can't?" That came out ruder than I'd wanted it to, but she didn't appear to take offense.
"Observation and deduction."
"Does Natsuki remember when we first met?"
"It was kind of hard to forget."
"That's the sort of thing that I do professionally. I have a lot of specialized knowledge which I apply to the facts. Most often the official force can observe the data, but just doesn't draw the correct conclusions. In that situation I can give them answers without leaving our rooms. If not, then I can generally tell where I need to look for the missing details and either get them myself or send someone else to complete the puzzle."
"So basically, you're smarter than they are."
"That's rather a...direct way of putting it."
"But that's what it comes down to, right?"
"I suppose so," she allowed. "Although, I would rather say that I bring a different approach to a problem which can sometimes provide solutions when the typical investigative methods cannot."
I decided that remark would have made more sense if I knew what the "typical investigative methods" actually were. Given how much unsolved crime there was in London, it certainly couldn't hurt.
"And you're able to make a living at this, huh?"
"I would hope so, if Natsuki is not to have to pay all of next month's rent."
"Idiot," I growled, which was, honestly, the only rational response when she started teasing me like that. "So, what is it this time that has someone sending for you instead of coming to visit?"
"Murder, according to the letter, and under circumstances that have left Scotland Yard baffled."
I looked her full in the eyes. Unfortunately, this time she wasn't teasing.