A/N: This story actually started out to be the first chapter of the fourth "Elementary, My Dear Natsuki" story, but at around the halfway point I realized that the various issues being brought up between the two leads weren't anything that suited the outline for that story, whether as foreshadowing, or to be developed on a theme. And therefore, I realized that I didn't have an introductory chapter for an extended fic, I had a short story all on its own!
So here you go, a single-chapter fic that slots in between "Deep Waters, Natsuki" and the fourth story in the series. Don't worry about the fact that "Deep Waters, Natsuki" isn't finished, though—this one doesn't have anything to do with the series metaplot, so you certainly won't spoil yourself for anything I haven't written yet as of this posting (other than, "Shizuru and Natsuki don't get killed in 'Deep Waters, Natsuki,'" which I'm guessing is not going to surprise anybody!). Enjoy!
~X X X~
I had lost my mind. There was no other possible explanation. The Commissioners in Lunacy needed to be called in, and I should be shut away where my hallucinations and irrational behavior couldn't hurt anyone.
"They're all looking at me," I murmured to my companion.
"That is because Natsuki is so lovely that she captures everyone's eyes," Shizuru Viola said. Of course, there was no help to be had from her; this had been her idea in the first place. That was normal enough—she loved to tease me. But I, through some unaccountable softening of the brain, had gone along with it!
"That's silly, Shizuru."
"Wow, Natsuki, you look beautiful!"
"See?" Shizuru didn't even try to keep the smugness out of her voice. I just sighed.
"Come on, I'll take you to your table." Mikoto Minagi, who could have been anywhere between ten and sixteen, took me by the hand and pulled me towards a booth. My friend Mai had taken Mikoto in off the streets, basically like a stray cat. I stumbled as the girl pulled me along, barely able to keep my balance in the unfamiliar wooden geta.
Yes, that was the insanity. Shizuru had gotten me—me, Natsuki Kuga!—to dress up in full Japanese costume, from kimono to geta, even to the way my hair was styled! I didn't even know how to put a kimono on; Shizuru had essentially had to dress me in the black-and-white outfit and pin up my hair like I was a little kid. I felt ridiculous, tripping over my own feet while Shizuru glided along in my wake as if she was born to it.
Mikoto deposited us in the booth, fetched an earthenware teapot and poured us each a cup of green tea, then dashed off, leaving us alone.
"I feel like a freak," I grumbled.
Shizuru picked up her cup, cradling it between both hands, and sipped her tea placidly.
"You don't look that way at all, Natsuki."
"If Mikoto had pulled me any harder, you'd have had to pick me up off the floor."
Shizuru sipped at her tea again.
"You simply aren't used to balancing in geta, Natsuki. I'm sure that with practice, you'll be able to get around with ease."
She had a point, but it wasn't the heart of the problem.
"That's not what I mean, not really."
"Then what? If something is wrong, why not explain it?"
"I've been explaining it ever since you came up with this idea, Shizuru. You just haven't listened."
Shizuru tilted her head slightly to one side in an air of curiosity.
"Oh? But I don't see what you mean?"
"This." I gestured at myself. "The kimono, the hair, everything. I feel like a little kid playing dress-up. None of this is me. Now you, you're different. It doesn't matter that you completely take after your father in appearance; the way you move, the way you act, everything from speech to posture, you could be a Kyoto lady. As for me, it's like...like putting a Court-presentation gown on a Whitechapel whore. Instead of making her look pretty, it just emphasizes everything she's not—and having to go around next to the real thing just makes it more obvious."
Shizuru set the teacup down sharply, hard enough to make the lid rattle on the pit.
"Natsuki! That is not true in the least, and I won't hear of you saying such things again. I assure you that no one here thinks anything of the sort! All anyone sees when they look at you is a lovely young woman wearing a lovely outfit that flatters her, nothing more."
She looked as if she had a few more things to say, but broke off when Mai approached the table. She owned the restaurant, and frankly I came there as often as I did because she was one of my few actual friends rather than the food. Not that she wasn't a great cook, because she was, but just because I preferred European food to Japanese.
"Natsuki, Viola-san!" she greeted us cheerily. She'd slipped into Japanese at once; it was her native language, after all, and one of Shizuru's—English, in fact, being Shizuru's fourth tongue—and I although get along well enough in it, I couldn't deny that it made me feel my current complaint all the more keenly. "Wow, Natsuki, I don't think I've ever seen you in a kimono before!"
"Good evening, Tokiha-san," Shizuru replied, smiling easily as if the outburst of a moment ago hadn't happened. "Doesn't she look lovely?"
Mai nodded vigorously.
"Yes, she does. That color really suits you, Natsuki, and the green in the pattern brings out your eyes. Viola-san, you should get her to wear Japanese dress more often!"
"I'll try my best."
"Good! It's nice to see her dressed up and having fun for a change. Now, what would you like tonight?"
Shizuru put a little extra into the smile as she said, "Why don't you choose for us, Tokiha-san?"
"All right! A chance to go all-out! Take my word for it, this is going to be the best meal you have until the new century!" She bounced off to the kitchen.
"There, do you see?" Shizuru said as soon as Mai had gone. "Even your friend thinks this outfit suits you."
"Yeah, and she also knew at once that I was only wearing it because you'd made me."
"Miss Tokiha"—we'd switched back to English—"knows you fairly well, Natsuki. She said that because of your stubbornness, not because of any aspect of your appearance."
I ran a finger around under my collar, which was feeling unaccountably tight and uncomfortable.
"Look, Shizuru, just drop it, all right?"
"I will not, not while Natsuki is under such a mistaken belief as to think she does not somehow belong in an outfit which so obviously suits her."
I stifled the first thing I wanted to say with a gulp of tea, which burned my tongue on the way down. "Dammit!" I swore. "I can't even drink bloody tea right!" I clenched my fist in my lap and managed to keep from banging it on the table in frustration only because it was Mai's restaurant and I didn't want to cause trouble for her.
"No! Damn it, Shizuru, I'm not like you. I didn't have a loving mother to teach me all about my background, to show me how to read and write and talk, how to dress or perform the tea ceremony or sit in the seiza position for hours without tearing a leg muscle or all the proper etiquette for your social position. I barely speak the language, I can't read it at all, and the only things I know about half my own heritage I've learned from books written by people who were outsiders to that culture just like me! So don't go trying to say how well this suits me or whatever, because the plain truth is that there's no difference between me wearing this and any other English girl except that my hair is the right color."
I bit off the end of the sentence angrily and tossed back another slug of tea in a way that would have been lousy etiquette on any continent. I knew that I was being petulant, but I was just plain fed up at that point, after two hours of wanting to crawl out of my own skin and scream.
The mask was back in place on Shizuru's face, that impenetrable smile that gave no indication to what she was thinking or feeling. I'd gotten a lot better at reading her expressions since we'd started lodging together, more sensitive to the minute changes, but not this one. It was appropriate, I sometimes thought, that the Italian side of her blood was Venetian, because she carried her own Bauta on her face without ever having to wear a physical one.
Then the smile vanished.
"I did not know that Natsuki felt this way," she said softly.
"Yeah, well, now you do."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I did tell you. About six dozen times, for God's sake! The great consulting detective ought to be able to tell what a little two-letter word like 'no' means."
"You did not!" she snapped back, which took me completely off-guard. Shizuru never snapped! She teased, she implied, she hinted, she'd raised oblique to an art form. And when she wasn't easing around a topic she would patiently ease her way through it instead, step-by-step. In-your-face emotional confrontation wasn't like her at all!
"What the bloody hell do you mean by that?"
"I meant exactly what I said. You made protests that weren't protests, you gave reasons that weren't reasons, but you never told me the real truth. I admit I teased, cajoled, and generally pushed you into this, but I thought it would be enjoyable to see you dressed up in Japanese fashion for once, that was all. And whatever you said, you do look stunning like that. You so perfectly mix the Asian and European facets of your appearance that you have a unique beauty all your own, and I thought it would be fun to see it against a Japanese setting for once, that's all."
I was going to speak up, but the extravagant compliment, so obviously offered with sincerity, took me aback.
"I confess that I thought you'd be a little embarrassed," Shizuru went on, "from being in an unfamiliar situation and from all the attention you'd attract. It's cute when you get a little flustered. But I never knew that it actually made you uncomfortable! You never said so; you just carried on playfully and a little grumpily like you usually do when I tease you."
"For God's sake, Shizuru, I—" Then I stopped, because she actually had a point. I knew from experience that she always saw through my stammering, blustering reactions to her teasing. Heck, I'd actually used that a couple of times when I'd had something I wanted to keep private, by pretending to have that embarrassed reaction. The "Natsuki babbling like an idiot" reflex usually just encouraged her, because it gave her more fun. While I hadn't fallen into that particular mode, I had been withholding my actual feelings and, as she'd said, giving fake reasons for my reluctance which, Shizuru being Shizuru, she'd seen through at once. But she was brilliant, not psychic; she could spot the lies, but not miraculously know the truth behind them, and so she'd pushed on with her amusement.
I sighed heavily.
"I'm sorry. I should have been honest with you about how I was feeling instead of trying to dodge the point. I'm...kind of bad at that, you might have noticed."
Shizuru's smile returned, faintly amused.
"It's an odd experience, someone else apologizing for not revealing their private feelings to me."
"It does give me a new appreciation of the word 'ironic,'" I added, grinning back. That was the funny thing about our friendship. Shizuru was quite literally the only person I'd trust with my life, and I was pretty sure she felt the same way about me—at least the 'trust' part, if not the 'only.' Yet on some level it was a completely superficial friendship, one that was based entirely on casual interactions. Meanwhile, the private parts of our souls stayed, well, private.
Maybe...that should change?
"You know," I began hesitantly, "I've never told anyone about that before, the stuff about my regretting not knowing my Japanese side."
"No one?" Shizuru was clearly surprised.
I blushed a little.
"No, no one. It just...I don't know..."
"I'm surprised that you don't spend more time trying to learn about it, then. At the very least, I'd be glad to help you learn to read and write the language."
I smiled gamely.
"Thanks for the offer, Shizuru; I mean that. It's just...I don't try more because it reminds me too much of why I ended up like this in the first place."
She went back to tea-sipping mode, patiently awaiting whatever I felt like telling her.
"You know that I'm a bastard, right?"
"I was aware that Natsuki was illegitimate," she soft-pedaled it.
"My father is a German industrialist." She'd spotted the Germanic traces in my features at our first meeting. "My mother was his long-term mistress. She died when I was five, though." I had to fight to keep the hitch out of my voice, and to not correct the imprecise "died" to the more truthful "was murdered." I might be opening up, but that particular truth was mine, mine to hold on to until it was at last resolved when I caught up with her killers.
I got past that hard place without flinching, though, and continued the story.
"My father wasn't going to do anything like take his bastard daughter into his home, but he had ethics, even if not morals. He made sure, through his business agents in England, that I had a home, a governess, and then later was sent to a rather expensive girls' seminary—which I actually stopped attending after I was fifteen, after working out a financial agreement with the headmistress, but that's another story. The point is, although I'm half-German and half-Japanese, I'm basically English by upbringing and education, because my mother died and my father's attention to me began and ended with the drawing of bank drafts. Or in other words, I stay away from Japanese stuff when I can because every time I don't know something it reminds me of the reason why."
"I understand, Natsuki, truly. I wish that I had known it better before now." She toyed with her cup. "I do appreciate some of what you feel."
My first thought was to explode with anger. Her parents were both alive and well and happy. Their romance hadn't been an illicit business transaction, but instead a classic love story defying families and cultures to be married. And Shizuru had been raised as the daughter of two worlds, stepping back and forth between East and West with no more effort than it took to choose green or black tea. For her to compare our backgrounds was more like mockery than it was sympathy.
Which was why I didn't say anything. There had to be more to it than that.
"You know a little about my parents, from the business at Odessa," she said. "How it was supposed to be one of those epic romantic scandals where love caused two people to lose their heads?"
"I remember. Your father was a diplomat, wasn't he?"
"Yes; he was a junior attache at the consulate in Japan. Mother was from a respected Kyoto family with noble bloodlines that ran back to the Heian period. They met at a state dinner and fell passionately in love. Her family was outraged, and she ran away. Father actually smuggled her out of Japan on an American clipper ship, and they were married in Macau. It was a grave diplomatic incident, and Father was not only dismissed from government service but disinherited, so that he and Mother were forced to make their own way in the world, with barely more than the clothes on their backs. They run a school now, incidentally; quite a thriving one."
"Did things go wrong?" I asked.
Shizuru chuckled softly, almost ruefully.
"Do you mean, did the romance grow cold and they fell out of love? No, quite the opposite, in fact. I have absolutely no doubt that they'd do it all over again without hesitation. They'd walk through fire for each other, commit any desperate act for their love's sake."
"I'm not certain that I understand, then."
"Do you have any idea what it might be like to be the child of Romeo and Juliet, Paris and Helen, Siegfried and Brunhilde? My elder brother Hideo emigrated to Paris, my sister Yukari married an American and moved to Atlanta, my younger brother Masashi went to university in Geneva, and, of course, I work and live in London. It's not that any of us hate our parents, or even dislike them—but from the moment we were old enough to perceive it, all of us knew with the certainty that a priest believes in God that we would always be an afterthought in Mother and Father's lives. Their love for us was like the moon, a pale reflection of their love for each other."
She paused, then admitted, "I'm quite certain that I'd be the same way for the one I love, so perhaps I haven't learned from my own example."
"Or maybe you just learned not to have children?"
"Natsuki is a practical person."
"Darned right," I said, grinning. "Um...thanks, Shizuru."
"For dragging me out tonight."
"Natsuki is more comfortable now?"
"Well, not in this get-up, but...in other ways, maybe, yeah."
For the briefest of moments, the mask was gone entirely, gratitude naked in her face. I understood; for a person like us, when you open up and share a piece of yourself, there's nothing scarier.
"All right, ladies!"
We swiveled our heads at Mai's approach. She and Mikoto were carrying an absolutely laden tray between them. While, quite frankly, Mai could have made a go of it as a ramen shop alone, here in England it served to have a more eclectic selection and I'd have sworn at least half of it was represented on the tray.
"Mai, what's all this?"
"You two look like you're having a really big celebration tonight, so, eat up and enjoy! The sake," she added, setting down the flask and cups, "is on the house. Yell when you need a refill!"
"Mai—" I started to protest, but she pranced away, Mikoto in tow. "That girl..."
"Oh, I don't know," Shizuru raid. "I've gotten to see Natsuki dress up and she's shared a piece of her heart. I think Miss Tokiha is right. This is a special evening."
I started, on reflex alone, to protest, but stopped almost at once and grinned.
"Pass the sake," I said.
~X X X~
A/N: In an odd application of the classic writing advice, "write what you know," I'd asked my wife what she thought about Natsuki's logic here—the way she holds back her feelings, tries to cover them up, has them seen through by Shizuru, and so on—and whether it seemed believable. She said that it was...because we'd had arguments/discussions along the same lines more than once. Apparently I'm Shizuru (in role, at least)!