A/N: Well, here we are, back again for another installment in the "Elementary, My Dear Natsuki" series. "But wait!" you say, Shizuru-like, noticing at once that the A/N at the end of "Deep Waters, Natsuki" as well as the master series list in my profile indicate that the fourth chapter should be "You Know My Methods, Natsuki" and that "The Final Problem" should be the fifth story.


Well, as several of you know (especially if you read the one-shot, "Writer's Block," you'll know that I ran into a wall when it came to trying to write YKMMN. I had a complete plot and characters, but what I did not have was the technical details of the mystery: the "Shizuru notices Clue X, which leads her to Deduction Y." I had who, what, when, where, and why...but not how. I'd meant to start posting YKMMN chapters in September 2010. You may have noticed that it is no longer September. It's not even October.

And just to make things more difficult, I seemingly had no problem writing TFP. I initially started writing it because I was completely in the mood to write Shizlock and Watsuki (thanks OscarLady at shoujoai-dot-com for that little nickname and to deathcurse for making sure I'd never get it out of my head again!) and I needed to put something down on paper or go crazy. So I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. Or in other words, I'd posted "Deep Waters, Natsuki" with two-week gaps between chapters to make absolutely sure I'd have time to hammer out a difficult chapter if I needed the time. This story will be posting weekly. As I'm writing this, I have the first twelve chapters complete in rough draft form.

So, if I have this much written, then why didn't I start posting earlier? Well, I had a lot of soul-searching to do. This is a braided novel, by which Natsuki's quest to find her mother's killers and take revenge, and Shizuru and Natsuki growing closer together as people and trying to break through the reserve that surrounds them both, are steady, slowly developing plotlines. Those of you who know your Sherlock Holmes will anticipate that a story titled "The Final Problem" will feature several matters coming to a climax here. Posting this story without YKMMN filling its respective place would, I was afraid, make TFP seem to come out of nowhere in story development.

Plus, you know, YKMMN was Nao's appearance in the series, and I was afraid if I skipped her I'd wake up tied up in an alley or something.

Seriously, though, it took a lot of soul-searching to come to this decision. Those of you whom I shared my feelings with and asked your opinion, thank you for hearing out my babble (pity my poor wife Tarma, who had to hear the babble IRL!) and for offering your thoughts. I couldn't have made a decision without all your support!

So, basically, I've decided that instead of leaving you, the readers, hanging forever waiting for Story #4 of EMDN, I'd skip it and move along. You've all been great and supportive of this series, and I think you deserve to see the end of it. If I ever get my head straightened out around YKMMN, I may well come back and visit it again (I can hear deathcurse and Dracis Tran suggesting that I do it for NaNoWriMo next year!), but for now, we're moving on...

...well, but first, I've written up a little synopsis of the storyline, so you'll at least know what the heck you've been missing!

~X X X~

Synopsis of "You Know My Methods, Natsuki"

Following upon her discoveries in "Deep Waters, Natsuki," Natsuki Kuga had become aware of the fact that the men who killed her mother were members of a secret society, the Illuminated Order of the Obsidian Court. Fourteen years after that crime, the Obsidian Court appeared to be still in active existence. Whereas she'd previously seen those behind the murder as criminals in the underworld sense, the oft-referenced "criminal classes," it became clear to her that in fact she was dealing with a very different sort of person—those who moved in circles of political and financial power.

Caution became Natsuki's byword.

Fearing to make a blundering move that would ruin all her chances, Natsuki started gathering information on the six men and women whose names she'd found in John Smith's papers. It was slow, cautious work and the months rolled by—enough time for her to accompany Shizuru Viola on a number of cases (including one alluded to in the one-shot "Writer's Block"), and to learn that the culprit of "Deep Waters, Natsuki" had been convicted as an accessory to the Smith murder and sentenced to seven years' hard labor.

January turned to February and February turned to March, and then at the end of the month one Nathaniel Crosby called on Shizuru, seeking help in freeing himself from a blackmailer's clutches. He showed blackmail notes which alluded to certain indiscretions committed at a particular address in Soho. Guiltily, Crosby confessed that this address was a house of assignation. While Crosby was not a married man, he was a banker, in a position of responsibility in a very dignified (and as some would say, uptight) profession. Public shame would ruin him. The blackmail payments were delivered by "dead drop," so the blackmailer could have been a man or a woman, but the notes did reveal their writer to be educated.

Investigating the crime, Shizuru and Natsuki met the elegant Madame Julia, proprietress of the brothel, and a girl named Nao who was one of the staff (in the literal, rather than the wink-nudge sense) of the place. When questioned as to what she'd seen, Nao bantered with Shizuru and struck sparks off Natsuki. The heroines were unable to obtain any hard information, and none of the "ladies" or the staff at the house recalled anyone suspicious watching or asking about Crosby.

Further investigations were cut short when Nathaniel Crosby was found gruesomely murdered. Naturally, Shizuru was upset, and sought to discover whom it was who'd killed her client. Chief Inspector Reito Kanzaki was amenable to her working on the case, but the dead man's brother was not. That brother turned out to be Duncan Crosby, one of the six members of the Obsidian Court Natsuki knew about, and she immediately wondered whether the secret society might be somehow involved in the crime.

Nonetheless, Shizuru pressed on with the investigation, looking into both the blackmail case as well as the other aspects of Crosby's life. In the course of these investigations, she learned of certain financial irregularities at the bank, but then something even more shocking came to light to distract her: two other men who were regular clients of the brothel had died apparently natural deaths within the past month. Further investigation turned up that these dead men were also victims of the same blackmailer. Reito agreed with Shizuru that there was a strong suspicion that these deaths were also murders, based on evidence noted at the time but that was overlooked by doctors and/or family members but not by Shizuru. Crosby, apparently, was too on his guard to fall for the subtler techniques and had to be dealt with more violently and openly.

Thus, Shizuru found herself faced with the inverse of the usual situation: instead of a blackmail victim ending their burden by murdering the blackmailer, it was the victims of a blackmailer who were apparently being murdered.

With three examples of blackmail to consider rather than just one, Shizuru soon found out that Crosby was not, in fact, being blackmailed over his sexual indiscretions, but over his financial misdeeds, which he had undertaken on behalf of his brother. Natsuki immediately suspected that the Obsidian Court had some hand in the business, while Duncan Crosby stalled and blustered, telling Shizuru to keep out of matters which did not concern her. Nonetheless, Shizuru discovered that the reference in the blackmail notes to Nathaniel Crosby's "indiscretions" were due to the fact that he talked too much in pillow talk. Shizuru pressed on and discovered that Nao was the blackmailer. She, however, had by this time vanished from the brothel, having realized that she was suspected.

Natsuki immediately set out after Nao, knowing that Nao might have information about the Obsidian Court. Using a clue that she'd held back from Shizuru, she found Nao and accused her of blackmail and murder. They fought, and Natsuki got the upper hand, but they were interrupted by Duncan Crosby. He had the same purpose as Natsuki, but also wanted to kill Nao, to keep any information about the Obsidian Court and his own activities from getting to the authorities (such as Nao might offer up as part of a plea for clemency if arrested).

Natsuki and Nao were saved, however, by the arrival of Madame Julia, who killed Crosby. Unfortunately for Natsuki, though, she then turned on her! In fact, it was Julia, not Nao, who was the killer, and that moreover she was Nao's mother as well. As a young prostitute, she had given up her child to an orphanage in hopes of giving her a better life, but Nao was not adopted and had then run away. Julia had taken the girl in to keep her safe, though had never revealed her identity for fear that Nao would hate her. Having become aware of Nao's blackmail activities, it was she who'd murdered the victims, terrified that the rich and powerful men would not tolerate the blackmail and attempt to hunt down and kill Nao instead.

Shizuru then, in turn stepped in and saved Natsuki—while Natsuki had been chasing Nao, Shizuru had instead been hunting forJulia, since Shizuru had correctly deduced the identity of the killer (having discovered Nao's identity as Julia's daughter from a variety of small clues). Julia pled that they allow Nao to go free, saying that as long as she was going to hang for murder, she would confess to the blackmail as well. Natsuki, sympathizing with Nao's history because of her own past, added her voice to Julia's and won over Shizuru. Duncan Crosby's death was to be put down as another in the string of murders. Later, Nao told Natsuki what little she knew about the Obsidian Court, and how Duncan Crosby had been one of its inner circle, the so-called First District, who knew about its true criminal aims. Nao told Natsuki that she was leaving England, since the reach of the Obsidian Court was long, and who knew what Crosby might have communicated to others?

Unfortunately, Nao's prophecy came true, because Natsuki's involvement in the affair had brought her name to the attention of the First District, allowing them to connect it with their knowledge of her past and information they'd gained about someone making inquiries about their members. Natsuki Kuga, they decided, was too much of a potential problem to be left running around...

~X X X~

The Final Problem

There were two of them, street roughs in ragged clothing and grimy caps. I'd been expecting something like this, but even so it was still unpleasant to have my hopes crushed and my fears come true in back-to-back encounters.

"So that's how it's going to be," I murmured, then. Suddenly, a chuckle seemed to well itself up from the depths of my throat, and I felt the lips draw back from my teeth in a wolflike grin. "Fine. I was getting bored waiting, anyway."

I'd been expecting it for some time, after all. For all the time I'd spent there during my nineteen years, the East End was not one of my favorite places, particularly the areas of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, choked as they were with the desperately poor, where the glimmerings of the human spirit were too often snuffed out by the brutality of real life. Jack the Ripper had galvanized London with fear a decade ago, but he was only the most visible of the monsters.

But in the shadows of fear and violence, the underworld thrived, and I had contacts, connections who provided me with information here, sometimes for money and sometimes in exchange for something else. This was the world I'd immersed myself in, developing my skills at fighting and firearms, house-breaking and dipping, the tools I'd thought I'd need for my revenge.

Fred Porlock was probably the most reliable of those contacts. I didn't just say that because he'd been the one to come up with the key breakthrough, the one that had finally put me on the trail after so many years. He was a professional at brokering information and goods, sometimes in the black market and sometimes just when legitimate buyers and sellers wanted to be discreet. His message had been terse, requesting a meeting because he had something I'd be interested in, and because it was Porlock, I decided to answer.

I found him at his usual seat in a public house called the Drake, where laborers and layabouts clamored for drinks, along with streetwalkers spending their take on gin to give them the courage to go back out and earn more. He had balding hair and a prominent nose, and his shirtsleeves were rolled up to reveal powerful forearms capable of dealing quite a blow.

"Kuga! This is an unexpected surprise."

I arched an eyebrow at him.

"Surprise? You were the one who asked for this meeting. At least you didn't pick the Ten Bells this time. Okay, I'm a quarter-hour early, but that's not really a surprise."

The oval-faced man looked at me, gaze steady and the smile vanishing from his lips.

"I didn't ask for any meeting."

"I got your telegram, Porlock," I slapped it down on the table. "Don't play games."

"I'm not. Seriously, Kuga, since when do I ever send telegrams?"

I blinked.

Then I swore.

The answer to his question was, "since never." Porlock had always communicated with me by messenger boy or, very rarely, by post. The expense of a telegram wasn't his style at all. He didn't deal in anything urgent enough to justify it in his mind. It was probably justified to its actual sender, though. After all, a telegram meant that they saved the cost of a forger to copy Porlock's handwriting—if they even had a sample to work from. A telegram disguised the sender's hand, and its necessarily terse style meant that any giveaway errors in word choice could be avoided.

And I'd taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker.

No, wait, I thought. If this is a trap, then why is Porlock here? But I knew the answer to that, too: the sender had picked one of Porlock's common haunts because the meeting place needed to be believable. Coincidentally, he actually was here, but I only knew that because I'd come early—odds were, I wasn't meant to make it to the Drake at all.

"Damn it!" I cursed. "Does this place have a back door?"

"Behind the bar, go through the door and there's a hall about five feet long. The door on the left is the storeroom; the one on the right leads to the alley."

I nodded.


"Kuga, take care of yourself," he added seriously. "You need someone to watch your back?"

I shook my head, though I was touched by his offer.

"I'm used to keeping an eye out for myself, and it's not like I didn't come prepared." I opened my jacked to show the holstered revolvers concealed there. "But thanks, again."

The bartender stepped out into my path as I walked around to the end of the bar.

"And just where do you think you're going?" he barked.

"Out the back. Got a problem with that?"

I fixed the ginger-haired barman with what my acquaintances have dubbed the "Kuga Death Glare." Like most bystanders faced with it, he withered almost at once.

"N-no, go right ahead," he stammered, all but falling over himself in getting out of my way.

Too bad it doesn't work as well on these two, I thought as I faced down the two ambushers. I'd met them coming the wrong way from what they expected, but they'd overcome their surprise easily enough, and a dirty look wasn't going to make them vanish. It'd take a little more active form of persuasion.

The one nearest me, a beefy, red-faced fellow, lunged out of the shadows of the tenement. He whipped up his right hand, which gripped the butt of a heavy club. I stepped in quickly; at my size and weight getting to close quarters with a foe was rarely a good idea but his weapon gave him far too significant an edge in reach. His side was exposed by the raised club and I hit him quickly, twice, under the ribs. He grunted, and I tried for a lock on his right arm, using his moment of pain to my advantage to secure my grip and wrench the limb around. Using his arm as a fulcrum, I applied leverage to spin him in a circle and fling him towards the brick wall. He staggered, unable to stop his momentum, but did get his left hand up in time to absorb the impact with his forearm instead of his face. Damn!

I would have followed my attack up while the beefy thug was still off-balance, but his partner, a tall, lanky, rat-faced man, was already coming in towards my back. I mule-kicked, more on instinct than by plan, and felt my boot connect firmly with something soft and heard a pained yowl. I whipped around to face him, my right foot coming up in a brutal arc and got lucky again when I made contact with his elbow and heard the sharp crack of bone. He still had his knife in his other hand, though, an eight-inch blade that looked like it was meant for the swift evisceration of fish—but would do the same to a woman.

The first thug pushed himself off the wall and turned back to the fight, shaking his head to clear it. While Ratface had at least taken a serious injury, Beef-boy had only been momentarily shaken, and I was sure he was more offended than actually hurt. And, of course, they still had their weapons.

I'd bought a couple of seconds, though, and I used them. While my size meant that I was at a disadvantage in a melee, a gun didn't care if I weighed a hundred and fifteen pounds or twice than when I fired. In a long-practiced maneuver, I drew the pair of Smith & Wesson Safety Hammerless .32 revolvers from beneath my coat, pointing the muzzle of one at each thug. Of course, firing accurately at two separate targets was almost impossible, but we were at close enough range that I'd probably at least wing one of them, maybe both.

Besides, they probably didn't know how accurately I could fire. British thugs tend not to carry firearms, and a gunslinger's abilities were something better known from dime novels than real-life experience.

"So how about we call it a day, boys, before anyone actually gets killed?"

They stared at me, weighing their options. Beef-boy's glare was hard and merciless, while Ratface's eyes all but gleamed with hatred and pain. These men had killed before, I was certain; they had the understanding of what death meant, the assumption that fights had permanent and fatal consequences. It was only a matter of whether they felt their position was worth the risk. We waited in that frozen moment, ready for one of us to make a move and decide how things would happen.

It was the filthy state of the streets in the East End that saved me. I heard the slight splash of a footfall behind me as a boot landed in something wet, and I reacted at once, lunging forward. I almost didn't make it; I felt a line of cold fire cross my back and I realized that I'd been slashed with a knife. My movement hadn't been controlled, and I went down to one knee, then as the original two attackers dove for me I went with my momentum and rolled forward, spun, and kicked Ratface in the knee; his leg buckled and he went down, opening up a firing line for me. I took it, snapping off a shot with my right-hand gun. It was badly aimed, since I was prone and in motion besides without time to properly target, but it took the man who'd cut me high in the left side of the chest and stopped his charge while he clutched helplessly at the wound.

I didn't wait around to fire again because I had other problems. I rolled through a reverse somersault, wincing as the muscles in my injured back stretched, and came to my feet as my boots hit the cobblestones. Beef-Boy had been swinging his club low towards where my head had been, and instead he got the meat of my left thigh, hard. I winced, but since his arm was low I swung high, crashing the butt of my left-hand pistol into his face. His nose was flattened with a satisfying crunch, and I raked the barrel down his cheek, the front sight ripping open the flesh. He was tough, though, letting out a strangled bellow and lunging for me again with the club. I ducked under the wild swing, hooked his foot while getting my shoulder up under his arm, and sent him tumbling towards his alles. Ratface squealed as the big man's weight came down on him, probably onto his broken arm.

I ran for it.

Yeah, it may not have been the most heroic action, but then, I didn't have anything to gain by sticking it out. They were trying to kill me, not the other way around. The trill of a constable's police whistle (even in the East End, a gunshot attracts attention) let me know I was on the right track. I had no desire to spend the night explaining myself to the law, not when I had a group of very dangerous people after my neck.

The Obsidian Court.

From what I knew they were a secret society, one of dozens that pervaded our culture. Some were basically glorified social clubs for the nation's power elite, like the Freemasons; others were dedicated to the pursuit of mystical nonsense like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; and still more gave their members an excuse to wallow in vice—nothing like dressing up an old-fashioned orgy as "secret rites" to make it easier to swallow. The Obsidian Court was none of these. It was dedicated to the purpose of increasing the wealth and power of its members, and extortion, theft, espionage, and murder were just a few of its tactics. In essence, it was a criminal gang that happened to include financiers and professionals rather than the so-called "criminal classes."

My mother had been one of their victims.

I sprinted through a cross-street, barely more than an alley, and burst out the other end while slowing my pace to a brisk walk, the stride of someone with somewhere to go and no desire to wait around the streets of Whitechapel. A haggard-looking prostitute stepped out at me and made a reasonably inventive suggestion for someone so gin-soaked as to be unable to tell that someone wearing trousers wasn't necessarily a man (she might not have actually cared, business being business and all, but the particular nature of her suggestion implied that she thought I possessed a body part with which I was not equipped). I shrugged her off with a grunt and kept on going. I saw a cab up ahead, but ignored it and took another alley; there was no reason why a cabby would wait for a fare in this part of town, so either he'd been paid by someone else and so was out of service, or he had another purpose. A purpose such as watching for a woman running away from three attackers.

Twisted, fearful thinking? Maybe. But I'd been lured here by someone who was familiar with my contacts and habits, and that meant someone capable of planning, preparing a second layer to his trap if I escaped the first. I waited until I was several blocks away before I even started looking for a cab, and managed to flag one down a couple of minutes later.

I was feeling a mixture of pleasure and annoyance as I trooped up the stairs to my rooms at 221B Baker Street. I felt good about having escaped the trap laid for me, and irritation for falling for it in the first place. Plus, I was worried. Thus far the attempts to kill me had all been designed to appear accidental—a runaway carriage, a falling piece of masonry, an unfortunate example of street crime in the city's worst slum. Things that could be written off to mischance and not traced to a deliberate attempt at murder. But for how long would that continue? They were already pushing the edges of that (Porlock, for example, knew that I'd been summoned under false pretenses). How long would it be before, for example, they called in some sharpshooter to put me in the ground from a couple of hundred yards off, secrecy be damned?

I hurt as I opened the door and went inside. The slash across my back burned, and my left thigh throbbed where the club had struck it, letting me know that I'd have a bad bruise. The rest of my body ached dully all over; the adrenaline rush of he fight and the excitement afterwards had worn off during the cab ride, and now I could feel everything. It was no surprise, then, that the kimono-clad woman sprawled out on the sofa should sit bolt upright at the sight of me and cry, "Natsuki, what happened?" with worry shining in her crimson eyes.

It was funny; red was supposed to be a dangerous and frightening color, and red eyes were common among vampires and werebeasts in Gothic horror novels, but Shizuru Viola's were among the kindest I'd ever known. It actually bothered me to put that look of worry on her face.

"A couple of friends decided to play rough." I shrugged out of my coat and turned to hang it up, which was a mistake.

"Natsuki, you're bleeding!"

I should have worn a waistcoat. The extra layer of padded cloth might have kept the would-be assassin's knife from cutting me at all, and even if it didn't the bloodstain would never have shown up on it the way it did on my white shirt.

"It's just a scratch."

"You don't know that; you can't even see it. And your clothes are filthy again; who knows what might have gotten into the cut? Let me take a look."

"Shizuru, you don't need to—"


There was no arguing with that tone. While she got up and gathered the basin and a washcloth, then went to the cupboard where she kept first-aid supplies, I removed my collar and unbuttoned the shirt, shedding the garment.

"Ara, that is a very pretty camisole Natsuki is wearing," Shizuru teased. I blushed; the satin-and-lace confection was not exactly what a casual acquaintance might expect me to wear under my clothes, but...damn it, I liked to wear pretty and feminine clothes. It's just that they weren't practical for the things I did most of the time. Plus, there was the fact that I'd skipped out on years' worth of etiquette and deportment classes, so the kind of dresses I sometimes dreamed of wearing would suit me about as well as they'd suit a pig. Nice lingerie, though, well, I could enjoy under a ball gown or cowboy-styled blue jeans equally.

I tugged it off and threw it aside. Between the slash made by the knife and the bloodstain that would take more scrubbing than the fabric could stand to wash out, the camisole was likely ruined anyway.

"Lay down on the couch please," Shizuru said, and I did, after taking my boots off.

"All right, get to it," I grumbled, still a little uncomfortable. Shizuru set her materials down on the coffee table and knelt between it and the couch. She brushed her fingertips lightly against my bare back, not directly touching the cut but next to it. I shivered at the contact, which was as soft against my flesh as the whisper of the camisole I'd just removed.

"This is a knife wound," she said tenderly and with a faint thread of something else, like she was offended someone had done this to me, or maybe that I'd allowed it to be done. I wasn't sure which, and Shizuru talked about her emotions almost as often as I discussed my past, which was to say, never.

"I said they played rough," I replied, a little defensively.

"If Natsuki was a cat I should say she had used up one of her nine lives."

"It's not that bad," I protested. "If it was anything more than a glorified scratch I'd have felt it."

"Nevertheless Natsuki will likely have another interesting scar. You seem to have been quite careless with yourself in the past," Shizuru chided. She lightly touched a scar on my upper right shoulder blade that I'd picked up in a fight three years ago, then trailed her hand down to a larger, curving one from when I'd fallen off a building. It started on my right flank and flowed down, and Shizuru's fingertip traced it to where it disappeared beneath the waist of my jeans. "These are old," she said, still faintly chiding, "so I had hopes Natsuki was learning to better take care of herself, but now I wonder."

"You're in a strange mood tonight, Shizuru."

"Ara, is that so?"

I heard the soft splashes as she wet the washcloth in the basin, and then she began to clean the wound. I had to admit she did a better job of it than I could have, since she didn't have to crane her head over her shoulder to see what she was doing in a mirror, and I was glad to do this, since who knew what I might have rolled through while flopping around on the cobbles.

But still...she was acting strange. Okay, stranger than usual, since Shizuru was always a little bit strange. This wasn't her normal strangeness, if such a phrase even made sense.

"There," she said, setting the cloth aside. I turned my head and saw it, bloodstained, over the rim of the basin. "Now, this may sting a bit."

She applied antiseptic next and I winced. It was funny, really, how I could take serious pain and keep going without hesitation but little things like this or a stubbed toe got blown out of proportion. Maybe it was because serious injuries usually accompanied serious matters, when there wasn't time to be indulgent. It was over soon enough, anyway, and she bandaged it up. When she slipped the bandage beneath me to put the wrapping around my body it almost felt like I was being embraced as she passed it from one hand to the other. I felt the whisper of her sleeves and bodice against my bare skin, the silk of her kimono almost caressing me under the pressure of her forearms. My breath caught in my throat as my nerves seemed to tremble.

"Natsuki, is something wrong?" Shizuru asked at once. "Did I hurt you?"

"N-no, I'm all right," I murmured. "It's just a little cold in here, that's all."

"Even in spring, Natsuki is still a summer child."

"I guess my mother knew what she was doing when she named me."

"Well, I'm done now, so you can get dressed." She moved, and I sat up, still feeling strange. I didn't really know how to explain it, the reactions I'd had, or even what those reactions had been.

The easiest answer was that I was still feeling the aftereffects of what had happened—the realization that I'd been lured into a trap, the desperate fight for my life, my flight from the East End, the exhilaration of knowing that they were getting serious enough in their attempts to kill me to try a directly murderous attack. The quick bursts of intense emotion, one after another, were enough to unsettle anyone.

"Is something wrong, Natsuki? You're looking at me very queerly."

I shook my head, trying to clear it, and put my thoughts back in order.

"I'm sorry; I guess I'm just a little on edge, still. Do we have any liniment? I've got a nasty bruise coming in on my leg, I think."

She nodded and handed me a small pot.

"Here you are."

I got up and handed towards my room. "I'm going to go get changed." With my hand on the knob, I stopped and looked back. "Thanks, Shizuru, for taking care of me. I don't say it often enough, but I really do appreciate having someplace, and someone, to come back to after a day like today. So, thank you."

I turned the knob and went into the bedroom, but just before I closed the door I heard, or thought I heard—it was so low that I could have imagined it—her speak.

"No, ookini, Natsuki, for everything."