It was a weary professor that returned to a certain London flat that December evening. Classes were ending for the fall term; that meant exams, which meant panicking students, which meant busier professors, which meant Layton was returning home later and later every night. Today alone five different pupils had come by his office after class requesting study help. If any had slacked off most of the semester, they would have been sent off with a mini-lecture on the value of consistent work, but as all of them were steady, responsible young people, he just hadn't been able to turn them down.
The light scent of broth greeted him as he opened the sturdy oak door, followed by Flora as she poked her head out of the kitchen. "Hello, Professor."
Layton tipped his hat to his young charge and latched the door. "Good evening, Flora. Have you been, er, cooking?"
She nodded cheerfully, oblivious to his apprehension (as always). "Mm-hm. I thought you probably didn't have time to take supper."
Layton sat down to a steaming bowl of chicken soup that he eyed warily, but a tentative sip proved it to be edible, even somewhat tasty. The cooking lessons with the elderly widow upstairs must've done Flora some good after all.
The young cook stood by awkwardly, as if waiting to say something, but quickly changed her mind and instead began the tea she knew the professor would want after he ate.
Layton tore a small piece of bread from the loaf on the table – bakery-purchased, thankfully, Flora's abilities had been tested enough for one day – and spread it with a thin layer of butter. "Has the mail come?"
"Yes, right here." She placed the teapot on the stove and moved to the end table where a small pile of envelopes lay. She picked them up and flipped through them. "Water bill, request for a guest lecture, electric bill, advert for a new hat emporium" – she glanced at his silk stove pipe with a small grin – "and this."
He took the sealed envelope from her and looked at the return address, which he didn't recognize. He opened it and browsed the careful handwriting: the gentlewoman had seen his name in the papers, had a bit of mystery on her hands, nothing of great import, but wouldn't he be so kind as to come and assist?
Layton realized Flora was staring at him, her wide, hopeful eyes a clear sign that she knew well enough what the letter contained.
"No, Flora," he said sternly.
"I haven't said anything!"
Despite her efforts to appear neutral, Flora's face fell into a pout. Determined to hide her childish disappointment, she busied herself with fetching teacups and saucers.
Layton was not as willing to let the moment pass. "A lady should never be put in harm's way. You know as well as I that these trips often become dangerous."
"That never stopped you from bringing Luke." It was a thoughtless retort, really, and she apologized as soon as she said it. "It's just…"
Her voice trailed off into what was clearly a hesitance to say what she really thought. A single eyebrow arced towards the brim of Layton's trademark hat. "Yes?"
There was a defined change in her manner when she set down the teapot and turned to look him in the face. "What are you, Professor?"
"I don't understand the question, Flora."
"What are you to me?" she clarified, a special emphasis on the last two words.
It was too simple a question to account for the weight she gave it, but he humored her anyway."I'm your guardian."
Her eyes dropped to the tea she'd just placed in front of him. "Yes, yes you are," she spoke softly, "but I don't think you remember what that means, sometimes."
It was not the cryptic answer that caught Layton by surprise but rather the hurt note in her voice, especially coming from such a girl who was usually buoyantly cheerful. "Go on," he urged her gently.
She looked up with urgency in her expression. "I spent so many years in St. Mystere, both before and after Father's death, but when he was gone it never quite felt like a home again. It was still the sweetest little town I'll ever see, and Bruno's creations were lovely, but deep down, I was still lonely. I was like some fairy-tale princess – in a tower, no less – waiting for a prince. Except I didn't want a prince; I just wanted a family. Then finally you and Luke came, and I thought my waiting was over.
"But then we come back here, and you – the only person I have now - go off on your adventures and leave me alone again! And I understand that it's dangerous, I really do, but then when you come back you're always busy at the university, and when you finally do come home, you simply dine, mark papers, and sleep because you're too tired to do anything else. And all the while you expect me to stay here and entertain myself and wait like a – a – like a cat! I don't have to go on adventures with you - I just want to see you for more than fifteen minutes!"
Suddenly embarrassed by her outburst, Flora swiped a hand across her face and turned away quickly, but not before Layton noticed her eyes were damp, and even though she was not facing him, he thought her breathing might be shaking the slightest bit.
Layton knew he ought to have some sort of response, but he was simply stunned into silence by his own ignorance. She'd proven she was able to live more or less independently, yes, but why had he assumed she would want to? Suddenly her various attempts at sneaking along on journeys seemed sobering rather than amusing.
She was washing dishes now, silent aside from discrete sniffle or two. He looked at her, this young woman who called his home her own for over a year now, and noticed how her face was leaner than it'd been when she first arrived, losing its child-like roundness. Nor were her legs as stick-skinny as they'd been, and earlier she hadn't needed to stand on tip-toe to reach the shelf with the teacups like she used to. She was growing up so quickly.
And he was missing every moment of it.
The scraping of his chair on the mahogany floor must have alerted Flora to his standing up, but she did not acknowledge it and continued to rinse off sudsy plates in the sink. Layton spoke anyway.
"You're quite right, my dear. I'd lived alone for so long, and I suppose I was too comfortable in my old ways to consider how you might be affected." He lowered his face, ashamed. "Please forgive me."
Flora turned off the tap and methodically dried her hands on an embroidered dish towel before turning around, though she still wouldn't look at him. "It's not your fault – I could have said something earlier. You had no way of knowing what was going on."
Layton shook his head. "That's a weak excuse; I was being selfish and inconsiderate. If there's anything I can do…"
For some time they stood there, unmoving, with only the soft crackling of the fireplace to accompany their own thoughts. Then a small, quiet smile stole over Flora's face.
"There is a new robotics exhibit at the museum that I was hoping to see." She glanced up to see a matching smile appeared on Layton.
"Tomorrow, then," he agreed. Out in the parlor, the old grandfather clock struck eleven times. "You ought to turn in now, if you want to be alert enough to appreciate it."
"I guess. Good night, Professor, and thank you." She hugged him and, with only a moment's hesitation, kissed him lightly on the cheek before she disappeared into her bedroom.
Layton chuckled softly to himself as watched her go. Even after so many years of schooling, there was always more learning to be done. He knew full well by now what it was a gentleman did – now it was time to discover what a father did.
Seriously, Layton, stop leaving the child at home by herself. You could get arrested for that. On the bright side, perhaps we would get a game called "Professor Layton and the Prison Break" and wouldn't that be exciting? ;)