DISCLAIMER: I do not own Detective Conan or any of its characters and concepts! They all belong to the genius of Gosho Aoyama. Except for Yuuichi--he's mine! ^_^ No touchie!

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Coming Home
by Becky Tailweaver

She spends her days up in the north park,
Watching the people as they pass.
And all she wants is just a little piece of
This dream, is that too much to ask?
With a safe home, and a warm bed, on a
Quiet little street.
All she wants is just that something to
Hold onto, that's all she needs.
--3 Doors Down, "Be Like That"

Part 5: Little Piece of This Dream

Two hours after she began her final research, Haibara Ai at last emerged from her lab, tired and drained but hopeful and victorious.

However, the scene that greeted her was not what she had expected to find upon exiting her lab.

Perhaps the stress had gotten to her. Maybe it was eyestrain. Maybe she should go back in, clear her head, and come back out.

This was most certainly not a tableau of bored, lazy men and a well-fed, possibly-napping child.

There was laughter and comfortable chatter coming from the center of the room, where one of the tables had been cleared of papers and equipment, set up with takeout leftovers, and surrounded by the majority of her comrades. Only Eiji-kun--who could never unplug himself from his computer--and Yakamoto-san on communications were not taking part in the apparent merriment.

Dazed, she stumbled closer to the cluster of chuckling operatives, staring. On the other side of the table, a "high chair" had been constructed of a stool with several thick operations manuals stacked on it--atop which was perched a certain small boy. In front of him and the circle of men was a space cleared of microwaved food and scattered with playing cards and piles of M&M candies.

Mouri Yuuichi had a comically serious look in his face as he peered over the top of his hand like a professional cardsharp. Apparently the game had just come to a close, because the small voice piped, "Call!" over the lower tones of the soldiers. Everyone laid out their hands...and there were exaggerated groans all around as the winners and losers were sorted out.

"I win!" Yuuichi chirped, giggling as he scooped the pile of M&Ms at the center closer to himself.

Finally, Ai regained the power of speech. "Just what is going on here?" she demanded, her voice sounding oddly shrill, even to her ears.

Nearly all of the men jumped around like guilty thieves--while Yuuichi only looked up at her and smiled. Her associates managed to look suitably abashed, setting down their cards and fidgeting like teenagers about to be scolded.

Akai was still sitting in the same corner she'd left him in two hours ago, looking like he hadn't budged an inch. And if she wasn't mistaken, the idiot was trying to hide a smirk.

"Uh, hello, Haibara," one of the bolder operatives, Hiroshi, ventured to say. "Didn't think you'd come out so soon. We were...uh...keepin' the kid here entertained..."

Ai managed to glare at him. "You...are letting a three-year-old child ...play poker?"

"Just for M&M's," Daisuke replied defensively from the opposite side of the table. "It's not like we'd play for real with a little kid..."

Unconsciously, Ai's hands had gone to her hips in proper scolding fashion. "But you taught him to play poker."

"Well, sort of," Hiroshi chuckled nervously. "Actually, he kinda surprised us when he figured it out on his own by watchin' us play. So...we kinda let him try. And damned if he's not good at it, too. He cleaned Mamoru-kun out in a flash."

"It's fun, Haibara-san!" Yuuichi affirmed from his spot, grinning as he held up his winning two pairs for her observation. "I gots lots of M&M's! Want some?"

"No thank you, Yuuichi-kun." Ai pinched the bridge of her nose. Of course, he inherits Mouri-chan's "skill" at games. What else... "All of you...just...kindly consider that I have to send this boy back to his mother in good condition. And if he's been thoroughly corrupted by incorrigible soldiers like you, I won't have a chance of surviving my encounter with his parents. If he turns into a little gambler, I'm going to tell Mouri-chan it was all your doing, and let her have you."

That drew some rather surprised, incredulous glances; as far as they knew, there were very few things in the world that could scare their Haibara-san, and the prospect of facing an angry mother who could make even her nervous was not a welcome one. Still resembling a pack of guilty teenagers, the group of grown men mumbled apologetic-sounding things and started picking up their mess, reclaiming the playing cards and leaving Yuuichi to his hard-won--or maybe easily-won--M&M candies.

With a deep sigh, Ai shook her head in exasperation. Really, these were the men who were supposed to assist and protect her? "Yuuichi-kun," she called, turning to the boy. "Bring your candy and come with me. I'm going to need you again."

"What're we doing now, Haibara-san?" the child asked, collecting the last few scattered candies. Yuuichi had so many M&Ms that finding a way to carry them all required some problem-solving. Fortunately, along with all the other impromptu dining supplies there was a stack of large paper cups lying fallen over on the table, half out of its package, so the quick-minded preschooler requisitioned one to hold his prizes.

"We're going back to my lab," Ai told him as he approached, cup of candy cradled carefully in both hands. Her face had gone strangely closed. "I've finished my research...and now on to the experimentation stage."

Yuuichi watched as Ai snagged yet another of the paper cups and carried it with her to the table next to Yakamoto-san's, where she filled it with something warm from the insulated jug there. "Follow me," she instructed, leading him once more into the laboratory.

The child paused in the doorway to look over his shoulder at Akai-san, and cheerfully waved goodbye. Akai nodded faintly in return.

Inside the quiet lab with the door shut once more, Yuuichi glanced about and, seeing that nothing had changed, munched a couple M&Ms out of his cache and regarded Ai with definite curiosity. "Didja make the medicine for Touchan? You were working a long time."

"Not quite yet," Ai replied, almost distractedly, as she set the filled cup on the nearest table and crossed the room to pick up a small case made of metal. "But I'm getting very, very close."

Ai found it difficult to school her expression to cool neutrality, especially when Yuuichi regarded her with those wide blue eyes, innocent and unafraid. He had already come to trust her as a friend of his father's, yet he had no idea what she was really like, or what she had planned.

She herself wasn't quite sure of the outcome of the next step in her experiment. The hours of research she had done indicated that this would work, and she had faith in her knowledge of biochemistry and her skill as a scientist. Her work on Yuuichi's cells, exhaustive as it had been, had proven beyond doubt that her new, revised theory was indeed correct.

Yet if that was the case, why did she feel hesitation?

Ai opened the box, looking down at the last two capsules. The very last two--and if this failed, they would have to start all over again. Scratch that--if this failed...she didn't want to think of the consequences. That's why she knew that this would not fail.

Selecting a capsule, she put the case aside and regarded Yuuichi for a moment, glancing from pill to boy and back again. Considering for a moment, she changed her mind and cracked open the capsule over the cup of warm tea, carefully spilling the powdery contents into the liquid, where it swirled and disappeared.

The empty gel capsule was cautiously placed in a small jar and sealed. Then she picked up the cup and turned to the still-curious, now-puzzled little boy, who still stood by the door waiting politely.

Her throat was suddenly very dry as she took the last few steps to cover the distance between them. This would work--her research had proven that. She'd done extensive tests, with all combinations and quantities. There was no way she could fail--she knew her science, and Yuuichi's cells were a scientific marvel. Of course this would work.

But...if it didn't work...if she was wrong...then Yuuichi would die...

One more sin to add to her already-lengthy list. And all her research, all her theories, all her work and experiments and labor would be for nothing if he died from this.

But if she didn't try, they would all die anyway.

Either path could mean death for this child, she thought, gazing into the brillant blue eyes. And he only stands there looking at me...trusting me...

Ai took a deep breath, offering him the lethal cup. "Here, Yuuichi-kun, drink this." Mouri-chan...Kudo-kun...forgive me...

She held his candy for him as he obediently took the tea from her, frowning slightly as he looked down at the slightly-steaming contents. He obviously didn't prefer Western teas, but after a moment he lifted it to his lips and sipped, making a face.

"It's yucky," he complained.

"I know," Ai replied neutrally. "There's no sugar in it, and the medicine I put in it might be bad-tasting. But I need you to drink all of it." The cup of Death is always bitter...

Yuuichi deflated somewhat, looking highly reluctant. Then he seemed to steel himself and bucked up. "It's for Touchan's medicine, right? I'll drink it."

And the small boy proceeded to swallow the entire death-laced cup of tea, in quick little gulps with many a sour face in between--but he did it completely and without complaint, only sticking his tongue out at the empty cup afterwards. "Blegh!"

Her hands were shaking as Ai took back the cup, setting it carefully on the table to be incinerated later. Mouri Yuuichi had just swallowed an entire adult-sized dose of APTX 4869--enough to kill a grown man in only a few minutes. If a child was going to die from the toxin it should, mercifully, take even less time.

And even if he suffered the half-immune malady that she and Kudo did, Yuuichi didn't have ten years of life to spare.

He'd barely lived three.

"There," she found herself saying, her throat strangely constricted as she got down a few sheets of printer paper and some pencils. "Why...why don't you go draw something quietly for a little while, okay? You can take your candy with you. I have to see what that medicine does when you take it...it might make you a little bit ill..."

Yuuichi looked worried at this, but it was more of a confused-worried than a scared-worried. Medicine, in his opinion, was supposed to help you, not make you sick--even if it tasted awful. But he set himself up on the floor near the corner with the paper and pencils, and went about drawing a nice picture of Haibara-san and Akai-san to show Kaachan later.

Ai sat down with a shaky breath on the stool in front of her computer, watching the child. So far, no adverse reaction. By her reckoning, he might get a bit of stomach upset, perhaps a mild fever or slight dizziness as his body reacted to the presence of the whole-formula apotoxin--but nothing more severe; his cells had proven they could metabolize the chemical formula successfully. And he wasn't showing a hint of reaction, even after two minutes and forty-eight seconds.

She began to breathe easier as he failed to fall over dead; her hands still shaking from adrenaline, she turned to make an entry in her computer about her success.

She'd been right! Yuuichi was the key to solving the whole problem--his body was adapted to the chemicals of the apotoxin and could process them without the same lethal or debilitating effects it had on other non-adapted humans. And if she hadn't taken the initiative to study the chemical processing properties in his cells, she never would have...

In her elation, it took Ai several seconds to notice that Yuuichi was no longer humming softly to himself, and the scratching of pencil on paper was no more. With a start, she swiveled on her stool to look at him, seeing that he had gone still where he sat cross-legged on the floor.

He wasn't drawing any more, and his small arms were hugged tight about his stomach.

"Yuuichi-kun...?" she inquired, faintly worried.

He turned slightly to glance at her, his little face gone sharp and pale. "Haibara-san...my tummy hurts."

A cold tingle shot down her spine. Before she realized it, she was at his side, one hand brushing aside his bangs to feel his forehead.

His skin was shockingly hot, and already slick with sweat.

He is reacting, she thought, wondering why she felt so worried. "It's alright, Yuuichi-kun," she responded. "It's the medicine...I told you it might make you a little sick..."

"But it's hot...an' hurts really bad..." He was shaking now, in trembling little jerks.

Oh no... She'd thought she could handle this. She'd thought she knew what she was doing. She was sure she could deal with what she had to do.

She could--until the tears squeezed themselves out of Yuuichi's stricken eyes and his small body seemed to curl further into itself, shaking like a leaf in the wind.

"It hurts...all over..." came the trembling little whisper, falling into a sob. "I-I want my Kaachan...!"

"Yuuichi-kun..." No--no...this isn't just a mild reaction, this is--this is the real thing. She was frozen in faint horror for long moments, her mind whirling with disbelief and unfamiliar panic. No! He's not supposed to react this badly! I did my tests, my reasearch--only a little reaction, not a full-blown fever! It's supposed to be neutralized--it's not supposed to do this--!

"Hurts..." he choked, as he began to cry. "It hurts...!

Haibara Ai didn't know what else to do. So she followed the impulse that welled up from deep inside and pulled the tiny boy into her lap, holding him close in her arms, sitting there on the floor and rocking him.

The small body shook with what were almost spasms as he cried, clinging to her as she stroked his hair and murmured softly to him--hiding the tears that threatened to well in her own eyes at the child's horrible suffering. "Yuuichi...Yuu-chan...hold on...it'll be over soon...just hold on..."

One way or another, it would be.

She had been through this. She had lived this unbelievable hell, thinking she was going to die. Knowing she was going to die.

And now an innocent child was suffering through it, not even knowing why--hardly understanding at all why it hurt so bad, why it burned so hot, why it wouldn't stop.

He didn't even know he could be dying.

This isn't supposed to be happening! her mind screamed inside, frantic, as she held him tight and tried to soothe him. She was completely helpless, utterly at a loss--Yuuichi could die, and Shinichi would hate her forever and it would be completely her fault this time, and if he wanted to kill her she'd more than deserve it. The tears she'd been holding back finally fell as she pressed her cheek to the boy's soft hair.

Her science and her knowledge and her skills had failed her. She'd been so sure...and so horribly wrong...

God, please, let him live...I know I can't ever atone for my sins...but I'll trade my life for this child's, just...please, please...don't let him die...

Haibara Ai had never been the praying sort. Honestly, she'd never felt the need, nor had she much belief in higher powers. She preferred to make her own fate.

But with the life of this child at stake, and nothing she could do to save him--with it all going wrong and she'd caused all of it...really, there was always a first time for everything.

Ai had no idea how long she sat there on the cold bare floor, rocking him, murmuring words that had no meaning, crying silently into his hair. The little body was so hot it seemed she was holding an ember, and his sweat soaked into her clothing as though it were blood. She could not and did not call for help; there was nothing she or any of the others could do.

Nothing but cry, pray, and hope. Desperately.

She could not see the sun outside, nor did she look for her clock. Time had no meaning here; she counted it only by each quivering breath he took. In and out...in and out...and as each passed she prayed for the next to come. He still trembled, harsh jerking shivers as if he were freezing, letting her know he was still alive--still holding on, though as he gasped and shook and suffered, she half-wondered if she should pray for his death just so the agony could end.

She had barely been able to bear this herself. No child as sweet and innocent as he should have to go through anything like this. This was the nearest thing to walking through Hell itself...

Ai experienced a moment of pure, horrible terror and grief as the little boy's trembling faded, his body growing still at long last--and in that moment, she was certain she had lost him. Lost everything.

But in that frantic, frozen moment of panic, the silence cleared the way for the soft sound of one more breath. And as she stared, shock-stilled, at his flushed and sweating face, the blue eyes flickered open, barely, to meet her own.

And all the breath went out of her in a massive heave, relief making her weak and bringing new, different tears to her eyes. The gasping quiver had gone out of his breathing, and the sheen of sweat on his pale, flushed skin was already beginning to dissipate.

She didn't know how long she'd been there with him, but at last an end was in sight. The feverish heat that had rolled off him was fading, and his eyes were open, fixing on hers instead of falling to the glassiness of imminent death. The reaction was passing, whether from science or hope or prayers or the boy's own will to live--at this point, she didn't care. She was immeasurably grateful to whatever it was, and not for a moment did she think of it as her own success.

Yuuichi was going to live.

"Oh...oh, thank you..." she whispered to whatever had saved him, clutching him tight to her once again. "Thank you..."

"Ai-neechan...?" said the child, his voice a whispery rasp like a dry leaf.

The familiarity with which he addressed her jolted her with shock. Never, never in her life--in either life--had any child so freely called her thus. Out of the blue, for no reason other than friendship and trust, and even after what she had done to him...

She discovered a third kind of tears in that moment. Three new kinds of tears, in only one day...

"Yuu-chan..." she gasped, still rocking him for no reason she could see but unable to stop. "...I'm so sorry...so sorry...I didn't think...I didn't mean to..."

"'S for Touchan..." he slurred into her shirt, still too slack to move. "Touchan's medicine..."

"That's right, that's right..." she whispered. "But I shouldn't have...I'm so sorry, Yuu-chan...so glad you're okay..."

"Touchan's...sick like this," he said, actually moving his head a little, enough that he could look up at her. "Right? He needs medicine..." The bleary blue eyes began to fall closed, his voice fading. "Ai-neechan...you gotta...make Touchan medicine..."

"Yuuichi...?" She was alarmed for a scant moment before she realized how horribly weary he must be. And after all that, he still hoped for his father, still trusted her to make the cure that was needed.

And seeing his faith, could she do any less?

She remained where she was to hold him as he slept, still sitting there on the floor without a care for her own comfort. She was content just to keep him close in her arms, silent and watchful, in the quiet of her lab. He was completely at peace--completely trusting, his slumbering features touched with neither pain nor restlessness.

She brushed his sweat-tousled bangs gently back from his forehead with her free hand, watching his cherubic face as he breathed easily. It was so like his father's face--a miniature mirror of the solemn, elfin eight-year-old she'd left behind; a sweet, childish echo of the slim, handsome youth she'd seen in pictures, and only once in person.

Gazing at him, holding him like this...it made old heartaches trickle up from their hiding places--things she thought she'd left behind years ago, back when everything had gone so awfully wrong so quickly. Life was strange that way; it was her own actions that had indirectly caused this boy to be brought into the world--meaning thus that it was her own actions that had forever thwarted her from what was, at least back then, her heart's desire.

She had wanted so badly to know love--his love, one man in particular who was trapped in the body of a boy, but whose heart and mind shone through that childish guise like candlelight through colored paper for those who knew to look. Everything he so freely gave to Mouri-chan, Ai had wished that she could have for her own.

And even now, she had to admit to herself that she'd once wished this brilliant, beautiful child was hers...

Some part of her still did.

Shinichi had always been able to look through her--to see past the surface, the front she threw up to deflect the approach of others. Those jewel-like blue eyes of his, deep with knowledge that went far beyond his years--she had always been afraid that he would see the feelings she kept hidden. So she teased and snapped and misdirected any time he might have gotten close to figuring it out--at the same time, deep down, wondering why, why was she hiding so much, when she wanted him to know...

But then, as now, there was Mouri Ran. He had already given his heart to her, long before Ai had ever known him. She had lost before she even set foot in his life--doomed to fail before she even tried. So she never tried, just hoped and hid, giving him false hopes of a cure to keep him coming back to her, telling him haunting half-truths to frighten him into relying on her--almost too much, so that when she ended up being the one who abandoned him, he panicked and floundered and brought everything crashing the rest of the way down...

She'd thought she could at least keep him with her, if she lagged in creating a cure, if she forced him to need her. Because she knew he didn't need her--he had gotten along fine before she came, had already learned far too much about his enemies, had already been offered the hope of a cure from his parents' contacts. He didn't need her--but at least as long as he thought he did, she could be with him...and as long as she didn't ever quite finish a cure to the apotoxin, she could keep him. Mouri Ran would remain forever out of his reach, and maybe someday he would...he would...

He would wait for Ran until the sky fell, until the stars burned out, even if she didn't wait for him in return--he was that strong, he was that faithful, he was that in love...

And Ai knew. She knew.

And it was her own choice to run as she had, long ago--run, and leave him in terror, frightened enough to make his mistakes. But it was their love--Kudo-kun and Mouri-chan--that brought about this beautiful accident, this precious child in her arms right now. She might have been the catalyst, but theirs were the hearts and souls that had already been bound together by fate. What had happened then had only been inevitable, merely come to pass sooner than expected--because of her single choice to leave.

Yuuichi had become the living Red Thread that bound those two together for the rest of eternity. And if that whole tangled mess of events four years ago had not taken place, none of this would be possible now--no cure, no hope, with the end closing in and nothing she or any of the others could do. This special child would never have been born, and Shinichi would never be saved.

How had it all come to pass so perfectly? They hadn't known that it took Kudo-kun and Mouri-chan working together to produce a cure--and even if they had considered such a course, she could never have convinced Kudo-kun to go through with it. For a cure to have this kind of price--a child, a life, a sacrifice...he would never have agreed. He would have willingly spent the rest of his days as a child rather than put Ran through what she'd gone through in this.

But somehow, even when they'd all thought everything was falling apart, in truth it was all falling together.

Perhaps it did take the hand of God to make everything turn out okay like this. And if that was the case, she hoped He was willing to put His hand out over them for just a little bit longer, to see them all through to the end.

And not even for her own sake. Just for Kudo-kun and Mouri-chan...and this precious, precious little boy...

The door to her lab opened, startling her to full wakefulness after who-knows-how-long spent in half-sleep and thought. She knew who it was, though, as her heartbeat calmed itself once more; only one among the men in her company had the courage and temerity to barge into her laboratory without so much as a knock.

"What is it, Akai?" she asked quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping child, fighting down a flash of embarassment at being caught thus, and in such a state. But he didn't comment one way or another.

"We have a problem," Akai said, his voice terse and solemn. "Iori just called in--Mouri Ran left the Agency on her own."

"What?" Ai jerked around, earning a faint stir from the boy in her lap.

"He reports she's on foot, and she's alone--apparently fed up with waiting and gone out to look for the kid," he told her, his eyes hard.

No--not now--I can't lose any of them now--not when we're so close-- "Go get her."

His eyebrow twitched, just barely. "You're serious?"

"We don't have a choice," she shot back, her tone harsh with worry. "We can't give them a hostage. And I won't let Mouri-chan fall victim to any of this--go get her and bring her here, as quickly as you can. She would have found out anyway, eventually. She'll be safer here."

"What about Edogawa?"

"Do any of you know where he is? He'll have to take care of himself," she replied, her eyes flashing faintly amused for an instant. "He's capable enough to stay out of their way. And he's got at least one angel looking out for him tonight--a very special angel, with black-feathered wings..."

"I understand." With that, Akai turned to leave, and do as he was bid.

"Wait," she called after him, making him put his head back in the door. "On your way out, tell one of the men to bring a cot in here. Yuuichi-kun needs to sleep, and I need to get back to work. I have to get that cure made before it's too late."

"Got it."

What had already been set in motion was beginning to turn faster. She only hoped it didn't spin completely out of control--not until everything was in place, and she had saved the one man who had a chance of stopping it.

~~to be continued~~