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

I'm not supposed to be scared of anything,
But I don't know where I am.
I wish that I could move but I'm exhausted,
And nobody understands how I feel.
I'm trying hard to breathe now,
But there's no air in my lungs.
There's no one here to talk to,
And the pain inside is making me numb.
Try to hold this under control;
You can't help me 'cause no one knows.
--3 Doors Down, "Changes"

Part 7: Trying Hard To Breathe

Even his trusty skateboard had failed him. And without it, Conan was left on foot, running, wondering what he was doing and what the hell he was supposed to do. Leaving the Agency forty-five minutes ago hadn't even gotten him as far as he'd once ranged with his skateboard to carry him, and he was wearing himself down step by step, but unable to stop.

Frantic didn't even begin to describe his state of mind. White-hot was coming closer--seething and raging and frenzied and gasping as he ran/stumbled along, lungs burning and limbs shaking, but still searching.

He was a detective. If he stopped searching it would mean he was giving up, and he would not--could not give up hope of finding his son, and finding Ran. If he gave up, he would shatter.

With both of them gone, the jagged ache inside him had only doubled in size and intensity. Now he was just running aimlessly, mindlessly, no longer logical and ordered but terrified and despairing--determined to find them somehow. Hope had long since given way to desperation, resolve had faded to grief, but a horrible sadness and anger kept his feet moving, one after another.

He'd spent this whole wretched day searching, knowing who could have already--who had probably already taken his son from him. Knowing all this time that Yuuichi could be forever lost to him, or even dead...but his mind's abject refusal to stop kept him rushing ahead, knowing that if he gave up he really would fall to pieces like broken glass.

And he couldn't find them. No matter how hard he tried or how long he looked, the city was too big. There were too many places to hide. He was all alone, one young boy running around on foot or on a silly skateboard, trying to find one missing preschooler--and now, one missing young woman...

But he just couldn't stop. Grief and rage and a cold deadly will made him keep running, far beyond the point of caring how tired or hungry or hurt he was. Seething fury at the Black Organization had torn his masks aside, stripping the everyday innocence of the young-boy face down to something ghastly and pale and terrifyingly sharp, icy eyes brimming with fell, feverish flames.

He had seen how frightened the Mouris had been, there at the office. He had known that his Conan-mask had slipped away--long gone, by then. But he could not bring himself to care who they were seeing, even if their expressions had seemed as though they were staring into the face of death itself.

They might not be far wrong. At this point, the cold glittering fire inside him made him unsure what he might do, if he found one of them...

He really wasn't Conan any more. He couldn't be. He wasn't even sure who he was now--nothing, nobody...the child-faced, nameless, vengeful ghost of Kudo Shinichi.

Right now, he had to find them--Ran and Yuuichi, somehow he would...even if he had to go hunt down that thrice-cursed teacher and wring it out of her, he would if he had to--he would do anything to find them, to save them, even give his life if that's what it took.

I have to find them, his mind repeated, over and over, a litany that kept the rhythm of his feet, that turned in his head like an engine that kept him going. Can't live without Ran...can't lose Yuuichi--God, I'll die without them...got to find them somehow...I have to...I have to...!

Something caught his foot, and he stumbled; his weakened limbs couldn't catch him before he fell, barely slowing his descent so that he tumbled to his knees with a harsh cry. Pain in his stung palms and knees brought him more awake than he had been, jogging mindlessly--but it only served to hurt and frustrate him more when his shaking legs almost refused to stand him up again.

"I can't stop," he hissed at himself. "Get up, coward..."

Coward--weakling--fool! his mind raged at him, as he gasped for air there on the sidewalk. You ruin Ran's life, keep her in constant danger, hide from her and lie to her--and your own son--and you can't even get your pathetic ass off the ground and help her when she needs you?

"I'm trying," he snarled back at his conscience. "Where do I go? What the hell do I do--?"

His harsh statement was accompanied by a fist thumped to the concrete, followed by one tiny drop of water. Gritted teeth tried to bite back tears--tears of terror and grief and frustration and rage and utter, hopeless agony.

What do I do? he cried silently in his heart. What else can I do? Where else can I go? It's all over...I've lost them...God, what am I supposed to do?

In the state he was in, the faint ringing of the telephone in his pocket both scared the living daylights out of him and made his heart leap with a surge of sudden, irrational hope.

He reared back on his knees to fumble the unit out of his pocket, not even bothering with the remote earphone but simply unfolding the handset and putting it to his ear. "What is it? Agasa? Are they found?" he demanded in rapid succession, his mind barely considering the scant handful of people who had this number.

"Hello to you, too," said a soft, familiar voice--one that was like a dash of cold water over him, jerking him abruptly out of the haze.

"You--!" he gasped.

"Well, are you still working yourself into a tizzy, or have you stopped running in circles long enough to listen?" the voice went on, wryly. "It's a pretty nice night, if you still feel like continuing your evening jog..."

"Kuroba!" Conan half-choked. "What do you know about this?"

Kuroba Kaito chuckled softly on the other end. "You'd be surprised, Kudo. It's kind of hard to miss what's going on when half the city police force turns out to find one kid. Thought I'd lend a hand."

"You...you found something..." It was not a question--the young thief would not be calling without a damn good reason.

"I've been keeping an eye out, and when your girlfriend left home tonight I followed her," Kaito replied. "I know where she is now, and it seems she's safe. I'm sure the kid's there, too. But I won't say where over the phone--too risky. Meet me at Tokyo Tower--I'll be making my way there."


"Just be there, Kudo. And fast," Kaito said, his voice more serious than usual by far. "Something major is about to happen. Hurry."

With that, the line went dead.

Conan stared at the phone for several seconds, as his heartbeat roared in his ears and his vision swam with the beginnings of tears--this time of sheer relief.

They were found. Someone had found them--and thank God it was someone he could trust.

Even if it felt weird to be saying that of a thief and a criminal...really, he was going to owe Kuroba even more for this. A thousand times more than before--and he would pay him back in full for everything, with interest, in any way he could...when it was all over and Ran and Yuuichi were with him again...

He forced himself to his feet, buoyed by new, stumbling hope, and began to make his way toward Tokyo Tower.

* * * * *

Ran had calmed down considerably--though she was no less wary--by the time Akai Shuichi drove her to her destination. His brief, terse explanations of today's events had set her a bit at ease--and frightened her even more to hear that some shadowy, yakuza-like syndicate had been planning to kidnap her son. And Akai's associates couldn't warn her about it; phones might have been listened to, and sending one of their agents to meet with her would be far too risky--so they'd had to make Yuuichi "disappear" without word to anyone, whisking him away to a safe location.

And as for why that syndicate was after her child...well, it wasn't exactly a secret that Yuuichi was Kudo Shinichi's son. And Ran had already begun to wonder if the syndicate had connections with the Mafia groups or terrorists that Shinichi was fighting in America...

But the thought of finally seeing her son filled her with anticipation and adrenaline, setting her on an anxious edge so that she couldn't wait to arrive at their destination. Her hands were white-knuckled on the small jacket in her lap as Akai pulled through the warehouse lots. When the car finally stopped, she almost leaped out of it, almost making herself stumble in her overbearing hurry to get to Yuuichi.

"Calm down," Akai told her in a steadying voice, though he looked a bit exasperated with her unreasoning desperation to reach her son now. "I've told you he's safe."

"Just--just take me to him," Ran commanded, fighting back tears of mixed relief, frustration, fear, and gladness. "Please."

Akai was already pulling keys out of his pocket to unlock the door of the building they had stopped at. "Follow me," was all he said in response.

Meanwhile, on the inside of the headquarters, Yakamoto had been radioed the moment Akai's car had passed through their perimeter guard--eliciting a flurry of activity from the men around him, as they hurried to elect a brave soul to go knock on Haibara's door to tell her. Hiroshi had finally volunteered, and with a hesitant gulp had gone to inform their resident scientist that Akai was back with Mouri Ran.

And the moment Ai heard, she carefully put her research on pause--taking several minutes to disengage at a safe point--and went to wake her sleeping charge.

"Yuuichi-kun..." She nudged him softly, making him shift and stir. "Yuuichi-kun, wake up. Your mother is here...let's go meet her."

Sleepy blue eyes crept open, then blinked at her. "Kaachan's here...?" yawned the little voice.

"That's right--she's coming in right now," Ai answered, trying on a faint smile. "You want to go say hello, don't you?"

"Yeah..." Yuuichi sat up with a mighty stretch, making an effort to pull himself awake.

Ai helped him out of the cot and held his hand to steady him as he yawned and blinked sleepily; had she been Miyano Shiho again she might have carried him, but he was a bit heavy for her now. She led him to the door and opened it--and when she did, she could hear Mouri-chan downstairs, frantic and worried and tearful, asking for him, coming closer.

Yuuichi perked up almost immediately upon hearing her voice. "Kaachan!"

"Yuuichi?" As she hurried up the stairs, Ran's knees almost gave out in relief as she heard the little boy somewhere ahead. She ran faster, rounding the corner at the top of the stairs and nearly falling into the strange office/secret base set up on the second floor--but her eyes hardly saw it, her brain didn't register it. She didn't see the room; she didn't see the handful of wary, worried-looking men all around--she only saw Yuuichi, coming across the room hand-in-hand with a young girl who was so familiar Ran knew she should recognize her but her mind couldn't spare the thoughts to try. "Yuuichi--!"

The girl released him and with a brilliant smile Yuuichi trotted toward her--even as Ran sprint-stumbled to reach him, dropping the small jacket, falling to her knees to catch him up in a desperate embrace, already sobbing and holding him and kissing him and overjoyed to see him and touch him and know that he was alive, he was okay, he was in her arms again...

"...Yuu-chan, my Yuu-chan, you're here...!" she cried, petting his hair and rocking him as she sobbed with relief. "...thought I'd lost you...my baby...so glad you're alright...you're okay...!"

Ai could only watch them, silent, her features an emotionless mask and her eyes glittering deeply with tears she would not shed. She briefly met Akai's gaze, where he stood at the top of the stairs, and he nodded faintly at her with such a strange expression hidden in his eyes that she had to look down again. Around them, Yakamoto-san and the others looked on uncomfortably, unsure of what to do with the sobbing young woman in the middle of their floor.

For his part, Yuuichi was very glad to see his mother, but not quite sure why she was crying so. His smile went away as he hugged her, trying to comfort her in return; it worried him that she was so upset, so he remained still and let her hold him, like he let Niichan hold him sometimes when the older boy went all quiet and sad and strange...

As Ran's sobs began to subside, she gradually became aware of her surroundings--all the things she'd been unable to see before. Still holding her son tight, she looked up at the blank-faced young girl standing nearest to them, frowning a little as recognition struggled to surface. "You...you're..." Her voice was rough with tears that were slow to subside, but she sniffled and tried to go on as surprise began to paint her features. "You can't be...Haibara-chan...?"

With a breath, Ai nodded, finding herself somehow fearful of recognition--though Mouri-chan had nothing to suspect her for, nothing to blame her for, not like Kudo-kun... "Hello, Mouri-chan. It's been a long time."

Staring wide-eyed now, especially at the way Ai addressed her, Ran settled Yuuichi to a more comfortable position on her lap and glanced around at the men. "But...what are you doing here...with all this...this...?"

"It's a long story," Ai replied, her face still as blank as Ran could ever remember. "One of you--get Mouri-chan a chair, would you?" she directed at the soldiers around them. "Quit gawking like tourists and be polite!"

Her snapped order sent the men into a brief skitter as Daisuke dived to bring a chair around to Ran and Mamoru stepped up to offer her a hand to her feet, all of them mumbling apologies and hasty welcomes. Clearly, they were not accustomed to visitors in their secret location.

What shocked Ran the most was not accepting a hand up from a man dressed in black fatigues, nor was it being offered a chair by yet another black-dressed soldier--it was the manner in which all these men hustled to obey one young girl's order as if she were a hardened battle commander. She would have expected it if someone like Akai had given the order--but not Haibara-chan...

Not Haibara-chan, the little girl she'd known--who had been missing for four years now, gone back home to America or back to family as far as Ran knew...

She had already figured out there was a lot going on she didn't know about. Now she was beginning to wonder just how deep all this went.

"Don't worry, Kaachan," Yuuichi spoke up from her lap, as she sat rather numbly in the chair. "They're all my friends. We even played games. Don't worry!"

"Yuu-chan..." she murmured, looking down at his cheerful but concerned blue eyes.

"He's been safe with us," Ai said, looking down as she spoke. "I'm sorry we had to do this so suddenly--and I'm sorry that it alarmed you so. If there had been a better way..."

Ran's brows drew down; she was angry, behind the fading terror and the tears and the relief and joy. She was very angry that this had happened--yet she could not find the right words to out-and-out yell at Haibara-chan. Aside from being unsure of what was really going on here--and she wasn't so unobservant that she didn't know there was a lot going on here she didn't understand--she did realize that what these people had done might have indeed saved her son's life. She herself had almost been attacked...

But only if it was the truth. Only if it wasn't all arranged--only if there really was an evil syndicate...

"I think...I'd like to take my son and go home now," she stated, her voice as even as she could make it through the wobble in her throat from the crying.

Ai looked more uncomfortable, though her face remained blank. "I'm afraid we can't let you leave. At least not yet," she was quick to add. "It's still too dangerous. If you wait for just a little while, Kudo-kun will--"

She broke off suddenly as Ran gasped, almost coming up off the chair. "Shinichi? Is he here? Is he with you people? What has he been doing? Why is he with you? Where is he? Why didn't he tell me...?"

Her last sentence faded off into a sob, as Ai seemed to wince.

Yuuichi looked from Ran to Ai and back again, his small face pinched with definite worry. "Ai-neechan is making medicine for Touchan," he said helpfully, hoping to relieve the tension even he could feel in the air.

"Medicine? What--?" Ran's eyes snapped up to Ai. "What's going on here?"

Ai sighed deeply, closing her eyes as if in great weariness. "All of you..." she spoke to the soldiers. "Out."

There was a mutter of protest that ran through the room--cutting off sharply when Haibara's eyes flashed. "Just go!" she ordered harshly. "Downstairs--outside--I don't care. Take a smoke break. Just go."

With more worried looks, Hiroshi and the others began to file out past Akai. Yakamoto scowled, then took his headphones, a set of radios, and a handful of other things as he rose to leave. "You sure try to make my job difficult, Haibara-kun," he grumbled as he went. Eiji was the last to go, having difficulty leaving his computer for any length of time.

When they were gone, Akai lingered. He gazed at Ai with eyes that were both soft and hard at the same time, somehow looking uncaring and concerned in the same instant. She looked up at him, and shook her head. "You too," she told him quietly.

With one last measuring look, one that lasted several moments, the dark-haired man shrugged and turned to head downstairs with the rest of them.

Ran had remained silent and anxious as all the men left, clutching Yuuichi a little tighter just out of sheer worry--finding herself somehow afraid of the little girl standing there across from her, who watched her with those cool, unreadable eyes.

"Haibara-chan, what's going on?"

Ai took another deep breath, seating herself on another chair next to the one empty table in the room, facing Ran with a face that was less expressionless, more sad. "Edogawa-kun has been looking for Yuuichi this whole time. He's managed to elude the man we assigned to keep an eye on him, and we don't know where he is right now but we've assumed he'll be coming here soon enough. Within a few hours, if not sooner, he'll probably find us."

"Conan-kun?" Ran looked confused. "But he's..."

"And if he can find us, our enemy probably can too--we knew there was risk in doing something this public," Ai went on. "We won't have a lot of time--from now on, every second is going to have to count." She paused, glancing at the little boy in Ran's lap. "Why don't you send Yuuichi to my office for a little while?"

Ran actually started. "But--"

For the first time in their encounter, Ai smiled--but it was faint, barely there, and still so sad. "I'm not sure he needs to hear this, Mouri-chan. What do you say, Yuuichi-kun? Your mother and I need to talk for a bit--can you go to my lab? I'm pretty sure your paper and pencils are still there--you could go finish your drawing."

Oddly serious, Yuuichi nodded, then looked up at Ran. "Kaachan? Can I go?"

Reflexively, her arms tightened. "But...Yuu-chan, you..."

"It's okay, Kaachan," Yuuichi said, already trying to scoot out of her lap. "Ai-neechan needs to talk about grownup stuff. Medicine stuff." He shrugged. "And I wanna finish my picture so I can show you."

Startled and numb, Ran let him go; the little boy plopped to the floor and trotted off, back to the open door across the room where he vanished around the corner. Ran's heart fell the moment he was out of her sight, and she had to fight back an urge to go and snatch him up again.

"He'll be fine, Mouri-chan," Ai said, bringing Ran's attention back to her. "He was hard at work on that picture earlier, and I'm sure it'll be quite the masterpiece--"

"What is this?" Ran burst out, very near to tears again. "What's going on here? Why are you watching Conan-kun? And me? And Yuuichi?" Her breath hitched. "And where's Shinichi?"

"He'll be here soon," Ai told her softly. "Edogawa-kun has to get here before they do, or it's all over--if only I knew where he was..."

Ran swallowed hard. "Haibara-chan...where is Shinichi?"

Ai closed her eyes again, her small frame going slack with an awful, lifeless weariness. It seemed as though the weight of the whole world rested upon this one young girl, and with her pale, worry-shadowed face it seemed as though she was horribly tired--tired and sad and afraid. It was as if her suffering on this day had been no less than Ran's own--and possibly...impossibly...even more...

But her next words, spoken in such a small, rough, exhausted voice, made the bottom drop out of everything and filled Ran with a wave of ice-cold, agonized shock.

"Mouri-chan...Edogawa-kun is Shinichi."

~~to be continued~~