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!

AN: If anyone's curious, a picture of Yuuichi can be found on my website. ^_^ Story-based fanart is also most welcome, and will be enshrined and worshipped devoutly.

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Coming Home
by Becky Tailweaver

If dust could only mutter, or in laughter trill;
If it could warn and whisper from the windowsill,
For it's the only witness that can testify.
Can I spit out the truth?
Or would you rather just swallow a lie?
--Elvis Costello, "Dust"

Part 11: Warn and Whisper

The snick of the lab door closed them all in together. Woodenly, Ai took a seat on the stool by her computer, and Akai leaned against the wall near her, arms crossed, observing the others across from him. Ran hesitated for a few moments, glancing about the room, before settling down on the cot in the corner, sitting her small son in her lap and still holding him close.

Conan remained near the doorway, between them in no-man's-land, glancing back and forth--angry eyes directed at Ai and her cohort, softening when they flicked to Ran and the child. Without his glasses, without any masks or pretenses, he seemed more like Shinichi than he ever had before, and Ran's throat tightened as she watched him.

"Why don't you sit down, Kudo?" Akai said at length, tired of watching the boy hesitate.

Conan twitched at the name, glancing at the little boy in Ran's arms--a little boy who seemed almost to be nothing but eyes; wide bright-blue eyes in a pale, worried little face, still staring at him. The strange almost-fear was still there, making him reluctant to approach--reluctant to make any of that fear increase. He glanced at the older man, not flinching before the dark gaze.


"He's not stupid," Ai spoke, barely audible, from her hunkered place on the stool. "You were listening to us earlier--weren't you, Yuuichi-kun?"

Still clinging tight to his mother, the boy glanced at her and nodded. Conan's eyes shifted to him, swallowing. "What...what did you hear, Yuu-kun?" he asked, voice faintly hoarse.

Even Ran had begun to go pale, her arms tightening slightly. It was one thing for the truth to be revealed to her--she could understand it. But Yuuichi, who was smart enough to know what was being said, but was still such a young child...

Yuuichi turned his head a little, looking out at Conan with a gaze that seemed a trifle less hiding. "I heard..." he began hesitantly, softly, as if almost too shy to speak. "I heard...Niichan's not...really Niichan." His bright eyes crinkled a bit with confusion. "Niichan is...Touchan...?"

Conan took a shaky breath, his throat suddenly very dry. The wide blue eyes that fixed on him, so full of worry and uncertainty and half-fear, stung him deep inside somehow even more than Ran's gaze had, when he'd first rushed into the room and heard her call his true name...

Akai made a small sound that might have been a mumbled disparaging comment or perhaps just a murmur of respect for the small child's intellect. Ai watched with a closed gaze, betraying none of her silent concern.

Somehow, it was Ran who broke the silent tension. Ran, who had suffered, who had learned the truth, who had cried, who had come to understand. She sat her young son up on her lap, still holding him close but not cuddling him, and offered him a reassuring smile.

It was almost a miracle that she could smile like that, with all that had happened. The warmth of it reached even Conan, who stood still like a wary deer, painfully unsure.

"Yes," Ran said at last, fixing Yuuichi's wide-eyed gaze with her own. "He is. You're right, Yuu-chan. Niichan is Touchan."

Conan swallowed, as the little boy blinked at his mother for a moment. Then, slightly wary, he glanced at Conan, then back at Ran. "But...Niichan's...he's a..."

"A kid." At Conan's low, rough words, Yuuichi's head cranked around to stare at the older boy standing head down, hands fisted, near the door. "Just a kid..."

Ran's eyes flashed pain that Yuuichi thankfully couldn't see. But then she smiled again, in her usual way; somehow, adversity made her even more Ran than she usually was--it only made her stronger, more beautiful...

"Kaachan?" Yuuichi spoke up, quavering, questioning. "How?"

"Do you remember what you heard?" Ran asked, making herself sound calm and cheerful. "Some bad men made some poisonous medicine, and it turned your Touchan into a little boy."

"It made him small...like me?" The child's eyebrows went up.

"Not quite as small as you..." Ran glanced at Conan, the faintest of smiles tugging at her lips. "...but as I remember, he was pretty small."

Conan blinked when Yuuichi giggled softly, shortly. The little boy glanced back at him again, the wariness vanishing into a shy smile, the beginnings of unexpected comprehension.

"An' I remember what Ai-neechan said," Yuuichi added, as if he were excited to reveal his discoveries to his mother. "Niichan...Touchan...has to pretend. 'Cause the bad guys don't like Touchan, but they don't know Niichan. So they can't find him."

"Very good," Ran praised him, running her fingers over his soft hair. Tousled with sweat and sleep as it was, it stuck up in ways that made him resemble his father even more strongly. She looked up at Conan, who still stared at the two of them, at a loss. "I think he's pretty much got it, don't you?"

Conan gulped again, his eyes flickering once again between relief and trepidation. He managed a faint, disbelieving nod, barely a visible bob of his chin. He hadn't expected Yuuichi to understand it, much less deal with it so...calmly.

"Shinichi," Ran stated, firmly fixing him with a stare. "Stop gawking and come over here and sit with your son."

Akai muffled another sound that just might have been a snort. Conan jerked once again at the use of his name, staring at her for another second--before he skittered obediently to the cot, perching himself carefully on the edge of it like a nervous bird.

"You spent all day looking for him," Ran went on, still giving him an unbending look, "and you've been frantic to find him. And now that he's here, and we both know what's really going on, you can't even say anything to him?"

Rather cowed, Conan's mouth worked as he stared up at Ran with wide, flinching, guilty eyes. "I...I didn't...Ran..."

As it turned out, he didn't have to say anything. Ran merely loosened her grip on the child in her arms, and he did the talking for both of them. Yuuichi didn't have to speak, either; when his mother released him, he all but leaped onto Conan, nearly knocking him over.

"Niichan! I missed you!" the child babbled, flinging his arms around the older boy's neck. "I missed you all day! I had fun but you weren't here!"

"I'm sorry, Yuu-kun," Conan croaked softly in reply, his arms coming around the little boy almost of their own volition. "I'm here now...I'm here..." ...and I'm never letting you go again...

Yuuichi pulled back a little, to look into Conan's face with wide, glimmering blue eyes and a surprisingly satisfied smile. "You came just like you promised," the small boy said, looking remarkably wise. "'Cause Niichan is Touchan and Touchan is Niichan...just different size. An' you can come to Kaachan's birthday!"

Ran caught her breath. "Yuuichi...!"

Conan clutched the child close again, the tightness in his throat making it hard to breathe. He tried to hide his tears in Yuuichi's soft hair as the small boy held on to him with a contented sigh. Her eyes glimmering, Ran put a gentle arm around his shoulders, and for a moment he really felt it--he felt like he was home...

Yuuichi had gone still, letting Conan hold him--and happy to be held, as well. Now he understood, in his own childish way, why sometimes Niichan would be strange and different. When he stopped pretending to be Conan-niichan, Yuuichi got to see a little bit of Touchan every time.

He loved Niichan lots. And he loved his Touchan a whole bunch too. And if Niichan and Touchan were the same, did that mean he loved him twice as much?

Yuuichi just snuggled deeper into Conan's arms, not bothering to wonder about the mathematics of this love and warmth. All that mattered to him was that Niichan and Touchan were here, they were safe, and everyone was happy again.

Well, almost happy. Ai-neechan still looked so sad, and Niichan was crying a little bit, he could tell.

Across the room, Akai finally cleared his throat. "If you are all finished with the sentimentality," he stated--though his voice carried far less bite than one would have expected, "we do have some business to discuss. We have a rather urgent situation ahead of us."

Ran's hand tightened a little on Conan's shoulder. "How urgent, Akai-san? You told me before--"

"I know what I said," Akai interrupted, not letting her finish. "And it still holds true. This location is probably the safest place for you to be at this point. But I cannot guarantee how long it will stay that way, with what's been happening tonight. We've been coming and going too much, and it must have attracted some attention."

Keeping Yuuichi in his lap, Conan glanced over at the older man, alerted by the terse tones. "It's them, isn't it?" he asked softly, once he was certain his emotions would not cause his voice to wobble. "Those men in black...they're looking for you. For us. I probably stirred them up but good when I went after their agent in the school..."

Ran gulped softly, staring worriedly at Conan for a few moments. "In the school...?"

"So, you know about that one." Akai's eyes glittered. "And she knows about you. As far as our data can tell us, she's one of their higher-ranked members. Apparently she's in the school to gather information--and to get close to the boy."

Conan frowned, his arms holding his son a little closer. "Why should they be after him? Besides trying to draw out Kudo Shinichi..."

"There could be a lot of reasons, only one of which was to draw you out and kill you," Akai replied briefly. "We aren't sure why she would have chosen just to observe your little drama for such a long period of time, but we can only guess that she wanted something other than your death. What that is, I don't know."

Ai glanced up, the knowledge granted by her insights earlier making her shiver.

"Then...what now?" Ran asked softly. "If they know who we are...and they're coming for us..."

Akai scowled shortly at Conan. "Rushing in to confront the agent at the school was probably the worst thing you could have done, Kudo. Once their ruse is blown, they'll decide to go straight to Plan B, and throw subtlety out the window. You made yourself an active threat by doing that."

Conan's eyes narrowed. "What's Plan B?"

"Storm the castle," Ai spoke up quietly in answer, her first words in quite some time, her eyes meeting Conan's. "Checkmate. Kill the King, and take the Prince."

"You mean..." Conan's narrowed eyes grew wide. "They're coming here now?"

"In all likelihood, yes." Akai unfolded his arms, standing up straight. "It's not inconceivable that you may have been followed. Or even myself, when I went out to pick up Mouri-san. Things were too hurried to be sure. To be safe, we should assume that they are on their way now and prepare accordingly."

"Prepare?" Conan husked softly, his face bleak. Beside him, Ran was pale. "Prepare--hell! We've got to go! We have to get out of here--get to someplace safe, where they won't think to look." He glanced at Ran, then at Yuuichi, both of them gazing at him expectantly. "We could hop a bus for now, just to get out of town...then I could get ahold of my parents, and they'd get us a flight to America and we could hide out with them for a while--Tousan has friends in Interpol, they can help us..."

"Interpol is as riddled with their agents as it is with ours," Akai snorted. "And if you're going to run away like a rabbit, Kudo, at least think before you scamper off to hide. Right now, I'd say that all of your contacts are being monitored--your parents, that professor neighbor of yours, any friends in the police. A phone call to them could have the Blacks down around your ears in half an hour."


Akai shook his head. "You couldn't get out of the country without them finding you first."

Conan gritted his teeth, anger and fear renewing the adrenaline that had faded from his previous battle, filling him again with that shaky thrum. "I won't just sit here and let them kill us--!"

"I'm not the kind of man who plans on passive defeat," Akai interjected sternly, stepping closer to Ai's side. "And sitting here waiting for death is not an option. Rest assured that when the time comes, all of you will be removed to another location safely. We just can't move yet, with Haibara's work in such a delicate phase. Once she finishes, we'll be off--the sooner the better."

Both Ran and Conan glanced at Ai with interest, Conan's face flickering from puzzlement to hopeful confusion. "Work?" Ran queried, looking a little more positive. "What's she working on?'

Yuuichi grinned happily from Conan's lap, his face brightening at the mention of Ai's project. "She's making Touchan's medicine!" he piped up helpfully, smiling at his parents. "I helped!"

"Medicine?" Ran whispered, staring. "You...you mean...?"

Akai glanced at the young blond-haired girl beside him, and with a brief moment of meeting his eyes, she finally answered. "An antidote for the effects of APTX 4869."

Conan's eyes were wide, his face starkly shocked. He gaped at Ai, sudden, irrational hope flinging itself up from the bottom of his heart where it had lain dormant for so long. Dormant--sleeping crushed under years of despair and pain, ever since Ai had disappeared, leaving him to come to grips with the fact that there was no cure, there was no hope...but now there was again, even if it was faint and fleeting. There was a chance--he could be cured, he could go back to who he was, who he always should have been. And even with this faint thread of impossible promise, his broken, weary, long-suffering hope rose like a battered phoenix, having never been quite dead but dying slowly--trapped on the cusp of death, never able to completely give up...

"You have a cure?" he rasped, barely managing to form even a whisper.

"I may have a cure," Ai replied softly, glancing at the incongruous family on the cot. "It's still uncertain, even at this point. I can't know for sure until it's tried. And then..."

She glanced away, even as Conan leaned forward. "But there's still a chance?"

"A chance." Ai didn't look up again. "A chance it could work. A chance it might not. A chance it might do something worse. A chance it might work only halfway. A chance it could kill you."

Ran gasped softly, even paler than before. "If it's that dangerous..."

"When can I try it?" Conan asked sharply, his eyes as bright as stars. "When will it be ready?"

"Shinichi--!" Ran exclaimed, gripping his arm. "You...you can't--what if...what if it doesn't work? I just got you back--I don't want to lose you...!"

Startled out of his flurry of eagerness, Conan looked up at her, seeing tears spring anew. "Ran, I...I can't just..."

"But what if you die?" she whispered.

"That's only one possibility," he told her softly, trying to hide his own worry. "And...even so, I want to try. If there's a chance I can be myself again--if I can be who you and Yuuichi need me to be, then I--"

"I don't care about that," she interjected, her hand tightening on his arm as if she wanted to pull him to her but couldn't because of the child in his lap. "Whatever you look like, you're still..."

"Niichan won't die," Yuuichi spoke up suddenly, solemnly, looking back and forth between them. "Ai-neechan is really smart. She knows how to do this stuff. I didn't die. I felt really yucky and it hurt lots but I didn't die."

Ran gasped again, going silent. She stared at her son, then at Ai, her face gone pale. "What...?"

"Ai-neechan needed help, so I helped," Yuuichi volunteered brightly. "She did lots of tests an' things, like blood an' stuff. The medicine made my tummy hurt an' everything hurt all over, but I got better an' we did more test things." He smiled up at his mother. "Don't worry, Kaachan. Ai-neechan's medicine will work."

A hot/cold thrill of shock spun through Conan's stomach as Yuuichi's words began to register. The cold part sank, as cold air sinks, to the bottom of his belly, settling like an icy knot in his intestines. The hot part rose like steam into his throat, into his brain, until he almost couldn't think, almost couldn't speak. Like a flame, it heated his mind to an edge of fury similar to what he'd felt facing Akai earlier.

"Haibara..." His voice was a growl, almost nothing like a young boy's voice at all. "What did you do to him?"

Ai flinched, but only Akai ever saw it. She never looked up as she spoke, her voice as even as a calm sea despite the pinched paleness of her face. "In order to synthesize a cure for your condition, I was required to expose Yuuichi-kun to the same catalyst that you had experienced, to analyze the condition and formulate an antidote." In her lap, her folded hands tensed. "I was required to dispense to him a dose of Apotoxin 4869."

Ran gasped a third time, this one from pure shock.

The next sound Conan made was not a gasp of shock, though it was probably meant to be. It was more like a short cry of mingled outrage, fury, and fear, high-pitched and sharp and almost echoing in the small confines of the lab. Ai flinched again at the sound of it, still unable to look up--and probably lucky she didn't, since his features had become locked in a terrible snarl of rage.

"You--you--you fed him that God-damned drug?" he shouted, his tones shrill and rough--so angry that Yuuichi, in his lap, gasped and buried his face in Conan's shirt, frightened by his father's fury. "Damn you, Haibara...!"

He was angrier than he'd ever been--perhaps even angrier than when he'd come into this warehouse office to find a troop of soldiers standing between him and his son. Then, at least, the dangers had been more mundane, and mostly directed at himself. This--this was somehow more horrible; someone whom he thought of as an ally, perhaps even a friend, had gone so far as to force his son to swallow that thrice-cursed, Hell-damned poison.

He was so angry he couldn't think of any words to say. He shook in incoherent fury, his features a terrible mask, his jaw working and his hands clenching in Yuuichi's shirt, fighting himself for control, for something to say that could possibly express the depths of his rage.

"How...how could you...?" he finally managed, his voice a loud, snarling mockery of a child's. "You know...Haibara--you of all people know what it could do--!"

He was interrupted by a high-pitched, wordless cry. It was slightly muffled, coming from the direction of his chest--where Yuuichi was currently hiding his face, trembling faintly with tears. The little boy was crying, cuddled close to him in search of reassurance, his loud cry a protest against the anger and fury that fairly thrummed in the air around his father.

The small boy had wailed simply to break the shell of that anger, to make the rage and the shouting stop, because it was even worse than the last time he'd interrupted something like this--Niichan was so angry it frightened him, so angry he seemed like a different person, not Niichan or Touchan at all.

And Conan did stop--the very instant the shrill cry reached his ears. A child's wail so full of fear--his child's wail--triggered instinctive reaction; instant concern, even if that concern was mingled with startlement and confusion. The furious tension slid out of him, replaced by a more gentle kind of distress. His fists loosened, even as his arms tightened around his son, not in anger but in worry. "Yuu-kun...?"

"Stoppit, Niichan," Yuuichi mumbled into his shirt, hiccuping. "You're scary again...don't be mad, please? Ai-neechan's makin' medicine...she has to, it's for you..."

Through ragged breaths, Conan gently disengaged Yuuichi's hands from his shirt, pulling the little boy back so that he could look into his face. He gazed down at tear-streaked cheeks, into eyes that were a mirror of his own, brushing the child's bangs back from his forehead and scrutinizing his son's features for any sign of damage or discrepancy. One faintly shaking hand ran fingers carefully down the boy's soft cheek, to the jawline, keeping the small face upturned to his.

Yuuichi was unharmed--he knew that, really; whatever Haibara had done had taken place long before he'd arrived, and the child had shown no ill effects. But knowing that Yuuichi had swallowed the very same toxin that had destroyed his life had sent whirls of helpless terror and rage through him like he'd never felt before--making him almost expect to see his son suddenly die in his very arms...

"You're okay...right?" he whispered, barely more than a shaky breath--he knew, but somehow he had to reassure himself.

Yuuichi sniffled once, then faintly nodded. "I'm okay...Touchan."

Conan let out another shaky breath, this one of relief and welling emotion. It was the first time--the very first time that he had looked into his son's eyes and been called that name directly. His feelings threatened to overwhelm him, closing his throat and rapidly drowning any vestiges of rage, leaving him with only a dull anger that would resurface when he thought of Haibara.

Ran, still pale, was in tears of worry and fear--and her own anger at the risks her child had been exposed to. In his ire, Conan had hardly registered her reactions, but noted now that she still seemed much calmer than he. Again, he wondered how she managed to be so strong--but he had his own answer in the knowledge of what she had suffered through these last few years. Though she silently cried, she reached out to the two beside her, putting an arm around Conan's shoulder to keep him close, to help him keep his anger at bay.

"For what it's worth," Ai spoke again, at last, "I'm sorry."

The two young parents on the cot looked up at her at last, Conan glancing for an instant at Akai--who had not moved or changed throughout the entire drama. If anything, he looked merely bored and watchful, and that made Conan scowl. He turned his eyes back to Haibara, his face set with resolve and his mind burning with a single question.


"You already know that," Ai answered, swallowing hard.

Her answer only made him frown harder--but at least now he was not incoherent with rage. His mind functioned again, with the clarity he was familiar with and grateful for. "How could you put him in that kind of danger?" he demanded. "If my cure came at the price of his life and safety you know I would never--"

"I know you wouldn't." Ai managed to look up at last, barely, her eyes flicking over his and settling on the child in his lap. "But he's the only way. No cure I could ever make on my own would have worked. It's some kind of miracle--you made your own cure without ever realizing..."

Conan blinked. "What?"

"Think, Kudo-kun," she responded, sitting up a little straighter on her stool. "Yuuichi-kun ingested a complete adult dose of the apotoxin. But look at him--he's in perfect health."

His eyes twitched a millimeter narrower, and he glanced down at the small boy who once again rested against his chest, this time relaxed and alert.

Ran looked at him too, her own eyes widening with realization. "Haibara-chan...what are you getting at?" she asked, her first words after a long silence startling the one beside her. "If he could do that and still be okay, something must be..."

"APTX 4869 is in his system," Ai replied, marshalling herself to scientific detachment. "Just like it is in yours, Kudo-kun. It permeates every cell--and I'm not the reason it got there. The blood tests I took before and after he ingested the toxin prove that."

Conan stared at her. "How...?"

"Because of you. I just told you that the toxin is still in your body--in all of your cells." At last, Ai looked into his eyes for longer than a moment, longer than a glance. "When you fathered him, you passed that to him as well."

"But...how could...?" The boy had gone pale at her words, looking down at his son once more. "How did he...?"

"How did he survive? I guess that's just part of his miracle," Ai replied with the faintest of smiles. "The apotoxin affects cells--by every rule of science I know, he should have died even as he was conceived. But he didn't. Somehow he worked around it, and thrived--and even kept the poison from affecting Mouri-chan through the placental exchange."

Eyes large, he glanced at Ran, who looked startled. Then he stared down at Yuuichi, who only blinked at him with wide-eyed innocence.

"He thrived, and survived--and it's his survival that makes it possible for me to finally create an antidote," Ai went on, still fixing them with her gaze. "Yuuichi-kun is immune to Apotoxin 4869. And through his immunity, there's a chance for a cure."

"He's...he's immune?" Conan asked softly, voice half-choked with mixed-up wonder, and fear. "How...?"

"He swallowed the dose I gave him and suffered a fever reaction," Ai told him, looking regretful. "But otherwise, APTX 4869 had no effect. His body can metabolize it into harmless components."

Once again, Conan stared down at the quiet boy in his arms, filled with something like awe. Awe at his son's survival and hidden gift--and gratitude that Yuuichi would never succumb to something that had devastated his own life.

And accompanying those feelings was a guilty regret that he had, even unknowingly, risked his child's life even as he'd helped create it, cursing him to forever carry that poison in his blood.

"I was hoping to create an antidote for you that would give you Yuuichi-kun's immunity," Ai said quietly, looking down again. "I never meant to endanger him at all. You know our situation, Kudo-kun...you know we're already in danger, all of us. But this is my only chance to make things right..."

Conan stared at her, several pieces beginning to fall into place. "Haibara..."

"I know it's my fault--I left, and you panicked...but if I hadn't, you'd never have used that last temporary antidote..."

"And...Yuuichi would never have been born," Ran whispered, covering her mouth. There were many things she regretted about what had happened back then--but one thing she would never regret was her son's life, or her love for him. Nor would she ever regret loving Shinichi...

"And if he wasn't," Ai went on, "there would be no cure now. It was such a perfect accident that it just has to be a miracle..."

At long, long last, Akai Shuichi cleared his throat. "There won't be any miracles of any sort if you don't finish your work soon," he stated, voice low. He never moved, not once, but his eyes managed to pin each and every one of them, Ai included. "We don't have forever. We may not even have more than a couple of hours."

Akai's reminder jolted Conan's heart with a sharp icicle of fear. They were still coming--coming for him, for his son...coming to kill them, or worse. He swallowed hard, his arms unconsciously tightening around Yuuichi even as Ran's arm held him even closer. "What can we do?" he asked, in a voice that seemed embarassingly small.

Akai's gaze turned back to him. "For one thing, you can settle down. Your repeated outbursts do nothing but slow everything down. Stay quiet, and stay out of the way, and once Haibara's work is finished we'll move. Anger and panic will accomplish nothing here."

Conan gulped again and nodded, slightly abashed. He was still angry at Haibara, at Akai--but the threat that loomed over them all superceded that. This whole evening had been, for him, filled with unprecedented loss of control, with rage like he'd seldom known in his life; though his feelings might have been justified--having his son all but kidnapped, and endangered by Ai's experimentation--his expression of those feelings had been more damaging than helpful.

Even Yuuichi had known that. Known it, and been frightened...

"It's not quite finished yet," Ai was saying, sitting up on her stool to fix him with her gaze. "I'm almost done, and then we'll all get out of here."

Akai glanced at her. "How long?"

Ai considered for a moment, frowning. "Maybe an hour. I'll try to make it less."

"Do it." Akai stood up from where he leaned against the table at her side, unfolding his arms. As both Conan and Ran opened their mouths to speak, he held up a hand and interrupted. "As much as I'm sure all of you still have things to discuss, we don't currently have the time. Your immediate questions are answered. Your child is unharmed, Haibara is seeing to the antidote, and for now you're safe."

Reluctantly, Conan kept his jaws clamped and nodded. However, Ran spoke up with concerns of her own. "What should we do until the time comes?"

"You should rest and prepare yourself to move quickly and quietly," Akai replied. "Mouri-san, the little one has been through a lot; he'll need looking after." He eyed Conan briefly. "And you--get some food and water, or you'll be in bad shape when we have to move."

At the mention of food, Conan's stomach decided to announce that it seconded that idea. Having nothing to eat since the morning, it was quite empty, and not at all pleased with that state of affairs. The hungry growl was rather audible, causing Conan to flush and drawing giggles from Yuuichi.

Ran smiled as well, and the small sound she made just might have been a giggle of her own. "I think that's a very good idea. If I know your appetite--and I do--you're probably starving, 'Conan-kun.' Growing boy and all that." She ruffled Conan's hair in a way that made him flush even more and duck his head, grumbling.

Akai stepped forward, heading for the door. "Haibara needs to get back to work--it's been too long already. Just stay clear of the men and don't interfere with anything, and when it's time to go I'll notify you."

Ran nodded, her face settled into a slightly-pale determination that Conan well recognized--she was scared, but by God she was going to do whatever was necessary.

When she reached over to take Yuuichi from his arms, he found it was hard to let go. Both Ran and his son knew him now--truly knew him for who he really was, and he had held his son in his arms and felt he belonged there, now more than ever.

Ran held Yuuichi close and stood up, carrying him after Akai as they headed for the door. Conan followed, feeling strangely cold. He already missed the warm weight of his son's small body in his arms.

Akai politely held the door for Ran as she stepped out. In the main room, the collection of soldiers looked up from whatever they were doing, curious and only slightly apprehensive. Many of them had spent the entire time wondering just what was going on behind the closed door.

"Mamoru--Daisuke--" Akai commanded, causing two of them to leap to their feet. "Get Mouri-san and the child a place to relax. A cot or a chair, whatever she wants."


Almost as an afterthought, Akai gestured in the direction of Conan, who emerged from the door after Ran. "And get this boy some food before he falls over." He eyed the two men, who had drawn up rather hesitantly. "Well, move it!"


Conan gave Akai one glance as he exited the room--a sharp-eyed, edged glance that still spoke of guarded trust. But there was little time to express it, for Akai was already turning back to Ai's lab.

With the door shut behind him, he gazed down at the small blond-haired girl sitting still on her chair. "We don't have much time," he reminded her.

"I know." She didn't look up as she replied.

"He still doesn't trust us."

"He won't. Not for a long time. There are few people he really trusts, anyway."

"He doesn't even trust you."

"I've never given him a reason to," Ai retorted without venom, turning away to her desk. "I've betrayed him. I created the drug that ruined his life. When I left it almost destroyed him. I kidnapped his son. It'll take him longer to trust me than it will to trust you."

"You were...his friend."

Something in her face flinched with pain. "Barely that. And never anything more."

"Don't let that cloud your judgement now." His eyes darkened; he knew--had known for a very long time--her feelings for Kudo. He didn't like the pain it caused her--and more than that, he didn't like the reactions it brought out of him. "Whatever your feelings, you have a job to do. Whether for his sake, Mouri's sake, or the child's, you have to finish."

"I know that. My feelings have nothing to do with my work."

He stared at her for another moment more, his lips pressed into a thin, downward line. He didn't believe everything she said; he knew her too well--he knew her eyes, the darkness in them hiding the pain she felt. She hurt because she'd hurt him--and whether she realized it or not, she let herself be affected by how Kudo regarded her.

Finally, he turned to leave again, and as he opened the door he barely glanced over his shoulder. "Let's finish this."

Ai watched him go, watched the door close behind him. But most of her mind was occupied by Kudo-kun. Instead of Akai's retreating back, her mind's eye kept presenting her with her view of Conan's tousled hair and tense, narrow shoulders, noting the way he kept his hands fisted as he followed Ran...

He was worried. Afraid. They all were, but especially him. She could see it in every line of him--and yet, through his fear, his spark of dangerous determination remained, unquenchable. He was not going to give up so long as he still breathed--to protect Mouri-chan and Yuuichi-kun, he would do anything...

He was determined. And for him, she could do no less--could hold on no less strongly. She turned back to her computer and her samples, pushing all other thoughts from her mind and concentrating on the task at hand.

She had a job to do.

~~to be continued~~