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: Sorry for the delay on this, minna-san. I'll be having a few difficulties in the near future, mostly related to some employment issues, so I'm not sure how things will go on any of my works. Gomen nasai!



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Coming Home
by Becky Tailweaver


Nothing ever stops all these thoughts, and the pain attached to them.
Sometimes I wonder why this is happening.
It's like nothing I can do would distract me, when
I think of how I shot myself in the back again.
'Cause from the infinite words I could say, I
Put all the pain you gave to me on display;
But didn't realize, instead of setting it free, I
Took what I hated and made it a part of me.
--Linkin Park, "Figure.09"


Part 12: Infinite Words I Could Say

Conan didn't know whether to be amused or perplexed by some of the looks he was getting from the soldiers in the common room. As he followed Ran after the two men Akai had ordered to help them, the rest of them eyed him from their various locations about the room; some went very still, no matter what they were doing. Others stared openly, almost gawking; still others even left their spots to move further away from him and Ran.

Given the situation, he wasn't sure if he should be gratified or offended.

As they came to the tables near the middle of the room, the two young men turned to their guests, glancing at each other uncomfortably. "Well, uh..." the brown-haired soldier began, trailing off almost instantly the moment he looked down at Conan.

His black-haired partner nudged him. "Food, idiot."

"Oh yeah..." the first mumbled awkwardly. "I guess I'll get something for you to eat, uh...Edogawa..."

Conan's stomach piped up in agreement a second time, causing him to redden faintly and Ran to smile. "Thanks," he murmured softly.

"Don't worry about me," Ran spoke up, still cradling Yuuichi on her hip. "I'll just stay here with Shinichi--I don't need a bed or anything. Um, your name was...Mamoru-san, right?"

The black-haired solder blinked at her and nodded. "Yeah. But the boss wants us to take care of you, Mouri-san--just let me know if there's anything I can get you."

Ran smiled. "Maybe just some hot tea, while Shinichi's eating."

The other man--apparently Daisuke--was already moving toward the small refrigerator in the kitchen-like setup against one wall. He poked his head into the little fridge and shuffled around a bit while Mamoru directed the young family to a clear spot at one of the tables--ironically, the same place Yuuichi had eaten earlier, the same place he had played cards with his many new friends.

"You all can spread out here," Mamoru told them with a shrug. "These tables are free since it's not chow time, and nobody'll bother you otherwise." He glanced uneasily at Conan, who watched Daisuke without noticing the look.

"Thank you, Mamoru-san," Ran replied with a smile, holding Yuuichi on her lap. The little boy rested against her easily, looking a bit tired, content just to observe the comings and goings around him.

Conan, however, kept an eye on the one fetching the food, his stomach complaining impatiently. As the wait continued, he left his spot at Ran's side and ventured around the table toward Daisuke. His eyes never left the brown-haired young soldier, though somehow his attention remained focused on Ran as well.

Daisuke had only managed to fetch one package of sandwich meat thus far, setting it on the narrow table beside the refrigerator. He went back in search of other sustenance, rueing the fact that they didn't have the opportunity to shop freely very often.

As if noting his lack of success, Yakamoto-san barely looked up from his radio monitoring. "Hey, genius--there's instant ramen in the boxes under the tables."

"Oh, okay..." Daisuke backed out of the fridge with a couple of foil-covered plates, turning to set them aside--

A pair of dark blue eyes at his elbow made him jump with a yelp, nearly dumping his finds in surprise. Edogawa Conan gazed up at him neutrally, quirking one eyebrow at his reaction as Daisuke stared at him in frozen apprehension.

"I'm not going to bite," said the boy, somewhat wryly.

"Uh, yeah..." The brown-haired soldier swallowed nervously and offered Conan one of the plates. "Um, I think this is some potstickers. Microwave's over there."

The line of Conan's mouth softened into a surprisingly disarming half-smile as he took the cold plate. "Thanks."

Daisuke stared after him as he headed for the small cooking unit, blinking confusedly.

Ran began to relax in her chair, a hot cup of tea in hand and Yuuichi trying not to fall into a doze in her lap. She took a deep breath, glad that at last things were settling down and moving at a more controllable pace; their torn little family was back together, their child was safe, Shinichi had a very hopeful possibility of a cure soon...

She was willing to let little things like impending doom slide for a while, just to stay in the here-and-now and thank God for what she had in this moment. The fact that their enemy was closing in on them had been pushed to the back of her mind for now; Shinichi had probably done the same for the sake of their peace and quiet--and to keep their own terror from frightening their son.

When the microwave completed its cook cycle, Conan drew the uncovered plate out and breathed in the heavenly aroma of re-heated potstickers. Heavens, he hadn't known how frantically hungry he was until the scent of hot food hit his nose! Leaving the microwave hanging open, he all but scrambled back to his chosen chair beside Ran and--as she hid a giggle at his famished frenzy--began to eat with bare fingers, not bothering to wait and locate chopsticks or silverware.

He blew on hot food, and then on hot fingers, as Mamoru watched bemusedly. The black-haired operative risked a short chuckle--braver than Daisuke--and tossed a plastic fork in front of the boy. "Here you go, Edogawa. Don't choke yourself now."

Conan barely spared him a glance, instead offering the fork to Ran first. "Are you hungry?"

"I...I guess I am," Ran realized with a rueful smile; she'd had more to eat today than Conan, but had still not eaten well. "I'll just have a bite. Yuu-chan?"

Yuuichi shook his head, his action accompanied by an enormous pink-cheeked yawn. "Already ate," he reported sleepily.

"Are you tired?" Ran asked gently.

"Nuh-uh." In defiance of the yawn, the child shook his head emphatically. "I'm not sleepy."

It was quite typical of Yuuichi's independent nature; Conan chuckled softly and speared a potsticker for Ran, handing her the plastic fork. He went back to eating with his fingers, not really dwelling on how childish it was--desperate times, depserate measures and all that. But he did spare another muffled thankyou for Daisuke, who brought the other plate of heated egg rolls and a large glass of water.

"Here's some more if you want, Edogawa-san," the nervous operative offered. "We had some pizza, too, but it's kinda hairy now..."

That drew a laugh from the young not-child across the table--the first real laugh that anyone in the room had heard from him; it was a clear, merry sound, almost contagious, and it made his face look remarkably like Yuuichi's. "Thanks," Conan replied at length, "but I think I'll pass on the penicillin pizza."

At last, Daisuke was able to crack a faint smile. Maybe this Edogawa...Kudo...whoever...wasn't so bad after all...

Akai Shuichi stepped silently out of Haibara's office, his expression set stern and dark as he strode toward his usual corner. And suddenly Conan wasn't laughing any more; he went cold and quiet and wary-eyed as he watched their commander take up his customary position overseeing the room. Swallowing hard, Daisuke found himself drawing back a bit--all of a sudden Edogawa was that ice-edged, dangerous not-child once more, and he didn't want to be anywhere in range if the guy went off like a firebomb again.

Then Conan glanced back up at him, making poor nervous Daisuke catch his breath--but the ice and threat was gone, and his gaze was almost friendly as the strange, strange boy went back to eating as if nothing had happened.

Conan didn't quite snort as he continued to eat; really, the way some of the men in this little private army acted, one would think he was about to bite someone's head off, literally--the apparently rather skittish Daisuke being one of them. But considering the first impression he'd made with these people, it was less than surprising; that had not been a pleasant introduction. Inwardly, Conan winced; he'd been half out of his mind, then--not thinking straight at all and ready to rip violently through anything that got in his way...

He could count on one hand the number of times in his life he'd gone that crazy. That kind of loss of control wasn't like him, and in hindsight it was no wonder half of this little troop was all but terrified of him. Daisuke, who was apparently a shy sort, but helpful and amiable, seemed nearly his own age--his real age, anyway--as opposed to Mamoru, who appeared to be perhaps approaching thirty. It was hard to imagine the open-faced, timid-looking young man in a real combat situation, but he was apparently some sort of soldier if he was in with this group.

Conan wasn't quite aware of it, but his face would darken noticeably every time he sent a wary glance Akai's way; he kept a cautious eye on the silent older man--who in turn was keeping a very definite watch on Conan himself. The constant gaze made him uneasy; his internal "threat alert"--which usually went off when something dangerous was stalking him--kept pinging at him and keeping him on-edge. He did not like that man's direct, calculating stare.

Mamoru and Daisuke had taken up their own chairs near the table, hovering while trying not to look like it; Conan polished off both plates of food gratefully, smoothly ignoring the wary stares and occasional murmurs that still floated around--as well as refusing to react to Akai's dark gaze. Ran watched him finish all that food, fatigued and amused, while Yuuichi dozed in her lap, curled against her chest.

"That feels better," Conan sighed quietly, leaning back in his chair and scrubbing at his sticky fingers with a paper towel. "You sure you don't need anything more, Ran?"

Ran shook her head. "I'm fine, honest. I'm not that hungry, just...tired. And really, really glad we're all together...and safe..."

"For now," he agreed with a deep, weary breath. "Yeah."

Shadows flicked across Ran's rather pale face. "We'll be okay," she whispered, her arms holding Yuuichi fractionally tighter. After a moment or two, she glanced briefly around, taking a deep breath in an attempt to restore normalcy. "You know...I should probably call my parents to let them know we're okay--we've been in an uproar all day, and Otousan and Okaasan will want to know what's going on."

"Yeah..." Conan sighed yet again. "But it's not a good idea now--remember? The phones are probably tapped. I'm sure once we get to whatever safe location these guys are whisking us off to, there'll be some way for you to get a message to them safely..." He trailed off, noticing Ran blinking at him. "What?"

"I just...you were..." Stumbling a bit, Ran her face turned down as if she were about to tear up again. "I'm sorry. I hear Conan-kun's voice, like always, but you still sound so much like...you. And I never realized. But...every time I remember, I catch my breath. You're really here."

Conan looked down as well, staring at the balled-up napkin in his hands. He didn't quite know what to say to that; after all of his lying and hiding, she was still here and she wasn't angry--she hadn't yet put him through a wall or told him to get out of her life...

"You were always here," she went on, musing. "You know, I always clung to the promise of the next phone call...I hung on to that day after day, for years..."

Conan winced, picking at the wrinkled napkin in silence. "I know. I saw."

"Even when sometimes I thought you were never coming back, but you always promised you would..." She looked up at him again, but he couldn't meet her gaze. "Why? You could have left...you didn't have to keep up that pretense. You were right there...why did you even call?"

"I...I just wanted to talk to you," he replied, in a small voice. "Really talk to you...and Yuu-kun...the way Conan can't. Even if it was wrong...and I kept dragging you along waiting for something that could never be..."

Ran offered a smile. "But it could be, now," she reminded him. "Haibara-chan...has a cure that might work."

"Yeah, she does," he responded, brightening with a faint, shaky laugh. "I almost can't believe she's actually been working on this all the time she was gone. After so many years...I'd pretty much given up hope of ever getting back to normal. But still..." He finally worked up the courage to meet her eyes. "...I wanted to stay with you, Ran. To...to help...any way I could. Even if a kid can't do much...I-I just wanted to..." He swallowed hard, his gaze flicking to the sleeping child in Ran's lap. "I can't leave you or Yuuichi. I can't."

She reached out with her free arm to touch him comfortingly, gentle fingers brushing through his tousled bangs and down his cheek--different, now; slow, tender, almost as if he were the man he wanted to be. "I'm glad you didn't," she told him firmly. "Even with everything we've both been through...with all the circumstances...I'm glad you didn't go. Even when I thought you were Conan-kun, you always..."

She was tearing up again, drawing back that free hand to wipe at her eyes with a self-deprecating laugh. "I'm just glad you were around, no matter how it was. I'd never have survived without you. Both of you," she asserted with a chuckle. "Conan-kun's help and Shinichi's encouragement."

Conan managed to crack a little smile--just a little one--at the sound of her soft laughter. "At least I was a bit useful."

"And you always seemed to call right when I needed it," Ran went on, with another laugh--as if using that good humor to fight off the tears. "Just when things were at their worst and I really needed to hear your voice..." She paused, thoughtful. "Wait, you're...you're still small--how did you ever manage to talk to me and sound like...well...you?"

"I...had a few accomplices, actually," Conan admitted. "One of them made me a handy little voice-changer for any time I needed to sound like the old me. Older me," he corrected with a nervous laugh. "I'd just turn on the right voice, call you up..." He paused mid-sentence, going wide-eyed. "Call...!"

Ran went tense, startled. "Co...Shinichi?"

The sound of his true name startled him a bit--he was still unused to hearing it. "Oh--oh, crud! The phone--Hattori! I left him waiting out there, dammit--oh, sorry Ran..." Looking worried, contrite, and sheepish all in the same moment, the young not-boy wriggled about to fetch his small phone from his pocket and open it up. Some of the soldiers nearby looked on curiously, but no one offered to stop him.

"Hattori-kun's here?" Ran asked, surprised.

"He gave me a lift," Conan responded half-absently, poking in a command to speed-dial a particular number. "When I really needed it. He's...well, he's the cavalry," the boy informed her wryly. "But this place...isn't what I was expecting--plans have changed--"

The phone on the other end rang once--and almost not even that; the ring was truncated as someone picked up in a hurry.

"Kudo? Oi, Kudo, is that you?" demanded an anxious-sounding Hattori Heiji.

"Yeah, it's me--"

"Ahou!" Heiji exploded, loudly enough that Conan almost had to hold the phone away from his ear. "What took you so long? I was just about to come in there and rescue your scrawny ass! What the hell's going on in there?"

"Look--hey, I'm sorry, I forgot--" Conan tried to explain. From the rather amused look on Ran's face, she could obviously imagine what was being said even if she couldn't hear it. The nearby men just looked confused or concerned.

"Forgot? Hell!" Heiji stormed on. "You call me up outta the blue to say your kid is missin', then we get a lead and you go off like the Lone Ranger, prob'ly neck-deep in trouble, an' expect me to just sit out here an' twiddle my thumbs--!"

"Listen--Hattori, listen to me--" He had to raise his voice somewhat to be heard, but finally succeeded in getting the irate young man's attention. "I'm okay. Ran's okay--and Yuuichi's here too. We're all fine, but we don't have a lot of time--the Blacks are probably coming right now. Look, it's not what we thought it was...there's some major things going on, and we're kind of in the middle of it."

"Like what?" Heiji snapped. "What's going on in there, Kudo?"

"There's...some people here that are apparently going to help us," Conan replied, his tones beginning to slip back into "professional mode" as he explained. "So we've got some backup, for now. The three of us are okay here, and..."

"Tell him hello for me," Ran interjected in a stage whisper, her eyes glimmering with mirth.

"Oh, and Ran says hi. And I almost forgot--Haibara's here too."

Hattori was silent for a beat. "No way--Haibara Ai? That little blonde girl who was really...?"

"The same one. This is her group," Conan informed his friend, unconsciously beginning to grin, "and you won't believe this--Haibara's working on a cure right now, one that might really work--"

"A cure. You're shitting me."

"I'm dead serious."

"Holy cow..."

"No kidding," Conan responded, grinning widely and grimly now. "No guarantees it'll really work, and it might even kill me, but...God, this is the first time in so long..."

"Aw, jeeze...it's like the whole thing's busted loose, Kudo--missin' kids, secret hideouts, long-lost little girls, cures..." There was another moment of silence on the other end as Heiji struggled to assmiliate all the new information. "Shit--you be careful, Kudo. If they're coming--hell, if that cure might even kill you--"

"Don't even bother." Conan cut him off sharply, ignoring the worry in Ran's eyes. "I'm willing to risk it."

"Dammit... Listen, do you want me to come in and back you up? I can be there in five or less--I'm still right where I was when you left."

"No...Hattori..." Conan took a deep breath, lowering his voice even more. "I'd like to have at least one ally in the clear if this goes bad. So...can you wait for me there a little longer? I still might need that cavalry later on..."

"Sure...but...shit, you watch your back, hear me?" his friend demanded. "You got Neechan an' the chibi right there in the middle with you--you take care of 'em or I'll kick your ass."

"Yeah, I know," Conan replied ruefully. "And...thanks, Hattori. I owe you for this."

"Damn straight you do," Heiji growled, but Conan could hear the smile in the other's voice, well as the concern.

"I'll call you the minute anything changes, okay?"

"You do that. Later, Kudo."

"Bye..." With a faint beep, the line was closed. Conan sat still for a few moments, aware that Ran was watching him.

"I thought we weren't supposed to call anyone," she stated softly, worry warring with faint disappointment in her tone. "You said..."

"I know," he replied, contrite. "And I'm sorry...we can't call your folks, or mine, or the police. All those land-lines could be tapped--and cell phones are especially easy to--"

"Isn't that a cell phone?" Ran demanded quietly, gesturing at the small unit, still open, in his hand.

"Sort of..." Conan looked vaguely abashed. "It's got some, er, special features that ordinary phones don't have. The Black Organization can't tap it through normal channels, and even if they could uncover the signal carrier, it's been heavily encrypted and would take them hours to break or trace..."

His voice was low, so that it wouldn't carry far--at least to the ears of the group of soldiers--but Ran heard every word, confusion and comprehension sharing equal portions of her expression. "So why can't I call my parents?"

"Because at some point, the signal would have to intersect with a conventional line, and then they would have it," he explained. "And even if they couldn't trace this end, they could listen to the conversation--and I'd really rather they not get any more information than they already do." He watched her face fall even further and reached out to touch her hand. "Ran..."

"I understand," she sighed, disappointed but not angry. "I guess Hattori-kun has another phone like that, doesn't he? How did you get them?"

"The Professor made them for me," Conan replied with a shrug. "It's pretty useful, but kind of limited when you can only share the encrypted signal with the three other units. We can only give them to people we can trust completely."

"Hattori-kun, Professor Agasa, and..." She blinked. "Who's the other?"

Conan paused, wary-eyed. "A friend."

"But..." He could almost see whe wheels turning in her head, before her eyes widened. "Masaka! But he's--"

"Shhh!" The not-child's hiss cut her off sharply, his eyes darting to and fro around the stranger-filled room. "Not here," he warned, a breath of a whisper. "It's a final line of defense. No one else needs to know about it."

Her eyes were bright with worry, but she said no more, nodding briefly.

"It's okay," he assured her softly, offering a tiny, definite smile. "I'd trust him with my life. Heck, I already have." His voice dropped even further as he leaned closer. "He's the one who helped me find you."

Ran said nothing, but her expression changed subtly to surprise and understanding. With a little smile of her own, she nodded again, relaxing once more. Yuuichi barely shifted in her arms, still comfortably asleep and unworried.

Conan sighed again, leaning back in his chair, glancing at Mamoru and Daisuke--who were both trying hard not to look curious. There was so much more he wanted to say, so many things to tell Ran; years of things he wanted--needed to say. But they were in a room full of men who were only tenuous allies at best and friendly captors at worst, stuck in a situation that could quickly turn sour--and what he had to say to Ran was for her alone.

A flash of resentment burned through him briefly, at the thought that Akai had sent Mamoru and Daisuke to spy on him. None of it reached his face.

Akai was still watching him from across the room, anyway. Expression unchanged, the dark-haired man still fixed him with that burning, calculating stare--and Conan did not like the feeling he was getting from it. Haibara might have come forward and been honest--or as honest as she could be, given the circumstances--and most of the soldiers seemed forthcoming, but Akai Shuichi remained a dangerous enigma.

Conan had seen that kind of look before. There was an agenda behind that expressionless face--things that he and Ran had not been told. Akai was a powerfully cunning man--of that Conan was certain; how else could he have kept this small band of men alive in the face of the untold might of the Black Organization? How else could he have infiltrated the FBI, the police force, and perhaps even the ranks of their enemy?

And what sort of deeds would that kind of cunning demand?

Even if this little private army was supposedly their only chance of survival...perhaps it was better to face the devil he knew than the devil he didn't.

And he didn't know Akai.

But at the moment, there was nothing he could do. Hattori was right; Ran and Yuuichi were involved in this right alongside him, and he would not see them endangered just because he--uncharacteristically--felt like starting a fight. Which, without a reasonable cause--his logical mind informed him tartly--would amount to little more than a pissing contest of wills and intelligence, and would serve no useful purpose now.

After the cure, Conan told himself, letting his blue gaze shift to a glare that matched Akai's. After all of this, when Ran and Yuuichi are safe, out of Their reach...and I can look him straight in the eye. Then we'll see who's pushing who around.

* * * * *

Time passed. Haibara's door remained closed; no one went in or out, and nothing could be heard from within. Ran, weary from the long, arduous day, finally decided to take a brief rest on a cot that Daisuke shyly offered her, and was soon sleeping quietly with Yuuichi cradled beside her. Soldiers came and went in shifts, quietly performing their duties and keeping a respectful distance from their guests. Akai continued to watch, silent.

Conan sat in a chair he'd pulled up beside Ran's cot. He was even more exhausted than Ran, but did not allow himself the luxury of sleep; at best, he existed in a strange sort of waking doze, his eyes at half-mast as he slumped in the chair with his arms folded across his chest. Whenever anyone moved too close, or Akai shifted position, he would snap awake, blue eyes bright and wary--then, failing any threatening circumstances, he would drift back into his half-asleep state, drowsy but alert.

Perhaps it had been more than an hour, perhaps less; no one was really counting any more--tension and tiredness having long since eaten away at the clock-checking and foot-tapping, transforming it to bored, edgy suspense consumed with staring into space or cleaning weapons. Everyone save the sleeping pair simply waited in silence for something to happen; if even a small object was dropped on the floor it seemed like a gunshot, and when somebody coughed, everyone jumped.

Everyone, that is, except Akai. He still waited in his corner, watching, his cold presence preventing Conan from ever truly relaxing.

Maybe an hour had passed; maybe more, maybe less. The sound of the office door opening was like an alarm going off.

Conan was the first on his feet. The various soldiers lingering around the room looked up, anticipatory, along with Daisuke and Mamoru, and the abrupt shuffle of movement woke Ran from her catnap. She sat up, growing slightly pale as she saw the reason for everyone's attention; a long-awaited emergence that portended both good and ill. Hope or damnation.

Haibara Ai stood in the doorway of her lab, looking tired and drained but suffused with victory. Her weary eyes met Conan's, and she managed a smile despite a faint glimmer of tears. She spoke softly, but it was loud in the stillness of so many breaths being held.

"I did it."

And Conan's breath went out in a shaky rush, his eyes huge with gratitude and joy and the lingering disbelief that there could be a cure--there was a cure--after so long, so many years of hopeless pain and endless grief...

"Touchan's medicine is done?" asked a small voice, and Conan glanced back, surprised to see that Yuuichi was awake as well.

Ai sighed, running a hand over somewhat-disheveled hair as she stepped forth from the lab. She seemed a little shaky, a little red-eyed, as if perhaps she'd been crying before she came out. "Yes," she answered the little boy, though her eyes remained on Conan. "It's done. We can...begin at any time."

Yuuichi was a bit sleepy-looking, but his smile was bright. "Yay! Niichan, now you can take medicine and get better!"

Conan swallowed hard, nodding.

Ran was glad as well, somehow, but more than that she was frightened--the cure might be worse than the apotoxin; the medicine itself could be as lethal as any poison. Instead of merely wounding him, it might kill him...and she couldn't bear to lose him--not after they'd come through so much and only just found each other again.

"Shinichi..."

His eyes flicked from Yuuichi to her. "Ran...I...I know how you feel, and there's a lot of risk involved, but--"

"Don't." Her eyes were growing as tear-filled as Ai's had been--perhaps more--and she spoke earnestly despite being quite aware of all the people around them, of the young blond girl who watched with pain-filled eyes. She was happy for him--happy for the possibility...but now, with the final countdown looming so close at hand and the bitter chance he might die from the very thing that could save him...she didn't want him to go.

"Don't do it...please," she begged. "Shinichi...I'd rather wait another four years than risk losing you now. Please--if something goes wrong...if it doesn't work and you...you..." She took a gulp of a breath and tried to finish. "You'd be gone for real...forever...Shinichi, please..."

He closed his eyes, a lump rising in his throat at the pleading in her voice, forcing him to fight for the breath to speak. "I know...I know..." he replied, his voice going rough. "But...I have to try. Ran...I'm not Shinichi--not yet...and I want to be him again, for you, and for..."

He trailed off, painfully, glancing at the small, wide-eyed child beside her--the precious little boy who had only just tonight looked him in the eyes and called him Touchan. "I...I can't...be like this any more, Ran...I can't...please understand...I don't want to leave you alone, but I can't live like this. Not when there's...finally a chance I can be...the man you need me to be."

"Shinichi..." She reached for him, coming off the cot to embrace him, not caring who was watching. She wished she could hold on to him forever, keep him from going...the pain in his eyes just then... "You are...you are," she insisted, holding him as tight as she dared. "You always have been...Shinichi, you don't have to do this--I love you...no matter what..."

"It'll be okay, Ran," he told her, wrapping his arms around her waist--his current lack of height only serving to emphasize his need for the cure. He wanted more than anything to be able to enfold her in his arms, to hold her warmly and kiss all her tears away. "Even if...something happens to me...Haibara will make sure they take care of you..." It was said half to reassure her, half to reassure himself; he pulled back to look up into her tearful eyes, attempting his old confident grin. "But nothing will happen. I'll be fine."

"You don't know that--"

"These past few years, I've had to learn to take a lot of things on faith." His smile softened, full of memories both joyful and sad. "It'll be okay, Ran. It has to be."

"Shinichi..." There was no arguing with him, no stopping him when he was this determined to put something to rights--no matter how strongly she held on. And she knew that--he'd always been this way, ever since she could remember; Conan or Shinichi, once he decided to see something through, he would forge on to the end, no matter what. Choking back a real sob, she pulled him close again--just held on tight, in case it was the last time she ever could...

Then she had to let go; he was stepping back, putting on a confident smile and turning to face Yuuichi. "Hey, Yuu-kun, gimme a hug for luck, huh?" he cajoled, his tone light, hiding the fear and possibility.

"Yup!" The little boy eagerly hopped off of the cot and threw his arms around his brother/father/best friend. Conan pulled him just as close, squeezing him briefly, closing his eyes and holding the child just a few moments too long. Not just wrapping his arms around the boy like a big brother--enfolding him, embracing him as a father, eyes closed and cheek pressed into soft dark hair, as if to surround his child with all the love and warmth that was in him to give...

Ran realized, then, that he was not blithely walking into potential death. He knew--he knew. He understood the possibility just as starkly as she did--that this could be the last time he saw her, or Yuuichi; that this could be the last time he held his son. He knew.

But he was holding out the hope, the last raw faith, that Haibara's cure would work.

Finally, Conan released the little boy and stood back, looking down at him with tender deep eyes that betrayed the shadows of apprehension and behind his cheerful smile. "I love you, Yuu-kun. Remember that, okay? Always remember I love you."

Slightly puzzled, Yuuichi nevertheless nodded. "Yeah--love you too, Niichan. Touchan."

"Thanks, scamp." He ruffled the boy's hair, then looked up at Ran. He couldn't say much more than he had; they both knew--there was so much still unsaid, so much left between them, but not enough time. But he didn't need to say how much he loved her; she knew that, too--had known for a long time. It was something that went far deeper than words, much further than anything he could merely say. It was in his eyes, in his mask of a smile, in his shaking hands. It was in her tears, in the weakness in her legs, in the pounding of her heart.

"Stay here, Ran. Please." There was a trace of entreaty in his voice now; if something went wrong, she wouldn't have to see. He wanted to spare her the sight of awful possibility. "Stay and...take care of Yuuichi. It'll be finished soon..."

She only nodded, nearly as white-faced as she had been at the beginning. She did not sob, or shout, or protest; only the tears running in silent streams down her cheeks betrayed the agony of her heart.

Then Conan turned to face Haibara Ai, who had been the nexus of so many of his life's problems--and now, would perhaps be the center of solving so many of them. "Let's do this," he said firmly. "The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we get my family to safety."

Ai nodded wordlessly, and beckoned him into the lab. The others looked on, silently--all of them, even the oblivious Eiji and the unconcerned Yakamoto. Ran lifted her son into her arms and held him close, more to comfort herself than the boy; she could only watch as the one she loved walked away from her again--and this time, perhaps forever.

Conan's mask of a smile vanished when he and Ai passed the threshold of the makeshift lab. "So, Haibara," he began, almost nonchalantly, though there was an undercurrent of steel in his voice. "Right about now I'm really hoping this cure does what you made it to do."

She glanced at him sadly, ironically. "Me too. But my last major invention didn't exactly do what I made it to do; if it did, we wouldn't be standing here."

"Then let's just hope you've improved with practice," he responded with equal irony, almost turning to close the door--but pausing briefly. "Haibara...I want you to promise me...if this does go south...Ran and Yuuichi--"

She was already nodding. "I swear. By my sister's memory...I promise I'll see to it they're safe. For good."

He relaxed, just barely. "Thank you."

The door closing sharply made them both jump, Conan's nerves jangling with the fact that he'd been so focused on Haibara's promise that he hadn't seen Akai Shuichi walk right up behind them.

And he really, really didn't want this man poking around while this was happening. "What do you want?" he all but snapped.

"Since the chemical is complete," Akai announced darkly, "and since you're apparently finished with the melodramatics, we can get down to discussing business."

"Business?" Conan's eyes narrowed, as perplexed as he was resentful. "What business? If you mean getting us out of here soon, it can wait until after--"

"I'm afraid this can't wait," Akai interrupted, not sounding apologetic at all. "This is about compensation for goods and services."

"What?" Ai demanded, eyes gone uncharacteristically wide. "Akai, what are you talking about?"

"What he means," Conan stated, his voice dropped to nearly a growl, "is what does he get in exchange for giving me that cure of yours."

Ai's gaze flicked from Conan to Akai. "That's preposterous. I never agreed to any conditions. This is my work, Akai. I'm doing this for them, not--"

Before she could take more than a step, Akai interposed himself between the girl and the desk where the precious medicine lay. "This is my squad," he informed her coolly. "My men, my supplies, my orders. We either reach an agreement, or I'll take my 'business' elsewhere."

Ai glared at him, angrier than Conan had ever seen her. "This is ridiculous! I didn't make this cure to blackmail him, Akai! I didn't even do it for you--!"

"It's simple enough," Akai interrupted again, as if he hadn't heard her. "Everything or nothing, Kudo."

Once more, Conan flinched at the name, but remained unmoving. "Alright. Fine. Tell me what you want, Akai."

"You," the operative replied, not batting an eye.

Conan, on the other hand, blinked hugely. "What?"

"Akai, no--" Haibara gasped, comprehension paling her features.

"The deal is very simple, Kudo," Akai went on, again ignoring Ai's horror. "You join us, you work for us, you help us take out the Black Organization--and in return, I let you make use of this cure, help you protect your family, and make sure you survive tonight's...difficulties."

"So either I do what you want, or you'll dump us on a street corner to fend for ourselves?" Conan all but snarled at him, once again becoming the hell-eyed "little monster" Akai had tried--and failed--to stare down in the entryway below. "That's a hell of a demand in return for something that's not even proven to work!"

Akai shrugged, maddeningly unconcerned. "Not my problem. It's easy enough for my troops and I to pull up and leave right now--we'd be out well clear of our enemy, especially minus the extra weight."

"When you put it that way I'm tempted to walk out of here right now!" Conan shot back, bristling. Bottled rage boiled against being threatened so, against being so close and yet denied again his cure, at the thought of his family placed in danger for nothing more than a deal. "Screw your little private army--and your cure! At this point anything would be better than staying here!"

"That's not an option either, Kudo," Akai responded flatly.

"Akai, stop this--you can't--" Haibara tried again, growing agitated at the animosity radiating from Conan. She had not seen what he had been downstairs, when he'd thought he was fighting for his life and the lives of his loved ones...and it was beginning to unnerve her.

But Conan had already paused, fixing Akai with a piercing blue stare. For long moments, he was silent, analyzing, his discerning gaze seeming almost to pass right through the dark-haired man.

"You never intended to let us go, did you?" he asked quietly, at length, his tones barely more than a raw, sharp razor blade. "You planned this from the very beginning. To lure me here--to hold my family hostage for your--"

"Don't mistake me for some common thug," Akai retorted, something angry gleaming in the depths of his eyes. "This isn't about your kid or your woman, Kudo. This isn't even about me and my troops. I have orders."

Conan's eyes narrowed yet again, while Haibara gasped.

"They...those..." she nearly stuttered. "They wanted him--all this time, that's what this was for? The funding, the cure--everything...they used me as bait?"

"We're all tools," Akai replied--and Conan recognized the source of the tall man's anger. "Our superious just decided they wanted a new one, that's all. Those are my orders, Kudo." He glanced at Conan again, his eyes dark but somehow not cruel. "I have to make you one of us, or I have to make sure you don't become one of them."

"So you're still going to hold the cure--hold my family hostage--"

Akai's jaw tightened. "If it were our enemy, they'd be doing the same thing--except they'd be doing it with very large guns pointed at your child. Or they'd just kill you, and use him, as you've been told."

Conan's teeth were bared in a near-feral snarl. "So you decide to make me choose the lesser of two evils, huh? What if I tell you to go to hell?"

"I was ordered to see that you join us, or I have to prevent the enemy from using you." His gaze held Conan's unflinchingly. "By any means necessary."

Haibara gasped again, visibly jerking, while Conan's face went slack with realization. "You...you'd kill me...just for...?"

"Being a commander means making the shitty decisions," Akai told him quietly, unwavering. "I'll never be famous, or appreciated for the judgement calls I make. But I have to make them--I have to decide who lives and who dies. This is a war, Kudo--the longest, most silent war the world has never seen. And if I have to choose...as a commander, I choose one death--your death--rather than the hundreds of deaths they would force you to cause."

Conan swallowed hard, his face pale though his expression remained angry.

"Do you know what they can make you do," Akai went on more softly, his eyes flashing dark and hateful, "just by hurting someone you love?"

Conan's jaw tightened briefly, his eyes flashing a deep, abiding rage--but his face didn't change. "What makes your side any better?"

Suddenly, Akai glanced away. "Not much," he allowed, a faint touch of angry irony in his tone. "Except that most of the people we recruit are in this to make people's lives better, and to save others from the Black Organization's terror and control. Most of them are like you--already wounded by our enemy, and looking for a way to stop them. If our leadership gets any delusions of grandeur, they know that over sixty percent of our forces would turn on them."

"At least they have to stay honest," Conan snorted derisively.

"And to be honest," Akai continued, "wouldn't you rather be working with us, against the Black Organization's plans--than be forced to work for them and have your...unique talents put to destructive use? I've already told you what will happen if they catch up with you."

Conan looked down.

"You know why they want you," Akai stated. It was not a question, though there was question in Akai's voice--perhaps he himself didn't even fully know why. "Don't you?"

The boy shrugged vaguely. "Same reason your boss wants me, I guess."

Inside, Ai felt her heart wring painfully. If and when their superiors found out about her data results with Yuuichi...

Akai finally crossed his arms and leaned back against the table with an impatient sigh. "Look, I'm not trying to be the bad guy here, Kudo. I'm trying to help you." That admission looked like it pained him. "You have to join us, or you've got no options. And I'm not willing to risk you falling into enemy hands. There are too many lives at stake here."

"You make it sound like it's some kind of Cold War--"

"It is a freaking war, Kudo," Akai snarled, growing uncharacteristically irate. "And to them, you're another weapon they can take and use. It's a war and you've seen it, for God's sake. How many homes burned and buildings blown up? How much evidence destroyed, and blame laid in the wrong place? How many people have died?"

With each inquiry, Conan's small hands fisted tighter. "I...am not a weapon," he finally said, in a small, thin, wire-taut voice, head down. "I don't want to be used--not by anyone. I'm tired of secrets and lies. I just..want to go home..."

"Akai, please," Ai begged, her voice catching painfully. "Let this go--just let him go...we can tell them something, right? We can't do this now--there isn't time--"

"There isn't. They could be right outside the doors."

Conan jerked visibly. "Why are you doing this to me?"

"Because it's the right thing to do."

"Is it?"

Blue eyes bored into Akai's dark ones, and the older man barely flinched. For long moments--uncountable heartbeats--there was tense, black silence. For a brief eternity, the two measured each other, weighing their options--Akai the likelihood of gaining cooperation, Conan his chances of surviving the Black Organization attack and keeping Ran and Yuuichi out of danger all on his own. Neither were very good.

Giving in would mean an end to his freedom, Conan knew; not that he was ever very free in the first place--but to be at the beck and call of some secret army he'd never even heard of until tonight... It rubbed him all the wrong way, especially with the realization that, to the leaders of this so-called good organization, he was just another tool, and his cure was nothing more than bait--along with his family. What kind of "good" was that?

But he could not safeguard Ran and Yuuichi alone--that much was certain. Not with the enemy so close on their trail, with no time to hide or prepare. And with Akai's promise to leave him dead should he not agree...he couldn't even say for sure if his family would continue to be safe if he refused. If Akai decided that a woman and child were just dead weight, and to keep Yuuichi out of enemy hands...

No.

He really didn't have a lot of options to begin with--and with every passing second, they grew fewer. If it were just himself, it would be simple--but he would not put Ran or Yuuichi in any kind of danger, no matter what sacrifices he himself had to make. Even if it meant losing his cure forever--even if it meant his very life.

At the moment, he couldn't see any other way out--no other way to save them. Akai and his band of soldiers were their first best chance to escape alive--and the dark-eyed, dark-faced commander would only help him if he agreed.

At last, his thin shoulders slumped. "Alright," he said, barely a whisper, becoming the very picture of near-childish defeat.

Unbeknownst to the rest, Akai's shoulders relaxed a bit as well, as he let out the breath he'd been holding. "We have an arrangement, then?"

The boy closed his eyes, weary and angry. "I'll do it. If I survive the cure..."

"I'm sure you will," Akai stated, standing up and letting his arms fall. "I have quite a bit of faith in Haibara's skills."

Her eyes glistened, but Ai was not taken by the praise--she was still hurt, and utterly outraged that her earnest work had been used as a cruel snare. "And now if you'll excuse us," she snapped curtly, in a tone that promised a full fury later, "we have a procedure to finish."

"Get it done," Akai told her, heading for the door. "I'll get the others packing. Once you're sure he's stable, we'll be gone within twenty minutes. Don't delay."

"Get out of my lab," she bit out coldly.

"Akai."

Conan's whip-sharp voice stopped the man in his tracks, his hand on the doorknob. "Yes?" he replied.

"I won't be anybody's puppet," the boy warned, his tone jaded--but carrying a dangerous undercurrent. If getting Ran and their son out of this place alive and unharmed meant playing along with Akai and whoever his bosses were...well, he could play.

Contrary to the belief of many, he was an old hand at dangerous games.

"We're all puppets in this, Kudo," Akai responded, not looking back. "We're all tools."

"I'm not," Conan stated, that faint hint of menace still lurking deep within. "When this is all over...don't forget, you're the one who wouldn't let me go. You forced me into this. Remember that."

Akai still did not look back. He stood there, very still, for long moments. Then, without reply, he finally left the lab. He moved quickly, and closed the door very firmly behind himself.



~~to be continued~~