This is my entry for Frances Marie's Red Thread contest…hope I did okay. It's a dark fic, on the morbid side, about what could happen and what couldn't, what might happen when one's carelessness and aim to please pushes him a little too far…

…yeah.

As with the rest of my works, there is WAFF in here (Ysabet, you Professional Bad Influence, you)…but this time, it's angsty WAFF (or at least I hope so). And don't ask me where I got the title; I'm very odd these days…

But yeah. Read on, and enjoy…oh, prepare a tissue or two if you're the type to cry easily; I made a few beta-readers sniffle. Some ghosty weirdness too. And remember, this fic is a darker, but still very realistic ending to DC. Simply because life doesn't ALWAYS have happy endings…

Disclaimer: Hattori Heiji, Toyama Kazuha, Kudo Shinichi, Mouri Ran, and all other recognizable characters/places/items/etc. all belong to Aoyama Gosho and not me (unfortunately. I desperately wish I could own the detective quartet, at least); I make absolutely no claim to them. Certainly the majority of the DC/MK fans probably wouldn't want the series to end this way…

Ghosts Have Warm Hands

The sky was an iron grey, the cold wind chilling to the bone.  The leaden sky billowed with dark clouds, ominously foreboding as they swirled around in the heavens.  The air was wet with humidity, and smelled thickly of imminent rain; the thick moisture already dampening the asphalt roads though not a drop of water had begun its descent from the rapidly darkening sky.

He lowered his head, gunning his motorbike a little more to hear a protesting whine as the engine spun even faster.  He was probably breaking more than half of the traffic laws in Japan, but he couldn't care less at the moment.

Not that he had any idea what the hell he was doing here anyway.  He had more than half a mind to screech to a halt – despite the fact that he was on the highway – turn around and go back the way he came.  It was too damned cold today to be playing anything, and he didn't feel like putting up with any sort of crap – not even from himself.

So why the hell wasn't he turning around?!

His mind and every bit of cool logic that went with it was calmly (okay, maybe not so calmly) telling him that this was a stupid idea and he should just turn around and go home before Kazuha killed him or something whenever she happened to catch up to him, but his hands stubbornly refused to obey the silent commands and only revved the bike faster in a defiant reply.

And it wouldn't take no for an answer, either.

Sometimes he swore that there was an inner mind within the original one, or that his body has a mind of its own – or maybe even both.

Ah, what the hell – why the heck was he arguing with himself anyway?!  There wasn't any point to it.  He was going, and that was that.  And nothing would make him think otherwise.  True, this was inconclusive, he had no substantial evidence to back up his crazy assumptions, heck – it was just plain ridiculous, but he couldn't help himself.

As soon as he saw the shootout on the news he felt that something was wrong.  Yes, it was a totally random thing that, despite how awful it was, happened every week or so in the slums of Japan.  Yes, it was now a common – almost regular – occurrence in the alleyways and streets.  Harsh and angry, but that was the way life worked.

Promises are often made, but sometimes they cannot be kept.

The harsh reality was that life very seldom had happy endings.

The instant he saw the camera aim and picture clips of the shattered industry park came to view, he bolted out of the house, gunned his motorbike, and headed straight for Tokyo.  Kazuha had bugged him for a while about it, as it was far before the time they had planned to leave together, asking where he was going and even jumping on his motorbike and refusing to leave (shouting that him leaving then coming back to get her was going to make them late for Ran-chan's birthday), but he ditched her at a corner store while pretending to look at magazines.

Kazuha's shouts and death threats rang in his ears as he sped away, but he paid her no heed even as he mentally sent her a silent apology.  He knew she could take care of himself – woe betide whoever tried to take advantage of her – and he knew she was more than capable of seeing herself home.

And that's exactly where she'd be going – home.

He couldn't explain it, but…

This was something he had to do alone.

Besides, if he was right…if the Black Org. was at the bottom of this, and Kudo really was dead…he'd prefer to keep Kazuha as far away from those bastards as possible.

And also, he didn't want her to see

If there was anything left to see, anyway.

The Black Org. wasn't kind with their victims.  He'd rather her remember Shinichi as a faded shadow, but still like his old self, than to have his last memory with her as a mutilated corpse…

Or worse.

Every single detective cell in his entire body was screaming at him when he saw that news report, and he instinctively made a connection to those men in black, however ridiculous that may be, as well that Kudo – as in Kudo Shinichi, not Edogawa Conan – had joined the fight.  It didn't matter that he was a cute little boy hiding in a lousy detective's shadow right now – he had just felt that he would be there.

Perhaps not alive.

Police and inspectors and detectives alike – they look at the cold, hard facts, and not the gut instincts.  But sometimes intuition was as good as anything else, and despite what Kudo told him – that the Black Org. preferred to do things with much more…subtlety, he knew that something was wrong.  However improbable, impossible, unimaginable and every other word you could possibly use to describe a big fat honking 'NO BLOODY WAY IN HELL!!', he couldn't believe it.  He stoutly trusted his instincts on the rare chance they said anything, and he knew, without knowing how he knew, that not only something was wrong, but the Black Org. was at the bottom of it.

Something's happened to Kudo…

I can feel it.

In truth, it was utterly ridiculous – the guy in question was currently supposed to be at his (unofficial) girlfriend's house in the body of an 8-year-old, putting on his best cute-little-boy expression and trying to stay away from the almost-always drunk man of the house.  He was safe and sound in the heart of Tokyo, and was probably miles away from the shootout when it happened, though it was more than likely that he'd be there right now, inspecting the dead.

Though the fact that Mouri Ran's birthday was looming closely on the horizon as of late (and that TODAY was the day of her Big 18th) may have attributed to his guess about him – as himself – being there.  Knowing his neechan, she'd be missing him more than usual, and knowing his blockheaded rival, he'd be bugging Haibara Ai – formally Miyano Shiho – to give him another one of her temporary cures that was the end of his troubles for twenty-four hours but could very well end up with him dead.  And knowing how quick Ai was to fold under Conan's pleading, begging, whining, complaining, and other assortments of annoying her, she'd give up the little white-and-red pill mighty quick just so he could get out of her hair.

But for heaven's sake, even if he WAS to be Shinichi and not Conan for his girlfriend's birthday, the ever-so-famous Detective of the East WOULD have better sense than to get caught in a crossfire between two sets of bullets, right?

Not that he would put it past Kudo to join in, but he'd thought he'd have more sense since he needs to stay alive to visit Ran and all.

It didn't matter – all his logic couldn't dispel the sickening feeling of dread in his stomach, weighing down his hope like a lump of lead.  He had to see it for himself to believe it.

He just hoped he believed in the wrong thing.

The likelihood of him having a wrong deduction was about as logical as Kudo Shinichi suddenly announcing the earth was flat, however – after all, the Detective of the West DID rival the East in fame.  It was a long tale to tell, full of twists and arguments and one's selfish little reasons, but to make a long story short, he didn't like all the risks Shinichi was putting himself through, even if it was for Ran.  Every time Ran began missing him particularly badly he'd pop right back into her life with the aid of a certain red-and-white pill, if only for a short twenty-four hours, and when he'd suddenly disappear into the shadows again and Edogawa Conan rose from the ashes Ran was only hurt even more as she assumed that he entered and disappeared from her life when he pleased; as if he owned it.  It was done with the best of intentions, but it benefited neither – Ran only missed him more after he left, and he, her, which only led to more visits that not only seriously impended his physical health, but also alerted the Enemy to his location.

During his visits to Tokyo, he had noticed several shady characters hovering around the Mouri residence…

After several warnings from him to his friend (that involved a hefty dose of, in his honest opinion, unnecessary debates), Shinichi – now Conan – had grudgingly agreed to lie low, even more than before, and try to keep a lower profile – no matter what he said, Edogawa Conan's personality did not count as being inconspicuous.  He was far too smart and asked far too many questions.  The normal people might not notice, but to people with a trained eye…ah, that was another matter entirely.

And the Enemy was short of nothing, especially not wily watchers.  They were a cunning group of demons, sly and cruel, only emerging from their hidden shadows as the messengers of hell when the situation suits them so.  Their secrecy and security was the basis of how they had survived many a generation.

They, however, were lacking many a resource…so unlike the side of Good in the storybooks.  They were not the triumphant heroes charging into the fray to the blare of the trumpets, making all the difference when they were only a minority in the war.  This was reality, and they were but pawns to the Fates.  They were knights without their armour, soldiers without their weapons, armies without their general.

In short, they were outnumbered, outclassed, outgunned, and damn near outwitted.

He had forced his friend into near hiding…under his warnings, Conan rarely even went to cases anymore.  He was a little resentful about it, but heeding his warnings about the Enemy in the shadows (and a little prodding about the enemy and Ran sure helped a bit), still watching him, he relented, knowing that it was for the greater good (as well as his own life).  Besides, this way, still no one got hurt – it was just a different man on the job.

Every time Conan was informed of a murder mystery or other puzzling challenges the (incompetent) police just couldn't solve, he'd phone him up so he'd get there quicker than Mouri, who often had a habit of waiting until the next day or whenever else was convenient for him (after all, watching TV shows weighed heavily on Mouri Kogoro's List of Important Things to Do).  The plan worked well, at least, though gods – those cost him fortunes in gasoline…

However, his rapidly deteriorating savings aside for the moment, as mentioned beforehand, the carefully crafted plan DID work, resulting in him solving the case presented.  On the off chance that he couldn't make it, however, the Sleeping Kogoro played his role once more…though now the explanations were decidedly shorter and more to the point, as well as a noted effort to steer very clear from the media limelight.

Conan wasn't happy about it, about giving his rivalish friend so many more opportunities to boost his own ego and best him at their private game of deduction, but he knew as well as anyone that this was mainly to keep his identity secret.  Besides, with this plan, it warranted a lower profile for Conan that would undoubtedly buy him more time with his life, almost no parties were injured (save for their own private pride); and as a result, while Mouri's (false) reputation didn't dwindle any, his reputation once again far overrode that of the Sleeping Kogoro's.

He preened a little at the thought – he never liked being second best.  And this was a way to boost not only his ego but prolong Kudo's life.  Everyone was happy.

Except maybe the Enemy.

Oh, and Ran.

He held no illusions that the Enemy wasn't furious by the fact that Edogawa Conan, child genius that wasn't treated like a genius, had suddenly disappeared from the public.  Not that Conan was ever really noticed, but he was their only real lead.  The child that was far too smart, that looked far too like a young version of one of their many victims (only a much more potentially threatening victim), the child that could be their key to a path of immortality (which seemed to be what they were after if the effects of APTX-4869 were any indication)…

Not many clues were carelessly left behind, but careful watchers would wonder why the Sleeping Kogoro only solved cases in his sleep and almost never remember the solutions he told in his slumber when he is awake, and also why the bright, overly curious child that was always cheerfully asking pointed questions disappeared every time Kogoro explained his fail-proof deductions.

It wasn't very much to go on, but the Enemy was a careful one…and with no confirmation in their records (that could've easily been tampered with and was) that Kudo Shinichi was dead until many months after the murder, when the information should've long ago been keyed in, the smarter ones would be suspicious and with good reason.  After all, data could be altered and records could be tampered with…especially given the fact that a traitor in their midst, who was their lead scientist in the APTX-4869 project and keeper of many of their passwords, codes, and records, had mysteriously disappeared from her death sentence in the gas chamber, and another far-too-bright girl that looked far too much like their dear, (supposedly) dead Sherry had appeared by the already-suspicious Edogawa Conan's side.  It was a tad too much coincidence for the sly, wily ones to swallow.

For that, he really couldn't blame them.

That didn't mean he agreed with them though – they, especially the higher-ranked ones, were a constant danger to their lives and loved ones.  But he had to admit that it was rather curious even to the innocent onlooker – if someone completely unrelated to all this had been given all the facts and suspicions, chances are they would begin to suspect too.

The Enemy didn't like taking chances.  They would somehow investigate.

And, most dangerously, they would wonder

But despite heeding his warnings – for the most part, anyway – his friend just flat-out refused to miss Ran's birthday.  He understood where Shinichi was coming from, and could relate to his situation as best as he could; hell, he didn't want to look at his Neechan's disappointment and longing any more than Shinichi did.  He knew why Kudo was so adamant on seeing her, he could even see his desperation if he put himself in his friend's shoes – but the bottom line was that Shinichi's life outweighed Ran's disappointment (no matter how much Shinichi thought otherwise), and it was simply a bad security risk in his eyes; one that should not be taken.

After all, their Enemy was a dangerous one and not to be easily trifled with.

Yet Shinichi would have no part of it – he was going, as himself.

And that was that.

Some might have said that he was being heartless, that he should have understood more,  that he could have at least cut him some slack, but he found no problems with his own behaviour.  After all – he was there as an advisor.  The Black Org. so far didn't affect him directly – it neither stepped out into the light for the police to catch, involving his father, nor did it come after him, Kazuha, or anyone else that he was close with.  Kudo was waist-deep in this on his own at first, and his decision in this matter would forever be the final one – harsh as it was, this matter didn't even concern him directly.  All he could do was give advice – logical advice.  If he chose to ignore it, then he could do nothing about it.  This wasn't about superiority over the other or petty rivalries between the East and the West – this was for his life.

And no matter his cause, seeing Mouri Ran at her birthday party was a major security risk, no other way to put it.  It didn't matter what anyone else thought or how much sugarcoating had been done for it or even what excuses had been brought up in its defence.  Looking at moral decency, yes, the least Kudo could do was to attend his friend's birthday after not so much as a phone call after months and months of waiting.  But look at the logical way and it was easily seen that matters of the heart had to be sacrificed and give way to cold, hard logic if one wanted to live.

It seemed, however, that Shinichi's heart refused to yield.

He didn't like it, and had clearly told his friend many times about the matter, resulting in a war of testosterone and battle of wills every time where they lowered their obvious intelligence to yelling at each other at the top of their lungs (something which he, however, did not ruefully regret – SOMEONE had to shake some sense into that guy).  But if Shinichi believed otherwise, then he could do nothing – he certainly couldn't stand a vigilant guard over him 24/7 to stop him from secretly ingesting the temporary cure that he no doubt haggled from his (most-likely) reluctant ally.

Well, the Enemy certainly wouldn't stop their own game of watching just for his girlfriend's birthday.  They certainly wouldn't pause in their silent war to have some birthday cake.  If anything, they'd increase security on that day, if any research had been done into Shinichi's persona and quirks…one of which was that he did not disappoint his friends – or tried not to anyway – and especially not really close ones.

So was it any wonder that when he saw the shootout on TV, featuring glimpses of corpses dressed all in black, he'd immediately wonder about the safety of his rival and friend?

After all, his friend was now at his most vulnerable: out of hiding, shattering his carefully built wall of secrets and lies – even if it was only for a mere twenty-four hours – and on the way to his girlfriend's birthday.  Nothing would make a guy happier…

Or more careless.

The bright green sign with the white-painted words that spelled 'Tokyo' drew his attention from his musings, and he swerved a hard right, ignoring the honking of the horn and the slightly colourful swear words the man in the dark blue Toyota was screaming at him.  His trusty motorbike whined a little as he urged it to go faster, and he shot by the other traffic like a streamlined bullet, only slowing down reluctantly as he entered the city streets.

With as much disregard Shinichi held to his logic and advice, he was still concerned.  And while he pointed out the cold, hard facts, he wasn't actively involved.  Had the positions been switched and it was between him and Kazuha instead of Kudo and his neechan, he wasn't sure he could do things any better than his rival did at this point.

But that was beside the point.  What was the point, however, was that there was a shootout in the middle of Tokyo's industrial park, one that he felt most likely involved an ambush on his newly-turned-himself-again friend, who would most likely be giddy and idiotic and downright careless about his surroundings after his transformation.  An ambush that most likely wrecked a lot of buildings and stole a lot of lives.

Whether Shinichi's life had or had not been included in that, he didn't know.  And he wasn't sure he wanted to find out either.

But want to or not, he would find out.  No matter what – he had to see.  They were rivals from the start, but friends to the end.  He owed him this, at least.

The…end…?

Alarmed at where his thoughts were heading, Hattori Heiji leaned down and gunned his bike faster.

~*~*~*~*~

He surveyed his surroundings with a detached, critical eye – the eye of someone who had seen this all too often before.  Drying pools of dark red blood stained the streets, dead bodies were strewn across the asphalt, and a few clouds of ravenous insects were already hovering above a few of the decaying corpses, feeding eagerly on the rotting flesh.  He thought he had spotted the forms of a few hairy, plump rats waddling out of the dank, dark sewers to join in the rather disgusting feast.

A light red mist hung over the dead.  Heiji didn't have to guess what it was.

The area had been boarded off by the oncoming police…a case such as this, a public shootout, deserved their utmost attention.  Civilians had been warded away from the site, but a flash of a golden police badge and the officers respectfully let him through.

They failed to notice the embroidered letters on the moulded badge that said 'Osaka division Inspector, Hattori'.

Heiji was not surprised that they didn't notice the Osaka lettering.  He knew that stealing his father's badge had been a good idea (though he expect to get hell for it from the Devil Heizo later).

He slowed his bike to a stop, aware that the blasted shrapnel didn't allow the wheels to move any further than barbed wire would have.  Kicking his trusty metal steed to a halt, he carefully dismounted and warily began his search, grimacing only slightly at the disarray of limbs…and nothing but limbs.

If this was an ambush, it was a bad one.  It looked like this ambush had turned into a killing frenzy, if the wild bullet holes in concrete walls and innocent bystanders were any indication.

A bullet had gone through the cable supporting the platform hanging by a newly finished building, still yet to be painted; the plywood platform was now dangling limply by one of its steel chains, its cargo long dropped to the crimson-streaked asphalt below…and causing some of the red stains themselves.

Platforms didn't just carry bricks, after all.

And life always accompanied the dead…

As he expected…there were some men there dressed all in black, giving off a killer's chill even in death.  Black suits – though much of it had been torn to ribbons.  Black hat – had about as much holes as a beehive.  Black sunglasses – shattered on the pavement below.

Here rests some people who would never go to heaven…

Heiji silently blessed their eternal sleep.

Curiosity overrode him, however, when he tentatively reached down and turned one man in black's still frame around.  A stocky, short man – the type with a potbelly that you see running convenience stores and passing out candy to the little kids when they were good without telling mommy.  He was that type of guy…at least, his size and frame suggested it from the stereotype.

But this was not the stereotype – this was one part of a whole, one minion swimming in a sea of killers, organized into a dark syndicate where their blackened reach could touch the darkest of shadows, could almost reach into the burning depths of hell itself.

He warily turned him over, almost afraid of what he would see.  A sneering, brutal face of the most barbaric of beasts, snarling his defiance at the world?  A snivelling coward in his group of killers, begging for mercy?  A hollow face with deadened eyes, more dead than his death, a puppet of a mannequin who does nothing but obey?  All of them?

He didn't know.  But what he DID know was that he did not expect a mutated lump of flesh to be that man's face.

Where the eyes should be was a blur of flesh, eyes long gone and sockets withering away.  His nose, big and small, hooked or sharp, was untellable, as it had already been eaten away.  His mouth had all but gone, red flesh mixed blackened blood as the acid swallowed it whole.

Someone had been here before anyone else, and didn't want to leave loose ends.

These men all died without a face.     

Smart…real smart.  Whoever did this – actually, more like whatever did this; don't think those black-clothes jerks count as humans anymore, damn them – had a damn good brain.  Those black bastards knew they couldn't get rid of all the bodies, especially not of their own.  So they just make it that they'll never be known…

Smooth.  Real smooth.  And really damn heartless.

They won't even get a proper grave…

Heiji held no illusions that the other men in black escaped this fate.  The Black Organization wasn't stupid…and they didn't leave identifiable information lying around, even if it was as simple and primitive as a man's face.  They wouldn't have survived as long as they did if they left clues lying around.  Infallible – or, he hoped, nearly infallible; infallible equalled invincible, and he very much wanted to bring this dark syndicate down for good – warranted heavy security measures, and He Who Speaks must be eliminated.

Anything and anyone that was a security risk must be eliminated.

Unfortunately, these minions of the killers had to pay the price – and they don't even get a proper burial.  Not for nameless, faceless nobodies.  Not for unidentifiable dead.

Death was as cruel as the grave.

Fishing out a white handkerchief from his pocket, Heiji laid it over the mess of flesh.  He would've closed the unseeing eyes, but seeing as the man didn't have any left, the handkerchief would do.

Nobody deserved a death like that…not even them.

And he was probably only a puppet as well.  An expendable mannequin that had been torn from his freedom the instant he joined the syndicate, and would never be freed.  Now, when death gave him his release, Heiji had disturbed him, however slightly, from his eternal sleep.

"At least you're free, whoever you are," Heiji uttered softly as he slowly turned away.  "Rest in peace."

He was gone.  Dead.  Whatever sins he had made with his pitiful life was washed away with his blood.  Dead men hold no grudges.  Though he desperately wished he could at least ask the man what the hell happened to his friend, but that was obviously impossible.

After all, dead men tell no tales…

He surveyed the rest of the wreckage, wincing slightly at the damage, at the holes torn through the concrete, at the empty bullet shells that had dropped out of automatic revolvers and were littering the streets, at the pools of dark blood gathering in the corners, at the utter brutality of it all…

Dammit, what the hell's going on?!  Had this been an ambush set for Kudo or just another random thing?  It's too coincidental to be random, but hell, SOMEONE at the top screwed up royally on the preparations…the only way you could be more obvious with this so-called 'ambush' is to tattoo the news on the Tokyo Tower…

Despite himself, he couldn't resist a grim chuckle.

Still…Kudo'd be honoured – hell, they set up all this getup crap just for him, no matter how lousy the preparations were.  Heh…he'd have a good laugh.

If he were…still…

He cut off that thought before he completed it.  Too morbid.

What little Kudo Shinichi had told him about the Black Org. came to mind, yet none helped his situation.  It was a dark syndicate, able to infiltrate even the most secret of operations.  It had eyes everywhere…from the beggars in the slums to the millionaires in the filthy rich; it had them all.  And none were more loyal to them as their minions are…

Few are more loyal than the loyalties to their own lives.

They could easily take that.  Hence, their undying loyalty.

But what little information Shinichi had told him about this syndicate was that they were through, ruthless, and very, very smart.  This does not look like the handiwork of an age-old syndicate…this looks like it could be better done by the punks in the alleys.

But is it a coincidence?  I think not…

Kudo, you'd better have a damn good explanation when I find you…

If I find you…

The grey clouds overhead billowed thickly, swirling around as ice-cold winds threw them around like leaves in the breeze, tore them apart, pushed them together, only to force them apart again…it was a perfect reflection of Heiji's current feelings; a twisted grey swirl full of conflicting emotions, a bit of this and a bit of that, changing constantly but none were of the bright and happy sorts.

He had spent the last ten minutes wading through the carnage and gore, feet crunching shattered glass (somebody was a bad shot with their gun, he noted grimly, seeing the many corpses – once people who had nothing to do with this silent war – lie on the ground, as still as the bloodstained stones around them).  All he had found was bullet holes through the most ridiculous things: there were holes in the concrete walls, many shattered windows, a few in the abandoned briefcases…either one of those ambushers was a really bad shot, or was too high on adrenaline pounding through his veins to not care in the slightest about what his killing frenzy was getting him to shoot.  Either way, it didn't yield the most pleasant of results.

A few of the dead still retained their faces…but that was most likely because they were civilians caught in the middle.  With a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, Heiji noted that only two man in black (with a bullet through one's back and another, his chest; whoever was doing the wild shooting probably accidentally shot his teammate) lay on the concrete roads…the rest were probably innocent bystanders.  He saw a shopping basket on the arm of an old lady, a shattered bike helmet on a youth with a hole through his head, a briefcase clutched to a hand, and nothing but a hand…

He didn't want to know where the owner of that hand was.

Damn them…damn them all…

Unnoticed by him, or anyone else for that matter, the iron-grey skies above started drizzling.

Wearily, he crouched down, pulling his hat off his drenched head, wrung the coarse fabric out a bit, and then stuffed it back onto his matted hair, fighting an urge to swear at the top of his lungs despite the fact that no one alive was around to hear him.

Gods, he was tired…mentally if not physically.  Why the hell does HE have to do this anyway?!  Cover up for Kudo since that idiot wasn't here to do it for himself, keep Ran away, keep Kazuha away, and find out what the hell had happened here in the meanwhile without alerting anyone of the matter.

Why could he never have a relaxing weekend anyway?!

It was too much, especially for a person who had drove his motorbike at a breakneck speed a LONG way, and whose posterior hurt abominably from sitting on the rather uncomfortable seat of his bike for so long.

Hell, he was surprised he could actually WALK…

He made a mental note to himself to add some extra cushioning on the seat.

Forcing himself to come to his senses, he paused, trying to listen over the din of the pattering rain.  The clamour of the police from afar had seem to fade away, leaving him alone to himself and the corpses.

Quiet, lonely, miserable…quite a dreary picture.

Still, it made SENSE, though it was a painful logic…they simply couldn't gather crime evidence and get blood samples or whatnot when there was a downpour (or an impending one), and it wasn't like someone could control the stupid weather (certainly no one on the force was a weather witch like that white-haired woman from the American comic, X-men, was it…?).  And they couldn't get the body bags over here either; not enough, anyway.  This way, the bodies would be less bloody, at least…if not a bit wet when they finally do pick them up.

Then again, it was lots easier towelling dry a corpse than to clean it off…it's bad enough giving baths to little kids, but giving baths to corpses?!  No thank you…

The rain strengthened slightly, the pattering of rain hissing on the asphalt roads growing louder.  And with the rain came fog, thick white fog, drenched with rain and obscuring his vision until everything was just a bleary veil of grey…

It was a couple of moments until he realized that the sheen of moisture in his eyes that was blurring his vision wasn't just from the rain.

Fear, worry, anger – a war of conflicting emotions stabbed at him like knives, especially the fear; eating at him like the acid on that man in black's face; fear, gnawing at him deep inside, playing on his worst fears coming to life…

It was a lot different knowing a friend had died and actually coming to terms with it.  Especially when it wasn't even for sure that he had died.

If he did…

If…

If…

If he did, then…

He didn't want to think about it.

Gritting his teeth, he kept searching with a renewed vengeance, a determination as fierce as the downpour around him, as if he absolutely HAD to find him, or else…

He wouldn't accept it…he wouldn't accept that he might not be able to find his friend.

Provided that there was anything left worth finding.

Above him, the rain intensified to a downpour, stabbing the bodies below like icy knives, the water hissing as it landed on the concrete.  It was as if the heavens hated this monstrosity as much as he, and was trying to wash it clean…

Wash it clean…

Drawing in a deep, albeit shaky breath, Heiji resumed rummaging through the corpses, not caring what he was doing to the scene evidence.  The Black Organization was nothing if not through, and he doubted the cops would find anything anyway, having had a taste of cops' general incompetence firsthand.

Grimacing slightly at the blood on his hands, he resumed his work.

Kudo…I just know he's here, somewhere.  He can explain all this…

If he could, that is.

If he could…

Quietly, dragging himself up and drawing some strength from the last reserves of willpower inside of him, he wearily resumed his search.

Time passed slowly but steadily, like all time must; the seconds ticked away as meticulously as clockwork, slipping through the streams of Time like sand in an hourglass, always there, but kind of not; ever so slow at some times but quick at others, yet no one could pause or control it…

He was soaked thoroughly to the bone, and he was shivering from the cold.  Had he a mirror he could probably find his lips tinged faintly with blue, though even if he did go back to his bike and take a look at the side view mirrors he'd find his vision cloaked by fog.  And as much as he wanted a break, some hot coffee (preferably cappuccino, latté, or mocha), and maybe a dry shirt or two, but the adrenaline rush pounding in his veins made him too hyped up to actually think about getting warm.

And not even twenty Kazuhas could pull him away now…he was one of the few who Knew about The Secret, and for better or for worse, Kudo Shinichi was his friend…one of his best, in fact.  He owed it to him to keep looking; hell, he'd survived much colder temperatures when he fell into that river on that stupid mermaid island…

Oh, Kazuha had really riled him out for that one.

Besides, had their places been switched, he felt confident that Kudo Shinichi would've kept searching for HIM through even a tornado, earthquake, snowstorm, and typhoon all in one.

Still, his determination was getting deterred slowly but surely as exasperation and exhaustion gradually replaced it.  True, the dreary grey weather slowed down searching a whole lot, as his vision was blurred by fog and rain so the already slow job had to be done slower so as to make sure he didn't accidentally pass his friend as someone else, but he'd already spent over twenty minutes trudging around, carefully poking at the widely-spread dead here and there.  And almost predictably, it still yielded no satisfying results.

Then again, with the way one of those (who knew which?) black guys shot, it wouldn't have surprised him one bit if a stray bullet had somehow nicked some poor guy on the other end of the block.

Which meant that he'd have to SEARCH to the end of the block…

He groaned at the mere thought of pawing through more rubble and finding more corpses, yet knew it was unavoidable.  With a resigned sigh he pulled his tattered sanity together with a sheer force of will and continued on his way.

But despite his vigilant searching, the Fates didn't like him today, and for all his efforts, all he managed to find was a few dollars' worth in coins among the dead.

And still no Shinichi.

"Goddammit Kudo," he swore softly to no one in particular, "can't you cut me some slack, even in death?"

A morbid thought that came out of his mouth, it was…but the suspicion had almost become fact already.  After all, if Shinichi were alive, would he leave him to search like this?

The only possible answer for him to be both alive and not responding would be he was knocked unconscious and crushed under some rock or other…which was not better by much, if any.

He searched the mental image of his friend in his mind, looking for something, ANYTHING, he could identify him with in this world of rubble.  There was his ever-so-annoyingly-cocky smirk, his quote of "There is only one truth", his infatuation with Mouri Ran that was quite obvious to everyone except for him and Ran…

None of which helped him in the least now.

Dammit Hattori, think!!  Um, his hair's both neat and messy – generally neat, I guess, but that cowlick and those bangs can somehow defy the toughest of hair gel…er, he likes being well dressed, suits and ties and all that sort – never knew why he couldn't just settle for a black sweatshirt – um…eh…is that all?

Wait…it's Neechan's birthday…maybe he brought a birthday present?

So I look for blue suit, green tie, and a birthday present wrapped in God knows what colour.  Joys.

Forgive me if I'm not leaping with enthusiasm.  Bad back, you know.

He narrowed his eyes slightly, trying to ignore the chattering of his teeth and the way his shirt was plastered to his skin, scowling at the stuff that his friend was putting him through.

Dammit, Kudo – we're gonna exchange some words the next time I see you…!

By process of elimination, more than half the dead was already cleared of being Kudo Shinichi.  He was tempted to just go look for blue-eyed brunets in dark blue suits and a light green tie (is he colour-blind or what?  Cobalt blue and lime GREEN!?!), but decided against it owing to the fact that while Shinichi's wardrobe might not be TOO diversified, Heiji's never really seen it…and for once, being Neechan's birthday, he might choose something that makes him look a little less formal and a little more familiar with his childhood friend.

He sneezed violently, then stared wistfully at his stationary bike parked haphazardly a ways away, wishing more than anything at the moment to get back to his house and maybe have a hot bubble bath (not that he'd ever let Kazuha know about the bubbles bit).

But no – he couldn't.  Not now.  Never mind that Kudo can be a first-class jackass when it comes to things like this; it just wasn't RIGHT.  He had been brought up better than that, and he knew better himself.

If there's one thing that defined Hattori Heiji, it was his loyalty, and that he never abandoned his friends…

Even if they sometimes don't appreciate it much.

Still…  He cast another longing glance at his bike, than walked over to the trusty metal steed, wheeling it under an overhang so as to more or less protect it from the rain.  He'd have to check it for rain leaking into the gas tank or whatever when he gets home; he had never left it outside like this for so long, not if he could help it…

And as he wheeled the streamlined machine away, he MISSED it completely…so completely that he only realized something was up when he saw the piece of coloured paper, dirty and matted, that had glued onto his bike's front wheel.

"Eh?"  Both puzzled and irritated, Heiji moved forward to pull the stuck dirty blue scrap off his precious bike's tire treads; the wetness from the rain and a mix of car grease and joint lubricants had positively glued the paper onto the grooves of the wheel, he narrowed his eyes as the oily paste of lubricants and grease finally yielded and he ripped the paper from the lined creases of the wheel…

Only to realize that it was wrapping paper.

"Nande kuso…?!?!?!"  His swearing came as a surprised hiss, looking at the dirty blue scrap of paper caked with mud and filth that his tire had rolled right over, the paper that only barely showed the faintest traces of silver stars painted on the thick dark blue parchment…

Wrapping paper…

Neechan's birthday…

Kudo's bringing a present…

The wheels of his mind, frozen by the cold and rusted by rain, grinded and screeched as they slowly began to turn, and the pieces of the puzzle slid together and fitted with a click, as everything finally began to make sense

Kudo's…bringing a present…for Neechan…wrapped in wrapping paper…

Oh, SHIT!!!

Practically throwing his bike to the ground, Heiji bounded up from where he partially fell to the ground from shock, and bolted, stuffing the scrap of starry printed paper into his jeans pocket while he ran.  Wide blue eyes, filled with shock and utter disbelief, scanned his surroundings with a near craze, desperate and disbelieving and pained and fearful and didn't want to believe

Dammitdammitdammit…if Kudo's half the man I know he is, he'd hold onto this for dear life and he wouldn't have dropped unless…goddamit, that FOOL!!  Shitshitshit…

Kudo, you friggin' goddamned bastard!!  I swear, if you're dead – if you dare leave Neechan like this, I'll –

He finished off his rather dark thought with a litany of faintly colourful words.

A quick look here, nope – only trees; another glance there – just some shadows, and somebody's abandoned wallet, black, probably leather…wait, was that a PERSON sprawled by those shattered windows?!

Eyes narrowing, started to run – yep, that was a person alright, dressed in a pair of light beige khaki pants (that was currently soaked and stained with mud) and a plain black ribbed sweater…

And Gods, that person had wild brown hair

Oh, #@$^…

As Time usually did when matters of high urgency have happened, it slowed down…so much so, that while Heiji was sure that he could cross the distance between him and the still body splayed messily underneath the overhang beside the broken window in five strides, it suddenly seemed like an eternity away…

As if repeating a mental sermon, he hissed 'don't be him' over and over under his breath as he ran…

He contemplated on calling out, then for some inner reason that he couldn't fathom, decided against it.  The figure's head was turned away from him as he sprawled against the wall, but Heiji was pretty sure he could see a trail of fresh blood (now diluted by the rain) running thickly down his cheek…

Suddenly feeling rather short of breath, he skidded to a halt about five feet from the still body, panting.  His stamina usually could hold out for a LOT longer, faster, and further sprints than that, but just this once…

Fearing the worst, he surveyed the surroundings, deciding that he needed a moment to compose himself just in CASE it was Kudo Shinichi lying there…besides, the figure looked very dead and devoid of a pulse after he edged in apprehensively (trying his very best NOT to look at his face while he was at it) for a quick check.

And the dead was certainly in no hurry to go anywhere.

His gaze was firmly glued to his shoes as he edged over and checked the still man's pulse on his wrist, but that moment of dreading and not really wanting to know passed quickly enough, and the thoughts of 'if I have to look at him, who probably ISN'T Kudo, it could WAIT' faded away as quickly as the seconds ticked away.

Every nerve screaming, every pore tingling, every sense on the highest alert, he took in a deep, shuddering breath, and looked

It'snotKudoit'snotKudoI'llneverbeabletoexplainittoNeechanifitisKudosoit'snotKudo…

…and saw the battered, broken body of Kudo Shinichi.

DAMMIT…!!!!

Biting his lip, he looked carefully – he started this, and he wasn't one to turn back.

Though, he was going to dread this encounter for many a night's nightmares to come…

Drenched in rain and nice (new?) clothes splattered with mud, Kudo Shinichi was a sight to behold…and not the pleasant kind.  A thin burn mark scored the left side of his cheek; apparently a bullet had skimmed his face, grazing the skin near the cheekbone before flying off again to God knows where.  His khakis were splattered with mud, the black sweater torn at the elbow, brown hair dishevelled by the wind and drenched by the rain, sodden bangs hanging in wide-open, hollowly unseeing blue eyes…

It wasn't TOO bad a way to die, all things considered – at least most of him had remained intact and untouched by foreign materials (save for the mud).  Heiji had seen a lot worse in his time.  Heck, it was actually one of the PRETTIER deaths he had seen…

Save for the bullet wound on the corner of his forehead.

He knew instantly that that had been the cause of death.

Above him, the hissing downpour grew to a storm, the pattering of icy knives on the asphalt the very sound of a cold and dreary death.  The thin fog thickened, gradually washing away the blood red mist until everything turned into a bleary veil of grey.

Chewing on his lower lip, he turned the stiff form of his friend around, his eyes narrowing (perhaps for more than just suspicion and to keep out rain…) as he saw the small hole in the lower left side of his head.  The thin, sharp puncture wound was almost in a perfectly diagonal line with the large hole in right side of his forehead where the bullet had fairly burst out amid the spray of blood.

Shot from behind…

From the grim look on his friend's face and the way the unseeing blue eyes were narrowed at the corners, it seems that he had been running from those men in black, only to find a stray bullet hitting him right in the head.  That had been a surprise, no doubt…especially considering the lousy shot one of those guys had been.  The shock was plainly registered on the cold (if not slightly clammy) face, surprise and disbelief that he had gotten shot.

It had been a quick, if not instant death…and hopefully painless.

Blinking back hot tears he didn't know had formed, Heiji ran a hand down the side of his friend's face with a halfway wistful smile despite the situation, his thumb brushing by the hollow of Shinichi's cheekbone.  A small part of him was glad that his face (or most of it) was still kept, not that it made a difference in the long run.  He was still dead…but this way, with his face unharmed unlike the some of the other corpses he discovered, it almost seems like he wasn't really dead…

Almost.

It wasn't until he felt a stream of warmth trailing down his bronzed face and tasted salt in his mouth – a taste that, for the first time, somehow felt bitter on his tongue – did he realize that the wetness on his cheek wasn't all from the rain.

Kudo…

"You didn't," he said softly, his voice shocked and his face the very picture of stark disbelief as his closed his eyes in bitter denial, then opened them again.  "Kudo…you didn't…"

It was then he spotted It.

It was cradled in the crook of his shoulder, nestled protectively under his arm.  Rather messy by normal standards, but he could somehow tell that it had been done with a great deal of painstaking care (and most likely the best that Shinichi could do, being a hopelessly lost cause at everything else but mysteries and deductions).  Even the paper wrapping it – which reminded him, he still has the missing scrap of it that was torn in his pocket – seem to be carefully chosen, and for once had good taste.

Heiji picked it up, mentally weighing the lightness of it, and a bitter smile twisted cruelly on his lips when he saw how protectively the thing had been nestled in his dead rival's arms.

"You do care about her," he said softly, his voice holding a note of wonder mixed in with smug long-foreseen predicament.  "You actually care…"

It was then, staring at the small package, when the truth hit home.  Whether or not he cared about her, about the rest of them, he was gone.  Gone.  The full realization that Kudo, one of his best friends and long-time rival that he couldn't imagine life without the arguing they did on a regular basis, was dead – not merely hidden, but dead – hit him full in the face as he unconsciously clenched his teeth tightly.  His mouth twisted and his features contorted as he fought not to cry; pain and anger flitted across his face as he glared at him with angry vehemence, the way he always did to others to keep the tears from coming down…

"Kudo, you IDIOT…I told you not to come," he hissed, the whispered voice starkly showing his sorrow.  He would've slugged him, but it didn't feel right to hit someone who couldn't fight back…respect for the dead and all that.  "You bloody idiot…Neechan would rather miss you for forever, as long as you were alive, rather than like this, didn't you know?!  You bastard…now what am I gonna tell Neechan…?"

"The truth."

He paused at the ever-so-familiar voice, swallowing the lump that seemed to have formed in the back of his throat.  Taking in a shuddering breath, he stood up and turned around, angling himself so he blocked Shinichi from view from oncomers.

And there was one; just one – one that pierced the veil of grey fog as she stepped forward, dressed in black jeans and a simple sweatshirt, shivering slightly in the pouring rain.

"Ran-neechan," he acknowledged quietly with a nod and a false calm, inwardly knowing his glimmering eyes will betray him.

Ran smiled at him, but it was a bitterly sad smile.  As Heiji predicted, his eyes gave him away, and she knew in an instant why his eyes glowed so brightly.

It wasn't from happiness to see her, at least.

"That's…Shinichi back there, isn't it?" she whispered.

He blinked, but nodded stiffly in reply.  "Why're you here, Neechan?"

Ran looked away, staring at the ground stained with crimson, before wincing and turning her shaky gaze back onto him, the only thing on the block that wasn't covered in blood.

"I…can't explain it.  I just…felt…like I had to come.  So I had Dad bring me when he came for the case."

Heiji almost smacked his head.  Of course Mouri Kogoro would come along, and now there was no 'Conan' there to tell him to beat the Sleeping Kogoro to the case.  And of COURSE Ran would feel it as well, maybe more so than he did.

Biting his lip, he nodded tightly.

"So you felt it too?" he asked quietly.

Ran stared at him.  "You…"

Heiji shook his head, deigning it best not to respond to her unformed question.  "Ojisan's here too?" he asked, although already knowing what the answer was going to be – he wasn't a detective for nothing, and his listening skills far surpassed his peers – Ran already said her father was here.  He just felt like asking it however; make as much conversation as he could, however empty and hollow though it may be.

At her responding nod, he stared pointedly at her empty side where a small form usually hovered.  "Where's Conan-kun?"

He knew the answer before he asked, but somewhere inside him he held onto that thin strand of hope that Edogawa Conan was with her, that this Shinichi was just another look-alike that also dressed alike…

His hopes were deflated when Ran shook her head.  "I don't know…he left this morning, telling me that he had some stuff to do with Professor Agasa and that he'd be back by nightfall.  I'm really worried about him."

"Oh."

Inside of him, Heiji felt that last spark of hope sputter and die.

Ran blinked slightly, then took in the defensive, almost protective way Heiji hovered in front of a gathering of glass shards and a still body, remembering the task at hand.  She didn't want to see it, but somewhere inside of her, she knew she had to see it to believe it.

Squaring her shoulders, she moved towards him.

Heiji immediately blocked her way, hand gripping her seemingly frail shoulder tightly.  "Don't, Ran…it's not pretty."

Her head snapped up, eyes blazing with anger as she swung out almost faster than the eye could see.  Only Heiji's own practice of martial arts blocked the karate chop aimed at his head.

"Dammit Hattori, I deserve to know!" she hissed, her eyes aglow with an inner fire.  "He left me – no, deserted me – for all those months, with only an occasional phone call here and there, and he promised me he'd be here today, at my BIRTHDAY, but he's not.  He's not, is he?!  I take it that this was part of his ever-so-important case; the case more important than everyone else – the case more important than ME?!"

Never had Heiji heard Ran sound so bitterly betrayed, yet his hand only tightened its hold on her shoulder.

"Look," he said hesitantly, flinching slightly at her glare, "I know…Kudo, despite his reputation, can do some really stupid things.  But this wasn't one of them."

"It wasn't?"  Her anger deflating, Ran stared back at him with eyes full of hurt.  "Heiji, please…aren't I worth more than that?  So he doesn't put me as number one on his priority list.  Fine, I can accept that.  But don't I at least deserve the truth?"

He mentally wondered why the hell he was defending his late friend/rival, especially since he echoed many of Ran's sentiments wholeheartedly, but his mouth seemed to have taken on a life of its own and manipulated his speech with diabolical ingenuity so that it completely changed what he was trying to say.

"Kudo…didn't think that way," his mouth said without any input from his brain.  "He did…value you.  Perhaps he…cared…more than you think."

Ran turned to look at him with eyes brimming with tears, but also hope.  "How'd you know?"

"We…talked."

The anger suddenly came back full-blast and tenfold as she glared at him with fire in her eyes.  "And you didn't tell me?!  Heiji!  You should know…how I…care…about him.  You should've told me!"

At least this was a question he could answer at face value.  "I couldn't.  No more than he could.  He might do stupid things, but this was for you.  Had I been in his place, I would've done the same."

Her jaw dropped open, then snapped closed in disbelief and fury.  "So you're lying to me too!  Thanks a lot, Heiji.  I don't believe this – both of you lie to me like this.  I knew his case was a phoney excuse, but I took it at face value because I trusted him!  Now both of you betray it like this?!  What…doesn't he trust me enough to tell me the truth?!  Don't YOU trust me enough to tell me the truth, to tell me WHY he left me?!!"

Something in him suddenly, under all the tension, the pressure, the guilt, the pain, the anger…underneath all the turmoil of fiery emotions, something deep inside him simply snapped.

Heiji suddenly barked a harsh laugh that echoed and bounced off the building walls.  "Truth?  Truth?!  What is truth, Ran?"

Ran stared at him, shock written across her face.  She had not been expecting this.  "Heiji…?"

He shook his head, his voice bitter as he literally spat out the words.  "Truth…there is no truth.  Truth is what people want it to be.  Truth is what people believe it to be.  There never is 'only one truth'…there never is…"  His voice softened and trailed off.

He raised his head again, his levelled gaze suddenly cold and even.  "I'll tell you what I know, Ran…but don't regret it.  I'm telling you right now…ignorance is bliss.  You'll be happier if you don't know."

The bitterness of his voice was the one thing that told Ran that he wasn't joking, and that her life would only be more miserable if she knew WHY Shinichi left her, WHY Shinichi was always so vague, WHY he always disappear whenever Conan came around, WHY…

For a second there, she almost wanted to say "No thanks".

Almost.

If there was one thing Mouri Ran was known for, it was her stubbornness and sense of justice.  Perhaps a reason why she clicked so well with Kudo Shinichi is because they both have a strong sense of honour and justice, as well as the thirst for truth.

And now…when she was only a step away from the truth…she wasn't going to abandon her chance.

Squaring her shoulders and hoping that she wasn't making a grave mistake, she stared back at Heiji.

"Tell me."

And so the tale began in the pouring rain…of the day at Tropical Land where the nightmare all started, Shinichi's sudden leaving, Conan's sudden appearance, what little he knew about the Black Organization, how he fit into the story when he discovered 'Conan's little secret…all that he knew, he told.  Heiji didn't believe in sugar-coating – if one wanted to know the truth, they'll know the whole truth.

Surprisingly, the task of Explaining The Truth To Ran, thought to be impossible to walk away in one piece only minutes beforehand, flowed out of his mouth smooth and detailed, if not a bit curt and impersonal.

Ran listened intently in the pouring rain, not caring that she was now soaked, her eyes going wider and wider as the tale unfolded and the mystery unravelled, when her suspicions for over a year was confirmed, when what little of the truth there was finally told.

And when it was done, warm tears streaked her ashen face.

"But – but why couldn't he have TOLD me?!?!" she cried when Heiji finished his tale.  "I could keep a secret, I KNOW I could!  Why couldn't he have told me?!  Didn't he TRUST me?!"

"He did," Heiji said evenly, "and that's why he couldn't tell you.  He trusted you too much…had he told you, he would've eventually grown dependent on you covering up for him, and not take any precautions himself.  Even keeping his mouth shut, he had trouble concealing himself…why do you think he died today?  Because he wasn't careful.  Because he wanted to see you – because, on your birthday, he didn't want you to cry.

"And even if you DID keep your mouth shut, and Conan's lips equally sealed, do you think They wouldn't have found out?  They've been watching you ever since Kudo was labelled 'situation unknown' in their databanks before Ai changed it, because They KNEW how close you and Kudo were.  And when Conan showed up, do you think that kind of thing was easy to swallow?  If you had known, your behaviour would've changed towards him, and they would've picked that up.  As it was, they were already suspicious…and that's another reason why he hid it from you – he wanted to protect you."

"I'm a big girl, Hattori Heiji.  I can take care of myself – I'm the karate champ, remember?"  Ran protested heatedly, cheeks flushing rebelliously at the thought of needing protection like she was a delicate doll made of glass.  She did not appreciate being treated like a three-year-old, as those who have had a taste of her temper firsthand would know.

"Ran…you don't even KNOW what kind of things these bastards are capable of.  For one, they were able to develop the so called APTX-4869 that caused all this mess without the government or any authorities knowing; how much power do you think they have?  Sorry, but karate champ isn't going to cut it – karate isn't much use against bullets.  Hell, the way they kept all this so quiet – they may have even infiltrated the government or something.  Even with all the security measures he placed in not telling you, they still found him.  And he…"  He gestured silently at the wreckage among them, which told the tale all on its own.

Ran blinked back another stream of tears as she stared blankly at Heiji.  She hadn't known her ignorance played such a huge part…in retrospect, her heartache was a very small price compared to his life.

His life that he had paid.

Oh, if only I hadn't complained so much to Conan!  He might still…

…be…

…alive…

With a choked up sob, she pushed brutally past Heiji, who closed his eyes in pain.  He didn't want to put his words so harshly, but he had no choice – she had to know how Kudo paid his price for his silence, and how he paid another price for his love.

Ran skidded to a halt where Shinichi lain, her eyes blurred by tears as she crouched down beside him, bitterly sobbing.  It wasn't as if she didn't KNOW he was dead; when she and Heiji were speaking, the word 'death' came up often enough…it was just that a part of her didn't entirely believe it until she saw his battered body.  She didn't even see the whole of his injuries…just one look at his unseeing eyes was enough to kill her inside…

Heiji looked at her nervously, sighing to himself.  He'd seen plenty of corpses in his time, was almost used to seeing them, but he never actually felt the deaths…until now.

He was always around Death, but none had ever hit so close to home.

"At least he died saving others," he said quietly, hoping that was a comfort.

It wasn't.

Ran glared at him.  "It doesn't matter HOW many lives he saved if he can't even save his own!  He promised he'd come back to me…"  The last words were a broken sob.

The fact that his one life that was sacrificed did not outweigh the many he saved, as well as he DID come back as himself, only not alive, was blithely ignored.

"He should've said something."

Heiji looked up warily, surprised at the familiar voice piercing the din of the rain.  He wasn't ready for any more surprises today…

Out of the grey fog stepped another girl, about the same age as Ran though with decidedly less build.  Her brown hair was tied up in a short ponytail, blue eyes darkened with sorrow and sympathy, bundled up tightly in a jacket and blue jeans.

Heiji blinked at her.  "What're you doing here, Kazuha?"

Toyama Kazuha chafed at that, and got that slightly belligerent look in her eyes as she stared at him challengingly.  "You can't get rid of me that easily, Heiji."

"Ahou," muttered Heiji without much conviction in his voice, "you're not supposed to come here…"

Kazuha sighed softly, her indignant anger disappearing as quickly as it came.  "Yeah, well, I couldn't miss Ran-chan's birthday just like that just because you decided to ditch me at the corner store."  She eyed the form of Ran quietly, then shook her head.  "I guess we're not gonna do much birthday celebrations, are we?"

Heiji stared at her.  "How much of our conversation did you hear?"

"Enough," she answered simply, staring right back.  "And I still think he should've said something."

"If you heard it, then you should know you're not in any place to talk!  Have you been listening to a word I've said, ahou?!" he hissed angrily.  "Kudo COULDN'T have said anything.  If he had, he would've only gotten caught faster!  He kept his secret and look what happened to him!!  Do you WANT him to die?!"

"If it was death both ways – and that seems to be the result – then Kudo-kun should've said something," Kazuha fired back heatedly, coming to Ran's defence.  "You make it sound like it's all Ran-chan's fault that Kudo-kun died.  It was Kudo-kun's own decision to come, and Ran-chan didn't make him.  He thought it was the right thing to do!  My point was simply that if he was going to get found out both ways, he could've saved himself a lot of grief and heartache if he had told Ran-chan – besides, he shouldn't have to go through this alone."

"I didn't say it was Neechan's fault, I said…argh, I don't know what I said," growled Heiji, pacing in agitated circles.  "And Kudo couldn't have told her – was he SUPPOSED to know he was going to die?  And even if he did, he wouldn't have told her…partly for her own good and protection, and partly because this was his battle and he doesn't want anyone else getting hurt because of it.  He wouldn't be the Kudo I know if he just lay low and let those bastards roll right over them – he fought them to the end.  But he fought this battle for the ones he wanted to protect…!!"

"Heiji…?"

Ran's quiet voice cut through the din of the rain and arguing, making both Heiji and Kazuha pause in their habitual bickering.  Swiping sodden bangs out of his eyes, Heiji adjusted his soaked baseball cap and walked closer to Ran.

"Yeah, Neechan?"

"Did he…"  Ran's voice cracked slightly.  "Was he okay as Conan?  He – either as Shinichi or Conan – never told me anything…and he'd go all quiet sometimes…"

"…yeah.  To my knowledge, he was physically fine…save for the rare chance he turned back to himself.  Then he had hell because of the transformation, but otherwise…yeah."  Heiji blithely ignored the urge to tell her that Conan's silent 'phases' were usually about him moping over her.

Ran blinked, eyes red and swollen, as she continued speaking while staring at Shinichi's blank face, her thumb tracing the hollow of his cheekbone.

"God, I never knew…I never knew the kid that suddenly appeared on my doorstep the day he disappeared was him…I've suspected, but I couldn't prove a thing, and he could always convince me otherwise…I never knew any of it, never knew how Dad suddenly became a brilliant detective mastermind overnight…never knew why Haibara Ai suddenly showed up, and why she was so quiet and more grown-up than I was despite being a girl of seven or eight…I never knew anything…"

A warm hand was gently laid on her shaking shoulders, and her lower lip quivered at the gentle touch as she grabbed the hand with both of hers and pressed it to her tear-drenched cheeks.  If she concentrated hard enough, she could imagine it was Shinichi's hand…it was big enough, rough enough, even calloused enough, and through all this fog and mist and rain and tears, she couldn't see the tan on the skin…

Shinichi…you're here…

Heiji's soft, gruff, yet sympathetic voice broke the silence and the spell.

"I'm sorry, Ran."

With that, Ran's self-control broke, and she turned wide, imploring eyes to the boy standing above her protectively, blocking the rain from her slim frame just like Shinichi used to do…

"Dammit Heiji, I was kept in the dark about everything!" she spat, her voice laced with betrayal, tightened with pain, fraught with anger, and broken with sorrow.  "He never told me anything…only that he was 'on a case'.  Like hell he was!  He solved every case I've ever seen him do in days, if not hours – certainly not in years!!  I trusted him, but he didn't tell me…he could've at least saved me the effort of worrying over him by inventing a better excuse!  But no…he was 'on a case'…and he had never even given a thought about me, about anyone…and neither did his parents!!  They KNEW, and they never even THOUGHT about telling me something other than 'he's on a case, Ran-chan'…did they even know how much I worried about him!? Did you know?!  Did ANYONE know…?!?!"

Her breath hitched in her throat, and a sob shook her frame.  "I never knew…I never knew where he was, what he was doing, why he always left, why he never called…

"I never knew if he cared…"

Washing the ground of the blood and carnage, the incessant rain seemed to have felt this girl's pain, and slowed.  The icy knives pelting them had softened, and was now gentler, quieter, warm as tears…

Now if only it could wash away the pain…

Remembering the small box still tucked under his arm, Heiji blinked and removed from the cover of his jacket.  The box was a bit squished from his tension of explaining and yelling and arguing, but he was pretty sure the contents were alright.

"Um…Ran?" he said hesitantly, stepping towards her.  Kazuha sent an odd look in his direction.  He blithely ignored it.

Ran looked up.

Feeling very awkward, Heiji handed the messily wrapped package to his friend whose birthday had long since been ruined.  "Um…I found this with Kudo.  He would've wanted…he wanted you to have it."

Silently, a shaking hand reached out and accepted the present, and Ran looked at the rain-soaked box in almost wonder.  The blue wrapping paper was messily wrapped and a large chunk of it was torn off (the piece still in Heiji's pocket and long since forgotten), as presents were obviously not one of his stronger traits.  The small box was tied with a thin silver ribbon, also a tad messy…but if Shinichi cared about her enough to do this all by himself…

Shoulders shaking, she carefully – if not hastily – tore open the remains of the starry-silver-and-blue wrapping paper, and gently eased open the box.

It was a locket, like the ones the girls at school often got from their boyfriends.  It wasn't very fancy, however, nor was it heart-shaped – it was a round, simple locket that was slightly oval in shape made of highly polished silver.

Tears blurred her eyes when she saw the chain – made of small interlocking links, it was relatively simple, like the locket itself…but carefully, painstakingly threaded through the holes of the knitted silver was a thin, shimmering red thread…

…they say that when a man and woman destined to be together are born, their little fingers are connected by a red thread.

Her own immortal words, fired back at her…and Shinichi had played a part too.  She was with him, in spirit if not in body, as she carefully cut the blue wire – because she was afraid of severing their own 'red thread'…because she wanted to preserve what little relationship they still had.

And Shinichi had promised then that he would die with her…

But he had already left first.

It might not even be because of the legend, the little voice, keen on protecting her fragile heart from any more aches, whispered at her.  It's not like your pinkies are linked…

She batted at her ears, as if it could shoo away the annoying voice whispering in her head.  Miraculously, it stopped.

A press at the side of the silver oval opened the clasp, and a gasp of almost wonder burst from her lips when she saw the two children staring at each other in a captured moment of time.  It was a side view, when they were about 12…Sonoko had gotten her first camera as a birthday present from her parents, and was taking pictures everywhere.  She had somehow found her and Shinichi hooking pinkies as they made bets on who would beat whom at karate first a funny Kodak moment…

Underneath the picture of a young Shinichi and Ran wagering over a chocolate bar (held tauntingly in the young Shinichi's hand, the wrapper glittering gold in the afternoon sunlight of the picture), there was a short script written underneath – Ran would've recognized the handwriting anywhere.  It read:

Pinkie swear.  Picture capture, ain't it?

At this, at the vividness of the memory, at the hyperactive way they were chasing each other around, at the memory of both being alive sent Ran into tears again.

…they say that when a man and woman destined to be together are born, their little fingers are connected by a red thread.

Well, now there was both the pinkies and the thread…

So he did remember…

"There's a letter," Kazuha noted while looking over Heiji's shoulder, her haunting whisper holding a note of almost…wonder…and interrupting Ran's thoughts.  "There's a letter…"

Wordlessly, Ran picked up the notepaper folded and tucked behind the locket, but one look at the flowing script sent her in tears again.

"Here…"  Kazuha bent over, if not slightly stiffly, and picked up the letter among the cardboard box from the body of Shinichi, where she had dropped the letter from her shaking fingers.  "Want me to read it, Ran-chan?"

At the nod of approval from both Heiji and Ran, Kazuha opened the furled paper (not without some nervousness at reading a letter from the dead), and, in a slightly shaken voice, began to read.

"Dear Ran…"

Dear Ran,

Remember this?  As it turned out, I lost a lot more than just that chocolate bar…never did try beating you at karate again after that.  It's an odd choice for a present, I suppose, but I wanted to give you something…special.  Something…unique.  And what could be more unique about us than our past?

It's been a while since I saw you.  And it might be another while before I'll see you again – I might see you this time, and I might not…it would depend on the time I have left.  If I happen to come to your birthday party, well this letter would be pretty damn pointless because we would've said most of its contents face-to-face.  But should I happen to not go (for specific reasons OTHER than wanting to hurt you), this letter will have to do.

There's many things I want to tell you, words that I cannot say.  I can't say when I'll be back, and this box waiting in front of your door (or however else I can deliver it) won't be much of a comfort…but I'm trying.  I know you're hurt, waiting for me…and can't say anything but what I've already said.  All I can say is…I'm sorry.  I'm sorry I can't be there, but…

Yes, there ARE things out of even my control.

Despite that, I'll protect you however I can…even if you can't always see it.  I'll be constantly watching over you, from afar if not up close, and the locket…is supposed to be a reminder that I'll always be with you, in spirit if not in body.  I just hope you'll remember that.  And if you're asking why I can't be with you in body…well, there is a reason why I can't come close, why I can't be with you – and no, it's nothing about you personally.  I've told you so tons of times – it's not your fault; it's MINE!  So quit beating yourself up over MY faults, you baka…but anyway…

I don't want to say this, but I can't be with you all the time, and that's a fact of life that both you and I have to accept (with some reluctance) until I'm…done…over here.  I'm sorry, but that's how life works sometimes.  Sometimes, life is hard…harder than we may expect.  But we'll just have to stick our shoulders and tough it out, right?  Grin and bear it?

There is only one truth, Ran…and I haven't found mine, or at least, not ALL of mine.  But I know part of it.  Part of my 'truth' is that…I want you to know, to believe in the fact that while I may not always be with you, as long as I'm breathing the air of this land, as long as I still walk this earth, even if I were to be in the east and you in the west, be confident that…

I…

…will…

…protect you.

So please…

Wait for me.

"…Kudo Shinichi," Kazuha finished softly, folding the letter, where her salty tears and the pattering rain had smeared even the ink of the black waterproof pen slightly.

Ran stared, blankly, as the last of Shinichi's words passed on by Kazuha faded away in the pattering of rain.  Everything made so much sense now…why he left, why he couldn't say anything, why his words were always so vague (and this was no exception, as he wrote it while still protecting his secret), why, why, why…

Why…

"Always together, ne?" she murmured to herself, eyes blank and lost.  "Shin…ichi…"

He really does care…

The triumphant thought shimmered brightly in her mind, then faded as if a dying candle in the teasing breeze as the reality of his death hit her again, full in the face.

He's not coming back…

The last of her composure shattered, she grasped onto what seems the most important part of his letter, and glared accusingly through tear-filled eyes at his unmoving form.

"'I will protect you'…isn't that what you wrote?" she choked out at the still form in front of her, her fisted hand waving the silver locket in the rain accusingly at him.  "You said you'll always be with me, in spirit but not in body…you said you would be with me…  You liar…I waited, but you didn't come back…you liar…

"You broke your promise already…"

Cradling the still form of her friend in her lap, she leaned down, closing his haunted, unseeing blue eyes that was still staring at the empty air and gave him a last hug, holding him close and ignoring the blood on his forehead matted wetly against her cheek…  Knowing this was goodbye, she mustered up what little was left of her courage and she kissed him for the first time, the only time, and the very last time; trying to ignore that his lips were cold and clammy and wet and that he didn't kiss her back…

The slow rain drumming down on the trio below hissed on the cement as it landed, and the mourning wind breezing by swallowed her whispered words:

"I love you…Shinichi…"

As if in reply, the echo of long ago happy memories sprung up, as fresh as the after-rain air around them, reminding them of younger times, happier times, when a promise made could actually be kept…

And if one listened carefully, the words of then were carefully repeated now…

Drowned out by the howl of the wind and the steady pattering of the rain, a desperate, almost spectral cry was unheard as it repeated a promise long ago made, a final promise in the sea of broken promises:

Wait for me…I promise I'll come back…

The unspoken word of 'somehow' was blithely ignored.

grimace Don't shoot me, don't shoot me…at least they kissed, right? Despite the fact that one of the kisser is a corpse… sweatdrop Okay, okay, so it's not a happy ending. But since Gosho most likely WILL do a happy ending, I figured I might as well write this just to have a different view on things…besides, if anything, it's REALISTIC. If the Black Organization is as powerful as it was described, no matter how smart they are, I don't think even Kaito, Shinichi, AND Heiji all working together can take them down just like that, never mind the fact that Kaito's on the opposite end of the law in Shinichi and Heiji's eyes…

But yeah. And if you STILL want to kill me, well then…the sequel won't come out. Yes that wasn't a typo; I have a sequel planned and in the making. ~_^ So don't kill me just yet.

BIG thanks to Apparition for the letter; it was based off your fic, Breaking Point, and I apologize for the last bit – it sounded so RIGHT I couldn't resist using it – but the credit for thinking up those lines belongs to Apparition; and if you feel that I plagiarized your work, please just SAY so and I'll change it immediately. I just thought that it sounded perfect, and I couldn't do any better if I tried. But really…do say so if you don't like it.

Magik,Loquacious, Icka, Ysabet, Tabbycat – all beta-readers, and all helpful. Special thanks to Loquacious for giving me the idea of where to put the red thread, and special thanks to Ysabet as well for screening the grammar errors outta this thing—I'm sure I had plenty. (See Ysabet, I didn't kill you! ^_^)

The fact that I was reading WWI stuff when I thought of this probably was the basis why I had this kind of idea. Well, at least I'm not killing Shinichi off completely – as the summary of this said, "the dead don't always rest". And Shinichi's always been restless…

So I'll leave you to muse that over while I leave here, eh? slinks away Give me some comments though, okay?