@_@ Okay, since I'll get brutally murdered if I don't produce a sequel...I decided to give it my best effort. The morbidity continues; though this doesn't have the same "voice" as a 4 AM fanfic, obviously. It's my lame attempt to follow up a 4 AM fanfic, and is therefore inferior. The usual disclaimers apply, Detective Conan characters are the property of Gosho Aoyama, etc. Song credits: "Stronger Than I Am," by LeeAnn Womack (gender words are switched to fit, sorry).

Here we go again...

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Stronger Than I Am
by Becky Tailweaver

"Kaachan! Kaachan! Wake up, it's your birthday!"


Mouri Ran was startled awake by the little boy that practically flew in to land with a terrific boing! on her bed. As she managed to bring herself more or less alert, her sleep-filled eyes met the eager, very awake ones of her son, Yuuichi. Then she glanced at her nightstand and caught sight of the time.

"Yuu-chan...honey...it's a little bit early to be..." Much as I love you, sweetheart, six o'clock is way too early for celebrations.

"But it's your birthday!" the child persisted, as if that patent fact made it any less unbearably early.

"Yes, sweetie, it's my birthday..." With a sigh, she focused beyond her son, where a sleepy-eyed, sheepish-looking Conan was standing pajama-clad in her doorway, having obviously tried to run the toddler down before her restful sleep was interrupted. "Good morning, Conan-kun."

"'Morning, Ran-neechan," the boy replied with a stifled yawn. "Sorry 'bout this--I tried to catch him before he got here, but..."

"It's alright," Ran chuckled, ruffling Yuuichi's hair as he giggled. "It's no worse than Christmas."

Yuuichi grinned up at her. "I wanted to make you breakfast first but Niichan said we couldn't 'cause I don't know how an' he can't reach the cupboards so we didn't an' I came here instead..."

Laughing at his enthusiasm, Ran pulled him close and kissed the top of his head. "Thanks for the thought, Yuu-chan. It's okay; we'll all make breakfast together--how's that? I'll show you how to cook it and I'll even help Conan-kun reach the cupboards."

Across the room, Conan blushed and muttered something embarassed-sounding.

"Yaaay!" Yuuichi bounced a bit, and Ran giggled with him.

"Right--that's settled," she announced. "You two still have school so you'd better get dressed--go with Conan-kun, Yuu-chan. I'll get breakfast started and then you can help me."

"Okay!" With a grin that could have split his face, Yuuichi pounced off the bed and allowed the older boy to herd him toward the bedroom they shared. She heard the soft murmer of Conan's quiet voice gently directing Yuuichi to begin their morning routine, just like they did every school day. With a sigh and a soft smile, she stretched and pulled herself out of bed, yawning widely as she closed her door and set about getting dressed herself.

Things around here haven't changed much;
It's all pretty much the same stuff,
Day after day.
The only thing that keeps me going
Seems to be our baby boy I'm trying to raise.
He's my life, my morning angel;
Always seems to find the rainbow
After the rain.
Lately he's so busy growing,
I don't even think he knows you've gone away.

In a few minutes she was in the kitchen, humming softly to herself as she began to take down the breakfast dishes and heat up the stove. Shortly her two boys would reappear, dressed and ready to fight over the bathroom--though Yuuichi usually won their good-natured little spats. Conan-kun didn't seem to have it in him to deny his ototo-chan anything.

Really, the boy was an absolute godsend. Sure, he was a bit odd--somewhat standoffish, a mystery nut, and strangely mature for his age--but when it came to helping her out with Yuuichi...

I don't know what I would've done without him.

Conan absolutely adored Yuuichi; she could be stone blind and still see it. She didn't know of any other twelve-year-old boy who was so good with small children, her son in particular; even the other kids, the self-proclaimed and still-active Shonen Tantei, couldn't put up with him for so long. They often ribbed their somber young friend about dragging his "little brother" around with them all the time and slowing them down.

It wasn't that Conan's friends disliked Yuuichi; on the contrary, they were quite fond of him in their own childish ways. Ayumi-chan, Mitsuhiko-kun, and Genta-kun saw Yuuichi as their small team mascot--that is, until they got tired of him and he became their exasperating tagalong. But Conan always had time for Yuuichi, even risking his friends' displeasure to include the small boy in their activities.

Conan was so patient with Yuuichi, enduring the child's inexhaustible energy and endless curiosity with remarkable tolerance and calm for a boy his age. He would listen to Yuu-chan chatter nonstop about some subject of interest, unruffled, and answer innumerable questions about this or that--everything from a program on TV to something seen out the window of the car. He took the child's thoughts and opinions as seriously as he did anyone else's, and honestly seemed to enjoy their constant interaction; the two would spend hours poring over puzzles and brainteaser games, even on sunny days when other children would rather be outside. And when Yuuichi did want to go out, Conan was always ready for a trip to the playground or a game of soccer.

There was no one Yuu-chan would rather spend time with--and no one Ran trusted more to be looking after him. Conan was smart, watchful, and conscientious, and she knew he could take care of himself and Yuuichi reliably and well; even at his young age, he had risen to and exceeded her expectations with every new responsibility she set on him--sometimes by sheer necessity. Even amidst the roughest-looking horseplay, he was very careful with the younger boy, showing more caution than even the considerate Mitsuhiko when the children got to roughousing together. He knew how to keep Yuu-chan safe and in-hand while they accompanied her father on his various jobs, even when the toddler insisted on being a detective and getting into everything. His Touchan, Jiichan, and Niichan were all detectives, so he wanted to be one too, despite Ran's objections; of course, he just had to inherit that particularly troublesome little trait from Shinichi. And being around his Niichan--who was still exactly the same way--could only make it worse. But despite his own propensity for nosiness and great love for mysteries, Conan was somehow able to teach and guide Yuuichi in the Way of the Tantei without letting him get too close to bloody corpses and half-maddened murderers. No matter what the situation, it seemed, Yuuichi was always his first concern--even at the expense of his participation in solving the case.

She didn't think she could've gotten through it all without his help. As if trying to fill in for Shinichi's absence, Conan had always been at her side, offering his assistance without hesitation. Even if there were some things she wouldn't--and couldn't--let such a young child do, that never stopped him from trying. He was always with her, not quite underfoot--instead, somehow reassuring. He was there for the calm moments--quiet times when he would just want to sit with her as she nursed the baby--and there for the awful ones as well--appearing at her bedroom door with those soulful eyes, attempting to offer what support he could, in the middle of the night as her infant son cried and cried and she couldn't get him to stop. He was always with her as she tried everything she'd been taught--feeding, burping, changing, and more--and stayed with her even if she was driven to tears from her lack of success and ended up waking her mother for help.

Even when, in tiredness and fear and frustration, she lost her temper and treated him terribly, saying horrible snappish things, he would never leave her to bear it alone. He would silently forgive her and continue to stay with her, no matter how long it took, and even if he was ordered back to bed by the adults she would catch a glimpse of him from around a corner or through a crack in a door--still with her, even if he wasn't right beside her.

He had always seemed to know somehow if the baby fussed, attentive in a way she couldn't understand, as if he were somehow attuned to the sound of Yuu-chan's voice. Sometimes during those early weeks, when she was so exhausted that it hurt and she could barely keep her eyes open even during the day, he would hear Yuu-chan's whimpers before she did--even from the next room. At those times she would gradually awaken in the night to find him clambered up on the side of the crib, leaning over the rails and whispering softly to an infant he was too small to safely pick up himself. His quiet childish voice was almost a spoken lullaby, low and soothing, his touch as gentle as a song--and often, Yuuichi's cries would stop, and she could gratefully drift back into sleep. Conan seemed tireless when it came to Yuu-chan; he would be there at any hour of the morning or night, do anything she asked of him--and never missed a chance to hold the baby if she would let him.

Perhaps it was because Conan was also an only child and had longed for a little brother or sister himself, but the way he cared for Yuuichi never failed to amaze her; sometimes, his solicitude and concern was so great she thought it might even outstrip her own. From from the moment her unusual young charge had laid eyes on the infant Yuuichi--and perhaps even before then--she had gotten a sense that Conan's feelings for the child ran deeper than any of them could know. Conan loved Yuuichi. And that love was returned in equal measure by the bright little toddler, marking a special bond between them that even she couldn't see the full extent of.

Even if Yuuichi's father was nothing but a voice on the telephone, the boy didn't seem to suffer too badly from his absence. Yuu-chan clung to the promise of Shinichi's return--even more stolidly than she, it seemed at times--but even when Touchan failed time and again to come home to them, he didn't ever seem to grieve; he was sad, but he still had Niichan as his playmate, role model, and surrogate parent.

And she had to admit that Niichan was doing a damn fine job of filling Shinichi's shoes.

He finally learned to say goodbye,
He's sleeping through the night,
He don't wake up crying.
And he's walking on his own;
He don't need no one
Holding to his hand,
And I hate to admit
He's stronger than I am.

Ran sighed and smiled; there went the morning bathroom scuffle, both of them jockeying for position at the sink. She could hear Conan's voice, arguing playfully but never growing impatient, never losing his temper. As far as she could remember, he had never raised his voice in anger at the boy; even if he did shout, it was in serious warning only when Yuuichi was about to put himself in danger. Her son was more intelligent than many children twice his age, speaking and even reading incredibly young--but he was still a child, and still had much to learn.

It was often astonishing to watch Conan shepherding Yuuichi. He had remarkable authority, and despite their occasional little altercations, many of them even half-playful, the older boy never lost control; even if Yuuichi had flown into a fine fit of temper and stubbornness, a simple, softly-spoken admonishment was enough to make him subside--at least to the point of pouting silence. Conan did not hesitate to reproach the child if he overstepped his boundaries--and Yuuichi would always quickly correct himself at a stern word from his Niichan.

Such as he was doing right now, Ran observed, watching her energetic son make a valiant effort to settle down and walk into the kitchen as Conan amusedly warned him to slow down.

"I see you both made it in one piece," she greeted them, already at work with the mixing bowls. "I thought we should do pancakes this morning, since it's nice and simple. Just pour and flip." Even Conan-kun couldn't mess up pancakes.

Yuuichi was immediately at her side. "Can I do it, Kaachan? Can I?"

"Of course you can! I'm just stirring it together now, so you can help when I start to cook them. Conan-kun, would you go get a stool?"


While he was gone, Yuu-chan bounced around her knees and crowed about how he was going to get to cook pancakes for his Kaachan. The moment Conan returned, Yuuichi practically attacked him for the stool, and within a minute Ran was guiding her son's hands over the electric griddle with the ladle of batter and the spatula. When she decided to put together a bowl of fruit to go with the pancakes, all it took was a glance at Conan; in immediate understanding he took over with Yuu-chan, just as careful as she had been.

Sometimes it was hard not to just watch them, she reflected as she started cutting up the melon. Conan's patience and gentleness, even with the simplest things, at times made her throat tighten with the love she saw there. He had always been strange, this skinny little four-eyed mystery-loving child her family had taken in--well, at least he seemed to be filling out his thin frame now that he'd put on a bit of height. Or perhaps special as more the word for him. And having Yuuichi around seemed to have brought out something in the unusual boy--something that she'd never seen in any young preteen; an impossible depth, of which she couldn't make out the bottom.

It could be seen in the littlest things--even now, in the way Conan smiled at Yuuichi, just the simple way his hand rested against the child's back as he spoke softly to him, the way his fingers wrapped around the small wrist to guide him. She could remember a thousand little things like that; just moments, just touches, like the way he put Yuu-chan to bed last night, fingers brushing through the little boy's bangs with aching, infinite tenderness that made her catch her breath--and he pulled back almost guiltily when he realized she was there...



The soft voice pulled her out of the circle of adults around her, as she began to realize that it had been calling her name for a while now--only to be ignored as she smiled and laughed and shared and celebrated with her family and friends. Her parents, Sonoko, the Kudos...everyone was tearful and happy, both sets of parents were hugging each other, Sonoko was gushing beside her...

And then she realized that Conan had been all but forgotten in the frenzy.


His wide blue eyes were peering at her over the edge of her bed, full of tiredness and happiness and something else--something she couldn't name. Suddenly she felt awful for having forgotten him, and wondered how long he had been tagging along the outside of their small group--if he had been trod upon by doctors and nurses, or lost in the hallways between Delivery and the Maternity Ward.

"Conan-kun! I'm so sorry...!"

"Ran-neechan...can I...can I please...hold him?" His voice was a small quaver, uncertain and almost desperate.

Mrs. Kudo suddenly buried her face in her husband's shoulder. Ran's own mother smiled indulgently, while Kogoro grumbled softly. "Might as well, boy--but you better be sitting down." And without hesitation he scooped Conan up and set him on the bed beside her.

"Be careful," she told him as she lifted the newborn into his arms, noting that his small hands were trembling. "Mind his head, and hold him close."

The little boy tried to do exactly as she said, seemingly struck speechless, holding the infant close to his chest and doing his best to do it right. Smiling, Ran leaned back on her pillows to watch him as he stared down at the child--until she saw the expression on his face.

It was a smile, and more than a smile--and there were tears on his cheeks.


There was something in his eyes that she couldn't name--something deep and painful and joyful and...so completely different from anything she'd ever seen from him that she couldn't even speak. It almost seemed like he was laughing, but the sound wasn't quite laughter, and though there were tears spilling from his eyes like a river, the sounds weren't sobs either. She couldn't tell if he was laughing or crying or both.

She didn't understand...but it was so poignant and so precious that she couldn't say anything, couldn't bear to break it. She just let Conan hold the baby, watching, feeling the beginnings of something much deeper...

She could hear the voices of her parents in the next room; apparently the smells of breakfast had roused them from sleep, even as early as it was. "Good morning!" she called cheerfully, spotting her mother making her way to the bathroom in her robe.

"Wasn't this supposed to be your breakfast in bed?" her father rumbled, poking his head in the door.

"Apparently yes, since it's my birthday," Ran replied sardonically, with a meaningful glance at the boys working the griddle. "But we couldn't quite pull off the 'surprise breakfast in bed' part, since a few of us can't quite handle the kitchen by ourselves yet."

Conan snorted rather indignantly.

"I'm makin' Kaachan pancakes!" Yuuichi announced proudly. "You can have some after her, Jiichan."

Kogoro harrumphed loudly. "Whatever, so long as it's soon. You--boy--" He directed his usual gruffness at Conan. "Don't let him burn himself, y'hear?"

"I won't, Ojisan," Conan replied with practiced quiescence, never taking his eyes from the task at hand.

Ran chuckled to herself as her father withdrew to commence dressing. Conan hardly batted an eye at him any more; rarely now did he do anything that warranted a head-thwapping, and even if he did, he was quick enough that a long-practiced duck would get him out of it. Not to mention Yuuichi would chew him out for hitting his Niichan.

With a little more bustling and a little more work, breakfast was soon ready and the table set. Yuuichi proudly carried forth his current magnum opus, an enormous, steaming plate of pancakes made with much love and effort. Conan was right beside him at each step, helping to balance the large platter just enough that Yuuichi could carry it all by himself...


"Ran-neechan! Ran-neechan! You gotta hurry--quick, look!" Conan's urgent voice jolted her with a sudden feeling of terror, so rarely did he sound that excited. Had something happened? In a rush she hurtled to the kitchen door, eyes wide--to stare in disbelief at what was happening in the center of the living room floor.

Yuuichi was walking.

An enormous smile on his sweet little face, his chubby arms waving for balance, her son was taking short, wobbly steps across the carpet, each one under his own power. Conan was right beside him, step by step, one hand ready to catch him should he fall.


Yuuichi spotted her and cooed, attempting to alter his direction toward her. He stumbled, and Conan was there--a gentle hand, a soft nudge, and Yuu-chan was upright again and once more walking alone, under Conan's watchful gaze.

"Look!" the boy said again, meeting her eyes with a grin filled with so much joy and amazement and pride that it took her breath away again, just like it had before, when he had smiled as Yuu-chan stood up for the first time...

"Is it good, Kaachan? Is it good? Do you like it?"

Yuuichi practically leaned over the table to wait for her reaction as she chewed her first bite, wide blue eyes anxious to know the final verdict. Ran chewed her bite slowly and thoughtfully, making a great show of taste-testing this very important pancake. Across from her, Conan's eyes twinkled with silent merriment, fully understanding the weight of her opinion in the matter.

Ran swallowed, then cleared her mouth with a sip of juice. "This pancake, Yuuichi..." She thought perhaps he might fall into his own plate, he was waiting so expectantly for her word. "...is excellent."

"Yaaaay!" Relieved, Yuu-chan sat back down on his cushion--then looked around the table. "Okay, now everybody can eat."

The others burst out laughing, heartily digging into the delicious food. "See?" Conan said, nudging Yuuichi. "I told you she'd like it."

Yuuichi grinned a syrup-coated grin at him and giggled. They all went on with their meal, amidst the pleasant chatter of conversation and the warmth of family.

"I'll pick up the cake and the party streamers after work today," Eri announced.

"Does that mean I'm getting the you-know-what?" her husband asked in his usual put-out manner.

"Yes, you are."

"Conan-kun, I'll pick up Yuu-chan after school today like usual," Ran said.

"Okay. When I get back I'll keep him out of your hair so you and the folks can get the party set up."

"Don't let Genta-tachi talk you into staying out late, young man," Eri scolded. "We expect you on time this afternoon."

"Yes ma'am." Conan hunched his shoulders in proper preteen fashion and continued eating.

"And you gotta be here 'cause Touchan's coming too," Yuuichi announced--and only Ran saw Conan's expression darken. "Touchan's coming to the party and we'll all have cake an' ice cream together!"

"Yuu-chan, honey..." Ran opened her mouth to explain.

"He's not coming," Conan said abruptly, his voice low and rough and almost hateful. "Shinichi-niichan's a baka and a liar. He won't come--"

"Don't you say that!" Yuuichi's outburst startled everyone at the table--most of all Conan, who looked suddenly as if the boy had physically thrown something at him. The toddler was on his feet and practically shouting, more upset than he'd been in a good while--and angry with his Niichan, which almost never happened. "Don't you ever say that! My Touchan's not a baka! You don't know him--you never talk to him! He's the best in the world! He said he's gonna try to come and maybe if he doesn't come today he'll come tomorrow! He will come--he promised!"

It was quite a mouthful for someone only three years old--but the emotion behind it was raw and sharp, and not for a second did Yuuichi back down. He looked so much like Shinichi just then that it made Ran's breath catch almost painfully; the keen blue gaze, the intensity and determination...even Conan stared in some kind of shock at the childish glare directed at him, his mouth working silently.

"Yuu-chan..." she whispered. Such faith...and what would happen when he grew older, and began to realize that his hopes would always be shattered...?

Conan swallowed hard, then suddenly stood up and strode away from the table, disappearing into his bedrom and shutting the door firmly behind him. Ran stared after him, even as Yuuichi seemed to wilt at the older boy's departure.

A faint sniffle alerted Ran to the fact that Yuuichi was starting to cry. "Yuu-chan...! Oh, there there, sweetie, I'm sure he didn't mean it..." She got up hurriedly to go to him, pulling him into her lap and cradling him as her parents looked on uncomfortably.

"I shouldn't yell at Niichan," the small boy said shakily, making a valiant effort not to dissolve into tears. "He's the best niichan in the world. But he shouldn't say that."

"No, he shouldn't. But, Yuu-chan...I think he misses Shinichi too, and he wants us to be happy..."

"Touchan is coming back. He said he loves us and he's coming back. He said so, Kaachan! It might be today."

"Yuu-chan...he might come back..."

"I love Touchan! He is coming!" Yuuichi wiped his eyes on one sleeve and looked up at her. "So Niichan shouldn't say those things. Touchan an' Niichan should be friends too."

"Don't be mad at him, Yuu-chan." He has such faith in Shinichi, even though he's never even seen him. He's never given up, even when I almost have...

"I'm not!" The child offered her a brilliant--if slightly lopsided--boyish smile. "I'm not mad at Niichan. Even Niichan loses his temper sometimes."

He ain't cracking under pressure;
First one step and then another
He goes along.
And if he falls and skins his knee,
He cries awhile, and smiles at me,
And just goes on.
So many things that he can teach me,
Full of life and so completely innocent.
He still says he loves his daddy,
Goes on just like nothing happened;
Forgives and forgets.

Ran had to laugh; he said it as if Conan-kun getting angry was like the moon turning blue--rare and near-impossible. "Then you should tell him that when he calms down," she said quietly. "It'll make him feel better."

Yuuichi smiled again. "I will!"

Eventually breakfast resumed, with everyone back in their original places, feathers smoothed once again. Pleasant morning chatter continued, and though everyone was smiling and the incident forgotten, Conan did not reappear.

With Yuuichi generously giving out hugs of farewell, Ran saw her parents to the door and off to work--Eri to the car to head out to her law firm, Kogoro down the stairs to his office. Yuu-chan made sure to remind them to come home as soon as they were done, or they'd miss Kaachan's birthday.

Laughing, Ran scooped him up to snuggle him and headed inside to get him ready for school. Since Conan was still in the bedroom and she didn't feel she should press him, she abandoned any attempt at getting Yuu-chan's jacket and instead had him gather his school things into his small backpack, smiling as she reminded him not to leave his pencil box at home this time. She watched him skitter about collecting his things, cheerful as always and especially happy today, with her birthday party coming--and the promise of his father's return.

Shinichi, how could you do this to him? she railed silently, never for a moment letting a frown touch her face. How could you promise him this again, when you know you're not going to come home today?

And yet despite the broken promises, Yuuichi still believed in his father--even more strongly, it seemed, than Ran herself did. Ever since he had been able to listen to the faceless voice on the phone and coo and giggle into the receiver, Yuu-chan had faith in his father. He loved unconditionally a man who was invisble to him, whose face he had never even seen except for Ran's few high school photos of him.

Even when Ran began to wonder if Shinichi had stopped loving her, if he was just calling for Yuuichi's sake because he felt guilty about their one-time, mutual loss of control, her son would constantly remind her that Touchan loved them, and he was coming home because he said so.

My little boy...he's still too young to see it; he can't understand yet that there's a world outside our home filled with lies and hurt and broken promises. And Shinichi...

Shinichi wouldn't lie to her, when he believed so strongly in the truth...would he? When he said he loved her and their son, when he said he was trying his hardest to return...was it really what he felt, or was he just saying that to try to make her feel better?

Yet...sometimes...if she picked up the extension to listen to Shinichi talk to Yuu-chan, there was always something in his voice--a roughness, a depth of emotion she couldn't measure, and it made her believe that Shinichi loved his son more than anyone or anything in the world.

And Yuuichi loved his father, this ghost-voice on the telephone, with the same intensity and devotion that he loved his Niichan--even often comparing the two to each other; the way they called him "scamp" and "Yuu-kun," the way they really listened to him, the way they always believed what he said. He loved Shinichi almost more than he adored Conan, a kind of childish idolization made stronger by Shinichi's absence. Yuu-chan had never really met Shinichi, she mused wryly, so he couldn't know that his father was as mortal and human and fault-filled as the rest of them.

Yuuichi loved his father. And Shinichi loved Yuu-chan--that much was apparent whenever she heard his breath catch at the sound of his son's voice in the background, when she heard his voice break as he said he wished so much that he could be there...

And hearing this, she would start to feel like she could believe in him again.

Ran sat beside her son on the floor as he entertained himself with the mystery book Conan had brought him yesterday. They had a while before it was time to leave for school, and Conan hadn't reappeared yet, so she had encouraged him to find something quiet to do while they waited.

Almost unconsciously, she reached out to touch his hair, fingers curling through the silky locks. Yuuichi resembled his father so much that she sometimes wondered if she'd had any part in him at all; Yuu-chan's deep blue eyes had come straight from Shinichi, as well as his sweet childish face--which grew more like his father's every day. His hair fell over his eyes in the same unruly tousle of bangs, though it seemed to lack the cowlicks that made his father's stick up in odd places. At least he had gotten a few things from her, one of them being softer, smoother hair than Shinichi's--as well as her much darker color, a deep brown that was almost black.

He also had much of Shinichi's personality--his keen eye and matchless intelligence, as well as his unswerving determination. Though when she thought of her son's stubbornness, she realized perhaps she'd given him that piece of herself as well--though it wasn't always the best part of her. Shinichi was stubborn too, but his temper was something rarely seen, slow to build to a peak and almost invisible until it really did break open--at which point it could become an icy-cold explosion, intense and almost frightening. Her own was quick and flame-hot, volatile--but also quick to cool and evaporate into nothing once again. Yuuichi was more like her in that regard--he could be snappish and hot-tempered at times, but it always melted away in the end and he forgave as quickly as he could get angry.

Just like he always forgave that tantei no baka he called Touchan...

He finally learned to say goodbye,
He's sleeping through the night,
He don't wake up crying.
And he's walking on his own;
He don't need no one
Holding to his hand,
And I hate to admit
He's stronger than I am.

Ran tried and tried to be strong--for Conan's sake, for her son's sake. She would get her defenses back up, her emotions under control, the pieces of her broken heart back together--and then Shinichi would call again and everything would fall apart as she was wrenchingly reminded of how much she loved him. Even when she tried and tried to put him out of her heart and out of her life, she couldn't--and she would look at Yuu-chan or hear Shinichi's voice and remember. Her dreams would be haunted by him again, and she would wake up sobbing in the middle of the night. She would see him even more clearly in their three-year old son, and it would only make her heart hurt more. She would wish a thousand times again that he was home with them.

After everyone had gone to bed last night, she had cried for hours, hidden under her covers.

But Yuuichi...he was a wonderful, extraordinary, amazing child. His faith in Shinichi constantly proved to be much greater than her own, even if he was sad that his Touchan didn't return, again and again. Sometimes he would even cry, but he never stopped believing that Shinichi was going to come home. And yet when he still didn't return, the boy didn't fall apart the way she did. He simply believed, and kept believing, in tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

Everyone seemed to be getting by just fine; her mother hadn't seen Shinichi since he was a small boy, her father had never liked him, Conan-kun hardly talked about him any more--even Shinichi himself seemed to be able to live without her. Yuuichi was happy too--he had his Kaachan and his Niichan, and though he would be overjoyed if Touchan returned, he could also survive without him.

Not like Ran; after all this time, she still died a little more every day that Shinichi was gone.

"Kaachan? It's almost time to leave for school."

Yuuichi's slightly-worried voice broke through her veil of anguished reminiscence, bringing her back to the present and back to the little boy looking concernedly up to her.

"Um, Niichan hasn't come back out yet," he observed with a glance at the door. "Kaachan?"

Taking a deep--if slightly shaky--breath, Ran smiled at her son and buried her pain in cheerfulness. "Don't worry, Yuu-chan, he won't let you be late for preschool." Conan was, if nothing else, entirely too responsible--even when he was throwing one of his silent little temper tantrums. "In fact, he should be coming out any minute--"

As if her words had been a magic spell, the door to the boys' bedroom swung open, and a somber-looking Conan stepped out, subdued and frowning. He was completely ready for school, uniform and all, bag in hand, heading silently for his shoes by the front door.

"Niichaaan!" Yuuichi cried gratefully, leaping away from Ran to dash at the older boy. Looking supremely startled, Conan had to drop his bookbag to catch Yuu-chan's flying hug--and still ended up on his rump on the carpet with an armload of repentant toddler in his lap.

"I'm sorry, Niichan! I'm really sorry I yelled at you!" Yuuichi babbled out hurriedly. "I'm not mad at you anymore and I'm really really sorry!"

Conan stared down at the small boy in what seemed like utter disbelief, a barely-hopeful surprise that changed his expression gradually to a look of sad, grateful relief and...something deeper and almost painful that was just a shadow Ran couldn't make out.

"I...I'm sorry too, Yuu-kun," Conan said, his voice strangely rough, one hand ruffling softly through Yuuichi's dark hair. "I shouldn't have talked that way about...about your Touchan. I guess I'm just...kind of...really mad at him."

"It's okay to be mad," Yuuichi replied with innocent, little-boy wisdom, gazing into his Niichan's identical blue eyes. "Everybody gets mad sometimes. You just hafta remember to say 'sorry' after you're done being mad. You told me that, Niichan."

A faint smile from Conan. "Yeah...I guess I did."

"An' we all miss Touchan," the toddler went on. "But he's gonna come back. Maybe not today, but maybe tomorrow. So I want you to be happy even if Touchan doesn't come today. 'Cause I love you too, Niichan."

Ran's breath caught at the earnest caring in her son's voice; no matter that he longed for his father, he wanted the other most important person in his life to be happy as well. And he had Shinichi's gift of making everything better somehow with just his presence, just a simple word...

The way Conan pulled Yuuichi into a tight hug surprised her, his eyes closed, his breaths slightly ragged, his face buried in the child's dark hair--an embrace so close you could hardly tell where one ended and the other began. And Yuuichi hugged him back, smiling blissfully in the knowledge that his Niichan was okay again and everything was the way it should be.

Then it seemed as if Conan remembered the time and her presence--glancing almost guiltily at her and gently disengaging himself from Yuuichi. "Okay, scamp, it's time to go. Run and get your jacket before we're late!" He gave the child a reassuring grin and sent him off with a pat on the back, pushing to his feet once again.

"Conan-kun..." Ran found herself on her feet as well, wondering if she should reach out to him.

He only turned to smile at her. "It's okay, Ran-neechan. Sorry for being a jerk earlier. I must be growing into a teenager," he said with a look of strange irony.

Swallowing back the concern and the wondering, Ran put on a miffed face. "I should think so," she responded mock-seriously. "You had poor Yuu-chan all worried about you!"

"I'll try not to let it happen again," he replied, expression almost unreadable though it was clear he was smiling.

"Got my jacket!" Yuuichi announced, bouncing into the room to scoop up his backpack. "Got my stuff too!"

Conan and Ran broke eye contact and turned to him. "Shoes, scamp!" Conan reminded him with a laugh, avoiding Ran's gaze. He followed Yuuichi to the door where they pulled on their shoes, Conan pausing to pick up his bag.

Ran came to the door to send them off, kissing Yuu-chan goodbye and ruffling Conan's hair, much to his grumbling embarassment. "Have a good day, you two," she said affectionately. "Yuu-chan, I'll be there to pick you up--and Conan-kun, I expect to see you home right after school. Love you both!"

"Bye, Kaachan!" Yuuichi waved with a brilliant grin as he trotted down the steps. "C'mon, Niichan, we're gonna be late!"

"Coming!" Conan turned back to her, just before heading downstairs. "Ran-neechan...Happy Birthday."

"Thank you, Conan-kun." She smiled at him--she just couldn't help it. She loved this sweet, strange/special, wonderful boy. "Now get going, you!"

"Bye!" With a short laugh, he jumped away down the stairs, hurrying after Yuuichi, and she could hear him calling the toddler. "Yuu-kun! Hey, wait up! You're not supposed to walk alone--come back here and gimme your hand, scamp...!"

Chuckling softly, she shut the door and stood for a moment in the empty house. As she usually did, she stepped to the front windows to watch the boys depart. They walked hand-in-hand, Conan smiling gently down at the bright-eyed, eagerly-chattering preschooler beside him. She watched until they disappeared around the distant corner, going off to another cheerful, ordinary day of school.

Abruptly Ran felt her eyes fill inexplicably with tears, a sudden loneliness striking her painfully to the core. Shinichi was gone; it still hurt as rawly as the last day she'd seen him, especially after his call. Even if she hid it from the others, she couldn't lie to herself; she longed for him with all her being, and it was agony to be so alone. Her one bright spot left was her precious young son, and how glad she was that he was healthy and happy.

Yuuichi was happy. They both loved Shinichi with all their hearts and missed him terribly, but Yuuichi was still surviving and thriving and happy. Even if she wasn't.

And really, that was all that mattered to her now.

He's just like his old man,
Stronger than I am.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


The tall woman wove through the morass of young children, smiling cheerfully at the happy little ones running to and fro, hurrying to their classes. It was a pleasant sight, all these promising futures that she was helping to shape; she had her own class of kindergarteners that would be waiting at nine o'clock sharp for her to impart her wisdom to them.

In her pocket, her cellphone rang. Half distracted, she fetched it out and pushed the button. "Moshi-moshi?"

"It's me."

She instantly recognized the low, almost growling voice, and stopped still in the hallway. "I told you never to call me here!"

"She's back in Tokyo."

"What?" Her eyes went wide. "Are you sure?"

"Positive. She was spotted at two locations."

"Do you have a lock on her?"

"Not yet," the voice replied, growing bloodthirsty, "but it's only a matter of time, now."

"Very well," she said, her eyes going both dark and glimmering. "You know what to do."

Without another word, the voice on the other end hung up. She smiled pleasantly, put her phone back in her pocket, and started walking once more. She didn't let her emotions show on her face; it would have frightened the children around her.

So, Sherry... she thought, her mental tones predatory and cold. Once again, it begins.