DISCLAIMER: Don't own the characters, am borrowing them without permission. Do not post without consent. For entertainment only.

And who says I can't try Ai fic?

Comments appreciated.



She sat in the dark, unmoving. Around her the air was still and heavy, as if weighted down by the very thickness of the night. It was such a black night that, had she been the type to stargaze, she would have noticed the lack of bright pinpoints in the sky. But she was not, and she did not. She sat on her still-made bed and waited.

She pointlessly blinked her unseeing eyes in the silence, straining to hear any movement that was not her own. It was very late; she was unsure how late, exactly, but it didn't matter very much. Both of her -- housemates? landlords? -- acquaintances were not the kind to enjoy staying up late, and she had heard the sounds of their going to bed long ago. But in caution (she could never rid herself of her caution) she waited until she thought at least an additional hour had passed before she rose silently, careful to move slowly so the bedsprings or floorboards did not creak in protest of her shifting weight. Her hands reached out blindly. Her fingertips touched the handle of a suitcase and wrapped themselves around it. Once again she stopped to listen and heard nothing. She relaxed slightly in self-congratulation: she was good at silence. Like most skills it was both a gift and a curse. There had been many, many times where she had longed to speak out and her natural habit had kept her silent.

That was a partial lie. But it was easier to blame unsaid words than people who had done her no harm.

She eased the door open confidently; she had oiled the hinges that morning. Taking careful, well-placed steps she crossed the hallway, avoiding the spots she knew tended to groan. She only paused once, outside their bedroom door. The light was off in their room. She lightly touched the door and, in finding that it was soundly closed, allowed herself to obey impulse. She pressed her ear against the door with bated breath.

She could hear his soft snores through the wood. He always denied the fact that he snored, but she knew he snored when he slept deeply. She felt a tremor of relief mixed with faint -- she refused to let it be anything but faint -- disappointment and continued down the hallway to the staircase.

The staircase was easier than the hallway; only one step creaked, and she stepped over it without a problem. From the bottom of the stairs she could squint and find in the dark the darker lines that made the front door, and with a quiet, unconscious desperation she lightly crossed the sitting room in what felt like mere seconds.

"Please don't go yet."

The female voice was low and requesting, soft enough to melt into the night and strong enough to carry across the sitting room. She could recognize the voice without trying. Instead of obeying the appeal, however, she grasped the doorknob in something close to rage and turned it so viciously that the door caught and refused to open. Several phrases, all of which would have shocked the woman on the sitting room sofa, drifted through her mind.

"Please don't go yet," the voice said again, softer this time. "Ai-chan --"

"There is no Ai Haibara," she said curtly. Unlike the other, her voice cut the darkness to ribbons. "She was a creation, a figment. She no longer exists."

"She was a real person," the voice said, more firmly. "I knew her."

And at that, she felt such a surge of pure loss and dislike that she fell silent. She heard the small click of a lamp being turned on, and a soft glow permeated the sitting room, though it did not stretch far enough to reach the front door. Ran Kudo sat in a loveseat by the dim lamp, eyes bright and mouth set.

"Don't leave, Shiho-san," Ran pleaded gently. "Not now. Shinichi will be so disappointed if you're not here when the baby's born. He thought you might leave tonight, and he wanted to stay up himself and ask you to stay."

"He's sleeping," she slipped, and cursed herself instantly.

"I made him promise not to wait up for you," Ran said slowly. "I told him I would do it."

"Wanted a girl-to-girl chat?" she said coldly.

"I can understand if you resent me, though I know you don't hate me, exactly, " Ran continued. "You're my friend, and you're his friend too."

As Ran gazed at her, Shiho Miyano felt the strength, the sympathy, and the knowledge in the very-pregnant woman's look. Something tightened in her throat.

Ran suddenly smiled, the smile she used for old friends, undemanding and reassuring.

"No apologies. None taken, none given. None deserved by anyone."

And as Shiho yanked open the front door and navigated the front walk in the dark, her heart racing in confusion and comprehension, her hands shoving the suitcase in the backseat of the old car she had bought a month ago with this one journey in mind, her fingers twisting the key in the ignition and her foot pressing down on the gas pedal, Ran Kudo rose from the sitting room loveseat, stood by the window, and watched the car vanish down the street. She stood there until she felt a warm presence press against her back and an arm snake around her waist to rest protectively on her round belly.

"How long were you listening?" she asked.

Shinichi Kudo coughed slightly in embarrassment. "Heard every word."

"She'll come back, won't she?"

"I hope so. Maybe eventually. As you said, we are her friends after all."

"I couldn't let her leave without making sure she knew. Though I wish she would have stayed." Ran sighed. "Poor Ai."

"She's Shiho now," Shinichi reminded her.

"She's still Ai to me."

"I could have told her myself," Shinichi said quietly. "It might have been better if I had done it myself."

Ran shook her head. "No. It's better this way. She never told you a thing, it would have been wrong for you to bring up what only she has the right to tell you."

They stood in silence for a moment longer, and then the two went back upstairs to bed.

Began/Completed: July 11, 2003