DISCLAIMER: Meitantei Conan (c) Gosho Aoyama. Batman: The Animated Series (c) Warner Bros. More Conan than Batman, just because I know Conan better. The hammering together of two completely unrelated series in the following story (c) myself and the mini-Jokers cackling in my brain.
This takes place around volume 38 of the Conan manga. I have no idea where in the Batman timeline this fits, so... alternate universe, probably. I only know basics from the comics, so my knowledge will be from the series. The order of names will tend to switch around, depending on the speaker.
I've never been on an exchange. Hello, creative license!
At Tokyo International Airport, travelers were lugging their baggage down halls to train terminals, air terminals, bus terminals. Planes were taking off and landing in a torrent of noise. Announcements were called with no small bit of static over the intercom system, in a multitude of languages. It was a hectic and charged atmosphere.
A young woman of seventeen waited in a metal chair in the airline lounge, one large suitcase and one smaller one beside her. She pushed back her brown hair out of her eyes, then turned to the little boy nearby, who was impatiently leaning against one of the giant windows, squinting in the early morning sunlight.
"You don't want to sit down, Conan-kun?"
The boy shoved his overlarge glasses further up the bridge of his nose. "I'm okay, Ran-neechan."
Ran checked her watch worriedly. "Hattori-kun and Kazuha-chan are very late. The plane leaves in half an hour, and they have the tickets --"
"I already said I was sorry! How many times must I apologize? A million?"
"Well who was the one who just HAD to go back and get her hair ribbons, just HAD to?"
"And who was the one who just HAPPENED to forget where he left the plane tickets?"
"That was an accident!"
"A pretty dumb accident! Who doesn't check plane tickets?!"
"And who doesn't pack properly?!"
A boy and a girl were rolling luggage trolleys into the airline lounge, arguing heatedly, the girl's ponytail swishing the air in distaste and the boy's dark skin a flushed red. At the sight of Ran and Conan, both stopped yelling in mid-sentence and laughed embarrassedly.
"You're late," Conan said tersely. Ran shot him a Look, then rose smiling.
"Ran-chan!" the other girl squealed. "And Conan-kun!"
"Ku -- Conan-kun," Heiji gritted. "Neechan. What's up?"
"The plane in about half an hour," Conan replied, in a cute tone. "Shouldn't we get on it, Heiji-niichan?"
"We're going to America! I'm so glad you could come with us!" Kazuha said brightly.
"It really is wonderful, Heiji winning that sponsored exchange-student trip," Ran agreed. "Thank you for inviting us."
"He wasn't supposed to win at first," Kazuha said wickedly. "The original winner was Ku --"
"THANK YOU, neechan!" Heiji interrupted loudly, looking embarrassed. "Glad you and the kid could make it. It wouldn't be as fun with only Kazuha; all she does on trips is shop."
Conan frowned: I thought I got some kind of letter like that, but I thought it was junk...
"I thought your dad wouldn't let you come," Heiji said suspiciously.
Ran and Conan sweatdropped. "Uhh... He doesn't know," Ran said brightly. "Conan-kun and I left him a note."
"Who's sponsoring this trip anyway?" Conan asked, changing the subject. "And where are we going? New York?"
Heiji checked the ticket. "Wayne Enterprises in Gotham City. Definitely not New York."
Conan frowned more darkly. "That sounds familiar..."
"Where is Gotham City?" Kazuha interrupted. "What a weird name!"
"Some place in Eastern America." Heiji shrugged. "I'm supposed to 'build a bridge of cultural understanding' or something like that. It's all expense paid, so why not? Should be interesting, at least."
And with those fateful words, the three teenagers and one not-quite-a-child boarded the airplane for America.
The plane flight in itself was mostly uneventful, at least from Conan's point of view, as he fell asleep the moment his seatbelt strap was secured.
Heiji and Kazuha were not quite so lucky.
The minute the plane was in the air and his ears stopped ringing, Heiji unbuckled his safety belt. "That's a relief. Wearing those things is a real pain. Can't move at all."
"Heiji!" Kazuha hissed from her place in the seat beside him. "Put your seatbelt back on! The seatbelt signal is still on! What if we hit turbulence or something?"
Ran, sitting one row ahead, merely sighed. She'd learned long ago not to interfere in her friends' feuds.
Heiji rolled his eyes. "You worry too much, Kazuha." He rose from his seat, wincing as blood flowed back into his already-stiff legs. "Hitting turbulence at this low altitude is pretty rare."
"Fine! See who'll pick you up after you go flying down the aisle because we hit a wind shift and your seatbelt wasn't on. It won't be me!"
"I'd probably be the one saving you instead! And like I said, we're not going to -- OOF!"
The airplane jarred suddenly, shuddering violently. Heiji, losing his balance, slammed his knees into the meal tray tucked into the back of the seat in front of him. His legs bent automatically, and he fell straight down sideways into a startled Kazuha, his face muffled in her lap.
"This is the co-pilot speaking!" the plane's speakers crackled. "We're sorry for the disturbance; we've encountered unexpected turbulence. Please keep your seatbelts on until the signal is given that you may remove them. Thank you!" The message was then repeated in English.
Conan opened one sleepy eye. "What's going on?"
Ran laughed nervously. "Just go back to sleep, Conan-kun. Nobody's died -- at least," she said, glancing behind her, "not yet."
Conan jerked, now fully awake. "What'd he do now?"
"I -- I'll tell you when you're a bit older."
"GET! OFF! OF! ME! NOW!"
Conan looked at Ran, wide-eyed. "Whaaaat?"
"Kazuha-chan -- !" Ran pleaded.
"Okay, okay, I'm off you, calm down!"
Heiji straightened immediately, his face redder than usual, and sat back in his seat. He strapped his seatbelt on tightly and waved away the worried airline stewards and fellow passengers. "Kazuha, calm down! Stop yelling at me!"
Kazuha's face was almost magenta, and she was apoplectic in rage. "I tell you not to get up -- you never listen! -- you -- you fall on me -- like THAT -- and you want me not to yell at you -- oooh what do you expect? Praise?"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" He raised his hands in surrender. "I didn't do it on purpose! And it wasn't that bad, you're exaggerating!"
"How am I exaggerating?" Her tone was deadly. "Explain it to me."
Uh oh, Ran and Conan thought at once.
"Well, it's not like I'm really heavy," Heiji blundered. "I mean, all those times you fell on me --"
Kazuha looked ready to scream bloody murder. "So you're saying that I'm really heavy? That I'm FAT?"
"Yeah -- I mean, no!"
Conan settled into his seat again. That was a benefit of being smaller, he decided, cramped airline seats were significantly roomier. "I'm going back to sleep, Ran-neechan."
"Yes, Conan-kun," Ran said faintly. "That sounds like a good idea."
Several hours and cramped muscles later, the four young people stepped out of the plane and into the Gotham City International Airport arrivals terminal. It looked almost exactly the same as the Tokyo International Airport; it sported large windows and white linoleum floors, and messages blared over the speakers. There was only one major difference: all the signs and messages were in English.
Heiji and Conan were the only ones with more than a basic English vocabulary: Heiji had been studying English intensively on his own for years, and Conan was thankful that he had thought to name the States as his "birthplace" -- he could just shrug off his skills as those of a native speaker; he and Heiji maneuvered through the airport easily. Ran and Kazuha's English, on the other hand, was limited to what vocabulary and grammar they could remember from their school foreign language courses. Both were wide-eyed, especially Kazuha. She had never been in the States before, and she was dying to ask Heiji all sorts of questions about the meanings of signs and the small differences she noticed, but her stubbornness held out and she tried to figure it out herself.
"All right," Heiji said, after all the luggage had been collected and they were heading to the exits. "We've got everything? Good. There's supposed to be somebody here to pick us up --"
"Who said that?" Heiji asked, in surprisingly clear English. He spun around.
A well-dressed man in his mid-thirties stood by one of the revolving exit doors, several feet away. Heiji noticed impressively that the man was powerfully built, but radiated a sort of classy statesmanship. Two other males stood around him in varying ages: a young man in his late teens dressed casually in pants and a shirt, and an older and graying man dressed formally in black and white.
The powerful-looking man stepped forward and extended his hand. "Heiji Hattori? The exchange student from Osaka?"
Accustomed to western ways, Heiji shook the man's hand. "You must be... Bruce Wayne?"
"Yes." Switching to Japanese, Bruce added, "And these must be your guests?"
Switching back to Japanese as well, Heiji introduced his friends. "Your Japanese is impressive," he noted. "You spent some time in Japan?"
"Thank you, and yes, I studied there for several years. But that's not very important now; I hope you have a wonderful stay in Gotham." Bruce smiled at them, with some difficulty, Conan noticed. He looked like a man who didn't smile very often. "There's a lot to Gotham City; we're not like other American cities, to say the least."
The graying old butler known as Alfred Pennyworth said quietly to the young man, out of earshot, "Are you having trouble understanding them, Master Dick?"
Dick shrugged. "Haven't the faintest idea what they're talking about. But I'll get by, I guess; hopefully they'll know enough English to get conversations going." He looked at the butler suspiciously. "How do you understand what they're saying?"
Alfred sniffed. "You don't expect that Master Bruce would live in Japan and I would stay here?"
"Good point." Dick smiled. "Well, no time like the present to get acquainted, right?"
Stepping forward, Dick said in slow and clear English, "Hi. I'm Dick Grayson." Both Conan and Heiji noticed, with some irritation, that he directed his words particularly to Ran and Kazuha. Dick grinned flirtatiously. "What are your names?"
Both girls blushed. Conan and Heiji scowled.
"My name is Ran," Ran said in awkward English, and fought the urge to bow. "It's nice to meet you."
"I'm Kazuha," Ran said, in equally stilted English. "Hello."
The grin widened. "Wow. I mean, yeah, it's nice to meet you both. If you ever need anyone to show you around Gotham, just let me know. Grand tour and all."
Both girls looked vaguely perplexed for a moment before linguistic comprehension dawned over them. Kazuha giggled, and Ran's blush deepened.
Both Conan and Heiji stepped in front of the girls. Dick blinked. "Thanks for the offer," Heiji retorted loudly in English, "but I'm sure we will be able to manage."
Suddenly Dick was apologetic. "Oh, I'm so sorry. I didn't know! I'll lay off, don't worry about that." He glanced over Heiji's shoulder. "But -- which one's your girlfriend?"
Heiji flushed darker than either of the girls. "Neither!"
Behind him, Kazuha drooped, then began a slow burn. How dare he...
"Then what's the -- oh." A look of sympathetic understanding crossed Dick's features. He thoughtfully ran a hand through his dark hair. "Not yet, huh."
"I think that's enough," Bruce said mildly. "It's good that you're getting along so well, but save the male bonding for later."
Dick grinned. "Gotcha."
"The car is at the arrivals exit," Alfred spoke up.
As the group resumed its brisk pace toward the exits, Kazuha hissed at Heiji, "What were you trying to do? You are so rude!"
"How much of that did you understand?" he asked suddenly.
"You're not answering my question!"
"Answer mine and I'll answer yours!"
"Fine! Be stubborn!"
"Fine! I will!"
Ran smiled wanly. It was going to be a long, long vacation.
It had rained the night before in Gotham City, and the water still coursed through the rusty plumbing, a steady amount finding the leaks in the pipes and falling to the gray cement floor violently.
"Damp, damp, damp!" the Arkham Asylum cell's resident mused. He lounged on his bed boredly and caught a falling droplet from the ceiling. "Drip, drip, drip."
He didn't move when he heard the multiple card and key locks turn and beep open at the door. "Nigma!" his door guard said sharply through the small hole in the middle of the door that passed for a window. "The doc is here."
"Do show the good if intellectually-bland lady in," Edward Nigma replied disinterestedly. His lanky form rose slowly from the mattress. "Always good to have a visitor."
"It's no lady," the guard said shortly. "And if you mess with this one's head, we'll tranq you, so watch it."
The door opened a creak at last, a tall man swathed entirely in black stepped in, and the door slammed shut again.
Nigma frowned. "Indeed, you're not a lady."
"I'll be right outside, sir," the guard said through the tiny door hole. "When you want out, just knock."
The man ignored both of them. Looking abashed (or as much as one can look abashed through a tiny pinprick of a hole), the guard turned away with a cough.
"Edward Nigma," the man said quietly.
"Another new one." Nigma sighed. "Would you like to hear the story of my life? What drove me to a life of crime and what I'm doing to make an honest citizen of myself?"
Nigma looked slightly affronted. "You don't?"
The man reconsidered. It was hard to tell his expression; he wore a black fedora over his long hair and he kept to the walls where the one weak light bulb (kept in a bulletproof case too high for Nigma to reach) had trouble shining. His eyes glinted.
"One question then. Got any enemies?"
In his mind's eye, Nigma saw the silhouette of a bat. "Of course not. I am a reformed man."
The man snorted. Nigma tried not to feel insulted.
"I can get you out," the man said, without pretense. "Now do you want to get out or not? I haven't time for more pointless conversation."
Nigma's eyes widened. A trick, this had to be a trick. "I have not served out fully my incarceration," he said curtly.
"Don't be stupid," the man snarled. "Your incarceration can end in days."
Nigma felt the first flutter of fear and hope. "What do you want?"
"You want the Batman and the freedom for your puzzles and riddles. I can deliver."
"I admit it's elementary to discover that the Bat and I are not allies," Nigma said coldly. "But what that has to do with you is a puzzle I am not sure I'm interested in solving."
"Let's just say getting that freak out of the way would be a mutual benefit. But I want one thing in return, something you have little interest in."
The last vestiges of Nigma's suspicion disappeared. "Tell me what it is and I'll see what I can do."
"I want Bruce Wayne. He's too well-protected from the inside. You have to draw him out."
A brief sense of familiarity hit Nigma then, Bruce Wayne and the Batman, but it left him as quickly as it came. "He's a regular fop," Nigma said, almost gleeful. "Why do you want him?"
"That's my own business," the man said, and Nigma stiffened. "Are you in?" At Nigma's grudging nod, he continued, "I pronounce you mentally sound, you get out. You work for me. In return for Wayne, I get you the Bat."
One last glimmer of suspicion held back Nigma's hope for freedom. "Who are you anyway?"
"You'll need a partner." Impatiently the man reached into his black trench coat pocket and pulled out a pocket watch. "I've only used up less than a quarter of our session time. You had a breakthrough and were eager to explain your change of heart in a rush of words in which I could find no disturbing qualities. That's good enough."
Nigma bristled. "I can handle an idiot like Wayne. No partner necessary."
"But can you handle the Batman? He can toss you over like the weakling you are."
Nigma subsided in sullen agreement.
"How about your friend the Joker?"
Nigma looked at the man in horror. "He's a lunatic! Hasn't got a logic to anything!"
"Good. You'll balance each other out. His madness and your method." The man sneered from underneath his fedora, very effectively, Nigma noted. The man had probably practiced. "Don't whine about it. There are other crazies here I can ask just as easily to do your part."
Nigma threw himself back onto his mattress and sulked as another raindrop hit his face. "What an ultimatum. But I don't really have a choice, now do I? Get out in the world, or stay here and die of pneumonia. A little too Victorian for my taste. What do I call you?"
The sneer turned into a smile as the man muttered a codename, and Nigma hid a shudder. Sneering he could handle. The smiling got to him.
The Riddler sat up on his mattress and extended his hand. "An interesting faux name! You've got yourself a deal, my rye alcohol-named employer."
The Wayne Mansion, large and displaying the same classy statesmanship as the man who shared its name, was met by four newcomers staring in slack-jawed amazement at its front door.
"It's huge!" Kazuha exclaimed, forgetting to talk in English. Her and Ran's English skills had vastly improved over the course of the drive from Gotham International, as both girls had chattered amiably with Dick the whole way, much to the disgruntlement of two detectives who had noticed the same progress.
Dick grinned, not understanding the exact Japanese but getting the gist. "But really, do you think it's big enough?" Dick joked. At Bruce's glance, his laugh turned into a hacking cough. "You don't need me now, do you, Bruce? See you guys at the reception; I'm going to work on the Harley," he said hastily, and vanished into the separate garage. "Later, girls."
"Harley?" Heiji perked. "You have motorcycles?"
Bruce looked somewhat sheepish as he opened the front door and ushered his guests into the main foyer. The interior of the Wayne Mansion sharply contrasted the old weight and prestige of the exterior; the foyer was well-lit and airy, with large windows and modern, stylish but sturdy furniture and polished wood floors that exuded the same aura of confident class as Bruce Wayne himself. Conan glanced around, impressed.
"They're a vice," Bruce said. "I keep telling myself there's no need for more bikes, but then I see a good one and can't help getting it. Dick maintains them now for me, mostly as his hobby. You like motorcycles, Hattori-kun?"
"Well, yeah!" Heiji leaned forward eagerly. "I've got a bike at home. It's not a Harley though."
"Notice he doesn't mention how many times he's banged up that bike," Kazuha muttered to Ran.
Bruce smiled again. That brought up the count to three, Conan noted, one at the airport, one during the car ride, and one now. "Feel free to visit the garage when you get a chance. Dick'll like the company."
Heiji's cheerful smile dimmed slightly at the mention of Dick Grayson. Conan smirked.
"But now would not be a good time to visit," Bruce continued. "There's a welcome reception for you in a few hours, sponsored by Wayne Enterprises. Just so you can meet the people directly related to the exchange; they won't keep you long, they know you've just arrived." Bruce grimaced at the thought of the executives who worked under him. "Don't worry about paying for things; there are credit cards from the exchange program Alfred will provide you with." As a thought struck him, he added, "If you're going shopping, the girls might want to get gowns. Halfway through the exchange, that is, one week from now, there's going to be a ball. They use the halfway mark as an excuse to throw elaborate parties, so it's typically called the Half Mark Ball. Tuxedos required."
Both girls brightened at that. The boys, noticing the change, looked horrified at the prospect of shopping intensely with two girls and no money limit.
"Alfred will take your bags up," Bruce finished in a tone that suggested that he was about to disappear, the last of his social manners in use. "Feel free to wander around the house; doors are rarely locked here. Your first real meeting is at eight in the morning tomorrow, Hattori. You'll find your program detailed in a folder in your room. Your friends are mostly free to wander Gotham, as are you when events aren't scheduled." His expression darkened. "Just remember to let Alfred or Dick or I know where you're going so we can find you if we have to. And stay alert; Gotham isn't like any place in Japan. There are dangers here you won't find anywhere else."
"I think we can handle them," Heiji said, slightly affronted. "I've seen what criminals can do."
Beside him, Conan nodded fervently, his glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose, though Ran and Kazuha looked alarmed.
"Yes, I read your personal statement." Bruce's tone was flat. "Your father is in law enforcement and you've solved some cases as a private detective. But things in Gotham are different. There's no audience to give a detailed uncovering of facts and motive. You'd be dead before you got the words out."
Both Conan and Heiji seemed torn between rage at the insult and humility at Bruce's warning. "Well -- fine," Heiji spat at last. "You should know, I suppose."
Kazuha's shoulders visibly sagged in relief.
Bruce relaxed marginally as well. "Good. I'll leave you to prepare for the welcome reception." He paced out of the large foyer, with unconsciously powerful strides. But as he moved under the archway that led to one of the many living rooms, he paused and turned.
"Oh yes. I almost forgot," he said. "Welcome to Gotham."
All four Japanese gawked at him.
"Um, right," Heiji said finally. "Thank you."
"So what do you think?" Ran said as she arranged some clothes into her large dresser. The reception had taken most of the afternoon and evening, and at their return there was nothing left for them to do at this late hour but unpack. The room she and Kazuha had been provided with was large and ornate, with two double beds, two dressers, and one large full-length mirror. Large windows showed a pleasant night-time view, Gotham City sprawled out in blinking lights below them. "Now that we can talk."
Kazuha hefted her suitcase into the large closet they shared. "It still hasn't sunk in yet," she admitted. "Though what Bruce Wayne said about being careful made me nervous."
"Me too," Ran said, "and Conan said that Gotham City sounded familiar to him. He lived in America before, so I guess he would know, but most things Conan's familiar with have things to do with crime." She laughed a little wistfully. "He's just like Shinichi that way."
"Has he called you recently?" Kazuha asked, sympathetic.
"Before we left," Ran said, suddenly engrossed in straightening her bed sheets. "He sounded tired and preoccupied. He still wouldn't tell me why."
"Patience," Kazuha said softly. Then she giggled. "I'm the wrong person to tell you to be patient!"
Ran was smiling again. "Oh but you are patient. Hattori-kun's not the most perceptive of people."
"He's an idiot, that's what he is." Kazuha rolled her eyes. "I'm beginning to think he won't figure out his own head at all."
"That's what you're here for," Ran teased. "Why else did you come all the way to America?"
"For the shopping!" Kazuha shot back.
Both girls collapsed in giggles.
"What's that?" Ran said suddenly.
"Outside the window..." She scrambled to one of two large glass panes and pushed back the curtains, Kazuha peeking behind her down at the bright dots that made up the city.
"I don't see anything," Kazuha remarked.
Ran tilted her friend's chin upward.
There was a stunned pause.
Painting the sky dully, a single beam of yellow light from a spotlight on one building steadily grew wider and more oblong until it struck the clouds. In the large oval of light was the silhouette of a black thing with pointed ears and sharp wings outstretched.
"It looks like -- like a bat," Ran said in wonder. "What does that mean?"
"What the hell does that bat thing mean?" Heiji let go of the curtain hanging in disgust. "This is the weirdest city."
Conan sat unperturbed on his bed, legs dangling absently. "Hmm."
"What 'hmm'? Do you know something I don't?" Heiji scowled at the thought. "Tell me, Kudo, before I kill you."
"Several hours with boringly polite executives really made you cranky," Conan commented. "And don't say my name so loudly."
Heiji threw himself onto his own bed with a frown. "It's not that. I've heard about this place somehow, I know it, and it has something to do with that thing outside."
Both were silent for a time, each in his own thoughts. Then they glanced at each other.
"If you're thinking of the same thing I am, maybe I'm not cracked after all," Conan said.
"The whole idea of it is cracked," Heiji said grumpily. "But I'll check anyway."
"You do that. I'd help too, but..." Conan gestured at himself.
"I know, it'd be hard to explain." Heiji resettled on the bed. "Hey, Kudo."
"This trip better be worth the trouble."
Conan flopped down moodily. "Yeah." He glanced at the window. "But maybe it is already."