New Variables

"I don't see why you have to clean Shin'ichi's house this weekend," Sonoko complained, the Kudo residence drawing nearer. "I mean, you're not married yet or anything."

"Sonoko!" Ran exclaimed, coloring slightly.

"Not that you won't be, just as soon as he gets back," her best friend continued blithely. "With how long he's taking, he's probably trying to find the perfect ring or something."

Ran smacked Sonoko lightly on the arm. "That's enough out of you," she admonished, glancing apologetically at Conan; he rolled his eyes privately at her in return, used to Sonoko's busybody tendencies by this point.

"Yeah, yeah," Sonoko huffed. "You still haven't explained the house cleaning thing, though."

"Shin'ichi needed someone to look after the house while he was away," Ran told her simply. "Since I already have a key, it only makes--" Ran broke off abruptly, her eyes landing on the small body on the sidewalk.

"Oh my god," Sonoko breathed. Conan was already running to the small girl's side. A split-second later, Sonoko and Ran joined him.

"She's still breathing," Conan announced, moving his hand from the child's pulse, "and it doesn't look like she's been hurt. Her clothes are pretty dirty though, and she's flushed and sweating, so she probably collapsed from exhaustion."

Ran glanced at Sonoko, but her friend hadn't seemed to notice anything weird about a first grader spouting that information.

"We need to see if she'll wake up," Conan added, "so we can find out if she needs help."

"Right," Ran murmured, reaching out to shake the girl's shoulder gently. "Hey, hey. Are you okay?"

The girl stirred, then blinked blearily up at Ran. "What's...?

"We think you passed out," Ran replied, relieved the girl was able to respond. "Do you know where your parents are?"

The girl blinked again and shook her head. "No. No parents. Dead. My older sister too, now."

Ran swallowed a gasp, though Sonoko was less successful. She stroked the girl's forehead, eyes widening at the heat under her fingertips; she was burning up. How long had she been outside? "Is there anyone you can stay with?"

The girl chuckled breathlessly, the sound strangely grown-up for a child. "No," she replied, "no one. They're all dead, dead or no good."

"Shouldn't we be calling the police?" Conan hinted strongly. "They could--"

"No," the girl interrupted, her hand shooting out to clutch at his sleeve white-fingered. "No police."

Ran frowned. "No police? But they can help--"

"No police," the girl repeated desperately, whites showing around her fevered eyes. "Please."

Conan uttered a strangled sound, and Ran made a decision. "Okay, no police. But we do have to find somewhere for you to stay."

"I can take her in." Ran and Conan's heads snapped turned towards Sonoko. Sonoko shifted uncomfortably. "Well, I can. It's not like I don't have room, especially since my sister moved out, and I'm sure my parents wouldn't mind." Which, Ran was sure, meant that Sonoko would talk them into submission if they thought differently.

"You really don't have to," Ran said, even though it would ease her worries considerably.

Sonoko was already waving her concerns off, though. "I already said I'd do it, didn't I? Besides," she added with a wink, "it's my turn to take one home, anyway. I was beginning to feel left out."

Ran smiled gratefully at her. "I'll leave her in your care, then. Be ready to deal with her fever and enroll her in school."

"Yeah, yeah, I'll take care of things," Sonoko nodded. "Now let me give my parents a heads up so they aren't too surprised when I bring home a stray." Sonoko then pulled a cell phone from her pocket and walked a short distance away for better reception.

Ran turned her attention back to the girl, who was focusing on Conan for the first time that day. "...Kudo Shin'ichi," she murmured, raising a small hand to point.

Conan froze a moment, then plastered on childlike innocence. "Eh? Isn't that the guy who lives here?"

The girl frowned. "Don't lie. Made the poison. Apo... Apotoxin. I know it's you." Ran struggled for something to say, and the girl looked away from Conan. "I took it, too. Didn't want to work for. For them anymore. Wanted to get out."

Conan was still fumbling for words when Ran managed to ask, "Why?"

The girl fell briefly silent. From a short distance away, Ran could hear Sonoko on the phone, arguing with her parents (No, she didn't always pull stunts like this, how could they say that? And right now the stray ca--er, little homeless girl was horribly sick, and did they want that on her conscience?). Her smile was offset by the sudden pang of worry she felt for her friend, unexpectedly involved in this mess after Ran had spent so long trying to protect her from it. It was probably only a matter of time before she learned everything now, Ran mused, looking at the not-child again, but she'd protect her as long as she could.

"Killed people," the girl said, breaking through Ran's thoughts with the answer to her question at last. "They killed... my sister. Only family I had left. Broke their promise. Couldn't stay after that. Wouldn't." She was staring at Conan again. "Knew you were alive," she continued. "Made the poison, so I knew it. Made sure they don't, though. Wanted to help, make up for things. Get them put away."

Conan met Ran's eyes, then darted a quick glance to the girl and back again, questioning. Imperceptibly, Ran nodded. Conan turned his attention back to the girl. "Okay," he told her. "You're going to stay with a friend of ours for a while. She doesn't know anything, so she should be safer. We'll start working together as soon as we can."

The girl smiled in relief, and Sonoko chose that moment to return. "It's all set up," she announced. "Mom and Dad are sending a taxi over so she won't have to walk, either." She crouched and grinned at the girl. "Hear that? It'll be almost like having a sister around again. Which, speaking of, I can't have a new little not-quite-sister and not know her name..."

The girl blinked owlishly at Sonoko through her fever, and then began to smile. "Ai. Haibara Ai."

"Right. Nice to meet you, then, Ai-chan; I'm Sonoko." Sonoko took Ai's hand and shook it gently.

Ai nodded. "It'll be nice," she said softly, already drifting. "Almost like... before..."

Ran smiled at both of them, already mentally outlining what she planned to tell Kaito and Aoko about the situation. "Yeah," she said aloud, "it sounds like things are going to be great."


A good five to seven more of these left, I'm pretty sure, but at least I'm two-thirds to three-quarters of the way done? Anyhow, I plan to get to work on this a little more rigorously now (and we all know how well that's gone in the past, sadly), so hopefully I'll have something more within a month or two. Hopefully. Fingers crossed, etc.

Oh, uh, this is also unbeta'd, because I am horrible and impatient like that at the moment (oops?). So any input in that regard, particularly the last few paragraphs, would be really fantastic. Thanks much in advance!

Disclaimer: Detective Conan and Magic Kaito are by Aoyama Gosho; concepts and characters have been used without permission.