A/N: Hi, everyone. I would say sorry for the late update, but as those of you who keep up with my other stories know, this is really unusually quick for me. Not to depress you or anything...(grins) Seriously, thank you guys for being patient. I hope you enjoy this chapter!

To Guard the Living

Ch.2--As the breath of a ghost

Beep-beep. Beep-beep.

Hakuba was jerked out of his almost-doze by the polite but annoyingly persistent beeping of the thermometer. He blinked dazedly and managed to drag one of his arms out from beneath a mountain of blankets and, after a few failed attempts, use it to locate his face. He pulled the still-beeping instrument out of his mouth and squinted at the readout.

After the few seconds that his stupefied brain required in order to decipher "103.5," Hakuba gave a weak groan and let his head fall back onto his pillow. This was just lovely. He needed to be at school, or, if he had to be home sick, studying the notes he'd taken at the crime scene last night. Instead, he found himself lying spread-eagle in bed as if his personal gravity had increased by ten, unable to do more than occasionally jab the channel button on the remote control in a desperate attempt to solve the age-old dilemma of whether Springer or Judge Judy was the lesser of two evils. Obviously, detective work was out.

Of course, he would be at school this morning. Hakuba scowled at the unfairness of life. He wasn't at all convinced that his current pathetic state wasn't due in large part to last night's little excursion to Twelfth Street. He'd remained in the dark building long after the heist, examining the walls, the carpet, the display stands, inch by inch, finally standing up straight and just staring at the empty room as a whole, as if it might whisper some secret to him if he listened hard enough. After a few hours of this, Nakamori, who had been watching him, had made the gentle but firm suggestion that Hakuba go home and get some sleep before he made himself sick. A little too late, he thought, picking up the remote again and finally settling on an episode of Looney Tunes. Nakamori had looked a little worn himself by the end of the evening. Hakuba couldn't blame him; after all that waiting and planning, to come out empty-handed, again...

Not empty-handed, he corrected himself tiredly. Never empty-handed. We have a new crime scene, with new evidence. He left some trace, some clue, that he's never left before. We just have to find it.

Which, he concluded, feeling his eyes begin to close, I can't. Because I feel like I've been hit by a train.

He stared numbly at the TV screen, watching as Wile E. Coyote put together an ingenious contraption involving skis and a refrigerator, only to sail right past Roadrunner and off a cliff. Roadrunner peered over the edge and watched with obvious amusement as Wile E. hit the ground in a shower of ice cubes. Hakuba scowled again and changed the channel. Damn bird.

About to simply turn the TV off and take a nap, Hakuba paused at the sight of a news program on channel four. He quickly hit the "record" button on his remote (he always taped the news--reexamination of it had yielded helpful clues on more than one occasion) and settled back, feeling slightly more cheerful. His tendency to get excited at the prospect of watching the news was a major source of amusement for Kuroba ("OK, everybody, we have to be quiet now, Hakuba's been waiting all month to see this episode--it's the season finale!"), but Hakuba did enjoy the program--every day, even more than once a day, you could watch a never-before-seen episode of The World, and Hakuba found this incredibly exciting. He might actually solve a murder that happened on The News. He might see something today that would change his life forever.

He'd never told Kuroba this. There was something dangerously close to sentiment in that line of thinking, and he preferred to keep all traces of that to himself.

Realizing he'd let his mind wander, Hakuba focused whatever feeble powers of concentration his fever had left him back onto what the newscaster was saying in time to register "murder." The word was like a shot of adrenaline, and he was instantly more awake than he'd been all morning.

"--high school student Shinichi Kudo was found next to Kitasawa Industries's main office building earlier this morning. No new information on this case has come to light."

Hakuba stared at the corpse, mildly interested. He had never met Shinichi Kudo, but had read about several of the cases he'd solved in the newspaper, and his obvious intelligence and eye for detail had impressed Hakuba. Nakamori said he'd even come close to catching Kid once or twice.

That's a shame, he thought, vaguely troubled without quite knowing why. He would've been great.

The newscaster was now commenting on a boating accident that had exposed a smuggling operation, but Hakuba, on an impulse, stopped his tape and rewound it, freeze-framing on the picture of the dead detective. He bit his lip, frowning. Kudo...

He's been missing, he realized suddenly. I knew there was something. He's the one who hasn't been heard from for about a year now...

Hakuba stared thoughtfully into Kudo's lifeless blue eyes. And the night he shows up, he gets shot.

His frown deepened. There was no way it was a coincidence. Someone had been waiting for him. Hakuba's pulse quickened with excitement. Kudo must have stumbled onto something big, something he'd had to run from. It was inevitable, as good as he was. The mob? Maybe...has he been in some sort of witness protection program? He stared into the distance, chewing his lip. If that's the case, though, why did he show himself? He must have known it'd be suicide...

Hakuba rewound the tape to the beginning of the report. There was something immense here. He could feel it, he could practically see it lurking between the lines of this news broadcast, but he was too exhausted from stress and fever to piece it together.

"--Kudo was found next to Kitasawa Industries's main office building earlier this morning--"

He watched the tape over and over, memorizing every word, every detail, trying to recall everything he'd ever heard about Kudo.

"--morning. No new information --"

What was he missing?

"--next to Kitasawa Industries's main office building --"

Kitasawa Industries, some small corner of his mind remarked. That's not far from where I was last night. I might have even found the body if I'd taken a different route home.

Hakuba blinked and paused the tape. The back of his neck tingled.

Kudo...

It hit him suddenly, without warning.

"Kudo? Kudo? What on God's earth would Kudo be doing here?"

The remote fell from his hands and clattered to the floor.

Oh...no.

No, no, no, no...He fingers tightened into fists, gripping the blankets hard. "It can't be," he whispered aloud.

But even as he spoke, his mind was coldly listing the reasons why it could be, why it had to be. Kudo had been missing for a year. He knew someone in Tokyo was after his life. What were the chances that he'd come back at all? And even if he did, what were the odds he'd turn up two streets away from the heist on the night that Kid decided to use him for a disguise?

Hakuba swung his legs over the side of his bed, only dimly noticing the dizziness that washed over him as he stood. He stumbled to his desk and pulled open the second drawer, which was full of papers. After several minutes of searching, he resurfaced with Aoko's cell phone number, which he had gotten from her several months earlier to use in some insanely complicated scheme he'd come up with to catch Kid. He grabbed his telephone, knocking his desk lamp to the floor, and jerkily punched in the number.

She answered after three rings.

"Hello?"

"I...sorry, it's...Saguru Hakuba. Is this Miss Nakamori?"

"Hakuba? Wh...class is about to start, what's this about?"

Hakuba swallowed hard. The physical exertion it had taken to walk across the room had left him trembling.

"Yes, I--I'm sorry. I'm sorry to call. But I need...plea..."

"You need what?"

He took a deep breath, forcing himself to stop shaking. It's not what you think. You've jumped to conclusions.

Aoko was starting to sound concerned. "You don't sound well--are you all right?"

He wouldn't have let this happen. He closed his eyes, steadying his voice.

"I need to speak to Kuroba. Please...please put him on the line."

There was a pause on the other end of the line, and he clenched his fists, his heart swelling with hope, with relief...

Then Aoko said, hesitantly, "Kaito...isn't here today. " She paused. "It's just...we were supposed to walk to school together, but his mother said that...he didn't come home last night..."

Slowly, Hakuba's body stopped trembling. He looked up at the ceiling, his vision swimming with another wave of dizziness as he tilted his head, watching with a sort of detached interest as a ladybug made its way across the room upside down.

"Hakuba?"

"Yes. Thank you."

He put down the phone.

Look at the facts, his intellect told him, in a pure voice unbiased by his emotions or desires. It's the only logical conclusion.

He didn't answer it. For what seemed like a long time, he didn't say anything at all.

ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

"Heiji! Get your feet off my coffee table. What are you, in sixth grade?"

Heiji grinned as he drew back his legs and stretched his arms over the back of the couch. "I have a friend who wouldn't appreciate that remark."

Kazuha rolled her eyes as she turned back to the refrigerator and pulled out the milk. "You also have a friend who's been waiting for about a year now to go with you to Tropical Land."

"Fourth time's the charm," Heiji assured her.

"It had better be." Kazuha answered as she began opening cabinets. "God, what was it last time? People bursting into flames everywhere we went?"

Heiji pulled the remote out from between the cushions and flicked on the TV. "Rain."

"Ah." Standing on her tiptoes, Kazuha felt around on the top shelf and grabbed a large mixing bowl. "Do you want some pancakes or something before we leave? You know the food over there will be expensive."

"Sounds good," he answered, stifling a yawn and pausing with his finger on the channel button to watch Wile E. Coyote strap a refrigerator to his back. "I used to love Looney Tunes."

Kazuha smiled faintly as she shook pancake mix into the bowl. "I remember."

Heiji flipped through channels aimlessly. "It is nice outside today. Last time there was a teacher conference we ended up being snowed in, didn't we? There we go," he added, leaning back and tossing the remote onto the table.

"Yeah, hopefully there won't be too big a crowd since it's a weekday," Kazuha answered, stirring the mix as hard as she could. "It's a shame Ran and Detective Mouri couldn't co--" She froze. A woman's cheerful voice issuing from the television promised "the best coverage of this morning's top stories."

Kazuha scooped the mixing bowl into her arms and sprinted into the living room. "Hey! No! I don't even want you turning the news on! We are going to Tropical Land today if it's the last thing I do!"

But even as she spoke, the headline "Unsolved Murder" appeared at the bottom of the screen, and the news anchors shuffled their notes, looking grave. "No new headway has been made in the case of a murdered high school student found earlier this morning near Kitasawa Industries office building in Tokyo. Inspector Megure, chief investigator--"

Heiji laughed as Kazuha let out a "Gaaaah!" of frustration. "Don't worry, I'm not going all the way Tokyo. That's Kudo's turf; he'll have whatever it is cleared up by lunchtime."

Kazuha rolled her eyes again as she walked back into the kitchen and resumed stirring. "For once I'm glad to hear his name."

"I'll tell him you said so," Heiji called back, grinning. "It's weird that this is a top story, though. Beats me why they even think we'd care about a murder all the way over in..." He fell silent.

Kazuha looked up curiously after a few seconds and craned her neck, trying to see into the living room. "Over in what?"

When he didn't answer, she set down her mixing spoon yet again and walked over to stand behind the couch, wiping her hands on her apron. "Heiji, what's the matter?" Heiji stared at the TV wordlessly, and she looked up at the screen, where a picture of the murdered teenager had appeared behind the newscaster.

"The body was that of high school student Shinichi Kudo, famous in the Tokyo area for assisting the police force in solving several difficult murders. Kudo was shot once in the chest, by an as-yet-unidentified weapon."

Heiji heard Kazuha gasp behind him. He gaped at the television, his mouth slightly open, feeling exactly as if he'd been hit in the stomach with a bag of rocks. Kudo...

There was nothing, some distant part of his brain noted, particularly remarkable about the corpse. It lay crumpled in an undignified heap on the concrete, a gaping hole in its chest where it had bled out onto the ground, face frozen in shock and disbelief like so many others he'd seen...

No complicated method of delivery, no hiding of the body, no ingenious cover-up, no clever attempt to make it look like a suicide...Just an ordinary shooting.

Boring.

Heiji swallowed, feeling suddenly as if he might be sick. Kudo...arrogant and self-absorbed, and brilliant, and brave, and in love...now, in the time it took to fire a gun, nothing more than a means to an end, a piece of evidence to be studied and then discarded once the killer had been found...He shut his eyes tight. This can't be happening.

"Inspector Megure asks anyone who might have information on this case to come forward as soon as possible. It is hoped that closure may soon be brought to this tragedy."

Wait a minute. Heiji's eyes snapped open, a sudden thought cutting through the fog in his brain like a knife. It...it can't be happening...

Shinichi's corpse mercifully disappeared from the screen, and Heiji lifted his head slightly, shock slowly being replaced by confusion. What...what's going on here?

"Oh, my God..." Kazuha said softly, finally breaking the silence. "Oh, Heiji, I'm so sorry..."

"I need to make a phone call," Heiji said distantly.

She blinked at the abrupt request. "Of...of course," she answered, turning to fetch the telephone and pressing her lips together in worry. She paused halfway across the room and turned to look at him. "Are you all right?" she asked as gently as she could.

He was quiet for a few moments. When he looked up at her, there was something determined in his expression.

"I'm going to take a train."

Kazuha nodded, accepting this, then took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, acting under their unspoken agreement to remain calm. "I'm coming, too," she told him as she shrugged out of her apron and started down the hallway to her bedroom. "Ran will be..." She put a cool hand to her forehead and sighed. "How could this happen?"

Heiji narrowed his eyes as he reached for his jacket.

"That's what I plan to find out."

oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

Aoko bit her lip as she switched off her phone. There was definitely something wrong with the conversation she'd just had. Hakuba was eccentric at best, but he was always cool and in control of himself, and his stammering on the other end of the line and the almost desperate edge to his voice were so out-of-character that it had nearly frightened her.

Kaito...isn't here today...

She glanced almost unconsciously at his empty desk. His absence was certainly noticeable. Kaito was generally well-liked by his classmates, but everyone, Aoko included, agreed that it was nice, every once in a while, to have class without the constant threat of your chair exploding from under you in a shower of confetti.

Aoko rested her chin on her hands. Why hadn't he come home last night? She wasn't as worried about that as she might be if it were someone else. Kaito did strange things, and they had included, more than once, deciding at the last minute to sleep in a tree, or under a bridge, or on top of a building. But he always turned up at school the next morning, with leaves or gravel caught in his hair, grinning as if he were spectacularly proud of himself. The corners of Aoko's mouth tugged upward. Somehow his smile lit up the whole room.

He was so confident, she thought, and, despite the way he acted sometimes, quite competent He could handle himself. Wherever he was, he was all right.

That decided, Aoko stretched and yawned, waiting for the bell to ring. She turned around in her seat to look at the clock and paused when her eyes fell across another strange sight.

Akako sat rigidly in her seat, her elbows on her desktop, her forehead resting on her fists. Her eyes were focused with almost frightening intensity on the blank surface of the desk in front of her, and her lips were pressed so tightly together that they were turning white.

As Aoko watched in slight concern, Akako took a shuddering breath, as if trying to calm herself, but all it seemed to do was make her even more tense. Aoko could see her long, elegant fingernails digging into the skin of her hands.

"Akako?" Aoko ventured tentatively. They knew each other only vaguely, and the one time Aoko could remember speaking to her they hadn't ended on the best of terms.

Akako's head jerked up at the sound of her name. She looked around rather wildly, her eyes finally resting on Aoko, who smiled nervously.

"Is...is everything all right?"

Akako stared blankly at her for a full five seconds, as if trying to process what she'd said. Then she blinked and seemed to give herself a mental shake. "Of course," she answered, giving Aoko an obviously forced smile. When Aoko kept looking at her, she made a vague hand gesture and asked brightly, "Who were you talking to just now?"

Aoko didn't roll her eyes, but it was a close thing. If that had been an attempt to sound normal, it was quite a poor one. Akako treated cheerfulness as if it were one of the seven deadly sins.

Aoko shrugged mentally. If she doesn't want to talk about it..."Hakuba," she answered with a rather bland smile. "He was asking about Kaito."

Akako nodded vaguely, and Aoko could tell her answer hadn't made it to the other girl's brain. She did roll her eyes a bit this time, and, deciding she'd had it with the lot of them, scanned the room for Keiko, who waved and started to make her way over.

Keiko sat down beside her and immediately started gushing about the latest boy she had a crush on. Aoko nodded and laughed in the right places, but she couldn't help glancing behind her one more time. Akako seemed to have sunk back into her original stupor and was now surreptitiously blowing her hair out of her face.

Suddenly, she looked up again, blinking in apparent confusion, and looked at Aoko.

"Did you say Hakuba asked you about Kuroba?" she demanded.

"Y-yes," Aoko answered, a bit taken aback at the sudden force in the other girl's tone.

Akako sat with her mouth open for a few seconds. Suddenly, she gripped her desk with both hands, her eyes narrowed dangerously. "Shit," she hissed, and, to Aoko's astonishment, stood so quickly that she knocked her chair over and sprinted across the room and through the door, leaving her bag behind.

"Akako! The bell's about to ring!" Aoko called after her, not knowing what else to do, but Akako didn't even seem to hear her as she disappeared into the hallway. As Keiko gaped after her, Aoko chewed her lip and stared pensively once again at Kaito's empty desk. What's the matter with everyone?

She glanced out the window, where the morning sun had just emerged from behind the trees, spilling a heavy blanket of light over the classroom. You're okay, aren't you?

In the end, you're always okay...

oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

Conan bit his lip as he softly closed Ran's bedroom door. Kogoro had been in the process of putting her to bed when the downstairs phone had rung. He'd hesitated but had finally left to answer it, and Conan, not knowing what else to do, had finished tucking Ran in. When he had made her as comfortable as he could, he'd stood in the dark room watching her sleep for a moment, not wanting to leave her alone. Only when it occurred to him that the phone call Kogoro had received might be important did he reluctantly slip out of the room and creep back downstairs to the office.

Kogoro was leaning over his desk, talking in a low, tense voice to whoever was on the other end. He stopped talking abruptly, and there was a stretch of silence as he listened into the phone, closing his eyes tightly as if he could block out whatever was being said. As Conan watched, fascinated, he slowly lowered his forehead into his hands.

"Megure," he almost begged, "You're not going to ask me to do this..."

But it seemed Megure wasn't giving in; there was more silence as Kogoro stood hunched over his desk, unmoving. When he finally stood upright, he pushed the "end call" button without a word and replaced it in its holder, his eyes narrowed. He looked over at Conan, who looked away, somehow embarrassed at being caught watching.

"Conan," Kogoro said in a low voice, glancing up the stairs, "I need you to stay home from school today. Stay with Ran and make sure she's all right."

Conan's mind raced. Whatever else happened, he had to make it to the crime scene. He followed Kogoro to the front door, his heart beating abnormally fast. "Where are you going?" he asked as Kogoro slid an arm into his suit coat.

Kogoro shut his eyes in exasperation and didn't answer. Conan ran around him and stood in front of the door, blocking it. "You're going to look at Shinichi, right?" he pressed.

"Conan, get out of the way," Kogoro snapped.

Conan didn't move. Kogoro's fists clenched. "For once," he said, obviously trying to stay calm, "for once, Conan, do what I tell you."

"I have to go with you," Conan insisted, looking stubbornly up at the older detective.

"You have t--" Kogoro started angrily, and shook his head, turning his back to Conan. He seemed to collect himself, and, turning, knelt to look him in the face. Conan, with some surprise, saw that he looked exhausted and rather miserable.

"You can't let her wake up alone," he said simply. Conan blinked, his mouth falling open slightly. Ran...He stared up at Kogoro, who continued to look intently into his face. And, almost unconsciously, he nodded.

Kogoro stood and opened the door. The pale, sickly light from the hallway slid into the room, swallowed up halfway by the buttery morning sunlight streaming in through the windows. He gave Conan one last glance.

"I'll be back as soon as I can."

He left quickly, shutting the door behind him.

Conan stood in the entryway for several seconds as though in a trance, then slowly turned and made his way up the stairs. He peered into Ran's dark bedroom and hurried inside as he heard the faint rustle of blankets.

Ran was stirring; as Conan watched, she slowly opened her eyes and blinked, looking dazedly around the room before settling back onto her pillow and staring up at the ceiling.

Conan approached her nervously. "Ran?"

She didn't answer; in fact, she didn't seem to react at all. Conan hesitated, then pulled himself up onto the bed, so that he was sitting on his knees beside her. "Ran, are you OK?"

Still, she didn't say anything, and, looking down at her, Conan could see that she was crying. She seemed numb and sedated, letting the tears fall silently one after another, and this worried him far more than hysterics.

They sat like that for some time. Conan found that he was utterly at a loss. What on Earth could he say? He had no idea what was going on, and even if he did break down and tell Ran who he was, as he was unconsciously steeling himself to do, how would she take it now? She might think he was lying, or worse, joking.

He bit his lip. Kogoro, for all his good intentions, had been wrong. He'd known that Ran would need comfort--but he thought that Shinichi Kudo was dead. What would he have said if he'd had all the facts? Conan shook his head. He needed to be downtown studying the crime scene and getting to the bottom of this, not awkwardly trying to give comfort to Ran, helping her cope with a reality he knew was a lie. The best way to help Ran now was to find out what had really happened.

He narrowed his eyes in determination. He would prove somehow that, whoever had been shot last night, Shinichi Kudo was very much alive.

He crawled over to Ran, trying to decide the gentlest way to put her back to sleep. He had just gotten his watch arm around her neck when she suddenly reached out and put her arms around him, drawing him close and resting her chin on his shoulder.

Conan jumped in alarm and turned his head to look at her. Her eyes were closed, and tears were still streaming down her face. She let out a tiny sob, the first sound she'd made since she'd woken up, and tightened her grip around him.

"Please...can you stay like this...just for a while?"

Conan said nothing, and felt the tension in his body slowly fade. He slid a hand behind Ran's head, tangling his fingers in her hair, and rested his face against her shoulder. She closed her eyes, and as the sun outside rose higher into the sky, he felt the rising and falling of her chest underneath him become slow and regular.

And when he finally raised himself up, taking care not to jar her, and she twitched and opened her eyes, just a slit, and said his name, he still said nothing, but brushed her face with his fingertips, the touch as soft and fleeting as the breath of a ghost.

oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

A/N: (gasps for breath) That was...well, it ended up being harder to write than I thought. (grins) Don't expect them all to be this long. I'll update when I can, so please review with any suggestions!

Review responses:

YumeTakato: Thanks for the reminder--I am in the habit of thinking about stories endlessly and not realizing how long it's been since I've updated. I thought about it yesterday, but you guys didn't. (grins) Kudos for getting the ball rolling.

klxzz: (is slightly overwhelmed) Wow. Thanks, I'm really glad you liked it. I thought Conan seeing himself dead was creepy, too--that's actually the image that got this fic started. I do plan to continue even though (this is a secret) I'm not entirely sure how I'll end it. Anyway, thanks for the enthusiasm; hope you enjoy!

Erinyes Star: Yeah, I'm getting the "No! You killed Kaito!" a lot. He is one of my favorites, honestly; I wouldn't do stuff like this to him if I didn't love him. (grins)

Luna-Kitsune-Blu: Thanks, that means a lot. I love good Detective Conan fics, and I'm flattered that you think this is one. I hope the wait between chapters isn't too long--I'm infamous around here for procrastination. Thanks for reviewing!

Lady Mirror: The gem will actually play quite an important role. (grins) I hope it's interesting; I've kind of been obsessing over it lately. I hope you enjoy the chapter!

gohanlover700: Thanks for your suggestion. I tend to want to be kind of an imagist writer, and my friends know I have trouble with stalling sometimes, or dwelling too long on images. I'll keep that in mind.

Snickerer: "Yep, should really check to see if the guy you're impersonating has people trying to kill him first." Hey! You took my line! I was gonna use that! (laughs) You know what, I still am going to use it. (grins) I'm glad you think the humor works; I don't want this to be totally depressing or anything, because that's not how the show is. Thanks for reviewing!

Ooshii Kurai: (blushes) Thanks! I'm a fan of your stories; I'm glad you liked this one. (grins) I hope you enjoy this chapter.

Fyliwion: Yeah...I kind of did have to kill him. It really wouldn't have worked any other way. But take heart; Shinichi's on the case now! (grins) Thanks for your compliment!

Flesi Kameez: Thanks; I hope the wait wasn't too long. I'm glad you like the idea; I did, too.

La-Longa: (laughs) It only looks like I know what I'm doing...thanks for the compliment! I'm glad you like the way I write; the images and stuff that I use are a little too quiet for a lot of people. I hope you like this chapter!

SacredAliance: Thanks for reviewing. I put this under the "mystery" genre because it's a mystery to Conan, and because, believe it or not, this isn't the only mystery the immediate future holds for him. (grins) Thanks for the compliment; I love playing with words and I'm glad you think I can.

ryder77: (laughs) I want you to write my summaries from now on. Unfortunately, all of those questions are major no-no's at this point. I don't even know some of them yet. (grins) You might find out sooner than you think.

xeno: Haibara will be in the story, as a matter of fact. I debated whether or not to use her, since I've never seen her in the anime and have only read a handful of manga that include her. But I think I can use her to my advantage here. She won't play a major role or anything, but...

Michelle: Thanks for the compliment! I'm glad you liked it; hope you enjoy this next one too!