Talking To Strangers
"From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedie beasties
And things that go bump in the night, good Lord,
----- ancient Gaelic prayer
"Psssst… Hey! Hey, kid!"
I'm ignoring you, thought Edogawa Conan, huddling deeper into his jacket; his glasses slid down his nose, but he paid them no attention. You're not really there.
"Oh, come ON. I know you can hear me, 'cause I can hear you; you're grumbling," said the annoying voice, as clear as any child's but with a very unchildlike snarky amusement in it. It turned wheedling a second later, though. "I just want to ask a favor, okay?"
The not-really-a-little-kid in the green Tokyo Spirits jacket tried not to glance sideways at the source of the voice without success; he could still see the rather ornate lacquered box that shared his seat on the subway train out of the corner of his eye. It was far too small to contain a human being unless they were maybe four or five years old and willing to be folded up like an origami crane. Of course, went the detective part of his brain, if you chopped them up with an axe, cleaver, hacksaw or other sharp implement, you could fit a body in there… but then again, they wouldn't be much inclined to talking afterwards, would they?
No, he told his Inner Detective; So shut up. This is just somebody's idea of a stupid joke; and that's what I get for riding the subway alone late at night. Ran would have a cow… if she found out I wasn't sleeping over at Agasa's tonight, anyway. Glad Hattori could make it down for the game, though. The Spirits game had run a lot later than he and Hattori had thought it would, and he and the other detective had parted ways at the train station, Conan back to Professor Agasa's and Heiji further south to visit relatives.
And the subway car was way too empty for his tastes, especially late at night when you had a voice talking at you from where no voice should be. Conan suppressed a shiver. This is ridiculous.
"Kid? C'mon, I don't bite—what's the matter, cat got your tongue?"
The boy stared fixedly out the opposite window as the voice continued to nag at him. Ignore, ignore, ignore… You are NOT real; you're a ventriloquist's trick, maybe some gadget by the Kaitou Kid, a practical joke by Heiji, whatever. Speaker mechanism in a box, nothing to it; somebody's in the next train-car with a transmitter. No way am I falling for this.
…and frankly, it's creeping me out.
There was a moment of slightly sulky silence. "You're not being very friendly, you know... Look, I just want to find a friend of mine, okay? He left me here on this—it's a train, right?" A muffled cough. "We usually travel on trains; I wasn't sure, though, 'cause I couldn't see out when we boarded and it's a lot quieter than the trains I remember from back when I was, uh—well, a long time ago. It IS a train, isn't it?"
Ignore, ignore, ignore, IGNORE….. The former Kudo Shinichi fought against the temptation to climb onto the seat and peer into the next compartment. Maybe it was Agasa and one of his crazy inventions again? Or maybe he was just overtired and hearing things… That sounded plausible. Right. Sure I am. And Mouri'll be winning next year's Nobel Peace Prize.
"Hello? Just one little favor? …Jeeze, you're as stubborn as Sakon—"
"Who's Sakon?" Conan blinked; had he just said that?
The box nearly bounced on its seat-cushion. "About time—I mean, uh, Sakon's my partner; we were heading to some sort of cultural fair in Kuriko, but the idiot fell asleep and got off at the wrong stop by mistake." There was a sigh from inside the box. "Takes a while for him to wake up, y'know? So I guess he scrambled for the door as soon as he heard the announcement and left me behind…" The mournful voice was weird; it sounded—a little hollow, not really childlike at all despite how high it was pitched. The intonation and the words, they were casual but distinctly adult. Conan blinked again; was that how he sounded to people?
No wonder they looked at him funny sometimes.
Neon from outside the windows flickered bright-dark-bright-dark-bright as the train whipped by, catching everything in a kind of staccato stop-motion effect. Distracted, the Detective of the East eyed the box; it really was awfully small—he couldn't imagine anybody fitting inside there without terminal cramps. Inner Detective-san decided to poke him in the curiosity again, though, and Conan scowled. Fine; I'll play your little game. Let's see where it leads. "He might not have forgotten you—there was a bunch of students traveling together up to the last stop, and they all left at one time; maybe they pushed him out before he could, uh, grab your… carrier. Container. Whatever."
Oh, shut UP. This was creeping him out, even if it was just a stupid trick.
"Huh; yeah, maybe." The hollow voice had perked up a bit. Conan scooted a little closer despite his better judgment, looking for wires. "Anyway, 'bout that favor…? I was hoping I could ask you to take me to, I don't know, the Lost-And-Found office or something? I'm valuable."
"Yup. I'm a rare antique— made in the second year of the Meiji era by the master artist Unosuke the Third. Sakon's grandfather paid a fortune for me years ago; I'm probably worth a lot more by now." The voice was rather smug about it; what the hell was he talking to, a jade carving? Conan shook his head hard, trying to knock the mental image of a grinning, somewhat snarky little stone Buddha out of his brain. "Anyway, if you could just carry me to the next station's Lost-And-Found, I'd really 'preciate it… I promise I don't weigh much." A laugh, like from the bottom of a barrel; the whatever-it-was didn't sound too worried. "I used to weigh a lot more, but I got over it," the voice added jokingly.
? Yeah, well, so did I, thought the boy wryly through what was turning into a growing case of nerves. He shook his head again; this was the last time he traveled alone on the subway at night, at least until he was cured, dammit.
So… the object of this little game is to get me to take the box off the train to the nearest Lost-And-Found. If it's the Kid or Heiji who's doing this, there's probably no harm in it—they just want to jerk my chain. If it's Agasa… no, this isn't really his style. If it's…Them….. no; I don't think so either, they could've grabbed me easily by now. So--
"—Oi, kid? You still there? I know your mama probably told you not to talk to strangers, but…" said the voice hopefully. Something inside the box rustled, just a little.
--so who the #$ IS it?
There was only one way to find out.
If it's that goddamned Phantom Thief, I'm going to kill him before I hand him over to the police. Several times. Reluctantly Conan reached out for the box's straps; the voice-inside-the-box was right—it wasn't very heavy. "Okay… Lost-And-Found Office it is. Uh—who should I say owns you? I mean—"
From inside there was a snort. "His name's Tachibana Sakon; he's seventeen, black hair, doesn't talk much; dresses funny—likes buckles and stuff. Lives in the boonies outside Kyoto, has an aunt named Kaoruko who works for the police there, his grandfather's name is…"
As the hollow voice rattled off a string of information, Conan attempted to shift a box that was nearly as tall as he was. It wasn't so bad—there were straps attached that turned it into a sort of awkward backpack. The train was pulling up at a station only two stops before his own; he read off the name aloud, and froze as he felt something shift behind him in the box. Nothing really just moved in there; not of its own volition, anyway. At least he was pretty nearly certain nothing human had moved, nothing human could have moved, not in a box that small.
Pretty. Nearly. Certain.
According to the voice that was now unnervingly issuing from just behind his left shoulderblade, this was the mysterious Sakon's stop; if he had gotten off earlier by mistake, all he had to do was catch another train and ask the staff in charge to call ahead to the train he had vacated. A sign pointed the way to the station's offices, and Conan twitched a little with nerves as he began walking. If this is a setup, whatever's meant to happen will happen in the next few minutes. If it's Gin or Vodka, I'd better be ready to ditch this and run like crazy… and if it's just Heiji or the Kid screwing around, I'm going to see how hard I can kick them in the—
"Are we there yet?"
--and then I'm going to yell 'CHILD MOLESTER!' at the top of my lungs and scream bloody murder until a station-guard shows up.
The station was way too dark; this late at night meant that hardly anyone was around, and Conan swallowed hard as the bright electric lights seemed only to deepen the shadows. His footsteps rang against the electric buzz of machinery; from behind his head, the hollow voice of his 'passenger' spoke up again: "Be careful when you put me down, okay? Sakon'll freak if I get chipped."
A soft chuckle, hollow as a ghost's (shut UP, brain). Whoever was doing this knew he was creeped out, and…
….and oh MAN, he wished that the station wasn't so echoingly empty.
I don't believe in ghosts. This is just a trick. A good one, though…
He (they?) had arrived at the station's administrative offices now; they were dishearteningly dark, and no-one, but no-one was around. …Oh, great. If I was planning an ambush, this'd be a perfect place. The former teenager's gaze flickered around the empty train platform nervously, one hand fumbling at his wristwatch to set an anesthetic dart up and ready. "C'mon…" Conan muttered softly to the empty air, tense as wire. "I'm ready for you—"
"What's the matter?" the box at his back replied; there was more than a little amusement in the voice. "Something wrong?"
Just play along; they're listening. "Looks like the Lost-And-Found's closed; got any other ideas?" he asked casually, tugging the straps free of his small shoulders and lowering his cargo carefully to the cement. The boy flattened against the wall behind the box—it wasn't much, but maybe it'd provide a little cover if needed—and scanned his surroundings. "Got a phone number I can call?"
--any minute now somebody'll shoot at me or Heiji'll come smirking around the corner or Kid'll appear in a puff of smoke—
(and people wonder why I'm so paranoid)
The voice from the box hmphed (an odd sound, like a sneeze in an echo-chamber). "Sorry; I've never used a phone in my, uh… never mind. Anyway, Sakon does all the grunt-work. You think maybe we could find a—"
Conan never got to know the rest, because right about then an explosion of footsteps made him nearly become Beika City's youngest coronary case ever. "NNGH!" he said as a hand clamped down on his shoulder, spinning him around and drawing a "HEY! Easy on the goods!" from behind his back. The black-clad young man who had grabbed him gasped for breath (he had apparently been running) and shoved messy hair out of his eyes before starting to stutter something out.
"Sakon? About freaking time! Where've you been?"
Still trying to catch his breath, the young man bowed rapidly towards Conan (who was trying to catch his own breath; having somebody dressed all in black grab him from behind had not been good for either his mental health or his bladder control) and gasped out "….Gomen (pant, wheeze) nasai!….. Got pushed out of the… (puff, gasp)……. been trying… to catch up (huff, wheeze)… ever since—"
"Yeah, well, I could've been chopped up and sold for FIREWOOD if it hadn't been for this guy— You tell him, kid!"
The young man bowed again (he seemed to use the gesture as a replacement for whole conversations) and gabbled out some form of thanks. He paused, then, suddenly looking panicky; "My luggage—I left it on the platform—I—"
A distinct (if hollow) snort came from the box. "So go get it, Sakon; we'll wait right here, won't we, kid?" Conan opened his mouth and then shut it abruptly as the black-clad teenager gave him another fast bow and then tore off down the sidewalk back the way he had come, boot-heels thudding. Conan's recent passenger sighed. "And people say I have a hollow head… Hey, kid? Thanks for helping out; I really 'preciate it, you know? If you're ever around Kyoto, look up the Tachibanas and they'll do right by you." The box's inhabitant laughed. "Sorry if I freaked you out—"
Again Conan opened his mouth and then shut it with a click of teeth. Damned if I'm going to admit I'm shook to whoever's pulling this—"
Conversationally the voice went on, sounding more hollow than ever. "You don't think I'm real, do you? I mean, not a real person or anything; you think I'm just a trick… somebody throwing their voice or whatever; like that. I'm right, aren't I?" The voice—the person behind the voice—they were grinning, Conan could tell.
"…Well, I—" Rrrrrgh!
Another chuckle. "But it's a big, big world out there, y'know. There's lots of room for all kinds of stuff out there than most people'd ever believe existed, if you keep an open mind. Surprised me, I can tell you….. So if you don't believe I'm real, why don't you open my box and take a look-see at what's inside?" And now the voice sounded almost… playful; whoever-it-was was daring him to take a look. "You're not scared… are you, kid?"
And now they were LAUGHING at him, dammit!
"Fine," Conan grated out between his teeth; this had gone far enough-- He gripped the box, fumbling for the catch. Just a quick look... How could he call himself a detective if there was something he was afraid to look at? (and he WASN'T afraid, it wasn't like there was going to be a dead body in there. It was going to be some sort of speaker setup or one of the Kaitou Kid's stupid heist-notes attached to a transceiver or—)
Very, very carefully, his small hands loosened the latches. The lid slid aside a hair, and—
--OH crap I KNEW it—
It was a dead b--!
No, no, it wasn't a dead body; Conan swallowed hard. Red hair, pale wood, silk clothing—it was… a marionette? No; it was (at least he thought it was) a bunraku theater puppet, one of the life-sized ones. The carved doll slumped quietly against one corner of its box, and he could see the intricate finger-jointing of its hand—that meant that it was of the type that needed a minimum of three people to operate it. A very complex mechanism but NOT a dead body either, no matter how lifelike—or deathlike—it looked, huddled there, eyes closed and so very still.
Just a puppet. Just a puppet. It's just a big doll-- GodDAMMIT Heiji, I bet you're hiding somewhere nearby, watching—or the Kaitou Kid, snickering at widdle Conan Chibi-chan, scared shitless by a stupid #$! trick. When I find out which one of you did this, you're not going to know what hit you. Heart still pounding, the Detective of the East rubbed briefly at his eyes and then started to reach down into the box. There had to be a speaker in there somewhere, behind the puppet or maybe inside it…..
…..and a single closed, wooden eyelid opened on its own, exposing a brilliant violet eye sparkling with laughter. And one corner of the wooden mouth quirked up in a way that no mere carved doll should have ever been able to manage.
SLAM! went the lid back onto the box. Conan let go, backing away as if from a bomb, brain going eeeeeeeeerk—
Footsteps behind him jerked the boy instinctively to one side as someone came pounding up at a dead run. He flattened himself, still in deer-in-the-headlights shock, against the cold brick wall behind him as the black-haired young man (Sakon? That had been the name) came rushing up the platform, gasping for breath all over again. He slid to a halt, dropping a carryall bag to the ground with a perplexed look as Conan backed away rapidly. "G-gomen… Is there something wrong?"
From inside the box came a snicker.
"I—" With a jumble of frantic thoughts making absolutely no sense at all inside his head, it was now Conan's turn to spin around and sprint towards the welcoming doors of the nearest train. It didn't matter which train it was or where it was going, just so long as it WAS going. Behind him he could hear the young man saying something puzzled-sounding; and as Conan staggered in through the open doors, he could hear the answer clearly over the pounding of his heart—
"—nahh, he's fine, just a little rattled; I don't think he likes puppets much."
"Ukon? You don't usually talk to strangers…"
"Yeah, well— he was sort of different, y'know? Mature for his age or something. Nice, though." The hollow voice chuckled one last time. And as the train-doors slid shut, Conan heard it call out:
"Hey, kid? Thanks! Be seeing you!"
The doors closed; and the train (thankyouthankyouthankyou) started down the tracks, surprisingly going the right direction.
"'Be seeing you'?" muttered the boy as he sank into a seat. "God, I hope not….." The faux gradeschooler hugged his arms tight around his body and shivered, trying not to think about things too much, like puppets or ghost stories (Shut UP brain) or the way that friendly-looking face had grinned up at him, just knowing what kind of reaction he was going to have…
The next time I sneak out on Ran I hope she catches me and grounds me for a month. Never again, so help me. Heiji can go see his goddamned games alone from now on. I am staying HOME. He shivered again. Never, ever again; give me a nice, complicated murder-case anytime, not a—never mind; I don't know what that was and for once I don't WANT to know. Never, ever again…..
And back on the train platform:
"Funny kid, wasn't he? Kind of nervous. So—where to next, Sakon? Are we heading home or what?"
The young man in the rather odd black clothes shouldered his companion's lacquered box as he had so many times before. "No; tomorrow we'll be putting on a bunraku demonstration for some gradeschoolers in here Beika City… I wonder if that child will be one of them?" Much more at ease now that he had reclaimed his partner, Tachibana Sakon began walking down the platform towards his next destination. "It'd be good to see him again, wouldn't it?"
"Oh, yeah;" there was a chuckle from behind his shoulderblades— not a malicious sound, not at all, but there was a wealth of mischief in it. Sometimes a person (wooden or flesh) had to take their amusement however and wherever they could find it, after all. "Yeah, that'd be great; if anybody needs to loosen up before they blow a blood-vessel, it's that kid. Jeeze, you'd think he had seen a ghost…"
"Ukon—" His partner shot a warning glance back at the lacquered box; it gleamed back at him brightly beneath the platform lights. "Were you scaring that boy deliberately?"
"Me?" The hollow voice practically dripped innocence. "No way, not me. We just had a nice little talk, that's all."
The puppet's snort of laughter echoed through the deserted train station as Sakon walked on.
Ysabet's Notes: This fic is thanks to much discussion and attack-plunnies from Icka M. Chif (and thanks for the title!) For those of you who haven't run across it (it's one of those horribly good, sort of cultish, little-known series) Ayatsuri Sakon runs 26 episodes and 4 volumes of manga. It concerns one Konosuke Sakon, the grandson of a Japanese living national treasure, a bunraku puppet performer; bunraku puppets are very, very complicated lifesized puppets that are manipulated from the back, usually by several performers who stay in the background of the play. Sakon's learning the trade and is very reclusive and quiet most of the time; his name, by the way, means "to the left side". His constant companion is a child-sized redheaded puppet that he was given when pretty young, named Ukon (meaning "to the right side"), who seems to be possessed. "Seems to be"…. Heh heh heh; Ukon mouths off, turns to look at things way before Sakon does, freaks out when Sakon stays calm, and likes to flirt. Sakon also seems to use Ukon to channel spirits when he solves mysteries, and yes—this is another murder-mystery series. Whether or not Ukon is actually a haunted puppet or just a split personality of Sakon's is part of the mystery of the series; also, is he really channeling ghosts, or just putting on a very good psychological drama? If you watch the anime, you never quite know… but if you read the manga, the 4th volume has Ukon's history due to Sakon managing to fall backwards in time to early in the Meiji Era and meeting the person who became his puppet: Rinsuke, a normal human being, brother of the woman who made Ukon's wooden body. Rinsuke dies to protect both Sakon and his sister, but earlier he says laughingly to Sakon "If you'll be the left, I'll be the right." So… well, you can see where this is going. I kind of played a little fast and loose with the whole thing, I admit; in the anime, Ukon can only move and talk if Sakon is touching the controls inside his chest (he reaches in from the back). In the manga, though, there's at least one incident when Ukon not only moves but talks to Sakon's aunt AND smokes what looks suspiciously like an opium-pipe while Sakon is sound asleep, so I decided that'd work (thank you, Icka, for pointing this out!) Ukon could vie with Watari from Yami no Matsuei for being voted Anime's Most Cheerful Dead Guy; I absolutely LOVE Sakon fics, and there are less than a dozen out there, dammit. Where are all the Sakon fics? Where? Show me the Sakon ficcage! Rahhhrrrrr! A bishi and his possessed puppet; a possessed puppet and his bishi. Who couldn't love that? Sakon tends to wear some odd outfits, granted (there's a certain tendency towards slightly bondage-looking collars and boots and whatever); but so? It's a GOOD series. Look for it.
If Ukon seemed a bit malicious in this fic, by the way, I didn't mean him to be. But put yourself in his shoes; how often would he get the chance to… play a little? If I were a haunted puppet, the temptation would've been irresistible.
Damn; my note's awfully long; must work on this sort of thing… and by the way, Happy Belated Halloween/Samhain 2005, everybody! (and see, Icka? I resisted the urge to have Ukon shout "IIIIIII AM THE BOX-GHOST!" It wasn't easy, but I did it. Nyah-nyah.)