Self-replacement

by Hakaisha

Conan found her by the window.

Outside the sheltering walls of the Mouri Detective Agency, a spectacular storm raged: the droplets of water pelted the walls and windows steadily, while the wind outside screamed past, rattling the panes in their frames. Thunder rumbled in the distance and the occasional lightning bolt flashed past, illuminating the darkened room.

Ran had said not to turn on the lights.

There they sat, then, the diminutive not-boy watching the young woman warily. Ran's face was angled towards the storm outside, and the overcast weather cast an unhealthy grey sheen into her usually smiling, vibrant face.

She looked so tired.

As if aware of the scrutinization, Ran turned at the boy and smiled at him, her eyes bleak and distant in a way that twisted the facsimile of a smile cruelly on her lips. "Conan."

He nodded, once. Some part of him wondered at the dropped suffix, but he pushed it aside unconcernedly. There were bigger worries at the moment.

"Conan, can I..." Ran hesitated, as if not sure if she could ask this...then with a final closing of her eyes (did she blink back tears?) she seemed to square herself against the inevitable. "Can I...hold you?"

He started--at her, at her words, at the expression on her face and at the unnamed things that cost her to say that. He almost preferred the prior dead silence to these short words that tore at her like broken glass. And what a strange, sudden request...

But then his observant eyes fell on a red shirt and the cell phone Mouri Ran was clutching like a lifeline in her hands, and he understood. Mutely, he nodded again.

Ran always liked me in red...

Four years now--and the 11 year old "boy" was almost too big to be held, even if he was still scrawny for his age. Jutting angles of elbows and knees and prepubescent teenager perched awkwardly in her lap, almost too heavy a burden--

But Mouri Ran still supported his weight easily--after all, she was a strong woman.

She has had to be.

Slender, toned arms wrapped around him tightly, crushing him in an embrace so tight that it was hard to tell when one stopped and another one began. Ran's breathing was ragged on his neck, her frame shaking as she seemed to choke back quiet sobs.

He didn't complain about the pressure on his chest or the breath that she stole from his lungs--besides, who was he to complain about theft? For all the thieves he had caught and all the crimes he had stopped he had committed more himself.

He had stolen a lot more from Ran than just her breath.

It took him a moment to realize Ran was speaking, choked words between harsh swallows. He twisted slightly, trying to look at her, trying to offer what condolences he could as the child who couldn't know, couldn't understand--but who understood most of all. "Ran-neechan..."

"Four years, Conan..." And again he wondered at the suffix, and again he had no time to wonder as she continued, drawing a breath as she went. "Four years...a call a month or two, or three, or four...and every time it's the same: wait. I told him--I told him how I felt--and he even said the same back--

"But he's still not here--he still out chasing his thieves, his criminals, his dream of being a great detective--he's failed all his classes with nonattendance and broken all his promises, every time--every time--!

"And he still wants me to wait..."

Her voice cracked and broke as her breath caught in her throat; she buried her face into the back of his neck and he could feel something cold and wet trailing down, making him shiver. Her next words were muffled in his shirt.

"I don't want to wait anymore..."

He started, twitched; something in himself cracked a little at those words. "Ran-neechan...?"

And she let go of him, and set him down, looking at him in that strange, strange way that made him squirm. "He can't--he can't even remember his own birthday. Or--or remember to call. His life--his life is for his cases." Her hands fisted in anger and disgust in the red fabric of the shirt, the tissue paper wrapping strewn on the floor.

Conan's eyes strayed to the cell phone, and then helplessly to the storm outside, and the familiar phone booth he knew was hidden just beyond that sheet of rain. But...

She was still talking; her breath hitched oddly against her words. "...and you're so like him, Conan, but not too--you're as smart, maybe smarter than when Shinichi was your age, and you look just like him--like a mini Shinichi...

"But you're not him, and you're not selfish or stubborn or stupid or irresponsible enough to run away chasing moonshine and pipe dreams when something more tangible is right there...and sometimes you seem so old, even older than Shinichi or--" And she laughed, the sound hollow and brittle "--or me. And you act older than even Shinichi would and more responsible and mature, and you just understand everything and just--just know--"

Some part of him was beginning to understand, but refused to believe it; forcing his voice against the sudden dryness in his throat, he tried again. "Ran-neechan? I don't understand..."

She cracked a smile at him, bravely wiping at her face. "Don't you get it, Conan?" Her smile wavered, as watery as her tears. "I don't want to be Neechan anymore."

And he finally understood, the truth hitting him like a sledgehammer, his mouth dropping open in shock.

She was right, of course--four years was too long to wait for anyone, and who was he to ask that of her?

But--

The thought of losing her had crossed his mind, of course--several times during the past years. But he had always thought that he would lose her to some good-looking boy that could treat her right, who wouldn't make her wait with broken half-promises and vague replies. And even with his good sense about the inevitable, he knew that Conan would always disapprove of any boyfriend that's not Shinichi-niichan (and if anyone ever wondered why Conan-kun looked exactly like a younger version of the Shinichi of old, down to every last cowlick, no one ever commented) no matter what, always snarling at the potential suitors like a protective bulldog on guard. The selfish (and Ran was right about his selfishness, wasn't she?) part of him would rather she be a spinster for life, if that meant that he'd still have his chance, that he can still come back to Ran...

But the alternative was unthinkable, so much so that it had never occured to him--of losing Ran to Conan...

"Ran..." He swallowed, and swallowed again; his throat suddenly felt as parched as a desert. "I'm not Shinichi's replacement."

Of course I'm not, you idiot--you idiot--damn it, Ran...

I am Shinichi...!

And perhaps Ran didn't miss the suffixes Conan-kun usually attached to her and Shinichi, even as she hurried to correct him in that placating tone Ran always gave him when they were younger and she, by some accident, had offended Shinichi's deductive intellect and accompanying sensitivities (and some part of him winced at how she directed that tone towards Conan now, not Shinichi). "I know, Conan--but it's not replacing. You're different--better--you're better than Shinichi--

"You're not Shinichi."

"I'm not," he agreed, pulling off the glass lenses that divided them. He reached for his bowtie, clicked it, turned the dial to a familiar one and spoke into it, and could not appreciate the expression on Ran's face when Shinichi spoke back.

"I'm me."

End

Started/Completed: 2005.08.01