Gin leaned back in the plush chair, looking at the information he had just managed to uncover after searching on Vermouth's computer for the past hour. He had discovered the same things that Conan and Ai had learned, and he was not pleased about any of it. Ling must surely know the victims, he decided, and for Yusuke Ushio's brother to have been involved with the murders, Gin wondered if the other had possessed a reason that he hoped would lead him to Gin, or at least to attract the blonde's attention. He had mostly discarded the thought before, but now that there was more evidence of Ling's likely involvement, he was considering it again.
"So! Find anything good?"
He started and whirled around at the sound of Vermouth's voice. The blonde woman had appeared in the doorway of the room, looking typically curious. Gin suddenly felt typically irritated.
"What do you know about the Blue Parrot?" he grunted, looking at her from behind the long bangs.
Vermouth blinked. "The Blue Parrot?" she repeated, coming into the room and sitting on a nearby chair. "Well, it's a nightclub . . . pretty popular among the rich and famous, and rumored to be a hot spot among shady characters." She smirked. "Of course, 'shady' is all in the eye of the beholder. As we well know, almost anyone could be 'shady', no matter how legitimate their business supposedly is." She leaned forward, trying to get a glance at the papers Gin was holding. "Why so inquisitive, Gin? Does it have something to do with that girl's story?"
Gin shrugged. "Hi Sou's a member of that club," he answered flatly, "and so are the four murder victims. I doubt it's coincidence." He handed her the sheets, allowing her to look through them and hoping that she would be able to supply him with some sort of useful information.
"Oh, I doubt it too," Vermouth remarked, flipping through the pages. When she came to one in particular, her eyes narrowed. "Naomi Sakurai," she murmured. "She's the reporter who was killed first today, before the secretary Rei Yoshinari." She studied the black and white photo that accompanied the article telling of her demise, as if attempting to make certain of something.
"Do you know her?" Gin asked pointedly. It was obvious to him that the name meant something to her, and judging from her reaction and especially her scrutiny of the picture, it was as though she had met this Naomi Sakurai more than once.
Vermouth nodded slowly. "She actually interviewed me a couple of times, when I was here in Japan before," she replied. "She was just new to the business then, and I was her first big assignment. She was thrilled to have the chance to interview the famous Chris Vineyard, of course." She winked, and Gin's lip curled in annoyance.
"I don't imagine you'd know of any reason why Hi Sou would kill her," the green-eyed man said.
Vermouth sighed. "Sorry, Gin," she replied, going through the papers once more before handing them back to him. "I have no idea, unless maybe she got too close to something that she shouldn't have. Being a reporter, and knowing about the rumors of the Blue Parrot being a front, maybe she joined under an assumed name and started snooping around. Hi Sou could be in on the illegal activities there, and maybe he recognized her. And if he did, maybe he hired one of his hitmen to take her out."
Gin frowned down at the papers in his hands, trying to mentally sort through the mystery that he had unwillingly been handed. Somehow he had the feeling that the fourth victim was the key. It just seemed odd to him, that Naomi Sakurai had been killed on the same day as Rei Yoshinari, considering the number of days between the previous deaths. And the pearls. . . . Somehow they must be important, too, or else they would not be left as a message at each crime scene. But what would they be supposed to represent?
Pearls were usually white, he knew . . . like the snow. And the blood-red color reminded him of something being tainted. He wondered if that idea could be in the killer's mind as well. If so, what did he think had tainted the pearls? Did they represent the four victims? Were they supposed to be pure, and then something had happened that eliminated that purity, in the killer's mind? Or did the red color simply mean their pure blood being spilled? There were such varied possibilities.
And then there was the man Ayumi had seen. . . . She had only managed to take note of his "plastic arm", she had said, but maybe after sleeping for a while she would be able to remember something else as well---his clothes, or maybe something about his height or weight or the way he walked. But he supposed that meanwhile, he could work with the prosthetic arm clue. He could check around with Ling's contacts and hitmen in Tokyo and see how many of them had such limbs. Surely there would not be that many.
"Is the girl asleep again?" he spoke finally.
"She wasn't when I left," Vermouth said, and smirked in amusement. "She wanted to talk to Vodka, and he looked so flustered."
Gin grunted. He could well imagine.
Ayumi sat partially up on the soft mattress, looking over at Vodka as he shifted uncomfortably in the chair by the bed. She bit her lip, averting her gaze downward to the comforter as she ran her hand over it. The material was so soft, as was the bed. She did not know where she was, but she felt completely safe. Still, she had questions, particularly for Vodka. There was something she had wanted to ask him for some time now, though she had never had the chance. And though she felt somewhat reluctant to do so now, she wanted very much to know the answer.
"Vodka-san?" she spoke up then, looking back up at him.
He started and glanced over at her. "What is it?" he half-mumbled. He felt nervous, being left alone with her, and he wondered when Gin would come back, or when Ayumi would fall asleep---whichever happened first. He found himself hoping that Vermouth would not be the only one to return. It had made him very uneasy, when she had been with him and Ayumi a few moments earlier. She had joked that they might be mistaken for a family, and he had turned crimson.
"Do you not like me very much?"
He gaped at her, not having expected that at all. For a moment he could not even find his voice to reply. "Why . . . why would you ask that?" he stammered at last.
Ayumi shrugged slightly. "I don't know. . . . I guess . . . I just kinda wonder," she answered softly. "You act like you don't know what to say to me a lot of times, and you get kinda mad sometimes. . . . But I know that's almost always when you're worried, like when Gin-sama was hurt. . . ." She looked down, feeling tears gathering in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Vodka-san. . . . I cause you and Gin-sama so much trouble!"
Vodka was at a complete loss for words. He wondered how Gin ever managed to deal with her. "I . . . I don't dislike you," he exclaimed then.
Ayumi blinked and looked at him hopefully. "You don't?" she repeated.
Vodka nodded, shifting again. "You're not so bad, for a kid," he replied, wishing that Gin would come in and put a stop to the conversation.
Ayumi tilted her side to the side. "Why don't you like kids, Vodka-san?" she asked.
Vodka shrugged uncomfortably. "Well . . . most of them are hard to get along with," he answered, wondering why he was bothering to tell this to her. "And . . . they cause a lot of trouble, and get into things they shouldn't." He cast his gaze desperately around the room and to the door. "I guess . . . most of the kids I've met are . . . well . . . brats," he finished helplessly.
Ayumi bit her lip. "Oh. . . ." Carefully she threw back the comforter and came over to the edge of the bed, and to Vodka's astonishment she climbed onto his lap. "I'm glad you don't hate me, Vodka-san," she said softly, snuggling as she embraced him around the neck. "I like you a lot! You're my friend."
Vodka was stunned. He stared at her, wondering what to say, or if there was anything that actually could be said. He could feature Gin being shocked as well, before telling her that she should pick better friends. But that was not Vodka's style. Finally he simply slumped back, letting her hug him and wondering how he and Gin had gotten into this situation in the first place.
The pain was excruciating, when it came. She should have been prepared for it, but she was not. Her eyes widened as she gripped the edge of the table with one hand, while placing the other over her heart as she fell to her knees. She breathed heavily, shuddering and trembling, and she wished it would pass. It felt as if her entire body was on fire.
At some point, she collapsed completely to the floor. She did not and could not try to get up, but simply continued to lay there, grabbing desperately at the floor with her small hands. She shut her eyes tightly, trying to focus her mind on other things, but it was impossible to concentrate on anything except the pain. It was worse this time than it even had been in the past. She was allowed a brief respite to wonder what that meant, before the agony overtook her once again.
She was never sure if she screamed, or how long she laid there, or even if she had been conscious through it all. All she knew was that suddenly, it stopped. And she let out a deep breath, continuing to lay where she was as she absorbed this knowledge. She felt fine now, even normal . . . as normal as she could be, she thought wryly to herself. And she wondered if it had worked.
Her train of thought was then halted by the realization of what had truly brought her back to awareness---a sharp, insistent ringing. Someone was calling. But . . . was it not still the middle of the night? Even Conan should be in bed by now. . . .
She reached up, grabbing the edge of the table as she pulled her body upright. Out the window, she could see an increasing light streaming through. Either she had been up all night working without quite comprehending it, or else she had, indeed, fallen unconscious for some unknown period of time. Oh well, she could work out the details later. Quickly she grabbed the receiver. "Hello?" she mumbled.
"Haibara!" came Conan's familiar voice. "Did I wake you up?"
"No," she answered, but then trailed off as she noticed the scraps of cloth falling off her arm. She gazed down at herself, quickly taking note that, among other things, all of her clothing was torn. She looked around the room for something she could put on, and then swiftly reached for one of Agasa's lab coats. It would be too big on her, but she certainly could not go parading out of the laboratory the way she appeared now.
Suddenly she became aware that Conan had been talking to her for the last few minutes, as she had been getting into the coat and buttoning it. She had tried to hold the phone with one hand as she had worked, but her mind had not been on anything that her caller had said. She sighed to herself at this realization. "What is it, Kudo?" she asked.
"Have you heard anything I just said?"
She smirked wryly as she crossed the room, studying herself in the mirror over the wash basin. "No, I haven't," she said matter-of-factly, "but I need to see you right away."
"Ayumi didn't come home last night," Conan reported, and then took in what he had just been told. "What's happening, Haibara?" he demanded, his eyes narrowing. "Why do you need to see me?"
"I can't explain over the phone," she replied mysteriously, "except I don't think I'll be able to go to school today." With that, the call was terminated, leaving a very bewildered Conan on the other end of the line.
The supposed child did not waste any time, and after quickly writing a note to Ran that Ai Haibara wanted to see him, he left the Mouri Detective Agency and was on his way back to his old neighborhood, via his skateboard.
Along the way, he considered many different possibilities as to what had happened and why she wanted to see him. She had sounded so occupied, and her last words had been so cryptic. Was she ill? Had something happened to Dr. Agasa? Or even . . . was it possible that she was not Ai Haibara any longer? He had not known that she had even been thinking much about an antidote lately, though it was always in the back of his mind and he found that he had assumed the same for her.
If that was the case, then he wondered what that would mean for them both. Would the effects even be permanent? There had been temporary antidotes in the past. If this was the complete, working cure, then they would have to continue laying low, working even harder to bring down the Black Organization. And they would have to succeed this time. They could not live normal lives as long as the Organization still operated, and especially not if they were in their true forms.
His next thought was that if Ai had, indeed, found the antidote, it could not have come at a better time. With Ayumi's disappearance, he felt certain that Gin was responsible somehow. Perhaps they would even have to confront him to get her back. But he wondered where they would even begin to look.
Finding that he had arrived at Agasa's home, Conan jumped off his skateboard and picked it up, carrying it with him to the front door. Before he could reach up to knock, it was opened by someone on the other side whom he could not see. The room beyond was dark, all of the curtains closed. "Come in, Kudo," Ai's familiar voice came to him then. As Conan hurried in, the door was shut and locked behind him.
He turned, by now half-expecting what he would see. But he still found himself gaping at the sight of Shiho Miyano standing before him, wearing a too-big lab coat and no shoes. She caught his gaze and smiled wryly, moving away from the door. "This is the only thing that fits me at all now," she remarked. "It's better for it to be too big rather than too small."
Finally Conan managed to find his voice. "Do you know if this antidote will last?" he asked, his gaze drifting from her long and shapely legs, up her torso, and to her face. It was the same face as Ai Haibara's. She had not aged much. He was certain that if Ran or the Detective Boys saw her, they would realize who she had been. It was so obvious.
She shook her head. "I don't know," she answered slowly, "but I think there's a good possibility of it." She walked over to the couch and sat down, and Conan quickly joined her. "The pain was more intense this time," she said seriously, turning to look at him. "I think that could mean that the damage was repairing itself in a more permanent way." She searched his blue eyes. "If you wanted to take it . . . I believe there's a good chance you would stay in your true body this time, and not revert back to this again." She nodded slightly, indicating his form as Conan.
He nodded slowly. He wanted so badly to get back to his life as Shinichi Kudo, and he had ever since this had happened to him. But he still worried over what he had always worried over---Ran's safety. As long as the Black Organization was loose, it did not seem safe to return to her as Shinichi. And yet, he certainly could not hope to defeat the crime syndicate as Conan Edogawa.
"If you need some time to decide, that's understandable," Shiho spoke, having read his thoughts once more. She knew of the dilemma he was going through, even though she was also certain that she knew of how it would end up eventually. She was certain that he would take the antidote, and soon. The only question then was, What would he tell Ran after that? After all the time she had spent getting used to Conan, it would not seem fair for the child to suddenly vanish without Ran realizing it. But it would also seem ridiculous for him to say that his parents finally wanted him again and that he had to go, and that Agasa would take him to the airport. Of course, Shiho mused to herself, the entire situation to begin with was ridiculous.
Conan sighed softly. "I worry about how we're going to bring down the Black Organization," he said then. "It may have to be done sooner than we thought." He narrowed his eyes. "With Ayumi still being missing, I don't think we can ignore the possibility that Gin has her. And we can't solely rely on the hope that he'll be good to her, as he's seemed to be in the past."
"I know, Kudo," Shiho said after a long silence. "If we're to be realistic, we have to acknowledge that he could have found out about my connection to her and he might be using her because of that."
"Your voice sounds hollow," Conan remarked quietly. "You still don't believe it."
"I don't want to believe it." Shiho looked away. "There's a difference." She started to get up, wanting to change the subject. "We need to find Ayumi. That should be our top priority now. And I realize that if we find her, we may find Gin." She glanced back slightly. "The only lead we have is for the Blue Parrot. We'll have to follow it up. If we can find Ling Hi Sou there, or someone who works for him, we may learn something else. It's possible that they have Ayumi, instead of it being Gin."
Conan knew that she was right. "You can't go out like that, though," he objected.
"Of course I won't. I asked Dr. Agasa to get me a few things." Shiho sighed, coming back to the couch.
Conan had to smirk slightly in amusement at the thought of the poor, bewildered inventor browsing the women's department of a clothing store. Then he sobered, starting to get up off the couch. "I'll take the antidote and come with you," he declared.
She looked to him. "Are you sure?" she queried.
He nodded. "I'll call Ran and say that you wanted to see me because . . . because my parents came for me," he decided quietly, despite feeling his insides twist a bit at the thought of lying again to Ran. It seemed the lesser of two evils at the moment. He could not tell her yet about him being Conan. Maybe later, when everything was over and there was not any more danger. . . .
"Are you sure that's what you want to do?" Shiho's voice was still serious and quiet.
He blinked, looking back. "Do you think I should tell her the truth . . . in spite of the risks?" he asked.
"It's up to you," she told him. "But if you keep lying to her, she may come to not know what to think at all, or if she can trust you. It will already be hard for her, to learn that you've been living a lie for as long as you have. I know your reasons, Kudo, and I believe that in time, she will come to understand as well, but it would only be human for her to find it hard to accept at first."
He knew she was right. But it was not as if he had not pondered over those very things many a time. He had nearly told Ran on several occassions, but then something had always happened to cause it to not happen. It was as if fate worked against him, letting him know that keeping the truth from Ran was the best thing. "She's not safe knowing about it," he said finally. "You and I both know that. I would tell her if I didn't think it could bring danger to her."
She nodded. "Alright." She paused. "But, Kudo . . . there's one other thing you should do before taking the antidote."
He frowned in confusion, looking to her. "What's that?" he asked.
"Go get some clothes from your house next-door," Shiho replied, the faintest trace of a smirk on her face.