Disclaimer: "Detective Conan" belongs to Gosho Aoyama, and "Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon" belongs to Naoko Takeuchi.

This is an alternative story to my other fanfic "Encounter in Venice" and one of the possibilities of what could have happened if Ai had taken the antidote before Shinichi brought down the Organization.

Thanks a lot to my friends and betas Rae (Astarael00) and SN1987a and the Aicoholics on LiveJournal, without whom I would never have started this fic.

FS

g.

Ghost at Twilight

Dedicated to June ("Teainapot"/"Juneaddams")

g.


Contrary to your expectations…

Contrary to your expectations, tonight's twilight is breathtakingly radiant, exhibiting not only spectacular scarlet and pink cloudscapes but also a mysteriously shimmering, deep lilac afterglow high above the reddish-golden band on the horizon. The full moon is hanging on this silky curtain of light like a flawless white diamond. As the light behind you fades, the afterglow before your eyes only seems to intensify—and all the trees and buildings in the distance gradually disappear, their outlines blended together into the dramatic skyline.

Driven by a bewildering brew of jealousy, despair, fury, compassion, and love—it is peculiar how the label you were once so hesitant to attach to the feeling has become synonymous with his name after less than one day—you fly to his apartment at a speed which doesn't only ruin your sandals but also your knees and feet. When you arrive at the lift, breathless with anticipation and fatigue, you become aware of the problem that you haven't hatched a plan of action yet although various hypothetical scenarios ranging from rosy to apocalyptic have played out in your mind like a film.

If Seiya invites you in—you suddenly know with certainty when you're finally standing in front of his apartment—you will pin him against the wall and kiss him after kicking the door shut. In revenge for his outrageous lies, the joke he played on you, and the humiliation you had to endure from his brothers and his friends, you will seduce him and use him, struggle free from this ill-fated love, and drop the accomplished Casanova in time for his flight to New York so that he will never forget the woman who has bested him in his own game.

No one opens the door when you ring. If he is at home, he must be sulking in bed or—your blood boils at the thought—distracting himself from his heartache with the help of another woman.

You turn the key and open the door without making a sound, entering his apartment as stealthily as a weightless spectre. Stepping across the threshold, you inhale the familiar scent of roses in the deathly silence. The apartment still looks the same as when Seiya and you left, you observe. Vases of roses are still scattered over the floor between the living room and the kitchen. Piles of love letters are still lying on the coffee table in a heap. From the balcony, the high clouds, the moon, and even the first evening stars, which have come out much too early, seem so near that you can almost fall under the illusion that they are within reach. For all that… Through the blue-tinted glass of the large window, the twilit world has lost its rose colour.

"Seiya?"

If he is in the company of Odango or another woman he has chatted up in a café or on the streets, you're not going to barge in on them without a warning. Taking off your cardigan to hang it on the lowest hook, you begin to feel like Kakyuu, who must have done the same whenever she came home. In a ghost story, her soul would have chosen you as its host for one day, using you to steal the heart of the man who never fully succumbed to her charms when she was still alive. Or the love you once felt for Kudo in Paris has returned to haunt you in disguise, pretending to be a stranger so that it won't be recognized and killed off again…

The beeping sound, muted as if it came from behind a thick, soundproof door, steals into your ear the moment you allow yourself to ponder the untenable, ridiculous idea that the last twenty-three hours have indeed been unreal—a game whose rules provide that you can never see Kudo and Seiya, who have the same initials, at the same time even when they appear at the same place. Like two sides of the same coin, or the same lover in two parallel universes, they have supported you, taunted you, and got under your skin as they ceaselessly prodded you to leave your comfort zone to retrieve the memories you had chosen to forget. Pushing open the door to the bathroom, whose muted green colour is as soothing as its owner's voice before he drifts into sleep, you register that the washer-dryer combo is not even plugged in although the faint beeping sound is continuing in your head, counting the seconds which pass in the ceaseless, steady flow of time.

In the bathtub, countless bouquets of roses in white, yellow, and red are lying snuggly pressed against each other, filling the air with their heady sweet scent. The warm, nostalgic fragrance of kinmokusei is still lingering in the room as well, wafting from a blue carafe, which lacks the hand-drawn label.

Unnerved by a premonition you cannot name, you knock a few times at the closed bedroom door and push it open. The room is empty, much to your relief. You would have died if you had found him with another woman in it.

Letting your gaze roam the bedroom and linger on the window, whose translucent patterned curtains cast soft, sinister shadows on the bed, you realize with a sinking feeling in your stomach that Seiya and you won't see each other again before he leaves for New York or will see each other much too late, when no time is left for explanations and apologies. Whatever he might have lied about for fear of scaring you away, his love for you felt real. From whichever angle you look at it, it was you who has degraded your fairytale romance to a casual one-night stand, who once again ditched her ideal lover and surrendered to the circumstances. The pattern must have emerged when Gin ended your "marriage" by shooting the only person you truly loved at that time. Since then you've let go of love whenever you could feel it in your grasp—and it doesn't help to know why.

g.

Removing your sandals before treading on the soft carpet, you climb into his bed and rest your head on his pillow, on which you can still smell the scent of his skin. Since it's highly unlikely that you will find him in Ueno-koen within the one hour you have left, you decide to wait for him here instead of rummaging through his drawers for his number or run aimlessly around Shinobazu-no-ike. Maybe—so you tell yourself as you're falling into a pleasant reverie, teetering on the brink of a deep, dead sleep—maybe he will appear in the door in a few minutes and welcome you into his arms. And you two will elope before Tenoh-san can stop the wedding, or she and you will negotiate, and all will be well again.

In truth, you feel too fatigued to move, as though you had wandered across countries and continents and walked thousands of miles within one day. It was the same during the "party" on the day after the Professor's funeral, when you watched Kaito perform his magic tricks. The children and even most of the adults present were delighted by the flowers, the doves, the playing cards, the flickering light, the mirrors and the smoke and the petals flying through the air. To you, however, everything was only a variant of the same game, the repetition of a trick you had already seen.

Watching Kudo and Ran, who were cozily settled close to each other in a corner of the very sofa where Kudo and you had sat and watched Charade before you two went to Paris, you replayed the quarrel at Pandora's Box over and over again in your head. You could see with painful clarity that things would have taken another turn if only you had lied at the crucial moment. Overwhelmed by a sense of loss and indignation at the injustice of it all, you wondered briefly whether you should win your detective back by lying to him now.

"Why did you do it?" he asked her. And the camera focussed on her flushed cheeks—which might have been coloured by the harsh, cold wind—and her hard eyes or even her firm mouth as she gazed into the distance and gently murmured: "I did it for you!"

His eyes widened as realization dawned. The music played—a romantic, sickeningly sweet tune. And when they dramatically sank into each other's arms in the rain, which washed away her lies, romance would have bloomed, and he would have forgiven her for deleting the files…

"To keep you safe," you could have said. But it would have felt so wrong to say it at that moment. Although you had intended to protect him at first—when Tenoh-san's name was to be sent to all the blackmailed people on the list, the game had changed, and you learned for the first time that you could never build your happiness on another person's pain. Perhaps you had been too weak or too stubborn, or simply too proud. Or maybe you erased the disk because it was the only way to make sure that Kudo will stay safe—or because you were fed up with the machinations and had to end it all. Since one lie more or less didn't make a difference, you could have lied to Kudo or give him a simplified version the truth—if only you hadn't felt utter disgust at the very thought of it.

In a utilitarian world view, saving the files would have been the right decision no matter whose name Gin had attached to the mail—but your notion of loyalty dictated that you couldn't sacrifice Tenoh-san's happy family for all the Organization's victims. In saving Tenoh-san for Kaioh-san (whose blue umbrella once protected you from being drenched on the way to the dorm while she missed a date with her girlfriend, as you later learned), you had sacrificed thousands of strangers and your own happiness. Tenoh-san, whom you had left in the belief that you had planned to erase the files right from the start, would have called it an act of formidable self-defeat.

Too bright to be black but too dark to be white, poisoning twenty-six people without remorse just to lose what you wanted most due to a moment of weakness and the refusal to live a lie—you were left with a story you couldn't tell, rendered mute before the man you loved like Andersen's little mermaid. But what was wrong, and what was right, you wondered as you were watching Kuroba Kaito's magic tricks with almost clinical detachment. The truth had so many facets and faces of which none looked really right… not when the sunlight faded away at the end of the day and the boundaries blurred into each other in this never-ending twilight.

g.

Some people believed that tragedy was transcendental, a poignant reminder of the gulf between our wishful thinking and the truth—the gap which sometimes equaled the distance between the stars and the earth. And yet you couldn't feel anything of the supposed greatness of suffering as you were walking down the stairs to the cellar. The detective was tailing you from some distance—an elegant, urbane figure in a tailored suit, who offered you his hand when you arrived at your empty desk. Since he wasn't the detective you wanted, however, you didn't take it.

The Professor had been a genius, who had only invented gadgets and toys, Hakuba Saguru said, pulling out a chair with a flourish to sit down next to you. But while the Professor had squandered his talents on inconsequential games, he had known how to make use of time, a resource most people wasted.

Time and life usually slipped away as people focussed on their negative experiences, on the repetitiveness of tradition and the familiarity of the known. On a stopwatch, time seemed forever to elapse at the same unchanging pace; but our personal perception of time—the time which really counted and which depended on our awareness—was stretchable to the extreme.

Days could feel like years while years could feel like weeks. How did time pass for someone who was dreaming, who had gone into a coma, or whose life flashed through their mind in their last moments on earth? At the end of our lives, time often revealed itself to be the treasure we had foolishly thrown away in our relentless quest for happiness. Unhappy people were those who left the world with regrets while happy people knew that they had made the most of their time.

When he wished for a party instead of a traditional funeral, your Professor had tried to give you all one day of mirth, which would otherwise have been lost to grief and gloom. Since happiness couldn't be forced on anyone, you were free to stay away from the party if you wanted—but Hakuba, whose task was to coordinate the event, felt responsible to keep you company and make the day bearable for you.

It has never occurred to either of you to steer your growing friendship in the direction of romance, for the chemistry between Hakuba and you are of a purely platonic nature. But you two sometimes meet up when he returns to Tokyo to do some catching up. And as the words which once saved you again enter your consciousness, you force yourself to get up and let your eyes sweep the bedroom.

You haven't been searching for a clue or anything in particular. In fact, you aren't even aware of having searched for anything at all. But when your gaze falls on the small razor and a tube of glue Seiya has left on the bedside table between the helmet and the vase, you instantly recall the curious expression on his face when he asked you why Kaito had given you a death card and put two and two together.

Seiya has slipped the card back into your pocket along with the key to his apartment. And since you were elated by the fact that he had given you his key, you didn't pay attention. Taking the two playing cards out of your pocket, you behold them in the luminous glimmer of twilight. The Jack of Hearts you found on the street is a regular court card—but the other card is not the Queen and the Ace of Spades, which Seiya must have kept for himself after stealing it from you.

It is an Ace of Hearts with a note in his illegible sloping hand, which you decipher as "Tonight, in Ueno-koen." Turning it to the other side, you discover that in reference to Seiya's character and name, Yaten-san has drawn a colourful jester in front of a starry night, who is wandering on the edge of a precipice and reaching for the stars with a disarming smile, heedless of the danger in front of him and unaware of the ruins he is leaving behind.

g.


Although you know that…

Although you know that haste often causes accidents and that you had better hail a cab, you storm out into the twilight and follow the bus route to Ueno-koen for lack of a better plan. Cursing yourself for losing your handbag with the result that you don't have any cash for a cab ride, you stumble on your impractical, soon-to-be-disposed-of new sandals along an endless procession of sky-bridges and skyscrapers, tree-lined avenues, and sumptuous villas, past a string of gourmet restaurants, exclusive boutiques, and five-star hotels. As the clothes in the boutiques grow more trendy and affordable and the number of the stars on the hotels in the vicinity diminishes, the lush, pale pink cherry trees at Shinobazu-no-ike materialize into view.

Shivering with anticipation, you fly past the bustling streets towards the water, which is glistening in the same ever-shifting shades of violet and purple as alexandrites glow at night under incandescent lights. The last squirrels of the evening are scrambling along the branches, leaping from tree to tree. At the intersection you just left behind, children are playing ball while cars and bikes are chasing each other for fear of getting into another never-ending rush-hour traffic jam, honking aggressively at the passersby who dare to step on the busy streets despite the faulty traffic lights, which have yet to be repaired. In the distance, a few ducks are paddling eagerly towards the food an elderly couple—ignorant of the danger their ill-advised kindness may cause—throws at them.

The sense of déjà-vu, which assails you again all of a sudden, is no longer vague but tremendous, sheer overwhelming. Time has rewound again, hurling you back into yesterday's pre-"stranger-san" world. The similarities between last night and tonight are so disturbing that you seriously question your sanity for a moment. You didn't pay attention to the faces of the children playing ball at the intersection where the accident occurred—but now that you whirl around to look back at them, you could swear that they're wearing the same school uniforms as the group of children you saw last night on the way to Ueno-koen. You can't distinguish one reddish-brown squirrel from another squirrel of the same colour, just as all ducks of the same sex and the same size look almost identical to your ornithologically uninterested eyes—but the couple that are feeding the ducks now are, without doubt, the same elderly couple that had been feeding the ducks yesterday, the same couple Kudo and you met at the bus station.

On your phone, which must have acquired a previously undiscovered glitch, the calendar brazenly lies when it claims that tonight is really Friday night.

There are slight differences between tonight and last night, however… White seagulls have joined the teal-brown-tan patterned ducks at the pond. All the cherry trees are shedding their blossoms in the rising wind while the deep lilac sky is still overhung with thin layers of scudding crimson and scarlet clouds, which partly obscure the full moon and the stars like a protective red veil. The air is fresh and damp but distinctly warmer than it was last night. For all the merits, your heart, which has been thudding in your chest to the peculiar beeping sound you can still hear in the distance, fails for a second and then hammers on with a throbbing, nagging ache when you arrive at the old place. As far as your eyes can see, all the benches at Shinobazu-no-ike are occupied. The bench in front of you, on which Seiya sat last night, however, is empty.

With a sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach, you let yourself fall on the familiar bench to give your aching feet a rest. Seiya hasn't come to the place of rendezvous or has already left, as he didn't expect you to come after the dismissive words with which you ended the affair. You remember admiring him for his ability to take whatever life throws at him in his stride. But now you realize for the first time that his talent for avoiding undue complications and resisting other people's influences despite being smothered with love also enables him to let go of strong attachments and free himself from you as if you had never crossed his path.

A cool breeze sweeps through the trees, rustles the leaves, and brushes against your naked arms, reminding you that you've forgotten your cardigan at Seiya's place in your hurry. Since it's much too late to go back now, you decide to leave it to Seiya as a souvenir.

Sitting alone on the bench for two, waiting again for a man who doesn't come, you summon all your courage to revisit the past once more, as you still feel the urge to hunt for the last puzzle pieces to the picture and sift out the truth from the lies. But this time, neither your stranger nor your detective will be around to inspire you or direct your attention to the details you might miss. You've always been a pessimist and a coward when it comes to facing your guilt. Hence, despite Seiya's lucky charm in your pocket, you don't nurture high hopes for success, for you know that you will have to wrestle with your demons alone.

g.


Fumbling in your pockets…

Fumbling in your pockets for your phone to check the date again before embarking on another journey into the past, you notice in dismay that it is gone. You can even remember leaving it at home—in fact, Kudo has commented on it in annoyance on the way to Hikawa Shrine—which is most disturbing, as you could have sworn that you used it to check the date on the way to the pond. Did you only imagine it in your distress because you didn't find Seiya on the bench? You have the absurd feeling that it will take shape before your eyes now if only you make an effort to conjure it up. When you were five or six, you could control your dreams—making the monsters in your nightmares disappear and calling your fairies and guardians with a mental snap of your fingers—a skill which gave you a tremendous sense of power and freedom. Waking up from those dreams invariably hurt more than words could express. But it was impossible to hold on to them once you'd realized that they weren't real, and every morning you'd wake up in tears no matter how hard you struggled to keep on dreaming.

You bring your hand to your mouth as if to cover a yawn, discreetly bite into your thumb, and note in satisfaction that it hurts. Studying the very real looking bite marks on your skin, you recite the formula of APTX4869, the antidote, and APAH in your head, assuring yourself that you can still recall them as well. The curious beeping sound in your inner ear has stopped, much to your relief. Beneath your stoic exterior, you've always been the emotional, volatile type. Thrown off balance by stranger-san, who has thoroughly wrecked your inner peace within a few hours, and devastated by the speed at which he let go of you, you must be imagining things after your latest mental breakdown.

Why should you deny it? Lovesickness is a serious mental condition, which can turn the most sensible person into a pathetic emotional wreck. Usually, the delusional, obsessive-compulsive state lasts for three months and the woes of unrequited love can last up to three years until the victims finally move on or—in a few hopeless cases—succumb to the sickness anew. You've gone through this more than once although this time feels like the most severe case of all, and you don't need to feel ashamed of it since greater mind than yours have suffered from it as well. Dante and Petrarca, Shakespeare and Goethe, Schubert and Liszt, even the prudent and practical Agatha Christie and the principled, respectable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had once fallen victim to it. Perhaps Kudo's overly romantic reading of "A Scandal in Bohemia" was a valid interpretation, after all, and Sherlock Holmes—the flawless "automaton" and "calculating mind"—had kept the photo of the woman just because he had, inexplicably, fallen hard for an unattainable stranger he didn't—couldn't—know and not because he felt obliged to keep a reminder of the lesson that one should never underestimate a foe. Watson must have been fooled by Holmes' usual nonchalance, claiming that his friend was incapable of sentimental feelings while the poor detective was actually trapped for life in an especially persistent case of unrequited passion. Why else should Holmes have thought of a married woman of dubious reputation, whom he hadn't ever had a real conversation with (their hurried encounters in disguise don't really count) as the ideal of a female who "eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex" just because she managed to outwit him once?

Having thus assuaged your anxiety and mended your pride, you set off to rummage in your past for the missing pieces of your story. There are so many memories to dwell on and so little time to weigh them against each other, to separate the essential from the trivial and isolating the fiction from the facts. So you only brush against most of the recollections with a distracted glance, acknowledge their existence without trying to relive them, much less analyze them. Analyzing in itself seems now a futile, redundant act, which more often obscures the truth rather than unveil it.

Gingerly, you feel your way along the poorly lit corridors of your mind, pass Tenoh-san's picturesque seaside house, where you practiced shooting and studied the plans of the isle, the Werewolf Cliff, the subterranean passages, the log cabin, and the outwardly decrepit ship while lying on the beach in the autumn sun. You barely gaze at the train where you jotted down random ideas for the perfect poison in personalized, encrypted shorthand, evade the Professor's frequent worried glances, ignore the Detective Boys' reproaches, flee from Ran's attempts to take care of you, and pause for a moment in front of Kudo, who, after returning to his original body for good, looked like a stranger you didn't know.

g.

How many pills did you make? Kudo asked you the night he took the antidote. You had just left the sofa and he had followed you to the stairs to the cellar, where he was now leaning against the door frame near the window while the full moon was peering through the blueish clouds, through which no star could be seen. He didn't only sound curious but also anxious, and you could tell that he was wondering whether you were going to take the antidote.

You turned away from his prying eyes, and for a weak moment, you almost consider showing him the twenty-five pills you had created for the crows and Anokata. However, you were sure it wasn't the criminal's urge to confess their crime but rather the artist's need to share their latest creation with a proud, excited smile: Look, I've toyed with the idea for so long and now I've finally done it! Isn't it nice?

Since Kudo was much too staid and upright to appreciate your masterpieces and you would endanger Tenoh-san and put the whole enterprise at risk, you only gave him your trademark smirk and told him in feigned boredom that you had made two pills—one for you and one for me.

Maybe you had been silly and sentimental, but it was out of the question that you used the Silver Bullet—the ray of hope, which was supposed to "kill the Werewolf in Man," according to the Organization's scriptures—for the ugly task. The mental image of twenty-five dead children strewn across the hall (you didn't care about the one scapegoat you'd have to shoot at Pandora's Box) would have haunted you for life. The other choice, betraying Tenoh-san by giving her the painless drug you had designed for yourself, wouldn't be wise—not when she had spent her whole life cooking up her unlikely revenge and when forgiving her enemies didn't belong to the many skills she had honed at Infinity.

I'm glad that you're taking the antidote as well, said Kudo, who seemed too relieved and thrilled by Miyano Shiho's upcoming 'comeback' to notice the small pause you made before you replied. He had already feared that you'd stay a child to experience a second childhood—a decision he could have understood but wouldn't have liked.

Why not? Because one should never run away from one's fate? You were almost amused by his naiveté, the black and white view of the world he had managed to keep intact despite all the cases he had solved by now.

He didn't know, Kudo admitted. Perhaps he was interested in the grown-up Miyano Shiho, whom he had never had much time to get accustomed to. He was curious about whether Miyano was similar to Haibara or distinctly different. Even though the two were technically the same person, the connection between the body and the mind was so strong that the differences couldn't be ignored. One moved differently in an adult's body, and movements were crucial to thoughts.

Likewise, Kudo Shinichi and Edogawa Conan weren't exactly the same person, you thought, scrutinizing the young man in front of you with the impersonal but intense interest of a scientist studying a beautiful specimen of a previously undescribed, unexplored species. Your senses weren't attracted to him at this point in time—not yet. But in either form, Kudo caught your intellectual interest.

In the beginning, you only wanted to toy with the detective a bit when you told him that you were eighteen: perfect for him. You had flirted with him out of habit, forgetting the fact that you were in the body of an elementary school child and therefore of no romantic interest to his teenage mind. You had forgotten what you expected from him, a blush or a grin or any other display of embarrassment at having his ego stroked by a pretty girl. Instead, he only looked startled because he knew that you weren't interested in him in the way Ran or Ayumi-chan were. He couldn't make sense of your flirtatious jokes, which seemed to jar with your distant, reserved demeanour.

That was the moment when you decided that the chibi sleuth was rather intriguing despite his boyish, rather nondescript face.

If you expect my grown-up form to be different from me, you should have told me to stay Haibara Ai, Kudo, you taunted him. It's not flattering to me that you're so keen on getting rid of me although I've just restored you to your real body.

With a sigh, you shut the door to your lab and locked it from the inside before he could protest. You were going to take the antidote now and didn't want him to peep, you told him through the closed door.

In the brilliantly lit cellar, all the tables, desks, and surfaces had already been cleared and cleaned, all the carcasses had been removed. Still, Kudo must have known that you had been experimenting with rats and mice but wisely refrained from preaching about the moral implications of animal testing, as he needed the permanent antidote and couldn't risk getting himself killed by a faulty calculation. Taking the antidote as the first human being was already risky enough. You had told him that you needed to make sure that there wouldn't be any unmanageable after-effects because you didn't want to gamble with his life and weren't keen on spending the rest of your life as his personal doctor.

After creating APTX4869, its counteragent, and APAH, you had become a specialist when it came to cell division, aging, and pain. You knew how to target the exact organs you wanted to age, ruining them within hours or even minutes without arousing the slightest suspicion. The sweet tooths got all sorts of cancer, the drinkers ruined livers, the smokers damaged lungs—an exclusive, custom-made punishment for the Organization's highest-ranking members and its leader. All the conditions being equal, we all paid for our mistakes and ultimately lost to our vices at the end of our lives. Looking at it from that angle, it was justice par excellence!

To give Tenoh-san, who had been exceptionally supportive and charitable, an early Christmas gift, you had made sure that the little pills would cause excruciating, absolute, unalleviated death agonies for at least a day. You naturally invented the antidotes to them as well in case Tenoh-san or her allies were forced to drink from the same bottle as Anokata and their crows. You had done the best you could do to protect the good guys and punish the bad guys and couldn't feel even a soupçon of guilt—why should you? Tenoh-san's mother had died a horrible death before her seven-year-old daughter's eyes, the price she paid when she asked them to spare her husband and her child.

You silently endured and almost welcomed the pain when the antidote burned into your flesh and stretched your bones. It was really a walk in the park compared to what the mice had gone through. A few minutes later, Miyano Shiho's fine, almost sharp features greeted you in the bathroom mirror… and Haibara Ai, the cute girl whose perfect oval face was tempered by childlike round cheeks, who used to hide behind Edogawa-kun's back, was no more.

g.


Overwhelmed by the…

Overwhelmed by the heady melange of different scents and sounds in the giant perfume and cosmetics store, your nose failed to detect Tenoh Haruka when she sneaked up behind you, and you only started (and then stared!) when she cleared her throat and chuckled. To say the ex-racer had successfully surprised you with her present outfit would be an understatement. Accustomed to her crossdressing habits, you wouldn't have recognized Tenoh-san in her present attire at all if she had tried to disguise herself and dyed her conspicuous platinum blonde hair.

For an endless minute, you only studied the tall, slim woman in silence, letting your gaze trail from her glossy rosé lips to her lavender silk scarf to the soft curves of her unbound chest to her narrow waist, which was accentuated by her close-fitting black-and-white biker's suit with red highlights. Despite her sheer endless legs, androgynous features, and deep husky voice, it was impossible to mistake her for a man now.

Giving your hair a few affectionate strokes with a black-gloved hand and taking your arm to usher you out into the ever-busy Avenue des Champs Élysées, Tenoh-san laughed out loud about your reaction.

"For your information: I'm a real woman! Today I don't mind dressing like one." She cheerfully swung the red helmet in her hand back and fourth. "Well, how do Kudo and you like the city of love? It's not Tokyo or Venice, but it's one of the cities which starts to enthrall you on the second or third day."

Even though she had cut ties to les agents motards when she stopped calling Jean her father, she still visited Paris regularly, she told you on the way to the parking space where she had left her motorcycle. Spoiled as she was, Tenoh-san had even brought her favourite red Suzuki Hayabusa to Paris—and you idly wondered what she would do to the poor fool who dared to steal it.

"Do you have a second helmet for me?" You frowned at the gleaming red-silver motorbike, on which you could see no helmet at all. "I'm not going to drive with you without a helmet!"

"Here!" She tossed you the helmet in her hand, which smelled distinctly of a warm, spicy male rose fragrance.

"But you aren't wearing one!" You pointed out the obvious while clambering onto the passenger seat of her bike and gasped in horror when she instantly raced off at phenomenal speed while all the cars in the vicinity were honking at her.

"Didn't you know that I'm invincible, koneko-chan?" She beamed at you through the rear-view mirror. "Although I do hope that none of the agents motards will follow us to fine me. The French have great motorcycle officers! We could have a fun race if you were Michiru."

"You're insane!" You tightened your grab on her leather jacket and made an inhuman effort to ignore the blur of cars and houses which flew past you at a speed which made it impossible for you to discern them.

"It's taken you long to find out!"

No one but Kaioh Michiru could put so much trust in the skills of the driver that she didn't break out in a cold sweat on Tenoh Haruka's passenger seat, and you should have foreseen that Tenoh-san would be unable to stick to a speed limit since racing was her life and arrogance her besetting sin. Keeping your hands firmly on her waist and fervently hoping that she wasn't so ticklish that she'd let you distract her from driving, you decided to enjoy the drive with Tenoh-san as an experience you were unlikely to repeat after leaving Paris. It was also the very first time that you had the chance to witness how the famous racer handled a motorbike. On photos, you had seen Tenoh-san on her bikes more than once: blue-silver bikes, red-silver bikes, yellow-gold bikes—she had an impressive collection. But you were sure you had never seen her wearing a helmet. Since you weren't a fan of hers, you never attended her races.

"Where are we driving?"

"It's a surprise, love. You're too beautiful and good for the mundane shopping districts in Paris. I'm going to show you something more romantic."

To your surprise, it didn't take you long to grow accustomed to Tenoh-san's driving style, and you were soon lulled into a false sense of security by the constant hum of the tyres and the fragrant helmet on your head. You would smell of Tenoh-san's shampoo by the time you returned to Jean Black's house, you predicted, making a mental note to douse yourself in rose perfume at the perfume store to justify the scent. Since you were paranoid about Kudo's deduction skills, you were also going to wash your hair, which would have been flattened by the helmet by then, before dinner.

"First, we need to establish some ground rules," said Tenoh-san in a more serious tone, skipping the question whether you had brought her the pills since they were the condition for your meeting in the first place. "No word to Kudo! If I ever learn that he or any of his nosy friends and relatives are investigating me, my family, or anyone else in my group because you've given him a hint, he is as good as dead. And I'm going to spare your life so that you can mourn him and enjoy your guilt forever."

"Are you threatening me?"

"Not at all. I'm just stating the brute facts so that there won't be any misunderstandings between us. If I fail—which I hope not—I won't drag Michiru or you down with me, and I do hope that you'll be smart enough not to play the heroine and stay out of whatever happens afterwards. In return, you keep your cute kissable mouth shut so that your detective won't ever cause us trouble."

"Fair enough. Any other rules?"

"Just one. We can't plan everything, so improvisation is crucial to our success. If anything goes wrong, I won't break down and weep in the hope that my late mother will send me my fairy godmother! I'll improvise and do whatever it takes to get out alive—and I trust you to do the same."

"Why are you boring me with banalities out of a sudden?" you snapped, irritated by her derogatory manner, under whose cover you could sense her hidden anxiety. "What are you getting at?"

She sighed and sped up even more, taking a curve at lightning speed. "Since our imbecile of a scapegoat will be weakened by a few injuries—burns, for instance—I'll bet on you in any case. But if you can't take him out for whatever reason, you have to inform me and finish it as soon as possible."

"Shooting Vodka will be a piece of cake! He is as slow as your great-grandmother if she were still alive. Apart from that, he can't even aim."

"My great-grandmother, my dear kitten, was fast." Although you couldn't see Tenoh-san's face at the moment, you could hear the smirk in her voice. "My mother said I got my speed from her. So don't ever dare to insult her again!"

Now that you had dispelled her worries, the drive became rather pleasant. The warm light of the early winter afternoon was pouring down on the lamp-lit world while the snow was steadily falling. Strings of lights and Christmas wreaths and garlands, which all blurred into a magical concoction of colours when you raced past them, adorned the naked broadleaved trees and the conifers along the road. From time to time, you would close your eyes and let yourself drift into a reverie, contemplating your future after the downfall of the Organization.

Your plans for Pandora's Box was deceptively simple. If you didn't have to enter the cabin first because your scapegoat dutifully, obligingly, walked into your trap, you could stay in this adult's body for good. Perhaps Kudo and Ran would even split up after a few months or years of cohabitation or marriage. And being the supportive friend who always listened to his relationship-related rants with half-hearted complaints, you would graciously help your detective get over his first love in no time.

Sadly, all the versions you conjured up for the post-Pandora's-Box relationship between Kudo and you sounded unsatisfactory, even pitiful, a meagre diet of "friendship turned love out of convenience" or "unlikely attraction caused by circumstances" when what you really wanted was a whirlwind romance or an epic, fateful love affair. In the last few days, Kudo had become smitten with Miyano Shiho because they were strangers in a foreign city, who were collaborating to save thousands of wrongly convicted prisoners and uncover the truth about what he believed to be an evil syndicate. You knew very well that he was less in love with you as a person but more in love with the romantic setting and the idea of the woman you could become. After returning to Beika, he would see his girlfriend again and Paris would either be forgotten or remain a fond memory he secretly indulged in during cold winter nights. If you're lucky, you would be busy fighting off reporters and answering questions in court—so completely preoccupied with the problems of how to lie about your role in the Organization and fight for a lenient sentence that you wouldn't even spare a thought of him.

In spite of (or due to?) her incredible speed, Tenoh-san gave you the euphoric illusion of sailing across the sky, and it wasn't until you realized that she had been driving in the direction of Bonnières and had already passed Vernon that you guessed where you two were heading.

"Are we going to Giverny?" you asked, wondering what she wanted to do in Giverny out of all places.

"Smart kitten! We're going to Monet's House. It's usually not open to the public in December, but I have an old acquaintance in the Claude Monet Foundation who owes me a small favour for saving her dog from a gang of wannabe bikers." Her voice turned unmistakably seductive. "We might as well make this a date since there is a remote possibility that we two won't ever get a chance to go out with each other anymore."

g.

After passing Claude Monet's reading room (which was also called "the little blue sitting room") and the pantry where spices, olive oil, eggs, and tea were stored in wall cabinets, you had the chance to admire the artist's first studio-turned-sitting-room, whose walls were lined with photographs, prints, and the Master's paintings. Climbing the staircase to the private rooms, where objects from Monet's days were displayed, you marvelled at the great trust other people put in Tenoh-san while she seldom if ever trusted anyone. Upstairs, you beheld the dressing rooms, bedrooms, and sewing room of the long deceased with mixed feelings and were relieved when Tenoh-san and you returned to the ground floor, where the blue Rouen tiles of the quaint kitchen and the yellow walls and red-white checkered tiles of the restored dining room breathed life into the monochromatic winter world outside.

The "Jardin d'eau"—Monet's water garden, in real life a true work of art just like the painting—was already covered by a thin layer of ice and snow.

On the famous green Japanese bridge, Tenoh-san and you proceeded to discuss the last details of your scheme. "Listen, unexpected things can happen," she began. "If the drinks get mixed up or Gin survives because he notices that something is fishy—"

"—I'll shoot Gin as well."

"That's the right attitude!" She looked extremely relieved. "Although I do hope that it won't happen."

"No, it's actually a good idea. Idiots like Vodka can be dangerous in their unpredictability. Gin, on the other hand, is extremely punctual and precise. It will be easier for me if we choose Gin as the scapegoat since he will fail to surprise me when it comes to timing."

She shot you a half-quizzical, half-amused look mingled with genuine surprise, and it finally dawned on you that she had been so tense because she was afraid that you might be hampered by moral sentiments or sentimentality.

"Alright, I'm going to let Gin escape, then, after weakening him a bit. Too bad Vodka will be the one with the damaged lungs… It's a tiny blemish on our otherwise flawless plan."

Since you had anticipated her approval of your idea, you had already adapted to the change and created a lethal poison for Vodka, which was going to destroy his liver, you smirked, handing her the red jewellery box with the twenty-five pills. You had numbered them according to her list of soon-to-be corpses, which only consisted of Arabic numerals for lack of names and curt descriptions of the habits of Anokata, their family, their crows, and the crows' secretaries and sniper spouses. Now it was Tenoh-san's task to feed the pills to the respective people without mixing them up. You wished her and the seventh crow luck.

She took the box from you with a feverish gleam in her green-speckled blue eyes, beamed after checking its contents, and slipped it into a deep pocket of her leather jacket. "You resent Gin even more than I thought…" she mused, letting her gaze follow the Cupid you just dropped into the water. "… What was that?"

"If anything happens, I'm going to take the full blame," you said, evading her question.

"No one can jail us for an undetectable drug." She rolled her eyes in exasperation. "You shouldn't worry about the aftermath but focus on your tasks."

"You don't have much trust in my shooting skills," you remarked.

"It's not your shooting skills I have to worry about! It's your mental ability I can't rely on." She compassionately patted your back. "You're nicer than you think, koneko-chan—and being nice hasn't ever done you any good whenever Gin was involved."

Since you couldn't come up with anything to reply, as you were still contemplating how funny her choice of adjective sounded considering what you were going to do to Anokata and the crows, she pulled a blue USB stick out of her pocket, placed it into your palm, and closed your fist around it. "All the particulars of the people who enter the log cabin will be sent to the cloud, which is still protected by the Night Baron. Just insert this into Pandora's Box and only the mail with the name of the first person who opened the door will be sent to the blackmailed big names while the others will immediately be deleted from the disk. It's not as good as the Night Baron, but it's the best we have at the moment. And now do tell me what you just dropped into the pond so that I won't have to feel guilty when all the water plants die next summer."

"Do you know these coins people toss into fountains and wells as a payment for the answer to a prayer?" You beheld the liquid mirror, which had swallowed the sacrifice for Kudo's safety, with a vague sense of foreboding. "It's something similar to that: a payment for our success—the price for lasting peace and freedom."

"It was a bit more than a coin, wasn't it?" She gave you a grave, knowing look. "What was it made of? Silver?"

"White gold. It's not like I have anywhere to put it, so I might as well sacrifice it to some war deity, Mars or Andarta or Hachiman, depending on whom you believe in.

"I only believe in myself," she sneered. "But if I had to choose a deity, I'd choose a Greek god since I've always liked the gods of Greco-Roman mythology. They were a fun motley bunch that embraced life and seemed fairly tolerant despite all their quirks. Mars is too male, too dumb, and too bloodthirsty for my taste, though. The payment shall go to Athena then, the goddess of strategy and wisdom."

Leaving the Japanese bridge to return to the bike, you cast a last glance at the marvelous composition of snow-covered maples and weeping willows framing the pond—a paradise lost—and slipped the USB stick with Meioh-san's Night Baron copy Tenoh-san just handed you into the same pocket where the Cupid had been. The sun was setting, tinting the snow gold and pink. Just below Tenoh-san's collarbone, a simple gold cross gleamed golden-orange in the sun before she turned away from the light and the reddish tint was gone.

"Why are you carrying it if you aren't even a Christian?"

"It belonged to my great-grandmother, who gave it to my grandmother, who passed it on to my mother, who left it to me… When Hotaru-chan is old enough to stand on her own feet, I'm going to give it to her."

She paused to show you a little package under the seat, which contained a knitted purple pullover with a large black heart and the red number ten on it—a small souvenir she found in a boutique before she met up with you. Watching her fold away the birthday present with parental tenderness and pride, you recalled with a pang of conscience that Tenoh-san once reluctantly revealed to you that a few crows had children, too…

Twenty-five pills? Ignoring the seventh crow, who is on our side, and Vodka, the one scapegoat I'll have to shoot, we're dealing with the Boss, five crows plus their personal secretaries and their sniper spouses, and Gin. That makes one plus fifteen plus one people: seventeen. Who are the remaining eight? Although maths had never been your favourite subject, you could do whole number addition and subtraction well enough.

The Boss has a secretary and a spouse, who has a secretary as well, which makes it twenty people. The remaining five are Anokata's most loyal bodyguard and four children I'll have to take out lest they take revenge on us.

Appalled, you had carefully put down your exquisite blue and violet Murano water glass before you shook your head.

I'm not going to murder children, under no circumstances!

I'm not talking about little kids, koneko-chan! I'm talking about young adults like Kudo, who are extremely talented, perfectly trained, incredibly loyal, good at teamwork, and very smart—the best fighters and shooters I've ever seen. Even your shooting skills can't be compared to theirs. If you agree to do this, you'll have to do it right: It's either them or us—you have to think of Kudo's life!

Staring into the crackling fire, which was dying in the hearth, she looked almost tragic as she sipped her red wine and smiled. You shouldn't forget that I was a child as well—and only seven when my mother died! We really can't afford to spare their children's lives…

g.

You two raced back to Paris through the ending sunset, which painted the snow purple and the trees along the road black. Obsession was a curious thing, you reflected. When you were alone, you could easily succumb to it and even embrace it as a part of your destiny. Yet once you had seen yourself mirrored in someone else whose obsession was even more dangerous than yours, you suddenly shrank away from your own actions as if the extreme gravity of the situation only dawned on you when you could observe it from a certain distance. Tenoh-san radiated a warm rosy glow of pure happiness while you were shivering in your thick winter coat. All warmth had left you after you stepped out of Monet's Garden.

g.


On the way back to…

On the way back to Paris, you suddenly became aware of the fact that Tenoh-san and you were racing on a slippery road through the heavy snowfall, which painted your surroundings white and obscured your view. If Tenoh-san got into an accident now (if she carried on like this, she would get into an accident before long!) the whole operation would be over in an instant. One didn't survive a crash at this speed, especially not on a motorcycle, without a helmet. But since you knew that she wouldn't listen to you, anyway, you refrained from pointing it out to her.

You thought you'd be happier about this, you admitted, breaking the silence. But you doubted that you could celebrate your victory after your forthcoming revenge even if you two succeeded.

"We're not hurting innocent civilians, koneko-chan!" Tenoh-san sighed, exasperated. "We're not even targeting the bad guys at the bottom of the ladder! We're putting ourselves in danger to eliminate the bosses in one clean swipe so that there won't be any collateral damage! And we're actually avoiding the messy aftermath which Kudo's pacifism will cause. This is counterterrorism at its best!"

If Kudo took the crows to court and used the information in Pandora's Box, he would spend his whole life on the run, she reminded you. His girlfriend, his parents, the Professor, and the detectives who supported Kudo would most probably be watched, be kidnapped to be used as a lever, or even be murdered unless they gave up their identities and went into hiding. Some people would do anything to silence your detective! Not only the Yakuza, the Italian Mafia, the Russian mafia, or one terrorist group but all of them would want Kudo's head. To make matters worse, most governments were going to search for Kudo as well—not to protect him but to 'neutralize' him, mind you, which was the usual answer of the secret services when they failed to see another solution to their problem. The few FBI agents who were known to have worked with Kudo would suddenly get into an 'accident'; the agents motards would be forced to back down. In that case, you couldn't count on Tenoh-san's help since she, too, would lean back and pretend to busy herself with another problem so as not to get her own family into trouble.

Of course a few scapegoats would get out of jail, a few politicians would have to resign, a few codename members would commit suicide. But even a drunken idiot like Mori Kogoro could see that eliminating the crows and their 'families' would produce a more desirable outcome at a smaller sacrifice…

"In case you count on Jean's help: He once swore to protect my mother and love her until 'death do them part.' He only kept his second promise, as we all know. How well is he going to protect your detective if he couldn't protect his own wife? If he hadn't waited until she received the last red card but listened to her and killed Anokata and the crows before they could strike, she'd have had a chance to survive."

In fact, you knew that all the things Tenoh-san said was true—but knowing that a sacrifice was necessary didn't make you feel better about the act. You shifted uneasily on Tenoh-san's passenger seat when your thoughts once again drifted to the four 'children', whose only known crime was to have been raised by a syndicate, people who were just like you. While you didn't care about Anokata and the crows, you felt sorry for yourself, especially now when you had the premonition that your life would forever be divided into the phase before and the phase after you gave Tenoh-san the twenty-five pills, no matter how justified your actions had been.

"Do you know what I find extremely sad about this world?" you remarked as the sun disappeared and the afterglow of twilight remained the only light on the horizon. There was nothing one could do to regain one's equilibrium. There was no way to make atonement since there was no redemption, no boundless, eternal, universal love, no appropriate punishment, no divine forgiveness. At the end of your life, the white mice and the strangers you had murdered would stay a scar on your conscience, whose ugliness would have grown exponentially with time. In Andersen's fairy tales, there was a sense of closure, a purpose even in death. You had always liked the ending of "The Little Mermaid"—as tragic as it was…

g.

"Has Jean recognized you?" Tenoh-san asked after she had refilled her tank at a petrol station and you two had returned to the centre of Paris. To soothe your tattered nerves, she had slowed down a bit although she was still weaving through the traffic at the maximum speed allowed. The ex-racer didn't seem surprised by her father's speeches and patiently listened to your account of the talk between Jean Black and you until you were finished. To all appearances, it didn't faze her a bit.

"Jean has always loved to keep up appearances," Tenoh-san said, indifferently. "He also loves to cling to the past." She gazed into the distance with a mocking smirk as she continued to drive, steering her bike with somnambulistic ease as if it were a part of her body. "Do you know why he can't accept Michiru? Not because he hates lesbians—hell no! Jean has a few gay friends and likes them as much as his straight friends, and I'm sure he wouldn't even have minded having a gay son. But he couldn't bear that his darling daughter, who once resembled her lovely, feminine mother so much, would suddenly cut her long blonde locks and turn butch once she hit puberty. It was useless to explain to him that I had never, ever, liked boys and that I had only cut my hair and bound my breasts to prevent them from chasing me!" Jean also felt obliged to stay true to his old principles and the agents motards, who wanted to see the Organization's leaders in court—Tenoh-san claimed—but it was glaringly obvious that Jean was pining for the same sort of revenge which she wanted.

She dropped you off at a street corner near the same perfume and cosmetics store on the Avenue des Champs Élysées where she had picked you up. Before you could turn and leave, however, she held you back by your hand and contemplated you in silence.

"Jean knows me," she said at last, swinging her red helmet, which you had returned to her, back and fourth instead of putting it on. "He already knows we're going to take them out and steal a backup of Pandora's Box—but I bet you he won't even move a finger to prevent us from executing our plan. If Jean were in my shoes, he'd be much more vicious!" Her eyes darkened. "We aren't torturing them, koneko-chan! We're only putting the clock forward and shortening their time on earth a bit, giving them a much quicker and more pleasant death than what they'd have received if God existed! Twenty-four hours of pain are too short a time to atone for their sins. It's absolutely nothing compared to what a normal person who dies of cancer has to suffer."

What Jean really meant to say was that he could usually tell who was who on his chessboard, Tenoh-san claimed. Kudo Shinichi was his rook or tower (the promising, naive, young detective who would always keep strictly to the straight and narrow) while Haruka was his queen (his ruthless and efficient girl, who would avenge his wife's murder and win the game for him). Kudo would convince Interpol and the FBI and the rest of the world that Jean Black had honestly tried to secure Pandora's Box and catch the seven crows alive but failed while Haruka would bring justice to all the victims of the Organization in a roundabout way. Who Jean didn't need in his game was you: an unpredictable knight of no clear colour, who could ruin all his schemes.

"It's not like we're stealing the files to sell them, koneko-chan! We're going to help the victims by forcing the judges to release the wrongly convicted and make amends to the victims' families. Looking at it from that angle, you're not betraying Kudo at all. Tonight, you can go to bed with a clear conscience. Twenty-five plus one… Is it too high a price for all the people we're going to save? Would you really feel better about this if you, like Andersen's mermaid, could wander the world trying to make random children happy until you had earned your eternal soul?"

It wouldn't change anything for you or the people you were going to kill—although she believed that finding a sense of closure would be helpful since you were the only person whose judgement mattered when it came to your own peace of mind. "But we aren't living in Andersen's romantic Christian universe but in a cynical post-modern world—so a Royal Flush would probably solve all your problems," she jokingly added. "Also, I'm sure that our Greek Gods like to gamble. If people were cards, you'd already have made Hotaru-chan, Jean, Michiru, and me happy with your latest creations." She gently patted her pocket, in which she was hiding the jewellery box with the twenty-five pills. "You only need an Ace of Hearts—your Professor?—for the best possible Straight Flush, which is, at least in Poker, unbeatable!"

It took you a beat to grasp that she had just assigned everyone in her family and also her father, whom she no longer viewed as a family member, a card. Hotaru-chan must be the Ten of Hearts since the girl was turning ten in January while Kaioh-san was, obviously, the Queen. Knowing how narcissistic she was, you also suspected that Tenoh-san had assigned herself the King and her father the Jack instead of vice versa.

"Is your father the Jack?" you asked her nevertheless and gave her a doubtful look when she nodded. "But you two and Kaioh-san resemble Clubs or Spades much more than Hearts, in my opinion." Since all the suits had to match in a Royal Flush—you pointed out—you doubted that having three Clubs or Spades would be very helpful.

Tenoh-san only sighed in response, and you changed the topic by asking her to thank the seventh crow in your name.

"Why are you so interested in the guy?" she eyed you in palpable mistrust. Tenoh-san clearly didn't want you to know too much about her allies lest you mess up and she had to sever all the links to you.

"You said he was the only one who voted against my sister's execution," you explained. It was, no doubt, an impressive act—especially since the crows didn't use secret ballots, as Gin once told you. Even though it didn't save Akemi-nee-san in the end, his gesture impressed you nevertheless.

To your surprise, hot colour suddenly suffused Tenoh-san's face while her eyes were glowing with something akin to embarrassment and pride, convincing you that the seventh crow and she must be closer to each other than you had thought. It was indeed a courageous albeit foolish act—she agreed. Imagine all of them crouching around the fireplace in silence, eagerly ticking off the "yes" box to please that person. All the six crows naturally expected the seventh to go along with the flow since he had already received a red card. Much to their dismay, the third-generation rookie dared to vote against it—citing the Organization's policy not to carry out unnecessary assassinations and to let the insignificant members buy themselves out of the Organization…

"Anyhow, my family and I are Hearts!" Tenoh-san winked at you, interrupting your train of thought just when you began to wonder how the crows had become so bloodthirsty if they had once sworn to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. "Because everyone has two faces if you look at them closely! Michiru and I don't take pity on our enemies but you know that you can trust us!" She leaned in to cup your face. "I also suspect that I'm your King of Hearts although you'll never admit it to yourself."

She impertinently stole a kiss before you could react, shocking you with the unanticipated sensation of her warm lips against your cold ones, and laughed when you vehemently pushed her away.

"Do you want to know a secret? Jean called me last night and told me to take care of you because he thinks you're too emotional for this." She casually started the engine. "We have his blessing, koneko-chan—if we don't mess this up. Just remember what they did to my mother and your sister, don't be too nice, and don't disappoint us!"

Tenoh-san raced off before you could reply, and raised her hand, which was still holding the red helmet, to wave you goodbye as she sped along the Champs Élysées. Her fair hair glimmered in all shades and colours in the city's multitude of lights and flapped in the wind until it was finally covered by her red helmet. Gazing after her slender figure until it disappeared, you distractedly noted that the sight of her retreating back looked oddly familiar—as if you had already seen her narrow waist and her relaxed shoulders on a bike before although you couldn't recall when and where anymore.

g.