Disclaimer- Gosho Aoyama owns them, I do not. This fanfic is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for language, graphic violence, and adult themes. Special thanks to Icka M. Chief for doing beta duty, and for writing "Humanitas Ex Machina," which partially inspired this story.

Nerves of Steel

All things considered, life was pretty good right now, in Kaito's opinion. Okay, after a year and three-quarters of heists, he wasn't any closer to finding Pandora or taking down the bastards who killed his father. But he wasn't dead yet, he was, in his own opinion, a somewhat worthy successor to his father's legacy as Kid, and he'd managed to do more than a couple good things, thanks to his alter-ego. And best of all, he hadn't truly been bored since he'd taken up the cape and monocle. Being Kid had brought new and interesting challenges into his life, one of which could, in a strange way, be considered his friend. One of his best friends, though since he only had two, that wasn't really saying much.

Said friend and challenge was currently making Kaito's day by staring at Kaito's t-shirt, sputtering, and turning a rather unbecoming shade of purple. He rarely got to see Hakuba outside of school, so when Aoko had suggested dragging the blond out to the local museum for much-needed-socialization, he'd jumped on the chance to wear this particular item of his wardrobe.

"Something wrong, Hakuba-kun?" Kaito asked innocently, looking down at his shirt. Blue shirt, white lettering, reading in English, "I did NOT escape. They gave me a day pass." Nope, nothing wrong there.

"You... you know, that is entirely too appropriate," the blond sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. He did that a lot where Kaito was concerned, actually.

Frowning, Aoko looked from one to the other. Her English wasn't that good, and to her, Kaito was fairly sure, the shirt simply looked like any of the other shirts of its type, worn as fashion statements by Tokyo teenagers.

"It's nothing, Aoko-san," Hakuba sighed, offering his arm. "Just another example of Kuroba's unique nature."

"Ohhh." Aoko might not speak English, but she spoke Kaito well enough to know that it was another of his attempts to needle the blond. Taking Hakuba's arm, she shot Kaito a glare which only had his smile widening.

Yeah, this was an excellent day.

The rest of the outing went similarly well, teasing Aoko and bantering back and forth with Hakuba. Surprisingly, the detective hadn't made any of his usual barbed comments about Kaito's "night job," perhaps in deference to Aoko's presence. These days, she did seem to be somewhat of a "neutral zone" for them.

Both boys insisted on walking Aoko back to her house, Hakuba citing the rules of politeness, Kaito just claiming it gave him more time to irritate her. From the look she gave him, it was a good thing she didn't have her mop, but in the absence of cleaning supplies, she accepted with bad grace.

They were halfway down the street, chatting about nothing in particular, when Aoko blinked and pointed. "Hey... Kaito? There's a sheet of paper pinned to your front door."

"... That's weird. Despite Mom's comments to the contrary, I don't think they'd actually have my room condemned." Frowning, he headed up the walk, the other two trailing in his wake.

Pulling the sheet of paper down from where it had been secured-- sticky tape, he noticed, likely to hold fingerprints-- he quickly scanned it, and his eyes widened in shock.

"... This has got to be some type of sick joke," he managed, looking up at Hakuba and Aoko.

"May I?" the detective asked politely, taking the sheet of paper by its edges. He frowned, reading it over. "This appears to be a heist notice. From Kaitou Kid."

"WHAT?" Aoko cried, shoving in for a better look.

"It says, 'I will have what is yours,'" Kaito quoted, eyes darkening. "And then... "

Aoko frowned. "Numbers and letters? They look like... "

"Chemical formulas," Hakuba finished. "Al2(SiO4)(OH,F), Al2O3, (Fe, Mg)3Al2Si3O12, and KAlSi3O8." He frowned.

"Those are… I believe those are gemstones. The second one, aluminum oxide, that's corundum. Sapphire or ruby."

Kaito nodded. "Yeah. I think the first one's topaz. I'd have to look the other two up." At Hakuba's raised eyebrow, he forced a grin.

"Come on, I'm a Kid otaku, of course I've studied gemology!"

"Of course," the detective replied. "I would assume you do not have any of these stones in your current possession?"

"Hell no. Aside from my mom's emery boards, for her nails... those are corundum, but they're kinda small for Kid."

The blond snorted. "Indeed. And there's no place or time listed on the note. It's probably a copycat, or some sort of sick joke, but... would you mind terribly if I took it home and examined it?"

Kaito shook his head. "No, go right ahead. I'd love to know what nutcase is sending me things like that."

"Should I tell Dad?" Aoko asked, breaking in for the first time. Both boys winced.

"Not yet, Aoko-san," Hakuba replied. "I don't want to take up his time if it turns out this is just someone's very poor idea of a joke."

Kaito had to agree with him, but he had a feeling it was going to be worse than that. Because the handwriting had been a perfect match for his, and the Kid caricature in the corner was perfect in every detail.

He had a very, very bad feeling about this.

If there was one thing Hakuba Saguru truly hated, it was Kaitou Kid imposters. Not only did they take up the Task Force's valuable time and resources, but they were usually inferior to the thief himself in every respect. Unimaginative, unintelligent, and singularly lacking in the moral fiber that was evident in the thief's actions, skewed though that moral code might be. Kid wasn't very fond of them either, and tended to move quickly and decisively to put them down as soon as they made an appearance. There were exceptions, of course; he remembered a certain matter of a home run baseball early in Kid's career. But generally, invoking the thief's name and reputation in your own criminal enterprise was a recipe for disaster.

And now this. As he headed home, one hand slipped up to touch the breast pocket of his shirt, confirming the continued presence of the note, now encased in a plastic evidence bag. Kuroba'd muttered a comment about "unhealthy obsessions" when he'd produced the bag, but only the one. And if there was any indicator of how upset the other boy was about this situation, that was it. Kuroba was never quiet. Saguru'd previously considered that to be one of the signs of the Apocalypse.

The whole situation sat poorly with both of them. There was no reason for any of the normal run of Kaitou Kid impostors to target Kuroba; he wasn't poor, but he was certainly not possessed of any particularly flashy gems or any of the other trappings of wealth. While he could imagine someone being insane enough to target the real Kid while stealing his mantle, that meant that someone else had figured out the thief's identity. Which meant that Kuroba was vulnerable, in a way that Kid had never been. And that turn of events was simply intolerable.

Kuroba was his thief, damn it, and he was going to be the one to catch him. On a heist, on a level playing field, finally defeating the bastard in the battle of wits they'd been waging since Saguru had first come to Japan. There was no way he was going to let anyone hurt or use the Kid. He'd been too late once, when Kid had faced off with Nightmare; the white-clad thief had escaped by the skin of his teeth, preserved only by the death of the man who had sought to use him. It was that heist that had cemented his decision to stay in Japan, as a matter of fact. No one would get to Kid in that manner again. Not if Saguru could help it.

Even deep in thought, Saguru was keeping an eye on his surrounding. Detective instincts never completely shut down, after all. And from the itch on the back of his neck... he was being followed. Interesting. A quick look around showed no one suspicious-- the street was mostly clear at this time of day, and a tail would stick out like a sore thumb. That and the fact that the itch said "up" meant that there was only one likely culprit... Kid.

Taking one more quick glance around, Saguru turned nonchalantly into the first alley he came to. He wasn't sure what the thief would want to discuss with him, but he'd rather talk out here on the street than deal with the mess that would likely come from letting Kid follow him home. The other boy had yet to have reason or opportunity to break into the mansion, and he'd just as soon keep it that way.

"All right," he said to the empty air, once he was deep enough in the alley to be sheltered from the street. "I know you're there, no more point in hiding."

A gentle thump echoed behind him, and Saguru turned, raising one eyebrow as he caught sight of jeans, t-shirt, and spiky hair. What possible reason could Kuroba have for following him in civilian clothes? Yes, he knew damn well the other boy was Kid, but "plausible deniability" was the foundation of their relationship.

Then the back of his mind reared up and smacked him. Kuroba's t-shirt wasn't the blue one he'd been wearing when they'd parted ways. This one was black, devoid of legend or decoration. And while yes, changing shirts while hopping rooftops was well within the magician's abilities, there was no reason for it. And Kid always did things for a reason, even if it was one that didn't make sense to people inhabiting this plane of reality. Besides... aside from his school uniform, Kuroba didn't wear black. As he was fond of saying in either identity, "Only bad guys wear black." An uneasy sensation snaked up Saguru's spine, and he took a hesitant step backwards, towards the mouth of the alleyway.

"... Kuroba?" he ventured cautiously.

The other boy tilted his head, a motion that looked distinctly odd. It was almost too smooth, too fluid.

"Hakuba Saguru. High School Detective, world's acknowledged expert on the subject of International Criminal #1412, AKA Kaitou Kid. Classmate and friend to Kuroba Kaito and Nakamori Aoko," Kuroba (or whoever it was) said, tone curiously flat. Or perhaps not flat, but containing some inflection Saguru couldn't entirely identify. He took another step backwards, instincts screaming at him now.

"Who are you?" the blond asked, shifting into a stance better suited for a fight-- or for running, if it came down to it. Appearances aside, this was not Kuroba Kaito, and Saguru had been working with law enforcement too long to ignore his hunches.

As if confirming his conclusion, the other boy grinned, and Saguru's hindbrain set up a howl. The grin was wrong, there was no other word for it. Objectively, it looked like the same manic expression that Kuroba wore ninety percent of his time out of uniform. The same tilt to the mouth, the same hint of fangs, the same impossibly wide stretch of gleaming teeth, but... Evil was the only word coming to mind, and Hakuba Saguru was not usually given to hyperbole.

It was at this point the network of nerves and ganglia that made up Saguru's autonomous nervous system took a vote, overruled the cerebrum, and instructed his legs and feet to get them the hell out of there. Thanks to long legs and long nights chasing Kid over rooftops, Saguru was an incredible sprinter. And yet he'd only made it six feet down the alley when his pursuer caught up to him, grabbing one shoulder and spinning him into the brick wall. A hand clamped down on his throat with an iron grip, pinning him there.

"Now, now, detective... that's rather rude, you know, running out on me before we've had our conversation," his assailant remarked with cheerful unconcern.

Saguru's only reply was a choking noise, and the pressure lessened slightly, allowing him to breathe easier.

"What are you?" the blond managed, after sucking in a few breaths. "What do you want?"

The other's grin sharpened, as he raised his free hand into Saguru's line of vision. "Oh... I just want to pick your brain."

For a second, Saguru tried to make sense of that, then his eyes widened as silver filaments, threads as fine as acupuncture needles, slid from the skin around the brunet's wrist, waving through the air as though seeking for something. With that implacable hold pinning him to the wall, he couldn't struggle very well, but he tried, succeeding only in tiring himself out.

The impostor buried his free hand in Saguru's hair, and the blond shuddered as he felt the cool caress of the silver threads against the back of his neck. Then there was a series of prickles as they bit into the skin, and then--

Oh God!

There was something in his head, moving around inside his mind, sifting methodically through thoughts, memories, feelings, images. His struggles grew more frenzied as he tried throwing up roadblocks, locked doors, anything to slow or stop the inexorable presence moving through him.

"Settle down, Hakuba-kun," the thing purred, in Kid's voice now, rather than Kuroba's. "You're going to hurt yourself... And it's not nearly time for that. Not yet."

And that was the last thing Saguru knew before he mercifully blacked out.

Nakamori Ginzou knew something was wrong as soon as he walked into the house. It wasn't so much the fact that Kuroba Kaito was over-- Aoko had damn near grown up with the boy, given the proximity of their houses and the friendship their parents had had. Rather, it was the way the boy was pacing back and forth in the living room, with all the feral energy of a caged panther. Kaito never kept still, and it only got worse under stress, but... he'd never seen the boy look this edgy before. From her seat on the couch, Aoko watched her friend with a worried expression, but both teens looked up as he entered the room.

"Okay, what is it?" he asked wearily. Damn it, he hadn't even gotten a chance to take off his damn tie...

"Hakuba-kun's missing," Kaito said bluntly, folding his arms across his chest. "He left here three hours ago to head home after the three of us spent the day at the museum. Two hours ago, his housekeeper called and asked if he was still with us, because she wanted to know whether to hold dinner. It's a twenty-minute walk from here to his house, and that's if you're dragging your feet. There's no answer from his cell phone, and nobody's heard a damn thing from him since he left."

Nakamori bit back the curse that jumped to his lips. Aoko'd picked up enough of his vocabulary as it was. "Did you call the police?"

"And tell them what, keibu?" the boy asked, waving his arms for emphasis. "'Our friend's been out of contact for three hours, and he's not answering his phone? Well, yes, officer, he is seventeen, and no, he wasn't actually expected anywhere today...' Sure, we know you could set a nuclear clock by him, and he has no social life to speak of, but I don't think that's going to fly with Missing Persons."

No, probably not, the inspector admitted. Disappearing for a few hours was out of character for the detective, who made punctuality a religion, but people did out-of-character things all the time. It didn't mean a crime had been committed.

And now that he thought of that, these two knew that. Aoko'd grown up around police officers, and Kaito'd had a fair amount of experience with them himself. Which meant that there had to be something else bothering them.

"Okay, you have a point. So why don't you tell me what it is that has you two on the edge of panic, instead of just worried?" he asked, crossing to drop into one of the armchairs.

"When we got back from the museum, there was a note on Kaito's door," Aoko began, biting her lip. "It... it looked like it was from Kid, but..."

"We thought it was some sort of joke," Kaito continued flatly. "It was like a heist note, but there wasn't a time or a place on it. Just 'I will have what is yours,' and then four chemical formulas. Four gemstones."

Nakamori rubbed his temples. "Where's the note?"

A sigh from his daughter. "Hakuba-kun took it. We thought it was a joke, 'Tousan. Somebody with a sick sense of humor, who knew Kaito was a magician and a Kid fan... He was going to examine it, we didn't want to bother you until we knew more..."

"But you don't think it's a joke now." It wasn't a question, and it was directed at the boy still wearing a hole in his carpet.

"'I will have what is yours,'" Kaito quoted quietly. "Hakuba-kun's mine. He's my friend. Yeah, we drive each other up the wall, that's part of the fun of it. And... the first of the gems on the note was topaz, keibu. Topazes are usually yellow, but often light blue. If you were using metaphors... a topaz wouldn't be a bad symbol for a blue-eyed blond, especially in a place like Japan, where that coloring really stands out."

This time Nakamori didn't bother suppressing the curse. "What about the rest of the gems?"

"Hakuba-kun said the second one was corundum," Aoko said quietly. "Ruby or... sapphire."

Sapphire. Her birthstone, the gem that had inspired her name. The gem, in fact, that Kid had stolen on her sixteenth birthday. Well, that explained the barely leashed rage and fear he'd seen in Kaito's eyes for a moment.

"The third one was garnet," the magician continued, voice still flat and toneless. "Fourth one was adularia moonstone. I looked them up on the Internet while we were waiting for you. No idea who either of them are, though."

"Garnets are red," Aoko offered. "Maybe... Akako-chan?"

Kaito shook his head. "No. Akako's not my friend the way you and Hakuba are. We get along, kind of, but we're not friends. She's not mine."

"So we've got a Kid impostor who's apparently cracked enough to target you... why?" Nakamori asked.

"I don't know," growled the teen. "I mean... if somebody did enough research, they could find out I was connected to the Task Force... that I'm Hakuba-kun's friend... maybe they even found out that Hakuba-kun thinks I'm the Kid."

He laughed bitterly. "Hell, maybe they think I'm the Kid!"

Okay, the policeman decided, it was time to cut this discussion off before it got into dangerous waters. "Aoko, you mind making me some coffee? I think I'm going to need a lot of it before the evening's over."

"Hai!" she agreed, springing to her feet. She was obviously glad to have something to do rather than just sit and worry, given how quickly she dashed towards the kitchen. With her gone, Nakamori fixed Kaito with a level stare.

"Kaito-kun. Sit down. You're making me sea-sick."

"I'm not sure I can keep still that long," the boy replied ruefully, but he took a seat in one of the other armchairs.

"You're blaming yourself for this, aren't you?"

Blue eyes slid away from his, finding the pictures on the wall suddenly fascinating. "Well... it is about me... isn't it?"

Nakamori wanted to reach out and shake some sense into him, but managed to sit on the impulse. "No, it's not about you. It wouldn't be about you even if you were the damned Kaitou Kid. It's about the bastard who sent you this note and whatever insanity is riding in his head. You got targeted, that doesn't make you at fault. Do you understand me?"

"Yeah, keibu. Yeah, I do." Those eyes moved back to his. "But I'm still bunking on your couch until this is over."

The older man blinked. "What?"

"Aoko's targeted. You can't put a cop on her full-time, the department won't cover it, and besides she won't stand for it. Sooner or later, she'll get fed up and try and ditch them, and even if it's only for a few minutes, that's all somebody'd need. But I already go pretty much everywhere with her, or at least I can. Most of the time I push her buttons on purpose, but that means I know where they are. If I try to get along with her... well, I'm least likely to set off an Aoko-explosion. You know that."

All true, and the boy had a good point. But...

"And what happens if they decide to get to her by going through you?"

"Then they're going to be very, very sorry." There was no softness, no give in either the words, or Kaito's eyes as he said them.

Nakamori couldn't help but wonder if the younger man had any idea how much he looked like his father in that moment.

Two days now, with no contact, no trace. Hakuba Saguru was well and truly missing. Of course, given the note on Kaito's door and the fact that the teenager in question was the son of the Superintendent of the Tokyo MPD, there hadn't been too much trouble convincing Missing Persons to get a jump on the case. Not after Nakamori Ginzou and the Task Force had lit a fire under them, anyway. If nothing else, Aoko thought, her father certainly knew how to motivate people.

But it had been two days, two days of worry, of fear, of Kaito glued to her side almost constantly. Her best friend had taken up residence on their couch, and she was fairly sure that he'd be sleeping on a futon in her bedroom if he thought he could get away with it. Sleeping and showering were about the only times he wasn't with her, and it was only the strong possibility that she was the next target that was saving him from a brutal mopping.

Well, if she was being honest, it wasn't the only reason. Kaito was doing his best not to aggravate her, which was disconcerting enough as it was. But he was always right beside her, first through doors, first into rooms, eyes constantly scanning for threats. She'd never seen him this serious, and it was beginning to frighten her. It didn't help that she knew he'd made himself a copy of Kid's famous card gun, and she was fairly sure he was carrying it with him. Given that she'd seen it embed a card in the blackboard, she wasn't sure she wanted to know how much damage Kaito could do with the weapon.

"Do... you think he's okay?" Aoko asked tentatively, as they walked home from school. "Hakuba-kun, I mean. Do you think he's..."

"Still alive? Probably. The cops have been tearing the city apart, they'd have found a body by now. If they've got a reason for keeping him rather than dumping him, then he's probably worth more to them alive and... useful."

Aoko looked at her feet. "I just... I don't understand why anyone would do this... who would hate you this much?"

Her friend winced slightly, not meeting her eyes. "I don't think it's me they hate. Aoko, it's got to be on record that Hakuba-kun suspected me of being Kid at one point. And that your dad suspected me before that. Sure, both times it's been disproved, but if somebody's crazy enough to have fixated on Kid..." He shrugged.

"I'm a magician, I'm connected... I'm a good suspect. If they want to hurt Kid, going after him in his civilian life would be the best way to do it."

She growled. "But you're not Kid, damn it!"

"Yeah, well, not everybody has your faith in me, Aoko," he replied, a half-smile pulling at his face. As they reached the front door of her house, he held out his hand.



"We've been over this. I go first. Your home security's good, but it's not unbeatable. Key."

Grumbling, she handed it over to him, waiting as he unlocked the door and stepped inside. A few seconds passed, and then his voice floated back to her.

"All clear. Come on in."

She did as ordered, pushing the door shut behind her. With a frown, she realized that Kaito's shoes weren't in their proper place by the steps. Turning towards the living room, she opened her mouth to ask Kaito why he was still wearing shoes in the house, and her words died on a strangled squeak.

The person standing in her living room looked like Kaitou Kid. The clothes, the hat and monocle, what little she could see of the features beneath the hat brim... they were perfect. But it couldn't be him, because no matter how much she might hate him, she knew his code of honor. And the thief would never be standing there, one arm casually wrapped around her best friend's throat, other hand buried in spiky brown hair.

"Come on in, Aoko," the impostor continued, Kaito's voice issuing from that smirking mouth. "Have a seat. Unless, of course, you want to see how easily I can snap your boyfriend's neck."

"She's... not my girlfriend," Kaito choked out, before being silenced by the tightening arm around his throat.

Aoko's jaw firmed. "Shut up, baka," she growled. Taking a deep breath, she walked into the living room, sinking warily into one of the arm chairs.

"Good girl," the thief purred, in Kid's voice now.

"What do you want?" Inwardly, Aoko was absurdly pleased to note her voice barely wavered.

Kid-- she knew it wasn't him, but she couldn't think of any other name-- smiled. "I want you, Nakamori-san. A beautiful sapphire to add to my collection of gems."

"What did you do with Hakuba-kun?"

"Oh, I wouldn't worry... you'll be seeing him soon enough."

Biting her lip, Aoko looked from the thief to Kaito, who hung, half-conscious, in the crook of the other's arm. "What about Kaito?"

A smirk crept across Kid's face, and Aoko had to fight back a shudder. Kid's smirks always made her itch to wipe them off his face with a mop, but this... it was wrong, twisted and oily, and it made her skin crawl.

"I promise, if you cooperate with me, your friend will walk away from here just fine," the thief crooned.

"How do I know you'll keep your promise?"

The smirk morphed to a cruel smile. "You don't. But I can promise if you don't cooperate, I will kill him. All I have to do is shift my grip..."

"All right!" Aoko cried. "Just... don't hurt him, please."

With a chuckle, Kid released his prisoner, letting the teenager slide bonelessly to the floor, gasping for air. Then, with a speed that was inhuman, he was on one knee before her, one hand resting on her cheek as he gazed up into her eyes.

"So brave," he murmured, brushing his thumb over her lips. "Just like your father. Don't worry, Aoko-chan... I promise, you won't feel a thing."

She wanted to ask what he meant by that, but then she felt the sting of cold metal at the base of her neck, and the world fell away into darkness.

It was all he could do not to pass out, as he knelt gasping on the floor. So when Aoko slumped bonelessly into the arms of the monster wearing Kid's uniform, Kaito could only growl helplessly, fists tightening as he tried to push himself to his feet.

"Oh, don't get up," the impostor said casually, as he gently laid Aoko down on the carpet. "I'm not done with you yet, Kuroba-kun."

"Who..." Kaito's voice faded into a croak, and he had to swallow several times to get it back. "Who are you?"

The smirk on the other's face was all too familiar, but at the same time completely wrong. "What, you don't recognize me, Kaito-kun? After you left me to die on that roof? I'm hurt." Reaching down, the other man fisted a hand in the front of Kaito's school uniform, hauling him easily to his feet and shoving him back against the wall as though he weighed nothing at all.

Roof? What the hell was-- then realization hit like a thunderbolt, and Kaito felt his face pale. The robot... made by a mad scientist not long after he'd started his career as Kid, given his memories; the thing had tried to take his place as Kid, and as Kuroba Kaito. The pieces fell into place with a sickening 'click,' even as Kaito tried to figure out how the creature he'd thought destroyed could be standing in front of him now.

"Ahh, I see you remember me now, don't you?"

Moistening his lips, Kaito took a deep breath. "What did you do to Aoko?"

"She's just asleep. When I was rebuilt, I got a very interesting hardware upgrade." The robot raised its free hand into Kaito's line of view. For a second, Kaito couldn't tell what he was supposed to be looking at, then he caught his breath in shock as silver filaments slid from the skin of the other's wrist.

"It's called neuro-mimetic circuitry," the impostor explained cheerfully. "Literally a cybernetic nervous system. The probes can interface with any technology, including a human's neural network. There's all sorts of approaches... the eyes, the sinuses, but if I want to leave a human functional, the best choice is along the spinal column." And suiting actions to words, it laid the free hand on Kaito's cheek, cold metal wires sliding along skin to bite at the back of his neck.

See what I mean? The voice in his head sounded like his own thoughts, save for the tone of vicious amusement that permeated everything.

Easy enough to make Aoko sleep, I didn't even really have to do much looking around. Of course, she doesn't have a lot of walls up anyway... not like your detective friend.

Oh kami-sama, this thing had been in Hakuba's head? Kaito couldn't suppress an internal wince. The detective was an intensely private person, uncomfortable even with the most trivial intimacy and contact. Kaito and Aoko'd been trying to accustom him to friendly touching, but to have all of his defenses breached like this...

Yes, he shut down before I learned half of what I wanted to know, and what I did learn raised more questions than it answered. So I decided I'd just go to the source. But before I do... Why don't I answer a few of your questions? Fair trade after all...

Oh, and don't worry, I'm not going to kill you. Not yet. First of all, I promised Aoko I wouldn't, and I do keep my word. Besides, I'm not even close to done with you yet. I still have my collection to finish, not to mention that death is quick and easy. It wouldn't begin to pay you back for what I've suffered.


That explosion destroyed my body, yes, but my CPU and memory banks were shielded. The force of the blast threw the unit off the building and into a nearby alley. I stayed there, locked in darkness and silence, while the inbuilt homing device summoned Dr. Ogami's occasional partner, Dr. Sakamoto. For months I floated there as my new body was constructed, receiving input only when the doctor opened the channels for testing. More than a year in darkness, Kaito-kun, knowing you had everything, and I was damned to this hell. Finally, Dr. Sakamoto finished and activated me permanently. Of course, I promptly gave him the appropriate reward for his... efforts.

An image flashed before Kaito's mental eyes of a grey-haired man, roughly Jii's age, pinned to the wall by a spear of silver metal, like a butterfly in some sort of obscene collection. Blood stained his white lab coat and dribbled from his lips, and Kaito was barely able to suppress a gag at the sight.

Oh, right... 'Nobody Gets Hurt,' isn't that your motto? He should have thought of that before rebuilding me as a covert assassination unit, shouldn't he? And you don't have to keep up your Poker Face for me, you know. I'm already inside, and all the walls you throw up won't do a damn thing.

You destroyed me, Kuroba Kaito, and you left me to die. Now I'm going to destroy you. I will take everything you have. I will be Kuroba Kaito, I will be Kaitou Kid, and when I finally kill you, it will be because there is no other way left to break you down.

Hakuba. Aoko. What had happened to them? What would happen to them?

A cruel chuckle in response. You know, I think I'll just let your imagination run wild on that one. You'll find out eventually, of course, but until then... I'll just let you think of all the ways I can break that marvelous arrogance and British reserve. And I'm sure you know as well as I do all the fun Aoko and I can have. Now that I've answered all of your questions, it's time to answer some of mine. Don't worry... I'll help myself.

Kaito'd thought there wasn't anything worse than hearing that heartless amusement echoing inside his head. He now found he was wrong, as he felt his thoughts and memories sifted through, methodically examined, copied, and set aside. Kami, if the robot had done this to Hakuba, he couldn't even imagine what shape he was going to find the detective in. And he would find him. He refused to let himself imagine any other outcome.

Finally, after what seemed forever, the presence inside him withdrew, leaving his limbs slack and useless in their wake. The hand on his neck pulled away, as the silver filaments slid back out of sight.

"If you're wondering why your muscles don't work, it's just a little insurance. Neural interference; the paralysis will wear off in an hour or so. Just in time for you to explain to Nakamori-keibu how you let his daughter be carried off by the dastardly villain. In the meantime... you can sit and try and figure out who I'm going to take next." Then Kaito was flying through the air and smacking into the couch, which overturned under the impact. His head hit the floor with a resounding thunk, and he fell into darkness, followed by the robot's haunting laughter.

Murakami Kenji hadn't been on the Kaitou Kid Task Force for very long, but he was a very, very quick study. It only took one look at the package deposited on his desk to know it was Bad News. As the newest member of the team, mail duty devolved to him, because packages containing heist notes tended to blow up in the faces of their unsuspecting openers. Never anything dangerous, but more than a few officers had found themselves festooned with confetti or dyed a truly unbecoming shade of puce.

This package didn't look like much-- brown cardboard, about forty centimeters square, it was addressed to the Task Force in the same perfect handwriting that was familiar from a thousand notes in the past. Kenji had thought on a few occasions that if Kid ever decided to quit thieving, he could make a great deal of money doing calligraphy. It had passed the chemical sniffers down in the mail room, so it probably didn't contain a bomb of any type. Given Kid's creativity, of course, that didn't narrow the field very much, and now that there was an impostor running loose...

Kenji shivered slightly. Nakamori-keibu's daughter was missing now, kidnapped by the same psycho who had grabbed Hakuba-kun. To make matters worse, whoever it was had broken into the Nakamori house to get her, leaving one of her friends banged up badly enough that he'd been admitted to the local hospital. Needless to say, the inspector was not happy, and neither were the rest of the Task Force. Aoko-san had brought them food or coffee on heists occasionally, and they all liked her a great deal. None of them wanted to think about what might be happening to her now.

But all this thinking wasn't getting the package open, and he definitely needed to do that. If it was from the real Kid, it might be a clue or something that would help them find the kidnappers. Kid was protective of both his reputation and his pursuers, and Kenji was actually a little surprised they hadn't heard from him yet. And if it was from the impostor, well... they needed to know that too.

Signaling his intent to one of his co-workers, he picked up the package and moved it into the room set aside for just this purpose. Bare walls and a tile floor made for easy cleanup if there was a paint bomb inside, and the fire-extinguishers were industrial-strength, just in case. If whatever was inside had passed the chemical sniffers, it couldn't be strong enough to take out more than the room... and of course, the poor bastard opening it, but Kenji was trying not to think about that.

He set the package on the table inside, then shut the door behind him. Picking up a box cutter, he carefully slit the tape holding it shut, then using two pairs of long forceps, folded the cardboard flaps back and away from the mouth of the box. When nothing snapped, clattered, or launched itself upwards, he moved in, daring a look down inside.

There was a note, of course, signed with the ever-present doodle. A quick scan of the words indicated that it was another one of the Kid's insane riddles, and Kenji carefully pulled the paper out of the box using the forceps. He'd seen something red under there...

Oh. Okay. The young officer swallowed hard. The red was a piece of cloth, specifically a scarf, like the kind worn on a girl's school uniform. In fact, the cloth was about the same color and size as the scarf Aoko-san wore, the one she'd been wearing when she was kidnapped. But it wasn't the cloth that had Kenji's attention. It was the darker, rusty-brown spots soaked into it. He might be on the Kaitou Kid Task Force, but he was still a cop. He knew dried blood when he saw it.

Turning, he opened the door to the small room and stuck his head out. "HEY!" he yelled, gaining the attention of the entire room. "Somebody better call the Inspector, NOW!"

Kaito really hated hospitals. He hated everything about them, from the smell, to the food, (not that anybody really liked the food,) to the offensively bland décor. What he hated most about them, though was the lack of mobility. He'd always had too much energy to stay still, but ever since becoming Kid, it had gotten worse. Mainly because he was all too aware that a stationary target was all too easy for a sniper to hit.

But here he was, stuck in a hospital bed with, of all things, a police guard outside. After passing out in Aoko's living room, he'd been a little surprised to wake up at all, let alone in the hospital, with Nakamori sitting beside him. And most surprising of all, the policeman had looked more worried than angry.

He hadn't gotten more than bruises from his trip over the couch, but he'd been unconscious a couple hours, which had the doctors making worried noises about possible brain damage. And since he couldn't tell them the truth-- that his mind had decided to spend a little while wibbling in the corner after being picked through by a robot with a grudge... Well, he was going to be in this bed a while, he could tell.

Gingerly, he poked at the lump of something that the nurse had brought by as his dinner. It didn't bite back, which was good, but it didn't make him any more inclined to eat it, either. Idly, he wondered if he could bribe one of the Task Force guys outside to sneak out and bring him back real food. Maybe a pizza, that smuggled well.

The sound of footsteps outside broke his concentration on the substance masquerading as food, and he looked up in time to see Nakamori-keibu enter, looking tired, worn, and decidedly pissed off. Of course, "pissed off" seemed to be the man's default mode, but this was a few notches up the scale from usual.

"I don't suppose you're here to spring me?" Kaito asked, setting aside the plate of congealing stuff, as Nakamori sank into the chair beside the bed.

"Not a chance, not until the doctors are sure you didn't rattle something loose in that skull of yours," the policeman replied gruffly.

Kaito snorted. "Oh, come on, keibu, like anybody could tell the difference..."

"Don't start, Kaito-kun," came the growl in reply. "You got tossed around my living room like a kid's ball, you're lucky you weren't killed. Nobody's blaming you except you."

It wasn't luck, Kaito thought bitterly. He wants me alive, but I can't tell you that without opening another whole can of worms. Aloud, he sighed.

"Well, fine. Can I at least hope you've brought me something interesting to do? Or at the very least, something to eat that originated on this planet?"
"Here." Reaching into the paper bag he carried, Nakamori handed Kaito a Styrofoam container. Flipping it open, the boy was pleased to see soba noodles and dipping sauce, as well as a few gyoza dumplings.

The older man shook his head as Kaito dived into the food. "And don't talk with your mouth full, just eat and listen. We got a heist note in the mail today. Definitely not from the real Kid, either."

Kaito made an interrogative noise, still slurping up noodles. He knew damn well the note couldn't be from Kid, he didn't have any heists planned and hadn't had the chance to send any notes recently. But if the police were sure...

"He sent it with the scarf from Aoko's uniform," Nakamori continued, grim. "Her name's written on the tag. Also, it had a fair quantity of blood on it. Fresh."

... Suddenly, Kaito couldn't seem to find much of an appetite. In fact, he wasn't sure he was going to be able to swallow.

"Not a lot-- people lose more during blood drives, don't worry. But we ran the blood on the scarf, and the lab says there's a ninety-five percent probability that it came from Hakuba-kun."

Forcing himself to swallow the food in his mouth, Kaito made a face. "So he was still alive as of... what?"

"Eight, nine hours ago now. The note that came with it was a typical heist riddle... I brought you a copy, see what you make of it. You're a Kid fan, you might be able to figure it out, and at the very least it'll keep you busy.

Mind racing, Kaito accepted the sheet of paper handed to him. Why would the impostor schedule a heist now? His 'collection' was still lacking two gems, after all. Was it a trap to lure out the garnet? Maybe the target was Nakamori-keibu after all, but... that didn't feel right. Didn't feel like Jii, either, though he'd called the older man earlier and suggested he take a long vacation, preferably out of the country. His mother had headed off to visit relatives, as well, so she was probably well out of this.

He shook his head, forcing himself to focus on the riddle that the robot had sent.

When the maiden in her palace stands atop the world,

In the place where Death holds dominion,

I will come for the red stone

That weeps inside a shell of glass.

"'When the maiden in her palace stands atop the world,' that one's easy," Kaito said absently. "Tomorrow's Monday. Moon-day. Moon's full that night, which means it's at its peak at midnight. Whoever this guy is, he's got an overdose of the dramatic."

Nakamori snorted. "What about the second line? 'The place where Death holds dominion?' What kind of place would have jewels and the dead?"

"Could be an Egyptian exhibit, probably one of the museums. A red stone inside a shell of glass... might be a display case. Yeah, they're made of plastic now, but poetic license." That didn't sound right, though...

Nakamori sighed. "It's a start. I'll see if there's any Egyptian exhibits in any of Tokyo's museums... I'll check for garnets, too, maybe it has something to do with that. Rubies too, just in case. Call my cel if you come up with anything else, all right?"

The teen acknowledged that with an absent nod, attention still on the note as the man left. That interpretation seemed too easy, though... Kaito was fairly sure that there was more to this, and he knew the robot was too single-minded to have given up on its plans, even temporarily.

And why did those last too lines seem so familiar? A red stone that weeps inside a shell of... oh. Oh no. The description was a perfect match for Pandora. The damn thing was baiting the snipers. And if it wanted them to show up at the heist... it probably didn't plan to get them arrested. Not given the ease it had already shown with killing.

Kaito winced. Not that he'd shed any tears if Snake and his friends died, but the last thing he wanted was Nakamori and the Task Force caught in the crossfire. And... damn it, who was the garnet? He knew it had to be part of this somewhere.

Okay, okay, think. Garnet. Red stone... physically, that could only be Akako, and he was pretty damn sure the thing hadn't targeted her. She just wasn't that important to him, even if they were tentatively friends now. So... maybe it wasn't physical. Garnet's associations... well, it was red, so blood, birth, death... oh yeah, the legends said it was a good protection against thieves. Well, then it couldn't be Nakamori-keibu, the man had never been able to stop him from getting a target. The only one who'd ever done that was...

The answer hit him like a trout to the face, and he cursed himself for seven different types of idiot. The place where Death held dominion, of course, was the district in Tokyo whose murder rate was insanely high, completely out of proportion to the rest of the city. The glass shell was a pair of glasses that completed a perfect disguise. And the red stone wept behind them, watching his life drift away as the days passed.

Oh kami-sama, no. The heist wasn't just bait for the snipers. It was also bait for one very bored, very curious chibi-tantei... The only person in the world who had half a clue how Kaito felt.

Well. There was no way they were going to let him out of the hospital by tomorrow, and there was also no way he was going to let this heist go by without him. Which meant it was time for one of his favorite tricks... a disappearing act.

He had a very bad feeling about this. And if he'd been smart enough to listen to his hunches in the past, Edogawa Conan thought, he wouldn't be in this position at all. But hunch or not, the former Kudo Shinichi was constitutionally unable to walk away from a mystery. So he was just going to have to be very careful.

It had started with the notice in the local newspaper, a heist note from the Kaitou Kid himself. Conan had figured it out fairly quickly-- the thief was targeting the large garnet scarab currently on display at the Beika Art Museum, as part of a traveling exhibit on Egyptian art. A heist in Beika... especially after the "Ocean's Wonder" heist, that was practically an engraved invitation saying, "Come out and play." And far be it from Conan to turn down an invitation from his erstwhile adversary.

The excuse of staying the night at Agasa's had easily gotten him out of the apartment, but when he'd arrived at the museum, he'd been struck by the very different atmosphere. Normally the Task Force was relaxed, if anticipatory, making bad jokes and teasing each other as they waited for the thief to arrive. Tonight, they were quiet and almost grim as they went about their preparations. Another mystery, and so Conan did what this small body did best... he made himself unobtrusive and listened.

What he heard hadn't made him any happier. The thief they were waiting for tonight wasn't Kid, but some type of impostor, one who'd already managed to kidnap Hakuba Saguru and Nakamori-keibu's daughter, and put a third teenager in the hospital. Nothing had been heard from Kid, either, which was unusual for the thief. Normally he was the first person on the scene to put an impostor in his place.

Frowning, Conan retreated, mind already hard at work. If somebody was impersonating Kid, there was no way he was going to let them get away with it. Especially not if they were kidnapping people to boot. But remaining in the museum for the heist was out. The odds of being seen by the Task Force were too great, and that would only result in him being sent home or otherwise unable to help out. Besides, if this thief didn't share Kid's non-violent code, Conan didn't want to be anywhere near a crossfire.

But if this person was mimicking Kid, then he'd almost certainly duplicate the kaitou's best-known means of escape. And taking into account wind, building height, and the weight of a man on a glider... Conan knew which building would be the escapee's landing spot. If Nakamori and the Task Force managed to get him in the museum, great. But if the bastard managed to get loose, he was going to get a tranquilizer dart to the neck as soon as he touched down.

Climbing up onto the roof of the building, Conan found a patch of shadow big enough to hide him from view, but still giving him a view of the approach from the museum. Checking his watch.-- five minutes 'til midnight-- he settled in to wait.

He'd barely taken his position when the sound of footsteps alerted him. It couldn't be the impostor-- this person was climbing up the access ladder, from the lower roof to the higher one that Conan perched on. Hunkering deeper into the shadow, Conan almost held his breath, willing the newcomer not to notice him.

The man wore a black fedora and trenchcoat, a fact that didn't make Conan any more comfortable. Neither did the nasty, predatory glimmer in the dark eyes, or the almost habitual sneer under the handle-bar mustache. But what really bothered Conan was the black bag slung over his shoulder... just the right size and shape to hold a sniper rifle.

Quickly, Conan ran threw his options. He could dart the sniper, but then he'd be out of darts, and the tranquilizers didn't last very long. If the Kid impostor arrived while he was still trying to tie the other man up, things could get ugly.

He could wait and see what happened when the two met. There'd been an impostor on a heist before, from the records he'd read, and that same heist had involved snipers. Possibly the two worked together, in which case, his best choice would be to dart one of them and soccer-ball the other while they were distracted talking.

Or they weren't working together, in which case, the sniper thought he was after Kid. If that was the case, things would get pretty messy on the roof, but again, the best strategy would be to trank one and hit the other with a soccer ball before he could recover.

Okay, that settled it... waiting it was. Conan really hoped Kid appreciated what he was going through. Maybe he could leverage enough gratitude to get him to stop dressing up as Shinichi... nah, probably not. Honestly, he probably still owed the thief one for helping keep his secret.

They weren't waiting very long. It was no more than fifteen past midnight when the soft whoosh of wings heralded a white-clad form dropping onto the upper roof. The glider deflated back into the familiar cape, as the impostor straightened his top hat.

From his hiding place, Conan studied the man, surprised. Whoever this impostor was, he was an excellent mimic. Height, weight, even body language... all of them said "Kid." For a moment, Conan wondered if perhaps the real Kid had appeared to take down his imitator... and then the man spoke.

"I know you're out there, Snake," the thief said lightly, in Kid's voice. "I can hear you breathing."

... Vaudeville humor? Okay, this might actually be Kid after all.

"Very funny, Toichi," the sniper-- Snake-- growled. "Give me the gem."

"What, this gem?" the white-clad man asked, a red scarab appearing in one gloved hand. "If you insist. It's not what you're looking for, of course... but if you want it..."

With that, the Kid tossed the gem up into the air. Reflexively, Conan and Snake both watched it go up... and in that moment of inattention, Kid moved.

Conan quickly revised his opinion-- this was not the Kid. Yes, the thief was incredibly fast, but whoever this was moved with a speed that wasn't even human. He covered the space between himself and the sniper in less than an eyeblink, grabbing the man's rifle and tossing it out of the way.

"You've spent too much time chasing ghosts, Snake," the impostor chided, one gloved hand coming to rest on the man's chest. "Now you are one."

The mustached man gave a sudden strangled grunt, the noise not quite covering a hideous wet sound. The noise got louder, became the sound of something tearing... and then the sniper collapsed, blood gushing from a hole in his chest.

White clothing now liberally stained with red, the thief looked down at his hand... or more precisely, something in his hand.

"Huh," he said, absently. "So you had one of these after all." He tossed the object aside, and as it bounced closer, Conan realized what it was... a still-beating human heart.

That did it. In all the years he'd been investigating murders, some of them bloody, Conan had never hit his limit. Seeing the heart lying there on the concrete, blood leaking from it as its pulsations ceased, though... that did it. The shrunken detective found himself on his hands and knees, throwing up everything he'd eaten that day, and possibly the day before. When he finally stopped retching, he wiped his mouth and looked up... into the shadows beneath the brim of a white top hat.

"Ah, here you are, tantei-kun," the-- he couldn't think of it as human-- the monster greeted him cheerfully. "Come along... I think it's time I added you to my collection."

One red-stained hand extended towards him, tendrils of silver metal waving in a cloud of needles around it. With numb horror, Conan realized that those were what had pulled out the sniper's heart, and his imagination happily served up images of what they'd likely do when they sank into his chest... or his head.

With a whisper and a "thunk," a card suddenly sliced into the thing's shoulder, exploding in a puff of pink smoke. It wasn't a huge payload, but it was enough to make the impostor recoil a few steps, cursing as it clutched at the injury. Running footsteps echoed across the roof, and Conan felt a strong arm loop around his waist, jerking him up and into a tight grip as his rescuer never broke stride. Then they were over the edge of the building, free-falling... until white silk expanded, catching the air with a jerk and a whoosh.

"... Kid?" Conan asked, not quite believing what his senses were telling him.

"Yes, tantei-kun," the familiar voice replied. Conan thought it sounded warmer and more human than the other, but that could simply have been his imagination.

"You saved me... Thanks," he managed.

A moment of silence, slightly startled, then he felt the thief nod.

"You're welcome. I'm just sorry I couldn't... I couldn't get there sooner."

Conan wasn't going to complain about his timing, but he could understand why the thief might feel that way. A few more moments passed, as the city drifted below them, then he spoke again.

"Kid? If you don't need me for anything... I think I'm going to pass out now."

He felt the answering chuckle more than heard it. "Go right ahead, tantei-kun. I'll take care of you for now."

"Thanks," he said again. Then he let go, and fell into welcome darkness.

The first thing Saguru noticed as the impostor touched down was the blood. It was impossiblenot to notice it; the red stains covered a good portion of the normally pristine white suit. Almost immediately after that, however, he realized their captor was profoundly pissed off. And as dangerous as that might be, it lifted his spirits as well.

He's alive, the detective thought, permitting himself a small smirk. Only Kuroba can drive someone that crazy. A quick check beside him showed Aoko still asleep on her pallet, where she'd lain since crying herself out earlier. He decided to let her sleep-- at least one of them could escape from this nightmare, if only for a while.

Resting his arms on his knees, Saguru continued to watch as the false Kid stripped off the blood-soaked uniform, motions brusque and over-controlled. The small warehouse that had been made into their prison didn't have any private chambers for changing, and besides, the thing was mimicking Kuroba. For the magician, much as with most stage performers, modesty was somewhat of an academic concept.

Finishing pulling on a pair of jeans, the creature happened to look over its shoulder, eyes catching Saguru's. It smirked, crossing the concrete floor on bare feet.

"See something you like, Saguru-chan?" it asked, still using Kid's low purr.

"No scars," Saguru replied, keeping his voice low as well. "You don't have any of Kuroba's scars."

The thing snorted. "I suppose my creator didn't feel it was particularly important."

"But it is," the detective replied quietly. "It's just one more item that proves you're not Kuroba Kaito, and you never will be. No matter how many people you kidnap, or how many minds you violate."

Faster than he could react, Saguru felt a tug on his shirt, hauling him to his feet and slewing him around until he slammed into one of the support beams for the warehouse.

"Playing with fire, are we?" the impostor asked, in Kuroba's voice now. "That's what I like about you, Saguru-chan, you're always so much fun to play with."

"I live to serve," replied the blond, his tone as dry as he could make it. Damned if he was going to give this monster even a hint of how terrified he was.

The answering chuckle made his skin crawl. "Every so often, you manage to surprise me. Which is good, because you know how easily I get bored. And if you don't keep my interest... well, I suppose I'll just have to play with Aoko, won't I?"

Saguru couldn't suppress a growl at the thought. "Over my dead body."

"That's the idea, Saguru-chan. But as long as you don't make me break you, I promise, you can stay my favorite toy."

He was not going to vomit. He was not. But he couldn't ignore the warning in that twisted promise, either. Clenching his fists, he forced himself to meet those insane blue eyes.

"Understood," he ground out. The creature grinned at him.

"Good. Now... I've had a rough night, and since Aoko's still asleep... I thought you could help me with a little experiment. There's still a lot I don't know about manipulating the peripheral nervous system..."

Silver threads sank into his neck, and Saguru had to bite his lip as a streak of fire raced up his arm. It felt as if his hand was being dipped in acid. Then, as quickly as it had begun, the pain cut off, leaving him a bit dizzy. Before he could catch his breath, a second bolt of agony shot through him, this time enveloping his whole body.

Curling into a tight ball, Saguru sent up a quick prayer that the thing's sadism would be satisfied before he either passed out or started screaming. And then the world was full of fire.

Whatever he was lying on was a hell of a lot softer than his usual futon, Conan thought blurrily. Not to mention that he couldn't hear Kogoro's snoring, which meant that he wasn't home. Forcing his eyes open, he blinked at the metal and wires that formed the ceiling above him.

Okay, taking stock... Kid rescued me from that-- that thing, whatever it was. I passed out over the city... this has got to be one of his bolt-holes. Someplace relatively safe, but not anywhere I could compromise...

Gingerly, the shrunken detective pushed himself into a sitting position, looking around the small room as he got his bearings. The mattress under him was a futon, but obviously a higher quality than the one he slept on at home. To one side, within reach, sat his bow tie, watch, shoes, and glasses. Kid had obviously made him comfortable before leaving him, and Conan wondered idly how long he'd been out.

Well... best to go find some answers, he thought, pushing himself carefully to his feet. Putting his accessories back on, he pushed the door open, stepping out into the small apartment's other room.

The thief currently was sitting on a small couch, almost certainly rescued from a trash point somewhere, head tipped back against the backrest, eyes closed in an expression of utter exhaustion. Though he was still wearing the suit, the cape, hat, and monocle were gone, and the face Conan could see looked very familiar.

Damn it, why does he always DO this? the detective growled, temper flaring white-hot. I am so sick of seeing my own face on him...

Then cold logic kicked in, reaching out and throttling down the anger ruthlessly. Wait. THINK. He's exhausted, and he's obviously at the end of his rope. He looks like hell, and he just saved you from something that wears his face and ripped a man's heart out. He's not in any condition to be taunting you. He's still wearing the suit, and he always goes the whole way with disguises. And you know he was able to pull off Shinichi without any type of mask once...

"This is what you really look like, isn't it?" Conan asked, taking a hesitant step closer, as the pieces fit together with a click. Now that he really looked, he could see that the hair was wild and spiky, rather than the reasonably orderly sight he usually saw in a mirror.

The thief snorted, not bothering to look up. "I figured there wasn't much point in hiding any more. If you haven't figured out who I am by now... you will, before this is all over."

The other teen sounded so despondent, so weary, Conan couldn't help wincing in sympathy, as he made his way to one of the scavenged easy chairs that sat near the couch. This was going to take some delicacy... not something he was particularly good at. Admittedly, he didn't have quite as much of a tendency to foot-in-mouth disease as Hattori, but tact wasn't one of his major skills, either.

"I could have," he acknowledged, climbing into the chair. "At that Magic Lover's gathering, you said your favorite magician was Kuroba Toichi. The name sounded kind of familiar, so I did some looking around when I got home. Sure enough, my mom knew him. She studied the art of disguise makeup under him... said he was a master of the art, that there wasn't anybody better.

"Well, a magician and a master of disguise? That sounded way too familiar, so I did some looking. And I found out the timing of his death... he had an accident on stage, two weeks after the Kaitou Kid's last heist.

"Add to that the fact that I know you have to be my age-- my real age, and that I had a loose idea even then of what you had to look like... it would just have been a question of looking at the man's family, friends, and dependents, and figuring out which one would have taken eight years to take up his mantle. But that's where I stopped."

Now Kid looked up, fixing him with a curious blue gaze that looked entirely too much like his own. "You did? Why?"

Conan sighed. "The detective in me would say it was because there's no proof. All of this... it would be circumstantial evidence. None of it was official, none of it was anything that'd hold up in court. But... that's only part of it. The real reason..."

Looking up, he met those too-familiar eyes. "The real reason is because what I don't know, nobody can make me tell. And if I wound up falling, I wasn't going to take you down with me. You'd helped me too much for that."

"Even though I'm a thief?" A sardonic smirk.

"You saved Senma-obaasan, when she jumped out of the helicopter, and not just because it was a convenient escape. You saved Genta, on our camping trip. Yeah, you're a thief, and I'm not going to say it's the right thing to do... but I have a feeling you've got your reasons, and you always give it back. I chase killers... people who steal something that can't ever be returned. I'd back you over them any day."

Dropping his gaze, Conan continued gruffly. "Of course, I still think you're a certified pain in the ass."

"Understood," Kid chuckled. Leaning over the side of the couch, he came back with two mugs, contents steaming slightly.

Conan raised an eyebrow. "Tea?"

"Hot chocolate," the other replied. "Hot liquid for the shock, and lots of sugar for... well, replenishing your energy stores, let's put it that way."

Right, because he'd pretty much thrown up everything he had in that department, Conan recalled, accepting the mug with a wince. Taking a long sip, he sighed.

"Nice. Not as good as coffee, but nice. So... what was that thing, and why was it after me?"

Kid hesitated. "I... you said you didn't want to know who I was, tantei-kun. But if you get any deeper into this... you're going to have to. It's all tied up in who I am, in uniform and out."

Making a face, Conan took another sip of his cocoa. "Guess I'll just have to be careful not to get caught, then... because that thing killed a man, and if you hadn't gotten there in time, it would have killed me. I'min, Kid... whatever that takes."

"Oh, it wouldn't have killed you, Kudo," the other teen laughed bitterly, the last bit of pretense falling away with the use of his name. "I don't know what it wants, but I do know its plans involved taking you alive. At least at first."

He sighed. "And by the way... my name is Kaito. Kuroba Kaito."

Conan drank his cocoa and listened, slightly appalled, as Kuroba explained the situation to date, as succinctly as possible. Or at least, as was possible for a born showman like the Kaitou Kid, that was. He was fairly sure that it was only the desperate nature of the situation that was keeping Kuroba from embroidering the tale a bit.

"And that's the situation as it stands," Kuroba finished, rubbing his eyes. "You're the garnet, and the moonstone's obviously me..."

"White, changeable in appearance, linked to night and the full moon, yeah, that's pretty much a given," Conan replied. "So the good news is, it won't be targeting anyone else."

The thief snorted. "Can we be sure of that? I mean, Snake wasn't on the heist list, and look what happened to him."

"That was different. He was one of them, one of the ones who killed the first Kid, wasn't he? That, plus the fact that he was an active threat..."

"He was the one that messed with Oyaji's trick," Kuroba said, staring at his hands. "He told me so himself... thought he was talking to my father, that they'd missed their target and he'd gone into hiding... If there was ever anybody I did want to kill, it would have been him. But..."

Conan nodded. "But you don't kill. That's not a line you choose to cross. Believe me, I understand."

Another sigh, as the shrunken detective took another sip of his cocoa. "Thing is, I think I can say with some certainty what the thing's next move is likely to be, and it doesn't involve wholesale or random slaughter."

A dark eyebrow arched. "Do tell."

"Bear with me-- this is going to take some explaining. From what you said, Dr. Ogami, the original scientist, he was trying to recreate a person, right? Make a robot that basically could take a copy of a human mind downloaded into it and think and act like the person it chose. It was just dumb luck he decided to grab you, of all people."

Kuroba nodded. "Following you so far."

"He tried to make an electronic mind that could copy a human mind. That in and of itself is difficult, given that computers are logical, and human minds are flexible, intuitive, and emotive. It was probably a neural net system, the kind of thing they're doing with AI experiments right now, made to actually think, not just process commands. Whatever it was, it was obviously a pretty powerful system, so if he'd picked a normal, sane human being to copy, it might actually have worked."

"But of course, as we all know, I'm far from sane," the thief replied bitterly.

Conan winced. "If it were just a question of 'not sane,' we wouldn't be in this much trouble. The thing is, you're not INsane, either. If sanity is a sliding scale, one being normal and ten being completely nuts, you'd have a score of Q. Your mind isn't broken, it just runs at right angles to the rest of humanity. Basically, it was like trying to run a Mac graphics program on a graphing calculator that emulates Windows. It's glitchy as hell, and there are huge chunks of data missing.

"Then it spent a year and a half in sensory deprivation, while its CPU was being rebuilt, while it was running, into a larger, more powerful computer, one that more accurately reflected the structure of a nervous system. More processing power, more flexibility... but the original program is still incredibly messed up. And, well... hackers have something they call the "airplane rule." Basically, the more complex something is, the more ways it can screw up.

"So this thing has all this processing power, a new, more flexible structure for its AI... oh yeah, and any programming Sakamoto thought would be needed for making a covert assassination unit. It's patching itself, making itself functional... so it dumps anything that's causing errors. Most of which is basic human empathy and sensitivity."

Kuroba's jaw tightened. "Okay, so it's insane and murderous. Aside from making sure I will never again sleep well at night, Kudo, how does this help us?"

"Because it's still thinking like a computer. It processes identity in terms of variables, rather than intangibles, the way we do. Kuroba Kaito is Kaitou Kid. He has two good friends, Hakuba Saguru and Nakamori Aoko. There's only one of him... It's making itself you by defining itself by your variables. That makes it inflexible. It can't BE you as long as it doesn't have all the variables. Which means that until it gets me, it's... they call it 'busy-waiting,' It's blocked on getting me. Which means we can force its hand."

"You want to play bait." The older teen's voice was diamond-hard.

"It's our best chance for finding the thing's base of operations. I have a tracker in a capsule, just in case... I can swallow it, and once the thing grabs me, you can follow the signal in. Getting caught's easy enough, I just have to try and go home... it's probably waiting for me there."

The thief growled. "And what makes you think it won't be expecting that?"

Conan met his eyes steadily. "Because it's running off what you know of me. And up until tonight... would you ever have believed I'd risk my neck to help you? Besides, do we really have any other choice?"

Another growl. "You have no sense of self-preservation, you know that?"

"Thank you, pot-san, this kettle will take that under advisement."

"Hate you so much, Kudo..."

Nakamori Aoko hadn't thought her day could get much worse. She'd been kidnapped by a... athing (it certainly wasn't human) that wore her best friend's face. Said thing had cheerfully informed her that yes, Kuroba Kaitowas the Kaitou Kid, no matter what she'd tried to tell herself over the past year and a half. It had then gone on to explain in some detail exactly what plans it had for her, Hakuba, and for Kaito himself once it managed to get possession of him. About halfway through, she'd put her hands over her ears and forced herself not to listen, eventually crying herself into an exhausted sleep.

She'd awoken to find Hakuba lying nearby, curled into a small ball and nearly catatonic. Their jailer was nowhere nearby, so she couldn't have asked what had happened to the detective even if she had wanted to know. Over in a corner, she could see a pile of blood-stained white cloth, but there was no sign of Kaito, nor could she hear any screaming...

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a voice she was rapidly growing to hate.

"Good morning, Aoko," the thing purred, coming down the stairs from the catwalks that led to the open second-floor windows. With the doors all jammed or welded shut, those windows were the only exit, which kept her and Hakuba neatly trapped. Unlike Kid, neither of them could fly.

Aoko glared at her captor, forcing her fear down to the point none of it would show on her face. The thing was dressed as Kid again, having somehow gotten hold of a new, clean suit, and slung over one of its shoulders was a motionless form. She frowned. The body was too small to be Kaito...

"I brought you a new friend," it told her, dropping the child into her lap. "Aoko, meet Edogawa Conan, detective. Take good care of him while I'm gone, will you? I'm sure you two will have a lot to talk about." With a mocking laugh, it disappeared back into the shadows of the warehouse.

Shifting the unconscious boy across her legs, Aoko looked down at him with curiosity. She'd heard the name before, of course. Her father had mentioned a small boy who'd been present at a few heists, following the famous Mouri Kogoro around. Of course, her father's description had emphasized a pair of large glasses, which appeared to be missing. And oddly enough, he was also missing his shoes. Had the impostor kidnapped him from home? And why?

Absently, Aoko carded her fingers through the dark bangs, still looking down at the boy. It was odd, how familiar he looked. She was sure she'd never seen him before, though, unless it had been a brief appearance on television after having thwarted the Kid...

Realization hit her with the force of a thunderbolt. She had seen that face before, but not on Conan. Rather, the little boy in her lap bore an uncanny resemblance to one she remembered from her own childhood, one who still appeared in the pictures around the Kuroba home. Only the hair, mostly tamed instead of spiky, distinguished him from Kaito at age eight.

"Mm... Ran?" Conan shifted, blue suddenly glinting through a slitted eyelid. Even as she watched, the boy came to wakefulness with a speed that suggested long experience with sleeping in dangerous situations.

"No, my name's Aoko," she said, helping him off her lap and sitting him up against a wall. "Nakamori Aoko."

Those blue eyes, so much like Kaito's, turned on her, sizing her up in an instant. Then he nodded.

"The inspector's daughter. Nice to meet you, Nakamori-san. I'm Edogawa Conan."

"Yeah, that... thing told me." She shuddered. "It said you were a detective, and I know you've chased Kid, but why would it want to kidnap you?"

He sighed, one finger rubbing the bridge of his nose as if to slide his missing glasses into place. "That's a long story, Nakamori-san. To boil it down, it's because Kid cares about me, the way he cares about you and Hakuba-san. The three of us are important to him, and so this robot wants us, so that it can hurt him and then be him."

"Doesn't it... doesn't it even bother you? He's a thief, and you say you're a detective..."

The look he gave her was tired, and far too mature for a child of his years. "You know, my motto's always been 'there's only one truth.' And that's true, but... there's a lot of ways of getting at that truth. Yeah, he's a thief, but I chase killers, Nakamori-san. He gives back what he takes, he doesn't hurt people; the worst anybody could nail him for would be breaking and entering and criminal trespass. And, okay, property damage. I'm not saying what he does is right, but compared to the people we're hunting, he and I... No, it doesn't bother me to have him on my side. In the end, we're after the same thing. We want justice, so the dead can rest in peace."

Part of Aoko bristled at being lectured to by a child of seven, but that part was buried under the cold numb feeling that filled her. But even so, she couldn't help the hurt that crept into her reply.

"He lied to me. He swore he wasn't Kid. And I hate Kid, but Kaito's my best friend, and I hate him for lying to me, but I..."

"I know. But... people lie for all sorts of reasons, Nakamori-san. Some of them are good, some aren't. Some are selfish, some aren't. But they all eat away at you like acid, until you think there's nothing left. And when that happens... you keep it inside anyway, because there's only one thing worse than knowing someone hates you because you lied. And that's knowing they died because you didn't."

He must have seen something in her expression then, because he forced a small smile and his tone lightened as he continued. "But it's gonna be over soon. He's going to find us, he's going to get us out, and then you can talk to him. Just... if I can ask you... please. Listen to him before you get mad. Give him a chance to tell you his reasons. Then you can decide if they're good enough to forgive him."

Struck speechless, Aoko could only nod in answer.

He wasn't used to quiet, Kaito mused, as he slipped through the windows of the warehouse. Heists were always full of noise and chaos, sirens, helicopters, and of course, the beautiful music of Nakamori's ranting, always filled with new and interesting ways to describe his white-clad nemesis. It wasn't that Kaito didn't possess the skills of a traditional thief-- he could get in and out of a place unnoticed quite easily. But when it came to show time, to the adrenaline humming through his veins as though he were dancing in the moon's spotlight... well, the silence was just plain eerie.

Not that it wasn't probably for the best, of course. Ideally, he'd be able to get in, retrieve his three stolen "gems," and get out without having to confront his robotic doppelganger. He'd much rather make the thing come to him, rather than face it on its own terms. But ideal conditions were pretty much impossible, and Kaito knew it. Sooner or later, the other shoe would drop, and the situation would go straight to hell.

He was Kaito now, dressed in dark jeans and a charcoal shirt, rather than wearing the white tuxedo of his alter-ego. After all, Kudo and Hakuba both already knew his identity, though only Kudo had had it confirmed. And there was no chance in hell that the impostor hadn't told Aoko the truth, if only to twist the knife on both of them. Better to be low-key, rather than the attention-getting Kid.

Footsteps silent on the metal catwalks that formed the second floor, Kaito crept down the stairs, card gun at the ready. Somewhere below him, he could see a soft light burning, probably from an electric camping lantern. As he moved closer, he could make out Aoko and Kudo, talking quietly, with Hakuba curled up in a ball not too far away. Lowering the gun, he stepped into the lantern's light, pasting a grin on his face.

"Kuroba Taxi Service, somebody call for a pickup?" he asked as quietly as he could.

"Kaito!" To her credit, Aoko's cry was more of a gasp, not likely to carry more than a few feet. Lurching to her feet, the girl lunged for him, wrapping her arms around his waist in a tight hug.

His free arm went around her in a quick, tight squeeze, though he kept his gun hand ready, just in case. "It's okay, Aoko. We're going to get out of here, I promise."

Pulling back, she looked him directly in the eye. "We'd better. Because you and I need to have a talk. "

Kaito winced, but nodded. "What about Hakuba-kun? How is he?"

Pushing himself to his feet, Kudo shrugged. "He's been out like this for a few hours. We've tried calling him... he doesn't respond. And I'm not strong enough to get him to uncurl long enough to do more than a superficial check for injuries."

"Damn it," Kaito growled. He'd half-expected that the blond would need to be carried out, and he could do it, but carrying the larger, heavier teenager would slow him down immensely, and that wasn't really something they could afford.

"Hakuba-kun?" he called softly, moving into range. He wanted the detective awake before he touched him, if at all possible-- Hakuba had a pretty nasty talent with joint locks, and Kaito liked his elbows unbroken. But there was no answer, and so he moved closer, ready to lift the other into a fireman's carry.

And that was when the plan, as plans so often do, went directly to hell. Kaito had a second to see those blue eyes snap open, a look of utter terror in them, and then he was dodging as a foot swept through the air towards his head.

Backpedaling quickly, Kaito kept his gaze fixed on the detective, who used the momentum of his kick to swing himself onto his feet. Alarms were blaring in the back of Kaito's head as he hung back. Hakuba's posture looked wrong, somehow, loose-limbed and disconnected, like a marionette hanging from invisible strings. He didn't have a lot of time to think about it, though, as the detective attacked again.

"Hey, is this any way to treat the cavalry?" Kaito demanded, circling out of range of the blond's longer limbs. Oh kami, he had a bad feeling about this...

Blue eyes met his, fear and pain blazing in them like a neon sign. "Can't... stop," Hakuba gasped, obviously having to force the words out. "Won't... move..."

... Oh fucking hell. There weren't curses strong enough for what Kaito was feeling right now, not even in Nakamori-keibu's worst rants. His original thought that the detective looked like a puppet wasn't far off-- the thing had hijacked Hakuba's nervous system somehow. But if it was making Hakuba react to Kaito's movements, it had to be watching somewhere...

"Come on out!" Kaito snarled, dodging another kick. "Unless you're too scared to face me one on one!"

A low chuckle came from the shadows under the stairs. "But this is so much morefun, " the robot replied, stepping into the lantern's glow. "So much drama... detective against thief, friend against friend... it's like a classic play."

"I think this is taking the Hamlet parallels a little too far, don't you?" Kaito growled. Damn it, quite aside from the fact that he did not want to die here, he was not going to let this thing use Hakuba to kill him. There wouldn't be anything left of the stubborn idiot's sanity then.

... Which was probably the point. His double was sadistic, there was no other way of looking at it, and Kaito once again vowed that he was not going to die and leave his friends to this thing's "tender mercies." And he did have a plan, but like most of them, it was incredibly risky and stupid. Ah well, he was Kaitou Kid... that was pretty much his trademark. He was a gambler, and the stakes were definitely worth it.

This time, when Hakuba's arm shot out, Kaito deliberately faded back a hair too little, allowing the taller boy to grab him by the collar and slam him hard against the cement floor. Then, just as he'd expected, Hakuba's hands wrapped around his throat.

Manual strangulation, Kaito thought absently, one hand clawing at Hakuba's grip while the other slid under his own sweatshirt. Slow way to die, graphic, painful. Worst for Hakuba. So going to have to get him therapy when this is over... Finding what he was looking for, Kaito jammed his prize against the detective's leg, squeezing the trigger.

Sitting astride his prey, the blond jerked once, going rigid before toppling over like a felled tree. Pushing the unconscious detective off of him, Kaito sat up, one hand massaging his sore throat.

"What the hell?" The robot's eyes were huge, and under other circumstances, Kaito might have laughed. Instead, he simply held up the black plastic rectangle, waggling it slightly.

"It's called a stun gun, you son of a bitch," he replied hoarsely, levering himself to his feet. Tossing the device aside, he pulled out his card gun.

"Now stop hiding behind human shields, you coward, and let's dance."

"If you insist." A whip braided of silver filaments lashed out, and Kaito ducked, rolling out of the way. Coming up onto one knee, he sighted and fired.

As had happened earlier in the night, the card sliced into his double's shoulder, but this time, the explosion was considerably stronger. Giving an inhuman scream, the robot clutched at the wound, which had peeled back a significant chunk of synthetic flesh, leaving sparking silver circuitry visible beneath.

If nothing else, Kaito mused, dodging another whip as he continued to fire, he owed Kudo big time for the "upgrade" to his ammunition. The detective had a veritable gift with things that went boom.

The dance continued, with Kaito peripherally aware of Aoko and Conan having pulled the unconscious Hakuba into the dubious shelter beneath the stairway. He timed his dodges to lead the strikes away from them as best he could, and with each return shot, stripped a little more of the mask of humanity away from his double. Finally, three cards in quick succession thudded home into the thing's skull, blasting away the familiar face-- oh, and he was going to have nightmares about that for the next twenty years-- leaving only a pair of optic sensors in a vaguely humanoid ball of shifting circuits.

But damn it, it was still moving, and whatever those filaments were made of, it was impervious to his cards, razor and explosive. He had to find some way of taking it down, permanently. Because he was getting tired, and he wasn't going to be able to keep dodging much longer.

Unfortunately, "much longer" was even shorter than he'd thought. One of his flips brought his foot down on a bit of rubble, gouged out of the concrete by the robot's constant strikes. He was only off-balance for a moment, but that was all it took. That braided silver whip lashed out again, and the point struck home in Kaito's stomach.

He screamed, of course-- he couldn't help it. All he could think about was the fire in his gut as he collapsed, hands still clutching at the metal spear that held him impaled. Like some demonic tumbleweed, the robot reeled itself towards him, rolling forward until its shapeless mass flowed over his legs.

"You've destroyed my shell," it told him, in a voice that no longer resembled anything human. "So I'm going to take yours. The world doesn't need two of us, Kuroba Kaito... you told me that. You're obsolete... it's time you were replaced."

Kaito screamed again, as the fire in his stomach was joined by the burning sensation of thousands of little probes sinking into the skin of his legs. More filaments reached out to ensnare his arms, pinning them to the cement as they, too, were taken into the shapeless silver cloud.

"Time to delete the old software," it continued, settling closer to him, even as Kaito's screams grew louder. "Purge the system and reinstall."

Two especially thick filaments detangled themselves from the cloud, hovering directly before his eyes. Despite the pain flooding his body, he was all too capable of envisioning those two burrowing in through his eye sockets, sliding past his eyes on their way to his brain. Unable to do more than struggle, Kaito could only squeeze his eyes shut and wait for the end.

It was the scream that woke him, catapulting him to consciousness with one galvanic shock. Reflexes honed by years of training, chasing thieves, and avoiding pranks had Saguru rolling over onto his hands and knees, pushing himself into a crouching position before his mental processes could catch up.

His body was his own, he realized with faint surprise. No trace of the control remained, nor any of the slow response that would normally follow an electric shock. But he couldn't spare any attention for that, nor for the concerned looks Aoko and the Edogawa boy were giving him, because his focus was taken up by the sight of Kuroba crumpling to the cement floor, a silver spear buried in his stomach.

Saguru's mind snapped into high gear, as he searched for a weapon, a stick, anything that might give him the leverage needed to interfere before his friend, rival, and target wound up dead or worse. A rectangle of black plastic caught his eye, and he dived on it, coming up with the stun gun that Kuroba had used when he-- No. Think about that later. Think about all of it later, he had a job to do right now.

A quick check showed the device's power pack was still almost fully charged. Turning, he dashed past his companions, forcing himself to ignore both their questions and the repeated screams coming from Kuroba as the silver cloud enveloped him. He'd explored the warehouse earlier that night, while the robot had been out on the heist-- there were all sorts of hardware odds and ends left lying around, probably from the previous occupant.

A few seconds of digging produced what he was looking for-- a length of copper tubing and some wire. Quickly looping the wire around the contact points of the stun gun, he then ran the wire up the copper pipe, securing it in place with a found strip of duct tape. His belt bound the plastic casing to the tube, giving him a makeshift cattle prod of about a half a meter in length.

There was no time to test it. With a quick prayer to any and all deities who might be listening, Saguru dashed out of hiding, just in time to see two thick tendrils of silver move towards Kuroba's eyes.

He was fairly sure the tendrils were insulated, somehow, from the vast majority of the current in the thing's CPU. Otherwise it wouldn't have been able to interface with a human mind without frying it. And oh God, he hoped he was right, because the thing was all over Kuroba, and there wasn't any time to do anything else...

Skidding to a stop, he raised his improvised weapon and jammed it home into the knot of filaments that formed the center of the cloud. Silver threads twined around his arms as the thing turned its attention from Kuroba, attempting to stop him, interface with him, anything... but his fingers had already found the device's trigger and he squeezed.

The machine screamed, a high, alien sound that some primitive part of Saguru found entirely satisfying. He triggered the gun again and again, sending wave after wave of electricity through the thing before him, until at last the tendrils holding him fell away, sagging limp and dead in a shining puddle on the ground.

And still there was no time to think, to feel, as he dropped the prod and fell to his knees beside his injured classmate, pressing his hands to the welling hole in Kuroba's abdomen. Blue eyes, hazy with pain, met his own and impossibly, the magician smiled.

"Hey... guess the... cavalry came... after all," Kuroba gasped.

"Keep still, you git, and do not try to talk," ordered the detective. "You're hurt badly enough as it is."

Even as his eyes slipped shut, Kuroba continued to smile. "Not... your fault. Not ever."

"I said, shut up, you twit. DAMN it, he needs an ambulance!"

"Already on its way," Edogawa broke in. Saguru looked up to see the boy brandishing a cell phone in one hand and his trademark bow-tie in the other.

"They'll be here in five minutes," the boy continued. "Which means we need to get our story straight."

Aoko crept closer, eyes fixed on the blood seeping from beneath Saguru's hands. "Story?" she asked, tremulously.

"The fact of the robot Kid's on record. Somebody rebuilt it as a covert assassin unit. It malfunctioned, wanted to be Kid. Grabbed the four people who would work best as bait for Kid and would be most likely to know it wasn't him if they interacted with it. Two detectives who chase him, the daughter of his most common adversary, and his biggest fan." Edogawa indicated Kuroba with a wave of one hand.

Saguru nodded absently. "Almost the truth... the best lies often are."

"Right. Kid showed up, fought the robot, Kuroba was injured, Kid called the ambulance and left right before they got here."

"Tousan will believe it," Aoko said absently, sitting down at Saguru's side. "And if we tell him the thing grabbed Kaito out of his hospital room, he won't wonder how Kaito managed to slip out past the guard."

Despite himself, Saguru gave the girl beside him a startled look. "Aoko-san?"

"I'm not making any decisions now, Hakuba-kun," she said tiredly. "I'll wait until he wakes up... and can tell me himself what's going on."

If the magician woke up. But Saguru kept that thought to himself, simply concentrating on holding pressure on Kuroba's wound.

"Just one last thing," Edogawa continued, picking Kuroba's card gun up off the cement floor. Walking over to the motionless lump of circuitry, he aimed at the central node and shot three cards directly into the twisted knot of wires. The explosion scattered metallic threads everywhere.

"This time," the boy said grimly, tucking the gun away in a pocket of his jeans, "we're making sure the damn thing is dead."

He was lying on something soft, he realized, though not as soft as his bed at home. Something covered him up to mid-chest, thin and warm and-- blankets, he realized. Off to his left, something was beeping in a soft, even rhythm, and the pain in his stomach was far, far distant. Kaito really didn't want to leave the cocoon of darkness he was floating in, but he forced his eyes open anyway, blinking against the soft afternoon light.

Okay, he was in a hospital... and he wasn't handcuffed to the bed railing, that was a good sign. The beeping was a heart monitor, he could see it hanging above him, along with the IV that looped down to attach to the inside of his arm. Turning his head to the left, he was surprised to see no police guard, no Inspector Nakamori, only Aoko, sitting in the chair beside his bed with a book on her lap.

"Ao-" his voice dried up in mid-word, but it was enough to draw her attention from her reading material. Eyes widening, she sat up, setting the book aside as she scooted closer to him.

"You're awake," she said, a hint of relief in her eyes. "They said you'd probably wake up soon... how're you feeling?"

He tried to reply, but only croaked. She winced.

"Right, sorry, your throat must be dry as a bone. Hold on." Turning away, she grabbed a cup off of one of the nearby tables, a cup that he noticed was full of ice chips. Carefully, she spooned a couple of them into his mouth.

"There. Suck on those for a while. The doctors said you shouldn't have water right away."

Mouth full, he couldn't really talk, but the tilt of his head and one raised eyebrow spoke for him. "Mmm?"

"No, my father's not here. He wants me to call when you wake up, but... he doesn't know about you. I didn't tell him. As far as anybody knows, Kid showed up and rescued all of us from the robot."

She... hadn't told? Kaito knew he had to look like somebody had hit him over the head. Apparently he was staring, because Aoko flushed bright red.

"Don't get me wrong, Kuroba Kaito, I'm still furious with you. But... Conan-kun told me I should at least give you a chance to explain before I decided whether or not to forgive you." She frowned.

"He's a very strange little boy, isn't he?"

Aoko, you don't know the half of it, he thought wryly, but he simply nodded, still sucking on his ice chips.

"Anyway... I'm mad that you lied to me, but I think I can understand some of why you had to do it. And... whether or not I forgive you depends on what you tell me, but... I've already decided that I'm not going to tell my father."

Kaito's eyebrows shot into his hairline. She what?

"Hakuba-kun and Conan-kun... they're both detectives," she said quietly. "They believe in justice, they're always catching criminals... and they both lied to the police. Conan-kun was the one who came up with the story we told them, but Hakuba-kun backed him up completely. Whatever your reasons, they're not going to turn you in, so I'm not going to either." Leaning over, she caught him with a hard blue glare.

"But you'd damn well better have a good explanation for me, Kaito, or I will never forgive you."

Swallowing the last of the ice in his mouth, Kaito grimaced. "I... I don't know if it's good enough, but I promise, I'll tell you. Not here, though. I promise, when they let me out of here, I'll tell you everything, but it's not safe to talk here."

Aoko blinked. "Not safe?" Then she shook her head.

"You're right, though, not here. You're not up for it anyway. But if I've got your promise... I can wait." She smiled at him then.

He smiled back, eyes slipping closed. "The robot... what happened?"

"Hakuba-kun made something that shocked it... fried its brain... then Conan-kun blew it apart with your card gun. The police have what's left in custody, and Dad says that there's only fragments of the... CPU, I think he said, left, and that they're overwritten with gibberish, according to the Task Force's computer experts. It's dead, Kaito. This time, it's really not coming back.

Kaito sighed, relaxing. It was over. He still hadn't found Pandora, his secret was well and truly blown to the three people he'd hid from hardest, Snake's superiors would likely send someone new to replace him, and his stomach hurt like hell. Even so... life was pretty good.

The study was quiet; only the crackling of flames broke what would otherwise be an oppressive silence. In fact, the whole house was quiet, his father away on a trip and the housekeeper given the night off. In a wingback chair, Saguru sat, staring blankly at the flames dancing in the fireplace. Without looking, he picked up the glass of single-malt scotch resting on the table beside him, throwing it back in a single convulsive motion.

He could feel the alcohol burning a path down his throat, but it didn't warm him, any more than the cheerful fire did. Nor did the alcohol bring the comforting numbness he'd hoped for, despite the fact that he'd consumed the better part of a bottle.

Raising one hand, he noticed absently that it did not tremble, even though internally, he was shaking like a leaf. Saguru turned his hand from one side to the other, absently watching the firelight play over the tracings of silver that had appeared there earlier that day.

The shock from Kuroba's stun gun had given him back control of his body. The jolt had deprogrammed the implant that the robot had wrapped around his spinal cord. Without instructions from its master, the neuro-mimetic circuitry had followed its original design parameters: to augment and repair the human nervous system.

Over the last few days, since the battle in the warehouse, Saguru had noticed many changes. His senses had sharpened, his reflexes had quickened... nothing beyond the point of humanly possible, but still significantly higher performance than he had been before. It wasn't until he'd seen the circuitry patterns forming at his wrists, however, that he'd understood.

It didn't matter, really. It shouldn't matter. He was still Hakuba Saguru, detective. While he had always been ruthlessly logical, he was neither heartless nor emotionless, nor did he truly feel so now. He was not a sadistic monster like the thing that had... had changed him. Infected him, a little voice whispered, but he shoved it away.

He didn't know everything his new abilities could do, but he knew on an instinctual level that no computer security could stand against him now... nor could any human mind, if he so wished. The secrets behind other's faces were his if he only stretched out a hand.

Pouring himself another glass of scotch, Saguru gulped at it greedily. He didn't want that. He wouldn't want that. Whatever changes might have occurred to his body, he was still Hakuba Saguru. He was still human.

Wasn't he?