Okay...

First rule: Don't kill the author.
Second rule: Especially if she's reeeeeeeeeeeeaaaally sorry, but the chapter about What Happens To Mouri has been delayed.
Third rule: Because there's something that needs to be taken care of first.

**ducks fast**

See, I was going to wait til later for this bit, but well, no. There are certain things that need to be covered first, so they were in this chapter and I really, really promise that in two weeks I'll post the one about What Happens To Mouri. Promise! I swear! It's just that there are so many details to take care of, so much that has to be covered! **brain starts sizzling**

Anyway... hope you enjoy the chapter. It's got some sad moments but loose ends have to be tied up before life can move on; and that's what I have for you tonight...

The Management
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Book Seven, Chapter Five - "...appeared and vanished in a second..."
Music: 'Houkiboushi' (Comet) by Younha/Sato Ema

Three Months Ago, Second Verse:

"Coffee, sir? -certainly; cream and sugar?" The stewardess in her Asiana Aircap and scarf smiled a professional smile down at the man in Business Class. "Or would you prefer something else from our beverage cart?"

"Mm; a scotch and soda, please. And do you have today's Japan Times?" A few minutes later, one Takeda Hiro, modestly-successful young entrepreneur and accredited representative of Nonesuch Enterprises, Inc., sipped his drink as he scanned the sports pages. His somewhat Occidental eyes followed the text with apparent interest, and if you were to ask you his opinion of the past week's games he would have opined that the Hanshin Tigers' game had really picked up since they had fired Akinobu Mayumi as manager.

Truthfully, though...

...his thoughts were on anything but games. Well, at least, not on football games. Gymnastics, possibly, or Cops-And-Robbers.

They were three hours out from Tokyo, not quite halfway to Singapore International; a good tailwind had them making excellent time, and Takeda-san expected to arrive a little early. Not a problem; Singapore's enormous airport had plenty of diversions, and the young businessman had any number of calls to make once they had landed. 'You have to keep your contacts happy,' he could've explained to anyone who might have asked; 'They need to feel important, they need to feel needed. That's commerce for you, supply and demand and lots of ego-stroking. Some of the stories I could tell you-' But his seatmate (a hung-over minor manager of an equally minor shipping firm) had fallen asleep right after takeoff, and the plane's staff weren't interested in his stories. Takeda-san'd been a bit disappointed at that; he liked to talk.

Ah, well.

Thin fingers turned a page; they were smooth-skinned and uncalloused, the hands of somebody who had never had to do manual labor for a living. In fact, save for the expected tiny nicks and miniscule traumas of a paper-pusher's life, they were quite bland; even the pads of the fingers were nigh-perfect, distinct, unmarred, very nearly artificial in their regularity. Their utter unremarkableness was remarkable. They folded the newspaper over, creased its folds, and at a murmured request from a passenger across the aisle passed it along for another businessman's perusal. Ice clinked in Takeda-san's glass as he took another long sip, and he sat it aside on the tiny fold-out tray in front of him before settling back to stare absently out the plane's small oval window at the cloud layer far below, remembering.


"You'll be careful?"

"As careful as... as a..." Kaito paused, a series of expressions flickering across his face as he and his brother attempted, tried again, and totally failed to come up with an appropriate analogy. "Well, we- that is, we'll try to- I think we can promise t-" He sighed. "Kaasan, we'll do our best to stay under the radar and not get hurt. Beyond that? We are your and Tousan's sons."

Their mother tried to smile; it wasn't a total success either. "So you are. Then I won't ask either of you to promise what you can't deliver, just- oh, just remember all the failsafes and contact methods we've set up. Don't put anything on paper, don't send any obvious encryptives, stay out of camera-range as often as possible..." Her voice dwindled as her sons bit back a laugh.

"For the first time in history, a mother just told her sons not to write or send photos," Kaito quipped; his voice slid back into seriousness, though, and he continued. "We'll be fine, Kaasan, I promise." He reached up, tapping Kuroba Chikage on the tip of her nose. "You be careful yourself, ne? You're the one staying behind. If you see anything, anything that looks even hints that you're being watched, you bug out of here, okay? Pick one of Tousan's oldest bolt-holes, the ones with the stockpiled supplies in them; there's the one in Ginza, or the one over by Ueno Park, or the-"

This time it was Chikage's finger that tapped her sons' lips. "Shush, silly; who do you think helped your father to set most of those up?" Her expression was rueful, fondness hiding a large lump of fear and excitement mixed with exasperation. The long years of stasis and waiting that had weighed her down and smothered her had been slipping away steadily ever since the night she had watched her sons following in their father's footsteps in person; they had relinquishment their hold only reluctantly, but Chikage had emerged from her self-imposed hermitage like Amaterasu stepping from her cave: eyes open, astonished by the world around her. Jintaro had quietly confided in Kid that a great deal of Toichi's planning had centered around his wife's research. The old man had reminisced wistfully about past triumphs and intricate, detailed plots that covered months of work and produced results that were still listed as some of Interpol's most baffling cold cases.

She wasn't fully back yet... but Kuroba Chikage, the original Moonlight Magician's shadow spider, had been and was still waking up.

"Don't try to teach this old dog new tricks, she'll learn them on her own if she needs to," she scolded her sons gently. "And I'll have Jii here to help me, won't I?" From his place just inside the Kuroba home's foyer door, the elderly man raised a bushy gray eyebrow and nodded, his eyes fixed on his young master. "So," she went on, tweaking her sons' collar straight and reflexively checking over his appearance from his pomaded hair down to the plain dark trouser-socks peeking out of the hem of his suit pants. "You have everything you'll need?"

Kaito's face shifted fluidly as his brother stepped forward. "Everything? Never, Kaasan; we're leaving the most important things behind." The thief gave their mother his most charming smile, hoping for a return in kind; "It's unfortunate but mothers, detectives and Voices of Reason do not fold for easy storage, so we were forced to leave them out of our suitcase. I suppose we'll just have to make do, though." He stepped forward, standing on tiptoes to kiss his mother's cheek as she leaned over the banister. "Go well, Kaasan; give Sava-san our greetings when you see him, hm?" He stepped back mentally to allow his brother to do the same, watching from their shared headspace as their mother tried again to smile.

She may be rusty, but she played this game for years before we were even born, he reminded Kaito. We really shouldn't worry so much.

His brother gave him the distinct impression of an eyeroll. Oh, sure. And that's why you've worked up no less than twenty-three different exit strategies for her and Jii if things do go pear-shaped, right? Riiiiiiight. You're not fooling anyone, Thief. Of course, neither was Kaito.

Okay; two more things to take care of before we leave. Walking soundlessly beside his brother, the Magician glanced sideways at the Fool. Nakamori first?

"Age before beauty," agreed Kid softly, flipping a black umbrella open against the weather. Kaito winced but said nothing, and they moved on through a fine drizzle of evening rain until the Kuroba home was no longer in view. They did not look back.


There are cop bars, and then there are cop bars. The bar frequented by Division One, 'Red's', was all well and good; but the Kaitou Kid Task Force had a haunt all their own, one which catered to their fearless leader's particular tastes. In short, it allowed indoor smoking and served ferociously strong coffee that would, given time, either reinforce a drinker's stomach-lining or dissolve it.

The bar officially went by the very un-Japanese name of "Sam's Café 13", but as long as the Taskforce had been frequenting its backroom it'd been called 'Hoshi's', meaning 'star.' The side entrance that took customers up a set of rickety stairs to the private area in the back had an old Texas Ranger's badge hammered into the beam above the door; whether the hunk of metal was authentic or not wasn't important- it had just always been there. The place was flashy out front with its ostentatiously foreign food and Budweiser on tap; but in the back you could get plain, local snacks and good Japanese beer.

And coffee. Always coffee.

It was a good place to be on a rainy summer evening. Nakamori Ginzo was nursing his third cup and his fifth pipe of the evening over a half-eaten curry katsu and an open casefile when he realized that someone had slid quietly onto his booth's opposite seat. Frowning, he looked up at the gray-suited young man across from him and raised a black eyebrow. Another rookie who wants to be on the Taskforce? he thought resignedly; ever since the last heist there'd been a surge of applicants. "Something I can do for you?" he grunted.

"Ahhah, no, Nakamori-keibu; it's more likely that there's something I can do for you," said the smiling man, propping his chin up on one hand. He had an affable, easygoing face, Asian with a strong flavor of Europe in his ancestry; there was something about it, though, something familiar... The cop inside his head that never slept or stopped eyeing the world suspiciously continued to examine the notion as the young man went on. "I've come across a fact or two that I thought might interest you."

Nakamori's scowl deepened. "Really. And just how much are your 'facts' going to cost me?" He didn't ask for a name, not yet.

The young man spread his hands (narrow fingers and palms, odd callus pattern, the inspector automatically noted) and made a little tsking noise. "Not a yen, Keibu, I promise you. Gratis, pro bona, absolutely free. Consider them a measure of my esteem- from one professional to another." His white teeth gleamed in a smile straight from the toothpaste commercials.

"Yeah? Professional what?" The inspector leaned forward, squinting through the gloom and lingering pipe-smoke.

The smiling man in the dapper gray suit half closed his eyes, leaning forward as well until their faces were far too close together for Nakamori's comfort. "Well, Nakamori-keibu," he murmured in an all-too-familiar and very different voice, "you've called me any number of things over the past few years; I suppose you could take your pick." The smile that transformed his face just then was the one that went with the voice, and Nakamori froze like a rabbit staring down both barrels of a shotgun.

Kid beamed. "Hi."

The series of involuntary movements that were begun and then forcibly stifled within Nakamori's frame over the next minute or so had a strong resemblance to delirium tremens; they ended with him slowly settling back in his seat, fists clenched, every muscle rigid and a look of utter outrage on his face. "You. YOU," he growled under his breath, "have got to be FUCKING BATSHIT INSANE to come here-!"

The thief folded his hands and offered the inspector a smile of angelic, unhinged sweetness. "Well, yes; but really I prefer to think of myself as simply having a pair of big brass ones. I've always wanted to visit a cop bar, you know, and this seemed like exactly the right time, so... Ahh-ah-ahh, Keibu," he cautioned Nakamori, who had opened his mouth to scream for reinforcements, aspirin, or possibly just merely to vent. "Shhhh; if you raise a fuss, you'll never learn what I came here to tell you, now will you?"

"I could live with that," muttered the head of the Kaitou Kid Taskforce; his nails bit into the scarred wood of the tabletop.

Eyes that contact lenses had shielded with a gray façade (but Nakamori knew them, oh he knew them) narrowed slightly, though the expression around them remained pleasant. "No, Keibu," said the thief with odd gentleness, steepling his fingers in front of him. "Actually, you couldn't. That's precisely the point. And neither," he added softly, "could your daughter."

Silence.

The growl was almost subvocal: a low, low sound that vibrated the liquid in the half-full coffeecup and sent a stray chopstick rolling a few centimeters. Nakamori's dark eyes were fixed on Kid's, flat and almost emotionless. "You. Will not. Threaten my daughter."

"I, Nakamori-keibu, am not the threat. I am here to warn you. Do I need to be any plainer? If you prefer, I could lay it all out for you in a heist note, but it's one thing to riddle you regarding a gem; it's another thing entirely to play foolish little games with your lives." Kid's words were cool, even calm, but a momentary corona of indigo seemed to radiate out from his pupils like a solar flare and the Inspector blinked, uncertain if he had actually seen that or not. "I, Keibu, took time from my own extremely busy schedule to give your daughter a chance to grow up as something other than fatherless. Is that worth a moment of your time, do you think?" Sarcasm gave his voice an acid edge.

"'Fatherless.' Like you?" It was a low blow, Nakamori knew; and the air at the table seemed to freeze momentarily. That strange flare of blue overwhelmed the gray contacts again, and just for a moment the familiar/unfamiliar face opposite the Inspector held nothing but pain. Don't go there, said the eyes; don't. You don't want to. But Nakamori hadn't gotten where he was without pushing into places where he wasn't wanted, so he went there anyway. "All this goddamn time you've been right there, laughing at the stupid fuckup across the street; did your father teach you to do that? Did he tell you how many times he fooled me? Hell, I thought I knew the man! We were friends! And you, you grew up with Aoko. How long've you planned this? Were you raised from the frickin' cradle with lies in your mouth, you bastard? How long were you-"

Nakamori would later on try to understand why he had stopped right there, RIGHT there, chopped his own words neatly in half as if the blade of a guillotine had come down on them. Maybe it had been the look in the other's eyes, or the taste of his silence, or the sense that any moment now sheer bloody chaos was about to come down on his head. Or maybe it was pity for the boy he remembered.

Not for the thief, not for the thief's father, not even for a long-dead friend: for Kuroba Kaito, whose pain bled the deep blue away from the gray eyes and turned them back into a stranger's again after that one clear glimpse.

The silence lay thickly around them; the rest of the room's background noise seemed distant and unimportant, something unreachable as the moon. When the thief spoke at last, his voice was still the Phantom Thief's. "He didn't know, Keibu. Not until just before I- came; your friend's son did not know about what his father did for a living." The words were nearly inaudible, just loud enough to be heard.

"Oh really?" Sarcasm dripped like poison; Nakamori couldn't help himself. "And I suppose you're his Evil Twin and Toichi's boy is holed up somewhere while you-" he spat the words out, "-grace us with your presence tonight?"

That spill of blue again, true color roiling just beneath the surface of masking silicone- how was that even possible? "No, Nakamori-keibu," said the thief quietly. "It's not quite that simple. If it were, we'd be having a very different conversation." He sat back, thin fingers linked together on the tabletop. "What will it take to get you to shut up for five seconds and listen? Look." He spread his hands wide. "No smoke bombs, no sonic grenades; no tricks... Is venting your spleen at me more important than hearing what I have to say, Keibu? If it is, then I've misjudged you, and all you are is a petty little martinet." The hands dropped to lie flat and still against the wood. "The Inspector's had his moment; do you suppose that I might speak to Aoko-chan's father now? If that's not too difficult?"

Two of the Taskforce's newer members, ambling past towards the bar for a refill on their beers, glanced towards their commander's table as they went by; the Old Man looked almost whitefaced with fury, and the two wondered what the guy sitting across from him had said to work him up to that state. Not that it was hard, but... Eyeballing each other with mutual grimaces of Whatever it is it's above our paygrades, they slipped past and resolved to warn the rest of the squad not to interrupt.

"...talk. Make it short."

With a sigh, the thief in the business suit sat back, muscles untensing slightly. "Short. Well. In brief, it's this: you, your daughter, your home and your workplace are quite certainly under surveillance by a certain... acquaintance of mine who unfortunately has the knowledge to make the connection between myself and Kuroba Toichi. And if she feels that you are a threat, she'll most certainly act." The disguised felon raised a cautioning finger as Nakamori drew breath to explode into questions. "She tends to favor very final solutions to her problems, Keibu, the kinds that accompany gunfire. Or bombs, possibly; incendiaries, certainly. She has a history with fire, as members of the American FBI could tell you..." His eyes were fixed on Nakamori's, and the Inspector had the strangest feeling that the thief was looking through him at another face, another time. "If I had only known... well. Hindsight, as they say, is always 20/20."

"Name? Description? Who the fuck-" Nakamori's heart was pounding in his ears. Aoko no you're not supposed to be involved my little girl you're supposed to stay safe-

The thief shrugged. "She goes by the rather colorful appellation of Vermouth. And I shouldn't worry about her description; you'll never see her coming." A sardonic little smile curled Kid's mouth; it was the feature that his disguise had changed the least. "My advice would be to take your daughter and leave, run as far away as possible; since I know that this is exceedingly unlikely, I'd suggest that you pack her off somewhere distant and discreet as quickly as you can, tomorrow if possible." He sighed, and it seemed to the Inspector that his voice altered ever so slightly when he added in a low tone: "Don't let her tell anyone goodbye. Anyone, Nakamori-keibu. I think you understand."

Silence. The head of the Kaitou Kid Task Force sat with his brow furrowed, watching his enemy- his quarry- without a word while talk, laughter and the clink of glasses wrapped them in a cocoon of white noise. When his pulse had slowed enough that he could talk without his vision fogging, Nakamori Ginzo asked (calmly, for him), "Why are you doing this? Why take such a fucking insane risk? All I'd have to do is shout, you lunatic, and you'd be in a world of trouble. You could've told me this in a thousand different ways; why like this?"

The thief's eyes met his, and for the first time that evening the Inspector saw no trace at all of a stranger in them. "Because... I owed it to you, Nakamori-keibu. And-"

His tone altered, changed subtly, dropped in pitch, sharpened: "-I owe it to Aoko. Goodbye, Nakamori-san. Thank you for everything."

And that, at last, was in Kuroba Kaito's voice.

Long after the young businessman had slid quietly from his seat and exited the bar, the Inspector sat staring at his stone-cold cup of coffee and the brown ring-stains that made a peculiar artwork out of the booth's tabletop. When he raised his head at last it was to fumble blindly in one pocket, draw out his cellphone and hit speed-dial.


"'Yozora o miage hitori houkiboshi o mita no
Isshun de hajikete wa kiete shimatta kedo-'"

The lyrics of Bleach's third ending song woke Nakamori Aoko from her doze on the living room couch; swatting at her cellphone, she managed to smack the right button on her second try and sat up groggily. "M'shi moshi...? Tousan?" The rapid voice on the other end of the line sounded odd- well, odder than usual; Tousan'd had too much coffee again, probably. "What? No, I'm fine, I just fell asleep. What? I- Tousaaan, you're not making sense."

The answer Aoko got made her pull the phone away from her ear and stare at it in puzzlement for a moment, rubbing at her eyes and wondering if she was still asleep. "You want me to what? Tousan, I've got a calculus test tomorrow, I can't-"

No arguments; just a flat answer. "B-but-"

And again. Tousan sounded wrong, like he had after the heist in Fukuoka. Almost hurt, like he'd been the one who got shot. Almost... scared. Aoko took a deep breath and tried again. "Tousan, I know you're worried but I'm FINE. I mean, it's-" (Aoko squinted at the DVD player across the room) "-after eleven... I can't fly out tomorrow! Why do you want to... wait, what? Send me away? TOUSAN." Temper rising in spite of her worry, the Inspector's daughter scowled horribly while her father's voice rose and fell on the other end of the line. Anyone seeing her face just then would have remarked on the similarity to Aoko's male parent (if they had no regard for life or limb, that is.)

The conversation came abruptly to a close with one terse sentence and the click of a phone being flipped shut. The young woman stared at her own cellphone, perplexity warring with disbelief; the phone slid through her fingers, bouncing once on the couch and spilling out music:

"'Moshi atashi ga houkiboshi ni nareta naraba
Sora kakenuke tonde iku, donna
Ashita ga kite mo ko no omoi wa tsuyoi
Dakara houkiboshi zutto kowarenai yo-'"

If I could become a comet, Aoko thought resentfully, I'd fly away from here alright. And then I'd come back when nobody was looking. WHY do I have to leave? Tousan wouldn't even tell me, he just said I'd find out eventually. What in the world am I supposed to do about school?" I'm not going anywhere," she muttered, smoothing her hair and shoving her feet into the house-scuffs that she had discarded by the couch. The house felt too hot and stuffy in the way that Japanese summers got sometimes, so sticky with humidity and pollen that you expected to be able to shovel the stuff out of the gutters like mud. Rising to her feet, Aoko headed towards the back door and the small porch beyond; she needed air.

Outside wasn't much better, but at least there was a breeze. The young woman grunted in impatience when flicking the lightswitch brought no response; the bulb was apparently burned out. She plopped down onto the stairs in the dark anyway, fighting back a yawn; the clouds were thick overhead, and Aoko spent a few minutes watching them before the faintest crunch of feet on grass from the yard beyond sent her sitting bolt upright.

"Hey, Aoko. -no, stay there. The grass's wet and you're in scuffs, baka." She squinted at him; no good, the nearest streetlight was directly behind Kaito, turning him into a lanky silhouette. Only his shape was visible. Must've gotten soaked; his hair's not sticking up as much as usual.

The pure normalicy of hearing her friend's voice made Aoko breath out in relief. "Baka yourself," she retorted automatically, sticking her bottom lip out at Kaito where he stood silhouetted against the streetlights. "It rained earlier. It's still dripping, Kaito- don't you have enough sense to come in out of the rain?"

In answer he held up an umbrella. "I'd share it with you if you needed me to," he offered, and he sounded a little odd... almost sad. "You don't want me to, though, do you?"

"I'm not leaving the porch. Iknow better than to let myself get wet." What was wrong with everybody tonight anyway? They were acting so weird, and Aoko wished she could see Kaito's face. He was just a sharply outlined shape, nothing more. She shifted restlessly on the steps. "Why're you out so late, Kaito? I haven't seen you hardly at all since you dropped out of school, you slacker. Come sit down."

Her friend didn't move other than to bring the umbrella point-down to the side, holding it like a cane or a sword; it had an old-fashioned curved handle. "I'm fine right here. Aoko...? Can I ask you something?"

She propped herself up on her elbows. "What?"

He turned a little, raising his head to watch the fine rain mist down. "I told you my secret. Remember? And you told me you had one too."

Aoko stared.

"Well? Tell me, Aoko. Tell me."

"..."

"Aoko," he said, and this time there was weary impatience in his voice, and the sadness from before was there again. "Tell me. Please."

She closed her eyes; the silence of the rainy night was deafening, full of tiny dripping sounds and the distant hiss of traffic. Somewhere a long ways off a car-horn blared. "I..."

"Please."

After a long pause she muttered, "Why... do you want to know?"

"'Cause I told you mine. You asked, and I told you."

I love you, his words came back; Aoko remembered the moment of shock, the flush of alarm and embarrassment and dismay, the wrenching knowledge that this was something they couldn't share, truly uneven ground. There had been secrets between them especially over the past few years; she hadn't pushed too hard at the barriers that had risen between them, but-

She guessed... she could tell him. What would it hurt? And maybe it'd help... Aoko looked at Kaito, still standing there in the soft rain, just waiting. Listening, so quiet, so still. It wasn't like him at all. He'd keep her secret if she told him, he wouldn't blab, not even to Tousan. Especially not to Tousan. So...

Aoko drew a deep breath and tucked her knees close to her chest, hands clasped around them. Staring at nothing, she fumbled with her words and tried to express what she had kept hidden for so long. "It's... You know how I've always said I hated the Kaitou Kid?"

Kaito's head turned; she couldn't see his features but she could tell he was looking at her. "Yeah?"

"Well, I, um, I... don't. I never have." Her friend made an incredulous noise and she bit her lip. "I know, I know, I make a huge fuss about it. But... Kaito, you know what the big difference is between what Tousan does and what all the other cops do? Their criminals shoot bullets; Kaitou Kid doesn't. People don't get hurt at Kid heists." Or at least they didn't until this last one- "Tousan's SAFE, don't you get it? He doesn't have to go out on homicide cases, he doesn't chase down bank-robbers, and when he goes out because that baka thief is trying to steal something, I know he'll be coming home!" Aoko took a deep breath. "A-and that's why I don't hate the Kid. I'm... grateful to him." She raised her head and gave Kaito a defiant glare. "And I HATE being grateful to him! But I am, and, and I can't t-tell Tousan because he wouldn't u-underst-stand." To her own surprise, Aoko realized that she was crying; she didn't want to cry, she couldn't stand it she couldn't stand it- She pressed her face against her knees, feeling the hot tears soak into her jeans.

Wet grass rustled underfoot; Aoko felt a hand brush against her hair, rest lightly on her head. She kept her face down, though, and even when Kaito spoke to her in a voice that was only just barely audible, she didn't look up. When his footsteps had died away and the sound of her backyard gate closing no longer echoed in her head, Aoko stayed where she was for a long, long time.

Thank you. G'bye, Aoko.


I'm truly sorry, brother. I wish-

"Don't. Just... don't say anything else. Let's just go."


Four hours later from his seat in Business Class, Takeda Hiro watched the clouds stream past; his gray eyes were the color of storms, full of silence. And somewhere both nearby and far away, Kuroba Kaito sat beside a window full of rain and remembered, wishing he could forget.


.

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I am a sad author. Change happens, but it's never an easy thing.

See you all with the next chapter. Take care, all, and for all the gods' sakes tell me you're all not going to send me letter-bombs in the mail for this! Seriously.