The Price of Truth
By Mirror and Image


Watanuki didn't know what to make of it at first. Oh, he remembered back when he'd first met (re: been roped into slaving for) Yuuko; they'd gone out on several occasions - to help (re: dig up and mastermind) customers, buy red baseball bats, and meet with the sunflower Himawari and her perfection and Doumeki and his straight-laced idiotic blank expressions. She'd been there when he'd gotten moon sake from the giant tree, she arranged for a snowball fight, and she went out under her own power to buy sweet potatoes and other oddities. And liquor. Lots and lots of liquor.

But lately, Watanuki had noticed, Yuuko didn't leave her shop. Maru and Moro were constantly sleeping, and the mistress of wishes was constantly looking up at the sky or into his dreams. Something was keeping her there... or perhaps Watanuki was just going crazy. It technically wasn't his problem and therefore he shouldn't worry about it.

But that was the old Watanuki. He wasn't that person anymore, and he found himself relieved when, wrapped in an ornate and surprisingly warm shawl, she'd announced that she felt like kitsune oden. This was quickly followed by a sly grin and a comment that poor Watanuki wouldn't be able to go to the oden-ya's shop and back without, how did she put it? "Finding some reason to take a nap on the concrete."

An eyebrow twitched. Never mind. He didn't give a damn about Yuuko and whether or not she left her shop. Nope, not a bit.

But he was still secretly glad that she did.

After an hour of the foxes entertaining and feeding them (and Yuuko teasing him at every opportunity), the pair had left with full stomachs and pleasant feelings. Yuuko had brought alcohol, of course, with her, and she and the elder fox had gotten uproariously drunk. Both Watanuki and the child fox had huddled in a corner of the oden cart and nodded to each other that life was a difficult burden. Or, at least, Watanuki had mentioned it; the boy was too busy admiring him to really do more than nod in agreement and hide his ever-bristling tail.

Walking back, Watanuki was muttering under his breath about drunks and aspirin and tonic for hangovers as Yuuko continuously "tripped" and leaned her full chest heavily against his back and sighed her tangy breath into his ears.

"Watanukiiiiiiii," she drawled, her feet dragging and making her pull at his neck as she clutched him. She got her feet under herself, and in an attempt to stand, only pressed her breasts harder against him, making him more than slightly uncomfortable. "You really should light'n up and have some beer with me when we get home."

"You're already two bottles past your quota," the teen part-timer said with a cavalier air. "Drink any more tonight and you won't have any quota left for tomorrow, and you'll have to spend the whole day sober."

"You're so meeeeaan!" she whined, shaking him in her death grip. "Come on, if not beer then how about some coffee with a vodka chaser?"

"Just who do you think will be forced to clean up the mess you'll make?" Watanuki cried out, fed up with his boss - er, master. "It's already past midnight and you still want to gallivant around the shop raising even more hell just so that you can whine and complain about how unfair life is in the morning when you're hung over! Then you'll make me go to the store at some ungodly hour just to get you more eki-yabe! I won't tolerate it! Not one more drop of anything tonight no matter what you say! Not even water! Are you even listening?? Yuuko-san!"

The pale teen's boss had the nerve to not even be listening! She was standing tall, her heavily lidded eyes staring down the street. It wasn't the drunken demeanor she had been wearing just a moment earlier, and the sudden change gave Watanuki pause. He was coming to recognize this look; it was the far off stare his overseer would take whenever something important was about to happen. He ventured a soft, "Yuuko-san?" his blue and brown eyes trailing her gaze up the empty street. A man came around the corner and bolted past them, tall and with a blue overcoat and baseball hat. Watanuki watched him run past, glancing back at Yuuko before following the man's path again.

"... What do you suppose that was all about?" he asked slowly. He hadn't felt any spirits, but then again, that didn't necessarily mean anything.

"There is only one thing in this world..." Yuuko responded in a low breath, her eyes still locked up the street.

Confused, Watanuki turned back around to where she was looking. Two more people came pelting around the corner. One was a teenager, perhaps a year or two older than him, with brown hair and a distinct cowlick in back. Just in front of him was a boy with the same cowlick - a brother? - dashing forward on a skateboard, the streetlights flashing across his glasses. They were making a beeline right towards the shopkeeper and her employee.

Watanuki only had time to step back and call out, "Hey, be care--" before the teenager blew right through him and the kid crashed right into him. The high schooler's legs were suddenly no longer underneath him, and he seemed to float in the air before pitching to the ground and getting tangled up in the boy. The skateboard snapped against something, and Watanuki swore he saw the other teenager fall forward, too; but he couldn't quite figure out how, and suddenly he was staring up at the black sky, stars hidden against the glow of the city lights.

Yuuko came into his field of vision, her face carefully blank.

"... there is only the inevitable," she finished.


Watanuki got up quickly enough. The catlike reflexes Himawari saw in him were not unfounded. The boy took a bit longer, rubbing his head and shaking it. The teenage part-timer was going to help him up but Yuuko's voice stopped him.

"I've heard of them," she said in a low voice, her eyes seeing so much more than Watanuki ever could, "Man-made curses. But I've never seen one."

His eyes widened. "Man-made curses?" His gaze whipped back to the boy.

The child's older brother was also rubbing his head, taking his time to get up, and Watanuki realized that the teenager was moving the exact same way as the child. Move for move; gesture for gesture. Their symmetry was mesmerizing, and he got so caught up in it that he almost missed it, the black mist surrounding the child. His eyes widened at the realization, but he was cut off from remarking on it because the teenage brother snapped to attention just as the boy did and looked at them.

"Did he come through here?" the teen demanded. "A man in a blue overcoat and a baseball hat?"

"Uh..." Watanuki said slowly.

"I'm down here, idiot!" the teen shouted, and Watanuki's spine chilled as he looked down at the child who was mirroring what he had thought was a ghost. "Have you seen him?"

Yuuko stepped forward, making her presence known. "That's no way to treat your elders, boy. You ran into him, remember?"

Watanuki watched, transfixed, as the boy's eyes narrowed in perfect synchronicity with the teenager; and then his face changed completely. The boy's eyes widened, his jaw loosening, his face becoming brighter and younger. The same transformation came over the teen-ghost, making him look, er, well, more stupid.

"I'm sorry, onii-chan, obaa-chan," they both said, the voice much higher. It was then that Watanuki realized that even though the teen's mouth was moving, it was the boy that was speaking. He looked to Yuuko for some kind of confirmation or hint; only to find his boss and slave driver twitching at being called an old woman.

"Obaa-chan, is it?" she asked in a low, dangerous voice - the kind that made both Watanuki and the child step back in tense anticipation of pain. Watanuki even flinched, stuttering, "W-w-w-w-w-wait Yuuko-san, I'm sure they didn't mean it!"

He didn't see the boy's eyes snap to him in alert confusion, but Yuuko did and the anger washed away as quickly as it had come. She crossed her arms and put a thin finger on her cheek. "The man you are looking for at this moment did pass through here, only seconds before you did. By now he has disappeared to parts unknown, and you will have to start your search again."

The boy cursed and kicked a pebble, rubbing his chin and eyebrows furrowing in thought.

Yuuko kept her eye on him, unblinking, unflinching, and Watanuki wondered what else his overseer saw in the child and his double. "Yuuko-san..." he started.

He later decided that it would prove to be a mistake, because her deep eyes snapped to him and the all too familiar Evil Grin fixed onto her face.

"An excellent idea, Watanuki," she said brightly, and the named part-timer was already backing away in fear. "The child should be escorted home, I agree, and since you were just complaining about looking after me, you can look after him."

Perfectly reasonable, until Watanuki realized the truth. Then he saw red. "That has nothing to do with it!! You're just looking for an excuse to send me away so you can go back home and drink some more! I already told you, you're not going to have one drop of even water until tomorrow, and I can't enforce that unless I go home with you and make sure you don't have anything! Even when you're drunk you're wily and I won't have it; you making me--"

She gave him The Look, stopping him in his tirade, and in his mind she added, This will be another independent study in the humanities, Watanuki. You need to get to know this "child" and what he is really doing.

"We can't take him with us," she said in a stern voice. He can't enter my shop. "And besides, I'm sure his guardians are worried about him. Take him home, Watanuki. I'm going back to the shop."

With a flare she turned around and walked away, no longer staggering, but tall and elegant.

"W-wait, Yuuko-san! Yuuko-san!!"

But the two... three... were left alone in the dark streets. The boy-and-teen were looking at him with narrow eyes, but Watanuki was too busy muttering. "Study in the humanities my ass; she just wants to drink more without me there to stop her, and I'm totally going to make sure she stays stone sober for the next week, and I know she didn't send me off on this without seeing some kind of customer and I don't even want to think about the payment she's going to demand, but I'm sure she'll pop up just when things are getting the weirdest not that things aren't already weird and..."

"Hey."

Watanuki looked over at the teen. "What?" he demanded.

"I'll say it again," the teen - no, wait, the boy - said. "I'm down here."

"Ah, sorry, sorry," Watanuki said in a light voice, switching from running his hands aggressively through his hair to putting one behind his head in a sheepish gesture.

"Why do you keep looking up like that?" the child asked, face suspicious.

Oh, great, how was he going to explain this?

"Oh, er, that, yeah," he said, nervous laughter bubbling through his voice. "You, er, just look like you're supposed to be taller...?"

The flat look of suspicion was unnerving coming from both the boy and the teen. Watanuki tried for manners. "My name is Watanuki Kimihiro. What's your name?"

"... Edogawa Conan."

A weird name, but then Watanuki couldn't complain; his own name was cause for many a comment whenever he met someone. "Well, anyway, it seems we're stuck with each other for now. Let's get started, shall we?"

The boy pouted, looking over his thick frames. "You don't have to do this. I can make my way back by myself."

The old Watanuki would have been more than happy at the deal, but the new Watanuki was starting to realize what Yuuko had once said to him; that everything had meaning. If he was meant to meet this boy as she had implied, the least he could do was see it through. He offered a soft smile, offering his hand. "Sorry, Conan-kun," he said, "but I think you're a little young to be wandering about this late at night. Come on."

The boy soured and stuffed his hands in his pockets, breezing past Watanuki and stalking back the way he'd come.

The child was decidedly uncute, Watanuki decided, and his own face soured as he followed suit. They walked in silence for some time, giving Watanuki a chance to calm down from his irritation towards his boss and the child ahead of him. Well, the child and teenage-reflection-ghost-thing ahead of him. Blinking, Watanuki looked again. When the child had come racing down the street, the teenager had been behind him. Now that Watanuki was behind the boy, the non-speaking teenager was in front of the boy. He lengthened his stride for a moment to walk side-by-side with the small Conan. And with no visible movement, the older was now on the other side of the child, still mirroring every single movement.

Conan turned on his heel to go down a street and the older double did as well, somehow ending up ahead once more. Watanuki gave an inaudible sigh. Stepping up behind the child, he reached out and passed his hand right through the other teenager.

Right. Weirdness confirmed. I'm probably the only one who can see him.

The child gave a suspicious glance up to him and Watanuki just shrugged. He didn't want to try and explain what he could and couldn't see, doing so usually just lead to problems. So instead, Watanuki tried to ignore the strange synchronicity between the little boy and the unseen-something and looked down to the child.

"So," he tried to start a conversation. "Why are you still out of bed? It's past midnight."

Both Conan and the invisible teenager Looked at him. But bright little boy tones colored his speech as he replied, "Ojii-san was driving us home from a trip. We were stopping off at a gas station when it happened."

Watanuki raised an eyebrow. "It?"

Conan nodded and the faint black mist that Watanuki could barely see seemed to swirl happily. "Yup! A murder! Ojii-san is investigating," the child chattered happily, "and I was helping him! He told me to keep an eye out for anyone unusual and that man with the hat and overcoat was acting oddly! So I grabbed my skateboard and chased after him!"

"Yeah, sorry about the skateboard," Watanuki mumbled, looking at the broken board. Inside his stomach was starting to churn. A quick glance around showed that spirits were starting to gather. A lot of spirits. Specifically some of the nastier ones that Watanuki could recognize.

"Onii-chan, are you okay?" Conan was looking up at him from ahead of Watanuki, where he had somehow leaned against a pole, a hand over his mouth.

He didn't reply, merely closed his eyes and focused on pulling himself together. "I just realized," he mumbled. "You're taking me to where there was a murder."

"Yeah," the child drew out. "You're awfully pale Onii-chan."

"Shit," Watanuki hissed, heedless of the child in front of him. There were certain types of spirits that liked the dead. It was one of the many (many, many) reasons he avoided graveyards. Even if he came across simple road-kill, a cat or dog run over by a car, spirits would gather to either greet the recently deceased or feed on their soul or whatever. (Must ask Yuuko-san about that... Or not, who knows what she'd charge for that information....) And he was going to where a human had died.

"A dead human," Watanuki sank to his knees. "Oh god, a dead person...." He was going to kill Yuuko-san for this....

"Onii-chan," Conan and his reflection both held faces of pure compassion. "Sorry, Onii-chan," they both said. Or rather, Conan spoke but the strange mirror-older-brother-thing mouthed the same words. And Watanuki could almost hear the voice that was supposed to go with it. "Ojii-san, he's a detective. We're always investigating something. I guess I sometimes forget that other people... don't really see things the same way."

Leaning back and gathering himself, Watanuki couldn't help a wry grin. "And I see things really different than most people..." he muttered.

Bracing himself for the worst, the part-timer stood up. "Conan-kun, I've kept you from your Ojii-san long enough. Come on."

"You sure, Onii-chan?"

"Yeah."

They turned at the next corner and ahead were the flashing lights of police cars, yellow Do Not Cross tape, uniforms, and lots of spirits. Watanuki held back a shudder as his stomach tried to do more flips. The child weaved through the barricades and people with an ease that Watanuki would have envied had he really not wanted to go where the spirits were hovering.

Once the part-timer had caught up to the child and his invisible teenage mirror, he observed what no one else could. On the ground was a girl, throat slit open and blood drying by her shoulder and arm indicating probable stab wounds. Watanuki swayed on his feet. To make matters worse, the girl's spirit was mirroring the wounds of her demise and screaming just about anything. The spirits hovering around her were feeding off her negative energy as she raged about being killed. Watanuki blinked and tried not to stare when the ghost turned to the invisible teenage mirror and started begging him to solve her murder. (And why was a ghost asking a child to solve the murder when there were all these detectives around?) The waves coming of her were strong and angry, and Watanuki put a hand to his mouth and took a moment to just try and breath.

Conan looked up at him, a mix of sympathy and curiosity.

Deep breath.

Deep breath.

"So, Conan-kun," Watanuki was disappointed with how off his voice sounded. "Do you see your Ojii-san anywhere?"

"Nope. Not even Ran-nee-chan," the child replied. While the boy looked wistful, the same expression on the invisible teenage mirror looked more... like longing. Weird.

"Oh! Conan-kun!" A deep, much older voice greeted. Watanuki turned to see a portly man easily pushing fifty.

"Megure-keibu!" Conan greeted, trotting over. Watanuki was grateful to get away from the body. "Where are Ran-nee-chan and Ojii-san?"

"Oh, you didn't hear?" Asked the round detective. "They found the suspect! He appears to have committed suicide."

Watanuki did not like the sound of that. Neither did Conan, apparently.

"Where?" the child demanded, his invisible teenage mirror radiating fierce determination.

"I was just heading there," Megure smiled. Conan rushed with the portly detective, Watanuki following. The old detective turned. "And you are...?"

"Watanuki Kimihiro," he replied, easily keeping pace as they went away from the raging ghost and hungry spirits. "I saw this suspect of yours and accidentally tripped up Conan-kun here. My boss told me to make sure he got back safely."

Megure smiled again. "Conan-kun may not look like it, but he can take care of himself. He's very self-sufficient for his age."

Looking at the child and his invisible companion, Watanuki muttered, "Yeah, I can tell he's not your usual kid..."

Around a corner were three people, a body, and its ghost. Watanuki could guess that two of the people were the family he was supposed to drop Conan off with. A girl only a couple years older than him had to be "Ran-nee-chan," especially given how she positively lit up when the boy approached. Of the two men, the oldest had to be the "Ojii-san" and the younger looked to be fresh out of college and was probably a detective under the heavy Megure. But the ghost was what pulled Watanuki's attention the most. The wound, a deeply slashed throat, matched to body on the ground, but the clothing did not. The body wore a blue overcoat and a baseball cap while the ghost did not. And the ghost wasn't raging about revenge like the previous victim, but pleading for attention.

The ghostly young man was on his knees in front of the ojii-san, begging, "Please! It wasn't me! This guy just came out of nowhere! He held a gun on me and told me to put on his coat and hat! It wasn't me; it wasn't me! He sliced my throat! Please!"

Watanuki shuffled forward, feeling very unpleasant. "Well this certainly was recent," he mumbled, since the spirits hadn't started to gather yet.

Unfortunately, this proved to be a mistake to say as four living and one strange mirror-reflection sets of eyes whipped to him.

"Wow, onii-san, how can you tell that?" Conan chirped.

"I'm Detective Takagi," a badge flashed, "Who are you and how do you know that this was recent?"

"Uh..." Watanuki mentally cursed several times and several ways and all pointed vaguely towards Yuuko. He tried to smile through his nausea and put a hand behind his head. "Well, it had to have been recent, hadn't it? After all he ran past me not fifteen minutes ago when Conan-kun here was chasing him." He scratched at his cheek, nervous energy swelling up in his stomach as he felt more than saw the various nasty ghosts from around the corner starting to sniff out the fresh kill. Or perhaps they were just drooling over him. Yuuko was constantly saying that he was a tasty morsel.

"It wasn't me! It wasn't me!!" the recently murdered man was shouting to the top of his lungs. Watanuki felt his stomach lurched.

"It's not him," he coughed, feeling his knees shake and a wave of dizziness. He stumbled back and leaned against the nearest thing - a patrol car's hood, and put a hand to his head.

"I'm sorry, what?" the younger officer Takagi asked.

The ghost was still shrieking. "It wasn't me! He pointed a gun at me!!"

Watanuki moaned against his sick feelings, looking at the ghost. "He pointed a gun at him and then slashed his throat. Please, stop shouting at me."

Takagi frowned. "I'm not shouting..."

"Wow, Onii-chan's right!" little Conan quipped, startling everyone as he bent over the body, inches from the slashed and bloody throat. "Look here, look here!" he said, pointing. "His shirt is open, and you can see the bruising of something that looks weird, and Onii-chan might be right; it might be the shape of a gun butt. And don't you think it's strange? The coat doesn't have any blood on the inside of the collar. Don't you think it would be there if he slashed his throat? And look here, there's blood on the inside of his hand where he griped the knife; how could that happen?"

Watanuki was openly staring at both the boy and his odd double, his nausea forgotten and his dizziness subsided. What the hell kind of kid just started poking and prodding at a dead body?? And the things falling out of his mouth... it was like the teenager was speaking instead of the child.

"But Onii-chan, I'm really curious," the boy said, cute as a button as he stood up over the body and pluckily hopped over to him. His eyes were bright, but his teenage brother-ghost-double eyes were bright in a very different sense. The child's eyes narrowed, his voice dropping in pitch and the teenager's voice becoming louder. "I'm really curious how you were able to know all that at just a glance."

Watanuki grimaced. "... Huh?"

"I mean, did you really see all of that at just a glance? I don't think your eyes were on the body for more than a few seconds."

No, he was just trying to get the frantic ghost to stop shouting by repeating what he was saying - in the hopes of easing the ghost's anxiety. The negative feelings were so strong it had been all he could do to stay conscious at the time. Now that he was back with the land of the living, he was beginning to realize how weird he was looking to the rest of the crowd.

"Uh... Um..." he stuttered, feeling sweat drip down the side of his forehead, raising his hands partially in defense and partially to placate. The teenager was glaring at him at eye level, and Watanuki kept glancing at him, trying not to stare back, while the boy's face became more and more puzzled.

Half of Conan's question caught up with him and he finally was able to process it. Weakly, he stuttered, "Y-yeah, I guess I did..."

The look on the boy's face was unreadable, but on his teenage mirror it was all too clear: Jealousy.

"Wow," the brunette, Ran, said clapping her hands. "You're the first person I've seen outside of Hattori-kun who could beat Conan-kun or my father at an observation for a deduction. You must be a very bright detective, like Shinichi!"

...Who?

"... Who?" Watanuki asked.

Ran blushed brightly and suddenly, and she quickly broke out into a nervous grin. "Oh, just someone I know," she said meekly. Watanuki knew that was a blatant lie, but what was really interesting was that the teenager ghost, Conan's brother suddenly looked pained. The part-timer quickly glanced down at the boy, but the expression disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, and it didn't show on the child.

"Come on," Ran said in friendly tones, "Let's let my dad and Megure-keibu do the work. You don't look very good; let's get you somewhere to sit down. Come on, Conan-kun."


"And then Doumeki walked in, right when it was getting good!" Watanuki cursed, waving his arms around violently. "Himawari-chan gave her perfectly bright and cute and one hundred percent pretty-full smile to him and clapped her hands together saying, 'Oh, now you and Doumeki-kun can go together!' and just pranced off back to class! Damn that Doumeki!"

Ran giggled politely as he recited his love-drama of the day while the boy Conan and his teen-double stared at him flatly. The convenience store they were camped out in was across the street from the murder and much warmer than the chilly air outside, especially with some warm vending-machine coffee. Away from the bodies and all the negative energies Watanuki perked up quite a bit, and the girl Ran proved to be a very amiable person. She was a good listener and a good sister, too, given she constantly looked at Conan to keep an eye on him.

"Conan-kun, come back in here," she said quickly after he finished his tirade. "Dad and Megure-keibu can solve the murder; you've already done your part chasing after the suspect as it is. I don't want you to get hurt."

The tiny boy and his teen-ghost froze in midstep, and with the look of utter defeat turned around and trudged back to the pair. "You say you work at a shop?" Ran asked.

"Yeah," Watanuki said. "My boss is this crazy woman who treats me like a slave: I cook and clean and server her liquor and cater to her every flimsy and frivolous whim."

"She sounds a little like my father," Ran said, smiling politely. "He has a lot a vices, alcohol is one of them, and Conan-kun and I are constantly picking up after him. For all his faults, though, he quite brilliant, and he can always solve a case."

"Ah," Watanuki agreed. "Yuuko-san can be quite brilliant, too. Though if you ever tell her I said that, I'll deny it." Or maybe he wouldn't; he remembered what happened to the girl to who told nothing but lies, the black cloud of negative energy that she had created and her abysmal fate. He frowned at the thought.

"What kind of shop is it that you work at?" Ran asked. "What do you sell?"

Ah, the obligatory question with ambivalent answers. "Er, let's just say she sells a bit of everything..." he said quickly, trying to smile it away.

"Really?" the boy asked, looking up from his coffee. Watanuki was coming to dread whenever he opened his mouth. "What kind of things do you sell? Are there toys? I want one!" The child tugged at his sleeve - a disarming gesture normally but a little creepy because the teenage double-brother was doing the same thing - the extra feet of height giving it a very different connotation. The physical touch also felt... weird. There was a weight in the child's touch, and Watanuki suddenly became acutely aware of the slight mist around the child; billowing and the vague shape of a head appearing at the boy's shoulder.

Suddenly frightened, Watanuki jerked away from the touch on instinct. Surprise crossed both the boy's and Ran's face, and he quickly put his arm back down and laughed nervously. He didn't feel sick from the touch, so there must have been nothing to worry about. "Er, Yuuko-san doesn't sell toys, Conan-kun," he said quickly, turning up the brightness of his smile. "There's no one specialty item she sells; or rather, there is only one thing that she sells but it takes many forms...?"

Ran frowned. "How mysterious..." she said.

"Uwah... yeah, it probably sounds that way... It, er, it's how she always describes it," he said, still talking faster than could be considered calmly. Another nervous giggle bubbled up through his mouth and he quickly decided to change the topic. "So... who's this Shinichi-kun you were talking about?"

Ran's face softened suddenly, and the entire air about her changed. Watanuki was suddenly reminded, a little, of his beloved Himawari-chan, and he realized how close Ran and Shinichi must be.

"He's a childhood friend," she declared. "We've known each other since we were four. He's an arrogant, mystery loving otaku who's always off solving some case and does nothing but make me worry. But... he's probably the smartest person I've ever known and he always knows how to make me smile."

The sadness of her smile... it reminded him of that one spirit, the mother who'd lost her son and had sacrificed her life so that she could stop taking his. The memory brought a lot of pain up; looking at Ran's smile made him sad somehow. "What's he doing now?" he asked.

The smile faded, but the sadness remained. "Shinichi... he's working on a very difficult case right now. It's taken him far away it seems, but I'm sure he'll solve it."

Watanuki looked away, unable to bear her expression, and was surprised to see it perfectly mirrored in Conan and his teen-double. In point of fact the teen seemed even sadder than the boy, and the part-timer suddenly had a flash of insight. "Conan-kun isn't your relative, is he?" he asked, still staring at the melancholy teen ghost.

"No," she said, glad for the change of topic.

Watanuki leaned down to eye level with the boy. "Then Shinichi-kun… is he your onii-san?"

Conan's eyes widened to saucer size, his face paling and taking an involuntary step back, but Watanuki was looking up to Ran for confirmation.

"Very good!" Ran said with a smile. "He's not Shinichi's brother, but they are distantly related. He looks just like Shinichi did when he was young."

Watanuki straightened and eyed the teenager again, who was looking at him wearily. Did he realize now that Watanuki could see him? The part-timer turned back to Ran, the smile on his face just as sad as hers. "I'm sure wherever Shinichi-kun is, he's right by your side in spirit," he said brightly. It was the best he could do. Because Watanuki was fairly certain that the strange mirror-teenage-reflection of Conan was Shinichi's spirit.

"Oh I know that Shinichi is always with me," Ran agreed, looking down at her hands clasped around her coffee can. "I guess that I feel it in a way."

Conan and Shinichi were looking distinctly pained and guilty. Right. Time to change topic.

"So, what time is it anyway?"

Glancing at her watch, Ran replied, "Oh, it's almost two in the morning. No wonder I'm so tired."

"Two in the morning??" Watanuki exploded. "Aaaargh," he groaned as he vigorously rubbed his hands through his hair. "I have a major test tomorrow...TODAY and I haven't had a chance to study because Yuuko-san put me to work the instant I was in the door and then dragged me to Oden-ya-san's and my bag with all my study materials is still at her shop!! By the time we're done here and I get back to the shop and get home, my choices will either be to study or to sleep and either way I'm completely screwed for the test because I'll either not have studied or not slept!" The part-timer slumped forward in defeat at his pitiable fate. "Hitsuzen my ass," he moaned.

"Hitsuzen?" Ran asked.

"Don't ask," Watanuki replied, sitting back up. "Yuuko-san's been preaching about Hitsuzen ever since I started working for her. I still don't believe in it." Though Watanuki wasn't entirely sure about that any more. After everything he'd seen and experienced, inevitability was almost making more and more sense as opposed to anything more random. But Watanuki still wasn't convinced. Sort of. Maybe. Grrrr.

Another glance at Conan and Shinichi showed that they had given him a skeptical glance before looking more longingly out the window.

Right. Detectives, both mini and invisible, wanted to be outside. And if Conan had any connection to Shinichi and his abilities (if Ran was right about how good Shinichi was), then they needed to be out there investigating and not stuck in here listening to him extol the virtues of Himawari or complain about Doumeki or his upcoming test.

With the slightest of sighs, Watanuki leaned forward, pretending to rub some dirt off his shoes, and letting his free hand, the one with the canned coffee tilt until--

"Onii-chan!"

Perfectly startled, Watanuki spilled his coffee all over Ran's slacks. Startled herself, she stood up quickly, dropping her can with its coffee spilling over her shoes and socks.

"Ah!" the part-timer gasped. "I'm sorry, Ran-san! I'm sorry, here let me," he pulled out a handkerchief and in the process of trying to help, he helped Conan's coffee spill onto her legs.

Delicately pulling the wet fabric from her legs, Ran let out a chuckle. "I don't think I've ever seen such an accident," she laughed.

Conan and Shinichi were looking mournfully at their empty coffee can.

"I'm sorry," Watanuki mumbled.

Ran kept laughing. "Really, it's fine. I'll just go to the lady's room and wash up a bit." With an amused smile she headed to the back of the convenience store.

Once she was gone, the part timer knelt down and looked at the mini detective, working to ignore the ghostly detective. "Look," he said quietly, "You are a detective and a damn good one if I'm right." Conan looked at him, wide-eyed. "You seem to think that I'm a better detective than you. Let me tell you that I am not."

Conan gave a skeptical flat-eyed look.

"I'm not better because I can't be around dead bodies. I just--" Watanuki fumbled for an explanation. Conan and all these detectives thought that he was just like them, and very good. He wasn't; he just saw things differently. "I can't stand being around someone who's died, okay? So I will never be a good detective. But you, you can probably help solve this case." Watanuki leaned back, looking up to Shinichi and looking through him, remembering a horrible night when he'd been stuck alone in a graveyard and the swarming spirits and their cries of unfinished business. "You can help the dead rest peacefully, Conan-kun," he said quietly, "so go help their spirits say what they can't right now."

Watanuki blinked, looking back down at the child. Both detectives were giving him a strange look that was a cross between suspicion, confusion, and something Watanuki couldn't quite name.

"Thank you," Conan replied, the "onii-san" clearly left out. And the faint mist around the child shifted, becoming more solid and looking directly at Watanuki. It was definitely tengu in form, but the part-timer didn't think it was a true tengu. But the tengu, nevertheless, gave a gentle smile to Watanuki and a slight bow. Watanuki, after all his time with Yuuko, knew to bow back. Conan and Shinichi returned the bow, clearly thinking the bow was to them, before turning and running out the door to start solving the case.


When Ran came back in, Watanuki was standing at the doors, watching the flashing lights of the police cars, with another canned coffee to warm his hands. He'd long lost sight of Conan, but he knew where the child was, because he could still see Shinichi's tall form, looking at things, asking questions, no doubt through Conan and in a completely innocent child-like manner.

"Watanuki-san," Ran looked around. "Where's Conan-kun?"

"I'm pretty sure he's investigating. He gave me the slip when I wasn't paying attention."

"That Conan-kun," was the soft, affectionate growl. Reaching out, Ran grabbed Watanuki's hand and dragged him out of the warm (and more importantly, barrier) convenience store. "Let's go find him before he gets into something dangerous."

"Ah!" Watanuki cried out, mourning the loss of his quasi-safety. Already his stomach was starting churn with the energies of the spirits. Thankfully, many already had their full and had moved on to the next death. The Onmoraki had already taken flight, and those that feasted on the dead were already departing. However, there was still a large Gashadokuro that would hover until the bodies were removed and buried, (Watanuki was wondering where the hell the coroner or whomever was....). The female ghost who was shouting out for justice about her death and the male ghost who was pleading that he wasn't a killer, however, were by far the largest producers of negative energy that swarmed around Watanuki. If something wasn't done to appease their suffering, the two ghosts might turn into Onryou or Goryou.

Ran started to circle around the crime scene, bending low and looking under patrol cars, no doubt seeking a small pair of feet attached to short legs. Watanuki made the pretense of poking around as well, but worked his way closer to the invisible Shinichi.

He was approaching from behind when he noticed something odd. Conan and Shinichi were holding up Conan's watch, but they weren't observing the time. Instead, they were just looking over it. Maybe it wasn't a watch but a compass? But something about it was off, making Wataunki still. There was a slight fftt sound and suddenly, Mouri made a most unbecoming sound while twirling with his arms flailing before he fell to sit by the tire of a squad car. (Watanuki was decidedly not thinking about how Doumeki would probably compare Mouri's twirling collapse to the part timer's own energetic release of frustration.)

"Oh! Mouri-kun, I've been waiting for this!" Megure smiled.

What proceeded took Wierdness Levels to a whole different territory as far as Watanuki was concerned. He watched Conan sit down on the opposite side of the squad car from Mouri. The child detective pulled out a bowtie and started to speak into, producing not his own voice, but that of the Mouri. But given how close Watanuki was, he could still hear Conan's voice as well as Mouri's. Overlaying the both of them, however, was the strong, clear, precise voice of Shinichi. And, for the first time, Shinichi wasn't in synch with Conan. The teenage detective wasn't sitting down, hiding behind the squad car and delivering the words. He was standing, stalking around the collected suspects with confidence as facts were laid out. Shinichi addressed each of them politely but with an almost superior manner as he unearthed secret after secret, Mouri and Conan both strangely echoing. Finally, Shinichi made a full circle, standing between the two ghosts who were both staring at him as Shinichi firmly pointed a finger.

"The murder is you."

"Yes," both ghosts confirmed, negative energy dissipating.

"Yes, yes, thank you," the murdered man sank to the ground with relief, his wounds, a reflection of his death, slowly fading. The murdered woman let out a grateful sigh, stepping back.

Shinchi, however, wasn't done. He weaved the tale of how the murder committed the crimes. Now it was time to pull out motive. With evidence and facts to back it all up.

Watanuki was amazed. Impressed and amazed. Conan may be Shinichi's connection to the living world, but the teenage detective clearly knew how to use their bond with efficiency.

Megure was clearly satisfied with Shinichi's delivery through Conan through Mouri, having all of his questions answered with great clarity and precision. The murder was taken away in handcuffs and Watanuki let out a breath he hadn't been aware that he was holding. Conan stood, his bowtie hidden, and Shinichi was once more by the boy's side, completely in synch. Around the child, the strange tengu-like spirit also watched the murder get taken away, swirling happily.

With a great yawn, Mouri sat up, scratching his chin and rubbing what was no doubt a sore bottom and back after tumbling down to the asphalt. Watanuki wondered how Conan managed that, since he doubted the mini detective used magic. (Detectives seemed too based in the living world to use more occult-based methods, from what Watanuki had seen during this investigation.)

They all watched the suspect roll away in one of the patrol cars and the part timer let out a sigh of relief. Maybe now that all of this was over, he could go back to the shop, grab his bag and maybe get some studying/sleeping in.

"Oh there you are, Watanuki!"

And Watanuki saw irritation.

"Yuuko-san!!" he exclaimed, turning and stomping and flailing in his irritation. "Do you have any idea what's been going on? Of course you do, never mind that, why the hell did you send me away when you knew I needed to keep an eye on you to make sure you didn't have any more liquor? Look at you! You've changed clothes! That means you've had a bath, which means that Maru and Moro probably served you sake! That's it, Yuuko-san! You're staying sober for the rest of the week! I'm locking away all your booze and not even that fuzzball Mokona will be able to get it! And you know Mugetsu will back me up!"

Yuuko put a hand on his shoulders and Watanuki paused, mid-rant. "You needn't worry, Watanuki. I know how extracting you can be. While I have bathed, I did not have anything to drink. I value my drinks too much when you get so driven." And she laughed.

"That's entirely beside the point!!" Watanuki shouted back. "Not only did you send me right into a murder mystery and you know how I don't handle dead bodies very well, do you have any idea what time it is? I have a major test tomorrow! Today! Whatever!! My scores are going to plummet because of this and--"

She waved a hand, pushing the problem aside. "Then you will stay over at my shop tonight. You can study and get some sleep without having to worry about the travel time."

"Oh, thank you," the part timer paused, grateful that there was a resolution to that little problem. However... "But what the hell were you thinking sending me into a murder investigation, huh? Do you have any idea what the hell gathers at a scene like this? I've been this close to being sick and passing out all night! It's only because that Shinichi-kun detective solved the murder that anything's calmed down--" there were a few gasps behind him, but Watanuki paid no attention as he was on a roll, "--and why the hell are you even here? There aren't any customers here to grant a wish for!"

"You grant wishes? You know Shinichi?" Ran stepped up to them.

Watanuki tripped in his flailing and releasing of frustration and collapsed to the ground in a heap. "Of course there's a customer here... Why aren't I surprised that she sent me into a murder mystery in order to get a customer. Pushy, pushy, pushy saleswoman...." Looking up, he saw Ran's expression, eyes wide in hope and worry and pain, her hands clasped tightly at her chest as she glanced back and forth between him and his boss.

Watanuki realized, perhaps for the first time, just what Shinichi meant to her. He felt his chest tighten in sympathy.

Conan and the ghost attached to him lurked in the background. The tengu-shaped spirit had all but disappeared, a faint fog misting over the boy. Both he and Shinichi eyed Watanuki wearily, and he could only smile weakly in response. This was Yuuko's show now, and over time he was learning that it was best to let her run it.

"Watanuki," the elegant woman said, her jeans and shawl replaced with dress slacks hidden under a long, flowing overcoat, "there are several wishes here. But there is only one that I can grant." Her heavy lid eyes fell to the desperate expression of Ran. "I run a shop," she said by way of explanation. "Watanuki has tried to explain it, but the point is it grants wishes. In exchange, proper compensation must be given. An equal exchange. The larger the wish, the larger the payment, the larger the risk. The wish you have could take many forms, so think it over carefully before you make your request."

The teen girl was openly staring at her, her eyes shiny with unshed tears at the idea of possibility, at the thought that her deepest wish might come true. It was similar to that woman - the murderer - who was so desperate to have that picture burned. She was willing to pay any price. No, that wasn't quite right, Watanuki decided. Ran was desperate but she was thinking, too. It was more like... Syaoran, in a way. Willing to pay anything, yes, but also understanding the consequences of what he was wishing for. The part timer suddenly found himself wanting to talk to Sakura, to tell her that he'd met someone similar to Syaoran and what had happened. Was this another sign of his change?

Ran closed her eyes, hands still tightly held together, as she thought.

"I want..." she started, her face tightening. Finally, she opened her eyes, decision made. "I want to know if Shinichi is alright. He's always off solving a case, and I don't want to interrupt him, but I just want to know..." her voice cracked, and Watanuki saw the pain that flit across Conan and Shinichi's face, "I just want to know if he's alright."

Yuuko stood tall and elegant, her face an indifferent mask as she weighed the wish, calculating. "Truth, then," she said simply. "You wish for truth."

"Yes," Ran said, a tear sliding down her face.

"Do you understand the weight of truth?" Yuuko asked, tones low and measured. "Truth is not what people make it out to be; it offers no consolation, no relief, no 'peace of mind;' indeed, truth is especially heavy for those who cannot accept it. A person who wishes for truth must accept it exactly as it is, without question, without doubt, because everything they have done up to that point has led them to that one, inevitable, conclusion, because there is only one truth. Can you accept it? Can you accept 'truth'?"

Ran hiccupped, but nodded. "Yes... Yes I can accept the truth."

The silence after that drew out, Watanuki feeling the tension mounting. Finally,

"It is cold out. Follow me." Without so much as a second glance Yuuko turned around and left the hubbub of the crime scene, the noise of the police cars and the milling officers and spectators. The convenience store was empty of people, perhaps by coincidence by the untrained, but Watanuki was beginning to realize just how often "coincidence" happened. The warm air flushed all but Yuuko, her porcelain skin seemingly immune to any change, especially that of expression.

Once inside, Yuuko spun around with flair. "Before I tell you the truth," she said, "Your price is your cell phone."

The other three - for Conan had followed - blinked. "...What?" the girl asked.

"You have grafted much emotion into that cell phone. His calls to you, your conversations with him, the hours you spent clutching it wishing for his call. He, too, has placed much emotion in that phone - his anguish, his guilt, and his self-distain. The emotion infused into that phone has made is special; it now has the ability to absorb anxiety from a person, making it very valuable - valuable enough to equate to the weight of your truth."

Ran reached into her purse and pulled out her phone. She gazed at it, as if not quite believing the value that it had, before handing it over. "It seems like a fair trade," she said.

"You are more wise than many believe of you," Yuuko said, accepting the payment. She placed the phone on an inside pocket of her coat. "And now, the truth."

Watanuki found himself gulping. Conan looked on in trepidation.

"The truth is that Kudo Shinichi is decidedly not 'alright'."

Ran gasped, her eyes widening, while the boy Conan and his double Shinichi, whom this entire conversation was about, watched with narrow, suspicious eyes.

"The situation that Kudo Shinichi finds himself in is dire. He has fallen victim to an organization that prevents him from seeing you as he wishes. He wants the world to think that he is dead, because if certain people learn that their attempt to kill him has failed, then he and those near him will be killed. Every time he sees you, he is literally risking his life. He is no longer the boy that you knew."

"Oh, Shinichi..." Ran murmured, tears streaming down her face.

At last, the expression on Yuuko's face changed, her deep eyes softening. "But there is another truth for you to hear. He does everything in his power to be with you. Though it risks his life to see you, he would do so gladly if it ensured your safety. He is always with you, though as he is you would never recognize him. He is fighting, that boy, with everything he has. He is fighting to come back to you and to stop those that almost killed him."

Ran stood transfixed, as if in a daze, trying to process the truth that Yuuko had told her. Watanuki watched her absorb the information, but mostly looked at Shinichi with new eyes. The ghost wasn't dead? What he once understood now made no sense, because if he wasn't a ghost attached to a boy, then just what was he? The part timer looked to Yuuko for information, but her gaze was still on Ran as the teen girl struggled to accept the truth.

"Obaa-san, how is it that you know all this?" the boy, Conan, asked. His tone was boyish, but Watanuki could hear Shinichi's voice behind it, and his eyes were too narrow for that of a child. "Did you meet Shinichi-nii-chan? Did he tell you these things?"

"No," Yuuko said, her gaze never leaving Ran.

"Then aren't you just making this up?" the boy pressed, throwing his glance to Ran. Was he trying to reassure her somehow? "There's no way you can know."

At last, Yuuko pulled her gaze away from the girl, her softness disappeared, replaced by the hard look of a business woman dealing with a rude customer. "You of course would believe that," she answered in clipped tones. "The world you live in is very small, especially now. You cannot understand things that you do not see, cannot touch, cannot deduce on your own. Beyond that, you would never accept help, you would do everything in your power to accomplish the goal you have set for yourself. You are not in a place to accept that I am telling the truth - even though you of all people know that it is the truth."

Conan opened his mouth, perhaps to retort, but Yuuko cut him off. "'Eliminate all other factors, and the one that remains must be the Truth.' From The Four Signs, isn't it? Your favorite book; and how would I know that unless what I say is the Truth?" Watanuki saw the child's eyes widen, an expression almost like fear crossing his features as he took a step backward, clearly uncomfortable with what Yuuko was saying.

"He's... he's..." Ran muttered, cutting off any retort Conan/Shinichi looked like he was going to say." Her face was hidden behind her hands, her shoulders shaking. Watanuki thought for a moment that she would fall to her knees in tears, unable to bear what she'd heard. But, finally, the teen took a deep breath. "Thank you," she said turning to Yuuko, straightening and lifting to give her watery gaze to the woman. Her voice wavered violently, but it did not break. "I don't know that I accept all of it yet, but I think I will in time. What I don't understand is why Shinichi couldn't tell me this himself. Can you tell me that, or is it an extra wish?"

Watanuki found himself speaking before he fully realized it. "It may be that he's not in a place where he has the luxury of telling the truth," he said. "It may be that so much has happened to him that he himself can't believe it all, or it may be that he can't accept his truth yet."

Yuuko threw him a covert gaze that he did not see, and said, "That's enough Watanuki; any more and she won't be able to afford it. My work is done, and you have a test to study for." With confident steps she glided across the store to the exits. "Come, Watanuki." The part timer followed, not completely sure if he had overstepped his bounds or not. Yuuko paused at the door; it automatically opened and let in the chill air.

"Accepting the truth," she breathed, "is one of the hardest things a person can do; especially when it is one that changes that person's view of everything. The rest is up to you. And to him."

Watanuki gave Ran and Shinichi one last glance, his eyes soaking up the image of the teen girl as she struggled to come to terms with what she'd heard and the tall form of the boy as he wearily tried to assess how much of this to accept. He felt that there should be something more to say, something to offer, to help; but he couldn't think of it. Finally, he turned and followed his boss. Leaving the two of them alone with their purchase.

"Yuuko-san! Yuuko-san!!" he called after her. The woman's strides were long, however, longer than his, and it was several minutes before he could catch up to her. "Yuuko-san," he said finally, "What... what..." He wasn't sure how to word the question; he finally settled with, "What did you mean before, manmade curse?"

"That child was very wise to use an alias," she said simply. "If others learned his true name, he would be dead by now."

"You mean Conan-kun isn't his real--" Realization began to dawn on him, and he decided very quickly perhaps it was best if he didn't know about manmade curses. If Conan was Shinichi, like he thought, he probably didn't want to know what kind of screwed up human curse made that happen. Surrealistic sensations were starting to set in.

"Ooookay, and that weird tengu-fog?"

"It goes by many names," Yuuko said, "but its purpose if very simple - to bring justice to the dead. It is a disciplinary demon who likes rituals. Every murder that is solved follows that fashion, with little variation. Those are only two of that boy's problems."

Watanuki actually stopped walking. "Wait, you mean there's more?"

Yuuko stopped as well, turning to look at Watanuki full in the face. "Yes, yes there is. Think about what I just told that girl; he witnessed something he shouldn't have and as a result a black organization tried to kill him. That attempt turned into a manmade curse that turned him into that, and now he not only has to combat the curse but the weight of his previous life that made that demon attach to him, all the while finding those that cursed him and protecting those around him. I'd say he has quite a lot of things he's trying to juggle."

Watanuki marveled. ...And he was still going? Still moving forward? Still doing everything that he could? In spite of all that danger? Flower petals started to fall around them.

"Sincerity and determination, huh..." he murmured, looking down in thought.

"She has it as well, those qualities. She has the very rare ability to accept anything that is given to her. It will both help and hurt her in the days to come. If he can survive the weight of his lies, those two will accomplish great things together."

The world seemed to fade away.

A study in the humanities.

Another step on the road of his transformation.

A precious lesson.

Watanuki thought about what he was slowly learning about himself; about what he was and what he wasn't; about what he just might be.

"I understand," he said slowly, looking up at Yuuko. Sakura petals were falling all around them; they were no longer on the street but in front of the shop, Yuuko in her night yukata with the butterfly obi, the full moon shining over them. Was he suddenly dreaming again? Or was this all a dream to begin with? Did those last several hours actually happen? Watanuki could no longer tell when he was in reality or when he was in dreams - sometimes it was obvious, like when he was talking to Haruka-san or Sakura-chan; sometimes he wasn't completely sure - like when he was talking to his ghost friend that had given him the bone.

No, that was unimportant. Whether it "happened" or not, the point was he experienced it. His soul went through it, and that was what mattered.

"I understand," he said again. He'd pulled something essential from this - the ability to accept truth as it was, no matter what it meant or how it felt.

"Do you have a wish?" she asked, her face pale in the moonlight.

"No. Not yet. But I learned something from this. Thank you, Yuuko-san."


"Thank you," Ran said, holding her hands to her heart. She stood in the convenience store, a solitary figure in the aisles, no longer frail with revelation or worry. There was a strength in her silhouette, one that had only been a tiny spring was now was a thin rod and spread across her spine, ready at last to grow into an I-beam of solidarity. "Thank you. There's no closure, there's no relief, there's no peace of mind. But there is knowledge. And that's more than nothing."

Conan looked up to her, hands stuffed in his pockets, face pained but otherwise unreadable.

"That's more than nothing."


Owari

Note: For those of you curious, no, this is no relation to the Hidden Epidemic story. This piece is entirely stand alone. And very, very fun. ^_^ And as for all those things we mentioned:

Onmoraki: Bird demon made from fresh copses
Gashadokuro: Giant skeleton spirit of the unburied dead
Onryou: Vengeful ghost
Goryou: Vengeful spirit of the dead